Posted in General Writing, Set Piece

Set Piece: The Collapse

Zetov let out a primal roar as he swung his battle-axe at the chest of the Elder Lich, the axe head arced with lightning as it connected with the phylactery the Undead Lord wore brazenly around its neck.  The Gem shattered and the axe buried itself into the ribcage of the emaciating being. 

The Lich let out one last curse as it crumpled to the ground, the magic seeping from its bones.

“We did it!” Tholonious cheered as he put the arrow he had notched back in his quiver.  “How’s Tamra?”

“I’m… ok.” Tamra said with some effort as she gathered her spellbook off the floor and what components she could find that got scattered. She stumbled once more as the ground started to rumble.  “It’s not over…”

“Yes, it is.” Said Zetov, “he’s dead.  Truly dead this time.”   The ground shook once more and a few rocks fell from the ceiling.

“Tholo, help me,” Tamra ordered with concern. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Why? What’s happening.” Tholonious asked as he made his way over to the injured mage.

“The Lich’s magic was all that was holding this place together.  With him gone this whole temple is coming down.”

A large CRACK came from above them.

“But what about the Lich’s Treasure? We have to find it.” Zetov insisted.  Just then a rock from the ceiling slammed into the statue above the alter.  Zetov had to dive out of the way to avoid the massive rocks.

The floor under Tamra started to slip away. Tholonious quickly grabbed the mage and  they started running towards the exit.  “You can have the treasure or your life Zetov, but We’re leaving.” The elf replied.

(Image from Raiders of the Lost Arc ©1981 Paramount Pictures)

Scene

The players are in a mine, temple, burning inn, castle, cave, underground facility, space station… whatever, when something causes it to no longer be structurally sound.  It is coming down on the players and it is time for them to run.

Mood

Chaotic retreat is the name of the game.  Escape should not be straight forward there should be many many obstacles in the player’s path.

Setting future obstacles up ahead of time will pay dividends at the table. You know the place is going to collapse, so as the characters make their way in, describe large pieces of furniture, huge ceiling fixtures, chandeliers, statues, whatever you can think of that fits your setting.  On the way in the players will appreciate your attention to detail, then understand when that details become hazards as they make their escape. As they flee keep your description’s fast pace as you move quickly from one player to the next.

Don’t let “I run..” be an action the player can make. They need to be “I leap over the fallen statue” or “I try my best to prop the door for the others”

Threats

The environment is the biggest threat.  The oxygen seeping out of a hole in the hull, the boulders falling from the ceiling, the traps(or trap parts) the players bypassed on the way in, the big crevasse on the floor widening every turn, whatever fits your setting.  Make a short list of environmental problems the collapse can cause before you begin, so you can pull them out with a quickness to challenge your players.

Want an added threat?  What if this collapse happens when the players were confronting a rival group.  Maybe after one side  grabbed a McGuffin.  Having antagonistic NPC also in the mix makes for a very memorable scene.  (remember the antagonist want to escape as well though.. Make sure the players see them struggling to survive the environment along side them, not just attacking the PCs)

Mechanics

Skill checks rule the day in a scene like this.  There is many ways to run a scene like this.  You can set it up like an old school skill challenge (Ex.  Players need 3 successes before 2 failures)  Or you can go by a round timer (ceiling is going to collapse completely in 8 rounds, it takes 5 rounds of movement to get to the exit, failures in round means no or half movement).  Or the third options is going full narrative and have the thing collapse completely when it’s dramatically appropriate.

Failure to escape doesn’t have to mean you die.  You take damage, sure, knocked unconscious, most likely, but you could just find yourself buried in a whole lot of rubble trapped until the rest of the party digs you out.   Or maybe you stumbled upon a hidden passage.

Tips

This kind of scene can take 15 minutes to run or 45+ it really depends on the type of thing that is collapsing.  Try your best, however, to keep it brief.  It should be a desperate escape, not a long drawn out affair.  In that regard try not to make the rounds seem like combat rounds.  Your players aren’t rolling dice every turn, only when something gets in their way and makes it a challenge to progress further.  If you run the scenario like combat rounds it can wear out its novelty before the players have reached the exit forcing you to ‘fudge’ final run and collapse, making things a tad anti-climatic.

Let the players describe their actions. “I slide across the floor through the legs of the oversized sofa.” So that you don’t have to think up all the cool things, let them be descriptive.  If your players are inclined even ask them “What do you see up ahead that blocks your path?”  While they are describing the obstacle they are also thinking a cool way to get past it, which can make the player feel more heroic.   To keep other players engaged you can ask them “What difficulty does Jake encounter next?” allowing them to make it harder for each other.  This type of narrative involvement doesn’t work for all groups.  Try it, but don’t force it if it falls flat.

The PC will have to think fast, make your players do so as well.  Demand snappy answers.  If the player can’t think of something quickly say “you stumble on the shifting ground” and move on to the next player.  Go back to the stumbling player after the other players have gone.  (some players don’t like this kind of pressure or really perform poorly under stress… if you see this happening offer suggestions on what they can do, allow other players to as well, do not, however, decide for them or allow another player to… It’s their character)

The “BBEG dies and now you have to run”, and “you grabbed the McGuffin and now the place is collapsing” are pretty standard tropes, use this sparingly only once per campaign.  However, there are many different reasons why something the players are in is collapsing so you can use this few times.  “The Keep is on fire and collapsing around you” feels a lot different to “the temple is falling apart as it falls back into the sea”  So while different scenes, you can run them the same way.

If you are worried about being railroady, set a parameter on the collapse. “If the players do this ____ it will cause the place to collapse”  Make that ‘thing’ something that is ‘likely’ to happen but not mission critical or a definite. If you want  maybe put in a hard roll for the players to “spot” the trap before they spring it.

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