The usual batch was off for the day. They sat in the hot, dry heat of the mess bivouac. The cook, a young kid who was new, was nervously trying to make conversation. "H-h-how did you guys get pulled in here?" he asked in a tremulous voice? Sarunin Tay, Dar'ag Tan, Vishrakth, Zylyss and Fillin listlessly ate their gruel, its putrid consistency revealing bits of some kind of meat and the occasional maggot. They briefly shared the circumstances which had brought them to the brutal servitude of Raam's arena. The heat was oppressive even as the day was winding down yet the roars of the crowd and the clash of arms in the arena were still going on.
As darkness came to Athas, Garthak marched into the slaves' area. "OK, boys! Time to do yer civic duty! Execution detail tonight! Gotta remind the loyal subjects of her majesty what happens to criminals and traitors and spies. So get yer weapons and head out. You'll be killing criminals by firelight! And you'll be on cleanup duty too, to bring them to the crematory cart, eh?"
They were all quick to comply, though a worried look appeard on Fillin's face. He was a preserver of life. He didn't see how he could take it uselessly, certainly not for anything other than survival. But there was the rub. It was, as always, kill or be killed in Raam's vicious showplace.
They wandered into the arena, lit by huge bonfires scattered throughout the fighting floor. The drums stopped and then began again, as some slavers brought out a line of malcontents and miscreants as well as a handful of plainclothes individuals who looked troubled. A couple of ruffians and obvious bandits flashed their daggers and waved large bone-clubs menacingly, hatred showing upon their faces. The others were a woman dressed in skins, a fierce look on her face, a couple of younger men in decent clothes and a heavy-set man in merchant type garb who was shuffling and wheezing and blubbering at his fate.
"Citizens of Raam," boomed Abalach-Re's voice. "Here again we show the fate of those who would commit crimes, become traitors and work as spies! These criminals have been condemned to die in this arena! Our gladiators will be the agents of their punishment! However, we are not above mercy. If one of these can survive the weapons of our fighters, their lives may be spared so that they too may find a place among Raam's arena entertainers. Now, fighters, do your duty!" A huge gong sounded and the slaves made ready to take on the criminals and put them to death.
A Message from Home
The two bandits jumped back and dashed away, seeking cover near one of the flaming piles of wood. Vishrakth charged the woman only to swing and miss her. The ruffians charged forward and tried to engage Vishrakth. Dar'ag Tan trundled over to deal a thundering blow that drew blood. Sarunin Tay came up and landed a powerful force punch which sent the scowling man backwards into the fire. He flailed and shrieked, and fell back out, a burning corpse.
The others had scattered. The bandits made their way closer. In the shadow of the northern hill, Zylyss crouched, his sling at the ready. The group had decided that they probably ought to spare the plain-clothes people since it seemed obvious they hadn't committed any crime worthy of death. Or so they thought. In any case, Vishrakth took his swipes at the wild woman to show her who was boss.
The two bandits had returned to the center of the action. Dar'ag Tan turned just in time to see two glinting flashes in the firelight before a couple of daggers sliced past him. Fillin launched his chatkcha and it swung wide, missing the bandit. One of the criminals was running back and forth along the edge of the chasm. The fat man knelt by the fire, sobbing and imploring the fighters to have mercy on him. Sarunin Tay and then Dar'ag Tan engaged the other ruffian nearby. Zylyss launched a shot from the shadows which sorely wounded the one bandit. They now stood back to back to take on any challenges, a feral, desperate look in their eyes.
Another force punch from Sarunin Tay tossed the ruffian into the bonfire which immediately became his bier. Sarunin Tay then moved up to kill the next target, the blubbering merchantman. "Wait, wait! I didn't DO anything," he sobbed. "I was sent to find someone, that's all! They took me!" He looked up through his tears into Sarunin Tay's face. "Sarunin Tay!" he exclaimed. "I'm Dorvan! I was sent by your father to find you!" With that, exhaustion and fear overcame him and he passed out.
Sarunin Tay quickly decided they must keep the rest of the criminals from being killed. Fillin let fly with his chatkcha again; it sailed over the head of the one bandit but on its return flight took the head off the other. The headless corpse dropped and blood pooled in the sand. The crowd, stirred up into a frenzy at the brutal punishment being meted out, was on its feet, "Kill! Kill! Kill the criminals!"
Garthak, observing the slightest hesitation on the part of the fighters toward the condemned men and woman, roared out, "Kill 'em all, boys! Do yer duty! Show the citizens what happens to those who cross her majesty! And remember, you don't come out alive if they live! Hahaha!"
"I'll check 'em, boys," Garthak laughed as he readied his spear. They dragged the last four bodies of the unconcious prisoners toward Garthak. How would they get them past the ogre? Sarunin Tay looked into the stands and say one of the she-orgres he knew Garthak had his eye on. He mentioned it to him and the big oaf looked over, stealing a smile and wave. But he quickly turned back. Focusing his mind, Sarunin Tay let loose a flash of psionic power. Suddenly, a blank stare appeared on Garthak's face. he looked about oddly for a moment while the crew dragged the bodies out and threw them on top of the cart. Coming to his sense, Garthak looked over and saw the bodies on the cart. "That's right, boys, get 'em ready for taking to the crematorium in the morning."
The slaves dragged the cart out of range of Garthak's hearing. Zylyss slapped the face of the fat man to bring him round. Sarunin Tay questioned him. He was Dorvan, a servant of house Tay who had been sent along with another servant named Barlass to Raam. Sarunin Tay's father has sent several pairs of servants in search of his son to some of the cities nearer to Tyr. They had no idea he was in Raam. "But," he said," perhaps we can get you out since Barlass is still on the outside. If we could just contact him..."
The group decided they might try to take them out in the morning. It would mean a night of suffering for the criminals they spared as they lay in a heap of the dead but what else could they do? Whispering for Dorvan to keep quiet and wait until morning, the slaves slipped back to their barracks to form a plan...
I've been thinking of a way to introduce the first seeds of a possible escape for the party. I wanted to use a skill challenge and decided that the best way would be to have Dorvan appear and mention Sarunin Tay's father. It seemed to work out best to start the encounter like every other, as a fight in the arena and then to morph it into a skill challenge in which they had to decide which prisoners to spare, how to spare them while making it look like they were actually killing them, and getting them past Garthak without him noticing. I gave the barest suggestion that "not everything in D&D is fighting; you can use your skills, too. The players ran with it and did what I thought was a fairly decent job of giving it a go with their skills.
Some of the skills used included Intimidate, to get the prisoners to "play dead" when the slaves faked actually killing them. Vishrakth did that. Sarunin Tay tried Insight which he critted, thus spawning my suggestion that Garthak's girlfriend was nearby. Zylyss then tried to bluff him into paying attention to her. The check failed and so he wasn't distracted long. Sarunin Tay then did a Memory Hole which is a combat power but I thought was put to good use to make Garthak forget about them for a moment while they got the bodies past him.
I've been reading up on Skill Challenges and this is really the first I've tried to run. I'd say it was a success. I left it open-ended and let the players help me come up with what skills they want to use. I didn't really record successes and failures but it worked out to something like 4 successes and one failure. In any case, I think they realized how they might try their skills, though they're still in the stage of "I use Intimidate" or "Does Diplomacy do anything?" They'll get it as they learn and get comfortable with their characters. I was also impressed with Jacob's role playing in being uncomfortable in the role of executioner when his character has some Good in him. He did a good job of bringing that out.
This was another very fun session and some even commented the best yet. The combination of fighting, some skill challenge, and a moving forward of their plot made for a good mix and a lot of fun today.