The context: I was only one of several GM's on a discord server running pathfinder 1st edition, it's a living world campaign. You can pause to look up a full definition if you want but quickly summarized by me it's like a team of GM's running short quests whenever they have the time collectively with the same large pool of players, only a few characters showing up for any given quest in a specified level range.
Specifically this was a rather simple quest I didn't put a whole lot of thought into designed to be easily repeated time and time again, and I never planned on it becoming something as memorable as it was in my attempt to shut it down after the third session.
The story begins with a help wanted posting being stuck up on a noticeboard near the adventurers guild in the city. An eccentric old man who was clearly ex army had put out a call for adventurers to help him kill off a band of monsters he knew were going to attack a farm-like district on the edge of town.
Enter Hydra, the androgynous paladin of Ragathiel, the one character who was consistently there from every moment from the start to the end of the whole story. I think their full name was Hydragoros or something but everyone called them Hydra for short (Yes, jokes were made). Hydra was a fairly straightforward pursue justice and fight evil kind of a character and out of character the players posted “crusader” memes as light-hearted commentary now and then whenever they did something that fit the words of the meme.
I'm not 100% certain if I'm matching the characters up to which times they joined this quest but I believe the first time, Hydra was accompanied by an electric kineticist called Ki and a guy called Barid who I think was an oracle with the starving curse that often led him to cannibalise slain opponents. The quest was designed for 4 characters but we only had 3 the first time.
So the adventurers head on out to the edge of town and search around the farm district until suddenly they hear the sound of a trumpet sounding reveille and an old man waved at them heartily from the top of a rickety old watch tower before swinging down on a rope to salute them.
This was “Ol' Bert” a retired army sergeant with a couple odd speech quirks which sometimes made it hard to understand him (Calling demons JIMMENS for example)
Ol' Bert was happy to greet "squad Venchuz” (his badly pronounced way of shortening the word “adventurers”) and shook their hands with gusto, the party was still a bit unclear on how Bert knew an attack was going to happen but he said it'd be easier to show them than to explain and he led them into the woods until they reached a strange little clearing.
It looked like a grassy football field with a big line drawn down the middle of it, a rickety watchtower at each end of it. Bert tells them to make whatever preparations they need and blows on his trumpet again.
A couple minutes later a grumpy old hobgoblin shows up with some orcs and goblins, Hydra goes to draw his sword but Ol' Bert gestured for him to wait a moment.
Bert and the old Hobgoblin trade jabs for a bit almost as though they've been doing it for years, the hobgoblin insisting that this time he's going to win, Bert manages to rile him up with a bit of teasing and the old hobgoblin climbs one of the watchtowers claiming he'll make Bert eat those words, Ol' Bert just shakes his head with a chuckle returning to the party as three goblins line up on the field.
Bert explains a little bit to the party after that, it seems that he and Gonzo (The hobgoblin) have been having some sort of tactical blood sport matches which the hobgoblin has consistently lost for a long time. (I picked the name Gonzo at random, and it had nothing to do with something else in pathfinder rules which at the time I didn't even know about)
The party find this a little weird but they're getting paid and Hydra can put down a few evil monsters so they kinda figure “Why not?”
And as Bert sounds off with his trumpet the battle is on, they come in three waves, first three goblins which they easily defeat and after that a pair of orcs, again an easy victory.
The battles are slightly different from normal in that Bert and Gonzo have some limited participation, they have commanding abilities that can make one character or monster attack one more time at the end of every round.
Every round as they do so I read out a little bit of ribbing and mocking from Bert and then having him hand out silly nicknames to the team, “Lightning lass” for Ki and coming to name Hydra “Officer justiceface” calling him that every time afterwards. Gonzo on the other hand is portrayed as incompetent and whiny during these events and the things Bert says really rile him up a lot.
The third wave consisted of a single gnoll who showed up late, another telltale sign that Gonzo's commanding is a mess. And this one is more drawn out with the gnoll acting in a very defensive manner after they managed to blind it, it took them a while to bring the thing down but ultimately the party emerges from the battle unscathed.
Gonzo ends up running off with his tail between his legs, yelling out some pathetic typical bad guy dialogue like “Don't think this means you've won” and “You'll pay don't think you won't pay”
Hydra refuses to let the leader of the evil monsters escape and is about to give chase and slay Gonzo in the name of justice when Bert firmly orders the paladin to let Gonzo escape, insisting there's a big picture to consider and that he'll explain everything. Hydra very begrudgingly agrees and sits down as do the others as Bert takes a swig of some alcoholic drink and sits down to tell them what's going on with the bizarre “match” they just took part in.
Bert goes on to explain how he has this long scheme he's been pulling ever since he was a young man in the army, having faced Gonzo's mercenary squads many times in his career he won every single time, instilling a bitter grudge in the hobgoblin who made it his life's goal to defeat Bert one day and prove himself the better commander.
He admitted that Gonzo was great at rallying troops to his cause and had decided to capitalise on this, letting Gonzo incompetently lead monsters to their deaths against him while allowing him to escape time and time again to recruit even more monsters to die, wrapping Gonzo's pride completely and utterly around his finger over time.
Even in retirement Bert casually mitigated risk to the city by manipulating Gonzo, setting up regular challenges for him every few weeks. As a result Gonzo would go around gathering up all the hidden monsters in the countryside and throwing them at Bert hoping to finally win, making it very easy for Bert to rally some adventurers and put them all down with clockwork regularity knowing exactly where and when to find them.
One of the other party members admitted it was a pragmatic plan, but Hydra pressed Bert on the idea that every evil monster should be slain and that Gonzo should not escape justice. They debated a little until Hydra reluctantly agreed that he was willing to help slay evil where and when Bert would tell him to find it, then Barid started eating the gnoll which made Hydra uncomfortable enough that they went straight home.
Thus ended the first of the “repeatable missions”
The second adventure began in exactly the same way, and once again we went about the same old process of the adventure. As a GM it was convenient to be able to reuse the same plan just throwing different things out of the monster manual while still having a light frame of story to surround it.
This time Hydra was accompanied by 3 others, Ki had joined in a second time and there was also "Poppy" a spellcasting gathlain (pathfinder fey race) designed heavily around putting people to sleep (including herself sometimes), and a gunslinger named Ace.
To save time I'll cut over all the stuff that was identical to the first game and get straight to the battles starting again. The party was higher level this time and the monsters were tougher.
In the first round they fought three lizardfolk. And thus began a very rough day in the life of Hydragoros, getting caught in an explosion Ace somehow managed to cause and getting the worst of the lizardfolk attention as the only melee fighter in the party that time, they were worn down pretty hard by the first wave.
After that it was an ogre, with Gonzo boasting his head off about having found such a mighty creature to fight for him, for once even Bert was taking it seriously as the mighty beast fought “squad Venchuz the second”
Hydra fought bravely but it wasn't enough, especially with Gonzo handing out an extra attack per round it didn't even matter that it missed the first time and being already wounded from the first battle Hydra was brought down to less than five hit points in a single blow.
With the ogre's long reach the paladin couldn't even withdraw without an opportunity attack but Hydra took their chances and made it out safely, stopping to lay on hands and get out a potion they wouldn't have time to drink before the ogre followed them the next round and knocked the paladin out cold.
Gonzo cheered at one of the greatest victories he'd ever had over Bert saying some petty stuff about a taste of his own medicine as the old sergeant admitted Gonzo had actually done something right for once with calm and mature patience. The party managed to save Hydra by taunting the ogre enough that ignored Gonzos orders of finishing off the paladin to smash them before Ki finished off the ogre with a bolt of lightning that the ogre no longer had the HP to endure after toughing out their attacks the whole time while beating the snot out of Hydra.
Gonzo tore apart the guard rail of his tower and stomped on it in a big tantrum over having his victory stolen from him before sending out something he knew for a fact Ol' Bert feared and that was in fact… A JIMMEN!
Yeah um… Turns out it was just an imp…
Four kobolds also pointed their spears at them from behind the tiny devil, and the third battle was… Wait it's over ALREADY?
The party smugly cleaned their weapons after managing to take out the imp in just one round, the kobolds having watched the whole thing with their jaws hanging open in shock decided to nope right outta there while Gonzo lost his temper again that his troops didn't listen to his suicidal orders to keep fighting a hopeless battle.
That's when things took a surprisingly wholesome turn as Ki decided to befriend the frightened kobolds insisting that they come by her place later to meet up for pie. (This later led to a small spinoff scene where she ended up adopting a small band of cute and well behaved kobolds who liked blowing bubbles and sleeping burrowed inside giant piles of pillows)
The party finally got Hydra back on his feet with a healing potion but that's when the imp they thought defeated got back on its feet due to fast healing and flung itself at Hydra.
Just like that the battle was back on, Hydra used smite evil on the imp missing the first attack and shouting for his allies to stay out of it that it was "his job to slay this evil abomination". The imp then missed by only the amount his smite gave him in AC and a brief scene occurred where the clouds parted and a beam of holy light shone in the imps eyes sending it's attack off course (Which had previously hit and defeated hydra before he remembered the smite bonus to AC and we ret-conned it) before the paladin brought his blade down sending the imp back to hell.
Once again Gonzo acted pathetic and pouty and ran off in a huff kicking a pine-cone on the way. Once again Hydra grit their teeth not okay with letting the leader of the monsters just live without punishment, but as per the plan they let the hobgoblin go refusing their reward money insisting it go to charity instead.
Thus the second session ended and the third began a few days later.
By this point I was actually kind of tired of running this quest because people were kind of pulling on me every week to run one and the server also had some warnings posted about not letting players not pointlessly grind the same quests for XP and gold so I kind of worried it might have been a problem. I decided it was time to shut it down but I'd give this last session my best and try to give a proper conclusion.
The party showed up at Ol' Berts tower just like they always did, unaware of the fact this was planned to be the last one. This time Ki wasn't there but Barid and Ace were back again, the group was also joined by Randy, a character styled as a wrestler with all the showmanship and gusto involved with that.
Things went as usual meeting up at the field, summoning Gonzo and setting up a match. This time Gonzo seemed particularly determined and led a band of 8 other hobgoblins. They set down some crates before forming a long and organised line a few feet back from the middle of the field.
The hobgoblins rolled really low on initiative so we span a small moment of humour out of it that they were overly literal with their orders saying "You didn't tell us to attack yet… So we didn't" prompting Gonzo to let out a long and frustrated string of expletives and cussing before telling them to get on with the attacking.
The hobgoblins threw a round of javelins before drawing their swords and advancing, splitting into two teams heading down the north and southern edges of the field ignoring the paladin in the middle who'd charged straight forward.
A little bit of fighting occurred until Gonzo revealed some actual strategy and planning for once, having apparently set a trap for Hydra where the hobgoblins all suddenly broke away from their targets to swarm the startled paladin from all sides.
Hydra was dropped to negative hit points in only one or two rounds, in the midst of all those attacks I think he even took a pair of critical hits (Or at least critical threats) from their longswords (I don't remember any exact numbers but I do recall that the hobgoblins were consistently rolling pretty high on their damage rolls).
This was probably one of the more difficult fights the party had to manage as Barid didn't have the greatest attack abilities and Ace's tactic of lying to hide in the tall grass bit him in the tail when the hobgoblins spotted and attacked, leaving him in a difficult situation with -4AC from being prone and provoking opportunity attacks if he wanted to fire his gun in melee or even stand up.
Randy managed to grapple one of the goblins long enough for Ace to get out of danger and the party fought a hard battle against the hobgoblins until they thinned out to only 3 hobgoblins left standing, Gonzo was furious to see he was losing again.
Things got tense as Gonzo ordered one of the hobgoblins to fall back and finish off the unconscious paladin, he'd made it all the way to Hydra's side before Randy rushed across the field to grapple him, the hobgoblin managed to break free of the grapple in the end but had somehow been rendered prone by the party and as he was getting back up he attacked the unconscious paladin but this was not a coup-de-grace as standing up had taken part of his round. Hydragoros managed to survive but the next hit would undoubtedly kill him off.
The party had taken out all the other hobgoblins by now except for the one about to kill Hydra. The entire party either missed or dealt damage too low to take out that hobgoblin before Randy managed to save the day hitting just barely hard enough to finally kill the hobgolin with the opportunity attack it prompted from the coup-de-grace.
They had cut it way too close but Hydra was alive.
As the party scrambled to get Hydra back on his feet just in time for the second wave as Gonzo pushed some kind of remote which opened the big crates the hobgoblins had carried in releasing three ghouls which made for another rather short fight, the ghouls hit people a few times but everyone passed their fortitude saves to not get paralyzed.
Anticipating the third wave to hit any second Gonzo defied all expectations by simply getting down from his tower and walking away sombrely without a word, confusing even Ol' Bert.
Randy was the first to follow and in his own strange larger than life way congratulated Gonzo on a good match in a very good sportsmanship kind of way and even Hydra admitted to Gonzo that those were definitely some interesting tactics that caught them off guard.
Gonzo got worked up and shouted for them all to shut up “Don't you all get it!?” He yelled “This was the last one!” before turning around to reveal a tearful and weary face full of deep sadness.
Randy replied in a really gung ho way spouting some of the usual life advice like “You may have failed but you did your best, if you keep at it you're sure to succeed” before getting shouted quiet by the now very irritated Gonzo “There won't be another match because I'm dying!”
Ol' Bert was shocked into silence, confused tears coming to his eyes that the old bastard who kept bothering him all these long years was finally leaving him all alone in this world.
There was a bit of banter about the details as Gonzo explained he had internal bleeding from a really bad magic resistant ulcer and that his witchdoctor had given him only a week to live… “That was four days ago now” he said.
Gonzo continued into a sad monologue about how even if he did survive he'd sold off the last of his possessions raising this one last army, gathering the best troops he could find to finally accomplish his life long goal of beating Bert in a strategic battle “But you won Bert, right up to the very end you won… Congratulations… You're the undefeated champion” he said seemingly depressed and very very empty
Despite how whiny and pathetic Gonzo had been the whole time and Hydra's determination to slay him the players had started feeling some empathy for the poor bastard, trying to convince him to play a game of chess with Bert claiming that no poorly trained forces would defy orders and ruin things for him that way.
Diplomacy was rolled but they didn't succeed. Which complicated things a bit since they'd basically stumbled upon exactly what I hoped they'd do with that chessboard thing and then failed the roll so I had to improvise.
And thus Gonzo insisted on another solution, pointing his wrinkly old hand at the paladin “You've been saying since the day you got here that one you'd kill me one day so now's your chance. You and me right now one on one, let me die an honourable warriors death!” and though the paladins resentment for the hobgoblin had simmered down a lot after hearing about his situation Hydra proudly agreed.
As GM I sort of hand-waved things a bit restoring Hydra to full health claiming Bert gave him a bunch of potions and granted him the benefit of a full rest far as his smite and lay on hands were concerned since this would be a tough battle for Hydra to face alone, a challenging fight I intended for leaving the player with a huge sense of triumph afterwards.
Randy got everyone to form up in a ring around them, and the duel began.
I forget which way around it went but one of them dealt more damage and the other had more AC, the battle was pretty evenly matched and for a while things looked like Hydra's ability to lay on hands to get health back might be the deciding factor in their victory.
But that's when the fact they were using swords became unusually relevant. In pathfinder 1st edition (And 3.5 D&D and probably some other systems) both a longsword and bastard sword threaten a critical for double damage on a 19 or 20 and not only a 20 but a few 19's were rolled in that battle.
The critical hits really changed the course of the fight (2 each if I remember correctly) Hydra confirming critical once and failing to confirm it the second time. Gonzo on the other hand confirmed criticals both times rolling minimum damage the first time, and the second one much later ultimately took the (by then already pretty injured) Hydra down to something like -11 HP. Rolling the maximum result with his lay on hands that round and a strange feeling of intuition to have Gonzo not use power attack that round were the only things to keep Hydra from outright dying.
Honestly that second critical from Gonzo surprised us all and I had planned everything around Gonzo losing that battle so once again I had to improvise.
Hydra hit the ground and even in game that surprised the characters since the old hobgoblin had been described as groaning and failing to move fast due to the pain he was in from his ulcer. All the characters fell into shocked silence and without a word got out more potions to get Hydra up and running again (Yeah Hydra got taken out a lot even in some other games, Hydra nearly dying had almost become something of a running gag by this point)
Upon regaining consciousness Hydra bolted upright and shouted at everyone not to lay a finger on Gonzo. The paladin got to their feet gracious in defeat and insisted that as an honourable duel Gonzo should be able to walk away unbothered.
Gonzo smiled for the first time since they'd met him and I could see the potential for this to be an emotionally touching moment so I pulled together whatever came to mind and had Bert walk up to put a proud hand on Gonzo's shoulder congratulating him on how even getting up in years and fighting an ulcer that was killing him he could still put some young upstart in his place, remarking that even though he led his men to defeat earlier Gonzo was a hell of a fighter in his own right.
Then Ol' Bert jabbed a finger in Gonzo's chest “Now listen up Gonzo because this is something I shoulda told you years ago, you can't command for ####, but that doesn't matter Gonzo, there's an easy solution for it” Bert scoldingly whomped Gonzo over the head and shouted “Hire a bloody strategist! You can still be the leader, you've got a draw on you that rallies people to your side so just leave the damn thinky stuff up to someone else.”
“Now let's get one more thing clear though Gonz, you're NEVER going to beat me so get that through your thick skull.” Bert gestured to Hydra still on the ground “But look at that there Gonzo, you've got your own little dude with a grudge now who'll chase you to the end of the earth trying to beat you now” The player described Hydra wiping blood from his mouth and saying something like “Damn right!”
After that Gonzo stood tall with some tears trickling from his eyes as he nodded feeling like after all those long years he'd finally accomplished something.
And as he began to walk off with his head held high I described Hydra as “finding it strange that all of a sudden he could feel the power of his smite fade away… Funny that… You know it should have lasted longer” (Implying with this that Gonzo had shifted away from evil alignment after what just happened)
Not long after that Gonzo collapsed, a painful reminder that despite all the emotionally moving moments his ulcer was still trying to kill him and the team rallied to get him medical help, Bert tore apart one of the watchtowers to make a stretcher and the party ran back to the city looking to get Bert's lifelong frenemy the help he needed.
That was the end of the last session with the two old coots and their absurd life sized real time strategy game. After it was over and we were saying our goodbyes for the night Hydra's player directly told me “I've never been so happy to lose a battle”
I had posted sessions for one of the doctor characters on the server to continue with a roleplay oriented medical drama type thing involving Gonzo but unfortunately neither of them ever showed up for that before the server ultimately shut down, the fate of Gonzo going sadly unresolved.
Though if you're interested let me know and I'll tell you the story of the ending that never was. It was supposed to tie together several other story lines Hydra, Ki, and Ace had been on together to conclude all three quest lines with all their most beloved NPC's joining up together to find their happy ending.
But that would be a whole other story or even 2 to set up all the background necessary and I've already gone on long enough for today.
Gonzo was just some random low effort bad guy I made up, never supposed to touch anyone's heart and yet in the end Gonzo's last hurrah (As I've now decided to call it) was the session I've had my players say the most positive things to say about. A while later I even ran into Hydra's player again on a different server, once again playing the Hydragoros we knew and loved, only I couldn't help but notice the deity was now listed as Sarenrae, the goddess of redemption and I couldn't help but wonder if I had something to do with that 😉