I was the GM in this story, running a Pathfinder one-shot for my second time ever. I was GM-ing for some friends, including my usual GameMaster, who definitely needed a break from that.
Overall, they were excellent players and I very much enjoyed running the game for them… but one thing they did caught me off guard in the worst way.
Story goes like this: I was experimenting with a new way of determining how difficult an encounter should be, and I decided to make my one shot VERY difficult, but doable.
I was staggering the combat a bit with more mooks, so that a CR 10 each party (by the Pathfinder challenge rating, half consisting of level 10 characters with PC level loot and half level 11 characters with NPC level loot) would be only as powerful as the sum of all creatures that they would face.
As such, the party would use up some of their 1/day abilities a bit too soon, I imagined, and they wouldn’t be quite as prepared for the final showdown.
I decided that the party had to be given an opportunity to spend their unspent wealth on things now knowing what they were up against; I had to give them a non-combat encounter to heal up and prepare.
Then again, I didn’t want them to just kill the merchant and take everything either, so I had to come up with something that wouldn’t register enough as a threat that they’d think of it as a combat encounter, but also enough of a presence that they wouldn’t ignore it. I also had to make the merchant weak enough that if they did treat it like a combat encounter despite my efforts, that it wouldn’t mess up with the difficulty down the road.
The party were as follows: a LN human fighter (basic as it sounds, but she had chosen to use a premade character to save a little headache and it worked),
a barely TN necromancer with a pet necrocraft (ominous as it sounds, also premade),
a charming CG dwarf bloodrager (cross a Barbarian with a charismatic sorcerer and you have this character),
and a CN rogue of indeterminate species (I messed up the pacing of the one-shot and it had to be spread over a couple weekends. This guy lost his character sheet partway through. The premade rogue of enough power was an elven monk wannabe as opposed to whatever he started playing as).
Some drow cultists were the main threat, though, there were also hobgoblins, and giant spiders.
Setting was that a bunch of elves had been flocking to a human-controlled town to stock up for their moon festival. Locals had been hosting a festival in town before the caravan of elves would head to their moon temple to the northwest a hike away.
But the tavern-keep, a retired veteran who had served with the much older retired town hero, thought something was off about some of the elves this year, so he hired the party fighter and the party rogue to investigate the elves and to protect the town hero. (The other two party members were dragged in by personal stakes as well as the dread of the situation as it was unfolding. (The party necromancer that had to be motivated by spite, mind you. He was quite happy to see the body count.)
As it turns out, Drow cultists had been infiltrating the surface elves under potions of Ancestral Regression (a spell which makes them appear completely elven and entirely non-evil for a day), and the retired town hero’s medic was also a drow sleeper agent. On the night of the moon ceremony, the cultists embedded inside the city gates caused chaos while allied hobgoblins (with a personal vendetta against the town hero and vice versa) bombed the city gates, inciting a panic and making sure that the town guard could not interfere with what was going on at the temple. Cultists unleashed giant spiders to cut the town off from the temple and vice versa, meanwhile a force of drow and hobgoblins overran the caravan guard, killing most and making captive a select few to become slaves. The hobgoblins would provide bodyguard service to the head cultists as they took advantage of this sacred time to perform a ritual that would never let the dark leave, but thrust the world into an eternal night under a permanent blood moon.
Now for what kind of weak merchant I could have survive and escape the first judgement of the cultists while still being noticeable enough to warrant the party’s attention:
I thought up a little drow girl about the equivalent of 8 years old, raised by an exiled drow that had been exiled so because he objected to the girl’s mother sacrificing her at birth. Because killing him would have conflicted with the mother’s desires, the mother had him exiled with the newborn child instead.
The exiled male was an alchemist of sufficient level, so he was able to keep them disguised under Ancestral Regression himself, though he had enough run-ins with terrified surface-worlders that he knew that the above-grounders didn’t even need a reason to kill them if they found out. Above-grounders kill what they fear, and if anyone were to find out about them, there was only one impulse surface-worlders had that he found could save him and the child reliably, one that allows a surface worlder to believe that they have already dealt with you:
He found that if he could convince someone that it would profit them to do business with him, then they wouldn’t want to rid themselves of him.
The little girl grew up hearing that the only way to save yourself when you’re found out is to make them realize that you can get them something they want, and then convince them to make a business exchange with them. Once a person has given you something of value and you have done the same, a person’s fear can subside enough that their first impulse won’t be to kill you any longer.
From then on, you must keep being useful. Forever. At all costs.
But only if they can pay, mind you. If you let them get away with a deal in which you don’t profit, then they know your weakness.
And if they know your weakness, they will use it. Without remorse. With a sick satisfaction.
Interesting advice to give your 8 year old, no?
See, before he was exiled, male exile didn’t exactly fit in with drow societal standards. He was kinda passive. Males in PF drow society are second class citizens, but most tend to grab for power of some sort. This one, on the other hand, just didn’t interfere with the intrigue enough to get the wrong kind of attention from his social superiors. He much preferred to just watch, and take what comforts he could without interrupting others. He became part of a few schemes simply because he had the ability to influence the outcome of things, but he stuck to the support role as such. This allowed him to stay relevant in the life of the girl’s mother for quite some time, and allowed him to learn a lot of things that weren’t specifically addressed about the way things worked.
Him actually standing up for the newborn genuinely caught the mother by surprise (despite him expressing his desire that she should live earlier, and being kinda convincing to the mother that she would want her child to live too.).
Being a social “other” that didn’t try to escape such a cutthroat society, but live in it, gave him a set of skills unique to his situation, skills he tried to pass down to his, at the very least, honorary daughter. He encouraged her to learn, not only from him and his tales of the underdark, but also to learn from whatever world that she could. He stressed the fact that every society has its flaws, some minor, some fatal, but every society has something that you can learn from them.
If you know how things work, you’re going to make it.
The better you can make it, the more opportunities you’ll have to be yourself in spite of the pressures around you.
She was careful to learn some basic etiquette, and also some basic mechanics (gears and pulleys and such) from the above-grounders.
From a meta standpoint, I wanted the little girl to be able to survive and escape despite the wall of spiders around the caravan, so in character creation, I figured that she’d need a way to deal with those.
(Also, drow seem to like spiders. So, I decided that she thinks that spiders are cute.)
From there, I decided that she was going to be some kind of Druid with the Vermin Heart feat (wild empathy to deal with spiders). I eventually landed upon the Feyspeaker archetype, which tend to be a bit squishier, but are more skilled and charisma based (good for drow and wild empathy).
(I have an origin story about how she got her 1 level in this, but for now, I’ll just say that she’s no stranger to enchantments.)
She was raised by a drow alchemist, and Drow Poison (a poison that causes the target to fall asleep) is one of the easiest, cheapest poisons (alchemical items) to make. Even a child like her could make one of those.)
So, setting the scene starts before the party arrives. Elves are singing and dancing in reverence, while our favorite exile is operating his booth, selling the occasional hangover remedy, potion, or firework, when the sleeper cells activate. Even in the darkness, everyone can see blood in the flashes of light. Some try to run, not knowing about the spiders.
The exile knows enough about drow tactics to know not to run, but he’s still got about half an hour before his Ancestral Regression wears off. Even if he manages to hold his own for that long, he knows that the cultists won’t take kindly to an exile. He looks at the odds, and knows he cannot protect himself, or anyone else… unless?
He tries to do the only thing he can: he hides the little girl (who may or may not be his blood daughter (it makes no difference to him; for better or for worse, he loves her as his own)) inside the wagon and then plays it off so that no one that wasn’t observing him specifically would see anything more than a greedy merchant trying to save too much of his merchandise.
He tells the little girl to not come out until no one is left and the noise dies. He embraces her hand for a short moment and takes one last look into her eyes before he shuts her in. He leaves the wagon with a cord attached to a case, acting as though he was having trouble with it, and is cut down as a cultist twists her shortsword in his gut. The little girl waits in horror, knowing there is nothing she can do.
Time passed so slowly.
Wagons were turned
Horses neighs and the screams of elves and human guards alike sounded often, many times being cut short.
Her own wagon was turned on its side. She had to hold in her scream, knowing better than to make any noise.
Eventually, there were nothing but warcries of hobgoblins and chants of cultists ringing in the air.
She stayed put for a while, too afraid to move.
She had to know.
Was the exile perhaps playing dead until the danger passed? If she waited, maybe he would come and they’d survive this like everything else
She left her hiding place and took a cure potion with her, hoping that, maybe, it wasn’t too late.
She found him lying there
She gave him the potion
He didn’t stir.
She told him to wake up
He could not.
She showed more emotion here than she’d let herself show in many years.
No one would know, and if she couldn’t cry here, what else would even be worth crying for?
His Ancestral Regression spell wore off.
Her Ancestral Regression spell wore off.
This was good. They should be together the way they truly are
He should still be here
He should still be here
THIS is where the party enters the scene.
They had just defeated a decent many giant spiders, including a giant Advanced funnel spider from a campaign module, simply nicknamed the “biggin’.”
The party necromancer had been poisoned pretty bad (and now had a Strength score of 1) and the party was pretty injured.
The party bloodrager (quick reminder: he was the only good aligned player I had) had spared a female drow fighter that the party had interrogated, and her unconscious body was placed over the back of a horse that helped them along.
Now, with the necromancer’s strength score, he also had to be placed on the horse.
Btw, the bloodrager was the only one in favor of sparing the dark elf they captured. The necromancer had tried to kill her before the bloodrager stopped him. The rest of the party had been plotting OoC behind the bloodrager’s back to kill the captive without him knowing, convinced that bringing her along would spell trouble for them later.
A great omen for my merchant girl, I know.
I described the carnage of the wrecked caravan, the many bodies (small chuckle from the necromancer), but also told them that they heard a little girl crying.
*aside: In my GM mind, I figured that the party wouldn’t see a little girl as a threat, and if she was crying, then she obviously wasn’t on the side of the people that wreaked the carnage. She was the perfect weak merchant for the party to encounter.*
The party followed the cries.
I described that in the far-off dim light of their torches, they saw the basic shapes of a little elf girl, about the human equivalent of an 8 year-old girl, crying over the dead body of an adult male elf. But, as they got closer and the light revealed more, they realized that the darkness that they saw was not just the shadows playing tricks on them; these were both dark elves.
The fighter’s player immediately shouted “Kill her! I bet she’s one of them!”
I almost choked.
That’s some hardcore prejudice to have right in your face like that, but the little girl grew up being taught how to handle that, yes?
Well, after I almost choked, I told the fighter to wait. I had to roll perception to know if she noticed them.
This bought me a little bit more narration time, and I stifled my relief at the fact she rolled a Nat 20 in perception.
Everyone saw my roll, so they readied themselves as I described how the scene unfolded.
The little girl looked behind her at a noise, and saw the party. (I didn’t describe the moment of recognition in her eyes when she saw the murderous intent in the fighter’s eyes.)
She acted immediately, but not in the way that the party expected.
She turned away immediately and wiped the tears from her face as fast as she could. (They could see no weakness in her or it was over for her.)
She drew a sheet over her dead father figure to cover him in turn, and then took the sign from their wagon and placed it in front of them as if this was now the front desk of their shop.
She hurried into a bright yet fake smile and welcomed the party to their shop. She mentioned how the previous owner of the shop was… “indisposed,” so she remarked that she guesses that she’s the owner now.
She asked how she could help them, then said “Perhaps a ~the exact potion that the necromancer needed to recover~?”
Her fake smile beamed.
The party stood in silence for a while.
The little girl hadn’t attacked and didn’t express any desire to, so they realized that this was more than a combat encounter, but a choice.
I had unsettled them.
The fighter said out of character that she bets that the little girl was probably some super-powerful child, and the party discussed amongst themselves OoC that the little girl could probably whip all of their collective tails if they crossed her wrong.
The rogue went invisible and the fighter remarked how she thought the little girl probably killed the drow male herself. (The fighter’s player went back on that assumption later, mind you, but that’s further down in the story.)
Tbh, I forgot to review potion prices before starting the session, but I figured that an 8-yr-old equivalent wouldn’t know the prices off-hand either. The party started buying potions rolling Sense motive anytime she said a price.
The Sense Motive check clearly revealed that she had no clue what the prices of these things actually were.
(Side note, I guessed the prices exact!)
They didn’t even try to haggle! They just took the full price.
The bloodrager took some gold out of the necromancer’s pouch to pay for a potion of Lesser Restoration, to get him back on his feet, but it didn’t heal as much as he needed.
The bloodrager was about to begrudgingly pay for another potion of it for the necromancer out of his own pocket when I remembered something:
As a GM, I realized that there was no way for the party to resolve that issue with everyone able to have fun as long as they were going behind each other’s backs against their wishes, but me? I could do something.
As the child NPC, I realized something else:
She knew better than to try to make her living on the surface after her father stopped being able to make them infusions of Ancestral Regression, so she’d have to flee. Thing is, the father figure was an EXILE, so she couldn’t get back to the underdark, either.
Not alone, anyway.
What the party had had in their possession was a live woman drow from a woman drow dominated society.
The little girl knew enough about pulleys and gears that she could puppet an unconscious body without being terribly noticeable if she could hide the mechanisms under something like a cloak and hide the eyes under darkened glasses. Perhaps a drow woman with access to the underdark could get the girl in, and if the woman were unconscious, the girl wouldn’t have to risk convincing her to play along.
The little girl noticed the unconscious woman on the horse while the bloodrager was still counting change to buy another potion. I told him to wait a second before he does that, because something happens: The little girl asked if that (she pointed at the woman) was one of theirs.
The party kinda looked at each other, and said things like, “well, not exactly.”
The party was already unsettled by the little girl, so the hint of eagerness in my her voice as I asked the following didn’t help that:
“Would you be willing to part with her?”
~short stunned silence that the little girl interrupted by following up with~
“I’d be willing to give you a couple potions for her. —..In the condition she’s in, mind you. Perhaps a potion of Darkvision? (No one was buying those and they’d need that later. She knew some things they would encounter, so it wasn’t just an instance of me being nice to the party by offering that) and perhaps another potion of Lesser Restoration?”
Exactly what the party needed.
Way less value than the woman was worth to her.
The party’s way out of a messy squabble upon the rest of the party just killing the captive.
A safe and free ticket to the underdark and a measure of influence upon entrance.
The party’s hope for eking out a victory.
Power. Power a grieving little girl shouldn’t have.
The party took the deal.
The necromancer could now stand on his own, and the captive was no longer a threat to his plans.
The fighter was the most polite she’d been all game.
The bloodrager was convinced that he was given a reward for returning a woman to her people instead of participating in the slave trade.
But, where was the rogue?
Oh, yeah, he turned invisible.
He snuck into the dark, overturned wagon that the little girl was stationed in front of.
He rolled stealth, something a level 1 like her couldn’t touch with her perception. (I still worded it that he did not notice any indication that she has noticed him, to keep him on his toes.)
But, they were all being cautious enough that he was satisfied with pocketing 1000gp and two potions he couldn’t quite make out in the dark, way less than was there.
He reappeared outside after this and rejoined the conversation, happy to make it out of the wagon with his life.
This was no great loss to the little girl. In fact, she had something invaluable to her.
(I’m gonna break chronological order a bit to mention that she saves her father figure’s body from being one of the necromancer’s prizes. There is hope there; she had not forgotten, and she will find a way for them to be together again.)
The party left, and she told them to have a wonderful eternal night as they left. (Sort of a passive vote of no confidence in their quest)
The adrenaline got a chance to wear off, and she could breathe again.
From the time that the fighter voiced intention to kill her, I treated this as if she had a combat encounter with them. All at once, the little girl dealt with the party, and none could bring themselves to raise a hand against her by the end of it.
She made deals with them, but as far as I’m concerned, she came out on top. SHE, a level 1 child of a race with a penalty to Con and a utility caster class, solo’d an encounter against 4 CR 10s.
She gained a great bit of confidence from the encounter, something I feel warranted the XP she gained from this as well.
A friend I told about this suggested that I give her Skill Focus: Bluff for free, saying as she pulled off this god-tier bluff of being someone that even Ms. Murderhappy Fighter was too afraid to fight.
The party came back later once they surveiled the darkened moon temple and decided on some more potions that they’d need, to find the woman’s wounds cleaned and healed, yet even more snuggly unconscious than before (and a perception check would have revealed that there were levers pulleys affixed to limbs and fingers, but they didn’t try this before the little girl noticed them and placed the sheet over both bodies to resume business).
By this time, the fighter had enough empathy to wonder if the corpse was her father, but the little girl took the fighter asking about that to mean that the fighter was probing for a weakness. She also was the 3rd drow in a row to mouth off to the necromancer (We were tired and the game ran longer than planned), but she got away with it with even more deals that benefited her.
The necromancer traded away some potions that the party couldn’t use (Ancestral Regression and a cursed item: delusion version of Lesser Age Resistance (which means that you only think that it’s making you feel younger)) in exchange for stuff they’d need, but also of significantly more situational value to the little girl than she agreed to give them in return.
They just didn’t question her at this point. They knew that she didn’t know potion prices, so they didn’t bother with Sense Motive, instead just talking up their offer, something she handled practically.
By the time the party finished the final battle, the rogue released the captive guards, and the fighter shot down fleeing cultists, the little girl had used her (now level 6) Wild Empathy to convince 4 giant spiders to help her turn her wagon right-side-up and pull her to a point that her father figure had marked on a map under a mark she understood to mean an entrance to the underdark.
As the party escorted the survivors through the wreckage, the party heard wagon wheels turning and noticed that the little girl wasn’t there any more. They didn’t try to pursue, instead, oddly satisfied to know that she’s still out there.
And, this is the story of how the unequipped child drow utility caster held her own against a party of CR 10s and came out on top!