It’s hard to keep secrets from players. They have a tendency to wheedle key information out of the most unreasonable places, bullying NPCs or casting high-level divinations to get plot details far before they should. In my experience, most of my plots are spoiled by blind stupid guessing, where the players hear an NPC’s name mentioned in passing and somehow immediately assume he’s going to be key to a plot they don’t even know about yet. It’s like every one of my sessions is a terribly-written murder mystery. But by sheer accident, I once stumbled upon the perfect way to keep players from predicting a crucial plot twist: make sure I don’t know about it myself.
Let me tell you about the theft of the magical wall.
The Unnamed Monster Campaign had monstrous PCs fighting evil monstrous NPCs. That’s most of what my players remember about it. But the actual plot was the collection of nine artifacts, each a middling-to-decent magical item in its own right, that when assembled allowed a limited connection to, and control of, the campaign pantheon. By the final third of the campaign the players knew the location of almost all of them, and they didn’t need to collect them as much as they needed to make sure the villain didn’t collect them either. They knew one item, an antimagic shield named the magical wall, was kept under guard in an earth elemental city. But the party also knew how cunning and powerful the villain was, and they needed to see those defenses themselves and confirm that the shield hadn’t already been taken.
This occurred in the session immediately after the death of Valitude, which meant the party was in the market for a new mage. We had an interested player, but he hadn’t had time to design a character (we might literally have called him over to our table at the gaming store and said “Hey, want to join our D&D campaign?”) and it would be another week before he gave us Thrae. Without other ideas, we decided to just find a monster whose ECL equalled the party’s level and let him run it as a one-shot character so he could get a feel for the group and the game before he committed to building something complicated.
That was why the party’s patron pointed them toward a gray slaad interested in helping them out. He went with the party, making jokes and experimenting with his character the whole way. The thing he really liked was teleporting all over the place with his at-will dimension door, especially when it was completely unnecessary, like retrieving a letter from across the room. He shortly stopped declaring that he was casting a spell, just announcing “bamph” and appearing somewhere nearby.
Those of you with encyclopedic knowledge of D&D 3.5E may recall that gray slaads do not have dimension door at will. But this character was definitely a slaad, and he definitely teleported at will. I don’t know how to reconcile this. Maybe we switched it with another spell-like ability because he really wanted to teleport. As I’ve discussed, my notes for that campaign are not especially thorough.
Regardless, the players made it to the earth elemental city, and after getting things off to a rocky start (ha!), the guards agreed to let them examine the magical wall’s defenses. Because of the high security they would only allow two people to see the shield in person. The chosen PCs were the slaad and the party’s deception-based golem, who could masquerade as earth-related races, while the dragon-orc, the panther-kobold, and the elemental bureaucrat seemed insufficiently trustworthy. Conveniently, the slaad also filled the party’s sudden gap in arcane knowledge, so he and the golem were the best characters to verify the spells protecting the shield. So the guards escorted the slaad and golem to the shield’s resting place, a well-lighted, highly-observed dias surrounded by anti-divination wards and buried miles below the surface.
The slaad confirmed the shield’s safety with his expertise in Spellcraft and Knowledge (arcana), and this exchange took place:
DM: It’s definitely the actual shield. And from what you can tell, the vault is completely impregnable.
Golem: Great, then I don’t see any reason to move it. It’s safe here.
DM: Right. To steal it, somebody would have to know exactly where it is despite the wards. Like, they’d have to see it in person. Close enough to actually touch it. And even then, they’d have a very hard time escaping. To get past all the guards, they’d have to be able to teleport.
Golem: …so it’s good that we have the shield.
DM: Well, no. The slaad has the shield.
Slaad: Yoink. Bamph.
Until that moment, the player had no idea he was a mole. I didn’t know it myself until partway through the session. Everything happened to come together at once: the new character, the other characters’ immediate and complete trust in him for totally out-of-character reasons, his at-will teleportation powers, his arcane expertise, and his player’s willingness to swindle everyone else if he found it hilarious. It wasn’t merely unplanned; I argue planning for it at all was impossible.
The golem, with a near-permanent haste effect and boundless endurance, did his level best to catch the slaad. He raced out of the vault, found the rest of the party, shouted a quick explanation as he flew by them, and ran back to the surface faster than humanly possible. But he just wasn’t faster than a creature who could teleport several hundred feet every round, including straight up and through walls, and the slaad was gone before the party ever had a chance.
The characters were livid. The players loved it. They weren’t happy about losing, but they couldn’t deny how perfectly it had played out. They also knew the campaign was coming to an end, and they rightly assumed things had to get a little more precarious before they finally triumphed. I don’t know how upset they were that they never got to kill that gray slaad. After Thrae joined, everybody forgot about his previous character and focused on killing off the campaign villains.
They also forgot about the earth elementals. If I ever return to that setting, I think I’ll bring that city back, except now it will have a relief or mural of the party named “Can You Believe These Chumps?”.