For some reason I'm feeling like sharing a bit about tonight's D&D session.
As has been discussed previously, our campaign is a strictly module-based (something like 90% of the content is direct or spin-off module content) sandbox. We've been playing through the Skull Mountain
over the last few sessions. This has been a transformative time for the campaign, as after after over 50 sessions the players have slowly gained a foothold on middle-levels, with two characters now approaching 5th level. This adventure has been where the players have finally figured out that they're not 1st level anymore: the main fighter runs his own mercenary company, going to the dungeon with 60 henchmen, that sort of thing. I'm trying hard to kill off the headliners to see if I might turn back the clock a bit - it'd be interesting to see whether the players might lose the perspective they've been gaining on the setting and campaign issues if they were suddenly dropped in power and resources back down to starting levels.
Anyway, one of the memorable bits in Skull Mountain (should be pretty obvious that this is going to feature spoilers, for those who care) is a huge stalactite the adventurers get a chance to traverse via stairs built in a spiral down its entire length from the top to the tip. Unknown to the adventurers, there's a lizard man outpost down below the stalactite. It's about 150 feet from the bottom tip of the stalactite to the ground floor - this is a big fucking cave. The adventuring party approaches the place carefully and with just a few henchmen in tow, as they've suffered heavy losses in the upper floors, and already failed once in saving the son of a local nobleman, who they're supposedly trying to rescue among other things. The party has so far been successful with secondary goals (like dealing with a spin-off villain riding a gargantuan bat, courtesy of The Screaming Temple
, another adventure), but as their excessive use of military tactics lost them the first encounter regarding the captive hostage, they're now keen to hurry down to the unknown lizardman-land below the evil cult shrine of the Skull Mountain. Less leading entire fire-teams down parallel corridors and more a quick commando strike with the elite of the force - namely, the player characters.
The lizard-men, again unknown to the poor adventurers, have a catapult set up on a cliff near the stalactite. They also have a convenient bright light source set up on the stairs, meaning that the catapult crew can see the descending adventurers when they pass the light. What's worse, the lizardmen are thoroughly alerted by their retreating allies, so they're just waiting on the trigger. As the moment comes, the catapult's launch noise is practically drowned by the noises of the subterrene, and the voices of the adventurers themselves. The players have been fortunate in this session, but I finally roll a decent 18, and the catapult knows its target: it hits directly in the middle of the party with a considerably large rock, the biggest the lizardmen have; what's better, randomization indicates that it strikes squarely at Hans Krüger, a 4th level Fighter and the definite spearhead of the players' attempt at establishing themselves as important movers and shakers in the campaign world!
A flurry of mechanical procedures follows, and we establish that Hans Krüger has officially graduated to Hollywood levels: the large stone from the catapult strikes the plate-clad man but a glancing blow due to his quick reactions, and although the stairs under half of the party crumble as the stalactite shakes from the hit, Hans manages to not only drag himself up from a cliffhanger, but one of his poor mercenaries as well. Another player character falls to his death (a 1st level goon, thin gruel for the GM), and the rest are considerably spooked; Hans Krüger, who hasn't tasted death like this for something like ten sessions, survives to lead his men another day.
The party looks at the few feet of stair that have crumbled, and they look at the lights the lizardmen have lit down below to reload their catapult. The players don't know that they just got the biggest rock the lizardmen had readied; they don't need to know, as they just decided that OK, perhaps they don't need to descent this way after all. A quick retreat follows, as the adventurers decide to abandon their mission and the poor hostage boy, who'll surely be fed to a dragon by the dragonic lizardmen cult; better to fail than taste mortality, for they know beyond doubt that this game is played for the highest stakes the fictional setting has to offer.
That is all, except to say that this was just one of about three high points this session. That's been pretty average amount of awesome for us in the late sessions - reviewing my notes, about two sessions among the last ten have been slower set-up and logistics, while the rest of the time the players have been busy discovering what it means to be mid-level by acting like action movie heroes. They've yet to discover how to keep the lower-level characters alive in the process, but maybe that'll follow at some point, too.