How a moral dilemma turned a mediocre battle to an engaging session

We’re playing through the old X2 Castle Amber module (converting to 5e using XXX as a guide), and the party were going after the Sword of Sylaire.

Note: This post contains minor spoilers for X2 Castle Amber. If this might be a problem, stop reading now and direct your GM here instead.

They had met Sephora and been sent to kill the werewolf which was terrorising the ruins. They had found the ruins and the remains of a group of previous victims and then they were ambushed by the werewolf in his human mage form, Malachie. As the session ended, they had Malachie surrounded, and it was pretty clear he wouldn’t last much longer. Also, I got the feeling some of the players had been a bit dissatisfied by the battle and their contribution to it, and it looked like the character who had had the most action so far would get the glory as well.

Thinking over it in the fortnight between sessions, I knew I had to do something or we would start with an anticlimax: “he’s dead. Now what?” So I decided he would surrender. He’s overwhelmed, clearly about to die, no way out. How else does he have a chance to save himself?

Boy, what a good decision. Cue instant moral dilemma:

  • “He’s been fighting us and in the same way the previous group were attacked” (new player’s character, a cleric, was introduced as the only survivor of that group…new character being the one now in closest melee with Malachie)
  • “He ambushed us”
  • “We’ve been told we need his head in order to get the Sword of Sylaire which we need to escape this parallel world”
  • “But on the other hand, we’re not evil, and some of us are good”

Further questioning and interrogation. I played him as

  • Aware he had been cursed by Sephora because she had got bored of him, and he was inhabiting these ruins because he had nowhere else to go
  • Something is ravaging people and creatures who come near – he will often find ripped and torn corpses. Why, there was a group only yesterday who seemed to have been ripped to shreds – surely you saw them?
  • For some reason he can’t understand, people keep coming to the ruins to attack him
  • He attacked in self-defence because it looked like they were hunting him
  • He has blank patches in his memory, particularly at night
Photo: the end of the battle...and the beginning of the dilemma
The end of the battle…and the beginning of the dilemma

He was very co-operative and answered all their questions as well as he could, and a Wisdom (Insight) check gave him as believing what he said. He also offered to take them to his den – a corner of the caverns under the ruined castle where he had a fire and some furs for sleeping. Also assorted bones, but none of them were humanoid (the characters checked). He offered them a mirror of true seeing which showed the true form of the person in the mirror and suggested they use it on Sephora. They tried it on him and saw a human mage (his original form).

The characters still weren’t sure what to do with him. Lots more discussion…

  • “He’s clearly the werewolf”
  • “Equally, he’s not aware of it”
  • “He killed my companions” (the cleric)
  • “We need the Sword, and his head is the requirement”
  • “Think of the greater good – if he stays alive, he will continue to kill innocent people”
  • “His life isn’t much anyway – maybe it would be a mercy to kill him”
  • “But is it reasonable to kill him in cold blood?”

In the end they decided to head back up with him still tied up and try to get back to Sephora with him alive so that maybe she could do the dirty work instead. They headed back towards the woods and the portal where they had come from Sephora’s land with him still in tow.

It was getting towards night, and rather than head into the woods in the dark, they set up camp, but still very nervous. Eventually, as the moon came up, the cleric had had enough and after a quiet discussion away from Malachie, stated he was going to finish him off, some of the others walked away to not be involved, and then the cleric came up behind him and finished him off with his silvered rapier.

So it was resolved, and the portal back to Sephora’s land was restored, they went through, handed over his head and received the Sword of Sylaire in return. Then somehow found themselves leaving without interrogating her as they had planned.

Conclusions

I was really worried about how this session would turn out. The combat was turning into a damp squib with uneven participation, and once they’d killed him it would have been an anti-climax. Having him surrender and introducing the moral dilemma turned it into a very good session, with all the players engaged, discussing with each other, trying to dig into Malachie’s story, trying to find holes in his story, trying to work out the real situation, trying to work out what to do, having differences of opinion, discussing, trying to find ways to put off the decision and get more information which might make it easier.

It was a great session, saved by the dilemma.

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