Tales of A DM: Sieging the Unsiegable Tower

AKA How Player and DM Stubbornness Kept Us Playing Till 4 AM

One of the longest campaigns I ever ran was set in a world where guilds had replaced traditional military forces for waging war.  The players were running an Adventurer’s Guild that had grown to a size that they could start dipping their toes into traditional warfare as well.  They came into conflict with a notoriously aggressive (and not quite legal) guild, and next thing you know, war were declared.

Their forces met in battle, and the versatility of the adventurers that made up the core of the player guild’s forces, backed by a number of archers, quickly routed the enemy.  The enemy retreated back into the safety of their stronghold and the PC’s prepared for a siege.  This was at around 10PM, and our sessions usually ran till around 11 or 12.  My intention was the show my players that the stronghold could not be taken with their current forces, have them negotiate a peace with their enemies, and come home the victors, all in time to end at the regular point.  What I had underestimated was my player’s absolute determination to not end this until their enemies were completely crushed and their guild disbanded.

So here’s the situation they found themselves in: their enemies stronghold was a tower in the middle of the small city.  The city itself was fairly labyrinthine, with twisting streets and tall building at many street corners that hid what was just around the bend.  The tower was tall enough that the top levels had a view of most of the streets.  It was armed with short-range canons at the lower levels and long-range ballista at the top, plus a full company of archers.  This in addition to the rest of the guild, including the leadership, who had taken refuge inside.

The PC’s first instinct (as it often is) was just to charge it head-on.  They brought the full might of their forces on a direct path with a tower with the intention of busting in the doors and killing everyone inside.  After a few rounds of taking losses by ballista, canon, and arrow, they realized their forces would be nothing but paste before they reached the doors and pulled back.  They set up camp just outside of ballista range and prepared for a siege.  Then the real problems began.

The city’s denizens were loyal to the guild which had brought them a deal of wealth and prosperity and actively made things as difficult as they could for the occupying force.  They declined to sell them any food or supplies, provide them with maps of the city’s layout, and regularly tried to sneak into the camp to sabotage supplies.  They even did their best to interfere with the PC’s scouts (often violently) which made it difficult for the PC’s to predict when their enemies would send a sortie.

The next big problem gripping the PC’s forces was sleep.  Their enemies had an alarm that they would blare from sundown to sunup which was loud enough to prevent sleep for much of the PC’s guild.  Between the lack of sleep, dwindling supplies, and mounting casualties from fighting off sorties, morale was low.  Only the incredible Leadership checks from the ‘White Knight’ character kept them from facing mass desertion after a few weeks, though a small trickle of deserters was inevitable.

It was coming close to midnight and my players were not ready to sue for peace just yet, despite their odds, and I didn’t want to break for the week because I wanted to begin the next adventure the following week.  It wasn’t unheard of for us to go to 1 if we were caught in a dungeon or something so we weren’t at anything ridiculous just yet.  Just to try to speed things to their inevitable conclusion, I made sure to drop some not-so-subtle hints as to where this was heading in the form of NPC members of the guild voicing their concerns that they would run out of supplies before they took the tower and continuing this course was just risking their guild members.  My players were having none of it.

They finally hit a ‘break’ when one of their scouting parties managed to finish their exploration of the sewers and mapped out a path that would lead them right to the base of the tower.  The PC’s gathered up their elite adventurers and prepared for a surprise attack to disable the tower’s defenses.  It almost worked, too, as they were able to get inside the range of the canons and right to the tower’s doors.  They then learned that the tower had an additional defenses they had not been close enough to experience before, namely, murder-holes and boiling oil.  Though they did succeed in busting down the first door, the damage they took sent them scuttling back down the sewers.

We’re past 1 now and I think we must be hitting a breaking point.  They’ve taken heavy losses, even with high Leadership checks the guild was ready to fall apart.   I probably should have called a break here, cause some of us were getting pretty tired, but I was so certain they would finally accept that they were not taking this tower anytime soon.  But sunk-cost-fallacy is a bitch.

What follows is a lengthy (and honestly probably not so fun) two hours of siege warfare where, somehow, the player guild manages to hold together (if just barely) and begin to exert more pressure on the tower.  It was as much of a war of stubbornness between me and my players; they considered anything less than the total annihilation of their enemy as defeat, while I refused to relent and let them just let them take the tower.  Maybe it was bullheaded of me, but that’s just kind of how I am as a DM, I don’t stop my players from taking on an impossible challenge but I also am not going to shift the world around to make the impossible possible.  We were at a stalemate.

Until the party’s tank, Brutus, decided he would break the tower’s defenses singlehandedly.  Brutus was part of a heavily armored class that was, being completely blunt, not well balanced.  We were playing a D&D 3.5 variant that was low-magic, and to make up for the lack of magical protection the ruleset had armor provide damage reduction.  For the most part this worked well, until you got to Brutus’s class, which increased this damage reduction to absurd proportions while also providing him with a massive pool of HP just in case a tiny bit of damage managed to trickle through.  The only reason the casualties for previous attempts at the tower had been as few as they were was because of Brutus shielding their forces with his own body.  At this point, he reckoned if he didn’t bother having to protect anyone he could tank enough damage to reach the tower himself.

What followed changed the tone of the campaign from gritty-blade-and-blood style to straight super hero.  Brutus charged straight at the tower, getting pretty far before being noticed (he was just one guy, after all, however heavily armored he was).  The arrows came … and literally could not do any damage to him.  On a critical I think the arrows could pierce him for 1 or 2 points, but they certainly weren’t going to wear him down anytime soon.  The ballista could harm him (if barely), but without an army to protect he could stay mostly in areas where they couldn’t really get a bead on him.  The canons were a bit of a problem, in the sense that a bee’s stinger is a problem for a giant.  His shield was completely obliterated by the canon fire and his health pool was depleted by maybe a quarter, but he reached the tower all right.

He didn’t really have the tools to bust down the door, but his intention was to disable the tower’s defense so he started climbing.  Hot tar and oil was poured on him, but they were more a threat to his grip than his health.  He reached the first set of canons, climbed inside (ignoring the attacks made on him by those inside, since their swords couldn’t hurt him) and manually destroyed the canons, then climbed out to repeat the process.  By the time he reached the last of the canon placements they were ready for him.  The leader of the enemy guild, a big and burly warrior type, slashed at his face with all the might he could put into his two handed sword.  Brutus took some damage and his helmet was destroyed,  but managed to avoid losing his grip on the wall.  Instead he lit a torch and tossed it into one of the room’s powder kegs.  One of, as in there were quite a few stacked up there.  The room exploded, and Brutus was sent flying away, impacting the ground like a falling meteor.  Still had enough HP to get up and walk away.

This was the beginning of the end for our brave besieged.  The attack by the unkillable titan that was Brutus left them shaken, leaderless, and without their strongest defenses (not to mention the damage to the interior of the tower the blast had caused).  The players were able to lead the remainder of their guild on an attack that finally broke through the doors of the tower and they made good on their promise to butcher everyone inside.

It was 4 am when we finished, and at least one of the players had fallen asleep.  The siege had lasted close to 6 hours, but the player’s had managed to prove that with enough stubbornness (and a super tank) they could in fact siege a tower that I had intended to be unsiegable.  It had taken them a great deal of time, cost them heavily in gold and personnel, and it would be a while before their guild recovered their numbers.  They will totally claim to this day that it was worth it.

The lesson in all this? Call your session breaks at regular times, despite whatever happens to be going on at the time, because while you may think things are about the wrap up … well, you are probably wrong.

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