From the DM’s Chair: Session 1, The Rising Tide

Now, with setting-making and session zeroes all out of the way, we’re finally ready to start the actual campaign and get on with the story and look at the things I’ve learned DMing for my players. I’ve really been waiting for this campaign recap to get started properly, because I feel no matter how much advice I could try and give DMs, it would never be enough without an example of an actual session or campaign. Dwight D Eisenhower once said ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. He was right, especially if you take the word enemy and change it to players. The game you play with your friends will end up massively different from the one you’ve had in your head and the only way to properly explore what process is like and the change that takes place between notes and the gameboard, is to talk about actually running a session.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, we’re going to be talking about the first session of my new campaign, Dorvine, and the lessons I’ve learned whilst running it. My players and their characters are as follows:

Kassadin-Dion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter.

Granny Megs-Joey is Granny Maegara, the Neutral Evil Night-Hag Warlock.

Teoku-Lukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar Kai Warlock.

Elizabeth Grey-Beth is Lady Elizabeth Grey, the Chaotic Good Human Barbarian.

All character art drawn by Dion Russell, whose other work you can check out here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever

Without further ado, let’s get on the way

Consider Perspective.

The Fallen Star tilts, rocking against the harsh waves. It’s a windy night, a stormy night, with not a single star piercing through the black smog of clouds above. The vessel braves these gales, battering its way through high tides and raging seas, holding steady on its course from the free city of Marida to Solace, the capital of Dorvine. In the hold below, the peasants can feel every lurch of the ship and every shudder of the wood, straining against the turbulent ocean. They pray for safe travel. The nobles aboard the vessel care not for any of these prayers. Their quarters are raised at the back end of the ship, below only the captain’s quarters, from which the ship is steered. Their lodgings are spacious, their lounge area elegant.

The Grey Family sit apart from most nobles, as they are want to often do. Lord Thomas Grey is an isolated man and most of his family follow the same vein. Only his plucky son, Ceylon, and his socialite daughter, Eliya, dare brave the crowds of gentry. His daughter, Jasmine, sits reading a book next to her father, his young son James plays with their young pup Chai in the corner and, Lady Elizabeth Grey, his eldest daughter and heir to his estate, sits with them, patiently waiting for a chance to escape the awkward silence. The chance is offered by her mother. With a sigh, Lady Chrys stands and announces she’s going for a walk, offering her daughter a chance to join her.

Ouskarr
Ouskarr, the Half-Orc mercenary working as a bodyguard for Lord Grey. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Earl Grey replies. He is a cold man with only one weakness, but, lucky for Elizabeth, that weakness is his wife. After a pleading look and a kiss on the cheek, he relents, assigning one of his bodyguards, the Half-Orc Ouskarr (pronounced Oskar), to guard the two. The two Lady Greys find their escape and instantly make their way to the lower decks. Elizabeth’s mother hopes to get a drink and secretly socialise with the peasantry below. Elizabeth just hopes to stay out of trouble.

How you begin your campaign is just as important as where. Most of the time, I usually introduce the campaign with a long extended piece of narration before plunging the main players into the plot all the same time. For the Dorvine campaign, however, I decided to mix things up a little bit and try to start more in the moment. To this affect, I shortened the introductory speech as much as I could, giving passive references to the chaos back on the continent before plunging into the most urgent part of the story: the boat to Dorvine and the people aboard it. My main goal for the first session was to ease the characters into a more lower level grounded story, get them accustomed to the world and encourage their own exploration. Considering most of my games are heavy on plot and usually follow epic quests even from low levels, I wanted to try and shake my old habits and develop something more organic: the story of some none-name adventurers rising to prominence in the backdrop of a world in turmoil that would eventually encroach on their efforts. Plus, with only a vague estimation of my desired overall plot, I wanted to give the players a chance at freedom because I hoped it would give me a chance to develop the world and story from their actions.

Starting with focusing on Lady Grey was a choice I made very deliberately. Usually, I try to start campaigns in a place where all players can be active participants at the very start but watching my friend’s campaigns and a lot of D&D livestreams showed me that players are willing to be patient and let you slowly introduce the world, before allowing them access. Beth was the only player who I’d never ran for before, so having her be the original focal point was an attempt to make her feel welcome but I also thought to use it to set up the initial situation on the boat for the other players and establish the main factions. The rich rule the top of the ship, Lord Grey’s isolation also making him stand out in the player’s mind as an important NPC for later. Having her mother invite Elizabeth downstairs gave Beth some time to get into character, roleplay with her in-game family and understand what a basic day in the life consists of for her character. It’s a trick used a lot in fiction: there’s usually at least one chapter or section of a book dedicated to the normal before it’s all thrown into chaos. To use the Star Wars reference from a few blogs back, Luke spends at least a few minutes in film and two days in story on the farm doing chores and cleaning droids before he’s actually called off to adventure. It’s a way of showing development, but also, in a roleplaying sense, I hoped it would make Beth relaxed and…I think it worked?

For the other players, it also helped set up the geography of the ship more in their mind: a top deck for nobles, a middle deck open to the elements for the crew to work on, and a lower deck for the lower class. For the session, I was using the map and name of a ship I found online, which is something I’d always recommend if, like me, you have trouble drawing maps and like some inspiration from unexpected places.

Establish your party.

The Fallen Star
A map of the Falling Star that I used to vaguely model my own Falling Star for my own campaign. Falling Star Map and Name taken from Mike Schley, whose awesome work you can find here: https://www.deviantart.com/mikeschley.

The air is stale and the space cramped below deck. Light booze flows freely and cheers fill every quiet spot as Elizabeth, Chrys and Ouskarr make their way to the bar. Sitting there are two individuals who shall change the fate of the Grey’s and Elizabeth forever. Clad in platinum coloured scale-mail with a large bucket-shaped helmet clamped over his head, Kassadin Lightfade orders yet another drink, downing it in one. To the ladies’ other side, a young dark haired man, Teoku, attempts to chat up the passing waitresses and any free lady he can glimpse amongst the crowd. Far from the bar, the group are made aware of a child’s crying as a young girl scurries away from the scene. Shouts and accusations follow, accusing the girl of drawing some kind of circle in the children’s play pen. The girl quickly hops onto the barstool beside them. Brown hair up in pigtails with big wide eyes, she’s precocious and despite feigning innocence, appears more mature than she seems, trying to hold a conversation with the group.

Prior to the session, most of the group had been able to give me some details on their characters and backstory that made it easy to set the scene and pull them into the story.

As an ex-soldier, it made sense for not only Kassadin to be drinking away his sorrows, but to be clad in the old-scale mail he’d been wearing in the battle. His helmet was a touch from Dion himself, who wanted to hide Kassadin’s race, despite a few close blunders of my own people managed to miss. Teoku had been given a leave from the forces of the Raven Queen due to severe heart-break and was taking the time to explore the world. Granny Megs was perhaps the most interesting addition to the situation. After coming up with a way to get herself on the ship, Joey played most of the first session using the free ‘polymorph’ from his Hag-race to look like a completely different character, only engaging in his character’s actual form near the end when circumstances deemed it necessary.

The players were easy enough to introduce from here in the lower bar and getting them all into the story worked relatively flawlessly. There was the unspoken bond of teamwork from the players, so I knew they’d be willing to form a group, but also the characters genuinely gravitated towards each other due to the bar’s role as a social space. Now I had the players all in one place, all I had to do was keep them entertained.

Establish active NPCs.

The small group engage in some light banter, the bar-tender preparing drinks for Lady Chrys and the others. Elizabeth is wary of the other patrons, though attempts to be friendly. Kassadin sulks in his own corner. He has issues of his own to contend with: someone is watching him. He’s been aware of it for the past few minutes. At the back of the room, there’s a female Dragonborn sat on a table with a friend who keeps staring at him. Losing patience and feeling uncomfortable, Kassadin suddenly stands from his stool and goes to confront her,

“What you looking at?”

“Your armour,” the Dragonborn growls back, “how did someone like you get something like that?”

Kassadin growls back. The hostility is clear. The group at the bar turn, their attention fixed on the inevitable conflict. All fears of a fight are dashed, though, as the Dragonborn’s friend raises a hand and places it upon her and Kassadin’s shoulders. He is a Minotatur, small and thinner than most, but still with a build clearly sculpted from years of training.

“Friends,” he says, “let’s not make this unpleasant, it’s a nice night. Come, sit and let’s not let the ale go to waste.”

Kassadin reluctantly accepts. The Minotaur and him begin talking, the Dragonborn still watching with anticipation. The Minotaur gives his name, Jargur, and his friend’s, Faeriel. They’re both soldiers, Faeriel with the Platinum Garrison and Jargur as a mercenary, but both seek to retire from the wars on the continent to Dorvine. Slowly enticing Kassadin, the Minotaur reveals a deck of cards from his pocket.

“Shall we play a game?”

When building a narrative space for your players to work in, it’s important to give them people to bounce off of and interact with. For this reason, I’d officially looked at the bar level of the boat and written out several small NPC profiles that the players could get to engage with. Whilst the players had no reason to talk with all of these characters, having them prepared helped set up the feeling of a real believable world and more importantly, established believable people the group could talk to on the fly.

As things happened, Kassadin chose to engage in conversation with Faeriel before she could engage him, which probably worked for the best. Faeriel was written as an NPC I had created as a deliberate response to Kassadin’s backstory. Mining backstories like this is a strategy I strongly recommend for any Dungeon Master. Her being a member of the Platinum Garrison, the same order Kassadin used to belong to, helped create instant conflict between her and Kassadin (why was this stranger wearing the armour of her order but not on the front lines? Why was he alone?) whilst also helping the players begin to build a consensus of the world: that Paladin orders are a big deal in this setting, as they soon discovered in later sessions.

Though Kassadin chose to engage with Faeriel, you can’t always count on your players to start talking to NPCs right away. That’s why it’s a good idea to create an active NPCs to engage the players themselves. If Kassadin hadn’t walked over, Faeriel would have approached him instead and an argument would have surely broken out that way. When making NPCs for your starting location, my main advice is to make them active in this manner. The player’s quest-giver is actively seeking out their help, a bad guy is actively seeking to attack them or, in this case, tension flares simply because an NPC chose to actively interact with a member of the party. It’s a great way to get a session’s momentum rolling, and also great for pulling new players out of their shells, putting them on the spot and making them interact with a world that you’ve just brought right in front of them.

However, such strong interactions can end badly. For this reason, I’d also suggest to have a helpful NPC present just in case. Jargur was an NPC created in a response to Faeriel, much in the same way she was to Kassadin. A more peaceful and friendly individual, the two created a dynamic which provided enough tension to get the players invested but instilled enough calm that the characters were able to have a conversation without breaking out into fighting.

Everyone loves mini-games, use them wisely.

My favourite part of the first session was something I’d had very little thought on: the game of cards between Kassadin, Faeriel and Jargur. Despite only involving one of the players, the tension was enough to drag them in and still engage them in some roleplay. Bets began flying around the table and people started commenting not only Kassadin, but about the game itself. The game, for that matter, was a simple game of Pontoon. Sadly, Dion had never played Pontoon before and thus, I had to explain it, as well as the variation of the rules considering we were using dice instead of cards. Since I chose an easy game to understand and an easy way to show it (rolling 2D10 for starting cards and each card chosen meant an extra D10 rolled), Dion and the other players picked up the system quickly and soon became engrossed. Kassadin lost quite a bit of gold but Dion didn’t seem to mind. His character was making friends and he was having a good time, same with the other players. It was a nice low-stakes environment that I really wish I could create more in D&D. Giving players the space just to RP with other NPCs and just have chats in-character is one of the nicest little moments you can find as a DM, though I don’t recommend trying to force it.

Keep the session moving if you can, don’t let the players get too bored.

636252761965117015
Bandits, the finest of the low level threats. Picture originally  from D&D Beyond.com.

They agree to play Pontoon, 21, drawing cards until they reach or get close to 21. Going over counts as a bust. They play two quick games, exchanging gold and placing bets. Faeriel goes bust both times, Kassadin comes close but it’s ultimately Jargur who comes out on top both times. Back at the bar, the other patrons join in on the betting, the little girl asking for a sip of Lady Chrys’ drink if she wins. The happy air is destroyed, however, as an old drunk smashes his glass on the ground and begins hurling insults at a pair of Wood Elf passengers, a mother and her child.

“Sharp Ears! Spies for the Eladrin!” he spits at them. Teoku stands and tries to defuse the situation, but only ends up getting the old codger’s attention on him. By now, all eyes in the area are on the argument. Kassadin stands up from his game and walks over, threatening the man to stand down. When he refuses, a small scuffle ensues, which ends with the old man tumbling down onto a table. The patrons at the table have been keeping to themselves, all in hoods and cloaks but when disturbed, they spring to attention. One of them comes for Teoku.

“Here, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Er…nothing. He was just…”

Kassadin steps in.

“Back off buddy.”

The two square up with Teoku wisely taking a step back. Elizabeth tries to calm everyone down, keeping her mother from harm. The young girl simply takes her chance, chugging a great swig of Lady Chrys’ drink when she’s not looking and starts helping herself to things behind the bar, whilst the bar-tender is distracted.

Now, as nice as moments of calm are for story purposes, the main reason we play D&D is to engage with other NPCs and feel like heroes. Several times in the first session, I felt a lull in the pace or a silence beginning to take over and last too long. When this happened, I introduced a new event that changed the focus or build upon previous tension: Faeriel watching Kassadin, then the old drunk and finally, the angry bandits. This technique isn’t something intended to rush the players on through the story, but more a way of stopping the session from falling stagnant. As much as players should just love spending time together, it’s nice when you actually have stuff for them to do.

Balancing pacing is always tricky because as much as you want your players to sit around and smell the flowers, you’re also trying to keep the story moving. Move too slowly, and all your players get bored. Move too quickly, and players can feel left behind or, worse still, railroaded into plot. For a first session, I find a brisk pace of events work because you’re enticing your players and getting them hooked on the action early. The drunk picking on an Elven mother and her child was another thing I had written in to further reflect the world the players were heading into: a place where Elves were looked down on for their connection to the invading Eladrin. The inevitable scuffle with the drunk also provided a natural introduction to the bandit group in the corner as well, who I’d already placed as a key instigator of events later on. If you have elements of  your story like this that you want to foreshadow, don’t be afraid to do it early. Most of the first two sessions of this game featured some heavy foreshadowing for dangerous bits to come, something I think the players will hopefully enjoy in hindsight.

If you’re going to feature an inciting incident, make it big, loud and dramatic, but engage your low-level players on a personal level.

Just as a fight is about to ensue, the trapdoor to the lower area of the ship bursts open. A pair of men come out, one supporting the other, who appears to be heavily wounded.

“Help, help, someone help!”

The group stop fighting and rush to the pair’s side. Kassadin asks what happened, only for the leader of the cloaked group to answer in the man’s stead.

“He fell down the stairs, didn’t you?”

It doesn’t take much for Kassadin to realise this is a lie, an attempt to bury some sort of secret. The confrontation begins again, tension slowly rising. Elizabeth ignores the argument and begins attending to the injured man. Sadly, she reaches a quick conclusion. The man is dead, probably from a combination of a heart attack and his wounds. As she goes to explain this to her comrades, the victim begins shaking violently. The corpse convulses, spewing up black sludge, straight into his friend’s face, before rising up and groaning, the black sludge dripping down his jaw. From the open trapdoor, two more groans sound and another pair of corpses emerge from below, trailing the black sludge from their heels.

Zombie-5e
The Zombie: Slow, withered, but hard to kill. A classic low-level encounter. Art used from the Forgotten Realms Wiki.

Zombies. A classic level 1 enemy with a low CR score and one that I felt fit very well with the whole ‘darkest timeline’ aesthetic. This was the moment that fully kicked off the action and the story of the game: the strange sickness of a black rot overtaking people on-board the ship and turning them into the un-dead. It’s something done before but re-contextualised in a D&D setting made it directly engaging to the players and a chance to finally roll some dice and kill some monsters wasn’t something they’d let pass. It also provided some great intrigue for the rest of the session: What were the two individuals doing downstairs? What actually happened down there to turn them into these rot-spewing monsters? What nefarious scheme were these bandits involved in that got them so defensive about their actions?

When running combat, be aware that not all players have that same interest in it.

The zombies fall quickly. Kassadin, Teoku and Lady Grey each deal with their own dead body. Whilst Kassadin struggles against his, Teoku and Lady Grey finish theirs with ease. With the dead dealt with, the room descends into a panic. The bar-keep ushers the patrons near to the bar away from the scene. Completely unaware of the events that have just unfolded, the little girl stumbles out from behind the bar, drinks under her arms, stumbling. No-one seems to notice the girl but instead, take note that the cloaked men from earlier have abandoned the lower decks, heading upwards. Elizabeth, fearing for her father, charges up the stairs, followed by Kassadin, a reluctant Teoku and a gleefully tipsy toddler.

Throughout the whole of the battle, Joey’s character did nothing to interfere with the battle, instead choosing to RP more and get drunk. Many a CON check was made and many of them were failed so by the time the fight was over, his character was on her last legs. One of the most important things you can accept as a DM is that everyone has their own interests and reason for playing. Some players love combat, other people are there for the story, still more are there for their own personal story or for their character. No matter the reason for playing though, as long as they’re actively not disrupting anyone else’s fun, it’s alright to let them do as they want. Joey didn’t view his actions as ‘missing out on combat’ or ‘letting the team down’, he viewed it as a chance for his character to achieve a goal: stealing alcohol, and a way of developing his character as a result, showing her bizarre choice in priorities. To deny him of that and to force him into combat would just have been a bad move for a DM. So, every round when it came to Joey’s turn, I tried to give his sections narration of its own as well as the fight to show he was equally valid in his actions as the other players were. I can’t stress enough how important it is that everyone feel welcome at the table, if you can help it.

If in doubt of a party’s motivation to follow a goal, throw gold at them.

The group arrive on the upper levels to find most of the guards killed and only Lord Grey’s personal guards protected the remaining nobleman at the far end of the room. The cloaked individuals have been attacking indiscriminately, littering the ground with the noblemen. Lord Grey calls to the group over the confusion.

“You there,” he gestures to Teoku and Kassadin, “10 gold per head.” Kassadin doesn’t wait for more details. He rushes into the room, felling one of the bandits with a simple swing. The battle is on again.

Treasure-Gold-Electrum-Platinum
Money, it makes the world, and your campaign, go round. Except Electrum. Electum can leave. Art from D&D Beyond.com.

Within ten seconds of entering the nobles’ room, I had the players firmly in Lord Grey’s pocket. All it took was a simple promise of gold. Though that might not be enough to sway some players, almost all players are obsessed with gaining more power in their games, whether that’s XP for levelling up, new magic items or even gold. This is natural, it’s a mind-set games, D&D in particular, put us into. Players want to fight monsters because they know the reward is XP and, similarly, they know to accept quests when gold is promised. Simple decisive action gave me a chance to anchor the players to a wealthy financier for future quests. Though I wanted to encourage player freedom, as a DM, it’s always nice to have an NPC who can function as a guide or quest-giver for the first few sessions before your players get pulled fully into the story. The fact that this quest giver was also one of the player’s in-game father just cemented extra drama for the proceedings and paved an underlying tension for the relationship, viewing his daughter differently from his other employees.

When in combat, try to describe as much as possible

The fight goes well for the most part. Kassadin easily holds off a small portion of the group, whilst Teoku skilfully flips and slices with his dagger, bringing a pair of bandits to heel. Elizabeth does slightly less well. She attempts to rush to her father’s side only to be struck harshly. Enraged, she flicks out her parasol, which transforms from its club-form into a great-axe. She swings, cleaving the bandit in twain with a single blow, spraying herself in blood. Lord Grey is horrified, shouting to keep the work to ‘the help’. Elizabeth bites back at the comment and simply continues attacking.

Personally, I think a big reason of why players enjoy combat so much is because when they engage in it, it’s a chance for their characters to feel awesome and powerful. A main way to reinforce this is describing their actions. Take away that description of the fight and all you’re left with is rolling dice, which is fun, but not as fun as explaining how Kassadin’s sword cleaved through a man in a single swing, the might of the blow shattering bone upon impact and sending his opponent sprawling to the floor, gasping for the life that had been ripped from his chest.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

In a matter of moments, most of the bandits are slaughtered bar one, whom Kassadin quickly interrogates. He learns that the bandits are part of a Thieves Guild named Clear Skies. The guild was hoping to assassinate Lord Grey on the boat but thanks to the chaos below deck and the players attack, they’ve been foiled. Reunited with his wife, Lord Grey rewards Teoku and Kassadin for a job well done and accepts them onto his payroll, promising them more to come in the future. For now, he wants the ship secured to ensure no other threats are present. The pair agree and head outside…only to stumble across the decrepit form of an old woman, passed out and lying on the wooden steps, surrounded by empty drink bottles.

If there’s one thing that D&D has over any other media of entertainment, it is the interactive factor of the game. In D&D, you’re able to pretty much do whatever you want, go wherever you want. True, the DM usually has a schedule or a story they want to tell and the basic rules system prevent you from just, say, imagining your character blowing up a planet with a punch, but you’re far freer in this media to take different approaches to problems and try to develop the story and character you personally want to play.

Part of the illusion of a a real narrative world is this interactivity and the fact that every player’s actions deserve a reaction. For example, doing productive things deserve rewards. Lord Grey paying Kassadin and Teoku made them responsive to his orders but also helped Kassadin get back money he’d lost gambling it away from Jargur. On the other hand, Joey’s character constantly drinking obviously deserved another response as well. As Granny Megs got more and more intoxicated, I started having Joey take his CON save on disadvantage due to the sheer number of alcohol she’d consumed and her own personal low CON scores, hence her fainting. This reaction was much more negative but also logical, and it helped give the players a feeling that the world was real, whilst also giving Granny Megs the chance of finally meeting with and joining the party.

Kassadin wakes the Hag up, helping pull her to her feet. The Hag, formerly the child, introduces herself to the group as Granny Megs and accepts the party’s proposal of heading back into the bowels of the ship and finding out what terrible things lurk below…

That’s going to be it for my first session recap and from this segment of the DM’s chair. Join me next time as we move onto session two of the Dorvine campaign and find out what happened aboard the Falling Star and how our players intend to deal with it…and, of course, what happens when your plans as a DM don’t go exactly as you expect. Thank you for reading and let me know what you think of the lay-out so far, and if you have any suggestions for improving it.

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