From the DM’s Chair: Session 2, Hell or High Water

Disclaimer: Apologies for the super long blog here. I’m still working on a format for this DM talk blog/diary but I know whilst longer entries are good for a read, they can really drain you out in the end. If you have any advice or constructive criticism, I would love to hear it.

Paranoia, fear and overwhelming odds are enough to frighten even the most experienced adventuring party. Call of Cthulhu is usually the RPG game that embodies this, placing the players in a powerless position and having them struggle through ancient dark powers whilst trying to survive, but D&D is no stranger to horror or the threat of the unknown. Just, be careful that, unlike me, you don’t manage to mis-sell the situation.

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

KassadinDion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter.

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

TeokuLukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar Kai Warlock.

Elizabeth GreyBeth 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

Last session: The party met up, encountered some strange zombie creatures and foiled an attack on Elizabeth’s father, who has now hired them to work for him, and are currently heading below deck to investigate what has happened below deck.

The game doesn’t have to stop when you leave the table

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A Map of Solace, the Capital City of Dorvine. Created with the Medieval Fantasy City generator by Watabou.

Whilst a main worry of mine with D&D, as well as any hobby really, is taking things too far, it is important to note is that the campaign hype and involvement doesn’t have to stop when you step away from the table. In previous experiences, I’ve met a lot of people who got far too buried in past RPG campaigns, almost to the point where it was consuming them, and that’s not cool. D&D is a great way to escape from reality, but that doesn’t mean reality itself is something that we should ignore. However, it’s alright to be excited about D&D when you’re not at the table and it’s alright to engage with it on a level that you’re capable of. For example, Dion has been drawing some awesome artwork based off the series and I’m so proud to be able to showcase his drawing ability here for you all. In my case, I use my writing to help keep the players interested after leaving the table. On rare occasions, when I feel particularly inspired, I write small bits of fluff that the players technically have no way of knowing, essentially the same as cutscenes in a video game that the characters in the game are not privy to, but concerning them. Before session 2, I sent a small writing piece to the players of Lord Grey maintaining order on the ship. It was a small few paragraphs ending with Lord Grey looking at a map of Solace, which I added at the end of the post. Despite how simple it was, the bit of writing really got the players excited to get playing again, which is exactly the kind of atmosphere you should be aiming for: less intrusive, but still entertaining for the players and enough to get them invested again before campaign time rolls around. Speaking of campaign time, with that segment done with, it’s time to jump straight in:

The Unknown is scary and wonderful. Use it wisely.

The falling rain and rumbling storms do little to disturb our party as they make their way back down to the bar area of the ship. As they step down the steps, they find themselves faced with the horror of reality. Previously, before chasing after the bandits to the upper decks, the group had noticed that the black sludge produced from the rotting zombies was continuing to leak out of their bodies, like puss, but also sticking to any surface it could attach too. It wasn’t an imminent thing to worry about, the black rot seemed harmless enough, despite being black rot, and the players noticed it was so slow it would take a while before it became a real threat. Whilst they’d been up on the higher decks, they’d treated themselves to a short rest for Lady Grey’s sake before finally descending. That meant they’d left the rot unattended for longer than a good hour and when they returned, they found that the black rot was covering at least half of the bar level of the ship and spreading quickly. In a panic, the patrons to the area around the bar itself, jostling and screaming whilst Faeriel, the Dragonborn Paladin, Jargur, the Minotaur, and the barkeep were trying to keep everyone calm.

Strangely enough, this is as much advice for a horror RPG game as it is for running encounters in D&D: the Unknown is a powerful tool. In terms of narrative, a state of uncertainty helps create tension in a story, even something as simple as not knowing how our main characters are going to defeat the main villain. To invoke a feeling of horror, uncertainty can be taken one step further. When a thing or feature has alien qualities that are unexplained, you create further tension. In this case, the black sludge of rot was something the players knew to be dangerous but didn’t know how it functioned. This was an attempt at me creating a feel of ‘horror’ in order to keep the players engaged at lot levels but also build up a feel of epicness from their accomplishments. Instead, what ended up happening, was all because the fear and uncertainty I created were too effective in intimidating my players, so this is a technique can be used wrong and end in disastrous results.

Variety is the spice of life, so spice up your encounters

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A minor upgrade from the regular zombies: dark plants created from dark energy, the Blight. Art taken from D&D Beyond.com.

The group descended and quickly assessed the situation in the chaos. It was then Kassadin remembered about the bandit from earlier, the one whose friend had been taken over by the rot and who had vomited upon his friend. Turning to look, Kassadin caught the back end of a terrible transformation. The man’s face rotted before his eyes, his features paled and he convulsed with a gurgling groan, spewing more black sludge upon the floor. Across the room, another body stirred, the old man who had fallen over earlier. Left forgotten by both the players and the patrons at the bar, he arose with half his face stained with the black sludge, groaning and grasping towards the group. If things weren’t bad enough, a third opponent emerged from below. Wood from below dock had been knotted together, stitched by the black smile until it now formed the vague parody of a humanoid figure. The Blight screamed, before launching itself across the room into the battle.

The party, at this point, had already defeated a group of zombies and there’s only so much mileage you can get out of one monster type. A piece of advice for low and high level DMs is to try and use as many different monster combinations as you can. The Blights inclusion in the story came as a natural evolution of the rot’s nature of corruption. Taking humans and turning them into zombies was a similar enough principle to taking wooden structures and turning them into mindless killing machines. Perhaps it was random and a little confusing, but it served to give the players a slightly different type of challenge and changing the type of enemies a group can face forces them to adapt in combat and consider new strategies. Plus, it’s just nice to have different enemies to fight every so often. Change is good.

Again; let your players do what they want to do.

This conflict turned out to be the most dangerous one yet. The Zombies and Blights all began inflicting damage upon their opponents. Whilst Lady Grey was rallied through with her rage and Kassadin proved resistant to the attacks, Teoku was injured very quickly into the fight and forced to retreat. It was only with the aid of Ouskarr that the party managed to survive. Jargur took control of the commoners, ushering them upstairs to the safety of the lord’s quarters and to prepare to evacuate. He needn’t have wasted his breath. Granny Megs had already dashed up onto the top of the deck, freed a series of life-boats that had been tied down and was now sat in the boat, rocking, waiting for it to be pushed out to sea. When the innocent civilians approached, Granny Meg invoked her Hag’s Frightful presence in order to repel them from her escape route, leading to more confusion above deck.

Once more, Joey’s character wasn’t in the situation for a fight but instead, sought an escape. Whilst this resulted in almost disastrous consequences below the ship, not only was Joey able to have fun and explore different members of the ship but it gave him an opportunity to role-play as well as the other players a chance to see how their actions were affecting other places on the ship.

Players WILL latch onto the strangest of things and do things you might not have expected, even if you REALLY should have.

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Note to self: even people who have never heard of Drizzt secretly love the idea of panther companions. Artwork taken from Giant Bomb.com.

Below, Teoku and Lady Grey agreed that the black sludge couldn’t be stopped and the sickness seemed to just keep spreading. Kassadin, however, was certain he could stop it. Scooping up the substance in a bucket, he found that the ooze stuck to every surface and in the end had to throwing the whole bucket into the sea to avoid it gaining contact with his fingers. The group’s weapons were caked in the substance, though it seemed only to stick, not to grow as the sludge upon the floor. Against his better judgement, Kassadin risked a stroll across the sludge covered wood and a glance down the dark shaft that led to the hold below the bar level. He soon wished he hadn’t. A creature leapt from the lower decks straight as Kassadin, a flash of black fur and claws raking across his armour. Elizabeth ran to support him, as Kassadin roared out in anger, making the creature submissive. Upon further inspection, the beast appeared to be a Panther of all things. As Kassadin and Elizabeth shooed the creature away, Teoku, still bloodied and slowly making his way with Ouskarr to safety, spotted this poor little creature running to safety. His eyes blazed and his jaw set. The Panther, he decided, would become his new companion.

The inclusion of a panther on the boat was another attempt at trying to create an interesting combat experience. In world, explaining the panther was easy enough: exotic beasts being brought in as cargo for experiments/study. The main problem is that I hadn’t assumed much about the panther apart from this confusing encounter. It was meant to knock the players off their guard and then be forgotten. Of course, it’s hard to forget a panther and Lukas, in particular, fell in love with the black cat at first sight and decided he was going to do whatever it took to make that cat his ‘familiar’.

Be careful with the amount of your encounters

The Panther was not the only force that lurked in the ship’s bowels. As Kassadin went into retreat, he found himself facing a pair of Blights. Elizabeth helped to deal with the threat but by then, the pair realised they were wasting all their energy and yet still had no idea of what they were facing below. That was when they saw it. A figure lurched from the shadows at the back of the ship. The black sludge bubbled from its skin and hair. A low growl rumbled from its throat as the immense shape rushed forwards. As it stepped forwards, almost serene in its approach, the two warriors kicked back at one of the Blights, driving it backwards into the figure’s path. Without breaking its stride, the rot creature reached up with a pair of large clawed hands and in a single motion, tore the Blight to splinters. This was the point when Elizabeth and Kassadin decided it was time to retreat.

In hindsight, I should not have included the second wave of Blights. The Blights were simply there for another chance at combat and to rank up the XP boost, but in my excitement of including them, I had completely forgotten that I was running for a group of Level 1’s. Four encounters in a day for a group of level 1’s is difficult enough, having to make the most of limited hit-die, single attacks and very easily diminished abilities but with the second horde of Blights on top of that. Considering Joey was out of the combat RPing above, and Lukas’ character was almost on death’s door with no healer in the group, I was already pushing the party to the brink. Even when I introduced the main boss of the boat to the scene, having him destroy the Blights to limit the number of enemies, the damage had already been done. There was no very little chance that the group would win the combat and they wisely decided to retreat. Dion had only investigated the hole because in my narration I had pointed it out, and now it seemed like I was almost punishing him for following my suggestion, not very cool on my part.

Never infringe upon your player’s freedom without good cause.

Rallying with their comrades above, Kassadin found the Dragonborn Faeriel gasping at the side of the ship. She was struck with terror and seemed on the verge of a panic. From over the side of the ship, the rot from the bucket Kassadin had thrown into the sea was spreading, bubbling and pulsing as it began to climb the walls of the vessel. Kassadin pulled Faeriel to her feet, pushed her along and said if she wasn’t going to fight, then she should get out of the way. Faeriel wisely did so. Lord Grey descended from the upper level of the ship and asked what was going on. Kassadin reported in, as Teoku was allowed aboard Meg’s ship, attempting to force his new beloved panther into a seat. Learning of the beast below and hearing Kassadin’s description of his ability, Lord Grey realised that if there was no hope of defeating the creature, the only hope was an evacuation. The Falling Star was an old trading vessel, however, only recently converted into a passenger ship. There are only four row-boats aboard. There aren’t enough boats to carry everyone. Lord Grey glances up to the people huddled in fear in the upper area, settled in and hoping to be saved. He looks to Kassadin and his daughter. The group make their decision.

“We keep this quiet,” Lord Grey explains, “and we move quickly.”

The evacuation of the Falling Star was a contingency I had in place from when I decided the campaign’s first sessions would take place on a boat. A limited space made of a notably flammable substance led to a very uncertain future for the group, so I included an escape for my players to escape. I should point out, this was not my main plan. I wanted the group to descend into the depths, kill the Rot monster and discover what it was…which since they never did, I cannot talk about it or the way it is foreshadowing for the future of the campaign later on. It was a way to make them early heroes and give them some insight into the main plot, but due to both limited supplies and my own compelling narration (mainly done to instil fear), the party decided to abandon ship. And I allowed them to. Because what logical reason could there have been to try and keep a group of adventurers on a sinking ship when none of them, especially not the other NPCs, wanted to be there?

I still remember playing D&D with some friends a while ago and a disappointing moment I had from that. We were low ranking thieves sneaking into a manor, only to have our employer vault out a window and try to escape. Playing a Rogue at the time, I wanted to leap out of the window and vault after him. When I said so, the response I received from the DM was crushing.

“No. Don’t do that. Like, could you not? I’ve got a plan here and I’d like you guys to stay with the plot.”

Oh. In a single instant, my suspension of disbelief and my enjoyment of the session plummeted. In defence of this DM, it was a one-shot session and we had a schedule to keep, but straight out refusing a path to me without solid reasoning made it infinitely clear I was not a real world my character was interacting with but instead, a sign posted railroad of a plot that I was being forced to follow. It sucked and though the session itself was good overall, the main thing I remember from it was that moment of DM denial.

It’s a feeling I would never want to give my own players and so, when I run campaigns, I try my best to let them have as much freedom as possible, even if I have found a way to hook them on a vague railroad of quests. At times like this, as hard as it is for a DM, you have to cast aside your vision, your hope for what should have been, and work with a reality that your players are trying to mould.

Who knows, it might end up better than your original idea…

Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.

The evacuation is surprisingly efficient. Within a few seconds, Lord Grey’s personal guard have loaded Lord Grey’s close family into the boats, as well as a few NPCs that Lord Grey views as possibly ‘useful’. By the time the innocents on the ship realise what is happening, it is already too late. From the front of the ship, a loud roar echoes through the night as the rotten creature begins its march up the deck. Two of the four boats are now safely in the water and the civillians begin to panic, pouring out of their hideaway, only to immediately retreat from the sudden danger. The last of Lord Grey’s guard thrust their spears, denting into the beast’s arm. Blood and rot mix together, but still, the creature moves on. It tears the soldiers in half, one by one, until it stands fully on the deck. It turns its head towards Kassadin. For a moment, the scaled mailed soldier lets out a deep quivering sigh from beneath his helmet. Death. Again.

But fate is a trickster of a mistress.

Jargur the Minotaur had wanted to be a farmer when he reached Dorvine. Until then, he was still a fighter. He vaulted the bar and flung himself into the fray, picking up the guard’s old weapons.

“Go!” he yelled to Kassadin, “not all of us have to die here!”

Kassadin saluted. Then, with a mighty heave, he eases the row-boat down and springs out into the ocean after it.

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R.I.P Jargur. Artwork taken from the Forgotten Realms Wiki.

I had a lot planned for Jargur. Not particularly interesting or related to the plot, but I had a vague idea of the future I was aiming for and what might happen. He was a soldier, but he was looking for a life away from war. He wanted peace. Jargur would travel in-land, set up a farm in the central area of Dorvine. Slowly, he would become recognised for his skill by the people. He would settle down and farm for the rest of his days. In the near future, he might even have found a wife and started a family, making a homestead that the players, his friend Kassadin prime of all, would have been welcome at.

That changed, obviously.

It wasn’t a change that was completely thought out but it happened in the moment of the group’s departure considering what was the most realistic action to be taken and what was the most dramatic action for the scene. As much as I enjoyed Jargur as an NPC, there was nothing he could provide to the story that other NPCs could not. In addition, due to my explanations, I had foolishly painted the picture that the Black Rot figure was unbeatable. In reality, due to Lord Grey’s soldiers, the Rot creature was on half-health and only killing the guards so effectively due to their own low health.

When I later told the group that the creature was killable, they were shocked. They assumed I made a strong monster to get them hyped for the main plot. Whilst this was true, I had never intended them to escape without first killing the creature. This was my mistake, plain and simple. Learning that the monster could have been slain made the players all reconsider the actions they had taken. For Dion, in particular, it made him realise an awful truth: Jargur could have been saved.

And thus, without meaning to, I had turned a generic NPC into a strong moment. The death of a named NPC gave some much needed tragedy and heartbreak to the traumatic event. If not for most of the players, then certainly I and Dion will remember the moment. There are times when we chat about past sessions and wonder what would have happened if Jargur had not given his life for Kassadin and the others to escape. And yet, though his death was never confirmed in detail, I do feel that for Jargur, the scene was also the perfect tragic ending to his short lived character. The soldier who wanted to start a way of peace, dying fighting for strangers he barely knew, mere days from his dream.

That, I think, is a good story.

And one that might never have happened had I tried to force the players to do things differently and hadn’t been willing to kill my own characters to create a good story.

Alignment is a complicated matter and should be considered lightly or completely disregarded.

The rowboat clatters down, the ropes come free and the party begin their escape. Lady Grey takes to the oars, and begins rowing as quickly as she can. The Panther attempts to escape, but Teoku is keen to keep it in its seat and after a glare from Kassadin, it obeys. The party are a few feet out now and can see the horrible battle taking place on the ship. Civilians are beginning to throw themselves from the ship, Lord Grey’s guards no longer present to contain them. Being the nearest boat, the innocents swim frantically towards the party’s boat, reaching for it desperately.

Granny Meg snaps.

She’s had quite enough of this and doesn’t want to lose her boat because of a few careless individuals who choose to rock it. Seeing this, she pulls out a knife and slashes out. Four fingers fall into Granny Meg’s lap. The civilians, hearing the screaming and seeing the blood of one of their fellows, hesitate for long enough to allow the boat to begin to pull away.

In a split second judgement, Kassadin looks out over the tide of people across a blood covered sea. The rot looms in the background. All of these will die. He clenches his fist. Though he is a man no longer, Jargur’s sacrifice makes him feel more noble than his usual self. In a moment of clarity, he sifts through the crowd…looking for someone to save.

Granny Megs is Neutral Evil. When panicked people scramble towards her boat, she cuts their fingers off.

Kassadin Lightfade is also neutral evil, yet when the panicked people come to their boat, Kassadin starts looking for people to save.

Upon writing this section of the recap, this fact stood out to me. I feel the most important factor about this, though, is that this fact didn’t stand out to me when we were in session playing the game.

For the few people reading this who aren’t aware, the alignment system is something inherent to D&D. It’s a basic system which provides a guideline with how your character is supposed to act, giving nine versions of morality that your character is supposed to adhere to. The four axis’ for the grid are Law, Chaos, Good and Evil with any mix of those providing a reaction and an approach to the systems that govern the world and the approach to which the characters as people govern themselves.

Alignment is also really dumb.

It is an inherent flaw in a storytelling game to have a system which limits character development in such a way. D&D, in fact, is the ONLY system to include a feature like this, and though it is ingrained into the reality of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s also one of the most problematic and outdated things included in the system.

Now, that’s a very passionate thing to say and I can imagine the arguments that might rise up from this, as the topic of alignment always stirs arguments and alternate interpretations, but my main point against alignments is that they remove any moral complexity from a character.

Kassadin’s actions make perfect sense in the context of his character and recent events: he has just lost a new friend, feeling sensitive to tragedy, and is trying to find some way to appeal to his confused soul. His actions, however, directly go against his alignment choice. An evil person is supposed to be selfish and greedy and cruel, whilst a neutral individual has no personal code of conduct or respect for the law, nor any impulse to rebel or cause further chaos. All of this means that Kassadin has a small grey area of actions with which he can operate in. If Kassadin helped too many people or was simply not cruel enough to everyone he met, another DM might have changed his alignment or, worse still, spoken up and told him he couldn’t look to save people ‘because it’s not what his character would do’.

That is simply disrespectful.

Alignment, sadly, isn’t something we can just get rid of. It’s involved in game mechanics and magic items and it’s had enough cultural resonance at this point that getting rid of it would be horrendous. My personal advice for new DM’s is, overall, not to stress out too much over alignment. For my games, alignment is something I consider as a very minor feature, a guideline for a character rather than a rigid set of rules. Players are free to change their alignment as they develop in the story, so long as the character itself as some internal logic and, usually, isn’t just killing people or upsetting the party ‘because it’s what their character would do’.

In Kassadin’s case, Dion suggested Kassadin was Neutral Evil and I believe it is the alignment that does best fit. Kassadin left a paladin order but also doesn’t seek its immediate destruction and, even despite his good acts, he still remains a selfish, fearful Tiefling who killed a man when Lord Grey offered him only 10 gold to do so. That action alone perfectly defines his character as opportunistic and greedy. But limiting him to that perspective also does him a dis-service as a character, same as any of the other players.

So, in order to avoid any future debates on alignment that crop up and to weight in on the discussion for myself, it is ultimately something that is inconsequential to me. Again, as long as players having fun and aren’t being totally off the wall with their alignment choices, I’m mainly just interested to see the journey on which their character goes on, not the alignment they might be tagged as.

Be ready to create new things on the fly for your players, the experience can be rewarding.

Kassadin spots his mark. There’s a young woman hidden amongst the swimmers. Unlike the others, she isn’t panicking, nor is she retreating. She’s drifting forwards through the crowd of swimmers. A flash of gold dances in her eyes, her damp hood barely hiding a deep red skin, a pair of horns and long dark hair. She raises her hand and Kassadin glimpses something flash in the water. A blade. A knife. He hesitates.

Then, his gaze sweeps the crowd one final time. The young Wood-Elf mother and her son are right beside the ship, one of the few not wanting to climb on. The mother shares a look with Kassadin: regret, remorse and a desperate plea trapped in her eyes.

Take the boy.

Please take the boy.

Kassadin does.

And then the mother.

The row-boat, Kassadin knows, can fit around seven people within it comfortably, one rower and six people. It would have been an eight person limit but Baggy is sprawled out, taking too much space. The mother and the child are the logical option. He hauls them both up, plants them down beside him and turns to Elizabeth.

“Get us out of here.”

Elizabeth begins to do just that.

It is then that the water breaks and the cloaked figure Kassadin observed before, lunges forward. With sudden speed, they grip the side of the row-boat, hosit themselves up and push Granny Meg’s to the floor. Before anyone can fully react, she has her knife to Granny Meg’s throat. She looks up, the hood cast away and her appearance raw for all to see.

She’s a Tiefling. And she’s desperate.

“I’m not dying here. Like he said, get us out of here.”

Elizabeth is too tired to complain and though the rest of the group are uncertain, Granny Megs might be secretly a little impressed. Or, perhaps, terrified.

“Very well then,” she squeals, “grab an oar.”

And that is how our fair adventurers first met Yuvari.

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Yuvari, the Tiefling Rogue/Cleric. Sneaky, clever and mildly clumsy, despite how close she guards her emotions, she will soon become a main stay of the campaign and a close ally to the party.

Yuvari was a character than didn’t exist in my notes before the session. She was born the moment Dion sent me a private message as Kassadin rolled a perception check to scan the crowd.

“Do I see any Tieflings?”

Now, the answer was an obvious no in my head. Most of the NPCs I had shown on the boat were either Humans, Elves or Dwarves. But, I considered in the moment, whether no was a valuable answer. Or, to be more appropriate, was it a dramatically satisfying answer? If I had answered no, the exchange above, when Kassadin chooses to save the mother and child over a member of his own kind would never have occurred. Further more, I would have never have, pretty much on the spot, invented the idea of a young Tiefling woman sneaking to Dorvine and deeply desperate not to die. It is so strange, looking back, that Yuvari was something I completely made up: complete with a name provided by the name generators at the back of Xanathar’s Guide, especially considering the role she has come to play in the campaign to this day.

Getting out of your comfort zone when DMing a campaign is good as is letting yourself to improvise on the fly, especially because sometimes you can come up with ideas or characters you never thought yourself capable of.

Use calm moments to carry the pacing and help develop drama

The row-boat rocks from being overladen, but with Yuvari pitching in with Lady Grey, the group safely escapes, barely avoiding capsizing. The four rowboats that escaped, carrying Lord Grey’s family, his mercenaries, including Ouskarr, and the ‘essentials’, skip across an uncertain sea. A Tabaxi bard, Hushed Chains, tries to keep the atmosphere bright. It is difficult to do, with the looming black corpse of the ship in the backdrop, still in the water after the chaos on board. The smell of the dead follows the group as they flee. Faeriel sits beside the bard. Kassadin watches the Paladin for any response. She does not meet his gaze. The shame would be too great for her.

The period after the player’s escape was a great chance for me to flex my muscles as a DM. I got a chance to lay out the scene, explain who had survived, but I also tried to undercut my description with a feeling of tragedy, and I like to think I did a decent job with that. The death of the ship was a horrible thing to happen and by using a slower pacing, I was able to really show the players how effective their actions had been and for them to feel the weight of the lives they couldn’t have saved. It made for a great end to what had become almost a prologue for the entire campaign and was setting up the darker themes that would come into play.

Tieing threads together is always a good way to keep player’s engaged.

After four long hours of rowing, finally, hope comes in sight. A large vessel comes up alongside the assembly of row-boats, the wood painted all silver with the figure head appearing to be that of a gaudy metallic dragon. Kassadin’s heart drops in his chest. Back into the fire it seems. The ship belong to the Platinum Garrison who gladly help the survivors aboard and tend to their injuries. The party are helped up onto the deck, panther and all. However, when Yuvari and Kassadin climb aboard, they find themselves grabbed and pinned to the floor.

“Evil lingers in their hearts,” the captain of the Paladins explain. Granny Meg glances around, confused, before letting out a gasp.

“Evil creatures! How did I notice them before?”

The Paladins help Granny Meg aside, uncomfortable from her clearly obvious attempts to get close to them. Kassadin struggles and for a moment, fears the worst. Then, a voice speaks up.

“I vouch for that one.”

Faeriel.

“He saved me life,” she explains.

As a member of the Platinum Garrison, her word carries enough weight for the guards to release Kassadin, though they express their desire to keep an extra special watch on him, just in case. Thrilled with the current situation, Kassadin is escorted with the other party members to their separate holdings. The group are told to make themselves comfortable in their various rooms, for they are to be called into a personal meeting. With the captain, the party settles and waits.

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Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon, is a God of Justice in D&D and, in the Dorvine campaign, he serves as the Diety of the Platinum Garrison, an elite fighting force dedicated to eliminating evil from the earth. Image taken from the Forgotten Realms wiki.

I had never planned for the Platinum Garrison to have a ship to come and save the PCs. It was natural, however, that they should be rescued and pulled back into the ‘plot’ of their adventure. There are moments in campaigns when you have to pull tricks like that, to help the players getting back on track. My main trick to this not feeling like a Deus Ex Machina was the decision that the boat to rescue the players would be a boat belonging to the Platinum Garrison. Being a Paladin order and Kassadin’s former regiment, the Garrison was the perfect choice as despite it being a way of saving the players, it ended up being a ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ kind of affair. Even though Faeriel vouched for Kassadin, a natural extension of her character’s development as the cowardly shamed paladin, the players could feel the tension in the new narrative space and despite the lull in action, they now found themselves rescued, but by a faction that could very well end up an enemy.

A Critical Roll can change the fate of your entire campaign. Don’t deny it, follow where that story can lead you.

Shortly, a guard comes for one of the party members. They are led out, alone, to the Captain of the Vessel, answer his questions and are then led back to their holding place. Separately, the members of the group shared their experience with the captain. Elizabeth played her usual role as a lady of her house, Granny Megs played painfully ignorant and Kassadin managed to get an overall pass on the interrogation by answering questions as best as he could, whilst avoiding the elephant in the room of his armour and its resemblance to Platinum attire. Due to Faeriel’s word, he remained helmeted and with his gear. Only Teoku managed to give any new information to the captain, who immediately began to scheme.

“Can I go see my panther?”

“Your panther?”

“Yes, my panther. I found it on the ship.”

“If you found it, sir, then it’s not your panther, now is it?”

Teoku faltered,

“But…but…”

“But,” the Captain continued, “I would be more than willing that to arrange something…if you would be willing to do something for me.”

The Captain’s deal is simple: he will forge the documents that will give Teoku complete access to his new found panther, legally owning the creature. In turn, Teoku is to spy on the actions of Kassadin and report back to the Paladins when possible. Taking this in mind, Teoku reluctantly agrees, and is forced into a magically binding contract. He takes the Paladin’s hand…and as the holy energy flows to create the mark of the bind, Teoku can feel the power of his patron pushing back against it. A lucky break: the deal is not completed but the Paladin is certain the effect has latched on. He signs the document, passes it to Teoku and Teoku is led off to claim his new panther companion. Slinking in his cell, the panther looks to him, uncertain. Teoku smiles, invokes his ability of Beast Speech and gleefully informs the panther,

“See this paper? I own you now. You’re gonna be my pet!”

The Panther stares at him with a mixture of shock and fury, before descending into growls.

“I am Baesilius,” he growls back, with Teoku’s magic translating the reply, “I am mighty. I am no-one’s ‘pet’.”

Teoku smiles.

“I’m going to call you Baggy.”

‘Baggy’ glares at his new owner. His animal instincts twitch, informing him what is to come will be a long and violent struggle.

I enjoy confronting my players with issues that can’t be solved with standard skill rolls or combat. The interview with the Captain of the Platinum Garrison was one of these issues. In the segments roleplaying with the other players, I did my best to explore the ideas of a social combat, challenging the players in how good they were with people or in convincing this man that they were ready to be released. Lukas was the only person I managed to get to stumble, pledging himself to the Paladin order as a spy in order to get his panther.

Only, I figured it unfair that the spell should just work, so I had Lukas roll a saving throw to see if his own magic and that of his patron could overpower the unbreakable vow seal being placed upon him.

Lukas rolled a crit.

In D&D, as an optional rule, a 20 on a D20 is a critical success.

I like this optional rule.

I did not like it at that moment.

The theme of this segment of From the DM’s Chair, I feel, is acceptance and this is another example of it in regards to adapting to your players. Lukas had been lucky and had overpowered the seal and got himself a panther free of charge. Though it might come back to bite him again in the future, I decided to honour his success, abandoned any plans of him being a spy in the group and instead, moved on, to what the group was going to do next.

Like it or not, your players are going to make big choices that affect not only the plot of your game, but the style in which you play it.

Granny Megs is also another member of the group on the move. On her way back to her room, Granny Megs asked to have a chance to walk around the ship. The paladin guards agree, but insist on accompanying her. It doesn’t last long. Granny Meg, being as casually disgusting and flirty as she is, scares away the two guards following her long enough for her to find some time to speak to Yuvari. The captured Tiefling has all but surrendered to her current position and is especially surprised to see the Hag she threatened to kill approaching her cell.

“What?” she asks, “come to gloat?”

“No dearie,” Granny Meg responds with a smile, a flash of Eldritch energy sparking between her fingers, “I’ve come to break you out.” Yuvari can only stare in disbelief as Granny Meg shoots out a beam of energy at the lock, muffling the sound as best she can. By some miracle, the Paladins are too busy avoiding Granny Meg and are too far away to hear, casually allowing Meg to escort Yuvari back to the safety of her room.

“Why are you doing this?” Yuvari finally asks as the pair are wandering the halls.

“Because,” Granny Meg replies simply, “messing with goody two shoe paladins is more than worth it.”

Yuvari silently nods her head, and slinks along after her saviour.

I do not usually like the idea of playing NPCs who travel with the player characters. Considering it is the player character’s story, I’m always worried that my NPCs will accidentally steal their thunder and also slow down combat with me having to keep track of not only the monsters, but other NPCs as well.

However, sometimes that decision is taken out of our hands as a DM. I had never planned on the initial group recruiting NPCs left right and centre to join their team. Yuvari was the first NPC I had created to receive this fate and she would not be the last. Yet, the players all seem to enjoy her as a character and, by making her a Rogue/Cleric multi-class, I managed to provide a way of supporting the players and having an extra member of their team without fully stealing their thunder.

Have an idea how you like to play Gods and Patrons in your world.

The rest of the day passes without interest. Yuvari’s escape appears to have remained un-noticed and the other members of the party all get moments to relax and recompose themselves over the course of the journey. Later than night, Granny Megs is blessed with a vision from her patron: the Queen of the Unseelie Court. The Veiled Queen expresses how pleased she is at Granny Meg’s actions and as such, protected her from the divine magic of the Paladins from sensing her evil heart. Granny Megs was confused about this for a moment, before remaining the ritual circle she inscribed back on the ship. During the battle, Granny Meg joined in the battle (though her main priority was getting as intoxicated as possible) and the head of a zombie landed in the circle. Her patron had accepted this as a blessing of sorts and now, devoted to her a medallion to help hide her magical presence and also her dark heart. With Granny Megs kneeling before her Lady, the Queen moves to leave, imparting her last words of wisdom to her Warlock:

“Remember, dear child, nothing comes freely in this world, not even my love. A bargain for a bargain.”

As a DM, I have always been fascinated with the relationship between Clerics and Paladins and their Gods. This similar approach is one I’ve considered whilst looking at Warlocks and their Patrons. In your campaign, it’s imperative you know how you’re going to portray your player’s relationships to external forces. For example, when I run campaigns, I tend to have Gods and Patrons feature quite heavily in their follower’s lives, frequently sending visions or speaking in dreams. I do this in the hope to give a sense of grandeur and connection to fully mark them as their class and for them to understand the responsibilities their character possesses. Though you don’t have to portray these divine creatures in this manner, I feel that doing so creates a sense of grandeur and enjoyment for the players who do choose these classes, cementing the connection with these beings from whom their power is derived.

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Father, Husband, Noble. Earl Thomas Grey, the Party’s current patron. Art by Dion Russell, whose other work you can check out here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever

Finishing off and winding down the session

The following morning, the party finally reconvenes at Lord Grey’s behest. The Earl had been treated kindly enough by the Paladins and thus, a breakfast is held in his personal quarters. The family, bar Elizabeth, eat separately from the group, with Lord Grey eager to keep the dealings at the table strictly business related. At first, the group are encouraged to relax, enjoy their meals and receive further rewards from Lord Grey. He offers the group treasures from the ship he recovered. The party accept their prizes: a settlement of 100 gold each and a collection of magical items, including a Cloak of the Manta Ray and several potions. The party split the funds among themselves and are deliriously happy with their success. Only Lady Grey seems to realise the dark truth of the matter.

“Father, what is this?”

“Payment from the ship,” Lord Grey replies, “I brought it in one of the boats.”

The group falls silent, realisation spreading among them. Lord Grey has bought their pay in exchange for the lives of the innocents that he deemed unworthy to be spared. Though the majority of the party shake off this news and try to enjoy their new funding, Elizabeth eyes her father with disbelief and a hurt expression for the rest of the meeting.

Having crept into the room to enjoy breakfast with Granny Megs, Yuvari finds herself watching by Kassadin at all times. Eventually, the tension breaks and Yuvari begins arguing with Kassadin. The two get into a scuffle with Kassadin trying to get a closer look at Yuvari’s face, desperate to confirm she is indeed a Tiefling. In return, Yuvari tips Kassadin’s helm, just enough to reveal his true heritage to the group. Seeing no more need to hide and slightly uncomfortable with his combat with Yuvari, Kassadin removes his helm and turns to Lord Grey,

“Is this alright? Having a Tiefling working for you?”

Lord Grey never smiles, but Kassadin can feel the warmth in his voice as he replies,

“You saved my life and can get job done. That is all that concerns me.”

Promising them further wealth and power if they continued to serve him Lord Grey presents two further jobs before the group. The Thieves Guild, Clear Skies, are behind the pirate attack on the ship and an attempt on Lord Grey’s life. He tasks the group to uncover the secrets behind the organisation and, if possible, remove them as a threat from Solace, the capital of Dorvine, his new home. The group agrees.

The next mission, Lord Grey promises, should prove far trickier. He hands over a manifesto of the goods that the Fallen Star had on board, full with a list of suppliers.

“Someone on this list,” Lord Grey asserts, “knows what that creature was in the hold. I want answers as well as you.” The party similarly agree to this investigation, all too eager to gain more rewards from their generous benefactor.

As the group disband to relax and cool down, Elizabeth is caught for a moment with her father the only one in the room. After the rest have disappeared the two argue about Lord Grey’s secrets, his ambition and his callous nature towards others. Lord Grey rebutts his daughter at every turn, even calling her out for her rage aboard the ship and demanding that she ‘think of the family’. Barely holding her cool, Lady Grey simply replies that she is thinking of the family and will keep doing what is best for the family not her father’s way, but in her own way. As she leaves, Lord Grey lets out a sigh of lament and mutters to himself,

“That’s my girl.”

That’s going to be it from this session of From the DM’s Chair, mainly because I feel this post was far too long. Thank you very much to anyone who had the patience or interest to stick with this post. I’m still trying to learn how to document these things correctly and though I want to give my readers entertainment, I also don’t want to bury you all in large word counts. I’m probably going to mix things up next time, see if I can still give you the advice for DMing, developments I’ve made and the story from the sessions I’ve run in a more comprehensive way. I suppose it’ll have to be something to experiment with but for now, any feedback is more than welcome and I hope you enjoyed this segment so far.

Join me next time as move to the third session of Dorvine, the party finally reach land and enter the capital city of Dorvine, Solace. What treacherous foes and possible quests are lurking on the cusp of this great nation? Hopefully, ones that don’t require quite so many paragraphs. Until next time, we’ll have to wait and see.

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