If there is one thing that marks role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons as a unique form of media, it is the way in which the game encourages interactivity and freedom. In tabletop RPGs, you can go anywhere and do whatever you like, more so than even computer games, mainly due to the fact you have an actual person running the game who can react to the situation in time with you. This was a feature that popped into my mind when my players finally reached Dorvine in the third session of my campaign, as well as wondering how they would face their new freedom.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair and today, we’re going to be talking about what I learned running the third session of my new campaign, Dorvine, and I’ll be sharing some various tips and tricks with all of you. The brilliant players I’ve been playing with are as follows:
Dion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter.
Joey is Granny Megs, the Neutral Evil Night-Hag Warlock.
Lukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar Kai Warlock.
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
Whence last we met, the group beat back some monsters, abandoned ship, found themselves at the mercy of a vessel of Paladins and signed up to follow Lord Grey, who gave the party two missions to prove their skill: to find and deliver revenge upon the Thieves Guild Clear Skies, and to uncover who was behind the monstrous creature who appeared on-board their vessel.
With their mission received but Solace still a day’s travel away, the party engaged in their own bouts of training. Kassadin and Elizabeth honed their combat skills, whilst Teoku and Granny Megs pushed the boundary of their arcane skill in the privacy of their own rooms.
It was late when the Paladin’s ship broke through the fog to the shores of Dorvine. The capital city of Solace rose up to meet the party through the haze: a settlement of tall spires blended with chimneys, cramped houses in tight streets and a bustling centre of industry. Even at night, the port was a buzz with movement and as the ship pulls into port, a small alliance of Paladins is waiting to take its place aboard the vessel. The party disembark, Yuvari wisely hiding amongst their ranks to remain undetected.
It is here the party split from the Grey family and Ouskarr, who take their leave aboard an awaiting carriage, with brief instructions as to where their new estate is, just to the South of the city. As they depart, only Elizabeth, Kassadin, Teoku, Megs, Yuvari and the panther ‘Baggy’ are left on the port-side. The group talk for a moment, discussing plans, tactics. Megs is not apart of this. She instead searches the busy foggy docks for any sign of a Kenku.
Strange, but not to Megs. She has kept the cargo log from the ship. Whilst most of it seemed inconsequential, despite bizarre inclusions such as a panther and a coffin as cargo, Megs’ attention is drawn instead to a different part of the list: ‘unmentionables’ said to be brought to an ‘Aunt Letty’. Whilst Letty isn’t at the dock in person, she has sent a Kenku named Clacker to pick up supplies. Megs glances around and, in her ignorance, completely misses the tiny image of a bird-man hiding behind one of the street lamps.
Immediately, the group find themselves in trouble. Baggy is being uncooperative with Teoku and it only gets worse when a guard comes over and instructs them to put Baggy on a leash or else the beast will be confiscated it, or worse, put down. Teoku quickly persuades Baggy to calm himself, using his beast speech once he’s convinced the guard he’ll sort the panther. Baggy relents, realising that the guards will be less kind than his current food providers. He surrenders to a leash. Granny Megs, in turn, provides some severed fingers from the sinking ship as a supper to sweeten the deal. Shortly after, the group get involved in a minor scuffle in front of a bar, ending with them pushing a drunk man into the water. Wisely, the party decide to flee.
Heading into the centre of the city, the group finally encounter their first ‘real’ threat, beyond drunks and guards. In the central plaza of Solace, there is a great bonfire burning. Before it stands a palisade, decorated with a black banner with a purple rose emblazoned upon the fabric. On this stage, there stands a tall lean man in a black robe and beside him, on either side, two knights in great thick armour, spiked and intimidating. Commoners surround the area and watch as the pyres burn, shouting encouragement and support. The man, a priest, continues:
“And now, Lord Pelor, we rid from this world more of your natural enemy: the aberration of the arcane, spellcasters!”
Megs and Teoku cast disguise self instantly. Luckily, their entrance is not noticed, but the two Warlocks realise automatically that they are not welcome here. The Knights, introducing themselves as Knights of the Black Rose, are servants to the God ‘Pelor’, the Sun God, whose fires, they say, give the Rose their power and bestow them with the power needed to see that their enemies burn. The party quickly change their plans. The inn in the centre of town, The Tower’s Rest, is the nicest place, but they’re bound to find other places less close to the fanatics. Indeed, after speaking with a nearby guard, they find just the place.
The Viper’s Den is not the most welcoming name, nor does it seem to be the most welcoming of places. It’s cold, damp and built onto the side of a stream outside the city wall, the stream itself being more sewage canal than river. Crossing the bridge, the group head inside. The group approach the man behind the bar, a Drow. Strange, they think, to see a male Drow so far above ground, and running his own establishment. It becomes clear why when the only proper alcohol he can provide to drink is a concoction known as ‘Rat Piss’. Clearly, the party aren’t the only undesirables trying to make a living in Dorvine.
Kassadin, whose eyes are on the mission, begins grilling the owner of the tavern for information on Clear Skies, though he finds himself shushed by the owner when he pushes too far. Behind the group, near the back of the room, there are a pair of woman: a Goliath and a Gnome, who watch them with interest. No-one seems to get the hint that the pair are keeping tabs on the bar, and its owner, and if they do, the word is kept themselves.
The group buy some remarkably cheap rooms, some gruel and ‘rat piss’ for supper, whilst Lady Grey begins trying to teach the poor barkeep about her various herbal teas she has on her possession. Teoku tries to get Baggy to rest, casting his Beast Tongue again to speak with him. Megs is being similarly flippant with her magic, prestidigitation being prime among them. The party don’t seem too alarmed, until the barkeep spots and warns them not to risk things like that. The Black Rose are everywhere and, to make things worse, their leader, High-Priest Odo, is currently the regent for the young Queen, Lilaria Coale.
“If you know magic, you burn. It’s that simple.”
Megs and Teoku question the man on this, whilst Lady Grey continues her efforts to introduce tea into the lives of those less fortunate. Kassadin is the only member of the group who notices the Goliath and Gnome leaving. He follows them out, wary, and quizzes them on what they know of the Inquisition. They don’t say much but manage to alleviate his fears and leave the group to a peaceful rest at their inn.
The next day, well-rested and recovered, the party decide to take matters into their own hands and begin properly investigating Clear Skies as instructed. After finding the bar empty in the early morning, the group quiz the barkeep, bribing him with a large amount of coin in order to get information. The man explains all he knows: that Clear Skies members are all themed around birds, they’re led by a man known as the ‘Albatross’, and their local branch leader is a man calling himself ‘Mr Big’, who runs the Twilight Club, a ‘gentleman’s establishment’ on the North side of town hugging the city walls. The group pay him and allow the Drow to pack up his things and leave, him explaining to the group that he doesn’t want to be in town when Clear Skies look for a leak of information. Apparently, they’re good at dealing with rats. The group take a moment to celebrate, they’ve basically been left a bar. It is then that Granny Megs reveals, whilst the rest of the party was interrogating the Drow for information, she was using prestidigitation to turn all of the drinks in the bar into actual rat piss. The group quickly decide to leave their new-found bar, when a loud knock sounds at the door:
“This is the Order of the Black Rose. We’re here to investigate a disturbance.”
The party try to consider a plan. In the end, they decide to stand their ground. Teoku and Granny Megs disguise self again into a buxom bar-maid and ‘Peggy Mitchell’ respectively. Yuvari slinks off into a corner to hide and Kassadin and Lady Grey try to pretend to be patrons, blending in.
And so, the doors open with a thud and in walks a priest of the Black Rose and a Knightly attendant. The two begin to study the area. The priest does most of the talking, desperately trying to keep on Granny Meg’s good side due to her disguise. However, a successful detect magic spell uncovers Teoku’s attempt to hide (not Granny Meg’s, as you may remember, who still possesses a blessed necklace from her patron that can hide her from any low-level detection spells). The Knight begins his assault and Kassadin wades into the fray to protect his ally.
“Gonna be honest,” Kassadin comments with a smirk, “you guys are terrible paladins.” He removes his helm and draws his sword, “you let a devil walk right in your midst!”
“Fiend!” the priest shrieks.
The fight is on.
It’s a long drawn out battle that the group mainly get through due to their superior numbers. Granny Megs and Teoku take some heavy damage early on as the knight begins harrying away at the weaker members, until Kassadin can come to their aid. The knight appears unstoppable but the priest easily falters due to Elizabeth’s attacks and a well-placed Eldritch Blast in the chaos. Having easily taken care of the priest, the group surrounds the knight and make quick work of him. Teoku gets the finishing blow on the knight, a swing of the bat to his lower area securing the win. Kassadin and Elizabeth survive with only minor scrapes, leaving Yuvari to patch up the two Warlocks as best she can.
“I need your permission,” Yuvari stresses, “you have to ask for it.”
Confused, Granny Meg pleads for healing and Yuvari gives it, invoking some kind of bizarre blood ritual, cutting her hand in order to heal Megs and help her up. With the battle over, the bar and half of the party trashed and two dead bodies in the room, the group decide to wisely make a run for it, quickly disguising themselves again as best they can. Megs and Kassadin loot the bodies, stealing a cloak from the priest and the big black plate armour from the Knight. Kassadin leaves the helmet though. His old bucket one actually fits his horned head better. As they leave, Megs spits on the bodies of the dead.
“May Pelor piss himself before the might of the Fae,” she cackles, before joining the others.
Heading back to the main city, behind the safety of the walls, the group, once more, discuss the next step of their plan to eliminate Clear Skies. Kassadin’s idea is a simple one: stake out the area, see if they can find any members of the gang to see what they can find out about the Twilight Club. Infiltration is also an option but the group admit they’re not a stealthy bunch. Granny Megs, once again, is heeding little to the plans of her comrades. Now back around the docks, she takes her party the long way to the Tower’s Rest, keeping an eye out for the Kenku she missed the night before.
By a stroke of luck, she finds him.
Clacker is a small and timid black bird, even smaller than Meg in stature, though he greets the group warmly when they approach. Meg easily talks him over to their side and introduces him to the group, though she hides her motives of wanting to find her hag sister through him. The party are willing to go along with Meg’s plan, despite Clacker’s obvious mental deficiencies and occasional squawking. With a new party member to their ever expanding roster, the group finally head to the Tower’s Rest for some food.
Kassadin walks slow towards the back of the group, trying to talk with Yuvari.
“So…you’re a Tiefling?”
“Yeah?” Yuvari snaps back.
“Well,” Kassadin continues, “you may have noticed…I…am too.”
“Shocker,” Yuvari mutters, rolling her eyes. Kassadin ignores the comment.
“Look, I just…erm…I don’t know…er…how do I Tiefling?”
Yuvari levels a hard glare at him.
“Yeah, be like…you know…”
“Well,” Yuvari growls, biting back an urge to slap him, “you do you, because that’s who you are. You don’t change cause your Tiefling, asshole.”
Kassadin grumbles. He’s never met anyone that was his new race before, and Yuvari hasn’t been particularly friendly to him yet. He persists, harrying Yuvari with questions until she loses patience.
“Look, I’ll see if I can get you answers. Just for now, calm down.”
Kassadin relents and the group enter in together into the Tower’s Rest, now that the bonfires of the night before have died down.
It’s a quality establishment, far better than the Viper’s Den, with two young serving girls helping their parents run the tavern. The group pick a table, order a load of food and begin eating. Megs, who has taken a liking to Clacker, treats him to some fish and Teoku treats a leashed Baggy to a steak. As Lady Grey brews her tea, Yuvari approaches the table,
“Kassadin, can I have a word with you?”
From beneath his helmet, Kassadin sighs.
“Being a Tiefling,” Yuvari replies, “I think I found someone who can help.”
Kassadin stands and leaves the group to their meal. They barely notice as Yuvari leads Kassadin to a small closet full of coats in the corner.
“Yuvari,” Kassadin begins, “I don’t think this is…”
“Go in,” Yuvari encourages.
Kassadin does. He wades into the closet and Yuvari enters behind, closing the door.
In a flash, the room is illuminated. It is also, not the closet from earlier. It’s a small wooden room in the theme of the bar with a table at the far end with two seats. One, the one facing Kassadin, is occupied. There’s a man sitting in the chair. Black hair, fancy suit, great hat and a cane. Beside him, there’s a Minotaur, tall and powerful. He says nothing but his shaggy mane betrays his position as a warrior. Yuvari goes to stand alongside the man, whose gaze is centred solely on Kassadin.
“Kassie,” the dark man mutters, “baby~ How’s it hanging?”
Kassadin doesn’t quite know how to respond. He’s also not sure who this man is, yet when he gestures for Kassadin to sit, he does so without even realising. There’s a strong pull to his words, an unspoken power to command that which Kassadin cannot refuse. He feels the pull against him and answers any question given, listening patiently to the man before him witter on.
“Who are you?” Kassadin asks.
“Oh, Kassie, baby. I’m what made you you,” the man replies, “and Yuve, I made her too. Deals with a Devil, so…anti-climactic at times, right?”
Kassadin pales. The shadow in the war. The one with the deal.
“You…” Kassadin breathes, “Dormin…”
“I prefer Mr D,” Dormin replies, “don’t I Baeley?”
‘Baeley’ gives no reply and simply huffs.
“See, Mr A has given me great plans for the material world, and that’s why you and Yuve are there buddy, to keep it save for me and Mr A until such time as we need it.”
“Mr…A?” Kassadin tests.
“Our boss, yours and mine,” Dormin continues, “and Yuve’s too, of course. Now, you’ve got a special fate ahead of you…so…”
Dormin passes a small vial of orange liquid across the table.
“This,” he explains, “is gonna make you big and strong Kassie.”
“I…I don’t…I don’t think…”
Dormin looks up. Under the brim of his hat, Kassadin can see his eyes for the first time. They burn, flashing like black suns.
“Drink,” he commands.
Kassadin downs the liquid in one swift motion. He goes to scream but his throat is so hot nothing but gasps can escape. The liquid, whatever it is, burns its way down into his system, leaving Kassadin collapsing onto the table, the sheer heat flowing into him. Across the table, Dormin smiles, adjusts the brim of his hat and gestures to the door.
“Yuvari will show you out.”
Kassadin doesn’t complain as Yuvari lifts him from his seat and begins leading him back towards the door. Dormin’s voice follows after them,
“Kassie, baby, I have big plans for you my friend. Now…just remember.”
Kassadin spares a glance back. Dormin’s eyes still blaze after him, black coals sparking.
The door to the closet closes behind Kassadin and he finds himself standing back in the Tower’s Rest, the world still and at peace, completely oblivious to his horrific encounter with his new master.
And that is it for the recap section. To mix things up a bit and to see if this style works better, I’m gonna write the topics that I’ve learned at the bottom here rather than throughout the story. Hopefully it’ll mean less fluff on my part and provide some more concise lessons for those of you interested in learning the tricks of the DM trade. If you don’t care for those lessons, well, at least you’re all caught up on the campaign story thus far. And so, without further ado, here are the lessons I learned for the third session of the Dorvine Campaign.
When creating an open world, break up your quests naturally, allowing players to approach from different perspectives.
As there is more than one way to skin a cat (which is horrific, why would anyone want to skin a poor innocent feline?), there is more than one way to get your players into a campaign. I’ve run a lot of campaigns and a varied amount of quests were available for the players, but, in hindsight, I find the best quests I ever gave were ones with very loose guidelines. Finding magical keys and dragon-hearts were all well and good, but it was the fiddly details such as sneaking into an enemy mansion or exploring a magic vault that were high-lights of their respective campaigns because of the sheer freedom the players had to approach their problems.
There were two missions I had planned for the players when they entered Solace. One was to investigate the creature aboard the ship. This would eventually lead the players to William Karas, a nobleman within Solace whom the players had already successful suspected as being involved with the monster due to the high prize of his cargo listed on the manifesto. For finding him, the quest would have simply been to explore Solace before eventually learning of his whereabouts and questioning him.
Confronting Clear Skies, the actual quest the players went for, was something of a different beast.
Considering the players were going up against a whole organisation, I thought it clever to encourage the players to follow lots of different options. I split up Clear Skies into various factions named after birds (Magpies being pickpockets, Sparrows being enforcers, Vultures graverobbers, etc) and placed them to work around the city for the players to investigate and interact with. On top of that, I layered in connections to the Clear Skies in various taverns and shops. All of the ways the players could have interacted would have eventually led them to Mr Big and his Twilight Club, but each path would have contained a different challenge or obstacle. This manner of layering in the quests around the city worked well and proved to engage the players, whilst also giving them the freedom to explore the city and find answers for themselves with the various options they had available to them.
If the group would have visited the artisan district, they would have found some Clear Skies Sparrows beating up a shop-keep for money, who they’d probably end up getting in a fight with. If they had studied the market square, they would have found a group of Magpies who would have been easy to interrogate…if they could catch them. As it happened, the barkeep the group found knew a lot of vague facts about Clear Skies, but could do little to actual help the players infiltrate the organisation, but pointed them towards groups that could, allowing them to naturally further their investigation.
Of course, I’d also made plans for the players to pursue other quests, hence the presence of Clacker the Kenku, who was mentioned on the manifesto as well to provide a link for Joey’s character and her personal quest. I would have been making things up a lot more if the party followed this route, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make to ensure the players enjoyed themselves. And, speaking of improvising, the process is not always as nightmarish as it appears.
Going off plan is never a bad thing, don’t be afraid to walk on the wild side.
The biggest curve-ball of the entire session and a main part that I remember was the encounter with the Black Rose in the Viper’s Den. The reason I remembered that encounter is simple: it was not planned and I was sure my players were going to die.
The Black Rose had been in my mind from the inception of the campaign, a name stolen from the lovable Matthew Colville, who in turn took it from the Dragonlance books as the order Lord Soth the Death Knight belonged to. As a name, it was the right kind of imposing and intimidating. An Evil/more morally grey Paladin order helped give the setting of Dorvine a strong cultural stigma to define it and also put a face forwards for an antagonist faction that the players could later come into contact with.
But, I’m also one to seed story ideas to be followed up later. That was the initial idea of the Black Rose scene on the bonfire: to get the party scared and to instil in them the simple notion that magic was frowned upon in this setting.
Lukas and Joey, sadly, missed the memo somewhere.
They were all terrified when the Black Rose were present but in the safety of a tavern, they let their guard down and began casting spells and cantrips without thinking…or caring about who was watching. When the Goliath and Gnome exited, who were also members of Clear Skies the group could have fought and interrogated, they went straight to the Black Rose, ratted them out for some money and then went about their business.
When the Black Rose finally arrived from their busy errands about the city, the party allowed the investigators to enter, hoping to hide in plain sight. They never checked the cellar for a hiding place or the back-room, where a back-door was that would allow them to make a hasty retreat. Instead, they decided to stand against the CR 2 Priest and his companion, a Knight, CR 3.
A CR 3 Knight, on his own, was just a match for a party, even including Yuvari. The Priest, however, fully pushed the fight into a desperate struggle and a deadly encounter that I was sure would make the party falter.
And yet, in all honesty, the encounter went well and was really memorable, partly because it was so dangerous but also because the players fought well together. Kassadin tanked well for his allies, the Warlocks made use of their spells well and Elizabeth remained an absolute beast through flanking. Lukas is an unspoken power-house of the group and I fear the day a villain attempts to drop Lady Grey, because that clearly isn’t going to happen easily.
In reality, I was aided by the action economy of D&D. Action economy, for those not in the know, is literally just how many actions a player or monster can do. Usually, the faction with the most actions is the winner, which is why big monsters tend to have special ‘legendary’ actions that let them act on other player’s turns, to even the playing field. With such swarming odds against them, the players supporting one another and the luck of the dice, the Knight and Priest went down easily enough and the players received rewards for their effort. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have allowed Kassadin to get access to plate mail so early…but, the party had also made a great achievement of winning the battle and having the clear rewards taken away for this would have diminished the encounter and the result.
Watch the pace of the session and be aware of how your campaign is perceived.
I had to end the session after the Dormin scene, which I also note was something I’d planned, but wasn’t sure when it would happen. Considering Kassadin’s attempt to get to know Yuvari, I sprung it early and the instant the scene was over, a hushed silence filled the Discord chat.
That, I thought, was a high note to go out on.
And I was right.
As much as I hated the scene for basically being a cutscene featuring Kassadin, who I was already worrying I was placing too much focus on, the players collectively lost their minds and were pulled into the drama and intrigue of the scene. They were so hyped but to drop them there was the best choice, simply because any scene following on after that would have had a poor reception.
As DMs, we’re so eager to give our players more content and as players, we’re more than ready to keep playing long into the night, but sometimes doing so sabotages our own story attempts. In University, I and a group of friends used to play Pathfinder almost every week, day long sessions on the weekends. Now, that worked at the time, but I’ve recently discovered this is my favourite form of playing the game: four to five hour weekly sessions that provide a single catered experience for players.
For some of my monthly campaigns, I’ve still been running several all-day sessions, and each time, I realise my own error. At about the half-way point, we break for food and come back later to play…but the energy is all wrong. Instead of allowing the dramatic events of the last five to six hours to settle in, we plunge right on into something new. Without knowing it, my attempts to do more sabotage the quality of the experience for my players. At one point, I specifically remember a player packing up their things and then getting confused and frustrated I was still doing an epilogue about five minutes later.
Ending the session at the most dramatic moment was wise, but so was throwing in levity to keep the pace and town moving forward in earlier moments. After the terror of seeing the Black Rose burning townsfolk, the players got a chance to relax at a tavern. Following their battle with the Black Rose, the group met with Clacker, a Kenku who has quickly endeared himself to the party by simply being honest, earnest and too good for this abomination of a city the party find themselves in.
Whilst moments of tension provide great cliffhangers and fast paced action scenes, a campaign that is all action tends to lose heart from players when they find little time to enjoy themselves and the setting around them. That, at least, is my approach to pacing sessions as a DM.
That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as we follow our party’s attempts to infiltrate the mysterious Twilight Club and learn a few tricks about introducing new players, removing old ones from the picture should they be unavailable for the session…and when tragically, players overstep their boundaries and face the death of a character.
Thank you everyone for reading and please, if you can, give me some feedback about my work and the new structure. Do you like it like this? Enjoy the old format better? Do you wish I’d write something more than D&D recaps (don’t worry, I do have a few planned). Let me know and I’ll do my best to improve. Until next time, everyone, thank you for reading and I hope you have all enjoyed.