Players are a key part of the roleplaying experience. As good as a DM as you may be, if you don’t have anyone willing to play the game with, then all you have are a group of notes about a world and a possible idea for a novel. When running a game, it is the players that should be the DM’s full focus. It is also players that cause us the most pain as DM’s. Old players sometimes miss sessions and new players join campaigns mid-way through and have to be fitted in to the group. Not to mention some players stumble through your carefully scripted story, ripping up the pages as they go, and fling themselves from impossible situation to impossible situation that you, as a DM, need to decide how to handle, whilst juggling all of the other issues listed and also remembering to still cater to every individual player in the group.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair and today, we’re going to be talking about what I’ve learned whilst running the fourth session of my Dorvine campaign and mainly tackling the issues regarding players dropping in and out of sessions and when players find themselves a little in over their heads and how to approach those situations. My bewildered group of daring heroes for this session 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.
And before we begin, we have a new player character to introduce to the table.
Jacob is Vedrir Tarrenstar, the True Neutral Eladrin Ranger (Winter)
All character art drawn by Dion Russell, whose other work you can check out here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever
Adding new people to the campaign and knowing how to run a group.
Jacob was a friend of Dion’s, his old DM from back at University. After hearing how much fun Dion was having in the first session of Dorvine, he asked if he could watch a session.
Then, he asked if he could watch again.
It was surprising really, but I forget how enthusiastic other people can be about D&D and in particular, Jacob seemed to really like my style of DMing and found the party and world interesting. On top of that, Jacob was also just a really cool person. I really regretted that we hadn’t met at Uni because he was such a nice guy to talk to. We shared a few D&D stories and he kept our session on as a little podcast when he was off-shift. To, somehow, mild surprise, Dion gave me a heads up that Jacob wanted to ask about joining the campaign, but he also feeling self conscious about doing so. Jacob messaged me later that night, tentatively, saying he had a question to ask.
My reply was ‘Race and class?’.
Jacob, I hope, was mildly surprised but very happy.
Eladrin Ranger was his answer, and the character of Vedrir came along quickly after that.
Every note is important to someone.
Remember how I mentioned that you shouldn’t send players the pages of notes you have on your setting? Well, moments like this are the reason you write details for your setting anyway: Jacob knew about the Eladrin Empire in the campaign and wanted to know more about them considering his chosen race. He wanted to understand their motivation and outlook to see what ideas he could come up with. Admittedly, I only had a bare bone outline of my conceived Eladrin culture, but it was enough to give Jacob an idea. Soon, he was working on a fleshed out backstory of a regretful and melancholy scout seeking a new life with an expanded Eladrin family ripe for pillaging for future plot hooks. Jacob was a brilliant addition to the group, if I do say so myself. Which I just did.
If I may take a moment aside from talking about the Dorvine Campaign and our new extended party, adding new players really opens up a topic that I feel is crucial to discuss when considering running D&D and even other hobbies too. Over my five year tenure (it’s not long, but I like to think it’s expansive), I have run for a variety of different people and different groups. I’ve managed small groups, large groups and players of all types. It’s a whole host of experiences that I’ve learned one important thing from:
Know your limits and know your preference.
Jacob asked to join the Dorvine campaign. He’d previously watched the last two sessions and we’d chatted enough that I knew he would make a good player and, more importantly, a good friend. When he asked to join, I knew from Dion he was already interested, there was space at the table and I and the other players wanted him there, so the answer came easy.
The reason that I’m telling you this is because it is not always that easy and no two situations are ever the same.
I’ve had players invite themselves to the table. Now, this is strange, someone inviting themselves to a game you never asked them to attend…and yet, from one of these experiences, I’ve met a very good friend. I’ve had people offer PDF D&D content in exchange for a place at the table. People have begged to join the game before and after it’s started. I’ve had people quit because they didn’t enjoy the system. I’ve had people thrown out because they were causing distress for other players. I’ve had good friends, really good friends, that I just don’t feel like I gelled with well with at the table and so decided not to play with again.
It’s a shame.
There’s a lot of bad experiences here mixed with the good. And yet, all of those experiences have helped build a greater whole, a perception of how I am as a Dungeon Master and a player.
Now, I not only know who I like in my group, but I’m also better at judging my own ability as a DM running for people. As a rule of thumb, if another player asks to join one of your games mid-campaign, both you and the other players should be okay with them joining before you even consider letting them sit at your table. Even then, the reasons for rejecting a player don’t have to be as extreme as you not liking them or them just not fitting with the group you have. Sometimes, you have to turn down the coolest people from the table just because you need to work with what you have and you know you can’t handle any more. This is doubly important if the players echo these sentiments.
In my experience, the ideal number of any party is comparable to the Power Rangers.
Again, strange, but actually accurate. There’s three to five main people on the team, with an optional spot for a sixth ranger or special entries if available. Any more than that, the game tends to grind to a halt or at the very least, become far more chaotic.
Not always, but usually.
I have run for more players than this, one of my best campaigns I ever ran had me running for nine people, but it takes a lot of effort and a huge amount of group cooperation. I find big groups like this are only possible to run for in person, as opposed to over the internet, and only works with a group of people really in sync. Even then, you’re going to find that the session drags, things take a long time to get done and some people in the group might just not sync up right. None of these attributes are wrong on their own, but it’s something to consider when thinking about your players and how many people you want a table.
If you have just read that and are now offended, claiming your gaming group is for ten people and you run it with perfect precision and everyone’s having fun…then, congratulations. That’s your style of play and one that works well for you. Each DM, though, has their own style and their own expectations and management skills available for a group. It’s important for you to gauge your own ability, know what you’re good at and now how many people you can run for because it will be different for everyone.
For Dorvine, in particular, the team has officially been capped at five now. It’s a number they feel comfortable with and a number that the party are really happy with. Any more, they feel, and things will become too clunky. That’s the main lesson I hope you take away from this segment of From the DM’s Chair if anything: when you run D&D, know who you’re running for and cater to your own style. People should understand when you tell them you don’t have room at the table or can’t fit them into the campaign. If they sulk or can’t wait for another chance to play, then they’re probably not going to make enjoyable company for your group anyway.
Now, with all that said, on to the recap:
Last session, the group entered Dorvine’s capital city of Solace and savoured the sights and sounds of the local area. Bonfires of the Black Rose, interrogations with inn-keeps and exploring the areas of the city has led the group to the cosy tavern of the Tower’s Rest for a pub lunch and a time to relax. Yuvari pulled Kassadin aside and introduced him, through a portal located in the tavern’s supply closet, to Dormin, the Devil who revived Kassadin after his harrowing backstory. Drinking a concoction that the Devil provided, Kassadin returned from the closet with Yuvari, their party members unaware of their sudden meeting.
Kassadin and Yuvari rejoin the table, just in time to see Lady Grey getting up to leave. A messenger has just arrived and informed her that her mother is sick. With a brief farewell to the party, Elizabeth leaves, the rest of the party having to pay the bill. With a majority of the group full and Kassadin not feeling hungry after Dormin’s introduction, the group head outside and begin the next step of their plan to search for Clear Skies.
As luck would have it, at the western gate to the city, the group finally meet with enforcers for the Clear Skies. A group of thieves appear to be picking on an Elf merchant, demanding a toll and his cargo. After a while watching, the party intervenes and scares them off before they can inflict further pain on the Elf. As the group check on him, they’re approached by a strange man. Hooded and cloaked, the individual helps the Elf to his feet and thanks the group for stepping in to stave off further aggression. Kassadin takes the lead and asks the stranger what his business is. Vedrir, the stranger’s given name, explains that he’s been in Solace for a week now and has grown tired of watching Clear Skies run the city and bully the inhabitants. The group form an alliance with this mysterious pale Elf and the group go off to subdue the fleeing thieves. Before departing, they suggest the Elf merchant take shelter at the Viper’s Den, their recently taken over inn, in an effort to keep him out of further trouble.
Catching the thieves and interrogating them is a clumsy affair, involving the party bluffing a group of Black Rose paladins, sneaking the thieves off to an isolated alley and dealing with a run-away cart after the oxen tied to it begins bolting, an accident caused by Vedrir trying to provide a distraction. Finally, after a series of desperate attempts, the group interrogate the thieves, learning new information about Clear Skies. Mr Big’s guards check everyone entering the Twilight Club, except those who bear a small crest of a Hummingbird on their shirt lapel. The group steal the silver Humming bird crest and head off, bringing the only surviving bandit of their interrogation to Lord Grey’s estate.
When they arrive, the group find themselves a cold reception as they are met not by Lord Grey, but by his eldest son, Ceylon. Ceylon is a brat and makes that immediately known, firing out comments about the group’s competence and their role as his father’s ‘lap-dogs’. Lord Grey soon appears from his office to attend to the group and has the thief locked in the cellar. Considering the party are now planning a raid on the Twilight Club, they ask for the help of Lord Grey’s assistant, Ouskarr the Half-Orc. Lord Grey agrees and releases him into the group’s custody. Teoku, sensing a chance to cause havok, begins flirting with Ouskarr in his disguised form of a buxom bar-maid. Ouskarr, flustered, attempts to flirt back, only to have the rug pulled out from under him when Teoku reveals his fake role. Confused and now unable to look Teoku in the eye, Ouskarr volunteers to help do some recon on the Twilight Club with Yuvari and the new boy, Vedrir, who Lord Grey eagerly welcomes into his employ. The rest of the party, Kassadin, Teoku, Megs and Clacker, have quite a different plan in mind.
Still wearing their Black Rose armour and cloak from earlier that same day, Kassadin and Megs begin working on a plan to use the Knights of the Black Rose to their advantage. Their plan is to convince the group to invade the Twilight Club by lying about an arcane presence there. Their main hurdle becomes obvious when they approach the church to the Black Rose and discover a pair of paladins at the entrance, casting detect spells on anyone heading inside and trading out for others when their spells run out. Kassadin and Teoku fumble, waiting for a moment to strike. Megs never hesitates. She wanders up as the guard change, hoping to sneak her way through. She does, thankfully, due to the charm supplied by her patron, but Kassadin and Teoku have no way to follow her.
Megs stumbles on.
Inside the church, Megs is greeted by the grand and ornate presentation of the Black Rose: beautiful glass windows, high ceilings with small reading rooms and, most importantly, lots of people. Knights and priests walk about freely here attending to business. Megs, feeling she needs a distraction, attempts to cast prestidigitation to set a member of the clergy’s cloak alight. It goes about as well as you might expect.
The priest’s cloak does catch fire but Megs soon finds herself surrounded by priests and paladins and no amount of bluffing can save her from her fate. An old woman, a senior of the order, comes to investigate and when Megs is judged to be a magic user, the old woman is the first to attack. A single blow from a divine smite with the old woman’s hand leaves Megs battered, bloody and with hardly any energy or will left within her. At the end of her rope with no chance of escape, Megs does the only thing she can think to do and calls upon another ability from her hag heritage. She uses her Ethereal Jaunt to become ethereal for six sweet seconds, a gentle reprieve. Her comrades, aware of some vague chaos from outside, pray and hope Megs is alright and then she can successfully make a quick escape.
Sadly, they don’t know Megs very well.
Megs doesn’t head out.
She heads down, deep into the bowels of the church.
Finding herself in a prison area for heretics and with the entire church now on high alert, Megs staggers around, blindly searching for an exit. Escaping from guards on patrol in the lower area, Megs lunges for a spiral staircase and begins to climb. Winding upwards, she finds herself in an alcove directly off of the central hall. As paladins begin to swarm out searching for her, Megs makes a gamble and climbs. She eventually reaches the top of the spiral staircase, leading to a small raised balcony that runs the length of the church. From the other side, she can see another stairway. The clatter of armour echoes out all around her. Panicking, Megs lunges to her right, to the closest door. She enters the bathing area. In a split second decision, Megs decides to adhere to the regulations and dashes into the female baths…
Only to come face to face with a small group of female paladins, all of them with great-swords close at hand ‘just in case’.
That just in case moment is now and Megs’ options are quickly running out.
Naked warriors before her, surging forges of armoured knights behind.
Megs only has a brief moment to look around for an escape.
There only appears to be one way out.
Megs acts quickly.
She uses her prestidigitation to alter the heat of the water, just enough to momentarily stun the paladin women, before offering a desperate plea to her patron, the Queen of the Unseelie court, going as far to even draw her patron’s symbol on her in her own blood before leaping out of the small window and plummeting the full thirty feet down to what she assumes will be her death…
Kassadin realises something is going wrong when the amount of paladins guarding the door doubles to prevent Megs escape. He turns to Teoku, curses under his breath, and strolls forwards.
“Hey!” he calls to the group, taking off his helmet, “You’re looking for heretics? Cause I think you missed one!”
The response is as expected.
Kassadin races off, with three of the four paladins charging after him as he darts off into the city. The guards at the door are quickly replaced and Teoku, realising the situation the party has just fallen into, makes the wise choice to escape. Clacker dimly follows after.
Vedrir’s own infiltration mission has been just as hectic but has at least given some solid results. The receptionist at the employee’s entrance has noticed him sneaking about, but he has managed to at least get a visual on Mr Big. Mr Big, in reality, is a Stout Halfling with fair brown hair, curled about his face and appears to have a private booth on the balcony area of the club. It’s better than nothing but Vedrir is ever pessimistic and judges staying any longer a waste and the eventual raid on the club itself as a doomed effort. With Ouskarr watching the front and Yuvari on her own investigation, Vedrir decides to head off on his own and try to regroup with the rest of the party. Crossing the various streets of Solace and weaving between the crowds, Vedrir nears the church of the Black Rose where his comrades said they were heading, only to find none of them present. What he does find, due to a stroke of luck, is Baggy, the plucky panther, pulling the bleeding and dying form of Granny Megs towards him.
Barely, but she’s alive.
Another six seconds and no matter what Vedrir casts, she’ll die. Vedrir knows this but now he has a closer look at things, Vedrir has realised what Granny Megs is: a Night Hag.
“This,” Vedrir comments in his usual dry tone, “will probably go poorly.”
He heals Megs and helps her to her feet.
Megs, brought back from the brink of death, is instantly met with the shadow of her patron watching over her. She has enough consciousness to notice Baggy’s eyes snap back into focus, as if out of some possession.
“Remember my child,” the veiled Queen of the Unseelie Fae remarks, ” a bargain…is a bargain…and you will pay me back for my kindness.”
Megs weakly promises to serve and thanks Vedrir for the save.
Kassadin, meanwhile, is still attempting to evade the Paladins pursuing him. He weaves through crowds, vaults over stalls and even throws barrels at those chasing him before finally, in a stroke of luck, the paladins all end up in a heap due to some spilled cargo and Kassadin successfully makes a run for Lord Grey’s estate. He reunites with the group and a very annoyed Lord Grey. Having just finished his own personal interrogation, Lord Grey advises the group rest but finish the job they were given. He’s beginning to have his doubts and though he likes Kassadin, he finds Teoku and Granny Meg’s cheek grating on his nerves. The party have a short rest before heading out again.
Finally, after a day of repeated hi-jinks, everyone is gathered before the Twilight Club and make their entry. Yuvari, Ouskarr reports, hasn’t returned from her scouting mission, but the party rule that if she’s still inside, then that’s even more reason to get inside. Teoku and Vedrir sneak in through the servant entrance and quickly disguise themselves, whilst Kassadin, Megs and Ouskarr enter in through the main entrance using the Mockingbird pin they’ve acquired.
The Twilight Club is, indeed, bustling. Troubadours are entertaining, the drinks are flowing and there’s even an area isolated to the side that resembles a gambling ring. Kassadin, deciding a quick break from the main mission is in order, immediately strolls over to one of the tables and is met with a dark skinned man in very gaudy attire, a woman on either arm.
“Come play my friend,” he encourages, “tell me, do you know Liar’s Dice?”
“‘Fraid not,” Kassadin replies.
“I do,” Vedrir responds with dis-interest.
Vedrir takes his place at the table and the first round sees Vedrir walking away with the pot. This only encourages Kassadin even more to jump in the fray. Two games of 21 later, and Kassadin has lost a lot of gold to this charming man. When Kassadin tries to sleight of hand his cards at the table, he finds a sword to his throat and a threat on the man’s lips. Kassadin walks away, once more, with lost money.
Yuvari finally makes her appearance, feigning work as a serving girl, and joins the party as they begin pursuing their true objective: Mr Big himself. Kassadin and Megs wait for an opening and then head upstairs, introducing themselves to the man himself. It is then that the bluffing begins and the party, once more, bluff their way through.
Somehow, Mr Big becomes enchanted by Granny Megs’ ‘natural beauty’, and invites the Hag and Kassadin into his backroom to discuss whether this vision of loveliness has a price. Kassadin turns out to be excellent at pretending to be a slaver, and manages to offer Megs to the man for a full price of 800 gold. The party take the chance as Mr Bigs and Kassadin debate the price to sneak into the back area behind the bar and prepare for an attack. Mr Bigs happily hands over the gold, pulling a beaming Granny Megs into his lap, only for Kassadin to turn to him a step from the door.
“Oh yeah, sorry, I almost forgot,” he strolls back into the room, casually reaching for his blade, “one more thing: Lord Grey sends his regards.”
Mr Big’s realisation is too quick as Granny Meg quickly launches an Eldritch blast into his face and the whole back area of the club bursts into movement. Vedrir fires volleys of arrows, pinning down guards who enter from the far doors, supported by Yuvari’s flurry of daggers. Teoku and his trusty bat hold out against the security rushing in from the nearest door, Ouskarr assisting in crowd control with his large axe. The fight spills out into the main area of the club and panic fills the patrons. Drinks are knocked over, glass spills and somehow, by sheer accident, a fire begins to blaze across the bar and engulf the rest of the club. Kassadin and Megs deal with Mr Bigs, Kassadin’s sword cleaving great chunks from the Halfling’s flesh, whilst Meg ends the fray with an Eldritch Blast ‘kiss’, exploding Mr Big’s head onto the floor. Kassadin quickly recovers the body for evidence of their kill and the group flee as one into the city. They race through the packed panicked streets and eventually escape out, once more, to Lord Grey’s estate. Back behind the safety of iron bars and gates, Kassadin slumps the body of Mr Big at Lord Grey’s feet.
“I promised I’d bring you his head on a platter,” Kassadin jokes, “but this will have to do.”
Lord Grey informs the group that their efforts will suffice and rewards them with a hefty supper and a place to rest for the night, as the Twilight Club blazes in the corner of the city. Their mission, for better or worse, completed.
And that concludes the fourth session of the Dorvine Campaign. Now, as you’ve probably read, a lot of things happened in this session, some things I know that other DMs might disagree with and a lot of dramatic in-game segments that took a lot of juggling to make work. So, I’m going to dive right in now to the lessons I learned running this session.
Have your own way of doing things and know that, so long as everyone is having fun, there is no wrong way.
Probably the main moment I remember from this session, and the main thing I’m sure a lot of my other players will remember years from now, was Megs attempt to break into the Black Rose Church. Their plan to turn the Black Rose against Clear Skies was interesting and also something I hadn’t initially thought of. It made a lot of sense as well navigating the politics of the world as they knew it and using every piece on the battlefield.
One thing I had thought of, though, was how the players actions were affecting the world around them. It had been, about, four to five hours in my mind after the player’s battle against the Black Rose in the Viper’s Den. Logically, it wouldn’t have taken long for the Black Rose to realise one of their number was missing or for someone to step into the Viper’s Den and find all the dead bodies. As such, when the players approached the Black Rose, I knew they were walking into a difficult situation and tried my to stave off their advancements.
Of course, sometimes you have players who force their way through.
The situation which Joey put his character in became increasingly more difficult and impossible the more things developed. For a majority of her time in the Church, Megs was on a single hit point and there were threats on all sides seeking her. The fact she got so far was mainly because of my own lack of planning and the natural chaotic atmosphere that emerged. At the same time, I didn’t want to hold Joey back. Even if it meant that, as a desperate attempt, Megs had to fling herself out of the window.
Now, this is a main point I know a lot of more experienced DM’s might disagree with me on.
Megs, some people might rule, should have died instantly. She was on low health, she took at least 30-40ft of fall damage, easily more than half her overall health, there should have been an instant death.
In response to that, I’m simply going to confess my stance as a DM on the whole.
I am too nice.
I like watching my players succeed, even I sometimes make them struggle before hand. I never mean to simply hand the party everything they want on a silver platter but I strike a balance between making them feel cool and their opponents, dangerous. On top of that, if my players get into a bad situation, I will make it a point to make sure they never forget their mistakes.
That being said, I do not believe in instant-deaths in a game. Because that’s no fun.
To me, killing a character off without so much as a roll, counts as DM fiat and honestly, kills the momentum of a game far more than anything else ever could. There are, obviously, times when instant death is understandable and I’m not saying that it’s something that shouldn’t be used from time to time. If a player does something stupid, so stupid and just expects to succeed, then they should be punished.
However, my decision was made with two factors in mind.
The first is that in Dorvine, we agreed there would be no resurrection. That’s a long story I’ll probably go into when a player DOES die, but it’s important to note that as a factor of my decision.
And secondly, that I know how Joey plays his characters.
Joey might get himself and the party into difficult circumstances, yes, but that’s mainly because of the characters he plays: different minded, goal oriented and, overall, a vehicle for story and character development. When I presented the window as the only exit, Joey was wracking his brain trying to think of a solution and, ultimately, tried a lot of stuff to try and save his character. He was wearing a Cloak of the Manta-Ray, so he tried to use it as a parachute…with a bad roll. He put the mark of his patron upon him…and also got lucky.
I rolled a D20 and asked Joey to guess whether the number was odd or even. It’s a system I usually use when trying to really hype up the situation, placing the odds of the player’s fate in their own hands. Joey guessed correctly and therefore, I decided, Joey’s patron was listening to him. I wasn’t going to let Granny Megs off easily though. I just left the situation to chance.
Twice in my campaigns now, Joey’s characters have gotten themselves in a situation where they are on death saving throws. Things aren’t looking good, one or two fails, and I make a promise to myself. I consider everything happening around, the attention of NPCs (considering the players usually aren’t around) and how things could play out. I want to save Joey and his characters but I’m not willing to just give him a way out. He and his characters have to earn it. And so, after Meg’s tumble from the Church, I had Joey roll for two death saving throws after his additional automatic fail. Enough to actually kill Megs, should the odds be against him, but enough to give him a glimmer of a chance at survival.
Luck was with him, Baggy reached Megs in time and Vedrir healed him. In addition, however, I decided that Megs would have to repay the favour invoked by her patron. When Megs doesn’t know, mainly because she hasn’t tried it yet, is that her necklace no longer hides her magic or alignment, because she is currently owing the Unseelie Queen a favour, rather than the Unseelie Queen granting her boons for servitude. It’s a consequence that was big in my mind and gave me another personal quest to use for Megs but, most importantly, it ended up being a fair exchange. Joey’s character lived but lost a boon they’d received, all of it decided by chance.
From that long winded explanation, my main point is that I have my own way of DMing. I’m soft in that I hate killing players and will reward them when possible but hard in that I will place the entire campaign and the lives of characters into a state of limbo, where a single roll of a player’s dice can change everything.
Because, in my personal opinion, that’s how I feel D&D should be played. Players should have fun and feel welcome but still face the threat of loss and luck through the game element of the story.
At the same time though, that doesn’t mean it has to apply to your style. A DM could have called for Meg’s death and I would have understood. I would also have understood if a DM introduced a friendly cleric NPC that healed Megs at the last minute. Dungeons and Dragons is a game that can be played many different ways and despite people always asserting they know how to play the game or other DMs have made the ‘wrong call’ (it’s something I’ve seen a lot recently regarding events on Critical Role and High Rollers), it’s important to realise that the only thing important in running the game is that both DM and players are having fun. As it lists on the fourth page of the DM’s Rulebook:
“The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM and YOU are in charge.”
Which means, since we’re all Dungeon Masters in our own right, we all have a right to say how our own campaigns are run and as long as everyone’s having fun in game, then that’s all that matters.
When dealing with players being absent, leaving or joining, stay flexible and involve them as much as you can in discussing their roles.
As is the way with any campaign, the players you work with are not always available and different people may leave or join the campaign depending on. The big issue with this as a DM is the obvious question of how to write old characters out of the situation without making things too complicated and writing in new characters and getting them engaged with the story you’ve already started telling.
On the subject of a player missing the game, there are several approaches to the situation. One is to simply have another player take control of their character, at least in combat, but this has always been a contentious issue for me. Playing as someone else’s character, even only controlling them in battle with the other players permission, is still a lot of responsibility for a player to take on and, for me personally, I find it almost a taboo idea to have any level of control over someone else’s character.
Perhaps it’s just my own view on player agency and hating removing the element of choice, but stringing the character along as an NPC seems to greatly under-appreciate their original player’s worth at the table, even if it is by accident. I also think it could cause some minor annoyances when players return if they’re not 100% happy with how their character was utilised in previous sessions, such as being egregiously low on hit points or using up all of a player’s spell slots before handing the character back to them before a boss.
The other option, in this case, is simply to find a way to write out the character in question out of the story for a little while. This can be very hard to balance sometimes and, in particular, can come off as an artificial addition to the story. In all fairness, that is the point of this sort of plot development, to artificially suspend a character whilst unavailable, but I personally like including more realistic plotting into the situation, which, sadly, isn’t always available.
In the case of this session, calling Elizabeth to her father’s estate seemed a logical way to put her outside of the action but also made sense with regards to Elizabeth’s character and her relationship with her family. Her mother’s illness was an obvious throwaway feature but also became a minor focus for the next session, factoring into Lord Grey’s tense nature and Elizabeth’s own worries. I like to think it was implemented in a way that felt real and engaging. Even if the players knew Lady Grey’s mother was okay, the sickness featured as more than a throwaway feature, unlike most excuses for making a player character unavailable, like having them sleep for days at a time or going off to do their own work with no prior announcement of any plans regarding such isolated goals (I have done both in my time).
Writing a character into the campaign is easier than writing one out but also a process that requires a lot more scrutiny. The biggest issue a DM can have introducing a new player character mid-campaign is organically fitting the character into the pre-established group dynamic and the unfolding story as it was. In the instance of introducing Jacob’s new character, I actually believe I failed on this account. It all ended up well, of course, Vedrir joined the party and together they went on to take out Clear Skies and when they started working together, I could definitely see the start of a team dynamic. Once the characters got to know each other, they were bouncing off of each other well and Vedrir’s dour approach to life and low charisma was an interesting quirk and a great contrast to the other player characters. All of that, however, was because of the player’s efforts rather than my own.
The idea that Jacob and I came up with to get Vedrir involved in the plot was for the group to find an Elf being accosted by Clear Skies, as it was a great way to join Vedrir’s motives of helping his ‘people’ with the party’s own current mission. However, as is always the case with interactive storytelling, free will sometimes means that things don’t happen as you intend. The players didn’t immediately jump to the Elf’s defence, only getting involved after he’d had all of his stock stolen and was about to be aggressively assaulted. There was no real fight or confrontation as intended, so Vedrir wasn’t as actively thrown into the fray. If Jacob hadn’t approached the players, we might never have solidly found a way to get the party together. For his first session in the group, Jacob did a fantastic job getting involved and showed himself to be an amazing roleplayer.
In hindsight, I probably should have found a way to make Vedrir’s presence more active in the situation to establish his motivation to the group and not left Jacob to sort all the threads himself. Something like having him with the merchant and having a fight break-out would have sufficed, letting the players see Vedrir in action and form a natural alliance with him. However, at the same time, things worked out well, no-one complained and Jacob seemed happy with his inclusion. So I guess, really, another important lesson to learn from all this is that you’re never going to be a hundred percent right in any situation as a DM. You’re always going to have niggling little regrets, thinking ‘what if I had done *insert example here*’ but at the end of day, we should DM as we should live: thinking forwards.
There’s not any more big lessons I can really remember but there are a few bits of the session here and there that I want to personally weight in on really quickly.
-The fight with Mr Big was quick and brutal but a real highlight for the session. There was some great subtle team-work with how the characters were placed and the NPC’s turns were quick but effective. Good combat.
-Clacker is quickly becoming a fan favourite. His comedic nature, such as dancing in the club even as it burned around him, has quickly earned the player’s appreciation.
-I love roleplaying Lord Grey and his greeting of Vedrir coupled with the blooded wraps on his hands when the players returned was a really good moment to explore.
-Yes, I probably gave the players too much money for selling Granny Megs as a prostitute. No, I don’t regret it. The players split it evenly and they’re currently being hunted by the Black Rose. I think it’s fair to give them nice things every now and then.
-Kassadin’s actual escape from the Black Rose was played out as a series of skill challenges: three successes meant he escaped, three meant he would be surrounded and captured. It was a method that engaged the players and I’ll probably talk about it in more detail next segment.
And finally, because this will actually be crucial to the next blog we do:
-The party realised too late when they sent their Elf friend to safety at the Viper’s Den that they were essentially sending an innocent man to a crime scene. Off-screen, I assumed he was arrested as a suspect by the Black Rose and brought in for questioning. When the group asked about it, I informed them that they would have probably realised with after the fact that they had probably send him to his doom. This stirred the party into a fervour. The Megs incident had already gotten them angry with the Paladins, now their actions had given the Paladins a prisoner that they had just saved, a form of victory over them. It was enough to motion the players into action and ultimately decide that next session, they’d take the fight to the Black Rose…of course, I didn’t know to exactly what degree and that is a matter I’m going to have to get into next time.
That’s going to be it for this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the party begin to strike out against the Black Rose paladins, with some advice on how to be adaptive to situations, create tense atmospheres and how to make the little moments matter.
Until next time, thank you everyone for reading. Please leave a comment. Constructive criticism is always welcome.