Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns was a Scottish Poet from Aryshire born in the second half of the 18th Century. Now, I mainly know of this poet through some of my family that live in Scotland and one time when they mentioned ‘Rabbie Night’, they told me all about the festival commemorating a great Scottish poet. The reason why I’m mentioning this here is even if you haven’t ever heard of Burns, chances are you know at least part of his work. It was from one of Burns poems, To a Mouse, that we get the famous phrase: ‘The best laid plans of mice and men’. The complete statement of this quote is followed by ‘Gang aft agley’, which simply means ‘often goes wrong’. The sentiment is a familiar one to people in general, on par with the principle of ‘Murphy’s Law’: things that can go wrong will go wrong.
From a D&D perspective though, the phrase is a simple reminder that even a DM’s best constructed story-lines or session preparations fall to the wayside in the wake of a stubborn or adventurous group of players. Sometimes, your players don’t follow the quest you’ve set up for them.
Sometimes, they decide to declare war on a Church.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, we’re going to be talking about the fourth session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I learned whilst running it. My nightclub sacking adventurers 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.
Jacob is Vedrir Tarrenstar, the True Neutral Eladrin Ranger.
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 party had successfully attacked Mr Big’s casino, The Twilight Club, and inflicted a devastating blow of revenge against the Clear Skies Thieves Guild. The group returned to their employer’s estate, Lord Grey’s local lodge, and got some well deserved rest.
However, all was not well in the city of Solace.
Between the last session and this one, two very important things happened.
Firstly, Jacob and Dion realised that an Elf NPC they’d tried to rescue last session had probably just been arrested by the Black Rose. With Jacob determined to release an innocent kinsman and Dion and the rest of the party just hating the Knights of the Black Rose, the group began discussing plans to liberate the innocent man from his prison which, as Joey was eager to tell the group, Megs knew to be below the Church.
Secondly, I released a small written piece to the party in which the group were introduced to Odo Bayeux, the head of the Black Rose (named for the epic ‘warrior-priest’ half-brother to William the Conqueror). In the written piece, he heard of the actions the party participated in the previous session: the burning of the club but also the party’s attempt to break into his Church. With such flagrant disrespect for him and his command and open heresy on the streets, Odo warned of dire consequences.
So, very quick piece of advice before we start:
Little written pieces are great for building campaign hype and great for world-building.
The Odo piece I wrote was really enjoyed by the players and really rose their excitement for the next session. In an actual session of D&D, I usually refrain from using cut-scenes but in moments such as this, a written event that the players cannot usually be privy to can help them gain a better appreciation for the story and the world, so long as they understand their characters are unaware of such knowledge until it becomes revealed to them.
Now, despite the fact the players had warned me of this, I wasn’t sure how seriously they were taking their plan of attacking the Black Rose, whether it was an eventual goal or present one. The answer revealed itself to me, as they most often do, through the course of the session itself.
With that said, onwards to the recap:
Elizabeth Grey watches her mother sleep. She’s peaceful now, but frequently tossing and turning through the night only served to make Elizabeth worry for her. A local Druid has performed the rituals of healing and done all they can. Considering they’re the only legal magic users in the area besides the Black Rose clerics, it is best for them to trust his judgement that she will recover. Lord Grey joins his daughter and the two share a quiet moment alone, before she is summoned back to the dining room.
Teoku, Vedrir and Megs are already awake, stuffing their face and enjoying a hearty breakfast when Lord Grey and his daughter enter. Lord Grey gives a quick debriefing of their mission yesterday. Whilst he is pleased with the group’s efforts at defeating Clear Skies, he is not pleased with the amount of attention they have received. Highlighting this, he reveals a set of wanted posters to the group: posters of Megs and Kassadin, the ‘Arcane Menace’ and her ‘Fiend conspirator’. Kassadin takes this moment to stroll in from out of his room. Lord Grey has had the servants go to his armour: the black steel of his stolen plate now a soft silver colour to better disguise him. Under protest, Megs too gives up the cloak she stole from one of the priests. Lord Grey explains to the group that he’s arranged for their departure from the city: a cart arriving early next morning with supplies packed, enough to see them off into hiding until the heat dies down. Until then, Lord Grey reminds the group, though they have gained revenge against Clear Skies, they have yet to discover the truth behind the monster that sunk their ship to Dorvine in the first place. He reiterates his desire for them to investigate the matter before allowing them to go about their business.
The possibility of departure has come just in time for most of the party. Teoku has noticed Lord Grey’s ire for him and the feeling has become entirely mutual, whilst Vedrir is eager to escape Grey’s wrath for the man’s over the top reaction to his requesting ‘a coffee’ with his breakfast. Megs is more concerned about finding her sisters than solving the mystery of the ship’s monster and thus keeps the cargo log to herself. The only two in support of Lord Grey are Elizabeth and Kassadin and even then, Elizabeth has always wished her father to be less controlling and Kassadin has a new goal in mind. A goal, luckily, that he now shares with a majority of the party: deal with the Black Rose.
Before the group leave the estate, the party wisely decide to expand their ranks before going on such a dangerous mission. They link up with Lord Grey’s Half-Orc house-guard Ouskarr, Teoku’s reluctant pet panther ‘Baggy’ and Meg’s growing cluster of companions: Yuvari the Tiefling and Clacker the Kenku. Whilst Baggy is as lazy as he is dis-interested in Teoku and Clacker has proved his skill-set limited to ‘adorable’ and ‘quirky’, Ouskarr appears to be a strong warrior and Yuvari has previously shown to be good with healing magic. The party unofficially recruit these new allies full-time and discuss their plans for the Black Rose with Elizabeth. She joins their efforts before they can even say ‘prison break’.
At the gates to the city, our extended party find their first sign of opposition. Whilst the guards posted there are the usual ignorant mooks from days before, the Black Rose priests have taken over the town criers, spitting propaganda against the Tiefling and Hag whilst their armoured colleagues search the streets and buildings for any sign. Kassadin and Megs wisely decide to hold back, Ouskarr and Teoku keeping the group company, whilst Vedrir, Yuvari, Elizabeth and Baggy all plan to sneak into the city and scout out the Black Rose church. Clacker, as to be expected, remains with Granny Megs.
The team outside the walls engage in some light shopping: trinkets for Kassadin, books for Megs and a new blow-gun with darts for Teoku, whilst the group within learn that the church is more heavily secured than the day before, featuring a doubled amount of Paladins at the door and frequent patrols. The group meet up again and begin to discuss their plans for breaking in. With his incredibly keen eyes, Vedrir has spotted a possible entrance: a backdoor around the side of the Church and high above, a weakened spot in the Church’s steeple, as well as a back door which appears relatively unguarded. The group confer and agree that entering in from above will give them the surprise and stealth they need. Kassadin and Megs wisely realise they’re not going to be good at sneaking in that route and come up with a second plan. In her assortment of new books, Megs has managed to find an old map of the sewers beneath Solace, tunnels that happen to lead straight beneath the Church, following the roads of the city. Megs is determined her plan will succeed and promises they won’t just be ‘hanging around in the sewers’. The group split into two teams and head off for their objectives.
Team Steeple: Vedrir, Elizabeth, Teoku, Yuvari
The small party manage to successfully sneak around the edge of the Church and make their attempt to climb up. Vedrir succeeds and ties a rope to help to the rest of the group up. Yuvari makes the climb with ease, remaining stealthy even to the observant Vedrir. Teoku struggles a little more, requiring a boost from his gallant heroine Lady Grey and some tugging from Vedrir. Despite causing a bit of a ruckus, Teoku finally reaches the top.
So far so good.
Then, as if Lady Luck had blinked, Elizabeth fumbles on the climb. Despite her Barbarian anger, she loses her hold on the rope and plummets to the street below. The fall is not enough to kill her, only bloody, but the element of surprise is broken. A Knight of the Rose comes out from the backdoor to investigate, finding Lady Grey staggering to her feet. Vedrir wisely pulls up the rope to hide their efforts.
“What happened here?” the Guard asks.
Elizabeth replies quickly.
“It was horrible! Someone ran by and attacked me as I was walking past.”
The party hold their breath.
The Knight panics.
“Oh, poor woman! Please, come with me, we’ll fix you up.”
He helps Elizabeth to her feet and brings her inside to gain some healing. The Clerics are warier than the knight but Elizabeth is a Grey and, no matter how noble, Grey’s excel at lying. The Clerics of the Black Rose get caught in Elizabeth’s story as well, so much so they fail to identify that her wounds were caused by falling rather than assault. Elizabeth finds herself inside the central chamber of the Church, her allies entering above as the Clerics call for another Knight to help search for Elizabeth’s attackers.
The Knight who approaches is different from the other members of the Rose. Despite the same dark armour as the other Paladins, she goes without a helm, happy to let her red hair hang about her back in a ponytail, a stark contrast to her tanned skin. She, Elizabeth guesses, might be more troublesome than the other knights.Hearing of Elizabeth’s plight, the Paladin readies her great-sword and heads to the backdoor. Just as she’s about to head out of the room, there’s a sudden clatter from above. Elizabeth jumps. The others. They’ve made a disturbance.
“Evelyn?” one of the Clerics asks. The Paladin simply turns and nods at her peers,
“I will root out the source,” she promises.
Team Sewer: Kassadin, Granny Megs, Ouskarr, Clacker
Granny Megs and Kassadin begin weaving along the streets towards the docks. It appears to be a market day, luckily, so they’re doing well blending in with the crowds. Kassadin is still adamant about causing more distractions though, aware that he and Megs still stand out quite a bit. The pair approach a young boy and Kassadin begins bribing him. The plan is to get the young boy to go outside town, start a fire and distract the Black Rose.
All doesn’t go well.
Pulling the child aside, Kassadin realises that there’s a squad of Paladin nearby who have been tailing them from a distance and are steadily getting closer. Megs takes the quick chance to try and steal a lock of the child’s hair for a ritual. Sadly, in the mad chaos of Kassadin trying to rush a retreat, she causes more damage. The Paladins surge through the crowd. Kassadin curses.
They’ve been made and the chase is on.
Kassadin and Megs split up at the first fork in the road. Megs darts into the side-streets whilst Kassadin keeps racing up towards the docks. None of Kassadin’s old tricks are working anymore. The Paladins dodge each barrel thrown and follow his pace without even seeming out of breath. Megs fares better, weaving through the market crowds and veering right away from the open courtyard back towards the docks. She arrives just in time to see Kassadin almost surrounded. Realising she has to push Kassadin back but lacks the upper body strength, Megs casts an eldritch blast, hoping to push Kassadin back into the water, away from his pursuers. Instead, the blast misses and Megs clatters into Kassadin, knocking them both to the ground. As the paladins swarm, blades drawn, Megs makes another desperate move.
She calls upon her frightful presence ability to scare off the paladins. Sadly, Kassadin succumbs to the fear as well and is forced to flee. Megs is forced to shepherd the Tiefling Fighter into the sewers, using her manta ray cloak to swim through the sludge. When Kassadin has finally recovered, he’s drenched in disgusting sewage and he and Megs are alone, having lost Ouskarr and Clacker in the chaos above.
“Don’t you…ever do that again,” Kassadin threatens through chattering teeth.
Megs makes no such promises.
Team Steeple: Vedrir, Teoku, Yuvari
It was an accident that gave them away. Vedrir led the group to an entrance in the steeple: an area where the structure had been broken down so that they could easily step through, entering the main area of the bell tower. It was only when the group moved to advance down the stairs that disaster stuck. Yuvari had been the stealthiest of the group on approach but that soon changed. She suddenly fumbles in her footsteps, stepping on a loose plank, tripping to the floor and sending supplies kept in the tower spilling out everywhere. The group has to act fast. Vedrir moves to hide in the bell that the tower holds, dangling inside off the central mechanism like a bat. Yuvari, as usual, practically disappears into the darkness. Teoku attempts to do the same, pinning himself to the shadow on the wall in an outcropping of the tower and remaining as still as possible. It doesn’t take long before he can hear the footsteps echoing up towards him, the tapping on the stone. Then, in a flash of black and red, a paladin enters the room. She takes a brief moment to look round, studying the things that have been knocked over and checking around for any lingering spies. For a moment, she lifts her head and her eyes lock with Teoku. He has to hold in a gasp.
It can’t be.
What’s she doing here?
He hadn’t seen her in…
Why was she…?
Teoku’s mind whirls as he watches the Paladin stand from her inspections, take one last glance around the tower before retreating downstairs. She hasn’t seen them. Even as the rest of his comrades reveal themselves and gesture for him to follow, Teoku still stays in a state of deep thought and inner most conflict, following slowly from behind.
Team Steeple: Elizabeth
Evelyn returns shortly from her upstairs expedition. She explains to the clerics present that the disturbance above was nothing.
“Just a bird probably.”
The cluster of clerics nod and simply thank their God for simple blessings. They escort Elizabeth to a corner of the church, sit her down and promise to prepare some tea after the horrible attack from outside to calm her down. Elizabeth accepts, still holding out her bluff magnificently. She even offers a commoner name in place of her own, Lucy. The clerics fuss over her willingly.
Soon, the Church is filled with energy. Horns echo from outside the walls and all the knights within the Sanctum begin filing out, Evelyn included.
“Finally,” the Paladin gasps with relief, “we’ve got them.”
A cleric explains to Elizabeth that the horns are a signal that they’ve located the Tiefling and the Hag in the city and they’re going to hunt them down. Elizabeth, forced to trust in her allies, allows Evelyn and the knights to rush off into the fray, leaving the Church mostly empty and with only the three clerics as a possible threat. She entertains them well, telling little stories of her fake life and ultimately winning over their trust. It’s a perfect deception. If not for minor issues.
From the stairs on the far-side of the room, there’s another sudden clatter and a young woman stumbles out, a familiar buxom bar-maid.
“There you are!” the maid gasps, pacing across the floor towards her.
The clerics are instantly on high alert. Elizabeth, cursing Teoku’s bumbled attempts at stealth, quickly calms the clerics.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she says, “she’s my…sister. She was here earlier seeking confession.”
For two of the clerics, her quick bluff is enough. One appears absolutely smitten with Elizabeth, whilst the other is keen to get to know her beautiful sister. The third cleric, a woman with a stern expression, is the only one to question matters.
“If she’s your sister,” she wonders aloud to the bar-maid, “then you should know her name, correct?”
Elizabeth curses silently. She mouths desperately to Teoku and luckily, the disguised Warlock takes the hint.
“Er, Lucy,” the bar-maid confirms. The two clerics are more that satisfied with this and begin showering both of the newcomers with attention and hot tea. The third cleric, however, mutters to herself and slips away from the group, heading upstairs.
Team Steeple: Vedrir
Vedrir watches the ensuing developments across the church for only a moment, before plunging on deeper into the church’s under-croft. He’s used to going it alone and, in his eternal dour mood, he’s already accepted that Elizabeth and Teoku are dead. Sneaking below, he finally stumbles across the holding area for the prisoners. Two knights stand before the cells, chatting with a cleric. Guards on duty. Vedrir sighs. Looks like the group are all going to die after all.
Team Sewer: Kassadin, Granny Megs
Kassadin and Megs stumble on through the sewers beneath the city, stinking from the filth covering them. Kassadin has been having a bad day all in all, but Megs is having a whale of a time swimming through the waste with her Manta-Ray cloak. Hags, Kassadin considers, must be used to it. Finally, the pair come to a section of the sewer that is split off by the rest by a wall of thick iron bars and grating. A single barred door blocks their continuation. Megs takes point. She eldritch blasts the lock, sending a rumble throughout the entire area. Shortly after, the thudding of iron boots sounds on the cold cobbles. Kassadin, desperate to keep hidden, grabs Megs and dives into the muck, holding his breath. The two struggle and squirm, with Megs still wanting to cast spells on her awaiting enemies. In the end, the struggle ends poorly. Megs’ Cloak of the Manta Ray hood comes off, she begins to suffocate, kissing Kassadin for air before finally giving up and using ethereal jaunt to vanish and appear behind the approaching pair of knights, lobbing Eldritch blasts and using Arms of Hadar on them in the hope of toppling them over into the muck.
It works, at least, but it’s the chaotic start to a chaotic battle. The Paladins fall into the sewage and begin brawling with Kassadin. Whenever one of the pair attempts to climb up out of the muck, they find themselves knocked down again. Twisting the system in their favour, the two begin using their smite abilities to knock each other around the tunnel, negating the need for any climb checks but heavily damaging themselves in the process. Just as Kassadin and Megs are about to get overwhelmed, an old friend makes himself known.
Team Steeple: Vedrir
Vedrir acts quickly when the knights depart. He chokes out the cleric and steals his keys. It takes a while to fumble with each one and find the right key for the right door, but he manages to free everyone in the cells: a pale man, a woman with spectacles and frizzy black hair, a spiritual woman who appears to be meditating and, finally, the Elf merchant. As he rushes off towards the sounds of combat, Vedrir wonders in the back of his mind how many prisoners he just freed that weren’t magic users but were actual criminals.
Probably all of them judging from his past luck.
Vedrir bursts into the combat, launching volleys of arrows at his opponents. Seeing Megs handling herself well but Kassadin on the brink, Vedrir mutters a spell under his breath and fires. The arrow whistles through the air, spreading and shattering into hundreds of missiles, all encased in frost. The spell finds its mark upon the Paladin in the sludge and freezes him to the bone, killing him instantly. Kassadin, sadly, is caught in the crossfire, roughly stabbed by the shattering ice that bursts upon him at the spell’s conclusion. Vedrir watches Kassadin’s body collapse and desperately tries to make his way over to him.
Floating upon the sludge, Kassadin breathes deep, shallow breaths. His life is fading. As his eyes flutter closed, the shadows above form into shapes. Familar shapes of a thin lean man and a Minotaur beside him:
“I told you he was weak,” a voice rings in Kassadin’s mind.
“Perhaps,” another voice replies, “but there is potential.”
The shadow leans closer and a flash of black eyes come into his vision.
“There’s fire in those eyes.”
Kassadin bursts from the surface, desperately taking heavy breaths as he wades through the muck back to shore.
And somehow, more importantly, he’s alive.
Vedrir, not having a chance to reach the Tiefling yet, watches as Kassadin pulls himself up, active despite his wounds. He switches targets and Vedrir and Megs do their best to push back the last Knight but get some help from an unexpected source.
“SQUARK! Hanging around in the sewers~ SQUARK!”
Clacker has found his friends.
Thinking quickly, Granny Megs pushes the Knight back into Clacker’s path. By a fluke, Clacker’s knife finds a gap in the Paladin’s armour and deals the final strike. Megs celebrates, hailing Clacker as their hero and giving him a smelly wet kiss on his cheek. Clacker is delighted, as is his default state.
Vedrir crouches beside Kassadin, pumping healing magic into him. Kassadin’s hand grabs at Vedrir’s own. Through the slit in Kassadin’s helmet, golden eyes gleam up at Vedrir.
“Don’t…don’t let me go back into the dark,” Kassadin pleads.
Vedrir doesn’t reply but helps the Tiefling to his feet and follows Megs along, back out of the sewers.
Team Steeple: Elizabeth, Teoku, Yuvari
Elizabeth and Teoku do a good job keeping the clerics distracted, until the third cleric returns. She confirms that they’ve been lied to and demands that Elizabeth and Teoku explain themselves, holding a dagger out to the ground. The sounds of battle echoes up from below, briefly distracting the clerics. Elizabeth takes her chance. She unfurls her parasol/battle-axe and strikes at the Cleric with the best weapon Daddy could buy. Teoku lunges into the fight as well, swinging his bat around like a master. It doesn’t take long to deal with two of the clerics, especially when Yuvari leaps into the fray from her hiding spot. The only cleric remaining is one of the men and he tearfully surrenders when his comrades lie dead around him. Elizabeth and Teoku, overcome with pity, or perhaps boredom, leave him to his devices. Mission done, after all, no need for further bloodshed. The newly reunited trio make their way to the exit, picking up Ouskarr along the way, who was just breaking in to try and assist.
The cavalcade of disaster race through the city, both factions meeting up along the way and finally heading for Lord Grey’s estate.
As one would suspect, Lord Grey is furious.
All of his crafted efforts of a personal image have faded into dust with the player’s arrival back at his estate. His anger swells as he learns the group have failed to gain any information on the creature who attacked their boat and worst still, they appear to have brought the forces of the Black Rose straight to his doorstep. With paladins demanding entry to the private lodge, the party are ready to panic. They were expecting a long rest, not an invasion from the furious inquisition.
All hope seems lost.
Lord Grey, however, has a plan for this.
Greys always plan ahead.
Berating the group as a whole, even slapping Teoku when he dares to speak out, Lord Grey heads to Kassadin, who is having a minor breakdown in his room. Tempering his rage, Lord Grey begins to console Kassadin, re-promising him support for saving him and his family. Kassadin is still in his employ and will still be an ally. But, for now, everything has to go exactly as Lord Grey hopes. He has a way that the party can escape, whilst he can save face. Kassadin listens.
The door to Kassadin’s room opens with a crash as Kassadin flings Lord Grey to the floor.
“How dare you,” Lord Grey gasps, “after all I’ve done for…”
“You ain’t done shit for me,” Kassadin replies, dropping down and scooping Lord Grey up into a grapple, “Oi! Black Rose, we’ve got hostages in here! So don’t you dare think of coming through!”
Kassadin turns to his party, who are already confused by the situation. Kass’ gaze meets with Ouskarr.
“Opportunity,” he shouts, “it’s knocking my friend.”
Ouskarr’s features grow tense. Then, he reaches out and locks Elizabeth in a grapple as well.
“He’s right!” the half-orc echoes Kassadin’s sentiment, “we have Lord Grey and his daughter prisoner. Make any sudden moves and they’re dead.”
The Black Rose hesitate at the door. It’s enough of an opening for the group to move. Kassadin throws Lord Grey to the floor, kicks the back door open and the party rush out to where Lord Grey’s personal carriage is waiting. They all load up inside, getting into a position of comfort.
“Wait,” Vedrir calls as he climbs onto the roof, “who’s going to be…?”
He is answered by a squawk from Clacker, who has taken the driving seat.
“Take us home Clacker!” Megs demands and the Kenku flaps his wings in earnest, spurring the horses on. Vedrir takes a quick moment to curse his imminent death before notching an arrow and covering their escape.
The carriage rattles out of the estate and goes full-pelt along the open road, leaving the Black Rose and Grey house far behind them. As soon as they’re out of range, Ouskarr releases Elizabeth and hands her a small letter. From her father.
Because, of course, Lord Grey had a plan for this.
Greys always plan ahead.
Kassadin’s ‘betrayal’ and ‘kidnapping’ of his daughter was only an excuse to get her and the party out of the estate, without compromising Lord Grey’s position with Solace or the Black Rose. Of course, Lord Grey doesn’t expect Teoku, Vedrir or Megs to hold true to him, but Kassadin is loyal and Elizabeth now has a chance to strike out on her own. Elizabeth pours over the contents of his letter, her heart still pounding in her chest. Her father has left her mission, a mission she doesn’t intend to fail. Having a moment to look at the people around her, everyone is still trying to relax and recover from the hectic day. Kassadin and Granny Megs are still filthy from their trip in the sewers and everyone is exhausted but alive.
Lady Elizabeth Grey casts one look back at Solace and her family home, silently bidding farewell to the family she knew and accepting her strange new alliance with these would be adventurers.
And thus concludes the fifth session of the Dorvine Campaign. As sessions go, this is one of my favourites of the campaign thus far, probably one of the favourites I’ve ever run as well and that is because most of this session was completely made up on the spot.
I was well-aware that the group were planning to go after the Black Rose: Jacob had mentioned his intentions frequently and Dion had further pressed that Kassadin hated the Black Rose and wanted to push them out of Solace. Easier said than done, of course, but the direction of the session was all but set in stone and I foolishly overlooked it.
After all, they still had the mystery of the monster on the boat to take care of and I had a full quest plan for that and a dungeon outlined. Surely, if I gave them a good day to do as they needed, they’d have enough to time to finish the quest I had written and then next session I could plan out their prison break on the Church.
As you read, that didn’t happen, which is why most of the advice from today’s segment is going to be about adapting to your players, making things up on the fly and making such developments engaging for your players at the worst of times.
When improvising for sessions, be aware to lean on framework you’ve already set up if needed.
As much as it’s horrible to say, you cannot plan for every contingency of a player’s actions. I’ve had multiple moments in past campaigns where the story has shifted drastically due to a lucky dice roll or players simply choosing a different route. In situations like this, I strongly recommend avoiding the idea of ‘rail-roading’, forcing players back onto the map you’ve drawn for the session. As much as I hate to admit, I have done my fair share of it in the past and it’s not fun or entertaining, it just feels forced and awkward. However, using any plans you have as a reference is always handy. Remember, any content not used by the players this session can easily be used again at a future time if you need to.
In this example, whilst I didn’t have much planned for the altercation in the Church, I leaned on what I already knew and had planned out. Due to Joey’s prior exploration of the Church, I had a vague map in my head of the Church’s layout and knew how everything looked. From there, it was only a matter of building on the architecture in my mind and not contradicting anything that had previously happened: the lower area had to have a cell-block, the upper area was always open with two large spiral staircases going up and the upper area was based on a raised pathway which led to other areas. From there, it was just a matter of fleshing out the area.
Another way in which I leaned on my notes was regarding the prisoners in the cells. Before the attack from the players, I had a scripted scene written out about a bunch of random NPCS burned at the stake, planned for when the group were finally leaving Solace. I was planning on using a dramatic moment to show the cruelty of the Black Rose and further the lengths to which they were willing to go to eliminate the arcane, whilst also putting them in a difficult situation.
Jacob later commented he hoped he hadn’t let any prisoners escape who were actually criminals and, in fact, I can reveal he didn’t. He saved a doppelganger, a woman practising magic from her mother’s notes and a Monk who had once followed the Black Rose but changed her ways when she saw what they were doing to the innocent. Though the player characters will never know it, they have already begun to affect the world. Somewhere there is a little girl in Dorvine who owes her mother’s life to their actions and the player characters have no idea. It might even get them a reward somewehre along the line.
Reworking and reusing old un-used content is great in this way, but, from a story perspective, it’s also good to advance your framework if needed depending on developments that happen outside it. For example, the party never did discover how the rot monster ended up on their ship to Dorvine and that mystery is unsolved and a dungeon is left unexplored…leaving the mastermind behind this scheme to continue their plans and advance their goals until the players find them once more.
Don’t be afraid to jump into improvising if you need to and when you do, draw upon logic or make it fun.
Now, the segment above gives some great advice about using things you’ve already worked on prior to sessions to help with sessions where the players go off the map, but now, we need to look at the elephant in the room and the big question of this whole session. When we were wrapping up after playing, I remember Lukas asking me earnestly something which I honestly had a lot of trouble explaining at the time:
How do you improvise so well in sessions?
It’s a good question and it’s something I’m still not entirely sure I can answer.
Now, the main reason why Lukas asked me that was because of a development that happened during session that he messaged me about. When I introduced Evelyn as a high-ranking paladin of the Black Rose, I received another message from Lukas shortly after, asking if this was indeed the Evelyn from Teoku’s backstory.
My reaction was a moment’s pause for confusion, mild panic and a sudden ‘yeah, that could work’.
I feel really bad for not reading deeper into Teoku’s history at that point. I was promising some character work for him but it was going to be tied into the other dungeon, not like this. Truth to be told, I only introduced Evelyn because I realised I hadn’t really introduced many female NPCs into the campaign thus far and wanted to include a more varied cast around the players. The name ‘Eveyln’ just sounded cool. If I had known the character was going to be Teoku’s Evelyn, I would have asked Lukas more about her, what she looked like, how she acted, etc.
Instead, what happened is I roughly jammed the square shaped peg of Evelyn, Knight of the Black Rose, into the round hole of Teoku’s backstory and hoped it would work. Lukas was too caught up in the action and enjoying the session, so he missed my horrible attempts at rebuilding a whole character around this concept. He even enjoyed the sudden surprise and told me some useful details on his backstory I really should have known or asked about before thinking of throwing Evelyn in. However, all in all, the inclusion has now created an interesting dynamic: a former love interest, now a bitter enemy. I can understand why Lukas might have gotten a little excited.
The best lesson I can give to any new DM about improvising is based on this moment. No matter how much you make things up, how crazy events can get and the amount of ad-libing and improvisation you pull out of your rear, your players will most likely engage with what you do. It should work so long as the developments are based in logic or have dramatic weight.
It’s why the players were completely okay with Lord Grey’s dramatic attempt to shift blame from himself and allow the players to escape. They understood they were in a bad situation. All of the fights the group got in to were meant to be terribly hard and because I didn’t have an outline of the dungeon, I willingly threw stronger enemies together to test the player’s skill and to show how desperate their efforts were. When given an out, they took it and accepted that as crazy and sudden as the move was, Lord Grey was indeed capable of planning an outcome of an event like that
So, when you improvise, make sure that whilst you play as fast and loose as you feel, you need to keep things rooted in logic, either relating to character or the world, or dramatic enough tha it carries momentum. It’s a good guideline with how to improvise. And, if a player isn’t alright with your sudden developments or plot-twists, the sooner they tell you, the sooner you can fix the details or work with them to achieve something better. Either way, no harm no foul. Players usually know you’re trying to give them an enjoyable time and tend to work with you because of that.
Let every player have a moment and make every moment matter because every moment could matter for someone.
Dion had been having a bad day. Lots of personal issues and things going on in his life that have no place in a silly blog about D&D but things didn’t get better when he sat down at the table. For almost the entire session, Dion’s dice failed to roll in the double digits. It was a horrible experience and I could feel Dion’s energy dropping even though we were playing over Discord. If a D&D campaign is done right, then it’s a fun time for all and a break away from the chaos and annoyances of life, a chance to just hang around with friends and to feel incredible.
Sometimes, however, the slog takes over.
Thanks to a lot of poor dice rolls and poor choices, Kassadin was having his worst session to date and Dion’s mood plummeted with it. The final straw was probably when Jacob shot his ‘hail of frost’ (a homebrewed Ranger spell, essentially a flavour filled ‘hail of thorns’) and accidentally knocked Kassadin out of the fight. Dion was clearly annoyed but struggled on and said it didn’t matter. His day was bad and now, on top of that, Kassadin was dying. Despite that, he didn’t want to bring anyone else down and he didn’t want special treatment.
I respect that.
And then, on his first death saving throw, Dion rolled a natural 20, his first of the night.
Moments in D&D rarely come gift-wrapped in such a perfect package but this was the best moment I could have asked for. In one simple description, I managed to cheer up Dion’s mood, describe an epic resurrection for Kassadin and give the table a surge of energy by featuring Dormin and ‘Baeley’, his mysterious ally, talking about Kassadin and Dormin arguing that he had worth. Dion’s energy soared and was channelled straight into Kassadin, desperately wanting to cling to life. True, most of the effect was on the roll itself, but a good description and appropriate focus can carry an achievement in a game and it make really important.
It’s good to give every player a chance to shine but it’s also not horrible to pick your favourites from time to time. If someone’s in a bad mood or feeling particularly bad, a bit of in-game comfort can do wonders for someone’s mental health or ease of mind.
The scene where Lord Grey spoke to Kassadin back at the mansion trying to rally him was also a moment directed at Dion as much as it was Kassadin. Because, unfortunately, sometimes, things just go wrong. We can feel terrible and suffer from dark thoughts and when playing games, luck can just make things worse. But, all it takes is one success and the strength of narration of that success to fully uplift someone and get them out of the slog they feel they’d been trapped in.
That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the party leave the safety of Solace for the wilds of Dorvine beyond, complete with some fresh advice for building high RP/low combat sessions as well as just letting people have little moments to shine.
Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you enjoyed. Please leave a comment. Positive criticism is always welcome.