From the DM’s Chair: Session 6, Hot-springs and Hags

WARNING: SOME GRAPHIC IMAGES AHEAD.

Filler is a concept that mainly appears in TV shows or serialised pieces of storytelling. The main point of filler or filler episodes is right there in the name: to fill up space. They usually function as blocks of content that come after big events in the series to let plot developments settle, the status quo re-adjust or sometimes to just let the audience and characters catch their breath and relax, enjoying some light-hearted banter. Having sessions like this in a D&D campaign can be just as important as when they appear in a TV show.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, I’m going to be telling you about the sixth session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine and the lessons I learned whilst running it. My Church-raiding prison-breaking players are as follows:

KassadinDion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter.

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

39203099_205807576954643_2187798607632007168_nLukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar Kai Warlock.

Elizabeth GreyBeth is Lady Elizabeth Grey, the Chaotic Good Human Barbarian.

36786424_1132169843589871_6242705252152246272_nJacob 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 broken into a Church of the Black Rose Paladin order in order to liberate imprisoned arcane magic practitioners. Their efforts were successful but they were forced to flee the city of Solace from a group of Paladins, taking their financier’s private carriage in a desperate escape.

Between the last session and this one, I released another small piece of writing to the group. I’ve mentioned it a few times now, but I find writing fiction pieces can help dramatically impact the players by showing them dramatic scenes their characters are not privy too, so long as they know not to use their meta knowledge in their character’s actions.

In this case, the piece was about what happened to the Gray family after the party’s departure. Though Lord Grey’s gambit worked and saved his reputation, his scheming children, Ceylon and Eliya, ratted out their sister and resident adventurer, Elizabeth, for being involved with the party. Realising that the other members of his family are politically becoming active against him and his heir, Lord Grey had the two locked in their rooms and spent a time comforting his youngest son, whilst his daughter, Jasmine, saw to his sick wife. With family politics spilling out in the Grey household, the players were becoming more concerned for the fate of next session. Joey, in particular, hoped that the next session would be a bit more relaxed than the previous ones. As a DM, it is ever my desire to cater to my players so, when the next session rolled around, I tried to keep this in mind.

(Quick note: the party have recently come up with the name ‘Fellow Vagabonds’ for themselves and I’ll be using it here, even if it is a bit early, because it gets very tedious writing ‘the party’ or ‘the group’ sixty times without a proper name to go with).

Lord Grey’s personal carriage trundles down the rough dirt road into the woods of Dorvine. Driven by the Kenku Clacker, it sways heavily and rocks, riding rough. Soon, Clacker tires and veers the carriage off the road into the underbrush of an isolated clearing. From there, the Fellow Vagabonds finally disembark from their carriage. It’s been a good day’s ride and the group are all noticeably a bit worse for wear after their battle with the Black Rose earlier that morning. Elizabeth Grey appears to be locked into a state of meditation, perhaps a way of calming herself after all that has happened. It’s odd but the other Vagabonds leave her to it and eagerly start setting up camp.

Vedrir, scanning the area, comes across a gap in the underbrush and heads off to investigate. The rest of the group start dividing duties between them, with Ouskarr and Kassadin collecting the firewood, Yuvari and Megs setting up the camp proper and Teoku and Baggy tasked with finding the food. Apart from the group, Vedrir locates an isolated lodge in the hills. Investigating, he discovers two more of his kin. The pair of Eladrin are dead, though Vedrir is unable to discern from how as both seem fairly peaceful. In the end, Vedrir takes the Eladrin’s studded leather armour and buries the two, taking a book from the lodge and beginning to research about the reason for its existence: an outpost for a type of ranging force known as ‘Horizon Walkers’.

Intrigued, Vedrir reads on.

He returns to the group just in time to see the fruits of their labour. The camp is all prepared and after a series of hi-jinks, Teoku has managed to gather a small mass of baby bunnies whose mother was eaten by Baggy. The group hand the duty of preparing the food off to Ouskarr, none of them really having the stomach to slaughter the newborns as effectively as the half-orc. Half an hour later and all fed on some rabbit strew, Yuvari announces her desire to take a bath and she heads off to find a pool. The boys latch on to the idea immediately and before Yuvari has a chance, they’re all off to explore and find a spring all their own, leaving Yuvari and Megs back at the camp. Settling down again, the two start talking, expanding on their developing friendship. Yuvari even steals Teoku’s clothes as a way of paying him back for a few rude comments he had made earlier at Meg’s expense. Odd that their friendship started with Megs freeing Yuvari from a jail after Yuvari attempted to take her life to escape a sinking ship.

Still, the stranger the bond, the stronger it seems to be.

The same can be said for the boys who are taking their time to get to know each other. Kassadin and Vedrir learn of each other’s race and end up keeping a tense distance from one another. Teoku, on the other hand, is more than happy to continue his teasing of Ouskarr, joking and flirting with the young Orc, who is far too confused and alarmed with the situation to take things in. After Ouskarr’s experience with Teoku’s convincing bar-maid disguise, he’s been trying to keep his distance and having Teoku tease him for his embarrassment unsettles him even more. Eventually, the energy of the situation calms down and the group begin finally talking and relaxing. Kassadin and Ouskarr begin talking about their pasts.

39921080_704961139851967_2161340784454926336_n
The boys enjoying a soak after setting up camp. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.

Kassadin reveals to the group that he wasn’t always a Tiefling and explains about the events leading up to his death: his father’s wish to follow him into the ranks of the Platinum Garrison, how he joined under the squad of an exceptionally zealous leader by the name of Windermere, and his desperate final stand against a group of Tiamat worshippers leading to his near-death experience and his revival as a Tiefling through a deal with a devil. The group listen, intrigued. Ouskarr, in a show of support, voices his own past next:

As a young child, he was kicked out of his family. An urchin, fitting not in his father’s orc tribe or his mother’s human roots. Forced onto the street, he ended up sold into slavery. He was eventually bought by Lord Grey, who gave Ouskarr a simple choice: he would set Ouskarr free and give him enough gold to leave, or Ouskarr could stay and Lord Grey would build him into a man that he would be proud of. Ouskarr took the risk and ended up in the Lord’s employ as his most faithful retainer.

The two trade notes and exchange a sentiment of mutual respect: Kassadin liking Ouskarr’s warrior heart and Ouskarr appreciating Kassadin’s honour to Lord Grey. Teoku gets involved as well and voices that he’s pleased to met the group and to be a part of…well, whatever they are. The positive sentiment ends up being too much for Vedrir and he exits the pool, leaving the others to their friendship speeches. Following his lead, the others slowly file out of the water. Teoku is the last and it is then when he learns of Yuvari’s prank. Stomping back to the fire and retrieving his clothes from Vedrir, Teoku settles down for the evening with minor embarrassment, whilst the girls head off for their own bath. Eventually, the two return and the group settle down for a game of cards near the fire. Vedrir goes on watch from above, whilst Teoku, Kassadin and Yuvari begin playing cards. The game is at first simple harmless fun, but as it continues, finally, the real fun begins.

When Yuvari and Kassadin are the last players involved, Megs suggest a bet. The gamble is simple. Whoever loses has to wear Granny Meg’s underwear. In the event of a draw, both of them have to take turns doing it between the next long rest. Kassadin agrees but lacks confidence with his hand, attempting some sleight of hand in order to get himself some better cards. However, when the cards are revealed, Megs has performed some sleight of hand of her own. Using her prestidigitation to great effect, she has managed to change every card in the deck into a Joker. Yuvari shrugs and accepts the fate of the draw, taking Granny Meg’s underwear off her and beginning to put it on.

“…Well, it’s been fun, but I think I’m going to go to sleep,” she explains, “I’m gonna have a long rest…”

She immediately removes the underwear and flings it at Kass. Megs is howling with laughter and Kassadin, too confused and embarrassed to say anything further, puts on the underwear with the understanding that he can take it off at the next long rest. The group finally settle down to sleep.

During their slumber, Megs and Teoku receive rewards from their patrons for their service. The Queen of the Unseelie Fae bestows upon Megs a book full of powerful cantrips and finally relates to her the mission that she has decided upon for Megs to repay her favour, saving Megs when she was critically wounded from a fall. The warning Megs receives is vague. There is a threat to the woods of Dorvine and the Queen wishes to see it stopped. She warns Megs to beware of the ‘red men’ and to destroy them if needed. Confused and questioning if the red men are related to Kassadin or Yuvari’s Tiefling heritage, Megs slips into deeper dreams, only to awaken for her watch to find the book of shadows by her side.

Teoku, meanwhile, is summoned in his sleep to the chosen weapon of the Raven Queen, a magical sword known as the Blackfeather. The Blackfeather remarks that Teoku has done good work in the past for the Queen and it wishes to see more of his true potential. Re-instilling the beliefs of the Raven Queen into Teoku, the Blackfeather rewards the warlock with a magical blade of shadows, a pact weapon that can be summoned at any time. Teoku bows to the Blackfeather and awakens in time to do his watch, his faith in the Raven Queen and his patron reaffirmed.

39864540_626006331129530_2777637401378422784_n
Kassadin remembers his fate at the hands of the cultists of Tiamat and his first meeting with Dormin. Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.

Kassadin’s sleep is troubled, however. His nightmares of his death plague him, lying there in his own blood as a shadowy figure of a monster looks down and promises to save his life. Then, his mind flashes away, remembering the moment he drank the strange concoction from Dormin. As he rouses to do his watch, those of the group that are awake note the smell of sulphur coming from Kassadin, burn marks emblazoned on his bedroll and in his footsteps. Kassadin, too tired to notice, simply gets on with his watch.

In the early morning, Teoku and Vedrir are on watch. The pair are getting ready wake the others and pack up camp when they hear the thundering of hooves on the main road.

The Black Rose have come looking for them.

Vedrir and Teoku race to wake the others, pulling them to safety and doing their best to hide. Kassadin and Ouskarr bolt for the underbrush, Yuvari vanishing as is her nature as a small group of Paladins begin to approach, following the tracks of their carriage. Granny Megs, in a moment of genius, transforms herself into a little girl and tries to play innocent as the paladins surround her. The leader of the paladins orders the other men to investigate whilst he crouches to Granny Meg’s side. Luckily, with Megs having renewed her vow with the Unseelie Queen, her pendant has begun working again, hiding her magical presence as well as her evil nature. The Paladin uses a few detect spells upon her, before ultimately deciding she is just a child. He comforts her as his men continue the search. Kassadin is still putting on his armour round a tree, whilst Vedrir is keeping watch to ensure none of the soldiers get too close. It’s then that Yuvari appears before the two, signalling across the clearing. A duplicate of herself is standing on the other side, hiding near Teoku and Ouskarr. She has a plan, it seems, and she’s hoping the group will work on it.

Vedrir, keen to see what she has in mind, follows.

Teoku, however, decides to take matters into his own hands.

He sneaks off from Ouskarr and the Yuvari clone, heading up to where the Paladins have left their horses. Unwisely, the Paladins have left their steeds un-guarded. It’s child’s play to teleport over with his Blessing of the Raven Queen and to smack a horse on the flank and send the collection of steeds bolting into the wilderness. The Paladins, hearing their horses in panic, retreat to discover the source, whilst Teoku sneaks round, regrouping with Vedrir and signalling for everyone to load up back into the carriage. They do and Clacker, being the experienced driver that he is, steers the carriage off and away, past the paladins and along the winding country roads into the distance.

The rest of the Fellow Vagabond’s journey is ultimately peaceful. Despite some wolf howling on their second night of travel, the group’s travelling continues on unimpeded and they all finally arrive at the place where Clacker has been leading them, a small settlement straddling a narrow shore: Whitepoint. Clearly a fisherman’s village, the carriage rides through empty broad streets before coming to a rest at the market square, where a large mob of villagers has arrived and appear to be protesting before the local baron’s keep. Listening in, the Vagabonds gather that the villagers are all complaining about the disappearance of the village druid, a woman named Cleota.

Megs, smelling a lead, departs from the group and begins to fumble her way through the crowd with Clacker by her side. The rest of the Vagabonds follow soon after with Ouskarr and Yuvari staying behind to look after the carriage and the still meditating Elizabeth.

37673674_10216909010255022_435432400172875776_n
A very distorted map of the village of Whitepoint, drawn by myself in preparation for the session.

As the crowd begins to make-way for her, Megs sees a small wall of guards pushing back against the pressing peasants. Spotting Megs and Clacker, the guards summon their leader from the keep. A black dragonborn emerges in full-plate, ordering the mob of civilians to disperse and insisting he is investigating the situation. Spotting Clacker, the Dragonborn, Bartax, addresses him as ‘sir’, revealing to the group he was the long suffering servant of the Druid Cleota. Megs, hardly being ignorant, invites herself and the party inside, Clacker vouching for the rest of the Vagabonds in his usual squawks of joy.

Bartax greets the Vagabonds warmly in his office and explains the situation. The village druid has gone missing and the town is in a panic. He’ll pay the group handsomely, 100 gold each, if they can find any sign of where Cleota has gone and return to him with proof of it. The Vagabonds discuss the deal in detail but Vedrir and Megs discover the captain to dislike any rude remarks and soon find themselves outside the room. Kassadin and Teoku, speaking for the rest of the group, agree to the mission and stick around long enough to glimpse another map of Dorvine on the captain’s wall. The settlements are marked in colours: blue around Duskport and Eagle’s Climb and red around Solace and Urest. A messenger barges in as the meeting is wrapping up, Bartax marking Dulavar as blue and giving a troubled pause.

Kassadin, finally giving into curiosity, asks about the map and Bartax gives him the solemn truth. Dorvine is ready to go to war. The current Queen, Liliara Coale, is only a child and ruled by the Leader of the Black Rose, her regent, Odo Bayeux. The old blood of Dorvine, Dwarves and humans alike, believe that now is the time to shake off the remnants of the Imperial will shackling them to a false Queen and seek to appoint a man named Maxen Willowbriar, a Thane claiming to be of the ‘old blood’ of Dorvine. Dulavar’s stand against the Empire is surprising due to its deep roots, and it gives Bartax pause to worry about the future. Kassadin and Teoku echo his sentiment. A war is one thing but a war between Paladins and xenophobes is something they’re eager to get out of.

Dorvine Map
A map of Dorvine, created in Inkarnate.

The Vagabonds leave the fort and meet up in front of their carriage and begin discussing their next plan. Megs begins disguising Yuvari and Kassadin, hoping to hide their Tiefling appearance so they can get a room for the night in the local inn. Their efforts, however, are undermined by Vedrir and Ouskarr when they get into a scuffle in one of the Whitepoint taverns. The local populace aren’t fond of anyone who isn’t default human and with Vedrir unwilling to let that slide, the Vagabonds soon find themselves out on the streets with no hope of shelter.

It’s then when Megs spots Clacker, staring at a hill in the distance, gesturing to a small plume of smoke on the horizon of the darkening sky. As the night draws in and black clouds begin to rumble overhead, Megs smiles and announces to the group that she knows exactly where they can stay for the night.

It’s the reason they’re here, after all.

The reason she met Clacker, the reason she’s here in Whitepoint, the reason she’s in Dorvine.

Cleota, the Druid, is Clacker’s mistress, but she is also Alecto Dregefathoms, Granny Meg’s Hag sister. Eager to reunite with her old friend, Megs leads the way along from Whitepoint towards the woods and whatever the future might bring.

And thus concludes the sixth session of the Dorvine campaign. There was no combat this session, and yet it was a session that everyone really latched onto and enjoyed, so I think that’s what a lot of the advice of this segment is going to be focusing on: making an entertaining experience for your players without resorting to combat and just allowing them to enjoy the ride.

39891730_2107870785892727_3182490437562662912_n
To live on his knees or to stand and walk forwards, Ouskarr considers his fate in Lord Grey’s employ.  Art by Dion Russell, you can find other pieces of his work here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.

Always make your players the focus.

The important thing to remember about D&D is that the campaign is as much for your players as it might be for you, if not more so. A lot of the players let me know after the encounter with the Black Rose in the Church that they were hoping for a calmer session and some time to focus more introspectively on the party. Knowing they wanted this, I tried my best to customise the next session to relate to this more relaxed atmosphere: no combat, but a simple chance for the players to grow and role-play with each other.

One way in which I did this was in a minor detail that the players noticed and really liked. A while back in the campaign, before session 3, I explained that the various members of the party took moments to study their magic or test with their weapons in sparring before session began. It took a moment for the players to realise I was actually trying to narrate their levelling up process. When they realised, they really enjoyed the idea.

At the start of this session, I focused on this notion by going into in-depth explanations of the group becoming accustomed to their new archetype abilities: The Warlocks choosing their pacts, Vedrir discovering a Horizon Walker Ranger guide and Kassadin subtly tapping into his home-brew archetype of ‘Ember Knight’ that Dion found online. The results were positive and each of the players enjoyed feeling themselves grow stronger and advancing their skills.

As well as this, I attempted to cater to a more role-play heavy session by providing the players with the simple freedom to interact. Collecting food, bathing and even playing cards became major defining events because I took the time to address and develop them. Something that a lot of DMs can forget from time to time, myself included, is that as well as controlling the content of the game, we can also control the pace. Over-land travel was something I skimmed over for most of the session but the first night of camping lasted a good few hours in real-time because it gave the players a chance to relax and apply their skills to survival aspects in interesting ways. Teoku calling the bunnies to him using his beast speech and Megs prestidigitation card tricks just helped make the session feel more real, grounded and a lot of fun for the players.

I think the session is still Joey and Lukas’ favourite to date, which is something I’m incredibly proud of, considering all I did for a good chunk was provide minor narration and role-play two main NPCs, and I definitely want to push for more sessions like it in the future after the end of big events.

Ahere to your player’s expectations.

The meeting with the Black Rose in the forest wasn’t meant to occur. Like many things in this campaign thus far, it had happened on a spur of the moment inclusion. On the early morning watch of the first day of travel, I gave Teoku and Vedrir a chance to roll perception as the knights of the Black Rose raced past on horseback. The Knights weren’t actually going to go into the area and they weren’t planning on attacking. I planned them to simply wind past as a way of reinforcing the events of the last session: the Vagabonds were still being hunted by the Black Rose and they had to be careful to stay out of their way. Lukas, however, misunderstood and missed the part where I said that the Black Rose were riding past and Teoku starting waking up the other player characters in alarm, preparing for a fight.

At this point, it had set up expectation and Lukas and the other players were now waiting for pay off for their expectations. Thus, on the fly, I changed the nature of the encounter. The Black Rose were no longer just passing through, they turned back around, waded through into the camp. Luckily, the party managed to avoid actual conflict due to Teoku’s quick thinking and all in all, the moment proved to be a minor speed bump in an otherwise relaxed session. Everyone had fun and avoided combat like they wanted. No harm done, but I also managed to give Lukas a chance to be awesome and invest the players in a minor conflict, which they resolved with stealth and subterfuge. Adhering to player expectation is not something you can do all the time, but when you find chances to, I suggest giving it a go. If a player guesses a character motivation or thinks of a good idea you never thought of, consider running with it. See where it might lead. The players will feel clever about it and you’ll feel pretty happy too.

When introducing new story arcs, try to seed them as organically as possible into the campaign’s story and give the players full control of their paths.

When Joey asked Clacker to ‘take them home’, he and I knew exactly where Clacker would lead the party. Whilst Joey was not aware Whitepoint was their destination, he was aware that Clacker was an operative of Meg’s Hag sister Alecto, sent to collect cargo from the ship that was originally bringing them into Dorvine and was going to take the Vagabonds to where her sister could be found.

As a Dungeon Master, I focus far more on the story angle rather than the game-play aspect. This being said, I always make sure to seed story concepts early when at the easiest convenient moment. Knowing that Megs’ personal quest was to seek Alecto, and considering the other members of the party had yet to consider a strong personal quest, I decided to start with Megs, including her sister in the hopes it would eventually bring her to Whitepoint. Seeding the story in this way, eventually led to the group heading from Solace to Whitepoint. However, at the end of the day, if the party would have stood up and denied Meg her journey, that would have also been a valid approach and one I would have to cater for.

Considering the group did follow Megs, I introduced Legate Bartax to reward the players if they investigated Alecto’s disappearance, giving the rest of the group an added reason to investigate and follow Meg’s leads. Party cohesion is always something important I consider when running a group. Even if members of a party have a tense relationship, if they can steered onto the same path then this means good results in the long term and a chance that the players and their characters will bond into close allies. If not, then at least it keeps the player conflict to a minimum and provides new minions to fight with.

On a grander scale, the meeting in Bartax’s office also gave me a chance to begin seeding the overall ‘war for Dorvine’ plot, giving the characters a look into the people behind the battlefield and a deeper understanding of Dorvine culture. True, both sides were horrible in their own ways. One was a tyrant regime run by religious fanatics and the other a rebellious incursion fuelled by good old fantasy racism, but it was enough of a feature to stick in the player’s mind. When players think back on the war to come, they’ll probably think back to this moment, seeing the lines draw in the sand and think how the war met them in that office, with a black dragonborn eager to serve his Queen and country.

That is going to be all from this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the party head off to locate the hut of Alecto Dregefathoms and face a new foe, including some advice for interesting combat dynamics, establishing villain factions and creating NPCs your party will remember for the rest of their campaign.

Until next time, thank you everyone is reading and I hope you enjoyed. Please leave a comment, positive criticism is welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s