When running D&D, it’s important for the players to have fun. A fact that is rarely considered alongside this is that as a Dungeon Master, you have to have fun too. The role of Dungeon Master is, in itself, a weird position. You are playing with your friends but clearly apart from them, both an ally and a enemy, a referee and a storyteller. It’s all a big balancing act with a lot of risk. You want to strive to make a equilibrium between a challenging experience and an enjoyable one. After all, D&D is still a game and a game without the possibility of loss isn’t worth playing, but a game you can’t win is similarly not worth indulging. As a DM, when I throw my antagonists at my players, I want the villains to miss their mark so our heroes can prevail.
Sometimes, however, it’s good to give NPCs a chance. After all, they want to win too.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, I’m going to be talking about the seventh session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I learned whilst running it. My relaxed and ready 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 just finished a relaxed travel to the small fishing town of Whitepoint. Despite a few involvements with Black Rose scouts and rowdy bar patrons, the group eventually found themselves signed onto a mission the behalf of the village Legate, the Dragonborn Bartax, to learn the fate of the village Druid, Cleota, who had disappeared some time prior. Megs, however, knows in truth that this Druid is her Hag sister, Alecto, and is trying to reunite with her after many years apart.
Unlike previous segments, I didn’t release any written pieces to hype the players between sessions. Whilst the technique is fun and works as a good method for getting the group excited and ready for playing, it’s also something that shouldn’t be forced if there’s no proper room for it, which is really advice I can give for all writing. Forcing your hand and trying to craft your magnum opus will always end poorly, but scheduling time, getting a clear head and plunging in helps your writing become better on the whole.
So, without further ado, let’s get straight in to the seventh session recap:
The Fellow Vagabonds make their way along the dirt trodden road towards the Druid’s hut. The sun is setting on the horizon by this point, casting a simmering red glow among the woods. Above, black clouds gather, ominous and rumbling. By the time the Vagabonds have waded through the underbrush, weaving through fallen tree trunks and dense foliage, the sky has grown thick and dark and the rain is pounding down. The already unstable earth beneath the adventurer’s feet turns muddy and slick.
Granny Meg leads the way up the hill, eager to meet with her Hag sister. Kassadin, the undisputed most athletic of the party (especially considering Elizabeth is away), volunteers to follow her. One of their followers, Ouskarr the Half-Orc, attempts to follow as well, but his own climbing efforts fail with spectacular flop after spectacular flop. Teoku, Vedrir and other follower Yuvari settle down to watch his failed attempts. Megs and Kassadin survey the top and discover a rickety old bridge, serving as a passage between the hill and the hut, resting on a large hillock with a great 30 ft drop. The bridge is obviously worn and will break easily. Whilst Ouskarr tries to climb, Kassadin taking some time to mess with the half-orc before helping him up, Megs begins thinking of a solution to their bridge problem. One comes like the spark of lightning crackling away in the distance.
Megs cuts the rope to the bridge and allows it to fall. Due to the length of the bridge, it now serves as a ladder up. This way, the party have more control in their travel and there’s less danger of falling without help. Kassadin agrees the choice is a good one. After ten minutes of Ouskarr trying to crawl his way to the top, Megs and Kass slide down with him, leaving the half-orc muddy and embarrassed. The Fellow Vagabonds move on, reuniting with the rest of their group before heading round to the lower clearing. A small cluster of nettles lies between the party and their prize, but the group stamp through without concern.
Upon reaching the ladder, the group begin arranging a plan of who will climb the ladder. Vedrir and Teoku are first, using their teleportation to reach the top of the hillock and completely skip the ladder. At the top, they throw down a rope to aid the others in their ascent. It’s a good call as with their combined support, the cavalcade begin their climb to the top of the hillock.
There’s just one problem remaining: Baggy.
Teoku’s adorable/ignorant panther comrade lacks the ability to climb/downright refuses and thus, the Vagabonds end up rigging their own pulley system in an attempt to reunite Teoku and his feline follower. The attempt goes about as poorly as Ouskarr’s attempts to climb the hill. For a moment, Ouskarr’s grip slips and Megs, left with the full strain of the rope, buckles and tumbles off the edge. Landing in a patch of nettles and covered in bruises, she is as livid and wounded as expected. Kassadin wades over to help her, but she’s already gone when he arrives. The Hag has already used her ethereal jaunt ability to teleport back up and, in a form of poetic justice, like Kassadin before her, pushes Ouskarr. Ouskarr falls and Baggy falls with him, the last part of the pulley system tumbling into the area below. Unlike Kass’ earlier teasing, this attack leaves Ouskarr with quite a few scrapes.
With chaos quickly boiling out, Kassadin and Vedrir try to reassert some order into the group. They finally get Baggy up onto higher ground and the other Vagabonds warn Megs on her actions. Apologies aren’t Meg’s style so she simply saunters off towards the house, excited to finally meet with Alecto after all these years. Their reunion, however, is put on hold. The hut itself appears abandoned, the front door creaking as a steady wind blows it back on its hinges. Inside, papers lie scattered, tables tipped in all directions and a small fire still smoulders in the corner.
As the party try to get a plan together and watch from a distance, Meg jumps straight into the hut and starts investigating. Something’s not right. Alecto was never the cleanest hag, in fact she was even a bit of a hoarder, but she’d never let her house get this out of control. It’s almost as if someone has been searching the place. What about the fire? If Alecto disappeared sometime before their arrival, then why does the fire smouldering in the fireplace look fresh? Examining the area, Megs finds her answer. Notes, letters burning in the flames, from her and another to Alecto. Meg picks up a poker, retrieves the papers and begins trying to use her mend cantrip to put the pieces back together.
Successful, to a point, she begins checking them for any details.
Then, without warning, Kassadin grips his sword and swings for Teoku. The Warlock, new to his pact of the blade but still quick in his combat skills, dodges out of the way and rightfully asks Kassadin what the hell he’s playing at. Kassadin, panicked by his own actions, goes to apologise and explain he doesn’t know. His reply is cut off as something slices at his lower tendon. Vedrir moves to assist, only to find himself under heavy assault as well. Before Teoku can come to his aid, he’s being penned in by another attacker, phantom ethereal blades slashing round at them from every corner.
The party has walked straight into a trap.
Their attackers are squat but stout creatures in leather armour, though the giant one inside the house appears clad in solid steel with a large gauntlet shield on his arm. Their stature and thick hair resemble Dwarves and they do speak the language, but their skin is a dull grey like ash and their hair a stark white. In addition, some appear to have the ability to summon weapons of magic, enlarge themselves at will and cast invisibility.
Though the party are not initially aware, they have their first meeting with a Duregar raiding party.
Behind the hut, a Duregar in a hood and cloak commands the rest of his men to focus upon Megs and the casters and to slaughter the rest. At first, their plan goes well. The enlarged Duregar in the hut is a Stone-Guard, easily able to incur great damage and weather Meg’s pitiful panicked magics, even with hellish rebuke on her side. The others outside carry the momentum of their first strike well too. Within seconds, Vedrir and Megs are looking worse for ware. Ouskarr does his best to rally the party, commanding Kassadin to attack fiercely into the enemy outside.
Kassadin already has his target though.
He storms through into the hut, pulling Meg back to Yuvari for healing whilst he focuses on tanking the larger threat. As he races through the breach, he clips his sword on the floorboards and with a roaring whoosh, the blade flashes into flame, a fire that flows up Kassadin’s arm and covers his body.
Dormin’s cocktail has finally activated.
Kassadin is now a Knight of Ember.
Things are still looking bad even with Kassadin’s new abilities. The hooded Duregar doesn’t do a lot of fighting himself but seems to use his mental abilities to allow his allies to make extra attacks, or to have the Vagabonds attack other members in their party. The battle takes another turn for the worse after the Duregar outside begin enlarging themselves as well, seeking more advantage in the fight.
Then, like shifting stones tumbling into an avalanche, the tide of battle turns.
In one quick flick of his bow, Vedrir finally gets a killing shot on one of Duregar who’s been harassing him and Ouskarr frees Teoku of his opponent, giving the Hex-Blade a chance to summon his new pact-blade, a long spiked sword with feathered blessings from his patron. Teoku uses his new weapon to cleave the final Duregar wielding his psionic blade, catching the sword on his own before ultimately running his opponent through. Turning to a startled Baggy, he declares with pride:
“I am the Alpha.”
For the first time, Baggy acknowledges his strength and bows his head.
The hooded Duregar quickly realises things are taking a turn for the worse and makes a run for it. Vedrir, however, is on the hunt and eagerly follows after his new quarry. Inside the hut, Kassadin is wearing down his attacker but not quickly enough, the Stoneguard is pummelling him with great strikes and though Kassadin’s armour is holding up well, his attacks are out of practice. With each strike, he sees the shadow of death and the fear is real. The fear of almost dying like back in Solace, of dying like on the main-land. The black void terrifies him and though he lashes out with rage, each blow strikes wide or lack proper impact upon the Stoneguard’s armour.
From back with the other Vagabonds, Ouskarr is taking full control of the situation. He’s rallied the others in combat, aided Granny Megs (renewing the old Hag’s faith in him) and is now set to help Kassadin. Remember his old days as an assistant to Lord Grey, Ouskarr thinks of his own training, of watching his fellow guards receive their own practice periods.
Then, he shouts:
“Kassadin. Don’t just swing. Aim.”
The words breach Kassadin’s nightmare. In a rotted hut, surrounded by the howling of flames and falling rain, covered in mud and blood with a friend’s whisper in his ear, Kassadin grips onto a solid moment of clarity. He slips to the side of one of the Stoneguard’s attacks, marks his sword against theirs, running it up the blade and slashing with all the strength he can muster.
It’s a critical blow.
The Stone Guard has barely enough chance to gasp in surprise before his expression of shock separated from the rest of his body, his head swooping off on Kassadin’s sword and landing with a firm thunk on the floor.
Megs wastes no time acquiring the head as a new satchel.
Back with Vedrir, the ranger has finally tracked down his enemy. The fleeing Duregar was trying to escape by reducing himself to a tiny size and fleeing in the deep foliage. Vedrir’s perfect vision spots him, shoots out an arrow and forces the man back to full-size. Vedrir and Teoku easily succeed in taking the Duregar captive and begin walking him back to the group. The Duregar spits curses at them and hurls insults in Dwarvish, trying to show them that there’s no way to get answers out of him when he only speaks one language. Vedrir isn’t worried. He can speak Dwarvish and has a chilling interrogation planned now that the fight is over.
Meanwhile, far away from the fight at the hut, Lady Elizabeth Grey is finally reaching the end of her meditative period. In the flash of a vision, she finds herself sitting at a campfire opposite a man with light golden hair. His face is defined, strong, a warrior’s face. About him, he wears simple leathers like a barbarian but Lady Grey notes that the man’s armour is not as simple as it seems. It is inlaid with dragon scales, those of a black and a white dragon. The man challenges Lady Grey to single combat.
Lady Grey, of course, accepts.
It’s a tough battle, a long battle, but if it does anything, it secures to Elizabeth a confidence in her own abilities. Though her opponent delivers strong strikes and is clearly a seasoned master of combat, Elizabeth has a strength, rage and raw potential that few can match. After a brutal flurry of swings from her battle-axe/parasol, she drives the barbarian to surrender.
“It is true then,” the barbarian remarks, “you…you are of my blood.”
The man introduces himself: a barbarian king from centuries ago, Chaga. Today, memory of him only lies from the name his allies and foes called him after he felled two great dragons of the east: The Grey.
Chaga is the First Grey and now, he has come to pass his ancestral power to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is honoured and receives his blessing, finally awakening from her meditation. It is only then that Lady Grey realises she’s been left behind in a town she’s never seen and abandoned by her comrades. As she attempts to work out what to do next, she spots a small blaze flashing out in the woods. The townsfolk are terrified and cry of evil spirits.
Elizabeth knows better.
A few minutes later, Elizabeth arrives wet, muddied and annoyed at Alecto’s cabin. The Fellow Vagabonds quickly catch Elizabeth up on what she’s missed and recommence their attempts at intimidating the Duregar into explaining his presence more. Megs, full of ideas, brings out her Duregar head and begins showing it his ally, hoping it will un-nerve him. It does, of course, but in a way that Megs doesn’t expect.
“Get it away from me,” the Duregar begs, “please, please. We’re dead. All dead. Doomed. Please. Help.”
This is strange behaviour.
Megs inspects the head and finds the skin sagging and folding on the Duregar’s brow. Before she had a chance to examine it, however, the skin bursts open. Crawling out of the wound is a tiny sick little creature. Like a brain, pink and pulsing, but scrambling around on four tiny legs. Megs feels the thing push at her mind but she braces against whatever affect it’s trying to do.
Kassadin grabs the creature before it can escape, only for his grasp to fall slack and his vision to go clouded. He flops to the floor, drooling. Whilst the other members of the Vagabonds panic, the creature scrambles to the Duregar and repeats the process, leaving the creature a shivering mass of nerves and senseless noise. Finally, the group rally themselves and begin trying to attack this strange brain creature that has not only incapacitated a member of their party but has now stopped their attempts at getting more answers. Vedrir’s arrows whizz over the tiny creature, Lady Grey’s axe slashes into the floor and Teoku’s panicked pleas do little to spur Ouskarr into action. In the end, Megs eliminates the creature with a well-placed Eldritch Blast, leaving nothing but a sizzling stain on the floor.
The Fellow Vagabonds gather round their fallen friend, staring off into space and after a brief moment to wonder how a brain-dead Kassadin was different from a usual Kassadin, the group start wondering what they could do to actually save him. None of them are really skilled healers, save Yuvari, and she is aware she doesn’t have the skill to reverse something like this.
“Perhaps,” Ouskarr ventures, “it’s like in the old stories where the kiss of a fair maiden will heal all his ills!”
“I’m not doing that either,” Yuvari stresses.
The group are back to square one.
Or, at least, they are until a new stranger enters into the mix.
A gasp sounds out from the doorway and there, draped across it as if the door were supporting all her fear, is a young blonde woman. She’s a vision of beauty and every part of her thin clothing is done to extenuate that fact.
“Well, I do declare!” she cries, “now, what’s been going on here? I came to ask for help from the Druid…but…here I find a big…strong man instead…”
Vedrir, the big strong man in question, decides to instantly escape. Teoku willingly takes his place, responding to the woman’s flirting in kind. Her wandering hands and kind words are welcome…right up until the point where she starts trying to bite his ear off. Teoku pushes her away and the woman bursts into loud laughter. Her face scabs over, wrinkles pushing down her face to jut out her nose. Her chest, before ample and seductive, sags, making her non-existent neckline a sickening sight.
“Oh, come on!” the woman cackles, “can’t you take a joke?”
This, Megs happily informs the party, is Tisiphone, her frost Hag sister.
Tisiphone is scraggly thin and just as hideous as the party expected a frost hag to be. On top of that, however, the Vagabonds unanimously decide Tisiphone is the worst person they have ever met. She’s rude, blunt and spiteful, sulking like a spoilt child when she first sees Meg, claiming she was abandoned and feels so left out. The group attempt to ignore her, but soon find such an effort to be impossible. Tisi demands attention and, worse still, she proves herself to be powerful enough to receive it, easily casting high-level spells just as a demonstration of her power. Whilst Megs loans magic from the Queen of the Unseelie Fae, Tisi has her own brand of power. In theory, she might even be able to heal Kassadin. Meg pleads with her sister to fix their fallen ally which, after some sufficient stroking of ego, Tisi agrees to.
Kassadin awakes to find Tisi’s lips upon his and quickly pushes the hag away, the other members of the party trying to explain to Tisi the meaning of the word ‘consent’. With their ranks now bolstered, the Vagabonds immediately do their best to leave Tisi behind, only for her to moan and sulk at them until she finally reveals her reason for arriving. Alecto has apparently sent out a letter to her sisters over recent weeks and though Megs never received hers, Tisiphone did and is now eager to reunite with her sister. She reveals that in the time since their last union, she’s been leading her own coven, though it’s clear that the effort was mainly done to give her an audience to perform for. Lacking in leadership skills, Tisiphone has come crawling back to Dorvine for advice. Upon learning of this, she demands that the party follow through with their efforts. The Vagabonds, already doing that, agree, but demand she stay outside to let them work. Tisi, insulted, allows the investigation to continue without her.
Finally, the Fellow Vagabonds find results: trapped under a lopsided bookcase, there’s a trapdoor leading down into the depths of a cavern beneath Alecto’s hut. Tisiphone, despite her obvious superior power, begs the party to go in as she finds such work disgusting. She also demands to be entertained though, because, as expected, she hates waiting. The party find a solution. They pass over the brain-dead Duregar for her to ‘entertain’ herself with. The group are quite aware in what way Tisi likes to play, considering her constant flirting and advances on every person who isn’t Megs in a ten foot radius, and this seems like an equal form of payback to them
Ignoring the moral debasement of her party and just hoping she can get out of Tisi’s way before the poor hag starts her performance, Elizabeth descends into the cavern below, using Vedrir’s rope. At the bottom, the area opens up to a floor of gravel shavings, rock walls and small glowing fungi, which light the cavern. Interested, Elizabeth studies them whilst the rest of the party descend. Elizabeth is eager to press on, considering her battle with her spirit guardian left her with no outward wounds and she’s desperate to have a chance to test her new abilities. The rest of the Vagabonds, however, are less enthused. They’re exhausted from the Duregar battle and still shaken, especially Kassadin, who clearly appears to be desperate for sleep. The group decide to have a long rest, setting in for what they hope to be a long relaxing night, hoping that the floorboards above block Tisi’s horrible acts from their mind.
As one might expect, the plan goes awry spectacularly.
Teoku and Vedrir find themselves well-rested after only four hours, being Elf-kin, and only needing a quick meditation instead of a sleep. Just as Kassadin turns in for a rest after his watch, the Ranger and Warlock decide to do some exploring into the cavern beyond. After all, whatever’s in there, the two of them are fully rested up, Teoku has his spell slots back and they’re both stealthy enough to avoid it.
Surfing down on the loose stones and landing in the centre of a large network of tunnels, the pair notice more florescent fungi on the ceiling and around the walls, with openings to the left with smooth stone and deeper foliage leading to the area on the right. It’s strange, but beneath the earth, it seems that Alecto has managed to create her own small eco-system, like something straight out of the forest above but submerged below. It would be a fascinating discovery, if not for the stirring in the massive gaping pit at the centre of the room.
Vedrir and Teoku attempt to hide as the rattling and crunching of bones under paw echo out all around. From the deep recesses of the hole below, a large furry creature stirs. With a smooth flap of leather wings, it lands above the pit, a large mane of brown fur decorating the face of a stern man. A scorpion’s stringer protrudes from the rear, lining spikes like barbed wire along the beast’s spine and its fur.
This is a Manticore and Teoku and Vedrir have just stumbled into its lair.
The Manticore turns its head, gazing straight into the space where Teoku stands.
“And…who are you…little morsel?”
The Manticore’s voice is deep, booming. It licks its lips, surveying its prey. Vedrir braces himself at the ready. Manticores are man-eaters and though the two don’t count themselves as human, the Manticore would hardly see a difference until they were being digested. Steadying himself, Teoku stands firm and steps forwards, proudly.
“I…am the alpha!” he proclaims.
Sadly, Baggy is still above in the hut. His new pet doesn’t seem all that interested in responding. Instead, the Manticore plucks forwards with its paw and jabs a sharp spike into Teoku’s stomach. The monster leans forwards, smiling.
“No…I am the alpha.”
Vedrir has had enough. He springs from hiding, readies his bow and unleashes a torrent of arrows, raining a gale of ice upon the unsuspecting Manticore as he shouts to alert the rest of the group. Their long rest will have to rest. A short one will have to do. For Teoku’s sake.
And thus concludes the seventh session of the Dorvine campaign. Honestly, this session was probably my favourite session so far. The combat was some of the best I’ve ever run, Elizabeth’s little moment helped catch her up with the others XP wise and the introduction of Tisiphone was really well received by the players (their characters, not so much). These are the features I’m going to be talking about for the rest of this segment, starting with what I learned from the combat in today’s session.
The best combats in D&D happen when your monsters fight smart.
The Duregar combat was the main centrepiece of the session for me and I think a reason it sticks out so much in my mind was that it was a departure from all combat that had come before it. Even during the most tense battles between the Black Rose or the Zombies on the ship from the first session, there was never really a threat that the players could lose. The zombies were first session cannon-fodder and the party was clever with engaging them, whilst the Black Rose knights were usually going to subdue rather than kill (how does one do a public execution without a living captive?) and were out-numbered or out-thought by the party in every major encounter.
The Duregar combat was the first time in the campaign so far the enemy had taken initiative in the fight. The Duregar were already at Alecto’s cabin when the party first approached, though their intentions have not yet been revealed. They had placed an alarm spell on the area, warning the leader of approaching individuals and had all planned for an ambush whilst the players took their time sliding down hills and climbing bridges. I specifically engineered an encounter like this to push the player characters to their limits and to show them that the world had just gotten more dangerous. If the dice had been less fair to the players, the Duregar could have easily taken the fight after catching the group unawares. Vedrir and Yuvari had spent all their healing spell slots by the end of the battle.
The combat was also so much fun to run because I used a variety of different types of Duregar in the battle, all from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. Three were Soulblades, psionic users with magical swords, who I used as a first strike force on the scattered PCs outside. One was a Stone Guard, the easy tank of the group, who it made logical sense to anchor to the hut and secure the area the Duregar were trying to hold down. The final Duregar was a Mind Master, the de-facto leader of the raiders, which allowed for a greater emphasis on tactics and mental manipulation.
It was also a lot of fun to run because, for the first time, I started actively trying to out-smart the players and think of new strategies to best them. The Duregar tried to split the party up, locking certain characters, like the ranged Vedrir and squishy caster Meg, into one on one engagement before growing and attacking harder. The Mind Master’s main ability was to take control of other characters and use their reaction to attack but I began using what I understood of the game to my advantage.
In Pathfinder, where I learned my bread and butter for role-playing, there was an established rule that you could willingly fail a saving throw. Though the actual rule is something that’s not official for D&D, it does make a lot of sense with how spells work and I usually keep it in my games. After all, if it was impossible to willingly fail a save, how does healing magic work? Could a person theoretically not resist a healing spell if they didn’t want to? It’s a level of player choice that’s interesting to explore, what spells you actually want to affect you or choose to affect. Through the Mind Master, I exploited this ruling by having his reaction attack ability able to affect his allies as well. Logically, there’d be no reason why a Duregar soldier wouldn’t let a superior officer into his mind to control him if it meant victory? That’s just efficient tactics.
Of course, the players fought back the onslaught, which is good. The main trick to running combat is to try and kill the heroes and miss but the fact that the battle was so dynamic and got so close definitely woke the players up to different strategies and the idea that not all combats they entered would be winnable with sheer dumb luck.
A player’s personal development is just as important as the development of the group.
Beth, sadly, had been unable to attend a few sessions of Dorvine thus far, due to work and personal issues that aren’t really suitable for discussion in a silly blog about running D&D.
The important thing about all this was though, she was falling behind in XP and falling behind story-wise. I honestly think a lot about how different players engage with the campaign I give them and I felt really bad for Beth in this regard. Her character had been pulled away from her family and had gone from having a lot of influence in the world to having only what she could hold. Plus, thus far, the other players were gaining the lion’s share of my attention. It’s not a bad thing per say, all players deserve their DM’s focus but I wanted to give Beth something special, a sign that I wasn’t giving up on her and I was eager to see her strike out on her own in this new world.
The first part of that was a letter from Lord Grey I sent to Beth at the end of session six. In brief terms, Lord Grey said he was proud of his daughter but also tasked her with making her own way in the world. If she could prove to her father her successful business skills, Lord Grey would gift her with the Grey Estate, inheritance before its time. The odds were overwhelming, and it was a lofty goal for Elizabeth, but I was confident in Beth’s ability as a player and also wanted to give her a personal character goal that best reflected her character.
The second was the spiritual encounter with Chaga the Grey. Now, the main reason for this battle was to buff Elizabeth up with XP. Awarding XP to players who aren’t able to attend a session is always a tricky avenue. On the one hand, it feels poor rewarding them for not being there, but petty for not giving them something. Chaga was an attempt to give Beth a feeling of accomplishment before granting her more XP and, more importantly, giving her a chance to role-play developing her Path of the Ancient Guardian archetype. It was a daring combat (mainly possible because Barbarian rage halves damage, thank god) but also gave Elizabeth some good RP moments with an ancestor and allowed her to inherit her abilities in a cool way. I think Beth enjoyed it too, which is the most important thing that matters.
When making NPCs for your players, lean into your strengths and lend your all to the role.
I have a huge weakness as a DM. Or at least, a stylistic choice I personally view as a huge weakness. No matter how serious the campaign or how intense a moment, I am never above injecting humour into situations. As a player, I do it too. Even when I’m playing characters without any sense of humour, I’m trying to say amusing dialogue within context, trying to make other players or the DM laugh, or simply, have a good time.
In the case of me as a DM, a lot of my characters are comedic in nature. Clacker was introduced as a way for easy comic relief and adorableness, Yuvari has a silver tongue and wit and Ouskarr is suitably bad at social situations. Whilst not necessarily a bad idea in concept, I often worry whether my abilities can carry the tone of the scene and sometimes, in trying to insert a joke, you usually instead kill any tension on entry and whilst some people laugh, serious players are left behind and don’t enjoy it. It’s a factor I probably need to work on or at least develop skill with.
However, this weakness became a strength the exact moment the player group met Tisiphone. I like to think I’m good at creating good and especially memorable NPCs. Tisiphone was an NPC that the players loved and instantly stood out in their mind after their encounter with her. It was horrific and bracing for the player characters but the players themselves found it enjoyable and hilarious. So, this segment is going to about trying to make memorable and entertaining NPCs using Tisiphone as a generic example.
First things first, you need to be willing to look silly and plunge yourself into the character. In hindsight, part of the reason why the players were so engrossed was apparently because of my performance. Admittedly, I don’t remember a lot about the exchange, just trying to tap into Tisi’s character and coming up with as many different comments as I could. The effect was fully inhabiting the mindset of a vain lustful petty frost hag and just completely diving in, not caring how much of a fool I made of myself. I’m aware that a few of the innuendos and flirtatious remarks I made got a lot of surprise considering I usually don’t try and act like a hag in heat but the players loved it even more when I stepped outside my comfort zone.
Secondly, the more individual your NPCs are, the better. Now, in Tisi’s case, she was the first of her kind to have ever met the party: a more powerful friendly spellcaster who was willing to be difficult and act at the expense of the party, much in the way they would engage with rival NPCs. Now, in the case of making your NPCs unique, you don’t have to go to the extremes like I did (and trust me when I say Tisiphone IS the extreme). Your characters don’t have to be loud, arrogant, humorous hags. Sometimes, a memorable NPC can just be built by knowing the little details of a character, little intricacies that make them really feel alive. For example, a farmhand might be just some farmhand to the party…until they learn he’s been saving up money and trying to learn to read books to go the magic academy, but his father disapproves. Giving motivation to a character makes them feel real, as Tisiphone’s desire for attention and to see her sister made her tangible despite how overzealous she was. Small details about a character can even help build a bigger picture in a player’s head. Having a character reveal cinnamon is her favourite flavour and she first tasted it from the spiced mead her Uncle used to make around winter’s time tells us a lot about that person, beyond just their attachment to a flavour.
That is going to be all from this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the party explore the caverns beneath Alecto’s hut and we’ll discuss how to use NPCs alongside your player characters and also dabble in a talking about dungeon planning…or, more accurately, my own faults in dungeon planning.
Until next time, thank you everyone is reading and I hope you enjoyed. Please leave a comment, positive criticism is welcome.