Dungeons are a staple of not only Dungeons and Dragons but of gaming in general for untold years. From the moment Gary Gygax first put his thoughts to graph-paper, the concept of Dungeons have since bled out into a variety of video game series, creating small set areas full of dynamic action and exploration. Originally, the Dungeon was the most important feature of the game. The role-playing took a backseat to exploration and great adventures of the subterranean tunnels beneath the city of Greyhawk. The main idea for DMs was to invent new dungeons to herd your plucky band of adventurers through.
After so many years, D&D has since evolved to new role-playing ground, expanding or simplifying with every new addition. The question now is a simple one: What role does the dungeon have in the modern D&D game and how can we as Dungeon Masters best explore that?
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, I’m going to be talking about session 8 of my D&D campaign: Dorvine. This segment, we’re going to be talking about running Dungeons, combat and, perhaps most importantly, running NPCs in combat roles. My un-rested exhausted 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 Fellow Vagabonds had felled a group of Duregar raiders, socialised with Meg’s Hag sister and now, were forced into a confrontation with a manticore which Teoku and Vedrir bumped into in an attempt to explore the depths of Alecto’s cavern before the rest of the party awoke. To say that the players were nervous going into this session was an understatement. Even though I had allowed the players the benefits of a short rest, Dion mentioned Kassadin was only on seven hit points, Teoku was currently impaled on a claw and Lady Elizabeth Grey was the only person standing with full health and full abilities. On top of that, Jacob was absent this session so Vedrir would also be taking a backseat to the action, leaving the party a member down for the rest of the fight.
From the depths of the cavern below, the Fellow Vagabonds hear Teoku howling in pain as the Manticore makes its first attack. Seconds later, Vedrir’s cold flurry of arrows piece the air, shattering like ice upon the beast’s hide. It only takes a few moments before Lady Grey charges into the fight, sliding down the gravel into the main cavern. With a flying leap, she brandishes her great-axe/parasol and drives it into the Manticore’s side. A ghastly frost rolls off of Elizabeth’s arms as she drives the hit home. The spirit of her ancestor surges forth, pinning the Manticore into single combat with a rough blow.
Teoku is flung from the Manticore’s claw, limping to the back of the group where Meg awaits, shielded by an exhausted Kassadin and Ouskarr.
“Great,” Kassadin grunts through a busted lip, “what else could go wrong?”
The sound of beasts squeaking in the dark answers their call. From the thick blackness of the cave’s depths, rats and bats begin to swarm along. Kassadin takes the brunt of the swarm, whilst Teoku and Megs try to cover the flank. Seeing Elizabeth taking heavy hit after heavy hit from the Manticore, Meg decides to step in with her own efforts. She reaches forwards towards the Manticore, and jabs down, her hand clenching around an invisible weapon. The Manticore suddenly pulses back in pain, blood dribbling down from his nose as Meg’s mind-spike spell takes affect. Noticing the buckling of the beast’s frame, Elizabeth lunges forwards with a roar. In a single swing, Elizabeth parts the monster’s head from his body, pulling the corpse down onto the dirt. The combined efforts of the rest of the group manage to push back the animals that have come to swarm. A pair of Pixies even flutter for a brief moment, teasing and tugging on Teoku before Kassadin cuts them down with a solid swing of his sword.
Following the battle, the party all but collapse in place, clamber up to their camp and resume their rest, this time hopeful to get their full eight hours. Their rest is undisturbed this time and the group finally get to explore the rest of the cave under their own steam, albeit a lot later than originally planned. Exploring the main cavern again, Elizabeth begins studying the strange mushrooms on the ceiling. The luminescent property interests her, so she begins collecting mushrooms, hoping to study them. In a brief observant, Elizabeth realises the mushrooms are, in fact, radiant in nature and the positive energy they emit begins to give the Lady ideas.
Megs, not being patient at the best of times, races off alone through the tunnels, heading left from their starting cavern to examine the smoother walls that line one of the branching paths. The area leads her to an isolated forge, raised high in the centre of the room with row upon row of weapons lining the sides. Upon the forge, Megs spots a small book on which a skull sits, carved out into a candle for Alecto’s reading. A smile on her face and a skip in her step, Megs saunters over and takes the book for herself.
The Hag soon learns she should have not have overlooked the skull.
In a blaze of light, the bones flash into motion, rising from the place where it rests and spewing streams of fire, each one centred on Granny Megs. Megs has enough time to brace against the flames but the arcane fire singes her skin, disfiguring her already horrid appearance even further. The skull shrieks in an unholy voice and questions the group’s presence in her mistress’ home. Megs, thinking quickly, unveils the recovered letters about her presence and explains her story and relationship to Alecto. The Flame Skull hovers for a moment, uncertain, before suddenly descending onto Meg’s eye level. The fire pits of eyes the creature possesses spark and flash, as if blinking.
“Oh…Lady Maegara, yes. Lady Alecto has told me much about you…forgive me, I do seem to have fried your face…”
And thus the party met Casta, animated Flameskull in service to Alecto.
It doesn’t take much persuading for Casta to calm down and even less for Megs to convince another follower to join their ranks. Casta, tired and lazy after his flurry of fire, settles into the indent the Intellect Devourer had previously made in the Duregar head Megs is still carrying around. The Flame Skull settles in, allowing for the party to explore the rest of the room. A quick study of the weapons on the walls confirm that all were magical at some point, but now, none possess any enchantments at all. Kassadin, displeased, slinks off from the group. Granny Megs begins exploring the rest of the room beyond alone. Kassadin arrives just in time to find the Hag collecting a small assortment of healing potions. The Tiefling manages to cajole Megs into sharing one with her, but completely misses Megs finding a small horde of silver in a fake bottom under the chest’s main compartment.
Returning to the central cavern, the Fellow Vagabonds track across the room towards the Western side, concentrating on a path filled with foliage leading to an area that appears to be a hollowed out tree. Alecto’s work in the cavern does appear very strange, especially how clearly her little under-garden is trying to reflect the natural world. Still, it’s something that the group try not to think too much about. Their efforts, after all, are about finding Alecto. Vedrir even concluded the previous day that there might have been a portal of some kind to another plane within Alecto’s hold using his new Horizon Walker senses. Perhaps, the eco-system was built in a way of sustaining it, or else some strange detail Alecto had seen fit to construct to spruce up her home. Either way, the dense foliage and tree bark are at odds with the cavern the ground had expected.
Beyond the threshold of the opening in the bark, the party can see an office set about them in the confines of the broken tree trunk. Items are cast aside in every direction, scattered across a great oak desk. Gaudy ornaments line the walls and floors: suits of armour stand proud to the side with great rusted blades within their grasps. A bear skin rug lines the floor, being pressed into the centre of the room by large dominating pieces of furniture, like the chest in the corner of the room. Kassadin, annoyed that the previous room had failed to contain any magical items for the party’s mission, storms over to the suits of armour along the wall, hoping their blades prove magical.
He is half-right.
But he had also completely forgotten about the rug.
The Bear skin suddenly rises, shooting from the floor to engulf Kassadin in a swooping embrace. At the same time, the pair of suits of armour leap into life, one sword flying from their grasp and circling the room like a hawk. Once again, the party had sprung into another situation unprepared, a situation that resulted in another desperate battle.
Teoku is thrust into the wall by a suit of armour, the flying sword proves a deadly attacker on the party as a whole and the Bear Rug soon abandons Kasasadin in favour of Lady Grey when she approaches. Odds were going poorly, even when Yuvari and Ouskarr waded into the mix to try and reinforce matters. Megs is probably in the worst position. She’s been weakened from her experience with Casta and has yet to heal, limping around on low health. She feels the threat of the armour even more, especially when one closes in on her in the centre of the room. Using her transformation ability as a Hag, Megs clothes herself in Alecto’s appearance and begins ordering the magical items to stand down. The bluff works. At least, long enough for the party to recompose themselves. The magical items aren’t exactly clever enough to discern whether Megs is the real Alecto, especially with her high deception and bluff. In the end, it is only a slip up in wording and poor choices of action that lead to the battle beginning again.
This time, however, the party is at least braced for the rest of the fight.
It’s the strangest of things that can change the momentum of a battle.
The two armours are now set on Granny Megs, but that opens up their flank to Yuvari and Elizabeth’s combined efforts, both joining in to challenge one of the suits. Kassadin, noticing that the flying sword had gone unnoticed thus far, strikes it down with a powerful blow and then rallies back to aid Teoku and Ouskarr in eliminating a suit of their own. Readying his trusty bat, Teoku brings up a hefty blow to one of the armour’s groins, sending the form crumpling out across the floor. Yuvari and Elizabeth’s efforts prove effective as well, Elizabeth managing to bring down the other armour with a mighty swing of her parasol, aided by Ouskarr’s command and Yuvari’s flanking. Now, only the rug remains. The rug has leapt from person to person during the ensuring chaos, finally finding a perch on Teoku.
Kassadin knows exactly what he has to do.
Tugging sharp on the rug from Teoku and allowing it to embrace him, the bear-skin smothers his face. Kassadin braces for a moment and runs his hands across his blade, the fire blazing into life.
“Alright!” he yells at the top of his lungs, “let me have it!”
Granny Megs is all too willing to respond.
Falling back away from the fighting using her ethereal jaunt, Megs has been waiting for an opening, an opening that has now suddenly arrived. Lifting her hand forwards, channelling all of her energy, Megs clicks her fingers, casting prestidigitation. A flash of flame lights on the edge of the rug, leading to Kassadin ripping the rug of smothering in half on his blade by expanding the blaze. With the heat of battle fading away and the party victorious, the group take a moment to check their spoils. Within the chest in the corner of the room, the Vagabonds find a small collection of items: a quiver, satchel and small pieces of loot besides. Megs checks the chest and finds another false bottom and a small collection of letters, shredded into pieces. She eagerly pockets the paper.
Realising the last fight has taken a lot out of the group, the Vagabonds decide to take another long rest and recover. Their progress is proving slow through the area, but the group now has a chance to relax for themselves and recover. Clacker, as always, is unscathed so he does his best and sits out on watch, watching for any new arrivals with a gleeful smile whilst the rest of the group wind down. Teoku takes the calm moment as a chance to approach Ouskarr. Having fought side by side to protect one another in the previous battle, Ouskarr is getting more relaxed with the Shadar-Kai, even with the lingering looks and passing comments. It clearly was making the half-orc feel uncomfortable in a way, and yet Teoku’s presence proves reassuring, especially when the forward adventurer suggests the two snuggle together for warmth in the cave. Blushing, Ouskarr retreats, returning later with an extra bedroll and allows Teoku to lean on his shoulders as he sleeps, trying to ignore everyone’s looks and Kassadin’s laughter.
Yuvari and Elizabeth, having bested the suit of armour together, settle down for a nice chat to wind down from the conflict. Elizabeth explains to the Tiefling about her new powers, her spiritual journey and even confides in her about her father’s letter and challenge, that she needs to acquire massive wealth in a short time before he’ll even be willing to see her again. As a Grey, she feels its an honour to follow something like this. Yuvari has a completely different response prepared.
“So…you run away from home…and your dad gives you homework? Wow. I mean, I never had a father, but if I had one like that, I…”
She quickly stops, checking herself and wisely walks away from the situation, leaving Elizabeth a little annoyed but most perplexed by Yuvari’s bluntness.
Even Kassadin and Megs have a moment, huddled together under her cloak of the Manta-Ray, Megs tells Kassadin a story from Old Dorvine, of knights and princesses and sleeping curses, ultimately leaving the boy content but hungry for more before the group finish their rest.
Moving on the following day, the group head Southwards along the tunnel, deeper into the caverns towards where Vedrir detected the portal between the planes. Half-way through the tunnel, the cavern becomes filled with the sounds of grinding machinery and panicked yelling. The group fall silent all as one, their footsteps hushed as they skim across the ground. In the distance, shadows dart across the open cavern. Skinny humanoid figures vault over stones, hiding from a flurry of attacks. Two Duregar march in step beside another of their kin bound in a large machine, a debased example of Duregar engineering, powered by the pain of the wielder. With drills whirring and hammer creaking, the device marches forwards, approaching the humanoids. Their crossbow bolts do nothing, but anger the already raging machine. The party know there’s a fight going on but haven’t been watching enough to work out what’s going on. In the moment of chaos, the party make their decision.
Teoku summons his pact of the blade weapon, striking out against the nearest Duregar and the approaching group launch their own combined attacks. A strong slash of Lady Grey’s battle-axe collapses the frame of the machine with an almighty crack, the Duregar inside giving a final death rattle before the battered machine claims his life. Megs launches a few eldritch blasts as well. However, Kassadin is the heaviest damage dealer of the bunch. He slashes aside one of the Duregar, grabs them firmly within his hands and hoisting them into the air.
“I…” Words fall from Kassadin’s mouth, his lip quivering and his palms shaking, “I…”
He lets out a sharp hiss of air, a sudden black glow rising in his eyes, red lights flashing out in the centre of the darkened pits.
“I…want to let you bleed…”
With a flex of his hands, fire rushes from Kassadin’s grip, engulfing the Duregar into a sudden burst of flame, turning the screaming Duregar into a pile of ash. The Duregar left in the area howls in terror and attempts to run. He doesn’t get far enough before Kassadin catches him, attaching in a grapple. A crack echoes around the cavern as Kassadin gives a soft hiss of satisfaction. The party watch in horror as he turns back to them, a smile on his face, blood on his fingers and black eyes set inside his fiendish face.
“What the hell was that?” Teoku accuses.
Kassadin calms, quickly. He blinks, his feature fading into blank innocence as the sudden transformation begins to fade.
“Wh-what…what was,” Kassadin stutters, coming to his senses, “what was what?”
“The eyes!” Teoku snapped back, “the black eyes, the fire…I saw the way your eyes burned.
Kassadin stares back as the party watch him, equal parts curious and terrified. In the silence of the darkness, the hidden forces fighting the Duregar emerged. Elf-folk, shrouded in black clothing, their skin as dark as ash, speak out to the group,
“Peace,” their leader speaks in a heavy accent, gesturing to Kassadin, “we will not fight. Your word. I want your word. We will not fight you, if you will not fight us. Ask questions. We. We will cooperate.”
The leader removes his hood and reveals his tight defined features. Kassadin raises an eyebrow but promises cooperation. Megs is less keen on the idea, but it is Vedrir, returning from his position at the rearguard, who approaches and voices the most suspicion in a single word,
And thus concludes the eighth session of the Dorvine Campaign. This session is the closest session I’ve had in a long time to something resembling a Dungeon Crawl. Most of the session was about exploring Alecto’s cavern and fighting monsters and it was the first time I had run anything dungeon-like for my players, so it was a good chance to see how they reacted to Dungeons in general. Here are some of the lessons I learned from running today’s combat.
Know your playing style and the playing style of your players, cater to that.
To be completely honest, DM to reader, I am not a big fan of dungeons. When I first started playing Pathfinder and later, when I moved onto 5e, I did my best to include a lot of dungeons in my campaign. Even still to this day, I try to use dungeons in my campaigns because they’re so ingrained into the nature of Dungeons and Dragons as a whole: entire pages of the DMG are devoted to Dungeon layout, including a really awesome table in the appendix that allows you to randomly generate your own dungeons. However, when I think back to my favourite moments running D&D and even to one of my favourite campaigns I ran as a DM, I realised that dungeons didn’t really feature as my favourite features in the game. In fact, sometimes, the dungeons proved a pain to run and even quite boring in some situations.
So, let’s take a balanced look at this: how do dungeons work and how do we use them?
Dungeons basically function in D&D as levels in a video game. They’re small isolated locations away from the surface level hub world where the players can go and get a taste of combat with monsters in an indiscriminate detailed narrative environment. As DM’s, dungeons are an easy way to force players into combat with all manner of beasties. It’s a little hard to reason why manticores are chilling on the surface, but no-one questions what such a beast is doing trapped in an underground crypt filled with so many other nasty creatures. In addition, dungeons can provide great narrative tension and can be well used to build suspense. Dungeons are usually littered with traps, features and challenges different from combat. Having the characters explore such a hostile area can lead to some wonderful interactions and some interesting situations.
Now, the main flaw with dungeons is one you can notice quite easily: they are areas designed primarily with combat in mind, not RP. Whilst some dungeons do include different political factions and features such as traps to contend with, dungeons are primarily a combat focused affair, which is good if your players like combat. Not all players do, however.
Joey, in particular, really disliked the lack of role-playing from the dungeon. He reassured me he was still having fun, but he was equally eager to get the dungeon finished and continue on to less strained pastures. From my angle, as well, I was really not enjoying the dungeon I had built. The basic map was something I had created from the Donjon D20 Random Dungeon Generator and tried to fill in with my own narration. Each area was built to relate back to Alecto’s work and to further develop a feel of her identity and skill-set. The Manticore on guard in the underground forest was to establish her obsession with collection and experimentation through nature, Casta and the forge to show her magical prowess at copying and redistributing enchantments, whilst the office room built into the nook of the large tree trunk was done to establish her own busy work-ethic and her paranoia from her guards. The main issue with all of this was everything felt very samey.
Each threat was a combat focused experience and even if it would have changed to a trap or some other variation of threat, it wouldn’t have changed the overall quality of the dungeon. It was a flat area, interesting in space in only the furnishings and too barren of any real developments in plot, aside from the attempts at combat. It was time-consuming to run and design, but very little fun seemed to have been acquired from my efforts. I will admit, this is a weakness on my part. I know very little about designing dungeons and despite studying a few adventure modules, I have yet to piece together a truly successful formula for an engaging dungeon.
Considering both Joey and myself didn’t get as much enjoyment out of Alecto’s cavern as I had initially hoped, I have ultimately decided to cut back on my usage of dungeons within the future. More compressed dungeons might be the key, or at least a more narrative focused approached to the layout and combat features of future attempts. Either way, for now, my lesson is to be considerate about your players and yourself and to mould your campaigns into the kind of thing you and them can both enjoy. Perhaps your players love killing monsters but hate the political backdrop you’re trying to force on them, perhaps your party aren’t interested in adventuring at all and want to start up their own business. Both approaches are equally valid, narrative games like this should be played to your strengths, so you can get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of them. Whether or not I incorporate dungeons in my campaign later on, this has still been a lesson on the execution of them and has definitely warned me of weaker spots within my DMing for the future.
When running NPCs within the party, try to balance interesting personalities and presences on the battlefield without stealing the player’s thunder.
If ever a DM introduces an NPC party into a group of adventurers, the whole party tends to react with cautious concern. The greatest dread for most players in a position such as this is that this NPC is the DM’s own player character he can play to interact with the group.
A simple piece of advice to DM’s: do not do this. Never do this.
If you want to play D&D, play in someone else’s campaign. Your campaign is not about you or the character you’ve always wanted to play, it’s about your players and their adventures. Because of this, I rarely include other NPCs in my games within an active role of combat. An NPC having a cool moment is all well and good, especially if it can serve for a good introduction to a character, but the game isn’t for your characters to look cool.
That being said, I have included a small group of NPCs within this party, though the intention was not always so. In the first session, I introduced a Half-Orc bodyguard, Ouskarr, for Elizabeth as a way of helping the player characters out if they got too in over their head. The idea was that when the party got to a higher level, they wouldn’t need him there to support them and could fight on their own, whilst Ouskarr stayed with Lord Grey. Yuvari had even less intention of joining the party, only being introduced by chance and suddenly joining the party through Meg’s actions of saving her. The more we played, the more the other players made it known that not only did they like the characters I’d introduced, but they wanted them to stay with the travelling group. So, as the game went on, our Fellow Vagabonds have collected a large assembly of NPCs that are following them on their quest.
Currently, the party numbers ten characters. Clacker and Casta, are solely present within the group dynamic for humour and exposition respectively, so at least there was an excuse to keep them out of combat, same as Baggy as a pet for Teoku, too lazy to be involved with combat. However, Ouskarr and Yuvari were established as skilled individuals and expected to be involved with the party dynamic in combat.
So, the question, as a DM became how was I going to handle these two NPCs in a combat capacity?
Usually, I pushed more combat focused NPCs to the back of the line, telling the rest of the party they were fighting other enemies at the back, but this always seemed like a weak justification and brought up a lot of other questions, like who else was in the combat that they weren’t involved with and why their comrades couldn’t help? With Yuvari and Ouskarr, I’d have to come up with a new way to deal with involving them in combat, finding a way to unite their own identities as characters or stealing thunder from the other player’s characters. The result was actually very effective.
Yuvari is a multi-class character, part Rogue/part cleric. The combination means, in combat, she flanks opponents, allowing her allies to gain advantage, but also has access to healing magic that the group lack. Her trickery domain feeds into her Rogue abilities, whilst her role as a cleric allows her to effectively support the other characters. Ouskarr, on the other hand, is a Fighter, but tapping into the Martial Archetype of the Battlemaster. Only about 1/10 of Ouskarr’s attacks are his own, as he uses his Superiority die to command the others players into battle or rallying them with his bonus action. As a result, in a fight, Yuvari and Ouskarr prove supportive in combat and serve an active role on the team without stealing thunder from the other player characters.
The feedback I’ve heard back from the other players has been incredibly positive, appreciating both the interesting NPCs personalities and the useful way in which they applied their skills in combat. It was a new approach, but it served to be one that the other players enjoyed and gave me a series of guidelines for building good NPC followers and playing them in combat. NPCs are best utilised in combat in ways that make up for the deficiencies of other players, or by playing support roles in order to reinforce their abilities. This allows for the NPCs to still have character and engage in battle but doesn’t overshadow the player’s own achievements.
That is going to be all from this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the party reach the end of Alecto’s cavern and we’ll talk about boss battles and seeding future plot-points through personal quests and altering the D&D mythos to suit the needs of your campaign. Until next time, thank you everyone is reading and I hope you enjoyed. Please leave a comment, positive criticism is welcome.