From the DM’s Chair: Session 9, The Ways

We’ve all probably been there: you’re playing a video game, you’re coming to the end of the level. Finally, all of your hard-work and long sessions of thumb flicking have paid off. But, there’s still one final hurdle you have to overcome, a threat greater than any before. You step into the final room of that dungeon and watch a cut-scene as a horrifying monster prepares to attack. This is the boss-fight, it’s a staple of gaming. One could argue in Dungeons and Dragons it occurs less so. However, the narrative effect of boss fights are still at play within D&D itself: climatic clashes against an antagonistic force, which usually end in some great achievement, like magic items or extra experience. Sometimes, however, you can use the scene after a final boss to great effect in other ways. Sometimes, revelations of plot can be just as satisfying as a magic sword.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, I’m going to be talking about session 9 of my D&D campaign: Dorvine. This segment, we’re going to be talking about running boss battles in D&D, seeding more plots for your players and putting your own stamp onto the D&D mythos. My wonderful set of cavern-delving, Manticore murderers 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:

Whence last we met, the Fellow Vagabonds had stumbled their way through yet another series of epic encounters before coming face to face with a group of Drow who wanted to parlay with the party. For this session, all players were ready, present and tense to see how things were going to go down with these strange folk from beneath the earth.

Vedrir first heard of the drow in his infancy. As a son of a powerful noble, he had the best education and learnt much of his own kind, even the members of the elf bloodline who had shamed them all. Throughout his lectures regarding the drow, one thing was made very clear.

“Don’t trust them,” Vedrir announces to the group, “they’re liars.”

“We come in peace,” the drow leader replies, ignoring his words, “we will cooperate fully with you. We just wish for a chance to leave here alive.”

Obviously, these words unsettle the party. Hands reach cautiously for weapons, but Kassadin has at least promised to speak with the drow and hear what they have to say, though Megs and Vedrir bristle at the confrontation. The drow, strangely enough, is true to his word and explains the reason for his presence in the cave. The small group are an expedition force to the surface, following after the duregar, in order to investigate their activities. As limited as their knowledge is, the drow have at least realised one important thing: the duregar are after spell-casters. The deep dwarves kidnap those with arcane potential and drag them back beneath the earth to their stronghold. The drow have entered Alecto’s cavern after hearing of a powerful hag in the area, planning to kill her before the duregar get their hands on her.

“But,” the drow leader explains, “if you are here to protect her, then I see no reason why we need to continue with our mission. I was simply told to ensure the duregar not acquire her as a target. If you can do such, then no-one need die.”

Obviously, such a plan to murder her sister boils Meg’s blood and Vedrir isn’t keen on trusting the drow, but the rest of the party seem less willing to engage in a fight when there seems to be a chance of a peaceful agreement being made.

“Fine,” Kassadin concludes, “if you’re gonna go, get going.”

Male Drow, second class citizens in their own society, bred to fight and serve the true followers of Lolth, female priestesses in the dark. Image taken from D&D, Rogue Page.

The drow bows respectfully, and though his comrades seem reluctant to obey, wanting to start a fight themselves, he calms them down and they leave together. As he parts, the leader reveals his name, Szinzar, and promises that if they meet any drow again, using the name will benefit them. Vedrir doubts it, what with drow being matriarchal in nature, but at this point, just wants the drow gone from his life. The party watch the drow disappear into the blackness of their tunnel, before caving it in after them, to keep the party from following them. A tense few minutes follow before the party continues moving, Megs and Vedrir muttering to one another that the next drow they see, they plan to kill on sight.

Continuing on through the caverns, the Vagabonds stumble upon a misty section of the tunnels ahead, shrouding their path forward. The group continue through, doing their best to make it through the veil of fog. Megs, however, proves unlucky. Her foot clicks against the floor and the next second, the stone gives way, sending Megs tumbling backwards. The party turn to react, but do so far too late. Megs falls into a bubbling pool of acid, becoming entirely engulfed by the burning liquid. Calling upon her ethereal jaunt ability, Megs teleports up and out of the acid, though the damage is already done. The group re-gather and after a brief attempt to patch up Megs (and some extra time with the Hag lashing out at Kassadin for being smug at her fall), the group finally reach the end of the fog and to the place where Vedrir has been sensing a disturbance in the planes.

Ahead, the open cavern is littered with bodies: duregar and elven alike, all the way up to a large pool. At one point, this pool seems to have a spring. Now, however, the water lies dirtied by the blood of battle and mould from acid, seeping up from cracks in the ground. A causeway lies across the still pool, leading to a raised archway made of twisting bark and branches. Vedrir recognises the archway on sight. A fae-gate, like the ones his people used to pass between the faewild and the material world. Usually, fae-gates either sparkle a light blue or open into a full-doorway between the worlds. However, at a glance, this one appears bright red, flashing and sparking with angry hissing.

Alecto is nowhere to be seen.

Megs, wanting to wipe the acid from her, approaches the still pool and tries to clean herself. Her hand manages only a brisk tap of the pool before the water suddenly surges to meet her, slamming her to one side. The party jump in surprise as clumps of the stagnant pool begin to rise, twisting and convulsing together into a more humanoid form around a set of rusted armour from the bottom of the pool. Held in its container, the water hisses with acid as it leans back its head and delivers a throatless roar.

The party have just met their first elemental: a water myrmidon.

Within the first few strikes, the party begin to realise this battle might prove more difficult that others thus far. Teoku’s shadow-blade causes the water to stutter as he slices at the creature with his pact weapon, only for the myrmidon to respond in kind, forming a clump of a trident from the drifting metals of the pool and jabbing it into Teoku’s stomach. The attacks come faster than the party are expecting and in mere moments, Teoku finds himself overwhelmed. A solid strike knocks the wind from the party’s sails as Teoku’s blade vanishes and the shadar-kai crumples to the floor, bleeding out. Yuvari quickly slides into the fray, healing Teoku back up. The myrmidon turns its lidless gaze upon its next target, unleashing a flurry of spear blows upon the Tiefling Cleric. Yuvari, like Teoku before her, is brought to the ground. Kassadin, Elizabeth and Ouskarr arrive at the front-line just in time. They launch attacks, but none can break through the thick plating of the Myrmidon’s armour. They do at least succeed in luring it away from Yuvari just long enough for Megs to stabilise her condition.

“Stay where you are,” Megs encourages, “don’t do anything stupid.”

Yuvari reluctantly agrees. She, Megs and Teoku begin their retreat across the causeway as the myrmidon continues to harry at the front line defences of the party. Then, from the edge of the mists at the far end of the room, a swarm of arrows flies forwards. Each blow lands solidly upon the myrmidon, exploding in waves of force that cause the creature’s armour to crumple in on itself and for the form to quiver.

Vedrir has been taking cover near the back of the cavern, launching volley after volley on the elemental with his planar warrior ability. The Myrmidon adjusts itself.

A new target has presented itself.

Bursting forth, the myrmidon surges forwards, thick jets of water propelling it at high-speed along the cavern to where Vedrir stands, firing arrows desperately to keep the creature pinned. As the myrmidon escapes their range, Ouskarr and Kassadin begin desperately hurrying to keep up. None of them are quick enough. Except, that is, Lady Grey.

No Grey allows their quarry to escape.

Roaring with feral rage, Elizabeth drives her parasol battle-axe into the back of the creature’s armour, locking it into a fierce one on one battle, her ancestral spirit empowering each strike. The Myrmidon shifts once more, its current wrapping around Elizabeth and slicing at her from all sides. Elizabeth braces in preparation. She’s surprised, however, as the Myrmidon’s spear shifts and pierces her dress with a power beyond her resistances. She learns all too late that the creature’s attacks are magical in nature. Unable to resist such heavy damage, Elizabeth is forced to anchor herself and wait for reinforcement.

Greys also don’t run from a battle.

United with her spiritual ancestor, the Barbarian Chaga, Elizabeth can handle any attack that comes away and return it with twice as much force. To do any less would do disservice to her family. Artwork by Dion Russell, whose artwork you can find here:

Kassadin arrives just in time to help box in the Elemental, with Ouskarr following swiftly behind, covering the rear. From the distance, Teoku, Yuvari and Megs begin hatching their own plan, just as Vedrir warps to their position using his fae step.

“Holy-water!” he yells, “I need holy-water!”

“Better…give it…back…” Teoku pants back, chucking a small vial across the cavern. The throw is awkward but Vedrir makes the catch with ease, rolling into the grab before racing back down the corridor towards where Lady Grey is fighting. Pouring the water out onto his hand, Vedrir taps Lady Grey on the back, pushing his magic into her bloodied form. As the elemental reels to strike again, still besieged by Lady Grey’s ancestral spirits, its spear comes into contact with Lady Grey, only for the spear’s momentum to slow and the force to disperse evenly around Elizabeth’s form. Lady Grey has resistance once more.

“Protection from good and evil,” Vedrir mutters.

The spell is not the only effort the group are taking. Now, the group have the ideal situation for taking out the Elemental. The main advantage the Vagabonds have in the fight is numbers and they use that to their advantage, forming a box around the Elemental with Elizabeth tanking the hits and Vedrir, Ouskarr and Kassadin launching attacks of their own. From their distant perch, Teoku, Yuvari and Megs are just in range to launch their cantrips at the creature, firing off shot after shot of eldritch blast and sacred flame. With nowhere to run and with its efforts to break through the party’s makeshift barricade failing, the Myrmidon quickly begins to recoil. The water weakens, bubbling from the heat as Kassadin launches another of his attacks. It impacts so hard into the Myrmidon that the armoured helm its using to keep its form dents from the solid fiery strike. Vedrir delivers the finishing blow, the sheer force of which causes the Myrmidon to dissolve into a sizzling puddle.

The battle won and their most difficult fight yet over, the Vagabonds take a moment to recompose themselves and rest up, setting up camp. Yuvari and Teoku are still badly injured, but where the other adventurers see a problem, Elizabeth sees an opportunity. Elizabeth reveals that she’s been collecting the radiant mushrooms from around the cavern and believes she can use them as a prototype for her ‘healing tea’ idea. The other members of the group are dismissive, especially at the suggestion of ‘mushroom tea’, but Ouskarr insists Lady Grey is a genius of her craft and takes the first sip. As luck would have it, the tea is indeed magical in nature, healing Ouskarr and then Teoku and Yuvari just enough for them to relax at the make-shift camp.

Exploring the shrine near the pool, Kassadin finally comes across a positive to the gruelling boss fight: a chest full of magical artefacts. Hauling the chest up and out of the acidic pool, Kassadin opens the lock and begins passing the gear around to be distributed. A battle-axe head of magical power is given to Lady Grey, who affixes the new head to her parasol. Vedrir receives a magical quiver, though he’s too preoccupied by the rift to take time studying it. A small broach with a silver squirrel upon it is handed out to Megs, and Kassadin claims the final item for himself. Within the depths of the chest lies a great-sword. Upon Kassadin picking the sword up, a blue light shines from the hilt, opening like an eye, and a voice enters his head.

“Master? Is that you?”

Kassadin panics briefly.

“Erm…no…name’s…Kassadin…Kassadin Lightfade.”

“Very nice to meet you Kassadin Lightfade,” the voice replies, “I am Ward. Tell me do you know what happened to my master?”

Kassadin pauses, still trying to understand his current situation.

“You’re…magic? Er, how long have you been in there?”

“What day is it today?”

Kassadin pauses, considering.

“Ah…Pelsur,” he replies eventually, “27th of Argon, Year 796 of the Torvali calendar.”

Ward’s blue eye shivers.

“What’s a Torvali?”

Kassadin pales. A sword. A magical sword, older than an ancient Empire.

“Your wielder, what race was he?”

“Human. Why?”

Kassadin winces.

“I’m sorry Ward. Your user’s probably dead.”

Ward is silent for a few moments.

“This,” the sword concludes, “is most unfortunate.”

Kassadin raises an eyebrow but quickly moves on.

“Look, I’m sorry, but there’s no-one else around here. If you want to get out of here, I could be your new master.”

“Such a suggestion is acceptable. It would be an honour Kassadin.”

The map I generated of Alecto’s cavern with the use of Donjon’s random dungeon generator:

Kassadin smiles as wide as he can, sheathing the blade upon his back. The other members of the party simply stare at him, confused that Kassadin has spent the past few minutes talking to an inanimate object.

It is then that Kassadin realises that telepathic contact with his new blade is still odd for a party of warlocks, a horizon walker and nobility.

“The mind’s the first thing to go,” Megs comments, knowingly.

The tension ultimately eases and the group are finally able to just talk. Amidst Kassadin, Teoku and Ouskarr’s chatting (Kassadin trying to ask Teoku about his black out period earlier and Teoku being jealous of how close Ouskarr and Kassadin are), Vedrir begins investigating the rift on the other side of the room. Flipping through his Horizon Walker’s Guide, the ranger uncovers a startling truth. Whilst there was once a fae-portal here, it seems to have been closed and not closed properly, hence leading to the corruption of the elemental guardian and the red crackling energy surging from the portal. Megs attempts to simply blast the energy and destroy the portal, but the effect only serves to have the blast redirected and appear out of nowhere near Elizabeth and the camp-fire. Realising that the rift needs to be properly closed, Vedrir, Teoku and Megs begin experimenting to shut it down.

Teoku, admittedly, has little experience with this. Back in the Shadowfell, few shadar-kai ever left their home, and those that knew how to navigate similar planar gates guarded the secret. Megs, however, as a hag of considerable years and a sister of Alecto, is more than aware of how Fae-gates work, easily allowing her to channel her magic into sealing the breach. Vedrir is needed for the final touch. As a Horizon Walker, naturally connected to the planes, Vedrir threads his natural magic and knowledge together to gently knit the scar closed, shutting the portal for good. As his fingers begin weaving the threads together, the party notice Vedrir’s eyes flash white and the ranger becomes unresponsive, focusing solely on his task.

For Vedrir, things aren’t that simple.

In a sudden rush of white light, Vedrir feels himself being pulled into the breach, only to land in the middle of a forest clearing. Looking around, Vedrir quickly realises that the forest isn’t a forest at all, it’s some kind of corridor made up of foliage and trees, wrapping out in different directions. Looking around, Vedrir sees the winding labyrinth stretches out all around him, like a globe. High above, even the stars seem to join together in white stripes across the sky, painting patterns to mirror the labyrinth below.

To say that Vedrir is confused would be a profound understatement.

Before managing to gather his thoughts, the grass around Vedrir begins to part and shift, the trees opening up to a form a whole new corridor in the shifting labyrinth. With little time to react, Vedrir can only draw his bow and brace against whatever is emerging from the wild.

He holds his breath, fingers going lax before he even has time to notch an arrow.

The woman emerging from the forming corridor of green is cast in the colours of Autumn: gold sparkles in her hair, orange tinting to her skin and flashes of faded red decorating her form. Her eyes flash to his and a moment’s introduction falls silent on her lips, her greeting shattering into a look of confusion. Vedrir stutters, fumbling as he pulls his weapon to his side.


The word falls from his mouth in hesitation. It’s not a question because he hopes it’s her but he just doesn’t understand why she would be. He hasn’t seen her in so long.

“Vedrir?” Thiala asks back, “little Veddie?”

Vedrir winces, a smile fighting its way onto his lips through his cold indifference.

“I did always hate you calling me that.”

Thiala smiles, a hint of melancholy about her as she examines him,

“How…how did this happen?”

Vedrir does his best to explain what he knows. His discovery of the Horizon Walkers, his journey to the rift and his attempt to seal it, Thiala simply watching him repeat his exploits, a growing excitement bubbling in her features when he explains his growth. A grimace of sadness crosses her lips when he confesses the dead Horizon Walkers he discovered, but on the whole, Thiala appears impressed.

Now, Vedrir explains, he only lacks the knowledge of where he is currently.

“The Ways,” Thiala replies, “a space between spaces. Like…veins rushing around reality, binding the planes together. It’s like stitching on patched clothing. You must have meditated your way in whilst trying to close the rift. It’s impressive but…”

Thiala grabs Vedrir’s hands, gripping them tightly and pulling him closer to look at his face more closely.

“Oh,” she breathes, “you…you don’t have the right eyes yet.”

“Eyes?” Vedrir wonders.

“There’s a Firbolg,” Thiala explains, “his name is Kalvin, you’ll find him near across the lake of Ash. He can show you what he once showed me, but he can’t teach it. You have to learn how to see yourself.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Vedrir replies, shaking his head, “but…I have so many questions. About you, where you’ve been, how you’re here…”

“I know,” Thiala replies, “but I also know I might not have much time.”

Vedrir’s features pale.

“Not much time? Before what?”

“Listen, Vedrir,” Thiala begins, cutting off the rest of his speech, “you must remember: it is imperative that you don’t…”

Her words falter. The look upon her face shatters, slipping from restrained joy to profound fear.

“Oh no,” she mutters in despair, turning her head away, and then back to Vedrir, “his eye is upon me.”

From above, the silver starlight paths begin to twist and turn in the sky, the labyrinth shifting once more. Thiala stands slowly. Vedrir, who hadn’t realised he’d been kneeling, struggles to his feet as well. Above, the stars twist and turn, whilst darkness flows out, forming a new corridor, heading straight down from the stars. Thiala has a moment to brace before the force impacts. A swarm of bandages, cloaks and phantom blades slice down at her, forcing her back and away from her brother. Vedrir, stirred into action, raises his bow and fires. The arrow flies on target, but stops mere inches from the figure’s shrouded face, flashing to one side with a flick of his wrist.

“Vedrir,” Thiala yells over the growing rumble from above, “run!”

“Yes little Tarrenstar,” a voice calls in the back of Vedrir’s head, “run.” Vedrir’s eyes fall on the shrouded figure opposite him, now standing between him and Thiala. As the figure tilts his head, the voice rings out in his mind, louder than before,

“It makes it so much fun when they run.”

More shadowed figures begin to appear, blurs of bandages and cloaks slicing through the air around Vedrir as they descend. In a brief moment, Vedrir curses his luck, before turning and running. Focusing on the pull he can feel within, the pulse from the material plane calling to him, he follows an unseen path. Weaving through the shifting corridors of the labyrinth and pursued by three of the bandaged warriors, Vedrir finds himself racing forwards, his mere will to keep going forming new pathways for him as he travels. In the end, it’s only by a sudden risk that Vedrir evades his pursuers, following a spiralling corridor as it descends into a slope and then a drop to reach the linking point to the material plane.

Snapping back into his body, Vedrir shuffles back, clawing at the dirt and shivering. The Vagabonds gather around him and ask what happened.

“My sister,” Vedrir chokes out, “I saw my sister…”

In the space between spaces, between fire stars and the blackening abyss, lone Thiala Tarrenstar fights for her life against the invading forces of a forgotten foe. Artwork by Dion Russell, whose artwork you can find here:

He relays as much as he can to the party, who listen with a surprising amount of intent and lack of commentary.

“I…I need to find a Firbolg. Near the Ash Lake.”

“Ash-lake,” Kassadin repeats, “and where’s that?”

Vedrir manages an uncertain shrug, slumping against the wall. Megs returns from the back of the shrine similarly disheartened.

“Alecto has moved on,” she explains simply, “she says she has work to attend to…and now, so do we.”

“We do?” Teoku asks.

Megs nods, a large smile coming to her face.

“The Ash-lake. It’s near a place called Cinder’s Grove, so that should be our next stop. I bet my life on it.”

“Cinder’s Grove?” Vedrir wonders.

“How’d you guess that?” Kassadin puts in, “you got a map or something?”

“No, just a vague understanding of etymology,” Megs replies with a coy smile, “come on, we’d best be off.” She taps the boys on the shoulder and begins leading the party back towards the entrance, making sure to hide the note she retrieved in her pack when no-one is looking. After all, for as good as this team is, a Hag always has their own plans in mind.

The group march back through the damp cavern and finally emerge to discover the fate of the unlucky duregar.

Dead, the cause a shattered pelvis of all things.

Disgusting and disturbing, all in one.

Clearly Tisiphone has had her fun, even turning Baggy pink and causing a perpetual storm cloud to hang over Teoku’s head when he complains. Megs pulls her sister aside and begs her to leave. She explains Alecto is off researching over factors and now leaves Dorvine in their care. Tisiphone complains, but finally has a sentimental send-off with her sister, before vanishing on a broom, riding it into the air like a stripper pole.

The party are glad she’s gone but Megs can’t shake a feeling of melancholy. Gripping firmly to Clacker’s wing, she follows the group back to town, thinking of the future.

When the party arrive, they find a squad of guards bringing their carriage back into the Whitepoint’s fortress. The Legate Bartax rewards the group well for their work but also gives some unfortunate news. For one, the people of the town have been growing restless at the presence of the Vagabonds in town, ever since Vedrir’s meeting with some of the locals in town. Xenophobic at the best of times, the town is quickly becoming a powder keg ready to explode any moment. Further adding fuel to this fire is news from the other settlements.

The Vagabonds have been aware of tensions in Dorvine but now, it appears such tensions are finally spilling out into the open streets. Maxen Willowbriar, Thane of Duskport, has declared himself a new King of Dorvine from the old bloodline and now seeks to usurp control of the island whilst the throne is weak. Queen Lilaria Coale is still young, thus leaving Odo Bayeux, master of the Black Rose and regent, in charge of the crown’s forces. Currently, the two groups have been attempting to gather support but not all looks promising. Solace, Caswinn and Urest stand with the crown, but Duskport, Eagle’s Climb, Water-watch and Dulavar have all risen in support of Maxen. With tension in Whitepoint, the Legate can only assume it will attempt to join the rebellion as well.

With news of war on the horizon, Bartax offers the party a chance to rest for the night behind the safety of his walls, to enjoy a drink in the bar for a job well done before planning their next move. The party agree, still shaken from the day’s events and now doubly worried for the coming storm on the horizon.

Megs and Vedrir, however, have their eyes on the horizon, and see a vestige of hope in a sea of turmoil.

Cinder’s Grove.

The city is undeclared in the civil war.

The perfect opening, perhaps, for greater things, the pair consider, as they follow the rest of the group to the mess hall of the barracks where tall kegs of mead await.

Lukas is amazing and altered the map I sent the group on Inkarnate so they could accurately remember which side of the conflict each settlement was on.

And thus concludes session 9 of the Dorvine campaign. This session was the end of the dungeon and a final boss fight, but more so, I used the end of one adventure to signal the beginning of others, seeding future plot hooks and story beats. As a DM, I approach campaigns more from a story perspective than a game-play perspective so this is a chance for me to talk about exploring building plot-hooks. It’s also a chance to discuss a few lessons I did learn that effected the game-play this session.

Slight alterations to pre-established monsters can make battles much more engaging for the players.

There is a section in the DMG specifically reserved for creating your own monster statistics. It’s a system that takes a while to fully understand and master, especially for a novice. After about two years with D&D 5e, I think I’ve just about learnt the method to creating these monsters in the guide so, when needed to, I will be able to home-brew the fiercest of enemies for my players to go up against. However, my first bit of advice before confronting this, is before jumping in to make something completely original, dip a toe into the Monster Manuals and see if there are any other monsters similar to the ones you’re after. If there are, editing existing monsters is certainly better than drafting one from scratch, as those monsters have already been confirmed to function within the setting, whilst your newly made monster might take a few tries of tweaking before it works.

For the battle with the Water Elemental, I took the stats of the Water Elemental Myrmidons from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but customised it. Instead of having three attacks per turn, I gave my altered Myrmidon one attack per turn, BUT three legendary actions, and switched out the Myrmidon’s special Freezing Strikes for an Acidic strike instead, dealing the same damage but altering the damage type.

Spacing out the attacks like this helped keep up the pace of the encounter but also made the encounter seem more deadly by comparison. Instead of the monster’s attacks being all clumped together and then having an in-active boss for an entire round of combat, spacing out the legendary actions helped keep the Myrmidon active in combat, allowed him to react to things at a quicker speed and, also, from a pacing standpoint, just made everything a bit more exciting for everyone involved. Hearing that the Myrmidon had legendary actions rose the tension for the players but also, ultimately, made them feel all the more epic when they overcame the creature, and that effect was created by shuffling around the turn order and changing a few features to an already existing monster.

Don’t be afraid to shift around established D&D lore to make it your own.

Now, Dungeons and Dragons, as an entity, is a system that caters to role-playing in a generic fantasy setting. There are many established settings for D&D, with pre-established pantheons, places, characters and monsters. Something that few DM’s might consider, however, is that these settings are not set in stone. After all, even if you’re running D&D in an established setting, such as Middle Earth (which can be a legitimate Dungeons and Dragons setting), the world in which your players are playing in is not the same that Tolkien created for Lord of the Rings which, in a twist of fate that plays into this lesson, is not the same world that Tolkien wrote for The Hobbit.

Let me explain.

Speaking of Tolkien, even his properties get the D&D treatment. Image taken from Amazon, Adventures in Middle Earth is produced by the talented Cubical Seven.

After the Hobbit became a commercial and critical success, the publishers returned to Tolkien and asked for a sequel. Tolkien came up with an idea, The Lord of the Rings, however, realised he would have to change some important details about his original work, so he went back and edited the Hobbit, resulting the publishing of a second edition Hobbit with the noteworthy changes, ie. Bilbo stealing the ring from Gollum, instead of Gollum offering it freely.

The main lesson from this weird bit of Tolkien trivia is that established settings and continuity shouldn’t be viewed as a prison. As DMs, we should feel free to alter the established lore of our worlds to our own benefit, much in the same way Tolkien did to his own story. Putting a personal stamp on the setting not only allows you to develop your own stories but allows you to put your own mark on the setting and cater to your narrative and to your player’s desires. Don’t like the fact Drow are evil or from the Under-dark? Just erase it, pick a new place from them to live and make them as you wish. Does your player wish to worship a God outside the standard Pantheon? Fair, invent your own. Don’t like certain Gods or Races or fancy introducing different ones? Sure, remove or change as you wish. Even if others disagree, as long as your players and you enjoy, feel free to edit your world as you please. It is, after all, your world, and no-one has a right to tell you its wrong.

In my campaign, this occurred with an addition to D&D cosmology. The D&D multi-verse has so many levels of depth and complexity, inner planes of elemental and material realms and the outer realms of heaven and hell. The Ways were an original addition to the cosmology, though the inspiration is based in a lot of properties. The addition turned out to be a successful one and the description of the area’s labyrinthine customisation and how it shifted pulled the group in to a new dynamic space, which served not only a stylistic purpose, but a story one as well.

When seeding your plots into the main centre, start small or start personal. Going too big too soon can ruin tension, but building up the stakes with small steps is effective.

After this session, the first thing that Jacob said was how surprised he was to suddenly have Vedrir’s sister feature so heavily into the plot. As a DM, I always try to work with the backstory players give me, but, in Jacob’s own words, he hadn’t expected ‘his turn’ to come so quickly. I don’t think anyone had.

I, however, had been planning this weeks ahead.

It’s nice to have a vague outline of how you want the narrative of your story to go. Some people think this might mean putting players on a rail-road, forcing them from destination to destination and leaving them no other choice. I, however, take a different approach. I view planning outlines as simply thinking about the story-world, events with it and how these events could shape the world and the story.

Finding Alecto this soon into the campaign would have really unseated a lot of the tension built in from Meg’s backstory and I don’t think would have been quite satisfying for Joey as a player. Instead, I considered the events I had planned around the world and considered Megs as a piece on the board. A key thing that both players and DMs can forget is that in order to create a living world that is truly ‘alive’, things have to happen off-screen that the players aren’t privy too or directly involved in. The brewing Civil War I’ve been alluding to from session to session was something that the players could have chosen to engage with it at any point, but if they didn’t, Dorvine wasn’t going to wait patiently for the players to deal with their issues and join in the fight. Therefore, it also made sense that Alecto would be involved in these bigger events and would choose to get involved herself, investigating them in a way that cut her off from a chance at reuniting with her sister. One of the reasons why we as players and DMs love D&D and role-playing over, say, film or even other games, is the increased level of interactivity and an intensely ‘reactive’ focus from a story and game-play perspective. Taking Megs off the board showed the players that were only a small piece in a much bigger world and helped establish the fact that more events were occurring than on their level, developing the idea of a bigger world and establishing a sense of intrigue within the players, a desire to interact with the other events and make a mark on the world themselves.

However, removing Alecto from the area did leave a space at the end of the dungeon and a space within the narrative. As much as I knew that meeting Alecto here might have proven disappointingly easy for Joey, saddling the party with a ‘you’re too late’ without any reward from a physical or narrative standpoint would leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth of the whole cavern and seem almost cheap. As such, I decided to feature Tisiphone before the dungeon and develop Vedrir afterwards. Working on Vedrir’s attachment to the planes, and the logic that a powerful caster like Alecto would have access to planar travel, I noticed a chance to engage another player into the running plot. Vedrir is one of the more interesting characters with regards to his archetype. Whilst the two Warlocks have already connected with their patrons, Elizabeth’s ancestral powers rely on knowledge of the past, and Kassadin’s Ember Knight is kind of easy to explain, Vedrir’s archetype as a Horizon Walker is big but vague enough to be ripe for pillage for plot hooks and story. I always enjoy engaging with archetypes and unique classes like this, allowing the players to feel like they themselves are advancing and growing stronger within the context of the narrative world. For Vedrir, this was a chance to give him a chance to grow…but also, gave me a chance to give him as a character a solid goal.

Jacob’s backstory on Vedrir was the right amount of specific and vague. I knew the names of each of Vedrir’s family members and what Vedrir knew about them, but Jacob also left some notable gaps: two of the family members had disappeared, missing, and Jacob didn’t specify how the family was reacting in the fallout of Vedrir’s travel to Dorvine. These gaps meant I could insert details myself and allowed me to have a chance to reunite Vedrir with a long lost sister who vanished just as the Eladrin began their attempt to conquer the world. Placing Thiala in front of Vedrir, giving her a clear motive and having her at a higher level and greater agency within the world was a way to allow the players to get a glance at the grander schemes at play, and for me to give Vedrir some motivation.

Then, there were the group in bandages who attacked the two.

Seeding plots doesn’t always have to be overly showy dramatic. The devil, after all, is in the details: a coloured pin on a map, a letter from a family member, even a relationship between two characters. However, if you need to make something stick in someone’s mind, the more dramatic it is, the more likely it is to stick.

A piece of artwork taken from, showcasing some of the amazing sights from the Storm King’s Thunder adventure module, mentioned below.

One thing I love in stories and I love even more in D&D is the idea of the bigger cosmology and the details of the world. The fact that, for example, in the adventure module Storm King’s Thunder, you can meet with several legendary dragons, all of which could destroy you in a glance, and yet there is no rule saying you can’t attack them. Scaling in fiction, especially fiction focused on power and combat, is important, and there can be no true sense of scaling without the idea of something lesser than you, and something more.

I truly believe that when the players will think back to when the campaign truly started, to when the wandering threads of plot began pulling together and for the first time, they left the looming danger of a villainous plot they would come to confront maybe ten to twenty levels later, they will think of the six mummified humans dropping from the sky in the Ways, separating Vedrir from his sister and showcasing a raw amount of power that firmly established them close to the top of the hierarchy. Moments like this are important in D&D, as they important in fiction, because they set a bench-mark. On the day of this session, these mysterious strangers seemed like Gods to the players. Later on, my players might come to stand alongside or even surpass these strangers in power. And that is something that for them to be excited over, and to then celebrate when they succeed in their long planned goals. That is a sense of scaling and development that few things can provide.

And all of this was only possible because I started small: considering a character’s backstory, how to link it in with what was happening and giving a players a reason for personal investment.

My friend was having a bad week and ended up watching our session and I loved how she became just as drawn in to the drama of Vedrir’s family life as much as the players were. It was a sign I was doing a good job at establishing a personal connection, a sense of epic-ness and a hierarchy of power that the players can continue to measure themselves by for many sessions to come.

Of course, whether or not these attempts at foreshadowing events in the wider world will be useful, is something I will have to wait and see next time.

That is going to be all from this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the Fellow Vagabonds enjoy some nice relaxation, and encounter a new looming treat. Next time, we’ll also have a chance to talk more about reacting to your players, creating enjoyable experiences in role-playing and, of course, presenting villain characters before your players.

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

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