Dungeons are all well and good in a D&D campaign, but what happens when your party aren’t out adventuring? They’ll need a place to go shopping for supplies, interact with NPCs and find work from rich investors. All of these things are possible in your campaign’s towns, settlements where your players can delve into their local community and soak up some of the flavour.
Maybe, they might even find a place amongst the common people.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, we’ll be talking about the eleventh session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I learned whilst running it. This week, we’ll be looking at random encounters, town generating and the beauty of cliff-hangers. My drunk little garrison of players 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.
In the morning following the visit from Tarvirus the Husk and his un-dead allies, the Fellow Vagabonds awake to a peaceful and silent tavern. They eat their breakfast in quiet, aware of the dour air. Glynda, the owner of the Sleeping Dragon, still thanks them for their duty and promises they always had rooms at her inn.
The rest of the party, however, aren’t thinking that far into the future.
“We need to talk to the last living bandit,” Kassadin notes.
Glynda nods. Of the few bandits that dared attack the party the night before, only a single member has survived to tell the tale and the party are indeed interested to hear what tale he would tell. Megs, in particular, wants to take a little souvenir from the bandit, maybe even get the killing blow for good measure. The rest of the party aren’t too keen to murder the youth, especially now he simply appears terrified and unarmed. Ultimately, the young man admits he had no idea about the party and had just joined his friends in attacking the group.
“How did you know who we were?” Kassadin checks.
“The bounty,” the bandit explains, “boss got it from members of the Black Rose when they were riding through.”
“The Black Rose?” Megs shrieks, a claw-like finger darting out to stroke the boy’s cheek, “here?”
“So much for a safe place,” Teoku observes.
“Megs,” Vedrir mutters in warning.
The Hag huffs and steps back from the situation, allowing Vedrir to step in.
“Are they are any more of you?”
“Then here,” Vedrir grunts, slamming a small handful gold into the man’s grasp, “go get out of here and then find something else to do with your life. Being a bandit is not proving a beneficial occupation for you.”
The ranger flashes one of his short swords, severs the man’s bindings and sets him loose, to Meg’s total disappointment.
“N-not even a finger?” she squeaks.
“Come on Megs,” Kassadin encourages, patting her on the back, “let’s go. One more day to Cinder’s Grove.”
The party bid farewell to their hosts and goodbye to the Lonely Dragon, Clacker taking the reins of the carriage, spurring the group on their way with a single whip of his flightless wings.
The ride to Cinder’s Grove is quiet for the morning. By mid-day, the fields of grain and spotted farmland has given way to a series of rolling hills and bare fields with the occasional orchard decorating the road. Far in the distance on this flat landscape, Vedrir, with his fine elf eyes, can see a tall mound of earth, walled off from the land and rising up beside a large lake. At the tip of the hill, a great castle sits, like a crown upon a head.
“Cinder’s Grove,” Vedrir mutters, “at last.”
“And that must be the ash lake,” Teoku observes, pointing into the distant blur of water.
“But,” Elizabeth chimes in, “what’s that? The black plume on the horizon?”
Vedrir checks again. Sure enough, against the steady cloudless blue sky above, there is a single streak of smoke rising from the road ahead. Clusters of wooden carriages lie shattered and broken about the road, still burning. Vedrir curses under his breath.
“Trouble,” he replies simply.
Megs giggles and encourages Clacker on-wards.
Letting the Kenku drive, as it turns out, is a massive mistake.
As the group near the wreckage, the fresh sights and sounds of chaos meet them: people screaming, monstrous creatures yipping and snarling and several curved silhouettes, hunched with great backs. Large snouts snap round at the rumbling of the approaching carriage and the creatures come closer into view. With sharp gnashing teeth, faces like a mongrel dogs and hunched frames carrying great spears with hefty claws, the group find themselves facing a Gnoll raiding party, gathering people to feed upon from a merchant caravan.
Kassadin and Vedrir leap straight into the fray, Kassadin swinging off the carriage into an awaiting Gnoll. Vedrir flips off to one side, peppering the hyena creatures with as many arrows as his quiver can provide.
The rest of the party aren’t so lucky.
Especially since no-one has spelled out to Clacker that he needs to stop.
The Grey family carriage crashes into the smouldering wreckage of a caravan, two Gnolls dying instantly on impact. The remaining individuals inside the carriage are sent sprawling to the floor and scramble all together in a heap. They’re alive, but injured. One of the horses breaks free from its reins and darts. The other has been impaled by a stray piece of wood and tumbles to the ground, desperately kicking before falling into the embrace of death
As entrances to battle go, it is not the most graceful but the Fellow Vagabonds rally quickly. Kassadin and Vedrir harry against the swarming gnolls long enough for the group to clamber from the wreckage and stand beside them. Teoku, Elizabeth and Ouskarr swarm around Kassadin and help repel the Gnolls nearest the carriage, whilst Megs takes to the roof. After a moment of taking in the situation, she defuses the swarm of gnolls with a well-placed calm emotions spell. Vedrir finishes off the frozen swarm and the thrum of battle gives way to an overwhelming calm.
Then, amongst the ashes of the fight, a sound begins to ring out: steel on plate, ringing out like a bell.
“B-bring out y-your d-dead…”
The group turn in horror to see Kassadin striking his own plated chest, his eyes empty and white. The group dash towards him but they’re already far too late. A familiar mist descends, enshrouding the area around. Elizabeth levels her parasol/axe, but the others gesture for her to hold her ground. They know how dangerous this fight might become.
Kassadin recovers from the sudden takeover just in time to see a carriage pulled by two nightmares breaking through the fog. As before, four wights disembark, their greying skin freyed and ancient bones clicking as they shuffle along. Shortly after, Tarvirus the Husk exits the carriage and surveys the area. The walking corpse joins his other fellows, his black robes billowing out behind him as he surveys the scene.
“Gather the humanoids,” he orders in a breathless whisper to his followers, “the Gnolls…must be moved themselves.”
He raises his hand to the air and clenches it into a ball of necrotic energy. The party watch as the dead Gnolls shiver, writhe and then stand. Their skin slips away easily, like cooked meat off of bone, leaving behind only their bones. The Gnoll Skeletons stand and file into the carriage one by one. Tarvirus turns, his cold blue shining eyes piercing into Kassadin’s.
The Husk flexes out his palm and scatters a series of pitch black coins upon the ground, before turning and making his way back to the carriage. The Wights follow, loading up the corpses of the merchants that failed to escape. As before, the nightmares turn and ride off into the distance, vanishing into the mist which fades soon after.
Elizabeth is noticeably confused.
“The Husk,” Teoku replies, “he picked a fight with us last night. He attacked me with some blast and…”
“Was that why the tavern’s door was broken down?” Elizabeth asks.
“I’m surprised you noticed,” Vedrir puts in, his gaze settling on Kassadin, “or…that it even happened again…”
“What…what would happen again?” Kassadin asks, fear and confusion bubbling up inside him once more. First his black eyes, now something to do with Tarvirus. He clutches tighter to Ward, hoping the sword of warning would be enough to give him focus for the moment.
The surviving merchants aren’t as easily forgiving or concerned as Kassadin’s party. The few left leave as quickly as they can, ignoring their saviours and glancing at Kassadin as if he was a monster.
“So much for being welcomed,” Kassadin mutters under his breath.
Even when the party meet some old acquaintances, Kassadin’s mood fails to improve. Two of the merchants are familiar with the party. One, a Halfling named Pip, sold Kassadin some trinkets, another was the elven merchant, Peres, Vedrir had helped liberate from the Black Rose.
“I’m so thankful,” Peres explains, “I met with Pip and we both left as soon as we could, taking as much of our stock with us as could manage. We’re moving to Cinder’s Grove to set up shop: a small little store that Pip purchased. We’re bringing all this to set up.”
“Interesting,” Vedrir grumbles, “and you’re bringing…what to this endeavour?”
“W-well, my world-weary trading experience of course!” the elf replies.
Vedrir nods, suspicious but disinterested on the whole.
“We were just about to go if you all want a ride into town,” Pip calls, “your carriage looks a little…”
“Destroyed,” Peres puts in, “please heroic Vedrir, you have to.”
“Just what you get when you save people,” Megs growls low over Vedrir’s shoulder, “they stick to you like fleas or swarm like vermin.”
“I’m fine with a walk, thank you,” Elizabeth insists, ignoring Meg’s negativity “a bit of fresh air might do us some good…although father is going to kill me when he finds out about the carriage.”
“I will defend your honour Lady Grey!” Ouskarr puts in.
“Yeah, I’m up for a walk,” Teoku agrees, trying to link arms with an embarrassed Ouskarr.
“Well, see you guys there,” Vedrir responds, leaping up onto the side of the merchant carriage, “or maybe you’ll die on the way. In which case, meeting you has been…not the worst moment of my life.”
“Aw,” Elizabeth coos with a smile, “Vedrir, that’s…”
“But it is pretty up there,” the Eladrin continues, “either way, bye.”
And with that, the carriage trundles off into the distance, leaving the party in mild confusion.
“I can never get a read on him,” Ouskarr puts in, before the group start their march.
Kassadin lingers near the back, his head hanging low to the ground. Another curse, another issue. Even an attempt by Yuvari to reassure him fails. As his spirit droops, a group of gnarled fingers pat the back of his leg.
“Ignore it, Kassadin,” Megs whispers, “if you let them into your head, you’ll be lost to the call of the coins. Drown. Them. Out.”
She pulls a book of Dorvinian fairy-tales from her pouch, letting it fall open to a bookmarked page. It’s a short story, one about a beautiful nymph, tricked into following a voice through the mists. The voices lead her from a forest glade deeper into the thick growth of the forest.
“Beware the whispers in the air, from the voices that aren’t there,” Megs reads aloud, “ignore the words that haunt your dreams, lest it be not what it seems.”
She turns the page solemnly, quoting the end of the rhyme whilst letting the closed book fall back into her bag.
“Dread the spite behind the smile, fear the charm and the beguile, scorn the friend that hides the foe, lest it pull you down below…”
The last page shows the beautiful nymph beneath the ocean waves, only their hand breaking the surface desperately grasping for an impossible escape.
Kassadin watches as Megs toddles on, wobbling along after their companions. Kassadin gives only a moment’s pause before following them, a deep sigh leaving his lips as the group begin the final leg of their journey.
As they walk, Megs take a chance to count the fresh coins in her hand.
More, a voice within calls, more.
The cart arrives at the gates of Cinder’s Grove before the rest of the Fellow Vagabonds and Vedrir is the first to behold the Grove in all of its majesty. A small stone bridge straddles a slim rush of water, the dirt road ahead of it leading up to the walled town, rising steadily up a hill into shops, slim side-streets and wide courtyards. Outside the city, more rural farmers and poorer individuals have set up simple clay structures with thatched roofs, stark contrast to the inner Grove itself, with cobbled streets and red brick lining the buildings.
The great brass gates that separate the Grove from the rest of the landscape is guarded by two men in bronze armour, red plumage coming out of their almost gladiatorial helms. The Cinder’s Guard.
“Names and business?” the guards inquire.
Pip and Peres willingly surrender their own names, but Vedrir is reluctant. Seeing this, the guards close in around him. Fearing his identity being revealed, Vedrir searches for a way out of the situation, ultimately falling back on his base instincts and using his fae-step to teleport into Cinder’s Grove. As the guards swarm in a panic, trying to find him, Vedrir sneaks through the area and ultimately finds a place to hide: a Church of united good Gods, including Corellon, the God of the Elves.
Luckily for Vedrir, the church is mostly deserted, save for a lone priestess who immediately recognises his injuries from the battle with the Gnolls.
“Oh my,” she chirps, “are you…”
“Bloodied? Yeah, a bit,” Vedrir replies.
The priestess wastes no time healing Vedrir from his lingering wounds and making him comfortable.
“My name’s Lucille,” she explains, “I’m…a priestess to Corellon. I tend to the shrine here under the watchful eye of the head priest.”
“It is lovely here,” Vedrir admits, “tell me: I’ve come from far away and…I’ve heard Cinder’s Grove is accepting of other races?”
“Yes,” Lucille replies, “yes that is true.”
“Are there…any exceptions?” Vedrir asks, still doing his best to hide his features.
“…We have Ryn, he’s a centaur who tends to the gardens. He’s well-accepted, so I can’t see any other races being turned away, no matter how strange. Master Nadarr is even a Dragonborn. His daughter was with the Platinum Garrison and she’s returned from service.”
“Thank you,” Vedrir says, “for…the information and the healing. I need to get going.”
The priestess wishes him well and Vedrir steps out into the streets of Cinder’s Grove, his hood drawn about his face, looking to reunite with the rest of the Fellow Vagabonds.
The other members of the Vagabonds face similar problems from the guards at the gate.
“Kassadin Lightfade,” Kassadin volunteers, “travelling.”
“Lady Elizabeth Grey,” Elizabeth continues, “looking for real estate.”
“Ouskarr,” the half-orc puts in, “Lady Grey’s bodyguard.”
“Lady Megaera Grey!” Granny Megs announces with pride, “I’m just escorting my poor grand-daughter here to a new town with our beloved boy Ouskarr.”
Ouskarr flinches as Granny Megs leaps up to pinch his cheeks.
The guard marks their names, truly convinced, and turns to Teoku.
“And your name sir?”
Teoku doesn’t miss a beat.
“I’m Andrew Smith, mate!~”
The party give him a strange look, as does the guard.
“Yeah mate,” Teoku replies, “whazzit to ya?”
The guard sighs, marks the name and finally turns to Yuvari.
“Nyessa,” Yuvari replies in a bubbly accented voice, so unlike her own, “Nyessa Lightfade. Wife, on a honeymoon.”
Kassadin freezes as Yuvari links arms with him, the rest of the party either staring in horror or unable to contain their amusement.
The guard gives a slow nod.
“Yes. He paid good price for me…”
Kassadin’s embarrassment fades way into a mixed frustration.
“Oh, he’s such a cutie when he blushes!” Yuvari chimes in.
The gate guard gives the pair a strange look and decides he’s had enough craziness for one day, spurring them on into the city ahead.
Cinder’s Grove is a very different type of city than the Fellow Vagabonds are accustomed to. The streets are fine and well-kept, like the structure of Solace, but the buildings are more squat and simple in their design. No ivory towers here, just simple good people making a living and settled into routine. Heading to the main quarter, Yuvari finally un-links with Kassadin’s arm and gives herself a moment to laugh with the rest of the group on how red he’s gone.
“Shut up,” Kassadin grunts, “look, we’re here now and I’ve got an errand to do, let’s find Vedrir and…”
At the announcement of his name, Vedrir sidles out from the shadows to stand among the group. His return doesn’t last long as in the bustling square, a guard spots Vedrir and attempts to make his way over. Whilst Vedrir darts away, hiding behind the flow of people, the group take a chance to get in the way and try to obstruct.
“Excuse me ma’am,” the guard tries to encourage, “we need to…”
“No, excuse ME,” Megs snaps back, “we need some help here. Can’t you see we’re busy consoling our friend?”
Yuvari clings on to Elizabeth for dear life, fake tears steaming down her face.
“My beloved is looking to leave me once more!”
Elizabeth reassuringly pats her back, shooting Kassadin a glare.
“What?” the Tiefling splutters, “we-” he looks to the guard, “we’re not…”
Yuvari descends into further crying and Kassadin’s face falls. The guard frowns at him.
“Shame on you sir! Beautiful girl like that…”
“Of course, yes, beautiful girl,” Megs puts in, “you sir, do you have a significant other sir?”
The guard has moment for pause.
“My…my Bera. She’s a good woman,” the guard mutters, a smile crossing his features, “yeah…she’s…”
“And have you told her how you truly feel?”
The guard leaves pause for thought,
Megs forces a ring into the man’s clutches, a sincere smile spreading on her lips,
“What’s your name son?”
“Go to her Gera,” Megs encourages, “show her how you love her.”
Gera, completely taken in by the Hag’s distraction, nods.
“Y-yeah, yeah…you’re right miss. Time I let her know I…I have been working a lot. Yeah, it’s time to show her how important she is to me!” Gera announces, “thank you, thank you so…”
“No, no please,” Megs insists, “thank you.”
Turning her head, Megs signals for Vedrir to return as Kass blusters away from a laughing Yuvari and Elizabeth.
“Where did you get a ring from?” Vedrir wonders.
Megs’ face stretches into a grin once more as she reveals a rotting finger in her bony grip.
“I’m very resourceful.”
Vedrir, equal parts disturbed and confused, blends back in beside the party, before they decide to make a move.
Kassadin and Ouskarr split from the party to go on an errand: Kassadin has a collection of letters he wishes to send back to the continent. He gives the most pressing to Ouskarr for a chance to read through. Ouskarr flicks through the contents and ultimately, shakes his head.
“Perhaps, not for the best with this last one.”
“Right, just the first two it is,” Kassadin confirms, filing away the letters to an awaiting aarakocra and passes across some gold.
In the meantime, the rest of the party head off towards the local tavern: The Smouldering Tree. Megs treats the Fellow Vagabonds to their rooms and then purchases another meal and drinks for the group present. Their relaxed celebration is in full swing by the time Ouskarr and Kassadin return.
Only, there’s no space at the table and Granny Megs herself encourages the boys to find their own fun. Kassadin, disheartened, and Ouskarr, enraged, skulk off to have enough night drinking.
Whilst the rest of the group enjoy a meal, Ouskarr and Kassadin find a tavern nearer to the waterfront and share a series of drinks, discussing their frustrations.
“Honestly, the way they treat you, it’s not right!” Ouskarr yells, alerting everyone in the isolated tavern to their presence.
“Look, it’s fine, just…”
“No, it’s not,” Ouskarr growls, downing yet another drink, “you’re…you’re my friend…and…”
“I know Ouskarr,” Kassadin replies, a smile on his face as he downs another drink in turn, “you…you’re my friend too man…”
“That Yuvari though…she’s so…so…ugh. That woman treats you like a dog.”
Kassadin’s brow tightens.
“She’s…she’s not that…”
“And Teoku,” Ouskarr continues, “he’s so…so…UGH! Always saying and doing things and just…stringing people along.”
Kassadin raises an eyebrow.
“Are we talking about you here…or…”
“Stupid boy, don’t know whether he’s looking for a reach around or…”
“Okay, we are talking you,” Kassadin puts in.
With a sigh, he downs the rest of his next drunk and begins to console his friend. The pair talk long into the night, getting unbelievably wasted beyond all reason and end up passing out.
The rest of the Fellow Vagabonds are enjoying their food in the Smouldering Tavern when the local guard enter. They stride alongside Vedrir’s chair and rest a hand on his shoulder.
“Sir, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with us. Please, we don’t want any violence.”
Vedrir sighs. Though the party seem prepared to argue, he lifts up a hand to stay their hand.
He stands and the pair of guards lead him away towards the Cinder’s Seat. Vedrir closes his eyes, surrendering to his fate. The rest of the party, however, are unwilling to let him go out alone and so, start planning to set Vedrir free from his new captors. Elizabeth and Yuvari split to work on climbing, whilst Teoku and Megs attempt their own approach. Using their disguise abilities, the two transform into a pair of buxom bar wenches and try to make their way inside. Megs manages to bluff her way behind the wall, picked up by a knight called ‘May’ who seems to be looking for a good time. Teoku, pushed out into the cold, tries to study the side of the walls to the keep to find a secret passage.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
Teoku flinches, looking up to see a guard approaching him.
Megs is escorted into the inner castle of the Cinder’s Seat. From her place, Megs can see the complex spread out before him, glimpsing Vedrir in the distance climbing the steps. Unable to shake free of her escort, however, Megs is forced to follow her escort, ‘May’. The knight leads her up and past the soldiers training in the yard to a tower at the corner of the estate. Knocking on the door, an old wizened dragonborn stumbles his way out. He cranes his hunched form to look around.
“May. What a surprise. Is this the fine young lady I have ordered for tonight?”
“She is indeed,” May explains, offering the door for Megs.
The disguised hag glances between the two, suddenly realising what she has just signed herself up for.
Kassadin is awoken by a sudden bucket of water being splashed over his head. Through his drunken haze, Kassadin pulls himself to his feet. Above him is a man with long dark hair, a cold pale face and a sombre expression.
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” Kassadin splutters out in a drunken slur.
“Quiss,” the man replies, “Gravekeeper Quiss.”
Kass laughs, the alcoholic haze blinding him to Quiss sombre tone.
“Quiss? Bloody hell, what kind of a name is…”
“You’re going to answer my questions,” Quiss continues.
Unable to get his feet, Kassadin collapses into the ground, hiccuping.
“Whatever man, I don’t…”
“My first question: how long have you been an agent of Dormin?”
Kassadin’s eyes widen. He sobers instantly.
“I don’t know about this,” Yuvari mutters.
“I do,” Elizabeth replies.
She hoists up her skirts and rushes straight to the edge, before springing up and leaping at full pelt towards the wall to the Cinder’s Seat. She clips the edge but Elizabeth is stronger than most and grips firmly to the wall, scaling the wall with her herculean strength, only to be met at the top by the tips of spears and two concerned guards looking down at her.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I will ask again: how long have you been an agent of Dormin.”
“Answer. The. Question.”
“…About a few months,” Kassadin answers, suddenly painfully aware of Quiss’ tall and wiry physique.
“Second question,” Quiss continues, “how long have you had access to the black coins?”
Vedrir climbs the steps to the Cinder’s Seat one at a time, anything to delay his inevitable meeting with the leader of Cinder’s Grove. Rising up the final step, Vedrir is greeted with a smug chuckle and the flicker of a familiar black robe.
“Well, what do we have here?”
Vedrir pales. Awaiting him before the doors to the Cinder’s Seat is a man in a long priest gown and two men in black armour.
The Black Rose.
“I…only a day…how do you know all this…”
“Third,” Quiss continues, “and final question.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever. I can see I’m not gonna get any answers from you until I…”
“Third question,” Quiss cuts him off, leaning in closer,
“Where is Teoku Skia?”
And thus concludes the eleventh session of the Dorvine campaign. This session featured something I’d been dreading a lot since starting the campaign: allowing the players to explore a fully fleshed out town, complete with named NPCs and a developed social network that would make the area feel truly real and lived in. So, as a result of this, the focus of this blog is going to be advice on fleshing out your towns, as well as some important lessons regarding random encounters and about making compelling cliff-hangers for your players.
Some parts of the planning process take time but you usually only get as much from your work as you put into it.
When coming to develop the town of Cinder’s Grove, I was well aware I wanted to create an interesting narrative space filled with NPCs relating to one another. Creating the illusion of a town’s ecology doesn’t exactly sound an easy task from the outset and, to be completely honest, it is an approach that is incredibly time-consuming one.
The main lesson of building a town is that the approach is still going to be a pretty big job. Even if you’re not fleshing out every NPC in the settlement and just naming the core important ones, this is the point where you are going to realise just how big and fiddly running campaigns like this can get. Planning for Cinder’s Grove, I started with a simple tabled list of all the important places. Assigning NPCs to these important places further allowed me to flesh out the world and also helped give an identity to the NPCs through where they lived and their relationship with the people who lived there and elsewhere.
With The Smouldering Tree Inn, for example, I planned for the tavern owner to be a younger Dwarf called Yorda, living with her brother. These two characters were minor in the grand scheme of things but understanding their roles and how the two interacted allowed me to not only create enjoyable dialogue for them when the players interacted with them, but also managed to make their dynamic feel realistic and present. Players could talk to any NPC. Since I was quick to note down names of new NPCs I had interested, I was naturally beginning to add more names to the population whilst playing.
It also helped to have a vague outline for the various individuals and how they related to one another in order to help make the world real. It proved useful, for example, to know that the Half-Orc blacksmith Byrnardah (Bernarde), had a young daughter who was pining after the son of one of the fisherman because such connections informed not only how the NPCs would interact with each other, but how they interacted with the party. Lucille was only able to tell Vedrir so much about the priest and the centaur who were at the church because I had planned out their dynamic in advance. When creating a town, it’s really important to think about these connections between townsfolk, and other important factors such as town’s political structure, who holds the power and what races and classes are able to spotted about the place.
All these little details are the fiddly bits that come with making a town and whilst making them all at once is hard, sometimes less can be more. When I first started with Cinder’s Grove, I only knew it was a place that was neutral in the war and more accepting than others. This simple mission statement for what Cinder’s Grove was about helped me decide everything about the kind of people who lived there and how they all interacted, as well as providing some possible hooks and great story moments from the various dynamics between the various citizens bustling about the town.
Now, obviously, all of this sounds a little overwhelming. In one way, it is. However, note that earlier on I said it would take a lot of time, but I never said it was ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’. This is because, to my blissful relief, we are not the first DM’s to have ever approached these ideas and tasks. Campaign guides exist in the world with detailed information on pre-established cities, which can be either used straight, inserted where as needed or merely prove inspiration for the town setting. Xanathar’s Guide has a list of random name generators and random backstory tables if needed, not to mention the random NPC generator table in the DMG and on the first DM screen for 5e. Plus, there are millions of online resources devoted to fleshing out fictional worlds, including random map generators I’ve been suggesting, and an entire web domain focused around generating names for fantasy characters.
All of these little aids come together to form a great help in building our own town structures for the players to explore. Ultimately, however, as a DM, you’re only going to get out of this approach what you put it. It is, of course, still acceptable to only plan out the bare-bones and work with what you have, but for Cinder’s Grove, I wanted to create a space where the players could be pulled in and settle down: having a home surrounded by people living their lives who they could slowly get to know, befriend, maybe even fall in love with, so it was in my best interests to flesh out the area.
So far, though only a small part of the town had been explored, the party were definitely interested in saying. Yorda befriended Granny Megs, the city guard were likeable in their bumbling ways and the space was fresh and ready for the group to interact with.
It was probably not in my best interest to lose all my work on the town after my laptop’s hard-drive crashed.
Second piece of advice here people: back up your work, don’t make my mistakes.
If you want to use random encounters, create a random encounter method and random encounters that you’re interested in running.
The random encounter is an idea not unique to D&D. Several long-running RPGs use the concept quite frequently. Pokémon pretty much runs on the idea of the player using random encounters to their own benefit.
The truth is that random encounters are a feature of D&D that you don’t necessarily have to engage with. Though I do enjoy random encounters, some times it can be very counter intuitive to the intended game or story. For example, if a player dies in a random encounter, there’s usually less dramatic payoff and, in addition, random encounters tend to distract or detract from a more story-driven campaign.
So one may wonder why random encounters are still used so much in other RPGs and why I am now discussing using them for D&D. The reasons I can tell are three fold. One, the players get another chance to enter into new situations of combat in differing terrain. Two, as a DM, we can use different sorts of monsters that we might not usually ever think of or consider. The third and probably the most important reason why random encounters exist is because they make the world feel bigger and more alive.
A world in which random encounters exist feels dangerous by the simple fact that players can encounter terrible monsters roaming in the wild at random, putting the players on edge and pushing them into new circumstances. There are a lot of ways of running random encounters from within the DMG and with various tables from many different sources. Chances are, if you’re running an adventure module, it too will have random encounter tables specific to that adventure. It’s with this in mind that I give my next piece of advice: make your own random encounter method and tables for your campaign. The personal element is fun but mainly because it allows you to cater to the kind of random encounters your players can face, tie them in with the plot in a creative manner and also come up with mechanics that you understand and enjoy implementing.
Within the Dorvine campaign, the approach I crafted for random encounters was a cooperative one, working with each member of the party. Firstly, the players would let me know where they were going and I would work out how many days it would take to get there. Then, I would take the number of days and subtract it by my arbitrary DC for random encounters: a roll of an 18 on a 20 sided die. The idea behind this is that the further the players travel, the more chance they have of encountering something in the wild. Following this, three of the players are allowed to enter a skill challenges to improve the travel. They suggest how they use their skills and roll against a DC I set depending on what they’re doing. For each pass, the DC is raised by 1, making it less likely the group will get a random encounter. A failure lowers the DC by 1, making it easier, whilst critical successes and critical failures raise and lower the DC by 2.
Then, a player that hasn’t done a skill challenge rolls the D20 to decide whether the party get a random encounter.
This is a convoluted process, I admit, but the main reason I follow this is to give the players a sense of interaction and involvement in deciding their fate. I even have the players roll a D8 for the time of day of their encounter (1-4 being Morning, Noon, Afternoon, Evening and 5-8, being the usual four watch system parties use to get through the night).
And, of course, my players roll the 2D6 that decide what encounter they’ll be facing.
All of this varies up the random encounter experience and provides a sense of rising tension and a level of customisation in the events. For example, I have two separate encounter tables for day and night. Each encounter differs in number of monsters, type of monsters and difficulty, each one linking in with a plot-point or a cultural development of Dorvine. There are even a few random encounter options that don’t involve monsters, but these are far rarer at night.
The gnoll encounter at the start of this session was one of these random encounters that the players rolled for. I had the players roll when they set off from Whitepoint and the group landed on a gnoll warband moving through Dorvine. Due to the timing being the day and close to Cinder’s Grove, I introduced the merchant caravan to further the plot, also establishing the fact that other gnoll warbands had been seen on the roads to show the players this was something to be aware of.
All in all, the little pieces of customisation meant that the players were more invested and also meant that I could choose what type of enemies the party could encounter, helping with developing the world, establishing new plot, but also preparing combats that can be challenging without leaving the party too out of their depth.
Never be afraid of a good cliffhanger
You may realise that at the end of this session I left a lot of the party in quite a precarious situation.
Cliffhangers are your friends, fellow DMs, and incorporating them is easy enough. Simply stopping session when the element gets the most dramatic means that the group will be all the more eager to play the following week. For a lot of the players, that meant throwing them into surprising situations with Dragonborns and Black Rose knights, factors I’d already planned to introduce into Cinder’s Grove but waited until the appropriate moment in order to draw the players in.
My actual favourite cliffhanger though was Quiss and his conversations with Kassadin. After Quiss asked each question, I would cut from Dion to another player, leaving Dion seething, wanting to have an element of closure, only for each return to his situation to signal only further intrigue. The final question about Teoku meant for a dramatic personal moment for the entire party and the ambiguity and mystery of the whole thing meant that everyone was fully engrossed by the end.
Juggling narratives and NPCs are never easy, but using cliffhangers can help give you a chance to think of possibilities and keep your players interested beyond the confines of the weekly session. True, the lack of closure might be jarring to some players but a pause before a plunge into combat or a dramatic end on a big plot point can be enough to carry the momentum of a story week to week.
That is going to be it from this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the Fellow Vagabonds work to rescue Vedrir from the Cinder’s Seat. We’ll also be talking about surprises, managing dynamic combat and the tentative tightrope we DM’s walk when you put a villain in front of your players.
Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s session of From the DM’s Chair. Please leave a comment. Positive criticism is welcome.