As a DM, it is common to see your players reach a point and for you to take a step back and wonder the age old question: are they going to survive this? Is this the moment they’re going to break?
But the one thing that DMs, young and old, usually forget is that our players love to surprise us and no matter how much you might question their abilities, players have a overwhelming chance to do the impossible.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, we’ll be talking about the twelfth session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I learnt whilst running it. This week, we’ll be talking about players getting in over their heads and some advice on handling first introductions of big NPCs. My failed agents of subterfuge are:
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.
Kassadin stares up at Gravekeeper Quiss, considering every option. He’s sobering well enough, some kind of effect that dealing with Quiss must have on him.
“I don’t know any…”
“Please,” the Gravekeeper interrupts, “do not lie. I know Teoku is with you. Where is he?”
“I…I…” Kassadin tries to gather his thoughts, compose himself. The Gravekeeper seems threatening, despite being unarmed, and a strange sense of caution flows through Kassadin as he struggles to his feet.
“Speak,” Quiss presses, “where is Teoku Skia?”
“There’s a tavern,” Kassadin replies, “called the Smouldering Tree. Last I saw he was there.”
Without another word, Quiss turns and stalks away from Kassadin, his feathered cloak spreading out behind him.
“W-wait,” Kassadin insists. He takes a step forward but stumbles, his body still not functioning as intended. Splashing his face with some water from a nearby barrel, Kassadin calls after the Gravekeeper, “what do you want with him?”
The Gravekeeper gives no reply. Kassadin swears under his breath and glances behind him. Ouskarr still lies passed out on the floor, drooling onto the cobbles. Kassadin glances between the two and groans.
“Ouskarr…sorry, I…look, stay here, be okay.”
The Half-orc lets out a gurgled reply, lost on the Tiefling who takes off as quick as he can after the retreating form of Quiss.
Teoku regards the member of the Cinder’s Grove City Watch with mild surprise. Luckily for him, his disguise spell is still in affect. To the guard, he appears as a mere buxom bar-maid, lost on the streets. Teoku plays up this angle as much as he can.
“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know…I was just looking for my friend?”
The guard gives the girl a chance.
“And where’s your friend?”
“In the keep, think she’s entertaining your friend.”
The guard sighs.
“Ah, she’s with Icorax for the night. I pity the girl. Hopefully she’s alright in there…even still, it’s wrong of you to stay out this late…”
“Oh, it is pretty scary out here!” Teoku agrees, playing up his effeminate features to get the guard’s attention, “I…I could use an escort home?”
A wiggle of his disguised hourglass figure is all it takes to turn the guard into putty in Teoku’s hands.
“O-of course my lady, I would be honoured to.”
“I know,” Teoku agrees, linking arms with the guard and allowing himself to be led back towards the Smouldering Tree, the tavern where the group were planning on staying the night.
As Teoku expected, Baggy is snoozing in the stables, the panther having proved to be the laziest cat the warlock has ever had the pleasure of knowing. Teoku tries to signal to Baggy, who soon pads out lazily into the path of the guard. With a shriek, the guard raises his weapon and starts trying to force the beast back into the stables.
“Get back beast! Get back!”
Baggy retreats with a lazy growl, not eager to fight but still pondering on how to liberate his alpha from this strange armoured man. Teoku attempts to cast his beast speech spell again, though this only serves to attract the guard’s attention.
“What was that? Some kind of magic?”
He levels his weapon to Teoku. Baggy does not take kindly to this and begins to approach. Feeling threatened on two fronts, the guard calls out for help.
“You there!” he calls to an individual exiting the tavern, “get some help, I need assistance with this beast.”
Kassadin stares out at the guard, the busty barmaid and Baggy and instantly puts two and two together. Taking a moment to curse Teoku, he tries to play along and wrestles Baggy to the floor, only to lose his nerve when the guard raises his weapon trying to kill the panther.
“What are you doing? You’re…”
The guard noticeably starts panicking. Realising there’s something off, he glances between Kassadin and Teoku and opens his mouth to call for help. His voice falters in his mouth as a fist strikes him across the head, knocking him out and down in two quick strikes.
Quiss looks up at the pair, crouching over his defeated opponent.
“He was not in the tavern,” the Gravekeeper growls, “now, I command you, tell me where Teoku Skia is.”
“Teoku Skia? Who’s that?” Teoku bluffs, still playing the role of the ignorant bar-maid. A glare from Kassadin makes him completely abandon the deception. With a sigh, the Warlock reveals his true pale skinned dark haired self. Upon spotting him, Quiss’ face falls stern and begins to approach. His hand reaches for a staff upon his back and he draws it. Kassadin tries to step between the two but Quiss is already advancing. In the blur of movement, Teoku is barely able to make out the details of the Gravekeeper’s features. Pale skin, white hair and a set of pointed ears beneath his hood. All at once, Teoku realises what this man is as he moves, sweeping his staff and planting it at Teoku’s feet.
Quiss sinks to one knee.
“Teoku Skia, I have finally found you. At last. I am yours to command.”
The air is still for a moment. Then, Kassadin speaks.
Just when Vedrir’s dour mood could not sink any lower, this happens. Standing across from a set of Knights of the Black Rose and one of their foul priests, his only exit blocked by two of Cinder’s Grove’s finest, Vedrir briefly considers if the fall from the steps would be enough to kill him and save him the embarrassment of having to listen to the priest’s victorious monologue.
But it’s too late, Vedrir concludes, the over pompous zealot has already begun.
“So you have brought this agent of heresy before us,” the priest raves, “blessings upon you all members of the Cinder’s Guard. I and my emissaries will take it from here.”
One of the guard’s hands rests upon Vedrir’s shoulders, whilst the other steps forwards.
“Not going to happen.”
For the briefest of moments, something akin to joy enters Vedrir’s heart as he watches the priest’s face fall into despair.
“We’re taking him to Lady Delxipha,” the guard finishes.
“Of course,” the priest retorts, desperately trying to save face, “of course, yet Lady Delxipha is but a mortal on this world, her laws mortal laws. I, as a member of the Church, dispense the justice of Pelor, Lord of the Sun with powers beyond mortal men.”
The priest does his best to ignore Vedrir’s mocking, the Eladrin mouthing along as he speaks and making exaggerated gesturing with frantic hands.
“Well,” the guard continues, ignoring Vedrir, “when your little friend Pelor fancies drifting down from the sky and dealing with this himself, I’ll think about it. Until then, you can get out of my way.”
The Black Rose know when they’ve lost a battle and willingly retreat, Vedrir’s mocking taunts following them down the path. The two guards flank Vedrir once more, releasing him from their grasp.
“You’re playing with fire there friend,” a guard says.
“So are you. I really hope I don’t die from this little meeting because I’m actually starting to like you guys.”
“Thanks,” the guard gives a halfhearted reply before ushering the Eladrin over the threshold into the inner hall of the Cinder’s Seat.
Elizabeth Grey has never exactly been in a position like this before. Having a set of spears pointing down at her is one thing but dangling from the edge of the wall to a fortress isn’t exactly a position members of her family have been in since the days of the barbarian lord Chaga the Grey.
However, the foolish guards daring to point spears down at her don’t know the true fear of dealing with a Grey. Before they can apprehend her, Elizabeth Grey pulls herself to the top of the wall and takes control of the situation.
“I am Lady Elizabeth Grey and I have had a very busy day. I demand an audience with Lady Delxipha this instant.”
The guards glance at one another.
On the one hand, they want to bring this young woman into captivity.
On the other, they’re aware from a simple glance that Elizabeth is probably strong enough to take on both of them and get through to Delxipha regardless. This weird form of formality and her extreme blunt nature catches the guards out and they end up leading Elizabeth along, painfully aware of her domineering presence.
“Y-you know most people come through the main gates,” one of them comments.
“I wanted something more direct,” Elizabeth replies.
The two guards wisely fall into silence.
As the group cross the main courtyard, Yuvari makes her presence known, shouting over the guards holding her at the gate to Elizabeth.
“My lady! You can’t run off as such-“
Brilliantly feigning the demeanour of a maid, Yuvari scuttles along to join Elizabeth, linking arms with her and accusing the other guards of poor treatment. The guards of the Cinder’s Seat are too tired to deal with another crazy woman and wisely decide to lead the pair to Delxipha.
After all, who better to deal with a pair headstrong women than the force of unyielding flaming will that is the leader of Cinder’s Grove?
The inner hall of the Cinder’s Seat is perhaps one of the oldest parts of the fortress. Lined with fine stone, massive columns and featuring simple wooden panelled flooring, the hall is a display of both grandeur and humility. Long tables have been pushed to the edges of the space, forming a walkway for Vedrir and his escort to approach the raised plinth on which rests the artefact for which the great castle is named.
The Cinder’s Seat is a simple chair, cast of green stone that gleams in the moonlight filtered in from a window near the roof. There, sat upon the seat, as is her right, is a woman with long black hair and pale white skin, adorned in the finest of bronze armour and nursing a great-sword at her side. Her face is stern as Vedrir approaches, equal parts calm and unreadable.
This, Vedrir realises, is Lady Delxipha, the leader of Cinder’s Grove.
Off to the side, Vedrir catches a young boy who has just wandered into the hall, dark curly hair and a freckled face. The guards holding Vedrir are quickly excused to take the boy back to bed. Judging from the slight shift in Delxipha’s posture when observing the boy, Vedrir assumes it must be her son.
The pair are simple, almost standard for what Vedrir was expecting.
The Cinder’s Grove inner court, by extension, are a collection of the strangest people Vedrir has ever seen.
Standing tall to one side are a pair of figures wrapped in fine cloth and immaculate robes. One is a high-elf clutching to a small tome under one arm, fixing his long blonde hair at the glimpse of an elder form of his kind. The other takes a while of studying to fully comprehend, due to the creature’s hunched form. The creature is a tabaxi, Vedrir realises, cat-folk, though the face is obscured by a porcelain mask, his body covered in thick robes. The tabaxi’s shaking paws rest at a notepad in his hand, his entire form trembling uncontrollably. Opposite the pair, and the first to descend the path to meet Vedrir is a tall creature with brown fur lining his chest and upper-body, clad in an armour that appears patchwork and roughly crafted. An eye-patch sits across one of the creature’s eyes, a bulbous nose separating the elements on his face.
Cinder’s Grove might just be too accepting for its own good.
Vedrir, remembering his manners, removes his hood and bows. Delxipha gives a respectful nod of the head and gestures for him to approach. The bug-bear descends the steps towards Vedrir, each step juddering the wooden plates under his feet. He looks to the wizard and nods. The wizard, in turn, casts a hand out to Vedrir and whispers an incantation.
A zone of truth, Vedrir recognises.
Whoever these people are, they are unwilling to take chances.
“Eladrin,” the bug-bear growls, almost chewing the word as he speaks, “your name is Vedrir Tarrenstar, is it not?”
Vedrir clenches his hand into a fist.
“Yes. That’s me.”
“Then you are also the son of Hadarai Tarrenstar, the Unyielding Flame? Which would make you the commander of the southern raiding parties upon the town of Koriell?”
Vedrir steadied himself and let out a long sigh.
“I can see where this is going. “
“Is that who you are?” the bug-bear presses.
Vedrir glares at the bug-bear, taking a bold step forwards.
“You want me to say it, don’t you? Yes, I am Vedrir Tarrenstar and I have burned cities and slaughtered men, women and children. I led the massacre at Koriell, is that it?”
The bug-bear snarls.
“I knew it! A murderer, a monster.”
“You’re one to talk,” Vedrir counters, “your kind are…”
“I am not my kind!” the bug-bear snaps.
“And nor am I,” Vedrir replies, “I’m not my father either.”
“You cold-hearted,” the bug-bear snarls, only to silenced by the slamming of Delxipha’s sword on the ground.
“Torvus,” the thane speaks, silencing all else in the room, “if I wanted you to be judge, jury and executioner, I would have not permitted him a chance to speak. You will be silent.”
Torvus reluctantly agrees, lowering his head and allowing his lady to take his place. Delxipha strides towards Vedrir, her great-sword limply held by her side as she approaches. All eyes follow her as she moves, a symbol of both grace and overwhelming strength. Even at a glance, Vedrir is aware of this woman’s power.
“Vedrir Tarrenstar,” Delxipha begins, “I know of all you’ve done. Torvus is our spymaster here, very useful for keeping an eye on the developments. But spies can’t tell me what I really want to know. Only you can tell me that.”
She leans forwards, her emerald eyes piercing through him.
“Are you sorry?”
Vedrir meets her gaze. Then, he hangs her head in shame.
“Yes,” he replies solemnly.
Torvus is appalled.
“My lady, you can’t be suggesting…”
“I know people, Torvus,” Delxipha explains, “soldiers kill when given orders but carry the thoughts of the dead in their footsteps. Monsters kill whoever they wish and should be put down, as appropriate of wild dogs.”
The Thane of Cinder’s Grove levels a hard stare at Vedrir.
“If Vedrir Tarrenstar ran this far away, forsaking the war, his family status and pride all over the shame of his actions, then that makes Vedrir Tarrenstar two things. It makes Vedrir Tarrenstar a coward…”
Vedrir’s expression tightens into a glare.
“And,” Delxipha continues, “it makes him worth my time.”
Vedrir’s face softens.
“So tell me, Vedrir, if I may call you just Vedrir, what is your business in Cinder’s Grove?”
Vedrir blinks, confused by Delxipha’s openness.
“Lady Delxipha!” a guard shouts from the far end of the wall, “you have a visitor: a Lady Elizabeth Grey.”
Delxipha glances to Vedrir.
“Friends of yours?”
Vedrir opens his mouth to deny the truth but all lies die under Delxipha’s gaze and the zone of truth spell.
“Well then…let’s see if your new friends can vouch for you…”
As May shuts the door, leaving Megs with the ageing dragonborn Icorax, the hag is forced to make one of the toughest choices of her life.
Except it isn’t at all tough, it’s too simple.
Fully accepting her part in the plan, her role as a hag and her love of casual sex, Megs fully commits to the seduction plan and gives Icorax a night he will never forget. The dragonborn is old and Megs plan is simple: to wear out the dragonborn with passionate love-making until he literally dies of a heart attack, allowing her to search his room, loot his things and go off in search of Vedrir whilst getting everything she wants.
To skim a series of unpleasant details, (player actions) and inhumane thoughts that might cross the mind, Megs’ plan goes off perfectly. Icorax dies in a way most pleasurable and Megs makes her escape without a hitch. As she opens the door and wanders outside, she spares a brief moment by the door. Smiling, she repeats the forbidden phrase that has hounded her for the past day:
“Bring out your dead dearies…”
And with a slam of the door, she vanishes with a quick scurry to the courtyard.
“Okay, okay,” Kassadin mutters under his breath, “you’re…a follower of the Raven Queen?”
“Yes,” Quiss replies.
“Cast out because of your extreme forms of worship?” Teoku tests.
“Yes,” the Gravekeeper responds.
“And you were contacted by the Raven Queen telling you to help Teoku defeat The Husk?”
“And you think if you help me, it’ll put you back in the Raven Queen’s good graces?”
“And you couldn’t just say this instead of threatening me because…why!?” Kassadin snaps.
The Gravekeeper shrugs.
“I believed I was talking nicely. I even smiled.”
“That was a scowl,” Teoku observes.
“Facial expressions of the living are so confusing,” Quiss concludes.
Kassadin groans, nursing a head-ache with two fingers massaging his forehead.
“I need another drink,” he groans.
A soft shiver passing down the Tiefling’s spine completely distracts from his irritation. Kassadin lifts his head just in time to see a swirl of mist descending upon the courtyard of the Cinder’s Seat.
“You said about taking down The Husk? Looks like we’ve got our chance.”
Teoku trembles at the sight of the familiar fog, but steels himself, grabbing his baseball bat.
“Okay…I think everyone else is near the Keep except…”
Teoku and Kass share an awkward glance.
“Go, get Ouskarr,” Kassadin commands, breaking out into a sprint towards the mist.
“Yeah, go get him and bring him here!” Teoku echoes, leaving Quiss to contemplate on their orders, before racing off to retrieve the half-orc.
Baggy, wisely, retreats back to the stables and settles down for yet another nap.
The instant the swirling fog begins to descend, those present in the Cinder’s Seat realise something is wrong. Leaving the seat behind, Delxipha marches towards the door flanked by Torvus.
“All of you, with me!” she commands to the guards. The Fellow Vagabonds respond in kind, whilst the wizard and the tabaxi retreat to safety.
Descending the main steps from the hall, the Vagabonds are met with Tarvirus The Husk and his familiar group of four wights. The wights are already finishing slaughtering the guards in the courtyard. Tarvirus reaches into one of the dead soldier’s hearts and stirs them into motion as zombies, to swarm towards the oncoming threats.
“The hall,” he calls, “the hall must be claimed.”
No-one notices Megs slinking around behind him, invisible in the shadows.
Kassadin rushes past to meet with the others, whilst Teoku stays back at a distance, launching streaks of eldritch blasts through the sky. The energy bursts out into Tarvirus, crackling with the fury of the Goddess of Death. Noticing Teoku’s attack, Vedrir takes a chance to launch an assault of his own, channelling his planar warrior ability into an arrow. The strike hits its mark and the Vagabond’s first blood against The Husk is an impressive one. Tarvirus staggers back, pushed to the wall, almost tripping over the fleeing Megs. The Husk checks his wound for a brief moment, before rage and panic flare into his foul face and his gaze lifts, both to Teoku and to Vedrir.
“Kill them,” he demands, “kill those who strike me.”
The Wights surge forth, two towards Teoku, whilst two make the ascent towards Vedrir, leading the small collection of zombies at their side.
“I need holy water,” Vedrir shouts, preparing another arrow and peppering the foes climbing the stairs, “and I need it now!”
“No holy water,” Kass shouts, climbing up after the wights, “but I got the next best thing.”
He slices at the climbing Wights, crushing them between the weight of his fiery strikes and Vedrir’s own precise shots. Tarvirus launches quick blasts of necrotic energy. The black streaks sizzle through the air and smash into Vedrir and Delxipha on high. The lady of Cinder’s Grove holds no fear for her enemies and readies herself to strike, lifting her great-sword and igniting it aloft.
“Everyone, with me!”
The rallying call cries out around the courtyard. Kassadin and Vedrir’s fighting grows more intense as they heed Delxipha’s commands, the Thane’s exceptional leadership spurring them on to a quick victory. Yuvari slides down the stairs to join Kass, the pair making short work of a Wight standing in their way.
Teoku, sadly, isn’t doing as effectively. A pair of wights and a stray zombie charge him and despite his previous battle prowess, the anxiety of facing Tarvirus again, plus the overwhelming odds leads the warlock quickly beaten back. Under a series of heavy strikes and finally a lucky claw from a zombie, Teoku’s defence crumbles and he falls to the ground, blood pouring from the space where his head knocks against the stones.
Immediately, the flow of the battlefield changes and the Vagabonds realise what is going on.
“Yuvari, we need to get Teoku,” Vedrir yells, “Kass, cover us.”
“Working on it,” Kass growls through gritted teeth as the wight before him begins launching attacks.
“What Kass said,” Yuvari chimes in, dodging a slice and slashing out with her own dagger at a zombie.
From her point at the top of the steps, Elizabeth studies the battlefield, before her glaring down at Tarvirus. The Deathlock limps to the back of the battle-field, shielded by his soldiers. A rage builds inside Elizabeth. She grasps the fleeting anger and lets it burn inside her.
“Vedrir, you want cover?” Elizabeth whispers, readying her parasol, “I’ll give you cover.”
With a loud roar, Elizabeth sprints to the edge of the stairway and leaps across the gap in the courtyard towards Tarvirus. Her legs impact the ground with a loud crunch but Elizabeth refuses to notice the pain. Instead, she sprints fully towards Tarvirus, bringing her parasol thundering down upon Tarvirus with all the might of her and her ancestors. The strike marks Tarvirus, cutting across his form and severing his decaying flesh. Tarvirus shrieks as the attack lands, crawling back as Elizabeth continues her advance.
“You,” he lets out a whispered breath, “will not be allowed to saddle me with this indignity.”
Elizabeth, not in the state to deliver a reply of her own, simply prepares to launch another attack. Before she can, Tarvirus’ wound flashes bright red and, with a sudden cackle, the Deathlock unleashes a streak of hellish flames upon Elizabeth, singeing her dress and burning her hands. Before she has a chance to rally, the Husk lurches forwards, his cold hands jabbing into her form, necrotic energy rippling from his finger tips.
“Fall,” the Husk commands.
Elizabeth does, tumbling to the floor, bleeding heavily.
From across the battlefield, Yuvari sees Elizabeth fall and makes her choice. Disengaging from her current opponent, Yuvari breaks into a dash across the courtyard, vaulting into the air and tumbling down just beside Elizabeth. She stands, reaching for her symbol to try and stabilise Elizabeth. Seeing her moving towards its master, a Wight fighting Kassadin turns and drops his sword for a bow. He launches his arrow. As her fingers find the mark of Asmodeous around her neck, an arrow slices through the air, stabbing into her back.
Kassadin refocuses just in time to see Yuvari hit the floor.
The Wight doesn’t last much longer.
In a flurry of fiery slashes, Kassadin severs the wilting skin and withered bone, letting out a desperate battle cry. Delxipha descends the steps and enters the fray personally, her sword slicing through multiple zombies like a hot knife through butter.
“Go,” she commands,” I can take it from here.”
Kassadin does, launching from his place to dash towards Yuvari’s fallen body.
Meanwhile, across the plaza, Vedrir arrives beside the Wights just in time to see one bringing down his sword upon Teoku’s prone form.
The attack never meets.
Ouskarr intercepts the strike, letting out a feral roar before unleashing a series of savage strikes upon the Wights, yelling in Orcish how they should get away from ‘his boy’. Vedrir takes the chance to approach Teoku, who Gravekeeper Quiss is already attending to.
Attending to, of course, meaning surrounding Teoku’s dying form with rosaries and praying that the Raven Queen will come and take his soul sooner rather than later.
Ignoring a feeling of common ground, due to their dour moods, Vedrir heals Teoku and the pair quickly begin dispatching the rest of the Wights, just in time for the rest of the Cinder’s Guard to storm through and begin sweeping away the lingering zombies.
Megs lifts her head just at the moment that Tarvirus slices with his necrotic claws along Elizabeth’s stomach. Desperate to distract The Husk, Megs grips her arcane focus, her symbol of the Unseelie Fae and raises her hands towards her new enemy, mirroring his prayer stance and muttering the same cursed words. Using all of her skill as an actress, Megs attempts to copy all of Tarvirus’ mannerisms and insults his patron with as many of the foulest words as she knows.
As a Hag, that’s a lot of foul words.
Her attempts to distract Tarvirus and his patron do not go as expected however.
Instead, a veil of the un-dead mist swirls around Megs, completely blocking her away from the others. Within the veil, a flash of a golden eye appears in the darkness, monstrous in the singular slit staring into Meg’s very soul.
“You dare to make contact…” a voice mutters in the back of her mind, “then…tell me: what is my name?”
Ignoring his words, Megs spouts the foulest insults she can at the golden eye.
The eye is unimpressed.
With a sudden flash, the storming mist encroaches upon Megs, wrapping and constricting around her as more necrotic energy surges through her system. Megs wails in agony, before gripping onto the mist, focusing a hellish rebuke into the veil of fog. Indeed, the fog burns just as Megs intends, but the fire now wraps around her as well, burning her skin once more. Before Megs loses consciousness, the cold voice mutters in her head once more.
“What…is my name?”
As Megs falls behind him, Tarvirus takes a moment to study the fight before him. Spotting the tide of battle changing as more of his Wights are cut down and Kassadin beginning to charge straight for him, the Husk decides this is the moment for his escape. Using another spell, he fumbles in the air for an invisible door knob and steps through a magical doorway, vanishing into the night.
Kassadin couldn’t care less.
His eyes are on the three women on the ground near him.
Megs, Elizabeth and Yuvari.
All of them dying, and he only has enough time to heal one, a hard choice for some.
Not for Kassadin though.
None at all.
Kassadin drops beside Yuvari and pours a potion down her throat, desperately screaming out for someone to help his dying comrades.
Luckily, someone hears.
From above, the armoured form of a knight rushes down the steps, kicking over an approaching Wight and riding the corpse down the stairs into the courtyard. He pulls out a healing potion of his own, pouring it down Megs’ throat. The Hag convulses, rising with a gasp. She quickly pushes herself away from the armoured knight to survey the battle. With relief, she sees they are winning, Ouskarr and Vedrir making short work of the remaining Wights with a mighty cleave of an axe and a precise shot from an arrow. The half-orc quickly rushes to his lady’s side, ignoring his attempts at tending to Teoku and studies her prone form. Ouskarr sighs in relief, pulling Teoku into a one-armed hug.
“She’s alive,” he confirms, “she’s alive.”
With the undead defeated, Tarvirus gone and the courtyard now back under the Delxipha’s control, the party take a moment to recover the calm. Kassadin turns to Mayhem and offers him his thanks. The knight nods and goes to reply, only for sudden reinforcement to arrive. The two Black Rose knights and their cleric arrive in the courtyard to repel the undead. Whilst they find the courtyard calm, an enemy for them is still present.
“Fiend,” the cleric draws a knife and levels it at the collapsed pair of tieflings on the ground. On instinct, Kass pulls Yuvari closer. The cleric rounds on May beside them, “you there, expel these fiends at once!”
“Oh yes, by all means,” the knight replies in his heavy accented voice. He reaches for his helm and plucks it off in a simple motion revealing a mane of bright red hair and even deeper shade of red on his skin, the ornamental horns on his helmet revealed to actually be a part of his head.
“But which one?” May finishes, smirking at the cleric and his knights.
The cleric is horrified, lost for words for once and before he can find them again, Delxipha swoops in and orders the Black Rose taken back to their quarters. Any attempt the order had of gaining influence here has clearly failed and though the cleric warns Delxipha of the threat now standing against her, they are taken back to their quarters and instructed to prepare to leave at dawn.
In the fresh calm, Kassadin turns to face the new tiefling among them.
“Name’s Mayhem,” the Tiefling replies, “some people call me May.”
“Kassadin,” Kass introduces himself, unable to hide his smile.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Fellow Vagabonds are given a warm welcome by Delxipha for their actions. She gives them guest rooms at the keep and, after the battle, offers the party a dip in the baths to clean themselves. The party gladly accept and enter the bathing area, followed swiftly after by Delxipha.
“I believe,” the Thane of Cinder’s Grove begins, “that people are more honest when they are at their most venerable, and there are a few times when people are more vulnerable than when they relax.”
Removing her armour, Delxipha proudly lounges in the pool with the party, glancing to each member in turn. Despite the majority of the party covering themselves, Delxipha appears to have no concern over such a thing. Confident as she is direct, the party find themselves un-nerved by her. Delxipha disregards their looks of apprehension. She’s only interested in one goal: securing a beneficial relationship with the adventuring party.
Delxipha explains to the Vagabonds about her current neutrality in the war and her fear of imminent conflict. She confesses to her previous relationship with Alecto, only for a breakdown in communication after Delxipha recovered her new scribe, Stitches the Tabaxi. Megs is aware of the tabaxi by another name: General Von Whiskenstein. The name terrifies the already trembling Stitches and Delxipha forces Megs to drop the subject. Megs reluctantly does so, eyeing the strange woman who had come to speak with them.
Delxipha further goes on to speak to each member of the party in turn, delicately studying their stories and motivations before she puts her terms on the table.
“I’d be willing to give you all safe haven as citizens of Cinder’s Grove, but to work in my town and around my city, I’d be willing to extend to you an even greater honour. I would have you sign up as an adventuring party, thereby allowing you have some of my direct authority in pursuing matters of importance. Think of it as a kind of temporary employment. If you help me, I can help you and we can do some truly incredible things together. I’ll leave you all to think on it and we’ll discuss this matter more in the morning. The choice is yours. I thank you for your service and you are free to go your own way. But, remember, if you turn on me or hurt any of my people, I will kill you.”
Barely leaving time for the group to gather their thoughts, Delxipha leaves the bath, gathers her things and heads off to resolve other matters, leaving the party to continue to soak, ruminate on her suggestions and contemplate how easily The Husk almost overpowered them during their confrontation.
And thus concludes the twelfth session of the Dorvine campaign. A lot of this session I hadn’t prepared for. In a way, that was an active choice on my part, mainly to encourage the players to resolve the issues in the campaign in their own way and to not encourage one simple solution. Mostly, though, it was because I hadn’t expected Megs to summon Tarvirus the Husk into Cinder’s Grove. Tarvirus was stronger than the party, a villain meant to be dealt with sometime in the future, and yet the fight with him was one of the most memorable things of the campaign thus far.
Let your players get in over their heads.
There have been a lot of moments in my D&D campaigns where players have made the wrong choice or taken options that weren’t exactly optimal for their characters. One from this campaign that springs to mind was Joey’s failed raid on the Church of the Black Rose. Last time I spoke on that subject, I talked about how to adapt to your players actions. This time, I wish to focus on different area of approaching circumstances like this.
Players often find themselves in a situation which you, as the DM, either didn’t account for or feared would happen: such as getting caught by guards in compromising positions or summoning evil dark forces of terrible volition and turning a mostly RP centred session into an epic battle against the forces of the undead. With this segment, I am essentially giving you permission to do the one thing all DMs fear.
Let your players do as their characters would do. If that gets them in over their head, then so be it.
Your players should be free to get into compromising positions and should also be free to think their way out of them. I didn’t expect Elizabeth to ultimately take control of her capture with her raw personality, nor did I expect Teoku to bluff his way so completely out of capture from his guard. Even Megs crazy wave of chaos slowly consuming all of Dorvine is something I don’t think any DM could plan for but, regardless, Joey has put Megs in those situations and every time, he has fought for her to survive and find a way out of them. Moments of danger like this are great for the game and really help get your players into the action. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s also reinforcing the fact that the players have choice and that’s pretty cool.
As a DM, you are allowed a degree of agency, the same as your players.
However, letting your players get into situations doesn’t mean that you as a DM are unable to react to the situation or around it. Whilst your player can get into bad situations, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have NPCs warn them before they act, nor does it mean your NPCs can just roll over and do whatever your players want.
When a player acts, they expect a reaction. Such a notion is at the basic forefront of the concept of not just Dungeons and Dragons but story-telling in general: the idea that one action creates change. As DMs, it is our responsibility to provide players with the equal and opposite reaction to this. This doesn’t mean we should dumb down our encounters to let the players survive, nor does it mean we should punish said players by changing the situation they have entered into a more dire one for the sake of teaching them a lesson. If a player steals from an NPC and a guard spots it, the reaction could result as a warning, fine or even prison time. This is an equal response to the action, the same as probable death would be the same for wandering into a dragon’s lair and trying to tickle the sleeping dragon. Players that deny this concept and rail against the idea of equal reaction are inherently misunderstanding the idea of D&D.
Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game but part of roleplaying means that we, as DMs, have to build a believable narrative world for our players to interact and explore. Whilst D&D is advertised as a game where ‘you can do anything’, the truth is rather that you can do anything BUT there will be consequences. These worlds must have an inherent logic and, if the world is to seem real and the story and experience are to matter to players, NPCs have to a degree of agency and reaction beyond the players.
Delxipha, for example, as Thane of Cinder’s Grove was able to order troops, her court was able to act and move within the battle the same as Tarvirus. The two could tactically oppose one another and, luckily, evened out the encounter on the whole, making it far less deadly that it could have been.
In situations like this, DMs, me definitely included, wish to pull punches with our players but sometimes, we have to be willing to engage the players on their level and explore the outcome of their actions. This combat was the closest the players came to getting killed because they were challenging a being of great power who had a small force beside him. For every action in this encounter, there was an equal and opposite reaction.
This, of course, doesn’t mean you can’t include elements of fantasy or drama: Ouskarr’s arrival in the nick of time seemed like a perfectly reasonable event to occur and was dramatically sufficient. The players cheered when I announced his arrival and it kept the atmosphere of the fight going. In addition, Husk’s powers and Meg’s communion with his master were things that were dramatic for the situation, as was Husk’s retreat.
In truth, Husk didn’t want to kill the players, being a mix of them being below his notice and still cursed to be agents of his black coins. He also, more importantly, didn’t want to die himself and I think that’s an important thing for all DMs to remember about villains. Very rarely does the villain of your campaign want to die and if they do, they no doubt want to go out fighting or where would our conflict be?
As such, a strategic retreat or an arrogant abandonment of the party are both on the cards for when running villains and both can be deployed when needed. These are a set of simple tools in a DM’s toolbox but honestly the most effective. The number of times I’ve had villains escape or leave the heroes for dead always makes the rematch with those villains feel more intense.
All in all, the encounter in the courtyard was so exceptional and rewarding because it was a mix of these two pieces of advice: I didn’t go easy on the players when considering their actions, but nor was I cruel. All the pieces on the board acted in a way that was both logical, Delxipha and Husk haven’t agency on the battlefield, but also dramatically sufficient, note that the reinforcement of guards only arrived AFTER the players had finished with combat.
First introductions with new NPCs are key.
Before the Fellow Vagabonds properly encountered Lady Delxipha and her inner circle, one of the things I thought most about was about how the first impressions of these characters could effect people. Indeed, each way in which the characters were introduced told the players enough about them at a glance but still left for further role-playing, providing a sense of drama and conflict for the group.
The first moment a player has with new NPCs, especially important ones, is important. An introduction can tell your players everything they need to know about a character or give them a deep sense of connection. An incredible introduction might even find the players becoming more invested in the NPC, wanting to follow that NPC’s personal story as a character.
For Torvus the Bugbear, I made his introduction loud and obvious, an approach very opposite his position as spymaster but something that firmly marked him to Vedrir as a possible enemy. Delxipha, on the other hand, was a character I held in reserve, separated from Vedrir through silence and her raised position. Her armour and approach to speak with Vedrir also said a lot for her honour and fighter’s spirit, whilst her boldness in the bathing showed she was a force not to be trifled with. Mayhem, on the other hand, was portrayed as a likable goof and him standing up for Kassadin against the Black Rose easily helped establish a friendship between the two.
These simple moments are important in making connections with your players and, more importantly, in creating NPCs that they’re interested in. NPCs don’t always need dramatic introductions but using them sparingly for the NPCs you really want to push towards the party helps get them engaged and can improve the way NPCs are viewed in your world by the party overall.
That is going to be it from this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the Fellow Vagabonds discuss Delxipha’s offer and make their next move, and we’ll be talking about options regarding quest-givers and once more looking at the importance of player freedom and more laid-back role-playing moments.
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.