Player freedom or, for a more appropriate term, player agency is a main reason why people play Dungeons and Dragons. Even in ‘rail-road’ campaigns where the story flows on one single path that the players can’t change, moments where players can dictate their own actions, dialogue and character development ultimately serve to help enhance the campaign as a whole. Ultimately, no matter the outcome, it happened because of the player’s actions. It’s why when DM’s tell the story of their campaign they start at the beginning, whilst a player will start with their favourite moments: moments that were special to them because they had true agency within the story.
Player agency is precious, there is no doubt about that, but the biggest issue regarding this from a DM’s stand point is that we have to balance our player’s desire to explore and do as they want and our desire to tell the story we want to tell. The campaign isn’t the DM’s novel, nor is it the player’s story, but a strange combination of these things placed into the medium of a game. As such, players should be courteous enough to let everyone playing get their chance to shine and follow along with the DM’s plans, whilst we DM’s must find a way to balance our planning with our player’s ambitions. This, of course, sets up for an inevitable confrontation between these two impossible factors that make D&D what it is: the battle between player agency and the DM’s planning. When these two forces irrevocably meet, by accident usually, catastrophe lingers just on the horizon.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, we’ll be talking about the thirteenth session (unlucky for some) of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I’ve learned from running it. This week, we’ll be talking about player agency, quest-giving and something very important that every DM must eventually face in their careers. My communal bath taking vagabonds 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.
Last session, the players faced Tarvirus the Husk, a Deathlock with significant skill in necromancy and found themselves guests in the Cinder’s Seat, the castle of Cinder’s Grove, ruled by the thane: Lady Delxipha. Lady Delxipha spoke with the group in their communal bath, explaining she was seeking allies and offered the resting warriors a chance at working with her.
The bath is a silent place when Delxipha departs. If only, at least, for a moment.
Kassadin grins. He has honestly never been happier and the rest of the group seem to share it. Even Vedrir seems quite pleased with the current arrangement. He’s not smiling or anything, but Kass is sure there’s a glint of joy in his cold eyes.
“Well,” Kassadin begins, “look at that guys, we’re in! We’ve got a place to stay. Finally. No more Black Rose kicking at our doors, no more racist locals. We’ve done it, we’ve found a home.”
“Yeah, seems like a pretty fair trade,” Elizabeth observes, “and Kass is right, we’ve got a place we can set up shop now.”
“Almost feels wrong being called vagabonds now,” Vedrir comments, stirring the water with a gentle stroke of his head.
“I don’t like it.”
The conversation ceases instantly and all eyes turn to Granny Megs. The Hag is propped up on the side of the back, her legs crossed and a glare levelled towards the exit.
“And,” Megs continues, “I don’t like her either.”
“I agree,” Teoku puts in.
“Well,” Ouskarr interrupts, scowling at the pair, “I think that Delxipha has given us a great offer.”
“You would,” Yuvari snaps from her corner, shuffling over to Megs and Teoku’s side.
Kass’ smile fades as he realises what is happening. Planting his hands on the side of the bath, he pushes up and tries to gain some control of the situation.
“Wait a second, come on guys. This is what we wanted, right? A home, a place to call our own.”
“It’s what you wanted Kass,” Teoku puts in, “I don’t think the rest of us were expecting…”
“We’re her errand boys now,” Megs replies, “she’s turning us into another band of her guards.”
“Well, that’s the trade off,” Kassadin responds, “if we want something from her, we have to give something, right?”
“She’s worked with your sister as well Megs,” Ouskarr puts in, “that should show that Delxipha is worth trusting.”
“Or the opposite,” Megs puts in, “either way, I’m not looking to shackle us down in Cinder’s Grove.”
“We have to pick a side in this Megs,” Kass growls, “and this is a good side.”
“I don’t like her,” Yuvari puts in.
“And I trust her judgement,” Megs agrees. Even Teoku nods. As the air in the bath becomes more and more tense, Ouskarr finally offers a solution.
“You know, the offer she gave us was just that: an offer. We can think about it, discuss it and talk to her about the details. There’s no need for all this fuss if we’re not all on-board.”
The group decide that Ouskarr has a point and they’ll bring up their issues to Delxipha the following morning. Yuvari, unwilling to listen any longer, leaves the pool, gets dressed and exits the room, vanishing into the blackening night. Worried about her, Kassadin takes off to follow her. Vedrir isn’t far behind, though he leaves Kass to hunt down Yuvari, whilst he goes to follow up his own efforts. Teoku and Ouskarr leave soon after, eager for bed, leaving Elizabeth, Megs and her faithful attendant, Clacker, alone to soak.
Elizabeth cannot contain her excitement. Finally, a proper chance to get to know Megs. She turns to see the Hag looking to her, fixing her with a hard stare. Elizabeth attempts to match Meg’s stare but soon gets put off by the Hag’s unblinking gaze.
“Fine, jeez, you can have the pool to yourself,” she groans, “I’ve got to perfect my healing tea anyway.”
Megs watches as Elizabeth leaves before sighing and sinking into the pool with her kenku. She has much to plan and the time alone here is perfect for thinking.
After a good few minutes of frantic searching, Kass finally locates Yuvari outside on the battlements of the Cinder’s Seat, overlooking the ash-lake that spreads out to the east of Cinder’s Grove. There in the starlight, Yuvari sits staring out into the endless black, clearly still worked up from the conversation in the bath. Kass sidles up alongside her, peering out into across the void. After a moment to steel his nerves, he finally speaks,
“So, er…you seemed a bit off back there.”
“I don’t like it,” Yuvari simply replies.
Kassadin gives a slow nod, though his expression betrays his confusion.
“Care to be more specific or…?”
“This,” Yuvari finally replies, “I don’t like it. I don’t like Cinder’s Grove, I don’t like this deal and I really don’t like Delxipha.”
It’s all Kass can think to say. Even his next question seems like the wrong response.
“Because she’s in a place of power and she knows she is,” Yuvari replies, “you know what that was in there? Wandering in when we were all bathing and just flashing herself? That was one big power play. She was almost daring us to try something.”
“Well,” Kass murmurs, “I…didn’t think it was that…”
“Of course not,” Yuvari snaps, “you were too busy staring at her.”
“Hey, that’s not true,” Kass argues, “I just wanted to hear what she had to say. This is…ever since I became a Tiefling, all I’ve ever wanted is a place where I can feel normal. And from the sounds of it, this is it.”
Yuvari tuts, rolling her eyes. Kass’ expression tightens into a look of deeper confusion.
“What’s wrong with that? It’s why I came to Dorvine. What about you? Why’d you come here?”
“Because Dormin told me too,” Yuvari replies simply, “and I keep seeing a lot of similarities between her and him, and it just…”
Yuvari sighs, bringing her hands up to push back her hair. Kass finds himself watching her for a moment, before realising he’s staring.
“You know,” he begins in an uncertain tone, “you…keep a lot to yourself and that’s not healthy.”
Yuvari turns to glare. Kass holds his hands up, a mock surrender.
“Look, just here me out. Okay? I promise I’m trying to help.”
Yuvari’s features soften but she still seems reluctant to listen.
“Back in Alecto’s cave, I find this sword, right?”
“The one you keep talking to?”
“I’m serious, Yuv. His name’s Ward and he’s good at keeping secrets.”
Kass removes Ward from his sheath and places him carefully in Yuvari’s hands.
“Greetings,” Ward’s calm tone fills Yuvari’s mind.
“Holy shit,” Yuvari mumbles, “so…you’re not going crazy.”
“He’s just a regular talking sword,” Kass explains, “but he’s loyal and…he’s someone you can tell all the secrets to. Even the ones you don’t want to tell to me. He can listen and…any fears or worries or wishes, he can…well, he can help.”
Kass releases Ward from his grasp and offers Yuvari an awkward smile. Yuvari holds the sword close, the sheer size of it resting clumsy in her grip. She looks up to meet Kass’ gaze. For a moment, there’s nothing in the dark night but the two of them and this moment.
Then, Yuvari smiles and lets out a chuckle,
“You…want to give me your talking sword for the night?”
Kass’ red face threatens to go even redder.
“Well, when you say it like that…it sounds a little weird.”
“It is,” Yuvari replies, “it really is…but thanks.”
Shaking her head and still laughing at Kass, Yuvari turns around and retreats back to her new guest room, Ward’s blue eye gazing back at Kassadin as she vanishes into the night. Kass takes a moment to relax and resumes looking out into the dark, enjoying the flickering stars passing overhead in the night.
“Are you alright?”
Kass turns at the sudden voice to see Mayhem making his way up onto the ramparts. He grins at Kass and playfully slaps his shoulder before taking a place alongside him on the wall,
“You and your sister seemed to be having quite the serious discussion. I didn’t want to disturb.”
“Sister?” Kass splutters, “she’s not my sister.”
“Ah,” Mayhem observes with a slow nod, “then just a friend?”
“I…yeah, I guess.”
“Then you wouldn’t mind seeing if she is single then?”
Mayhem laughs, clapping Kass on the shoulder once more.
“I am joking friend,” he replies, “just a little humour to break the ice.”
Kass feigns laughter back.
“Yeah…break the…ice…you’re a Tiefling, right?”
“Last I checked, same as you.”
“You…erm…you…you made a deal with Dormin too?”
Mayhem glances to him. For a moment, his relaxed expression tightens into something stern and angry. Then, as quick as it appeared, it relaxes.
“You…you’re first generation, aren’t you?”
Kass realises his mistake.
“Nope. My parents were Tieflings and so am I. From the sounds of it, your were not.”
“Ah shit,” Kassadin curses.
“It’s okay,” Mayhem steadies him before he speaks more, “I know what it’s like to desperately want something and to give up everything to seek it. It’s why I’m here now, in service to my love.”
“Your…love?” Kass checks.
“Delxipha. She is what makes my heart stir. One day, through my service, I shall prove to be worthy of her love. Until then, I will serve her as I always have. As for you, my friend, I hope you make the right choice. It would be nice to see you around more. I can’t speak for the rest of your group, but you seem good.”
A small smile crosses Kass’ face.
“You are welcome,” Mayhem replies, “though if I may, please refrain from mentioning that name from earlier in these lands.”
Kass raises an eyebrow.
Mayhem visibly trembles.
“The name is cursed in these lands. A lot of problems that happened a thousand years ago come back to that name and here in Dorvine, especially, it is a name that is not best received.”
And with a simple hand-shake in parting, Mayhem leaves Kass to his thoughts atop the battlements, thinking on Yuvari’s fears and the warning of Dormin’s name. He feels the stonework of the castle beneath his hand and smiles.
Home at last, he hopes.
Vedrir’s night-time escapades are only quick little errands. First, Vedrir sets out into the Cinder’s Seat in search of Delxipha’s son, Symon. Upon finding Symon’s room, Vedrir skirts around the outside, marking in his mind where the child’s bedroom is and finding the balcony to his room from the outside courtyard. From there, Vedrir journeys through the Cinder’s Seat in search of Torvus’ room, leaving the Bug-bear a message to meet with him the following morning.
When morning arrives, Vedrir is waiting in the open courtyard at the front of the castle, the freshly risen sun tickling the back of his neck as he stands waiting for Torvus’ arrival. Torvus is prompt, arriving in the central courtyard straight after dawn. The bugbear marches over to Vedrir, eyeing him with curiosity.
“I got your note,” he grunts.
“And you also have a problem with me,” Vedrir responds, “I’m here to sort it out.”
The bugbear snarls.
“We can talk it or fight it out or whatever. Whatever I have to do to get you to trust me and feel comfortable with me being here.”
The eladrin eyes the bugbear with a hard cold stare. Torvus is silent for a moment, considering. Then, he pushes a small bottle into Vedrir’s hands.
“The holy water you called for last night,” he growls, “when you fought to defend my thane. That has earned you a degree of trust. Be careful you do not abuse it.”
Vedrir tucks away the holy water and, now released of his obligations, the eladrin finds himself free to continue exploring the grounds before breakfast.
The breakfast the following morning is as tense as expected. Lady Delxipha invites the group to eat with her household and an obvious awkward silence pervades across the meal. Supporters and detractors alike watch the household go about their business, bustling to and fro with food. When breakfast is finished, the tables are pushed away to the edge of the great hall. The inner circle of Cinder’s Grove gather and Delxipha asks for the party’s answer to her offer.
“Before we agree to anything,” Vedrir speaks up, “we want to talk about what we’re actually agreeing to here and how we’re doing it.”
“Yeah,” Teoku puts in, “we’re not looking to be your soldiers.”
“I understand your trepidation,” Delxipha replies, “the offer is two-fold. One is simply signing your name in Stitches’ notebook, which will make you citizens of Cinder’s Grove, able to purchase property in the town and also giving you a say in how the town is run. The second is a vow upon the Cinder’s Seat, where you hereby swear to serve the seat as an adventuring guild. I understand you want your freedom, and I in no way plan to take that from you. However, swearing by the seat solidifies a formal agreement of our alliance, which is really the main point of this whole enterprise. You helped my forces fight off The Husk and for that, I wish to reward you…but if we are to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship, I also wish to secure a sense of trust between us. I have been completely honest with you: you are allies I believe would be most beneficial and by swearing loyalty to me.”
“And if a war came,” Vedrir put in, “you’d expect us to fight for you?”
“I’d expect you to do your best as isolated agents to preserve the people of Cinder’s Grove,” Delxipha replies, “now then, what do you say?”
The group exchange an uncertain glance. For a moment, even those in favour hesitate.
“If we do this,” Vedrir puts in suddenly, “we answer to you directly, no-one else.”
“I might not always be available,” Delxipha replies, “but if that is what you wish, I will insist that either I or Mayhem deal with you personally. Does that sound sufficient enough?”
Surprisingly, it’s Teoku who throws in with Delxipha first.
“Okay,” he mumbles, signing his name in the book, “and the oath?”
“You swear by the seat,” Delxipha responds, standing from her chair to take her place besides Elizabeth, “and then you say that you will honour and defend the people of Cinder’s Grove and serve the Cinder’s Seat to the best of your ability?”
Teoku repeats the pledge. Delxipha nods and responds with her own, promising to protect Teoku and nurture his ambitions.
Kassadin is next. Then, Lady Grey pledges. Ouskarr follows her and then, with a final promise to Megs that what they’re doing is the right thing, Vedrir steps up and pledges to Cinder’s Grove as well.
Now, all eyes rest on Megs.
“Megaera?” Delxipha inquires.
Megs indeed steps forwards and signs the document, keeping her eyes on Stitches trembling form. However, she refuses to pledge the oath.
“Whatever happens now Vedrir,” Megs whispers to her eladrin comrade, “it’s all on you.”
Delxipha thanks her for at least trying. Yuvari is the last to sign, storming out soon after to wait outside the meeting hall.
“She’ll come around,” Delxipha says, though the party appear unconvinced.
The Fellow Vagabonds gather round the Cinder’s Seat as Delxipha takes her place, explaining the current state of affairs in the province. Whilst Cinder’s Grove is prospering and war has not yet claimed the area, Delxipha is wishing to reinforce her control and expel hostile elements: the most pressing of which is Tarvirus the Husk.
“He passes out black coins that curse those that hold them,” Kassadin explains, “they poison the mind of those who hold them and call him there when people die. Then, he collects the bodies.”
“Suspicious,” Delxipha notes, “I’ll pass word round. If you require cleansing from this curse yourself in the future, I’d recommend seeking out our local cleric. Zedaar will be more than willing to help, and his daughter Faeriel may be able to provide more support…”
“Faeriel?” Kassadin checks.
“Someone you know?” Vedrir inquires.
“We met her on the boat here,” Elizabeth explains, “it’s good to see she made it here okay.”
“But I thought she said she was going to be joining the Black Rose,” Kassadin mumbles.
“Thank Faes, she didn’t then!” Megs puts in.
After exchanging information on Husk, Delxipha begins sharing more pressing issues with the group and hands out several flyers for current jobs: gnolls patrolling that require investigating, a new steward (to replace the one that perished the night before) that requires an escort to finish some business before he can take up the mantle and a dragon terrorising the southern lands near Orlon.
“What about this one?” Elizabeth wonders, tapping a piece of paper focusing on a local job within Cinder’s Grove.
“Oh, that’s a personal inquiry for myself,” Delxipha explains, “a pillar of our community passed away about six months ago. Ludwig Syrah was a member of the Brothers of the Vine and now his estate has been left to the town. Sadly, we’ve received rumours of a ghost scuttling about.”
The Vagabonds lean forwards.
“Ghost?” they ask as one.
“Yes,” Delxipha explains, “in fact, I was thinking that if you cleared out the ghost within, I wouldn’t mind letting you take the mansion as your new base of operations in the city.”
The party all jump at the chance.
“We have our first mission guys,” Kassadin announces with pride.
“Oh, before you go,” Delxipha announces suddenly, “I sent out a message to Calvin. Vedrir, you said last night you wished to meet with him. Surprisingly, he actually wrote a letter back.”
Vedrir takes the letter from Delxipha’s hands and flicks through. The reply is simple but effective.
“Alright snowflake, you want to meet, let’s meet. The hut inside the oldest tree. See you at noon, be sure to be on time, just bring more manners than your brat of a sister.”
Vedrir raises his head and looks to the other members of the party.
“I’m sorry,” he announces, “I’ve got something I need to do.”
“Same. I’ve got a few things I need to do before the mansion anyway,” Kass replied.
“No, I mean, I have to go. Something very important has come up. You guys will need to handle the ghost thing alone. Before I go, though, I’m going to need to talk to Megs.”
The Hag looks up at Vedrir’s words, studying the eladrin’s face for some clue as to what he wants to discuss.
“Of course Vedrir,” she replies, allowing the eladrin to lead her off into a corner.
“I believe our business is concluded then,” Delxipha announces, “you all have a list of jobs and I have other buisness to attend to. I will leave you to it.”
And with that, Delxipha and her retinue retreat to their duties, Mayhem escorting Symon back to his room as the rest of the inner circle separate to do their own jobs.
The group left in front of the seat begin discussing their next actions.
“I need to go visit Faeriel and her dad,” Kass explains, “I also need to find Yuvari as well.”
“We could all do our own thing then?” Teoku puts in, “I’m just wanting to explore the mansion, but I don’t mind heading there and waiting for you guys.”
“That sounds good,” Elizabeth agrees, “we’ll regroup in front of this mansion at, let’s say, noon? It’ll give you enough time to visit the church Kass, and I and Ouskarr can have a chance to spar.”
Ouskarr’s eyes light up at the suggestion.
“Y-yes, of course Lady Grey! I would be honoured!”
“Wonderful,” Elizabeth concludes, “then we’ll see you all later.”
And with that, the Fellow Vagabonds part their different ways. Even with the overwhelming presence of Delxipha’s deal still lingering over their heads, Kassadin finds himself smiling as the party split up. A good group of allies, a new home and supporter and now a mansion in town right for the picking. It’s everything he could have ever asked for.
Finally, good news.
Vedrir leads Megs around the back of the Cinder’s Seat. He can feel the Hag almost glaring at him as they walk, clear doubt upon her face.
“You still think this is a bad idea?” he asks suddenly.
“Of course I do,” Megs replies, “I don’t like her and I don’t trust her. I can’t believe you do…”
“I never said I did,” Vedrir responds.
The pair stop in a small isolated garden at the back of the hold, framed by beautiful pine trees and open flower beds. Vedrir raises a hand and points to the balcony overlooking the garden.
“That’s Symons,” he says, looking back to Megs.
Megs’ wrinkled face scrunches up into a look of confusion.
“Symon. Delxipha’s son, he’s up there.”
Megs glances up to the balcony. Then, back to Vedrir.
“Why are you telling me this?” she mutters, a soft smile growing on her lips.
“Because,” Vedrir replies, “I want to think that this deal of ours is all going to work out. You’re right though. Delxipha is forward and has made it clear that if we do anything against her, she won’t hesitate to strike back at us. I don’t like being threatened like that, really undercuts the good feeling I’ve had since getting her.”
“Good feeling?” Megs muses, “who are you and what have you done with Vedrir?”
Vedrir ignores her comment and looks up to the balcony.
“Security here’s poor. The kid’s not guarded…and if Delxipha plans to make any move against us, I just want to be sure that we can make one against her first. Just in case.”
Megs can’t hide the wide smirk spreading across her lips.
“Of course,” she cackles, “just in case.”
“I have to go,” Vedrir says, “I’m already late.”
With a simple nod once more at Megs, Vedrir takes off in a mad sprint, dashing back round the Cinder’s Seat and out the front gate, running through the streets of the Grove. Megs watches him go from the battlements. She pauses long enough to enjoy the sudden breeze on her face before turning back to the balcony.
“Don’t worry Vedrir,” the Hag mutters to herself, “I know just what to do to keep Delxipha in her place…”
Kassadin finds Yuvari outside the Cinder’s Seat, glaring out at the ash sea once more. Wanting badly to shake this new habit of meeting like this, Kassadin approaches her.
“Look, I know you’re not happy,” Kass says, “but…Dormin once asked me if I wanted to live like a pawn or a king.”
“Of course he did,” Yuvari growls.
Kassadin sighs, rallies and approaches from another angle.
“You ever wanted to own your own home Yuvari?”
“No,” Yuvari replies, “never.”
Kassadin slumps slightly.
“Well, the reward for this job is a mansion. Living in a mansion, that sounds like living like a king. So, Yuvari, are you happy being a pawn…or do you want to live like a queen?”
Yuvari raises her head again, matching Kassadin’s stare. She pauses for a moment, before gathering up her things.
“Where is it?”
Kass bursts out into a grin.
“Teoku’s on his way,” he explains, “go meet up with him, the far-side of town.”
“Right. I’ll go keep him company,” Yuvari replies, “oh, and, this is yours.”
She passes back Ward and gives Kass a solid nod.
“Don’t mention it,” Kass says. Yuvari spots his smile and soon, she’s wearing one too, albeit a little restrained. Turning on her heel, she walks away into town, trailing after Teoku. Kassadin, still riding his emotional high from the promise of a mansion, doesn’t wait around for long. Soon, he’s off into Cinder’s Grove as well, searching for Faeriel. He finds the temple to Bahamut and a collection of other Gods, soon enough.
Zedaar is as friendly as Kassadin expected, taking Kassadin to one side and welcoming him into the church. Standing on holy ground makes Kassadin ache, a reminder of Bahamut’s abandoning, but he struggles on, asking the elderly dragonborn if he can have a chance to speak to his daughter.
“Of course,” the old dragonborn croaks, “I’ll call her down.”
Faeriel is far more relaxed than the last time Kassadin saw her. Now wearing a simple beige tunic that highlights her blue scales, she seems almost like a normal civilian. Upon spotting Kassadin, her face becomes a portrait of panic.
“Faeriel,” her father calls, “an old friend is here.”
“Yes,” Faeriel grunts through gritted teeth, “Kassadin, it’s…been…”
“Too long right?” Kass cuts her off.
“Yes,” Faeriel finishes, “that…sure. Do you mind if we continue this upstairs?”
Ignoring some suggestive looks from her father, Faeriel leads Kassadin upstairs to her room, where her mask of false joy immediately vanishes.
“Why the hell are you here Kassadin? I wanted you out of my life!”
Kass’ enthusiasm slips.
“I…I was just coming to see how you were…”
“We’re not friends, Kassadin,” Faeriel snaps back, “we barely know each other. And I’d rather keep everything that happened on that boat behind me.”
“Whatever,” Kass dismisses her with a wave, “but right now, I need your help. I’ve been afflicted with this…this curse. I need you to heal me of it.”
Faeriel tenses, her snout puckering into a strained expression.
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to…” she grunts.
“I…can’t do it,” Faeriel responds.
A moment later, everything clicks in Kass’ head.
“I see…you…Bahamut’s abandoned you too.”
Faeriel snaps at that.
“Yes, alright, he has. That’s why I’m here in Dorvine, okay? I deserted. I know that’s big joke for you Kass but for me, it’s deeply upsetting and I’d appreciate it if you’d leave me alone.”
Kassadin’s good mood pops, pricked by Faeriel’s words.
“You think…that’s a joke…to me?”
“Well, you’re not exactly…”
Faeriel gestures only for Kassadin to slap her hand away.
“You’re acting like I don’t know who you are, and that’s true, but you don’t a thing about me either. I was born and raised in the Garrison, I was the son of Dominus Lightforge and I was trained to be a paladin since before I could walk. Don’t you dare assume I think that being abandoned by your God is a stupid joke!”
Faeriel’s eyes widen and she takes a step back.
“I’m not a paladin anymore,” Kass snaps, “I’m not worthy of it. So don’t assume what I think to joke about, alright? But you’ve made it clear you don’t want me in your life. So I’ll see you around.”
Kass turns, slamming Faeriel’s door shut and leaving the dragonborn with a small host of unanswered questions.
Kassadin heads downstairs and finally finds some luck with Faeriel’s father, who uses his clerical magic to release Kassadin from his curse with a small deposit of 150 gold (for the upkeep, supposedly). Kassadin stalks out of the church, flipping Bahamut off on his way out, and stalks back to the Cinder’s Seat. Before meeting the others, there’s one more thing he has to do.
Megs took some coins too.
She needs to be cured…before it is too late.
The door to Symen’s room didn’t even open. The young boy glances up from his writings just in time to see an old hag fading into existence before him, her ethereal jaunt positioning her between him and the door. Granny Megs smiles at the boy, and begins to march steadily over to him.
“You,” Symon observes, “you’re one of the adventurers from this morning. You’re not supposed to be in here. Mother has strictly forbidden.”
“Shhh,” Megs whispers, planting one of her gnarled fingers to the boy’s lips, “Granny has a little present for you.”
She takes Symon’s hand in her own, opens her palm and then retrieves a single black coin from her pocket. Her grin flares wider as she dangles the coin before the palm, dropping it into the boy’s grasp.
Symon is quicker than Megs expects.
More importantly, the boy is also a lot smarter.
Having been present for the earlier meeting with the Vagabonds, Symon remembers exactly what Kassadin said about the black coins and knows in an instant that whether Megs is attempting, it isn’t good. Mustering all the bravery and luck the boy has in his possession, he pushes Megs away and runs for the door. Megs panics and lunges after him. Inches from the boy’s collar, Megs fingers find air as the boy barrels through the door and bursts into a full on sprint down the corridor, shouting out as loudly as he can.
But Granny Megaera Grumbleweed is never one to give up.
Megs continues to chase down the young boy, the coins jingling in her pocket now as she runs. She feels weaker than usual, more tired. No doubt, it’s the coins. But Megs has no fear. She’s strong. She always has been. Ten coins were what it took to kill a normal man and here she is, only feeling the negative effects with twenty four gathered on her person from her various meetings with The Husk.
Imagine what just one of those coins would do to Delxipha’s precious heir.
The mere thought sent Megs into writing fits of ecstasy. Or perhaps, that was the strain of her new found limp from the curse of the coins. In the distance, as Symon turned to face the stairs, Megs flicks out her hand, casting her unseen servant. Symon doesn’t expect the full weight of an invisible force suddenly pushing at his back and he trips, tumbling down the stairs. With a victorious screech, Megaera stumbles along the corridor, clawing at the wall and floor like an animal as she scampers.
Victory over Delxipha for her words and threats.
A lesson only a Hag like Megeara could teach.
She reaches the top of the stairs and glances down, only to find Symon slowly getting up, a large cut on his forehead.
Megaera snarls. The boy is becoming more trouble than he’s worth. Even still, Megs has come too far now.
She stumbles down the stairs, two at a time and fully leaps over towards Symon, toppling him to the floor.
“May!” Symon wails, tears flowing free from his eyes, “May!”
The fear on his face makes Megs tremble with excitement.
“No, quiet, quiet!” she howls, shoving the black coin towards Symon’s open mouth. Symon reacts quickly, grabbing her hand and hoisting it away. Megs groans. Strong for a boy, too strong.
“Take it, take it, take it,” she begs, pushing down as heavily as she can.
A sudden boot to the back of her hump causes Megs to go flying along the cobbles, smashing her nose against the floor as she rolls. Her head rises up to see Mayhem standing triumphantly above Symon, sheltering the boy with his body.
There are no words needed.
The anger and raw rage in Mayhem’s eyes is a look Megs is used. It is the look of a parent ready to defend their child. Strange, especially since the boy has not an element of fiend about him. Never the less, Megs has still come to far.
Mayhem is far quicker and stronger than Megs could have ever expected. In a moment, he has vaulted over Symon and is slashing into Megs with a flurry of steel. The first blow, Megs meets with a hellish rebuke, though the attack seems to do little to stop Mayhem. The second blow comes, then a third, each slash of metal tearing away at her worn wedding dress.
Then, with one last cut, Megs’ vision fades into blackness.
When everything fades back in, Megs realises her situation in a second.
Mayhem and a small group of guards stand behind her, Symon being held by the Tiefling. Thrown to the floor, with no chance of escape, the towering form of Delxipha looms above her. In her hands, she holds her flame-tongue great-sword, which lights as she slams it into the ground.
“I told you I would kill you.”
The words strike a chord within Megaera and she takes in the situation once more.
No Vagabonds, no witnesses, not even a trial.
This is an execution, not from a Thane, but from an enraged mother.
Megs steadies herself and, finally, lets out a loud roar. Her veil lifts to reveal a more horrific face as Megs eyes bulge and her skin pulses, her hair whipping up about her as she screams. Symon and the guards dart to flee, as expected of her frightful presence. Mayhem and Delxipha stand their ground, however. Delxipha lifts her flame-tongue, gives a brief mutter and then brings down her sword upon Megs.
The last words of Granny Megaera Grumbleweed are the words that have haunted the Fellow Vagabonds for the past two days and words that will ultimately change the fate of Cinder’s Grove and Dorvine as a whole forever.
“Bring out your dead…”
And thus concludes the thirteenth session of the Dorvine campaign and a recap I’ve been dreading for the past couple of weeks.
As a group, we usually play a few sessions ahead of when I write these summaries and pieces of DM advice, so I’ve luckily had some time to think and plan what I was going to write this week. I initially considered starting this blog openly with the main topic of this segment, but ultimately decided to leave it a secret so as not to spoil the recap portion of this blog.
As one might guess, despite my promises of talking about player agency and quest-giving, our primary subject of today is actually going to be about that last segment I wrote: PC death, how it happens and how to deal with it.
Player Character Death
Over my five previous years of running RPG campaigns, in both Pathfinder and D&D, I have had a lot of player deaths, reaching into the double digits. Hopefully, this experience will give me enough knowledge to help tackle the big elephant in the room for this blog: player character death, why does it happen?
To start, I think it’s very important to establish a few important factors for this. The first is that player character death is sometimes just something that happens. It can happen to anyone in any game and it almost always sucks for someone. The second is that if you haven’t had a player character death in any of your campaigns, you do not necessarily need to kill off your characters to have a good campaign. I, personally, believe that killing off characters is something one should do rarely in a story setting. It’s hard for a reader, or in this case a player, to become invested in a narrative when characters keep dying and are unable to reach the height of their development.
Sadly, the third truth of player death is something I’ve talked about in an earlier blog and something that a lot of people might disagree with. I believe that player character death or at least, player loss, is something that should always be on the cards in every game of D&D. This is not to say that a DM should go out of his way to kill his players, nor should every encounter be a world-ending boss fight, but if you and your friends are playing a game, a game where there is no chance of loss is a game not worth playing. This doesn’t necessarily mean DM’s should strive for player character death but the chance of such should always be an option.
With that all said, my personal view on player character death, we can finally get into the fiddly subject of why it happens. Reasons for player character death are varied and multiple in nature. Stupid choices could lead the players to actions that ultimately end in their death. Most of the time, it’s simply a matter of being unlucky, rolling the dice poorly and getting a result which ends up shutting down a player character. No matter the reason and no matter the happening, it is important to treat that death with respect and that player with courtesy.
When handling player character, be honest with your players and give them a good send-off.
Long before this session ever became a scenario in my mind, I had discussed the possibility of death with the players. From the very first session, I made it clear that I wanted to run a campaign in a world where there was no possibility of resurrection or revival from the dead. My players loved the idea of a darker campaign focusing on this aspect and agreed. This is the example of the first step and the greatest piece of advice I can give as a DM regarding your campaign.
Talking with your players is everything.
It allows you to gauge reactions, organise plots and scenarios that your players want to get involved in and make a game that caters to everyone at the table, whilst also being clear about your intentions and actions with your players.
This honesty and respect is crucial throughout the role-playing experience because it allows you to make good content for your players. If your players don’t want to play in a world where death is the be all and end all, that’s fine too, and there a lots of options with reincarnation and resurrection to explore within the D&D mythos.
However, the moment of player character death itself can be a point of contention among players. It’s a fact that most players hate it when their player characters die. This character is usually an extension of their self, an avatar with which to interact with a fictional world, and the idea of that character not being involved with the story anymore after dying some horrific death is understandably disappointing and tragic. If you’re playing a game where player character death is a possibility, and it should be, you should also be ready to give your player the best send off for their character that you possibly can.
Megs decision to covet the black coins was one that Joey wanted to do as he felt it was true to the character. Even after learning of their negative abilities, Joey still reasoned that Megs would want to possess them due to her nature as a hag and wanted to explore the story process of this corruption. I agreed and allowed Megs to begin her coin collecting spree. I had no idea it would lead to a confrontation with Symon, but I did warn Joey about collecting the coins might result in Megs’ death. Warnings such as these and communication with your players is important, especially when it comes to moments where death comes into play.
It was Meg’s own actions that resulted in her position opposite Mayhem and Symon and it was ultimately the rolls of the dice that determined her fate. It was a moment where fate caught up with her. In hindsight, another DM might have simply decided that Granny Megs should be imprisoned. However, judging from Delxipha’s actions and Mayhem’s own, I knew what the truth of the situation was. Neither would be willing to let Megs live and for all the times Megs had weaved her way out of death’s embrace, she had finally succumbed to bad luck and poor planning.
It felt right that this should be Meg’s end and Joey agreed. It’s obviously very rare for something like this to happen or for a player to be excited about player character death. Joey was excited because it was his first character death and whilst he was losing a character, he had a chance to think of something new and experiment, and dramatically Megs’ death would be a great plot point to resonate with other characters. Not all players will agree with this or be this kind, but so long as you have told them the rules of engagement with your game’s death system, any anger or sadness will probably only last until they start rolling up their new character.
Regarding a PC death scene itself, the most important thing about a character’s death needs to give the player an element of agency even in their defeat. The dice can go against players and sometimes their actions set them on bad courses, but whenever a player’s death does occur, it’s important to make that death feel epic and for that player’s character to feel as validated as possible. Hence, when I decided Megs was going to be killed, I gave full control of her final moments to Joey, setting up for a few dramatic last words of her dying breath before ending the Hag’s life as much on her own terms as she could.
It’s very rare that character death is taken as well as this but it’s an eventuality all players should face at some point and for as dramatic and heartbreaking as it is, it’s a necessary evil. But, with support for your player and some simple talking with them, even explaining what is happening and why, is enough to reassure most players and keep them going. If players are upset, it’s important for them to get that negative energy out but any personal vendetta against the DM is also not cool and should not be tolerated. You are running a game and in a game, even fair ones, there should always be an element of loss. People who won’t meet on your level and discuss that and push against your decisions might not always be the best people to play with, and sometimes player deaths can be punishing and, sometimes, unfair.
In particular, here, I want to thank Joey for being not only so understanding but so supportive of the decision. I rarely like to declare character death that feels as automatic as Megs’ did, an execution by a superior combatant once she was on death saving throws and unable to defend herself, but the situation called for a response and one dramatically sufficient.
Even if my own plans got a little botched in the process.
Player character agency is a very tricky thing to balance with DM plotting. Don’t worry if you make mistakes.
Sitting here now, writing this blog and looking back on the spiralling chaos from this one event, I realise something of this magnitude was always destined to happen in some form. Players with varying different characters, goals and alignments make for an interesting mesh of groups, and not all groups appreciate the notion of ‘the quest-giver’.
The main idea for Cinder’s Grove, as I had tried to foreshadow with the lead up to this session, was that I wanted it to become a place where the players could find a home. It was something the players all wanted. Personally, I also wanted to give them a strong and reliable ally who would not only reinforce and support them on occasion, but a helpful patron who could give them powers and titles beyond that of normal people: knighthoods and castles and the like (especially to coincide with Matthew Colville’s Strongholds and Followers rules releasing on PDF soon).
The problem here was that I was once again giving the party a benefactor who was a noble in a position of power with control and influence over the party’s decisions. Delxipha was being completely honest about helping the players but Megs and Teoku disagreed with the basic premise of them being allies: owing something to someone else and being controlled. Just as Lord Grey had done at the start of the adventure.
From my standpoint, this was a failing. Providing quests for players to follow isn’t always a simple and easy process, but quest-givers can be a hindrance if they attempt to affect the freedom of your players. What I hoped would be an amicable relationship turned untrustworthy and in the end, hostile, culminating in the brutal character execution above.
The bottom line of the matter is that mistakes were made. Whether you argue Joey’s character disrupted plans (which, to those that do, she’s a Hag, is this really a surprise to anyone? I should have known better), or my own poor planning that ended up in this situation, the important thing to take from this situation is that mistakes do always happen and sometimes things can spiral out of control.
Either way, clear communication and focused thought are the best way to reconcile these difficulties. As a DM and as a friend to your player, it’s your duty to talk with them and make them feel better, both about their character death and reassuring them regarding your campaign. The thing that upset Joey the most about the campaign was the thought that he had derailed the plot and ruined everything, when in reality his actions just led to a great change in dynamics and I panicked a little trying to work out what would happen next. Mistakes like this, whether from a player or DM perspective, are allowed to happen and as long as you talk them out in a mature fashion and everyone had fun, then no harm is done.
I should point out not all players will do things like this because they want a good story like Joey does. Some players can just be assholes, but that is why talking about things is so important. It’s a good way of picking out the self-entitled people from their more better matured contemporaries.
Despite Meg’s death, this session was really well-received by the players, bar my own minor panic at having to reorganise planning on the fly, and the next few sessions only served to ramp up the drama and keep the group even more engaged. One thing was certain though with this death: the campaign was changing and the players had well and truly made a mark on the world that would linger for many a session to come.
That is going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. I hope you were able to get some comprehensive advice from that as I realise the subject of player death is an awkward one to talk about. Join me next time as we’ll be taking a look at the consequences of player actions and, perhaps most importantly, discussing the concept of failure and retreat and what these things can mean to a game of D&D.
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 and a like. Positive criticism is welcome.