When running a campaign in D&D, as discussed before, it is more than possible for your players to stumble into a situation that they are not prepared for fight or for things to go poorly in a standard fight. For those players less stubborn to suffer a TPK (which is also a perfectly legitimate way to end things. Actually, a final stand TPK sounds pretty damn awesome in the right context), there is an option that few players and DMs can consider.
The retreat, dramatically speaking, is one of my favourite elements of a combat scenario. It provides whole new context for the heroes of a story and the villain they are fighting if a battle between them ends with one or both sides retreating. The greatest reason for this is that an antagonist and protagonist can meet, fight and develop a relationship, providing much needed narrative stakes and tension, without the conflict being definitively bought to an end. It’s why in movie trilogies the second is usually most people’s favourites. Empire’s Strike Back doesn’t need to worry about ending Luke or Vader’s arcs, but it does feature an incredible fight scenes, great development for both characters and ultimately, one of the best cinematic twists of all time. In D&D, retreats can still function as these epic narrative events. The only difference is that retreating in D&D is much more difficult in execution than in concept.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, we’ll be talking about the fourteenth session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I’ve learned whilst running it. This week, we’ll be talking about the concept of retreat in D&D, running combat for mass people and giving players a sense of consequence. My foiled attempt at forming a team of Ghostbusters is as follows:
Dion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter.
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.
But first, before all that, we need to talk about the fallout of the last session. After a tense altercation with black coins and a young boy getting pushed down a stairs, Joey’s character of Granny Megs suffered a death. This, of course, was not the end of the campaign, nor will it be the end of Joey’s involvement in campaign. Much like Jacob and Vedrir were brought into the game as new members of the party, now there was a new issue of introducing a new character for Joey. I have given some advice on introducing new characters into the game, but I feel this situation in particular is one that needs to be focused on. After all, it is, at least in my experience, fairly common to have a new person and their new character join campaign. It is another experience entirely for a player to have their character die and therefore have to play an new character that has to be instantly submitted into the plot. With that all said, it’s time to introduce Joey’s new character and talk a bit about moving on after character death.
Joey is Nikita Tomasovna Nikinova, the Chaotic Neutral Tabaxi Rogue.
With new player characters replacing old player characters, be sure to help your players through the process.
Introducing a new player character can be difficult, but introducing a replacement PC for a party member that has already died can be ever more so. For one thing, you still have the original problem of suddenly introducing another character into a long running plot, but you also have to do that with a shadow of an old player character lingering in the background of your player’s mind.
My main advice for any player rolling up a new character is to go for something new and original. Playing a repeat class of a previous concept can be fun, especially if it’s the old fashioned ‘son of my previous character’ idea. However, when wading back into the campaign, legacy is something that can either be played on in this way or, in most other cases, ignored and moved on from. A new character is a brilliant chance for a player to experiment and try new things and as a DM, it is your duty to be sure your player makes the most of this opportunity and to help guide them through the process.
Joey had only ever previously played Warlocks before but the death of Megs gave him a chance to branch out. Under his own steam, he came up with an awesome character concept: a Tabaxi Rogue inspired by Lara Croft, a powerful intellectual woman with kick-ass skills. To assist him in making his idea for the character a reality, I even home-brewed a ‘treasure hunter’ Rogue archetype. Personally, I don’t like the later abilities but it’s something that can be retooled at a later date. For now, Joey got a brand new character to play with and was different enough to Megs to provide some new dynamics to the group and give the character her own sense of identity.
Introducing her would prove easy enough as Joey actually responded in kind with my donation of a new archetype and gave me an idea of how Nikita could become embroiled with the plot. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, communication with your players is one of the most important things and through it, I was almost seamlessly able to introduce Joey’s new character into the campaign in a way. The other players were quick to accept her and quick to make an alliance.
Of course, there is the lingering question of what became of Joey’s old character after her last words of ‘Bring out your dead’. To answer that, we’ll need to dive in to what happened in this session of Dorvine.
Teoku and Yuvari wander down the main street of Cinder’s Grove together. It’s odd and a small tension lingers in the air, the two of them still relatively strangers since the group first started. Yet, in a way, the two are still comfortable around one another. There’s not dislike, so much as distance between them.
The pair come to a stop at their meeting point before the haunted mansion of Ludwig Syrah, the house looming just above them on a raised part of the town. Across the street, a half-orc blacksmith appears to be speaking with a young woman, pointing to the mansion across the way. As the young woman turns, her slitted blue eyes narrow. She quickly rounds on the pair across the way.
“You are not needed,” she says in a thick accent. Yuvari recognises it from the continent, but she’s less concerned with that at the moment and more the words. Teoku says what they’re both thinking.
“You are ‘the help’, yes?” the woman continues, pulling down her hood to reveal her cat-like features, “you are not needed. The position, it has been filled.”
She points to the mansion. Yuvari and Teoku look over and instantly clock what this strange young woman is trying to do. She’s trying to take their mansion job from them. The pair share a look, before turning to face this strange new acquaintance.
“Yeah,” Teoku replies, “it is taken. By us.”
“You are mistaken.”
“We were given this mission by the Thane,” Teoku insists.
“No, position filled. You may leave.”
The Tabaxi reaches forwards, trying to push them away. Yuvari slaps her hands away.
“Listen here cat, it’s our job now so shove off.”
Yuvari’s face grows even redder.
“Alright, back off,” Teoku warns, showing his hand to the young woman, “this is our job, we’re dealing with this haunted mansion thing. Now get out of here before we make you.”
As Teoku shoulders up, the young tabaxi woman retreats slightly, before finally surrendering with a huff. She struts off around the corner and vanishes, leaving Teoku and Yuvari alone before the mansion.
“Wow,” Yuvari observes, “you got really intense then.”
“Thanks,” Teoku replies, unable to hide his smirk, “I’ve been studying how Ouskarr does it.”
Yuvari raises an eyebrow but wisely keeps any words she has to herself as the two wait in silence.
Having wrapped up his talk with Faeriel, Kassadin wanders the streets of Cinder’s Grove, steadily making his way up the path back towards the Cinder’s Seat. There’s a lot of anger in his heart, from the words that Faeriel said to his own annoyance at Bahamut for abandoning him months ago. Yet, still, Kass feels more angry about himself than anything else. In coming to get his curse removed, he completely forgot that there was someone else affected by it, someone who must have known more than they were letting on. This wouldn’t be like last time though, when he had been on the front-lines with the Garrison, with Windermire and his comrades. He’d fix things things this time, he’d keep everyone safe.
As Kassadin reaches the main street, his dream bursts into tattered pieces as his gaze lifts towards the Cinder’s Seat. Not for the first time, the beautiful sky above the Grove melts away into a deep thick fog that swirls to descend upon the keep, familiar and haunting. Kass curses his own forgetfulness, begging, almost pleading with the fates to let his hunch be wrong as he takes off running.
Nikita is displeased. She is even more displeased than that time on the continent when she reached a temple in the forgotten wastes of the north mere seconds after the temple was already explored and pillaged by a rival archaeology team. Dorvine was supposed to be quieter than the continent, mostly free of competition to investigate the interesting. At least, that was what she thought before the lobster and the grumpy boy got involved. Now, a compelling mystery was vanishing right before her eyes. They weren’t even doing anything either, just sitting in front of it and ignoring one another. It wasn’t fair, calling ‘dibs’ on a mystery and not exploring it. It made Nikita’s fur stick on end. Whatever the case, both of them were far too stupid to realise Nikita hadn’t left at all, but was instead hiding in the shadow of the town’s smithy. With a direct view of the open door, it would only take a suitable distraction for her to slip through and explore the mansion whilst the strangers were otherwise preoccupied.
Almost as if to fulfil her wish, the warm air suddenly vanishes in a cold breeze and the pair watching the house look up towards the Cinder’s Seat in horror. As they move, making a mad dash for the castle, Nikita sneaks from her hiding space towards the door. She stops only when she casts a glance back at the pair and sees the swirling mist descending on the Cinder’s Seat. Despite her desire to explore the mansion, a new interest grows in Nikita. As she watches in the distance as lobster girl and grumpy boy meet up a lobster boy and begin racing towards the castle, Nikita decides she has a new adventure waiting just around the corner for her.
She springs off, chasing on all fours after the retreating backs of the Vagabonds.
Ouskarr recovers from a heavy blow. It’s been some time since training with Lady Grey but even after all this time, she still seems to be easily able to wipe the floor with him at any given time. He steadies himself and smiles at her as she readies her parasol behind her.
“Another blow well struck my lady,” he calls.
“Thank you Ouskarr,” Elizabeth replies with a smile, “it’s nice to be able to do this again.”
“Indeed,” Ouskarr echoes her enthusiasm, “though perhaps it might be best that we regroup with the others.”
Elizabeth pauses in thought, before nodding in agreement.
“Yes, perhaps. Shouldn’t keep the others waiting…”
Before the two have a moment to relax, however, the veil of mist descends. The two warriors come together, protecting each other’s backs as the Seat itself begins rumbling and dark energy starts flowing from all around.
“What’s going on?” Ouskarr asks.
Elizabeth opens her mouth to address her follower’s question, only to be cut off by an echoing bang. The great doors to the Cinder’s Seat hall are burst from their hinges, the staircase crumbling and cracking as a strange creature storms out and along the stairs. At the edge, the armoured creature leaps out into the courtyard. It’s plating is smooth, heavily armoured, though it smells as foul as the other rotting corpses Elizabeth has previously encountered. As it turns its head to lock gaze with her, Elizabeth sees the cold dead light inside the creature’s eyes.
“An agent of the Husk,” she observes.
“He’s really moving up in the world,” Ouskarr comments with a panicked squeak.
The creature roars out and bounds recklessly towards the Cinder’s Seat wall. With a breathless wail, it crashes its full form into the wall, shattering through it and charging off into the rest of the town.
“Detecting one hostile within range.”
“Good Ward, keep the updates coming,” Kassadin commands. His sword of warning gives a low hum, glowing blue at his command.
“Where’s Megs?” Yuvari calls over the panic.
“With Vedrir,” Kassadin yells over his shoulder.
“And she’s okay?”
“She’s fine,” Kassadin insists, desperately hoping he’s right, “we just need to get in there.”
In the distance, another armoured creature burrows out of the ground beside the first, clawing and burrowing its way along to fight with the Cinder Guard. Kassadin leads the charge through the main gate. The thick barrier of mist fails to stop his charge, though it does create a barrier that prevents Teoku and Yuvari from following. Nikita doesn’t worry about such a thing. She barrels through the fog, sparing a moment to smirk back at the silhouetted forms of Yuvari and Teoku.
“Not bad for a cat, eh lobster?”
“Who’s that?” Elizabeth yells.
Kassadin doesn’t bother to ask. He simply reaches through the fog and pulls Teoku through. Seeing him move, Nikita copies, pulling Yuvari through the veil of fog.
“Whoever she is, she’s not un-dead, so she’s good,” Kassadin says, quickly turning on the others, “Megs, where is…”
“Six hostiles Kass.”
“Of course there are,” Kassadin growls, sprinting off towards the seat, “come on.”
Lady Grey, not to be outpaced, begins sprinting after Kass. Ouskarr and Teoku follow behind, Nikita and Yuvari stealthily bringing up the rear. The newly formed Vagabonds sprint up the stairs, weaving around the chaos and rubble around.
“Eleven hostiles in range,” Ward observes.
“Thanks Ward,” Kass mutters back, cursing the sheer number under his breath.
Rising up past the top steps, the Vagabonds are greeted to the sight of the Cinder’s Seat main hall. The hall is already a battle ground. Bodies of guards litter the ground and those surviving are surrounded on all fronts. Four wights marshal around Mayhem, desperately trying to shelter a wounded Symon under his arm. Another four surround Delxipha at the other end of the room, the thane trying desperately to keep them a distance. On the far side of the hall, standing before the Cinder’s Seat, the decrepit form of Tarvirus the Husk stands. As the group enter, his glowing blue eyes fix upon Kassadin. A smile twitches its way onto the monster’s lips.
“Oh,” he breathes in relief, “this is wonderful. This is what I’ve been waiting for. To stand here in the your hall, Delxipha, and to expose you for what you really are. Now, my dear thane of Cinder, let’s show them what you did, shall we?”
Tarvirus steps aside, his hand gesturing to the occupant of the Cinder’s Seat. There upon the throne sits the body of Granny Megs. The old woman is disturbingly peaceful in death, her white hair flowing out around her and her veil cast aside to reveal her wrinkled face and sunken cheeks. Her robes are frayed at the neck, revealing the point where Delxipha’s firebrand greatsword found its mark. The flesh there is burned, cauterised on impact, and yet it only takes a glance to realise that the strike was what killed Granny Megs.
The Vagabonds fall silent. Kassadin’s fighting stance vanishes and the Tiefling turns to Delxipha across the hall.
“What…what is going on…what happened?”
“I…” Delxipha checks herself, “I…my son…she tried to kill my son. I did what I had to do.”
Teoku lets out a gasp, his hand feebly reaching up to stroke the air where Megs fallen body sits. Elizabeth looks away, ashamed, whilst Ouskarr has to stop Yuvari from falling over, the shock in her system giving way to tears of anger. All the while, Ward continues to mutter in Kass’ ear.
“Twelve hostiles, thirteen…fourteen…fifteen…twenty…master, we need to…”
The swords words stop.
“You are not Kassadin…”
As Kassadin raises his head once more, his gaze is a pair of pitch black burning pits and a hellish glow gleams in their depths.
“No,” a sly voice replies, “not exactly. Just an old friend helping him push the boat out.”
Kassadin steps forwards down the steps, his devil trigger form in full effect and the spirit of his sire, Dormin, leaking through with every movement. Kassadin brings Ward across and in a single swing, ignites the blade as it slices through one of the Wights attacking Mayhem. The un-dead creature buckles and falls. Husk cackles as he descends the steps, watching as the possessed Kassadin begins his advancement.
“Yes, yes,” the Husk whispers, “go, fulfil your vengeance. Take blood for blood and fell the killer of your comrades.”
Kassadin smirks, striking out with another swing as he wades his way through the battle to reach Delxipha. With their usual tactical fighter having been replaced with a sadistic rage machine, Elizabeth wisely shoulders the responsibility of leadership.
After all, Greys are born to be leaders.
“Ouskarr, secure our advance and watch Kassadin. Teoku, deal with the stragglers and get Mayhem out of there. I’ll take on the Husk.”
The group nod and head out, Teoku retrieving his bat and striking out at another Wight and Ouskarr rallying behind Kassadin to support his advance.
“Right,” Elizabeth continues, “Yuvari, Cat, I need you to both…”
But sadly, the pair of rogues are long gone. Painfully aware that she’s speaking to no-one, Elizabeth leaps from the top step, bringing her parasol down into one of the Wight’s skull.
If you want something done right, you do it yourself.
Kassadin leads the charge, finishing off the Wight engaging Elizabeth and finally reaching Delxipha. Freshly injured, the thane has clearly taken a powerful barrage of attacks from the Wights but has a warrior’s grit that carries her through waves of attack. Her patient flaming strikes eventually kill one but she finds little reprieve as Kassadin pushes his way into her vision.
“Yes!” the Husk’s voice calls from the throne, “take your revenge.”
“You killed Megs,” Kassadin speaks, his voice crackling as his dark eyes flare.
Delxipha lowers her head and nods.
“Yes…I did…she…she was trying to give my son the black coins. I’m not sure how much of her was even in there at the end.”
Kassadin braces himself, the black flash in his eye flaring.”
“What are you waiting for?” Husk eggs on, breathless as he descends from the raised seat, “take your revenge!”
Kassadin re-centres his gaze on the Husk, his sword flashing out in the flames of his fiery strikes.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he purrs, the black pulsing of energy in his eyes swelling as he cuts out at one of Husk’s wights, “I will. You were the one who gave her those coins after all.”
Tarvirus victorious smirk fades into a grimace.
“Then you have chosen death.”
The Husk begins his own assault, launching necrotic beams of energy down upon Delxipha and Kassadin, as his remaining forces seek to stem the Vagabonds advance, whilst putting more pressure on Delxipha. Bringing up the rear, Ouskarr and Elizabeth break through a Wight and advance, encouraging Mayhem to retreat to safety with Symon.
Whilst Kassadin wrestles with a Wight, Tarvirus descends upon Delxipha, launching more tendrils of negative energy and cloaking himself in a sheet of cold, before provoking Delxipha to strike out. For each strike Delxipha used to cleave away at Tarvirus, cold damage nipped out at Delxipha. With two strikes, she had broken through Tarvirus’ shield, inflicting a heavy blow on the Deathlock and forcing his retreat back to the throne.
“No, get back here,” Kassadin shouts, slashing and cutting his way through another Wight. Even as his opponent delivers a heavy blow to him, the Tiefling struggles forward after the retreating Husk. Delxipha encourages Kass on, giving the Ember Knight commanding strikes to aid in his advance. Mid-shout, however, Delxipha finds herself cut off as a searing bolt of radiance slams into her back and sends her kneeling to the floor.
Yuvari’s eyes share the same black glow as Kass’. The only difference is that her eyes are lined with tears. She screams, flinging more energy towards Delxipha, the sudden magical assault breaking through Delxipha’s defences and bringing the thane to her knees. Suddenly, Delxipha’s calculated defensive stance becomes a desperate struggle to survive, the un-dead soldiers keeping her pinned from one side, whilst the cleric hurls energy at her from the rear.
“You killed her!” Yuvari spits in rage, “you killed her! You said you’d kill her, and you did. Now I’m going to kill you, you die tonight!”
Another blast of radiant energy skims Delxipha’s back, opening her guard as one of the wights parries her sword away and cuts along her front. Kassadin weathers assaults from a wight of his own, less experienced in a long drawn out battle that Delxipha. He turns his head to glance, spotting Yuvari’s efforts.
“Dormin,” he growls, “no…”
The black light starts to fade from his eyes.
Kass turns at just the wrong moment. The wight recognises how distracted he is and strikes, striking a deep cut along his front. The blow cuts through Kass’ armour and strikes straight into his chest. With a feeble gasp of air, the Tiefling collapses to the floor, blood spewing freely from his wound.
“Sorry Kassie baby~” Dormin’s voice calls in his ear, “looks like Yuve’s having a lot more fun.”
From on high, Tarvirus the Husk smirks as he watches Kassadin stumble to the ground, desperately gasping for air as his body fails him. Yet another dead corpse to join the legion. Soon, after the efforts of Dormin’s other agent, Delxipha would be the same. The thought makes the Husk shiver, a shiver with joy. Then, the shiver changes into a full on spasm as a rapier comes stabbing. Tarvirus howls in agony, clutching at his withered flesh as he collapses forward on the steps, panting. He glances round, his gaze meeting with a pair of amber eyes staring back.
Nikita stands on the steps, grinning down at her opponent.
“Nikita Tomasovna Nikinova,” she replies, “a pleasure to make your…”
Tarvirus doesn’t wait for her to finish her words. He flicks his wrist forwards, the necrotic energy spiralling out towards Nikita. She leaps back, dancing along the back of the chair to perch like a hunched gargoyle.
“Not bad,” she mocks, “for a corpse.”
Tarvirus’ eyes flares with rage and he fires another blast, only for the Rogue to leap down and perch on the arm of the Cinder’s Seat, still smiling. The Husk growls, abandoning his hunt of the tabaxi to check on his wights progress with Delxipha. The Cinder Thane has re-positioned herself, sheltering Kassadin’s body with her own. Tarvirus sends off another blast before descending the last of the steps and approaching his target.
Delxipha weathers another heavy blow from the wights, sheltering Kassadin’s body. Her guard is falling and the battle has finally started to take its toll. Her armour is breaking under every hit and the strikes are beginning to draw out blood. Exhausted, she strikes out one last time, severing one of the Wights’ arms and sending it sprawling to the floor.
She glances back over her shoulder to Yuvari. Even with a curtain of blood covering her eyes, Delxipha can see the black flash of Dormin in her eyes as Yuvari stalks forwards, twirling her knife around in her grasp.
“…I…” Delxipha gasps, her lungs starting to fail her, “I know I killed Megs…and I know you’re hurting…”
Yuvari glares, gripping tightly to the hilt of her dagger. Delxipha curses under her breath, shuffling round to reveal Kassadin’s blooded face to her.
“Please…he’s hurt…he’s not going to survive…you…you have to pick him up…please…you…heal…him…”
Yuvari’s expression softens. The tears still flow, but her gaze drops to Kassadin’s prone form, his blood spilling out of his open wounds. Yuvari’s eyes widen and her bottom lip trembles upon seeing his pain. Her hand still shaking, she drops the dagger from her grasp and falls to her knees.
Only to draw her rapier and thrust it upwards, stabbing straight into Delxipha’s back.
The Thane of Cinder gasped, collapsing onto one knee and opening her stance, blood pouring from her mouth. Yuvari leans forwards, growling as she pushes the rapier deeper and deeper into Delxipha’s back.
“I told you,” she whispers, “I would kill you.”
Before Delxipha can respond, the Husk wades through the gathering dust. He flexes his hands, surging them forwards as he screams at the top of his lungs.
Necrotic energy, darker and deeper than the wave of eldritch blasts before them spring forth, smashing into Delxipha’s armour and tearing it asunder in a single surge of power. Delxipha’s last breath is stolen from her lungs, ripped apart by the flow of necrotic energy. Delxipha’s black hair dulls into a wilted grey and her beautiful fierce face caves into the wrinkled husk of a corpse. As Yuvari pulls out her rapier, Delxipha’s body falls down atop Kassadin’s body, shrivelled, destroyed and dead.
Yuvari is shivering intensely, barely able to stand. Her eyes flash with Dormin’s pride as she rises once more. Tarvirus exchanges a glance with her across the way. Then, with a flash of his mage-hand, he calls Delxipha’s blade into his grasp and drags it back towards the steps. Raising his gaze up past the Wights now guarding his retreat, his eyes lock once more with the tabaxi perched atop the seat.
“You will remove yourself from my way,” Tarvirus growls, “or be removed…”
Just as Tarvirus raises his hand to strike out at Nikita, the rogue reaches down and tugs on Megs’ fallen form. Stepping forwards and putting all of her weight into the moment, Nikita flings Megs’ corpse over her shoulder and straight into Tarvirus. The Husk has only enough time to open his mouth to scream before Megs’ form slams into him. His form buckles and he falls, tumbling backwards along the stones.
As Tarvirus rises from the floor, his hand flares once more with necrotic energy. With an inhuman scream, the Husk casts his hand forwards, firing off a barrage of eldritch blasts. Each one finds its mark, crashing into Nikita’s form and driving her back through the back of the Cinder’s Seat. Nikita gives one final desperate howl before tumbling back down behind the seat under rubble. Tarvirus gasps, a breath of fear shaking through his un-dead form. He quickly draws his cloak around him once more and begins his advancement back towards the throne, dragging Delxipha’s sword with him up the steps towards the seat.
“Kill them,” he mutters back over his shoulder, “kill them all.”
Seeing her allies falling before her, Lady Grey steels herself and rushes into battle once more.
“Teoku, Ouskarr,” she yells back, “cover me.”
“Little busy,” Teoku yells back.
The wight he is battling flails as wildly as Teoku, the two’s attacks reaching wide with each strike. It’s clear at a glance that their fight is going to be a long and drawn out one. With a sigh, Elizabeth charges forwards, slashing and cutting down a wight threatening Kassadin. She crouches down, raising the Ember Knight onto her shoulder.
“Ouskarr!” she calls.
The Half-Orc wastes no time. He charges past, cutting off the pursing Wights and steadily pushing them back, whilst weathering their heavy hits.
“Go!” he urges, “run!”
Elizabeth doesn’t need to be told twice. She’s already dragging Kass towards the exit, stumbling along. With his lady at a safe distance, Ouskarr resumes his assault. His strikes prove less effective against the wights, however, the trio of un-dead starting to force him back. After only a few seconds, Ouskarr is down to half his strength, forced to go on the defensive by the overwhelming odds. Just when all hope seems lost and the one-armed Wight delivers a solid blow to Ouskarr’s side, reinforcements arrive.
Mayhem charges into the fray, cutting down one of the Wights and coming to reinforce Ouskarr’s defence.
“Is there anyone still inside?” he asks.
Ouskarr gives a weak nod.
“There was…a cat…who came in with us. And…there was also…”
A knife darts past Ouskarr, almost clipping into Mayhem’s shoulder. Yuvari’s eyes still burn black as she advances on Mayhem.
“You,” she growls, “you were with Delxipha. You’re the reason Megs is…”
“We do not have time for this!” Ouskarr snaps, pushing Mayhem along, “go and find the cat.”
Yuvari slashes, cutting along Ouskarr’s back in an attempt to get to Mayhem, only for the half-orc to whirl around and beat her back. Maybe he could snap her out of whatever trance she is. Maybe. If only the wights would give him a chance to.
When at a safe distance, Lady Grey drops onto one knee and retrieves a vial of her healing tea from her pack. The previous night, she spent her time perfecting the recipe and now, it’s going to finally come in handy. Elizabeth makes Kassadin drink, immediately bringing the Tiefling back round into consciousness.
“What…” he splutters out, “what happened…”
“We’re getting out of here,” Elizabeth snaps back, glancing back to Ouskarr’s form, “we can’t win this fight.”
Kassadin growls, rising up onto one knee and looking up. Just in time to see Ouskarr bracing against another harry of desperate attacks from the wights. One clips the side of his skull, the other sends him down onto one knee, bracing back against the rest of their strikes with his axe. Ouskarr pants, exhaustion clearly beginning to take its toll.
“No,” Kass breathes, struggling to stand, “I gotta…”
He braces himself against Elizabeth, getting his second wind.
“I gotta get him out…”
“Kassadin,” Elizabeth grunts, trying to push him back, “you need to…”
Her voice is silenced as Ouskarr lets out a sudden loud cry. One of the wights strikes true, cutting across Ouskarr’s chest and forcing him down. Kassadin moves before he thinks. In a moment, he’s across the battlefield, inches before the wights. Calling up all his anger and malice, he reaches forwards with his hands and roars.
Fire comes pouring from his finger tips, turning the first two wights it hits into ash and leaving the third and final one to limp away in disgrace. Kass glances round, taking in the state of what remains. At the far end of the room, Tarvirus is standing before the Cinder’s Seat, lifting Delxipha’s great-sword behind him. Beside him stands Yuvari. Across the distance, their eyes meet.
“Kass,” Elizabeth yells, “we’ve got to…”
“Dormin!” Kassadin snarls, “get out of her! This is between you and me!”
Yuvari only smiles in response, driving a dagger into one of the wights and sending it back, continuing to move towards the retreating Mayhem.
“This ain’t me Kassie,” Dormin’s chirping voice replies in the back of his mind, “I just amplify what’s already there…this is all her.”
Kassadin’s voice cracks in his throat and he bites hard on his lip.
“Yuvari,” he calls, “please. We needs you. Ouskarr needs you.”
Still Dormin stares back, black pits for eyes.
All at once, Yuvari convulses, giving a sharp breath as the darkness of her eyes faded away. She almost collapses to the ground beside Ouskarr.
“Kass,” she breathes.
Catching sight of Ouskarr on the floor, she pounces forwards, planting her hands on him and casting cure wounds. As Ouskarr stirs, Kassadin and Yuvari help him to his feet.
“H-husk,” Ouskarr chokes out, “we…have to…take…down…”
“Later man,” Kass replies, “not now.”
As the group help Ouskarr to his feet, Tarvirus finally reaches the top of the steps and raises Delxipha’s flamebringer great sword high.
“No more,” he hisses, “shall this be Cinder’s Grove. Now, this land shall hence be a gift to you, my master. And with it, shall come a new name…”
Tarvirus brings down the great-sword, embedding it into the ground.
At the final note of his words, the ground begins to quake, Delxipha’s blade corroding before the Vagabonds eyes, green energy pulsating and throwing into the earth, making it shake. Cracks begin to show on the floor, the sound of rumbling overtaking the hall.
“One hundred and ninety,” Ward calls in Kass’ head, still monitoring the number of hostiles in the area, “two hundred…two hundred and ten…two hundred and fifty…three hundred…four hundred…five hundred…”
“Damn it,” Kass grunts, “need to…”
He cranes his head back.
The tiefling runs his way around the throne, whilst a revived Nikita takes a chance to vault around Husk, the un-dead master firing more blasts after her as she runs for freedom.
“I’m coming Kass, I’m…”
Mayhem falls silent as he spots Delxipha’s body. Realisation hits him harder than one of Husk’s blasts. He collapses to his knees.
“Ah, damn,” Kassadin growls, pushing Ouskarr onto Elizabeth and allowing the two women to carry him to safety as he races back in, “Mayhem! Mayhem! We’ve got to go now!”
Mayhem doesn’t look away from Delxipha, even as the floor begins to break and shatter, skeletal hands clawing their way up, out of the crypts below.
“Symon!” Kassadin calls over the chaos, “remember Symon!”
The name snaps Mayhem free of his daze.
“You have to live!” Kass encourages, “live for Symon!”
Mayhem nods and, after casting one more look at the woman he loved, Mayhem turns and sprints towards the door, weaving his way through the rising tide of the un-dead. Kassadin claps him on the back, spurring him on towards the others. Symon runs to meet Mayhem, having hidden out of sight of the entrance. Teoku helps take Ouskarr’s weight and Kassadin raises Ward up.
“Please,” he begs, “chart us a path, safest one out of here.”
The Vagabonds retreat, sparing not a moment to glance back as Tarvirus collapses upon the broken Cinder’s Seat, riding the ecstasy of his victory as he cackles into the dying light.
Cinder’s Grove is barely left standing. The un-dead creatures, Bulettes, have torn through the town. The Cinder’s Guard, however, are the finest force in all of Dorvine, or so they say, and are already committing themselves to the job of an evacuation. Mayhem takes his chance to join his men, reinforcing their efforts to escape.
“I’m gonna join them,” Kassadin shouts to the Vagabonds, “no-one else is dying today.”
“I’ll get Ouskarr and the others out.”
“I know you will,” Kassadin agrees.
Giving Ouskarr’s weight to Nikita, who hasn’t even realised she’s been drafted into the Vagabonds at this point, Yuvari plants both hands on Kassadin and pumps all the healing magic she can into him.
“You better not die,” she orders.
Her gaze is still unfocused and her hands are shaking against his cheeks. All Kassadin can do is nod, before charging towards the front of the line. Faeriel is marshalled to the front, clad in her old Platinum Garrison armour and helping the church goers join the mass exodus from the town. Joining up with Mayhem and Faeriel, Kassadin helps support the line as everyone slips out, pooling around the entrance to Cinder’s Grove.
The second they’re in safety, Mayhem’s friendly mask with Kassadin slips.
“This,” he accuses, “is all of your faults. This town, lost, all because of you and that damn hag. She was a cancer on this town.”
Teoku, enraged, strikes out and slaps Mayhem, only for the Tiefling to strike back.
“Both of you, stop!” Kassadin shouts.
“We lost a friend today,” Teoku growls back.
“And I lost the love of my life,” Mayhem snaps, “I hope you never have to live with that pain.”
Teoku’s gaze flicks over to Ouskarr and he falls silent. Kassadin moves to cover the Warlock.
“Mayhem, I’m sorry for all of this but…it was the coins. They were the cancer, not her.”
Mayhem growls, only for his rage to subside when he hears Symon calling from behind him.
With tears in the young boy’s eyes, he lifts his gaze to reveal a black coin clutched in his fingers: a parting gift from Granny Megs. Horrified, Mayhem smacks the coin away into the floor and bundles Symon away towards Faeriel and her father for curing of his curse.
“I promise you Mayhem,” Kassadin yells to him over the chaos, “we will beat The Husk and take Cinder’s Grove back.”
“And I promise you,” Mayhem replies, “if anything happens to Symon, it will be on your head.”
And with that, the cart pulls away with Mayhem, Faeriel and Symon in tow, leaving the Vagabonds behind to contemplate on the chaos left in the Smouldering ruins on Cinder’s Grave.
It’s sunset by the time Vedrir finally reaches the edge of the Cinder’s Lake. The Ash Woods lies before him, lines of dead trees reaching far out into the distance. Vedrir can’t help but smile in relief as he looks down at the horse he managed to grab along the way. The farmer was kind enough to part with her for a few coins, though he didn’t much appreciate the way Vedrir had initially kidnapped the animal only to throw the money over his shoulder as an afterthought. The horse, Butterscotch, was growing weary from the long ride but Vedrir hushed her with a nuzzle and a soft stroke of her mane.
“Not far now,” he encouraged, “not far now at all.”
Butterscotch struggles on the rest of the way, weaving through bramble patches and dead branches before emerging into a clearing in the centre of the woods. A large tree sits opposite the clearing, a neat wooden hut built into its side. Vedrir approaches the door and knocks.
Silence meets him.
Vedrir pauses and knocks again, louder.
He checks the door but it’s shut. Even knocking again provides no answers.
“No,” the eladrin groans, “no…”
He shakes his head, looking up to the sky trying to remember the words from the letter he received the previous morning.
“Please Calvin,” he mutters into the night, “I could really use some help right now…”
The door clicks, opening with a loud creak.
A smile passes across Vedrir’s features.
Finally, some good news.
Vedrir heads inside, finding a small study with a few articles abandoned around. Pictures line the desk, sketches of the Vagabonds and their past adventures. Eventually solving a puzzle which reveals a hidden passage in the fire-place, Vedrir crawls through the gap, entering into a long tunnel. Eventually, the smooth stone of the tunnel fades into bark, and then, into a bright light that fills Vedrir’s vision. As Vedrir scrambles through, finally bursting free.
Somehow, Vedrir now finds himself back in the fresh familiar air of his home, the Feywild. Vedrir looks back at the tunnel, the space now vanished into the bark of a giant tree that towers for miles above. The branches stretch out across an ever-expanding forest, on and on, the green leaves bright against a red sunset. Perched on the edge of the branch, looking out into the sea of nature below is the hunched form of a Firbolg. Vedrir approaches and takes a seat beside the silent man. Calvin is a large man, thick in frame with greying hair and an aged face. Without turning to Vedrir, he asks how he the boy is feeling.
“Good,” Vedrir replies, looking out into the burnt red sky of the faewild, “it…it feels nice to be home. Your grove…it’s lovely.”
A confused look comes to Calvin’s face.
“More respectful than your sister.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Vedrir chimes in, “she’s always been a troublemaker.”
“Yet she was also quick to learn the sight,” Calvin adds, “only took her a few years…I assume that is the reason you are, Vedrir.”
“It is,” Vedrir replies.
Calvin shakes his head and finally looks across at Vedrir, his eyes a cold blue.
“Are you certain? The sight is a great burden. As you have seen, I have been watching your progress closely.”
“Yeah, the pictures were a bit weird,” Vedrir mutters.
Calvin dismisses his statement with a swipe of his hand.
“They are to properly memorise the moment, catch it. With eyes wide open, I see so much…I see all you have done Vedrir. And your actions…they have wrought their consequence…”
Vedrir’s face tightens into a look of confusion.
“Let me show you.”
Calvin reaches forwards, planting two fingers on Vedrir’s head before pushing gently.
All at once, Vedrir’s body shakes, tremors flowing out of him as visions flutter in.
Megs pursuing Symon, then being executed, summoning the Husk.
Delxipha’s body, stabbed on one side by Yuvari and torn apart on the other by Tarvirus.
Cinder’s Grove, now Cinder’s Grave, in ruins, fire and un-dead raging out on all sides.
As Vedrir’s focus returns and the visions fade, he takes in a sharp breath, a lump catching in his throat. His eyes water, only to dry in an instant as his skin hisses hot. Almost as if his cold heart is thawing, Vedrir’s blue skin and white hair fade and shrivel, his skin turning into a hot red colour, his hair flashing a warm gold. Winter no more, Vedrir gives in to the raging heat of his anger, turning into a summer eladrin. Calvin watches his transformation with interest, then shakes his head.
“How do you feel, Vedrir?”
After a heavy breath, the eladrin replies,
“You are?” Calvin tests.
Vedrir gives a low hiss, gripping at his hair.
“I just…I hate…I hate so much. I hate my father for pushing me out into this world. I hate myself for trusting Megs…but what I hate most of all is that now I have to go back…”
Calvin listens intently, before shaking his head in dismay.
“I am sorry Thiala,” he mutters into the wind, “I told you, he is too raw, too emotional. One such as he can never attain true sight, my dear.”
Vedrir’s head snaps up and he glances about the grove.
“Thiala?” he calls, “Thiala, where are you?”
“Beyond your sight,” Calvin replies, “but not beyond mine.”
The Firbolg attends to an un-heard conversation, leaving Vedrir to angrily pace and seethe, all of his anger now being placed on the peaceful man before him. Eventually, Calvin turns to glance towards him.
“Listen carefully Vedrir. These are the seven words with which to attribute the true power of sight: Instinct, Desire, Will, Emotion, Perspective, Reality and Transcendence. If you can master each of these, you will find sight. But you must achieve this on your own, for I cannot show you how. I can only point the way.”
Vedrir stands still, giving a firm nod after a moment’s pause.
“Thank you,” he grunts through gritted teeth, “thank you for nothing but wasting my time as always.”
“Vedrir…” Calvin speaks, only to silenced.
“You know, just for once, I thought I’d get a straight answer,” Vedrir snaps, “but no, more cryptic nonsense from some wise man pretending to be deep. Whatever, doesn’t matter.”
Vedrir shakes his head, stroking his brow. Calvin steadies his breathing.
“Vedrir…I hope you shall prove me wrong.”
“Keep your damn sight,” Vedrir spits back, “I don’t need it. I’ll do it alone. Like I always have.”
Without another word, Vedrir turns on his heel, stalking towards a fresh door in the bark of the great tree, rage flowing through him as his summer form flares out on all sides. Calvin sighs, focusing once more on the distant red sky as it flickers into night.
And thus concludes the fourteenth session of the Dorvine campaign. Apologies for the length but a LOT of stuff happened in this session and I wanted to capture all of the moments as well as I could. As a follow up to Meg’s death and an abrupt end to what I was building up to be The Cinder’s Grove arc of the campaign, I was really happy with how this session turned out, but I freely admit it could have quite easily transformed into an absolute disaster. Dion probably phrased it best after the session: “We’ve been punching over our weight for sessions. This was when our luck ran out.” And thus, with no other choice, against overwhelming odds, the party chose to retreat.
Retreat as an option is always tricky and should never be fully encouraged, but can be handled well with great care.
‘Retreat’ can be seen as a really dirty word in a role-playing context. I’ve talked a lot about the strengths of using retreat as a narrative element at the start of this blog, but I haven’t addressed the weaknesses of it. The main enemy of this idea in D&D is that beloved phrase player agency we talked about last week. In D&D, players have a freedom of action and if an action or a course of action is denied to them, it can usually feel pretty disappointing for them.
Players like fulfilling goals and a successful retreat is not the most appealing of goals in this context. Surviving is a mostly underwhelming experience, most people do it every day. In D&D, though, players love the idea of going out in a blaze of glory, or wading into a fray against superior odds and beating them back. Having a villain escape or, worse, forcing the players to escape when they want to fight is a really poor move from a game design element. There’s no victory, or even defeat. There’s just surviving, and surviving in a game when you’re supposed to be the hero sometimes isn’t engaging.
Despite saying that and, honestly, believing it, I’ve included the mechanic frequently in my campaigns and employed it to great effect. Retreating is the main reason I have such a library of long-running recurring bad guys. It’s very hard to create a relationship between antagonists and your players, considering the framework of D&D usually means that combat is engaged with and finished with in a single encounter. If a villain is killed and mysteriously revived, this does create a sense of intrigue for the players, but can also backfire horribly. However, much as players don’t usually want their characters to die, in the narrative world of D&D, few villains probably want to die as well. Cowards are really effective recurring villains, constantly running away from fights and poking at the players from a distance building a powerful rapport between the two forces, which ultimately makes the moment the players take down this coward all the more worth it.
Alternatively, a good idea is to make a villain overpowered, so strong that it’s almost impossible for players to beat them at their current level, such as the case is with Husk. Husk is an altered Deathlock from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. As they are, the player’s characters do indeed have a chance of beating Husk, but this fact is overshadowed by Husk’s raw power and overwhelming force. The fact that Husk is able to attack multiple targets from a distance, with some added legendary actions and powerful spells, the players can quickly find themselves overwhelmed.
Of course, no DM goes into a D&D session wanting a team party kill (unless it’s a one-shot, a horror style game or the DM is just a horrid person), but if a villain wins combat, then victory can also be delivered on his terms. In so many series, people always ask ‘why didn’t the villain kill the hero then?’ and I have two replies to this, both of which work really well for our villain in this D&D context.
Our villain finds the players interesting and wants to watch them grow for amusement or, my personal favourite, the villain considers the party ‘beneath their notice’.
Therefore, here, a retreat is not so much a retreat as a defeat, which does still lead to a disappointed party but, if handled with a ray of hope and lots of encouragement from external sources, can convince the players to keep going until they are finally ready to deal with the villain.
Luckily, in Dorvine, my players are all relatively clever and quicker than most and were easily able to spot an opportunity for retreat, especially when I made it dramatically obvious to the group that staying was a bad idea (crumbling hall and green energy is a great signifier) but either way, retreats are still dangerous ideas to implement in your campaigns.
Personally, I think the reason why these dramatic retreats have always worked in my past games is because of the level of interaction I allow the players with their villain. Whilst I try to organise paths of retreat, ultimately the actions of the players can change everything at a given notice. Attempts at retreat are never fully guaranteed, even for my most powerful villain NPCS and I allow the players a greater amount of freedom than usual. Even in combats that obviously emerge as clear curb-stomps or overwhelming untouchable horrors (Curse of Strahd is great btw), I still allow the players agency enough to commit their attacks, do damage and even kill a few minions, whilst similarly making villains as vulnerable and prone to retreat as the heroes. Heck, Nikita made Husk look utterly incompetent multiple times during the session and I really can’t wait to see more of Joey playing his new, more combat focused character.
If its clear to the heroes that their opponents are thinking like them and just as willing to follow their actions, it makes the world feel more real and the tense dynamic of retreat a little easier to implement.
When running mass combat, never be afraid to take short-cuts to keep the focus on your players.
As I previously said, The Fellow Vagabonds definitely have a chance of being able to take on Tarvirus. However, the main reason why the party have never fully be able to is thanks to all of the un-dead minions by his side. Solo bosses, no matter how powerful, can be doomed to fail in some instances. Only one turn for a creature against a party that has at least four, plus a host of friendly NPCs, is never bound to go well. This is what we call ‘action economy’ and understanding the principal of this helps understand why a battle against a monstrous titan can be easy for a party of low level of adventurers, but an army of Hobgoblins can still be dangerous to a high level party.
Tarvirus never appears without a squad of Wights and for this combat, he had double the amount to simulate the attempted takeover that this attack was, whilst also keeping a balance for the players considering the other NPCs I had included. I had originally considered having this battle take place off-screen and the party forced to deal with the aftermath, but this seemed a poor choice, restricting the player’s access to the narrative. Having them join in the battle proved rewarding, but also proved to be a lot of work. Between Tarvirus, his Wights, Delxipha, Mayhem and the party’s NPC allies, I was rolling for at least ten people per turn. I realised after the first three turns that my own action economy was out-numbering the party.
A key rule of D&D: it’s the players game and it is their story.
As important as it is to reflect the concept of a real world, it is also important to keep your players engaged and it’s awfully hard for a player to remain engaged when you spend an hour rolling dice for the NPCs, and your players only get about 5 minutes.
Luckily, this imbalance is easily solved through cutting a few corners. As the turns went on, I started skimming through the events and finding ways to speed up the pace for each player’s turn. First, I rolled the Wights attacks all at once and instead of rolling damage, took the average number of damage suggested in the Monster Manual. Then, I began missing out turns that weren’t important. Mayhem saving Symon? Wasn’t important, could be sidelined. Tarvirus’ attacks, in turn, targeted Delxipha AND another player as much as possible, keeping them engaged in the battle through the chaos. Whilst all that was going on, the front-line Wights similarly began engaging with the heroes, keeping their attention.
For a combat that could have easily become boring, I managed to salvage the effort and turn it into one of the more complex battles in the campaign and an investing experience, allowing the players to define the plot and participate in it.
Always give your players a chance to interact with your world and change things.
As much as this campaign is your campaign, it also belongs to your players and their actions should be felt at every turn.
I once had a DM who, when a campaign ended, skipped time forwards and continued the campaign, ultimately making a lot of character’s efforts worthless in the greater concept of the world and changing things back to suit his image. This is understandable as a storyteller and a historian (the cyclical nature of history is really fascinating), it’s a selfish and insulting move as a DM, disrespecting work put in by your players to add to your vision and completely disregarding their narrative agency, which I should add is the main reason why players usually engage with D&D in the first place.
After the events of Megs death, I was absolutely distraught. Not because it was an emotionally overwhelming moment, although because a few players felt this way. No, it was more that Joey’s actions had inadvertently destroyed a lot of story I’d been planning and had changed things up in a way I didn’t expect. My frustration upset Joey, thinking he’d ruined the game…
In fact, he had made it better.
Now, this isn’t always the case and some people who mess up your campaign are just horrible people, but sometimes, changing and adapting your vision for your players can push you down story avenues you never knew existed and give you great moments you never knew you wanted.
The destruction of Cinder’s Grove, the desperate fight in the hall and especially Yuvari essentially killing Delxipha were moments I had never initially planned to happen. And yet, because of Joey’s actions and the players own, this all came to be. Yuvari’s fate, in particular, was one I left in the players hands to a roll of a die. If they called the result right, odd or even, Yuvari would have recovered. Husk might even have failed to kill her and the battle could have been saved. Instead, Yuvari gave into her despair, the anger of having someone who she was genuinely becoming attached to as a grandmother she never had fuelling her actions.
This change in the dynamic has given me a lot more story opportunities and, the best part, it’s allowed me to cultivate and environment I want for the players. With the amazing Matthew Colville releasing his Stronghold and Followers rules, I wanted to give the players a stronghold of their own to operate out of but was always worried about discouraging the players from adventuring or from just having them get a keep for no reason. With the current power vacuum in the Cinder’s Grove province, the campaign’s tone has turned into a far more political landscape, something the players were really hoping for, and has also created an environment with which the players can fight, conquer and claim land (either for themselves or any new allies), giving them the resources needed to found their own keep and, ultimately, be their own masters.
Despite the momentary panic, I am so happy things have gone the way they have and I can’t wait to explore more of this campaign and tell you all more as the story continues.
Sadly, that’s going to be it for this segment of From the DM’s Chair. I’d like to thank you all for your patience for this long instalment and I hope this has been informative and entertaining. Join me next time as we explore roleplaying in a variety of forms and confront working with your players to craft a fulfilling narrative and the choices both DM and players can sometimes make to keep the game going.
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.