WARNING: This blog is a long one. Oops.
The best experiences in D&D are the ones where afterwards both the DM and players sit back, relax and think ‘wow, that was awesome’. It doesn’t happen all that often, which is fair. A lot of things contribute to a session’s mood and how people enjoy a session. Sometimes, however, all you need to make a truly great session are a few basic pieces from your Dungeon Master’s toolkit: a simple outlined side-quest, an epic encounter with a twist in expectations and, with a little luck from your players, a chance for some great character development.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, we’ll be talking about the sixteenth session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I’ve learned whilst running it. This week, we’ll be taking a look at an encounter in recent sessions that ended up very memorable for the party with a combination of a good side-quest, strong encounter design and allowing for a situation in which player characters get a chance to grow, evolve and better themselves. My down but not out gang of adventurers are as follows:
Dion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Chaotic Good Tiefling Fighter.
Joey is Nikita Tomasovna Nikinova, the Chaotic Neutral Tabaxi Rogue.
Lukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar-kai Warlock.
Beth is Lady Elizabeth Grey, the Chaotic Good Human Barbarian.
Jacob is Doctor Eddard Von Keppler, the Chaotic Good Human Cleric.
All character art drawn by Dion Russell, whose other work you can check out here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.
Last session, the players managed to meet up with the Tiefling Mayhem and his new ward turned Thane of what remains of the Cinder’s Grove province, Symon. After allying themselves with the group and settling conflicts within the party, the Vagabonds, as well as newcomer Doctor Eddard Von Keppler, marshalled out to investigate a reported dragon lurking in a town called Restway. The group discovered the dragon’s confrontation and had a brief skirmish with Tarvirus the Husk, the deadly necromancer responsible for the fall of Cinder’s Grove before the session ended.
In the wake of last session, I sent another piece of writing to the group, a small fiction piece featuring Tarvirus and one of the mysterious creatures encounter by the absent Vedrir earlier into the story scheming over the next step. Whilst the mysterious individual took the fallen body of Granny Megaera Grumbleweed, Joey’s old character, Tarvirus used his necromancy to revive the spirit of Lady Delxipha, the previous Thane of Cinder’s Grove, as a Sword-wraith, and sent her after the party. Though the player’s characters, in game, are unaware of this, I always find it good to tantalise the players with events happening off-screen. Plus, on top of the several thousand word blog-posting I do a week, I am clearly a glutton for punishment and wanted to work on another optional writing project per session. At least the players enjoyed I suppose.
Now, with all that catch-up done, onto the session itself:
The Fellow Vagabonds stand in front of the abandoned home of a farmer in Restway, his body recently taken by Tarvirus the Husk, leaving only a crackle of necrotic energy around Kassadin’s form and a scent of failure in the air.
“Zhat vas troubling,” Eddard comments.
“Not our problem right now,” Kassadin puts in, “and way out of our league.”
“Kass is right,” Teoku puts in, “as much as I hate to say it, we’re gonna have to leave him be.”
“We do have a dragon to fight,” Elizabeth puts in.
Ouskarr readies his axe, grinning in excitement. Keppler, however, shakes his head.
“I vill need to thoroughly cleanse this place of that creature’s interference,” he insists, “you all head on to the barrow. I have work here.”
Kassadin’s face falls.
“What? Kepp, we’ve got to keep moving, we’ve got to…”
The doctor’s finger flicks out and plants itself firmly to Kassadin’s lips.
“Doctor Eddard von Keppler, Kassadin,” he puts in, “not Kepp.”
Kassadin rolls his eyes.
“Doc, we’ve got to go deal with that dragon.”
“Und I vill have to deal with this,” Keppler puts in, gesturing to the empty house, “to cleanse it of dark spirits, ya? We’ll catch up later.”
Kassadin’s shoulders slump, but Keppler is already off on his way, beginning to pray and cleanse the sight of Husk’s influence.
“It is fine,” Nikita puts in, stroking the cat perched on her shoulders, “if doctor will not come, I am sure Melas will.”
“Oh yeah,” the cat purrs, a smile coming to his small lips, “I’m pretty sure gloom boy would lose his way if I weren’t guiding us along.”
Teoku growls, readying his bat, only for Ouskarr to hold him back.
“We’ve got to move now,” the half-orc insists, “the day is waning and if we’re going to fight a dragon, it might be better to do it by nightfall.”
“I second that,” Lady Grey adds, donning her pack once more and readying her parasol.
A murmur of general approval floats through the party. Elizabeth nods to the group and then turns to Nikita and her new pet.
“Please, lead on Melas.”
The awakened cat leads the group onward from the gathering of farms that make up Restway, out into the wilderness of the woods and then past that across a brook and up into the hills that line the area. Melas explains a little about the area they’re heading to, how an ancient barrow for great heroes was built into the hills, before later being re-purposed by the Torvali Empire as a temple to the Raven Queen. Due to its secluded location, the barrow was soon abandoned and now lies empty. At least, it was before the dragon made its home there.
As the sun sets in the distance, across the grey and grey hills, the Vagabonds find the land suddenly dropping away into a valley, down into the area below. From above, the group can glimpse the barrow buried into deep into the hill. Its large stony doors are cast aside, open to the world. Seeing the empty gully beneath them, the group decided to clamber down. Whilst Nikita prepares some rope and prepares to scale down, Kassadin attempts to slide down the valley himself. Half-way down, he realises his folly. Picking up too much speed, he slips and tumbles down the rest of the slope. Yuvari smoothly slides after, whilst Elizabeth follows, using her parasol/axe to steady her way down. The two reach the bottom relatively unharmed to find Kassadin lying in a heap, legs up in the air on his back. Nothing is injured apart from the tiefling’s pride but he still sits out for a minute to gather himself. It’s a good thing too. Whilst Nikita descends the rope to the bottom of the valley quickly, Teoku dawdles his way down and it’s only with Ouskarr’s help that he reaches the bottom, a good hour after their departure.
“Sometime today would be nice,” Nikita growls.
Teoku gives her a look, but is soon gets carried along as the rest of the Vagabonds begin their approach. Elizabeth and Kassadin forge the trail ahead, Nikita and Yuvari quickly rushing to flank the sides with Ouskarr and Teoku picking up the rear. The area leading to the barrow is sopping wet, a stream running through the cracks between the grass and the stones. Despite the uneven ground, the group make good pace towards the doors.
“We got a visual yet?” Kassadin mutters.
“There’s lights inside,” Elizabeth whispers from close by, “but I can’t see anything past that.”
“No visual,” Ouskarr calls from behind.
“We need to get ready then, for anything. We have the element of surprise currently,” Kassadin continues, “if we can get in there, nice and quiet.”
“Quiet?” Nikita scoffs from one side, “when metal lobster is clanging about?”
“What?” Kassadin grunts.
As he takes another step, he finally notices the loud clanking of his armour, each step making a sound which echoes out across the empty valley. The group come to a stop, hiding behind the last bit of foliage before the stoned tiles leading towards the entrance to the lair. Now the group are closer, they can see the forms of four fallen figures resting just at the entrance to the tomb. Kassadin collapses behind a shrub, his armour letting out a loud clank as he meets the ground. The sound echoes out louder than before, earning a glare from the rest of the party. From the doorway, there’s a sudden clacking and screeching as something stumbles forwards.
“Yeah Ward, I can see…wait, hostiles?”
Kassadin looks round, craning his head around.
“Ward, I only see one.”
“Two hostiles detected.”
“Kassadin, quiet,” Elizabeth insists, pressing herself down into the thicker foliage.
“Yes, lobster, stop talking to your imaginary friend, da?” Nikita hisses across.
“For the last bloody time,” Kassadin growls back, “I’m not a lobster, Ward’s not imaginary, and…”
A shriek carries out from the barrow’s door as a small creature hobbles out of the darkness, pointing a spear in Kassadin’s direction. As the fighter looks round, he realises he’s been made. The setting sun is catching on his armour and his un-noticed loudness has easily attracted the attention of those inside. A flash of red scales step forth into the light, at the exact same moment a flash of a dagger whizzes through the air and embeds itself in the creature’s chest. The strange bi-pedal beast falls to the floor, letting out a desperate croak as a its spear falls from its hands.
Yuvari rises out of hiding behind Kass, storming forth with her daggers at the exact same moment that Teoku begins launching a flurry of Eldritch Blasts towards the doorway from her position. Nikita moves next, passing Yuvari and breaching the entrance into the tomb. With a quick slash of her claws, the scaled creatures wobbling out to check on their fallen comrade are relived of their lives. With a victorious smirk, Nikita races forwards, passing Yuvari and sprinting at full pace into the barrow beyond. Kassadin curses, staggering to his feet.
“Elizabeth, Ouskarr, we need to.”
“Already on it,” the two yell as they start their own advance.
Elizabeth barrels forwards, hoisting her parasol high as she sprints onward. Ouskarr, meanwhile, keeps pace with Kassadin, forming a rear-guard for his journey forwards, Teoku following close behind.
“Kass,” Yuvari calls from the doorway, “we’ve got something here.”
Kassadin spares a glance to Yuvari. The bodies of four scaled creatures litter the ground before her, the quick work of the two Rogues. The other dead bodies scattered about them are humanoid, a change from the scaled monstrosities the group have been repelling. Kassadin glances to Lady Grey who gives him an approving nod. She sprints forwards, leaping through the gap, whilst Kassadin veers to the side.
“Who are they?” he asks, dropping to Yuvari’s side.
“Adventurers I think,” Yuvari replies.
“Got anything useful on ’em?”
“I’m having a look now. Lend us a hand.”
Kassadin nods and begins sorting through the fallen bodies.
“Guys,” he yells over his shoulder to Ouskarr and Teoku as they pass, “the cat. She ran ahead.”
“We’ll get her,” Ouskarr insists, leaping after Lady Grey with Teoku following close behind.
“And watch the kobolds,” Kassadin yells after the pair, “they’re dangerous in large numbers.”
Tombs are the bread and butter of Nikita’s career. The Nikinova clan have prided themselves for untold centuries researching and discovering the forgotten ages of the past. The rush that flows through Nikita as she bursts inside is too much enthusiasm for her to contain. In the darkness of the barrow, Nikita can still see perfectly, even without the aid of the lowly lit sconces in the room, and all that she sees is perfection. Great pillars holding up the barrow’s mighty ceiling, tombs lining the walls in ornate stone coffins and a smooth stoned hall that leads off and along to a raised dias at the other end of the room. Already, the Kobolds are beginning to panic as they see her approach. Nikita pays them little mind. These silly little things are only here to delay her travel and to keep her from the true archaeological gems within this small cramped room.
“Nikita,” Elizabeth shouts after her, “hold up.”
Sadly, Lady Grey’s call is not as loud as the call to action in Nikita’s chest.
She plunges on, her feline agility allowing her to cross the room in a series of quick bounds. The Kobolds notice her at the bottom of the steps immediately and begin their descent. The sound of panicked cries and battle roars call out as the small creatures begin to waddle their way down the steps. At first, Nikita is confident of her new vertically challenged opponents.
That is, until a group swarm around her on all sides and begin lunging out with their spears. Pinned on all sides with nowhere to go, several of the attacks find their mark, tearing through Nikita and slashing along her arms, legs and chest. With a whimper of pain, Nikita staggers backwards, holding up her daggers to ready herself.
“Is…this…best you can do?” Nikita asks, trying to force on a brave face.
The Kobolds simply squeal in draconic, the simple word ‘kill’ as they begin their assault again. Mere inches from Nikita, the first kobold explodes a flurry of black energy. The beam flies forth, smashing its target back into a second, the pair dropping to the floor with wails of absolute agony carrying through the air. Nikita glances back just in time to see her reinforcements tearing their way after her through the dark. Ouskarr and Elizabeth charge forth, screaming a joint battle cry as Teoku begins to launch more eldritch blasts over his shoulder as he runs, each one smashing through the line of defence. The kobolds offensive crumbles quickly and Nikita responds in kind, slashing her way through the last barriers to her success before mounting the steps.
Three steps up, Ouskarr moves to cut her off.
“What the hell was that?”
“Buzz off green boy,” Nikita spits back, “I’m working here.”
“We’re not supposed to split up like that,” Ouskarr shouts back at her, “it’s dangerous.”
“For you? Perhaps, but I am fine. Kobolds dead, or terrified.”
She gestures to the group of Kobolds slowly beginning to retreat at the top of the steps. She calls out to them in draconic, an offer of surrender and the kobolds seem to relent, stepping away from the dias and taking point at either side of the raised area. Nikita offers Ouskarr a smug smile as she pushes her way past.
“See? No problem,” she insists.
Climbing the last of the steps, Nikita finally arrives at the centre of the barrow. Up ahead, risen on the wall, the ebony crest of the Raven Queen rests. Once undisturbed, the mark has since been painted over in a stark bloody scrawl: the symbol of a dragon with five heads leering out at Nikita through the darkness. Resting below the symbol, a mound of coins are piled high on top of on another, a medium sized creature clearly resting on the pile, breathing softly. Nikita smiles, stepping closer to her prize.
“This is dragon?” she calls over her shoulder to Ouskarr, “it doesn’t look so scary.”
The other kobolds distract her from Ouskarr’s embarrassment however. As he blushes, the kobolds bicker to each other, saying that ‘she’ will not be impressed and that ‘she’ will kill them all. Nikita raises an eyebrow and casts an eye to the dragon resting atop the coins. The more she looks, the more she begins to realise something might be wrong. The creature does appear to have the impressive wings of a dragon, though they appear pinned back to its form in an uncomfortable manner. Further observation even reveals a large iron band around the creature’s neck. Nikita steps forward, interested, only for her foot to tap against the pile of coins. A set tumble from the top of the pile, pooling around at her feet. Nikita retreats, glancing down at the horde of coins rolling to a stop at her feet.
Copper. All the coins are copper.
Nikita realises all is not right at exactly the moment she looks up and meets with a small pair of golden eyes glaring back.
Gathering up the scattered supplies from the fallen adventurers in their arms, Yuvari and Kassadin bolt across the empty tomb, their comrades gathering at the summit of the dias across from them. Kassadin’s gaze passes up over their heads to the symbol of Tiamat scrawled upon the wall above. It’s enough to cause him to freeze in his path.
“Oh no. I can’t…not again…”
Kassadin’s thoughts are interrupted, shattered by the sudden thundering crack from above. With a earth shattering crash, the ceiling of the barrow above gives in, boulders crumbling down from the gap in the roof above. Kassadin is too surprised by the symbol of Tiamat to properly process the situation. He only realises the imminent danger when a boulder comes crashing down right on top of him.
A sudden weight crashes into his back, spurring him on and out of the boulder’s path. Kassadin breaks into a roll as he tumbles, clattering to a stop against another of the fallen stones. He coughs as the dust rains down, shaking himself as he moves onto his knees to stand. Light trickles in from above, the entire ceiling of the barrow torn asunder and split straight down the middle. Pebbles and the last vestiges of fallen debris clutter the floor alongside the great slabs of boulders that once gave shelter to the dead. Kassadin looks back to where he was earlier. Yuvari stares back, one of her arms outstretched from when it pushed Kassadin to safety. The rest of her body is pinned, crushed beneath the fallen rubble. As Kassadin moves to stand, a gale whips past him, almost knocking him down again. Another loud crash echoes into the empty tomb and Yuvari gives a loud scream of pain.
As Kassadin opens his eyes once more, he finds his gaze met by a large scaled creature, as deep red as his boiling blood. The creature flexes back a long neck, revealing a wide frame of a body, the form stretched across the fallen stones, lounging like a cat eyeing a canary. The dragon above tilts its head to one side, staring at and through the tiny adventurer. It cranes its neck up to look around and for a moment, Kassadin hears it start to chuckle.
That’s all Kassadin hears however.
Beneath the dragon’s massive frame, Yuvari shrieks out as the dragon’s claw presses down harder on the stones pinning her in place. The sound cuts through Kassadin and all other noise fades away into static. For a moment, the tomb falls away. The Vagabonds vanish from Kass’ mind and his entire body begins to tremble with rage. Yuvari, still struggling from beneath her pinned form, tries to call to him. He can read the words on her lips.
“Kassadin, please don’t.”
But he can’t hear. His ears are ringing, his entire body is shaking. It’s as if the ember knight flame in his chest has sparked back into life and the fire is now growing out inside, flowing through his blood. Kassadin pushes himself up to stand, harnessing the pain and anger within as he lets out a blood curdling roar. His amber eyes fade out, lost in the nothingness of a black void.
Kassadin gives into his devil trigger once more, aiming the sword directly ahead of him.
“Let. Her. Go.”
The instant the roof gives in, the dragon before her gives a panicked lurch. Nikita staggers back, raising her dagger in defence as the dragon reers towards her. Two feet from its mark, the creature stops with the snap of restraints. The copper coins, now scattering across the floor as the dragon continues to flail, were hiding a long thick iron chain, bolting the dragon to the floor. As the dragon tries to move once more, Nikita notices the leather muzzle covering its mouth. Smoke rises from the fabric but this only causes the dragon to descend into a fit of coughing. His wings flex and stretch but bound by the same leather as his mouth, the dragon’s options remain limited.
Nikita turns to Elizabeth as her cry passes out through the hall. Nikita can barely take everything she sees in. The torn roof, Yuvari pinned by rubble, the dragon now lying atop the stones.
“Ah,” the creature breathes, satisfaction obvious upon its smug face, “I told you, did I not Ashen? Adventurers are such foolish things. Dangle a promise of reward and challenge, and they’ll come swarming in without a second thought, bringing with them all their gold and magical items to bare upon my new lair, like a moth to a flame.”
The dragon gives a wide toothy grin.
“And now, your dear sister, Embrys, Empress of Flame, will claim all of their treasure and add it to my horde.”
Pressing her weight down upon the boulder pinning Yuvari, the tiefling screams in agony as Embrys shifts over to look at the crushed cleric. Kassadin growls, taking a defiant step forwards and lighting his sword along the floor. Embrys’ head snaps to glare him down, a raucous laugh bubbling up at the back of her throat.
“Oh, I see another little moth is fluttering about. Well then, little moth, come. Bathe in my flame.”
Kassadin does not need another invitation. The ember knight charges full tilt towards to Embrys, who easily weathers his initial strikes. Elizabeth springs into motion at the approach of the new opponent, rallying the remaining members of her party as she rushes down the steps.
“Ouskarr, Teoku, Nikita, we need to!”
Ouskarr responds in kind, beginning to pace his way down the steps. Teoku can only stop and stare. He slumps to his knees, closing his eyes and clutching his hands together. To Nikita, it looks like a desperate act of surrender. The archaeologist has never been one for despair though. Every disaster can be solved, Nikita considers, it just requires a creative response. Sifting through her pack, her paw digs into the satchel at her hip, recovered from the remains of the old hag at the Cinder’s Seat. With her free hand, she pulls out her dagger and turns to the young dragon nearby.
Ashen is still trapped, his desperate flailing still leaving him tethered to his perch. Nikita approaches. The dragon jerks away, clawing backwards across the floor. Nikita drops to follow him, looking her in the eye.
“Hello…Lord Ashen…” Nikita mutters in draconic.
Ashen snarls back at her, trapped behind his muzzle his protests mean nothing. Nikita steps closer, pressing her knife to the leather of the muzzle. Ashen freezes, glaring at her. Nikita simply smiles. She may not have dealt with dragons before, but if his sister’s words are anything to go by, these dragons are proud creatures. Luckily for Nikita, dealing with big egos has been a skill she has mastered over many years of work.
“Emperor of Flames…I have a proposal…”
Teoku blankly stares out into the barrow, watching as Kassadin’s strikes land upon the dragon’s form, Embrys pulling back to reveal hardly a mark upon her. Her crimson scales shine immaculate in the fading sunset. Though Elizabeth begins to charge and Ouskarr rallies around her, all Teoku can think is how overwhelming this challenge has just begun. Kassadin’s rage is blacking out his logic and Lady Grey is too proud to flee from a battle twice in such a short time.
Greys should never retreat.
He watches Ouskarr descend the steps and for a moment, Teoku cannot shape the feeling that he is watching the half-orc walk to the gallows. A lump grows in his throat.
Death is the end of all things.
It is the one constant in the world and raised as a shadar-kai, servant of the Raven Queen, it is a simple fact that has been drilled into Teoku’s mind. Everyone dies. Eventually, all must face the raven. Even a bonded warlock to the Queen is not ignorant to the whims of the lady of death.
He feels the weight on his shoulders, the chains binding his fragile heart. The past month, as short as it might have been, has been the best time of his life. In the shadowfell, there was little joy and continued dedication and service. A stagnant society that sickened Teoku to his core. The loss of Evelyn might have very well been his reason for leaving the shadowfell. Now, however, all Teoku can think is about how sweet his new found freedom has felt.
Now, his friends are all marching quickly towards his lady once more. The fear strikes him and in the moment, he gives in to the shadow of an emotion that has long been hiding in his heart.
Turning his head, Teoku catches sight of the Raven Queen on the back wall. Then, he turns back, drops to his knees and clasps his hands in prayer.
“My Queen,” he whispers, “please. I need your aid.”
Teoku opens his eyes to meet the black void of shadowfell around him. Isolated in the nothingness, he drifts, helpless, only to stir at the sound of fluttering wings. Turning, Teoku can feel the presence of a shadow lingering just out of sight. A pair of ivory pale hands reach forth, gently touching Teoku’s shoulders.
“My chosen one,” a voice whispers, “you need my aid.”
“I’ll do whatever you want,” Teoku promises, “I will.”
“Hmmm…and what perhaps could you do for me that you would not do already?”
The Raven Queen’s hands pinch at Teoku’s skin as they massage his neck, sending an unpleasant shiver down Teoku’s spine.
“I…I will defeat the Husk…in your name…I will…”
Teoku tenses as the Raven Queen’s presence flutters away from his shoulders, a shadow passing over his form.
“You are my Warlock. The Blackfeather, the sword with which I killed the previous God of death, has given you great power. Yet, you would argue I give you more.”
Teoku shudders. He hates this with every fibre of his being. He had always been loyal to his Queen, but he also had his limits. He had looked at the other shadar-kai, the ones that doted on her and devoted their being to her. In their words, they were shamans. To Teoku, they were nought more than slaves, dancing at the whim of their Queen. It was a fate Teoku dreaded.
“I…I will…I will raise a temple in your name…in this land…”
History said that the Queen had once been an Elf, like them, only she had found a way to ascend to Godhood, to steal divinity. It was a story told in reverence by the other elves, but any question as to the Queen’s motives or the act of her murdering a God were quickly silenced by her followers. The Lady of Death was an icon to her people and as such, she was raised on a high pedestal: one that demanded attention and submission.
And sacrifice, Teoku remembered, sacrifice to show devotion.
Sacrifices involving shackling your fate to the Queen, strangling the freedom Teoku wished for. To the shadar-kai, the Raven Queen had no equal and to suggest that something might be superior was deeply frowned upon. Family, friends, loved ones: they all came second to the Queen.
For her Warlocks, this was even more important.
Teoku has never been one for sacrifice.
“Just…on one condition…”
In an instant, a white slash cut through the void as the cold face of the Raven Queen flashed into existence before his very eyes. The face is beautiful, it is unquestionable. Long dark hair, pure white face with deep black eyes that seem to trap the stars themselves. Her starry gaze pierces into him, her expressionless face giving way to a frown that creases her black lips.
“You…would ask conditions of me?”
Teoku swears. He has overstepped.
“My Lady, I meant no…”
“You are my warlock,” the Raven Queen speaks in but a whisper, but it howls with the fury of a shout, “my champion. You have served me well and for that, I might forgive your insolence. I would even reward you with the power you seek…should you give me a proper display of your devotion.”
“A proper display?”
The face of the Raven Queen looms ever closer.
“I want something to prove your loyalty,” the Raven Queen hisses.
Her gaze narrows. Teoku is sure he can see a sun blink out of existence in her eyes.
“I…I don’t…” Teoku fumbles, “I…please…I…I need help and…”
“And you would beg of me but give me nothing in return,” the Raven Queen replies, “no, Teoku. Such insult requires payment, sacrifice. A show of devotion.”
Teoku thinks, racking his brain for any idea.
“I…I don’t..” he shakes his head and looks his goddess full in the face. Despite her size, the immensity of power is overwhelming, his whole body trembling like pins and needles.
“What do you want?” he finally asks.
The Raven Queen considers. Her reply is simple.
“Me? My Queen, I am yours. I’m your champion, I’m…”
“And yet,” the Raven Queen whispers once more, “how quickly you tire of me and my love, and seek out alternate joy. Your eyes, Teoku, are prone to wander.”
“Devotion,” the Raven Queen replies, “means sacrifice. We must be willing to give up the thing we want the most…to attain that which we need.”
Her hand strokes across Teoku’s face, the warlock visibly horrified by her touch. Once so kind, her fingers carve a chill into his face.
“I…Evelyn? You want Evelyn?” he offers, “I’ll give her to you. I’ll send her to you, a present and…”
“And you would saddle with your cast-offs?” the Queen hisses in reply, “no, I will not take second place in your life or your heart, Teoku. It will be everything or nothing after your slight…”
Teoku stops, staring into the void of her eyes.
“Ouskarr…” he breathes.
“Yes,” the Raven Queen whispers in turn, “sacrifice, Teoku. You must give up what you want most…”
“That’s…” Teoku begins, but the words falter.
His breath catches in his throat and his mind spins with the dilemma. His friends, his family, his new found love he has searched for for so long. And now, the very thing that gave him freedom and power is threatening to rob it all from him all over again. Teoku looks up to his Queen, voices hissing and pulling in his head.
“Sacrifice,” the Raven Queen repeats, “if you want power, you must sacrifice for me.”
He spawns the pact-blade at his side, crackling black with feathers.
And with a loud cry of anger, he throws his sword away into the blackness. The Raven Queen turns in horror, staring at the blade. As it impacts an unseen floor, it shatters, like shards of black glass.
“You dare,” the Raven Queen hisses, her face turning once more to her warlock.
Not her warlock.
“I’m sorry,” Teoku says, “I want to serve you, my lady, I really do. But I have been a slave to your whims for as long as I can remember. Now, for the first time in my long life, I am finally happy. And if your wish is for me to defy my own happiness, then I have no reason to go on serving you.”
The Raven Queen retreats, drifting back into the veil of shadow. Her face appears hurt for a moment, her lips parted in surprise. Then, her face tenses into a look of tightened focus.
“And…this is your final decision?”
“It is,” Teoku replies.
The Queen tries to hide her rage but it is clear in the swirling vortex of her eyes. All the stars spark and fade until nothing is left but a sea of darkness.
“Well,” the Raven Queen finishes, “very well then. You are released of your service…but I will at least reward you…with a glance of what could have been. We shall call it your severance package.”
Teoku tries to ask more but his consciousness fades in a flash of light.
Kassadin roars as he charges at the dragon. His attacks clip the dragon’s left leg and it shifts in irritation.
“Ineffective and annoying,” Embrys responds. She reaches forwards with her spare claw and strikes forward towards Kassadin. She’s quick, quicker than Kassadin can block. Though Ward parries one of the talons away, one slips through Kassadin’s defences and lunges straight into his chest. Kassadin’s armour cracks on contact and the tiefling lets out a wail of pain, blood dripping from his mouth. The claw snaps back quickly, revealing a major crack in Kassadin’s armour. The re-purposed Black Rose gear is all but wrecked, crumbling around the breaking point, leaving another deep gash on his chest. Kassadin fumbles for a healing potion, having enough consciousness left to drop it before the pinned Yuvari before his head hits the floor.
“Kassadin!” Elizabeth screams, halting her charge to glare at the dragon looming over her ally, “get away from him or…”
“You will do…what, exactly?” Embrys asks.
The reply is unexpected, even from Elizabeth.
At the back of the hall, a flash of energy fills the space on the altar. The blooded symbol of Tiamat cracks away, revealing the proud symbol of the Raven Queen. The symbol shines for a moment, before the stone crumbles away. In the space, a swirling vortex of shadow forms. From the darkness of the void, a long-sword flies forth, racing into Teoku’s waiting grasp. A cold chill flows out through the tomb, surging around all in the crypt. Teoku swirls his sword round in an arc, the blade tracing a path of pure black energy from the tip. Without a single word, the warlock swings his blade forth, bolts of energy flaring off in an arc around his swing. The eldritch lances, four in total, race out across the barrow, striking into Embrys’ massive form. Embrys recoils with a howl, dropping back. As she jerks round to regain ground, a claw slashes at her brow, drawing the first bit of blood. Embrys roars out at the new attacker. Ashen, free of his bonds perches proud to the side of his sister, returning her defiant howl with his own.
Kassadin blinks awake, a rush of warmth covering him. At first, he thinks its dragon fire. Or worse, Dormin has come for his soul. The heat isn’t quite as powerful as he thought the flames of hell might burn though. In fact, it’s damn pleasant. Looking up through his haze of vision, he glimpses a reddened shape crushed beneath layers of boulders. A hand caresses his cheek, pouring healing energy into him.
“Y-Yuvari,” he mumbles, “w-what…why…”
His gaze refocuses, glimpsing the healing potion that fell from his grip on the floor.
“You…you…you didn’t take the potion…”
“Who cares,” Yuvari growls back, coughing under the strain of the weight above her, “get out there. She’s gonna need your help.”
Kassadin shakes his head.
Turning his head, Kassadin glimpses the shadow of a white dress racing through the dusty barrow. He refocuses, growling and rousing fully.
Ouskarr moves to stand before Teoku, surprised as he swings his blade once more, shooting out more plumes of black energy. Nikita approaches the pair, retrieving a small clouded potion from her pocket.
“This would be counter-attack, yes?” Nikita checks.
“I have plan. Can you get me a distraction?”
Ouskarr nods, shouting loud out into the space.
“Kassadin! Lady Grey!”
Elizabeth continues her stride down the stairs, jumping the last step and vaulting the shards of a fallen pillar. Her eyes connect with Kassadin’s along the way. The tiefling mirrors her look of determination and the two nod. Their attack comes in complete synchronisation.
As Kassadin stands, he digs his heels into the floor before swinging his sword at Embrys’ right front leg. The sword connects, ripping through the scales there. Coupled with another barrage of eldritch blasts, Embrys droops to the floor, just enough for Elizabeth to leap up. She clambers atop Kassadin’s hunched back and uses it as a jumping off point to reach Embrys’ outstretched neck. Elizabeth brings her parasol down, the axe-head cutting through Embrys’ scaled armour and leaving the dragon recoiling in pain.
The distraction is just what Nikita needs.
Downing her potion, the tabaxi archaeologist begins her sprint. As she races down the steps, her muscles begin to swell, her lithe frame swelling into the form of a hulking behemoth.
The Vagabonds forgot that Megs took a potion of stone giant’s strength not long ago.
Nikita did not.
With her new-found strength, Nikita’s paws grip firmly to the large piece of rubble, lifting it in a single push. Embrys, not expecting the change in her standing, tumbles to the ground, her head clipping into the side of a pillar as she lands. As the stone breaks apart, the Vagabonds advance on their fallen foe.
Embrys, however, is not one to go down without a fight.
Seeing the flash in her scaled stomach, Kassadin lunges forwards, grabbing onto the side of her snout to escape the inevitable spray of fire. The others are not so lucky. Nikita and Elizabeth are completely engulfed in the flames, collapsing to the floor as the dying embers lick at their prone bodies.
Teoku prepares one stream of eldritch blasts, channelling all of the energy into the point of his sword. As he moves forward for a final swing, however, the energy dies at the tip of the blade. A sudden pressure pins him to the spot, a cold grip stroking along his body, like a shadow passing over him. A whisper drifts into Teoku’s ear from the blackened vortex behind,
“We all need to sacrifice what we want most. Teoku. Now, you will be my sacrifice.”
The pact blade shatters in Teoku’s grip, a gentle rain of ash descending from his clenched hands. His symbol of the Raven Queen shatters against his chest and Teoku’s body crumbles to the floor, giving a gasp of defeat as he falls.
Ouskarr watches him fall, a deep pain ringing through his chest. Even more so as Nikita and his beloved Lady Grey drops. Ouskarr races down the steps, bolting around to the battlefield. The two tieflings are the last ones standing. Kassadin is slumped by the side of Embrys, taking shelter under Ashen’s outstretched wings. Yuvari sits across from the group, slumped to the floor staring at Embys’ scarred form in horror. The poor girl’s been through so much for the past few days that she’s shaking.
But, Ouskarr is quick to remind himself, we’ve all been through it too.
“Yuvari,” he drops to her side, gripping her arms.
Immediately, her eyes snap into focus on his.
“I know you’re scared,” Ouskarr shouts, “but snap out of it. If you don’t do anything, they’re all going to die!”
Yuvari swallows hard.
“Get out there!” Ouskarr orders.
Yuvari doesn’t hesitate at the command.
She runs forwards, skidding to a stop besides Elizabeth and casting cure wounds.
Lady Grey arises, the warrior spirit of Chaga springing forth inside her as she raises her head to the towering beast.
“One strike,” the voice of her ancestors calls, “back of the neck.”
“That’s what I can do,” Elizabeth grunts, stirring up. She sprints forwards as Yuvari works on stabilising Nikita. Elizabeth dashes along, mounting the rising rubble before leaping off up into the air. Embrys makes one last desperate lunge for Kassadin and her sibling, only to pause at the sound of a mighty roar. She turns her head just in time to see Elizabeth racing past through the air. She swings, mustering every bit of strength she can behind the blow.
The axe breaks the dragon’s scales at the back of the neck and goes through, deep. Blood rains out, showering Kassadin and Ashen in a stream of red. Embrys lets out a death rattle and her immense form falls to the floor, her body slamming into the ground. Kassadin retreats slightly as Lady Grey lands. Elizabeth stands and gives him a brave smirk through her clear agony.
“Dragon slayer,” she mutters, “has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
Kassadin can only smile in reply. The pair’s gaze turns to Ashen, the remaining red dragon perched upon the column. Nikita quickly moves between the two, signalling for him to halt.
“All hail the one true emperor of flame,” she declares in draconic, dropping to one knee. Kassadin and Elizabeth, confused, follow her lead. Ashen shivers, though his scales light in hue, almost as if the wyrmling was blushing.
“Our bargain is done,” Ashen replies, “now you will keep your part.”
“But of course my lord,” Nikita continues, “we shall signal you when we take back Cinder’s Grove and deal with the Husk.”
Ashen nods and his wings beat against the air once more, leaping from the column to race out into the sun. Kassadin looks to her, perplexed.
“What did you say?”
“It does not matter,” Nikita replies, finally switching to common, “all that matters is that we have survived, yes?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth replies, allowing her demeanour to drop for a moment to give a pure honest smile of victory. The Vagabonds celebrate, linking arms and basking in their triumph. Ouskarr’s joy, however, is short-lived. He turns back to the raised staircase, muttering under his breath,
Teoku drifts in the endless void between light and dark. For a moment, he is alone. It is a cold different from the chill of the Raven Queen’s presence. It is a biting harsh thing. It is loneliness, the pain of being abandoned. Teoku takes a moment to steady himself and breathes. The chill is unpleasant true, but the silence is peaceful. For the first time in a long time, Teoku gives a truly carefree smile.
With weight off his shoulders, Teoku experiences true peace.
At least, for the moment.
“Hello?” a timid voice breaks the quiet.
Teoku shifts in the air, looking around.
Before him, sprinklings of golden glitter swirl and form into a small person before him.
“…W-who are you?” Teoku asks. The golden sparks shiver.
“I…I’m not sure…”
“Maybe…I can help you?”
The two lost souls settle beside one another and begin talking, wanders in the world. Teoku explains what he can remember to the glowing form. Numerous times, he considers abandoning his speech, only to redouble his efforts and begin again. Something about the innocence of the lost figure inspires him to keep talking. All the while, the golden swirl of sparks continues to listen, hearing all of his woes and his current predicament.
“So…I left my patron,” Teoku finishes, “and I suppose…this…coma…is my reward for years of service. I…I just…I didn’t want to give up the thing I loved most and…well, looking around now, I’m not sure it was a good idea…”
“I think it was,” the golden sparks flash, “I think you were good to follow your heart and live free.”
Teoku nods, smiling.
“I just,” the golden sparks shimmer brighter, “I just…I wish I could help you more somehow.”
Teoku raises an eyebrow.
“You do?” Teoku tests, “why?”
The light shines once more, flashing across his face.
“Because…I feel that’s what I’m meant to do…”
On a whim, Teoku reaches forwards, his hand passing into the golden sparkles. The darkness recedes, flaring up into a golden hilt in his grasp. The warmth spreads out, filling all of Teokus’ body.
“I…think I can help,” the quiet voice responds.
Teoku can only stare.
“A Hex-blade,” he whispers, “a patron…but…I thought…Hexblades were only of the Shadowfell…”
The golden sparkles flash in turn.
“I am sorry,” the voice replies, “I have no answers…all I know…is that if I can help you, I will…and together, we will work to keep you and all you love happy and free.”
Freedom. It feels too good to be true…and yet…
“Do you have any idea what your name is then?” Teoku asks.
The light is silent for a moment, before flashing once more,
“I…Lux,” the glowing form replies, “I think I’m Lux…the Kingmaker.”
“What a name,” Teoku replies, tightening his grip over the golden sword, “I’m Teoku. Nice to meet you.”
Ouskarr finally reaches the top of the steps to see a shadow standing before him, a bright golden glowing sword in hand. Blinded by the light momentarily, Ouskarr recovers to see Teoku shimmering, a soft smile upon his face.
“T-Teoku,” Ouskarr breathes in relief, “you’re alright?”
“Of course I am,” Teoku replies, a slight blush to his cheeks, “y-you were worried?”
“Yes!” Ouskarr insists, stepping closer, “you had all this power and then suddenly…nothing and you had collapsed. I just…had to deal with the threat before…”
Teoku can’t hide his smile.
“Well, that’s reassuring.”
“What happened?” Ouskarr presses.
Teoku looks away. That part is a little harder to flesh out.
“I…I lost my patron…”
“Yeah…the Raven Queen, she let me go.”
“I…I’m sorry Teoku,” Ouskarr mutters, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Teoku shakes his head.
“No, as in, I’m free of her now. She…she tried to make me do something I didn’t want to do…”
“What?” Ouskarr presses.
Teoku stumbles over his words. His hands feel so firm on him. There’s a security there, even if his heart is beating against his rib-cage.
“I…she wanted me to choose…between her…”
Teoku bites his lip and takes the jump.
“She sensed my feelings for you,” Teoku replied, “and I gave her up, because I didn’t want her to take me away from you.”
A sudden jolt of courage rocks through his system and Teoku steps closer, a confession on the edge of his lips.
“Ouskarr…I love you…”
The half-orc stares. Confusion whirls in his gaze and for a moment, Teoku is wondering if he has stepped too far. Then, Ouskarr’s hands find his face and the gap between their lips is closed. It’s a magic kiss, sparking with more power than a hundred eldritch blasts and when Ouskarr leans back away, Teoku can barely stand from the jolt.
“I…I love you too,” Ouskarr says, donning a smile.
The two share an intimate moment, before the sound of clapping fills the empty space. The pair look to see Kassadin and Elizabeth waiting at the bottom of the steps, the tiefling excitedly pounding his hands together in applause. Of course, such a sound is nothing, until Nikita pounces over to join in, her mighty paws colliding. Kassadin and Elizabeth recoil from the sound, but smile never the less.
“Bloody hell,” Kass whispers, “how long you gonna be like that?”
“Is new look,” Nikita replies in a deep voice, “I think I’ll keep it. Roid-cat is good.”
Elizabeth takes the steps up and pats Ouskarr on the arm, giving him a smile.
“I am so happy for you,” Elizabeth confesses, placing her other hand on Teoku’s shoulder, “both of you.”
“Okay, I understand this is a cool moment and everything,” Kassadin butts in, “but Ouskarr, we have a dead dragon down here. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“We’re…going to harvest the scales and make dragon armour?”
“You said it, not me. Besides…” he taps his shattered remains of his plate, “I’m gonna need something new, don’t you think?”
Ouskarr laughs, clapping Elizabeth around the back, before turning back to Teoku.
“I…I do love you…and I want to talk about this…but…but it’s a dragon and…”
“Go,” Teoku insists with a grin of his own, “I’ll still be here when you get back.”
“You better be,” Ouskarr replies, planting a kiss on his forehead, before racing off back down the steps to help Kassadin with his new project. Teoku watches him leave, a new warmth covering him where the Raven Queen’s chill had once been.
“Freedom, kindness and love,” a voice rings through his head.
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Teoku replies.
And thus concludes…the sixteenth session of Dorvine. Note to self for the future: maybe tone down the novel writing when doing these campaign retrospectives. Either way, there’s a lot to unpack with this segment, so let’s jump straight into the advice portion of From the DM’s Chair.
A good side-quest is the same as a good short story: concise and self-contained.
As good as big epic quests can be in D&D, sometimes, it’s the smaller more intimate quests that can help develop a party’s skill-set. Before this campaign, I realised that I rarely dabbled in side-quests for my campaign. As such, I worked on the basic premise of keeping the encounter setting and dungeon as simple and self-contained as possible. Whilst I like interconnecting story-lines together, a benefit of dungeons and side-quests is their isolation from any central plot. A dungeon and side-quest can have an eco system all their own and a fully realised story just in an isolated situation.
For example, for the barrow, my approach to the quest was a simple idea: I wanted an encounter with a dragon involving some Kobold followers. This was, admittedly, inspired by Joey saying that he had never actually thought a dragon in a dungeon in D&D, something I personally considered to be a travesty. The details of the story all came from considering who the main antagonist of the side-quest was and putting a twist into the standard convention. As the main antagonist was a young red dragon, her plot was easy enough to consider: gain a lair, start work on a horde. The details by which she went about this goal was the element where I threw in the twist: luring adventurers into her lair with the promise of killing a weaker dragon, an act of deception which immediately established all the NPCs I would need in the encounter. Ashen was a good optional NPC who Joey wisely convinced to follow him, whilst a small army of Kobolds were ideal as a force with which to trap Ashen and watch over Embrys lair whist she awaited adventurers to take the bait.
This set-up, though contained in the world, was still isolated from the other plot-lines but still held an inherent spark of drama and enough interesting twists to keep the player’s interested: including an interesting set-up for combat which made this session one of the more memorable experiences for the group.
Simple twists make a combat interesting and large parties are capable of great miracles.
The setting of the barrow was created solely because I liked the idea of a dragon crashing through the roof and entrapping the players. If there was one thing I learned when running the duregars in session 7, it was that combat could be made much more interesting but thinking outside the box with monsters and being as careful as possible.
As an adult dragon, Embrys had a high fly speed that allowed her to escape Ward’s watch range when Kassadin became aware, stealthily keeping watch on the group and her large size and STR check would not only make her able to block off the exit but to enter from above. This new complication of being trapped, plus the unexpected event of Yuvari getting trapped, gave the players a new issue to overcome and a chance to try out some good teamwork and new powers.
I was never afraid that the party would win: there were six of them including their NPC helpers, so the party outnumbered Embrys. Plus, in a pinch, I had provided the group with a possible friendly NPC in the wyrmling dragon Ashen and a series of items scattered on the corpses of the adventurers at the door. Even though the group missed most of these, they still overcome Embrys and the overwhelming odds made for a tense and epic battle that the players seemed to enjoy afterwards.
Handling Deus Ex Machina/non-statted powers is difficult but can be rewarding.
When Teoku prayed to the Raven Queen for help, I was unsure of what to do. I did know, however, that I wanted to do something.
Praying to Gods or seeking power from higher levels is something that can happen in any campaign, though I am aware that most DMs would be more willing to work solely on stats and abilities provided by the official rules rather than rely on something that functions more within a narrative framework and less within a gameplay sense. In normal cases, I would agree, a player should not expect special treatment or exception at the table for next to nothing. After all, D&D may be a role-playing game, but it is still, indeed, a game and games have rules.
The grey area for this role-playing is that the DM is the referee and the final judge when it comes to rules at the table. For him, the rules of the game can be mere guidelines and though this might lead to an abuse of power and killer DMs, such power also means that DM’s are able to take action on a more narrative level and change rules or even develop special conditions on the fly to develop a situation.
Despite the gameplay aspect of D&D, the experience is still heavily routed in role-playing and for me, the storytelling aspect is important. Dramatically significant things can happen to change the events of a game and some things cannot be taken into account into gameplay, whilst some dramatic events can not be best accounted for in the confines of the game.
Deus Ex Machina is a latin phrase that means ‘God in the machine’, though in this case, it is usually made to refer to the author’s hand in a work of fiction, usually in a manner that gives the main character some easy escape or last minute solution to a huge problem. Deus Ex Machina is considered a poor writing concept, but it is a lot harder to consider such a thing in poor taste in a world where the literal Gods exist and can interact with the players.
Within my own campaigns, I enjoy moments where players can interact with said Gods as it gives me a chance to interact with my players in a new form and for moments of intense drama like this. Whilst Deus Ex Machina can be frowned upon in works of fiction, a main reason why it is disliked is a lack of aftermath for such dramatic stakes, something I always try to feature within my games. Whilst the Gods are forces acting on the world, not all of them are benevolent and most will only be willing to part with power for a price. After all, the Gods of a D&D world are characters too.
In the case of the Raven Queen, I was more than fine granting a wish from Lukas of gaining momentary power but I decided some level of sacrifice was needed. Though Lukas’ words were enough to convince the Queen, he overstepped with another condition which, in turn, made me react more strongly as the Goddess. Thus, what should have been a simple path to a dramatic victory turned into a desperate mental struggle for Lukas, who I am so proud of for keeping his cool despite being thrown into the role-playing deep end like that.
In this way, invoking the Gods ended up being something dramatic and amazing, which only marginally helped the group, whilst providing a great moment of character development for Teoku. Speaking of:
Reward your players for good roleplaying.
I am under the firm belief that heroic deeds should be rewarded in fiction. True, tragedy can still occur and horrible things can swallow a good action entirely, but life is full of ups and downs. As dark as I might want to make my games or as emotionally complex, the truth is that I simply enjoy heroes in works of fiction. I enjoy acts of selflessness and I enjoy watching good people be good in the face of overwhelming odds and great darkness.
As such, when Lukas renounced his pact with the Raven Queen, I thought punishing him for being true to his character was cruel. True, he would probably lose the Raven Queen as a patron and has definitely earned her ire in a way that will make her followers more hostile towards the party, but I wanted to give Lukas a reward for responding so well to the situation I had put him in.
Therefore, after leaving Teoku collapsed, I started to message Lukas through the game asking what new patron he’d want to look forward to. Instead of being awkward and rewriting his whole character, I decided it be best that I try and think of another Hex-blade for him to form a pack with. Luckily, I’d been thinking of one for quite some time, hence the reveal of Lux at the end of this session.
Whilst I was content to perhaps leave Lukas to find another patron in the following sessions, I still felt his actions should have been rewarded, not punished, thus leading to the dramatic conclusion of the whole session: Teoku gains a new lover and a new patron with which to keep fighting, but must now contend with the jealous and hating forces of the Raven Queen. It makes for good drama and, most importantly, it think it made Lukas feel pretty damn cool, which is always good.
As realistic and mature as campaigns might strive to be, there should always be an element of fantasy to a campaign and, in particular, I fully believe players actions should come with rewards as frequently as possible to reward positive action. Lukas really developed as a role-player this session and I was so proud of him. Punishing him too hard for his choices would have made him feel pretty unwelcome at the table, which was never something I intend to do. Giving him a slice of a reward between the raging chaos reaffirms his good action, but also means Teoku isn’t behind the rest of the party as the campaign advances.
Plus, now Teoku has a lot of new threats to deal with and I’m really excited to see how Lukas handles the new pressure.
That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join us next time as our party return from their dragon hunting mission and encounter a new ally. We’ll also be having another look at incorporating new players and crafting a good recurring antagonistic force for your players.
Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s session of From the DM’s Chair. Please leave a comment. Constructive criticism is welcome.