Cutscenes are an important part of all video games. They allow for chunks of plot to be easily dispensed and essentially amount to mini movies which break up the gameplay experience and allow for plot to be told in a convenient manner. In terms of the battle between narrative and gaming, a cutscene is when a creator wrestles control from the player and places it firmly in the hands of the game’s narrative. Usually in video games, there isn’t a real issue with this. Players in video games, after all, still remain at the mercy of the gaming system and the limits of such a media. D&D, as a roleplaying game, doesn’t have this same built in method for dispensing narrative. Taking away a player’s agency never works well, especially in cutscenes as players will always wish to have a baring on the plot in front of them. It is, understandably, fair of a player to demand their agency be respected by a DM, but even more tricky for a DM to showcase their plot without damaging that trust between player and DM regarding player agency. So, the question becomes: how do we handle cutscenes of this nature within the interactive media of D&D?
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and, today, we’ll be talking about the twentieth 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 the concept of cutscenes in D&D, more advice on NPCs and how to portray villain plans. My mystery solving vagabonds 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.
Aimee is Erulissë Durfain, the Chaotic Neutral Drow Rogue.
All character art drawn by Dion Russell, whose other work you can check out here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.
Last session, the Fellow Vagabonds found themselves trapped in a town on lock-down after another series of disappearances. The goliath, General Huxx, enticed the party to investigate the issue, hilst their companion Nikita fled Hearthome and attempted to court further favour with the fledgling thane, Symon. In attempting to smuggle Symon to Hearthome, a place his mother had always said was off limits, Nikita, Symon and their escort, Faeriel the Dragonborn, were engaged by a strange set of clockwork armour that successfully imprisoned Symon. Luckily, the Vagabonds arrived at the scene from their own prior investigation and leapt into the fray, ready to engage the mass of clockwork armour coming from the lake.
The silence of the night is broken in Hearthome by a flurry of steel and the whirring of gears. The Vagabonds throw themselves eagerly into the battle, doing their best to dismantle the strange clockwork drones. Despite a formidable first offensive on behalf of the gathered party, the clockwork suit that entrapped Symon manages to escape, covering a broken plate with a firm hand, whilst diving deep into the swamp. Nikita, armed with Granny Megaera’s old cloak of the manta-ray, launches after the armour, paddling desperately after Symon’s captor.
Meanwhile, on the surface, the Vagabonds begin rallying together in order to make short work of their opponents. Kassadin and Eddard focus their attacks on one of the suits lumbering out of the water, trying to break past it to follow Nikita. Elizabeth, standing as a proud Grey warrior, goes all in on hammering against the nearest drone. The fight is intense and despite the golem’s exquisite craftmanship, Elizabeth manages to outpace it with every strike.
The Vagabond offence proves even more effective when more allies plunge from the underbrush. The weary Teoku and the mysterious Erulisse begin strategies of their own. Erulisse aids Elizabeth in her attacks, whilst Teoku uses his disguise self to transform into a young woman, enticing another of the clockwork golems into capturing him. Once inside, Teoku prepares another barrage of eldritch blasts, only to slip into another terrible sleep, visions of the Raven Queen’s dark form clawing at his mind.
Still, it appears, she is unwilling to relinquish her pawn.
The first golem falls by Elizabeth’s hand, shattering in a fiery display that rains debris down on the fighting force. Singed but mostly unharmed, Elizabeth and Erulisse rally to Teoku’s defence. Yuvari even pops from the shadows to aid, delivering her own counter attack against the creature. At the same time, Keppler and Kassadin finish off their our opponent, before whirling round to aid Elizabeth in rescuing Teoku. Elizabeth’s axe successfully makes a hole, one large enough for Yuvari’s petite and flexible form to reach through and start lifting Teoku out.
Just as she’s about to begin, however, Eddard, unaware of Teoku’s position inside the armour, summons his spiritual weapon to shatter the final clockwork golem. Upon the weapon’s impact, the suit detonates. Elizabeth and Erulisse are blown clear from the fire, whilst Kassadin braces the blast and wades in to check on Yuvari. Teoku is only lightly scarred, Yuvari covering his form to take the brunt of the blow.
Though they proved victorious, the group are exhausted. Despite a few of the party wanting to follow after Nikita and Symon, Eddard wisely observes that the attack from the clockwork golems has left them spent on their abilities and heavily injured. With Elizabeth and Erulisse burned from the explosion and Teoku unconscious again, Eddard suggests that the group retreat for the moment to recover. Reluctantly, everyone agrees and retreat back to the church
As they had back to town, Huxx and a contingent of guards to approach to investigate the disturbance. Eddard explains to Huxx that he suspects Cailen, the town’s known tinkerer, is behind the disappearances, and then has to pacify the general, who wants to retaliate immediately against Cailen with a full armed intervention. Eddard manages to convince Huxx to calm down and take his much more cautious approach: having soldiers watch the tower covertly by night and join the Vagabonds the next day in a coordinated raid, using their superior number and training to hopefully best Cailen in his tower-like fortress. Huxx agrees and begins making preparations whilst Eddard and the party slink back to rest at the church.
Nikita finally reaches the retreating clockwork golem. Upon noticing her arrival, the golem faces her, revealing its hand clutching its chest in an attempt to keep the water out. Nikita quickly realises that whatever the Golem is doing, it’s clearly trying to keep Symon alive, sealing up the breach in order to keep the pressure from affecting him. The golem, realising it cannot avoid Nikita, gestures with his free hand for her to follow. Against her better judgement, Nikita does. Heading into a secret passage in the rock, Nikita emerges into a underground network of caverns. The golem leads her on and up a flight of stairs. The walls of the cave gives way to smooth stone, finely planted. Not a dungeon, Nikita realises. It’s too neat, too well kept. This is something else. The golem leads Nikita along into the rest of the underground complex. Kobolds scuttle around in white coats, flanked by more clockwork drones following in their wake. They speak at length in common, only stopping when Nikita passes by with her escort. Nikita tries to keep her head held high as she marches into the room beyond.
The area is just as clean as the rest of the space. In the centre of the room, there is a broad table and chairs with documents and notes strung upon around. Two men stand at the table, one of whom looks to the group as they enter. He’s a man with dark skin, the twisting of his long ears marking him as a wood-elf, dressed much as the Kobolds were in white robe of sorts. His companion is clearly a high-elf, clad in a long red coat and wearing a small dome of a straw-hat. As Nikita stops and Symon is released, the high-elf finally moves forward to greet her.
Cailen Cayden, the mysterious man of the tower, is polite and courteous to a point of arrogance. Symon tries to intimidate the man with his title of thane but Cailen refuses to accept such, saying he knows of Delxipha. When Symon informs him of his mother’s passing, Cailen tenses slightly, before disregarding his presence and putting Symon under the watchful eye of one of his golems. Nikita, used to getting arrogant men to give up their secrets, immediately grills Cailen for answers. The tinkerer remains vague, clearly enjoying his higher ground of knowledge. He eventually leads Nikita to the corner of the room where a large clear structure lies, like a hard glass cage. Cailen explains it was him who created the small force of clockwork golems to kidnap young women from the village above. He also tells Nikita that all he is doing is for the greater good, needing research material for something dangerous that is coming. Nikita disregards his pretension completely.
“The wrong thing done for the right reason,” Nikita presses, “is still the wrong thing to do.”
“You don’t understand,” Cailen responds simply, “none of you do. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. It’s why I want to listen, why I want you to watch. It’s important you see the work I’m doing here.”
Cailen orders ‘Experiment 30’ brought out of her prison cell. A clockwork golem moves to do so. Nikita tries to intervene, but a spare drone intercepts her. With his audience now captive, Cailen is quick to remove Nikita’s weapons and place them to one side, before continuing on with the experiment. ‘Experiment 30’ is revealed to be Martha, the last abductee, who Cailen has set inside the glass chamber. With her trapped inside, Cailen commands the golem to begin the procedure. Nikita struggles against her captor but there’s little she can do to break free.
“You need to watch,” Cailen insists, “please understand.”
“You cross this line Doctor,” Nikita snaps back, “you do anything to that girl, and there’ll be no coming back. I won’t let you come back.”
Cailen ignores Nikita’s protests and begins.
With Martha trapped in the glass chamber, Cailen orders his golem to insert ‘the sample’. Nikita watches in fear as a strange black sludge is inserted into the chamber. Immediately, the sludge tries to set upon Martha, swarming the area and trying to expand to cover the entire chamber. As Martha beats desperately against the wall, the clockwork golem gives her an injection, before the chamber is sealed up entirely. Cailen watches as the sludge overtakes the girl, his hands pressing to the glass.
“Come on,” he whispers under his breath, “fight it, fight it.”
Martha struggles, the strange slime clawing up her body. It forces its way over her and into her body, leaving poor Martha a twitching corpse on the floor. For a moment, the body twitches and Cailen’s face lights up as a flash of white appears in the black sludge, forcing its way to freedom. However, half-way through, the strange black slime rips the white stain apart, swallowing it whole in darkness. Martha’s lifeless body begins to twitch, stir and rises. Undead and covered in the black sludge, Martha rises, beating against the wall. Cailen sighs, retreating from the glass as Martha begins gurgling and clawing more erratically against the wall.
“Burn it,” he commands.
The Kobolds do as he requests, filling the chamber with fire.
Nikita is equal parts horrified and disgusted as Cailen approaches to continue his explanation.
“There’s a monster,” Cailen explains, “made from dark magics. It’s called the Rot, it’s a sentient sickness and you just saw what it will do if I can’t create a standardised cure to fight against it.”
“I only see one monster here,” Nikita spits back, “and it’s not the one in the cage.”
Cailen tries to continue on, explaining he’s been kidnapping people to test for a cure. Though he has managed to form a prototype to combat the rot, the serum only seemed to bond with a young woman, hence the reason for all of the recent kidnappings of young women for his experiments. The young woman is still alive after exposure to the Rot but a cure that can’t be effectively mass produced is not worth the effort in Cailen’s mind. All the while, he rambles on about the greater good and how he’s helping the world, even snapping at Nikita when she tries to point out the lack of morality in his actions.
“And if we did this weighed down by your antiquated ‘morality’, I wouldn’t be able to save anyone. This is the only way to get results: doing what needs to be done.”
Nikita remains firm in her convictions. Cailen gives up on trying to convince her when he realises she won’t be reasoned with and has one of his golems lock her away as ‘Experiment 33’. Symon tries to save her but Cailen is quick to apprehend him and escort him away.
Thrown into a prison cell, Nikita quickly meets the two captured merchants: males of differing races Cailen took as a ‘control group’ to his primary experiments. Whilst the water genasi trader is taken away for another experiment, Nikita makes friends with ‘Experiment 32’, the Halfling Merchant Pip. Being an ally of Lady Grey and a keen fan of Kassadin, Pip insists her comrades will come to save her. Nikita is not so sure, but she is used to being patient. Thus, she rests, waiting for her chance to strike.
And, of course, for a chance to get revenge on Cailen.
The next morning, after a well-earned rest, the Vagabonds meet up with General Hux and begin planning their next move. Elizabeth and Teoku are still resting from the night before, but the rest of the group know they need to make a move now or else risk Nikita’s safety. Following on Keppler’s lead, Huxx joins the group and coordinates a raid of Cailen’s Tower.
Ouskarr, Keppler, Kassadin and a small elite squad of guards will break through the front door and take hold of the ground floor, whilst Erulisse and Yuvari will sneak in through the window on the floor above and explore the interior of the tower itself.
The plan works better than Cailen’s clockwork.
Keppler bursts in through the front door, whilst Kassadin and Ouskarr subdue Cailen’s housekeeper, Olan, and his dog, a husky named Baren. Erulisse and Yuvari, meanwhile, investigate the upper floors, finding three bedrooms, presumably for Olan and Cailen’s other helpers, a ‘pet’ room full of fantastic and amazing creatures, which Erulisse promptly sets free, and finally, Cailen’s study.
Though the duo encounter little resistance and find few things apart from the army of animals, Erulisse does eventually find something of note. Across a map of Dorvine and the continent, Cailen has been making scribbles and notes, gibberish to her. Each statement mentions a powerful spellcaster by name: Mordenkainen, Tenzer, Bigby and the like. Nine names in total, documenting their death, disappearance and pondering the location of something called an ‘Opus’. The words register little in Erulisse’s mind but she takes the scroll anyway for research. With the study explored, only one room remains: Cailen’s bedroom.
Erulisse attempts to enter but upon touching the door handle, she finds herself magically propelled backwards out of a nearby window. Despite Yuvari’s best efforts, Erulisse tumbles down, crashing into the roof of the house, heavily injuring herself in the process. Yuvari heals her as best as she can, but the pair decide that whatever is in Cailen’s room isn’t worth seeing if it’s resulted in this much trouble.
Things aren’t going too well with the ground team either. Despite a mostly easy containment of the ground floor, Eddard and Kassadin finally meet their match in the form of a small clockwork spider. The spider appears to be functioning as a private note-taker for Cailen, affixed with a quill and scribbling documents on a desk as it wobbles about. Kassadin, not too perturbed by the spider, tries to swat it away with Ward. His great-sword comes clattering down, splitting the desk apart.
The Spider remains unharmed. Not only that, it dodges and whizzes its way along Ward’s point slicing at Kassadin’s body with a pair of razor thin needles.
In a matter of seconds, a simple encounter turns into an epic battle of life and death as Kassadin and Eddard swarm around the small spider. Their attacks miss with hilarious consequences, the spider dodging or somehow surviving their attacks and continuing his assault on Kassadin. With one successful strike, the spider even unmakes Kassadin’s tunic underneath his armour.
Kassadin, finally getting fed up with this waste of time, traps the spider in a firm grip. The spider, in reply, paralyzes Kassadin with some poison and continues to assault Keppler. Keppler finally crushes the spider against a wall but by then, the damage to Kassadin and the party’s pride is done.
A tiny clockwork spider was besting the party that took down a dragon.
“We tell Nikita nothing of this,” Kassadin grunts.
Regrouping with Yuvari and Erulisse, the Vagabonds decide to descend deeper into Cailen’s complex with their small band of guards as reinforcements.
Meanwhile, Cailen has been made aware of the party invading his tower and is making plans for an evacuation. The kobolds and golems bustle about readying for a retreat. As Nikita awakens in her cell, she finds a clockwork golem and a kobold coming to put her to sleep with a syringe of poison. This, as it turns out, is the moment Nikita has been waiting for.
Springing forth from her cell, she disarms the kobold and makes to escape. As she darts for the escape, the clockwork golem moves to intercept, only for the rest of the party to emerge and swarm the machine. Under their combined might, they fell the drone in a flurry of strikes. Nikita spares no time to thank the party, loading her pistols and restocking her daggers. Kassadin releases an overjoyed Pip as Nikita begins making her way to the door.
“Where is Symon?” Kassadin calls.
“Cailen,” Nikita hisses.
She holsters her pistols and marches for the door.
“You’re making a mistake,” Cailen’s voice whispers from the back of their mind, a strange static invading the vagabonds minds.
“Cailen,” Eddard cuts in, “surrender. Please, see sense. Give yourself up.”
“I can’t,” Cailen replies, his voice shaky, “I…I need to do this…”.
“Then,” Nikita continues, checking her gun once more before marching off into the base, “we’ll be seeing you very soon.”
She leads the party on, marching out into the main corridor.
And thus concludes the twentieth session of the Dorvine campaign. Whilst understated and mostly set-up, this session is one of my personal favourites. It’s always nice when players meet new villains but it’s better when moments like this come along, where it’s possible to talk with the players as said villain before their inevitable conflict. With that said:
The Wizard’s Tower map I used for Cailen. The creator is a talented artist by the name of Sally Mitchell (source from Reddit), whose patreon you can find here: https://www.patreon.com/smitchell.
No matter how much you want a cutscene to work, you can never forsake player involvement.
Cutscenes are a hard element to place in Dungeons and Dragons due to their role inherently meaning taking narrative agency for the players and forcing them to watch. When considering ways to introduce Cailen and his experiments with the Rot into the story, I wanted to do so in a position where I could show the players and yet the players had no control. This, of course, was an inherently flawed idea but without a solid introduction to Cailen and using an establishing cutscene to show his experiments with the Rot, the players would likely not have felt as engaged with defeating him. A great way to establish a NPC for a group of players, whether a villain or an ally, is to show them in action. For Cailen, this involved showcasing his horrific deeds in a way that the players could learn about his experiment with rot and experience more of Cailen as a character.
Luckily for me, Joey’s habit of letting his characters split from the party actually helped me greatly here. Cutscenes are much more manageable concepts in isolated scenes such as this. Being separated from her party and forced into a submissive role, Nikita could only watch Cailen’s acts, serving as a viewpoint for the other players on the events happening. It worked well, with Joey favourably comparing the scene to ones in a Bond villain lair, with the villain monologue and our heroine forced to hear his plan.
Plus, Nikita got to be even more of an action heroine than Joey probably ever planned. So that is brilliant.
From this, you’d think my main message would be to force the players into a powerless position before forcing cut-scenes upon them but that isn’t the advice I thought of coming out of this session. With previous big events, such as the battle in the Cinder’s Seat, I tried to keep the players present for main events as it helped make them feel involved, but it also made the events itself more interesting. The observer theory is the idea that the results of an experiment change when they are observed, something my own games have actually been effected from. Because the players were present in big moments, unique things happened, such as Kassadin’s presence ultimately resulting in Yuvari killed Delxipha, whilst Nikita’s inclusion led to the looting of Megs and an attack on Tarvirus the Husk which left him wounded.
Here again, the scene with Cailen was only as good as it was because I had Joey to bounce off of. Another character in the same position might have had a different reaction or a more violent outburst, instead of Nikita taking a pure heroic response, something new for her character and an aspect I enjoyed Joey exploring in the moment. As such, my advice around cutscenes is to avoid them where possible. If not, inject as much of your character’s personality and actions into the scene and make them feel valued and their opinions matter. If they bicker and engage your villain in a discussion of ethics, let them. If they want to bull-rush the villain and beat them into a pulp, let them try that to.
Cutscenes, as good as they are in their respective media, have no real place in a Dungeons and Dragons game. It is possible to show the players event happening with other people in the world, something I did in numerous fiction pieces between session, but at the end of the day, the session is about your players and not just the world around. Cutscenes in D&D are you ranting at your players for long chunks of time and indulging yourself rather than them. A grounded anchoring point for your narrative plot points, ie. letting your players appear and interact with your plot points in your planned ‘cutscenes’ will make the story stronger and, usually, better. Hell, if your ‘cutscene’ idea goes wrong and the plot changes, I encourage you to embrace and develop upon the changing elements. It’s not always going to work and sometimes things might fall apart.
Never be afraid to reuse content for new players.
Cailen Cayden is an NPC I have used in every campaign I ever run. In most fantasy universes, after all, you need the wizened old magic user who is willing to guide the players through their adventurers. This was Cailen in the first campaign I ever ran, called the Midnight Alliance. I portrayed him as a lighthearted buffoon with phenomenal power and ability, but poor people skills. Since then, in every campaign I have used Cailen in, I have tried to recast him and develop him into the new setting, almost as if making an alternate universe version of him. So far, I’ve used archetypes like the old grumpy sorcerer, the anti-social and possessive recluse, and even as a possible main antagonist as an evil court wizard. The version of Cailen in this story is another twist on that template: the old broken man. Cailen is, at his heart, a good person but has become too obsessed with the results that he is sacrificing innocent people to fuel his ambition. It’s a powerful message and a persona I worked hard to create to mould Cailen into the darker atmosphere of the Dorvine campaign.
The main lesson I’d give here is to not be afraid to reuse content. Cailen is a template of a character I’ve used in my games numerous times. The trick, I find, to reusing characters or concepts is to alter them with each new instalment. Seeing the same NPC in the same situation can get pretty boring after repeat visits but by putting Cailen in a new world and working out how the difference in timing and situation alters him means that he becomes a completely new face that the party have to engage with. Plus, those players who have encountered versions of this character before will love to see what new things you’ve done with them and learn how they fit in the grand cosmic web of your D&D universe.
When constructing villains, focus on developing a solid plan for them to follow first.
In D&D, a villain is only as good as his plan. Half of the reason why the gold standard of D&D villain, Strahd Von Zarovitch from Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd, is so good is because his plan forces him into direct conflict with the players. His desire to find a successor to his legacy, claim the soul of Tatyana and his proclivity for corrupting the forces of good means he is always hounding the players in order to achieve his ambitions. Most great D&D adventures involve great villains and how our heroes interact with their plans.
Regarding Cailen, his plan of kidnapping test subjects for his experiments is not something that directly concerns the players at first, with only the lockdown forcing the players into action. That is, of course, until people the players knew become his targets, namely Symon, pulling them in with a personal hook. With Cailen, I attempted to dabble with a more morally ambigious villain plot: trying to cure the rot and save the world from a foreseen catastrophe but at the cost of hundreds of innocent lives. This, I expected, would put him in direct contrast with the heroes and it did. It made for an interesting situation, especially considering it was Nikita that pushed for the Vagabonds to reject Cailen’s ideals completely.
My main advice for formulating your villain’s plans is to think of it in stages. An overall goal and motivation is fine, but without direct goals that will bring players into conflict with the villain, you leave little chance for your puppetmasters to step out of the shadows and reveal their plan. Cailen’s kidnapping was a small scale goal, his torturous experiments the larger stage in the process that he hoped would lead him to him defeating the Rot, his ultimate goal. As a villain, I summed Cailen’s motivation with his ideal: “The greater good is the only good”, showing his form of utilitarian ethics and obsession with ‘the big picture’ and these features determined not only his character but the way in which he acted to follow his plans and engaged with the party. Different villains can approach a plan in different ways, so remember to experiment with your villains and plots when you’re more confident with the set-up. It can be really entertaining.
And, a rare feature, an extra piece of advice:
Use new random monsters. Trying new enemies in new ways can be interesting.
The clockwork spider is one of the best combats I’ve ever run and most of that was down to just how surprised and then mildly terrified the players were on how affective a tiny little drone was. It was a random monster I included for flavouring and had I never thought to include it, I’d never have such an amazing moment like this with my players.
That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join us next time as the party confront Cailen and we discuss elements of making boss fights far more interesting in various ways.
Apologies for no new art this week, our lovely artist Dion is hindered in a conflict with the greatest monster of them all: life. If you want to check out some of his other work, you can find it at https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever. Feel free to pop over and give him some love for his stellar work, mainly because without his wonderful contributions, we’d all just be sat reading a dense blur of text.
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.