Combat in D&D, such as boss battles at the climax of a dungeon, rarely evolve into anything more intellectually stimulating than rolling dice, hoping to hit an opponent harder and faster than they can hit you. As good as a DM’s descriptions can be, it’s sometimes hard to think of such combat situations as anything more than an extended slug-fest between fighters, which can be an underwhelming development for such a long term campaign. Despite this, there are little twists and tricks to the basic formula to make climactic combat more interesting.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, we’ll be talking about the twenty first session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine, and the lessons I’ve learned whilst running it. This week, we’ll be talking about some tips and tricks to make climactic combat more interesting as well as reviewing our own flaws as a DM. My elite tactical raid team are as a 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 began a raid on the tower base of Cailen Cayden, a local of Hearthome who had been kidnapping members of the local populace and experimenting upon them in an effort to cure a strange sentient form of sickness known only as ‘The Rot’. Rescuing Nikita from his clutches, the group rallied together once more with the goal of rescuing the young lordling Symon, defeating Cailen and pushing him and his agents out of Hearthome.
As soon as she has been released, Nikita sets off on a war path. Completely disregarding her previous words of morality to Cailen, she storms through the facility, assaulting the kobold workers that held her. She leaves the party, newly rejoined by Teoku from the surface, to follow her into the depths. Nikita’s rage fully boils over as she incapacitates one kobold with a well-placed pistol shot to the knee, leaving him to bleed out on the floor. Tension flares with the members of the Cinder’s Guard raiding Cailen’s lair at her callous actions and the Vagabonds soon find themselves butting heads with members of the guard who believe their presence is doing more harm than good. Eventually, Keppler is able to talk the guards down but the uncomfortable tension still lingers. The guards evacuate a small group of the kobolds away from harm, leading Nikita and the party to deal with the set they have captured.
The Vagabonds quiz the kobolds (both alive and dead, thanks to Keppler’s spells). Keppler and Kassadin try their best to handle Nikita’s rage but the tabaxi clearly only has revenge on her mind. As the sole member of the party to speak draconic as well, the fate of the Kobolds rests in her hands. After a terrible attempt by Keppler to address the kobolds in their native tongue, Nikita finally steps up to her role, calming her anger enough to translate the kobolds replies and sift though the information herself. In the process, the Vagabonds learn that the kobolds are just wanting to help, taken in with Cailen’s ambition of curing the strange force of ‘The Rot’ and aren’t the malicious dragon worshippers like their earlier brethren. The Kobolds reveal that Cailen will most likely be securing the transport of his beloved ‘cure’, a prototype anti-rot sample that has bonded to a new host. The Kobolds give the party directions to where the main vault is. With information in hand, the Vagabonds are ready to leave the prisoner to his own devices. Despite Nikita’s wish to kill the terrible cretin, Kassadin pressures her to find out who the remaining kobold worships.
“I am familiar with the funeral rites of fifteen cultures, little one,” Nikita snarls, her draconic accent sharp, “pick your God.”
The Kobold squeaks a hasty reply.
“Baphomet?” Nikita tests.
As Kassadin reaches for his weapons, the Kobold jumps again, weeping. Kassadin’s anger fades, seeing the fear in the creature’s eyes.
“Fine,” Nikita groans, “Bahamut.”
Kassadin gives a slow nod. His feelings towards the platinum dragon are mixed to say the least, but a follower of his will can’t be all bad. He invites the kobold to surrender himself to the guards and get out, leaving Nikita fuming.
With their quick interrogation done, the Vagabonds quickly explore the chaos of the base, weaving through brief moments of combat between the clockwork suits, kobolds and the Cinder’s Guard before storming through to the lower areas where the vault is held. Descending a flight of stairs by riding the door down (Keppler and Kassadin are enjoying kicking down doors more than words can explain), the group are met with a spray of dead bodies and crushed corpses, leading around the corner. Erulissë darts into the shadows and the rest of the party advance.
Cailen is waiting for them. Two clockwork golems flank him on either side, one hoisting a large metal container up, whilst a third golem covers his rear, kneeling behind Cailen with an opened-up empty frame. Behind the tinkerer and his toys, there is the large vault built into the wall, metal cast against the cold stone. Symon is knelt before Cailen, a gun pressed to his head. Nikita growls. The little tinkerer had been busy.
The situation is clear now.
It’s a stand-off.
Cailen’s terms are simple: he wants a chance of safe passage for himself and his main experiment and in exchange, he will return Symon unharmed. Before the group have a chance to plan, Keppler takes a chance, reaching his arm forwards and casting hold person.
For a moment, Cailen’s form tightens.
But the spell fails to catch.
Cailen’s anger flares. His arm darts down from Symon’s head to his leg and he pulls the trigger.
A bang echoes out across the room and Symon wails in pain, collapsing onto the floor. His leg is bleeding badly, what remains of the joint peeling off onto the floor. The Vagabonds freeze as Cailen’s gun snaps up, returning to Symon’s head.
“I don’t think you understand the seriousness of this situation,” Cailen shouts, holding a firm expression of determination, “I will kill him. Do not take me for a fool.”
Keppler backs down and Kassadin advances.
“Take it easy,” Kassadin hisses, “don’t hurt him.”
“I don’t think you’re in a position to give commands,” Cailen snaps back, “I have the bargaining chip and you are going to do as I say.”
The group stare across, startled and even slightly afraid of the man who leers across from them, wielding strange foreign weaponry and a will as cold as iron.
Nikita, however, isn’t like everyone else.
She understands the situation perfectly.
Looking across the room, seeming Symon screaming and bleeding, she feels her heart crumbling into dust.
“Let us trade,” Nikita offers, “me for the boy.”
She throws her guns to the side, casts her knives away and holds up her arms.
“Don’t pull him into this,” she calls.
The air is tense as the group watch.
Then, he nods.
Nikita is allowed to approach.
“Only her,” Cailen cries, checking Kassadin’s advance with a pistol.
Cailen waits, patiently until Nikita is in front of him. A golem marks her travel, making sure Nikita won’t pull any last second acts of heroism.
Nikita doesn’t, of course.
There’s a time for last second acts of heroism and it’s not now: when a gun is pointed to Symon’s head. She follows all of Cailen’s instructions, crouching down in front of him, facing her friends and allowing herself to be shackled to prevent her escape. Only with Nikita trapped and in his possession does Cailen release Symon. A clockwork golem carries him across the room to Kassadin and from there, he’s shuffled back to Yuvari, who starts doing some basic first aid.
The change in circumstances has done little to check Cailen’s ambition and he once more demands safe passage for him and his research away from the tower.
“I’m glad you surrendered yourself,” he explains to Nikita, “I don’t think I could have shot my own son…”
The party stare.
Suddenly, everything falls into place.
“You…” Nikita breathes, “you’re why Delxipha never wanted Symon to come here…”
“He was your boy Cailen,” Kassadin shouts.
“How could you?” Keppler growls.
“Easily,” Cailen spits back, “with the appropriate motivation. This is more than him and it’s more than me. It’s more than all of you as well.”
He looks down to Nikita, sadness and anger in his eyes.
“I thought you’d understand…”
Symon is in shock. The blood loss coupled with the revelation of his father’s identity leaves him shaking on the floor, gasping for air. Yuvari quickly bundles him away and carries him off, hoping to bring him back to the surface for Louise to take a closer look at. With Symon out of danger, the Vagabonds can now focus entirely on Cailen, ignoring his pontificating about his grand purpose and his design to save the world and how they’re ruining everything. However, with a gun still to the back of Nikita’s head, the party are cautious, considering everything that might go wrong.
Erulissë is the only one willing to break the silence. Having broken from the group and followed in Nikita’s shadow to the edge of the room, she knows from experience that there are no stalemates in war. The more they wait, the more power Cailen gains. The only solution is to disrupt the power balance: to force a move.
Spiralling out of shadow and gliding across the floor through the clockwork golem’s legs, Erulissë springs up, slicing with a sharp cut along Cailen’s hand. Her strike is perfect, quick and precise, enough to drive the dagger in and cause Cailen to retreat. A normal man would have probably passed out from the pain.
Cailen, however, is no normal man.
Nikita feels a bristle of air across the back of her scalp. Her trained reflexes as a treasure hunter take over and she jerks to one side, rolling into a heap. As she moves, a loud bang echoes through the chamber. Then, rushing water. Nikita tries to steady herself, shimmying away from the ensuing brawl. Still, the sound of rushing water swirls around. She starts feeling lightheaded. It’s only then, as she flops onto her side, that she realises she can’t feel her other ear, the one filled with the sound of rushing water.
No, not water.
Nikita has survived an intended execution, but a stray bullet has done its work, clipping one of her large cat ears and turning into a blooded pulp.
Erulissë continues her assault, frantically stabbing into Cailen’s hand. With another successful slice, she rids him of his fist. Cailen breaks free, staggering backwards into the awaiting golem, slipping easily into the cockpit. As the machine purrs and whines around him, Cailen readies himself inside, wrapping his stump of a wrist in bandages.
“You would stand against my ambition?” he screams, almost weeping at the strain, “fine then. Then I must ensure my own security.”
He taps away at the controls, the suit closing up around him. As its eyes flash an arcane red, Cailen’s voice echoes out.
“Activate Cinders Protocol.”
The torches in the room flash out, their orange flame now burning a low red in the darkness. An echoing wail cries from the walls as a series of magical glyphs flare in a blue light. Cailen speaks once more, his voice bouncing off the walls as if carried by a thaumaturgy spell.
“Attention everyone: the Cinders protocol is now in effect. You have one minute to leave the base before it is consumed by the flames and I bring the entire base down on your heads.”
With Cailen’s message spoken, he and his suits begin to march forwards. One picks up the metal container and begins attempting to make its escape. The other begins beating on Erulissë, the small Drow’s offensive crumbling under a double pronged threat from Cailen’s suit and his new ally.
Realising that time is of the essence, the Vagabonds spring into action.
Keppler hangs back to guard the only exit, whilst Kassadin sprints forwards to cover Erulissë. His assault from Ward proves fruitless, however, his first strike bouncing off of Cailen’s armour and landing on the floor. No sooner has Kassadin lost his sword that a mage hand swoops up Ward and pulls him away across the battlefield. Cailen begins a mocking comment, only for Kassadin to pull the sword back to him with a mage hand of his own.
“Curious,” Cailen notes, before rallying for another attack.
Ouskarr races in with Teoku to support Kassadin, the two shielding Erulissë as she begins to release Nikita from her bondage.
“Took you long enough,” she groans.
Freshly freed from her bonds, Nikita immediately takes flight after being freed, dashing towards the clockwork golem escaping with the metal case. Of course, the golem has one last hurdle to defeat before it is able to escape: Keppler. With a powerful strike from his spiritual weapon, Eddard damages the golem’s leg, stalling him just in time for the twin rogues to swoop by and begin their attack. Nikita delivers another couple of slashes to the back of the golem’s leg. Erulissë follows behind her, rushing up and leaping onto the crate. Once she has found her perch, she flexes her palm, pulling down a curtain of darkness across the screen, clawing at the air. Cailen glimpses the veil descending and pushes his way through the crowd of warriors.
“No, stay away from it!”
The trio don’t listen and continue their assault, cracking their weapons down upon the clockwork golem’s hide and the metal case it follows. After a vicious crack of his spiritual weapon, the metal case finally dents inwards, cracking under the pressure. The rumble echoes out across the room. Then, a panicked scream,
“Cailen? Mister Cailen, what’s happening?”
Eddard pauses, slightly overwhelmed by the situation.
“There’s someone in there?” he breathes.
Nikita doesn’t care. She’s fuelled by anger and hatred for all Cailen stands for. She strikes out with her dragon tooth dagger, taken from Embrys, and begins prying out an opening.
“Mr Cailen!” a terrified voice cries as she moves. Cailen blunders forwards, smashing his way past Eddard and barrelling towards the box. Erulissë focuses, keeping up her darkness aura as Cailen strikes out, slamming and slashing into her. One lucky strike manages to make contact. One of Cailen’s metal fist clips Erulissë’s forehead and sends her spiralling to the floor. As Erulissë collapses to the stones, her consciousness fading as her head smacks on the stone. The darkness fizzles out in an instant, revealing Nikita perched on the box. Oil drips and dribbles over the entrance, splashed around and thrown into the box from the empty flash in Nikita’s hand. She throws it away, pulls out her flint and tinder and begins chipping away, making sparks. As one of the stray embers drifts into the open hole, Cailen screams out in panic. Nikita can only smile back. It’s only fair. Cailen took her ear. She will take his dreams. The fire takes instantly.
From the confines of his finest metal suit, the X-0, Cailen Cayden observes the actions of the Vagabonds, plotting his escape and the ultimate victory over ‘The Rot’. Artwork by Dion Russell, whose other works you can find here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.
Teoku makes short work of one of the clockwork golems, a wave of edlritch blasts and well-placed slashes bringing down the monster. Ouskarr and Kassadin, meanwhile, make to chase after Cailen. The vault door behind them starts to buckle. The pair turn, watching as the steel bends inwards and continues trembling as more weight is thrown against the door. With an echoing bang that shakes the foundations of the tower above, the vault door crumbles away, torn asunder to reveal a large hunched figure, covered in a dark black coat of ooze: tall, orc-like and fierce. Kassadin immediately stops his retreat, staring in horror as the beast lumbers out of the room.
“No,” he breathes, tensing his form into a defensive stance, “it’s…not possible…”
Ouskarr echoes Kassadin’s surprise.
“The monster? The one from the ship?”
“What’s it doing here?” Teoku snaps, rallying to the group’s defence, “unless…”
“Cailen must have been linked with William Karas,” Ouskarr voices, “we never did investigate how the rot got on the boat.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Kassadin snarls, pushing the pair back. His fiery strikes flash into existence as he kicks his heels against the floor, “it doesn’t matter…because this time, it dies.”
As if the flames of hell itself were licking at the tiefling’s heels, Kassadin strides forwards and brings down his blade onto the monster. As Ward collides with the Rot, Kassadin’s fire flares outward, catching on the Rot like fresh kindling.
“But…but fire doesn’t work on it…” Teoku calls out against the flurry of flames, “right?”
“Perhaps we just didn’t have enough,” Ouskarr muses as he watches Kassadin slice out again, spitting him on with more commands. Kassadin strikes heavy against the sludge. Once more, the fire catches, engulfing the creature entirely. A critical hit. With a gargled wail, the Rot creature falls. Kassadin lets out a roar of triumph as he forces Ward through the creature’s chest, before retreating back to his comrades.
“That,” Kass admits, “felt good. Don’t know why Cailen was so afraid of…”
“K-Kassadin?” Ouskarr cuts in, gesturing over Kassadin’s shoulder. Kassadin shivers, tending as he hears the familiar dripping from the Rot monster’s previous form.
“Please no,” he begs.
His prayers fall on death ears. The shattered corpse rises once more. Through the gaping cut on it’s chest, rot flows forth like puss from a wound. It pushes out against the confines of it’s prison, the body giving way to the Rot’s force. The limbs begin to snap, forcing the body to enlarge. The rot tears through the carcass, forming new deformed limbs, dripping trails of it’s rotten curse over the ground as it approaches. The strain queens the cut on it’s torso, revealing a black gem pulsating in the streams of black liquid flowing about the monster’s innards. It lifts it’s head to Kassadin, cackles and lunges.
Ouskarr, with his protective fighting style, sheltering Kass from the full brunt of many an attack. This only serves to make him a target for the Rot though. In two swift strikes, Ouskarr is pummeled back, barely standing and bleeding heavily from a large gash on his head and his mouth. Seeing his boyfriend injured, Teoku howls out in anger, launching a flurry of eldritch blast at the creature. The attack does enough damage to buy Kassadin a chance to escape, shouldering Ouskarr onwards towards the chaos happening in the entrance hall.
Cailen howls in despair as the contents of the metal box burst into flames. Nikita can only grin as she takes in his sight, his wails unheard by the sloshing of blood in her one severed ear. As long as he’s in pain, she’s getting some small piece of payback.
Then, the box beneath her shakes.
Nikita is quick enough to dodge to one side, something Eddard and Cailen are incapable of. They try to guard themselves but as the metal container shatters outwards, blown completely away the frame. Within the remains of the box, a young woman stands. Her hair is a white, her hair pale and her body clearly frail with a gaunt frame. Clearly malnourished, the woman struggles forward, coughing, before collapsing to the floor. As the dust settles, she glances up, her eyes fixated on Erulissë’s prone form. Unable to dodge the explosion of metal, Erulissë is showered in rubble, a noticable cut on her forehead. The woman from the box convulses, spewing white sludge onto the ground. She falls still. The white sludge continues. Eddard recovers enough from the explosion to glimpse the white sludge sliding around the ground and slipping its way into the cut in Erulissë’s head. He charges forwards, ready with a healing spell and his mace aloft, only to find that the cut and the white sludge are gone. Erulissë is stable, sleeping.
From behind the cleric, Cailen’s golem staggers forwards, inspecting the corpse of his last test subject, before turning to look at Erulissë’s form upon the ground.
“My cure,” he mutters.
Keppler whirls to face him, ready to engage and shelter his ally when Kassadin and Teoku come rushing through, helping hold up an exhausted Ouskarr.
“Kepp, we need to go,” Kassadin shouts, “that thing just got bigger and nastier.”
Keppler turns, just in time to glimpse the rot infected creature tearing apart another of Cailen’s golems with its long clawed hands. He nods. Cailen watches them gather, staring in disbelief.
“Where are you going?”
“Far away from that,” Kassadin snaps back, “you know, I think since this is your responsibility, you should deal with this and you should let us go.”
“Let you go? Not your responsibility?”
From inside his suit, Cailen can barely contain his rage.
“You,” he snaps, “are the reason I’m doing this. Because you would all ignore the end and let it rush to meet us with no hesitation. You’d walk away from this responsibility. Unlike me, who rushes to meet it. You’re not special, boy, you’re not exempt from this.”
“You’re right. I’m not some chosen one.”
He helps Erulissë to her feet as Keppler casts another healing spell.
“So I don’t need to save the day right now,” Kassadin snaps, “that’s on you.”
Cailen opens his mouth to complain, only to suddenly lurch in his suit. Nikita races round, her rope wrapping around the suit’s legs and toppling Cailen with a sharp pull. Bound and trapped, Cailen can only scream in anger as his suit defies him, unable to move in its current state.
“And that,” Nikita replies, “is on me.”
Cailen screams in anger, beating his controls but the damage is done now. The rot monster lingers just out of sight behind a haze of smoke and dust and none of the Vagabonds are willing to die for a disaster that should have never been on Dorvine in the first place. They leave, racing out the tunnel where they came, leaving Cailen to his death. In spite, the mechanist advances the countdown, cutting it in half from thirty seconds to fifteen, in order to ensure the Vagabonds and the Rot monster burn with him.
The Vagabonds run full pelt back through the base, barrelling their way through doors and back up towards the steps. As they race on towards the stairs, the very air hissing as blazing red glyphs begin to light the way, Kassadin makes a terrible realisation: they aren’t going to make it. It is too far to travel and the party is too worn out to make the dash. Teoku and Ouskarr are stumbling along and even with Nikita’s expert decision making skills, Keppler and Erulissë are likewise worn out, overwhelmed by the chaos of the situation. Making it to the top of the stairs, Kassadin glances up at the ascent wondering if they can even make it to the top.
Standing there, silhouetted against the light, is Yuvari. She flexes back a hand, tossing a scroll down to the group and casting a healing word on Ouskarr to bring him back up to full health. As the scroll lands, the group look at it. A Haste spell.
Ouskarr reads the scroll, allowing the spell to flow through him and he charges on, leading Teoku to safety. Erulissë, Nikita and Yuvari quickly follow after, using their natural agility as rogues to their advantage, mounting both staircases up to the surface. Kassadin soldiers on, dashing as quick as he can. Finally, he reaches the end of the tower’s staircase, mere inches from the exit, when he hears the hiss of flame behind him. A hand finds his back and pushes forwards. Kassadin falls stumbling through the door, looking back just in time to see Eddard’s smiling face before the explosion of fire overtakes him and the ground floor of Cailen’s home.
The explosion rocks the foundation. Ouskarr, Teoku, Nikita and Yuvari manage to escape unscathed, whilst Erulissë is blasted out of a window and sent flying straight into a nearby tree, cracking her skull on the bark and falling unconscious once more. Kassadin rises just in time to see Cailen’s tower beginning to crumble, slowly tumbling down in its own footprint. He runs, racing through the open door. Close by, he finds Eddard lying on the floor, his hand still outstretched pushing Kassadin away. He is heavily burned and a large piece of wood is sticking out of his back. Kassadin has little time to consider all this though. All that matters is getting Eddard out. He pulls Eddard along onto his shoulder and leaps for the window, just as the tower fully begins falling in on itself. For a moment, Kassadin fears this is the end for him as well. Then, his outstretched hands finds an awaiting paw.
She pulls Eddard and Kassadin to freedom in one swift motion as the tower tumbles down, crushing any remnants of Cailen’s experiments. As Yuvari circles the group, patching up any loose injuries, Kassadin rises and taps Ward with his hand.
“One hostile life sign still present.”
Kassadin freezes. His blood runs cold.
“It’s still alive down there…the Rot?”
Kassadin swears. General Huxx soon mounts the ruined mound, commanding his soldiers to spread out and lay claim to the surrounding area. Louise soon follows, patching up Eddard’s wounds. The wooden beam broke the skin close to the shoulder blade and the spine but he should recover fine, despite his current inebriated state when Louise finally pulls him round. Kassadin is still on edge, but he realises there’s nothing the party can really do as they are, so he focuses on Yuvari.
The cleric is currently tending to Erulissë’s injuries, as well as Nikita’s ear. Kassadin thanks her for saving them the only way he can think to: kissing her on the forehead. Yuvari, not quite sure how to accept such gratitude, slaps him away with a healing spell and focuses on getting everyone back to the temple to rest. As Huxx’s soldiers surround the shattered remains of the tower, the only thought in Kassadin’s mind is on the one remaining blip Ward detected, before it suddenly flashed out of his range.
Uneasy, but victorious, the Vagabonds begin the trek back to the Church of Kelemvor.
And thus concludes the twenty first session of the Dorvine campaign. For a session that was mostly combat and dramatic set-pieces, I feel this was a session that went over really well. All the players got involved and managed to have a good moment or two and were able to really flex their individual abilities in the combat segments. If anything, now that the Hearthome arc can start drawing to a close, I’m going to be looking forward to developing the party more as individuals and catering to their unique skills and tastes. However, that is for another time. For now, the first piece of advice I have is:
Stylistic changes to the rules of engagement can drastically improve your climatic combats.
The fight against Cailen was one I had been building to for sometime and was the culmination of a few dangling plot-lines. For one, it was a resolution to the clockwork kidnappings but also a return for the Rot from the first two sessions to the main story. If the combat had been simply the clockwork golems versus the party, it might have had the same effect as any battle but by including a few variations, I was able to produce a memorable experience for the players for the players.
Artificial restrictions, such as modifiers to quests or time critical situations, are great to use in a story or campaign. Saving the world in twenty four hours sounds so much more dramatic than just saving the world and is bound to get so much more interest from the other players. In combat, a deadline such as this is slightly harder to do given that the average length of a turn is six seconds, considering fights in the real world don’t last longer than a few moments without artificial breaks. When putting time limits into a battle, a minute equals ten turns and presents a sizeable obstacle for the players to overcome and keep in mind, so long as you present enough to keep them engaged with. Considering the players not only had to beat the encounter but also escape, the time limit added tension to proceedings and helped make the players feel interested in what was going to happen next.
In addition to artificial deadlines and restrictions such as time limits to make combat interesting, it’s also crucial to consider ways to ramp up the tension and threat. An easy way to do this is including traps or finding ways to change the terms of an encounter, be it changing location or changing the combatants involved. Twice now in my campaigns, I’ve dabbled in using multiple high level monsters in a combat encounter with the understanding that the difficulty would even out considering the monstrous factions were also on opposing sides. When the Rot monster emerged from the vault, the players weren’t aware that the golems would fight against it immediately, but even when it was clear they weren’t completely outnumbered, the terror and chaotic nature of the encounter still remained.
Bottom line when designing encounters: change, change is good. The more a situation evolves and spirals into something new, the more your players will have to think and plot their way out of harm.
Don’t be afraid to get lethal in your campaigns, players will notice if you take it too easy on them.
Three player characters came close to death in this session. Nikita almost died automatically but settled for a lost ear, due to the nature of the hostage situation with Cailen (if this ends up happening again, I might need to do a whole blog on hostages in RPGs, it’s a really interesting thing to look at). Erulissë was bleeding out on the floor before a pre-established element of plot saved her, allowing me to give Aimee something more central to the plot.
And then there was Doctor Eddard Von Keppler.
When escaping from the flaming blast of the tower, Jacob rolled a one on his dexterity saving throw. The situation was clear: Keppler should have died. Sadly, as much as I love playing this game, I consider it as a device for stories first and games second. The idea of character death has always been off with me, especially the notion of killing a character when their arc is not complete. Aborting a narrative arc by killing a character can feel horrible, in stories but it’s rare in our roles as a DM that we will ever have a player who will be able to fall victim to ‘a perfect death’: fulfilling their character arc and dying as a culmination of their development. Despite my protestations, D&D is also a game, not just a story telling device.
Jacob and I talked after the session and he stated a thought that had been lingering in the back of my mind: that I had Keppler dead to rights and I flinched when the moment came, choosing to instead give him a form of permanent injury as a scar to make it feel important. I could (and did) make a lot of excuses for this. It wasn’t exactly the right time for Keppler to die and I hated the idea that Jacob would have so little narrative control over his own character’s death. However, that is exactly the way things are sometimes. Death saving throws are the literal proof that a single dice roll can make all the difference. On top of all that, there’s the single immutable fact that a game you can’t lose really isn’t worth playing.
Since my talk with Jacob, I feel I’ve managed to embrace my harsher side as a DM (there’s a story for another campaign that I might write down at some point if I ever get around to writing about my time running Storm King’s Thunder) but the lesson for this section is the gist of what I learned talking to Jacob that night. It’s okay to kill off characters, even if it might be to the detriment of the story. As heartbreaking as character death is, it’s certainly more memorable and interesting than a cop-out. You have to be careful killing characters, but never flinch from it if necessary.
Observe your own flaws, but don’t dwell. Improvement comes through error.
For me, Keppler’s missed death was a new flaw I had to address as a DM. I had never considered myself to be adverse to player death before (in my previous campaigns, I’ve racked up quite a few kill counts), but the explosion with Keppler was a sign that I needed to learn to stand my ground and be more firm in the future, something I intend to do. It’s good to notice where your work needs improving, so long as you don’t dwell or sulk on it and work instead to improve. I thoroughly believe since then I have improved to a significant degree as a DM in my approach to player character death and I hope to continue developing all my other skills as a Dungeon Master as well as I continue this blog. That, I’ve realised, is part of the reason I’m writing this. As much as I want to entertain you, the reader, it’s nice to vent my thoughts and come to conclusions about my style of play that I might have never have considered otherwise.
That’s going to be all we have time for this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join us next time as the party deal with the aftermath of Cailen’s defeat and we talk about letting your characters relax, personal quests and the dreaded enemy of many a DM: the calendar.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.