This is the continuing saga/advice/mindpeek of my current campaign. I hope you find some use for it if you are looking into trying a low-prep/improv DM style. This is just MY WAY and its not the One True Way.
Had a long train ride to think about the day. I had deliberately run through a bunch of scenarios in my mind, especially the scene with the War God appearing to Barhador, the War Cleric. It needed to be pitch-perfect. It was going to set the tone of the whole day. So I had that down pretty cold by that point. I’d had about 2 weeks to prepare, and beyond my setting notes and the maps I had drawn, I had no other preparation done. Except the one I was doing right now, in my head.
You see, I had the opening scene set at the Baron’s Conclave – an annual meeting to discuss political matters, and, well, I sucked at political matters.
Every DM has a host of weakness and political roleplay was a glaring one for me. I needed to talk trade, internal politics, and other government-type matters. I didn’t know boo about any of that stuff beyond a superficial level. Been in plenty of business meetings, but I didn’t have the lingo, the pattern down, to make it seem convincing. I knew that much. But I would have to do something. I was sweating. I decided I was going to fall back on the Can’t Roleplay’ers coup de grace – the “Description Conversation”. This is where you simply talk about what the NPCs are chatting about, instead of actually doing the dialogue. It feels cheap, and I hate it, but I’m no actor, and sometimes things are just too damn hard. I muddled through. But that comes a bit later.
Right now, I’m still visualizing. I’m picturing the village where the council is being held. A clifftop habitation with the tongue-twisting name of Kenkennerinken (I think of it as a strange orgy between loving cousins – Ken Kenner in Ken – and it keeps the pronunciation straight in my head :P).
I saw the wooden buildings, and the many carved art pieces that lined the switchback up to the top of the hill and the crowds and the noise that would be there to greet them.
I thought about the Council Building itself – a large, rambling edifice, with wings and basements, not unlike the great old taverns of fantasy novels. I considered the people that would have accompanied the Barons – all the entourage and servants.
I ran a few scenarios through my head of the Council Meeting itself. How was I going to do it? It circled and circled. This thorny problem.
Greeted the boys, handshakes all around and bright smiles. Everyone was up, and we chatted and smoked, had some tea and talked about the premise again. I fielded a few questions, but for the most part, pre-game is social. To get that anticipation flowing and get to know each other a bit more. I learned a few things that would help me in-game – the level of interaction they would probably want from me (details for the cleric, politics from the fighter and a scary amount of nothing from the sorcerer – he was a slippery one, as you’ll come to see), and tiny tidbits of backstory that they were willing to reveal to one another. I had received their full backstories over a private FB group that we set up (pretty handy, that) and based all my Setup Notes on their information, weaving it into what I already knew and didn’t yet know about the Moon Elves in this place.
We planned on a 6-hour session, barring pre and post-game festivities.
I wrote down all their pertinents – stats, combat numbers, and skills. Clipped it to my shield (never called it a screen) and got my two pages of notes out (they were in a notebook, I’ve typed them out for these posts). Got out a full page of NPC names – first and last, but that’s it, and clipped that to my shield. Current dice loadout in place.
Expectant eyes and open faces.
“The year is 506 in the Age of the Emperor. We are in the Great Forest on the continent of Gemseed, on the planet Drexlor. 40,000 years of history pre-date this moment, and your people have a long and storied past that stretches just over half of that time. The rest, lost to the Age of Mist. The date is the 21st of Swords, in the Season of Burning, and today is the solstice. The Conclave of Barons meets today in the village of Kenkennerinken, and you all have your reasons for being there in one capacity or another.”
Oh. I should mention. The Fighter couldn’t attend this session.
I ran with it. I think it worked out better in the long run, but you can judge for yourself.
“Barhador you are serving drinks to the Council members already arrived and Tellurian is among them, in conversation with the adviser to Baron Lake.”
They took it from there. They interacted a bit, and I started the Council Meeting. I did my Description Conversation thing and it was shit, but it got the point across, and keeping it quick and to the point helped a lot. During a break in the meeting the Party separates. I can hear you groaning. But its cool. I got this.
Barhador (I should mention his name is pronounced Bar-slah-door at this point, I guess. Crazy elves.) goes a’wandering. Tellurian stays to mingle.
I introduce Barhador to a few of the NPCs on my Setup Notes. The lady miner, Amas, is the only one who sticks. She and Barhador get a banter going, and they agree to meet up for drinks later, purely platonic at this point, and he wanders off to see what else is going on in the town.
I switch back to Tellurian and throw him some rumors that I make up on the spot. One about the trade negotiations being sabotaged by Baron River, who’s lucrative control of the trade to Reef Clan (who trades externally with the seaports of the rest of the Realms) has made her more and more power-hungry. I also talked about a sickness in Reef Clan’s territory. I pulled that straight from my random encounter chart. How they might close their Forest Gate – something else I made up when I did the map. It was a lone archway between Hill and Reef Clan’s territory. A symbol of good relations means the gate is “Open” and when its “Closed” there would be Reef Clan soldiers there to prevent anyone entering. The closing of the Gate was to prevent spread of the contagion. I also decided the first rumor was bullshit, but the second one was true. He asks questions and his eagerness gets him permission to visit the soon-to-be-quarantined area to see if he can help.
First plot hook just wrote itself. Rings the bell
Barhador comes back and starts to talk to his mother, who is present as an Adviser to Baron Hill, when I felt the energy start to drain out of the room. The Council Meeting was going to start back up, and I had been pretty dull at this point. I didn’t feel like I had made a good impression on these new players, and I recognized this moment. Oh yes, I did. The energy was draining like light from a sunset room. I had to do something. And fast.
The Raymond Chandler Method
Raymond Chandler invented the noir detective story. The hard-boiled, hard-nosed, hard drinking tough guy who always falls for the wrong kind of dame. You know the stereotype. This mad genius invented it. His books are poetry. I recommend them. The reason I bring him up is that I was reading something he said about the craft of writing itself. He said that he got writer’s block from time to time (sound familiar, DMs?) and when he did, he always did the same thing to break the block. He “had a man come through the door with a gun.”
A man comes through the door with a gun.
Like a lightning bolt through my mind. The pure, simple genius of it.
This was years ago and in my next session as a young DM, I felt the energy start to go. I had been DMing long enough at that point to detect its approach and I feared it. It had killed so many of my sessions. Robbed it of impact and remembrance.
Then I remembered Chandler.
I didn’t literally have a man come through the door with a gun. An arquebus would have been funny, though.
I created a moment of action that could not be ignored. Something that the characters wouldn’t talk about, or debate, but something that would immediately act upon. This jacked up the intensity and the energy in the room spiked. I can’t remember the exact thing I did, but it would have been something grand – like a huge battle erupting, or a spaceship crashing, or the sun going black. Something way over the top when something smaller would have sufficed, but I was young 🙂 Go big, yeah? 🙂
So I have been using that method for a long time, learning to temper it, learning what was appropriate to get the party moving, without also doing something so huge and grandiose that it would overshadow everything else.
In this present case, I chose a battle.
The Party is in the Council Meeting when the battlehorns on the watchtowers facing the monster-riddled Emerald Hills sounds three times – an emergency signal that calls all able fighters to the battlefield regardless of what they are doing now.
They ran for the watchtowers. Barhador’s mom included – she is a 3rd level Ranger and commanded a small platoon of skirmishers.
THE CALL TO FAITH
This was what I had been waiting for. The scene with the God in the field of victory and the look he will give Barhador. I didn’t know where it would come. I didn’t have any fights planned out. I thought maybe it would be in a dream? But the Raymond Chandler Moment had come and tossed me the perfect stage.
Gibberlings were attacking the forest in force, and during the daylight – very peculiar indeed.
I let the Party do a bit of combat, nothing strenuous, and the Elves won handily in the background. The battle didn’t matter. The aftermath did.
I took at deep breath and looked at Barhador.
“The gibberling drops to the ground, its arm severed, blood fountaining and it kicks its feet in its death throes. You look around the field of battle and there are no more enemy left standing. Tellurian and your Mother are both safe and unwounded. As you take a moment to catch your breath you notice a figure far out in the killing ground.”
PC looking intensifies
“A man, clad in red scale mail, with black gauntlets, is hunched over the dead, and is pulling out the sweetbreads and stuffing them into his mouth. He chews for a minute and then raises his head. His face is scarred and broken. His eyes are a blazing blue. He stares right at you, not moving for a few moments, and your eyes dart to the golden medallion around his neck. It is the Fist and Hammer of Nathrak, the Warmonger, the Battlelord, and you catch his eye again and he nods at you”
I played this all out at the table. Using pauses and body movements to bring the moment to life.
The player playing Barhador was overawed. His eyes were shining and he immediately dropped to his knees and praised the Bloody One with all his fealty and humility, promising him many lives once he was sanctioned by his Clan to wear the Scout’s badge. When he looked up, of course, the Avatar was gone, but on his chest was a burn, a deep scarification of the symbol of the God of War – a fist clutching a hammer (I had decided to throw that in at the last second. I’m glad I did, it drove a lot of story ahead of it).
Tellurian was not forgotten in all of this. We had talked a lot about how this guy was a real mystic. A sorcerer, sure, by someone who regularly pierced the veil with psychedelics, and I felt like this guy slipped in and out of Spirit Vision all the time, and it wasn’t anything mechanical, just when I felt like it was warranted. This was one of those times. I described the Avatar to Tellurian as a murder of crows gollicking on a few corpses (gollicking is a word I’m pretty sure I made up years and years ago – to me its when birds get together and are hopping around and being really vocal). Then the murder took wing and became this dark tornado, made up of Unlight, like some anti-light substance, which then disappeared.
He stroked his chin, Spock-like, and muttered, “Interesting”
After the battle I started rolling random encounters on my chart.
Number 1 came up on my chart – “Tesh” graffiti on some buildings – 3 people have succumbed.”
I realize I’ll have to explain this to you. China Mieville is my favorite author. His praises cannot be sung too loudly, and I haven’t the time anyway. In his book, “Iron Council” there is a war on between two cities. One is called New Crobuzon and its where this particular arc of narrative occurs. The enemy city is called Tesh. There is a bit of worldbuilding lore in an earlier book that the Ambassador from Tesh lives in New Crobuzon, by tradition, as a vagabond. Well this Ambassador appears in the book as a crazy homeless guy who likes to draw spirals on walls – chalk, paint, blood, feces, whatever. Stick with me for a minute. By drawing all these spirals he’s creating an arcane focus for some seriously heavy magic. Apparitions start appearing in the city. Really fucking strange haunts, like a rocking chair hovering in mid-air and spinning slowly on all 3 axes. Or a slowly rotting piece of fruit. Whomever looks at these weird manifestations has crazy shit happen to them – far worse than dying or slipping into an irreversible coma, as some do.
That long explanation is needed to explain why this encounter was put down as a lark, and then became the focus of everything. In the book, the Ambassador explains that he is calling the Phasma Urbomach (also called the murderspirit and citykiller), a powerful entity which would destroy the entire city. One of the “heroes” is a monk who can trade bits of himself for knowledge, and he tells the party that the Phasma Urbomach, in fact, had already destroyed the city in the future, and the manifestations were echoes backwards through time, of the future destruction.
So I dropped this little bit of craziness into my story. I told them that someone had been found in a coma on the streets, and that weird graffiti was seen on some buildings.
The Party split again. Barhador, still reeling from his meeting with the War Avatar, and this new burn on his body, raced to find his Uncle, the leader of the Eglan sect and a cleric of Nathrak himself, to find out what this all meant.
Tellurian decided to go try and find one of these pieces of graffiti.
Barhador has some great roleplaying with his Uncle. Talking about the philosophy of war, the nature of defeat, the power of pride and a host of other amazing things that I, frankly, wish I could have recorded. There was some banter between him and his mother, and some more angry words with his father (whom he saw at the Gibberling battle, but did not acknowledge). It was quite moving. The player was playing this character as a teenager struggling with his identity, and desperately wanting to find a way to have meaning in his life, while struggling with not wanting to let down his family, and being utterly horrified at the rejection from his father. It was damn fine roleplaying and storytelling and I was even more happy I had stumbled into this amazing group of people.
Tellurian, however, had quite a different afternoon.
He found one of the graffito on the side of a random building. I had nothing prepared, and I was totally caught off-guard by this bold approach. I ran with it.
“You ostensibly see a painted sigil on the building, but your Spirit Vision drops over your eyes almost immediately and this thing appears 4 times larger than it does in the physical realm, and its a swirling knot of black tentacles, dripping smoke and swirling through dimensions that you cannot point to. It feels like acid in your mind and your psychic defenses slam down almost immediately.”
“But not quickly enough. Roll me an Intelligence Save.”
This could have been bad. I set the DC at 23. Dude rolls a 23. I knock his ass into unconsciousness and give him some scary dreams.
He comes to as Barhador finds him. Tellurian spills the beans and they race off to warn the authorities, and on the way Tellurian runs into an old Cave Clan elf that he knows and he questions him about this sigil that he saw. After a lot of back-and-forth where each Cave Clan Elf tried to extract as much info as possible from the other, while trying to reveal as little as possible (crazy elves), Tellurian learns that this sigil looks a lot like a War Sigil from the end of the Chaos Wars. One called a “War Spear” and that if the graffiti was appearing, then the weapon had already been deployed in the future, and its effects were echoing back through time. He also learned that there was a chance that it wasn’t a War Sigil at all, but something else entirely, as some of the older magicks have had their specifics lost in time.
He forgot to mention this last part to anyone. Everyone forgot except me. I kept it in my back pocket. For a rainy day.
THE FECAL MEETS THE FAN
While the Party is trying to find someone to warn, more people succumb to the graffiti and fall into comas. Barhador’s Uncle, freaked out by his nephew’s close encounter with the Gods (and subsequent branding) that he’s come looking for him with some soldiers to make sure his nephew is ok, as he was highly agitated, and the soldiers were there to protect the boy from himself.
Guess you can guess how this was perceived. Barhador immediately thought his Uncle had betrayed him and this was reinforced when he saw his mother AND father approaching him together (this never happened, they had a marriage of convenience only).
The Party rabbited.
They were in some thick woods, trying to get off the hill where the village was, when there was a hue and cry and a soldier came running towards them. The soldier had orders to just get Barhador to stop and come back. No one understood why he ran away.
Tellurian overreached and ended up killing the soldier with magic. Shocking Grasp maybe. Can’t remember. But the deed was done and they bolted again. Barhador knew of a cave that they could maybe hide in for a while. Tellurian’s home was on the way, a cabin far from the village, near the cliff, and they stopped their first to pick up some supplies. There was a lot of banter back and forth about what the fuck was going on and they were agitated and shaken. They made it to the cave. For those playing along, it is Rose Fox cave, on Weeping Hill, to the West of Kenkennerinken.
Just as night falls they reach the cave. Tellurian senses through Spirit Vision that there is a Carrion Crawler deep beneath them, and a nest of some other creature, Grell perhaps. They decide to stay in the mouth only and keep a watchful eye both outwards and behind them, down in the cavern.
END OF SESSION 1
We wrapped and everyone took a breath. Praises all around. They loved it. Were intrigued. Baffled. Worried. All the good adjectives you want in your players. I was also effusive in my praise. They roleplayed me under the table. I didn’t feel like I could keep up at all. Tellurian especially, was playing this very circular-speaking mystic guy. Never gave a straight answer. Always answered in riddles and used a cool accent. I felt like a bumbling fool and I was embarrassed. Yes, I hadn’t played for a few years and I was rusty, but I felt really low. I said so, and they said my roleplaying was great. But we know people won’t criticize us to our faces, usually, so I took that with a grain of pocket sand and resolved to lift my game.
We dissected what happened and I let them happily blue-sky. I answered no direct questions about the story or gave anything away. I let them ramble and I listened. They gave me a few ideas and some connections I hadn’t considered. I love that part of the post-game. When the party writes your damn plot for you. Its incredible how often it happens. Simple misunderstandings and assumptions drive so much of my games. So much of the real world, yeah?
Here is the plot map that I wrote after the session. You’ll see a few minor things that I didn’t mention but they’ll probably come up in the next post.