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.
I went into this campaign after two weeks of insanity in my personal life, and I had prepared nothing beyond the Encounter Chart in this post. Turned out that I didn’t really need that chart, but that will come later.
I felt really nervous. Low prep is fine, but no-prep is inexcusible. I have a responsibility to bring my best to my players, as they are investing their time and trust in me. I felt bad but life sometimes has its own agenda, and that’s my only excuse.
The Tower Tour
We left the party along the top of the Great Forest, having pushed West for a few days after seeing a military patrol from Rega in the distance. They had just discovered Buckner’s Cave, a well-known Moon Elf safe-haven, often used by scouting parties as a permanent campground. They rested and took stock of their situation.
Oh. Our fighter, Lindale, didn’t show up again. That threw me. The story needed him, but I had to roll with it. My house rule is that if a player doesn’t show up then the rest of the party doesn’t remember the character ever existed, and when the player returns, the missing time is never mentioned. Its just easier than trying some silly retcon or explanation. For me anyway.
Barhador, the War Cleric and Tellurian, the Chaos sorcerer decided they had to investigate the chain of watchtowers that their people maintained, to see if there were any survivors of the catastrophic, fiery destruction of their homeland. They had been on the road for 10 days already, coming from the South to the North part of the Great Forest, and had a two day hike to reach Flycatcher Tower.
They met no other people or creatures on their travels and arrived at the tower at sundown. The tower was slagged. The 4th floor had melted and collapsed in upon itself. The entire tower was bubbled and melted and canting at a 20-degree angle There were the burnt and crispy corpses of a number of their people scattered on the grounds around the tower, and a lantern light was showing through the now-open ground floor door.
The party were very cautious. Paranoid, even. They had felt the divine touch of a god’s meddling and now were loathe to trust any of their natural instincts. Barhador whistled a scout’s signal, used by the clans, to indicate a friendly scout returning.
A badly wounded Moon elf appeared in the doorway with a torch. His arm in a bloody sling, his face burned and ruined. He returned the whistle. Barhador recognized the elf as a sargeant in Hill Clan, a proud warrior named Doodad Finch. The party approached and Doodad didn’t recognize Barhador, only seeing him as one of the many young scouts that serve the clans. Doodad was overcome with relief and questions. How did they survive? Were there any others? He had many wounded inside, could he help?
I quickly decided a scouting party had returned from a patrol in the Hills, a standard three-week rotation, and had come back to wait for their relief when the forest was nuked with the divine Meteor Storm. Half these elves would be dead, and the rest mortally wounded. Doodad was also quite wounded, unable to fight, but had done what he could to minister to his troops.
Barhador went into the tower, signalling to Tellurian that it was safe. He quickly saw the state of the tower was a disaster. Part of the tower’s 4th floor had collapsed through all the floors and rubble was a hazard. The cooked corpses of the military troop were strewn about and 5 Moon elves were moaning in pain or raving, all had 3rd degree burns and their weapons and armor melted and fused into their bodies. Quite gruesome.
Barhador helped 4 of them pass the wheel with honor, placing an arrow in each of their hands before giving them a mercy stroke.
Barhador determined that one of the wounded could possibly be saved, and prayed to Nathrak to heal his wounds. The elf was a lieutenant, named Jenks Miloy, and he didn’t recognize Barhador either. He was incredibly thankful and immediately started questioning him about their whereabouts, their memories of the catastrophe and so forth.
Barhador introduced the term, “The Cleansing” to describe the catastrophe, which was pretty cool.
They traded info, while Tellurian entered the tower and went to investigate the other floors. I had nothing planned for any of the other floors at all. Like I said, I was not a good DM this week. I described some more bodies and burnt furniture and the general meltiness of the brickwork. I had to throw Tellurian a bone. So I pulled one of the many recurring hooks that I had set up around him.
This is key for a low-prep DM. You need to have things in place that you can reach for when you are improvising. You cannot build anything without having tools.
DOGS AND CHOCOLATE DON’T MIX
I had the little-girl poltergeist that had been attached to him since the first session appear out of the wall and giggle and wave at him. I suddenly had a flash of insight and added a small ghost dog at her feet. I then looked right at Tellurian and said that he recognized this dog. He remembered one from his youth. I said it was a small terrier. He smiled. I then asked him what it’s name was. He thought for a minute and then said, “Raphael”. I said “Raphy barks happily and runs over to you, playing and bouncing around your feet, yapping happily in the spirit realm. Only Tellurian could see or hear him. The little girl then vanished.
I needed to escalate this. So I had Raphael run over to a section of rubble and begin barking and looking back at Tellurian. When the sorcerer investigated he found a sigil written in the ash, as if drawn with a finger. Raphael yelped as if hurt and took off for the stairs at full speed, clearly terrified. Tellurian cursed. I escalated again.
I said that he felt something was approaching from the spirit realm. I was coming fast and he felt that it would arrive on the ground floor. He bolted for the stairs, calling out for Barhador, his spirit dog a floor ahead of him and still moving.
Barhador was alone. Jenks and Doodad had gone out to check the perimeter of the tower. No monsters had found them yet, but that certainly couldn’t last, now that there were no regular elf patrols to keep them in check. When he questioned Tellurian’s obvious alarm, the sorcerer just said, “RUN!”
They bolted together just as Jenks and Doodad were returning to the tower entrance. Barhador grabbed the wounded Doodad and dragged him along at speed.
FINGER LICKIN GOOD
I knew that anything Jester related would be something from a demi-plane I had invented years ago. I settled for a Deadly Chocolate Pudding. A giant amorphous blob that smelled delicious and rotten at the same time. So I escalated again.
The strong smell of rich, dark chocolate burst out of the tower, mixed with strawberry, and vanilla, and vomit, and shit, and mango, and rotting corpses, and blueberry. Then the Pudding manifested and burst through the doorway, the size of a large house.
The party kept running. At speed. The Pudding pursued, but at a much slower speed, and they soon outran it, running for hours through the night.
I couldn’t just let it end at that. Not a chance. This was not just a monster encounter, no. I decided this was psychological warfare from Scissorgrin, the Jester. If you’ll remember, I said that he was going to screw with the party for the rest of the campaign, but they would never again meet him in the flesh. This was the opening salvo of that plan. I decided it was going to pursue them until it caught them, and then I would reveal the trickery of the situation.
At midnight, after running for 4 hours, they were forced to stop. Doodad was going to die, such as were the extent of his injuries, and Barhador didn’t have the capacity to heal him, having used all his powers on restoring Jenks to health.
The party instantly exploded into debate as Doodad begged for them to give him a mercy stroke and flee. It was the nature of their culture to never leave a wounded ally for an enemy to exploit, and so killing a wounded ally was seen as honorable and Doodad demanded this respect.
Barhador didn’t want to do it and Jenks roared at him for insubordination. Tellurian and Barhador, in one of those great moments of roleplaying, suddenly started debating what was really going on and what pursued them, and why. I wish I could recreate it here, but the jist of it was that Tellurian thought that everything that was occuring, from Day One, was the direct work/influence of Golovkin, the god of insanity. Barhador, having shed himself of the mad Hands and defacing the divine burnmark on his chest, clung stubbornly to his faith in Nathrak, god of War. His belief suddenly compounded, and his piety solidified. More on this later. For the moment, his position was that whatever pursued them should be faced and defeated. Tellurian argued that it couldn’t be defeated. In fact, his belief was that Jenks was the target. Suddenly they questioned the lieutenant.
Barhador asked if any of his men were awol. Jenks was taken aback and said that, actually, yes, there was one of his troop missing. He had been sent to find water 4 or 5 days ago and never returned. Jenks assumed he had been killed, but he was in no way himself in any shape to search for him, busy as he was with dying.
Tellurian and Barhador had an aside where they debated if this missing scout was, in fact, an agent of Sciccorgrin somehow. Or if maybe Jenks was, and they were again being misled. Their paranoia exploded and they demanded Jenks and Doodad both show them their chests, to see if they had been marked in the same way that Barhador had.
I decided to end this conspiracy and said the elves were unmarked. I wanted to keep the focus on the creature that was coming, because that was still mysterious and would keep them talking and guessing. Putting the obvious reason for their woes right in front of them would be anti-climactic, and that was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to keep them running. Keep that pressure up, because paranoia was fuelling a lot of great roleplaying and I wanted to stay on top of that.
In the end, Barhador gave Doodad his wish, killing him with honor, and invented a ritual in the process, that he would carry forward into his prayers at dawn and dusk. It involved a dagger and the threat of it being pushed into his hand, or eye, or heart. His convictions and piety were growing exponentially, and he was fleshing out this aspect of Nathrak’s faith that I hadn’t explored yet, and that was the whole idea as a sandbox DM. I was learning too.
The party fled, estimating that the had probably put 8 or 9 miles between themselves and the Pudding. A few hours later they were forced to stop, exhausted. They kept a watch and the others entered the elven Reverie. The sun came up after 4 hours and the smell of chocolate greeted them. Perhaps a half-mile distant, now doubled in size, oozed the Pudding, ever relentless.
They fled. Across the scorched old goblin lands. They were never able to snatch more than a 3 or 4 hour rest, as the Pudding kept coming, and was increasing its speed, slowly slowly, but enough that it was noticible. For 3 days they fled from the creature.
Finally they came to the decision that it was time to stand and fight. The party was fracturing under the pressure. Jenks and Barhador were constantly arguing, with the lieutenant clinging to the idea that he was still part of a military heirarchy and that Barhador was his subordinate. The cleric argued that the military was gone, their people were gone, and that he was going to do whatever he wanted to do. It nearly came to blows. Tellurian intervened and said that if they were going to attempt to face this thing, something he strongly recommended against, then they would need to work together.
They fled into the burnt periphery of the Great Forest. There was perhaps a mile of blackened, scorched earth before the heat of the still-burning forest fire would be too great to resist. They resolved to get as close to the heatwall as they could, thinking that it may provide some defense against the Pudding.
They waited and rested as they could. 3 hours later, just before sunset the Pudding appeared, rolling through the devestated landscape. It was the size of a two-story building now, monstrous and reeking of sweet chocolate and maggoty-rot.
Barhador grew steely. He cast Sacred Flame at the horror. The flame took hold and bubbled some of the beast away, but it was 50′ from the party and closing fast. Tellurian, as I’ve been doing all along in stressful situations, was compelled to pull out his wand of wonder and shout the command word, “DASTARDLY!”. The sorcerer suddenly found himself able to fly. Down below, the spirit dog, Raphael, manifested and suddenly transformed into a huge guard dog, slavering with fangs and bristling with muscle. It barked wildly at the approaching Pudding-Thing.
Jenks, only armed with a scout’s long-dagger, his weapons long gone, yelled in defiance and waited for its approach.
I finally got to reveal my trick. After nearly 4 days of running them ragged, not getting really rested, suffering from Exhaustion and unable to regain spells, dirty, tired, and angry, this was going to be really worth the payoff. Its moments like this that I live for as a DM.
The Pudding rolled at speed towards them, suddenly rising in a wave, like a massive ocean-breaker-of-chocolate, and crested above them, before falling over, blocking out the sky, when the Pudding suddenly exploded in a giant cloud of confetti and party noisemakers which fluttered down all around the party.
Stunned silence for a moment. Jenks was beside himself. He thought he was going mad or was still dying in the tower, raving of fever. Tellurian, still flying 300 feet straight up, sees a huge contigent of Regan troops moving West through the same lands the party had just fled through, and they were only a day away at best. He felt the Fly spell ending and quickly landed.
Barhador saw another hand-drawn sigil of Scissorgrin in the ashy ground near them. He raged. Tellurian rubbed his chin like he always did and waited for Barhador to calm down so they could talk about the Regan forces heading their way.
They were really freaked out now. They bandied a ton of possibilities around, some of them quite wild, and I sat back and kept my mouth shut, neither confirming, nor denying anything they said, no matter how many times their queries seemed to encompass me as well. I just shrugged and smiled. That’s that hardest part of DMing, I think. Keeping those secrets. Even if you don’t actually know what those secrets are yet. Keeping all your avenues of possibility open is key.
DUST IN THE WIND
They knew that Jenks wanted to keep heading west, to Buzzard and Jackdaw Towers, to search for more survivors, but they felt that they needed to head North into the hills, now. Ditching Jenks felt wrong to them, but they felt that their needing to leave was more important.
I need to explain at this point. The party has somehow gotten it into their heads that there is a Temple of Nathrak in the Emerald Hills. I have absolutely no idea where they picked this up from, because I never said anything like that at all. I know for a fact that there isn’t. So I’m doubly confused, but I’ve learned that sometimes its best to say nothing and let your party pursue something they believe in, regardless of its veracity.
So their plan is to push into hostile orc territory, and beyond – into actual unknown lands, in search of this Temple. After that, they want to go to the Cloister of the Mad, to chase a vision Tellurian had about an eversmoking bottle there.
I feared for them. They could very easily die doing this. Especially without the Fighter being present.
Even though they had an NPC fighter in our friend, Jenks, they chose to ditch him and let him go on to find survivors, while they cut north to pursue their goals.
There was more debate. They heard patrols of cavalry passing them outside the burnt portions of the forest – moving both East to West and vice versa. They heard the sounds of industry and saw the Regans building a string of fortified encampments in the border zone between the Moon Elves old territory and the monsters. They knew they had to avoid the Sun Elves at all costs. Getting tangled up with them would probably mean death, and so they backtracked for a few days before turning to do a straight shot across their path and into the wild lands.
We took a break here to eat some food, smoke some smoke, drink some tea and talk about books and tv.
I had been running out-of-my-ass improv all night. That fancy encounter list that I had done up I hadn’t had a chance to use, because they never actually entered the Hills. So I was tired. I had a headache and I knew that there were still 2 hours remaining before we wrapped for the night.
Going into the Hills was going to be really dangerous and while I had a good grip on what the terrain looked like and who the local orc clans were, I hadn’t put any time or energy or effort into thinking about the state of the monster lands from a larger point-of-view. What was going on politically? Socially? What pieces were in motion. I had none of that. So I did what I always do when I fuck up.
I stalled for time.
THE MURDER MYSTERY
They cut across the Regan supply lines with ease, and were pushing into the foothills where the totems of the Gutripper Clan of Orcs began to show, built on high hills with rock and bone. They crested a rise and came across a huge wagon that had been tipped over on its side – the undercarriage facing the party, showing 10 huge iron-banded wheels.
The bodies of the 12 horse draft team lay still harnessed to the wagon. The corpses of 5 gnomes were strewn about. From the other side of the wagon was the extremely loud noises of some kind of creature in obvious distress.
Barhador crept up and saw that the gnomes and horses appeared to have been slain by some kind of animal attack, but that the corpses had not been chewed on. He quickly surmised that this was an act of predation, not survival and quickly looked on the other side of the wagon.
He saw a gigantic cage, and inside was a huge creature with thick muscled legs, two large wings that were thrashing against the bars, and a very large, avian head. The creature was rolling and banging against the confines and making a racket that could be heard for a very long way.
This is a Hippogriff, although I never said that word, and neither did the players. We just played it out like it was something they had never seen before. In other words, we all agreed not to metagame by saying its name aloud.
Tellurian searched the gnomes, looking for personal effects.
I didn’t HAVE any of that, now did I?
So I quickly said he finds a sheaf of important looking papers, 2 pocket watches, a locket with an sketch inside, and about 60 silver pieces. In a flash of insight I remembered the beast, and said that each Gnome has a different colored key on their person. Also one of the gnomes had a masterwork sword, with a glyph of Evocation on its pommel. Tellurian gave it to Barhador, who, upon taking the hilt, heard a word whispered in his mind – “Lycullen”. He said it aloud and the blade burst into magical flame. A second vocalization extinguished the blade. I decided it was a +1 Flame Tongue, the first real piece of loot I had handed out and I hadn’t planned on it, but it seemed to fit the moment.
The papers were inspected, but I said they were written in Bubblish, the Gnomish language, so that was one bullet dodged. I didn’t want to give them too much information, or the mystery would be ruined, and they would leave. So I threw them a bone and said that the seal on the papers looked Regan. That got them talking.
Tellurian wondered if releasing the beast would be a good tactic for maybe getting it to harry the Regans, but after he approached it and it lost its shit trying to get at him, Barhardor said he was crazy and that they should leave before the noise draws hostiles.
They went back and forth for a minute, and Tellurian manages to convince Barhador that if they hide, that he can open the cage from afar, and that the beast will (hopefully) fly off immediately, preferring freedom to any kind of revenge.
So they did. Tellurian used Mage Hand to insert each key into an arcane lock on the cage, color-to-color, and the cage vanished, dumping the Hippogriff onto the ground, where it rolled over and got up, shook itself off, gave a trumpeting blare of victory and then took wing, heading North.
A collective breath was let out. I had rolled a reaction check for the Hippogriff, but it was quite low and I decided that flight was preferable to fight, and let it fuck off instead. It probably would have given the party a good fight, maybe even killed one or both of them, so I was pleased with the outcome. They were continuing to use their wits over their weapons, and in a survival game, that’s how you want it to go.
You may have noticed there has been virtually no combat in this campaign so far. This will most likely change in the next session as they push deeper into hostile territory, its probably going to become inevitable, but this group has shown me some cunning, so we’ll see how they react.
The party split and pushed just across the border into Gutripper territory, and climbed a big hill to do some recon, seeing a large Orc camp perhaps a day away to the north, and some high wooded hills with plumes of smoke threading upwards from them to the NE. They camped in a cave at the bottom of the hill, and it went quite deep, but was devoid of any creatures. I let them finally get a long rest, and told them they could finally level up to level 3.
Then we wrapped and I ran for a midnight train.
See you in two weeks. I’ll be better prepared this time, and I’ll talk about how I set up this survival crawl through the wilds.
Thanks for reading!