After an 8 month hiatus, after my last campaign collapsed, I’m back in the DM chair with a bunch of mostly new players.
I thought I’d start a new campaign log, and talk about how I DM, worldbuilding, and other stuff in hopes of giving some insight into my style of playing this game.
There is no One True Way. This is only mine.
THE SET UP
So I found this group through a local Facebook group for D&D players and we decided to meet up, see if we were compatible insofar as our expectations were concerned, and talk about the narrative we’d like to explore. They are a lot younger than me, and I was worried that they’d been weaned on a steady diet of podcasts and the new-media wave of D&D exposure that didn’t exist even 5 years ago. Luckily, they seemed pretty open to this old DM’s interpretation of the game and we got down to it.
My good friend /u/StrangeCrusade told me that he’s been doing collaborative worldbuilding for his new campaigns, and seeing as how I’d retired my 25-year campaign world last year, that sounded like fun. I wanted to do something new and so the group and I sat down, I drew a blob on paper and I started asking questions. What’s the climate like? Where are the main terrain features? What creatures live here? Who are the dominant races? And so on.
We came up with a crude map and I told them that I reserved the right to change, alter, or scrap whatever we had come up with, and they agreed that was the best way to ensure that all the mystery wouldn’t be obvious from the start.
We settled on a brand new continent, completely unexplored, with a frontier town in a sheltered bay on a tropical, mostly jungle continent. The frontier town was less than 20 years old, and had had some dealings with Lizardfolk who were at constant war with the Yuan-Ti who lived in the dark interior. The town, dubbed Port Defiance (a nod to Fort Defiance of the American Revolution), was trading food, timber and manpower to the Lizardfolk whose ancestral homelands were atop massive veins of mithral ore.
We talked about why the party was together and why they were coming to this far-off place that was 3 months from the Old World.
The town of Port Defiance is run by Twelvehawks, Fonk’s distant cousin. A survivor of a shipwrecked fleet that ended up here after storms blew them way off course. After many years of isolation, the survivors sent a ship back to the Old World and told them of this new land, and convinced several hundred settlers to come back with them.
Let’s lay out the cast of characters:
- Gerolt. Human Fighter. Sailor. Wants to get rich and regain his lost memories.
- Rashid al Rashid. Human Monk. Hermit. Wants to start a Dojo. Looking for his sister who was aboard the doomed fleet.
- Fonk. Gnome Wizard. Noble. Wants to start a Mage Guild.
- Maiyr. Tiefling Sorcerer. Outcast. Wants to start an Alchemist’s shop.
- Rhinn. Elven Rogue. Wants to start a Rogue’s Guild.
GETS TA WORK
I’m working full time and trying to shuffle married life, all my writing projects, managing three subreddits, and still finding time to play video games, catch up on my shows, and relax.
The reason I mention all that is to explain that while I worked furiously to complete the maps, I had NO encounters or NPCS written, at all. Zero.
Sometimes you just gotta wing it.
WELCOME TO THE PARTY, PAL
We started the campaign as the party was coming into port after 3 months at sea. They were met by the Mayor’s aide, a gnome named Doodad, who took them to see the Mayor at his house. The Mayor was passed out drunk and the party had a good laugh. Doodad told them to come back in the morning, so the party set out to tour the town. Cue lots of description. They really only had 3 encounters – talking to the head of the Explorer’s Guild, the Glassmaker (Sorcerer wants glass vials to start his alchemy business), and some random sailor at one of the pubs.
Rashid, our Monk, had a secret encounter (in another room) with his sister, who had been part of the wrecked fleet. Her face was slashed and one eye ruined. He was distraught and asked what happened. She said a white-haired elf had attacked her, and she managed to fend him off before he killed her, but she was worried he would come back. She also said she was pregnant, and she didn’t know who the father was. Rashid ordered her onto the next ship back to the Old World, his jaw clenched.
The next morning they go and see the Mayor and he says that the town needs reliable maps – specifically the area West of the Pinnacles. He says they have a few parties out East and they are a week overdue, but not to worry. He asks them to go to the Explorer’s Guild and talk to Jenks, the leader. Jenks explains that the mapping mission is of vital importance, if they are to understand who or what is in the unexplored areas and gives the party some very vague information. He says that its known that Stirge inhabit the Coldstone Forest, but they usually aren’t a problem until August, when they mate. It is currently the 1st of June (the year 1000 if anyone cares). There are Crabfolk living along the coastline and they are generally neutral and can be bargained with, and explains that they have a penchant for bread (I panicked and pulled this out of my butt). Thri-Kreen and Gnolls are known to inhabit the Shreiking Plains, and while the Thri-Kreen are much like the Crabfolk (neutral and able to be negotiated with), the Gnolls are warlike and will attack them on sight.
Cue the next hour with the party arranging supplies, horses, and discussing the best route to get to the Pinnacles. They settle on a northerly path, along the coastline, avoiding the Shrieking Plains and the bloodthirsty Gnolls.
I should mention that the party has 4 “table roles” that I implement in all my games. They are as follows:
- Gerolt: Scribe – keeps a log of the party’s activities.
- Rashid: Vaultmaster – keeps a record of the party’s collective wealth and acquired items.
- Maiyr: Quartermaster – keeps a record of the party’s food, water, and other gear.
- Rhinn: Beastmaster – keeps a record of the party’s kills and any trophies they want to bring along (these are kept in what I’ve been calling “a drippy sack” for decades)
The party buys 20 days of food, a few barrels of water, 2 horses, 2 weeks of fodder for the horses, and a few other bits and bobs.
They plan to head out on the 2nd of June, the next day.
GO WEST, YOUNG
When they awaken its bucketing down with rain. Possibly the worst time to leave, but they are insistent and depart in the morning. The going is slow, and happily the rains stop around noon, but the terrain is still mucky and muddy. They are heading west from the village in chest-high grasslands. They suddenly see a group of creatures who immediately duck down into the tall grass and they can see the grass moving and swaying as the creatures are moving towards them. They freak out and go into battle mode and ready their attacks.
The Gnoll war party that they surprised stands up, tosses spears, and its on. I fanned the Gnolls out, trying to separate the party, but they were too smart for that, and stuck together (nice job, boys). At one point I had one of the Gnolls head for the now-hobbled horses, but they cut it off and the mounts were safe. No one emerged from this battle unscathed, and the Rogue nearly died. They understood the stakes now, and were surprised how cunning and vicious the Gnolls were. This is a survival game, after all, and they knew there would be no punches pulled, but it was good to actually see that understanding on their faces.
There was little to do but push on, and they continued west.
I described how every morning sea fog would roll in and it would rain from dawn until noon, being a tropical environment. They tried to keep dry and began to grumble as their things started to mold.
The second day was uneventful, and they pressed on.
On day 3 the landscape began to undulate, and around an hour from dark (7:30 pm or so), they came over a rise and were looking down into a rocky valley, free of grass or cover. Below them, on the floor of the valley was a shimmering, vertical portal (I described it like the Town Portals in Diablo). Before the portal was a standing figure, hooded in red robes, with its back to the party. Kneeling on either side of the red-robed figure were 4 figures in hooded white robes, two per side. I initially said that the figures were chanting in an unknown language but the Sorcerer asked if it was Infernal, and I said that it was. The figures were praising their Master and glorying in the time to come when the Master would rise.
They exploded with conversation. Debating whether or not to attack, and if they were, how? And the Rogue was arguing for caution and that they should watch first. This went on for awhile and I sat back, folded my arms, and watched. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to shut your damn mouth. After a few minutes, to keep them from bogging down in indecision, I said that a figure was beginning to form in the light of the portal. Cue more debate. Every 60 seconds or so I said the figure was becoming more “there”. They still couldn’t form a consensus, so I had to move on, and I said that the figure had fully formed, and was now conversing in a language that they really couldn’t understand with the red-robed figure. After a few moments the white-robed figures stood up and walked into the portal, vanishing. Then the portal collapsed.
This event cemented their decision. They would attack the lone figure. All of the party save the Fighter moved around the top of the valley to get into position, while the Fighter remained behind with the horses (who had all their food, water and gear).
The red-robed figure dropped its hood and I described it as a humanoid with a serpents torso and head. A Yuan-Ti. They paled, but they attacked anyway, the Rogue put a few arrows into it and the Monk tried to get up in its face, but it sent him scurrying away after a Fear spell blasted his mind with the vision of his murdered sister. All the while, the Yuan-Ti was changing into a fully-snake form, and shrinking by the moment. They weren’t able to do much damage to it before it slipped into a hole in the ground and vanished.
They were both excited and scared. I had built the Yuan-Ti up as these bogeymen who lived mostly in the uncharted depths of the Tangled Bloodwood Expanse (a thick jungle), and to see one here, so far from home, and who mostly shrugged off their predations, I think unsettled them.
We wrapped there.
Normally I don’t allow party’s to level up until they are “safe” (some base, or friendly area), but this wasn’t going to be the usual kind of campaign, so I told them they were now level 2.