This is the continuing DMs log of a current campaign I’m running with reddit strangers in meatspace. It is my hope that getting a peek behind my shield will pass along some insight, or at least some entertainment, to aid your ongoing journey in being a DM.
I don’t plan much. I like to be able to react to whatever the party is doing in real-time, and glancing at a notebook wrecks that flow for me. My scant notes for the session are listed below, as written.
- Fog/rain – MOLD, RUST, ROTTING LEATHER
- Find dead crab folk (lots) and a few tentacles (The Ceph)
- Standing Stones erected by a tribe of Firbolg astronomers. They ambush the party to question them and ask about the settlement’s intentions, as well as being mad at the party’s intrusion into a sacred space.
- Another Gnoll ambush. Wizards this time.
- The Pinnacles – nets dropped on them and taken before the (lying) Deformed – Warned away from CitySwamp. Given aid to leave. Imprisoned if refusal for 1 year.
Right. So that’s pretty thin. I knew a few things that I didn’t need to write down, however, and these bullet points only served as reminders. Its good to get into the habit of looking at an idea and seeing all the permutations that could arise from the myraid ways the party can interact with it, and try to visualize at least some of them. That way you aren’t caught totally unprepared.
I’ll explain my notes in detail and then I’ll kick off this session’s narrative. Skip to the next header if you want to give this bit a miss.
- This was tropical weather and they had simple foodstuffs that wasn’t packed very well. All of their bread products and some of their dried meats were furry, and getting worse by the day. They ended up dumping most of it and hunting daily for these small plainsdeer that I dubbed “Slybacks” for their ability to almost disappear when standing still. Rust was appearing in blooms on all the metallic surfaces of weapons, armor and gear. They had to spend extra time cleaning their equipment and that wasted the daylight they could use for exploring. The rotting leather part goes to that as well. More care taken with equipment, which burns resources. Always important in survival games. I also ramped up the temperature during the day, into the 40s, and they were forced to drink double-rations of water, which meant they spent time looking for more fresh sources.
- They talked last session about how they wanted to meet the CrabFolk and even went so far as to buy 12 loaves of bread to barter with, so I wanted them to stumble into a tragedy, making the inevitable meeting whoknowswhen-in-the-future even more memorable. I decided that some Octopus/SquidFolk had killed a bunch of them. Seemed like a natural enemy taken to that D&D extreme. A few severed tentacles from the Ceph, as I dubbed them, would be strewn about to give the party a sense of what had happened here. This turned into half the session, and will be discussed in the Narrative section.
- I like circles-of-power, and I knew this would draw their eye. I figured it would be a good opportunity for roleplaying and information exchange. It turned out differently.
- The Gnolls are going to be a constant threat, and I’m going to keep mixing up the personnel every single time. The party will not (at least for a long time) see the same “loadout” in the warbands. This time I wanted some F/M (fighter/mages), and the battle ended up quite the story, as you’ll see, below.
- Right. So. This will be the longest explanation, probably. The Pinnacles are a real place in Western Australia, and as soon as I saw them I knew they would be in every world I ever built after that, in some form. I also wanted to tweak them, make them REALLY tall and very clustered together, like a natural fence almost. I also needed to figure out who or what lived there on this world. I ended up with an idea from a film that I have a long and passionate relationship with, and my own beliefs that nothing should be obvious when being a DM. There always needs to be layers of deception going on with the narrative elements. First, the film. Its called “Light Years”, based on a French novel by Androvan, and is wonderfully 80s sci-fi-tastic. It used to be part of that rotation of films that you binged on as a teenager and watched endlessly with friends. The music alone still delights me and I even went so far as to put record the whole movie onto an old Certron so I could have it on road trips. The Deformed made a big impact on me, and I wanted that exchange between the Leader and Sylvain to play out in the session. It didn’t go quite as planned (it never does), but I did get to repeat a few of my favorite lines from it (“We with these bodies, these heads, these limbs shaped all ways and assembled without care.”) I also knew that these so-called Deformed were full of shit. They were very strong psions, I knew that much. I had such a gut feeling that they were lying, it was like this fishhook in my mind. I couldn’t shake it. For a week or so I let this idea percolate in my head, and I poked it now and again to see if it had hatched. No dice. But on the way to the goddamn session, it burst. I might have shouted “AHA!”, but I can’t remember. I knew what was up. The “Deformed” were actually a band of humans, and they were the strongest psions the old continent had ever known (which I called Gandahar in homage to the film). They fled rather than be used as weapons by the feuding governments. The set up in the Pinnacles and dug some tunnels and stumbled across a huge cavern system, with plenty of fresh water, and tried to live in peace. They were able to read the minds of others at great distances, hundreds of miles, and they found great delight in watching the various monstrous races struggle for survival. When the survivors of the Wrecked Fleet landed and were seen to not be leaving, but settling in, and sending out scouting parties, they became concerned. They realized that others would follow and the whole continent would be colonized. They interrogated and wiped the memories of any who came to the Pinnacles, and used their power to appear as the Deformed – who were known to all from Gandahar as children in a series of cautionary fables as monstrous eaters-of-children and evil incarnate. Tricksy fuckers. I hoped it would work. It did, but not the way I expected.
Beyond that, I had nothing. Our sessions only go 5 hours, so I thought that would be enough time. Turns out it wasn’t, but for reasons that I wish I had handled better. I’ll explain all that in the Post-Game section.
The party, weak from dysentery from contaminated water, is forced to rest for half a day. The heat is boiling them alive, however, and they decide to push on, rather than risking waiting and getting sicker. They reach the sandy fringes of the plains, where small cliffs drop down onto the sandy expanse of almost 40 miles of beachcoast. This is the land of the CrabFolk (I really need a better name for them, maybe a variation of Brachyura, the crab infraorder). I described them seeing two remarkable things. First, several hundred meters (sorry for swapping Imperial and Metric all the time, I do it at the table. The troubles of a transplanted Yank) out in the bay was a huge dome of coral, like the size of an arena with roof. I thought of this at the last second, and decided it was a meeting place for the CrabFolk as a collective, but was usually empty except on special occasions. (Although if they had swum out there, that would have no doubt changed. Empty=boring). On the sandy shingle were the several-day old corpses of hundreds of CrabFolk, along with 5 or 6 very long severed tentacles scattered throughout the carnage.
They went Keanu for a minute and then talked the Monk out of swimming out to the dome (dangerous surf and unknown rips were the primary arguments). The Wizard noticed out of the corner of his eye that along the short cliffs were a series of cunningly-camouflaged blinds, larger than a set of double doors would be. With some help, 3 of them managed to slide one aside and reveal the entrance tunnel to one of the CrabFolk’s home. A strong scent of lemon filled the first tunnel. The Sorcerer cast Dancing Lights and they went into the high-ceilinged carved passageway with the intention of seeing if any Folk were still alive.
They came to a small chamber with 3 passages leading away from them. Scratched into the rock above each exit was a crude rune. The Wizard cast Comprehend Languages and touched each rune, in turn. They read, from left to right, “Baby, Sleep, Waste”. They asked about the fresh lemon scent. I said it was stronger coming from the Baby Tunnel. They chose Sleep instead. They soon exited into a huge enclosed chamber dominated by a large pool of seawater. The Dancing Lights, sent underwater, only lit a meter of gloom, and the Monk was talked out of going for a swim. Being Human, he was effectively blind in the dark, and while the Dancing Lights would have helped somewhat, I ruled that once the Sorcerer lost sight of the lights, he wouldn’t know where the Monk was, and then couldn’t help him see. The Wizard yelled out that they were here to help. Neither that, nor throwing rocks into the pool elicited any response. The party leaves, but the Monk stays behind.
This is where you learn that sometimes leaving some room to wiggle when you hand out vague magic items is sometimes a good idea. I gave the Monk this Faerie Fire flashlight-device and said that it would illuminate invisible objects. The Monk said he uncapped the scroll tube and played the beam over the cavern, just to see if maybe the Folk were hiding.
I knew they weren’t. They were stinking up the beach instead. None were left alive. But the party hadn’t found anything by this point, and if anything this would be a few more minutes of pointless exploring without anything really interesting here. I’m a firm believer of not letting any areas that are explored be too empty, for too long. Some empty areas are fine, sometimes that only adds to the tension. But you need to intersperse that with stuff to do. That is why we play, after all.
In a flash of insight I can only attribute to some kindly Fey that whispered in my ear at that moment, I told the Monk that his beam lit up a huge creature, as big as a standing grizzly bear, with tentacles all over it and that that it shrieked, and then Teleported.
Cue the shit hitting the fan.
I suddenly realized what was going on here. It was tied to this sudden blurting out of something weird and the purely-for-atmosphere bit of flavor I dropped in earlier about the caves smelling of fresh lemon.
The lemon scent was a spore put out by Ceph Raiders when clearing enemy encampments. Its a strong hallucinogenic that is activated by a particular frequency. The Ceph Raider sprayed the spores throughout the entire cavern and then waited, invisible, for any Folk who might have been out hunting and rushed home to find survivors. Instead it got the party. I had decided that the Ceph were terrified of Humanity – knowing what they were capable of, especially in the theater of war, and it activated the spores and then bugged out, teleporting away, back to the ocean deeps.
I ran with this. A horrorshow with the sun shining outside the gaming room. This was gonna be fun!
The Monk ran back and told the party what’s what and since he didn’t say he had capped the “flashlight” I decided that the beam would light up some bio-luminescent writing on the wall. They all suddenly realized that they could read it and it was these huge letters smeared across the rock walls – threats like “DEATH TO ALL” AND “THE SLEEPER WAKES”. The Wizard decides at that moment to cast Detect Magic. I have this house rule where if you try to Detect Magic on any item, or lingering effect, or even area, that was created with very high level magic, that you could be knocked unconscious as the Detect is overloaded with dweomer. I did that to the Wizard. Gave him a hallucinogenic vision of an octopus-like aberration coming to consume the universe. He started to have a seizure and the Monk managed to wake him up and as the Wizard babbled, I told the Sorcerer that he could feel someone or something watching him, and that when the Detect Magic was cast, he felt, from “very far away” a tiny whiff of Necromancy.
They fell to arguing/discussing for a few minutes and they all decided that in spite of the craziness, they really wanted to check the nursery out before they left, so off they went and they found, just outside the chamber, a Folk had “hulked out”, expanding its body and filling the tunnel almost completely. (This was stolen from the idea from a splat in 2e of elite Dwarven defenders that could do this – as a last ditch effort to keep enemies out). This Folk was clearly dead, and there might be chance that the Fighter could squirm through its legs into the chamber beyond. I told the Rogue that he realized that they had traversed this entire passageway without setting off one of the dozens of deadly traps that were placed here. He lost it, and started trying to disarm them all. The Fighter was going to try and maybe smash his way through the dead Folk and was told that his weapons were completely rusted through, the wood was soft, the metal crumbling, but he swung his warhammer anyway, doing a small amount of damage to the Folk’s shell, and completely destroying his weapon. The Rogue at this point was picking his way down the corridor, but the Fighter and Sorcerer were peeking through the Folk’s legs with Dancing Lights and seeing dead Folk babies. The Wizard had fucked off, casting Longstrider, with the intention of fleeing the cavern, the Monk right by his side, but when they came back to the 3-way chamber, the looked down the entrance tunnel and saw that day had turned to night, and that a Ceph Raider was blocking the way out. The party reassembled, and they all fought the hallucination. When they emerged back onto the beach the spore wore off and they realized that they had been under the influence of some kind of mind control, though they assumed it was some Ceph directly fucking with them, and not a biological trap.
They wanted to get away. Fast. They headed back up into the plains and kept pushing west for the few hours they had before dark.
They camped, with no encounters, and the next morning they headed out and a few hours later saw a standing circle of stones a few miles south of their position. Who’s gonna pass up Stonehenge? They headed there and I described the dolmens being carved and a strange sculpture-like object in the center – pillars of varying heights, and some with holes in them along their length. They debated for a few minutes about what this could be, and then they turned to leave, and were ambushed by Firbolg. They said that the party had trespassed a sacred space and they needed to go. Now.
They were questioned about the settlement’s intentions and where they were heading. When they said the Pinnacles, they were told all they would find is their doom.
To be honest, I didn’t handle this bit very well. I was starting to get tired and I couldn’t think of decent stuff to talk about. Even “old DMs” fuck up sometimes (a lot of times).
So off they went. A mere day-and-a-half from the Pinnacles. But their peaceful last walk was not to be.
Cue the Gnoll ambush.
I had played nice with them in the first session. Letting them have a fight and see what that was like, but the gloves were off. They had to be shown that this world, and my games in general, do not play fair.
I need to back up. At the last camp the Sorcerer found a Wand of Wonder in his pack (yes that link is the actual effects of the Wand. Its OC). When he touched it I told him that a command word appeared in his mind, and that it needed to be one or two words, maximum, and that it was an exclamation. That is to say, it had a ! at the end. He settled on “Dragonfire!”
A word about my WOWs. They appear at random in every campaign I’ve run since 1990. They have 100 charges and when the charges are gone, they teleport away in a random direction hundreds of miles and recharge. I like the idea of Chaos doing its thang. Also, that list I linked has effects for combat and non-combat situations. I like to have them split.
He was forced to use the wand in this moment. I often have the wands do this the first time, and every subsequent time its when the character is under stress. He got a funny effect the first time. The wand creates a second wand. No one wanted it, so it disintegrated. The wand is going to make another, dramatic appearance in the upcoming fight, so I though I’d explain its presence.
The Gnoll ambush.
The party was spread out, like the pips on the 5 on a d6, with the Sorcerer in the middle position – the Rogue and Wizard in back, and the Monk and Fighter up front.
6 Gnolls stood up out of the grass, 2 on each side of a rough triangle around the party.
They were all Fighter/Mages and they were armed with bows and short swords.
The pairs each shot the Sorcerer, the Wizard and the Rogue, respectively. Because the party was so spread out, they couldn’t support one another, and I poured on the heat. The next round every Gnoll cast Magic Missile at the Sorcerer and the Wizard. Spellcasters are always targeted by characters, so turnabout is fair play.
The Monk ended up getting hit with Sleep and then the Archers threw arrows into him the next round. Prone characters are fair game. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.
The party is looking rough. Everyone is down to single-digit HP. I thought, ok, this might be a wipe. I’ve been through scores of them and they don’t affect me emotionally anymore.
Cue the Wand of Wonder. It forced the Sorcerer to use it and as he shouted “DRAGONFIRE!” he rolled a 99. All allies fully healed.
The table erupted with shouts of joy. It was truly amazing.
The Gnolls were dispatched after some of them failed their morale check (an AD&D conceit I’ve hung on to) and ran.
They checked the bodies, found only some fetish-like arcane foci and no treasure to speak of. They pressed on, hurrying to camp before the sun went down and doing some hunting as their food supplies were dangerously low (I think they only had 2 days left).
They each did remarkably well, except our hapless Fighter who couldn’t buy a decent skill check. 3 deer are dragged into camp and they eat their fill. Some are sent to fetch wood from a nearby grove to build drying frames and fires are built to smoke the meat. The green hides were washed and rolled, but they smelled like death and the Rogue didn’t care, just smiled and wrote them down on his sheet.
They camped. No encounters.
Final day. They were to reach the Pinnacles mid-afternoon. As they got closer, I described their height, and how clustered together they were, and the stains on their peaks from thousands of years of birds shitting on them. Eloquent, I know.
They pushed in, determined to make it through before the day ended. They were unsuccessful, and ended up camping. Halfway through the watch, they were ambushed with nets being dropped on them. The Monk and Sorcerer tumbled away, but the rest were caught, and then the Deformed appeared and spoke to them telepathically saying, “If you don’t resist, you won’t be killed.”
They relented and allowed themselves to be led through a secret passage into one of the rock formations that led to a spiral staircase that led deep underground.
There they met the leader of the Deformed (he’s called “The Chief” in the film, but I named him Agamemnon) and he asked them, “Who were you?” They were confused by this and rightfully so. They had some back and forth and learned that the Deformed were from Gandahar, from the capitol of Jasper, actually, and they were told that they were exiles. All part of my bullshit story, as explained earlier.
The party said they were on a mapping expedition and they needed to get through the Pinnacles. The Deformed said only swamp was on the other side. A massive swamp filled with horrible creatures and ruled by a Fog Giant. They said they wanted to see for themselves.
So I obliged. I described a huge city, Dwarven in construction, with many multi-storied buildings, but now flooded and overrun with swamp.
They were like, cool, now we can just say there’s a swamp and go back. The Deformed said, we will aid your swift return, but you must agree to have your memories altered or you cannot leave. No one must know about us.
They all agreed except the Sorcerer. And here’s where I fucked up. I separated the characters, and tossed them each into 60′ pits, filled with waist-deep water and subject to an Anti-Magic Shell and Silence. I don’t have people escape from my prisons 🙂
I left them there for a year. Dropping food daily to them – lettuce and scraps of dried meats.
Then I raised them out, and asked them if they had changed their minds. They were all like, “WE HAD ALREADY AGREED.” and the Sorcerer, suitably cowed, agreed to the memory wipe.
I fucked up. I should have never jailed ALL of them. I said something to the effect of, “As goes one, so goes the group” but it felt bad. I felt bad. I NEVER expected them to balk, and so I hadn’t really thought out the consequences beforehand. Yes, even veterans fuck up. And yes, we still feel bad about it.
I was dreading the return slog, and the session was almost over, so I had the Deformed teleport them to the gates of Port Defiance – long beards, atrophied muscles, and all.
They had some RP with the Mayor and Doodad, but I’m probably going to rewind a bit and replay it all out, as I wasn’t prepared at all.
I always write these a few hours after the session, while its all fresh in my mind. I’m not happy at all with the way the Deformed encounter went, and I know the reason why. I wanted that damn scene from the movie – and EVERY TIME you try to shoehorn something like that into your narrative, it blows up in your face. Well, its always blown up in my face, but I’d forgotten as I’d not done it in decades.
I would love nothing more than to retcon the entire Deformed arc, but that would feel cheap, I think. I’m going to just rewind that last bit at the town and let what happened, happened.
Oh! Also, there is no swamp city. that was an illusion. Just to scare them away
They were asking about what had changed in town, as I said a new tower was up, and there’s some new shops, and new settlers arriving, so I’ll need to update the map.
They were also asking about the next mission and I described an abandoned Lizardfolk temple up north (a temple to a now-dead god) and a labyrinth that needed clearing. Told of some peaceful Orcs to the East who wanted to trade and made ANOTHER mistake. I said the Explorer’s Guild (who paid them and made them full-fledged members) would allow them to pick their own location to travel to. They said the abandoned temple. OF COURSE.
The Wizard got heated. Started talking out of game about parties who only want loot, and this is supposed to be exploration, yadayada.
So I’m thinking I’m going to retcon that and make them in charge of a 6-month expedition towards Orc lands and beyond. 50 men, a few wagons, maybe 20 horses. Months of food and water. Let them have his as a sort of traveling base of operations for awhile.
I need to stay the hell out of town, and I think this will appease the Wizard.
UPDATE: This campaign has finished due to personal conflict with some of the players.