BorderLands: Session One
Roll for initiative!!
That’s how I want to start my forthcoming campaign. I think I tried doing this once before and choked. People got distracted and not everyone was at the table. Plus there wasn’t the initial pressure of combat, just order of acting (or rather awaking). And introductions were somewhat necessary.
This time I’m planning on starting my new extended campaign immediately with a fight, jumping right into the action. And not only a fight, an unfair and deadly fight. At level one.
I’m such a bastard.
I want to suddenly thrust the party into a sink-or-swim situation. They become an adventuring party because they’re forced to work as a group. Fate thrusts them together as some of the (hopefully) few survivors of a caravan after the predation of gnolls. Gnoll raiders on giant hyenas.
I repeat: bastard.
There’ll be some NPC guards I can focus fire on, allowing me to emphasize the deadliness of the gnolls without actually damaging PCs. Plus some other crazy hazards, such as moving wagons and avoiding rocks or terrain. And they don’t have to defeat all the gnolls, just survive or even knock them off the wagons.
But still… bastard.
My starting point is in the desert region of my fantasy setting. As a tidally locked world, half the planet continually faces the sun. The gnolls have claimed a swath this desert wasteland, and are common hazards for traders and travelers.
Prior to the start of the campaign, I sent out Character Questionnaires, asking each player who their character is and why they want to be an adventurer. I also included a couple leading questions: what they would do with a fortune, and why they’re traveling as part of a caravan. The latter question was to make sure every player knows where the adventure is starting and has some reason for being there. The backstory has been done, and I can jump right into the gnolls raiding the caravan without worrying about someone saying “but my character wouldn’t be part of a caravan.”.
One of the major forms of conflict is Man versus Nature. (Or Person vs Nature if we’re not being all sexist.) In vs Nature situations, the environment is the primary opponent and enemy, and I’d like to have the first chunk of the session focus on this (if not the first couple sessions). Shift from combat encounters and enemies you can hit with a sword, to just having to survive in the wild with limited resources. Food and water matter, and choosing a direction will change the narrative. Making encumbrance an issue and that Strength dump stat hurt. Does the party turn back the way they came, continue forward to their original destination, or try and find a third direction and explore?
Fortune and Glory
Another leading question in the Character Questions was “what would you do with 100,000 gold pieces”. My primary thought for this was to push my players to consider greed and ambition a little more in their backstory. As reformed Pathfinder players, my group still associates character wealth with magic items and the related cycle: wealth is turned into gear to boost one’s power level to get cash to turn into more gear and so on. I wanted my players to consider their character’s goals for spending a sudden cash infusion, possibly even dissociating their motives for adventuring from their character’s.
Setting the Stage
The location also serves two other purposes.
First, it allows me to showcase an element of my world that this group hasn’t really experienced before: the perpetual day. As a Twilight World, the sun never truly sets along much of the globe: the sun needs to be a good twenty degrees below the horizon before it becomes “night”, as there’s still light in the atmosphere. The heat and arid conditions along with the perpetual light will remind people of the hook of this setting.
Why I choice the desert rather than the glaciar ties into my other purpose: getting all Mad Max. There’s a firm association between desert wasteland and post-apocalypse. While variants exist (see: Snowpiercer), Global Warming/ Climate Change have led us to associate the future with heat. It doesn’t hurt to just jump right into the Fury Road scene and have them in a chase along a road, being attacked by feral cannibal enemies.
Starting with a fight worked. The unfair starting encounter went off fairly well, with two of the three wagons disabled and two of the three horses killed by giant hyenas. But with one wagon left, the group threw everything into the remaining wagon and resolved to finish their job and escort the wagon’s contents to its destination.
This worked out exactly as I had hoped: the party picked a direction and set off with an immediate goal. Exactly what you want in a sandbox.
The initial wagon battle was designed to be mobile. The wagons remained stationary on the battlemap, while the terrain moved closer and closer. Had I the ability to do things again, I would have had the wagons travelling at 40 feet per round, moving terrain forward 20 feet twice a round. So things changed more often. Waves of gnolls might have also worked. 5e combats are also pretty fast, so having a few reactive turns avoiding rocks between waves of gnolls would have been a good idea.
I purposely didn’t have much planned beyond the initial fight, a few encounter ideas and assorted monsters that made for good low level opponents in a desert. Plus some places of interest, such as an abandoned ship graveyard, a ruined city sacked by gnolls, a lone dryad tree in the middle or a savanna. I wanted to respond to the players’ decisions.
One of the semi-random encounters was with a monster from the Tome of Beasts known as a gray thirster, chosen because it’s a desert creature about the right CR. It also dehydrates and imposes exhaustion, which is a nice effect that could potentially cause some drama. Exhaustion is scary. To avoid picking on one player, I randomly rolled which player the undead targeted, and direction it “spawned”. Unfortunately, it appeared close to the wagon, and the party was spread out, with the damage dealer separated by terrain. I gave the party a couple rounds to kill Thirsty before it used it’s most devastating dehydration power. They didn’t quite kill it in time: and the gray thirster destroyed all their water. And they’re still a week away from their destination. Exciting! Drama will ensue.
Most importantly, at the end of my session, the players took an adventure hook from a dryad. I’d introduced the fey on a whim, being little more than a small incidental encounter and weirdness (an anomalous tree), which reinforces the world as damaged. This encounter ended up different than anticipated; as it occurred after they had their water destroyed, they asked the dryad for food. Unexpected. Checking their stat block, dryads can cast goodberry so I had it produce magical acorns that served as a meal. Thankful for the assistance, the party asked if the dryad needed help with anything, so they could repay its kindness. I replied there was a creature nearby that irritated the dryad, whose presence caused it discomfort, and that the dryad would appreciate if it were killed or driven away. Spontaneous adventure hook! It was the perfect place to end the session, since the party had stumbled into a side quest entirely on their own.
This was pretty much exactly what I was hoping would happen in this campaign. Joy.