BorderLands: Session Two

At the end of each session I like asking two things: what’s your plan and when’s the next session?

The first question is theoretically more important: what are the characters going to do next? Are they stealthily approaching the ancient ruins or charging straight in? Are they heading east or west? Are they resting for the night or trying to get a few more hours closer towards home. This allows me to plan the next session.

The second question is pretty self-explanatory and simple. I like to coordinate dates while everyone is still at the table, scheduling in minutes rather than slowly playing tag via email over a couple days.

Ironically, this past game, I had more issues with the latter. The group settled on one day, but a forgotten obligation resulted in one player only free in the evening while another was only free at the morning. As a result, my standard two-weeks of planning for a session has been compacted to one week. Crud.

Wrangling five busy adults is easily the worst part of gaming.

It’s All Part of the Plan

file-2016-08-23-11-42-12-pmHaving met a dryad in a semi-random encounter, my players felt indebted after being fed and offered their assistance. She told them of a creature she could sense but had never seen, a creature whose presence offended her, irritating her like an itch just out of reach.

Of course, this was all B.S.: I hadn’t expected them to offer help to the dryad, and didn’t know off the top of my head what type of creature I wanted them to face. Not defining the threat left me room to design around the vague clues, choosing any monster I wanted later rather than locking myself into an aberration or undead. However, being vague likely made it a little more apparent I was pulling the hook from the ol’ bag of holding. (Not that I would admit it at the table.) It could have easily been a Heisenberg’s Uncertain Dungeon: until an quest is completed and a location is explored, it both exists and doesn’t exist. Players don’t know if their Dungeon Master is fabricating a threat from scratch or employing a pre-planned generic dungeon. If not entered, another location becomes that dungeon, and the planned encounters shift locations.

Looking back, I probably should have hinted more at the nature of the threat in some way. “Not of this world” or “does not live in the traditional sense” would have not only been more evocative, but limited my options from “everything in D&D lower than CR 4” to monsters that matched the description, while also making it seem like it was all planned.

Pragmatic Good

I’d like to introduce a moral dilemma. That’s my plan for the next session. The campaign setting is one of extremes, with life surviving in the twilight between an unsetting sun and an endless night. It’s a world of greys trapped between absolutes. Things shouldn’t be easy, and survival requires hard choices and compromise.

Whatever the dryad is sending the adventures after, it shouldn’t be an evil monster. It, like the dryad, should be neutral and potentially helpful.

It might be interesting to go fungi, which are almost a reflections of plants, and thus might irk the dryad. Perhaps a small myconid colony, living underground off a dwindling aquifer that can’t support both the mushroom men and the dryad’s oak. The older roots of the oak could stretch through roof of the cavern, covered in mould and fungi. The myconids might be able to suck up and release moisture from assorted pools, providing the party with transportable water if they return and kill the dryad. Or the party can kill the myconids and get more goodberry-acorns that will expire after a single day. But just leaving will doom both, as the slow flow of water is not enough to sustain both the moisture seeking fungi and the large magical oak.

Scoped Out

Being more accustomed to the pacing of 3e/4e, I’m used to equating each major encounter with an hour. 5e is a little faster, so a small encounter can breeze past much quicker. However, with some roleplaying, party debates, descriptive moments, and the like, I expect the myconid encounter to last about that length. Meaning I need more encounters for a full session.

In my previous BorderLands campaign (for 4th Edition) I liked to treat each session like a module. I was just off a lengthy stint of running Living Greyhawk and my home games were sporadic at best. I was used to self-contained stories that had a beginning and end. That group formed spontaneously, so I expected it to collapse at any time, and didn’t want the story to have a cliffhanger. If I were planning a session for that campaign, I’d expand the sidequest. Prior to the myconids there could be a larger dungeon – a wide maze-like cavern with old ruins and the like – but this runs the risk of confusing my players, tricking them into assuming some other creature is the dryad’s enemy. Instead, there should be encounters before or after the cave, such as a desert predator or natural hazard like a sandstorm or dry quicksand. These pad out the adventure and make the side quest better occupy the full duration of the session.

However, for this group and campaign, I want a less modular and more ongoing narrative, so each session is just part of a single sprawling narrative that isn’t broken into distinct adventures but instead a single adventure told over multiple sessions. In narrative terms, I want a serialized drama and not an episodic one.

Starting with a couple quick non-combat encounters might still be nice to get the party back in the mindset of their characters, so they’re in their game headspace prior to introducing the moral dilemma. Starting in media res gains me nothing this session, and costs me potential immersion. These can be exploratory and related to reaching the myconids, such as slippery slopes or tight tunnels that create rising tension and establish the atmosphere. This should all happen relatively quickly, and after to the moral conflict the party should quickly resume their journey. The rest of the session can be filled with smaller events and incidental encounters as the party progresses towards their goal.

Incidentally Speaking

Incidental encounters are semi-random but of minor importance, more for flavour than providing a chance at character death. It’s good to have several of these ready, as you never know when the players might need a sudden change of tone. When the session begins to lag a random encounter can snap the table back into the game, or something to refocus people after a washroom break. Most of these should be noncombatant encounters, as few small sightseeing stops or places of mystery make a long journey more dynamic than just having time pass. I want to emphasis the journey and make it appear more daunting beyond saying “you travel for six long days, fighting thirst the entire time”, but without the grind of constant random combat encounters. There needs to be moments like in Lord of the Rings where hobbits passing the stone bodies of Bilbo’s trolls or the decapitated statue of the king whose head is covered in flowers. This is a little like a travel montage, which conveys the passage of time and a long distance, but instead of a dozen small shots over the course of a minute, it’s a half-dozen small roleplaying moments over the course of an hour.

Rule One of narrative storytelling is “show, not tell”. Which is fine for books and movies. But Rule One for DM storytelling is “involve, not show”. In D&D and RPGs, showing amounts to telling, as both involving a DM spouting exposition. If you want the players to feel the length of the journey, they need to be reacting and active. Something like a steep slope of loose sand that threatens to topple the wagon or a spoiled freshwater oasis are scenes that play out quickly but offer an opportunity to make decisions and roll some dice. Failure is unlikely, but can have consequences. Also good are moments where you can get the characters interacting, and letting the players carry the scene. Asking leading question or prompting actions can lead to some fun interplay.

It’s an advantage knowing the direction the group is going, since I have a rough map of the region. I know the desert gives way to arid savanna before becoming rocky hills, but with little or no human civilization. The group needs water so I can plan an encounter around an oasis or two, perhaps a ruined village with a well. As it’s former coastline, perhaps there is an old lighthouse or fisherman’s hut, now long since abandoned.

One of the player characters suffered a gnoll attack in their backstory, and another has ties to a city often besieged by gnolls. This pairs nicely with the introductory gnoll caravan slaughter. An early theme of the campaign is almost “predation of gnolls”. Perhaps the gnolls are a growing threat, and might have a new leader or dominant pack making them more dangerous. A potential incidental encounter might be discovering the remains of a caravan, with the survivors and bodies of the dead hauled away. The party might even spot a large band of gnolls in the distance, heading away from the caravan, but so large as to encourage hiding (or setting a trap). This establishes the idea gnolls might be a real problem later, so when they reach civilization, they might either have to ready for a new gnoll onslaught, be hired to return to the desert and investigate, or be dispatched to gain allies. Or not. That’s a card I can tuck in my hand to play depending on where the game goes.

To potentially fill the majority of the session, I need quite a few incidental encounters planned. Preferably more than will be used, so I can dangle the description in front of the players. Following a short description of a few hours of travel I can mention of the ruined tower atop a hill, its features worn away by constant sand storms, mentioned and left hanging so the players can say “let’s check out the tower” or “we keep going”, skipping the encounter. Or, when I think an actual montage moment is necessary I can present two options and let the players pick one: “ahead of you is a rough patch of hills, the rolling slopes offering myriad hiding places of humanoid creatures. The hills are easily circumvented by moving to the east, but doing so passes you by a  ruined tower atop a hill, its features worn away by constant sand storms.” This allows some choice in what they want to engage.

Post-Game Report

Well, oops.

I started with the party spotting a gnoll warband a couple hundred feet in the distance, travelling west after a raid in what was meant to be a dash of flavour. A reminder the wastes are dangerous. Despite being outnumbered and knowing how deadly gnolls can be, my players just opted to attack. After years of Adventure Paths, I think they’re still operating under the assumption encounters will be balanced…

I think I’m slowly curing them of that misconception.

They succeeded in the battle by firing arrows while slowly backing away (along with a very lucky roll from my wife’s grippli rogue). Even then, the gnolls closed the gap and managed to drop 3/4 of the party before the final PC standing killed the gnoll pack lord. I’d decided earlier that the gnolls were interested in taking prisoners (and established this with two struggling sacks over their shoulders), so there were no deaths. However, seeing the captives is what prompted the players to attack. Had I not done declared they were taking prisoners, two characters would have bled out, and the other had good odds of dying.

Hopefully the encounter will be a learning experience: combat can be deadly. But I probably shouldn’t have made the prisoners obvious, which almost forced their hand… Rookie mistake.

This dramatically and instantly changed the flow of the session. With 3/4 of the party near dead, they retreated back to the dryad’s oak with two rescued NPCs and rested overnight.

The NPCs were quickly named from some random names I keep handy. I printed a three bookmarks covered with random names, used for marking pages in the Monster Manual, designed explicitly for this purpose. I just copy the names into my notes and scratch them off the bookmark.

The moral dilemma started well. The lack of an easy “right” answer chaffed my players who opted for inaction rather than going all murderhobo. Divided and uncertain, they left both parties alive, promising to find a way of diverting water someday and saving both. Another future plot hook… Or, more likely, both groups die. But it did cause some debate across the table, which was the intent. No easy solution.

At the end of the session, the party made it two-thirds of the way to their destination. They’re leaving the desert region behind and entering the mountains. Fun changes, but it means the four or five desert-themed incidental encounters I didn’t have time for are unneeded and harder to use. Oh well… The changing tone keeps me on my tones, and the ideas will still work if they group ever returns to the desert. But now I need to prepare for other types of adventure. By the end of the next session I hope to have them reach the city and end the first arc of the campaign. Then the real fun will begin.