BorderLands: Session Three
My last gaming session closed with a soft ending. There wasn’t a cliffhanger or element of danger, but neither was there a looming question or new side quest. The party had left the desert behind and found their way to the foothills of the Edge Mountains, so this transition made for a somewhat appropriate place to end: they’d made progress on their personal task of delivering the merchant goods salvaged from the initial caravan raid, escorting the cargo to the city-state of Brighthome.
A weak end isn’t a problem for my group, as we’re established enough that my players will come back regardless of the resolved status of the narrative. For a newer or less established group, I might opt for either a hard ending (in case the group can’t return) or a cliffhanger (to encourage the group to get together again). However, a soft ending is something I deliberately want to avoid for my forthcoming session; normally my group meets every two weeks, but one of my players is on vacation for most of November, leading to a potential month-long game hiatus. Possibly longer.
With a gap of that length, you don’t want to end with finality: urgency and uncertainty push for a return session. Neither do I want a mystery or event with details that will be forgotten. There needs to be a simple yet imminent threat, that will easily be recollected. Immediate danger. Jeopardy. I need a cliffhanger.
Knowing I want to end on a cliffhanger means I should plan the session towards that goal. There needs to be either a planned end that I can work towards – accelerating or padding events to hit that goal – or a couple potential cliffhangers I can slot in depending on which seems most appropriate or timely.
Focus on the Goal
In a perfect world I’d like to end with the players reaching Brighthome. They’ve managed to keep the wagon and horse safe for two sessions, with the goal of bringing the cargo to its destination. Three sessions on a single quest feels long enough for the introduction. It’s enough time to hit 3rd or 4th level and feel competent as adventurers. It’s also enough time for the players to develop a “feel” for their character or generate personal goals. This makes it time to transition to the next quest or storyline. However, reaching the city isn’t much of a cliffhanger. It’s actually rather the opposite.
Instead, I might have to plan for sudden danger when they are on the verge of reaching safety. Make it seem like I’m planning to end the session with them home free, only to snatch victory away at the final moments of the session. Which is petty damn dramatic.
Except… this makes it super hard to plan for the following session. I’ll need to consider a couple outcomes for the cliffhanger, plus material for the subsequent hours. This future session will also need to set-up and initiate the follow-up quests: I’ll not only need bait assorted adventure hooks, but begin those quests as well. This means lots of planning, or I have to be ready to do a heck of a lot more improv. But I will have a month to do so, making doable. Plenty of time to outline the city and brainstorm events and incidents.
Know the Land
I’m taking the opportunity to do some mapping of the region. I have a continental map of the world, but when I zoom into a kingdom scale the details are somewhat lost. By spending a few hours making a regional map I have a better idea of area, knowing the mountain passes and smaller rivers. This gives me an idea of what the players might encounter en route. And, since I’m planning for an adventure, if I have any ideas for encounters or locations, I can incorporate them into the map at the same time..
My map is a little more detailed than a simple pencil sketch, but that’s by choice. I could easily take 15-minutes and hammer out a drawing on a scrap piece of paper and it would serve my purpose. But I like something prettier. Plus, by the gametable I have a television hooked up to a laptop that I use for displaying monsters and maps, so a more detailed and purty image has more appeal for my players. Thankfully, I have a lot of the assets already in Photoshop (textured mountains, forests, rivers, etc): I need just copy those layers’ styles over some quick lines and the work is done. I’ve gotten fairly quick at Photoshopping a presentable map. (Plus the work is simple enough that I can listen to Critical Role at the same time.)
As a general mapping tip, to get the scale of landmarks right I pulled up Google Maps on my computer and used the “Measure Distance” option to hit the appropriate scale. When not using satellite, Google Maps has a terrain feature you can toggle in the Menu that shades the map for elevation, providing a great idea what terrain should look like when viewed overhead.
Looking at my newly generated map, I made a note of places there could be complications, such as choke points like narrow valleys or cliffs. Halfway to their destination, their route should take the party across a dried river. As it’s a mountain river, it was likely fast flowing (steep slopes make for swiftly running water and increased erosion) leaving a bit of a gorge, so there’d have to be a bridge across. That sounds like a fun place for a combat encounter, which could be a planned set piece encounter (so I add a bridge to the map). To make it more than a fight, the bridge might be an ancient dwarven-made bridge that has been standing for a thousand years but is looking a little worn, emphasising the history of the world and lack of upkeep. There might be statues at the ends of the bridge of ancient elven queens or some kind of elaborate pattern carved along the length.
There’s also a place where the path would have to pass alongside a river/ stream. This suggests a cliff-side trail with a steep drop along one edge. It’s the kind of location you’re crazy not to place a combat encounter, where manoeuvrability is limited and there’s a constant danger of falling. Or just a hazard where the road starts to crumble under the weight of the wagon, threatening to dump the wagon into the valley below. Or both.
During the previous session, the party explored a ruined city occupied by tribes of goblins. They killed a few to gain access to a well for precious water, and then set fire to a building as a further distraction, allowing them to escape. It might be fun to play off this action and have the goblins following the party, leading to an extended chase. It’s a fun change from published adventures where there’d be few consequences for actions not written into the plot of the module.
The party might stop to rest for the night but the goblins march onward, closing the gap between the few groups and leading to an attack after an hour or two of rest. The party then has the choice of remaining and fighting small, steady waves of goblins or fleeing away from the goblins at a forced march. The constant threat of attack keeps a steady pressure on the party, and forces them to conserve their resources. A simple overland journey becomes a marathon. And incidental encounters on the road that threatening delays become more pressing, as the solution isn’t simply to take a few hours to leisurely fix the problem. Any delay allows the goblin pursuers to close the distance or catch up. It provides a driving force for the initial stretch of the adventure, as the party is continually harried by goblins.
However, I don’t see this pursuit lasting the entire length of the journey. I *could* have another group of goblins circling around to cut off the party, but goblins aren’t that dedicated. I think I need to brainstorm something else for my cliffhanger. Gnolls make the most sense, besieging the walled entrance to Brighthome’s valley. Or perhaps a new threat or problem. I have no idea what though…
This past session toed into the territory of TPK twice. So far that’s three near TPKs over the course of three sessions. I only take partial credit for all three.
In the first session a character acquired a wand of wonder. Because they’re fun, chaotic, and shake up the game. In the second combat of the night, it was broken out and with a “wubba wubba”, a fallen goblin became a wight. Oops. This changed the dynamic of the battle instantly, and cost the fight many hit points. With the party running low in hp, this led to the equally taxing second fight. It certainly helped keep the pressure on. And it was memorable in a way a normal encounter just isn’t. Which is the big reason I gave out the wand of wonder (and why I did a DMs Guild product of expanded tables).
The wands also caused some randomness with what ended up being the last encounter: a couple goblins and an angler worm (from the Tome of Beasts) fought atop a stone bridge. First the wand sprayed the battlefield with bubbles, covering the bridge with slick soapiness. Then it created a giant tree in the middle of the bridge. I ruled the roots of the giant oak began to crack and damage the bridge, resulting in the party quickly fleeing to the far side. However, the sorcerer and horse pulling the carriage kept slipping in the soapy bubbles previously created by the wand, falling prone. (Leading to the absurdity of a PC casting bless on the horse…) At the end, they almost fell into the gorge, losing some of the cargo from the wagon, but managed to save the horse and most of its goods. Additionally, an NPC was lassoed with a natural 1, and was killed when he slammed into the side of the gorge. Oops. (This might have future consequences as well, especially if they dumped the body or keep it with them. Time will tell…)
But it sure was dramatic. Lovely chaos and certainly much more memorable than things going smooth. This is the kind of story people remember and tell years later. The ambush where they killed a bunch of perusing goblins? Super effective, so also super forgettable.
The rest went well enough. Although the players still tend to assume I have things on the rails, and encounters are set. (“Gee, he drew this map of an obvious trap at a choke-point. I guess we have to go forward.” No… you don’t.) And the cliffhanger had the appropriate reaction. I opted to have Brighthome besieged by gnolls, bringing them back into the consciousness. Simple works, as I didn’t need to explain strange new monsters or obviously unstoppable foes like a great wyrm dragon or hill giants.
Looking at the game so far, what I think I’m struggling with the most is descriptions. I can react quickly enough to the player’s actions and throw together encounters and challenges. But narrative descriptions trip me up. I worry that the game is less evocative than published adventures, as my spontaneous instances of flavor text are lacking. When planning, I might have to brainstorm some keyword descriptors: tags I can draw on when describing an area at the table. Something to remember next time.