BorderLands: Session Four
I’ll still probably spend close to the same length of time seriously preparing: just under a week. It’s a little like homework; no matter how long the deadline, you don’t really start until the last minute.
Hopefully because I’m writing this blog I’ll spread the work out a little more evenly.
Choose Your Own Adventure
The last session ended with a cliffhanger: after two weeks on the road following an attack on their caravan, the party finally arrived at the city-state of Brighthome, only to find it besieged by gnolls. Sheltered in a long valley, the small kingdom is walled off by two sets of fortifications: one to the north and one to the south. When they reached the more accessible northern gate, the party saw it was being assaulted by a large gnoll warband numbering in the dozens, hoping to breach the defences.
This leaves the adventurers multiple options next session. They can sneak past the gnolls or try and distract them. They could attack. Causing an avalanche was also suggested. Alternatively, they could abandon the wagon and try and cross overtop the mountains, navigating small goat trails or scaling cliffs. Or they could try and circle the mountain to reach the southern gate. There’s also the possibility of ancient dungeons or abandoned mines passing underneath the mountain.
Because I wanted the cliffhanger, I don’t know what route my players will take, and I didn’t leave time for them to discuss matters. So I need to prep a bit of everything, and have some idea what lies in every direction. A little extra sandboxy. Admittedly, I *could* e-mail them prior. Have the group come to a consensus a few days before the session. Get a little “play” away from the table. But that loses some of the group interaction and party dynamics that happens when everyone is together at the table. Debating and arguing is part of D&D’s gameplay.
Instead, prior to the game I’m going to try seeding ideas. This way I won’t be sitting behind the DM screen suggesting the possible paths to the party, reciting my planned options. I can text each play a new piece of information (“with your keen eyes you see a narrow goat trail winding up the mountain” or “you recall seeing an old mine on the other side of the valley and heard rumours it ran straight through the mountain”). That way the players can voice the possibilities in character.
Path of Possibilities
As I don’t plan on ever publishing this campaign, I need not fully detail every option. I don’t need a sprawling list of fully detailed and unique encounters akin to Storm King’s Thunder or Kingmaker. I just need some loose event: a list of incidental encounters and interesting locations. Each route doesn’t even need to be unique: the same encounter could occur in a couple different directions. However, I also don’t want to just want to force my players to face the same encounters and challenges regardless of the route. Their choice should mean not having to face certain challenges and missing certain encounters.
In planning my next session, one useful strategy is making a flowchart. Flowcharts are often handy for DMs. Really, dungeons are effectively flowcharts with each chamber in the dungeon being a box and the connecting arrows being corridors. The visual design allows me to look and see where I can cause choices to fork or merge as needed. This structure also ensures that all my paths lead to a destination, and I can spot narrative problems, such as paths that have fewer options or even assuming a single destination: my players might decided to say “eff it” and try hoofing it to a different city. Which is good to consider.
I was recently invited back to the Behind the DM Screen podcast with Jeff Greiner and Mike Shea. So I tapped them for ideas. Sometimes it’s good to just ask someone for suggestions. Forums, Reddit, and Twitter can be good for this. It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut, becoming bogged down with preconceived ideas or your subconscious assumptions regarding a situation. Asking for feedback and possibilities from people removed from the campaign can provide some great inspiration. Even if the idea isn’t exactly what you want, it might be something you can altered to fit, or start you thinking in a different direction.
For example, while talking gnolls, Mike Shea suggested having demons attack. Which is fun: I’ve had three encounters with gnolls already, so summoned demons retain the gnoll theme while being a very different menace. That might be how I start the session: a brief recap, some debate and consideration of possibilities, and then a demon attack to spur the party into action.
On the show Mike proposed a ruined temple while Jeff suggested a treant, which got me thinking of ancient druid circles and ruins. That adds some potential history to the region as a site formerly sacred to the druidic orders. There could be ties to the Feywild, or weak areas between the planes. This adds yet another potential route: a Fey Crossing. They could bypass the gnolls via another dimension.
Talking with other DMs has got me excited for some of the routes my players could take… which is dangerous. As a DM, you can’t fall in love with one path or narrative, because then you might try to guide the players in that direction, fulfilling your story rather than their story. Some attention needs to be paid for all possibilities.
Similarly, I need to focus on the entire session and not just the travel. Thinking ahead, I need/ want to have the party reach the city-state of Brighthome sometime that session and have enough time to wander throughout the city, so they’ll also have time to decide their next course of action, allowing me to plan for the subsequent session.
With a four hour session, I can probably allow for 2-3 hours of travel and another hour or two spent in the city, recovering, completing their quest, shopping, selling treasure, and generally interacting with NPCs. This means I need to have a rough idea of the layout of the city, its districts, and important locales. Some of my planning should also encompass writing descriptions of the city. I need to be able to provide the tone of the city, have some potential inns and sightseeing locations, maybe a few merchants, and the like. And, because of my desires for cool visuals, having a map of the city to display would also be nice.
At the end of the session my players not only settled on a plan for their next immediate goal, but the next three personal quests. Even at a rapid pace, I have the basic goals and framework for at *least* the next four sessions of play. To say nothing of various long term character goals that range in abstraction from “raise enough money to rebuild my home town” to “become the greatest swordsman in the land”.
I started by letting everyone plan for a bit before springing a quick encounter on them, knowing the rest of the session would be potentially combat light and it had been a month since everyone had rolled dice. Scratch the itch to kick ass first. As suggested by Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea, I began with some demons. Because it’s a way to do a gnoll-esque encounter without actually fighting gnolls. I even got a chance to break out Volo’s Guide to Monsters and include the gnoll adjacent maw demon. Also pitched by Mike Shea group was the half-orc mercenary that shares his name. “Shea” ambushed the party at a narrow pass blocked by rocks and amiably told them to “stand and deliver”, demanding a toll for passage. Instead of killing the bandit, the party offered to hire him, and the wannabe leader immediately paid Shea to move the boulders and act as a bodyguard. Suddenly there was a new NPC in the party, acting as a manservant to the noble swashbuckler. It’s also just fun to have a bandit surrender or be bought out, rather than fighting to the death.
I had a few incidental encounters and events filling the first half of the session: problems getting over the mountains, wagons tipping of steep slopes, a stone druidic circle around a petrified treant, and a band of kobold merchants bringing dragon blood to Brighthome. The later might have a dramatic effect on the campaign. Despite being paranoid over the “monsters” the party agreed to act as emissaries for the kobolds, helping bring them into the city to sell their wares. In exchange for a cut of the profits, the party agreed to introduce the kobolds to people they could trade with and establish regular sales. At just 5% of the profits, the party will likely end up with a small fortune… eventually. Slightly unexpected and mercantile. But it has a neat effect on the campaign setting: there’s now a burgeoning trade alliance between the city-state of Brighthome and the Kobold Principalities. And it has established kobolds as a not untrustworthy race in my world.
(In my campaign world, sorcerers are created through ingesting the blood of magical creatures, most commonly dragons. Thus dragon blood is highly sought as a reagent for creating sorcerers, fetching a high price. It’s purchased by governments for state sorcerers and fetches an even higher price on the black market. The Kobold Principalities make their money by bleeding sleeping dragons, then trading with other lands.)
I had loose plans for future adventures but my players opted to follow their own path; ironically, all of their plans ended up being the result of spontaneity in the adventures rather than planning. In the second session, the party saved two random NPCs: an elf wagon driver and a dwarf merchant. They agreed to escort the elf back to her homeland, also fulfilling a player’s mechanical goal to qualify for a homebrew feat. Additionally, the now dead dwarf they rescued (who fell victim to a natural “1”) broke into the chest of valuables they were escorting and pocketed several bags of gems, but the party didn’t search the body before burying it (and I gave them several opportunities to say they checked the body, reminding them that the body existed and asking what they did with it); so on their way to the elf nation they have to stop by the cairn they left to try and recover the gems. In the very first session, I also had an incidental encounter with a sleeping adult blue dragon. Upon learning that kobolds drug and bleed dragons for profit, the party decided to work with the kobolds to drain the blue dragon while also claiming its treasure for themselves. The party told the kobolds to meet them by the dragon’s lair in six weeks, when they plan on ambushing the dragon.
This is certainly a testament to spontaneity, as everything that happens in the next few sessions will be the direct result of on-the-fly thinking rather than careful planning. It’s also fairly efficient, as I haven’t spent time planning stories and hooks that are being ignored, and I’m not worrying about getting the party back onto rails that they really don’t want to be on in the first place. Which is exactly what I wanted from this campaign: the players finding their own path rather than walking down a pre-planned script.
I love it when things go according to the plan, even if the plan is “wing it.”