BorderLands: Session Five
In the third session of my campaign, I planned an encounter on a road running alongside gorge, with a steep cliff on either side (one going up, one going down). It was the perfect ambush location, and a fine place for a quick combat prior to the session’s non-literal cliffhanger. I picked the monsters, drew the map, and selected the minis. Then ended up skipping it due to time. And now my players are going back over the gorge, returning to where they abandoned the body of a fallen NPC who (unknowingly) had stolen several pouches of gemstones. I can reuse the encounter! That’s a lesson from DMing 101: Introductory Gamemastering.
It might be interesting to present the gorge as a potential ambush spot (setting up the battle-map before the game) and the not have an encounter there. Emphasize to my players that I’m not recycling encounters and content. That while skipping the encounter was my choice and not theirs (albeit the result of their actions) that encounter is now gone.
Long Term Goals
Pacing is going to be an issue of the next few sessions. The party set-up a lot of personal quest. These should be accomplish-able in a reasonable number of session, but they’re not so impressive that they need to be the bulk of the campaign. However, I also don’t want the party to rocket through these side goals. Completing the immediate goals in two or three sessions feels like a good ballpark. Maybe with a session or two in the middle dedicated to a side quest.
I know the party wants to travel and get the bag of gems off the body of a fallen NPC before heading to elven lands. That feels like spine of a decent session: they’re higher level now, so facing the same threats and roads should be less of an issue. So they can travel for a good week, reaching elven lands at the end of the session. Maybe a session with side quest or two in elven lands, another session of travel, and then the dragon. That’s a reasonable guideline, subject to change if things don’t go as planned. But it gives me a framework.
Meeting the elves, gaining access to their kingdom, and earning the right to train with the elves (a character’s goal) could easily take a few sessions. There’s a good side quest there. No idea what yet… But I don’t want that to take too long. I don’t want to stymie progress in personal quests too much otherwise the players will assume gaining entry into elven lands isn’t worth the trouble and head off to face the dragon early. I might have to play that a little by ear. See how much they want in.
Because he end of last session focused so much scheming, business dealings, and planning, I was a little unprepared: it’s not always the easiest to improvise a response to every madcap scheme. Because I was focused on all the new activities, I allowed the players to just ride out of town without resupplying.
I could just let have this bite them in the ass, but buying rations has not something they’ve really worried about in recent campaigns (either higher level or Pathfinder where mundane concerns like food and ammunition cease to matter as everyone has more money than Scrooge McDuck). Even though tracking food has occurred in this campaign, it was never stressed as weeks of food had all been provided in the rescued wagons and purchased with their generic adventurer’s kits. That food needed to be replaced was easy to overlook.
Obviously, this is not a major concern in every campaign. Most games will not track food and ammunition. But it does add a nice post-apocalyptic/ survival vibe to things, when food and resources need to be hoarded and scavenged.
As such, I’ll probably start the session with a flashback: remind the players they might want to buy some food before the trip. And arrows. Maybe some horse feed. Give people a chance to get the mundane shopping done. It’s a slow start to the session, but probably the best time as everyone is still getting settled and chatting.
Laying the Groundwork
At this point in the campaign, I should also begin seeding future adventures based on player backgrounds. Initially I eschewed character stories as 1st level characters be fragile, and everyone was still getting a feel for how they wanted to portray their characters.
Now that things have been established, I can play with backstories a bit more. Explore the motivations of the characters. For example, the noble fighter who wants to be the best swordsman in the land needs a rival to defeat. A couple characters have trinkets that come with interesting hooks, such as an indecipherable treasure map.
The flashback also works for that. I can include some more hooks, remind people of certain characters, and the like.
While seeding future tales, this is also when I should more heavily lay down what is going on elsewhere in the world, and what might happen in the future.
I purposely don’t want to plan things too far in advance in this campaign, and do not want to have the next three or four levels plotted – let alone the rest of the campaign – but it is a good idea to have a vague concept of what’s going on so I can keep things in the background consistent. I don’t need to plan out the exact timeline of what is going on with the gnolls, but it’s handy to know why they’re riled up, their immediate plans, and long term goals. So even if my players never set out to actively get involved in “the predation of gnolls” the various clues are scenes and rumours aren’t contradictory.
Additionally, while considering the business schemes of my players, I’m very aware I was mostly reactive and things went a little too smoothly for my players. Which is fine for that session, but there should be future consequences as actions ripple outward. This is something to start planning and brainstorming about now. Again, I don’t need to outline the entire chain of events right now, but if I start brainstorming few ideas here and there over the next few weeks, I’ll be ready for when the group returns home to see how their entrepreneurial business is going.
Two things I’m less fond of in 5th Edition so far are overland travel and foraging.
The environment can be deadly in 5e with exhaustion the flat DCs, but it’s also really easy for one party member to gather food. A decent Wisdom score and average rolls can easily feed the entire party. It takes the edge off surviving off the wild.
The rate of overland travel is also weird, mostly due to the simplification of the rules. The rate of travel isn’t increased for different rates of speed, which also means mounts aren’t significantly faster. Mounts just effectively let you gain an extra hour of travel for free, which isn’t all that much. It’s probably pretty realistic all things considered, but it feels slow.
I’m going to keep an eye on these rules to see if I want to adjust them or not.
I had planned to end after a session of travel – when the party reached the elven city – but upon reaching that part of the story there was time left in the session. I quickly altered my plans and not only had the party reach the elven city but spend some time there: selling the recovered gems and other loot, socialising, hunting for magic item shops, and earning some cash performing odd jobs. It also provided the opportunity to set-up a couple side quests for the next session, which was a definite advantage. In retrospect, I probably should have always planned to include new quests, and it was foolish to ever consider ending upon the arrival of the city.
Part of the reason things went so swiftly was that after five sessions of wandering across the countryside I’m getting really tired of travel adventures and I’ve used all my A-material. Overland sessions with their one or two encounters each day – allowing the opportunity for novas and regular short rests – make fights less of a challenge. And there’s only so many wandering monsters one group can encounter before things seem forced, and a limited number of small incidental encounters or events that can occur before those start to feel like filler. This goes double for when the group is crossing over a region they just passed by four days prior. How much would have changed?
Overland/ travelling adventures are not a strength. I like a good investigative mystery. But that’s not something this campaign is currently lending itself towards. So I muddle forward, doing the best I can.
It will be lovely having a nice dungeon, so I made sure to set one up through a character’s personal goals. The group’s archer wants to train with the elves (to gain access to a feat or bow or something to be a better marksman) and so I gave him a couple tasks to perform in order to potentially be accepted into an elven academy. This makes things significantly more linear for next session and allows me to cram three or four encounters into a much shorter span. And it’s a nice change of pace from the past few sessions.
Off the top of my head I made the villains ettercaps, describing spider folk to my players. I love ettercaps as they’re nice and creepy and allow me to use a variety of different creatures (giant spiders, swarms of spiders, ettercaps themselves) and also some interesting terrain (sticky webs, web traps, climbing webs, etc). The challenge rating of ettercaps is a bit high for my party, but my players be tough and experiences so I don’t foresee a problem.
Famous last words…