Borderlands: Session Twelve

The next session of my Borderlands campaign is scheduled for two week after the previous session. And I could spent that fortnight drinking heavily and rolling my face back and forth over the keyboard and still be ready for the next game. With the unused scenes and events planned from the previous game, I probably have the better part of a session remaining. The first quarter of the session will be taken up by a short dungeon crawl through a kruthik hive, and then it’s off across the desert again.

My Cup Runneth Over

Right now I don’t need to worry about planning, I need to worry about over-planning.

With less prep needed to plan the session, it’s tempting to script my existing ideas more heavily or plan out additional encounters and parts of the session. But this reduces the flexibility and reactive nature of the campaign. It adds rails where there was none. And the more I plan an encounter or event, the more I fall in love with that scene and its inclusion becomes mandatory. The alternative is I spend several hours planning events that just become dropped, wasting time that could have been spent doing other preparatory activities.

Instead of doing adventure preparation, I should be doing more campaign preparation or bookkeeping. Some advanced mapping for my display, including the city of Deer Los and the location of the hobgoblin fortress. I should also take the opportunity to fill out some details in my campaign notebook, keeping track of names and other important notes. Getting hard copies of those details written down so they’re easily at hand during play and I don’t need to wait for a file to load on my iPad.

And of course, I should continuing to brainstorm new plots and events for the campaign. I can consider the fallout of a few of those actions in the previous session.

Wonder at the Wondrous

One thing I can poke away at is options for new magical items.

This campaign is high magic for 5th Edition, but low magic compared to Pathfinder or 3e. I’m trying hard to eschew magical items that just confer a static plus in favour of more flavourful items. I’ve introduced a few items that are potent and potentially game breaking, such as the instant fortress, decanter of endless water, immovable rod, and others. Items that are cool but would sell for *ridiculously* high amounts of money in a 3e-style campaign, and thus would be immediately sold in favour of a +4 sword of lame boring bonusness.  In addition to the above I also had an endless bar of soap offered to the party by a merchant, quills that transcribe what is written, or an eternal stick of chank, and a magical teaspoon that stirs itself. Things wealthy nobles or eccentric wizards would enchant as items of convenience. To say nothing of accidental magical items.

I’ll be spending some of the extra time between games poking away at those items.

Fortress of Doom

I might also pre-build the fortress of the hobgoblin warlord. As he wasn’t meant to be a real plot hook beyond a small fight, he didn’t have a planed base of operations. Now he needs one and it should potentially be impressive.

The ruins of Deer Los are a city on a bay, so placing the keep close to the shore makes sense. Defend the harbour. I’m suddenly thinking of something akin to the fortress Pyke in the Iron Isles, as seen in the Game of Thrones television show: where there’s a series of towers on rocky tors accessible by bridges, with entrance to one typically being done at high tide via boat. Only now the waters have retreated, so they’re high and dry and actually more defensible.

I could just draw things out, but I also have a ready supply of TerraClips that I enjoy using. I don’t break them out nearly enough. I can easily make a couple decently sized tower-fortresses. It will take some time but should have a nice reaction at the table. And having a visual of the outside of the fortress will be useful in the planning. I’d like to end the session with that reveal, so the players can consider how to tackle the fortress over the long break between sessions that is occupying most of April.

Post-Game Report

The session became well, had a decent middle, but ended unfortunately weak. And I have no one to blame but myself.

The dungeon crawl with the kruthiks was nice and satisfying. Lots of small fights and easy encounters that gradually wore away hit points until the group faced off against the hive queen. All the kruthiks got to show off most of their abilities, which is a nice change of pace from many monster encounters, where things die too fast for even half their fun options to be used.

This was followed by a short aside back in town, resolving a small personal side quest that was somehow missed in the full session spent wandering about town. Then more overland travel, a couple incidental encounters and side monsters, including my “sand trap” / reflavoured roper. (Ropers are nasty monsters in 5e: the high AC is a nice change of pace and makes them last surprisingly long.)

But, nearing the end of the session, I threw in a small reference to a new side quest or event going on in the world. In theory, it was meant to be a new potential goal for after the party was done dealing with the hobgoblins. But, in my description, it seemed more pressing. So the group launched into this quest unexpectedly.

This allowed me to describe some new locations in the world and use some of the world build I’d been doing between sessions. However, because we were running short of time, I didn’t want to have too many side events breaking up this side quest or to drag it out too long. I wanted to keep the pace going so I could still try and end with the hobgoblin fortress, as I’d built the damn thing and wanted to show it off. As such, I had much of the travelling between locations done via narrative. But since it was lots of travel *and* the first time the party was reaching new places, it meant I was talking at the table for 10-15 minutes. I’d inadvertently done the exact thing I was trying not to do, and buggered the pace of the end of the session trying to rush to that reveal. While also simultaneously boring a player with a wall of descriptive text.

In retrospect, I should have made things less desperate and emphasized time was available. Or just said “eff it” and given the side quest the room it needed to breathe. Let the hobgoblins wait until the following session.

A session can have a weak opening or a weak middle and still be remembered as fun. But when it has a weak ending, that sticks out in the memory, as that’s what sticks with you when you leave the table. I should have tried harder for a strong, satisfying end to the session, even if it came at the expense of my plans.

It’s always good to touch base with your players and see how they feel about the campaign as a whole. Right now, my players also seem to want a little more structure and plot now to the campaign. They’re feeling pulled in too many directions by the sandbox and want a few more obvious rails. They are still fairly used to tighter plots after years of published campaigns. So I should really work towards advancing and eventually resolving the Predation of Gnolls story-line/ metaplot. After the hobgoblins are dealt with, that should probably be the “plot”. I know they’re planning on investigating this anyway, so I don’t need to hook them. Instead, I just need to give them a push in the right direction. Some guidance in where to go.