Borderlands: Session Thirteen

It’s been a long time since my last game session. It felt like the campaign only just started again after the last hiatus.

The end of the last session was a little funky, and I definitely rushed the pace to get to the ending I wanted. Unfortunate and problematic then, but a little more useful now as the start of this coming session is more dramatic. The party ended the session looking at the towers of the hobgoblin fortress, which holds both a threat to peace in the region and the jerk warlord that killed their friend and looted his stuff. Which makes the tone of session somewhat easy: it’s a dungeon crawl. I can plan out the fortress then populate its rooms and 90% of my prep is done. Probably…

The catch with a fortress/dungeon is that it theoretically has areas of ingress other than the primary door. There’s not an uncertain number of meters of impenetrable earth between the chambers and the characters. Logically, as a fortress, it will have few windows for light, balconies for scenic views (or romantic soliloquies), lookout posts, and roof access for potential siege weaponry. This means there’s the potential for the players to attempt to skip right to the end boss, scaling the outer wall of the fortress, hoping their makeshift entrance leads to the throne room. Which is narratively odd, but I’m not going to discourage or shoot down the attempt. If my players manage to shake-up the dungeon, that’s their prerogative. And it’s interesting and memorable. However… my players could get clever and just kill the warlord and leave, hoping infighting will keep the hobgoblins busy. Or after the fight decide that just getting their stuff back was enough of a reward and flee.

Dungeon Design

I didn’t so much plan out the fortress/dungeon as muddle it together.

I wanted a set-piece for the encounter, so rather than drawing the tower, I constructed it out of the (lovely but sadly discontinued product line) TerraClips, which are basically 3D Dungeon Tiles that clip together to form walls and can stack into multi-level buildings. I only have so many clips and tiles, which limits my design (more often than not the number of clips I have determines what I can build). So the towers were capped in height. I threw some floors together, and then tried to jigsaw puzzle them together into some logical sense, shuffling a few rooms as necessary.

This worked but wasn’t ideal, as it meant the layout wasn’t perfect or logical. However, it does make some in-world sense, as the tower was repurposed by the goblinoids.

Having designed the tower a month ago, I found myself now having to map them out and plan what was where. I decided the easiest method of doing this was to snap pictures of each floor and then draw lines over the walls. I could then thrown the line drawing into my adventure document to label as needed.

The first step was populating the rooms. Which was often just throwing as many goblinoids in as seemed appropriate. Having both run and played 5e for *well* over a dozen sessions – and D&D in general for more years than I can casually number – I have a decent concept of encounter balance. Plus, 5e as a whole less concerned about “balanced encounters”. Additionally, for a dungeon crawl like this, I don’t particularly need to worry about individual encounters so much as the whole adventuring day. Resources will be atrophied by small fights, but the group can also pause and recover from nasty battles. Really, my players are lucky I don’t just grab a handful of miniatures and chuck them at the table, with whatever ends up on the battlemap being the encounter.

That said, I like the idea of logical rooms. Not every chamber needs to feature a textbook medium or hard encounter: if the kitchen should house three or four goblins skilled in the culinary arts rather than weaponry, I don’t need to include a high level guard to “balance” the encounter or give the chef a dangerous pet so the budget is appropriate for a group the PCs’ level. The party can just meet three goblins and either force them to run, get the gobos to surrender & talk, or mercilessly slaughter them. But I’m also free to have those goblins jump into the previous encounter for some drama, if that’s needed. As such, I’m populating less for encounter balance and more for what monsters should be present.

While considering what the rooms are, I should also consider what the rooms were. What was the purpose of the room a few hundred years prior, when it was controlled by elves? Does any sign of the room’s original purpose remain? But this needs to be limited to a small paragraph. Any more is needless *and* risks boring my players with irrelevant details that literally have zero impact on the adventures. But I like the flavour and it’s a way of making the environment come alive so the dungeon isn’t just squares on a battlemap. And it reinforces the borrowed nature of the dungeon to the players. 

Really, describing rooms is a little like presenting a Nonplayer Character. You need to make them slightly memorable and evocative enough the players can picture them mentally, but you can’t devote much table time to the scene.

The Next Step

Not knowing how far into the dungeon or how fast the fortress will be conquered, it’s a good idea for me to plan events and incidents following the defeat of the hobgoblin warlord. 5th Edition can play quickly, so the massive dungeon might be completed with an hour or two of play remaining. Even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to have laid the groundwork for the next session

My players have made their likely goal known: they want to discover what’s up with the gnolls. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give them some options or choices. I just have to avoid placing lives on the line or making time a factor, like I did with my spectacular fail last session. Because that’s not a choice then; if I put lives on the line, I’m effectively holding hostages in exchange for the player’s attention. I also need to have some ways of seeding the location of the gnoll’s activities. Something to narrow down the search area from an area of a few hundred miles to something that can be searched in a few days.

I can do both by having with some NPCs held by the hobgoblins. It might also be interesting to have a couple gnoll prisoners: outcasts from the pack who are rejecting being ruled, and can provide the players with some of the backstory from the gnoll perspective. But, prisoners and captives have being encountered fairly regularly in the adventures to date, so I need to think twice before adding more helpless figures that need escorted to safety.

Even if the group finishes with ample time and ventures quickly across the deserts towards the gnoll encampments, I doubt they’ll reach the excavation site by the end of the session, let alone begin their investigation. It would be a good ending point, but also an interesting start to the next session. But even if they begin their journey, I’ll still have plenty of time to think about the contents of the excavation and lock in the details.

Post-Game Report

I’d considered my players methodically going through the fortress/ dungeon, climbing up to one of the roofs, scaling the wall to the balcony, or even scampering up to the bridge connecting the two halfs of the tower.

I hadn’t considered the Swashbuckler and the Grippli rogue being made invisible (twin spell via the Red Mage) and working their way through the dungeon to find the exact room of the boss, and risking the encounter at half strength.

That’s players for you.

Despite the odds, they somehow managed to do get all the way through the fortress, only being spotted once: a minotaur managed to sense the Swashbuckler and attack, but the pair managed to get through an iron-banded door and then seal it closed with an immovable rod. Then, still invisible, they found the hobgoblin Warlord. I planned this as a tough fight for the entire party, but instead it was just two PCs. But they had the advantage of a surprise round. An initially invisible rogue and a battle master fighter going full nova. Much damage was taken, but they won! Then, the floor below, the minotaur broke through the sealed door and charged up. Shortly after, one of the other rooms dispatched their reinforcements. I think we went through three ‘encounters’ without dropping out of initiative. It was a big mega-brawl with multiple waves of enemies. Partway through, the party managed to reunite but was hurting fairly badly before a luckily roll on the wand of wonder table gave the party a chance to take a short rest. (For an item of pure chaos, it sure likes spawning trees.) From there it was a more standard dungeon crawl, albeit one with alerted enemies who called for reinforcements and had time to coordinate. I also got to be a jerk and have the injured hobgoblin devastator take a short rest as well. The devastator was a great recurring menace, surviving multiple encounters, but always managing to flee to the next encounter area to try and strike again. It’s fun to have an enemy piss off the party and then run. They will hunt them to the ends of the earth. Or at the very least, the ends of the dungeon.

I was a tough session for the players. No one dropped, but a couple different PCs were reduced to single digit hit points while the spellcaster exhausted their spells, making it feel like a reasonable challenge but not overwhelming or needlessly deadly. But it’s still interesting that a series of a half-dozen small combats designed to whittle down health became two mega combats.

Despite being a full session of pretty much continual combat or dungeon crawling, there were some great highlights. Distracting goblins with a drift globe for one. In the warlord’s office was a trapped chest that was discovered early in the session. It was moved to the final chamber with bad guys before being magically open for a satisfying use of the explosive contents. And in the penultimate battle, when there were two goblins left, I had once betray his fellows to save his own life. Totally a goblin thing to do. He was renamed “Bernie” and used to translate the assorted goblin writings found throughout the fortress. Languages are hard to gain in 5e, and finding a way to translate would be a needless sidequest. It allowed me to give the players an info dump, while also keeping it brief but also entertaining as I paraphrase as a goblin (which engages the players as they have to translate the insane goblin speak). Plus, goblin NPCs are just plain fun: they’re ridiculous and amazing comic relief without being childish or goofy, with a dash of pure malice lurking under the surface.

With maps from the hobgoblin warlord’s office and information gleamed from a gnoll prisoner, the party now has some ideas of the direction of the gnoll excavation and more clues of the force at work behind the scenes. Next session they’re finishing the looting of the fortress, checking for any hidden parts of unidentified magic, and then they’re heading off across the desert. 

 

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