Borderlands: Session Fourteen

It’s amazing how two weeks can just flash by. This session snuck up on me and I barely had time to really plan or get my thoughts down. It didn’t help that I was ill for a good chunk of this past week. My session planning ended up a little truncated, and I spent much of the Saturday sketching out ideas.

End Game

In a few sessions, one of my players will be taking over the table for a mini-campaign. He’s been somewhat unsatisfied with 5e, missing miss the plethora of options provided by Pathfinder. He can’t devote as much free time to theory-crafting characters (a pastime I’ve heard described as “lonely fun”). However, with the extra brain matter freed from this activity, he’s instead found a story he wants to tell and would like to test out 5th Edition as a Dungeon Master. So I get to step out from behind the screen for a little while. And it’ll give the players a chance to try out other characters and classes, scratching an itch for different options.

This means my campaign needs to have an “end”. Or rather, a natural place to pause. There needs to be a moment the plot wraps up and threads of immediate concern aren’t left dangling. Thankfully, my Predation of Gnolls storyline was already close to wrapping up. The characters had been given clues and loose directions to the gnoll’s excavation site. The major plot points left are the journey to the excavation site, finding out what the gnolls and their secret masters are digging up, and killing all those involved in naughtiness.

Following the mini-campaign, I can also jump the campaign ahead a few months. Let the players have some downtime to train, rebuild their hometown, or establish themselves in the fortress claimed from the hobgoblins. There’s time for the characters to have some personal business or get into trouble, initiating the next storyline. Plus, it makes the plot feel less rushed, as there’s not dramatic problems and world altering events occurring every other week.

On the Road

At odds with the desire to wrap things up sooner rather than later, this session will likely be another journey. Some overland travel, a few random encounters, and places of interest.

At this point, this is the usual.

It’s curious to devote half or a third of my remaining sessions to limited exposition and “filler” encounters, but it also does nothing to rush the plot forward unnecessarily fast, reducing a journey of five days to a single lengthy paragraph of Grey Boxed Text. Also, after the vast dungeon crawl through the hobgoblin fortress in the previous session, I didn’t want to jump right to another potential dungeon crawl. There needs to be more of a buffer.

Thinking on the journey, I have a few monsters that haven’t made the cut in previous sessions due to time or tone. I have a number of Reaper Bones spiders: a couple I painted as normal spiders, a few were painted red-and-black for a magma spider look, and the rest were painted yellow and brown to become sand spiders. A sneaky ambush monster for desert travel, and a good middle encounter for this session. I often find the best motivation for including a monster is a cool miniature the player’s haven’t seen.

I’m also thinking of including some minotaurs with desert sailing vessels: boats on rails and wheels for swift travel over the dunes. Partly because it’s fun, partly because it’s the right area of the world, and partly because minotaurs are a race that hasn’t seen a lot of action in the campaign yet: an intelligent humanoid that isn’t a goblinoid or gnoll. Diversity in opponents is nice. Another reason is because one player envisioned his character as a sailor before finding out my world lacked oceans, so this is a sneaky way of enabling that goal. It also removes the worry of horses for the final session or two while underground: the PCs won’t be concerned that gnolls will eat their mounts or an inability to escape.

A gnoll encounter is also pretty much required. A scouting party or guard patrol. I’ll probably pull a random encounter group from Nord Games’ Revenge of the Horde.  Plains gnolls are perfect for my needs at the moment.

From there I can consider other sites of mystery or history for montage scenes. Such as a ruined village or the site of an ancient battle or long forgotten monuments. Signs they’re passing through an area that was once inhabited but is now long since abandoned. This is to break-up the pace so it’s not just a series of back-to-back random encounters. A balance is needed. Just having sites of wonder and mystery get boring after a while, especially if they can’t become combat encounters. After a couple curious sites, the players will want to keep moving. Inserting a combat encounter or two in-between – even if it’s otherwise a filler encounter that adds nothing to the story – spaces out the wondrous sites and makes them more desirable to investigate. And the presence of combat encounters adds some uncertainty if a site a location of mystery or an ambush or an encounter to be triggered.

Theoretically I could also insert decision points (go north or south around the river, over or around the massive hill, walk through the seemingly peaceful forest glade or avoid entering, taking the direct road or longer route) but that’s harder in largely trackless desert wastes, and the destination is clear. These are generally nice as they add some agency

Although… I could revisit my hexploration concept for exploring the final few square miles. I can fill the area with some rando monsters. There are quite a few desert threats from Tome of Beasts that haven’t seen play at my table. And that allows for some of the above agency.

Tower of Exposition

The true bad guys behind my gnoll storyline are really the yuan-ti. This came out of Volo’s Guide to Monsters as much as anything else, and the realization yuan-ti should be as much at home in the desert as in the stereotypical steaming jungles: there’s no shortage of desert snakes. This spawned the idea of the lost ziggurat containing… something… which was abandoned thousands of years prior and buried: first by time and then desert sands. The snakefolk needed slaves to dig it out, being being farther away from their center of power, so they manipulated the gnolls into acquiring the workforce .

However, in the last couple sessions, I’ve come to realize my players don’t know about the yuan-ti. When confronted by the concept of snake-people, my players assumed some form of naga as responsible. As a non-OGL race, they didn’t appear in Pathfinder or the commonly searched System Reference Document. Snake-men are pretty iconic, but not overly original like Mind Flayers, beholders, or displacer beasts, and might not see as much play in homegames. Less “cool” factor? The yuan-ti also haven’t had a stand-out place in an iconic adventure (beyond Dwellers of the Forbidden City, but that had a lot of different races going at once, also introducing the aboleth, bullywug, and mongrelman to name just a few).  

Which added another requirement to this session: exposition. I had to name drop the yuan-ti and distinguish them from nagas. It also means I should devote some of next/ final session also explaining who the yuan-ti are, their origin, their motives, etc.

Because the players thought a naga was behind this and nagas hate yuan-ti, I decided it might be interesting to bring in a naga. So the players can encounter a strange tower in the desert that houses an immortal naga. I’m uncertain if it should be a good guardian naga or an evil spirit naga. Both are close to outside their challenge rating, but it shouldn’t be a combat encounter either way; naga hate yuan-to so be it noble or wicked, it will want the PCs to disrupt the yuan-ti plans.

Lost Ziggurat

Part of my planning has to involve the buried yuan-ti ziggurat. I need to know how large it is and how many tiers are in the pyramid. Partly for descriptive reasons, but also in case the players really ask the naga for details or the party rockets through encounters and starts delving.

I’ll be building this one out of Dungeon Tiles. From experience, the best way to build a Dungeon Tiles dungeon is to just lay down tiles in the shape I want and assign rooms as needed, shuffling when I need to resize or reshape, and then describe and populate the chambers after. I’ve learned the hard way that designing the dungeon and then trying to built it in tiles is super frustrating, as I can never find the right tile when I need it. While I’m not going to pre-plan the chambers, I can design around my needs, with stairs that go from level to level, square-shaped floor plans, and each lower level larger than the previous.

The last dungeon crawl I ran (the hobgoblin fortress from Session 13) was fairly combat focused, so I’d like this one to have more puzzles and areas of interest. More of a classical dungeon crawl with traps (but obvious ones and fewer Gotcha! traps) as well as a few tricks or areas of magic. Of course, this takes a *lot* more prep and imagination, so hopefully the players won’t get too far into the dungeon and I’ll be able to devote more minutes into brainstorming creative rooms between sessions.

Post-Game Report

Once again, the most difficult part of tabletop gaming is managing the players. One of my players has been super stressed in the last few games, as he was given a deadline by his academic adviser to finish his dissertation. Overworked, he decided to take a sabbatical from the campaign. I quickly tapped a former player who had to leave the game a few years ago due to work but has since become more available. He happily agreed to fill in. Then, at the last minute, the first player said he could attend after all.

Suddenly, I had to accommodate five players in the adventure instead of four, which required an overhaul of the combat encounters. Mostly I just added an extra monster or two. 5e is easy with that.

Much of the session went pretty much as expected. The minotaurs were killed and their sand skiffs claimed, the journey was made, and the top of the Ziggurat reached.

Halfway through the session I had the small incidental encounter of an ancient battlefield. It was centered around a large stone megalith or pilth, covered in religious writing. I described how the desert sand refused to blow over the area of the battlefield and how the weapons of the various fallen warriors remained untouched and unblemished despite the passage of centuries. Just a site of mystery and wonder. While the party left the bones alone, the Rogue and Swashbuckler claimed a potion and a bead of force from the bodies, against the advice of the Sharpshooter and the guest dragonborn Paladin. This theft/ desecration should probably have some consequences, but darned if I know what. I might have to consider ramifications in the future.

My setting has distant gods, which are implied and subject to faith. So any consequences to possible desecration need to be subtle, and open to interpretation.

I quickly realized the hexploation was likely a mistake. I had a few neat ideas for side encounters and places, but the naga’s tower *needed* to be triggered, as the backstory was needed. Everything else was totally superflous. As much as I want a firm sandbox where players pick their own direction and encounter whatever they pass, they *needed* to see the naga. How they interacted with the naga was up to them, but they at least needed that opportunity to learn more and have “yuan-ti” namechecked. So that tower changed locations. I should have had the tower encountered on the road instead. But, this was all invisible to the players, who simply felt like they’d asked the right questions and got to the excavation site fairly quickly. That’s not a bad thing.

The players have made a few deals with the devil in the past: working with kobolds, taking the aid of a sand hag, allying with questionable nobles, and the like. As such, it made sense that the naga in question was an evil spirit naga. I gave it some ancient elven slaves and had its mission to guard ancient lore. I even populated its tower full of ancient books and scrolls, all of which would rewrite known history of the days before the Catastrophe. This was very much teasing the players with the potential of forgotten lore and forbidden magics. Really, I should almost have had the naga be more helpful and make a request for the party in exchange for greater assistance. Which follows the pattern of the party making deals with lesser evils that may have future consequences.

I might have to begin the next session with a flashback, to posit that situation. Maybe there’s some magical books in the Ziggurat at that are coveted by the naga.

Bonus Monster

Sandtrap Spider

Medium beast, unaligned
Armour Class 16 (natural armour)
Hit Points 67 (9d8 + 27)
Speed 40 ft., burrow 20 ft., climb 20 ft.

Str 13(+1) Dex 16(+3) Con 16(+3)
Int 3(-4) Wis 12(+1) Cha 4(-3)

Skills Perception +3, Stealth +7
Senses darkvision 30 ft., tremorsense 30 ft., passive Perception 13
Challenge 2 (450 XP)

Ambusher. The sand spider has advantage on attack rolls against any creature it has surprised.

Surprise Attack. If the sand spider surprises a creature and hits it with an attack during the first round of combat, the target takes an extra 10 (3d6) damage from the attack.

Spider Climb. The spider can climb difficult surfaces without needing to make an ability check.


Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 7 (1d8 +3) piercing damage, and the target must make a DC 13 Constitution saving throw. On a failed save the creature takes 11 (2d10) poison damage and is poisoned for 1 minute, or half as much damage on a successful one and the target isn’t poisoned. If the saving throw fails by 5 or more, the target is also are paralyzed while poisoned in this way.

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