Borderlands Session Eighteen

My homegame took a sudden, unexpected hiatus due to DM depression. Gaming, which is my primary escape, became mentally and emotionally associated with a stressor. This created a lovely feedback loop where I became stressed and automatically turned to my default method of unwinding, which now generated more stress. As I result I all but cancelled my campaign (and put my webcomic on break). Which also deprived a couple of my players of the opportunity to play and regular socialization with friends.

Feeling better, I decided to resume my D&D game a couple weeks ago, after testing the gaming waters by playing in an online Star Trek Adventures game (streamed on Twitch and archived on YouTube). But – because there’s always a “but” – my timing was poor, with the looming holidays. So I had a week to prepare for my game after weeks of letting my D&D skills atrophy. And a busy work week at that, so I had almost zero prep time. Just an hour or two to skim the Monster Manual & Tomb of Beasts for monsters of the appropriate level that match the terrain.  

Zero Prep?

Because I’d placed few villages and settlements in the area being traversed, this suggests the party is travelling through largely uncharted territory. They don’t even know the exact bearing of their destination beyond “southish”. This means I can describe them navigating through unknown valleys and having to work around false trails and dead ends. I have two rangers in my party, who will be quick to point out that they cannot become lost. But there is a world of difference between not becoming lost and not picking the best path and quickest path to your destination.

Before my sabbatical, I’d planned to draw up a map of the mountainous region the players were travelling through and have them hexcrawl through unknown territory. Picking a path and mapping this unknown are full of dead ends, box canyons, cliffs, ruins, and places of interest. But now I have nowhere near enough time for that. Armed with little more than a list of five monsters, a map of the surrounding terrain, and the PC’s destination, I have to rely on my improv skills. The hexcrawl will be must more spontaneous and descriptive.

One advantage I have is a handful of potential encounter seeds that went unused in previous sessions. Since I’ve been running sandboxes and have been committing my plans and notes to Google Docs, I have a number of ideas and encounters brainstormed in advanced.

This is also a situation where having a fully fleshed out campaign setting is helpful. If I’m lacking an amazing idea or description, I can fall back on some existing world lore. I don’t need to rely on potential imagination that I may or may not have on game day, since I’ve done much of that work in advance. I know the terrain, the distance they’re travelling, and what they could encounter en route.

Also, the gap between sessions helps me kill some playtime recapping and reminding the players of the current status quo and their goals.  Socialization and off-game chatter can also help burn through time, while giving me more time to think as the players chat and catch-up on recent life and pop culture events. Off topic chatter can get annoying when I’m trying to tell a story and get an adventure completed within a set time. Conversely, my friends are all getting together to have fun, and socializing is a large part of that. Normally have to wrangle things, but this session I can let them off the leash a little more…

Absent Friends

I’m trying to cram two sessions into December, before the holidays and mandated family quality time derail things. And with the catch that only two back-to-back weekends work for most of the players. However, one can’t make it to both (needing one weekend for other tasks) while another can’t make it to the second.

The first player also missed the last two sessions, so their character hasn’t been part of recent events. The second player is trickier, as their character is the focus of the current storyline.

Juggling schedules. I completely and totally did not miss this aspect of gaming during my sabbatical.

I’m opting to tell the first player (a Dragonborn Paladin) to attend the latter of the sessions. This allows me more time to find a better place to work their return back into the plot. So the party doesn’t just stumble across them in the middle of a featureless plain. This is important, as it gives me an ending to strive for: I need to have the party reach a location where they might realistically encounter an old ally. Having an end in mind allows me to set the pace of the journey. I know when to speed up the pace and when to just let things slow down and get personal. With no idea of the session’s goal, it’s easier to let the game meander and become unfocused, or have them rocket across the landscape. Even in the sandiest of sandboxes without even the hint of rails, having an idea of an ending lets you determine when to have an extra encounter, when to slip into a travel montage, or when to just set-up that bit of downtime banter around the campfire when you’re trying to slow down the pace. 

Meanwhile, the second player (the Red Mage) can just fade into the background for the subsequent session while they’re busy with their thesis. Which works fine for that character as they’re losing their magic and are unable to regain some of their class features; it makes sense that they might sit out a potential side-quest. As the party is smack dab in the middle of that character’s plot arc, this means I need to be ready to seed unrelated stories, or jump on interests show by the other players. And it means I can start brainstorming ideas right now. Again, it also helps with pacing as I don’t need to get them to their destination particularly quickly, as the longer it takes the easier it will be to have that player back.

Post-Game Report

This pretty much went as expected. There was chatting and catching-up, and reminders of who was where and what had been happening.

I included a couple simple combat encounters between navigation tasks, opting to use some classics (such as wyverns) rather than a newer Tome of Beast critter. One reason is that it was an opportunity to break out my new flight stands

What is odd is that despite my massive collection of minis, I only have a single wyvern and had to swap in a couple dragons. It looks like three or four prepainted wyverns have been released, all fairly pricey, and Reaper has only released metal ones. I always find it odd when a classic monster is hard to represent at the table. Wyverns: super necessary as a Bones or Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures. But I’m a weirdo who likes the minis to match the monster…

On a whim I decided to bring back Greiner the Bard, named for Jeff Greiner of the Tomb Show, and based on a suggestion from Jeff during my last appearance on Behind the DM Screen. Said bard has made a few appearances and is usually some good comic relief. This time was no different, which allowed for some great interactions at the table as the party debated how to get rid of him while the Sharpshooter attempted to engage in an elven lute battle (despite having a -1 Charisma).

I continue to use RealmWorks as a visual aid, showing the “fog of war” map that only reveals the areas the party has travelled. However, I’ve been using a cropped regional copy of the world map, and they quickly reached the edge. This session was very quickly lacking a visual aid beyond the well-travelled lands. I’ll have to remember to crop a new map for the next session. Honestly, having two separate maps indistinctly connected is a happy accident, emphasising the disconnected realms and isolated nature of the world. There’s lots of unknowns areas and places where maps should be labelled “here there be dragons”.