Borderlands Session 26

At the end of the last session, my players decided to follow a plot thread prompted by a player character’s  background rather than wait for me to introduce a new plot thread. Which is awesome, but problematic as it required a lengthy overland journey, of which I was unprepared for. Thinking on this, there were six different routes the PCs could take, and it’s probably not possible to prepare and script for all of them. That’s a lot of work and very little will see actual play. And the alternative—the same encounters regardless of the route—seems to negate the choices of the players. I’d like to have their actions and choice of route have variable consequences.

As such, I’m opting to begin the session with a filler side encounter that I had planned (and previously sketched a map for). This will kill time for some of the session, necessitating less improv. I don’t like to do this sort of forced encounter where I reuse a map for a quest seemingly skipped, but it seems preferable to an entirely ad libbed session.

Snowed In

I’d planned to have a wintertime encounter a few sessions back, to reflect the passage of time from summer to winter, and make use of cold and terrain, such as deep snow. This could also include a partially frozen pond where a PC could break through the surface into freezing water (potentially becoming trapped). Plus, a giant field of deep snow made using easel paper fitting, as the blank whiteness would be appropriate for a change.

I’d draw a path through the “snow” where people had travelled that would not be difficult terrain. This tweaks the flow of the battlefield. I also opted to have some layers, with a “hill” to climb, using several Dungeon Tiles boxes to create a tiered battlefield.

Having hunters lost in the woods seemed like a fun but simple hook. Additionally, a player had named one of the areas “the wendigo highlands”: they were all but requesting that foe. And it was an excuse to use my recently purchased Creature Codex, which has stat blocks for that monster. (Slightly awkward as the wendigo in that book was Medium while the Pathfinder/ Wizkids wendigo minis I had were Large. But that was easy to ignore.)

Improvisational Combat

I’m finding my improv skills challenged by characters of this level. The big sandbox campaign where I react was fine at low levels where I could just say “suddenly… goblins!!” but is much more challenging at high levels. In theory. I can just throw a group of five CR 3 critters at the party and this should be a challenge, but balance gets funky at level 10+, when there’s so much variability in character power level and combinations of PC powers.

Thinking ahead, I should really find CR 3, 6, 9, and 12 monsters that I can list and ready to throw at the PCs. Effectively a random encounter table based less on environment and more on the bands of foes where I can throw 5. 3, 2, or 1 of them at the party and expect a decent challenge.

Realistically, just making the lists should help, as I’ll have a better idea of the available monsters at that Challenge Rating. Having that knowledge should make me somewhat more confident at pulling out a handful of minis and throwing them onto the battlemap.

This is a good DM trick: familiarize yourself with your available resources. Trying to improvise using all the potential monsters in all the potential books just isn’t doable. But having that narrowed down to even a dozen contenders helps immensely, reducing the options to a tenth of the previous possibilities. I don’t need to memorize the stat blocks of the monsters or be overly familiar with their abilities, but just knowing they exist helps.

Mastering Combat

At the end of the previous session, the Swashbuckler asked the River King of Faerie for a boon: something to help him become the greatest swordsman in the world, which is his character goal. This is something I’d been thinking about for a while: the player asked hoping for an item or some other mechanical boon that could be passed on. But that’s not how 5e works. Plus, it seems lame to become the greatest swordsman in the land because you had a really spiffy belt.

But I need to consider this hook as well, and place the “teacher” at a location the party will pass. Or at least not far out of their way. This means the teacher needs to be on their route, or pretty close to their final destination. This might lead to a neat paradox where the party needs to choose between visiting the trainer or fulfiling a major quest.

I also need to draw up a map to said teacher, as one was handed to the players. Well, this isn’t absolutely necessary, but I like handing out physical props. Plus, I heard about using a UV ink pen to add invisible “moon runes” to maps, and I want to try that out.

I still need to think of some “reward” for the training to reflect being educated in the ways of the blade by a master swordsman. Maybe divorcing offhand attacks from bonus actions for two-weapon fighting.

But this is still a few sessions out, so I’m still in the brainstorming phase.

Post-Game Report

An unexpected problem with non-human races came up. With the campaign in the middle of winter, the two cold blooded PCs decided to bail on the remote mountain village the PCs had adopted to summer in the desert. Which makes sense, so I can’t protested. However, when presented with the possibility of a handful of hunters freezing to death, the party decided not to retrieve them via magic and venture out without them. One PC had a replacement PC handy for temporary play, but the other did not. This meant they were sitting out the first few hours of the game.

Meanwhile, I was waffling between having one or two wendigo on the encounter. As a result, on a whim, I opted for two wendigo despite being the group a PC down. That way the player without a character could run one of the wendigo. She was… merciless, and followed my lead of attacking downed PCs. Despite being freshly rested and well positioned, poor rolls against the wendigo’s aura hurt the party and by the end three PCs were down, two dead and one merely dying. The finally PC triumphed and forced the fallen Dragonborn Paladin to quaff a healing potion. They were able to resurrect one PC who restored the other. But for a while it looked like the group was edging towards a TPK. This was unexpected for what was supposed to be a filler encounter to pad the game session and save me a couple hours of improv.

From there, the group took the route I was least prepared for. Which was… interesting. But it allowed for some more worldbuilding (for both me and to the players). And might end up resulting in the most interesting stories and most travel through previously unseen areas. And it lets me describe and detail one of the regions of my campaign setting that I paid the least attention to. But most of all I locked in a hard route and firmer plan for the next couple sessions. Which is a nice change of pace.