BorderLands: Session Seven

It has been said that none of the Gamemaster’s plans withstand contact with the players. My last session was a good reminder that the Dungeon Master is also a player, because I totally messed up all of my own plans.


Shortly before the start of the session, I decided the magical item requested by a Player Character were a pair of bracers owned by a famed elven swashbuckler (now retired) and the black market (aka “the Dwellers Under the City”)  hired a trio of thieves to break into her home to acquire the bracers. This burglary turned sour and two of the three thieves were killed along with the swashbuckler, with the third thief (and now murderer) fleeing. He delivered the goods as promised (the Dwellers are strictly Lawful and value their contracts, and thus hire people who also uphold their bargains), but shortly afterwards the thief was captured. The elven constabulary decided to monitor and raid the location of the drop, arresting the associated Dwellers and the presumed complicit buyer.

This was all planned to be a quick disruption of the PCs plans. Not even a side quest. More of a non-random encounter. The players were expecting a mugging or betrayal, and were in position for that, but instead that have to deal with the town guard who are ostensibly the “good guys”. I was running with my player’s expectations, giving them what they wanted, only with a twist.

Then one of my players asked their local quest giver if there were any other tasks required of him. The one player character not going to the meeting. He wanted to prove himself to the elves, the elves likely needed back-up when arresting potentially dangerous criminals… it made so much sense to pair the two. And meant he was as the encounter and I wasn’t splitting the party, leaving him out of the action and any potential experience.

However… thinking about the next session, it also means everything following the initial encounter is completely up in the air. If the party surrenders, the entire tone of the next few sessions will suddenly shift as they’re either arrested & put on trial, or exiled from elven lands. If the party escapes, they’re basically fugitives and can’t return to elven lands, which one character really wants. If the other players decide to aggressively pick a fight with the guards they become wanted criminals, which will test the loyalties of this crew of misfits who have only really known each other for a month and have nothing else in common beyond their every action being controlled by otherworldly being sitting around a table.

I was trusting the player’s skill, imagination, and the resources PCs can bring to bear on a problem would get them out of the predicament without too much disruption to the campaign. But by thrusting the fourth PC into the mix, this outcome is suddenly less certain.

Method Acting

The reason the outcome is such an “unknown” is the player of the Lawful Good human archer & elf fanboy, whose response can cause so much potential screwiness. The player in question is of the “it’s what my character would do” flavour, and will not hesitate to derail events. He doesn’t typically play in an overly disruptive way (or make things in-fun for others), but he can make things… interesting; his desire to respond as his character would could very well escalate events into a PvP situation.

(At the climax of the last campaign, he turned on the party’s leader, almost killing the pirate captain. In no small part because of an offhand comment I made about his character’s goddess’ reaction to events, which he ran with. It made my job easier at the end, since I could sit back and watch.)

The character’s potential player-betraying reaction is not unreasonable. The only motive for his otherwise law abiding person to stand by larcenous companions is the most meta-of-gamey justifications. There’s not even some overarching “quest” or “mission” that needs to be completed by these guys. One issue with this kind of sandbox campaign is there is typically only a flimsy reason the adventuring party stays together. Such as convenience. Or lack of alternatives. There was always going to be a moment where the part has to either find a reason to commit to working together or just admit they have to handwave why they’re firm allies.

From a Dungeon Master/ narrative perspective, putting the PCs into conflict is an interesting way of forcing this issue. Pushing the group to address their unity or find reasons why they’re together. It’s almost something I wish I could take credit for planning (if it works anyway). Of course, if my players ask if I planned this, I will totally give a knowing wink and suggest it was planned all along. Because that’s what you do.

I do want the party to stay together. So I need to take steps to encourage this outcome. Thinking on the this, the archer has the long term goal of rebuilding his hometown and knows one of the other characters – the nobleman/ swashbuckler – is reportedly wealthy; ostensive “leader” of the group, the swashbuckler is most likely to instigating shenanigans, and thus rightly blamed for the forthcoming “incident”. I can suggest to the archer the possibility that his character might consider pressuring the noble to “repay his debt to society” through the good deed of restoring the destroyed town. Fulfilling a character goal while also keeping some unity in the party: that’s a DM double play. (It’s also a way of unloading some of the party’s extra cash the party is soon to be flush with, with the looming dragon hoard and investments coming to fruition.)

I can’t *make* the player take that hook, but I can suggest it as an option, and potentially even sweeten the deal with some Inspiration as bribery. Then speak as the other player’s conscience or a little voice in their head, offering him reasons to consider the proposal.

Into the Unknown

Regardless, I need to prepare for the entire session and not just the chaotic first encounter.

However, this is a situation where I can’t reasonably plan for every outcome or eventuality. Especially not in a single week. What I can do is list the likely outcomes and brainstorm a quick bullet list of what happens after, and the potential consequences of these actions.

I should consider what happens if the party is captured, surrenders, sneaks away, bluffs their way out, or brutally and bloodily murders everyone standing between them and safety. Knowing the likely outcomes, I can then list the results of these actions. The list for each option need not be long, and are more things to remember during the ensuing crapstorm: hooks for scenes or encounters, locations, descriptions, or details to consider during any resulting improvisation.

For example, if the group is captured I should have an idea of the prison, where gear might be stored, and what a trial might be like. Since I want the adventure to continue and not become the Orange is the New Black RPG, I should also have a loose idea for an out. But it shouldn’t be more than a sentence or two, otherwise it risks taking over the plot and I’ll feel incentivized to have the party or a character captured. While I don’t need to devote exactly equal time, thought, and space to each outcome, there shouldn’t be a clear winner. I also need to have some cool ideas for if they become fugitives, or easily sneak past the guards ten minutes into the session and spend the next four hours and fifty minutes doing unrelated activities.

Continental Scaffolding

I should also give further mention of “the Dwellers Beneath the City”.

The group was created in response to a player wanting to unload gold in exchange for magical items. I quickly dreamt up a black market in the elven nation. I didn’t *need* to create a backstory or hook for the black market/ elven thieves. They could have easily been a generic black market, or I could have used an established thieves’ guild. But I’m a worldbuilder at heart and like to expand my setting whenever possible. A good worldbuilder pays attention when there is an absence, looking for gaps in the world and leaping to add new details.

Furthermore, I’m currently reading very different things than I was when last doing the heavy lifting on my campaign setting. I’m working through a distant future sci-fi novel and also doing some reading on the D&D planes (specifically demons and devils). What’s at the forefront of my imagination has changed. This is a distinct advantage over trying to create everything ahead of time.

And thus was born “the Dwellers Beneath the City”. Who seems curiously named, as the elven city they are based in does not have a sewer. This was not an accident.

I didn’t need to create the full lore for the Dwellers on the spot, or even run with my first idea. Instead, I slowly expanded their hook over a few days as I had interesting ideas until one concept really grabbed me. If no inspiration had struck, I might have just left them a vague blank until I did have an idea, or fallen back to the existing thieves’ guild. After all, the nature of the Dweller’s philosophy is unlikely to come up in the game, and their role could be filled by the most generic of thieves’ guilds. But the hooks are there if I need it. And if the players do end up relying more on the Dwellers next session, I’ll have a better idea of the group’s motives and goals.

Post-Game Report

The party attempted diplomacy and transparency to deal with being surprised by the town guards. The party rogue (a grippli) opted for stealth, sneaking away with the bag of loot, while the rest of the party helped the guards defeat the Dwellers, making an enemy of that group. Oddly, I neglected to give much thought to what would happen if the party turned on their new business partners. The Dweller’s reaction did not come up much during the session, as the party quickly left town, but from what I planned for the thieves, they don’t much like betrayal. So that might have to come up again at a later date.

Following the battle, the swashbuckler was taken into custody, but thrown in “the nice jail” used for nobles and wealthy individuals (rather than the common jail that I brainstormed) and was provided with an expedited trial. I decided the judge was the mother of a business owner, attempting to start business dealings with the human nation of Brighthome. Possessing a personal interest not to make an example of a noble of Brighthome, especially one that had performed heroic deeds for the elf nation, she all but let him go free. In the interests of protecting the peace, international trade, and her family’s financial interests, the magistrate even allowed the swashbuckler to keep the bracers (he does have them returned upon the instance of his death). This was in part because the elven guards lost the platinum coins used to buy the bracers and could not “refund” the purchase to the swashbuckler; a certain grippli rogue pilfered the coins from the thieves while they were in custody. This does mean the party purchased a number of magical items for “free”, but that’s how a campaign goes sometimes.

I also decided that the swashbuckler was being ordered to perform a community service for the state: investigating the the gnoll activity at the edge of elven territory. Mostly to tease the events going on in the rest of the world. A clue to the “Predation of Gnolls” metaplot that’s going on in the background of the campaign.

The swashbuckler and archer had a few tense moments throughout the sessions, with the archer feeling confused (having purposely not listened during the planning sessions, so he had no idea what was going on both in character and out of character) while the swashbuckler felt betrayed, thinking the archer had led the guards to the meeting. I say “tense” but this was mostly in-character, and the players were generally bemused by the situation and almost playing the drama for laughs. In the end, the misunderstanding was sorted and the party stayed together.

From there I had a few random encounters as the party travelled through the woods and made their way slowly towards the gnoll encampment. An excuse to try another monster from Volo’s Guide. I was uncertain if the party would try and face the gnoll horde there to free the captive slaves, or if they overwhelming numbers would keep the party at bay. It turns out “freeing slaves” is a big character trigger for the swashbuckler, and he couldn’t leave them imprisoned. There was some discussion of the safety of the prisoners, and if they magically sent a message to the elves, if the elves would arrive in time to save the slaves. Seeing that the gnolls continued to feed on the periodic slaves that fell unconscious from illness or hunger, the party decided to free the slaves immediately. The party created a very loose plan and engaged the gnolls, hoping to distract them and draw them away from the slave pens, and free the accessible slaves.

I tried not to push the players to one side of the argument or the other, just presenting what would reasonably happen given the context of the story and let them make their decision to act or not.

I then populated the gnoll camp with a wide assortment of gnolls, drawn from the Monster Manual, the Tome of Beasts, and Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Most were generic gnolls, but a few needed to be variants, either as needed or the result of a roll. I even threw in a flind as a boss, despite being horrifically overpowered for my party. But, since they were engaging in a ranged ambush, the flind wasn’t playing to its strengths. Regardless, it was an unfair encounter, the experience budget for the entire day crammed into a single brawl. But the PCs had the advantage of terrain and surprise and 5th level spells with the willingness to go nova. Even then, it took a few lucky rolls from the wand of wonder to save the day and dispatch the gnoll before it could finally close the gap on the red mage/ sorcerer.

The party even got a glimpse of the “big bad” behind the Predation of Gnolls. I hadn’t planned on revealing this – with the villain barely being more than a rough concept in my head- but I decided to give the players a distant glimpse that something was manipulating the gnolls. A robed magic user figure that the swashbuckler dubbed “the Necromancer”. As it so happened, the swashbuckler ran right up to where it was lurking, and the Necromacer/magic user ripped the swashbuckler apart with a few good scimitar blows, a critical Mind Fangs hit, and a surprising bite attack before attempting to flee: the party was still managing to get some good blows in, and villains don’t stick around when outnumbered.

Surprisingly, “the Necromancer” managed to escape (a rarity), and ducked away with a single hit point remaining. Yeah, it’s coming back. Only I’ll have to give it a few more Hit Dice to reflect it’s newfound experience.

Now the party has a hundred human and elven refugees they need to escort swiftly through the woods. And they’re still on the clock with their attempt to face down a dragon, and are unlikely to have the time needed to escort the freed slaves to safety and meet their kobold business partners.

The session ran far longer than I would have liked – almost an hour – but that was due to the combat heavy and stealth light portion of the “free the prisoners” plan. I could have left the rescue until the next session, but it felt like such a nice climax (and the next session is a good month away, with gaming thoroughly being disrupted by the holidays). Sandbox campaigns so rarely manage to have a satisfying “ending” to a session, where a climax organically happens and the next session begins with a new situation and different tone. Events generally bleed into each other.