After my birthday session, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to DM again. I had enjoyed the game and had fun DMing my friends through my first official session, but it was a much different experience than I had anticipated and I was worn out. I also felt that I had done perhaps not a crappy job but certainly not a very good one. However, my sister had already asked me to DM her friends through a session about a week and a half after my first one, so I was already committed to at least one more trial run.
At the end of May 2017, my youngest sister Eli and I went out of town to visit our middle sister Skylar who lives about six hours away from us. While Eli (Caileth in my main campaign) loves playing D&D, Skylar has never been a fan of the game. So you can imagine my surprise when she texted me asking me to bring my D&D stuff when we visited. It turned out that several of her friends had always wanted to try the game but never had found anyone to run it. As such she volunteered me for a one-shot for the group. Luckily, she asked me quite a bit in advance of the trip so I was able to plan for the session, but planning this session and the birthday one so close to one another was a bit rough. Still, I managed to come up with something that I was sure the group would love.
Since the first session had taken place in Tovell, a human kingdom towards the center of the continent, I wanted to change things up as far as terrain for the new campaign. I picked Vrotha, the northernmost kingdom, to base the new session in. Although it was still a kingdom of man, it was a very different area due to the freezing temperatures year-round. Since I did not have an idea of what monsters to make the group fight and no resource books outside of the Player’s Handbook available to me, I ventured to Kobold Fight Club and looked through all of its Arctic monsters to get an inspiration. Eventually I came across the Yeti, a CR 3 creature that would be just perfect for a group of six level 3 characters, and thus my plan was born. The players would enter a small village near the capital of Vrotha and discover that children had been going missing. It would appear at first that a Yeti was taking the children, but I had planned that once the players killed the Yeti, another kid would disappear. In reality, there was actually a group of cultists that had been kidnapping children to use them as a sacrifice to the goddess Talona. (This one-shot took place before I had created my pantheon, as I never anticipated having to use my world again after this game). The Yeti had actually been trying to rescue the children from the cultists. Once the players had defeated the cultists they would be rewarded and celebrated, and thus the session would end.
The group consisted of six players: Skylar, Eli, Tessa (Skylar’s roomate), Trevor (Tessa’s brother), Tyler (Trevor’s fiancé), and Vicky (Tyler’s sister). Eli tends to stick to druids and clerics, and as such played Leush, a tall half elf swamp druid. Tessa and Skylar both chose to play rogues; Tessa’s a tiefling named Melethril, and Skylar’s a very gold-toned elf named Alaky Yarith. She also only agreed to play if Alaky could be chaotic evil, which might have posed a problem in some situations, but nearly all of the group was chaotic neutral, meaning that conflict never arose. Trevor’s character was was Persephonia Celestios, a noble from Tovell turned tempest cleric. Tyler’s dwarf, Felipe Von Pennyweather, was a bard. Finally, Vicky played a mysterious human fighter known only as “The Pirate”. The group was eccentric, intriguing, and silly, perfect for D&D.
Ask any DM and they’ll tell you that sessions going as planned is rare. But this session actually went off the rails before the game even started. We had originally planned to meet at 5 on Thursday night and play for quite a while, but because my sisters and I had driven to Austin for our cousin’s high school graduation that morning, the three of us were exhausted. All of us ended up falling asleep in Skylar’s apartment and didn’t wake up until nearly seven. We finally managed to make our way over to the other apartment and play; but we ended up only getting through about half of the session. I offered to DM the next night and since they had fun they agreed to keep playing. The second night they managed to finish all the material I had, but they were having so much fun that they asked to play a third night. I agreed, but since I had no other material planned I scrambled to come up with something for the players to do.
Over the course of the three sessions, the players had fun and enjoyed their time with the game. I also had fun, more so than I had for the birthday session, and began to reconsider whether I wanted to DM again. The mini three-day campaign also taught me so many lessons that I still think about when prepping sessions, even six months later.
- The difference between railroading and sandboxing is astonishing.
In my Session 1 post, I discussed how I felt that I had tried to push the players a certain way because I had relied so much on the tunnels being the centerpiece of the session and the need for the fight to happen at the end of the tunnels. Because I was not flexible with my planning, the players ended up feeling forced into things and the session wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Without even realizing it, however, I planned the Vrotha session with much more flexibility. By making the area open to investigation and populated with different NPCs, the village felt alive. My players were able to choose where to investigate and who to talk to without feeling forced into anything. Although the players eventually ended up in the spots that I wanted them to, they did it because I left clues that lead them there, not because I told them they had to. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but all of this led to the session being much more enjoyable. It ended up being much more fun for the players and extremely freeing for myself.
- If you mess up and show your hand too early, it isn’t the end of the world.
When the group found out that children were missing, they split up into 3 groups of two. Two of the people went to visit the elder of the village, two more ventured to the remains of the house that one of the missing children used to live in, and the last two headed toward the river where a corpse had been found. At the burned down house, there was a set of human footprints, and by the river was a set of footprints that were more monstrous. The groups got back together and told each other their findings, and Trevor suggested following the footprints. I intended to ask him if he wanted to investigate the human footprints or the monster ones, but what instead came out was “Do you mean the human footprints or the Yet-“.
I froze, panic surely forming in my eyes as I locked eyes with Trevor. He asked me if it was a Yeti that they were tracking, and in vain I claimed that it was actually a “Yellow” (whatever that might be, I panicked so who knows). Naturally they didn’t fall for it. But surprisingly, letting them know that it was a Yeti really had no bearing on the session. Sure, they laughed about it and teased me, and they insisted on calling the Yeti the Yellow from now on (or alternatively the “Yeet-i” based off of a Vine they were obsessed with), but they didn’t treat the rest of the game any differently. In fact, it actually made the night more memorable. Now of course this might not always be the case; revealing that an NPC is actually secretly the bad guy above the table can have far bigger consequences than accidentally giving away the monster of the week. But if it happens, don’t beat yourself up about it. More than likely there will be few if any consequences, and it might even make for a memorable moment.
- Sometimes the players will come up with cool ideas. Let them be right.
Originally, the cultists who were sacrificing children were going to be a random nameless group of people who had taken up residence in the mountain. However, at some point the players began to suspect that Elder Reinhart (fondly nicknamed “Elderberries” by my players) was actually involved in the kidnappings. When they voiced those concerns, I realized that this was far better and changed my plans. This was not only a clever idea that allowed the situation to have weight instead of the nameless cultists, but it gave my players a certain amount of satisfaction when they learned that he was indeed behind the disappearances. They felt justified that their suspicions had paid off. Allowing your players to be right about something can make the session even more enjoyable for them and can make them feel like heroes.
- Know your players and what will intrigue them.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that I made was making the plot point focused around children. When the six of them heard that children were being kidnapped, none of them felt pity or were interested in trying to rescue them. The only reason they actually decided to help out the village was because Tessa’s character Melethril was particularly infatuated with the mother of one of the kidnapped children and wanted to garner her favor by rescuing her son. Had it not been for this one specific element, there was a possibility that my players would have been entirely uninterested in my plot point. However, if I had been playing with a group of people who were parents, aunts, or teachers perhaps, they might have jumped at the chance to save the kids. This game made me realize that if you, as a DM, have the ability to spend time with your players and understand who they are as people and as players, you can use that to your advantage. Not only can you bring in plot points and characters that will interest your players, you can also avoid lulls or things that your players simply won’t care about.
- Letting your players steal everything from a house can be worth it.
Okay, I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. Skylar has never particularly enjoyed D&D or many of the other nerdy games that I have played, and the only reason she agreed to join us for these sessions was because all of her friends were eager to try it. However, despite what she claims, I could tell she had one point that she actually really enjoyed. After Elderberries was killed in the battle against the cultists, she decided to go back to his house and take everything. And I mean everything. Four doorknobs, a door knocker, three rings, two robes, two doors, and a freaking crystal washbasin: she took it all. Normally if my players wanted to steal everything, there would be consequences, but the elder was dead, the rest of the town had no idea what was happening, and the group left the village the next day. Additionally, the game was essentially a one shot, and above all else Skylar enjoyed being able to steal everything from the house. Sometimes as a DM you might have a player that is not as interested in engaging as the others are, but if you manage to find the one thing that does pique their interest, take advantage of that to draw that player in.
- Festivals are great when you have to come up with a plan quick.
When the players wanted to play a third day after I had already gone through the material I had prepared, I had a moment of panic. It usually takes me quite some time to prep a game session, so I wasn’t sure how I would be able to plan 3-4 hours of material in less than 24 hours. However, I remembered a festival that my own DM had done for us one session, and I realized that a festival was my answer. I quickly looked up some games for my players and some competitions that they could participate in, came up with some prizes for them to win, and drew up a menu for a food tent. The games included card games, strength games, and balance games, while the competitions featured pie eating, archery, dancing, and music so as to give every character the chance to show off. Although there were no real consequences to the festival, the players were able to have fun, play with each other, and show off. When a DM doesn’t have a clue what to do for the end of a session, throwing in a festival can be a good way to fluff up a session or lighten the mood.
Throughout this three-day extended one-shot, I learned a lot about DMing and had much more fun than I ever had previously. Occasionally when I have sat in the DM’s seat after this, I think back to this particular session and reflect on what I learned. It taught me that no matter how important I think something is, it is never as important as allowing your players to explore, engage with the world, and have fun, and I hope to remember that for as long as I play D&D.