Once the previous sessions had been completed, I was wary of DMing and had no plans to continue at the end of May. However, towards the middle of June, my dad suggested doing another session. Both he and my sister said that they both wanted to play again, and I wasn’t necessarily opposed to it, so after thinking about it for bit I decided to go ahead and run another one shot. I invited back all of the same people to play the same characters, and began working on another game plan.
Unfortunately, neither Jon (the elven rogue Varis) nor Matt (the dragonborn paladin Kava) could make it to the second session. This left us with Neli and my family, and while three players is not necessarily a bad number, I began to rack my brain for ideas for other people who could join our July session. I ended up inviting Reagan, one of the first friends I ever made in college, and who I am not entirely why I didn’t invite in the first place. Like many of my friends, she had never played before, but she was eager to try. After some deliberation, she created Bel, an angry little half-elf barbarian with red hair and a love for snakes, and was ready to go for our session.
Bringing Reagan into the mix was the easy part. Deciding what to throw at the players for that session was by far one of the hardest things that I have ever done in D&D. There were a few obstacles that I had to overcome when creating the session: 1) I believed that there was a strong possibility that we might not ever play again after this, so I wanted to create something that was self-contained and had no cliff hangers. 2) The original session took place in Goldcrest, the capital of Tovell, and Lei has a bad history with the city and its inhabitants, so I wanted to get them away from the city so that she could feel more comfortable. 3) I didn’t want to accidentally kill the players since they were all still 3rd level. Thus, I wanted something that was engaging but not overly dangerous.
However, it became apparently quickly to me that I could not come up with a satisfying story. The only thing that I could imagine revolved around a necromancer, but I knew that necromancers were dangerous, and throwing them against weaker characters with newer players was probably not the smartest thing to do. Still, three weeks passed and my brain refused to envision anything better for the session, and as such I decided to bite the bullet and go with it. I would try to scale the necromancer down to better fit my players in hopes of not killing them. As such, the plan was set in motion.
At the beginning of the session, Druvall, the leader of the resistance in Goldcrest, pulled Lei, Solomon, and Caileth aside and asked them to assist in a mission. They were to retrieve a wizard ally and some weapons from a blacksmith in a nearby town and bring them back to Goldcrest safely. Additionally, they would be teamed up with Bel, a new volunteer to the resistance. The team agreed to journey to the next town, taking a couple of days to reach the neighboring village. Along the way, the team rolled for a random encounter and got a 12 on a d12, meaning that they then were subjected to a hard encounter. While they were asleep, a group of four giant spiders snuck up on the group and attacked. It was a particularly tough battle, but the group managed to fight through and emerge victorious. Tired and wary, the group trudged on, and after another day’s journey they arrived at the village at nightfall. Solomon and Lei went off to scout for the blacksmith they were supposed to meet and the wizard they were to retrieve, while Bel and Caileth gathered the items to make a stew. (Including one blackberry, which was apparently the magical ingredient). Reconnaissance done and food digested, the group set off into town to rendezvous with their contacts.
Because they had found out definitively where the blacksmith was but had very few leads on the wizard, they decided to visit the blacksmith’s shop. After some quiet knocking that didn’t wake up the man and Solomon’s offer to jump up to the second floor and climb in through the window, the group began to argue loud enough that Galdoro, the blacksmith, woke up and let everyone inside. Once in, the group began to grill him for information, but like most players they were instantly suspicious of the man I had set before them, and thus ended up casting Detect Magic while talking in the first floor of his shop to see if they would be proven right. Unfortunately for me, Galdoro was actually the necromancer wearing a Hat of Disguise, so his entire body lit up as the spell was cast. At that moment, my suspicious players grew even more suspicious, and as such a strange comedy routine began.
As soon as Galdoro left them to retire to his room, the players began snooping around. Solomon offered to leap up and sit on his window to keep whoever the man was from escaping, but the group ended up vetoing the plans. After some searching, the group found some letters in a locked drawer, as well as a few blank pieces of paper that were purely innocent yet caused a frenzy to find out its secrets. After wasting time finding an old lemon and spraying the paper with it a la Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, the group found nothing to indicate that he was necessarily a traitor, and as such decided to get some rest.
When they awoke the next morning, Galdoro had seemingly escaped from the window of the second floor. Frustrated with his escape but proud of their suspicions being proven right, the group decided to set out for the inn where they believed that the wizard they had been sent to retrieve was staying. Despite the innkeeper’s suspicions, the group inspected the rooms and broke down not one but two doors. They discovered that the wizard had apparently been kidnapped last night and found a set of footprints leading to the mountains nearby. In a rush, the group took off to retrieve what they had been sent for.
Finally, it was time for the climactic battle, the necromancer and four zombies versus the PCs. It was revealed to the PCs that the Galdoro they had met was indeed the necromancer in disguise and he had kidnapped the gnome wizard that was an ally of the resistance. The PCs fought bravely, turning the zombies to ash with radiant spells and fighting the necromancer at every turn, until finally Solomon’s Vicious Mockery caused the necromancer’s head to explode. The entire battle was done in a few rounds, and was easier than the spider fight from earlier. All of the PCs walked away with few injuries, and even Tana the gnome wizard seemed unharmed, despite a nasty fall off the side of a cliff.
After the fight, the group went back to loot the blacksmith’s shop and find the weapons because they presumed Galdoro was dead. While they did find the weapons, they also discovered that the real Galdoro was actually being held captive in the basement. Once freed of his bindings, he determined that there was a traitor in the rebellion, and Solomon suggested that he come back to Goldcrest with the rest of them for his safety. Galdoro agreed, and so the group returned to the city, weapons, wizard, and blacksmith in tow.
I could tell that my players had a lot of fun this session from how they were acting and the tears of laughter that flowed from everyone’s eyes. Reagan in particular was hooked on the game, despite her nervousness about coming into an RPG for the first time. At the end of the day, everyone agreed that we should get together more regularly, perhaps once a month, and as such our campaign was officially born.
Just like my other sessions, this one taught me many things, some of which I had not had any experience with at all before. Some of these lessons I still struggle with to this day, and I often draw from my experience in this session when working on new ones.
- Know your bad guys
One of the most important elements of the game, and one that I still struggle with, is knowing my baddies. Knowing not only the villain’s motivations but also their abilities is extremely crucial. Reading a stat block repeatedly and ensuring that you are at least a little aware of what each of their spells and abilities will do will make the gameplay easier and can prevent your villain from getting caught in a tight spot. When Solomon offered to perch outside of the window and keep “Galdoro” in his room, I panicked. It was my intention to have him escape from the window, so having the bard perch right outside would have thrown an enormous wrench in my plans. However, somewhere along the way I had apparently forgotten that a) this was actually the necromancer and not Galdoro and b) the necromancer had access to the spell Dimension Door. If I had payed attention to what my villain had at his disposal, even outside of combat, that moment of panic would never have occurred. I still struggle sometimes with utilizing my villains properly, but after this session I realized that it was something I really needed to work on.
- Scaling down baddies can be difficult
Scaling a bad guy down, or “nerfing” them, is something that can be useful but is difficult to do. Nerfing a particular bad guy can allow your players to face something that is thematically appropriate for the session but that might otherwise kill them. However, this particular technique is one that requires practice. When I nerfed the necromancer, I reduced his hit points, its AC, and took away a few of his heftier spells. I wanted to balance it so that I could include zombies in the fight as well, but I ended up nerfing the zombies as well, taking away their Undead Fortitude feature. This resulted in the players having an easier time fighting a necromancer than they did the spiders from earlier in the session. Scaling down bad guys is almost an art, something that needs to be done carefully and with practice. I particularly like this video from Matt Colville discussing how to scale a monster both up and down. I hope one day to be able to accurately sale down a creature so that it neither kills my players nor allows them to trample over it.
- Bringing in a new player isn’t that problematic
I was worried about bringing in a new player, both above the table and in game. Luckily, everyone had met Reagan before and liked her a lot, so I wasn’t worried about her dynamic with the other players. I did know however that both her and Neli had no acting or role-playing experience, as opposed to my family which is full of theatre people. Everything went well though, and even though we still struggle sometimes with RP at the table, we’ve slowly been warming up to the idea of it each session.
As far as introducing Bel into the game, I was lucky that we had ended the original one shot in the midst of a resistance, meaning that I was able to place the barbarian in the midst of the scenario instead of having to resort to some sort of “meet in a tavern” scenario or anything peculiar. Additionally, the group was also fairly chaotic, and as such were not too distrustful of having another character join them on their journey. I know that it varies sometimes between tables, but sometimes adding in a new player isn’t as much work or stress as it might seem.
- If you give an NPC a nickname…
It seems like nearly every time I DM for a group, there has to be at least one character that ends the session with a strange nickname attached to them. This particular instance the name fell to the necromancer. Early on in the session, I had described how the necromancer had a mostly shaved head except for one long dark ponytail, “Like Zuko from Avatar”. Then during the battle, I proceeded to make a strange sound for one of the zombies which to my players apparently sounded like a duck quacking (let’s just say my voice acting is nowhere near the caliber of Matthew Mercer’s). This prompted them to ask if the necromancer controlled zombies or ducks, and thus the nickname “Duck Zuko” was born. While the nickname was somewhat sad because it minimized the threat of having a necromancer around, it made what probably was a forgettable fight at least somewhat memorable. To this day we still remember not only Duck Zuko, but “Tuna” (Tana, the wizard they rescued) as well due to my poor handwriting on the initiative screen. Memorable nicknames are an inherent part of D&D, and though it can be a bit frustrating for a DM at times to have your characters dismissed, it provides a unique experience for the players and often becomes a way for players to remember an NPC or villain that they might otherwise have forgotten.
At the end of the session when my players told me that they had fun and admitted to wanting to play more, I realized then that this is why those who choose to DM love it so much. The satisfaction of knowing that your players have enjoyed something that you have created specifically for them is unlike any other. It was at the end of my group’s second session and the start of the campaign that I realized that I did in fact enjoy DMing, despite my misgivings, and was determined to see my players through the best game I could possibly give them. I left Session 2 nervous for the mantle and responsibility that I had taken upon myself, yet eager to see what stories my players and I could tell.
Notable quotes from the session:
•Caileth: We’re pancake fueled and ready for destruction!
•Me: Tana walks up to the edge of the cliff and *rolls an athletic check* *gets a 1* trips and falls and dies
•Me: You use the old lemon on the paper and… nothing happens. The place just smells lemony fresh now
Eli: Don’t you mean lemony old?
•Solomon: “You wart on a cat’s butt! Eat dirt and die!” *Cue necromancer’s head exploding*