Although we had played two sessions before, I still somewhat considered the August session the official start of the campaign. I knew that I needed to start thinking about the long game, about my character’s backstories and how I could use them, and most about the story I wanted to tell for my heroes. No longer was our game simply a game, it was becoming something more; a fairy tale of sorts, a legend we might recount to one another over and over again fifty years from now or a tragedy that we might long to forget in the weeks following. Whatever it was to be, I knew that I needed to take responsibility and work towards something greater that my players could enjoy.
In order to kick off our journey, however, there was one order of business that I needed to take care of: getting the characters out of at least Goldcrest, if not Tovell entirely. As mentioned before in my Session 2 post, I knew that if the group stayed there, Lei would have no reason to remain with the group and would feel uncomfortable in the midst of a city of people who believed that she was not only a traitor but also dead. With this in mind, the first two matters of the agenda was easy: provide a reason for the group to leave the resistance and give the players plot hooks leading them away from the capital.
I struggled for a while to find a good excuse for the group to leave, but I eventually settled on the fact that there was likely a traitor in the group somewhere and the resistance needed to temporarily disband. At the time it felt like a cheap excuse, a shoddy way to push the players out, although in the time since it has actually worked well with the overall plot points I would like to work in. With the announcement from Druvall that the rebellion was essentially “on break”, I then needed to introduce hooks that the players could then take.
While coming up with what the players could do for the next session, I wanted to make sure that my players had options and freedom to explore the world. I came up with three distinct hooks, each taking them to a different part of the world. When Druvall temporarily disbanded the forces, he told the group about a merchant who was an ally that would take the group out of the city, and if they chose to go with him, would provide them safe passage to his village in Edotis, the southern kingdom of man in Dracia. Similarly, when discussing with some of the people they had met during their time in the rebellion, I made sure that the group heard about an ice dungeon in Vrotha, the northernmost kingdom of Dracia and another kingdom of man. If the group had gone to meet the merchant, they also would have seen evidence of a third plot hook, leading them to Thorean, the neighbor to Tovell and the kingdom of the mountain dwarves. (In the time since, I have snuck this hook elsewhere into the game, just to allow them to keep their options open). In the end, the group decided not to trust Druvall’s suggestion of the merchant, leading them away from Edotis and the third plot hook, and decided to head north to visit the ice dungeon.
The journey to the ice dungeon took two weeks. Partially paranoid about the spider fight from the previous session, partially because I had too much stuff to work on, this time I didn’t worry about a random encounter. I let the journey pass peacefully, knowing that the group would have plenty to amuse themselves with once they got to the dungeon. Eventually they got to Berufell, the town nearest to the ice dungeon. There they met Peter, the keeper of the Silver Ore Inn and Tavern, and his two twin daughters (whom no one bothered to get the names of). On their first night there, Bel and Lei managed to start a fight with a neighboring table after discovering that one of the guys was cheating at a game of cards. Otherwise the night was unremarkable, leaving the four to rest from their long journey.
Immediately the next morning, the group set out for the ice dungeon, stopping only to gather some healing potions from a small potion shop. (I created Adelaide, the girl running the shop, on the spot, and the group did not take well to her, because she was a bit snobbish, though she still remains one of my favorite NPCs to this day). Eventually they found their way into what appeared to be the entrance to the dungeon, a small ice cavern with a door nestled inside. Deciding to investigate, Caileth examined the door while Solomon began looking at a skeleton inside the cave. Meanwhile, thanks to a not so great perception check, Lei and Bel noticed some ridges in the ice and decided to investigate-and by investigate, I mean “throw rocks at it”. Little did they know that the “ridges” were actually the scales of a young white dragon.
The dragon encounter was one of the more difficult ones that the group has encountered in our time playing. A friend of mine adjusted the stats for a Young White Dragon so that it would be more manageable for a group of three level 4 characters and one level 3 character (since Reagan had only had one session, I didn’t want her to be overwhelmed, so I gave her an extra session to get used to the game before pushing Bel up a level). Still, the encounter got somewhat close. No one went down, but some of the group got low because of the amount of damage that the dragon was dealing each round. Luckily for them, the breath weapon never managed to recharge. The group was also close to smashing through the door to escape from the dragon, but Solomon managed to kill the dragon first, using his spell Shatter to cause an enormous piece of rock and ice to fall from the ceiling and crush the dragon’s head. As such, the first obstacle was defeated (and looted) and the group moved on to the next room.
For the second room, I had designed a puzzle involving plates that depressed when stepped on and either caused a music note to play (if stepped on in the right order) or darts to fly out (if done wrong). I knew that my players had a fondness for breaking down doors, so I designed the puzzle with this in mind. The room was made of stone with only the door the group had come through visible. Once the puzzle was complete, stone on the other side would slide out of the way and reveal a passage to the next room. I had anticipated this puzzle to be relatively easy, however, the players actually had a rough time with this one. Nevertheless, the group made it through and arrived on the other side.
In the next area, the group found three other humanoids struggling against a group of ice kobolds in a long hallway. My players decided to wait to see what would happen, and soon the other adventurers had defeated the kobolds and taken a rest. As usual, my players were distrustful of the newcomers, and instead of introducing themselves or outright killing them, they decided to intimidate them. Bel had skinned the dragon and had been carrying the scales of the dragon around as if it was a cape, Solomon had the ability to imitate any sound if he had heard it for a certain length of time, and Caileth had the ability to amplify sounds using Thaumaturgy. Down the hall Bel ran, the sound of a dragon behind him in an attempt to make the newcomers believe that a dragon was after them. Titus, the leader of the group was unimpressed. Cassia, a half-elf girl with arcane trickster abilities, was temporarily startled but quickly recovered. Bartholomew however, a rookie to the group, was completely terrified out of his mind thanks to a natural one on an intelligence check. Poor Bart spent the rest of the day terrified out of his mind of Bel, which Bel took great advantage of.
After the encounter, Titus introduced his group and mentioned that they were looking for something very specific in the dungeon. He suggested that they team up, and so the players warily moved through the next room with them in tow. For the next room, I described a raised stone dais with several circular slots carved into it. Around the room were several coins with the symbols of the gods, and inscribed into the stone was a riddle. The riddle held hints of the gods that each symbol corresponded to. Lei and Caileth quickly made their way through most of the riddle, with some occasional hints from me through Cassia. However, the last coin was missing, which happened to be the symbol of Perceus, the god of tempest and the one that Caileth had pledged her allegiance to. Through a prayer and successful wisdom check, Caileth was able to summon the last coin to put into the slot, thus opening the door into the next room.
In the last room of the dungeon, there was no monster lying in wait, nor any traps. There was simply piles of gold and other treasures, an old book, and in the center of the room a pedestal with a glass bottle containing a fragment of a map. It was at this moment that Titus revealed his group’s true intentions-they wanted the map fragment and nothing else. They offered to let the group claim the rest of the treasure if they would only allow them to escape with the map. My players of course did not agree with this and instead engaged in battle. Poor Bartholomew was too terrified to do anything but blindly swipe at Bel. Cassia on the other hand had the sole mission of retrieving the map and escaping at all costs. She nearly got out of the room too before Lei’s arrows brought her down. Titus was focused on Solomon at first, but as soon as Cassia fell he immediately sprinted for the map. He was out the door in moments, dashing for the exit, but finally met the same fate as Cassia.
The group retrieved the map and searched the bodies of the two bandits. They found that each of them had a simple green circular clasp on their capes, and Titus had in his possession a letter from a “K” that detailed his instructions to get the map at all costs. After gathering up their treasure, they proceeded to grill poor Bartholomew about his involvement. He told them that he was a new recruit for the Jade Eye, a thieves’ guild in another Kingdom, and Lady Kyra was the one who had instructed them to come here. Despite Bel and Lei’s protests, Solomon freed Bart, handed him one of the valuable gems they had found, and told him to start a new life, warning him that if they ever ran into him again, it wouldn’t be on friendly terms. With that, Bartholomew scrambled away, and the adventurers were left to drag their gold back to the inn and get a good night’s rest.
Over the course of this session, I learned a few things about how to run a game, as well as paying attention to the players. This session was a unique one for me, but is still to this day on of my favorites that we have ever done.
- Be careful about throwing a dragon at your players too early
Plopping a dragon in front of your players is great at first. It’s intimidating and scary; your players will likely immediately be worried about if they’re even going to survive the encounter, and you’ll get a lot of delight out of finally being able to use a dragon in your game of Dungeons and Dragons. However, the fun stops once the dragon is dead. Theoretically, you can often have a dragon simply fly away, but if the dragon is trapped or specifically assigned to guard a place, it’s a lot harder to justify having it escape to reappear another day. Once your dragon falls, the players will feel on top of the world, which is in theory what you’re supposed to accomplish as a DM, but from then on the group won’t be afraid of most of what you throw at them, especially if someone doesn’t go down in the fight. Even if you emphasize that it was essentially a baby dragon that they killed, the players don’t care. So be careful about playing the dragon card too early in your campaign.
- Sometimes the NPCs we love are the ones we spend the least time with
During this session, I introduced two characters that I was particularly invested in. Adelaide, as mentioned before, was a favorite of mine, but the players had no interest in her. I doubt the group will ever find out what her story is, and that’s okay; if your players aren’t interested in every little thing you as a DM create, they’re still playing in your world, and odds are they still like most of it. Even though I created her on the spot, I was somehow able to instantly know her story, and as such Adelaide was designed as someone whom the players could interact with and uncover the history behind. However, the world is open and the players have infinite choices, and as such it is perfectly all right that Adelaide got passed over.
On the other hand, Cassia was constructed very differently. I came up with her in advance specifically to be both a potential ally and a possible antagonist. Although I knew little about her history, I had her personality figured out perfectly. She was spunky, flirtatious with everyone, and a little everywhere. When Lei swung at her with her sword, she let out a maniacal giggle and said “This is going to be fun!”, something that I hadn’t anticipated but had just happened. In many ways thinking about it now I see her as a Harley Quinn-type. Cassia wasn’t meant to have her past figured out, she was meant to be a puzzle piece, something to fit in the story that the characters could live in the present with. I wasn’t sure going into this session if she would come out alive, and when Cassia was killed, it was a weird feeling knowing a character that I had created and loved was no more. I don’t regret it; the moment was a great victory for the players, but it was an odd moment for me as a DM.
- Be careful with your puzzles
When I put the puzzles in front of my players, it was the first time I had ever done so in a campaign. I had assumed that the music puzzle would be easy for them and that they would struggle with the deities puzzle because it was an element of the world that most players had no knowledge of. However, Eli already knew some of the deities because she had seen me drawing the crests for them, and I tried to make the riddle as similar to the crests as I possibly could. Additionally, I made the “coins” out of cardstock and drew the designs on them, and provided the “dais” by drawing circles on a piece of paper and allowing them to put the coins in the necessary areas. Having a physical prop for the players to mess with I think helped enormously in them solving the puzzle. While I did try to provide a physical “map” of the room where the players encountered the music room puzzle, it was quite a bit more difficult to pull off. I had also included a mechanic where if they stepped on the wrong pressure plate after activating the first part of the puzzle a bunch of darts would shoot out at the person on the wrong tile. I made them do a dexterity save every time, which quickly got monotonous. In the future if I were to use this puzzle again, I would allow the group to automatically succeed on their dex save after the second or third time, or even perhaps allow them to avoid the darts because they had begun to anticipate them with how long they had been in the room. Similarly, the room had ten different tiles that needed to be pressed, and I think that perhaps I would change that number to five or six instead. Overall, I was proud of my players for being able to understand and defeat my puzzles, and it allowed me to realize that in the future I could throw some puzzles and riddles at my players without too much trouble.
As I mentioned, this session is still one of my favorites. The puzzles, the defeat of the dragon, the unique NPCs, and the crazy dragon imitation encounter were moments that were unique and fun for both me and my players. It also felt like a beginning; the players had left their original base and ventured out into the wide world, looking for adventure and treasure and creating bonds along the way. This was the beginning of our campaign, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
(Special credit to my friend Dyer who helped me build this dungeon!)