Session 5

Session 5 was to take place in October, and like many DMs, I wanted to try and do something spooky in preparation for Halloween. Due to school and work, I didn’t have much time to prepare anything new, so I decided to insert the Blind Demon scenario from Session 3.5 into the campaign. This was intended not only to provide a horror-themed scenario, but also to provide another group to playtest the adventure that I had created and was particularly proud of. I knew that the adventure would last about four or five hours, and our monthly sessions tend to run eight or nine (including breaks), so I added some extra content that the group could explore once the demon encounter was over.

The group was enjoying breakfast at the Lion’s Blaze Inn and Tavern when the matriarch, Sonia DeMarcus, burst into the establishment looking for Sybil. She explained that she had left her house to go into town and retrieve supplies because it was her servants’ days off. However, when she returned she glimpsed a monster inside of her house, and in her fear she ran to find the only friend she had. Unfortunately, the players were not particularly fond of Sonia (and their opinion did not improve over the course of the adventure), but knowing that the lady was rich was enough to motivate them to help. This moment was a particularly tricky part for me, because when I ran this adventure last I simply dropped the group into the scenario, but I couldn’t do that to a pre-existing group, so I took my chances, hoping that the promise of gold would be enough to motivate them.

Unlike the first time I ran the Blind Demon scenario, the adventure ended up being true horror experience, instead of a suspenseful and mysterious one. (In the months since, my players have claimed that the trailer for the new horror film A Quiet Place reminds them heavily of what occurred in the house with the Blind Demon). The group was anxious, unsure of what they were about to experience, and were constantly on edge while they prowled through the house. Caileth and Lei in particular said more than one prayer to their deities; this is particularly profound because neither of them are religious, not even the cleric ironically. The party’s discovery of the secret passage led to some clever thinking on their part, allowing them to occasionally bypass the creature that they knew would eviscerate them. However, they had some difficulty locating the candles crucial to the banishment, though much of this was likely due to their hesitance to go into the attic. This led to one particular instance where the PCs were trying to sneak up the stairs from the second floor into the attic, with the Blind Demon lurking on the bottom floor next to the stairs. Caileth, Solomon, and Lei all made it to the attic with no problem, but Reagan unfortunately rolled a 3 for Bel’s attempt, resulting in him tripping while trying to climb up the stairs. The enormous sound he made after tripping alerted the demon, forcing Bel to bolt to safety with the creature hot on his heels. He darted into the attic, the rest of his party slamming the door behind him. The Blind Demon pounded on the door, but alas his claws kept him from opening it, and he soon wandered away.

Eventually, with careful maneuvering and more than a little tiptoeing, the group made their way around the mansion, collecting the elements needed for the banishment and encountering the ghost of Vivian DeMarcus. The PCs realized that Peter, the son, was likely the demon who failed while trying to bring his sister back, and began to take on an even more unfavorable opinion of Sonia after finding Peter’s journal entries discussing his mom’s behavior since the passing of her daughter and husband. Finally, they assembled the ritual, lured the demon into the circle, and banished the demon from Peter’s body. The group returned to the tavern, reuniting Peter and his mother, though they confronted Sonia over her poor parenting skills despite her apparent mental instability. Sybil, angry at the group’s attitude towards her friend, defended Sonia from the group and took her back home. With that, the adventure of the Blind Demon came to an end for this band of adventurers.

A listing for warriors for hire was placed on the adventurer’s board, so the group grabbed the flyer and set out to meet the people responsible. A group of druids, known as the Glacius Tribe, were searching for protection for a yearly pilgrimage they embarked upon once a year. Elmyar, the leader of the tribe, was a tall moon elf with silvery blue skin and long, dark black hair. His husband, Thatoris, was an even taller wood elf who possessed long blond hair and pale skin. Elmyar was particularly flamboyant in demeanor, showing an enthusiasm for life that was balanced with his fierce loyalty to his people and a devotion to his love. Thatoris was the quiet calm in contrast to the druid leader, showing his age and his lack of sight through his caution and continuous close proximity to Elmyar. The group took a liking to the elves, and after an interview they signed a contract with them, promising to accompany them when they departed on their small journey a few days later.

With some time left in the day, the group took another flyer from the tavern, one that asked someone to stop a band of goblins who had taken to ransacking incoming merchants. After talking to the head of the merchants and being given a list of items that had been taken recently, the group set off to find where the goblins would set up shop. They quickly found the goblin cave and followed the creatures to the road where they would later ambush an unsuspecting merchant. Due to a not so great stealth role, the goblins noticed a few of the PCs, but because I for some reason like to play goblins in a Three Stooges/idiotic style, they didn’t care that these random humanoids were watching them. None of the party knew how this was going to go and were curious to see what the goblins had in mind, so they waited until a merchant came along. As the poor traveler drove his cart underneath the tree, the goblins launched themselves onto the man, distracting him while two hobgoblin buddies began grabbing items from the cart.

Finally, the group decided to intervene. And by “the group decided to intervene”, I mean Caileth decided to run up to the merchant, grab the goblin off of his face, and throw him into the snow. The other two goblins, seeing this, decided they wanted their turn, and promptly demanded that she throw them as well. A well-timed natural twenty resulted in the goblins being promptly launched into the forest. Meanwhile, the two hobgoblins were overpowered and tied up by the rest of the party. After assuring the merchant that he was okay and collecting the items the fiends had stolen, the group walked back to the capital and turned the goblins in to the guards. What was originally intended to be a combat encounter was solved with goofy shenanigans in true D&D fashion.

Overall, I really enjoyed this session, and I was grateful to get a chance to playtest the Blind Demon encounter again. There were a few definite things that I learned from the session, and it made me look at one particular type of encounter in a new light.

  • The same scenario will play out very differently with different characters, even if the players are the same

A big part of why I think this iteration of the Blind Demon scenario was a lot more tense was due to the fact that Eli was no longer playing a blood cleric. The blood cleric had the ability to use a creature’s blood to track it, but neither Caileth, nor anyone else in this group, had such an ability. This meant that the group had to be much more careful about the location of the demon at all times. Suddenly, the encounter became much more frightening, and potentially more lethal; it was some strange haunted house/slasher film that the PCs were trapped inside. Even to this day, my players still tell me that this was an incredibly terrifying adventure, which is the effect I was hoping to achieve, one that I don’t think I truly managed to find with the first group. It allowed me to realize that even minor character abilities can affect a scenario in ways that I had never imagined, and one of the most important things to do as a DM is have a basic understanding of how your PCs’ abilities work. That’s not to say you should have everything the players can do memorized; knowing exactly how the classes work should be up to the players. But knowing if your team has decent stealth, good range attacks, or, yes, the ability to track a monster through their blood can really help you as a DM determine what elements of a story will work best for your players, providing a nice challenge while still allowing them to feel heroic.

  • Social encounters can also have a victory condition

When I came up with the druid encounter, I didn’t really imagine a scenario where the group would fail to get the job once they met the druid leader. In retrospect, I would likely have made the encounter a little more serious, providing a more in-depth interview of the PCs and providing an option for them to “fail”. While a big part of the DM’s job is to ensure that the players feel like the heroes of the story, a realistic tale also doesn’t have the characters succeed at every angle. Building in a scenario where the players don’t have to work makes the players lazy and the characters Mary Sues/Gary Stus who are practically perfect at everything. I don’t necessarily regret not making this encounter trickier, but in retrospect it makes me want to try harder when designing social encounters, knowing that they can be just as unique and challenging as combat encounters or skill challenges if we as DMs allow them to be.

I really enjoyed this session, and although I can’t say it was an absolute favorite, it was a lot of fun and allowed me to learn some valuable things about my DMing style. Additionally, being able to try my hand at the horror genre in D&D was fun and refreshing. I still hope to keep playtesting my Blind Demon scenario, tweaking bits and pieces until it becomes a more well-rounded adventure. Until then, I am so pleased to keep adventuring with this awesome party of players and learning more and more as a DM.


Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment, or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Session 4.5

During my time running games of Dungeons and Dragons, I find that one of the things I do most often is run one shots, particularly one shots for new people. In my circle of friends, I am one of the few people willing to DM, and in their circles of friends, I am usually the only one. This means that I end up doing a lot of one shots for people who have never played before. In a way, I consider the DMing of new players a sort of specialty of mine; I have gotten pretty efficient at building new characters quickly and even have some of the rules memorized, like how to find AC and attack bonuses. When my friends’ friends and family members want to play D&D for the first time, I tend to be the person they turn to. Thus when some of Neli’s friends and family members decided they wanted to try out the game, it was time for a new one shot.

This group consisted of five people, which is one more than the main group I DM but one less than the Vrotha one shot I ran for my sister, which was the most I have ever DMed. Eli and Neli participated to help fill out the party and assist the new players. Eli’s character was a sweet little urchin monk named Tai, who had a heart of gold and an intelligence of four. Neli played Amethyst, a young human assassin rogue who studied under the tutelage of Thanos. Thanos was a hardened and lethal human assassin rogue played by Yazmine, Neli’s sister. Vidia, a sun elf Bard, was Julia’s character. Julia was the sister of Yazmine and Neli, and played the part of a bard well. Finally, Oskan, a sun elf sorcerer, was a noble native to the land, and was played by Juan Miguel, a friend of the sisters. The group was eclectic and fun, and interacted well from a role-playing standpoint from the beginning, likely due to their close nature.

The process of coming up with this one shot was difficult for me. While I believe my one shots tend to be better sessions than the canonical ones for my main campaign, they take a lot more work to come up with because they need to be self-contained, and I usually don’t have as much material to work with as far as context and character backgrounds. This particular session didn’t fall into place until the afternoon we played. Some of the characters needed finishing touches like armor and spells, so as the players worked on their characters I was frantically trying to finish and print off my notes.

When I run one shots, I like to use them as an opportunity to expand and construct new parts of my world. With this one, I decided to set it in Aestoreacia, the kingdom of sun elves and desert elves. This worked out due to the heritage of a few of the players, particularly Oskan. At the very beginning of the session, Oskan was sent a secret coded letter asking him to meet. At a bar known as The Nightingale, the designated location, Oskan found Gremoria, one of the fellow nobles residing in the capital city of Estella. She requested the help of the group to sneak into the house of another noble and retrieve a trusted advisor who had been kidnapped and a vase that was a family heirloom for her family. “Bitchmoria”, as Juan Miguel fondly called her, insisted that they would not get payment for the job unless they were able to retrieve both things. Reluctantly, the party set out for the estate of the targeted family.

Although the Ildrimsan family was away from their estate, there were several guards surrounding the building and a wall separating the mansion from the streets of Estella. The group did some reconnaissance, with Vidia drawing some of the guards away, but they found that it would be incredibly difficult to scale the wall. After some intense deliberation, Juan Miguel asked if Oskan would know enough about the family to impersonate one of the family members. With a good roll and a Disguise Self spell, Oskan approached the guards, pretending to be the oldest son of the family. Some persuasion rolls ensued (with advantage due to the spell) and the group found their way inside the mansion.

From here the group wasn’t sure where to go, so they began searching the area for the kidnapped advisor. In one of the towers of the mansion, they found a brig with two cells. However, both of the cells held the same person-a male desert elf with leather armor and stubborn attitude. The party was taken aback, uncertain which one was the real Fentoris. Both of them began clamoring for the PCs attention, insisting any of the questions the party might throw at them they could answer. Juan Miguel used a history roll to see what he could remember about Gremoria’s family history that might be useful to them. A quick info dump ensued, and the group finally settled on the question “What is the name of Gremoria’s oldest child?” The one on the left answered that Nae’min was the oldest son of Gremoria, which was true to the public. However, the Fentoris on the right answered “I don’t know, she never told me. It wasn’t supposed to happen.” This threw the PCs into a tizzy, and speculations about affairs began to fly. The group decided that this was the real Fentoris, but once they did the second one opened his cage, flaunted the key in front of the PCs, and swallowed it. A battle ensued, Thanos struck the final blow, and Tai shoved his hand into the creature’s stomach to retrieve the key as the body transformed into the grey, indistinguishable form of a doppelganger.

With Fentoris released, the PCs were ready to head off and find the heirloom, but the advisor revealed that there were some special papers in another room of the mansion that he needed to retrieve. He tried to convince the group to go on ahead and find the vase while he looked for the papers, but naturally the party didn’t trust him. They divided up, two of them shadowing Fentoris and the other three looking for the vase. Eventually, Tai, Vidia, and Amethyst found the vase surrounded by pressure plate traps, but not before Tai got a face full of fire and went down. Vidia managed to bring him back, and Tai was unbelievable shocked and maybe a little excited that he basically died. Meanwhile Fentoris got frozen by a security glyph, and Oskan and Thanos skirted past him to look through the room for the papers he was so desperate for. Eventually, both parties managed to retrieve the object they were seeking, and with some spells they managed to disable the glyph holding Fentoris in place. With their treasure in hand, the group set off to return to the place where Gremoria lay in wait.

The PCs managed to get past the guards by having Fentoris hold the vase and turning him invisible. One of the guards nearly recognized Vidia from her attempt to distract them, but an order from the still-disguised Oskan made them stand down. The trip back was uneventful, and the group confronted Gremoria with the papers and the knowledge about her supposed affair. Gremoria’s hands were tied, and each of them walked out with an enormous pile of gold in order to ensure their silence. The last thing that the party heard as they left The Nightingale was Gremoria screaming in frustration and burning the papers the party had brought her, as each of the PCs relished in the gold that they had blackmailed her for.

Personally, I think that this session is one of the best I have ever run. It seems ironic due to the fact that it was difficult to come up with and was more than a bit hastily thrown together. Despite the scenario, the session went great, the group had a lot of fun, and I learned some very valuable lessons from it.

  • Be careful about dropping bombshells for a different campaign

One of the greatest moments of the one shot came when the group was blackmailing Gremoria about her secret child. In a moment that shocked two of the players, it was revealed that Gremoria’s secret child was actually Bel, Reagan’s little half elf barbarian from the main campaign. The name drop shocked Eli and made Neli run out of the room screaming, though the rest of the group was more than a little confused. I hadn’t originally intended to reveal that they had been working for Gremoria the whole time; it was just supposed to be a coincidence, something that might pay off a year or so later if the main group ever made it to Aestoreacia. However, the PCs immediate suspicion of the secret child and their insistence on blackmailing her forced my hand a bit, and us such the bomb was dropped. The end result was more of a surprising easter egg for players rather than the characters. I really want to avoid doing this sort of thing in the future; telling the players secrets that have weight on the main campaign while they’re doing a one shot can a) distract from the current one shot and b) make I harder for the players to avoid metagaming down the line. The more the players know that their characters don’t, it becomes harder for the players to separate that knowledge and roleplay effectively. Luckily, the reveal that it was Bel’s mom that they had been working for wasn’t essential to the plot of the campaign and didn’t reveal any secrets, but it is still something that I want to be careful about going forward, even if it was very much worth it this time around.

  • Dropping a character in immediately can be a great way to hook the player

When the session started, I described the surroundings that the players were in before immediately addressing Oskan and handing him a letter. The letter was coded, meaning that before the group got into anything else, they had to solve a puzzle. Additionally, the message was sent from Gremoria to Oskan, one noble to another. This played heavily into Oskan’s character, and gave his player in particular more to go on. Similarly, the puzzle was a quick way to engage everyone-the equivalent of dropping your characters in media res without the danger that comes with a battle. I highly recommend using this method to get a session going, particularly for a one shot with new players. Starting off the session with a puzzle will let your players feel victorious and excited, and you can set the tone for the rest of the session.

  • The first time a character goes down can be a scary moment for a DM

The moment that Tai stared the trap in the face and got a face full of fire was a terrifying one. Immediately he fell unconscious, which is the first time when I was DMing that a character had gone down. (There’s probably a deeper commentary about this moment that shows how I play the game, but that’s a post for another day.) I wasn’t the only one shocked however. The entire table was freaked out by the fact that Tai was unconscious, particularly Neli and Julia because their characters were in the same room. Vidia quickly rushed to Ty’s aid and delivered a healing spell, which brought him back from the edge of death. Tai himself seemed impressed and awestruck that he had died, which allowed for some sighs of relief and strange looks at the table. It was interesting to see how the group reacted to a death; those who hadn’t played before seemed a bit confused and alarm, while Eli was somewhat resigned to Tai’s fate. Neli meanwhile seemed the most shocked, likely due to the fact that she had been playing awhile and knew how serious going down was but had never seen it. The whole experience was a unique one, and one that sticks in my head even now as a DM. It’s a nice reminder that even in a world of high fantasy there is still some consequence to a character’s actions.

  • Don’t be afraid to use a character’s background, even just for a one shot

One of the things that really allowed the session to fall into place was Oskan’s noble background. It made it much more plausible that Gremoria, a noble herself, would reach out to the PCs for their assistance. Similarly, when sneaking into the estate and determining who the real advisor was, Oskan’s ability to “recall” information about the nobility gave Juan Miguel and the other players some excellent tools to solve the puzzles set in front of them. Even just for a one shot, using a player’s background can not only tie them into the story quickly and effectively, but can prompt the players to roleplay where they otherwise might not and get them to think outside of the box. A player with an urchin or criminal background might be helpful in a big city setting if the party needs a quiet path that won’t attract attention. Similarly, an acolyte might know the best place to get supplies for facing against the undead, hermits and outlanders can have advantages in wild terrain. Pay attention to your players’ chosen backgrounds and find ways to tie the scenario and the setting into the character, particularly if the players quickly engage and roleplay in a way that is consistent with that background. It will make the world feel so much more authentic and your players will be engaged in the session and their character.

Even nearly five months later, I am still prouder of this session than I am of almost anything else that I’ve done as a Dungeon Master. The players were all incredibly engaged, doing some of the best strategizing that I have ever seen in a game and becoming incredibly invested in these characters in such a short amount of time. Even if I don’t include the reveal about Bel’s mother, the game was fun for the players, which means it was fun for me as a DM. It’s moments like these that revitalize my love for the game and make me want to introduce it to everyone I know so they can participate in the amazing world of Dungeons and Dragons.



Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Session 4

After having killed a dragon, looted a dungeon, and dispatched some thieves, my players were pretty confident in themselves. When session four came around, they knew that they could kick ass and take names and were ready to move on to bigger and better challenges. At the end of the third session they had informed me that they were going to be heading to the capital city of Vrotha, and as such I began to plan accordingly.

However, I had not anticipated exactly how thorough the players were going to be. The party had already scavenged some scales, blood, claws, teeth, horns, and an eye from the dragon when they returned from the dungeon, and as such I figured they would take what they had found and move on. Instead the group bought a carriage, went back to the dungeon, and began looting the body even further. Meat, gallbladder, kidneys, and anything else that could be torn from the corpse of the white dragon was quickly removed. I had planned out ahead of time the basic values for each piece and who would be most likely to buy what (or who could turn the items into what they wanted in certain cases), but these new items left me completely blindsided and scrambling to keep up.

The party made their way through the icy landscape of Vrotha to the capital city, Whitepoint. There the players entered and found the city separated into seven districts, each with its own purpose. First, they ventured into the merchant district, looking for people to buy the raw materials. A good charisma roll from Solomon meant that a large portion of the 18 pounds of dragon meat they possessed was bought by a doubting man named Quincy who was currently running Merle’s Meat Market. This exchange gave the group nearly a thousand gold, which combined with what they were given by Simone and Nikolai, the twins who run Augury and Alchemy (the newest and biggest magic shop in Vrotha), amounted to quite a large amount of gold. Solomon also asked the twins if they could do anything with the bile from the dragon, and the two promised to provide him with some options in a week once their alchemy book came in. Finally, the group commissioned some jewelry, a new bow, and some armor using the remainder of the dragon materials they possessed before finding their way to the library.

Caileth was particularly interested in the old book that the group had found in the final room of the ice dungeon. However, the journal was written in celestial, a nearly dead language in the realm of Dracia. This meant that in order to understand the knowledge hidden within the tome, they would need to hire the services of a professional translator. The Library of Vrotha, one of the biggest libraries in Dracia, was home to several professional translators, and Shae Jin, a young eager woman with a love for books took upon the case. However, the book was lengthy and the language was old, meaning that it would take about 30 days for Jin to translate it entirely. This meant that the party would need a place to stay.

Towards the center of the city sat The Lion’s Blaze Inn and Tavern (a reference to an Olan Rogers skit in the vein of RPGs), a place designed specifically (but secretly) for adventurers. Sybil, Tamara, and Martha, the ladies who own the inn, were former adventurers themselves, meaning that they knew exactly how important it was for young adventurers to have a space where they can get new quests and stay out of the eye of the disapproving government. The players found shelter there, paying in advance for thirty days room and board. Inside the tavern rested a secret board, filled with calls for help that potential heroes could pursue. Here the group found their first call to action in Whitepoint.

A group of shepherds had been losing sheep to a strange creature on the outskirts of the city. Despite the government’s insistence that citizens not rely on outside help, the farmers had gotten tired of their livestock being picked off and getting no military help, so they reached out to The Lion’s Blaze for assistance. When the PCs arrived at the house of the head shepherd, they were informed about the situation and instructed to rid the capital of whatever creature had been taking the sheep. With some hesitation, the group set out to the outskirts of the city to see what they could do to help the poor farmers.

Using the corpse of an old sheep, wool, and some tar, the group created a dummy to trick the creature so that they could kill it. After waiting for some time, the creature, a “terracabra” (a modified version of the legendary Chupacabra), swooped down and grabbed the decoy. The PCs followed the creature, attacking it and forcing it to fight back. Solomon found himself being carried away in the claws of the monster, and fell several feet as Caileth struck the killing blow with a blast of sacred flame from the circlet she had found in the ice dungeon. After destroying the terracabra, they returned to the shepherds, and were rewarded with 150 gold, an immovable rod, and a sheep named after each of them. Satisfied with their work, the adventurers returned to the tavern for a night of rest, promising to continue fulfilling quests through the rest of their stay in the city.

This particular session was certainly one of the more relaxed ones we have had, even since the time of this session. Since the group spent much of their time either scavenging materials or shopping, much of the session was spent focusing on the individual characters’ needs and the roleplay between them and NPCs. Nonetheless, the session was informative and I feel like I came away from it with important knowledge, not just DM knowledge but that pertaining to my world, my players, and their characters.

  • It is perfectly acceptable for players to ignore a branching plot point

For many people, D&D is a way that they can escape from the rigorous cycle of real life and the demands placed upon them. Being a DM that does not railroad your player not only provides better storytelling potential but allows your world to become an escape for your players. This means that if you set up a potential plot point and your players show no interest in it, that is completely okay. On their journey to Whitepoint, my players came across the town of Rakski (from Session 1.5) and found the bare traces of a new plotline building. However, the group expressed no interest, spent the night in the tavern, and went on their merry way. My players were not motivated to investigate further, and that is perfectly fine. The whole point of a sandbox campaign is to provide option for the players and to allow them to feel like they are immersed in a real world. This being said, if players ignore a plotline, it is okay (but not necessary) for them to see the consequences of skipping it. Keep in mind that “consequence” and “punishment” are not the same thing. If the players ignore a farmer whose chickens keep getting eaten by foxes, that doesn’t mean they have to see his body drug down the streets in a cart full of people dead from the plague. Rather, you can twist the plot so that the farmer overcomes the foxes on his own, taming the foxes into pets, and when your cleric decides she wants a pet fox the farmer can look her dead in the eyes and tell her no because they didn’t help him when he needed it most. The consequences can be a punishment, but they don’t have to be, and they can be negative without being punishing, but they don’t have to be. When running a sandbox campaign in particular, an important thing to remember is that the best way to make the players feel immersed in the game is to remind them that their actions have weight. Don’t panic if the players aren’t interested in one particular plotline you were sure they would take the bait for, and don’t punish them either, especially if it’s their characters who are not interested rather than the players.

  • Be careful with rare items and creatures in your world.

In the world of Dracia, dragons are extremely rare, so much so that they are considered extinct or merely fairytales by the people of the world. When I decided this in my worldbuilding phase, I hadn’t considered the potential of throwing a dragon at my players, nor had I thought of the ramifications of them scavenging and selling the parts. What was originally a storytelling element became a way for my players to get quite a bit of gold-and at fourth level nonetheless. Normally, the people in Whitepoint would have simply believed that the players were lying to them (with the exception of Simone and Nikolai, who are well-trained in the history of magical creatures and the arcane arts), making it hard for any of the dragon parts to be sold. However, thanks to some clever thinking and talking by Solomon, his high charisma, and some lucky rolls, they were able to convince the gentleman at the meat market to buy the meat off of them. Because I had made one thing extremely rare, I had inadvertently made the players far more powerfully financially then I had intended to. The important thing to remember is not to panic and try to undo what you just did, as that will leave the players feeling frustrated and robbed-literally and figuratively. Rather, allow for other opportunities to arise, such as a market or shop with cool trinkets that allows the players to spend their hard-earned gold on something that they like. You are here to tell the player’s story, not your own, so allow the players to learn, grow, ad gather some gold-they’ll feel much more like accomplished adventurers and heroes in the end.

This session was one of the least memorable ones we had played so far simply due to the lack of intense combat or complicated puzzles. Yet it was useful and necessary; the intensity of a necromancer and a dragon back to back was a bit much for the players, so providing them with an outlet for shopping and roleplay helped to revitalize them. Additionally, their commissioning of items required some time for the items to be made, tying the group down to one spot for a small portion of time as I began to plot out the next leg of the campaign. This strange bit of a lull was the perfect spot for the next portion of the heroes’ journeys to begin.

 

Notable quotes from the session:

  • Me (as an old man): Helloooo??

Caileth: Oh… that’s not what I expected.

Old man: Well, you’re not what I was expecting either, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?? *Slams door*

  • Eli: Can I use spiritual weapon to make a sheep-shaped bomb?

*AKA the moment the cleric officially broke the Dungeon Master*

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Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Session 3.5

After my group’s third session, I was starting to get more comfortable with DMing. Thus when the DM from the group that I generally play in asked me to DM a one-shot, I felt ready to take on the challenge. However, the scenario in front of me required a bit of an adjustment from the games that I usually ran, and I wanted to challenge myself, so I set to work to create a one-shot that I hoped would be fun, unique, and scary.

When I played with my other group, we ran generally from 12-4 because we got together on Fridays or Saturdays, meaning that I had to leave for work. Every time I had run a session prior to this, I had a good six or seven hours to work with and no solid end time to worry about. This time I knew that I needed a concise adventure that could be wrapped up in one session and take about 3 hours (figuring in time for eating and restroom breaks). But I struggled with a good plot thread, a concept to use in the session. I have never been particularly good at creating unique ideas from scratch, and as such I was at a loss for a while.

Around this time, Sagas of Sundry: Dread was airing on Geek & Sundry’s Project Alpha. I had been eagerly watching the episodes week by week, clinging to the unique characters and air of suspense surrounding the series. As I drove to work one day, I found my mind toying with the idea of a horror one-shot. However, I have always been a weakling when it comes to horror entertainment; if I couldn’t watch a horror movie then how could I expect to provide a suspenseful and scary D&D scenario? I was about to pass on the idea when a thought struck my head.

Out of nowhere, the idea for a monster popped into my head. It was tall, lanky, with enormous arms and legs. Its head was pale, and nearly featureless. Skin was stretched over where eyes should lay, and two thin slits rested where a nose might be. A grin, devoid of lips but filled with sharp teeth, was framed by dark horns that emerged from the sides of the creature’s head and curved around to stick out next to the mouth. The pale skin at the head gradually fades into a pitch-black color, allowing the creature’s strange cloven feet to blend into the darkness. Finally, where fingers should have existed on the creature’s hands, instead there were lengthy thin claws, dragging behind the evil as it moved. To me, the creature was terrifying, and to this day I still am unsure how the idea for it popped into my head.

Once the demon popped into my head, the rest of the scenario quickly fell into place. In order to keep the scenario contained, I decided that the group would have been asked to investigate a monster inside the house of a rich elderly lady. Once inside, the house will have been transported to a pocket dimension with no exit, forcing the group to stay inside the house until the mystery was solved. The basic plot would be that the son of the older lady had been trying to bring his younger sister back to life, but had accidentally summoned a demon and subsequently been possessed. Over the course of the session, the group would be given opportunity to uncover the mystery behind “The Blind Demon” and potentially exorcise the demon from the body of the son.

The party consisted of a monk, a barbarian, a rogue, and a cleric, all at fifth level. Since it was a one-shot, I wasn’t terribly concerned with the characters and their abilities when setting up the scenario, although there were multiple moments where the PCs’ skills came in handy. In order to start the session quickly and ensure we had enough time to play, I essentially info-dumped the scenario on to the group, telling them enough details about the house, the lady who hired them, and the creature that resided within. While I would never have done this in the middle of an actual session, it worked for a group like this, involved in a one-shot and short on time. The group gave no pushback, and when I essentially dropped them off at the house they hit the ground running.

Once inside, the group found a pool of blood in the center of the hallway. Lying next to the blood was a piece of paper torn from a book, which held information about a specific demon and the details about performing an exorcism, as well as the words “HELP” written in blood. The cleric, actually a blood cleric, used his ability to connect the blood to the originator, and thus the group knew the location of the Blind Demon. Using the list of required materials on the piece of paper they had found, the group set off on a mad dash to find the ingredients, avoid the demon, and save the son.

Going into the session, I had very specific ideas of how I thought the entire situation would go, which is, as a DM, one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Still, I felt that the session went well, and to this day I am incredibly proud of this one-shot. I hope to continue working on this one-shot, playtesting it and tweaking it, then eventually publishing it on DMs Guild one day. But until that moment comes, it is important to reflect on what I learned from this session, both as a DM and as a content creator.

  • Your PCs might have abilities that circumvent elements of your story-and that’s okay

I hadn’t realized when creating this session that Eli’s character was going to have the ability to sense where the Blind Demon was at all time. At first it threw me off guard, but I was able to adapt to a certain extent. However, this ability did inherently change the nature of the game. Instead of being a straight up horror/haunted house type of story, it morphed into a suspenseful strategy situation. The group knew exactly where the Blind Demon was at all times, meaning that they had to carefully plan every move, every step to ensure that they did not run into the creature and endanger their lives. While this was an unexpected occurrence, it was a welcome one, and reminded me that as a DM the most important abilities are adapt, overcome, and improvise.

  • Repurposing monsters can be useful, but do so carefully

When I came up with the Blind Demon, I knew that I would have a hard time finding something that matched what I wanted as far as stats. I went into the Monster Manual looking for something to reskin that seemed powerful and frightening, but also matched the physicality of the demon. I settled on the Goristro, a demon itself, to fill in for my creature. The goristro has an ability called “Charge” that allows it to gore a target with its horns if it can move at least fifteen feet straight towards the target before it hits. Originally, the goristro had two fist attacks and one hoof attack, but I changed it to two claw attacks and one horn attack. What I adjusted on the monster felt like it held little difference because of how I intended the adventure to play out, which was a tremendous mistake on my part.

The goristro is a monster with a challenge rating of 17, an encounter which would be quite deadly for a group of four level-five adventurers. This might seem like madness, but when I picked the monster, I had a purpose. I wanted the Blind Demon to be a fearsome creature, a horrible monster that none would care to face. Because the demon was actually the son of the lady that had recruited the adventurers, I wanted to players to save the son and not kill him. I had hoped that the “HELP” on the paper found in the hallway at the beginning would lead them to that conclusion on their own, but I hoped that by making the demon a horrendously powerful creature I would force the players to avoid combat. At one point however, the players got caught in the same room as the demon, and instead of running, they decided to fight. I was worried about killing the players, so after a couple rounds of combat, I had the demon run away. While it saved the players, it weakened the story. I realized after this that it was important to allow room in the scenario for the players to defeat the demon, to kill the son, and that in order to make this scenario better I would have to rework the demon to provide more versatility in the outcome.

  • Creating unique props can help draw the players into the story

When I concocted the idea of the scenario, I wanted the paper that the PCs found to be a real piece of paper that the players could look at. On one side, the paper contained background information about the Blind Demon and its origin, as well as how to summon it, while the other side held the instructions and materials for how to banish it. I typed up the information on a plain piece of paper then asked my mom to help me age it. She used brown and tan paints to give the paper an older look, smudged some of the ink, wrinkled the page, and tore some of the edges. To lend the page a more horrific look, she mixed up more paint to look like blood, splattering it across the paper and tracing the word “HELP” in thin bloody letters. Finally, she drew a six-pointed symbol on the bottom corner, the symbol that the group would need to make to banish the demon, and tore that portion from the rest of the page. The prop was wonderful, scary, and engaging. My players knew immediately that it was important to their quest, skimmed it for clues, and began a hunt for the section that was torn away. Having such a unique prop immediately immersed the players in the story and helped to establish the atmosphere I wanted, that of a sense of urgency and suspense.

To this day, I have run the Blind Demon scenario twice, and I hope to continue to keep running it with different groups, fine tuning it and playtesting it. Eventually I want to work out the problems with the scenario, write it out properly, and publish it for others to use. I am incredibly proud of this scenario, and each time I have run it so far it teaches me powerful and unique lessons, both as a DM and as a content creator. It is important to remember when running the game that above all else, the most vital thing you can do as a DM is to not set expectations for how a scenario will go. The more of an idea you have for how the situation should go, the less likely you will be able to adapt to the players and their needs. Whether you are running a premade adventure or creating something yourself, remember that adaptability and improvisation are your two greatest assets in the world of DMing.

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Question, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Session 3

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!)

Session 2

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*

Session 1.5

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.