As the group approached the seventh session, I knew that I wanted to start teasing certain elements of backstories in order to get the plot moving along. By this point, I had in my possession quite a bit of information about Lei, Bel, Solomon, and Caileth, and I had started to come up with some larger arcs that I wanted to introduce into the story. There was still quite a bit of business the group had to take care of in Vrotha however, so it was crucial for me not to rush into anything, but rather tease things as the events in Whitepoint played out.
Another tricky element was introduced into the seventh session. Caitlin, a coworker and friend of Neli’s, was an avid fan of Critical Role and had wanted to start playing D&D, but had been unable to find a group to play with in our area. We welcomed her into the group, and she rolled up Fenhaly, a halfling monk who came to the capital of Vrotha looking for a young girl who had been kidnapped. Even though this wasn’t exactly the first time I had introduced a new character into a pre-existing group (Bel was a little bit of a late plant in Session 2), this was my first experience doing it for a group that was already so bonded. I was nervous at introducing a new character, particularly for a group of such loners, so going into the session I had hope that everything would go all right.
Immediately at the beginning of the session, the group was sitting at the inn after their druid adventure and the day at the festival. Viola Ruxperd, a general from the Vrothan army, entered The Lion’s Blaze Inn and Tavern to “pay a visit” to the ladies who owned the inn. This served two purposes for the group: 1) to remind them that much of Whitepoint and the local government frowns deeply on adventurers and 2) to show a bit more of the internal tensions of Vrotha. Ruxperd was a character who had not entered the picture before, but she was one of my favorite NPCs that populated Vrotha, so I was excited to have a chance to show her off.
Once General Ruxperd had left the inn, Izzy came running into the place and shot up to her room. The group was already suspicious of her because of the incident the previous day, but they were even more suspicious when Fenhaly came running in after her. The halfling eventually made her way up to the second floor with Lei hot on her heels. Izzy had escaped, climbing out the window and running off into the crowd. Fenhaly tried to pursue, but quickly lost sight of the girl. She came back into the tavern and began to discuss with the other PCs what she knew and what they should do. Eventually, they decided to make their way to the Onyx Barrel Tavern and perform a stakeout to see what they could learn.
After a few hours of inspection, the group found no traces of Izzy, but decided to send Fenhaly in to talk to their old pal Whitley. Inside, Fenhaly saw Izzy sitting next to a gentleman dressed in dark leather armor. Quickly however the attempt to talk to the bartender went awry, and the gentleman at the back of the room insisted upon speaking to Fenhaly-and the rest of her group waiting outside. This man was Salazar, one of the prominent members of the Obsidian Tower. He explained that the Obsidian Tower was a local organization, similar in many ways to a thieves guild. However, this group had been kidnapping children and using them for nefarious purposes. Fenhaly’s friend was among those who had fallen victim to the group, and Salazar decided to take advantage of this fact.
In exchange for the release of the girl Fenhaly was looking for, Salazar requested that the group make their way to a dungeon on the outskirts of Whitepoint and retrieve some plans which were located within. Something within Solomon was triggered, however, and he demanded that whether or not the group succeeded with the plans, the children would all be set free simply for the group’s attempt. Salazar was unwilling at first but was eventually persuaded. With this agreement met, the PCs set off.
I used the Five Room Dungeon format for this dungeon, meaning that upon arrival at the dungeon, the group found a mysterious riddle set into a large metallic door covered in ash and snow. Though it took some time, they found their way through the door and into the dungeon. Unfortunately, they were met with the Path of Blades, a dangerous series of traps. The first section held a large section of whirling blades ready to behead anyone who dared step into their fray. Next were several pillars slamming down from the ceiling into the ground, threatening to crush the life out of the adventurers. Finally, the Rune of Fear was a large sphere hanging above the exit with a rune emblazoned on the front to strike fear into any who approached. With some significant struggle, the group made it through the blades and pillars, and every one of them made the Wisdom saving throw to pass the Rune of Fear, meaning that they had made it through the complex trap.
The next room held a series of six doors, each labeled with a number one through six, and an inscription on the floor stating, “Go through the seventh door”. My group was particularly befuddled by this puzzle, particularly once they tried going through one of the doors and emerged promptly from the same door they had entered. They began to try random doors, and after some trial and error Lei consecutively went through doors 1 and 6 and did not enter again from the usual door. The remaining PCs realized after some panic that they had to go through two doors that equaled seven when added together and were promptly reunited.
What awaited on the other side of the door was a large stone room filled with pillars and what appeared to be some kind of statue with little form. Upon closer inspection however, the statue came alive and began to watch the party. It was actually a clay golem who had been assigned to watch over the entrance. Although the PCs tried to lure it away from the door, it remained steadfast. The group quickly found out however that simple hits from weaponry did nothing to the monster; magic was the only thing that appeared to damage it. Eventually, the golem fell in battle, though not before taking a sizable chunk out of Bel. The group made their way past the golem and the skeletons that lay within the chamber and entered the final room.
Within this room lay a study of sorts. A desk and several bookcases filled the room, and various pieces of treasure occupied the space as well. The group found a pair of earrings that could be used as a communication device, a quiver with some extradimensional storage properties, and some goggles of night vision. It was the plans that quickly turned the adventure sour however. The PCs found the plans in pieces, and after putting them together they discovered that they were blueprints for a gun. None of them knew what a gun was in-game, but Lei’s military training gave her just enough of a hint to know that this was bad news.
Suddenly the group was at a loss. They began to debate on whether or not they should actually hand the plans over to Salazar, and if they could even get away with lying to them. Everyone agreed that these plans and the Obsidian Tower were bad news. Solomon suggested joining the organization and bringing it down from the inside, and while most of the group didn’t like that option, they were at a loss for what they could do. As the PCs ascended the stairs in the final room to make their way out of the dungeon, they racked their brains for a solution, and soberly contemplated what their path might be once they reached the surface.
Although this session is definitely not my favorite in my D&D experience, it carries a lot of weight within my mind. This session took place in December, and our group has not had an official session since (though this will be rectified next week). I have had a lot of time to ruminate on this session and I think that even if it wasn’t the most fun session we have ever had, it was certainly valuable to me as a DM in learning my craft.
- Read and understand your traps
When I was looking for a series of traps to use for the encounter, I found the Path of Blades within the Unearthed Arcana for D&D 5th edition. This was prior to my acquisition of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, so I am unsure how that could have possibly changed the encounter, but I know that I certainly did not run the trap the way it was supposed to be run. I had thought I understood exactly what the trap needed, but once it came time for the players to proceed, I was lost and confused. Whatever the rules said I ended up throwing out, and I ran the trap very different. I think it worked adequately for what I was intending, but it was somewhat unsatisfactory. A week or two later I wound up rereading the instructions and I realized what I had misunderstood. In the future when I use a trap I plan to read and dissect the sections of it multiple times to make sure I understand it, particularly for a complex and multi-layered trap like the Path of Blades.
- Consider all of your PCs powers when designing an encounter
Before I knew that Caitlin was going to be playing a monk, I had the dungeon encounter almost entirely finished. The problem that had been accidentally built into the session was that the big bad for the day was going to be the clay golem, which takes no damage form basic physical attacks but instead only can be damaged via magic. For Solomon, Caileth, and Lei this was no problem, because they had access to at least a minimal amount of magic. Fenhaly however was a low enough level and a specific subclass of monk that provided no access to magic. The lack of magic was also a problem for Bel, but the fact that both of them had issues brings to light an interesting point. Providing an enemy that is immune to a specific type of damage or plan of attack can make for an interesting encounter, particularly if you have players that fall into certain patterns of attack and rely too heavily on one or two specific talents. This means that for the normal group, the clay golem would have made for a unique challenge. However, because Fenhaly was a newcomer to the situation and also had the same problem, the encounter became more complicated for me as the DM on a metagame level. Caitlin was a newcomer who had happened to pick a melee-centered class with a lack of access to magic, and the golem was the only combat encounter in the session. This mean that Fenhaly didn’t have anything to do in combat, and as such Caitlin wasn’t given the chance to play around with any of her monk skills within the first session. If I had had more time before the session to fix this, I absolutely would have. I encourage other new DMs to pay attention to their players’ abilities, particularly if you have any new people joining your party halfway through, and especially if they are new to RPGs and D&D. We want people to have a good time playing, and if they end up sitting on the sidelines for most of the session because of a mistake you made, the day can go from great to garbage in the space of minutes.
- Serious sessions can be good, but they are not necessarily best
This session was one of the first real opportunities I had to tease some backstories, and I also wanted to bring some weight to the world with the discovery of the gun plans. I always tell my players that their actions have consequences, and I think that this session really made them realize that their choices have weight. Similarly, Solomon’s encounter with Salazar quickly became serious in a way that most of hadn’t expected. This was likely due to the fact that no one besides myself knows anything about Solomon, and was also compounded by our groups’ lack of roleplay experience. It was hard for some of the players to separate their reaction to the encounter with their character’s reaction. While it was really fascinating and unique to see, it made me realize that I would not enjoy a truly gritty and constantly emotional game, and I don’t think my players would either. Even though most of the characters have very serious and possibly tragic elements to their backstory, the players got into D&D to have a good time. While they are here to tell a story, and that might include some sad moments, none of them (myself included) wants to spend the entire session in tears. Dungeons and Dragons is above all else a way for a group of players to have a good time and bond with each other, and in order to provide the best game experience possible we DMs need to pay attention to the things that our players enjoy and the moments that they are uncomfortable. This will allow us to learn and grow as DMs and create an excellent gaming experience for our players.
The seventh session was different in many ways, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was bad. While it was certainly different, and sometimes somber, it was still fun for us. The group enjoying themselves is the most important element of D&D, and telling a story usually comes second. As a DM, we are an amalgamation of everything we have done before, everything we experience within our own games and what we learn from watching other games or talking to other DMs and players. Much like everything else in our lives, we never stop learning and growing, nor should we accept stagnation in our tabletop roleplaying. I want to constantly strive for the next great D&D experience for as long as I live, and I hope that my players will take that journey with me.
Notable quotes from the session:
- Me: The table is made out of a sort of dark wooden… wood
(Unfortunately my players have made this one a significant inside joke so I felt obligated to include this as a “Notable Quote”.)
Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.