How do you turn a lowly bandit hideout into an epic D&D adventure? By forgetting key details during the game.
Dungeons and Dragons (like most RPGs) is the most extensive, exasperating, and enthralling game that you will ever play. No other game can go from sheer aggravation to riotous exhilaration as quickly as D&D. With dozens of rule books, a semi-clueless DM who has to improvise all the time, and a gang of unpredictable PCs who never do what you expect, it should come as no surprise that you may have to play several sessions before everything just works.
Well today, after three sessions, one good, one meh, and one horrible, everything just clicked, and we were playing epic D&D. And all they did was clear out a lowly bandit hideout. I apologize in advance for what will be a pretty long post, but they did a ton of stuff today.
When we last left our heroes, Andrew was the DM, and the party had unwittingly circled around to the front of the dungeon. They had cleared out three bandits from a garracks area (Room #2) and were standing in Room #1.
The first thing that happens is that Andrew betrays me. He tells me that he doesn’t want to be the Dungeon Master anymore. It was fun, but it’s a lot of work and he would rather be a player. Groan. I knew this would happen. I honestly did not want to be the DM, but now I can’t be the jerk that kills the campaign. So, now I’m running things again.
From the module, I ran this dungeon as it is written in terms of encounter locations and number of monsters. But I did often change the behavior of said monsters. One quick note, every time the PCs have encountered a Redbrand Thug, I’ve described the red cloak that they wear. Jim, the adult, came up with the idea of having the party use the cloaks as a disguise. This is specifically stated in the book as a good idea, but I really wanted one of the kids to come up with it and I was a little disappointed that it came from the adult. Oh well.
The first hallway has a simple 10’ drop, low-damage pit trap, followed by a room with three skeletons. Jack, the thief, was out in front, but he wasn’t checking for any traps. Being a Halfling he walks right over it without setting it off. Andrew, the heavy fighter with a shiny new magic sword, comes next. “Give me a Dexterity check,” I say. He barely succeeds. “Andrew, you are able to jump just as the floor falls away from your feet. You barely manage to grab onto the ledge and are hanging from your fingertips. The bones of a dozen corpses litter the pit floor. Give me a Strength check to hold on.”
In the book, the three skeletons in the next room do not react until the party enters the room. But I continue, “Jim and James, you are still on the far side of the pit. There is no ledge to walk across. Jack, you are alone on the far side of the pit. There is a door twenty feet down the hall. The door opens and three skeletons come lumbering down the hall towards you.”
Jack loses his mind. He panics since he thinks he has to fight these skeletons alone. Andrew keeps failing his Strength check to pull himself up but passes his check to hang on, and Jack doesn’t think to help him up. Jim and James are trying to figure out how to get across. Neither of them thinks to just try to jump across.
Jack is freaking out. Andrew manages to pull himself up; Jim and James manage to climb to the other side using a rope and pitons to scale the wall. Just as the skeletons arrive, and… do nothing, except wander around. “It must be the cloaks” yells Jim, surprised at his own ingenuity. I knew that today was gonna be a great D&D day.
In addition to being a memorable encounter, this simple trap gives us two great DM tips. First, always be on the lookout for ways to increase the tension and drama of a scene. I knew that since the players were wearing the cloaks that the skeletons would not attack. But the players didn’t know that. Just by having the monsters move twenty feet from their “written in the book” area, I turned a “who cares” nuisance trap into a perceived life-or-death struggle.
Second, never assume that the players pick up on all of your delicious tidbits of information, sprinkled about to entice and inform your players. It seemed obvious to me to wear a cloak as a disguise, because I read the adventure. The players did not.
Players are inundated with information during play; an overheard bit of conversation, a seemingly trivial bit of lore, or telltale animal tracks except the player failed his Nature roll, all manner of things. It is nearly impossible to determine when some piece of info will become relevant. Jim told me afterwards that he thought to wear a disguise just in that moment. Do not be disappointed when the players don’t pick up on all your clues or unintended ones do.
They enter the tomb and bar the door, trapping the skeletons outside in the hall. Their sigh of relief at surviving the undead non-attack turned to laughter when I described the sickening shattering of bone coming from the hall, as the skeletons apparently fell into the pit one by one.
Still using the cloaks, they gain surprise on the guards in the next room. They quickly kill the guards and free the hostages. This is Mirna, wife of the murdered woodcutter, and her two children. “Oh yeah, someone in town said something about this last week right?,” the player cry in unison. Last week really sucked.
The party agrees to keep them safe until they can escape the dungeon. The pathways loop back to the middle of the dungeon, where the party first entered and encountered the Nothic. The Nothic is still hungry and now wants to eat the children, forcing the party to kill it. James is not happy about this. I think he wanted to keep the thing as a pet. The rescued family can safely exit the dungeon here. Good Riddance. I mean, fare thee well, good maiden.
I would normally halt the session about now. The kids generally have about a two-hour window in which to play D&D before they get tired and bored and want to do something else. They usually get through three or four encounters, whereas adults should be able to handle five, or six, or even a whole chapter. But today they are all really engaged and want to press on. Tally ho.
The next room holds four bandits, gambling. The book stated that these bandits will not be fooled by any players in disguise. However, I forgot this, and it led to the best encounter of the campaign.
James has the great idea to send in his magical familiar, a snake, to peek in the room. He sees four thugs in red cloaks sitting around a table, playing dice. Since it worked before, they try to bluff their way past these guys. Jim takes lead but it doesn’t go very well from the start.
The Bandit Leader starts up with a suitably thick, stupid grunt, “Look at this motley group of losers. Who are you supposed to be?”
“We’re new recruits. We just joined your gang of Redcloaks,” Jim says proudly.
“Redbrands, Dad, Redbrands!” says Jim’s son Jack. This was especially important to me, because Jack is the one most often not paying attention and I was thrilled that it was he that remembered the right name.
“Hunh. This idiot wants to join us, but he don’t even know our name!” the Bandit continues.
Jim tries to save face, “Ah yes, I’m not very smart. I meant to say Redcloak.”
“Redbrand!” the other three players yell.
“Redbrand. Yes, yes. That’s what I meant.”
I have Jim roll a Charisma check to see if his bungled roleplaying fools the bandit. Jim rolls a natural 20, which is always a spectacular success. The bandit rolls a 1, a critical fail. So I go with it.
Bandit, “Boy, you really are stupid. You three, (pointing to the other thugs) get up. I wanna take these new guys’ money.”
We are short one chair, James, a conjuration wizard, asks if he can use his ability to conjure up the Bugbear throne from earlier. He wants to have a really boss chair to sit in. Absolutely, I say. He is really thinking about what his character is capable of. I love it.
As soon as the chair materializes, the Bandit Leader says, “Where’d that chair come from? Here you sit in my chair. This cool one is mine.” James accepts this for now, but he gets his revenge in a few minutes.
We are now scrambling to find enough six-sided dice so that we can play Liars’ Dice. After we get the dice, the kids tell me that they don’t know how to play. So now I’m teaching a gang of mercenary adventurers how to play Liars’ Dice, a game that I learned from Red Dead Redemption, in the middle of a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Name me any other game where a weird scenario like this can ever occur. Go on, I dare ya.
We play a practice round, then a legit round, and then I start having the Bandit Leader deliberately cheat because I want the players to catch me. But the Bandit Leader is still losing somehow. By round four, I have the Bandit Leader get all upset, screaming, “These guys are cheating! There’s no way you guys keep rolling 6’s. I’m gonna…”
James yells out, “I stop concentrating on my chair.” James’ conjuration ability requires that he concentrate on the object made. If he is distracted or willing stops focusing, the object immediately disappears. I had not considered this at all. Touché, James, touché.
In mid-sentence, the chair vanishes from beneath the bandit boss. He falls to the floor in a heap. The other three thugs, who weren’t really paying attention, are stunned.
The players take full advantage of this surprise and make short work of these goons. Andrew, as usual, claims the leader as his personal challenge.
Afterwards, 12-year-old Jack reveals that while we were all gathering dice for the impromptu game, he got his dice from an old magic set, where the dice all had sixes on all sides. “Because I’m the thief and that’s what I do.” Completely brilliant. Everyone got inspiration tokens after this encounter.
If I had played the module “as written” this glorious encounter would not have occurred. The lesson here is to embrace your mistakes. First off, the players won’t know that you made a mistake. Second, the module is not written in stone, change it however you need. And Third, Improvisation is the mother of inspiration.
After all that, the rest of the dungeon was a flurry of madcap action. In the next room, one bugbear knocked himself unconscious chasing James’ snake familiar. After shoving aside the collapsed brute the party rescued the hapless goblin, Droop, which Andrew has adopted as his goblin-servant.
Then James’ snake familiar killed the rat familiar of the final boss, Glassstaff. This alerted Glassstaff who fled out a secret door. This set off a mad chase through the dungeon, with Jack’s character leading the charge, screaming after Glassstaff, “Come back you coward! Send your goons to kill me, will you! Stand and face me!” Yes! Somebody read his backstory.
The chase continued through the dungeon. The party hurtling javelins and shooting arrows, while the Glassstaff was launching spells over his shoulder. Finally it was Jack’s arrow that took Glassstaff down exactly to 0 hit points. In this case, I gave the NPC the same unconscious and dying rules as a player would have. Jim’s cleric saved his life and the triumphant party drags the hapless villain to town and everyone rejoiced. And James collects another chair.
This session was a blast. Sessions like these are what make D&D such a great game. A D&D campaign is filled with peaks and valleys; days of boring, tedious slog and days of zany, thrilling adventure. Do not despair if your campaign hits a snag. The goblins are always greener on the other side. And hone your improvisation skills.
After the session, James tells me that he loves D&D. He wants to read the Players’ Handbook (he’s the first to ask) and learn all about what wizards can do. Well, after a line like that, I know that I’ll be stuck running this campaign forever. But I’m sure there are worse things I could be doing with my kids.
Next week, we have to replay all of the town NPC encounters, but better this time. And the players journey out into the wilderness.
I’ve also created a Lost Mine of Phandelver Resource Page that includes everything I used to run this adventure all in one place. Session Diaries, Maps, Handouts, Stat Sheets, Everything. I hope this helps. Enjoy!
As always, don’t piss off a wizard while sitting in his chair, and Game On!
Cause I’m the thief, and that’s what I do. – Callan Claiviar, rogue extrordinaire