The DM (me) has an epic moment (war) planned, but the party (those inconsiderate kids I play with) foils me again. And again and again.
Full Disclosure, this post actually covers three sessions that took over 10 weeks to play. Life really put the kibosh on getting the group together. Each session was fun, but short; and not full enough for a solo post. So without further ado…
When last we left our heroes, they had managed to pull off the unthinkable. They had defeated that pinnacle of epic fantasy monsters, a vile Green Dragon! This deadly drake, Venomfang, had invaded the ruins of Thundertree. His destruction secured the alliance and the assistance of a power ally, Edoith the Greenwood elf. And they got to 3rd level.
The druid has promised to find the location of Cragmaw Castle, where the party believes they will find their patron, Gundren Rockseeker, who has been kidnapped by goblins. He has agreed to meet them in the town of Phandalin, during the spring festival of Greengrass, about ten days hence.
What the heroes don’t know is that these goblins are in the employ of a mysterious, shadowy, villain called the Black Spider.
The Black Spider also controlled a gang of thugs called the Redbrands that held the town of Phandalin in a grip of fear. The party had vanquished this gang and earned the enmity of this villainous cur.
When the heroes routed the thugs, they became very popular in town. The now-friendly villagers hailed them on the street, and several offered leads to other quests. Particularly thankful was the tavern owner Toblen. The party had rescued his sister, Mirna, and her family. Toblen offered the party free room, food, and beer whenever they were in town.
The barmaid, Elsa, was also very popular with the group. This had become a running joke with the group. Neither of our wives had any desire to play, but they usually stuck around the house, knitting, and talking, and making fun of us. I offered that they could play Elsa in the game. They both declined. But now, whenever either of them entered the room for any reason, we would call them Elsa and then demand, “More venison and more grog for the party, kind wench.” Needless to say, the tavern was a popular place for the players to hang out.
When the party returned to town they went straight to the tavern. The tavern is packed as usual with about 30 villagers at various tables. But the atmosphere is downright gloomy; nobody seems to be in a good mood.
Toblen is sitting in his chair, but alone in his silence. Elsa is serving tables, but she doesn’t seem her usual jovial self. Danny Devito, the dragonborn bard, previously played by Jim’s other child, Ollie, but is now an NPC, is grunting a song but no one is listening, and Hark, the bouncer, looks like he wants to kill him.
Elsa comes up to the table and asks, “You folks new in town?”
James, the youngest player, immediately yells, “That’s not the real Elsa!” This kid is born to play D&D.
“Of course it’s me silly. I just didn’t recognize you.” The group lets this slide and order 4 grogs. (The children are underage, and therefore can’t drink beer.)
Elsa returns with the drinks and says, “That’ll be 12 copper.”
Jim, the adult player and speaking as himself, not his character, says, “I thought we didn’t have to pay, but okay.”
Elsa calls over, “Toblen, Deez guys say they don’t have ta pay.” Toblen yells back, “Everybody pays! What am I running, a charity here?”
“That’s not the real Toblen!” James is going nuts.
Jim still tries to be diplomatic. “Good Sir, we saved the town from the Redcloaks.” (“Redbrands!” all the kids cry.) “We saved your sister. You said…”
“I don’t have a sister!”
James is flipping out, “Yes you do! Who are you! Where’s the real Toblen!”
Toblen calls over the Bouncer, Hark. “This guy’s causing problems.” Hark grabs Riandon by the shoulder.
I slide James a note. “What do you do?” it reads. Now both my boys and I are black belts in karate, so I think that they assume that their characters, even a wimpy, book-worm wizard, are as well. James says “I grab Hark by the wrist into a wrist lock and throw him onto the table.” James rolls a phenomenal Athletics check; Hark rolls a “1”. Hark crashes through the table, sprawled on his back. It is on!
Toblen hisses, “Enough of this façade. These are the ones. My master wants to see you. He wants to see you dead!” (great line) Toblen, Hark and Elsa all melt away, their skin undulating and rippling until they transform into hideous Greyskins, aka doppelgängers.
This is an extremely tough fight. Andrew demands that he take on the Leader, ex-Toblen. I don’t have the heart to tell him that they are all the same. The other three have a hard time taking down the other two.
The inn is in chaos. People are running everywhere, trying to escape. But the door is blocked by the ex-Hark doppelgänger. Some people run upstairs, some out through the kitchen, one jumps out a window. Most are still trapped within the tavern.
Finally, one doppelgänger (ex-Hark) goes down. A bunch of terrified villagers run out from the kitchen, chased by another doppleganger (ex-Toblen’s wife/cook). Every time the Thief attempts to hide, a patron knocks into him, blowing his cover. I’m still trying to find a good adjustment for this ridiculously over-powered ability.
Clarissa the Cleric casts Hold on one but is almost immediately knocked down to 0 hit points. Again. Death Saves. Again. This is the closest any character has come to dying. No one could help the cleric so Jim had to make all his saving throws legit.
As the cleric falls, another doppelgänger (ex-Toblen’s son) comes charging down the stairs, now there are four! James is casting Thunderwave and Ray of Frost like there’s no tomorrow. Ice covered tables and chairs go flying everywhere, but these guys just keep making their saves. These guys are tough.
James blasts a doppelgänger (ex-Elsa) and several tables into a fireplace. This kills it, and… sets the tavern on fire! Oh, come on! Andrew is down to 1 hit point, but he refuses to retreat, or heal. Several rounds later, Andrew kills the doppelgänger “leader” and then gets the killing blow on two others. He is very proud of himself.
After the battle, they are able to stop the fire and they discover that Toblen, Elsa, and the rest are alive in the cellar. They also find another letter from the Black Spider. The letter is written to Valdrezak, presumably one of the doppelgängers, and further details The Black Spider’s villainous plan. It again refers to maps that the player’s allegedly own, but the group has no idea what they are.
For the first time, the kids have the idea to go and talk to another NPC in the game about where to proceed in the story. In this case they want to ask Sildar Hallwinter, whom they suspect knows more than he’s said so far. Usually, I suggest courses of actions, and then role-play the one they pick. But now the players are making their own plans.
Sildar admits that he knows what the Spider is referring to. He produces a small scroll case. He tells the party that Gundren was in Neverwinter looking for old maps of the Lost Echo Cave. When they were captured, Sildar was entrusted to keep it out of the goblin’s hands by any means necessary. The kids, realizing where Sildar must have hidden this map, let out a collective “Ewww!” Toilet humor at its best.
Sildar hands the map over to the group, “Maybe, you’ll be able to use this, if we can ever find Master Rockseeker or his mine.” The group studys the map intently forever, but there is nothing to be learned from it yet. So they put it with the rest of the junk I’ve given them and promptly forgot about it.
Next week, we go to War!
No war, just more side quests. My goal for this session was to finally have an enormous town wide war against a horde of goblins. I’ve been planning this war for over 3 months, with no idea if I can pull this off. Well forget it; we’re not getting to it today.
We missed two sessions, and have not played for over a month. And today the kids don’t want to just play; they want to talk about D&D and the campaign. Again, this is great. This conversation lasted over an hour, and then we finally started to play.
I asked if they wanted to wait the 5 or 6 days until the Greengrass Festival or go and complete a side quest first. They picked side quests.
I tried to steer them toward the Old Owl Well. I really want to introduce the Red Wizards of Thay as bad guys since there is an adventure starring them in Tales of the Yawning Portal. I tell the players that you can do the quest for the cool ex-adventurer that you’re trying to impress or the one for the cowardly town manager or the wimpy priestess who got her butt kicked when she tried to do it herself. James immediately called me out and said I know which one you want us to do. Okay, not every plan is a home run.
Andrew, the video game completionist, says “I wanna do all three,” and convinced the party of the same. So we’re gonna do all three side quests that are right near each other. So here is some friendly advice. Move all of these encounters to different areas of the map, so that the players can’t just bang them all out. The Banshee of Conyberry and the Old Owl well can still be near each other as they might be related. But I’d definitely move the Orcs at Wyvern Tor to the Sword Mountains south of town. The party wants to start with the Orcs. I just want them to get this done so I can break out my siege map.
Anyway, en-route to the Orcs they roll for a random encounter, and I throw some Stirges at them. This battle should last just 2 rounds and I just want them to see another fantastic beast. After describing these half-bat / half-bird / half-mosquito things, James says “I grab a sack and try to catch one.”
This is clearly going to be a thing with him, so I ret-coned his character. I take away his proficiency in short sword and long bow, which he will never use, and give him a proficiency in rope, lasso, and net. I also take a 100 gold from his sheet and say that he bought a wagon with cages and boxes and jars for collecting things. James loves this idea.
So here is another tip; if a player discovers a new avenue that he wants the character to explore, let it happen and don’t penalize them just because they didn’t already write it into the back story. So now James is a wizard cowboy who wants to run a zoo. Cool.
James’ character, Riandon, takes his net and rolls a 20. I decree that he has caught 2 stirges. He is very happy. The other stirges are dead, killed by Riandon’s merciless friends.
At the Orc cave they see one guard and they have a long debate about how to take out this sentry without alerting the others. They are getting much better at making these plans. They cast invisibility on the thief, Callan. He goes down, and with his stealth attack, just barely manages to kill the Orc with one blow.
They go into the main chamber, and again I misread the module. I added two Orcs, omitted the Orc leader, and made the Ogre the boss. I tend to do this a lot. I generally have a gist that this or that encounter has “X” number of “whatever” and maybe a “insert cool monster here”, and then I usually just make up the numbers when the encounter happens based upon how the players are doing at the time. Here I got six Orcs and one Ogre boss named Gog.
Andrew, of course, takes on the Ogre leaving the party to mop up the underlings. He will fail miserably at this plan one day, but for now, I’ll let him be the Bad-Ass. Thanks to some really good dice, the party makes short work of these guys. They get some treasure and James obtains another chair. It’s just a big rock that the Ogre sat on which has some crude words carved in it, “Dis mine. Tuch N die. GOG”
While searching the cave, I also added in the body of a dead cleric who had a couple of good scrolls on him, Flamestrike and Revivfy. I expect that in the coming war, the Cleric can use Flamestrike as a good one-shot mass effect damage spell. And Revivfy is to bring back a killed character, since it is very likely that someone in the party will die in what will clearly be an unfair fight. Because the DM is a dick.
We ended this week’s session here. Next week, finally, we go to War!!!
No war, just more farting around. I ask the players where they want to go next, and James, the wizard, really wants them to go to the Old Owl Well. I don’t have a huge or important quest here, but I do want them to meet a Red Wizard of Thay and to have a real undead encounter. So, I’m glad that James wanted to come here. Plus, there is more one-shot magic that I want them to get before the big war, if we can ever get to it.
The adventure book has a throwaway line that the tower was once used by an ancient civilization called the Netheril. I have a vague idea that they will play a role later in the campaign, so introducing them here would be an awesome and probably forgotten bit of foreshadowing. A thousand years ago, the Netheril created huge floating cities, but a cataclysmic event wiped them out and caused all the cities to crash to the ground.
When the party arrives in the valley, I describe the ruined tower as a mix of stone and metal that appears to have buckled under a great weight or fallen from a great height. The area appears deserted, but there is a colorful, flamboyant tent in the clearing.
James, the one who wanted to come here, says that he does not want to go down and will wait with the wagon. Whatever.
The rest of the group goes down to explore. As the party approaches the tent, a dozen zombies and skeletons lumber out of the tower.
While the main group readies for battle, James says, “I charge the whole wagon into the crowd of zombies.” Just another weird, unique and yet slightly plausible action from the youngest player. I have him roll two ability checks, an animal handling one to keep the horse from bolting, and a dexterity check to keep control of the wagon. He succeeds both of them. The wagon plows through the field of undead. Two skeletons are smashed to smithereens, and two zombies are crushed under the wheels. James fails a dexterity check for the wagon, which is now stuck on some rocks.
After a round of combat, the Red Wizard of Thay comes charging out of the tent, “I demand ya’ll stop all this fussin’ out hereya. Ya’ll are actin’ like an alley cat in a bathtub. Brothers and sisters, stand down, I say, stand down.” The zombie and skeletons stop attacking. So do the heroes.
I highly doubt that this is the intended way to role-play the grim and serious Thayan Wizards, but this one is a gentrified, Southern country folk. I must have just watched and been inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained. He continues, “I am Jebediah Jessup Wyatt the Third, and you are decimatin’ my kin.” Pointing to the skeletons, “That is my great-great-great-grandaddy, Uriah, the oldest of our clan. Those two, (pointing to the zombies) are my cousin, Becky, and my dear departed sister, Bobbie Sue.” Jebediah continues, “It is a great honor in Thayan society to continue to serve the family, even after the mortal shell has moved on to the Dark Awakening.”
My players are confused and uncertain how to respond to all this nonsense. I have all the players roll a History check. Andrew and James pass. I pull them out of the room and tell them that the Red Wizards are considered an evil society and necromancy is legal there but illegal here. They are also slavers.
Jebediah continued to blather on, answering all their questions and is seemingly quite cordial. He is currently telling them the history of the Netherese Empire. (I was deliberately droning on with a tedious info dump). Suddenly, Andrew says, “I attack the wizard.” I had not noticed, but Andrew had been slowly moving his mini so that he was now positioned directly behind the wizard.
As Andrew rolls to hit, Jebediah cries out, “Vile betrayers. I was going to honor you as slaves in my household. My family, let us not sully ourselves with these barbarians furthermore!”
The battle is short and sweet. In the end, Jebediah and his “family” lie dead, again. A search reveals the listed treasure and the first magic item (a ring of protection) for Jack’s character. (The book is horribly short on good treasure for thieves.) I also made Jebediah an alchemist. In his tent, they find several potions. I used the flowery language from the Dungeon Masters Guide to describe them but I don’t tell them directly what they are. There is a Potion of Speed, a Potion of Stone Giant Strength, and a Potion of Heroism There is also a Scroll of Fireball, and a Scroll of Charm Person. All this stuff will hopefully be used up next week. James also takes Jebediah’s tent because it’s cool and looks like a circus.
A search of the tower shows that the undead were trying to remove rubble to access a lower level but there is no treasure here and no ready means for the party to continue the excavation.
The group decides that they are not archeologists and they don’t care to do the Sister Gralene quest. They decide to return to Phandalin and meet with the druid Edoith the Green, who can help them move the story forward.
But I don’t care about any of that, because a return trip to Phandalin will mean only one thing for these guys…
Next week, WAR!!!! And this time, I mean it.
To further help your campaign, I’ve linked to my D&D Campaign Resources page, where I’ve placed all the stuff I use to run each campaign. DM and Player maps, handouts, and word files. Hopefully, you will find this useful.
As always, the best thing about having a NPC named Jebediah Jessup Wyatt III is that there will always another one named Jebediah Jessup Wyatt IV, and Game On!
I hate being three feet tall. Next time, you pretend to be the kid! – Doppleganger #5, disguised as Toblen’s young son, Pip.