A new adventure awaits as a new group of lost souls explores the boundless chaos of the Feywild. But first, it’s Carnival!
As you know, I run this trifling little website where I pretend to be an expert and impart my wisdom on how to be a Dungeon Master for the 40 or so readers who happened to find my blog by accident. Now, I love running the game for my kids and their friends. It has been and will continue to be an incredibly rewarding experience, bonding with my boys in ways that few parents will ever enjoy. But I miss the stability of a set schedule and the unpredictability of experienced players. But mostly I miss being a player.
My wife, Diane the beleaguered and wise, suggested that I find new companions to adventure with. This was a decidedly unwelcome affair. I don’t want to leave my home where I have all my books, my chair, and my warm hearth. I am very comfy and cozy right here. Plus, there are people out there. No, thank you, we are not looking for any adventures today. Good day, sir. I said Good Day!
But like Bilbo, my yearnings outweighed my misgivings and I ran from my abode in search of adventure. Ironically, the place I ran to is a place that we affectionately call The Hobbit Hole. In reality, this is my local hobby store, Battleground in Saugus, MA, which hosts several campaigns in various RPG genres. As luck would have it, there was a signup sheet for a new campaign, in D&D, starting in a week. I affixed my mark and waited, with mild trepidation.
It has been over 20 years since I was an actual player in a game. Would I suck? Would I even remember how? Can I actually just play and not slip into DM mode? Can I “let it go” and embrace not knowing everything? Can I even write a blog from the player’s viewpoint? What about the other players? Will they suck? Will they be cliqued up? Will they be that bad stereotype nerd that hides their social awkwardness by proving how knowledgeable they are in absolutely everything? Will I be that nerd? Ugh, insecurity is exhausting.
Of course, all my fears were unfounded. Everyone was great and welcoming. True, most everyone knew each other. I was the newbie, but there were no roving packs of alpha nerd bullies and I wasn’t forced to prove my geek street cred. And everyone was enthusiastic or at least indifferent about my blog, so, without further ado, may I present The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is an adventure that takes place in the Feywild. As a good meta gamer, I know that the Feywild is an alternate dimension that runs parallel to the “real” world. Even though our “real” world is a fantasy setting filled with wizards and monsters, there are still some rules and constraints that the world still follows. There are no such restrictions in the Feywild. Here anything goes. Almost.
The Feywild is a world where Nature, Life, and Light abound. Everything is bigger, brighter, more colorful, and more fantastic. Imagine Alice in Wonderland turned up to 11. There is another parallel world called the Shadowfell, filled with darkness, hate and death, but that is for another story.
The Feywild, also called The Fey, which refers to its people not the place, is teeming with fairies, elves, anamorphic nature, and other phantasmagorical creatures and is basically a “good” land or at least neutral; although evil does manage to infect certain areas, as evil is wont to do. Entry into the Feywild is gained by conjured portals or other magical means that connect both worlds, such as shimmering pools, hollowed trees, zephyr winds, or even rabbit holes. And almost always, the way in is never the way back.
But maybe my character knows none of these things. That is my first question and is vital to the design of my character. Are we people from the “real” world who are plucked from the norm and dropped into this alien world, or are we denizen of the Feywild, accustomed to the bizarre environment? Per the DM, the answer is either, neither, both, whatever you want, but the adventure does start on the Prime Material Plane, i.e., the “real” world. This is great for players and their untethered backstory options, but instantly a harder task for DMs in terms of tone and narrative. But I am not the DM, so not my problem.
Speaking of DMs, players, and problems, we got a big one. There are too many of us. Usually, a new campaign is lucky to get 3-5 people to sign up, but this Wonderland theme has really struck a chord with the community. Eight people signed up to play. Fortunately, there is another brave (foolhardy?) soul who is willing to step up and perform the all-important DM duties. Aidan and Brianna (Brie for short) will be our co-DMs and maybe we’ll separate into two groups. But for this introductory session, we won’t split the party. Back to character creation.
For my class, I’m leaning toward one of the fighter sub-classes, either paladin, eldritch fighter, or maybe a ranger. I’m always partial to rangers, but I had this idea that in the first tavern scene, while everyone is ordering wine and ale, I would order I big glass of cold milk. Sounds like a paladin to me. Of course, I’ve never played a sorcerer or a bard before either, so we’ll see.
For my race, I’m in a quandary. I’m tempted to go all in on the Fey theme and pick one of the more unusual options. My first thought is to play an Aarakocra, one of the bird folk. An eagle paladin would be awesome; regal, haughty, badass. Or maybe a Genasi, an elemental hybrid. I like the idea of a Water ranger, like an Aquaman for the rivers and lakes. The adventure also offers two new races; a straight up magical fairy, or a Harengon, which is a race of bunny folk, think White Rabbit or March Hare.
But in the end, I decided to go with the fish-out-of-water (or in this case) the Alice scenario and make my race be one of the standard “real” world races. Sort of. I chose a half-dwarf Paladin. I chose half-dwarf because part of my back story is that I am on a quest to find my father and learn my lineage, but I don’t even know was race he is. To make things simple, I just use the stat block for a normal Mountain Dwarf. I rolled really good stats, my lowest was a 12, and I have a 19 in Strength. It looks like I’ll be the party’s tank. And as a righteous defender of justice, naturally I’m the best candidate to lead this motley group. We’ll see how that works out.
The DM asks me to roll a d8 for what turns out to be a unique “private” goal or motivation for each player. This is a great, simple, roleplaying “hook” that really starts this adventure off on the right foot. I love it. Basically, every player has lost something. Now it might be a physical object or it might be something more conceptual. Each character is on a private quest to gain the lost item back. I have no idea what the other players have lost and can’t wait to find out. In my case, I have lost my sense of direction. This is hilarious. The self-proclaimed leader of the party has no idea where he’s going. And in addition, as part of this blog, I had intended to draw out each map as we explored it, just like the old-school days. But since my character doesn’t even know which way is up, this should be interesting.
This also shoehorns nicely with my back story, which you can read about here. Durwyn the Bastard Paladin Backstory. My hope is that as we adventure together, I can showcase a new character and their story each week. As to my new companions, I am surrounded by a wild menagerie of strange and fantastic beings. And then there are their characters!
First, there is Theo playing a Kenku Ranger named “Pop”. Not Pop the word, but “Pop” the sound you make when you pluck your finger out of your mouth. The kenku is very sensitive of the fact that his wings are vestigial and incapable of flight. This is exacerbated by the fact that three fairies are in the party, flying about all over the place. Theo sat next to me and I interacted with this bird the most throughout the night.
Next, is Anna playing a Fairy Warlock named Rose or Mara or something else entirely. I don’t know very much about her except that she has many names that are an important part of her very detailed and intricate backstory which she had prepared long before the session. I can’t wait to find out what it is.
Moving around the table, is Lee who is playing a Harengon (the rabbit folk) Bard named Herbert who is actually a performer with the Witchlight Carnival and is rather unsure why he is now a guest. Maybe it’s Employee Appreciation Night. Herbert is not a very good bard who sings only cover songs and whose Vicious Mockery consists solely of “Yo Mama” jokes. Herbert has also threatened to choose the bagpipes as his musical instrument. Uh-oh.
Next, is Jameela playing a Human Sorcerer called Starshine. I know little about this character except that she is the most enthusiastic player in the group. She reacted to every encounter with the most unbridled glee. She is also a bit of a scamp. At one point, she cast an illusion on the kenku to make his useless wings flutter as if they were working.
Beside her is Michael playing an Eladrin Barbarian named Dieha. I just can’t picture this character in my mind. The eladrin are an even more fairy-like, even thinner version of elves and I can’t imagine what a bulked up one would look like. But he is noble born and wealthy and insisted on paying everyone’s admission to the carnival, so that’s cool. Oh, and he’s crazy, with a halberd called Gene that he talks to and treats as a real person, even buying a separate admission ticket for it.
Lastly, is a father/son duo. Father and son in real life, I don’t know if they are related in game. I apologize for giving them the “Professor and Mary-Ann” treatment, but they sat on the far side of the table and I didn’t have much interaction with them. The son is Thane playing a Fairy Wizard named (to be inserted later) who has an owl familiar and is very good at seeking out any advantage in every encounter. The father is Andy playing a Fairy Rogue called Faux (pronounced Fox) who is very good at building dice towers. Finally, onto adventure.
DM Aidan begins, “You all find yourselves here, in line to enter the Witchlight Carnival, which comes around here only once every eight years. How you came to be here, who’s to say, but the cost to enter is just 8 silver, will you pay?”
I immediately ask “Where am I? Where is here?” I, Rich, the real person, actually want to know what part of the Forgotten Realms “here” is. But DM Aidan thinks that I’m doing my “lost” shtick and wisely ignores me. Since Durwyn doesn’t know where he’s going, it doesn’t really matter where he is. I’m just going to have to get used to it.
The DM continues, “Each of you has a vague memory of having been to this very carnival once, long ago. You snuck in without paying but were quickly caught by the ringleader who said to you, “Silly cricket, where’s your ticket? It appears you may have something lost, for everything in life comes with a price.”” To which the co-DM, Brie, quickly corrected him, “…comes with a cost.” That’s right, this is a Wonderland adventure; gotta make sure those bad puns and ridiculous rhymes land properly. It is during this dream-like memory that we all lost whatever we lost.
Anywho, the ticket taker is a wizened old goblin who wears a spyglass as a monocle and seems able to peer into your very soul. Herbert the bunny bard, who claims he works at the carnival, asks if he knows this guy. This became a running gag in the session. The rabbit usually remembers seeing the NPC around and knows their name but can’t really recall anything useful about said NPC. Apparently working at the Witchlight is like living in an opium den; your head is in a fog, the world is but a blur, and you can’t be sure that anything is real.
So, the old goblin, Nicholas, takes the money from Dieha, the noble fey-elf barbarian, who insisted on paying. Nicholas hands us each a pair of costume fairy wings and instructs us to put them on. “Pop” the kenku complains that this just further mocks his inability to fly, but puts them on anyway. It is these wings that Starshine the warlock made flutter for the rest of the night.
I considered refusing to put the wings on. I am a serious, bitter dwarf who thinks that frivolous things are for children. I want my character to have an arc that goes from grim and moody to lighthearted and carefree as he explores more of the Feywild. But everyone else seems to be unfazed and completely willing to go along with all these fairy shenanigans right from the start. In roleplaying, as in life, there is a fine line between being a friendly dissenter and obnoxious obstructor. I really don’t want to be “that” guy, so I begrudgingly put on the stupid wings.
Nicholas also hands us our “ticket” that we can use to go on rides and attractions. Each ticket has 8 hole punches, which presumably means that we can participate in eight events before the carny bouncers grab us and kick us out into the cold. Nicholas also mentioned a few of his favorite rides, but I wasn’t paying attention and my dwarven ears only perked up when he mentioned the Mystery Mine! Despite Durwyn’s bitterness toward his exile, he still yearns for the safety and security of his old dwarven home.
The DM puts out our first map (yea!). He treats it like a park map pamphlet that you would get at Disney World and asks us where we would like to go. Durwyn wants to go the Mystery Mines (duh!) but the rest of the group wants to go to Lost Property. Since everyone has “lost” something, this makes more sense (I was gonna get there eventually). Durwyn announces, “Then it’s agreed. We’re off to Lost Property.” Then I point to a random spot on the map and tell the DM that I head off in that direction.
The kenku takes the bait and corrects me, “No, no. Lost Property is this way,” pointing out the proper path. Durwyn thanks him and follows along to Lost Property. I like this kid immediately. He spent the rest of the night subtly showing and even physically moving Durwyn in the right direction. And I chose the wrong direction a lot! I think I just found my Sancho to my Don Quixote.
En route to Lost Property, the bizarro and wild nature of the carnival is readily evident. The first thing we encounter is a calliope being played by a monkey, and of course, the monkey talks. A calliope is a type of organ that sounds like a cacophony of bells and whistles. Here’s a link to some calliope music. Witchlight Carnival Calliope Theme
The monkey, Ernest, is wearing a coat that is completely covered in buttons, hundreds and hundreds of buttons. Ernest sings a little rhyming ditty that is just a request for more buttons. Everyone forks over a button, and some gave him two, with great enthusiasm. So as not to hold the game hostage, Durwyn parsimoniously parts with a button. In my head, this only occurs after much coercing and guilt-tripping from my free-spirited new friends. “C’mon, don’t be a stick in the mud. Give the monkey a button!” Our reward for our generosity? Nothing, but the DM did note it on a piece of paper and moved the mood marker on the map one spot toward “happy”. I’m sure the payoff will come later.
Moving on, a giant sycamore tree comes lumbering past us all while dropping seedlings down into the crowd. According to Herbert, the tree’s name is Northwind and is your typical tree hugging, hippie tree and can also talk. Insert your best George Carlin impression here.
The DM asks if anyone tries to catch a seedling. Everybody jumps on board this bandwagon too. Except for Durwyn. After giving away my buttons for nothing, I’m not about to go chasing after any silly acorns. Big mistake. Everyone who caught one rolled on a random prize chart. Most got a gold piece, but a few got a temporary boost to an ability. Durwyn kicks the dust in disgust.
Perched on the tree is a red squirrel, inexplicably named Red, handing out dandelions. Of course, everyone is clamoring to get one. Even Durwyn’s stern façade cracks a little as he takes one and blows its gossamer seeds into the ether. And then something magical happened. The DM asks everyone who blew their dandelion to make a wish and write it down for him. This is a genius way to elicit some character development out of the players. For once a good DM knows what the players want, they will find some way to make it happen. Brilliant adventure design.
I have no idea what any of the other players wished for and I can’t wait to find out. For Durwyn, he wished that he would find his long-lost father and finally learn his true heritage. I swear that when I made this backstory, I had no thought of using it except to develop his personality and I never expected it to impact the game. But once I put it on paper and handed it over, I realized that this would likely become a part of the story and I was truly excited. Will his father be a resident of the Feywild? A simple fairyfolk? An elven king? Something even stranger? Will he be a potential ally? Someone we rescue? Or maybe, even, one of the villains? That would be frickin’ cool!
We finally arrive at Lost Property to find that the sole employee working here is a very motherly displacer beast with an enormous pair of orange butterfly wings. I’m not sure if they are costume wings or real. Regardless, Dirlagraun (which everyone pronounced wrong), is currently attempting to watch two lost halfling children who seem to be quite the handful. They are using the displacer beast as their private jungle gym, climbing over and under, swinging from her tentacles, and generally being uncontrollable little monsters, just like every toddler you’ve ever babysat for.
Dirlagraun kindly allows us to look for our lost items in the tent, but I’m not surprised when we don’t find my missing sense of direction or any of our other lost items under a few misplaced cloaks. I guess we’ll just have to continue adventuring. Exiting the tent, we see that one of the kids grabs something from Dirlagraun and she instinctively knocks it out of his hand, but just a little too hard. The kid runs off, crying.
Durwyn has a soft spot for children, since he was treated so poorly as a child, and chases after him, as does virtually everyone else in the party. We catch up to him stuffing his face in the cotton candy tent and easily lead him back to his monstrous babysitter. I make a point of scolding the displacer beast about how she should treat those she is responsible for. This leads to a somber tale of her own lost cub, Star, who’s been missing many years now. I hope this is foreshadowing, because, holy crap, I suddenly want a displacer beast kitten for a pet. And I’m a dog person.
Everyone wants to continue on to the Dragonfly Rides. I wander off in the wrong direction until “Pop” steers me the correct way. Thanks, good buddy. Before we get there, we pass by a few Carny Games. One in particular, everyone gravitates toward. It’s called Catch a Dragon by the Tail and involves a fairie dragon, a blindfold, and you flailing about like a fool. We’re all in.
Unfortunately, this also involves a very hard Dexterity challenge which is my worst stat, and I end up in the dirt, dragonless. But a few of my more nimble companions fared better and they each won an appropriate D&D style prize. There was a Wand of Prestidigitation that looks exactly like a child’s magician’s wand, a jug of wine called “Party in a Bottle”, and my favorite, a stuffed spider plush doll that allows a one-time use of the spell Spider Climb. I’m gonna wait for the games that involve feats of Strength, thank you very much.
We arrive at the last attraction of the night (it was getting late in the real world), The Dragonfly Rides. Unsurprisingly, this consists of enormous dragonflies that will take you for a ride above the park, much like the more mundane gondola ride (the ski-lift kind, not the Venetian ones). Everyone gets their tickets punched except for the fairies, who can fly perfectly well on their own. Durwyn also refuses to get his ticket punched, because another flaw of his is that he is afraid of heights. But before the rest can board their mounts, another dragonfly, with a blue-bearded dwarf rider, is spooked by a mysterious “whirr of cloth and black feathers” that runs off into the crowd. The dragonfly takes off with the dwarf dangling over the side hanging on to the harness for dear life.
Most everyone takes off to help the hapless dwarf. After catching up to him, it takes a few Animal Handling checks to get the insect under control and land it safely. Durwyn still refused to help the dwarf. Also as part of his backstory, he has a deep resentment for dwarves after they exiled and abandoned him for being a half-breed. But he won’t let the clearly-up-to-no-good mass of cloth and feathers (I’m guessing kenku) get away with whatever he’s up to and gives chase… Only to lose the thing in the throng of people that appears out of nowhere to block my pursuit. We’ll meet again, my shifty bird nemesis.
As one last treat, on the Dragonfly Ride, the party (though technically, not Durwyn) sees a few of the rides and attractions that await us. There’s a large pond with a mermaid in a fish bowl and real swans used as Swan Boats. A centaur running the Carousel. People floating in huge bubbles out of an enormous tea kettle. Giant snails racing around a track. And on the Mystery Mine Train Ride, we see people go in laughing but come out screaming. Bring it on!
Next week, we continue exploring the Witchlight Carnival and maybe fall down a few rabbit holes. Or something similar.
As always, if dwarves were meant to have fun, they’d have been born halflings, and Game On!
Curiouser and curiouser! – Alice