In our DM’s Notes posts, we take a break from the main story to discuss running the game. If you’re looking for the story, just click the links at the bottom of the post! Or check the Archive!
Snacks purchased, character sheets updated, and additional, completely unnecessary preparations made (what if they complete all of chapter 1 and I need hundreds more maps? Nonsense, obviously, but my DM-prep-brain kicks in the day before a session and it suddenly seems all too possible), we move on to session two!
We were down from six players to five for this session, as Minerva’s player was unable to attend. This actually fit in quite nicely with the narrative so far: it makes sense that she might be out of action for a while given that she has just been licking hallucinogenic fungus babies. I sent her off to the inn for a LONG long rest, and the rest of the party continued without her.
We’re not sure yet when Minerva’s player will be able to return, which means that the bounty hunt side quest I designed for her character will have to wait, but that’s OK! It’ll keep 😊
Session two kicked off with the conclusion of the myconid side quest—last session, the party went to the temple of Chauntea to clear out some undead in the crypt, and this session they resolved the issue after discovering that the zombies were actually being controlled by a colony of myconids, who only wanted a safe place to live. Starting a session with the resolution of a quest is weird: you have to get awkwardly back into the zone and the feel of the characters, only to move on soon afterwards to the next narrative thread. I got back into the swing of things soon enough, though, so don’t worry if you find the same thing happening to you at the start of your sessions—it’s usually gone after about five minutes.
One thing that I think will always be awkward, though, is long conversations between NPCs. In this case, I was expecting the players to negotiate with the myconid colony on behalf of the temple, but they wanted Brem, one of the temple attendants, to iron out the details himself.
Cue Brem reluctantly heading down to the crypt and introducing himself to the myconids. At this point I realised that the ensuing conversation would just be me talking to myself about what was effectively a land treaty—which would be no fun for anyone. I spared myself and my players that tedium by simply summarising the conversation (Brem and Myconid begin discussing terms; it looks like it’s going to take a while), gently hinting that they were free to leave.
Next, the party decided to investigate the fey in the nearby forest, who had stopped blessing Greenest’s harvests, in spite of a pact between them and the townsfolk. Before I started this campaign, I generated a whole year’s worth of weather using this amazing spreadsheet—mostly to help with descriptions for natural scenes and walks to and from objectives—and this was a perfect opportunity to throw in some weather effects. It’s winter in Greenest and the weather during the walk was freezing, so I had the party make constitution saving throws, and slowed the movement speed of the ones who failed by 5ft.
You can introduce this (or a similar) effect for very warm weather, as well. It makes the landscape feel more real: it’s not just a backdrop, but a part of the world that can have an impact on PCs experiences and choices.
A fair number of races have resistance to specific climates, so this is also a good opportunity to make characters feel special: if they have resistance to cold (like Keothi, our party’s goliath warlock), let them skip the check. Or if a player took the time to buy warm clothes or a winter cloak, give them advantage: it’s good to engage with this kind of close interaction with the world where you can.
In the woods, the players discovered why the fey had apparently reneged on their agreement with the people of Greenest: they’d been captured by a group of bandits. I had the party stumble on the bandits’ cart, complete with cages and a sleeping guard. I expected the PCs to sneak up on the guard and maybe knock her out or capture her and question her. This would give them time to prepare an ambush for the other bandits, who hadn’t returned yet.
What happened instead was that they marched straight up to her, woke her up, and asked her what she was doing in the woods. This threw me a bit, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it at first. I had them roll initiative as a hint that this was likely (but not definitely) going to result in combat. The first two players used their turns to try to talk to her, and on her turn she shouted for backup, alerting the rest of her group.
With hindsight, I think it would have been more organic if she had raised the alarm as soon as she woke up, but it felt a little unfair, given that my kind-hearted players had assumed she wasn’t hostile!
And she exploited the PCs’ good natures further: when she’d taken a bit of damage and her allies still hadn’t appeared, she ‘surrendered’. She was lying, of course, but I’d never had an NPC lie mid-combat before, so nobody questioned it. When the rest of the bandits arrived, she took advantage of the chaos to attack Nubbins from behind: he’d taken her at her word when she said she wouldn’t, and hadn’t confiscated her weapons or tied her up.
I was pleased with my players’ sense of betrayal (maybe they’ll remember to make an Insight check next time!) though some might say that Aleph overreacted just slightly when he demanded that the bandits all strip naked because ‘trousers are for the righteous’. Ah, well!
What I didn’t expect, but found very entertaining, was how the party’s newfound mistrust would spread across the rest of the session. The players encountered a new NPC, Saph, who asks for their help acquiring a painting from Greenest keep. Having been stung once, they decided it was time to Zone of Truth every new NPC they encountered from this point onwards. It wasn’t rude, they reasoned: if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear!
Zone of Truth is a good spell: if the being/s on which it is cast fail their save, it guarantees that they can’t tell you any falsehoods, although it doesn’t force them to answer your questions. Combined with other pressure, it can be a very effective interrogation tool, though it can also lead players to assume that silence equals guilt, when an NPC may just not want to talk about something.
The key word here, though, is ‘interrogation’. Random NPCs who serve you drinks or ask for your help aren’t going to take kindly to being grilled about their motivations while under the influence of a truth spell.
I’m also not convinced that an NPC who isn’t well-versed in the arcane would know what spell you were casting until after it was cast—so it’s unlikely that they would accept your attempt to magically invade their mind unless they had huge amounts of faith in you.
Saph, oddly enough, felt the same way and chose to resist the spell, with a bit of a dig at the players for their rudeness. It’s just as well they didn’t try it on Jardar, Governor Nighthill’s magic advisor: she’s not nearly as forgiving and would at the very least have ordered the players from the keep, and possibly attacked them on the spot.
Putting the whole ‘Zone of Truth’ episode behind them, the party plus Saph headed to Greenest keep to look for the painting. I wanted to give the players a puzzle here by presenting them with several paintings, any one of which could be the one Saph is looking for.
Turns out, puzzles are hard! I came up with three paintings for the players to choose between. My original intention was to give the PCs a bit of time to discuss the paintings, and then have whichever one they picked be the right one (as long as they could come up with a reasonable explanation for why it was the right one).
OK, one of them was almost definitely going to be wrong, but I was open to convincing!
The problem was, the PCs had more tools at their disposal than I’d accounted for. The painting Saph wanted was a magical artefact that would help her locate the demi-god Kaax, one of the children of Oghma. So the first thing that happened when I threw my puzzle at the players was that Gerard (who is a monk of Oghma) asked if he recalled any information about Oghma’s children. I had him make a religion check with advantage, but a DC of 17, since he was in a good position to know, but knowledge about the children of Oghma is hard to come by. He got an 18. “Ok,” I told him, “you know that Kaax often took the form of… an owl!” One of the paintings I’d presented to the players had an owl on it, so Gerard immediately concluded that it was probably that one (yeah, I know—it was barely even a clue on my part, but in my defence, I did have to make it up on the spot!)
Some of the party weren’t sure, but here was where I ran into my second problem. Keothi can cast Detect Magic at will, which I’d completely forgotten about. He cast it on the painting and, lo and behold, it did feel magical—further proof that it was indeed the one Saph was looking for.
Long story short, the party solved my ‘puzzle’ in about thirty seconds with 100% certainty. It wasn’t all bad, though—I enjoy working with these lines of thinking, since they make sense and show engagement with their character backstories and the world. In the future, though, creating satisfying puzzles is definitely something I want to work on!
I think this session was a good example of why you can only plan so much! Players are agents of chaos who have their own ideas and plans which are often just as good as yours, or better. I think it is essential for DMs to adapt to good ideas from players, even if it feels sometimes like they’re moving the narrative in the wrong direction.
Ultimately, you’re the DM: you have so many tools at your disposal to get the narrative back on track that it’s crazy to worry too much about any individual event! You can edit your plans between sessions and meanwhile, your players will feel like they have a tangible impact on the world, and that their decisions and actions have real meaning.
Want to see my thoughts on session 1? Check them out here!
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