DM’s Notes: Session 3

A wooden tabletop, on top of which are two books, a goblet and a quill pen and inkwell. Text: 'DM's Notes: Session 3'. Image credit: Pixabay.

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!

This session was when we finally got into the campaign proper, with the siege that begins Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Initially, I had thought we would reach this point at the end of session one—two at a stretch—but as you may have noticed, my inability to judge how long an adventure is going to take is becoming a recurring theme of these posts!

You may remember that I tweaked the adventure as written by giving my players a couple of sessions to explore Greenest before the siege began and overall, I was pleased with how that turned out. It has definitely made them more engaged with the setting and its characters, so I’d recommend it if your players like to get a feel for a place and have a chance for some more laid-back roleplaying before getting into the meat of a campaign.

You don’t hang around Greenest much at all otherwise, so it can sink into the background a little, making it feel like less of a victory when/if the raiders are held at bay. If players have made friends in the town beforehand, they’ll be invested in making sure their favourite NPCs survive the siege, and in the idea of following the cultists back to their camp and retrieving some of the treasure stolen from the townsfolk. Or so I hope. So far so good, but we’ll see!

On a side note, adding a prologue to the main campaign also gives you the space to play out some side quests of your own, like the ones I’ve been running over the last few sessions! These have made the world of the adventure so much richer, and I’ve really enjoyed designing and running them. At some point soon, I’ll pop them up on DM’s Guild so that you can play them too—watch this space!

Adjusting battles on the fly

Session 3 kicked off with the players helping Saph. She needed them to cover her in case things went sideways while she conducted a ritual to free Kaax, the demi-god trapped in a painting by the evil god Cyric.

I gave the players a few minutes to prepare the ritual site before Saph began: they knew that Kaax is a nature deity, so Nubbins cast Animal Friendship to attract some woodland critters to help out, and Gerard carved a symbol of Oghma (Kaax’s parent god) on a piece of wood.

I like to reward this kind of innovative preparation by letting the players know that they have made things easier for themselves, so I made sure to describe how these efforts slowed and distracted their enemies in the combat that followed.

The combat was a bit of an experiment—I threw several waves of progressively harder beasties at the players as the ritual progressed: four giant wolf spiders, two giant wasps, and one dire wolf. The idea was that the PCs would have to hold the monsters off for a few rounds while Saph finished the ritual, keeping them from breaking her concentration.

I was originally planning to introduce one wave of enemies per round, but quickly spotted that this would have made the fight trivial because of action economy. Instead, I added each new wave into the initiative order whenever the previous wave was close to defeat. I didn’t have any of the enemies actually roll initiative—I just assigned them a number that put them into combat whenever I needed them. I don’t usually do this, but when you’re sending enemies in waves, or adding reinforcements, sometimes having them enter the battle at narratively—or tactically—satisfying moments makes for a better fight.

Even if you stick strictly to the rules and roll initiative for all your monsters, bear in mind that they can still delay on their turn and choose to enter combat later—so in theory, you could do something similar using the rules as written.

But I would argue that you shouldn’t be afraid to bend the rules sometimes—so long as you aren’t approaching combat with a DM vs. Players mentality, and your focus is on making the fight more interesting, satisfying, and fun.

One of my favourite tweaks to use near the end of a battle is to reduce a monster’s total HP by 1 or 2 points on a good attack if the difference would kill them. If they’re that low on health, it’s likely the players are already winning, so this is a neat way to make PCs feel powerful and reduce combat busywork without actually making the fight appreciably easier.

All of the monsters in the MM have HP ranges as well as averages, so this kind of change is well within the bounds of the rules—if you had rolled up the monster’s hit points or picked a number at random rather than taking the average, you could easily have ended up with the lower number anyway.

I wouldn’t reduce an enemy’s HP by too much, and If the battle is tense and close and exciting and losing an enemy is going to make it less so, then of course you should make the players work for every hit point! I am also much more reluctant to increase HP than reduce it: I tend to be very cautious of ad hoc changes that will give me as DM an additional advantage mid-battle. I have two reasons for this:

  1. As the DM, I’ve got loads of tools to make things harder for the players if needed. If a given battle is too easy, I can adjust future combat encounters in the session to make them more difficult; if a battle is more draining than I expected, I can reduce the number of random encounters the players meet later Instead. With all of these powers at your disposal, adjusting a battle on the fly to make it harder is rarely the best option. Which brings me onto
  2. It can get hard to separate the reasoning behind these kinds of changes: am I making things harder for my players just for the sake of it? Is that fun? Is it fair? When in doubt, I leave the situation as it is to avoid falling into any of these pit-traps. It’s easy to look at a single round in combat, think ‘I’ve made this way too easy/hard’, then make an adjustment which completely flips the battle—which always makes me feel like I’ve had too much of an influence on the outcome.

My advice would be to look at how engaged your players are and judge adjustments like this accordingly.

With that in mind, four spiders, two wasps and one very injured dire wolf later, the players were obviously enjoying these waves of monsters, so I threw in one extra—an owlbear. This wasn’t my original intention, but it seemed like the right thing to do in the moment and provided a satisfying finale to the fight. The fact that we have a beautiful owlbear mini, and that Aleph has a phobia of owlbears from an encounter in a previous adventure, all just made it more entertaining!

A word to the wise, though: if you’re running this adventure with level 1 characters, the owlbear will decimate them, so don’t feel you have to follow suit!

One does not simply walk into Candlekeep

I had a moment of panic after the players had awoken, but not released, the spirit of Kaax. Two of my party have the Researcher background feature, which means that if they don’t know a piece of information themselves, they usually do know where it can be found. They wanted to help figure out the next stage of freeing Kaax (which is great!) by heading to the nearest library (which I had not thought about at all!) The adventure takes place a few tendays’ ride from Candlekeep, the biggest repository of knowledge in the Forgotten Realms, so I knew where the information my researchers wanted could be located… but there was a catch.

The thing is, one does not simply walk into Candlekeep—there’s an entrance fee: a book of enormous value that the library doesn’t already have in its collection. That’s not even close to affordable for my players at the moment, and I think Candlekeep is a ‘rules as intended’ kind of place: yes, technically, the library doesn’t have your personal diary in its collection; no, you still can’t come in because your diary isn’t useful to anyone—who even are you?

The trouble was, the players immediately became super keen on paying Candlekeep a visit—which put me in a bit of a bind. I didn’t want to dangle this cool place in front of them and then actually prevent them from going there and trying to get in, but if I allowed them to make the trip, they’d find it a disappointing one. I needed to forewarn them about the likelihood of a wasted journey but nipping their plans in the bud like that didn’t feel like fun.

Keeping difficulty thresholds consistent while still giving players space to have fun and go off piste is a difficult line to tread. Fortunately, Saph has permanent access to Candlekeep (why? You may well ask… stay tuned!) so I got around these problems by having her offer to go there on the players’ behalf.

Of course, the players might well end up going there anyway (the best laid plans of mice and DMs…), so I’ll still put some maps and ideas together in case that happens.

Running downtime in-game

At this point, I decided to try another experiment—in-game downtime. Before this, we’ve only ever run downtime between sessions—the players would email me with details of what they wanted to do with their downtime and I would write up the results and email them back.

In its first incarnation, this led to me writing thousands of words via email as I tried to document what happened each day. I created roll tables, set up new NPCs, and collaborated with the players to write backstories for their characters. Which is pretty much what I spend most of my time doing anyway, so it was loads of fun, but time-consuming for everyone involved.

So, when Louise did a stint as DM, she ran a streamlined version of downtime where outcomes were summarised at the start of each game. This worked well for adventurers’ league play, but in a continuous campaign, you can’t guarantee that you will be in a position to have downtime at the end of each session.

On that basis, this time I simply told the players at the table that they had a few days of free time before the raiders were due to arrive and watched what happened next!

For me, downtime is a chance for the players to develop their characters and explore what they might do with a bit of time to themselves: build up skills, have a few drinks, cultivate new connections, etc. This type of play was new to my players, but they took to it pretty quickly. Nubbins made friends with Brem; Cyd explored her reasons for being in Greenest; Keothi finally used his portal key, which took him to a creepy temple in the Far Realms; Gerard continued studying Draconic (a longstanding goal of his); and Aleph helped build up some of the barricades around town. The carousing and gambling tables also came into play, which are always fun.

All in all, a good start—and it was nice to see what the gang got up to when they were ‘off duty’! I think that as my players get more used to the idea of in-game downtime, they’ll be able to push it even further and we’ll start to see some really interesting character development.

At the end of their downtime, the party all returned to the inn… just in time for the dragon’s attack!

Nobody expects an angry blue dragon!

The townsfolk certainly weren’t expecting it, and its dramatic entrance was very successful at making the players leap into immediate action. I had its sudden arrival throw Greenest into a panic, civilians fleeing across the square and guards cowering under its Frightful Presence (an effect which forces creatures who are aware of the dragon to make a wisdom save or become frightened). I had the characters make saves against it too but they all passed, which I think made them feel pretty heroic!

The group started mobilising townsfolk to head towards the Keep, then ran off to check on the barricades (which I made sure to mention had held longer than expected thanks to Aleph’s downtime efforts). The siege had begun!

Brief warning: the first chapter of HotDQ is not easy for first level characters. They will get battered and bruised and they are going to want to rest more than they can. This is a good thing! Lean into it but don’t be afraid to reduce enemy numbers a bit here and there if you need to. Maybe some of the cultists start going home once they have as much loot as they can carry.

I kept the dragon up at around 120ft throughout: he’s fast and he’s deadly, but he’s here to cause fear and structural damage rather than massacring the townsfolk. He didn’t even notice the players, much less care about fighting them.

There’s a good reason for playing it this way: the dragon’s lightning breath does 66 damage, enough to kill any level 3 PC outright.* The 33 damage it does on a miss is enough to insta-kill any level 1 PC, so for a group of level 1 players, just being TARGETED by this guy means instant death—they literally can’t do anything about it. That’s no fun at all, so I wouldn’t recommend doing it. Unless the players REALLY push to be targeted, of course: play stupid games, win stupid prizes!

The dragon is awesome background, but an awful fight, narratively, so I would just keep him zapping buildings, terrifying guards, and vaporising the odd archer. The part in the campaign where he attacks the Keep is a good thing to throw at the players when they think they have space to rest. You could couple it with the Sally Port attack, so the dragon is distracting the archers to give the cultist foot-soldiers time to break through the heavy door. Throwing both at your players at once will grind them down to nearly zero resources—after that is probably the time to let them take a short rest, though!

As the players ran to the barricades, I ran the first official encounter in the chapter, Seek the Keep. I used it to let the party know that the barricades had now been abandoned and to push them back to the Keep to regroup. It also gave the players a chance to completely decimate a band of kobolds and save their first civilians from combat, which they liked.

Keothi came up with the idea of using his portal key to try to trap the dragon in the Far Realms. He sent Impy up, invisibly, to open a portal right in its flight path. Poor, naïve Keothi—though to be fair, he had no way of knowing that blue dragons have blindsight out to 60ft! The dragon swatted Impy right out of the sky without so much as blinking.

It was a clever idea, though, and it has put me on notice that the players are going to continue using the portal key in interesting and unconventional ways. Which means that I’ve got some thinking to do about its rules and limitations.

Siegeforged

As the party neared the Keep, I threw in one last encounter (and a hook for another of my side quests): a Warforged who had taken advantage of the chaos of the siege to murder two people and bind their souls to a suit of armour, in a misguided attempt to create a new Warforged.

Part of Aleph’s backstory is that he is one of the few survivors from the Warforged-built city of Emberfrost, so I wrote this story with him in mind. This Warforged is the first he has met who’s still alive, and he was satisfyingly torn over finding another of his kind at long last, only to discover that he is a monster.

This story was a little darker than my previous side quests, so I was curious to see how my players would respond to it—and they really rose to the occasion. My original intention was for the Warforged, Vessel, to fight the players to the death if they tried to destroy his creation, but Aleph put forward a strong and convincing case for him to lay down his weapons, halt his research (for the moment), and come with them peacefully.

This was a textbook example of strong roleplaying and fidelity to character changing the course of the narrative. I abandoned my original plan and had Vessel reluctantly give himself over into Aleph’s custody. No idea what I’m going to do with him yet, but we’ll see!

All’s well that ends well?

At the end of the session the players arrived in the Keep—now filled with panicked citizens—and met up with an injured Nighthill. They immediately asked after their NPC friends Saph and Brem, which made me very happy, since it meant that my efforts to get the players invested in the fate of the town are working! They’re both trapped in the temple, so the players are probably going to head there next.

Keothi did spend an hour resummoning Impy, which used his last spell slot and prevented him from having a short rest. As a warlock, this means that he is now screwed and will be trying to squeeze in a rest wherever he can.

Unfortunately, he’s not likely to get many more—things are about to get busy!
*I think that the maximum HP you could end up with at level 3 is actually 41, if you’re a human barbarian with +3 CON and the tough feat, and you take 7 instead of rolling for HP. If you max out rolls, of course, this is different, but rolling 3 12’s in a row has something like a 1 in 1700 chance, so maybe not ANY player, but basically any player.

Want to see my thoughts on Session 2? Check them out here!

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