Fangs of Vulgoth: Campaign Art

Last night, my awesome players surprised me with this fantastic piece of art they commissioned to commemorate our last campaign. Check this out:

I’m a very lucky DM.

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To Hunt the Stars: Session #2

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes arrived in the village of Kettle, fought some monsters, beat up some kids, hired a lot of locals to do their dirty work, and found a long lost hammer.

Play time: 4 hours

Adventurers:

  • Aoede the Creation Bard (Professor of Performing Arts)
  • Atticus the Order Cleric (Professor of Law)
  • Cosmo the Artificer (Professor of Engineering)
  • Kaze the Kensei Monk (Visiting Master of Painting)
  • Ormr the Totem Barbarian (Janitorial Arts)
  • Teth the Mastermind Rogue (Bursar’s Office)

Slow Start

After defeating the Dire Toad, the group went back to their houses for a long lunch. Professor Cosmo, a man of indeterminate age with large glasses, decided to join them. Atticus began Detecting the missing Master Tongs, and the spell led him back to the lake.

We then passed many long minutes as the group tried to convince a local fisherman to lend them his rickety little boat. They talked him down from 1 silver to 5 copper to rent his boat while he got lunch.

In Hot Water

The giant Ormr and nervous Atticus then paddled out onto the boiling hot lake in the tiny wobbly boat to try to retrieve the tongs for the smith. Teth stole a net for them to use. Ormer dropped the net, but when he pulled it up, the line tore. So the barbarian raged and jumped into the searing hot waters. Taking steady Fire damage, Ormr made several trips to the silty lake bottom. He retrieved a copper goblet, a broken white pillar, a gold necklace, and finally the Master Tongs!

But during his trips, he also capsized the boat, hurled Atticus into the scorching water, lost the goblet, and got attacked by an unseen creature with claws. So, a pretty average day in D&D.

Apple Picking

Not to be deterred by a little mayhem, the group headed west across the grassy fields to collect some Vile Apples from the wild orchard a few miles away. Just before they got there, they discovered a field crisscrossed by large churned furrows. Teth’s dead grandmother’s spirit warned them of “meadowsharks“!

Half the group tiptoed across the field to fetch the apples. Meanwhile, Professor Cosmo was distracted by a strange scaled waterskin spilling pine needle tea. Weirding Water! He tasted the tea and suddenly acquired weak telekinesis! But then the waterskin dried up and blew away like ashes.

After collecting the soft white-and-violet Vile Apples, the team started back. But Atticus and Aoede began yelling at each other. And that’s when Kaze started feeling tremors.

Then a huge toothy maw erupted from the ground and swallowed an unlucky owl whole.

Meadow Violence

The meadowshark burst from the ground, a massive bear-armadillo-mole monster, that rolled across the ground, crushing people in its path. Kaze’s sword failed to pierce the hide armor, and the rest of the team could barely make a dent with their weapons. Aoede was able to repeated batter the meadowshark’s mind with Dissonant Whispers.

Finally, after everyone had been crushed or clawed to pieces, Kaze landed the killing blow. Teth and Atticus immediately wanted to harvest the corpse for interesting materials. But three tall figures were approaching from the south.

Ormr, Kaze, and Teth started running away. But Atticus, Aoede, and Cosmo all slipped in the pooling blood and fell prone as three 9-foot tall talon-dashers stalked up to the kill site. Aoede managed to soothe one of them, and Cosmo hid from another, but Atticus just slipped and fell again. The third vicious bird leapt on the cleric, and killed him.

In the brief fight that followed, one of the talon-dashers was wounded and escaped. Another was killed, and the third put to sleep, and then butchered. But Atticus failed his Death Saves and was no more.

The group carried Atticus back to their houses. The cleric’s wife and children were distraught, and planned to immediately return to the city of Urva Songos. Aoede went with them.

And that’s where we ended.

DM Notes

I really enjoyed this session. We had some shenanigans on the boat, fishing for treasure. Then I got to use my Weirding Water table to create the waterskin of tea that granted telekinesis, which was extra great because it went to the newest player right off the bat! Everyone seemed to think that was a cool mechanic. I want to use that Weirding Water feature about once per session, if possible. (And not all of the outcomes are “good”!)

Then we had the brutal battle with the meadowshark and talon-dashers. The players rolled terribly, and I kept hoping they would run away, but like true D&D players they stayed until the monster was dead. And then another monster made the PC kill! I have no regrets about the death of Atticus, the player rolled so many natural 1s to miss his attacks, to fall down, to fail his Death Saves, that it was clear the dice-gods wanted him dead. So next game, we will have two new characters joining the adventure. Huzzah!

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To Hunt the Stars: Session #1

A new campaign begins!

As an experiment, I am running this whole campaign at Level 3. No XP, no leveling up. Also, to create some group cohesion right from the start, I had my players invent a reason for being together and a common goal. All I told them is that they would be going to a small village. They decided they would all work for a nearby failing university, and their goal would be to fix up the village and build a satellite campus to raise the prestige of the university.

Yep. That’s what they came up with. In about three minutes.

So the adventure begins!

Play time: 4 hours

Adventurers:

  • Aoede the Creation Bard (Professor of Performing Arts)
  • Atticus the Order Cleric (Professor of Law)
  • Kaze the Kensei Monk (Visiting Master of Painting)
  • Ormr the Totem Barbarian (Janitorial Arts)
  • Teth the Mastermind Rogue (Bursar’s Office)

On the Road Again

We began at the end of their long journey from the aging city of Urva Songos to the pastoral village of Kettle. After three days of walking through the vast grassy plains with their associates, assistants, porters, and families, they were quite tired. And then three vulgranes attacked!

The huge saurian scavengers swooped down, trying to snatch up the mules and children. Ormr smashed the wing of the first, sending it crashing into the baggage train. Aoede sang the second one to sleep, and it crashed into the tall grass. A flurry of arrows downed the third and soon the monsters were all dead.

Teth harvested two brain nodules from the corpses, and the party continued on the road.

Welcome to Kettle

They arrived at the village of Kettle on the north shore of the sparkling lake Loge Varma. The large group waited on the road while a few individuals went to find the mayor. Instead they found a tidy village of impoverished fishermen and shepherds. They also spotted a nearby cemetery and a red maple tree inside a high stone enclosure.

The village leader was a tiny elderly woman named Perle, who ran a small tavern selling mutton stew and tuber vodka. She was thrilled to meet the newcomers and pointed them to some empty houses where they could stay. She also mentioned that if someone brought her some Vile Apples from the orchard, she could make her famous Vile Cider.

Ruffians in the Square

As the party was settling into their new homes, they heard cries for help. They ran down the road and found three young men attacking a merchant by a yellow wagon. Ormr grabbed the big one, Atticus froze the small one, and Aoede dropped the leader with some Hideous Laughter.

They tied up the ruffians and turned them over to some fishermen led by Dominic. These fellows dragged the ruffians to the lake and dunked them in the water, a local punishment. The criminals emerged from the water unconscious and bright red. The lake was boiling hot!

The party returned to the square to meet the merchant, Yossel. He explained that he mostly sold salt and hats and raw metal to the villagers, and bought their wool and fish to take back to the city. The professors were keen to hire Yossel to begin fetching tools and supplies from the city to help them build their new school.

“Science” Experiment

That evening, Teth tried to turn the vulgrane brain nodules into a coating for his rapier. When the mixture was applied, his weapon hummed and her heard his dead grandmother’s voice in his head! He could now talk to his Babushka whenever he wanted for Advantage with History checks.

Foggy and Froggy

The next day, a dense fog obscured the lake. The party met with the young muscular blacksmith Lieber, who was mourning his dead father Nosson. His father had made weapons in the city, but grew to resent his role in harming people. So they moved to Kettle and he threw his Master Hammer and Tongs into the lake. Lieber asked the party to retrieve the tools so he could make them whatever they wanted.

Then the party walked around Loge Varma in search of a sick woman they heard about in town. She lived on a raft, but they could not see her through the fog. She said she had the Blue Death and no one should come near her. The group promised to find a cure and return.

Atticus then tried to Detect the Master Hammer in the lake as they walked back to Kettle. And he got a ping! The hammer was out in the water, in a big wet mound of some sort. Aoede magicked up some protective waders for Ormr, and the big janitor waded out to fetch the hammer.

The mound moved, revealing an enormous Dire Toad.

Hammer and Tongues

The party unleashed their spells and arrows at the enormous four-eyed monster. They blinded one eye, and hacked off one leg as the creature’s long tongue lashed out at them. The Dire Toad lumbered over and swallowed Ormr, but the barbarian fought his way out and the dying toad vomited up the contents of its stomach all over the shore.

And that’s how they found Nosson’s Master Hammer.

Teth harvested an eye and part of the brain, while Atticus cut out the monster’s vocal cords.

And that’s where we ended.

DM Notes

This was a great first session. It was mostly light and fun, introducing characters and beginning to explore a quaint village of nice people. We got through three combats pretty quickly, doing everything in narrative fashion with side initiative. Having 5-6 heroes makes it a challenge to keep the baddies alive and threatening. Encouraging the players to invent ways to make themselves and their tools more powerful seems to be fun for everyone so far. Hopefully next time they will discover even more ways to enhance their abilities.

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Quest for the Forest Gems: Session #2

My daughter and I have played a lot of D&D this spring, but somehow we forgot about her solo quest, so today we got back in the saddle!

Play time: 1 hour

Characters: Rose the Druid (2)

Prowling the Woods

After rescuing her friend and saving the first Forest Gem, Rose transformed into a wolf and sped stealthily through the woods toward the Lonely Tower. Along the way, she spotted a strange little man out in the bushes, but decided to stay focused on her task.

The Lonely Tower

Soon she arrived at the edge of a wide meadow, with a tall white tower in its center. A humming sound came from the open window at the top. She looked around, but didn’t see anyone nearby. She ran up to the tower and inspected the ivy and moss growing on it. The moss was safe and good for making tea, but the ivy was poison!

Just then, a witch came running out of the woods, yelling at Rose to get away from the tower!

Rose quickly froze the witch’s arm with an Ice Knife, but the witch fought back with a Fire Bolt. Luckily, Rose’s companion Mittens the Jaguar came roaring up and clawed the witch’s back. Screaming with rage, the witch turned into a black moth and flew into the forest.

Let Down That Hair!

Rose called out to the tower and a girl called down. It was Rapunzel! After a quick discussion, Rapunzel let down her golden braids for Rose to climb up. But Rose was a weak climber, and she was only half up when the witch returned!

The witch ran out of the woods and hurled a fireball at Rose, but Rose was too quick and slid back down to the ground safely. Then Rose used her druid powers to turn into a (small) red dragon and breathed scorching pink flames on the witch. The old crone barely survived and turned into a black snake to escape. But Rose breathed pink fire on her again, and the witch was defeated!

Get the Gem!

Rose transformed into an owl and flew up to Rapunzel’s window. She inspected the room and discovered the Green Forest Gem hanging over a little garden. Rapunzel was happy to be leaving the tower, but wanted to keep the Gem to help her survive out in the world. Rose convinced her that the Gem was needed to save the forest, and traded her a gold nugget (from the dwarven mine) for the Gem.

She then turned back into a little dragon and carried Rapunzel down to the meadow, and the friends said goodbye. Lastly, Rose inspected the body of the witch and found an enchanted hat, a broken watch, three gold coins, and a ruby ring of fire!

And that’s where we ended.

DM Notes

This was a fast and fun session. My daughter was very creative and proactive, as well as logical and sensible. It’s so cool to essentially watch your kid display all of her cognitive and social skills evolving so quickly as she grows up. So there it is, everyone should play more fantasy RPGs with their kids!

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D&D Experiment: Faster combat by skipping the monsters

I run a 5E campaign, and while I really like to create monsters and combat scenarios for my players, I don’t like dealing with monster stat blocks or adjudicating all the rules and rolls that happen during a combat encounter.

Combat should feel exciting! It should feel fast and furious and dangerous! But instead, it feels slow and plodding. Everyone checks and re-checks their character sheet. They make rolls and add modifiers, then re-add, then ask what spells or resistances are in play, then re-add… and eventually the monster dies.

Ivan Biliban

Everyone and their sister has ideas about how to make combat better, or faster, or easier. Here’s mine.

I’m going to steal the basic roll mechanic from Powered by the Apocalypse games, but keep the 5E math. So 1-10 is a Fail, 11-15 is a Mixed Success, and 16 or more is a Success.

Here’s how it would work:

DM: Three goblins rush toward you. What do you do? Let’s start on the left this time and go around the table. Fighter?

Fighter: I attack the goblin near me. I rolled a (10+4) 14 to hit, and 7 slashing damage.

DM: Great, you slash the goblin with your sword, but before it dies, it knifes you for 3 damage. Cleric?

Cleric: I cast Healing Word on the Fighter. They get 3 HP back.

DM: Great. Rogue?

Rogue: I shoot the next goblin with my crossbow. I rolled a (4+5) 9 to hit, so I miss.

DM: You miss, and the goblin leaps onto your back, stabbing you for 4 damage. Wizard?

Wizard: I cast Firebolt at the goblin on Rogue. I rolled a (14+4) 18 to hit and 11 fire damage.

DM: Great, with expert aim, you incinerate the goblin completely. There’s one goblin left, with a magic wand, running toward Cleric. Back to you, Fighter?

Fighter: I hit it with my axe. I rolled a (6+4) 10 to hit, so I miss. 

DM: You miss and the goblin dashes past you to freeze Cleric for 4 points. Your turn, Cleric?

Cleric: I cast Guiding Bolt. I rolled a (9+6) 15 to hit, and 9 radiant damage.

DM: The goblin explodes, but its jaw bone hits you in the face for 4 bludgeoning damage. 

Notes

This would mean I don’t need to track initiative, I don’t need to roll for the monster’s actions, and I don’t need to keep track of the monster’s AC. The players immediately know if they hit or not. I just need to create a narrative description of the roll’s outcome and roll the damage (if any). This way, the players are making all the rolls and choosing all the actions. 

What about spells with saving throws? Well, when the players cast the spell, I can just have them roll a spell attack instead. And I guess if the monster is casting the spell, then I will have the players roll to save. Keep the players rolling!

What about PC armor? I don’t know. Maybe instead of providing a quantified value, your armor provides a qualified value. Maybe light armor keeps you stealthy and heavy armor makes you immune to slashing?

What do you think about this? Have you tried anything similar? Any suggestions or insights?

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D&D Question: How to start a good sandbox campaign?

A sandbox campaign has no one central story. It’s a basket full of little stories, lots of little opportunities to wander about and do whatever. And the general wisdom seems to be that you start somewhere small, with a big map full of white space, and let the players wander about as they wish, and fill in the gaps as you go along.

So. How do you actually start? How many rumors and hooks should you invent and prep and dangle in front of the players on Day One? Or on Day Fifty?

Arthur Rackham

How much content/opportunity should the players have access to at any given time? Three rumors? Ten hooks?

What is the “right” amount of preparation? Is there a danger of over-prepping and creating a central story? Is there a danger of prepping too little and having the energy drain out of the whole thing?

Right now, I’m creating a small town surrounded by little dungeons and wildernesses. But how much is too much or too little? 

What do you think about this? Have you tried anything similar? Any suggestions or insights?

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Lessons Learned

This last campaign ran for 17 sessions over about 6 months, from level 5 to the end of level 7. We started with 5 players and ended with 6! No one died, though we came close a bunch of times. And we found friends and pets, proteges and mentors, dreams of the past and future, communions with angels and horrors, a terrifying creek, and one most excellent shovel.

Along the way, I tried a lot of things to make the campaign fun and interesting. Some worked. Some didn’t. Here are some things I learned.

Magic Items

I created 47 magic items, including a bunch of swords and armor, books and rings, eyeballs and gauntlets. For the most part, the designs were fine. Although a few times I had to tweak the language after the fact to balance them. 

Good Idea: Most of the items required Attunement, so the players had to agonize about which cool things to attune to and which to put away.

Bad Idea: The items kept getting more powerful, which made the PCs more powerful, which required the enemies to be more powerful, and so on. This arms race proved to be a major headache. In the future, I hope to keep the items a bit simpler. I will focus on “interesting utility” and not “devastating power”. One of the most popular items was the Master Shovel, which simply cast the Mold Earth cantrip!

Combat

I do not enjoy running combat at high levels. Everyone has a ton of abilities and spells, so they each take longer to read their sheets and make decisions. That includes both players and monsters. This is slow and boring, the exact opposite of what combat should feel like!

Good Idea: I adopted Matt Colville’s “action oriented design” principles to make my baddies easier to run, and to keep them interesting. I also tried to make the landscape dynamic, such as moving shafts of sunlight in a vampire battle.

Bad Idea: By the end of the campaign, I was trying to make battles that would challenge six PCs at Level 7. Each player had a minimum of one action and one bonus action and a maximum of 4-5 attacks per turn!!! Running a straight-up battle of attrition was just a slog of tearing through bags of hit points, even with dynamic battlefields or lair actions or legendary actions, etc. I personally found it fatiguing to run, and I worried constantly that it was boring for the non-active players to watch.

Monster Design

I love inventing unique and flavorful monsters. I often took a standard creature and changed it to reflect something about the story, such as having Apex and Common werewolves, and four types of vampires, and dozens of other undead.

Good Idea: As mentioned above, I used Colville’s action-oriented design to write my monster stat blocks. This simplified everything. I had two Actions (melee and ranged), one Reaction (backlash), and one Feature (like walking on walls). I also got rid of the normal Resistances and Skills, and just gave each one an Immunity. With 13 types of damage and a pile of Conditions, it was just easier to decide that every creature was immune to one or two things.

Bad Idea: I ran a lot of different types of battles, but the recurring mistake (especially toward the end) was to have a single Big Bad fighting a party of 5-6 heroes. The action economy was just brutal. The best battles had a group of baddies, all moving around and doing different things. Unfortunately, toward the end, many of my battles were plot points, so it didn’t make sense for a whole bunch of baddies to show up.

NPCs

I made tons of NPCs! Good guys, bad guys, and weird guys galore. I really enjoy roleplay and doing voices, and I think my players really like meeting memorable weirdos. 

Good Idea: To make my NPCs unique and memorable, I often based them on the characters from TV shows. Inspirations in this campaign included Brooklyn 99, What We Do In The Shadows, and Schitt’s Creek.

Bad Idea: Because this was a dark and gothic campaign, a lot of the NPCs had tragic backstories. They were grim and sad people. They were not super friendly or eager to help the party. This made the PCs less inclined to form positive relationships with the “good guys”. On the other hand, the villains were more flamboyant and complex, which made the PCs more conflicted about fighting them. By the end of the campaign, I think this muddle of feelings led to a less triumphant-feeling climax.

Dreams and Side Stories

Most of my players had complex backstories connected to religion. To support those themes, I gave the PCs frequent dreams from their deities to give them hints and insights to guide their choices, which they really enjoyed. It felt personal and unique. A few times, they wanted to take a rest just in the hope of having more dreams!

Good Idea: Make each player feel special and unique.

Bad Idea: Try to keep track of 5 completely unrelated personal stories, cramming a bunch of those subplots into a session with 1-2 combats plus a central group story. In the future, assuming I continue to have a large group, I hope to wrangle them into having a smaller number of subplots that involve the PCs in pairs or threes.

Railroads and Sandboxes

I wrote this campaign as a railroady sandbox. That means I designed a big area full of stuff, but I made it all slightly connected around a Central Tension (the threat of the vampires). So the players could wander around in any direction, and the world evolved in response to their choices and actions. But as things moved forward, they were gently being corralled into a confrontation with the vampires.

Good Idea: I wrote a ton of locations, NPCs, items, and events at the beginning of the campaign, so later they could change their mind at any moment and I was always prepared with something cool to do.

Bad Idea: While there were lots of ways for our story to play out (working with the vampire hunters, the shapeshifters, the vampire factions, etc.), it was always destined to end in a confrontation with the vampire queen. This meant the campaign felt more railroady because as it progressed I had less and less fresh material to show. This made me more inclined to point them toward my foregone conclusion.

That’s all for now. Hopefully you find some of these notes useful for your own campaign design and planning.

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Desert Angel Fiasco: Family Edition One-Shot

My daughters demanded that we play D&D last night, so I grabbed my homebrew quick-start character sheets and a copy of Desert Angel Fiasco, and we had a fantastic 2-hour game!

Heroes:

  • Wreckya the mind-reading Fighter
  • Violet the weather-weaving Beast Master
  • Elise the astral Assassin

Introduction

The team was hired by Captain Ava to provide security on the maiden flight of the Desert Angel, a prototype flying ship about to cross the Great Sand Sea for the first time. In addition to the crew, there were two merchants and a pilgrim on board.

Day One

Violet succeeded on the first Sailing Check and guided the captain around a dangerous patch of Sand Fleas hiding in the dunes.

A few hours later, they spotted an oasis and asked the captain to stop so they could investigate. Elise found two human skeletons by the water and took their silver rings. Violet noticed a dangerous beast in the water and bravely ran away as the Oasis Scorpion lunged up at them!

Late in the afternoon, Wreckya saw a tall rock spire ahead with a fire flickering in a cave and a metallic shine on top. Violet sent her tiny flying narwhal Natalie to retrieve the silver mirror from the top, which Elise promptly took for herself. The cook Naveed did not want to risk getting close to the rocks.

Wreckya had the captain come close, and then she fired the ship’s ballista up into the rocks near the cave so they could climb a rope to investigate. Elise floated up in her astral form and discovered two dangerous people with some strange contraptions. Using Natalie as a distraction, Elise and Violet attacked the bandits (in dismayingly brutal fashion). They learned that the strange devices were hang gliders and these two planned to rob the Desert Angel after nightfall! Who hired them? The cook Naveed! The girls took the gliders and the ship set sail again.

That night… nothing happened, because the thieves had been dealt with.

Day Two

The captain sighted the Dead Sun Massif and Violet used Natalie to scout around and find the best canyons to fly through. They grazed a stone arch, damaging the mast. Then they sped past a giant hornet nest unharmed. And finally Violet helped the captain to navigate through a tunnel of deadly kyraptors, emerging with 50 GP worth of precious guano!

The Desert Angel flew out of the massif over a huge blue impact crater. Below them stretched a dark city around a golden pyramid. The city teemed with zombies!

Wreckya asked the pilgrim Lev Meyer if he knew about this place, and he revealed that these were solar zombies. So they convinced the captain to drop anchor until nightfall, and then snuck into the city. They dashed by the solar zombies, now lying harmless on the ground. Inside the golden pyramid, the solar traps were disarmed and they met the mummy queen Varrani Hagar. Elise helped the queen write a poem about rain, and won a golden cat statue. They convinced the queen to join them, and returned to the ship just as the captain was about to raise anchor and leave.

That night, a deadly sandstorm rose in the south. But Violet used her storm-weaver powers to hold the danger at bay.

Day Three

As the ship flew toward its final destination, a dark shape fell flaming out of the sky. A dying phoenix! It crashed into the sails and appeared to die. But as the sailors were sweeping the ashes overboard, Violet rescued the newborn baby phoenix and became its mommy. Soon after, they arrived in the western town of Khervik, successfully completing the maiden voyage of the Desert Angel!

DM Notes

This is a great one-shot adventure to run with any group of players to fit into any time-frame. You can pick and choose what encounters to use or leave out, depending on your needs. For instance, I left out the stranded cultist, the mutiny by the quartermaster, the sabotage by the spice merchant, the horror monster in the cargo, and the attack by the silk merchant, to name a few. Everyone had a great time!

FYI – The homebrew tools I used are a modified version of World of Dungeons, which I call World of Dungeon Age. It uses the PbtA 2d6 system, four stats, no classes or levels, and a bunch of homebrewed abilities that you can pick and choose to create a unique hero. It only takes 5 minutes to make a character and get started, which seems perfect for my family games with the kids.

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Session #17

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes climbed up into Castle Torescu, destroyed the Court of the Damned, and defeated the vampire knight Adrian in the snowy courtyard, and now they are surrounded and outnumbered…

Play time: 4 hours

Heroes:

  • Asmund the Divine Soul Sorcerer (7)
  • Drew the Eldritch Knight (7)
  • Hugo the Time Wizard (6), Cleric (1)
  • Lobelia the Vampire
  • Rainen the Beast Master Ranger (5), Druid (2)
  • Ward the Gloom Stalker Ranger (6), Rogue (1)

A Short Rest

When last we left our heroes, they had just (barely) defeated the vampire knight Adrian and retreated into a small turret to hide and heal. Dragodai pointed out that they left a mess out in the courtyard, including footprints in the snow, and it was only a matter of minutes before the vampire soldiers found them. The team cast Tiny Hut upstairs on a bed and covered the magic dome in silk pajamas, hoping to get a Short Rest before they were found.

Minutes passed. Soldiers shouted in the courtyard, and entered the turret, and entered the bedroom! But they left. 

And then they returned with a small wizened vampire wearing an iron crown over his eyes. This mage dispelled the Tiny Hut, revealing the party. Dragodai asked how much time they needed to rest. Eight minutes! He would buy them those minutes.

The party sat and listened as Dragodai, in wolf form, ran outside with his magic sword and battled the vampire soldiers alone. By the time the Rest was complete, it was silent outside.

Through the Looking Glass

The party emerged to find the courtyard littered with dead vampire ashes. They decided to circle around the castle keep to the south and glanced in the gray tower. Silent and empty. Inside they found evidence of a vampire barracks. On the top floor they found Adrian’s bedroom and magic mirror

Hugo and Ward stepped through the mirror and found themselves in the Naduum Forge back down in the Ruby City. They met three dwarves, and three mechanical animals. Lars, Godfrey, and Zuzka were hard at work for Adrian and the Queen. Hugo and Ward bartered for the newly finished armor for the queen, giving up two magic weapons for it.

Back in the gray tower, they gave the spiky, curvaceous (and cursed) armor to Drew.

Black Hatch

Outside, it was still silent. They headed toward the black tower and passed a large black iron hatch in the south wall. It was trapped, so they decided to move on.

Around the corner, they found the body of Dragodai torn in half beside the corpse of the giant man Ambrose. The dhampir’s magic sword stood in the giant’s eye. Drew took the sword.

Black Tower

Inside the queen’s tower, they passed a guard room and found a chamber filled with sharp silvery webbing. Four phase spiders descended from the ceiling, but the party ran through to conserve their resources.

Upstairs they found a cheery room full of arts and crafts projects. From a shelf, a porcelain doll began to giggle and taunt them as Hugo took a candle that smelled like cookies. The doll proved to be the trapped soul of Roxana Vanator, wife of Armand the vampire hunter! Asmund sacrificed one of his holy fingers to free her soul.

At the top of the tower, they found a luxurious bedroom. A dozen weeping priests of Virune lay on the floor. The iron-crowned mage Father Tyran sat on a gleaming throne. And the vampire queen Dragoslava Torescu lay on the bed, playing with her bristling steel whip.

The queen asked the party to leave, several times. She also revealed her master plan was to entice the angel Virune to come save these priests, at which time she would drink the blood of the angel to become divine!

And so, the party put on their game faces, and attacked! The queen used blood magic to force the priests to form a human shield wall, and she summoned her dread wyvern outside to flood the room with necrotic fumes, and she wielded her deadly whip. But the party bulldozed through the priests, tore Father Tyran to pieces, and then slaughtered Queen Dragoslava.

As she died, Lobelia lost her vampiric powers and fell off the ceiling. She was human! Everyone was human! The curse was lifted! The land was saved!

Epilogues

We then went around the table and described what happened in the days and weeks that followed. Most of the ex-vampires returned north to rebuild their homes, but some stayed in the castle to make a new life. 

The party discovered the Black Road from Castle Torescu through the mountains back to the south lands. In that long dark tunnel, they encountered a miserable one-eyed seeker. They took the creature back to Torescu, where Asmund used the last of his holy fingers to restore this cursed person, revealing…Hugo’s mother! But Hugo was strangely unmoved by her restoration.

  • Lobelia, inspired by her time with the party, resolved to begin training as a real adventurer. 
  • Asmund, his quest for revenge complete, chose to stay in the north and protect the peoples there. 
  • Hugo gave up any interest in returning home, wanting to continue his mad search for arcane power. 
  • Drew returned home to get revenge on the man who got him arrested, but then returned to Vulgoth to establish a Justice Guild for heroes.
  • Ward returned home to establish a Ranger Guild, and to rekindle the worship of the angel Kasimah.
  • Rainen returned home to see her family, and then vanished into the forest to live in the wilds, protecting her ever-growing family of wolves.

And that’s where we ended.

DM Notes

This was a pretty good session. We managed to explore and discover new places, and meet a bunch of new NPCs, as well as finish the final battle and wrap up with our epilogues. 

I was a bit disappointed in myself for how I ran the final battle. I thought that the queen + tyran + priests + wyvern would be enough, but it absolutely wasn’t! At the very least, I should have included some vampire soldiers, if not the last vampire knight Nicoletta, and maybe even Doctor Godwin, all crammed together. But maybe that would have been bad too, perhaps too bloated and forced, making for a long slog of a battle. It’s hard to say.

At any rate, the campaign is complete, we had a great time, and everyone was very happy. We spent an hour just talking about all the little things that happened (and didn’t happen) and I revealed a few secrets about what they didn’t find or do. 

We will spend the next couple of weeks discussing ideas for the next campaign, which will be a test-bed for various ways to tweak the game. More on that later!

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D&D Experiment: A whole campaign at Level 3

I don’t like super-heroic gameplay. I prefer more “realistic” danger and challenges. As a real human, I understand the real danger of real things like the dark, and the cold, and hunger, and predators my own size. Dragons and angels and vampires are great in so many ways, as patrons and forces of nature and storytelling devices… but not as things you hit with a sword. You know?

I understand that this is all a matter of personal taste. It probably stems from growing up on sword-and-sorcery stories where the heroes seemed to be in real danger, and people died, and things went wrong a lot. Also, no matter how big and strong Conan was, he always felt like a real person who could be tricked or beaten (and often was!). 

Illustration of a scene in Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails”: this picture was first published in Weird Tales (July 1936, vol. 28, no. 1).

I’m just not enthused about heroes with lots of super-abilities and a sack full of magic, and the threats are all as super-human as the hero. It feels too unreal to me. It may look cool, but it doesn’t feel…well, it doesn’t feel like anything at all. A person or situation feels more heroic to me when the person is just a person, and they have to rely on human knowledge, skills, strength, and character to confront great challenges.

So, as my current campaign winds down, I’m thinking about ways to capture (and maintain) the sword-and-sorcery feel that I want without completely changing the system my table is playing. (We’re using D&D 5E, with DnDBeyond tools. And yes, I know, there are other games that might give me what I want, but just go with me on this.)

To get that S&S feeling, my idea is: Play the whole campaign at Level 3. 

Why Level 3?

Level 3 gives everyone their key abilities. They can feel like capable fighters and wizards. But they will never level up! Never increase their Hit Points, never auto-magically acquire new abilities or spells or spell slots. So in order to have their characters grow and evolve, they will need to adventure!

  • Find stuff! Wands, grimoires, potions
  • Take risks! Drink from or bathe in weird fountains, make deals with NPCs
  • Invest time! Work to upgrade a sword, earn a spirit’s blessing
  • Get messy! Harvest materials from monsters

My hope would be that every session would include 1-3 minor discoveries or upgrades to reward adventuring behavior. And hopefully the players would feel like they really earned their power-ups this way, instead of getting them automatically via XP and levels.

What do you think about this? Have you tried anything similar? Any suggestions or insights?

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