The Starting Town, Easing In
If you’re just finding this journal, welcome! This project is my attempt to find a more effective way to pass on some of the wisdom I continue to accumulate as an always-learning Dungeon Master. A new campaign was a golden opportunity for me to lay bare my personal process: what I prepare, what I focus on in that prep work, how much prep I do, and how that prep gets used in actual sessions. I’m not an “expert” DM, and I’m not trying to pretend to be. What I am is another person out there stumbling their way along and hoping to find a way to share what I’m learning along the way with others on the same journey.
Want to start from the beginning of the journal? I’m keeping an organized page with all the journals I write along with any other related campaign materials I put up right here.
Where are we now? We’ve played one real, actual session as a group now (remotely, of course – fortunately, this was going to be a remote game already before everything went into lockdown). My goals for a session like this are pretty small-scale; I wanted to get the party introduced to the town, and do a quick monster-of-the-week adventure to get a feel for the surrounding area while giving the players a chance to start cutting their teeth on their characters (in roleplay and combat). The session went exceptionally well in hitting those marks, and (more importantly) everyone seemed to have a good time!
So, in the spirit of these journals: how did this session measure up to my prep?
Prep Work: Making Plot Hooks
You can see a good amount of the prep work I did setting up this town in a separate post (this one, to be specific).
All of that work is just setting, though. It’s the backdrop. I set myself up for success as much as possible by leaving interesting choices open in that setting. There are a few tensions that could become a focal point in this town. It’s hard to say what direction the story will be pulled in yet, since I am putting a whole lot of agency on the players on that front in this campaign. What I’ve done is plan possible threads without really knowing what will happen if any of them unwind just yet; I’ll wait and see which ones the players choose to pull on, and prepare around whichever direction they take the story.
For this first session, I kept it simple. I pitched the beginning of this campaign as a loosely-associated series of monster-of-the-week type stories, so I kept that expectation in mind when preparing hooks for the party. For the unfamiliar, a hook is an offer that could lead the party to an adventure. To prepare for this session, I like to have a list of these to pull from rather than just creating one and expecting the party to take it. Here’s the hooks I wrote down for this session:
- Samuel Kolin wants to hire somebody to follow his son and figure out what he’s up to. The son is meeting in secret with his lover, a tabaxi, whom his father would never approve of. Samuel will want her removed or killed if he learns of the relationship.
- Lexton Ford is offering a bounty for any information about three missing tabaxi (Dew Upon the Grass, Bending Reed, and Runs with Raptors). There are rumors of a shadowy “rag man” wandering near the town at night, he thinks it is connected.
- There is a general bounty for Gnoll Ears, Goblinoid Ears, and Minotaur horns. I added this for two reasons: to give the party some supplemental income if they adventure outside the town, and to have a strong scene offer for Kaltog (who is a Minotaur) when he becomes aware of the bounty.
- Some people have been disappearing from a nearby meadow. The town guard can’t commit resources to an intensive search. One of the missing is the child of one of the guard (Aimee Croft), and she has put together a fund to pay an adventuring group to help. The beast is a Basilisk.
Why plan sessions this way? I believe strongly in preserving player agency in games like DnD. The idea that you can go anywhere or do anything is the main appeal of TTRPGS for me, and I want to deliver that experience to others the best I can when I run games. It’s much easier said than done. Making a world feel truly, completely open involves equal parts of prep work, improvisational skills, and a steady calm so your players can’t tell what you prepped and what you didn’t.
Prep Work: Building Encounters
Plot hooks are going to determine the larger strokes of the story, depending on which one the party latches on to first. There is a lot of meat to fill in between, though, and encounters are a great way to do that. I try to strike a balance between combat and non-combat encounter ideas when making my lists – it’s good to have a variety of things to pull from for whatever situation you might find yourself in. Once in a session, it’s all improvisation and flying by the seat of my pants, so I give myself as many tools as I can before that.
These encounters are a great way to enforce the themes of the campaign, as well. In this case, I took this opportunity to play up details about the setting I wanted to reinforce such as the dangers of the wilderness and the isolation of the frontier town.
First, some combat encounters for the plains. This is pretty straightforward, I aim for variety in type of enemies and use kobold fight club to double check that I’m not murdering everybody. I’m not recording it for this post, but I write the book and page number to reference for each enemy here. I also list their intentions. Most beasts are hunting, but more intelligent enemies will have their own goals and behave accordingly.
- 8 Velociraptors: hunting
- 1 Quetzalcoatlus: hunting
- 4-6 Lions: hunting
- 3 Gnolls, 1 Pack Leader, 4 Hyena: hunting
- 2 Ogres: Arguing with each other over a fresh kill when the party see them, don’t see the party
- 1 Bugbear, 2 Hobgoblins, 2 Goblins: slavers; if they fight and any escape, the party will have other goblinoids come after them in the future in retribution
The party is low level and I don’t know how they play in combat yet, so I’m keeping my options simple for now. The last one could be a stealth encounter, as well, if the party decide to forgo the fight and try to sneak around the ogres. In addition to those, I have a few non-combat encounters ready for the plains.
- A riderless horse with a saddlebag, trotting down the road. There is a purse of 20gp and a worn copy of “Across the Expanse” in the saddlebag, alongside a long sword that looks like it has never been swung.
- A group of Tabaxi hunters challenge the party; could escalate if not handled well.
- A Tyrannosaurus feasting on a dead horse near a wrecked wagon. It doesn’t see or seem interested in the party.
- A wounded tabaxi who refuses the party’s help as best she can. Black fur and an athletic build, she looks to be a warrior from a local tribe (name is Shadow in Moonlight). Her leg is caught in a steel trap. She only speaks the language of the plains, Tutstin – no common.
That’s all there is to it. These small blurbs act as launching points for scenes – even the combat encounters can be turned into interesting story moments if dropped in at the right time. Setting myself up this way means I can adapt to just about anything the party does because all these offers are non-specific enough to be dropped anywhere in the setting.
Session One: Settling In
First sessions are often a bit of a stumble-through for a new group. Nobody really knows their characters all that well yet, and they’re trying to figure that out while also getting to know the world you’ve been building, and they’re settling into their party dynamic – what role do they fill, how do they get along with other party members, how do they work together, etc. That’s why, earlier, I mentioned having very small goals this session.
Get them into the town. Introduce some NPCs and get them familiar with the setting. Shuffle them out of the town to kill some baddie or something. Done.
The ship the party is attached to is a merchant vessel. The captain deals primarily in rare furs and textiles, and he’s supposed to be meeting a supplier here in a few days. While they wait, the party is essentially on shore leave and can do as they please around town.
I’m fortunate to have players that have been playing games like this for a long time. They didn’t wait around wondering what to do when the ship dropped them off at the town and I told them the world was theirs (new players are often overwhelmed by the reality of a truly open world).
Kaltog went looking for shops immediately. He was hoping to find some kind of tinker shop, but this is a pretty small town. The owner of the General Goods Store directed him to try his luck in the city for such things. I’ll have to keep in mind that Kaltog’s player seems interested in the crafting side of the artificer class (which, I mean, why would you play an artificer and not be?) – there will definitely be a meticulously designed tinker’s shop in the first city they visit.
In the same store, we had a fun roleplay encounter that involved Dave buying a kitchy keychain-type tchotchke depicting the grasslands of the Expanse from the store along with a lot of other tourist-trap type items. Dave doesn’t seem to completely grasp the value of money still, and is both amazed and amused by how high people jump to serve him when he drops gold on the table.
Kaltog made his way down to the Blacksmith, where he met Viktor and worked out a deal with him to smith some parts he needs. Kaltog is hoping to fashion his own gun. Just like that, Kaltog needs 80g and has a concrete reason to take a job in town now.
Sherlynx, after watching the show at the General Goods store, headed off to the tavern to see if there were any locals in need of help – part of living up to the purpose of her pilgrimage if helping people wherever you go. Dave tagged along for a drink. This was obviously the right moment to throw the players one of the hooks I prepared. We had some good roleplaying time to get comfortable in town and that’s excellent, but I know the players want some action today too.
Short Adventure: The Basilisk Hunt
The bartender of a town can always be assumed to be a good source of the kind of information Sherlynx wanted, and the players will usually treat them as such. I knew I needed a quicker adventure with how much time we had already spent on roleplay at that point in the session, so I opted to also place Aimee Croft in the tavern when the party entered to offer them the Basilisk job.
Sherlynx was directed to speak to Aimee when she asked the bartender about anyone looking to hire people like her and the party. Aimee explained the situation and why she couldn’t do more to search herself, offering an advance payment now and more if they could bring back information and proof of what happened. One of the missing is her son, but I played her perfectly calm and level-headed about the reality that he might be dead. The intention there was to play up how common death and loss is for people on this frontier.
As expected, the party took the job without hesitation and were soon on their way north to investigate the meadow where people had been disappearing. I always have a party member make a roll when they transition from one location to another for a random encounter, but if I can tell a small secret – the result means nothing. It’s like hitting the button for a walk signal at many crosswalks, it’s just to give the illusion of agency. Sometimes if I’m deciding whether or not to throw a combat at them, a low roll tips the scales on that, but mostly I pick appropriate encounters to the moment instead of using roll tables.
We were already nearing what I considered the halfway point of the session and I knew there was a Basilisk fight yet to come, so I didn’t throw anything at them here in the interest of finishing the job before the session ended. Combat always takes up more time than you think it will. I feel I’ve gotten good at running it efficiently, and running only one enemy is particularly easy, and even with how tight I run combat it is never quick. You could do things like implement turn timers for players here, but I don’t like doing that personally because it’s just one more thing for me to keep track of.
The party had no trouble finding the signs of the attack and where the victim had been taken between Sherlynx’s investigation skill and Dave’s survival skill. There was no chance they wouldn’t find clues, the rolls here were to see how long their search took. I made clear that they don’t want to be caught on the plains at night, so low rolls make that dangerous situation more likely instead of putting a block up in front of the party’s progress.
They followed the trail back to its lair, which was a cave littered with statues of past victims – many of them chewed on, some now beyond recognition. Basilisks are hunters, and they turn their prey to stone to keep them fresh for eating. Their powerful jaws and teeth can bite off chunks of stone, and their stomach acid turns the stone back to flesh for digestion. I played up the slow burn by describing bit by bit more details of what they saw as they got closer to the lair, letting the party come to realization on their own what exactly the statues were once they could start making out features. The key is to just describe exactly what they see, and allow them to draw conclusions on their own – really, that’s just good advice in general as a DM. That’s why people are always saying “show, don’t tell” as advice to new DMs. People love the feeling of figuring something out on their own, give it to your players as often as possible.
The party went to advance deeper into the cave, probably assuming a dungeon of some sort. I had no dungeon prepared, so this was an opportune moment for the monster to return home and attack them. Basilisks aren’t known for their excessive stealth or subtlety, so Dave’s passive perception was plenty to alert the party and combat ensued.
The combat itself was a little messy for the party thanks to a lot of low rolls from them and high rolls from the Basilisk. They also didn’t avert their eyes and had to make the saves to avoid turning to stone every turn, but all of them have good Constitution saves so that didn’t kill them.
It was a close call for Sherlynx, who got the monster’s attention early with a big hit and was nearly killed as it focused attacks on her after. She survived at 1 hit point, and only really because I lightly fudged the rolls. The first attack had done about half her hp in damage (also high rolls), so when the second attack hit I knew it was likely to down her. That didn’t feel like a particularly fun first encounter, so when I rolled high again I knocked a bit off the damage I rolled with the hopes it wouldn’t down her. I didn’t plan to leave her at 1 hp, but that was a nice bonus for dramatic effect because the monster was still targeting her the next round. She wasn’t out of the woods. I described the moment as the monster closing its jaws around her shield and pushing in at her, making it clear to the other characters that Sherlynx was in mortal danger.
Dave was the MVP at this point, as the raging Goliath grappled the Basilisk and dragged it away from Sherlynx. He then held it in place while the others beat it down, which proved extremely effective. There was one other close call, this time for Kaltog, as he failed the Constitution save to avoid the stone gaze effect and was nearly petrified. Luckily, he passed his second save and they didn’t have to carry him back to town as a statue.
Following the fight, the party cast around a bit for a way to cure the statue people. Finding nothing nearby, Sherlynx cut off the head of the Basilisk to carry back as proof of the kill and Kaltog gathered blood, saliva, and venom gland samples to try to figure out how to make a cure.
On their way back to town I had them make another dice roll, they rolled high (an 18) so I threw them a net positive encounter and had them come across the riderless horse. Sherlynx botched an animal handling check to try to approach it, but Dave was able to employ his class ability as a totem Barbarian to ritual cast Speak with Animals. I have animals give simple responses, mostly one word long, to try to play to their lower intelligence. They communicate ideas and fears but don’t always give a complete picture of what happened. In this case, the horse was able to tell them that their previous rider was stupid and got eaten by a predator. After picking through the saddlebags, the party moved on. The horse took a liking to Dave and followed them, so they’ve gained a horse now. Who knows if they’ll try to bring it on the ship with them, but that could be fun.
Back in town, I wrapped things up quickly because it was getting late. They brought the Basilisk head the Barracks to turn in to the guard that hired them, and learned that the Captain didn’t realize she had outsourced the job. He’s slightly cross with her, but thanks the party and pays them extra on top of what Aimee gave them as thanks for killing the Basilisk. They inform the Captain of the petrified victims around the cave, and he promises to send people to bring them back and directs Kaltog to talk to the local Alchemist to help create the cure.
With that, the party all retired to their rooms for a well-earned night of sleep.
Measuring Up: Prep vs. Reality
This session was always going to be a very straightforward one, but that’s not to downplay how important I feel the first session is. This is my chance to give the players their first real impression of this world and what it will be like. I try to strike a balance between showing the party the parts of the world I want them to see and not bludgeoning them with it.
You can’t expect to get to everything in your setting here, and trying to do so both makes for a bloated, boring session and takes away from what could be future discoveries or drama. That said, I do wish I had found a way to make the tabaxi community in Kolinville more present this session. Aside from my brief explanation that one existed there, the party didn’t meet anyone from the community. I could have dropped one into the tavern or the general goods store, so that was a minor missed opportunity.
I’m happy with how well the adventure played out for the Basilisk. The fight was harrowing with close calls but nobody died, which is ideal in my mind. Now, the party has some reputation to build from in the town (the Captain, especially importantly, is now aware of their skills). They also have goals to work toward in future sessions, with the need to create a cure for the petrified people and Kaltog’s mission to build himself a gun. I could have them go on an adventure for special ingredients or parts, and I still have that list of hooks to draw from along with these fresh developments.
I ended up not needing most of the encounters I created as well, but I knew that would be the case. I’ll keep the sheet, of course, for any time the party crosses the plains while the characters are in this level range. I will have to update combat encounters at level 5 due to the huge power jump that level brings, but that list should last me for a little while.
Next week will involve less prep work. I tend to do a lot of work up front with locations like this, and then just follow the flow of what the party does from there. My only prep for next session will involve reviewing what happened this session and considering the impacts of those events in the area.