When a Session Goes Off-book
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 through this 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.
It only took two sessions to get to discuss this topic, which is completely expected if you run an open world setting. Last session, the players didn’t do what I expected them to, and I was forced to re-purpose my preparation for the path they took. It can be easy to feel like you did something wrong when this happens, but I take it as a compliment. The players know and trust that they can do whatever they want in my world and I’ll do my best to make it work and keep it interesting.
Before I get into the session, I’m going to walk you through my prep work. I’m going to do this even though much of it wasn’t used this session, because it’s a good chance to also talk about re-purposing prep material when the campaign doesn’t take the direction you expected.
Prep Work: Building from Past Sessions
I found myself in a great position for prep this week.
The first session went swimmingly and provided some focus for the campaign. I knew among the townspeople who the most “face-forward” NPCs would be now. Although I loosely designed many NPCs for the town when I created Kolinville, you can’t expect players to keep up with that large of a cast of characters from week to week. I prefer to keep the number of NPCs the party interacts with regularly as low as possible, with the hope that they really get to know and care about those people. The rest of the NPCs being defined helps me maintain immersion, but trying to flesh out all those people to the party is overwhelming and unnecessary. The short descriptions I have for most of them is more than enough.
On top of that, I already had a lot of work done from the week before. The encounter sheet I created for the surrounding area still has plenty of options on it, so no need to reinforce it this week. Two of the plot hooks I prepared are still ready to go to spark a few shorter adventures, so no need to concoct more yet. Hell, the party even had a few well-defined short term goals to pursue such as un-petrifying the victims of the Basilisk or making more money for Kaltog’s gun.
First step: walk myself through a re-cap of everything that happened last session. I take notes during the session but they don’t make much sense if I don’t review them within the week, as they tend to be quick short-hands to spark my memory. When I begin to prep the next session, I create a bullet-point recap of important developments from the last session.
As an example of what I mean, last session’s breakdown looked like this:
- Kaltog is making a gun, needs 80g for it (met with Viktor)
- Cpt. Stone is impressed by the party; especially finds Kaltog interesting. Future work?
- Party cleared Basilisk bounty, working on cure for petrified with Marish Blakely. (Below, I went through the petrified people and what they might communicate to the party when awakened)
- Dexter Croft: “Dex”, says he was hiding from the “rag man”
- Alice Croft: Saw nothing, caught off-guard
- Stalking Raptor: female Tabaxi, only speaks Tutstin (common language of the Expanse, shared by many tribes as a trade language). Wants to leave, is distrustful of settlers. Also knows of “rag man” if asked, calls it the “Nightwalker” – a local legend among Tabaxi tribes.
- Aimee Croft is indebted to party for saving her son
This is my first and primary source of inspiration as I prep future plot hooks, and it makes it easy to re-incorporate events that happened before down the road as well. In this list, I was already brainstorming some potential future plot hooks. I’m not sure yet what monster I want to use for the “rag man” or “Nightwalker”, but I liked the idea of a local legend of a rag-wearing man that ate children. If the party pursues that thread, I’ll find a monster that fits the idea closely enough to be re-skinned and serve as this creature.
Next, I went through those notes and brainstormed possible future plot hooks or threads I wanted to follow up on:
- Cpt. Stinton’s contact is late, maybe not showing/dead? (This is the Cpt of the merchant vessel the party is attached to, and ostensibly why the party is in Kolinville. I need a reason why they’re stuck in the town for longer than expected, and this can even serve as a hook on it’s own because the party might have to figure out what happened to the contact.)
- Goblinoid raids are increasing, whispers of a new warlord rising in the plains and uniting goblinoid tribes under his banner. (I included this almost as an afterthought, to keep a more combat-oriented hook in rotation. My other two ideas were more role-play heavy adventure hooks and I like having variety. Spoilers: this is what the players ran with.)
That’s all I felt I had to do before next session. I figured I would mention the increasing raids to tease that as a future problem and an excuse to use more Hobgoblin enemies, and that they would pursue one of the other plot hooks I had prepared before. I did sit down and create a list of encounters involving goblinoid enemies to enforce this hook, and that turned out to be a very, very good thing.
Session Two: Things Go Awry for Our Heroes
Many great stories start with the heroes fucking up in a colossal way and having to come back from it. It looks like this will be one of those stories.
This session started innocently enough. Kaltog headed over the alchemist and spent some time with Marish, working on a cure for the petrified people. The town guard had sent a couple people to retrieve the petrified people from the cave site, and they also brought back the headless corpse of the beast in case it could be useful in finding a cure.
Meanwhile, Sherlynx and Dave went to check in with Cpt. Stone about any other work he might have. The guard captain floated them the job from Samuel Kolin, making it clear it was very much under the table. He gave the party a sealed letter with instructions on how to proceed if they took the job. He also warned them about the up-tick in goblinoid activity and the rumors of the Hobgoblin warlord, telling them to be careful if they left town.
The party decided this increase in goblinoid activity was a more pressing concern, and immediately hatched a plan to capture a goblinoid for questioning about this new warlord. Sherlynx and Dave gathered Kaltog from the alchemist, where he and Marish had set up plenty of possible formulae for Marish to test on the victims while Kaltog was gone. I wasn’t expecting them to bite so hard on that particular hook yet without being given any concrete direction, but my work had me plenty prepared to send the party back into the plains if that’s where they wanted to go.
Dave enlisted the help of a local bird using Speak with Animals, asking it to lead them to the nearest goblinoid camp it knew of. I had it lead them along a direct route through the sky, which meant hurdling some hills for the party. Luckily, the bird was patient enough to make sure they were still following periodically.
I didn’t want to throw them a combat encounter since I knew they would have at least one nearly guaranteed coming up at the camp they were looking for, so I had them encounter a tabaxi hunter with her leg stuck in a steel trap left behind by some colonial hunters. She refused the party’s help and would only speak in Tutstin, which only Kaltog could understand. She called Kaltog a “traitor to his kind”, and belittled him for “dressing like one of them”. The party briefly discussed using her as bait to catch Hobgoblins when she refused their help, not realizing she could understand common perfectly well and was simply choosing not to speak it. She pointed out it was likely another predator would find her first, and that convinced the party it might not be the best plan. Kaltog released her from the trap despite her protestations that she wanted to be left alone. She limped away back to her tribe.
It wasn’t far from there to the goblinoid camp the bird had directed them to; they arrived shortly after parting ways with the tabaxi. They observed the camp from a distance and were able to figure out that they had perimeter patrols of two Hobgoblins each that the party might be able to single out and capture. Kaltog planned to employ a minor illusory trick to get one Hobgoblin’s attention while the other was ambushed by Sherlynx and Dave.
In theory, it was a good enough plan. In practice, the Hobgoblins spotted Sherlynx sneaking up on them thanks to a poor stealth and it turned into a fight. The party killed one and were able to subdue the other, but not before the alarm was raised back at the camp by their shouts from the perimeter. Throwing the unconscious hobgoblin over Dave’s shoulder, the party made a run for it.
After the goblinoids broke off pursuit to re-organize back at camp, the party sought out a quiet place to interrogate their prisoner out on the plains. A natural 20 survival check led them to a secluded cliffside by a pond, obscured by tall grass. When he awakened the hobgoblin seemed unlikely to be cooperative – he was much more afraid of his leader than the party. Sherlynx began to torture him to get him to talk, which ended the way torture usually ends: with the prisoner saying whatever he thought would make it stop. The hobgoblin claimed he was the leader they were looking for, hoping they would just kill him. Instead, the party believed that ridiculous lie and told him to go tell his people to disband. He agreed enthusiastically and they cut him loose.
Unfortunately for him, I had decided that the sounds of his screams had already attracted a nearby predator – a T-rex. The party had a chance to roll perception checks to hear it coming, which Sherlynx passed, so she held the party back in the high grass where they could only watch as the T-rex devoured the hobgoblin they had just set loose. There was brief tense moment of hiding in the grass while it took a drink at the pond, but they were able to remain concealed and the T-rex eventually moved on.
Did they return to town? No, of course not. The party decided that, since the “leader” had died before he could return to deliver the message to disband, they would have to go the camp themselves to tell the goblinoids their leader was dead. At this point I had a hand-shaped impression on my face already, and it was now looking like everyone was determined to die this session from where I was sitting.
The camp, of course, was on high alert after the party’s incursion earlier in the day. They made no attempt to be stealthy as they neared the camp, and they were spotted quickly. Dave spotted a small patrol of bugbears trying to sneak up on them through the tall grass, and combat ensued. At one point, Dave threw one of the bugbears on top of another and sent them both crashing to the ground – which Sherlynx saw as an opening to deliver the message they had come to deliver.
The bugbears fell into hysterical fits of laughter after she told them their leader was dead, and the coming horde of other goblinoids from the camp made it clear even to the thickest party that it might be time to run. So they did. I made sure to give them a glimpse of the actual leader on his warg, watching the party run away from a hilltop.
The party made it back to Kolinville around nightfall, with not much to show for their endeavors. While they had been gone, Marish found the formula to successfully un-petrify the Basilisk victims. The party went into the back room of the shop where the victims were recovering to see how they were doing. There, they met a tabaxi who had apparently been petrified before the colonial expansion. He didn’t recognize humans, and didn’t speak a word of common. Kaltog headed over to the tabaxi community on the edge of Kolinville to see if they could help this fellow, while the Dave and Sherlynx headed back to the tavern to unwind a little.
Prep vs. Reality
I was pretty off-book for most of this session. It wasn’t hard to just pull up my encounter list for a trek into the plains, but I didn’t have much material ready to go yet for the Hobgoblin warlord or anything related to that plot line. I didn’t realize the party would bite so hard at my teasing of it, but you can never fully predict what players will latch on to.
The only bit of off-the-cuff design I had to do was the camp, which meant improvising a basic description of what a goblinoid camp might look like and how it might run. I didn’t have time to define many details, but I played up the military-like efficiency of their operation as much as I could. The encounter with the tabaxi was straight off the list I made before the first session, and the T-rex that ate the hobgoblin was a re-purposing of an encounter from that list (the T-rex eating the horse by the upturned wagon, meant to be an encounter the party has to sneak around).
The party’s decision to return to the camp is what really put me in hot water. How do I keep this believable without killing them? I decided that if they fell in combat here, the goblinoids would capture them to be used as slaves. I would have to re-work all of my prep, but much less than if they outright died. I didn’t have to take that route thankfully.
In retrospect, I could have made the flight from the goblinoid camp more dramatic with something like a skill challenge. I was already running by the seat of my pants so this didn’t occur to me, but that would have been a great place for just a little more tension.
Later on in the session, I did some re-writing of the petrified tabaxi character in the moment. I realized that the character I had created was extremely similar to the tabaxi they met out in the plains earlier in the session. I still wanted to include a petrified tabaxi for story potential, but I completely threw out the little prep I had for them and instead made them somebody that was petrified before the colonial expansion. I figured that was a dramatically interesting choice with plenty of mine-able potential.
I also cut any discussion of the “rag man” I had prepared from the petrified victims. The party has enough going on now to last a number of sessions, so I’ll focus on pursuing the existing direction for now. I’ll still have that idea in my pocket to build on later in the campaign if needed.
Next week I’ll be spending much of my prep time fleshing out this Hobgoblin warlord now that the party is on his radar. He’s likely to be the first “arc villain” after this session, so I want him to be a well-defined character. They’ve poked a hornet’s nest by attacking that camp; it’s going to give me a lot to work with imagining the response.