Campaign Journal #4

Incorporating a New Player, Creating a Villain

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 post right here.

This week the campaign felt like it hit a stride. The players are engaging with people in the town more, role-play is becoming more comfortable for everyone as people get to know their characters better, and in general everything is coming together nicely for this first arc to kick off in earnest.

On my end, I now have a solid idea of a central villain for this arc of the campaign. This gave me plenty to work with moving forward and the direction of the story, at least in the short term, is becoming more and more clear.

There is one order of business to take care of first, though:

We added a fourth player to the game this week. This was in the works already last week, but due to health conflicts he wasn’t able to join then. I guess that means another character introduction is in order!

Kana’ti (“Lucky Hunter”): Tabaxi Monk

Finally, a tabaxi player character!

Tabaxi in my world are primarily divided into two distinct cultures; jungle tribes and plains tribes. Both are only loosely defined right now; I told the player to draw inspiration from peoples native to the American Great Plains when thinking about his culture and traditions.

Kana’ti is from a tribe that sees the writing on the wall. They hope to integrate with these colonial powers before they are consumed by them. To that end, they have dispatched Kana’ti as something of an emissary – he is to study the culture of the newcomers by living among them and, thus, hopefully secure his tribe’s future in this new world.

Much like Kaltog, Kana’ti’s existence in the party is a gift to me. Being from the Great Expanse, he is directly being impacted by the spread of the colonial powers. His fate, and the fate of his people, is tied inexorably to the plains. He is a part of a dying world, doing everything he can to save his people and their way of life from total extinction. From a practical perspective, this makes it much easier for me to find an “in” to motivate his character to action in the story. From a personal perspective, these are the stories and people I was most interested in exploring when I conceived of this campaign in the first place.

More immediately, it gave an easy justification for him joining up with the party. With Kaltog already en route to the tabaxi community at the end of last session to meet with their leader, it made logical sense to have Kana’ti present and also meeting with the same individual. I didn’t yet know exactly how I’d fold him in from there, but by nature his backstory lent itself incredibly well to joining up with the group purely in the interest of advancing his mission.

Prep Work: Making a Villain

This week, I focused my prep work on fleshing out the hobgoblin warlord that was shaping up to be the main arc villain moving forward. The party’s actions last session demand a response, after all – they poked a hornet’s nest by striking that goblinoid camp twice, and they were clearly seen by the warlord as they made their getaway. He knows who they are, and he knows where they are taking shelter.

Kolinville is in his cross-hairs now.

My first order of business: I need to know more about this warlord, so I know how he will carry out his vengeance. Here’s what I came up with:

Basch’bokch never knew his parents well. He has one memory of his mother, when he was very young, as she hid him beneath a pile of pelts during a raid on his village.

At the time, Kerth was at war with the goblinoid kingdom of Nochgev. The war was not going well for the goblinoids; despite their military prowess and discipline, the superior technology of the Kerthan invaders was overwhelming. Basch’bokch was born in a small village on the outskirts of the kingdom, called Uag’nekt. The warriors and hunters of his village had been called away as the war became more desperate.

This left them vulnerable.

The Kerthan military wanted to deal a decisive blow. The war had been dragging on, and was becoming unpopular at home. It needed to be ended quickly. A contingent marched through many of these largely defenseless villages, pillaging and murdering everything in their path.

Kerthan history calls the massacre of his village the “Battle of Uag’nekt”.

When his father came upon the wreckage, he flew into a rage and vowed revenge. The band he set out with never returned, leaving Basch’bokch an orphan.

Following the fall of Nochgev, Kerth began to systematically hunt down any remaining pockets of goblinoid resistance. To escape the bloodbath, many banded together in a migration north into the Great Expanse called “The Long March”. Leaving behind their ancestral lands, they hoped to find a place safe from the infectious spread of colonialism. For a time, Basch’bokch had some measure of peace there.

Now, though, the frontier is closing in on this refuge. He feels he can’t escape; he must stand and fight.

His methods are brutal, his hatred for colonial races forged in the fires of suffering. Basch’bokch has studied the ways of his enemy: he taught himself to read and write their language, pouring over any material he could get his hands on from looted caravans.

His goal is clear: remove all colonizers from the plains by any means necessary. He plans to send the colonial powers a message painted in the blood of settlers.

He has proven savvy at rallying the scattered tribes of goblinoids in the plains. He has formed a new tribe called the “Bloodspears”, and taken on the title of “King”. He is known among other goblinoids as “The Bull King”, and has been gathering an army to his cause. Ultimately, he hopes to form a new goblinoid kingdom in the plains and restore his people’s former glory.

As for his methods: he will be seeking to re-enact what happened to him. He wants others to suffer the same way he has. He justifies his brutality with his past suffering, perpetuating a cycle of violence and death.

Prep Work: The Bull King’s Plot

With a backstory more fleshed out for the villain, the next and most important step is figuring out how that translates into actual play.

Basch’bokch is clever, charismatic, and uncompromising – otherwise, how would he unify a volatile people like goblinoids? He won’t come at the party directly if he can help it. More likely, he will concoct a plan to strike a blow to the party and send a clear message with minimal risk to himself and his people.

I decided it made sense for this to be his first “public statement”, as it were, to the colonial powers. He’s going to use Kolinville to make an example of his point by re-enacting what happened to his village.

First, he must find a way to draw the party away from the town. This shouldn’t be too hard. Hit a merchant caravan on its way to the town, and there’s a good chance someone will come looking for it. This is usually when the guards will turn to local adventurers, such as the party, to outsource the search because they don’t have enough people to look themselves.

As an added bonus, he can even frame a nearby tribe that refuses to join his cause for the raid on the caravan. That should keep the party occupied for awhile as they track down and destroy one of his rivals for him – an all-win scenario for Basch’bokch no matter how it turns out.

Next, with the party gone, he will draw out the local guards with a quick strike near the perimeter of town. Meanwhile, his primary force descends on the now-defenseless town and leaves enough bodies to make his message clear.

I’m still work-shopping how this might play out; I’m torn between having the party find the aftermath, or having him wait to deliver his message directly to them in person. In the latter scenario, I’m not sure how I will justify a number of steps along the way but I like the idea of the scene to let the party actually talk to the villain.

My main concerns:

  • I don’t want to burn the town to the ground, and it’s hard to imagine why he wouldn’t do that if he has the leisure to wait for the party there.
  • It doesn’t make a whole ton of sense to have this villain make a speech at the party then just let them all go when he could easily kill them. He would leave one alive, at most, since it only takes one to deliver a message.

If I can’t make the scene make sense I’ll have to let go of the idea, but I’ll kick it around some more before I give up on it.

Fortunately I don’t need to decide how the end of the plot will play out just yet. I have a solid idea for the first steps. I’ll throw the party the hook to investigate the missing merchant caravan, have them run a small dungeon (the cave the rival goblinoid tribe lives in), and that should keep them occupied for a session or two while I iron out these details.

Session Three: Forbidden Love and Lost Things

We kicked off this session exactly where we left last week. Kaltog was on his way to meet with the local leader of the tabaxi in town, a man named Lexton Ford, hoping he could help the tabaxi the party rescued from the Basilisk cave.

Along the way, Kaltog was kind enough to explain some of the finer points of “civilized” culture to this tabaxi. The poor, lost fellow was blown away by all the buildings, having seen nothing like them in his time. Kaltog helpfully explained that you could tell how important a building was by how big it was; the tabaxi identified the town hall as clearly the most important building in that case. Kaltog agreed, and went on to explain how much these humans loved ringing bells like the one in the tower of the town hall. All in all, it was a fun and light-hearted bit of role-play that really set us off on the right foot for the rest of the night.

Eventually the pair found their way to Lexton Ford, who was sitting in a circle around a fire with other tabaxi sharing a pipe. Lexton was a gracious host: he invited the two to sit down and join the smoking circle, and Kaltog explained the tabaxi’s situation. Lexton agreed to help without hesitation.

Considering Kaltog’s dress and manner (a Minotaur, from the Expanse, but dressed in colonial clothing and speaking like a colonial), Lexton introduced him to one of the tabaxi sitting in the circle: Kana’ti. At this point, I had Kana’ti’s player describe and introduce himself. Lexton told Kana’ti that this minotaur seemed like just the kind of person he wanted to talk to, as Kaltog seemed to be integrating impressively well.

Back at the tavern, Dave and Sherlynx were having a relaxing evening to celebrate what they saw as a successful outing that day. Kaltog brought Kana’ti there to meet the others so they could discuss letting him join the crew. While they were all getting to know each other, Westley (the quartermaster of the ship they all work on) came in looking for the party.

He brought news: Cpt. Stinton’s contact hadn’t arrived as expected, so they would be in town longer than expected. For now, they plan to wait at least a week to see if he was simply delayed. The party took this opportunity to introduce Kana’ti to Westley, and in the process ended up pretending Kana’ti had sailing experience to convince Westley he was a good addition to the ship’s crew. I’m sure that won’t come up again at all.

The party spent some time talking over drinks in the tavern and getting to know the newcomer a bit better. Dave continued to throw money around with little understanding for what it meant, enjoying the positive responses from everyone he gives gold to. All in all, the tavern ended up making about 8 gold off of maybe 1 gold worth of food and drink thanks to Dave. Seeing a chance to get some money towards his gun parts, Kaltog asked Dave if he could have some gold as well – and Dave was more than happy to oblige. Sherlynx asked Kaltog how much more he needed, and agreed to lend the rest of the money to him so he could get the parts order completed. Thrilled, Kaltog rushed immediately down the street to the smithy to give the money to Viktor. The store was closed for the evening, but he found Viktor working in the attached forge and passed on the payment.

Sherlynx decided this was a good time to open the letter she had received from the guard captain that morning, which she was told was a job from the town Magistrate. Inside she found a formal invitation to dinner at the Kolin estate. The hour seemed appropriate enough, so the group canceled their dinner orders at the inn and headed up the road to the estate to see what the Magistrate wanted – collecting Kaltog along the way.

I described the estate as being exceptionally grand in contrast with the rest of the town. Surrounded on all sides by stone walls high enough to provide privacy, the party approached the front door of the manor house through a beautiful garden filled with all kinds of flowers and exotic plants. Dave liked the look of one and picked it, prompting a response from the ornery groundskeeper (a tabaxi named Wilson) who, it turned out, was watching them enter the grounds from his hut. They were able to ward him off with their invitation, and he ambled back off to his hut grumbling under his breath.

The party was greeted at the front door by Kolin’s warforged servant, Spoon. None of the party had ever seen a warforged before. Kaltog mistakenly thought the butler was wearing a mask of some sort, and was upset that nobody had told him the dinner was a masquerade. Spoon was not amused. Nonetheless, he politely led them to the dining room to await the master of the house. They didn’t have to wait long; after a minute or so of inspecting the decorations around the room, Spoon entered the room again to announce the arrival of Magistrate Samuel Kolin.

Samuel Kolin was immediately off-put upon seeing the party. He isn’t fond of non-human races, especially those he views as being more “savage” such as minotaurs or tabaxi. He had wine poured and explained his situation: his son, Declan, has been sneaking out at night to unknown places, and the Magistrate wants to know what his son is up to before it creates a scandal. He seems sure that Declan is up to something, and tells the party he has always been a problem child. There is a quick negotiation for payment between Magistrate Kolin and Sherlynx, and he settles on a price of 50g per person for the completion of the job and for their discretion in the matter.

Conversation done, Magistrate Kolin wasted no time excusing himself (he couldn’t stand to be in the room with them a moment longer), telling them they were free to remain on the grounds to wait until his son tried to sneak out. After a fancy dinner in the grand dining room without their host, the party split up to find places to stake out around the estate and wait for the son to leave.

I had each member of the party take stealth checks here and tell me where they were hiding. Kaltog and Dave both hid in the gardens and got hilariously low stealth checks, prompting jokes about them hiding behind objects that weren’t actually big enough to hide their massive forms as a minotaur and a goliath. Kana’ti went up a tree, and he was the one that spotted the son trying to sneak out over the back wall – clearly having spotted Kaltog and Dave in the front garden, his eyes on them as he crept along.

Kana’ti gave it a moment to make sure the boy didn’t see him, then came down from the tree and told the others what he had seen. The four went around the wall to where the son had scaled it to escape the estate. There, they found tracks leading into the nearby hills overlooking the town. Kana’ti, a skilled tracker, led the way (before the addition of this player, Dave had the highest wisdom in the group with 11 – Kana’ti has been a godsend for them already just based on that stat alone).

The path led them to the other side of the lake. The town was still in sight, but distant. By the lakeside, they saw Declan sitting hand-in-hand with a female tabaxi and the whole story became clear. The party correctly inferred that Magistrate Kolin wouldn’t approve of this relationship, and they had no desire to break it up themselves. They quickly hatched a plan to lie to the Magistrate about what they had found. For best results, they wanted to bring the son in on the plan so they could co-ordinate their stories.

The party made themselves known, coming down the hill towards the young lovers. The two panicked upon seeing a group of armed adventurers, and the son leapt to the defense of his lady-love to give her time to escape while he “held them off”. He demanded to know what the party wanted, and if his father had sent them.

Once they talked him down and convinced him they wanted to help, he opened up about his father’s constant attempts to control his life and his fear about what might happen if he learned about this affair. The party concocted a story about him sneaking out to go drink with some friends outside town, and gave him some alcohol to make it more convincing. Together, they all headed back to the estate to face the Magistrate.

Thanks to some high deception rolls, they managed to keep the affair a secret from the Magistrate (for now) and still get paid for their work – which, while not a result I considered, was obviously the best possible ending. The hour now quite late, they all retired to the inn with their reward to get some sleep.

The next morning, Sherlynx headed out first thing to check with the guard captain for more work. He mentioned that the goblinoid attacks seem to be ramping up; now a trade caravan with vital supplies has gone missing on the road. He wants them to investigate the road to the north, figure out what happened to the caravan, and retrieve the goods if possible. The party agreed to do what they could and set out up the north road out of town first thing.

Along the road, they rolled low on the random encounter roll so I had some hobgoblins attempt to ambush them. Kana’ti spotted them in the grass, and combat ensued. Kaltog was a little reckless this fight, closing into melee immediately. The dice were not kind, and a fairly run-of-the-mill random encounter became a dangerous situation as the only character capable of healing was in death saving throws for most of the fight. Luckily, he had a healing elixir that day (Alchemist Artificer), and had mentioned that to the party earlier in the trip. Sherlynx was able to grab it off his belt and pour it down his throat to revive him before he slipped away. None of the hobgoblins were so lucky, the last one cut down as he tried to flee.

The party searched the bodies, finding mostly poor quality equipment (hobgoblins aren’t known for their masterful craftsmanship). They noticed that each one carried a bone-carved token of a bull head on their belt. Thanks to a successful history check, Kaltog explained to the party that these tokens were markers of their loyalty – akin to gang colors – that hobgoblins typically displayed on their belt to identify allies and enemies. Sherlynx searched the area and found the hobgoblin’s campsite behind a hill nearby. There, she found one bag full of supplies and rations alongside a pack loaded with more of the bull head tokens. This band is loyal to the Bull King, who is always recruiting – hence the excess of tokens. I also did this to tease at the coming twist when this turns out to be a trick; the hobgoblins in the lair they eventually come to will have a different icon on their belt. I don’t expect the party to pick up on this right away, but it will be one of those moments that hopefully elicit an “oh, that’s why!” later on.

Search completed and Kaltog’s wounds bandaged over a short rest, the party continued up the road for a few more hours. Finally, around mid-afternoon, they came upon what was clearly the remains of the caravan they were sent here to find. It had been attacked and looted, with clear signs of struggle. The raiders that hit this caravan had looted it for supplies such as food; they left the less practical goods such as silk strewn around the road. There was a notable lack of bodies at the scene. Either they had been taken by scavengers already, or the ones that hit the caravan had taken them (spoilers: it’s the second one; hobgoblins in this world eat people and are slavers, so they have use for both the living and the dead).

The party spent some time investigating the scene, locating tracks that led west off the road and into the hills. I called the session here, with the party following the trail west.

Prep vs. Reality

Much like last week, most of this session was actually coasting on work I had already done in past weeks. This is pretty common for how I like to prepare for campaigns. I create a large amount of material up front that is loosely defined, then dedicate future prep time to fleshing out whichever points the party pursues.

So, they finally took the hook for the Magistrate job. This was a nice change of pace for everyone, I think, being a social encounter and role-play driven adventure. I don’t think I even rolled dice until over an hour into the session!

The way the job was resolved also gave me the option to come back and re-visit that thread in the future. If Magistrate Kolin ever discovers that secret relationship through other means, that would certainly be a problem for the party.

For the last part of the session, I had a chance to start sowing the first steps of the villain’s plan. They jumped right on the caravan hook, as expected, and played right into Basch’bokch’s hands. It remains to be seen exactly how hard they bite on the bait, but it’s looking like a successful operation so far and I have no reason to believe they will realize this is a trick – by all accounts, it is playing out just like any other typical adventure so far. I will have to think of a few more hints to plant in the lead-up to better earn the twist – perhaps on top of the hobgoblins at the cave having different icons on their belt, I could place a prisoner from the caravan there that can tell the party they were sold to this tribe by the group that actually hit the caravan. Even better, this prisoner could detail how the hobgoblins switched the bull head tokens on their belt for a different icon when they went to meet this tribe – a hint that this tribe is not friendly towards the Bull King’s people.

Next session, the party will be heading into a dungeon. I created a small dungeon a couple weeks ago when I first knew I would be using hobgoblins as a primary enemy for this arc, so all I have to do is make a few adjustments to make it fit more neatly into the current story. That’s a relief, because it frees me up to think more about how events back at Kolinville will play out while the party is gone. This is my chance to properly introduce this villain and set the stakes moving forward; I want to make it count.

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