Campaign Journal #5

Running a Short Dungeon

If you’re just finding this journal, welcome! This project is my attempt to find an 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.

After a by-the-book session last week that followed alongside my prep nicely, I was due for another session of chaos – and the players delivered.

If you remember, last week the party set out to investigate a missing caravan. The session ended with the party following a trail from the remains of the caravan, tracking down those responsible. As per the plan I outlined last week, the trail actually led to the hideout of a rival tribe of the Bull King – he had instructed his people to go there to sell any captives, knowing it would lead the party right to their door.

In that respect, my planning work went swimmingly. I was able to seed plenty of clues that this was a trap without tipping my hand until the end of the session.

This meant prepping a small dungeon run for this week. Dungeons are an essential part of D&D (I mean, do I have to say it? It’s right in the name!), and even in a narrative focused game the party will appreciate a good dungeon dive to mix things up.

Prep Work: The Hobgoblin Hideout

We need a dungeon. Where to begin?

The first step, the most obvious, is knowing what kind of dungeon you are making. A hobgoblin hideout in a hilly region of the plains? A repurposed cave will serve nicely.

Next, I get out a piece of graph paper and draw up a map. You’ll notice this is similar to my approach to building towns, and I like this method for the same reasons: as I draw out the map, I’m already thinking about what I want to do with each room or area as I go. Then, when I come back around to label and define those areas, I have a head start.

I don’t always do this, but in this case the map was small enough that I was able to include notes about each room along the side of the paper.

As you can see, there isn’t much to this dungeon at all. 2-4 combat encounters, a single trap encounter, a boss, and a treasure hoard. All together, this may not look like much, but even a couple combats is going to tie up a lot of session time so I plan accordingly when making single-session dungeons.

I had an extra challenge this week of not knowing whether or not Kana’ti’s player would be able to join us due to personal conflicts – this required making options for encounters depending on how many players I had. I don’t like running someone else’s character for them, and it’s unwieldy to justify every absence, so in these cases I have that character “pop out of existence” for the session. This means I just don’t address their absence in character, and when they return the next week we act as if they were always there. It may not be the cleanest solution, but you work with what you have.

You’ll notice a few things I don’t do:

First of all, I don’t stock rooms with encounters the way a dungeon in an adventure book would. Instead, I have a separate list of possible encounters flavored to the dungeon so I can pull from that as the party proceeds based on how the dungeon is going for them. I want to walk the line between challenging my players and not killing them (unless they make egregious mistakes and earn it), and since I’m not a master game designer this means designing as I go. Having an encounter list instead of set encounters gives me the freedom to decide how difficult a fight I want to throw at them in a given room based on how well their day is going.

I organize the list by encounter difficulty for easy reference, and list the book/page to find each stat block on. This is the list I used:

I like to make the boss encounter “deadly” challenge. This is because I trust my party’s skill, so be mindful that challenge is relative to how well your party works together and utilizes their abilities. My party are all experienced players (3 of the 4 are Dungeon Masters), so I can get away with this.

I also don’t include detailed descriptions of each room. I’ve tried it before, and I often end up not reading the text I write anyway. Instead, I’ll write what each room is and a few details for each to grab from when I describe it to the party. I don’t like reading off a paper in session, and I’m willing to trade less succinct descriptions to not have to do it.

At this point, I had a thought I wanted to try to incorporate. The dungeon is straightforward, why not throw in another twist? At the entrance of the cave, I placed two goblins playing cards that were meant to be on guard. One of the two (“Zien’morr”), is a Barghest that the rest of the tribe isn’t yet aware of. These fiends grow from goblin children, blending in as one of the tribe as they grow. When the time is right and they are full-grown, their goal is to feed on the souls of goblinoids – but not just any soul will do. The more powerful the goblinoid souls they devour, the more prestige for the Barghest when they return to the underworld. He would see the party as his chance to get what he wants: to feed on the soul of this tribe’s leader. It will be in his best interest to play the role of the battered goblin to get to that point, and once the leader is dead his only goal will be to dimension door out of the cave with his prize. This adds a unique element to the dungeon to make it stand apart from a typical crawl; a third party whose goals partly align with the player party.

Session Four: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

As expected, Kana’ti’s player wasn’t able to make this session. As mentioned earlier, I handle this by simply ignoring their existence this session. They can return next week, and we’ll act as though they were never gone.

The party, following the trail west from the caravan, found themselves heading into a hilly region of the plains. Eventually the trail led them to the mouth of a cave; this was the place the raiders that hit the caravan headed after the attack. Two goblins sat at a makeshift table playing cards, unaware of the party’s presence.

Kaltog took this opportunity to sneak closer with a good stealth roll, and instantly melted one of the goblins with a high-rolling ray of sickness. The other threw his hands up and surrendered to the unseen attackers, apparently not eager to meet the same fate. He introduced himself as “Zien’morr”, and offered to show the party the way to his leader in exchange for his life. The players were slightly suspicious at how quickly he gave himself up, but after a couple insight rolls they decided he would do as a guide. They still tied him up and gagged him in case he was planning to double-cross them.

Quietly, carefully, the party proceeded into the cave with their hostage/guide.

Deeper within, they could hear the sounds of revelry. As they got closer, they found that they had stumbled upon a celebration. A few hobgoblins sat at the head of the table, one wearing a make-shift paper hat, attended by several goblins. Zien’morr was ungagged for an explanation; they are celebrating the birthday of Bekk’morr. Bekk’morr doesn’t have many friends in the tribe, so he has forced a number of goblins to attend his party. Zien’morr assures the player party that he is an awful person, and that he routinely mistreats the goblins.

This gives the players an idea, and begins the complete unraveling of my expectations for the dungeon.

Zien’morr was willing to turn on his tribe at the drop of a hat. Perhaps the other goblins will also take their side against the oppressive hobgoblin overlords? With this plan in mind, Sherlynx casts a fog cloud to sow confusion among the revelers, and charges straight for Bekk’morr. Meanwhile, Kaltog addresses the goblins, encouraging them to rise up against the hobgoblins. His persuasion roll is quite high; though the goblins don’t join in instantly, they also don’t draw weapons or defend the hobgoblins until they see how this plays out.

Since this encounter was built with the mind that the party would be fighting the goblins and hobgoblins, they make short work of it with the goblins removed from the equation. Suddenly, the party has a band of goblins following them and chanting about a revolution, and there is no hope that this dungeon will run the way I designed it. I don’t mind, though, because the situation had us all in stitches the whole time.

Zien’morr, now trusted to be unbound, was made the de facto leader of the goblins. He led the party to the secret door to the prison, where they found a surprised hobgoblin jailer, two tabaxi captives, and Abram Winters (the contact that had been late to meet with their ship’s captain). The two tabaxi went on their way, the jailor was locked in the jail, and Abram explained the situation to the party briefly. He had been sold to this tribe as a slave after being captured in the attack on the caravan.

Not wanting to waste any time, or perhaps simply not thinking to press for more information from Abram, the party moved on to finish off the leader of this tribe.

Next, they came upon the natural bridge over the underground river. A goblin stared at them from the other side, confused to see all these strangers with a pack of goblins behind them. With the party’s encouragement, Zien’morr stepped forward first and called for the goblin to join their cause. Of course he did, allowing the party to completely bypass the trap in this room. I was sure to make clear they were skipping a trap here by describing the goblin hesitating and looking at the stone lever before agreeing to join the uprising.

In the sleeping room, the party attempted to sneak through without waking the hobgoblins and bugbears resting there. Thanks to a natural 1 on a stealth check, though, someone stepped on one of the sleeping bugbears and combat ensued. With the help of the goblins, they were able to easily handle this encounter (which I had stocked with extra hobgoblins and bugbears to account for the advantage of having a small band of goblins helping the party). At one point, Dave wrapped a hobgoblin in a sleeping bag before he could get up and used him as a bludgeoning weapon. The last hobgoblin tried to rush to a pack to retrieve a horn and sound the alarm, but was cut down ruthlessly by Sherlynx.

The party had another idea now: they figured the leader would come if the horn was sounded, and they could set an ambush for him in this room. Zien’morr agreed enthusiastically, and after retrieving more goblins from the kitchen the trap was laid.

The alarm worked exactly as expected. I added two extra guards to the leader’s retinue (again, because of the goblins helping the party) – for these “elite” guards I used the normal Hobgoblin statblock and added some extra hit points to make them feel tougher. The four elite guards emerged first, the leader behind them. They spotted the goblins hiding out first, and seeing the carnage around the room had no trouble putting together what was happening. Justice was swift, as the leader hurled a fireball into their midst and roasted the goblins instantly.

This is when the worm began to turn. Zien’morr was caught in the blast, but while all the others were instantly killed he seemed barely harmed by the fire. Barghests have fire resistance, so I described how the flames licked around him but didn’t seem to catch on him. The party knew something was very, very wrong right away.

No need to maintain the farce any longer, Zien’morr revealed his true, fiendish form. Kaltog rolled a successful history check, recognizing exactly what the creature really was. Dave had already burst through the guards and grappled the leader; he was too blinded by his barbarian rage to notice Zien’morr’s transformation. The Barghest ultimately dealt the final blow, ripping out the leader’s throat and successfully escaping with the body the next round with Dimension Door. The party was left reeling, with nothing to show but a pile of burned goblin corpses and two more hobgoblin captives. A pyrrhic victory.

They returned to the jail and allowed the hobgoblin there to go free, warning them all not to attack any other caravans. In response, the jailer pointed out that they hadn’t attacked any caravans to begin with. The three survivors set out to join up with Basch’bokch. They mentioned on their way out that Basch’bokch had been courting their tribe, but their leader was resistant to joining the cause and giving up his autonomy. Now these three had nowhere else to turn.

Sensing that they didn’t have the whole story yet, the party found Abram where he waited near the entrance of the cave and asked him what exactly had happened. He explained that the hobgoblins that hit the caravan had been talking among themselves in goblin, not realizing he could understand them, admiring how smart their leader was for concocting this plan. Draw the adventurers away from Kolinville, and strike while they were far away. He also explained how they had switched the emblems on their belt identifying them as followers of the Bull King when they met with this tribe, just to reinforce that this was a rival tribe the party had taken care of for him.

It was late, so the party had no choice but to bed down in the cave for a long rest or face an exhaustion point on their return to Kolinville – which they now knew was in danger.

Reflection: Prep vs. Reality

This session ended up being yet another good example of why it’s important to make flexible plans.

I wasn’t expected the players to organize a goblin uprising, but I was able to still salvage some challenge from my prep work despite that. This session was heavy on the improvisational element, since I had to adjust everything after the first combat encounter played out.

The birthday party was a thought I had in the moment. I described the sounds of revelry, and one player asked what they were celebrating so I just ran with it. The whole sequence was delightfully absurd, but also serves a greater purpose of pushing the idea that even hobgoblins are people with thoughts, feelings, hopes, etc. in this world. Their characterization as monsters by colonial powers is meant to be challenged.

Zien’morr was a real hit, which made his betrayal of the party at the end sting even more. It was one those turns where the party saw the line of justification leading up to it, but didn’t see it coming; it couldn’t have gone better. I’m excited by the potential of using him in future sessions now, as he will certainly have a hungry eye on the Bull King as his next target. He could serve as tenuous ally/frenemy for the party as they face Basch’bokch.

My main regret this session was frying all the goblins at the onset of the final combat. I did it because I wanted the fight to be a real challenge, and I figured eating a fireball spell was more than enough benefit for the party going into the battle. In retrospect, that feels heavy-handed. Letting a couple goblins live would have made things complicated for me after the session (the party would probably try to keep them around), but I could have embraced the challenge instead of sweeping it off the table. Two or three goblin henchman tagging along with the party could have been fun story potential. I may decide that a couple goblins survived the chaos, revealing themselves to the party next session.

Next week, I’ll have to decide what happens in Kolinville now that the Bull King’s plot succeeded so completely. Next session will revolve around the aftermath of his attack and how the party reacts to it.

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