Planning Around Uncertainty
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.
I love running open world settings.
DnD is the sort of game where you can go anywhere and do anything, and that’s always been my favorite aspect of the game as a player. I strive to present that kind of open world experience to my players. Suddenly want to fly to the other side of the world? Sure, I’ll need some prep time, but we can do that.
Why bring this up? Well, it’s sometimes hard to keep this up from the Dungeon Master’s end. This week, I found myself in one of those awkward positions, with the realization that the story could take the party in a multitude of directions this week. Will they stay in town and continue to deal with the present threat? Will they seek help from a major power in a city? Which city, if so? Will they cut and run?
I had no way of knowing, so prep this week was complicated to say the least.
I started working on a city, first of all. The nearby city of Edge Town, unaffiliated with either of the main colonial powers and geographically near Kolinville, seemed like a likely destination for the party sometime in the campaign so I figured this wouldn’t be wasted effort if they didn’t go there this session. I might put up a separate post for this prep, or go over it in the entry where it actually gets used, but that isn’t where they went this time so I won’t bloat this entry with it.
I also spent some time creating an encounter list for an airship journey across the plains, since that would be their form of transportation if they did leave Kolinville. My plan was to buy time with travelling encounters if they went somewhere unexpected, so I worked to make these more fleshed out than run-of-the-mill “random” encounters knowing that I would have a lot of session to fill with them.
While working on these encounters, I had an idea for a main campaign villain: a black dragon awakening in the mountains, drawn out of their millennia-long slumber by the unrest and bloodshed wrought by colonial expansion.
How did this happen?
Well, I never design my encounters in a vacuum. I work hard to justify and incorporate encounters into the world so nothing ever feels random. While building an encounter with a Manticore, I was led down a tangent where I considered why a Manticore would have found its way to the plains from the mountains and decided that it would be interesting if it was fleeing a dragon that had awakened in the mountains (Manticores are terrified of dragons).
As is often the case in my campaign, I use the Monster Manual entries as sources of inspiration rather than gospel. In this specific case, I was drawn to the idea that black dragons delight in and feed upon the collapse of civilizations. The colonial expansion and all the atrocities it has brought with it is a prime environment for such an entity. I wrote all this down and tucked it away in my notes; I can start seeding the first hints that something is brewing, but it’s going to be a long time before I’m ready to reach that arc. The main strokes of this campaign are becoming more clear to me now, and will likely break down like so:
- The party becomes “heroes of a town” in Kolinville
- The party ends the threat of the Bull King, becoming “heroes of a region”
- War breaks out between the two colonial powers, Kerth and Saltori, and the party becomes “heroes of a kingdom/realm” through their actions during that conflict
- The war is the final tipping point that eventually emboldens this ancient black dragon to make themselves known, and the party must face a world-ending threat to become “heroes of the world”
You may recognize similarities in this basic breakdown to the tier list from the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s a good way to parse out the basic steps of a campaign, why not use it?
If it sounds like I already know how the whole campaign will play out, that’s not my intention. I like to have an eye on where I think the story will go but I am also ready to amend that idea as the campaign progresses. I may scrap the last idea entirely, with it so far down the road, but for now this is a logical sequence of events I can plan broad strokes around.
While it’s good to have an eye forward at all times, I found myself circling back around at this point in my prep to the hard truth that I still didn’t know what exactly I needed to prepare for the immediate session.
Ultimately, I had to trust my work up to this point. I know my world. I know the town the party is in exceedingly well now. I have encounters to fill session time and still have a good game if they go somewhere unexpected, and can simply call the game after running some air travel and scramble to prepare their destination next week.
It’s an important lesson I find myself constantly re-learning: Sometimes, you won’t know what’s going to happen next. Trust your work, trust the time and care you’ve put into your world, and you’ll get through.
Session Six: Long Live the Magistrate
Following a close call in the hobgoblin camp, the party was eager to return to Kolinville as quickly as possible. There was already discussion about what to do next – should they deliver the message and leave town? They didn’t seem to reach a definite conclusion, electing to talk things over with Cpt. Stone and the other people of Kolinville in the hopes that somebody there has an idea of how to handle a goblinoid army.
Along the way, the party were briefly hunted by a pack of lions. Kana’ti spotted them in the brush – at least 4, perhaps more, stalking the party. He fired a warning shot into the brush, striking one of the lions, and tried to drive them away. Between a successful intimidation check and a behind-the-screen roll to decide just how hungry this pack was, the lions seemed more than willing to move on to easier prey that didn’t bite back.
Once they arrived in Kolinville, Sherlynx – as expected – went straight to Cpt. Stone to deliver their report and the Bull King’s message. Cpt. Stone was shaken by the news. He told Sherlynx that the people of Kolinville would never agree to such a decree; many of them were born there and it is the only home they’ve ever known. They discussed the possibility of rallying other settlements to fight this threat, but Cpt. Stone was not optimistic about their chances in that regard. He recommended they seek out Lexton Ford for further counsel. This was a subtle hint (that may have been a little too subtle) that the Magistrate’s authority in town was starting to break down after the attack. The guard captain almost directed them to Magistrate Kolin, hesitated, then advised them to seek out the tabaxi leader for help instead.
The group went to speak to Lexton next, finding him in the same large tent as the first time Kaltog encountered him – though this time without a large gathering of other tabaxi. He welcomed them in, packed a pipe, and asked why they sought his counsel. Lexton is a venerable tabaxi, wise in his advanced years; he listened patiently to the party’s tale and considered what they told him before responding with any advice. The party mostly wanted to know if he saw any peaceful way to resolve this issue.
In response, he asked them if they knew the history of the goblinoid peoples and how they had come to live in the plains. Kaltog, with a successful history check, was able to recall the Goblinoid Wars in which the once-proud kingdom of Nochgev fell to Kerth in a war of colonial conquest and their subsequent migration to the plains to escape those lands as Kerthan forces continued to hunt them down in the aftermath (“The Long March”, as it is known to their people). Lexton explained why his anger was understandable, and why it is unlikely this Bull King expects or is actually open to a peaceful solution. Once an army of goblinoids is raised, there is little chance of them dispersing without bloodshed, and the Bull King seems smart enough to know that.
He wants blood and vengeance for what has been done to his people.
Despite this, Lexton encourages them to set-up a meeting with the warlord. He explains that, from what they’ve told him and what he knows of hobgoblin culture, the Bull King is likely to hold honor in high regard and would not use a formal parley as a chance to strike them down. He points out that if he wanted to, he could have killed them before once already – it’s clear that he is more interested in sending a calculated message. This meeting could be a chance to further study their enemy and learn more about him, and he is likely to accept a meeting with them for the very same reasons – to study them.
Sherlynx and Kaltog spent the evening drafting a letter, using respectful and diplomatic language (I have them roll persuasion to see how well they do, and take into account how carefully they described going over every word). Kana’ti and Kaltog, with the best knowledge of the plains, select a meeting location where it would be difficult to ambush them – a small hill with flatland all around it. The next morning, they set out to the goblinoid camp once more to deliver their message. Kana’ti and Kaltog again disguise themselves, bringing along Huk and Tuk to lend extra credibility (posing as their goblin slaves), and go forward to give the letter to the guards at the gate. The delivery goes off without a hitch, neither hobgoblin guard seeing through their disguises to raise any alarm.
Upon their return to town, Sherlynx again goes to the guard barracks to check in with Cpt. Stone. She finds the building strangely empty, and the party notices a commotion of some sort taking place up the hill outside the Kolin estate. The situation is clear as they approach: a group of angry townspeople have gathered in a mob outside the walls of the estate, with Cpt. Stone and his guard doing their best to calm the crowd and disperse them back to their homes. The party goes to speak the captain for more details, the crowd recognizing them and parting to let them pass.
Cpt. Stone relates that Magistrate Kolin has issued a decree, exiling all tabaxi from the settlement. It was an ill-conceived maneuver that turned the town against him, given the role the tabaxi had played in saving them all just two days ago. Sherlynx convinced Cpt. Stone to let them pass so they could speak to Magistrate Kolin, figure out just what he was thinking, and try to talk him into a more reasonable approach.
They are greeted at the door of the estate by Kolin’s warforged butler, who seated them in the waiting area while he fetched the Magistrate. Only a moment later, Kolin emerges at the top of the stairs looking rather frantic. He at first hesitates to speak in front of Kana’ti (“You still travel with one of those?”), but after some gentle insistence from Sherlynx they are able to draw his reasoning out of him.
He regales the party with an absolutely bat-shit account of how he has reason to believe the tabaxi orchestrated the assault on his town so they could ride to the rescue and turn everyone against him. He seems to truly believe that this is some sort of coup staged by Lexton Ford to overthrow him. He attempts to enlist the party to help him uncover this plot, but they aren’t buying the story. After some back and forth, Sherlynx suggests that they hold a negotiation between Lexton and Kolin here in the estate. Kolin agrees a little too readily, which makes the party (correctly) suspicious that he plans to kill Lexton.
Nonetheless, the party goes back out to fetch Lexton back to the estate for the meeting. They hope that Magistrate Kolin might still be capable of seeing reason through Lexton’s wise and level-headed words. Worst come to worst, they figured they could always “take him out” if he tried anything. Lexton was unsure about the idea, but willing to do what he must to secure a safe future for his people in the town. He had Kana’ti fetch him his cane, help him up, and made his way slowly up the hill to the estate with the party.
The meeting took place in the Magistrate’s dining room. Lexton began by explaining how the deal made between Magistrate Kolin’s father and his people was mutually beneficial; they provide workers for the mines, and Kolinville provides security for this band of tribe-less tabaxi. Magistrate Kolin leaned back, feigning consideration of Lexton’s words, and the warforged butler entered with glasses of wine for everybody. Kolin suggested they all have a drink while they discuss these affairs.
Sherlynx, suspicious, swapped glasses with Lexton and insisted on drinking first. As expected, this triggered a constitution saving throw because of course the wine was poisoned. I did this as a two-step effect; the first failed save incapacitated Sherlynx, the second failed save would kill her. Not the way I expected a character to go down, but I also didn’t expect any of them to actually drink poison. As Sherlynx choked and sputtered, failing her first save, the others sprung into action. Lexton – much more able-bodied than he had been pretending to be – leapt across the table and subdued the Magistrate with Kana’ti’s help. Kaltog, meanwhile, moved quickly to tend to Sherlynx.
She succeeded her second saving throw, so nobody died today.
After tying Magistrate Kolin to his chair, the party went to fetch Cpt. Stone and explain what had transpired. He seemed disappointed but not surprised, and fully agreed that this meant the Magistrate should be stripped of his title, jailed, and tried. He voiced concerns that the mob outside would simply tear him apart if they knew what happened tonight, asking the party to see if they could get the people to go home so he could take Magistrate Kolin to prison where he could “properly stand trial and be hanged like a civilized man”.
They next called in the Magistrate’s son, Declan, who would now be taking on the mantle of leadership in town. He didn’t even try to hide his joy at seeing his father get this comeuppance. His first act as Magistrate was to stride up to his father and slap him as hard as he could across the face.
Outside the estate, Sherlynx went to speak to the ringleader of the mob to tell them that the situation had been resolved – the tabaxi would be allowed to stay. She left out the other details. This seemed to more than satisfy the mob, who made their way back to their homes after thanking her for the party’s efforts.
The party made their way back to the inn to bed down for the night, the meeting with the Bull King the next day looming large in their minds.
Reflection: Prep vs. Reality
Here we have yet another example of a session where I was mostly flying blind.
I had no idea the party was going to stay in Kolinville. I had considered it a possibility, sure, but all my planning revolved around what to do if they left because that seemed the most likely next step – whether in an attempt to flee the danger or an attempt to track down help. Certainly, I didn’t expect them to seek out another face-to-face meeting with the Bull King, but I am excited at the prospect and will be focusing most of my prep time on that meeting this coming week.
The rioting and overthrow of the magistrate was an improvised subplot, but one that made sense in the context of the story and the characters. Magistrate Kolin was feeling threatened by the growing popularity of the tabaxi, and his stock was rapidly falling in town after he spent the hobgoblin attack uselessly locked in his estate while the others suffered. He was anything but a deft politician, accustomed to making decrees that people follow and not being told “no”, so the town’s response to his decree was confusing to him.
I found myself wishing I could have worked a proper combat encounter into this session, but it just didn’t work out. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a role-play only session – I quite enjoy them even though they are a lot more taxing on me as the DM. I will be sure to get a good combat into next session though; players usually start getting itchy when there hasn’t been a fight in awhile.
Next session will likely be one of the last in Kolinville for a little while. The major threads are settling down there for the time being. The party has had time to get to know the town well and become well-known there themselves. Since they are attached to a merchant vessel, its likely their next destination will be a city as Cpt. Stinton goes to unload his goods. This aligns just fine with the main plot, since the party can take their time in the city to seek aid for the coming fight with the Bull King. This is also probably when I will level them up to level 5, since they will now be dealing directly with a larger regional threat – they are properly entering a new tier of play.