Campaign Journal #8

Another Day, Another Dinosaur

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.

Once again, I’m late to this post. Luckily, I don’t have much prep to outline this session!

The Kolinville arc is coming to a close. The Bull King has been established as a persisting threat, but there isn’t much left to immediately do in town otherwise. Plot lines that will be tied up are tied up, loose ends that will come back later are at a stage where they need some time to simmer, and I’m ready for a change of pace.

Since this is going to be the final session of an arc, I want it to be a memorable one. I already know what the meat of the session will be, which is a rare happenstance when you run games the way I do. The party has arranged for a meeting with the Bull King and will be going out to negotiate with him this session. I love that the players are engaging with my characters and villains like this (it’s so, so important that everybody is on board for this kind of storytelling to work). This final meeting gives me a chance to solidify who this villain is, why he wants what he wants, and establish a more concrete dynamic between him and the party.

It’s been a decent stretch without combat, so I’ll definitely throw an encounter their way en route. As I was reflecting on what the Bull King might discuss with the party, I considered that watching yet another diplomatic parley so soon might not be the most interesting gameplay.

How could I spice things up? I certainly don’t want the Bull King to violate the sanctity of the meeting. He is a person that keeps his word, and holds his honor in high regard; an ambush set at a negotiation is not his style.

What if something interrupts?

Now we’re on to something. When the meeting has reached a good concluding moment, perhaps they are attacked and have to stand side by side to face a common threat? I’ve been teasing the presence of a tyrannosaurus in the area as a major threat, that seems like a dramatic encounter (that is justified by the seeds planted earlier!).

I was reticent about this idea. My main concern was the huge challenge rating disparity between a tyrannosaurus and the (still level 4) party; one bad hit could send a party member right to the ground, and that’s generally not fun for anybody.

I designed the encounter with this in the forefront of my mind. This is meant to be a story beat, not a deadly fight – though if I can make it feel like the latter, that’s a win. Having the Bull King fighting with them should be enough to balance the encounter heavily in their favor, while also giving the party a chance to case his abilities for when they inevitably have to fight him. Just in case, I threw in 4 Hobgoblin guards that will accompany the Bull King to the meeting site. These guards can throw themselves between the Tyrannosaurus and the rest to protect their king, and eat a couple rounds of attacks in the process.

An encounter on the way to the parley, the parley itself, and the following fight with the Tyrannosaurus plus the aftermath – this is plenty of material to run with, and a level of certainty I rarely get to plan for. Going into this week, I feel unusually confident.

Session Seven: Tyrant of the Plains

First thing this session, the party set out on to the plains to make their designated meeting time with the Bull King. Dave receives a sending from Jakob to inform the party that the Yellowbelly will be departing soon to sell their goods in Edge Town. The party has one day to wrap up their affairs in Kolinville. He also chews Dave out for not bringing ale yet, as requested in his previous sending.

Along the path, as with the Lion encounter in a previous session, Kana’ti began to get the uncomfortable feeling that the party was being hunted. Looking into the nearby grass, the party saw multiple hunched forms with rows of sharp teeth, bright yellow eyes, and feathered tails stalking towards them (a pack of deinonychuses, a larger cousin of the velociraptor). Sherlynx stepped forward and attempted to drive away these predators the way Kana’ti had with the lions, but this pack of predators was not so easily dissuaded – I had already decided that they were being driven this direction by the nearby tyrannosaurus, so it would take a pretty damn high intimidation score to make them go back in the direction they came from. Sherlynx did not roll high.

In the ensuing struggle, Huk and Tuk – whom the party insisted on bringing along to this parley – placed themselves in harm’s way trying to defend Kaltog from the beasts. Huk took a nasty slash and nearly died. Kaltog rushed to his side with healing magic. I had been using goblin stat blocks for the duo, but the party’s reaction to one going down made me decide to give them a chance to have death saves so Huk wouldn’t just die instantly. I rolled a 50/50 when Kaltog attempted to heal him, and Huk lived – to the party’s extreme relief.

This fight turned out to be quite deadly, with Sherlynx going into death saves at one point. The creatures fought to the death. Afterwards, I pointed out to Kana’ti and Kaltog (both native to these plains) that it was unusual for them to have done so. Most predators will run if their food fights back too much. A successful nature check elaborated further: these creatures may have been fleeing a larger predator. This teased the later arrival of the tyrannosaurus, and added an air of tension over the rest of the journey.

The party arrived at the parley site shortly before the Bull King. The meeting site, which the party had chosen, was a lonely hilltop in a relatively flat area. It was the perfect site for a party that fears an ambush; it would be very hard to sneak up on them there.

The Bull King arrived astride his great worg, flanked by four guards that fanned out to each take a side of the hill as he dismounted and advanced towards the party. Sherlynx took the lead, as is often the case with social encounters (she has the party’s highest charisma bonus with a whopping +1), but it became clear almost immediately that they were out of their depth in this meeting. Sherlynx attempted to push for peaceful solutions. The Bull King politely brushed these aside, more interested in the party and who they were. He spoke to each party member in turn, chastising each one with an eerily insightful cut into their character. Kaltog, he demeaned for abandoning his people and adopting the style of his conquerors. Kana’ti, he called weak and accused his tribe of licking the boots of those that would prefer his people were dead. Sherlynx, he called foolish and short-sighted for not seeing that there is no peaceful solution – the colonial powers want his people dead, they have no choice but to fight. Finally, Dave, he recognized the mark of an exile and twisted the knife in that wound.

He pointed out that these colonial peoples don’t accept any of them, either. When they are done purging the land of his kind, any of their peoples may be next.

Having measured the party up to his satisfaction, the Bull King declared the negotiations complete and turned to leave. It was then that everyone saw it: the looming figure of a huge beast watching them from the distance. The tyrannosaurus seemed to be considering whether or not this feast would be worth the trouble. Knowing they couldn’t outrun a tyrannosaurus on foot, the party prepared to stand their ground if it charged them. The Bull King, as well, gathered in his guards and prepared to fight; he could have escaped on worg-back, but such a cowardly move would be bad for his reputation. Also, he takes social compacts like the sacred nature of parley seriously. While the party is there to meet with him, they are under his protection.

The tyrannosaurus threw its head back and let out a might roar to announce its intention, then began to charge forward towards the group. I gave them all two rounds of ranged attacks and a last chance to position themselves as the beast closed the distance (with a speed of 50 ft, the tyrannosaurus can move 100ft in a round if it uses its action to dash – more than enough time for two volleys with ranged abilities). The hobgoblins stepped to the front, making a defensive line between it and their king. Kaltog stepped up beside them, placing himself in harm’s way, as the rest lined up behind.

In the first round of attacks, the tail strike aimed at Kaltog was a critical hit – which, as I feared, instantly dropped him to 0. Kaltog is the only character with healing in the group. Well, this is bad now.

The rest of the fight was fortunately straightforward and went as expected. A few hobgoblins bit the dust in spectacular fashion (one was flung across the field, another was bitten in half by yet another critical hit from the tyrannosaurus). The Bull King actually stepped forward and healed Kaltog, bringing him back from the brink. The party piled on damage, and the tyrannosaurus fell quickly to the sustained assault (and the power of the action economy).

In the aftermath, Sherlynx took a moment to do a ritual over each of the fallen hobgoblins. The Bull King was impressed by the party’s strength, Kaltog’s bravery, and Sherlynx’s respect for the hobgoblin dead. He still saw them as potential enemies, but ones that he now had more respect for. He said as much, voicing his hope that he would not have to face them in combat but that he would be honored to have such enemies. He took a tooth from the dead tyrannosaurus, jumped onto his worg, and left them on the hilltop with the body.

Post-Session Reflection

This session felt straightforward on paper, and it ran (mostly) straightforward in practice – always a good thing.

There are always moments I wish I had handled better, of course.

For one, the fight with the deinonychuses was not meant to be as deadly as it turned out to be. I was counting on their low to-hit, and didn’t take into account how catastrophic their 3 attacks each would be if they rolled well – which they did. Sherlynx went down before the second round as a result, and the combat felt much tenser than it was meant to – I was almost afraid somebody might die in what was meant to be a throw-away fight. I could have been more careful balancing this fight to my expectations (maybe 3 instead of 4 deinonychuses?), but partly this is up to the dice and that’s just the game sometimes. The creatures needed a 14+ to even hit half the party. Sometimes, it’s okay to not plan overmuch for situations like a monster not rolling below 15 for most of a fight.

The tyrannosaurus fight also had me on edge. I was already worried going in that the beast would be far too strong (hence all the hobgoblin cannon fodder up front), and the first attack against a party member being a critical hit was devastating. I had rolled randomly to determine who among the available front-line targets the tyrannosaurus would attack; in hindsight I could have easily just not attacked Kaltog the first round. The party wouldn’t have to know how I selected my targets. I also considered fudging the roll, and because it’s a discord game nobody would ever know, but my reaction when the 20 was rolled (essentially an “oh no” and a long pause) made it pretty clear what had happened. Fudging rolls is not something you want to make a habit of, either. I would rather have not gotten myself into that situation to begin with. It’s never fun for a player to drop like a sack of bricks against a clearly over-powerful foe, even if you can walk it back (which, in this case, involved deciding that the Bull King had minor healing magic – I’ll have to add that to his statblock now!).

All that said, the fight itself still did exactly what I wanted to outside that hiccup. The players are now unsure they even want to fight the Bull King; they’ve gained significant insight into his reasons for what he’s doing, and have a lot of sympathy for his cause. Moving forward, I will have to make clear how monstrous his actions are carrying out those goals to give them no choice but to stand against him. I won’t force the issue if they would rather not be involved, but I figure having him slaughter a whole town and making clear Kolinville is in his cross-hairs next might be enough to spur them back into action. I am pleased with how this villain has fleshed out. I am always most interested in villains that ask difficult questions about the world they’re in. He’s a monster, but a monster that the colonial expansion has created. He does terrible things, because that’s what happens when you drive somebody into a corner: they fight for their life.

Next session, we’ll be wrapping up any final affairs in Kolinville and starting the journey to Edge Town. I’ve actually been dedicating most of my prep time to getting that city ready to go the last couple weeks, since I had less of a workload for individual session preparation. It will take at least another couple sessions to get there: one session to leave Kolinville and get underway, one session en route that ends with their arrival in Edge Town. This will give me time to finalize my work on the city and decide how I think the next leg of the campaign will proceed.

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