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.
It’s about that time.
This session, the party is going to be wrapping up any final affairs in Kolinville – their ship, the Yellowbelly, will be departing for Edge Town soon. This is what I think of as an “interim” or “transitionary” session; we’ve finished an arc in Kolinville and we’re moving to another central location where the next leg of the campaign will take place. You could just skip straight to the next bout of story-heavy action, but I see this as a great opportunity for one-off style adventures. There’s a few good reasons to do this.
For one thing, it gives the players a break from more story-driven sessions. It can be overwhelming to keep up with that pace for too long, especially when you have a DM that can’t help but have a large cast of characters (very, very guilty). This is an ideal time for character development as the party process what happened last arc without the pressure of the story beating down on them.
From the Dungeon Master’s perspective, this is also an excellent time to try out ideas for shorter adventures that don’t fit as well in a grand narrative. More practically, it buys me time to prepare more for the next arc – fleshing out locations, characters, and plot hook ideas.
For this entry, I’m going to focus on laying out the prep I did specifically for this session. I’ve mentioned this already in the past couple entries; much of this part of the campaign is currently on auto-pilot while I dedicate most of my weekly prep time to the next big steps of the campaign.
Half this session is likely to be eaten up by the party’s final rounds of Kolinville. There are characters they’ll want to check with before leaving, maybe shopping to be done, and affairs to be tied up. All told, between those scenes and any scenes related to their return to the ship, that’s likely to be close to half the session already.
I just need a few encounter ideas to throw something their way once they’re en route and fill out the session.
As is my way with encounter lists, I cut out the random element almost entirely. I like to justify and contextualize my encounters in the world, and designing specific encounters myself is a good short-cut to avoid making myself justify things in the moment. I make a long list with encounters of varying severity, so if a player rolls high for the “encounter roll” they’ll get something friendlier.
For this point in the campaign, I want to start teasing what I plan to be the main villain of the campaign later on. Areizma, an ancient black dragon, has been awakened by the turmoil brought to these lands by colonial expansionism. The party won’t be facing her any time soon, but I can start planting seeds that something big is brewing. Here is the short list I wrote up for this journey:
MM = Monster Manual
- A small pack of 3 manticores (MM 213), which are not native to the plains. Usually roosting in mountains, this pack was driven from their home in the nearby Stormcaps by the awakening of Areizma.
- A group of centaurs follows the ship for a time. They are keeping an eye on the vessel as it passes through their territory. They will not attack unless the party takes hostile action against them.
- Rono: a proud male centaur with a distrust for colonizers. Blames them for the hobgoblin presence and the problems it has brought. Can speak common but will probably prefer to communicate in Tutstin (common language of the Expanse). Will be willing to talk to Kana’ti and Kaltog, wary of Dave and Sherlynx
- Another merchant vessel, with a rival adventuring crew aboard
- Cpt. Alice Knot: ex-lover of Cpt. Stinton; they aren’t on good terms.
- Gretchen: female half-elf wizard (evocation). Nose perpetually in the air, looks down on “uncivilized” people. The de facto leader of the party.
- Helga: female dwarf fighter (champion). Strong, sturdy, loves a good fight.
- Tonback: male gnome artificer (artillerist). Unsocial, but will talk for hours if you want to talk shop about tinkering.
- Loe’ela: female jungle tabaxi cleric (trickery). Quiet but confident; she wears the traditional garb of her tribe when “at work”, giving her a terrifying appearance. Clearly not to be trifled with.
- A downed ship, victim of an attack by one of Areizma’s brood.
- picked clean of loot, bodies and food left to rot
- encounter with scavenger beasts? (4 Giant Vultures, MM 329)
This list is short but the encounters has plenty of potential to chew on. I don’t see these (or, really, any of my prep) as written in stone, but rather strong suggestions I can run with.
Session Eight: The Blighted Wreckage
We re-join the party standing over the slain tyrannosaurus they fought last session. The Bull King gone over the horizon, back to his army, they all took some time to bandage their wounds and prepare for the short journey across the plains back to Kolinville to deliver the bad news. Despite their efforts, there will be no peace, and the settlements of the plains will soon find themselves in a fight for their lives against a fearsome goblinoid host.
The trip back was quiet and reflective, and passed without incident.
Back in Kolinville, Sherlynx made her way first to Cpt. Stone to give him an update on how their negotiation attempt had gone. He was not saddened but not surprised to hear that it was unsuccessful. He mentioned that he had noticed their ship making preparations to leave, and asked if they were going to be on it. Sherlynx confirmed this, and he expressed his gratitude for the help the party had lent the town during their stay and his hope that they would meet again.
Meanwhile, Dave went to the stables attached to the inn to check up on the horse the party had found in an earlier session. Knowing they probably couldn’t bring the horse on the ship, he hoped to find a good home in Kolinville. There, he found one of the innkeeper’s sons (Ernest) brushing the horse. The boy seemed enamored with the animal so Dave figured he was as good a person as any to take the horse in. Excited, the boy named the horse “Starscream” (Ernest is 13). Dave spent some time setting up a ritual casting of speak with animals to check with Starscream and make sure this was an acceptable arrangement, and Starscream seemed to approve at least of the boy’s brushing technique (“Brush good”). That was enough for Dave. He didn’t ask for any payment, just that the boy take good care of the horse.
Kaltog took this evening to put some finishing touches on the gun he’s been working on. It isn’t complete yet, but he was able to finish the aspects of the weapon’s construction that required a forge. From here, it’s all tinkering and enchanting, which he can do on the ship.
Sherlynx and Kana’ti went on to pay a visit to Lexton Ford. They brought him up to speed on what had happened in the parley as well, and much like Cpt. Stone he didn’t seem surprised. He offered some parting wisdom for Sherlynx and Kana’ti, wishing them well on their journeys ahead.
Finally, crucially, the party obtained the supply of ale the Captain had been requesting through Jakob. They knew it would not be pleasant if they showed up at the ship without it. Kaltog also picked up a fine bottle of whiskey from behind the bar at the Goldengrass Inn, to save for a “special occasion”. Forward-thinking as always, Sherlynx bought two bottles of wine. She knew the crew might be resistant to letting two goblins on board, and this would smooth that over and make Cpt. Stinton much more likely to accept them.
Dave spent some time trying to clean the mess that had been made of the room the goblins were staying in. Not sure how to approach a “room cleaning” roll, we decided that survival was an appropriate skill given the state of the room. There was some damage that couldn’t be undone (such as the ripped wallpaper), but when the dust settled the room didn’t look too awful considering the state it had been in (Dave rolled a natural 20).
The next morning, it was time to return to the ship and strike out towards Edge Town.
Kaltog went ahead with the two goblins, each now holding a bottle of wine provided by Sherlynx, while the rest of the party took a last minute stop at the alchemist to stock up on healing potions. At the ship, Kaltog insisted to Westley that the goblins had already been accepted as members of the crew. Westley was flustered, flipping through his notes, but couldn’t recall if that was true or not. About then, the clever goblins went to present their bottles to Cpt. Stinton, who predictably took an instant liking to the pair leaving an exasperated Westley no choice but to accept them aboard.
About then the others arrived on deck. Westley was excited to have Kana’ti on board, believing still that he has a strong sailing background and unaware that this was the tabaxi’s first time on a ship at all. He assigned him central duties in the take-off. Kana’ti was able to figure out enough to look like he knew what he was doing, at least for the moment. Jakob was thrilled to see Dave, and tried to get him out of his ship-board duties so the two could go drink and catch up on what happened in Kolinville, but Westley was having none of it. Dave agreed that he should do his work first, promising that he would join Jakob once his job was done.
Final preparations complete, Jakob empowered the core of the ship and the Yellowbelly lifted off, leaving Kolinville far behind them as they sailed the skies to Edge Town.
The first few days of the journey were uneventful. On the third day of the journey, the ship passed near what looked to be another small merchant frigate that had been downed in the plains. There were large holes burned in the hull. Cautious and concerned that there may be danger to the Yellowbelly from whatever had done this, the party went down to check the wreckage.
Upon closer inspection, the wounds in the hull seemed to have not been made by fire or projectiles – it looked like the hull had been burned away by acid in patches. Crawling through one of these holes, the party entered the wreckage. The bottom deck was full of looted crates; anything valuable was gone, but the food stores were left behind and rotten. Kaltog, with his wand of detect magic, did a sweep of the area and found that a strong residue of necromantic magic was hanging over much of the ship. The food did not rot naturally; it was accelerated by whatever had passed through here.
The party went up a deck and found crew quarters. They had noticed a strong stench of decay on the bottom deck, and it was even stronger here. They found the corpses of the crew, desiccated and rotting like the food, all of them laid in their bunks. Furniture on this deck was upturned and there were obvious signs of fighting, indicating that these bodies were moved after death rather than killed in their sleep.
Up another staircase to the top deck, the party saw more evidence of some kind of struggle and more of the acid burns splashed across the deck. The door to the captain’s cabin was hanging loosely off the door-frame, ripped from its hinges. Looking inside, the party saw another body – this one posed, sitting up, and in the same state of accelerated decay as the rest of the crew. Presumably, this was the captain.
About then, Kana’ti heard the faint sounds of movement below deck. It sounded like somebody trying to move quietly. This put the party on guard as they moved to investigate. Kaltog, still detecting magic, could sense that a new spell had been cast in the deck below – some kind of abjuration magic.
As they discussed how to storm the deck and find whoever was down there, Sherlynx found herself suddenly paralyzed. Kana’ti and Kaltog both saw a flash of movement in the deck below, and began flinging attacks down the staircase. A stout, armored figure burst into sudden view and charged them; a dwarf fighter wielding a mighty warhammer. One by one, the unseen attackers revealed themselves as the fight unfolded: a lithe half-elf wearing loose robes that seemed to be a spellcaster, a broad-faced gnome with a magical mini-cannon, and a fearsome looking jungle tabaxi adorned in the traditional dress of her people.
The two parties traded blows for a couple rounds. Dave wrestled with the dwarf fighter on the top deck, trying to push her off the side of the ship but finding her much stronger than expected. Sherlynx, shrugging off the effects of the hold person spell, charged down the stairs and dealt a grievous wound to the jungle tabaxi. The combat was interrupted by a voice booming out from above: Jakob, shouting “Stop! Stop!”
Both parties warily put down their arms, and accusations began flying about who struck first. Gretchen, as the half-elf identified herself, insisted that they were simply being cautious with unknown entities on a dangerous wreck site and that the player party had begun attacking first. The player party didn’t see it that way, indignant that the hold person spell was a clear hostile action. The exception to the animosity was Dave and the dwarf, Helga, who both thoroughly enjoyed their wrestling match and were impressed with each other’s strength.
After some arguing with this rival crew, and seeing no further value in examining the wreck, the party left them to it and returned to the Yellowbelly. On board, Cpt. Stinton was on deck and excitedly awaiting the party’s return. He wanted all the details of the encounter, and seemed especially pleased to hear that his crew had roughed up the other crew a bit. He explained that he knows the captain of the vessel they are attached to, Cpt. Knot; clearly there is bad blood between them, but he didn’t go into detail as to why. Cpt. Knot saw the Yellowbelly and contacted Stinton to let him know her crew was operating in the same area, which is about when they looked over to the wrecked ship and realized that the two parties were fighting each other – hence, Jakob’s interruption.
Leaving the rival crew and the mystery of the ruined ship in their wake, the Yellowbelly continued on towards Edge Town.
The departure from Kolinville was all quite smooth. I did catch myself out with my lack of actual sailing knowledge when the party found themselves on the ship. Fortunately, no one else in the group knows much about old sailing vessels either and I have the plausible deniability of this not being a “proper ship” but rather a magical flying vessel that resembles a sea vessel.
Playing up interactions like the one between Dave and Ernest with the horse, Kaltog and the goblins on the ship, and Westley’s belief that Kana’ti is an experienced sailor made for fun vignettes to keep this section of the session light. In the case of Kana’ti’s “sailing experience”, small re-incorporations like this go a long way towards making your world feel alive and players always love it in my experience because they’re in on the joke.
When making their way across the plains, the player I had roll for the “random” encounter rolled a natural 20 so I couldn’t in good conscience have the ship get attacked – I had been planning to throw them the manticore fight. That made the downed vessel my safest and most interesting option. The ratcheting tension of having the party slowly discover each element of the black dragon attack worked well in session – you could tell the party was on their toes and expecting to be attacked any moment. There is a small missed opportunity for an encounter with some undead creatures, which may have been reanimated by the corrupting influence of the dragon, but at the end of the day I have no regrets about what did unfold. The party was on a hair trigger so it was easy to get them into a fight the rival crew, there to investigate the same wreck and equally tense. This was a fantastic introduction to what I hope will be a recurring rivalry for the party.
I found myself unprepared in a big way when throwing the rival party at the players as a fight. You see, I didn’t actually prepare stat blocks for any of the rival group because a fight wasn’t at all my intention when I considered introducing them in my prep. My initial plan to throw some scavengers at the party felt arbitrary and unrelated to the tone of how the inspection of the wreck played out once we were in session, though, so I opted to use this crew instead and trusted my general knowledge of each of the classes the opposing party is based on to see me through. I assigned each an AC, to hit, and damage to make sure I was consistent, and had each of the spell-casters making light use of their likely available spells and abilities (pass without trace and spiritual weapon from the trickery cleric, hold person from the wizard, the arcane turret from the artillerist artificer, etc.) Sometimes, you just have to go for something that feels like the right idea in the moment and be okay not knowing how it will work out. I’ll admit it’s a learned skill that I probably picked up from my improv background, but it will serve any DM well.
It worked better than I expected, to be honest, and I’m fairly certain the party had no idea I wasn’t using stat blocks or tracking hp. I intended to put a stop to the fight somehow before anyone went down or things got out of hand. This ended up being a great introduction for the rival crew. Now, next time they see each other, there is already plenty of grudges and bad blood between them (with the exception of Dave and Helga, who are totally bros now).
Next session, I’m considering throwing a short side adventure at the party en route to Edge Town. I want to start getting more back to my episodic character-centric intention for this campaign because it’s already getting much more focused and plot heavy than I intended when I set out. I’m not going to fight that tide too much, since everyone seems to be enjoying that element of the campaign and clearly it’s just my style as a DM, but some gentle nudges back towards the individual focus on the characters won’t come amiss.