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.
This week wasn’t a flashy session. It’s only the second session back from a break and the beginning of an arc, it’s not unexpected. Inertia is powerful.
When I sit down to prep, I find myself in a similar position as last week. The first session back did little to elucidate the definite direction of the campaign from this point. I have a wide range of vague information about Edge Town, but still not the best idea of which parts need to be focused on more. So that’s my first step: figure out my first step.
To get myself on track, I sat down with the session summary I posted for the players and took notes on where each character had chosen to go last time. What were the players interested in doing? What I got was an even split: Sherlynx and Kaltog both went looking for some gig work, while Dave and Kana’ti seemed more interested in exploring the city first and having a “vacation”. This helps, but only a little. I came out of this with a list of locations the party had already visited once and were likely to visit again, as well as a list of any NPCs the party interacted with that might be more frequent characters. This helps a little more.
My next logical step when I’m a bit stuck on what to do next is to walk through the consequences of player actions from last session. The extremely public nature of the arena fight gave me a lot of possibilities to work with – many powerful figures in the city may already be vaguely aware of the party and their fight performance could catch attention and interest. The Adventurer’s Guild, certainly, will want to meet with them now. Onacona is likely to have seen Kana’ti at the fight, or will at least hear about his victory and become aware of his presence in the city. I’ll definitely be running with that. Kaltog tried to get his foot in the door at three different guilds, any of those could have subplot potential if pursued.
Moving ahead with the Adventurer’s Guild, since that was the first place the party went and it’s likely they will continue to pursue it, I need to know how they felt about the party’s performance. This is a fun place to stick a complication. What if not all of them are making the cut right now? Kaltog and Sherlynx mostly got thrown around by the other two in the free-for-all, so I’ll have only Dave and Kana’ti set to receive invitations. As I’m thinking about this plotline, I recall the rival adventuring party the players met on the way to Edge Town. They’ll be a fun wild card in my pocket for this plot. What if they outperform the party and get the invitations the party was hoping for? If the party doesn’t check in on the arena or Adventurer’s Guild for a couple days, I might run with that to see how it goes.
For good measure, now seems like the right time to make an encounter list for the city. I don’t mean combat encounters, I already have a good list of those I can adapt as needed. This encounter list is more like a list of scene prompts. It’s meant to give me good launch points when I want to generate a scene for the party as they wander Edge Town:
- An old Hill Dwarf woman (“Svetlana”) playing a tile-matching game (“Vittervach”) invites the party to join her for a round. She is a veteran of the northern wars, bitter towards imperialists/colonizers but overall surprisingly chipper and incorrigibly talkative
- A young human woman (“Bella Magnificent”) busks on the roadside. Her clothes look poor but she is very talented – a trained ear might even say formally instructed
- if party pays her, she makes up a sob story to try to get more money
- The party comes across a shakedown in progress
- Group of men laughing and drinking in a plaza, invite the party to join them
- Members of Red Heart Gang enjoying a good payday
As part of this prep, I also wrote up a list of possible article headlines the players might see if they pick up an edition of the Edge Town Press. This was partly an exercise to make myself think about what the people of Edge Town were dealing with right now, and partly a good way to do just a little more work to make the world feel a lot more alive:
- Hobgoblin Threat Grows, Settlements Fear for Safety
- New Kids in Town: Meet the Arena’s Rising Stars! (article about the party)
- Scores of Candles Light Streets in Protest, Chants of “Imperialists Go Home” Outside Western Fresonai Trading Co.
- The Question of Sovereignty: Kerth at the Gates
- Ruins Found in Jungles of Nesos May Pre-date Known Civilization
- 5 Dead, 13 Wounded in Late Night Market Row Brawl
- Featured: Dr. Morgan Staffer, Front-line Medic-in-Chief of Edge Town’s Invisible War
Finally, I check in with the big picture. How can I start linking this in with the main plot? There are two main threads to follow there: the looming war between Kerth and Saltori which Edge Town will be caught in the middle of, and the even more dire looming threat of Areizma (the all-consuming ancient black dragon that has been awakened and is drawing energy from all this turmoil).
For the war: I need to bring these forces into better focus to start sowing these seeds. The Western Fresonai Trading Co. in Edge Town mostly keeps the gates closed, but of course Kerth is running clandestine operations out of there. I could throw in a complication like a delegation from Saltori arriving and spending way too long in the city trying to meet with local leaders. This is certain to concern Kerthan interests in the city, and start building the tension. I need to start stirring the pot to show the party that the war is imminent.
For Areizma: Onacona already being under her influence is an easy link-in, given that I plan to be using him as a villain in this arc. She won’t be acting directly on the party at this point at this early point. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t sow clues that she’s in the city. Reports of people mysteriously missing go unsolved, and there are plenty of stories of small items going missing and strange reptilian beasts spotted in the sewers (there is, naturally, a colony of kobolds loyal to Areizma living beneath the city).
Session Eleven: Reunion
The crowd roared in the Edge Town Arena, satisfied with the bloody display they had just seen.
In the aftermath of the fight, Kana’ti was given his prize money and they were all shuffled out of the arena with practiced efficiency by workers – still able to hear the shouts and jeers of the crowd as the fights continued.
As the party considered their next move, a small group of already-drunk young men stumbled out of the arena. They recognized the party from the free-for-all and wanted to buy them drinks. The rest of the night was spent barhopping down Market Row to celebrate their victory.
The next morning, everyone got together to head back to the Adventurer’s Guild. They figured they had done the arena, so it was worth checking in to see if the guild was suitably impressed. Dave, not satisfied with the small breakfast provided by the inn, sniffed out a stand selling cheesy pretzels and bought some for everyone as they walked.
At the guild, the party was disappointed to learn that the Guild generally delivers invitations weekly. Worse still, the clerk awkwardly informs them that only Kana’ti and Dave are currently slated to receive invitations. The party all agree they are only interested if they can come as a group deal, and resolve to re-enter the arena once more to earn their place.
Sherlynx was itching to find some work more imminently, and the Edge Town Guard seemed like a logical place to look for a job board. She was perplexed to find that the headquarters of this “Town Guard” didn’t look as expected; much more fortress-esque, with one set of large gates she could see to gain entry guarded by two imposing armored individuals. As she grew closer, she saw that one of the guards had Triton features. Before she could put the pieces together herself, her old friend Xix’thath was waving and rushing to meet her. They both expressed their surprise at seeing each other in such a remote place, and agreed to meet up for drinks at the Casino to catch up after his shift. He also invited her to come along and see what kind of work he does here, clearly hinting that he thinks she might want to join up as well.
While the others accompanied Sherlynx, Kaltog split off to check in at the Tinker’s Guild. Of course, it was still morning at this point and his meeting had been scheduled loosely for the afternoon, so he found the Guildmaster around the back of the building dealing with a delivery – too busy to talk at length at the moment, but happy to see Kaltog.
Linking back up, it was back to the arena to sign up for another fight. The attendant recognized the party as they came to the counter. Apparently, the Battlemaster had been hoping they’d come back. She went to fetch him immediately. The party, while waiting, spotted some familiar faces approaching the arena counter – it was the rival crew they had met on the way to Edge Town. Gretchen, the half-elf, took the opportunity to throw some jabs and tell the party that her group was also signing up for the arena. She took her crew and said she’d return later, preferring not to be around the party longer than she had to.
The Battlemaster himself, Rock Stone, emerged from the back not long after. He told the party that they had a lot of potential, but needed to work on their showmanship. He said that what Dave was doing out there was good, and admired Kana’ti’s theatrical finish to win the bout, but admonished that they can all be doing more to work the crowd – and they’ll have to if they want to make it here. The party wanted to do a group bout so they can show off how they work as a team. The Battlemaster was hesitant since this was a bit unusual, but after some persuasive words he says he can throw something together for them and see if it plays well as a mid-show spectacle.
Dave, taking the showmanship advice to heart, set out from the arena to find a good costume for the fight. He spent a long time wandering the markets before finding a small, hole-in-the-wall store that had the kind of outlandish clothing he was looking for. As he browsed, he was offered assistance by a white-furred tabaxi that appeared to be a regular of the store – he wore a garish purple suit with silver threading and carried a gem-studded pocketwatch. He told Dave he could show him a store with a better selection elsewhere in the city. There, the two of them spent some time picking out a real attention-grabbing outfit. While Dave was putting away the clothes he didn’t end up picking out, he noticed the tabaxi gentleman talking to the shopkeeper. The tabaxi told Dave he had paid for his outfit, and wished him well in his fight that night.
The party re-convened around mid-day, back at the inn. They had some time yet before they needed to be at the arena, so they walked together for a while again. First stop was to be the Tinker’s Guild, this time at the right time for Kaltog’s official meeting with the Guildmaster.
On the way up Market Row, the party saw a group of men accosting a shop owner – three stood guard outside while two worked on the poor fellow inside. Kaltog immediately rushed into the situation and demanded that they stop. The men took stock of the angry Minotaur and his well-armed friends and decided they didn’t need to have this conversation right now, backing down for the time being. Kaltog went to check on the shopkeeper, who thanked them profusely while complaining that no one ever does anything about those gangs. He mistakes the party for private investigators and they gather some more information about how gangs operate in Edge Town. Along with the information comes the awkward realization that the Edge Town Guard isn’t much more than a gang itself, with no central governing entity giving them any authority.
At the Tinker’s Guild, Kaltog finally got his meeting with Guildmaster Bonner Coppertop. The Guildmaster was impressed by Kaltog’s work, and gave him a brief tour of the workshop. He told Kaltog that he was welcome to use the workshop any time, there’s only one real rule: everyone shares their inventions and discoveries with everyone else (“Really, we have a weekly meeting. There’s snacks!”). Kaltog invited Bonner to the arena to see his gadgets in action. Bonner was resistant at first, expressing no interest in arena fights, but seemed swayed by scientific curiosity as Kaltog described some of the combat gadgets he employs.
That evening the party convened at the arena for their group bout. They were ushered to a private locker room type set-up with a common area and attached private dressing rooms so they could get ready for the fight properly. There, Dave debuted his new outfit for the party. It involved tight, revealing bottoms made from a stretchy material, no shirt, a cape, and a mask to give you a general idea.
Sherlynx, looking to up the theatricality herself, asked an arena attendant if he could get them some red paint. Using this, she marked her shield with a red handprint. The others caught on and marked their equipment (or, in Dave’s case, body) with the same design. The Battlemaster was pleased to see they were getting with the program when he arrived to brief them. He asked if he can introduce them as “The Red Hand”, saying it will play well for the crowd – the party agreed. He dropped some small hints about the creature the party is about to fight, then led them up to their starting position and wished them luck.
The gates opened, the announcer’s magically enhanced voice boomed through the arena to introduce them, and the party found themselves facing down a grotesque troll covered in oozing pustules and sores – a Venom Troll. The fight was close; Kaltog figured out to burn the creature with fire to stop it from regenerating, but every time it took damage the troll would splash anyone within 5ft with poison and the party didn’t adjust to that quickly enough to keep Kana’ti from going down. Dave grappled the troll and dragged it away from his downed ally so it wouldn’t continue to splash on him (and make him fail death saves!), and mercifully the party dispatched the troll not long after. Kaltog was at Kana’ti’s side with a Cure Wounds before the medics could even hit the field, and the party soaked up their victory before a roaring arena crowd once more.
Kaltog scanned the crowd for Guildmaster Bonner Coppertop, who seemed duly impressed by Kaltog’s performance as he clapped and cheered. Dave, likewise, saw the tabaxi gentleman he had met earlier in the day cheering him on from the stands. Kana’ti followed Dave’s gaze into the stands, and found himself face to face with Onacona, White Owl, the man that had once tried to sell out his tribe.
This session felt aimless.
That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. As we’re getting back into the flow of the game, it’s good to take things a little slower. I could feel small degrees of frustration, though, that not much seemed to be happening here yet. When you throw players into a large open setting, it can be easy to end up actually feeling suffocated by choice if no direction is given, and I think I might be in danger of that if I’m not careful.
Fortunately, plots are beginning to solidify now. The party isn’t involved in any major struggle in the city yet, sure, but they have begun to scratch the surface of what this place is like and they have already started leaving their mark through the arena. Their performance will be drawing attention, especially if they start doing other work around the city in the coming days – as they are likely to.
Kaltog has a strong connection to the Tinker’s Guild now. So many of the guilds are very closed-door/elitist, so it’s a nice change of pace to have this exchange run smoothly. It gets him access to those facilities in Edge Town, which means he can work on crafting in his downtime. The Press plotline took a break this session, but I haven’t forgotten – he’ll be hearing from Genny soon about that story.
Onacona’s introduction went well! It was a spur of the moment plan to toss him in the store with Dave; it made just enough sense for me to want to see where it went. Having a villain help a player character pick out an outfit was fun dramatic irony, even if it was just for me in the moment. It had good pay-off when I pulled the reveal later in the arena, making a good closing moment for the session.
For next session, the plot should start ramping up. This might be a good time for an igniting incident for this arc. I’ve set the status quo in Edge Town, now I can upset the balance of that world and throw the characters into the middle of the ensuing turmoil.