Campaign Journal #13

The Wrecking Ball

If you’re just finding this journal, welcome! This project is my attempt to find a more 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 along 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 put up right here.

Time to light some fires.

The party has had two sessions to settle back into their characters, the flow of the game, and get acquainted Edge Town. We’ve established the stasis, or status quo, of this setting. Now, I’m looking for an event to upset that status quo – an igniting incident.

I wrote a post about this sort of thing a little while back (you can read it here); this is a good opportunity to show that theory in action.

I’ve been clear about my intention to make this a “player-driven” game. Unfortunately, by nature protagonists tend to be reactive in stories. The village is in danger, so the hero sets out on a quest to save it. The evil empire kills their family, so the hero has no choice but to join the resistance. It’s a trope played out in story after story, all the way back into ancient mythology. Something bad happens, and the hero reacts. Heroically. Something needs to push them into action.

My players have been having a good time exploring the city, shopping, getting involved in pit fighting, and so on – but I can tell they’re waiting for something to happen. There’s a moment in the movie, Stranger Than Fiction, where Will Ferrell’s character (who has realized he is a character in a story someone else is writing) is sitting around doing nothing in an attempt to stop the story from continuing. It’s meant as an experiment, suggested by the literature professor helping him: if he is really in a story, he will not be allowed to simply sit and do nothing. Plot will find him. About halfway through his do-nothing day, a wrecking ball very suddenly and unexpectedly crashes through his apartment wall. It’s as heavy-handed as metaphors get.

Sometimes, when the players are sitting around and not making much happen, it might be time to roll out the wrecking ball.

In this case, the wrecking ball most likely relates to Onacona. Kana’ti is now aware his old rival is in Edge Town. Onacona has been aware of Kana’ti, of course, but now Kana knows this to be the case. This is already dangerously close to erupting into a plot as it is, with just a bit of nurturing. If I follow up on this well, and the whole party gets pulled into Kana’ti’s grudge match, then the seeds of the ignition were already planted in the reveal at the end of last session. As part of my prep this week, I read through my notes on Onacona and considered what his next move might be. At the very least, he is having Kana’ti followed so he can figure out where his adversary is staying. Meeting with Dave was a challenge to Kana’ti, in a way. It was a message that he knows who Kana’ti’s friends are, and that he can get to them if he wants to. He’s waiting to see how Kana’ti reacts.

Sherlynx was meeting with her old friend, Xix’thath, right after the arena match – so first thing this session. I spent some of my prep time thinking more about Xix’thath now that I’ve played him once. In my experience, characters often take on qualities you weren’t expecting when you actually step into their skins. In this case, there was an awkward nervous energy surrounding the scene of Xix’thath’s and Sherlynx’s reunion last session that made me lean into, shall we say, less desirable traits for him. He’s a bit crass, and he does a lot more talking than listening. I’m starting to get the sense that Xix’thath is that childhood friend that you meet as an adult and realize “wow, he was kind of an asshole the whole time, huh?”. He was a little older than Sherlynx, so she probably looked up to him and didn’t see these faults. Time and distance has made them clear now. Casino night is probably going to be enlightening for Sherlynx, and the “ride-along” the next day is going to hammer it home. I made a loose plan of what those scenes might look like, including a more detailed description of the Casino for myself to get a better visual and a short list of scene prompts for the ride-along.

On top of those threads, I still have the Edge Town Press in my back pocket. Genny Crystal will start following up with Kaltog about working on that story, gently at first but more aggressively if he doesn’t respond or seems determined to write it himself. I’ll have her start with a fruit basket delivered to the inn for him in the morning as a friendly reminder. She might try to get the story out of one of the other party members covertly if Kaltog doesn’t cooperate, but that’s a more extreme measure. This could be a fun and subtle way to keep the Bull King alive in the narrative, since he will continue to be a major player in the story despite being out of frame for awhile. I’ll keep this on the back burner as a side-plot possibility.

Session Twelve: A Night In Edge Town

This session began in much the same way the last one did. Fresh off their latest arena victory, the party was shuffled off into the night with their prize money.

Sherlynx had an appointment to keep, meeting her old friend Xix’thath at the Casino. She parted ways with the party and made her way there first thing. The Casino itself is an overstated building, very flashy and not particularly pretty to look at for too long – all bright colors and magical flashing lights. The interior is more reserved, but barely. The colors are more reasonably muted to be easy on the eyes in here. The flashing lights remain, however, and are joined by the stale smell of tobacco smoke and the sounds of clanging machines and clanking coins.

Sherlynx found Xix’thath already occupying a table near the bar, in a small dining area alongside the gambling hall. The conversation, as the day before, was awkward – but the two caught up on how they had ended up in Edge Town. Xix’thath talked up the virtues of the city, clearly trying to convince Sherlynx to stick around and join the Town Guard like him. Sherlynx was polite but unimpressed. Xix’thath asked if she still liked playing cards and gambling, indicating the tables behind them. Sherlynx, who has a complicated history with gambling, was hesitant to take him up on the offer – but caved with just a little good old fashioned peer pressure and agreed to play “just a few games”.

Meanwhile, the others were doing some late night shopping with their latest arena payout. Kana’ti was on edge after seeing Onacona, and wanted to get a cloak to disguise his appearance as soon as possible. While he was getting this new cloak, at the Practical Adventurer, he also stocked up on more arrows – this time a bundle of fire arrows. The party wanted to stock up on more healing potions now, as well, and found their way next to the Boiling Point to find those. They had fun interacting with the strange-but-helpful tabaxi shopkeeper as they stocked up, and Kaltog picked himself up a Potion of Speed on top of everything else.

Back at the Casino, Sherlynx was at the card tables with Xix’thath – now several hands in. From the first deal in she was hooked right back into old habits, and after an initial good run had now found herself down a small sum of gold. As they played, a drunk-looking human came to join their table briefly. He was interested in hearing more about Tritons and how two of them came to be here together, and asked all sorts of rude questions. He excused himself after losing a few hands and went on his way. Xix’thath took that as a good cue to exit himself, saying he had to work early the next day. Sherlynx thought about leaving herself. But she was down some gold now, and she knew that if she just put down a little more she could win it back… Just a few more hands, then she could walk.

Casino closing time, Sherlynx had spent the whole night gambling and through sheer dumb luck had managed to just about break even.

Returning to the rest of the group, we find them winding down their evening of shopping and heading back to the inn. Kana’ti was still on edge, constantly checking over his shoulder. At the first shop, he had the feeling someone was following him. At the second, he realized the cloaked figure browsing the stall across the street had been there at the first shop too. As the party left their last shop of the night, Kana’ti’s suspicions were confirmed – he watched the cloaked person turn from the stall and start following them when they were about a block or so away.

As they turned a corner on their path to the Market Row Inn, Kana’ti ducked into an alleyway without warning to try to hide. He rolled poorly on stealth, though, so a confused Dave and Kaltog both stood in the street staring at his hiding spot and asking him what he was doing. He hissed back that someone was following them, prompting the other two to join him in the alleyway hastily. He explained what he had seen – the cloaked figure outside each store that was now tailing them. They all agreed they would confront this individual. As they burst back out of the alley, though, the street was empty. The pursuer had disappeared.

Unnerved, the party continued down the road towards the inn. Along the way, Kaltog indulged a sudden thought and flipped his glasses to Detect Magic. Stealing a glance behind them confirmed his theory: he detected a source of illusion magic, following them at a steady pace about 40 feet behind them. Their pursuer wasn’t gone. He paused for a moment and handed the glasses to Kana’ti so he could see for himself. Having had no real experience with magic, the sensation of detecting magic was surreal for Kana’ti. I described it as seeing an energy that connects all things, woven through everything around you, the threads always there but unseen – and when you detect magic you can see where the threads are warped around the spell to create it from this fabric. After a moment of processing this glance at the phenomenal cosmic power of the universe, Kana’ti was able to confirm Kaltog’s assessment.

As they switched glasses back, Kaltog saw that their pursuer clearly realized something was wrong. He was starting to move slowly, quietly, away from the party where they had stopped in the street. Kaltog didn’t give him the chance. He catapulted a crowbar at the area he was detecting the magical aura, but unable to see his opponent the attack went far wide.

Sherlynx, at this moment, was almost back to the inn herself when a crowbar went skidding by her at an unnaturally high velocity. Poking her head around the corner, she saw her friends just a block or so away engaging with an unseen foe. Footfalls and grunts behind her alerted Sherlynx that reinforcements seemed to be on the way, and she readied her weapon for combat.

Kana’ti used his incredible speed to sprint from one end of the block to the other to get to Sherlynx’s side, and the two of them dealt with the thugs while Dave and Kaltog battled the spellcaster. Dave immediately flew at the spellcaster, hammer swinging. The fellow looked terrified and out of his depth with a raging, towering goliath pummeling him, but he managed to keep his composure enough to raise his wand and cast a spell at Dave.

Dave was yanked from the battlefield, suddenly experiencing himself floating in a great void on a slab of cold stone. He looked down and his hands were shackled, he looked up and saw only bars and an endless void. He tried to cry out but his voice was muted. He felt terror welling up in his chest. He looked down again at the shackles and struggled against them. The pressure in his chest was building. He screamed a primal battlecry of frustration and rage, and with a mighty push outward the shackles burst – along with the illusion. Now a very angry Dave was staring down this unfortunate little illusionist.

The illusionist saw his back-up falling to Sherlynx and Kana’ti, and decided this was a good time for a prompt exit. He pointed the wand at himself, now, disappearing in a puff. Dave bellowed and swung the hammer down at where he though the “little man” might be going, but struck only the cold cobblestone.

The others, also seeing the battle turning, nonetheless persisted in the fight. One of them shouted to his friend: “This is all sideways, just grab the cat and let’s go!”.

They were not able to grab the cat, as it turned out.

The party left one of the thugs alive to question, and were able to gather that these people were with the Red Heart Gang and had been sent by Onacona to follow Kana’ti. They sent him back with a message for his leaders to “leave them alone”, which he was happy to bear if it meant walking away alive at all. He was up-front that he didn’t believe his leaders would listen, though.

Back at the inn, with a cold drink to fortify him, Kana’ti explained to the party who Onacona was and why he hated Kana so much. Dave put the pieces together, realizing he had met Onacona when clothes shopping – this unsettled Kana’ti even more. The others voiced their support for him, saying they had his back. Dave was especially enthusiastic about getting another shot at that illusionist; he didn’t like the “little man” casting that spell on him. They all bedded down for the night a little less easy, knowing there was an adversary somewhere out there in the city.

Post-Session Reflection

It wasn’t as explosive as I had hoped, but this was an interesting session for many reasons. The session took place nearly in real time, with all the events compressed into a single night. It also accomplished my goals for the session, since the party is on the path to action. They have to do something about this Onacona guy that seems to have beef with Kana’ti. He’s become a direct threat.

On a micro-level, this was a good little session. Lots of fun roleplaying was had in the shop scenes. The casino scenes were enjoyable, and gave Sherlynx a chance to play into one of her flaws with her gambling problem. Xix’thath is more established as a character now; he clearly views himself as a mentor for Sherlynx because he always had been growing up, but she has clearly outgrown him and knows it. That made for a good scene, but you couldn’t sit in that energy too long – hence why I brought in another outside force, just for a moment, to give them someone to ally against so we could see the old dynamic instead of just this new one. It didn’t work, but it was a nice idea to try. As an easter egg for myself, the “drunk fellow” that spoke to them is actually a part of the Hand of the Spymaster in Edge Town – which I don’t think I’ve fully explained what that is in these entries, but suffice to say he’s a major player and the party is likely to see him again in the future. He was playing a character because he wanted to meet Sherlynx, having heard of the party’s involvement with the Bull King. I don’t expect the party to be aware of even half these background machinations, but they’re fun for me and lend depth to the world.

Kana’ti’s paranoia gave me a lot to play with – I appreciate the player making that role-playing choice. It made sense to me that his paranoia was valid; Onacona probably would have him followed. So I grabbed an encounter from the list I prepped, with some thugs and an illusionist, and had the illusionist be the one tailing him directly. The thugs were on hold in case it became a fight, because the illusionist alone would’ve been splattered in seconds by this party and I didn’t have time to modify the statblock (being in session and all). The rising tension of Kana’ti’s paranoia being confirmed worked well, and the ensuing fight was a good way to close out the session after a drought of non-arena combat the last couple sessions.

On a big-picture-plot level, there are a few things I really need to start working into sessions. I need to start playing up the budding conflict between Kerth and Saltori. The players don’t have to be directly involved in this plotline – it could be more interesting if they are swept into the middle of a war suddenly with no stake in either side while trying to fight the more dire threat (Areizma) they’ve uncovered. I’ll let the main story continue its natural path without trying to force “The War” into it. That conflict is coming, though. It’s literally the promise made by the title of the campaign. I need to start sowing the seeds of it in the background where the party can see them.

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