I’m running my own Dungeons and Dragons campaign! After several years of not being able to figure out scheduling with my existing gaming group, my desire to play D&D again finally won out over my fears of putting on the Dungeon Master hat. It’s a little daunting, especially since I’ve chosen to write a 100% original campaign and story (this may end up being a mistake), but the players are all new (playing 5e) so at least we all get to go through the learning process together.
Though I don’t think the campaign I’ve written is anything exceptional or original, I’m happy enough with how it’s gone so far that I wanted to share our experience at the table, in case other would-be DMs out there need a little extra push to start running their own games.
Friend Lucinda imparted a valuable lesson to me when I was planning out my campaign: your 3-hour story will take 30 minutes and your 30 minute story will take three hours. When running a game full of new players, it’s impossible to predict how much their characters are going to accomplish in a given session.
In my case, I expected my inaugural adventure to be played through in a single (4-hour) evening, but by the time we wrapped for the evening they’d only just taken their first steps into the goblin cavern and finished two quick encounters. Most of the rest of the time was spent investigating suspicious-looking NPCs (they were mostly suspicious, I suspect, due to my giving them character voices and generating randomized first and last names whenever they asked who someone was). At a certain point you just have to accept that the party’s pace will be their own and roll with the punches.
In the first adventure, the players were assembled into a search party to help find Adelia and Gren, acolytes from the local temple of Istus who were kidnapped in the night. Recently, Adelia had developed the gift of foresight, being able to see future events for herself, those she met, or on a more global level. The temple priests, following religious traditions of long-forgotten origin, separated her from the population, forbidding anyone from coming in physical contact with her as she was seen to be an envoy of Istus. This did not stop them and the local town business owners, however, from taking advantage of her newfound gift, and a tourism industry quickly formed, bringing people from across the land to have their fortunes read. The acolyte was kept behind glass, wearing sheer gloves, a veil, and headscarf, to retain the purity of her gift. Though the temple had no funds to provide as direct compensation, the local construction guild had collected 1000gp as a reward to return the town’s livelihood.
At the site of the incident (the glass box shattered by the assailants), the party found what they needed to identify the culprits: a set of bloody footprints leading into the woods, and with a nat-20 Investigation check from Jedha the wizard researcher, a goblin dagger left under Adelia’s seat.
A search of Gren’s quarters revealed a hidden box that once contained a wand of great power, which the priest Pergar identified as an artifact from the temple’s archives; the wand had seemingly gone missing along with the acolytes. Further looking into Adelia’s quarters revealed a diary, detailing about how much her life had changed after she had received the gift. There were multiple oblique references to a “T.M.” who she appeared to further confide in, and the party surmised that finding “T.M.” might reveal more background information about Adelia than the priesthood knew – or was willing to discuss.
What followed was a deep investigation of every person the party could track down, requiring a full name and backstory from me for each. They spent most of their time grilling the town drunk, Dolben; I hadn’t actually given a single thought to any of Dolben’s details beyond an off-handed mention of “there aren’t many others in the tavern”, but the players took this as an invitation to put a name and face to the implied person/people, and suddenly there was Dolben at the end of the bar, drinking his cares away. From that point on I couldn’t get them to stop interrogating this poor NPC I’d accidentally brought into existence, and every effort I made to dissuade them (mostly by having him slur his words and give inconsistent accounts to suggest a drunken stupor) only further piqued their interest.
Between the party’s pressing and Dolben’s rambling, an intriguing tale developed: while out hunting, Dolben came across an unfamiliar clearing in the woods, where he found a large stone. Sunlight shone through a narrow crevice atop the stone, which refracted prismatically into a beautiful rainbow. Dolben couldn’t recount with certainty the location of this event, but his alcohol-addled brain recalled it being a wondrous sight to behold, though he couldn’t derive any significance beyond that.
This turned out to be a big giant red herring for the party’s current goal of locating the missing acolytes, but that didn’t stop them from subsequently asking every character they met about the rainbow rock (nobody else in town took any stock in Dolben’s tall tales, which only further cemented its significance to the players).
Finally, the party found their way to Ref Meadowtide, one of the construction workers pitching in to provide the reward for locating Adelia and Gren, and through him his daughter Tendra. Having found their “T.M.”, they sent Jedha to try and chat with Tendra about her missing friend (Kallista, a tiefling bard, held back to avoid looking overly intimidating). The little girl revealed that Adelia was unhappy in her new secluded life, and that she spared Tendra the details of her visions as some caused great fear and discomfort.
Newly informed of Adelia’s plight (and having asked anything that moves about rocks and rainbows and coming up dry), the party set out into the woods to follow the goblin tracks and rescue the acolytes. The party was ready for action, and I was ready to provide it! What I didn’t anticipate is how readily a party of casters would make short work of a hideout of goblin bandits.
The goblins had taken residence in a cave and posted a few archers at the entrance as scouts, but the party took advantage of the tree line at the entrance’s perimeter and stealthily approached the goblins to ambush them. Their rolls were mixed, but they were able to put two of their own into position and get a quick surprise round that handily disposed of the guards before they could run for support. A successful first battle, and a lesson to me to have more guards next time.
The cave interior immediately branched in two directions, with only a flickering torch light to indicate a direction to travel. The cave design is something I struggled with for awhile leading up to this campaign, and I think there are definite improvements I can make to dungeon layout to better control and suggest flow. In this case it worked out, but my branching paths ultimately lead to skipped areas and a beeline to an endgame much sooner than anticipated (we’ll get into that next time).
The torch light led the party through an antechamber to a room with more goblins, this time armed with scimitars and ready to act as reinforcements for guards who never had the opportunity to call for them. Again they attempted a stealthy approach, but a poor roll from the normally sneakily rogue Riardon kicked a pebble down the hall and alerted them, thus starting a standard combat round. One goblin swiped at Riardon and took most of her HP. Excellent, I thought, we’re seeing some action!
Then Jedha discovered the Sleep spell. One quick cast on the clustered goblins and they fell into a magical slumber, immediately ending the battle as the party coup de gras‘d them in their sleep (this Animated Spellbook episode lays out the scenario pretty accurately).
Two battles done! A chest was found in the room to reward them for their efforts. The players opened the chest to reveal: I hadn’t decided what was in that chest yet. A good time to end the adventure and resume on our next game night!
By the end of the night I had some helpful lessons to take away for the future. This group leans hard into the NPCs, so I needed to make sure they could stand up to more than cursory scrutiny; that meant established names and motivations beyond merely standing in for a given story purpose. And despite my initial concern about the party’s low HP meaning they wouldn’t be able to take a hit, it wouldn’t matter much if the monsters can’t get an attack round, so I’d need to bump up the difficulty a bit. The rest of the dungeon, I surmised, can increase the danger along with the reward for getting through the fight.
But I had more lessons to learn than that.