Back in 2010-2011 I ran a D&D campaign. It was my first real attempt at “doing it right” and I feel like I learned a lot in the process. Most of those lessons you can find elsewhere, and I certainly didn’t innovate to any great degree, but as a means of closure (and since I intended to do so eventually) I’m going to chronicle as much as I can of what happened and why. I’m doing this without most of my notes, so many of the details are incomplete.
To start off, here’s:
The Grand Outline
The setting was three kingdoms, the Halflings in the South-West, the Dwarves in the East, and the Eladrin in the North. About a hundred years before the campaign began, the Dwarves conquered the Halflings, and required a large tax of food at harvest every year. At the start of the campaign, there was a halfling uprising, and the dwarves were on the march to re-enforce their rule. The party started in the Halfling lands, traveled south-east into the wilderness, looking for adventure, then North, where they ran afoul of the Dwarven army, and 3/5 of the PCs were killed. There was a player changeup, and the party headed North with a few new members, and arrived in the Elven lands. After another player changeup, they were hired to take a shipment of arms South to the halfling kingdom, and after traveling through the wilderness again, arrived nearly back where they had started. The campaign ended with only a couple of the original characters surviving, and both the players and myself burnt out and interested in trying something new.
My goals as a GM were to make a believable world where the players were free to do as they pleased. On the spectrum from rail-road story focused to free-form player-driven, I was aiming at about half-way, where the players got to choose what they did, but the world they were playing in behaved in (what I considered to be) a reasonable manner. As a result there wasn’t as much combat, magic loot, and progress as some of the players wanted.
What Worked Well
Right as I was putting together the campaign, Gabe over at Penny-Arcade posted a map-exploring D&D sandbox idea that I loved. So I used his system for the initial wilderness exploration, and the final journey through the forest. I feel like it worked really well! The players loved being able to explore with a sense of progression, and I enjoyed fleshing out the world just around where they were without needing to populate an entire map.
Near to the end, I started drawing detailed maps of all the cities that I felt the PCs might end up engaging with. I should have made a copy for my own GM notes, but otherwise it was really fun for me, and I think it helped the players get a sense of place.
I also experimented with making mood-setting pictures and playing mood music for the various areas and situations the players encountered. I don’t know that it helped a lot, but I felt it gave a better mood than nothing.
What Failed Sadly
I feel like I didn’t take enough guidance from the players. I didn’t railroad them, but I also didn’t provide a world enjoyable enough to maintain interest.
The players didn’t have a lot of respect for eachother’s playstyle either, and I didn’t go out of my way to arbitrate. The slayers made fun of the explorers for not knowing the combat rules, and the explorers complained about the overly-aggressive wildlife whenever I forced them into combat.
One of the players, who plays Jack below, is fairly soft-spoken and thinks slowly on his feet. The quick-paced improv style wasn’t very fun for him. If I had tried harder, I may have been able to accomodate him better, but as it was I just kept moving as quickly as I could for the whole campaign. That may have contributed to the burn-out as well. There were a few mini-dungeons at the beginning of the campaign with mini-puzzles that he just loved. He even said so, but sadly I never put more puzzles in their path.
Before relating the whole story in sequence, here are the individual plot threads that I had planned out. The first two were in place at the start of the campaign, but the rest I put together as the party decided on a direction. I tried to have two or three things happening at any one time, so if they decided they didn’t want to keep on with what they were doing at the time, they could kick off in a new direction.
Satrin the Retainer
The Pondermull family retainer. He had a history of working with demons which he left behind him. This peeved the Brotherhood (“No one leaves the institute!”) who eventually tracked him down and teamed up with some Dragonborn who show up to kill him and kidnap Belinda as a prize. The players prevented them from getting Belinda, so the Dragonborn take Satrin alive as collateral. The players never followed up on this, but I was going to weave it back into the Dragons storyline below if they had pursued it.
Alexandrin is an Eladrin, an ambassador who resides in the Halfling capital. He recently traveled to speak to the Dwarves, and was on his way back to the capital. Though he says he wants peace, he is actually trying to incite war so that the Eladrin can profit from selling weapons and supplies to both sides. If he makes it back to the Halfling capital, and is allowed a free hand, war will be inevitable. The players never followed up on this either, though they were just on the cusp of coming full circle and arriving in the Halfling capital when the campaign went on indefinite hiatus.
In the ancient past, a magic-wielding empire built a series of guard towers. Within each is an enchanted chamber which re-directs all teleports within several miles to end up in the chamber, which is locked from the outside. When in use, the guards at the towers would be able to easily evaluate anyone caught, and dispatch them if necessary. The towers have been dormant for many years, but recent events (A dragon visits the area I think? Or something. I forget.) have re-activated them. Unwitting travelers will continue to die of dehydration in these now abandoned oubliettes. The players disabled one of these, but never looked for the others.
Belinda and the Druid’s hook quest. The Dekroot ripens rarely, and has “a host of uses” (I really should have come up with something concrete). The problem being, no one knows where the Dekroot Tree is! A few well-studied herbalists know that the proximity of the Dekroot delays the blooming of the star-berries, so if they can find star-berries, they can zero in on the Dekroot. This was a mini triangulation game, which gave rise to a lot of deliberation among the players. They knew the general direction, but needed to find star-berries to narrow the search. But star-berries only grow in forests, so in the short term they needed to make sure to visit lots of forest tiles. But the forest tiles slow them down, and take them out of their way. The players ended up following this all the way through, but never ended up using the Dekroot acorns (which had a zone-of-truth-like effect).
The Dwarven army is on the march! They are going to put down this puny Halfling uprising (They can’t uprise very far, being so short and all) and secure their much-needed brews! If not stopped, they will re-conquer the whole of the Halfling lands. The invasion was ongoing in the background the whole game, but hadn’t reached the Halfling heartlands by the time the campaign ended. They did run afoul of the army though.
I came up with a series of plots and counter-plots for shape-shifted dragons to carry out and the players to unravel. The bottom line is the players never followed up on them, so I don’t recall what they are. Something about dragons running some sort of stolen goods fence, and a cult, and infiltrating the government. The Dragons’ influence is strongest in the Eladrin lands.
A Halfling child from the town of Hardby (shown above) was stolen from his parents by tree-people and raised in the wild for about a year. Unknown to the farmers of Hardby, their forest clearing was harming the tree-people. He grew to love and empathize with his captors. Eventually, he will become a menace to the town. Jack ended up returning him to his family and partially defusing the tension between the two groups.
One of the players is a Halfling, the eponymous Jaquerious Pondermull. We called him Jack. He’s the son of a landed noble living on his estate (the “musty manor” IIRC) in the South-East Halfling lands. Two of the players are Dwarves. We’ll call them the Soldier and the Priest. The Dwarves are traveling to Mullville to check on the missing Alexandin (who fell prey to a local teleport trap while using his short-range racial teleport ability) and they are accompanied by Jack as a show of good faith. The party now assembled, the adventures begin!
First, they go out to the edges of the Pondermull lands to help a peasant family who are being attacked by drakes. The peasant’s son stole one of their eggs from a ruined teleport tower, and the party chivilrously goes to investigate. They fight some monsters in the tower, rescue the effusive Alexandin, and return home for the night.
The next day they go back to the tower and explore it further, disabling the magic trap and battling more baddies. When they return to the manor, a new PC (A Dwarf Druid, which we’ll just call the Druid) has arrived with a message for the Soldier from his command. Alexandin has been working his nefarious schemes, and the Soldier has been discharged! If he wishes to defend himself from charges of conspiracy, he’ll have to travel to the Halfling capital. Meanwhile, Jack’s little sister Belinda wants to go off into the wilds to harvest a rare and valuable herb, and Jack’s father will only let her go if Jack accompanies her. Also, an anti-dwarf riot is going on in town, and Satrin is abducted by Dragonborn.
This was one of the big decision points. The players decided to accompany Belinda on…
The Search for Dekroot
They set off looking for the Dekroot. Along the way they fought a bunch of scorpions, bloodflies, crocodiles, and other wild animals. They floated across a mile-wide river on a raft. And they uncovered an ancient tomb which giant ants had taken over and expanded as a burrow.
But the most interesting vignette, in my mind, was the night they spent with the tribe of semi-feral Halflings. They had been on their journey into the wilds for several weeks when they found some a rude track running through the forest. The track was trapped (which they easily detected) and after a wary standoff Jack came to an understanding and the tribelings welcomed them back to their village. There they shared a meal, traded a health potion for information, and told unbelievable stories of the dwarven lands, where people lived in rocks. They also heard wild tales of the “dark forest” toward which, apparently, they were bound.
Because, here’s the deal, the dark forest is actually filled with lovely benevolent creatures who long only for cooperation, and who draw on the mystical power of the Dekroot. Those who get along with them are welcome to browse and wander the sun-dappled lanes of their forest. But all predators, defilers, and even many of the wary are exiled; Teleported miles away, and their memories of the forest replaced with darkness and dread. So the only news the tribelings heard was of a “dark forest” of imagined horrors.
This worked on the player’s imaginations a bit too well, and when they finally reached the Dekroot, it was a bit of an anticlimax. There were a few close calls, where they nearly went hunting in the decidedly well-lit forest, but the fearlesness of the creatures there dissuaded them from doing so. The peaceful guardians shared the Dekroot acorns freely with them, and they were free to go or stay as they willed. Of course, being adventurers, they decided to…
Long story short, they ran across the Dwarven army camp. Half the group decided to go and say “hi”, things went sideways, and those who weren’t killed never re-joined the party. Jack, the Soldier, and Belinda were all that remained, and they made it to the Eladrin kingdom without being very much clawed by dragons.
During this tumultuous time, several players left, a few joined, and a few of those who joined then left again. I ran a role-played social party, with a conversation mini-game that went pretty decently. At the end of the day they took a mercenary job to escort a shipment of weapons back to the Halfling lands by way of…
This was meant to be another over-land reveal-the-map-as-you-go travel thing, but for whatever reason the feeling of adventure was missing and the sub-floor of drudgery was beginning to show. It might have been the new player mix, or my own waning enthusiasm, or story fatigue, but in the end they muddled their way through the forest, rescued Little Timmy, and got paid, with only the Soldier dying in the process. They were…
Back in the Halfling Lands
I came up with a few quests to do in the towns, but the momentum was running real dry by this point, and we agreed to put the campaign on pause when they reached the capitol.
Like the campaign, this article about the campaign started out strong and just petered out until all that was left was this rather fitting but still unsatisfying sentence.