Hey everyone, it's Jarred from your favorite D&D 5e podcast about multiclassing. I think the only one still. But who knows.
So we decided we are moving to a biweekly podcast schedule. Something about Kevin having a baby soon and editing every week being a problem. Can't say I am too surprised but I feel like I need something to fill that void as I will now have some free time back.
The idea of a campaign diary intrigued me. Less so for anyone who reads it, I expect that number to be low. But I am obsessed with self reflection and self improvement. Especially when it comes to DMing. And the only way to get better at DMing is looking at what you have done and find ways that you can do it better. So that's what this is. Taking a look at the decisions I have made while DMing and just asking myself if I could have done a better job. I hope that anyone who finds this can use what I learn from it and improve a little themselves.
This week I started a new campaign. It's a homebrew world that I spent a criminally low amount of time fleshing out. 2 weeks of hard work then jumping straight into it. I figure it's better to just make a thing, mess it up, then try again. It's generally what I do best.
Most campaigns I have run have been focused around large scale events that are on this small group to figure out. The classic Wizards of the Coast campaign where a handful of adventurers are given a task far too big for them and through it quickly find themselves to be some of the most powerful beings in the world. The campaigns I have run and played in are also roleplay light. Someone might make a backstory but what does it matter if your family locked you in a dungeon for 10 years and you escaped to journey into a cold and strange world when your every day focus is stopping the rise of Tiamat or preventing a Yuan-ti queen from ascending into godhood. So I took a step back. I ripped all of that out. I set out on my own journey as a DM. I want to make a campaign where the characters are the center of the story. Where the roleplay isn't just important, but it's the core of the setting. Things happen without any player input in a world that doesn't care about them. The hard part of this was taking players also held by those shackles of a "bigger conflict" and pushing them in the direction I wanted before the first dice were ever rolled. No one ever spent time on their backstory. It was an afterthought. Quickly discarded once the plot started to reveal itself. I messaged every player with my idea to create this new (to us) campaign. Most seemed excited but not entirely sure how to tackle the problem. So I worked with them. I added in seemingly unnecessary plot hooks to their back story with their approval. Gave them people to care about. And made sure above all else, that these people had personalities beyond "I am here to take care of a problem and then move on to the next one."
Last Monday, with character's rolled, loose threads dangling, and a few mediocre voices prepared, we set off on the journey together. The initial opening was awkward. I had 3 of the characters already set up in an adventurers guild. They were given a job they knew very little about. Go out, kill some goblins, bring their noses, get paid. The last character arrive was Daerro, the monster hunter ranger. I described his entrance through the pre-written text I had laid out, which always feels akin to Matt Mercer level of description when I write it but feels more like a rushed teenager trying to finish up an English project when I read it off. First thing to work on. Setting a scene. When he got inside I had a character greet him, expecting his arrival, and walked out from behind the counter. He gave an offhanded remark around "You know the job...but it's gotten a little tougher than originally described. The purveyor of the job think's it will need a few more people." At the table were the rest of his party members. A wood elf life cleric Eilenia, a half orc eldritch knight, Krusk (Who I guess want's to go by Krush? Bit of an edgy decision), and a firbolg spore druid, Musty. There was an uncomfortable getting to know each other phase. Everyone gave their name and a few grunts signaling that they were already done with the conversation. I'm not sure how I felt about this. Part of me feels like the introductions don't need to be so odd but on the other hand, when you are thrown at a table filled with strangers, is there really much to talk about? We are on a job together, so let's go do it? They rapidly moved to a nights rest for a half days travel in the morning. I was somewhat relieved. Instead of pushing for meeting strangers in the bar or trying to ask the bartenders life story, they all felt the urge to move on to the morning.
When morning came it was my first chance to give them an RP moment. I asked what they did when they woke up. I am a creature of habit. Every morning I wake up, make coffee, feed the dog, walk the dog, shower, make breakfast, then leave. A character's morning routine can help define them. Do they roll out of bed and take a swig of whatever they have left in their flask? Do they pray to their God and begin preparing spells? Or do they get up early to maintain their equipment, just like their father taught them. It lets them set the stage for WHO their character is, even if it get's forgotten after the 10th session. Most of them moved past it rather quickly. Guess I need to add a morning routine question to my 20 question character set up sheet. Maybe it will catch on more next session. At least the cleric threw me a bone.
They moved downstairs, had breakfast, and discussed the mission. It felt like a switch flipped though. It quickly went to questions about how they each fight. What skills they had. What they brought to the table. They hadn't spent hours before hand reading each others character sheets and making mechanic decisions based on the other characters. They learned through the interaction! What a great feeling.
Finding out that they ranger was good at tracking they let him lead the group. The task to kill goblins seemed easy enough. Everyone had killed goblins before. Nothing new for a level 4 party. So they moved out in the direction they were told to move. At this point it was up to me to move the flow of the session. Back to scene setting, a weakness. I described the density of the trees increasing. Explained that the rangers knack for traversing the forest allowed them to find quicker paths through the thicket. Logs over ravines, areas of brush that had been cleared before.
I had wrote in a quick encounter about bandits and thugs riding up near them and trying to shake them down for money. Silly me I forgot they were in a forest so travel on horse isn't all too easy nor is sneaking up. First perception check and first roll of the night. DC 14 and they barely beat it. I explained that they heard hooves off to the west, opposite to the direction they were traveling. Curiously they choose to head towards it. Figured they would try to meet it before it crept up on them. I have to respect the aggressive play. After a bit of travel they came across a group set up at camp. I told them they were about 120 feet away. They assessed the situation and saw there were about 6 tough looking fellas standing around. Shooting the shit. The party left. It wasn't anything they needed to get involved in. This will come back to bite them later. That group is NOW going to be tracking the same goblins they were. And when they exit out with 40 noses and are low on resources from clearing out a cave, this group will ask for about 15 to let them go without any trouble.
After a bit more travel and a few survival checks they picked up a trail for wolves. The ranger knew enough about Goblins to know that they kept wolves in their perimeter as a first line of defense. So they followed the tracks. This led them to my first trap. See goblins are brutish but it's a bit of an offense to say they aren't crafty. 2 goblins were up in the trees while the wolves were on the ground. Waiting for anyone to come through, fall in their hole, and drag them back to the others. I gave the group a perception check to notice the goblins in the trees with a DC 18. Ranger of course went well past that. He saw the goblins. This was great. It actually opened up the stage to let the party decide how they wanted to plan an attack. He attempted to stealth around, once again getting a great roll, to get up closer. At this point the Goblins were bickering to each other. No one spoke goblin so it didn't matter what. I'd make that up if they could understand the language. The ranger tried to signal back to the party that there were 2 goblins and 2 wolves. A low INT roll informed the party of little more than "There's 2 of them". The ranger held an attack for when he saw an opportunity to strike. The rest of the party wanted to get up closer to. Same stealth rolls, all bad. Twigs snapped alerting the goblins to the party. I wanted to reward the ranger for at least trying to stealth and flank so I gave him a surprise round while everyone entered in normal. First attack ripped right through the 7 health a goblin has. This was definitely a red flag. 15 AC is pretty good but 7 health basically meant that each hit was going to be an instant kill. I could get around it, but having not set numbers for goblins in the cave I realized I should err on the side of more over less. When the round started the goblins were taken out quickly. I did have a plan for the wolves though. The first one ran up and instead of attacking he held his action for his other wolf friend to move up with him. Wolves have pack tactics. Something to definitely not ignore. I play on the side of the monster knowing how best to fight as it's self. So when the other wolf came up, there were 2 advantage attacks they had to deal with. First hit did 11 damage. over a quarter of the fighters health. Felt nice to give them a scare like that. I got to remind them that just because something is easy to kill, doesn't make it bad at killing you!
Combat ended fairly quick. A few resources expended, and time for the group to investigate the area. I never view an encounter that uses resources to be a bad fight. Health is great to take away, but if a wizard uses their highest spell slot to get out of a fight, that's one less spell slot they have for a boss fight.
With their investigation they found a trap and some nets to tangle up captives with. They took the nets. Always funny how in early levels even the dullest sword looks like gold.
They kept following the tracks making their way to the caves. At this point they realized that only 2 of them had darkvision. So torches were the only option. Lucky for them a torch was lit near the entrance of the tunnel. One of the players asked why a goblin cave would have torches since they had darkvision. Huh I guess I didn't really think of that. Well I turned it back on them! "Interesting. Why WOULD goblins have a torch lit?" I was actually kind of proud of that one. This turned it into a discussion about the chances of it being a trap. They realized they had no other option other than to go in. One of them tried to grab the torch off the wall but was stopped before they even finished their sentence. It was at that moment that I figured out why the torch was there. If they grabbed it, it would set off an alarm that would let the first group of goblins get the drop on them instead of the other way around. They left the torch untouched. Good move on their part.
The fun part about goblin caves is that they need to be filled with just minor traps and alarms. So in the first minute of them walking I had a perception check rolled to find some traps. Poorly all around. Ahh my favorite thing as a DM, low PC rolls. The fighter in front set off the trap. A crude crossbow went off, dex ST. I set the DC low but had him take half damage on a fail. The trap wasn't the important bit. The important part was the alarm that was just set off. There goes their chance at surprise!
Wandering deeper in a gave them the option of 4 different tunnels. They decided to take a logical approach in clearing things out. Start at the top and go clockwise! This led them straight into the first goblin lair. I had them roll perception ago to hear goblin chattering down the hall. So they snuffed their torches torches and went in. When they got 60 feet away we had a fun moment where the goblins were basically staring them down waiting for them. The alarm had woken them up and they were geared and ready to go. 7 total goblins and 2 wolves. Seemed like a medium enough encounter for 4 level 4s. This was where things could start to get fun. The goblins all rolled well enough to go first save for 2 of them. So 5 arrows were shot down this narrow tunnel. A nice big hit on the fighter and cleric to bring down some HP. The fighter, knowing he was next talked about pulling out his bow when I stopped him and reminded him that the goblins still had movement. They all moved to the sides of the walls out of the darkvision range. No reason for them to stand out in the open and grouped up right? That's how you get AOE'd. So the fighter runs in and attacks the first goblin he sees somehow missing it. The rest of the combat went fairly smooth as they had their first real run in with how goblins operate. The frustrating green beats kept moving in for an attack and then using their bonus action to disengage. Or they would move back, shoot with their bows, then take the dodge action. I refused to let these goblins be pure canon fodder. I could see the frustration on my PC's faces. They were used to goblins being dumb. They would stand their, group up, and wait to get killed while maybe doing 2-3 damage. The wolves continued to wait until they had help to use their pack tactics. Overall the enemy stat blocks became more than just interesting things they could do. They defined their every turn.
With a few round of combat past and even more over the top gory kills explained they searched the room and moved on. Due to my love of anime with cheesy over the top kills I always have to pull that motivation out. Stabbing the goblin isn't enough. You stab the goblin and in one motion grab his head and pull out your sword and swing again slicing through his neck! Sure the PC is level 4 and doesn't have extra attack, but damn is it fun to make the PCs feel like game mechanics don't hold them back from being cool.
At this point they moved out of this area. It was devoid of goblins and anything else interesting so it was off to corridor #2. The only thing I had planned here was a spike trap and a dead end. I figured they might roll low on perception and fall in, take some damage, and move on feeling silly that this was the end of it anyways. Instead they rolled really well on perception and found the trap. So to trigger it they went back to the first room to grab a goblin body and throw it in. Totally great move. BUT, then came the dumb idea. They split the party! 2 people went back to grab a body while the other 2 waited in front of the trap. After the 2 got over the goblin body and moved it a bit, I threw 3 goblins at the group. The idea wasn't to have a tough fight here. It was another opportunity to use up some resources. The goblins charged forward and initiative was rolled. The fighter went first, dropped the goblin corpse he was carrying for the trap, and ran around the corner dropping a burning hands on the goblins. A level 2 spell used to kill 1 goblin and damage 2. Encounter success already. The 2 goblins that survived dashed forward trying to push the 2 in front of the spike trap right into it. A shove would be more effective here than anything else. Sadly the burning hands dropped them too low and dashing to get there took any useful moves. After a round of combat all of them were felled without any dramatic shoves into spike traps. I think I might pull that one again though with less ground for the goblins to cover.
They ended up throwing a corpse into the pit. Another gruesome description and they continued on, easily jumping past the 10 ft gap with a running long jump. After 5 more minutes of walking, dead end. Turned back and went to the diverging paths.
It was getting late so I knew I'd only be able to set up this encounter. At the end of the tunnel was the next trick up my sleeve. A goblin boss. They moved down the tunnel with the cleric stealthily making her way 60 feet out but keeping out of sight. She ran back and described the scene to the party. About 9 goblins sleeping with a larger goblin just sitting there keeping watch. After some heated discussion they decided "best to leave that for a later point". And went back to the original path. Sadly this means the gatherer goblins who only try to throw nets and run away will have to wait. What they don't know is that further into that path my real secret weapon will be revealed. But I am sure we will get to that next week.
Final wrap up here, if you stuck around to read this whole thing...cool! I'm not entirely sure what I learned from it. This session went fairly well. Party cohesion is pretty on point. I had some fun ways to use goblins. And I recovered from some pretty glaring mistakes and unexpected twists rather well. I still need to find a way to set a scene better though. The entire time going through the tunnels I haven't discussed any goblin imagery like wolf skulls or maybe some silly thing they are obsessed with. Maybe I'll think of somethings to throw in next week for that oh so tasty flavor!
Thank's for reading, see you next session!