Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’m still in the process of unpacking the diverse refuse of my life into my new apartment, and thereby admiring the mix of grids, maps, borrowed miniatures, plastic dinosaurs, and legos with which I’ve been furnishing my playing party’s D&D campaign. That in turn got me thinking back to how all this nonsense began, with a handful of sample quests and vague aspirations of some eventual regional conflict. I wouldn’t be able to sustain my writing output this long if I weren’t translating my every idle thought into Content, so I guess what I’m saying is to take a seat folks, as we once again delve into the triumphs and tribulations of my dubious dungeon mastering!
Every seasoned writer will tell you that starting small is the way to go, and that you should establish a firm grasp on the challenges of short narratives before attempting your magnum opus. At the same time, any decent writer will also tell you that unless you’re writing for pay, you should really just embrace whatever ignites your passion, and write whatever inspires you to first press pen to paper. That sounded a lot more like what I wanted to do than the first piece of advice, so I swiftly set to work plotting out a narrative that would comprise three major acts, building the players into realm-saving heroes over the course of a gradual escalation in scale and drama.
“Write down the skeleton, but leave room for the characters to surprise you” is good advice for traditional fiction, and even more essential for the collaboration that is D&D, so I kept things pretty simple to start: a first act spent establishing their reputation within Tasseldale, a second act of gathering allies to face a much larger threat, and a third act of actually facing that threat in a pan-Daleland war. The precise nature of that threat wouldn’t really solidify until my players had reached the city of Yhaunn, capital of Tasseldale; for the moment, my overall summary and first act outline were quite simple, as you can see:
The overall structure of this campaign concerns the fate of the Dalelands, with perhaps some sort of ultimate, larger threat following the final political antagonist. It will involve gaining popular support across the Dalelands, both through diplomatic accomplishments and acts of public heroism. After gaining renown and political connections in Tasseldale, the party will gain opportunities to expand their allegiances’ support to either the south, west, or northwest
The party gather and establish their reputation during the Festival of Saint Agatha
The raid of Castle Blackmire provides new opportunities and clues regarding the growing conflict
At Yhaunn, the party will become tied to Tasseldale’s royal family, and charged with pursuing peace in the Dalelands
At the end of act one, the king and queen will be murdered during a grand parade, by a terrifying weapon of seemingly otherworldly origin. This will throw the future of both Tasseldale and the broader Dalelands into jeopardy
Pretty standard stuff, as you can see. An early focus on self-contained conflicts to let the players and their characters gain a local reputation and degree of confidence in their play, leading into engagements with increasingly politically significant characters to draw the team towards larger acts of heroism. I knew I needed threads to guide the party from their provincial conflicts towards grand political theater, and thus designed the NPC Charlie as my first and most essential guide. While my party simply knew her as “that girl who helped with the first heist mission,” my ferocious love of character writing had already infused her with an extended backstory, one that would eventually connect her with the Dalelands’ larger political conflicts:
King Ordo Ves and Queen Bea rule over Yhaunn and the surrounding territory of Tasseldale, repaying the region’s bountiful farmlands with order, safety, and a superior standard of living. Their first and only daughter Aurora was born two years before Ordo helped bring peace to the Dalelands, and has been the royal couple’s pride and joy ever since
Princess Aurora Ves has thus led a sheltered life, mostly sharing the company of servants, tutors, and her handmaiden Charlotte. Charlotte was the daughter of Aurora’s nursemaid, and was raised alongside her in the castle chambers. The two were each other’s confidants; Aurora regaled Charlotte with tales of royal feasts and balls, and was delighted in turn by Charlotte’s stories of adventures with the children of the city. Charlotte parlayed royal academy-tier harp lessons into blistering lute performances at the local taverns, while developing a quieter reputation as a magnificent thief
The two were happy, in their own way. They were like sisters of circumstance, each basking in the other’s shadow. It was thus a great surprise to Charlotte when Aurora handed her a bag of gemstones, urging her to flee the city. “They will come for us both. I must stay for Father, but you, you must live, Charlotte. My dearest friend. My… please, please forgive me. Know I am with you always”
And so Charlotte fled. With tears in her eyes and a fiery tangle in her throat, she snuck from Yhaunn without a word, taking passage with a westward caravan and blotting the city from her sight. In short order, the gifted singer ‘Charlie’ became a fixture of mid-Daleland taverns, relying on her voice, her charm, and that irrepressible thieves’ instinct to guide her true. Charlie’s life carried on this way for five years or so, until a letter received during the Saint Agatha harvest festival prompted her to return home
I know, probably a bit excessive, but instilling NPCs with as much personhood as possible is likely my favorite part of being a dungeon master. And heck, we haven’t even gotten into Charlie’s true backstory, which is even more consequential and convoluted than this one. Aurora and Charlie would ultimately become my most fully realized player allies, both guiding the narrative course of the campaign and infusing it with personal emotional stakes all along the way. Nonetheless, as I said, none of this was known to my players at the time of the first few sessions: I’m just providing a window of where I personally had plotted through, knowing they’d munch through Nettlebarn in no time. But before that, they’d have to survive my second major quest, and the quest this festival was essentially designed around: The Flowering of the Nettlebairn.
Investigating the history of the town will reveal that it was originally named “Nettlebairn,” literally “Child of Thorn,” but shifted over time owing to nobody being able to pronounce or remember “Nettlebairn.” If questioned further on the town/festival, younger townsfolk dissolve into fits of giggles and monstrous fairytales, while elders grow quiet, offering only “ask the dancers”
Lugdug will reveal all of this information, saying he heard it from the furrier elements of the community – “didja know this place wasn’t always called Nettlebarn? The name don’t make much sense now, don’t it.”
Charlie can also manage this – as an outsider, she also finds something weird about the tone of this place
Among the revelers of the festival, there are many in costumes ranging from wolfen furs to thatch and straw. Most mingle freely among the crowd, but some seem strange and unnatural in their movements – a touch more animalistic, a shade more stilted and staggered. They dance among the madding crowd, and when addressed speak gaily and haltingly of Agatha’s benevolence
Investigating/pursuing the strange revelers leads the party to a gathering on the outskirts of the city. Around a derelict farmhouse, creatures somewhere beyond human dance round the flames, bellowing to whatever gods they obey. You may dance with these monstrosities until dawn, or investigate their purpose. Either way, a FIGHT will result, with some sort of armor/items reward, along with the knowledge of the cult’s true forest sanctuary (and the time on Sunday on which it will be accessible)
Checking the bodies will reveal 3x cloaks that can be sold for 50s, as well as a Potion of Healing
Whaaat, I designed my first D&D setting around some kind of folk horror ritual? Yeah, no points for guessing I’d immediately leap to my narrative comfort zone, but “write what you know” and “follow your passion” are truisms because they’re damn good advice. My campaign would thusly find itself brimming with folk horror monsters and star-crossed lovers, starting with this roughly fifty-fifty blend of The Ritual and The Wicker Man.
The big lesson I took away from the execution of this sequence was that if you want your players to be led into some narrative sequence, you need to actually guide them there; you can’t just write “various strange individuals at the festival eventually clue your players in to the existence of some sinister simultaneous ritual going on in the woods.” Having either Lugdug or Charlie be capable of seeding this quest was actually pretty forward-thinking relative to my understanding of quest design at the time, but it wasn’t enough; game design is in large part about banishing your preconceptions regarding what might be mechanically “obvious” or not, and with D&D lacking the clear visual hints available to videogames, making sure your players know where to go via spoken clues becomes all the more important.
In spite of my quest’s clumsy design, the players eventually discovered some nastiness afoot among the festival revelers, and were duly informed of the sanctuary where this alleged sacrifice would be taking place. It was time for the party’s first dungeon!
Investigating the forest sanctuary will reveal a stone door leading to a DUNGEON, with a moderate amount of loot, traps, and cultists (more Cultists/Jackalwears, sometimes with Ravens that are imitating strange creature noises, sometimes corrupted Pixies). Completing the dungeon leads to the Nettlebairn encounter
Stone stairs descend to a dank underground chamber, where a floor of dirt and uneven rock gives way to several darkened tunnels. Wailing noises emanate from the tunnels, varying from human to animal to somewhere in between. Along with the chanting and howling, you can hear screams and voices pleading for mercy or salvation. Water drips from the ceiling, nourishing moss that grows along the rocks, and gathering in a slight stream that descends into one of the northern tunnels
Furthest right, the tunnel leads to an underground chapel, full of Cultists and Jackalwears. At the altar, a tiny glass object appears to be catching the moonlight emanating from a crack above, sending bright light glittering across the walls of the chapel. Defeating them will yield precious jewelry and gold from the altar, as well as the glass (a Monocle of Dark Vision, which can alternately focus light through its lens)
The center two tunnels lead to watery chambers filled with Ravens and Pixies, possibly also Jackalweres. The ravens are mimicking the voices of previous victims, filling the chambers with the wails of the damned. As the party enters, the reveling creatures all turn in unison, then descend on the party
The leftmost tunnel is the station of two patrolling Cultists, who can be ambushed by a careful party. Searching their station will reveal several shields and short swords
The final, longest tunnel leads to an antechamber painted in blood, with brambles piercing the walls and candles in every alcove. A grand wooden door awaits at the far end, engraved with a massive carving of a tree whose branches are like thorny spires heavy in crimson fruit, and whose roots erupt through the ground as grasping hands
This dungeon seemed simple enough to me, though I went back and forth on whether opening the final door should require gathering three or so gem-keys from the other pathways. I elected against it, and was right to, as the main lesson I took away from actually executing this dungeon was that D&D is emphatically not Diablo, Final Fantasy, or any other snappily paced digital RPG. Fights in D&D tend to involve far greater expenditures of time and resources than you’d expect based on videogame pacing, so they must be accordingly inserted and designed with greater care. The amount of time it took my party to fight through these allegedly “simple” fights prompted me to actually cut the fights from the center tunnels, as we were simply wasting too much time on content that was ultimately too repetitive to be worth the effort. Fortunately, I was able to adjust without too much issue, and thus my party journeyed onward to the final battle:
Opening the door reveals the ritual chamber, where a grand tree with a nettle cage before it is being tended by Cultists, while two Jackalweres drag a struggling Charlie/Lugdug towards the cage
Agatha’s festival ends in a ritual, wherein a chosen sacrifice is enshrined in a cage of nettles – a living growth that harbors “Agatha the Ever-Reaping,” a spirit which is believed to protect the village and grant bountiful harvests. The nettles constrict the sacrifice until it is exsanguinated, simultaneously growing into the target. Once the nettle has nested in its target, thorns and vines expand outwards, bursting from the target’s skin and forming the limbs of the emergent Nettlebairn
Either Charlie or Lugdug will be employed in the ritual, and the party can choose to either save or abandon them. If saved, one of the cultists will instead be consumed to create the Nettlebairn
Nettlebairn (Druid) + Cultists/Jackalweres is the quest’s FINAL BOSS. Defeating these enemies rewards the party with a Staff that may cast Barkskin and Entangle once each per long rest, as well as pricey refuse from the cultists
Include Dryads in this fight? Possibly a Cult Fanatic if it seems too easy
Pretty gnarly creature, huh? I’m still quite proud of my terrible thorn-cage avatar, and have come to rely on my ability to invent awful beasts as one of my campaign’s signature strengths. This climax was also intended to further bind the players to the narrative in an emotional sense, taking advantage of whatever relationship they were most invested in to grant the quest a sense of genuine dramatic consequence. It was additionally my first attempt to introduce both timed challenges and field elevation dynamics – the victim would be carried forward across the map over the course of several turns, while ranged attackers struck from ledges on both sides.
With Charlie at this point still defined mostly by qualities the party weren’t privy to (a perennial lesson: introduce characters through engaging broad strokes, add texture over time), this job fell to Lugdug, and he performed it admirably. As it turns out, you don’t really need to work too hard to stoke player motivation: put a drunk they’re fond of in jeopardy, and they’ll do the rest. The party thus succeeded in their second major quest and ended their second session in high spirits, having gained their first taste of genuine heroism and some fancy loot alongside it. Next up, the fiery conclusion of the Festival of Saint Agatha!