Started a new campaign yesterday for my regular group, with some new scheduling restrictions. Everyone is too busy for a weekly sandbox campaign, so what my players want is a longer monthly session, with each of those sessions being built around a one shot. Between sessions, I give them a few options as to where they can adventure next, based on the consequences of their previous session, with a goal to end the campaign after five or six sessions, and then start a new campaign with the same or different characters. For our group, the sandbox was proving difficult for a lot of people, and I feel like guaranteeing a sort of end on a regular basis helps gives the group some priority and sense of closure.
We had five players this session, three cancelled at the last minute. A good sized group.
The group started out locked up in the stables at Denngarde Keep after a night of carousing. I used the Keep on the Borderlands here for the starting area, just because it’s pretty well fleshed out already. I took away their stuff and had them all roll saves vs. Poison to see who was hungover, about half the party. Being hungover put those PCs at -1 to all rolls until they found a way to sober up. Some of them chose to drink some hair of the dog, which I gave them +1 for until the beginning of next session where they’d start at -2 to all rolls, we’ll see how that works itself out.
When they extricated themselves from the stables they found that the entire keep was under attack by a huge army of pigmen, led by a giant monster called Skullcrusher. Most of them were too hungover to care at the moment, so they made their way to the great tower to get their crap back and find a way to sober up a little. Once they had gotten their stuff back, they got a lay of the land from the locals.
The best advice I got on running a one-shot was to keep the objectives clear, and to keep the reasons why those objectives were difficult to achieve clear. So up front I set these boundaries:
I made it clear that while this is what I have prepared, they’re free at any time to leave Denngarde and escape with their lives. That while the conflict is potentially winnable, it’s extremely deadly, especially for first level characters, and will take a lot of creative problem solving and work to save the day.
So with those major items explained, I also gave them some XP guidelines:
So with these things outlined, I feel like the PCs have a good amount of agency in how they want to approach the next 6-8 hours of playtime. They can work to stop Skullcrusher, they can just loot and run, they can try get people to safety, they can try and find the Castellan’s daughter, or they can do whatever else they want while the battle raged on.
Fenrik, Argus, and Ninelives all wanted to search for a magical weapon that would uplift the spirits of the Denngardians and turn the tide of battle. They questioned some of the locals about some options, and came up with a possible buried spear deep within the northern most castle that they set off in search for.
Daexisys and Busna, on the other hand, set off in search of water so that Daexisys could get rid of her hangover. They went to the armory, where they were given a magical shield, now repaired, to give to the Castellan, who needed it for the battle2. Additionally, they picked up a letter from a woman who needed it delivered to her honeybaby, which they did and in return got some crossbow bolts.
Meanwhile, Team Magic Spear searched the now empty castle until they found a giant spider in a basement which promptly killed Father Argus3. It was here that the Arduin Grimoire Crits and Fumble charts paid off marvelously, mostly because we ended up with Ninelives on the ground, his bow tangled in the spider’s mouth. He decided to shove a flask of oil in the spider’s mouth, which they then set on fire. The spider then ran around the basement setting everything else on fire before dying.
A Note About Morale
So, we’re using B/X for this campaign, and it’s my first time ever really using it pretty by the book. The biggest two things I’ve added into my sessions is a near religious use of the Reaction Table and the Morale rules. Oh the monster took damage for the first time? Time to roll morale! Oh the players just lied to the bad guys? Time to roll a reaction.
What it’s helped me with is to see how easily I can get into a rut as the DM. My players are constantly acting suspiciously and coming up with ridiculous excuses to feed to the NPCs as lies whenever they screw up. Old me would constantly have those NPCs filled with a sort of genre-saaviness that always led to them disbelieving the PCs. Now, I just roll for their reaction. It takes a lot of work off of me and means that often times, my players now get to try talking their way out of situations. Which makes them about 90% more survivable as a first level party.
Same goes for the morale rules. First level guys and gals can die with one hit, and since we do group initiative, this means that any combat can be a TPK. But the same is true for the bad guys, my PCs could wipe the floor with them if they get a surprise round AND get a jump on them in initiative. This is the first time we’ve really played this way consistently as a group, and while it’s made death more likely, it’s always forced my players to be more cautious.
Most players hate when their character dies. I try to mitigate this by making it short and sweet. “Sorry man, that sucks. Roll a d12.” I’ve got a stack of pre-rolled PCs from Ram’s Sweet Sweet Character Roller all printed out next to me, and whatever they roll on the d12, I flip through that many characters and hand it over. Usually their intrigue at having a brand new character to sift through outweighs their desire to feel bitter about their unjust death. MK got DOKKAG, a decrepit and ugly dwarf in uniform. He decided this meant that DOKKAG was a deserter from the forces of Denngarde, looting the castle above before making his way out.
Back in the fire-filled basement, I gave the guys two options, a save against Poison in two rounds from smoke inhalation, failure means they pass out, or a save against dragon breath as they run through the flames to get out, failure means they catch on fire. They opted to cut up a large sack and then wet it with their water so they could breath. Problem solved. They could forego the save against Poison, for now.
Meanwhile, upstairs, DOKKAG found some barrels of water to roll down into the basement after seeing the smoke and flames erupting from down there, and saved Rudy Ninelives and Fenrik Fandir’s lives. They finished searching the spider’s webs and came up with some scrolls of Charm Person and Read Languages, and some kind of glowing staff. Feeling pretty content that they’ve found the right tool to inspire the troops, they decide to head out.
The girls, Busna and Daexisys, continue moving through the town while the siege continues, taking everything that isn’t bolted down. Daexisys doesn’t feel safe without at least 100 arrows, so she’s taking arrows from everyone who will give them. Which is a lot, since they all think she’s going to use them to help fight Skullcrusher’s forces. She isn’t.
At the provisioner’s they find a cowardly acolyte and Daexisys recruits him to carry her stuff on the condition that she’ll get him out of here.
Then, they decide to rob the bank, but find that it’s already being robbed by a gang of deserters who are beating up the old man. Daexisys attempts to recruit them as well4, and while they’re open to joining forces, they have two conditions: they leave the keep immediately after robbing the bank, and Daex and Busna have to beat the shit out of the old man to show they mean business. Busna refuses, and knees one of them in the crotch, which is about to erupt into a huge melee, but Daex talks everyone down and just agrees to leave the bank and the deserters to their own devices.
When they leave, they learn that the southern forces of Denngarde have routed the battalion stationed there, however, Skullcrusher’s forces have broken through on the northeastern side. All of the southern “C” squads are moving north. Daex flags down a few defenders and brings them to the bank, where they punish the deserters, and reward Daex and Busna for helping out. Whaddaya know.
Daex and Busna, move on to the tavern to find some more water for Daex’s hangover, when they find a huge lot of women, children, and elderly people hiding, waiting for the melee to be over. Daex and Busna tie together some ropes and start escorting those people down the western walls so that they can escape.
On their way out of the castle, Fenrik, Rudy, and DOKKAG run into an entire battalion of Crimson Guard, feared mercenaries that apparently Skullcrusher has brought in to augment his assault. They’ve taken the entire castle without a single kill, mostly because it wasn’t being defended at all. DOKKAG jumps out a nearby window and Fenrik and Rudy go for the old “He’s jumped out the window!! After him!” route. They get a good reaction roll, so a couple Crimson Guard run outside with Fenrik and Rudy to try and start chasing down DOKKAG.
DOKKAG makes it to the Great Tower, and instead of the running into a trap unprepared, the Crimson Guard hold off and tell Fenrik to go inside the castle and grab another squad so they can take the Great Tower by force5.
Fenrik and Rudy didn’t think their ruse would last much longer, so Rudy sneak attacked one of the Crimson Guard, missed, won initiative, and then took off running after DOKKAG under a hail of arrows.
DOKKAG, however, having just gotten to the tower, and seeing his own newly minted friends chasing after him with a bunch of Crimson Guard, has warned the tower, and they’ve locked the tower up, making it almost impossible for Rudy and Fenrik to get in. One failed lock-picking roll later and the two PCs are let in by a group of Denngardians, who hold Fenrik and Rudy at crossbow point. One reaction roll later and they’re let into the tower officially, where they warn the defenders that the castle has fallen.
They get a good view of the battle from the tower and they see things are not going well for the Denngardians, which is not surprising since they haven’t really done much to help. DOKKAG has apparently already abandoned ship and picked up two retainers who are willing to flee alongside him (this is where we get Everett the retainer above).
The group splits again, and DOKKAG runs into Daex and Busna freeing the scared women and children, and so therefore gets shamed back into defending the keep. Fenrik links up with them at this point and convinces everyone to deliver the magic staff to the Curate, a high level cleric who could identify it for them. Rudy Ninelives decides to sneak back into the Crimson Guard invested castle and look for the Castellan’s daughter. This proves to be a bad idea. Rudy sneaks into the upper towers, is able to sneak attack kill a guard, and then sets a fire (?!) to distract another guard for another potential sneak attack. This sneak attack fails and the guard sounds the alarm. The leader of the Crimson Guard steps out of the Castellan’s quarters, and now Rudy is trapped between three guards on one side and a guard/fire on the other. He bum rushes the guard/fire, makes it to a door, sets that door on fire, jumps out a window and climbs down.6 However, at the bottom, he takes two shots from crossbows and dies.
The staff is identified by the Curate to be the Staff of Petermer an ancient and holy device that will set off a huge Bless spell at the cost of some of Fenrik’s memories. Fenrik is thousands of years old, so he doesn’t care, and in exchange for what happened to him between the ages of 1,564–1,793 Fenrik sets off a huge bless spell in the middle of the now infested keep, which helps to slowly turn the tide of battle.7
The front gate falls, however, and now the entire north and eastern sides of the keep have been compromised. Skullcrusher is revealed to be a huge giant of bone and meat with a pig’s head and large boney wings. The Crimson Guard also have some kind of orbs that on contact with the dead, turn them into zombies, effectively doubling their forces. Nick rejoins the group as Holden “Bonesnarl” Odaku, a 16-year-old who was trained heavily in the use of the ballistas and their safety and procedures, and is always mad when commanders and rogue PCs run up and commandeer them, as he points out when Daex critically fails, forcing the ballista to explode, essentially, and knock out the entire party.
The party spends the next bit trying to get Skullcrusher tied down, and they fire off several shots with the ballista, but it’s too late. Skullcrusher’s forces overrun the keep, the Castellan is killed, all is lost, and the PCs barely make it out of the keep alive.
At the end they evacuated 11 people, completed four quests, killed a few people, and stole a little bit of gold. The keep falls to the forces of darkness.
I’ve become convinced that the best way to create memorable villains is through the villains that get away. So Skullcrusher and the Crimson Guard will be making appearances in the future sessions, as well as the remaining lieutenants of Skullcrusher who were never encountered. Maybe the PCs can make up for their failures at Denngarde. Maybe they don’t care to.
Ongoing Roll of the Dead
- Father Argus (Level One Cleric) [MK]
- Rudy Ninelives (Level One Thief) [Nick Reed]
There are a limited number of elves remaining in my D&D games. I started with 75, and every time someone plays one, or one dies in game, that number goes down. Eventually there will be a last Elf.↩
They declined to do so.↩
Father Argus was a devotee of the Fellowship of the Final Death, so needless to say, this was a good outcome for him.↩
There’s that helpful reaction roll again.↩
One of the big pieces of prep I did, probably unnecessarily, was to total up all the NPCs at the Keep on the Borderlands, then assign them all into squads, with any of the higher level fighters leading them. At the time, it seemed kind of pointless, but later on it help create some verisimilitude, as for instance, the squads in the northwest were led by a Smith and his assistants, whereas the squads in the southeast were led by the Castellan himself and a handful of cavalry. It also helped the players remember where they were and how safe or dangerous the area was.↩
Never underestimate how often PCs will use fire to solve problems as simple as say locking doors or tapping on walls. It’s the duct tape of the fantasy world.↩
On the way to setting off this bless spell, the party runs into one of their only other combat scenarios, a squad of pigmen led by a minotaur and a spellcasting imp. They use one of their only sleep spells to knock out the pigmen, the Curate casts Hold Person on the minotaur, and they’re able to slaughter the rest. But it’s close.↩
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