Category: Journal

Feedback on Leading Our Game

For the past two years I’ve been leading a game of D&D. I had been toying around with returning to D&D for a while and had been low-key thinking about a campaign premise for years. When Edwin wanted to do a D&D campaign and took over from me running Shadowrun, a game that I had fallen out of love with and whose campaign just wasting panning out the way I had wanted to, Edwin’s campaign came as a breath of fresh air. I had missed D&D and Edwin had put a great campaign together. He had raised the bar in all the ways that appealed to me.

For about six months I worked on the campaign premise, the theme, the continent that the campaign would take place in; kingdoms, cities, cultures, organisations, people. I got really into the world building aspect of the preparations. I may have taken it a bit too far, but I was enjoying it so much that I couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to stop.

Six months of that lead to us starting the campaign and it started off relatively well. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and it seemed like the world I’d created and the things I was exposing to the players was really well received. I got some great engagement and feedback.

Two years down the line, we’re still playing, I moved countries, pandemic happened, lost a player, picked up a player, and all the while I’ve been working away at the story, the campaign as well as the world it’s set in. I must have spent five hundred hours into it altogether. I have so much material prepared on all kinds of places, people and things that the players are unlikely to ever engage with. (Or maybe they will. Who knows!)

But I started to notice that the momentum was being lost a bit, especially around the times where decisions needed to be made.

There was a bit of analysis paralysis happening. The players were sometimes hesitant to make mistakes because they felt like a bad outcome would have detrimental consequences. This is likely due to some events during sessions in the past where they were punished for making mistakes, perhaps their best laid plans weren’t honoured with enough return on investment, or something else that lead to this dysfunction. I assured the players that they wouldn’t have to worry too much and that they could trust me not to fuck them over, and if they were to fail, they would always be presented with a narrative parachute. They understood, and it got a little better, but there was something more.

Recently, I sent all of them an e-mail and straight up asked them for feedback and criticism. It was surprising how unified the answers were. All of them loved the setting, the campaign and which direction it was headed in. But the one thing they would want to see changed was the amount of choice they were offered. They liked to have a clear goal and clear initial steps to work towards that goal. While they appreciated all the different side quests that they could do, and that there were several options in larger quests that would move the main story forward, they’d rather have a bit less choice and a bit more direction.

I did not see that coming.

One of the things which I have been asking for when running a game — and this is was something I wanted even before this D&D campaign — is that people’s characters wanted something; were inherently self-motivated by something. Not by something simple and banal as “treasure” or “adventure”, but that they had an internal motivation to find something, to answer a question or achieve an ambition. If during a session I were to say; “So, after a good night’s rest, after having returned the royal sceptre of dominion, you find that the day is yours. What would you like to do?” that they could be guided by ambitions beyond the just finished story arc and decide where to go next and what to do.

Side quests that would raise their standing within a particular organisation. Investigation into the lost library of a dead wizard I once mentioned. Researching the ancient catacombs that they rescued an injured ranger from to find out who built them. Finding out the identity of a mysterious benefactor. Shit like that.

It would then give me a way to seamlessly weave from one story into the next and start the next session presenting them with the next story, driven from an external source. It would also allow me to tie the story into the player character’s interests and motivations and make it all a little more appealing.

What I realise is that my mistake has been to assume that the players spend as much time thinking about and preparing the game as I am. I have created so much of the world and spend so much time thinking about the ever evolving world around the player characters, all of the consequences of their actions, their inactions, the history and the possible futures, that I have all these ideas kicking around in my head that I think would be fun if I was playing one of the characters.

I should be more respectful of my players, the time they offer up to play in the game, and what they want to put in, and get out of the game. I need to slim things down and make the story structure decision tree simpler. Non-trivial decisions need to be dramatic and have clear impact and consequences in order to make decision making less nebulous. Hopefully that way we’ll get more fun out of our games. More collaborative storytelling. Less indecision.

One thing is for sure, I should ask them for feedback more often.

A Talking Chihuahua

I often have interesting dreams but I don’t often remember them long enough, or they’re just a jumbled mess that only made sense when I was dreaming. This morning I woke up because Joasia woke up, and I immediately told her the dream (or at least the last portion of it). Normally I am not one to try to write down dreams, but this one was fun.

I was driving on a warm evening in a little sports convertible through the streets of Lausanne (or some place like it) in order to go to the embassy of Luxembourg. I had my dog with me, a little chihuahua who I could teach how to say words. I was on my way to the embassy because I needed to vote in the elections and had been waylaid and needed to convince the ambassador to let me vote late. I ended up instructing my dog to convince the ambassador to let me vote and putting the dog into the ventilation system in order to find the ambassador, who was inside the building somewhere.

Now that I write it down it doesn’t seem as sane as I thought it did initially. But I had a really cool little dog that could talk!!

A Mother and Son Reunited

Previously, the Heroes of the White Eye had managed to capture Kalina and separate her from the rest of the bandits she was hiding out with, only to come under attack from a group of shadowy creatures as they regrouped at the Scatterfoot farm. While the creatures were defeated, the Silesian bandit was killed by one of them. The heroes took her body and returned to Kingsport, preparing to bring the body to the day master together with what they had learned, hoping that it would be enough to liberate James’ mother from captivity.

Fifth Day, First Ride, Autumn Red, 1262

(Silvermoon in high sanction. Bloodmoon in high sanction. Darkmoon is waxing.)

While Astrid and James had taken the cart carrying Kalina’s body to an abandoned shack in an anonymous part of Kingsport, Luca, Quentin and Emrys arranged for one of the luxurious rooms at the Careless Wanderer. Astrid and James eat their last remaining rations and shared a bottle of Pinefall brandy, and the others ate Ramsey’s wonderful food.

Astrid and James fell asleep in their clothes, warmed only by a small fire. Luca sat a small writing desk and read and studied Kalina’s prayer book. Quentin sat cross legged in front of the fire while he cleaned his blade while meditating; softly reciting the litanies and oaths of knighthood, slowly becoming one with the blade and the complicated spirit within. Emrys enjoyed the luxury of a four-poster bed, with his eyes closed; vast asleep.

It was deep in the night before Luca fell asleep, slumped over the writing desk he had been studying at. Before succumbing to fatigue, he had learned that the prayer book, written almost completely in the infernal language of Ba’ator, the lower plane of devils. It was called The Disciplines of the Dark Queen, which described all matters of worshipping Takhisis.

Sixth Day, First Ride, Autumn Red, 1262

(Silvermoon in high sanction. Bloodmoon in waning. Darkmoon is waxing.)

After Astrid and James woke up, took a piss, and left the shack together with the horses, cart and morbid contents, they spent some time wandering the streets around Steward Square, finding some food for breakfast and enduring the weather.

Luca, Quentin and Emrys woke up and enjoyed breakfast in their room while they spoke about what Luca had learned from The Disciplines of the Dark Queen. One of the remarkable things that Luca had noticed is that besides the religious iconography of Takhisis, occasionally, the hooked pentagram of Asmodeus showed up; the adversary in the monotheistic religion of the Daerlan empire, Mazuria and most parts of Silesia.

At noon, when the pale sun stood highest in the dark, cloudy sky, Astrid and James made their way to the Careless Wanderer. Astrid stayed with the cart while James went inside to look for the others. He found the Wanderer was busy, but not rowdy, with many people still visiting for the angling competition which was about to commence. Durham, the friendly barkeep, directed James up to the rooms when he noticed the young elf looking around for his friends.

A quick plan was made to take the cart and transport Kalina’s body to the butcher shop on Fleet Street and negotiate for Jeanne’s release. Luca would come with James while Astrid, Quentin and Emrys remained outside, ready to either make a fast getaway, or be prepared to storm the shop in force. James would remain in contact with Quentin using Lauriel’s Earrings of Whispers.

On their way across town, while crossing the river at the Queensbridge, James spotted the reddish-haired town crier, Goodman, who hailed James. James stopped briefly and crier Goodman shook his hand, telling him it was good to see him again. During that exchange he surreptitiously passed James a note. As they rode on James read it; “Sold the horses, still in town,” it read, a note from Dick.

As they got closer to Fleet Street, the conversation became more detailed and intense, and people wanted to know just how dangerous the situation could become. It was clear to James that while his companions were all familiar with violence, they had no experience with the level of violence that an criminal organisation like the Steady Hand could bring to bear. In fact, he never had to deal with it, considering he had never stood in opposition to them. It took everything ounce of his acting ability for James to not let his discomfort and fear show.

When they arrived at the butcher shop, a corner store on Fleet Street, between the Street of Spices and the river, there were many guild members about, keeping an eye on the place. Inside, civilians were doing their groceries. James and Luca, who were disallowed from bringing their weapons inside the shop, carried Kalina’s wrapped corpse through the shop to the back. They were directed down the stairs into the basement and through a door, into a mostly empty room.

The day master was there with two of his guards, and James found his mother still tied to a chair, still in her filthy underclothes. Her skin was dirty and she was carrying many shallow wounds and bruises, and she had a bandage on her head which covered her left eye that hadn’t been there before. While the bandages were new, they had already been soaked through with blood and sweat, and it was hiding a grotesque swelling.

When Kalina’s body was unwrapped, the day master was dissatisfied and demanded an explanation. James explained everything that happened, and made it a point to recite, word for word, the conversation that he had heard Kalina had with her mysterious father back in the caves; a conversation he had not even shared with the rest of his companions.

Kalina: Father, are you displeased with me?

Unknown: Glasya, your attempt to draw the guild master out has not been successful. To say that I am pleased would be a lie. The only thing which comforts me is knowing that you understand how important it is to expose the Upright Man and to find his vault. You also understand that I can only keep your failure from the Dark Queen for so long before she will find out. I can only impress upon you that you must try again before she does.

Kalina: He exposed himself when he killed Lydia…

Unknown: Yes, but you were not there to capitalise on it, and from what you told me not much of her remained behind. Your attempt to have the day master assassinated also failed. You better think of another way to find the Upright Man! I MUST GET INSIDE HIS VAULT.

Kalina: But father…

Unknown: Silence! Do not disobey me *daughter*, or else you will be Xazax’s next victim.

Kalina: Father? Father!?

There was something about this conversation that seemed to rock the usually unflappable day master. James suspected that it was the revelation that Kalina and her father knew about the Upright Man being responsible for the death of Lydia, the dangerous leader of the Sunken Knuckles. There was more here, but James had other priorities.

While James explained the rest of what happened at the Reaverhaunt caves, Luca inspected James’ mother and her injuries. The day master still had a few questions about Kalina’s allegiance, if it wasn’t to the night master and the rest of the guild. Luca and James explained that the jewelled daggers were used by assassins who had been striking throughout eastern Lyria, which was something the day master had heard of, and that it likely had something to do with the Upright Man being in the possession of a a set of ancient tablets that this cult was after.

The day master seemed satisfied with the explanation and dismissed one of his guards to arrange for a meeting with a certain John for that evening. James knew that to be John Sharpe; also known as the night master. If the Upright Man was the leader of the Steady Hand, then the day master was his left hand, while the night master was his right hand.

The day master instructed to take Kalina and his mother, but pressed upon James that his mother was to leave Kingsport and never return, which James took in stride. Luca and James took both and walked through the front of the shop, through a wave of curious patrons, out the door.

Astrid gave Jeanne her cloak since she was barely clothed and the weather was miserable. Emrys drove the cart while James gave him directions to the Temple of Pholtus. On the way, James applied some of father Devon’s healing ointment to the most trouble parts of Jeanne’s skin, which immediately started to heal up. Her head wound was too grievous and would abate.

Once at the clinic, Jeanne was carried inside and father Devon was called for. He immediately took charge and called for several nurses to help out and for Mother Superior Arwyn to be called. James made sure to let father Devon know that no expenses should be spared, and the holy man told James to make an appropriate tithe at the temple. Which he did while the followers of Pholtus worked on healing his mother, leaving one of the gems he had received from the Sheridan estate in the tithe bowl.

When father Devon finally came to speak to the heroes he explained that Jeanne would be okay, but that she was still recovering. He showed a small ceramic jar in which he showed a curious slug with multiple eye stalks extending and retracting all over its body. He claimed that he had removed it from Jeanne’s eye, where it had lodged itself like a parasite. Unfortunately, it meant that Jeanne had lost her eye. She would recover, but it would take a little while.

James take his mother in his care once again when she was able to be moved, and the heroes went to the Careless Wanderer. They stayed in their luxurious room, deciding to stay away from the crowd downstairs and not draw any attention to themselves and allowing Jeanne some much needed rest. She had remained quiet and shell shocked, and had fallen asleep on the bed.

While Jeanne slept, James recalled what had happened in the basement underneath the butcher shop that afternoon. He also revealed that he had been holding on to one of Atilesceon’s journal pages which mentioned the Upright Man;

None of our agents has been able to get close to the Upright Man for a very long time. The last time anyone of ours got close they disappeared… but not before confirming that they didn’t have one, but two of the tablets in their collection of antiques. It has proven nigh impossible to get anyone close to the situation since. If I can get close to one of their underlings, however…

Luca started theorising that likely Melchior, the man he thought was Kalina’s father, had likely retrieved tablets from Kalauranthalasis’ hoard, since Atilesceon wrote the following about the dragon in his journal;

That poisonous wyrm has been taken prisoner by those fanatics, and word has reached us to confirm that it was in possession of two of the Tablets of the Elemental Eye. If it wasn’t for my experiments here, I would seek them out to swell the collection of the Dark One. Perhaps there are those willing to compensate me for this information?

Not for the first time the heroes felt out of their depth; not knowing what it all meant, what to do with with what they thought they knew, or how to move forward. As they had done before several times, they decided to put it to rest, feeling small and powerless in the face of it. Astrid turned the topic to more practical matters; what was James intending to do about his mother, to which James responded that it was up to Jeanne to decide what it was that she wanted, but that he could ask House Sheridan to give her a place among the staff at their estate.

With that, they had a plan for the following day and their attentions turned to what to do afterwards. Quentin reminded everyone that he had given his word to the Lady Commander of the Crownsguard, Dame Miranda Ravensbourne, that he would find his way to her ancestral lands to see about helping her family deal with the orc invasion.