Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dwimmermount Session 19

The Dwimmermount campaign has been on something of a hiatus in recent weeks, owing to a concatenation of real world distractions on the part of three of my regular players. In the last month, there's only been a single session and this dearth of actual play may continue for the next little while at least. It's a pity but it's an expected consequence of running a campaign with adults who have jobs, families, and other responsibilities. It does make me wonder how Gary Gygax was able to run his Greyhawk campaign multiple days each week back in the 70s.

Regardless, we did manage to squeeze in a single session recently and it took place entirely outside of Dwimmermount. Brother Candor had long ago promised to officiate at the marriage of former hireling Ragnar the next time he was free to do so. By mutual agreement, the party decided that he was free now and so headed off to a small village south of Dwimmermount called Smerdlap's Crossing. Conveniently, the town was located not too far from the vale Dordagdonar wanted to scout out as a location for his future elf-hold. Although he's only fourth level, Dordagdonar's player is thinking ahead and there's nothing in the OD&D rules that prevents a PC from starting to expend resources on a stronghold before ninth level.

I'd not given much thought to the nature of Smerdlap's Crossing, beyond assuming it to be an agricultural community under the protection of Adamas. Thanks to an almost-rhyme, one of my players began talking about the burlap industry of Smerdlap's Crossing, which of course led to the further suggestion that the local farmers grew hemp. Yes, this led other suggestions as well and much amusement was had by all, as we cycled through all the usual jokes and humorous associations we could muster as they made preparations for the wedding. The party had pooled their resources and bought some oxen and a plow for Ragnar, immediately making him a very important person in town for reasons other than having braved the dangers of Dwimmermount and returned alive.

The wedding itself was a small affair, but the party that ensued afterward was much more exciting. During the festivities, an old man expressed surprise upon seeing Dordagdonar, explaining that elves haven't been seen in these parts since he was a boy. Dordagdonar asked why and the old man added that, when he was a child, things hadn't been going so well with the crops and people were getting sick and disappearing. The town elders were always suspicious of a settlement of elves to the northeast and decided, without proof, that they had to be responsible for Smerdlap's Crossing's ills.

The elders enlisted the aid of some "mercenaries," including a number of "dark wizards" to deal with the elves and so they did, resulting in the slaughter of the entire settlement. Unfortunately, the problems remained and in fact multiplied, as the wizards formerly in the employ of the town elders set up shop on the site of the elvish settlement and began "doin' all sorts of nasty stuff" that resulted in even more innocent people being killed. The entire town itself would probably have suffered the same fate as the elves if it hadn't been for a few brave souls who set out to deal with the mess they had made and succeeded in killing and driving off the wizards. One of these men was Ragnar's grandfather, which might explain where the young man got the idea of adventuring in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, Dordagdonar was intrigued by this story and, once the wedding party was over, asked his comrades to investigate the site of this former elven settlement. They readily agreed, since they intended to go in that direction anyway and they couldn't help feel that these events might have some connection to what was happening in Dwimmermount. Some of you might already have guessed that I was using this as an opportunity to sneak in a modified version of Jim Raggi's Death Frost Doom into the campaign. I'm not a huge user of prepackaged modules, but Death Frost Doom is good enough that I really wanted to import at least some of its ideas into the Dwimmermount campaign. As I said, I've changed a number of elements to better suit my own style and that of the campaign, but the general outline remains the same.

Close to the former elven village, the PCs encountered crazy old Zeke, a trapper formerly from Smerdlap's Crossing, who's taken up a solitary life close to the site of the atrocities of decades previous. He was able to confirm some of the information they'd learned back at the wedding and added a few of his own, particularly that the aforementioned dark wizards had engineered the calamities that had befallen his home town and were using the townsfolk for their own ends. This didn't really come as a surprise to any of the characters, who started to ponder rationales for everything that had happened. This led them to the conclusion they needed to investigate the ruins of the elven settlement, something Zeke urged them not to do.

Ignoring Zeke's warnings, the party set out for the ruins to discover a large collection of graves all over the area surrounding the former village. They also found a rift in the ground that gave off a foul odor. They briefly toyed with descending down into it but thought better of it once they noticed a still-standing building amidst the graves and ruins. The building appeared to be a shabby-looking cabin but there were odd details to it -- unbroken glass windows, for example -- that unnerved them. It didn't look like anything they'd ever seen and the strange mismatch of materials used to construct it only added to their sense that something "wasn't right." They entered the cabin anyway and inside found more oddities, such as a mechanical clock and evidence that someone else had been inside in fairly recent times. They also found a huge tome bound in the skin of something that was written in ancient Thulian and was entitled "Offerings to Thule" (thank you read languages). This confused and worried Brother Candor, since he'd always assumed that "Thule" was merely the name of the northern island from which the Thulians had originally come. Now he started to think that perhaps Thule was the name of something else entirely, after which the island may have been named.

After a bit more investigation of the odd cabin, the session ended. I was a bit disappointed we didn't get further into Death Frost Doom, since I'm very interested in how my players will react to it. I'm also having a lot of fun reworking bits of it to suit what I've already established about my setting. One of the real joys of the way I referee is that it's very easy to add new elements, since so little is nailed down. I'm very fond of throwing out unexplained references, hints, and other clues that I can pick up later or not, as the needs of the campaign require. It demands a certain amount of mental nimbleness on my part, but I have a lot of practice doing it. I'll admit upfront that it doesn't always go as smoothly as I'd like, but, when it does, the result is far more satisfying to me than simply using game materials as written. As a referee, I like to feel as if I'm as much a player as those with PCs and, to do that, I need to surprise even myself. Over the years, I've found the best way to do this is to let the dice fall where they may and to avoid too much preparation and planning. It's all too easy for me to nudge things in the "right" direction if I spend a lot of time preparing for sessions and so I purposefully avoid doing so when possible.


  1. James,
    you create magic with your geographic names, some awesome storytelling and NPCs, not to mention challenging your players' expectations at every step, a pleasure to read, must be zwesome to play PNP. Keep it up!

  2. I'm so very interested to hear what's going to happen next. Your Dwimmermount campaign is an inspiration. I'm sorry to hear that RL is intruding upon your game though, it certainly happens to all of us though. Especially at this age.

    Ah, a chest of gold for those good old days when the extent of my responsibility was getting to class.

  3. "As a referee, I like to feel as if I'm as much a player as those with PCs and, to do that, I need to surprise even myself."

    I agree wholeheartedly - this is why I love sandbox gaming and can't stick with linear adventures/adventure paths.

    In my game on Tuesday I rolled a 1 on a d6, and an NPC I liked a lot got eaten by a blue dragon. I didn't want it to happen, but rolling with the randomness is what makes the game fun for me.

  4. "I'm very fond of throwing out unexplained references, hints, and other clues that I can pick up later or not, as the needs of the campaign require."

    So am I, and it's something I used to do in my game writing, when the editors would let me get away with it. Chaosium products used to do this a lot, and I often found those toss-off references as or more inspirational than the main product, itself.

    I'm curious: Do you take notes during the game or do a write up afterward to keep track of these passing mentions, or do you trust to memory?

    Security word: "todises," what the Mafia thug asked for when shopping at the Chessex booth at GenCon. "I wants todises. a red ones."

  5. Great Post! It's always inspiring to read about your campaign.

  6. I used to write out my scenarios in detail, but deathly afraid of railroading my players, I'd spend ages anticipating their actions and detailing the resulting effects on the story. I wasted a lot of time doing this, and often the pressure of all that detail led to me giving up entirely; what I should have done all along is something like what you're describing here.

    It's what I do now, and it's incredibly liberating. I brainstorm some ideas, expanding on them and connecting them as I go, but I don't even attempt to arrange them into a plot. I often come up with a fairly detailed starting point, but I've found I am much better at responding to the players at the table than I am anticipating them beforehand. It's not proper improvisation, as I do have ideas, characters, locations, even whole scenes which I've thought up ahead of time, but they're not forced on the players, and I only pull them out when the story has been pushed in that direction by those players.

    It's also, I've realised, much, much more fun. I've never seen it this way before, but you're exactly right to say that this kind of looser, less book-bound, style feels much more like you're playing a game with the players. I've had more fun GMing in this style than I ever did before; the kind of fun I'd only previously had as a player.

    Which is all a very long-winded way of saying I really enjoy reading the session summaries!

  7. You're the only blogger whose session reports I can actually make it all the way through.

  8. Great report. I like how you set part of the infodump at a wedding - nice. And yeah, the quick loose prep is the most fun way to DM.

    Kelvin, don't worry. I can't think of many improvisers (eg. music, poetry) who improvise full cloth. There's more often than not some back up routines that are set in train while her or she thinks up the next move.

  9. Wow! Good Job!!!
    I need next step as soon as possible, so I can make nothing but copycat my next WHFR session :P :P :P

  10. It's not proper improvisation, as I do have ideas, characters, locations, even whole scenes which I've thought up ahead of time

    Any improve actor/comedian will tell you (if they're being honest) that they usually have a huge body of material worked up in advance, to bring forth, modify, and use when needed.

    So, yes, what you're doing is 'proper' improvisation.

    Word verification: dunciess (a princess dunce)

  11. I'm curious: Do you take notes during the game or do a write up afterward to keep track of these passing mentions, or do you trust to memory?

    I do have a very good memory, but I also make short notes, mostly of names and little details. Of course, so do my players, so that helps too.

  12. Great read. Particularly interesting to see an module that I've read (Death Frost Doom) and how it unfolds in actual play. Zak makes a good point above.