Every Sunday night, I run my 20th level D&D 4e home campaign. Most of the time, I prepare my own adventures. For those other times, I modify heavily. What follows is the session we ran last night, complete with DM commentary…
Through the Desert
In the few sessions leading up to Through the Desert, the players arrived at a newly ravaged village and through a few quests learned the Shadowfell is slowly merging with the mortal realm. That was about the end of my plans for the town, but my players surprised me by talking the refugee villagers into abandoning their homes and journeying south with them, through the desert, to the Cliffs of Passage. Turns out, the Bard/Warlord can talk just about anybody into anything. A cart was loaded up with six barrels of water, a weeks worth of food, 2 sheep, and 1 lamb.
Using the Dark Sun Creature Catalog (DSCC) I can pretty easily get some encounters together, as well as read some interesting flavor to flesh out the desert, but with the addition of the refugees I knew I had to revise my plans and come up with something remarkable.
My main goal was to try to create some flavor for the traveling caravan. We had established there were 12 refugees in all, including 3 children who had received some dark gifts from the Shadowfell. Some of the NPC’s the players had previously met, others I could build from scratch. I needed a complete list. This is what I came up with.
Spoiler alert, if you’re in my group please don’t read the bios just yet.
The Characters – 12 Villagers, 2.5 sheep (1 lamb)
3 Children with shadow-wrought powers:
- Hubert: 13-year old halfling, son of Chadwink and Ilsa. The only complete family left from the village, Hubert is hard to separate from his parents. Chundri is in his class at school, and Hubert often gets bullied by him. When the Darkness descended upon the village, he gained the ability to snuff all light within 10 (Darkskull), but he doesn’t know it’s him doing it.
- Solphi: 5-year old human girl, recently orphaned when the demons slaughtered most of the villagers. She “fell in love” with the minotaur fighter when he saved her and has a childlike fantasy of marrying him someday. She follows at his heels uncomfortably close and asks a lot of questions. Recently gained the ability to hear voices from the Abyss, sometimes she speaks in abyssal without knowing it.
- Chundri: 13-year old dwarven boy, apprentice of Smith. Chundri was adopted by Smith five years ago when his parents got killed by owlbears. Being the only dwarven child in this village has set him apart from his peers. He is a misfit and easily angered. He recently gained darkvision when the Darkness descended upon the village.
- Smith: Overweight 40-year old human, always wears shorts. Chundri is his apprentice/adopted son. Jandal was once Smiths mistress, she convinced him to kill his wife 10 years ago. He hid the body by casting her into an anvil. The guilt overwrought him, in his heart he holds Jandal responsible.
- Jandal (Smith’s once mistress): Jandal is a human woman of about 45. She convinced Smith to kill his wife 10 years ago, but he has hated her ever since he did the deed. She has tried desperately over the past decade to get close to him again and hopes this journey is her chance.
- Chadwink: 35-year old halfling, husband to Ilsa, father of Hubert. Tired of a life traveling and dodging the giants in the hills, Chadwink brought his family to the village about five years ago. He’s got a good eye for stone and was quickly put to work at the mill. He’s always been a bit overprotective, but now with the calamities ensuing he rarely lets his family out of sight.
- Ilsa: 32-year old halfling, wife of Chadwink, mother of Hubert. She’s the wussiest girl in town, easily frazzled and quick to faint. Makes a mean cobbler and is a horrible gossip. She has a most beautiful soprano voice, and was once a prized entertainer of the traveling folk (halflings). She doesn’t believe in Chadwinks over protectiveness, but she is submissive to the bone.
- William (Billy): A twenty something revenant who arrived into town about two weeks ago. He is a very secretive keeps-to-himself kind of guy. Was told by the Raven Queen that he was to assist the heroes in their endeavors before he could be granted deaths release. He’s not quite sure he wants to die again.
- Bartender Clipman: A 60-year old goliath, once a great hero in his tribe, started a new life with the village bar 20 years ago. He has a gambling addiction and owed most of his bar to some bad people, now that the demons have destroyed his bar, he’s worried about his fate. (Playable NPC)
- Farmer Jay: A 65-year old balding human, Jay makes his living raising sheep. He wrings his hat when nervous, and is often nervous. Though recent events have killed a number of his flock, he still has one male, one female, and a lamb. Enough to build a life somewhere new. He doesn’t have money to buy another sheep should one perish, so he’ll protect his herd with his life.
- Jennifer: A 19-year old human, Jennifer has just started to learn her womanly ways of manipulation. She was working her ways on young Dangar in a hayloft, hoping to get a new necklace, when the village was attacked. In the aftermath, her and Dangar have drawn close, but she fears he sees it as something more.
- Dangar: A 21-year old human, he is eager to prove his worth to Jennifer. He can feel her growing distant and hopes this journey will give him the chance to show off and win her over. The only remaining village hunter, Dangar is headstrong, but pretty good with a short-bow. (Playable NPC)
The Cut Scene
So now that I have my cast of characters, I’m hoping to create some bonds between the players and the NPC’s. To begin the process, I began with a cut scene, late into the first day of travel.
Day one is actually quite pleasant. Though the air is brisk at first with the early winter cold, the pacing of the journey quickly warms you up and makes for a nice complement. Throughout the first day each of the villagers comes to meet and thank you for your assistance. The halfling family is the easiest to spot, the three of them rarely more than two feet apart. Jennifer and Dangar seem to be getting along well, he always seems to be walking at her heels. Of the rest, only Barkeep Clipman seems interested in keeping company. He roams the caravan as you walk, talking to each in turn for five or ten minutes before moving to the next. Few smile these days, but those he leaves behind hold their heads a little higher. His interaction with Smith at the front of the caravan didn’t go as well. It’s late in the day when they start arguing loudly, bringing the group to a halt.
At this point I asked for two volunteers to roleplay as Clipman and Smith, the two NPC’s arguing. To each I gave a sheet that contained a brief write-up of the characters, including their motivations for why they’re arguing, and certain points they try to argue. Only the first and last lines are scripted, forcing the players to roleplay the cut scene.
In this cut scene, two NPC’s are arguing. Clipman is arguing to go completely around the defiled lands of the desert, Smith arguing they could cut through and save two days of travel.
To roleplay the event, each NPC had an opening line, four points they argued, and a closing line depending on success or failure. Clipman had instructions to lead the argument.
To argue, a player rolled a Diplomacy Check (+13) vs a DC 25. I had them make each roll before they argued the point, so they could try for either a convincing (success) or not so convincing (failure) argument. In game, each player got 2 successes and 2 failures, which I had anticipated by allowing a fifth, tie-breaker Bluff Check (+13) with no instructions, forcing the player to, well, bluff.
Both players failed. I intentionally set the DC’s up for probable failure (25-13=12 or better on the die). This way the PC’s had to step in and make the decision, forcing an interaction with the NPC’s, as well as giving input into the adventure’s direction.
The players went for compromise, choosing to cut kitty-corner through the defiled lands, so they could sleep elsewhere… but that’s next week.
My second goal for this session was to downplay the assumed fears of the desert. I wanted the players to feel like they were doing a good job of protecting the villagers, and I wanted the villagers to respond in kind. To accomplish this I ran two simple/easy encounters.
Encounter 1: 4 x Dagorran Mindhound & 2 x Dagorran Ambusher (DSCC pg.29)
To offset the defenses of level 16 monsters vs levl 20 players, the encounter happened at night in total darkness. “Somebody” keeps snuffing out light sources (See Characters). This encounter was meant to be an ambush during an extended rest, but the players convinced the NPC’s to push on through the night.
The Thri-Kreen druid is an impressive scout; he ran ahead, spotted the tracks of the would be ambushers, recognized them, and ran back to tell the group. Instead of an ambush, the players readied attacks and waited for the assault.
Dagorrans easily vanquished, the players continued through the night, eventually getting bottlenecked by some salt flats, forcing them into passing through a dragonborn camp. They tried to talk their way past, even offered a barrel of water, but the dragonborn wanted two barrels and the Bard/Warlord failed two checks.
Encounter 2: 1 x Dragonborn Defiler, 1 x Dragonborn Atavist, 3 x Dragonborn Scorned Champion (DSCC pgs.32-33).
The players unloaded on the dragonborn, many daily’s were popped. Most monsters would have died in the first round if I played by the book. But one round does not a combat make, so I added some HP, marked them as bloodied, and they fought on for a couple more rounds.
Finally the party slept, in the dragonborns beds, only minorly inconvenienced by a Dust Funnel (DSCC pg.141) in the night.
The players laughed as they hid and watched the vortex (have you seen this thing?) circle around and destroy the dragonborn camp. Consider the dangers downplayed. Next week, they’ll learn.
Complete side note: Do you run cut scenes? How do you do it? I’d love some suggestions on this. I think this scene went well, but it caught the players off guard. They did OK, but they’ll do better next time, I’m sure.