A Little Less Conversation
Our intrepid Adventure Company Brand Adventurers(tm) were left trying to figure out what to do about the two dragon eggs that they had located in the cavern situated at the back of the bandit camp. The group appeared to be worried that the eggs were far enough along that breaking the shell would unleash a deadly scourge of wyrm that would finish off what the two guard drakes and the camouflaged roper had started, or run the risk that the Cult had the eggs monitored. Truth be told, the party was in no condition to get a hang-nail, let alone engage in another scuffle without a good eight hours of downtime.
They elected to leave the caverns without doing anything to the eggs, which turned out to be a relatively minor affair of back-tracking out to the abandoned bandit camp. Once outside, they agreed to take a short rest to recover some stamina before setting out for Greenest.
In town, the party thoughtfully turned over several thousand gp worth of valuables to Governor Nighthill, who was beside himself with gratitude. He had a message for the party from the monk Leosin: meet him and his ally Onthar Frume in the city of Elturel. Leosin had left the party fresh horses and enough traveling supplies to make the six day journey. The party rested, and then set out (hopefully for the last damn time) from Greenest.
Elturel is a trading hub along the River Chionthar, and it’s brochure highlight is the mystical “second sun” that hangs above it. This eternal light never dims, meaning that anyone living in the city needs to invest in some serious light-blocking curtains if they want to get any sleep. The party entered through the northwest gate to a bustling marketplace. The party asked about the Order of the Gauntlet, the group to which Frume belonged, and were directed to the tavern named “A Pair of Black Antlers”, which was named because it would be difficult for drunks to say, and that would be hilarious.
Frume turned out to be a frat-dwarf, who spent the next 24 hours dragging the party around Eturel so they could drink, race horses, spar, and misbehave in general until the following night when Frume, Leosin, and representatives of other interested parties laid it down for the party.
The Cult of the Dragon had, until recently, been active in the East where they were primarily concerned with creating dracoliches (which wasn’t given the terrifying weight in the module that I think dracoliches deserves, but I only work here), but were pressing West into the Sword Coast for some unknown reason. They seem to be very focused on dragon hatchlings, and in increasing their devotion to Tiamat. Their activities are known — raiding remote villages for valuables — but the “why” and the knowledge of “where” these treasures are ending up is what the group is looking to discover.
It was revealed that Leosin is a member of the Harpers, a secretive do-gooder society. Both he and Frume make recruitment offers to the party in exchange for access to their extensive regional resources. This is a carrot, and the stick is that they want the party to infiltrate the cult’s caravan that carries the bulk of the treasure in order to find out where they’re going, and why they need to be there.
They know that the caravan has a head start, but they also know that they can intercept the cult in Baldur’s Gate. Frume has chartered a boat that can take the party down the River Chionthar in two to three days, where they can find work as a caravan guard either in or near the cult’s wagons in order to keep an eye on the proceedings.
They were advised to sleep on it.
* * *
To be frank, this session sucked, as I figured it would.
Up to this point, the chapters had been what you could call a stereotypical D&D game. A little bit of expository glue to get the players to where they need to be, and then the lure of treasure to get them to move from room to room, killing things as they go.
Last night, and in the near future, there’s a lot of “worldbuilding” in effect. The module doesn’t do it, except in providing some basic information to build off of, like what Elturel is like, what Frume is like, and so on. Filling the “flavor” is the job of the GM, of course, which means that this where the difficulty comes into play.
The party wanted to leave the cave, so they left the cave. They wanted to get to Greenest, so they went to Greenest. They wanted to travel to Elturel, so they…you get the picture. At any point they could have had random encounters, but…why? They had just come off several weeks of fighting stuff, so a random bandit encounter would be banal filler for filler’s sake, and would have slowed down the game to “at least one combat encounter per session” pattern which is predictable and tiring.
That would be OK if I didn’t know that the next several sessions are going to be about “players playing”, not “players fighting”. The sleuthing that the players are going to have to do in following this caravan is going to require a level of play from all of us that I think none of us seem to be equipped for. I’m going to fall back on the excuse that we’ve become so addled by years of CRPGs that we’re no longer able to conceive of the freedom that tabletop RPGs offer.
What I need to do is to spend more time with the upcoming sequences and put together more of a framework than the module provides. Yes, this is kind of a “no duh” statement; it’s the GM’s job, after all. I’ve read a lot of things On Line(tm) that tells GMs that they don’t need to put a lot of prep into their sessions because they’re meant to be organic, but until we break through this wall that’s keeping us from that organic play, I’m going to need to have more materials on hand. Some situational tables for random happenstance. Some well-conceived NPCs to interact with. Some random encounters. Anything to get past the “You want to travel to X? OK, you arrive at X” that we experienced last night.
What I think the players need to do is to take more responsibility for moving the story along, and more importantly, to make it their own. I felt that last night there was a lot of stumbling over half-assed situations in order to fill a vacuum that should have been owned by the players. For example, the module suggested that the players should cozy up to Frume by playing out the carousing that he wanted to engage in, but the players were so taken aback by the idea that they were wasting time that I just flat-lined that part and skipped to the progression of the story. There’s going to be a lot more situations like these in the coming sessions, where the players are going to need to be the primary drivers, and I am the one to react, not the other way around. I don’t want to feel put into the position where I need to drop hints or nudge anyone in the direction laid down by the module because I don’t think that’s fun for anyone: it’s more work for me, and it’s way too “by the numbers” for what tabletop RPGs are all about.