Any time I blog instead of Peter, you know it’s gonna get weird. Today, I’m giving everyone a rundown of the first session of our D&D campaign! This game’s been rattling around in my head for years—a game heavily inspired by the Roleplaying Public Radio “New World Campaign”, but tweaked to fit our group and my own sensibilities. I’m also running this in D&D 5e, which is … well, significantly better so far (but I’ll get to that.) I’ll go over the events of the session, and follow that up with an analysis of key GMing moments.
I’m not going to give a rundown of the characters in this session, except a very basic race-and-class. I’ll save character writeups for another time, because they deserve a post all their own.
I started things off with a bit of narration to set the scene: A colony ship laden with people and goods, about fifteen weeks at sea. It’s en route to a distant archipelago believed to be rich in land, goods, and magic—the last being a rare thing indeed in the “old world”. Unfortunately, this vessel (which I still need to name!) has been separated from its sister ship, and has been driven before a hurricane for several days. It’s just run aground, and the morning light and clearing weather shows that its hull is badly damaged, and that the storm surge and winds have grounded the ship on a low barrier island.
After deliberation and a little scouting, the settlement’s governor and captain decide to unload the ship and, using her longboats and manpower, move to the “mainland” across the lagoon created by the barrier island. There’s a series of sandbars that protect the space between the barrier island and the larger landmass beyond—shallow enough that a man could walk across it in water up to his chest, and with several places only ankle-deep (at least, at low tide.)
I’m leaving out a lot of detail, of course, but that should be enough to set the scene. Enough talk—time for action!
The PCs are hauling goods across this line of sandbars and shallows—unarmored, though they each had a weapon on them just in case—when a reef shark latches onto the fighter’s leg and a pair of spear-wielding sahuagin rise up from the waters in front of them. They aren’t alone—I described screams and shouts erupting all along the line of laboring colonists—but these three were the PCs’ encounter.
Naturally, the players immediately surprised me. Their characters had no idea what these sahuagin were (none being found in the waters off their homelands), so my wife’s half-elf rogue (“Aster”) immediately makes a Persuasion check to wordlessly convince the sahuagin they’re no threat, and they can be friends! She rolls an 18, which is actually quite good. This gives one of the sahuagin pause, and it doesn’t attack as it considers what Aster’s lowered dagger and extended other hand mean. Unfortunately, the other one snarls and throws its spear at her, rejecting her peaceful overture. It hits, dropping Aster to about half HP. (First-level characters are pretty lacking in hit points!) The human nature cleric (“Lambert”, played by Peter) is not fond of this turn of events, and casts a cantrip spell to pull the attacking sahuagin towards him and deal a bit of damage. That puts the sahuagin between Aster and Lambert.
And it’s at that moment I’m reminded why I love playing with this particular group—aside from being married to one and podcasting buddies with another.
The human fighter (“Garm”) reaches down, grabs the shark, rips it off his leg and out of the water … and attempts to hit the sahuagin with it. And this partially works! I ask for a Strength check to grab the shark (basically a grapple), and he succeeds. I then decide that because the shark is writhing around, Garm’s definitely attacking with disadvantage. That results in a missed attack roll, but attempting to beat a sahuagin with its own reef shark ends up being the definitive highlight of the whole night. This should probably have been two separate actions over two rounds, but I was caught up in the action and the moment turned out to be well worth it. (Garm’s player mentioned after the game that “sure, you can try to hit him with the shark” was the best moment of his entire gaming career. That’s the power of saying ‘yes’.)
Note that in the first combat round of the campaign, two of the three players have used something other than an attack roll, and neutralized two of their three opponents for at least a round. Back at the top of the initative chart, the shark fails his own Strength check to escape the hold. It’s still up in the air, which is not typically where sharks are found.
Aster attacks the sahuagin Lambert dragged towards them earlier—and crits! Because she’s flanking her target, that means sneak attack damage—and in 5th Edition, sneak attack dice are doubled along with damage dice on a crit. This sahuagin was at 17 HP after Lambert’s spell, and she does 20 points of damage, wrecking it with a nasty backstab. Quite a lot of cheering ensues on the Google Hangout!
At this point, the remaining sahuagin assesses the situation (in part because it’s his turn.) He’s seen the tiny half-elf lady try to make a peaceful overture to him, and when that was rejected she drove a dagger through his hunting partner’s spine. The big guy is currently menacing him with the very shark they’d gone hunting with. The third is clearly a spellcaster of some sort. All in all, this has not been a good hunt. He turns tail and runs—or swims, anyway—blowing a call to retreat on a conch shell horn. All along the line of colonists, cheers go up as the other sahuagin and sharks flee. Garm tossed the still-struggling reef shark onto a nearby sandbar, where it was unceremoniously brained for its efforts.
Lambert tends to the wounded colonists and the other PCs, and unloading resumes, although much more slowly and under guard from archers in the ship’s longboats. A scout reports that there’s a crumbling, if imposing, ruin just around the bend, built into the tall cliff faces rising up just a little bit inland. The colony’s governor decides to set up the first night’s camp there; there’s a sort of portico in front of what seems like an ancient temple or shrine, and the raised vantage point is more defensible than an open beach. However, he asks the party members to rest up (and eat their fill of broiled reef shark!) because he’s got a special task for them: Exploring the ruin and making sure there aren’t any more surprises waiting for them inside.
Trust me—there will be. I’ve got two pages of graph paper already filled with a map…
All in all, I was very happy with how this first session went down. We only actually played for about an hour and a half, but I feel like we got a good bit accomplished for the start of a new game and new system. Combat was very quick—twenty minutes if you include all the time looking up combat rules for the first time. That was a huge help. As a GM, I rarely end a game thinking it went well—I’m often quite harsh on myself—and I couldn’t help but be pleased at the end of the evening.
I do want to break that combat encounter down a bit. By the book, two sahuagin and a reef shark are a very dangerous encounter for a first-level party. That’s a 450 XP encounter: Three CR 1/2 monsters, which are normally 100 XP each, and a multiplier for a combat with multiple creatures since that’s more actions for the PCs to defend against. A hard encounter for three first-level PCs is budgeted at 225 XP, and 300 XP is a deadly encounter! A lethal encounter as the very first combat is, according to all conventional GMing wisdom, a terrible idea.
However, I had several features in place to mitigate the difficulty of the combat while still making sure the players felt they’d earned a significant victory. While the PCs started at a bit of a disadvantage—their tanky PCs weren’t armored—they could quickly move into water too shallow for the reef shark. That gave them the opportunity to “beat” the shark just through movement actions. The sahuagin were also going to throw their spears, which reduced their damage somewhat after their first attack. Most importantly, they were cowards. I kept track not only of the damage done to each individual monster, but to the whole group of monsters. When the total amount of damage done to the monsters was half their total HP or more, they would decide their “easy prey” wasn’t worth the trouble, and flee. Since these monsters have 22 HP each, that meant they’d flee when the party did 33 damage. I also counted anything creative as damage; the rogue’s Persuasion check not only ‘stunned’ one sahuagin for a round, it also did half that sahuagin’s hit points in damage. (Fun fact: You don’t have to describe all hit point loss as physical damage.) The fight looked dangerous, and it certainly could have been if it had gone longer, but everything was set up to make sure it wouldn’t go that long. It worked out quite well, too—the last sahuagin was clearly at a disadvantage at the time he decided to flee.
I do want to talk more about that Persuasion check. My first instinct was to say “no, that doesn’t do anything.” After all, these are vicious creatures, and I definitely didn’t want these sahuagin (who make great low-level coastal villains) befriended! For the first time in my gaming career, however, I consciously applied the “yes-and” rule when GMing. The player had done something creative and interesting; my job was to make that work within my plan, not reject it as contrary to how I’d planned the game to go. I had to think about it for a moment, but having the Persuasion check effectively ‘stun’ one of the opponents worked out very well. It rewarded that player for being creative in a combat encounter—and in fact for trying to not have the fight at all, which is one of those things we’ve constantly talked about on this show!—without drastically changing the story.
Finally, that wonderful shark moment. This was another “yes-and” moment, and I had to think about that one too. In this case, the character’s mechanical attributes swayed me towards saying ‘yes’—Garm has the “Tavern Brawler” feat, which makes him exceptionally good with improvised weapons. That was reason enough to get out of the way and let that player be cool; and even though it didn’t work—probably due to the mechanical penalty I imposed, which everyone agreed was completely reasonable—it was an awesome moment that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
So yeah—after one session, I’m feeling really good about this game. I have a lot of prep work to do still: None of the NPCs have names yet, and I need to think beyond the upcoming dungeon crawl and determine what else is going to happen in the first arc of this campaign. But I’m extremely happy with how things have gone so far, and how promising the game is!