Campaign Report 3: Exploration & Narrative Railroading

Hey, folks! It’s been about a month since our last campaign update, and I’ve got four sessions to recap as a result. That’s a lot to cover, so I’m going to break this up into two posts. Expect a follow-up later this week. A lot has happened for the PCs, and as a GM I’ve done some good and some bad things, all worth talking about. I don’t want to skimp on too many details!

Anyways, let’s talk about exploration—and bad GMing.

Recap

For those keeping track at home, I’ve written about three sessions so far. Here’s a recap of the next two.

Session 4

Ball's Pyramid (North)So after exploring the ancient monastery and clearing it out, the various colonists moved in (somewhat) and started settling down in earnest. After a day or two of helping with various chores, the PCs decided to explore and try to find an easy way to the top of the cliffs they had settled in front of. They went south, following the coastline, and found a sizable bay there that might one day be a good harbor, though the current colony location is a bit far away to use it themselves. In the distance, well to the south-south-east, they also spotted a sharp, solitary spire of rock jutting out of the ocean. (The picture I sent them to illustrate this was of Bell’s Pyramid, a pretty amazing natural wonder in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand.)

After about half a day of travel, they eventually found a place where they could get up the cliff face. They found a sub-tropical forest at the top, along with a few high places they could get a better view of the inland terrain from. That gave them a glimpse of a bit more geography—a tall, volcanic mountain in the distance, a plateau sloping away from them … and a thin, barely-visible plume of smoke rising in the distance to the west of them, suggesting that someone might live there.

After getting a bearing on that, the PCs traipsed back along the cliffs to a point above the main body of colonists, still gathered around that ancient monastery. They found a few indications that there had been outbuildings of a sort at the clifftop, but everything except the foundations and a few pottery shards was long since gone.

At this point, the party’s creative instinct took over. Using the immovable rod they’d recovered in the previous adventure and some of Aster’s rope, they set up a crude pulley system and pulled one of the thick hawsers from the Brazen—the colonials’ wrecked ship—up to the clifftop. Using this much sturdier rope, they worked to create a relatively safe route up and down the cliff. It would still be a hard climb for most of the colonists, but it would let those who needed it get up and down without significant danger.

Then the PCs reported back to the colonial governor, got permission to go investigate that sign of potential habitation in the morning, and … well, that was it for the session. Not a great session, but I’ll talk more about that below.

Session 5

The party packed up, made a few simple arrangements, climbed up the rope system they’d helped create the previous session, and headed west.

The journey took most of the day, and (not wanting to interrupt too much) I mostly just described the terrain. That was mostly sub-tropical forest, with a few clearings, gently sloping downhill as they moved away from the cliffs along game trails through the forest. I only threw in one stop of any importance: They encountered a very large stone head on its side—clearly ancient, and badly worn away by weather and plant growth, but recognizably humanoid. A bit of searching found what might have been more pieces just barely sticking out of the ground, equally proportioned and suggesting that this statue was massive when it stood upright.

Naturally, the PCs had to climb it, and they eventually did so. (No rush, so I don’t think I made them roll for it. I just said it took a little while.) Even though the statue head sat among trees, it was big enough to provide a vantage point. A thin, glimmering thread of light suggested a stream in the distance eastward—the first surface fresh water the PCs, or any other colonist, had yet found!—and possibly a small lake. Some rolling hills could be seen to the south, and they could see over the water to the north just a little—enough to see a dark shadow on the horizon that might have been another, very remote island. To the northwest stood the mountain they’d spotted the day before—a smooth volcanic cone, not especially tall (certainly not snow-capped) and green about three-quarters of the way up.

Unfortunately, between the party and the mountain flew a wyvern.

The wyvern was certainly not close enough to cause any immediate concern. However, the fact that it was close enough that the party could make it out, and that it was carrying something about the size of a dairy cow, wasn’t exactly comforting either. They watched it carefully as it flapped toward the mountain, until they couldn’t make it out anymore. Then they flipped out for a while. We talked about wyverns for a bit (and traded more images off the internet—Google Image Search has been my constant companion throughout this campaign!) until the players got back on track and continued onward.

Kenku (5e)As the ground evened out a bit, the forest began to change. It still looked like a natural forest, but fruit trees became more and more abundant, and the ground was a bit clearer—as if it had been tended to. That’s when I sprung the second surprise of the evening: A bent kenku with a staff stepped out in front of them, halting their progress. There was a moment of shocked staring—none of the party having ever even heard of a kenku before—before the elderly kenku spoke to them in a language they didn’t understand. Lambert greeted him in Common and told him they had been washed ashore by the great storm a few days previous, at which point the kenku threw up his hands and danced happily around a tree, shaking his walking stick and shouting (in heavily-accented Common) “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! I told them the storm brought change! No one believes Rishi when he says things, but whooo’s the fool now?!”

That was their introduction to Rishi, easily the players’ favorite NPC so far. He spoke a sort of pidgin Common, with plenty of ancient words from other languages thrown in and a great many mimicked sounds as well. (We had to stop to watch this old David Attenborough video about the lyrebird, to give some idea of the level of mimicry involved.)  It was clear enough for the PCs to understand, however. He escorted them to his village, and through it to his house—a low-ceilinged structure built around a large tree, about thirty feet off the ground. The village was a maze of rope bridges, thick branches acting as aerial walkways, houses and other buildings on the ground and in the trees, and a few communal cookfires. The other kenku didn’t seem to speak Common—only the same language Rishi spoke at first, and which the party would eventually learn was Auran. (About this time, Aster picked up on the fact that the bird’s-beak dagger she’d picked up from the monastery might be of kenku make.)

The party ate dinner with Rishi—mostly fruit Rishi had picked as they walked, from what he described as his “garden”—and traded information. Rishi called himself a “Windspeaker”, and apparently fulfilled the role of elderly advisor and lorekeeper in the village. After the sun was down, a stout, young, angry-looking kenku appeared at Rishi’s door and summoned them all to meet with Kondou, the village headman.

Rishi translated what ended up being a fairly unproductive meeting. Kondou wasn’t especially trustful, and figured the arrival of more than a hundred-fifty colonists would be a disaster, but claimed the kenku would weather this storm as they had others before. The angry young kenku—Kondou’s son-in-law Janno—saw the beaked dagger Aster had and snatched it away from her, claiming it had belonged to Kondou’s son. The party told where they’d found it and the circumstances, and Kondou asked them to return his son’s bones to him. Janno voiced suspicions that the PCs, or the colonists in general, had killed him themselves. Beyond that, little was accomplished.

On their way back to Rishi’s house, Rishi casually mentioned that there was something the party could do to earn Kondou’s trust. A little favor for him, and for Rishi, and for the kenku village in general…

GM’s Notes

Looking at the description for these two sessions, the casual reader might be fooled into thinking this was a productive and fun two weeks of gaming. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The feedback I got after Session 5 was straightforward: Stop telling us what’s happening, and let us do things ourselves.

This sort of narrative railroading is a trap I fall into a lot as a GM. It’s occasionally necessary when a party is exploring—it’s important to describe the setting and set the tone, I think, before the players try to do things which don’t fit the environment. In this case, I do feel that I needed to describe a bit more than usual. However, what resulted was two solid sessions of GM setting description and plot narration, and that was definitely too much. I even did this once they had NPCs to interact with! That might’ve been because I was caught up in describing the world, and didn’t notice my ‘cue’ to hand narrative control back to the players; but I suspect it’s just a bad habit of mine. (I pointedly didn’t do as much narration in subsequent sessions, and of course that worked much better.)

That significant criticism aside, there were a few bright spots in these two sessions. Rishi was the breakout NPC. I based him heavily and obviously on The Lion King‘s Rafiki, which I think is fine—he’s not exactly the same, but having a baseline character reference for the players saved a lot of roleplaying effort and established a common ground.

The other big hit was the wyvern. This is unsurprising, and actually something we talked about a lot on our recent episode about epic monsters. The presence of a large, dangerous animal—one which certainly threatens individual colonists and their livelihoods—was rather unnerving. The weirdly normal nature of the wyvern was also a big deal, though. Wyverns aren’t malicious; they’re just large predators, with bad tempers and a taste for livestock (and occasionally farmers.) That was oddly reassuring.

Lastly, I want to talk about the kenku in general. Astute GMs and players who know their Monster Manuals well may be writing angry comments about how the kenku don’t actually speak. That’s true, sort of—according to the 5th Edition Monster Manual (and previous editions’ kenku writeups as well), the kenku understand Common and Auran, and can mimic it very well, but can’t exactly speak it. They can’t make new words, develop a language further themselves, and so forth.

I really liked the kenku as a sort of native people—one of the things I’m developing in the history of this setting is that the “traditional” D&D races don’t exist anymore in this part of the world, and that leaves room for more interesting NPCs like kenku, gnolls, lizardfolk, etc.. However, the language thing was a problem: The mimicry ability of kenku is distinctive, and I wanted to keep it, but I also wanted the player characters to be able to talk to these NPCs. If they only mimicked what they heard, and they hadn’t heard Common, Dwarven, Elven, or any other “normal” D&D language in thousands of years, how would that work? My solution was to let them be capable of normal speech (with Auran as their native tongue), but excellent mimics—so good that their storytellers and lorekeepers could easily pass down most of an ancient form of Common to their students. That neatly handled both the communication problem and my main issue with the kenku as an NPC race. Easy!

 

So—that was sessions 4 and 5. I’ve got more to talk about, though, because for all that didn’t happen in these two weeks, the last two sessions have been action-packed and player-driven. Stay tuned!

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