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The Tone, Change It!


It’s Wednesday night. The intrepid adventurers of my Aphesus I group are in the middle of a forest delve. They’re caught between a web of conflict and intrigue between an arrogant human lord with a dragon-complex, a wood elf tribe near extinction, and the human lord’s lizardfolk allies. Thus far in the campaign, they’ve experienced victory after victory with small losses scattered throughout - they feel like they can conquer the world, eventually. The gods will be theirs one day, as these lizardfolk and Lord Ambriosa will be in a few days time. Well, from my viewpoint, their expectations were about to change.

As they near their destination in the forest, the smell of smoke sails on the light wind. They grow nearer, and they see smoke flowing in the air, coming from the village’s direction. They pick up the pace and their wood elf ally flies ahead on his pegasus. Wait awaits them? The wood elf tribe’s capital village, massacred. Bodies young and old are strewn about, huts torn down or burning, and the presence of - few compared to the elves - lizardfolk corpses. The lizardfolk had arrived here before them and had destroyed everything. A momentous blow.

Half a day later, after fighting a corrupted pegacorn/unisus (unicorn with wings), thoroughly searching the village, and settling down to rest with their wood elf allies in the ruins of this village, an ambush arrives. The party, alongside one of their three wood elf friends, are lured into the forest, a trampled path that shows where most of the lizardfolk went after the massacre. As the party searches, they hear something in the brush but are unable to see it. One of the party members, a lizardfolk named Grobolith, hears a whisper in his mind; it asks him to turn on his allies and he refuses. The party takes a defensive stance...talks...and waits.

At this point, as a Dungeon Master, I'm changing the plan in my head. I was going to have the lizardfolk ambush the party, but since they rolled poorly on their Perception and Investigation checks and the lizardfolk crew rolled incredibly high on their Stealth checks, another route becomes possible. A route that drives the dagger deeper into the party's unfortunate situation. They left two wood elves at their makeshift camp tending to the passed-out unisus...if they act too slowly, they're in for another blow.

Seconds turn to minutes, until a few pass by. Nothing. They return to the camp to find their other two wood elf allies, along with the chief’s unconscious unisus dead, murdered by the same darts and venom found on other corpses strewn about the village. Then, the ambush arrives for them. The combat is tough, but they succeed, but not without a warning that more are coming. They retreat to the torn down tree-hut of the tribe’s chief, mending their wounds, and wait. The session ends there…

The party is in a dangerous, dark spot. They’ve gone from winning each and every battle convincingly and interacting with various folk around the region always walking away victorious to nearly pure defeat for an entire day. Now, they’ll have to deal with the opposite of victory after victory; how will they deal with that? The people they were supposed to help are dead and routed. Their allies are dropping one by one. They’re in a forest once vibrant with life that’s now completely mute, no sounds to be heard. They’re in the darkness, at a single point of light, waiting for enemies to arrive, while they have little to no resources remaining. It’s bleak.

But that’s DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Every long-running campaign should have high and lows, and sometimes, the tone should change incredibly fast. That’s what I’m trying to do here: The campaign will be having its eighth session in a week or two, and they’re experiencing their first, real loss. That’s the takeaway today: Don’t be afraid to present terrible, excruciating, even sad situations to your group. Once they go through it, once they, maybe, succeed against the vile lizardfolk and avenge or rescue the still-living wood elves, they’ll be thrilled. 

The victory will contain a larger sense of accomplishment and will mean more in the overall narrative. Losing, losing, and losing again before a momentous victory makes for a far more interesting campaign than victory after victory without cost. Trials, troubles, and defeats give texture to the characters and the story as a whole. You don’t want your entire campaign to be a positive diagonal, rising forevermore. Instead, change the tone - throw in curve balls that don’t give the party an additional victory; toss in twists that trouble them.

They’ll return to winning, eventually; and when they do, it’ll be all the sweeter. 

Wise folk always say the night is darkest before the dawn, morale is lowest just before a turn-around, and heroes must experience failure to show their true selves. I expect the same will be true of this situation, and many situations across the many campaigns of D&D.

I'll let you know what happens next time, and I think we'll talk a little bit about NPCs. Specifically, how they can be foils to the PCs; not just the villains of the campaign, but the PCs' allies as well.

Until then, farewell!

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