The Savage Front

Fifth edition D&D and being a Dungeon Master were both foreign to me when I started this campaign way back in September 2015. I had tried to run the first module released for 5E, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but quickly learned I loved to create my own adventures, plots, and characters in the spur of the moment. Hell, when I ran that adventure the first session wasn’t even in Greenest; it took place in a tiny village next to it and saw a blacksmith’s shop burnt down, his magic item stolen, and him left in a hole off the road. Where was the cult’s assault on the keep? The soaring Lennithon? Kobolds jeering at commoners and warriors alike? On hold while the party destroys the life of an innocent blacksmith. Oh well, that’s how it goes sometimes. That’s why we all love D&D, is it not?

We all start somewhere. Sometimes it’s in a game store playing with a group of strangers, awkwardly squeezing voices out of our mouths. Other times, we’re with the comfort of friends in family, in a warm basement stocked with beverages and snacks. Regardless of where we begin in our dungeoneering lives, everyone reading this has probably ended up in the same place: in love with D&D. All of our stories are interesting, I’m sure. Whether you’re a lifetime player of gnomes or a Dungeon Master with the will to build a fascinating world. I’d love to hear each and every one of them, staying up late sipping fine water and listening to beautiful music as each story reaches my ears. I encourage all of you out there to share your origin story; what’s your background? How did you get where you are today in the D&D world?

And yes, you probably guessed it; that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few articles, campaign by campaign. This week, I’ll be sharing what occurred and what I learned during my first true campaign: The Savage Front. These articles will be full of advice, pondering, and general introspective musings about my journey through D&D. If you want to learn how I started to play, check out my About Me page. If you want to share how you started to play, leave a comment!

Trouble Rising

I’ll be honest, to start I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew I wanted to create my own world, so I started out making a little local area: the Savage Front. It was a typical fantasy land, a few small towns and villages bordering a rocky steppe and a massive forest. Within the forest was a mystical bog; nearby was a system of caverns bubbling with acid and steam. I was just throwing stuff together I thought was cool with not much thought (kind of what I do today, I guess!). Instead of forming ideas and concepts, though, I dug in, writing random encounter tables for the Darkwood, the Darkwood’s Edge, the Acidic Caverns, and everything else. Oh, if I roll a one on a d6, the party will encounter an Everguard patrol, pressured to bring something back to their corrupt captain. If I roll a d6, the party will run into 1d4 dire wolves and a druid permanently shape changed into a deer. Interesting. Other parts of the Darkwood included the Mournwood, a section of forest controlled by an ancient lizardfolk empire and the Far Darkwood, a place ruled over by an old green dragon named Norycdaedealus, and the Erktak Wood, a section of forest held by friendly goblins. I kept doing this for place after place, making tens of random encounters and situations. I think I had a lot more time back then.

After a month or so of musing over encounters, we finally started the campaign. The group consisted of me, my girlfriend (and current wife), her brother, my brother, and a revolving cast of other friends. All of us were students and could play on weekends for four to five hours. ‘Twas great! We were ready to go on an epic adventure, and I was charged with playing a huge part in that. A monumental task. We began...

In the evening, a child’s corpse whose mouth was filled with rocks appeared next to the gates of Demen, along with a few more bodies. Screams spread across village as more and more people discovered the news. The goblin ambassador, Hector, claimed it was the doing of the Rock Eater tribe. He then walked inside the village without saying anything else. Weird. What was I thinking? In my notes I wrote that he’ll talk more, for a price. Surprisingly, that’s what happened. Not sure how my players didn’t get info out of him a different way.

Anyway, the party followed him back into the village and discovered that he’d give them more knowledge about the Rock Eater goblins and the meaning of the corpses if they party helped him out and his tribe out. They agreed. Hector needed them to eliminate a rival kobold clan. If they could do that, he’d give them and the village the information they needed! In addition, apparently there’s a young gold dragon who lurks in the woods near the kobold clan and he’s not a fan of them either. I guess I just needed to put a dragon in there! We were playing D&D after all.

Dungeons and More Dungeons!

The next session entailed lots of travel and dungeon-delving! They reached the kobold clan’s lair, a former bandit fort, in a cavern called the Acidic Depths. Once within, they fought kobolds and discovered the petrified corpse of a black dragon. Weird. In the final encounter, they fought the shaman leader of the clan and found out he was the reincarnated black dragon, stuck in this kobold body. He was encroaching on goblin territory because he thought they had something that’d help him return to his true form. Oh, and he had captured a tiny gold dragon as a poor pet. It truly looks like I threw lots of things together randomly, but it looks kinda cool. If I ran it today, I’m sure it’d go awesome, especially with my advanced repertoire of tricks. But even back then, I remember my players and me having tons of fun. I still remember that end fight, the caged wyrmling slowly being lowered into the acid before one of the PCs struck down the shaman. Good times.

You think with the kobolds dead they’d go back to Demen and speak to Hector, right? Wrong! They were now intrigued about this artifact the shaman spoke of, supposedly lost in a nearby swamp. Time to go to another dungeon! They traveled from the Acidic Deaths to the nearby swamp, which was inhabited by goblins and lizardfolk, among other beasts. The party took two lizardfolk rafts and began paddling through the bog, searching for the tomb where the artifact might be. Aboard the raft, I ran my first interesting combat (in my opinion). Lizardfolk and a giant crocodile attacked the raft, nearly knocking the characters off and into the water. It was a tricky combat; they needed to be aware of where they were on the raft and try to take down the lizardfolk who were accustomed to battles in the water. Of course, the party did win, but it was tough. After a few miles, they reached the dungeon. Fortunately, I had some time to make this one. I was determined to make it different from the Acidic Depths, which was basically a hack n’ slash battle till the end.

I succeeded. Not only were their interesting battles, but two puzzles and a dungeon-wide environmental effect that left the characters and players mystified. In the dungeon, a lizardfolk tomb, yellow mist permeated everything, causing the dead to rise. Where was it coming from? In two of the chambers, puzzles blocked the way forward, one involving the food chain of the local area and another involving a simple riddle. Combat encounters still occurred, from risen lizardfolk skeletons to angry lizardfolk mummies, but they were split by provoking but simple puzzles. In addition, everything hinted to something waiting at the end: the mist, broken pieces of the crypt, and enormous but faded prints in the ground. What could it be? Eventually, they reached the end and found the crypt’s wall had collapsed, leading to the lair of a sedated gold dragon. Exciting! The yellow mist was sedating him AND awakening the dead. The mist was the doing of a wizard researcher who needed knowledge lost inside the hoard. Not only did it awaken the dead (on accident, by chance!), it kept the gold dragon asleep while the wizard went through his hoard. They spoke with him about what he was looking for and learned about the gold dragon, whose name was Marzius. Thinking back, I just wanted the gold dragon and his hoard to be an epic set piece: something that could be interacted with as an optional thing in the background of this pivotal NPC chat...for a time. Then, the group found the artifact the kobold had spoken about, The Dragon Rod. It was a part of Marzius’ hoard and they were warned if anything was taken, he’d probably wake up. Well…

They took not only the Dragon Rod but other items too. This woke Marzius up and sparked a chase through the collapsing crypt. Rocks fell, they avoided them. Water rushed into the crypt, engulfing the mummified remains of lizardfolk. Statues tumbled and cracked while the ceiling gave in, trapping Marzius below and keeping him away from the party, who’d escaped with the artifact, knowledge, and so much more. But now there were enemies with a gold dragon, would that come to matter? Maybe, maybe not. At this point, I was kinda hyped for the future of the campaign. Is this where the story would go now? Do they want to reassemble The Dragon Rod? What will they do with the lore learned from the researcher? So many possibilities, so many opportunities for adventure and excitement! The campaign was going well, things were wild, and everyone was having fun. Then they turned back to Demen and the goblin plot and things took a turn for the worse.

Disaster Strikes

After the epic encounter with Marzius in the lizardfolk tomb, the party decided to turn back to the goblin story. With their new artifacts, they strode into Demen confidently and confronted Hector with their knowledge and evidence of the kobold clan’s demise. The goblin ambassador told them of the Rock Eater’s ambitions to grow their territory, especially with their chief’s new trained bulette. This chief, Chief Grik, had amassed a small army of goblins and was moving toward Demen, ready to overrun multiple villages around it. Arrogantly, the party took this information and left the village, ready to battle the Rock Eaters — they thought.

They tracked the small army of goblins to a remote farm near a wandering stream and prepared a battleground. However, upon seeing the horde, a bulette-riding goblin wielding a massive stone maul at its head, they hid. Behind the screen, I knew they’d most likely die if they fought the goblins head on, so I was being lenient with their stealth. Alas, one of the characters attempted to peek out of the cellar they were hiding in, rolling a natural one on his Dexterity (Stealth) check. A goblin heard him, but was distracted by another sound across the farm. This was me giving them another chance to stay hidden. They defied my expectations and tried to emerge, goblins completely surrounding their area. It turned into a brutal battle that left each of them unconscious. It was a disaster. I made the mistake of allowing them to speak as Chief Grik, atop his bulette, knocked them to consciousness. He wanted information from them: who they were, what they were doing, and the like. They decided to meet his questions with badgering. They made fun of him, disrespected him, which clearly put them into a worse position. He gave them all another chance to cooperate; they refused. Chief Grik then executed each of them, one by one.

From my point of view, I had no choice or I’d be viewed as a pushover. Looking back now, I understand, of course, I had no choice, because I wasn’t playing ME, I was playing Chief Grik. The goblin wouldn’t have respected mockery. He would have done what he ended up doing. But that was it — a total party kill. One person did survive, but he rarely showed up to sessions and it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the party — and all their magic items — were in the hands of Chief Grik. All their stories, gone. All their connections, gone. As a truly fledgling Dungeon Master, I didn’t know how to respond to it and how to adapt. But onward we went...

Beginning Anew, Twice

Everyone created new characters and began a few days after the goblins massacred the old party. They were on the move and ready to attack one the villages nearby Demen: Greenwater. I thought this would be a good way to immediately connect the new characters to the old plot; they’re in one of the villages about to be conquered, they need to save it or run or something. They all meet and the goblins attack in the middle of the night. The bulette destroys homes, goblins start a bonfire and run amuck in the village, and the villagers begin fleeing to boats on the lake. Some of the characters help evacuate and some battle the goblins.

Together with the village’s militia, they slay the bulette and then fight Chief Grik near the bonfire after all the villagers are saved. It’s a bloody battle between the party and Chief Grik, but he eventually falls. The party celebrates, loot the goblin, and join the villagers on the lake. They’re ready to partake on the next leg of the journey with The Dragon Rod in their hands. As the session ends, though, something feels strange. They killed Grik and avenged their former characters, but everything just felt...underwhelming. It didn’t feel like the new group fit in this story, that they hadn’t been apart of it since the beginning. Looking back, I think that was my fault; I should have done more to connect them to the greater story and built up to Chief Grik more slowly. Dying to the goblin in one session and killing him the session after with new characters is not ideal. In fact, it’s bad dungeon mastering.

Everyone seemed to feel the same way, so I called the campaign concluded. One of the goblin chief’s of the Rock Eaters was dead and Demen was safe for now, so we were going to leave it there and start anew, again: a new campaign. I’d learned a lot in those nine sessions and thought I could run a successful, compelling campaign. They all seemed to think so too. It was a learning experience after all, as D&D always is, and we were ready to take on the next challenge. So we moved onward, to the Dead Isles of Altarin, campaign number two.

In Summary

Looking back on your time playing D&D helps you see how far you’ve come.
  1. Everyone starts somewhere. Don’t wait to start playing, just play!
  2. You’ll learn from your mistakes but your mistakes won’t stop happening. Just keep at it!
  3. Don’t have your villain die the session after he kills a whole party.
Until next time, farewell!

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