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22 December 2020

How to Tell Time in a D&D World Part 1: Calendars


Recently, I had a discussion with one of my players about his homebrew world. He recounted to me how he created his world's calendar, from the days of the week and number of months to how they were named and why certain folk tracked them differently or not at all. His excitement about this lore was palpable. As I listened, I began to drift into my own world and think about how and why the calendar was made the way it was. At that time, I had an extremely basic calendar: twelve months, four weeks each, seven days in a week, all with uninspired names and origins.

Armed with inspiration from this creative player, I set out to research how the modern calendar was made, why various aspects of it worked the way they did, and reinvent my world’s calendar, seasons, holidays, and more.

This Worldforge article encompasses one of those three aspects: we are going to build a calendar, step by step, and learn about Earth’s time-keeping history concurrently. In good time, we will visit seasons, holidays & annual events, which should be a huge part of custom D&D setting. They all add lots of flavor. First, though, we need a calendar.

Let’s delve into telling time in our D&D worlds with part 1: calendars.

The Modern Calendar


While the tracking of time in its most basic sense, counting days and the like, has existed since prehistoric times (the Neolithic, in particular), calendars are also quite old, dating back to the Bronze Age. During eras before the Bronze Age, various peoples used megalithic structures to keep track of time. They would arrange stones in a particular formation and witness the progression of the sun throughout the year. This type of calendar was called a solar calendar.

As soon as ancient civilizations in the Near East developed their own styles of writing, they started tracking time in an organized, easy-to-digest way using written calendars. The oldest written calendar known to exist was the Sumerian calendar, closely followed by the calendars of Egyptians, Assyrians, and Elamites. Many of these calendars contained ten to twelve month-long years. These calendars, generally, were based on the position or phase of the moon and the time of the solar year. Each month witnessed the full waxing and waning of the moon, then restarted. They were called lunisolar calendars.

In 45 BC, Julius Caesar did away with the Roman calendar that was based on the calendars of ancient civilizations and created his own with the help of Greek astronomers and mathematicians. The Julian calendar no longer relied on the observation of the new moon. Instead, it used an algorithm that included a leap day every four years and outlined twelve months. Thus, the Julian calendar months became dissociated from the cycle of the moon. Over 1,000 years later in 1582, the Julius calendar was refined into the Gregorian calendar. That is the calendar most of the world uses today; it’s the modern calendar.

In tandem with the Gregorian calendar, this is how we tell time on Earth:
  • 12 months in 1 year
  • 4 weeks in 1 month
  • 7 days in 1 week
  • 24 hours in 1 day
  • 60 minutes in 1 hour
  • 60 seconds in 1 minute

What to Keep, What to Toss


That’s a lot to take in. With all of it in mind, how does it affect calendars and telling time in our fantasy worlds? What can we learn? What can we twist? What can we innovate? What can we make fantastical? But most important of all: is changing our calendars worthwhile? That’s a sure yes from me, of course. But not everything needs to be changed, else it will feel too alien. We should use Earth as a standard, then shift from it in interesting ways.

For example, we should stick to the following when building our own world’s calendar and system of telling time:
  • 60 seconds in 1 minute
  • 60 minutes in 1 hour
  • 24 hours in 1 day
  • 7 days in 1 week
That knowledge is ingrained in our minds and should be the standard in most of our fantasy worlds as well. If we change it up too much, our worlds will be too jarring to be believable. Our players shouldn’t need to learn that there are actually 30 seconds in a minute and 47 minutes in an hour—that’s rubbish. All of these standards of telling time should not be fiddled with.

What can be changed, though, are the following items:
  • 12 months in 1 year
  • 4 weeks in 1 month
  • The name of the months
  • The name of the days of the week
  • How years are named
  • How time periods are named
All of these can be shaped to our worlds and won’t be nearly as jarring as changing how many hours are in a day. We should leave those type of radical changes for peculiar places in our worlds such as the Elemental Plane of Fire or the Abyss—that’s where we can get wacky. For the Material Plane where the majority of adventures begin, let's keep information related to seconds, minutes, hours, et cetera identical to how they are represented in real life.

Time To Create


Armed with what we can change, now we need to think about whether we want to make changes. We should go through each of the items of the list above and ask ourselves: does this need to be changed? Would changing it make our worlds more compelling? Unique? Interesting? Could we wield this in our games? Is it just something we want to do? Let's arrive at a yes or no answer for each of the questions and then begin building.

Here are a few questions to ask ourselves while creating our time systems and calendars.
  • Why are months separated the way they are? Is it based on the cycle of the moon or moons? The planes around the world? The seasons?
  • What are the months named after? Heroes of the past? Common monsters? Legendary locales? Words in a forgotten tongue?
  • How are the days of the week named? Using a combination of two languages? A simple word for each? Arbitrarily?
  • Do years have names associated with them? Are they standalone numbers? Do the common folk keep track of the years that pass by?
  • How are time periods named? Have there been multiple ages? Do a certain numbers of years constitute a time period?
As we continue to create, more questions should arise. We don’t always need an answer immediately—not everything about our calendars or time systems needs to be known. This leads to the next part.

Who created our worlds' calendars? That’s an important question we should know the answer to, but doesn’t need to be apparent to our players or most the individuals in our worlds. It’s likely many folk don’t know where the Gregorian calendar originates, people in our worlds might be similar. However, if we have this lore built out, we can make the calendar more believable. The answers to certain questions above might make more sense once we build out a creature, a faction, or even a civilization that created our calendars in canon.

The calendar could be the latest iteration of a thousand calendars, perfected over centuries of study. Or it’s brand new, recently released by a mysterious entity. Or perhaps the calendar is the only one the world has ever known and it was made by a civilization lost to time.

Here are four entities who could have created our calendars!
  1. A cabal of dwarves obsessed with chronomancy who needed a way to orate their findings to simple monarchs.
  2. A god of time and space who thought mortals would want a way to track their existence in the world.
  3. An enlightened nation of philosophers and scientists who knew this would be the greatest tool in history and made everyone aware of that fact.
  4. A humble minotaur who studied the stars and moons and deciphered how and why one day follows the next.

My World’s Calendar


This is an excerpt from my campaign setting guide, Handil’s Atlas of Eldar. It is my world's calendar.

In the common calendar of Aelonis, called the Thimaeven Calendar, days are 24 hours long, divided into day and night. Seven days make up a week, four weeks make up 12 of the months (the first and eighth months are 2 weeks each), and 14 months make up a year. The months correspond to the 14 prime planes of existence (see the Eldar Months table) and the prominent plane influences the name of the month in which its drift brings it closest to the mortal world.

The seven days of the week, in order, are Hrunkear, Tvakear, Trikear, Fottkear, Fiffkear, Aokear, and Morkear.

The common calendar of Aelonis tracks the years since the founding of the dragon Empire of Koth, using the abbreviation AK. The initial domination of Aelonis ended on 8 Hrodis 13 AK. The Wailing was unleashed a little under two centuries later on 19 Urlan 201 AK. By default, a new Eldar campaign begins on 1 Lagar 216 AK.

Eldar Months

How to Use a Calendar in Actual Play

Now that our calendars are designed, what can we do with them?

Every D&D session should have a date that it starts on, right? We can use our calendars to track the length of our campaigns. In my campaign compendium, I always note that start date of the session in-world. It’s a great way to see how long a campaign has been going!

Going a bit further, we could have NPCs casually mention the month or date in conversation. In real life, we do it all the time. That dash of flavor is sure to immerse our players deeper into our worlds. Imagine an elf merchant mentioning she expected a shipment of iron to arrive on 1 Yska, but it never came. She could have said she expected a few days or a week ago, but using the date adds a perfect amount of realism to the moment.

At the start of every session, we could open up with the date and a brief bit of narration. Doing this consistently familiarizes our players with the name of the months and might encourage them to reference them in actual play.

Some DMs even use a calendar to plot out the major events in their campaign or the plans of a villain. This ensures that our worlds remain alive as the PCs drift away from monumental plot points and into side quests. For example, we might plot out your campaign’s world shaking events on our own custom calendars. On the 20 Lagar, 206 AK, the ritual of the mad mage succeeds. In the evening of 12 Yska, 215 AK, the legendary Rangon’s Comet crosses the sky and lights the northern realms with fire. At noon on the 1 Urlan, 201 AK, the dragon Empire of Koth unleashes forbidden magic upon gnome lands. Especially in a campaign with many moving parts, utilizing a calendar of events helps and with a custom one it becomes easier.

As we play more than one campaign in your world, we might refer to past events or years using the date. The year my old group defeated the tyrannical liches of a fractured nation is named the Year of Dread’s Passing. Or the year my previous adventuring band halted Yeenoghu from entering the mortal world is called the Year of the Yeenoghu’s Denial. Or perhaps people refer to the time when a squad of heroes drove a draconic cult from the realm as Day of Obsidian's Cracking. With a calendar, we'll easily be able to track all these events of our worlds' past with ease. Referencing them will surely excite current players whether or not they were a part of the world’s past in some way; it hints that their actions have impact and will be remembered for years to come.

Lessons Learned


Custom calendars are not only an exercise in worldbuilding, but a welcome addition to a Dungeon Master’s repertoire to immerse their players in their world. Take note of what we learned.
  • Calendars have a long history in our own world that can be mined for ideas.
  • Keep the most familiar and personal elements of Earth’s timekeeping system, items like seconds, minutes, and hours. Customize the rest as you see fit.
  • There’s plenty that goes into creating a calendar for our worlds. What are the months named after? Who created the calendar? Why do the years last as long as they do? We don’t need to have an answer for everything—but we should define the basics.
  • Calendars carry plenty of weight when it comes to usability. They’re fun to build and can be used to improve our games in many ways.
Until the next encounter, farewell!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

15 December 2020

How to Run Your First D&D Game


Everyone finds Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, dnd, DnD, etc) in a different way. You might play a roleplaying game (RPG) like World of Warcraft, the Witcher III, or one of the Baldur’s Gate games and yearn for a more creative gaming outlet. It’s possible you hear your friends talking about D&D, discover an actual play series such as Critical Role or The Provokers, or spot a funny meme in the wild. One of these events might spur you to seek out a D&D group or better yet, create your own. 

Regardless, for the purposes of this article, you’ve discovered D&D and want to play it.

This article will provide you a pathway to success. There’s no need to blaze the trail if it has already been paved!

Gather a Group


The premier step is to gather a group.

As you will be the one reaching out and gathering members, you should take the mantle of Dungeon Master (DM).

In D&D, the DM is the world. They play the villains and allies, environments and elements—everything besides the Player Characters (PCs). In addition, they are the rules referee. They make all rules calls and decide what goes at the table. When it comes to these two aspects, they are supposed to be impartial. But they should also try their best to ensure the players (and themselves) are having fun.

So, as the DM, you need to gather your group. For your first game, I’d recommend finding four players. Larger groups might hinder your experience.

Mine through people you know to start. These folks could be people you think might have fun playing D&D, have shown interest in the game before, or be complete strangers to gaming in general. Really, D&D is playable by everyone as long as each individual brings their imagination, an open mind, and a pension for fun to the table.

After you’ve exhausted that list and aren’t at the recommended number of players, reach out to friends of friends who express interest. 

Art from Rime of the Frostmaiden, by April Prime.

As a last resort, you can post online (I suggest this subreddit) for people interesting in playing D&D. This, however, scrambles things. Since you do not know these people, you need to make sure they're a good fit for your group. In your looking for a group (LFG) post, mention your interests when it comes to D&D, what you’re looking for (and not looking for), and what the plan when it comes to number of sessions/times/etc. With a group of random people, you should run a single session adventure first. Don’t commit to a long-lasting one if you don’t know them.

Here are two examples of LFG posts. One is a poor post, the other is stellar.

I am a DM looking for players to play D&D. Who is up for it?

I am a DM looking for 4 players to play a D&D 5e adventure. It will be one session on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 at 1:00pm EST. The characters will be 1st level and it will last 3-5 hours. Please be mature and looking for a mix of roleplaying, tactical combat, and a tad of exploration. Who is up to play?

If at the end of your search, you have at least one other player, you’re good to go.

If you’ve not succeeded, continue looking and don’t give up hope. D&D is not a game that can be played solo, unfortunately. You can build your world, plan a campaign, and think up cool scenarios in your head for hours. But without at least one other player, you’re not yet playing D&D—you’re just plotting it out! Given time, I am confident you’ll be able to find at least one other to join you in your quest.

With a group gathered, it’s time to stride onward.

Collect Supplies


D&D is a malleable game. You can play it with minimal supplies or an entire basement of maps, miniatures, and other D&D knick-knacks.

To run your first game, you don’t need much. You can even start playing for free using the Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, found on the Wizards of the Coat site here.

Otherwise, you’ll need the following:
  1. Paper and a pencil or a computer for notes
  2. The Player’s Handbook to reference rules and help create the PCs
  3. A set of polyhedral dice to roll for attacks, ability checks, and nearly everything else
Ideally, you should also read the Player’s Handbook so you have a firm grasp on the rules. Remember, as the DM you’ll be the adjudicator. You don’t need to memorize the entire book, but you should know the basics and be able to make a call or reference the correct chapter when necessary.

Once you’ve obtained that list of three, you have everything you’ll need to physically play.

If you want to outfit yourself with a few more armaments, take a gander at the following; if you’re set, move to the next part!
  1. The Monster Manual to populate your adventure with monsters
  2. The Dungeon Master’s Guide to help build your world and tailor your game to you and your players
  3. A battle map so you can visualize the battlefield
  4. A set of miniatures to represent the PCs and monsters in combat and exploration
Supplies collected, it’s time to move forward.

Scribe a Start


Preparation is vital for your first D&D game. You have an important decision to make: do you want to run a published adventure or create a quest of your own design?

There are plenty of easy-to-run starting adventures for new DMs and players. Honestly, I’d suggest starting with a written out quest unless you have some semblance of experience running or playing roleplaying games. 

No matter what you choose, though, your first adventure should contain the following elements:
  • A call-to-action and an enticing reward. This thrusts the PCs into the adventure and gives them a reason to hit the road. The blacksmith bursts into the tavern and cries out for assistance against a tribe of goblins. Or a kobold clan collapses the nearby mine. Maybe an ogre is stealing cows from the local farmer. Beginners might need a clear motivation to pursue the adventure: coin, magic items, or perhaps fame.
  • A villain. He or she acts against the PCs and serves as a foil to their actions. They will also take most of the PC’s ire. The filthy goblin shaman who enjoys finely made weaponry and skinning her victims alive. The ambitious kobold chieftain who seeks to draw capable adventurers into his lair for experimentation. The ogre who just wants to eat and was driven from their stomping grounds by a stubborn hill giant.
  • A fantastic location. This place draws the PCs into the world and allows for exploration of the imaginative. The goblin hideout carved into the trunk of a massive tree. The acidic caverns deep inside a collapsed mine. The dilapidated but floating wizard’s tower that acts as the ogre’s simple home.
Art from Lost Mine of Phandelver, credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Together, these three elements form an adventure: a series of encounters that see the PCs interacting with NPCs, exploring the world, and combating foes in it.

If you feel up to the task and are inspired, go right ahead and construct your own short adventure! Otherwise, here are three excellent adventures for a first D&D game.
  • Lost Mine of Phandelver. This adventure is a part of the starter set for fifth edition and can form the foundation for an extended campaign. It pits the PCs against classic D&D foes and contains everything a first adventure for beginners should.
  • The Burning Plague. This adventure is free and written for an older edition of D&D. However, all that needs to be changed are the stats of the monsters inside, which is a super simple task. It was my first adventure and sees the PCs delve into an abandoned mine to cleanse a foul foe.
  • The Delian Tomb. This adventure is free and created by Matthew Colville, a respected content creator on YouTube and elsewhere. It’s simple, brief, and throws the PCs against staple D&D villains: goblins, in a staple adventuring location: an order of knights' tomb.
Once you have scribed a starting story, you’re nearly ready to run your first D&D game.

Set a Date and Breathe


Almost everything is ready.

You gathered a group of ready, able, and willing adventurers.

You collected a variety of supplies for your D&D game.

You scribed a starting story, whether it was one of your own creation or one written by some of the hobby’s greats.

It’s time to set a date and breathe.

Reach out to your players to schedule your first session. Plan whose home you’ll be gathering at, whether or not you’ll all be eating or not, and the general time frame you’ll be playing. Some say this is the most difficult part, but if you’ve found a group of people who truly want to play D&D, to make time for it and ensure it’s a priority, you shouldn’t have too many issues.

Once a date is set, read over your material and write up a few important notes. Your first set need not be complex, just things you know you’ll need: NPC names, monsters the PCs will fight, important plot points, and where you generally want the session to go. As you DM more, you’ll find out what you need and don’t need to take notes on.

When the day approaches and you’re at the head of the table surrounded by your friends, remember to breathe. You’re all there to have fun and play D&D together. Try not to stress about it and focus on having a stellar time instead! If you think it goes poorly, don’t worry: D&D is a hobby wherein you’re constantly improving. And really, all the matters is that you and your friends have fun. That should be the priority.

Art from Storm King's Thunder, credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Lessons Learned


Like I said at the beginning of this article, everyone discovers D&D in a different way. You might not get the chance to prepare a ton and read this article before your first session. Your friends might ask you to run a game in a few hours time and you might do it, armed with a pencil, some dice, and a fierce imagination. And that's not wrong. You can still easily run a successful first game that way.

I'm just here to try and help the discerning, first-time DM.

Here’s the gist on how to run your first D&D game:
  1. Gather a group of people who want to play D&D.
  2. Collect supplies for D&D—this can be done for free!
  3. Scribe a starting story that contains a call-to-action and enticing reward, a villain, and a fantastic location.
  4. Set a date and remember to breathe at the table.
Once you’ve run your first D&D game, odds are you’re hooked. If you want help growing your pool of knowledge or learning about D&D, don’t be afraid to roam the rest of my articles. I’m here to help you become the best DM you can be.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

Related Articles

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

28 November 2020

Caught in Galen Lessons: Sessions 18-19


Sessions 18 and 19 of Caught in Galen were rough. This fact makes them great bits of Dungeons & Dragons to dissect because while I deeply enjoy successful encounters, interesting characters, and fulfilling character arcs, they’re not as helpful in my journey to become a better DM as sessions where I think I failed. Session 18: Slimy Happenings ended on a poor cliffhanger—mostly due to the failure of the party’s plans and Session 19: Ruthless didn’t happen for a few weeks due to my move. Sadly, the wait was arduous and the session's conclusion was unsatisfying.

In retrospect though, each of those sessions might’ve been successful in the minds of my players but not my own. I might be overblowing the failures. After every session, I poll my players and ask if they had fun. So far, it's always been a resounding yes.

But...

Let’s recap these two sessions and tear them apart. We are going to discover what went wrong, if anything.

Session 18: Slimy Happenings


The session started in the depths of Galen, below the sewers and in the region known as the Jungle of Pipes. A combination of caverns, ruins, and sewers, the Jungle housed many of the party’s foes. After much preamble on the surface, they had finally arrived and were prepared to face the terrors of this dark labyrinth.

Immediately, they confronted a slug-like aberration called a leurgva. It welcomed their arrival. To the party’s surprise, the leurgva revealed key locations around the Jungle and urged them to act. They realized as an aberration from Xoriat, the Realm of Madness, all this creature sought was chaos. If they acted as it wished, they would be giving in to its desires. The leurgva crawled away and left the party with a few hazy choices. They discussed their options and decided to head toward one of the bases of the enemy faction, the Verdant Skull, a ruined town called Tairox Landing. There, they would find prisoners from the surface: friends and allies that needed saving.

That decision led them to destruction.

Down twisting passages they journeyed. Past a burning camp built around a towering stalagmite and into a wide cavern, the party discovered the ruins of a lightning rail track. Following it, they found a fort constructed from dilapidated lightning rail cars.

The fort was guarded by the Verdant Skull.

Together, they tried to hatch a plan. Multiple ideas were pitched and rejected and no one seemed to be on the same page. One of the PCs ran off and tried to sneak past the barricade. He failed and drew the guards’ attention. The party panicked and tried to disguise themselves as members of the Verdant Skull. Without his consent, they turned on a member of the party, the kobold warlock named Ghost, and played him off as a prisoner to the guards. Unknowingly, all prisoners' brains were consumed by the intellect devourers stationed at this fort.

As the mindflayer pet approached, the party needed to make a decision.

If they struck out against the guards and the intellect devourer, all pretenses of disguise and subterfuge would disappear and they could be overpowered. If they let the intellect devourer reach Ghost, he and his memories would be gone for the foreseeable future.

To me, the decision was simple. However, the party attempted to have it both ways.

They attacked the intellect devourer and continued to act like allies to the Verdant Skull guards. In addition to a few failed checks, their story was far too incredulous at that point. The guards attacked the party. The ensuing battle continued until the end of the session and resulted in the death of a party member—not the fake captured one; Butcher, the party’s newest member, was no more. His soul drifted from his mortal form and was caught against the Barrier surrounding Galen; he was dead but not entirely gone!

The session ended with that death. I felt horrible. The players seemed frustrated that their plan didn’t work. It’s not a great feeling, I know. As I look back on that night, I’m not too sure how to feel. In the moment, I was upset for them, upset that they had lost and we had to end at the climax of that loss. Now, I think it was warranted. The jig was up. Their plan failed and plans need to fail—sometimes horrendously.

I strive to make every session as fun as possible for all my players. At the table, I give them all my attention and give their stories all the effort I can. I feed on their energy. When they fail and are upset, I feel the same way.

But it’s okay to fail. It makes the next success all the sweeter. That doesn’t mean the visceral stench of failure doesn’t drain the life out of you in the moment. It does. Just remember that there are highs and lows and as long as you strive to create an interesting world full of adventure and opportunity, you’re doing it right.

Session 19: Ruthless


Butcher, the party’s newest member, was dead in the arms of Luna as session 19 began.

The battle between the party and the Verdant Skull guards continued. The guards were led by T-750, a warforged animated by a necrotic docent (he was also a former PC). During the melee, a new PC was introduced: Argus, the half-orc Eldritch Knight! The battle was difficult and nearly saw the death of another PC. Luckily, Luna saved the near-death member, Ignis the fire genasi warlock, with a clutch version of the sleep spell that only affected constructs.

Three cheers for useful homebrew!

As the battle went cold an argument heated up between the party. They needed to decide what to do with the lone survivor of this ruined lightning rail fort. I’ll admit, this debate went on longer than it needed to and it was my fault. I tried interjecting as both the prisoner (who invited death) and the newly introduced NPC who came with Argus. The prisoner and new NPC sought the prisoner’s demise, yet the party couldn’t come to a conclusion for awhile.

Honestly, it bogged down the session and hurt my heart after. It was the first session in my new house and was otherwise fantastic, but I knew I could have done something to quicken the debate or lessen the hostility between the PCs and players.

The debate eventually ended and the party moved on, led by the new NPC, a kobold named Strunt. They started crawling through kobold tunnels, a stellar and safe shortcut to Tairox Landing. The session concluded in a junction of these tunnels and the party set camp.

Sadly, the remains of the combat and the debate took up most of the session. The combat was intense but a remnant of the session that ended on a sore note weeks before. The debate was vital to the story but definitely a detriment I could have dissuaded. The debate especially upsets me because it has happened to my groups before. Of course, this debate wasn’t as bad as the previous debate (full story on that to come soon), so I didn’t feel the need to interject. It was mostly in-character and had zero out-of-character jabs. As a DM, I felt inclined (and still do, frankly) to let it happen. But it’s irking me. If I intervened, would it have lessened the story? If I intervened, would the players feel influenced by me? Or worse—controlled?

As I’m writing this, I’ve not decided how I feel, though I’m leaning toward the side of intervening the next time this happens. Mad warforged cultists burst from the wall, picks in-hand! An umber hulk drops from the ceiling, its gaze dragging you out of your argument! The elf scholar you were escorting, she’s gone!

Yes, I think I’ll intervene next time. Better to add something new to the story than drag it out with angry banter between characters.

Up Next


For awhile, I considered Sessions 18 and 19 to be potholes in the massive, paved highway that is Caught in Galen. As I think back on them, I’m believing them more and more to be tiny bumps in the road. Nevertheless, my favorite D&D campaign thus far soldiers on. Session 22 is this coming Tuesday, which means we’ll be gazing over sessions 20 and 21 next. Session 20 was amazing. Session 21 was something. I’m excited to discuss them both in the next Tales of Galen piece.

Oh, and did I mention we’re holding a mega-session on December 19th? I’ll probably discuss that at some point, too...

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

22 November 2020

D&D Players and DMs, Be Thankful


It’s Wednesday night. The party are faced with a decision: continue toward the lair of one of their vile foes through cramped kobold tunnels, try to enter through a broken lightning rail, or turn back and face the enemies behind them. If they choose correctly, they’ll reach their destination before the mysterious Vaxilidan can complete the domination of those they hold dear. If they choose incorrectly, their loved ones will become horrific husks twisted by aberrant minds and incurable darkness. Of course, they choose the quickest and safest path: through the kobold tunnels! In single file, they crawl and slip their way down the wet passages until they arrive at a hole that leads into an ancient and flooded crypt.

Dragon murals line the walls, kobold packs float in the murky water, and the cracks in the ground remind the party of a defeated foe. Their path forward muddied, they decide to delve into the crypt and a wild night of roleplaying and mad speculation ensues: kobold sarcasm and malice, leaps to the plane of dreams, the possibility of more time travel, interactions with the most important NPC in the campaign thus far, glimpses of a big bad evil guy, and kuo-toa bringing statues of Bahamut and Tiamat to life! At the session’s end, I was giddy; and as always, I thanked my players for being there and making my Wednesday a night to remember.


Dungeons & Dragons is a game that has a huge impact on many of our lives. Through the lens of D&D, all of us folk of countless backgrounds and ages are able to speak a common language and live in a world where anything is possible. We slay demon lords, uncover ancient secrets, and construct artifacts of unimaginable power. But that’s not all. Whenever we sit down at a table or computer desk, dice by our side and pencil or keyboard ready, we let the weight of the world slide off our shoulders and are free for a few hours.

We’re free to leap into a 10,000-feet deep chasm and use a bed sheet to navigate past broken pipes and shards of stone.

We’re free to be someone completely different than who we are in real life: a shady elf with a poufy hat; a single-minded warforged with a distinct goal in life; an awakened potted plant able to conjure spells.

We’re free to build worlds of pure imagination: mile-high flying islands immersed in wispy clouds; jungles littered with gold and silver temples of feline deities; cities with towers that touch the sky and whose people come from numerous worlds.

And who do we have to thank for that? The other people at our virtual, wood, or plastic table.

D&D players and DMs across the world, be thankful we have each other. Even during the times when we bicker and squabble over new expansions to our favorite game’s ruleset, how to proceed in a dungeon, or what day would be the best to play, good groups need to remain grateful for their companions.

Even away from the table, I’m continually amazed by my players. I spend hours worldbuilding and preparing for their escapades across Eldar as they continue to stay engaged.

Pattern by Aja Moniz.
  • One of my players crocheted a slain antagonist for another one of my player’s birthday. A stellar creation that honestly made me choke up a little inside; it was the first piece of art done for one of my campaigns.
  • Another player puts a massive amount of thought and work into his character. He writes short stories about him that are excellent. He records voice lines that he plays during sessions to showcase his descent into madness (maybe). He even made a web of most of the NPCs in the campaign, connecting dots I hadn’t even thought possible!
  • A few other players are also DMs and were inspired by my campaign guide’s layout. Basing theirs on mine, they built onto their own worlds and sated my desire to spread my love of DMing and worldbuilding to others.
  • Another player loves to talk about his character’s thoughts and how he’ll slowly evolve. Whenever someone wants to talk to me about their character out of game, I’m joyful; I know I’ve hooked them.
Zooming out further than that, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the internet and social media have done wonders for the world of D&D. If I need inspiration, I can easily head over to a subreddit, Facebook page, or DeviantArt of spectacular fantasy artists. If I need a laugh, D&D memes are in high supply. If I’m eager for advice on an upcoming encounter, I can ask a question and dozens of people will comment to help me.

That’s amazing.

Look no further than the following examples of our community’s greatness.
We need to not only be thankful for the people we play with week after week and month after month, we need to realize we have a stellar community around the world. Of course, there are always buggers, but as a whole, I’m incredibly thankful for our current D&D community—and excited to see it continue to grow. I started participating in online forums when I played Neverwinter Nights and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I never expected outlets for expressing love of D&D to rocket to such immense size and utility. I'm thankful.

Art from Neverwinter Nights.

If you are not a member of these communities and would like to be, here’s a list of my favorites.
And here are a few brilliant content creators I think you should follow!
I know we live in an insane world. We're lucky to have a hobby where we can come together with family, friends, and strangers to jump into a fantasy one that's probably a hell of a lot stranger at times but far more interesting a full of possibilities every week or so. Be thankful.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

18 November 2020

Caught in Galen Lessons: Sessions 16-17




The RJD20 front has been silent for a few weeks for good reason: my wife and I moved into a house! Now that we’re settled (for the most part), weekly articles and more shall return. This is the first piece I’m writing from our new office, looking out over a serene lake, autumnal trees looming over the shimmering water. It’s a splendid office, it’s a splendid house. Already, I’ve played three Dungeons & Dragons sessions here (two as a DM, one as a player), and look forward to rolling many more dice in our own dungeon decorated and designed specifically to play games like D&D.

So, how has Caught in Galen been going? Absolutely incredibly. We went on our longest hiatus (two weeks) due to a possible sickness and our move, but we quickly leaped back into the fray. This article will observe and dissect sessions 16-17 of Caught in Galen, enjoy!

Who is Poppy?


Secrets are a powerful tool in D&D. Whether its secrets of NPCs— the vampire has a long lost love he cannot battle; the red dragon keeps a deadly wizard deep in its lair; the goblin boss isn’t as macho as many of his kin believe — or secrets of PCs, they can be utilized to drive the story forward, build tension, and unleash climactic moments your players will remember for the rest of the campaign, if not the rest of their lives.

Caught in Galen is rife with secrets, both of NPCs and PCs, and it’s better for it. One example of a secret wielded well is in session 16.

As a trio of pale, nude high elves with tattoos of sulking brains on their heads attacked the characters’ home base, the elves called out to someone named Poppy. Obviously, they were baiting this “Poppy” into confronting them or revealing herself. They knew Poppy was present, but no one else in the party or the establishment knew of a Poppy...or so they said. As the combat evolved and even after it ended with the climactic reveal of the kidnapping of a dear NPC, the players and their characters speculated about Poppy. Who was Poppy? Why did the elves want her? Why wasn’t Poppy revealing herself? The questions continued and were subtly brushed away.

Of course, Poppy is the true identity of one of the party members; it’s a name she used to go by in her homeland and it has chased her all the way to the City of Magic. What the elves want, why they’re interested in Poppy, and what the ultimate outcome of their involvement in the story will be is all driven by a secret. This secret, forged by a player, successfully added another layer to the story and coalesced a veil of mystery between party members. Ensuring the secret doesn’t divide the party, ensuring it simply manifests in a fun and interesting way, the secret will surely continue to make the campaign better.

What can we learn here? Secrets are powerful tools, but they must be used properly. If the DM reveals a PC secret too soon or at the wrong time, it can upset a player and, possibly, erode trust between PCs. That’s not the goal; the goal of wielding a secret properly is ensuring it makes the game more interesting and more fun.
 

Encounter Complete


Creating compelling encounters is one of the most important jobs of a DM. Unlike more narrative systems, D&D relies on interesting combat encounters at least every 3 or 4 sessions. Most abilities characters gain are combat-focused, most die-rolling occurs in combat, and, let’s face it, tons of players thoroughly enjoy battling monsters in dungeons and in wilderness.

Sometimes, though, combats go awry due to clever thinking by the PCs or poor planning by the DM. This happened in session 17 of Caught in Galen.

The companions, alongside a battalion of well-armed soldiers and mages, delved into the supposedly locked location of a set of planar gates. Ever since the Barrier was raised in Galen, planar travel was impossible, so the structure was closed down and abandoned for the time being. However, while no one was guarding it, nasty aberrations called leurgva broke into it and lathered it in translucent slime. The slime caused those who touched it to become restrained, unable to move from their position. Immediately, the party started to experiment with it: how would they remove it from the structure? Touching it obviously didn’t work. Wiping it up didn’t work. Pouring water on it...cleared it away! But what about fire? Fire rapidly spread on the slime, creating a massive inferno. The group worked their way past the patches until they reached the chamber with the planar gates in which these large humanoid slugs waited. Instantly, the party unleashed fire into the room and engulfed it: encounter over, the leurgva were no more. Of course, there were a few consequences, but the encounter was vanquished in a moment’s notice. I wanted to go back on my description for a brief moment, but I rapidly decided that I wouldn’t. Their clever thoughts and my poor planning led to this fast victory.

Do you see what can be learned? Even if you plan an awesome encounter, your reactionary thoughts or your players intelligent responses might nullify it quickly. If that happens, let it be! Learn from it and plan out the next one. And honestly, sometimes, it’s good for the PCs to annihilate an encounter. The feeling makes them confident...and lures them into the clutches of the next one which is sure to be absolutely wicked!
Art from Volo's Guide to Monsters.

Up Next...


The upcoming sessions contain plenty of lessons to be learned and many tales to be told. The format of Tales of Galen will continue to evolve as the campaign does. If you are enjoying the current format of the series, please let me know! If you’re interested in seeing it change a bit, please do the same. Sessions 18 and 19 of Caught in Galen are climactic: they involve the longest battle of the campaign, a deadly twist, and a morality debate. Writing about them is going to be great.

Until next time, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

If you enjoy my content, support me on Patreon. Check out the sidebar to discover any other realms in which RJD20 exists.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

Art credit, in order: The 5e D&D Starter Set and Volo's Guide to Monsters.

29 October 2020

3 Ways a Home Base in D&D Will Improve Your Campaign


Tuesday night. The characters of the Caught in Galen campaign are all gathered at what they’ve dubbed “home base”, a structure on the western end of their community named the Faded Ember Inn. After almost every adventure, the characters return to this cozy inn to recuperate and discuss the calamity that seemed to be befalling Galen. Concurrently, they confer with many of the colorful characters they’ve met throughout their quests and convinced to come stay at the inn: Rea, an aasimar acolyte of Bahamut and love interest of Ignis; Unread Book, a tabaxi turned mad by the beholder-like expurgat Ixigana; Blast, a brief enemy and current ally forging iron defenders for the party; and those are but a few!

At this point, the inn is nearly at full capacity and has been the site of at least one major combat. After a quick discussion, the characters prepare to depart. Alas! The inn’s owner gasps and points out the window. Barreling through the sky is a great airship, heading directly toward the Faded Ember Inn. The symbol of the Eldritch Knights: a suit of animated armor with a blade in one hand a fireball in the other, illuminates as a flash of lightning arcs in front of the flying vessel. More visitors to home base. Fantastic.

The player characters are usually adventuring across the land in their pursuit of riches, power, and glory. They hunt green dragons in tepid bogs, delve into the ruins of frost giant warmongers, and save the world from the machinations of maniacal archmages.

In many of these situations, they might not have roots anywhere. The player characters simply squat in whatever town or settlement they are near: the joyous tavern near the river, the wizard’s tower overlooking the endless plains, the underground hideout kept secret by yuan-ti rogues.

They might already be deeply invested in the world and the campaign but there is an easy way to draw them in further. Sometimes, you might need to hint at it, others, they might jump at the opportunity without any nudging.

If you want to help your players and their characters care more about your Dungeons & Dragons game, prompt them to or help them construct a home base.

Art by Anna Stokes.

This act will invest them into your campaign and world, provide a plethora of plot hooks and quest ideas, and give everyone the chance to try out a new type of gameplay.

Improving Investment


When a place is your own, you care more for it. Compare an apartment to a house. With an apartment, you know someone else owns it. You call others to fix issues, are unable to make it your own, and are confined to a few rooms and a patio. With a house, you know its yours. You put time and effort into it, fixing what you can yourself and decorating it as you see fit.

The same goes for home bases in D&D.

If the player characters are hopping from camp to camp, to places they do not own, their care for each will be shallow and simple. Sure, they might enjoy verbally sparring with the sharp-witted kenku innkeep along the Eastern Way, or laugh hysterically at the cult of whispering trees that surround a druidic citadel in the Allgloom Forest, but their connections to those places are brief. You will be lucky if they last more than a session.

Once they own their own place, their care will rapidly ascend.

The player characters will ensure their home base looks interesting and resembles their adventures. They might decorate it with the rewards of their prior quests. They will also want to know who lives there besides them. They could invite a humble cleric or a reputable merchant to make it their own and start to build a following there. After adventures, they will have a place to travel back to. There, they might relax, recover, and recount their fantastic accomplishments and solemn missteps.

For these reasons and a few more to come, the players and there characters will become more invested in your campaign and world once they have a place of their own.

Here are a few ways you could encourage the characters to establish a home base.
  • The characters discover an abandoned keep in the middle of an ancient forest. With a bit of renovation, it could become a formidable citadel.
  • A wealthy patron offers the characters a plot of land and a blank writ of credit in exchange for the completion of a dangerous quest. They will be able to do what they want with the land, but it's set atop a hill and would make an excellent location for a massive tower.
  • Remind the characters that they're accumulating a lot of wealth...too much to carry around on adventures. Unless they want to open a bank account or hide the treasure somewhere "safe", they are going to need to set roots somewhere.
Art credit Wizards of the Coast (Hoard of the Dragon Queen).

Improving Story


A home base in D&D provides plenty of opportunity for Dungeon Masters to wrap the plot further around the player characters. In addition, it gives the player characters ample opportunity to pursue downtime activities unrelated to the main plot.

Let’s take a look at both concepts.

Improving Main Plots


My player characters currently station themselves at an establishment called the Faded Ember Inn. Many of their allies live in or around the building and almost everyone knows they’re staying there — including their enemies. Over the course of the campaign, this has given me a plethora of chances to entangle the inn with the main plot. I’ve achieved this in many ways.

The entire family of a noble house paid the tavern a visit, renting it out for the day and treating it as their own summit spot between them and the party. This meeting flung the Faded Ember Inn into the spotlight and highlighted the party’s relationship with this powerful faction.

A deadly thieves’ guild for hire working alongside the party’s primary foes attacked the inn. The encounter was quick and brutal, involving minotaurs attempting to steal away close friends and vicious halflings posing as jolly patrons.

Four high elves, heads tattooed with bulbous brains, drew the party into the street. Using their mind magics, they thickened the plot and revealed secrets about one of the player characters that might interfere directly with the troubles they were facing day-by-day.

Each of those encounters built on top of the main plot. They all used the party’s home base as a catalyst.

Improving Side Stories


Let’s continue to use the Faded Ember Inn as the example here.

One of the PCs works at the inn. He has forged bonds with the others who work there: the inn’s owner (Immi), her daughter (Nala), and a tabaxi cook (Unread Book). When the PC retreats to the inn to rest, he interacts with each of these characters. The owner, a fire genasi like the PC, has taken on a motherly role; the owner’s daughter has a crush on him; the tabaxi cook is his best friend. Since the campaign’s start, these relationships have grown and changed — all the characters have also had some hand in the primary plot. Immi provides safety and comfort for the entire group after an arduous battle. Nala adds a bit of bubbly positivity to the somber atmosphere of the story. Unread Book pops in to muddy the already mysterious plot.

Alongside improvements to the main story, this home base has provided room for the personal story of this character to grow. Without it, it’s unlikely this type of development would take place. Instead, the vast majority of time would be spent building on the main plot.

Improving Gameplay


Narratively, a home base provides numerous chances to build on a campaign. Concurrently, it allows players and Dungeon Masters to test and master new gameplay systems.

Here are a few gameplay systems you can play around with if your PCs hold a home base.
  • Strongholds and Followers by MCDM. This supplement creates a foundation for you and your players to build the greatest stronghold in the land, whether its a druid grove or a barbarian camp. It’s a super in-depth system with lots of room for customization, roleplay opportunities, and mechanical addition to gameplay.
  • Downtime activities. Many of these rules are outlined in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Activities include running a shop, creating magic items, and constructing a following.
Both of these options provide depth to your game and, while being primarily mechanical additions, will definitely provide a framework for more narrative gameplay.

Art credit Wizards of the Coast (Volo's Guide to Monsters).

Skyreach Castle


Wizards of the Coast included an example of an awesome home base in the first hardcover module (Hoard of the Dragon Queen) for fifth edition D&D: Skyreach Castle. Discovered by the PCs near the end of the book, the flying castle could serve as a great first home base in D&D, as long as it survives the adventure.

When trying to hook your players on a home base, take inspiration from Skyreach Castle. It's a truly fantastic location and that's what we want our home bases to be.
  • It's the former stronghold of giants; that's rad.
  • It's the location of the adventure's climax, which should instantly fill it with fond and dark memories.
  • It's a flying castle!
  • It has an interesting navigation system.
  • It has a storied history.
  • It's wanted by other factions.
  • It has plenty of room for construction, storage of treasure, and housing for patrons and allies of the party.
Art credit Wizards of the Coast (Hoard of the Dragon Queen).

Lessons Learned


Encouraging your players to create a home base or iterating on the one they’ve already constructed is a stellar way to improve your D&D campaign. Remember what we discussed.
  • Home bases compound on your players’ investment in the game and world.
  • Plots that surround home bases can be personal and world-shaking.
  • A variety of gameplay systems revolve around home bases and downtime activities. If the player characters own one, this gives everyone the chance to play around relatively untouched or brand new systems in D&D.
Until next time, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

Art Credit, in order: Hoard of the Dragon Queen (WOTC), Unknown (Anna Stokes), Hoard of the Dragon Queen (WOTC), Volo's Guide to Monsters (WOTC), and Hoard of the Dragon Queen (WOTC).

23 October 2020

Caught in Galen Lessons: Sessions 13-15


We’re almost on track with the Caught in Galen campaign! Next week is session 19; this article reviews and explores the lessons learned and best moments of sessions 13-15. From explosive combats at a lovely little inn and player character robberies, to untimely death in a sewer pit and incredible revelations for major plot points, this stretch of Caught in Galen was extremely satisfying to run. Observing the players pit their characters against near impossible foes, overcome them, and then use the information they gleaned from those encounters is gratifying.

Introducing BARDCORE


Session thirteen started at the party’s home base, the Faded Ember Inn, as they waited for an important arrival. Sitting in the main room of the establishment, a popular band of their community ascended the newly-built stage to perform their greatest hits in front of an excited audience. You see, the Faded Ember Inn had been closed for almost a week and a half due to a fire beetle infestation and constant visits from iconic individuals; now was the time to jam out and make some profit for its fire genasi owners. The band introduced themselves and began their music as I, outside the game, started a playlist over the speakers we use during D&D. A few days before that session, I discovered bardcore, a genre of music that remixes today’s songs as performances by bards from medieval times. As song after song played, a battle raged in the inn, the party’s enjoyment of the music only deepened.

What can we learn? Unconventional music, even from our own era, can greatly enhance a D&D game, but truly, you should always use background music during your games! Use a speaker set or an iHome to play music during your sessions. It adds to the atmosphere, from lovely, relaxing music during overland travel, to rambunctious, discomforting music during intense action sequences. Be wary with your music management though; sweet & calm music can take away from exciting battles.

Turning Point


At the end of last session, the party discovered that one of their members, Flux, had been kidnapped and taken below the city. Finally, they were ready to head into the sewers. A plethora of sessions had passed between the first time they were going to delve below and the current. At first, they were too scared to go below. Then, others things popped into their heads that they thought they had to go and chase. All the while, the villain of the chapter continued to build their plans, piece by piece. Time was passing as they pursued these other ends through various means. Nonetheless, they all knew the true threat was buried beneath them, below the sewers and in the place known as the Jungle. No matter how I hinted toward these actions being taken or how I prodded them toward this place, they went after other quests; finally, when one of their own had been taken below, they decided to descend into the depths. Sometimes, that’s what you need to do to progress…

Is there a lesson here? I think so. Inaction can be a problem in D&D. The party may believe the path forward is too dangerous to pursue, so they go after other things in the world. That’s fine. I run my games like a sandbox: the party can do whatever they want, but the central tension continues to intensify and the villains they know about all too well continue to build on their plans and machinations. Sometimes, characters must be prodded into action gently; if that doesn’t work, force their hand. Alert them that if they do not act, there will be extreme consequences.

To Dust


After saving their party member in the last session, the party were faced with the opportunity to fight one of their primary antagonists, all of them against her and her alone. However, this pit the party against each other; some believed they should retreat to the surface, that they beholder-like being barreling toward them would be too strong for them to overcome. Others thought they should stand and fight, that this was their chance to eliminate a major opponent. After plenty of debate, they decided to battle this creature they fully knew was of extreme power. As they prepared the field of battle, they gained an ally — an old friend — and waited for the creature: Ixigana. The beholder-like expurgat blasted through the floor using her disintegration ray and fought the party. The battle was close and saw the disintegration of one of the party members. Alas, he was the main proponent to stay behind and fight; the battle was won and he was avenged, but he was dead. This traumatic death became the centerpiece the rest of the session. His leftovers — dust — scattered over an ally, party members enraged against the enemy, and people needed to be told of his demise (of import was a dear friend of the deceased, it was a touching moment). We need not explore the revelation that was made out of character because of his death: the trapping of all souls in the city.

This one is easy. Make death impactful in D&D. The demise of a character should be a memorable moment and it should deeply affect the campaign and the characters. Do not drag out the death, but reinforce the fact that the character was a part of the world and meant something to the creatures in it.

Up Next


The last few sessions of Caught in Galen were eventful. I am excited to explore them each with all of you as we continue to catch up to this D&D campaign of epic proportions.

Until next time, stay creative!

Related Articles

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email.

Art credit, in order: Monster Manual (WOTC).

15 October 2020

Caught in Galen Lessons: Sessions 9-12


We’re continuing to catch up with Caught in Galen today. As the party prepares to finally enter the legendary and mysterious Jungle of Pipes, we’ll be recounting and pondering over the lessons learned in sessions nine through twelve of this grand Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Plenty happened, from an eerie encounter with a kalashtar, to the to foiling of a major plot. I planned to expect the unexpected and, as always, was still surprised by my genius and unpredictable players.

Going Separate Ways


There is a famous line in many circles across D&D players: “Never split the party.” Well, this session saw the party diverge for its entirety. Normally, I’d abhor this sort of play, as would my players. However, in the campaign we’re running, there are countless side objectives and stories that can be pursued due to the setting. Galen is a city, an enclosed space. Danger exists, but it doesn’t lurk around every corner. There are pockets of safety everywhere; there are NPCs important to the PCs everywhere; there are stories developing everywhere. So, when the party decided to go three different ways, I embraced it, as did the other players. Despite the split, everyone enjoyed the session. Multiple stories leaped forward and, eventually, everyone reconverged to prepare for their next adventure.

What can we glean from this? Splitting the party isn’t always a terrible mistake, especially if they’re in a setting that’s safe and always for separate travel. However, you need to ensure everyone remains engaged: don’t stick to one PC’s story for an extended period of time, leaving another PC to watch from the darkness.

The Villain One-Shot


In a break from the main campaign, session ten saw four of the five players take on villainous personas and serve the side of the enemy their main characters were battling. Each player portrayed a monstrous PC and leader of a dastardly faction. One played a troll Gloom Stalker, a truly deadly combination. Another mixed a hobgoblin with the Way of the Samurai. Each of the characters was distinct, memorable, and would become villains in the primary campaign. The players went into this one-shot knowing that (if the villainous PC’s survived, of course). They were designing the foes their main characters would one day fight.

How does this help you? Although I explained how one-shots can enhance your primary campaign in-depth in a past article, I’ll summarize here. If you want to explore a different side of D&D, whether it’s allowing the players to become wicked beasties, exploring your world’s past, or fleshing out the villains of your campaign, one-shots act as excellent mediums. In addition, they can segment a campaign extremely well, giving your players a break from playing the same character week after week.

A Change of Plans


At the end of session nine, the party cemented their next moves. I always try to glean what my players and their characters plan on doing so I can prepare my page of notes on the correct topics, encounters, and NPCs. At the beginning of session eleven, the party was set to descend into the infamous Jungle of Pipes, where their primary enemy hid and prepared for his faction’s next attack. However, in this session’s opening moments, the plan rapidly changed; they wouldn’t be heading into the Jungle, they’d be splitting up to act against this enemy without needing to step foot into the dangerous sewers, caverns, and ruins below the city. I was floored but completely prepared for this unexpected event. Why? Always be prepared to improvise when playing D&D.


What’s the primary lesson?
No matter how solid your party’s plans might be at the end of one session, be ready to throw away all your notes and react to a brand new course of action. Don’t railroad your group. Don’t force them into the situations, NPCs, and pathways you thought up; maybe you’ll be able to use them all later. Instead, always be prepared to improvise.

Flashforward, Flashback


Session twelve of Caught in Galen marked the first time I’ve ever dabbled with time travel in my D&D campaigns and setting. After a heroic victory and a new alliance, I skipped forward two weeks, shocking my players. I asked them each to describe an important moment that occurred in those two weeks and went around the table. After everyone recounted or played through that moment, I described a two-week flashback and had them all make an Intelligence Saving Throw. Those who succeeded remembered their important event and knew they’d experienced some sort of look into the future, those that failed knew something was awry but couldn’t remember their key moment. My entire table had no idea what was going on — they were mind boggled. Speculation occurred and they became more and more invested into the story. I know what happened, some of their speculation was correct, but I cannot reveal the exact details here...my players read my articles.

Can you use this? Time travel is a tricky subject. There are lots of variations of it out there for a plethora of worlds. If you want to incorporate it into your games, you need to think carefully. The ramifications of inserting it into your setting is massive and it opens up countless opportunities for villains and PC’s to affect your world in unthinkable ways. Use time travel at your own risk!

Up Next


As the Caught in Galen campaign builds, I’ll still be reflecting on what I’ve learned from it so that all of you may profit from my mistakes and successes. Remember, if you want to check out what’s going on in the campaign, check out the Caught in Galen Campaign Compendium and try out making one for your own D&D campaign.

Until next time, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

Art credit: Rising From the Last War (WOTC).

14 October 2020

Caught in Galen Lessons: Sessions 5-8


The Caught in Galen campaign has been going strong. Next week is its eighteenth session; I last spoke about it after session four! We have a lot to catch up on and a plethora of topics to discuss. Over the past few months, there has been battles in warehouses slicked with oil, interrogations of blathering white dragonborn, realizations about traitorous dwarves and scheming nobles, deadly combats inside shattered temples, brief excursions into the sewers beneath Galen, and much, much more. Let’s discuss and dissect the best parts of sessions five through eight, and see what we can learn.

Beggaton is Forged


An awesome moment of collaboration between me and the player of Jason Urso resulted in the creation of Beggaton. Once called the Beggar’s Town, now shortened to Beggaton, this slum in the community of Vorici’s Rest is where the impoverished and somewhat kooky magewrights gather to live as one and try to survive the madness surrounding them. Jason’s character has a history in the city, and knows its streets quite well, so when he needed a fast way to a certain location, we forged Beggaton. What ensued was a quick romp through a cast of colorful characters, only one of which was developed. Nonetheless, now this region exists in Galen and can be visited and built upon for many sessions to come!

What's the lesson? Collaborate with your players. The best time to do this isn't before the campaign begins or before a certain session: it's during gameplay! While everyone is wild around the table, minds turning, is when the greatest spurts of creativity leap from us. Don't let them go to waste.

Crates, Oil, and Combat


The first large combat of the campaign was set in the basement of a warehouse held by a corrupted gang. It started on a ramp slicked with oil and ended in a large room filled with stacked crates that formed barricades and small towers. The enclosed, trap-laden area forced the party to innovate and led to a few hijinks. Luna tried to clear the oil with prestidigitation, but much of the party ended up sliding down the oiled ramp to rush into the fray. Jason Urso used his whip to catch a torch flung at the oil, stopping it from being lit on fire. Ignis maneuvered onto the crate stacks with his wings and flung halflings and elves to the ground. I think the mix of barrels, oil, and chance for flame made the encounter exciting, and had my players critically thinking until their victory.

What should be learned from this? Always give your combats multiple parts. Sure, when you first begin running D&D, basic encounters with 6 goblins, an open field, and the party may suffice; soon after, though, you'll want to incorporate more elements. Add environmental factors. Give your enemies character. Pepper the encounter with secondary objectives.

A Warforged Ally


Deep in that same warehouse, the party made an ally out of an enemy. Instead of killing the poor warforged, they incapacitated and spoke to him calmly. He explained he was only here because of the coin, and wasn’t actually involved in the death of anyone. He simply made killers; he was an artificer who forged iron defenders. The party decided to convince him to come with them to their home base, the Faded Ember Inn, and start making a few iron defenders to protect the things they treasure. In addition, the warforged (named Blast) helped Luna learn a special type of sleep spell: it only worked on constructs!

What can be gleaned from this? Not all enemies need to be evil; in fact, they can become allies.

The Traitor Discovered


In a session that centered around meeting the entirety of one of the noble houses in Galen, House Coresaw, the party discovered a traitor in the family. I knew he was a traitor the entire time and while a few hints had flown their way, I never expected the reveal to occur in front of his entire family and to materialize so rapidly. Really, it was a flurry of events and an act of pure genius by the players and their characters. Using a combination of clever roleplaying, spectacular insight, touching the traitor’s buttons in the right way, and a perfect usage of zone of truth, they routed this traitor and sent him into the custody of Galen’s elite guard: the Eldritch Knights. Every moment their case built and built, with and without my help. They did a great job. The full scene was so beloved by me I gave the entire party inspiration after it.

How can you use this in your games? Go with the flow. Even if you planned for a key piece of information to be revealed far later in your campaign, let it escape early. If the characters are clever enough to figure it out, reward them.

Next Up with Caught in Galen


Soon, I’ll return and recount the remainder of the sessions so that we can catch up to the live campaign. Until then, check out the Caught in Galen Campaign Compendium. It’s a living document that recounts every session and every NPC in the campaign.

Until next time, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

Art credit: Volo's Guide to Monsters (WOTC).

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