Caught in Galen's Baby Steps

The Caught in Galen campaign is officially underway. Last time I updated you all, we were about to partake in an altogether session zero; that went well. We discussed what Caught in Galen should and should not be, established starting variant rules, and built pieces of the world and characters in real time. After that, we played sessions one, two, and three of the campaign. The first session was held online and the next two were played in person. Every session so far has blown away my expectations. These players are phenomenal and are sincerely enjoying the baby steps of Caught in Galen. From socializing with a stern but respectful with a massive blue mohawk, to battling a small horde of varied (human, halfling, elf, dragonborn, genasi) zombies in a tight hallway, everyone has had a stellar time.

Let’s dive into each of the sessions and see if there’s anything interesting to gleam from them. Linked will be the notes for each session I prepared beforehand. Be careful, though, this campaign has already seen lots of improvisation and tons of tossed notes: just how I like it.

If you want to follow along with the campaign, week by week, check out the Caught in Galen Campaign Compendium. It has all the NPCs, session summaries, and information about the party, among other things, inside of it.

Session 0: Welcome to Galen

After a one-on-one session with each member of the party, this was the third time everyone was getting together. At this point, we’d already played two prologue sessions, so people were familiar with each other, but not “friendly.” During this session zero, we overviewed the many variant rules we’d be using. One by one, we eliminated or approved rules, discussing why or why not they’d improve the atmosphere or fun at the table. Of the nixed rules was the vile and extended lingering wounds chart. The wounds of these chart included losing a leg, losing a few fingers, getting an ear chopped of, and having a stomach cut open, among other terrible inflictions. Altogether, we decided we did not want to begin with this table, especially since the enemies rolled so many more times against the characters and had many more opportunities to “gift” the characters with these horrendous wounds. Overall, I agreed. Instead of this, we instilled a different rule that punished going down: every time a character went down and was raised using healing, they were to gain a level of exhaustion. This, ideally, would make combat more punishing, encouraging characters to be strategic and manage their hit points intelligently.

After the variant rules, I asked everyone what they wanted the campaign to be and what they did not want in it. The former we all agreed upon, the latter was left rather blank; everyone in the group was mature and understood any touchy subject included in the campaign (slavery, torture, explicit romance, etc) would be included because it was important to the story. Everyone understood I as a storyteller was not gratuitous or out to hurt the players in my game. We closed the session zero with a discussion of what the players wanted to see and a growth of the characters. I asked them a variety of questions such as: what monsters do you want to see?, where do you want to go?, and what artifacts might be found? They all loved it, and I am eager to include their suggestions in the campaign. Suggestions included astral giants, eldritch horrors, previous player characters, and places from past campaigns. As for the character building, that was by far the shortest part because most of the character backgrounds were already made and ready to go. It was simple and quick, and nicely led into the first session of the campaign, titled Let the Guilty Rise.

Welcome to Galen was the culmination of all the session zeros and prologues. This was, by far, the most “pre campaigning” I’d ever done for a D&D campaign, but I think it was well worth it. The prologue sessions allowed the players to feel out each other and interact before the campaign began, as well as get introduced to the world and first villain of the campaign personally. Alongside those, the session zeros allowed me to understand each player and character, what was important to them, and how to tie them into the main plot well. It all worked out. I completely understand people who state that it’s too much, why would I do this, or that I’m insane for playing this much before a campaign. I’ve played campaigns with zero prep, a bit of prep, a decent amount of prep, and then this. So far, since I had the time (thanks, COVID-19) I like this method. In the future, though, I have a feeling (with kids & such), I will not be able to do this. Regardless, it was great and was a unique way to kickstart a D&D campaign.

Session 1: Let the Guilty Rise

Caught in Galen’s first session was a bloody success.

Here are its notes:

All of the characters met outside a grand tower amidst a violent, artificially created lightning storm. Some of them already knew each other, either from brief meetings or the shared dream. Eventually, they made their way into Coresaw’s Tower, led by a respectful and serious dwarf with a bright blue mohawk. Inside, they spoke at great length about conflicts boiling in Galen and Vorici’s Rest, and individual rewards to each of the party members were they to help the Coresaw brothers: Andhere and Esegar in secret. The party and the brothers came to an agreement when explosions shook the tower and spread a foul, thick blood fog inside and around it. The group fought to stay up but the world went dark; unable to fight back, they saw Andhere and Esegar taken by a vile half-flesh, half-warforged creature. When they woke up, they discovered undead were now rampant in Coresaw’s Tower. Determined to break out, they began their descent down the tower and made an ally in a raucous halfling fighter named Preston Fairfields.

This session went great. I tried to improve on callbacks during it, and was able to make quite a few: references to past characters in the campaign, backstories, and even old campaigns. It contained all three pillars of D&D: combat, exploration, and roleplay, from the battle with an acidic half-orc zombie to the discovery of an arcane-trapped chest. For a brief moment, I did steal agency from the characters to set-up the opening arc of the campaign with the deadly fog — I scarcely do that. Afterward, I asked them how they felt about it and I received a positive reaction: they felt helpless and now despise the creature — Varmin — that took the Coresaw brothers. That’s an absolute success in my eyes.

Session 2: Guided by Blood

I’ve never had a deadlier second session than Guided by Blood.

Here are its notes:

With the halfling fighter as their guide, the party explored the horrific Coresaw’s Tower. Dead guards, undead, annihilated chambers, clues to how the tower was ruined, and torn art pieces were what they found, until nearly finding the secret door to the main level. In a single file hallway, they fought a bloody battle against zombies, skeletons, and a ghast captain named Glory — the husk of a former paladin. They were outmaneuvered by the ghast, surprised by reinforcements, and surrounded, causing four casualties. Luckily, using speed spells and barricades, they managed to lock themselves in a chamber, away from the undead. In the chamber, they planned a way to escape and met with a goblin named Xing, someone who’d already been acquainted with one of the party members: Flux. Conversations between the party and the goblin were heated, but their singular goal remained the same: escape Coresaw’s Tower alive.

The majority of this session was a deadly battle in a tight corridor and a large dining hall. Two characters nearly died and two others were making death saving throws. However, it was a situation they put themselves in, and I’m proud of what happened. They knew I was going to be more tactical and throw smarter foes at them — this was choreographed in game and out — they should have seen it coming (in fact, one of them did). Most of the party thoroughly enjoyed the battle, both during the session and after it — I could tell by watching but I asked them about it as well. They also loved that one of the PCs from the prologue, Glory, was an enemy in the campaign; they were prepared to take him out. During this session, I wanted to improve on chase encounters, but that’s not what happened! Instead, it turned into a tactical meat grinder where undead awaited the party on all sides and they had to push their way out of a terrible situation. They succeeded.

Session 3: Deal or Death

Already in the third session of the campaign, I pulled the famous “throw away all your notes” show as the Dungeon Master.

Here are its notes, though they don’t show anywhere near the whole story:

Barricaded in a wide chamber with a massive broken window, the party hatched a plan: Flux would channel divinity from Moradin and create a 500 foot long ladder to scale the tower while Roy and Ignis steadied it against the stone. Meanwhile, Jason, Luna, Xing, and Preston would guard the blocked door. It was an insane but possible plan! As an hour passed by, Glory tried to parley with the group for Flux, the warforged was all Varmin wanted now. The group refused and, as the ladder was finished, Glory sent undead to break through the barricades. Roy and Ignis stayed to guard the party, shoving stone pedestals down a long staircase at a zombie minotaur and other undead creatures. The rest of the group climbed down the harrowing ladder, dodging clouds of crimson fog and escaping near falls in dramatic fashion. Ignis and Roy fought in a truel with Glory; Roy eventually pushed the ghast out the window, sending the undead paladin to his ultimate death. As the group reached the bottom of the ladder, they were surrounded by the press of Galen and bombarded with questions. They quickly broke off from each other and the press, leaving Preston behind, promising to meet at the Faded Ember Inn at nightfall. Flux and Xing went to his smithy. Luna went to the Temple of Anubis to meet Hermione, then to the Pale Glow Headquarters to try and get her job back. Ignis met in secret with Shishotile, his Trikaani Assembly informant. Roy made way to the Faded Ember Inn immediately and passed out in its owner’s arms. Jason spoke with Athelmod Coresaw, the guard captain, and traveled to the Sapphire Climb to meet with Crizendomon, learning a dark but useful truth. In the end, they all headed to the Faded Ember Inn…

Another great session! I did not expect it to go the way it did. About five minutes in, I tossed my notes to the side and asked the players to bring it on. Miraculously, I made the ladder encounter interesting, as well as the interaction between Roy, Ignis, Glory, and Glory’s necrotic falchion. When they made it out of the tower — way earlier than I expected — they spoke with a variety of people and split off to different areas of Vorici’s Rest. Everyone took it quite well; I gave everyone rather equal time (except Roy, who passed out quickly) and attention and ensured everyone was okay with splitting the group like this. I suppose I should have expected that if they’re in a city with so many opportunities before them, they were likely to split. As long as they reunite quickly and everyone is having a good time, I think it’s okay. Regardless of this split, everyone thought this was another stellar session and a good way to end the campaign for a week’s time.

In Summary

I am incredibly pleased with how Caught in Galen is going. As we head into this one week break (I am heading up north for a few days), everyone is eagerly awaiting the fourth session: Beside Faded Embers. I expect this session to be the first without any combat, a slow and steady three and a half hour of roleplay and exploration that will include an encounter with one of the early antagonists of Caught in Galen, their name not revealed because my players might be reading this. I’m ready to go, to keep improving, and to continue developing the already interesting and in-depth story of Caught in Galen.

Until next time, stay creative!

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The Karlith Straits

With the Frozen Expanses of Iskryn campaign retrospective now over, it’s time to delve into the next installment of finished campaigns in my grand, old world of Eldar. It is not the third campaign of the setting — the Enoach Desert — which is still ongoing, it is the fourth campaign of the massive realm: the Karlith Straits. This campaign opened up a new world of possibilities to me and my players. It was a weekly campaign with some of the folks from the failed Cursed Jungles of Yatar campaign set in the islands once called the Dead Isles of Altarin, an archipelago named the Karlith Straits. In this campaign, I would learn to become a better Dungeon Master, gather almost every week to play Dungeons & Dragons, and ensure my players had a blast until the campaign’s conclusion.

The Karlith Straits was the first campaign I kept a dedicated campaign compendium for. Here it is:

The compendium has everything inside of it. Names of every session, brief summaries of them, descriptions of every single NPC that appeared in the campaign, maps of the world, and even information on each player character! It also has links to the Karlith Straits region guide and the in-depth journal for the campaign.

This article is an introspective and retrospective of the Karlith Straits D&D campaign. It explores the entirety of the campaign, from its story and characters to the lessons I learned as a DM and person along the way. It is long. It is rambling. It is filled with pictures of my actual notes, scribbled on and filled with ideas that never manifested in the campaign.

If you are a lover of D&D tales, you will absolutely enjoy this in-depth delve into me and my friends’ story of the Karlith Straits of Eldar.

An Overview of the Karlith Straits

Before we explore the story, let’s glimpse over the campaign as a whole. The Karlith Straits was the fourth campaign I have run. I was running it alongside the Frozen Expanses of Iskryn (rarely played, finished) and the Enoach Desert (played about every month, ongoing). It started on December 27th, 2018 and concluded on May 26th, 2020 with its 44th session. The majority of the campaign was played in person, with the last few sessions (40 to 44) played online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign started with six players, including myself, and fluctuated between six and eight throughout the campaign with very rare additions and subtractions.

Every starting character began at level one and ended at level twelve. There were a total of ten different player characters between seven different players. Only one of the characters made it (in the hands of its starting player) to the end of the campaign. The rest of the players lost their characters or made new ones. Five of the seven players played through the entire campaign. Two players made it part of the way through, with one of them participating in most of it and only leaving due to real life circumstances (moved to a new, faraway place). In total, there were 115 different NPCs across 44 sessions of gameplay. That’s an average of 2.61 new NPCs per session! Over two years of time passed in Eldar between the first day of the campaign, Bhas 5, 201 AK, and the last day of the campaign, Lestodis 20, 203 AK.

As always, the players and their characters made the campaign. I was the DM, yes, but their involvement in the world and interest in the events around them drove the plot forward. I thank them graciously for their time and would play with each of them again. The players and their characters were:
  1. Albert: Alovnek, the minotaur cleric of Isperia.
  2. Ian: Ra, the fire genasi aasimar warlock of Xiacutli, and Ruaka Jaqiarza, the platinum half-dragon barbarian.
  3. Hannah: Qoyish, the ice elf ranger, and Na, the water nymph warlock.
  4. Tom: Grobbolith, the lizardfolk druid, and Bruno, the kobold wizard.
  5. Anthony: Elrich, the halfling rogue.
  6. Andrew: Merk, the triton warlock, and Dayo, the githzerai mystic.
As we dive into the campaign’s story, try to guess which character survived in the hands of its player until the very end. Let me know in the comments if you were correct!

If you want to dive deep into the story itself, go ahead and read the Karlith Straits In-Depth Campaign Journal or listen to the video in which I read it out. I’m going to overview most of the story in this article, else it’d be far, far too long.

Okay. Let’s take a journey into the past, a meandering trail through the lives of those who changed the face of Eldar forever...

Act I: The Fall of Taris

The campaign opened up in the small town of Doran on the isle of Varn in the Spearhead Inn & Tavern. A storm raged outside as each member of the unformed party sat either in the inn or on the muddy street outside. Across the town, furious animals with odd, purple eyes bashed into the gates, sending the town guard into panic. Alovnek rushed to the street, mace and shield in hand. Ra joined the fray, flames dancing off his skin and blade. Grobbolith pushed his mushroom cart to the side and turned nature against itself. Qoyish shot into the fight and was picked up and dropped tens of feet by an attacking eagle. This was the unification of the party. They succeeded in defending Doran from giant eagles and a huge rhino, all the beasts mind-controlled and purple-eyed. The leader of Doran, Lord Adrian Ambriosa, arrived to the scene of the battle with his pristine Lord’s Elite, the battle already over. He discussed the origins of the animals, believing they were most likely sent by the neighboring wood elf enclave called the Choqiti. Due to their competence in defending Doran, he invited them to the Lord’s Keep to discuss a proposition. The newly formed party cautiously accepted without showing Lord Ambriosa the respect he wanted. The storm raging above them, the lord returned to the Lord’s Keep with his dragonborn soldiers and left the party at the inn to contemplate their options. What ensued was a great story that shot between a deep, cursed cavern filled with pearls, the dense Twilit Grove, alliances and betrayal, and the ultimate confrontation with an enforcer of the Obsidian Circle: Taris. It saw the death of Qoyish and the addition of Ruaka Jaqiarza, a platinum half-dragon, to the party.

Everything was fantastic during this first act. The party explored two dungeons, both of which they enjoyed. This allowed me to work on running dungeons, a skill I lacked then and still do now. There’s something about the freedom of the surface that helps me become a better DM. Somehow, I need to incorporate that freedom into dungeons. The thing, though, is that dungeons usually need to be prepped to make total sense to me. Exterior areas are different in my head; I can weave everything together in interesting ways, whereas in a dungeon that’s far more difficult. In Caught in Galen, this is a skill I’m specifically trying to improve on.

In addition to dungeon delving, they played games between powerful political leaders and, eventually, faced one of the leaders in combat and killed them. They met many different NPCs and became attached some ones I thought I’d use once and never again. I adjusted lots of different ideas I had during this act, such as the inclusion of a myconid that became a major character. I also tried to focus on a single character’s plot alongside the main story, leading to that characters removal from the party. Oops! With his character gone, I abandoned what I thought would be the main plot: the rise of a fire primordial. Instead, I decided to pursue a plot I’d been hinting at throughout the campaign but thought would be a side plot.

Act II: The Gold Twins

The party arrived at Doran, soaring in on their pegasi with Taris’s head clipped onto Alovnek’s belt. Upon their arrival, they intimidated Lord Adrian, banished Ra to the Azurian Citadel, gained a new party member, Na, and found Zekki alive in his cave. From there, they decided to return to Cursed Pearl Cove to recover with Zekki. There, they found a group of sahuagin had invaded the cavern, who they negotiated with and eventually fought. In the cove, they discovered the fey-touched passages of Old Blenna, where they battled the servant of the Beast Queen and gained a new party member, Merk. Upon defeating the night hag, Na became Na the Everflowing, claiming the allegiance of the remaining unseelie fey there. The cove tamed and in good hands, the companions traveled to the city of Merlint, encountering Grobbolith’s old leader, Caprakan, and his mentor, Amanita. The lizardfolk departed with the mushroom treant as the group arrived at Merlint, where they added a kobold named Bruno to their group. In the Kothian controlled city, the party falsely accepted a job given to them by the Kothian vessel, Lord Elyas Embong. He wished them to capture the twin brother of a gold dragon he’d already captured — he wanted to gift them both to the Obsidian Circle and prove his worth to Head Enforcer Galasar Kisoja. What ensued was an awesome romp throughout the city, a cloud giant’s flying island, and the depths of the dungeons below Merlint. In the end, they saved both gold dragons and discovered they were a part of a greater plot to bring the Platinum Sun — Bahamut — back to the multiverse. They were members of the Line of Seven Guardians, the ancient protectors of the Platinum Sun. The Obsidian Circle wanted their death and the party sought their survival, safety, and the destruction of the followers of Takhsis. They were intent on taking them to a place they thought the Obsidian Circle could not reach them: the Domain of Laughing Goats, the realm of Na’s patron, Hyrsam, in the Feywild.

There’s not too much to critique about act two; some of the best moments of the campaign happened here. I pulled off a stellar betrayal plot in which a changeling was disguised as Ruaka’s long-time friend, a crazy hill dwarf. The clues were introduced from the character’s initial introduction and dotted through six sessions. The reveal was one of my favorite moments of D&D: the look on the players’ faces, the was fantastic. We did lose a player during this time, his character going out in a truly memorable way. His shadowy patron, Scopos, walked into the Mortal World and demanded the powerful, sentient blade of Ruaka, forcing a face-off between the companions. Luckily, Alovnek was able to intervene and banish a hexblade patron back to the Shadowfell! There were very few combats during this act. Most of the ones that did happen were avoided or simmered down by the characters in great ways, from the dewinging of a trapped balor to the epic escape from a trio of cloud giant brothers. I’m sort of sad about that. I enjoy challenging my players and I’m sure they all enjoy challenges; I know I need to work on combat and tactics, it’s the thing I need to prep most when it comes to D&D. I’m slowly improving, but I need to remember to include awesome battles in my sessions, however engaging the roleplay and exploration may be.

Act III: Na the Everflowing

The companions spoke to Zekki a final time before entering the fey crossing in the Orovian Well, formerly Cursed Pearl Cove. Flowing into the Plane of Faerie, the party encountered minions of the Beast Queen and traveled through fantastic environments, barreling past any encounters that stood in their way. With the twin gold dragons, they reached the Golden Sea and interacted with the centaurs there, learning of the Obsidian Circle’s war on Hyrsam (which they had known little about before). They swept through the Golden Sea and battled an enforcer of the Obsidian Circle: an ancient silver dragon, alongside Marzius and Trinathia. After the battle, Trinathia informed them more about the Line of Seven Guardians and they discovered one of the dragons might be hiding in the Grove of Laughing Goats. Soaring over the Feywild, the companions arrived at Hyrsam’s domain and spoke with the archfey, who was threatened by Na the Everflowing. In the grove, Ruaka discovered another Line of Seven Guardians dragon, Kazakis, and they allied to defeat Funghoul, the Beast Queen. In the epic confrontation, Na absorbed the dead archfey’s essence and became a fledgeling archfey.

This act focused on growing the Obsidian Circle threat and Na’s journey to becoming an archfey. Looking back, this is when I realized the campaign was going to end earlier than later. People were moving away, there was a pandemic halting sessions, and I needed to find a way to wrap up everything nicely. I started looking toward the future, introducing plot-ending scenarios, and trying to conclude everything in a way that was satisfying for me and the players. The moment Na became an archfey was simply fantastic, only beat by the final few moments of the campaign.

Act IV: The Rebellion’s End

In the Beast Queen’s domain, the party recovered, Na imbuing the dark waters with a beautiful blue hue. Together, they decided to return to the Mortal World and try to take out the Obsidian Circle and push the Kothians out from the Karlith Straits with their new allies and power. When they returned, they discovered over two years had passed while they were in the Feywild. They quickly traveled to Doran and met with Lord Adrian Ambriosa, who caught them up on the affairs of the world. From there, Hyrsam attacked them, pissed at Na for becoming an archfey; however, they escaped and joined an attack on a Kothian caravan that included Lord Elyas Embong. In a brutally fast battle, Ruaka, Alovnek, Na, Bruno, and multiple members of an allied faction destroyed three Kothian airships and Lord Embong. Those foes destroyed, they retreated to the Plane of Air to regroup and plan the final assault on the Obsidian Circle. Altogether, they plotted out an attack on Merlint, an assault on a new Obsidian Circle citadel, and Head Enforcer Galasar Kisoja’s spire in the Plane of Battle, Acheron.

The final session was incredible, so I am going to include its entire campaign journal entry:

The companions departed Malseru’s sanctum and spread across the heart to prepare. Bruno and Ruaka went to Richtar to discuss battle plans. Na spoke to a few fey and annihilated a potential dissenter and former thrall of Funghoul. Alovnek found his old friend, Grobbolith, and caught up. Eventually, after crossing paths and conferring once more, they all ended up in the same chamber, awaiting the assault that would arrive come morning. Bruno prepared a speech Richtar asked him to give. Ruaka thought of the new and powerful energy inside of him. Na spoke to Oro about returning home after all of this was over, and whether they’d stay united as companions. Alovnek received guidance and reassure from Isperia herself in his dreams; she’d heard his calls for intervention but couldn’t aid before. If Takhsis herself intervened, though, Isperia could join the fray as well. As night ended on the Plane of Air, everyone gathered at the apex of the Ruptured Heart. Atop two stacked barrels, the best the Atlas Assembly could do, Bruno gave a rousing speech to the gathered forces. At its end, everyone cheered, some cried, but they were all inspired to battle the Obsidian Circle and drive the Kothians from their home. Malseru and Kazakis opened portals to the mortal world and Acheron, where Galasar awaited. One by one, the airships broke through to the mortal world until it was only the dragons and the companions left. Alovnek boarded their airship, the Bloody Tide, and the others mounted the gold dragons. Na rode Kazakis, Bruno rode Malseru, and Ruaka rode Trinathia. Together, they flew into Acheron and the realm of Takhsis: Astradanis.

As the companions broke into the other plane of existence, the sound of battle welled around them. Screams of warriors breathing their last; steel swords clanging against each other; catapults releasing fiery ammunition and great towers falling. But no battle took place before them — ‘twas simply the inherent atmosphere of Acheron. Before them was a massive obsidian fortress built onto the side of a high plateau. The plateau was surrounded by swirling, multi-colored mist that took the form of draconic entities. Blue dragons wisping, red dragonborn flying through the sky, all souls of those who fell for the dark goddess Takhsis in battle and found their ultimate resolution here in Acheron. On the plateau’s apex was a huge, black orb — the Obsidian Circle. Floating above it was a gold dragonborn donning plated obsidian armor and two crackling purple wings of shadow. Surrounding the orb were purple robed dragonborn priests, chanting the words of Takhsis. Attached to the orb were two gold dragons...and Hyrsam, the Prince of Fools. Scattered across the rest of the plateau were servants of Takhsis: red and black half-dragons and shadow wyverns. The companions flew to the plateau, breaking through the wall of swirling souls and immediately engaged the remaining members of the Obsidian Circle. Bruno rushed in on Malseru, unleashing a storm sphere on the chanting priests. The red half-dragons responded, one surging to meet Na with an acidic greatsword, the other bringing down Malseru with an arrow that unleashed a flurry of thorns. Ruaka joined the fray atop Trinathia, rushing the archer on the far side of the plateau, using Flindlint to great effect. Alovnek manned the gnomish cannon on the airship for a brief moment, unleashing a radiant beam onto the half-dragons below before leaping on Marzius and flying onto the plateau. The black half-dragons of Takhsis then unleashed magic upon the companions, one of the holding Ruaka still and the other imbuing his mace with unholy might. The shadow wyverns acted quickly after, rushing to the held down Malseru and the isolated Na. Na reacted by transforming into an erinyes, longsword of flowing liquid in hand, while Kazakis unleashed fire breath on the attacking half-dragons. With that, the battle truly broke out. Dragons circled the plateau alongside the draconic mist. The airship launched cannon beam after beam on the party’s foes. Galasar grew in might but joined the battle when all the priests were slaughtered. Trinathia was trapped by the sheer will of the Obsidian Circle. Eventually, though, only the companions, the gold dragons, the airship, its crew, and Head Enforcer Galasar Kisoja remained. He fought against the companions, despite being held down by Alovnek and his Isperian might and being frightened deeply by Bruno’s magic. In erinyes form, Na slashed into him while the dragons had their turn at the Obsidian Circle’s leader, until Ruaka, the Platinum Sun rising inside him, shattered the Obsidian Circle using a heavenly imbued Flindlint.

As the orb shattered, Ruaka channeled radiant breath to scatter its pieces to the swirling souls around them and Galasar went limp in Alovnek’s strained arms. The servant of Takhsis gave up, shocked that everything was over this quickly. Ruaka turned to finish him as the once unconscious gold dragons rose from their slumber. Yet Alovnek spotted it first: the immediate halting of the wall of souls, the darkening of the plateau, and the massive, obsidian plated talons grabbing onto the plateau’s apex. A massive entity revealed itself, wading in from the mist. A titanic dragon with crackling purple eyes and two massive horns curving from its head, obsidian plates guarding every inch of its gargantuan form. It was Takhsis. The Line of Seven Guardians were all here, all in her realm, and she could end Bahamut with a bite. She brought down her maw on the plateau, a move that would swallow its entirety. From the airship, Bruno launched a lightning beam with the cannon that deterred her for a brief moment...and the plateau grew lighter, Alovnek’s triforce buzzing with energy. From the opposite end of the plateau and paused mist stretched a huge, azure paw. Its claws caught Takhsis maw as it came down on the plateau, holding it steady. Isperia. The goddess cried out for the Platinum Sun to react, and with the help of Alovnek’s divine energy, Ruaka let himself radiate with the force of Bahamut. The platinum half-dragon doubled in size, white fire blazed from his eyes, nostrils, mouth, and between his scales. His wings grew, wisps of light and concentrated positive energy. Flindlint screamed in protest or pleasure, as he too felt the energy of the Platinum Sun course through him, becoming a weapon of holy might. Imbued by Bahamut and Alovnek, Ruaka surged upward, toward the locked maw of Takhsis, the six gold dragons of the Line of Seven Guardians following him. Altogether, they assailed the dark goddess, pushing her back into the depths of Acheron. Marzius and Trinathia scorched her with radiant flame. Kazakis and Malseru blasted her with arcane spells. The other two dragons raked their claws across her body. Ruaka, the Platinum Sun, transformed Flindlint into a massive spear of divine power and plunged it into Takhsis, wounding her and sending divine blood spewing across the skies of Acheron. Takhsis, wounded, was driven off. Ruaka, no longer truly Ruaka, landed back on the top of the plateau, the six gold dragons behind him. Everyone, including Galasar, was in awe of what just happened. Bruno was shocked. Na was intrigued. Alovnek was relieved. Malseru proudly stated, “The Platinum Sun...has risen once more. And so sets the terrible reign of Takhsis. She’s gone, for now.” Isperia echoed these thoughts and blessed Alovnek, crowning him as the new High Justicar of the Azurian Order. The goddess faded and everyone was left on the top of the plateau, together. The six gold dragons polymorphed into tiny, gold-feathered canaries and perched themselves on Ruaka’s broad shoulders. In a melodic voice, Malseru asked the Platinum Sun what was next. Ruaka looked around to his companions, all of them together, surrounded by the remnants of one god and the new presence of another. They bid their farewells as Ruaka left with the dragons to a different plane of existence and the rest of the companions returned to the mortal world, their stories with the Karlith Straits not finished just yet.

While the companions battled Galasar Kisoja in Acheron, the Atlas Assembly assaulted the Kothian remnants in the mortal world. Their airships flew over Merlint and quickly retook the city, tearing down Kothian banners and restoring freedom from the tyranny of the dragon empire there. At the Bastion of the Lawful, though, there were numerous losses. Enforcer Salarand’s departure was faked and the ancient black dragon was there to defend the fortress and entryway into Acheron. In the end, Enforcer Salarand retreated, soaring back to mainland Aphesus and the Kothian Empire and the rest of the Obsidian Circle was slaughtered by the Atlas Assembly, by command of Richtar Maxim. During the battle, Amanita was lost, overrun by a swarm of red drakes, but Aunliac Choqiti, Grobbolith, and Audry Ambriosa survived. After the climactic battle, the Atlas Assembly hopped from island to island, driving the Kothians out and turning Karlithia into a free archipelago once more. Adrian Ambriosa continued to lead Doran and his daughter, Audry, became a student of the gold dragon Kazakis. Grobbolith traveled once more to the dense tropics of Varn, attempting to reignite the lizardfolk clans there. Zekki helped bridge the gap between the Orovian Well and Na’s domain in the Feywild: the Orovian Sea. Bruno ascended through the ranks of the Atlas Assembly after every successful maneuver, leading the faction and eventually becoming a general. Alovnek traveled back to Merlint and held a trial for Galasar Kisoja, finding him guilty in the just eyes of the law. The minotaur cleric of Isperia began to rebuild the Azurian Order and drafted the Atlas Constitution, a document establishing laws for the Karlith Straits and uniting the individual islands to become a united force: the Azurian Confederacy. Na returned to the Feywild with Oro and began restoring the Swamp of Everlasting Darkness, now the Orovian Sea, into a beautiful and serene oceanic swamp. She also led the restoration of the Twilit Grove and established true bonds between the fey of the Feywild, the people of the Twilit Grove, and the folk of the Azurian Confederacy (with Alovnek’s assistance, too, of course). As Na grew in power and influence int the Feywild, she heard the cry of a forest nymph in need, her forest blazing before her. Na blessed her with eldritch power and formed her first pact with her first warlock, truly establishing her as Na the Everflowing, an archfey of the Plane of Faerie. And directly after the battle with Galasar, Ruaka traveled with the Six Gold Guardians to the first layer of the Nine Hells, Avernus, and battled his way to Archduchess Zariel’s infernal throne. Before her, the Platinum Sun bargained for the final gold dragon of the Line of Seven Guardians. Ruaka, now aligned with all seven members of the Line of Seven Guardians, would hunt down one of Bahamut’s greatest enemies and former prisoner of Avernus: Tiamat, the Dragon Queen, in exchange for the final dragon. The deal made, Ruaka departed Baator and began his quest across the multiverse, searching for Tiamat alongside Marzius, Trinathia, Kazakis, Malseru, Garion, Rafnir, and Chrysophlax. Every so often, the Platinum Sun, not a god just yet, returned to the mortal world to meet with his companions: High Justicar Alovnek, General Bruno, and Na the Everflowing. Those four, in addition to all those they met and battled, changed the Karlith Straits — the Azurian Confederacy — the world of Eldar, forever. Their actions would echo through the ages of Eldar, forevermore…

The end of the campaign was all I could have hoped for, as was the final battle. The intervention of the two gods went perfectly and the players reacted well. The epilogue, too, was mostly unplanned and evolved naturally, something I love. I ensured all their characters and their actions had an impact on my world for the rest of its existence. Nine Hells, there’s now a new country on the map thanks to them, as well as a brand new archfey players can choose as their patron!

In Summary

As with every campaign I’ve run, am running, and will run, I learned loads from the Karlith Straits. I learned weekly campaigns are the way to go; players remember more, are invested in the game, and understand their characters. I learned that I love improvising NPCs and roleplaying far more than I like running combat, but I need to improve on that front drastically. I learned not every campaign needs to go to level twenty; they can end in satisfying ways long before that endgame state. It was a great campaign, my best so far, and I’m so excited to be running another weekly game: Caught in Galen. Here's to it being better than the Karlith Straits!

Thanks for making it this far. I hope you enjoyed the tale of the Karlith Straits. Here’s to the next one: either the Enoach Desert or Caught in Galen. We will see which one ends first. It will be awhile!

Until next time, stay creative!

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The Five Goals of a D&D Campaign's First Session

It’s Thursday night. The players are gathered virtually, eagerly awaiting to begin Caught in Galen on Discord. Finally, the campaign begins. One by one, the characters arrive at the gate of a grand tower that rises above the surrounding community. A storm rages above them, the first in weeks, as they speak in the flesh for the first time. Quickly, they unite for a common cause and are blindfolded and guided up the tower, meeting a gruff but kind dwarf with a great blue mohawk. They arrive in a spacious chamber, filled with books and bubbling flasks. There, they hold a conversation with two humans, members of the great house that owns this tower and are enlightened about a foul plot to destroy the family and, perhaps, ruin the community of Vorici’s Rest forever. Each character, for their own reasons, agrees with the two humans that the plot must be eliminated as the tower rumbles and shakes. Blood red fog coils under the door and outside the window, draining blood and breath from everyone — except for the warforged Flux who flies against the wall and goes unconscious. The world goes dark. 

The fog grows deeper and the characters awaken, falling in and out of darkness. They see a small humanoid with toxic green eyes and a metallic body spliced with flesh walk into the chamber, two hulking humanoids behind him — one with a single arm. Slowly, each character fading in and out, they drag the two humans out of the room and the short creature states, of the characters, “Let the guilty rise. They will devour those unfortunate enough to still live.” He leaves and many moments later, the characters arise and are spurred to action. Undead are rampant outside their door, their benefactors are gone, and the tower is surrounded with opaque crimson fog. Individuals united as a party, they must escape the tower and live to pursue their own working together. 

They scour the chamber for goods, finding a trapped chest and documents hinting toward their benefactors commercial relations. Then a scream slices through the air and the party is rushed into battle with zombies and skeletons, eager to save the halfling dancing atop a table to avoid them. They succeed, their first victory, and forge their first ally. Ready to descend the horrific tower, the adventure truly begins…

The opening session of a D&D campaign is important. Though not as integral as a session zero, the first session of a campaign needs to accomplish a few basic goals:
  1. It needs to introduce the setting.
  2. It needs to unite the characters.
  3. It needs to kickstart the story.
  4. It needs to introduce a villain.
  5. It needs to get the characters to second level.

Other than those five key goals, it can pursue a variety of things, but those are the important ones.

Introducing the Setting

The first moments of a campaign should give everyone at the table a concrete idea of the area the campaign begins. Give the players a broad image of the land, its people, and the immediate events unfolding around their characters. Don’t spend too long on a flowery description, though. The players want to begin playing their characters as soon as possible. For example, I just started Caught in Galen and I did exactly this. In my mind, I had these three points ready to go:
  • The campaign starts in Galen, a massive metropolis currently on lockdown and shielded from the outside world by an arcane barrier.
  • The community they begin in, Vorici’s Rest, is mourning the death of a beloved and respected cleric.
  • A magically made storm rages above the city and a long, diverse line awaits the characters at the gate to Coresaw Grounds.

Have at least three fundamental points about the setting ready to go to start the session. Ideally, they’ll explore the broad setting, its people, and immediate events around the characters. It leads into their introduction, after all.

Uniting the Characters

Objectively the most important part of a campaign’s opening session is uniting the characters. Without this key step, there is no D&D campaign or adventure (unless it’s a party of one). Plot this crucial moment beforehand, deciding if they’ll meet in a tavern, the midst of a battle with goblins, or locked in the fiery prison of a furious efreeti. Ask questions about how this will go, as well. Are they going to be in charge of who interacts with who, or will there be questions leading them together? Do some of them already know each other? If so, how will that impact the rest of the group? For Caught in Galen, I had this general idea whirling around my head:

  • The three characters who know each other get into line in the storm first.
  • The other two follow at opportune times in the conversation; somehow, something illuminates them as they enter the scene.
  • Charge the players with interactions. Tell Ignis he sees Jason trudging down the road in the rain, they both see Luna come around the bend, etc.

Oftentimes, this opening section is on the rails or it’s a bit awkward. People don’t know when to talk or what to say, so the Dungeon Master needs to step in and encourage everyone to roleplay and interact. Ask loaded questions. Create connections, however minimal. Empower the players and ensure every one of them is thoroughly introduced. Once they are together, they need to unite for a common purpose, which leads into kickstarting the story.

Kickstarting the Story

Once all the characters are together, it’s time for the story to begin. The story can start in a plethora of ways: a battle with a raving lunatic, a tense conversation with a brutal lord, or a meteor slamming into the nearby forest. No matter the method, though, it needs to draw the players’ and characters’ attention. The players need to be interested and the characters need to have a reason to care about it (or the players need to create a reason their characters care about it). Thus, draw inspiration from other sources besides yourself. What do your players enjoy? What would interest their characters? How could you connect the characters together? With Caught in Galen, this is how I kickstarted the story:

  • The characters all met with members of the esteemed House Coresaw beforehand and were asked to come to Coresaw’s Tower for a secret meeting.
  • Together, the characters were blindfolded and led up the tower.
  • Somewhere high up, they met with two members of the family about the vile plot of the “corrupt” temple in the community. They wanted the characters to help.
  • The tower was attacked, everyone went unconscious, the Coresaws were kidnapped, and undead now shambled throughout the tower.

In one way or another, each part of this opening related to the characters. Ignis despised the new high priest of the temple. Roy wanted to replace the temple’s primary deity with his own. Flux believed the temple may have been involved with the taker of his mentor and friend. Luna needed protection from powerful enemies and House Coresaw could help. Jason sought a precious metal mined and sold by House Coresaw. Each of the characters starting stories wove together in some way, something I did have a hand in as the Dungeon Master. It’s worth it. They are all invested in the first adventure of this campaign because they’re all connected to it. That’s the best reaction when kickstarting the story.

Introducing a Villain

Hand in hand with kickstarting the story is introducing a villain. It does not need to be the villain of the campaign, it simply needs to be someone or something the players and their characters can latch onto and seek to destroy or thwart. A haughty goblin prince, a pixie with a fiery dagger, a dretch with some semblance of intelligence paired with ferocity, any of them will do. When a campaign starts, their needs to be a solid face the characters can pursue. Hint toward a greater threat and incorporate shadowy villains in the future. In the beginning, let it be simple. In Caught in Galen, I introduced a villain the players already met in the campaign’s prologue (with different characters). Regardless, I had this in mind:

  • The villain might have to do with the disaster that strikes Coresaw’s Tower.
  • The villain steals away Andhere and Esegar Coresaw as the party lays unconscious.
  • The villain dismisses the party as insignificant fodder who will fall easily to mindless undead.

To introduce this villain, Varmin, I did take away player agency. As the disaster struck Coresaw’s Tower, filling it with foul necrotic fog and shaking its foundations, their character fell unconscious without saving throws. Usually, I’m firmly against this. However, in the first session of a campaign, when kickstarting the story and introducing an initial villain, I think it’s okay. I asked my players afterward, and each of them were perfectly okay with the entire sequence. In fact, they enjoyed how helpless they felt, and they hate the villain — Varmin — even more because of it. I’ll take it as a win, knowing I almost never take away my players’ agency.

The All Important Second Level

At the end of the first session, almost always reward the players with second level. Level one is dangerous, and players don’t have a lot of options for their characters during it. Second level opens up many more and, usually, doubles their hit points. Include a battle or two in session one, then award them with a level at the end of it. Discount this if the campaign does not begin at level one.

In Summary

The first session of a D&D campaign needs to accomplish five things:

  1. It needs to introduce the setting.
  2. It needs to unite the characters.
  3. It needs to kickstart the story.
  4. It needs to introduce a villain.
  5. It needs to get the characters to second level.

Following these steps should ensure the opening session of a campaign goes well. Let me know in the comments below if it works for you and what might improve the process.

Until next time, stay creative!

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Don't Be Afraid of Breaking D&D

Dungeons and Dragons is a malleable game. There is a broad set of rules, yes, but they can be shaped by the people who use them. A lot of the time, changing the rules will break the game in many ways. Some folks might be against this completely, preferring to play the game “the way it was meant to be played.” Others deeply enjoy twisting and tearing apart the fabric of D&D, leading some people to say “why are you playing D&D?” Most people, though, try to expand D&D or change it in small ways and make their D&D games better. It’s still D&D in their eyes but better. Sometimes, they share their experience with others and are shouted at: “You are breaking D&D! You should play like this…” The people who are supposedly breaking D&D need only ask themselves and their players one question: “Is everyone having fun?” If the answer to that question is yes, keep on going.

D&D was made to be tooled with, especially fifth edition. There are so many elements in the system itself that are variant and optional, from the rules on flanking in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to inspiration in the Player’s Handbook.

There are mountains of information across the D&D community, ideas both amazing and horrendous. However, if they sound fun, try them out! Break D&D.

Dungeon Masters and players themselves are filled with incredible ideas. Let them bubble to the top. Release them. Break D&D.

In my newest campaign, Caught in Galen, this is my philosophy. We held our session zero last night and went over all the variant rules we will be using in the campaign at its start. It’s possible one or more of them will break the game. If that happens, we’ll ask ourselves if we’re having fun, despite the game being broke. If the answer is yes, we will continue to break the game, no matter what other people say. If the answer is no, we’ll remove the mechanic and try a different one.

Our D&D games are what we make them. We control almost every aspect of them, from the world to the mechanics we choose to play with. It doesn’t matter if we break D&D when we are playing it, as long as we can still recognize it for the game it is.

Are we rolling lots of d20’s? It’s D&D.

Are we fighting monsters? It’s D&D.

Are we wielding powerful magic and artifacts? It’s D&D.

Are we interacting with flamboyant folk from fantastic locales? It’s D&D.

Don’t be afraid to add variant mechanics, Unearthed Arcana, or homebrew rules and other things to your D&D game. As long as everyone continues to have fun, you can break D&D all you want. The worst that can happen is removing the obviously unfun mechanic or nerfing an insanely powerful magic item, and even then the removal and nerf can be justified in the game world.

Don’t be afraid. Just break it.

Trust me, playing outside the bounds of the rules opens up so many possibilities.

Want to throw your party against a fungal hydra but there’s none in the game? Homebrew it!

Want to give your party a divine artifact that’s only been wielded twice in the history of the multiverse? Do it!

Want to try out a homebrew class one of your players is super excited about playing? Build it!

Breaking D&D is fun. I’m going to be doing it a lot in Caught in Galen. I’ve been doing it for years. My players love my games, and I am sure it will stay that way.

Try breaking D&D. You won’t regret it.

Until next time, stay creative!

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Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

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Galen's Final Session Zero is Near

Tomorrow, I’ll be running Caught in Galen’s final session zero. It’s an altogether session during which me and the players will establish certain rules about the world and the game, build sections of Galen that are wholly unknown, and flesh out aspects of the campaign they want to see. Between the last Tales of Galen article and now, I finished a year and a half long D&D campaign, the Karlith Straits, and ran multiple session zeros, some one-on-one, one other an experimental session that took place entirely in a dream.

The campaign hasn’t officially started, but I already know it’s going to be great.

The preparation has slowed down as it draws nearer and nearer. I have the opening moments of the first session prepared, as well as a broad layout of the campaign and its villain ready-to-go, but that’s it.

Those three things are incredibly important to have for a campaign’s start: the opening scene, a broad layout, and an idea of the primary villain.

You really want to grab your players during the kickoff of the campaign. That’s something I’ll be exploring very soon.

You want to know how the campaign might play out. What would happen if the characters weren’t there? Now that they’re going to be joining in, what might happen? How do their backstories relate to the main plot? Are they the main plot? With Caught in Galen, I’m really trying to incorporate the backgrounds of the player characters into the high level story we’ll be telling. I hope it goes well — I really think it will.

You need to know, generally, who or what the villain will be. Are they a singular entity? Are they a cult? A mercenary group? A god? How do they relate to each of the characters? How can I foreshadow them in the campaign’s opening moments? Lots can change between the first session and the campaign’s conclusion, but conjuring an image of the antagonist is important. It can help you set a tone for the first few sessions, the first threat, and make you look like a genius when all the pieces are placed together perfectly. It doesn’t matter if the pieces started out that way or were made along the way. All you need is that initial segment of the puzzle to build on. That’s what the antagonist should be.

Hopping over to the experimental session was amazing. Me and three players went through it and they all had a blast. Their characters met in a dreamscape, brought together by some unknown entity, and braved extreme environments. And, of course, they met an important individual, the catalyst of the entire campaign, the human who was assassinated: Calastis Starcloak. What are the implications of that?

Well, we’ll have to see.

I’m excited for the final session zero tomorrow and the awesome first moments next Thursday. Caught in Galen, I’m certain, will be my greatest campaign yet.

Until next time, stay creative!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to