Tense Social Situations, Secret Storylines, and Splitting the Party

After a week break for the holiday and a trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula, the Caught in Galen campaign resumed last Thursday. As I predicted last time we met about the campaign, it was a session without combat and it was stellar. Honestly, it was my ideal session of Dungeons & Dragons — I could go without combat for awhile, but I know my players are not the same way. This session marked the “thirteenth” of the campaign and the political intrigue and tension truly ramped up. Things are getting interesting in Caught in Galen.

I did not do much preparation for this session, as I knew most of it would be improvisational storytelling between the player characters and various NPCs. It was almost like a bottle episode in a sitcom; most of the session was confined to a tavern dear to some members of the party: the Faded Ember Inn. Nonplayer characters came and went, building onto the story with each passing second. Everyone in the group had their time to shine this session, and the trend of splitting the party in this wide open district continued. 

I learned a few things during this session, ideas I think anyone reading this will be able to implement into their games.
  1. Social situations can be just as tense as combat.
  2. Secret storylines can still be showcased in front of the players and not their characters.
  3. Splitting the party in a city campaign happens often and is okay...at least for a time.
Before we dive in, if you would like to follow along with the campaign week by week or check out the various characters in its cast, check out the Caught in Galen Campaign Compendium. It is a great way to keep track of each session and the numerous characters who appear in a campaign or adventure.

Let’s delve into Caught in Galen Session 4: Beside Faded Embers. If you would like to see my pre-written notes of the session, they can be found here (players, don’t look!): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1--Th3u0oM8iP7k2Uv7D6mPqf0Q8Acbp8ozxVYj5JB3I/edit?usp=sharing

The Zaburk Confrontation

The session began in the Faded Ember Inn, the entire party gathered together. They spoke about the ordeal in Coresaw’s Tower and what to do next: would they search for Andhere and Esegar? Would they go to meet others who might be involved in this mess? Would they wait for their contact Rasdrak to arrive? Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of High Priest Zaburk, a half-orc cleric who’d recently risen to the highest rank of the nearby temple of Anubis. He had complicated relationships with most of the characters, and some of them thought he was behind not only the undead disaster at Coresaw’s Tower, but the death of the former high priest — a beloved individual. In the doorway of the inn, first Ignis and then Roy of Riverside confronted the half-orc. Zaburk demanded Roy retract a statement he made to the Galen Tales, one of the journalism outlets in Galen. At first, Roy refused and basically spat on Zaburk. The half-orc kept calm and revealed the temple had one of Roy’s friends from the Hidhuntre Clan in custody. This radically changed the already tense situation. Roy didn’t change his demeanor, but did change his mind, and the encounter slowly faded to a simmer. Roy would retract the statement he made to Oreo Belwiggin before tomorrow’s paper went out, and his friend, a dragonborn named Blaze, would be given back to him when the paper came out...not badmouthing the temple of Anubis or Zaburk.

This was a stellar encounter. There was no combat, but there was tension. Everyone was listening, paying attention to every word said by Zaburk, Ignis, Roy, and the other participant, a kobold priest named Dimhaz. I knew there had to be some sort of power dynamic between the party and Zaburk, he needed to assert dominance in some way. Originally, I was going to have him push past Ignis and grab a stool off a tabletop (the inn was closed at the time, thanks to him). However, Ignis wouldn’t let the half-orc in, but he did not want to start a fight. That’s when Blaze’s capture and ransom came to my mind; it worked out so well. I’m excited to see where the Zaburk-party relationship will go...

Outside Listening In

A fantastic moment in the session was between me and one other player, his character’s name Jason. As everyone returned to their room’s and homes for the night, Jason and I created an awesome narrative that caused the other players to hoot & holler. In his session zero, Jason fought a gazer (a tiny, tiny beholder) and killed it, but was unable to dispose of the body. Thus, it was stored in a bucket of cold water in his room, covered by a blanket, blood still on the floor. So, when he finally returned to his room this session, I stated “You enter your chambers and cross the bloodstained carpet. A terrible smell wafts from where the body sits. What are you going to do with it, if anything?” Immediately, multiple players started laughing hysterically, thinking one of their party members had a dead body in his room. What secrets was he hiding from them? What ensued was a hilarious chain of events between Jason’s player and I that involved disposing of the body.

Despite none of the other player characters being involved, everyone felt like they were included in this moment; it was something they were drawn into, interested in, despite it really not involving any of their characters. It was a fantastic moment and what I strive for every time I have an aside with another player. Sometimes, people take these moments off the table and go into private. I don’t think that’s necessary.

Split Again, the Joys of the Internet

The culmination of the session saw the splitting of the party, yet again. Roy, Ignis, and Luna headed back to the Faded Ember Inn with Blaze, the dragonborn saved from the temple of Anubis. Flux was moving toward the Cobalt Forge guild hall to meet with his guild members about the many issues at hand. Jason was investigating the former high priest’s office as the entirety of the temple of Anubis, including Zaburk, was deep in prayer. The session was over at the table, yes, but was to be continued via the internet. Using Facebook Messenger, Flux moved to his guild’s hall and spoke to a contemplative stone half-giant about the villain at hand, Varmin, and the mysterious crimson metal used to fill Coresaw’s Tower with undead. From there, he went to the Red Tower and spoke to a warforged guard named Contort about a young human fellow before heading back to the Faded Ember Inn. In the temple of Anubis, Jason attempted to gain some intel on Zaburk in his new office. He managed to find a few interesting things, including a bloody club, a strange tadpole, and a secret passage below the temple, but he was caught by Zaburk somehow and saved by a lithe creature whose skin was made of the starry night sky. Where did he wake up/appear? Outside the Faded Ember Inn.

I’ve discovered running a city campaign in which the characters have various connections leads to the party splitting quite a bit. I’m fine with it, especially since these encounters are usually just some roleplaying and can be done between sessions using the internet. However, I expect this will lessen as time goes on, the stakes grow, and the party will need to stick together to survive. For the time being, though, I’m enjoying the numerous plot threads intertwined in the vast city of Galen.

In Summary

This campaign is fast becoming the favorite I’ve ever run. I’m learning more and more with each session and the story is developing at a rapid rate. As I said before, I learned the following from Beside Faded Embers:
  1. Social situations can be just as tense as combat.
  2. Secret storylines can still be showcased in front of the players and not their characters.
  3. Splitting the party in a city campaign happens often and is okay...at least for a time.
Who knows what I’ll learn next session. I’m certain it will be just as great as this one, if not greater. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.

Until then, stay creative!

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