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.


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 via email. 

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 via email. 

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 via email. 

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