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!

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