I ran my first Dungeons and Dragons campaign today! Ahhhh!
Since I started playing Dungeons and Dragons regularly, over a year ago, I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to run a campaign. Blame it on Griffin McElroy and the wondrousness of The Adventure Zone podcast, but I wanted to be able to build my own story and share it with others, create a world and watch other people play around in it.
I played D&D a couple of times in college, but it wasn’t very engaging. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I didn’t really know the people I was playing with. I had seen it advertised somewhere on campus and decided to check it out, but I only played one or two times, and I quickly lost interest. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what the story was, or maybe because it was 4th Edition, which focused more on tactics and combat than storytelling, but I just didn’t connect.
Then, a little over a year ago, my friend invited me to play with her group. They had already been playing for a while and were playing a published Adventurers League campaign called Tomb of Annihilation (and yes, it has been as bad as that sounds). I created a character and joined in, quickly establishing my relationship to the other players, and making decisions based on my character’s personality, not how I as my own person would interact with the world. It was difficult and exhilarating. And now my character has gone through so much and developed so drastically, he’s nothing like when we first started. The campaign has been long and brutal, and I don’t know if he’ll survive. But it’s been a lot of fun to explore this new form of storytelling.
And so I started reaching out to my friends at the library, a whole group of which have played D&D before and expressed interest in doing a short campaign with me. Because we all work at the library, I decided to do a short 1-2 session campaign based in the Library of Alexandria. It’s a kind of mystery dungeon crawl, light on encounters and brimming with secrets. I have spent weeks thinking, planning, writing, drawing. I made my own maps and created my own puzzles. I read the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook numerous times, nervously preparing for the day when real life humans that I have no control over come to mess around in my sandbox.
Although I’ve only played with one Dungeon Master (DM), I already knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to avoid, how I wanted to move the story along. But oh my heck is it difficult to not steer the players in the right direction. The internet is rich with memes about players purposely messing with the DM’s carefully laid plans, but I think that’s half the fun. Not only do the players have to be creative in coming up with ways to solve puzzles and destroy monsters, but the DM has to find a way to make it all work and move the story along with some of the bonkers decisions the players make.
And there were some difficulties today. A lot of what I had planned was based on the assumption that the players could do certain things, which it turned out they couldn’t. I had to figure out a way for them to be able to progress in a way that was unplanned but that still fit within the context of the story. And they came up with some really great solutions to certain problems that I never even imagined.
And the character dynamics of this particular group is so perfect. Not only are they rich in personality, the players are fully immersed in the authenticity of their characters. There is friction, romantic tension, confusion, annoyance, and some really really brilliant humor. We all get along as people, so there’s no tension in the room. Although it was my first time DMing, and although I was nervous to share this story I had so carefully crafted, I knew the players would support me. Most of them were playing types of characters they had never played before, so there were a lot of questions and some time spent working things out and sussing out rules. But we all supported one another, no one got annoyed for how long things were taking, and we all had a really, really good time.
Because we were a little limited on time today, we still have one more session to go before we finish out this campaign. And then I’ll get started on a new character, or start writing a new campaign. I would love to delve into this more.
And I did record the whole thing, and there will be a podcast coming out. It will be ridiculous. Stay tuned. :)
So I wrote this back in the days of the Writing Circle, a writing group my friends and I started in Ashland. Each week someone would choose a word and we would have to write something inspired by that word. This was one of my favorites (inspired by the word "armadillo"), and I hope to expand on it one day.
Ellis trotted through the trees, clutching her armadillo-shell helmet beneath her arm. Her tiny feet in their supple boots made barely a whisper over the ground cover, and she stepped lightly and expertly over fallen branches. It had been nearly an hour since she lost her platoon, but she was not frightened. She knew the woods as well as any forest Ilken, and she easily followed the telltale signs of battle. Suddenly, as she passed a particularly dense clump of bushes, she heard a call. She paused, and with silent determination placed her helmet back on her head. The sound came again, and Ellis’ face became less grim as she recognized it. The call of a bat owl. Turning, she followed the call into the bushes, eyes peering through the underbrush.
“Over here, Ellis!”
She pushed through a cluster of branches and found herself in a small clearing, protected from the rest of the forest by a tightly grouped ring of shrubbery. Such enclosures had been carefully cultivated everywhere within the forest and had swiftly become one of the most useful tools in the guerrilla war against the Marauders. The Marauders’ towering bodies were unable to penetrate the deep forest cover, and early on the forest Ilken were able to offer asylum for their plains cousins. But the war was not going well. Despite their more efficient tactics, the Ilken weaponry was far inferior to the Marauders’, and their enemy had begun Burning.
Small though they were, the Ilken in the clearing were still crouching, nervously watching Ellis as she approached the group. There were only four of her platoon. Ellis cast a questioning glance at Moritt, but he shook his head.
“We lost Katy and Babble.”
Ellis remained silent, but her eyes narrowed and her heart trembled.
“We haven’t been able to locate the rest of the platoon,” Morrit continued bitterly. “They scattered when the Marauders threw that Snapper right into the middle of us...”
Morrit clenched his fists and glared angrily at the ground.
“Couldn’t keep their heads! Running off like a bunch of Widglings, when we had the perfect opportunity for retaliation!”
He raised his eyes and they met Ellis’. For a moment they stared at one another, silent, and then a voice said quietly,
“They weren’t made for this, Morrit. None of us were.”
Both Morrit and Ellis swiveled their heads to face the speaker, a fifth Ilken Ellis had not at first noticed. It was Lil, her best friend of many many years, crouched in a shadowy corner. Ellis smiled gratefully at Lil, who returned her smile with a sad one of her own before turning her attention back to Morrit. He sat scowling.
“We were not born to war. Half our soldiers still don’t know how to use their fox bows.” Lil was shaking her head mournfully. “We should not be fighting.”
“And what are we supposed to do?”
Heads turned again and Ellis’ gazed landed on Berin, the youngest of the group. He had joined the campaign only two moons before.
“The Marauders wouldn’t make peace with us,” he said crossly. “Do you think they would show us mercy if we lay down arms?”
There was a moment’s silence, and Ellis shook her head, and out of the corner of her eye she saw her gesture mirrored by the other members of the platoon.
“They would have us dead whether we fought or not,” Berin spoke passionately. “I would rather die fighting than ever surrender to those...giants.”
There was a murmur of agreement throughout the clearing, and Morrit held up his hand. Their leader was passionate, but he was also clever. He could lead a conversation as well as he could an assault.
“None of us enjoys this war any more than you do, Lil,” he said more gently. Lil’s head snapped up and her eyes flashed. She clearly did not believe him, but neither did she protest. “We must protect our world. What other choice do we have?”
The murmuring of assent grew louder, and Ellis watched Berin warily out of the corner of her eye. As the indistinct mutterings died away, Lil’s firm voice again filled the small enclosure.
“We should flee. To the mountains. The Marauders won’t find us there.”
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then the small space erupted in a cacophony of protestation. Berin looked as though he wanted to leap up, but his movement was hindered by the low ceiling of brush.
“Quiet,” Morrit hissed, holding up both hands, and the din abruptly stopped. Ellis knelt, anxious, as they all strained to hear the sounds of the forest filter through the rough undergrowth. When it became clear they had gone unheard, all eyes turned back to Lil. She sat proudly, her back straight, but Ellis could see her quivering with great effort. Morrit lowered his hands and gazed at Lil thoughtfully. Ellis felt a flash of gratitude toward her leader. He would let Lil have her say, despite her unpopular opinion.
“What of our way of life?” Morrit spoke calmly, as though they were discussing ethics at a convention, and not in the midst of a war. “We must preserve our heritage.”
“Our way of life has already been lost,” Lil replied flatly. “The moment we picked up arms we lost our heritage. We must flee and rebuild ourselves in the mountains, or we will also lose our people.”
Her statement seemed to have stunned the platoon. Ellis had never imagined the war from such a perspective, and from the reactions of the others, they had not either.
But there was still disagreement. Mirian, a quiet and calm Ilken, and one of the tallest Ellis knew, said what Ellis presumed most of the others were thinking.
“The Ilken have fought before,” she said, and the group nodded. “It is in our history. We do a disservice to our ancestors if we show cowardice when they have shown great courage.” Mirian’s long green hair was spilling over her shoulder. She sat cross-legged, and she still had to stoop to avoid grazing her head on the branches overhead.
“It is not cowardice, it’s preservation!,” Lil seethed.
Berin made to move forward, and Morrit raised his arm to prevent him. At that moment, there was a shrill whistling sound, a flash, and the ground shook beneath them. Ellis flung her hands out to catch her fall. Leaves, dust, and insects rained down on them. The forest surrounding the enclosure was blazing with light, and smoke began to drift in through the gaps in the brush. Ellis could hear the fire cackling, a harsh and unforgiving laugh.
Acknowledging a nod from Morrit, Ellis spun around and crawled out of the brush. The rest of the platoon emerged and they stood for a moment together, surveying their situation. The forest before them was ablaze with bright, dancing flames, taller than even Mirian. Ellis suddenly realized she had no weapon, and she glanced at the others. Berin still had his fox bow, and Morrit carried a star gun he had taken from a dead Marauder. Only two. Even Morrit could not hide his dismay.
There was a crashing to their left, and they all ducked. Through the haze of the fire, they saw the tall foreboding shapes of the enemy, bumbling through the forest, shooting everything that moved with the electric crackle of their star guns. Steely determination settled in Morrit’s face, and he gestured for the platoon to move. They crouched, and began to circle to get behind the Marauders.
Ellis glanced back. Lil was not following. She was standing straight and still, tears coursing down her brown cheeks. She was gazing off to the West and the mountains. Ellis, still crouched, walked swiftly back to her and grabbed her arm.
“Come on,” she whispered, tugging at Lil. “We’ve got to stay together, or you’ll be lost.”
Lil turned her shining face toward Ellis.
“I am already lost,” she said quietly, her voice cracking.
The two friends stared at one another, and then Ellis drew Lil into a tight embrace. Cupping her friend’s face in her hands for one moment, Ellis stepped back and turned to leave. She stopped as a hand grasped her own. Looking back, Lil was gazing at her, the firelight illuminating the admiration and sorrow in her eyes.
“I’ll remember,” she said, her voice already filled with history.
Ellis nodded once, squeezed Lil’s hand, then turned and trotted off toward her platoon, the helmet on her head suddenly very heavy.
I write for fun and to make sure my sister doesn't beat me in our blog challenge.