My players/friends recently complimented me on the last few sessions I've run of our 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons game. Something that's happened before in the same way after key sessions. The thing in common with all of these sessions that they didn't know? They like the ones best that I'm detouring away from the written adventure and planning, homebrewing, or improvising instead.
One of my players is also a DM and was asking how much of the last few sessions was from the book versus me. My answer: you've been playing straight from Spencer's brain for quite a while. I'm trying to level them up before the next Saltmarsh chapter and didn't just want to toss arbitrary XP at them to do it. He wondered more about how I was creating encounters in a way where it seemed like they could talk, fight, avoid, or solve them in various ways. I thought I would share how I've been going about my process.
- I keep a handful of potential locations semi-ready for folks to go to.
- I repurpose those locations if the story changes significantly.
- I have an idea of what sort of creatures and characters they will encounter in those places, but the circumstances and motives of those folks can change.
- I try to have a few innocents mixed in with a few folks whose morals and contexts could go either way, and one or two really bad folks. But I don't make it too obvious who is who.
- I think through the various motivations and contexts of the creatures and characters they may encounter.
- Do they know each other? Know of each other?
- Why are they doing what they're doing?
- Do they have all of the information?
- Would anything change their mind?
- I try to add vague, creative obstacles. Anything from a rockslide to a magic barrier can be enough.
- I try to balance the main pillars of social, exploration, and combat.
- I have several larger threads in the background. Big bads or events that are unfolding, but the characters may only learn 1 detail about things per game.
While we're playing there are several things that I am constantly tweaking:
- I try to find reasons for folks to use their magic items, trinkets, and more RP abilities
- I add or remove characters, monsters, and full encounters based on pacing and who has shown up for the game and how difficult things could be
- I try to notice what the players themselves are reacting to. With their body language, facial expressions, and more.
- When one of the players seems bored, I try to toss something in that might interest them. I try to do that more than actively calling on people because I want them to be proactively invested not just reacting.
- I try to continue to balance the main pillars of social, exploration, and combat. Meaning I have to add, remove, or nudge the original plan.
- I adjust the delivery of the threads tied to big bads based on how the group wants to uncover and explore things.
Heading off on a mini-journey
In our last few games the group was trying to find the Apparatus of Kwalish for Captain Xendros out of Saltmarsh. They had gained contacts in town during their last couple of sessions of downtime and checked to see if any of them had heard anything about it (I reminded them their contacts were an option). I had planned out various locations that the apparatus might be, who might have it or where it may have ended up, but ultimately I waited to see what they would do and if they'd even be interested in finding it. After chatting with their contacts they learned that smugglers had found a curious iron-looking barrel that no one could open and they were looking for help opening it or selling it and whatever was inside.
The group had also learned a few other details that might nudge them in different directions, like there being hags nearby kidnapping women and children, aberrations about, and more rumours about an ominous wizard altering the intelligence and personality of creatures in the area (one of the big bad threads). I used some of my unique dice as well as tables in the DMG and Saltmarsh Adventure book to help me make a few of these decisions.
Lamia and lizardfolk
I was ready to react to how the group wanted to get where they wanted to go as well. Saltmarsh is an interesting area, it's fileld with rivers, the ocean, swamps, caves, and all sorts of places. They had clues that the apparatus was with a group of smugglers that operated off the river, but that didn't mean they had to go by boat. They hadn't done a whole lot by boat yet though, and one of their contacts had given them access to theirs, so they thought why not, and sailed up-river. This, to me, meant I had to have the odd interesting scene ready-ish. I decided that there would be a thread connected to the big bad but I would otherwise let the random tables keep me nimble. I rolled on a random encounter table, causing the group to discover a Lamia along the edge of the river foraging. I have also been trying to tie things to their backstories so the lamia had an ally Lizardfolk with similar motivations stated by one of the other players. I had hoped that player would see a kinship and want to ally or help them but they seemed entirely indifferent! The lamia was one of those altered by the wizard, which meant heightened intellect and a different personality. She was fleeing from the wizard and his henchmen– bugbears and hobgoblins for now, I decided. I had hidden the detail she was a lamia at first by explicitly calling out that they could not see her bottom-half, hidden behind a large rock, that she was clearly trying to position herself behind while talking. I wanted to see what they would do noticing this NPC hiding something, as well as knowing there were hags nearby.
The group learned a bit more about the big bad, saved the lamia and lizardfolk after intense questioning and murdering, and sent them off towards Saltmarsh to take shelter in their new base. So nice! My group likes to try and befriend the amicable or empathy-deserving types they come across, which most of those NPCs have gone along with. Why am I allowing them to collect so many people back in town? Trouble is brewing and they'll need the friends!
They decided to also try and find these hags now that they had almost mistaken the lamia as one. This unfolded beautifully. I knew I wanted the hags to live in a little hut in a swampy area just off the river. Otherwise, how that could go I was going to react to. The group found the hut but started not with violence but instead questions. One of the characters has also been using her detect magic in great ways, almost like a radar sense for bigger dangers. She noticed several glowing areas all around and in the hut– hag-magic barriers but also enchanted animals (although they couldn't tell what everything was just by the glowing through bushes around the hut). I did not plan this and just added animals randomly. This kept people on their toes.
I knew I wanted the hags to be vaguely linked to the big bad but I wasn't quite sure how yet. Once the group started questioning the hags though they helped lead me down a logical path of linking them to the big bad. Why did they have all these animals? What were they doing out here? And the biggest question: did the hags have all of the information? This wizard is extremely powerful. Powerful enough to control and mind-wipe hags, it seemed, causing them to collect animals for the wizard's experiments.
Smugglers and golems
Fast-forward a couple of sessions and the group has now found the smugglers who are operating off the river. What had I planned for this encounter? I knew I wanted a stone golem, the potential for a cockatrice, and a bunch of smugglers. However, this didn't mean that any of those creatures or character were inherently good or bad or that they couldn't have something interesting about them. Everyone's just trying to get by most of the time, right?
The map I was using had a big cave in. I related that back to the motivations of the smugglers, deciding they had taken over a government-owned but decomissioned mine, smuggling gems. The cave-in had cuased them to stop operations, even losing several people to the rubble. I planned that the smugglers would have the Apparatus of Kwalish but didn't actually know what it was. They just want to start making money again and they don't care how. They aren't necessarily bad people, they're trying to provide for their families, the mine is decomissioned anyways, and now maybe they can sell or otherwise profit from this thing they've found (there was one small group of smugglers that I decided were actually up to no good but the characters have so far avoided them). Almost everything after that point was improv or random tables.
- The characters made friends with a cat, caught a fish, and traded the cat the fish in return for him scouting ahead for them.
- The cat confirmed hearing people and smelling industrial things (mining equipment).
- The group went ahead, found the mine that the smugglers were working out of, completely unguarded.
- The two that were supposed to be guarding the entrance were arguing in a room just inside.
- The group acted casual, like they were supposed to be there, and the guards seemed fine with that, directing them to their captain.
- The captain and three smugglers (whom I let them all name) were trying to open the Apparatus of Kwalish, attempting to pry it open like a regular barrel, each taking turns.
- At first they seemed uneasy being approached but the group said they were there to potentially buy the barrel. This disarmed the smugglers– they just want to start earning again. The captain was a bit on guard, though, wanting to profit a bit more since he didn't know what he had or why people wanted it.
- The group insinuated it was royal jewels or something similar, like they knew what was what, in a way that again seemed disarming.
- One of the group kept noticing while talking that Sweet Bill, one of the smugglers kept acting oddly.
- Negotiating for a better price, the captain wanted help with the cave-ins.
- The cave-ins seemed to be caused by localized quakes and booming. Sweet Bill kept acting weird, and one of the characters kept noticing.
- The group agreed to help with the cave ins for a better price, plied the smugglers with their magical cooking pot, and cornered Sweet Bill.
- I decided on the fly that I wanted Sweet Bill to have some connection to the wizard but unknowingly to him, and also to whatever was going with the quakes and booming (the stone golem).
- The way the conversation unfolded, Bill had discovered the golem (kind of) but didn't have all of the information (one of my main tricks, I know).
- Was the golem was affected by the wizard in some way?
- How did Sweet Bill cause some of this? Could he still be a nice guy?
- I had a rough couple work weeks and decided I needed a nice, redeeming gentleman, so it turned out Sweet Bill had befriended "a disembodied voice" in the mine at night. He had also been selling gems to the bugbears and hobgoblins when they came through. He knew these were for a wizard but that was all he knew about that.
- Bill would wander into the depths of the mine at night and talk to this voice, but it would get upset when pressed for its name, where it came from, and so on. It wanted a friend, but seemed to have memory problems of some kind.
- When Sweet Bill warned the voice that the smugglers would be digging nearby and to be careful is when the golem got upset and caused the cave-ins. But none of the characters, NPC or otherwise, knew that.
- The group decided to investigate, clearing a path through the rubble in-between booms.
- They found the voice with Bill's help, and our detect magic-using player noticed the golem blending in with the walls, covered in other minerals and dirt, as well as a magically concealed second entrance to the mine.
- The group carefully navigated conversation with the golem, helping that Bill was there. They also carefully used techniques they had before on wizard-addled creatures to help clear the golem's mind.
All of the above unfolded because of the players. I had an idea of the destination but rolled along with them for the journey. I don't want to control them, I want them to have fun! What I am noticing though is so much of the adventures as written are too railroading for them. Even when we are going to follow an adventure we need to go off track and allow it to evolve a bit more. The group loves when the world reacts to them and the decisions they've made have consequences. When tension is building and characters have motivations they can discover and manipulate the world feels more alive, too!
That's a rough breakdown of some of the ways I have been influencing our games. I didn't plan this to be a very well-written post, just a quick brain dump for those interested. I hope it interested or helped you!