D&D 5e War Story: A Long Railroad to Nowhere
We didn’t get our Scum & Villainy game together last night. Every now and then, the fates conspire in such a way that schedules don’t line up and I don’t have a war-story for you guys on Sunday. That sucks. But real life is real, and we’ve all got jobs and spouses and proclivities toward illness or internet woes or flying monkeys or whatever have you that interpose themselves between us and rolling the dice. It sucks, but it happens.
But not to worry, I’ve got a doozy for you this week.
You see, it wasn’t long ago –just back when I started up this blog, actually– that I had the itch that all “forever DMs” get. See, I love running D&D and, really, every other tabletop roleplaying game that I’ve ever gotten my hands on. I mean, GURPS was hard to love, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m one of nature’s storytellers, but every so often, I am awash in all of these cool rule and the way they interact and I want to maybe try my hand, just for a change, at making a character that I don’t see as disposable.
So I put up an ad on Roll20. Wanted: 1 crew of not-wangrods + 1 DM for D&D 5e game. Willing to Trade one-shots and palate-cleansers for the opportunity to actually play a character. I got a couple of bites, but DMs, I think you might know, are kind of thin on the ground out there.
If I’d just resigned to failure, though, I wouldn’t have a post today. Eventually I got together a pretty decent party and a young tyro of a DM who threw his hat in the ring. He was a little hesitant, but he seemed excited. He’d run in the past, but his group had wandered away after a while, citing the complexity of his story as their reason. It was too much to keep up with, so they faffed off to do something else. Fair play. I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I wanted to hear more about his world, so I put together a group chat and we commenced to talking.
The world was pretty broad strokes, but those broad strokes got me kind of excited. Apparently we were dealing with a world of Vikings and runic magic that had just finished a long war between the forces of Law and Chaos. The new technical renaissance had thrust these Vikings into a vaguely steam-punk cowboy era. Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty fresh to me. I’m into that.
Before we start spitballing characters, I see what kind of expectations everyone has for the game, start talking about what kind of game we are all looking for, the usual session zero stuff. DM is a little hazy, saying that he wants to run a big open sandbox where the world is constantly changing, the clock is always ticking, and we can bite off on whatever hooks look cool. I’m starting to get some alarm bells at this point, because I know that sandboxes are kind of hard to wrangle and we’ve got three total newbies who’ve never picked up a set of dice. And the DM has only run 5th Edition the once.
I had a little bit of trepidation when I asked what kind of fantasy stories he liked. He told me that he didn’t really read. I asked him about movies, or TV. He didn’t watch movies or TV, except for a couple of Marvel flicks that his friends had drug him along to. He remembered Disney flicks from his childhood. I asked what he did for fun, and he told me that he was very active in a competitive Overwatch league. Okay. So video games? “Not really. Mostly just Overwatch.”
Now, I’m not going to cast any shade on Overwatch and the people who enjoy it, but if its your only touchstone for fantasy, I have concerns. I started to get that old sinking feeling.
Whatever. We’d try it out and see how it went, right? At this point, I’m still hangry for a game, and this guy–kid, really, as I think he was only recently a legal adult– was the only stranger from the inter-tubes willing to run a game that wasn’t asking for payment.
I rolled up a barbarian. My wife rolled up a cleric. Our other crew-folks came to the table with a goblin rogue, a human warlock, and a kenku bard. I actually first came with a bard, but one of the guys was really eager to play a kenku bard. He was new, so I wanted to make sure that he was going to be able to play the character he wanted. Besides, the party needed someone big and muscly to stand behind. Further besides, we were Vikings, and no one was really leaning into that aesthetic. My wife was a cleric named Siggi, but that was about the extent of it.
Our story began on a transcontinental railroad, aboard a massive luxury train owned by a Dwarf named Bran Magmabeard. I don’t believe any of us really had a reason to be on-board a luxury train in the Viking wild-west, but I am a team-player and the train was headed to the largest and grandest city on the continent, so my glory-seeking barbarian is fine and dandy with it. But we’re faced with an immediate obstacle. We’re bottled up and there’s nothing happening.
We all are throwing ourselves into it, though. We all have a scene of meeting in the dining car and getting to know each other. That’s where we overhear that there’s a ball that is scheduled in one of the luxury cars that evening. Ha-ha! That sounds like a hook! We attack it mercilessly. We make our way in that direction, only to find ourselves blocked by guards. These guards tell us that we are far too insignificant to attend the sweet-ass ball that is, even now, being set up. We try to diplomatically explain that we’ve paid for a ticket to the dope-ass Magmabeard pamper-train, and thus want to avail ourselves of the amenities. No sell. Deception rolls were made to convince the guards that we’ve lost our invitations. Nope. My barbarian is technically a prince among his people? Nuh-uh.
At this point, we’re going on two hours of nothing happening but slice-of-life on a train rolling across a bleak and barren landscape. I’m dying inside. After a cutting remark about my barbarian’s parentage, we roll initiative. Finally! Combat!
All guards have 20 AC from their full-plate that was never described, and they have tower shields that make our ranged combatants always attack with disadvantage. We are thumped pretty hard, but before we get straight up murdered by guards, there’s the sound of a pistol shot. Bran Magmabeard, wielding what is apparently the only extant single-action revolver–we are all overcome by the strangeness of this weapon– in the decreasingly Viking wild west comes to break up the fight. By firing a bullet through the roof of his train, apparently.
He has us all confined to our rooms. For three days. We time-jump, leaving aside the obvious narrative problem of what the hell we were doing in our rooms for three days, to the sound of screaming. Someone is being murdered outside of our rooms. Luckily our doors are not locked and never have been, and so we spill out into the hall. Everything is covered in blood. We have gone full on Silent Hill on a train.
We follow the screaming and find a little girl running from zombies. This is a pretty easy encounter, and everyone gets a chance to test-drive these cool abilities that we’re supposed to have. It’s a nice change, because everything works as soon as initiative is called. We save the little girl and then there’s the sound of a gunshot. Bran Magmabeard hates the roof of his train.
The Dwarf offers us his suite to rest up and even answers a couple of questions. The train is under siege by the living dead. Something went terribly wrong at the ball…three days ago. Through vile necromancy, one or more of the passengers caused a massacre and raised the dead as flesh-eating monsters. We must have missed that part while we were sitting in our rooms staring at the walls.
Bran comes with us as we make our way through the ballroom, fighting zombies as we go. It’s not a great story, and it’s certainly not a sandbox, but it’s at least looking story shaped. We fight our way through to the end of the train, curbstomp the necromancer and his horde of undead, despite Bran missing every shot with his super sweet revolver, and declare ourselves heroes. Our goblin rogue finds a sword marked with a rune. It apparently produces blood constantly. This blood deals an additional point of poison damage. It is called the Sword of Blood. Cool! This is some of that runic magic we were promised.! We try not to think about the logistics of sheathing a sword that constantly produces blood. Squish, squish, squish.
Bran gives a rousing speech in which he says that he’d be happy to offer a 50% refund to anyone injured in the incident which I find funny, but the DM apparently meant in earnest. I can only imagine that the applause wasn’t too enthusiastic. By way of reward, we’re given a free night’s stay at a local in the grand city that was our destination. There is a proviso, of course. We have to give our adventuring company a name.
We settle on the Rune Guard, since we found runes and saved everyone’s bacon.
Now we’ve got the city in front of us and the promised sandbox. Only, nothing is really explained. We head to the inn and there are some ponces in white platemail. We try and talk to them, but they’re too busy for us and leave. We wander the streets a while, and nothing happens. Bran calls us back to escort the little girl we saved to her family. Questworthy!
Along the way, we stop for a shopping trip, because the newbies needed to get some shopping in despite having a little girl that needed to be delivered to her home. It was cut short by yet more screaming. We run to investigate and find a hook-horror trying to murder some folk. A young man is killed, an older man is saved, and out of nowhere a halfling with a sheriff’s badge comes to interrogate us.
The halfling assesses that the young man was not in fact killed by the adventuring murder-hobos, but the obvious evil monster thing that we killed. Though apparently he’s angry that we killed it in the street. That sort of thing should be kept to the dungeons, apparently. He says that he’ll be keeping an eye on us as he sashays away.
We interrogate the older man, a stone mason, who says that the victim (still lying in the street) was his son. They were working on working a stone with a rune on it and out popped the monster. He goes back to work to avoid answering further question. His son is still in pieces across the front stoop.
We remember that we have a little girl with us. We are abashed.
The little girl’s nearest kin is a older guy described as “greasy and creepy”. We have questions about how he’s related. He’s her uncle. Our local expert, the warlock confirms this. We ask the girl if she’s ever met this guy. She emphatically says that she wants to go with her uncle. Despite the weird vibe, this is apparently the way forward. We hand over the girl and get our ten gold. Plot resolved.
Some description is made of the beautiful system of aqueducts that cross the city, white stone and majestic, as we are leaving the highborn district. Again, springing at anything that looks hook-shaped, we decide to be good sports and play tourist. It’s a nice aqueduct. We see someone encased in ice floating down the stream of water.
Siggi, our cleric, makes a medicine check to determine…something about this predicament? Despite the fact that my barbarian fished the corpsicle out of the aqueduct, it’s Siggi’s touch that triggers a vision of something black and terrifying. She’s shaken, breathing heavily, and trying to piece it all together into something helpful (spoiler: it was too vague to be helpful), when the halfling sheriff shows up again.
He crosses to the cleric and begins interrogating her. “Who is this? What do you know about this? Why aren’t you talking? What are you hiding?” All delivered rapid fire. At this point, our newbies are completely gobsmacked. Our cleric is having a panic attack because of this hostile premonition that the DM just barely described, and now an NPC has keyed in on the one member of the party not willing to talk while she gathers her thoughts as the sole target of questioning. He moves to try and arrest her, to force her to answer his questions at the station.
We interpose ourselves and make it pretty clear that this is going to end in combat if he lays hands on our cleric. He gives us a vague warning, once again intimating that he’ll be watching us and saying that murdered nobles have been appearing in blocks of ice. It was almost as if the DM had forgotten to state the plot hook until his NPC had almost stormed off.
We aren’t exactly going to help the little ponce at this point. So we start looking for literally anything else. I would have taken rats in a cellar.
We ask if there’s an adventurer’s guild, figuring that if he’s having trouble wrangling us, he can introduce a faction to give us some direction. If there are hooks that we’ve missed, he can repackage, and we can suffer the railroad for a while. No sweat. He hesitantly admits that there’s a cartographer’s guild. They apparently pay people to explore and report back. We decide that sounds perfect and completely ignore the fact that he mentioned a thousand year war that enveloped the entire world and yet the greatest city in the world has no idea what is in the hundred mile radius of the city…
The cartographer’s guild is dismal. It’s one guy in a shack in the middle of the city. Not even a map in sight inside. But he does have company. Some of those guys in white platemail are hassling him, asking him for a map. Clearly there are no maps anywhere to be seen. But he’s not giving up the map, and they eventually leave in a huff. The cartographer welcomes us aboard, hands us a map–yep–and then hands us six wands. These wands apparently scan the surrounding area for precious metals. We are now a geological survey team.
Our rogue has snuck off to talk to the platemail guys, and they both threaten and try to bribe him to get them a map. He agrees, and they say that they’ll be waiting back at our inn. Now, when he returns, we’re kind of excited about making ourselves a rich and prosperous mining consortium and planning on finding a cheap clan of dwarves to hire on as excavators, but we consider handing over our map to these platemail guys, because they are obviously well-heeled enough to all have platemail, and we’re level 2 adventurers. Our warlock disagrees because everywhere we go, those dudes are hassling someone.
Eventually the idea comes out that we should forge a copy of our map and hand it over instead. Our map apparently auto-updates like one of the old first-person shooter maps of the early 90’s, but the warlock thinks he can make a convincing fake. The rogue will do the deal, and the rest of us will wait for it all to go pear-shaped.
The hand-off goes off so well that it’s not even described. Nothing is rolled. The rogue just marks some extra coin on his sheet. That was tense for a micro-second there.
We decide to leave town to start our new life as prospectors, but the DM smarmily asks which direction we’re walking. We pick one at random, since the town is supposed to be built on a plateau, and we don’t care which direction we strike off in, because they’ve all been poorly described and nothing has been explained. We walk a while before finding that we cannot leave town in that direction.
Through grit teeth, I say that we continue to wander the city until we find a way out. Let me off this goddamn ride before the halfling returns and I am forced to assault an officer of the peace.
We eventually leave the town, but I’d like you to understand that all of that up there took four realtime weeks to accomplish. It was like drilling abscessed teeth through lemon juice-based erosion. It was painful, but at least it only took forever.
Now, I don’t expect every game of D&D to be magic. I don’t even expect that every game I run to be enjoyed by everyone at the table, because I think that speaks to a level of hubris that I’m not allowed to express on the internet lest someone come along and tell stories of how I’ve screwed up or whatever. I just expect a DM to understand when no one is digging anything that he’s putting out. Having a sense of your table’s expectations is what session zero is about. Now, he solicited feedback after the first game and we gave it to him. He solicited feedback after the second game, and we gave less sugar-coated feedback. By the third game he stopped asking.
This went on for three more weeks –four if you count the oneshot that we played as a palate cleanser– because I thought it was a teachable moment. If I just kept prodding and molding and offering advice, maybe he was salvageable? See, that’s hubris. This guy’s game and my idea of a good time did not mesh.
But I’m not the kind to walk away from a bad idea. So next week, we’ll talk about how it got worse. See ya then.