D&D 5e Warstory: Quantum Dragons and The DM’s One Job
So, the schedule fell apart a little there. I’ll admit, between the world catching fire, adding new markets to keep my farm up and running, and Camp NaNoWriMo eating my lunch, I’ve been looking at the add-a-post button on the old blog here like it owes me something for a while. Frankly, I expected after a content drought to see the blog kind of curl up and die, but readership has stayed stubbornly consistent even when I am not. To all ten of my constant readers and all of you who wander by, thanks for swinging by to poke this thing with a stick.
If that isn’t worthy of the conclusion of this terrible D&D Warstory, I don’t know what is. Where’d we leave off?
Into the Wilderness
Right, right. We’d just managed to leave the terrible city and its unnecessarily-aggressive law enforcement hobbit and were excited for the prospect of, well, prospecting. Our team of five –the human barbarian (yours most truly), the human cleric, the human warlock, the goblin rogue, and the kenku bard– were ostensibly working for the Explorer’s Guild which lies at the center of the continent which by all rights should have been explored during the centuries-long war between Law and Chaos. Maybe records were damaged. Maybe there’s a vast wilderness that has taken over the ancient battlefields. Maybe no one can see over the side of the plateau upon which the city is built and they’re just taking on faith that the rest of the world is here. Perhaps there’s some kind of cool fantasy reason for this.
There isn’t. There are roads to walk on, patrols on those roads, and a hastily scribbled napkin map with correct directions to travel. We select all the wrong ones. It takes about a day to cross the plain surrounding the city. Along the way, we try and parse out the instructions for our prospector wands of fortune. They were basically handed over to us by the chief explorer without even a word about what their limitations might be. So we flick our wands every so often. Through trial and error, we find out that each wand is attuned to a different precious metal. The DM doesn’t have five in mind, so they are, according to my notes: Gold, Platinum, Silver, Copper, and mmmbblrefgh. We’ve got six charges per wand per day, and they give us information like, “The wand seems to indicated that there is a small amount of gold nearby.” Thanks. I’ll start digging.
We had been excited about these wands, recall. We were going to go and hire some dwarves and construct a mining consortium, maybe have to secure land from monsters. We were going to delve greedily and too deep. There was going to be a story in there somewhere. Instead, we got more vague. We were walking, waiting for the story to start.
Instead, we’ve got this weird automap thing that is marked with points of interest. Our Warlock’s patron is sending him ominous whisperings every five minutes about how he has to get to these cliffs. Something eldritch is afoot. Of course, we have to describe how we’re getting to the cliffs. We choose the wrong directions because all of the tangly-lines on our map look alike. What I think is a road is actually a river, and then a sheer drop-off that is impassable. We have to circumnavigate it and that takes a real-time hour of describing walking. Eventually, after some skill rolls (look, guys! We do have dice) we approach the first thing resembling a dungeon since we left the dope-ass magic train.
We approach an ominous black tower. Finally! We’ve found something that looks quest-worthy! I’d like to quote from my actual notes which I’ve still got on my desktop as a warning against putting up with this kind of tomfoolery again.
We hit it like a SWAT team. Like we usually do.*Bath Day is apparently the in-world name for Sunday. Y’know, First Day, Second Day, Third Day, Fourth Day, Fifth Day, Sixth Day, Bath Day. Hygiene.
And there’s a creepy statue, a random forge, some stairs and maybe some pews inside. Heruld (warlock) assures us that it’s ancient beyond compare, and that this is important. Everyone else putters for a while.
Siggy (cleric) gets impatient and kicks the ever-loving snot out of the statue. An art-lover phase spider descends to give her what for. It bites her once, and then gets promptly rocked six ways to Bath Day*. Lugh (barbarian) kicks the statue again and is a little disappointed that it doesn’t belch forth more enemies.
That’s our dungeon. A phase spider fight that lasted two rounds. In fact, it only lasted two rounds because initiative was called while the phase spider was still invisible, and lost initiative. It popped out, bit our cleric, and then we murdered it. The tower was two stories tall. More of a hut than a tower, really. The upper floor was a library, but all of the books were burnt or otherwise illegible. The lower floor was a forge-church or a spectator metalworking area or something, with a statue. That’s it. Nothing else.
The Warlock’s head-voice starts telling us about the thing depicted by the statue, some kind of progenitor race that were such brilliant crafters that the gods themselves had to put a stop to them. They wrought mighty works, but they’re all gone now. Thanks for coming, guys! Wands? Oh, yeah, there’s uh…moderate amount of silver, copper, and a small amount of platinum. Where? Oh, around, I suppose.
Desperate for a plot-hook, we systematically destroy the priceless obsidian statue. There are bricks underneath it. Rune-carved bricks. The rune apparently summons phase spiders. Our warlock pockets one, because, y’know, pocket phase-spiders. Out of respect for the group, I refrain from breaking all of these bricks for the express purpose of instigating a combat that lasts more than two rounds.
At this point, I’m taking our DM aside and, as duly elected bad-cop, I’m letting him know what the group is feeling. It boils down to a concern that in an attempt to come off as a sweeping and well-planned epic with depth and believability, everything is feeling like a themepark that’s been covered in caution tape because the rides are really just pictures of rides, and we are by no means allowed to look at them. Nothing is explained because explaining it will shatter the suspension of disbelief, and our characters should know this stuff already…even if we don’t. The information economy is one-sided, and that side doesn’t even really know what information he is jealously hoarding.
He apologizes and says that something big, a hook that we can’t possibly avoid, is coming. We get an uneasy feeling, but decide that we can give him another chance. It’s not like we’ve got another DM clamoring to run our game after all. I certainly wasn’t ready to give up on my dream of playing for a change…
That Time We Were Accessories to Murder
I will grant that it was a big hook. It just wasn’t a good one. Let me lay out the scene for you.
You are making your way through a forest. It is quiet and peaceful. There is a sound coming from down the road a ways, off the road. It sounds like people making camp. Do you investigate?
Before you investigate, you notice that there is a young elven woman standing behind a tree and looking suspiciously around it. Beyond there is a clearing where a bunch of knights in bone white armor are setting up a camp. Do you approach her?
We are team players, so we do. She introduces herself as Vosse, though we refuse to call her anything amongst ourself but “Sketch-Elf.” Her body-language, her actual language, and everything about her sets off our well-honed trap senses. She’s watching these knights and, in the typical fashion of this DM’s NPCs, cryptically warns us that she senses impending doom and that we are powerless to stop it. We decide that’s great, and that we want no part in that, troublesome strumpet. Thank you, but when your dire portents are that we will all surely perish, I think we’ll just hustle off this way.
“Then I will ask you for your help.”
Hold the phone, Sketch-Elf. You just told us that you sense evil amongst those white platemail-ed knights, a doom that will consume us all. You just told us that we would all surely die. Why the sudden about face? The call to action, you say? Oh, well, if it’s the hook, I suppose we have no choice but to blindly bite. Clearly this is the D&D that our DM has put together, and he’s said that this is the hook that we couldn’t help but bite off on. It would be poor sportsmanship to not bite, right? He’s trying!
See, this is the kind of railroad that people rail against, I think. It’s not that there’s only the one option toward an actual satisfying narrative, it’s the fact that that narrative usually doesn’t even make any kind of sense. He we are, five people tramping through the wilderness in pursuit of treasure, and glory, and something approximating a story, and instead we are confronted with a sketchy elf telling us that we have to help her “stop” these evil knights that she says will kill us all. Cool? Why? Doesn’t matter. This is the challenge in front of us, and we’ve got to figure out how to navigate it.
We very much remember the last time we got steam-rolled by guys in plate-mail and since then, we’ve only gained a level. Fighting ten knights in plate-mail sounds outside the realm of possibility. But that’s fine. Vosse the Sketch-Elf just wants one of us to accompany her while she goes to tell them to go elsewhere. She wants to take our Warlock along with her.
But he’s got our map. And our rune-bricks with phase spiders. And the Knights seem really interested in his tome of eldritch lore. We end up embroiled in a fight anyway. It’s about as bad as you’d expect, but it’s some of the best stand-out tactical combat of the game. Which is its own remarkable kind of sad.
Ten knights with polearms, a commander with a greatsword, a hidden sniper with a rifle that does 3d10 damage, and more platemail than can really be considered fair is arrayed against us. On our side, we have Heruld the Warlock with his phase-spider bricks, Siggy with an aggressively optimized healing cleric build, Curdle the goblin rogue sneak attacking his tiny green heart out, Page-Turn the Kenku Bard inspiring everyone, Lugh the meat-titan soaking damage in a blood-thirsty Bear-Totem Rage while holding individual knights in bonfires that dead 1d4 damage per round because it’s more reliable than getting the 17 or higher than he needs to roll to actually hit armor class. Oh, and Vosse, the Sketch-Elf manages to soak more hits than Lugh while casting ineffectually. The battle is a grim slog. Everyone fights to the death except for the apparently-legendary enemy commander. She says nothing, just teleports away when she takes her turn being held in the fire.
At the end, we gain a bunch of platemail that manages to not fit anyone in the party, and the gratitude of a sketchy elf. There is no information about why we murdered these people. Vosse isn’t talking. There’s no narrative payoff whatsoever. We split for the week, I solicit opinions, and I take my standard night to cool off before I ask this tyro DM what he thinks of last night’s session.
It isn’t pretty, really. We talk about just what the hell that was all about, and he seems pretty pleased, assuring me that it will all make sense in a couple weeks. I remind him that we’ve been hearing that for seven weeks now. He falters a bit but tries to drop subtle hints that things are moving in the background. I firmly remind him that the background’s all well and good, but we can’t play with the background. Nothing is happening for our characters. Nothing is making sense, and the information is not making the transfer.
“Fine. Look. Vosse is an Ancient Copper Dragon…”
There is a bullshit flag on the play.
“She’s fighting a secret war against the White Aarakocra Knights…”
Officials are reviewing the play.
“If you guys hadn’t made her tip her hand, she might’ve trusted you with more information and brought you in as her pawns to help her ag–“
Bullshit flag stands. 15 yard penalty on the DM. Repeat first down.
We are dealing with a DMPC, ladies and gentlemen. When a Dungeon Master has a super cool character that they are super precious about, a persona through which they can insert themselves into the party, then you are approaching the white hot singularity of “Not a Good Time.” I have seen DMPCs handled well, but they are the exception and not the rule. Typically, a good DMPC is a guide, a specialist, and carefully executed in such a way as not to hog the spotlight. This one is a sketchy Dragon-Elf who browbeats us into murdering some dudes for her.
“Would it be better if she wasn’t a dragon? Because she could totally not be a dragon. You guys don’t know yet.”
The Basic Unit of D&D
I call a general halt right about there. “Look, bud. I like this group, and we’re having fun playing together. What we need is to nail down the core of Dungeons and Dragons. You’re trying to do this whole sweeping story that is epic and expansive and deep, but what we really want is to be given some direction. We want to know that if we go somewhere, there’s something for us to do there. We’re trying to bite off on everything, but there’s nothing to bite off on. So, here’s what we want: a dungeon. Build us a dungeon to bust, with six to eight encounters. Just one meaty adventuring day. Let us go and explore a place, fight some monsters, earn some xp, find some treasure. Give us the basic D&D experience. Forget the epic narrative, just show me that you can give us the basics.”
With these marching orders, I felt the weight come off his shoulders. He was excited. This was an attainable goal. More than that, everyone else was excited. We were going to maybe have an objective, and there’d be some treasure in there probably! And more than one combat!
I got some messages from the DM that had me a little unsure, because I could see the overthinking coming in. “I’ve been working on the ecology of this dungeon,” or “It’s got three-hundred years of history.” Stuff like that is great set-dressing, but I was starting to get concerned that he’d lost his focus on providing the basics, and was wandering off to filigree corners that we weren’t allowed to see.
When the night came, we got six to eight encounters. Six of them were with the same monster (firenewts) in groups of three to five in featureless stone rooms with one door. Neither hide nor hair was said of dungeon ecology. These firenewts made the dungeon warm and humid, though that was about all the description we got. There was a trap, though it required him asking if we were going to mess with the blatantly dangerous cauldron of boiling muck in the center of the room. To be good sports, we did. It hurt. There was a goblin that we rescued from a cage, but he had nothing to say to us that was interesting, memorable, or tactically advantageous. He didn’t know anything about the dungeon, or its vaunted 300 years history. He wasn’t from around here, but when we prodded, he didn’t want to talk about his homeland. When we told him he was free to go and pointed the way out of the dungeon, he sauntered off.
We cleared the dungeon, got a handful of coins for our trouble, and were left with the sense that while it had technically been what we’d asked for, it hadn’t quite stepped above the level of slaughtering boars in Goldshire. It hadn’t felt like D&D. We went around the table, thanked each other, and agreed that we’d have to get together again sometime to roll some more dice. But we never did.
The campaign, we decided had run its course. The DM agreed it was probably for the best. He was getting burnt out, anyway.