Session 07- Uncomfortable Questions
WARNING. THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR WIZARDS OF THE COAST’S “LOST MINE OF PHANDELVER”, INCLUDED IN THE DUNGEONS & DRAGONS 5th EDITION STARTER SET
This was probably the worst session we’ve had as a group to date and I went away feeling thoroughly demotivated. There were no real mistakes but the party were running out of leads. Still, we have to understand that, where there are negatives, there are lessons to be learned. Sometimes you need a Session Zero more than once.
Let’s start with what happened during the session. Nothing. Excellent, we’ve got that out of the way.
OK, seriously what really happened.
- The group snuck into the final room in the Redbrand Hideout that contains three bugbears and a goblin. Seeing the bugbears, they closed the door and headed outside.
- The first stop was Halia’s to obtain their reward. Since they hadn’t captured or killed Glasstaff, Halia offered them a fraction of the reward.
- They went to check on Mirna Drendar and her family but decided not to speak to young Nars.
- At the Stonehill Inn, there was nobody of interest and no clues to be found.
- They returned to the Sleeping Giant to see if Glasstaff was there, only to find it deserted.
- They headed to Barthen’s to find Sildar. Barthen pointed them towards Daran Edermath’s because I wanted them to pick up the quest there.
- They encountered Sildar on the road and asked him about the letter signed with “S”. Sildar claimed to know nothing about it and they group failed all of their insight checks. Sildar seemed quite shaken by the revelation that Glasstaff and Iarno were one and the same.
- Daran Edermath spoke to them about the undead at Old Owl Well. He suggested that they speak to the young lad, Nars.
At each location, they asked about Cragmaw Castle but nobody knew anything. They asked each of the people about possible locations where the Redbrand could be but the Redbrand had been dealt with.
Eventually, Sildar pretty much said “GO AND SPEAK TO NARS!” and they headed over there.
It was there that I dropped the bombshell and Nars, who until now had been referring to Elaara as either Elle or Ellie, eventually used her full name. The session ended with Lucius almost shouting “FUCK!” and we left it on that cliffhanger.
The uncomfortable question
After the session ended Lucius’ player asked the group “Look, sorry, is it me or was that session like pulling teeth?” My heart sank.
Now, to be clear about this, his frustration was not directed at me. He asked the question with the best of intentions but I’m not going to lie – it still hurt. I want them to have fun and that’s not a question you want to hear.
Lucius was also frustrated that Nars referred to his missing friend, who he knows as Elaara, as “Ellie” or “Elle”.
So where is the problem?
There are four characters in the module that know where Cragmaw Castle can be found;
- Glasstaff, who they let escape.
- The leader of the Bugbears, Mosk, who they decided not to engage.
- Droop the Goblin, who they decided not to free.
- Reidoth the Druid, in the northern village of Thundertree.
It was time for a difficult, but long overdue, conversation.
“Guys, three times now I’ve had a Redbrand surrender to you and on all three occasions you have killed them.” This provoked some blank looks before someone finally admitted: “I didn’t know you could do that”. “You can do anything” I replied. “That’s the beauty of D&D”
“Who investigated the cistern in the first room?” Nobody answered.
“Who inspected the goods in the storage room?” I pressed but again, nobody replied. This was the room where they’d rolled the three natural 1s and, in the resulting laughter, forgot to check. I decided to read them the text from the store room, together with the general features, to highlight the point.
Let’s drill into that.
Firstly, I pointed out just how little of the text is there for me to read to them. There was, immediately, a recognition that I was putting a lot more of my own creativity into some of the environments than the book gives me which I don’t think they’d appreciated until that point.
I explained how the modules are formatted, how there is something for me to read to them and the rest is information they have to discover. And I went a little further by being very specific about the various methods by which they could discover the doors and the DC required.
I feel quite justified that they needed to at least search the room since none have a passive perception higher than 13.
We ran into a minor disagreement when one of the players declared “I’m not going to say that I’m going to investigate every room we walk into”. Fortunately, our most experienced player admitted, “Yeah, that’s pretty much how D&D works though”.
The group does feel like they’re running short on clues but again, I went back to Glasstaff’s Torn Letter which reads;
The letter, dated the 12th day of Flamerule, bears a cracked seal which appears to show what looks like lightning hitting a large anvil. The letter reads,
“My Lord Albrek,
I am afraid to say that your most recent gift has expired on me. In fact, I am now finding that my experiments require more subjects for testing and I would encourage you to increase both the frequency and size of your deliveries.
Might I suggest that, when procuring these assets in the future, you look for more youthful subjects? They seem to endure the testing process much longer. Perhaps Neverwinter might provide more fruitful offerings?
Can you see the clues? Let’s make the first one more obvious.
I made it fairly clear “Maybe time to start asking about the seal?”
Delving a little deeper, perhaps I’ve been too subtle that Glasstaff is acquiring subjects from Neverwinter, directly tying into Lucius’ backstory? Honestly, the explosive moment where the penny finally dropped was worth the deception.
Please, by all means, answers in the comments – Am I expecting too much of my players?
It wasn’t a great night. As I say, I walked away feeling really uncomfortable and it killed my motivation to update the blog and I even took a week off to rebound. But, looking at the positives, I’ve made some things clear;
- I’m not doing the work for you.
- There is an outcome to this story where you never find Gundren or the Forge of Spells and if this is your tragic backstory, I’m OK with that.
- I expect you to tell me what you are doing and I won’t make assumptions on your part. If you don’t tell me you are looting or investigating, I will not assume you meant to.
- You need to think logically. The clues are there if you look for them.
My tip is this – these are things you should cover in your Session Zero but sometimes, to help newer players along, you need to have an in-depth out of character conversation and tell them where they are going wrong. I made it very clear though, this is the last time they get to see behind the curtain.
I think you handled that pretty well! Not every session is going to be a home run and my personal experience has been that a bad session can lead to several good sessions.
I experienced that myself with the start of my own campaign a few weeks ago. This is a brand new group of players, I don’t know any of them, and they don’t know me. I was pretty nervous about the first session. Honestly, even though I’ve got about 40 years of D&D experience, this felt like my first time DMing. New players, new rules (5E) and and new format (Discord and Fantasy Grounds.) While session 1 didn’t go bad, it didn’t go as I had planned it. I put a lot of prep into session 1. Probably close to 25 hours. I made several maps from scratch. When we got into the session, I felt very prepared–which is normally the way I like it. However, I was so nervous that I moved the story along instead of relying on the players to move it along. So our first session became very linear. Which is was I don’t want, at all. Again, I think nerves got the best of me as well as a lack of familiarity with my players. Even though I was the one DMing, we bypassed most of what I had made for session 1 and because of the nature of this campaign, it meant that material would not be used. (I’m doing a homebrew where the the Dark Lord was not defeated by a group of heroes, but won and has been in control of the world for over 200 years. Basically, if this was Tolkien, Sauron won the war of the ring. The players start out as slaves and they’ve been slaves their whole lives. They only rolled attributes and picked a race to play. Their starting class was “slave”.) At the end of the session I apologized to the players for such a linear start. Luckily, they were very supportive and said they really liked the pacing and how it was obvious where to go and what to do. Oddly, for session 2, I reeled back on the prep and essentially went with just an outline. I had a good time and the players had a good time. I was able to establish a Nemesis for the group that every one of them said, by the end of session 2, that they wanted to kill in a bad way. Session 3 will be Sunday and it’s where they are actually going to pick classes for their characters and possibly face their nemesis.