Hail and well met, travellers!
You might know me as Harvey Homobabadook—Megan’s friend who plays DnD and takes over the EDTC300 hashtag every other Friday. What’s good!
In Megan’s last blog post, she talked about how I offered to DM a session during our campaign. In all honesty, prior to playing regularly with Megan and the rest of our party, I never had any interest in DMing. I have played with other DMs before and was always content to let them run the story and just be a player. However, during one of our last sessions, I got the overwhelming urge to create something myself and I offered to DM a session. Megan took me up on it, and suddenly I had a deadline to get my campaign together in two weeks.
Writing an original campaign can be a huge undertaking because as a roleplaying game, you can do almost anything. There are limitations set by the DM, of course, but as a collaborative narrative gaming system, it’s not like video games or other board games where you are confined by the system itself. Knowing this, I decided to adapt something that already existed into a campaign, rather than struggle to write something completely original and risk not having it done by the time it was my turn to DM.
The party discovers a notice on a signboard at a crossroads. It reads:
If there is a warrior or adventurer brave enough among ye to face the Woodland Spirit, the cruel oppressor of the inhabitants of the village of Fayrlund, you will receive a reward that will keep you in mead for a long while. We are not rich, but we have gathered a fair bit of coin between us.
Come to Fayrlund and ask for Sven.
The party travels to Fayrlund, where they find a crowd of people surrounding the body of a man who has been viciously killed. There are two men who are arguing more vehemently than the others: Sven, the young man who posted the notice, and Harald, the village ealdorman. Harald believes that the Woodland Spirit is a god, and it is angry that the residents of Fayrlund have strayed from the old ways, whereas Sven believes the Woodland Spirit is a monster or beast that needs to be killed.
Both Harald and Sven offer the party a reward for choosing their way to deal with the Woodland Spirit over the other’s.
As the party investigates, they have to piece together information gathered from villagers and other travelers that will tell them how to defeat the Woodland Spirit if they choose to fight it instead of sacrificing wolf hearts to it. Without solving the puzzle, they are unable to kill the Woodland Spirit, who turns out to be an ancient leshen (a type of monster) and not a god at all, for good.
You have come into another small clearing, where the crows are swirling around above you. They caw and scream and swoop at your heads, but they always pull away at the last second. A mist has settled in the clearing, low to the ground.
The Woodland Spirit emerges from the mist. It is twelve feet tall, it has a moose skull for a head, with a huge rack of antlers. The skull has intricate carvings in it. The skull is attached to a slender body with long arms that end in razor sharp claws. The body of the monster looks like flesh grafted to bark. It bellows with a deep, howling voice, and it points a claw at the party.
I am an avid gamer. I play a LOT of video games. So, what I ended up adapting was a side quest from the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The name of this side quest is In the Heart of the Woods, which is a relatively short side quest in-game. Total, it can take maybe 20 minutes to play, if you’re not too low a level to take on the monster. I needed to adapt the story so it could fill a 3 or 4 hour session. What I wrote ended up being 14 pages long.
My process for adapting In the Heart of the Woods was pretty straight forward. I played the quest myself, as luckily I was near it in my current play-through of The Witcher 3. After I played the quest and got reacquainted with the story, I found a gameplay video of someone playing through all the options of the quest. I did this because I wanted to present more than one possible ending for my DnD players. Being able to see the different options play out and to be able to rewind and pause as I wrote helped me hammer out the linear structure of the campaign.
The really fun part of DnD, though, in comparison to more linear structures like video games, is that the players don’t necessarily have to go through the story from point A to B to C to D etc, etc. The way I set up the quest was the players absolutely had to investigate the village they were in to find out how they could get rid of the monster (if that’s the route they wanted to choose at all).
A challenge that I faced with adapting this was the narrative in the original video game only made sense if you played it as Geralt, the main character in The Witcher franchise. Geralt is a witcher—a professional monster hunter. He has experience with leshens and can recognize after investigating clues in the village that the Woodland Spirit is a monster after all. Geralt also has a bestiary, which the player can check for information on leshens such as weaknesses (fire, dimeritium bombs, and relict oil). Geralt knows that leshens can mark a person and draw power from that individual.
So, I wrote in NPCs (non-playable characters) who had snippets of information. I named them after random characters from The Witcher 3, and scattered them throughout the village for my players to meet and hopefully interrogate or persuade to give them the vital information for the final boss fight.
I even put Geralt as a character in the campaign—a failsafe for if my players got stuck. I used his background as a monster hunter to help move the narrative along when the party got bogged down in the puzzles or needed clues. I didn’t have to use Geralt often, which was really heartening as I was afraid of taking over the narrative from the players. That was the last thing I wanted as a new/guest DM!
A big part of me being able to write this campaign was resources given to me by Megan. We have a shared drive on Google Drive where we have dropped our resources so we can both access them. Because I guest DMed on Megan’s overall campaign, I wanted to stay as close to the guidelines she had put together for herself as possible so I didn’t mess up things like how many experience points the party got, and how difficult to make the final battles, or how much loot the players could get as a reward.
I also borrowed many books from Megan, such as the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. Because the Woodland Spirit, a leshen, doesn’t exist in the Dungeons and Dragons world, I had to make up stats for it myself. I chose a monster from the Monster Manual (a dryad) that closely resembled it in terms of abilities, and then beefed it up so it would be a harder battle.
I ran the session completely digitally. I had some print outs of maps that I had made with Inkarnate (a website that my youngest brother who is a DM recommended to me) and then forgot the print outs at work. Luckily, I had the digital copies saved and I dropped them into our DnD group chat when it was relevant so the players could look at the terrain if they needed.
I also had the whole campaign written out in a text document with a table of contents and headings so I could skip back and forth to whatever section was needed because I knew the players wouldn’t go through the narrative the way I wrote it. I also had my character sheets for the NPCs up, a digital copy of the monster manual, a cheat sheet of spells for my magic user NPCs, website links for the stats on smaller monsters (like the wolves), and a notepad app so I could keep track of things like the NPC hit points and the order that players were going in during battles. Oh, and I had my phone out so I could record audio of the game and had my calculator out to do quick calculations on damage during battle.
Something I found difficult as a DM was letting go of my control/perception of the narrative and where it should go. At one point, the players began discussing the possibility that Sven was the monster, and it took a lot of restraint not to correct them. Just because I knew that didn’t mean anything. The players had to figure it out themselves. If they chose to face off against Sven and kill him, I would have to let them do it because that was where they were driving the game.
Another thing that ended up being difficult was the players SPLIT THE PARTY. It is common for DnD players to say “Never split the party!” because A) it leaves the party vulnerable to attack if there are enemies and B) it makes it hell for the DM. The party ended up splitting twice, and I had to run short scenes between each group. At one point, each individual had gone off to do something else. That meant I was running short vignettes between Tana, Galbaghore, Baldrick, Alone, and Glimmer and Geralt. To combat this challenge, I ran each short scene as if we were in battle. One a player took a big action, I would jump to the next scene, and we played a few rounds that way until the party reunited again.
In the end, I probably forgot and fudged a lot of rules of DnD, but that doesn’t really matter in my opinion. The collaborative gameplay of DnD where everyone can contribute is what makes it so special and getting bogged down in the rules, within reason, doesn’t foster that type of gameplay that I enjoy. My youngest brother, who has DMed for me a lot (actually one of my Christmas presents from him this past December was being able to play the module that The Adventure Zone played for their first big arc) gave me the best tip on DMing for the first time.