Make sure to catch the first part of this series here:
Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #1
Now that we’ve looked at our session zero, let’s see how the first game session came together. Some of this is a matter of running the first adventure in the book, and some of this is dealing with the framework we came up with last time.
Hollow is the first adventure in the Tales of the Old Margreveadventure anthology, which is an adventure about a small town on the edge of the Margreve forest that is dealing with strange occurrences. Before we could jump straight into the adventure, however, we played through the introductory section I came up with to introduce the campaign framework.
The Bear King’s Competition
Everyone started at a glade in the Old Margreve at a competition being held by the Bear King. I had each of the bearfolk PCs come up with a competition they had won, so they had a reason to stand out from the crowd of bearfolk. Two of them picked physical competitions, and one won a pie eating contest.
The halfling warlock was led to the glade by Baba Yaga’s dentures, and was hiding while she watched the festivities. The gearforged and Lhatmir, his attendant, had been captured and brought before the Bear King.
Lhatmir, as a remnant from a previous campaign, is a terrible gambler. Baba Yaga’s dentures (unseen by everyone but the halfling warlock), whispered in Lhatmir’s ear that he can compete with the Bear King, and “miraculously” he wins, asking for the gearforged warlord to be allowed to prove his heroism (instead, of course, just asking for his freedom).
At this point, the halfling is instructed to introduce herself by the dentures, and the Bear King offers all of the winners, the gearforged, and the halfling, charms (as per the DMG). The Bear King mentions that the fey have noticed some kind of creeping shadow in the Margreve, and he tasks the PCs with investigating this. The charms will protect them from some of the negative aspects of the forest, as well as keeping nasty things from them when they travel the shadow roads–which he uses to send them to Levoca.
I wanted to set up the structure where the Bear King, Baba Yaga, and possibly other fey lords are nudging the PCs in a direction when there might not be a direct connection between adventures. I also wanted to keep Baba Yaga a bit more remote and mysterious, so I only used her dentures in the scene.
I wanted the bearfolk players to be able to say something about their characters with the contests that they won. The warlock had already introduced a lot by specifically asking to have Baba Yaga as a patron, and the gearforged already got his “wish” by being an outsider in the setting, and had a tie to the previous campaign.
I also wasn’t sure how much the PCs were going to interact with the standing stones or the shadow roads on their own, so I wanted to introduce those elements of the setting on the edges, even if they don’t come up that often. If I need to connect them to another place that doesn’t feel logically connected to Levoca later on, I can present them with a “safe” passage through the shadow roads to another part of the forest.
On the Road to Levoca
I know, I’m still not to the beginning of the actual adventure, but I added one extra thing–they ran into a giant elk outside of the town. I wanted them to pick up on something being off about the animals, and one of them could hear the music affecting them (but without being able to pinpoint the song). They killed the elk, then heard a creepy flock of carrion crows that made them decide to hurry into the town.
I wanted to give them a chance to interact with creatures in the forest, and if they had avoided killing the elk, it may have let them call on the elk positively later on, but because it was attacking them, I didn’t want to penalize them for fighting a hostile creature.
A Trip to Town
Along with the creepy, indeterminate music, I wanted to reinforce the strange local customs and the overall creepiness of the forest. I made sure to describe the scarecrow like Wood Wards around town, and described them with sacrifice bowls at their feet, for the townsfolk to use to invoke their protective spirits.
I also wanted to make sure to say and do a few creepy things with the townsfolk, but not in an overtly sinister way. I was aiming more for “isn’t everyone like this,” instead of “these guys are going to kill us when we’re sleeping.”
This had some interesting interactions with the characters–the bearfolk were willing to accept that all humans are kind of weird, the gearforged was even more certain that he was culturally superior, coming from Zobeck, and the halfling was balancing between the weirdness she was accustomed to from her time with Baba Yaga versus what she would have expected from nice, normal halflings.
I generally filtered all NPC interactions through three main NPCs:
- Karl–he got to be the grumpy old man that was mildly annoyed and could also mention how “normal” the old witch pit in town was, even though they haven’t used it for 100 years, because sometimes you need to burn witches to get rid of curses (cue the halfling being a little nervous)
- Drash–son of the man killed by his own bull, to introduce the conundrum of killing the bull even though it would hurt the family fortunes, also allowed me to introduce another weird custom (he drained his father’s blood from his body and offered it to the trees, to see if they reacted to it). Because the trees drank the blood instead of rejecting it, the curse couldn’t be specific to his father.
- Anna–gets to be the “general” information person in town. She offers food and shelter, and could mention that there was a woman and her daughter that went missing in town to hook the PCs into the adventure. Once they investigated this, I planned on “rewarding” them with the poem about the Hollow Man, so they had that information before they run into him the first time.
In the adventure itself, it mentions calculating the group persuasion bonus and determining how much the town is willing to help them based on this. Instead of this, I just went with a group charisma (persuasion) check, and if the majority were successful, the townfolk are generally helpful. I’m a fan of using group checks when I can, and this seemed like a good place to do so. They did very well, so I determined that the townsfolk were certain that the bearfolk, specifically, were friendly forest spirits sent to help, and offered them as much honey as they could gather.
The group went after the missing woman and her child to find them, and because the bearfolk barbarian’s background includes wanting to protect others because she had lost her family, I ended up changing the encounter a bit.
The party fought off the bee swarm, and saved the mother. The daughter is, by default, already dead, but because it was important to the PCs and played better into the barbarian’s background, I had the child reacting badly to the bee stings, but able to be saved. They made a medicine check and the child was purged of the venom, to the point that she could survive.
Originally, I thought the party might rest more, and that we would have at least one murder happen while the PCs were recovering. Instead, the party brought the woman back to down, heard the poem from Anna, and set back out to find whatever was causing the animals to go berserk.
Because they were so focused on methodically searching all of the entrances to town, I didn’t want to delay them from getting some answers, but I still thought they might retreat from the Hollow Man when they first ran into it. They loaded up on torches after hearing the poem, and kept searching.
Meeting the Hollow Man
Since they were out searching, the wolf attack on town happened while they were catching up with the Hollow Man at the first farmstead with a victim. Instead of being distracted by the wolves, they were trying to hurry up and save the farmer so they could get back to down to help with the wolves.
They had a bit of a power boost from the charms, which they used to summon a bear that kept the Hollow Man’s animated Wood Ward at bay while they engaged the Hollow Man. I wanted to make sure that they had a chance to see the methodic behavior of the Hollow Man, so it got to the farmstead door and started knocking before they had a chance to attack.
Between the torches, magic, and the cleric’s shillelagh, they did a lot better versus the Hollow Man than I expected. The Warden managed to make sure an ally didn’t get splattered by the Hollow Man using his abilities. I specifically didn’t have the Hollow Man use its scythe, because I wanted to create the impression that it only used the scythe for its designated victim. In fact, if any of the PCs got dropped, I wasn’t going to do lethal damage unless they later were designated as the victim of the Hollow Man. None of this was too important in the long run. It wasn’t an easy fight, but it wasn’t as dangerous as I was worried about from straight analysis of the stats.
Surviving the Hollow Man meant that not only did they defeat a major obstacle, but they also picked up a magical weapon along the way by claiming the scythe. Again, I was surprised that the 1st level party was ready to press on, but they wanted to follow the Hollow Man’s tracks before they went cold and find it’s master, so they dove into the forest.
The Singing Tree
The party reached the Singing Tree. The cleric and the warden had largely used up their resources, but everyone was near full hit points, so it was a bit of a gamble as they headed to the “final boss.”
I played up that the giant spider summoned by the tree formed from the oozing “tears” of the tree. The party almost started to target the head hanging from the tree, but they talked themselves out of trying it, as they were worried that without a head it might get more active.
The bearfolk barbarian used the Charm of Heroism they were given, but unfortunately, the warlord succumbed to the confusion effect of the Singing Tree, and the warlord turned on the cleric and took him out of the fight. The warden kept the spider busy as the enhanced barbarian with the magic scythe attacked the tree. The warlord wandered aimlessly around a during the fight, meaning that everything came down to the barbarian, the warden, and the warlock.
The group eventually prevailed, stabilized the cleric, and found the treasure. When the Singing Tree revealed the apple, the group destroyed it because they were too paranoid about possibly curses and corruption to eat it. The halfling was very tempted.
Overall, the group was pretty happy with the treasure haul.
For most of the adventure, the group only took short rests, but they did have one ally taken out of a fight, and another one under confusion for most of the final encounter. Without the clue about the fire and the Hollow Man, I think the fight would have gone much worse, but the cleric having access to a spell that granted him a magic weapon helped. As run, with five 1st level characters, without the charm allowing them to summoned the bear and the Charm of Heroism, I’m not sure the fights would have gone as well as they did, and I didn’t ramp up any of the threats this time around (other than the initial elk encounter).
My players pointed out that they think the warlord class is front loaded with its abilities, something I thought in my review as well. That said, it didn’t feel too dominant this session, because for one of the major fights, the gearforged was under the confusion spell and not helping the party. The warden’s player felt a little starved for reactions, because it takes a reaction to protect others and to protect himself as well.
I was actually expecting the adventure to take more than a four-hour session, but the group was very focused on driving toward their goal. We still had a good amount of roleplaying, but they were still very focused on solving the problem. I suspect part of this is that they had a good idea that they would level up after the adventure.
I am using hero points instead of inspiration in the game, and the hero points got used a lot. I was originally planning on having the PCs explain how their traits came into play in the session to “recharge” hero points, instead of awarding hero points on leveling up. This is where I learned a lesson I already knew, but here we go again.
D&D traits are a nod in the direction of more story based roleplaying and fleshed out characters. Despite this, traits are not worded well to be triggers. Too many of them are broad or about long-term tendencies, so they don’t work like XP triggers or bonds in Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark games, and despite knowing this, I keep trying to make them work that way. I may end up reverting to hero points awarded by level.
To sum up:
- Without charms and hero points, this adventure may have been a bit rougher for the PCs
- I may need to revisit my house rule for dealing with hero points soon
- Not sure how the warlord is working because the warlord was out in a major fight
- Warden seems very dependent on reactions, especially early on
- Creepy atmosphere of the Margreve is definitely being felt