Lessons Learned: Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign

Margreve CoverThis has taken me a while, but I finally wanted to circle back around to writing about my experience running Tales of the Old Margreve, and what I would do if I ever did it again. I touched on some of the points I’m going to touch on when I was posting my session by session posts, but it’s probably worth it to pull them together in one place.

Part One, or, What Do You Want Out of The Game?

If you are just looking at having characters that live in or around the Margreve, taking the opportunity to insert an appropriate adventure here or there, a lot of what I’m going to touch on regarding framing techniques won’t mean as much. That said, some of the commentary about modifying adventures and swapping out monsters might be worth engaging.

Challenges

These are the challenges that I see in running Tales of the Old Margreve as a campaign:

  • Provide a framing mechanism to tie everything more tightly together
  • Provide a means of traversing the forest for adventures that take place far apart
  • Address the cultural issues, particularly with the Kariv
  • Adjust a few of the challenges present in the adventures

Kariv Issues

In case you are wondering what the problems with the Kariv are, the Kariv draw from Roma cultures in the real world. There are harmful stereotypes associated with the Roma that are unfortunately repeated in some of the material in this adventure.

  • Never ever use the “g” word if you aren’t Roma; it’s not for you
  • Don’t portray the Kariv as untrustworthy, unskilled, drunk, or as thieves, especially not as a group
  • Don’t portray them as being unwelcome in a town unless you really want to address why the town is prejudiced against them

Well return to these when we look at some of the individual adventures.

The Locals

One of the things that the gazetteer mentions is that the people who live in the Margreve are often very serious about observing the old ways of the forest. I think this is most effective if you know when to play this up. In my game, the people of the Margreve were often very relatable and friendly, but when the PCs least expected it, I would throw in a twist. Here are some things I did to inject those old practices into the campaign:

  • Come up with some potentially impactful practice that the locals insist on performing; for example, I made sure the people of Levoca always drained a corpse of all blood and sacrificed the blood to one of the trees around town, to keep the Margreve from sending an animal spirit to possess the body
  • Try to keep track of the time of year, and whenever a holiday comes up, make sure the people in the forest observe it in a very exacting way
  • If the characters are from ancestries that aren’t especially common, the locals may treat them as if they are forest spirits or agents of the forest or the fey

Despite this, I think it’s important for the people in the Margreve to be relatable as regular people. Use the traditional practices, but when they will have the most impact to contrast with what the PCs may be expecting, and unless the PCs do something detrimental to a community, don’t have those practices make them overly antagonistic towards the PCs.

After dealing with the Hollow Man in the opening adventure, my PCs, since most of them were bearfolk, were treated as forest spirits. The town didn’t give them anything overly valuable, but in exchange for being their “protective spirits,” the bearfolk often got offerings of food and drink at various times.

The Moral to the Story

As written, there are a few recurring themes in the adventure anthology, as well as a few callbacks to characters and events from other, earlier adventures. Despite this, there isn’t a framing mechanism. That means that often characters could just decide to leave the Margreve, or they might try to follow up on a different story thread than those provided by various adventures.

What my gaming group did is not what I expect everyone to do. My players, upon finding out that one of the themes of the anthology is dark interpretations of fairy tales, decided to make three bearfolk, a halfling warlock, and a gold plated gearforged. In other words, Goldie, ‘Lock, and the Three Bears. As soon as I had this crew, I knew what my framing mechanism was going to be. Our warlock had Baba Yaga as a patron, so I decided that the player characters should have patrons that would guide them, and those patrons would be the Bear King and Baba Yaga.

As written, there is a theme of corrupted fey and aberrations in several adventures, especially the three “Derende” encounters, which hint at the creature sleeping under the Margreve. Once I looked at that, I wanted to frame this as the wrong “other” fighting against the fey, who were more invested in the Margreve remaining how it is.

Patrons

I do think that the best way to create a framing mechanism for this anthology is to create a patron that can show up from time to time, potentially offering clues and rewards to nudge the PCs back to the path. This is especially important because the hook for some of the adventures is “if the adventures stumble across this situation.” Having a backup for that is important.

The Fey

I went full in and use archefey as patrons, but you don’t need to pull the trigger on the big guns quite the way I did. That said, the fey are everywhere in the Margreve, so they make great patrons to keep the group on track.

My suggestion for this patron option would be to have each character come up with something they wanted from the fey, something they were willing to deal for. Framing the characters as people that care enough to make this kind of deal in session zero is easier than trying to make characters actively playing their characters to make a deal. The important thing is to point out that this isn’t to hammer the PCs, and to make the fey generally trustworthy, but still interested in how the adventures unfold.

Given some of the encounters in the adventure, I would also suggest that anyone running the game avoid using the Shadow Fey as patrons. Unless you think you can pull off a long game switch for The Heart of Derende. I’d be a little cautious about trying to get it to work.

Having the fey as a patron gives the PCs someone that knows the forest, knows about magic, and can provide vassals that either might know the Shadow Roads or other means of traversing the forest faster than traveling by foot.

My suggestion would be the Holly Queen detailed on page 37 of Tales of the Old Margreve.

Types of Characters: Mixed . . . characters could come from all over to seek out the Holly Queen for a favor.

The University Grant

Another option for a patron would be one of the wizards from the Arcane Collegium. In this case, the patron could work out of one of the Coaching Inns along the Great Northern Road, and the PCs could be expected to gather items from each of the adventures for the patron’s studies.

In this case, it’s important to play up that the patron may be able to transport them across the Margreve when needed. It may even work to have the wizard’s family on the bad side of the Margreve. The wizard is willing to risk teleporting PCs around, but not to stay in the forest long enough to shed any blood.

Our hypothetical wizard ally might even be researching the forest as a means of trying to change the forest’s opinion of their family, and dealing with the Heart of Derende might be what they need to leverage some forgiveness from the forest.

Types of Characters: In this paradigm, the characters are likely going to be Zobeck natives, or at least characters that visit Zobeck on a regular basis.

The Kariv

One way to present the Kariv in a better light might be to have the Kariv serve as the patron to the player characters. It’s possible that one of the Kariv senses the danger under the forest, and wants to recruit some friends to look into current events across the forest.

The Kariv’s wagon may even be magical itself, allowing it to travel more quickly around the Margreve, providing a mobile base of operations for the player characters. In this instance, the wagon may not be able to magically traverse distances more than once a week.

Types of Characters: This might be the best setup to have characters that are all native to the various communities of the Margreve.

Base of Operations

It’s usually helpful to have some place for the player characters to call home. Downtime feels more meaningful when you have the context of a location, and player characters can start to care about that location.

My own players adopted Levoca early on, which made this easy. In case your players don’t enjoy the amenities of Lovoca as much as my players, consider the following:

  • One of the coaching inns; the Bluebell Coaching Inn is well detailed and works well for this
  • A Kariv camp; I touched on this in the patron section, but having a group of Kariv to travel with gives the PCs a mobile base of operations, which is both a “home,” and is able to move around
  • Eventually the characters might be able to use the abandoned Griffon Tower that appears in The Griffon Hatchling Heist, but this still leaves a few early levels without a place to call home
  • There are also a lot of smaller towns mentioned in the Margreve gazetteer; it might be worth it to read what each section of the forest is known for, to get an idea of what the best town would be

What Is the Threat

In my game, the “truth” of the situation was that Derende is unusually active, and that if something doesn’t “discharge” that energy, Derende may start to become powerful enough to break free of the Margreve. This should still work as a framing device.

In this case, you may need to have something to mark that the growing power of Derende is “capped.” In my campaign, the fey were reclaiming the former Derende sites to help force Derende back down under the forest. I called these new constructs “fey cathedrals,” and they were elaborate structures made of magic and intertwined tree boughs.

If you want a similar “sign” to mark that the Derende site is no longer active, you could have a wizardly patron put up a magical glowing seal. The Kariv might also know some magic that would discharge the aberrant power of Derende.

Suggested Milestones

These are the adventures where I would declare a milestone for players to level up, if you aren’t using experience points to track advancement.

  • After Hollow (2nd)
  • After The Honey Queen (3rd)
  • After The Vengeful Heart (4th)
  • After The Challenge of the Fang (5th)
  • After the Griffon Hatchling Heist (6th)
  • After Gall of the Spider-Crone (7th)
  • After Blood and Thorns (8th)
  • After Grandmother’s Fire (9th)*
  • After The Vengeful Dragon (10th)

*Grandmother’s Fire suggests level 9th or 10th, and the Vengeful Dragon suggests 10th level. Depending on your players, this might actually make the last two adventures a bit easier than they were intended. I think it would be safe to keep this advancement pattern without making things too difficult for the PCs.

Picture1Modified Hooks

Hollow: this is an easy hook if you have a patron for the group. They just need to send them to visit Levoca, and the rest of the situation unfolds as the adventure assumes.

If you want to tie this more closely to the idea that something is wrong with the Margreve, make sure to emphasize that The Singing Tree has awakened outside of the regular pattern for the phenomenon.

The Fingers of Derend: The “Slaves and Sacrifice” hook is the best one to use to tie this into a larger narrative, with the settlement of Pilzfanger in jeopardy.

If you have the Creature Codex, you may want to give Yidji, the wooodcutter, who is noted as having the tribal warrior stat block, the Void Cultist stat block, to play up the unnatural corruption of the fingers. Additionally, Orcs aren’t all that common in Midgard, so while you can still use the berserker stat block for Drom, I’d just change the description to a trollkin instead.

The Honey Queen: This hook doesn’t require much, other than that the party needs to be near some kind of settlement for Terelsa to be able to see the adventurers and hire them. It’s okay to not have the patron push this adventure at first.

Once the PCs are on the path, it’s easy to mention that Baba Migori knows their patron (especially if they have the fey or Kariv as patrons). When Lyla is saved, give her a memory of an ominous dream that plays into Derende awakening.

The Vengeful Heart: I’d avoid the “just stumble across an abandoned village” hook, as that works much better if you are using this adventure outside of a campaign framework. If the PCs have a wizard of the Collegium as a patron, it’s easy to have their patron put them on the trail of the blood mage after he hears from his associates in Zobeck. The Holly Queen may want the players to investigate Shadow Fey activity, and it’s easy to also have a Kariv patron read portents and omens leading to the blood mage.

It may not come up now, but at some point, you can tie the forest heart plot and Baba Yaga to the ongoing concept that Baba Yaga shared her soul with the Margreve to strengthen the bonds around Derende, and as Derende becomes more powerful, more of the forest hearts are born, as Baba Yaga’s soul is being pushed out of the Margreve.

Challenge of the Fang: The hook for this adventure just mentions that the Margreve will arrange for the group to be in the right place at the right time to find the dead man on the horse. Instead of this, if you have a patron for the group, send the PCs to meet with the man, who ends up being dead, and then roping them into the Challenge of the Fang because they were in the “right” place at the “right” time.

One general trend that I have noticed in this adventure is that converted NPCs don’t feel as tough as their CR would indicate. This is a little odd, because in general, Kobold Press monsters punch a bit harder than WOTC monsters. I bring this up because the Would-Be-King of Wolves is the same CR as the Nightgarm from the Tome of Beasts. If you have that resource, I would recommend making that swap.

As an aside, Wolf Killer could severely take the fun out of lycanthropes once the PCs have it. If they hit a lycanthrope, they must make a Charisma save, or they revert, meaning that the lycanthrope has to use an action to turn again, or else fight in human form. That’s rough.

This is less about tying this adventure to the rest of the plot, and more about making sure that this adventure has consequences, but any time the PCs run into a wolf monster from this point on, have them pay deference to the PCs. Make sure they feel like the wolves lost the contest. Otherwise, even if this plot doesn’t directly play into the overall plot, the PCs becoming the champions of the forest dwellers is thematically appropriate for the overall story.

The Griffon Hatchling Heist: The main hook is that Lesharrkk, in cat form, finds them and asks for help. If you really want to tie this in a little tighter, have Lesharrkk know the PCs patron, which is why the griffon monarch would seek out agents of the patron.

When it comes to the hatchlings, there is a lot of fun to be had trying to keep the hatchlings from seeing the PCs. That said, it feels a little grim to have the survival of the chicks as the means of determining how indebted Lesharrkk feels. Instead of that, I would just let the hijinks ensue, and if the PCs survive and have the hatchlings with them, let them have Lesharrkk available to give them a ride.

I would have Lesharrkk a feather or some other token to call her. Make it take an hour or so for her to respond, so she isn’t too much of a “get out of jail free” card, but also allow her to traverse the Margreve extremely fast, as in, crossing from one side to the other before sundown. While the patron already likely has a means of transporting the PCs, having a different means of travelling that the PCs have earned can make this feel special. Also, letting them have the Still Tower as a base of operations is a nice benefit as well.

To tie this more closely to the overall theme of the campaign we’re building, have Zyzhashcha, the corrupted ogre chieftain, mention some encounter with Derende, which changed her into what she is. 

The Tongue of Derende: If you seed the idea that Zyzhashcha was corrupted by Derende, it might be an easy connection to have the Cavern of Whispers nearby. In fact, if the PCs find a map or note that indicates this, it makes it even more important that the group participated in the previous adventure. 

Gall of the Spider Crone: Buckle up, we’ve got some work to do on this one. This one has some really bad Roma associated stereotypes involved, so we need to examine that and remove as much of that as possible. I would hate to skip this adventure, however, because the crone’s hut in this adventure is a golden encounter.

Because of the Spider Crone’s presence, it’s easy to see why a patron may send the PCs to the inn to investigate what is going on, even if they only vaguely know that something important and supernatural is going on. 

Here are the problems with the Kariv in this adventure:

  • They are lying about their ability to help the Spider Crone (frauds)
  • They are actively plotting to turn on the PCs (untrustworthy thieves)
  • The suturefly exists in this adventure expressly to point out that the Kariv are liars
  • They are portrayed as cowardly and only willing to do their nefarious deeds with subterfuge (cowardly)

Don’t do any of that. In my game, I had the owner of the inn suffering from a curse, and his family trying to get the Spider Crone to help them remove this curse. If it makes you uncomfortable for a baby to be in danger, the innkeeper as a sympathetic victim is a good alternative.

For the twist at the end, instead of having Adric turn on the player characters, I added in some Shadow Fey that attempt to steal the soul jug from the PCs. The Shadow Fey are hinted at a lot in various adventures, but they only show up a few times. Given their contribution to the final adventure, putting them in the campaign a few more times doesn’t hurt.

Blood and Thorns: If the PCs haven’t put down roots anywhere, have their patron invite them to the local wedding as if it’s going to be a simple recreational event (they’ll be paranoid, it’s fine).

One thing I did to tie all of this into the overall Derende plot was to portray the Cap of Thorns as a corrupted artifact touched by Derende. Play up how unnatural the cap is, and let Jedza and possibly Valanora drop hints that the cap is tied to some kind of aberrant power.

Also, let me fix a problem that isn’t evident in the adventure, that I was silly enough to introduce. Because the Half-Sword of the Margreve Knights is rumored to be able to be rebuilt into a vorpal sword, I added a side quest later for the PCs to make it whole. Then they had a vorpal sword. Then lots of 20s happened. Maybe you don’t need to let them make the sword whole, since the adventure doesn’t assume it. Just saying.

Grandmother’s Fire: I absolutely love this adventure, because the PCs can talk to Baba Yaga, they can see her scary storybook level of power, and the story of Elena and Dmitri is super tragic.

Fire not working is a great hook to get the PCs investigating supernatural events, so there isn’t much needed to give the PCs a nudge. Baba Yaga should always seem pretty scary and in control of the situation, but if the PCs manage to complete her task, this is a great time to drop some hints about the overall storyline.

There is some background information saying that Baba Yaga may be in mortal danger if the Eastern Heart is destroyed. To up the stakes of the entire situation, the Derendian Moth Abomination is going to fly to the heart and kill Baba Yaga by destroying the heart. Once the heart is destroyed, the Margreve is weakened, and Derende may be able to begin tearing itself free.

Baba Yaga won’t lay all of this out, but dropping a hint that the killer wings will fly from one heart to another, killing the forest and waking the dreamer, might be enough to connect some dots.

Additionally, there is a zmey that is noted as being a mortal enemy of Baba Yaga. It is not the zmey that appears in the next adventure, Manje, but I would actually make that zmey one in the same. That way, even though the zmey’s rampage may not be directly tied to the Derende plot, it does tie into Baba Yaga potentially being in danger.

Unnecessary change alert! I swapped out the Fire-Infused Water Elemental for two Blistercoil Weirds from Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. No reason, other than I wanted to get some use out of those monsters. 

Picture2The Vengeful Dragon: This adventure landed really well with my group, because my group had really adopted Levoca as their home, with a ton of adopted NPCs that had been relocated to the town. Your group may not have this same connection.

One of the twists I would add to this adventure to tie things together more closely would be to have Baba Ludva trying to manipulate Manje into fighting Baba Yaga for her. In this case, the PCs may need to explain to Baba Ludva that trying to become “top baba” may have more consequences than just making Grandmother angry.

There are also a few Kariv related issues that I would change in this adventure:

  • Instead of portraying Mama Cana and her band as bandits, I would have them be a group of Kariv that angered Baba Ludva, and are trying to stay away from her.
  • Don’t portray Levoca as being hostile to the Kariv. This isn’t even mentioned in the original section on Levoca, and in my game, the Kariv visited multiple times, and when I ran into that sentence I said, “what?”

The Heart of Derende: In my campaign, I had the Shadow Fey arrive and try not to admit that they were responsible for trying to become the avatar of Derende. It should be fairly easy for the PCs to pick up on the Shadow Fey being dodgy, and eventually they should just spill.

My Derendian Moth Abomination didn’t last as long as I would have liked. Part of this had to do with the aforementioned vorpal sword. It still feels like a weak CR 12, especially for a climactic encounter.

At 10th level, the fact that the moth has a low AC for its CR is a death sentence, because there isn’t anything to keep its (slightly low for its CR as well) hit points from getting drained by PC attacks. The average damage for the moth also seems to be geared towards the maximum number of tentacles, instead of it’s starting number of tentacles.

This would be a great candidate for the Mythic rules from Mythic Odysseys of Theros.  That said, if you don’t have access to that source, you may want to look up Epic House Rules: Attack Its Weak Point on D&D Beyond, and apply some of those ideas to the Derendian Moth. As an example, the PCs may need to cut off all of this tentacles to make it weak enough to damage.

So far, I’ve been suggesting substitutions from Kobold Press books, but there was another substitution that, if you have the resource, fits perfectly into this encounter. The Lay Eggs Legendary Action spawns a standard swarm of insects. In the Scarred Lands Creature Collection for 5e, there is a blood moth swarm that is the same CR as the standard insect swarm, and it makes so much sense for them to be hatched from the Derendian Moth Abomination’s eggs.

The End of Wisdom

That’s pretty much all I can think of as far as suggestions. I had a lot of fun with this anthology, I just wish I didn’t have to do so much work to excise the negative Kariv bits, especially because they contribute nothing to the overall narrative. I would love to see an update of this that addresses those issues.

One comment

  • Unnecessary supplemental note: extra bits for Baba Yaga’s Hut can be found in Warlock Grimoire 2, and might be worth incorporating.

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