Random Encounters Shaping Campaign Choices: Emergent Story
This is what you get when you open your game up and have no expectations; what happens when you present a problem to the player characters that can’t be solved by a skill check or a character ability; when the world is rich enough and has enough moving parts that the adventuring party can invent multiple possible solutions; they make a choice and change the campaign world, not once but several times.
Is this the DM's version of "let me tell you about my character?"
This group isn’t in my megadungeon, but is in a different part of the campaign world. It’s a swamp with the southern portion occupied by the Barrow Maze (I call it the Swallowed Cairns) and the northern portion is the hex crawl swamp of Dyson’s Challenge ofthe Frog Idol. The party needed a pilgrimage to clear a catastrophe effect, so they got a vision that the Alabaster Oracle (an NPC in Dyson’s module) could tell them of a pilgrimage; she sent them to the Frog God. (I gave the player that wanted a pilgrimage to rid himself of his catastrophe a choice of 3 different quests and he choose this one. We all regret this.)
Quick Unnecessary Background Side Story: Integrating Challenge of the Frog Idol and Barrowmaze
In Dyson’s module (CotFI), the Frog God is a remnant of an ancient war of the swamp (including a Rain God and a Rage of Nature God) with elven allies against some giants. I changed it to a more general battle of life (with the Frog God, personifying the mutability or chaos of life) against death (an Empire of Necormancers/Death Worshippers). The Empire of the Dead built the Barrowmaze (aka Swallowed Cairns) and a grand city in the swamp, and the decaying causeway of CotFI’s became an imposing edifice of cyclopean stones. CotFI’s Necromancer on his floating island of corpses was now a searcher of lost necromantic artifacts. The Rain God’s task in the war was to drown the City of the Dead to create the swamp there today. The Frog God, though of Chaos, took to the side of Life as he represented Mutability and Change opposed to the Finality and Stagnation of Death, or as he said in the deepest and most stilted voice I could muster, “COMPLETE OPPOSITIONAL PARADIGM!” Sorry, that really worked well at the table and made all the players laugh.
|Frog God gettin' fit|
End Side Story
The First, Obvious Choice: They Decided Against It Immediately
The random events have several times now changed how they have decided to handle the last part of the Frog God’s Challenge: recovering his basket from a school (what do you call 36 nixies?) of nixies who are using this giant magic basket as a boat to entertain earth bound mortals. The party decided they didn’t want to fight or steal from the nixies, but to trade. The nixies weren’t opposed to trading, but they needed a way to entertain air-breathing mortals; they needed a boat in exchange. How then, was the party to find a boat?
Their Second Choice
There certainly are boats within the world: the home city, a few hexes away bordering the swamp has a river draining it and is an inland port for a trading route. Purchasing, if they saved up for it, would be an option though a difficult one (3,000gp for a keel boat, plus more for nixie style comforts). Swindling or stealing would be possible though it would have repercussions. The players deliberated. Once they had given up on getting the boat/basket from the nixies directly, this is where I had envisioned them going. In between sessions, I began making notes on merchants and ship captains.
A Third Choice: Providence of the Random Tables
But then my random encounter table intruded. The table was heavily embellished from the one provided in Challenge of the Frog God. I included other swamp creatures, and derived a series of tables using the Tome of Adventure Design and a few Raging Swan Products. As I do, I over complicated things with all kinds of random flora and fauna, different creature activities and their random disposition and plugged it in to a random table generator.
|Thank you, inspiration pad pro for empowering my insanity. You can tell I was lazy and didn't properly program around the grammar of all the possible results.|
On the random encounter table I had included what every swamp needs: A Green Hag. She arrived improbably with a friendly disposition, albeit modified to neutral due to her nature of being a literal evil witch. With some quick improvisation, I decided that her motivation, besides eating children and halflings, was to be reunited with her 2 sisters to reform their coven. Plenty of foreshadowing provided by the swamplings they were temporarily camping with (backwoods Cajun halflings who ran away from the Malee-co-cot, aka witch), lead the players to understand that the Swamp Hag was dangerous business. They parleyed, and when she asked the party gave her gifts. She (I named her Haddo, mis-remembering the gender of a character from a Blood Ceremony song) decided not to eat them.
I didn’t know why she couldn’t find her sisters herself at that moment, but she gave the party fetish bags which the party could give to her sisters; in exchange the sisters wouldn’t attack the party and would be able to be re-united. Not deciding anything and just happy that they didn’t have to fight the random encounter, the group parted ways with the witch.
|In their defense, she didn't appear like this.|
So of course after another two weeks of trudging through the swamp (did I mention we all thought this quest had gone on too long? Just like this story) on their way back to the Frog God with another of his prizes, “monster from nearest encounter location” shows up as a result on my table and the nearest encounter and the map shows the other sister, another Green Hag named Lyda. I’d somewhat prepared with a name and a stereotyped found image for her house:
The encounter distance was enough that the players could have skipped this if they had wanted. But they had the fetish bags and I guess they wanted to use them: hammers and nails. So they said hello as politely as possible and introduced themselves as being on an errand from her sister and here’s this fetish bag.
Two things get improv’d here: I came up with a preliminary answer to why the coven was separated, and the players tried to shoot the moon with the favor the Hag offered in return for being reunited. It made sense that the Hag Coven had been separated with a curse decades ago; curses are in their idiom. The players asked, since this Hag had such a nifty walking house, if the 3rd sister had a boat. I hadn’t planned anything for the 3rd witch yet, other than that her name was Treau and that she was in a different swamp hex farther away. I picked up a 6 sided die and decided this was a pretty ballsy request on the part of the players and gave them a 50% chance. Yep, she had a boat. I let them do some talking and persuading and even some uses of their character abilities and (old school DMs may judge me) skill checks. The witch said yes, the 3rd sister has a boat and I’ll make sure she gives it to you if you see us re-united. They’d given the witch gifts, and the witch really did want to be reunited with her sisters.
|Both Hags from the 5e Monster Manual|
After another stop by the Frog God, who being of chaos had little opinion on the reunification of the Hag Coven, the party returned to the Oracle. They reasoned the Oracle could tell them the location of the 3rd Hag sister (the eldest, a Night Hag this time). With some warning now, I had a bit more back story that the Oracle could provide: the Hag Coven’s separation was the work decades ago of a Bishop of the Church of the Sun; She cursed the Hags to lose each other in the swamp and never be able to find each other; It stopped them from sending plagues and stealing children from the town. The players digested this and deliberated some, but they decided they still wanted the most expedient way to end this quest, and pressed the Oracle to tell them where the 3rd sister was in this interminable swamp.
So now between sessions I planned how the Coven would wreck their long desired revenge upon the new Bishop (well, actually there are two competing Bishops in a Bishop War, but that’s a whole other campaign story) and the town. If reunited, the Hags will set about enslaving the swampling village (Cajun Halflings, f’sho) and using them as carriers to carry plague into the town, a plague that the Bishop’s couldn’t cure. Nasty consequences that the players will see and decide themselves if they want to take responsibility for fixing.
The Almost 4th Choice
|The Alabaster Oracle. She saw this one coming|
The Almost 4th Choice
Having left the Oracle and on their way to find the 3rd Hag Sister, the players ran in to another situation from the random encounter chart; a party of swamplings being attacked by Trogrims (from CotFI: troll-goblin mutants, regenerating warty runts). Hating the trogrims, they decided to intervene and save the swamplings, succeeding. ‘How can we help you?’ the swamplings asked. “You have a boat?” the players responded. I pondered. The swamplings are off in the swamp, way off the feudal grid; they hide whenever a lord tries to force them to be serfs on some manor. They’re poor, but resourceful and they really do want to help. I decided that it would be a smaller chance than the Hags: 25%. I told the player that asked the odds and told him he could roll: if the swamplings had a house boat good enough for the nixies, it was yours.
He was 4% off. Another player asked if he could use his luck (a reroll power) on the roll. The book says it’s only for your character, but I said, “Sure, go for it.”
But it was not to be.
In retrospect, I perhaps could have better said "Yes, but " to the failure. The swamplings might have known of a bandit captain with a hidden house boat. Or offered to help steal a noble's pleasure barge, because swamplings aren't above that. I need to put a "yes, but" post it note on my DM stuffs.
Another Random Chance: 5th Choice
Fast approaching the last known location of the 3rd Hag, the random encounter table produced some very odd flora (cypress trees with levitating seed pods, we’ll figure out that business later) and foreshadows of a group of Dryads. Hmm. “Okay, so past those cypress and their funky seed pods, you hear the sound of singing in what the elf recognizes as sylvan.” I ad-libbed the dryad group to be 4 dryads and a satyr cavorting around a fairy ring, like they do, albeit in as PG a fashion as dryads and satyrs can be together.
The blade dancing elf with performance skill (because that’s how they dance) decides to harmonize with the singing voices and he nat-20s the skill check, changing the wary fey creatures from a guarded neutral disposition to a friendly one. After the introductions and the satyr’s flirting, the players ask if they know where the 3rd witch sister could be found. It ended the party atmosphere of the encounter, and one of the players was trying to tell the others that they certainly didn’t want to let the dryads know WHY the players wanted to find the witch. I’m okay with table talk like that: others may not. But some party members persisted and the dryads and satyr were informed of the players’ intentions to reunite the Coven. Not wanting to come directly to blows, the fey asked and the party explained they needed to trade for the nixies’ boat for the Frog God, and this was the only boat that would do.
Distressed, the dryads considered what they could to stop this, and the players asked again: do you have a boat? Dryads certainly don’t want to part with wood (I think I missed a satyr pun here), but the Coven having a reunion tour would certainly do terrible things to the swamp and would hurt more wood than would be lost in making a boat. After marshaling some player skill checks and offering up some found expensive magical components, they succeeded in making their way to their 5th choice.
“No we don’t have one, but maybe we could make one, if you help.”
They’re still a few encounter checks of helping gather wood and guarding the dryads, but they could have their 5th choice made and on their way next session.
That is, as long as something random doesn’t occur.