My ongoing D&D campaign is rolling along fine. It’s by far the most casual one I’ve played. We’re playing in a world I described here. The idea was to mix and match the themes, locales, characters and phenomenons to create sessions whole-cloth. As it happens, I had a much harder time making adventures that took off the ground than expected. I often floundered with my options and it showed around the table.
Until I stumbled on a theme my son’s character explored during vignette play to level up from 1 to 6. As the harbinger of the world’s Doom by his Lovecraftian pact entity, he arrived to this world through a portal opened by an eccentric Faerie Dragon. The dragon had a business-oriented venture : open portals, send in adventurers to clean any interesting locations and expand his real estate.
Early during the campaign the players were hired to clean an undersea dungeon of an undead threat. At the time, I reused one of the maps found at the back of the Dungeon Master Guide. When the players recognized the place from a previous campaign (from which the Warlock was from), I rolled with it, hinting that they were not adventuring on their own world…
I like to screw with my players’ minds.
A few months ago, I decided it would be cool to run the players through an old school AD&D dungeon. White Plume Mountain came up as a perfect model of the crazy “makes-no-sense” concept of early 80’s dungeon design. I just needed to find a semi-plausible reason to plug the adventure into the world and make my players buy into it.
That’s where the Faerie Dragon came in.
I decided to name it “Dalt Wisney” as an homage to Dave’s old middle school campaign villain, Dort Invader. Dalt “invited” his trusty band of heroes for a special Beta test of his latest venture: “The Family Collaborative Dungeon”, with a “nearly completed, fully safe Anti-Death field.” I assigned a gnome NPC to the party. He was in charge of commenting on the various “rides” and take the heroes’ feedback. I named him “Paius Cupus” based on that short, annoying, slow-talking Roman character in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix.
I also used the annoying, nasal voice he has in the original Euro-French film version.
I half expected the whole thing to fail miserably, and it nearly did. The setup was shaky, the players were uncertain and to make matters worse, I was highly irritable when we started playing and I blew up at the table when things didn’t pick up like I wanted.* Something I hadn’t done in years.
But things turned around fast after I calmed down and we collectively smoothed things over (thanks gang!) When I abandoned all seriousness about the background of the dungeon (i.e. I dropped every reference to Kerapis the Mad Wizard) and played things like I felt like they should, it became magical.
The adventure is 30 years old, but… Obligatory Spoiler Warning.
When I voiced the first encounter (a sphinx) in the style of the French Canadian version of a “no-fucks-to-give” depressed Krusty the Clown, my players were in tears.
We played 6 sessions in that dungeon over a period of about 3 months. Here are some highlights.
Early 80s module design didn’t have over a decade of deconstructionist 3.X player experience and the very permissive 5e ruleset to deal with. My players flew, climbed or destroyed most of the dungeon traps and tricks that used to challenge/stump/annoy players back then. I didn’t mind at all. We had Paius “documented” all those as design flaws and moved on.
Some really annoying rooms were “closed” for renovations. I also used a few Wall of Force to direct the flow of the adventure away from the finale. (I swapped the TPK-killing Vampire room to put the Fearie Dragon in and made sure the players explored that part last.
A deep and complex meta-story developed during play. It soon became apparent that all non-mindless creatures of the dungeon were unwilling servants of Wisney. Whenever they were spoken to, they talked of “The Contract”. It made them both protected by the dungeon’s “Anti-Death” field but also forced them to serve the Fearie Dragon.
In a flooded room, all players were ambushed by plant-based mermaids that only attacked male heroes (i.e. everyone but the monk). The monk went into an underwater room to find a way to deal with them. The ambushed players got desperate, fast. Armored characters were being charmed and pulled into deep water. The combined powers of the Ring of Rumours and the Wand of Wonder came to their rescue. Thanks to the cursed ring, I told all players that they were absolutely CONVINCED that using the wand would save them from their predicament (wink, wink).
So they used it…
…And they all turned into women! Prompting all kelpies to leave them alone. The players never, ever tried to reverse the change for the rest of the adventure module. This lead to countless sex jokes (lead by Chantal, the Monk) for the rest of the adventure. So much so my 14 year old spent a lot of it blushing, until he joined in.
It culminated when they “liberated” Whelm, the intelligent Trident, whom I based on Ron Jeremy.
(Whelm: Hey, you’re 4 chicks and… look, I have 4 ends, let’s F*&K!!!)
Yeah… that kind of game.
The Anti-Death field turned out to be VERY creepy as players realized it didn’t raise the dead, but fetched living versions of the deceased in a parallel universe! They learned that when their sex-changed guide died and came back as his original gender. Later they faced a couple guarding a “ride”, and killed the male guard. His recently “resurrected” consort flew in a rage, screaming at them that he hadn’t signed the contract!
As my players played through the ridiculous dungeon, the true identity of the Faerie Dragon came to me. All of this “screw with humanoids like they were puppets” reeked of Celtic folklore. I had flashes of reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell where a faerie prince controlled humans just for shits and giggles.
So I asked myself, what if “Dalt Wisney” was way more than he seemed? What if he was an Unseelie/Winter Court faerie? What if he was not only manipulative, but also mad by even the unearthly standards of his kind?
What if he was…
…The exiled Winter King?
And everything else fell into place.
(Seriously, the “What if” game is a powerful tool, I wrote about this AGES ago)
We kinda rushed the end, as I am won’t to do when we finish late. But the last scene was epic, with the PCs bursting into “Walt’s” office, angry as fuck, ready to kill the 13 hp dragon, but facing an Ogre Mage, a Wall of Force and a “Rollodex of Summoning” on Dalt’s desk. The last scene before fighting broke off was Dalt, in elven form, feet on desk, waving 4 contracts. Telling that the heroes could just not leave, seeing how they were such stars!
You should have seen the look on my players’ faces…
I kinda botched the ending and had the ‘king” flee. But I’ll give my players some satisfaction and tell them they killed him in one sword stroke… his immortal essence will reform in the realm in 100 years or so and he can bother some other heroes.
Such an unexpectedly awesome campaign arc.
Now to come up with another arc…
*Yeah, even highly experienced GMs sometimes drop the ball…