Arrival in Havehollow: The Squashed Pony

The Greenfields, is an often fog shrouded land of rolling hills and sleepy farmsteads, fields of wheat and barley span acres, crisscrossed with pebble roads that sheep herders use to move their flocks to fresh pastures. Along the Southern edge is the Snakewood, a vast forest that slithers from the Cloudpeaks to the West, across to the Troll Mountains in the East, with its Southern belly warmed by the desert sands of the lands of Amn.
It is at this edge, between the Greenfields, and the Snakewood  you will find the village of Havehollow.

Havehollow is barely large enough to be called a village. It is a sad collection of squat stone and thatch buildings, populated by simple-minded people that tend the land, and scrape by on an existence barely surviving. Mud seems to coat everything, and the cold drizzle is a funeral shroud.

Your group has travelled far together, and are in need of a warm fire, and a real bed, and so you decide to stop and rest a while.
A low building with a green tiled roof. Baskets of drooping flowers hang from sills and vine has covered much of the exterior.
The sign above the inn reads ‘The Squashed Pony’ above an image of a speckled pony struggling beneath a cart piled high with wheat.

The Squashed Pony is the only inn that Havehollow has to offer. The owner is a large woman name Hettie Margosa. She is a brute and a bully, using her size to ensure her patrons pay a pretty penny for her watered down ale. Her quiet husband vanished some years back. Hettie told everyone he had run off with a serving maid who went missing at the same time. Few people ask questions in Havehollow, especially of someone like Hettie. She now runs the place with her beast of a son Lobo who is the size of a doorway, and has the same intellect. Brat, her youngest, works the tables, scrabbling around patrons like a sewer rat.

The interior is well-lit with candles and a roaring hearth warms the room. There are several tables, some empty, some occupied by small groups of people talking quietly, one man stares solemnly in to his cup. In a corner a young boy plays a melancholy tune on his flute.

Behind the counter is a plump human woman, she is in her middle years, with some grey at her temples. She notices you enter, and puts down the tankard she was cleaning, then walks over with a well-trained smile plastered to her face.

The party enter The Squashed Pony and find a table, politely asking Hettie for food and drink while she sizes them up. Brat is quickly sent off to the kitchens while they get settled and Hettie returns to surveying her Queendom.

Spotting a man crying quietly in to his mug, some of the party go over to talk to him to ask what is the matter. Through red eyes and quivering lips he tells them that he is fed up of everyone laughing at him for fleeing the mansion. No one believes him when he says what happened there. The party, through diplomacy and ale, learn that he was part of a group of men that went to the abandoned manor of Lord Gorey, hidden in the forest, to try to find two young lovers that had headed that way a few days earlier. No one would have bothered going after them, except they had left without paying their fee and Hettie had offered a reward for whoever brought them back for justice. No one skips out on Hettie.

When they had got there they had found untold horrors that swept all of them up in shadow and the drunkard, Jacob, had fled for his life. Now branded a coward and a liar he has taken to trying to wipe the memories from his mind with Hettie’s famous Bottle Back Gin. Falling in to uncontrollable sobbing the party decided to buy Jacob an ale, and leave him to it.

While this was happening others had instead joined a group of huddled farmers playing a game of Stones. A simple game, similar to a combination of draughts and tiddley winks, but with stones, it was obvious they had no idea how to play and were instead firing the stones in every direction. Rhys got involved and through some slick talking and skillful play managed to get the villagers to divulge info about the manor. They told him that Lord Gorey had ruled this area two decades ago, but a tragedy had struck the Gorey family and he had vanished. The people of Havehollow were glad for his disappearance for before his demise, he had raised the taxes to an obscene amount, that had even brought soe fo the people to his gates. They had fled from that dark place though when horrors had barred their way. No one had been back there, that was until those young kids had wandered off in that direction, leaving their bill with Hettie, and sending a group of young men off to get them back. Now it seems only Jacob has made it back. He says there are nightmares haunting the mansion, but the villagers think it more likely a bear has made it their home.

The party settled in to their drink, and orders food to go with it while they discuss the interesting information they’ve gathered about Lord Gorey’s abandoned manor. While they are eating their food, and enjoying the ale, they hear a doleful melody coming from a young half-elf in the corner of the room. Everyone seems to ignore her while she strums her mandolin and begins to recite a poem.

Seasons come and go,

Moons wax and wane,

Time seems so slow,

For the spirits of Havehollow.

 

One is the spirit of Lord Gorey,

His wife and child he loved so dearly,

But with the plagues touch,

He did lament so much.

 

Dark secrets he sought,

He spent his riches to nought,

So the rents he did raise,

Make his subjects curse the days.

 

The people did rise up,

And Gorey got his just come up,

But dark powers protect his grounds,

Beware ye hear the dreadful sounds.

 

Seasons come and go,

Moons wax and wane,

Time seems so slow,

For the spirits of Havehollow.

Once the girl finished her performance, she bows and moves around the room trying to get money from the patrons, who ignore her like she doesn’t exist. She makes her way to the players table and strikes up a conversation. Rhys, the swarthy half-elf, is primed and ready to start flirting, and he does so with abandon. The performer introduces herself as Hazel and that the tale she just told is true, although not popular here in Havehollow. She is free with information on Lord Gorey and his sad story. She tells them that his wife fell in, and soon after his infant son. Unable to save them Lord Gorey instead looked in to dark rites to try to bring them back. This was an expensive endeavour and after his coffers started to run dry, he then increased taxation on the people of his land to fund his desperate search. He had some success, and after the people started to refuse him money, he then started to take them as subjects to experiment on.

The common folk rose up, as they are want to do, and went to serve Gorey some mob justice, however they were met with a manor infested with dark creatures, and few returned. The village was happy to leave the manor to rot, until recently when a travelling couple, left the Squashed Pony without paying. Hettie sent a band of thugs after them to break bones and bring back payment, with interest. Instead the group of men followed the lovers tracks to the manor, and were taken by the place, with the only survivor being Jacob, who is now half-mad, and completely drunk.

Hazel has been waiting for a group like them to come along so that she could go to investigate, and perhaps relieve the place of some of its more valuable objects. The group agree, after much questioning of Hazel, and decide to set off early tomorrow after a nights’ rest in a bed.

 

 

 

Session 0.5 & character creation.

My preferred number of players is six, not because I think six is a good number to have at the table, but because with six players it is likely that each week I will have 4+ players (as people cancel for other life commitments).I allow my players to create a character from any source book, and encourage imaginative backstory or homebrew tweaks. As a player I have always wanted to run a necromancer (shock!) and the 5e source books just arent up to scratch. 3.5e had some really good material, especially in books such as The Libris Mortis, but I’ve had very little luck with DMs allowing me to use it in a 5e game. I think that variety enriches the game and so, after I’ve checked it is balanced, I let my players have free(ish) reign. With their blinkers off, and the wind in their mane, my players created the following motley crew.

The Werk – Warforged – Cleric of the Forge.
A thousand year old construct made by a reclusive gnome hidden away in the jungle of Chult. He heard the voice of Gond, Lord of the Forge, and now travels the land trying to understand life and spread invention wherever he goes.

Felix – Human – Fighter (medic).
A child soldier who grew in to a grizzled war veteran and medic. Capable with a sword and a scalpel, she cuts her enemies down and sews her allies back up again.

Calwen – Half elf – Bard.
A bard with a tragic past. His scars are a constant reminder of the pain those closest to you can cause. With the god of suffering guiding his footsteps, he travels the land helping those who most need it.

Goblin – Gnome – Wizard.
Tired of the countless wars he fought with his trusted retinue, it was not until they were hired by an Empress, and offered a life of comfort and gold, that Goblin decided to leave his friends and find his own way in the world.

Kallista – Tiefling (gnome) – Monk.
A gnome with cursed blood, her pale blue skin and black horns set her apart from her kin. Alone in the world she focused on her monastic studies to master The Way of the Long Death and become a fearsome killer.

Rhys – Half Elf – Wizard.
The bastard son of a powerful lord he uses his wit and good looks to get by. Always looking over his shoulder for the assassin sent by his half-brother, now Lord of the lands he left so many years ago.








5,604 Miles and a New Campaign

I’ve recently moved continents, for a multitude of reasons, which I wont get in to here. The most important point is that before I moved, I checked that there was a gaming community in my new city. Lucky for me, there wasnt just a little community, but a booming group of like-minded nerds, and a selection of gaming cafe and hobby shops to get stuck in to!

As is common in most places there is an abundance of players, and only a small selection of DMs. Although I hoped I would have the chance to play in a game of D&D, I am more than happy to don the paper crown of Dungeon Master and invite people in to the dark recesses of my imagination. I’ll likely be running a few different games while I’m here, but I will mostly be writing about one main game.

We have so far had a session 0.5, and session 1 proper, with five and six players attending. I like to run an enclosed and linear adventure when starting a new campaign, especially with a new group, so that options are limited, and everyone can get used to each other, my style of DMing, and test out their characters.

I stumbled across an adventure called The Mad Manor of Astabar, by David Dudka, which served this need quite well. I have since played through it several times with different groups, and each time I have moulded it and changed it to enrich the story and make it more of a horror theme. It is a fairly typical haunted house setup, and the original can be found here.

I’m not going to refer to the original when describing the adventure and what the players get up to, but I still want to give credit to David for his wonderful work.

D&D 101 First session Adventure

In a previous post I talked about the lesson plan I had created to teach new players how to create a character. The next step in showing new players how to play the game is by giving them their first adventure.

A first adventure, or an adventure aimed at teaching new players the mechanics of the game, needs to have several parts to it. The adventure should be set up in a way that it gives all classes a moment to try out their key abilities; traps for the rogue to disarm, rowdy tavern patriots for the bard to charm, ferocious monsters for the fighter to overcome, etc.

Timing and pacing is also key to the initial experience. First impressions count, and if someones first experience of play is sitting around for ten minutes waiting for their turn, then they are unlikely to play again, and worse than that, are likely to put off other people from playing. The DM must ensure that rounds are snappy, and the chapters or scenes of the session dont drag. It’s difficult to describe how to do this, without lots of practice, and being able to read a room. Look at the players faces if you think that something is dragging, do they look bored, are they scrolling through their phone, or flicking through the players handbook? if they are, best to wrap it up and move on. Same goes for non-combat scenarios, if one or two players are dominating the conversation, keep checking back to the other people at the table and asking them what they are doing.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this, is to go around the table, asking everyone what they are doing, some people are happy to pass or drink their mead, that’s fine too, but if the barbarian is bored with listening to the bard flirt with the innkeeper, it gives them a chance to start a drinking contest, or whatever it is that barbarians do.

As well as timing of chapters, the overall timing needs to be appropriate for the game you are playing. There is no point planning a five-hour epic journey if you only have two hours to complete it. As most DMs know, the best laid plans are always disrupted by players, and new players are even more likely to do this, as they investigate every nook and cranny, or talk to every patron at the inn. There is no issue with this, and should be celebrated, but you would have wasted your own time if you have five more hours of adventuring sitting in your DM folder.

I rarely try to reinvent the wheel, and instead think of what I want an adventure to look like, and then search for something that is close. I then take that pre-made adventure, and change it to such an extent it is barely recognisable. Prepare intelligently, with whatever takes the least amount of time, but has the largest impact.

I found a self-contained adventure that was system neutral, and set about redesigning it to my darker  preference. I’ll talk more about that in the adventure design section.

– The adventure should give each class a moment to try out their abilities.

– It should be designed to come to a close within the time constraints of where you are playing.

– Be prepared for a slower pace because of new player questions

– Read the room to ensure everyone is enjoying the experience.

Teaching Dungeons & Dragons

 

I’ve been teaching for almost three years. It’s something I love doing, and has a lot of similarities with running a game of D&D. In teaching you manage a large group of students of differing abilities and level of knowledge for a set amount of time, and hope that at the end of it they have gained something and had fun along the way.

Planning a lesson is also very much like planning a D&D session, and planning a syllabus is similar to a campaign. The teacher sets out activities and targets for the students, and most of the time it doesn’t go as you had planned. Which pretty much also describes any D&D session!

A local gaming cafe has started a monthly session to help people who want to play D&D come along and have a go. I thought it was a great opportunity to use my teaching skills to introduce more people to the game.

My first aim was to standardise a lesson plan for showing someone how to create a character, taking them through the process as well as some explanation off the mechanics of the game. The plan below has notes on each section and how to teach it, as well as reminders to engage with shy or nervous players. The session starts with a quick game to help get people talking around the table, and to also collaboratively create a group of adventurers.

 

 

Feeding the Horde

I have a group of seven players in our game. That’s a lot of hungry adventurers, and so rather than leave dinner to fate, I have always prepared food for my group.

As well as all the intricacies of encounter balance, and building in character development, I also buy food for everyone and cook a meal we share before the game starts (I know, im awesome). I ask everyone to chip in £4 which combined allows me to cook a big pasta meal, and supply crisps, sweets, chocolate, and free-flowing fizzy drinks. I dont take any of this money for myself, but instead think this way everyone pays their fair share and we dont have to worry with deciding what to eat/waiting for the pizza delivery guy to show up.

When a group orders food for delivery, there is the inevitable person that brought a £20 note, or forgot their wallet, or some other reason to make paying a nightmare, and usually there is one person (hello!) that ends up paying more than everyone else, for the same amount of food. I also noticed that in a group, there is usually only a small percentage that bring along snacks, and hardly anyone ever brings something to drink, because no one wants to haul big bottles of soda around.

With me doing all the leg-work, and a set amount to pay each week, it all seems fair and square. Food is ready when they arrive, so we can eat before the game, and snack throughout. Less time faffing, more time killing goblins.

Even with this little system there are sticking points. The first one is getting people to pay. It astounds me how someone can forget to pay, the same amount they do every week, on the same day of every week, for the food they eat every week. Yet it happens regularly, and I have to remind everyone at the beginning of the game to please pay for the food they are eating, and again I have to check through my bank account on a monthly basis and give out the figures for who has still not paid.

The second issue with this system, is last minute cancellations. As I buy all the food in advance (after having players confirm attendance), a same day cancellation means I have over spent that week. I could ask the missing player to cough up the £4, but this seems petty. I could also increase the amount everyone else pays that week to cover the lost amount, but why punish others for someone elses problem. So I soak up the cost. It may not seem like much, whats £4? but multiply that a few times a month, and pretty soon that a tidy sum that im losing, all because I want the game to run smoothly, and my players to be well fed.

To try to mitigate this issue, I have reduced the number of ‘spaces’ at the table from seven (to allow all players) to five (two people will not play each week). I would love to have seven people turn up every week and pay for the food they eat, but after a year of dealing with this issue, I thought it was time to try something new.

This week is the first session with the new smaller group of five, only time will tell if we have any last minute drop-outs.

 

A beginning of sorts.

Where to start? Maybe the best place to start is with a little history.

I have a memory, its a couple of images, that may or may not be true, but they serve as a reminder of how my love of horror began. The first is full of sunshine, I’m walking along the road leading from my childhood home, to another house. I’m holding someones hand, and although I cant see her, I know its the hand of my babysitter, I am 4, maybe 5 years old. The second memory is standing in her living room, she is off to my left somewhere, I think in the kitchen, and I am standing in the living room looking at a dark cabinet with a glass front. Inside the cabinet is a selection of VHS (this would have been 1991 or 1992, she’s not a hipster, hipster hasnt even been invened yet), I spy with my childs eye, a VHS with a red haired clown on it. The title just says ‘IT’ and it has a red 18 certificate. My memory images end there, but I know after some begging and promising that I wouldnt be scared, my babysitter let me watch ‘IT’.

I was terrified, and I’m not sure I made it through the movie, I’m also pretty sure that I had to have an adult nearby whenever I used the toilet from fear that Pennywise would reach up through the pipes and grab me.

The terror eventually subsided, and I wanted to watch ‘IT’ again, and any other horror movie I could get my little chubby hands on. Luckily my parents were pretty liberal, and seeing that I enjoyed the films, I was given freedom to choose what I wanted from Blockbusters (retro!).

That love of horror translated in to the films I watched, the books I read (the first book I bought with my pocket money was Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’), the art I created. It also crept in to a game I’ve been playing for the past 18 years, Dungeons and Dragons.

I am the Dungeon Master of a game I run with seven guys, and each week they plunge headfirst in to my imagination. They are routinely horrified by the things they encounter, and these are usually the cleaned up, and wiped down versions of whats lurking in my head.

This is going to be a place where I talk about my weekly prep, my ideas and thoughts of how I take horror aspects from film, book, folklore, and myth and bring it alive at the table.