The next morning saw John bon Jonne leave with a contingent of the Portage guard, leaving the party, Tom, Dick, Harry, Peter and Paul to head out across the bridge into the Desolate Plains. The first day passed without incident until late in the day, when far to the north a single figure on horseback appeared, silhouetted against the horizon.
The five peasants wanted nothing to do with whoever was watching them and were all for turning back. The main party was split over chasing the rider down (Avyx) and hunkering down for the night immediately, and preparing fortifications. Cooler heads eventually prevail, with Norge noting that he’s too far away to chase down, and he’s not doing anything threatening, just keep an eye on him.”
Peredu, worried that the “cannon fodder” will bolt on them, takes them under his wing. As the party continues, keeping an eye on the figure, he talks to them, telling stories of his order, and promising to train them over the course of the journey to the bandit hideout.
That night, Peter and Paul disappear on their watch.
Furious, Peredu marches the rest of the day directly behind Tom, Dick, and Harry, alternating between encouraging them and threatening them trying to bolster their courage. As evening approaches they finally reach their destination. Ahead lies a jumble of boulders, overgrown with grass, inexplicably placed in the middle of a featureless grassland. At the very top a small copse of trees ringed the hilltop, screening the view of the crest.
The circled around the hill, setting up a camp on the banks of a small stream winding through the prairie. Mairwen was sent ahead to scout the hill, and see if any sentries were present, Peredu volunteered to escort her in case anything were to go wrong. One failed stealth check later and the two of them slipped into a gopher hole, collapsing in a clattering heap of armor and rogue. They scurried back to camp, fearful that they had been spotted with information on the hill: no signs of movement and a single trail wound its way up the face of the hill.
The entire party took turns sneaking up to the base of the hill, circling the hill, and wondering when the inevitable signal would come from the top and bandits would come swarming down on them. Silence.
Finally, Peredu pulled his sword, and forced Tom, Dick, and Harry to scale the rear of the hill. When they reached the summit successfully they shouted down that no one was there, and asked if they could come back down. Their request was denied and the rest of the party scaled the back of the hill, pushed through the trees and found themselves in a long abandoned cemetery. Not much was left, just the foundations of long smashed and looted mausoleums and scattered flecks of bone. Even these were of little use, as no one was able to identify them beyond “generally humanoid”.
After an exhaustive search of the necropolis they can find no sign of any bandits, or any recent activity. The party begins to grumble, wondering what sort of “informant” the Reeve had questioned to send them out to the middle of nowhere. Disgusted they make their way down the front of the hill, down the trail, back towards their camp. That’s when they see it, nestled between some boulders, hidden from view by overgrown bushes, a fissure in the hill, and an entrance into the hill itself.
Norge cautiously parts the weeds, peering into the dark chasm, and begins to worm his way in, the fissure expands to a tunnel, down into the depths…he shouts for the others to follow him, and they begin to file out of the dying sunlight and into the darkness of the earth…
This was nearly a disaster from a DMing perspective. There were a few false starts and stops earlier in the night when I had them in town, easily overcome by shoving narration at the party. However, this was the first time when they faced making decisions on their own, and the burden of being able to make ANY decision they wanted. Desiring to be thorough Mairwen was determined to scout out the hill, and figure out all the possible scenarios. Unfortunately, she failed a stealth check, and became convinced that scouts atop the hill had to know that they were there. This paranoia spread to the rest of the group, and the rest of their actions were guided by the fact that 1) they would not have the benefit of surprise and 2) they needed to somehow sneak up on the hill.
I could not for the life of me get them to go up the hill. I had placed the entrance to the dungeon next to the path up the hill, thinking that even if they missed the perception check to see it from the base of the hill (they did) they would still find the entrance by literally walking into it. I didn’t place a second entrance in the necropolis itself, as I had put something else there, something that their checks had not picked up (a collapsed inaccessible entrance).
I should have come up with a better contingency plan, and in the future I’ll do more prep work thinking of “other” options they may pursue to get them less on a rail, and I’ll be less attached to my specific details (it wouldn’t have killed me to let them find an entrance on the top of the hill, really). But, at the end of the day I need to come up with a way to move the party past sticking points that aren’t all that crucial. There was no reason for them to stall at the base of the hill for 20 minutes or however long it took, I’m going to need to work on ways to push them on, and indicate that it doesn’t matter, without ruining the flow of the story. Maybe next time I’ll feed that paranoia, and have a group of enemies (a small number they can easily handle) come out of the cave entrance and attack them, both showing them where to go, and make them feel “right” in their assumptions. The downside of that is I give up my narrative arc, allowing them to dictate the feel of the world. All in all I need to learn that there are no “wrong” answers in D&D. I know this acadmeically, and one of my goals is to ultimately create a very free-roam world. However, at this point in our first session (using a modified dungeon straight out of the book) I wasn’t quite there yet as a DM.
At this point Ember and Mairwen hadn’t contributed too much to the session (Mairwen checking out the hill had been at Avyx’s request), both mostly sitting and observing, trying to get a feel for things. I made a little note of this, and decided I would have to put little beats into the story tailored to prompt their inclusion into the party a bit more forcefully.
Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get better at this in time. To this point we’d been playing for an hour. No combat, but we were on the right track for a successful evening I think.