What to Do When Players Go the “Wrong” Direction

When I first began blogging here at The Learning DM, most of my posts were basically session reports. In these writings, I pointed out things I had learned from the evening’s activities. I’ve not done one of these for quite some time, and since a rather interesting thing happened in my campaign’s last meeting, so I decided to share my thoughts about it.

Last week was our third session playing through Madness at Gardmore Abbey. With such an open-ended adventure, it might be good to detail exactly how I am using it. Our group is 8th level, so I adjust encounters upwards slightly to provide a challenge, but still allow for quick combat. Our play period is typically 3 hours, so I aim for two combats alongside light role playing and exploration. (I’d prefer more of the latter, but my players really enjoy   fights!) To get through the adventure in a reasonable time frame (meeting once a month), I’m skipping most encounters, either by just describing empty rooms, or encounters that have been overcome by the rival adventuring group, who of course will show up later. The group has thus far explored the Dragon’s Roost area, aided Sir Oakley in his failed purification attempt, and recently found the Brazier in the Garrison.

I emailed my players an in-story request for how they wanted to proceed. I sent them a map with some notes on it about what had been explored, further areas to check out, etc. Most everyone agreed that they wanted to go deeper beneath the Abbey to find the remaining items for the ritual. Speaking as Sir Oakley, I recommended to the group that exploring beneath the Temple would be the best way to start. Not hearing anything different from the group via email, I found miniatures, whipped up a map with Dungeon Tiles, and familiarized myself with the Catacombs entries in the Encounters book. I felt totally ready to DM, and was certain that it would be another exciting session.

In turned out it was indeed exciting, but for a totally different reason. After a brief skill challenge, the group made their way to the Dragon’s Roost. I described the scenery briefly, and just as I flipped in the book to the descriptive text for the Catacombs, it happened.

One of my players grabbed the map with notes I had printed off, and noticed that there was another set of stairs in the Hall of Glory. He asked Oakley if he had any clue where it led. Without really thinking about it, I explained that these stairs likely led to Vaults containing relics of the paladins’ past glory. “You mean, treasures and such? Makes sense that the Bowl and Chalice would be there, and probably some other great loot too. Let’s go this way instead!” The rest of the group agreed, and I found myself in a predicament.

I could, of course, run the Catacombs instead, though it might lead to some inconsistencies later. After all, the players didn’t know what was supposed to be in the Vaults. But this felt dirty to me. So, I threw caution to the wind, and ran the group through the Vaults encounters. I had only read this section briefly several months before. I had no maps or miniatures ready at all. Certainly, having a published adventure helped considerably, but I still felt woefully unprepared.

In situations like this, you have to just roll with it and see what happens. I had already identified the two encounters I wanted to use in the Vaults on a note card when I first read through the adventure months ago. On the fly, I made the decision to cut the whole minotaurs vs. gnolls subplot. My players were expecting orcs beneath the Abbey anyway, so I decided to reskin the encounters as needed.

I owned a few orc minis and collected them, dug around for some orc Monster Vault tokens in my D&D box, and ran to my closet to grab some Gaming Paper. For the most part, the initial exploration went well. I had feared that the group would immediately head for the dragon encounter. I very much wanted to save that for the next session, since it was really one of the centerpieces of the entire module and deserved better prep on my part. I led them away from that section of the map with some subtle (and even some not-so-subtle) nudging.

One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was having to edit flavor text passages on the fly. I wanted the Vaults to be mainly empty, but most of the text described rooms with monsters inside. I stumbled through the text as best I could, and used my imagination for the rest. In hindsight, it would have been a better idea to read ahead and pencil out references to monsters during quiet moments when players were making skill check rolls or other down time. Even without monsters, there were plenty of interesting things to differentiate the rooms. The designers were very descriptive and creative, a fact I greatly appreciated when running unprepared. I also decided to plant clues about the other adventuring party in these “empty” rooms.

I usually prefer poster maps, or even Dungeon Tiles to drawing my own maps, but in this case, it couldn’t be avoided. Looking at the various encounters, each of them seemed fairly complex to run, so I made a decision to use the stats from a generic village orc patrol encounter instead. Whipping out a sharpie, I detailed the room as best I could. A statue of Bahamut as a human knight was changed to that of a dragon instead, represented on the map by a small white dragon mini. I set up Urthak the Vicious as the orc leader, with a set of four Orc Terrorblades, plus eight orc token minions. This was more than the encounter called for, but I knew my players were higher level than the norm, and I wanted to challenge them.

I kept in mind how I wanted to run the encounter to make it exciting. Hit them hard early,  to get them scared, then, when the tide turned their way, have the remaining orcs flee as an “out”. It worked out quite well. The lead orc smashed the group with an AoE attack, flinging them across the room. Half the party was bloodied by the end of the second turn. With a few key heals and control spells, the group came back just fine, as heroes do, and the orc minions fled, ending the encounter.

I made the decision to end on a cliffhanger if possible. The players obliged by exploring right up to the room with the sleeping red dragon. The sense of fear and anticipation was all over their faces as I read the descriptive text, and ended the session. My players were very complimentary, and I can tell that they are excited about the next meeting.

So what can we learn from this? First of all, running by the seat of your pants is OK. Monsters in 4E are very easily reskinned into whatever you need them to be. Rely on flavor text, but make sure the narrative still flows nicely. Don’t worry too much about how pretty your battle map is, either. Even a modest collection of minis and tokens will work just fine;  even in 4E, much of what makes D&D enjoyable is still what happens in the theater of the mind. I don’t plan to run with little to no prep very often, but I must admit it was a good session anyway, and hopefully the improv practice will aid me in future Dungeon Mastering.

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