I’ve been a Dungeon Master on and off for nearly forty years. From my first intricate homebrew campaign based on the video game Ultima V, I’ve DMed every edition of the game. But I took a hiatus from running the game somewhere during 4th edition, and I’m just now getting back into it.
My current homebrew campaign takes place in a developing frontier, with numerous small villages and only one small city. Hobgoblin sea raiders, a friendly undersea locathah civilization, and a powerful lich-like hag all feature prominently.
In this campaign, when the PCs do something that affects the world, I spend time between sessions thinking about how that might affect the world. Let’s say the PCs captured some criminals. Did one escape? Does he want revenge? Perhaps the PCs defeated a major bad guy. What kind of power vacuum forms, and who takes advantage of that?
However, there’s one thing I consistently do which adds quite a bit of flavor to the game, and that’s what I’d like to discuss today. I add small encounters with interactions that aren’t intended to be consequential but sometimes become so.
For example, during one adventure, the PCs needed to travel downriver on a boat to reach a site that they’d be scouting to set up a watchtower to warn against hobgoblin raids. En route, I’d planned for them to encounter a group of four men drinking on the riverbank. The men were obviously inebriated and would wave and heckle from the shoreline. In my head, I reasoned that these men had been kicked out of one settlement for poor behavior and were headed to the village the PCs had just left. Perhaps this could turn into a more interesting plot thread in the future.
What happened is that before leaving, the PCs recovered a few barrels of mead from a kobold lair which turned out to be poisoned. I’d initially been thinking that either the PCs would drink it and have to deal with the poison or they’d sell it to a local tavern and catch the blame for the death of townsfolk. What ended up happening is that the PCs found out about the poison, warned the townsfolk, and left the mead in storage just outside the town’s church, thinking that they’d later use it to poison hobgoblins or something.
This all came together when the four drunkards reached town and found the poisoned barrels. Townsfolk warned them it was poisoned, but the rowdy men didn’t believe them. “Oh sure, you just leave poisoned mead sitting in the middle of town. Right.” When the PCs returned, they found the townsfolk burying the four men.
Mini-encounters like these generally won’t lead to anything. But when they pan out, they can be beautiful and add a lot of flavor. Here are some others I’ve used.
- A ten-year-old boy in town nagging the fighter with questions. “Do you kill monsters? Can you cut the head off a dragon? Can I hold your sword?”
- The captain of the small ship transporting the PCs is having relationship issues, and he confides in a PC during the voyage.
- During a sea voyage, the party sees a locathah kid surfaced nearby, waving. He’d just come up to fetch some air for his dad.
- Clerics in the city dealing with a sewage issue by casting multiple purify water spells.
- The party passes some wizards experimenting with a water elemental-powered craft that’s supposed to work like a jet ski. It doesn’t work well and crashes.
- PCs asked to escort a town official’s doofus son who fancies himself an adventurer. The guy is insanely accident-prone.
- After a successful adventure, a newly-famous PC is asked to do numerous missions by random townsfolk, but they’re all very menial. Construction workers ask him to help move a huge boulder to make room for a foundation. A woman asks him to clear rats out of the basement, which isn’t even a combat encounter and is far more tedious than exciting. A barfly asks him to beat up someone who owes him money.
- PCs are asked to arrest a cabal of necromancers. Rather than this being an actual adventure, they get to the house in town, and the two immediately surrender. One guy was teaching the other guy a necromantic cantrip.
But my favorite of all these was when I’d planned to have the party find a random farm on the way to their destination. At the farm, a half-orc farmer lived with his wife and two daughters, and they eked out a meager living. The party included one half-orc fighter whose life goal to this point had been to save up enough money to get a room above a tavern and spend the rest of his life drinking. After encountering this farmer, he had a revelation that life could be more, and the character’s entire arc changed. That single 5-minute mini-encounter transformed one PC from an aspiring drunkard to a man in search of more of his kind. He’s now desperately searching for other half-orcs.
I’m having a blast with this campaign.