My First Dungeon Mastering Mistake, Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Backgrounds

hoard of the dragon queen coverI am new to tabletop roleplaying games. Despite a lifelong love of games of all kinds, I only just picked up playing D&D with the release of 5e. Dungeons and Dragons always interested me, and I was looking for an opportunity to play. Luckily, when 5e rolled around, several friends gained an interest in trying it out, so we roped in RupertG to DM a group of new, inexperienced players. It was clear from the outset that this game was easily as fun as I’d hoped, and I like to think we didn’t frustrate our experienced DM too much with our amateur tomfoolery. [ed: they didn’t]

After some fun sessions it became clear this was an itch that would require a belt sander, so in addition to the game we were currently in, we started 2 other games, both to cater for others left out of the RupertG run campaign, and also just to get in more games than our conflicting schedules allow. I am a player in one of them, a campaign that began with the Lost Mine of Phandelver starting set, and the DM of the other, which is using the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module. The reasons I chose this can be summed up as follows: 1) I love dragons, and, 2) this has ‘Dragon’ in the title. Since I haven’t finished creating a (dragon filled) world of my own, I figured this module would be a good place to start my foray into the Mastery of Dungeons.

Game night rolled around, the group had earlier rolled their characters (I used the point buy method) and I had unknowingly already made my first mistake. In the first ‘episode’ of the module it suggests referring to Appendix A to tie in the characters stories to the campaign. In hindsight this would have been a great move – as it was, I skipped that, and led my group – A dragonborn warlock, a dragonborn barbarian (both chromatic), an elf ranger and a human cleric – to the outskirts of Greenest, the starting point of the HotDQ campaign. Without getting too spoiler laden, the town is under siege by nefarious forces – the Cult of the Dragon! The suggested backgrounds from the fabled Appendix A gave several examples of motivations for the party to go down and do what they could for Greenest. Unfortunately, me being the new DM, I gave them a backstory that amounted to “You are caravan guards on the way to a town called Greenest.”

Understandably, the group was blasé about going into a town under siege. And is that a dragon flying back and forth causing havoc? Blow this for a lark, let’s go somewhere else… So I made their caravan master rush into town for building cover, reasoning that the choice was either open road with danger overhead or a keep under siege. Since a keep is generally designed with siege resistance in mind, that seemed to be the best place to go. This seemed reasonable to the party, so they headed into town…

Now the first encounter is generic enough to recount without fear of spoiling the entire module. The group comes across an injured man, his three children and his flustered wife (who was holding a shield and spear), trying to fend off an advancing group of kobolds. This encounter was to be my gauge of party strength, to give me an idea of what they could handle and what was too easy. I decided I was not out to kill, but thrill the party, so if they all got ‘killed’ they would wake up later as prisoners. That said, it was just a few kobolds that were basically ignoring the party, and what adventurers could abandon a cripple, a woman and children to their fate?

Well, certainly not this party of adventurers. The charismatic Warlock stepped forward and announced that they were also part of the cult. I was prepared for them to try roleplaying their way through, so far so good. It was at the point that the party backed up their cult claims by attacking and killing the husband and wife. This caught me by surprise to say the least. I had the kobolds ‘finish’ off the kids. I wasn’t prepared for child murder just yet, plus getting the kobolds to give them an off-screen sendoff means they can possible return later for sweet, sweet vengeance.

The rest of the session went accordingly, and so began my first campaign, albeit now with an evilly  aligned party. After the session ended I think everyone was satisfied, but I still wanted to figure out why it went so far off the rails. I have put it down to the lack of background. Just a sentence or two could have given them a motivation to stand up to the cult. It turns out that idle characters are Tiamat’s playthings… But ultimately I learned an important lesson for a fledgling DM, one that I have subsequently heard over and over.

The best laid plans of mice and DMs often go awry.

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