I haven't blogged much about it, but I'm running a 5E West Marches campaign twice a month, and we're closing in on the one year mark. We just had a game today, but the story I want to talk about begins last session. Of course, before I get to last session, the story needs a bit of background info presented about the game itself.
I've obviously modified the original West Marches concept a bit. I run the game at fixed times for whoever can show up, and advertise the game as open and newbies (to the campaign as well as to RPGs in general) are welcome. I started the game as a way to a) play more D&D, b) play D&D with my son, and c) get my son interacting with other people in English. My son's 10th birthday was yesterday.
From the beginning, Flynn (my son) has mostly been interested in combat. In the early sessions, there usually weren't many players. Flynn was pretty comfortable acting in character, but his characters acted like 9-year-olds. He loves Dragonborn, so for example he can communicate with kobolds...and when the party needed him to do so, he mostly threatened them with sticks up the butt if they didn't obey. Things like that. Most of the adults in the game just accepted it as what happens when you play with kids.
Then word got out that the game was fun. Now, instead of two to four players per session, I have seven to ten. Two other expat fathers also joined the game with their daughters (one is a year older than Flynn, one is three years younger). With a bigger group and other kids to play with, Flynn's attention to the game drifts (as does that of the other kids). No one seems to mind, however, and they're always paying attention during combat, leaving most exploration and character interaction to the adults.
So, last session. As I mentioned, Flynn's character is a Dragonborn. He's a Knowledge Cleric with the Knight background, so he has a Dragonborn squire who follows him around and helps out. The party has been exploring Quasqueton (B1 In Search of the Unknown, stocked for a large party of average level 3). On their way to the dungeon, I rolled a random encounter with lots of vine blights. There was one for each character, as well as the squire, the tamed giant badger (of one of the other kids' Fighter), and the pet dog of the Druid. And since the party was surprised, I ruled that they had walked right into the vine blight patch and were basically in the same "squares" (I'm mostly using theater of the mind combat).
Several characters get entangled. A few use movement abilities to get out of melee. On Flynn's turn, he wants to use his dragon breath attacks (both his fire, and the squire's acid). I roll a few dice to determine how many he can hit without damaging any party members, and get a 1. So he decides to blast party members and vine blights together and get as many blights as he can.
Now, we're playing in a coffee shop, where it's noisy. We've got 10 players (plus a few followers mentioned above). We sit at a long table, and typically when someone near me is taking an action, the people near me are paying attention, and those at the far end are chatting. When someone at the far end is taking an action, those near me are chatting. It's not as bad as the 4E games I was in, but with so many characters a round of combat takes a long time, so table talk is inevitable -- especially with kids at the table.
Titan the Cleric blasts his fire breath. I roll saves for the blights and subtract the damage.
Then I ask the PCs who were in the blast to do the same. This gets the attention of everyone. And when the damage is dished out, Flynn announces that his squire will use his acid breath. One guy at the far end of the table is playing a Paladin. He's not sure what's going on other than that the party is taking damage from Dragonborn breath weapons. He then bluntly tells my son don't do it or his Paladin will kill my son's Cleric...and that he's confident that he can do it. (He is the optimizer of the group, and Paladin smites deal a lot of damage, so he probably wasn't mistaken.)
I'm a bit stunned by this, and not sure what I'd do if a PvP fight did break out. Flynn is confused. Several other adults tell Flynn to do what he thinks his characters should do. He looks at me. I suggest he can do it, but it might be better not to. He decides not to. Crisis averted. The game goes on. Flynn is kind of out of it for the rest of the game except for some combat in the dungeon. But that's fairly normal for him. I don't think anything else about it until we get home.
That's when he breaks down crying, screaming into his pillow, punching the pillow, etc. He felt bullied, and I agree that he was. And I wasn't aware how he was feeling at the moment during the game, even though I felt that the Paladin player's reaction was uncalled for. I ask Flynn a few questions. Without my prompting, he asks me, "If I hadn't used the breath, wouldn't the fight have lasted longer?" and "I'm a Cleric and can heal anyone I hurt." He was thinking tactically and considering the consequences. Smart play.
I called the Pally's player and we had a talk. I explained Flynn's decision as he saw it. The player told me he wasn't sure what was happening, and thought Flynn had just decided to blast the party members as a joke. He apologized numerous times, and even posted publicly in our Facebook group to apologize and that now he understood and thought Flynn did in fact make the right tactical decision. Flynn wasn't really convinced of his sincerity, though.
Two weeks pass. Flynn celebrates his birthday and has a lot of fun. Then last night I asked if he was ready for our D&D game. He said he wanted to sit this one out. My wife and I had talked about the situation and figured he might feel that way, so I said sure. But I did ask him a few more times if he was sure. He said he was.
We had lunch with some of my wife's relatives, then I had to go to the game. I left a bit early. Flynn stayed at the restaurant. When I arrived at the cafe, everyone asked where Flynn was and I said he was sitting this session out. The Pally's player was visibly concerned. Then I get a call from Flynn. He says they just left the restaurant and he wants to come to the game...just to watch. I say sure, everyone will be happy to see you. When he gets there (with my wife and younger son, of course, who were going to the library a few blocks away), he says he still just wants to watch...but maybe he'll play later. By the time we get all the "town business" (asking the alchemist to identify all the bottles of water samples they collected from the Room of Pools), Flynn had decided to play after all.
The Wizard's player is out of the country right now, and he is the mapper, so they decided to give Quasqueton a break this session and follow up some other rumors. One is that they can gain "awesome magical powers" in the Cloud Lands when the clouds turn rainbow colors. Another is that a dragon was sighted in the plains to the southwest, and that a troupe of knights rode through town seeking it while the party was away. After a bit of discussion of those and some other rumors, they decide to try the Cloud Lands north of town first, then circle back south to try and find the dragon.
They head north, and have to cross the Dead Woods to get to the Cloud Lands. They've been through part of the Dead Woods before on the way to Quasqueton. They've also heard another rumor about the home of a wealthy man in these woods. And they stumble across it. The rich man is now a Vampire Spawn, and his former servants are Wights. There's treasure hidden in the attic and more in the basement.
The party finds two of the wights first. They manage to take them out without too much trouble, then find their way to the attic where there is a big chest full of lots of coins (the biggest haul yet for the campaign). As they're bringing the treasure down, the vampire spawn confronts them. After a very brief conversation where they fail to intimidate it (and don't yet know it's vampiric), they decide to attack. The other Cleric (the father of the Fighter with pet badger player) pulls out his holy symbol. Roll Initiative!
The vamp gets to go first, and heads up and claws and grapples with the Human Cleric. They're in a narrow hallway atop the (now collapsed thanks to the Bard) stairs. The Paladin is right behind the Cleric with a non-magical halberd (variant Human with Pole Arm Master and now Sentinel feats...like I said, he optimizes) and no more smites. No one else can get into melee. The Fighter is an archer, so she shoots with disadvantage into the melee. Flynn casts Spiritual Weapon. The Fairy Princess (Tiefling Warlock reskinned for the youngest kid) Hexes and Eldritch Blasts. The Bard gives Inspiration and also shoots into melee. The vampire takes a bit of damage (but since there aren't many magic weapons yet, not much) but starts to regenerate.
Everyone's starting to think they bit off more than they can chew when the vampire bits off more than he can chew of the War Cleric. Flynn's turn comes up. He asks me, "Can I attack the ceiling?" I immediately think, smart boy! They're in a ramshackle ruined house and I'd already established the time as around 5:30. The sun's still up. Most of the other players seem to not get what he's doing at first. I tell him to roll an Athletics check. Oh, and I didn't mention that he rolled a 16 Strength at level 1, which being Dragonborn bumped to 18, and at 4th level he put the ASI into Strength, so he's rocking a 20 Strength (as a Knowledge domain Cleric).
He rolls a natural 20.
I announce that he knocks a big hole in the ceiling which floods the hallway with sunlight. Suddenly, the vampire's regeneration stops, he takes massive damage on his turn, and has disadvantage for all rolls. I decide he retreats.
The Pally has the Sentinel feat now (he just hit 4th with the XP from the previous session) which can prevent the vampire from running if he hits with an attack of opportunity, but he misses. The vampire Disengages and moves down to the first floor and towards the kitchen (where the stairs to the basement, coffin and remaining 4 wights, plus a bit more treasure all are). The Rogue had used Acrobatics to get past the melee so was in a position to intercept, and the Archer Fighter and Paladin were able to get down and fire an arrow/take a swing (War Cleric had put Magic Weapon on the Pally's halberd while grappled). Rogue uses Fast Hands to release ball bearings in the hall. The vampire spawn trips and goes prone. Rogue, who has a dagger +1, gets a sneak attack in. Flynn is up next, and his Cleric jumps down and uses his breath weapon to finish off the vampire.
The party then left to the Neanderthal village near Quasqueton where they knew they could rest, and after resting returned and finished off the wights without too much trouble, also getting the vampire spawn's magical loot from the basement.
I'm really proud of my son. Not only did he deal with his emotional issues well, but he showed off his creativity and tactical thinking. All the adults were just looking for something on their character sheets to deal with the vampire spawn. Flynn used his head, and probably prevented one or more character deaths.