So before I begin, this post is going to describe the end of my 5th Edition campaign, Curse of the Black Pearls. There are a myriad of reasons why you may end a game prematurely and move onto something else. For me, it was a lack of plot momentum, dwindling enthusiasm for 5th Edition as a system and just the desire to do something else – especially as I had a large amount of player turnover in this game disrupting a lot of my early plans. Now that I have stabilized my group and moved along a bit, I’ve decided that while I’ve enjoyed 5E the problems with pacing have become too difficult for the biweekly game. This is especially compounded by the play time available being around ~3 hours or so, especially when one combat of the style I enjoy is taking over 2/3 of that time easily.
Essentially with my enthusiasm low and the plot progressing at a snails pace, even with my attempt to pick it up a notch or two, I made the decision to end the game. So as well as being a finale to Curse of the Black Pearls, this play report will also intersperse my thoughts on why the game was ending and the way I chose to do so from the players adventures at level 7 to the power leveled final battle at level 14. In a subsequent post, I’ll talk about why you should choose to prematurely end a game and how to either avoid doing so, or if you feel you can’t avoid it, how to go about doing so in a fair way to everyone.
But most important of all: To you as the DM.
Curse of the Black Pearls: Heist at the Museum of Natural and Magical Antiquities
The first place that my players decided to journey to was the pearl hidden within the Museum of Natural and Magical Antiquities within the city of Sharn in Breland. Now in terms of fantasy cities that I have a particular soft spot for, Sharn is by and large right at the very top of my list. Sharn is a great place to set an adventure because it offers deep, cavernous dungeons through the cogs, potential intrigue and spy vs. spy type adventuring in its politics and most importantly, a lot of vertical space as the city is basically constructed out of massive extremely high towers. A part of the city even floats well above everything else! This means you can take advantage of many of the spells that allow players to fly, Eberron’s magical technology such as small airships and produce some particularly dramatic chase scenes. In essence when I added this adventure to the game I had this amazing piece of art in mind:
Of course the players natural hope was that they could explain the situation to the people at the museum and perhaps get the pearl without a fight. Naturally, I had other plans for them.
The first and most important thing to do, even before the players arrived at Sharn, was to give them an idea of what was starting to happen in the seas around the world. As they sailed from the Lhazaar principalities towards Sharn, I decided to describe the series of buoys and other warnings put around the waters the Cyrean navy used to command. These warnings basically ward off ships from crossing too close to the old territorial waters of this nation because ferocious monstrous constructs called Steel Krakens still patrol it. Anything that doesn’t have the right signalling flags or markings is frequently attacked by the creatures, who don’t have any leaders to give them new instructions anymore. Given how devastating krakens are to ships, it’s a good idea to avoid these things whenever the players can.
Additionally as they sailed through here I wanted to emphasize that things under the water were going just as poorly as some of the battles above it. At one point soft thuds on the hull of the ship indicated that the players were sailing through some kind of debris. Fearing it to be ships, they were surprised to find it was actually large numbers of bloated bodies of Sahuagin, Merfolk, Merrow and other aquatic races. Evidently a terrible battle had been fought here and the bloated dead had simply floated up to the surface, where they were now nothing more than carrion for lurking sharks or seagulls to peck at.
Of course there wasn’t a lot the PCs were going to be able to do about this currently, but I did want to hint at potential future things to come and indicate that the conflict was a lot more than some skirmishes between pirates. It wasn’t long after they sailed past the battle that a group of Sahuagin approached their ship and indicated they would like to come on board. So if you’re wondering here, in Eberron it’s not uncommon for civilized races or ships to have quite peaceful interactions with Sahuagin. The Sahuagin have learned that their abilities to navigate dangerous waters and scout ahead for ships can be extremely profitable. As a result it’s not uncommon to see Sahuagin on the various nations merchant ships or warships, helping to guide them through rough seas or difficult reefs. Naturally this is what the Sahuagin were interested in, which the leader explained once the players let him on board. There was a war going on in these seas after all and the PCs could use their guidance to avoid the worst of it on their way to Sharn… if they paid up of course.
Paying the Sahuagin was of course sensible and allowed them to find out more about what was going on, where a coalition of undersea races were fighting a tyrannical kraken. The Kraken had recently started its aggression after a strange woman whose ship bore a red spiraling symbol (which the PCs immediately recognized as being Talitha’s flagship) had given it some strange artifact. Now the seas were at war and ships were being sunk by either side of the conflict, most notably for resources or out of the krakens desire to gather slaves. The Sahuagin commented on how lucky the PCs were to have run into them instead of something much worse. After some thought, the PCs readily paid the Sahuagin their asking price and were safely led to Dagger Bay outside of Sharn without incident.
Stopping for a moment, it’s important to discuss the purpose of such scenes where there isn’t a lot of risk to the PCs and the goal was not to bring forth much in the way of roleplaying or the threat of an encounter. “Worldbuilding” is a very important part of a roleplaying game and setting the scene for how things outside of the players actions work can be very useful. One of the greatest things about the excellent setting of Eberron is the way it uses races like the Sahuagin, which in other settings are typically only barbaric enemies who are only around to attack or otherwise oppose PCs. In Eberron the Sahuagin becoming used to helping ships cross between Khorvaire and Xen’drik is actually a really interesting use of a traditionally “evil” race. It lets you draw in a new set of NPCs and really build up how Eberron isn’t a typical fantasy setting.
Once in Sharn, I described the city and used a visual image – again another inspiring piece of art that I absolutely adore – to illustrate what it looked like to the players.
Seriously, how absolutely perfect is that image for conveying how fantastic, unique and interesting Sharn is as a city? Art like this, as I’ve written about in the past, can be one of the most effective playing aids you can get for your players or just to inspire yourself for your game. Anyway with my gushing about this fantastic piece of art out of the way, I asked my players what they were doing and sure enough, they began asking around about the Museum, where it was and about Sharn.
So before continuing it’s worth noting that the pearl in Sharn has been quite busy. Artifacts of great evil rarely just sit around doing nothing, so this one has been busily poisoning the minds of the people who are trying to study it and that work in the museum. In this particular case, I decided as well to hint at the true power of the pearls: Each one actually has a powerful fiend bound within it and their own agenda. Naturally, the creature that was within this pearl was Yan-C-Bin, a tremendously powerful demonic prince of air (who was inspired by the excellent Princes of the Apocalypse adventure). This fit well with Sharn as well, as Sharn exists in the state it does due to its close connections to the elemental plane of air – hence the floating towers and such forth. Unfortunately for the PCs, this meant that cultists were everywhere in Sharn and they were constantly on the look out for those seeking the pearls.
While my players were making checks to see what they could learn in Sharn, I silently decided that the point of these checks wasn’t to get the information: I needed them to get that either way (which meant failure wasn’t going to positively advance the game) but instead I chose a different consequence. Each time a player failed a roll or check, potential informants or outright cultists would hear about them asking “questions”. Fail enough times and they might talk to the wrong kind of NPC – one in league with the cult – who would directly rat them out to his superiors and ensure complications for the players visit. Different consequences for failure other than “You don’t learn anything” can be an extremely useful approach to take when you want to keep plot momentum going forward.
Some genuinely dreadful rolls later and the cult got wind (no pun intended) of what the players were trying to accomplish. This ensured that the first sky taxi the characters took was a disguised member of the cult, which added towards an interesting mid air battle as they tried to take the controls from the demented elemental. At the same time, I was also hiding another little secret: The new player entering the game! Awen the Shifter Druid, was the newest player character and promptly entered by changing into a giant eagle and swooping down from her pursuing taxi.
Awen had also been following the cults activity in Sharn and got wind of the other player characters by a similar method to the cult (they weren’t being careful enough basically). Jumping in, she and the other characters fought a reasonably tough battle against one of the enslaved elementals of the cult. Eventually they were able to boot the thing off the taxi, most notably before it could plunge them all to their doom right into the ground. This was a fairly simple combat and didn’t require a map or anything else in particular to go smoothly. Even so, it still took almost an hour to get through and that was certainly something I was beginning to note.
After this battle introductions were in order and the PCs decided to go look at the Museum of Natural and Magical Antiquities for themselves. Awen had found there was something really wrong going on in there, but the position of the museums leaders in Sharn meant that her accusations fell short. The only way to find out what was going on would be to have a good look around and see for themselves. Possibly after hours, but it was worth just looking initially because some of the museum was open to the public during the day (it is still a museum).
Here they were able to see various exhibits, learn the layout of the place and again, I focused largely on roleplaying and worldbuilding for this particular section of the game. Most importantly, they came across an ill tempered Imp who was trapped in a sealed cage within one of the exhibition rooms. A conversation with the imp revealed it knew some secrets about the museum, the cult behind the pearl and most importantly: An important NPC who might be able to get them into the vault. Of course the imp wasn’t going to surrender this information without getting something in return. If they wanted to know, they were going to have to free him from his “exhibit” status at the museum.
This led to an interesting bit of cat and mouse, where some of the characters hid inside of the museum while others waited outside. At night they figured out the patrols of the various guards and then easily avoided them, stealing the imp and making off with him before anyone inside realized. Here they also discovered that the “Guards” were not real guards either, but more of the disguised elementals that they had fought earlier on the sky taxi. Getting through to the inner vault seemed to be difficult as well, because all of the doors were firmly warded and the wards would inflict heavy damage on anyone who wasn’t a member of the cult walking through them.
With this knowledge in mind, the players took the imp to his “friend” in the cogs of the city: Tybalt. This half-elven man was unusual in that he had a semi-bionic arm (actually a repurposed warforged limb) and a very strange rifle like weapon. After learning that the PCs were there to help, he confessed that he had seen the inside of the vault and that he definitely had a plan for getting in. He’d need help though and what he really wanted was some revenge. A raid on the place went bad and he lost some friends in there, not to mention his arm. Robbing the place seemed to be the perfect payback and if it stops a cults of demon worshipers while they were at it? All the better.
In order to do so though, the players would need to get themselves marked by the magical ink and tattoos that the cult use to bypass their wards. This seemed like a simple task, but it soon became complicated when the players arrived at the tattoo artist – a personal friend of Awen at that. The shop had been turned over and the artist, Gor, had been injured but not killed by someone. He quickly informed the PCs that someone had hit their shop with a group of “elemental” creatures, with the guy in question being a scarred looking Dragonborn. Most importantly they had only left a short while ago, so there was every chance the players could catch up with them!
So remember that first image I posted up there with the battle on the small flying ship, with gnolls on the platform and similar? That was basically the inspiration for the subsequent chase scene through the different towers of Sharn:
Here the PCs on Tybalts taxi began chasing down the unknown dragonborn cultist’s ship, moving between narrow towers, over sky gardens and similar. Meanwhile a group of gnolls on floating platforms harried the party and generally tried to slow them down. This battle was pretty complex, involving an overall map of the city and the different towers on the right, the ship the PCs were on to the left and a coaster that is substituting for the players riding on the magic carpet above. Tracking all of this are the tiny dice visible on the right map, which show the general locations of the two ships, where the gnolls are and so forth.
This battle proceeded very well, with the PCs eventually jumping onto the other ship to engage the dragonborn thief who took the ink. Several spills, critical hits and the gnolls being sent plummeting to the streets below later and they had the ink in question. Only another ship full of elementals, evidently sent to reinforce the batte was incoming. Fortunately Reebu had a good idea to steer the ship into the approaching enemies and then bail off using dimension door at the last moment. This ensured that the fight was cut short and that there weren’t any enemies surviving the battle to tell of what happened.
But while this had been fun and I think the encounter worked, I left feeling that we hadn’t managed to get the plot development I needed to get through. Most significantly, while I wanted to increase the pace, doing so and still making combats engaging – while not taking a long timer – was proving to be an increasingly difficult challenge. It was looking very much like I was going to have to make a choice: Did I take plot pacing and regularly advancing, or did I take interesting and engaging combats with the complexity of this sky battle?
What to do when you’re not feeling a campaign anymore?
After that session I had major doubts that we could do the next section of the campaign, which involved raiding the vault itself and then navigating the deadly traps within the next session. Even though I had aimed to and tried to design encounters/adventures to end in two 3 hour sessions, we just weren’t getting through enough actual plot/advancement in the time given. Some of this time lost can be put down to thing like a distinct lack of electronic aids, like convenient spell lists or 4Es character builder derived power cards. Looking up abilities in the book and most notably, looking up spells, absorbed a fair amount of time each session.
But possibly the biggest reason why I noticed the game distinctly slowing down was the mechanics behind how monsters (and PCs) generally did more damage. Most things in 5E tend to roll more dice at higher levels, as opposed to getting more base damage or similar. Most creatures for example multi-attack, but the individual attacks are not overly much stronger than lower level monsters. This means you do a lot more rolling, but only if you hit do you start noticing much of an affect on anything. Rolling dice lots is fun, but then there is how slow it becomes when everyone needs to work out if it hits (and the various totals), the damage of each attack and then anything else players may add on after the fact (two players who were paladins deciding if they would smite or not for example).
On my side I often had monsters that could attack 2-3 times, but unless I deliberately boosted their damage or made the individual attacks more relevant, it was hard to make a single attack or so really count for much. So a lot of things became a simple weight of numbers game, just throwing as many dice at PCs as possible to try to hurt them. Naturally the more dice rolling per turn, the slower and slower combats were becoming – especially when you’re trying to work out the result of an 6d6 or 8d6 damage spell (for example) on top of that.
As well as this, the lack of released game aids for map and miniatures play was also getting to me. 4E had a lot of problems, but one thing it did was really give a lot of great play aids for DMs. All of the adventures published in 4E had some great maps, which even if I didn’t want to run the adventure it was from could be used in a wide variety of settings. Similarly, I’ve had to repurpose gamma world tokens for monsters because I don’t have a lot of left-over tokens anymore. Something that with the essentials monster vaults you got a great selection of – as well as some truly terrific monsters as well.
On this blog you’ve probably noticed the hand drawn maps I tend to use, which while I enjoy making take an enormous amount of my time to construct. In fact general design for this campaign was taking me a lot more than my Shadowrun or Trail of Cthulhu games: About 3 hours of preparation for every 1 I would put into those two systems. A lot of that was just building creatures or adjusting things to be tactically interesting, or plain filling gaps where there didn’t seem to be relevant creatures. For example, humanoid enemies tend to cap at a very low challenge rating in 5E, because the expectation is that you use them for long periods of time via “Bounded Accuracy”.
This means to get any kind of interesting threat out of them, you need to use large numbers – the above encounter had around 8 gnolls – but more creatures, equals more rolling and then more time taken per turn (at least until they are hopefully picked off by the PCs). My answer to this problem was to generally create creatures that were more level appropriate instead, such as named NPCs or similar. Unfortunately it’s a time sink either way: Out of game to create new monsters to fill these roles or in game through pure rolling. The gnolls were an effective speedbump, but the damage they did was extremely minor at best outside of a couple of very lucky critical hits.
The pace of the game either needed to be sped up, most notably by cutting down combats to be much less complex than I was interested in running or I needed to accept that an adventure could only have one large fight (in order to get through enough material in two sessions). The problem with only having one large battle per adventure becomes obvious to anyone who knows what spellcasters can do with free reign to use magic as they liked. Additionally after high player turn over in this campaign, plus many genuine questions over the time requirements and enjoyment I had for Dungeons and Dragons, I made a tough decision.
The dagger of Damocles fell and I chose to end the campaign early, where I posted the following to my games facebook organizing group:
Alright, this has been coming for a while now and I want to talk to you all about how I feel things have been going. Firstly, while I love this campaign and such, after deriving and fiddling with the rules for so long I’ve made a shambling hybrid of different things. While it works in some ways, it ultimately doesn’t work in many of the core ways that I would like it to. In particular, making interesting encounters that threaten your characters, without being overwhelming and yet don’t take the entire session has been a problem for a while.
This is partly a system thing, where actions take a while to resolve and resolutions are complex. So for something that delivers the kind of narrative interest/experience in an encounter I need to “over design” things quite a lot. Crucially, this means my time is largely spent number crunching to get things right – something that the system fails to do with the incredibly broken CR system. For example, you have killed things that were “ludicrous encounters”, while simultaneously having a really difficult time with the odd monster that is half the parties CR.
Ultimately, it is becoming a bit difficult to continue figuring out a way to get what I want out of the system combat wise, while not slowing the pacing to a complete halt. We actually played for slightly longer than the regular session at the weekend, yet were still only able to get through one encounter. However, the kind of encounter I’m interested in has this kind of pace and design, but 5E as a system doesn’t really support it well inherently.
Since starting in November last year – even with a gap over December – I’ve only managed to have a pace (including missing sessions) that has been about 1 level every 3 months just about. Considering I planned this to go to 20 or so, that means we’d be done in several years time and I am not that enthused! I thought I could make things move a bit faster by trying to mimic the two act structure of Shadowrun or Trail of Cthulhu, but this hasn’t worked out very well either.
The issues with pacing, appropriately making interesting encounters and the amount of work it requires to make them interesting (even with only a session every ~2 weeks or so) are a big problem. I easily spend almost 3x the amount of out of game time designing encounters for this than I do for Shadowrun and Trail of Cthulhu combined.
So, I am at a point now where I think it’s time I finally just admitted it: I just don’t feel like 5E DnD is fitting the style of game I want and while I’m proud of some of these encounters and really love the characters you’ve added to it, the workload and lack of DM tools to make life easier are too significant drawbacks. So, I am going to propose some solutions:
A) I can try to just drink a cup of concrete and harden up, moving forward just to see if this is a temporary feeling or something. Ultimately, I don’t think this is going to work out well. This is the “status quo” option and will ultimately most likely spectacularly explode.
B) We can power level to a point of your choosing in the following manner, either: Level 14 (Battle of Five Towers), which was the first natural end point for the game or alternatively level 20 (Literally stopping Demogorgon in the underwater “Citadel of Fnghaui”)
This will allow you to have some high level shenanigans, while also not just obliterating the campaign without an end (which just sucks for everyone involved). I would actually recommend the level 14 option here as opposed to the level 20 one, because it will actually be much less confusing and probably more fun. I will leave you to decide on this option though!
After this, I am more than happy to run another game in a different system. The system I’m proposing is Night’s Black Agents, which is a fantastic GUMSHOE based game of super spies versus a seedy conspiracy of vampires who – until recently – silently control the world. I’ve already had several highly positive experiences with this system and I think everyone would really enjoy this. Originally this campaign was going to be used for another group, but they have become enamored with Star Wars or something, so have agreed to go cheating on GUMSHOE.
This is of course a democracy and not a dictatorship led by a mad ruler obsessed with the whims of dice. So your input, feedback and thoughts – including suggestions of possible other systems – is more than welcome. If you don’t want to play anything that isn’t DnD, that’s also perfectly fine and we can discuss what might happen there as well. I do believe if you decide to stay and try Night’s Black Agents, you are going to discover a really awesome eperience with some great twists and turns.
Most importantly, NBA is a game where I am fully confident I can get 3 hours of excellent plot advancement and game momentum every time we play – so that we can move forwards on a regular basis. Again though, this is a democracy and not a dictatorship, your input and thoughts matter a lot. Let me know what you think and how you feel! It’s not just my game, it’s also your game as well.
This was a big moment for me after posting the above, because I wasn’t really sure how my players would feel about it. Nobody likes to feel like a game they invested time into – by coming each session and such – isn’t going to see a proper full telling of the story or at least a fair resolution. Likewise, would everyone be keen to do something that wasn’t Dungeons and Dragons? One of the problems I and others I know have experienced, is if your players will go with you on things like Night’s Black Agents or [insert other system here]. Thankfully my players are awesome and while some were disappointed DnD was ending, everyone understood my reasoning for it and were more than happy to go along with my plans for Night’s Black Agents.
Of course that I was able to change this wasn’t luck, but rather because communication is key. Most players are very understanding of the work and effort required to DM a game for a long period of time. If you are struggling to continue running something due to time, enthusiasm or any other reason your best thing to do is talk to your players. They might even be feeling similar to how you do! In this case it showed some players weren’t that enthused with the general way DnD played either and were keen to move to something else. Especially a game that had a stronger emphasis on roleplaying and mechanics designed for faster resolutions (Combat in particular).
After some debate, we went with leveling up the characters to level 14 and making the next session the finale of Cure of the Black Pearls. I felt 14 would work better because it was easier to level players to it, did not involve the most complicated spells in the game and was overall adding the least complexity to the game.
The Finale: Battle of the Risen City
For the end of the game I used material I had already written, bringing back the blue dragon from the very start of the game for the first half. Then a battle with Talitha, who had 3 of the pearls, inside the inner chamber attempting to bring through Demogorgons army into the world of Eberron. I spent some time contextualizing for my players what was going on, before we got started with a massive blue dragon coming down to block their way into the summoning chamber. The first battle went by quickly enough, with even a single adult blue dragon being torn down particularly quickly by the player characters. Several very high damaging crits after fishing with multiple attacks using advantage tends to do that! Even so, the Dragon had enough wits and legendary actions to be able to take flight, plunging away into the distance on about 1/4 of his remaining HP.
Maybe one day in future I’ll bring him back, but for now the PCs had to keep advancing onwards and into the final chamber where Talitha was almost about to complete her mad plan. After a small exchange of threats, Talitha and her most loyal lieutenants charged forwards to attack the PCs!
Although I simplified the battle a lot, simply because I wanted to make sure I stuck to time, this still ended up being pretty satisfying. Talitha took out many of the front line PCs – largely due to her strange demonic abilities and the heavy poison damage inflicted by her weapons. The fact Awen turned into an elemental, which is entirely immune to poison, was probably the main reason the PCs front line didn’t collapse. Due to being poison immune the vast majority of Talitha’s damage was absorbed easily and so she was able to withstand a brutal assault. This also meant the PCs could get an opening to get past and interfere with the Pearls, delaying the ability of the demons to get through long enough to finish off Talitha.
With Talitha sucked through the portal as the final blow was struck, the entire place began to collapse and the PCs fled before they were dragged beneath the waves with the ancient city. Although it had been a sudden end, it was still a tough fight and so was still satisfying for the players to win the campaign. Most importantly, they had access to the Pearls and their characters decision as to what to do with them could be useful for a future game (especially if I ever return to Dungeons and Dragons in future).
But most importantly for me, I had decided to give the campaign a proper end and move onto something else with this group of players. While it didn’t work out the way I was hoping it would, I felt it was better to do this than to put myself in a position where I just didn’t want to keep running the game anymore. Overall this was the right decision to make and everyone enjoyed seeing some kind of resolution – by far the worst kind is the game just stops and nobody has any closure!
A subsequent post will deal more with the individual ideas of “Should you keep running a game you are no longer enjoying?”, with advice on both how to try to improve the situation, avoid DM burnout or just options you have on ending the game (and starting a new one). I hope you have enjoyed the write ups on Curse of the Black Pearls, noting that I will still be running the odd game of Dungeons and Dragons in the future! I just don’t plan to commit to any long term games in it for a while now.