Welcome back to another installment of Tabletop Takeaways! This is a series of reflective articles about lessons I’ve learned from my vantage point in the Gamemaster (GM) chair. Each article, I’ll set the stage and then explain my main takeaway from the session, to hopefully help give you some tips to use at your tables!
Every week I’ll reference a specific session that I summarize after we play. You can find that article over at origamigoblin.com, but I’ll link the articles so you have a point of reference. Either way, all of our recaps are over there, as we play through Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords campaign.
As always, there may be some slight Runelords spoilers below, so tread lightly!
We’re Going to See the Dwarves!
In our 151st session of the campaign, which was only a few weeks ago, the party seemed to have a path laid before them. This is at the start of the final book in the adventure path, so things are really heating up as they prepare themselves for the endgame. Without giving too much away, they’re looking for a hidden location, but still need a bit more information about the specifics.
So, the session is going how I expected, with the party checking up on a couple leads that were still lingering. Both of these leads were old haunts: conducting a little research at an expansive library, and following up with a unique acquaintance in Sandpoint.
As a GM, I completely expected them to take advantage of their resources in this way. However, every table LOVES a handout. You give your players a physical piece of paper and they’ll marvel over it for the rest of the session.
What that also means, however, is that they’re going to run through it with a fine-toothed comb and latch onto the unexpected. If you want to lay some bread crumbs with a handout, make sure you place some proper nouns in there – locations, people, artifacts. Basically, anything that stands out is going to be a red flag for the party to investigate.
That’s where my mistake comes in. Actually, it’s not fair to qualify it as a mistake, as I didn’t mess up anything. However, I didn’t expect the party to become fixated by one particular proper noun: Janderhoff.
In case you didn’t know, Janderhoff is a dwarven Sky-Citadel. They are incredibly cool and, honestly, they warrant their own Golarion lore post in the future.
Now, the party actually had an item to return to Janderhoff that they had found many sessions earlier: the Lost Crown of the Pallgreaves clan. I didn’t remember this at all, but the party keeps meticulous notes so when they saw Janderhoff they immediately made a connection that this was their next stop.
So here I am, with 45 minutes left in the session, with my players discussing the possibility of going to Janderhoff.
Luckily (or unluckily), we always play remotely, so whenever this happens, I usually have time to Google things to give me enough content to piece something tangible together for the players. In this case, there isn’t a whole lot of information on the PathfinderWiki, but there are enough tidbits that allowed me to make it to the end of the session.
What I did, was think about the goals of the players, and how I could help them accomplish those goals. At first glance, it seems like developing out an entire city would be impossibly to do in a matter of minutes.
But that’s the thing – you don’t need to make the entire city! You just need to make enough to give the players the illusion that the entire city is actually prepared for them.
So what did the players need to do here?
- Return the Crown to the Pallgreaves clan
- Follow-up on the lead from the note, inquiring about a pair of dwarven brothers
- Gather any additional information about the hidden location they’re searching for
First thing’s first, I needed to know what Janderhoff looked like, in order to give a good description that would ground the players in the new location. This was easy enough to do with an image search, but also the Wiki article gave me enough to run with:
In fact, that entire paragraph from the Wiki tells me about the interconnected tunnels and how the entire thing is underground. As I described the journey through the tunnels, I emphasized the dangers of digging too deep and potentially reaching the Darklands. Cue the players quoting everything about Moria from Lord of the Rings.
I had the dwarven guards lead them through the passages until they got to the structure that housed the Pallgreaves clan. The crown was found on a long stairway in the wilderness. This led to me imagining a bunch of stairs in a massive underground cavern, which led to the Pallgreaves being known for their stair-construction skills.
Later, the High Oligarch of the Pallgreaves helped give more information about point number 2, and directed them to an investor in the project. At the end of the day, they gained a little bit of information, and a reward for bringing the crown back to the dwarves.
My main point here is about handling improvisation at your table. All you really need are a few specific details to set the stage, and you can work from there. If you need more time, just do what I did and setup some conversations that will allow you to do a bit more on-the-fly research.
I stopped the players at the Janderhoff gate (1), conversed with them on their way to the Pallgreaves clan (2), and then had in their discussion with the High Oligarch (3). This gave me three points of ‘breathing room’, where I could let the party direct the conversation, and I could plot out the next stage.
Give yourself the breathing room you need with stop-gaps like these. If push comes to shove, just ask the players to give you five minutes to take a break and prepare something. As a GM, you have a lot on your plate and your players should understand that you’re doing it so y’all can have the best experience.
Here are all of the installments I’ve written thus far:
- Shadow of a Doubt – How to deal with rules mistakes