Last week I ran the second session of Howlmark for my Monday night party. Things went sideways rather quick, which is fine because going sideways is kinda the point of D&D.
After running a session for the first time I concluded that DM’ing is a lot like writing fiction on the fly. In fact, that is what DM’ing is—but it’s also more. See, D&D is really writing collaborative fiction on the fly. The players decide where they want to go and what they want to do, and I have to facilitate their travels through this sandbox we call a world. It’s a lot of fun, particularly when the characters do something unexpected that forces me to create new mechanics to deal with the story we all wrote.
Here’s a case in point.
Howlmark is, as I’ve written in the past, based on Hallmark Movie tropes. The adventure is sappy, the plot predictable, and absurdity abounds everywhere. This is all by design. The adventure is meant to introduce new players to the concept of role-playing, using tropes they might understand, and then letting them loose once they gain their footing. This is, indeed, how my Friday night neighbors group got through the adventure.
My Monday night group, however, are not new players. So when I drop a absurd line as a one-off joke, they grasp on to it and start writing their own stories. Last week this was triggered by the name of the local tavern, The Pickled Cookie. When I was developing Howlmark I determined that a pickled cookie is a dwarvish baked good. The proprietor obtained a jar of these things and thought they sounded exotic, which led him to use the name for his business. He’s had this jar for as long as he’s run the tavern, and anyone who eats a pickled cookie gets a free night of lodging. And yet, I pointed out, the jar has never been opened.
As soon as I said that the party’s rogue declared, “Well you know what’s got to happen, then, right?”
He ordered one. In fact, he ordered two. He was sitting next to the Dwarf Paladin and, hearing it was a dwarvish delicacy, took the opportunity to order him a treat 1.
This forced me to think up something to deal with this unexpected happenstance. Eating a pickled cookie had never dawned on me as being a thing anyone would want to do. To me, it was a one-off joke to explain the strange name of the tavern. To the players, it was something to be experienced. So, in the moment, I came up with this idea—if they ate the cookie they’d have to make a constitution saving throw. If they failed the throw they’d take 1 HP of necrotic damage. Why necrotic? It seemed like the most absurd type of damage you could suffer while eating something.
Well, the rogue decided to have some fun and pretended to eat the cookie. Even better, he rolled really well. There were crumbs on his lips and everything. The paladin, suspicious of his boisterous friend, tried to figure out how the rogue pulled of his trick.
He failed his perception roll, so he had to eat the cookie in order to save face. After which he failed the saving throw and took the 1 HP of necrotic damage! Everyone laughed, because it was insane. But that wasn’t the end of the cookie saga. Why? Because the rogue still had a pickled cookie in his pack.
This opened up a new opportunity. I got to dream up why dwarves had created a cookie that could cause necrotic damage. I mean, there had to be some benefits to the cookies if people were willing to eat something which could hurt them 2. This got my brain working, and I determined that pickled cookies were a foodstuff the dwarves of the mountains used to eat when they were desperate for an edge in mining 3. The cookies do, indeed, have some pretty nice benefits. The problem is, those who eat them are just as likely to suffer a debilitating effect for a day. Once the dwarves gained their independence the fear which caused miners to seek out the cookies subsided, and over the last century they’ve become rather rare. The demand has dropped so much there are few dwarves left in the world who know how to make them any more.
With this backstory in hand, I created a roll table for cookie side-effects 4, and then added an item in my FoundryVTT world which would consume the cookie on use and call for the consumer to make a dc12 constitution saving throw. And that item is now in the rogue’s inventory.
This all happened because my players decided to play around with something I considered a one-off joke. It’s led to me having to develop dwarvish culture and history for this world, as well as the birth of a new unpredictable magic item which can trigger some crazy impacts on the game.
Collaborative fiction at its finest.