A principal role of the dungeon master is to be an information dispenser - to feed the players stuff they can use to make decisions and exercise agency in the setting. Most of the time that's going to come from narrative descriptions during exploration. From time to time I'll put very brief "cut scenes" into my game when I want the players to know something their characters don't know - like foreshadowing. I suppose it's not a very old school technique but I use it when there are interesting opposition characters that won't get a lot of screen time (before they die) and it makes their deaths more memorable. Face it, module writers spend lots of time regaling the reader with their villain's backstories and plans, the players show up and are "I waste him with my crossbow." The cut scenes let you get a little more value from those villains. We're going to cover one of those situations tonight.
Several game sessions ago, the players left Hommlet with horses and carriages, camping and fishing gear, and canoes, and made a big show (in Hommlet) of making it seem they were going fishing - they said they'd be heading to the Nulb area to camp near the Imeryds Run, the river that flows out of the Gnarley Woods and through Nulb.
One of the first cut scenes - a 30 second blurb at the end of one of the game sessions a while ago - involved a mysterious hook nosed stranger, tall and cloaked, riding into Nulb and sauntering through the bat wing doors of the Waterside Hostel. Mr Hook-nose sidled up to the bar and slipped some coins to the bartender, Dick Rentsch, for a whiskey and a question. "Howdy, Dick, it's been a minute. My duties have been keeping me away. By chance have you seen a group of 'fishermen' come through town with wagons and canoes?"
A future cut scene involved Hook Nose hiring a group of disreputable Nulbian brigands, led by a hard luck mercenary captain (Captain Stephen), and another involved the captain and his motley crew of cutthroats setting out along the local roadways looking for Hook Nose's missing fishermen - their searches were fruitless.
Not sure if anyone else does stuff like that, I admit it's idiosyncratic. But it give the players an ominous sense there are villains and NPC's out there moving against them without it being directly actionable. Once in a while they'll kill a guy and be like, "oh man, you know who that actually was, it was the stupid priest plotting against us all this time. I wasted him with my crossbow. Bwah hah hah…"
Last game session saw the pay off related to one of these little side plots. The players figured out which characters and NPCs were going on the adventure and set out again for the dungeon. They canoed across the Imeryds Run and made their way out of the Gnarley Woods north towards the temple. The two rangers in the group noticed a thin line of smoke across the river, looking west - on the same side of the river as the player's encampment. Trouble.
The elven ranger, Glyndal, is in possession of an elven cloak and is very hard to detect in the wilds. He crept through the rushes at the river's edge to spy on the other side. A dozen or so grubby brigands were setting up a small camp on the far side. A few officers on horseback sauntered around the camp… the commander nudged his horse down the waterline for a drink. "I do like to be out in the field on maneuvers - reminds me of my time in the army", he said with a drawl.
The players decided to bail on the dungeon excursion, went back to the forest to their canoes, and prepared the camp for a possible attack. They didn't set up any traps or ambushes on the approach between the brigands and where the player encampment was down river a few miles… a pair of brigand scouts went into the woods mid-afternoon, and almost got away with the location of the player camp. After killing the scouts, no one in the player group made the connection that forward scouts would be missed at some point, and the brigand commander would move his force into the woods looking for them. So glorious battle was had after all! Huzzah!
No, that's not quite right. The camp's magic user had a full bevvy of sleep spells and the brigands were eliminated with very little bloodshed (or glory). Captain Stephen was surrounded, surrendered, and proved to have little loyalty to the man who hired him, "a dislikable fellow that went by the name of Gremag - though he seemed well known to the folks that ran the Waterside Hostel up in Nulb…"
Although we haven't been back to Hommlet for many game sessions, at least one of the players remembered a Gremag as a proprietor of the trading post - they've sold a lot of dungeon gear back to the traders. Next week will likely see a trip back to Hommlet.
I have to check my Greyhawk calendar - in the T1 module, there's a mention that a high level assassin will travel to the area looking for those who killed the New Master below the moathouse some 5-20 days later, and I know I rolled it and put it out there - it has to be coming up soon. You have to plan all that stuff out on a calendar to be a fair dealer. For instance - I already knew when the brigands of Captain Stephen would come to the player's area and start searching the woods, it was already on the calendar. Had the players chosen to do something different that day (like go back to Hommlet early) maybe the brigands would have come upon a camp filled with a half dozen zero level guards; they'd kill everyone, steal the players loot. The players would get back and cry foul - but no, it was on the calendar that way all along, you just picked a bad day to leave your camp. Sorry. Keeping a good calendar avoids conflicts of interest and illusionism. So with any luck, a certain foul-tempered assassin will be showing up in Hommlet about the same time the players want to settle their unfinished business with Gremag.
Post script - our cast of characters
I have 8 or 9 players on the distribution list, but we typically get 3-4 available for any given game session. This week we had the following folks:
Barfred - L3 paladin of St Cuthbert
Shakti - L3 priestess of a war goddess, wants to build an army to cleanse the world.
Sana - L1 henchman of Shakti, a religious fanatic (fighter)
Glyndal - L3 elven ranger (archer) from the Gnarley Woods.
Kayden - thief - Glyndal's L2 henchman
Elmo - Hommlet's rock star ranger.
Spugnoir - an NPC from Hommlet, he who puts bad guys to sleep.
Jack - a zero-level guy rescued from the dungeon, kitted out like a champion with recovered equipment.
A player typically controls Spugnoir (and we've had guests run him) but ideally the players will out-level him and he can become a henchman. Elmo is getting ready to have other missions that take his attention elsewhere, he's too much of a Mary Sue to let the players keep him around as a crutch - the module advises he may accompany the first several times into the temple dungeons and then recede.
Okay - until next time!