Hello my Friend the Reader! It is I, GM Jim, glad to be back after a few weeks hiatus. Hope you missed me! If not, fine. I didn’t miss you. Not a bit. Well maybe a little. Fine I missed you a lot. Are you happy now?! Gosh…
Anyway. Today I’d like talk about the “gaiden” (Japanese for “side story”). Specifically, the one I ran for my group last weekend. One of my players couldn’t make it, and so I seized the opportunity to present a little expositional adventure to my players. After a brief description of the session, I’ll talk about some of the takeaways I… well… took away from it.
The players, all new heroes, were traveling from the Far East to the city of Mizrah, a once great city in the east of the Steppes. This city had been built on the Boraz River, and occupied both banks, but over time, the west bank had been abandoned. By the time the players arrived, the city was mostly abandoned, save for the citadel, a walled portion in the center of the city.
Making their way into the citadel, the players found the place under siege by a barbarian tribe, the warriors of which were frenzied berserkers. The heroes fought their way to a small gate and were granted access to the citadel after guards on the wall witnessed them slay a large group of barbarians. They were then brought before the leadership, who asked for their help (naturally).
They agreed, and were given the task of reclaiming the bridge connecting the two banks. The barbarians had seized it a few days before and were using it to stage a strike into the citadel. The heroes led an assault on the bridge and managed to reclaim it for the Mizrans. They were then tasked with finding and slaying the leader of the tribe, who seemed to be using dark magic to drive his warriors into a frenzy. They took stock and prepared for the adventure the next day.
This is where we stopped. Overall, the session went remarkably well. The players had a lot of fun, and I had a good time too, since most of it was improvised.
There were two things in particular that this session brought to mind. One was large combats. I mean full-scale battles, not just lots of enemies, but lots of allies too. Like hundreds. The other thing this session made me consider was the merits of the “gaiden”, or “side-story”.
First: battles. Battles in D&D are often a daunting prospect for DMs. How exactly should a DM handle such a large combat? Should players have direct control of their forces? Should they only have one attack a turn? Is the turn mechanic even worth using in such a situation? These and many other questions often keep DMs from engaging in the large battle scenario.
Well I’m here to tell you that that is a mistake. Large battles are not only important from a story perspective (where would The Two Towers be without the Battle of Helm’s Deep?), but they are also a lot of fun! Players get to take a break from the traditional battle mechanics, and instead get to indulge in tactical planning and strategy. They get to feel the rush (yes, the rush) of commanding an army! You would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying feeling for a player than standing on a field of battle after a hard fought victory, and hearing the cheers of the soldiers resounding about them!
There are quite a few mechanics that need to be worked out ahead of time, but I think you will be surprised at how little you actually have to do to run a good battle. All I did for mine was to roll for the wings of the battlefield, on either side. Then I allowed the players to either “lead”, move about the battlefield, or engage in direct combat. Leading their soldiers allowed their “wing” to advance further, engaging in direct combat created spikes in the line, and moving about obviously moved them about. Easy peasy!
One thing you will want to consider is the kind of players you have. In my case I had one knight, and two stealthy characters. Rather than forcing them all to lead soldiers in the front line, I came up with special objectives for the other two. Ballistae had to be captured and turned on the enemy. The end of the bridge had to be secured, cutting off enemy reinforcements, and enemy commanders had to be cut down. Thus, all my players had something important to do, and each felt that they deserved to share in the victory.
As long as you are even half decent at improvising (and what GM isn’t?) you should be able to run a fun and exciting battle for your players. I guarantee that they will appreciate a break from the traditional style of combat and your story will get a shot in the arm. If you pull it off, they will be talking about it years down the road. And after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
I’d like to turn now to the idea of the side-story. If you are pressed for time, and only get to play every so often, then I understand not trying this out. But if you do have an extra session here or there, or if a player can’t make a scheduled meeting, give the gaiden a try! Seriously! It will do great things for your group!
One of the things it does for your group is allow each player to try new character concepts without committing to a long term character build. One of my players (Matt) always plays clerics, Paladins, fighters, basically anything that can wear armor and wield maces. This time, however, he tried an arcane trickster. He loved playing it, but realized he really did prefer the armored approach. The gaiden provided him with the opportunity to try this out while still adding to the overall content of your world.
And this is where the side-story really brings something great to the group: lore. A side-story helps flesh out the world by highlighting to your players that there is a lot going on in the world, not all of which directly involves the main characters. It gives you opportunities to experience locations and events which the main characters maybe only hear of in passing, or see from a distance.
Further, the side-story, much like the prologue, can help flesh out the main story to your players. Maybe their characters will never know why the main villain betrayed his people and poisoned his King, leaving the city in ruins. Maybe they only know that he is mad, and needs to die. The side story can flesh out the “why” as well as the “that” by providing context. Maybe the side-story happens before the main story, and involves the players finding the Ring of Wee Jas, and bringing it back to the villain, which drives him mad. Maybe they cause (indirectly or directly) the main problem their characters are trying to fix!
Finally, and this is always important, the side-story allows players to hear about themselves and their own exploits. Players always love this! It gives them the sense that they have really interacted with the world and left a lasting mark. Which should be true, anyway!
Anyway, I hope this has been entertaining at least. Let me know how you deal with battles! Do you allow your players to fight in them? If so, how do you work out the details? And also let me know what you think of side-stories. Does it sound like something you might try? Have you ever done it in the past? How did it go for you?
That’s it for now! As always, happy gaming and remember:
Always Split the Party!