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My GM Journey

I started playing tabletop role-playing games back in 2016. My first touch to the hobby was of course D&D 5th edition, which is still like 80% of my current TTRPG experiences. I then started running 5e games for my friends in mid 2019 and later using different systems. On this page I (try to) recall all of my past campaigns and oneshots, condensing what happened in those games and what was my personal and possibly my players' take away from the game. Sessions will be in chronological order, which I hope results in providing interesting insights and developments about how I think about TTRPGs and GMing.

#1: The Delian Tomb

My first time being the dungeon master was with the help of Matt Colville's prewritten "Delian Tomb" oneshot. The adventure is basically a rescue mission, as a farmer's son is kidnapped by goblins from the farmstead. The farmer organizes multiple search parties and the players are one of those parties. I had 3 friends playing, with one of them being completely new to DnD, but I had showed him how to make a character easily using DNDBeyond on a flight a few weeks before. I had never prepped before and I can't remember which "how to GM" videos I watched, but I don't think it was too many. Probably the short "DM tips" videos with Matt Mercer. So most of my prep was just reading the adventure PDF and writing bullet points about it in a small black notebook. I think I actually jotted down every single goblin with their name, hp, loot and 1 unique characteristic. Then I drew a small version of the dungeon map in my notebook as well. I had written notes for each possible encounter in the PDF, but also 1 homebrew encounter I thought would be interesting if we had the time.

Playing was quite fun! I got to improvise and act out wacky NPCs, such as a cranky carpet merchant, who's cart the players were riding on at the beginning. They are part of a caravan that I had improvised to be going from Maribor to Vizima, thinking that I would be running future campaigns in the Witcher universe. The players had made very self-centered characters so it was easy enough to motivate them with money. There was a small encounter with boars, then they tracked down the goblins in the tomb, dealt with the bugbear and undead, getting the magic sword and rescuing the youngest Mabbet. The kid was of course crying after being kidnapped and caged and at this point the renegade side of the PCs started to come out more as they figured putting him back in the cage and carrying him back to the farm was a "safer" way... little did I know this was only the beginning of their antics. I think they eventually fed him honey to stop the crying, but by that point the PCs had firmly semented themselves as a-holes.

The adventure didn't take long, so I thought it would be fine to run a quick bonus encounter. Once the PCs arrive back at the farmstead, they are met with an eerie silence and grim sight, as the bodies of those that didn't join a search party are now laying in the yard. A bloodthirsty werewolf then emerges from the farmhouse, growling at the players. Of course the barbarian's first instinct is to offer the kid as a distraction/sacrifice, but the werewolf kicks the cage aside for bigger prey.
So they then slay the werewolf to my surprise and impale every single dead body in the farmstead, afraid that they would be infected with lycanthropy. At this point I had the werewolf retract back to its human form, revealing the carpet merchant to be culprit. Then I had the farmer return with his search party, who of course assumed the players caused the massacre, since there was no werewolf in sight and all of the corpses were impaled with the barbarian's greatsword. I think with more careful examination it would have been obvious that a werewolf did it, but I remember the PCs being their rude selves so things escalated.
After the final fight vs the farmer (who was a war veteran), the warlock died of his wounds and the other PCs dumped him the well for some reason. Then they set the whole farm on fire and rode off into the sunset, while the kid (who was the only survivor) watched his home burn.
Except that the fighter (the one playing DnD for the 1st time) said he goes back to the farm and beheads the kid... yeah I was not expecting that. So now the session actually ended, with the 2 surviving PCs riding off to presumably cause more chaos.

The Takeaway

The biggest realization was seeing how easy it was actually to run a game. DMing/GMing had been demystified forever for me now as being something extremely hard and requiring immense dedication. Don't get me wrong - GMing is difficult, but the truth is that the games that you run are as time-consuming and grandiose as you make them. The goal is to have fun, and prepping in a way that satisfies you and your players is enough. In this instance, it was already loads of fun to run the Delian Tomb as is, but adding that twist at the end made it something that I will remember for the rest of my life and probably the players as well.
That said I think the session did drag just little too long because of the werewolf encounter.

#2: The Black Qubo

I had played my second ever character in a 5e oneshot recently during this time. Donny Adello was a tortle rogue who was socially quite inept. I loved this character so much that I decided to run a oneshot where he was the villain.
Two of my players were the same as oneshot #1, but this time the setting was the same as my regular DM's world: Valcia. The players were bounty hunters in the city of Dia and they were tasked to find the mysterious "Black Qubo", who had eluded them for months. The mission started in the guard house where wanted posters were being handed out. I remember that the clerk told the party about the theft of salt bags. Then the players went to scout out the slums where Black Qubo's right hand man was said to be lurking. They asked around, paying some beggars well to get some good info. In the end they are led to the wingman's apartment, surprising their quarry just outside the building. They catch him with a net and mercilessly interrogate him inside his own apartment. I had some of the gang's Kenku infiltrate the house from the roof during the interrogation, but the players were able to dispatch them with some minor wounds.

During the fight though, the wingman fled. Luckily the ranger was able to hunter's mark him before and they were able to track him down, since they the general direction he was. They followed him to the sewers, dealing with some traps and finding the gang's hideout. They beat up the wingman and his cronies, but no sign of Black Qubo. There was however a very peculiar chamber in the hideout: a whirlpool of sewer water with submerged double doors. I can't remember how the party got past the whirlpool, but behind the double doors they found Black Qubo's lair. The lair was a miniature copy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hideout.

When the party initially encounters Donny "Black Qubo" Adello, they have a pleasant chat and find out that Donny is more of a Robin-Hood type character, but all of the thugs that follow him are probably controlled by the wingman. But while searching the place, the party actually found the stolen salt: it was all in a crate that had the body of a dead ratfolk in it. Donny simply said that he just wanted to preserve his master's remains. When the Lawful-Good Hilpert Hilpeä saw this, he shot Donny with a crossbow.
The fight wasn't very long. Donny had the same stats as the Black Viper from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and 3 vs 1 was a cakewalk for the players. Then when the players delivered Donny back to the guard house and collected the bounty. THE END! Or was it? In my notes I had few lines about an encounter where rogues would try to free Black Qubo while he was being escorted back to the guard house, but for the life of me I can't remember if I just skipped that part.

Easter Egg: In our usual game where I was a player, we had just completely derailed the campaign and become outlaws to the city of Dia, so I had a small cameo of our party's wanted posters. I thought I was being very clever :D

The Takeaway

My notes about this oneshot prove that you don't need much to run a fun game: Qubo Prep Notes (coming soon...)
However the notes are quite bad... I had to improvise A LOT and in the end I think the main reason this game was fun was because of the players. There was one player in particular who I think helped me to improvise better. Since he was very engaged and excited about the game, all of the players were discussing possibilities on what to do and where to go. Since the players were actively discussing all the time, I was able to pick up a lot of good idead and incorporated them into the session. If I had run this game for 3 inexperienced roleplayers, I think it could have turned out pretty bad.

In short: Listen to your players as they have great ideas! (and stop making very chaotic prep notes)

#4: Donny's Great Escape

This was the largest table I've had, but I had the same players so I was confident it would be fun. I started prep on an adventure where a group was tasked to free Donny from a prison called "Iron Maiden" and like many of my prep sessions, it started with a drawing. I drew an Alcatraz-like prison from an isometric perspective and that was enough inspiration to begin writing potential scenes.
My notes this time actually made sense - I had X number of scenes that I had jotted down some bullet points for. I had watched some Youtube videos about how to run a prison break and the main takeaway from those was to have very low hp guards, so that the players could feasibly stealth through the prison. However I also wanted a more pressing threat, so I made the warden super powerful and I added a famed mercenary band to patrol the prison.

The adventure itself began with the players meeting a crime boss at the end of a stormy headland. The crime boss gave them the task of busting out Donny Adello for a hefty reward as Donny had information that the boss needed to know. The prison had a "teleportation shield", meaning you could only infiltrate by traveling to the island itself. However the night was ideal as the weather hid the party's rowboat when they infiltrated the prison through it's sewer system.
On the lowest floor, the party quietly neutralized some guards bathing before moving upwards. They sneaked through the cell-section, not interacting with any of the inmates and made it outside of the lowest prison block. The roof of this building was used as a loading bay with multiple crates/barrels stacked about and a couple of airships anchored.
The party witnesses the famed Lazarus Brothers being welcomed to the prison by the warden at the mouth of an airship. The brothers disperse to seemingly patrol different parts of the prison, while the warden retreats to his offices.
The party knows Donny is in the "Tower" - the westernmost prison block, connected only by a rope bridge to the main prison. I think one of them had an invisibility potion or a spell, so they made it to the tower pretty easily. Donny's cell was located at the top of the tower and when the players arrive, they are jumped by 2 of the Lazarus brothers. They manage to defeat them but the alarm is sounded, so they are now on a clock to escape before guards swarm the tower.
There is a pit and a chain that goes through multiple levels, acting as a kind of an elevator. The pit continues through the lowest level as well, so the party takes a risk and decides to try and escape that way. But when they arrive at the lowerst level, Banhart Lazarus, the eldest of the brothers enters the tower. He is a high level fighter/sorcerer and incinerates many of the escaped prisoners. The party manages to defeat him though and enter the cave under the tower. They notice a great chain, as if some large animal has escaped and created a passage down to the depths of the earth. The party escape through this passage with Donny in tow...

The Takeaway

Drawing maps is fun! Other than that, this was probably in my top 3 worst sessions, but that also means I learned a lot.
First of all, I overprepped extensively. Here are some of the things I view as overprep for this oneshot:

  1. I mapped out almost the entire prison with its 4 big buildings... for a ONESHOT.
  2. I statted out the warden, even though it was veeeery unlikely the players would fight him.
  3. I created player characters for each of the 7 Lazarus brothers and their mother. DNDBeyond helped but this was overkill.
  4. I created a more than a one-line long backstory for the Lazarus brothers and the Warden.
  5. I built Banhart and Mother Lazarus as custom minis in Hero Forge
So some of these points might seem like they were not overprep, but for a ONESHOT they certainly were. For example I used a free software (with terrible user experience) to grid out these huge, gray prison blocks. I hated preparing the map, but it felt like I need a gridded map. What I should have done was to just run the whole thing as a point crawl, but my experience as a player had steered me towards more gridded gameplay.
But by far my biggest mistake was trying to create way too much content for a oneshot. The players only fought 3 of the 7 brothers, they only saw 1/4 of the prison and interacted with maybe 10% of it. And even then I had way too many scenes. Stuff actually happened during the first and last hours of the game, and the session ran for at least 5 hours.
I was so tired and fatigued, even though there were only 2 combats that were relatively fast since there was a lot of fluff with sneaking through the prison, which felt empty and boring.

TLDR: The session's premise was fun, but it was a slog. I also made it unfun and disappointing for myself for overprepping.

Filling in games 5-10 later... In short I ran 3 session from Dragon of Icespire Peak and 2 sessions of Cyberpunk Red

#11: The Nights of Novigrad

My first campaign! During this time, Witcher was my jam, so naturally I wanted to run a campaign in its world. All my life I've hated reading books, but after playing Witcher 3 for 100+ hours, I decided to buy the first Witcher book and started wondering why I ever hated reading books!
The Last Wish is still one of my favorite books and very quickly I devoured the entire Witcher Saga, reading half and listening to half on audiobooks. After reading nothing but Witcher, I decided to try another audiobook on a whim: The Lies of Locke Lamora. I was blown away by the book and it quickly became my new favorite and pretty much the reason I wanted to run an urban campaign in DnD.
So I loved the Witcher and about half of my players also liked it, so I pitched a "gangs of Novigrad" campaign.

I'm not going to summarize the whole campaign but here are some highlights:

The Takeaway

So for a first campaign, this was a success in my opinion, but at times it did feel overwhelming. I think my approach to prepping the city wasn't completely wrong, but it could have been much better. I didn't do enough prep all around the city, which led to a more railroady feel for this campaign. I did make a random encounter table for the city too, but I didn't really understand how to use it properly.
I remember two very big lessons: session 8 was not good & the final fight was too easy. I didn't give enough direction during session 8 and the players weren't sure where to go, but the bigger problem was excluding one player completely. I only noticed it at the end, but since the party went to a brothel to gather info, the paladin stayed outside... doing nothing for pretty much the whole session.
As for the Gudrun fight, she didn't have enough abilities. She had a lot of hitpoints, but even with her 3 attacks the players just overwhelmed her when there were no minions to help.

All in all, it was very fun and I will certainly look back at this fondly, but I also want to run a better campaign.

Filling in my Nordgard campaign and oneshots from 2020-2023 later...

#64: Axminster Oneshot

I ran a short tryout with premade characters for my usual 5E group + 2 others. The premise was simple: players were hired to escort a political figure, but due to a malfunction in a stargate, the group is sent to the middle of nowhere, separated from the ship carrying minister Axminster.
They catch 2 different distress signals coming from opposite sides of nearby sectors. They correctly deduce the signal that belonging to Axminster's ship and travel that way. Each sector required a jump that consumed fuel and every sector had some kind of small event or hazard in it. They scan adjacent sectors and jump where there is a bunch of space debris. They scavenge the debris while dodging it, getting a high-level spacesuit from a dead body floating around.
They then jump into a field of gelatinous lifeforms, getting stuck in one and begin to take acid damage to their ships hull. The hull is like 80% destroyed before they manage to boost out of the lifeform and reach Axminster who is assailed by multiple hostile vessels.
The combat is then about shooting up an enemy boarding craft that's holding shock troops inside it, before it boards the minister's ship. The players manage to destroy most of the enemies, saving the minister from getting boarded or destroyed. I then glance at the time and ask if the players wanna wrap it up, which they did.

The Takeaway

Overall I consider this session a failure as the feedback leaned more towards indifferent than positive. One of the players said they'd like more grounded sci-fi like cyberpunk and another simply said that spacefaring adventure wasn't their thing. This is probably true for these players, but I still think that I could have engaged them more for them to not feel this way.
However there were some more concrete problems:
1. Premade characters - this is super convenient and fast, but for ICRPG I think its important to have an attachment to the character. So instead of premades, I think we should have created characters as its super fast in ICRPG.
2. Only a spaceship - in a spaceship, there are more limited options for movement and this was supposed to be a tryout of the system as a whole. Where was the on-planet action?
3. Not linear enough - I had more stuff planned (on-planet action), but space travel took surprisingly and debating which signal to follow took a surprisingly long amount of time. This created problem #2.
4. Difficulty - the gelatinous lifeforms deal 1d10 damage to all enveloped CHUNKS (10hp) of a ship and they got hit with a 7 before getting out. This scared me into nerfing the space battle, which then made it much less interesting and deadly.
5. Forgetting things - I had a more interesting system for repairing spaceships than what was used and I forgot to use it...oops. All repairs were INT rolls, but with my new system the complication is random, meaning different types of repairs require different rolls. This would have gotten the whole crew involved in ship repair instead of the one with the highest INT.
I had run 3 sessions of ICRPG before this and had a blast every time! The semi-procedural system for space exploration was working really well with my work group. However I ran this oneshot for a different group of friends and in my opinion there was a lot that could have made the experience better for the players.

I'm currently running 2 Shadowdark campaigns which are 8 sessions deep in total. Total sessions GM'd: 74