The three figures locked in the cage could not hear the rain from down in the hull of the ship, only the groan of timber and the dull thud of the waves trying to beat their way inside. They were a mangy bunch, all cracked leather and matted hair. The smaller two, a man and a woman, were asleep, but the third, the big brute with the tattoos and bald head was awake. The man’s eyes gleamed in the inconsistent lantern light. His mind was bent on revenge.
Korrin came awake in the darkness. She was a light sleeper naturally, and the constant slow roll of the ship made sleep even more elusive, but it was anxious voices that had awakened her this time, audible even over the driving rain outside. She sat up and smacked her head on something hard and metal. Cursing silently she realized the idiot dwarf above her hadn’t changed out of his armor before going to bed and his hammock had sagged down almost meeting her own. The dwarf shifted and muttered something about “formations” under his breath, but didn’t seem to wake. Korrin silently got up and crept towards the door to the passenger cabin that led out onto the deck.
She was almost to the door before she realized someone was already there.
“What’s going on?” Korrin whispered.
“You move quietly. It’s not often a dragonborn can sneak up on me.” Korrin recognized the voice. It was the bearded elf she’d seen on the docks while they were boarding. “It seems one of the crew spotted a ship running dark off our starboard bow.”
“Without lights? Pirates?”
“We may be hunted,” said another voice from nearby. Korrin snapped her head around, but the figure was nothing more than a shadow. The voice must belong to the elf’s companion. She’d also seen him on the docks, but he hadn’t spoken then and had kept a hood covering his head so she hadn’t gotten a good look at him.
“They’ve gone to get the captain,” said the elf as he eased the door open. The falling rain outside masking the creak of the hinges. “Fancy a look?”
“You’re not allowed on deck after night,” whispered Korrin.
“What’s that halfing captain going to do?” asked the shadow. “If he’s too seasick to leave his cabin in three days then he’s too sick to hand out punishments to his passengers.”
The two men slipped out onto deck. In the light of the lanterns Korrin could see that the elf’s companion was in fact, human, but he moved as silently as the elf.
“I’ll take the cabin roof,” Korrin heard the elf whisper. “You get up the rigging, see if you can see anything coming.”
Korrin glanced back into the passenger cabin, worried that others had woken when the door was opened so she missed what happened next, just heard the crash behind her. She spun around to see the elf sprawled on the deck.
“Damn wood’s slippery,” he muttered, picking himself up.
“The crew is coming back,” whispered Korrin and she shrank back into the shadows of the door.
At the back of the cabin, Nowhere watched the proceedings. He’d been awake the moment the human had first got up and moved to the door. The man was stealthy, but there was stealth and then there was stealth. Hiding in the shadows meant little to those who could see in the dark. This was the reason, that even from the back of the cabin looking through the open door, he was the first to see the ship barreling out of the darkness towards them.
There was an enormous, shuddering explosion. Splintered wood and luggage were thrown across the cargo hold, followed a moment later by a spray of freezing, briny water. The intense smell of salt filled the air and a giant pile a fur growled in sleepy anger and pulled itself from the wreckage.
“LET US OUT, BEAR!” screamed the bald man, jumping up and grabbing the bars of his cage. “LET US OUT!”
The bear ignored him, and headed towards the stairs.
“I KNOW YOU CAN UNDERSTAND ME! YOU’D LET US DROWN?”
The bear swung it’s head around and stared at him. Then with one pull, ripped the metal door from the cage before shoving its way up the wooden stairs to the passenger cabin.
Nowhere was already out of bed and on his feet. He was about to run for the deck when he heard the bear charging up the stairs. He managed to shrink back against the wall, but was still whipped by the rough fur as the huge beast came rumbling past. The dwarf, who’d just jumped down from his hammock with a crash of armor wasn’t so lucky. The bear didn’t stop moving, but tried lift the dwarf out of the way. The bear had badly misjudged it’s strength however, and the dwarf was catapulted into the ceiling. He crashed back to the ground, just in time to be trampled by the horde of three barbarians charging up from the hold.
Korrin watched as the bearded elf fired his long-bow into the orks streaming onto the deck from the black ship that had rammed them. His companion, the man who’d climbed the rigging was firing too, barbed death hissing down out of the darkness above. Korrin was so focused on the battle that she didn’t notice her sister had charged up behind her.
“Are you ok?” growled the bear.
“Good, try to stay out of sight.”
The bear seemed oblivious to the barbarians scrabbling over her massive form and out the door. Though the ship was under attack they only had eyes for the one who had imprisoned them. The Halfling captain, still in his underclothes, had just been led onto deck when the ship was attacked. He’d dropped his spyglass and was backing away from the carnage as his crew tried to repel the boarders. He never saw the horde coming for him until his was engulfed in a biting, kicking, punching ball of barbarian fury.
The bear left the door and shouldered her way into the fight followed by the still slightly dazed dwarf. Korrin took a deep breath and dived out into the rain as well, not wanting to get stuck inside.
“Sorry,” muttered the elf at the doorway. He’d accidentally struck the dwarf with an arrow. The dwarf turned to glare at him before pulling the arrow out of his shoulder and charging back into the fray.
A huge ork, in plate mail stepped to the edge of his ship, gazing down at the carnage. He lifted a hand, and blue fire flickered from his fingertips.
Then the fire exploded upwards, shocking everyone, including, it seemed, the ork himself. He staggered backwards, gazing in shock as the fire lapped up his own ship’s sail.
Korrin wasn’t watching the fire, though. She was transfixed by what was happening to the ocean beyond the ships. There was light, a strange green translucent glow that intensified and spread out across the water. It slowly rose in a mound, a great mountain of water barreling towards them.
Korrin was so distracted by the strange sight that she never saw the hammer swinging for her head.
—————————— NOTES ——————————
It is important to discuss expectations before playing D&D (a piece of advice I ran across long after my first session). There are lots of ways to role-play and your players may not realize what style you’re going for. It can be frustrating to have crafted an intricate plot if your characters just want to wreak havoc at local taverns. I’ve found that players tend to be respectful if you simply explain that you’ve spent a lot of time on setting up a cool story for them and that (while still giving them a lot of freedom) you’d like their characters to prioritize the plot elements.
Listen to players too though! Don’t railroad them into playing a certain way if they prefer a different style. Here are some common examples of why people want to play a game like D&D.
Fighting: Your players love battle and are happiest going up against challenging monsters.
Role-Playing: Your players love developing their characters and interacting with NPCs.
Puzzles: Your players want to disarm intricate traps and solve confusing riddles.
Storyline: Your players are motivated to complete objectives to progress the plot.
Sandbox: Your players love the creative freedom to go wherever they want and do whatever they want.
Most likely you’ll have a mix of these elements, but remember that players also take queues from their dungeon master. I always treat my world and the plot very seriously and my players pick up on that. I love humor in D&D and think role-playing gives rise to some of the funniest moments I’ve experienced with my friends, but my personal style has always been to let the humor come from character interactions and choices, not from silliness in the world.
Why are your players working together?
This is a very important question and, looking back, probably my first mistake. I thought a shipwreck would be a great way to get a bunch of very different characters with very different backgrounds into the same place.
I turned out to be very wrong. Yes, they were stuck in the same place, but I was constantly surprised by how little they cared about working together. Definitely give your players a reason to care about each other.
No win situations
Since my players were new, and I was new to running a campaign, there was a very real risk of me accidentally killing everyone in the party. To avoid this (without having to worry about handicapping monsters halfway through a battle), I built fail-safe’s into most of my early encounters. The orks attacking the ship were WAY to powerful for a group of 2nd level characters to encounter, but since I knew there was a huge, magical wave coming to destroy both the ships, it was a fun way to raise the stakes without risking a total party kill.
My inexperience meant that I could accidentally make an encounter too hard, but more dangerous was that my players might not realize I’d created a no-win situation and try to fight out the encounter anyway. It’s a good idea to build yourself elegant ways out of your no-win situations if your characters decide to stand and fight instead of running away.
Here are a couple examples of fail-safes I used when my players got to Driftwood island:
There is a powerful wizard living on the island who is invested in seeing the characters succeed and will intervene if things look like they’re going to end in disaster.
There are often non-violent ways to conclude my monster encounters. For example, a temple room full of animated tapestries can be disabled with a talisman a player found earlier.
A number of dangerous monsters are territorial and will only pursue the players a certain distance.
Dungeon Master screens
I did accidentally kill someone my very first session. D&D has lenient death rules involving bleeding out over time, giving the other players plenty of chances to save their dying companion. The one exception is when a player is dealt double their life total in damage, which is surprisingly easy in the first few levels.
An ork rolled a critical hit (double damage) against Korrin half-way through the ship battle, which was easily enough damage to kill her. I let my players know I’d rolled a critical, but since I had a dungeon master screen I fudged the damage numbers just enough to keep Korrin alive (although I did knock her overboard as added punishment).
If you (and your group) care more about story than rule mechanics GET A DUNGEON MASTER SCREEN! It’s something I rarely, RARELY take advantage of, but every once in a while it is invaluable. Even if it’s just a piece of cardboard folded in half (which is what I was using) it’s definitely worth it.