This was written by my buddy and patron Hack Fox, who runs his own Call of Cthulhu / 5E DND Hack Podcast, Dragons of Cthulhu, which is one of the few Actual Play podcasts I can actually listen to that uses DnD 5e rules. If you want something unique give it a listen, but regardless, read on to see how he got started with Tabletop and his first few misadventures! You can also find Hack on twitter here.
My earliest memory of DnD was watching my uncle DMing for his friends, there were a lot of hand-drawn maps involved. I thought it was weird that grown-ups, to my young eyes, would play pretend much as I played at being a ninja turtle in the front yard. But I found the stories they were weaving interesting. They inspired some of my imaginings throughout my young life to include dragons, strange beast men and going on epic quests for strange loot. These stories were what ultimately brought me to my love of RPG video games and further to my current devotion to TTRPGs.
My first misadventure – 2001, the summer of my 18th year when my cousin, brother and I discovered my uncle’s DnD box while moving. Rather stupidly we looked over the collection of books and dice, thinking “this seems fairly simple, we can totally do this”. I sketched up some maps on graph paper and we created what we thought were proper characters before I attempted to run them through a dungeon I had dreamed up. In retrospect, we really had no idea what we were doing. It didn’t last long given they had no real interest and we were playing 1st ed in a homebrew world. Everyone, me included quickly grew bored, so we packed up these magical things and forgot about them.
Jump to 4 or 5 years ago when after running out of audiobooks and not having money to get more I looked into the strange medium of podcasts. Something in me, remembering the tales of my childhood and thinking of the high fantasy novels I enjoy, made me search for things resembling audio dramas. Somehow I came across The Adventure Zone and further down the line Drunks and Dragons and even Cthulhu and Friends. After binging a great deal of the content offered by these podcasts and some discussion with old online friends my interest in the hobby known as TTRP was rekindled. As I had no local friends to delve into this new potential hobby I went online and discovered Roll20. Realizing I still had no idea what I was doing I delved into research based on what I had been listening to, Call of Cthulhu and the upcoming 5th ed of DnD.
My love for Lovecraft prevailed and I chose to attempt to join a Call of Cthulhu game. I had purchased the Call of Cthulhu 7th ed quickstart guide and after what I assumed was enough studying of game mechanics joined a game. However, upon starting that first session, with people who knew a lot more than I did, I became frustrated. The GM did not help my plight and all too quickly I quit. Shortly thereafter, not wanting to give up on this new hobby, I preordered all the new DnD 5th ed books thinking I might have better luck with what seemed to be a simpler system. Again I had a similar experience with my first 5th ed game – the difference being no one apparently knew what they were doing in this game. This time my frustration won out and I took my books, placing them on a shelf and resigning myself to listening to others stories in the podcasts I had found.
Jump again to early 2017 when finding myself in a bad way and needing the distraction I jumped back into what I hoped would be something to center myself once more.
I was going to run my first Call of Cthulhu game.
I went back to Roll20 and found some new players, much like myself in hopes we could learn together. In the meantime I found myself joining a band of adventures in a 5th ed game full of what I now know to be referred to as murder hobos. Fortunately, my DM was kind and helped me through learning what it really meant to play tabletop games. After a few crazy sessions over the course of the month, I found my Call of Cthulhu players and proceeded to start up my first game as a GM.
And this is where the misadventure truly begins
The module selected, characters created (backgrounds and all) we sat down to play our first game one Tuesday evening. Being the nervous sort I let my players start at level 4, in hopes death would not be an imminent thing. The investigation started off well enough with the PCs meeting where they were supposed to, getting info and setting off on the steamboat that was to be the stage for this adventure. It was not long before all of our inexperience shone through and we had our first failed saves for the evening. These failures lead to a character being stabbed and another getting overly intoxicated as I completely botched the story I was trying to read from the module. After a few false starts, we managed to get everyone somewhat back on track until the “scary” things began to happen.
In this particular module, the PCs were to be drugged and wake shortly after in a cabin in the bowels of the steamboat. Due to a communication error, my players were unaware that the boat was going to explode and I had to force them upstairs instead of letting them search below for clues. Upon reaching the upper decks of the boat and discovering the horrors that had occurred as they slept several sanity checks were failed. These failures left one character frozen in place, another having soiled his fancy trousers and the third desperately trying to get off the boat. In order to help them progress in this particular game, I broke etiquette and told them the boat was definitely going to explode and they had to get off there immediately. 2 characters dashed off to find lifeboats while the third tried to stick to his background, running up several decks in search of his possessions.
Due to a rules misunderstanding and the character searching for his things being covered in all manner of foreign substances he failed several saves and promptly fell down the stairs he was trying to climb. He almost died. Realizing what had happened to their new friend the other characters rushed back to help, failing several medical checks and causing the character more harm. Trying to stick to the horror theme he lost the use of one arm. After managing to somewhat stabilize the fallen party member they dragged him towards some earlier discovered lifeboats to escape, finding them all absent thanks to a roll I shouldn’t have made.
In their rush to escape the steamboat, they made several unnecessary checks, most of which were failed, causing the party to almost TPK. Despite that they managed to extricate themselves from the impending explosion, wading ashore as the boat blew, once again coming close to TPK thanks to unnecessary checks. Moving further inland they found themselves surrounded by things I will only describe as eldritch horrors. This, of course, brought on more sanity checks, one character ran in fear leaving the second to go into a blood rage and the crippled character to fend for himself. Trying to take pity on them ie trying not to kill them right at this moment I quickly homebrewed some rules. Regrettably, my lack of understanding of combat in Call of Cthulhu proved them counterproductive to this attempt. The feared character, being only able to hide, was repeatedly successful and managed to keep themselves out of combat while the individual in a blood rage took potshots with his revolver into the crowd consisting of horror, zombies, and an ally. While this character did manage to put a few zombies down and wound the horror he did further damage to the already crippled character. The following round of combat saw the crippled character physically lose that arm to the creature before falling unconscious because of more rolls I shouldn’t have made. The raging character, unable to tell friend from foe was then ultimately responsible for his death. Seeing this the summoner responsible turned tail and ran, leaving a single enraged character to dispatch of the horror he had called. The enraged character, not being quite done then tracked him down before seeing to his end. Thus the adventure finished with one member dead and two were stuck on an island trying to regain their sanity.
And that’s where we’ll end this first chapter in the misadventures of a newbie DM. Tune in next time for Chapter 2: Further misadventures in 5e and podcasting.