New campaign: Homebrew all the way!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve volunteered to take the next shift as dungeon master with the group I’ve been playing with here in Colorado for most of this year (my first real Dungeons and Dragons experience).  I had considered three options for this campaign:

  • War of the Burning Sky, which I am already running for my online campaign (though I would have to adjust for the fact that the in-person campaign is starting at level 5)
  • An adventure setting from Nevermet Press that I’ve volunteered to playtest (called Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom)
  • A total homebrew campaign, based on an adventure I had written but never run for D&D Third Edition

War of the Burning Sky was originally my first choice, but after starting to work on the adjustments I’d have to make for the level issue and after talking to my current players and getting their thoughts on the matter, I decided that it didn’t seem like it would be as much fun for me (even though it would be a LOT less work).

The playtest game intrigues me a great deal, but the adventure would span several sessions, and I really didn’t want to commit to anything like that without having the time to really get to know the material first (the whole document is over 100 pages in length).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that homebrew was what I really wanted.  Having discovered my adventure from years ago that never saw the light of day, I felt like I had to give it a go.I began by transferring my map of what was originally a goblin stronghold (the adventure was written for first-level characters) into MapTool.  It’s now an orc stronghold, since these characters are higher level.  I kept the geography pretty much the same as I had created it years ago, removing only a couple of pointless storage rooms (I like verisimilitude, but rooms that have no bearing on the adventurers at all should be cut).  I sketched out the whole complex, only making a couple of edits… and then realized that the party wouldn’t be STARTING in the stronghold, but out in a town where they’ll get the chance to find out about this thing.

So, I needed to back up and draw some more.  I started with a tavern, using a Dungeon Tile image.  I called it the Shady Maple Inn and built it around a huge maple tree in the middle of the place.  It was built and owned by an elf who loved the tree and made it part of his establishment (this made me very happy for some reason).  The players had the possibility of meeting some bandits along the road, so I created a bridge encounter map.

There was also going to be an attack by some insects during a night spent camping in the forest, so I put together a forest encounter map with trees and bushes.

This would be everything the party would face, at least for the first session.  I figured that we would get through some decent fraction of the maps I had prepared.  After all, there was a lot to get through in the first session:

  • Character introductions
  • Determining how the party members know one another – past adventures together, etc.
  • Meeting the NPC who would ask for the party’s help
  • Getting from the tavern to the manor house where a minor noble was looking for aid (likely encountering bandits along the way)
  • Meeting the minor noble and learning about the family heirloom that had been stolen
  • Investigating near the manor house to learn more about the thieves
  • Tracking the thieves through the forest
  • Battling creatures overnight in the woods
  • Getting to the stronghold
  • Dealing with the front door defenses
  • Working their way into the depths of the keep

Now, I don’t know if it was the efficiency of running the game in MapTool with the projector or what, but we got through a LOT in one session!

We started playing at about 4:15 this afternoon.  We spent about 30 minutes on character introductions and party backgrounds.  Then the action started, and the players jumped on it.  No gallavanting about, chatting with random NPCs – they heard about a mission, pounced on it without asking questions and started to complete it.  They wisely figured out that they could take a boat up the river to the manor house, which meant that they could skip the bandit encounter at the bridge.  At the manor house, they investigated the theft of the family heirloom efficiently and moved on to the forest.

Here, they were set upon by some creepy crawlies at night.  The luck of the dice had this encounter happen during the first watch, which meant that everyone would be taking an extended rest afterwards (some of them had just started doing so).  This worked out pretty well, actually – since the extended rest was coming, everyone was free to blow daily powers and action points.  The attack came from some centipedes and rot grub swarms (set to appropriate levels for the party, of course).  Even after I brought in some extra centipedes in the second round, the PCs had no trouble beating them all up.

The next morning we had a little skill challenge to continue the navigation through the forest to the orcs’ lair.  The party just barely failed this skill challenge, which made for a cool encounter.  Instead of being able to walk right up to the front door and trying to figure out how to get through, their failure meant that orc archers in the guard tower saw them coming and got a surprise round on them.  This was excellent, because the archers with surprise were pretty darn scary.  Even though these are only level 4 creatures, they have a burst 1 attack (a hail of arrows, basically) that deals d10+6 damage to everyone in the burst that it hits, and I rolled a 9 and a 10 for damage for the two archers who fired into the group.  Suddenly our healer was down to 12 hit points (out of a maximum of 43) and the party was legitimately scared.

Despite the fear, the party had the right tools to handle this problem: Area attacks.  By the rules of the game, an area attack only requires that the spellcaster have line of effect to the origin square of the area burst (which the arrow slit grants), and then enemies inside the tower would not have cover from the area attack because it’s originating inside the tower.  Unleashing a few of these helped bring the archers down before they could raise the alarm.

The door to the stronghold was trapped, and I allowed some active Perception checks to notice the trap before just setting it off on everyone’s heads.  This was a bit generous on my part, but our games haven’t involved a lot of traps in the past and I felt like it was unfair to shock them TOO much by springing a trap when they would never think to look for one.  Now they’ll think about it!

Once inside, the party used some good Stealth to sneak up on the orc minions (two-hit minions, as is usual in my games) in the next room, who were distracted by their dice games.  For this battle, the minions went to the far side of the bridge and pulled it back across, attacking mainly from range (even though they’re not great at range).  I made it clear that the river is nasty and the party does not want to fall into it.  Again, the PCs beat up the bad guys before they could raise a further alarm.

The last battle of the evening took place in the orcs’ sleeping chamber.  This area was dark, as the night shift orcs were sleeping.  One orc was awake – the cook over in the kitchen area, preparing a foul-smelling stew.  The party again made good use of Stealth, letting the party’s Monk get a surprise attack on the cook.

This battle was a little more interesting, as the orcs who had been asleep quickly woke up and did their best to sneak toward the party in the dark.  The Monk ended up bloodied a couple of times, and the Warlock/Sorcerer got a little bit beat-up as well, but since the baddies kept clustering, they were mowed down by burst and blast attacks.  Who says you need dedicated controllers in a party?At this point it was a little after 9:15 PM.  It had been five hours since we had started playing, and we had taken about an hour-long break for dinner in the middle.  We played through four combat encounters, plus the background stuff and some role-playing, investigations and skill challenges.  And this was all with brand-new characters and players who were still figuring out what those characters can do.  I was amazed at how far the party had gotten.  This was as much of the adventure as I had prepared, so we called it a night at that point (playing a few games of Zombie Dice first).

Today was a great start for a new campaign!  I feel like everyone had a good time, and the MapTool / projector combo continues to be a big hit.

DM Lessons

  • Once you’re comfortable as a dungeon master, run your own homebrew games whenever possible.  Time constraints may make this hard, but don’t let a lack of confidence stand in the way.
  • Drop future adventure hooks liberally – even if you haven’t figured out exactly where they’ll lead yet.  See what piques your players’ interest, and run with those, abandoning the others.
  • Preparation is huge.  Know the layouts of combat areas and how the enemies will use them before the battle starts.  If you can do the mapping in advance (such as with MapTool, or even pre-drawing the maps on battle mats or paper) it will save a lot of time at the table.
  • Be prepared for players to come up with ways to skip over combat encounters, and let them do it if they find a way.  Don’t get too attached to a battle.  You can probably find an excuse to use it again at some point in the future!
  • If you’re comfortable with it, technology at the table can automate the boring parts and help everyone get to the fun faster.
http://onlinedm.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/two-hit-minions/

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