D&D Encounters Web of the Spider Queen – Week 1

Previous week: Week zero / Following week: Week two

And so the adventure begins!

We had a total of twelve players for two tables of D&D Encounters at 5:00 PM at Enchanted Grounds today. I had four of the same five players from last week (father, son, daughter, another boy) plus two more players (adults). Our party consisted of:

  • Two goblin hunters (that is, hunters who happened to be of the goblin race, not people who hunt goblins) named Ferrin and Pointy
  • A goblin scout named Squintch
  • A goblin slayer named Snarl (who doesn’t speak but just, well, snarls)
  • A svirfneblin warpriest named Ziti
  • A drow mage named Zin

They decided that the four goblins were traveling together, and the drow and svirfneblin were another pair of travelers. The drow saw himself as a spy for the underdark. Hm. This could be interesting.

Six adventurers walk into a bar; specifically, the Old Skull Inn of Shadowdale. After some suspicious glances at the rather monstrous party before her, Ghessla Silvermane welcomed the group to her inn (extracting a promise that they weren’t in Shadowdale to cause trouble – especially the drow). She waved her burly employee Thrad over to start taking some meal orders. The Shadowdale Special was popular with the goblins (especially after the drow mage used Prestidigitation to make their meals wiggle).

The goblin hunters explored upstairs, finding that half of the second and third floors were under construction for some renovations. Downstairs, the goblin scout made friends with a smelly old man called Old Dogsbreath. He started raving about seeing drow in the woods, which Zin was quite curious about.

An attractive woman with long, dark hair told Zin that she was known as Khara Sulwood, and she had recently moved to Shadowdale. She mentioned that Doust Sulwood was her great-grandfather; Zin recognized the name as belonging to a lord of Shadowdale long ago.

A pair of dwarves welcomed Pointy into their merry drinking games.

After a while, folks started heading for bed. Ghessla pulled some of the party members aside and mentioned that allowing people into the Underdark was strictly forbidden under the laws of Shadowdale, laws that just aren’t worth breaking for less than, say, 100 gold pieces. She’s a fun one, that Ghessla.

When down in the inn there arose such a clatter…

Wouldn’t you know it, the quiet of the night was broken by a commotion downstairs. Everyone rushed down to find that the inn was under attack by drow! One invader attacked Ghessla, who crumpled to the ground, her light going out (I was using lighting features in MapTool for the first time, so this was cool). Old Dogsbreath was menacing a drow using his rusty dagger, and the two dwarves were in the process of surrendering when the heroes charged down the stairs.


Sounds and sights of more fighting were noticed outside the inn, so it was going to be up to this ragtag group to save the Old Skull Inn themselves.

Fortunately, they were up to the task! Noticing that I had used a female drow picture for the archer, Zin (our party’s drow) told the gang to try to get after her, since female drow tended to be nasty. Clouds of darkness started popping up left and right, especially once more drow came up from the cellar in round two, but a couple of PCs used their amulets from the character creation week to make the darkness go away.

Poor Snarl couldn’t land a hit on the drow he went after, even burning his action point. He soon found himself bloodied and poisoned, with Ziti having to heal him twice.

As the battle wore into the third and fourth rounds, the adventurers got the upper hand and turned the tide once the strikers started rolling well. The goblins and svirfneblin discovered that I would let them move freely under the tables of the inn, which was great fun. Before long, the inn was littered with the corpses of vanquished enemies, and Ghessla was popping up off the floor, having only played dead.

As the inn patrons were thanking the party and everyone was assessing the damage, Ziti the svirfneblin suddenly heard a voice begin speaking in her mind: “This is Elminster…”

And on that note, we wrapped up week one. Pretty cool stuff!

-Michael the OnlineDM

D&D Encounters Web of the Spider Queen – Week Zero

Following week: Week one

I’m so excited and happy to be running D&D Encounters again! I ran Encounters last summer for the Dark Legacy of Evard season (recaps of those sessions start here), and I had a blast. I especially love helping newer players get into D&D, and Encounters tends to attract a lot of new players.

This time, the season begins with a “week zero” session for character creation. I had been told that most players don’t bother showing up, since they’ll just make characters on their own in the Character Builder later. I’m happy to say that the players at the 5:00 PM tables decided that week zero was important. I believe we had nine players show up just for character creation.

Once again, I’ll be using my projector rig to run games, and my reputation preceded me at the store. Two of the players were the father and son I first introduced to D&D 4th Edition last summer at Encounters, and they’ve apparently been playing ever since! The father has also been bringing his younger daughter to play, and two more younger players were at my table as well (friends of the son, I believe). So, I’m running a table for four kids ranging from about 8 to 12 years old, plus one adult.

I don’t have kids myself, but I like kids well enough. When it comes to running games for kids, I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity! I really want to encourage the next generation of gamers, and this particular group is already pumped up. They’ve apparently been playing together at Encounters for a while, and when they saw that I was going to be running a game (knowing about my projector), they declared that they were all playing at my table. That’s a pretty good feeling!

As for character creation itself, we had a fun time last Wednesday. The boys all came to the table with ideas about what they wanted to play – two hunters and a paladin. They were excited about the new races from Into the Unknown, too; I believe we’ll have at least one goblin.

The young girl at my table wasn’t sure what she wanted to play, but since she already had experience with playing a controller, defender and striker, she decided to go with the warpriest – a leader – for a change of pace. She originally really wanted to be a kobold, but when we started flipping through the books and realized that the kobold didn’t get a bonus to Wisdom she nixed that idea. This really surprised me – I thought that she had her heart set on being a kobold (and it can totally work to have a kobold cleric), but she wanted that +2 to Wisdom. So, she build a svirfneblin instead.

I spent most of my time helping her through the character creation process, and she did really well. It was fun to build from the books instead of just using the Character Builder, and I really enjoyed the custom character sheets that were provided for this season of Encounters.

DMs were also given some treasure cards to represent a very cool neck slot item, one that can pierce a drow’s Cloud of Darkness ability. I believe these were intended to be given to players who participated in an event at PAX, but since we’re in Colorado we didn’t have any PAX-goers at our store. The DM for the other 5:00 PM table had decided that giving these cards out as a reward for showing up to character creation would be appropriate, so that’s what we did. If we have new players come later in the season, they might be able to earn the item through sheer awesomeness; we shall see.

I’ve already prepped the first week’s encounter in MapTool, and I can’t wait to get going. This is going to be fun! I’ll post weekly recaps, along with the maps that I’ve created for each session. Stay tuned!

Subsequent week: Week one

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Cruise ship D&D

There were no new blog posts for me last week because I was on vacation, taking a Caribbean cruise. My wife and I went with some friends of ours and had a lovely time, getting to spend time in Puerto Rico, Saint Maarten and Saint Thomas.

We also had several days at sea, so I naturally brought along some games to play. During one of the sea days on the way out to the islands I managed to persuade one of our friends to play San Juan with us, the card game version of the Puerto Rico board game. It was definitely in-theme for the cruise, and we had a nice time with the game.

On the way back from the islands, I mentioned D&D at lunch and was pleased when the woman in the couple we were traveling with asked about the game. She really knew nothing about it, but she knew that I really liked it and that my wife played, too, so I started describing D&D to her.

D&D is ultimately a cooperative storytelling game. Each player has a character that they get to play, and they have a sheet of paper with information about that character, explaining what the character can do. The dungeon master describes a situation that the players’ characters find themselves in, and then it’s up to the players to tell the DM what their characters do. If it’s something straightforward, like “I walk over that way,” then the DM just narrates the result. If it’s something that the character might or might not succeed in doing, like “I scramble up that tree,” then the DM might ask the player to roll some dice and determine the result of the action based on the result of the die roll.

D&D is a fantasy game, like the Lord of the Rings, and the players get to play the heroes. This means that they’ll probably find themselves in combat with bad guys from time to time, and the game has rules for taking turns in combat, attacking enemies, getting hit by enemies, and yes, even death.

Given that description, my friends were interested in learning to play. Fortunately, I had come prepared!

Usually I run D&D games using my laptop and a projector. While I did have my laptop with me on the cruise, there was no way I was bringing my projector rig. Instead, I had grabbed the Dungeon Master’s Book from the Essentials Red Box set, along with the poster map and the sheet of tokens that came inside the Red Box. I also brought the pre-generated characters from D&D Encounters, which I had from last summer, and a container of dice.

The Red Box adventure, The Twisting Halls, assumes that the players start off by going through the solo adventure in the player’s book, creating their characters that way. I wanted to get the new players into the action as fast as possible, so I just gave them pre-gens and a little back story.

The adventure began with the party having been hired by a merchant to go to some goblin caves to recover a box that had been stolen from the merchant. The merchant also mentioned that he had seen a scary dark rider and thought that the rider might be involved. That was it for story; off we went into the first combat with two goblins and a wolf (scaled down from two wolves since we only had three PCs).

D&D in the ship's cafeteria. Note the ice cream bowls full of dice. Awesomeness.

Our first combat went smoothly enough, with the new players getting a feel for what their characters could do. They won the fight without much trouble and then sent their drow ranger down into a passageway to scout ahead. She was very stealthy and saw a couple of goblins standing in a room, not noticing her.

She asked, “Can I shoot this one?” Well sure! Surprise round, go for it. And thus began the second combat, with the rest of the party still at the top of the tunnel.

This combat was intentionally harder. I ran the full combat for four PCs, but I did it in waves. In the first few rounds, the players noticed someone peeking out from behind a door that was ajar, and the door later closed. Then, as combat with the goblins and their guard drake was almost over, a goblin spellcaster came out from behind a closed door and started blasting the party with magic.

My wife’s character, the cleric, spent some time making death saving throws, one of which fortunately ended up on a 20. From there, the party was able to handle the fight with no problem.

At this point the party discovered a little treasure, and I decided to call it a day. I could tell that our friends were starting to get a little tired, and I didn’t want to overwhelm them.

I was a little disappointed that I had picked an adventure without much real exploration or role playing at the beginning; we basically just had two fights and that was it. I’d like to give new players more of a sense of adventure, so that was a mistake on my part. But still, I was glad that my friends were intrigued enough to give them game a shot. We’ll be visiting these friends in Minnesota in a few weeks, and I’ll bring my D&D stuff along, just in case!

-Michael the OnlineDM

ZEITGEIST Session Three: Recap and Review

Previous sessions: Session one, Session two

Our group gathered in mid February for our third session in the Zeitgeist campaign from EN World. This session took us to the climactic finish of Adventure One: The Island at the Axis of the World.

Beware the cannonballs!

Since my group had ended session two by going a little bit off the rails, I had to create a new encounter to kick off session three. The group was racing along a sea wall surrounding a fortress, trying to follow the trail of some fiery, smoky being that had destroyed a ship in the harbor before leaping onto the wall and into the fort. Unfortunately for our heroes, the wall was being viciously fought over by the defenders upon it and the attackers bombarding it from ships in the harbor.

Sea Wall Battle - showing enemy positions

The battle is fairly simple. The party is approaching along the wall from the left side of the map. Four Rebel Musketeers (custom enemies) are on the north side of the wall, shooting at ships in the harbor, and four more are on the south side of the wall, doing the same thing. Half of each set of musketeers have their muskets loaded and ready at any given time. Two Rebel Soldiers (from the published adventure) are between the rows of musketeers, giving orders.

At the end of each round, a cannonball comes flying across a random row of the wall around the tower, attacking creatures in that row and on either side of that row. This can cause characters (both PCs and enemies) to be pushed off the wall and into the water.

Once the PCs get within ten squares or attack the enemies, the rebels notice them and turn their focus from the ships to the PCs.

The full encounter is available here (Beware the Cannonballs), and battle maps scaled to a 50 pixel per square grid are below.

Sea Wall map - with grid

Sea Wall map - No grid

Where did he go?

Once the party had conquered the sea wall tower, they moved along the inner wall until they met up with allied soldiers who had succeeded in breaching the wall. The fiery creature they were pursuing was nowhere to be seen, but the commanding officers requested the party’s assistance in dealing with some Danoran prisoners in a brig.

Negotiations with the prisoners went well and led to some intelligence about an entrance to the central tower of the keep through the sewers. The Danorans also gave the party a key that would open a door on the roof of the tower in case they ended up there. These discussions were ultimately interrupted by screams and the sound of running feet across the roof of the brig – the fiery creature was back!

Our heroes rushed into the streets to see the fiery creature, revealed as an eladrin, using a strange orb that caused the inner fortress wall to disappear, replaced by wilderness for a few moments. The fiery eladrin ran across the tops of the hedge maze within the inner fortress wall and then started scaling the central tower. The PCs decided to rush after him.

Vesper, the scout in the party, had found the token back in the mines that gave him tremendous jumping power, so he decided to use that power to go bounding after the eladrin. He hopped along the tops of the hedges in the maze and found himself at the base of the tower, staring up as the eladrin finished ripping out bricks, tearing what looked like a gold wire in the wall (gold circles prevent teleportation in this world) and then disappearing – presumably inside the tower. Vesper climbed to the roof, used the key on the roof door, and started sneaking downstairs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party found themselves dealing with an irate fey creature named Ghillie Dhu who was blaming them for lighting his hedges on fire (when in fact it was the eladrin who had done so with his fiery aura). Some quick negotiations followed, including a bit of a seduction by the female eladrin in the party, Andraste, and Ghillie Dhu was satisfied that the party was chasing the eladrin who burned the maze, not allied with him. Ghillie Dhu led them through the maze to the base of the tower, where they found a rope had been lowered by Vesper.

Level 1 PCs fighting a level 20 monster

Inside the tower, Vesper had gotten himself into a good eavesdropping position. He was able to see the eladrin, badly bloodied after fighting a bunch of guards in the tower, having a heated exchange with Duchess Evelyn of Shale (the Risuri noblewoman who had invaded the island) and a tiefling named Nathan Jierre. The eladrin, referred to by the duchess as Asrabey, had clearly beaten the duchess and the tiefling, and the duchess was trying to reason with him. Vesper bided his time, readying an attack in case Asrabey tried to hurt the duchess or the teifling any more.

The rest of the party was working on climbing the rope. Some of the PCs made their Athletics checks quickly, but our poor docker bard, Corduroy, struggled and struggled. As the party made it onto the roof, they saw the open door and peaked in, communicating through hand gestures with Vesper below.

Once Corduroy finally made it to the roof, he danced a jig of happiness…

Which made some noise, attracting the attention of Asrabey, who finally looked up and saw Vesper above him. His rage set off Vesper’s readied action, and we were in combat!

This was a beautiful moment in the adventure, where the writer, Ryan Nock, provides the DM with two ways to run the encounter. The default approach is to run Asrabey as an injured level 20 creature with only 27 hit points. This makes him practically impossible to hit, unless a PC rolls a natural 20, uses a power that deals damage without an attack roll (like Magic Missile) or uses a power that still has an effect on a miss (like most daily powers). At the same time, his attacks always hit the PCs unless he rolls a 1.

Alternatively, the battle can be run with Asrabey as a level 2 solo creature. I went hard core – he was level 20.

Combat was quick and deadly. Asrabey set his shield to work chewing on Vesper as the rest of the party rushed inside. The eladrin set up a zone that would soon erupt into flames. Andraste the witch used a power that would deal damage to Asrabey every time he hurt one of Andraste’s allies.

The party started to worry that they had bitten off more than they could chew, but they were doing their best to make use of daily powers and creative effects. Asrabey took a few hits and was clearly teetering, but Vesper was unconscious and laying in the area that would soon erupt into flames.

Asrabey began his turn, the flames rose, and Vesper was burned to death…

At which point Andraste’s effect caused Asrabey to take a few points of damage, killing the eladrin.

My players, including Vesper’s player, literally jumped to their feet, cheering and high fiving one another. It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a DM. Even though a PC died, it was a huge victory that was hard-won. They earned it, 100%.

In the aftermath of the battle, the party managed to steal Asrabey’s sword and cloak – high-level items that they really shouldn’t have and that are quite illegal for them to have taken in-game. But that’s okay… I don’t mind there being consequences later!

Thus ends adventure one of ZEITGEIST. It’s a very cool campaign so far, and I’m hoping to start adventure two as soon as we can get everyone’s schedules to line up. I’ve just learned that two of my six players are moving away in August, and there’s a chance that two more might be going eventually as well, so I hope to make some progress on the campaign while we still can.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Genghis Con 2011 – Day 2 and 3

I’m very grateful that my company gives me Presidents’ Day off work, as I’m exhausted after my weekend at Genghis Con! Don’t get me wrong – it was a ton of fun – but I’m appreciating the day to recuperate.

On Saturday, I spent the entire day playing in a D&D 4th Edition Living Forgotten Realms event – a Battle Interactive called The Paladins’ Plague. I believe they ran this same event at PAX or some other convention a few months back. There were about 12 tables of players, all running the same adventure at various levels. I wanted to play in a level 7-10 table with my 8th-level paladin character, Rhogar, but there were only three players who wanted to play at that level – and all of us had defenders! In the end, someone handed me a character sheet for an 8th-level invoker and I ran two characters all morning. Later in the day some other players showed up, so I was back to running just Rhogar.

The adventure itself was fun, and the convention folks went the extra mile by having people doing some acting for the plot between battles. The encounters were fun to play, and I even liked the one skill challenge.

My only complaint was with the last battle, and the problem with it dated back to an interlude between the second and third battles. During that interlude, the players in the room had to decide whether to donate healing surges to a ritual that would make everyone more effective in the climactic third battle. We agreed to do so, and the benefit was a +1 to all of our rolls in the battle… but if we could get 30 more healing surges donated we could push that to a +2. In the end, Rhogar donated 4 of his 13 daily surges and the invoker donated 3 of his 9. The third battle went well with those +2 bonuses.

Then, during the interlude between the 5th and 6th battle, the big twist was revealed – the NPC who had proposed this surge-donating ritual betrayed the group, and his bad guys came into the room, including a dragon. Okay, that’s cool and exciting – no complaints here. But the kicker was that the NPC canceled the ritual – and every PC who had donated surges lost 10 hit points per donated surge at the beginning of this final showdown. This meant that both of my characters (one of which was now run by another player) started the climactic encounter bloodied.

It became clear that we were heading for a total party kill, at which point our table invoked the Battle Interactive rule that let us raise a red flag to call for help from another table. A 14th-level cleric (multiclassed to Avenger) joined us. The player explained that his party had waltzed through their dragon battle without him using his action point or his daily powers. When his turn came up, he used a sequence of powers that let him deal 183 damage to the dragon, killing it outright. On his second turn, he basically healed the whole party, including the two PCs who were dying. From there, we were fine.

So, huzzah, I guess. This felt very unsatisfying to me. I’m glad a 14th-level super-powered character was available to bail us out, but I’m bummed that we needed to be bailed out. Starting the battle bloodied was not fun, especially when we actually had no healer in our party (at this point we had the three defenders, the invoker and two strikers who had joined later). It felt like an unfair twist. I get that we made the decision to donate the surges and all, but it seemed like we had all the information we needed to make that choice – you get a benefit, but you’re down some surges. In fact, there was a huge hidden extra cost that sucked.

It’s a shame that this was the last encounter of the adventure, because it left a bad taste in my mouth. The rest of the day was fun, but this encounter was not. Oh well.

On Sunday, I finally got to DM. I ran two sessions using my laptop / projector setup. The first was a low-level game and the second was for characters of level 4-7. I’m happy to say that both games went tremendously well. The projector was a hit, as it consistently has been in past convention games, and I had some great players at the table. I was using the bonus point mechanic for good role-playing and creativity, and the players really responded to it. Everyone gave me the maximum scores on the DM review sheet at the end of the session – cool!

I realized in the end that I think I had more fun when I was DMing than when I was playing, at least for my D&D 4e games. I’m considering the possibility of trying to Iron Man TactiCon in September – DMing for all nine sessions of the convention. It’s probably nuts, but with MapTool it’s not that hard – especially if I’m running games that I’ve run before. It’s just food for thought right now, but it might be the most fun way for me to spend the con.

Creating D&D converts

Ah, the Christmas season.  That magical time of year when friends and family gather together and give the D&D fans in their lives the chance to talk about what a fun game this is and to turn them into brand-new gamers.

My wife’s brother and his family are staying with us for two weeks over the holidays.  My wife and I talked about D&D several times in the first few days of their visit, and they were interested in hearing more.

I received the Castle Ravenloft board game for Christmas, and my brother-in-law and I played it a couple of times .  Castle Ravenloft is a pretty good introduction to the concepts of D&D 4th Edition:

  • You have a standard and move action on your turn, with the option to turn the standard into a second move
  • You roll a d20, adding a modifier and comparing it to an armor class
  • There are D&D classes with the appropriate roles and flavors
  • There are D&D monsters with reasonable approximations of their feels

My sister-in-law joined in a five-player Castle Ravenloft game on the evening of Christmas Day, and while she was a little overwhelmed, she seemed to enjoy it.

So, the day after Christmas I showed them the online Character Builder (figuring that Essentials characters would be better for beginners) and helped them roll up their very first RPG characters.  My brother-in-law went with an elf hunter ranger named Homer, while my sister-in-law created a half-elf warpriest named Stasi.  My wife rolled up the sister of her beloved swordmage (another swordmage named Sora), and everyone was anxious to try out their new toys.

Sunday evening, the day after Christmas, we all sat down at the gaming table to really introduce my family to D&D.  I gave my in-laws a choice of three different low-level Living Forgotten Realms that I had prepared on the computer (using MapTool and my projector setup to run the game), and they chose to play a Luruar adventure in which they would be helping people at a magical college shore up some problems underground (LURU 2-3 Forgotten Crypts, Hidden Dangers, which I’ll be running at my friendly local game store this evening).  While my wife finished putting her character together, I ran my in-laws through a simple encounter with some orc minions, just so they got a feel for how battle works.

And then we were off!  We ran through the entire LFR adventure, with me scaling it down for 3 PCs on the fly.  Apparently I did a lousy job with the scaling, as I managed to kill off my brother-in-law’s character in the first battle (only the second time I’ve killed a PC).  All three of the bad guys in the battle had the ability to deal ongoing damage, and all three players had a horrible time with their saving throws.

The party decided that they wanted to take the dead character out of the catacombs and get him resurrected (rather than either give up or create a new character).  I introduced a cleric at the magical college who would resurrect him in exchange for a promise that they would work off the debt for the resurrection later.  The living PCs accepted the deal, but used some good diplomacy to persuade the cleric to give them a discount because the dead PC was working for the same organization as the cleric.  Good stuff!

Back into the catacombs, and the party made it through a skill challenge to get to the lair of the big bad guy.  They realized that the room was trapped, and they killed off the monster from the first battle that had caused them so much trouble before fleeing (a Kobold Rat Master, quickly renamed Rat Bastard).  They then retreated and took a short rest before coming back for the last two bad guys.  I had those characters move to a different part of the catacombs, and I’m glad I did – the original room for the final fight is pretty boring for the PCs if the trap is in effect.

They had such a good time on Sunday, that they asked what was next for the party on Monday!  They made it clear that they were really interested in the setting and wanted to do some more adventuring there, so I took a half day off work on Monday to whip up a brand-new adventure for them, which we ran Monday night.

This new adventure was a much better balance for the three-PC party.  They fought zombies, tracked some wraiths, bypassed a skeletal dragon (though they were sorely tempted to fight it), chased some skeletons through a series of rooms, and ultimately came to the crypt of a ghost who was using some portals to channel necrotic energy and bring more wisp wraiths into the world.  I’m quite proud of this encounter – it worked out even better than I had hoped.  I’ll write about it in more detail sometime – maybe I’ll write up the whole adventure as a PDF.

Anyway, I’ve created two new D&D players!  Now the trick will be to figure out how to keep their gamer fires burning.  We’ll probably play a little Gamma World before they head home, and maybe find time for one more D&D adventure (though I won’t have time to write a whole new one from scratch).  Maybe we’ll play using MapTool after they go home – who knows?  It’s been a fun experience so far, and I hope we get to play more in the future.

My players are smarter than I am – lucky me!

As a relatively new dungeon master, I take the approach that I still have much to learn.  This education can even come at the hands of my players.

Now, I’m not talking about rules knowledge or information about D&D canon – I might have some gaps there, but those are no big deal.  I’m talking about knowledge of what makes an adventure fun.  When I get a great idea from my players, I’m proud to say that I quash my ego and run with the idea (or I try to).

This came up most recently on Saturday, when I was running my in-person campaign through my home brew world.  The adventurers are currently exploring an underground complex that they’ve learned is populated with duergar.  I’m actually taking the Second Edition module “The Gates of Firestorm Peak” as a source of inspiration here.

The first time the party encountered the duergar, it was in a guard room.  The room had a 20-foot ceiling and was about 30 feet square.  Running right across the middle of the chamber was a 10-foot wall made of rocks held together with some kind of mortar, and liberally spiked with shards of glass, pointy sticks, etc.  It could be climbed over without cutting one’s self to ribbons, though it wouldn’t be easy.  There was also a door hidden in the wall, though the latch was trapped.

The party found the door but not the trap, and combat began when our monk tried to open the door and found his hand nearly taken off by a bear trap.  At this point, the four duergar guards on the far side of the wall Enlarged themselves to become 12 feet tall (something that I gather was much more common in 2nd Edition than 4e, but I ran with it).  Now they could swing their warhammers or toss their throwing hammers over the wall.

In the first round of combat, the PCs threw some ranged attacks at the duergar while the two melee characters positioned themselves closer to the wall, perhaps in an attempt to try a climb or jump or another shot at the door in the next round.  One of my players said something interesting at the end of this round:

“Man, I hope they don’t push the wall over on us.”

Hmm… they weren’t going to, but only because I hadn’t thought of it before!  But now that I had three gigantic dark dwarves lined up along the non-spiky side of the wall, ready to take their turn… heave!

I had the duergar make some strength checks to push on the wall, which I was glad I had described as being somewhat makeshift.  No problem – over it goes!  I had the debris make attacks against the two PCs who were near the wall, going against Reflex (they could try to dodge out of the way), and I hit both of them.  I decided that this should deal some pretty significant damage (I believe I went with 3d6+7 for these 6th-level characters) and knock the PCs prone.  It also created a zone of difficult terrain where the wall fell.

I wrestled a bit with whether to tell the players that I was doing this on the fly thanks to their suggestion but ultimately decided not to bother.  On the one hand, they might have gotten a good feeling from having come up with a creative idea that I used.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t want them to hold back from sharing this kind of idea in the future!  So, I let them believe that this was all part of my grand plan.  Of course, if they read this post that illusion is gone, but I’ll live. 🙂

What do you think? Do you ever incorporate your players’ ideas for what terrible things might befall them on the fly?  If so, do you credit them for thinking of it, or act like it was all part of the plan?

An adventure becomes a campaign

My first ongoing in-person Dungeons and Dragons game as a dungeon master reached a milestone yesterday: It moved from being an adventure to being a campaign.

I’ve read the Dungeon Master’s Guide from both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, and I know that there’s some discussion of what differentiates an adventure from a campaign.  From my reading, it’s always felt to me like it’s a question of duration.  An encounter is something that takes a few minutes of game time and maybe an hour of real-life time.  An adventure is a string of encounters that takes a few hours or days of campaign time and probably one to three gaming sessions in real-life time.  A campaign is a series of adventures that takes any amount of time in-game and many sessions over months or years in real-life time.

I suppose those things are true, but I think there’s a more important distinction about what makes a real campaign: Collaboration between the dungeon master and the players.

In an encounter, I know which enemies are out there and what they’re capable of, and the players react to that.

In an adventure, I know the same things on a larger scale.  Maybe the players are delving a dungeon or chasing after a bad guy through a city or something like that, but the overall script of what could happen is written by me.  Yes, the players can come up with interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of and I can work them in as I see fit.  But I’m the one who establishes what could happen.

When we move to a campaign, things change.  I’ll still be responsible for creating the future adventures and encounters, but what those adventures ARE is something that the players can have a huge hand in establishing.  Would they rather head to the mountains to help a trader or head to the coast to find a wizard?  Would they rather do something else entirely that I hadn’t considered as a possibility?

My first adventure ends; my first real campaign begins

Yesterday, my friends finished the first D&D adventure I had ever written.  The main structure is something I wrote eight years ago when my wife and I tried D&D 3rd Edition, but that game never got off the ground and I never had the chance to use the adventure.  The overall plot was pretty straightforward – the party is out to recover a mysterious family heirloom from a stronghold full of orcs.  I used the stronghold design that I had drawn years ago and updated the monsters to match 4th Edition.

Things took an unexpected turn when the adventurers tossed some dead orc bodies into an underground river, which flowed by another room populated with live orcs.  This triggered another battle, and the players decided to hole up in a fortified location in the stronghold to take a rest and defend themselves.  Some bad guys took the heirloom out of the stronghold while the party was attacked by a smaller force, which led to a later chase through the woods and a last stand with the boss orc and a few lackeys.  It was a satisfying conclusion.

So now what?  Well, the party was able to establish that the heirloom has some magical properties that are being suppressed by a powerful enchantment.  They could go find a mighty wizard to help them investigate further, or they could honor an earlier promise they had made to a riverboat merchant who had given them free passage if they would agree to serve as an armed escort on a future trip.  They decided to help the merchant.  And thus the campaign is born!

What makes this into a campaign for me is that the players have decided where to take the story.  I held off on designing actual encounters for the next couple of possibilities, as I didn’t know which way the players would go.  They’ve made their choice, so I now know what to build.

Furthermore, the players also took the story in a direction I hadn’t thought about at all – they decided to claim the former orc stronghold as their “castle”!  Now, it’s out in the middle of nowhere in hostile lands, but they managed to convince the owner of the heirloom to send a small garrison of able-bodied villagers out to the stronghold to keep monsters from moving in while the party went a-questing.

There are so many juicy possibilities with this side story that I can’t wait to use them!  The party CARES about this stronghold now.  They have conquered it, and it is THEIRS.  Any time you can get the players to actually care about something in the game world, you create the opportunity for future plots.  Also, since they’re going in a completely different direction for their next adventure, things can be happening at their “castle” while they’re away.  So many possibilities!

I feel great as a DM that I’ve managed to create world elements that my players care about and that they’re interested in making decisions about where the story goes.  It’s a really good feeling.

Writing my first Living Forgotten Realms adventure

I’m excited to say that I’ve written my first adventure for Living Forgotten Realms (LFR), which I’ll be running at a local convention here in Denver called Genghis Con in February.

This is a “MyRealms” adventure.  MyRealms is an interesting little program for LFR in which dungeon masters like me can write their own LFR-formatted adventures and run them in public (or in private, I suppose).  The adventure should follow the overall format of a regular LFR module – 2-3 combat encounters and 1-2 skill challenges with certain experience point budgets and treasure amounts, designed to run in a four-hour time slot with a party of 4-6 characters within a certain level band.  With MyRealms adventures you’re free to create pretty much whatever you like, and the connection to the Forgotten Realms doesn’t have to be all that strong.

The one restriction is that you’re not allowed to run anyone else’s MyRealms adventure.  Technically speaking, I won’t be allowed to publish my adventure here on the blog… but I honestly don’t know how much that rule really matters.  I’ll find out, but since I’ve gone through the effort of actually writing this adventure in the LFR format I’d like to share it with the world.

The adventure is called The Staff of Suha.  It’s a distilled version of the adventure that I’m currently running for my friends here in Colorado, which is itself an adaptation of the adventure that I wrote many years ago under D&D 3.0 rules and rediscovered a few months ago.  It’s a pretty straightforward little dungeon delve with a plot that’s basically “Retrieve the MacGuffin.”  For a convention game, that’s enough plot.

Since I had already written the whole thing up in a Word document for my players here in person, it wasn’t too hard to adapt that version of the adventure into an LFR-friendly version.  The biggest change was that my original version was too long.  When all is said and done, we will have probably done 10-12 hours of adventuring to get through my original version, which is far too much for LFR.

I started by getting rid of the backstory.  My in-person players started the adventure in a town where they were contacted by a messenger who works for a wealthy uncle of one of the PCs.  The party had to travel to the uncle’s manor, talk to him about the theft of the titular family heirloom (the Staff of Suha), investigate the theft, and track the bad guys to their lair (with a fight in the forest on the way).  Once they arrived at the stronghold, they had get past the front gate guards, fight some minions, infiltrate an orc barracks, fight through an orc shrine, deal with some orcs training for battle and then fight the big boss (with a few other wrinkles along the way which I won’t write about here because my players haven’t encountered them yet).

For the LFR version, the party starts off as they come in view of the orc stronghold.  I’ll hand-wave the back story: “You’re here to get the MacGuffin, and here’s why.  Go to it!”  Not super-compelling, I’ll admit, but this is just a little delve.

There will be four encounters:

  • Getting into the stronghold
  • A skill challenge to avoid attracting too much attention
  • A battle in a shrine
  • The showdown with the boss

I stripped out two combat encounters and a skill challenge that happened before the stronghold (plus some general role playing), and I stripped out five and a half more combat encounters within the stronghold.  Thus, a 10-12 hour adventure gets down into the 3-4 hour range.

The current version of the file is the “high challenge” version (for level 6-7 characters) and I plan to adapt it for the “low challenge” version (for level 4-5 characters) shortly.  I may also re-write it as a MYRE1-1 adventure for level 1-4 characters, replacing the orcs with goblins.

I’m pretty excited about the idea of running my own game in public.  I like the published LFR adventure well enough, and I always customize them to my taste, but running an adventure that’s completely mine is very appealing to me.  Now I just have to wait until February!

United Kobolds of the Living Forgotten Realms

This evening I ran a Living Forgotten Realms game at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds.  The amazing thing is that it wasn’t a big deal.

You might remember my post from July where I ran my first LFR game at the store.  That was a big deal to me.  I spent a month preparing for that game.  I talked on the blog and on EN World, asking for advice about running a game in public.  I had to work to create paper maps and tokens for the bad guys.  I read and re-read the adventure to make sure I understood the ins and outs (even though I had been through it already as a player).  I over-prepared.  And to be fair, I had a blast running the game.

This time I realized at some point over the weekend – oh yeah, I’m running a game on Tuesday!  No problem.  It helps that I had already run this particular adventure at TactiCon and I therefore had all of the files I needed on the laptop in MapTool, ready to run with the projector.  (This is TYMA 2-1 Old Enemies Arise.) Still, I really didn’t stress about it.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to stress.  Aside from my accidental unplugging of the projector during the game (twice – but fortunately never in combat), it all went very smoothly.  The party battled some kobolds by the side of the road.

They met with some farmers to investigate the kobold menace.

They fought in a cave full of spike traps.

And they battled the big bad guy in another part of the cave.

The first battle was fair – the defender took some serious damage, but never dropped.  The spike cave battle was lots of fun – I got to push and pull players into spikes all encounter long, when they weren’t stumbling into them on their own.  The final battle was kind of boring – I really need to find a way to spice up that encounter if I ever run this adventure again.

Part of what I enjoyed about this particular adventure was that two of my players are DMs whom I respect – Rich and Aarun.  You might remember Aarun’s name from my very first experience with Living Forgotten Realms – he was the dungeon master for my first game, and I absolutely LOVED the experience of playing under him.  He mentioned this evening that the blog post where I mentioned his name (with its unique spelling) shows up when you Google that name.  Well, Aarun – here’s another Google hit for you!

Anyway, it’s great to run a game for people you respect and for them to clearly have a good time.  I also hung around the store afterward to chat with Wes, another DM I greatly respect.  I’ve already signed up to play in some LFR games in December, and I specifically sought out games that Aarun and Wes are running.  If I can run a game for that type of person and they have a good time, I feel good about my dungeon mastering!