Since its inception, there have been a few bits of mythology that served as the basis for my campaign. However, I've been struggling for awhile on figuring out how to bring these elements into the story line, especially since the majority of the population of Newham has no idea about them. Now that my players are finally at the Tower of Lilith, which has its own mythology, I can start to bring the larger mythology back into play. For this week, I will use a letter to bring in some world history.
The letter is from Hallomak Stromm to Lilith. Hallomak is an interesting character. His line goes all the way back to old Arcadia and his father was part of the group that sealed the passage to the Underdark and defeated Magdorr's Army. When Corellon and Sehanine shared their plan to cover Arcadia with ice for a thousand years, his family was put in charge of orchestrating the return of the humans. However, things went wrong and the humans returned early, under different leadership. Since then, his family has attempted to fulfill their duties as stewards of Arcadia without holding the title of ruler.
For those interested in such matters, Hallomak is mentioned in the Dungeon Delve book as someone who owned a lot of magical items. My players really wanted to know why he owned so many things and who he was. From that tidbit, I created this version in my campaign world.
Lilith is an Eladrin princess born near the end of the Age of Song, so well over a thousand years old. She was tricked into marrying an evil Oni who wanted her family's wealth and resources. Once she figured out the deception, she fled with her family's treasure to an island in the middle of what is now called the Lake of Lost Memories. There she created a haven for all those who have need and, through the help of Corellon and Sehanine, protects the land with powerful magic and provides avenues of escape to those who most need it.
With that information, I came up with a letter between Hallomak and Stromm. It helps introduce some information about the previous ages and well as hint at the problems facing the land of Newham Shire.
In times such as these, it's important to remember our history in hopes that we don't repeat the sins of our fathers. I know that you remember all too well the Age of Song. I wish I could have seen it, the resplendent beauty of both wood and city, flower and painting, bird and choir. My hope had been to bring such delights once again to the fertile soils of Arcadia, to recreate our mortal Arvandor, but I fear those efforts have been in vain. I feel the fear and uncertainty rising from the ground and taking hold in too many hearts of her residents.
To this day, not even the wisest sages or most travelled bards know exactly what led to the end of the Age of Song. Some point to the orc invasion of Andernach and the subsequent failure of her allies to rally to her aid. Others point to the rise of a group called Free Arcadia Now, intent on overthrowing the human nation of Avestra. Still others say to truly understand, one must go back to the betrayal of Corellon and Sehanine by Lolth. Regardless of the reasons, the death of the Age of Song serves as an important reminder that even a peace that lasts for over a thousand years is built on a fragile lattice work that can break at any moment. But I fear the same powers that caused the rise of the Age of Legends so many centuries ago are at work again and our dear beloved land will fall into ruin and despair.
However, not all is lost. A small group travels our lands, fighting against these shades of darkness. They told me about a plot by five evil creatures to enslave the population of Newham and I believe they may be our only hope in stopping them. From what little I know, I fear that someone has learned the secrets of Magdorr's Army and is recreating it again. If true, all who have the old blood in their veins must be protected so that the ritual can not be performed. Unfortunately, that is not such as an easy task, as my own son has joined the Free Arcadia Now faction and ran off about a week ago. The only other way to stop them would be to put an end to the evil band. My best guess is that they will seek to break the seal that keeps Arcadia safe from the horrors of the Underdark. If you come upon my friends, please send them there with all haste. I know you have your ways.
Me: Ok brain, we're caught up on Medium and Ghost Whisperer which you said you needed for "research." Time to write this week's D&D session notes.
Brain: But I'm sure there are some NCIS episodes I haven't watched yet, I think I need those too.
Me: NCIS has nothing to do with the Tower of Lilith and you know it. What gives? I thought you loved this story. You included it in the original map and even hinted at it during the Lizardfolk temple session.
Brain: I do! But I'm afraid the players won't love it as much as I do.
Me: Don't worry about it, they're going to love it. Don't you remember how interested they were at the end of the last game?
Brain: If it's not written yet, how can you know that they'll love it. Sure, the parting of the mists for their boat made them sit on the edge of their seats, but what if what I create doesn't match their expectations. Why did you set me up with Arthurian legend anyway? You know they all know it too well.
Me: Well, you know it too. Don't hide behind that whole I'm not as geeky as they are thing because you don't have Star Trek and Star Wars memorized. Just write what you love and let me sell it to the players.
Brain: Ok, but can we get some caffeine first.
Me: It's a deal.
I'm pretty sure this happens to everyone at some point. When the focus is on the DM to create a great story, eventually nerves will get the better of even the best DMs. Which mean mere commoners such as myself have little or no chance of escaping this phenomenon completely. What should you do when this happens?
You're not writing a novel
Sometimes the problem is that the words just won't behave themselves on the page or refuse to make their way onto the page at all. Changing focus from the fine details to the broad brush strokes might help. Create an outline or at least just put down various ideas on the page or index cards. As inspiration hits, fill out each individual one. Don't worry if you can't go into too much detail for any particular one. Remember, you're not writing a novel, just trying to get the essence of world so it seems real enough at the table.
The world isn't always logical
Most of us were educated to think logically and sometimes this really hurts us as we try to create stories. We see all the holes in our stories as we write and sometimes we put so much energy into trying to fix these logic leaps that we just get frustrated. Logic has its place, but it doesn't rule everything.
Remember the DM isn't the only story teller
The players at the table will be interacting with this world and, even more important than the story you want to tell, is what excites them and their characters. If you are comfortable enough with the idea, come up with a brief outline of the important things about the world, and let your players' questions fill in the rest of the detail. For instance, if you are dealing with a legendary location, you might even have a night of improv. The players can help fill in the details of the legend with versions their characters heard as a children.
How do you guys deal with this when it happens?
For a few weeks now, I've been involved in a great play-by-post game over on Google Wave. Our DM, Michael, is a great guy. He lets my character do lots of interesting and exciting things without letting her get away with too much. He's also really good at coming up with descriptions, which is great because I still have a problem visualizing and then describing some of the neat stuff my character does. The rest of the players have been really great in this regard as well.
As for game play itself, Google Wave really makes it easy. The basics of game play are based on suggestions from Quinn on the At-Will blog. One nice thing about it is that it's easy to go back and edit and delete things like out of character comments in the in character combat wave. Given some of the quirks of wave, we create new waves every so often with one wave serving as an index to all the others. For dice, we are using Tuxaios and we are using the RPG-Bones Battle Map for combat. Finally, we have our character sheets on iPlay4e for easy reference.
While I'm not the best at it, one of the things I really like about play-by-post is that I can get more immersed in my character than I can at a physical table. Part of it is that the play style is just different, with a built-in emphasis on description over action. It's rare that we are all on at the same time, so there isn't a sense of rushing to get things done that happens when a group is trying to pack as much gaming as possible into a limited time window. Those of us who are on a lot find other ways of amusing ourselves, like goading each other into jumping off of cliffs. Also, I'm much less shy online than I am in real life. So I'm much more willing to take the leap and really make the game interesting.
However, there are some downsides. Keeping up with all of the info can be a little challenging at times. One feature I hope Google adds is the ability to have two waves open at the same time on the same web page. When you switch between waves, your current editing block closes. This is fine unless you have die roll tags, at which point it will also roll the die for you. If you have to edit the text right near the die roll, this edit will trigger a reroll, which is a bit annoying. Also, when real life interrupts and keeps a player away from wave for long stretches of hours or days, game progression halts. That can be a good thing, too, as it gives the rest of the players a little more time to think of something interesting to do with their characters.
Overall, I'm super glad that Michael let me join in the game and I'm having a ton of fun with it. It gives me a great chance to blow off some steam, learn a lot more about playing rather than DMing, and make some great new friends. My character, however, is going to need some healing help soon if she's to make it. She's already burned through her second wind and a healing potion. Hmm, maybe I should start on my next character now just to be safe.
Recently I got in trouble because I suggested to someone that they play boldly. The person in question took it to mean that I was asking him to change his personality type, that he should act like an extrovert. While I can see how he came to this opinion, that's not what I meant at all. Heck, I'm an introvert.
For me, playing boldly means a few things. Most importantly, it means coming outside your play style comfort zone and having your character do interesting things. It's really scary, I know. D&D doesn't have save points and there is always an underlying risk of character death. But the truth is, I'm not some heartless computer adjudicating the rules exactly as written. And the players aren't some sort of kill bots looking to rack up the most damage possible against the big bad guys. (Well maybe they are, but that's a different story.) Doing the same thing week after week, using the same powers in the same way, over and over again, makes for a boring game. I can try my best to shake things up by adding different challenges, but if the players approach them the same way, then I've accomplished nothing.
Besides, it's these moments of vulnerability, of epic wins and epic failures, that make for great gaming stories. We all hate to fail, the sting is great and it lasts for quite some time. When I was a kid, I played softball and always was quite scared of striking out. Instead of doing the rational thing and realizing that even the heroes of the game fail 7 times out of 10, I would put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to just make it on base. As the strike count increased, I would try to make the strike zone smaller and smaller. I had a great on base percentage but nobody was patting me no the back over it and I don't have that many great softball stories. This same scenario translates to the gaming table. Jump off a cliff onto the back of a giant spider, and you are probably going to love every moment of it. Do the safe thing and spend two turns climbing down a rope, and nobody's going to get that excited, including you.
If you're introverted, like I am, doing this will take some work. First, you need to decide that you trust the rest of the table. This is a huge issue, I know, and incredibly scary. But until you show that you trust them, your fellow players are never going to trust you. So you'll still be thinking of those cool ideas in your head (and I know you are) but no one is ever going to know how awesome you can be and they aren't going to help you get there. The truth is, they are often just as nervous and scared as you are. Sometimes it helps if you invent a persona for yourself. Base it on the true you but just tweak a few things that hold you back from fully participating. If you are still full of that inner monologue of failure, read Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton. Totally changed my life. True story.
So, how this different from asking a player to be an extrovert. For one, I'm not asking players to do these things in front of a large crowd or even in front of complete strangers. I'm also not asking them to play act or even get into precise detail. A player totally can act boldly while keeping things in terms of game mechanics. Sure, everyone might not get the cool factor as easily, but the player sure will, and that's what's important here. The best gaming moments often don't sound that way at the time, but later, when everyone is doing a recap, they will sound legendary.
It's true, coming up with truly bold, brilliant ideas all the time is near impossible, but doing it just a small percentage of the time is likely to enliven your table and make your experience a better one. It can be scary and nerve-wracking for sure, but remember that your DM is a person and he/she probably has a small idea of what you are going through. And by deciding to give your character, well, character, you might become more engaged with the game world and you might just find that your DM really isn't out to get you after all. Unless your DM is Chris Perkins. At that point, all I would have to say on the matter is "Don't split the Party" and "Aeofel Lives!"
The Tome Show released a special episode on skill challenges last Friday and everyone should check it out. Not only will you get to hear my lovely voice, but the episode is full of great ideas. Quinn ( @gamefiend ) is an animal when it comes to these things and he provides tons of great tips. Jeff Greiner ( @squach ) and Mike Shea ( @slyflourish ) are awesome as always. My husband plays but doesn't DM and he really enjoyed the episode as well. If you want more information about the skill challenge I ran, you can find it in my post Random Rumor Tables FTW. I'm hoping to do more of these things in the future, so keep an eye (or ear) out for me as I shake off my inexperienced title.
Sometimes D&D sessions aren't going to go the way you like. Even if you run a published module that's been extensively play tested, there are going to be off nights. Wednesday was one of those nights. Part of it was we were feeling a bit of the tension from the week before. In addition, some of us were feeling the stress of work. Another part was all of us, including me, were having a hard time getting into "character." So we got off to a rather slow start.
Eventually we all settled down into the tale of a haunted ship. The Captain Torend was quite beside himself due to the strange happenings on his ship. Being relatively new to the boat and the command, he had no idea what was causing the wind to leave the sails on a windy day or the strange noises in the galley in the early hours of morning. He offered the PCs free passage to Andernach, if they would help him with his problem.
With this information, the PCs decided to spend the night in the galley. They soon were awakened by four ghosts. Over time, the ghosts told their story. The former captain, Capt. Malloc, had made them walk the plank. Their captain claimed it was due to the liberal rations of ale the group availed themselves to, but the ghosts say it was because they knew his secret. Malloc was smuggling priceless artifacts out of Andernach. All they wanted was for someone to retrieve their bodies and give them a proper burial.
When the PCs agreed to do this, the ghosts made sure that the wind always blew in the needed direction and the PCs made sure the rudder was pointed in that direction as well. Once they arrived, the PCs went to work figuring out how to get the bodies out of the water. A few of them swam beneath and immediately saw that the bodies had been turned to stone. One of the adventurers went right up to the stone "statue" and tried to move it with her hands. She was instantly shocked by the Petrifying Coral and became a bit dazed as a result. Some of her friends saw this as well and worried about her health.
This is the point of the game where things started to really break down. The players had rushed into this a bit. Part of the problem was in running this like a combat encounter even though the only "combat" was disabling the hazard and freeing the statues. A number of the players admitted afterward that being in initiative order made them less likely to work together as a team. Because they didn't go down, assess the situation and then come back up to plan, a number of the party had a few rounds where there wasn't a whole lot they could do. Another issue was that I had made it a bit too easy to work around the coral. This was our first underwater encounter so I was a little afraid of making it too hard for them. In addition, I was really hoping to avoid normal combat. But, if I had to do it again, I would have added a natural creature whose only ability is being able push the PCs around, and potentially into the coral.
While I can't say it was the most fun we ever had at the table, I'm glad I decided to experiment with my group (not on them). They learned a few things about how to approach different sorts of challenges and working together as a team. For me, I am now able to more clearly explain why I don't like running role-playing and/or skill challenges in anything resembling initiative order and why skill challenges are a great framework for running certain non-combat encounters. Not sure if I'm going to do it right away, but soon I'll experiment with them on ways to create a great teamwork experience at the table while still dealing with environments where rounds matter.
Besides, it wasn't all bad. After they retrieved the bodies and started sailing north once again, I regained control and teased the next part of the adventure. Somehow I found enough courage to change the tone of my voice slightly to that of a story teller. From there I was able to set the ground work, spinning a tale about mist covered islands in the center of the lake which appear only to those who are in need and a tower, built by Lilith, the protector of the powerless. As the boat approached the center of the lake, the mists did part and the islands appeared. I left the group there and ended the session.
[Edit: The petrifying coral is a based on the elite hazard Gorgon Mud DDI]
This past weekend I quickly designed and ran an adventure for my brother and husband. A number of people on twitter expressed interest in running adventures for small parties so here are some of the things I learned from the experience.
Know the Characters in Advance
Two-character parties will have weaknesses. They might lack a controller who can take out large swaths of minions or a defender who can stand up to a big brute. Unless you want to risk the game ending early, craft your encounters, traps and skill challenges around the characters, even more so than you would with a full party.
For a number of reasons, we started off with 1st level characters. In this case, my brother is new to 4e and a first level character is easier to run. However, if that is not a concern, start them out at a higher level, perhaps at least 3rd. This gives the DM more flexibility in monster choice since he now can pick creatures a level or two below the PCs instead of having to pick everything at the same level or above.
Traps and Puzzles
One nice way to add encounters to the adventure is through the use of traps and puzzles. For older traps and hazards, be sure to double check the DCs to ensure they are using the newer DCs from the errata. In this game, we had one room that was nothing but flamejet statues. Fortunately, the rogue did pretty well, and the party got through unscathed. But it was a nice way to add drama and tension to the game while limiting a fair amount of the damage.
Player Class Synergies
Certain player classes work particularly well together. For instance, a player who chooses rogue may want to pair with a defender instead of someone squishy. My players created a fighter and rogue tag team, although they mentioned they might want to try again with two rogues instead.
Speed and Detail
With fewer players and monsters, the game can go by pretty quickly. However, the smaller group might encourage greater immersion. If they have the time, DMs should plan this in and add lots of little detail to the world. My planning time was a bit too short to full develop a lot of these things, but my game would have been much better with them.
House Rules and Gifts
The DM can always give them some companion characters to help round out the party. However, sometimes it's just better to make a couple of house rules and gifts. In this game, we house-ruled that anyone can spend a healing surge as a minor action and they found some healing potions and alchemical fire. The house rule and healing potions would help not having a healer and the alchemical fire could be used as a burst attack since they did not have a controller. Another thing to think about is ignoring certain conditions, such as dazed, immobilized, dominated, etc.
Overall the session went pretty well. They started off with no gear and equipped as they went. Given this, I made sure the first encounter was pretty easy, 2 minions with some gear, a warded door, and an armory just on the other side of the door. They had a lot of fun as well and cleared a pretty stocked dungeon. I'll write the dungeon up later as a downloadable delve.
I've always had a soft-spot in my heart for story tellers. I grew up on stories. My parents are quite imaginative people and they shared that ability with my brother and I. Many a summer weekend was spent camping, fishing and hiking. We would build "bows" out of sticks and yarn, "boats" from bark, twigs and seaweed, and forts from couches, chairs and blankets. Everything was possible. Sure, sometimes it might seem pretty silly to an outside observer, but to us, these things became real.
With these tools, my brother and I would tell epic stories. Our swing set often became the sole means of crossing a fast moving river or a stream of magma. Other times, it became a military training ground. A rope tied to the top of the slide let us "climb" when we were too young just to run up it. The double-seated swing became a space ship that we could make move faster by our ability to move it faster. A few packs full of supplies and some water guns made us into soldiers. Many a war was fought in our backyard. We created our own games and just had a ton of fun.
While we always were readers, as we got older, our appetites became insatiable. The town library became our favorite destination of choice. By this time, my brother had discovered D&D. Some of his friends had the books. He read them and then did his best to invent his own version of the game. So many of our excursions involved looking through books of ancient and medieval weaponry for interesting ideas to add to his game. My time was spent on a variety of subjects, everything from Native American culture to the geography of Africa to Greco-Roman myth to how to dress well. I still haven't figured out that last one. However, I spent less and less time writing stories during this time, even though I wrote a lot. I just didn't think I was as creative as my brother and so much pressure was on me to do well in school so I could get into a good college. It was bit of a difficult trade-off to make but I did succeed in getting into a wonderful school, Dartmouth College.
As for many geeks, college was a magical experience for me. One my favorite random experiences occurred relatively early in my college career in the basement of a fraternity. I've romanticized it a bit by this point, but a stranger appeared one weekend. I could tell that he was not used to chatting up random strangers, particularly girls, but we somehow hit it off. Pretty soon he was telling me all sorts of fantastic stories. Instantly, I was smitten. I spent most of the night listening to whatever stories he was willing to share until sleep's sweet lullaby wore down my will. Unfortunately, this was in the time before Facebook and I quickly lost touch with the stranger in the tavern. It was a while before I was able to surround myself with my own band of storytellers, but eventually I joined a coed fraternity and met a wonderful bard who became my husband.
While I gained this vast reservoir of other people's stories, I never felt comfortable with my own. Part of it is that every time I write, I put a bit of my soul into it whether it's the story line or word choice. Even today, sharing what I write is a bit of an intimate act, a baring of my soul. This anxiety was further amplified by the feeling that I could never organize a story the way the professionals do. I lacked a framework for my stories, something I never needed as a child when things were just about having fun and something that is hard to understand with a blank sheet of paper in front of you. This is where starting to play D&D comes in. Sharing my experiences, good and bad, serious and silly, have given me a bit of my confidence back. But beyond that, being able to study and interact with a ton of great people has increased my knowledge both of writing and game design and has helped me get a feel for this strange land I find myself in.
Often I hear that people are afraid to take the leap, just as I was. I think this sort of leap is something that seems to be much simpler to do as a child, where play is an acceptable activity and there is so much less to lose. But the truth is that all of us need some play time and we automatically lose when we bottle away those parts of us. So, please, don't let fear hold you back. Find a group of close friends, get some good food and beverages, and go for it! You have nothing to lose except your fear.
Given my nature, it's really hard for me to withhold information from my players. This leads me either to share too much or too little with them. Either way, the end is the same, the players aren't quite sure what to do and I feel the need to nudge them in a particular direction. For this week's game, I wanted something a bit different. During the previous session, the players revealed that a character they had heard very little about, Robert Haskins, was pretty deeply involved with the kidnapping of the Darkmagics. Hoping that he would have information on where to find Sirius Darkmagic, the PCs wanted to track Robert down and interrogate him.
This sounded like a perfect skill challenge to me. Fortunately, Jeff from the Tome Show already had asked me to do a segment on skill challenges with him and Mike ( @slyflourish ). The thought was that they would help me build a skill challenge for my game. So I sent them a quick update on where we were in game terms and we recorded a 15 minute conversation about the topic on Monday.
Originally, I was thinking there would be one, well-prepped, event where the PCs could run into Robert and attempt to capture him for interrogation. At some point, someone, I believe Mike, suggested that maybe there would be multiple opportunities and the other skill challenges would help decide which of those opportunities the PCs took. This would help the whole challenge feel a bit less linear. With that in mind, I came up with a list of three possible end scenarios.
Depending on which rumors the PCs get, they may attempt to talk to the different NPCs to gather more information/develop a plan. There are three main ways the PCs can attempt to accomplish their goal. The first, and by far the hardest, is to break into Robert's study during the party and attempt to find information about Sirius' location in Andernach. They can exploit the information about the cake, extra staff and special delivery in order to get themselves into the party without trouble. What happens once they are inside is anyone's guess.
The second, would be to leverage the information about the mistress to either extort Robert or get her to set up a meeting with Robert. Since she operates out of the seediest part of town, if it's the latter, he will have a fair number of his guards on him, but not as many as the 1st possibility. For the former, who no one ever goes to these sorts of meetings alone.
For the third, they can attack the night of the guard's birthday bash. If they get too rowdy, the town's guard will probably deal with the drunken ones, leaving just Robert, the disgraced guard and perhaps 1 or 2 more guards in the house. To help make sure the party doesn't end early, they can help the distributor get more beer.
Right away I thought it was a really good idea but I also wanted to give it a twist. Why not start off the night with a random rumor table. They were going to be seeking out information anyways and the information in the rumor table could help me show, not tell, them their options. So I thought about some rumors that could help them figure out the scenarios and easily came up with 10 of them.
1. Robert's 10-year anniversary is coming up soon and he has the finest baker making him and his wife a cake.
2. Robert has been seen leaving his home late at night and heading to the Pete's Tavern, a tavern in the seedier part of town..
3. The head of Robert's guard has a birthday coming up soon and his friends are planning a huge bash.
4. Robert and his wife's anniversary is coming up soon and his staff will be hiring some extra help for the festivities.
5. Robert's senior guard have a weekly card game at the Painted Pony.
6. There are whispers that Robert has a mistress who works out of Pete's Tavern.
7. For their anniversary celebration, Robert's wife is having a gift brought special from her homeland.
8. Robert's guard own the Painted Pony because they've been thrown out of every other bar in Newham.
9. Robert's wife is highly jealous of her husband. While Robert's family may be the richest in Newham, her family in Jesery is far richer.
10. The last time the head of Robert's guard had a party, the whole group of them ended up in the brig after drinking their favorite drink, BlueMoon Ale.
From the rumor table, I created a list of likely NPCs. I tried to give them some very basic background and traits to cut down on the amount of improv I would need to do at the table.
Aiden - Being an arrogant SOB, Robert hires his guardsmen based on friendship rather than skill. His head guard has been his friend since childhood, as have most of the rest of them. He's not incredibly bright but he is overconfident in his abilities. (Easier to bluff than intimidate)
Lady Alexa - Known more for her "specialties" rather than her looks. (Easier to bluff than intimidate, although she's quite "knowledgeable")
Horace the Black - Robert isn't completely stupid. One of the Darkmagic's former guards was fired when Aurora Darkmagic went missing a few years ago. It wasn't the guard's fault and he's been looking for a way to get back at his former bosses for years. He's an excellent guard even if Robert keeps him in the lower pay grades. Knowing Robert's plan to get back at the Darkmagics is payment enough.
Merton - Robert is ordering a rather large cake. Ordering is not quite the right word for it, a better word might be extortion. The flour alone is putting the poor guy out. (Easy to both intimidate and bluff. Oh and easy to bribe)
Gordon - The distributor of the (in)famous BlueMoon Ale. He is low on product however, and needs more if he's to fill the order for the big birthday bash the guardsmen are having.
To start of the session, I had them do something slightly different. Everyone got to roll a d10, with those trained in Streetwise rolling an extra d10. After giving them the corresponding entries from the random rumors table, I told them that they could additional streetwise checks if they wanted. Finnan, the halfling rogue decided to go for it. His check was over 30 so I gave him 3 more rumors.
With the rumors passed out, the players started planning how to use them. This put the story in their hands which was great. Like any group would, they went through several versions of the plan before settling down on something they felt comfortable about. They really liked the idea that most of the guards would be at a birthday party and drunk and/or locked up for the night. However, they put their own twist on the story, saying if most of the guards were off-duty for the night, Robert was more likely to visit his mistress, the Lady Alexa. I had not thought of that option but it made a lot of sense so I went with it.
From there, they decided to do a few little tasks that would make success in their overall plan a bit more likely. They forged a letter from Robert to include with the beer encouraging the celebration. One of the party, the male dwarf paladin, played by my female coworker, went into the den of iniquity to convince the mistress to help the party. In the end, the paladin convinced Lady Alexa, with money and diplomacy, to tie up Robert and leave him for their interrogation.
As a whole, they did really well with their skill checks and the skill challenge wasn't that challenging. To be honest though, that wasn't the point. We had a night where we spent 2.5 hours gaming and 1.5 of them were spent role playing. The loose framework of skill challenges in general but of this one in particular gave me easy tools to organize the game and keep it moving along. The small mini-challenges provided a way to spotlight a few of the characters while keeping that time fairly brief. Overall, it was a huge win and everyone, including myself, had a ton of fun.
Oh and they thought of the perfect end scenario for themselves. They left poor Robert tied up in the tavern, bereft of possessions including his wedding ring. That they sent to his jealous wife with a nice little note on where she can find her husband. Then the party decided it was time to leave Newham.
Figuring out character names is really hard for me. The problem is entirely within my own head too, which makes it even more difficult. Somehow, when I was a child, I got this idea that the name needs to mean something. Not the sound of the name or how it rolls off the tongue, but the names themselves. When I would try to write fiction as a teenager, I would sit there with baby book in hand and..still come up with nothing. First, I would page through the book, trying to find a name with a meaning the conveyed some extra understanding of the character, a bit like an artist who puts little hints about their work in the background. I would then try to randomly pick a name, but I was never really happy with the outcome. Eventually, I would just give up on the act of writing itself, frustrated that I couldn't even do something as easy as name a character.
Even then, this importance I attached to names seemed silly, but I was stuck. Fast forward about 20 years and the problem remains. Not only that, but now I get to name even more characters. So, I've come up with some coping mechanisms.
- Do the rest of the planning first. Sometimes as you plan, the name will come to you. This is how I came up with C.C. Clementine and her brother Darius.
- Steal names from other places. The ruling noble, Sirius Darkmagic, was named for Sirius Black. He is a great-great uncle of my first character, Sarah.
- Name them for what they do. I was having a hard time thinking of a name for Sirius' wife. Then I decided she had the old blood of Arcadia in her veins and often sang songs of the fabled land. It may be silly, but naming her Melody helped reinforce that connection. Similarly, two Dragonborn blacksmiths became Hammar and Anvil.
- Be random. Not every name needs to mean something.
While it's not a perfect fix, these guidelines help me a lot. Sure, sometimes I'll pick a really stupid name and break the suspension at the table. But most of the time, my players are more than happy to just roll with it.