The Travel Scene

Part of Sickness in Springdale involves traveling deep into the woods to find the cure for the disease threatening the town. Adventures often handle travel in one of two ways, as an almost pure mechanical skill challenge where failure results in some sort of immediate loss, such as a healing surge, or it's just handwaved altogether since the travel isn't important to the narrative. In this post, I'm going to discuss how I handled travel, hopefully without giving away too many spoilers.

However, in this adventure, I didn't want to handwave travel because time is important, especially if any of the PCs are sick. I also wanted to make sure the travel checks happened in a fast manner at the table. The travel checks themselves shouldn't take up much time. For this reason, I limited it to 2 in the notes. (DMs should feel free to add more if they wish.) Originally I planned to handle this by averaging the rolls of the players. At first, that sounded like a great idea but then I thought through running it and realized I didn't want to average 4-6 numbers at the table. Instead, I decided to use the three highest scores to determine the level of success. It's simple and still makes sense in the story as presumably those characters would help those who didn't succeed as well.

Great, now that I handled the mechanics of travel, how do I make it fun? I determined that the travel section should be divided into 3 subsections, with 2 waypoints. Those waypoints are when they make the travel group check to see how long it took them to reach them. I added 2 additional scenes to be described as part of that section's journey, with the order determined by the DM.

These scenes are resolved mainly by role-playing, although skill checks may be useful. How the players decide to resolve the scenes determines whether or not they earn points towards the Lady's Favor and also may provide them with smaller boons such as a bonus to their travel check.

Another thing I like about the travel section is that it's a way for the DM to adjust the difficulty level of the adventure. If anyone in the party is sick, a longer travel time is not a good thing, it gives more opportunities to get worse. It also builds tension because the townspeople need these supplies soon.

So that's how I decided to address travel in the adventure. If you haven't already, I really hope you check it out. It is for level 1 characters and includes everything from tokens to maps to pregens. The PDF is available at a number of places, including RPGNow for $1.99. If you bought the adventure, thanks so much! It hit the top 5 hottest items on RPGNow yesterday which is a huge accomplishment for me. Thanks to your interest, Postmortem Studios is interested in having me write more. Also, feel free to let me know what you think, in the comments, on twitter @SarahDarkmagic, or by email tracy [at] sarahdarkmagic.com.

PAX East Recap and Other News

So, lots of stuff to share. First, I went to PAX East and had a blast. I ran over 12 hours of games for the kind RPGA folks including 2 learn to play sessions and 2 sessions of my DM Challenge entry. I had a ton of fun running them, especially the learn to play ones. Those sessions align well with my DMing style and we get to do some fairly awesome stuff like creating a focus lens out of ice and rewriting the entire adventure on the fly. I hope to write more about that later.

A few quick items:

  • Players really loved the public initiative on my DM screen. I'm pretty sure I learned that trick from @SlyFlourish.
  • Players also responded well when I asked them to describe the death scenes of the monsters they killed. That often led them to describing other things as well. That's a tip I learned from @gamefiend when I played in one of his games.
  • Minions are awesome for new players, at least some of them. They had a ton of fun trying to sneak up to them and getting the instant kill effect. It also highlighted how bad ass the dragon was. (Yes, I made them fight a dragon at first level.)
  • I've gotten to the point where I can make stuff up on the fly. For one group, I had planned to send them to the dungeon from the Red Box to deal with the kobold caravan robbers, but the group wanted to draw out the ambush instead by dressing up as merchants. Fortunately the back of the map had an outdoor scene and we were off to the races.
  • I'm floored by the number of people who took time out of their busy con to come say hi to me. You guys really help give me the energy to do what I do and I appreciate it. I can't thank you enough.

Now that PAX East is over, I'll have time to work on a few of my other projects. For those who don't know, I'm working on a project for Margaret Weis Productions. I'm really excited about it and can't wait to share it.

I also finished a short adventure for Postmortem Studios, Sickness in Springdale.

In Sickness in Springdale, the characters attempt to save their town from a deadly illness by finding a cure. To do so, they need to travel through the Lady's Woods where they will meet a series of challenges to gain her favor.

During the course of their travels, they find that their town is not the only one with the disease and there's competition for the cure..

This project is my first published adventure and I'm really proud of it. It's for 4e and for 1st level characters. Most important to me is that the characters have a number of decision points and how they decide to handle elements of the adventure, including in combat, determines their overall success in the larger story. Also, I made half of the characters female. Gender isn't important to the characters' stories but we wanted to include some character portraits for those who enjoy them.

In addition to these projects, I have a chapter in the upcoming GOLD Guide to Competitive Gaming. Mine is on finding your voice as a GM. I can't believe I have the chance to work on this project. I'll have more updates on it as things progress.

Well, that's my update.

When (Potential) Enemies Become Friends

Lately I've felt limited by the traditional tactical combat mindset in 4e. It's not that I now dislike combat or I tire of pushing bad guys off of cliffs, into fires, or anything like that. I'm just tired of pure force being the only thing that matters. I'm not suggesting that we should all start singing Kumbaya around the campfire, but sometimes I need more tools than damage and intimidation. Here are some alternatives I've offered.

Arcane-Powered Constructs

My games tend to feature high amounts of magic, and, in particular, magic constructs such as the buzz saws in my Lumbermill Delve or clockwork spiders in my DDXP game. In real life I'm a gadget nut and I love to tinker, so that's just my personality coming through in the game. Besides, it's hard to reason with or interrogate an unthinking robot. However, I love to reward players who try to take them over. I know some people worry that this will unbalance the encounter or something, but my games also tend to feature a play-style where that doesn't matter, or at least not as much.

In general, here's how I handle it. Taking over something like a clockwork spider is a standard action, hard DC arcana check set to the level of the creature. I'm contemplating giving the creature a saving throw, perhaps if it is the same level or higher than the PC. Once the PC has control, she needs to make a hard arcana check as a minor to keep it.

The rewards for gaining control tends to change with each game, keeping the same rules in a particular campaign unless the group agrees to change them. Currently, I'm considering treating it like the dominated condition but here are some of the things I've tried:

  • Practically remove it from combat although keeping it on the board in case the player loses his connection with it.
  • Allow the player to apply the actions available to his PC to the creature.
  • Allow the player to control the monster during the monster's turn.

I haven't done it yet, but I might suggest adding that if the creature is attacked by the ally of the controller, that hostile action breaks the connection. Also keep in mind that your players may want to keep their new toy with them. Whether or not to allow it is completely up to you, but if you're likely to disallow it, you might want to come up with an in-story reason why.

Natural Creatures

Even though I'm not perfect about it, I'm a big fan of giving all of the NPCs goals and reasons why they are in combat. When applicable, this provides scenarios where PCs can "defeat" an opponent without knocking their hit points to 0. It's similar to taking over arcane constructs, but I often tie another condition to this. For instance, in the game I ran on Saturday, a bunch of goblins had wolves fighting for them. These particular wolves didn't fight because they wanted to, but rather they had been abused and were afraid of the goblins. Until their "masters" were dealt with, the wolves saw them as the alphas in the situation. When that was no longer the case, a PC could make a nature check, moderate DC, to remove a wolf from combat.

In addition to convincing natural creatures to their side, I've had such creatures be neutral parties in the combat. For instance, in my Gamma World game at DDXP, the PCs need to cross the Charles River to get to Fenway Park. While crossing, they are accosted by pirates. Two rounds in, a shark starts attacking anything in the water, pirates and PCs alike. While these creatures aren't friends per se, I could see characters on both sides, trying to increase the odds they don't become the creature's next meal.

Our Interests Align

I'm on a big "let PCs make decisions that have ramifications" kick. The adventure I ran on Saturday was full of them. One of the other things I did in that adventure was have the difficult of an encounter depend on whether or not the characters decided to parley. Basically, the PCs are out to find a limited resource. They hear word along the way that others are interested in the resource as well and, in one encounter, they come upon one such group, a small elf scouting party. If the PCs decide to attack first, ask questions later, the encounter goes from being about their level to 1-2 levels above it. If they negotiate first, they at least worst remove the elves from combat and at best gain some benefits from their alliance.

At the game, I struggled to figure out the best way to handle this. I didn't want to hand them over as companion characters in this case because that would make the encounter very easy and increase the complexity of the game play. So I went with the option of just removing them from game play. After some reflection, I'd suggest providing each player with a one-time boon to be used in that encounter to represent the elves' aid, a one-time +4 bonus to an attack or damage roll.

So those are some of the alternatives I've offered in my games. What things have you tried?

Podcast: The Tolkien Professor and Faerie and Fantasy

If you're looking for a new podcast to listen to, I suggest the Tolkien Professor. As the name suggests, this podcast is recorded by a college professor. It consists of his lectures, including the questions asked by the students. Last year he recorded his class on Tolkien and this year he is focusing on his Faerie and Fantasy course.

While I enjoyed the Tolkien course, I'm really looking forward to the current one because it's a topic I know and love. So if you have some time, check it out. As an added bonus, he has the syllabus posted online and many of the stories are freely available online. Also, he recorded himself reading some of the Middle English texts. If you've never heard these spoken aloud, let me tell you, it's a delight.

If you're not interested in the podcast but enjoy fairy tales, Andrew Lang's collection of stories can be found online at mythfolklore.net. I love using old stories as building blocks to new ones so you can bet I'll be using this collection a lot in the coming weeks.

It All Comes Down to Time

In his very good post, TheAngryDM talks about resource use in 4e D&D. Today on twitter we discussed things a bit more and he brought up that the system needs to address that the players get too much of a carrot by taking an extended rest. I don't disagree, but the truth is the system does address it, just not in a way that makes many DMs or groups particularly happy. It's done by emphasizing time.

Many DMs just hand wave time. Even though a number of skills and rituals detail how much time they take, I really didn't get that keeping track of time was that important. Also, at least for me, it's hard to figure out how much time something should take in a game. Players are used to fixing a flat tire in under half an hour. In a world with magic, how long would it take to fix a wagon wheel? If we have all the time in the world, the answer to that question doesn't matter. If it means the difference between failure and success, time becomes just as precious of a resource when compared to healing surges, daily powers, and trail rations.

However, if we keep track of time in our games, suddenly we have at least a partial mechanical answer to our problems of the 15 minute workday. Here are the basics of an extended rest.

Extended Rest

Duration: 6+ hours
* 12 hours need to elapse between rests
* Light activity only, usually sleep

* Regain hit points and healing surges (Exceptions listed elsewhere)
* Regain all encounter and daily powers including magic items
* Lose all unspent action points. Gain 1 action point at the end of the rest.

* If anything interrupts the rest, add the length of time of the interruption to the time needed for an extended rest. So if a band of gnolls wakes you up and it takes half an hour to deal with them, the total duration is now 6.5 hours.
* Unless otherwise noted, characters need to sleep for 6 hours out of every 24. If they do not sleep for 6 hours, they do not gain the benefits of an extended rest.
* In an area with an environmental danger, characters may regain healing surges lost due to combat by taking an extended rest but not those lost due to failed endurance checks.

In a game where time ranks as a resource, I see right away that the rule concerning 12 hours becomes important. If you only have 2 days to stop someone, each of those hours becomes critical. They are resources you need not only to rest (6+ hours), but to do streetwise checks (1 hour), perform rituals (varies), etc.

So by ignoring time, we are ignoring a critical part of the game as intended. I'm not against that, but it's something we should keep in mind when we start changing rules. So in my mind, we have 3 options:
* Make time matter. (seemingly the default game mode)
* Give the players carrots/hit them with sticks to make them want to have multiple encounters between extended rests.
* Adjust their resource levels to account for the lower number of encounters between extended rests.

Which avenue we explore is determined by the type of game we run and how much we want mechanics versus narrative to provide the impetus. Personally, I'm not a fan of his proposals because I feel they overemphasize PC death to the detriment of other elements. Which one we pick is also determined by how much time we have to prepare. As TheAngryDM stated, we don't always have time to create super creative narrative options.

So where do we go from here? It would be great to see some articles on how to deal with time and its passage in games. I'd also love to see a toolbox full of suggestions for how to handle the issue in games, multiple tools that address particular play styles and adventure types. Together these should help the vast majority of games while not adding constraints that DMs need to pull away.

Hacking Rules

By trade, I'm a programmer, mainly in website development both front- and back-end. So to say that I enjoy hacking with systems is an understatement. The truth is game systems are no different to me. In my mind, rules often are just algorithms intended to get specific results each time. If those results aren't exactly what we need, we can modify them to produce the outcome we want.

In order to do that, we need two pieces of information. What does the current rule set intend to provide? What results would we like instead? The answers to these questions aren't always obvious, particular in a complex machine such as D&D.

For this post, I'll take a look at a potential change Rob Schwalb proposed in his article, Reexamining the Dungeon. I'll admit up front that I'm just exploring these and may well be wrong on some of them if not all of them. But if I don't put out my thoughts, I'll never improve. So let's look at part of his proposal.

The “tactical encounter” begins when the PCs enter the dungeon sector. The PCs don’t roll initiative yet as they are in exploring mode. As they move through the sector, they might encounter the smaller groups, at which point they could roll initiative and fight, sneak by the enemy, or talk their way through the monsters. A party might roll initiative two or three times before they complete the sector. For example, the heroes come upon the orcs. They botch the parlay. Combat begins. The PCs fall back and stumble into the gelatinous cube and so on.

In this particular case, I'm a bit worried about initiative. First, let's try to understand what this mechanic attempts to do.


  • Determines the order of characters' actions. This abstracts readiness. Some classes have a higher initiative bonus, such as the thief with his +2 due to combat readiness. It also adds some randomness to it, meaning even the character with the slowest reaction time might still go first.
  • Helps the DM manage the table. If we don't have an agreed upon order of action, the DM can have a hard time managing people's actions.
  • Moves the spotlight. Players each want their time to shine. Moving through initiative order ensures that the get it.
  • Provides a trigger state for some feats, magic items and powers. For instance the Warlord's Battlefront shift triggers on an initiative roll.

Now that we have a handle on initiative let's look at what's going on in this proposal. My understanding is that the larger goal of the article is to give players a goal to a combat encounter that isn't tied to killing all of the monsters in an area. Schwalb suggests that we shift granting XP from being a reward for monster murder to a reward for meeting the encounters objectives. This frees us from the typical way of running an encounter, which, in turn, should free us from having to run the entire encounter in initiative order. Instead, we should use our encounter XP budget to buy a series of challenges for the PCs to face in completing their objective. Only if they decide to fight a NPC group (or if that decision is made for them) should they roll initiative and they should do it each time that decision is made.

However, I'm worried that this suggestion causes other problems. First, I'm concerned that by increasing the overall number of rolls, we will be over-rewarding those who invest in high initiative at the expense of those who don't. I particularly worry given how we're working with the encounter math to increase the number of potential combats. Each mini-encounter might be a half, or even less, of a regular encounter. If there aren't enough hit points or monsters to consistently give the players who have a lower initiative bonus something to do each combat, that might annoy them a bit. Having all the NPCs defeated before your turn in round 5 is much different from having them repeatedly defeated before your turn in round 1 or 2.

Triggers also concern me a bit. Fortunately, I only found one at-will power that is tied to initiative checks and that's the Ranger's "Aspect of the Pouncing Lynx." However there are a number of daily and magic item daily powers that trigger on it, so we should keep in mind that we're increasing the likely number of triggers.

Also, by treating it as a hybrid of one encounter/many encounters, we are more likely to trigger "target has not yet acted" abilities. While that's not tied explicitly to initiative, since there's a chance they wouldn't have acted before either, we now have fewer targets for PCs with those abilities to target.

Now, I’ll admit it’s totally possible that my worries are a bit too extreme. Even if they get fewer turns per session, maybe it wouldn’t be enough to notice. Or players with a lower initiative bonus tend to not care about combat as much anyway and so it doesn’t bother them. And since so many of the triggers are encounter or daily based, maybe it’s a rare case where someone gets too much of a benefit from the switch.

So that’s an example of the sort of thinking I put in before messing with the rules in any major way.

Review: Soldiers of Fortune

War. Mercenaries. Both are often a part of the very stories that provide the foundation of D&D yet usually not addressed by the rules. Soldiers of Fortune aims to address that, at least for 4e play. The kind folks at Open Design/Kobold Quarterly were nice enough to give me a pdf copy to review.

Soldiers of Fortune packs a lot of information, providing paragon paths, rituals, feats, powers, monsters, NPCs, magic items and seige engines, to name a few. Just as importantly, it provides an introduction to the art of war, called the "The Midgard Stratagems." Many forget how important water and supplies are to an army and a few even ignore the importance of terrain. Instead of going through the entire book, I'd like to provide some highlights.

A few quick notes. The book is set in Midgard, Open Design's campaign setting. The author, Matt James, is a decorated Army veteran and the recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Skill Challenges
Soldiers of Fortune contains a number of skill challenges. One, "Besieged", details how the characters attempt to fortify and hold a keep against an enemy's siege. Another, "Command the Legion" chronicles the PCs' attempt to earn the command of the legion. One thing I love about these skills challenges is that they are well integrated into the story. Certain skills are more useful or are only useful at the beginning of the skill challenge and other skills rise in prominence near the end. This fits in with the strategy approach of newer skill challenges as well. At the beginning you might need to show that you and your group are strong enough to lead but at the end, you have to convince the higher ups that you are just as good at politics.

Another part I like is that the consequences are often tiered, to give more than just a binary outcome. The only downside to these skill challenges is their organization. The skills are listed in alphabetical order instead of the order they might be used during the challenge. As a DM, I would just create a little chart in my notes giving the proper order.

As Detailed as You Like
The entire book left me with the feeling that you could make the game as detailed as you wanted. Some players might care about supply lines or the tactical decisions a commander might make. Others might want to concentrate on a few key scenes that showcase their war efforts but really are just encounters with a story of war surrounding them. This book aids with both of these and the many variations. Matt even suggests that if a group wants to play out the larger scale battle, why not pull in another system, such as Warhammer Fantasy, that handles that sort of play already.

I also like that the powers, feats and magic items are tied pretty closely to the themes of war. While I understand why the typical D&D sourcebooks are vague with details, since the campaigns they are meant for are so varied, a book such as Soldiers of Fortune really shines when it can tie everything together.

Skill Combat
In his section on how to run the best possible game, Matt provides a rule system called Skill Combat. Basically it's a drop in mechanics system for abstracting the defense of an entity. To be honest, I'm not sure I really get it but I'm very interested in hearing more about it.

Overall I really liked the book. The copy I received had a few see page $$$ errors, so if that's something that is likely to annoy you, that's something to keep in mind. That said, I know my husband can't wait to for his character to get his hands on some siege equipment and I'm interested in playing with the skill challenges and skill combat sections.

If this topic appeals to you, a great additional resource is the Paksenarrion series by Elizabeth Moon. It has lots of great details about the life of mercenary soldiers, particularly of the type who consider themselves professionals in every sense of the word.

Becoming a Grasshopper

In my last post, The Ant and the Grasshopper, I discussed how players often act like ants, collecting and hoarding resources, not looking beyond their character sheet for answers, etc. Some people pointed out that I didn't provide a lot of answers for how to shift from ant to grasshopper. The problem is, how to do this will vary widely from group to group, person to person. The best I can do is offer some tips that seem to work for me and the groups I play in.

Lead by example

Playing boldly is a risk. Depending on your DM, your characters are more likely to die and you might be seen as playing outside of the rules as written (RAW). The fear of "failure" is a hard one to overcome. However, once someone in the group decides to take that timid first step, it's easier to overcome inertia. Now I look for opportunities to do something a bit different in every game.

Give time for thinking

I completely understand the DMs who are frustrated that their players will take 30 minutes to figure out the optimal way to enter a room full of brigands. In the game world, the characters wouldn't have that amount of time to plan and not everyone at the table enjoys tactics. However, the types of stories grasshoppers tell often require some negotiation and prep. We're asking players to step outside the commonly accepted way of playing the game, to do something awesome and special. We should give them time to negotiate out how the start of the scene will unfold.

For instance, in one game I played a changeling. A woman hired us to find her missing husband. We tracked the his kidnapper, a genie, to a cave where some ogres lived. The rest of the ogres were out hunting and just an elderly female ogre remained in the cave. The door we needed was in the back of the cave. We could have tried to kill her but I had an idea. What if I "changed" into a child ogre and presented the rest of the party as my captives and a gift for letting me live with the tribe. Our hope was that we could get close enough to the door in the back of the cave before she went after us and before the rest of the tribe came back.

We had a lot of fun going through this, but it took some time to set up and describe properly. We had to negotiate what we were going to do, how we would behave, etc. Sure, you might not want to allow this sort of planning every time, but if you allow for it sometimes, awesome can happen. Besides, we didn't plan for every contingency. My character only spoke common and I had to come up with a good reason for that on the spot.

Provide opportunities for awesome

While I'm still not a huge fan of the 6 paragraph read aloud text, many adventures provide too little information to encourage creative play. DMs need to add these nuggets of goodness in for themselves, which makes sense anyway because they are often in the best situation for knowing what will appeal to their group. If you have a sneaky member in your party, provide ways for him to use that to his advantage. If someone likes to pull levers, make sure to add them.

But just as importantly, make sure they are noticeable. Set up situations that while fantastical, still have that element of familiarity that a player will grasp right away. If your players are big procedural crime drama fans, allow them to do some investigation in the adventure. If they like sports, think of a fantasy version. Maybe race fans find themselves racing carts for fun or building their own magical cars. In a world of magic and fantasy, the only limits are those you and your group decide to impose.

In a recent game, I had arcane mechanical spiders descend from the ceiling, producing their own "rope" as the came down. I hoped that the players might use the rope to their advantage, and at least 2 of the 3 groups did. Even more importantly, the player of one of the caster PCs asked if he could take over one of the spiders. Of course I said yes, and we had fun as he was able to take it over and use it to attack the other spiders. Sure, it short-circuited the encounter a bit, but in a way that was fun and memorable. To me, that's way more important.

So those are some of the things I do to persuade my players to step outside of the rules and into something different. Do you have any tricks that you use?

Fortune Cards

Over the course of DDXP, I was fortunate enough to get 6.5 packs worth of Fortune Cards from the various games I tried. I saw them both as a player and as a DM running the game. I have to admit this is one of the most difficult posts I've had to write.

On one hand, I want to like them. I mean, I love the Twitter buffs from the Encounters games. I also really like the random alpha mutations from Gamma World and how they make me want to do things as a player that I might not otherwise. But I have to admit my initial impressions from the cards were not good. I hoped some time would help me decide if the opinions were from the overall experience (I was really struggling as a player) or from the cards themselves. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can separate it out enough. So here are my thoughts, in the raw and probably biased by a fair amount.

As A Player
I made the decision I wasn't going to build a deck when I tried them out, mainly because I didn't have enough cards on me to really have that make sense. So my cards were completely random and I had no idea what I was going to get. What this meant is that my thief and binding warlock both got charge cards pretty early. In fact, I don't remember getting a single card that I felt would be useful to my character.

I also had a hard time integrating them into my play. A lot of this had to do with trying to digest a bunch of new material at once. We played with a bunch of preview material and it was all very new to me, especially since I'm not as well versed in D&D fiction and history as many other players. I also rarely play D&D as a player, so I was struggling a bit to remember everything and still have fun.

As a DM
I think I ran two games with them. In the first game, the people at the table didn't have many cards to pick from to build their decks. To be honest, I didn't see any noticeable difference in game play. Sure, sometimes fortune smiled in their favor, but most of the time, they seemed to forget that the cards were there or they felt the bonuses weren't worth it.

However, the second group had enough time to collect more cards and they started the game by building decks. In this game, I really felt the cards' impact. It's possible that fortune just smiled on them and that's all there is to it, but I'm not sure about that.

After DDXP, I finally had a chance to really look at the cards as a whole. One thing you should know is that I love playing rogues. With the cards I have, I see a lot of good for my little rogue. Granted, a number of them are still pretty fiddly, so fortune would have to shine on my character, but still. I mean, let's take Phantom Ally. "Play at the start of your turn. During this turn, you gain combat advantage against targets of your at-will attack powers." Or Crafty Strike, "Play when your at-will or encounter attack power hits an enemy granting you combat advantage. You gain a +4 bonus to the power's damage roll against that enemy."

Overall, I'm still not against them, but I could see myself creating some house rules pretty quickly. For instance, I would be tempted to remove combat advantage cards for character classes that heavily rely on it, such as the rogue. I'd have to play more games to know for sure.

One suggestion made at my table was to build a deck for the table, with each player contributing a card. Then play a card each round and everyone, including monsters, could benefit from it. I also would be tempted to use them as rewards, for things like good role-playing, completing skill challenges and clever problem solving. For instance, one of the cards is called "Lucky Fall." It allows a character to take half the damage from a fall and land standing.

So that's my experiences with them. I would love to hear yours. Maybe I'm just being too harsh or I misunderstood something.

Nothing like a Playtest

During DDXP I had the honor of running an adventure I wrote for 3 groups of players. The experience was absolutely wonderful and I learned a ton from the process. My adventure was called "Dream a Little Dream of...Death." When I decided to run my own adventure, I decided I had a few goals:

  • I wanted people to have fun.
  • I wanted to encourage role-playing and exploration.
  • I wanted people's decisions to matter.

Overall, I reached these goals, particularly the first two. My groups all had fun. I heard they even told other people about how much fun they had, which was awesome for me. Beyond DM challenges, I haven't done anything like this so it was a good confidence boost. The fact that people could buy tickets specifically to play with me helped. Most of my players had an idea of who I was and what sort of game I was likely to run. That helped increase the probability that our play styles would match up.

Beyond that, I just listened to the table to see how serious or funny they wanted to be with the adventure. My first two groups were a bit more serious in how they wanted to play the adventure while my last group decided to have the knight wear bedazzled armor and order wine coolers from the barkeep. All the groups were a ton of fun for me to run and having them laugh during a rather dark game helped keep us all sane too.

So great, first goal done. How about role-playing and exploration? The easiest way to answer this is that all 3 groups spent an hour or two role playing during the first part of the adventure. This made my heart sing. I give a lot of credit to the players but also the story was an easy one to pick up and figure out what to do. The adventure had two layers to aid in role playing.

First, I set them up as members of the Rose Brigade, a special force in Arcadia's army that is tasked with protecting the nobility and raising the reputation of the military in the eyes of the common people. So as part of their PR duties, they often travel around and perform for crowds, turning the skills honed for the very serious art of war into something the average person would find entertaining and awe inspiring. So when we did the character introduction phase, I often asked them to describe how they might use their skills to entertain a crowd.

Second, the start scenario encourages role-playing. Their captain had received a number of letters from old military buddy Tomas detailing some of the events in Tranquility, namely the bad dreams and the recent spate of deaths. The captain sends them to investigate, offering them so rest and relaxation in the vacation town in exchange. When they get there, they find Tomas fairly quickly, only to find he's just been arrested for murder in connection with the deaths. From there, they need to investigate the deaths in hopes of freeing Tomas and bringing the real murderer to justice. This gives them lots of reasons to explore town, talk to some NPCs and make a wide variety of checks.

My last goal was to make people's decisions matter. I can't discuss this one without releasing some spoilers, so you've been warned. The Rose Brigade setup helps with this a bit, as long as they buy into it. Also, if they refuse to solve the murders, Tomas will be found guilty and put to death. Beyond those story elements, the biggest area with choices is the first encounter. The artillery creatures use the spirits of those who were murdered as "meat" shields against the PCs. The spirits have an aura of despair that causes a -1 saving throws for each spirit adjacent to the PC. So, they can decide to save the spirits, with a penalty to saving throws and the types of powers they can use or they can decide they don't care and take out the spirits. Overall I'm pretty happy with it.

Overall, running my adventure multiple times was a wonderful experience. After each one, I had a bunch of changes I wanted to make to it. Fortunately, the new DM screen has the damage by level numbers so I was able to quickly adjust at the table. For instance, the first time I ran it, the monsters in the first encounter had a lot of burst powers. The problem was that they would take out all of the ghost spirits which isn't something I really wanted the monsters to do. Now I can't wait for the next con where I can run it again and get some more feedback.

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