Looking Back, Sarah's First Appearance

With a year under my belt, I've been looking back at my blog post and game session notes from my very first D&D game. It's been interesting reading them, as both were the first things I had written for approximately 8 years. My blog post seems so strange to me because I remember that I had curtailed my writing for fear that I would just appear to be silly on the Internet and my session notes lacked the sort of flowery and descriptive style that I love. Both speak volumes about how nervous and unsure I was of myself at the time, as I tried to do something I had never done before in front of people I really like and respect.

Due in large part to my insecurities, my prep for that first game was intense. During work, I listened to first series of the PvP/PA podcasts again and again. I would highly recommend them to any new players since many of the basic rules are explained as they come up during the game, making it a great tutorial as well. Since I wanted to surprise my husband with my character, I spent lunches and breaks reading the Player's Handbook. Fortunately, I worked from home at the time, so hiding my activities wasn't that hard. Even with that preparation, I remember how intimidating the character sheet appeared. I'll be honest, I could not figure the darn thing out. I finally found a spreadsheet online that made things a ton easier as I tried to figure out AC and basic melee attacks and the like.

Beyond creating a character sheet, I knew I also had to create a character. This part was really easy for me. I decided that since the podcasts were the reason I would start playing, that my character would be a cousin of Jim Darkmagic. I also knew that our particular party needed a rogue as they had been begging me to play one for a good month or two. Ok, maybe not begging, but I think at least one member asked every week or two. And after thumbing through the Player's Handbook, I really liked the half-elf race. So now I had to draw together Jim Darkmagic, a half-elf, and a rogue. For me, this part was rather easy. I love creating stories, songs and even silly rhymes. If you're interested, I wrote a bit of Sarah's background here.

With the background story items done, I asked my GM for a few special mundane items for character flavor and created stories for the rest of the items Sarah had on her. The first special item was a Locket of Everlasting Warmth. Mechanically, it does nothing, but storywise, the locket was created by her father Stephen. Whenever she clasps it in her hand, Sarah fells surrounded by the warm love of her family. It seemed perfect for an insecure woman out on her own for the first time. Her second item was a never-ending journal so she could write and write without fear of running out of pages or having to get rid of older journals. Beyond that, she had a set of fine clothes, a going-away gift from her parents so that she would never encounter a situation where she lacked the proper dress, a henna kit so she could reapply her tattoo of Sehanine, and a long sword, from the wife of the missing Douvan Staul, in hopes Sarah could use it to help find him.

Finally, the big night came. I was so incredibly nervous. Two of the four people at the table knew of my plans and my husband was not one of them. I did my normal wife of the host chit-chat before the game and settled down on the couch to "read" while they started their game session. I impatiently waited for my cue, the time I was to come and introduce myself to the party.

Fortunately, they were in a position where such an introduction was easy to do. They were running through Keep of the Shadowfell and were currently waiting outside a waterfall. The elven ranger, Lucan, heard Sarah's approach first, and warned his party. Once the GM described the situation of a young half-elf woman appearing from the wood and announced that it was Sarah's turn, I approached the table. Many of the players were a bit confused by this announcement. Trying to project but failing terribly on the account of nerves, I said "Damn, looks like I missed all the action again." My husband turned to look at me with a bit of a blank expression, as if I was there to get a hug or to tell him I was going to head to the store. I let it hang in the air for a beat or two and then said, "Sorry, where are my manners, my name is Sarah." With him still a bit shocked, I pulled my chair up to the table with my character sheet and pencil in hand (I hadn't had the chance to get some dice in the mean time).

With hasty introductions accomplished, we turned our attention on the waterfall. I don't want to spoil the fight for anyone who has yet to play Keep on the Shadowfell but let's just say it's a pretty hard fight. I rolled initiative pretty well which was a blessing and a curse. As a rogue, going first gave me some bonuses, but it also meant I got myself into trouble pretty quickly. Soon Sarah was surrounded with no easy way out. At first, I panicked a bit, which is exactly what my character would have done. Eventually, I gathered my wits and begin using her powers that pushed enemies around. That enabled our paladin to get close enough to heal her and then switch places with her. From there, the tide began to turn and I'm pretty sure I was able to bring down some more of the enemies. Perhaps just as important, my crazy defender-like antics meant the ranged striker and wizard were able to get some great shots off without being harassed.

Although it may sound strange, my first game wouldn't have been as exciting to me if it wasn't for that encounter and my mistakes. Likewise, if the GM had pulled his punches and gave me a free pass instead of having the enemies surround me, there is a good chance I wouldn't have continued with the game. When that situation happened and no one rolled their eyes or made fun of me, I knew that I had found my group and that I would be back to play. And well, you guys know the rest.

Hammerfast, Hammerfall, Hammercrest, Hammertime...

One of my rewards for DMing some games at PAX East was a copy of the Hammerfast rules supplement. Since it was on my list of things to buy, this was a real win for me. Now that I have some time to relax and am feeling a lot better after my battle with PAX Plague, I've been flipping through it and, I have to admit, I really like it. There is a lot of detail with all sorts of buildings and shops, NPCS, and lots of flavor. To be honest, it feels a bit like the old adventures I've been reading, since the pages are in black and white with line drawings and there is a lot more intrigue and connections. And the included map is great, with the entire town laid out on one side. The scale on that side of the map is a bit smaller, so you might want to use something other than minis to mark your parties' progress through town.

Ways to use Hammerfast:

  • As the home base of a new campaign - There is a lot of detailed information packed into this slim volume, everything from history to buildings to holidays to NPCs. You can easily find an adventure hook to get the thing started and make it come alive with some of the background description. Personally, I would be tempted to start an adventure on the Seige Day holiday. There's just something stunning about the spectacle of a horde of orc ghosts running down the street, reenacting their attack.
  • As the basis of a city in a homebrew - Have a homebrew? Why not steal bits and pieces of the city for your world. Many of the villain groups could exist anywhere or maybe you just want the map. I'm probably going to use the city as a whole as the dwarven city in my campaign.
  • As a learning tool - I'll admit, this is the main reason I wanted to get this book. I really like the similar town treatments given in other books, including the Dungeon Master's Guide, but those were still fairly limited in scope. I'm going to be studying this book along with the DMG suggestions for world building to see what I can do better in the future.

Now I just need to sell my players on the wonders of the dwarven city of Hammerfast, I mean Andernach.

Maps from the DM Challenge

In addition to completing my personal challenge of writing an Underdark adventure, I participated in the DM's challenge during PAX East. Since I'm going to rework parts of that adventure, I don't want to post the story yet. However, I'm more than happy to post my map notes.

The first encounter occurs when either the party stumbles upon a Quaggoth hunting party or the hunting group stumbles upon them. The area is a pretty decent camp site, with fresh water and it's a bit easier to guard than an open area. The small circles on the right denote Sporecloud squares, which provide concealment once engaged. There is also a nice fire pit, probably created over time by wandering adventurers.

Next up is the old dwarven outpost which marks the entrance to the mine. Quaggoths have taken the thing over. Archers and a chanter guard the front door from above while two berzerkers watch from the campfire below. I had a skill challenge at the end of the earlier encounter, and groups that pass that challenge are given information about the secret passage. That gives them a slight advantage in the hardest fight of the adventure.

This map encompasses two adventure areas. The first is a small cave filled with myconids and geonids. Only fairly perceptive players will notice the latter, as they look a bit like the other boulders dotting the area. The second area is the home of a dark creeper necromancer and his zombies. The zombies have been taking the bodies of Quaggoth's victims and dragging them through the myconids' territory, so the two groups aren't exactly friends. Insightful adventurers might be able to use this fact to negotiate with the myconids for safe passage. The main terrain elements in the first area are the waterfall that leads into a pool and the slime between the two geonids. When I ran it, the slime became difficult terrain but if I ran it again, I would probably make it slippery and require an acrobatics check to avoid ending up prone. In the second area, there are blood soaked squares that award critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20.

I'd love to thank the people who give me some hints and advice in regards to this adventure: Phil, Randall, Jonathan and Jason. They are all great guys and I wouldn't have had the confidence to run it without their help.

Interrogating Your PCs

During my normal game brainstorming session, I had a skill challenge idea that I honestly had no idea how to implement. My players love to keep one of the NPCs alive so that they can interrogate him or her later, but what if I could turn the tables on the players? What if the players had the valuable information someone else wanted? The older mechanic of fort/reflex/will saves thematically works well with this type of tactic, whereas it feels a little less obvious in 4th edition.

Of course my brain kept going round and round the problem, trying to find that little crack that would allow me to flip it around to something more approachable. This morning my brain finally rearranged the problem into something more approachable. Stop thinking in terms of 4E vs. older editions. Skills become their defenses, just like fort/reflex/will saves, with some providing a primary defense and others bolstering it. Of course, the players are free to take proactive steps as well, trying to escape or control the conversation. While the main and secondary skills will change depending on the story line, below are some ways you could use the skills. Have your players describe what they want to do first and figure out what skill best matches it later and remember to reward creativity.

Acrobatics
Slip out of the restraints while the guard is out of the room.
Arcana
If the NPCs are of an appropriate origin, you might learn something about that race that gives you and advantage in negotiations.
Athletics
You might be able to intimidate the NPCs to gain an advantage or bring certain types of restraints if you want to make a run for it.
Bluff
Give the interrogators wrong info but have them believe it or catch them off-guard with a remark giving you an advantage for your next remark.
Diplomacy
Bargain with the captors.
Dungeoneering
Aides in finding an escape route from the prison or knowledge about an NPC to aid you or your group.
Endurance
Determines your ability to withstand the harsh conditions. (Thanks to @Level30yinzer and Thadeous Cooper). Failures might mean that you lose hit points or healing surges.
History
Some bit of knowledge about the history of the area, people, etc, gives the PC an upper hand in the interrogation.
Insight
You might be able to sense the NPC's motives or attitudes and whether or not there is an outside influence.
Intimidate
Could be used as proof of the ability to care out threats of physical harm to the interrogator and his/her family.
Nature
Perhaps you could use it to handle a small animal in the prison or to find out information about NPCs of a natural origin.
Perception
Maybe you notice that the interrogator cares greatly about his appearance or that one of his allies flinches every time something hits you.
Religion
You spot that the guy in the back, who also tends your wounds, wears the symbol of a god who would be against the treatment or something else that might help you negotiate with one of the NPCs. Also helps identify immortal creatures.
Stealth
One of you hides when the guard comes to check on your party.
Streetwise
Remember a bit of gossip about the guard(s) which can help you tailor your story for what they want to hear, make them more inclined to believe you, or to go easier. (Thanks Aaron)
Thievery
Escape the bonds that hold you or perhaps lift the keys from your captors.

A bit of sensitive subject, but for darker games, it might be interesting to use The Colossus of Laarn as the basis of a physical torture session. As players are harmed, they might be willing to give up a secret against their will. This is probably something that should be done with the agreement of your group as it might make some players understandably uncomfortable. Also, it might be a good idea to make it so your players can undo the damage of a loss by giving them time to do things like warning the intended target, setting a trap, etc.

PAX East Recap

I'll admit right at the start, I was not only a PAX virgin but a convention virgin when I attended PAX East this past weekend. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and that's probably a good thing too since there is no way I could have predicted the experience I had.

Highlights:

  • Meeting too many people to name, including Phil Menard, Trevor Kidd, Logan Bonner, Greg Bilsland, Chris Tulach, Quinn Murphy, Dave Chalker, E, Mark Knapik, and Dan Clery. Oh yeah, Wil Wheaton and Scott Kurtz too.
  • Having Phil run a quick pimp my game session with me during Friday brunch. Most of the tips were more in the realm of tweaks than complete rewrites, which totally made my day.
  • Playing D&D in a bar with most of the above mentioned people.
  • Running two games. First, I ran the Dark Sun preview and one of the guys at my table was non-other than Andrew French, the DM of my first Game Day game. Then I ran my adventure for the DM challenge. About 8 hours straight of DMing.
  • Giving Mark his first Boston Boston cream donut.
  • Sitting in on the Save My Game panel and getting most of the jokes as well as understanding the advice.
  • Having dinner with a bunch of the D&D guys on Sunday.

Lows:

  • Being so nervous around Wil Wheaton.
  • Not running an even better Dark Sun sesion. I know I spoke way to fast and I probably could have made it more immersive. I would love some feedback from anyone who was in that session.
  • Not winning the DM challenge. Just kidding, I didn't expect to win and it was an honor just to compete. Congrats to Dave Chalker on his win!
  • Having work on Monday which meant I couldn't stay for bowling. I really hope Trevor won.

Overall, I am so glad that PAX East was my first convention. The barriers to entry were much lower and everyone was so incredibly friendly and open. It truly was a magical experience. I'm going to do my best to attend more conventions, particularly Gen Con and D&D Experience. The experience also increased my confidence in my DM abilities a bit, so I plan to post more of my adventures and ideas here.

I am in Geek Heaven

I can't go to another con again because it will be pretty hard to beat this one. I spent the Thursday before PAX East in the lobby of the Sheraton Copley, meeting tons of people and playing games. I'm not normally a board or card game person, but I decided to give them a shot. After a day of work, it was hard for me to pick them up, but I had a great time and Phil, a.k.a. @chattydm, and his friends were patient teachers. Being able to play with Phil and Quinn, @gamefiend, was a great start to the evening. I got to meet up with a bunch of other people including Dan (@exedore6), Mark (@AsmodeusLore) and Jason (@Neldar). One of the guys from my group, Mike (@TheMikeKatz) was also there. I wish I could have spent more time with all of them and I hope to make up for my shortcomings the rest of the weekend.

As if all of that wasn't awesome enough, I got to meet Wil Wheaton and Scott Kurtz and had them sign my Dungeon Master's Guide. This was huge for me and I really want to thank them and their friends for allowing me to spend a few minutes with them. The D&D podcasts are why I started playing and DMing and I wish I could convey to them how much the people who were and are part of it really helped change my life. It sounds really silly and corny I know, but until I started getting involved in the online community, I wouldn't have had the courage to talk to them. Heck, I wouldn't have had the courage to go to a con to begin with.

Afterwards, I got to meet some of the great WotC group, many of whom I've been following on twitter. I know I met Greg Bilsland (@gregbilsland), Trevor Kidd (@Wizards_DnD), and Chris Tulach (@christulach). There were a few other people there as well.

So I want to thank everyone who reads this blog and follows me on twitter. And I especially want to thank all the great people tonight (and I mean every single one of you) who helped make my first con experience one I will never forget.

D&D Worldwide Game Day

Since playing in the D&D Encounters session last Wednesday, organized play is a lot less scary for me. This is a good thing with PAX East coming up in just a few days. This past Saturday I went in to check out D&D Worldwide Game Day for Player's Handbook 3 at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, MA. And, since I knew I was going this time, I had my player's handbook and dice all ready for play. It's a good thing I went too, one of the other people from my group, Mike, also showed up and we were able to play together in the first game. Mike actually posted about his experiences on his site and, even more importantly, he has pictures, including one of me. Not only did I play in that first game at noon, but I stuck around to play again at 6pm.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. The number one bit of awesome for me was that it started in medias res. That really helped calm my nerves and helped me focus the list of things I could do. In addition, the DM of my first game, @aethanbear, is incredibly funny and knowledgeable and I really would love it if everyone had the opportunity to play with him.

I decided to make it a day of firsts as much as possible, so I decided to try out the defender in the first game, playing the Wilden Battlemind. While it helps if your defender rolls a higher initiative (sorry guys), I had no problem playing the character and I think I did a decent job with the tactics. And while the points system was new to me, I don't remember being unsure about how many to use or when. Lastly, during the skill challenge I had to do an intimidate check, and I loved the mental picture of the Wilden puffing out her leaves to appear larger.

For the second game, I gave the half-elf ardent a whirl. The ardent is a pretty good generalist, which I tend to like, but it definitely felt harder for me to play. There are a lot more team mechanics choices that go into deciding which of his powers to use, namely a decision tree of healing, moving, and debuffing. Adding on top of that the power points system, I definitely had to pause more often to figure out what to do. I think I handled it pretty well, but I might steer new people away from that character class.

The adventure gave me a ton of ideas on things to bring into my own game and really helped me understand just how great terrain effects can be in a game. I can't wait for the games during PAX East. I live in the area and should be around Thursday night through Sunday. If things get too late, I might just beg, borrow or steal a bit of hotel room floor to sleep on.

PAX East Thursday Night Meetup

@ChattyDM asked a couple of us, @Neldar and me, to figure out some place cool to go on the Thursday night before PAX Eaast. @Asmor created a forum post about it in the enworld forums. If you are interested, please go to the forum and post your ideas and whether or not you are attending. Also, it might be cool to figure out something to do Friday morning. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible!

D&D Encounters, First Glance

Last night was a night of many firsts. Beyond the obvious first night of D&D Encounters, it was the first time I played with strangers (or even outside my normal group), the first time I played in an RPGA event and the first time I played a 4e first-level character. Overall, pretty crazy stuff for me, especially since I decided to go after I was already at work. This meant that I didn't have any of my books with me, or anything else for that matter, including my dice. During lunch, I quickly created a Wilden Seeker using the Character Builder. Then I went to Your Move Games in Davis Square, Somerville, after work to give this whole gaming in public thing a try.

The truth is, I liked it. I don't want to give too much away because I know there are people who are going to play this session who haven't yet, but overall I think it was a pretty good experience. More people came than could be accommodated at the 7 pm game. Most of the group regularly plays together in the Living Forgotten Realms series, they were friendly to the two strangers in their midst. While there are some things I wished the DM did slightly differently, that's just life. However, it did show me just how important it is to have the initiative order displayed so everyone can see it. As the bad guys were taken out, it became harder and harder for me to remember when my turn was coming up.

As for the Encounters series itself, there were a couple issues I had with the first session. First, it starts in a tavern. I know, I know, there is a long history behind this. But nothing is more awkward to players than trying to figure out the social dynamics of a tavern. No one in our group really wanted to be the first person to go forth and get things started, which made that first part drag a bit.

While I really like the idea of the twitter stuff, I found it hard to keep up on it. It might make sense for each table or location to appoint one twitter person to follow @Wizards_DnD to get the special game buffs during play. Another idea would be to turn on texts for that twitter account during the game, but since it seems that the account is also used to post responses to questions during the game and I don't have unlimited text messaging, that might not work well for me.

Also, the renown points system is pretty cool and people who got 10 or more during the first session received a buff to use at future sessions. The one given out last night gives you a once per session reroll of a failed saving throw. It sounds like more of these will be handed out in the future and only one will be applicable to any particular session, which means players who play a lot of sessions might get better buffs, but they won't be a ton cooler than a new person at the table.

I'm still not sure how they are going to handle a bunch of in game elements. For instance, if I can't show up for two weeks, how will they handle dailies and action points? Similarly, if I expend those on my current character and decide to come the next week with a different character, does that mean I have the new character's dailies and action point available to me. It may seem silly to create a new character every week but it's incredibly easy with character builder and right now, all I would be missing is a little gold. I think some of the characters from last night's game may die before the end of the season, if only because we probably won't be taking an extended rest before we get to our first objective and they went down a bunch.

Overall, it was great to be a player for the first time in a while and I think people should definitely give them a try. It's a great excuse to try new classes and races and to meet some new people. And I really hope they make the season available afterwards, hopefully as pdfs. I think there might be some really good DM wisdom contained in the pages, such how to scale the adventure, dealing with inconsistent groups, etc.

Kenku Hideout: Part 1

Kenku HideoutKenku HideoutA few weeks ago, I ran Treed! for my players. The results of their endeavor were a number of dead enemies and a captured Kenku. They wanted to interrogate the Kenku in hopes of finding more information about the kidnapped Darkmagics and also to see if there was any loot around. As a result of their interrogations (a skill challenge), they found out that the Kenku hideout was nearby and that one of the guards liked to sleep on the job.

They waited patiently for their time to attack and, when it came, proceed to climb up to the first level of the hideout. Just as the captured Kenku said, the guard was asleep at his post. The rogue quickly took him out and the party started moving towards the nearest set of double doors. However, they were unable to approach the doors without rousing the suspicion of the remaining Kenku guards. They took the first guard out without issue, and were to the door before the rest could get in position.

The sword mage decided to open the door and he saw quite a sight. Right near the door, a number of Kenku were playing cards. In a corner to the left, two Kenkus were playing dice and to the rear, four of them were eating super. One of the Kenkus came right up to the doorway. This worried the adventurers quite a bit and they decided the best course of action was to close the door again.

In the mean time, some of the Kenku guards were now in position to attack. The wing mage guard had no issue coming out of the shadows and engaging the adventurers, while the sneaks waited until they could take advantage of the area and hide. Eventually, the inevitable happened and all were engaged in the fight.

This was a tough fight for my group, partly because currently we only have four level 6 players. I also adjusted the monster stats by subtracting 2 from each of their defenses and adding a 2 to each of their attacks. More about that can be found here. Besides the hide/stealth rules, the other thing I've found hard to keep track of during a game is light effects. I've found it really hard to keep track of light levels, light sources, types of sight, and the like. These things are particularly important when trying to use the hide/stealth rules, since the darkness can provide concealment, but I feel like trying to keep track of who can see what really slows down the game. What do you think?

Encounter Details

Players (Level 6)

  • Anka - Shadar-Kai Swordmage
  • Birkalis - Half-Elf Bard
  • Finnan - Halfing Rogue
  • Skamos - Tiefling Psion

Monsters

  • 4 Kenku Sneak (Level 4 Lurker) [DDI]
  • 8 Kenku Warrior (Level 7 Skirmisher Minion) Modified from [DDI]
  • 4 Kenku Wing Mage (Level 5 Artillery) Modified from [DDI]

Notes

  • Remember to take advantage of the Kenku sneaks ability to hide whenever it has cover from an ally. This could include moving your sneaks in such a way that gives each other advantage.
  • Warriors do extra damage when they have combat advantage. Wing mages can help provide combat advantage by using Death Flock.
  • Wing mages can also fly. This can help them get into combat easier, especially the ones acting as guards. It didn't happen in our game and one way to make it easier would be to decrease the space between the main hideout and the guard platforms.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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