Observations from the other side of the screen

The DM is the whole world and everything in it

With the exception of some mighty fine miniatures and Dwarven Forge terrain, players only see what the DM tells them. If the DM misses something, it doesn't exist. Good players will ask for details, or even roll skill checks to coax more description from a reticent DM, but oftentimes the burden falls squarely on a DM's shoulders to get all of the detail out on the table.

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D&D Encounters: Legacy of the Crystal Shard Session 1 Recap

This week we ran two tables of D&D Next for the first session of Legacy of the Crystal Shard. Both groups were looking forward to the adventure after the very successful launch event on Sunday. My table had 4 players. 


Initially, the party was interested in resting and receiing healing from the town guard by the gate, meeting some grumbling soldiers and speaking a little with Helda Silverstream. She took note of the adventurers but the party was more interested in the tale of a Barbarian tied up in the town square, blamed for a robbery of gold and also blamed by more than a few in Bryn Shander of bringing the morning's Yeti attack with him.

The party spent most of their time investigating the so-called crimes of Hengar, and interrogating the shopkeeper, eventually arranging to have the Barbarian freed. After buying some black ice trinkets from a dwarven peddler who warned the group to steer clear of the Dwarven valley, the party reunited with Hengar, who immediately threw in with the group. Hengar believes that Tempus has willed these companions together, and believes the party can return to the Tribe of the Elk to defeat the Ice Witch who haunts the tundra.

Referred to the roughest tavern in town, the group discussed their options and noticed that a shady character, "Slim" arrived with a group of Ship Rethnor thugs in tow. The party was worried that these thugs were after a bounty on the party's heads, and after a while a Harper showed up asking after the same room. Curious and eager to help the Harper out of any danger he might be in, the party ran upstairs to Slim's common room, only to find the Harper murdered.

A fight ensued where all of the Rethnor thugs were killed, but Slim, a wererat, scurreid out the window in his rat form. Searching the dead harper before any authorities could arrive, the players found a note in the Harper's pockets, addressed to an "Aarun", asking for help. The letter was signed "Mithann". 


The players really enjoyed the adventure. Icewind Dale made an immediate impression, and with so many opportunities to travel from place to place, the players seemed excited to explore the surroundings and meet these colorful characters. 

From the DM point of view, the first week of this was overwhelming. The other DM and I spend a solid hour cramming every detail in during prep that we could, and even then I was sent to the book to look over next steps. I think given another 2 weeks I will have a much better grasp on what else is there in the adventure, but this week really put us to the test.

THE GOOD: Opportunity for combat, colorful characters, fantasy flavor much more present than last season.  Icewind Dale seems like a place that the group wants to explore, Baldur's Gate was a very divisive setting. Playing the Barbarians and Dwarves was particularly fun, with very strong and distinct cultures from what the players have been used to.

THE BAD: The opening session could have used a little more structure. I found that I was unsure whether I would find the details of certain NPCs and situations along the way in the Encounters, Campaign, or Adventure book. (FWIW, this isn't the first D&D adventure to have 3 sub books with overlapping material!)

THE UGLY: Hengar doesn't have a stat block! He roared into battle alongside his companions, calling out the name of his god, and immediately the combat ground to a halt as I looked for his stats, in vain!




Review: HS2 "Orcs of Stonefang Pass"

What if you slew a level 16 earth Titan and nobody cared?" I was expecting an adventure about slaying orcs, and was initially very excited about this module. The adventure really ran it of steam after the first two sessions and the rest was a bore. This is already starting to be a rant but I feel it's almost a public service at this point.

This letdown was particularly acute because HS1 athe Slaying Stone was so excellent. HS2 was just puzzling. Not only is it completely linear but unnecessarily long. Everything it brought to the table was over with in the first 4 hours, the rest felt like bookkeeping. I had believed that the "HS" were do-overs of H1 and H2 and by the Ed of the adventure I was left pining for Thunderspire Labyrinth.

The first 2 sessions have a rough fight against some hippogriffs and crazy water shooting fish with a bridge and waterfall. There are some great moments exploring the pass and discovering its history. Then earthquakes and jumping spiders. And then a gatehouse with traps and a mechanism. This was the high point of the module and every thing after that was unfortunately down hill.

There are orcs. And then orcs, and then orcs. And not only were these orcs the same stat block and abilities as all other orcs, but the same Orc scenario was run an least 3 times with the same monsters - the players seemed to wonder what was going on.

I would definitely recommend the module's first half, everything else requires a lot of fixing.

D&D Encounters "Beyond the Crystal Cave" Session 5: DM Commentary

In Encounters this week the players got their first real glimpse of the factions at play in the Feywild. I'm going to highlight some choices that I made in presenting these characters, that illustrate how in this session I used strong characterization to (try to) make the session really memorable. Robin the Satyr

The adventure book has one line about Robin, that he's a Skald (Bard) and that he's a jester. When I introduce characters and locations, I try to present details that give the players an idea of what they're in for, and help their memory in remembering who's who in the adventure.

Robin's salient features were a loud, gregarious voice and mannerisms, a ridiculous yellow bandana which trailed well below his knees, and an over-wide grin with sharp, almost filed teeth. Robin's a troublemaker who is going to send the players on a dangerous "prank". Here's what I was trying to establish:

1. Robin is ridiculous and impractical (just look at his bandana!) 2. Robin has more friendliness than sense (loves to party!) 3. Robin is morally ambiguous (Uh, look at those teeth)

Eldin and Fiona, the Unicorns

The players have to convince two Unicorns to leave their magic garden. The adventure doesn't detail much more that that except a skill challenge (yawn) that I pretty much didn't run as-written (though I did use the bonuses and other crunch in the skill challenge to weight the success of the roleplaying encounter). Using my rule of "people are more interesting than things", I gave the Unicorns personalities, but honestly on the fly. My idea was that one Unicorn was the boss, and the other one was a hanger-on. So how did I establish this?

Names: "Eldin" sounds like "elder", sounds more classically Tokeiny and signifies higher stature - think "Elrond". You'll be suprised how much D&D milage you can get out of having names that sound like other things or recall memories your player has. "Fiona" is a little girl's name, or maybe a cat, think "fifi", "fido", "dinah". It's also a prettier name, signifying less substance.

First impressions and actiona: 1. Fiona laughs at everything Eldin says. Big, snorting, hilarious laughter 2. Eldiin tells jokes and makes puns, and speaks assertively 3. Fiona asks dumb questions like, "Do halflings really eat poop?", signifying immaturity, and lack of worldliness - has she really never met a halfling or heard tales of the material plane?

This made things more interesting when the players have to decide whether to use violence later to get the unicorns or kill off some pixies and dryads to take Eldin and Fiona with them. The players actually took into account the different personalities of the Unicorns in wondering who to approach. Which is awesome.

In other news, I missed a whole ton of exposition because the characters weren't really interested.

Side Quests Are Lazy. There, I said it.

The side quest is a venerable RPG staple. It's an excursion off the main plot that is supposed to provide an opportunity for players to dig deeper into a story, or investigate something interesting. Side quests and side encounters are provided in published modules to give the DM some flexibility in running an adventure where more encounters might be desirable. 20111107-214343.jpg

For a home game, a discerning DM should strive for a little bit more.

D&D is a game about heroic adventure. The players should be in a story where they play the roles of powerful heroes who face great danger and save the day. Every challenge presented by the adventure should reinforce this. "Traditional" side quests don't pass this test, because they often fall into a few different variations of the fetch quest and by their design are intended to be optional. Optional isn't heroic. Fetching isn't fantasy. Running an errand isn't an adventure.

It's a cliche, but "getting more than you bargained for" is pretty much the very definition of adventure. Luring the players in with the promise of dealing with a troublesome enemy, sought-after loot, or quirky character interaction is standard fare. After the appetizer that is the "main" mission of the side-trek, you can spring a surprise or complication that ties into main objectives. Players really like "discovering" secret motivations and hidden enemies. Springing complications on them allows them to make meaningful choices and take ownership of the story.

Here are a couple of side quest complications that pass the heroic storytelling test and keep your game on track

The simple mission that goes wrong: Players are heroes who can vanquish just about any enemy and overcome just about any obstacle. They're used to winning. A fun twist on the standard side mission is when the objective is missing or ends up being more trouble than it's worth. Maybe a setup, maybe a mistake, maybe someone else got there first. Whether the party talks their way out, fights their way out, or sneaks their way around, getting out of trouble can introduce hooks to the next main quest - the players will feel like they had quite an impact on the world wh

A rescue that turns into an escort mission Players who make the "side-trek" to rescue innocents from peril instinctively form a connection to them. Maybe a caravan's armed guard was killed in an attack, or the ranger broke his leg and needs to be taken back to his outpost. If you have the rescued npcs "on their way" to a player objective, you have all the benefits of a palate-cleansing side quest without causing your story to grind to a halt. New companions are always a good investment for a discerning DM - they always pay off later!

The Loot That Should Not Be Players love loot. Hoo-boy do they ever. So what if they find something Terrible in the basement where they're cleaning out the rats? Maybe something that leads them right into your Main Plot? Yes. Yes indeed.

"You break it, you buy it" If you have players who like to kick doors down and roll initiative, adding consequences to these actions and sticking to them will not only bring about interesting roleplaying and plot opportunities, but will also up the stakes for future situations down the road. Players love when their PC's actions change the game world - that's what interactive storytelling is all about. Let those chickens come home to roost! Have the constable come down to the Battered Scabbard after the bar brawl. Better yet, have the Evil Constable come down. You know, the one who is involved in your main plot?

Making the game exciting and fun for your players doesn't have to be this huge mega plot with railroad tracks. You can do side quests to show variety, but at the same time hook them in for more. They'll feel powerful and clever, and come back for more. Isn't that the whole point?

And nobody had to fetch anything.

An "Ordinary" Fantasy World: There's No Place Like Home

This is the first of a couple of posts about applying screenwriting techniques to your rpg game Adventure happens when the heroes leave their normal, comfortable life and strike out on a dangerous mission. When even your heroes' normal, ordinary lives are in a fantasy world, it can be challenging to establish a separation between the everyday and the extraordinary.

Alexandra Sokoloff's recent article on Ordinary World vs Special World at her blog Screenwriting Tips for Authors contains a key insight about the beginnings of heroic stories:

Drama loves CONTRAST, and [detailing the Ordinary World] is one of the easiest ways I know to provide it, as well as revealing character, developing character arc, and working the themes of your story.

Here are a couple of ways to establish ordinary vs special world in your fantasy game.

Don't skip it!: It's okay to have some R&R in your D&D. Let the party take a breather in between mighty deeds and replenish their stores, resist the urge to handwave them to the next quest. If they don't have a home base, maybe there's an inn at the crossroads. If they are in the wilderness, an amusing old hermit or hardy homesteaders. For parties that travel back and forth between key locations, these inns and waypoints and camp spots can even become places your party looks forward to - a little bit of home in a dangerous world.

Give the players every opportunity to invest in the ordinary: When they return to a hero's welcome, let them regale the mayor, hit on the wenches, pray at the temple to Pelor. Let the characters do what they would normally do by allowing room for role-play. These quirks, relationships, occupations and worries help flesh out the characters and will fill your DM toolkit with great hooks for future adventures. What's more interesting: Yet Another Thieves Guild Quest or showing up one day at your favorite inn to find it's been burned down mysteriously?

Use mechanics as a signifier for the Special World: When the players are safe from harm in their home base or a friendly city, that's the ordinary world: when the players are rolling dice, they're in special world. In the ordinary world there might be the occasional bluff or streetwise check, but a skill challenge is special world, where chance comes into play! The focus on the ordinary will make social skill challenges that much more exciting, because the contrast will bring out the adventure. Likewise, when the party starts rolling perception checks upon opening a door, the mechanical element will signal that danger is approaching.

When the players finally head off on their next adventure, you want them to know that they're "not in Kansas anymore". It only works if you let them explore what "Kansas" is - and give them reasons to go back.

Links: Alexandra Sokoloff's blog The Writer's Journey - A great resource on writing heroic, satisfying stories Sarah Darkmagic's Blog - her articles and mention of the above book really got me thinking critically about Adventure (with a capital A) and how, as a DM, to evoke that epic feeling at my home game

Using Hooks to Discover Player Motivation

In the first act of a story, you meet the hero and the adversary, and discover the quest. In a cooperative storytelling game like D&D, however, the players provide a significant part of the story. Player motivations are hard to anticipate even for a discerning DM. I try to structure the beginnings of my home game's adventures specifically to gather information about player motivations.

Here is a plot breakdown of the beginning of a recent adventure in my home game:

Siege of Fallcrest - Session 1 (6 hours) ACT ONE Hook: Fallcrest besieged by Orcs Hook: Fallcrest contains party's rival/enemy Hook: Patron requests party to get her troops out of the doomed city Call to Adventure: Patron wants heroes to run the blockade, and lead out the patron's mercenaries before the city falls Obstacle: The city is surrounded by an undefeatable army of Orcs!

Act One of Siege of Fallcrest isn't trying to do anything fancy. There are three hooks delivered by a Herald, in this case a letter from a patron who has just given the party a gift and expects them to do a favor for her. In starting any adventure, I try to test the players as much as possible by giving them a lot of reasons to do something, and see what they respond to. With the above setup, I learn 3 pieces of information for free about the players' expectations and motivations, by sussing out answers to the following 3 questions:

1. Is the party motivated by the plight of innocents? They have never been to Fallcrest, this is the first they have heard of the city outside of a few casual mentions. 2. How much do they hate their rival? Will they go out of the way to get him? 3. How do the players see their relationship with their new Patron?

It's amazing how much players will tell you if you just listen to them discuss their options. Because the threat of orcs is insurmountable, the party incurs serious risk by undertaking this quest, and the discussion ranges from the tactical to the philosophical. To capture the players' thoughts, I write in my notepad the pieces of information I provided, and then write in later what I learn from the players:

1. Fallcrest will fall soon to an Orcish siege The party is seriously concerned about a whole town dying of starvation and Orcs taking over 2. The party's rival was recently sent there for punishment The party is curious about their rival but only want to see justice done 3. The party's new patron wants them to do a mission there The party feels strongly that they are obliged to their patron and should undertake this quest for her

That's a full exposition! We can move right on to the action now, the point of no return where the heroes are fully committed! But look what storytelling ammunition we learned from them.

External Motivation: To fulfill an obligation to a patron Internal Motivation: To see that justice is done and that good triumphs Not that interested in: Revenge

These are core beliefs that you can challenge later on in act 2; Items that you would have prepared but now don't have to; Elements to maximize in the next session. For example, when the party got into the city, I emphasized the human misery of people in squalid conditions starving in the streets. The players were so moved that they gave up healing surges voluntarily to help the sick. And the rival? I didn't mention him again and the party didn't ask.

The absolute best thing about this technique is that every step of the way, the players make meaningful choices and don't feel railroaded. They get a menu of options which includes "do something else". (Of course, a discerning DM would stack the deck to include at least one irresistible option) I've found time and time again that players are more concerned with choosing the "why", rather than the "what". They expect adventure and danger, but if they can choose the terms, they own the outcome.

To read the writeup of this session, click here to go to the Adventure Log post on Obsidian Portal.

Choosing Your Paragon Path is an Adventure!

The journey of all epic tales truly begins when the hero is taken out of his comfort zone and must go into the underworld or some place of terrible danger to face his destiny. When he returns, he has been reborn into his new life, with the sword, or the princess, or the secret knowledge. In the case of 4e D&D, characters entering Paragon tier are literally transformed, as they gain new powers and traits which heavily theme their characters. The characters will never be the same.

My home campaign, Days of High Adventure (Obsidian Portal Link), has just hit party level 8, and the players' attention is starting to move towards Paragon Tier. I've decided to do levels 8, 9 and 10 as a series of larger, epic fantasy adventures, each featuring a specific member of the party, that will explore how each character comes to choose their paragon path. My players have obliged me by telling me their chosen path, and we're going to have fun getting there!

I'll be sharing my plot breakdowns, including encounters, sessions and pacing, after the adventures run so as not to spoil it for my players. However, there are a couple of design goals I have for Paragon Path adventures that could be useful for any discerning DM.

A fantastic setting: The Paragon Quest should take place in a fantasy setting which is like a big, glorious, burning neon sign in the sky that says ADVENTURE. There should be setpieces that tell your players that something IMPORTANT is happening.

The characters beliefs are challenged: Why did player choose the Paragon Path they did? What benefits do they gain? What liabilities do they incur? The adventure should explore exactly what the change means to the character and dramatize every element. The decision should feel momentous. The character needs to make a real decision to press forward with their path - once the adventure is over, they own it!

The quester should shine: This adventure ends with one character choosing their path, it should also be a showcase for their abilities. Giants for your defenders to lock down, minions for your controller to blow up, skirmishers and artillery for your strikers to stab, undead and rival leaders for your leaders to deal with. Out of combat, your quester's decisions are front and center.

The other heroes have key roles: Everyone in the party should be invested. By the end of the adventure, there should be a feeling of great purpose, and relief. The quester never would have been able to reach their goal without the help of their friends. This can be a mechanical point or a story point.

The stakes for Paragon tier are laid out: Paragon adventures deal with the work of whole tribes or nations. Paragons are sought out for their strength, wisdom and leadership. What sort of work will the quester be "signed up" for when they accept this path? Layout some hooks for future developments and opportunities to foreshadow conflicts and even possible epic destinies.

D&D 4e and the Death Penalty

The table was pretty silent after Singe the Red Dragon burned Nor, Cleric of Bahamut to a crisp. "You mean he just dies?" they asked. Oh yes, the rules state negative half hit points is dead. As in dead-dead.

What the rules don't state so clearly is what should happen next.

Nobody likes killing PCs. Except for this guy.

I don't believe in punishing players whose characters die. "Permadeath" is about the least fun thing ever. It's also unique to RPGs. Permanently losing all of your progress in video games would never fly. You don't take your copy of Dragon Age out of the xbox and put it away forever the first time your guy dies, saying, Well, I had a good run.

Every other game sets the expectation that every player will be able to see all of the "content". Whether that's areas, cuscenes, plot, customization options, or outfits. Your players are constantly being trained by every game ever that they are entitled to take their character to the ends of the map, fully develop their abilities, save the day, roll credits. Naturally, when a character dies, the first thing everybody is thinking is:

There's got to be a way...

My idea was, "Wouldn't it be cool if the party had to go on a quest to find a raise dead scroll, or even better, a ritual book? How fun. It going to be so exciting. The player who played Nor would get to play a companion character who was well-liked by the party, it would give an epic adventure feel to the whole affair. Even better, I would be able to give out some fun treasure at the end, when the party completed the quest of the warlock's tower.

I immediately had a mutiny on my hands.

What I didn't count on was how strongly the players in my game see their characters as avatars for their own experiences. If their character doesn't participate in the next two sessions, the player feels cheated because in their mind they "aren't playing". I thought the game was the thing. But that's wrong, the game is just a platform - A platform for adventure, fantasy, and role-playing. The character is the only point of interaction for the players to experience this "content", and the game is just this machine in the back room humming reassuringly.

In the end, we decided that we would stick to the rules in the book, and that characters can be raised for a certain amount in ritual components, and suffer a reasonably lengthy -1 penalty to d20 rolls.

I love adventure as much as the next guy, but I've got no stomach for making players feel left out and punished.

Nor was raised in Fallcrest's temple to Bahamut, everyone is still going to the awesome Tower of Markov, doors will be kicked down, monsters slew, and their stuff thoroughly taken. And everyone will be there to enjoy it.