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.

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.