Return to the Isle of Dread: TotalCon Report

This past weekend marked another TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts. It was a great con and as usual I had a lot of fun with old friends and new. As it relates to running games, it was my most successful convention by far.

 

Each of the six 4 hour slots I ran of the Return to the Isle of Dread was full (all 8 tickets sold). There were always folks waiting to see if they could get in, as well. Even more, the 48 total seats available were filled with somewhere on the order of 15 to 20 individual players — meaning that many players returned to the game for multiple slots. It is hard to express how gratifying this is as a GM, especially that last part: players were willing to spend a large portion of their con at my table, sometimes even dumping other games for which they had signed up.

 

This, I think, is an illustration of the strength of the format more than any measure of my game mastery. Dungeons and Dragons can be fun to play in a limited format, but it really shines when treated as an episodic or serial form of entertainment. It isn’t just accumulated treasure and experience points, but accumulated lore, allies, enemies and relationships that make long term play so powerful. I wanted to bring that experience to convention play based upon my experience cramming long hours of play into a single annual long weekend game event. (I will talk more about this in a future post.)

 

Imagine my surprise upon realizing it actually works.

 

Actual Play Report

 

On the off chance that anyone is interested in what actually went down during play at TotalCon, I have compiled a brief synopsis. Note that this was a continuation of events that had occurred at Carnage on the Mountain in November. Also note that this synopsis is neither exhaustive nor chronological, since so much happens in the midst of play that my poor beleaguered brain stands no chance against it. If you were there and want to correct me you can do so in the comments. You can even lie. I won’t know.

 

Back in November, the player characters uncovered an ancient Yuan Ti temple, if the actual definition of “uncovered” is “unsealed, thereby releasing that blight back onto the Isle after eons in torpor.” Swarms of poisonous snakes attacked Farshore in search of stolen gold, which led the PCs to head into the wilderness and track down the site from whence the stolen goods came. In doing so, they had to contend with a despoiled cairn in the swamp that created two will o’ the wisps and a shambling mound. The ranger died by a will o’ the wisp after “escaping” engulfment by the mound via the “back door.” What they found there would lead them to the source of the snake swarms — a very angry spirit naga — and result in the longest string of sub-5 rolls I as a GM have ever had. That the ranger player’s follow up wizard lived trapped alone with the naga while the rest of the party listened to him scream is a miracle of miracles. That naga’s death would also result in a vessel rechristening, but I am getting ahead of myself.

 

Pterosaurs are dangerous! Especially ones that are nested 500 feet above the sea and 150 down from the top of the cliff. This is doubly true when would be nest raiders in service to a dishonored knight of House Karameikos (aka the PCs) decide to hang right over the ledge. It’s complicated. But it did result in a bloody death as the poor high elf thief chose to plummet to her death rather than be torn to shreds in midair. It may also be of use to know that it takes 4.3 seconds to fall 660 feet. Believe it or not, that figure would come up again.

 

Somewhere in this mess of events the party hired a small sailing vessel called the Red Queen, which was captained by a lovely but less than kind woman named Lydia. During their travels on the Red Queen, the party’s valour — and Sabrina the bard’s Bossom of Charisma — had the motley crew of rejects and half wits start looking fondly upon them and less so upon Lydia. Eventually there was a tussle for control and Lydia lost her head while Sabrina gained her hat. After the aforementioned killing of the naga, the barbarian Garth took the thing’s head and hung it from the figurehead and they renamed the vessel the Black Cobra. Many “Karate Kid” jokes were made and no NPCs ever called it that because all my notes said “Red Queen.”

 

Once the PCs had their own vessel the sessions took a decidedly piratical turn, though that was never my intention. The real motivating force behind that element was not so much the acquisition of the ship, which really just served to force me to roll on a different random encounter chart as the PCs travelled, but the outcome of one of those random encounters.

 

Not the ship that was really a mimic, though. That encounter was fun and scary and ultimately very cool but did not have a huge impact. But still: a ship that was actually a huge mimic.

 

The game changing random encounter was with the Tusk. The Tusk was my go-to vessel for pirate encounters in the seas around the Isle simply because I like the idea so much: a human captain and his orc wives crew the vessel with their dozens of half orc offspring. It is gross and fun and over the top all at once. It turns out, though, that when a ship has cannon as part of its armament, it is highly susceptible to fireball slinging wizards. The Tusk did not last long and given that the captain was one of the three pirate lords of the Isle, the Red Queen/Back Cobra suddenly earned a great deal of prestige.

 

Interlude: On Emergent Story

 

I try not to go into a sandbox or open world game with a “story” idea in mind. There are little stories, of course — the ones that make up the encounters or the NPC stories so they have motivations and personalities. I like to create just enough in the way of backstory so that I can manage play as it happens, jumping on ideas that seem fun at the time and responding to players’ antics. In other words, I throw a lot of shit at the walls and see what sticks. If an open world game is working right, though, a story inevitably emerges. It is a twisted mass of a story, an organic thing like a briar all turned in on itself, but it is there. Players will choose the elements they want to explore and I will flesh out the bones with ideas that come to mind, the results of random encounters and the players’ conjectures (this last one is super top secret; don’t tell anyone). So even as I argue “against” story as it relates to RPGs and D&D, I am really arguing against a pre-determined plot, not “story” itself.

 

Back on the Isle…

 

The story that emerged in the last half of the sessions was one of escalating hostilities between the pirate king Guy Voral and the PCs. There were other events of course: the hunt for necromantic flowers used to make rease dead potions that led to a vampire’s lair guarded by an undead treant, the battle atop the 600 foot tall ancient war machine brought back to life by goblin shenanigans and others. But that growing rivalry served as the centerpiece and served well.

 

First, the Council of Farshore asked the party (as the owners of the Red Queen/Black Cobra) to sign on as privateers. They declined. Then, Captain Guy asked the PCs to fly pirate colors. He would have even offered them the Tusk’s old station as the third pirate lordship. They declined that as well, but did so with gusto: they levitated the pirate flag into the air and set it alight for Captain Guy and his whole crew to see. Understandably miffed at the rebuke, Guy later convinced a few members of the Red Queen’s crew, which were some of the lowest scum sailing the seas as it was, to release fire elementals onto the deck of the Queen. The party defeated the summoned creatures and decided on a measured response: they went to Guy’s pirate town, freed his slaves, killed his men and burned his opulent mansion to the ground. On their way out they ran into a powerful ally of the pirate king: a seas dragon that lived in the bay. The dragon did not harass them since it was paid by Guy to keep ships from coming into the bay, but it did promise to report to the pirate so that it might renegotiate its contract.

 

After this affront, guy turned to the mysterious drow Assassin’s Guild to deal with the player characters. Simultaneous attacks from the shadows, with both blade and poison, nearly did the party in but they managed to survive and capture an assassin. After some intra-party squabbling they decided to make an offer to the Guild to buy out Guy’s contract on them. Events would not allow for them to hear the answer from the Guild, but the assassin they spoke to did escape to present the offer. Finally, the party decided to seek divine aid in finding out where Guy was hiding and discovered he had fled to the headquarters of the final pirate lord: the undead captain of the ghost ship Kraken. Coming into the Kraken’s bay at sunset to hid themselves in the glare, the Red Queen was able to get close enough to unleash it’s devastating super-weapon: control water.

 

Seriously. Have you read this spell? I had not. Holy crap. It might not look like much in the context of a bunch of dungeon delving tomb robbers, but on a ship, in battle against other ships? It is a nuke.

 

It turns out Guy had upped the promised wealth to his sea dragon ally (he was double dipping on what he promised the drow assassins, assuming he would only have to pay one or the other) and the dragon was guarding his ship while Guy was on the Kraken negotiating with the last pirate lord. When the cleric tried to use control water to sink Guy’s vessel, the sea dragon responded in kind and they wrestled for control of the ocean. For many rounds the sea dragon attacked the PCs while magically protecting Guy’s ship. The party wizard also had control water and used it to sink the Kraken (after all, the sea dragon had not been retained to protect that vessel or even specifically Guy’s life — dragons can be such lawyers). The party hurled fireballs at the sea dragon while it attacked them with dragon fear and its tail (it’s main action was held up with the control water spell). Once the dragon finally lost concentration on its spell due to the damage done to it, it breathed on the wizard. By that time, though, both the wizard and the cleric were controlling water beneath Guy’s ship and with water rushing in, the Storm Whore was destroyed (but not before the water walking barbarian could loot it at least a little — priorities, people!).

 

Eventually, the party had done enough damage to the sea dragon to convince it to flee. It bore into the hull of Guy’s ship to retrieve it’s promised pay (whether it deserved it or not) and then took the better part of valor. As to the fate of the captain of the Kraken or Guy — no one knows. One would presume that powerful pirate captains might have ways to escape sinking vessels, however.

 

That is where we ran out of time. I don’t think we will see those characters on the Isle of Dread again. I like to create a new sandbox with ever convention season. But who knows? perhaps there is another story yet in the Red Queen — okay, okay.. in the Black Cobra.

 

After all, there is that little matter of the Yuan Ti and their stolen artifacts…

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Seven Sandbox Essentials, Revisited

I have believed in the value of so-called sandbox DMing for a long time. In September, 2008 I tried to codify my views on the subject in a blog post on the ENWorld gaming site. It went over pretty well. But now seven and a half years later, i wanted to revisit it. Sandbox gaming is more popular than ever — I attribute it to the ease with which one can run such a game using 5th Edition D&D — and my perspective has probably evolved.

 

What follows is the original post (with some minor editing for spelling, etc…) with my annotations in bold italic text. If you are interested in reading the original version, follow this link to ENWorld.

 

Seven Sandbox Essentials

 

The “sandbox” setting, in which players are not only allowed but encouraged to make their own fun by exploring and interacting with the setting, is, in my opinion, a fundamental requirement for satisfying, rewarding D&D play. Adventures and setting that force players along certain paths — or worse, away from certain paths — cannot hold a candle to sandbox play.  No DM’s or designer’s story has a hope against the story that the players themselves create through their actions and the consequences of those actions (with a healthy dose of DM input and dice-based uncertainty,to boot).

 

Well,that was kind of absolute — and we know who speaks in absolutes. It is interesting to see how one’s perspective on internet communications changes over time. I now cringe at the preceding paragraph, all to aware of the intended authoritative voice despite not possessing much in the way of authority besides some years running games and a few RPG sourcebooks.

 

Here are seven essential elements for a good “sandbox” setting.

 

  1. Big, but not Too Big: A sandbox setting should cover a relatively large geographic area, with room for varied terrain and environments, as well as multiple political entities.  However, one of the things that makes a sandbox game so enjoyable is the players’ ability to engage it as a whole, to see all four corners and to uncover its nuances and secrets.  Too big a sandbox makes each part indistinct — the DM likely doesn’t have time to flesh out every aspect of a whole world; nor do players likely have time, or even interest, to visit it all.  By limiting the scope of the setting and containing it geographically, the DM has the opportunity to delve into the whole setting and so do the players.  Something on the order of the British Isles works well, size and scope wise.

 

Not surprisingly, I was running a D&D campaign set in a mythic post Roman Britain at the time. That said, I actually agree with myself here. Both of my very successful convention based ongoing hexcrawl sandboxes have hewed to this rule. The Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread are both contained geographical regions with varied terrain types and locations.

 

  1. Lots to Do, Lots to See: As stated above, a sandbox needs to be diverse in regards to where the players can go and what they can do when they get there.  It isn’t enough to litter the place with 100 dungeons.  Rather, there should be a handful of dungeons, a handful of towns, a handful of active fortresses, a handful of mystic locations, etc…  This applies to political, religious and mercantile groups, as well. A monolithic nation that covers the whole setting won’t do.  At the very least, there should by various states or provinces with different cultures and conflicting interests.  Even better, numerous small nations or city states work well.  In addition, even if the DM chooses to have a dominant religious entity, schisms and sects within the church, with their own temples and own interpretations of scripture are necessary. Players should want to explore the setting to see what is around the next bend or over the next hill.

 

And here I think I overstated the need for such a high degree of diversity. In retrospect this advice runs counter to the previous advice. Geographical containment or not, having multiple states, multiple institutions and multiple other kinds of factions is a heavy workload that can lead a DM to never actually finishing preparing his sandbox. In my experience with the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread as sandbox settings, a couple settlements and a couple factions of important are plenty.

 

  1. A Life of its Own: The setting should “live” like a real place.  The diverse locations and groups discussed above should interact and those interactions should be both internally consistent and produce movement within the setting.  Groups that are opposed might be moving ever toward open conflict. The heir to a city state might try and hasten along his inheritance.  A lowly peddler might slowly climb to the top of the mercantile heap.  A dark cult might be waiting for a soon approaching celestial event to unleash their dark master on the setting.  It isn’t that the setting ignores the players and their characters’ actions.  Rather, there’s something of a timeline or assumed evolution to the setting that the players can interact with and disrupt.  Knowing what would happen in a given situation without the involvement of the players allows the DM to better interpret what happens when they do get involved, as well as allowing the DM a plan if the PCs don’t bother with a particular setting element or subplot.

 

This advice still rings true. What’s more, I think it applies to all kinds of campaigns, not just sandboxes. In my experience, players respond to a living, breathing world and having some idea of what everyone might be doing if the PCs weren’t throwing wrenches into the works helps the DM maintain that kind of setting.

 

  1. No Scaling: The sandbox should not scale to the level of the PCs.  If there’s a “12th level” monster in the Darkenwood when the game begins, that monster remains there — barring its involvement in the above — whether the players choose to go to the darkenwood at 2nd level or 20th (or both). A scaling setting breaks verisimilitude and suggests to the players that whatever growth they have is irrelevant.  instead, the setting should include a wide array of “levels” of adventure locales, NPCs and monsters, distributed throughout the setting in a plausible and internally consistent manner.  This is not to say that the setting can’t include “zones’ that are geared toward certain levels of play, but too much of this inhibits the open nature of the sandbox. Mix it up instead.  But make sure that there aren’t too many “invisible” major threats.  Powerful creatures and characters produce legends and rumors and even inaccurate information will give players a glimpse into what lies ahead, allowing them the opportunity to make a meaningful choice as to where to go and what to do.

 

This advice is built around the issues of Challenge Ratings and the steep power curve of D&D 3.x and Pathfinder. Since 5th Edition’s power curve by level is more shallow, reminiscent of 1st and 2nd edition where lower level characters could get lucky and take on higher level threats while higher level characters might get slaughtered by even common enemies likes orcs, I view it a little differently now. I usually apply an assumed CR to a geographical locale or “zone” and then include both “easy” and “deadly” as well as typical encounters for that locale on the chart. In this way, the uncertainty of random encounters is preserved at the same time as some internal consistency is maintained for the locale.

 

  1. Wandering Monster Tables and Random Encounters: One of the key conceits of the sandbox is that players are free to go where they will, do what they wish and engage the setting through their characters without being pulled or prodded into the DM’s “story”.  This requires a lot of work on the part of the DM, creating many adventure sites, placed encounters, NPCs and organizations before play even begins.  But even with all the work done, there’s still a good chance the players will go somewhere the DM hasn’t thought too much about or had a chance to flesh out.  This is where the value of random encounter charts comes in.  With such tables, built specifically for the setting and informed by the detail the DM has done, can provide fun for everyone even during those sessions where the players simply strike out down the road.  These random encounters shouldn’t simply be a collection of monsters listed by terrain type.  Instead, the charts should include little glimpses into the setting.  What tribe are those orcs from? Who are the bandits? Where is the merchant caravan heading?  By making specific encounter charts for the setting, the DM ensures that more of the work he has put into the setting sees use.  By exposure, players are given hooks to choose for themselves to investigate and engage aspects of the setting.

 

Still solid advice. In fact, as time has gone by I have become more and more comfortable with “on the fly” DMing and relied more and more on random encounter tables for inspiration. The part about not everything being a fight is true, too. When the encounter comes up, a little creative application can turn what was likely a short fight with a couple specters into a tragic love story the PCs got to not only witness but resolve (as happened on the Isle of Dread at CarnageCon last November).

 

  1. New Blood: Characters die.  They retire.  Players get bored or want a break from the usual.  Inevitably, a player is going to need a new character, or a new player will join the group.  It may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked: the setting must allow for the introduction of new heroes (i.e. PCs) without breaking plausibility. As such settings that are mostly wilderness or wastelands with few settlements don’t work as well as those that provide a diverse selection of races and classes within the population.  As a related aspect, this means the setting must be adventurer friendly and reasonably wide ranging in regards to which races and classes are available.  While it is okay for the DM to establish some limitations to better suit the genre or setting he has in mind, too many restrictions hampers the introduction of new characters and should be avoided.

 

Both the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread include gateway towns for this very reason. they are frontier locations where adventurer types come to test their mettle. The only requirement for a new PC is that they want to head off into the wilderness for fortune and glory. With the more shallow power curve as explained above, new PCs can be introduced at whatever the “starting level” of the sandbox is (be it 1st or 10th) and likely both survive and be able to contribute as they quickly close on the veteran PCs, level wise.

 

  1. Meaningful Choices and Meaningful Consequences: Most important of all, the actions of the players should have direct, noticeable impact on the setting, at least insofar as the PCs degree of influence.  Information should be plentiful enough to allow the players to choose which actions they will take, and those actions must have consequences.  Who the players ally with, and with whom they make enemies; what meta-setting secrets they uncover, and which they bury; those monsters they kill and those that they merely enrage: these all should change the setting to some degree or another.  If the players feel their adventures and explorations within the sandbox have a real impact, they will be both more inclined to engage the setting, and more thoughtful of the consequences of their actions.

 

I think this is another bit of observation that rings true regardless of the sort of campaign you run.

 

Revisiting an older piece is an interesting experience. I may do it again sometime.

 

Carnage on the Isle of Dread

This past weekend marked another successful 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons ongoing hexploration adventure at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. This year, given the “Lost World” theme of the Con, I chose to have the players explore the  Isle of Dread. As usual, I used new school rules to run a game with old school sensibilities and more than a dash of weirdness. This post is simply a collection of thoughts on the game and how it might change (hopefully for the better) before TotalCon.

 

Don’t worry, TotalCon attendees, I will be speaking in generalities so no worries about spoilers.

 

  1. Everyone Love Riding Dinosaurs:  As much as folks love hunting dinosaurs, killing them and making steaks of them, the truest pleasure possible for the sword and sorcery hero is to tame such a mighty beast — or at least hold on for as long as possible. One of the “side quests” I provided was a T-Rex hunt. See, the terrible lizards (see what I did there?) have a penchant for devouring herds, guides and paying customers, so the lord of Gate Town (the only purpose of which is to operate the huge Skull Island style wooden gates) offered 500 gold pieces for the head of a tyrannosaur. Of course the party took the bait. But it was not the slaying of the mighty beast (“beasts” actually, as they were a mated pair) that was the highlight, but rather the riding of the monsters by first the gnomish eldricht knight and then the bard. Pay no heed to the fact that the gnome had an advantage to getting atop the thing by being so close, clamped between its jaws and all. She certainly didn’t.
  2. When in doubt, zombies — and if that doesn’t do it, tentacles: It is a well known fact that the weird fantasy from which D&D takes much of its inspiration is closely tied to horror. And if two things speak “horror” then those are the shambling hungry dead and amorphous horrors that seek to propagate by way of infection of one’s innards. It turns out that these two things are two great tastes that go great together. If you want to recreate this most compelling adversary in your home campaign, do thus: start with a zombie and upon its death have it explode into a swarm of maggots, which in turn coalesce in to a medium sized tentacled ooze that suffocates its victims by crawling into their lungs. Now, count them by the score. It certainly worked upon the Return to the Isle of Dread.
  3. Never discard a random encounter; use it in a new way: Much of how I prepare for these long hexploration adventures amounts to finding the right random charts: names, weather, treasures and, of course, encounters. I run D&D well on my feet, responding to both the players and the dice. I have tried the other way, with all the writing and the plotting, and it simply does not work for me. So, there were many random encounters rolled during the course of the adventurers wanderings, but two really stand out in my memory. In the first, which followed fast apace a troublesome combat encounter, I rolled two revenants. I wanted to give the PCs an opportunity to avoid trouble, and it occurred during one of the late watches. I decided on a whim that the spirits were lovers (people of the antediluvian culture that once ruled the Isle) who, star crossed perhaps, decided to be together forever in death. The revenants walked through the party camp and the party chose to follow them, all through the night to a high cliff on the shore of the Dread Sea and just as dawn broke one spirit put a ring upon the finger of the other and they threw themselves off the cliff to their eternal, nightly repeated dooms. So the party set about finding the ring, which was still on the finger of the hand of one of the lovers while held in the skeletal grasp of the other. They performed the right rituals and waited the night and were able to put the revenants to rest with nary a shot fired — and for their effort they were rewarded with a magic ring. It was touching and warm and a nice break from the usual combat. In the other example, a unicorn ran swiftly by the party, chased by sprites. The ranger decided to “defend” the unicorn and fire upon a sprite. It exploded in a cloud of glitter and two gossamer wings spinning sadly earthward. Then, the rest of the party opened fire and it was glitter and doom everywhere. The unicorn returned to collect the surviving playmates and glower at the ranger. I guess not every encounter can be non-combat. On the upside, the party did not decide to find out if unicorn meat really did sparkle.
  4. Greed is the DM’s Best Friend: When in doubt, dangle something shiny in front of the party. Gauranteed, at least one of them will take a grab at it. Amazingly, I managed to get a player with the old “illusory floor” trick. Big statue. Heaps of gold. No ten foot pole. You know the story. The splat was very satisfying, but then a quick fly spell followed by revivify and my work was undone. I still count it as a kill, of course. Better was what I like to call the Test of Wizardly Greed and Instant Death. You see, The Isle of Dread is a weird place, influenced by many worlds, and in one spot a machine made for nothing but destruction — a death machine from Gamma World for those keeping score — was found in a crater. It patrolled the crater and killed anyone that touched the ground within with a ray of pure death. Those that were merely killed and not disintegrated were picked apart by circling pteranodons. Over the centuries since its appearance on the Isle, wizards in particular have been interested in discovering its secrets, perhaps even mastering it, and their bones litter the crater — along with their magic staves, rings and spellbooks. It is a vast collection of wealth, free for the taking for anyone capable of out witting the death machine. I won’t wore you with the details, but a new wizard’s corpse decorates the crater (while the paladin’s ash pile has probably blown away by now).

I was very lucky this Carnage. Of five sessions I ran, the first four were full with other folk waiting around to get a seat (I learned after last year’s TotalCon to limit my players to 8 — my last game had 13 players!). The final Sunday afternoon game was only 5, but that was okay since it tends to be a bit of a slower day (aka hangover city). I had great fun running the game — and will so again at TotalCon 2016 under the Dark Phoenix Events banner — and got to play with lots of friends, old and new. Running games is a treat for me and while I of course believe I am completely awesome at it, I would not be near so awesome without great players in the seats.

 

Some Housekeeping

 

I have been posting rarely these days, due in no small part to time constraints from school and work and family life. Now, I am working on  novel which will eat even more of my creative time and energy. But, I will endeavor to do more blogging as the year draws to a close and hopefully 2016 will see a return to form for this space. Thanks you for sticking with me.

 

 

 

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 1

At CarnageCon in Killington VT a few weeks ago, I was finally able to run my Valley of Tombs game. This is a 5th Edition D&D game designed to feel like playing an open world CRPG (like Skyrim) with an ongoing continuity and ever-expanding setting. I refer to it as my Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG (MMTTRPG). AT Carnage, I ran a grand total of five slots (20 hours) and I just submitted the same event for TotalCon in Mansfield, MA in February (this time, 6 slots or 24 hours of table time).

 

I thought I would talk about my experiences at Carnage, both with the 5th Edition D&D rules and with the MMTTRPG format, as well as my hopes for TotalCon and the time between now and then. This post focuses on my experiences with the 5E game itself, while the next will go into how The Valley of Tombs ran.

 

5th Edition

 

Finally having run the game for more than a single session (plus one floundering fight versus a Tarrasque very early on), I can say that D&D 5E is probably my second favorite edition of the game, after BECM (you never forget your first) and just ahead of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It is unsurprising, then, that 5E feels very much like a blend between those two (seasoned to taste by various rules and systems found in every other edition of the game a few besides). It is possible that given enough time with the game, it will in fact become my favorite version of the game, but only time will tell. In the meantime, it is enough to say that I would rather run 5E than either AD&D or Pathfinder.

 

The primary reason is that 5E feels clean. Its systems are easy to grasp and run relatively quickly and smoothly. The core mechanics are intuitive and well integrated (with the very strange exception of the cover rules, which don’t seem to jive with the overall design goals) and it is a game that not only enables Dungeon Master input and interpretation, but demands it. There are of course some fiddly rules that take some effort to remember, it being a new edition and all, and it is easy sometimes to revert to some previous edition or Pathfinder rule. Part of the beauty, though, is that doing so will not very likely break the game and there are even a few rules from those games (gold = XP perhaps, or Pathfinder’s disease mechanics) that would enhance 5E play.

 

Character creation is easy. I found a nice little online character generator to help speed the process, but I had previously created some characters by hand with the PHB and it took about an hour to create a 20th level character: 30 minutes to create the base 1st level character and another 30 to level the character all the way up to 20. The choices after 1st level are limited, usually one or two things per level (perhaps more for spell casters), so it is a quick process to create a high level PC. That said, at least so far the game is missing a few things usually associated with creating high level PCs, like a suggestion as to how much and what sort of equipment a higher level character might have, but this is not insurmountable. The apparent default assumption of the game is that characters are not expected to possess dozens of magic items and weapons, and the math in the game is designed to flatten the power curve and reduce the importance of items on character capability. Much of this is dependent on information probably found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (coming soon!) and that book will likely answer some questions as well as inspire a few.

 

We played without a battle mat or a grid (though we did occasionally use a little sketch on paper to illustrate relative positioning). Because the game is more strategic than tactical, it worked well. Simply asking players what their intent was and being accommodating but tough made combat move quickly and with no want for tension. Rather than counting squares, players were trying to figure out ways to gain Advantage, which suited me just fine.

 

Advantage and Disadvantage are, to me, the single most inspired aspects of the 5th Edition rules. Simply put, Advantage provides a bonus on an attack roll, skill check or saving throw in the form of rolling two d20 dice and taking the better result. Likewise, disadvantage affects the same kinds of rolls in the same way except that the the lower result is taken. Some character abilities, such as the rogue’s sneak attack, interact with Advantage or Disadvantage in specific ways, but otherwise the system is unencumbered by a large number of associated rules. One official rule I did immediately dispense with was the idea that one Advantage or Disadvantage inducing circumstance would negate any number of the opposite, and instead I went with a broader view: i.e. do all the circumstances of the moment suggest Advantage, Disadvantage, or an essentially balanced circumstance. It worked well and while players would sometimes try to negotiate for Advantage or against Disadvantage, I considered this a good thing that increased their engagement and added to everyone’s fun.

 

Related to advantage is a system called Inspiration, which basically provides a “free” Advantage based on things related to character goals, flaws and so on. Because we were using pregenerated PCs, I decided to dispense with giving Inspiration based on play acting and instead gave it for being generally awesome and increasing everyone else’s fun (whether through melodrama or humor or heroics or whatever) or for bring me, the DM, coffee or beer. Shamed as I am to admit it, I am bribable. I also use a special d30 for Inspiration and the rule is only one person can be in possession of that d30 at a time (meaning no one else can acquire Inspiration until the holder of the d30 uses it) but you can always use the d30 for another player’s roll. It worked well, except in a few instances players sat on their Inspiration for most of a session and so it did not see a lot of use in some sessions.
Overall, D&D 5E is a well designed, fun game that speaks to my style of play. It probably is not for everyone, especially since it is moderately dependent upon DM calls and it does not have the deep well of player character options that some people really like, but it is a good game. I look forward to mastering the system a little more every time I run it and finding places where rules from other games or editions enhance play.