What I Learned from “Cairn of the Winter King”

As the players reached fourth level, the campaign really started coming together.  Now that I was feeling more confident and experienced, I was looking forward to creating my own adventures soon.  But first, the module from the Monster Vault, Cairn of the Winter King, beckoned to me.  Lots of cool (if you’ll pardon the pun) encounters plus some very cinematic events would combine to make these best sessions yet.

Get organized
Even for a campaign of new people, there’s lots of “stuff” involved in a session of D&D.  By that I mean there is a huge variety of junk laying around on your gaming table at any given moment.  Think of what a player has to keep track of: pencils, dice, character sheets, miniatures, condition trackers (like awesome mini hair clips), status effect indicators, power cards, maybe even notes and sketches.  Now multiply that by about ten, in the DM’s case, and you have a huge pile of equipment that a DM needs to have at his or her fingertips.

Multiple sets of dice.  A scratch pad or iPhone app for keeping track of hit points.  Initiative tracking cards hanging off a DM screen.  A preprinted adventure, or at least notes detailing your own homebrew encounters.  Oodles of monster miniatures in various sizes.  Some way to map out fights, perhaps an erasable mat, premade poster, or Dungeon Tiles creation.  All manner of books, manuals, and references.  More tokens than a Chuck E. Cheese prize counter.

It’s tough to keep track of all that, while making sure combat is quick and the story itself flows nicely.  You can’t get rid of these things, as you really need to have them available during play.  What is a poor DM to do?

Get organized.

I went to a sporting goods store and purchased a Plano 737 tackle box.  It had plenty of individual compartments perfectly sized for miniatures.  There were also drawers with room for dice, pencils, condition trackers, and other small items that are easy to lose.  Three smaller boxes that were perfectly sized for medium-sized monster tokens were also included and fit perfectly in another compartment.  An ample side area held large and huge minis with ease.  After a quick modification, the top section was large enough for the DM Book, Monster Vault, folders for my PC sheets, and the DM screen, with plenty of room left over for an evening’s worth of maps, handouts, and notes.  The tackle box is the perfect accessory for any DM.

Using the “D&D Box” (as I now call it) made a huge difference.  I was able to find everything faster, which sped things up considerably.  The best part is that it’s portable, so I can take it anywhere that duty calls.  I hope to have a video up soon showing the D&D Box and how I’ve organized all the bits and pieces inside.  If you have ever struggled with finding the right thing at the right time, I’d highly recommend you browse fishing or scrapbooking supplies for a good organizer box.

Props are powerful
I was terribly excited to start the first session of Cairn of the Winter King.  While Reavers of Harkenwold was a good adventure, it was tough for me to keep track of the NPCs, and I felt the adventure lacked a certain “oomph” as a result.  I was looking forward to a more old school dungeon romp like I had played back in the days of my youth.  The Winter King’s lair was an ideal location for a DM like me.

About half an hour before we were scheduled to begin, I was reading through Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips and the section about props caught my eye.  Given that the Ice Scepter was a major part of the story, I decided to make one on the fly for the evening.  A white mailing tube, some blue markers, glass beads stuck on with sticky tack, along with an old paper lantern trick I remembered from art class in elementary school, combined to make a passable Ice Scepter prop.  I was a bit nervous and wondered if I had crossed the line from cool to crazy as far as my players were concerned.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth.  When at the appropriately dramatic moment I revealed the scepter, my players were quite impressed.  They immediately wanted to hold it and check it out a bit closer.  After discussing the magical properties of the scepter, the players agreed to give it to the elven mage.  He kept it in his hand when roleplaying all night long.  When the barbarian claiming to be the Winter King asked him to turn over the Ice Scepter, the mage refused, clutching it to his chest and really hamming it up!  It was fantastic and we all had a great time with his antics.

D&D is an exercise in imagination, but props like this makeshift Ice Scepter add something real and tangible to the experience.  Consider using actual coins or costume jewelry, maybe even try glass beads to represent gemstones.  Handouts of important letters or maps are good, as well.  I’m always on the lookout for new props that I can use in my games.  The players love them, and for the crafty DM, creating them can be enjoyable too.


  1. We a need a picture of that scepter! I’m starting “Cairn…” in a couple of weeks as a sequel to “Keep on the Shadowfell” and the scepter would make a great prop, but I’m very clumsy when it comes to crafting.

  2. I ran this campaign as well was a lot of fun and led us into our next adventure Chaos at Gaurdmore Abbey, I put a lot of twist into the campaign like throwing in a family tree of white dragons since our first encounter in the red box involved a white dragon and I happen to have 3 various sized white dragon minis. Props are indeed powerful tool. I used my little brothers Skylanders Pirate ship figure as it scaled well with my dragon figures and made for some sick airborne encounters. My biggest problem as the DM is carrying a multitude of boxes from house to house, I need to get me a tackle box. The campaign is going smooth and these tips are sure to help!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s