D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

What I Learned from White Plume Mountain

dnd_products_dndacc_s-series_pic3_enIn my group’s monthly sessions this summer, I’ve been running White Plume Mountain. It can be found in the recent premium hardcover adventure compilation Dungeons of Dread. Back in the day, I was mainly reading the Basic D&D material, so I never got to experience White Plume Mountain before. Looking over it as a D&D Next DM, I thought it would be lots of fun to run, and to see what my players came up with. I thought I would share some tips for running your Next playtest characters through the crazy dungeon of the enigmatic wizard Keraptis.

The first problem I needed to overcome was the level of the adventure. My PCs are 10th level, and that is the upper end of the recommended range. Next characters feel more hardy than 1E characters anyway, so I knew I’d have to adjust some things here and there. Thankfully, the playtest packet includes Next versions of the monsters in White Plume Mountain. These are just a bit too low level, though. I generally adjusted hit points up by 10-20, and added one or two to AC and to hit. This tweak seemed to work fairly well.

D&D Next allows for quick, easy combat, and many of the potential fights in White Plume Mountain are simple enough to be run in the “theater of the mind”. Minis alone worked just fine for the kelpie fight and would probably be sufficient for others as well. However, sometimes, you just want to bust out a cool map and throw some plastic monsters on it. Looking through the adventure, I identified the following as encounters that could possibly merit a full on map:

  • Flesh Golems (if the riddle was failed)
  • Ctenmiir the vampire
  • Burket and Snarla
  • Sir Bluto and his fighter minions

imagesI purchased the printable maps for White Plume Mountain available on DriveThruRPG (a steal at 50 cents). I printed out the maps for the rooms above, plus a few other areas that might be hard to visualize, like the mud geyser room. Even with the printed maps, however, the fact is, White Plume Mountain is rather plain. Keeping in mind it was designed when I was still wearing Underoos and watching Superfriends, I decided to throw in some interesting environmental effects and terrain a la 4th edition.

Probably the best instance of this was the encounter with the vampire Ctenmiir. I had worried ahead of time about the mud geyser room. The obvious solution my players took, one I foresaw, was to use fly to avoid the geysers entirely. But the room was so interesting, I tried to use it anyway. My goal was to move the fight from the rather boring small, enclosed coffin room outside to the dangerous, cinematic geysers. I figured the darkness would be a good incentive to move the players outside. To discourage dispel magic, I tossed in an environmental effect of swarms of flies that disrupted spellcasting concentration unless a skill check was made. A secondary effect was the nerf the casters a bit, and give the melee folks time to shine. I figured between the flies and the difficulty of dispelling the magical darkness, they’d want to move the fight outside. Flying around in a geyser-filled room, chasing a vampire who summoned giant bat minions, sounded like a good thing to me.

In reality, my players were determined to stay in the coffin room. It took several rounds of fighting in the dark, but eventually one of the wizards managed to maintain concentration and successfully dispel the darkness. A turn undead and a couple solid hits from the fighter later, and the vampire was toast. While it wasn’t quite what I had planned, it was still very tense and a memorable fight, so I have to consider it a success.

downloadAnother really neat encounter in White Plume Mountain was the room with the globes. I was trying to come up with a way to make this more exciting, maybe use a prop somehow. It finally occurred to me to use plastic easter eggs to represent the globes. Inside each, I placed a short description of the contents, folded up fortune cookie style. For the globes with creatures, I put in tokens from my Monster Vault set. A few glass beads and other random trinkets represented gems and jewelry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a ring on hand, nor time to “arts and crafts” one, for the talking ring. (This ring was fun, and I allowed the fighter to use the ring’s wish to allow the ring to work outside the room… at my discretion, of course). My players really enjoyed opening the eggs, alternating between fear and greed in grand procession as they cracked them all. This just reinforces what I already knew: props are awesome, and DMs need to use them more.

Another piece of advice I have for DMs who will be running White Plume Mountain is to have a few extra riddles on hand. My players actually got out of the dungeon unexpectedly (more on that in a moment), and had passed the sphinx peacefully the first time through. I googled “fantasy riddles” and ended up with this list from the old PC game Betrayal at Krondor. My players failed two riddles, and would have been attacked by the sphinx had they not answered the third at the last possible moment. You can never have enough riddles, so consider printing a list or bookmarking that site.

white-plume-mountainThe three wing setup of White Plume Mountain is ideal for my group, with enough in each wing to last our typical two to three hour session. I gleefully admit I railroaded my players into saving Blackrazor and the Ziggurat for last. That room screams “final encounter” all over it. I am hoping to assemble a 3D ziggurat to use, and I’ve ordered a pack of cheap crab toys from Amazon to take the place of the giant crayfish. I’m still looking for other minis to use as well. I think the ogre mage alone in a small room afterwards would be anticlimactic, so he will make an appearance in the ziggurat along with the monsters. I am quite excited about the next session, and hope to have some pictures of the ziggurat here at The Learning DM soon.

One final note: if at all possible, end a session of White Plume Mountain with the giant crab encounter. A huge, dangerous beast, a magical, intelligent trident, and being shot out of a volcano in a hastily-created bubble of force combine to make an excellent end to an evening of gaming. White Plume Mountain is a strange place, but it has made for some truly enjoyable experiences for myself and my players. The D&D Next playtest works quite well with the classic module, and I look forward to trying out the other famous adventures in Dungeons of Dread in the near future.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

What I Learned from the D&D Next Playtest

Early last month, our group got together for a session with the D&D Next Playtest material. I was thrilled to be able to get some time in with the new rules, and the players were excited to be beta-testers, if you will, for the next generation of D&D. The evening was enjoyable, as it always is, and now that I’ve had some time to ponder it, I wanted to share my thoughts, just like 90% of the bloggers out there.

First, some clarification as to the makeup of the group. I was the DM, and have had experience with nearly all editions of D&D, though only minimally with late 2nd and 3rd. My son, age 11, plus a twenty-something guy and three fellows ranging from 35-42, were the players. Three of these players had a year and a half of 4E experience, while the other two were newcomers to 4E. Besides myself, only one player had any prevous experience in D&D. For most of the group, 4th Edition D&D is the standard, the only form of the game they are familiar with.

The character sheets themselves were very clear, easy to understand. Though 4E is a different beast, the basic tenets of ability scores, hit points, and to-hit rolls share enough similarities that the players had no big problems at all. The backgrounds, themes, etc. seemed to be a hit, both from a gameplay and roleplaying perspective. These were definitely worthwhile, and will surely be a good source of customization, for players who want to tweak their character a little bit. The hit dice mechanic was a bit harder to explain, but the similarity to 4E’s healing surges helped them assimilate this feature of the ruleset.

One problem that came up was “so what exactly can I do?” The power cards from 4E seem to have spoiled the players a bit. One the one hand, the abundance of power options makes  the game more complex, but on the other hand, powers serve as a good starting point. The non-caster classes, in particular, seemed to be a bit dry, with fewer options. I know that this issue will be addressed in future iterations of the rules, but as it stands, the disparity between spell casting and “I’ll swing my axe… again” was something my players brought up as a negative.

The spells themselves were quite different than the players were used to. Instead of very mechanical effects with only minor descriptors (as in 4E), the spells in D&D Next are more like rules subsystems all on their own, in many cases. For those of us who grew up casting sleep and burning hands, the D&D Next equivalents are easy to understand, if not identical to the older editions. But spells like command or mirror image are somewhat more difficult to pick up on. Adding to the issue was having to locate the spell in the “how to play” packet all the time. It made me wish I had something like my old set of Wizard spell cards from back in 2E. Power cards like 4E have their own problems, but you didn’t have to go scrounging through a rulebook to understand what they did, either. Perhaps a shorthand of some sort, similar to reminder text in Magic: the Gathering, could be added in future versions.

So, on to the adventure itself then. The old-schooler in me appreciated the direct translation of the classic Keep on the Borderlands module. It is perhaps the greatest “open world” type adventure ever. However, I’m not sure it was the best choice for the first major public playtest. The adventure as presented was light on descriptions and details, with more of an emphasis on the big picture. That’s all well and good, but it certainly requires a more improvisational DM style than what I have become used to in 4E.

In a sense, the Caves of Chaos is something like Madness at Gardmore Abbey. It is chock full of cool and interesting things for the DM to use and the players to interact with. There are multiple paths to take. There are lots of different ways to get things done. But it can be tough to make a coherent, enjoyable experience out of it all, depending on your flexibility in running the game. I believe a more straightforward, less chaotic (pardon the pun!) adventure might have been a better choice. Running something with a simpler set of options, like Cairn of the Winter King, as a good 4E example, would allow the DM and players to spend more time evaluating the system itself rather than figuring out what to do next.

Our group experimented with mapless encounters in 4E before, as I detailed in a previous post. I was hopeful that this would make the increased emphasis on the “theater of the mind” would be easier as a result. For the most part, my players had no trouble with mapless fights at all. When we did get the map out, it seemed like a waste of time. There really wasn’t much reason to do so, with the fewer options available to the players. I realize that a more complex, map-based ruleset is coming, but my players definitely see the system as too simple as it stands right now. Perhaps the low level nature of the adventure made the problem seem worse than it really is.

Thus far, my thoughts about D&D Next have been more general in nature, but there was one specific issue we ran into that I feel needs to be addressed. The wizard cantrip ray of frost seems far too powerful. My players ended up fighting a couple creatures that should by all rights have destroyed them: the minotaur and the ooze in the pool. Using ray of frost, they managed to prevail quite easily. By freezing these melee-only foes in place, the wizard allowed the rest of the group to pick them off at their leisure. I was torn between allowing the rules as written, and “cheating” in order to make the fight more interesting. In the end, I let them freely wail on these much stronger foes, but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m certain the melee-only players found it boring, too.

Of course, there are many ways the DM can get around ray of frost, but it certainly seems very powerful for an at-will, repeatable effect available at 1st level. I’m not sure what the exact answer to this problem should be. In my mind, altering the rules for the cantrip such that it cannot be used on the same target in consecutive rounds seems like a good compromise. Or perhaps we could steal from the old Mortal Kombat game, and have the freeze effect bounce back on the caster when abused!

Though my overall feelings for D&D Next were mostly positive, I was still mildly disappointed by it. I was expecting something that would fix the major problems in 4E, a set of rules that would be a clear upgrade that I would love and my players would readily embrace. This was not the case, though our experience is admittedly short. The rules as they stand right now feel too watered down, like they have swung too far on the complexity spectrum towards simplistic. However, it’s very early on in the playtest, and I know the D&D Next rules are in flux. I am very interested in the modular parts that will be coming along in the future, and hopeful that we can find a good balance for us as a group. In the meantime, we’ll keep playing 4E, and enjoying it.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&D Next: In Search of the Unknown

Any person who has even a passing interest in Dungeons & Dragons has likely found the past week to be very exciting. A new edition of the original role-playing game will be coming out next year. Several signs pointed to this happening, from the obvious (the hiring of Monte Cook) to the less conspicuous (the folks at D&D headquarters playing through all editions of D&D recently). Still, coming so soon on the heels of 4th Edition, it’s a bit of a surprise that the cycle will begin again sometime next year.

The cynical among us think that a new edition a mere five years after the previous edition was launched is just a money grab, with Wizards rolling out shiny, expensive new editions of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual for us to buy. There may be a financial motivator, especially considering the rise of Pathfinder, a derivative of D&D that was uniquely positioned to take in disgruntled gamers when 4E was presented. The almight dollar might be the motivation behind the new edition (be it called D&D Next, 5th Edition, whatever), at least in part.

I personally disagree with that point of view. Wizards is definitely saying the right things this time around. It appears that they are genuinely interested in the opinions of all D&D fans, from the original white box down to 4th Edition Essentials. Feedback has been directly solicited in Monte Cook’s Legends & Lore column, which reads like a next-edition design journal. An open playtest is underway, with several notable bloggers already having their hands on the new rules. Believe me, I’d love to be attending the D&D Experience later this month, so I could check it out myself. But since I’m not in the playtest, nor headed to Indiana in a few weeks, all I can do is present what I believe are the keys to a successful new edition.

First of all, D&D Next must embrace the grognards. The Old School Renaissance is in full effect, with dozens of blogs dedicated to the golde age of the hobby. Thanks to 3rd Edition’s Open Game License, retro clones in all varieties have sprung up, catering to fans of every era in D&D’s history. Obviously, there is a group of people out there who are craving “new but old” content for their games and campaigns. The folks at Wizards have done very little to embrace this niche of the audience. In fact, they have ignored or more often been at odds with them.

Nowhere is this bias more apparent than the lack of digital distribution of the D&D back catalog. As I understand it, many such products were available for purchase at one point, but Wizards decided to pull them off the market several years ago. This shows a shocking lack of insight. With the rise in popularity of the iPad and other tablets, it makes even more sense to release these gaming gems from the past in electronic form.

Finding copies of the originals can be very, very expensive on Ebay or other secondary markets. I know there are dozens of books I’d like to have available on my iPad or Kindle, to read for nostalgia’s sake, if not use in my game outright. The Gazetteer series, covering the different nations of the world of Mystara, comes immediately to mind. I would love to run a campaign based in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos once again. What old school D&D player wouldn’t love to digitally flip through Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or Tomb of Horrors? Opening the vaults and making them available online for a reasonable price would generate a tremendous amount of goodwill and interest from the OSR crowd.

Second, the promise of a modular, customizable D&D Next must be fulfilled. This is important, and definitely intriguing from a design standpoint. A robust yet flexible backbone holding the new system together is a must. Wizards must absolutely nail this one, and make sure they get it right the first time. There can’t be a situation like 4E/Essentials, where the can of worms can’t quite be shut again. If the designers can come out of the gate strong, with a buffet-style set of rules, where you can choose what you like, and ignore what you don’t, then D&D Next could be the greatest version of the game ever.

That’s a tall order, though, and it may be that being all things to all people won’t end up appealing to anyone, making D&D Next a failure. Some DMs like a light rules set, which gives them the power to adjudicate as they wish. Others enjoy complex systems, where there is a rule for everything, and no guesswork is required. Tactical combat with miniatures or tokens is appealing to some, while it turns off others. By building a framework of terminology (AC, hit points, ability scores) and an intuitive set of rules to extrapolate from (die roll + modifiers > target), I think it can be done.

Emphasis must be placed on inclusion of all different types of players and DMs. When rules are presented as options, it makes a huge difference. An example from the board game world would be Agricola. There is a “family version” of the rules, with no random elements, and slightly simpler options. The normal version uses cards with special player powers, and though the rules are much the same, the game plays quite a bit differently. Both are equally valid ways to play, and use the same bits and pieces; they are just different from each other. This is exactly what D&D Next needs in order to meet the lofty goal of being something players of all previous editions will enjoy and find worthwhile.

The more I think about the possibilities that a new edition of D&D provides, the more excited I get. I enjoy 4E, as it was what got me back into the hobby. But it is a bit too rules-heavy for my taste. I’ve tweaked it into something I am more comfortable with, but there’s always that nagging doubt that I’m not running the rules as intended. If D&D Next provides me lots of valid choices as to how to run my game, each of which are accepted as “real D&D”, then I will love it. This, along with releasing the back catalog digitally, with the original and revised stats side by side, will make for an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that will put an end to version wars, hopefully forever.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Legends, Lore and Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters D&D

This week’s Legends & Lore has stirred up quite a discussion. The overall concept behind Mr. Cook’s article is that rules should only appear when you need them. He uses damage resistance as an example. Damage resistance doesn’t typically appear too often in low level 4E play, but is very common (and important) in later tiers. It’s unclear exactly what Cook is suggesting, but the underlying implication is that more complex rules like damage resistance not be included in the core rule set, but rather in individual adventures, or perhaps something like a paragon-tier sourcebook.

It seems most people are opposed to such a system. I find this quite surprising. Scores of articles and blog posts have been written about how to streamline 4E D&D so it runs more smoothly. It’s a mixed message; most people want to reduce the complexity of many of 4E’s systems, but they are opposed to Cook’s suggestion of a way to do just that. It doesn’t make much sense to me to hold both positions.

Having a simpler set of core rules is of utmost importance for getting new players to become regular players. The Essentials Red Box did a fairly good job of this. Not every rule or circumstance was presented in the box, in order to keep running your first D&D game as easy as possible. Fewer, simpler character classes and powers, with a small selection of easy to run monsters combined for a very user-friendly experience. It’s not a perfect set, by any means, but it does manage to get you up and running a D&D game fairly quickly.

The next step in the Essentials Line was the Rules Compendium (or, alternately, the DM Kit). Here, a huge range of rules is presented, which is daunting enough. But compounding the issue is that you still need the Heroes books or a DDI subscription for perhaps the most important aspect of the rules: character creation. Don’t forget you will need the Monster Vault, too, to fill your adventures with foes. Each of these books has content from 1st to 30th level (though admittedly the latter levels are not as well supported). That’s a lot of material for someone to wade through.

Do you see the problem here? The needs of a DM running a level 2 adventure are vastly different than one planning for level 9, 19, or 29. Clarity is lost due to the breadth of the material. There is so much to comprehend in these rule books, it’s daunting. Wouldn’t a method of delivering rules that gradually scales up in complexity as a campaign progresses be a better way? What would such a product line look like?

In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, and the accompanying pictures, we’ve already seen a D&D product that broke the rules down into easy to digest chunks. The classic Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters sets from the 1980s did exactly that. Basic covered levels 1-3, Expert 4-14, Companion 15-25, and Masters 26-36. The Immortal set even let you go further, though it was largely a different game at that point. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Mr. Cook is thinking about.

I am strongly in favor of breaking the rules system down in this way. It’s a natural progression, one that can be easily mastered, if you’ll pardon the pun. I am a teacher in real life, and one of the most important parts of my job is making sure my students understand concepts I teach fully before moving on to new material. When I teach division, I have to make sure my students have an easy understanding of the concept of multiplication first, or else they will be hopelessly lost. It’s the same when learning a system as complex as D&D; you have to learn the basics before you add in any complications or additional options. Dont we need to make sure DMs learn to walk before we tell them how to run?

In 4E D&D, even the Essentials line, after you are done with the Red Box, the entire ruleset is presented for you at once. There is very little guidance in how best to proceed. A modular system would be a better method for learning to play D&D. Complexity can be introduced gradually, with a flatter learning curve. Maybe Mr. Cook had the old D&D boxed sets in mind when he wrote his article; perhaps not. But these classic boxed sets presented the material in a way that was easy to understand, which is not exactly true of modern D&D. If 5th edition can fix this problem, it will become a better game as a result.

Thanks to The Acaeum for the pictures.