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

Six Reasons Why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the Best

4As an old school D&D player and DM, I have many fond memories of classic adventures from the past. Ravenloft, Isle of Dread, and many others were among my favorites. As far as 4E adventures go, my favorite was Cairn of the Winter King. But having run my players through several sessions of Madness at Gardmore Abbey, I am of the opinion that it is easily the best 4E adventure, and compares favorably to such beloved classics as Keep on the Borderlands and Tomb of Horrors. Here are six reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is great.

1. The Deck of Many Things

The big maguffin/villain in Gardmore Abbey is the Deck of Many Things. This artifact is one of the most appealing in all of D&D, embracing the random nature of the game. The Deck has been around since the very early days, first appearing in the original Greyhawk supplement. Assembling the deck and debating about whether to draw make the Deck a great source of roleplaying opportunities. Plus, with 4E’s use of cards for powers and abilities, the Deck is a natural fit.

itw_20110705_6Even better is the inclusion of a gorgeously designed physical deck of cards to represent the Deck of Many Things. I love using props in my games any time I can, and the Deck has been a smash hit with my group so far. Finding new cards here and there throughout the Abbey has added to the coherence of our campaign. The Deck is interesting both in real life and in game, and one of the biggest reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is awesome.

2. Tokens, Maps and Dungeon Tiles

One of my biggest pet peeves is when adventures refer to miniatures, maps, or tiles that I don’t have access to. It’s nice to have a big collection of miniatures available, but with the old minis game out of print, and the new Dungeon Command series less than a year old, it can be expensive to find just the right one. Maps and tiles are much the same; sure, I can simply use what I have on hand, but it still bugs me when my best option is to draw a map on Gaming Paper.

dd_20110921_1Madness at Gardmore Abbey doesn’t have these problems. Sturdy tokens, similar to those of the Monster Vault series, are included for the most of the monsters and NPCs. A sheet of Dungeon Tiles enables the DM to create the encounters exactly as intended. (One nitpick: the tokens and tiles have a dull finish, not the glossy sheen of standard dungeon tiles and the original Monster Vault tokens.) Best of all, for those like me on the lazy side, excellent poster maps for important fights are also in the box. These are rendered very nicely, but still generic enough to be reused in the future. If you have access to the Monster Vault and the first Essentials Dungeon Tiles set, you’ll be prepared for each encounter in the Abbey.

3. Hits the Sweet Spot of 4E Levels

Though I’ve not had much experience running high level 4th Edition sessions, the problems with paragon and epic level games are well known. Increased options and combinations of powers for PCs leads to excessively long combats as well as broken gameplay. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for characters of levels 6 to 8. Coming in on the upper half of Heroic tier, PCs have plenty of options and good survivability, yet at the same time, they don’t have a fifteen page character sheet to look through every turn. This makes for an adventure that balances challenge with simplicity to great effect.

Whether by intention or not, Madness at Gardmore Abbey follows the line of adventures in the Essentials series very well. Running the Red Box adventure, the Iron Circle material from the DM Kit, and the excellent Winter King adventure included with the Monster Vault will take characters to level 5. Gardmore Abbey would work pretty well right after this, and in fact the adventure includes story ties to these other adventures. For all intents and purposes, Madness at Gardmore Abbey IS an Essentials Adventure.

34. Ties to Other Planes

One of the biggest changes in 4th Edition D&D is the “nerfing” of the planes. No longer is traveling to a different plane restricted to high level characters with access to powerful magic. While still dangerous, 4E style planar adventures are possible for characters of more modest abilities. I see this as a net positive; anything that gets players into fantastic environments sooner is a good thing, in my book.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey has direct ties to two planes: the Feywild and the Far Realm. An entire quest chain with significant links to the Feywild is available, and can lead to further adventures in the plane of rampant growth. The Lovecraft-inspired Far Realm has directly intruded upon one location in the Abbey, with suitably horrific events playing out as players explore. As with the Feywild, you can easily toss in some bread crumbs here that lead to further exploration of the dread Far Realm later in your campaign. Extraplanar adventures have a big “wow” factor with players and this adventure gives you an easy way to head that direction if you so choose.

155. Features Iconic Monsters

Ask any person on the street what types of monsters show up in a fantasy setting, and you are all but guaranteed to get dragons as an answer. Madness at Gardmore Abbey uses a young red dragon in a showcase encounter. I just ran my players through it, and the fight was a gloriously challenging epic battle that lasted almost two hours. That’s far longer than I typically prefer, but it felt fresh throughout due to the almost video game-like stages of the encounter. I won’t spoil them, but suffice it to say that fighting a red dragon equipped with several cards from the Deck of Many Things is a fantastic experience.

And there’s much more to Gardmore Abbey than just one cool monster. Another iconic creature, the beholder, is a major antagonist, in a truly creepy environment. Orcs, another staple, make a significant appearance, as does an ettin, in a particularly memorable encounter that doesn’t have to be a slugfest. The catacombs beneath the Abbey are full of undead, one of my favorite types of monsters to use. Gardmore Abbey has so many classic creatures inside, it may as well be called “Monster Vault’s Greatest Hits”.

6. So… Much… Content!

Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for characters of level 6 to 8. There is more than enough adventure inside to be the entire focus of your campaign for these levels. You could use only the content inside and spend all of levels 6, 7, and 8 before you got through. An incredible amount of resources, encounters, NPCs, plot threads, and suggestions for smaller side adventures and quests are included. It is really more like a miniature campaign setting than a standard adventure.

6Since my group only plays once a month, and is level 8, I’ve cherry picked the more challenging encounters and quests to use at my table. I’d estimate I’ve only used about one third of the content by doing so. That leaves plenty of cool stuff available for the future. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is a treasure trove of interesting locations, characters, and challenges that can be swapped into nearly any campaign. Whether you use it all in a marathon adventure chain, or simply pick and choose, there is a wealth of useful material here.

As D&D Next is in active playtest, just over the horizon, support for 4th edition has fallen off dramatically. It’s a bit sad that Madness at Gardmore Abbey will likely be the final published 4E adventure. I’d love to have seen more like it, assuming the high quality of this module continued in further products. As it stands, Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the final pinnacle of adventure design in 4th edition, and I believe it deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest adventures in D&D’s rich history.

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

What to Do When Players Go the “Wrong” Direction

When I first began blogging here at The Learning DM, most of my posts were basically session reports. In these writings, I pointed out things I had learned from the evening’s activities. I’ve not done one of these for quite some time, and since a rather interesting thing happened in my campaign’s last meeting, so I decided to share my thoughts about it.

Last week was our third session playing through Madness at Gardmore Abbey. With such an open-ended adventure, it might be good to detail exactly how I am using it. Our group is 8th level, so I adjust encounters upwards slightly to provide a challenge, but still allow for quick combat. Our play period is typically 3 hours, so I aim for two combats alongside light role playing and exploration. (I’d prefer more of the latter, but my players really enjoy   fights!) To get through the adventure in a reasonable time frame (meeting once a month), I’m skipping most encounters, either by just describing empty rooms, or encounters that have been overcome by the rival adventuring group, who of course will show up later. The group has thus far explored the Dragon’s Roost area, aided Sir Oakley in his failed purification attempt, and recently found the Brazier in the Garrison.

I emailed my players an in-story request for how they wanted to proceed. I sent them a map with some notes on it about what had been explored, further areas to check out, etc. Most everyone agreed that they wanted to go deeper beneath the Abbey to find the remaining items for the ritual. Speaking as Sir Oakley, I recommended to the group that exploring beneath the Temple would be the best way to start. Not hearing anything different from the group via email, I found miniatures, whipped up a map with Dungeon Tiles, and familiarized myself with the Catacombs entries in the Encounters book. I felt totally ready to DM, and was certain that it would be another exciting session.

In turned out it was indeed exciting, but for a totally different reason. After a brief skill challenge, the group made their way to the Dragon’s Roost. I described the scenery briefly, and just as I flipped in the book to the descriptive text for the Catacombs, it happened.

One of my players grabbed the map with notes I had printed off, and noticed that there was another set of stairs in the Hall of Glory. He asked Oakley if he had any clue where it led. Without really thinking about it, I explained that these stairs likely led to Vaults containing relics of the paladins’ past glory. “You mean, treasures and such? Makes sense that the Bowl and Chalice would be there, and probably some other great loot too. Let’s go this way instead!” The rest of the group agreed, and I found myself in a predicament.

I could, of course, run the Catacombs instead, though it might lead to some inconsistencies later. After all, the players didn’t know what was supposed to be in the Vaults. But this felt dirty to me. So, I threw caution to the wind, and ran the group through the Vaults encounters. I had only read this section briefly several months before. I had no maps or miniatures ready at all. Certainly, having a published adventure helped considerably, but I still felt woefully unprepared.

In situations like this, you have to just roll with it and see what happens. I had already identified the two encounters I wanted to use in the Vaults on a note card when I first read through the adventure months ago. On the fly, I made the decision to cut the whole minotaurs vs. gnolls subplot. My players were expecting orcs beneath the Abbey anyway, so I decided to reskin the encounters as needed.

I owned a few orc minis and collected them, dug around for some orc Monster Vault tokens in my D&D box, and ran to my closet to grab some Gaming Paper. For the most part, the initial exploration went well. I had feared that the group would immediately head for the dragon encounter. I very much wanted to save that for the next session, since it was really one of the centerpieces of the entire module and deserved better prep on my part. I led them away from that section of the map with some subtle (and even some not-so-subtle) nudging.

One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was having to edit flavor text passages on the fly. I wanted the Vaults to be mainly empty, but most of the text described rooms with monsters inside. I stumbled through the text as best I could, and used my imagination for the rest. In hindsight, it would have been a better idea to read ahead and pencil out references to monsters during quiet moments when players were making skill check rolls or other down time. Even without monsters, there were plenty of interesting things to differentiate the rooms. The designers were very descriptive and creative, a fact I greatly appreciated when running unprepared. I also decided to plant clues about the other adventuring party in these “empty” rooms.

I usually prefer poster maps, or even Dungeon Tiles to drawing my own maps, but in this case, it couldn’t be avoided. Looking at the various encounters, each of them seemed fairly complex to run, so I made a decision to use the stats from a generic village orc patrol encounter instead. Whipping out a sharpie, I detailed the room as best I could. A statue of Bahamut as a human knight was changed to that of a dragon instead, represented on the map by a small white dragon mini. I set up Urthak the Vicious as the orc leader, with a set of four Orc Terrorblades, plus eight orc token minions. This was more than the encounter called for, but I knew my players were higher level than the norm, and I wanted to challenge them.

I kept in mind how I wanted to run the encounter to make it exciting. Hit them hard early,  to get them scared, then, when the tide turned their way, have the remaining orcs flee as an “out”. It worked out quite well. The lead orc smashed the group with an AoE attack, flinging them across the room. Half the party was bloodied by the end of the second turn. With a few key heals and control spells, the group came back just fine, as heroes do, and the orc minions fled, ending the encounter.

I made the decision to end on a cliffhanger if possible. The players obliged by exploring right up to the room with the sleeping red dragon. The sense of fear and anticipation was all over their faces as I read the descriptive text, and ended the session. My players were very complimentary, and I can tell that they are excited about the next meeting.

So what can we learn from this? First of all, running by the seat of your pants is OK. Monsters in 4E are very easily reskinned into whatever you need them to be. Rely on flavor text, but make sure the narrative still flows nicely. Don’t worry too much about how pretty your battle map is, either. Even a modest collection of minis and tokens will work just fine;  even in 4E, much of what makes D&D enjoyable is still what happens in the theater of the mind. I don’t plan to run with little to no prep very often, but I must admit it was a good session anyway, and hopefully the improv practice will aid me in future Dungeon Mastering.

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

An Alternate Finale for Cairn of the Winter King

Of all the premade adventures I have run so far in my 4E campaign, I think Cairn of the Winter King is my favorite.  As an old schooler returning to D&D after a long hiatus, the Winter King’s lair was was far more comfortable for me, since it is very much a classic-inspired dungeon.  I also loved the roleplaying opportunities that the early winter provided, and the flying Viking longship full of zombies and skeletons was a great encounter.  Ravide the Black made a memorable NPC, one that I have used extensively in my campaign.  There was even a dragon; what’s not to love?

This is not to say, though, that the adventure was flawless.  One of the biggest problems is the fact that it is entirely possible for the “final” Winter King encounter to happen fairly early in the adventure.  There’s not much that can be done about this issue, really, without seriously railroading the party into exploring the rest of the rooms first.  My group defeated the Winter King before they had even stepped foot in half the rooms.  There was more treasure and XP to be had, sure, and they wanted to explore the entire place.  But anything further would be anticlimactic; once you’ve killed the big bad evil guy, even slaying his most trusted lieutenant is a downer.

I decided I needed something big and exciting to wrap up the adventure properly.  Luckily for me, my players had not explored the room with the frozen white dragon yet.  I decided I would end the adventure in a very cinematic and memorable fashion: the white dragon would chase the players as they escaped on the flying ship.  I figured combining their first encounter with a dragon with the novelty of a fight on the impressive flying ship would be a fitting end to the tale, and it was.

I decided to share this encounter in the hopes that it might help some DM out there who was struggling with finding a good ending to the Cairn of the Winter King like I did.  Alternately, this encounter could easily take place in other campaigns.  As long as the party is in a boat, train, Spelljammer, or whatever, and there’s a large, mobile monster that can chase them, this basic framework should work nicely, with a few alterations.

Sometimes, Abstract is Better
The way I ran the encounter was much different than the standard battlemap and mini-based combat that 4E generally provides.  There are several reasons why I wanted a more abstract and free-flowing encounter than a strict, “by the books” fight.  First of all, I wanted the big finale to be unique, far different from what they were used to.  Secondly, I didn’t want to burden the encounter with additional rules for flight, like elevations, headings, and the like.  4E combats run fairly slowly anyway and the last thing I wanted at this point was more complexity.  Lastly, I didn’t have (or want) a battlemap of a flying icy longship anyway.

I drew a diagram of the basic locations of the ship: the oars, two crossbows (one on either side), the prow, and the rear of the ship, including the mast and sail.  I instructed my players that they would be able to use their movement action to move from their current location to any other, as they saw fit.

Each section of the diagram had something for the players to do.  Please forgive the crudeness of the drawing.

Oars – The oars needed to be rowed in order to make the ship fly.  I told my players that two medium Athletics skill checks would need to be made each round, or one person could make a hard Athletics check and give up their standard action instead.  If the skill check was failed, the ship would begin to fall, causing each player on the ship to make an Acrobatics check or fall prone and lose their next standard action due to the loss of footing and difficulty of moving in freefall.

Crossbows – These were handled by using stats pulled directly from Sly Flourish’s DM Cheat Sheet.  Any player could use the crossbow, which magically created its own bolts at the beginning of each round, to attack.  +10 vs AC, 2d6+6 damage.

Rear of the ship – I knew I wanted the dragon to damage the sail at some point, which would require a PC to make a hard Acrobatics check (climbing the mast) and a medium Athletics/Thievery check (repairing ropes on sail) to overcome.  This was where that PC would need to be standing.

Prow – The bearer of the Ice Scepter needed to stand here in order to channel the power of the item into powering the crossbows.  Each round, this player would have to make either an easy Arcana check with a standard action, or a hard Arcana check with a minor action, in order to keep the crossbows up and loaded.

An additional wrinkle made the combat even more interesting.  The dragon would, after each action (the 10+ initiative attack and the standard turn), move to either the port, starboard, or forward sides of the ship.  This would limit who could attack it with a missile weapon.  When I ran the fight, I just explained it to my players, but it was a bit confusing.  I created a chart to be used to determine the position the dragon would fly into, and who could and could not hit it.

This allows your players to have a few options, and significant decision points as to who is going to cover what area.  Also, the die roll added a bit of drama to the fight; where would the dragon end up this time?  I was excited and curious to see how the fight developed, and whether my players would enjoy the more loose and open method of resolving the battle, which was really quite different than the typical 4E encounter.

A Real Nail Biter
Though there were a few hiccups, the big finale went quite well.  My players really seemed to be enjoying themselves, and it was a blast to run as a DM.  It felt like we were “breaking the rules” of 4E a bit, and this somehow added a sense of excitement to the fight.  Here are a few things I learned from running this encounter.

  • Being the oar guy is boring!  The slayer in my group, with no real ranged capabilities to speak of, took on the task of the oars all by himself.  This meant his turn consisted of a simple skill check roll.  That’s hardly ideal.  I tried to make up for this by having Ravide the Black help row every once in a while as well.  This freed up the slayer to use Heal on others during the fight, a nice role reversal.  Still, I felt like I could have had him do more.
  • Speaking of role reversals, it was quite fun to see a shaman and paladin manning the crossbows.  They were able to do some nice damage at range, something that both classes struggle with.  I think they enjoyed the change of pace.
  • The thief and mage were the all-stars, for obvious reasons.  I don’t have a problem when a couple members of the party far outshine the others, but it’s not something I want to do all the time.  I was sure to spotlight the unique abilities of the other players in the next few sessions.  Everyone should have a time when they get hive fives and the rest of the party wonders how they’d ever have made it without them!
  • By all means, make sure the fight ends with the defeated dragon falling away just as the ship starts to melt and lose altitude quickly.  The dragon could come back as a recurring villain, with a huge grudge, and a seat of the pants splash into the waters of Fallcrest just in time is a great way to end the adventure.  Your players will feel like rock stars, for sure.

I hope you found this encounter interesting.  The Cairn of the Winter King is a fantastic adventure, and it deserves to have a fitting ending.  Hopefully, the scenario I described for you here gives you a few ideas to use in your own campaign.  If you do use it, please let me know!  I’d be thrilled to hear how it went in another gaming group.

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

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.

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

What I Learned from “The Die Is Cast”

After the Battle of Albrdge, the group was ready to tackle the rest of “The Die Is Cast”, the second adventure included in the DM Kit.  I was looking forward to concluding the first truly “epic” (for third level anyway) adventure of the campaign.  Here’s what I learned after running the adventure.

Say “Yes” to Your Players

It is very easy for DMs to feel as if the campaign belongs to them, not to the players.  This is a trap that should be avoided; D&D as an experience should be collaborative in nature, where everyone contributes.  Your players are devoting their time and often money to play D&D, and it’s important to make sure they are having a good time.  One way to do that is to say “yes” as often as you can.

One incident in the last half of “The Die Is Cast” is a good example.  My players decided to infiltrate the Iron Keep by using the classic Star Wars trick of pretending to be soldiers with prisoners (in this case an elf and a dwarf instead of a Wookiee).  I was comfortable with this, as it was one of the methods presented in the book already.  My players had discussed the plan via email, and I was ready to go, prepared for what might happen next.

As we sat down for the session, the group changed plans.  The thief, with his high Bluff and Stealth skills, would go in alone, and report back to the others.  My first reaction was negative, and I thought of several reasons why; splitting up the party is bad, if there was a fight he’d probably die, how would he communicate to the other players, etc.  I raised all these points with them.  Then the dwarf shaman suggested he could use his Nature skill to commune with the wind spirits and ask them to carry their words back and forth to the thief.  I gnashed my teeth (on the inside at least) and said I would allow it if he made a Nature check that was high enough.

My intention was the make the DC so high it would never work.  But as he rolled, I remembered that the whole point of D&D was having fun.  I don’t remember what the shaman rolled, but I allowed the wind spirits to act as a walkie talkie for them that night.  I know it was totally breaking the rulebook in half, as well as ignoring what many DM advice blogs would say.  But in this case, I felt that rolling with it and saying “yes” was the best course of action.  The thief went in alone, but the other players were involved as well.  It ended up working quite well, and another benefit was I got some practice with my improv skills.

Make Battle Maps Ahead of Time
The DM Kit is an amazing value, with the guide book, two adventures, lots of tokens, and two poster maps.  You can run the adventures using nothing more than what’s in the box… except for the last few encounters in “The Die Is Cast”.  I had heard great things about Dungeon Tiles, and the adventure recommended their use, so I ordered the Master Dungeon Set.  They showed up in the mail the evening of our session.  I opened them, punched out each tile with glee, and tossed them in the box.  I was prepared now, so what could go wrong, right?

It turned out, lots could go wrong.  I thought I could just grab the appropriate tiles when needed, slap them on the table, and call it good.  In reality, it took probably five to ten minutes to set up each battle map.  Over the three encounters, this ended up taking almost half an hour out of the session.  That was far, far too long.  My players took the opportunity to grab a soda or a cookie, use the bathroom, or whatever, but I still felt like I was wasting their time.

It’s extremely important to plan ahead in all aspects of DMing, but perhaps none more than the use of Dungeon Tiles.  At the very minimum, you need to get all the tiles you’ll need for one map together in a baggie to pull out at the right moment.  You’ll get the best results when you get a foam-core  posterboard and some sticky tack to make your layouts ahead of time.  This makes your maps more permanent and easily portable, and the tiles won’t get damaged if you are careful.  It’s also much less stressful to build a dungeon room while watching TV than it is when five players are breathing down your neck, ready to fight the bad guys.

End on a High Note
My players didn’t enter Iron Keep with guns blazing, instead relying on stealth and speed to get to the inner tower.  They stopped for only a few diversions on their way to fight the Iron Circle general, Nazin Redthorn.  As a result, there were still a couple encounters worth of enemies in the castle when Redthorn fell.  The question then, was, what happens next?

Several options presented themselves.  First, I could require the PCs to fight their way out.  Second, I could hand-wave some method to let them escape easily, like a secret tunnel or something.  Or, I could describe the remaining fights in general terms, since I really wanted to end the adventure after this particular session.  Neither was appealing to me.

Thankfully, one of my players had an idea: “What are these lowly soldiers going to do when we walk out of here with Redthorn’s head on a sword?”  This was a perfect solution!  It was very cinematic, totally believable, and allowed for some interesting roleplaying as the horrified Iron Circle minions fled.  The players felt like super heroes at this point, and it was definitely the high point of the adventure for them.

If there’s any way possible, make sure to end each adventure with a similar scene.  Players don’t want to fight more goblins after they just took down the dragon boss, so don’t force it on them.  Make each adventure like the last scene in an action movie.  If at all possible, end each session in a similar way.  Leave your players feeling good about themselves and looking forward to the next session.

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

What I Learned from “The Iron Circle” Part II

At this point in my DMing career, I feel like I have a good grasp of the basics.  Though it is still complex and overly long for my tastes, combat no longer feels like a chaotic mess that I can’t keep under control.  My players are coming together into an effective party with clearly defined roles.  As my confidence improves, so does my willingness to try new tricks to enhance the experience.

Foreshadowing can derail the adventure
One technique I wanted to try was to give players private information via email in between sessions.  I felt this would add greatly to the overall enjoyment of the game, keeping it fresh on my player’s minds all week, not just on game night.  One of my players had established that his character was said to be the embodiment of a prophecy.  Taking this idea and running with it, I decided to drop a hint about a future adventure; I emailed the player a brief dream sequence, filled with images of a skull (still in the group’s posession after the first adventure), a ghostly figure, and a ruined tower.  I felt this tied into the whole “chosen one” thing and would help add to a sense of continuity between the adventures.

It didn’t work out as I had hoped.  The player shared his dream with the others in the party as soon as our session began.  They took this dream as a sign that they needed to abandon the Reavers of Harkenwold quest and set off in search of this mysterious tower.  I quite understandably panicked.  My preparations were for the current adventure, and I had nothing planned for the tower at this point whatsoever.  I knew I couldn’t improvise a whole session on the fly, so I tried my best to nudge the party back on track without being blatantly obvious about it.  They did so, but reservedly.  I could tell they were very excited about the meaning of the dream, and the rest of the evening was probably less enjoyable for them as a result.

This taught me an extremely valuable lesson.  When you introduce something new, players will assume it is of utmost importance.  I had intended the dream to be a bit of flavor, and yet, since I had never used such a device before, they assumed it was the most important thing in the universe!  I was totally unprepared for this, and felt bad about railroading my group into the intended course for the evening.  I want my players to have an impact on the campaign, with meaningful choices, but it is too early in my DMing life to just let them run loose sandbox style at this point.  As DMs, we must be careful when introducing red herrings, foreshadowing, or other details that can cause the PCs to go way off track.

Alternate victory conditions are great – if done right
I was very worried about my PCs being able to complete one tough encounter where they fought a skeletal wizard and a special giant spider that each had very powerful abilities.  Perusing the collective wisdom online, I learned that other DMs had expressed the fears about the same fight.  Also, I wanted to spice up encounters by giving my players something to do other than just attack everything.  So I decided to do a serious revamp of the encounter.

Here are the changes I made.  The wizard, Yisarn, would begin casting a spell over the skeletal remains of a small black dragon.  If left uninterrupted for three rounds, the spell would complete and the skeletal dragon would animate and attack the group.  I left the nasty spider in the room as a dessicated corpse that would animate only as a result of Yisarn’s death.  These changes certainly affected the outcome of the encounter, but not nearly as well as I had hoped.

The biggest mistake I made was including the pit traps in the room as written.  While exciting, these traps kept my casters quite literally on the outside looking in.  They feared missing the Athletics check to leap over, so they stayed put and did their best to assist from the doorway.  This was not fun for them, as you can imagine.

Further compounding the problem was how I determined that Yisarn could be interrupted: by being damaged.  This was not the brightest idea, since the whole point was to get my players to do more than just swing an axe or cast magic missile.  In hindsight, I see that I could have allowed Religion, Arcana, or even Nature checks at Hard difficulty to counteract Yisarn’s casting instead.  This would have both kept my casters busy and also made for a more unusual encounter.

As it played out, the skeletal dragon was not animated.  Yisarn abandoned his attempts to raise it in favor of attacking, and he really did lay the smack down on the group.  The paladin and thief were hurt badly before the wizard fell.  I shudder to think how deadly the wizard would have been had he attacked from the first round.  When the spider came back to life after his master’s death, it was a cool moment… at first.  But, the fight against it was very anti-climactic. The spider wasn’t nearly as tough nor as fun to roleplay as Yisarn was, and it died with barely a whimper.  It probably would have been better to have left it out entirely, or perhaps animate it earlier to add to the epic feel of the boss fight.

At the end of the evening, everyone had a good time.  The changes I had made were enough to set that encounter apart, which was exactly what I wanted.  Still, I felt unsatisfied; the next morning, I thought of several ways I could have improved the session.  I’m sure that’s how it is for most DMs; there is no better teacher than experience.  If you want to learn how to run a better game, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  Use your mistakes to be better in the future.

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

What I Learned From “The Iron Circle” Part I

After the Red Box adventure, plus a short session with some heavy roleplaying and a couple encounters under my belt, the players were now level 2 and ready for more D&D.  Having just purchased the DM’s Kit, and being impressed with the included modules, I decided to take my PCs to the Harkenwold to free the land from the Iron Circle.  The first module of the pair would take us three full sessions to complete, so I will spend at least a couple posts discussing what I learned from it.

Make sure every player feels valuable
During the previous sessions of our campaign, my oldest son was absent.  The party makeup at that time was controller, leader, and defender x 2.  When my son joined us, he chose to play an Essentials thief.  For the first time, a striker was added to the mix, and I am sure you can see where the problem arose: the Thief was an absolute beast in combat, and easily did double the damage of any other character, with the possible exception of the mage.

In my inexperience, I didn’t really know what to expect from a 4E party with balanced roles, but his damage dealing capabilities felt wrong.  My other players indicated they felt he was overpowered, if not in as many words.  Frankly, I agreed with them.  I knew that this issue had to be addressed as soon as possible.  Any type of party discontent is best nipped in the bud.  So I did what any desperate DM would do: I went online and asked for help.

After a lengthy discussion at ENWorld, several key points emerged.  One was that strikers are supposed to do lots of damage; that is their role.  The thief is a strong character, and that is acceptable in the grand scheme of things.  But that still left me with the player concerns.  It seems obvious in hindsight, but solution to the conundrum was clear: let each character shine.  The combats I had run so far were simple affairs, and in these situations the thief’s contributions were quite visible to all.  I needed encounters where two things happened: first of all, the thief needed to get taken down a notch or two, and secondly, I needed to get the defenders, controller, and leader to wow the rest of the group by doing something awesome.

This plan worked out well.  Just a couple rounds into our first fight of the evening, the thief had already begun to take his lumps.  He decided (foolishly) to leap on top of a barn to shoot his crossbow at enemies below unobstructed.  I let him do so, and then, since he was in line of sight of a whole group of minions, they  drew their own crossbows and let him have it.  In one round, he was bloodied, and if the the mage’s area of effect spells had not slain multiple minions, he likely would have died the next round.  It was an ideal “two birds with one stone” situation: the thief’s weaknesses and the mage’s strengths were both emphasized.

Another fight in the next session was quite similar.  My son recklessly rushed in to maximize damage, and soon was ganged up on and reduced to zero hit points.  The shaman and paladin rushed his way, the shaman healing him as best he could, while the paladin tried to keep nearby bad guys occupied.  A few squares away, the knight tanked (for lack of a better term) a drake rider so well that the thief, once recovered, moved in for a couple sneak attacks.  This skirmish was difficult, but each player performed his role admirably, and I believe the thief learned to be more careful.  All in all, a “win win”.

Good DMs must design their encounters such that each character has a chance to shine.  Controllers love taking down minions, and defenders enjoy it when their “mark” is broken.  Strikers have plenty of chances to show off, and of course the healing and beneficial effects provided by a leader are invaluable.  Make sure all characters do something amazing in each encounter, and you’ll have happy players, and the whole experience will be more fun for everyone.

Ham It Up
Growing up, I wasn’t in any school plays.  I am no drama major, nor am I what anyone would consider an actor of any sort.  So, like many other DMs, I often feel a bit silly when I attempt (however feebly) to use unique voices for my NPCs.  But I know that doing so can really add to the enjoyment of an encounter, even if I won’t win any awards for Best Supporting Actor.  This became apparent to me when the players decided to clear out the bullywugs lair.

All of the players in my group are familiar with World of Warcraft.  Perhaps the most memorable monsters in that game are murlocs, a group of frog-like humanoids who have what could best be described as unique vocal effects.  As it happened, one of my players owned a murloc miniature (from the WoW minis game) that I used to represent the bullywug king.  This inspired me to start using the characteristic rumbling murloc croaks when the bullywug king attacked.  The players loved it, and even began to use the same noises anytime they hit one of the bullywugs!  It was one of the best gaming moments in the campaign so far, and we still laugh about it several weeks later.

What can we learn from this?  Do whatever it takes to add to the experience.  Go beyond your comfort level.  Ham it up.  Overact anytime you have the chance.  Push yourself to try things that may seem cheesy and silly from time to time.  Make the Goblin warchief talk like Yoda.  The captain of the town guard might talk like Schwarzenegger.  Go for it!  Maybe it will be horrible, but it just might be fantastic.