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

What I Learned from Adding New Players to the Group

Last month, we added two new players to our group. I was quite nervous about doing this, as the campaign has been going so well, I didn’t want to mess it up. After thinking it through, I decided to take a few steps to make the transition as seamless as possible. By using a one-shot adventure, with low-level pregenerated characters, starting with simple encounters, and using archetypes to encourage roleplaying, what could have been uncomfortable ended up being quite natural and very easy for everyone involved.

Run a one-shot adventure

Your natural inclination when adding new players will probably be to have them roll up characters of the appropriate level and jump right into the campaign. While that might work just fine, it can cause problems. It can be difficult to work in a logical way for new characters to join the party. A hamfisted entrance into the established story can be awkward, and might cause resentment or tension from established players. In my case, I felt that the campaign has been going so well, I didn’t want to screw it up if things didn’t work out with new players.

Running a one-shot is a good way to see if the new players are compatible with the old ones, with no real risk at all. Think of it as a trial run.

You can also use the one-shot to tell a side-story in the main campaign. I had my established players give a bit of the history of their adventures in the Nentir Vale, setting the one-shot in Winterhaven since I will be using Madness at Gardmore Abbey soon in the regular campaign. You could also incorporate NPCs from the main campaign into the one-shot, or even use the PCs from the campaign as quest givers. The possibilities are endless.

Another benefit is allowing players to try out a new class without abandoning the old one, or, in the case of new players, without making a long term commitment. The paladin, wizard, and slayer in our campaign became the slayer, ranger, and wizard in the one-shot, and they really enjoyed themselves. And the new players got to sample a class before making their final decision.

There may be some drawbacks to using a one-shot when adding new players, but I can’t imagine they outweigh the benefits.

Use pregenerated low-level characters

One of the most difficult parts of any edition of D&D, especially 4th edition, is character creation. With dozens, if not hundreds, of options for race, class, feats, and skills, making a character from scratch is likely too overwhelming for new players. For a one shot, I recommend using premade characters, preferably level 1 if at all possible.

Level 1 characters have few options available to them, which is very important. Learning the game system itself should be the focus, not interpreting ten different skills and abilities. Essentials characters make the process even easier. In our case, we had the new players take on the role of a Knight and a Warpriest. As gamers, they were familiar with the concept of a tank and a healer, so the transition was smooth.

The folks over a Dungeon’s Master have compiled a list of all the pregenerated characters for the D&D Encounters program. These are ideal for one-shot adventures, because they are intended for newer players. Additionally, the character sheets look fantastic, which really adds to the excitement of the game. We mixed and matched characters until we had all the roles covered, and it worked out very well for us.

Ease into complexity

The battlefield can be a very messy place in 4th edition D&D. Five characters, several groups of monsters with varying abilities, different types of terrain, environmental effects, traps… the list goes on and on. For the first battle with a new mix of players, it’s best to keep things simple.

I would recommend no more than two groups of monsters. In our case, it was very simple: a group of orcs, half with bows, half with swords. The melee orcs ran to engage the party, and the archers went for high ground. Even in such a simple setup, there are still plenty of interesting decisions to be made. The stats for each orc were the same, so that too saved a bit of complexity. Once you’ve established what a vanilla encounter is like, you can add in “toppings” like minions, traps, and spell-like effects in later fights.

Tap into archetypes to encourage role-playing

In a one-shot, you don’t really want to spend too much time on character backgrounds. You don’t need to know about homelands, ancestors, hated enemies, or any of that stuff to run a character for one evening. On the other hand, roleplaying is an important part of the game, so you want the characters to have personality to encourage that.

One good solution is to tap into archetypes. For our game, I pulled from pop culture and fantasy literature. The dwarf was a grumpy braggart. The snobby elf considered non-elves inferior. The mage was young and brash, quick to leap into action. In just a sentence or two, you can give your players something to expand upon in their roleplaying.

At the end of our first evening with the new players, everyone was very pleased. You never know what you will get when you change up the mix, but in our case, we were lucky. By running a one shot adventure with pregens, and easing into the complexity and tapping into common archetypes, you put your players (and yourself!) into a position where they can have a great game.

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

A Year of Learning

It is difficult for me to believe that today marks the first birthday of this blog. One year ago, at the tail end of March 2011, I wrote two posts; the first of these was an introduction, and the second was a recap of what I learned from running my first 4E D&D adventure, The Twisted Halls, from the Essentials Red Box. It is now 366 days, 57 posts, and more than 17,000 page views later.

I started The Learning DM mostly for my own benefit; writing is a good way for me to reflect on what works and what doesn’t in my campaign. Another reason to begin the blog was the obligation I felt to the D&D community, which had been incredibly helpful for me as I returned to the game after many years away. Creating a D&D blog felt, on some small level, like a way of paying forward the advice and encouragement that other sites had given to me. A third purpose for this blog comes from a quote from my very first post: “to make my campaign the best it can possibly be.”

As I look back over the past year, how effective has The Learning DM been at meeting these three goals?

First of all, reflection; how much thought and consideration about my campaign has taken place? In this area, success has been a mixed bag. When my campaign was going at full speed, I ran slightly behind in writing my posts. Often this meant the insight I gained upon writing my reflections came a bit late. On the other hand, I learned so much about being a good DM from those first few sessions! I know that the time spent pondering the successes and failures at the gaming table was beneficial in this regard.

What about my second goal, to make a contribution to the community? The blog has more than exceeded my expectations in this area. The Learning DM has grown steadily in audience from month to month. I was able to reach even more people when Mike Shea included me at 4eblogs and dndblogs. I am quite grateful and honored to be included there, alongside many of the blogs that inspired me to begin writing in the first place. The highlight of my contributions to the community are the series of reflections on the adventures from the Essentials line, from the Red Box to the Monster Vault. For someone new to the role of DM, who comes into 4E through the Essentials products, these posts should be very useful. They have been popular and I’ve had lots of good feedback from many new DMs. As far as community payback goes, I’d say the blog has been quite successful.

Moving to the third, and perhaps most important goal, to make my campaign the best it could possibly be. That was a very, very tall order. I do not consider myself a master DM at all; there are many others who could have run the campaign with more skill than me. Could I have done a better job as DM? Absolutely. Is the campaign on the downward slope right now? Sadly, yes. But when I look back at all the D&D games I’ve ever played, the 4E campaign is absolutely my favorite. Playing the game again, with good friends and my own children, has been such a joy. Perhaps it wasn’t the best campaign possible, but it’s been a great experience nonetheless.

Overall, then, I’ve done a fair job of meeting my three goals. I learned from my mistakes and successes by reflecting on what went on at the table. I was able to share that learning with the D&D 4E community. And I’ve enjoyed the greatest campaign of my life! Not too shabby for a year’s worth of work.

As I look forward to the next year of the Learning DM, I expect that there will be some changes. I will be wrapping up our 4E campaign in the next few months, and will likely not start another long-term game until D&D Next arrives. Because of this, the blog will likely not focus on 4E as much during the coming year. I don’t see this as much of a problem, as there will be plenty of new edition discussion to be had.

I plan to continue my monthly features, the Game Night Blog Carnival and D&Development. Since we are playing less D&D, we have more time for board and card games. Writing about these games is great fun, and likely of interest to most readers. D&Development is perhaps more important now than it has been before. With the next edition’s apparent focus on getting back to the basics, looking towards the best of the past seems like a great idea.

In closing, I want to thank you, the readers. I hope that the blog has been useful for you this past year, and will continue to be in the future. Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic game, and I am glad to be a part of the great community that enjoys throwing a few dice, moving some miniatures on a map, and most importantly, telling great stories together with friends.

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

What I Learned from Making an Epic Tier Dragon

As I discussed in a recent post, my group had a one-time “flash forward” session where they played as 25th level versions of themselves. Overall, the experience went very well; my players had fun, and I certainly did as well. One of the highlights for me as the DM was being able to use my Gargantuan Blue Dragon figure in an encounter. The “mini” looks fantastic, and is easily my favorite among the Icons figures I have (sadly, no Colossal Red Dragon for me…yet).

Knowing I wanted to use the big blue dragon in the battle, I decided to twist the players’ expectations a bit and present it as an ancient blue dragon with a red bloodline (inspired by the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons book). In my campaign, the PCs have been learning about Tiamat’s plan to breed together these mixed-bloodline dragons in order to create hybrid two-headed dragons as her special servants. I went to the custom Monster Builder to come up with stats for the oldest of these mixed-blood dragons: Apzu (name stolen from Babylonian mythology), an enormous blue dragon, infused with the twin elemental energies of fire and lightning, a consort of Tiamat herself and one of the most powerful dragons in existence.

Immediately, I ran into a problem. The ancient dragons in the Monster Builder used the old, pre-MM3 layout and stats. I decided that customizing the highest-level Dragons from the Monster Vault was the best plan, since these were very-well designed solo monsters, and used the new, more dangerous damage math. I was leary of using the Builder’s new customization features alone to scale the dragon up, so I also took a look at Sly Flourish’s epic-level dragon, Shademaw, which was presented in a tutorial with some excellent epic-tier advice. I used an elder blue dragon from the Monster Vault as the base, and tweaked it by adding in some red dragon characteristics. Here is what I ended up using, along with some thoughts about what worked and what didn’t.

Traits were fairly easy; there wasn’t too much to do here. I kept the full lightning resistance, and added in a similar amount of fire resistance, based on Apzu’s red bloodline. Action Recovery and Instinctive Slash are both great ways to shake off the most brutal status effects, so I kept them in unchanged. Uncontained Lightning was very flavorful, but the damage was fairly low. I’d probably change it to 15 or 20 lightning and fire typed damage if I had to do it over again.

Apzu’s standard actions were only slightly modified from the elder blue dragon baseline. After having used this monster in the wild, though, I would change two things. First of all, Gore was about useless. It simply doesn’t keep up with the damage output of Claw, which can be used twice each action. I believe I used Gore one time, just for variety’s sake, and while the flaming, lightning-infused horn strike made for an interesting description, it did an underwhelming amount of damage. To fix this, I would remove Gore and add in the Bite attack from the elder red dragon instead. The grab and ongoing damage effects of that attack make it significantly different from Claw, but not inferior to it. The second ability I would change is the blue dragon’s Breath Weapon. Being limited to only three targets isn’t great, and “dazed save ends” is redundant with Thunderclap (see below). I would revamp this by using the stats from the elder red’s Breath Weapon, retyped as both fire and lightning damage.

Minor and triggered actions are where Apzu received the most changes compared to the elder blue dragon template. Based on the advice given in the Shademaw tutorial, I changed the spell-like powers to be minor actions, significantly adding to Apzu’s damage potential. Flame Burst is simply a renamed and re-typed Lightning Burst. Thunderclap was good enough to be used unaltered. I stole the Tail Strike power from the elder red dragon. All three of these abilities worked fairly well, but I was a bit disappointed in Tail Strike. It quite simply never triggered. I suppose I should have moved Apzu around more, in the hopes of triggering it. Perhaps changing it to a knockback type effect, triggered the first time an enemy came within three squares, might work better. Still, these minor and triggered actions combined to make Apzu a very deadly opponent.

Here is the revised stat block for Apzu, taking into account the changes listed above. I’m new at altering monsters like this, and certainly quite inexperienced with Epic tier, so let me know if you see there are any issues with it. As the name of this blog suggests, I would love to learn how to be a better DM!

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

What I Learned from “LOST”: The Flash Forward Encounter

“Lost” is one of my favorite TV shows from the past decade.  A narrative device used in every episode of that show was the flashback sequence, where we learned more about each individual character, showcasing important events from their life before the island.  One of my favorite moments from the series was a season finale in which that episode’s flashback sequence was revealed to have been a flash forward instead, showing what would happen to the characters in the future.  It was a nice twist to the formula that fundamentally altered and reinvigorated the show.

Recently, Randall over at Initiative or What? has been posting solo, first level adventures he has run for his players.  Similar to “Lost”, these are all presented as flashbacks, intended to flesh out backstories and introduce character themes.  It occurred to me that I could use these in my campaign for a similar purpose, but then, remembering my favorite twist from “Lost”, I wondered if a flash forward adventure would work in my campaign.

Last week, I decided to go for it, and ran just such a session.  My PCs are level 8, just returned from discovering a temple of Tiamat in an abandoned dragon’s lair in the caverns beneath Fallcrest.  One member of the party, a slayer, has taken the seer theme.  I’ve given him several visions and dreams in order to tie adventures together and add to the story.  For this flash forward session, he was granted a vision of the future, so clear and vivid that we’d set up a battle map, pass out new character sheets with 25th level versions of their characters, and let them play it out.

Overall, the session itself was a big success.  It required a considerable amount of prep work ahead of time, but it was certainly worth it.  There are several benefits to the flash forward encounter, but also a few things I’d change.

Introduce paragon paths and epic destinies
There’s no denying that high-level play in 4E has its problems, but paragon paths and epic destinies are not one of them.  Speaking from a purely role-playing point of view, paragon paths and epic destinies provide meaningful goals and a natural story arc for the characters.  The idea of becoming a superhumanly powerful being, interacting with the gods themselves, and being directly involved in matters that span various planes of existence, is, to put it mildly, pretty cool.  While I myself had some limited exposure to these things in the past, my players, being mostly new to D&D, were clueless.

I decided to let them see just how exciting high level play could be by choosing an epic destiny for them. I cranked it up to 11, if you will, with my descriptions of their character’s newfound appearance and abilities.  The elven wizard was transformed into an arch-lich flying on a skeletal dragon.  The noble paladin became a vessel of Bahamut, imbued with all the draconic power of his master.  The thief and slayer wielded weapons and other magical items of unimaginable power.  I hammed it up for them as best I could, to emphasize the jaw-droppingly epic stuff that was to come.  My players really enjoyed seeing the “super rock star” versions of their characters, and it added much to their interest in the campaign itself.

Introduce mysterious elements to be resolved later
I made a deliberate choice to be vague and non-specific with the details related to the “why?” of the encounter.  I was quite descriptive about the character’s appearance, setting, and opponent, but most other questions were left unanswered.  They were dropped right in the thick of the action, knowing almost nothing about the motivation behind the fight.  The only real insight I gave them was short interaction with a gold dragon NPC, who told them that their draconic foe must be defeated in order to stop Tiamat’s wild plan.  That was enough to provide a reason for the fight, but left many unanswered questions.

Finding out the answers to these questions will give some structure to the campaign as a whole.  What is so important about this enemy?  What is the nature of Tiamat’s scheme?  Why are the characters involved, and how did they come to ally themselves with a flight of metallic dragons, anyway?  Truth be told, I don’t really know the answers to these questions.  It’s something that I will develop, based on the actions of the players, throughout the entirety of the campaign.

Even the descriptions of the characters provided more mysteries to be solved at some point in the future.  For example, how exactly did the wizard become an archlich?  In my description of the cavalier, I told of his sword and shield, made of an inky black substance, and filled with what appeared to be stars and other celestial objects. I have no clue what this strange set of items was, but I’ll be sure to include a quest for it at some point.  I described that the slayer had lost his hand in battle and it had been replaced with a fist made of solid light.  When will he lose his hand?  How does it get replaced?  Again, I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.

By giving the players a few details about a possible future, but not spelling everything out, a sense of excitement is injected into the campaign.  The players want to know how they get from point A to point B, and I look forward to getting them there.

Amazing opponents and fantastic settings
Thus far in our campaign, the environments and settings the group has explored have been fairly standard for heroic tier.  Most of the action has taken place in classic dungeons and caverns or realistic outdoor locations like farms and woodlands.  There’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily, but D&D certainly has a lot more to offer.  The flash forward session gave me a chance to showcase this.

I chose the Elemental Chaos as the setting for the adventure.  Briefly, I’d considered the Abyss, but decided against it because I wasn’t sure I could do it justice in one short session.  The Elemental Chaos, on the other hand, was something more easily understood, not as clearly defined (which allowed me some wiggle room), and yet extremely evocative and interesting.  Without an appropriate battle map, I grabbed a trusty sheet of Gaming Paper and drew up a map by hand.  A huge peninsula of molten rock, barely cool enough to stand on, dominated the board.  Smaller, crystalline outcroppings floated next to huge spheres of flame.  The corners of the map were huge whirlpools of lightning, topped with cloud props (made with quilt batting lit with tiny strobe LEDs).  I’m really not much of an artist, but just half an hour with colored sharpies was enough to show the players something they’d never encountered before.

Their opponent, too, was quite different than the standard fare: I used the gargantuan blue dragon mini I picked up at Origins this year.  I’d been looking forward to plunking that thing down on the table for months now!  The flash forward session allowed me to do just that, without waiting another two years until the group levels up enough to fight one naturally.  Using the stats for an elder blue dragon in the DDI tools, plus the principles from Mike Shea’s excellent article on a similar epic-level dragon, I was able to create a challenging red/blue dragon hybrid that ended up being a significant challenge for the group.

An exotic environment and intimidating opponents are a big part of what I look forward to in an epic level campaign.  By using the flash forward technique, I was able to let the players get a small taste of what is to come, and also a bit of insight myself into how the game will play differently at high levels.

Overwhelming the players
Overall, the flash forward session was a big success.  The players had a great time with it, and so did I.  But there were a few issues.  Perhaps the biggest problem with skipping forward to epic level is the fact that it’s epic level.  It’s no secret that the massive amount of abilities, skills, and items available in high-level play can be a problem.

For one thing, it was a big headache to even create the character sheets.  I had to export and then import each character, push the level up button until they hit 25, and then mess with all the feats, powers, and equipment.  I had originally planned to use the “pick for me” option in the Character Builder, but when I did, totally useless stuff showed up, like both rod and wand specialization for the slayer.  I ended up changing probably six to eight feats and powers per character, and probably made very weak characters due to my inexperience.  For simplicity’s sake, I gave only the most basic magic items.  Still, creating the sheets was quite an ordeal in and of itself.

The problem was even worse when I gave the sheets to the players.  Even for Essentials classes, the character sheets were overwhelming.  There were so many options available that turns went very slowly.  Analysis paralysis was a big factor; it was really too much to process, and I should have foreseen that.  If I could do it over again, I think I would use the DDI monster tools to create a reasonable facsimile of 25th level characters, and let them use the monster-template style sheet instead.  The goal was to make them feel heroic and powerful, and that could easily have been accomplished with an abbreviated character sheet.

The flash forward was an interesting narrative device for “Lost”, and it’s great for any D&D campaign, too.  The players get to see how awesome their characters will become at high levels.  You can set up all sorts of questions to answer later on in the story.  And the unusual environments and scary opponents of high level play are a nice change from low-level dungeons filled with kobolds and orcs.  If you are looking for a way to add a bit of spice to your campaign, give the flash forward session a try.



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

What I Learned from Using Poker Chips

A good DM should always be on the lookout for new additions to his or her bag of tricks.  One of the simplest and yet most useful such tricks, in my experience, is picking up a set or two of poker chips.  For just a few bucks, these little trinkets add a lot to your game.  Here are some things I learned from using poker chips at my D&D table.

I picked up a $3 set with large red, blue, and white plastic chips to begin.

Action points – We use blue chips to represent action points.  Every time the group takes an extended rest, I collect all but one of their chips.  After two encounters, I give them a blue chip for their milestone action point.  When a player wants to get all heroic and take another action, they spend the point.  It’s simple, with no need for the players to record anything on their character sheets.

“Awesome points” – Like many other DMs, including the guys from the Exemplary DM Podcast, I use an incentive system to reward my players.  I call them “awesome points”.  Anytime a player does something exceptional, they get an awesome point.  Maybe the rogue uses an action point and takes a brute from barely bloodied to dead in one turn.  Perhaps the paladin’s Defender Aura causes an enemy to miss the nearby shaman due to the attack penalty.  Possibly the the mage blew up six minions with one spell.  All of these things are awesome, and so they are deserving of an awesome point.

I like to give out awesome points for good roleplaying, making skill challenge checks, and puzzle solving, as well.  Whenever a player makes an impassioned speech to convince an NPC of his innocence, or nails a Hard DC Thieving skill check to disarm a trap, I give out an awesome point.  One twist to the system I use is allowing the players as a group to award awesome points to each other.  If the common consensus for the party is that a player did something worthy, the DM would usually agree.  Putting the responsibility on the players instead of the DM is helpful because the DM has a lot to worry about anyway, and awarding awesome points to each other helps build the sense of camaraderie for the group.

So what can these awesome points be used for?  An awesome point can be turned in at any time in order to add to or subtract from an attack, skill, or saving throw roll.  Red chips are worth 2, and white chips are worth 1.  It works very much like the Heroic Effort human power.  Like Sly Flourish, I let players see monster stats after a couple rounds, so they often know exactly how many awesome points they need to spend to turn that near miss into a timely hit.

A word of caution: awesome points may not be right for every group.  Players may abuse the system and award them too easily.  A huge collection of awesome points could be cashed in to easily overcome what was intended to be a difficult encounter.  Use your own judgement in these situations.  I’ve never had a player accumulate more than five or six total awesome points, and that seems about right to me.  For us, the system works great and adds some enjoyment to the game.  Those near misses really, really suck, after all.

As a session progresses, the players will accumulate a decent stack of poker chips, representing action points and awesome points.  When the night is over, just throw them all in a labelled ziplock bag and put it in your D&D Box, if you have one.  (And if you don’t, why not?)  Next time you get together, everyone knows exactly how many awesome points and action points they have available, without any bookkeeping at all.  Very convenient!

But that’s not all you can do with poker chips.  I found a set of mini poker chips, about half the size of my first set, that came in a nice case, for about $12.  These chips are heavier, not the casino style clay chips, but a thicker plastic.  They are about an inch across, and come in several colors: mostly orange and green, with some black and blue as well.  So what do I use this set for?

Money – this may seem very obvious, but it turns out that the real life purpose of poker chips, to represent money, is one of the best uses in a D&D game.  Keeping track of money on a character sheet certainly works, and is probably easier.  However, the poker chips add a tactile quality to the experience that my players and I really enjoy.

Think of them as just another prop that you can use to really make your game come to life.  When the slayer hands over his hard-earned gold to the shopkeeper for a shiny new axe, and the player has to actually count it out and give it to you, it feels far different than if he just adjusted a number on his character sheet.  You can change the value of the poker chips as needed depending on how rich or poor your characters are.  A good set of poker chips can be useful for tracking wealth from level 1 to level 30.

Map Markers – I like to use mini-hair clips for tracking conditions like bloodied, dazed, etc.  These work very well for indicating status effects on particular figures.  But sometimes, you need to mark an area of the map, like a spell effect, or difficult terrain.  Pipe cleaners are one way to do this, as is craft wire (which I hope to write more about soon).  I found my small set of poker chips is fantastic for this purpose, too.

Mini poker chips are the perfect size to fit in the 1″ squares used in 4E battlemaps.  Just flip a few down on the map to represent whatever is needed.  We’ve used orange chips to mark bursts of flame, poisonous clouds with green, and areas of freezing cold in blue.  One night, I improvised that the orc warriors my group was facing used small vials of acid as ranged weapons.  If they missed a target, I rolled a d8 to find an adjacent location, then put a black chip down to represent the puddle left by the shattered vial of acid.  It worked very nicely, and added an interesting element to the fight.  For large areas of effect, I’d recommend just marking the corners for time’s sake, but for 3×3 or less effects, placing the poker chips in each spot is pretty quick.

There are many accessories out there that make your 4E D&D game run more smoothly.  Some of them are very expensive.  A couple cheap sets of poker chips, of various sizes and colors, is a great value.  The “bang for the buck” on these is very high.  Pick up a set the next time you are at a big retail store, and use them in your next D&D game.  I doubt you’ll be disappointed!