Sleep deprivation is a weird thing. Sometimes, you run a game with little sleep and its horrible. Other times, you come up with the exact perfect idea on the way to the game, and, while you can’t assemble it perfectly in your mind due to the aforementioned sleep scarcity, you instantly know that it is an amazing idea and needs to be acted upon. I had the second happen to me tonight. However, first we have to talk about stuff I did the previous weeks, including everything I did wrong since I last wrote one of these.
So this will be a bit different than some of the previous write-ups, as, for the first time, I’m going to combine events from both my tables, as I have been running something very similar at both.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dungeons. In part to write this article about a different RPG, but also because it’s a useful construct in D&D. Once you have it down, running a game becomes simpler to do, even on the fly. Any preparation you do on a dungeon can be recycled, even to different game systems. Good dungeon design transcends mechanics.
Let me also toss out there that dungeon design is useful when designing mysteries for players. Each clue or lead is like a mystical door that leads to an encounter at whatever place and, after it has been investigated and resolved, reveals a few more doors that lead to other scenes with more clues, until the entirety is revealed and the pieces fall into place. I haven’t had a chance to run a mystery for a bit, although I’ve been thinking about trying it for my family game. Don’t think I could make it work for the AL game. Mysteries fall apart if the player’s can’t remember the hooks and the clues and the subtle nuances and all that jazz. The AL table has, hmm, less focus, has it’s members change up, and the noise makes subtle nuances hard. I’ll think about it though. (I need to find what the AL rulings on adding adventure to the small little towns is. AL makes my life hard for no good reason, sometimes)
So. Dungeons. I realized that my Family game was about to be going into a ‘dungeon.’ (Dungeon being a loose word for an enclosed space with limited paths of traversal. Almost anything can be a dungeon) They were nice enough to move at a rate that let me call the end almost right before they went in or even approached the building, so I had an entire week to get ready for the game. So I made this:
Using the utmost imprecision and map keying I could acquire the day of the game, I cut out a paper for each room in the ‘dungeon.’ This gave me the ability to reveal each room as the party entered, which has always been a sticking point for me in trying to prepare maps before hand. The other alternative was to draw them as we went, but that always got annoying after a while. Dungeon tiles never worked for me either for a few reasons. Price was the first, and their cardboard nature meant they took up extra room and would occasionally slide when someone bumped the table, which apparently happens a lot when you have a detector to prove it’s happening.
So I’m happy with my papered dungeon. So happy, I made this for the AL table!This is my reworking of the dungeon know as the Dripping Caves. As awesome as Mike Schley’s maps are, I’ve found trying to run a dungeon with a massive open area unsatisfying. So I turned the large area into three rooms and basically, gave it as good of a rework as I could wth my time running out, because that’s how I do.
This paper model style is now my go-to representation for a dungeon where I think laying out the exploration room by room is worth the effort. And the best part is, once I’ve gathered it together and carefully paper-clipped it, I can set it in my folder and have it on tap for running. If I wanted to get super fancy, I could snag one of those accordion file folders and start filling that with carefully indexed dungeons, with all the needed notes
written typed out on an accompanying page. If I’ve run the dungeon a few times, I can get by with a lot less information that what they provide in the full adventure.
So those are my dungeons. And, while they are certainly cool, I did some things bad with them. So let’s hit up the main point of this series: Matt’s Mistakes!
1. A Loss of Direction. Running the dungeo for my family game ended up taking three weeks from start to finish, probably because they spent a lot of time doing sneaking instead of brute forcing, which isn’t bad. But in that middle session, a player who had missed the first week had no idea why they were in the dungeon. And when he asked his cohorts, they couldn’t really give a great answer. So There was a bit more wandering then I planned for, since they didn’t have that goal. I’m not sure what I could have done in that instance, but in future dungeon excursions, I’m going to try to have an elevator pitch style explanation as to why they’re going down below. Players will probably continue past the objective in the pursuit of fun, gold, and XP, but if the going is getting tough, letting the players know the exact goal can give them a reason to retreat if they’ve beaten it (or if they’ve lost).
It would have been very simple for Constable Harburk to say “I need definitive proof of the Sacred Stone Monastery’s wickedness so I can take it to the mayor.” They got that in like the third room, so they could have retreated anytime after that and gotten the reward. Of course, then I can have the Harper’s representative to meet with the party and hire them to acquire the stone key or whatever. Another clear reason to go back in.
2. Scale up the threat. When I ran Dripping Caves, it was for a party of 8. That is a lot of people, as I’m sure you’re aware. Most of SKT is based around 4-5 people. I’m not good at making things harder on the fly. So there was a fight where I didn’t get a single hit in. The big fights of that game would have been really easy, except the party decided to split and we wound up having half the party in an easy fight and the other half in a difficult fight. Not a perfect scenario, but it ended up working rather well for not being engineered by me at all.
I do long for the varied goblins from 4e, where I could toss a handful of each of the 4 roles into the fray, making the combat more interesting. I mean, I’m sure I wouldn’t be using them correctly anyway, but it would be nice to have that tad bit of stage direction. It occurs to me that Volo’s might have exactly that. I need to dig out my copy and read through it again. I think it might even have a section on goblin lore. Hmm.
Anyway, there is a difference between making the party feel awesome and making the party feel like I’m wasting their time. Combat is the tricky part of D&D for me and if it appears any other way, it is because I’m skilled at subtly pulling punches I regret pulling. I think I keep getting better, but in the hands of a master, someone who knows how to use a monster to its utmost ability, weak creatures can destroy high level parties. (Tucker’s Kobolds being the prime example.)
That’s it for dungeon talk, mostly. I still want to convert the village of Nightstone into a dungeon- I think it would make playing there a lot more interesting of an experience. And, if done right, well, I think I found a way to use that same dungeon three different times in the beginning of SKT.
I almost have the Seven Serpents figured out. This is less of something I did wrong, but just part of my evolution of running The Great Upheavel, the ambitious name for the 1st-4th part of the adventure. You are supposed to start with goblins in Nightstone, then do the 7 Serpents, Ear seekers (aka the orcs) if you want, then move on to Dripping caves. But I’m still trying to figure out how to figure out the most natural way to play it. This week, I had the brilliant idea that the Seven Serpents had taken the town while the party was at the Dripping Caves (writing all these proper names is getting super annoying). The actual fight didn’t work the way i wanted. Practice, I suppose. I think the Zhents may have been more fun if they were doing a fighting retreat through a dungeon-town, instead of closing in melee in an open field. But it worked well enough.
I also got to do a bit of NPC conversation, which I don’t do enough. And part of that introduced Factions to my table, which was a lot of fun. I will probably see what I can do to sprinkle faction introductions in until everyone has people on their side. How I rectify this with the adventure, well, that makes things harder.
So I haven’t been an Adventurer’s League DM for long and I’m starting to chafe against the rules. I know they’re there for a purpose, but some of the other DMs follow them with rigid compliance, which I think is detrimental to good game play. Not much I can do there.
What else is there to comment on? Oh, we had a player last night who went and violated, like, every single one of the teaching etiquette that I talked about last time. I’m not quite sure what his game history was, but he had a base understanding of the game, and yet, he was getting a lot of crucial small things wrong. And he felt like he had to keep track of all players health, had to monitor all the numbers, and, when the party bard disabled the BBEG, he used up that disable with its associated advantage to deal a sole point of damage to the guy, breaking the spell. Next time, I might lob him to the other DMs, because my table is full of impressionable youngsters who need to learn not only what to do, but can use the practice to hone thier math skills. So that was a tad annoying, but we survived.
I think that gets us current with my gaming. From a running stand point. There’s a few games I’ve played, a few I want to play, but I’ll hold those till later.