What I Did Wrong at D&D, Family Edition: Ep2

I was maybe 80% prepared for D&D this week, as opposed to the 65% I was the week before. We’re slowly picking up the pace. Eventually, we’ll be in the territory that most of SKT is, with the party just moving from place to place and the DM having to read the descriptions and run the encounters as they reach them. But we’re not there quite yet, so I can keep preparing and getting better.

1. Level up!

As much as I have faith in my reasoning that starting at level 1 and going through the tutorial stuff, hoping to teach my less D&D literate players the basics before beginning to get to the grit of the game, it is starting to get a bit frustrating. This week, I have to walk everyone through making their character up to level 3, this being the 3rd week I have to work with people’s characters. It’s a little frustrating having to try and get all 6 of them to sit down and work on characters for a few minutes EVERY week.

Luckily for me, I talked to people about future plans last week. So I pretty much know what people are going to be for level 3. And then level 4 will be a cinch because it’s just ASIs for everyone. Level 5 may have some variance, but that’s probably a month away.

So, if I was running something like this again, I don’t know if I’d use Nightstone quite the same way. It just happened too quick. I think I’d try to stretch out the whole city, make it more ominous then open, probably redesign the whole thing.

Actually, thinking about it now I would probably pull some Bethesda tricks and remap the city so there is only one path. Use the rubble off destroyed houses to shunt people down various streets, keep running the party into goblin patrols.

Yeah, I’d do that first week way different, and that would change the pacing of the next session or two drastically.

2. Tactics vs. Arena of the Mind

With my new understanding of how I should have run the city, I definitely would have done the second week’s encounter completely differently, if at all. I elected to cut out the Seven Snakes encounter. I don’t believe my party have any intentions in joining the Zhentarim and it was just a muddle of intrigue. I like intrigue, but you need to have the right party for it. Until the game settles down and my players really know how to play, I’m not going to try and push things like “having a good recollection of what happened last week” on them. Intrigue tends to make that a necessity.

The encounter I did run is called “Ear Seekers” and has the abandoned town of Nightstone under sudden siege from orcish raiders. Now, I did not put enough preparation into this as I really needed to. Or maybe WotC didn’t, as this was an optional encounter that’s there to help get players from level 2 to level 3. There were very few options for me as a DM. I could make it a good encounter, but I’d have to go and rework a bunch of the flow. I ended up giving all the orcs basically as many javelins as they needed for ranged options and we kinda slugged it out while I was waiting for a scout expedition to discover the bridge. And, while it was difficult enough to drop 4/5 of my PCs, it was basically a grind.

What I would do would be to have the orcs first make an assault on the drawbridge. They would attack it for a turn or two, then retreat under hail of arrows. This would do nothing except even the odds, as the walls are basically impenetrable. Their next assault would have 8 orcs carrying a tree they just chopped down. They’re moving slow and the orcs around them would be using their shields to turtle this impromptu ladder to the walls. The orcs have to go where the drawbridge is, since swimming with the tree isn’t probable. If the orcs take a certain percent loss before they get close enough to the wall, they’d retreat again. If they get to the water’s edge, we hop into a cut scene, then there’s a tree leaning up against the palisade and orcs are able to scale up and over. If the players dislodge it, the orcs on the far side retreat. Any orcs who would get up into the city go to lower the drawbridge to expedite the invasion. Orcs in the city, if stranded behind enemy lines, will fight to the death.

After this assault, it’s getting close to night. Darkvision doesn’t stretch more than the 60ft or 90ft, so the orcs (who have darkvision), do something clever. They do the old, make extra fires to look like we’re all in one place trick, then dispatch two  groups, one to the north of the city, one to the southish. Then, under cover of night, they use grappling hooks and try to sneak over to lower the drawbridge and/or deal with the defenders. This is a tricky one, because you don’t want to blindside the party. You want to foreshadow this and give the party plenty of chances to be clever. Letting the sneaksy one go and scout, for example. Pretty much, reward any clever thinking the party did to keep the city safe.

It’s not until the dawn that the orcs learn about the gap in the wall next to the keep’s bridge. And they make a final push there. I would also have them retreat at some point, but I’m not sure when.

Of course, after writing all that, I went back to the book to see what stage direction the book did provide and it was better than I had remembered, although determining something across 10 minutes in a combat situation is a bit silly. It did have the orcs retreating once they were at 50%. I think all i wrote up there was more satisfying, tho.

3. Tactics vs. Arena of the Mind

Okay, so under that last heading, I covered nothing of the actual thing I wanted to talk about. It let me get into the mindset for that previous section, so that was fun, but one of my important thoughts was tactics (specifically, tactical, grid based combat) and arena of the mind combat (aka, story based)

Now, I love good tactical combat. Wednesday, I got to play in a game that was mostly one big fight against the final boss in the first room of the dungeon. Accidentally, of course. But it was exhilarating. Once we were completely committed to the fight, the DM started sharing some tidbits. We knew what we needed to hit, we were told its total HP, one by one we learned it’s immunites (because resistances are half as fun). And we brought it down. It was amazing and the creature itself was a work of beauty.

That’s not what we did last Sunday, however. I laid out a map, dropped a handful of orc tokens on it, placed the party, and we began slogging.

It’s obvious that there is a hybrid version of tactics and story that needs to occur. (Tacitory? Storactics?) But I think I’ve been dividing them at the wrong place. The important thing about the AotM is that the DM is able to just describe what the monsters do. But the players can’t react as well on their turns, as they don’t have the information they need to act tactically. But when the DM has the monsters move tactically, it takes time, it’s less cinematic, and it breaks the immersion, when I have to count out spaces for each monster.

So there’s flaws in each, and good situations for each. It depends on your group, your monsters, the terrain, and many, many other factors. There’s a lot to think on for it. But I did it wrong this week. Next week, I’m going to try the Hybrid style and see where that takes me.

4. Missing player, player substitution.

So our family game is supposed to be a fairly mandatory event, carefully organized so everyone can play without having to think of stuff like making dinner or whatever other distraction. So far, this has not happens, but I’ve been told good things about this next week. My sister recently started a night shift, so we let her sleep instead. And my mom was in and out, preparing for a friend coming for dinner. Then the friend showed up, with a kid in tow. And as he was watching the last part of our game with interest, we let him take the hot seat and assume the role of my mother’s character.

It didn’t work that great. We may have whetted his appetite for the game, but he was completely lost. Did I even explain what was going on to him? I don’t recall, so probably not.

If they’d had both characters the whole fight, it would have been trivialized. Those two extra attacks per round would have shortened everything and then I’d have had to come up with a second encounter (we’ll figure out starting on time, too), so it’s kind of nice that we didn’t. But my sister working night shifts isn’t going to change. What do I do about her character missing things? I’m fine with her keeping at the same level (not that I want to do XP for SKT)

I don’t really know if it’s something I did wrong, or if there’s a way I could do it better. Being a good DM is clashing a bit with the declaration that we want all of the family there, I think. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do, except be glad when we can get everyone sitting down with us.

(My sister did something similar to this when I’ve gamed with her before, I just recalled. Occasional games, never really meshed with the party)

Actually, that’s what annoys me the most. When the party shares adventures, the begin to work together and have shared stories. But that won’t happen when she’s not there, and then when she drops back in, there is dissonance, as she’s not on the same wavelength as the rest.

Actually, that thought explains a lot of my issues with occasional players. Interesting.

Actually, that thought explains all inter player issues I can think of, any time I have played. It explains why I can play any character with certain players and be able to have a rapport.

Very Interesting.

5. Talking with Orcs

Finally, there’s this. Being the good guys, players who haven’t had experience with”Okay, this is a combat encounter” try to talk to orcs to diffuse it. Experienced players and DMs know its futile. This week, I tried to have some conversation, but the book doesn’t really list Garrosh’s motivations. He wants to sack the town, but he’ll ignore the keep. He’s retreating from elves, but he has time to attack a town? it doesn’t really add up. And his second in command didn’t have a name or a description, so I had to fluff it up a bit (and his spells were mostly useless).

So I let him toss some ultimatums, reminiscent of King Arthur’s speech at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If it was my monster, I would have been able to know what he wanted a bit more. But that’s the trick with running a premade adventure. I prefer players to be able to talk their way out of anything, if they think they can. Or try at least.

Bolded words to indicate new thought

So that’s it from me today! I got started on it a bit late, do to shenanigans with my sleep schedule. I get to run on Sunday (and might be picking up a second group running through, as well as the possibility of DMing at the game store. Busy times.)

Of course, when I do run again, I’ll make more mistakes, and have more to share with you!

Cheers. Matt


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