The Problem with Dungeons

I’m about to write something in stark disagreement with a lot of the gaming community that I follow: I don’t like dungeons. I actually don’t like dragons either. I’ve picked an interesting system for my hobby.

I’ve been running Rise of Tiamat at my local comic & games store. The Tomb of Diderius is a really cool dungeon… if you’re reading it. If you’re playing in it it’s really easy to miss a lot of what makes it cool. Cool details are wasted if the players never trigger the particular odd thing that is supposed to prompt them. I didn’t write Rise of Tiamat so it’s just a shame that neat little things didn’t come up during my players’ time in the tomb, but if I had written it that would have been valuable writing time wasted.

What I’ve come to do at home is use a system of what I call rumours. I write up people, places, events, things, and actual rumours, and randomly select some to give to the players and let them decide where to go from there. I then essentially facilitate them creating their own story by answering their questions. This doesn’t work if I want multiple tables to play the same game, they’ll end up playing very different games. That leaves me with a written adventure. I’m all about saving time, so how do I mitigate the wasted time factor of writing whole adventures? I can think of plenty of alternatives. The first thing that comes to mind is just don’t do it. I can use a detailed setting, or a pre-written adventure. I could also use a dungeon generator and theme the results appropriately, but that doesn’t sound terribly exciting to me. I can also just let it go wildly different in the more likely situation of games being in different places and times, but the time factor is what drives me to want this to be close to the same for all tables.

Doing a straightforward quest with a big dungeon seems like the easiest answer to how to homebrew something in this situation, but that has its problems too. Dungeons are fairly predictable with respect to pacing, it’s roleplaying encounters that vary in time a lot. Dungeons are also easier to write (in some ways) so maybe the risk of wasted time isn’t as high. But they’re very difficult to control, and to anticipate. Secret doors are great, but what if they don’t find them? You can write an awesome trap that never gets triggered. You can put tons of treasure in a room that is never reached. You can put hints as to the origins of the dungeon all over the place that the players never look at. So while you’re disappointed that all this work you put in to your dungeon is being missed, the players are feeling bored because this dungeon isn’t very exciting. You can cut the prep time by randomizing a lot of the dungeon creation, but I feel like that tends to pull some of the life out of it.

In any case, I bring this up for a very specific reason. I’m going to be running a game for my baby shower (my baby shower? My unborn child’s baby shower? Who is this thing for anyway?) and I anticipate more players than I’ll want to wrangle myself, so I need to have something written down to give to one or more other DMs.

I don’t feel like I’m giving away too much to say I’m using Zak Smith’s Red & Pleasant Land. Using Zak’s fine work means I don’t need to come up with each individual encounter, so I can map out the path I hope the players will take and have the other DM(s) study those parts of the book. I suppose I’ll also have to instruct that hints for the correct path be dropped in to prevent one table from ending up horribly lost.

I happened to want from the start something that works well for what I’m doing, I don’t expect it to be a problem, so this is mostly just a mental exercise right now.

The questions are: Those of you who actually write the adventures you run – how do you expedite the process? How do you keep your dungeon engaging and prevent players from missing things?

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D&D 5th Edition Starter Set Play Report

This play test happened on Sat Aug 9th, but just now getting around to finishing the play test. I’m going to keep the adventure details very vague since it’s a published adventure and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who may be planning to play it. Additionally, I’ve only played 4e once so when I make comparisons I’ll be comparing to 3e.

I ran this for two people, using the characters that came with the Starter Set. The characters were Thoradin Rockseeker, Dwarf Cleric, and Eldon Greenbottle Halfling Rogue. The adventure was The Lost Mine of Phandelver (comes with the 5e Starter Set.) We got about half way through after 9 hours

We were all concerned with how combat would run with only two PCs, but went ahead and gave it a try. The adventure doesn’t specify anywhere, that I saw, what number of PCs it is expecting. The first combat was the first real test of the system. We had gone over the character sheets and had some exposure to the new rules, and were able to get through combat with only having to look up one thing. I think that’s a good sign, so far. The first combat was challenging for only two PCs. Afterward the adventure provides for two options, one which suggests more danger and one which suggests safety, and given that pursuing more danger is an expected outcome I don’t believe that first combat was meant to be challenging. The PCs did both survive, but needed a rest and so pursued the option of supposed safety.

They arrived in town safely, and made contact with some of the NPCs and gathered information around town. They elected to, after resting the night, attempt to recruit help with continuing their quests. I selected a fighter, who I named Hesiod, from the other character sheets included in the set and provided them with the assistance of an NPC. From here on combat went much more smoothly. It actually felt a little too easy to me, but the PCs both seemed happy with the pacing. I will try to get them to provide me with some input that I can share with you, gentle reader.

I noted a few things about the combat. First, it seems like a lot more damage is slung around in 5e. I don’t consider this to be a bad thing, and it seems to be well balanced, but it does feel like combat goes faster, with a lot less repeatedly bashing on the same monster. There would be even more damage if criticals don’t need to be confirmed. The rules in the starter set don’t address confirming criticals, but we continued to use that rule. I have not yet read the new PHB despite owning it for several days now and needing to before tomorrow when I’m going to be trying out the local Adventurers League group at the local game shop.

Something adjacent to combat is the perception check rules. I like that perception is one skill. Having both listen and spot always sat strangely with me. I also like the passive perception check because it means I as the DM don’t have to raise suspicions by making a bunch of rolls or asking for rolls and then saying nothing happened. There were times, however, when I wanted better chances of success with perception checks. I assumed that the intended way of running the adventure, should the PCs choose to be sneaky, is to use the monsters passive perception checks against their sneak checks, but the monsters almost universally failed using their passive perception checks. I could, of course, make the decision to roll those checks instead and I may do that, and see if it escalates the challenge level when we continue this adventure.

Another thing adjacent to combat is the short vs long rest mechanic, which I believe to be entirely new in 5e. I remember 4e contained mechanics for each class to suddenly heal themselves, I think they were called healing bursts. It felt very hokey to me, but I like the short rest mechanic. It allows for the same little boost without having to spend an entire day in game, but restricts it to non-combat situations, and has a better thematic explanation for it. That was useful for my small party.

By the next combat situation, I brought another NPC along who was part of the story and it seemed reasonable to include him. The adventure didn’t seem to expect the aforementioned NPC to go along with them, but it seemed reasonable for that point in the story. That next “dungeon” was more challenging than the last, so adding the fourth combatant seemed to mostly keep it at about the same level. The PCs and my NPCs all took hits, and needed to use that short rest about half way through, but it didn’t have the deadly edge I tend to like personally. My players seemed happy with it though, and that’s more important. That was the last combat scenario of that day.

Another thing I did that may have made the combat encounters easier was that I allowed them to level up immediately, rather than needing to rest or to rest in a safe place. I do not know what is intended to happen in 5e, but the difficult beginning lead me to try to ease things up a bit.

Overall, I enjoyed running the game and my players enjoyed playing it, the system was smooth and easy to use. In addition, while I would make my calls to keep the game going smoothly anyway, the new rules encourage doing that, and I like that. In addition to just being smooth and easy to use, everything has a good production quality in a lot of ways. The quality of editing is good, and there is a handy index on the back of the adventure telling you what page in the starter set rules to reference for each mechanic referenced in the adventure. I can’t quite get over how great that is. The quality of the materials is nice too. Quality paper, a nice texture on the new books. I’m generally very impressed with the thought, time, and effort that went in to all the 5e materials, rules, and the Phandelver adventure itself. It’s easy to follow, I haven’t ran in to any inconsistencies, the NPCs provided in the adventure have enough detail to portray easily, there are compelling side quests, and the adventure doesn’t feel like a railroad. It leads the PCs down a clear path, but doesn’t drag them, they have freedom of choice and will end up where they need to end up, most likely.

 

I don’t know when I’ll be able to finish the adventure, but when I do I intend to write another report with additional thoughts. If you’ve played this adventure, or done anything else with 5e, or even just looked at the rules, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 dungeon 2 gaming

A couple short things in this post.

First – the One Page Dungeon Contest 2014 is taking submissions until April 30th. So that’s cool. Right now I’m planning to participate, but Spring is always a rough time for me so we’ll see if I get a chance. I do encourage you, gentle reader, to flex your dungeon muscles and try it out. It’s a good exercise.

Second – The latest evolution of my project to game more is gaming by correspondence. I’m currently initiating an alpha test of custom rules for doing that.  There’s a thread I started on reddit requesting feedback here. More feedback is definitely still welcome there, or you can comment here if you prefer/are not a redditor. To fit a game as slow paced as correspondence demands, I have brushed the dust off an old 2e campaign of mine, Malleus Maleficarum. (The correspondence rules are also available transcribed into the wiki there. They should be identical. If not, please let me know!) I’m not going to post a lot of the content for that yet, because the test isn’t quite off the ground yet, and I’m keeping this a closed alpha. It’s my current intent to expand the test after my first scenario is complete, and try to run a couple in tandem. You are, of course, also welcome to try my rules out on your own if you are so inclined.  Once I get this first scenario going I’m looking forward to sharing some materials with you. I feel like materials will be important to making this feel less ephemeral to players who are used to being at a table together.

Once more, from the top

So, remember the game I mentioned trimming back in my last post? When I started writing that, it was meant to be a short campaign designed to introduce new players to DnD. I didn’t actually have an end in mind yet, but I was going to try to make all the adventures have good closure to themselves – this was before I realized that my games don’t actually need to peter out. I usually make very detailed primers, but I put together a short one for this that was mostly an intro to DnD. I’ve extracted that portion (it refers to the campaign generally still) and I am going to step through why I made the decisions I did. None of this has been used yet, so I don’t know how it’ll go, but I am interested in your feedback, dear readers. So here we go.

So what’s all this about?

Good question! Welcome to DnD. If this works out according to plan, most of you haven’t been here before. A lot of tabletop roleplaying books have a section called “What is roleplaying?” – I won’t include one. I think you can figure that part out.

So my goal with this is to provide a casual, easy introduction to tabletop RPGs. I personally tend to gritty, complicated, historical games with a lot of intrigue. That’s not a good introduction though. Your first time playing DnD is supposed to be casting spells, killing goblins, and unlikely things fitting in 10×10 rooms. You’re busy remembering which die to roll when, I don’t want you to also consider the social ramifications of what your character is doing in a mostly realistic 18th century western society. What’s happening in the background this time is simple. The adventures will seem cliche or formulaic to an experienced player, and perhaps also to an avid reader. I’ve blatantly stolen the premise for the game from a book (any guesses?) so you don’t need to read a whole chapter on the trade history of two nations I needed to understand in order for my premise to make sense to me. I’m not going to change anything about magic, or religion, whatever you see in the Player’s Handbook is appropriate for this game. (What’s in the Player’s Handbook is actually appropriate to an old setting called Greyhawk that doesn’t get a lot of independent publishing anymore. So we’ll be dropping some people and places into Greyhawk it doesn’t normally have, but I don’t think the people down there will mind.)

So don’t get me wrong, I love custom settings. I think this would actually be my first time not using a setting that’s at least been heavily modified. I elected to keep everything as-is this time for two reasons. The first is I was trying to cut down on my prep time. Less writing, less explaining, more playing. Remember this is all about that lack of time/bandwidth problem a lot of us have. The other is something I’ve never personally had a problem with, but seems to be difficult for a lot of people on reddit. That is the separation of mechanics and flavor from any given roleplaying book. I wanted the new players, while they’re learning the game, to be able to read the books and not ask me “can I have this?” or “is this still true in your game?” and for them to have the confidence to say “but the book says…” – I don’t want to instill an idea of the infallible DM and lead to them not picking up on any mistakes I may make. At the same time, however, I don’t want to train them to argue with their DM a lot. What’s your experience with treading that line, DMs?

DnD can be fun for a lot of reasons, but it’s hard to find what’s fun for a new group as a whole, so let’s lay down some ground rules so this doesn’t get not-fun for anyone. First, I already established that you’ve known each other for a while, so no in-fighting. We’re all friends here, and we can have a polite conversation, and so can our characters. And to help prevent in-fighting, you’re all generally good people, or at least, not Evil. One of the more fluffy mechanics of DnD is Alignment. It’s two spectrums are Chaos – Law (this makes more sense if you think of Law as Order IMHO) and Evil – Good. I’m ok with any Alignment combination that doesn’t include any big “E”s. Also, you’re all from the same society, so I can say all at once that you’re egalitarian with respect to species, race, sex, and gender.

Can you tell that these are issues I have? I have developed a reputation among the people I first started playing with for running very open-ended games, and letting my players push the limits a lot. This has led to a lot of arguments, PCs killing each other, and general unbalance in the happiness level around the table when I’ve mixed new and old groups of gaming friends. So I’m very aware of this, but I think laying down ground rules from the start is generally a good idea. Expectations are important, for one, and if anyone’s fun is taking away from the fun of someone else, that’s a problem. I think these are generally good ground rules for beginning players in particular. Like I said in the beginning of the primer, I like to do a lot of complex historical games. Those can get tense, particularly around that egalitarian point. Unless you’re really familiar with the comfort level of your group with particular societal issues, I recommend staying away from them. I’ve had very interesting, compelling theological arguments at the table between Catholic and Protestant characters in an 18th century game, at the same time I’ve had high levels of uncomfortableness surrounding different opinions on slavery in a 19th century game. So consider your audience. If you’re not completely sure, play it safe. And remember you’re saying no to make sure everyone has fun, not to kill a particular someone’s fun. Stepping back into a more typical fantasy game, it can be hard to say no, especially to beginning players. But they’re going to ask for things that you know are going to go badly. They’re going to say “and I hate Elves, because…” and you’re going to have to say “no,” because they’re going to get in an argument with the Elf in the party and it’s going to be uncomfortable for everyone. Maybe in the advanced course they can hate all the Elves they want, but not right now.

I’m about to drop a big, testy, word for tabletop gamers because we’re about to leave the metagame portion of this short, casual primer. Different groups have different definitions of what “metagaming” is. Basically, it’s what’s outside of the game, or outside of your character’s head. For example, you may know very well that Jabberwocks are weak to pudding magic (intentionally making things up here) but if your character, Ethel the Mighty, had never heard of a Jabberwock until it tried to bite her head off, she doesn’t know she should be using her delicious +1 pudding packs and not her Vorpal (see what I did there?) Greatsword. This might not sound like a complicated concept yet, but what happens when Wakefield the Slayer and Ethel the Mighty have both been fighting the Jabberwock for a while now, and Sister Doris needs to decide who to heal in the midst of combat? Luckily, I’m nice about that particular scenario. But if you’re planning battle tactics five rounds in advance, remember the monsters can hear you too.

I think that’s pretty straightforward, right? Sure. What is Metagaming deserves a whole post. We’ll leave that for another time.

Hey, did we buy enough rations?

You’re probably wondering – what should I do to prepare? Should I bring anything? Are there weird rules of etiquette I should know?

So far as preparation goes, that’s up to you. All the rules (For DnD 3.5’s d20 system – which we will be using.) are actually publically available under the Open Game License or OGL. You’re welcome to poke around here if you’d like: http://www.d20srd.org/ That’s what’s called a “System Reference Document” – it features all the mechanical rules, but not the setting details about Greyhawk. This is because it’s the mechanics that are OGL.

You should probably bring some pencils and paper. If you own dice, bring them.

If you have an idea of what you’re getting into you might be noticing something missing from those last two lines – a character. A lot of experienced players are asked to generate their characters before coming to the first session, this saves a lot of game time. It’s pretty normal for your first game to consist just of character creation, but that’s not my point right now. I want you to play. So, I’m going to do something I’ve never tried before. I’m going to generate one of each core class. You will choose a class when play starts. I will give you one of the characters I made. If, after the first session, you like that character, you may keep it. If not, I will help you generate your own.

This is the big untested part of my time-saving ideas here. I may nix the whole thing. I figured, like I said,  with inexperienced players character creation can take up the whole first session, and I want them to actually get to play since it’s hard to schedule the time. At the same time, though, character creation is fun. I was going to use scaled attributes for these so nobody can pick the “best” character, I may just have them use those to save the dice-rolling time, but maybe not that even. I have played with pre-generated characters a couple times, and still had fun. It was actually how I learned, too. Now that it’s looking more like I’ll have half experienced half inexperienced, I’m undecided on if I still think this is a good idea.

So, on to etiquette. It’s not really different from most other times you engage in a group activity in someone else’s home. Be polite, wait your turn, don’t touch my dice. Α lot of players are protective of their dice. I don’t expect you all to bring dice since I’m trying to target new players, but don’t just grab and roll. If you need dice ask to borrow some, and you’ll be given a set or someone will say you can use theirs, or use the dice in this tin, etc. Food and drink are often a normal part of the gaming ritual, it’s appreciated if you bring something to share. If it’s around a meal time we’ll talk about the plan.

Well, yeah. Do you share dice?

Off to a false start

Right before I started this blog I fired off an email to a selection of people. The week before I had been out to a birthday dinner with those people, and realized out of everyone I know whether they game or not or want to learn or not, are the people I see the most often. So, our schedules must match up well enough for that at least. So I picked those people, and sent off an email saying if you’re interested I want to start gaming. And I said I want to try this Three Game Plot thing I read about here: http://lookrobot.co.uk/2014/01/06/three-game-plot-make-actual-game-happen/ reading this article is what inspired me to really try to get back to gaming because I realized that I need to change what gaming is in my head, because it’s not going to be every week anymore. So I sent out that email with the next three days I have off hoping to start scheduling some games. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get everyone together on any of those days, so it’s a little bit back to the drawing board. I still think Grant over at Look, Robot has an awesome idea, and I may still run a Three Game Plot (I trimmed what I had written to fit) to keep the action going (I learned another neat keep the action going trick in a different blog post, I’ll write about that later) but I think I’m also going to incorporate some aspects of a Living Campaign to make it a little easier for players to come and go.

If you don’t know about “Living” campaigns, I’ll explain. I used to play RPGA games. Those were all tracked by Wizards of the Coast (mostly by volunteer organizations of capable players who have been deemed knowledgeable of the core rules enough to be a “Judge” – I was.) and everyone used common rules, etc. I haven’t played since 4e came out, so I don’t know what RPGA looks like now. But back then, you would have your character, and you’d attend an adventure appropriate for your level, maybe at a comic shop, or at a convention. Afterward you’d get your AR, adventure record, and it would say how much XP and gold you got, what magic items, what you unlocked, etc. Each character could play any given adventure once. Since it was all modular and tracked well you can play with anyone, anytime. You’ll always be on the same page. I also played Living Kingdoms of Kalamar (my favourite pre-generated setting.) Kalamar isn’t a Wizards setting, it’s Kenzerco, but used d20 rules (it may have gone to Hackmaster or Pathfinder now,) so it was associated with the RPGA, but a little bit different. It was tracked somewhat more loosely, a lot of it just being on one long record sheet, and you’d get little handouts. A card saying you found this magic item, or earned this favor, instead of all being on the AR. Both perfectly viable ways of doing the same thing, really. So I may incorporate some handouts. I don’t think I’ll need to go to the length of ARs, but I’ll have to keep some careful notes and make sure we end at points where the PCs can change out. I’ll also have to make sure the rewards are pretty consistent, so I’ll make it so the whole game is worth so much XP.

Obviously, I’ve been really out of the RPGA/gaming con scene since 4e came out. That’s mostly because of other time constraints, but partly because I wasn’t really impressed by 4e. I’ve only tried it once, and am still willing to give it another shot, but I don’t think it’s my thing. I also don’t really like Forgotten Realms, which I think Wizards is using for it now. Still, RPGA games are a great way to get your game on when you’re short on time, and especially when you’re short on bandwidth. If it still works essentially the same way, one of your group becomes a Judge and you just download and run the sessions, and report the results back. It’s all pretty straightforward, and since it’s been made modular for you already and most of the plots are 1 to 3 adventures long it should be pretty easy to feel like you’re playing in complete sentences, so to speak. If anyone out there has experience with current RPGA or other Living games, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment.