Trying My Hand at Fate

I’ve been playing with a bunch of guys regularly now for about a year and a half.  We found each other through Adventurers League, the recently created Organized Play organization for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

It worked out pretty well, even though we opted to drop out of AL eventually and move on to playing on our own.  I DM for them every week, and we have a blast, but even so I’ve learned that Dungeons and Dragons has its limitations…  This latest published adventure, Curse of Strahd, is what we’re working out way through right now, and we’re enjoying it even though it’s horribly unbalanced and ill-written as you get into the thick of things…  It requires a LOT of prep on the part of the DM, from both the campaign-level and the encounter-level as it is terribly unbalanced.  The plot is interesting, but it’s already feeling like it’s going on and on and on, so I’m going to be figuring out how to make it a bit more engaging soon before I lose my players.

dresden11But as an aside, I’m finally getting to play instead of DM–we’re going to explore the Dresden Files RPG using Fate rules…   And I am SO excited.  Not only am I a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s books, but I have been wanting to explore Fate as a system for a long long time.

I am really looking forward to a more narrative approach to gaming rather than a statistical one.

I don’t have to be the GM on this one.  I get to be a player.

I popped out and bought all the books on Amazon the other day, and gleefully sat down with them to try to wrap my head around their contents.  I dutifully bought my first sets of Fate Dice at my local gaming store since they didn’t have the rule books.

Wow.

Okay, I’ve never played anything other than D&D.  I’ve got D20 systems ingrained in my blood after all these years.  And to try to wrap my head around Fate rules is…  daunting.  It really is like trying to learn another language.  The game is pretty different, but in a good way.  My learning curve is gonna be slow, but I’ve got good friends in the same boat and we’re gonna figure it out together.

I’m wondering if maybe the DFRPG could have used a bit of editing…  The approach to communicating the rules seems to be a bit verbose which results in a lot of confusion on my part.  I’m really glad they have tons of examples peppered throughout, though.  That’s fantastically helpful.

And knowing that there were modifications to the rules made after the Fate Core rules were published is a bit of a challenge…  I get the impression that magic in DFRPG is incredibly complicated, and they tried to make it simpler as things went on…  DFRPG uses a version of the Fate rules that was a step or two before the latest revision of Fate Core in 2013 (I think?), so since the game manuals were published the gaming mechanism has been streamlined a bit.  I hope so.  I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

But I can already tell I’m going to like it.  Who doesn’t love Jim Butcher’s Dresden-verse?!?  The GM has set up an Obsidian Portal website for our group, and we’re diving in with a passion.  I’m hoping it takes off!!  Wish me luck!!

 

“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Encounters?”

I sometimes feel like one of those nuns from the Sound of Music lamenting an unchangeable fact.  Like Maria, the Encounters program for Adventurers League has “issues” that are simply not within the scope of the OP’s Administrators to address or change.  So it’s left to us, as participants, to provide our own solutions.

One of the first steps to solving a problem is to articulate what that problem is.  Once again, this third season’s offerings, Out of the Abyss, was written intentionally for a homeplay campaign, yet WotC requires that it be incorporated into its Organized Play structure.  They provide a free portion of the adventure so it can be used within their OP’s context.  None of the content is pre-screened by the volunteer Adventurers League Administrators, so they themselves don’t know what’s coming up.

None of this is a surprise.  That’s the way it has been for the previous two seasons.  What is a surprise is that despite copious feedback to address the specifics of how to incorporate the material into the Encounters paradigm, it has once again been glossed over by WotC.

What’s the Problem?

In a nutshell:  Encounters is a weekly recurring experience intended to introduce new players to the game.  All the material given to Adventurers League to provide that weekly experience is serialized, which contradicts the drop-in/drop-out feature of Encounters.  The material encourages repeating attendance to make it work, and doesn’t acknowledge that at many many venues the players are not the same from week to week.  How does one have a continuing story line when half the players weren’t there the week before?

That presents a unique problem for DMs that are running Encounters tables every week.  The nature of Adventurers League’s Organized Play system encourages players to seek and find games at various locales, and provides a mechanism so each player’s PCs can be used in different venues with different DMs in different adventures.

All of which runs contrary to the actual material used within Encounters.

Adventurer’s League offers other play opportunities they call “Expeditions”, which are discreet 1-, 2-, 4-, or 8-hour adventures that have a beginning, middle, and end.  While they are loosely connected in both plot and chronological order, it is not necessary to play them in sequence, nor play the entirety of the series offered each season.

But Encounters doesn’t have that feature.  DMs are left with what seems one of two choices–either sacrifice verisimilitude and plunk visiting or newer PCs down into the middle of the adventure mid-story (ignoring logic for play-ability and hoping enough of the story line can be “compartmentalized” for each session so the play experience makes sense to those new players) or try to encourage a recurring weekly attendance of the same players at a single table (running counter to the very Encounters paradigm and nature of the OP).  Alternatively, at larger stores with more astute organizers, DMs somehow manage to coordinate the content their tables are experiencing which decreases the probability of players missing content or the impact an absent DM may cause.  Still other stores don’t allow their participants to stay with one continual DM throughout the Encounters experience, and require players to shift from DM to DM each week.

While effective, this again runs contrary to the nature of the material itself.  The fact is, none of the Encounters material was actually written for Organized Play, nor thoroughly takes into account how it operates.  While the adventures are “parsed” into sections with a number of suggested “sessions” allocated to its playing, no mention is made of how to incorporate new or visiting players (even entirely new tables) from week to week.  If the events of the session are to make sense, it’s up to the DM to make it so for their individual tables and players.

So we’ve Articulated the Problem.  Now What?

How does one make a serialized adventure fit into a non-serialized event?

One is to not actually run Encounters.  It is perfectly legal within the Adventurers League OP to run a “Casual Play” game that is run from the book version from which the Encounters PDF material is culled.  The question is whether it is legal to run a “closed table” within that context or not.  A “closed table” means that the players remain consistent from week to week, without inviting new players or visiting players to join.  This is completely legal for Homeplay (another sanctioned AL play variety) but unclear whether it is legal in a store running a “Casual Play” game under the auspices of Adventurers League.

Another option is to coordinate with all the other DMs at one’s venue and run the same material from week to week, rendering individual tables irrelevant and the player experience consistent no matter what table at which they play.  While this is an approach some stores and coordinators have adopted, this season’s Out of the Abyss material in particular seems much more fluid and flexible and contingent on PC actions that dictate the progression of the story–making it problematic to coordinate from table to table and less cohesive for irregular attendees.

A third option is for individual DMs to contemplate mechanisms within the story that provide opportunities to incorporate new PCs within the story arc.  This is probably the most daunting of the three choices–especially for DMs.  It requires the DM be able to succinctly “catch up” new PCs (and their players) by providing context and a summary of events that led to the current session’s scenario.  It could alternatively mean that DMs would need to artificially “segment” the adventure so each week’s content has less connection to the overall arch of the story and replace it with much clearer short-term goals for the PCs to accomplish each week, decreasing the necessity to  experience multiple weeks of participation in order to comprehend what is going on.

The Third Option

Verisimilitude (i.e. the “appearance of reality”) in D&D games is subjective at best.  Rule mechanisms often contort the logic of how a story or combat is played out by virtue of having a common rules set that provides a similar structure to each game.  What one DM desires for consistency from the story they are helping to tell and what another DM desires may not be the same.  That goes for players as well–some simply don’t care how their PCs got there, nor what elements of the story they missed, nor how that missing knowledge may impact their player experience.  For some, the capacity to willing suspend one’s disbelief for the sake of the play experience in the moment overrides any gaps of logic–“How did my PC get there?  Who cares?  It’s a game. Let’s play!”  For other players and DMs, part of the play experience is the experience of the campaign’s story arch.  And it’s important to them.

From the player’s perspective one never really knows what portion of the Encounters material is being played at any particular venue (because WotC hasn’t taken an overt interest in providing a mechanism to help facilitate the nature of communicating it).  On their end, their PCs experience can be disjointed and irregular, and their own comprehension of the arch of the material can be confusing.  This can ultimately create a play experience that is entirely about “rules mechanics” of their PC simply because there isn’t anything else for the game to be about, and (in the extreme) can encourage min-maxing simply as a natural outgrowth of the nature of playing in the OP.  Take away any relative story, and the emphasis becomes about something else.

My advice is thus:  don’t run Encounters.  Run Out of the Abyss as a Homeplay campaign, using AL rules for the benefit of your players.  Don’t use the PDF provided by WotC with it’s experience point caps and restrictions but instead wait to use the printed book material.  Talk to your store about whether they are interested in hosting your particular table, on a night that is not the regular Encounters Wednesday to avoid visiting and drop-in player confusion and angst at not being able to join your table.  In lieu of that, play at a private residence using AL rules so your players can use their PCs in different AL offerings.

In Conclusion

It is terribly unfortunate that AL doesn’t have the capacity to participate in the development of the very material they are required to include.  But it should be made clear that is not the fault of the campaign Administrators, who work tirelessly to make the Adventurers League experience a good one for everyone involved.  It should also be noted that the opinions expressed above are those of one particular DM that has decided to decline from participating in Encounters for this third season for the above reasons.

While I am a strong proponent of AL and believe strongly in the majority of their play programs, I’m simply not willing to run a serialized campaign for a rotating cast of players anymore.  Bottom line.  I will stick to DMing Expeditions material and Out of the Abyss as a Homeplay campaign.  It feels evident that the nature of Encounters is not going to change, due to WotC’s requirements, and that apparently none of the developers actually play in their own OP in order to understand that unique play experience…  To get the most out of Out of the Abyss, it seems wise to play it outside of the context of AL’s Encounters program.  The quality of your play experience is your choice, of course, but the quality of my personal DM experience (and the 12-20 week commitment that running Out of the Abyss for AL would require) would seem to be better outside of that AL’s Encounters context.

I will miss introducing new players to the experience of D&D through Encounters, but I feel there are better adventures with which to do that–DEX1-1, DEX2-1, and DEX3-1 for example.  I don’t need to do it using Out of the Abyss, which should have an overarching driving adventure story line as that is one of its distinct features that sets it apart from AL’s Expeditions offerings. If introducing new players is indeed the purpose of Encounters, then I think there are better ways to do that.  As a DM, I choose to use those instead of Out of the Abyss.

Creating More DMs

Every once in a while, an article comes to my attention about the nature of being a Dungeonmaster (“DM”), and why there aren’t as many as there could be or need to be.  Recently, this has come to light with the development and success of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons and the advent of their Organized Play organization: Adventurers League.  There’s a very evident dearth of DMs to run the tables at most locations, compounded by deeper systemic problems that put DMs between a rock and a hard spot.

Articulating the Problem

Figuring out how to solve the problem requires a careful examination of the question.  And figuring out the question requires a person to examine just what the problem is.  How you come up with the answer depends on how you approach the issue.  In a nutshell, this is my specific problem, and thus my specific question:

Problem:  There are too few DMs in Adventurers League.

Question: How can we encourage people to want to DM?

Answer:  There is no specific answer, but a lot of the possibilities depend on the development of a sense of community.

Look, everyone can articulate what’s wrong.  The role of Adventurers League, the ruleset, the nature of players, the time investment…  All of these things add up to a whole lotta “NO” from potential DMs.  It takes a special person to want to DM anyway.  And according to this particular blog post, that seems to be part of the problem:  Why do DMs get pushed into it instead of aspiring to it?

I know it’s a symptom of a larger issue.  They get pushed into it for any number of reasons, and sometimes they start to feel good about further development of their DMing skills, and sometimes they run screaming from the experience never to return.  So what is it that we can provide to help them make that leap from being scared of it to enjoying it and wanting to do it even more?

My first instinctual answer is to develop a class for DMs, complete with a syllabus and assignments and collaborative projects.  I come from a theatre background.  I also teach.  I teach Theatre, frankly, at the university level.  But that’s foisting a square peg into a round hole–often times DMs simply don’t have the luxury of time to “learn” like that.

I think that’s part of the problem.  One has to take a step back first.

Nature and Nurture

Aside from my theatre background, I also dabbled in the leather/BDSM community.  (Yeah, yeah, I think kink is cool–let’s move on.  If you’re gonna get hung up on that, there’s no point in you finishing this blog post.)  Anyway, in the leather community there is a strong “apprenticeship” aspect to participation.  Frankly, one doesn’t do things like that with another person without first knowing what you’re doing, how to be safe, how to be consensual, etc etc etc.  There are stakes.  And that tends to create a community where skills are passed down from one person to another, sometimes in a formalized manner and sometimes in simple workshops and seminars.

Theatre works that way, too.  Sure, one can learn how to sew or run a light board or build a set on one’s own but usually there are mentors and teachers who have a structured way of teaching those things to beginners.

And one of the common elements in the way both of these things are taught is the development of community.  Theatre skills are taught for the good of the show, and there are other practitioners working right there with you.  You are never alone.  Theatre is a collaborative art.  BDSM is almost impossible to learn safely and correctly on one’s own.  YouTube and porn don’t cut it.  Eventually, one seeks out a community with like-minded interests for validation and support.  The key is community.

So.  How might one invest in the development of DMs? Create community.  Make the learning of those skills and desire to run a table something that is fueled by both personal interest and external validation.

Thus, it seems the approach for Adventurers League could be twofold–appeal to an individual’s motivation to explore DMing (whatever that may be), and then follow it up with social rewards that develop a sense of pride and validation for indulging one’s interests.

First Steps

How does one do this?  Right off the top, it seems evident that structurally the Adventurers League OP has no mechanism for validation.  The system isn’t set up to even address that.  Unlike other games that WotC manages (like Magic the Gathering tournament play), there is nothing offered by the company itself that speaks to any form of an organized support structure for DMs.  DMs instead overwhelmingly learn by either getting thrown into the fire (stepping up because no one else would) or they are mentored by a friend who undertakes their development selflessly out of the kindness of their heart (to varying degrees of altruism and effectiveness).  The simple in-game rewards offered for a DMs personal PC (experience and gold) are sometimes interpreted as token gestures to simply enable a DM to play outside of the context of the table they’re managing.  In other words, they’re ineffective if there isn’t another table where they don’t have to DM.  Nor do they work if a DM simply doesn’t have the copious spare time to play and judge, too.  And that’s the case for most DMs I know–they most rarely get the opportunity to play at all.

Secondly, Adventurers League relies entirely upon a person’s own capabilities to educate themselves–there is no formalized mentoring process.  Any DMing skills that are developed are usually self-taught or imparted outside of the context of the League itself by kindly individuals who enjoy doing that sort of thing for their own personal reasons.  Whether their reward fr those individuals is that they might be able to play sometimes when the new person is DMing or whether they’re truly simply altruistic, the fact remains that the person helping the newly developing DM is doing it of their own accord.  Adventurers League isn’t providing assistance.  I wonder if that might not be something to think about…

In Lieu of It Coming From the Top Downward

I don’t think Adventurers League is going to do anything about these issues any time soon.  So that leaves the locals to fend for themselves.  So what does one do?

A burgeoning DM might spend hours and hours on the inter-webs reading up on “How to DM”.  There’s lots of advice out there.  But not so much specifically for DMing in an organized play structure, and even less specifically for Adventurers League.  So a new DM is left to figure out what’s relevant advice and what isn’t all on their own.  This is compounded by the fact that DMing is like painting or dancing or writing–everyone has their own style, their own mannerisms, their own strengths and weaknesses.  Truly, DMing is sorta like learning how to write or draw or play music…  It’s not a cut-n-dry simple thing.  We might like to think that there is a “workmanship of certainty” in DMing–all the rules are right there, you’re simply an arbiter.  There is a sense of automation to it.  But there is also a “workmanship of risk” to DMing that relies upon judgment, dexterity and care with which one works, and takes time to develop. (David Pye’s idea, not mine…)

All that makes learning how to DM on one’s own only so effective.  You can’t learn people skills and table dynamics by yourself.

The alternative?  Learn with others.  Practice with support.

And Adventurers League has a built-in way they can help with just that.

The Expeditions Program

Expeditions is set up to offer 4-hour adventures that can be distinct componenet parts of a larger storeyline.  Unlike Encounters, which is a repackaged and condensed version of printed materials published by Wizards of the Coast, these adventurers can be more easily offered as distinct units, without the serialization necessitated by Encounters.

It would seem logical to advise a new DM by having them either run a non-official practice game, a session with a mentor DM as an Assistant-DM, or to load the table with DMs (or just one) that can help the new DM learn about what they’re doing as they progress forward.  It seems that the Expeditions experience is laden with opportunities to help the new DM, especially if the adventure is one that a mentor DM has already DM’d themselves.

What this means is that more established DMs need to be able to meta-game their PCs in the interest of the new DM’s development.  It also means that older DMs should be able to know the content in a way that enables them to watch for signs of a struggling DM.  This kind of mentoring may require more than one opportunity to really enable the new DM to have practice.

Mentoring Outside the Game

Knowing that a DM needs to prep is very different than knowing how to actually do the prep.  And what “prep” means is different to every DM.  Teaching how to do it is less important than helping a new DM discover what the best methods are for their own developing style.  Exposing them to new possibilities and letting them adopt what they want on their own is probably more valuable than saying, “Do it this way.”  Sharing with them one’s own preferred methods, and debating the pros and cons of others is a useful form of mentoring.  I have invited DMs to a private Google Drive where I share with them the maps and initiative cards I develop, and they can post their own tools to share with me.  It ends up being a mutually beneficial arrangement.

It’s also important to allow time to actually have discussions in person, outside of the context of gaming events.  Discussions take time, and it is difficult to address specific situations and questions if there is no opportunity to do so.  Arrange to meet for coffee or spend time post-gaming discussing the experience. There is no better way to develop a sense of community and validatioin than with simple one-on-one discussions.  Sponsors in AA, teachers at universities, preachers in churches, masters and their apprentices of yesteryear–all of them had and have discussion time that is essential to growth and development.  If a mentor DM makes the time to meet, it can encourage the mentee to invest their own time, which makes for a better playing experience for players.

That means it takes time to mold a new DM.  Time from the community.  On many levels–both individually and organizationally on the Adventurers Leagues’ part.

What About Adventurers League?

How can they help make this work?  By developing tools for DMs to mentor other DMs.  The sad fact is that you can’t have an effective Organized Play program that essentially runs on the backs of volunteer DMs for it to work.  Some re-examination of that paradigm needs to happen.  WotC is getting a lot of branding cred from Adventurers League.  But there’s also an incredible turnover and burnout rate.  The program is almost a year old, and it has had an inordinate amount of adjusting.  This should fit right in.  It has to be a priority for WotC (not just the Adventurers League admins and organizers), or their DMs will start to simply. not. care.

In Conclusion

There are things we can do to address the shortage of DMs.  Since there doesn’t seem to be a system for doing it institutionally through the Adventurers League itself, it falls to us as fellow DMs to ease our own burden at gamedays and other events by helping to develop DMs on our own.  it might be possible to “kill two birds with one stone” in AL by using the adventures themselves to facilitate that.

Next time, I’ll address some specific aspects of mentoring DMs and what we, as established DMs, can do when we think someone is worth mentoring.

Prep for Episode 4 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen

Episode 4 in HotDQ is an interesting journey.  The PCs travel to Elturel, meet some members of a couple factions that encourage them to continue “tracking” the Cult’s wagons of loot, and move on to Baldur’s Gate and beyond.  It’s a traveling episode.

The bulk of the Episode centers on a caravan wagon in which the PC’s find employment as a cover to keep spying on the Cult’s activities.  Their goal is to find where this stuff is going.  And find out what exactly the Cult is doing.

In preparation for running this episode, I had to figure out several things:

1) Was it necessary to “flesh out” Elturel if they were only going to be there for a short time?

2) What might the PCs potentially need Baldur’s Gate information for?  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this is my first foray into the wold of Faerun and the Forgotten Realms.  I had a lot of learning to do.

3) How much did I want to develop the NPCs that the PCs might interact with?

4) What might be the logistics of managing combat in a caravan?  What does one even look like?  How does one operate?

5) What do I need to know about the area they’re going to be traveling through?

Fortunately, there is a wonderful tool available online that has proven incredibly helpful:  The Forgotten Realms Wiki.  I’ve been using this a lot to try to help me learn more about each area.  Through the wiki, I was able to determine that the PCs would be going through an area that had already been outlined in different resources, so I was able to purchase them to help me understand the “lay of the land”:  Scourge of the Sword Coast.  While this particular adventure ins’t completely necessary, it does outline one particular town the PCs will necessarily pass through: Daggerford.  It is a town on the Trade Way between Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep, where the PCs are headed.  I felt it was important to know what this area was like so I could provide descriptive detail that implies a depth and richness to the table experience of the setting.

Session 1

I decided early on that Elturel was such a short stop in the PCs journey that I probably wouldn’t need to extrapolate too much on that particular location.  And my instincts were correct–we blew threw that area at my table and headed out to Baldur’s Gate very quickly.  My table finished their first session of Episode 4 following the Cult to one of their “safe houses” in the city, and staying at an inn nearby.  They found their contact, who facilitated finding employment for the Cult’s caravan journey north, and we left it at that.  After the fact, I did find an entry on the Faerun Wiki that could have potentially provided some assistance if needed, and a map through a Google search using Elturel as the term.

Session 2

Episode 4 to Post Sheet2I told my table I would have a conflict that would prevent me from DMing the following session as scheduled.  I told them they were more than welcome to join another table at our store for that week. They all decided to wait a week, but honestly I didn’t want to just leave them high and dry and not able to play because of me.  Instead, Caravanlayers2I worked on fleshing out the NPCs they found employment with, and sent them each personal emails with descriptive details and images of their particular NPCs that had hired them. In so doing I learned I had to be particular about a lot of things, so I created a whole panoply of personalities for the journey northward.

I also learned that I need to figure out just exactly what the caravan looked like, and how they might be set up for each evening.So I created a couple images in photoshop to help me make that happen.

And that made me realized I had to figure out when these adventures might be happening.  Their order.  Ack–nightmare.  I had 6 sessions to break things up into (as prescribed by my Store Organizer) and I created an order so we could play all the little random encounter scenarios that the players have to deal with in Episode 4.  I started by going backwards–figuring out which random encounters needed to happen when because there were specifics encounters that had to happen in a specific order and time in the Episode.Caravanwagoncircle

I started with those, backed the rest of them up, and figured out when each one would happen in the order that I desired.  I outlined it on a spreadsheet for easy reference, and dove in.  I tried to make certain encounters make sense in conjunction with other encounters.

I also learned that the tone of what happens in the caravan when the PCs are not actually engaged in one of these random scenarios is honestly the bulk of what this Episode is about.  In order for some of the scenarios to make sense, there neEpisode 4 to Post Sheet1eds to be a sense of place and climate established early on.  It is not outlined in the adventure.  The table atmosphere is, in part, what will make the later required encounters really work.  If your style as a DM means that you aren’t really describing how all the NPCs react around each other, the behavior of the Cultists, the impact of some of these scenarios on the caravan, it can be hard to then whip the final encounters into fruition without making the PCs feel “railroaded”. I would suggest DMs ponder ways to describe the climate, describe the quality of the journey, take time to create NPC banter and characterization, put the PCs in positions where they have to interact with the NPCs in order to, in the end, assume a sense of authority in the caravan that will be important for Episode 5’s NPC conflicts.

Session 3

In Episode 4 there is a major editing error in the adventure as it was published.  A stat block was changed after some monsters were selected, making one particular random encounter a real death-fest.  There has been some thick debate on how to deal with it.  I decided to run the scenario as written.  I warned my players.  They performed AWESOMELY!  Charm Person, Crown of Thorns, Hold Person.  It was incredible.  I was so proud of them for taking down/”dealing with” 4 CR8 creatures (that kept failing their saving throws) so deftly.  I was proud to award them the XP they deserved.

Conclusion

I will continue describing the events as the game progresses.  Currently, I’m getting ready for Session 4 of this adventure, when they all go through Daggerford.  I have a lot of reading to do in prep.

My Table’s Hoard of the Dragon Queen Experience: An Intro

Like many many others currently playing the new 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, my table is running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, one of the latest adventures available.  I am DMing a table under the auspices of the Adventurers League (AL), Wizards of the Coast’s official Organized Play structure that facilitates the mass-coordination of hundreds of tables all across the world.  AL provides a basic set of common rules for all the participants in an effort to facilitate players playing the same games in different locations or traveling to play those games at different locations than their original table’s locale.  This means DMs can (and often do) run tables for strangers that are visiting their vicinity, or accommodate shifting player numbers at specific venues.  The rules allow the table playing experiences to be somewhat similar whether the game is being run in Oregon or in Florida, Australia or Canada.

HOTDQImageMy particular table is in southern California.  I started running Horde of the Dragon Queen (HotDQ) a couple of months ago, and I’ve had a variety of different players come and go.  There have been some consistent players (for the most part) but things have taken a turn lately where I am pretty much DMing for the same six players.

HotDQ is partitioned into 8 Episodes.  It is for character levels 1- 8.  The adventure continues in a sequel called Rise of Tiamat (RoT) that provides playable content for levels 8-15.  My group of players have managed to meet weekly for about 2 hours, during which we’ve managed to make it through Episodes 1-3.  Those episodes have “companion” content issued by Adventurers League to help facilitate the playing of the adventure.  But from Episode 4 onward, the table shifts from being “counted” as what AL calls an Encounters table to a Casual Table.  Encounters is a program AL uses to introduce new players to the game, and it is limited to PCs (player characters) of levels 1-4.  There’s some confusion whether Episode 4 is technically still playable by level 1 characters as the PCs may not be at 5th level by then, but I haven’t had to deal with that, so for me it’s not an issue.

I am going to try to outline my preparation and table’s play experiences in these blog posts.  I’m doing it not because I want to share how the events in the adventure unfolded for my players, but to discuss preparation and materials that I’ve worked on for other DMs if they’re interested.

ROTImage

Preparation for DMs to run these adventures varies depending on the preferences of the DM.  Some desire a lot of prep, some don’t.  I, personally, need to flesh out the details I read in the adventure so I can wrap my head around what the players might do.  Since D&D is an open-ended game, there is no telling what a team of players might decide they need to do and it’s my job as the DM to facilitate the story telling they decide to create.  I guide them, of course, to follow the general plot thread that is outlined by the adventure itself, but there’s a lot of “fleshing out” that I have to do for myself to make their experiences rich and thorough.

In so doing, I’ve learned a lot of things:

Scourge1) I am not familiar with HotDQ’s campaign setting, Forgotten Realms.  The adventures take place in a world called Faerun, and I have never played in that particular setting.  Last time I played D&D, I was playing in a world called Greyhawk, a completely different setting with different topography, towns, cultures…  In short, a very different place.  Faerun has a whole different flavor, and my learning curve is going to be quite daunting.  I realize how much I don’t know every time I look at HotDQ.

2) I am still learning the rules of D&D, so I’ve got a double learning curve.

3) I don’t know how to “wing it” and run a table experience from the book itself.  My lack of knowledge with the setting and rules prevent me from improvising a good game in the moment.

First Steps

FRCSSo.  One thing that neither Wizards of the Coast nor Adventurer’s League has done is provide a lot of setting information.  The adventures can be run without having to know a whole bunch of backstory, but it is clear (at least to me) that a general familiarization with Faerun is a good thing.  To that end, my first step was to buy an e-book version of an old campaign sourcebook printed about 10 years ago called The Forgotten Realms.

I also learned that immediately prior to D&D’s 5th Edition release, a version of the game called “D&D Next” was released that is set in the general vicinity of the world that HotDQ is happening in.  So I have purchased a couple of those, namely Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Swordcoast, simply for background material.

Preparing for DMing the first three Episodes of HotDQ was more about putting together maps for the use of figurines in combat, trying to understand how AL worked as an Organized Play campaign, and simply learning the logistics of the rules.  I could rant about what went wrong from an organizational standpoint, but I’m not.  I’ve already done that in various places like Facebook or the WotC Forums.  Suffice to say, the next campaign by AL may be a tad bit more developed and functional.

But that being said, I am now in Episode 4, and my table is moving on.  Our dreams of character “portability” from one table to the next have been sorta shattered for a number of reasons, so we’re kinda “pulling in” and coming to the understanding that we’re simply going to play our table to the best of our ability and not worry about using the PCs at other places.  The reality is that none of my players have decided their specific PCs will be playing in other places or at other tables, so we’re following AL rules because we want to, not because we have to.  And given the more sandbox structure of Episodes 4-8, the likelihood that any table experiences will be similar (even in the same venue) is ludicrous.

DnD_ADVL

So we’ve circled the wagons and are doing this for us.  If new players show up and need to play at my table, I don’t know what I’m going to do.  But I’m not the Store Organizer.  I’m hoping it never happens.  It is technically possible that my table’s players could decide to make our table an AL-legal “Homeplay” game, but that would mean it is not reported by my store as “Casual” play, and they don’t get credit for it.  Potentially that means we’d also have to find a new venue to play, as they’re not going to give up their space for that.  So I guess we’ll continue along with the possibility of a new visiting player being inserted into our table’s story arc (somehow) in order to play at a convenient location.  I’ll deal with that when it happens.

In the next section, I will get to logistics.

Initiative Cards

My recent forays into D&D 5th Edition have forced me to explore different methods of tracking initiative.  A lot of the searches that I’ve made have rendered methods for using cards that require them to be propped up on a DM screen or used as “tents” apparently.  This is a system that I am not familiar with, and something tells me it developed after I stopped playing D&D in 2005.

And that made me feel sorta old.

When I dove into my initial DMing back for Living Greyhawk and 3.5, I learned a system for keeping track of initiative using index cards from my friend Eric Brittain.  That was a system I was familiar with, but my searches for something similar to what I remembered were fruitless.  Sadly, even some of the old companies that generated index cards (Like Game Mechanics) I came to learn didn’t exist anymore.

Now I was really feeling old and out of touch.

So I decided to make my own.

I blatantly stole some of the imagery from Frank Foulis (Thanks, Frank!) to develop my own.  I don’t know where he got it, or if he invented it, but I just want to make a shout out that it wouldn’t be possible without his initial work.  I’ve never met the man (seems like a nice guy on Facebook on the Adventurer’s League page), but hey–thanks again, bud!

So here they are.  A 3″x5″ Form Fillable PDF that you can fill out for each monster, save as a distinct file, then arrange multiples on a piece of paper to print out.  For those of you who know how these work–go for it!  But for those of you who don’t: you have the players all fill out an index card with whatever information you want on it, then put them all in initiative order every time it’s determined for each encounter.  (I usually make the monsters all go on the same initiative number to save time.)  As they’re killed, you put them all in a stack, and at the end of the session you add up their XP.

Some boxes are slashed diagonally for the initial stat and the modifier below.  The line of boxes at the right are to keep track of descending hit points.

I hope they’re useful for someone.  InitiativeCardFF

KoboldSample
A sample Kobold example.

Roleplaying Hooks for Incorporating New Players into HotDQ Encounters Sessions

With a new system of rules, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition has prompted a lot of interest by gamers that are exploring different ways they can play.  The Adventurer’s League Encounter games that happen every Wednesday night around the country at WPN affiliate friendly local gaming stores seems to be the first stop for a lot of those players.

Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the Encounters level of the Adventurer’s League Organized Play system doesn’t deal with “player churn” very well.  Horde of the Dragon Queen, one of the two Encounters adventures available,  is set up to be a long-term gaming experience, with recurring weekly get togethers for a 1-2 hour evening of play.  With new players dropping in all the time wanting to play, it can be difficult to incorporate them into a table’s pre-existing storyline without having the characters seemingly pop out of thin air into the game world with no rationale for them being there at all.  Characters have been coming and going depending on the availability of their players, and that makes it tough to have consistency from week to week.

Still, it’s important to note that delaying a new player’s opportunity to play can sometimes mean they never come back to play at all.  So getting them in on the action can be important to your community’s player base.  It can also be the bridge to a lifelong interest in rpg’s. It behooves us all to at least try to enable their potential playing habit. So I’ve been struggling with this for the last couple weeks.

At the table I DM, literally half the players have been newcomers every week.  Some of them return as much as they can, and I have a few that have been playing since the beginning of the adventure.  I am very aware that I am their initial impression of what the AL is, and can be the determining factor of whether they like their experience or not. I’ve had to come up with some clever ways of incorporating those new characters into the table’s gaming experience with the existing players that keep coming back every week.

Since the Horde of the Dragon Queen itself doesn’t really provide any rationale for the PCs to be together, I probably shouldn’t expect there to be advice about how to incorporate new players into the adventure as it progresses.  Still it would have been nice, and would have gone a long way to acknowledge that WotC and the Adventurer’s League seem to understand the dynamic of playing a long-term adventure with new players every week.  I wanted to get my ideas out there and possibly stimulate other ideas for DMs who may be in the same boat.

Please note there are SPOILERS below.  And that some of the ideas take a bit of time at the beginning of your session for a one-on-one conference with new players.  Some don’t.

Episode 1–Greenest in Flames

The Fellow Adventurer Already in the Keep–I used this one to incorporate some new players the other day.  This is useful if the table has already played a couple sessions/missions, and the table suddenly has to incorporate someone new.  I found it useful to have Nighthill introduce the players to each other, and explain that the new PC was going to be accompanying the already established group of players on their next mission.  This allowed them to roleplay their own introductions as they saw fit.

The Fellow Adventurer Already in the Keep #2–Perhaps they were battling the dragon on the wall all this time and finally join the adventurer’s as they take on the Dragon, Lennithon, with their ranged capabilities?  Perhaps they were down in the depths of the keep stabilizing townspeople as they were brought in for sanctuary, using their Medicine Skill, until Castellan Escobert the Dwarf found them and introduced them to Nighthill?

A Prisoner of the Cult–I had to incorporate a PC in one of the later missions by having him be a prisoner the cultists had knocked out.  Found by the other adventurers on the second floor of the mill, he started the game surrounded by 14 guards and cultists, trying to get out as the other adventurer’s battled things downstairs.  I simply worked him into the game by asking for an initiative roll with everyone else, and let them roleplay their introductions after the battle was over.

The Adventurers From Over the Hill–This was probably the weakest of the options I used to incorporate new PCs into the adventure.  Since the previous session’s play hadn’t resulted in a safe return back to the keep yet, I was able to have three new adventurer’s join the party as they worked their way back.  This put them essentially on the same footing as the other PCs, but without the benefit of the information gleaned from the previous missions the returning players had played.  This also allowed the older PCs to explain to the newer PC’s what was happening, without my needing to do so as a DM.  And they could introduce themselves as they saw fit, right out of the gate.  It did, however, require some stylistic storytelling finesse and flourish (that I didn’t have that night) to make it more seamlessly smooth.  As it was, it degenerated into “And here’s three new adventurer’s who’ve joined you!”  I felt I dropped the ball on this one.  Maybe you can do better.

A Prisoner of Langdedrosa–One of the specific missions in Greenest has the PCs “called out for a duel” with Langdedrosa Cyanwrath, a half-dragon member of the Cult of the Dragon Queen.  He uses the family of an NPC in the keep as leverage.  Perhaps it isn’t too much of a stretch to incorporate a new PC as one of the prisoners in addition to the family?  He turns over the children to the Keep in exchange for one of the PCs to come do battle with him, but retains the mother.  Maybe he also retains the new PC?  This would require a quick aside with the new player as to what information he might have gleaned while he was captured.

Episode 2–The Raider’s Camp

I haven’t played Episode 2 yet (my store’s coordinator doesn’t have that scheduled for us for another couple weeks), but I can already anticipate how I can incorporate new players.  Because there will be new players.  I guarantee it.

The Episode is written as a wilderness trek to get to the bad guy camp, where they scope it out, find some interesting PC’s and return back to Nighthill.  It is primarily roleplaying, with very few combats.  I anticipate PCs could be incorporated in any number of ways depending on how far the party has progressed in the Episode.

Very Early Incorporation: Starting at the Keep–It isn’t difficult to fold in new players if their first experience is at the very beginning of Episode 2.  They can simply be additional adventurers who have happened upon the town after the dragon’s destruction, or were working with the defenders of the Keep through the night battling the dragon.

Very Early Incorporation: A Wandering Adventurer–I anticipate that new PC’s may be able to be incorporated as wandering adventurer’s who have spotted the trail of the marauders on their own, possibly discovered by the older PCs as they are pursuing the marauding cult members.

Very Early Incorporation: “Are these the marauders you’re looking for?”–Alternatively, perhaps the new PC has been tracking the older PCs, and has already seen the camp and is trying to get to Greenest to warn the town.  This might require a bit of pre-game consultation with the new player before you all start the evening’s play session.  Variation:  Give the new player 2-3 minutes with the map of the camp to redraw whatever they can as quickly as they can on a piece of paper.  This might give the new PC a more relevant contribution to the group and a roleplaying opportunity.

Early Incorporation: Kidnapped by the Cult–The adventurer’s could be kidnapped visitors to Greenest, caught up in the calamity and simply knocked out and taken back to the camp with the town’s spoils to be slaves.  These new PCs could be tacked on to either one of the two potential groups of raiders that the PC’s may encounter before they even get to the camp.  This would enable the older PCs to explain to the new PCs what’s happening, and perhaps allow the new PCs to share some small tidbit of information or rumor that the older PCs don’t yet know (provided to him from the DM).

Late Incorporation: A Slave Prisoner of the Cult–There is mention of several prisoners from previous towns who are kept at the camp for work detail until they die from exhaustion.  I anticipate any new players may be one of these that the PCs can rescue.  It might be useful to have a pre-game consultation with the new PCs to provide a tidbit of specific information that they have gleaned during their time as a prisoner–did they see Frulam Mondrath use a particular spell?  Do they know anything about the fighting capabilities of the guard drakes?  Did one of their fellow prisoners “convert” and become turncoat to save his own skin?  It might be a schedule for guard rotation, or snatches of conversations regarding elements of the rooms in the Dragon Hatchery for Episode 3.

Late Incorporation:  A Spy in Their Midst–This would require a bit more prep on the part of the DM to step aside with the player before the session begins and fill him in on “their perspective” of what’s happening.  It might be interesting to have a potential “stealthy type” or “performer type” PC already at the camp when the players try to work their way into it unrecognized.  This would mean that the new PC would have spent a couple hours already in the camp, in disguise, as they might have crept in and joined the mass exodus of kobolds and cultists from Greenest unrecognized.  At an opportune time, the new PC can be suddenly revealed as one of the potential Cultists the older PCs might be interacting with.  this would allow the new PC to offer their view on what has happened to them:  wandering upon the army, finding a spare set of Cultist robes, determining they could make a bit of profit off the whole enterprise, and simply melding into the crowd because that’s what stealthy folks do best!  Getting to the camp, the new PC has been successfully “pretending” to be a Cultist when the adventurer’s encounter him or her.  He might have a rumor or two that he has overheard about what is going on in the camp, as outlined in the descriptions in the adventure mod itself.  She might be on the cusp of being discovered, and must turn to the PCs for help or even rescue.  A more neutral, evil, chaotic, or self-motivated PC might decide to cut their losses with the Cultists and join the opposition once they’ve seen what’s happening in the camp or learned what they’re up to, or decided it’s not going to be enough profit for them.  At that point, the new PC has officially joined the party.  But conversations with the new player and the DM before the session starts have to happen in order to make this work.

Episode 3–The Dragon Hatchery

It’s hard, at this point, to incorporate new players, but I expect I’m going to have to.  I look at it as an opportunity for the older PCs to explain to the newer ones what has happened.  It is a built in role playing opportunity.

Very Early Incorporation: Another Adventurer for Good Measure–If the PCs are fortunate to drop in on the night that you are starting Episode 3, it seems plausible that they could be (once again) new adventurer’s that happen upon Greenest at the moment the PCs are returning from scouting the Camp.  Leosin might entreat them to return to the camp with the PCs, and it could become a roleplaying opportunity for the older PCs to explain all the backstory to the newcomers.

Very Early Incorporation: Look Who We Picked Up!–As the PCs are on their way back to the Raider’s Camp after leaving Greenest, perhaps they run into a more “wilderness comfortable” PC that is willing to join their endeavors.  Again, what information might this PC bring to the group?  Might they have seen the train of exiting marauders as they abandoned their camp?  Did they encounter some of the hunting party that remains in the camp?

Early Incorporation:I’m a Hunter, not a Cultist, Jim!”–This particular method to incorporate PCs might be useful for the more “woodsy” of the group.  Perhaps they are biding time as new members of the hunting party that remains in the camp, having joined the group only a few days ago on their last hunting trip.  Tragically, as we all know, many new inexperienced PCs fall into unsavory situations that they later come to regret when they are just starting out, and have to be rescued by the more worldly for their own good. (!) If the hunting party is the very first experience for a brand new woodsy level 1 PC, it may be an opportune time for the new PC to “trade up” and move on.  Of course, this may not set well with the hunters, or they may be just fine with it. The information that the returning PCs may glean from the Hunters could come from the new PC instead.

Early Incorporation: The Prisoner Left Behind–I may have to incorporate a PC after the group works their way back to the abandoned camp.  If so, perhaps the new PC is a prisoner left behind, staked to the ground spread eagle to starve and rot in the sun.  This would be an opportunity for the PCs to rescue him/her, and provide a roleplaying opportunity for the PC to relate what they know about the Cult’s egress. But figuring out how to incorporate a new PC into the middle of a dungeon–which is what Episode 3 is–is going to be a bit of a challenge.

Late Incorporation: The Prisoner Bit, Redux–This tried and true method worked for the previous Episodes, perhaps it can work in this one as well.  A new PC could simply be a prisoner that is tied up in a sack and dragged in by the marauders as potential food to chop up and feed to any number of different monsters in the cave.  Left behind by busy bad guys, the PCs might find them unguarded, being brought in by a group of wandering monsters, or perhaps in chains or a cage (specifically in Rooms 1, 7, or 10 perhaps).  Are they tethered to a pole and suspended in room 6, prepped and chilling in the cold, waiting to be killed for food?  Again, contemplate what information they might know–were they unconscious and don’t know anything?  Were they a prisoner that was picked out particularly because they were a trouble-maker and would be better used as food than hard labor?  Were there plans for the PC that he/she doesn’t know about?  How long have they been there?

A Couple Additional Things to Think About

I’ve learned in my situation at my store, it’s best to actually expect there to be new players. I plan on giving them some tools as well as roleplaying hooks to help incorporate the players themselves, such as:

A Set of Cultist Robes:  This is a useful tool that the rest of the party may not have thought about.  Perhaps the new PC found a set somehow before they met the PCs?  Having a set of robes is a contrivance, but it’s also a way of saying, “The DM prepared for you as a player, and didn’t want to make it even more difficult for you to integrate into your place in the party.”

A Portion of a Map:  It isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that a new PC could have found a corner or ripped up portion of a map discarded by a careless Cultist henchman.  This map might be anything–a scrawled map to the camp, a map of the camp’s layout, even a portion of the Dragon Hatchery’s layout made by an escaping prisoner who was killed in the process of running.  It might not even be accurate.  But as a tool, it’s a way of making the new PC a valuable contributor to the group right out of the gate.

A Quickly Scrawled List–Another prop that might be fun to make is a list of “directions” hastily written down by a Kobold or Cultist, possibly in Draconic.  In my head, this list may be directions on how to avoid one of the traps in the Dragon Hatchery, but not actually helpful to anyone who doesn’t understand its context…  “Stairs, Left, Purple”, for example.  This might logically be what someone might right down on a sheet of paper, but doesn’t really say anything substantive unless the reader knows about the encounter in room 3 of the Dungeon Hatchery.  And it would be maddeningly intriguing to the PCs.  It gives the new PC something to contribute without breaking the adventure.

Campaign Specific Background Traits, Flaws, Ideals, and Goals: It might enable the new PC to have some interesting roleplaying tidbits by providing some additional information for their characters from the Backgrounds that make the new PCs more relevant to the situation.  These can be found in some of the pre-generated characters.

Overall Advice

Expect new players if that’s the situational context at your store.  Contemplate ideas to incorporate them.  I think I’m going to have to take the time to pull the new players aside and give them some tidbit of specific information that might be useful to the PCs endeavors to make the introductory role play a little more interactive rather than just passively receptive on their part. What might they have gleaned from their particular perspective before they were discovered by the party?  Could they have heard something from someone in a town that was previously hit by the marauders?  If you can give them informational hooks that will naturally incline them to want to role play with the rest of the group, it might go a long way to helping them fit in.

Fumbling Through the 5E Dimension