Session 4

After having killed a dragon, looted a dungeon, and dispatched some thieves, my players were pretty confident in themselves. When session four came around, they knew that they could kick ass and take names and were ready to move on to bigger and better challenges. At the end of the third session they had informed me that they were going to be heading to the capital city of Vrotha, and as such I began to plan accordingly.

However, I had not anticipated exactly how thorough the players were going to be. The party had already scavenged some scales, blood, claws, teeth, horns, and an eye from the dragon when they returned from the dungeon, and as such I figured they would take what they had found and move on. Instead the group bought a carriage, went back to the dungeon, and began looting the body even further. Meat, gallbladder, kidneys, and anything else that could be torn from the corpse of the white dragon was quickly removed. I had planned out ahead of time the basic values for each piece and who would be most likely to buy what (or who could turn the items into what they wanted in certain cases), but these new items left me completely blindsided and scrambling to keep up.

The party made their way through the icy landscape of Vrotha to the capital city, Whitepoint. There the players entered and found the city separated into seven districts, each with its own purpose. First, they ventured into the merchant district, looking for people to buy the raw materials. A good charisma roll from Solomon meant that a large portion of the 18 pounds of dragon meat they possessed was bought by a doubting man named Quincy who was currently running Merle’s Meat Market. This exchange gave the group nearly a thousand gold, which combined with what they were given by Simone and Nikolai, the twins who run Augury and Alchemy (the newest and biggest magic shop in Vrotha), amounted to quite a large amount of gold. Solomon also asked the twins if they could do anything with the bile from the dragon, and the two promised to provide him with some options in a week once their alchemy book came in. Finally, the group commissioned some jewelry, a new bow, and some armor using the remainder of the dragon materials they possessed before finding their way to the library.

Caileth was particularly interested in the old book that the group had found in the final room of the ice dungeon. However, the journal was written in celestial, a nearly dead language in the realm of Dracia. This meant that in order to understand the knowledge hidden within the tome, they would need to hire the services of a professional translator. The Library of Vrotha, one of the biggest libraries in Dracia, was home to several professional translators, and Shae Jin, a young eager woman with a love for books took upon the case. However, the book was lengthy and the language was old, meaning that it would take about 30 days for Jin to translate it entirely. This meant that the party would need a place to stay.

Towards the center of the city sat The Lion’s Blaze Inn and Tavern (a reference to an Olan Rogers skit in the vein of RPGs), a place designed specifically (but secretly) for adventurers. Sybil, Tamara, and Martha, the ladies who own the inn, were former adventurers themselves, meaning that they knew exactly how important it was for young adventurers to have a space where they can get new quests and stay out of the eye of the disapproving government. The players found shelter there, paying in advance for thirty days room and board. Inside the tavern rested a secret board, filled with calls for help that potential heroes could pursue. Here the group found their first call to action in Whitepoint.

A group of shepherds had been losing sheep to a strange creature on the outskirts of the city. Despite the government’s insistence that citizens not rely on outside help, the farmers had gotten tired of their livestock being picked off and getting no military help, so they reached out to The Lion’s Blaze for assistance. When the PCs arrived at the house of the head shepherd, they were informed about the situation and instructed to rid the capital of whatever creature had been taking the sheep. With some hesitation, the group set out to the outskirts of the city to see what they could do to help the poor farmers.

Using the corpse of an old sheep, wool, and some tar, the group created a dummy to trick the creature so that they could kill it. After waiting for some time, the creature, a “terracabra” (a modified version of the legendary Chupacabra), swooped down and grabbed the decoy. The PCs followed the creature, attacking it and forcing it to fight back. Solomon found himself being carried away in the claws of the monster, and fell several feet as Caileth struck the killing blow with a blast of sacred flame from the circlet she had found in the ice dungeon. After destroying the terracabra, they returned to the shepherds, and were rewarded with 150 gold, an immovable rod, and a sheep named after each of them. Satisfied with their work, the adventurers returned to the tavern for a night of rest, promising to continue fulfilling quests through the rest of their stay in the city.

This particular session was certainly one of the more relaxed ones we have had, even since the time of this session. Since the group spent much of their time either scavenging materials or shopping, much of the session was spent focusing on the individual characters’ needs and the roleplay between them and NPCs. Nonetheless, the session was informative and I feel like I came away from it with important knowledge, not just DM knowledge but that pertaining to my world, my players, and their characters.

  • It is perfectly acceptable for players to ignore a branching plot point

For many people, D&D is a way that they can escape from the rigorous cycle of real life and the demands placed upon them. Being a DM that does not railroad your player not only provides better storytelling potential but allows your world to become an escape for your players. This means that if you set up a potential plot point and your players show no interest in it, that is completely okay. On their journey to Whitepoint, my players came across the town of Rakski (from Session 1.5) and found the bare traces of a new plotline building. However, the group expressed no interest, spent the night in the tavern, and went on their merry way. My players were not motivated to investigate further, and that is perfectly fine. The whole point of a sandbox campaign is to provide option for the players and to allow them to feel like they are immersed in a real world. This being said, if players ignore a plotline, it is okay (but not necessary) for them to see the consequences of skipping it. Keep in mind that “consequence” and “punishment” are not the same thing. If the players ignore a farmer whose chickens keep getting eaten by foxes, that doesn’t mean they have to see his body drug down the streets in a cart full of people dead from the plague. Rather, you can twist the plot so that the farmer overcomes the foxes on his own, taming the foxes into pets, and when your cleric decides she wants a pet fox the farmer can look her dead in the eyes and tell her no because they didn’t help him when he needed it most. The consequences can be a punishment, but they don’t have to be, and they can be negative without being punishing, but they don’t have to be. When running a sandbox campaign in particular, an important thing to remember is that the best way to make the players feel immersed in the game is to remind them that their actions have weight. Don’t panic if the players aren’t interested in one particular plotline you were sure they would take the bait for, and don’t punish them either, especially if it’s their characters who are not interested rather than the players.

  • Be careful with rare items and creatures in your world.

In the world of Dracia, dragons are extremely rare, so much so that they are considered extinct or merely fairytales by the people of the world. When I decided this in my worldbuilding phase, I hadn’t considered the potential of throwing a dragon at my players, nor had I thought of the ramifications of them scavenging and selling the parts. What was originally a storytelling element became a way for my players to get quite a bit of gold-and at fourth level nonetheless. Normally, the people in Whitepoint would have simply believed that the players were lying to them (with the exception of Simone and Nikolai, who are well-trained in the history of magical creatures and the arcane arts), making it hard for any of the dragon parts to be sold. However, thanks to some clever thinking and talking by Solomon, his high charisma, and some lucky rolls, they were able to convince the gentleman at the meat market to buy the meat off of them. Because I had made one thing extremely rare, I had inadvertently made the players far more powerfully financially then I had intended to. The important thing to remember is not to panic and try to undo what you just did, as that will leave the players feeling frustrated and robbed-literally and figuratively. Rather, allow for other opportunities to arise, such as a market or shop with cool trinkets that allows the players to spend their hard-earned gold on something that they like. You are here to tell the player’s story, not your own, so allow the players to learn, grow, ad gather some gold-they’ll feel much more like accomplished adventurers and heroes in the end.

This session was one of the least memorable ones we had played so far simply due to the lack of intense combat or complicated puzzles. Yet it was useful and necessary; the intensity of a necromancer and a dragon back to back was a bit much for the players, so providing them with an outlet for shopping and roleplay helped to revitalize them. Additionally, their commissioning of items required some time for the items to be made, tying the group down to one spot for a small portion of time as I began to plot out the next leg of the campaign. This strange bit of a lull was the perfect spot for the next portion of the heroes’ journeys to begin.

 

Notable quotes from the session:

  • Me (as an old man): Helloooo??

Caileth: Oh… that’s not what I expected.

Old man: Well, you’re not what I was expecting either, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?? *Slams door*

  • Eli: Can I use spiritual weapon to make a sheep-shaped bomb?

*AKA the moment the cleric officially broke the Dungeon Master*

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

The Five Room Dungeon

In the 21st century, Dungeons and Dragons has made an enormous shift from-well, dungeons and dragons. With the introduction of Fifth Edition and the rise of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, the focus of D&D has started to shift away from the pillage-and-loot style of play and more towards a narrative-based gameplay. Stories that could not ever be told before are now being brought to life through RPGs. That’s not to say however that the age of the murder hobo is entirely past, nor are the dungeons and dragons of D&D extinct. It is rather how DMs incorporate these elements in their stories that makes them great.

One of my personal favorite ways to incorporate dungeons into my campaign is by using the Five Room Dungeon format. This format allows a DM to drop a dungeon into their campaign with relatively little effort, and gives the players a chance to experience the adventurous nature of a dungeon without anyone having to commit to seven sessions worth of a deadly, resource-taxing dungeon. If your players tend to get frustrated if certain plot points take too long or if things regularly slog, the Five Room Dungeon is great for a quick pinch of adventure to pep things up. The format is flexible, allowing for DMs to rearrange as needed and perhaps drop in special plot points related to other quests the PCs might have going on. Similarly, because of its effective but relatively short nature, this type of dungeon works extremely well for creating one-shots.

I first heard about the Five Room Dungeon back in August when I was trying to create the three separate options for Session 3. I knew that I wanted one of the options to lead to an ice dungeon, but I had never created a dungeon crawl and was absolutely clueless on how to start. Frantically, I Googled around, trying to find some semblance of advice to help my creative process. Luckily, I stumbled across this fantastic post by Johnn Four rather quickly into my search. Using the format, I was able to whip up an outline for the ice dungeon, and although there was a lot more work to be done to make the dungeon functional, knowing what I needed to do made the whole process so much easier.

Since discovering the Five Room Dungeon, I have used it twice in my campaign. Both of the dungeons were unique creations and had very different atmospheres to them. The format is designed to be flexible and balanced, meaning that you can run a similar format multiple times many different ways without them feeling like a repetitious slog. The Five Room Dungeon format has, naturally, five distinct sections: Entrance/Guardian, Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge, Red Herring/Trick or Setback, Climax/Battle, and the Reward/Revelation/Plot Twist. While there is a relatively basic order that the rooms should appear in, you can often switch pieces around among the first three rooms to provide unique moments for your players.

  • Entrance and Guardian

The first room in the FRD format is relatively simple and self-explanatory. Every good dungeon needs a worthy entrance to scare off potential adventurers. A good guardian will do wonders to strike fear in the hearts of your players if utilized correctly. For the ice dungeon, I ended up using a very young white dragon as the guardian, which at the time was a fantastic way to terrify my players in the moment, but (as you might know if you have read my Session 3 post) in the long run has made my players a bit fearless. Having to face a dragon, or any fearsome creature, before you even get into the dungeon is certainly a wake-up call for players. However, the FRD doesn’t necessarily require a guardian in the form of a creature. In our 7th session, the first thing my players encountered was a riddle embedded in the metal door in the ground. Scattered around the hatch were tiles, each one holding a letter that could be put into the notches to answer the riddle. Once the tiles were correctly placed, the hatch would click open and grant the PCs access to the dungeon. The puzzle was as effective as the dragon in forcing the players to strategize and work together, but it set a much different tone for the rest of the dungeon. Putting yourself into the mindset of the creator of the dungeon can be very helpful on determining 1) what theme the dungeon should carry throughout it, 2) why the creator would want to keep people out/what the creator wants to keep secret so bad that they would build this entire dungeon, and 3) what steps the creator would take to keep people out of this place. Having a worthy guardian or puzzle at the entrance of your dungeon is key to making sure your players are having fun and being challenged.

  • Puzzle or Role-Playing Challenge

The second portion of your dungeon when using the FRD format should generally be some sort of puzzle or role-playing challenge. This section will depend somewhat on what you chose to do for the first room. If you used a guardian or some sort of monster that the PCs were forced to confront before making it further in, then it would be wise to stick to a puzzle challenge so as to ensure that the PCs get a break from combat and do not drain too many of their resources. That’s not to say however that the puzzle room should not come without risks; perhaps if the PCs get the answer to the puzzle wrong multiple times, a minor trap is set off, causing the characters to take small amounts of damage. However, it is wise to be cautious with this. In the ice dungeon, the second room consisted of a music puzzle that forced the PCs to step on certain tiles in the room in a certain order to reveal the door; if the tiles were pressed in the wrong order, they would get pelleted by darts and the puzzle would be reset. The puzzle ended up being more difficult than intended, resulting in the players being repeatedly pelted with the minor trap. In the future I would say after the first few times of this happening the players would be anticipating the darts and simply mention that they managed to avoid it in order to make the puzzle feel less like a slog. However, if you used a puzzle for the first room, you can flip the rooms somewhat and make the second room a combat or damage-heavy encounter. The second time I used the FRD format, I used one of the complex trap examples from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This trap involved a mix of a path of blades, pillars of crushing, and a sphere of annihilation. Although I ended up running the trap much differently than had been intended, it still ended up knocking a lot of hit points out of all of the characters. If I had done this on top of a heavy encounter it could have been extremely deadly to the PCs, but by having one of the rooms be a puzzle and the other a combat/trap encounter, both dungeons were dangerous without being overtly lethal.

  • Red herring, trick, or setback

This room is the one that can have the most variety to it. Often this room is used to provide a sense of false security, or conversely to build the tension for what is to come. Sometimes there is an illusion that might make it seem as if the dungeon is a dead end, or that there is only a small amount of treasure and that’s it, no more hiding behind this spell at all, no sir. Other times it can be a puzzle that forces the players to pause and think things through, or even another combat or roleplay encounter. Two good guidelines for this room to consider are 1) consider what types of encounters your parties the most and put another dose of that here, and 2) if your players took some pretty hard hits in the first two rooms and you still have a tough combat encounter planned ahead, make this area a potential safe spot for a short rest. When I first used this format, the third room was actually that of a long hallway, wherein the players met a group of thieves which would later betray them. The second time I used this format I put in place a puzzle. In front of the players were six doors, and the inscription on the ground stated “Go through the seventh door”. The trick was to go through two doors consecutively that equaled seven in order to move on; otherwise they would reappear through the first door into the room. Both of these rooms allowed the players to keep their minds going and stay in character without causing any further damage to their hit points.

  • Climax, big battle, or conflict

This room is one that I also take quite a bit of liberty with at times. In theory, this is the last big stretch of the dungeon; the room where the players meet the final guardian or are betrayed by the ally that they brought into the dungeon with them or met inside the dungeon. When employing this method, it is often useful to start off with some sort of roleplay so that the PCs know what the “baddies” intentions are. During the second time using the format, the fourth room was a strange hallway in which lived a clay golem that was assigned to guard the last room. It was essentially the boss of the dungeon, and because he could not talk, it was important that he be a major conflict for the party. However, when I ran the ice dungeon, I wanted the players to have more time with the thieves, to get to know them a bit before the thieves turned on them. I ended up making the fourth room another puzzle, so as to help flesh out the characters I had introduced and allow the players some time to feel comfortable with them. Although it is often recommended to be the room with the big conflict, the FRD format is perfect for adjusting little things like this to best suit a DM’s needs.

  • Reward, revelation, or plot twist

Finally, the party has arrived at the final room. Here is where everything goes down, or at least comes to fruition. If the party is after loot, they should find it here. Similarly, if you as a DM and worldbuilder have been leading up to important information, this would be an excellent place to put it. Alternatively, you can pull a plot twist in the form of the information/loot being gone entirely, taken by another person or moved years ago by the dungeon’s creator. In the ice dungeon, this is the moment where the thieves turned on the PCs, insisting that all they wanted was the map inside the room and that they would let the others leave without harming anyone. For the second run through, the fifth room held the long-abandoned study of an old researcher and inventor. They had been sent to retrieve a set of plans, and soon enough they found them-except the plans appeared to be for that of a gun. In a world where guns do not exist yet, it was hard for the characters to understand, but they all had a horrible feeling about what was to occur. Sometimes, the revelation or the reward that comes at the end of the long journey can be bittersweet, or even unsatisfactory, but it needs to feel earned. If there isn’t any good loot, there should be a reason why, perhaps another quest or a hook into the campaign’s overall narrative. As a DM, the fifth room is your opportunity not to end your dungeon, but rather to further the entire game for your players.

The Five Room Dungeon format is one of the most useful tools I have encountered so far as a DM. Its useful and versatile nature allow me to use the same basic idea multiple times, and it takes some of the workload off knowing at least a basic structure of what to do. It’s important to remember however that these are just guidelines; if you don’t like the format, there are plenty of other ways to build not only dungeons but campaigns. There is no right or wrong way to play D&D and create your world, as long as you are having fun.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM

Session 3.5

After my group’s third session, I was starting to get more comfortable with DMing. Thus when the DM from the group that I generally play in asked me to DM a one-shot, I felt ready to take on the challenge. However, the scenario in front of me required a bit of an adjustment from the games that I usually ran, and I wanted to challenge myself, so I set to work to create a one-shot that I hoped would be fun, unique, and scary.

When I played with my other group, we ran generally from 12-4 because we got together on Fridays or Saturdays, meaning that I had to leave for work. Every time I had run a session prior to this, I had a good six or seven hours to work with and no solid end time to worry about. This time I knew that I needed a concise adventure that could be wrapped up in one session and take about 3 hours (figuring in time for eating and restroom breaks). But I struggled with a good plot thread, a concept to use in the session. I have never been particularly good at creating unique ideas from scratch, and as such I was at a loss for a while.

Around this time, Sagas of Sundry: Dread was airing on Geek & Sundry’s Project Alpha. I had been eagerly watching the episodes week by week, clinging to the unique characters and air of suspense surrounding the series. As I drove to work one day, I found my mind toying with the idea of a horror one-shot. However, I have always been a weakling when it comes to horror entertainment; if I couldn’t watch a horror movie then how could I expect to provide a suspenseful and scary D&D scenario? I was about to pass on the idea when a thought struck my head.

Out of nowhere, the idea for a monster popped into my head. It was tall, lanky, with enormous arms and legs. Its head was pale, and nearly featureless. Skin was stretched over where eyes should lay, and two thin slits rested where a nose might be. A grin, devoid of lips but filled with sharp teeth, was framed by dark horns that emerged from the sides of the creature’s head and curved around to stick out next to the mouth. The pale skin at the head gradually fades into a pitch-black color, allowing the creature’s strange cloven feet to blend into the darkness. Finally, where fingers should have existed on the creature’s hands, instead there were lengthy thin claws, dragging behind the evil as it moved. To me, the creature was terrifying, and to this day I still am unsure how the idea for it popped into my head.

Once the demon popped into my head, the rest of the scenario quickly fell into place. In order to keep the scenario contained, I decided that the group would have been asked to investigate a monster inside the house of a rich elderly lady. Once inside, the house will have been transported to a pocket dimension with no exit, forcing the group to stay inside the house until the mystery was solved. The basic plot would be that the son of the older lady had been trying to bring his younger sister back to life, but had accidentally summoned a demon and subsequently been possessed. Over the course of the session, the group would be given opportunity to uncover the mystery behind “The Blind Demon” and potentially exorcise the demon from the body of the son.

The party consisted of a monk, a barbarian, a rogue, and a cleric, all at fifth level. Since it was a one-shot, I wasn’t terribly concerned with the characters and their abilities when setting up the scenario, although there were multiple moments where the PCs’ skills came in handy. In order to start the session quickly and ensure we had enough time to play, I essentially info-dumped the scenario on to the group, telling them enough details about the house, the lady who hired them, and the creature that resided within. While I would never have done this in the middle of an actual session, it worked for a group like this, involved in a one-shot and short on time. The group gave no pushback, and when I essentially dropped them off at the house they hit the ground running.

Once inside, the group found a pool of blood in the center of the hallway. Lying next to the blood was a piece of paper torn from a book, which held information about a specific demon and the details about performing an exorcism, as well as the words “HELP” written in blood. The cleric, actually a blood cleric, used his ability to connect the blood to the originator, and thus the group knew the location of the Blind Demon. Using the list of required materials on the piece of paper they had found, the group set off on a mad dash to find the ingredients, avoid the demon, and save the son.

Going into the session, I had very specific ideas of how I thought the entire situation would go, which is, as a DM, one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Still, I felt that the session went well, and to this day I am incredibly proud of this one-shot. I hope to continue working on this one-shot, playtesting it and tweaking it, then eventually publishing it on DMs Guild one day. But until that moment comes, it is important to reflect on what I learned from this session, both as a DM and as a content creator.

  • Your PCs might have abilities that circumvent elements of your story-and that’s okay

I hadn’t realized when creating this session that Eli’s character was going to have the ability to sense where the Blind Demon was at all time. At first it threw me off guard, but I was able to adapt to a certain extent. However, this ability did inherently change the nature of the game. Instead of being a straight up horror/haunted house type of story, it morphed into a suspenseful strategy situation. The group knew exactly where the Blind Demon was at all times, meaning that they had to carefully plan every move, every step to ensure that they did not run into the creature and endanger their lives. While this was an unexpected occurrence, it was a welcome one, and reminded me that as a DM the most important abilities are adapt, overcome, and improvise.

  • Repurposing monsters can be useful, but do so carefully

When I came up with the Blind Demon, I knew that I would have a hard time finding something that matched what I wanted as far as stats. I went into the Monster Manual looking for something to reskin that seemed powerful and frightening, but also matched the physicality of the demon. I settled on the Goristro, a demon itself, to fill in for my creature. The goristro has an ability called “Charge” that allows it to gore a target with its horns if it can move at least fifteen feet straight towards the target before it hits. Originally, the goristro had two fist attacks and one hoof attack, but I changed it to two claw attacks and one horn attack. What I adjusted on the monster felt like it held little difference because of how I intended the adventure to play out, which was a tremendous mistake on my part.

The goristro is a monster with a challenge rating of 17, an encounter which would be quite deadly for a group of four level-five adventurers. This might seem like madness, but when I picked the monster, I had a purpose. I wanted the Blind Demon to be a fearsome creature, a horrible monster that none would care to face. Because the demon was actually the son of the lady that had recruited the adventurers, I wanted to players to save the son and not kill him. I had hoped that the “HELP” on the paper found in the hallway at the beginning would lead them to that conclusion on their own, but I hoped that by making the demon a horrendously powerful creature I would force the players to avoid combat. At one point however, the players got caught in the same room as the demon, and instead of running, they decided to fight. I was worried about killing the players, so after a couple rounds of combat, I had the demon run away. While it saved the players, it weakened the story. I realized after this that it was important to allow room in the scenario for the players to defeat the demon, to kill the son, and that in order to make this scenario better I would have to rework the demon to provide more versatility in the outcome.

  • Creating unique props can help draw the players into the story

When I concocted the idea of the scenario, I wanted the paper that the PCs found to be a real piece of paper that the players could look at. On one side, the paper contained background information about the Blind Demon and its origin, as well as how to summon it, while the other side held the instructions and materials for how to banish it. I typed up the information on a plain piece of paper then asked my mom to help me age it. She used brown and tan paints to give the paper an older look, smudged some of the ink, wrinkled the page, and tore some of the edges. To lend the page a more horrific look, she mixed up more paint to look like blood, splattering it across the paper and tracing the word “HELP” in thin bloody letters. Finally, she drew a six-pointed symbol on the bottom corner, the symbol that the group would need to make to banish the demon, and tore that portion from the rest of the page. The prop was wonderful, scary, and engaging. My players knew immediately that it was important to their quest, skimmed it for clues, and began a hunt for the section that was torn away. Having such a unique prop immediately immersed the players in the story and helped to establish the atmosphere I wanted, that of a sense of urgency and suspense.

To this day, I have run the Blind Demon scenario twice, and I hope to continue to keep running it with different groups, fine tuning it and playtesting it. Eventually I want to work out the problems with the scenario, write it out properly, and publish it for others to use. I am incredibly proud of this scenario, and each time I have run it so far it teaches me powerful and unique lessons, both as a DM and as a content creator. It is important to remember when running the game that above all else, the most vital thing you can do as a DM is to not set expectations for how a scenario will go. The more of an idea you have for how the situation should go, the less likely you will be able to adapt to the players and their needs. Whether you are running a premade adventure or creating something yourself, remember that adaptability and improvisation are your two greatest assets in the world of DMing.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Question, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

This Christmas, I was gifted three Dungeons and Dragons books. The first was the Monster Manual, much to the dismay of my party (just kidding), while the other two were Table Fables: A Collection of Tables for the Weary Dungeon Master by Madeline Hale and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Today’s post is going to be a review, primarily of XGE but also mentioning Madeline Hale’s book as well.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the newest D&D 5th edition resource book from Wizard’s of the Coast. This book includes resources for player and DM alike; new subclasses, spells, and names are designed to make character and NPC creation easier, and magic items, traps, and encounter building seem primed to assist DM’s in campaign creation. But just how effective does Xanathar’s Guide seem to be?

  • Character options

One of the first things readers see when opening the book is the range of new class options. All of the original classes from the Player’s Handbook get at least one new subclass. The wizard only received one new school of magic, but as the class with the most versatility of choice in the original book, it is understandable why WOTC did not feel so inclined as to include more options in this supplemental guide. Rogues are provided the most options in this book, with a grand total of four new subclasses: Inquisitive, Mastermind, Scout, and Swashbuckler (a personal favorite of mine for years based purely on principle thanks to the Connor Kostick novel Epic). Many of the subclasses are slightly adjusted versions of what was released as Unearthed Arcana over the past couple of years, such as the Samurai subclass for the Fighter and the Way of the Sun Soul for Monks. Although my experience with the Unearthed Arcana was limited, from what I have seen it appears that WOTC did a good job listening to playtesters and adjusting the subclasses to be more balanced. While it is difficult to judge the uniqueness and effectiveness of each of the subclasses without testing them all, most of them appear to be interesting and different from what has come before, providing potential and experienced players with a wide array of options for their characters.

Similarly, XGE has an entire section entitled “This Is Your Life” that can help any new, uncertain, or adventurous person to determine their character’s life and backstory. Within the section, there are random tables about one’s origin (parents, birth order, birthplace, family), personal decisions involving backgrounds and classes (the reason why they became what they did), life events (tragedies, crimes, wars) and other supplemental elements (alignment, social status, relationship to others in the family). If a player is new and uncertain on what to do for their character, or perhaps if an experienced player wants to try something new and let the dice choose their fate, these random tables are perfect. None of the tables are intertwined with any other and can be used completely separately from any other, making the whole section flexible and extremely useful. Additionally, if players are stuck on a name for their new character, there are roughly seventeen pages of names in Appendix B, ranging from Dragonborn to Half-orc and even to Polynesian or English-sounding human names. For players, this book is certain to be an excellent supplement to the PHB when building new characters.

Another important element to note for players are the new racial feats added within the book. There are twenty new racial feats introduced in this book, ranging from Dwarven Fortitude (increase in Constitution and the ability to use a Hit Die when taking the Dodge action) to Prodigy (allows half-elfs, half-orcs, or humans to gain a skill proficiency, a tool proficiency, and a language, as well as providing them expertise in one skill that the character is proficient in). There are even different feats for some subraces; drow, high elves, and wood elves all receive their own unique feat, while also gaining access to a feat that is applicable to elves of any kind. If counting the elf subraces as separate, then the race that gains the most options is halflings, with a total of four new feats. It is interesting to note however that all of the new racial feats are directed at the original nine races; there are no racial feats available for Tabaxi, Kenku, or any of the other new races introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Perhaps down the line WOTC plans to release another supplement with new racial traits once the Tritons and the Lizardfolk take off, but until then it appears that what is in Volo’s Guide will simply have to do.

The final notable thing for players in XGE is the range of new spell options. Each spellcasting class comes with new spells, some with a greater range than others. Paladins receive the least with only three new spells (Ceremony, Find Greater Steed, and Holy Weapon), while Wizards get the most, coming in with over seventy new spells (although several of the new options overlap with other classes, such as Danse macabre, a necromancy spell which is available to both Wizards and Warlocks). This increase in spell availability could be a unique way to diversify one’s character and provide more options to get around obstacles a DM throws at you.

  • Dungeon Master options

One of the notable things about XGE is its usefulness to both player and DM. While the guide has many great options for players, many of the options included for players are actually quite useful for DMs too. This Is Your Life, the spell lists, and the naming tables can all help a DM to create unique and interesting NPCs as well as spice up some villains for a campaign. If you are a DM looking for a supplemental book to the PHB and the Dungeon Master’s Guide but don’t want more monster material, XGE is the book for you.

In addition to the character related stuff, the entire second section is devoted to DMs. The chapter starts out with clarifying some rules or providing variant ones for situations such as falling, sleeping, and tool proficiencies. The book spends quite a few pages discussing both complex and simple traps, how to build them, and how they work, and also provides an insight for how area of affect spells can work on a grid battle map, the kind that many DMs use for their games. Another useful section in the book discusses encounter building. As someone who has never really looked into the math involved with Challenge Ratings for monsters but rather gone by what Kobold Fight Club says is a hard or deadly encounter, I found this section to be quite useful. There is one chart in particular that shows a suggested max CR of a solo creature depending on the size of the party (from 4-6) and the level of the characters. The book also explains a DMs options when dealing with PCs of varying levels, which can be helpful for DMs who play with experience points but reward based on roleplay as well as combat. Another great element is an entire middle section filled with random encounter tables. The encounters are broken up by terrain first (arctic, coastal, desert) and then by character level (1-4, 5-10, etc.). Some of the encounters are not even directly tied into a monster, providing the characters for a chance to explore or roleplay. If you as a DM love random encounters, then this section is a gold mine for you.

Despite its love of traps and monster, perhaps what XGE focuses on the most are casual downtime activities. Not only does the book provide tool descriptions, uses, samples DCs, and skills, the book also provides a list of activities, from buying or selling magic items to relaxing or even working. Each activity comes with an explanation of the time and resources required of the activity, the check and/or result, and potential complications from each. These options are great for games that lack murder hobos and instead possess players that are invested in roleplay and the lives their characters live. However, if your players are more interested in who they get to kill next, then you are probably better off leaving these activities and tools alone.

Last but certainly not least for DMs, XGE provides a small section on magic items. There is a small section devoted to suggesting how to distribute magic items to a party depending on their level. One table explains the distribution by tier (divided by minor and major items) and another table explaining it by rarity from common to legendary (also divided by minor and major). It is natural of course that the exact distribution will vary per campaign, so this section is a minor one. What is particularly important however is the introduction of several new common magic items. XGE acknowledges the lack of common items in the DMG and seeks to rectify that with these new additions. Some of the items are relatively useful, such as the Candle of the Deep, a candle that can be used underwater. Others however are of a sillier nature, like the Cloak of Billowing, which allows to user to “use a bonus action to make it billow dramatically”. That’s literally all it does. The array of new items provides some unique additions to the game, allowing you to take your campaign to unique and dramatics places while offering silly and whimsical options as well. Additionally, on pages 140-145 there are tables of magic items (including those beyond XGE), separated by rarity and divided into minor and major. The tables contain the name of the item, their type, and whether or not they need attunement. Personally, I find deciding what loot to give to my players troublesome because there is quite a bit to choose from and a lot to read about, so having this table that I can simply glance at and see what is available to me is extremely handy. To those who prefer to roll their loot randomly or like to run low-magic campaigns, this section might not be useful, but I know that I personally will find great use for this section in my campaign in the future.

  • Random tables

One of the greatest strengths of Xanathar’s Guide is the random table that it provides players and DMs with. Nearly everything in the book comes with a random table, which can be excellent for indecisive or uncertain players, new DMs, and those who just want their experience to be random and weird. I personally haven’t used random tables before, but I have been starting to warm up to the idea of using them in order to maximize efficiency and provide new ideas as a DM. Particularly as a DM who is working and going to school, random tables allow for an easier time prepping. While the tables in XGE are quite excellent, another book that I received from my parents for Christmas is Table Fables: A Collection of Tables for the Weary Dungeon Master by Madeline Hale. The book consists entirely of random tables that can be used by a DM or GM of any RPG. Dreams, villain traits, weather, food, and hundreds of other types of tables can all be found in this book. While there are tables that can be found online, the book is unique in its versatility between systems and would be a handy addition to any gaming table. If you as a GM are a fan of using random tables or are a new GM unsure where to take your players, this book would be an excellent supplement.

Overall, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is a unique and fun addition to the WOTC canon. While certainly not necessary for optimal game play, the spells, feats, and character creation options give players a wide range of things to try for their characters, while the sections on encounter building, traps, and magic items are all good for both new and old DMs. While some of the races and classes are a little underserved in the book, XGE does a good job of balancing classes and races throughout all the books. I do hope that sometime soon we see racial feats for the new races from VGM, but as for this book, I think that it is a worthy addition to the D&D books due to its vast array of new information and usefulness to both players and DMs. If you are looking to try some new things for your campaign, I would highly recommend picking up XGE for your gaming needs.

Rating: Four out of five stars

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Distraction and Depression: The Other D&D

Hey guys. So this post is going to be a bit different than my others. I was originally going to write about the Five Room Dungeon format but a lot of stuff has happened this week so I’ve decided to switch it. This post also might be a bit of an echo of the Burnout post and for that I apologize. Additionally this post has a content warning for discussion of death/suicide and depression; I don’t talk about it much but if you’re sensitive to these things I would either pass on the first few paragraphs or just skip this post altogether. Thanks for reading. 

D&D is an escape for many people. In a world where we have to constantly deal with responsibilities like jobs and taxes or emotions like stress and anxiety, who doesn’t want to escape to a world where you can break doors and kill dragons without a second thought? Both Dungeon Masters and players often use D&D as a way to shut out the world for a little while and just exist in another world. But sometimes even D&D can’t be an escape for everyone. 

This past week has been an extremely rough one for me personally. On Monday, Kim Jonghyun, Korean singer best known for his work with the group SHINee, committed suicide. SHINee was the group that brought Neli and I together; we saw them three times over the course of last year when they came to the United States. It may seem silly to grieve over something like this; we never really met him or spoke to him or knew him. But he still meant a lot to us. I won’t go into details, but this week has been extremely difficult for both of us. I know personally I’ve been trying to find things to distract myself; on Monday I started playing Stardew Valley, and the relaxing music and the monotony of the tasks have been mostly a great way to force myself to stop thinking about the situation and the grief. 

It’s strange though. Normally I find myself drifting to things that I can pour my soul into when I’m upset. It’s one of the reasons why I like fandoms so much; I can bury myself in them when the real world gets to be too much. Over my twenty-two years of life however, I have had two great loves: theatre and D&D. When theatre left my life in 2015, I didn’t have anything that I was incredibly passionate about until I started playing D&D a year later. Since then it’s been the one thing that I’ve been able to use to escape when the going gets tough. Particularly since I’ve started DMing, it’s been a wonderful way to destress from normal life and bury myself in what I love. But what happens when I can’t even enjoy this? 

It seems incredibly likely that our group will have to skip our January decision due to schedules with school, rehearsals, and work. Normally I would be upset over having to skip an entire month, but this time I’m actually relieved. Between where we left off at our last session (Session 7) and everything that has happened this week, my brain has shut down. Any average day a person could walk up to me and strike up a conversation about D&D, and I could talk for ages and ages. But now my brain has just shut down. Every time my brain drifts to thoughts of the campaign I feel lost. It takes up so much energy to play, to plan for the session, and mine won’t do it.  

I’m not here entirely to talk about my grief and my struggles. The reason I started this post was to encourage you, as either a player or a DM, to pay attention to both your fellow players and yourself. If your players (or your DM if you yourself are a player) are showing signs of reluctance when discussing the game, or refusing to talk about it, or requesting some time off, listen to them. Maybe they’re burnt out, maybe they just need distance, or maybe it’s indicative of something deeper. Whatever it is, listen to your friend, your player, your DM. If they need distance from the game because it’s hurting them more than it’s helping them, be respectful. Similarly, if you find that the game has become a chore for you, then put the game on hold. Nothing in the game is anywhere near as important as your mental health. 

I know this has been a rambling post, and I’m sorry for that. I can’t seem to bring myself to talk about anything else just yet. I promise I’ll get back to posts about sessions and advice next week. There are some people here from Twitter I know who just found out about the blog, and I hope you stick around for the better posts, though I understand if you choose not to. But for now, enjoy the game if you can, and tell those important to you that you love them, whether it’s your family, your idols, or your fellow gamers. Merry Christmas and happy gaming. 

 

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, please reach out to this number: 1-800-273-8255. 

 

 ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

Session 3

Although we had played two sessions before, I still somewhat considered the August session the official start of the campaign. I knew that I needed to start thinking about the long game, about my character’s backstories and how I could use them, and most about the story I wanted to tell for my heroes. No longer was our game simply a game, it was becoming something more; a fairy tale of sorts, a legend we might recount to one another over and over again fifty years from now or a tragedy that we might long to forget in the weeks following. Whatever it was to be, I knew that I needed to take responsibility and work towards something greater that my players could enjoy. 

In order to kick off our journey, however, there was one order of business that I needed to take care of: getting the characters out of at least Goldcrest, if not Tovell entirely. As mentioned before in my Session 2 post, I knew that if the group stayed there, Lei would have no reason to remain with the group and would feel uncomfortable in the midst of a city of people who believed that she was not only a traitor but also dead. With this in mind, the first two matters of the agenda was easy: provide a reason for the group to leave the resistance and give the players plot hooks leading them away from the capital. 

I struggled for a while to find a good excuse for the group to leave, but I eventually settled on the fact that there was likely a traitor in the group somewhere and the resistance needed to temporarily disband. At the time it felt like a cheap excuse, a shoddy way to push the players out, although in the time since it has actually worked well with the overall plot points I would like to work in. With the announcement from Druvall that the rebellion was essentially “on break”, I then needed to introduce hooks that the players could then take. 

While coming up with what the players could do for the next session, I wanted to make sure that my players had options and freedom to explore the world. I came up with three distinct hooks, each taking them to a different part of the world. When Druvall temporarily disbanded the forces, he told the group about a merchant who was an ally that would take the group out of the city, and if they chose to go with him, would provide them safe passage to his village in Edotis, the southern kingdom of man in Dracia. Similarly, when discussing with some of the people they had met during their time in the rebellion, I made sure that the group heard about an ice dungeon in Vrotha, the northernmost kingdom of Dracia and another kingdom of man. If the group had gone to meet the merchant, they also would have seen evidence of a third plot hook, leading them to Thorean, the neighbor to Tovell and the kingdom of the mountain dwarves. (In the time since, I have snuck this hook elsewhere into the game, just to allow them to keep their options open). In the end, the group decided not to trust Druvall’s suggestion of the merchant, leading them away from Edotis and the third plot hook, and decided to head north to visit the ice dungeon. 

The journey to the ice dungeon took two weeks. Partially paranoid about the spider fight from the previous session, partially because I had too much stuff to work on, this time I didn’t worry about a random encounter. I let the journey pass peacefully, knowing that the group would have plenty to amuse themselves with once they got to the dungeon. Eventually they got to Berufell, the town nearest to the ice dungeon. There they met Peter, the keeper of the Silver Ore Inn and Tavern, and his two twin daughters (whom no one bothered to get the names of). On their first night there, Bel and Lei managed to start a fight with a neighboring table after discovering that one of the guys was cheating at a game of cards. Otherwise the night was unremarkable, leaving the four to rest from their long journey. 

Immediately the next morning, the group set out for the ice dungeon, stopping only to gather some healing potions from a small potion shop. (I created Adelaide, the girl running the shop, on the spot, and the group did not take well to her, because she was a bit snobbish, though she still remains one of my favorite NPCs to this day). Eventually they found their way into what appeared to be the entrance to the dungeon, a small ice cavern with a door nestled inside. Deciding to investigate, Caileth examined the door while Solomon began looking at a skeleton inside the cave. Meanwhile, thanks to a not so great perception check, Lei and Bel noticed some ridges in the ice and decided to investigate-and by investigate, I mean “throw rocks at it”. Little did they know that the “ridges” were actually the scales of a young white dragon. 

The dragon encounter was one of the more difficult ones that the group has encountered in our time playing. A friend of mine adjusted the stats for a Young White Dragon so that it would be more manageable for a group of three level 4 characters and one level 3 character (since Reagan had only had one session, I didn’t want her to be overwhelmed, so I gave her an extra session to get used to the game before pushing Bel up a level). Still, the encounter got somewhat close. No one went down, but some of the group got low because of the amount of damage that the dragon was dealing each round. Luckily for them, the breath weapon never managed to recharge. The group was also close to smashing through the door to escape from the dragon, but Solomon managed to kill the dragon first, using his spell Shatter to cause an enormous piece of rock and ice to fall from the ceiling and crush the dragon’s head. As such, the first obstacle was defeated (and looted) and the group moved on to the next room. 

For the second room, I had designed a puzzle involving plates that depressed when stepped on and either caused a music note to play (if stepped on in the right order) or darts to fly out (if done wrong). I knew that my players had a fondness for breaking down doors, so I designed the puzzle with this in mind. The room was made of stone with only the door the group had come through visible. Once the puzzle was complete, stone on the other side would slide out of the way and reveal a passage to the next room. I had anticipated this puzzle to be relatively easy, however, the players actually had a rough time with this one. Nevertheless, the group made it through and arrived on the other side. 

In the next area, the group found three other humanoids struggling against a group of ice kobolds in a long hallway. My players decided to wait to see what would happen, and soon the other adventurers had defeated the kobolds and taken a rest. As usual, my players were distrustful of the newcomers, and instead of introducing themselves or outright killing them, they decided to intimidate them. Bel had skinned the dragon and had been carrying the scales of the dragon around as if it was a cape, Solomon had the ability to imitate any sound if he had heard it for a certain length of time, and Caileth had the ability to amplify sounds using Thaumaturgy. Down the hall Bel ran, the sound of a dragon behind him in an attempt to make the newcomers believe that a dragon was after them. Titus, the leader of the group was unimpressed. Cassia, a half-elf girl with arcane trickster abilities, was temporarily startled but quickly recovered. Bartholomew however, a rookie to the group, was completely terrified out of his mind thanks to a natural one on an intelligence check. Poor Bart spent the rest of the day terrified out of his mind of Bel, which Bel took great advantage of.  

After the encounter, Titus introduced his group and mentioned that they were looking for something very specific in the dungeon. He suggested that they team up, and so the players warily moved through the next room with them in tow. For the next room, I described a raised stone dais with several circular slots carved into it. Around the room were several coins with the symbols of the gods, and inscribed into the stone was a riddle. The riddle held hints of the gods that each symbol corresponded to. Lei and Caileth quickly made their way through most of the riddle, with some occasional hints from me through Cassia. However, the last coin was missing, which happened to be the symbol of Perceus, the god of tempest and the one that Caileth had pledged her allegiance to. Through a prayer and successful wisdom check, Caileth was able to summon the last coin to put into the slot, thus opening the door into the next room. 

In the last room of the dungeon, there was no monster lying in wait, nor any traps. There was simply piles of gold and other treasures, an old book, and in the center of the room a pedestal with a glass bottle containing a fragment of a map. It was at this moment that Titus revealed his group’s true intentions-they wanted the map fragment and nothing else. They offered to let the group claim the rest of the treasure if they would only allow them to escape with the map. My players of course did not agree with this and instead engaged in battle. Poor Bartholomew was too terrified to do anything but blindly swipe at Bel. Cassia on the other hand had the sole mission of retrieving the map and escaping at all costs. She nearly got out of the room too before Lei’s arrows brought her down. Titus was focused on Solomon at first, but as soon as Cassia fell he immediately sprinted for the map. He was out the door in moments, dashing for the exit, but finally met the same fate as Cassia. 

The group retrieved the map and searched the bodies of the two bandits. They found that each of them had a simple green circular clasp on their capes, and Titus had in his possession a letter from a “K” that detailed his instructions to get the map at all costs. After gathering up their treasure, they proceeded to grill poor Bartholomew about his involvement. He told them that he was a new recruit for the Jade Eye, a thieves’ guild in another Kingdom, and Lady Kyra was the one who had instructed them to come here. Despite Bel and Lei’s protests, Solomon freed Bart, handed him one of the valuable gems they had found, and told him to start a new life, warning him that if they ever ran into him again, it wouldn’t be on friendly terms. With that, Bartholomew scrambled away, and the adventurers were left to drag their gold back to the inn and get a good night’s rest. 

Over the course of this session, I learned a few things about how to run a game, as well as paying attention to the players. This session was a unique one for me, but is still to this day on of my favorites that we have ever done. 

  • Be careful about throwing a dragon at your players too early 

Plopping a dragon in front of your players is great at first. It’s intimidating and scary; your players will likely immediately be worried about if they’re even going to survive the encounter, and you’ll get a lot of delight out of finally being able to use a dragon in your game of Dungeons and Dragons. However, the fun stops once the dragon is dead. Theoretically, you can often have a dragon simply fly away, but if the dragon is trapped or specifically assigned to guard a place, it’s a lot harder to justify having it escape to reappear another day. Once your dragon falls, the players will feel on top of the world, which is in theory what you’re supposed to accomplish as a DM, but from then on the group won’t be afraid of most of what you throw at them, especially if someone doesn’t go down in the fight. Even if you emphasize that it was essentially a baby dragon that they killed, the players don’t care. So be careful about playing the dragon card too early in your campaign. 

  • Sometimes the NPCs we love are the ones we spend the least time with 

During this session, I introduced two characters that I was particularly invested in. Adelaide, as mentioned before, was a favorite of mine, but the players had no interest in her. I doubt the group will ever find out what her story is, and that’s okay; if your players aren’t interested in every little thing you as a DM create, they’re still playing in your world, and odds are they still like most of it. Even though I created her on the spot, I was somehow able to instantly know her story, and as such Adelaide was designed as someone whom the players could interact with and uncover the history behind. However, the world is open and the players have infinite choices, and as such it is perfectly all right that Adelaide got passed over. 

On the other hand, Cassia was constructed very differently. I came up with her in advance specifically to be both a potential ally and a possible antagonist. Although I knew little about her history, I had her personality figured out perfectly. She was spunky, flirtatious with everyone, and a little everywhere. When Lei swung at her with her sword, she let out a maniacal giggle and said “This is going to be fun!”, something that I hadn’t anticipated but had just happened. In many ways thinking about it now I see her as a Harley Quinn-type. Cassia wasn’t meant to have her past figured out, she was meant to be a puzzle piece, something to fit in the story that the characters could live in the present with. I wasn’t sure going into this session if she would come out alive, and when Cassia was killed, it was a weird feeling knowing a character that I had created and loved was no more. I don’t regret it; the moment was a great victory for the players, but it was an odd moment for me as a DM. 

  • Be careful with your puzzles 

When I put the puzzles in front of my players, it was the first time I had ever done so in a campaign. I had assumed that the music puzzle would be easy for them and that they would struggle with the deities puzzle because it was an element of the world that most players had no knowledge of. However, Eli already knew some of the deities because she had seen me drawing the crests for them, and I tried to make the riddle as similar to the crests as I possibly could. Additionally, I made the “coins” out of cardstock and drew the designs on them, and provided the “dais” by drawing circles on a piece of paper and allowing them to put the coins in the necessary areas. Having a physical prop for the players to mess with I think helped enormously in them solving the puzzle. While I did try to provide a physical “map” of the room where the players encountered the music room puzzle, it was quite a bit more difficult to pull off. I had also included a mechanic where if they stepped on the wrong pressure plate after activating the first part of the puzzle a bunch of darts would shoot out at the person on the wrong tile. I made them do a dexterity save every time, which quickly got monotonous. In the future if I were to use this puzzle again, I would allow the group to automatically succeed on their dex save after the second or third time, or even perhaps allow them to avoid the darts because they had begun to anticipate them with how long they had been in the room. Similarly, the room had ten different tiles that needed to be pressed, and I think that perhaps I would change that number to five or six instead. Overall, I was proud of my players for being able to understand and defeat my puzzles, and it allowed me to realize that in the future I could throw some puzzles and riddles at my players without too much trouble. 

As I mentioned, this session is still one of my favorites. The puzzles, the defeat of the dragon, the unique NPCs, and the crazy dragon imitation encounter were moments that were unique and fun for both me and my players. It also felt like a beginning; the players had left their original base and ventured out into the wide world, looking for adventure and treasure and creating bonds along the way. This was the beginning of our campaign, and I couldn’t have been prouder. 


(Special credit to my friend Dyer who helped me build this dungeon!)

Session 2

Once the previous sessions had been completed, I was wary of DMing and had no plans to continue at the end of May. However, towards the middle of June, my dad suggested doing another session. Both he and my sister said that they both wanted to play again, and I wasn’t necessarily opposed to it, so after thinking about it for bit I decided to go ahead and run another one shot. I invited back all of the same people to play the same characters, and began working on another game plan.

Unfortunately, neither Jon (the elven rogue Varis) nor Matt (the dragonborn paladin Kava) could make it to the second session. This left us with Neli and my family, and while three players is not necessarily a bad number, I began to rack my brain for ideas for other people who could join our July session. I ended up inviting Reagan, one of the first friends I ever made in college, and who I am not entirely why I didn’t invite in the first place. Like many of my friends, she had never played before, but she was eager to try. After some deliberation, she created Bel, an angry little half-elf barbarian with red hair and a love for snakes, and was ready to go for our session.

Bringing Reagan into the mix was the easy part. Deciding what to throw at the players for that session was by far one of the hardest things that I have ever done in D&D. There were a few obstacles that I had to overcome when creating the session: 1) I believed that there was a strong possibility that we might not ever play again after this, so I wanted to create something that was self-contained and had no cliff hangers. 2) The original session took place in Goldcrest, the capital of Tovell, and Lei has a bad history with the city and its inhabitants, so I wanted to get them away from the city so that she could feel more comfortable. 3) I didn’t want to accidentally kill the players since they were all still 3rd level. Thus, I wanted something that was engaging but not overly dangerous.

However, it became apparently quickly to me that I could not come up with a satisfying story. The only thing that I could imagine revolved around a necromancer, but I knew that necromancers were dangerous, and throwing them against weaker characters with newer players was probably not the smartest thing to do. Still, three weeks passed and my brain refused to envision anything better for the session, and as such I decided to bite the bullet and go with it. I would try to scale the necromancer down to better fit my players in hopes of not killing them. As such, the plan was set in motion.

At the beginning of the session, Druvall, the leader of the resistance in Goldcrest, pulled Lei, Solomon, and Caileth aside and asked them to assist in a mission. They were to retrieve a wizard ally and some weapons from a blacksmith in a nearby town and bring them back to Goldcrest safely. Additionally, they would be teamed up with Bel, a new volunteer to the resistance. The team agreed to journey to the next town, taking a couple of days to reach the neighboring village. Along the way, the team rolled for a random encounter and got a 12 on a d12, meaning that they then were subjected to a hard encounter. While they were asleep, a group of four giant spiders snuck up on the group and attacked. It was a particularly tough battle, but the group managed to fight through and emerge victorious. Tired and wary, the group trudged on, and after another day’s journey they arrived at the village at nightfall. Solomon and Lei went off to scout for the blacksmith they were supposed to meet and the wizard they were to retrieve, while Bel and Caileth gathered the items to make a stew. (Including one blackberry, which was apparently the magical ingredient). Reconnaissance done and food digested, the group set off into town to rendezvous with their contacts.

Because they had found out definitively where the blacksmith was but had very few leads on the wizard, they decided to visit the blacksmith’s shop. After some quiet knocking that didn’t wake up the man and Solomon’s offer to jump up to the second floor and climb in through the window, the group began to argue loud enough that Galdoro, the blacksmith, woke up and let everyone inside. Once in, the group began to grill him for information, but like most players they were instantly suspicious of the man I had set before them, and thus ended up casting Detect Magic while talking in the first floor of his shop to see if they would be proven right. Unfortunately for me, Galdoro was actually the necromancer wearing a Hat of Disguise, so his entire body lit up as the spell was cast. At that moment, my suspicious players grew even more suspicious, and as such a strange comedy routine began.

As soon as Galdoro left them to retire to his room, the players began snooping around. Solomon offered to leap up and sit on his window to keep whoever the man was from escaping, but the group ended up vetoing the plans. After some searching, the group found some letters in a locked drawer, as well as a few blank pieces of paper that were purely innocent yet caused a frenzy to find out its secrets. After wasting time finding an old lemon and spraying the paper with it a la Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, the group found nothing to indicate that he was necessarily a traitor, and as such decided to get some rest.

When they awoke the next morning, Galdoro had seemingly escaped from the window of the second floor. Frustrated with his escape but proud of their suspicions being proven right, the group decided to set out for the inn where they believed that the wizard they had been sent to retrieve was staying. Despite the innkeeper’s suspicions, the group inspected the rooms and broke down not one but two doors. They discovered that the wizard had apparently been kidnapped last night and found a set of footprints leading to the mountains nearby. In a rush, the group took off to retrieve what they had been sent for.

Finally, it was time for the climactic battle, the necromancer and four zombies versus the PCs. It was revealed to the PCs that the Galdoro they had met was indeed the necromancer in disguise and he had kidnapped the gnome wizard that was an ally of the resistance. The PCs fought bravely, turning the zombies to ash with radiant spells and fighting the necromancer at every turn, until finally Solomon’s Vicious Mockery caused the necromancer’s head to explode. The entire battle was done in a few rounds, and was easier than the spider fight from earlier. All of the PCs walked away with few injuries, and even Tana the gnome wizard seemed unharmed, despite a nasty fall off the side of a cliff.

After the fight, the group went back to loot the blacksmith’s shop and find the weapons because they presumed Galdoro was dead. While they did find the weapons, they also discovered that the real Galdoro was actually being held captive in the basement. Once freed of his bindings, he determined that there was a traitor in the rebellion, and Solomon suggested that he come back to Goldcrest with the rest of them for his safety. Galdoro agreed, and so the group returned to the city, weapons, wizard, and blacksmith in tow.

I could tell that my players had a lot of fun this session from how they were acting and the tears of laughter that flowed from everyone’s eyes. Reagan in particular was hooked on the game, despite her nervousness about coming into an RPG for the first time. At the end of the day, everyone agreed that we should get together more regularly, perhaps once a month, and as such our campaign was officially born.

Just like my other sessions, this one taught me many things, some of which I had not had any experience with at all before. Some of these lessons I still struggle with to this day, and I often draw from my experience in this session when working on new ones.

  • Know your bad guys

One of the most important elements of the game, and one that I still struggle with, is knowing my baddies. Knowing not only the villain’s motivations but also their abilities is extremely crucial. Reading a stat block repeatedly and ensuring that you are at least a little aware of what each of their spells and abilities will do will make the gameplay easier and can prevent your villain from getting caught in a tight spot. When Solomon offered to perch outside of the window and keep “Galdoro” in his room, I panicked. It was my intention to have him escape from the window, so having the bard perch right outside would have thrown an enormous wrench in my plans. However, somewhere along the way I had apparently forgotten that a) this was actually the necromancer and not Galdoro and b) the necromancer had access to the spell Dimension Door. If I had payed attention to what my villain had at his disposal, even outside of combat, that moment of panic would never have occurred. I still struggle sometimes with utilizing my villains properly, but after this session I realized that it was something I really needed to work on.

  • Scaling down baddies can be difficult

Scaling a bad guy down, or “nerfing” them, is something that can be useful but is difficult to do. Nerfing a particular bad guy can allow your players to face something that is thematically appropriate for the session but that might otherwise kill them. However, this particular technique is one that requires practice. When I nerfed the necromancer, I reduced his hit points, its AC, and took away a few of his heftier spells. I wanted to balance it so that I could include zombies in the fight as well, but I ended up nerfing the zombies as well, taking away their Undead Fortitude feature. This resulted in the players having an easier time fighting a necromancer than they did the spiders from earlier in the session. Scaling down bad guys is almost an art, something that needs to be done carefully and with practice. I particularly like this video from Matt Colville discussing how to scale a monster both up and down. I hope one day to be able to accurately sale down a creature so that it neither kills my players nor allows them to trample over it.

  • Bringing in a new player isn’t that problematic

I was worried about bringing in a new player, both above the table and in game. Luckily, everyone had met Reagan before and liked her a lot, so I wasn’t worried about her dynamic with the other players. I did know however that both her and Neli had no acting or role-playing experience, as opposed to my family which is full of theatre people. Everything went well though, and even though we still struggle sometimes with RP at the table, we’ve slowly been warming up to the idea of it each session.

As far as introducing Bel into the game, I was lucky that we had ended the original one shot in the midst of a resistance, meaning that I was able to place the barbarian in the midst of the scenario instead of having to resort to some sort of “meet in a tavern” scenario or anything peculiar. Additionally, the group was also fairly chaotic, and as such were not too distrustful of having another character join them on their journey. I know that it varies sometimes between tables, but sometimes adding in a new player isn’t as much work or stress as it might seem.

  • If you give an NPC a nickname…

It seems like nearly every time I DM for a group, there has to be at least one character that ends the session with a strange nickname attached to them. This particular instance the name fell to the necromancer. Early on in the session, I had described how the necromancer had a mostly shaved head except for one long dark ponytail, “Like Zuko from Avatar”. Then during the battle, I proceeded to make a strange sound for one of the zombies which to my players apparently sounded like a duck quacking (let’s just say my voice acting is nowhere near the caliber of Matthew Mercer’s). This prompted them to ask if the necromancer controlled zombies or ducks, and thus the nickname “Duck Zuko” was born. While the nickname was somewhat sad because it minimized the threat of having a necromancer around, it made what probably was a forgettable fight at least somewhat memorable. To this day we still remember not only Duck Zuko, but “Tuna” (Tana, the wizard they rescued) as well due to my poor handwriting on the initiative screen. Memorable nicknames are an inherent part of D&D, and though it can be a bit frustrating for a DM at times to have your characters dismissed, it provides a unique experience for the players and often becomes a way for players to remember an NPC or villain that they might otherwise have forgotten.

At the end of the session when my players told me that they had fun and admitted to wanting to play more, I realized then that this is why those who choose to DM love it so much. The satisfaction of knowing that your players have enjoyed something that you have created specifically for them is unlike any other. It was at the end of my group’s second session and the start of the campaign that I realized that I did in fact enjoy DMing, despite my misgivings, and was determined to see my players through the best game I could possibly give them. I left Session 2 nervous for the mantle and responsibility that I had taken upon myself, yet eager to see what stories my players and I could tell.

 

Notable quotes from the session:

•Caileth: We’re pancake fueled and ready for destruction!

•Me: Tana walks up to the edge of the cliff and *rolls an athletic check* *gets a 1* trips and falls and dies

•Me: You use the old lemon on the paper and… nothing happens. The place just smells lemony fresh now

Eli: Don’t you mean lemony old?

•Solomon: “You wart on a cat’s butt! Eat dirt and die!” *Cue necromancer’s head exploding*