Sunday, July 9, 2017

Tales from the Yawning Portal: DMing the Tomb of Horrors

Tomb of Horrors has always been a favorite of mine to run as a session or two for fun. When Tales of the Yawning Portal popped up with a 5th edition version, I had to get it and run it. Luckily my group was totally on board for a different experience for a few sessions, so away we go.

I've run ToH in multiple systems and I have seen the ins and outs. I know all the tricks. I know what fun looks like and what frustration looks like. ToH is a great experience dating all the way back to Gary Gygax's original group. Let's take a look.

My game was run with 5 players, although we swapped out a couple of players along the way. It lasted about 3 sessions of about 4 hours each. All of the players started with multiple 14th level characters, so they could switch to new ones as characters died. My party ran no rogues, which was just weird.

This is all my opinion. Your game may go differently, your gaming group may have different problems and successes. I'm not going to argue that I am right about any of this in the context of your game. As always, do what works for you.

Here's my recap of the good and the bad at a generic spoiler-free level.

  • I set expectations that this is a PC-killer dungeon. Players were told to make several PCs and be prepared for them to die. If you don't set this expectation, your players will likely get upset.
  • I let all options from my list of playable content into the game.
  • I let the PCs have all the mundane equipment they can carry 3 uncommon and 1 rare magic item of choice, and one totally random magic item from all the tables in the DMG.
  • I relaxed the rules for spells -- no preparing, no selecting. You get your spell list. Spell slot limits still apply.
  • I had a banner map printed ( and covered all of the area with labeled cardstock stuck on with mounting squares. It was OK, but I would prefer a different approach that I give in the spoiler section. I oversized all of the squares and made them weird shapes to attempt to hide secret passages.
  • I explained that all skill checks require a complete description of what you are doing, what you are touching, where you are looking, etc.
  • I gave the party maximum HP at every level. This turned out to be too much. Average HP at every level would have been better.
  • I let them be level 14. This is great except there are too many "I win" spells for casters. If I had to do it again, I would stick with 10th level (or lower) characters, giving a maximum 5th level spell in play.
  • I think some players had seen the ToH before, so I should have modified it more. Having a preprinted map didn't allow for that. 
  • I never use a DM screen. For this one, I should have, and probably should have slipped a copy of the map with notes to it.

For here on down, we're talking specifics so SPOILER ALERT!!!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two Groups in the Same Campaign: Madness or Brilliance?

For years I have been planning an Asian-inspired campaign, in fact, since before D&D 5E even came out. Originally it was to be a Pathfinder campaign. Instead, something better came together out of a combination of 5E, some homebrew, and the Forgotten Realms Kara-Tur setting. The campaign concept evolved over a period of years to become a group of monster hunters in Asian-inspired Kara-Tur somehow getting caught up in the Blood War, the eternal war between demons and devils. I knew to do this right it was going to take a lot of homebrew and a lot of prep. In the end, there are 3 custom races, 7 custom classes / archetypes, a whole new weapon set, and several house rules. Prep involves coming up with lots of place names and character names in a setting I am not particular well-versed in, either specifically or by genre. To save myself a lot of work, both of my Roll20 groups play different parties in the exact same campaign.  Prep once, play twice.

Half the prep is a wonderful thing. It turns out, however, that running two groups through the same campaign has far greater advantages. As GMs, we all put together those interesting fights, only to have a quick series of failed saves or critical hits skew the fight into something different than we planned. We've all had players miss clues and drag the campaign off in unexpected directions. The question lingers: was it bad design or was it just a crazy random happenstance. Now with two groups in play, I often get those answers. I learn what is design and what is random.

A good example was a recent mission that both parties undertook in the town of Trunau. Something was killing commoners in one part of the city. They needed to figure out what was killing, find it, and kill it. It is a classic trope: investigate, locate, and kill. Both parties followed the same rough path through investigation, each clue leading to the next. One party had great luck at determining most of the special immunities and resistances of the monster. The other party had no luck.  Both parties ended up camped out in the middle of town at night trying to catch the creature. However, one party upset the local guard captain so badly that a PC was temporarily jailed, while the other party followed rules of honor and kept in the guard captain's good graces.

In the yokai fight, one party made most of their saves. The summoner failed and had to stay back during the fight. They knew very little about the yokai and charged into melee, killing the monster quickly, but still getting badly hurt by the tentacles flying in every direction. The second party almost entirely failed their saves. Being frightened, they couldn't move in on the creature. The summoner instead summoned a giant snake onto the monster which easily grappled it. The snake then moved the yokai within range of the PCs so they could attempt to hit it. This party had several PCs with little or no ranged weapons and it was a challenge.  Unfortunately, despite the much longer fight, the yokai couldn't seem to hit anything and the PCs mostly walked away unscathed, with the giant snake taking most of the damage.

By seeing the different ways this investigation, hunt, and eventual combat went, I learned a lot more about the overall design. I learned where things pulled the PCs in a consistent direction. I learned where dice rolls made a huge difference and where they didn't matter. If I were writing this campaign to share, running two or three groups through it simultaneously would have been the optimal approach for testing the design. By choice, I would run 3 groups through: 2 to test the initial material, and a 3rd to test the material after I made some tweaks.

Now this approach isn't for everyone. Trying to run two or more games at the same time takes some serious time commitment and organization skills. It turns out, it also takes some thorough notes to keep the parties straight and the information that the parties know separate. It is a real challenge, but if you are up for the challenge, there are some definite advantages that come out of it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Abyssal Winds: A New Style of Campaign

I've GMed over 100 sessions of Dungeons and Dragons 5E now, with over 40 different players across multiple campaigns. I think I have finally learned enough to make a meaningful commentary on the system. I really love it, except for one thing: my bad guys, NPCs, and monsters are always getting ran over by the PCs as they sprint through encounters. They don't even think about it anymore. Bing, bang, bam -- they run in and kill the baddies. I had a level 15 take out a level 21 lich in a round and a half without breaking a sweat.

My new campaign has been years in the making and I really wanted to get a different feel from combat and NPC interaction. The party is a group of monster hunters in Kara-Tur, the Asian-inspired part of Forgotten Realms.  To slow down the action, I really have emphasized two major changes: making NPC interactions trickier and making monster interaction trickier.

For NPCs, the PCs now have to navigate the subtleties of honor and tradition. Each PC has 7 stats now: the traditional six plus honor. Honor rolls are used to figure out how to say and do the right thing when approaching an NPC. Botch the honor roll, and the PC is going to say something insulting or commit a faux pas that will make even the best charisma not matter. Honor is a gatekeeper that slows down milking the NPC for information. It makes the party have to work for information. It also works quite nicely with the near-Ebberon levels of politics I have brought into the setting.

For monsters, I pulled heavily from monster hunters across popular culture, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy has the scooby gang, and before every fight, they spend their time figuring out what the creature is, what it wants, and how to kill it. I want the PCs to ask that one relevant question: "Does it have any weaknesses?".  In Kara-Tur, my monsters often have only one weakness. You walk into one of these monster encounters without doing your research, and you'll end up dead. That werewolf can't be hurt unless you have silver weapons. The troll regenerates without being hit by fire in a way that makes the PCs ineffective without it.  The players are now using investigation, perception, and a hodge-podge of techniques to gather and assemble information before they jump into a fight.

The results so far have been magical. They two groups I am running through this campaign are roleplaying more, interacting more, and scheming more. NPCs suddenly are an obstacle, not just a formality. Monsters are dangerous again, even for the monster hunters. It is by far the best start to a campaign I have ever had.

It is even more pleasing that all of this interaction and roleplaying actually reduces my preparation time.  I can build a generic village, throw down a few useful location tags, and keep a list of names. The players send their PCs looking for specific people to talk to, specific locations to find, and I improvise the interaction in-game. The only real detail I need in advance is some rough semblance of the local customs that I can reference with the honor rolls. Add a scenario with monsters and a little local political intrigue, and I am ready for a session or two missing that really plays well.

I'll keep an eye on it as it continues and share my results here as things progress. I am very optimistic that this will be my best set of campaigns yet.