Tag Archives: Adventurers League

Do Dungeons & Dragons Players Hate Linear Adventures? Not When DMs Avoid Two Pitfalls

A linear adventure is written, or at least planned, so every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. In Dungeons & Dragons, linear dungeons set the pattern, with walls and doors that channel players along a single route. Without walls, a linear adventure only ever shows players one course of actions to a successful end.

At best, critics accuse linear adventures of robbing players of choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

Despite the criticism, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as DMs think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. But in a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

When the walls become plain, players may complain about a lack of freedom. Linear dungeons, with their obvious walls, always risk criticism. Adventures without walls can also flaunt a lack of options. Imagine an adventure where players follow a patron’s plan or a commander’s orders from scene to scene. Unless catastrophe upsets the plan—or assassins reach the commander—the adventure would feel scripted and less satisfying.

Linear adventures work best when success in each scene brings the clues that lead to the next scene. Then, for all the players know, a different choice in the scene or unseen clue could have spun events in a different direction. To players, each success leads to the clues needed to set a new objective. Players favor one choice over an overwhelming number of choices, and certainly over feeling stuck without a direction.

Make no mistake, players still like to face a few, clear choices. Linear adventures grow better when they include decision points that pose options. (Of course, such adventures no longer qualify as linear.)

For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to developing content that reaches play. No DM with an ingenious dungeon room wants players to miss it.

The limits of a convention time slot makes linear adventures particularly common in programs like the D&D Adventurers League. Linear adventures can consistently fit in a convention time slot. Players in organized play tend to forgive the limits imposed by a 4-hour session, but some do complain when adventures reveal a lack of choices.

But organized-play adventures with more options draw complaints too.

Adventurers League administrator Claire Hoffman explains that when adventures offer more choices, some DMs gripe about prepping content that may not reach play.

Most DMs understand the value of extra prep, but some players fuss too. Those who enjoy the accomplishment of clearing a dungeon or of completing every quest feel frustrated when an adventure teases them with more options than they can explore. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia sets a brilliant example of a 4-hour adventure with a wealth of options. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location. The adventure proved so fun that players wanted it all. Still, adventures shouldn’t cater to completists. Better to leave players wanting more.

Linear adventures may fall short of an ideal, but if they avoid flaunting their limits, players seldom mind. One exception bothers players. When the only choice suggests a style of game that players dislike, they will resist.

During these rebellions, the players telegraph what the want to do in the game. In a podcast, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea explained, “If the king is speaking, and the barbarian charges him, maybe you ought to start the players in the dungeon.” Clearly players crave a fight. “I’ve seen it the other way too, where in my DM-head I’m thinking, now they’re going to fight 12 orcs, and the players are doing everything they can to negotiate with the orcs. ‘Just fight the orcs!’ But the players are telegraphing their desire to have an interaction.”

If your players dislike intrigue, and the next clue in a linear adventure suggests they infiltrate a masquerade, that’s when they rebel.

You can avoid such problems by setting up situations tailored to the style your players favor. If you know your players, such tailoring probably becomes natural. If not, then an ideal episode lets players choose styles. Let players enter the castle by infiltrating the masquerade, sneaking over the walls, or battling through a secret entrance into the dungeons below.

Players don’t hate linear adventures; players hate being driven into a style of game they dislike. Players who read gaming blogs may resist by accusing your adventure of railroading, but the rest will start a fight at the masquerade.

Four Essential Qualities of a 4-Hour Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Running adventures by other authors has raised my Dungeons & Dragons game. As a dungeon master for organized play, I have prepared adventures that seemed like duds. Sometimes, at the table, I followed an author’s script and saw that their adventure worked despite my concerns. When I had little experience with adventures other than my own dungeons, I found lots of pleasant surprises. I learned a lot.

Those surprises happen less often now. I feel confident judging which 4 elements I always want in something like a 4-hour Adventurers League session.

I have the voice of authority to back me up. The book Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick includes a list of adventure tips from legendary designer Jennell Jaquays. Goodman Games publisher Joseph Goodman listed advice for penning a good adventures to accompany How to Write Adventures that Don’t Suck. This post features select tips from the experts’ lists. Believe them.

All 4 qualities in my list resist easy adjustments at the table. This post’s draft included, “Give it the villains a fighting chance,” but I cut it. If an adventure puts a beholder in a tiny room where the heroes can make it into a piñata, I can adjust at the table. If an adventure fails to include a variety of challenges, only a rewrite will help.

In every 4-hour adventure, I want 4 qualities:

1. A variety of challenges. This ranks as my number 1 by a wide margin. Typical D&D groups bring varied tastes, and few players like 4 hours of the same. Any session should include (1) a social scene, (2) a combat encounter, and either (3a) a thinking problem or (3b) a secret to investigate.

To qualify, the social scene must start with a goal and pose an obstacle. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. Social scenes that dump purposeless characters into a banquet or marketplace confound most players.

“Make sure some role-playing interaction with other sentient beings is necessary for success.” – Jaquays

A typical 4-hour adventure features two or three battles, and I like variety in the combat encounters. When I ran the D&D Encounters program and saw the adventure for a new season, I eagerly scanned the pages, noting which monsters would appear. A variety of foes excited me. (I remain easily amused.)

At Gen Con 2017, I ran adventures set on the streets of Hillsfar. Typically, city adventures suffer from recurrent fights against thugs, thieves, and assassins. Same fight, different alley. The authors of this Hillsfar series imagined ways to pit players against a variety of monsters, and that made me happy.

“Pace it well. Long, tiresome combats should be followed by quick rooms. Thought-provoking puzzles should be followed by bloodbaths. Slow, trap-filled hallways should be followed by a rousing fight.” – Goodman

2. A fast start. When players sit for an organized-play adventure, their characters land in the the adventure too. I like adventures that speed through the chore of getting the characters to agree to the mission their players already accepted. DDEX03-14 Death on the Wall by Greg Marks includes a favorite hook: Someone fleeing pursuit dumps a pack containing a message on the characters. Bang! We’re off!

“Always begin a new adventure with action: a fight, a chase, a breathtaking escape, a witnessed crime, and so on.” – Jaquays

Nothing vexes me more than an adventure that challenges players to uncover the secret of their goal for the adventure.

Most organized-play adventure hooks should also promise a reward in gold early on. Not all characters aim to do good or to seek adventure. Players will take adventures without seeing the rewards ahead, but on behalf of their characters, they still wonder why are we doing this?

“Maintain a ‘cut to the chase’ feeling—start with a bang and get to the action fast.” – Goodman

Some critics argue that starting an adventure with a fight ranks as a cliché. Ignore them. For many D&D players, the game only starts when they start rolling dice. At my weekly D&D game, the kids can sit without a battle, but at least one parent pines for action. (Not me. Well, not just me.)

3. A choice. Players accept that a 4-hour time limit leaves no room for open worlds, but when an adventure shunts the party through a fixed sequence of scenes, players notice—and they grumble. Every adventure should feature an option that leaves players wondering what would have happened if we had….

I love DDEX2-13 The Howling Void by Teos Abadia and DDEX03-15 Szith Morcane Unbound by Robert Adducci for offering players unusual freedom. Both also demand more from a DM than a typical session. Some overwhelmed convention DMs bridle at the prospect of prepping many encounters that may not occur.

In practice, just a couple of choices satisfy players. But avoid false choices that could lead to the same scene. Players should know enough about their options to expect a different outcome from each possibility. See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

4. A dash of the fantastic. In D&D, authors sometimes reserve the mind-bending fantasy for high-level characters. But I like every adventure—even that 1st-level strike against bandits—to include a fantastic element. Have the goblins uncovered some lost bit of magic that lets them do something wondrous?

I remember a D&D adventure that relied on a bomb as a threat, and how that made me sad. In the fantastic world of D&D, could the most interesting threat really be a bomb? I turned the bomb into a magical box that opened a door to the spirit world and lured vengeful souls onto the material plane.

Not all the fantastic elements need to be dangerous or useful. Interesting trinkets and strange phenomena can create the same wonder. The magic fountain feels tired by now, but you can create fresh wonders that put enhantment into your world.

“Convey a sense of the fantastic. Convey this through encounters, descriptions, and most importantly, magic. The fantastic is what makes D&D so much fun, and that has to come across in the adventure.” – Goodman

Origins 2017: Choose Your Own Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

This year at Origins, I split my time between serving as a dungeon master, and playing in Dungeons & Dragons games. Remember the disappearing McFly family photo from Back to the Future? It gave Marty McFly a look at his progress toward setting his future right. This year at Origins Game Fair, I ran an epic adventure that made me think of that photo. More on that later.

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop D&D. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

Goblins and scenery from Tomb of Annihilation

Elmwood adventures

I arrived with two convention-created adventures on my DM schedule. ELMW 2-1 Tendrils in the Fog and ELMW 2-2 Mists of the Moonsea read well. They land characters in vibrant scenes that promise to excite players. Both adventures feature a good mix of role-playing, investigation, and combat challenges. ELMW 2-1 takes players to villages and hideouts along the Moonsea, before ending in a small dungeon. ELMW 2-2 features battles on and under the sea, and ends with an ambush spanning a series of rope bridges. Both adventures pit the players against a group of adventurers cursed by evil. The foes resemble any number of morally questionable parties, perhaps dialed one notch darker. I loved these villains. ELMW 2-2 proved as fun as I anticipated.

An introduction to Tomb of Annihilation

I never ran ELMW 2-1 because the marshals needed an extra hand to run the introductory adventures for Tomb of Annihilation. I ran these adventures cold, reading one step ahead of the players. Each of this set of 5 missions plays in hour and a half or so. These adventures take characters to the jungle of Chult and the exotic Port Nyranzaru. Chult substitutes dinosaurs for shining knights and blood-sucking vines for wizards in pointy hats. Players feel like Indiana Jones in a lost world.

Most of the folks who come to play D&D at Origins rank as passionate players who bring a quiver of characters and who may play adventures more than once. The introductory adventures draw a different mix of players. First-timers and gamers who haven’t played since THAC0 join the D&D enthusiasts. The new and returning players bring a fresh enthusiasm that I savor. In the past, I haven’t volunteered for these introductory adventures, but next year, I plan to.

At conventions like Origins, where the dungeon masters belong to the Heralds Guild, we get scored based on players’ feedback. Running the introductory adventures cold lead to a dip in my score for preparation. I can’t argue with the accuracy, but seeing a drop in my overall judge scores disappointed me.

Hecatomb

This year, Origins hosted all three of the epic adventures that accompany Tales from the Yawning Portal. I played in Hecatomb, an epic for tiers 3 and 4.

Hecatomb’s author ramped up the difficulty of this adventure, even for tier 4. I love a challenge, so I welcomed the threat. I heard tales of tables practically wiped out. Meanwhile, at my table, two characters died, rose as undead, and attacked surviving players at other tables. One of the DMs administering the event went from table to table with a group of players running their now-undead PCs. The dead took revenge on the living. This “interaction” beats just having some evil champion roaming from table to table.

Hecatomb landed all the players on massive battlefield, scrambling to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. Presumably, our comrades in arms fought on battlemaps next to ours, facing other battles for other obelisks. By social convention, everyone agrees not to seek out the folks at the next table to form a party of 12.

Our party featured a crossbow expert/sharpshooter character—number 1 on my list of character types absurdly good at one thing. Even folks who play the combination find it overpowered. After taking casualties, our table changed strategy. We realized that the sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. In this optimal strategy, my magic user’s best contribution was to cast Haste on the sharpshooter. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley. Encounter designers need to consider sharpshooting just as they might consider something like flying. If you design an encounter where characters can engage foes from 500-yards away, then for parties with sharpshooters, the monsters resemble infantry crossing no-man’s land.

Return to White Plume Mountain

I ran Return to White Plume Mountain as a dungeon master. This epic accommodated both tier-2 and 3 characters. The tier-3 PCs fought to thwart a sacrificial ritual, while the tier-2 PCs attempted to distract the monsters, drawing them away from the main assault.

Return to White Plume Mountain worked hard to foster interaction. Some of its methods fascinated me.

A twist that required communication. Return gave each party a sending stone linked with another table. In many epics, such stones enable communication, but Return also included a clever trick that could foil groups who failed to communicate. In my session, some tables treated messages as a distraction and failed to notice the essential information. If more solutions come from messages between tables, the design would work even better.

Scoring that affected encounters for both tiers. Return featured a push-pull dynamic where each tier’s efforts drew monsters away from the other tier. Potentially, this could force tables to agree on a strategy that raises enough of a distraction to ensure success without drawing all the monsters into a deadly encounter. In practice, tier-2 tables just saw a distraction score that they could raise. Like any good gamers, they put all their energy to reaching a high score. Tables marched through the dungeon making more noise than a parade, without seeing the danger. In the end, tier 2 faced all the monsters.

The push-pull feature would work better if, instead of a rising score, the players saw the additional monsters in their future. Suppose some divination magic gives the PCs visions of their near future. This idea made me think of the McFly family photo—a vision of the future that results from the players’ current actions. I wanted a line of miniature figures that showed the monsters to come, but a scorecard handout would work as well. Back in How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever, I recommended letting players choose their own difficulty. In Return, a more visual push-pull mechanic would help.

Every table joined in the same battle. In the finale, all the tier-2 parties enter a massive dungeon room where they spot the ritual at the far side. An army of tier-3 monsters defend the ritual. As intended, the tier-2 parties stay on their side of the room and work to rescue sacrificial victims until tier 3 arrives near the heavy hitters to thwart the ritual. This works so long as the Tier-2 groups stay in their lane and avoid any bold ideas that might interfere with the ritual.

Step aside, pipsqueaks. I’ll finish this.

When I ran, my tier-2 group had little reason to stay in their lane. Before entering the final room, tier-2 table captains gather to share resources. Somehow, my table’s captain returned from the meeting with an allied planetar summoned by a tier-3 table. So a party clustered around level 7 added a challenge-rating-16 powerhouse with a fly speed of 120. I spent days wondering what part of the adventure let tier-3 tables share such resources with tier 2. What did I miss? The event’s one administrator was doing a job intended for three people, and I think he overlooked this extra interaction. But at the time, I figured the planetar came approved by the boss.

When my group entered battle arena and saw the ritual on the far side, they wondered whether to send their planetar to intervene. In one round, the celestial could have flown across the entire room, engaged the villain, and dealt lethal damage, while using innate Truesight to foil the Contingency intended to keep the villain alive. Before 6 tables even reached the final encounter, the event administrator could have stood and announced the abrupt victory to all 12 tables. “Now everybody has an extra hour for lunch. You can thank table 3 on the way out.”

Dungeon masters, choose your own adventure. In this situation, do you…

  • Tell the players you don’t care what anyone says. They can’t bring a planetar. (But the planetar came from the boss, and I can’t believe you’re saying “no” to your players.)
  • Let the planetar cross the room, then invent reasons that it fails to thwart the ritual. (You’re just abusing your power as a DM just to make the players fail.)
  • Pass the planetar back to the overextended event administrator and let him figure out what to do with it. (Just say, “Excuse me. I know that you’re already doing 3 jobs, but I can’t handle a little trouble at my own table.”)
  • Let the planetar solve the epic for all 12 tables. (Everybody, you’re welcome!)
  • Suggest that the players stay in their lane and use the planetar to help themselves. (Why should players have to meekly follow the author’s intent?)

My players stayed in their lane. I’m not particularly happy with the way I handled the situation. How would you do it?

D&D Open

In eight hours, the D&D Open aims to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments. The Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley, capture all the challenge that made the original event such a blast. This year, I played as groups ventured to the jungle land of Chult to rob the tombs of dead gods. Monsters native to this lost world provided a unique flavor.

The event added a room of physical and mental challenges for Players—something like dungeon carnival games. Everyone seemed to enjoy this short break from the table.

The adventure also added the shtick of having a wandering monster roam from table to table to trade attacks. I only like this trick when the wandering menace comes from now-undead PCs. In a quasi-competitive event where players race against time, I disliked the gimmick more than usual. Fortunately, the interruption only takes a few minutes.

The event’s finale featured clever twist and a thrilling race to escape. The escape encouraged even faster play and set an objective other than kill everything. Once again, the D&D Open delivered the year’s best D&D game.

Winter Fantasy hosted 12 slots of Dungeons & Dragons and I played through them all

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, Winter Fantasy delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of $99 hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year, Winter Fantasy hosted 12, 4-hour slots of gaming and I played D&D through them all. This post covers some highlights.

An adventure’s written pages only step toward the final product: the play at the table. My dungeon masters and the other player shaped the adventures. We may have steered things in ways the authors never intended. Here, I write about my own experiences at the tables.

DDAL05-11 Forgotten Tradition

In Forgotten Tradition, PCs explore a time-lost museum revealing the history of giants and their kin. Some of this adventure’s success rests on the players’ interest in the museum’s lore. I learned a few things.

Our DM for Forgotten Tradition admitted to tinkering with the adventure’s final encounter. I have no idea what changes he made—or if they improved anything—but I liked the result. The final showdown pitted characters against a unique, single foe. The creature proved so dangerous that my group chose to run. And then our DM turned the escape into an entertaining conclusion.

DDAL05-14 Reeducation Parts 1 & 2

Reeducation lands the PCs on a mission to rescue Seer, their patron in many earlier adventures. Most of the adventure plays as a dungeon crawl. I like dungeon crawls and I liked the story behind this one, but its challenges seemed suited for characters nearing 10th level rather than characters around level 15. My cleric kept rolling low initiatives, so the fights finished before he could act. The pattern became a running gag. Our DM would shrug and remind us they we already played at the highest difficulty.

While my cleric missed turns, another player’s simulacrum took turns. Simulacrum lets you create a duplicate that doubles all your spells and half your hit points. One player gains an extra, second character in the adventure. Yes, I know DMs should scale adventures to challenge an extra character, but the addition doubles one player’s activity at the expense of the other players (me). I’m not sore, just grateful for a start on another post listing most annoying spells in D&D. The first attracted a surge of readers.

DDEP05-02 The Ark of the Mountains

D&D epics give players an experience they cannot match at home. Epics unite many tables of players together to fight for a common goal.

After last year’s Winter Fantasy, I raved about how author Will Doyle delivered the one of the best epics ever with Reclamation of Phlan.

This year, Will proved still he knows how to craft an epic. The Ark of the Mountains challenged players to seize control of a airship in time to use it to battle a giant’s flying war galley. I liked how the fantastic premise made the battle extraordinary, even for the a magical setting. Some past epics overreached in adding magic-as-technology to the Forgotten Realms. To me, fleets of airships dropping alchemical bombs belong in Eberron. This event kept a sense of wonder and the flavor of the Realms by making the airship a ancient artifact.

The Ark of the Mountains improved on Will’s last epic by adding improvements that made the adventure easier for DMs. Rather than the 50 maps in Reclamation of Phlan, Ark reused just a few locations.

At my table, we landed a DM without a killer instinct, so the encounters seemed too easy. What kind of basilisk fails to use its gaze attacks?

DDEP05-01 The Iron Baron

My convention group loves a deadly challenge, so some ranked The Iron Baron as the best session of the con. In this epic, characters raid a fire giant’s fortress. I loved the mix of challenging encounters with varied objectives. During my session, the players won the day, but during other sessions, the heroes fell short. Evidently, epics can be lost, and learning that pleased me. The threat of defeat gives villains credibility and makes the players’ wins meaningful.

Some players felt that The Iron Baron lacked interaction—that it felt like we neighbored tables that just happened to be running the same adventure. While events rarely rippled between tables, our head DM did a wonderful job of uniting the room. As our commander he rallied us; as the Iron Baron, he shouted threats, sometimes in the untranslated Giant.

In past years, conventions ran each epic just one time and the entire convention played at once. This year, the con repeated its epics throughout the convention for fewer tables. This change lifted a burden from dungeon masters. In the past, the convention drafted every DM to run the epic, forcing each DM to prepare an extra adventure, usually at two or three tiers. Now, DMs running the epic can focus on the event, and free the other DMs from extra preparation. Plus, the epics’ organizers face more manageable groups of players.

PHLAN2-1 Hatemaster, PHLAN2-2 Demagogue, PHLAN2-3 The Royal We, & PHLAN2-S

For Winter Fantasy’s D&D experience, Baldman Games premiered 4 adventures of con-created content. These adventures served an ambitious premise: The PCs find themselves protecting the three candidates running in an election to lead Phlan. Bane, god of tyranny, forces the PCs to prove whether any of the three merits the god’s support. In the first three adventures, the PCs enter dream worlds that reveal each candidates’ fondest wishes, realized in three dystopian versions of Phlan. I have never met such off-beat adventures in organized play. I appreciated how they broke from the more typical session.

Of the adventures, The Royal We stood out the most. To start, characters took the roles of commanders on the battlefield in mass combat using simplified Battlesystem rules. Some folks at my table enjoyed the experiment. For me, the scene just showed that if D&D world worked according to D&D rules, battles would look nothing like a medieval clash of arms. After our PCs spent a couple of rounds pounding enemy units with fireballs, they routed. The units represented by cardboard counters on the map barely clashed and never impacted the outcome.

However, the rest of The Royal We delivered. The plot moved to a knotty combat encounter that featured foes with clever synergies. Next, we solved an puzzle that revealed a candidate’s backstory while entertaining and challenging us. The final encounter combined a potential fight with another problem to solve.

The D&D Experience ended with a special adventure that pitted all the tables against a series of encounters where everyone battled to repel an invading fleet. The encounters felt solid, but the enemy spellcasters obviously never read my post on self defense. Characters built around the Sharpshooter feat dish out so much damage in tier-3 D&D play that no spellcaster can start in the open and stand much chance of casting a spell.

Like some past epics, this mini-epic left me wondering about magic and technology in the Forgotten Realms. The ships packed batteries of black-powder cannon.

DDAL05-18 Eye of Xxiphu Parts 1 & 2

As levels increase, characters gain abilities that let them fly, operate in underwater, and travel the planes. Adventures gain an epic feel by inviting players to use their extraordinary abilities. If PCs just wind up in dungeons blasting monsters—but with higher damage totals—then level 17 feels much like level 1. Eye of Xxiphu delivered an epic feel. Our choices took us into an underwater funhouse where author Merric Blackman seemed to channel a measure of White Plume Mountain with a dash of extra gonzo. I don’t know if any of it had a logical explanation, but I didn’t much mind.

When my convention group met the young DM who would run Eye of Xxiphu for us, I worried that running a 2-part, level-17-through-20 adventure for a bunch of old DMs might drag him in over his head. But he showed mastery over the rules and juggled difficult encounters featuring crowds of monsters.

This DM boasted a killer instinct. Someone in our group took a risk with something in the dungeon, and our DM said, “You’re dead. No save.” Fortunately, our party included two clerics, so death only slowed us a little. Welcome to tier 4.

The adventure climaxed in a set-piece battle with us mounted on dragons—or shapechanged into a dragon—chasing a giant airship as at raced to reach a cloud castle. An epic conclusion to an epic adventure. And to an epic convention.

Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions (Part 3)

By 1976, Dungeons & Dragons had reached beyond the audience of miniature gamers who stood a chance of understanding the inches, attack matrices, and Chainmail conventions spread across 7 little, brown books. Co-creator Gary Gygax saw his original rules limit D&D’s growth. He saw accessible imitators like Tunnels & Trolls and Warlock attract players.

But D&D’s sketchy rules caused other problems.

In Los Angeles in 1975, Lee Gold started Alarums & Excursions, a fanzine that collected articles and comments from D&D enthusiasts. Her zine attracted contributions by Gary Gygax and influenced the entire role-playing hobby. When the D&D house rules used around Caltech diverged from the brown books, Gold ruled that experience awarded in these Warlock games would no longer apply to characters in other Los Angeles D&D games. Her ruling appears in A&E issue 5, from October 1975.

In these days, players tended to take characters from one DM’s dungeon to another, much like today’s organized play brings players from one game table to another. The megadungeons of the era made dropping in for a delve easy—so long as the DMs ran similar games. But unlike today’s Adventurer’s League, the early games followed no campaign standards and shared no dungeons. Back then, every DM saw players bring outrageous characters from another dungeon.

In the March 1980 issue of Dragon, Gygax said that the original books “were hastily put together in late-night and spare-time hours, by and large, with little or no editing. Each supplement reflected development and evolution of the game, so there was contradiction, duplication, and vast areas of ambiguity and non-direction.”

Even if DMs played by the book, they disagreed about Gygax’s intentions. Old school gamers still dispute how Elves were supposed to switch between acting as a magic user and a fighting man. And to fill areas of “non-direction,” players needed house rules.

At best, house rules tended to get spread among players in a region, so nearby players might share rules for elves, morale, and negative hit points. These sorts of house rules turned into the Warlock rules and the Perrin Conventions.

D&D’s original rules invited so many house rules that players struggled to go from one DM to another. When players gathered at conventions, Gygax saw the trouble. “It’s very frustrating for someone to go from one place to another and sit in on a game that he or she doesn’t recognize and it’s called Dungeons and Dragons.”

At conventions, D&D games continued the wargaming tradition of competitive tournaments. The party that achieved the most won. For example, Tomb of Horrors debuted in a competition held at Origins in 1975. The G, D, and A-series adventures all came from tournaments. The first tournaments drew judges from Gary Gygax’s friends and family, but soon similar D&D competitions appeared everywhere.

Gygax understood that such events demanded a consistent set of rules. “I was not satisfied with Dungeons & Dragons in that it did not allow continuity of play from group to group and from region to region”

In the December 1977 issue of Dragon, Gygax recalled making a plan. “Two years ago, we determined to revise the whole of D&D in order to clean up the errors and fill in the holes. The project is a long and complicated one, a task not accomplished overnight.

“Some players have impatiently demanded immediate release of [revised] material, but we are not about to step into that mess again,” he wrote. “D&D originally came out as it did because of demands of those who had tested it and fallen in love with the concept.”

Gygax realized his revision would take years—ultimately 3 years of work. But D&D needed help immediately.

Help came from a man who had mixed D&D with the Warlock rules—a D&D “parody” that needled Gary Gygax. “As if by divine inspiration,” J. Eric Holmes contacted TSR and volunteered to revise the original rules into a beginners’ book.

Tim Kask recalls the decision to take D&D into two directions: “With the input from Mr. Holmes, they were going to scale back the system and rewrite it for a younger market in a form that would be easier to grasp.” With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, they would “re-publish the game, correcting all of the contradictions, and dropping bits and pieces that hadn’t worked well.”

Next: Recreating Dungeons & Dragons without Dave Arneson—while Dave works at TSR

Preparing to run an adventure as a dungeon master at a convention

In 1984 at Gen Con, I first served as an official dungeon master for a table full of strangers. I ran the adventure that would become I11 Needle. As I explained in “Running I11 Needle at Gen Con in 1984,” the session fell short of my standards. Frank Mentzer, please forgive me.

Needle Gen Con 17

Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17

In the years since, I’ve run many more convention games. I’ve improved. Sometimes I even meet my standards.

This year at Gen Con, I ran 8 D&D Adventurers League sessions. This post explains how I prepare these sessions.

I start by reading the adventure twice.

My first, quick read provides a high-level view. When I finish, I want to know the important characters, the expected course of events, and the clues that lead the player characters through these events.

Most adventures feature an overview intended to serve the purpose of my first read, but these summaries never seem to help me. When I take my first look at an adventure, I’m keenly interested in what leads the PCs through the narrative. But a typical summary just lists events: “After finding the casket of wrath, the characters go to confront Lady Frost.” I need to know what motivates the characters to go from one event to the next. Those leads become the most important clues I must communicate to the players.

The first read enables me to reread knowing which details merit careful attention. I can sift clues from set dressing, key characters from extras.

During the second read, I pay careful attention to the decisions the characters will face. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions. I tend to think a lot about the actions players might take during a session. Although I enjoy when players surprise me, I still imagine their likely choices and consider how to handle each one.

A 4-hour convention slot leaves little time for decisions that swing the course of an adventure. I want to present any real options to make them as interesting as possible. See “How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational.”

Even the best adventure authors sometimes make bad assumptions about what the players will do. See “Actions players always take and choices players never make.” For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen assumes players will join a caravan with some cultists transporting looted treasure and then travel for weeks—instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold. Like every D&D player ever. I wondered have the authors even played this game? (Answer: Yes. More than me, but perhaps not with so many strangers at recent conventions.)

Whenever I spot such an oversight, I plan on how to account for it. Will I reinforce the need to infiltrate the caravan? Will I present the cultists as too tough to confront? Will I let the players slay the cultists and then contrive a way to get the PCs to the next chapter. Sometimes I let players discover the risks of each option so players reach a dilemma. See “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.” Sometimes, I just make players understand the facts that make a bad strategy bad.

On my second read, I may mark up the pages. I cannot bear to mark up a hardcover adventure, but Adventurers League pages call for the red and blue pens.

Red and blue notes on page

Red and blue notes on page

In blue, I break the wall of text with sub-headings that flag key information. In play, I rarely scan my headings, but when I do, they can cut minutes of text skimming. Plus, the process of writing headings turns me into an active reader. I notice things that I might otherwise overlook. I remember more at the table, so I look down less.

In red, I write names and other bits of text I must find at a glance. Names always go in red, as do quotes that I might read as I glance down.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

On any dungeon maps, I note everything I need to know. My captions include monsters, locks, objects of interest, difficulty classes and so on. Ideally, I can run all the rooms from the map.

When I first started running organized-play adventures, I would work from a packet of pages. This led to disaster. As I referenced maps, monsters, and descriptions of encounter areas, I plucked them from the pile. Half way through the session, I faced a shuffled heap. While I spent minutes hunting for that one sheet, I stammered apologies.

color reference sheets and player handouts

Color reference sheets and player handouts

Now, all my adventures go into a loose-leaf binder with tabs separating each module. Double-sided printing makes the best use of space.

I print second copies of the maps and monsters on single-sided sheets of colored paper. I can pull my green, monster stats at a glance and I never lose them in a stack.

Player handouts, including magic-item descriptions and story awards, also go on colored paper and in the binder. If I plan to run an run an adventure more than once, I use card stock.

Printed urban battle map fits the encounter

A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter

For any of the adventure’s encounter areas, I look for pre-printed maps in my collection that suit the location. Many encounters rely on few specific details, so any map that captures a location’s flavor will serve.

When none of my existing maps fit, I might print or sketch a map in advance. If an adventure always lands PCs in a location, I’ll wind up drawing the map anyway. Drawing in advance saves time at the table. Plus, if I’m running an adventure more than once, more players can enjoy any effort I invest in maps.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper

Maps go into sheet-protector pockets and then into the binder near the encounter description. (For more on printing maps, see “How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.”)

Map in sheet protector paired with encounter

A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter

After years chasing miniatures, I can match most monsters with suitable figures. If I lack figures, I may use the excuse to add to my collection, or even fabricate a figure.

Miniatures for an adventure

Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure

No one leaves a D&D table annoyed because they needed to use imagination. So if you lack miniatures, you can bring tokens or even candy to represent monsters.

Finally, creating monster initiative tents in advance pays off at the table. When combat starts, ready-made monster tents avoid delay. Plus, pre-rolling gives me time to note key monster stats on the tents. This keeps things like Armor Class front-and-center rather than somewhere in a pile of green sheets. For my initiative tents and more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

How do you prepare for a published adventure?

Dungeons & Dragons at the 2016 Origins Game Fair

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

I photographed this multi-table megadungeon at Origins 2015

Multi-table megadungeon photographed at Origins 2015

Origins features reasonably priced options in a connected food court. Gamers can also walk to downtown restaurants or cross the street to the North Market. This pavilion features vendors selling Mexican, Indian, Polish, barbecue, Italian, sushi, and many other types of food.

Origins started in 1975 as a convention sponsored by wargaming-giant Avalon Hill in its home town of Baltimore. In tribute to Avalon Hill and its town’s role in the birth of hobby gaming, the convention took the name Origins.

In Origins’ early years, it became the convention where the board- and miniature-gaming enthusiasts could find refuge from the the role-playing gamers who infested their hobby and who took over Gen Con. In 1988, when Origins and Gen Con combined into a single event for a year, those old wargamers grumbled.

Compared to Gen Con, Origins still tilts more toward board and miniature games. It shows fewer signs of fan culture like anime screenings, celebrity guests, and costumes.

In a recap, Andrew Smith writes, “If you’ve been at Gen Con when the Hall opens, you may be envisioning crowds of thousands of people waiting by the doors. Origins is quite different. We got in line a few minutes before opening and were probably behind 20-30 people in a single file line. It’s a completely different atmosphere.” Unlike Gen Con, board game demos spill out into a patchwork of territories outside the exhibit hall. This offers more hours to sample games, more space, and more affordable space for the manufacturers. “Demo lines are shorter and publishers just seem less busy and able to really sit and discuss their games.

This year, Wizards of the Coast made a strategic move to avoid Gen Con and feature Origins. Members of D&D team, including Mike Mearls, Chris Perkins, Chris Lindsay, and Trevor Kidd visited the con, while none will reach Gen Con.

As with Winter Fantasy and Gen Con, the folks at Baldman Games operated D&D organized play. The con launched a new program where conventions can commission Adventurers League adventures for their events. The organizers gain exclusive access to their content for six months before releasing it to the world at the Dungeon Masters Guild. Adventures in this new program will center on the Forgotten Realms Moonsea region.

The new Baldman Games adventures included a trilogy of adventures set in Melvaunt and four adventures set in Hillsfar, which were were reserved for D&D Experience players. On the Down with D&D podcast, the Bald Man, Dave Christ, talked about commissioning top authors to launch his exclusives. “With this being the first one, I wanted to set the bar really high. I wanted to kind of knock it out of the park.

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

The D&D experience pairs tables of six players with the same, top-rated DM for all four adventures. My table’s judge, Krishna Simonse, did an outstanding job accommodating our taste for combat challenges harder than the adventure’s strong level and our love of grids.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

In addition to the exclusive content, the convention premiered the final, season 4 Curse of Strahd adventures and the kickoff for the season 5 Storm King’s Thunder story.

For me, the con’s best moments came with the return of the D&D Open. I explained what made this classic so great in, “Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.”

The new Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley captured all the challenge that made the old event such a blast.

In eight hours, the new Open aimed to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments.

Me in black at the D&D Open—despite our game face, we're having fun

My D&D Open team, with me in black, listening intently to the DM’s description of our next challenge.

Most of the event pitted players against an old-school funhouse adventure set in the megadungeon of Undermountain. Here the challenges proved as fun as any tournament I’ve played. I loved how so many locations wrapped combat encounters with puzzles to be solved. In a maze, PCs raced to gather clues while fleeing minotaurs and mind flayers. In castle ruins, PCs needed to find a way to turn catapults against a Death Tyrant. Best of all, the authors made the new Open hard—none of the namby-pamby, say-yes, everybody-is-a-star D&D in fashion now. Characters died. Our table saw one character Plane Shifted to certain doom and a second slain by a death ray. Save or die! Gary would be pleased.

For a climax, the tables joined forces against a diabolic machine constructed by Halaster, the mad architect of Undermountain.  Sean Molley showed astonishing ability to speak loudly enough to be heard from the far side of the ballroom while still taunting us in the Doofenshmirtz-like voice of Halaster.

I still wish for a more rigorous tournament with pregenerated characters, multiple rounds, and elite dungeon masters striving for consistent rulings and style. The D&D team sees that style of tournament as history. For most players, the new Open probably offers more fun. For an old grump like me, the Open still ranked as my best game of the year.

Wizards is already hatching plans for next year’s Open. Based on the event’s success, I suspect they will offer this year’s adventure to other conventions, but that remains undecided.

In all, Origins 2016 ran twice as many Adventurers League tables as in 2015.

The Origins Game Fair returns to Columbus on June 14-18th of 2017. See you there.

Next: Spells that fish for spoilers

Gaming at the Winter Fantasy Convention

Imagine taking the Dungeons & Dragons track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, and dropping it into a convention of its own.

The Winter Fantasy convention has always been tied to Dungeons & Dragons. The convention started in 1977, in D&D’s hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The co-dungeon master in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, Rob Kuntz, organized the first Winter Fantasy. For five years, the convention even switched names to D&D Experience.

Winter Fantasy boasts as many D&D Adventurers League games as much larger conventions. Unlike Gen Con, players without advance tickets can always find a open seat. Unlike Gen Con, most tables seated six players rather than squeezing in a seventh.

dmdavid at winter fantasy

Teos “Alphastream” Abadia snapped this picture, which included me, on the far left, playing Hillsfar Reclaimed

The convention occupies a single exhibition hall in the Grand Wayne Convention Center.

With a return to the Winter Fantasy name, and free of the Wizards of the Coast corporate umbrella, the convention embraces other games.

Pathfinder Society

Pathfinder Society

Collectible card games

Collectible card games

board games

The same vast lending library of board games available at the big conventions

Who wants to visit Fort Wayne, Indiana in February, when the small city suffers snow and frigid temperatures? The slow season means that the cozy convention can afford a first-class facility. Rooms in the hotels connected to the convention center come with off-season prices.

Grand Wayne Convention Center

Grand Wayne Convention Center

The convention debuted a new D&D Epic adventure, Reclamation of Phlan, which followed nearly all the advice I gave in “How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever.” Players could choose missions. They could seek harder encounters in their quest for glory. The event fostered interactivity by letting parties both unlock areas of the map and win benefits for other tables. Did Will Doyle, the epic’s designer, read my post? Probably not, but he surely drew inspiration from some of the same Epics and Battle Interactives that informed me. The effort and imagination Will put into this adventure stunned me.

D&D Tables

D&D games

For me, this Epic’s design ranked with the best. Plus the game dominated the hall, so players could hear most of the announcements and see a projected display of the battle’s progress.

Reclamation of Phlan - librarians vs. devils

Reclamation of Phlan – librarians vs. devils

This adventure featured the shtick of having a boss monster tour tables, trading attacks at each stop. That mechanic still failed to win me over. The dragon never visited my table, and my players clearly felt robbed of a final battle that never reached them. They waited for a climax that never came, only hearing about it from a distant part of the room. Organized play leaders must have an outsize love of this gimmick because they tour with the dragon, so they catch all the fun and none of the letdown. To be fair, the mechanic probably works with from three to five tables per boss.

Winter Fantasy attracts D&D’s most enthusiastic fans. Players tend to bring their best characters to the Epic adventures, so the tables skew to higher tiers. Of more than 30 tables seated for Reclamation of Phlan, only two played the low tier. I ran an high-tier table, giving me my first chance to pit PCs against an archmage with spells like Time Stop. Luckily for characters, I did not pick the wizard’s spells.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace

Much of the convention, I ran Robert Adducci’s adventure Szith Morcaine Unbound. This adventure inspired my post on the value of random chance in a role-playing game session. The expedition proved as fun as I hoped, with lots of paths for the players. Among the passionate fans at Winter Fantasy, I met many who play adventures more than once, and Szith Morcaine Unbound offers variety for multiple runs. In the adventure, the fire giants and their allies did better job of challenging mid-tier characters than the foes in earlier adventures. Robert told me that as the Adventurers League team sees more play, they’ve become better at calibrating challenges for higher-level characters. As expected, the four-hour convention slot required me to steer some of the encounter rolls to finish on time. In a looser setting, the adventure offers enough options for twice the game.

My version of the Forge of Surtr

Dengor faces a shapechanged druid in the Forge of Surtr. (I changed maps.)

At Gen Con, players who chose the D&D Experience track felt the extra hundred dollars they spent gained little more than a table of six rather than seven. The organizers heard the complaints and strove for a more premium experience. This time, my friends in the Experience liked extra perks such as sessions run by Adventurers League administrators and designer Mike Mearls. John “Radiating Gnome” Jones shared his impressions with me. “The author-only adventures we played were all awesome—challenging, a little different, and playing with the adventure’s writer is a real treat. We had great DMs for all of our D&D Experience games.

It was also nice to not have to worry about mustering. We had an assigned table for the whole weekend and always knew where we would be playing. We had access to a steady supply of bottled water and snacks, and could take advantage of a volunteer to help coordinate food delivery if we wanted it. (We never used that service, but saw others doing it.)

That’s all for Winter Fantasy 2016. I hope to see you all there next year.

Running Shackles of Blood: Making the good adventure into a great session

The free, issue 4 of Dragon+ includes the Dungeons & Dragons module Shackles of Blood by Joshua Kelly. This adventure comes from the Adventurers League Expeditions program. Normally, this program only lets you play such adventures in public venues such as game stores and at conventions, so the download introduces home players to the program. Shackles of Blood features a turning point in the Rage of Demons storyline, and concludes with an unforgettable final battle.

Shackles of Blood flooded arena

Shackles of Blood – the finale in a flooded arena

At this year’s Gen Con, I ran Shackles of Blood several times. Now, I will tell you how to make this good module into a great play experience.

If you plan to play this adventure, stop reading now. But if you intend to run it as a dungeon master, or simply want to peer under the hood with me, keep reading.

The dungeon master’s dilemma

The thorniest aspect of Shackles of Blood stems from the way leads characters into a virtually unwinnable encounter. The set up serves the aim of capturing the PCs so they wind up in that great final battle. During one session I ran, when the players’ capture left them feeling defeated, one said, “Don’t worry, this just leads to the last encounter and, trust me, you want to play the last encounter!” He had already playtested the adventure.

At Gen Con, the dungeon masters running Shackles felt conflicted about sending players into an encounter they could not expect to win or even avoid. Most DMs feel that railroading ranks as the worst abuse of their power. To be fair, none of the players at my tables felt railroaded. They had never read the adventure, so they never knew it was a setup.

The setup

The adventure begins with PCs charged with finding a family of halflings, the Tinfellows, who disappeared from a valley near the city of Hillsfar.

Meanwhile, a group of Hillsfar’s Red Plume guards plots to capture the PCs so they can be forced to fight in the city’s arena. Even if the PCs avoid an ambush, their investigation leads them to be overwhelmed by Red Plumes firing crossbow bolts laced with sleeping poison.

Tactics for the Red Plumes

When the Red Plumes battle the PCs, they fire crossbow bolts until one of the PCs fails a save and falls unconscious. Then a Red Plume can bring a knife to the sleeping character’s throat and the demand surrender in exchange for the character’s life. Of course, he’s bluffing, but the players will typically stand down. Because they chose to surrender, they feel like heroes opting to fight another time. Any PCs who call the bluff become the focus of attack.

In the battle with the Red Plumes, avoid letting the PCs scatter so that some escape. Hold a few Red Plumes back at the perimeter of the battle. Some PCs may still use invisibility or other tricks to get loose. If they succeed, a divided party makes running the adventure a bit more challenging, but the free PCs will trail any captives.

Plan B

If the players manage “the impossible dream” of escaping the Red Plumes, the adventure supposes that the party will return to their patron. (They probably won’t. See “Choices players never make.”) She tells them to get captured intentionally. After the players win against impossible odds, they must go back to lose on purpose. How unsatisfying!

Normally, players would trash a lousy plan that puts them in shackles and deprives them of their gear, but for the sake of the adventure, they will abide. Then you, as the DM, must improvise a narrative that puts players into chains.

Dismantling that unseen railroad requires a better plan B. Here is what I recommend.

In the unlikely event that the players escape capture during their investigation, they cannot rescue the entire family of Tinfellows. In my tweak, the players can rescue some of the Tinfellows, but most have been sent ahead to the arena at Hillsfar. Now, whether the players get captured or not, they must return to Hillsfar to rescue Tinfellows from certain death.

This pursuit leads the PCs to a meeting with Margery “Mags” Thrier outside the Hillsfar arena.

Unless your table features the first-ever all-human band of adventurers since the era of little brown books, the party must find a way to get their non-humans into Hillsfar and to the arena. Some party members might adopt disguises—it works for Breex Vandermast. Others could pose as captives bound for the arena. If you prefer to avoid this challenge, move Mags and the slave market outside the Hillsfar gates.

Mags explains that she purchased the Tinfellows legally and refuses to relinquish her property without compensation. The Tinfellows languish somewhere deep under the arena, slated to fight, and undoubtedly die tomorrow. If the players would be willing to trade places in the upcoming battle, Mags will set the family free.

Mags’s pet Goliath tries to startle the players. When they prove their nerve, she questions them about their combat experience. Inevitably, some party members will rise to pose as tough guys.

If the players worry that Mags will betray them, she steps to a betting kiosk and places a bet on the PCs in the next day’s battle of the bell. “Now if you lose, I lose, but I have a feeling about you lot.”

Once the players agree to take the Tinfellow’s place, Mags warns that if they fail to fight, the Tinfellows will fight, and die, in an upcoming contest.

Because of the non-human PCs, the entire party must surrender to the guards and go to that cage on the arena floor.

Dismantling the railroad

Now that you have a plan B that leads to the final encounter, you don’t need the PCs to lose to the Red Plumes. Instead, that confrontation can end in a draw or even a win. The Red Plume captain has no reason to see his men die in a fight with the PCs. If the players slay a couple guards, I suggest having the captain call a truce. He can tell the players that the Tinfellows have already been sold to Mags at the arena in Hillsfar. He might even promise not to take any more captives from the hills. You can decide whether he tells the truth.

Meeting Breex Vandermast

The half-orc sorcerer Breex Vandermast serves as the adventure’s final villain.

Whether the players find themselves on the arena as willing or unwilling fighters, they must meet Breex before the battle. This can happen as written, on the road to Hillsfar, or later with the PCs caged on the arena floor.

Either way, Breex tells the PCs how much he will relish seeing them die in the arena. He taunts the non-human characters for their filthy taint, and then turns his disgust on the humans for joining such rubbish. Describe Breex’s filed down canine teeth. Tell how his ears appear clipped to a human roundness, and how he wears a powder that lends his skin a more human tone. When the players identify Breex as half orc, I guarantee that his hypocrisy and bigotry will inflame them. During the arena contest, my players searched the stands for Breex, eager for a chance to strike at him.

The Bell in the Depths

The adventure ends with a battle in the Hillsfar arena that pits the PCs against a team of halfling gladiators. The contest spans platforms erected over the flooded arena floor. Both sides race to ring a bell atop a central tower.

Describe the battleground as fenced and flooded enclosure on the larger arena floor. That way, when blood-crazed spectators spill onto the floor to climb the pool’s walls and tear at its bolsters, its collapse and sudden draining seems inevitable.

Shackles of Blood - drained arena

Shackles of Blood – drained arena

In the battle of the bell, a 15-foot gap separates the halflings’ tower from the bell tower. The halfling thugs have a 15 strength, so they can jump that gap. This means that if the halflings win initiative, they could ring the bell before the players even act. Let the halflings’ overconfidence and their urge to preen for the crowd slow their assault on the bell. On their first turn, the thugs take positions on the bell tower.

The halfling spies can use Cunning Action to gain an extra dash action on their turns. If the halfling druid casts Longstrider on a spy, the ally can cross the arena quickly and assault any PCs who choose to stay on their tower. In my sessions, the druid never managed to concentrate on Barkskin long enough to matter, so Longstrider made a better buff. Because the druid lacks long-range attacks, don’t make him an easy target. Instead, he buffs allies and carefully advances into Thunderwave range.

A halfling who uses a dash action can swim the 4 squares from a starting tower to an assault tower in a single turn. That pace brings them out of the water before the quippers can attack.

Don’t bother holding Breex’s entry until all the halflings have been incapacitated. Bring him out when the contest starts to lull. The players will be eager for the showdown.

As the Red Plumes struggle to quell riots, the PCs will have no trouble rescuing the Tinfellows. After prevailing in the arena battle, the players will feel they earned this easy success.

How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons reached stores in 2000. Its popularity fueled a number of “living” campaigns similar to today’s Adventurers League and Pathfinder Society. One such campaign, Living Arcanis hosted an event called The Battle of Semar at the Winter Fantasy convention. This event billed itself as a Battle Interactive. Before then, living campaigns held plain interactives. Paizo Publisher Erik Mona recalls, “Prior to Living Arcanis, most (if not all) interactives involved players wandering around a room with several ‘activity booths,’ occasional mini-adventures, and other non-adventure opportunities. The idea (though not wholly the practice) was that once you stepped into an interactive, you ‘were’ your character, and in-character chatter was highly encouraged.” The Battle of Semar gathered many tables of players to fight together toward the common goal of freeing the fortress city of Semar. The session might not have been the first such epic event, but it popularized the form. Suddenly every living campaign sponsored battle interactives. The format lives on in the D&D Epics and the Pathfinder Society Specials.

These multi-table, epic events have brought some of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons game sessions. At big conventions, they gather hundreds of players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective.

Just 3 years ago, I stumbled into serving as a dungeon master in my first such event: ADCP4-2 Lost City of Suldolphor by Dan Anderson. I had a blast. Since then, I’ve run tables at five epic events, and played in two more. Still, that first one stands as my favorite.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

This year, after running a table for DDEP2 Mulmaster Undone, the first of Gen Con’s two Epics, I tweeted, “Have the D&D Epics lost the plot? Recently they are fun but not special.” The event gave no sense of adventuring parties joining in a grand endeavor, and no interaction between tables.

The convention venue created many of the problems: Organizers could not use a public address system. They could not project results on a large screen. The schedule created severe time constraints. By the end, when the organizer would have announced results, the convention center cut the lights and power. But even aside from these handicaps, this Epic lacked the ambition of my first Battle Interactive.

The experience made me think of my past events, the many elements that I loved, and some elements that fell flat. I wondered how to build the best multi-table epic ever.

For more than 10 years, volunteers and professionals in the gaming community have written and organized these events. Some draw on experience that dwarfs mine. So who am I to explain how to create the most epic event ever? Nobody. Nonetheless, I will tell you what made my favorite events so good, how future events might even be better, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth. If no one sounds off to tell me where I’m wrong, I’ll be disappointed.

Gather the room with a role-playing performance

The Lost City of Suldolphor did not begin with a dungeon master reading box text. Instead, Dan Anderson and M. Sean Molly stood at the front of the banquet hall, and performed as WeavePasha and Ala’Ammar, the adventurers’ patrons. This bit of theater did a far better job of setting the scene than any lone DM could have. Plus it brought the room together in a common mission. From the start, we were no longer separate tables isolated in our separate teams. We stood as a league of heroes standing together in a great fight.

No battle interactive or epic should ever begin with individual DM’s introducing their tables to the adventure. Setting the scene calls for a bit of theater. Don’t tell me our hobby lacks enough story tellers and role players to put on a show.

Establish a goal for everyone, and then show their progress

Epic events unite players at many game tables to reach a common goal. Each table’s success contributes to the final outcome. While players at the tables race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war.

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories captured, and MacGuffins claimed. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they must see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Without an ongoing show of progress, epic events play less like games and more like tests: Everyone works alone, stops, and then gets the results. The lack cripples the event.

Embrace the fight for glory

Especially at Gen Con’s Epic events, the marshals who match players with DMs face an extra challenge: Many of their DMs are new to running for strangers, so they want easier, low-level tables. Meanwhile, high-level tables fill most of the room. For epic events, players typically bring their highest-level characters. Everyone wants to show off their strongest character; everyone wants their best shot at glory.

With a big stage and a shared goal, epic events fuel gamers’ competitive fire. They want to bring attention to their table and to their characters. This makes players rush to complete as many challenges as possible, to contribute as much as possible to the community’s success, to bring glory to their table and their PCs. The urgency creates an electric atmosphere that no single-table session can match.

The best epic events embrace the hunger for glory. They offer more challenges than the players can handle and the hardest challenges the players dare to accept. Players inclined to fight for the spotlight should have a chance to take it. Just as knights once competed to take the vanguard in the battle, tables could compete to take the most dangerous—and glorious—tasks. For a taste of glory, some players will even sacrifice beloved characters to suicide missions.

Focus on combat encounters and clear challenges.

A year after my first battle interactive, I served as a DM in my second. For me, this session didn’t feel like as much of a smash has that first event.

This adventure featured an assortment of challenges contributed by various authors. Some of the challenges came as battles, others offered skill challenges or even role playing diversions. Something for everyone, except the battlefield reports on the projection screen kindled my players’ taste for glory. When the adventure led to role playing, they grew frustrated by the pace. The organizers wanted a certain number of parties to tackle each encounter, so I could not always steer the players to challenges that would suit them. I worry that I failed to leave all the players happy with the session.

Fifth-edition D&D accommodates all play styles, but not every event must fit all play styles. D&D epics work best with short, clear missions. The Living Forgotten Realms Battle-interactive adventures included this disclaimer: “This adventure is combat-intensive. Players who do not enjoy combat encounters are less likely to enjoy this adventure.” A good epic event might allow players to choose role-playing challenges, but it cannot require them. When the event results begin to appear on the screen, few players have patience for tangents. An epic event that forces every play style fails to play to the epic format’s strengths.

Offer players a choice of challenges

This year at Gen Con, I ran a table at the low-level track of DDEP3 Blood Above Blood Below. The scenario put PCs in a gladiatorial contest that evoked the spectacles of imperial Rome. Scattered across a massive, flooded arena stood a number of platforms patterned after the cities on the Moonsea. For example, the Mulmaster platform punished characters who used arcane magic. Characters boarded boats and raced to capture flags from the platforms.

This buffet of challenges proved brilliant. From a distance, the PCs could see enough of each platform’s encounter to create meaningful choices. Players selected targets that suited their interests and their characters’ strengths.

The abundance of islands led players to move as fast as they dared to tackle as many challenges as possible. Critically, no table could collect all the flags.

In the same event, another track included a single, big challenge. I loved the track’s adventure, but some tables finished early and their players started begging for chances to help at other tables.

Epic events should always have more challenges and more encounters than any single table can complete in the time allotted.

The choice doesn’t have to come from a buffet. Players could also choose from a menu, with scouting reports that suggest the style a difficulty of the challenges.

Let players find a difficulty level

An epic event at a major convention welcomes a range of players and characters. Some tables feature folks still learning the game. Others include tacticians and min-maxers seeking to dominate encounters, the harder the better. Events like the Lost City of Suldolphor accommodated disparate skill levels by giving players a chance to choose a level of difficulty ranging up to glory—there’s that word again. The tactical gamers could flaunt their skills by selecting the most difficult level. Plus, they could hardly complain if some of their heroes fell in battle.

A clever event could even allow players to select a difficulty with the in the game setting. In the early days of D&D, players chose a difficulty level by choosing how deep into the dungeon they dared to explore. Epic events could parcel out missions of various difficulty and let tables choose which ones they wished to tackle.

Harder challenges might contribute more toward victory, although the contributions must be scaled by tier so even beginning PCs can weigh in the outcome.

Set party objectives that contribute to the overall goal

Some multi-table events have a shtick where a boss monster visits each table like the bride and groom at a wedding reception. Each table gets an exchange of attacks, schedule permitting.

Confrontation at Candlekeep put PCs in towers and flew a colossal dragon to each. I saw a PC jump on the dragon and ride table to table. The player was giddy. In an unforgettable moment of glory, he seized the spotlight at every table. The event led the designer to add the tactic to the encounter description.

However, these multi-table tours suffer drawbacks. When the boss leaves, no one at the table wants to go back to fighting mooks. That battle feels now meaningless, and probably is. Then when the boss finally falls, most players just hear cheers from another table. Most do not share the victory, or even feel they contributed much. The climactic win feels like a letdown. At a big con in a noisy room, I have sat at tables that never even heard their battle’s conclusion.

In the strongest multi-table finales, each table works to accomplish a separate objective that contributes to the overall goal. Perhaps each table must destroy some fragment of an artifact, or close a planar rift while monsters spill out, or slay a creature that carries a fragment of the master’s soul. Fantasy opens limitless options and plenty of monsters for everyone.

Foster interactivity

Without interaction between tables, epic events feel much like any other D&D game, so designers keep looking for ways to encourage interaction. I’ve seen promising techniques, but none have cracked the problem.

Many events let players call for help from other tables. But in play, players virtually never seek help. Folks play D&D to act as powerful heroes. No one wants to beg help from strangers. They would rather die fighting.

Another approach lets events at one table spill to other tables, as when a hero at one table jumps on a dragon and rides it to the next. Most commonly, the head DM announces an event when, say, a table completes an objective, and then DMs at the tables act on it.

A multi-table battle needs these sorts of events to feel interactive, but they create challenges with communication, interruptions, and for me at least, information retrieval.

I’ve seem two types of communication: table flags and announcements. Table flags let players at one table call for help. In other words, they go unused. Announcements broadcast events and conditions to the room. They work fine, especially in quieter venues, but they don’t suit messages to just a few tables.

Event announcements create interruptions. In practice, I cannot stop a player mid-turn to resolve some new event, so I have to wait and find the right moment. Sometimes, when I like the pace and energy at the table, I am slow to add a new ingredient. In practice, interaction is worth a few interruptions.

When interruptions come, I must find the rules for the new event in the adventure. Modules tend to describe an adventures progression in the order of events, but interruptions come out of order. The description could be—and has been—anywhere in a hundred-plus pages. I hate stopping the action for even a minute while I go hunting.

I would enjoy seeing interaction created by passing items like keys, scrolls, clues, and PCs on dragons from one table to another. For instance one table’s success could unlock challenges that another could tackle. This sort of interaction could be driven by handouts that explain the new event to the players and provide a page number for the DM. This sort of messaging might come with an order of communication, so the DM at table 5 knows to pass the key to table 4, and that if the creature escapes, it goes to table 6.

Create decisions for the room.

Some Battle Interactives offered another trick for uniting the room. They created decisions to be shared by the players in the room. For instance Lost City of Suldolphor had players decide whether enslaved elementals should be freed or whether they should remain bound to improve the odds in an upcoming battle. ADCP5-1 Home’s Last Light asked players to decide whether to destroy a city so its invaders would gain nothing from capturing it. Both ethical questions gave players a chance to step into their characters head and contribute to the decision in a bit of role-playing.