Tag Archives: Murder in Baldur’s Gate

How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads

Way back in “The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I confessed that whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. The characters inevitably sidle around the statue, expecting it to animate and attack. This trick never fails to amuse me. Does this make me a mean dungeon master?

When players metagame, they use information from outside the game world to make choices for their characters in the game, even though the characters would lack this information.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for three reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If players know that every figure on the battlemap will have a role in the fight, no statue is safe a preemptive strike. But if you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that defy the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
  • I’m a mean dungeon master.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

Most commonly, I toy with three metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption  Countermeasure 
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. This helps set the scene, and the players become jumpy, expecting a fight. I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If an NPC or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. The recent Murder in Balur’s Gate launch adventure called for a ton of bystanders. More to the point, bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s bones lines.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. The fourth-edition design turns this into a bigger problem than with earlier editions, because players have more resources to save for the final showdown. Metagaming and fourth-edition design leads to the sort of trouble I described in “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master? Vary your adventures from the expected route to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start. Dan Anderson stands out as an author of Living Forgotten Realms adventures that defy expectations. For instance, in CALI3-3 Agony of Almraiven, the tough fight comes as an ambush in the middle of the adventure.
Everyone has access to the same information. In most sessions, the whole game proceeds with every player at the same table hearing everything the DM has to say. In the game world, not every character knows what the others know. When a character becomes privy to sensitive information, you can take the player aside to share it. If your players cooperate and everyone always reports back, private asides take more time that they merit. On the other hand, if someone enjoys playing the furtive, scheming type, keeping some things secret adds intrigue. If you only take the assassin’s player aside to ask, “Seen any good movies lately?” everyone else will think the assassin hides something. I think inter-party strife poisons too many of the games that allow it, so be careful with this suggestion.

Next: Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try.

What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing

As a dungeon master, I’m still learning. When I ran the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure at Gen Con, I had an ah-ha moment (more of a well-duh moment) and a lesson.

At the convention, Wizards of the Coast showed the Dungeons & Dragons Next rules and teased the Murder in Baldur’s Gate Encounters season with a launch adventure. This adventure does not come to an ending, but rather stops at the beginning. According Wizard’s plan, players finish the launch clamoring to participate in Encounters or ready to purchase Murder in Baldur’s Gate for home play. By my account, players enjoyed the launch.

But I had a problem. The slim Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure barely requires more time to run than a typical Encounters session, just two hours with the fast-playing D&D next rules. But Wizards scheduled the adventure for four-hour slots. Now Gen Con offers plenty of fun diversions, so no players will feel unhappy about finishing an bit early, but could I wrap a four-hour slot in just two hours and leave paying customers feeling satisfied? I wasn’t alone in my concern. At the judge kick-off meeting, all the dungeon masters seemed to be sharing ideas for stretching maximum play out of the adventure.

One Murder in Baldur’s Gate judge built this stunning 3D map for the encounter

One Murder in Baldur’s Gate judge built this stunning 3D map for the encounter

To be fair, the adventure packs information about the sights and personalities of Baldur’s Gate. Obviously, the authors supposed dungeon masters would take players on a leisurely tour of the city, filled with role playing as characters browse the marketplace and chat up prominent non-player characters for the pure joy of it.

As a frequent convention judge, I have never encountered an adventure that runs short. At best, a well-timed Living Forgotten Realms adventure finishes just shy of four-hours, with time for the last scene with a grateful patron, a division of treasure, and paperwork. But lots of LFR adventures tend to run long, with no extra time for tangents, slow play, or, heaven forbid, parties that lack strikers. I have ample experience hurrying play without making players feel hurried. I have zero experience stretching a two-hour adventure to three without making players feel idle.

The first time I ran the launch adventure, I lingered as long as I dared on the flavor of the city, trotting out the whole cast of NPCs, and hoping the players would bite on some of the opportunities for interaction. I hardly got any nibbles, but still I thought I did a pretty good job of drawing things out—until I looked at my watch. Damn. Done in two short hours.

The adventure suffers from the problem I griped about in “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” While it presented plenty of opportunities for role playing, it fails to give players any objectives that encouraged it. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

For my second run, I dangled more diversions such as a fortune teller, a chance to profit from a buy-low-sell-high transaction in the marketplace, some suspicious activity, and plenty of villains monologing. The adventure includes pages of background that would be unnoticed by anyone who never player the Baldur’s Gate computer games, so the extra business allowed me to expose some of it. The players seemed to have fun and the adventure seemed to run longer, but again it wrapped in two hours. Adding to my sense of failure, one of my player’s complained about the short adventure. “The ticket promises a four hour adventure!” He carefully shielded his feedback form as he no doubt wrote harsh words about the overly-brief session IN ALL CAPS.

Later I spoke to some friends who had played at a nearby table, and whose DM resorted to halving damage to draw out the adventure. They envied my table’s quicker pace, but I felt no consolation.

That night, a light went on in my thick skull. My problem had less to do with players uninterested in role playing than with the social contract of convention play. When my players opted not to speak with the wine seller, they simply wished to avoid side-tracking or delaying the adventure. Well, duh. “We can’t talk now, an adventure is about to begin!” I could not simply tempt the players with opportunities to role play, I had to accost them. The players must feel free to respond to the fish-monger, realizing that he is part of the adventure. If the players show a lack of interest, fine. At the next stall, an old lady will plead for help finding a cat, and did anyone notice the sharp-eyed guy posing as drunk?

For my next run, I loosed every diversion in my bag of tricks, singling out and accosting players with NPCs and events that might interest them. For example, because one pregen’s sailor background inspired a player to role play a crusty sea salt, the exotic bird vendor (already in the adventure!) invited her to try a parrot on for size. Soon, I had the whole table engaged in the local color of Baldur’s Gate. No one ever seemed impatient for the real action to start. When the adventure wrapped, I checked the time and found that more than three hours had passed. Success!

I still feel that best way to engage players in role playing is still to give objectives that require it. However, I have learned that sometimes players just need to realize that role playing will not side-track or delay the main event. Just give the role-playing opportunities the same weight as the other parts of the adventure.

Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City

I’m back from Gen Con and four days of terrific gaming.

For this year, Wizards of the Coast elected to focus its attention on exposing as many as possible to Dungeons & Dragons Next, and so they dropped all Living Forgotten Realms events from the convention. Pushing D&D Next seemed to work. Players new to D&D Next filled my tables and I met a lot of Pathfinder devotees willing to sample the new D&D system.

The lack of LFR disappointed some players and judges, but I appreciated the chance to run D&D Next for the first time. The absence of LFR at this convention doesn’t signal the end of fourth edition or of Living Forgotten Realms. New LFR adventures are coming. The Winter Fantasy convention will feature a slate of LFR events, including a new, paragon-level battle interactive.

2013 D&D Championship - battling Zargon in the lost city

2013 D&D Championship – battling Zargon in the lost city

Although I dungeon mastered the Crisis in Candlekeep delve twice, my DM highlights came from running the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure three times. Murder in Baldur’s Gate forced me to develop an aspect of my DM skills that I’ve rarely exercised in the past. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

As usual, playing the 2013 Dungeons & Dragons Championship delivered as much fun as I ever have playing D&D. The Championship features a lethal adventure intended to test even the best teams of players. The unforgiving challenge brings a sense of peril that you never see in typical adventures, because in typical adventures the odds always favor the players. The event’s time pressure amps up the urgency and demands fast play.

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

This year the author of the championship adventure, M. Sean Molley, created a tribute to the 1982 Lost City adventure by Tom Moldvay. The first round dared teams to recover three staffs from locations in the lost city. Earlier fourth edition championships played solely as tactical miniature battles, but this year’s adventure added puzzles to the mix—a welcome nod to the old tournament classics. The final round required characters to use the staffs in a fight to destroy past and present versions of Zargon, the evil demigod of the lost city. I marvel at how skillfully a battle with so many variables was balanced on the narrow line between difficult and impossible.

As a dungeon master, I admire the DMs in the championship, who must play fast, fair, and show total command of the rules. They do enjoy some perks: Where else can a DM coupe de grace a fallen character without straining D&D’s social contract? Even among this elite crew, our DMs Brian and Sean stood out as exceptional. Plus, our DM for the finals happened to be the adventure’s author.

I played on the team that claimed second place—for the third year in a row. We’re like the 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills of the D&D Championship. Still, I’m thrilled to do well.

Will next year’s Championship be the first to feature the next iteration of the D&D rules?

Multiple attacks, ability checks, and keyed illustrations revisited

Murder In Baldur's Gate Launch Weekend

Murder In Baldur’s Gate Launch Weekend

At Gen Con 2013, I’ll be running the Dungeons & Dragons Next adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate most mornings and afternoons. If you attend Gen Con, check my photo in my About section, and then find me and say hello. In real life, I’m less grainy and less out of focus.

I have yet to run D&D Next, so I’m studying the latest rules packet. After the convention, I plan to write some posts discussing aspects of the design. Until then, I want to revisit a few topics.

In “Changing the balance of power,” I told how D&D Next’s flattened to-hit bonuses weakened high-level fighters against low-level enemies. “Fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.” I mentioned that restoring multiple attacks would restore the balance. Perhaps the designers reached the same conclusion, because the latest playtest packet grants multiple attacks to fighters and to some other classes.

The playtest package’s DM Guidlines advise skipping ability checks when a character uses a high ability score: “Take into account the ability score associated with the intended action. It’s easy for someone with a Strength score of 18 to flip over a table, though not easy for someone with a Strength score of 9.” As I explained in “In D&D Next, ability modifiers are too small for the ability check mechanic,” the current D&D Next rules practically require this sort of DM intervention because the system fails to give someone with Strength 18 a significant edge over a Strength 9 character. The result of the d20 roll swamps the puny +4 bonus. In practice, the system math makes flipping the table only sightly easier at strength 18.

Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur's Gate

Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur’s Gate

In “It’s Mathemagical!,” Mike Mearls discusses plans to introduce escalating ability-check bonuses of up to +12. This may finally give exceptional characters a chance to stand out from ordinary characters—at least at higher levels. Still, the game screams for a system where abilities grant bigger bonuses to ability checks. If a +1 bonus per ability point worked for Moldvay in 1981, then it works in Next. Why not adopt the steeper bonuses? I assume that the designers feel wedded to using the same ability bonuses for ability checks as for attacks and saves.

Way back in “Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations,” I praised the face cards Paizo produces to accompany their adventure paths, so I’m delighted to see similar cards packaged with the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure.

Pyramid of Shadows - View of the Bridge

Pyramid of Shadows – View of the Bridge

In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I shared my love of the keyed illustrations included in some early adventures. I lamented how TSR and Wizards seemed to have abandoned this enhancement. Recently, a clearance sale prompted me to buy most of the 9 original adventures shipped for fourth edition. To my surprise, many of these adventures include keyed illustrations. In Pyramid of Shadows, a dungeon with a classic feel, the illustrations seem to hold clues to the adventures or show complicated scenes too difficult to describe, so the pictures compliment the adventure perfectly. In some of the other adventures, the illustrations simply add flavor.