Tag Archives: organized play

My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet

The end of a session in my local game store brings the worst part of my role as a dungeon master. Then, I inevitability struggle to explain the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League advancement and reward system to casual players who just stopped by to roll dice, kill monsters, and collect loot. “No, you don’t keep the gold. Instead, you get treasure checkpoints.” As players grapple with D&D without XP and with a treasure allowance, I show pages from the campaign documentation. “See, this evergreen list shows things you can get with points.” The players take the pages, and I start searching through another document. “The costs aren’t printed there, so you have to check this list, but then you need to reference the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.” Casual players who just drop in for a D&D game often lack a Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I don’t see new players every week, but even repeat players need repeat explanations. Sure, I recommend downloading the campaign documents, but few players do the assigned readings.

Between the confusion and the homework, the current Adventurers League rules form a barrier that some players just bounce off. I want to reduce that barrier, so I created a quick-start guide that consolidates the essentials on two sides of a sheet. This reference draws from four campaign documents and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It might list more high-level loot than necessary, but I see players reach tier 3 without ever getting their own copy of the Player’s Handbook. Besides, I wanted a reference for myself too. Plus, everyone likes to browse the rewards that wait at higher levels.

Download the reference, share it, and then please tell me about any mistakes that need correction.

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

As I wrote last week’s post about players who gamed the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League rules, I feared misleading folks. Years before I started participating in organized play, players told me stories about the Living City and Living Greyhawk campaigns. Sometimes they boasted of their character’s unbeatable combination of magic items and the ingenious ways they won their gear; sometimes they complained about another player’s overpowered cheese and the metagame exploited to collect it. Either way, I drew the same lesson: Don’t join the campaign, because the play style won’t suit you.

I drew the wrong conclusion. If I had only played, I would have had fun.

I have played and run 100s of Dungeons & Dragons organized play sessions in third though fifth edition and even in the Alternity Living Verge campaign. Gamers seldom talk about all the game sessions where a bunch of strangers sat at a table and enjoyed a few hours playing D&D, but those sessions come almost every time we play. No, we talk about the unusual: The rare games spoiled by an annoying player. The characters that stretch the rules to the breaking point.

The new Adventurers League campaign rules aim to reward more styles of play, to give characters a better selection of magic, to level power between characters, and to free players from bookkeeping. The Adventurers League is already fun and welcoming. If successful, the changes will make the league a bit more of both.

Despite all the ways gamers play the campaign rules to win, I have never seen this metagame spoil my fun as a player or DM.

In all those organized play games I have joined, another character has only interfered with my fun two times.

As a DM for the fourth-edition Living Forgotten Realms campaign, one player brought an optimized, high-level defender. In this edition, defenders filled their role too well. This character featured maximized defenses that no level-appropriate monsters could hit on less than a natural 20. With an action, he could mark every foe on the map. His mark imposed such severe penalties that the monsters could only target him. So for hours of play, the monsters could only paddle uselessly at the defender while serving as bags of hit points for target practice.

If his play style could talk, it would say, “I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

For me as DM, none of those combats offered enjoyment, but I can also draw fun from players having fun. Did they enjoy being an audience for one player’s 4-hour character demonstration? I couldn’t tell. Maybe they enjoyed target practice.

Fifth edition no longer enables characters who can lock down every foe. I still see characters with armor classes or hit point totals that say, “no one can hurt me.” If a player enjoys a sense of invulnerability, they can get sell out for it. But still, every fifth-edition character suffers some weak saves. And no defender can shield every ally.

The second bad game came years later, when I played a fifth-edition convention session. One wizard brought a simulacrum, a duplicate able to act as a second wizard. The double meant that one player effectively took the turns and actions of two characters. Normally, such a character makes a minor nuisance. This time, the monsters proved badly overmatched. Meanwhile, my plodding cleric kept rolling low initiatives. Through every combat in the adventure, my character never contributed. The wizard and simulacrum blasted, and then the battle would end before I reached my first turn. Obviously, the DM could have dialed up the difficulty, but the wizard’s player drew my ire. Every fight, he played two turns for my none.

“I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

DM Tom Christy has run over 300 Adventurers League sessions, more than half for strangers on the Internet. “I ask that players avoid bringing extra, action-consuming creatures.” This helps grant each player equal time to act in combat. The request extends to simulacrums, golems, shield guardians, and charmed creatures, but not to class-feature-specific sidekicks like familiars, animal companions, and mounts. By league rules, the request is purely voluntary. “So far, all players have been understanding of that and happily agreed.” The new adventurers league rules bar shield guardians and slaad control gems, but such restrictions need to go further.

I wish I had more stories of other people’s characters ruining my fun, because a post filled with such tales would draw readers. After years of Adventurer’s League, I just have two accounts. Mostly in Adventurers League new and experienced players, strangers and friends, optimizers and storytellers just join at a table and have a great time playing D&D. Oh well. I suppose non-bloggers prefer it that way.

The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win.

Starting on August 30, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League will introduce a sweeping overhaul of the campaign rules. These changes affect how characters in the campaign advance levels, gain gold, and win magic items.

The new level-advancement system aims to reward players who enjoy guile or roleplaying as much as monster slaying. The change seems obvious. The old system centered on killing foes, so a new method based on hours of play encourages more styles of play.

The new treasure rules also base awards on hours of play. The change seeks to help players gain items that suit their characters, partly by offering a bigger choice of items.

D&D started as a game about raiding dungeons for magic and gold, so the old league rules gave characters the loot they claimed in the course of an adventure. The new rules turn away from the in-game treasure grabs, and that makes a dramatic change.

What went wrong with the old way of awarding treasure?

The campaign rules extend the core D&D rules. To no one’s surprise, when tens of thousands of gamers face a set of game rules, some will play to win. Players sought the most, and most powerful items for their characters. When this quest for power meant braving traps and facing evil, everyone won—except evil. When the quest for power led to other shenanigans, the players who ignored the game-within-a-game lost. For instance, items one character might prize could be claimed by someone else for “trade bait.”

For insight, I turned to Thomas Christy, who has logged over 16,000 hours prepping and dungeon mastering on Roll20. Currently, he runs 2 Adventurers League games a week online, and serves as a DM at conventions. Tom opens about half of his games to any player who cares to sign up. About 20% of his players come from outside the United States.

Bearer of unwanted magic items

Tom rarely minds if everyone in a party brings powerful magic, “I can tailor the difficulty.” But he favors treasure rules that balance character power so every player can contribute. “I want a casual player with only one PC who has never traded a magic item or played the great loot-dropping, companion-gaining adventures to have as much time in the limelight as a prolific player with a dozen characters.”

A player with a catalog of PCs can trade magic among them, ensuring that each gets the best matched items. “Trading causes a large differential in power levels between characters of prolific players and those of casual players. I will be happy to see that go away if possible.”

While trading brings characters the power to occasionally overshadow others, it does help items reach the characters best able to use them.

Trading meets both the rules and the spirit of the campaign. But some practices that follow the letter of the rules could cause characters to miss out—or lose out—on the fun magic items can bring to D&D.

Players interested in winning the best loot would track the items available in adventures. As a misdeed, this ranks with peeking at presents before Christmas. As long as you don’t misuse insider knowledge and you act surprised, no one loses.

Sometimes players would come upon the treasure information honestly. They would play an adventure with one character, spot an item another of their characters could use, and then replay the adventure with the second character. These players would show up at my convention table and passively sit through four hours just so they could legally claim a magic item. Have you wondered what a lawful neutral alignment looks like in real life? A chaotic player would just fake their logs.

Some questionable tricks emerged because hardcover authors seemed oblivious to how their treasure awards would affect play in the Adventurers League.

Curse of Strahd grants a particularly powerful item to players who do something impulsive and foolhardy. In a world of death traps, I’m not snatching things that appear in the air. An improbably high number of players proved reckless enough to win the prize. Or maybe they either snooped or they played with Monty Haul. (My players claimed the item. Call me Monty.)

Many hardback chapters included too few magic items to interest players who looked to boost their characters. A few chapters offered legendary items and boons more powerful than anything in the League’s single-session adventures. So aggressive players just ran the chapters with the best loot. “It was getting really bad with a certain chapter of Storm King’s Thunder and a certain ability bump from a chapter of Curse of Strahd.”

Tom resorted to asking players not to bring certain dodgy items unless the character played the majority of the hardback. Even though Tom understands that campaign rules allow players to bring any legal items, most players prove very understanding of the request.

The old treasure rules brought some perverse incentives that sometimes hurt the campaign.

League rules grant first choice of items to the character with the fewest items. This made players avoid taking fun or useful items that lacked combat power. At most tables, nobody wants the helm of comprehend languages. Driftglobes may as well be cursed. Better to wait for something that kills monsters.

I’ve seen a few characters who give up on keeping a low item count—and magic of their choosing. These players take every item other characters spurred for being unworthy of their count. If it weren’t for all their bags of holding, these collectors could never haul all their magical trinkets.

In the hardcovers, players would avoid taking a perfectly useful +1 weapon in chapter 1 so they could be guaranteed the belt of giant strength or staff of power 6 months later. Tom asks players in his campaigns to agree to allocate treasure based on rarity, so players don’t skip the useful uncommon items in hope of getting a very rare item at the end.

Characters who want to lower their magic-item count can’t just donate unwanted items. So what do you do with a +1 sword after you gain a +2 blade? The rules block giving away treasure or equipment. Even if a character destroys an item, it still counts toward total items. To unload items, players seek trades for limited-use items like Keoghtom’s ointment, the chime of opening, elemental gems, and Quaal’s feather token. Once you traded your unwanted loot for a limited-use item, you could expend the item and lower your magic item count.

In addition to changing how characters earn magic items, the upcoming league rules remove some items from the campaign. Characters with these banned items must trade them for other treasure. Many of these problematic items served the story in a hardcover and should never have left that adventure. For instance, the elemental weapons in Princes of the Apocalypse were meant to be destroyed at the adventure’s conclusion.

Some items bring role-playing baggage that prove hard for DMs to track and enforce. For example, when a character brings the mighty sword Hazirawn to a convention table, the DM may be unaware that the sentient blade acts as an non-player character, bending its owner toward evil. DMs running games for strangers have enough on their plate.

The league also removed the sentient blade Dawnbringer. While not murderous or evil, this sword brings its own role-playing challenges. Dawnbringer sheds bright sunlight, useful in battles against light-sensitive undead and drow. But if a party includes a drow, the blade might foster conflict.

Once when Tom served as DM at a convention, someone brought Dawnbringer to his table. Unfortunately, the party included a drow rogue. Unfortunately, the drow rogue brought Dawnbringer.

Some players excel at portraying the quirks and drawbacks of their items, but many just become blinded by power.

When the drow’s adult player attempted a sneak attack, Tom told him he couldn’t. Rogues can’t sneak attack while they suffer disadvantage, and Dawnbringer’s bright light imposed disadvantage on all the drow’s attacks. When the rogue tried to sneak ahead, Tom reminded him that carrying a sliver of sunlight made stealth impossible. “Fine,” the player fumed. “I’ll turn it off.” Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer is afraid of the dark. By now, the player was seething, but he offered to leave Dawnbringer behind. Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer suffers a fear of abandonment.

Unlike Tom, most DMs don’t know the details of every unique item in the campaign—nobody should have to. Few DMs would steadfastly enforce the drawbacks of an item in the face of a angry player—nobody should have to, but I admire Tom’s lawful DM style.

By the way, Adventurer’s League administrator Claire Hoffman had joined this session as a player. She didn’t intervene then; Tom ran the game. As the administrators discussed removing items from the campaign, I wonder if she told the tale of the drow rogue who wielded Dawnbringer.

Tom streams his online D&D sessions on Twitch and then posts them on YouTube. You can follow Tom on Twitter @d20play. For a schedule of his upcoming games, see his web page.

How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less

Whenever I serve as a dungeon master for strangers at conventions, I learn things that improve my game. But the games where I play Dungeons & Dragons teach me too.

I try to start convention games by giving players a chance to introduce their characters, but sometimes I forget. Not long ago, my lapse hardly seemed to matter. Most character introductions seem forgettable anyway. If you’ve seen one 6th-level barbarian, you’ve seen them all, right? Would anyone notice if I skipped the routine and let the characters reveal themselves in play?

Yes. Playing taught me that I notice.

This year at the Origins Game Fair, I played in several D&D games where the DM skipped character introductions.

In these sessions, learning about the party members could take hours. In my mind’s eye, I would fight alongside faceless placeholders, learning nothing more than that they rolled a hit and scored damage. Three hours in, someone would volunteer to heal and their placeholder would reveal a class. Only by the end of the slot would my comrades in arms come into focus.

I missed the character introductions.

Still, introductions where everyone just recites name, race, and class hardly seem worth the time. I won’t remember those labels, and I suspect names disappear from other players’ memory as quickly as they slip mine.

Instead of stating names, give each player a note card to fold into a tent. Have the players write their character’s name, race, and class on each side. Now everyone can see each character’s essentials.

These race-class descriptions give nothing to inspire interaction between characters, so consider asking players to write one more detail—something visual that invites interaction. I suggest asking players to write one aspect of your character that people can see and that someone might find curious. “During the idle moments at the table, your character may want to ask their companions about these unusual features.”

Before your game, make a sample tent that shows the format you want.

A good spoken introduction presents a character so vividly that it proves unforgettable. It reveals a hook that invites interaction with the character. And it shows a character quickly enough to leave time for 5 or 6 other introductions, plus time to actually play the game.

I’ve wondered how ask players to make such a strong, brief introduction in the moments available. By Origins, I knew the answer. When I played at Teos Abadia’s table at Winter Fantasy, he demonstrated an elegant technique. He asks players to think of the opening credits of 80s TV shows like the A-Team or T.J. Hooker. These sequences show each character in action, and then end with a name flashed across the screen. Teos asks each player to describe their D&D character in such a montage. “Players get concept because they’ve seen those kind of TV shows, and usually they’ll do something that’s really cool.” The format encourages players to describe brief, vivid scenes that demonstrate what makes their character special. To prompt ideas, ask a question like, “Describe a moment from another adventure when your character used their talents to save the day.” The scene doesn’t have to come from game play. Montages can pull clips from later in the season or unaired pilots.

As players first reach your table, and before they even unpack dice, start them thinking about their character’s introduction. Most players appreciate a few minutes to dream up their scene.

Begin the introductions with a player who shows signs a being an enthusiastic role player. Choose the person who brought their own table tent complete with a character portrait, or who already told a story about their character, or just seems outgoing.

If you can spare extra time for introductions and want to encourage interaction, make a second turn around the table where players tell how their character knows another party member. In a post on encouraging role playing, I recommended having players invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Among strangers gathering for a 4-hour game, this seems like a daunting exercise. Instead, ask each player to explain why they trust that another character can help the party. Reluctant players can just restate something revealed during the cinematic montage, but the word “trust” leaves room for enthusiastic role players to invent deeper bonds.

For more from Teos on character introductions, see his post Using Cinematic Montages in RPGs, and this appearance on NewbieDM’s Minicast.

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?

How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I run a lot of games at conventions. Sometimes I run the same adventure as many as eight times. You might think the repetition grows tiresome, but I like it. Rerunning an adventure brings three benefits:

  • I like the fun at the table more than I like preparing to play. If I run an adventure more than once, I can invest a lot of time in preparing, and then see my efforts pay off in more than one session.

  • With each run through an adventure, my delivery improves. I emphasize elements that players’ like best and I polish or avoid the rough patches. Sometimes I learn things. This process mostly works in the players’ favor, but as I perfect the monsters’ tactics, the fights get tougher.

  • I can experiment with my descriptions and characterizations, and then witness how small changes influence the players’ decisions.

Any game master knows that something as small as the amount of description given to each item in a room can sway a party’s choices. I enjoy seeing how even small changes can influence decisions.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive at Origins 2013

The lessons I learn make me better at influencing players’ choices. That sounds bad. I swear that I use any insights I gain for good rather than evil.

Running a convention game to satisfying conclusion within a strict time slot demands some finesse. I want to present the adventure so the players’ decisions just happen to follow the broad outline of the adventure. First, I never want to lead players off track. Every game master has seen bit of descriptive fluff lead players into a wild tangent. In a home game, you can run with a tangent, but not in a typical convention game. If players stray off track, I want to lure them back, gently. Despite all this, I never want players to feel railroaded. I would rather improvise than run a railroad.

Most adventures written for a convention time slot expect characters to follow a plot arc, but the good ones offer players some interesting decisions along the way.

I want the players to weigh as many choices as the adventure offers, and I want all the options to seem compelling. When players enter a discussion weighing the merits of two options, score one for me and the adventure. Whenever players speculate about how events might have changed if they had chosen differently, score another.

If the adventure offers a decision that the players’ never consider, then I need to adjust for the next table. For example, if the adventure intends for players to face a dilemma over whether to complete their objectives or to rescue some captives, but the players always choose one option without weighing the other, then I need to tweak things so the players face a thornier, more interesting choice.

If I do my job well, then during my next run of the adventure, the players surprise me and the session goes differently than the last. That is how the dungeon master wins Dungeons & Dragons.