Horde of the Dragon Queen, Chapter 1, Spoiler Free Game Report

Last Saturday I started a campaign using the brand spankin’ new Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition rule set. My players came in with their characters mostly finished, but I offered six additional campaign specific bonds to help get things going. During my 4th edition campaign, we used a system similar to 5th edition’s inspiration mechanic to encourage role playing and creative descriptions. It was easy enough to shift that over directly, even though the materials so far offer little support for that rule subset.

The group set out with a cleric, a bard, a necromancer wizard, and a paladin.

I used a battle mat and minis for every encounter, and, on a whole it worked well. I prefer to use miniatures to illustrate positioning, even when I don’t use a grid. My enormous wet-erase battle mat makes it easy to sketch in terrain features; once you’re that far, you may as well use the grids. I may not always draw in terrain for simple battles, but I’ll probably continue to use minis and the mat in the future.

I used Kobold Press’s adventure, Horde of the Dragon Queen as the plot and encounter guts for this session. I’ll probably continue to use it for the foreseeable future, though I’ve adapted all the cultural and political structures to match my home brew setting.

The first chapter is absolutely brutal for 1st level characters. Everyone except the wizard went down during the fourth encounter of the day. The cleric failed three death saves and died. The others lived long enough to be dragged to safety. The paladin revived just in time to be killed in one shot by the last encounter of the chapter.

A few things contributed to the game’s lethality. For one thing, kobolds get advantage when attacking a creature adjacent to the kobold’s ally, and there are tons of kobolds. It’s also notable that my group was short a member. Instead of 5 PCs, they fought with 4, and this made a tremendous difference. I should have also encouraged the group to avoid some of the direct combat through stealth or negotiation. Finally, low level 5th edition characters just don’t have many hit points, and can’t do that many things. There is no way a 1st level party of 4 or 5 characters can fight their way through every mission, or even most of the missions in that first chapter.

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Dungeon Tiles

As a Dungeon Master, I have a love / hate relationship with Dungeon Tiles. I love the simple fun they add to an encounter, and the detailed artwork inspires encounter design. I love how my players interact with the artwork, and I love the nice clean surface they provide. There are no odd curls for miniatures to get stuck on, and they typically make it very clear which squares can be occupied and which are blocked.

I hate preparing dungeon tiles. It starts with a box of randomly disorganized tiles which I have to fidget with until I put together something suitable for the encounter I have in mind. Often this leads to some mix and matching (which I also dislike). I try to minimize mixing dungeony tiles with village or foresty tiles, because that just looks janky, and if you’re using dungeon tiles, it shouldn’t look janky.

When possible, I try to have the tiles laid out prior to the session; I then cover them with a wet erase map to preserve the surprise. That works pretty well, but sometimes I have to move the tiles in when an encounter begins, or else build the encounter anew, in the moment. Either way, there is a disruption of play that I don’t love.

Later in my 4th edition campaign I started using poster maps more often (following Michael Shea’s advice from Sly Flourish.), and I always had my trusty wet erase map at hand. When I had a specific vision for an encounter, I found the wet erase map, sometimes combined with tiles, to be the best tool.

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The New Era

It’s been three and a half years since I posted regularly; while my blogging paused, I’ve been gaming regularly, and my Planeary Adventures campaign wrapped up several months ago.

Over the next several weeks – or however long it takes – I’ll be posting a retrospective of the campaign which will include whatever old notes and encounter preparations that I can find, as well as my own reflections.

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Frequency

I have a few new irons in the fire, so the frequency of posts is going to be more sporadic and the quality a bit less structured for the foreseeable future. I’m still gaming, and I plan to continue sharing my plans and learnings.

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Dungeons and Dragons, Edition 4.1

With the Essentials line on the horizon, a new era is coming for Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition.  Wizards has made it clear that this will not be edition 4.5.  The new content will be compatible with the old, and the new versions of the fighter, cleric and wizard will be alternate builds rather than brand new classes.

At the same time, the presentation is aimed at new players, and I’ll bet that the mechanics of those new class builds will stay on the simple side.

With the focus on online content via the DnD Insider, Wizards has been able to fix mistakes, clarify wording and even alter 4th edition rules since the beginning.  In a sense, those of us who keep up with the errata haven’t played 4e for nearly two years.  We’ve been playing 4.01, 4.02, etc…  and this is good.  We haven’t had to wait to get the rules updates.

This resembles software patches.  With The World of Warcraft for example, Blizzard has been able to resolve bugs, improve the interface and add content all along the way.  WoW players didn’t have to wait for Burning Crusade to enjoy game improving adjustments.

It’s disingenuous to say that Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition in September will be exactly the same game we played in the summer of 2008.  At the same time, it’s not the drastic reboot gamers experienced with 3.5.  All the little changes are moving toward something notable with the essentials line, especially with the Rules Compendium.  I like to think of it all as D&D 4.1

Now if they’d only revise those first two Monster Manuals to include the later math changes…

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Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar

Like many adolescent geeks, I fell in love with my first computer game back when I had lots of time and very little money.  I mowed lawns for many weeks (probably around 12) to save up for Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar to play on my Commodore 64.   The game came on, I believe, four five inch floppy disks, and a nifty metal ankh and fabric map were included in the box along with two instruction books.  I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.

The object of Ultima IV is to live well and in accordance with eight virtues:  Honesty, Valor, Honor, Compassion, Justice, Spirituality and Humility.  This leads to becoming the “Avatar” of those virtues and positioning your character as an example to the rest of the world.  I was just impressionable enough to invest quite a lot of myself in the game’s core principles.  I took it so far that I stopped reloading at previous save points, when I made a mistake and lost some rating in the virtues.  A simple typo when dealing with a blind vendor would cause me to lose ‘an eighth’ of my avatar hood.  One cannot be the avatar of honesty if one rips people off.  It wasn’t a terrible hardship:  even if you took a step backward, you could always redeem yourself, though this took hours.  I probably added 50 hours of game play by compensating for typos provoked by an interface that I wouldn’t tolerate for ten minutes today.

After I completed the game, naturally I took my tricked out party back and slaughtered town after town.  At that point even the town guards presented little challenge.  After all those weeks spent tightly following a path of virtue, it was quite a relief to just go evil for awhile.

This reminds me of life in a long term Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  I like playing and developing the same character over long periods of time, but sometimes it’s fun to change things up by creating a character who thinks a less and cares little for authority.

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Buzzed Gaming

There are no two ways around it:  I’m simply not as smart after I’ve had a drink as I am before.  It’s more difficult for me to track details, to follow processes, remember small things and to be creative.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good beer and some bourbon as much (and maybe more) than the next guy.  However, the facts are irrefutable at this point.

I noticed it most during a game of Robo Rally (a wonderful board game that you should play) last month.  Normally, I’m pretty good at this game.  My mind tends to compartmentalize information easily, and I can usually think pretty fast.  Early in the game, I rushed out to an early, dominant appearing lead.  Then I drank a beer.  My little robot started rolling in random directions, and my lead dwindled to almost nothing.

Then the buzz wore off, my mind cleared and I won handily.

I am acutely aware of this limitation when running a Dungeons and Dragons game.  Since I only DM about once a month, I don’t really have much experience, and there’s simply too much to track.  I need to stay sharp.  Normally, adding  a drink makes almost every good thing a little better, but that isn’t true when I’m running a D&D game.

I usually ride my motorcycle to my weekly game, and I have a strict, self imposed, zero drinking and biking rule, so I don’t know if that applies as a D&D player.  I do know that a cocktail or two goes just fine with most other board and card games.  Flux and Munchkin are casual enough that a buzz doesn’t hurt game play, as is Ticket to Ride.

What do you think?  When does alcohol add to your gaming experience, and when does it take something away?

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