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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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Calvinball, Riots, DMV, D&D

Today I present the “Calvinball, Violent Riots, DMV, Dungeons and Dragons” mental model. It mostly speaks for itself, though I have a few things to add:

Many of the plotted items are admittedly subjective. Family traditions are not always enjoyable; not every dictatorial marriage is a bad marriage, and good marriages don’t all require a balance of freedom with restriction. The intent was to illustrate the model.

As I plotted the examples, I found that complete freedom rarely leads to fun or rewarding experiences. Most often, the greatest fun comes with an alignment of the possible with the desirable. In gaming terms, Dungeons and Dragons is very restrictive in many ways. You have a finite number of options any given time; however, those who love the game love it because the limited number of choices are more pleasurable than too many choices. We roll D20s because we want to lose some control of the narrative; otherwise we’d be storytelling and even in there we have better ways and worse ways. The task of all gamers is to find the balance of restriction that leads to the most fun.

If this graph was interesting to you, please check out my take on Regret, Hobbies, Chores and Oppression.

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Photo of Fantasy Wargaming by Bruce Galloway

Here is a picture of my copy of Fantasy Wargaming, The Highest Level of All, which I wrote about a week or so ago.

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First Who, Then What

Not long ago I came across the audio version of Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  While the focus of the book is to understand the difference between truly great companies with great leadership and enduring growth from the merely good companies who’ve experienced brief periods of strength, many of its themes apply to any group of people assembled for a long term purpose.  For example, great companies first assemble key leadership teams, then they decide what roles team members should hold and what the strategy of the company should be.  This applies directly to gaming.

Games are often formed from a hodgepodge of available players.  Perhaps someone posts an online ad, perhaps it’s an assembly of friends.  Whatever the case, some attention should be paid to the type of player one invites to the table.  In gaming it isn’t as crucial to assemble great people, after all, we’re all here to have fun.  It is crucial, however, to assemble gamers of compatible temperament and style.  One really bad player can spoil the entire group, just as two diametrically opposed players can.  Ideally, the bad eggs and troublesome relationships should be identified before they’re allowed into the group.  If someone already in the group consistently spoils the fun, it may be time to have that difficult conversation and disinvite them from the game.

The uncomfortable truth is that troubled players tend to hang around for too long because few people are willing to have that difficult conversation.

Once the right players are at the table, and the wrong players are away from the table, a group can decide what it wants to do a the table.  While many dungeon masters do much of their campaign planning before they’ve gathered their players for the first time, there are hazards here.  It’s better to adapt the campaign to the strengths and interests of the players.  Similarly, it’s best to hold character creation until all the players are identified and can participate.  Creating after the sharp minds have been assembled will lead to more interesting origins and sharper character builds.  Most importantly, this should lead to increased fun of the entire group.

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In the beginning

there was The Word.

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