Tag: D&D (page 1 of 7)

The Deep Mines of Published Adventures

I’d like to give you a bit of a peek “behind the curtain” regarding where inspiration comes from and how basic materials from other sources can lead to new ideas and new directions in storytelling. This past weekend, I put together a one-shot D&D adventure for Seattle fans of Critical Role. While I did re-watch some favorite episodes from the first campaign of the series, and read up on a good deal of material in the Tal’dorei Campaign Guide, considering this was a one-shot, I wanted to make sure that the adventure had direction and balance. With that in mind, I turned to my time acting as a Dungeon Master for the Adventurer’s League.

The two Adventurer’s League modules that I took as my basis were “The Waydown” and “The Occupation of Szith Morcaine”. They’re from the same season of the Adventurer’s League, the “Rage of Demons”, and thus had a lot in common. Both were delves into the Underdark, both involved strange beings to both interact with and fight against, and both were influenced heavily by the machinations and madness of the demon prince known as Graz’zt.

But the Adventurer’s League modules take place in the Forgotten Realms. This was an adventure in Exandria, on the continent of Tal’dorei. This lead to some questions for me, as the Dungeon Master: where is the Waydown on Tal’dorei? How are drow, duregar, myconids, and so on different in the world created by Matt Mercer? And what would Graz’zt want with Exandria?

I am, of course, not going to answer that last question here. This is going to be more than a one-shot, much to my delight. But I will say that, since these two adventures were related by the overarching “Rage of Demons,” it wasn’t difficult to tease a few bits apart, remove things that didn’t work, and weave them together into one coherent adventure with Tal’dorei flavor and and plenty of places for a party of adventurers to go.

One of the things that saw me moving away from Adventurer’s League was that in a short, two- or four-hour session, it can be very difficult to get into character, establish rapport with other players — or, if you’re the DM, any players. On the other hand, the published adventure modules are adjustable for all sorts of parties in terms of difficulty and rewards, and the through-line of start to middle to end is very easy to follow. With the change of setting and a longer session time, this flexibility made the matter of adding more narrative storytelling a straightforward one.

Now that the party’s established, and these initial adventures are completed, we can move on. While it can’t be called entirely original, considering the involvement of Graz’zt and the very nature of where Tal’dorei came from, the storyline and character hooks I have in mind are all mine, informed by my fantastic players and rooted in the desire to tell a great story woven through with emotion and character.

I also run a game on the occasional Thursday night, and we’re going through the 5th edition starter set’s “Lost Mine of Phandelver”. Again, however, this adventure has been transplanted from the Forgotten Realms to a campaign setting entirely of my own design. The world of Levexadar is my first real attempt at something like this, and as a result, I’m still tweaking things and looking to published materials. On top of the Phandelver resources, I’ve incorporated some adventure and setting trappings from the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons. You could say I’ve “filed off the serial numbers”, and I don’t feel bad about that. So far, it’s made for a good story.

When it comes to role-playing games, you can delve deep into the fertile veins of published materials and find all sorts of things to tell a story of your own. I find my thoughts turning to parts of the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover and materials even older than 4th edition as elements to use in one or both of these campaigns. The echoes of the familiar in unexplored territory can both comfort a player, and present an opportunity to surprise them. And if you manage to surprise your players, get them invested in the world and the story, and anticipatory of what’ll happen in the next session or even the next minute, you’ve got a great game of Dungeons & Dragons on your hands.

Tabletalk: Let’s Tell A Story

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

As someone who writes tales about people who don’t actually exist, the process of telling stories fascinates me. While working alone allows me to be the final arbiter of what does and does not happen, some of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had come not from a word processing document, but from other books and dice. The methods and weight of rules might vary, but the experience is always unique.

Some games are built specifically to emphasize their story and characters more than anything else. Fiasco and Shock: are my two go-to examples of tabletop games firmly in story mode, while Maschine Zeit and Farewell to Fear maintain some more traditional dice-rolling rulesets not to define gameplay, but to reinforce storytelling. The emphasis in these games is on who the players’ characters are, not necessarily what they do.

On the flip side are games like Dungeons & Dragons and any of the titles within the World of Darkness universe. The ‘background’ portion of a given player’s character sheet is entirely optional, and the emphasis is on the stats depicted on the front. These games are built to generate epic moments, memorable feats of daring-do, and nail-biting suspense as the dice roll.

And then, there are those games with what I’d like to call ’emergent storytelling’. Quite a few board games try to work atmosphere and elements of storytelling into their gameplay, like Pandemic, Elder Sign, or Escape!, but the nature of these games’ mechanics tend to get in the way of actually telling a story. Boss Monster and Seasons, on the other hand, give players enough breathing room to give their on-the-table representatives a bit more personality. Between turns, you may decide that your adorable forest-dwelling bunny wizard is actually bent on world domination, or that your towering and malevolent gorgon dungeon master actually wants to flip her dungeon so she can go on a long-awaited vacation. The towns built in Suburbia can’t help but take on some personality (“Why is that high school right next to a slaughterhouse?”). And the excellent Battlestar Galactica has you not only taking on familiar faces, but pitting them against one another in new ways as you try to determine who among you is a Cylon even as you struggle to survive. There’s nothing quite like throwing the Admiral in his (or her) own brig just on a gut feeling your character has. Finally, there are those who would advise you not to play Twilight Imperium with role-players. If a gamer take the honor of their race seriously, there may be a major grudge that plays out over the game’s many hours if you do something like occupy one of their systems or assassinate one of their councilors. Who says politics is boring?

What games do you feel cater more towards storytelling? What emergent gameplay do you enjoy the most?

Master of None

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Remember when the Bard class was included with the basic ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons? Those were the days. When you wanted to be pretty good at just about everything without over-specializing in beating up bad guys or attacking the darkness with magic missile, you chose the Bard. The downside to that choice is why the melee specialists are all carving up the dragons and the spell-casters are teleporting all over the world to blow raspberries at the evil overlord’s close relatives, you still have your songs to offer but that’s about it. It’s an inherent problem with generalization; you’re good at things in general, but you’re not what people would call an expert.

I tend to run in a similar vein. I’m no expert on anything I do, but I do quite a bit with my time.

For example, while I think my writing is overall halfway decent I doubt it’s going to set the world on fire. Part of the reason it takes me a while to produce anything of value is that I know my initial attempts at anything aren’t going to be that good. I used to be of the mindset that a new idea was enough; that as long as I tried something different I could sell the words with no problem. Time and experience have thankfully disproved that notion and I set about writing as part of a larger process, i.e. writing leads to editing leads to rewriting and then, maybe, it’ll be good enough to show to other people. I can write, I simply can’t sit down and bang out a decently marketable work as quickly as some others can.

When it comes to that other occupier of my free time, gaming, I’m again aware of what it would take to be top notch. At times I catch myself leaning into an attitude that I feel is required for improved play and success. However, this is a leisure activity, and playing with my wife or family or close friends reminds me that I should be having fun, not just taking the game seriously in order to win. I may be good at the games I play, but as what only can be described as a ‘casual’ my outright tournament wins will likely be rare.

Both of these aforementioned activities take place when I’m not at the dayjob. I really didn’t think, growing up, that puttering around with computers would yield steady pay. And yet, thanks to what I consider a secondary set of skills, I’m able to sustain my passion and hobbies as well as a roof over my head. I can’t say I’m really a part of the coding community and I still struggle with things from time to time, but I’m good enough at programming to earn my pay.

I may never be a true master in any of these areas, but I’ll keep trying to improve. Who knows? All the effort should yield something eventually, and in the meantime, it’s difficult for me to become truly bored.

One Of Those ‘Casuals’

Dice

I’ve been called a lot of things in my time when it comes to gaming. “Blithering idiot.” “Total bastard.” “Keyboard-turning skill-clicker.” And perhaps the most caustic of all: “mouth-breathing casual.”

Most of these terms come from my wife. Ours is a happy marriage.

Anyway, the last one is sticking with me because to some gamers, ‘casual’ is an extremely dirty word. It’s why the role-playing servers in World of Warcraft are looked down upon (well, that and the atrocious characters running around… here, feast your eyes). Folks who play Magic: the Gathering professionally are more keenly following the buzz on the upcoming Innistrad expansion than the news of a new duel deck featuring Venser and Koth. Sticking with 4th edition D&D rather than using Pathfinder or the old AD&D ruleset probably also marks me as one of those ‘casuals’.

Thinking about it, I’m pretty okay with that.

Gaming is a close runner-up behind writing in terms of favorite ways to spend my time. While I don’t burn a lot of lean tissue in a round or two of Team Fortress 2, I do engage my brain when coming up with refinements to a Commander deck, developing plotlines for a tabletop campaign or working on my macro skills in StarCraft 2. I get a lot of enjoyment out of these things, and I don’t want to lose sight of that by taking the hobby too seriously. I’d like to think I can get good enough at StarCraft 2 or the upcoming Guild Wars 2 to break into the e-sports scene, but it’s going to take a lot of practice before I get myself beyond the level of ‘casual’.

The thing about moving beyond being a casual gamer is that gaming, for the most part, is a rather expensive pastime. Take Magic, for example. To become competitive you need playsets of the most powerful cards available, and that requires a rather large monetary investment. Oh, and the cards you just dropped hundreds of dollars on? They won’t be useful in the very near future. Either the expansions they’re from will pass out of Standard’s ruleset or the card itself may get banned or restricted. You can trade a bit, sure; in fact I’ve started to do some myself since I can’t afford to keep buying singles. But the fact of the matter is that the competitive Magic scene will always be dominated by people who have more disposable income than you. No, thank you.

StarCraft 2 is more accessible in that you don’t need to buy anything other than the box the game comes in, and maybe an authenticator. The hurdle here is dedication and brain power, not cash. You can build your muscle memory and multitasking ability through practice alone, making it more a time investment than anything else. The occasional break for StarJeweled or Aiur Chef with a friend is fine, though, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. You can’t take this stuff too seriously.

I think that’s why some people look down their noses at casuals like myself. I understand the mindset. Gaming is serious business. I used to look at it that way. I would get livid when wiping in a dungeon or getting the facial treatment from an Alliance rogue. It got to the point that my wife stopped playing with me. I was taking it too seriously. I started to fall into that trap again with StarCraft 2, so I took a break. Now that I’m back to it, I’m taking it more easily. I’m using multiplayer (2v2, 3v3) matches to practice and also replaying the single-player campaign on the highest difficulty, and while it gets me angry when things are difficult, I’m not destroying my keyboard or terrifying the cats. Because I know it’s just a game, I should be enjoying it instead of loathing it, and I don’t want to be the next Idra, doing things like ragequitting out of frustrating games I’m about to win.

I think, in the end, it’s more healthy for me to be a casual gamer making my way slowly towards pro-level skills than the kind of gamer who wishes so hard to be pro that they lose sight of all the fun they should be having. If that means I get made fun of on occasion because I like Commander so much or I don’t have the APM of a Korean demigod, so be it. My blood pressure will stay low, my wife will actually want to play with me and, most important of all, I’ll be enjoying the experience.

To me, casual seems like a pretty damn good thing to be.

Dragon Tales: The Mistress of Secrets

Logo courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Emperor Lysander has a great deal of tools at his disposal. Vicious mercenary bands like the Iron Circle supplement the Imperial Army he is forming in the capitol city of Nerath. He also employs insidious spies, deadly assassins and priests of Bane. Some of his agents serve multiple roles, such as the author of the following correspondence. This report speaks of the foreign powers surrounding the Empire and seeks to inform and advise the Emperor, even as he considers how to weed out the dissenting element in the Nentir Vale: Andrasian the elvish warrior, Krillorien Brightsong the eladrin priest of Pelor, Melanie Good-Melons of the Arcane Tower, and Lyria Thorngage of the Junction Thorngages.

Your Most Exalted Majesty,

What follows is my accounting of the foreign powers that lurk on the outer fringes of our mighty Empire. Rest assured that I have done all in my power to bring to you any and all answers for questions I anticipated you having. Should you find this information inadequate or incomplete, allow me to first convey my sincere apologies and know that I will either answer whatever questions remain vague in your mind or hunt down further expansion upon the information provided. But I ramble overmuch. Let us begin.

The dwarves of Hammerfast remain the most credible threat to the Empire. While they remain quiet within their underground city for now, they made it no secret that they do not recognize your legitimate claim to the lands of the Empire, nor your audacity and courage in crushing all who oppose you. Were our Imperial forces in stronger, better-trained numbers, I would recommend an immediate invasion to excise this dangerous, festering postule from the underside of your Empire. However, seeking new recruits for the Iron Circle and your own Imperial Guard has taken precedence, which I completely understand. To strike without our full strength would be foolish.

To the west, the elves of the Feywood have kept their own counsel. We have taken pains not to encroach upon their forests and they in turn have not meddled in our affairs. It is an uneasy peace, and I am afraid I cannot accurately predict how long it will last. The deaths of many of the ‘free land owners’ who traded with the elves has deprived them of certain goods and crops, and while we have provided them many opportunities to purchase these goods (albeit with an appropriate amount of Imperial taxation) they seem more interested in brooding in the boughs of their trees. Should they become an irritant I recommend as much magical and alchemical fire as possible lobbed into their woods from a good safe distance.

Their cousins, the eladrin, continue their practice of trade with the likes of Daggerport and Southport. Their ship captains are courteous to our customs agents but reports indicate that any stoppage beyond a routine check raises a considerable amount of ire. This has lead to a handful of ships being impounded by the Imperial Navy. To their credit, the customs agents are as expedient as they are thorough, and only a few eladrin have been held indefinitely while most are released after receiving a heavy fine and probationary status. I have it on authority that dignitaries from their cities, Meloravia and Sehavia, will soon be in the capitol to discuss the held eladrin with Your Majesty.

TO the north the situation is more vague. Beyond the Nentir Vale is a harsh, unforgiving tundra and several rocky passes leading into the Frostjaw Peaks. It is said the Peaks are ruled by a figure known only as ‘the Winter King,’ and a cadre of frost giants do his bidding. There is also a large tribe of orcs in that area that once swept down the passes into the Vale but have not been heard from in some time, since before Your Majesty made the crossing to reclaim the Empire. As I was unfortunately unable to treat with any of these orcs, I cannot say how willing they would be to assist Your Majesty and Lord Vhynnk in conquering the Nentir Vale.

I know you await the return of our ambassadors from the Caliphate of the Seven Stars to the south with as much eagerness as I.

In closing I would once again voice my opinion to Your Majesty on the subject of the Iron Circle. You are the final arbiter of who serves the Empire and in what capacity, and Bane shows His favor to those who are uncompromising in their conquest of the weak. But Lord Vhynnk and his converts are not followers of Bane. His patron, Asmodeus, is a dangerous and ambitious god, an aspect shared by the Iron Circle. Should he gain enough numbers and favor, I fear he may move to depose Your Majesty. I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention that Vhynnk was overheard expressing dismay at your agent dispatching the troublesome Dar Gramath and nearly slaying the quartet of troublemakers who came to the aid of the Harkenwold.

Rest assured that my next task will be to seek all I can on these four, and discern fact from fiction for Your Majesty. You should know at full who might stand in the way of your rightful conquest. If they be a worthy challenge, we will bring them to Your Majesty to further prove your might. And if they seem too dangerous, Bane will see them cleared from your path before you ever leave the capitol.

I remain your humble and devoted servant.

Quenora of Avernus
Sworn Sword of Bane
Imperial Mistress of Whispers

All locations, NPCs, spells and equipment copyright Wizards of the Coast unless otherwise noted.

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