Saturday, October 31, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Three

You chose a campaign-setting, you have a basic plot outlined, you have an idea to bring the PCs together, and you even have some interesting notes about cool locations or NPCs.

You even got your players to send you some notes about their characters. Great! Your campaign is about to start - but to start it properly, you need to prepare for the first session.

I usually start campaigns at 1st level. For me (as the DM), it reduces the risk of a high-level PC bypassing plot elements with a single, powerful spell in the very first session. It also helps the players to settle into their character roles comfortably, as low-level PCs are relatively easy to use mechanically wise.

With a bunch of first level characters, I usually look into the background the players provided for inspiration. I want to build the first session in a way that will engage all the players, and if possible, provide a good reason for each of the characters to pursue the campaign story line further.

Let's start with an example. Suppose we got four players, giving us the following backgrounds:
  1. A rough veteran who once served in a bloody war, now serving as a spiritual leader for his community (human cleric)
  2. A dazzling elven maiden who escaped imprisonment by an evil wizard, now seeking  revenge for his abuse (elven rogue)
  3. A plumb merchant who lost everything he had to a nasty rival accusing him of cult work (a halfling sorcerer)
  4. An old mercenary carrying a relic belonging to his clan, sent on a journey to unveil its secrets (a dwarven fighter)
Let's assume you decided the campaign takes place in Cormyr (the Forgotten Realms) and revolves around a dragon trying to reclaim his ancestor's kingdom by assassinating the King of Cormyr.

By looking at the characters backgrounds, we can conjure a simple "how the characters meet" story: The veteran is the one helping the elven rogue escape from her imprisonment. While she was searching for information about her captor she stumbled upon the the dwarven mercenary who was about to travel to the wizard to consult with him about the relic. The trio prepare for the journey (the cleric and the rogue wants the wizard to pay for his crimes, the mercenary dwarf is willing to cooperate as long as he gets his questions answered). On their way to the wizard's tower they meet the halfling merchant, who is travelling to the wizard hoping to sell him an ancient tome he recently procured.

Here we go, a classic D&D story involving adventurers traveling to an evil wizard's tower. After conjuring that story, I would have sent the players a short handout explaining the above in a little more detail, to ignite their imagination and create an initial bond between the characters.


But the characters backgrounds made the story a little more complicated than the classic cliche. The halfling doesn't want the wizard dead or in prison - he wants a contact for future trade. The dwarf also doesn't really care if the wizard pay for his crimes - he needs information about his relic. I personally think that contradicting goals can be a lot of fun, as long as the players don't end up exchanging blows for it..

Note that the way I constructed the "how the heroes meet" story also provided me with a great first session adventure, one that involves a classic D&D cliche (slay the evil wizard in his tower). To complete my work for the first session I need:
  1. Details on special encounters during the travel to the wizard's tower
  2. Information on the villain of this story, namely, the wizard
  3. Notes on the tower itself and the region surrounding it
  4. Leads to the next adventure, and the campaign
The above four points are relatively easy to complete, but I want share some tips I use to spice up the session. Look at each of the bullets above and note the following tips:
  1. To connect the adventure with the campaign, I'll probably include an interesting NPC the heroes can encounter on their way to the tower. A merchant, a traveling bard or a noble with his bodyguards. The NPC can talk about recent rumors - something about an artifact stolen from a nearby temple, with the local militia worried. This NPC can ask the characters where are they traveling to and why, to allow the players to role-play. A body-guard might try his line on the elven maiden, or the merchant will identify the halfling, just to spice things up and create an interesting scene.
  2. To spin the cliche, I'd probably find a way to make the "evil wizard who imprisoned an elven maid" somebody the players will want to keep around for a while. He might turn out a "good guy", kidnapping the elven rogue to protect her from someone. Or he might indeed be evil, but his experiments (using her pure blood to unveil the writings of an ancient elven prophecy) revealed some horrible truth and he now needs the heroes to help him avert a coming disaster. They might find him badly wounded, with a royal inquisitor searching his private rooms, bloody blade in hand. Anything that can provide a twist and create an interesting scene to drive the story forward.
  3. The wizard's tower can be a great site to explore for a new group, especially low-level. I'd include "a room for every player", meaning elements in the tower that will appeal to every player. A trophy room with (animated) dwarven arms and armor for the dwarf. A room with elaborate traps obviously guarding a special treasure for the rogue. A room with undead skeletons doing menial jobs (such as feeding the garbage to a hole with a gelatinous cube), to test the cleric's mettle, and so on and so forth.
  4. We already decided that the campaign revolves around a dragon trying to reclaim his kingdom. It's best, however, if the main story arc becomes apparent only in a later stage of the game. This way, you'll have time to adjust if you find the players pulling the story in unexpected ways. You can use the first couple of sessions to saw seeds - The rumors about a stolen artifact as told by the NPCs the heroes just met might relate on an ancient magical sword forged to protect the crown (stolen by the dragon's minions). The prophecy unveiled by the evil wizard might mention an undead army that is about to rise (created by the dragon to fight for him), etc. Each of these can be used to spur the next adventure. You'll need to stay tuned to the way the players react to those bits of information as you hand them out, and pick the one that seems to engage them the most as the seed for the next adventure.
One last tip before the first session: I always prepare a "backup" plan, in case things really get out of hand. For example, what if the rogue sneak attack AND crit the wizard before he even makes his case? What if the cleric persuades the group to travel to the nearby temple from which the artifact was stolen first, and only then tackle the wizard?

(you can say that the first case is easy to solve - have the wizard have a protective spell, or have him have 90 hit points. I hate to do it - it will be obvious that I fudge, and I hate to nullify a well-placed blow or plan for the sake of my encounter)

So, what to do?

(Source: google images)
I simply prepare the following:
  1. Two combat encounters that are in actuality mini-adventures (with a map, NPCs, monsters and a cool environment to fight in). For example, a recently raided caravan with gargoyles trying to take off with one of the passengers. I don't usually over-prepare them, but I include notes to allow me to improve on top of them.
  2. Notes about what happens if the PCs "aren't there to adventure". Meaning, what happens if the PCs decide to stay at the inn and enjoy another mug of ale instead of adventuring. Maybe the wizard (after learning the truth behind the prophecy) goes to seek out the elven rogue, to gain more of her blood to continue his inquiries? Maybe a royal inquisitor appears, asking questions about cultists in the region, and trying to hire adventurers to accompany him to the tower? Or the local militia returns from the assailed temple, looking for a scholar to assert the importance of the artifact stolen from there (the evil wizard being the nearest scholar available). I use these bits of information as improvisational aids to help me get the story on track if needed.

Here you go - a first session packed with role-play opportunities, a rather detailed plot with many potential branches for the heroes to explore, and a cast of characters with goals you can build on to create an engaging session - the first in your new campaign.

Good luck!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Rage of Demons - Out of the Abyss Review

Got my copy half a week ago, and spent some time reading the first couple of chapters. I skimmed through the subsequent chapters - so this post is all about first impressions....

Tons of Underdark Goodies
This book really makes the Underdark come alive. Unique locations, weird and interesting creatures and personalities, exciting encounters - and all with a very consistent and cohesive wrapping. I think the designers did a great job with the presentation and the material, and the amount of energy invested in the book leaps out of the pages.

For Experienced DMs
Tyranny of Dragons and Princess of the Apocalypse felt like massive adventures, but I can see an inexperienced DM running Tyranny of Dragons, or even Princess of the Apocalypse. Out of the Abyss will stress out an inexperienced DM, and might prove to be a challenge even for an experienced one. The very first encounter has a dozen well detailed NPCs, each with an agenda of its own - and the PCs are going to interact with them all. From there, it's a sandbox. Non-linear, and very open. The amount of information the DM needs to digest before the game is truly immense. That said - the book is very well written, and the setting screams to be read, enjoyed, and played. The Underdark is a dangerous place for 1st level PCs, so you can expect a lot of roleplaying moments, as well as tense combat situations - and a good DM is needed to make sure a TPK doesn't happen 15 minutes into the session.

A Sea of Madness
The book makes use of many special rules presented in the Player's Handbook, like madness, getting lost, foraging, crafting and more. The Underdark is portrayed like never before, with alien landscapes, bizarre personalities and unearthly locations. The book provides great advice on how to narrate travel in such locations - and how to bring the Underdark to life while traveling days from one location to another. And don't forget - the demons are Out of the Abyss, so this dark, evil place have become even scarier than before. Players can expect to interact with creatures considered natural enemies of the surface-dwellers if they want to survive, and the constant threat of a knife in the back is ever present. Role-players will have tons of opportunities to shine, and combat encounters will require a lot of cooperation and thought to escape death, imprisonment or both...

All in all - I was very excited to get my hands on this book, and even more excited to see the great material to be found inside. The quality of adventures is constantly improving, with a positive slope from Tyranny of Dragons to Princes of the Apocalypse - to Out of the Abyss. I think Wizards are finally doing it right - and I really hope their Aboleth Overlords have even greater plans for the future!