Remember when I tried being Dungeon Master once, and swore that I’d never ever do it again because it was intensely stressful?
Apparently I lied, because we had a hiatus last week while our current DM went on holiday and I volunteered — VOLUNTEERED! — to run a one-shot to fill the gap.
They say “no D&D is better than bad D&D”, and yet…
I don’t know what came over me, but my subconscious mind presented me with a vision of a dungeon. Fifth Edition D&D is structured around the “adventuring day”, where you’re supposed to have 6-8 (combat) encounters, which drain the players’ resources, before they can get to a Long Rest and refill all of their meters. You can reduce that number of encounters by making them more difficult, so I started thinking that I could definitely squeeze 4-5 Hard-to-Deadly encounters into a single self-contained scenario, thus achieving the required quota for a balanced game without a lengthy campaign.
I think it’s fair to say that I over-exerted myself last time. I was not ready to run a more complete adventure with all the social stuff and plot on top; perhaps if I had just run a single-session dungeon crawl back then I’d not have sworn abstinence. Besides, as a Warcraft mapper and now a game developer, smaller but denser environments have always been my thing. This felt… viable.
The other appealing aspect was… Well, I figured it might also be easier to run the game for two players rather than three. I’m not a great tactitian; I definitely ran all my monsters sub-optimally last time, and got confused a lot during combat. I figured that having smaller groups of enemies balanced for fewer players might blunt some of that pressure, while simply giving me fewer things to think about during each battle.
My final scope limitation was to lock the players to building their characters only using the Player’s Handbook 1 (and the Gith races), the material I am reasaonably familiar with. Last time almost everyone played something weird from a more recent splatbook and it meant I didn’t really understand what was going on half the time.
Can you imagine it — me, limiting scope? Incredible scenes.
You have been tasked with retrieving a stolen item called the Oron Crux from a cave system. You are to enter the cave system, find the artefact, and bring it safely back to the surface. The ordinators at the temple that houses the artefact have promised you a very reasonable reward for its return, and you have no reason to doubt their sincerity or wealth.
The Crux has been described to you as a faintly glowing crystalline cube, with multiple concentric cubes visible in layers within, nested until the very heart of the object is opaque. It is also described as a “powerful artefact” but the ordinators and the townsfolk are otherwise evasive about its capabilities. It is usually situated on a central altar where anybody may view it, and pilgrims often come to visit.
I did have a lot of the required materials all ready to go this time, which was another reason I felt comfortable stepping up at fairly short notice. I was very happy with my experiences using Dungeondraft last time, so I dove straight into that to build the dungeon map itself. I had some tokens for monsters I wanted to reuse, and for the fresh ones, the token template was still sitting there, ready to have new screenshots from Baldur’s Gate (and other games) inserted.
Once the players had created their characters, I gave them the opportunity to do a few skill checks to get clues about the environment and the enemies they might face… Which meant we could get straight into the meat on the night.
I ended up with a total party kill.
Not, I hasten to add, by any poor balancing on my part. They went straight for the end of the dungeon — the artefact they’d been sent to obtain and the Feral Machine Zerodis guarding it. That battle itself was sensibly tough (one went down and had to be revived by a potion), but when Zerodis died, the singularity that powered it was unleashed… With the event horizon expanding turn-by-turn to tear the mountain apart, collapsing some passages and reducing their options for escape, they had to rush back down unexplored tunnels replete with startled, confused and angry monsters they hadn’t even detected, let alone cleared. They’d killed some goblins easily, managed to sneak through the quietest path, and thus hadn’t short rested even once. Oops.
I expected a little more thoroughness on the way in — not a complete cleansing, but something to take the sting out of the retreat. I did make it very clear in the mission brief that they had to obtain the artefact and get it out again, though of course I kept Zerodis’ parting meltdown as a surprise. Alas, with the druid telling the wizard to make a break for it while he held off the monsters, they almost succeeded… Until the wizard turned around to go back and help, but was savaged by the Otyugh he’d previously skipped by. Oops.
People always say that railroading is bad, but it doesn’t half make it easier to run a session. I set up a cave system with multiple paths and multiple sets of hazards they could face or avoid as necessary; I was a little worried that with a party of only two, they might lack some of the key capabilities a larger party naturally ends up covering, but it seemed to turn out fine. The only true bottleneck was the “forced” encounter with Zerodis (if they had tried to run from it, it had Dimension Door); they did not engage, for example, with the Lava Monster lurking in the fissure, instead opting to take the narrow rock bridge across (and although it collapsed on the way out, the guide-rope they had left behind managed to keep this route open).
I definitely felt the smaller party, too — each encounter really was only one or two monsters, making it trivial to track and quick to run (and I was silently delighted when the Wizard put 3/5ths of the largest encounter to Sleep). I had a much more enjoyable time running this session, and I’m quite certain that was a direct result of all the scope constraints. Even the players seemed to have fun too, though obviously that could have just been quality roleplay.
So yeah, maybe this time, I won’t swear never to DM again… I might even look forward to it.