Nondescript

Blog 885: “I’m Never Being Dungeon Master Again,” he said

He just keeps coming back for more. Yes, my D&D group had a gap between adventures so, once again, muggins here foolishly volunteered to run a short “dungeon”.

The first time I ran an adventure was hard work, but I think my second, far more scope-limited, single-session attempt went pretty well! So I doubled down on the principles of the latter and prepared a… two-shot. Which ended up as a three-shot. Oops.

I’m Never Being Dungeon Master Again

My previous one-shot was a single mega-dungeon, composed of just enough enemies and hazards to comprise a single so-called “adventuring day”. That is, just the right amount of battles to ensure the players are pushed to their limits, but still able to win through without all dying. (They did all die, but not because of my poor encounter balance.)

I mapped the complete dungeon on a grid and allowed the players to move mostly freely, only stopping them to enter combat — a bit like, well, how a lot of video games do it. That actually made keeping track a bit tough, because obviously players can overshoot and then you have to tell them to move their tokens back and whatnot. Wasn’t a dealbreaker, but I felt it.

That game also revolved mostly around combat, and I wanted to add in a little more variety. So this time, I broke up the combat encounters into individual points of interest and gave my players a mountain to climb.

You’re in the tavern, sheltering from the cold. This town in which you find yourself, Oryx, is in an unhappy mood, but you pay it little heed. There’s talk that the King has been abducted and a dragon named Gala is demanding a precious artefact in exchange for his life. That seems like no concern of yours, until a hooded figure makes his way round the tables. He needs mercenaries for a desperate mission.

The figure gathers you all in a dark corner, reveals himself to be the town’s Guard Captain and explains the situation plainly: he knows where the monster has the King, and he thinks a small strike force can rescue him before the dragon’s deadline passes. The King could only have been abducted by traitors that he has been unable to identify, so he cannot send his own men without arousing suspicion — but he dares to hope that a few travellers simply “passing through” will not tip off the dragon or its agents.

Motivated by nobility or greed or some other desire entirely, you agree to his mission. You reckon you have what it takes… to conquer Gala’s Peak.

There is only one problem: Gala’s deadline is fast approaching. You only have 48 hours and it’s a long way up…

I pretty much invented my own rules for the mountain climbing part, which is one of the ongoing complaints about 5th Edition D&D — it has robust (ahem) rules for combat, but not a lot for how to interact fairly with the world outside that. I took a few cues from various places and settled on the following:

  • Time passes in increments of 1 hour
  • The players can spend 1 hour travelling or doing something important
  • They can make skill checks to determine how they travel for that 1 hour, or to try to determine if they might run into any trouble

Between 8-hour long rests, the players had two 16-hour days to spend on ascending the mountain before the deadline would pass and they would fail the mission (the villainous Gala would murder the king and/or make off with the Powerful Artefact). That seemed like it should be enough time to get some fun in and still make it, but short enough to keep the players on their toes.

(In the end, they made it with a couple hours to spare, enough time to clean out Gala’s last remaining goons and get a short rest in before the final battle. Great success!)

All those faded icons are my back-up options waiting on the DM layer to be brought into life. I used my drawing pen on my little convertible laptop to draw the map icons, then filled in the mountain itself in Roll20 as the players advanced. See also my timing notes next to the campaign “clock”.

Primarily, I wanted to encourage a measure of risk/reward assessment of different sitations: do you spend an hour Investigating this ruin for useful items, or do you press on?

This meant that while I had a stock of potential battles and challenges for the players to face, none of them had a fixed location on the mountainside. I shuffled them around and drew in encounters as the party advanced, based on which biomes they chose to traverse, my own whims, how much I felt they could handle, and how much time I wanted to tempt them into burning. That’s the secret to DMing, isn’t it? Let the party make choices that conveniently always lead to what you have planned? (Before you say it, I told the players the premise of the adventure was following the rails or bust, I did not hoodwink any strangers. I’m a frustrated novelist, not an improv actor.)

I also wanted to add some skill challenges to break up the tactical combat even more, maybe cost some resources to get around some obstacles without going full-on battle mat. I had an icy river to cross, for example, where the Barbarian and the Rogue used mere Acrobatics skill checks to get across safely, but the less physical Warlock cast Fly. Then there was the Sleepy Ankylosaur who was perfectly docile and could have been pacified with an offering of food… but they fumbled their Animal Handling roll and startled it into combat. (They murdered the poor thing.)

I kept some roving monsters in reserve to ensure that, even if they ignored everything and booked it straight for the summit, they’d still suffer. They saw a giant flying reptile overhead a couple of times, but luckily Rodan did not need to land and fuck them up for rushing too far ahead. (He did at least scare them into picking the cave path, which made for a nice change of scenery… and stopped me from running out of forest encounters.)

Indeed, this time I didn’t actually draw any fancy battle maps ahead of time (except the finale) — I just didn’t know what route they might take and I had a roster of potential battles twice as large as the number I expected them to actually face. Roll20’s vector art tools are truly awful, but capable enough that I could get the jist of an arena down in a few minutes while the party roleplayed some travelling chatter. It was only a party of three, so thankfully I didn’t need vast combat zones.

I even tweaked some of those encounters along the way. They managed to avoid the open fields where they’d have had to fight some ankhegs, so instead I recoloured these into “amberhegs” and had them guarding a mysterious tree along with its sap (ochre jellies) instead of the little earth elementals I had originally planned. Nobody gets to avoid the ankhegs. Nobody.

When I said Gala was a “dragon”…

And with that, I have the dubious honour of being quite possibly the last D&D (5th Edition) game our group will ever play. Yep, I’ve finally let them talk me into trying another system — our next campaign will be using 13th Age.

I’ve come to the conclusion that 5th Edition isn’t the D&D that I originally fell in love with. I fell in love with 2nd Edition through Baldur’s Gate — when the game much was closer to its sword ‘n’ sorcery roots — whereas 5th Edition has drifted a long way off to the realm of high fantasy superheroics. I realise now that I don’t actually like high fantasy all that much, and I like superheroics even less. So while I will always have a great fondness for the monsters of yore, the ankhegs and the gnolls and the gith and the sahuagin, D&D ain’t for me anymore. It’s time to let it go.

(I have never played 2nd Edition at a table, so maybe I’d hate it for different reasons… but I’ve also come to the conclusion that everything I truly want from D&D is actually videogames anyway.)

This is one of the main reasons I’ve done all my little adventures with player characters at level 5 — there’s a little bit more fragility and little bit less overpowered reality-bending nonsense, which gets you closer to a sword ‘n’ sorcery tone… But even down here the game is a bit broken.

For example, when crossing an exposed plateau and having to deal with freezing winds whipping across it, the Warlock cast Prestidigitation to warm his clothes for an hour. With no cost, he could — rules as written — simply ignore the challenge. I ended up only giving him Advantage on his Constitution check, but that felt like an ass-pull from me, because I’d just nixed a player using a perfectly legitimate feature of their class. I’d rather the rules didn’t just have Get Out of Problem Free cards for spellcasters. Ugh.

Anyway, they didn’t die and seemed to have fun. I’m still definitely never doing this agai–

And you tell me...

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