Friday, May 27, 2011

Learning to Crawl

My regular D&D group got back to business last night after our usual two-week break, and the party finally dealt with the second namesake of the game. In over two years of play, they had been through many dungeons, but finally killed their first dragon. He was a particularly vain blue, who fancied himself an artiste and who had appropriately made his lair in the ruins of an ancient elven museum. He had littered the halls with art of his own creation, mostly sculptures made from body parts and bits of armor he found in the ruins, or took off the victims of his raiding.

But I digress...

I had a couple takeaways from the experience of running this last adventure:
I really like running a game from a notebook as opposed to a computer.
I feel that my note-taking during the game is greatly improved, and it forces me to be succinct in my pre-game prep. However, I am definitely not yet proficient with the low-tech approach, especially during combat encounters. I need to come up with a note format that is easier to scan in the frenetic environment of battle -As a DM, I need to be simultaneously thinking about the monsters’ next move, while responding to and recording hits made by the PCs and noting things like buffing spells that they cast during their turns. Having to take more than a second to check a monster’s Armor Class, or Save modifiers can really break up the flow of combat. I often come out of such encounters feeling like I just ran a mental marathon.

To that end, I think I will restructure the mini-stat blocks I have created, and possibly make use of highlighters. So that only the MOST important stats are included in the quick scan block, with supplemental stuff off to the side. I am also working out a shorthand notation for tracking player moves. I started listing the initials for each character in the notebook to quickly record each move. To add to that, I’m working out a bit of code for recording specific actions (e.g. “FAM v D 24” would mean Full-Attack, Melee vs. Dragon 24hp of damage)

When I actually remembered to make these notes, I found it very helpful for keeping track of what was going on... when I actually remembered.

I really don’t like dungeon crawls.
A dungeon crawl is a classic staple of D&D adventuring. It is typically characterized as a room-to-room exploration of some sort of monster/bad-guy infested complex. Maybe its me, maybe its the way that my group plays, but every time my players enter a “dungeon” it feels like the pace of my game drags to a halt. Take this last adventure. The ruined elven museum had only 5 locations of real interest: The main hall, full of animals trapped in stasis fields, the dragon’s lair in a large auditorium, the arcane library which served as a refuge, a planar observatory where the dragon’s minions hung out, and an abandoned alchemy lab. Each of these locations was basically a single room, but it probably took us 5 or more sessions to get through them all.

That’s pretty much par for the course with my group when it comes to dungeons. The last time we ran through a really major dungeon, a couple of my players expressed that they felt bored and ended up switching their characters. This time, I worked hard to vary the types of events that took place, and I was getting positive feedback from my players (especially about the HUGE payoff they got last night) but I was constantly nagged by an inner voice saying “pick up the pace!” This was further enhanced last night when one of my players mentioned his suspicion that another member of the group was growing bored again.

Hearing that your players feel bored is one of the worst things a DM can hear... but it’s better to know about it than not.

Many of the storytelling mistakes I made early in this campaign (it was my first time running a game) are now feeling like stumbling blocks two years later. 
If I could go back, I would have changed the following:
  1. Narrow the focus: I know I was going for epic, but two years of play towards a mission set near the beginning, with lots of meandering tends to bog stuff down.
  2. Tease with the villain: Many of the DM blogs I read suggest bringing in a clear uber-antagonist early on (act I) who is too powerful for the players to confront immediately -think Darth Vader attacking Princess Leia’s ship. This provides the group with a sense of the challenge they face, and causes the rest of the story to feel like an mountain climb rather than a walk down the street. I made the mistake of keeping things super mysterious... which really turned to muddy.
  3. Have the players provide key elements for their characters at the beginning, such as their softspot (candy, unicorns, boys) a character flaw (perfectionist, jealous, impulsive) the name of an ally and and enemy from their past. These would help me better tie the adventure to the characters’ motivations.
Wow... this is kind of a self-flagellating post!

Speaking of D&D-related flagellation, have you seen the most recent Penny Arcade?


  1. Colored pencils and alternating between pen/pencil for flowing prose/plot points in your bible make it much easier. I also use the backs of pages for in-game notes, keeping the front clean so I can run the adventure again if need be.

  2. Dude! I too made the back of pages my in-game note spot... I definitely agree that helps keep things clean.

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