Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Behind the DM screen again, part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series about my experience dungeon mastering a game of Dungeons & Dragons after a long, long absence.

As I stated in a previous post, I recently stepped behind the screen again and dungeon mastered my first game of Dungeons & Dragons in more than 17 years. The module was "Legends are Made, not Born," from the excellent Dungeon Crawl Classics line, published by Goodman Games.

The adventure background is as follows:

For the past few years, an ogre has demanded monthly tribute from the town of Dundraville. Since the demands were ale, sheep, and occasional mundane supplies, the town complied with these demands. The ogre was content to collect his extorted goods, and leave the town alone. However, last month, the tribute changed. In addition to ale and sheep, the ogre demanded gold and building materials!

But the situation has grown even more grim. The ogre returned yesterday with yet more demands of ale and worse: townsfolk! The town was in an uproar and denied the ogre’s request. The brute flew into a rage and grabbed two townsfolk and hauled them back to his lair. They’re destined for his gullet, no doubt!

But amidst all the turmoil, six brave townsfolk have vowed to confront the ogre, and bring him to justice. The brave ones include a noble’s son, a gnomish alchemist, a member of the town militia, a wizard’s apprentice, a local trapper, and a mysterious elven witch that lairs in a nearby forest. With the aid of the local druids and brewer in town, the last batch of ale the ogre took was laced with a mild poison to help incapacitate the brute. Now it’s time for brave heroes to finish the deed.

Overall, the experience was very rewarding and a lot of fun. In several hours of play we managed to cram in a good mix of role-playing, which involved interacting with a half-dozen NPCs in Dundraville, gathering rumors, and buying equipment. The PCs entered the cave from a little used rear entrance and, once inside, did some exploring and fought a few cave denizens, including a ghoul (the animated corpse of a long-dead warrior). The evening culminated with a great brawl with the ogre Blogg, and a cliffhanger (we weren't able to finish, unfortunately), and I think we all left happy.

Of course, looking back, I made some mistakes and wish I had a couple "do-overs." First, the bad:

  • About 15 minutes into the session I was was feeling lost and nervous and felt like quitting. Fortunately, this feeling passed.

  • I did a poor job portraying two NPCs, in hindsight due to lack of preparation: Sherynella, a female druid, and Kerwin Krell, a local shopkeeper.

  • I had meant to have the townspeople give the PCs a rousing send-off as they left town, but forgot. In this module the PCs are townspeople who decide to become heroes, and I had planned a dramatic exit as they marched off to fight the ogre.

  • I didn't know enough about the pregenerated PC's backgrounds to weave them fully into the fabric of Dundraville. As a result, occasionally the PC's interaction with the town's NPCs seemed stilted and artificial, as though the PCs were outsiders instead of locals. Again, this was due to a lack of preparation on my part.

Now on to the good, which I (think) outweighed the bad:

  • I liked my characterization of Tarik One-Arm, a grizzled old fighter living on the edge of town, as well as the way I handled the bartender Clay and his staff at the Merry Riot Inn. Tarik came off as suspicious and gruff, only warming up when the PCs offered to help him chop wood. Clay was a jovial halfling coping with the loss of his three barmaids (one of whom was taken by the ogre), and two replacement serving wenches struggling at their job. Not surprisingly, I had thought about these NPCs' motivations in advance and how they would react to the PCs.
  • There was good description and game play during the PCs' exploration of the ogre's cave. It seemed tense and fraught with danger.
  • We had a great concluding fight with the ogre Blogg. The encounter started with the party's gnome setting off a log deadfall trap, which roused Blogg from his sleep and started a running fight that eventually involved a wolf and his hobgoblin keeper. Three members of the party threw up a wall of crates, which wound up on fire in the midst of the melee. I had to make several ad-hoc rulings when Blogg burst through the wall of crates and bowled over two PCs, but it went very smoothly.
  • I was able to weave some of the PCs backgrounds into the story. For example, I made Bowen, a PC farmer who is destined to become a ranger, familiar to several local farmers, and took care to have the townsfolk react to Lord Castimir--a well-known noble--with a mixture of awe and scorn.

I'll leave you with three lessons learned:

1. Preparation is critical. Some DMs are excellent at flying by the seat of their pants, but I'm not one of them. The best encounters and most memorable NPC interactions during my adventure were all those for which I had made the most preparation. The lesson? Know your material.

2. When you start, start with a bang. I wish I had began with an encounter that required immediate reaction by the PCs. This would have removed the early feelings of awkwardness and nervousness. It also gets everyone engaged in the adventure immediately. The tendency of most players at the start of an unfamiliar campaign is to wait to be led into the adventure (guilty as charged).

3. Weave the PC's backgrounds and personality into the adventure/campaign at every turn. This makes for greater player involvement and keeps them engaged. The PCs are supposed to be on the center stage, after all, and everyone likes their chance to shine. Having been a player for the last seven years, some of my favorite gaming experiences were those times when the DM drew on my character's background or motivations and wove them into the tale. Involving your PC makes you feel like you're a part of the scenario or campaign world, and not just an observer.

1 comment:

MojoGM said...

Hey Brian,

It was a good 1st session, I'm sorry I missed the conclusion.

I liked your lessons learned, and your initial doubt in the session was not even noticed by us, so you covered well.