Thursday, September 30, 2010

DMing on the Borderlands, Experiments in Public Gaming

These last three weeks have been my first experiences DMing at a local game store, the amazing Guardian Games. I joined up to meet people in a new town and to finally become a member of the RPGA, completing my D&D gestation.

I have been DMing Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, Season 3: Keep on the Borderlands. The adventure is provided by Wizards of the Coast as a promo and organized by the store. Each week players all over the world roll through the same fight in an ongoing scenario that plays out over the course of 20 weeks. Its only two hours a week so its great for a quick D&D fix.

Session 1

It was my first time DMing in public and I had a great time! My voice was a little raw after an hour of shouting, but I'm looking forward to next week! The DM pep talk before the game was great and I hope that becomes a tradition.

I had five players. One was completely new to rpgs, a friend of mine I conned into showing up, and the other for had more Encounters experience than me. This led to a few corrections here and there as I sussed out some of the ruling conventions of the Encounters format (does everyone really get to add the cleric's d6 die to their healing surges during short rests? I always ruled that you can use them if you didn't during the fight). I kept threatening to pull out my fumble charts from my home game...

It was interesting to play as sort of a public administrator. I felt somewhat less than the all powerful deity of the table, but that is probably for the best. I brought minis and some random tokens. I'll bring a few extra tiles next time. And I need pipe cleaners!

Everyone played the pre-gens and seemed happy with them. One experienced Encounterer said he prefers to play pre-gens. My friend who rolled his first d20s was happy that he ended up with the dwarf slayer because of how simple it was to play. And he got the killing blow on the drake.
I like the adventure. It is a classical fantasy adventure (reminds me of old Conan stories and WFRP), and I pretty much just started by reading the boxed text. The players talked with Benwick a bit but got down to it quickly. I tried to shoehorn in as much of the background stuff as I could into the conversation, establishing the distrust between the folk of the keep and Sir Drysdale (who I kept calling Clydsdale).

The fight itself was lots of fun. The thief snuck in early and the plan was to lure the monsters out of the cave. Unfortunately a low roll on a second sneak check had them rolling initiative. The thief did tons of damage. The mage zapped the minions. The knight intimidated the dragonborn into surrendering, and the cleric ended up down in the pit holding the lizardman trapper off of the prisoner (and nearly dying in the process). The mercenary was allowed to leave with his life, but no sword or money.
All in all a fun couple of hours.

Session 2

This week I only had three players, and that made for a short fight! I removed one bandit and had the minions arrive in waves and the knight, thief and cleric plowed through them. Perhaps I pulled too many punches? I did bloody the knight and thief in the first couple rounds.
It was a little bit of a let down to be done so soon. We wanted to go on to the next encounter! I wish I would have played up the tavern scenes a lot more, but I think just having less players makes a much speedier game.
It was nice to play in the back room where it wasn't quite so loud.

The best part was the Encounters After Hours at the bar. Tic Tac Toe on a hamburger and much geekery over microbrews!

Session 3
Using the pennies for flaming sections of floor worked great. The encounter was neat. The skill challenge during the fight worked out nicely. It did require that the wizard player initiate messing with the sigil, but then even the new guy had his character go and knock over the brazier! The players were a bit confused by the mysterious escape of Ronnick, theorizing that if he could summon these elementals then why couldn't he turn invisible or do a number of things to escape? Others wondered why he would burn his own home to cover his tracks. They took the evidence to Benwick who was very pleased. He urged them to hurry to the Well Hideout and promised to beseech Drysdale for a reward on their behalf.

I have to thank Max (our DM coordinator) for some GREAT handouts: partially burned documents incriminating Ronnick marked with the sigil of Tiamat, and a map showing the "Well Hideout"! That was a great touch. I even rearranged the geography of the plot (in my head!) to accommodate.

The fight was on the easy side again. It helped that the wizard froze the water elemental and pushed him back two rounds in a row. The fire elementals had low defenses and low hit points so they went poof in two or three hits. I ended up keeping the Water elemental alive for an extra round or two until the skill challenge had been completed, which I think helped the drama.

I was thinking it would help a bit if the fire guys created a burning area when they died as well. Something to force the characters to move through burning terrain...

All in all, a good session. I had a full table and the players seemed well engaged. A new player made up an Essentials wizard in under 10 minutes at the table!

Session 4

A fight in a ruined watchtower, this encounter was forgettable. I forgot to account for the midnight darkness when placing artillery, and the heroes easily took care of the situation. We had three new players this week, although apparently they were from another table who's DM showed up late.

This evening didn't quite scratch the itch for me, just fed the monkey and left him wanting more, to mix some addiction metaphors.

Session 5

I discovered some of the drama of public DMing, but "Into the Dragontooth" was the best encounter yet for my table!

The Heroes followed the Kobolds of Tiamat into a waterfall carved cavern at he base of a low chalk promontory. Perhaps it was because I rolled a critical hit on a slime surprise attack, but the this one seemed to have more drama and player creativity than previous session. I think it was the rope swings.

The encounter began with the two(!) halfling thieves scouting forward into the cavern. One made his perception check and the other did not. He that did not was attacked and then attacked again as I one initiative. He was down before he even had a chance! As the party
sloshed through the waters, or swung like Tarzan as one knight did! to battle the nauseous slimes the kobold sniper was revealed, Halfling Number One was healed and shimmied up a rope but was followed so he swung across the cavern, over the battle, caught a second rope and used that to swing right over the patch of mushrooms! There were many huzzahs! So much so that Halfling Number Two did the same trick from his position.

In all it was an epic fight. The terrain offered fun and games, and the Squelching Slimes both had hit points to keep them going a few rounds and nice Push mechanic which kept the defenders shuffling around as well. I wouldn't mind putting one of the slimes on the
ceiling if I was going to run the game again.

We had six players at the table but the battle was still finished in 1.5 hrs. I don't know about the players but I'm liking the Essentials classes. They're faster I think. Less of an "I play this card" vibe than sometimes happens in 4e.

I had the same three new players from last week this time. This fills out my table as I've had three regulars each week. Last week I had six while another DM ended up not running a table and afterwards I commented to a friend that if only the new guys had mentioned that their regular DM was late we could have spread the players around. I attributed this to gamers lacking communication skills, but it turns out I was wrong, they were defectors!

I don't know what the issue was with the other DM, but for some reason these three players were done with that table and had decided to stick with me. As a public DM I was caught in the middle. I wasn't going to turn anyone away, but it might suck to be the other guy. On the other hand I do like a smaller group.

The upside is that one of these new players is a young kid, maybe 13 or 14, who is a joy to watch. He doesn't care much for all the tactics and gaming strategies and instead plays his thief as the greedy self centered character he is, happy to attack when the risk is not too great. Its like a breath of fresh air.

At these public games I often mention how I'd do it at my home table (crits and fumbles!) but I feel like I don't want to rock the boat too much, even if I would prefer players not to interrupt another's turn with unsolicited tactical advice. Lot's of fun, but I'm looking forward to playing privately again.