Mar 292013
 
EyeOfFlameBeholderDetail1

Finally, it’s all in place. You’ve done the bookwork. The characters are all rolled. And after much introspection and contemplation you’ve sewn the first strands of a web-like plot in your head. Now, every great adventure needs a grand beginning.  So how do you bring this all together? You want to get your hooks in early and keep them on the line, but how? Too many campaigns commence in a tavern.  A group of adventurers just deciding randomly to throw their lots together just doesn’t offer that explosive start you’re seeking. Wait a minute, that’s it! Start with a bang, literally.

Nothing will get your players attention quite like a fight. In fact, I think a good skirmish can be exactly what is needed to really kick things off right. It sets an exciting tone for the rest of the campaign. Immediately, and without remorse, the characters are put to the test and are instantaneously inundated with a sense of fear and anticipation of what awaits them beyond each turn. That sense of anxiety and curiosity works fantastically to a DM’s advantage in a number of ways. Similarly, the scuffle itself can be used to several ends.

Characters and players experience will vary. Some players may be seasoned vets, or as with my party, most are quite inexperienced and green. A good scrap right from the start is great because it provides an immediate opportunity to explain the rules and mechanics of the game itself. It’s a lot easier to teach someone how THACO (old school D and D battle mechanic) and Armor class work when it’s in game and they’re rolling dice as opposed to in a conversation. The fight can be a clever way to give your players a tutorial without them realizing because it can simultaneously kick off a grander story arc. It doesn’t have to be a semi- random onslaught of kobolds upon a quiet farming community. However, there is no shame ever in a random kobold offensive.

Many good lads were lost to the Great Kobold Incursion of 987 DR.

For my group I had arranged a delightful little ambush by thugs. Though it should be said, this was not just a lame attempt at extortion. The opening sequence of the campaign came together as something of a theatrical production.  I had given each player a few specific lines or actions there were to take to get things started and then they take over with their role-playing and off we go.

So it was, the paladin of the group is a young nobleman named Dhagan who had recently been promoted to captain of the guard of Copperkeep, the city in which this is all set.  He and his trusted counselor, the wizard Vaerzaal, were at the barracks awaiting the arrival of a bounty hunter, a ranger of some renown by the name of Ulderic the Blackbear. The ranger was bringing to justice a young and naïve halfling rogue known as Longbelly who was involved in the robbery of a powerful and influential mining guild. As the gruff ranger pushed the bound Longbelly into the captain’s chamber he declared with a wry smirk on his weathered face, “It’s not so hard to track a Halfling.”  So there they were, the four would-be companions. The first interaction wasn’t particularly amicable as you might imagine.

The halfling revealed that he was the “patsy” in a grander scheme. He offered up anything he had on the local thieves’ guild, and was even willing to help in the capture and disposal of the rest of the bandits in exchange for his own neck. (A truly typical amount of loyalty shown by a thief) However, no sooner than he had struck his bargain, they were all ambushed by a group of thugs hired to assassinate the halfling should he be bold enough to show his face or portly belly. To the little round one’s credit, he did immediately endear himself to the group by saving Sir Dhagan’s life in the onset of the ambush. The halfling, gifted with great dexterity and freshly unbound, unsheathed his sword in a flash and deftly batted away an arrow bound straight for the knight’s head.

Fear not though, after some tense moments the group did successfully overcome the thugs. It is important to remember not to overwhelm your party right away. You want to challenge them, but you don’t want to set a climate of defeat within the group. Certainly not in the beginning anyway, sometimes you will need to crush them just to remind them they’re not the biggest kids on the block. But, a nice clean victory over some brutish assassins to get things started, that sounds about right.

They’re getting a little cocky, it’s time for them to learn what a beholder is.

And that was our first session. They came together, they fought together, and they learned together. After all, anyone who plays or played old school knows THACO takes some getting used to. All in all, it went really well.  It’s all about finding the right blend, my friends. You have to have a good mix of story-telling and the hack and slash. Once your players get the hang of what dice they need to roll when, and the web really starts to unwind, it becomes like your new favorite show and you can’t wait for the next episode.

Mar 012013
 
otyugh

Wow, it even has an otyugh. Wait, what the hell is an otyugh?

After an extended break, rules and tables that were once etched in your mind are perhaps not so easily recalled. Cracking open the old books can be like rediscovering some lost knowledge from an ancient tome. After the dust settles what lingers is a nostalgia and invigoration from thumbing through page after page of the beloved core books. The Monster Manual has that sense of grandness once more.  A new creature and idea to test and torment your players lurks on every page.

Indeed, as with any DM worth their weight in copper pieces, it is important to spend time familiarizing yourself with the rules and creatures at your disposal. However, I think it to be of equal importance to spend time crafting a story and preparing a narrative. In my humble opinion, the biggest challenge of the DM is to be entertaining. If your players are not engaged, then everything you’re trying to build will crash down around you.

As mentioned in my first entry, I prefer to make an effort to create an extensive backstory for each character. I think that this is paramount in the successful immersion of the player into the character. If your players have a sense of depth, it becomes easier to imagine the character and perceive it as being the hero or villain they desire.  That is truly what players want to play. Players want to have a taste of grandeur. After all, this is fantasy.  No one wants to be average in a game. We all have plenty of time to do that in real life.

So as stated previously, when it came time to making characters for the impending adventure, the first thing I set about doing was shaping each character one on one with their respective players.  My friend Joe established early that he had wanted to play a rogue because that was something different than he had played before. In fact, most of the party was of limited playing experience and so the idea of them all trying something new was appealing. The point of a Role Playing Game is to act as your character, not as yourself. D and D shouldn’t just be about the hack and slash element of rolling dice. The creation of an interesting personality can be an equally if not more satisfying experience.

I don’t expect Shakespearean subtlety or the Oscar worthy intensity of Daniel Day Lewis, but my players actually have to play their role.

When each character was being rolled, I would store pieces of information about each character for ideas for the overall story. You never know what can spark a great wrinkle for the campaign. A magical item that the characters had, or a certain attribute being considerably low. For example, Ulderic, the ranger of the group has a very low charisma, and a long forgotten stat called comeliness (only used in forms of 1st and 2ndedition, yeah I’m old school) which we determined was because of a physical deformation. His face is horribly scarred from a harrowing encounter with a giant black bear. This same story became the idea behind the nickname of the character and his current garb. He is adorned in the beast’s pelts and is known as Ulderic the Blackbear.

This is the most ridiculous example of an extremely high comeliness.

This is the most unfortunate example of an extremely low comeliness. However, Tiny Tim is an 8th level bard and that’s not too shabby.

 

That is really only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to these stories. And that, my friends, is the point I’ve been working towards. The smallest aspect can spark a multitude of story ideas and that is the essence of creating an entertaining campaign that your players can’t wait to play. The more depth, the grander the narrative, the more your players want to see where the adventure takes them. And that’s the terrifyingly fun part of being the DM, it’s up to you to get them there.

Jan 302013
 
Dragonattack

Mmm, delicious face.

Getting back on the imaginary saddle shouldn’t be difficult, right? What exactly do I mean, you say? Well, it’s not as weird as it sounds, I assure you. Look, I am a life-long nerd. Yeah, a pretty big one. There are many facets to my nerdiness. Perhaps the biggest of all being that I play the archetype of all nerdy games: Dungeons and Dragons. I just recently started a new campaign with a group of friends where I am to be the Dungeon Master. Despite the fact that I have been playing for over 17 years, I haven’t actively played in a few years and I am still somewhat nervous to be taking the reins once again. You might think that it would be just like riding a bike, but it’s a bit more like getting back on an imaginary horse and there’s a terrifying dragon swooping down to EAT YOUR FACE.

Apprehension aside, it is exciting to be at it once more. As mentioned previously, I have spent over a decade and a half playing this game now, which seems wild, because that is the VAST majority of my life. (I’m 26 if you were curious.) I’ve been playing long enough that I actually remember a time before a sultry-eyed Elijah Wood made Frodo Baggins and all things fantasy accepted parts of pop culture. I still remember a time when wizards were not scarf-toting, hipster British children and you got stuffed in a locker if you owned anything other than six sided dice. Despite that lingering threat of confinement and anguish, I had an interest in the middle ages and tales of sword and sorcery from an early age. It was only a matter of time before I picked up the dice.

Those are some serious peepers.

Even in those early days of playing with my friends it became clear that I was going to DM. I loved every aspect of the role. When you are the DM, you control everything. Every morsel of flavor, every nuance is shaped and crafted in the mind of the DM. You must weave an elaborate web of personalities, places, and perils. It is the DM’s job to make an imaginary world as colorful and vivid as possible. The ideal is that your players are able to completely immerse themselves in a world that is conjured from nothing but a collaboration of imagination. However, making the imaginary seem tangible is a colossal undertaking. So, for the sake of posterity and science, this and the following articles will be a discussion and dissection of the trials and travails I may face through the inception and commencement of the new adventure.

For this new escapade, I decided to run the campaign in a world that was very familiar. Having previously DMed and played in the Forgotten Realms it was an easy fit. For those who aren’t familiar with the Realms, it’s a very popular fantasy campaign setting created by Ed Greenwood and popularized by many video games and novels including the Baldur’s Gate games, and R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf series. The Realms are extensive and filled with vast intriguing lands each with their own histories and legends. By comparison, any of the incredible open-world video games that are so popular, the Realms dwarfs them all. That is the beauty of D & D compared to video games; there are no limits, and there is no set finale. The game is truly what you will it to be.

Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden battles nemesis Artemis Entreri

After having decided upon a setting my next course was to determine with my players what kind of party and characters they had in mind. D & D characters can come together in many fashions, but I prefer to let my players have a great hand in the creation process. In traditional forms of the game you roll your stats and choose a class based on your rolls and the rest essentially is to fall into place. For me, I want my players to enjoy playing their character. Therefore I got together with each of my friends individually to create their characters. This allowed me to focus on each player and the character they wanted to develop. Also, when it comes time to start the adventure there is a sense of mystery about what role everyone is going to be taking, consequently, the party coming together must actually be played and experienced by the group.

In the end, we wound up with a fairly well balanced group. There is a gallant and noble young paladin named Dhagan. The spellcaster of the group is a brooding and cunning wizard by the name of Vaerzaal. Also, there’s a mischievous and inquisitive halfling rogue they call Longbelly, but his kinfolk would know him as Hugo Humblepot. Rounding things out is the reclusive and tormented ranger Ulderic the Blackbear. Each character has a distinct and extensive back story that was shaped together with my players. For me, this is an essential element of the game. Making the characters layered and giving them as much depth as possible is a fantastic tool. Not just for making your players feel more absorbed in their character, but also for later in the campaign. There is always something to go back to and build upon. You can only rescue the princess from a tower so many times, right?

And now here we stand, metaphorically of course, on the cusp of a great journey, poised for the task at hand. So stay tuned, my new friends, for there will be many adventures and headaches to be had. Though the glory of the quest and the fruits of my labor may be completely imaginary, the good times shared by a group of friends are fortunately real and often quite memorable. Suddenly I’m reminded how much I love this game. It’s good to be back on the imaginary saddle.

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