Category Archives: DMing

Running Horde of the Dragon Queen: (Revisited)

Well it’s been a while since I talked about embarking on, what was chalking up to be, an “evil” flavor for Horde of the Dragon Queen published campaign. Since then, we’ve picked up a few new players. It’s an infusion of diverse personalities that adds a new dynamic. Certainly the inter-character relations have gotten spicier with a few pvp attack rolls taking place. While this sort of thing can be OK, given an understanding among the participants, things can quickly migrate into Bruised Ego Town quickly.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s the Neutral Good elven ranger that’s been counting all the coup on the Chaotic Evil tiefling assassin. To be fair, the ranger’s actions (generally) have some sort of narrative justification, and there’s a ready Cure Wounds spell by way of apology, but by that point the real damage is done.

We play for diverse reasons. Some come for the story, others get to try out personalities not their own within the realm of the safe and the hypothetical. Well, at least I’d hope Chaotic Evil would be a novel perspective. Anyway, hero, anti hero  or villain, everybody wants to play a paragon of awesomeness. Otherwise, why bother?

I had to have a heart to heart with the tiefling assassin’s player, whose bizarre and self destructive behavior belied a willingness to end his character’s story in an ignominious way simply  because he didn’t seem to fit in, or jive with some of the other stronger, and diametrically opposed personalities in the party.

I gave his character an easy way out of his predicament, and I told him to not to worry about party friction. Frankly, it would be more interesting if his character had some changes of heart, or at least some misgivings about his behavior, than to exit the stage in a less than spectacular way. Ultimately, it’s his call. Yet I don’t feel like I would be doing my job if everyone, especially a new player, wasn’t having a good time.

This is a campaign that’s gone far off the scripted path, back again, then off road again, which I think most out there would agree isn’t such a bad thing. It makes things interesting, and adds replay value to the original materials anyway. The challenge to move forward in some manner at least parallel to the adventure as written is coupled with balancing over powered characters with under powered characters, and strong personalities with quiet ones, and with uncooperative players with team players.




Running Hoard of the Dragon Queen:When Good Players Go Bad

“Whaddya mean Govenor Nighthill has no money? He had about 5,000 gold pieces last time we robbed him.”

14709_842496389153439_4449791469832993263_nFor those in the know, the first part of Wizard’s Tyranny of Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, is sort of a “one event leads to the next” type of story. I posted before on my decision to run a more linear campaign with a new player. I completely regret that decision.

The following contains what may be construed as mild to significant spoilers.

The Dilemma
You just never know. New Player certainly is a noob, but not the type to ever differ to other characters, or even be a team player for that matter. New Player, “Instigator” is thy name. What’s more, this is not a party that works for charity. You have a piratical priest of Talos the Destroyer, a maniacal tiefling assassin, and a Neutral half-orc wizard, who’s saintly in comparison to the other members who barely tolerate his presence. My dilemma going forward is finding out how to motivate these players to pick back up with the story as planned without dangling tons of gold in front of them, and to try to foster party cohesion.

The Carrot
As I see it, there’s little motivation for this band of nare-do-wells  to investigate a dragon cult and build coalitions to put the kibosh on their plans. Setting fires, pointless torture, human trafficking, and a range of other types of demonic activity is more in line with their modus operendi.

So I’ll have to hit a little closer to home. The cool thing about 5th edition D&D is that each character comes with a bond–something or someone in the setting they profess to care about. And that can be a powerful leaver. I’ve already introduced the AssAssin’s bond–a maguffin in the shape of a mysterious key that belonged to his parents. I can’t keep snatching the key away to keep him chasing it. At some point you have to deliver. The thing I have to brainstorm is what significance is the key, how will that spur up a motivation, and how can I tie that neatly into the story as written? The others are a bit more obvious. Every cleric comes with a deity that can make them care. And Wizards are almost always motivated by the advancement of their craft.

The Stick
One character goes off after something that grabs their attention. Another starts off to explore on their own; it’s a DM’s worst nightmare. More than this, the tiefling name calls the other characters and both tiefling and priest snub the wizard, so the wizard sets his own agenda.

I’ve gotten pretty good at wearing two hats. I can DM as well as play an NPC who is a party member. I’ll speak in character, using a different voice affectation and most of the time they get when I’m a DM and when I’m speaking as a supporting character. “Supporting” is a key word. A DM should never make the big decisions for a group, simply offer opinion and advice. This time I have no such voice, or any agency to influence any of the shenanigans within the narrative with the authority that a party member has. So I have to sit mute and slack-jawed at the atrocities being described.

The solution? If they bake a cake, let them eat it. They may run off to commit crimes, but there are champions of good out there, and the world is a dangerous place. If they want to solo, then they may just find that cooperation is actually beneficial to their survival.

To Conclude
When you go to start a new campaign, learn what it is you’re buying into. Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not the setting for an evil campaign. I have to say that this is the first campaign I’ve ran where I genuinely don’t like the characters who are in it. Note, I’m not saying players, I wouldn’t be there if that was the case. But what keeps me running this campaign is mostly the love of the game, and a morbid curiosity. Only time will tell if they can get it together for the next fifteen levels.


Rethinking a Campaign

“This starting gold’s a rip.”

14709_842496389153439_4449791469832993263_nI had originally planned to run Out of the Abyss. And I had even gone to some lengths to craft the location for the first chapter, as in the previous post. Yet as the glue and toilet paper were drying on the massive stalactite structures, I came to realize the impracticality of the terrain I was making. What’s more important than a faithful construction of a location is whether or not the players can see what’s going on and move miniatures around on it. Then I get word that a new player was joining us, which is great, but he’s a new player, as in he has never played before. Thus chagrined by my previous poor planing, I got to wondering if Out of the Abyss was the right game for the group.

Every new player brings with them a batch of expectations and preconceptions. Every new player has their own learning curve, and each one learns the game best in a different way. Over the years, I’ve taught or helped to teach quite a few new players, and the best way, after walking through character creation with them, is simply to immerse them in the actual game. Most everyone picks up the shared narrative aspect very quickly. But usually, indecisive players need options laid out for them and a little time to mull them over. 5e D&D has some pretty simple mechanics, with only three basic kinds of rolls, and simply adding some modifier to a d20 roll isn’t too hard to fathom either. Yet in the aggregate, all the jargon and  what all your character can and can’t do may be a bit overwhelming at first.

I figured a more traditional type of campaign might work best with a new player. It seems strange to try and break genre expectations before the initial expectations are even set. Out of the Abyss is much darker in tone. Its about dealing with madness and depravity. It’s not so much about heroics as it is about basic survival. Tyranny of Dragons is a fairly baseline type of action adventure campaign and one collecting dust on my shelf. It has a fairly linear, episodic, flow. And it seems the best choice for introduction outside of homebrewing something quickly.

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Well, game night rolls around. Our new player picks up on the concepts in fits and starts, which isn’t bad considering that even the crazy dice shapes were new to him. I was prepared to expect a wide gamut of possibilities. I sort of knew the modus operandi of the others. How much could one new player change the dynamic?

What I wasn’t prepared for was a complete upending of all assumptions! In retrospect, it makes sense. One appeal (and its a a large one) to playing role playing games, is the ability to try on new personalities, to do things, or say things, you would never do or say in the everyday world. And this, to me, is all fine and good within certain tolerable limits. For a new player to explore the darker side of humanity is neither here nor there. It just means (hopefully) that they have a flexible range. Yet for everyone at the table to do this at once was disarming.

The result stretched my abilities as a DM. There was little cooperation amongst the characters and everyone ran in their own separate scenes for the most part. I had to adjust the alignment of our new recruit twice, based on apparent outlook and actions, until his tiefling rogue was determined to be Chaotic Evil without a more accurate moral descriptor lacking. It was simply the closest term available. The most socially amenable character was played by my brother’s half-orc whose neutrality at least encompassed a pragmatic need to preserve others’ lives. Moreover, I had no “party member” NPC to voice any moral outrage at the possibilities of casual murder and human infant consumption. Greenest will never be the same.

“Evil” campaigns are a part of the D&D tradition. I recall my first AD&D session being a part of this sub-genre. Yet dysfunctional evil campaigns have a tendency to fall apart if everyone’s so evil that they are too maladapted to interact with society or each other.

In the end, and despite my distress, everyone had a good time by all accounts. While everyone looks to the next session with anticipation, I have to remain concerned that I can drive the central plot based on the purely mercenary (or rapine) dispositions of the characters. Perhaps in hindsight Out of the Abyss wasn’t such a bad idea? What we can take away from all this is that it’s important to feel out the characters’ motivations going into a new campaign.


Establish certain expectations. I think everyone deserves to play in the kind of game they want to play and not feel uncomfortable with the content and context of the story. A quick and collective consensus is all that’s really needed. Likely, you will already know the type of game you’ll play. Call of Cthulhu has a much different feel than D&D or Pathfinder. But the tone of the game is the unspoken factor. Ask for and establish a tone. likely, this may change over the course of play. Most book, TV and movie series seem to get darker in tone over time as stakes get higher and it’s reasonable to believe a shared narrative will as well, yet in my experience, there’s a certain consistency, typically established in the beginning. Communication’s the thing. If’ you’re uncomfortable let everyone know. Meanwhile, I’ve got to drum up some extraneous motivators the authors of Horde of the Dragon Queen could never foresee.

Out of the Abyss … and Into the Crafting: Innitial Thoughts on Running a New Campaign

“Demons huh? Those have some pretty good loot … right?”

So I picked up a copy of Out of the Abyss last month and I found it to be a pretty exciting read. Usually I’ll pick up a book, peruse it for a bit and get a sense of what’s in there and I’ll spot read bits after trying to read from cover to cover. Generally these mega adventures/campaigns, which seem to be the format for 5e, that cover 15 levels or more of play don’t exactly read like novels. The first one, Tyranny of Dragons a two-parter, is mostly driven by a string of imminent events. This wasn’t a deal breaker. Many of my campaigns in the past were, in retrospect, fairly linear, but my group was more inclined to be the reactionary type, happy to be pulled along by events. The second, Princes of the Apocalypse, is fairly praiseworthy. It gives the PCs far more latitude. The campaign constraints are still there, but I can see the narrative panning out differently in subsequent replays. This time, Out of the Abyss is a page turner.

My Impressions
Like Princes of the Apocalypse, you get that sand box feel with Out of the Abyss. Normally this means a disjointed narrative. There are certain touchstone moments built in that need to happen in order to drive the plot, but otherwise all possible outcomes happily coexist, parallel realities to be accounted for with ever expanding logic gates and “if this than that” contingencies. Usually most of these choices are rendered ultimately inconsequential by scripted events that are points of convergence for the story. There’s a bit of that in Out of the Abyss, but they include so many variables that these convergence points look less like an intersection, and more like a bottle neck. It’s set in the Underdark, which naturally constrains the player’s travel choices in the way a traditional dungeon does. Yet travel in this subterranean world can be pretty variable with arbitrary or random terrain encounters coupled with monster/NPC encounters, making each run-through a unique experience. Key locations each have a politically complex landscape that bewilder the mind with the potential story arcs. “Touchstone” events are rendered contextually dynamic based on the PCs circumstances. I know that’s all a bit abstract, but for the sake of being able to avoid a mild spoiler, I’ll foot note an example at the end.*

As much as I love D&D and running D&D games, reading adventures, let alone whole campaigns, can still be a bit of a chore. Usually I need a vested interest to keep me going. In other words, I’m about to run this story so I better know what I’m doing. Strangely, I found myself eagerly reading Out of the Abyss, even mentally tracking as many story iterations as my feeble mind could hold. It’s that good. I find myself attenuating to the weird and dreamlike vibe it’s trying to convey. The PCs are placed in world of strangeness with a constant parade of quirky NPCs to interact with, most of whom have an inclination to join or follow the party. I can see things getting pretty crowded unless the DM gets a little vicious and knocks some of these camp followers off from time to time, which adds a melancholic element to counterpoint to the whimsy since the loss of these characters would bereally felt as they are so colorful and memorable. Madness is definitely a theme throughout, and if you didn’t pick up on the dreamscape aspect early on, you get hit over the head with Alice in Wonderland simulacrums to reinforce the point.

The Plan: Brainstorming Projects for the First Chapter

Caveat! Some spoilage beyond. Be thee warned! 

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