Closing Thoughts: Wrapping up a D&D campaign

Earlier this month the D&D campaign I’ve been DMing for a group of work colleagues reached its conclusion. We’ve been playing for close to a year and for most of the players it was their first extended foray into the hobby. While it has been a slog at times overall I have enjoyed running my first campaign in any iteration of the “world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

I’m not, however, in any rush to repeat the experience.

The campaign has really reinforced my belief that the d20 system just isn’t for me. There are just too many elements where I feel like the mechanics are working against what I want to bring to the table. Can I work around them, or even accept why they’re there? Sure, but that doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy them.

Monsters & Mayhem

One of my biggest issues is D&Ds core focus – combat. The extent to which 5th edition revolves around it is both admirable and unbelievable. 4th edition may have a tighter combat system due to its design goals (I will forever think they should have released it under a separate line such as ‘D&D Tactics’) but it is still at the core of 5th edition.

So what were my issues? First off the attrition mechanic that is HP and how it scales. Shooting or stabbing somebody and then only knocking off 8 of their 50+ HP is boring and gets repetitive quickly. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it’s meant to represent wearing down luck or a person’s stamina but honestly if that is the case it needs to be renamed and characters should have a small, separate wound track.

I found HP especially frustrating given the challenge rating of many monsters are increased simply by upping their it but without increasing anything else. Too many creatures have large HP values relative to their damage output. I got around this using two of the more common approaches – first off I halved the HP of pretty much every monster if it was above 20. Secondly for anything that should have been a proper threat they always hit with max damage (for everything else I used the average damage just to speed up combats). I also ported over the concept of minions from 4th edition – hard hitters that went down after 1 or 2 hits regardless of the damage.

My second issue with the combat heavy nature of the game is how much D&D leans on the use of monsters. Yes, they’re iconic and fit the established dungeon crawling that D&D is actually all about but I like to have intelligent NPCs that the players can interact with. Unfortunately the system doesn’t make it easy to create them and there aren’t a massive number of examples in the basic game. Time and time again I found myself reskinning monster stat blocks to be city guards and tavern owners. It helped that we’d established from the start that no race was inherently evil so it wasn’t unusual for the PCs to encounter goblins or orcs that weren’t automatically out to get them.

As with HP I understand why D&D uses monsters so often but honestly I feel like unless you’re playing a West Marches game or just focusing on dungeon crawling that it would benefit shifting to include more individuals and better rules for quickly statting them up. This is one aspect where I suspect the published adventures improve on the game but given I don’t use them I don’t have access to the repertoire of NPCs in their pages.

Epic Storytelling

Despite all my complaints about the system my aim was always to lean in to one key aspect – epic storytelling. By the end of the campaign the PCs had worked their way up to fighting against Fate itself, which in our storyline manifested in the form of a dragon. The characters had been unwillingly chosen to be its immortal heralds in the next age of the world – theirs would be power and control at the expense of progress. They chose to fight against those ties, toppling the previous immortals before turning against Fate in an epic showdown with the dragon Rivqah. They opted to forgo the stagnation of stability in favour of progress and ultimately won the fight to let the world move forward and forge its own path.

What they didn’t succeed in doing was severing the ties to their own souls, rendering them immortal in a world that was moving on. This wasn’t something I’d planned, it just came down to the PCs achieving their main goal without first completing a second objective during the heat of combat. What it does mean is that we have the opportunity to revisit the characters in a later game, so my mind is already considering the possibilities. Maybe a fantasy spin on Deadlands? Or a look at how the world progressed as it entered its modern era? The options are open and I’m looking forward to seeing what the characters have been up to.

But not yet, there’s plenty of other games to play first.

Review: D&D Monster Cards 6-16 by Gale Force Nine

As my D&D campaign has progressed my players have slowly murdered encountered tougher and tougher opponents. It’s the way that D&D works, which meant that sooner or later I was going to want to field creatures with challenge ratings above 5. We’ve now reached that point, so it seems appropriate to review the second of Gale Force Nine’s Monster Card packs, which covers CR 6-16.

This slighly smaller pack provides 74 creatures, once again using a mix of regular and double width cards with images on the front and stats on the back. The majority are double width, which isn’t really surprising given the more complex rules associated with many of these creatures. As with the CR 0-5 pack the cards are of good quality and presented in a consistent, clear format that includes their special abilities. As a reference resource they work, though you’ll need to look up the details of any spells that are listed (which is understandable)

Unfortunately, as with the CR 0-5 pack (reviewed here) Gale Force Nine have chosen to omit a number of monsters, including some of the more iconic entries. You get, for example, all of the Young Dragons but not a single Adult Dragon. There’s also no Beholder but for some reason the CR 17 Dragon Turtle and Goristro are present (I don’t know if this is a mistake in my pack or not because GF9 don’t list the contents anywhere I could find). Apparently some of the omissions are because they didn’t want to include anything with a lair action, which I think is a rather ludicrous choice given the stated CR range.

All in all the pack is rather disappointing, while I will make use of the cards for quick reference the omissions compromise it too much for me to recommend it at the RRP of $16/£13. That goes double if you already have easy access to the Monster Manual.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

Rambling: Shifting expectations – From one-shots to campaigns

Until we started our current D&D game my recent gaming had been orientated towards one-shots or, at most, mini-campaigns. It was only following our most recent session, that it struck me how the switch to a campaign hadn’t resulted in a proper reorientation of my mindset.

The One-Shot

By their very nature, one-shot games are constrained by time. This is especially true for convention games which typically need to fit into a four-hour time slot. Typically that will include not only the actual game but picking characters, explaining the system and introducing the scenario. The format also requires the plot to take a specific shape. Scenes need to be concise and limited to only those that are directly relevant. Characters should be clearly defined, often to the point of exaggeration, to ensure that they are both easy to pick up and are able to shine during the adventure. Even if you are running a prep-lite game you need to be on the ball, responsive and focused. Anything else and you risk going over or having to trim down the game.

The Campaign

Campaigns are the polar opposite and I had thought that shifting to one would have led to a pretty instant shift in my preparations and expectations. On the surface it did. The adventures are now spread over multiple sessions, there is more time to socialise and go over rules and with a more relaxed approach to the plot, I’ve even found that sessions can comfortably run short. We typically end up with closer to three hours of gaming than four thanks to the knowledge that we’ll be picking things up again the next week.

Well of course there’s a difference…

Most people that have read the above are probably thinking that I’m pointing out the obvious and you’d be right, I am. In shifting my point of reference though I’ve been reminded how easy it is to overlook the obvious. The structure of a one-shot vs campaign starter vs mid-campaign session are all different. But with the transition from one format to another how often have I actively thought about those different structures?

How often have I paused and reminded myself of those constraints and what they force me to leave out?

The answer to that is not enough. It’s human nature to take shortcuts, which in the case of adventure prep means going with what you have become used to. When we started The Immortals I knew every session would have a followup and started thinking about multi-session arc and plots. Yet on a session to session basis, I maintained too many approaches that are better suited to a one-shot.

Most obvious – that our first few sessions all concluded with a mini-cliffhanger. On one hand that’s great, it can help maintain engagement but on the other hand, I was found myself leaning on the one-shot beat structure session after session. We’d start by resolving the cliffhanger, rest and recover, explore the new situation and then rapidly build to another point of drama. I was forcing the pace of each session to try and ensure it ended on a high because that was what I’d become used to. I did it without thinking, even though I knew I had time to spare. Even though I knew that we could end on a low or with the characters in the middle of something.

All because I had assumed I would automatically switch my habits back to approaches I’d learned when I was running regular campaigns.

Going forward its clear that I need to pause and reflect more often, not just on the big picture but on the fine details. I’m fairly confident that overall I run a good game but I don’t want to just run a good game, I want to run an amazing one. I’ve got a table full of new players and I want them to come out of the campaign wanting more. I want them to love this hobby as much as I do and that’s not going to happen if I just rely on past experience.

Note: Ok, so this post got away from me and just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted it to. Normally I’d work on it a bit more but the more I do the less I feel like it is going to go anywhere. So here it is, just some rambling thoughts that I hope make at least some sense.

Review: D&D Monster Cards 0-5 by Gale Force Nine

One of the things I’m slowly coming to appreciate with D&D is just how central monsters are to the game, more so than for any of the other systems I have run. Combat is a central thematic pillar and the majority of the time the expectation is that those combats will involve Monsters as opposed to intelligent NPCs. That one of the core books is the Monster Manual should be a massive giveaway here. As part of our Fall of the Immortals campaign, I’ve been trying to utilise a wider array of monsters than I am naturally inclined to thanks to my previous GM experience.

It quickly became apparent that keeping a copy of the Basic Rules on my tablet for reference just wasn’t going to cut it. Interesting combats should include a variety of creatures, which meant that I found myself flicking back and forth between pages every combat round to double check stats and abilities. It slowed the game down and was generally just a pain to deal with. Printing off the monster stats in advance helped quite a bit, right up until my players turned left and initiated an encounter I hadn’t planned for. Fortunately,¬†Gale Force Nine produce a product that is ideal for this situation – Monster Cards, with sets covering CR 0-5 and CR 6-16.

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The CR 0-5 set covers 177 monsters, presented as a mix of standard and double sized cards. The front features artwork depicting the monster in question while the reverse covers the game statistics, with the double width cards employed when creatures have a number of special mechanics. Due to the size constraints of the card format there is absolutely no descriptive information, you’ll need to refer to the Monster Manual if you need that.

Overall, the Monster Cards do exactly what I need them to – provide a quick reference for in-game statistics. I’ve taken to clipping them to the top of my GM screen during play, allowing the players to see what keeping the multiple stat blocks right in front of me. The artwork is high quality and primarily lifted from the Monster Manual (from what I can tell). There are a few variant pieces featuring backgrounds, primarily used for cards representing tougher versions of a standard creature. Each card also includes a clear artist credit, an especially nice touch that many products would have omitted. The layout is just as professional and ensures that the details are clear and easily readable despite the condensed nature of the card format. Long term I will probably sleeve the cards to protect them, they only just fit the box and I’ve already seen one card pick up a small amount of damage just through the process of opening the box.

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So what’s not to like? I have one main issue, which is the contents. There are a number of creatures that are present in the Monster Manual/basic rules but absent from this set. The various beast forms that a druid might shift into are prominent examples, so if you were buying the set for that you’re out of luck. Similarly, there are no NPC type cards, no guard or bandit etc. While I can’t complain at the sheer number of cards included these seem like they should have been clear inclusions given how often most groups are likely to use them.

That these cards are missing is particularly frustrating because Gale Force Nine don’t list this fact or include the set contents anywhere on their website. Thanks to some research I knew about this going in but given these are officially licensed cards it would have been reasonable to expect either all of the relevant entries from the Monster Manual or a card listing. This problem doesn’t seem to be limited to this set, a number of comments online suggest that the CR 6-16 set omits a number of the most iconic Legendary creatures that grace the pages of the Monster Manual. Presumably, they’ll be included in a third set in the future but the omission is striking.

So would I recommend the Monster Card CR 0-6 set? For a GM seeking a quick reference tool, the answer is yes so long as you know that you will still need to refer to the Monster Manual for a number of entries. For players? No, this really is a GM orientated resource. Even if it included all of the forms a druid could shift into I still wouldn’t recommend it, there are simply too many cards that would go unused. You’d be better off checking the basic rules or SRD and getting the attributes from there.

Addendum: Since releasing this review I have also reviewed the followup pack which covers monsters with challenge ratings of 6-16 and can be found at: D&D Monster Cards 6-16 by Gale Force Nine.

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All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

Fall of the Immortals: Room for Improvement

We’re now four sessions into our D&D campaign Fall of the Immortals and it’s shaping up quite nicely. The PCs have reached level 2, the players are beginning to find their feet and we’re slowly establishing the details of the world in an approach that is somewhere between traditional D&D and the PBTA trappings of Dungeon World. I’m making an active attempt to ask the players to define details without overwhelming them.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the screen and based on our most recent session one of mine is that I need to improvise less. This seems counter-intuitive in many ways as my progress as a GM over the last few years has been squarely towards improvisation. Going into our last session my concrete notes were little more than

PCs infiltrate noble party looking for the scroll. Upper echelons of gnome society; modron like mechanical creatures used as guards.

However, when it came to running the session I felt that while I was able to introduce scenes I felt like they lacked depth and that the connecting elements were paper thin. I had little sense of how the mansion was designed, of who the host was or of how the PCs might uncover the whereabouts of the scroll. When the PCs chanced upon an interesting location, such as the library where monodrones were loading and unloading books from cages that were slowly rumbling past, I then failed to provide proper context. The PCs decided to follow the cages of books, which led them to a room where dozens of shackled scribes were working away furiously on… something. My mind was blank, I just couldn’t think of a good explanation for them existing beyond trying to explain elements of the previous scene.

Fortunately, the PCs didn’t dig too deep and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players hadn’t picked up on my troubles but even so it is bothering me. The solution is likely that I need to prep more, taking those few sentences of notes and expanding them slightly. For example, going into the last session I knew the PCs were infiltrating the party so a few notes on the mansion would have helped. I knew they were after the scroll so I could have made notes on where it is and what might be protecting it. I’m never going to go the way of full on adventure paths, with every detail described in advance. I have neither the time or the inclination to put that much restricting prep in. But some more prep would have been invaluable without preventing the addition of elements on the fly.

The Immortals and Ending with the Beginning

Like many gamers when it comes to campaigns I’ve found that the majority tend to end not with a bang but a whimper. They fall apart due to scheduling issues or simply fizzle out when trying to continue on from after epic and satisfying story arc. It’s an issue that has been on my mind with the start of the new D&D campaign – how to end it?

At the moment, two sessions in we have yet to touch on any real plot, the mini-adventure has seen the players investigating an attack on an apparent merchant caravan and trying to rescue the lone survivor. While the adventure is really just aimed as an introduction to the game mechanics I have tried to drop in a few hooks here and there. The caravan was carrying a scroll inscribed with the symbol of one of the Immortals (that burned up before the PCs could retrieve it – yay for natural 1s on investigation attempts) and was being guarded by High Elves, which we established was unusual for the setting.

But where is it going? What is the point of this all? That’s the question that I’ve been wracking my brain with for the last few days. The obvious answer to that is the Fall of the Immortals, the rulers of the Empires in our as yet unnamed setting. We have already established that two of the characters are survivors of a previous rebellion, so it makes sense that they would have an interest in seeing the downfall of the tyrants.

It also fits with a number of standard fantasy tropes. Authoritarian empires? Check. Unknown heroes rising up? Check. Normally I wouldn’t lean so heavily on those tropes, at least not deliberately. However, in prepping for this campaign I’ve been going back to basics. The first of which is that D&D is best when it is tied to those tropes. Indeed from a gaming perspective, many of them originated with D&D (which itself lifted them from the established traditions of the fantasy genre, both Tolkien and its pulpier counterparts). Secondly, I am running a game for a group of mostly new players. Players who haven’t played through those tropes before and who certainly haven’t burned out on them.

So keeping with the basics we already have an ending – The Fall of the Immortals. Thanks to the fact that we established there to be multiple empires we even have our intermediate goals, taking down the first couple of Immortals before building up to the strongest of them. All that’s left to add is a touch of Fate, which I plan to introduce through a little bit of prophecy and a whole lot of dragon.

We are playing Dungeons & Dragons after all.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana

Artwork has been an integral part of D&D ever since its inception, helping to draw in multiple generations of curious gamers. While I missed the first three editions (3.5 was at its peak when I started gaming) I’ve watched the art shift through 3.5th, 4th and into its current 5th incarnation. The story of D&D can be told through its artwork, which is exactly what Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History sets out to do.

dnd2 Drawing upon the treasure trove of material available in the Wizards of the Coast archives the authors have created a comprehensive history of the game, told through imagery and accompanied by commentary from the designers and illustrators that helped redefine the game over and over again. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the book as a Christmas gift and I think my review can be summed up in a single word: gorgeous.

While each chapter spans a distinct era additional features peppered across the book connect the past to the present. Evilution pages take classic monsters and chronicles their progression from the original edition through to their current manifestations, while Deadliest Dungeons dives into some of the iconic dungeons from over the years. The book is peppered with pages such as these and their addition adds a depth that goes beyond a simple chronological history of the game.

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I d20-20could go on at length about how much I love this book, but I’d rather let this small selection of photos talk for themselves. Having never been a big history buff I’ve gained a lot of insight about the early years of D&D, but ultimately, as a coffee table book it lives and dies by the quality of the artwork. In that category, it’s a Natural 20 and I cannot recommend it enough to anybody invested in the hobby. It’s a book that I suspect is going to be a prominent part of my collection and one that I will go back to time after time, whether it be for inspiration or just to unwind in the evening.

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All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.