Tactics and Tips04/24/2007

Campaign Update
Sibling Rivalry

Last summer, our authors talked about starting up their new campaigns. Now it's time to check in and see how things are going. Did the players cooperate with our DMs' intended directions? Or did Dennis manage once again to derail a perfectly good plan? Let's find out . . .

Andy: As readers of the column may remember, with this new campaign I was aiming for something a little less "high concept" than my previous games. "Greyhawk Dungeons" is classic lowbrow gaming at its best: roll up some characters, find a dungeon, and start looting.

The group of characters is just as eclectic as the collection of players. Every PC has at least one key element (race or class) from a source other than the Player's Handbook, and some seem to think that hallowed tome is somehow anathema to character creation. Marc's playing a human knight (Player's Handbook II), Adrienne's a catfolk (Races of the Wild) druid, and Joe's a human warlock (Complete Arcane). In the role of "mysterious party leader," Greg's playing an illumian (Races of Destiny) spellthief (Complete Adventurer), while James hits on two entirely different capsystems with his xeph (Expanded Psionics Handbook) swordsage (Tome of Battle). And of course, we can't forget Dennis's mongrelfolk (Races of Destiny) ranger, who yes, still dreams of becoming a master chef (and has ranks in Profession [chef] to prove it).

This is by no means a perfectly balanced team of adventurers. There's no healer. Area effects are virtually nonexistent, as are the various "utility" effects you normally expect from spellcasters. Almost everybody wants to get into melee, making the monsters feel popular indeed. And did I mention no healers?

But that doesn't stop the group from having fun, and it pushes them to find unorthodox solutions to some common problems. How many groups do you know are counting on their lone arcane spellcaster for healing?

After a half-dozen sessions, the characters are up to 5th level. (We typically play for about 6-8 hours per session, one weekend day per month, and a typical session usually results in a level gained.) Most of that span was spent exploring the upper levels of the buried pyramid featured in module B4: The Lost City, but currently the PCs are halfway through C2: Ghost Tower of Inverness.

Greg: In stark contrast to this devil-may-care attitude, my Bloodlines War campaign kicked off with the five players scheming to form the perfect squad. Working off a matrix that outlined party roles, the players brought fairly broad archetypes to the table -- tank, healer, ranged combat, battlefield control, and skirmish attacks -- and then debated what fit best with each archetype.

It might sound like the players had very little choice in what they played, but each guy gravitated to a different role and nobody was forced to play something they really didn't want to play. So when the first session rolled around, The Legion's 2nd squad of Spear Company/Hawk Platoon had an aasimar crusader, a human cleric, an elf scout, a half-elf sorcerer, and a human ranger ready for action, sir!

In watching the players go through this exacting process, I knew I'd have my hands full providing challenges. They had their bases covered, and then some. But to keep with the spirit of the military theme, I didn't want to throw them straight into the war -- they needed to go through basic training. My first challenge was to come up with an adventure that replicated basic, but also didn't stick them doing boring drills.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, we played a full session and nobody made an attack roll against an enemy. For some readers, that might be a normal occurrence, but these cats I roll with like action. They like to cradle that d20 in their sweaty palms and make it sing. But I couldn't rightly have them fight other squads to the death (that might reflect poorly in The Legion's recruitment material), so something else was in order.

Some of my favorite moments in any war movie are the training sequences. I drew up an obstacle course that made them use Jump, Climb, and Balance checks and then make ranged attacks against targets at varying ranges. To make it more interesting, the other two squads in the platoon were sending their men through the course at the same time.

Andy: Speaking as a player, this unorthodox session worked for two reasons; DMs looking to mix up their normal gaming patterns should pay close attention:

1) We knew it was a temporary aberration. Nobody feared that the rest of the campaign (or even an appreciable number of sessions) would be like this. Very soon, we all knew that we'd get to killing goblins, so starting off with something different just felt special, rather than onerous.

2) It was a shorter than normal session (only about 4 hours). This wasn't a marathon of obstacle climbing; it was a piquant little appetizer that featured a very different flavor than the upcoming feast. I don't think it would've felt as welcome if we'd slogged along for our normal 6 or 8 hours without killing anything.

Greg: Along with recording who finished the course in the least number of rounds, I also rated each character's ranged combat success to give them a "leaderboard" of who the top recruits were. This helped build a little squad-on-squad rivalry, plus gave the players a sense of achievement.

After a two-day march off base to refresh the players about planning overland travel, the hustle rules, fatigue, and all that, I thrust them back onto the obstacle course (while fatigued, of course), but this time they had to do it as a unit. The ranger and scout couldn't scoot through, leaving the cleric or sorcerer struggling to get over the wall. It turned into a new challenge against a "foe" they had beaten (albeit under different circumstances).

Basic training wrapped up with a "Capture the Flag" scenario against another squad (a sleep spell taught the PCs to mind their spacing better) and then a live-fire exercise to assault a fixed position. I designed the assault so that the characters would fail (but they didn't know that, of course) -- I had to show them that sometimes you can't just force your way through an encounter. For a military campaign, that's a critical thought to drive home . . . otherwise, I'll be dealing with more than a happy share of TPKs once we get to the real adventure.

They did fail, but not before taking the fort and one of the two bunkers (the cavalry turned out to be too much to overcome). Egos bruised, the characters received their deployment orders and it was time to leave Fort Hornblade.

Andy: Good DMs never stop learning how to be better DMs, and the best way to do this is to run (and play in) a broad variety of games. Playing the same style of campaign with the same four players year-in, year-out can provide learning experiences, but not as many as you get from changing things up from time to time.

I've been running D&D games since 1981, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that I'm pretty darn good at it. But I don't think a month goes by that doesn't teach me something I can do better as a DM (or at least remind me of something I'd forgotten).

For example, my Greyhawk Dungeons game has taught me very clearly that the natural order of dungeon-delving isn't "fight through three rooms, then go home" -- that's just an artifact of a few classes' over-reliance on per-day abilities (specifically, spells). Nobody in this campaign relies much on per-day abilities (the only true spellcaster in the group, the druid, styles herself more as an archer than a spellcaster, so she's perfectly functional even when she's out of spells). So when one session spent exploring the Lost City found the characters cruising through a whopping 13 consecutive encounters before calling it a day, it reminded me that deep down what players want more than anything else is to keep playing, and that anything contributing to that end is a Good Thing.

Greg: Since I knew my Legion campaign would have a few more prototypical character types, the threat of resource depletion was going to be significant . . . especially since the uber-adventure is on a pretty severe timeline and the characters don't have the luxury of "sleeping it off," so to speak. By giving each character essentially a free level of fighter, the noncombat guys are a little better off when their spells run out and the heavy hitters can handle threats a little faster. Because of this, I got them into the main adventure about a level earlier than expected -- file that under "more fun," because who wants to be in training for three months of sessions?

Andy: Effects like petrification or sundering weapons or debilitating diseases may seem like interesting challenges to a DM, but to the player they all send the same signal: Time to stop having fun and go home.

Now sometimes that's okay, particularly if the players could reasonably make the choice to forge on regardless of the situation. Sure, having a couple of negative levels sucks, but as long as the character can still contribute meaningfully, the adventure doesn't have to end. Carrying 8 points of Wisdom damage isn't a barrel of laughs, but it doesn't keep you from swinging that sword. Your +2 flaming greatsword just got smashed by a frost giant? Good thing the party has that spare +1 longspear in the bag of holding.

It's when that choice isn't really a choice that you've put up the roadblock to fun. If one character can't play (he's dead, turned to stone, or whatever), it's not fair to expect any response from the group other than "let's go home and get him fixed up."

D&D is a game, and the point is to have fun. So as the DM, do everything in your power to make sure the players (and you) are doing exactly that.

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D , Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.

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