“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 3

Over the last two weeks I presented a walkthrough of “A shadow in the woods,” my D&D 5e home-brew adventure. And in an earlier post I discussed some takeaways from DM-ing my first home-brew. So this week I thought I’d write about the creative and technical process behind this adventure.

It was inspired by reading through Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a D&D sourcebook that came out last year. It includes background on monster cultures and playable races, as well as several new and interesting monsters. One of these was the Banderhob; as soon as I read its description I knew this would make for a great adventure. This adventure was basically a linear story—defeat the monster—but organized around a series of dungeon settings and set encounters.

The Banderhob is summoned by a hag to kill a target. I thought it’d be fun if the group bumped into one, and then got sucked into its mission. Simply going and warning its target wouldn’t make for much of an adventure, so I had to come up with some way for the target to be missing or hidden. Then I had to think about the motivations behind this.

For the setting, I decided to go with a Twin Peaks-esque surreal horror (with hints of humor). The adventurers went to a small provincial town full of difficult personalities and devious intrigue. It may or may not be based on my hometown.

A political fight within the town seemed a good motivation, although I went with a bumbling villain—the local guy who wanted to stop his cousin’s land sale—for some comedic effect. I fleshed this out with locations that may or may not have been near my own hometown, including a swampy area, barren hills, and some rich farmland. I added random encounter tables for the day and night to flesh out the creepiness of the town.

I had a setting—the hometown—and some basic plot ideas: the characters stumble on a Banderhob hunting a woman, and need to help her and figure out who summoned it. I filled in the details with fantasy/sci-fi writing conveniences. The Banderhob dropped a locket belonging to the woman, which confused it about her location. And the Banderhob was summoned in a specific ritual that required the group to close the summoning portal.

I also added a well-known character (at least to me): the town sage, Fonken. Fonken was a character I ran for Curse of Strahd, a Dale Cooper-esque gnome wizard (from Twin Peaks); one of my friends also compared him to Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters. We never finished that adventure, so I thought it might be fun to have him retire to a small town and help out adventurers that pass through.

So I had my plot: the group had to protect the woman and return the Banderhob through the portal. I first needed triggers to get through each stage of the adventure. I ended up kind of simplifying this. The townsfolk quickly tell the group the Banderhob’s target was captured by bandits, to give them some direction early on. And after the group was in town for a bit the Banderhob attacked and Fonken saved them; this gave him a chance to  give them the information about the monster. When the group rescued the monster’s target, the people responsible for these events show up to explain and kind of apologize. I guess I could have had my group do more investigation, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down.

Now I needed the set pieces for the two main events: finding and protecting the Banderhob’s target, and defeating the Banderhob. For the former, it was the lair of a bandit group that had “kidnapped” the woman (she was just visiting the bandits, in my lame attempt at humor). For the latter, it was the dungeon of a hag that had summoned the Banderhob.

For both of these, I basically used the random dungeon tables in the DMs guide (although I re-rolled results that didn’t make sense). One thing that came up for the bandit lair was a dungeon buried in a series of hills; this sounded appropriate to the setting so I went with that. And I populated it using the tables, although I figured out the basic “flow” of the dungeon first; all corridors converged on the circular “throne room” of the bandit leader. I re-rolled till I got dangerous but light-hearted obstacles in the dungeon, like a reverse gravity pantry or a talking tapestry.

For the hag’s lair, I rolled a castle submerged in a swamp. This sounded nice too, and I adapted it to make it submerged sideways and twisted. I went with more sinister sounding rolls for the dungeon itself, as that fit the atmosphere better. And for both dungeons I used appropriate wilderness encounters (forest or swamp) to populate the group’s trip there.

Then there was the boss battle. I decided to make it a multi-stage battle (although that didn’t completely work out, as I discussed in my earlier post). The first stage was relatively easy—a straight-up battle with the Banderhob and some ghouls. That ended quickly, and I was kind of going for the end of Ghostbusters—when they defeated the villain but a sense of dread was still there, growing. The second stage had the Banderhob reappear through the portal with some darkmantles attacking as well. This is where the group defeated the Banderhob, but the third stage would have had everyone take on an effect of Shadowfell (its home plane) and fight the Banderhob as well as the hag.

Finally, there was the ending. I loved the old video games where defeating the boss wasn’t enough; you also had to escape. So I went for that, with the sinking castle. In the end, I made it a little too easy. It may have made for a good dramatic ending if one character fell, just as they thought they’d won.  To be honest, I was kind of worried about upsetting the players (as we are a relatively new group).

And then I wanted an anti-climactic ending back at the town. I love old Westerns where the hero saves the day, but the villagers don’t want him around anymore. And that was kind of what happened to my group; the town was appreciative, but just wanted them to leave.

So that was how I put this adventure together. As I’ve said, it wasn’t perfect, but I had a lot of fun (and my players did too). I hope this can be of some help to others thinking through their own home-brew adventures.

“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 2

Last week I presented the first part of my home-brew D&D 5e adventure, “A Shadow in the Woods.” The adventurers got wrapped up in a complicated plot of murder and real estate when they were attacked by a Banderhob, a monster summoned from the Shadowfell to kill a particular target. After securing its target, the group prepared to seek out its origin and return it to its proper plane of existence…

The group decided to send Lorana to Fonken, the town sage, to keep her safe. They would then into the swamp to find the witch, carrying the locket in the hopes the Banderhob would follow them. They’d figure out the rest later.

After resting, the group headed into the swamp. [at this point, we were running out of time in our gaming session, so I moved quickly through several encounters meant to establish the tone]. They found signs of corruption that didn’t match the townsfolk’s pleasant descriptions of the swamp, like a dug-up tomb, an abandoned hut, and a strange batlike creature that didn’t belong in this world (a darkmantle, from Shadowfell). The group’s mood sagged, and Jon and Rogar both became apathetic, which Adrian realized was a sign of exposure to Shadowfell.

The group came out into a clearing full of petrified soldiers [a random encounter from the DMG]. At the far end, they saw a weird triangular stone hut, in front of which stood an old woman.

Assuming she was the witch, the group accused her of summoning the Banderhob (they’d gotten tired of negotiation). She denied it, and started to go back in the hut when Rogar fired an arrow at her. It missed, but enraged her, and she turned into her true form; a night hag.

Combat broke out, and the group pretty easily defeated her [either I got the CR wrong or I didn’t use all of her abilities]. Before they could kill her, she cast plane shift and disappeared into the ether. Inside, the group found some treasure, filthy and disgusting cooking supplies and bedding, and a weird trapdoor in the wall. At this point, Rogar realized they were in the top level of a castle that had sunk diagonally into the swamp. After taking a short rest, the group headed “down” into the castle.

Act III

While investigating the hut, Jon looked into one of the witch’s notebooks; something he saw in there terrified him, and he ran screaming into the swamp. A few minutes later, a dragonborn fighter, Balazar, walked out of the swamp to see what the cleric was running from. He decided to join the group as they ventured into the castle [we had a player switch-out]. Adrian looked at other notebooks, and found indications the hag had opened a portal to Shadowfell housed in the ruins of the castle, and used Riben’s request as an opportunity to test it.

Because of the weird angles, they had a little trouble keeping oriented, but Lenore was able to guide them. At the bottom, the corridor twisted as it went on in a confusing manner, and here and there mud had broken through. The group came to a dead-end blocked by mud; Lenore hit it with her sword, and a mud flow knocked her off her feet, causing minimal damage but covering her in mud. The group decided to be more careful.

They headed further in, and walking through an open door, stumbled on a man in splint armor (a veteran), wielding two longswords. He threatened them, telling them to give him their gold or he’d kill them. The group scoffed, and charged. They didn’t see the weretiger hiding in the shadows, who began firing his bow.

Bark took some serious hits from the weretiger, but the group managed to surround the veteran and take him down. The weretiger then fled, dodging the group’s blows as he ran by them into the corridor. Rogar caught up with him and tackled the weretiger to the ground, but the weretiger threw him off and ran around a corner. When the group caught up, they saw he had climbed up a mudslide that blocked the corridor and clawed his way into the mud.

Lenore decided she’d try to follow him. She climbed up easily enough, but grabbed onto a load-bearing chunk of mud that caused the entire mudflow to collapse on her, so she was mud-covered again [I ruled it would require strength and intelligence checks to climb and figure out how not to bring down the mudflow; she succeeded in the strength and failed on intelligence]. The group gave up on the weretiger, and pushed on.

They arrived at a pristine library; a quick search revealed a few spell scrolls. Moving on, they came on a room that looked like a workshop, but one wall had collapsed and a lava flow covered half the room, with a chunk of floor serving as a bridge to a door at the other end.

The group headed towards the bridge when they were suddenly attacked by the bat-like creatures they encountered outside. These darkmantles cast darkness as they fall on their targets, trying to wrap around their head and smother them. Lenore and Bark were both hit, while the other darkmantles fell to the ground. Rogar and Balazar stomped a few, then helped Bark free himself as Lenore tore hers off. Lenore tried to grab one of the darkmantles as it flew away but she missed and nearly fell off the bridge; she grabbed a piece of rock, but slipped on that as well and would have plunged into the lava if Rogar hadn’t grabbed her [a few failed dexterity checks]. The group killed the rest of the darkmantles and moved on.

They descended further into the castle, the corridor confusingly twisting and rising and falling in an unnatural manner. At one point, the wall looked weak and brittle, but they left that alone. The group came to a room in which several ghouls and a ghast were lurking and easily killed them. They found a closed-up planar portal, and thought they may be close to a portal to Shadowfell.

The group found another room that looked like an armory, but was submerged in ankle-deep water. While exploring, Adrian stepped into an obscured chasm and sunk; Rogar pulled him out, but not before he gulped in some of the dirty water and became sickened. The group explored a bit more, wisely deciding to map the increasingly twisted and confusing corridors, before coming into a large, circular room.

In the center of the room was another planar portal, this one pulsing with liquid shadow; the portal to Shadowfell. The room had signs of ancient work; an alchemical apparatus in one side, and a guard table and arms rack in another. The adventurers prepared themselves for the Banderhob to arrive, taking a short rest.

It eventually appeared out of the shadows of the doorway, strode into the room, and attacked. It bit Bark, half-swallowing him as the rest of the group surrounded it. Bark turned into a bear to try and break out, but remained stuck. Eventually, Balazar helped him get out. The group then surrounded the Banderhob and struck it until it disappeared into shadow, although not before several of them took serious hits.

Before they could recover, the portal pulsed and shot out tendrils of shadow, which formed into the Banderhob. As it moved to attack, a swarm of darkmantles flew out. The group fought off both when Lenore decided to try and push the Banderhob into the portal. Her effort succeeded and it fell in; after they threw in Lorana’s locket the portal closed [this unexpectedly cut short my boss battle, see my last post].

Suddenly, the tower started shifting and rumbling; the group heard a noise Bark identified as similar to quicksand. They realized it was sinking into the mud, and ran. Using their map, they retracted their steps even though the castle was repeatedly twisting and bucking around them. At one point while climbing a set of stairs the castle bucked up and Rogar flew back down the hallway as the rest of the group held on; he told them to keep going, and they ran, with Rogar trying to catch up behind them. At another point a spray of mud hit Balazar and nearly knocked him out, but the rest of the group helped him along.

Finally, they made it to the passage back into the witch’s hut. As they were climbing out the castle pitched forwards, and Adrian flew into the wall, nearly knocking himself out. The other grabbed him and dragged him into the hut. [I used a table with random directions the castle pitched, and had the players roll dexterity or strength checks to hold on]

Things got worse when they made it to the witch’s hut. The whole castle starting spinning dizzyingly and sinking. One window opened up to the outside but it was obscured by mud when the castle rotated. The group decided to start jumping out. Bark went first, and let a rope back into the hut. Lenore managed to climb out before the rope got tangled in the spinning. Balazar then jumped out, and Adrian used misty step to teleport out when the ground was in view. This left Rogar. As the castle was about to sink into the mud he leapt…and missed, slamming into the wall. He then leapt again as the last of the daylight appeared through the window…and missed again [two bad acrobatics checks]. The castle was now completely submerged, still spinning.

Rogar waited till the window was close to what he thought was the surface and jumped again, clawing his way out of the mud [I didn’t want to let the character die]

The group was now out, and safe. The castle sunk, the ground shuddered, and all the mud displaced by the castle’s movement sprayed over the group, covering them completely. They returned to Red Hill, where—after a natural 1 on a negotiation role—they were driven out of town as troublemakers.

A little richer from the treasure they found, but covered in mud, the group continued on their way.

Next week I’ll have thoughts on creating and running this adventure.

“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 1

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I recently completed a home-brew D&D adventure, entitled “A Shadow in the Woods.” It wasn’t perfect, but I had a great time writing and running it, and I think my players enjoyed it too. As I did with my posts on my home-brew Star Wars:EOTE adventure, I’ll walkthrough what happened in a few posts before writing a concluding post with my thoughts on the process. And I’m all about transparency, so I’ll highlight a few of the parts I didn’t think worked out. Hope you enjoy.

This involved the same group as my A Great Upheaval sessions (see these posts for a walkthrough). We had Jon, a human cleric of Lathander; Rogar, a dragonborn ranger; Bark, a forest gnome rogue; and Adrian, a human warlock. They were joined by Lenore, a half-elven fighter (a new player to the group). We met at the great Killer Rabbit Comics and Games in Williston, VT.

Act I

After saving the day and uncovering hints of the giants unrest, the group set off into the wilderness. They ran into Lenore, who gladly joined them, partly for a taste of the excellent ale they received as a reward for their last adventure. The group got to a half-days’ march from the town of Red Hill when they decided to camp for the night [this is loosely set in the Forgotten Realms, but I really just wanted some connection to the previous adventure].

As the group was finishing off the last of the ale, shadows at the edge of their camp formed into a horrific giant humanoid toad-like being; what they would later learn is a Banderhob. It strode into camp, stepping on Bark, injuring him. The group rushed to attack. The Banderhob was too quick for them, biting Lenore and half-swallowing her and nearly killing Adrian with its claws. The group managed to free Lenore and inflict some damage, at which point the monster dropped something by their fire and strode off into the night.

The shaken and injured group decided to rest before following the monster, but they investigated the object that fell. It was a locket with a carving inside and an inscription, “to Lorana, the ‘princess’ of Red Hill, from Dad.”

The next morning they headed into town. On the outskirts, they came across the ruins of a farmhouse that looks like it had been smashed in; Rogar determined it was a recent attack. They moved on and arrived in the town, a small settlement that grew around a crossroads. The group first talked to Riben, a farmer who is the cousin of Lorana—he told them she had recently inherited a large farm just outside of town, but had disappeared (likely captured by a nearby bandit group). They interacted with other members of the town, including a tiefling inn owner (who told them of a witch in a nearby swamp), the priest, a snooty tavern owner, the mayor and the sheriff. They learned in their conversations that Lorana had planned to sell the farmland—which the townsfolk were upset about—and the sheriff had been tracking the bandits; he provided them some intel on their possible location. The group was urged to wait until the town’s sage, Fonken, returned from a trip.

A day or so after arriving in town [I waited till they seemed ready to move], in the evening, the group heard screaming. They joined the townsfolk rushing in its direction to find the Banderhob attacking a house with the family trapped inside. The group attacked; Lenore got half-swallowed again, and the group looked close to losing when a blue light shot out and hit the monster. The monster faded into shadow, and a gnome wizard (Fonken) walked out of the darkness. He urged the group to follow him to his tower to try and understand where the monster came from.

The group told him what they knew and showed him the locket. He determined it was a Banderhob, which is a monster summoned from the Shadowfell by a hag to go after a particular target. Fonken guessed that when it lost the locket it became confused on its targeting, and focused on the town. He sensed a greater tie to Shadowfell in this Banderhob than in others he’d encountered, and thought that even if it was killed it may keep respawning. The group had to either give it Lorana or get it to return to Shadowfell. He guessed there must be a portal somewhere nearby.

After comparing notes with Fonken, the group decided to pursue the bandits who kidnapped Lorana, then investigate the swamp to see if the witch may be involved with the Banderhob summoning. They took a long rest, and set out in the morning.

Act II

The group set out early in the morning for the half-days’ march to the bandit’s likely location. The town sheriff told them he suspected their hideout was at the end of a ravine off the main road, just before they would reach out an outlying settlement [I had prepared encounters in this settlement, including a bandit spy, but the group never went there]. The group found the ravine, and headed into the forest.

They first came on a giant elk blocking their path. After Bark respectfully communicated it via his speak with animals spell, it moved on [this was a random encounter, but the group thought it had some greater meaning]. The group then found a half-elf ranger eating lunch by a campsite. After talking with him they realized he was with the Harpers; he liked the rugged nature of this area, and wanted to make sure the bandit activity didn’t threaten the townsfolk; he also worried about it necessitating greater government involvement. The ranger asked the group to collect some intelligence on the bandits, and he would meet them back in Red Hill to pay them.

The group continued on, encountering various crude signs warning of great danger ahead. They came to a clearing with three hills in it, and climbed to the highest, where they found a tunnel into the hill [I designed the bandit camp as a dungeon crossing three hills, with an entrance in each hill]. Adrian turned invisible and went in to investigate. He found two goblins sleeping in the entryway, and started to go further when he made a noise and woke them up, although he managed to escape before they found him.

Jon then decided to call down to the goblins and ask if they had the woman [as I noted last week, I did not expect this]. The group heard a commotion, then an orcish voice called up and asked them to surrender. The group tried to negotiate with the bandits, but eventually the orcs and goblins charged.

Out of the tunnel came conventional orcs and goblins, but also two Nurtured Ones of Yurtus, a diseased orc that explodes when killed, sickening all those around. The group quickly dispatched with the attackers, although Bark and Jon were covered in orc goo. They then entered into the tunnel.

The main entryway had doors in each corner, and the group went to the left. They came first to what looked like a gaming room—a type of billiards table and boxing gear were in there—that was empty. The next room was a banquet room that was also empty, although as they started to leave the shepherd in the tapestry started talking to them. It gave no useful information, but they had a pleasant conversation. They then came on a pantry that was suffering from reverse gravity; Lenore flew to the ceiling, and had to struggle to get back out.

After these odd encounters, the group found some of the bandits. A room full of alchemical supplies and acrid dust housed several kobolds and a human mage. The group attacked. They handled themselves well, although Rogar became seriously hurt when the mage and kobolds ganged up on him. Several of the group also started hallucinating; Lenore thought she was giant, and Jon thought he was in a different room. The realized the bandits were creating hallucinogens in the room, which affected them in the combat [I adapted some of the DMG’s random dungeon effects to create the drug’s effects].

The group then climbed a set of stairs, with a tapestry on the wall. Bark was intrigued, so he stopped to look and see if it would talk. Unfortunately, looking at the tapestry triggered a trap [from a roll on the DMG’s dungeon trap table] and the stairs opened up; Bark and Rogar fell into a pit of spikes. Bark managed to grab the wall, but Rogar tumbled down, taking serious damage.

The group pressed on, and came into what looked at one point to be a large throne room. In there was a human man, a hobgoblin, and several assorted human and goblinoid thugs. Sitting by the man, drinking wine, was a woman. They realized this was Lorana, and after talking with the group (the bandit leader was friendly) realized she wasn’t kidnapped. The bandits tried to mug her while she was in the woods, but she proved a powerful fighter and they invited her back to their hideout for a feast.

With Jon taking the lead—despite his low charisma—the group convinced Lorana to come back with them to stop the attacks on the town. The bandits tried to get the group to put a magical listening device in the sherriff’s office, but they refused, so he let them go if they promised not to tell where they were hiding [this was a kind of social interaction deadlock, and I didn’t want to drag it out].

The group returned to town late at night, when a group of men surrounded them. They found out this was a group from the Lord’s Alliance. The men told the adventurers that Lorana’s potential buyers were the Zhentarim; the Lord’s Alliance wanted to stop this group from gaining a base in this area so they asked Riben (a new recruit) to deal with her. He decided to have the witch in the swamp summon the Banderhob so he didn’t have to kill her himself.

The Lord’s Alliance hadn’t intended for so much carnage (even if they did want Lorana) dead, and were willing to negotiate with the group. Bark suggested the Alliance buy Lorana’s farm, so she was able to still profit but the Zhentarim were kept out. They agreed, and slunk back into the shadows [this was another kind of failed encounter, as I didn’t do enough work on it]

Tune in next week for the adventure’s conclusion…

5 Things I wish I knew before my first D&D home-brew session

I just finished running my first home-brew D&D session at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comic and Game store in Williston, VT. I’ve run several published D&D adventures, and run a home-brew Star Wars: EOTE adventure (which I discussed in earlier posts), but this is the first time I’ve tried out my own ideas in D&D. I’ll have a series of walkthrough posts soon, but first I wanted to present a few general takeaways on the process.

These started as notes to myself (a newer DM, who gets the rules but is still learning how to run the game), and I thought others may be interested.

 

  1. Keep it simple

I, like most newer DMs, felt pressure to prove my creativity. I wasn’t creating a world (this was set in Forgotten Realms), so I wanted to express myself through the plot itself. It was a straightforward “stop the monster threatening the town” story, but there was complex political intrigue, red herrings, an open-ended structure and difficult moral choices.

It basically worked, but it was tough. The open-ended structure led to some unexpected events, which can be difficult for a DM to improvise. Handing out the necessary clues sometimes distracted me from game mechanics (and vice versa). And the red herrings led my players to head down the wrong path (which I guess was kind of the point, but I’m not comfortable enough as a DM to do that often).

Again, it went well, but for my first adventure I wish I’d had a simpler plot. There is pressure on DMs to not just create great dungeons, but to come up with compelling mysteries and memorable social encounters. We should keep doing this, as it broadens the scope of D&D. But for our first home-brew adventure, a well-thought out dungeon crawl with some good puzzles and memorable NPCs can help us hone our craft before trying a sandbox thriller.

  1. The players will screw up all of my plans

I knew this, and have been told this so many times, but I forget how supremely players can mess up what I’m doing. Some of this is natural—the game is open-ended and based on creativity, so players may readily come up with solutions to encounters that I hadn’t thought of. Some of it is also mischievous—players like to do things their own way, not follow the DM’s lead.

Two quick examples will illustrate. In one mini-dungeon (a bandit camp dug into a hillside), I’d prepared an ambush. The entryway was guarded by sleeping goblins, and when players became confident and rushed ahead, they’d bump into a guard room of orcs and ogres. But the players had their warlock turn invisible and investigate, then, when he reported back, they shouted down to the goblins to ask if they could come in. So I had to think up how goblins and orcs would negotiate instead of running my great ambush.

The second was the boss battle. I had prepared three stages, following The Angry GM’s advice. The boss would appear defeated, but reform and attack with new powers or allies in each stage. The goal was to get the boss through a portal to Shadowfell. The group’s fighter decided she would try and grapple and shove the boss into the portal. Her roll worked, and I didn’t want to say “no” (see below), so the boss battle was kind of easy.

There’s nothing to do about this, besides being adaptable…and not placing your boss next to the portal it needs to be shoved through.

  1. Work out how encounters will resolve

This sounds obvious, but can be easy to forget. When creating monsters to fight, you want to think about their motivations and goals, otherwise it’s just attrition-fight after attrition-fight. This is even more important when it is a social interaction or clue-finding encounter, as there are several different ways it can be resolved.

This came up a few times in my home-brew adventure. One encounter involved the group “rescuing” a woman from the aforementioned bandits, although she hadn’t actually been captured. I had to improvise what the bandits and woman wanted, as I hadn’t completely written this out. At another time, members of a law and order society show up to intimidate the group into following their plan. Again, I was a little vague in my notes, and had to resolve this in an ad hoc manner.

These encounters may be fine if you’re ok with improvising through social interactions. But I suspect many newer DMs (like me) aren’t, so some guidance is needed. The published D&D adventures have “Development” sections in encounters that can go multiple ways, and a brief write-up like that will help a lot in the future.

  1. Don’t be afraid to let characters die

There were a few times the players were overwhelmed. In one fight I had way too many monsters so the group started falling. And after my failed boss battle (see above), I had the group try to escape the dungeon—which was actually a castle submerged sideways in mud—before it sank. This was really fun, as various characters got knocked over by mud flows or sailed through the air when the castle shifted. It proved difficult, though, as poor dice rolling could cause characters to end up buried alive in the castle.

In both cases I helped them out. In the first, I tweaked some die rolls to save them. And at the end of the escape encounter, one player flubbed his acrobatics check to jump through a sinking and spinning window. Every else made it. Technically, he should have just sunk with the castle, but I felt bad and let him jump into the mud and claw his way out.

Some of this is being a newer DM, as I am afraid of my players getting mad at me. But in the future I will let characters fall—it adds urgency to the game.

  1. Lay out all ground rules in advance

This is kind of similar to the well-known Same Page Tool, a set of guidelines to calibrate different modes of play. But this is more about making sure the DM’s preferences for a lot of unwritten or optional elements of play are known.

In this case it had to do with multi-classing. In between adventures the characters leveled up. One player asked if he could multi-class his character and I said no, as there wouldn’t be any opportunity to learn a new class while the group was travelling between adventures. I didn’t realize that another player had multi-classed his character without asking, though. This wasn’t a big deal, and the first player wasn’t upset, but in the future I’ll make it clear that any multi-classing requires an in-game explanation.

So when starting a new home-brew it’s worth thinking through any situation that would require the DM to make a ruling, and set it out in advance. This includes Unearthed Arcana content, classes and races outside the PHB, use of feats, among others.

So those are some things I wish I had known before I started. To be fair to me, I did some things right, which may also be useful to newer DMs. Here are a few (briefly):

  1. Prepared an adventure portfolio

I scanned relevant pages from the Monsters Manual so I could easily access states, and printed out the maps and adventure module I wrote. This way I didn’t have to flip through multiple books while running encounters.

  1. Never said no to players

This really got to me with some previous groups—we’d keep raising possible actions with the DM and he’d say “no, that wouldn’t work,” over and over. So with my group, I never said no. Some things I knew wouldn’t work—like casting a spell through a dimensional portal—but I didn’t tell them unless they performed the relevant knowledge check. Others I didn’t want to work, but if they rolled well enough we figured it out. And some ideas I hadn’t thought of, but I let them try. This made for some pretty fun failure scenes, like when a fighter tried to run and grab a flying monster but rolled a natural 1, resulting in nearly leaping off a bridge into lava.

  1. Adapted based on player feedback

After the first session of this adventure, one player noted the combat was a little one-dimensional, as I was relying on groups of similar monsters. So I changed this up in the concluding session by having different types of monsters fighting together. This isn’t always possible (especially in published adventures) but it’s worth trying to incorporate player feedback into session as you go.

So there are my takeaways. I’d be happy to hear any thoughts from your experiences.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, concluding thoughts

In my last two posts I presented a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE) adventure I wrote. This is a great gaming system that lets players be part of the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, playing as rogue and smugglers who inhabit the Outer Rim. Unlike the D&D mechanics, which involve numerical calculations, EOTE uses custom dice. These dice gives the Game Master (GM) and players resources to craft a narrative together.

In this final post of the series, I have some thoughts on GM-ing EOTE for the first time, and on running an open-ended adventure.

EOTE is in some ways good for new GMs and in some ways bad. It’s very abstract; you use range bands instead of distance, and setback, boost and difficult dice instead of modifiers. So there are fewer tables to memorize than in Shadowrun or even D&D. At the same time, it’s very narrative and interactive. Each dice roll includes failure or success but also advantages and threats; advantages and threats give benefits or raise challenges beyond whether or not something succeeds. So the GM must be able to interpret this on the fly. For example, a slicing attempt might succeed but with threats; one could decide the player gained the information he sought but alerted a rival hacker in the process. And then there are destiny points—chips the players and GM flip to give their side an advantage. The person using the destiny point must come up with a story reason to use it, like a character remembering he’d learned details of Rancor anatomy giving him a boost to an attack or finding an extra grenade in his backpack. This is fun, but can be a bit much to handle alongside the normal tasks of running the game.

And as I mentioned, I tried to make this as open-ended as possible. The group had to retrieve the lightsaber, but they could do this on behalf of the Empire, the Rebels, the criminals, or even themselves. They also could have returned it to the old lady. Unfortunately, they chose what I saw as the least likely option—working with Oparro—and I hadn’t exactly planned how this would go. It worked out, but I stumbled a bit to figure out what to do. Also, I had a big speech planned for the old lady that would give some backstory for why she had the lightsaber and set up the next adventure. The group had no interest in talking to her, and ignored her.

So open-ended adventures can be good, but the GM needs to stay on his or her feet and be prepared for the unexpected. You also need to fight the urge to force the group to do what you want. If the plot can only be resolved in one way, then the adventure isn’t interactive enough. It’s difficult to write a complex RPG adventure that leaves room for player choice, but it’s worth it.

I also had a few thoughts on the mechanics. Both the group and I made judicious use of destiny points. The party was able to rig up a bomb during the ambush of Oparro by flipping a destiny point to find bags of explosive materials. And I used a destiny point to make their attempted betrayal of the Rebels harder, causing their speeder to stall out. But in the end I made this adventure a little too easy for them. Despite the setback dice I gave them for speeding through the swamp, they still caught up to the lightsaber thief before he reached the old lady’s hut (which would have screwed up my ending). And I was afraid of Donaldo’s ship destroying them as they escaped, but by decreasing the difficulty I took away some of the ending’s tension. I’d remember this for the next Episode…

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lighstaber I, part II

Last week I presented the first part of a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire adventure I wrote. The party was hired by a crimelord to retrieve a mysterious item from a renegade employee. This turned out to be a lightsaber, and the group found themselves caught between the crimelord, the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. They gathered their information and prepared to meet the renegade employee to retrieve the item…

The time of the meet now approached. The group was still undecided about who they would work for, but did want to find this mysterious item. They surveyed the meet’s location—a spot near the edge of Trader’s Plaza. The group found signs that someone had set up a position from which they could watch—and snipe the group—if needed from a nearby rooftop. Alex set up a bomb near this position (using a destiny point to uncover explosives), and Sarek set himself up on another rooftop to provide cover. Changkaishek and Alex would hide in the alleyway during the meet, while Bint would do the talking.

Finally, the time for the meet arrived. Oparro arrived with a Barabel guard—a big lizard-like humanoid—and his Rodian slicer. When he realized Bint was here to collect the item, he became hostile and threatened them. Then the group sprung their trap. Alex detonated the bomb, killing what turned out to be a Gand sniper. Sarek, Bint and Alex opened fire. Bint and Alex killed the Rodian, while Sarek scored a critical hit on the Barabel, severely wounding him. Meanwhile, Bint grabbed Oparro and threatened him if he didn’t give up the item.

Bint rolled very well on his intimidation check, so Oparro offered the group 15,000 if they would help him deliver it—as they’d just killed most of his crew. They agreed, and accompanied him back to his ship where his pilot was waiting with the item. Oparro opened a safe, and the item was revealed to be…a lightsaber. Everyone looked in awe at this rare relic for a moment, when suddenly a concussion grenade went off. When they came to, the group saw a man with the lightsaber fleeing on a swoop bike.

Thinking fast, the group piled into Oparro’s speeder and took off after the man. Even though the swoop bike was faster, excellent piloting by Alex allowed them to close with him, and Sarek destroyed his bike. As this chase was occurring, the group realized another speeder was shadowing them on one side, while a TIE shuttle was tracking them overheard.

The swoop bike crashed in a clearing containing an old hut. The group rushed to the man, grabbing the lightsaber as he babbled something about the guilt they would feel for stealing this. Meanwhile, the speeder—which they saw contained the Rebels—and the TIE shuttle (containing Donaldo and some crew) arrived. Both groups got out, and called on them to turn over the lightsaber.

Suddenly, an old lady came out of the house, and everyone turned to her, drawn by her powerful presence. She told them the lightsaber was all she had left from her dead husband, but they might as well just take it since they’d already disturbed her peace. The group was not really interested in this “sidequest” (their words) and formulated a plan to get out of here. They decided to drive over to the Rebels, acting as if they would join them. Then they would toss a grenade into the Rebels’ speeder, fire on Donaldo’s team, and take off in the confusion.

This did not occur as planned, however, as when Alex punched it the speeder’s engines gave out. They had taken considerable strain during the chase as the speeder was not designed for rough driving. It came to a stop near the Rebels, as the Rebels and Imperials began exchanging fire. Alex tried to fix it, but fumbled in his nervousness. Bint managed to convince one of the Rebels to repair the speeder just enough so they could take off. As soon as they did this, Bint tossed the grenade at the Rebels and the group sped away.

They dropped off Oparro, and rushed to their ship. As they were powering up, the space traffic control informed them they required permission and a flight path before leaving. Ignoring this, they took off, barely dodging incoming ships to get into orbit. When they emerged from the atmosphere, they saw Donaldo’s ship bearing down on them.

Alex manned the controls, trying to get the ship far enough away from the planet. Meanwhile, Bint and Sarek attempted to plot a course using the astrogation computer. Neither of them were very skilled at this—and they were heading to a rendezvous point in the middle of nowhere based on coordinates from Oparro—so they fumbled at their attempt and had to redo the calculations (the players kept failing astrogation checks). This gave Donaldo’s ship a chance to close with them and open fire, nearly crippling their ship before the calculations were complete and the made the jump to light speed.

They arrived at the rendezvous where Oparro was waiting. He said he had to set up the payment with his “other buyer”—who he refused to identify—and asked for the lightsaber. The team initially refused until Oparro gave them a valuable relic as collateral. He then told them to wait for him on the planet Chordaan.

Next week I will discuss my thoughts on creating and running an adventure in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, Part 1

This is another in my series of walkthrough posts, in which I run through what happened in a game session. See my earlier posts on a D&D 5e session. This post deals with a different RPG, Fantasy Flight’s excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE). This game focuses on the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, with players creating rogues, smugglers and exiles who adventure in the Outer Rim. It’s my favorite of the Star Wars RPGs (I’ll blog about others later).

In this post I’ll talk about a module I created. I’ll talk about the backstory and what happened when we ran it. I’ll also include notes on game mechanics [in brackets] as I did with my earlier walkthroughs. Unlike my earlier walkthrough, I’ll have an extra post discussing thoughts on creating and running an original module for EOTE.

My former group was alternating between D&D and EOTE, when our EOTE GM became interested in trying out a new character. So I volunteered to run the group. There were some premade modules available, but I was interested in trying to write my own.

I decided to make a three-episode adventure revolving around a rediscovered lightsaber. In the opening adventure, the group would be tasked by a crimelord with retrieving the lightsaber (although they don’t yet know what it is) and gradually they become embroiled in broader turmoil, as the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and a fallen Jedi all get involved.

I designed the first episode to be as non-railroady as possible (characters get to make a lot of open-ended choices). The basic plot is that the group was hired by Deg-Lilek, a Twi’ilek crimelord, to retrieve an item (revealed to be the lightsaber) from a rogue employee, Oparro (a Toydarian). In addition to Oparro and Deg-Lilek, the lightsaber is sought after by a rogue Imperial agent, some Rebel spies, and its original owner, the widow of a Jedi who hid after the Purge. When I wrote it, I had no idea what path the group would take, which was kind of fun.

The group included Sarek, a Chiss big game hunter; Alex, a human mechanic; Bint, a Draal doctor; and ChanngKaishk, a Wookie brawler. They gathered at Deg-Lilek’s compound on the smuggler’s moon of Nar Shadaa after being summoned. The crimelord told them one of his employees—Oparro—had gone rogue while recovering an item for a client; Oparro claimed he had another buyer and was holding out for more money. Deg-Lilek wants the group to travel to meet Oparro on the planet of Atzerri, pretending to have his money. They are to retrieve the item however they see fit, and will be paid 5,000.

The group agreed, and headed to Atzerri. Shortly after arriving in the system, however, an Imperial patrol craft stops them and requests to inspect their ship. The group knew they’ve done nothing illegal (yet) so they shut down their systems and prepared to be boarded.  The Imperial commander, Donaldo, turned out to be Deg-Lilek’s client. He is annoyed that Deg-Lilek failed to deliver the item—which he hopes to deliver to the Emperor, going around his chain of command, to gain his favor—and wants the group to get it for him. He’ll double what they were being paid. Not having much of a choice, they promise to help and he lets them go.

They then landed on Atzerri, a swamp planet with very little governance and a wild, sprawling capital city. The meet with Oparro was scheduled for the next day. The group passed through the chaotic Traders’ Plaza—a kind of giant space-souk—where they tried to get information on what Oparro was up to. They then continued to gather information in Dak’s Cantina, a prominent watering hole near the Plaza.

While they were walking around, two encounters happened. First, late at night after leaving the cantina, they were ambushed by a group of men in an alleyway. They dispatched them easily, killing all but one, whom they incapacitated and left in a dumpster. On one of the bodies they found a datapad with information on themselves as well as Oparro’s group, and mentions of a woman still being safe despite the item’s theft.

The second encounter happened the next day. As they were walking through a busy avenue off Trader’s Plaza, a group of men surrounded them. One, a Sullustan, asked them to step into an alleyway to chat. He turned out to be a member of the Rebel alliance. They were hoping to gain the item for themselves; while they didn’t know what Donaldo was up to, they thought frustrating the Empire was worthwhile. They couldn’t offer as much money as Deg-Lilek or Donaldo, but they promised the Rebel alliance would help the group in the future. Again, the group agreed—just because it was difficult to argue when they were surrounded—and left.

The adventure concludes in next week’s post