Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Notes from Monday's Game

A few random observations from my Monday night game:

1. It's always funny when the wrong monster becomes the star. The session led off with a battle, after a flashback to establish a bit of background for the villain. Here's what the PCs faced:

* A cleric of Iuz
* A necromancer
* A devil the two summoned
* A demon the necromancer summoned on round 1

The devil and the demon, despite being lower level than the two casters, were the stars of the show. I think I rolled below a 15 for the devil once. The cleric's big trick was using an illusion to escape with his life (and a map writ on burning dragon hide). The necromancer managed to die horribly in 2 rounds, thanks to the avenger.

2. The best part of the early sessions of a campaign lies in watching one particular die roll or trick shunt the campaign along a path. Such as:

* The aforementioned cleric's successful escape, thanks to some blown Perception checks
* The avenger's laying a spell on the cleric that lets him track him basically forever (thrown on the cleric without any idea he could escape so easily)
* The PCs' seeing through the captured elf diplomat's lies, tracking him to a clandestine meeting with the thieves' guild, confronting him, and watching him die when the demonic heart forcibly implanted in his chest tears his innards to shreds

All those sequences came down to die rolls or player tactics, and they've had a big effect on how things have (and will) play out. I think a good campaign has that throughout, but early on it's more obvious.

3. I started the campaign with a short dungeon crawl, then shifted to a lot more story and investigation. I think that worked well. It gave the players a chance to learn their PCs and work out their basic tactics, plus it set some stuff up early on (the escaped cleric, the rescued diplomat, tensions within the church of Corellon) that paid off in last night's session.

I liked the tempo switch of starting with a small dungeon that had lots of fights spiked with story bits in between, a flashback to establish the villain, a big fight with that villain, and then an extended roleplay/investigative session.

Last night's session ended with the PCs caught in a trap sprung by a treacherous wererat who was supposed to lead them through the sewers to the villain. Running one hour sessions at work has trained me to design just enough concrete stuff to keep things at a brisk pace.

In essence, I try to end each session with a clear line to the next scene. I can spend a lot of time on that scene, knowing it'll take 1/4 to 1/3 of the next session (figure fight/confrontation, plus immediate scene afterward), then line up the possibilities for the game to go from there.

Anyway, that's what's up with my Monday campaign. I should post a bit about my lunch time campaign, too.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious, how do you go about running a flashback and in what way did it take place; 'read aloud' type, an actual rpg, PC involved scene, something else?

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes you should write up your lunch campaign!

Lizard said...

The game leaving your plan is the best part of DMing. In my experience, it tends not to be fight-based but NPC-based... the players surprisingly "adopt" NPCs who were supposed to be walk-ons or one-shot-villains and they end up becoming recurring characters/associates/whatever. (This is why I take issue with the "If ya ain't supposed ta kill 'em, they don't need no stats!" attitude. In my 30+ years experience DMing, just about ANYTHING can end up tagging along with the party and being forced to make assorted rolls; at the very least, I try to keep "Generic Commoner" and "Generic Town Guard" type stat blocks on hand to use for such circumstances.)

In the 4e game I'm in, a random Human Wizard enemy has become a recurring, reluctant, ally for our party, most recently helping us enter the Shadowfell by agreeing to bury us alive (don't ask). Of course, we did save his mom from some generic disease.. all of which was improvised by our DM off the cuff when we captured him instead of killing him like we were "supposed" to. 4e makes it WAAAY too easy to "bring 'em back alive" (too easy in the sense of the DM having to deal with plenty of living NPCs instead of nicely dead ones.)

Mike Mearls said...

Flashback - it was a pure RP scene. I described how the characters were hunting a band of orcs in Celene, then led into a scene where they ran into one of the PC's older brother. The brother is a high ranking member of the church of Corellon.

I have to admit some level of cruelty here. The brother was riding in a carriage, and as the PCs approached it they caught a glimpse of a human inside the carriage. The "current day" PCs know that the human is a priest of Iuz, but of course their past selves didn't realize that.

I kicked off the flashback when the PCs first saw the man. Rather than simply describe what happened, I thought it would be a lot more fun to play it out.

Lizard said...

Question about flashbacks... how do you avoid "changing the future", without really painful railroading or massive dice fudging?

Our DM tried introducing our adventures with flashbacks, but we often felt somewhat constrained in our choices of actions, because we knew how the story "had" to end and worked towards that goal, instead of just reacting to events.

Mike Mearls said...

First, I love the idea of burying people to send them to the Shadowfell. That's really cool.

The flashback came early in the campaign, plus the PCs started at level 6. We doing 6 -> 16 -> 21 to set the stage for an epic campaign.

I did two things to ensure the future wasn't changed:

1. The characters couldn't *plausibly* attack the guy. Their future selves knew what was going on, but their past selves were ignorant. It relied on the PCs not cheesing out on it, but I have good players so it wasn't an issue.

2. The scene was mostly directed by me, and it involved a powerful NPC who is also brother to one of the characters. Attacking, or doing anything else crazy, was out of character.

3. Aside from the NPC they recognized, the other major NPC (the brother) made his first appearance in the campaign. So, the interaction there can feed into later events.

I think starting at 6th made the flashback really work. I think once you flashback into events the were "live" in the campaign (this happened back when you were 2nd level) things might get weird.

I'll use the approach again, but I'm not sure I'd want to use it to do anything other than provide "live" exposition for a scene. I really liked the tension between the PCs' first battle with the villain bookended with the first time they saw him in the company of the PC's brother.

Basically, it was a lot more fun way to play it out rather than using boxed text.

Lizard said...

In the case of our campaign, the flashbacks to when we were young orphans at the orphanage. We had very reduced stats, no classes, etc. I really enjoyed the scene-setting aspects, and I can't speak for anyone else, but I felt I had to do the "right" thing and take the "right" actions, and I wasn't always sure what those were. As a good roleplayer, I couldn't/wouldn't take actions which would force the DM into a corner, i.e, making a suicidal attack on a guard or trying to kill an NPC who I knew was "alive" in the future. These flashbacks were fun and a unique way to set the stage, but I also think they're something which requires a lot of implied social contract to pull off.

I like the idea of "The villain reveals himself... you gasp in horror as you remember..." (Cue flashback) setup. That's very cool and I'm going to have to try to pull that off in my next game. It works a lot better if the PCs have a shared backstory. (I've done a few "Year One" kind of stories, esp. when I'm missing players -- a quick side romp or an "untold tale" can add a lot of depth to a campaign world.)