Dealing with Crowds

One of the situations that games grind to a halt in are when suddenly the PCs find themselves entering a public place with a crowd present. Courtyards, taverns, or city-squares, these places are full of people, and as a result, full of people that the PCs can talk to. The tricky part is deciding who they talk to. Many published adventures have detailed, generic responses for specific NPCs to give when confronted by the PCs, but offer absolutely no advice on how to get your PCs to talk to them in an organic way.

One approach is to literally describe everyone in the vicinity. It works for dungeons, it should work for roleplaying right? However, if there are more than two or three people in the area, the game will soon be bogged down by your descriptions of every myriad character that was in the area. Not only is this tedious and boring, this is also extremely unhelpful: Inevitably, you will end up over-describing the important people who might tell the PCs something special or offering a quest hook, even though there is no real reason for the PCs themselves to know this. Additionally, oftentimes you will take so much time rambling and randomly describing every person in the tavern that by the time you are finished they forgot everyone but the last person that you described.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 suggests that at this point in the game, you should ask for feedback from your players, asking “who do you go up to?” and task them to invent their own NPCs. However, while this seems to detract some work from your pile (no more drawing up minor NPC responses ahead of time!), this will actually turn into more work when you have to come up with an entire personality and backstory for a character in about five seconds. Additionally, this strategy is just begging for one of your players to say, “I talk to that very nice and kind looking person who is holding tons of magic items that he clearly can’t use and is looking for someone to take them”. While you can obviously circumvent this situation with ease using your patented Dungeon Master Hammer of Authority, this will derail the game, and will likely end in frustration for both your players and yourself.

My favorite method, which I invented by myself (though I would not be surprised if someone else had also independently developed), is to create a “Random NPC table” that contains everyone that is actually in the room. Instead of telling your players “in the tavern you see several patrons sitting around: a grizzled looking war veteran with a scar and a broadsword sitting by himself in the corner, two farmers playing some sort of card game, a lean elf in the corner sipping an ale, etc. etc.”, just tell your players “in the tavern, you see several patrons”. If the players tell you they want to talk to someone, roll a die (probably a d6-d10, but this could vary based on the number of people in the establishment), and then tell them that they walk up to the specific person you rolled up. This way, the players remember more details about the person while talking them without bogging them down in unnecessary detail, while still maintaining a sense of realism to their world, as opposed to a world with a select number of NPCs that have very obvious “quest-giving hats” on. If the players want to talk to another person, roll the die again. NPCs that actually are prominent in the location (say, the bartender in a tavern) can take their own designation: allow the PCs to confront them directly.

An added note to keep the PCs from wandering around all day is that conversations do not occur in a vacuum. If they start asking the first, rather inconsequential, farmhand if there are any rumors of cults in the city, perhaps the wizened elf sitting a table or two over will overhear you and call you to him to actually give the quest.

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The enemy is introduced

Yesterday was the second game that I have had with my current group. This time I prepared an adventure for four players (as many said in advance that they could not come), however unfortunately Masreal’s player bailed out at the last second, leaving Etha the half-elf warlock, the shifter rogue (now renamed Aden), and the goliath fighter Tyroan to take down the monsters.

The hook this time around still involved the dwarf Ilben asking them to do stuff, except this time he asked them to escort him through a tunnel passage to the nearby city of Nalthor. The players, despite being CE, CN, and CG respectively, bought the hook immediately (likely because of the prize of money) and set off.

The first encounter was fairly simple, featuring a bridge battle when a goblin warring party of two slingers on either side, one goblin hexer opposite a goblin lurker, and with a goblin cutter thrown in front of the hexer for balance, ambushes and flanks the cavern.  The party immediately split, with Aden and Tyroan going after one slinger, the hexer, and the cutter/minion, while Etha was left to take care of the other slinger and the lurker. Interestingly enough, Etha was able to kill both of her targets in a matter of turns, and the other two were only able to finally kill the other slinger and the hexer with her aid. While this could just be that warlocks are overpowered, it is more likely because the goblins could effectively shift 3 squares every time anyone missed with a melee attack against them, which made it very difficult for Aden to get around and get sneak attacks. However, with the party exultant, and only mildly annoyed Ilben for his staunch refusal to help them in combat, they marched forth into the caves.

The second encounter featured a Centipede Scuttler and Centipede Swarm, as many winding caverns and some “disgusting sludges” on the floor which impeded movement for the PCs. Etha’s player decided to roleplay her disgust and had Etha stay as far away as possible while still remaining effective and trying as hard as possible not to touch the sludge (Etha is apparently scared of insects). That being said, she was once again the most effective member of the party, possibly because the cramped corridors made flanking once again completely impossible for Aden. Mildly nauseated, the party continued on.

The third encounter featured a floor pockmarked by acid pits that dealt damage to anyone that started their turn next to or inside them. This was also the encounter where I introduced my first recurring villain, an CE elf Ranger named Kelan a member of the Etzamged Initiative militant association. I used the Motivation/Virtue/Flaw for him to flesh him out: I decided his motivation was to rid the world of all the human empires and make them subservient to elves and eladrin, his virtue was Perseverance, and his flaw Pride. Thus, he haughtily walked into the cavern, demand that the party hand over the caravan, and went on to insult Etha (the half-elf)’s heritage. Etha’s player roleplayed marvelously, declaring an oath to kill (or possibly worse) Kelan, and Etha spent much of the rest of the session muttering what she would do to Kelan when she caught him. However, it could be said that Kelan was a bit too popular with the party, as Aden also swore an oath against him due to Kelan dropping him to one hit-point, so I am not entirely certain how to resolve this. Other than Kelan, the encounter featured two elven archers and one elven scout. This encounter proved a little too difficult (mostly because of the archers that could pick off the party members without mercy from a higher vantage point), and both Etha and Aden were within an inch of death by the end of the encounter, which ended when fighting was forced to cease because the walls of the cave began to collapse. This opened up to a series of two skill challenges for the party: The first to pass through a room full of hazards and boulders to climb over before it filled up with water from the river nearby, and the second to pass through a maze filled with poison gas released from the collapsing caverns. The first challenge they passed with relative ease; quicker than I had wanted them to. However, the maze worked as well as I hoped: I ruled that players could only see 5ft ahead of them at any given moment, and as such could only move at half their speed. Additionally, I forced them to make endurance checks every turn not to succumb to the poison, which, while having a laughably low DC (10), served to increase the tension at the table (and Etha and Ilben actually failed their checks a few time, adding urgency for the party to escape.

When they finally exited the caverns, the players were triumphant (and now a level higher), though some of the ideas that Etha’s player was having about Kelan admittedly have begun to bother me.

In Summary:

  • There need to be more opportunities for the rogue to flank, as he is performing far too poorly as a result.
  • Both Aden’s and Etha’s players (and Masreal from the previous session) seem to be getting the hang of roleplaying.
  • The players present have finally gotten a grasp of how to play the game!
  • A recurring villain has been introduced, and it seems that the party likes (well, likes to hate) him, which means I should probably use him in either the next session or the one after that.
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The World of Albina

My current campaign is taking place in the world of Albina, a homebrewed setting created by me. Reading about Albina may help explain some of the occurences in the campaign, and you can feel free to use Albina for your own campaigns (Just remember, Albina, and all of the other material on this blog is protected under Creative Commons: you can’t use it commerically and you have to source it back to me [no taking credit for it]).

 Geography: The known lands of Albina cover one continent, and even at that, most of the interesting action takes place in the top half of the continent. This top half is mostly a temperate zone (Think Europe or New England) as far as climate, and is separated into three sections by a mountain range in a fashion that looks much like a hippy peace sign. Just to the north of the top half of the continent is the Great Shelf, a giant glacier that towers hundreds of feet above sea level and that is mostly unexplored. To the west lie the Lost Keys, a chain of islands nearly perpetually shrouded in mist. In the southern part of the north eastern section of the continent there is the Etzamged, a giant forest(more on that later). Finally, the northern part of southern half of the continent is the Esiert, a giant desert, and beyond that nothing has been explored. (The oceans are mostly uncharted, and what lies to the east is unknown).

Politics:

               Top Half of the Continent: Three predominantly human kingdoms take up each of the sections of the continent. Etreth in the northeast, Baln in the northwest, and Cail in the south. The three countries have been at war for much of their history, and now hold an uneasy truce (which hides an even more uneasy arms race). To make matters more complex, inside the kingdom of Etreth lies the Etzamged, which is home to an independent Elven and Eladrin kingdom (also called Etzamged). Anti-human and anti-Etreth sentiments in the Etzamged run high as many of the elves are angry at the human kingdoms for taking their land. While the actual kingdom is officially at peace, many independent militant groups have taken to harassing trade in the 3 kingdoms. The attitudes of even the elves vary, as some are for total destruction of humans, whereas others simply want Etreth to leave. The situation with the elves is particularly important because any viewed weakness that Etreth may have due to them may cause Baln and Cail to attack it, plunging the continent back into war. Finally, the mountain chain down the middle of the continent (known by many different names to different populations) is loosely controlled by different Dwarven clans which provide passage and trade between the kingdoms.

            Bottom Half of the Continent: The bottom half of the continent is largely populated by nomads, with little uniform politics.

Notable History: In the past, there was a great empire of Albina, which was very technologically advanced and spanned the entire continent. Eventually, it crumbled due to unkown reasons, but it left behind ruins filled with items (both mundane and magical) of great power, which are sought after goals for both individuals and countries.

Demographics: All of the general assumptions about DnD monsters and world are kept constant except for:

  • Orcs are not stupid, but cunning and intelligent planners.
  • There are no gods. Angels are individual forces on the outer planes
  • There are no drow. However, elves are by no means generally good (neither are any of the other player races for that matter).

This is a continuous work in progress and will be updated as time goes on. If you would like specific aspects to be added to Albina, just leave a comment or email me!

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The First Encounter

Last night was the first game with my new party. It was composed primarily of my friends (okay, I can deal with that), and nearly all of them (with one exception), were newbies. Slightly more difficult, but I can take it. And there are 8 of them. Oof.
To impress upon them the essence that is DnD, I made a short and sweet 3 encounter adventure, where the dwarven clan of Ashkoth tasks the party with clearing out a kobold stronghold that had been attacking their caravans.

Creating characters went by fairly smoothly: I decided that the best way to get everyone a character they felt attached to was to walk them step by step through the character creation process, except instead of forcing tons of rules and jargon like “3d6” and “that wouldn’t hurt a Flumph”, I decided to just briefly outline what everything did, and then have them choose (e.g. this attack deals less damage, but will slow down enemies). However, when it came to backstory, results became more than mixed. Responses to “you need a backstory” ranged from a 2 page typed response to “what?”, coupled with a look of incredulity.

 

At this point, the party’s composition is:

  • Goliath Fighter NG
  • Half-Elf Warlock NE
  • Human Bard CG (the lone experienced player)
  • Deva Wizard (alignment not stated)
  • Eladrin Avenger (alignment not stated)
  • Razorclaw Shifter Rogue CN
  • Half-Elf Ranger (alignment not stated)
  • Razorclaw Shifter Druid CN

Due to time constraints, I did not have my players come up with names when we made their characters, planning on having them come up with them on the day of the first session.

The first session comes, and it turns out only five people can show up. Well that’s too bad, the dungeon was built for 8 people. Oh well.

Those that do show up are the Fighter, Warlock, Bard, Rogue, and Druid, now named Tyroan, Etha, Masreal, Tasest, and Moonfury respectively. Because I was loathe to change the structure of the adventure, I made the mistake of assigning the missing players’ characters to other players present. This slowed down play a lot.

When it came to the hook, I played a dwarf with a Yiddish accent, to much laughter all around the table. So far so good. The players then asked for insight checks without my even needing to prompt them (okay, to be fair they said “I think he’s lying. How can I tell?”, but hey), and found that the dwarf was withholding the information that the Ashkoth clan also had a vested interest in obtaining the land that the kobolds were sitting on for mining purposes. This launched a 15 minute argument that ranged from “how much should we charge” to “let’s betray the dwarves”, to “let’s set up a long term arrangement to provide protection for that land in exchange for gold”. In the end, I pushed them along and said we would resolve the issue later. The players bought the hook.

The first encounter consisted of 3 parts, in a hope to get the strikers a chance to shine by forcing them to quickly dispatch solitary targets before they could call for help. While the players managed to do this with ease, the rounds began dragging on, and these were fights primarily featuring minions! By the time we got to the second encounter, I decided to scrap the extra characters, and to instead rule that if a character died, he would have extra lives equal to the number of players not in the adventure (It is worth noting that the experienced player was able to take control of the Deva Wizard in  addition to his own character, and kept using him for the rest of the adventure). Additionally, I reformatted initiative to start with the highest role and then proceed clockwise, something which saved far more time than I thought it would. Finally, I implemented a rule that each player had 5 seconds to make up his or her mind about a move, which would be coupled with a 1- minute tactical discussion before every encounter.

The first two encounters over and done with, the players came upon the final encounter, featuring a dragon. Immediately, Etha and Tasest claim it as their pet. In response, I have the dragon roar in their face, and combat ensues. Several turns later, the dragon has been subdued when its mother flies in and pins it to the ground, thanking the players for their assistance in finding her unruly son. As a compromise, I left the suggestion that perhaps the dragon would eventually donate an egg or two to the party. Maybe.

As an embedded hook in the adventure, I hinted that the kobolds were speaking Albinan (my world’s version of Common) as opposed to Draconic. Amazingly enough, the players went through with this and immediately demanded of the dwarf that he explain what was happening (I quickly made up that he had had no idea that there was a dragon; the dragon must have taken charge after an elven nationalist group left the kobolds alone).

 

In summary:

  • Circular initiative is a must
  • Never have players double up
  • Cellphones are allowed, but no playing Fruit Ninja
  • The five second rule is awesome
  • Dragons are not pets

It seems like my players are excited for next time! I can only hope they stay that way after next time.

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Call to Adventure

This is a blog about one D&D Gm’s journey alongside his party of characters. In the process, not only will he speak in 3rd person, but he will also give tips and ideas about DMing in general.

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