Arvels & Dragons

My D&D origin story

Couple of months ago, I was visited by my best friend after my birthday. She had a certain wish that she wanted to do in the future… Playing Dungeons & Dragons. At that point the big question was… where the hell should I begin this journey. Looking through the entire pantheon of products was quite overwhelming. Especially for someone who only had partial experience with Dungeons & Dragons. There was one episode of the GameOverGreggy Show where the guys invited the Critical Role crew over to come to SF and have a one-shot appearence. It was a fun little adventure and at that time I knew of the CR group but didn’t really focus on them. Little did I know that they continued to explode on YouTube afterwards with amazing kickstarter campaigns and the creation of their own branding after they broke away from Geek & Sundry.

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One of my first points of contact with pen & paper DND.

My mother used to play lots of roleplaying adventures on PC like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and other RPG games that are based on the D&D IP. So I kinda have heard some things already. But as a more science-fiction kinda guy, I wasn’t that really into high-fantasy scenarios. I think since Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter franchise, I have gotten more into a more fantasy-based lore.

But still, getting started with DND is a whole different kinda beast. In recent years, board games have gotten lots of influences from RPGs. With Pandemic Legacy we kinda had a game where we basically role-played certain character roles, T.I.M.E. Stories had lots of RPG elements and you could also say that Detective has some light RPG elements as well. So I think, this was a thing that would eventually happen in my friend groups.

The three most important books of a DM.

Starting to Research D&D Lore

I did a little bit of research and found that I would need at least three books: Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide and the Monster Manual. I think there was no discussion about who would be the DM, I think it was clear from the beginning that I would be doing this. I was asking around my friend group and they also liked the idea and then I was good to go. Research started.

I also got the Essentials Kit and the Starter Set. The Starter Set came out in 2014, while the Essentials Kit came out late 2019. I started reading a little bit into both mini campaigns and struggled at first a little bit about the rules per se. It’s quite overwhelming to dive into the lore, different kinds of actions, spells and all those other things. Also, I had to read them multiple times just to get a feeling what is actually meant here. German translations also don’t help here, even worse, they even contribute additionally to more misunderstandings.

However, since I volunteered as DM, I tried to think about how I would handle the game. If you consider my last blog entry, you can see that I’ve done quite some things with OBS and Zoom and there was no question that this wouldn’t be the method of choice here as well. However, the question was more like, what things I would need to prepare, how do I present battles and what kind of things would I to have to run while doing DM’ing.

Trying out some DM setup at home.

I came to understand that playing D&D is mostly happening inside oneself’s imagination, but sometimes you are getting into situations where you need to know where everybody is located. Combat kinda freaked me out. All those different dices, all the different modifiers, all the unexpected outcomes freaked the hell out of me. But now, I quite enjoy it. Initially I wanted to do a fancy overhead camera setup where I place figures on a large piece of green paper that should serve as a green screen and key-in the battle map. The figures were small little Amiibos and this looked quite funny, but eventually I decided to have a more simple approach. For some reason, the Facebook algorithm presented me with some Patreon-based content producer that specialised on creating maps and assets. I would use some of these products and this actually looks quite awesome. Concerning maps, I use a combination of different maps that I would find either on reddit, pinterest or on one of the Dungeon’s Guild websites.

Early OBS Greenscreen setup for battle encounters.

How to start with a pre-written campaign and making it your own

The other major beast was the design of the campaign. This has been one of the most intimidating aspects of the whole D&D project. What kind of story will this campaign be. The Essential Kit and the Starter Set both come with a pre-written story. One deals with a small town being terrorised by a large monster, while the other one is about a region dealing with a group of criminals trying to control a region. Although both campaigns are somewhat different in its scope, both are based within the same region on the Sword Coast, in a small town called Phandalin. I’ve done lots of research about both campaigns, the setting and the overlapping characters of both campaigns and although they are separate adventures, they have similar hooks, plots and according to designer Chris Perkins, they can be combined.

At that point, my mind went into overdrive, how is it possible to combine those two campaigns that are like 64 pages long each. I’ve initially found several YouTube channels talking about these ideas, and also found several adventures on the Dungeon Master’s Guild that run both adventures back-to-back in any configuration. However, I wanted to run both of them concurrently.

As I have only started playing this campaign, I cannot go much into spoilery territory here, but let’s just say, it has been a thrilling experience so far. I needed to think about how to combine the MacGuffin of Lost Mine of Phandelver with the MacGuffin of Dragon of Icespire Peak. I looked at some characters that were somewhat written without a clear motivation in the original story and tried to combine them with the existing lore and their existing factions and at some point everything clicked for me. At some point I wrote a one-page treatment of the entire story that will be the basis for a campaign that could last up until Level 10-15 probably, even though each of the original campaigns would only go up until Levels 5-7. And right now I’m looking forward to some major plot points of the story, even though it’s still months away until we will eventually reach those story beats.

Research…

However, this also comes with some additional work. Both campaigns have a certain throughline and have sand-boxy elements where the players can walk around the town, ask around for quests or rumors or have a look on a quest-giving job board. At this point, prep time is essential here for me. Most of the encounters and dungeon missions are designed for a given level set. For example my players recently started playing the first mission from Lost mine of Phandelver after finishing two encounters of Dragon of Icespire Peak. This means that they are dealing with an encounter that is written for first-level starter characters and they are already at level three already. I have to scale the difficulty here. Instead of four goblins, I needed the double amount of them and additionally a Goblin Boss which lead to their first encounter where my players were outnumbered by some surprising attackers. And it was an amazing, thrilling battle in the end.

Running Umbrage Hill without getting a TPK

However, I have already started changing bits and pieces of the original designs first. My players wanted to do the Umbrage Hill encounter first and it starts off as a simple adventure where you should warn a person about a danger and you find that person struggeling to survive an attack by another monster, in this case a Manticore. Starting off a battle with a Manticore is nothing you should do when you are at Level 1. I followed the advice of YouTube channels like SlyFlourish or Bob World Builder to have the Manticore be already hurt after a battle with a dragon first. This was the first battle that we fought and eventually two of the players were hurt such that they were nearly killed and were unconscious. If I had run them with the original settings, this could have easily resulted in a TPK. However, since I reduced the HP of the Manticore, they had at least have a surviving chance. And it worked. Fortunately, because I didn’t want to have multiple killed characters in my first DM session.

Behind the scenes of my first session as DM.

Learning from the first session and placing first bits and pieces of the larger campaign

After this first session, I was inspired to do some additional tweaks here and there. One of the players made an impressive stunt in front of the person they were supposed to warn and even though the campaign setting states that the person is supposed to stay in their current location, I followed the convincing arguments of the players and have her return with them to Phandalin. I was improvising some little backstory that she could have had with some of the characters in Phandalin and have her stay at the inn together with the players. And have her somehow kinda fall in love with one of the characters to some extend.

Then, another character is not present in Phandalin in DoIP, while she is available in LMoP. In the first session she was not available for the players, but then I had her suddenly appear in Phandalin after she had been attacked by free-roaming Orcs. I have to admit, at that stage, I only had one of the following adventures prepared in more detail for the second session, so I used this situation to create a little more urgency to go to the encounter that I have already fleshed out. And do some exposition. At this point, I think I overdid my job as a DM, because I basically did a 10 minute cut scene all by myself while the players had barely the possibility to stear the action.

Preparing random encounters.

In my head canon, I had the idea that most of the players are kinda loners, drifters. D&D, however, is a game about friendship and camaradarie. Part of my backstory was that all of them were awesome on their own, but they could do much more if they would work together. My hook was then, that each of them would have been approached by agents of one of the factions and they would start their journey on their way to Phandalin. They only know a secret hand sign to show their alignment which would bring them together. I think the players were kinda freaked out about the prospect of being spied on by some unknown faction and bringing them together for some unknown cause and maybe I overdid some plot points here, but I hope to get this part of the story a little bit more fleshed out in the future (Maybe I’ll write up some of this things in more detail and publish them myself)

Running Dwarven Excavation

Then, I also started looking more into other modules, sourcebooks and homebrew material. I found some awesome homebrew stuff about looting stuff which I incorporated from the start and this has been some fun element in the game so far. For the second encounter, I did some rewriting for the encounter. Initially, an Orc group should suppose attack the group AFTER finishing the mission, but since Sister Garaele had been attacked by a group of Orcs that then went towards the mission site, I had them already appear in front of the mission site before the mission. Then, after walking into excavation site, my players convinced the dwarves there to join the mission. They already mentioned that they were attacked by some monster they couldn’t really see and started slicing at the monster. It was an Ochre Jelly.

Now, the campaign description says that if the amount of players is larger than a given number, the players should be attacked by two Ochre Jellies. Now, most of the DM Guides said that the Ochre Jellies are too powerful for Level 1 or Level 2 characters. I tend to agree here, as they are quite resistant against attacks with conventional weapons and the players mostly haven’t been using much magic despite the usual Firebolt. Also, the stats of the Ochre Jelly are quite clear such that the monster splits in half with half their HP, if they are subject to a slashing damage. So… I decided to put in two Ochre Jellies, but they had already halved their damage since the dwarvens initial attack. The DM tipps were mostly saying to replace those monsters with grey oozes, however I loved the concept of a splitting, undistructable monster so that they would need to really think about their attack strategy. And this worked perfectly fine… However, since they convinced the dwarves to follow them into battle, one of them didn’t make it to the end and died in battle. The players buried the dead dwarf and we decided to end that session with a long rest (I also hid some night goggles in one of the rooms that were actually part of a later adventure, but wanted to even out the player as all of them except one was capable of seeing in the dark).

At that point, the dungeon was still not fully explored and I thought about the rest of the encounter. Before I ran the mission, I looked into another homebrew book that had lots of puzzles in it. I was browsing through the document until I found a very unnerving, but yet interesting concept. It was called Dwarven Gas Chamber and since we were in a Dwarven temple, things clicked immediately. There was a small little corridor in front of the final room that would have the final elements of the encounter. The players haven’t found the other secret room with the hidden second Ochre Jelly and I didn’t want to use this one as well. But … plans change … drastically.

Initially, the corridor was not a named room. Idea was to have the players enter the corridor and then doors come slamming down on both ends of the room while deadly gas starts pumping into the small little room. Let’s just say, I screwed up the scene here, as the players wanted to go slowly into the room and I kinda rushed them into it, while also putting them into this death trap. What was happening now, was this, I had given them a riddle that I had to translate to German first which had the solution for this puzzle and the players basically had a week time to think about it. Then, when shit hits the fan, they kinda found that one of the walls was a secret wall, which they immediately wanted to use in order to escape this death trap… Just to find the Ochre Jelly that I actually wanted to hide from them. Now they had gas pumping into a room that would slowly kill them, while they had to fight off a full-blown Ochre Jelly in a confined area. Let’s just say, I wanted to spice up the encounter intially. Now I have created an exhilerating death trap for all of them. But fortunately they managed to survive.

Spicing up Dwarven Excavation

Now, I had another thing on my mind. In the session before, Dezlin, one of the two dwarves died. At this stage, I kinda went back to have an interesting morale experiment. The main crux of this encounter was to find out the secrets of this ancient temple and what had happened. It was about a greedy god that’s no longer pleased about the offerings and thus create an earthquake that leads to a landslide that kills the entire settling, while some of the priests are transformed into Ochre Jellies by this greedy god. Well, that’s OK… but I needed some more compelling hook. Eventually, I was looking through some of the available magic items. Then I eventually found the Belt of Dwarvenkind that would give the bearer a dwarf-like appearance. Then I had an interesting idea. Imagine there was a halfling thief that wanted to steal the secret stash of awesome things that were hidden in the back of this temple. Because it has to be precious and expensive stuff, right? So, this halfling thief wears this belt, and looks like a dwarf. He then manages to sneak into the secret backroom with all this awesome stuff and touches the things that were offered to Abbathor. This Halfling tries to steal some stuff that is located on some statue and then starts the events that would lead to the destruction of this dwarven community.

Since there are two statues in this room, I wanted to create a little more tension in this final part of the encounter. The campaign already mentioned that there are two statues in this room, one has already been destroyed, while the second still remains standing. The idea now was to make this scene more compelling than the original story had. At first, I knew that the second statue had some trap connected to it if the player would try to steal something from it. Let’s just say it contained an item that the player was actively looking for already in one of the earlier settings. However, I didn’t want to kill one of my players early on in the game, so I tried to have some homebrewn resurrection drink as the item the halfling wanted to steal in the first place, so it still lies around somewhere around the remains of him. I initially wanted to have this drink to only be helpful for the first 10 minutes after a character’s death. But since one of the dwarves died in the last settings, I did some calculations in advance to find out when it would be the time, the players could find this thing. So I extended the length to 24 hours. I have created one of the most powerful things in the entire game…

However, the question then comes up… what are the players going to do with this item? Do they take it for themselves or do they help some poor dwarf to resurrect his best friend? I have to say, the campaign book does not mention a resurrection drink or a dead halfling thief but I have now created a highly ethical conundrum for my friends. I have been a huge fan of Star Trek and some of their best stories is about asking questions about morale and ethics and here I am, applying the same way of thinking for this small little D&D campaign. Eventually my group decided to forego the resurrection drink and help resurrect the dead dwarf, while also having the players think about a way to circumvent the deadly trap. I hope the players liked this spiced up version of this dungeon the same way as I did while spicing it up.


Doing One-Shots

I felt a little bit depressed about the fact that I have only played once with my best friend yet who wanted me to investigate D&D in the first place. What I did here, was to do a one-shot story. For some reason, I got Baldur’s Gate: Descend into Avernus as an adventure but currently have no intention of including this to my campaign. However it had the perfect backdrop for the one-shot. I was looking into the Dungeon Master’s Guild and had a look for one-shots and found two potential stories. One of them was about finding stuff in order to create a health potion, while the other dealt with creepy rituals, while Elturel goes to literal hell, i.e. Avernus. I thought it was a more compelling story and also had an interesting hook for a potential follow-up campaign. It was a kind of refreshing thing for me, as this story did not contain any of the dragons, characters or towns that I had for the other story. It was also a homebrewn story and it worked out quite well for this one-shot scenario. Now, I’ve promised to make a Harry Potter based scenario for the next session and I think I’ve also found something interesting already. But let’s wait and see.

Doing a One-Shot.

However, I had another interesting learning experience during this one-shot scenario. I had three players and also had one NPC that would be the leader for the group. Then, during the first encounter, a girl was attacked by a pack of wolves while some other wolf stays outside the fight and watches the situation. The writer of the encounter had the possibility of gaining the wolf as additional companion for the rest of the story. Which the players did. So they had two companions at that point. Later on, they were on some creepy-looking ritual site, where some cultists were trying to raise the dead as some kind of bodyguards for them, i.e. skeletons. My players managed to get one of the liquids to re-animate a dead being and command them for one hour. And of course they did this. Now, the players had three companions. Let’s say, for some reason I (as a DM) have become nearly everyone on the board, i.e. all enemies, as well as all of the companions, so I was basically rolling against myself, while the players only rarely were rolling dices during the final encounter. It was a fun encounter, of course, but I would have liked to give the players a little more of the action, while the NPCs were duking it out themselves and the players were basically OP at that point. I think my recent experiments with scaling are a result of this OP encounter that I had during this one-shot.

So… lot’s of text. Lot’s of experiences that we have made as players and as a DM. But there’s something I wasn’t ready for. Some of my players have started creating art or experiment with writing. And this has been one of the most proud experiences in the last couple of weeks. That this thing that we have started to create may result in an intimate experience for the entire group that we will still be talking about in years to come.

Ressources and References:

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/299195/A-Tale-of-Two-Dragons-Phandalin-Adventures-Tier-2-Conversions

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/295425/Monster-Loot--Lost-Mine-of-Phandelver

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/307825/Monster-Loot--Dragon-of-Icespire-Peak

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/317084/Wally-DMs-Journal-of-Puzzle-Encounters

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/294663/Baldurs-Gate-The-Fall-of-Elturel

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