The Dungeon Reality Show, D&D Essentials Edition, Part 1

In mid January, I followed up on a wild idea and got 4 local media geeks to join me for a session of D&D Essentials. It turned out to be one of the best D&D games I’ve played, one of those sessions where the stars are aligned and everything just works.

The reasons for that are manifold.  The players,  mostly newbies to D&D 4e or tabletop RPGs, were all very enthusiastic about the game.  The energy level was just right. My design decisions were near-perfect  for the event and I likely managed to put all the lessons I learned from my gaming pilgrimage of the last months in practice.

Time for another Play Report, Chatty DM style!

The Setup:

Since most players had gigs with specialized Geek TV shows/channels (and associated websites) , I thought this would be a great occasion to revive my old Dungeon Reality Show shtick and adapt it to the scenario at hand, a level 2 D&D Essentials Adventure called “Sunderpeak Temple” featured at last summer’s D&D Gameday.

The scenario was a dead simple “invade and vanquish” 5 encounters adventure about reclaiming a recently destroyed Temple from the clutches of a Black  Dragon and his band of humanoid minions.

If you never read about the Dungeon Reality Show and can’t spare visiting the link above, just know that it’s a silly D&D 4e variant where adventurers are desperate participants in a lethal show featuring  NPCs as 3rd rate actors, callous cigar-smoking producers and crafty, tightly-wound Chronomancers.

All participating adventurers are given a “sponsored” magical item created from existing Items and adapted to the pre-generated characters I created for the adventure.

I posted about the item on our Tumblog here.

Success Factor Aside: Giving everyone an item that was 2-4 levels higher than their levels makes players happy to have a “cool toy” right off the bat.

I had another TV Show trick up my sleeve I held in reserve for the first fight… yet, I ended up being so inspired by the game that I came up with several more!

Read on!

Dramatis Persona

  • Maïwenn Amandil: Elven Warpriestess of Pelor, sporting the luxuriant Divine Boon known as Pelor’s Spray Tan and Facial
    • Played by Caro, who hadn’t played RPGs for at least 8 years
  • Frank the Tank:  Beeraholic Human Knight equipped with Morshon’s Stout shield
    • Played by… Frank the Tank, who had never played a tabletop RPG
  • Seaendithas Steelfarmer: Halfling Thief of great skill, wearing Dr Stealth’s Orthopaedic Adventuring Slippers.
    • Played by Stef, long time friend who plays RPGs only occasionally
  • Todd Darkmagic (Adopted): Eladrin Mage yielding the legendary “Jim Darkmagic Showman’s Staff”
    • Played by FDL, a freelance writer and regular radio-TV host and guest.

I’m not going to go for a blow by blow retelling of the game… I’ll focus on it’s main highlights and lessons.

Lesson: Don’t Fake freedom when unnecessary

Another lesson I’ve learned from small press games and one shot scenarios:

Don’t ever try to give the illusion of freedom to players if the adventure you play doesn’t call for it.

The chosen adventure required PCs to investigate a ruined temple and clear it.  Thus, I told players that

A) They all knew each other from a previous, disastrous adventure, explaining the whole “being desperate enough to participate in the show”

B) They had already accepted the  thin plot the Quest Giver (a Dwarf merchant they were travelling with) gave them .

Thus no time was lost on building a premise that wasn’t necessary to our current goals as a gaming group.

Lesson/Highlight: Say Yes and Exploit Details

As the players approached the temple, I offhandedly described bodies of priests and monks strewn about.  When Caro asked me if her priest found someone alive she could heal I decided to say yes and find a way to make this cool…

Chatty: Hmmm, sure, there’s a guy standing just over there.  He’s really badly injured.  If you make a successful difficult heal check you’ll get info on what he saw, if you fail he will die at your hands.

Caro: Gulp…

FDL: Todd will help you.

(Clatter clatter, success)

Chatty: The priest’s eyes open suddenly and he cries “DRAGON!” before falling unconscious.

Good start!  Taking a page out of the Apocalypse World playbook, from then on, whenever someone asked me to do something that wasn’t directly covered by the rules, I’d pick a skill and a difficulty, explain what would be gain on a success and what kind of dramatic twist would happen on a failure and asked who was ready to help.

The players liked this a lot.

Highlight: The Knight Does Not Fight to the Music, the Music Fights for the Knight.

During the first combat encounter, Frank the Tank enthusiastically embraced the concept of tabletop RPGs.  He kept describing cool moves for his Knight and didn’t bother with realism much.  When he activated one of his PC’s Combat Stances, he described that he got a Ghetto Blaster out of his backback, put it on the floor and started going all Technoviking on the baddies.

This was very funny… especially when that was later exploited by Todd Darkmagic (adopted) who created an illusion of another Knight holding a Ghetto Blaster over his head. It was topped off when Frank did a power move to deal lots of damage, describing it as breaking the Blaster over another monster’s head.

I absolutely love it when players create scene elements and then others interact with them.  It makes scene so much more lively.

New Mechanic: Advertising for Rewards

Once combat started, I implemented another of my new Dungeon Reality ideas.  I had the one at the top of the initiative order (PC or myself for NPC) improvise a short advertisement bit about fictitious products in exchange for a one time bonus during the encounter.

For example, Stef told us about Tylenorc, the pain relief medication of true bad asses. After the laughter died down, I surmised that this message would grant stef’s thief with 5-10 temporary Hit Points for the encounter.

The endeavour was a smashing success, beyond what I expected even! Players jumped on that and even started writing copy during downtime between their turns.  Hell, they even started gaming the system and created spots targeted to gain specific bonuses (like doing an anti-aid ad during a fight vs a Black Dragon).  Of course, I tried to embrace that…Although, by the end of the evening everyone was running out of juice.

I stopped giving my monsters bonuses early in the game… while I participated in making ad spots, I felt like I was taking away from the players fun and abusing the system by giving my side bonuses when I could just as well play with the numbers like all DMs are allowed to in the spirit of keeping the game fun for all.

Highlight: A Knight and his Beer

Chatty: After combat, you smell something strong, yeast-like coming from the well…

Frank the Tank: BEER! I JUMP in it!

Chatty: All right, the challenge for you will not be how you get in there or how you leave it, that’s boring. Rather I wanna know in what shape you’ll be when you leave it. So you’ll have to roll a hard Athletics check to simulate you drunkenly climbing out at the end of this short rest period.

Frank: okay! Burp!

Chatty: If you succeed, great! You’re out and more or less sober.  If you fail, you’ll still get out but I will reserve the right to give you the mother of all “Oh man I HAVE to pee NOW” moment whenever I chose.  It will daze until you spend an embarrassing Standard action sighing very noisily… we cool?

Caro: Can my priestess help him climbing out?

Chatty: Sure, what skills does she have?

Caro: Hmmm, Religion?

Chatty: Well…. How about you berate him while he climbs?  “Motivating” him to abandon his sinning ways?

Caro and Frank: Yeah!

Caro failed her roll (her first time of many that game, poor her) but in spite of the penalty that gave Frank’s PC, he succeeded.

Frank: As I exit the well, I tell the priestess “Fat loads of help your preaching did dude!”

And so the love story began…

In part 2, I’ll explain the mother of all fun skill challenges (new version) and how the Beads of Awesomeness saved the day.

(Photos courtesy of Stéphane Vaillancourt and Caroline Cloutier)

P.S. Yes, I’m starting to have fun again with 4e… many thanks to all those extra tools I’ve been picking up. Can’t wait to tell you about the rest!


  1. I ran a Shadowrun campaign that was a reality show called “The Runners.” Each character was bought out of prison by the sponsors. Every adventure I had a list of products they had to role-play product placement for. My favorite being the Troll Mercenary who poured himself up a nice, warm bowl of….Tums antacid.

  2. @Rev: Ha, nice one. I’m glad it worked out for you. We discussed how fun it would be for a campaign and we more or less settled that it would be great “mini-campaign” material but not a fully blown one.

  3. You’ve discovered a powerful secret. Sometimes you just need to do something crazy and silly in order to have fun.

    Nothing does that like having PCs that know they’re PCs.

  4. @Jeff: Yes, the whole “meta’ layer added a lot to the crazy fun they had. Plus the fact that the players didn’t know about the whole “reality TV” thing beyond me vaguely mentioning it was also a factor.

    I like playing Silly D&D… this way makes it more formal and helps put everyone’s expectation on a more or less equal footing.

  5. Yet more proof (if any was needed) that’s it not the game system but the people playing it that matter!

    Huzzah for fun! (and beer)

    And seriously… a Dungeon Master bowling shirt?! That’s the coolest garment ever! Well, second only to the insanely gorgeous Burning Wheel hoodies, of course!

  6. Would have love seing that game. hehe! Last time Stéphane played with us was when we had just started playing D&D 3rd edition. Must be something like 8 years ago… Knowings him and his love for bad puns, I’m sure you got more “pub” that you wished for… 😉

  7. 3.x was a great system for tweaking and modifying system mechanics. 4th edition seems better suited to adding and changing entire units from other systems. My favorite thus far is mouse guard style succede/fail/complication mechanisms added to skill challenges. Good to see you back to enjoying 4th


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gato, CH News Robot, ChattyDM, Dazed (save ends), F.D. Laramée, Dazed (save ends) and others. Dazed (save ends) said: RT @criticalhits: New Critical Hit: Chatty Plays: The Dungeon Reality Show, D&D Essentials Edition, Part 1 […]

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