Lessons Learned at DDXP2011

The D&D Experience has come and gone, I avoided the Bub-Con-Ick Plague, and now I am ready to sit back and take stock of the experience. In order to fulfill my promise to myself to think about the things I think about, and to try to recap some of the experiences presented at DDXP, I present to you the things I learned at DDXP 2011:

Gaming is fun.

I know it might seem sad that this is something I count as a take-away from a nice gaming convention, but I have left some conventions not feeling this way. Because of my affiliation with a variety of organized-play campaigns in the past, sometimes conventions turn into an endless cycle of meetings and hours spent listening to players’ complaints about things I have no control over. A lack of gaming at these gaming conventions sometimes left me feeling like I was at an unfulfilling job rather than a place to have fun.

I guess there is nothing that makes a person love gaming like gaming. At DDXP this year I truly got the chance to play in and run some outstanding adventures with great DMs and players. I didn’t have to worry about the mechanics of this campaign or the overall direction of that campaign. Instead, I got to immerse myself in some fun roleplaying from both sides of the screen. It was a good reminder of all the things I love about gaming.

It can be much more interesting to play an adventure you designed than it is to run it.

Generally when I go to conventions, something I have written, designed, edited, or reviewed is on the schedule, and I often chose those adventures to DM.  This time, because there was a need for DMs in the new Ashes of Athas campaign, I made the choice to DM other people’s adventures instead of my own.  I couldn’t have been happier with that decision, for various reasons.  One of those reasons was because it allowed me the time to play the adventure I had designed called “Kalarel’s Revenge.”

The story behind the design was an interesting one, but it is one I am going to tell another time.  I had run a playtest of the adventure several months prior to DDXP, but it was run with characters from existing sourcebooks—not the preview characters from Heroes of Shadow. The adventure details also changed a bit when going through development and editing, so I knew the play experience would be much different.

We randomly drew for characters, and I found myself playing Lorel the Binder Pact Warlock. We tried to give each character some fun roleplaying hooks, but Lorel might have the best ones.  I knew it would be easy for me to go overboard, so I tried to tone it down a little.  The adventure was also designed to possibly play out in a lot of different ways based on different (and sometimes contradictory) character goals and motivations.  It was certainly possible for the players to all work together the entire adventure.  And on the other side of the spectrum, it was also possible to go completely sideways.  Our table was sideways almost from the start.  And it was a lot of fun.

The fun worked because we had a table of players willing to recognize that winning did not necessarily mean the characters met all their goals; winning was the players having fun as the chaos descended upon the doomed adventuring party.  John Rogers did a fine job DMing the TPM (total party meltdown).

It is also interesting to run an adventure a couple of times, and then play it.

After running the first adventure of Chapter 1 of Ashes of Athas back-to-back on Thursday morning and afternoon, I had the evening slot free. I was asked by a couple of friends to join them for a game, and I just happened to have created a halfling knight on the off-chance I got to play.  It turns out they too had created halfling characters, and that sounded a lot like destiny to me.  And they wanted to play the very same adventure I had just run twice, with the author running the game.

When I run adventures over and over again, like DMs sometimes do at conventions, I never run them the same way twice.  Even for pure dungeon delves with very little roleplaying or alternative paths, I change the way traps work, or use different tactics for monsters, or even change the “win conditions” of certain combats.  Knowing an adventure and then playing it allows you to see how other DMs manage games. If they try to keep the players “on script,” how to they do that organically?  If they do deviate from the adventure, when and why do they do so, and in what ways to they flex their creative powers?

In this case, the DM was also the adventure’s designer, Chad Brown, and he had his work cut out for him with our party.  When I created my halfling knight, I had decided to downplay the whole “halflings are cannibals” trope that is always overemphasized in Dark Sun.  However, when the other 3 halfling players got into the shtick, it was difficult to resist. By the end of the adventure, we were playing our characters with all the grace and subtlety of an ebola outbreak.

I have had Chad as a player on countless occasions, and he is exactly the type of player every DM would want: attentive, organized, well-versed in the rules, always willing and able to roleplay.  Fortunately, he was just as graceful as a DM, especially in the face of a table who could have probably spent the entire 5 hour slot roleplaying with each other.

The players at the table aside, it was fun to see the wheels spinning in Chad’s head.  While the adventure is fun and challenging for players, it is a tough one for DMs to run because of the plot.  When the DM is able to pull off adventures like that, it is a great experience for the players.  When the DM is not up to the challenge, it can be frustrating for everyone.  The two tables I had DMed earlier that day took two very different routes through the adventure, so I was interested in seeing how Chad would handle it, especially considering the almost slapstick nature of our party.  It ended up with one PC looking a lot like a pincushion (Hi Derek!) and two halflings skipping hand-in-hand toward capture, but there was never a lack of smiles at the table.  And therefore, it was a good table.

We could provide for 82% of the Earth’s energy needs if we could harness just .056% of one convention’s nerd-rage.

DDXP is a smaller convention than the likes of GenCon or Origins, but where there is gaming there must be nerd-rage, just as where there is a NY Jets game, there must be asshattery.  Because the focus of DDXP is mainly on playing the game, most of the nerd-rage happens at the table.  More than once I heard a player say, “If this is how this campaign is going to be, I’m quitting right now.”  Then things calmed down and all was well until the next slightly controversial occurrence, when again the nerd-rage kicked in and the “I’m never playing this campaign again” howls began.  Not surprisingly, the adventures usually ended with “Hey, that wasn’t actually so bad.”

I can rage with the best of them.  My desk is often part of the head-desk tandem.  Some of my rants have been You Tube-worthy.  So when I say this, I am speaking to myself as much as to others: It’s a game, folks.  Perspective.  When the CNN coverage of the plight of Egyptians calling for true independence resembles someone’s meltdown over not getting a boon after an RPG session, it’s time to take a step back.

I was not nearly as disappointed as I thought I would be that the World’s Smallest Stripper was not performing in Fort Wayne again this year.

What else can I say?!  That’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, like seeing the London Philharmonic or the Baltimore Orioles having a winning season.

We seriously need a seminar where a highly skilled DM takes an adventure that is running at the convention, and he runs the game in front of the seminar.

The RPGA has toyed with various ideas about how to help DMs run games better, especially games that are being run in a limited time slot in an organized-play environment.  DDXP would be the perfect place for something like this to happen.  I think it would be great to have one of the WotC staff take one of the LFR adventures, prepare it, then run it for a table of players (who have signed up to play the game normally) in a seminar room.  The DM could take the time during play to explain why he is making certain decisions, where possible design changes could have been made, how to keep the game flowing, etc.

Part of the reason I think this is a good idea is because I attended the DDXP seminar on DMing, and there really is a wide rift between the tools and talents involved in DMing for a home campaign and DMing in a convention-based, organized-play environment where there is an expectation that the PCs need to touch certain key plot points in order for the campaign as a whole to make sense.

Fort Wayne is the seventh on Hitler’s List.

I’m not making things up.  If you love literature and meta-fiction as much as I do, you need to know this. Plus, what respectable blog does not invoke Hitler at least once?  Don’t answer that. . . .

WotC employees is PEOPLE!!!

Although Vanir already made this point, I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. If you believed certain forums and Internet sites, you would think that WotC employees—especially those R&D types—take sustenance only from the dashed hopes and dream of RPG players and the brain fluid of toddlers. Of course, that’s not true—except for Greg Bilsland, who we are still wondering about.

Although my freelance work has brought me into intermittent contact with many of the folks at WotC, I don’t know any of them well.  But through my time spent chatting or playing with the likes of the aforementioned Mr. Bilsland, Chris Perkins, Mike Mearls, Trevor Kidd, Chris Tulach, and several others, I can attest that they are us.  They love games.  They get geeked about the same things we get geeked about.  They were probably stared at a lot as teenagers (and with some of them, as adults as well). They get strip-searched at airports.  They just happen to have jobs that are too freaking cool for words.

Chris Sims is a trooper.

Yeah, so that halfling Dark Sun table I played at that went way off the rails?  We played the second Ashes of Athas adventure with Chris Sims as the DM.  If we were off the rails originally, we were off the planet for his game.  Chris did a wonderful job of letting us go nuts with the extraneous roleplaying, even joining in at times, while still getting us through the adventure.  But what would you expect from a guy who ran a game at GenCon called “Welcome to Dark Sun, Bitches.”

And any man who knows the value of a Discover Card pretty much has the universe tamed at this point.

The Baldman knows how to run a convention.

The RPGA used to rotate people running their content at the major conventions.  Sometimes the people were really good.  Sometimes it was unmitigated disasters.  And then Dave Christ had his turn.  Dave now has it down to a science, and there is a reason why WotC has Dave running their convention stuff.  If you aren’t looking, you don’t really see anything going wrong.  And even when you do know something is going wrong, it is resolved quickly.  With them now starting to produce adventures, Baldman Games is a name in the gaming world to keep an eye on (if only because they might try to lift your wallet).

Next week: As promised, I will talk about designing “Kalarel’s Revenge,” look at how you cannot spell NDA without “nad,” and figure out how sometimes clueless game design can work better than normal game design.


  1. Ah, the card that pays you to use it. Almost as good as the game that pays you to play it. Thanks for the insights, and the conversation, Shawn!

  2. Kalarel’s Revenge was an absolute blast. I made the trek to Fort Wayne last minute and someone had turned in a ticket so lucky me. Had the best DM ever (wish I could remember her name). Thanks for writing such a fun time!

  3. “We seriously need a seminar where a highly skilled DM takes an adventure that is running at the convention, and he runs the game in front of the seminar.”

    Agreed. I always watch the play videos Wizards posts to Youtube. 🙂

  4. They should take the example of the PAX Celebrity Challenge. I thought it was very well done.

  5. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Chris: Indeed, I am as cheap as they come. It was great to get the chance to talk to you as well. Especially considering my entire conversation history with you up to that point had been, “Excuse me, are you Bart Carroll?”

    @skr8cash: Thanks! I’m glad you have a good time playing the adventure. Having a great DM certainly makes all the difference.

    @Sunyaka: DMing is an endeavor that requires so much to do well–I don’t even know how one might teach it, other than to get as much experience as a player and a DM as possible. Those YouTube videos certainly help.

    @Alton: Do you have more details on that? I would be interested in seeing or hearing more about it.

  6. Here is the game I was talking about. It was so cool to see creative guys at the table. They looked like they were having a lot of fun. Enjoy!



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alphastream, Shawn Merwin. Shawn Merwin said: Latest "Know Your Roll" column is up: http://critical-hits.com/2011/02/04/lessons-learned-at-ddxp2011/ #dnd #ddxp […]

  2. […] Matt Dukes (Vanir, or @direflail) was there as a civilian and regular ol’ gamer representative. Shawn Merwin (@shawnmerwin) attended as a DM and writer. I went as a DM and administrator for the Ashes of Athas […]

  3. […] Merwin reflected on his time at DDXP over at Critical Hits.  This article was a lot of fun to read, and many of the […]