Last Thursday, I took the reins of a brand new D&D group. As you may have noticed from last week’s column, I had some nerves going into this. There’s the “just like climbing the rope in speech class” pressure of getting up and performing in front of people, and I also felt it necessary to up my internal drama ante a little by thinking “you are personally responsible for everyone’s fun at this table they will probably want the next five hours of their lives back NO PRESSURE.”
— But I’m better now. Let’s go back to where this all started.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve sat behind a screen, but I haven’t done it much. My previous short forays into DMing were a strange experiment. Having been the resident lunatic of our party for some years, I wanted to switch gears and run a more serious plot full of intrigue and diabolical plots unravelling and players blasting each other in the face with roleplay like some sort of demented drama club/paintball hybrid. I discovered two things in those few weeks. First, that kind of plot takes a hell of a lot more planning and practice than what I gave it. Second, your players can and will tear apart your plot like wild dogs, and half-assed roleplay-heavy plots are extra juicy. So, it got a little insane. It made almost no sense by the time we were done, but we all had fun. I was, however disappointed that it didn’t turn out as I’d hoped.
Two weeks ago, I had a group. I had a date set. I had lots of things to include to our Social Contract. I did not have an adventure ready, nor much idea of how to set one up. I did, however, have at least a couple notions of what not to do from previous experience, and so I decided to try and come up with either a vague big idea with blanks to fill in or a small idea I could build on. I’m not sure which one actually happened. You see, I spent several evenings trying to come up with something I felt was cool enough to flesh out, and I basically locked up. I couldn’t think of anything, and I was worried it was going to be a disaster. Fortunately, as it frequently does, my subconscious bailed me out.
Redemption Of The Colossus
The idea for what to do came to me in a dream. Now, before I continue, you need to understand that Normal Things do not come to me in dreams. Let me give you an example. One night, I was dozing off peacefully in my wife’s arms when suddenly I sat bolt upright in bed. I had dreamt that I was looking at the back of a magazine, and it had an ad for the newest Castlevania game on it. I have poorly illustrated this ad for you:
That, dear readers, is a purple panther wearing a blood-red cape and a crucifix. In the background, you can see the evil vampire lord’s castle. I had no idea what the word “pleurisy” meant at the time, so I had to go look it up.
It was a dream in this vein that set this campaign in motion. We’d just been watching LOTR: The Return Of The King, and I was flying over Minas Tirith like one of the Nazgûl riding one of their winged… um…. whatever those things are called. Suddenly, a terrifying monster appeared!
It was, as any fool can plainly can see, a colossal 2000-foot-tall beast with the body of a T-Rex and the head of, well, a big slice of carrot cake from Bakers Square. Suddenly, the beast smashed it’s delicious, mountainous head into the helpless city! With each 10 trillion calorie blow, part of its head would remain, crushing and smothering those not hungry enough to escape. Each time it would bring its head to bear for another assault, the cake would regenerate itself, ensuring a considerably more mouth-watering version of Pompeii’s end for Minas Tirith.
The most wonderful part of all this for me, in retrospect, was that I was actually pretty scared while all this was happening. I have to admit, that would be a pretty terrible way to die. Even I have a threshold for the absurd, though, and it wasn’t long before I found myself sitting bolt upright in bed once again, struggling to free myself from my apnea mask so I could properly guffaw. This was such a wonderfully insane idea that I had to use it somehow, but I honestly couldn’t figure out any way for the PC’s to defeat the damned thing short of summoning the Tarrasque to come eat it (and, given my sordid history with the beast, I wanted to try something new.)
My Process, Or As I Like To Call It, “The VanirCo Adventure Shooter”
I decided to try and remove some of the more WTF parts, and eventually I arrived at the concept of having the PC’s deal with a whole town getting mysteriously buried inside a huge cement block. The most interesting way I could think of to do this was to erect giant walls of force around the town as a mold and then to have cement rain down in the middle until it all filled in. I’m assuming with this kind of power, somebody would then go in and smooth the top off, of course. I take pride in my work. Though I’m not very familiar with 4e, it was pretty clear to me that I was probably dancing far beyond the borders of what I could find in any sourcebook as far as plausible rules-backed reasons these things could happen. Then I remembered I was the DM, and I said screw it — this is the work of powers and artifacts whose inner workings are beyond the reach of mortals (probably), and it must surely work because here it is in my world. We shall see if I come to regret this decision.
Now, all I had to do was figure out why somebody would want to do this. Was it simply a weapon of mass destruction? Do I want to build giant, grisly sculptures for an evil dictator? Are these giant monoliths used in some secret ritual? What else do they do? I picked out a vague, terrifying reason and then set to work on introducing the PCs to it in the first session.
After all that, figuring out the setting and why everyone was together just sort of fell in my lap. I renewed my DDI subscription so my players could use the Character Builder, and started perusing the articles in Dragon. Literally one click later, I found Robert J. Schwalb’s article on the Last Legion. (DDI subscription required, sorry!) The short version is that the Legion is a mercenary army that goes around hunting monsters and other threats to civilization, and they’ll take anybody. Adventurers, convicted criminals trying to work off their debt to society — anybody. I fell in love with the whole idea, and decided it would be extremely fertile ground for my players to weave much cooler backstories than “I went into a bar and found some other dudes”. I was right. My players got extremely elaborate as to how and why they’re serving in the Last Legion, and I have so much to work with down the road for PC-specific side-quests that I don’t even know where to begin. Character-development quests were one of my very favorite things my previous DMs used to do, even for the other PCs. To this day, I remember those better than the main storylines of our campaigns, because they gave me a much stronger emotional attachment to what I was doing than merely saving the world. I want very much to give someone else that gift. NO PRESSURE.
As for the setting itself, I decided to go with the good ol’ Forgotten Realms. I did this for several reasons. One, damn near every D&D game I’ve ever played (tabletop or otherwise) has been set there, so I have some idea as to where things are. Granted, the whole “spellplague” thing has complicated things a little, but the way I see it I really don’t have to mess with that unless I really feel like it. Second (and most self-serving!), this sets me up to be able to try out new D&D stuff as it comes out without much modification, which makes my RPG-bloggin’ job a lot easier. Yes, I told my players this. I took 17 damage.
I decided to plop this whole mess down in the middle of the Sword Coast, and (on a suggestion from the Dragon article) to have the Last Legion looking for new recruits, licking its wounds after getting beaten by a tough enemy force. The first session was to be relatively simple: I put them in a small town a ways north of Waterdeep, they all get assigned to the same squad (and do their introductions), and sent to find some soldiers who went AWOL in town. PC’s are told these guys probably just got drunk and are hanging out in an inn, and that they should go round them up. They show up at the town only to find a gigantic cement block. Scary, right? Sure, it’s terrifying. It will shock every player at that table. But now what the hell are they supposed to do?
So, I did the only rational thing and made it crap out cement zombies.
Planning the combat encounter was surprisingly the easiest part of this whole process. I’d heard my fellow bloggers speak many times about reskinning creatures, so I cracked open the Monster Vault to the page on Grasping Zombies and I took all the undead out and let Bob the Dual Class Builder/Necromancer do his thing. However, I decided I didn’t want the zombies trying to kill the PC’s. Since they sort of appeared out of the walls of the big cement block, why not have them try to shove the PC’s in there to join the rest of the townsfolk? So, they always try to grab, and if successful, I let them slide a PC 4 squares. That seemed much scarier to me. The fact that I was messing with monster powers before even running one normal one was equally scary, but the number of ways a PC could avoid getting thrown in there (opposed grapple check, save vs forced movement into dangerous territory, and other players freeing them) seemed like it might make for an interesting encounter. Plus I could totally make some crap up if it went totally wrong. Great plan!
Soon, the big night had arrived, and I had 5 people looking at me as if I was supposed to do something amazing. So I did. We spent about a half hour going over a relatively standard Social Contract where we talked about important stuff like Pizza, and What To Do When People Don’t Show Up and Booze At The Table. I could tell it was a little irritating and/or uncomfortable to a couple of my players to have to formalize such seemingly trivial things, and I can definitely sympathize. I didn’t really want to do it either, except for when I’d look back to previous conflicts we’d had in other groups over the years, and having a pre-agreed-upon way to solve things would have been nice (which is how I sold it to our group). Fortunately, it was over fast and I have a bunch of very nice friends at my table, so there was pretty much no drama over anything on the list.
I paused for a few minutes to go put my son to bed, and upon my return we got started. I immediately proceeded to break the D&D world speed record for “Fastest Plot Retcon” by forgetting that I had changed the party’s role from “going to go to town to recruit people” to “going to find AWOL recruiting people in town” the night before. I handled this with all the grace you’ve all come to expect from me. And by that, I mean I said something to the effect of “OH GOD THAT DID NOT JUST HAPPEN. THIS HAPPENED INSTEAD.” I didn’t suffer any other major blowouts, but my players did trip me up a couple times. For instance, if you are going to let the PCs question one of your NPCs, it is a good idea to have some idea of what he might say other than what you had planned. Fortunately for me, our party takes good notes, because I absolutely do not remember most of what was coming out of my mouth during that exchange (though I did write down a name I sort of blurted out on the fly so I wouldn’t forget). I hope they don’t figure out they can change the course of the adventure by making crap up in the adventure log.
As it happened, our paladin and the sentinel’s pet dog did get slurped up into the cement during the fight. I decided to have it spit them out at a Dramatically Appropriate Moment, which came when our wizard used a fire spell with a blast radius. They came out cleaner than they started, which freaked several people out. Will there be more lasting effects? I’m not telling. Do I actually know the answer to this question? I’m not telling that either! I decided to end the fight after they’d destroyed the 5 cement zombies I sent for them by sending hundreds more cement zombies after them. They wisely retreated back to the Legion camp. Screaming the whole way. I decided to end the first session on a cliffhanger. They go back to camp, report that hundreds of cement zombies are chasing them, and they meet a cultist responsible for what happened to the town. He’s really sorry, and just as he starts to spill some of the larger beans about what’s happening, they hear the perimeter guards sounding their horns. The cement-zombie horde has come. (What’s the correct term for a group of cement-zombies? A mixer?)
As I said before, some of the stuff I’m doing is simply so I can try out new stuff. It was definitely not lost on me that the Legion is a place I could try out the new Soldiers of Fortune book by Matt James. It has some stuff in it about how to handle large-scale combat and how to make your militia more militia-y. Since there’s a whole mixer of cement-zombies coming, I’ll be reading up on that in-depth in the slightly-over-a-week I have to plan for the next session. I’ll be sure to report my findings here.
When it was all over, I am pleased to say everyone seemed to have a really good time. Personally, I was exhausted, but all I could think to myself is how much I’d missed playing D&D. There were a few bumpy spots, for sure, but I’d say any game where more than one person tells you they’re looking forward to the next game can’t be a total disaster. I think next time, I’m going to try to take it off the rails a little more and plan a few more places they can go in a relatively shallow depth. I’m also not sure if I sort of ruined the magic a little by telling one of my players how I reskinned a zombie. As exciting as it is for me to talk to other people and share this brand new thing I’m playing with, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s sense of immersion. That’s something I’ll likely need to watch in this column, as well. Although honestly, I’m not sure what effect the Carrot Cake Colossus is going to have on anyone’s suspension of disbelief.