In early March of 2011, at the PAX East gaming conference, Wizards of the Coast sponsored the second annual PAX East Dungeon Master’s Challenge. Three weeks earlier, those who signed up received their instructions for the competition. Each of them would be required to bring a unique level 8 adventure with a dragon as the main antagonist along with all of the tools, props, and pre-generated characters needed to run the game. Dave Chalker (who won last year), Tracy Hurley, and I all joined in a group of perhaps fifteen dungeon masters for the competition.
The players of each adventure scored the competition based on the following criteria:
- Fun Factor
In the end Matt Brenner took away the prize and title as Champion Dungeon Master.
When I found out that I hadn’t even been in the top three winning dungeon masters, I was, of course, filled with a seething hatred and burning rage capable of sucking the entire convention center into the great black hole now left in my heart. Knowing, however, that I was in the very good company of Dave and Tracy, however, made it a little easier.
I could have held on to that seething rage but such rage benefits no one. Instead of exploding like a Peter Petrelli atom bomb, I decided to follow Sylar’s route. I would find this dungeon master, slice open his skull, and draw his champion DM powers out for myself.
OK, that’s not exactly true. Instead I would find this champion DM and interview him for all of us to learn from his background and his experience. What I found was a dungeon master who truly went over the top to build his award winning game.
Now let’s sit back and learn what Matt Brenner has to say about his gaming background and what he did to build his champion adventure.
Critical Hits: How and when did you get started with Dungeons and Dragons?
Matt Brenner: I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in the early 90’s. My school library had a few of the solo-play novels that existed at the time, and they were really popular among the guys in my class. After that, one of my buddies got a copy of the old Basic Set, and we’d take turns playing and DMing. Being maybe twelve years old at the time, most of our adventures involved overpowered magic items and pretty ladies. It wasn’t mature, but it was great fun for a couple of dumb adolescents.
CH: Do you run a home game? How often and what’s it about?
MB: I run one campaign at home with two different sets of players using a house ruled 4e conversion of the Birthright campaign setting. Like many groups, we don’t get to play as much as we’d like, but we still make it happen. One party plays about every other week for about three hours on a week-night, and the other plays one or two times a month for a full Saturday or Sunday.
One of the core fundamentals of the Birthright setting is that is allows players to rule nations, churches, and trading empires. The heroes in my game are not quite there yet, but they are showing some clear ambitions, so I expect that is where the campaign will go in time. The overarching plot of the campaign is only starting to come into focus, but it will be heavily influenced by player action. The games I run tend to involve a great deal of sandbox play, so I look forward to seeing what the heroes end up doing.
CH: How did you prepare for the Dungeon Master’s Challenge at PAX East?
MB: I wanted to write a great adventure, but I also understood that play would, by necessity, be somewhat rushed and linear to fit in a four to six hour slot. I could not play to some of my strengths as a DM in this environment, so I made sure to make up for it by paying attention to the details. All of my dungeon tiles were mounted to black foam core, just to make it look much nicer. I only fielded monsters and heroes I had miniatures for, so I could avoid the old, “This goblin is actually a gnoll,” problem.
I feel like it’s hard to jump into any character for just one session, never mind an 8th level character, so I made up detailed folders for each character. I tried to design a party whose powers worked well together, and I gave each player a one sheet summary of their character including motivations, relationships within the party, and recommended tactics for combat. Each character also had nicely printed name tent so they could identify each other easier. The best piece of each character pack, however, was a simple white envelope with instructions written on the outside, detailing when it should be opened. These envelopes contained new information about the character that the player would need in specific circumstances. This little bit of mystery went a long way to influence the adventure.
I think the character folders were the best thing I did for the challenge, but what got the most attention was the flight grid and cliff face I built for the climactic dragon encounter. The flight grid I built was very similar to the one recently featured by TheSheDM on NewbieDM.com, and the cliff was made from many layers of the good old pink foam used by all sorts of miniature war gamers.
Finally, I play tested this adventure twice with my players at home. They provided me with some really quality feedback that helped me to tweak things as needed.
CH: Tell us about your award winning adventure.
MB: I didn’t want to take a lot of time setting up a complex story, so I began with a simple goal – Astriak is an evil dragon and you should kill him. Without the time to set up a really complex, multi-faceted narrative, I still wanted to provide the players with a robust experience. This lead me to designing a fairly insidious dungeon with a hefty nod to the “fourthcore” mentality. The encounters are fairly heavy with traps and terrain that rely on a good bit of critical thinking, rather than just dice rolls, to navigate successfully.
The first two combat encounters use very basic dungeon tile layouts, with the real challenge coming from fighting in confined spaces, hidden traps, and monster synergy. This pattern changes dramatically in the third and final encounter, which begins mostly as a wide open space as the heroes confront Astriak. This encounter is very dynamic, however, as Astriak can litter the battlefield with hazards, and his attacks become more powerful and varied the more he is damaged. By the end of the encounter, the surviving heroes pretty much had to scale the cliff face at one of the room to stay off the now highly dangerous cavern floor.
All in all, the adventure would probably have been neat, but fairly bland without something else to really spice it up. Since I couldn’t take lots of time to provide the heroes with complex decisions to be made during the crawl, I instead planted seeds of tension and PC interaction within each character’s handout. The envelopes I mentioned above also changed the flavor of the story when some of them were triggered. In the final stages of the fight, some character motivations changed and provided the opportunity for the adventure to revolve around more than just killing a dragon.
I have received requests on Twitter for a copy of the adventure. I will make the whole thing available for free in the coming weeks, once I have had a chance to finish writing and formatting it so other people can run it.
CH: How did the adventure go? How did the players seem to like it?
MB: I was very happy with how the adventure ran. Behind the screen, everything ran smooth as silk, thanks to the early play tests. The players seemed to really enjoy trying to piece together how the traps worked, and they looked especially giddy when they almost bluffed their way through an entire encounter. The fight against Astriak got a bit tense towards the end, but they appeared to be thrilled to pull off a win with defeat so close.
It was fun to have a group of players that enjoys their role playing, but still can dive into tactical combat as well. In this way my players were very similar to my gaming groups at home, so it was an easy fit.
CH: Did you do anything special with the pregenerated characters?
MB: I put a lot of effort into my characters. I wanted a really classic feel to my adventure, so I used races and classes that have been ubiquitous across Dungeons and Dragons settings over the years. Instead of trying to come up with “neat” character concepts, I spent time trying to have the characters feel more real, choosing character powers to match their personalities as well as their relationships to the other party members. For example, a husband, his wife, and her brother made up half the party. Both the husband and the brother had powers that worked well with the wife/sister in combat, but not so well with each other – I wanted to stress the jealousy between the two. The eladrin wizard was written to often feel like an outsider to the rest of the party, so his powers did not rely heavily on the actions of the other heroes. Each character was crafted to have its place in the party both tactically and narratively.
Each character folder had the following items in it:
- The character sheet printed from the online character builder
- A name tent so everyone could remember each other’s name’s easily
- A one page sheet detailing the character’s mindset, his or her feelings about others in the party, and recommended tactics to use in combat
- A special “In the event that . . .” envelope
The “In the event that . . .” envelopes were the real highlight of the characters, at least to me. If the circumstances on the outside of the envelope came to pass (e.g. “In the event that a Total Party Kill seems imminent . . .” or, “In the event that the party turns on itself . . .”) then the player was to open the envelope and read its contents. Everyone has secrets, and this was a chance for those secrets and other influences to shift the intra-party interactions part way through the adventure.
CH: You received a perfect score from your players, what do you think pushed you over the top?
MB: My players were very clear that they appreciated the attention I paid to detail when crafting the adventure. Dungeon tiles were mounted on foam core and looked really snazzy. Every character and every monster had an appropriate mini. They liked the characters so much that they asked to keep them! If there was something I did that sealed the deal it was preparation.
CH: What three tips do you have for future champion DMs?
MB: First, remember that no matter how good your work is, much of your score is based on luck of the draw. I happened to get a group that liked my style of play, and we hit it off like old friends from the beginning. With another group, I might not have fared nearly so well.
Second, put a lot of prep work into the adventure; the details do matter. While it might be easy to fly by the seat of your pants for your weekly game (we all do it!), the players coming to the DM Challenge really expect to be wowed by your efforts. Give them your best, and they will notice.
Third, keep in mind that fun is the name of the game. Go ahead and write in tension between the heroes in your party, but make sure that it is FUN tension. Your dragon can be a totally killer, unfair monster, like mine was, if it is FUN to fight. Sit back, laugh, and joke around with the players. No one wants a sour Dungeon Master – you can know the rules and still be a jovial person. The players will enjoy themselves if your table is fun to play at, and you will too.
I want to thank Matt Brenner for taking the time and energy to talk to us here at Critical Hits. Now, with his valuable secrets laid bare, he will no doubt face an even greater challenge next time! Congratulations again to Matt on a well-deserved victory.