Box Out Of Hell 2: Back Into The Box

Our last D&D session went a bit different from the usual. For most groups, that might mean stepping out of the box a little and trying something weird. For my players, it meant riding in a Toyota Camry on a very straight stretch of interstate back to Normaltown. For the first time in our group’s history, we switched over from homebrewed adventures crafted from the seat of my very pants over to pre-made adventures done by Real Professionals. Of course it didn’t go quite as planned.

Transitioning Is The Most Painful Stage

There was one teensy problem with switching gears into pre-published materials: we weren’t just making a clean break. It had been several weeks since we’d played last and nobody could remember most of the details anyway, so I approached my group beforehand and asked if they’d like to incorporate this shiny cool thing full of death and mayhem that I just got into our existing campaign. Everybody seemed pretty OK with the death and mayhem, so I set about carefully tying the hooks to that adventure into the endcap of the story arc my players were just finishing up.

Things started a little odd. We ended the previous session on a cliffhanger, with our gnome assassin hurtling through the air at the fabled Boogeyman (the Big Bad of the campaign), and it seemed a fight was about to begin. That player had to drop out of the group for awhile due to Family Stuff, and the rest of the group didn’t really want to fight, so we retconned slightly. Instead, I paralyzed all the players via magical fear (and DM fiat) and had the Boogeyman deliver a Bond-villain “reveal his dark plans to the hero” speech. I wish I’d done that differently. I just sort of picked everything up and put it like a toy train back on these makeshift rails I threw together. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It always seems like a good idea at the time.

Then I unraveled the villain’s plans in the most sensible way possible. They were all trapped in the pocket dimension nightmares come from, and he’d opened a portal to the good ol’ Prime Material. Then, I had the owlbears dressed at the Fruit of the Loom Guys that our wizard… shall we say produced in our previous session wander through the portal. And since they were made of Pure Elemental Chaos, I had them basically infect reality on both sides of the portal – which promptly began tearing itself apart. Now I had something for the PCs to go fix, and I decided to point all the leads to go fix it into this horrible place nobody ever should go. A place which, by some cosmic happenstance, has already been described in great detail to the powers that be. Maps, even.

Let me say, at this point, that my players are saints. They just like playing and hanging out and they are very forgiving souls — which is good because each and every one of them has an internal high-sensitivity BS detector that works at a range of 10 kilometers. I am happy that I let everyone know in advance that we were switching to a dungeon module because I realized far too late that I’d left a few holes in my integration of this new plot. It all starts with one player asking a question because something doesn’t quite make sense. Then another jumps in, and another. I backpedaled for about thirty seconds, and then I decided it was time to stop digging myself into a deeper hole and fessed up. “Hey, you guys remember how we’re going to be playing in a module this session? You have found the seam between the plots!

They rolled with it.

Unaccustomed To Order

The first thing that caught me off guard about running pre-made stuff was that, well, there’s a lot of stuff to go over. I took a few nights before the session to read the module, but I wasn’t ready when it was time. I’m not sure if I just wasn’t focusing on the right parts, but I was pretty overwhelmed. It really underscored for me just how little I was preparing for each session before and the associated costs to my campaign. There wasn’t a whole lot of attention to detail in my game up to this point. Plot was sketched out in advance, but there were times that I was creating battlemaps on the fly. I’m not sure I like having everything set in stone, but having everything set a little more firmly might be good. Maybe I’ll set the basilisk on “stun” or something.

There was plenty of backstory to be read, which I found really interesting and it put me in the mood of the place, but I was (correctly) worried that I was going to forget the names of all these awesome people. It wound up that I even forgot to introduce some of them. I kept getting tripped up on when to read blocks of character text and when to improvise. At one point, I also broke into an accent I make when I critically fail trying to speak in character (a mix between Apu from the Simpsons and Hank Hill from King of the Hill). Despite these difficulties, this was sort of my comfort zone. I like roleplaying and story. They’re my favorite.

The real bumps in the road hit when it was actual dungeon-crawl time. I’d read the descriptions of each room in advance, and reading the blocks of in-game text to the players left them with a decent understanding of what was in them. However, it seems that at some point I traded all my cartography skills to a gypsy in exchange for being able to name all the enemies in The Legend of Zelda. This didn’t really surprise me. I am a man who has gotten lost with the aid of a GPS system. I couldn’t figure out a way to describe to the players where all the exits to the room were, a problem which was solved via drawing on a battlemat — except for when I misread the map about a dozen times and wound up redrawing doors and telling players “actually, the noise came from there instead”.

I found it really strange that this problem in particular brought back memories from high school during my first D&D sessions. I can remember running a Ravenloft adventure for my friend and having a disconnect in my head between the block text and the map. I remember describing a room to him solely in terms of where the doors were. “There are 2 on the east wall and one on the south.” Then he’d complain that he didn’t know what was in the room, so I’d read him the block text and the map was erased in my head by the time I was done. I’m assuming it was Vancian cartography. I also find it interesting that I haven’t been frustrated in this particular way much during D&D since those days — because none of my DM’s since have been big on pre-made materials or locations with complex maps. Almost everything we did was homebrewed. It really shouldn’t surprise me that there’s a learning curve.

I will say that having stat blocks for monsters and items already made up was awesome. Being fairly confident that they will be balanced – also awesome. Much better than throwing a bunch of monsters at your party and worrying that some of them will have to suffer Mysterious Heart Failure lest the party die in round 3.

As American As THAC0 Pie

Bumps aside, the whole experience had me wallowing about in nostalgia for my old 1e/2e days. The adventure we played felt like the ones I used to play: much more localized to itself and not necessarily part of some wild larger story arc. It’s wonderful, classic, old school D&D, and it was a really nice change of pace from what we usually do. One of my players, who had not played D&D before this year, told me this was his vision of what D&D was before he started. (He did say he liked what we usually do. My ego was spared. For now.)

As I told my players, I think what we’re going to wind up doing for awhile is this premade stuff – but with some occasional homebrew thrown in for extra flavor. I like the stability of this new setting, but I’ve set things up for some semi-frequent weirdness up pretty well (what with reality tearing itself asunder).

I still think I like things a bit more loose and from my own imagination, but I only spent a few hours with this thing and I can already see some stuff I want to work on. I think this is gonna work out just fine.

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  1. Good post. I agree that the issue of railroading can be problematic when switching to a new module, but fortunately in my experience most players will play along to an extent. In the game I’m currently a player in, the DM actually sent out an email between sessions asking us which hook we were going to take. In this case there were several different possible adventures, but he just wanted to know which one to prepare for. Once the session came he pretty much jumped us straight into the story. Technically a railroad at that point (we were theorhetically at a point where we could have backed out) but one that was perfectly acceptable in my book.

    In any event, hope your game continues to go well.

  2. Before my session, I copy the maps from the modules onto 30×27 gridded easel paper from Staples. Lets me take my time, saves time at the table, and makes it easy to revisit old sections of the dungeon. I also find that traps feel a lot fairer when you are constantly on the battle mat and in the initiative system.

    I’m not really a fan of underpants on owlbears myself, so I’m glad to see you exposing yourself to other people’s DMing style.

  3. I recommend… that you keep winging it. (I regularly had similar trouble to you.)

    Take the module… sketch out the plot, and use some simple point form notes on each room. What you really need is a ‘goal’ for any encounter. i.e. Why are we here? What are we learning?

    Think about movies… although they kind of spoon feed you, there’s no reasonable way for many people to understand what is coming next without being shown a bit first. Why was the skull of Taruk Makto shown early in Avatar? So they could use it as a plot item later…

    I find that there are sometimes errors in the ‘readme’ text, and often its hard to match up what is being said to the room. But knowing things point form makes it easy to wing it;
    A) There are three Goblins in the Room
    B) There is a skittering sound like rats in the middle
    C) There is the sound of sobbing coming from the far right door
    A) Big Goblin has a key

    I can pretty much draw a room and invent a description based on what I know, and how the players choose to enter. (Not all players forthrightly force their way in, or use the correct door.)

    When I ran Keep on the Shadow Fell, the players found the secret side door to the Goblin lair. They then dispatched the leader in 1 round. I also had to invent a ‘military style’ assault on the players as the remaining Goblins formed up and charged in. Descriptions and tactics as described were all wrong for my adventure.