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Running a High-Level D&D Campaign

I’m usually running at least one RPG campaign at any given time. The precise game varies widely, I write up my own settings and rules sometimes, and I even mock up my own game systems. The last few years, however, have been devoted to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which I think is the best version of the game to date. I originally had plans to run three campaigns, all set in the world of Greyhawk immediately following the end of the Greyhawk Wars. The first two are over and now I’m on the third. This campaign follows not new heroes, not young up-and-comers, not ambitious rookies – this game is about old, war-scarred veterans getting together to save the world one last time.

A bunch of bad-asses, in other words.

In other words, it’s a high level campaign. Players begin play at 12th level and I expect them to go as high as 18th, maybe even 19th level.

I wanted to do this simply because this so rarely happens. Most of us start play at 1st (maaybe 2nd or 3rd level) scrabble our way to 10th, maybe 12th, and by that time (after years of gameplay has gone by), everybody gets tired and all the PCs get retired and you either start over or play a whole new game in some other system/setting. This time, though, I wanted to focus exclusively on the craziness that can be a high-level campaign. To get it to work, however, required some planning.

These People Are Not New

The first thing I decided was important was to make sure the characters’ in-game history was in place. These are not people coming from nowhere and encountering a totally new world – these are mighty heroes who once walked these very lands, probably shaping them into what they are now. That needed to be represented. Accordingly, character creation was a 4 session process (yes – 4 sessions) wherein I had the players go around and describe to one another their early adventures, how they met up, what kinds of successes and failures they had, and how they ultimately broke up as a group before the game began.

The purpose of this was to build-in history for the players to riff off of. There is rarely a village they’re going to go to that they haven’t been before, there is no king who doesn’t know their names – all of that needs to be ingrained in the players’ minds. It takes a lot of work to get players in a place where they feel comfortable in the world they’re inhabiting, and all that backstory helped us build it.

This leads to how I handled Character Traits/Flaws/Ideals and so on: titles. For each stage of life, the PC’s actions earned them a title which has followed them for the rest of their lives. So, we have Severus Manhunter, whom the elves call “the Mortal Fool” for his decades-long romance with a forbidden elf maid and also Miles Maywater the Ungrateful, the Hound of Veluna – the world’s most famous “noble” assassin/monk. This kind of texture, I think, has gone a long way to making this game cool.

The PCs Can Take It

There really isn’t that much I can’t sic on my players that they can’t handle, and that’s fun. The amount of damage they can dish out (and take) is really impressive. Their first encounter? 50 orcs, 10 orogs, an ork shaman, a merrow, and a succubus all catching them in an ambush on a river boat. There were four players – a ranger, an assassin, a warlock, and a bard. They should be screwed, right?

Wrong! They slaughtered just about every single one of those jokers and only one of their own was hurt enough to require significant healing magic.

Hell, I had them take on an adult Black Dragon in her lair and they won (if barely)! This campaign has been worth the time if only for that one encounter!

Indeed, suddenly the entire Monster Manual is open to me (well…not the Tarrasque) – this party can drop dice with the best of them, freeing up what happens on a grand scale. In fact, part of the premise of the whole campaign is that they need to kill a demigod.

The Conflict Is Not From the Monsters

The fact that these PCs are all such powerhouses, however, means that the conflict isn’t just “can we survive the Fire Giant’s Castle,” because it’s very clear that they can. Conflicts suddenly involve not killing things as often as killing things. As major regional players, they have influence and reputations to safeguard, they have decades of history (and old feuds) to make them squabble, and they have old enemies that know them as well as they know themselves. While this campaign is certainly not going to become Game of Thrones, it is really fun that survival isn’t the primary driving force – it is success, and the argument over what constitutes success is the central conflict. One of their old friends – their dearest confidant – has gone missing and they have been left a note by her to not seek to save her, but instead complete her last mission. Will they do it? Can they? Predictably, two of the party want to complete the mission, the other two want to find their friend. When will the conflict come to a head?

A Seat At the Table

As mighty heroes, the PCs are also now peers with most of the people in campaigns that spend their time bossing lesser PCs around. That king wants you to do something? Tell him no. Is he seriously going to come for a dragonslayer? Nope. No he isn’t.

And that, in and of itself, is freeing for the PCs! They don’t need to be second banana. They don’t need to go find Gandalf to save their asses – they are Gandalf! They’re the big fish and they get to chart their own destiny, whatever that is. So, when it comes time to save the world, they don’t need to have the cavalry swoop in and defeat the grand evil at the last minute (as so many campaigns have done in the past) – they strike the deathblow, they create the ritual to close the hellmouth, they are the ones holding all the cards and distributing all the secrets.

Pretty cool, right?

Of course, doing this requires me to be very flexible and willing to allow the players to break things. It means putting them in a position of power and really letting them exercise that power. Not all DMs are comfortable with that, but I think it can be a really exciting experience for both players and DMs to try out.

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That Edge Between Doom and Boredom

This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:

  1. The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
  2. The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).

Sometimes I don’t even get that.

Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.

So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.

Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.

I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.

It ain’t easy, though.

The Halls of Ignominious PC Death

Oooo! Spooky!

Oooo! Spooky!

Last night I finished up my involvement in a D&D campaign run by my friend, Fish. It ended poorly for my wizard, the elderly Baltigast – he took a pair of bad draws from a Deck of Many Things as a last ditch effort to recover his lost power and prestige, and instead wound up a toothless old madman without a penny to his name. Ah well.

Tomorrow, I start running my own D&D campaign (which was the reason I left Fish’s game – I like running better than playing, and I can’t wait anymore). So, today, in memory of those PCs who came to bad ends and in anticipation of those PCs who are going to, let me tell you some stories about the miserable ends some of my players have fallen victim to over my 23 year history of running RPGs.

In no particular order:

Barooza, 3rd Level Half-Orc Berzerker, Amedio Jungle, Oerth

Barooza foolishly drank an Elixir of Madness, making him…unreasonable. An unreasonable berserker in a dungeon crawl is a dangerous prospect, and so the other players tied him up. Now, however, they had a thrashing, 250lbs half-orc to carry around, and nobody felt up to it. “Hey,” said the pirate, “I’ve got this Bag of Holding! We can just stuff him inside and carry him around!”

Yeah, that Bag of Holding? Actually a Bag of Devouring. They stuffed poor Barooza in head-first, and he only had time to scream once before he was consumed by an extra-dimensional predator. Bummer of a way to go.

Wheeler, 5th Level Mage, Crystalmist Mountains, Oerth

The party was in a large, hollow tower. They could scale the walls up to the top, but the walls were crawling with nasty critters that would try to eat them. The alternative? Well, Wheeler wanted to levitate straight up the middle of the tower and, once he reached the walkway at the top, he could let down several coils of rope for the rest of the PCs to scale. The trouble, of course, was they hadn’t really done the math on how far Wheeler could levitate for the duration of the spell and whether that would be sufficient time to reach the walkway. It was not – he came in ten feet shy. He then fell a couple hundred feet to his death. At least the prophet at the top was good enough to resurrect him.

Mac, Sergeant, Xplore Corporation, Abandoned Eridani War Cruiser, Fornax Galaxy

The party was being shot at from the floor below by war bots that were pumping plasma up through the deck plating, leaving molten holes in the steel floor. Mac attempted to drop a grenade through one such hole, but instead of dropping it through, he decided this was the time to play a game of hoops. He shot from half-court, the grenade took a very bad bounce, and landed at his feet. Boom. His internal organs were pulped, and so ended Mac.

Nameless XF Inc Mercenary, US Naval Base, Lone Wolf Planetoid, Wolf-359

So, after attacking an armored US Marine with a kitchen knife (and barely surviving), he and his compatriot were cut off in the detention wing of the facility, with their only possible escape route being a cargo elevator. Into the cramped elevator they crammed and slowly began to ascend to the laundry room, however, the marines had reached the elevator and were guiding it back down. The elevator was a cage, and there was just enough room to stick a pistol out to maybe shoot out the counter weights to release the elevator. The other guy took the shot. After much random ricocheting, the bullet hit the mercenary between the eyes.

Major Russ Carmady, Olympus, Groomsbridge 1619

Major Russ was a big fan of planning out his defenses, so when they landed to secure a drop zone on a strange alien planet, he ordered the whole area littered with antipersonnel mines – just in case, you know? Cut to a few days later, when they are being bombarded from orbit by a Chinese battlecruiser and actual extraterrestrials are about to storm their base, and what does Russ elect to do? Well, he obviously can’t be captured, so he makes a run for it. This was my question:

So, do you remember where you placed your own mines?

No. No he did not. Kablooey.

Got any other ridiculous tales of PCs’ untimely demises? Share them here!


Publicity News

Say, did you miss my last book signing? Feel guilty? Well, have I got some good news for you! I will be doing another book signing at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston this coming Saturday, 5/30, from 2pm to 4pm. I will be signing copies of the Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, so come on down!

No, seriously, come on down. I don’t want to be lonely. I want the nice people at Barnes and Nobel to appreciate my business. I’ll have cookies and stuff. Just show up and let me scribble on your book!

Return From the Edition Wars

Pictured: My friends and I. Guess who I am.

Pictured: My friends and I. Guess who I am.

Once, in the dim mists of the past century, there was a glorious world wrought by the wizard Gygax. Deep dungeons, dark evils, and boundless adventure awaited those who journeyed there. The realm flourished and grew – Castle Greyhawk was joined by a vast world. Still more worlds came into being, each orbiting each other in the prosperous Prime Material Plane – Toril, Krynn, Sigil, and others. Sailing ships powered by bright magicks plied the Phlogiston between them. Heroes propagated by the millions.

In this bygone era, I was a ruler of such worlds. I wrought such wonders that those who found them were awestruck, and I laid such miseries upon the land that my name was spoken only as a curse. Heroes flourished beneath my gaze and I, myself, journeyed oft into the worlds of others to earn my own fortune.

But all was not well. The Worlds laid out by mighty Gygax were governed by irrational structures and fundamental laws. Though we of the People were well accustomed to their Byzantine vagaries, it was decided by gods more powerful than ourselves that a new age should dawn – one where the fundamental systems of the world were more logical, more sensible. So it was. But with this change came other, less positive changes. With the dawning of this new era, the worlds themselves – the ones I had walked for many years – grew stale and old. New worlds, made to replace the old, were pale shadows of what had come before. The gods who inherited the world from Gygax withered as their followers left and pursued other dreams and other worlds. I was among them, having grown weary of the dusty worlds of Gygax and hungry for new and greater adventures.

At length, starved of worship, those ancient gods died off.

Then came the New Gods – great gatherers of many-colored magicks, and wise in the ways of managing such worlds as Gygax had created. Or so we thought. They brought in a new era, one where the old systems were wiped away and replaced with a new one, so unlike the original that it was scarcely recognizable. Though still more streamlined and efficient than the old ways, it still lacked the life and vitality that Gygax had originally intended. It was solid, workmanlike, but hardly inspiring. I, from my seclusion in the far off worlds of Master Laws and Lord Wick, did not return. 

But lo, a new age hath dawned. The 5th iteration of mighty Gygax’s legacy has arrived, and a return to those halcyon days of yore may be at hand. I have heard the silver trumpets; I have answered the call. After long ages, I have taken up my staff and my sword and come to travel this new world. I will see if it is as I remember. If so, it may be that my ancient empire will once again flourish. Let heroes beware…