Dungeons and Design part 1: Hawks can’t spot traps

Recently some friends and I decided to try Dungeons and Dragons (fourth edition, Planescape setting) for the first time. As usual, no-one wanted to be the DM, so I volunteered, and I’m glad I did. Running these adventures has given me a lot of insight into game design and how to deal with players, including pointing out some things I really should have known already. So I’ve decided to write a little about each session, and the stark contrast between what I planned and what actually happened.

NB: We’re using Roll20, an awesome online tabletop website, to run our games.

The Cast

Tom Senior – Fox Hengeyukai Ranger – Loves eating chickens
Chris – Warforged Fighter – Crap at jokes
Chimp – Earth Genasi Warlord – Budding communist
Simon – Tiefling Wizard – Probably evil
Miles – Gnomish Bard – Master of the filthy limerick

How I planned it

Starting adventures are hard, especially when your players are like mine. During our various attempts to play other RPGs, I’d noticed they had a definite tendency to disagree and bicker about the next course of action, sometimes for up to half an hour. In character disagreements are lovely and flavourful, but none of us have the free time to run four or five hour sessions any more, so I wanted to keep things snappy. There’s also a second problem. My group contains another games journalist and at least one veteran RPG enthusiast, so running them all through a linear plot was out of the question, unless I wanted a scathing review. On the other hand, this would be my first time DMing, and their first time playing D&D, so I really didn’t want to juggle a million different possible outcomes.

The solution was a prison break. The characters would begin in a planar prison, captured by the Warden to be used as slave labour. Exactly how they got there, and if they were guilty or innocent, was up to them. Those players who have just arrived will be dumped into the prison yard and pointed towards the ‘escape committee’ (the other players) if they want to break free. Thus their natural desire for freedom would force them into my linear story! Mwhahaha!

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The session starts in a sandbox fashion by letting them loose in the prison yard. Around the area I’ve placed various plot hooks, mostly skill tests and conversations, that could be used to aid in their escape. There was a crooked guard, two rival gangs, an crazy wizard, a kobold building a tunnel and lots more. Whichever path they chose would eventually funnel them into the armoury, letting them pick up their equipment and fight some guards. After that there’s a quick jaunt down a trap filled hallway to confront the Warden and use his portal to break free.

At least that’s the plan. Freedom of approach in the first half, flowing into a more linear adventure.

How it went

Letting the players loose in the yard early may seem cool from a game design perspective, but it doesn’t mesh well with the improvisational theatre side of role playing games. I essentially took a bunch of nervous novice actors and pushed them out on stage without any direction. The result was a somewhat awkward meet and greet, followed by some confusion as to where to take the conversation, before eventually settling down to business.

Once that happened, things improved. The players were instantly drawn to the crazy wizard, mostly because there was a clear visual clue on the map at his location. After some debate as to how sensible it was to let him out, they eventually succeeded in releasing his bonds and inciting the gangs into a riot, giving them plenty of cover to escape.

This is where things get interesting. Realising that the guards would have the keys to the armoury, they decided that instead of using Tom S’s prodigious thievery skills to pickpocket one, which is what I expected, they’d instead have Chimp use his Earth Genasi powers to thump the walls they were patrolling until one of them fell off. I’d given them six ways out, and they’d chosen number seven. Welcome to D&D.

A less successful bit of improvisation came with the trapped corridor. Instead of simply using perception to detect traps, they elected to send Miles’ pet hawk flying across. Unsurprisingly it failed to warn them about the myriad pressure plates, tripwires and pit traps I’d installed beforehand. Better luck next time guys.

Once the linear plot and combat had kicked in, people loosened up and had more fun with their characters. Particularly Chris, Chimp and Miles, all of whom integrated their character quirks into combat as well as conversation. Miles referred to a build your own Shakespearean insult kit whenever he used his ‘vicious mockery’ power, while Chris punctuated his victories with failed attempts at action movie one liners, explaining that as a Warforged (magic robot), he didn’t understand humour.

Eventually the escape was successful, and the players tumbled through the portal to beyond, but not before giving me a lot to think about.

Best Moments

  • Chimp decides to use self help slogans for his ‘inspiring words’.
  • Miles critically bluffs a prison gang with an obscene limerick, inciting a riot.
  • The group’s reaction when Simon decides to set a crazy homicidal wizard free.

Lessons learnt

  • I can improvise dialogue okay, but big speeches, like the one by the Warden at the start of this session, should be pre-written.
  • Combat loosens people up for roleplaying. I should consider starting in combat next time and having the conversation in the middle.
  • Story hooks are more likely to be spotted if there’s a visual clue for them on the map.

Questions raised

  • Will the group stay together now they’ve escaped the prison?
  • How do I persuade Tom S, who mostly just fights things, to do some more roleplaying?

Next Time: Where does the portal lead? No seriously I haven’t decided yet.