Category Archives: The Master of Disaster

TMoD: Reroll – The End of Everything

“I just want to feel the sun on my — well, I just want to see the sun for once.” Wrapping the arm of a legless warforged over her shoulders, she and the remainder of the party made their way to the outside of the facility to get a view of the landscape. They placed the unnamed bot down, leaned it up against the base of a statue to a long forgotten god, and let them bask in the sunlight for the first time in its life. They sat beside it and silently enjoyed the moment with it, admiring the sprawling outdoor vista through the lens of someone who had never had the privilege to do so before. The light flickered and faded from its eyes, and the bot slumped slightly to the side — motionless.

“This sucks,” said one of my players, breaking the silence.

It did suck. That was the point. We had spent a massive portion of our campaign inside of a place that was supposed to be miserable and oppressive, but I was never able to truly make things feel as bleak as I wanted it to. But right there, right at the end of our campaign, I was able to gut-punch them real good.

But the truth of the matter is that I also gut-punched myself, because I realized that moment was the last non-combat thing they were going to do before they sailed off into the final encounter. I’m proud to know that the last role-playing moment they’d have was seeing their characters finally experience sadness, which is a huge accomplishment for me. Bittersweet as it is, this marks the end of our Eberron campaign.

As of writing this, we still haven’t actually done the final battle, but we have exhausted all of my prepared content, something I thought I’d never actually be able to confidently say. I’ve tinkered and fiddled with the final session plan over and over and finally have it at a place that I’m satisfied with, but I still wonder if it’s going to be good enough?

Did I make good on the story? Did I help the characters grow? Have I accounted for every plot point I put forward over the course of the past two years? Definitely not that last one, but even if I somehow did I still would be tense at the very notion that this thing is finally ending.

I think what I’m going to miss the most about our campaign is the world that we crafted together. Our version of Eberron was fairly by the book when we started, but the story and the player’s actions have so dramatically changed the world around them, that it’s going to be really tough going back to a vanilla setting that my players haven’t thoroughly sullied. I’m positive that whatever we do next will get just as filthy, if not more so than our Eberron world, but it’s going to take time.

I don’t know about my players, but there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in this final session for me and I don’t know how to process it at the moment. This is by far the longest creative project I’ve ever worked on, and to finally be able to complete it is a massive accomplishment for me. It makes me wish I had been documenting our journey better, something I’m considering doing for our next endeavor.

Ultimately, I’m not looking for my players to have an epiphany or anything from the conclusion of this campaign, but I am curious to see how they react. This is the ending their characters have earned, and I hope that what I’ve prepared for them meets at least some of their expectations. Although, all of this could be for nothing considering they still have to survive my devious gauntlet. So maybe the ending they earn could be a shitty one, and that’s on them — mostly.

TMoD: Reroll – Invested

From plot inconsistencies to rule clarifications, there are a ton of pressure points that have popped up over the course of every campaign I’ve run, but for the most part any obstacle in a TTRPG can be addressed if given enough time. We can take a brief pause to look up a rule for more clarification or we can stop to discuss how a plot point is at odds with some previously established lore, but the one thing we can’t easily address is a player’s level of investment in what’s happening in the game, and that can be a problem.

For the uninitiated, I’ve been running my players through an Eberron campaign that started with their characters living normal lives in the big city, but has evolved into exploring the Mournlands, a zone of wild magic where incomprehensible horrors exist. I tried to make it a point to not just throw bigger and badder enemies at them in an attempt to emphasize how bad this place is, cause that’s not really interesting or apt to what the area is about. Instead, I’ve genuinely tried to put them in challenging positions where they have to really consider their actions and choices, attempting to make situations less binary than they’ve been in the past.

Despite my best efforts however, when I asked them how their characters were holding up in a mental capacity, I was a little disappointed when some of the answers I got boiled down to, “I’m good.” Really? You’re just fine? I’ve been hitting your characters harder than ever, both in terms of battles and narrative content, but you’re good? Sure that’s deflating to find that my story and world-building haven’t done the trick, but maybe your characters are genuinely taking this whole situation in stride. Fine.

But that investment isn’t just limited to a player engaging with the content of the story, it’s also a question of if their character has any additional motivations outside of just, “defeating the bad guy.” We rarely explore all of the little lifestyle stuff that TTRPGs have to offer, nor does anyone really engage in a vice or follow up on personal quests, but that may just be a result of us having limited time from session to session. I get the idea of not wanting to feel like you’re monopolizing the session with some stuff that isn’t intrinsic to the plot, but some of the most interesting and memorable stuff happens in those moments. My players are more or less tethered to one another and act as a hivemind rather than individuals, although to be fair to them, there isn’t a whole lot else to do aside from experience anguish and suffering inside of the Mournlands.

I don’t want to sound overly negative because I do love my group, they just happen play the game a little differently than I was expecting. I think that part of it is the aforementioned short amount of time we have to play, and the other factor is that I don’t like juggling clocks and timers. Because of that, it ultimately allows them to pocket a bunch of quests and tackle them later like in a video game without much consequence, but that’s something I’m working to fix.

I also think it’s an issue of playing too meta. They know that splitting the party is dangerous and tend not to do it, especially considering I’ve used it against them before. I try to pull them apart from time to time, not just to hurt them, but because I want them to have a chance to act like fully realized characters with their own motivations and goals. I also think it makes for a more satisfying experience when you have some sort of emotional attachment to your character, but maybe that’s just me.

But maybe they are attached to their characters and are experiencing all of these things in their own way. This could be a situation where I’m expecting one thing and getting frustrated because I’m not getting the response I want. Regardless of how they react in-game, they keep showing up and keep wanting to play and make progress, so something must be clicking for them.

This all comes form a place of being hyper-critical of myself and I 100% recognize that. I desperately want to make sure that everyone is having fun, and in my mind that equates to them being invested in the story, their characters, the world and everything else that I’m invested in as the GM. But that isn’t how it works and it’s unrealistic to expect them to care as much as I do about this game that I spend way more time thinking about than they do.

To circle all the way back around to the thesis of this article, how do we address player investment when running a campaign? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a clean answer to that. I think, like most elements of TTRPGs, it depends on the people you’re playing with. Simply asking upfront, “what kind of game are you looking to play” might garner some actionable information, but your players might not know what it is they actually want until you’re several sessions into a campaign.

A player might come into a campaign thinking they want tons of role-playing opportunities or that they want to play a character that excels outside of combat, but they might find out that they really just wanna roll some dice and do bigger ouchies to their enemies, which is fine if they communicate that to you.

Like most relationships, communication is so critical to making sure everyone’s needs in a campaign are met. But when they don’t make a distinction one way or another about what they prefer, you’re left in this nebulous zone where you’re just hurling spaghetti at the wall, not even hoping that something sticks, but hoping that they’ll be somewhat interested in one of the piles that’s formed on the ground. A flawless metaphor, for sure.

Ultimately what I’m saying is that I keep trying to decipher what it is my players like so I can do more of that, but I feel like I’m misinterpreting what it is that they want more of and just try any and everything I can think of. The truth probably is that they just like the whole of the experience and are just happy to be playing at all, which is a heartwarming sentiment if true. But if that’s the case, that means they enjoy the fact that I have a small crisis every single time we play, which results in me second guessing myself constantly.

So maybe they just enjoy my suffering.

TMoD: Reroll – Derelict Worlds

I’m about two years into running my Eberron-themed D&D5e campaign which is finally nearing its conclusion, signifying not only the first long-term campaign I’ve ever run actually ending naturally as opposed to flaming out, but also represents the opportunity to start crafting our next adventure, or in my case the next several adventures.

I like crafting new worlds for every campaign that I run, preferably something that compliments and plays more of an active role in the storytelling rather than just operating as a backdrop. With Eberron, I was able to use the existing setting fairly well by having the players cross through into and explore the untamed arcane landscape known colloquially as The Mournlands. This area of the map is nebulous and not very well defined by design, allowing game masters to plug in whatever they like into that area, which I most definitely have.

I’d like to think I’ve been successful in cramming a somewhat compelling story to into the blanks that the book provides, but I’m still playing in someone else’s world and clashing with the rules therein. So I opt to build worlds of my own with histories and rules that I know because I’m making them up as I go along. If I don’t have an explicit answer for something that might come up while playing, I can confidently make something up without worrying too much if I’m contradicting some preestablished lore.

The problem is that I never seem to get too far in the construction of a world before getting distracted and moving onto something else. It’s resulted in at least a half-dozen derelict and malformed worlds that lack any real definition outside of one or two cities and some historical events. Sometimes there’s a map involved and sometimes there are even quests and characters, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten before I try to develop something in a completely different setting.

Most of the time I’m leaping from design to design based on some theme I’d like to play around in or some new mechanics I’ve found. Like when I finally received my copies of Orbital Blues and Death in Space, I was eager to craft a universe filled with planet-hopping adventures and rampant capitalism based oppression but flamed out on that when I realized that making an explorable universe is hard.

There was also the time where I replayed Red Dead Redemption 2 and was deeply inspired to create a wild west themed game, but I couldn’t find a set of mechanics I liked to match it, so that concept died on the vine and gave way to something else that I never finished. I think I also just wanted a game that allowed me to do a bunch of cowboy accents, which was a bigger part of my motivation than you’d think.

Cyber punk, solar punk, Victorian, high and low fantasy, modern day and so on and so forth, I’ve made and abandoned so many worlds and settings in favor of starting fresh with something else, all thanks to my ever wandering eye. I fully intend to finish at least one of these concepts if for no other reason than that I’ll eventually have to when it comes time to start something new, but until then these worlds can stay stagnant in the many, many Google Docs they’re spread across.

The Master of Disaster – Reroll

It’s been quite a while since last we gathered here, so I suppose introductions are in order. For those of you who are new and don’t remember what this was, The Master of Disaster is kind of the tabletop roleplaying game zone of The Bonus World where one could find various stories, recommendations and tips mostly surrounding Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, which is probably going to continue to be the case going forward in what I’m affectionately calling, The Master of Disaster: Reroll, or just Reroll for short.

Since we last spoke I’ve gone a little buck-wild in terms of buying new modules, supplements and games, all of which I have yet to read yet. When it comes to supplemental material, I started reading the new Spelljammer book in the hopes that it would provide for a more transformative D&D campaign, but the more I got into it the more I realized how little outside of a few new races and enemies was actually present. I was hoping for a more official version of SW5e, but Spelljammer turned out to be more flavor than substance, not actually adding any real mechanical differences to the world. It seemed like all the supplement did was add a new mode of transport that barely differentiates itself from sailing a boat.

Additionally, I started reading through Root: The Roleplaying Game and found a world and story that seemed wonderfully fleshed out with some adorable and charming artwork, but didn’t excite me from a mechanics standpoint. Root: The Roleplaying Game places a big emphasis on managing faction reputation which seems like it could be fun for certain gameplay groups, but I don’t think mine would be onboard with that, nor would I want to really have to keep track of it. I wish that I could just get a Root: The Roleplaying Game supplement for 5e so I could enjoy that world using mechanics I was more comfortable with.

I also backed Orbital Blues, a game that describes itself as a ‘lo-fi space western RPG’ which sounds exciting, but is mechanically underwhelming. The book itself boasts gorgeous design and artwork, making it more likely to be a centerpiece on a coffee table than a game worth playing, which is a damn shame because there aren’t a lot of options for space western themed TTRPGS. I also backed Death in Space which also boasts awesome artwork, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it just yet so I don’t have much to say about it yet except it seems dope as hell.

I feel like good art has really motivated a lot of my purchasing decisions lately, but that hasn’t translated into me actually reading the book and running the game. A perfect example of that is MÖRK BORG, a game whose name is confusing, but has some of the sickest art I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard nothing but praise for the actual game itself, but once again it’s one of those things where I just haven’t had the time to dedicate to learning a new game system, let alone internalizing it well enough to teach other people how to play it.

The biggest slap in the face about this whole situation has been that the TTRPGs that I have taken the time to learn have all been one-page RPGs, mostly about animals doing non-animal things, such as Crash Pandas, a game about street racing racoons that are all operating a vehicle together simultaneously. Or like Honey Heist, a game about actual bears infiltrating ‘Honey-Con’ in an effort to steal a butt-load of honey while maintaining your cover as some people dressed as bears. These games are simple and easy to understand, but heavily rely on a good player dynamics and roleplaying, so they might not be for everyone.

There’s definitely stuff I’ve missed, but these are the bigger and more notable additions to my ever expanding library. Maybe one day I’ll actually use any of this stuff, but that would require me overcoming my intense and borderline crippling fear of actually having to run a game in-person instead of over the internet. So that’ll probably never happen.

The Master of Disaster: Wanderlust – 21

I’ve often heard from other creative-minded folks that one of their biggest problems is actually following through on an idea or a concept. I know I’ve encountered that a whole lot on this very website what with all the “grand plans” that never come to fruition, but instead of examining every aspect of my life that’s been a letdown, I want to look at this problem through the lens of running campaigns in Dungeons & Dragons. I’m always thinking of the next grand adventure I can take my players on even if it’s at the expense of what we’re actively doing, and that’s not great.

At the moment, my group is one month into what’s looking to be a two month hiatus from our Eberron campaign that we’ve been playing for what feels like an eternity. At first I considered this to be a boon considering I had been feeling pretty worn out from the constant creative output needed to sustain our weekly play schedule. I thought that this time away would allow me to essentially get the creative juices flowing once more, which they did… just in a different way.

I had a lot of grand plans ranging from content to mechanics that for our Eberron campaign that for the most part were included. I wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t exclusively told by me, which ultimately led to player decisions (and consequences) being the catalyst for most of the storytelling. I managed this by making sure that character creation was a more in-depth process, where I’d learn not only about their characters, but the NPCs that are important to said characters. Having all this lore and backstory come from the players themselves allowed me to craft a story that’s uniquely tailored to them. Sure, Dungeon’s & Dragons is all about reactive storytelling, but that usually takes some time to really be a factor in any campaign. Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that most of what I prepared for took place before the campaign actually started, which led to me having players that were engaged with the world and its events from the jump.

But even though I’d prepped and planned and put all this time and effort into our campaign, over the weeks and months that we’ve been playing, I’ve started to see the pieces of the experience that aren’t coalescing as well I’d have liked it to. From the setting to the lore, I’m seeing all of these things that I could have improved upon if only I had known how they’d eventually turn out, or if I could have seen how much of a pain in the ass a particular plot point or magic item would have been. Sure I can consider this a learning experience whose lessons I can utilize in our next campaign, but instead of waiting for that transition to come naturally, all I can think about is what could be next instead of what I can do right now.

Whether it be a D&D module, some home brewed setting or even an entirely different game altogether, the waterfall of ideas just keeps flowing. I’ve had ideas for classic fantasy bullshit themed games, space themed games, alternate history, wild west, modern day and so on and so forth, all of which I daydream about way more than our current campaign.

Eberron: Rising from the Last War – Wizards of the Coast

I’d consider this to be a pattern of behavior, where I get really excited about a thing and throw myself headfirst into it, only to burn out on it before I can finish. The amount of maps, music, and artwork I’ve made and sourced for this specific campaign is kind of staggering when I try to take stock of it all. From tons and tons of adventures I can plug into the game, to NPCs who might never see the light of day, to entire game systems that will never be played, to just pure story and lore I’ve written that’s just never going to be utilized, I have a lot of things I could do with our campaign but just never seem to have the energy to follow through on.

But I recognized this as a problem a few weeks ago when I found myself prioritizing literally anything else above actually working on the campaign. But now we’re in the middle of a hiatus, and all I want to do is just play D&D again, something I won’t be able to do for another few weeks. In that time I’ve looked into plenty of settings, modules and games that we could utilize for whatever is next, but with so many options and the inability to meet with all of my players to consider them, all I can do right now is really just work on our current campaign.

But just because our current campaign is the only D&D thing I can confidently work on right now doesn’t mean that I haven’t regained some excitement for it. Being away from that world has given a lot of time to reflect on what I can do to revitalize the experience for myself. While I’ve generated some cool new ideas I’m excited to implement, I’ve also had time to reconsider parts of the campaign that I had planned. It feels weird to say that I’ve been cutting content from our adventure, but I think removing those things is going to help the adventure feel more cohesive and understandable. It also means I can focus on the ending of our story and how I’m possibly going to put a neat little bow on this whole experience.

The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t be afraid to take a break from any creative endeavor if you need it. I personally was feeling drained for so long, and just needed time away from the entire concept of rolling dice and adding numbers. Now I feel refreshed and energized, eagerly waiting for the next session to finally come along, but there’s still more waiting and planning to be done before that happens. I should also consider writing down some of these ideas and expanding upon them rather than just having a list with meandering phrases on them like “dragon(s?)” or “A mountain with legs.”

The Master of Disaster: Tone – 20

When I first started running games my gut instinct was to try and make my sessions all be well rounded, providing drama, comedy, excitement and so on and so forth, all at once. The idea was that one person would have a funny quest for players while another would have a more dour objective for them. That’s how it kind of works in video games, so why wouldn’t it work here? Well it wasn’t that it couldn’t work here, it was more that it sometimes led to a sense of emotional whiplash. The party would go from joking with a bartender while breaking the fourth wall, to talking to a grieving widow who is desperate to uncover the culprit for her partner’s murder. It was tonally inconsistent in a way that was very noticeable. More to the point, it made keeping my players engaged and role-playing, incredibly difficult.

Going from joking about a funny looking cow or whatever, to talking about the vast political corruption in the city might work in the real world because we’re all emotionally broken, but in game I’ve found that tonal consistency is valued more than it is in our world. Now, that isn’t to say that I’m forbidding jokes when we’re having a serious conversation, but the way you address that kind of thing is important.

Everyone in every adventuring party wants to crack a joke that’s going to make everyone at the table erupt into laughter, which is fine, but if they’re talking to that poor widow from the example earlier, that widow is gonna call them out. It isn’t about whether I, the DM am calling them out or not, it’s about if the NPC they’re practicing their standup routine on is willing to put up with their shit. There’s no use in me as the DM breaking the flow of the game to tell my players to get serious about our game where dragons and goblins are kicking it with raptors and dwarves or whatever, cause that would be a fun new take on ludo-narrative dissonance.

I guess my point ultimately is that while you as the DM have the power to do whatever you want, wielding that power and using it is a bit trickier. Aside from lambasting my players as the NPCs they interact with, I’ve found that splitting my sessions into arcs has been really helpful for establishing tones. For instance, we’ve had sessions that were very mission focused and others that were just nebulous, allowing the players to go off and do what they want and suffer the consequences in classic D&D fashion. I treat the tone in our games like a pendulum, where some of them are gonna be goof-fests, while others are going to have the characters make tough choices. Trying to keep the pendulum stuck in one direction for too long will almost certainly lead to a harsh swing in the other direction, so it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re not sticking with one theme or tone for too long.

Ironically, that very reason was why we all ultimately decided to stop playing through the Rime of the Frostmaiden module that came out late last year. It was so overly drab and depressing, with an insistence on being dour and bleak throughout the vast majority of the adventure. It sucked and was a colossal downer, so we pivoted. Consider that a lesson learned on my end though, because from here on out, I’m making sure that any game I run has both highs and lows without lingering too much on either.

I recognize that this entire concept of a malleable and shifting tone might be something I value more than a lot of other game masters and players, but I’ve found a lot of success in using this mentality. I allow my players to joke and goof till their heart’s content, but I also know that in a few sessions I’m going to hit one of them with a tough choice that’s going to make their character grow. In a long term campaign, I think these situations and encounters are absolutely necessary to keep both the story interesting and your players engaged. While this post is about adjusting the tone to match the content of the session, all of this stuff is, in my opinion, extremely important to another very instrumental part of campaigns, which is allowing the characters to grow.

Every campaign I’ve run starts with at least one person trying to make a joke character, which is fine. But I always tell them that making a joke character and giving them a goofy name is really going to bite them in the ass further down the line. When the king of the land comes to you, hat in hand, and begs your party for help in finding his missing wife, it’s really going to undercut the whole mood of the campaign when he has to say, “I come to seek the aid of the noble knight, Fart Garfunkel. I shall pay a king’s bounty for the retrieval of my missing beloved wife.” Like, that whole scene is going to suck on so many levels. Maybe the first time it happens, it’ll be hilarious. The second, third, hell, maybe even the tenth time it happens it’ll still be a gut-buster. But doing that puts this artificial ceiling on how much your character can grow because they’ll never be taken seriously by anyone in your party, let alone the actual human beings at the table.

Every party, campaign, player, and character are so different, so maybe my advice doesn’t apply to your current situation. But I truly believe through extensive trial and error, that being able to set a tone from session to session is extremely important to allowing the players to experience a great story. While they might not remember the name of the big bad guy or whatever, they’ll remember the ebbs and flow of a campaign that tonally mimics the real life experience. Some days are good, some days are sad, and it’s okay to have your player-characters experience that too. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a series of stats on a page with a name like Fart Garfunkel.

The Master of Disaster: Alternative Thinking – 19

One of the best things about tabletop role-playing games is just how much versatility a player has in any given situation. Any good GM should be able to accommodate any reasonable request from their players, but the real fun come in when a player completely sideswipes you with some genuine shenanigans. Having to adjust and improvise on-the-fly is an absolute thrill that really tests my abilities to honor the request of the player while adhering to the rules and story. It’s a tough thing to develop, but it’s a necessary skill to have when running a game.

During one of my first ever games I ran, the first thing that a player of mine did was just say they were doing something, which in this case was taking a pouch of gold off of an NPC. My first reaction was to prompt them for a sleight of hand check which seemed pretty reasonable in my mind, but then they clarified and said “no, I’m just taking it.” They made it clear that there was no intent for being sneaky or surreptitious at all, they just literally wanted to take a thing that belonged to another character without any resistance. Knowing what I know now, I shouldn’t have relented and instead made them roll a contested strength check or just tell them that wasn’t going to fly without a check, but when you’re starting out you just want to please everyone and let them run free.

Don’t do that. While it may seem counterintuitive to tell your players they can’t do something, sometimes you need to remind them that TTRPGs, while a great forum for wild improvisation, are by and large very rules-heavy games. It isn’t about just saying “no” to your players, rather you need to refocus their energy so they can work within the guard rails of whatever system you’re playing. Saying “no” repeatedly to a player might result in them just checking out entirely or feeling as if they’re being picked on, so usually I try to encourage my players to try a different tactic or work with them to accomplish whatever ridiculous thing they’re trying to do.

Because I play with my friends, there’s a built in level of respect between all of us. They know that I’m trying to give them as much flexibility as I can without completely throwing out the rule book, and I know that they’re going to respect me when I tell them that there’s going to be a couple of extra steps required in the insane shit they’re trying to pull off. I ultimately want their characters to succeed in whatever they’re doing, but that doesn’t mean I have to make it easy on them and let them dictate what rules are and aren’t enforced.

There are plenty of ways that you can help work with your players to accomplish their goals, but for my money I’ve found that just asking my players if they have any abilities that would aid them in their wild requests is something I’ve found not only reinforces the rules of the game, but makes sure they’re paying attention to their character’s unique abilities. But lets say you wanted to be fun for once in your life and just let the players have a good time, well that’s when luck checks, high dice checks and even some deus ex machina can help you loosen up.

Honestly, that’s kind of the secret. If the players want to do a near impossible thing, let them try it and set the DC at 30 and give them disadvantage if you have to. They’ll probably fail miserably if they actually try which could lead to even more hilarious situations. Or maybe they’ll succeed, which might ruin an encounter, but it’ll be a moment they talk about forever. In my experience, I’ve never been so happy to get fucked over by the dice thanks to a rogue natural 20, because the players eat that shit up.

Allowing your players to try something rather than just shutting them down is something that I truly believe you have to do in order to foster a positive gaming environment. If you don’t let your players have fun, they’ll eventually stop caring and stop playing, but if you let them get away with anything then you’ll probably want to stop playing. Having been on both sides of that divide I can attest to how difficult striking that balance can be, but I assure you that striving for that balance is well worth the effort.

The Master of Disaster: Holiday Havoc – 18

I currently play in two Dungeons & Dragons groups, one of which I run and the other I just play in. For my group, we’d been running the newly released Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, while my other was neck-deep in a Dragonlance campaign. However, as we crept closer towards the end of 2020, we found ourselves in the middle of one of the weirdest holiday seasons of all time. So with a lot of people unable to see family and get particularly festive this year, I wanted to do something special for them the only way I knew how to: A holiday themed one-shot. It was also an opportunity for me to move away from the lackluster module of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, but that’s a story for another time. Instead, I’d like to tell you the story of Holiday Havoc: The Clausening, the holiday one-shot I ran for both of my D&D groups.

The main conceit of Holiday Havoc was that Santa Claus had essentially transformed his yearly package deliveries into a full, Amazon-esque logistics company called The Holly Jolly Corporation. How this was a sustainable business, I don’t know, but at the North Pole Santa had a big ol’ shipping and receiving center called The Holly Jolly Wish Fulfillment Center. The characters were all seasonal hires that were to be couriers for the evening, with the explanation that Santa is old and figured out a way to avoid doing the work himself. Adventurers were perfect for being holiday couriers, considering they have a knack for problem solving and Santa’s list might not be super accurate, resulting in the players wandering into dangerous situations.

They were outfitted with a sleigh, reindeer, and a magic Santa suit that had illusory capabilities that would make people think they were seeing the actual Santa in their house, and not just a goblin wearing a red jacket. I also needed a way to not have them murder everyone they encountered, cause you know, it’s a festive one-shot. So I gave them these magic bracers that transmutate all their spells into nicer and less deadly holiday themed variants of themselves. For instance, casting fire bolt would result in a piping hot beam of hot cocoa being lobbed at their face. Technically it’s still super deadly, but it’s hot cocoa so my players thankfully stopped asking questions at that odd logic. I also turned their weapons into candy canes, hard candies and peppermint bark, all of which still did the normal amount of weapon damage, but were all non-lethal variants of their armaments.

The general flow of the game was broken down into 3 different encounter types, all of which were important and added something positive or negative to the final scene of the campaign. The first encounter was your standard D&D dungeon crawl, where they would fight against enemies that I Photoshopped festive hats onto, and also find items that could help them later.

The second and most prevalent encounter was the delivery aspect of the game. I had around 10 handmade deliveries that I could send them on, but both groups only made it about 5 of them before we moved to finish the campaign. In these scenarios, I’d describe a home or locale where a present or present needed to be delivered. I made sure to let them know that deliveries weren’t complete until a present was under the tree in an effort to keep them in a situation rather than just run away from one. They could look at their bracers to see who the gift was for, their age, and what the present they wanted was. Here’s an example of what I’d read to them to get them started:

Your sleigh touches down on the rooftop of a modest two-story home.  The outside of which is decorated in rainbow colored glowing bulbs, garland lining the perimeter of the windows, and a sagging snowman in the front yard.  The lights on the inside appear to be off.  Your magic bag fills out a little bit, but is still easy to carry.  An illusory bubble surrounds the home, letting you know that you are shrouded and unable to be seen from the outside.  

And once they figure out a way inside of the house I’d read this:

You find yourself in a cozy living room with a bit too many effigies to Saint Nick himself littered everywhere.  The mantle is covered in holiday themed sundries with four stockings hanging from it.  Beside the fireplace is a large tree that’s been beautifully decorated with care.  A nearby end table has a plate of beautiful chocolate chip cookies on it, with a tall glass of milk as well.

Both simple descriptions that give you just enough information with being overly exhaustive. The idea was to essentially let the players help me fill in the blanks of this world via dice rolls and role playing. One of the later houses for instance had a dog inside of it, but the players wouldn’t have known that from the description I wrote of the place. So while they were scoping the perimiter of the house, one of the players gave me a perception check looking for something that I can’t quite remember, but they mentioned a dog. Since they rolled well, I manifested a “beware of dog” sign that was covered in snow that they had uncovered. Building off of that knowledge, they asked if there was a doggy door on the backdoor. They rolled an investigation check and thus found a doggy door that was big enough for their Kenku party member to fit through.

I kept encouraging each player to do something in these scenarios because it would help them in the third encounter type I had made for this campaign. The players were tasked with delivering to 100 houses and a minimum of 1 high-risk location (dungeon crawls). Since I had only made about 10 deliveries like the one described above, I needed a way to simulate their success in these ambiguous deliveries that felt like they had an impact on it, so I devised a new mechanic: the delivery roll. I figured it would be incredibly unfair if I picked a skill from the list and said that it was the delivery skill they’d roll for success, so the delivery roll would just be a straight d20 roll. Something needed to augment this roll though, and I figured tying a modifier to the success and participation level of the previous encounters would be just the thing.

So I told everyone that their successes and failures in the second encounter type would either grant them a +d6 or a -d6 to the ambiguous delivery rolls, and would keep track of their successful and unsuccessful skill checks during these scenes. I told them that not participating meant you’d just get no modifier on the ambiguous delivery rolls, along with the fact that doing well on those meant getting buffs or boons like a random potion or temp HP. There wasn’t an exact science to tracking this stuff, and usually if they ended up doing something hilariously funny or clever I’d reward them for it regardless of how the dice worked out for them.

They had other narrative things to contend with like a rival courier group and the prospect of a prize from Santa for completing deliveries quickly, efficiently and safely as well to keep them engaged in the little story that there was. I also included a Chuck E. Cheese analog in the for of Cheddar Chandler’s Exploratorium, a place that was in the middle of renovations to become a more teen friendly affair called Cheddar Chandler’s Extreme Teen-a-torium. It was a place of dangerous and unfinished challenges like rope swings, scaling big walls, and vague obstacle courses, all of which culminated on the arcade and show floor of the establishment, where the party would face off against a monstrous version of Cheddar Chandler himself, along with his army of break dancing teens.

While that was a blast, there were some other missions that didn’t make the cut for time purposes. For instance, there was an abandoned guild hall that a bunch of goblins had turned into an evil snowman production facility, which seems really normal when you consider that the other scenarios were Home Alone and Die Hard related missions. I wanted to really hit those classic holiday themes hard.

The whole thing culminated in a showdown on the warehouse floor of the Holly Jolly Wish Fulfillment Center against the rival courier group and a bunch of Santa’s elves. They’d come to find that Santa had been corrupted by the magic of being Santa for so long and became just wildly evil, to the point where he had brainwashed the rival couriers into fighting the party. There were some cool things in the factory the party could mess with such as dangerously high speed conveyor belts, explosive barrels and forklifts which one player did try to use, but lacked a key to turn the thing on.

At the end of it all, they’d be tasked with picking a new Santa Claus for the next few centuries. I had no idea how that would end or who they would choose, so I just kind of didn’t write an ending outside of some flowery language around how beautiful the holidays were. Alas, neither group ever made it that far but I sure had a blast running this campaign anyway, and I know they did too. And that’s kind of the only thing that matters, isn’t it?

The Master of Disaster: God – 17

It’s been a bit since I’ve actually told a story from my D&D games, hasn’t it? Lately I’ve been prattling on about my ethos and how I prep for games, but sometimes all you need is a good story about players being overly confident. So buckle in everyone, cause this one is short but oh so sweet.

For context, our DM had a lot of affinity for the Dragonlance universe, so we ultimately decided to play through a module of their choosing using the D&D rule-set. I don’t know if Dragonlance is its own game or set of modules or something, but I was interested to play it regardless, and so was the rest of my party.

The story was mostly spearheaded through our cleric, a man on a mission to restore the power of the gods who had abandoned the region for some reason. So in a very Wizard of Oz kind of way, the backstory was set up with the cleric meeting each of us on his travels, conscripting us into is mission. Each character had their motivation for finding the gods except mine, who was more loyal to the cleric than his mission. They were buds.

So we wandered around, going village to village in search of anyone who could help point us in the direction of a way to achieve our goal of bringing the gods back. After a few sessions, an NPC we all hated, and a terrible boating incident, we found ourselves deep in a forest where we were on the trail of a derelict temple to the gods. In said forest, we found a village of these dragonborn folks who were praying to an effigy of a big dragon. We had no reason to engage with them outside of the fact that this was the first non-swamp related thing we’d seen in about 3 sessions.

One of the many problems we had was that we’d been fighting these dudes in small packs all throughout the swamp, so they had made it clear they were hostile. We luckily had the drop on them, as they were staring at their effigy in prayer while we approached from behind them. Just to be clear, there were enough of them to fuck us up as efficiently as possible. So we had to devise a clever plan to get by them for reasons I still am not entirely sure about. But unfortunately, overconfidence trumped careful planning which prompted our warlock to flex his charismatic muscles.

He elegantly pranced over to the dragonborn clan, whispering sweet nothings into their ears and caressing their cheeks with the back of his palm. It was like watching a ribbon dancer perform without said ribbon. As he performed his floor routine in front of the dragonborns, who were now facing in the direction of where we were hiding, he played his dumbest card yet. Quick side note here, he was not a dragonborn, he was just a dude. That’s important to know because he literally tried to convince these fools that he was their god in humanoid form as a way to get them to not attack us anymore.

It was sultry, it was sexy, and it was the best plan he could come up with. With a plan this stupid, how could it not work? Well the dice found a way to fuck us, and our warlock couldn’t charm these lads with his puny roll of 13. So suddenly our warlock found himself on the wrong side of a wall of fire that placed him in a closed arena with about 15 angry dragonborn who just witnessed this megalomaniac try to be the focus of their idolatry. Not a great position to be in.

Initiative was rolled, the dragonborn all got into perfect ass-kicking formation around our warlock, and then my turn came around. I was a tiefling monk, which meant I could both move very quickly and resist fire damage. Wall of Fire is a spell that requires you to make a dexteriy saving throw that if you fail, you take 5d8 fire damage, also known as just enough damage to kill a stupid warlock. So I used my mobility spells and natural fire resistance in tandem, couple that with a good saving throw to avoid the brunt of the fire damage, and I was able to leap through the wall of fire, grab a stupid warlock, and drag him back to the other side.

He failed his saving throw to get through the fire, but we were able to heal him quickly enough and bail out on the entire dragon cult thing. We chastised him appropriately and continued our adventure. But for the briefest of moments, there was the possibility that we could have made an army of dragonborn wreck shop in our stead. And honestly, isn’t that what D&D is all about?

The Master of Disaster: Prepping – 16

One of the most interesting, fun and tedious parts about being a Dungeon Master is preparing from session to session, but even more of a challenge is preparing a new campaign entirely. My group and I are currently wrapping up our “one-shot” of The Sunless Citadel, a pretty decent Dungeons & Dragons adventure, and are gearing up for our next big campaign. As luck would have it, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden released just as we were finishing up, so we decided that it would be our next adventure. Being that this is my first time prepping a full campaign, I figured I do it as meticulously as possible. Here’s what’s happened.

Considering I’ve always had some difficulty with absorbing the things I read, I had to approach preparing for Rime of the Frostmaiden from an overly redundant and thorough angle. I can’t just read something once or twice and commit it to memory. My brain just never worked like that so I had to bust out old my note-taking methods from my school days in order to properly tackle this behemoth of a book. What that meant was that I had to essentially read the book paragraph by paragraph, rewriting everything I was reading into a notebook.

The notes themselves, while useful, aren’t really why I’m doing all of this extra busy work. The problem I have is that I need to rewrite something to commit it to memory. I don’t think that’s too uncommon, but it definitely adds a lot more time and effort to whatever it is I’m trying to absorb. But I wanted to be as meticulous as possible, and luckily the book is actually really interesting which has fueled me to continue with this overly redundant way of learning.

Rime of the Frostmaiden – Wizards of the Coast

Both my notebook and the module itself have tiny little bookmark tabs everywhere that denote all of the important information I might need at a moments notice. I do it in a way that is more granular than the format of the book itself can account for allowing me to quickly access anything from notable characters, town lore, quests, items, hazards and more. On top of that, my notes also point me to whichever page in the book I need to get to, so I’m covering all of my bases to make sure I am never more than a few pages away from relevant information my players might need.

But I don’t want to paint all of this as an exercise in futility or anything, because I’m genuinely enjoying the book on its own. The story in Rime of the Frostmaiden is interesting and captivating as written, and all of my efforts in documenting it are just so I can provide my players with the best campaign I can muster. I get to enjoy the book as is, but my players are relying on me to deliver them an exciting and cohesive story to go along with the actual game itself. If I don’t nail this thing then they might have a pretty lackluster impression of the module, and that would be upsetting on a lot of levels.

Other things that I’ve done in preparation outside of just reading the book has involved making generic encounter maps for the frozen wasteland of Icewind Dale, along with listening to well over a hundred instrumental pieces of music and “soundscapes,” and categorizing them into several different playlists that I can quickly switch between. Is the place they arrived in a happy town? Well I’ll play the happy town songs for them. Is this battle an intense and dramatic one? Got it covered.

Page 2 of my Character Creation Syllabus

I even went as far as to make a 4-page syllabus of just about everything they need to know in order to create characters for this campaign. When I say that out loud it sounds truly insane, but they genuinely appreciated me doing that. When I’m head down on preparing for campaign, the thought that I might be more “into it” than my players always creeps into my mind, but their reaction to getting a literal syllabus was overwhelmingly encouraging.

All of the little seemingly superfluous things I’ve done in preparation I do because I know that it’s worth it. I can describe a battle in the middle of the frozen wasteland just fine, but having a generic snow-covered battle map I can toss up for them will help give them a sense of place and another opportunity to tangibly interact with their characters. Picking out hundreds of music tracks and categorizing them by their “emotional weight” seems ridiculous, but music is so damn important to setting the tone and atmosphere that I find it’s necessary to a successful campaign.

Maybe this article is just going to be met with other Dungeon Masters feeling like I’ve just described what they all do all the time, but to me I feel like I’m really putting in the extra effort to make this campaign a success. Like I said, this is my first time truly preparing for something this large and intricate, and I don’t want to mess it up. Luckily my players seem just as excited for this new campaign as I am, so I don’t think my efforts will go unnoticed.