Everyone arrives on time to play, which is a welcome surprise. We spend about half an hour getting everyone set up and acquainted with the system. As I mentioned in a previous post, we are using Roll20.net for its online virtual tabletop capabilities. We have all played together before and are all familiar with Roll20.
There’s an evil army bent on world domination and the players need to find five MacGuffins to help prevent it. Yes, it’s basic, but it’s all I really need. The players and their decisions is where the real story comes from. But this is still only my first session as DM, so there are really no dilemmas set up yet.
THE PLAYER CHARACTERS
Speaking of the players, they’ve ended up assigned together as a special forces group of the Faerun army due to their unique talents. Let’s get a quick look at the Player Characters themselves . . .
Lo-Kag Highclimber Vekitholakai – A goliath warden who is very respectful of nature.
Azai Zegon – A githzerai psion whose race was wiped out in the second Godswar (the current one).
Alycstair Feitbern – A human sorcerer that prefers to avoid other people.
Rapha of Havenwood – An elf ranger that is very confident in his skills.
Disclaimer: Yes, I know these pictures were just cherry picked from google and shoehorned into characters. It’s what we use on Roll20 for tokens and are only meant as reference pictures. Alycstair’s picture, however, is half originally drawn by his player.
Their first mission is to check on a late supply wagon. The encounter starts with the potential of the players being ambushed. I set up a few different things that the players might notice to avoid that fate.
A mistake I make here is that I meant for the driver to mention bandits, but it slipped my mind in the moment. This is important in the case that the players pass a specific check to observe and realize that bandits would not have burned the supplies, but taken them (luckily the players did not pass the check).
I make a second mistake before the session even began. Rapha passes his perception check to notice movement in the trees . . . and that’s it. I simply did not give enough detail to the player for them to work with.
I improvised that, and now that the players were hesitant, the driver decided to reveal himself as Shar, the goddess of secrets. She taunts the players, asks them to say hello to Mystra, and orders the ambush party to attack the players.
Being a new DM, I didn’t want to create my own monsters. Instead, I came up with a justification to use monsters from the monster manual. Each monster in Asmodeus’ army is artificially created and branded with his mark on their foreheads. They follow the evil gods blindly.
Combat in D&D 4th Edition tends to be long. This encounter is no different, lasting about 1 hour. Here are some things I use to keep it from becoming too tedious.
- I include environmental elements like boulders that could be used for cover or rolled down the hill, and trees that the enemies could use for concealment.
- I describe the results of each attack. Even one sentence of unique description based on dice rolls can be enough to engage players.
- In one instance, Azai decides to describe his own action. His eyes glowing, he uses his telekinetic powers to shove a boulder down the hill at a Dire Rat fighting with Lo-kag. The rat’s reflex defense, being too low to avoid the boulder, is crushed under it.
- Conversely, Lo-kag elects to face the boulder head-on. I use his Fortitude defense instead, and he manages to stop the boulder dead in its tracks, still resting on the rat. I declare the rat now to be helpless, which makes all hits against it a critical one.
- When victory seemed inevitable for the players, I go ahead and take every opportunity to damage the monsters (scrapes along the ground, falls out of the tree, etc.).
Although I believe the encounter went well overall, there are still some things that I think needs improving:
- I spent a good chunk of time setting up each monster’s attack on their turns. Though it may clog up my character database, it may be better overall to prepare sheets with values that I can use for each monster.
After the battle, the players spend some time investigating the area. It may not seem important in the grand scheme of things, but it is a great opportunity to get to know the characters.
Lo-kag spends his time healing a tree that was hit by a boulder and planting seedlings for each killed enemy. Rapha looks for anything useful and gathers a pair of short swords to pawn later, along with the broken wagon’s canvas covering. Rapha also seems to like doing things on a whim (trying to toss wagon wheels like a discus). Azai joins Lo-Kag on the hill and begins meditating. Alycstair is aloof and stays farther away from the rest of the party. I should keep each of these things in mind as I design later environments and encounters.
CHILLIN’ AT WESTGATE
Back at Westgate, the “base of operations,” the team meets Mystra and the generals of the mortal army, who dispense expository information like vending machines. Mystra sends them off on their quest and the players return to town to explore for the rest of the night.
I try to be quick about this part since it is mostly NPC’s gabbing, but have some technical hiccups with the map of Faerun. I also don’t anticipate that the players shun Mystra’s powers, and have to come up with a justification for it. The Players each have a tattoo that glows when they are near “MacGuffins.”
The players split up a bit to visit different parts of town. Splitting up is best avoided, but it’s nearly inevitable in D&D. The players in one area will get bored as the other gets the focus. What I think I will do in the future is switch perspectives whenever one side gets to a good pausing point.
I wrote up a document for each major location in town describing them and the NPC’s that inhabit them. When designing these environments, I gave each major townsperson a short backstory, a personality, some info they could give players, and any incentives or objections to giving players that info. In order to encourage exploration (not hard: humans are natural explorers), I had many NPC’s mention other NPC’s.
The players do not interact with every unique NPC I planned out, but they interacted with enough to find out that the city is in bad shape, there is a storehouse of food recently infested with rats, and the Alchemy shop smells horrible.
Something interesting happened here. After describing the smell, Azai, Alycstair, and Rapha decided not to proceed further. Only Lo-kag braved the smell to talk to the shopkeeper (who promptly demanded that he leave). You never know what the players are going to react to, so it’s usually in a DM’s best interest to describe as much as possible without getting too long-winded.
Players often like to do optional things first if there is time, though I haven’t decided on anything yet for the 5 “temples” and told the players so. This may have swayed their decision to investigate the rat infested storehouse first.
After a comfortable night in town, the players set off to the storehouse. As they enter the underground storehouse, they see a metal grate. Rapha, who is trained in dungeoneering, is able tell that the grate and pipes in the pit it covers is there to divert water in case of flooding.
I make a mistake here when reading my own planning, and forget to allow a check to hear squeaking in the pipes. I apologize, backtrack, and do the check. Rapha hears the squeak, they fasten the grate, and move on. It’s dark and only Rapha has low-light vision. He takes point and gets a high stealth check, but he hears a woman’s voice say “Come out, I can smell you . . .” With that, the session ends, clocking in at just about 4 hours.