Postmortem Chapter Two

Seems like I should catch up on these now that we’ve wrapped up chapter five and are moving right along in A Hole in the World!

When I first started designing the campaign, I wanted the best of both worlds. I wanted to be able to tell an epic, collaborative story with detailed character arcs, building tension across all thirty levels of gameplay, and one central villain at the heart of it all. But I also wanted to provide the “sandbox” style of play – lots of adventure possibilities, quest hooks, and mini-dungeons dotting the landscape, and complete freedom on the player’s side of the table to choose whatever looked like the most fun. In short, I wanted that “epic” feeling to develop organically; to be guided more by the choices the party made between quest possibilities than by whatever direction I wanted it to go.

I felt that “Ghostlight” was enough of an introduction to the rules, the setting, and at least a glimpse of a major threat. It was my hope that, from that starting point, the group would be able to guide the flow of the campaign.

It wasn’t long before it became clear that this was a mistake. It certainly helped the game world feel deeper, but there are two problems with this. First, if Arkhosia was a real place, it would be incredibly hard to find quests and put together the pieces of seemingly unrelated events into a larger picture. Quests wouldn’t find the adventurers; the adventurers would have to find the quests. While good in theory, this led to the party having an incredibly difficult time deciding what to do, and the group spent two full sessions (and this was back in the day when our sessions were twice as long as they are now) meandering around town, finding hooks but remaining reluctant to commit to any of them. Even then, I still needed to create a situation in which the party was practically forced to choose a specific goal and pursue it.

This wasn’t the players’ fault, and I regret not putting an end to it sooner. As DM, it’s my responsibility to make sure the group doesn’t have any problems “finding the fun,” and I don’t think I was doing my job very well for the first chunk of this chapter. There’s nothing wrong with a session featuring little or no combat, but those sessions should have more context in the story than simply “Go Forth and Fill Thy Quest Log.” They should still be just as exciting as combat – there should be little events and interactions that make them compelling and maintain a sense of purpose. Finally, they shouldn’t feel like they drag on forever; I think that by the time Quazeir practically yanked the party into the bog, everyone was exasperated by the situation.

The other problem with trying to hybridize an “epic” campaign with a “sandbox” campaign is the sheer amount of work it created. I already felt heavily overworked pulling together a large city and making it feel real, and I never felt like I had enough time to flesh out all of the little nooks and crannies I had populated Three Points with. Instead, I had to devote my campaign work time to building encounters all over the map and trying to connect at least a respectable chunk of them to the larger story. This problem was exacerbated by my lack of familiarity with the rules system and the encounter building process; building encounters was taking me a long, long time and I was still trying to study the PHB and DMG and develop a decent working knowledge of the system. I remember one Saturday in particular when I walked into the session feeling completely unprepared, even though I had worked on the campaign for nearly thirty hours that week. Ultimately, it was unsatisfying for me and it led to each encounter and the story itself receiving less attention than they should have.

That’s not to say that Welcome didn’t have its moments. The initial investigation of Jerrod’s shop. The search for and descent into the lair of the bog beast, especially the battle with the bats on the side of a cliff (still one of my favorites). Grief getting one-shotted by a deathjump spider! The introduction of Seamus, one of the most memorable player characters we’ve had in the party thus far. The completely improvised and wonderfully executed plot to delay Vera’s death sentence, which made me a believer in the potential of skill challenges. Even the painfully long wandering through town served a purpose: it gave everyone time to settle into their characters and develop distinct personalities for them. Ultimately, the party was better for it; that experience created a foundation of roleplaying which the game has benefited immensely from.

This adventure consisted of more custom maps than I care to list. Initially we were still limited to maps the Hero Quest board could accommodate, but midway through the chapter I acquired a few packs of dungeon tiles and adapted most of the maps to use them instead. The encounters themselves were custom. Ultimately, two goals grew out of the chapter’s “sandbox:” kill the bog beast and find the Candlemaker. It was all a bit more complicated than that, but in the end I felt these were the most important, and the quests I was most interested in seeing the party complete.

A couple of quests the party picked up were never completed, and several hooks were never even happened upon. I won’t list them here, because I’d like to reuse some of that material down the road. I’ve already done it once: chapter 4, as you could probably guess, grew out of one of the quests the group acquired during Welcome, although all of the original maps were scrapped.

When combat did take place, I’d say it was an even mix between mediocre, great, and flop. The group’s first glimpse of Jerrod, while amusing (run away! run away!), didn’t pan out exactly how I intended it to. The bat fight, as I mentioned before, was a lot of fun. The crocodile fight in the bog went well and was fought well by the players, but I found it to be a bland map with one bland monster type. The dragon encounter was seriously sloppy on both sides, but WOW did it get intense towards the end. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to match the excitement of the crits during that fight, but on the other hand I’m glad we’ll almost certainly never have such a long fight again. This one was insane. I’m sure all fights with solo monsters down the road will be longer, but our familiarity with the rules and the changes we’ve made to the system should make them a lot smoother.

The chapter also saw the group begin to change, and it has remained in a state of constant flux ever since…which is fine with me; I’m always happy to get a great player and/or a cool new character on the board! Morgue departed to parts unknown as his puppeteer decided he needed some time off from the game. The group replaced him in short order with the dwarven fighter Seamus. This chapter also saw my first experiment with an NPC ally – the githyanki wizard Quazeir. The DMG stresses the importance of keeping NPCs at a lower power level than the PCs, and I stuck to this when creating an ally to help the group take down their first dragon. I wasn’t happy with the result; the group ended up feeling underpowered and Quazeir himself felt like more of a nuisance than anything.

What did you guys think of Welcome to Three Points? Do you feel the game today is better or worse off for scrapping the “choose your own adventure” feel of chapter 2?

Postmortem Chapter Two

Beyond the Veil echoshifting