As was, I am sure, the intent, the cover alone sold me on the new D&D Starter Set. It was just the thing for a long-relapsed DM like myself, who was nostalgic for the game I loved so much growing up. After creating characters and getting the party together, we ran through the group adventure over the space of two evenings. What exactly did I learn from running “The Twisted Halls?”
It’s OK to alter “official” stuff
I knew from the outset that there were a few things I didn’t like about the adventure. The biggest problem was that there was a dragon in it. I know, that sounds strange; after all, the game is named Dungeons & Dragons. But I wanted dragons to be strange, unique creatures that are very rarely seen by most people. This way, when one finally shows up, it will be an exciting event. To find one in the very first dungeon is way too soon. Additionally, I was confused by the skill challenge the dragon represented, and feared that the PCs would end up in combat with a creature that would likely kill them. Rather than use the white dragon as it was printed, I looked around on the internet and found a suitable replacement, the kobold dragonmaster. Not only did it fit in better thematically, I learned another valuable lesson, which I’ll share later. But the first lesson was this: there’s no such thing as “official” content.
This is probably one of the most important things any DM can learn. There is certainly a natural tendency to treat WotC-released content as canon, which shouldn’t be altered; after all, it was written by a professional game designer. But that designer doesn’t know what you or your players are looking for in a campaign. Adventures are written to be used by all sorts of people. This beginner’s kit adventure, in particular, was intended to be both easy to run and at the same time a good cross section of what D&D is about. Dragons are a big part of the D&D experience, and for many people, having a dragon in the starter set is a big benefit. However, in my campaign, it isn’t. I want dragons to come into the player’s lives later on. Thus, I am perfectly within my rights to change what I don’t like. Official adventures are written on paper, not carved in stone. Modify them however you, as the DM, see fit.
Improvising can lead to great moments
The encounter with the guards and the doppleganger was a highlight of the session. My son, who at 9 years old is far more into the story than the tactics, plays a noble paladin. Halfway through the fight, when it was clear the PCs were winning, I had the doppleganger shift into the form of a lovely maiden, who then attacked one of the guards. Cursing her betrayal, the guard attacked her on his next turn. At this point, the heroism gene kicked in, and the mighty paladin attacked the guard with reckless abandon. Soon, both guards fell, and roleplaying with the doppleganger, named Jinx, began.
She explained what she knew of the dungeon, and begged for her life. The others in the party were skeptical, but my son fell for her charms, hook line and sinker. He decreed that it was the decent thing to do, as Jinx was clearly no threat. The others forced her to leave her weapons, at the minimum. As she left, on a lark, I dedcided that the shapeshifter would thank the paladin for sticking up for her by giving him a kiss! Immediately, my son’s face turned red. As she pulled away, Jinx shifted her appearance, this time to that of a haglike old woman, and my son actually began wiping his face off! The whole group broke into laughter, and he has been teased about it almost every session since.
From this experience, I learned that often, a quick improvised bit, thrown in on the spur of the moment, can lead to memorable moments. Don’t be afraid to throw something in the mix that you just made up on the spot. Why shouldn’t that innkeeper have a lazy eye, or a hairy wart? Tired of giant, axe-wielding orc warriors leading the pack? Why not make the runt the leader? If something pops into your head as you are talking, roll with it. See what happens. Maybe it won’t amount to much, but there’s a chance that it could lead to something unique and memorable. Often times, the strange, off the cuff stuff is what players will remember best later. Spontaneity is a key to being a successful DM.
There is a huge wealth of information and ideas online
This follows up on my earlier point. My distaste for the inclusion of the dragon in the Twisted Halls led me online to search for a replacement. At this point, I did not have the DM’s Kit or Monster Vault. Thus, my options were limited. I wasn’t yet confident in my reskinning abiliity, so I simply did some google searching. I found an excellent replacement: the kobold dragonmaster. This creature served my purpose well. He was still an intimidating monster, and definitely exciting, but if negotiations went poorly, I didn’t feel like he’d wipe the entire party out. I would have had some trouble creating a monster on my own at this point, so I was thankful to find one so suitable. Turns out, the group parlayed with him just fine, and the kobolds left them alone.
This reinforced to me what I already knew: there is a monumental library of knowledge, experience, and resources that are available on the web for DMs. In addition to the free Wizards content, there are all manner of blogs, podcasts, and forums (such as the excellent ENWorld boards) that can be used. A busy DM could find something to run online for many, many sessions without having to create anything at all. Get out there and look around, and you will find exactly what you are looking for.
Of course, the real fun comes in making something of your own. In the next session, I did just that. I’ll discuss what I learned from my first homemade encounter in my next post.