What I Learned From “The Iron Circle” Part I

After the Red Box adventure, plus a short session with some heavy roleplaying and a couple encounters under my belt, the players were now level 2 and ready for more D&D.  Having just purchased the DM’s Kit, and being impressed with the included modules, I decided to take my PCs to the Harkenwold to free the land from the Iron Circle.  The first module of the pair would take us three full sessions to complete, so I will spend at least a couple posts discussing what I learned from it.

Make sure every player feels valuable
During the previous sessions of our campaign, my oldest son was absent.  The party makeup at that time was controller, leader, and defender x 2.  When my son joined us, he chose to play an Essentials thief.  For the first time, a striker was added to the mix, and I am sure you can see where the problem arose: the Thief was an absolute beast in combat, and easily did double the damage of any other character, with the possible exception of the mage.

In my inexperience, I didn’t really know what to expect from a 4E party with balanced roles, but his damage dealing capabilities felt wrong.  My other players indicated they felt he was overpowered, if not in as many words.  Frankly, I agreed with them.  I knew that this issue had to be addressed as soon as possible.  Any type of party discontent is best nipped in the bud.  So I did what any desperate DM would do: I went online and asked for help.

After a lengthy discussion at ENWorld, several key points emerged.  One was that strikers are supposed to do lots of damage; that is their role.  The thief is a strong character, and that is acceptable in the grand scheme of things.  But that still left me with the player concerns.  It seems obvious in hindsight, but solution to the conundrum was clear: let each character shine.  The combats I had run so far were simple affairs, and in these situations the thief’s contributions were quite visible to all.  I needed encounters where two things happened: first of all, the thief needed to get taken down a notch or two, and secondly, I needed to get the defenders, controller, and leader to wow the rest of the group by doing something awesome.

This plan worked out well.  Just a couple rounds into our first fight of the evening, the thief had already begun to take his lumps.  He decided (foolishly) to leap on top of a barn to shoot his crossbow at enemies below unobstructed.  I let him do so, and then, since he was in line of sight of a whole group of minions, they  drew their own crossbows and let him have it.  In one round, he was bloodied, and if the the mage’s area of effect spells had not slain multiple minions, he likely would have died the next round.  It was an ideal “two birds with one stone” situation: the thief’s weaknesses and the mage’s strengths were both emphasized.

Another fight in the next session was quite similar.  My son recklessly rushed in to maximize damage, and soon was ganged up on and reduced to zero hit points.  The shaman and paladin rushed his way, the shaman healing him as best he could, while the paladin tried to keep nearby bad guys occupied.  A few squares away, the knight tanked (for lack of a better term) a drake rider so well that the thief, once recovered, moved in for a couple sneak attacks.  This skirmish was difficult, but each player performed his role admirably, and I believe the thief learned to be more careful.  All in all, a “win win”.

Good DMs must design their encounters such that each character has a chance to shine.  Controllers love taking down minions, and defenders enjoy it when their “mark” is broken.  Strikers have plenty of chances to show off, and of course the healing and beneficial effects provided by a leader are invaluable.  Make sure all characters do something amazing in each encounter, and you’ll have happy players, and the whole experience will be more fun for everyone.

Ham It Up
Growing up, I wasn’t in any school plays.  I am no drama major, nor am I what anyone would consider an actor of any sort.  So, like many other DMs, I often feel a bit silly when I attempt (however feebly) to use unique voices for my NPCs.  But I know that doing so can really add to the enjoyment of an encounter, even if I won’t win any awards for Best Supporting Actor.  This became apparent to me when the players decided to clear out the bullywugs lair.

All of the players in my group are familiar with World of Warcraft.  Perhaps the most memorable monsters in that game are murlocs, a group of frog-like humanoids who have what could best be described as unique vocal effects.  As it happened, one of my players owned a murloc miniature (from the WoW minis game) that I used to represent the bullywug king.  This inspired me to start using the characteristic rumbling murloc croaks when the bullywug king attacked.  The players loved it, and even began to use the same noises anytime they hit one of the bullywugs!  It was one of the best gaming moments in the campaign so far, and we still laugh about it several weeks later.

What can we learn from this?  Do whatever it takes to add to the experience.  Go beyond your comfort level.  Ham it up.  Overact anytime you have the chance.  Push yourself to try things that may seem cheesy and silly from time to time.  Make the Goblin warchief talk like Yoda.  The captain of the town guard might talk like Schwarzenegger.  Go for it!  Maybe it will be horrible, but it just might be fantastic.

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3 Responses to What I Learned From “The Iron Circle” Part I

  1. dldzioba says:

    As a player I love it when my DMs do voices for the various NPCs they present us with. My boyfriend always has a signature voice for each of his NPCs along with thinking about the way they phrase things. He puts a lot of effort in and it gives great results.
    I’m still planning my first campaign, but I think I might need to take some time to sit and figure out how my NPCs are going to speak.

  2. Pingback: Reavers of Harkenwold - EN World: Your Daily RPG Magazine

  3. I use different voices for NPCs and at first I thought my plawers would laught at me, or worse, my wife would get mad at me playing a womanizer evil human ranger hitting on her best friend’s female elf archer, but it all came to very cool moments. My wife roared in laughter when her friend grabbed her breasts and said to the ranger: “You want these? Come fight for us and do MY will, you bastard!” and guess what… the badass ranger did so. Secondly, when I played Kalarel and insulted every PC personally, based on their mistakes and flaws during the campaign and background stories, some of them took it personally, not on me but on Kalarel, and fought so hard the final battle of “Keep…” was actually very short. An eladrin mage would often call Kalarel “a coward” every time his minions struck her with their arrows, and when Kalarel was finally taken down, the human mage walked up to him, kicked him in the face and said: “So, who’s the flawed spellcaster now, sonofthatone?”. It was epic.

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