At this point in my DMing career, I feel like I have a good grasp of the basics. Though it is still complex and overly long for my tastes, combat no longer feels like a chaotic mess that I can’t keep under control. My players are coming together into an effective party with clearly defined roles. As my confidence improves, so does my willingness to try new tricks to enhance the experience.
Foreshadowing can derail the adventure
One technique I wanted to try was to give players private information via email in between sessions. I felt this would add greatly to the overall enjoyment of the game, keeping it fresh on my player’s minds all week, not just on game night. One of my players had established that his character was said to be the embodiment of a prophecy. Taking this idea and running with it, I decided to drop a hint about a future adventure; I emailed the player a brief dream sequence, filled with images of a skull (still in the group’s posession after the first adventure), a ghostly figure, and a ruined tower. I felt this tied into the whole “chosen one” thing and would help add to a sense of continuity between the adventures.
It didn’t work out as I had hoped. The player shared his dream with the others in the party as soon as our session began. They took this dream as a sign that they needed to abandon the Reavers of Harkenwold quest and set off in search of this mysterious tower. I quite understandably panicked. My preparations were for the current adventure, and I had nothing planned for the tower at this point whatsoever. I knew I couldn’t improvise a whole session on the fly, so I tried my best to nudge the party back on track without being blatantly obvious about it. They did so, but reservedly. I could tell they were very excited about the meaning of the dream, and the rest of the evening was probably less enjoyable for them as a result.
This taught me an extremely valuable lesson. When you introduce something new, players will assume it is of utmost importance. I had intended the dream to be a bit of flavor, and yet, since I had never used such a device before, they assumed it was the most important thing in the universe! I was totally unprepared for this, and felt bad about railroading my group into the intended course for the evening. I want my players to have an impact on the campaign, with meaningful choices, but it is too early in my DMing life to just let them run loose sandbox style at this point. As DMs, we must be careful when introducing red herrings, foreshadowing, or other details that can cause the PCs to go way off track.
Alternate victory conditions are great – if done right
I was very worried about my PCs being able to complete one tough encounter where they fought a skeletal wizard and a special giant spider that each had very powerful abilities. Perusing the collective wisdom online, I learned that other DMs had expressed the fears about the same fight. Also, I wanted to spice up encounters by giving my players something to do other than just attack everything. So I decided to do a serious revamp of the encounter.
Here are the changes I made. The wizard, Yisarn, would begin casting a spell over the skeletal remains of a small black dragon. If left uninterrupted for three rounds, the spell would complete and the skeletal dragon would animate and attack the group. I left the nasty spider in the room as a dessicated corpse that would animate only as a result of Yisarn’s death. These changes certainly affected the outcome of the encounter, but not nearly as well as I had hoped.
The biggest mistake I made was including the pit traps in the room as written. While exciting, these traps kept my casters quite literally on the outside looking in. They feared missing the Athletics check to leap over, so they stayed put and did their best to assist from the doorway. This was not fun for them, as you can imagine.
Further compounding the problem was how I determined that Yisarn could be interrupted: by being damaged. This was not the brightest idea, since the whole point was to get my players to do more than just swing an axe or cast magic missile. In hindsight, I see that I could have allowed Religion, Arcana, or even Nature checks at Hard difficulty to counteract Yisarn’s casting instead. This would have both kept my casters busy and also made for a more unusual encounter.
As it played out, the skeletal dragon was not animated. Yisarn abandoned his attempts to raise it in favor of attacking, and he really did lay the smack down on the group. The paladin and thief were hurt badly before the wizard fell. I shudder to think how deadly the wizard would have been had he attacked from the first round. When the spider came back to life after his master’s death, it was a cool moment… at first. But, the fight against it was very anti-climactic. The spider wasn’t nearly as tough nor as fun to roleplay as Yisarn was, and it died with barely a whimper. It probably would have been better to have left it out entirely, or perhaps animate it earlier to add to the epic feel of the boss fight.
At the end of the evening, everyone had a good time. The changes I had made were enough to set that encounter apart, which was exactly what I wanted. Still, I felt unsatisfied; the next morning, I thought of several ways I could have improved the session. I’m sure that’s how it is for most DMs; there is no better teacher than experience. If you want to learn how to run a better game, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Use your mistakes to be better in the future.