Sandbox concept for Adventurers League

Adventurers League has a lot going for it, but it can easily lead to railroading. As DMs, we pick some adventures to run, probably within a given storyline like Rage of Demons or Tyranny of Dragons. Then we tell players which adventure we’ll play that session and they get to experience it. This doesn’t have to become a total railroad, of course: in many adventures, the result can depend on their choices, and the hardcover adventures have largely attempted to provide this sort of experience within themselves (to varying degrees of success). But maybe we have some ways to improve that.

What if we do it a different way?

What if we peppered a regional hexmap with the adventures that happen there, and let players choose where to head, without naming specific modules? That is, we set up a sandbox of modules but only using modules that are for AL play. Unlike just running one of the hardcovers, however, we can include other adventures (e.g. DDAL/EX and CCC stuff) from the entire AL content catalog. (Given the Death Curse in Season 7, CCC content merits very careful consideration, though.)

Note that each storyline season already locates those modules in specific geographic regions like Phlan, Mulmaster, and Hillsfar. 300x250_DDAL.jpgWe could possibly include other AL modules that don’t officially take place in that region, at least for some of them. For example, stick the Sunless Citadel in some canyon nearby and relocate Castle Naerytar (HotDQ chapter 6) from the Mere of Dead Men into a swamp in the region. Place rumors and other hooks to the modules and run them each as one-offs. The players then choose which locale to visit or event to investigate based on the hooks they’ve been offered – including in previous adventures.

Their world won’t suddenly become quite as dynamic as it otherwise might: after all, the modules themselves present fairly static situations. It does break things up from the default setup, though, allowing the DM to provide a world with avenues of opportunity rather than fixing things into a linear structure with no room for variation.

Is it legal?

I think so. From the Adventurers League FAQ v6.0 page 14:

Can I run single chapters of the hardcover adventures as one-off adventures?
Yes. You may not, however, run individual encounters as one-off adventures. This rule is designed to facilitate play—not teh lewtz.

As long as we stick to that restriction, then we should be able to kitbash an AL campaign together this way (at least for Tier 1 and potentially Tier 2). And by focusing a bit more on DDAL modules, we can minimize the impact of the “one hardcover at a time” rule in AL. From the same document, page 11:

These adventures typically use the following ranges and can be played by characters of a higher level, provided they are within the adventure’s level range when they begin playing the adventure. A character is only “playing” one hardcover adventure at a time. For example, a character that starts playing CoS and then jumps over to an SKT game and advances outside of the level range for CoS can’t play that adventure anymore. This rule only applies to other DDHC adventures.

I recognize that this diverges somewhat from the storyline design for AL. Players show up to their session, character sheet and log in hand, expecting to “watch the next episode” of the season. For weekly store and one-off convention play, that method makes perfect sense. I don’t think anyone should change Wednesday Night D&D at their FLGS to this method. But many AL groups outside those environments have relatively consistent composition from one session to the next. Some of my groups don’t necessarily include the exact same four players every week, but I do have a “stable” of around 10-15 folks who sign up. The sessions cap out at 7 players, naturally, but some folks play nearly every week and some folks play much more irregularly.

Most of the players take their characters to other games, of course, and that’s part of what makes AL fun: portability. I could open up a game tomorrow that included Tier 2 (levels 5-10) adventures and have a whole new stable of players, who have gotten through Tier 1 content but have had difficulty finding stuff past these entry-level adventures.

What if it isn’t? Well, then, you have a pretty standard sandbox campaign and you can turn it into an Unearthed Arcana playtest or add some homebrew material…

What do you think? Is this workable? Have other folks tried it and learned any useful lessons they could pass on?

DDAL06-01: A Thousand Tiny Deaths (Review)

Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Season 6 (Tales from the Yawning Portal) mostly consists of the hardcover by that name plus three DDAL adventures. All of these serve as lead-ins to one of the dungeons in the book (Forge of Fury, White Plume Mountain, and Against the Giants). In effect, they provide expanded hooks. DDAL06-01 A Thousand Tiny Deaths is thus the only Tier 1 adventure for Season 6 outside of the book.  Warning: this review includes spoilers. If you’re going to play through the adventure, don’t read further.

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Adventurers League Season 7: Death Curse and Scheduling

The seventh season of Adventurers League will start soon – and wow, has it caused some uproar! Time to get those dice warmed up…

Papazotl's Tomb

Death Curse

Season 7, also known as Tomb of Annihilation, centers on the Death Curse:

The talk of the streets and taverns has all been about the so-called death curse: a wasting disease afflicting everyone who’s ever been raised from the dead. Victims grow thinner and weaker each day, slowly but steadily sliding toward the death they once denied.

When they finally succumb, they can’t be raised—and neither can anyone else, regardless of whether they’ve ever received that miracle in the past. Temples and scholars of divine magic are at a loss to explain a curse that has affected the entire region, and possibly the entire world.

This has implications for the entire storyline, but not just those running the hardcover. AL released a document previewing the changes, or at least those affecting AL events before the rest of us get our hands on the actual content. The first versihttps://calendar.google.com/calendar/ical/srii4pikmj0t0n3tknn6kemd2g%40group.calendar.google.com/public/basic.icson of document specified that the Curse would also apply to characters running content from Seasons 5 and 6 (Storm King’s Thunder and Tales from the Yawning Portal). That part was quickly changed, and at the time of this writing, the rule in version 6.5 is:

The Death Curse is applied to all D&D Adventurers League characters playing a storyline season 7 or CCC adventure on or after August 16th, 2017. The curse is a—if not the—fundamental aspect of Tomb of Annihilation. If you’re playing through the lower-tier storyline season 7 or CCC adventures, the curse is an ever-present threat.

(Emphasis original.)

This doesn’t bother me, in part because D&D is not like a computer RPG where savescumming is an accepted tactic and sometimes even an intentional part of the design. Character death should mean something. I find myself firmly in the minority, though, because people have gotten very upset about the idea of losing a beloved character.

One way to avoid losing said beloved character, of course, involves not submitting that character to Season 7, especially Tier 1 and Tier 2 content.

New players will not know that this is a change: they will view character death as something serious and possibly permanent. Casual players should definitely take Lindsay’s advice and start with a fresh level 1 character. Players who lose a character at level 5 or above will have access to level 5 pregenerated replacements.

Regardless of whatever one may think of the original document, the current one is pretty reasonable. Playing through Season 7 requires grappling with the core mechanic, which motivates and drives the entire storyline. I appreciate them removing the effect from prior storyline content, however, as characters there literally have no way to deal with the Death Curse.

Everything Else

Player riots aside, we already know a few interesting bits about Season 7. For one, the DDAL adventures, instead of focusing on some area separate from the hardcover adventure, will take place in the same region (Chult, rather than Hillsfar or Mulmaster or Phlan). In fact, they fit together, so that (for example) DDAL07-01 “A City on the Edge” will serve as an expanded hook into the actual Tomb of Annihilation hardcover. All the DDAL adventures will release on the Dungeon Masters Guild for public play, though regional conventions can get them earlier.

The scheduling works like this:

  • 2017-09-05: DDAL07-01 released. As in past seasons, this consists of five 1-hour scenarios for Tier 1 characters (levels 1-4).
  • 2017-09-08: Tomb of Annihilation released at local gaming stores and select partners
  • 2017-09-19: Tomb of Annihilation in wide release (e.g. Amazon)
  • 2017-10-03: DDAL07-02 released. Unlike past seasons, the first Tier 2 (levels 5-10) module also consists of five 1-hour scenarios!
  • 2017-11-07: DDAL07-03, -04, and -05 released. These adventures make up The Jungle Has Fangs trilogy. Maze Arcana fans take note: the first two of these were authored by Rudy Rutenberg and Satine Phoenix!
  • 2017-12-05: DDAL07-06, -07, and -08 released. This is another trilogy, The Rot from Within, but for Tier 2. The first of these lists James Introcaso as the author, known to many of us as an excellent D&D podcaster.
  • 2018: Tier 3 and 4 content will show up.

I have created a Google Calendar [ical] to track all this plus the Quest of the Week (which gives double DM rewards):

Obviously it’s unofficial but I took everything directly from the listing at the official AL web site.

In the mean time, I hope the good folks at the Adventurers League keep pushing boundaries. Not everything will always work perfectly the first time around, but maintaining a status quo will definitely get stale and lead to boredom.

Downtime and renown in Adventurers League

I really hate how downtime and renown work differently in hardcovers than modules. For renown, I can kind of understand:

Unless otherwise specified, renown is awarded at the rate of 1 renown point per adventure (or 1 renown point for every 4 cumulative hours of play for Hardcover adventures).

But downtime is particularly annoying.

Downtime is awarded at the rate of 5 downtime days per 2 hours of prescribed adventure length (or 5 downtime days for every 2 cumulative hours of play for Hardcover adventures).

(Both quotes are taken from the D&D Adventurers League Dungeon Master’s Guide v3.0.)

The marble table at the center was normally covered with Jace's neatly squared stacks of notes. He'd moved that into a private office; the library had become a common room because the table was the only one in the house large enough to accommodate them all... Today the table held only a pitcher of water and six glasses.

I really wish that downtime, at least, just used the actual time played. It’s already a metagame mechanic, mostly used (in AL) for specific types of tasks like trading magic items and copying scrolls. Players can use it for training and crafting, of course, but I don’t know how often that actually happens.

Primarily, the frustration just comes from having two different systems. This means explaining to players why they get less rewards for tonight’s session than for last week’s, just because we’re playing through a DDAL adventure meant to bridge between chapters in the hardcover. (This applies to all three DDAL modules in the Tales from the Yawning Portal storyline season.)

But also, as I’ve noted before, those module estimates can vary wildly between groups, whether due to playstyle or just venue. Groups that spend a lot of time roleplaying, for example, already receive less XP per hour, and that’s okay, but personally I don’t like the fact that it also affects downtime and renown – but only when playing DDAL modules. And online games just take longer, due to lack of normal social cues and dealing with the VTT interface. Moving tokens and figuring things out in Roll20 seems slower than doing it at a table.

That doesn’t even consider the fact that the time estimates for the DDAL modules often seem incredibly naive. Maybe some groups can get through A Thousand Tiny Deaths in two hours, but it seems unlikely.

I recognize this isn’t a major issue at all – it’s a minor “quality of life” thing that probably affects Adventurers League DMs more than anyone else. But we are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the AL. Maybe small QoL things can help keep that lifeblood flowing…

 

Tomb of Annihilation: AL campaign planning

tomb2.jpg

The Quest of the Week schedule for Adventurers League got an update today, and it has something special in it… Tomb of Annihilation modules! They’ll start running in September, and some of them have some particularly evocative names:

  • DDAL07-01 City on the Edge – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-02 Over the Edge – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)
  • DDAL07-03 A Day at the Races – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-04 A Walk in the Park – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-05 Whispers in the Dark – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-06 Fester and Burn – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)
  • DDAL07-07 Rotting Roots – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)
  • DDAL07-08 Putting the Dead to Rest – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)

Looks like the dinosaur race event from the hardcover will make its way into the smaller modules in some fashion! I’m sure the storyline will have some Tier 3 content as well, but not in the Quests of the Week (or not in 2017 anyway). The filler weeks will focus on the Elemental Evil storyline, but that one doesn’t inspire me for whatever reason.

Campaign planning

Episodic play fits me best because of travel requirements for my job (around 1/3 of the time). Right now, I usually run Rage of Demons on Monday nights and Tales from the Yawning Portal on Thursday nights. Every other Sunday, a friend runs a homebrew campaign in which I play, and my kids and I go to a nearby FLGS on Wednesday nights. So for my own AL games, I will probably wind down the RoD campaign in favor of ToA. However, I would like to keep my YP campaign going because the dungeons provide so much delicious fun. I don’t expect to run The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan until we start the ToA season, since it fits Chult so thematically.

This means that, starting in September, a “normal” week (uninterrupted by travel or other events) will include:

  • Monday: Tomb of Annihilation storyline (DM)
  • Wednesday: Lost Mine of Phandelver or other AL modules (player)
  • Thursday: Tales from the Yawning Portal (DM)
  • Sunday (alternating): Home campaign with friends (player)

That seems like not enough, but in reality that is plenty. Between family, game prep, and other hobbies, running two AL “campaigns” and playing in two others already might have me at the limit.

 

Sunless Citadel: Dragon Rodeo

This post will have spoilers for the first level of Sunless Citadel. If you don’t want that for any reason, then don’t read. I strongly urge anyone planning to play in this adventure to avoid spoilers. Preserve the fun for yourself! But if you have already played it or otherwise don’t mind, this session included some of the most fun I’ve had at the table. To use a phrase from Jim Davis of WebDM, this felt like mainlining Dungeons and Dragons directly into my eyeball.

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FunLGS

 

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Back room at Comic Asylum

Playing Adventurers League with my kids (we’re the trio in the lower left) has proved lots of fun. Yes, the group up there was far too large. We just didn’t have enough DMs to go around despite having some extra on hand to compensate for the primary organizer being unable to attend this week. I’ve offered to start running one-shots for those situations sometimes, but my kids really like being able to play with other DMs sometimes. And Travis does a great job engaging kids and being relentlessly positive. I’m learning a lot about how to run a group from him.

The best part of the scene above is the tremendous variety in the group. (There’s even a five-month-old at the table and he was the most adorable little butterball!) We have folks of all races, ages, genders, orientations, and experience levels, all brought together by the desire to roll dice and share our imaginations for a few hours every week. If you’re in driving distance of Richardson, Texas (on the northeast side of Dallas), come out to Comic Asylum some Wednesday. It’s a lot more fun now than in years past.

Also, we picked up some dice for my daughter at the store last week. But she just realized that one of the d6s has a problem that makes it unusable in actual play. See if you notice…

 

I only know one way to love things.

I only know one way to love things: throw myself into completely, maybe even obsessively.

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When I’m looking for a new pastime

That has an obvious dark side to it: at some point, I often tire of the thing and cast it aside, at least temporarily, once I’ve finished devouring it intellectually. I crave that sense of newness, of exploration. (Earlier in life, I feared that would apply to relationships too, but we recently celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary.) Continue reading

Review: Harried in Hillsfar

As a way of easing myself back into playing D&D “publicly” (i.e. not just for my kids or solo), I set up a couple of mini-campaigns on Roll20 to run according to Adventurers League rules. This way, I would have an easy time finding players and also an excuse for doing so in an episodic, open-table fashion.

DD_Out_of_the_Abyss_Rage_of_Demons_symbolThe first of these two campaigns follows the Rage of Demons storyline. Rather than run Out of the Abyss as I’d initially planned, I decided to run some of the Expeditions adventures from the Dungeon Masters Guild. Specifically, I first chose “Harried in Hillsfar” (DDEX3-01) because Wizards of the Coast had made it available for free via Dragon+.  Also, I’d wanted to check out that particular storyline as it had both the Underdark and demons, with a heavy dollop of madness mixed in.

That particular module consists of five scenarios or “mini adventures”. WotC seems to think each of those should run in about an hour each. In my experience, they take about an hour and a half to two hours each. The setup for the adventure overall focuses on the rantings of a madman. Somehow, the players realize he is actually prophesying, and they turn that into clues that lead to five separate scenarios. That felt really weak, but I ran with it anyway because, with a public group, we didn’t really have time for an in-depth “session zero” to get the group together. I would have liked a better introductory hook.

The scenarios themselves vary. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the first two felt too much alike: go to a farm and discover a mystery, then halfway resolve it by trying to be heroes. (That first scenario nearly led to a TPK – some of the demonically-affected creatures can present a significant combat challenge!) The third scenario felt even more disconnected from the overall storyline. However, I really liked running the fourth and fifth, and the reactions of the players (especially to scenario four) indicated that they really felt immersed: creepy stuff was happening and they had to work to figure out how to resolve things.

Grabbing it and making it your own will allow you to deal with that rough setup, which is mostly just a problem in the way the AL set up this particular content. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend running this as an adventure. Think of these instead as five encounters (or maybe just the last two) that you can drop into your campaign to foreshadow some great evil stalking the world or just to set the tone with demons and undead and cultists.