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?

Session planning during an off night

Charioteer PapyrusMy intended one-shot dungeon crawl ended up cancelled tonight as half the group had various real-life crises and could not attend. While disappointed, I decided to make the most of it and spent time preparing for the next Lost Mine of Phandelver session.

We still have at least one character a little too far behind on XP and another whose player cannot attend. It occurred to me that injecting a completely new element such as another small dungeon could help even things out slightly. However, a list of the current hooks and quests instead indicates that the group could instead engage in some exploration and role-playing.

Combat shouldn’t comprise the whole of an RPG, otherwise we could just play Battletech. Occasionally it seems like the game mechanics reward combat over everything else. Experience points and treasure generally come from fighting monsters. But adventures can counterbalance that effect by including quests that require the characters to solve problems using something other than an axe and liberal application of magic missile. The adventure as written does this to an extent already, such as granting XP for dealing with an undead oracle who does not fight.

Factions and secret societies can also help here. If a character belongs to such an organization, they might have received some sort of individual mission that grants some reward. That reward could range from experience to a magic item to a favor that the character can use later. The current Tyranny of Dragons storyline explicitly encourages this.

Hopefully the one-shot group can reassemble in the future. With the impending holidays, regular campaign sessions will probably become even more challenging to schedule.

Play Report: Lost Mine of Phandelver Episode 2

RPGs may be at their most fun when everything goes pear-shaped due to adventurer decisions.

The story

The group, consisting of a fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard, explored Phandalin with great caution. They expect intrigue, conspiracies, and betrayal at every turn (meaning I need to find a way to give that to them). The adventurers meandered about town to investigate the eponymous “lost mine”. Several encounters with the Redbrands occurred in the village streets during this investigation. Sildar Hallwinter executed a sort of coup d’etat and named himself the Sheriff of Phandalin. The village didn’t care much for the prior ineffectual townmaster anyway.

NothicAt this point, my group finally decided to head into the Redbrand Hideout. Acting on a tip from a local village boy about a side entrance into the hill, the adventurers sneaked in at night without incident. The rogue ranged over the large hall encompassing the crevasse. He has a dangerous tendency to run a bit too far afield, even with creepy telepathic voices whispering in their heads. While he crept down a side passage, a nothic crawled out from the crevasse. Just about then, the rogue came back around the corner and saw the monster. He immediately drew down and landed an arrow right into it. This led to a running fight along both edges of the chasm, a dead nothic, and an unconscious fighter. After the group stabilized their meat shield, they poked around in the chasm. But only the rogue (who prefers his shortbow) wanted the ancient, mysterious sword they found.

The discovery of secret doors gave them some choices, and so they decided to raid the armory and explore a little past that. Undead skeletons chased that rogue back to the group, until a dragonborn cleric turned them. One of the undead ran so far, in fact, that it fell into a pit trap and collapsed into a heap of bones. The party also found an enslaved family. (The captors didn’t survive more than a few seconds.) This stoked the party’s bloodthirst tremendously. So when another guard elsewhere in the hideout surrendered at the end of a fight, the party had no mercy and slew him.

Despite the group’s successes, they made several important tactical errors during the raid. They would bunch up in corridors and thus not bring their full range of options to bear. That led to some problems but they’d managed to eke out victory each time. Later, they decided to take a short rest on the edge of the chasm. The adventurers agreed that the cleric should not use his spell slots, and the fighter didn’t want to use his Second Wind. (I didn’t understand why, but I did ask several times whether that seemed like a good idea. That’s the best hint I can give to reconsider the plan.) So as their rest completed, two patrolling bugbears came around a corner and surprised them.

Bugbears love surprise attacks, in case you didn’t know.

The monsters immediately applied massive blunt trauma to the fighter’s and cleric’s heads. The wizard had already disappeared due to a player who didn’t show. The rogue decided that he didn’t stand a chance against two angry furry monsters and fled back to town alone.

I will make a quick analytic note here. The bugbear encounter decreased from three to two monsters because of the missing PC. This meant that they faced a base of 400 XP . The encounter difficulty for three characters and two monsters tell us to multiply this by 1.5. So this puts the encounter right at the Deadly threshold (200 XP for second-level characters). As originally written, this encounter contained 300XP of monsters per characters. That put it way above the Deadly threshold, so if anything I nerfed it.

What’s next

The players could have chosen capture rather than death. They could try to escape in conjunction while the rogue attempted a rescue with some NPC companions. Instead, they decided that they preferred to reroll. The players in question decided that their characters just didn’t fit them well. They did communicate quite emphatically that they’d had fun, which relieved my mind a little.

I have some logistical issues now, owing to a player who’s missed two sessions in a row. His distant time zone might present too much of an obstacle for him. If so, then I will recruit a replacement. With the others, we’re going to keep having fun with new characters. I have already started to work with the two rerolling players to hook them into the adventure, of course. We might use the factions in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline for that purpose. Or they might just have their own reasons to drift into town. This might give me a better reason to get them to Thundertree. Iarno Albrek aka Glasstaff also remains at large with a significant force at his dispoal. If they don’t go after him immediately, that’s going to lead to Bad Things in Phandalin. The Black Spider will react with concern to this disruption regardless.

Maybe it’s time for some intrigue after all…

Cancelling my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign

Cover of Hoard of the Dragon Queen
I decided a few days ago to cancel my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. The module felt far too linear for me, as it consists largely of a plot rather than situations. For the purpose of organized play across many groups where players can come and go as they please, it probably works fine (at least for some GMs). But it doesn’t fit the way I like to play. Other issues specific to that group and my organization of it had led me to dread both prep and game night. These include a huge variation in player understanding (both of D&D and of computers in general) and my need to stick closely to the rules as written for both Fifth Edition and Adventurers League.

While Lost Mine of Phandelver certainly has a plot to follow, it also has enough non-linearity that the group has significant leeway. The players in my group have bonded fairly well (at least it seems like that to me). I haven’t done a lot of customization of the adventure, but a group that intends to stick together after completing the module could twiddle quite a lot of knobs without breaking things. It just feels more robust in this way, which makes sense given its intent as part of the Starter Set rather than as the centerpiece for the game’s main storyline.

I would probably enjoy HotDQ more as a novel, though, as such things go. Wizards of the Coast will almost certainly start to publish more Tyranny of Dragons fiction next year in addition to the comics already available on their site. In fact, that’s precisely what damns this adventure for me: I feel as though we are experiencing a predefined arc rather than adventuring through the world. We experience the episodes as theme park rides, albeit gorgeously crafted ones. The maps provide some really gorgeous eye candy and the NPCs and magic items could end up in an independent campaign. Actually, a GM could forklift one or two of the episodes for some extra spice. So I’m glad I have the book, although I probably won’t pick up Rise of Tiamat immediately upon release.

Instead, I’ve started preparing for a new sandbox campaign in a unique setting. I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks, especially after the impending release of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.