Friday, January 16, 2015

On Running a Module for the First Time

            One of the weird quirks of my roleplaying career is that until recently I had never run a pre-published adventure module.  I have made use of plenty of Campaign Setting Boxed Sets, such as the Revised Dark Sun Campaign Setting for AD&D 2nd Edition or Legend of the Five Rings’ Otosan Uchi Boxed Set which did include the Scorpion Clan Coup plot line that involved one clan’s attempt to usurp the throne.  Yet, I’d never run a straight forward module or adventure path.  Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has given me the opportunity to finally run a pre-published adventure series, and it’s been a blast. 
            Because my primary RPG has been Vampire:  The Masquerade for so long, I didn’t have many options for selecting a module to run.  VtM primarily offered settings books such as my favorite, LA by Night, and fan favorite, Chicago by Night, but few adventure modules; although Midnight Circus is a notable exception.  Running a Classic World of Darkness RPG meant that the Storyteller was responsible for preparing an adventure, creating NPCs, and so forth.  Conversely, games like Dungeons & Dragons are renowned for their many outstanding modules like The Temple of Elemental Evil, The Tomb of Horrors, Dead Gods, and so on. 
            Due to the staggered release schedule for D&D 5E, the Player’s Handbook and the adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen were released simultaneously in August, but the Dungeon Master’s Guide was not released until December.  I was left with no option but to run Hoard of the Dragon Queen as I lacked much of the information I’d need to create NPCs, build encounters, and seed treasure appropriately.  I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I was making assumptions based on my experiences in D&D 3.0 or 4.0.   The cynical side of me believes that Wizards of the Coast used the staggered release schedule to help sell more copies of Hoard of the Dragon Queen due to the lack of necessary information that Dungeon Masters require.  
            Conspiracy theory aside, Hoard of the Dragon Queen has been a joy to run and a learning experience for me.  As this article isn’t intended as a review of the module itself (that will come later after I’ve run the entire thing), I want to discuss the lessons that I learned from the module and my overall impression of running a Dungeons & Dragons module.
            Reading through Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which is intended to take players from level 1 to 7 or 8, I was happy to find that it included a variety of adventure types.  Other modules, such as the Sunless Citadel (the first adventure for D&D 3.0) are just a long dungeon crawl.  Hoard of the Dragon Queen has the players defend a town from the Cult of the Dragon, track the attackers to their lair, infiltrate the enemy’s encampment and rescue prisoners before they set off to track the Cult, and joining and protecting a caravan that travels from Baldur’s Gate to Waterdeep.  The various episodes offer enough variation that neither the DM nor the players get bored, but the encounters remain exciting having players face off against all manner of creatures from kobolds to perytons and bullywugs and even a few Half-Dragons. 

            The greatest benefit to using any module is that the writers have provided nearly everything for you:  level appropriate encounters, NPCs with both stats and background information provided, and an interesting plot.  Someone else has already done all the heavy lifting, but no module, regardless of how well-written, can take into account everything that the players could do or give every NPC a name.  Even with the adventure already prepared for me, I was frequently required to improvise, create NPCs or adjudicate a player action that the writers of the module had not anticipated.  That’s simply the nature of RPGs, no one can anticipate what players are going to do. 
            So far, the adventure has been a railroad with very little chance for characters to change the course of the adventure once they have started.  Player actions, other than success or failure in an encounter, really don’t have much effect on the outcome of the module.  Players can make some choices, such as the order in which they tackle the encounters while defending the town of Greenest or which merchant they chose to work for.  Again, these problems are unavoidable with most pre-published modules.  That’s the social contract of an adventure module:  everyone agrees to stick with the general flow of the adventure, follow the clues, and work towards the goal of the adventure.  Attempting to derail or sidetrack the adventure disrupts the fun for everyone because the DM has very few options for resolving disruptive play, especially in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and maintaining the adventure. 
            Having the NPCs and scenes pre-written is a benefit and saved me a lot of prep time, but that meant that I didn’t have the benefit of creating those same NPCs  and that I wasn’t as familiar with the goals and motivations of those characters.  Sadly, Hoard of the Dragon Queen doesn’t have any NPCs that really stand out.  Players are moving too fast from point to point for any NPC, villain or background character, to really make an impact.   Since the module is goal oriented (locate the destination of the Cult of the Dragon’s treasure caravan), players rarely get more than a day at any one stop.   I prefer to have a recurring cast of NPCs who constantly interact with the players and also change and grow along with the player characters.  That’s a small nitpick of just one module and is certainly not representative of all modules. 

            As a DM who is looking to improve my skills, Hoard of the Dragon Queen offers a tremendous example of how to vary adventure types to keep players from getting bored with an unending string of dungeons, escort missions, and treasure hunts.  The structure of Episode 3 which has the players working as escorts for a caravan that the Cult of the Dragon is using as cover to transport their stolen goods north offers a number of novel encounters.  Some are focused on combat while others simply require good roleplaying to resolve. 
            As noted above, the release schedule of D&D 5E meant that I didn’t have access to the information I needed to generate my own adventures.  This limitation meant that both of the groups for which I DM were stuck with the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module, and that I was able to observe how two wildly different groups dealt the same scenarios.  Each group progressed at their own pace, and currently one group is nearly an entire Episode ahead of the other.  The slower group has had the benefit of me seeing what problems occurred with the first group, and I could adjust some of the encounters or provide more accurate descriptions.  The most egregious problem with the adventure has been a poorly designed encounter against a group of powerful NPCs that occurs in Episode 3.  The fight is nearly unavoidable (because the adventure states that NPCs in the caravan most likely will start the fight if the players don’t) and the four antagonists who are each CR 8 in the encounter are much higher level than the party who have only just reached level 4.  More importantly, the NPCs’ weapons do enough damage to kill a player character with a single attack.  I don’t want to go too in depth in my description of the encounter as I don’t want to spoil the adventure for those who haven’t progressed this far, but those who have played or run this section of the module know exactly how bad this is encounter is.    
            Because so many people have been similarly limited, Hoard of the Dragon Queen has become a touchstone module that nearly everyone who has adopted D&D 5E is playing or has played.  Similar to Keep on the Borderlands or Against the Giants, Hoard of the Dragon Queen has become a shared experience in which players and DMs are swapping stories about how they overcame various encounters or offer criticism and suggestions for improving how the module can be run.  Every message board has at least one thread on Hoard of the Dragon Queen and I have found several videos on YouTube (such as The Escapist Magazine's game) and of people running Hoard (although sadly I haven’t had a chance to watch them yet).  All of these are invaluable resources for DMs who want to run this module and provide different examples of how to run this module.

            I haven’t finished the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module for either group yet.  The holidays caused a long break in both campaigns, but I intend to finish the module for both groups.  One group will continue with The Rise of Tiamat, the sequel to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, while the other group will transition to adventures that I will write.  So far, running this module has been a success, and I’ve learned a lot from the experience.  My next goal will be to adapt modules from AD&D Planescape to D&D 5E for one of my groups.  Without a doubt, running a pre-published module has been a success, and I plan to run others if the opportunity arises.  A new module for D&D 5E, Princes of the Apocalypse, is scheduled for release in March and I will most likely run that one as well! 
            If you’d like to share your experiences on running a module for the first time or any memorable modules, please leave your comments below. 

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