Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday Recap: Guest DM in the Valley of the Lords

I can show you the world...
Well, it's the last week of my Valley of the Lords reference articles. Next week, I will be taking Monday off due to my wife and I moving into a new apartment over the weekend. That and Labor Day make this a long but hectic weekend, so no article.

Fortunately, after that we should be back in the groove for some good, old-fashioned recap articles! Exciting! I'm looking forward to both running and playing in some story-driven games.

Not that Valley isn't a blast. I brought out my old Muscle Wizard and had a grand time. But it certainly is a different play style from my normal monthly games. I think that might have had an effect on the guest DM, too. Let's dig in.

Guest DM in the Valley of the Lords

So, the first thing I needed to do was to give the guest DM everything she needed to run the game in the world. Fortunately, she already had a good grasp on NPCs, factions, and commerce from being a player in the campaign so far.

I broke down the stuff she needed in a google document:
  • Time and weather information
  • The data for the hexes the PCs would pass through
  • Some details on a single adventuring site she could use
  • My process for running adventuring sites

Most of this stuff was just cut-and-paste from my notes, so I don't think I'll need to post it here. The interesting part is the third and fourth points. I'm going to go into how I plan and run an individual adventure site. I currently have 83 sites written in case a group stumbles upon them.

Each site starts with an encounter level and the skill necessary to investigate the site. For this game, the DM used the "Southern Boar Cave" site, so this was a "Level 1 (Nature)" site. That means it's suitable for level 1 characters, and any character with a Nature bonus of +1 or higher would be able to assess that.

Next, I need a description of the area. I like to include features of the exterior and interior separately, so if the PCs run into the area but don't explore it, I can still give them a basic description. The boar cave had plenty of trampled grass, leading to a shallow cavern with hole-riddled walls.

Finally, every site needs an encounter (in this case, boars) and some loot (some bronze farming implements from long ago). The monsters should be appropriate to the site's encounter level, and the loot should be enough to leave each player with 20-25 gp times the encounter level of the site. Thus, the boar cave should leave us about 20 gold richer. If it were a level 2 site, it would be 40-50 gold.

That's all I write when it comes to preparation. A basic outline is enough to get me through the session, because I tend to write out the rest of the game at the table. As I mentioned before, I use the combat dashboard to determine encounter size and loot type on the fly. I can use the exploration dashboard to reference my short descriptions. Once they get into the site, it's up to my imagination to get through the game. And I keep some rules in mind to help it out.

The first one is fairly obvious: build hooks around your players. I don't write hooks for a dungeon until I know who is playing in a particular game. If I write about a cave where an ogre has stolen the blacksmith's daughter, that won't appeal to the players who just want to go out and fight orcs or get some gold. The story should always center around the PCs. I press my players to make PCs that desire to adventure and have strong goals, so I always have something I can sink my hooks into. 

Next, I divide the site up into spaces. There should be an outside, an inside, a deeper inside, etc. The site should have somewhat of a hierarchy, where one monster or type of monster is the dominant owner of the area. Then, the spaces should reflect that hierarchy. Influential creatures have better protection, creatures that need protection might be further back in the site. This also fits into the D&D combat model, where combats are clearly delineated.

Finally, I add some mystery to the site. Usually this is something that I add on the fly based on the backstories of the PCs, NPCs, or the world. It's not a random "you don't know what this magic item does", because that gets old and they can pay to have it identified. It's more like "this ring has an ornery old spirit in it and he snarks about the history of the valley" type things. Mysteries are a good way to expand the feeling of the world, but it's important to keep track of the expansion and point it in the right direction.

And direction is very important in exploration
Then, when it comes to running the site, I use passive and active skills, as well as combat, to let the players explore the spaces, find the mysteries, and pursue the hooks. This is all fairly straightforward, but experience as a DM can help you find the best ways to set up games for yourself. I like to prepare the broad strokes, and work out the details later.

Our guest DM did a great job at this. She appealed to the player's need for gold for her hook, by offering the enticing promise of valuable truffle mushrooms within the boar cave. She added some mystery by making the cave simply a front for an abandoned orcish mine, but the back was collapsed. What were they mining here? This also divided the space up into good combat segments.

I did notice that something was off compared to the other games she had run, however. I spoke to her after the game, and it turns out she had felt uneasy about running the site within the larger system I had set up. The fact that there was already so much history and worldbuilding attached to the valley made it difficult for her to add in her own material.

Perhaps next time I should simply let the Guest DM create their own site and add it into the mix. That would give more freedom with monsters and hooks, and allow them to do some of the set up in their own way. After all, if the lore gets too incredibly off-target, I can always retcon it.

So, that's all the prep articles I've done for now! I might add some more later if necessary, but right now the game is running smoothly with my current setup. I might also use some stuff from past or future Wednesday articles, too, but that's lore that isn't revealed yet!

Thanks for reading!

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