Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bring back the WotC D&D playcasts

I’ve enjoyed many of the videos and podcasts from WotC showcasing 4E. The Penny Arcade podcasts were very enjoyable. I expect with the next version of D&D rolling out there will be an entirely new set of play sessions released. Quite a few folks have used them to introduce the game to new players. However more effort should be put into a special series to introduce the game, especially for new DMs.

One format I have loved talking about adventure design is Return to Northmoore. Typically you have one podcast talking about the adventure in detail, then another session of the actual playthrough. What I particularly enjoyed was the DM commentary.

So let’s fast forward another year or so from now, with DnDNext out on the shelves. WotC, get a simple dungeon delve adventure up on the web. Something like a lighter version of Kobold Hall. Just use stock monsters out of the book. Don’t worry about any stats. Have a simple map up of the dungeon. Add a branch in the layout and avoid the linear room to room exploration (more on that later). Make sure to throw in a room that has a trap and possibly some puzzle element. Don’t forget to have a few stock level one characters too. Have that as a nice PDF file a fledgling DM can page through. Then get the podcasts up.

Podcast 1: The Adventure prep and dungeon design. Have the show DM talk about the dungeon a bit. Give out the nuts and bolts of the design philosophy. Talk about why the rooms and encounters progress the way they do. Give some DM tips on preparing an adventure, how to address some potential problems. Finally, give at least a good 10 minutes talking about the story of this dungeon and why the players are exploring it. Describe different adventure hooks for it.

Podcast 2: The party introduction. Describe the basic mechanics of the game and go through a quick rundown of abilities, AC, and HP. Have each player introduce themselves. Have them give a little background on their character. More importantly, insert some DM commentary on a few bullet points about key abilities as each party member is introduced.

Finally, the show DM should lay out the situation and cast a few adventure hooks, getting the players on board. Make sure to encourage that roleplaying. Get them lined up to explore the dungeon and as they enter the first room...

Podcast 3: The first combat. Give a complete overview of the fight. Present every die roll, every HP marked off, allow for plenty of questions and answers. In short, just like almost every existing WotC podcast for 4E.

Podcast 4+: Now for the other fights, have the lead up to the fight. Maybe play out the first round and then skip to the end. A blow by blow account is boring. You don’t have to focus on each die roll and listen in as each PC ponders their turn. Instead, focus in on presenting particular situations that come up with commentary by the show DM. Something like the following...

Show DM: The party is pretty much in the thick of it by now with the wizard suffering from poison by a giant spider bite. Let’s listen in on Fizzlelot’s turn.

DM: Okay, Fizzlelot. It’s your turn. You are poisoned. So you immediately take 5 points of poison damage.

Show DM: Ongoing damage is taken at the beginning of the player’s turn. They might have temporary hit points or some regenerative effect that can counter this. However if they drop to zero HP, they are down for the fight. Players can be pretty excited to do something on their turn and can forget any ongoing damage, so be sure to remember any ongoing effects.

Fizzlelot: Five points? Ouch. Okay, I’m down to 12 HP. I’m going to try something different and swing my staff at the creature.

DM: All right, make a basic attack rolling a d20.

Fizzlelot: Ack.. rolled a 4.

DM: Sorry not enough to hit it. That was your standard action. You have a minor and a move action.

Fizzlelot: This is pretty dicey right now where I am at. So I’ll use my move action to shift away from the giant spider. That’s about it. I’ll use my minor action to say some choice words to the beasty!

DM: Heh. Okay your turn is over. You get to make a saving throw to shake off the poison. Use a d20 roll and roll high.

Show DM: At the end of the player’s turn, they can attempt to make a saving throw for any effects that have a ‘save end’. The poison attack from giant spiders have such a condition. All the PC has to do is roll a 10 or more and they can shake off the effect.

Fizzlelot: Jeez. An 8. Can I get a break here?

DM: That's too bad. You are still poisoned. Let’s move on to Sir Slays-Stuff.

Show DM: Since the wizard rolled less than a 10, he is still poisoned and will continue to take ongoing damage the next turn. As a tip you might want to curb the use of too many monsters that inflict ongoing damage with low level parties. Players can get into some bad die streaks and the cumulative damage can add up. Not to mention they don’t quite have the magical items to help out. So be sure to use these type of monsters sparingly in your adventures.

Now here is the important bit. Skim through the remaining fights. Possibly key in on a few important rolls. For the final boss fight, give a general overview of the situation and play out that last turn. Streamline the podcast to cover high points of the fights. For roleplaying however, you want to play every minute of dialog.

That is why it’s important to have a branching path (and be sure to have some clues telegraphing what might be in each direction). Have that room with only a trap and a puzzle. Give opportunities for the players to talk about the situation and cover all those exploration discussions. That is the stuff you want to cover in its entirety. While combat is a part of the game, it’s a better sell to capture the table chatter and excitement of exploration.

Final Podcast: The wrap up. Have the DM lay out a foundation for another adventure and tie up any loose story bits. Finally, go around the table and get feedback from the players. Throw in some final DM commentary and advice about how to seed further adventure ideas and the importance of talking with your players, and most importantly, just having fun.

I hope more effort is put into getting a short series of podcasts out that help explain the game and give some guidance to new DMs. I tend to think there are so many existing fans of the game now, we tend to forget about trying to get stuff out there to help the newer players. A short series of podcasts like these can be a great step in helping newer players learn about, and grow to love, D&D.