Every couple years it seems like Dungeons & Dragons makes another push further into the mainstream. Initially the only mainstream attention that it got was negative. With horror stories of demon worshipping kids getting lost in sewers and other nonsense only tangentially linked to the game itself.
For most of my memory, tabletop roleplaying has been associated with a negative stigma. Throughout high-school and college it was a pastime that, while popular, was almost exclusively relegated to nerdy niche. However, we are recently enjoying an increased visibility of all things “geek” in mainstream media. A lot of which translates directly into the increased popularity of D&D. The most popular show on TV (Game of Thrones) is a fantasy setting. The heroes of another hugely popular show (Stranger Things) love to play D&D.
Don’t take my word for it, even The New Yorker is extolling the virtues and resurgence of the game.
So Jon is Dungeon Master. He’s not just the one guy in the crew who happens to run Dungeons & Dragons for us, he has put as much time into mastering dungeons as a lot of people do into their careers.
How many games has Jon run?
I think my first big campaign started before grade 6, was a multi-year affair with the next door neighbours and my little brother (set in a homebrewed ice age setting). In terms of campaigns that lasted multiple years long and actually finished their stories; that’d be 4. If we’re including pick up games, or games that lasted a few sessions and bombed quite a few more. That’s just D&D mind you, if we include other games or LARPs or whatever, the number would be much higher.
I have never played a single game of D&D until a few years ago when Jon started a 4th Edition game. The game spanned something like 7 years and probably translated into about 5-600 hours of just gameplay. That doesn’t account for how much time Jon spends planning sessions.
This guy over here somehow thought that only playing Vampire LARPs made him somehow less of an RP nerd. I don’t even know man.
Hey man, I played in a few Robotech campaigns, and also a long-running Babylon 5 RPG game. I just never got around to playing D&D.
Where were we? Hundreds of hours of a gameplay and thousands of hours of prep?
That game started off initially as a kind of beer and pizza D&D game with the adventuring party fighting blobs. Or slimes. Or jellies. One of those. But then it kind of became something more serious over time.
They were slimes ripped off of Dragon Warrior. The giant-insect infested island was ripped off of Exile 3. The mind flayer abduction scenario was ripped off of Forgotten Realms novels. The point of the game was originally “gee this 4th edition is way different than 3rd, let’s start a game and see how it plays” and then 7 years later you guys were duking it out with the Dragon of Tyr.
The lethality of the campaign ramped up, the world as the characters’ knew it hung in the balance, the universe as they knew it hung in the balance. Stakes got pretty high and the game got pretty heavy.
Still, we saw it through all the way to the end. That’s something.
After about a nearly year long hiatus from D&D, Jon’s DM batteries seemingly had more precious dungeon juice in them and he pitched us a new game, with a new format.
The last game got a little bogged down with side quests, I will admit that. I sort of had a mini-list of things I didn’t like and wanted to go crazy trying to fix.
Yeah, the volume of stuff going on in that game was staggering. I remember a point somewhere in year 5 where the players got together out of game and had to have a serious conversation about what the hell we were doing. We were being pulled in so many directions by different plot threads that we just had to decide out of character what we were going to focus on in-character. Ultimately we chose “investigate the tombs of the legendary warriors” as our main focus and more or less ignored the rest of it. Not out of disservice to the work that Jon put into those side-quests but more to just head towards the conclusion of the game. (With Jaime still muttering under his breath that the tombs were red herrings for another year or so).
The old game was an open world sandbox style traditional Dungeons & Dragons game. World map, travel time, etc. Travelling back and forth from one place to the next and each quest kind of flowing into the next.
A Brand New Adventure
The idea for the framework of this new game is that it’s a bunch of old time adventurers talking about their past heroics (or failures). Before each session the group goes around the table just kind of pitching story hooks. One player chooses the hook as “his story” and kind of becomes the star of the next game.
Thing: characters in typical D&D games only get to shine when the player clevers up. This is fair, but in a long game some people always take center stage. This gives everyone a turn. It also makes writing the session easier as I can base it on whatever skills the lead character has.
So far we’ve had: Riding skeletons into town, saving an Amazon tribe, a pirate race, and stumbling into a room at a fancy party.
Jon’s also introduced an in game/out of gamer timer to each session. We’ve got a hard real-world clock of about 3 hours to play out the adventure. If we fail to succeed at the adventure the in game repercussion is the bartender at the tavern kicking out the old timers because it’s closing time.
Thing: shopping is boring, travel is boring, and lots of typical stuff that happens in a D&D game isn’t really adventurer level. Keith didn’t mention it above but a part of this is that each session starts in action. So we start the game already in action, the players know what they’re doing because they selected the story the week before, and we get right to the meat of the game. Awesome.
If I’ve got this right, there’s basically a 3 Star system to each adventure.
0 Star: Absolute Failure, the whole party gets nothing.
1 Star: We succeed and we get a level
2 Star: We gain a level and the “main character” of the story gets a special reward
3 Star: All of the above and we get a downtime action that we can use to enhance our characters. I used a downtime to buy a monkey!
The special reward is a wish, basically. The player wishes for a type of item and gets it level appropriate. I’m not 100% sure that this is working, but it sure gives the rewards some punch, and also is a kind of balance between the pressures a DM feels between giving a player the items they want and being fair.
Eric ran an episodic “a level per game” game and I fucking loved it. The end of the story at level 20 is zooming right at us. It keeps pressure on me to keep the story moving and lets the players have fun with cool powers.
Something that happened in character creation was that I think all of the players kind of had a knee jerk reaction to the overall serious nature of Jon’s last game. We all kind of created much sillier characters than the characters we had been playing in the last campaign.
Man this is Forgotten Realms Action Theater, the sillier the better. Maybe if you guys die a bunch someone can come back as a Modron.
I mean, except Brubax. He is still Brubax. But he’s emo now.
Let’s meet the characters!
Jim Clocks (me!) is a Half-Aquatic Elf Swashbuckling Rogue Pirate! Huge amounts of Charisma, decent Wisdom but by golly is his Intelligence low. I play him super impulsive and relatively care free. I try to make him friendly and supportive of the team as much as possible (while you know, robbing and pirating behind their backs, that’s neither here nor there).
Jaxo is a Lizardfolk Monk who talks like Birdperson from Rick & Morty! His people have been attacked by a kind of genophage and he is looking for a cure. That might sound serious but remember, talks and acts like Birdperson.
L’eau D’ur the water-Warlock! The drunk Warlock. The drunk Philosopher Warlock. I keep forgetting that he’s a Genasi. He should play that up more. I don’t really know his story yet. I just realized his name is “Hard Water” in French. I thought it was Lodor like the Game of Thrones guy but with an “L”.
Tidus the Merman! By far the most heroic of our team. Like, in the classic sense. He wants to bust in doors and save the day and even though we’ve only had a few sessions that often means just smashing the thing we’re trying to figure out.
Giddeon the Sailor Man Bard. He’s a sailor. So I hate him (in character). He’s given me very little reason to hate him, but as a born and bred Pirate I feel like I have to hate him out of principle. It’s like a hacker hating a programmer. Corporate drone! Working for the man! Seize the day! Anyhow, his main thing is that he’s brash and intimidating.
Brubax the Brubax! He’s a Goliath wielding an ax that he calls the Brubax. His name is also Brubax. Presumably he has also named his dick the Brubax. The player’s previous character was a Shifter named Brubax. He really missed playing Brubax though, so in this game he came back as another character named Brubax. Only this time he’s a Goliath instead of a Shifter. And he’s sad.
The other thing Jono did was make us all roll up a second character. This character then became our nemesis. A kind of persistent antagonist for each individual character who might pop up from time to time (especially in our respective “hero” stories). Which is neat.
The nemesis are kind of filler for me. Like… do I need a villain for this session? If so, it’s the nemesis. That way every one of these encounters can have a touch of backstory interaction, also one PC can always have the “Oooh! It’s the kenku, I hate this guy because…” speech. With just a hint of Scooby-Doo “Old man jenkins!”. I like watching you guys try to explain your backstories to each other in game rationalizing why this crazy random whoever hates you.
So that’s the setup.
Given the extremely episodic nature of the game that Jon is running, it (in theory) allows for a bit of an open dialogue between player and DM after the fact. For the most part, if we miss something he set up in an adventure, it’s gone forever. By hopping in and out of the grander story of the characters we will have a series of one-off adventures that are just part of a bigger story.
So we’re going to write about it. Starting with our sixth session (we decided not to try and revisit hazy memories of previous sessions), Jon and I will hash out the comings and goings of the game.
Join us every two weeks (assuming we don’t miss a game here and there) where we analyze the successes and failures of players and DM as we work our way through Jon’s latest D&D campaign: Big Fish.
Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.
Kenku image from the talented Carakav on DeviantArt.
Dungeons & Dragons logo copyright Wizards of the Coast.
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