Monday, 7 October 2013

Heading back to Krynn, part 1: DL13, prep

I had an interesting experience this weekend, running an AD&D Dragonlance session for the first time in over a decade.

Years ago, when 3rd Edition smashed into the the D&D landscape like the proverbial mountain on Istar, we left an instance of the Dragonlance DL-series unfinished following a short-lived attempt to convert it to the new rules which ended in under-powered characters and an exponential increase in work for the campaign's already-stressed DM.

Hard work though that campaign was, we've since always had a fondness for it. It was an incredibly long-running enterprise and featured several memorable PC's getting themselves into a lot of ridiculous situations, all against the backdrop of one of the most epic D&D adventure series ever committed to paper.

So, a couple of months back, we decided to resurrect the campaign using the original PC's and a by-the-book version of the AD&D rules.

This was a scary proposition for me. For all their qualities, those old adventures (of which we have two left to play in this run, DL13 and DL14), were a nightmare to prepare for. More than any other campaign I've run, you had to break those things right down to first principles to ensure that the players got an exciting experience and arrived at the start of the next module having felt they had a decent hand in actually getting themselves there.

Structural failings aside, which were as much a sign of the times as anything else (modules were just written differently back then, and Dragonlance was the first attempt to build an epic storyline into a campaign series), I also struggled to find the back-up I needed in the beautiful, but incomplete, Dragonlance Adventures campaign book, and the Tales of the Lance 2nd Edition boxed set, which at first seemed like such a god-send, but which turned out to be a disappointing (and un-indexed) mess of contradictions and questionable design.

Sitting down to prep DL13 brought all of that back home.

"Before starting the adventure you should bring the players to Kalaman". Awesome. That's thousands of miles from where we left them at the end of DL12. Thanks, Mr. Hickman! Then there's the utterly ridiculous opening council scene in which the Whitestone Lords debate the "best" way to get the PC's into Neraka, plans which include the option of giving them dragons to ride. Now what self-respecting adventurer wouldn't salivate at that prospect? Little would our eager hero know that by doing so, 70% of the adventure would immediately have been made redundant.

So here is DL13, on the one hand requiring you to plan and execute a months-long overland journey with absolutely no assistance, and on the other suggesting a course of action that, in a single stroke, renders over half of itself almost entirely pointless. All in the first few pages. Such are the follies of the DL series, unfortunately.

Still, those adventures will always have been the crucible in which I learned the true lessons of good D&D prep, and those lessons continue to serve me well in today's 4E landscape.

Here's how they applied to DL13.

1. What is the adventure trying to achieve? In purely campaign terms, DL13 facilitates the heroes' entry into Neraka (in preparation for the finale), and provides them with information on how they will defeat the Dark Queen, which in one of the many innovations of the DL series, isn't even decided until DL13. By the end of the module, the PC's need to be on Neraka's doorstep knowing what they have to do in order to prevail over Takhisis...or at least, that is what the events of my campaign will have led to. Like Sam and Frodo looking across Mordor towards Mount Doom, I want the true impossibility of what they have to do staring the PC's in the face as I close the book on DL13.

2. What are the adventure themes? What is essential and what can be discarded? DL13 is particularly cool in this respect. Exhaustion, hopelessness, the vagaries of fate, the needs of the many...Dragons of Truth has it all. Identifying these in advance helps me fashion encounters and modify the adventure in ways which reinforces these themes to the players.

The trek across the Taman Basuk isn't essential from a plot or structural point of view, but it is absolutely essential from a thematic point of view. It shows the extent of the Dragonarmy; it illustrates the yoke under which the citizens of the plains now live, and how the rest of Ansalon would be subjugated if evil were to prevail; it gives the PC's a chance to see the front lines of the war, a fight they can help most by turning away from it; and most importantly, it provides the kind of dangerous, against-the-odds struggle across an unforgiving wilderness that exemplifies the heights of heroic fantasy to which Dragonlance aspires. In all respects, that overland journey to Neraka is essential; without it, you might as well teleport the heroes into the final room of the campaign and be done with it.

3. What do I need to embellish? What do I need to add? For a start, Port Kalaman as a refugee centre and one of the most important Whitestone outposts, needed some work. I dropped an encounter or two in there to highlight the pointless, lingering hostility towards the Knights of Solamnia (who are now ever-present), and to show how the enemy has infiltrated the city in secret in much the same manner as would soon be attempted by the PC's in Neraka.

The wilderness trek I decided to run with by-the-book random encounters, enriched with a couple of heavily-thematic encounters of my own devising to add to the flavour and get the players thinking about their fate and what was at stake. Additionally, I built a couple of small encounters to introduce the idea of the underground roadways and provide some clues as to how they may have been built.

This latter is typical of the work that I feel should be done by the adventure and never is. The tale behind the buried road network is actually quite good, but it's never presented to the PC's and by doing so, they get to locate themselves in the history of the campaign while at the same time feeling cleverer for discovering it. A win all-round.

The Glitterpalace was a slight problem. I could see what the tests were trying to do, but the locations were contradictory (to say the least), and the demands they placed on the PC's were often esoteric. In the end, I left the Test of Valor alone (and soon regretted it), built a few teasers and mysteries into the Test of Wisdom to, well, make it a test of wisdom rather than a Test of Why the Hell all this Water is Sloshing Around, and incorporated a couple of campaign-specific throw-backs into the Test of the Heart as well, which to be fair, is only what the adventure tells you to do.

4. What tools do I need? In terms of movement across the map, I scanned and Photoshopped a version of the overland map of the Taman Basuk with all the encounter keys taken off, to give to the players as a handout during their briefing with Lord Gunthar. There is nothing like a hex map to get the players talking, and this one is particularly good. I also built a framework for modifying the DL13 overland encounter rules based on the players' strategy for moving across the landscape

Since DL13, like its predecessors, has several fixed events that need to happen, I built a time-line that would allow me to track the PC's movement hour-by-hour and make sure all the important things happened at the right moment. The adventure actually provides a time-tracking chart on the inside cover, but it doesn't include any reference to the adventure text and is thus less than helpful.

Next is the job of reviewing, encounter-by-encounter, all of the monsters I'm going to need and ensuring they're available at the table without too much delay. That means finding all of them in my AD&D Monster Manuals and including references in my notes. Where multiple versions exist, I favour the one with the most information.

Given that, by this time, I'm eating, drinking, and sleeping the adventure as well, this is the best time to include any hints to my future self as to what might be cool about the encounter or what might be a good way for it to play out at the fullest level of awesome. These hints are always subject to what the PC's are doing at the time, of course, but you should never let a good idea disappear without writing it down somewhere, even if it won't ultimately be used.

Finally, my NPC character maps. One of the most useful lessons I ever learned while DM'ing this campaign was the value of NPC roleplaying cheat-sheets. NPC's are vital to any D&D campaign but especially so in Dragonlance, where a lot of background needs to be delivered and, like it or loathe it, the PC's constantly need to be nudged in the right direction. NPC's are vital to narrative momentum, much more so than rumour tables or boxed text.

For this purpose I build character-maps for all of the major NPC's in the adventure, which include flavourful quotes to drop into the conversation, hints as to their attitudes, and all the salient information they potentially need to communicate. Thus when the role-playing starts, I know exactly what needs to be delivered, and exactly how I'm going to deliver it.

Role-playing isn't a science and many of my NPC's still end up being bland and forgettable, but still, if I ever have one piece of advice to give to DM's, it would be to make NPC character maps. They've been invaluable to me.

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