Thursday, October 1, 2015

Five Lessons from playing Rise of Tiamat in 24 hours

Hello folks, and welcome to Pact of the Tome! Today I'm going to report on my personal experience playing through the official Rise of Tiamat adventure in 24 hours - straight!

Fighting Tiamat, helping kids. All in a day's work - literally!
Artist: Unknown
For the last two semesters of college, my friends and I have gotten together to play D&D for 24 hours without stopping. Through the Extra Life charity, we created a drive where we play through the official D&D adventures - Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, so far - to raise money for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. Last April, we ran through Rise of Tiamat, beginning with a deadly iceberg expedition and ending with the final battle against Tiamat herself. (If you want to read our live blogs of Hoard and Tiamat, feel free. Be warned - they're a bit incoherent, and tend to peter out halfway through as we run out of energy. Also, there's a bit of language.)

The charity drives have led to a lot of crazy adventures for us, but the latest session made me realize that there's a lot to learn from our experience as well. When you've already been playing for 18 hours, it's much easier to notice what you dislike about your game. Conversely, there are so many awesome moments that it's easy to pick out what made them memorable.

Before you read further, be aware - spoilers for Rise of Tiamat lie beyond.

Here's what we learned:

The first dragon battle is fantastic. The fifth one is exhausting.
Over the course of Rise of Tiamat, we fought no fewer than six individual dragons. The first few battles were exciting, deadly, and rife with tension. By the last one, we were bored out of our minds.

Dragons in Fifth Edition have remarkably similar capabilities: high-damage breath weapons, mobility through flight, and a small suite of Legendary Actions including a wing and tail attack. These abilities give the Dungeon Master a lot of tactical flexibility, but their impact denigrates over time. Some abilities, like the Frightful Presence of high-level dragons, are frustrating to face over and over; others become ineffective once the players develop the right counterattacks.

You haven't really fought a dragon until you've fought one
in the air. That's their home turf!
Artist: Unknown
What can we learn? Fighting the same types of foes gets boring fast. The surprise and deadliness of a powerful ability can quickly turn to monotony and frustration as the players deal with the same thing over and over. To combat this as a DM, simply make your fights different! Varying the creatures you use is a step in the right direction, but changing their environment can also work wonders. One of our most memorable battles in the Rise of Tiamat game was fighting an ancient red dragon - on the back of another dragon, thousands of feet in the air! The struggle to keep ourselves aloft made for some epic stunts and memorable moments that wouldn't have happened had we stayed ground-bound.

Every party member can make a big difference, and not just in combat.
In order to gain allies against the Cult of the Dragon, our party journeyed to a great counsel of the virtuous Metallic dragons. The five elder dragons examined each of us in turn, weighing our moral character and worth. Our sorcerer, a reincarnated gold dragon, appealed to the council's desire for the greater good. The assassin among us spoke of her desire for revenge against the Cult, asking the dragons to help right the wrongs their kin had dealt. My barbarian character, who came from a line of famous dragonslayers, was forced to confront her identity in the face of those her family harmed.

Our Dungeon Master for this episode did a fantastic job of involving every character in this high-stakes dramatic scene. We could have easily written this episode off as an encounter for the party "face" (negotiation specialist) to handle, but instead each character got some time in the spotlight. By the end of the draconic council, every character had defined themselves and their place in the world - and when the dragons ultimately decreed that they would support us, we all felt like we'd made a difference in their decision.

What can we learn? It's easy for gaming groups to write off some situations as playing to one character's strengths. Really excellent dungeon masters, however, can find a way to make every character important. When you design an encounter or an adventure, think about your characters' backgrounds, skills, and aspects of their character that they've never had a chance to use or explore before. You might just make one of your player's days!

Puzzles need to walk the fine line between challenging and frustrating.
If I ever come across a hedge maze in
D&D again, I'm going to run away
screaming. Not my character. Me.
Artist: Unknown
In our quest to retrieve the Blue Dragon mask, our party took a detour to a supernatural location called Xonthal's Tower. There, navigated a treacherous hedge maze that kept on bringing us back to the same location - a clearing with a sundial in the center - over, and over, and over. By the time we figured out the pattern in the sundial's shadow, the whole group was frustrated and ready to quit.

The puzzle likely wouldn't have been as difficult if it hasn't been one in the morning; at that point, we'd been playing D&D for 17 hours and we couldn't think straight.  To our DM's credit, he sped us through further encounters in the tower until we recovered the mask. At that point, we didn't care about the outcome of the adventure. We just wanted our brains to stop hurting!

What can we learn? Puzzles, in-game encounters solvable through out-of-game analysis, fill an interesting niche in D&D. Unlike combat and "skill" encounters, which are largely solved through character ability and dice rolling, puzzles challenge your players directly.

When designing a puzzle encounter, consider your players carefully. If they enjoy logical analysis (and they're in the state of mind to do it - late at night isn't the best time to think), it might be time to throw a brainteaser at them. However, it's a good idea to offer an alternate route to solve the puzzle should they get frustrated.

Having your character taken out of the game ruins the fun.
In the final battle to prevent Tiamat from being summoned, one of our many Red Wizard foes cast a confusion spell on the party, removing several characters (including mine) from the action for multiple rounds. This left us feeling helpless in the most important battle of the game and forced the unaffected characters to choose between fighting our deadly foes or helping their allies back into the fight, and ultimately resulted in our failure to stop the summoning ritual.

From a combative Dungeon Master's point of view, the confusion spell was a great tactic. It struck at several character's weak points - their Wisdom saving throws - and forced the others to choose between fighting at half strength or using valuable actions to try and Help those affected (there were no spells available to dispel the confusion). From a player's point of view, it's no stretch to say this setback ruined the final battle for me. I could see the frustration on many other players' faces as their turn came up, they rolled a saving throw, and then they passed to the next person. There was a way for us to stop the spell - kill the Red Wizard casting it - but it was so late in the morning that we weren't able to pursue that option coherently.

What can we learn? As a dungeon master, it's alright to throw adversity and tough encounters at your players. However, the key is to make sure that your players feel like they're in control. If something in the game takes away a player's ability to take meaningful action - whether that's a mind control spell, a paralysis effect that can't be easily cured, or simply being captured and imprisoned by an overwhelming force, be very careful if you decide to introduce it. Make sure to make it clear to the players what they can do to regain control, and be ready to step off if they get frustrated.

In our case, our DM could have had the Red Wizard casting the spell switch to a different one, or made it clear to the non-confused players which wizard was casting it so they could target that enemy. In a situation like this one, player enjoyment supersedes optimal monster tactics. Though we would have lost a little bit of satisfaction from knowing the DM manipulated events in our favor, regaining our feeling of control over the game would have been worth it.

In the end, Tiamat bested us with a simple level 1 spell - sleep.
Artist: Michael Komark
D&D works best when you take breaks.
As our adventure extended into the wee hours of the morning, fighting the Cult of the Dragon became more and more of a slog. By the time our 24 hours were up, we passed up a chance to fight Tiamat and save the Forgotten Realms for a chance to finally, finally, get some rest. (Yes, we skipped out on the finale!)

Despite the flaws I've mentioned thus far, Rise of Tiamat is a well-written, epic adventure. With 24 hours, a rotating schedule of three different DMs, and hours of advance preparation, we had a great time. That said, by forcing the adventure through even when we didn't want to play anymore, we lost the chance to enjoy some of its best moments.

What can we learn? The 24 hour experience was a great way to experience Rise of Tiamat as a group of friends and have some fun in the process. As things went on, though, both the dungeon masters and the players started to make more and more stupid mistakes and the game became gradually more frustrating. If we hadn't been committed to the 24 hour format, that would have been the time to stop and take a break.

Even in a regular D&D game, sometimes the group isn't working well together or the DM just can't get the adventure on its feet. In that case, it's perfectly alright to walk away from the table and give everyone some time to rejuvenate. You'll all have a better experience the next time you sit down together.

Conclusion
All in all, I'm happy with the way our 24 hour game turned out. We didn't play a "perfect game," but everyone walked away with fantastic memories of an epic adventure. I'd like to think we all became a little bit wiser, too.

Playing 24 hours of D&D isn't for everyone. It's not something my group plans on doing often - once or twice a year is plenty - but there's a lot to be learned and a lot of fun to be had. I hope that you learned something from reading about our experiences, and that this might inspire some of you to try a longer D&D experience. The next time my group does it - hopefully with Princes of the Apocalypse this fall - you'll hear about it on Pact of the Tome!

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