D&D 5e – Starter Kit Retrospective

*Channels inner Treguard from Knightmare*

ENTER STRANGER…

Seriously, if you’ve never seen an episode of the old ITV show Knightmare, go educate yourself, you’ll thank me later. Go on, Now…I’ll wait.

Back? Great. So, regular readers would have noticed that we’ve just finished our first D&D campaign. For those that haven’t read it, you can catch up here. TL:DR? Sadly they all survived.

I wanted to go over what I found over the the sessions, what worked, what didn’t and possibly most importantly how I felt about it.

If you’re name is Cat, Brookie, Maz, Steve or Scott then maybe you might want to stop reading so that you don’t see the strings behind the puppets 😉

Overview

So, it took 11 sessions to finish the campaign from the D&D 5e Starter Kit – The Lost Mines of Phandelver. Admittedly that were a number of multiple week breaks for various reasons but somehow we still managed to finish it. The first session I believe was the end of May or the start of June with the final one being the end of November.

On average those 11 sessions ran for approximately 3-4 hours. That’s right, we sat around for approximately 30+ hours, talking shit, rolling dice and eating rubbish in the name of D&D. That first session seems a very long time ago, likely because actual preparation began long before the campaign actually started. I read that campaign back to front at least twice and was still lost once we started it. I’m fairly certain that no one noticed….

It begins

So we started as a five, 4 players and 1 DM. I had managed to rope my good lady wife Cat into playing, but to me it was fairly clear from the offset that she wasn’t enjoying herself, which was really breaking my “I’m having fun, if the players are having fun” rule. Alot of the problem I feel is that she didn’t understand how it tied together and this failing is on me and not her.

A few sessions in she finally took my “you don’t have to play for my benefit” seriously and I graciously wrote her out of the campaign. Her character did make a brief comeback in a later session to solve everyone getting themselves “killed” but I’ll cover that later.

We were down to 3 players with an adventure aimed at 4 so I had my first out of game DM challenge. I turned to the book for inspiration which had mentioned having one of the NPC’s you encountered and having them tag along during the “dungeon” that the PC’s were currently delving through. I thought why not go one better, since the players had already kind of “adopted” the NPC “Droop”as their mascot, and turn that NPC into an actual PC with full stats. This gives me a character that I can run as a mouth piece and teaches me more about the character creation process. I used the fighter character that had just left the group as a base and accounted for any changes in racial stats and all of sudden, I’ve fixed the “action” gap left by a missing player.

A new challenger appears

The campaign itself carried on smoothly, at least from my point of view and a few sessions from the end we found a replacement player to take over the PC I had created. We were back to a 4 character campaign, albeit one logging in “remotely” via Discord or Skype since I was making heavy usage of a game called “Tabletop Simulator” to run many of the combat or action scenes and Brookie could join the game server which I was running with ease.

Unfortunately for Brookie, his first session resulted in a TPK or Total Party Kill for the uninitiated. I’d pulled a few punches on previous dicey moments if it was down to a misunderstanding of game mechanics or other teaching issue however in this instance, they managed to walk into the Black spider aka”Big bad”of the campaign and thought they would stab him, even after I offered a different route out of the fight since they were already injured. Not a lot I could really do about that one and although they knocked out the Black Spider, there were plenty of other minions to inflict pain upon them. They fell heroically, pulling their fallen comrades back  before eventually hitting a dead end. Literally and figuratively.

After discussion, they really didn’t want to die being so close to the end and really wanted to see it through. How do you deal with a party wipe?

Where we’re going we won’t need roads…

So at this point, I make the decision to take us off book. I’d technically killed them so they can’t just reset and hit the same dungeon again without completely breaking the immersion.

I took them “prisoner” and had them kept at a location which they had previously raided and let the owner of that “Dungeon”,a henchmen of the “big bad”  escape. I’d actually planned a way to break them out using Cat’s character and another NPC but it seems I’d underestimated my players. They came up with a cunning plan (liberal use of the word, Prison wallet) which I just rolled with throwing the whole session plan out the window. Although I did correctly guess that they would want to deal with their captor since they had escaped them earlier in the campaign. They were alive and free again but how do I now tie this up?

Grand finale

The thing that stuck with me when dealing with the players time of imprisonment is that, in my mind, the world isn’t going to stand still. The Black Spiders plans were nearing fruition when the Players invaded his mine and subsequently failed to stop him. So the first thought was, what would the Spider do now?

Well, the mystical font of power that he was looking for was faded and the whole scheme and been pretty much for nothing so he was mad and would carry on with his plan to take power in the area by force with his army of various creatures. This army was rampaging through the area currently unchecked but the PC’s can’t take on a whole army!

To give a sense of the “world” at large, an opposing army from a faction called the “lord’s alliance” that they were friendly with had risen to meet the Spider’s Army. It was outside of the player control so how do I resolve it without it becoming a somewhat cold mass battle?

Investment. The players had come to know the town and people of Phandelver where they were currently stationed and a sizeable chunk of the Spider’s army would reach the town before the Alliance army would reach the town. I’d given them a chance to be (quoting Zoe from Firefly) “Big Goddamn heroes”. They took it and our heroes planned to hold the line for the towns people to escape in time. A heroic gesture with a gallant last stand should it all go wrong.

My problem was the villain, they had already technically bested the Black Spider in Combat once and it felt somewhat underwhelming to make them fight him again. Within moments it was obvious, they had reached a stalemate with a Dragon earlier in the adventure and Dragons love a bit of vengeance. So somehow I had come up with a grand finale pulling together elements from the rest of the adventure essentially in the place where it all began.

There were actual cheers when they realised they had won.

To steal a phrase from Matt Collville “They had fun, so I had fun” 

What worked

  • TableTop Simulator worked well for combat situations.
  • I learned a nice middle ground on prep and winging it BUT still learnt that I can’t fully wing it!

What didn’t work so well

  • Poor Brookie sometimes struggled being the only person who joined the game “remotely”
  • Gaps between sessions didn’t work well for every player being able to remember things
  • Need a proper table space setting up. I’m getting old now.

Things I’ve learned/Changes

  • Going forward, I will not be recapping the last session to the players so I don’t force my version of events on them. I’ll get one of them to recap each session, so I get “their” version of what they think happened 

I can recommend the Starter Kit as a great starting point for getting into D&D, why? Because we’re about to start a new Story that I fear/hope is going to take years….

 

Author: Jon

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