Over the past 9 months we have been playing Dungeons & Dragons nearly every Sunday. We wanted to spend more time in person with our friends doing something collaborative and creative. A role that was previously filled by puzzle hunt development. After listening to The Adventure Zone and stumbling on to Matt Colville’s YouTube channel we decided that D&D would be the next activity to try.

Throughout this season we played two different campaigns with our Sunday group. First we played through Curse of Strahd. I was playing a Circle of the Moon Druid.

Playing as a druid was fantastic. The class is versatile both in and out of combat. I had plenty of spell options while still being able to absorb a lot of damage thanks to wildshape. I even managed to have the highest kill count in our party (thanks Conjure Animals!).

The Curse of Strahd campaign contained many plot twists and interesting moments, but often we were left aimlessly wandering around Barovia trying to find our next mission. Sandboxes can be fun but require a lot of prep work from the dungeon master to adequately provide plot hooks to all of the available missions.

After Curse of Strahd, we played Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. I volunteered to be the dungeon master for this campaign. I chose Dragon Heist because it is heavily based on mystery, investigation, and social intrigue. All of which were less prominent in Curse of Strahd. The short timeline, only levels 1-5, meant that it would not be a large commitment. Another attractive quality since we are still a new group and still learning how to play with each other.

Since it had been nearly a year since Dragon Heist was released, many other groups have published their experiences and modifications to the campaign. Which provided a large collection of material for me to pull from while planning. I based the overall structure of the campaign on Dragon Heist: The Alexandrian Remix. The main motivation of the remix is to use all of the material and villains in the published adventure, instead of only the one that fits within your current “season”.

I also incorporated four different one-shot adventures based around Waterdeep to explore different gameplay styles with the players while they earn money to open Trollskull Manor.

  • One Hand Washes the Other, a heist which introduced a concept of ‘complication points’. Instead of immediate consequences for failing a check, the dm keeps a tally of complication points and spends the points to add further obstacles inside of the heist. I also introduced a “Flashback” mechanic from Here’s to Crime, which allowed players to describe a flashback scene that shows how they were completely prepared for the current obstacle and turn one skill check into a different one.
  • Blue Alley, a funhouse dungeon. This was a hit and gave me lots of ideas on merging my love of puzzles with dungeon design. It was difficult to tie in to the rest of the campaign beyond “hey, this guy you know heard of a fun challenge in town”.
  • Rats of Waterdeep, a film noir murder investigation inside of the Dock Ward.
  • A Tail of Two Fishies, a heist to swap Xanathar’s goldfish with a spy. This adventure introduced a chase mechanic that the players loved and I then included in a subsequent session for chasing a Nimblewright.

Some lessons learned:

  • Having full-scale printed maps is fantastic. The downside is prep time and/or cost. If you just go to Fedex and print the image at the correct scale it ends up being $20 for each encounter. And you lose the ability to slowly reveal the dungeon. If you print at home there is the manual effort of digitally cutting the rooms, scaling, and printing individually (For Blue Alley, I ended up printing 47 individual sheets of paper). By the end of the campaign I settled on printing out dungeons at whatever scale fit on 8.5x11. This was a reasonable compromise for Dragon Heist since the combats were not intended to be overly tactical and it was more about the social dynamics and mystery. For other campaigns this tradeoff is not acceptable and I will likely go with a battlemat instead.
  • Using graphviz to create a flowchart of the potential scenes helps me visualize the story and have a quick reference to see where the players are and what is coming up. The lazy dm template was helpful to get me started, but the mindset turned out to be more relevant than the template itself.
  • Starting with a published adventure and then customizing it to make it my own is the right balance for me. Having the published adventure gives me a solid foundation that I can lean on as much as I need based on time/availability any given week. But also giving myself permission to change whatever I feel makes the session better means that I can give the players an experience tailored to them.
  • Fudging stats of monsters at the table made the encounters challenging without needing to spend a bunch of prep time. Obviously this was only possible because the adventure was about mystery and social dynamics so the outcome of an individual fight was not particularly important.

Overall, I found that running the game meshes well with the way my brain works. An unending list of problems to solve and nearly limitless tools and a clear objective. I love both solving problems and telling stories and I look forwarding to doing both in future campaigns.