This is part calling myself out and part review of Dungeon of the Mad Mage. We recently concluded I think our 6th Session and I thought it was time to put words to screen about how I was feeling in order to learn more about myself and get better at running my own games.
There was a version of this post up earlier that I took down. I wanted to make it nicer towards our DM. He’s doing a great job. It’s just that the last session contained a kind of perfect storm to drive me insane and I’ve spent far too much time the last week obsessing over it.
Readers of my long dumbass essays will recall that I was not positive on Dragon Heist. I came away from that book realizing that I’m tired of low level 5E and I don’t like Waterdeep The City. I don’t think Running A Tavern is a clever and universally beloved masterstroke of game design. But like other 5E hardcovers it suggests more interesting places to go after its conclusion.
We started Mad Mage with the money earned in Dragon Heist as available to spend on resources. In practice that’s an infinite amount of money. I spent about 5000 gold on potions and scrolls and loaded up on mundane gear as well. I actually went through to calculate the weight and it isn’t an unrealistic amount.
Unlike the rest of the group I’m switching characters. We need a weapon wielder and a healer, so I am taking the route of the Triton Valor Bard. This creates one problem in that this character was not around at the end of Dragon Heist when the DM called an audible and had the Cassalanters slip in to steal the gold to the utter indifference of the party. “We’re gonna sacrifice it to Asmodeus and give you a cut.”
It’s not that our group didn’t care about the Cassalanter offer or think it wasn’t evil but the adventure kind of beat us down with a sense of powerlessness. The gold had been stolen in a cutscene so we all kind of assumed the premise we were being presented was legitimate. Then later we find out:
“Also, we have to kill 99 people, mwhahaha!”
Well they didn’t tell us about that part. It seemed like a long and impossible combat to try and stop the Cassalanters. At no point did it feel like this was an outcome we could affect.
So we began Mad Mage. We decided to abandon the Adventurer’s League Rules because, well speaking for myself, I hate the Treasure Point, Gold, and XP system. I see their value for convention play but for a home game they’re not what I want. Or are they? More on that later.
Coming off Tomb of Annihilation we have been methodical in our approach. Every door gets checked by the Rogue to shouts of “Will someone Help me?” and “GUIDANCE!” My way of curbing Help at the table has always been demanding that the helper roll too, with a DC 10 to actually help. As a DM, I wish I gave out more inspiration or advantage but The Help Action makes advantage too common to give out. It gamifies something I wish was more roleplay intensive.
I looked up the Table of Contents to Mad Mage and it is interesting. There are cool sounding levels. Wyllowood, Dweomercore, and Sea Deeps are names that evoke fantastic adventure. However, for 6 sessions now we’ve been on Level 1, “Dungeon Level.”
I sigh to even type it.
Here’s the thing, it’s not bad. It is exactly what it should be, a standard dungeon to get in the mood for the adventure to come. I don’t want to engage in hindsight DMing. I love getting into the sausage making of DMing but that works with the DM, not on your blog working through feels.
Suffice to say I’m finding level one slow paced but hey it’s D&D with my friends. As much as I want to write down new stuff on my character sheet I’m still getting an enjoyable evening with friends. I also really want extra attack to double my Valor Bard’s damage.
Where things really came to a head with me becoming a problem player was the last session. We started off the session getting attacked. The DM changed the monsters from Shadows to Skulks. He wisely realized that Shadows would likely TPK the largely magic based party where everyone’s strength is kind of shit. But Skulks are also permanently invisible and they have a +7 to hit with 13 average damage compared to the Shadow’s +4 to hit, no invisibility, and 9 average damage. They’re tough enemies and we needed A Long Rest after. Our party headed back to the Yawning Portal to recover and back down into Undermountain we went. We head back to the same corridor to finish exploring it. This triggers the same encounter with the exact same monsters as before. “Can we run?” We tried. But like last time we were surrounded on all sides.
It was at this point that I got angry. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I have trouble gauging what is the correct amount of anger to display and what that display looks like. My anger display tends to always be interpreted as a 10 even when I’m feeling a 3.
The reason I was angry was because it was the same encounter, exactly. If that encounter had been with goblins I might never have known. But it was with the same monsters, same area, same tactics. I was really pissed. It felt like I had wasted one of the three hours a week I get to play D&D with my friends.
When I thought about it a bit more, from my character’s perspective, they learned an important lesson. They are thinking, “Oh, these thrice damned traps reset if our party leaves this accursed dungeon. This is good information to have and this sacrifice of combat is a worthy one.” But me the player is thinking that my game time is being wasted. We could’ve gone to a bar, we could watch something, we could stop the game early and I could get more sleep instead of staying up late to play D&D. But we chose to be here and doing the exact same thing again for no incentive (because Milestone XP) is disrespecting the sacrifice of everyone at the table. It’s an above the table penalty to a choice that our characters made in game.
This told me something about my playstyle too. I always thought I identified more with the Method Actor/Storyteller archetypes as set out in “Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering” but it was another thing to see myself act that way in practice. I’ve find it a bit pretentious to call one’s self a “Storyteller” but it’s accurate in this context. According to Robin D. Laws, the Storyteller “may get bored when the game slows down for a long planning session. As Total Party Thrill said, the storyteller needs advancement. A stale plot is a boring game. Maybe a more tactically minded player would be pleased to speed run this encounter through their superior command. Me, I was sulking on my phone.
This also made me realize that our group needs to re-open the discussion of how we’re going to be assigning XP. I hate the idea of assigning XP for the bookkeeping aspect and least of all for combat. It’s not the players’ fucking problem if there’s no combat in the session or if the player’s get creative and skip the combat. This worked to our favor during Tomb of Annihilation where we wound up outleveling the dungeon. It still felt challenging enough. I also don’t like the AL rules which assign milestones on a completely time-based system. You play x amount of hours to level up. Again while I see the value for convention play for a home game I want the DM to have discretion.
Here is my view on it. I don’t want to assign XP purely based on Monsters and Traps that the players face. There is some non-zero amount of XP I want to give for Roleplaying, I’m not sure what that number ought to be, and if that’s the case why not just make life simple and abstract to milestones? Optimally it works out to the same pace. But does it?
With Mad Mage it boils down to that the level we’re on, the first one, has taken way longer than I expected. I wanted to do Milestone XP for the reason above, that I don’t really want the bookkeeping of XP. I but I had the assumption that it would be 3-5 sessions per milestone because that’s what I would do. Instead we’re heading into our 7th session and I think we might be little more than halfway through this level.
The power gamer option to get the faster advancement I’m seeking would be to try to be stealthier, avoid any fights possible, and seek the most expeditious route down. It reframes the adventure as a mission to find the stairs down instead of a story or place to explore. I would like to find a compromise between “I want to explore this book” and “I want the numbers on my sheet to increase.” Maybe we can do, every 5th session or when the book says so, whichever occurs first. Although the book has 23 chapters, so it can’t be a Princes of the Apocalypse thing where each chapter is one “level” of content.
But it still seems to be a ton of material between levels up, longer than previous hardcovers. Dragon Heist was like this too where level 1 as written was like 3 sessions which seems way way too long to me.
I’m optimistic we can work something out. The DM’s fun is important too and I can’t imagine he enjoyed running the exact same encounter twice. Then again that’s me looking at things from my point of view.