PAX East 2012: D&D

Running D&D at PAX this year was a bit of a mixed bag. I had fun. Really and truly, I did have fun and I am glad that I had the opportunity to go. Yet there were a number of things that dampened the mood.

This is a *long* post. You have been warned.

RPGA Delves

The adventures that I had to run at PAX were really, really boring. apparently I have been ruined by the previous DMs that I have played under because I cannot believe that I have ever played or run any games so *banal* in my life.

I was originally scheduled to run Learn to Play and Encounters for the weekend.

The Learn to Play was the Red Box, which is to be expected, I suppose. I never picked one up though and they weren’t handing them out early to the DMs. I wasn’t going to have the time to review it and be ready to run. The last thing I want to do is deliver a sub-par experience to a new player.

I read The Sun Never Rises (the preview for the next Encounters season) and was already disappointed in it. It was as if the adventure was written for people who had never DMed before. I had a few ideas on how to punch it up a little without altering the story but that was shot down in orientation. Everything was to be run as written.

So I went with the devil that I did not know. I ran Delves for the whole weekend.

So far as I can tell, The 1-hour Delves were a series of three 2-encounter vignettes spanning three maps. Each scenes had several variations where the plot was the same, but the monsters varied. The four-page adventures were not professionally presented, so I assume that they are RPGA material rather than Wizards’ standard issue.

When I was handed my first delve, I was told that I shouldn’t expect the players to finish because they might die or time out. That absolutely wasn’t the case. Time and time again the players easily completed the missions. The outcomes were nearly never in doubt.

The longest game ran 58 minutes with two players who had never played before that day. The fastest group finished their delve in 30 minutes. There was a lot of head-shaking at the desk as I reported group after successful group earning the full rewards for the delve.

I did my best within the limitations though. I never railroaded the players or neglected them when they had a question BUT the rest of the time was spent trying to keep up the pace during the encounter. I stood most of the time, projected my voice authoritatively and announced each player’s turn as they came along. I tried to prompt them to act quickly without damning them with their cursed indecision. I announced the best time at the beginning of each game and challenged them to beat it.

Everyone else seemed to have a great time, despite my distaste for the material. Everyone was enthusiastic, grateful, and universally took the time to thank me or even shake my hand before leaving the table. I met a lot of good people while running the delves—good people that I believe could have easily handled a higher level of challenge and deserved to have that experience presented to them as an option.

D&D Next

The D&D Next playtest was a different beast and not without it’s own problems. I was terrified that I didn’t know the material well enough and I had @CStevenRoss slipping me notes at the last minute because I hadn’t had the time to do more than read through the material once.

I was terrified that I would let down my players. D&D Next was a 4-hour playtest session and with only space for 200 hundred people to participate, I wanted to give my best. They were there for the same reason that I was and I refused to give them any less than I expected were I in their seat.

Fortunately, I had a fairly forgiving and quite imaginative group. Most of them seemed to know each other and the banter flowed pretty freely, which helped to break some of my tension. Once I looked over their NDAs, I took a brief poll to see how far back everyone’s experience with D&D went and then we launched into discussing the basic mechanic.

At some point, I looked up and saw that, despite being in the first row in front of the RPGA tables, were the only group to have not received the yellow character sheets. Everyone else seemed to be quite involved in their characters and some were even rolling dice already! Holy crap!

From there on it went pretty smoothly. We discussed mechanics and options pretty thoroughly, but only before or after the action, not during it. Despite the keen interest in the nuts and bolts of the game, my players were all *players first*. I had forgotten to print a map for us, but it didn’t matter. We played D&D and we had a wonderful time doing it.

(And for the first time ever I had improvised the entire session. *ding* (levels up as a DM))


The play test was a much-needed break from the mundane task of running bland delves and trying to make them interesting without changing them. Unfortunately, the play test only ran for one evening. I had a cure for that, I brought C1: Crucible of the Gods! Casey Ross was kind enough to let me grab some of his FTDM pre-gens, which made all the difference.

I was unable to entice any of my fellow DMs to play, so I grabbed a table in the free play area and stood up for 20 minutes or so holding up the Rules Compendium and the cover page for Crucible. I spoke to nearly a dozen people in that time, one of which hustled his friend away because he was preparing to run the adventure in the near future. In the end, I have four complete strangers seated and ready to go.

In short:

* They never found the real key in the Hall of Portals. with a little prompting from me, they did disable the door long enough to get through. This was the only time I hinted at anything for the game and even then, I was trying to make a point about there often being alternate solutions to apparently difficult problems. They got it, for all the good it did.

* Breezed through The Great Hub every time they passed through with very little exploration.

* Failed Asar Set’s trial. There was some great RP here though as they negotiated the skill challenges. The players put a lot of thought into their actions and enjoyed the puzzle solving.

* Failed Lyth’s trial. More good conversation here as the players tried to solve the riddles. they only answered 4/7 correctly though. In the end they chose to attack the mummy naga when it was clear that they were a disgrace to Lyth and unworthy. One player died of poison and another died after the combat when they turned into a green slime.

At this point, they players spent a good five minutes discussing the merits of bringing in 1 or two new characters. Each new PC brings 15 minute penalty. In the end, they brought both in because they were headed into…

* Kishar’s Trial. (spoilers)

The Goddess of Slaughter had set a three-headed dracolisk to guard her treasure and it’s companions weren’t lightweights either. The party scouted out the ut and discovered the key to a quick battle. They began harvesting hearts and managed to lob two of them into the dragon’s mouths.

Acid and the guardian warriors took their toll though. One party member dropped early and the others were turned to stone while taking down the dragon. Result—Mutual destruction. that’s about as close to a tie as you can make it, I figure.

We had played for two hours and thirty minutes. After the game, each and every player shook my hand and thanked me for running a great game. I was proud of that group. They dared a lot and never gave up.


I’ve been thinking a lot about my varied experience with D&D at PAX. I feel really strongly about the mediocre level of play offered by the RPGA. I can’t volunteer for them again if it means more of the same. They work you hard and I only had about 6 hours to wander around all weekend. I missed a lot and I could get a lot more mileage out of PAX by volunteering as an Enforcer instead.

On the other hand, I consider my experience with the RPGA to have been a necessary one because of the perspective that I gained from it. If this is the typical D&D experience (as I am beginning to suspect that it is) then maybe the reason that D&D has become so popular is because the game has been brought down to the level of the people who are enjoying it.

I’m OK with that. I can let that go. I firmly believe that RPGs are for everyone but I also believe that I’m not cut out to teach or run games on that level. I demand more from myself and my players. Play hard, damn it.

Given that new perspective, I’m actually a pretty good DM! I definitely want to run more D&D at conventions and to entertain/charm complete strangers in the process. I have more confidence in my abilities and I appreciate the talents of my friends—on and offline—more for how rare they are. I feel that I am a bit further along the way to measuring up.


~ by Hunter Rose on April 10, 2012.

3 Responses to “PAX East 2012: D&D”

  1. I will have to agree with you in that most of the Encounters and RPGA stuff is basic, and very bland. It seems there is two options with printed adventures. There is the basic combat-centric focus of D&D and the more heavily story driven material of Pathfinder. Though with a littl searching there are some real middle of the road gems in the Pathfinder catalog.
    As a DM I find the hardest thing to deal with is when you have a split group. Half the people want to roll init and kill stuff, the other half enjoys that, but also would like some non-com activity. Personally, I prefer having a good story arc that is enhanced with some action. Otherwise you end up with a board game. But there is nothing to kill the buzz like trying to weave a good story and staring across the table at two or three glassy eyed players absently holding up a 20 sider waiting to hear the magic “roll initiative.”. Sadly, I find myself in a position where we only have a little over two hours of actual playtime per session in a mixed interest group, and combat encounters have taken the front seat. In An attempt to make the non-com encounters less painful I am trying to make the combats more entertaining with 3d terrain, and will be tinkering with variant terrains and effects with more dynamic environments. So with the combat types sated with eye-candy I could focus a bit more on RP without totally losing 1/2 the group.
    In the end though, I hope I am doing a good enough job to keep everyone happy and having fun. Which is what it is all about anyway right?

    • I think that it is also about the DM having a good time. If he isn’t happy, no-one will be for long. The same is true in reverse–if the players aren’t happy, the DM will be frustrated.

      There is a real art in creating an adventure that has something for everyone. There is a real art to adapting an adventure on the fly, tuning it as you go. These skills, and others, don’t necessarily overlap, but they are both hallmarks of a good DM.

      There is a limit to how far any DMing style can get you. The same can be said for lavish terrain and minis, or tactical genius.

      I suspect in many cases, it is more reasonable to hope for a good curator of experiences as a DM. This not only includes learning the tools and tropes of the trade, but also preparing or pruning the players to form a cohesive group.

      In our area, that last one is really hard to do. Players are pretty thin on the ground here.

  2. Lavish terrain is like shiny stones for Crows.

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