DM’ing in Athas

Today’s Penny Arcade reminded me that I wanted to write about my experience DMing the Dark Sun preview at PAX East. This has also been on my mind lately because I’m gearing up to run a homebrew one-shot tomorrow. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that got me in to the DM’s chair, but I found myself Sunday sitting at table in front of 6 strangers and a giant photocopied encounter map. I’m curious about what WotC provides the D&D Encounters DMs with, but all I had going into was a quick print-out of the adventure. I think the haste and low-bugetness of it might have been because they were just overwhelmed with the turnout; I had to use my own minis and borrowed Banagrams and DM screen from Sarah Darkmagic.

The adventure, Death in the Arena, itself was rather straightforward. The introductory paragraphs highlighted the main flavor points of Dark Sun, the elements that give it a post-apopolyptical feel: defiling magic, lack of gods, savage halflings, scarcity of metal, etc. There was also an explanation on the rules regarding magic, and the breaking of weapons. The author of this adventure, Chris Tulach, did a good job of understanding the DM audience, as there were a few pages devoted to the background of the adventure, the motivations of the main bad guy Gazal, as well as the motivations of the two pregenerated groups of PCs. In addition the adventure has an ending point that would make a logical jumping off point for a future campaign. My guess is that this will the model for the first adventure in the next season of Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, which will be set in Dark Sun.

So how was my actual experience? I was a bit nervous and very tired going into it. It’s been a few years since I last GM’d and I had never run a 4e game. I felt comfortable enough having read so many blogs, and having played the adventure on the previous day. My two biggest fears was getting the rules wrong or that that the party would not have fun. I also had the goal of really trying to make Athas fun and exciting, which is hard because it’s not a traditional setting. Thankfully I think the group did have fun, and I didn’t let on that I was a total noob at this. They were easygoing and not rules-laywery, which helped. The other factors that made it were a success was its one-shotness, no one was that invested on what would happen next time, and that the adventure game with pre-generated characters and was well-structured. And nobody complained that that the session ended early.

Some of the things that I learned:

  1. Skill challenges are hard to run. I tried my best to say yes to proposed actions, but if a skill isn’t used the way it’s listed you need to think fast on your feet.
  2. Monsters can be challenging, especially keeping track of and remember to use all their available powers. My Giths were cut to shreds before they could do anything because I forgot to use their teleport powers.
  3. It’s not solely the GM’s responsibility to keep everyone engaged and having fun. I tried really hard to be energetic, but since I hadn’t slept in a few days and it went through lunch, my energy faded towards the end, which the party resonated. If one of them had some extra energy, I probably could have activated my second wind. But despite that, I think it still went really well.
  4. DMing isn’t as scary as I thought. I look forward to my session tomorrow and perhaps some chance as well. Although in many ways its great when you get a written adventure with pre-generated characters, because they you don’t have to worry about making the encounter designs interesting or balanced.
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