An Essentials Diversion

Over the past few months, Seth’s been running what we’ve come to call “The Essential’s Campaign.” In a nutshell, we all made characters from the options available in the two Essentials class books—Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms and Heroes of the Fallen Lands—and he’s been running the adventure contained in the Red Box. The main impetus for this diversion was we needed a game to keep us occupied on those weekends where someone was missing.

Another great reason for prompting Seth to take up the DM reigns is that I never get to play. Don’t get me wrong—I love to DM. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said about only having to worry about one thing: my character. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to roll some dice on the player’s side of the DM’s screen, and though War of the Burning Sky games can be the highlight of my week, I have definitely looked forward to the Sundays were someone can’t show up, thus defaulting us to the Essentials campaign.

Sunday was just such a day. With Brent gone, we would be entering Session 3 of the Essentials campaign—and more than that, we would be wrapping up the Red Box adventure. The session, much like the ones that came before, was great fun—though in no way thanks to Wizards of the Coast’s adventure writing team. To be honest, I’ve haven’t played a Wizards of the Coast adventure in the last decade that didn’t require major rewriting to become interesting. The Red Box adventure was no exception—there was barely a story. In the end, there was just enough plot to give the characters an excuse to enter a dungeon, kill some monsters, and take their treasure.

I know the whole point of the Red Box is to get people familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, including many of its tropes. In this regard, the Red Box adventure succeeded. However, if I am to be nitpicky—and I usually am—there were plenty of missed opportunities that could have been included to make the dull scenario sparkle.

If the adventure was so bad, how did we have so much fun? Part of that was thanks to Seth’s excellent guidance, including some top-notch adjudication and monster tactics. The rest of the our enjoyment came from all the wonderful inter-party roleplaying. In a way, the DM was there less as a storyteller and more as a referee; I suppose we took the DM’s traditional job of propelling the story forward and did it ourselves, at our own pace. Each new area or encounter was simply an excuse to do more character development. Personally, I was more interested in what funny or interesting roleplaying was going to happen next than I was in continuing the story. This wasn’t any fault of Seth’s; again, the plot of the adventure was gossamer thin; it boiled down to “go into the dungeon and recover a chest.”

In fact, Seth’s the kind of DM that I seriously appreciate playing with. Many DM’s demand absolute control over the narrative, seeing characters as cogs in a huge machine. There’s not a lot of freedom in that sort of environment; player choices are limited to what the DM has prepared, to say nothing of helping to create some of the lesser known details of the campaign world together. In Seth’s Essentials campaign, he welcomes player input and allows us to take narrative control from time to time, which I’ve done on more than one occasion.

For example, over the past couple of adventures, I’d established that some sort of spirit or being was taking residence in my character’s body, being the cause for some strange, new powers. (He used to cast illusion spells, but one day suddenly couldn’t remember any of them. In their place were powerful evocation attacks.) At the end of Sunday’s session, the group finally met the adventure’s Big Bad Evil Guy. I asked Seth if he had decided on any concrete, plot important history concerning this NPC. He answered in the negative, and so I asked if I could let lose with my roleplaying, making up some stuff about the Big Bad Evil Guy in question. Given permission to do so, I had the spirit “take over” my character, manifesting as the Big Bad Evil Guy’s ancient enemy. Suddenly, the Big Bad Evil Guy was no longer some random evil warlock in a dank dungeon. He was transformed into an ancient being with an enemy of his own; more than he seemed, with motivation and purpose—all because the DM was flexible enough to grant narrative control to a player he trusted would not run too wild with it.

Not all campaigns would work well with this kind of player involvement. I hate to say it, but my War of the Burning Sky campaign would be one such example. Most of the plot, motivations, and history have already been decided on; because all this history is so ingrained in the plot, it’s a bit inflexible. Though the characters are able to make important decisions that guide and affect the direction of the plot, it would be difficult for them to create story elements on the spot since so much already exits in the writing. In a campaign that is flexible, trust between the DM and his players can create wonderfully rich and exciting possibilities.

Another interesting thing that came up during Sunday’s session was a moment of in-game justification for metagaming. Here’s how it went down: Seth spread out the dungeon map in front of us on the table. There was only one room left: the room with the Big Bad Evil Guy. Every other area of the dungeon had been cleared out by this point, so there was little reason to keep the map hidden. Of course, doing so gave the us a piece of information that our characters would not normally know.

On the map, two doors remained unopened and both lead to the same room. As characters, for all we knew, each door could lead to a completely different area of the dungeon. But the map revealed to the players that this was not the case. We were flummoxed as to how to handle this. None of us like to metagame, yet we decided that coming in from both doors at the same time would be a great, fun tactic. Since this plan was predicated on knowing each door lead to the same room, we needed to find a way to justify how our characters knew this vital piece of information.

Seth allowed the character with the best Dungeoneering skill to roll against a hard DC; success meant that character would be able to deduce the information based on his dungeon experience. Unfortunately, that player rolled poorly. Now how would we bring our attack plan to fruition? In the end, we just said screw it and barged through one door en masse. After all, we’re not playing a team of forensic scientists or detectives; sometimes you just have to kick the door down even if you don’t know what’s on the other side.

In the end, Seth’s Essentials campaign was a fun way to frolic through some classic D&D situations, focusing on solid roleplaying and irreverent humor; a wonderfully laid back excuse to kill some monsters and take their stuff on a Sunday if I ever saw one. I hope he decides to continue it.

Last, but not least, here are the pictures from our session.