Sunday, December 8, 2013

D&D: Physical Props and Players, or How I Ruined the Crowning Achievement of My DMing Career

Something I haven’t talked about much yet is that I DM a D&D 4th Edition campaign for some friends. Now, I’ve been DMing for about 15 years now, on and off, so I’ve picked up a few tricks. One of the things I always wanted to try, and didn’t get a chance to until recently, was using physical props as a direct representation of an item in game.

If you wander over to Tobold’s blog, you’ll see that he’s currently running the Madness at Gardmore Abbey module, which I ran just over a year ago (maybe a year and a half?) to much success. Do note that this post contains spoilers for the module.

One of the fun things that came out of that is the Deck of Many Things. Any D&D veteran remembers that campaign-destroying toy. I know there were a couple of 2nd edition campaigns that just got utterly trashed when that artifact showed up, and yet it was so much fun we couldn’t resist using it!

Madness at Gardmore Abbey focuses on rebuilding a scattered Deck of Many Things, as it’s the cause of the complete insanity that’s occurring at the fallen Abbey. Part of the module also focuses on how the Deck became scattered in the first place, and the fall of the empire of Nerath. Nerath looms large in my campaign, as it was clearly an empire, but oh so much more (which years later in real time my players are still unraveling, even today!), so Madness at Gardmore Abbey was an excellent fit.

The module comes with a physical Deck of Many Things. Sweet!
They managed to assemble the Deck, which now lives with one of the good aligned characters, the Cleric, but it’s been a source of constant fun and danger since. Partly because our Dragonborn player is a [hilarious] dick (who professes to be unaligned, but clearly trends towards evil), and partly because it’s an Artifact of great interest to enemy parties.

Thankfully, the version of the Deck in Gardmore Abbey is clearly balanced around Heroic tier parties (sub-Level 10), so it’s not crazy powerful like the ones in 2nd edition. But the party was rightfully wary of it. Rather than testing it themselves, they opted to use it on some local townspeople. Using the Deck, they managed to, as they put it, “rapture” a poor elf girl, Delphina Moongem, with the Donjon card, and now she sits in a Drow fortress, awaiting rescue. They’ve nicknamed her “Dark Secret”, because no-one shall ever talk about her directly. There were no witnesses to the event. In another case, they managed to get an elderly farmer both rich beyond his wildest dreams, and marked for death weeks to months later. I’m pretty sure at that point the Cleric put the kibosh on handing out any more cards, given that it’s a source of chaos.

Now, the whole reason they were sent to get the Deck was to put it together to save a friend of theirs, Albert--a minion guard NPC in the first battle they ever fought in the campaign who managed to not only be the sole NPC survivor, but took out 3 goblins on his own. He had been kidnapped, and this Iron Circle organization they had already beat down once wanted the Deck. But of course, they grabbed the Deck and when the Lieutenants didn’t expect it, they got slaughtered because Adventurer Party. Later on the party found the head of the Iron Circle and confronted him, and he nearly escaped with the Deck (though the fact that I had a villain legitimately escape an encounter alive for the first time in years was noteworthy of its own, even if he didn't get the Deck).

The fight against the Iron Circle Lieutenants. One could fly, and the other wrought earthquakes, making this a two tier fight. The white tubes you see were moving up and down drafts, that dealt damage and caused you to move to the ground or fly in the air.
Fast forward to a couple months back, and the party was level 14. They’d had the Deck for half of their adventuring careers, trying to discover why Lord Vhennyk, the head of the Iron Circle, wanted this Deck so much, what the real story behind Nerath was, and going to save Dark Secret, finally.

One of the characters, the half-Orc rogue, had a backstory that involved the city they were in, and a fence he had accidentally bounty hunted. Well, turns out of course that people you thought were dead didn’t always stay dead, and now the players were being hunted as every mercenary group in the city were constantly attacking the party. They uncovered that is was this Fhaella person, who the rogue thought was dead. She had ties to the City Council, and to get more information, the players had to attend a formal-wear party and discover how she was getting access to the Council chambers.

I fully admit to being inspired by Spy Party when I came up with this scenario, but a skill challenge where the players couldn’t use magic or have their equipment with them was too glorious to pass up. Because of an incredibly strong anti-magic field and the fact that they’d be turned away had they brought anything with them if it was detected, no magic items could be brought in at all. They did have a ritual, however, where they could store their gear for up to 24 hours in an extra-dimensional space which could be accessed by the same ritual later.

The Deck of Many Things in Deck form.
So now we have adventurers in formal gowns and suits, (or in the case of the Dragonborn, wearing fancy leathers made from the skins of his enemies) wandering a party, mingling to dig for information without tipping their hands, and inspecting every bookcase, painting, and statue in the area. During all of this, the Cleric was chatting with the head of the Bardic College: Merric Mirendal, a bubbly and outgoing Halfling.

Remember that the Cleric was carrying the Deck of Many Things, and the player had the physical Deck on the table in front of him. While role-playing as Merric, I walked over to his side of the table, stuffed my hand in my pocket and proclaimed that thank Avandra that the adventurers were going to help him with his Underdark troubles. Of course, good players never trust their DM, so both the Cleric and the Dragonborn covered their drinks in real life, but I dug out something from my pocket and tossed the colourful confetti in the air, shouting hip hip hooray!

Confetti courtesy of Merric. The Dragonborn player on the left, and the Cleric player on the right. I'm in the upper right corner of the photo. Photo courtesy of our Elf Ranger.
Unseen by them, however, I--the DM--physically pocketed the Deck of Many Things right off the table. They were all confused and in wonder about the confetti, but nobody noticed a thing amiss at all for the rest of the session.

Absolutely genius of me to use the physical presence of the Deck as a proxy for the item in game. However, those of you paying attention will notice a hole in my plot here. They couldn’t bring magic with them and stuffed their belongings in this extra-dimensional space, so how could the Cleric have had the Deck on him? And he couldn’t. I had forgotten to mention that the Deck would never stay in such a space, and should’ve popped out back to the Cleric. But because I missed that one crucial piece of information, I realized that I couldn’t justly keep the same plot I had.

Which sucked, because I will never be able to pull off pick-pocketing a player of their prop in front of their noses again. At least not with this group. So the next session I handed back the Deck and ret-conned Merric’s motives (no longer working for Vhennyk, I’m afraid), but they were all suitably impressed.

So take that knowledge back with you, good DMs. Physical props? Great. Using those props as actual representations of that item in game? Amazing! Just don't screw up the plot. And now I have to find a different way for Lord Vhennyk to divest my players of their property.

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