For the first half of this story, please read the first posting of Tales from Behind the Screen…
So, when we last left off, our band of players had gathered around the table to play some D&D. The catch of course being that we were all playing with a first time DM (me), playing an all new edition of D&D (5th Edition) that none of us had ever played every before and I had chosen for my first adventure an extremely deadly dungeon (Mines of Madness) based on a webcomic (PvP) by an artist (Scott Kurtz) who was in turn inspired by the deadliest dungeon of perhaps all time (The Tomb of Horrors). Come on, with all those things going for it, how bad could it be right?
***Spoiler alert: Anyone who is thinking about going through this adventure as a player who doesn’t want anything spoiled stop reading now. I strongly suggest if you are going to play this dungeon you really don’t want the surprises ruined for you because that is part of the fun. If you are a DM who is planning on running this or a player who never intends to step into the dungeon, please read on.***
Needless to say, I was nervous starting off. I wanted to do the DM’s job, which is to make sure everyone has fun. I didn’t know if the dungeon itself would be too much of a killer or if I could make the adjustments on the fly that you often have to do when you DM, or if I even understood the way to run a game as a DM. I will say that I had one huge advantage in my favor though. All of my players were my closest friends. We are more like a family then a group of friends. Now for first time DMers, if you have to DM for strangers, don’t let that be a reason to shy away from trying it out. Maybe it would be easier with strangers because you aren’t as worried about not doing a good enough job. But in my case I was with the people I trusted most and I had my friends who had DM experience before with prior editions sit closest to me at the table just in case I needed some guidance.
Now, I have mentioned in no uncertain terms how murderous this dungeon is designed to be. However, I think it’s one of the best ones to try your DMing skills out on. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, it is a nice stand alone dungeon crawl. It can easily be dragged and dropped into any long term campaign if you want to risk your players characters but it has some significant rewards too if they make it through. But if you don’t want to make it part of a longer campaign, you can run it simply as a one off. Secondly, it’s full of fun and creative puzzles and encounters. It’s goes back to our first rule of why we play this game. It’s fun. There are pop culture references all throughout, references to other games that players may enjoy. There is an Indiana Jones style encounter. There is a Minecraft encounter even. Thirdly, and most important I think for a new DM I believe, it’s one of the most well written adventure modules I have ever seen. They have everything laid out for you. They have a wonderfully drawn and neatly labeled map. They have hand outs for the players to help them feel more into the game. They have all the DC’s listed right where you need them if the players try to do something and nice clear descriptions of the rooms and the encounters. It even has an encounter sheet for every single encounter you can print off and use during the encounter to keep track of initiative for the players and the monsters/puzzles and everyone’s HP as well. This is a credit to Scott Kurtz and Christopher Perkins. I’m a big fan of both of their work and the work they continue to both do in their fields. They put together a wonderful adventure in a nice to follow package. I think having everything laid out for me in my first attempt helped me to understand the concepts of being a good DM and now I can just figure things on the fly and can keep track of encounters with a piece of paper and pencil because of what I learned running this dungeon.
Now that we have mentioned the technical reasons I recommend this adventure for first time DM’s, let’s get into how it actually played out and what I learned in the process. Did I do my job? Was fun to be had?
***Spoiler Reminder: Seriously, if you made it this far maybe you don’t mind, but I am about to reveal some of the actual encounters and puzzles as best as I can remember. This is your last chance. If you don’t want to have the fun ruined as a player stop now***
Ok, still with me? Good, let’s start where all good adventures start . . . at the beginning.
So, with the unique confluence of events I mentioned earlier all happening I was a bit concerned on how my first foray behind the screen was going to turn out. So we are all set up and they are counting on me to run the game even more then most because I was the most versed on the actual rules we would be running under. Thankfully I had done my home work, read the basic handbook, the basic DM’s guide, and the full adventure and listened to a play through online where Kurtz himself was one of the players.
We started out in front of the mines and I am describing things. The party was a bit larger then normal, I think we had about 6 or 7 players. They investigated the entrance but they were cautious. And before they went in, they decided they were going to check out the outhouse. Needless to say, two of them got too close, failed some saves and boom, eaten by a giant purple worm. Two players killed within 5 minutes my very first time out.
In actuality though this was a blessing as it helped me both that night and as a DM for the long term. Lesson 1) You have to think on your feet. So, once the worm went back into it’s hole they did not want to explore the crater left behind. I mean who in their right mind would. So that essentially doomed those two character to be killed. Since I didn’t want to waste thirty minutes with them rolling up new characters I offered them either a pre-gen or they could use the same sheet they had and play their original characters “twin.” They went with the twin idea and even role played how they were wondering where their twin went and that they were off to find him in the mines. Which led me to Lesson 2) Be prepared. I had spare characters in case someone died. I didn’t need them but I had them if I had. Of course that is also Lesson 3) If your players go off script take what they come up with and run with it. I played up the lost of their twins to drive them further into the mines.
So, next up came the trap at the start. I was hoping to catch them in the trap but one player was playing a spider like character and they could used the spell web, which they did when the rocks started to fall. Does the spell work that way as written? Probably not really but it was a good idea to try to stop the rocks from crushing a teammate. You can’t fault someone trying to work as a team and trying creative ways to respond to events, so I let it go and let it succeed. Lesson 4) The DM is in charge and can make rules adjustments as needed to further the fun that is had. I let the spell work and they all loved it. Fun should always triumph over rules as written as long as it doesn’t “break” the game or ruin someone elses fun. This was a case of a new DM I’ll admit, but in hindsight, I’d still let it happen again. It gave this player a moment in the sun. Which is good, because . . .
. . . When they got to the cockatrice she got turned to stone. So, that character was out and in came her next character. This brings us to the next Lesson 5) whenever you can, make an NPC memorable. It was my first time playing an NPC when they met Hug Hug. I got lucky, they made an attack on the cart he was hiding under but just missed brutally killing him, which is good because I loved playing him. To this day he shows up in other stories because they love him so much. Incidentally, I ran another group through the mines last year and they made it and one player actually gave the Forever Stone to Hug Hug. He is about to make a come back in our new campaign we are about to start. With the options in Volo’s Guide I actually rolled him up a character sheet.
So after some more exploring they ran into the mimic. The person who lost her character to the cockatrice got her second character stuck to the mimic and they all were trying different ways to both save her and kill it. They didn’t realize what it was at first which is good because it cut down on any meta gaming. By the time they killed it, it was time to call it a night. But not before I touch on my last lesson) Have fun. If at the end of the night everyone is smiling and talking about what just happened and laughing, you did your job. Even if nearly half of your characters got killed at some point.
Join me next time when I’m not sure what will be the topic du jour, but I hope to make it a good one. If anyone has their own first DM stories or Mines of Madness stories feel free to share them in the comments below.