There’s a lot I’ve thought about saying about 5E, mostly about things I don’t want. Things like the focus on Faerun as the default setting. Or using published adventures as a major, if not primary, part of the release cycle. Or the use of dragons as the be-all-to-end-all monster in a game that’s ostensibly about player characters. Or, heck, even the name. (Why not call it “The Dungeons and Dragons”? “2 Dungeons 2 Dragons?” “Live Dragon or Die Dungeon”? At least then the dragons get top billing.)
But there’s not a lot of point. 5E will be what it is whether I like it or not. It’s going to kill the company, save us all, or perform exactly as previous editions have no matter what a blog says and regardless of how much I play it. And, who knows, I might love it. I certainly warmed up to 4E once I figured out what it did, what it didn’t do, and how to accept and correct what I could. And there are parts of 5E I’m really excited about, parts that I hope make it into the final product (the basic rules don’t tell me a lot about monster design, and there’s no way I’m springing for the starter pack). It’s like judging a movie by the trailer; sometimes you get exactly what you expected, and sometimes you get The Mummy.
So instead of looking forward and shrugging, this might be a good time for looking backward and commenting, specifically about a campaign I ran some time ago. The Great Tower of Oldechi was an ontological mystery: the players knew they were in a tower and that they could advance in levels by performing tasks, but the exact nature of the tower and the way they advanced were questions they had to solve along the way. During their trip they learned more about their lives before entering the tower, explored a wide variety of worlds, and fought monsters, other explorers, and eventually the tower’s creator on the way to the top.
The campaign was somewhat special in that it was the first thing I ever did in 4E, and when I started I decided that it would be a full campaign from levels 1 to 30 corresponding to the thirty levels of the tower itself. It ran for 108 sessions over three years (you miss a lot of weeks in a college town) and ended with the players ascending to godhood so hard they were added to the pantheon in other campaigns I ran using other systems.
There are a lot of great stories I’m sure we’ll get into during a podcast, but that’s not what I want to talk about. The tower, and thus the campaign, was divided into seven sections, each controlled by a tower guardian. Each guardian had total control over his or her section of the tower, including deciding how the floors (demiplanes, really) looked, what monsters and allies lived there, what challenges the players might face, and the criteria by which they were judged. The seven guardians had seven distinct styles in how they designed their floors and how they treated both the players and the tower itself. Essentially, each tower guardian was a DM, and the PCs were players in a world they created.
I didn’t set out for the tower guardians to be different DM archetypes, but partway through the campaign I looked at what I was doing and worked with it from that point onward. In a sense it allowed me and the players to explore various styles while sticking with the same system, characters, and people, and it told me a lot about the way players react to DMs and vice versa. None of the guardians was objectively good or bad, but each had his or her points that fit or didn’t fit with the players specifically and the campaign at large.
So for this and the next few posts I’d like to look at each of the seven tower guardians to discuss their DMing styles and what that meant for the players in each section of the tower. In doing so I’ll go through the campaign retrospective that a single campaign writeup couldn’t have covered. That should cover us while I’m waiting for a 5E campaign to start.
Along the way, we’re going to play a game. The seven tower guardians share a unifying theme. When you figure it out, post in the comments that you did (but don’t say what it is, of course; that would be a spoiler). If you see the theme before the seventh guardian, congratulations! You managed to get it before every single player in the campaign.
The campaign started at the beginning in more ways than one. Of course the players were level 1 and it was the start of my first 4E campaign, but it was also the bottom of my normal escalation path. My recent campaigns tend to start with easy fights and challenges while the players get their bearings and feel out the world and their characters, and over time problems ramp up as the plot thickens. By the end of a campaign the players are barely hanging on, the villains are poised to win, and character death is unsurprising if not expected.
The Great Tower of Oldechi was no different. I knew that I wanted to start with simple floors and gradually get more and more complicated and unlike standard D&D. I had some great ideas for endgame floors, most of which I used. But to get there I first had to go through the simple, easy parts of the campaign so the later parts would seem that much better. There’s no point in hurling the players right into a demiplane set on the back of a city-sized, flying dragon at level 1. So I needed a tower guardian who was fine with relatively simple worlds and encounters.
Before I talk about the mundane guardian and his mundane world, I just want to talk about the party, which was anything but mundane. We started with:
- Varon, half-elf ranger, who was an incredibly curious case for 4E because his highest ability score was not his primary attack stat. Varon was a Charisma-based ranger, which is not a thing. It made him a decent party leader but not very good in combat, especially with his “lead from the rear” style.
- Rascon, tiefling bard, who managed to be everything Varon wanted to be but better because his class was actually build for it. Rascon was very nearly the “as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it” version of chaotic neutral but had some golden interactions with NPCs over the course of the campaign.
- Lao, bladeling wizard, another race/class combination you might recognize as not mathematically ideal. I don’t have a strong memory of Lao for reasons that will become clear shortly.
- Jaffar, elven avenger. Not even the player of this character remembers his name. We mostly remember the character because the player tended to choose powers he had a hard time saying. For that reason, to this day he remembers the name, text, and pronunciation of “angelic alacrity”. (Edit: turns out the character’s name was hidden on the campaign wiki, further proof that nobody reads those things.)
- Baerd, dwarven fighter, who was exactly what you would expect from a dwarven fighter.
…we think. It quickly became clear that the party wasn’t very fun for the players. 4E is not designed to handle suboptimal builds so half of the characters were meaningfully underpowered for such a low level, and before long we had a player unexpectedly leaving and another player unexpectedly joining. So on Floor 3 the party split up. One half of the party freed some captives, who happened to be characters designed by the members of the other half of the party. Some further shuffling happened between floors to work with everybody’s schedule. We ended up with this party, which we remember much better:
- Rascon, still.
- Laotzu, dragonborn sorcerer, who love spitting energy and damaging allies more than life itself. Laotzu was very effective in combat and very frustrating for me because of his high damage output and ridiculous defenses. But he is also the reason War Wizardry is the only feat we’ve banned in our local metagame; any mechanic that encourages a player to damage their allies, regardless of the scale of the damage or the benefit against enemies, is a recipe for trouble.
- Tela, goliath warden, who started as a mundane warden but slowly reskinned her powers over time to become more of a weather-focused defender. Unlike most characters she picked a deity available to PCs and stuck with it, and she ended up being the party’s most moral member by omission. Spoilers: Tela is the only character in this post who survived to the end of the campaign.
- Borris, dwarf chameleon. The thing I most remember about him is when his player explained that Borris had changed every floor. That is, more than 4E traditionally allowed. He had been creating a new Borris every level, complete with different classes, to see if the other players were paying attention. They weren’t, at least not enough to see through his heavy reskinning. This might have been a strategy I respected except I found out about it at the same time everyone else did.
- Hadarai, elven wizard. There’s a feat tree that allows wizards to hit a creature with cold damage to make them vulnerable to later cold damage, which put their damage at low levels nearly on par with strikers. Hadarai took that tree and made it into an art form. He had a tendency to solve all problems with the same at-will attack, even in skill challenges. “An air vent spouts poisonous gas!” “Arcana check to cover the vent with ice using ray of frost.” “The door is locked!” “Thievery check to disable the lock mechanism with ray of frost“. “The orcs are scary!” “Intimidate check to awe them with ray of frost.” At the time I was irritated. Now I’d probably allow it if all his other attacks did cold damage as well. Cryomancy is somewhat underrepresented in D&D.
This is the group that really started to play off each other, and they had some great stories. But we’re here to talk about their DM and villain, of sorts.
Alex was a fairly bookish human (and I mean that literally; he carried around a giant tome that he used as his primary method of attack). He interacted with the party between floors, during the downtime they used to gain levels, and no other time, but during those times he was fairly understanding and a little affable. His floors were incredibly boring compared to the later parts of the tower: plains, a forest, hills, a tundra, and a desert. On each floor the party had to kill some monster to progress; once they beat the boss, they could return to the beginning of the floor and enter a magical door that took them to the next level.
Again, I did not plan on having each tower guardian represent a DMing style when the campaign started. But looking back Alex is a perfect example of the beginning DM. His environments were the ones described in the books, his monsters almost all came from the monster manual, his puzzles were small and didn’t always mesh narratively, and he was friendly with the party but standoffish about the floors themselves. It’s the sort of DM a person thinks they should be if they’ve read the examples in the core books but not thought about the softer advice like “read the table” and “give the players control”.
This showed best in his mechanic for advancement. Each tower guardian decided whether a party merited admission to the next floor, and since they controlled the world there was no other option. Alex always had players advance by killing a boss, because that’s how D&D works: kill monster, get experience points, make numbers go up. Alex legitimately didn’t understand other methods of advancement or experience gain because the books didn’t explain them. He DMed with Intelligence but not the sort with carefully-balanced encounters and meticulous plots. He followed the manual for DMing in as much as it could teach him, and anything he couldn’t learn from reading wasn’t worth learning.
When I explained Alex to two of our local GMs, one responded “That sounds boring.” Before I could respond, the other said “Well, it was the beginning of the campaign. I think the players expected boring.” That’s a pretty good representation of how the players reacted to Alex. They tolerated him and his floors, but only because it was a way to get to later floors. Nobody loved the mundane levels, even if they did love some of the things they did there, and once they were past Alex they barely referred to him or his section of the tower again.
And that’s kind of how beginning DMs work, or at least the kind they teach in the core books. The rules can’t teach good DMing because that comes from other sources: experience, communication, theater, pacing, all bits of a whole that aren’t addressed by charts or text. The rules do teach what they can, but on their own they are insufficient for a good DM. The best they can do is create a tolerable DM who creates tolerable campaigns. Nobody watches the clock waiting for it to end, but nobody talks about it the next day. Alex was a larval DM who needed work, and his problem was that he had no interest in putting that work in.
When the players finally fought and beat him at his lighthouse, I don’t think they were glad that they were done with him per se. But they were so interested in what came next that his whole arc became an afterthought. The next DM was a little more evolved, and he played with the rules in ways both good and bad. But that’s another post.