Kai In The Bright Desert

Just add bow & arrow, and subtract ninja-ness.

Long time, no see! After a grueling couple of weeks that included not just one but TWO plumbing-related floods in my basement, I have finally got back around to the business of playtesting D&D Next. I have a regular bi-weekly game starting up in September. In fact, it was supposed to begin on Labor Day weekend, but that got scuttled, so we’ll begin on the next go-around.

In the meantime, in the past week my son Daniel and I sat down to get some game on. Here’s how things went.

Last time, Daniel and I took the Dwarfio Brothers into some goblin caves. Now, with the character creation rules in play, Daniel was able to make a character more to his liking. He chose a human Fighter (Sharpshooter), because, in his own words, “I won’t have to get close to the monsters.” He named his character Kai after his favorite Ninjago, and made Kai a blacksmith, also like the Ninjago character. Sensing the need for both healing and a front-line tank to keep the monsters occupied, I opted to create another Dwarf Cleric (War domain) with the Protector Specialty and a Soldier Background. I called him Wergus.

I was in a nostalgic mood and so we rolled for stats; I also invoked an old house rule that players would roll seven times and drop the lowest roll, which tends to dodge things like that crappy 7 that shows up once in awhile.  Both of us did quite well. Daniel rolled15-14-14-12-10-10 (08), which with the Human and Fighter stat bumps became a solid 17-16-15-13-11-11; he put the highest numbers in the physical traits, of course, with an 17 for his DEX and a 16 for STR. I rolled 1 16-15-12-12-11-08 (07), which is a little less impressive but still let me bump to 18 WIS if I chose a Mountain Dwarf (I did). In a more serious campaign I’ll probably stick to stat arrays, but it was fun to be rolling stats again.

Daniel had previously told me he wanted to “go through a desert and fight monsters there” with our next adventure. Wanting to introduce some campaign setting flavor, I chose to start the adventure in Ul Bakak, the desert trading town on the edge of the Bright Desert in the Flanaess. Using Greyhawk was more nostalgia from me, yes, but also a calculated move since it was the one campaign setting that I (a) knew best off the top of my head and (b) had a big, colorful map of, so that I could pull it out and catch my son’s eye (he’s a very visual kid).

For a dungeon, I pulled out Map Folio 1 and found a suitably small complex that could serve as an abandoned desert temple. I briefly wrote up an adventure for it. In short, the PCs would begin in Ul Bakak, where they would obtain a supposed treasure map that would lead them out into the desert and to the old temple. Inside the temple, they would discover both desert vermin and undead, the latter being controlled by the former lord of the temple. I figured the playing time would be two hours, tops — perfect for my son and me.

Desert adventures aren’t the Bestiary’s forte right now, but skeletons and zombies are both fine for a desert setting, along with a cunning wight as the “big boss” in the temple’s main chamber. I also put in giant scorpions by using the giant centipede stats; made a room full of desert bats by using the rat stats and adding flight; and used fire beetles for that scarab-y quality every desert adventure needs.

The story started with some role-playing. A real challenge has been getting my socially awkward son to role-play as his character, so I made sure Wergus almost always deferred to Kai in encounters. The story was that we had been hired by a merchant to protect his caravan as he traveled from Hardby to Ul Bakak, so we first negotiated with the merchant for pay; then we encountered a gruff half-orc who had just spent a fruitless week wandering the desert trying to find the temple, and who was glad to get rid of the “worthless map” for a few gold. I made Daniel roll a few Charisma and Wisdom checks along the way, to get him used to ability checks.

Map in hand, the PCs headed out into the Bright Desert. The first encounter was a nest of fire beetles that the PCs accidentally stumbled upon. This was a good opportunity to introduce the new fighter combat system to him. I did not use the expanded 1st level manuvers idea, but stuck with the RAW, which provided enough rules for an eight-year-old to keep track of. He very quickly took to Rapid Shot which, even at 1/2 damage, was enough to kill two Fire Beetles in one round with all but the worst damage rolls. I could almost hear the “pew! pew!” in the background.

After a day’s travel, the PCs arrived at the temple, were greeted by some skeletons hiding out in the sand (which was a nice opportunity to use the D&D Next turn undead rules for the first time). They fought; I introduced the concept of damage reduction to Daniel; and the PCs decided to rest before going into the temple.

I won’t walk you through every moment of the temple adventure. Suffice to say that a good time was had by all. A few D&D Next observations from the game:

1. D&D Next zombies are horrible pushovers. They’re practically 4E minions. Given their poor Initative and complete lack of any damage resistance, we were able to kill two before they even got a chance to act. In a horde or mob, like in a zombie movie, they might do some harm (and hey, why not give them a mob rule like kobolds have?). But in small groups, they’re terrible pushovers and I don’t think they’re worthy of the Level 2 CR they currently sport.

2. I really like the way actions get abstracted into six ability checks. Being able to lean back on just the six abilities really does make the game flow a little quicker. It also makes the game easier for an eight-year-old to get into, since he’s having to rely on fewer numbers more often, rather than a whole bunch of different scores. So, for example, when he tripped a pit trap it was an easy DEX check to avoid falling, then a STR check to climb out after he failed the DEX check.   

3. Expertise dice are a good idea. Over the course of the temple exploration, Daniel got to use all three of the 1st-level abilities he had — Deadly Strike, Parry, and Rapid Shot — and each one allowed him to contribute more than a single swing would. While I still think there should be a different dice progression (I really want 2d4 dice at 1st level) even the 1d6 was enough sometimes to turn a hit into a kill, or a painful blow into something less deadly.

I did not stop to level characters during the adventure, although I wish I had before that wight battle, but in the end Kai and Wergus did okay. Kai found some desert-styled studded leather armor in an old storeroom; they both earned some gold and gems; and they found a mysterious amulet that glowed faintly in the dark but seemed to have no actual magical properties. The next story will involve seeking out what the amulet might be … after we get ourselves to 2nd level.

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