Up in Smoke – Crypt of the Smoke Dragon Session 2

Although this session recap is being posted now, in the New Year of 2020, mostly so I can remind my players that we are gaming tonight, the final session of Crypt of the Smoke Dragon was actually ran before Christmas 2019. We all wanted a quick session, so that we could finish up and get ready for a new adventure in the new year, and not have to worry about over running into conflicts with upcoming work-related Christmas parties that often happen around that time of year. Thankfully, the finale of Crypt of the Smoke Dragon didn’t disappoint in this regard.

We had left the party, consisting of Greywulf, Stardancer, Develan, and Zanthar Rex, preparing to face off against the Smoke Dragon, a mist-based undead dragon that had billowed forth from an enchanted brazier in the back of the room. They had Maxie, Stardancer’s new-found animal companion – a small dog – to aid them, and aid them she would.

And Bang, the Dragon Was Gone

The ensuing conflict was swift, as Greywulf, Stardancer, and Develan engaged the Smoke Dragon in hand to hand combat. Naturally, Maxie followed her new mistress into battle, and when the Smoke Dragon almost killed Stardancer, Maxie was there to give the Smoke Dragon what for.

However, all of this was a distraction, as Zanthar Rex remembered the weakness of the Smoke Dragon, and headed straight for the brazier instead. Zanthar destroyed the brazier, which instantly weakened the Smoke Dragon, allowing for Stardancer to strike the final blow and destroying the beast.

With this, all that was left to do was the looting, with the typical improvement item for each character – advanced spell scrolls for the Cleric and Wizard, better armour for the Fighter, and a pair of silk boots for the Rogue. This last item got a muted response from Sian – a pair of boots? They weren’t magical as far as anybody could tell, so why a pair of boots? Unknown to her, but the boots were in fact a skill item essentially designed to make the Rogue sneak better, because, you know, that is what Rogues do.

What’s Next?

With that, the adventure was over, as the party headed back to Haven, and I still had a good hour to spare. So, what should I do? Well, I had been planning ahead, and I knew that the next adventure I had planned was the Ruined Tower, another quick tutorial adventure in the D&D Fast Play series, which would introduce Haven and the Vale much more meaningfully. So why not provide a sneak preview, and allow the players to set up their new characters early?

Cue the groan from Ouro, and the inevitable griping, because “the joy in roleplaying is seeing your characters grow.” I understand where he’s coming from, but that helps if you know what you want to play, and Sian hasn’t reached that stage yet. So I am essentially giving her a taste of various characters, and building up a “party stable” of pre-generated characters that both Ouro and Sian can play with, all in a campaign set around the concept that a number of aspiring adventurers, including some kidnapped unfortunates, are uncovering the mysteries within Haven and the Vale. I am also giving Ouro the chance to explore outside his comfort zone, although he doesn’t seem to have grasped that opportunity. Plus, for my own benefit, as a gaming historian, I am getting to play my way through D&D history, without fully scaring off Sian and Ouro with the realities of OD&D.

So, I quickly reassure Ouro that this is all neccessary as part of the story of the Vale. The victims of Zanzer Tem are still recovering, and the party sent to defeat the Smoke Dragon by the Patrician are victorious, and slowly make their return journey to town. I am not sure that Ouro and Sian quite appreciate that it’s only been about three in game days since escaping Zanzer’s Dungeon, and in D&D, natural healing is at a rate of 1 hit per level, or 2 with full bed rest. Thus swapping characters is a good way to get straight into the game, knowing that by the time you return to the previous characters, they would have rested up. This also makes them useful if there’s a TPK and everyone needs new characters for some reason. I do intend to take the training wheels off sometime, after all.

Picking Pre-Gens

With that, we get to picking the party. The choice is from two human Fighters, one a ranged combatant with a longbow and longsword, and the other a melee-focused fighter armed with a greatsword and several daggers. Backup comes in the form of a halfling Rogue, and a human Mage. A nice relatively balanced party that has replaced the healer for another fighter, simply because the adventure is so short.

Ouro had first choice, and decided to go with the Rogue. I decided that each player should take one of the fighters, so Ouro chose the ranged Fighter – mostly because his artwork reminded him of Tanis Half-Elven from Dragonlance. This left Sian with the melee Fighter and the Mage. Cue Sian moaning about her pregens, amusingly dubbing them “the peewee” and “the wuss.” She bemoaned the Fighter’s lack of ranged weapons besides the daggers, conveniently ignoring the fact that her fighter had the best melee weapon in the party. She also moaned about the Mage only having one spell – magic missile.

I silently rolled my eyes, and explained how the whole point of playing the low-level Mage in 2nd Edition was that you had to decide when the best time to use her limited spells was, and that as a pre-gen, the decision of choosing what spell to take was critical. I pointed out to her that the Mage had a spellbook which contained sleep, a spell that Nuggin had previously used to great effect, whenever Ouro remembered to have him memorise it, in Zanzer’s Dungeon.

Why was this? Well, because we are playing with a hybrid 3.x rules system, which was significantly more powerful than earlier versions, especially in terms of ability score modifiers to saves, I had lowered all the pre-gen characters to 1st level. This meant reducing the spells Sian’s Mage had  down to one – and I knew that there’s only one encounter where sleep would actually have any effect. I didn’t want Sian missing that opportunity and then having a spell that could only affect the party.

Player Review

Despite the griping, I know that both Ouro and Sian both enjoy gaming, regardless of what characters they get, so whilst voicing disappointment, it wasn’t that important. I think both players are trying to get to grips with what isn’t a conventional game for them, by any stretch of the imagination.

Sian still needs a taste for the sort of characters available so that she can choose what she wants to play, giving her more agency without too much demand – she doesn’t enjoy reading rulebooks or doing “homework”, and giving her too many options can easily overwhelm her.

Ouro, on the other hand, whilst a veteran player compared to Sian, still has a somewhat limited scope when playing, as whilst he is familiar with 3.x, doesn’t have a great deal of scope with other editions and systems. This is a chance for him to relearn and replace some preconceptions he has, a few of which are actively self-limiting in nature.

But most importantly, it’s a chance for both players to find their balance in playing styles, so that they are both engaged and taking active part in the game. It’s about reminding Ouro that he doesn’t know everything about the game, and therefore allowing him to explore alongside Sian, so they can both work together and decide who should take the lead when. Sian shouldn’t feel like she must defer to Ouro, and Ouro shouldn’t feel like he is obligated to take the lead in the adventure.

What’s the Point?

Ultimately though, I just want both Sian and Ouro to be happy gaming, and this campaign is a sandbox environment to allow them to do that at a slower pace. All of these adventures were designed to provide a taster of their relevant systems, typically before they move on to the core rules themselves. They don’t assume any knowledge of roleplaying before – which is always amusing when I do the read-aloud text about how “we are going to be creating a story together” over and over.

Sometimes I think Ouro and I both forget what it was like to experience our first game when we were young, and how Sian never had that opportunity. I don’t know about Ouro, but I certainly wish I could get that sense of wonder and excitement back, and I want to share that with them both. I want to say that we will get there, even as we get older – and that’s the goal for 2020.

Crypt of the Smoke Dragon – Session One

After spending the best part of a year exploring Zanzer’s Dungeon, it was refreshing to explore a much smaller dungeon. As was mentioned previously, the Crypt of the Smoke Dragon is a stand alone Fast Play adventure that was released as part of the silver anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons. It is a simple dungeon crawl that the players can explore in a session or two – perfect to fill in the gap before Christmas and the New Year before we dig into the Vale itself.

The Crypt of the Smoke Dragon provides four pre-generated characters – Greywulf the Human Fighter, Stardancer the Elf Rogue, Develan the Dwarf Cleric, and Zanthar Rex the Human Wizard. Not exactly inspiringly unique characters, but enough to round out a balanced party for a taster of what Advanced Dungeons and Dragons has to offer.

A Simple Party

Interestingly enough, Crypt of the Smoke Dragon preferred to focus on playing Dungeons and Dragons, without using the full system. This means armour was ignored, no saves required, and simplified abilities. This made them easy to convert, although I decided not to give the character’s armour, so they would be relying entirely on their own Dexterity modifier to protect themselves.

Another feature that was ignored was the idea of ranged attacks. All four characters only used melee attacks, so players didn’t need to make many decisions about what they wanted to do in combat. Spellcasting was also severely limited, as Zanthar Rex the Wizard had two magic missile spells memorised, whilst Develan the Cleric had two cure light wounds spells prepared. Zanthar Rex also had a scroll of knock, whilst Stardancer the Rogue had a spare potion of healing.

With the party pre-prepared, the only real decision needed before diving right in with the adventure was who was playing who. In the end, Sian went with Greywulf and Stardancer, whilst Ouro went with Develan and Zanthar Rex. With that, the party approached the Crypt of the Smoke Dragon.

Entering the Crypt

The first obstacle that the part faced was a big stone plug that served as the doorway into the crypt. Cautiously, the party examine the doorway, with Stardancer being able to read the mystic writing on the door:

“Power resides in the vessel of mist. Sunder the chalice and rend the beast.”

Would this be an important clue that the party will remember in their time of need?

Both Greywulf and Zanthar Rex proceeded to open the stone plug and open the crypt. Beyond, in the near darkness, five zombies stood in an ancient antechamber, guarding a chest and a load of rusted armour and weaponry. The fight was brief, and the zombies were swiftly dispatched, leaving the party to loot the chest of a bag of ancient gold coins.

Stardancer checked the iron door leading further into the mountain. She discovered that the door was locked and trapped, although it seemed like the complex ancient mechanism was beyond her ability to deal with. Not wanting to risk the trap that was sure to be triggered if the door was physically forced open, Zanthar Rex decided that this was a good time to use his knock scroll, opening the door with powerful magic.

Bridge of Doom

Beyond the door, the sound of rushing water could he heard thundering ahead. The soon discovered the source, a raging river rushed through the cavern at the bottom of a deep chasm that blocked the way ahead. A rickety wooden rope bridge crossed the chasm, beyond which two skeleton warriors blocked the way.

The party decided not to risk crossing the bridge in combat, and waited for the skeletons to cross towards them. Fighting on more solid ground, the skeletons were defeated in a violently graphic manner, as Greywulf used his skull-headed warhammer to shatter their bones and ancient armour, sending the debris flying into the chasm beyond.

With the way ahead now clear, the party headed on, encountered a junction. To the left, the passageway turned to the right, further into the darkness. To the right, the passageway ended in a solid door. Whilst debating which way to go, Stardancer’s heard a pitiful whining from beyond the door. Without hesitation, Stardancer opened the door into a small room.

Introducing Maxie!

Beyond the door, the source of the whining was discovered to be a small dog. The dog appeared to be guarding the body of a fallen adventurer that seemed to have been killed by an explosively trapped chest lying nearby. Another, more intact, chest was suspiciously unopened next to the scorched chest and the body.

Stardancer first examined the chest, but failed to spot the poison dust within the lock. Luckily, the potency of the dust had clearly weakened with age, and after an intense coughing spasm, the elven rogue didn’t seem to have any other ill effects. Within the chest, a small ring was found, which Zanther Rex asked to study. Stardancer handed over the ring, but if it was indeed magical, Zanthar Rex lacked the ability to identify it. Frustrated, Zanther quietly pocketed the ring.

Stardancer didn’t complain, as she was far too distracted by the small dog. The dog was a spaniel, and quickly took to Stardancer, who was able to lead the dog away from the fallen adventurer. Develan took the opportunity to explore the remains of the fallen adventurer, discovering an unidentified liquid and a mace. Stardancer found that the dog was wearing a collar, which gave the name Maxie.

Encountering the Smoke Dragon

With their new found companion, the party travelled back to the junction and headed further into the dungeon. Around the corner, the passage opened up into a large room with a fairly solid brazier. As the party approached, smoke from the brazier billowed out and formed into the shape of a large dragon. A voice thundered from the shape:

“Fools! You have found only death in the lair of the Smoke Dragon! Soon you will join my undead legions!”

This served as a suitable cliffhanger on which to end the session, as the party (and Maxie) prepare to face off against the target of their quest from the Patrician of Haven…

The Next Adventure – Crypt of the Smoke Dragon

So, it’s time to move on to new adventures, as the party have finally escaped from Zanzer’s Dungeon after nearly a year of on-off gaming. But what should be next?

Whilst we could stay with the current party that has escaped from Zanzer’s Dungeon, perhaps to pursue Zanzer Tem and/or explore the mysteries of Stonefast, there has been some player dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the basic Dungeons and Dragons game, in particular, the way that combat is organised.

More Basic Dungeons and Dragons?

Both of my players, Ouro the veteran and Sian the newbie, seem to be unable to grasp the more wargame-based routes of combat occurring in phases, and seem to favour the later innovation of individual initiatives where characters can perform all their actions in their own round. This is more boardgame-based, and helps reinforce the idea of the party as individual characters, rather than a loose squad of clones.

Whilst I do want to return to basic D&D, it might be better to look towards shifting the homebrew system towards something more current, as we have already decided to move towards a more d20 based system, as used in Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition.

3rd Edition and the D20 System

We could go on to the D&D Adventure Games released for Dungeons and Dragons 3.0, which is an excellent resource for teaching new players the basics of D&D. However, the focus of this product demonstrates the more gamy aspects of D&D, leaving a lot to be desired in the background provided for the adventures.

In fact, the background of D&D 3.x was relatively bland, as it was assumed that the default set up would be the somewhat defunct setting of Greyhawk, although there was little of no support provided beyond a basic gazetteer refreshing what was primarily a 1st and 2nd edition setting for Dungeons and Dragons.

What About 4th and 5th Edition?

With this in mind, let’s look at some other possibilities. Immediately, 4th Edition was ruled out – the system was a little bit TOO different for the campaign, and wasn’t a very good product in my opinion. In fact, I had switched off for 4th edition, and missed it entirely, so I had a lack of confidence in my ability to run it compared to other systems. I know my feelings were shared by Ouro, the veteran player, so it’s unlikely that anything specifically 4th edition orientated would be appreciated.

The Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set, which contained the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver, was pretty good, but had one drawback. It was ostensibly set in the Forgotten Realms, which was now considered the default setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Using this would probably tie us into using the Forgotten Realms setting, and as good as that setting was, the baggage had the potential to derail the campaign, as many players already knew a lot about the setting.

Settling on 2nd Edition

Looking back at 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, TWO different starter sets were created. One was known as First Quest, which was a perfectly functional starter set, but was used to launch a revision of the Known Word of D&D, under the name Mystara. These were accompanied by audio CDs, and would have the possibility of tying us into Mystara and the Known World.

The second starter set looked like the best option. As part of Dungeons and Dragons’ silver anniversary in 1999, Wizards of the Coast, who had acquired TSR, released a number of products. Among these were the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Game and a number of Fast Play products. These were a series of quick adventures that enabled people to get into Dungeons and Dragons quickly, much like the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Game for 3rd edition would.

Haven and The Vale

But it had one advantage – these products included a small, self-contained campaign setting featuring the town of Haven and a setting known as The Vale. It’s simple enough to provide a foundation, without tying us to any specific setting.

This was perfect, as the fast play system focused only on light mechanics, so were relatively easy to convert, and the bare bones setting had enough detail to create a basic campaign without overwhelming the players.

Regular readers might recall that I had already settled on using The Vale when deciding basic details about our first adventure. One of the advantages of Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon was that it was an extensive tutorial of basic D&D, but wasn’t explicitly placed in any particular setting. As such, it was relatively easy to situate both Zanzer’s Dungeon and Stonefast within The Vale. After all, the PCs were kidnapped, so didn’t need to know things about Haven to begin their adventure to escape.

The were two key Fast Play products, Wrath of the Minotaur and Eye of the Wyvern, which provided two different adventures with The Vale. Wrath of the Minotaur was a dungeon-based adventure, whilst Eye of the Wyvern presented a wilderness-based adventure. Both also included a very basic beginning adventure, the Ruined Tower.

The Dungeons and Dragon Adventure Game wasn’t a fast-play product, but was released as part of the Silver Anniversary and set in and around Haven. It featured many of the same characters in the Fast Play game. it contained three adventures, which were ideal to combine with the Fast Play games, and it was fairly easy to combine the two provided maps of The Vale into a bigger campaign.

Crypt of the Smoke Dragon?

There was one other Fast Play game released though – Crypt of the Smoke Dragon. Like the introductory adventure, the Ruined Tower, it was a small adventure designed to teach the game. Unlike the other products, it wasn’t set in The Vale. In fact, it wasn’t set anywhere specifically, and thus was easy to also transplant into the region.

The strangest feature of the Crypt of the Smoke Dragon was that unlike the other Fast Play materials for the setting, it didn’t feature the same characters. The idea of iconics – iconic characters that would represent various class and race combinations within the game – wouldn’t be fully fleshed until 3rd edition in 2000, so it wasn’t unusual for various sets to present new iconic characters and new settings for their beginning products.

With this in mind, the next adventure was set – The Crypt of the Smoke Dragon. I could introduce a simpler party with only four characters, all of which were pregenerated. This adventure, and this party, could be used as a sort of cut away from the aftermath of the Escape from Zanzers Dungeon, as those PCs recovered without needing copious amounts of healing positions and healing magic.

It would also serve to shift the game towards individual initiative, provide the PCs with a break that jumps straight into the adventure, and serve to show that there’s more to The Vale than they see. Perhaps with less need to create characters, my players might find the game easier to get to grips with.

Hopefully, the shortness of this adventure should mean that it doesn’t take so long to complete, and then we can move on to exploring more of The Vale. As a GM, I am looking more towards creating a story about the environment than any specific party, at least until the players have had some experience with what types of characters they want to play.

What about the Escapees of Zanzer’s Dungeon?

But what of the survivors of Zanzer’s Dungeon, and the lingering mystery of Stonefast? Well, I would like to have those in my back pocket, to serve as a hook that rewards the players, as well as the characters. In this way, the Patrician, the party’s patron, can reveal information about Stonefast and eventually provide the key they need to start the adventure into what might otherwise be just another dungeon.

Plus, it also means that I don’t have to worry about stocking the dungeon until much further in the campaign, when I can incorporate a lot of interesting links to the lore behind Haven and The Vale…

Until then, it’s time to look back at the finalised map of the The Vale which will serve as the home base for the players characters for the next little while!