Monday, October 4, 2010, 5:05 AM
One of the biggest hurdles I've seen in getting players to go behind the screen is not only the amount of work involved, but the fear that either they won't be good, or that they'll make a mistake of some sort. Well, for those of you who have not gone behind the screen yet, I have a secret to let you in on, well actually two: 1) Very few people are great at DM'ing right out of the box, and 2) even great DM's make mistakes and have bad days.
First, just a brief point about #1. Its likely true that you will struggle when you first start. Of course, this was also likely true when you started as a player. Whenever we start a new trade, hobby, skill, whatever, we are not great. I'm sure there are a few naturals out there, but they tend to be the very small minority. If your friends are truly your friends, they'll understand and they'll give you that credit.
Now to the second point, which is the focus of this entry. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that even the best DMs will have bad days. Joe Dimaggio would go 0-4, hall of fame pitchers occasionally get lit up, heck, even Michael Jordan had a few games where he scored less than 15 points. The point is, nobody is perfect. No matter how much work and preparation you put into the game, you will make mistakes, and you will have particularly bad days. Some days you'll just be tired, either mentally or physically, other days you might be a bit distracted, or perhaps your party just keeps throwing you knee-buckling curve balls. Whatever the reason those off days will come.
So What to Do?
The first, and perhaps most obvious step, is to identify the problem. What made the session bad? Were you simply tired? Were you having trouble hearing at the local con or FLGS? Did you just not have enough NPC names at your disposal?
Once you've identified the problem, you can move to the next step, which is figuring out how to resolve it. If you were tired, it could just be an anomaly for that day. If you are playing after work, try to make sure you get a good night's sleep the night before. If you are playing on a Saturday evening, think about taking a nap Saturday afternoon. If you were having trouble hearing, you have to think about if this was an anomaly too. Was the other table in the FLGS just a bit rowdier than normal? If so, no big deal. If they are always real loud, perhaps try asking them (politely of course) if they can keep it down a touch.
Recently, in my games, I was noticing that I was having trouble keeping the initiative order straight. I would usually write the initiative down on a sheet of paper I used for notes then work my way down. The problem came though when either a) a player would delay or ready an action or b) a particular PC or NPC turn would take particularly long to resolve. When players would switch spots in the initiative the sheet of paper could get messy, or when an action was taking too long to resolve, I would simply forget where we were. This problem got really bad (at least in my own eyes) one session when I was also a little tired. So my solution was to buy a pack of index cards and use those for initiative. One card for each PC and NPC/monster. Once initiative is rolled, I place the cards in order and flip through them as the round proceeds. If somebody delays or readies, I can then insert their card at their new initiative spot. This has worked perfectly so far, with no problems. In fact, an added benefit I've noticed is that I can now pre-roll initiative for the monsters before the session, which speeds the session up that little bit.
But I'm not sure what went wrong
This is the most vexing problem for DM's. Sometimes a session just goes bad and you are not sure why. You can see it in the way the session plays out, but you can't put your finger on why. The players don't seem engaged, the fights plod along, etc. So what do you do now?
The answer is to talk to your players. See if they can put their finger on what went wrong. Perhaps the problem is that they just are not that in to the current adventure. Or maybe there was something about what you were doing that you didn't notice but which was slowing the game down. Perhaps you were occasionally spacing out. Or maybe the players were just tired. The point is, it could be any of a number of things that went wrong and it may not have been your fault. Most players will want to have fun, so if a session goes bad, they will likely respond well if you ask them for suggestions. If the problem was on the player's end, then they can address it -- after all, DM's aren't the only ones to have long days at work. If you are doing something that is causing problems, hopefully they'll tactfully point it out.
The important thing here is that if you go to the players and say "Hey, last session didn't seem to go to well, what can I do on my end to make it better?" the players will almost always be grateful that you are trying to make things better. Approaching anybody and suggesting that they are doing something wrong is always difficult, and many players are particularly hesitant to approach the DM out of fear of DM backlash "Oh, great, I suggested you were doing something wrong, now suddenly all monsters attack me all the time." However, if you take that first step and open up the floor for comments so to speak, the players will likely be relieved to know that you are trying to make the game better. Its much like when you go to a store (or any business) with a problem. If that store at least tries to make amends or to improve the situation, you'll likely respond better (even if you don't get everything you wanted) than if the store simply ignores your complaint.
In conclusion, don't be afraid to make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, its part of being human. But, when you do make mistakes, take a look at how those mistakes impacted the game, and how you can avoid them in the future. Ask your players for input as well and odds are you can correct the problems and create a game that is that much more fun for everyone.
Thursday, September 23, 2010, 5:01 AM
Last time I discussed the issues that a DM with a small group faces, though I largely focused on specific encounters. It's important to keep the size of your group in mind though when you plot out your campaign. The size of the group can have a significant effect on the campaign structure.
Verisimilitude refers to the appearance of truth, likelihood, and/or probability in a campaign. Obviously, when playing a fantasy-based game like D&D, not everything will be realistic (last time I checked there weren't any beholders running around). However, monsters and NPCs also have intelligence, motivations, etc. You want their actions to seem plausible in the general scope of things. Now with a standard party of 5, you are frequently left with a pretty open plate in terms of options; however, small parties sometimes require you to adjust your adventures and campaigns.
Take the classic example of storming the castle of the evil duke/prince/king/etc. A standard party of 5 adventurers will generally have a lot of options open to them -- particularly the higher their level. If; however, you are running a campaign for a single player, you have to adjust. A party of five might plausibly be able to storm the gates and take out the patrol there, duck into the castle, grab a quick breather (i.e. short rest) take out the next patrol, etc. Here, the party can easily handle anywhere from 5 to 20 guards at a time (depending on whether there are any minions among the guards). They can even handle reinforcements showing up mid-battle if the fight is going easily.
The solo player on the other hand, is going to have a tough time handling more than one standard guard or a couple of minions at a time unless the guards are noticeably lower in level -- and even then a number of lower level guards could cause problems for the solo player just based on sheer number of attacks and hit points. The problem though is that if the guards keep attacking the PC one at a time with a convenient 5 minute rest in between, it won't seem very realistic when the PC is storming the gates. In fact, a single guard at the gates might not even seem realistic.
This does not mean however that the solo PC cannot take out the evil king/duke/prince/etc. What this means is that you have to be sure to give the PC a number of options for accomplishing this task. If the PC has any stealth skill he can try to sneak in -- maybe he comes in disguised as a maid/butler/cook/etc., or maybe he sneaks in through the sewers or climbs the walls to an available window. Once inside, he then sneaks his way through the castle until he reaches his target. The idea here is that while it might be difficult for a party of five to sneak through a castle undetected (the paladin is going to make a lot of noise in his armor), a single rogue might not have any trouble doing so whatsoever, and can thereby avoid most of the guards. In fact, you can make this into a great scene as you describe the dozens of guards that are running around on duty -- thereby reinforcing the need for secrecy. Then, just to mix it up, you can throw in the occasional minion for the rogue to sneak up on, etc.
Keep in mind though, that if the PC's task is to kill the target, he doesn't necessarily have to do it at the keep. Maybe the king goes to the Market once a month to be seen with his subjects. Perhaps there's a tournament in a week. There are any number of reasons why the resident of a castle might step outside, and giving your player(s) these options will make your world feel that much more alive.
Put simply, your standard dungeon just won't work real well for a small group (the smaller the group the harder to fit the standard dungeon). Even the dumbest goblin will run for help when it sees its comrades being cut down. Small groups will have that much more difficulty in handling large numbers of attackers because the enemy's attacks will by default be fairly focused. All of this goes back to knowing what your group's capabilities are. A group consisting of a paladin and a warlord both in heavy armor is going to have a hard time sneaking through a castle but they might be able to take on the target when he's out with his small hunting party. The same party might not have too much trouble with an Elite dragon in a cave, but they'll have a hard time wading through the assorted kobold tribes that have come to worship said dragon without alerting the dragon -- and the rest of the kobolds -- in the process. In the end, just keep in mind what your group can accomplish, and tailor your campaign to give them realistic objectives with realistic means of accomplishing those objectives and your players will in all likelihood go home very happy.
Friday, September 17, 2010, 7:06 AM
One of the best things about D&D is that its a great way to get a bunch of your friends around a table to joke, laugh, and just plain have fun. Of course, the flip side to this is that getting a bunch of friends around the same table can often be rather difficult -- even moreso it seems as you get older. Work and family get in the way, and worse, sometimes those friends move away, or you have to move yourself. The result is that getting 6 people around the table for a regular D&D game can be difficult at best. That does not; however, mean that just because you do not have 6 people in your group (the standard 5 players and 1 DM) that you cannot still play. In fact, its possible to play with as little as 1 player and 1 DM. I suppose its possible to play just by yourself as both the DM and the player, but that would seem to take a lot of the fun out of D&D. Playing with smaller groups though does require a bit of adjustment.
This is pretty obvious. The closer your party is to the standard 5 member party (or 4 in 3.x), the easier it is to prepare your sessions. Most 5 PC parties will have a decent mix of abilities (from range to melee and heal vs. damage, etc.) allowing you a wide range of options for encounter design. As you deviate from the 5 PC setup though, adjustment is required. If you have more PCs, generally, you will need more monsters, if you have fewer, you'll need to eliminate monsters. This is particularly true with smaller parties. More monsters of lower levels can still give a small party fits because of their ability to flank, and their sheer number of attacks -- particularly considering the relatively small number of HPs that PCs have.
The good thing about 4th Ed. though is that it makes smaller parties easier to work with in many respects. For starters, monsters are balanced on the premise that for a party of level X, there should be 1 monster of level X for each PC. This means that its pretty easy to scale that orc raid encounter down for a group of 3, 2, or even 1. The challenge is just as difficult but not particularly overly tough -- though issues with healing can still come into play.
The big problem you are going to run into in a smaller party is that there is a limit in the abilities of the party. In other words, a party of 2 PCs just won't have the same diversity of resources available to it as a 5 PC party. While this seems obvious on the surface, its important to keep in mind when designing encounters. If your party consists of a Runepriest and a Barbarian for instance, they are going to have a very difficult time dealing with artillery that is secluded away in a tough to reach spot. By the same token, a group without a healer could have difficulty dealing with the damage brought by brutes -- though they at least would be easier to hit. In the end, you'll likely find yourself doing a bit of trial and error in order to get a good feel for what your party is capable of handling. While this is true to an extent for any party (some groups, despite being large, don't have much ranged support for instance) it is particularly worth noting for small groups.
Unfortunately, its not just combat that is affected by a small party. Skill challenges become more difficult too. With fewer characters, there will be fewer trained skills (and there's certainly no guarantee that there won't be any overlap of trained skills). With a smaller number of trained skills, skill challenges will be that much harder since it will be more likely that a primary skill is not covered by the party. There's two ways to deal with skill challenges in this case. First, take a look at what skills your party is good at, and tailor your challenges accordingly. This doesn't mean that you can't use a primary skill that isn't covered by the party, just that you do so with care, and recognize that a party where nobody is trained in Endurance for instance, will have more difficulty meeting even a moderate DC check. Alternatively, you can adjust your skill DCs down to compensate for the smaller party. The party not trained in Endurance for instance will find a moderate check to be difficult in all likelihood. The thing to remember is that you do not want to consistently stack the deck against the PCs. Having a skill challenge where the party has very little chance of success gets old just as quickly as the skill challenge where the party has very little chance of failure. Again, trial and error will hopefully guide you to the happy medium.
How to Compensate
The first thing to consider is suggesting that the players take a look at the Hybrid rules. A hybrid character gives the party a little bit of access to more roles. A hybrid leader for instance won't provide as much healing as a true leader, but some healing is better than none. Filling empty roles is never a bad thing. Obviously you should not tell the players that they must play hybrids -- its their character after all -- but at least showing them the upside is a good start.
Along the same lines comes multi-classing. Picking up an occasional healing word can make all the difference, just as a little bit of extra damage from a Hunter's Quarry can. If your party is sufficiently small, consider relaxing the limits on multiclassing. After all, the player still has to use up a feat slot to add another class. The key is to make sure that your campaign is still balanced in the main. Odds are an extra multiclass feat won't throw your campaign into chaos. However, you do need to consider what other players are playing. For instance, if you have a Bard in the group, and then you let everyone take as many different Multiclasses as they want, the Bard will feel a bit cheated since one of his class features was just rendered meaningless. If you do go that route, make sure you give that Bard some other benefit to make up for the loss of the class feature.
Another option to look at is to give them a friend. DMG 2 provides good rules for the use of companion characters in the game. This is particularly good for a party that is missing a role or two. The companion character won't overshadow the PCs but will definitely help them. Additionally, companion characters make it easy to pull them out of the campaign should your group grow, and they can be interchanged for different needs of different adventures. This can even lead to a nice piece of worldbuilding. Perhaps the companion characters come from some sort of adventurer's guild or a mercenary group. This lets the party hire out the type of companion character they think they'll need for a given adventure and even lets the players get some experience with different classes/races etc.
Finally, there's the option of letting them play multiple characters. This is a bit of a tricky proposition in my opinion. In 4th Ed., characters are fairly complex compared to older editions. By this I mean that PCs generally have more options open to them now than they did in earlier editions. This is, in my mind, one of the reasons for the longer combats now. Certainly its not the only reason -- nor even the main reason -- but it is a factor. With more choices comes a longer decision process. This is one of the reasons why long combats tend to speed up in later rounds. Sure, there are fewer monsters around, but the PCs are also often down to just their at-wills. "Do I use Power 1 or Power 2?" is a lot quicker than "Do I use Power 1, Power 2, Power 3, Power 4, Power 5 or Power 6?" for instance. If you let the players play 2 PCs, they have that many more options to consider, plus it will take them longer (often times) to get a good feel for their characters. Plus, whether consciously or not, when they are deciding what to have their first character do, they will be thinking about how that will affect the other.
The other thing to consider about letting them play two characters is that it will inevitably affect the roleplay elements of the game. Let's face it, a player is going to be highly unlikely to carry on a conversation with himself, even if it makes sense in game terms to do so. Now, if your group is not as interested in roleplay elements, and really just prefers to jump into the next fight or skill challenge, this is less of a problem. If you are in a group of actors though, it will be awkward at best.
Personally, I've run games back in 3.x days where the players each played two characters. This was because there were only 2 players in the group in addition to me. It worked out fairly well, but I think that was as much because we were playing 3.x (faster combats) as anything. Additionally, to be honest, in many respects the players treated their "second" character as a companion character anyway, which helped with the roleplay (in other words, one character tended be rather silent most of the time).
The DMPC Issue
About the only topic likely to create as much of a flame war as edition wars is the issue of the DMPC. Many DM's are tempted to insert a DMPC into their campaigns to help balance out the party. I'm not going to get into the pro's and con's of DMPCs here as frankly, that's a topic for an entire blog . . . or three. However, I will give just a few brief comments on the issue. First and foremost, while the DMPC can, in my experience, work in a campaign, it can also ruin a campaign before it even starts. The use of a DMPC requires a tremendous amount of trust between the DM and the Players, and its real easy for the DM to violate that trust. Second, particularly in 4th Ed., the DM already has a lot on his or her plate when combat starts, adding control of a DMPC only makes the job that much more difficult. Third, in my mind, companion characters have largely done away with the need for a DMPC. In my mind, I have a hard time justifying the need for a DMPC given the DMG 2 rules for companion character. If; however, you are determined to go with a DMPC, I would note that two classes in particular can work well in this role -- the Warlord and the Pacifist Cleric. The Warlord can spam Commander's Strike (thus giving the players more attacks and letting them be the ones who do the killing) and likewise, the Pacifist Cleric need never deal damage directly to a monster and rather focus on debuffing the monsters and healing the party -- thus helping to keep the spotlight on the players and off the DM. Bottom line is that while I've seen DMPCs work well, I've also seen them ruin campaigns.
I'll pick up with this issue next time and talk about campaign structure for smaller groups.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010, 5:47 AM
First, my apologies on the delayed posting, but life unfortunately has a tendency to get in the way from time to time.
Anyway, onto the topic at hand. The Grind. If you've played much 4th Ed. D&D you know that one of the biggest potential issues with 4th Ed. is that combat can be a long, slow, grind that eventually deteriorates into little more than a slog. The PCs line up against the monster(s) and start throwing at-wills every round because they've run out of Encounters and Dailies. Even the monsters are using basic attacks unless they maybe have a recharge ability. The problem with these fights is that while they are long, they are often far from dramatic. In other words, it often becomes clear early on that the PCs have the situation under control, but now its just a matter of whittling away the monsters HPs. Although it will often be difficult to completely eliminate, there are some things that you can do to help limit the grind.
More Monsters, Not Higher Level Monsters
This is a pretty common piece of advice that can be found throughout this site as well as others and even published materials. However, its good advice worth repeating. When you want to throw a difficult challenge at the party, consider using more monsters around the party's level rather than using higher level monsters. The problem is that monster defenses scale pretty quickly, such that a single monster that is 4 levels above the party's level can be fairly difficult to hit with regularity -- this is then compounded by the fact that the monster also has more HPs. Although you can easily design an encounter consisting of a couple of monsters of the PCs level and a few of level + 3 or 4 and still be within the XP budget guidelines for a difficult encounter, you are definitely setting yourself up for more of a grind than if you simply used a larger number of monsters at the PCs level.
There's an added benefit to using more monsters too. I like to call it the "Uh - Oh!" factor (or perhaps something a little stronger for the older crowds out there) :p What I mean by this is, the PCs kick open the door and you start placing your monsters, and placing more monsters, and more, etc. Five PCs won't get too worked up over seeing 5 or 6 monsters -- at least until they learn how hard to hit they are, but if you start throwing 8 - 10 (or possibly more even) you'll definitely get their attention. It's at this point that the players look at each other and go "Uh Oh."
Keep Your Soldiers in Check
Outside of Solos, soldiers are the largest contributor to the combat grind. They combine high defenses with relatively low offense. This is often a recipe for disaster. The soldiers become hard to hit, but they deal so little damage that the party doesn't really feel threatened. Again you quickly devolve into a situation where it seems clear that the PCs will prevail, but now you are just waiting for the HPs to tick away. This is not to say that you should not use soldiers at all, just be careful as to how many you place into a combat. The soldier makes for a good bodyguard to the bigger threat and can be a good way to distract that rogue or avenger from going after that bigger threat (through marks, etc.) but if you have nothing but soldiers, its simply going to be a slog.
Its real tempting when throwing a solo at the party to use a really big, bad, monster a couple levels higher than the party. Something that can taunt the party and really lay the smack down on the party. The problem again comes from the sheer number of hit points that solos have, particularly when they are higher level than the party. The massive hit point total will cause the party to burn through their dailies and encounters while still leaving the creature relatively healthy. Then the party surrounds the solo and lobs at-will after at-will at the monster until it eventually dies. Even if you have a monster hurling taunts and insults this will get old fast, and you will run out of insults to throw.
Instead, consider making the solo the same level as the party and giving it some friends. Now you have a solo that is easier to hit, has fewer hit points, but is just as dangerous an encounter thanks to the help it receives from its friends. The party probably cannot afford to simply focus on the solo, plus the non-minion friends provide enough damage and health to keep the fight interesting.
Work the Land
The next thing you can do is to use terrain in your encounters to make things a little more lively. Consider using beneficial or harmful pieces of terrain that invite the combatants to fight over it. Provide places where ranged attackers can gain cover. Use bits of fantastic terrain as found in the DMG and DMG2. A few squares of blast stone that can spread suddenly make the mundane cave floor into a potential labyrinth of danger and opportunity. A cat walk provides great opportunities to monsters and PCs that can slide, push, or pull their targets. Throw a couple of energy nodes and watch the PCs race the Monsters to the node. Place the artillery on the other side of the rickety bridge that spans the lava stream -- then have a brute or another monster cut the bridge down. Playing with the terrain in this way brings a myriad of new elements to the encounter. It provides the players with more options and things to consider during the fight. In short, it provides more tactical choices which makes the use of at-wills seem like less of a chore.
Give 'em Something to Do
Your encounters do not need to be solely combat either. Spice up your encounters by adding distractions. Maybe its a trap that needs to be deactivated. A barrier that needs to be brought down. Maybe the enemy is bringing minions in through a portal that needs to be closed. Minions, particularly as the PCs get to mid-late heroic tier, do not add a lot of challenge to a fight. However, if they keep spawning through the open portal, the PCs will eventually take notice. Maybe this is enough to send the wizard over to try to close the portal. Maybe the Rogue will be distracted by trying to bring the barrier down that is blocking the party's progress -- this works well if the presence of the barrier hinders the party in the combat (as opposed to simply being a locked door to the next room). Perhaps the Cleric of Orcus is preparing to offer up a sacrificial victim to the Demon Prince. All of these are enough to at least distract the PCs into doing something other than simply attacking the monsters. Again, more tactical choices leads to a more enjoyable combat.
When choosing monsters for your encounters, be careful with how many monsters you place that can impose negative status conditions on the PCs. Action denial is very powerful and can easily lead to a grind and/or tpk. Take your standard level 9 party of 5 adventurers. According to the DMG XP budget, an encounter of 5 Incubi should be a standard encounter for the party. Not particularly difficult but not exactly a cake walk either. The only problem with this is that those 5 incubi can each dominate a PC. Worse, when they do dominate the PC, the incubi are removed from play -- meaning they cannot be targetted by the rest of the party. Worse still, the incubi can recharge their dominate ability. Suddenly this standard encounter just became really difficult, and will almost always lead to a longer fight than anticipated. I don't mind imposing conditions like stunned, dazed and dominate on the PCs, but you need to be careful with how often you do so in a given fight. Particularly in lower levels this is bad because the party doesn't have a lot of options to impose similar conditions on the monsters. One or two monsters in an encounter that can dominate or stun is probably good most of the time (particularly at low levels). You don't need each monster doing it.
A side note to this is the fact that action denial is really, really, unfun for the player. When a player is unconscious, stunned, dominated, their turn is reduced to rolling a saving throw. Again, its fair to throw a little bit of this at the PCs, but its also your job as the DM to make the game fun for everyone.
Know When to Fold 'Em
The easiest way to avoid the grind is to give your monsters a brain. Obviously this is reserved for "intelligent" monsters, but the point is, if its obvious to everyone at the table that the PCs are going to win, then its likely obvious to the monsters as well. Even the "dumber" humanoids like goblins, orcs, gnolls, etc. will recognize when they are fighting a losing battle. In times like these -- particularly if the fight is starting to drag on -- there's nothing wrong with the monsters throwing in the towel, laying down their weapons, and surrendering. There's a natural, understandable tendency to let the fight drag on until the bitter end, but its also not entirely realistic. Place yourself in the monsters shoes. You are battered and bloodied. Your reserves are depleted, your best attacks spent, and you've just watched these five "terrors" cut down every single member of squad. Do you really think you can take them all out? Is striking out at them really the best option? Or should you surrender or if possible, run away? The vast majority of intelligent creatures in this situation will flee (if possible) or surrender (if not possible).
One word on surrendering though, some of this is a two way street. That is, if the PCs develop a reputation for killing their captives, and word spreads, then its less likely that an intelligent creature would surrender, they'll instead go into "Fight or Flight" mode. Bear in mind though, that while this is a reasonable consideration, you also need to make sure that the PCs really are developing that reputation. Sure, you as the DM know that they kill their prisoners, but does anyone else in the game world know?
Be a Teacher
One of the more evident unwritten rules in 4th Ed. D&D is that focused fire on the part of the PCs makes things a lot easier for them. Unfortunately, not every group has figured this out yet. You have to be careful with this, but don't be afraid to occasionally suggest this point. Its probably best to do so after the session -- particularly if it was a succesful session from the PCs standpoint, but a friendly reminder never hurts. You just need to be careful that a) your players do not think you are trying to tell them how to play their characters and b) that your players do not think you are desinging encounters that can only be beat in one particular way.
Even if you take all of the advice above and apply it to every encounter, you still may not completely avoid the grind. Sometimes the dice just go bad, and sometimes things just don't work out the way you envision them. However, if you do apply some of the suggestions here you may well find that even when your encounters drag on into the second or third hour, that it still doesn't feel like a grind because of everything that is going on.
Thursday, August 26, 2010, 5:12 AM
One of the more common posts we see on the forums these days are along the lines of "Help! I've got a problem player (or DM), what do I do?"
The question takes numerous forms, but in the end it usually comes down to somebody is doing something at the table which is making the game less fun for others. You'll note I titled this entry "Problems with Players" instead of "Problem Players". This is because in my experience, it isn't so much that the player is a problem per se, just that things are not meshing. In other words, there's not really anything wrong with the player, just that he or she is causing a certain amount of disruption -- often unknowingly. So what to do?
This is really, first and foremost, the most important piece of advice I can give. You need to talk to the player about his or her actions. Odds are, they may not even be aware of what they are doing, or how it is impacting the table. Without a doubt, if they are not aware of what they are doing, they are not going to change. Their behavior will continue and it will wear more and more on everybody else at the table. The sooner you have this talk, the better. If the player has been engaged in his or her disruptive behavior for months, it will be a lot harder to adjust. If, on the other hand, you bring it up right away, it is likely a lot easier to adjust. A big reason for this is simply the fact that there are so many different styles of gamers. One player may be a heavy roleplayer, and very good at it, but if his long, flowery speeches simply serve to delay the fun for the power gaming combat lovers, then his style should be addressed. Its a lot easier to change the style early on than later.
When you do talk to this person though, its important that you approach him or her with the right tone. First and foremost, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they are not aware of what is happening. For one thing, they likely are not aware of it. After all, D&D (or any RPG really) is about sitting around a table with your friends and having a good time. Disrupting that good time in a manner that makes the game unenjoyable for everyone else is not exactly in the best interests of friendship, so odds are, its unintentional when it happens.
Its important to give them the benefit of the doubt too because outright accusing or "attacking" someone is likely to only anger them and make them defensive. Nobody likes being accused of doing something wrong, bad, etc. As an example, lets say you have a player that is making crude jokes and/or using offensive language at the table. His actions have gotten to the point that one or more of the other players are uncomfortable, and as such, are not having fun. In this situation, there's two possibilities. First, it could be that the "jokester" is simply a jerk. He may go out of his way to offend everyone he can. More likely though, he simply doesn't realize that his humor is not appreciated by everyone at the table. Take comedians like Ron White and George Carlin. They've had very succesful careers. That being said though, there are plenty of people who cannot stand them. Clearly, they are funny to a good number of people, but put them in the wrong room and their set will be flatter than a pancake.
When you talk to the player, explain that you realize he is just trying to bring some humor to the game, and that he really doesn't mean any harm. However, you need to then explain to him that despite his good intentions, there are some at the table who do not appreciate his antics. Most people at this point will react positively. After all, nobody wants to offend their friends, or cause them to not have a good time. Tell the player that you want to see him tone down his humor (in the case of the crude comedian) and focus more on the game. At the same time, its also important to tell the other players at the table that this is, at least in part, a two way street. In other words, if the players do not like the comedian's crude jokes, they need to be careful not to make similar jokes themselves. After all, this is only going to be seen as validation and/or an invitation to the crude comedian.
Monitor the Situation
In my experience, the talk will usually resolve things, or at least get the ball rolling toward a resolution. However, some people simply will not be able to change. Maybe they will always want to open that next door in the dungeon immediately upon seeing it (who cares if the party is already fighting a horde of orcs). Maybe they won't be able to refrain from cracking crude jokes, or maybe they are incapable of letting others take the spotlight away from them. Whatever the case, some people may not be willing or able to change. If this happens, you are left with few choices. The first of course is to have another, sterner talk with the player and letting them know that they are still making the game unfun. The other choice is to simply ask the player to leave.
Asking a player to leave the group is never a fun task. However, it sometimes comes down to it. You may be faced with a situation of "Do I want to run a game where 1 of the 5 players is having fun, or where 4 of 4 players are?" More to the point, if they are not enjoying themselves, the other 4 players will eventually quit. When to make the decision to remove the player is hard to say. Some of it depends on how bad the behavior is, and some of it depends on how much improvement he or she makes after that first talk. If you have the talk and nothing changes, then it may well be that you are stuck with a player who is unwilling or unable to change. If there is improvement, but just not enough though, it may be worthwhile to have another talk and say "Hey things were better last time but, . . . "
In any event, a little diplomacy tends to go a long way in these situations. The talk may not always be fun, or easy, but in the end, you are usually playing with friends and a good friend should be able to handle the talk a lot better than simply having the game fall apart around them.
Hope this helps.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010, 5:44 AM
Last time I gave a brief overview on writing adventures for your campaign. Now I want to take a look at some of the common pitfalls that many DM's (myself included) have encountered.
This is in many respects the most common, and the most frustrating of all pitfalls. Simply stated, the roadblock to me is that point in the adventure wherein the PCs must accomplish a certain task in order for the adventure to continue, or at least be concluded. Whether its finding the secret door that provides access to the BBEG's lair, solving the riddle to get the artifact that is needed for victory, or simply putting the clues together to realize that the killer is actually Ted.
The problem with the roadblock is that if the PC's fail, then the adventure grinds to a halt. If the PC's fail their perception checks, they never find the secret door. If they can't solve the riddle, then they can't get the artifact. If they missed a clue, or fail to interpret it properly, they never realize Ted is the killer. When this happens, the players largely sit around the table looking at each other, or just wander off on their own -- forcing you to scramble to fill in the rest of the session.
Justin Alexander tackles this problem in an excellent essay which can be found here. Rather than recreate what has already been well explained I'll simply point you to his essay. Essentially he lays out the formula for the Three Clue Rule. In short, if your players must accomplish a certain task, or receive a certain clue, etc. you provide them with three clues, or three means of accomplishing said task. As Justin explains, in the case of the secret door, the first means is a simple perception check, the second might be a tapestry in the dungeon that shows the secret door, and the third might be a note on the body of a defeated NPC elsewhere in the dungeon. Putting those together, the party now has three means of figuring out how to get into the secret lair, at least one of which should work.
This isn't a huge problem in and of itself, but naturally we tend to fall on tried and true cliches from time to time. I say its not a huge problem for a couple of reasons. First, cliches become cliche for a reason -- they work. The damsel in distress is very cliche but it hasn't stopped that plot from being constantly used. Secondly, almost any adventure is going to run the risk of cliche to one extent or another. The reason for this is that there are really only so many possible plot lines out there. I've heard it mentioned that if you get right down to it, pretty much every story can be summed up into one of seven unique plots.
So don't be afraid to use the cliche. However, you want to make sure you make it your own cliche, or in other words, put your own spin on it. Requiring the party to destroy (or use) the all-powerful evil artifact that can corrupt even the purest of souls is one thing, but having your campaign exactly mirror the events of Lord of the Rings is another. The evil artifact is cliche'd but you can still weave an orginal plot around it.
The good news here is that so long as you make an honest effort to make the campaign your own (i.e. your own plot), your players will usually be fine with it, and may not even notice the cliche.
Riding that Train . . .
Railroading. There, its been said. Railroading is the bane of any campaign and perhaps the surest way to antagonize your players. At the heart of D&D is the concept of free will. D&D is the ultimate sandbox game to steal a videogame term. Nothing is worse for a player than being forced to follow along on the DM's train.
While we all know that this is bad, the problem is that it can be really hard to avoid the temptation. Sometimes the players are just not into the adventure. Or maybe their characters aren't. A mercenary character who is seeking simply to make as much money as possible before she dies, isn't likely to jump at the chance to save the damsel in distress for nothing in return. The trouble is that when this happens, it leaves us with a session (or more) worth of notes and encounters that are never going to be used.
The trick is to go back to the Rule of Three. Maybe the mere fact that the damsel is in distress isn't enough to bring your PCs along. But maybe the next hook is that its believed she's held up in the ruins of an ancient fortress that is rumored to have a vast horde of treasures . . . only problem is nobody who has ever gone there is known to have returned. Now your mercenary has a reason to go. She might care less about the damsel, but the treasure will intrigue her. In other words, the main thing you can do is to make sure that you have multiple hooks to draw the characters into the adventure (at least three). If one doesn't work, maybe the next one will.
The Overly Complex Plot
I love movies and books with complex plots, where one subplot is weaving around another, etc. This doesn't work nearly as well in D&D though. The main problem is time. Even a really long movie is probably over in 3 to 3.5 hours. A book might be really thick at 800 pages but if you really dive into it, you can still probably finish it in a week. With D&D though, your campaign might take three years to get from level 1 to level 30 (this is going on an average of 4 hours every other week). Even if you are playing every week, you are still looking at 18 months.
Now don't get me wrong, you can have a great, and detailed plot thrown through this. But if its too complex, and requires too much attention to even minor details, your players simply won't remember. The less often you play, or the more you have going on outside D&D, the bigger this problem becomes. Take the 6th Sense for instance (obligatory spoiler warning here, read no further if you have not seen this excellent movie). One of the big clues in the film is that a certain character was wearing the same clothes throughout, and was only talked to by one other character. This works great in a movie format. It won't work over the course of several months -- though if your adventure is only going to take one or two sessions it might work.
In other words, your adventures should build on one another, just don't expect your players to remember what happened 4 adventures ago in great detail. They will likely remember the basics, but a lot of specifics will got lost to the time stream.
That's all for today, next time I plan to address handling problems with your players.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010, 5:13 AM
Its time finally to take a look at the core of the DM experience, writing your adventures. Sure, the world is your creation and the campaign arc is the framework for the plot, but in the end, its the actual adventures that make up the D&D experience. The adventures are how you execute the brilliant plot in the amazing world that you create. So, how do you pull off a decent adventure?
Start with a problem
Much like with the campaign arc, every adventure can be summed up in "What is the problem?" Unlike the campaign arc, this problem usually tends to be much smaller in scale (unless you are running a long module like Revenge of the Giants for instance). We've seen these problems before: the princess has been kidnapped, the caravan needs guards, there's a big angry dragon in the mountains with lots of ketchup. In other words, the adventure itself doesn't often define the campaign (though it could) but it does create a story that the players can wrap up. This problem is also often referred to as a hook, something to draw your players into the adventure. A lawful good party for instance should jump at the chance to rescue the princess, while a group of mercenaries will likely follow whoever's paying them, etc.
Elements of a Good Adventure
There is no one checklist that you can create that will ensure a great adventure; however, there are some general tips that can help make your game more memorable.
First, its often a good idea to have a mechanism for introducing new PCs. Unfortunately, adventuring is a perilous line of work and PCs, despite their best preparations, have a tendency to die. So, you want to make sure that should a PC die in the middle of the adventure, there is an avenue for introducing a new character. This can often be best achieved simply by having a town located near the adventure site. If a PC dies in the woods outside Greenbrier, the party can backtrack to Greenbrier to find a new cleric. If the PCs are trekking through the vast desert that is void of sentient life, it makes introducing the new PC a little trickier (not impossible, just trickier).
Next, you want to give the PCs choices in their adventure. Let them make decisions and get creative. Allow them to come up with a good plan rather than forcing one on them. This can often be accomplished with something as small as a backdoor. Take the Forge of Fury third edition module. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 separate entrances to the dungeon in the module, each with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. This gives the players a chance to feel clever as they decide to avoid going through the obvious front door and instead find the narrow passage in back. When there is only one entrance; however, the players do not get a chance to feel creative, they are more along for the ride.
More to the point though, you can create options in the entire story line for the players. Recently, in my homebrew game, the party was travelling to a town to look for an abandoned academy (a reflavoring of the White Lotus Academy). When they arrived they found that the small town had been attacked and wiped out (i.e. nobody in town). The party looks around and eventually spots tracks that look as though they were from gnolls. The tracks lead out of town and one of the PC's asked if there were any human tracks among them. I hadn't really planned this out ahead of time, but I knew where the party was going with this, so I answered "yes". Sure enough, the party temporarily abandons the search for the academy to track the gnolls in the hopes of rescuing any surviving humans. It would not necessarily have been wrong to say no since I had not planned for this particular plot line, but it would have limited the options. Truth be told though, I had planned to have gnolls fight the party near the entrance to the academy anyway, so all I really had to do was come up with different encounter maps on the fly (which is fairly easy in an outdoor setting).
Next, a good adventure needs good pacing. By this I mean that you need to have a nice mix of easy, moderate, and challenging encounters. If every fight were easy, it would get pretty boring rather quick. By the same token though, if every fight is really hard, its only a matter of time before the dice go against the players and you are looking at a tpk. Sure, an easy encounter won't threaten the party much, but it does give them an opportunity to feel like the powerful heroes that they are. So don't be afraid to throw up some sacrificial lambs. When the boss comes out to play, then you can make them fight tooth and nail, holding their breath with each die roll and crossing their fingers in the hope that they will survive.
Finally, you need a good boss if you want the adventure to be really memorable. The boss doesn't necessarily need to be a previously known NPC (in fact it often won't be) but you need something in that final encounter to make it memorable. Whether its the dragon underneath the Forge of Fury, or deathpriest of Orcus who is attempting to open the gate to the Shadowfell you need a memorable encounter for your climax. There are many ways of doing this, whether it is having the boss taunt the PCs, or having some other problem in the middle of the encounter for the PCs to overcome. Maybe having an NPC being sacrificed as part of some dark ritual is enough to draw at least some of the PCs away from the main body. Perhaps its requiring them to deactivate a series of focus crystals that are being used to open a huge portal, or maybe the room is simply filling up with water. You want something that gets the PCs attention. The taunting NPC will draw their ire while the others mentioned above will divide their attention. Nothing makes a fight (particularly in 4th Ed.) harder than preventing the party from focusing their fire.
A final element to consider is the transition from one adventure to the next. At some point you want to start to draw the PCs into the following adventure. You can do this by dropping hints of what's to come into your adventure. Maybe the boss has a note from his boss. Perhaps the enemies are all wearing badges marking them as members of the army of the neighboring country (that just happens to be planning an invasion). Maybe some of the enemies carry symbols of Orcus. There are any number of ways to plant these seeds. If all else fails, when the party triumphantly returns to town at the end of the adventure, they can start to hear news from the next village of evil deeds.
This wraps up my overview of adventures. In the interests of space, I'll go over some common pitfalls that often come up in adventures next time.
Saturday, August 7, 2010, 12:59 PM
Now that you have started building your world for your D&D campaign, its time to start thinking about the campaign arc -- or plot if you will. The campaign arc is every bit as important (if not moreso) than the world itself, and is a big reason why many DM's will choose to use a published campaign setting for their game, i.e. there's enough work involved in the campaign arc that its often easier to use a published setting. Plus, you could have a really amazing homebrewed world that's full of life and flavor, but if you don't have a plot, your campaign is still likely to be pretty blah. Some groups will be perfectly fine going from one random encounter to the next, but most will want at least some semblance of a plot thrown in.
What's the Lifespan of Your Game?
The first thing you need to do when preparing you campaign arc is determine how long (in real world time) your game is going to run, and how many sessions (roughly) you're expecting to have. By way of example, if you are preparing to run a game for your friends over the Summer before everyone goes back to their respective colleges, and you anticipate meeting once a week for 4 hours at a time, you are looking at roughly 12 four hour sessions. What this means is that there is absolutely no point in drawing up a story arc that will take the characters from level 1 to level 30*. At four hour sessions, you probably will not get enough encounters in to level up even after every session. Even if you did give the characters a level after every session, you're still looking at only 12 levels. By contrast, if your game is going to meet once a week for 8 hours for the foreseeable future, you are pretty wide open in terms of the scope of your arc. It is important to note though that just because you envision being able to meet for 8 hours a week for 3 years doesn't mean you need to plan your arc to take up that entire span.
What's the Problem?
A good campaign has some kind of a problem that the PCs need to solve. Maybe its repelling a Githyanki invasion, or stopping Orcus from usurping the Raven Queen's power and authority. Whatever it is, ultimately there has to be something for the PCs to fix. Adventurers are a rare breed so their problem needs to be something that can't be overcome by the regular citizenry. Building an aqueduct to divert water from the sea to the fields of Greenbrier is not a PC problem. Saving Pelor from the schemes of Asmodeus or Tharziduun so that he can shine light upon the fields is a PC problem. This problem is important as it will define your campaign.
I should note though, that even though this problem is important, the nature of it is not necessarily relevant to the PCs at the beginning. In other words, the problem could be many-fold such that when the PCs start their careers they start out to solve one problem, not realizing that its just one small pawn in the schemes of the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). Take the Scales of War campaign for example. There are essentially three main problems in SOW that are all connected in some way. At the start of the campaign, the PCs are only going to know about one of those problems. If you are going to break your problem up this way though, you have to make sure that the first problem is significant enough to spur the PCs to action.
Once you have your problem, its time to start outlining your campaign arc. James Wyatt goes into pretty good detail about this outline in Dungeoncraft, and it was reprinted into DMG 2. The advice there is pretty solid so I'm just going to summarize here. The long and short of it is that you need a rough idea of what your PCs will be doing over the course of the campaign. Knowing when the next piece of the puzzle will fall into place will help direct you in your adventure design. An outline of "The PCs will start off fighting some undead, then eventually encounter some aberrations, before finally fighting Orcus" won't get you very far in your adventure design. Although this could potentially make for a very cool campaign, you need to know when will the aberrations make an appearance, and when will Orcus' involvement become known. Of course, in this situation, you also will need to explain how Orcus is connected to aberrations since that is not nearly as obvious a connection as the undead. All of this should go into your outline.
Detailed But Flexible
I recommend making this outline fairly flexible. While this is not the time to start writing out all of the adventures of your campaign, you should at least have some idea of what your PCs will be doing at each level. The thing is though, you need to be flexible (which is why you don't want to write the adventures yet). The problem is, no matter how detailed or carefully executed it is, no plan ever survives first contact with the PCs. Being the DM is in many ways like being a producer or director of an improv drama group. You create the set, and you might even give them some suggestions along the way, but ultimately, the action, and the story, is dictated by the PCs.
You've got a great plot that has the PCs exploring the caves of Ironhome and then travelling to Greenbrier? Great, except for when the PCs decide to travel to Hawthorne Ridge instead. As the DM, you really can't tell them "No, you go to Greenbrier." More to the point, the PCs may end up levelling faster or slower than you anticipated, thus causing you to have to modify your outline anyway.
Story Within the Story
As alluded to earlier, often a good campaign will have a series of related problems that together define the campaign. Note that while its likely that most if not all of your adventures will be related, the adventures themselves are not the problems I speak of (though as I'll discuss in a future blog, adventures also start with the same "What's the Problem?" question). Rather the related problems should probably be around 2-4 at most. The idea here is that it gives the PCs a sense of accomplishment during the course of the campaign. If the PCs spend 30 levels chasing the same nemesis, its likely to get frustrating and boring. If; however, they catch up to their early nemesis at say the end of Heroic Tier, only to discover that he was just the tip of the iceberg, it still gives them that sense of closure, while also spurring them on forward. Personally, I think that a rough divide of one main problem for each tier works pretty well. Letting the PCs finally solve the problem as they move into the next tier makes for a pretty good transition. Think of it this way "Yay! We saved the Valley . . . Oh crud, now we need to save the rest of the country."
Listen to Your Players
This is going to be a recurring piece of advice. You need to listen to what interests your players. Maybe they could care less about the tax dispute between the blacksmiths guild and the tanners guild. Even if you have a really great campaign planned around this problem, PCs will never experience it because the players just don't care. While its likely not surprising that a group of players is not interested in a tax dispute, the issue here is that you never can tell for sure what will motivate or interest your players.
Filling the Gaps
Odds are that in your first brush through of the outline, you are going to have some gaps. While its not ideal, its also not fatal. As long as you have a decent idea of where your campaign is going, you can fill in the gaps at a later time, though I do recommend trying to fill those gaps sooner rather than later.
So what did I do? Well obviously for the Scales of War game, this part was already taken care of as the campaign was already outlined and in fact completely published by the time the group started up. However, its worth noting (as I did above) that SOW has three main subplots. Each of them roughly (though not perfectly) lining up with one tier of play. I won't spoil what those plots for those who may be playing SOW, but anyone who wants to can easily learn this info.
For my other game, the basic problem is the plot to recover a powerful primordial artifact from the Dawn War. The PCs learned this information very early on in the campaign as well as learning that another artifact was forged by six gods to help defeat the primordial during the Dawn War. The course of the heroic tier has been spent chasing down the BBEG who is believed to be orchastrating this plot. At the close of the tier, a new enemy will emerge who will be the focus of the paragon tier, with the epic tier being a fight to prevent the ressurrection of the powerful primordial. I do have this laid out in much greater detail but there's no need to fill this space with that info. The point is that each tier will roughly wrap up a story with a nice bow. I feel that this is good in that if the game fails to last throughout the entire arc (a realistic fear given that the campaign is a year old and still in heroic), at least the players will have a chance for some closure.
That's all for today.
*I should note that you could potentially do a 1 - 30 campaign by giving out large level jumps along the way. "Great that wraps up level 6 guys, next week have your characters levelled up to 11".
Monday, August 2, 2010, 4:14 PM
I wanted to talk about worldbuilding with published materials. While the last entry spoke predominantly of creating an entire world from scratch, its important to note that the topic applies to published settings as well.
Is it okay to make changes to published settings?
Absolutely. When you DM, whatever world you use becomes your world. The Forgotten Realms ceases to be Greenwood's world and becomes your world (though I would advise against trying to sell it. :P)
The easiest form of worldbuilding in this case revolves around the creation of towns and villages. No published setting should ever claim to contain all of the towns and villages in its world unless the setting itself happens to be a single city or small region. Take the Forgotten Realms. Certainly there are a lot of towns, cities, and villages that have been described throughout the assorted FR materials. However, the surface has still only just been scratched. There is, therefore, very little to stop you from creating the village of Ironhome in the Forgotten Realms. However, there are some things worth mentioning.
You and your players love FR. Great, it makes a great place for a campaign then. Now you want to throw in the village of Ironhome as a starting region so you plop it down right in Icewind Dale. Ooops. If your players are familiar with the Realms, odds are they are also familiar with Icewind Dale thanks to a certain drow and his band of friends. I'm pretty sure off the top of my head that there is no mention of a Village of Ironhome in the Dale. More importantly, the human settlements in the Dale are known as Ten Towns, i.e. the ten towns comprising the non-barbarians. If you suddenly throw Ironhome into the mix, its going to feel wrong to your players. The region is too well known to the players for them to be able to accept this new town, unless you can explain its presence.
Perhaps you are running in a different time period, a time before Ten Towns (or after). Or maybe the Ten Towns has been conquered by an evil wizard and the towns were destroyed. The Dale is just now starting to see its light brighten and one of those lights is Ironhome. There could be any number of reasons for this change, but if you are going to make it, you have to give your players the head's up. All of this head's up can be accomplished in the description of your starting location as I described it in the last post. Consider for instance:
Icewind Dale has long been a relatively isolated region wherein the factions of the region had little to fear from outside influences. However, that all changed a decade ago when the wizard Almyra lead her army into the Dale and enslaved the people of Ten Towns and the barbarian tribes. A few of these slaves; however have managed to slip away and form a small village in the caves beneath the mountains, a village they have christened Ironhome.
With a few sentences you have now made the Realms yours while also setting up the theme for your campaign, or at least some of your campaign. The world will still feel like the FR and your players can now accept the inclusion of Ironhome in Icewind Dale.
Your ability to create is not simply limited to towns and villages though. Anything you want to be a part of your campaign can be added, removed, etc. Just keep in mind that the more notable the change, the more you need to be ready to explain that change to your players.
Now that I think about it, this holds true for your own worlds too. Once you have created a theme for your world, anything that infringes on that theme will need to be explained. In the world of highly religious people, where everyone actively worships at least one god, you can have the town that worships no deity. But you will need to expect that your players will want to get to the bottom of this mystery. The more you maintain the themes of your world (or provide explanations for variance of those themes) the more alive and real your world will feel.
Friday, July 30, 2010, 12:14 AM
To me, one of the great joys of DM'ing is designing my own world. Don't get me wrong, published campaign worlds are fine. In fact, I rather like Forgotten Realms and Eberron has a certain charm to it. However, creating a world is where you really get your chance to let your creativity flow as pretty much anything goes. However, building your own world is much easier said than done and you can get in over your head pretty quick if you are not careful. So, keeping in mind that this series is geared toward newer DM's and DM's who have limited amounts of time to prepare, I'll try to go through some tips for creating a world.
This is probably the single most important tip for getting your world off the ground. When designing a campaign world, its easy for me to start to lay out all the different continents, topographical features, kingdoms, cities, rivalries, etc., etc. After all, pretty much anything (within reason) I want can find a place since I'm the one drawing the map. The problem with this is that unless you are running several campaigns at once, your PCs will never see most of the world, or at least not for a long while.
By way of example, when I created my first world, I thought I was keeping things simple by detailing a relatively small continent, with a couple of islands off its coast. The continent contained 5 different countries/kingdoms and each island was under its own rule too. The game I created it for lasted for several years and during that time the PCs adventured in exactly one country -- though they were sailing toward one of the islands when the game finally ended. Part of this was due to rather infrequent sessions, but even so, the party had reached 12th level (in 3rd Ed) by the time the game died out. That meant that with 8 levels to go, the party was only just now leaving the home country. Now some of that may have been due to my own campaign arc, but even if you have an arc that has the party travelling like mad, they still can only cover so much ground.
In other words, I spent a fair amount of time creating details for these different countries and they never came to light. That isn't necessarily a problem except for the fact that I lost that time and partially as a result, the details in the areas where the party did adventure were not nearly as well done as they could have been.
So How Small?
Personally, my recommendation is to start with a single town and its surrounding area. You tell the players that there characters will be starting out in the town of Ironhome (or whatever) and briefly describe the area around Ironhome. To the west lies the village of Winterpeak, to the north the dwarven city of Durgost, to the east, the city of Fairhaven and to the south the vast Torhoshian Desert.
From there you go on to describe Ironhome and its denizens, including some detailed descriptions of NPCs (Mayor Fancypants, Brother Tyrell of Pelor, Hangrid the Smith, etc.). Essentially, you want your players to feel as though they know the town of Ironhome. After all, they are going to be starting their careers there and their characters should in all likelihood know something about their starting location. Additionally, providing this information helps ensure that you have prepared for your first session. When the players get that first job offer and want to reprovision, you already know who they need to talk to, etc.
Know Your World
Although you are starting small, you still need to have some idea of what your world is. In other words, how would you describe your world to a friend? Forgotten Realms is high fantasy, Eberron is a mix of fantasy and technology though that technology is often based off of magic and elements, Dark Sun is harsh desert-like world, etc. In the case of that first world I created, it was a world of highly devout people who believed the gods took an active part in the daily events of the world. Clerics ruled the nations of the world and had an ongoing fued with the masters of the arcane, leading many to openly distrust arcane casters. That theme was then played out in the npcs I created as well as the nations and towns, etc. Having this theme in mind is important because it helps make your world feel real as the party moves from town to town. If you tell your players that your world is a low magic world with limited technology for instance, you'll have some explaining to do when they enter a town with a Lighting Rail service. This doesn't mean the Lightning Rail can't exist, just that you had better come up with an explanation for it.
Lean on Your Players
This may seem strange when discussing building your own world, but look to your players for assistance as well. Sure, you've told the players that they are starting in Ironhome. That doesn't mean that their characters have to be from Ironhome. Maybe somebody wants to play an Elf from the forest kingdom. That's great, now you know that there is a forest kingdom and you can work with the player on the details of it, and you have a decent in on a good adventure hook down the road. I realize of course that this may open up a can of worms on the issue of saying yes vs. saying no to your players, but that's a discussion for another time.
Advice in Action
So taking a look at my current games, how has this advice worked? Well for my homebrew game it obviously has a lot more importance. I started off by detailing one town with brief descriptions of three nearby towns. I went on to describe the growing threat of a mutating forest and briefly described the geography of the vale that comprised the starting region. The game is now about a year old and the party is at 8th level (again owing to a couple gaps in playtime). The party has just now finally reached the 4th town in the region with only a brief stop in one of the other towns. The majority of their time has been spent in the starting town and the major city in the area. The remainder of the Heroic Tier will be in this Vale before breaking out to larger environs in Paragon (at which time I will have to start coming up with some new towns, npcs, etc.)
As for the Scales of War group, obviously there is much less world building here. Although it is interesting to not in looking at the Heroic Tier adventures, there are really only 3 towns described. My players; however, have tied themselves to two previously unmentioned towns as well as creating some history for the elves of the region, all of which makes things far more interesting.