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Oh No! A Magic Item

Two sessions ago I broke a cardinal rule of mine, and I placed in the treasure a … magic item.

This created a stunning situation in a five-player party; they simply couldn’t handle it. They went nuts trying to figure out who should get it, how they person should repay the others, what about magic items that have no clear benefit for one person, what about a magic item that clearly does but that person has no way to repay the others… It created a slew of problems.

I realized then that keeping magic items out of the equation is a very good decision I made early. Instead, giving them incredibly valuable treasure piece worth X level magic item they can split evenly seems to be the best solution.

Am I going to get rid of magic items out there totally? No. No I am not. I’ve decided to add some more flair to the world, in trying to give my world some more history. Each region I’ve decided is going to have one powerful relic, artifact. This is going to more of a plot point, a reason for the party to go exploring a certain location than anything else. But, as far as magic items go, that’s about it. I’ll still throw consumables out there, but Magic Sword +1 ain’t gonna make the cut.

So, be forewarned 4th Edition West Marches DMs – with a varying group of members with very different play styles in their own home campaigns about dividing magic items, be careful what you give out.



I’ve been running a lot of games of Port Havenholde for some time now. The popularity of the game has expanded immensely, with several waves of new players entering the fold. Unfortunately, with that, we’ve also lost some players (for now anyways) that I typically play with. I’m not sure if they’ve just been preoccupied or what, but they haven’t played in some time. Nearly all of the new players, with the exception of maybe one, has really enjoyed themselves and keep coming back for more.

One thing I don’t think they are enjoying is PC death that seems to happen regularly! I’ve been keeping a wiki online to track player characters and in-game information about the town and whatnot. I keep a list of characters there; the living and the fallen. Here’s a snapshot of our current characters:

The Adventurers of Port Havenholde

Llewellenar – Female Elf Seeker – 3rd Level

Jhintoth – Male Kobold Paladin (Bahamut) – 3rd Level
Nathaniel – Male Human Fighter – 3rd Level
Alin – Male Human Fighter – 1st Level
Jabronicus – Male Eladrin Swordmage – 1st Level
Grundle Grimhammer – Male Dwarf Fighter – 1st Level
Harbek – Male Dwarf Warden – 1st Level

Gwyer Rose – Male Human Bard – 1st Level
Trey Dradul – Male Human Artificer – 1st Level

Leucis – Male Tiefling Rogue – 1st Level
Olo Nimblefoot – Male Halfling Rogue – 1st Level

And, now a snapshot of who has died:

Tariq – Male Deva Cleric (Tymora) – 3rd Level
Garuph – Male Dwarven Ranger – 2nd Level
Aelar – Male Elf Assassin – 1st Level
Burell – Male Eladrin Avenger – 1st Level
Darvin Bersk – Male Human Bard – 1st Level
Garoon – Male Shifter Cleric (Melora) – 1st Level
Kalasta – Male Dragonborn Paladin (The Silver Flame) – 1st Level
Lu – Female Human Paladin (Kord) – 1st Level
Minharath – Male Kalashtar Cleric (Ioun) – 1st Level
R’gile – Male Dwarven Artificer – 1st Level
Talamonde – Male Human Wizard – 1st Level
Xuli – Female Drow Sorceress – 1st Level

As you can see, the list of “fallen” adventurers is substantial. In fact, many players are on their third characters. I believe there is only one player who is still on his first, and that’s a battlerager fighter, who seem to be nigh indestructible with their temporary hit points. I say “nigh” because during the last session, he very nearly bit the dust.

Because of all this, I’ve acquired the title of “His Bloodythirstyness”. Yikes. I keep reminding the players that a lot of the deaths are centered around being less-than-cautious, tactical errors and bad luck. Afterall, I’m only playing the pre-determined encounters as they happen… I try to play the monsters as ‘realistic’ as possible. Most intelligent creatures don’t go after downed PCs, while animals and bloodthirsty creatures might take a bite out of an unconscious PC. Most of the encounters are pre-determined via random encounter tables and pre-planning dungeons. So, I do feel good about being an arbiter, or judge, more so than a challenger, an enemy of the players.

On the other hand, there’s a secret to this that I should divulge. For one, I like that Port Havenholde has a reputation for being the deadliest campaign most of these guys have played. I like how cautious and empowered the players who reach level 2 and 3 feel; the sense of accomplishment I can see on their faces. Don’t get me wrong, I would love for these guys to level up and quickly so they can get to exploring all these higher level areas I’m itching to unveil. But, I also like the sense of dread players have when they realize they are in an area well out of their league. It’s intense, and very suspenseful to see if they survive.

Part of this “degree of difficulty” is by design. I’m designing nearly every encounter around the idea that there are 5 PCs in the party. This basically means, if you have less than 5 PCs, you are at a disadvantage, even against encounters equal to your level. If you are silly enough to adventure with 3 PCs, you are even further behind the curve (and I believe most people have learned to try and get 4 PCs at least!). In addition, my random encounter tables are designed with a bell-curve grade of difficulty. Meaning, you have a chance of encountering those standard budget encounters, or… you might face off against something much easier – or much more difficult.

I roll to randomly determine the situation (whether one side is aware, or both) based on the stealthiness of the party, so if you do happen upon a harder encounter that you are unaware of, the decision to fight them might not be in your hands.

Most dungeons are of a level equal to the region. If I have a 1st level forest, most dungeons will be 1st level in there. Meaning, you are almost better off finding a dungeon and delving than you are roaming around aimlessly. After all, you will most likely encounter level 1 encounters in a level 1 dungeon.

The exception to this rule is, of course, the “pocket of danger” the original West Marches campaign detailed. I’ve spread several “high-danger” areas in each region, and in some cases, each dungeon. The PCs have encountered one of these areas in my 1st Level Forest (an island set in the center of an undead lake) and unfortunately they also happened upon one area and the first “dungeon” they happened upon was a pocket of danger… This was where the aforementioned battlerager nearly died. Let’s hope they avoid that area for a while.

Next time, I’m talking about turning the standard treasure parcel tables into random treasure tables.

Long Time

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. That’s my bad.

A lot of real world stuff has been keeping me preoccupied (work woes), but that hasn’t stopped me from DMing many sessions of the Port Havenholde Campaign. In fact, we just had a 3 sessions in one week marathon that saw the first characters to get past 1st level (and see those higher levels in action) since we began. In fact, four players are now 3rd Level (as of the end of the last session). I’ve been using a combination of my random encounter tables, published dungeons, and home-brewed encounters/dungeons. So far, it’s working out great.

I’m having a couple worries about characters getting higher level. The four PCs that just reached 3rd Level really haven’t ventured out past the 1st Level Areas and I’m worried about them continuing to adventure in the 1st Level Areas and exploit the fact that they are quite powerful compared to them now. I’m hoping that they see that while they are safe, they aren’t getting as much XP as they could be by venturing into harder areas. As long as everyone is having fun, I don’t care honestly. And, they seem to be. At least the players who’ve been playing.

I’ve had some issues with a few players not stepping up to the plate and playing. Two players have all but dropped off the map, and one player is iffy at best having troubles with rides and other absenteeism issues. On the other hand, the game has blossomed somewhat since I last spoke – in the last week or so we’ve had 4 brand new players express interest and I think next week we should see them getting their characters into their first gaming sessions.

I’m interested to see how they respond to the higher level, more experienced characters, and I’m looking forward to seeing those higher level characters showboating and showing off their hard work and dedication to the game. After all, almost everyone (except two players), has lost a few characters to the wilds [note: I find this ironic because most people consider 4th Edition to be too “easy” and catering to players – it’s not.]

I’ve decided my encounter tables need to be expanded and fleshed out with more non-combat encounters. I’d like to see more clues on there, perhaps with a chance of rolling an encounter or some area descriptor instead of an encounter or nothing…

Customizing loot and adding in historic relics has been an issue as well. I’m still struggling to define the history of the world and conveying that in loot. Right now, it appears that a group of elves lived in this area once. Kobolds have taken up residence in their woods and bullywugs in the bog to the east. The hills to the north have been unexplored so far. There is also an area with high-level sahuagin in very close proximity. A group of players encountered them, but ran quickly when they realized their power. Most of the ruins appear to be elven in make and the PCs have found coins that bear the emblem of some elven profile. There is also an elven tree city somewhere in the forest (a group actually found it, but was TPK’d there). This city will possibly hold some clues to the history and of what’s beyond.

The map is starting to come along nicely with the players starting to check and double check their findings, refining the map and so forth. I’m planning to upload a copy of this map for the players to look at on our wiki

Ultimately, I think the players are having a blast and I’m having fun as well. I’m hoping in the next couple post I’ll focus on refining my encounter tables, plotting some more areas within my low level ones that are higher level, and working on the history a bit more.

Two Sessions In

We completed our second session Wednesday, September 2nd. It was actually my birthday and foregoing a celebration, I decided to play D&D Port Havenholde instead. Heh.

We decided that this campaign would best be suited to a public location, so we’ve been scouting a lot of possibilities; local game shops, restaurants, etc… We settled on Gattiland (for those unfortunate enough to never experience Gattiland, it’s a pizza/salad bar buffet that also has games and whatnot – they also have ‘meeting rooms’ they reserve for free) and it proved to be a very nice location to play and they even let me borrow some glass cleaner for my battle mat. At $8.27 a head, the unlimited food and drink proved to be excellent for our group (some more than others). The players consisted of our normal group with two significant additions, an old player that we actually kicked out of our former campaign who was gracious enough to play with us again and a completely new player recruited off the web. Our first session started out well enough. I had the PCs arrive in Port Havenholde, describing the ominous walls encircling the town, and be greeted by the Duke’s lackey who in turn showed them the way to the Admiral’s Rest, the only tavern/inn in town.

Immediately, I noticed a need/want from the players to speak with this fellow and try to get a quest or something out of him. I knew this might happen, which is why I didn’t want to have the Duke himself meet them. He promptly ended the conversation and left them on the porch of the inn. It’s obvious that no adventurer’s have been to this place in a while (the inn is strictly for adventurers) and they take up a seat at one of the many empty tables. This is where I injected the first kick in the butt out of the city gates. I decided to use the treasure map approach Ben talked about in his blog and even directly stole the table map idea directly from the West Marches, with hopes to emulate the various PCs adding to it as time went on.

This worked. The PCs were out of the Black Gate before they knew it and on the ancient cobblestone road that led to the forest out there. I made one significant mistake during the first session that I later retconned when the second session rolled around. I had my map drawn up (thanks to my wife’s artistry skills), but I had yet to put a scale on the map for myself to determine distances. I made one up at the last minute and suffice to say it was WAY too large of a scale. It took the first party a whole day just to reach the forest. I didn’t like that at all. For the second session, I adjusted the scale and I’m happy to say the second session was much better in this respect.

With this I’ll say my group has adopted a forum as our default method of discussion and it’s proven popular. I’ve used this to put out info, discuss various concerns, and even explain my retconning of the map. I feel like these discussions give the players more investment in the game world and they’ve offered a lot to the world considering we’ve only played two sessions.

Travel was somewhat glossed over during the first session as A) I didn’t have the rules fixed yet, and B) I wanted to get the PCs out into the wilderness and to a cool location. The first location I decided would be a ruined tower in the woods marked on their map with a “here lies treasure” and an X. While the actual rules for navigating were glossed over, I did roll for random encounters and sure enough, the PCs did see some things. Up until this point, I’ve been giving the PCs the option to engage in the random encounters. They’ll either see clues, or the creatures in the distance. I find this tactic a good one because it gives the PCs more choice over whether they engage. In the future though, I’m sure I’ll throw in an ambush or two (especially now that one of the kobolds escaped their encounter during the second session).

The PCs eventually found the tower and killed the creatures inhabiting the outside of it. By this time though, the first session was running low on time and they decided to return to town. This prompted a series of questions on the forums the following day about one party doing work to find the dungeon and then another party coming in and looting it and taking all the treasure. Suffice to say this was a lengthy debate, but I think I diminished it by simply explaining that this is exactly the kind of thing that drives player motivation to play again. Do you want to play next session and get in on that ruined tower you found last session, or let someone else take the loot?

Feedback after the first session was excellent and I definitely got the sense that the players enjoyed themselves and would come back for more. And they did.

The second session had two returning players from the first and two new players, my nephew (and long time player for me) and another new recruit off the internet. The group seemed to mesh well and after a brief introduction back at the Admiral’s Rest, we were off on adventure again. The ranger from the first session led the party back to the tower (after inserting and using the new Navigation rules), not before ambushing some kobolds traveling through the wilderness and having a lengthy battle. They picked up right where the first party left off and entered the tower. The next battle was where the first character death of Port Havenholde would happen. It just so happened to be my wife’s character (and I always sleep on the couch when that happens), but in the interest of maintaining the passive role of DM and letting the environment be active, she unfortunately fell to negative hit points and a ghoul leaped on her and ripped her throat out. The rest of the party managed to survive but barely. They returned back to town afterward with the body of their fallen defender in tow. I think they realize now – this is a dangerous world.

Our first two sessions happened during weekdays and I’m really hoping to start getting more weekend sessions going for a number of reasons. The 4th Edition system has lengthier encounters (our second session had two total encounters and they lasted roughly 1-1/2 hours per battle) and as players are still adjusting to new characters and for some a new system, our battles have been very slow. I’d rather not instill a time rule during combat so that players feel rushed, so I’m hoping as time goes on they get more comfortable with their powers and whatnot so we can speed up combat. Playing during the week has allowed us around 3.5 to 4 hours of gameplay. A weekend session would extend that to 5 or 6 hours. So, I’m hoping players will catch on and realize more game time = more adventure time = more XP and loot.

For now, I’ve been letting players track XP on their own. They also have been tracking loot, but I haven’t really heard any discussion about how to divide it – even from the first session, but I’ve decided to take a completely hands off approach when it comes to player issues like that.

I need to talk about making a calendar and further use of treasure to tell a story and get the PCs to other places.

Note: I didn’t have time to update the 1st session in a single post due to a work influx and moving at home. Sorry about that.

Fleshing Out

I’ve been doing a lot of fine tuning to the three random encounter tables I’ve developed so far. I’m using 2d6 for each table to determine a result – this creates a nice bell curve where the middle results are more common. So, it’s more common for a 7 to come up rather than a 2 or a 12. What I’ve done is fill in the middle range with “standard” encounters and as I expand to the outer spectrum, the encounters get harder or easier until you reach 12 (Too Hard) and 2 (Too Easy). This creates a nice percentage of standard and common encounters, but also allows there to be easy or hard and rare encounters also.

As noted in my last blog, my XP totals for the standard encounters were a little on the harder side. I’m already designing each encounter level to the 5 PC standard, and chances are there will be times when 4 or even 3 PCs will be adventuring. This means the encounters are skewed toward the harder side (purposely), but I didn’t want the encounters overly hard even for 5 PCs. So, I tweaked the encounters in the middle range slightly, moving some around and reducing the number of monsters in the encounters. I feel like I have a balanced set of encounters for the first three areas.

I put all of these encounters into an Excel spreadsheet that basically has a tab for each level area. So, all level 1 areas are on the first tab, and all level 2 areas on the second tab, and so on. I’m hopeful this will be extremely handy when it comes time to game.

I’m also starting to get a good feel for the ecology of each area. I’ve got a forest, some hills, and a bog at this point. I’ve given each a brief description and I’m envisioning some cool locales for each. I’ve yet to map anything and I plan to hold off on that until I can hold off no longer. This way, as I flesh each area out more and more, when I finally map I’ll have a good indication of what’s there instead of making it up as I go (which I’m sure I’ll have to do plenty of). I’m also going through the traps and hazards in 4th Edition to see if I can come up with a hazard/encounter complication table for each area to throw some wildlife and terrain features into encounters and whatnot. My goal is to have a good list of features, encounters, and possible terrain hazards for each area – not including dungeons, ruins, caves, etc…

Recruiting continues to move along. I’ve put out a few more ads on sites such as Nearby Gamers and Craigslist. I’ve gotten two responses from Craigslist, but none from NG so far. Seems like people probably check that site less often.

I’m hoping some players come together and get a session going this week – I’m itching to run the first session and get everyone hyped to play again (or for the first time).

My next goal is to develop an adventure site that the treasure map for the first group will lead them to. My plan is to have it lead them to a landmark or two (from which they might learn some more about the world and possibly have a random encounter) and then to a small dungeon where they can delve and get some phat l00t.

A Failed First Session – And Random Encounters

But, not in the way you think. Basically, we had rounded up several players for a first session this past Saturday, only, I got a cold and had to cancel. It kind of worked out in a way because I didn’t have nearly as much prepared as I had hoped. This postponed session gives me a bit more time to flesh out the starting areas I’ve tentatively called – The Bloodsand Forest, The Tainted Bog, and The Goblin Hills. I keep racking my brain trying to get awesome names for my areas and monsters, but they just don’t come. I’ve decided to keep it simple using simple descriptors for now considering the players might name areas something else entirely.

Anyways, so the first session was canceled. Not good because I don’t want to appear to be a flake DM – especially to some of the new recruits. Speaking of recruiting – an update. Basically, I got a couple more players and in addition I’ve teamed up with a local gameshop owner to possibly host the game there and advertise for players. So, that’s a bonus for recruiting.

I’ve done a lot of work making random encounter tables – especially today. I fleshed out the three starting 1st level areas. The 4th Edition D&D rules have made developing random encounter tables very interesting albeit time consuming. Instead of just choosing a bunch of creatures for each region, I’ve had to make balanced encounters for each region based on a number of different creatures inhabiting the region.

I’m still debating the random encounter frequency. For now, I’ve estimated a good amount of time that the party will be outside of town and after those several hours, they roll a “saving throw” to see if a random encounter occurs. I’ve broken down the encounter table into difficulty and used a 2d6 bell-curve roll to determine which encounter occurs. On the rare ends of the spectrum are Too Easy and Too Hard. And from there it goes Easy, Standard, and Hard. I’m worried the encounters I designed today might be a little too hard as I’ve designed them to range from 4-6 PCs on the encounter scale. Meaning, at 1st level, 5 PCs are supposed to have a 500 XP encounter. My standard encounters on my 1st level tables range from 500 to 700. That probably needs to be around 400 to 600. So, I may have to tweak that.

Now that I’ve got my Random Encounter Tables for Areas 1, 2, and 3 setup though, I’m ready to start planting adventure sites. Ruins, dungeons, temples, camps, landmarks, etc… This is going to be the hardest because I’ve still to flesh out my map. I want to start small and flesh out the town and the immediate surrounding areas. Once I’ve got those, I can start planting sites.

I’ve already thought up how to get the first group out of the Admiral’s Rest and into the wilderness. Like Ben suggests, I’m going to use a simple treasure map. Along the way, I hope the PCs will find some clues to further locations.

Another issue I’m having is forcing myself to take a hands-off approach to the game when it comes to scheduling and whatnot. I’ve been pretty good about it, encouraging players (notably my wife) to set up games to get the ball rolling. I’ve taken the time to set up a wiki in order to detail the town (so I don’t have to in-game) and that’s about it. I’ll hand out a rough map at the first session and let the players start filling it in.

Anyways, that’s all I have for now. I plan to get a map and some adventure sites set up next, tweak my encounter tables a bit, and wait for some players to reschedule the game that got canceled.


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