Monday, September 4, 2017

D&D with Kids: “The Sunless Citadel” Play Report

We were up in Maine last week, and as we have been wont to do while on vacation, the girls and I sat down for a few sessions of D&D while we were there.  We all enjoy D&D, but we never seem to play as much as we want when we’re at home, owing to the busy nature of our Real Lives.  Life’s a little different up in Maine, however, and this time in particular, I went up with a goal.  I wanted the kids to come away with a legitimate understanding of how to play their characters to their fullest potential.
I wanted them to “get” the game, not just the basics of combat mechanics.

I decided to run The Sunless Citadel out of the recently released Tales from the Yawning Portal.  The adventure’s intro notes that it was designed in part to help teach the game, and in this it performed flawlessly.  It was also relatively short.  We got through it over the course of our week away, totally maybe eight hours of actual play.  This included character set-up and level-ups along with one wholly unrelated side-quest written and run by my older daughter Hannah.
Breakwater Bay
We play D&D in our family’s campaign setting of Wanderhaven, based loosely on the geography of North America from the island of Manhattan to Acadia National Park.  Wanderhaven is convenient because it’s conceptually familiar to the kids, being based around places they’ve been and populated by gods taken from actual mythology.  This reduces the game’s barriers to entry.  I’ve detailed Wanderhaven to some degree in the archives of this blog, but we really only ever play in one of two locations: the city of Wanderhaven itself, which is based roughly on NYC but built around the simpler physical geography of Sydney, Australia, and the frontier town of Breakwater Bay, which is Bar Harbor, Maine, and the wilds of Mount Desert Island.
Distant view of Mount Desert Island, Bar Island, & a bit of Bar Harbor, taken from Schoodic Head.  Via Instagram.
We started this particular adventure in Breakwater Bay, with the town sheriff asking the party for help tracking down the missing adventurers who serve as Citadel’s primary story hook.  The party then climbed into the pink granite mountains outside of town to find the Citadel as described in Tales from the Yawning Portal.  I’ve been known to make substantial changes to pre-published material, but this time I ran the adventure exactly as written.
Our Party
Our family runs a four-PC party as detailed in Sneakatara Boatman and the Priest of Loki.  Hannah broke my heart a bit by exchanging her titular character Sneax for Autumn O’Della, a fire genasi druid with a penchant for dire wolves.  Emma made up for it, though, by playing the much more popular wizard Elaina Emboo, an elven swordmage in-game rather than the human evoker/necromancer that Elaina has become in some of my more recent stories.  My wife Sally played Maleeka, the maul-wielding goliath barbarian, exactly as written.  In-game, we decided that Maleeka is fluent in Giant, but that her accent when speaking Common is so bad that she is functionally unintelligible.  She plays a bit like Chewbacca, which is convenient because my wife doesn’t participate more than about half the time.  Thus, Maleeka is often an NPC companion character; her functional muteness serves as shorthand for Sally’s frequent absences in roleplaying.  
I personally played Maleeka’s partner Nathaniel, dark paladin of the trickster god Loki, as a DM-PC.  In the books, Nathaniel is a sword-wielding half-fire elf in a black breastplate.  In game, I had to make him a Dex-based former criminal in a chain shirt—not too far off his actual origin but very different in execution—in order to make up for Sneax’s absence picking locks.  I decided Nathaniel’s actions in combat despite serving most of the time DM, but I made the girls tell Nathaniel when they wanted him to make various skills checks.  This avoided ruining the adventure’s surprises.  I also allowed Nathaniel to use his rather considerable Stealth score only to follow other characters who were also using Stealth.  
I very occasionally used Nathaniel to make suggestions to the party in-character as well.  That was helpful in keeping the group on-track.
The Sunless Citadel: First Session
Belak & the Gulthias Tree from
Tales from the Yawning Portal
The Sunless Citadel opens with a long descent down a winding stone staircase.  The book describes some giant rats hiding along the stairs, but I decided that the girls hadn’t disturbed them.  They made it to the Citadel’s courtyard without issue, and I asked for a Perception check.  The party found the pit-trap before the entrance but—more importantly—keyed in on the need for Perception checks on their own afterward that.  There are several secret doors and more than a little hidden treasure in these first few rooms, and after finding most of this by asking for Perception checks, the girls were tuned strongly into the idea that they would have to use their skills to actively explore the dungeon.  I had to prod them a couple of times afterwards to use Nature or Arcana in lieu of Perception to discover various knowledge-related secrets, but that kind of thing can happen even with experienced players.  By the end of the second day, Hannah was very good about using her Druid’s Nature score to ask about natural things, and Emma used Arcana and Nature both as appropriate with her Elaina Emboo.
Verdict: Sunless Citadel was indeed very good about teaching the basics of RPG exploration.
But the girls got too curious.  Autumn O’Della tampered with the iron keg inside the citadel’s entryway, and that keyed our first major fight—against a pair of elemental mephits.  As it happens, two mephits make a substantial challenge for a 1st level party with just four PCs.
The girls rationed their resources too conservatively at first.  Both were too afraid to spend spell slots, leading their characters to take significant damage in the early going, and ultimately the party had to take its first short rest immediately after this first big fight.  This happened without their having expended any real resources.  We talked about this afterwards in a kind of After Action Review, but it was a lesson that took some time to sink in.
We broke for adventures in Real Life with both girls firmly interested in the idea of running an adventure themselves.  Hannah spent the next hour or so quizzing me on the use of the Monster Manual and the DM’s Guide, and when we left that morning for a hike in Acadia, Hannah took both of those books and a stack of notecards with her in the car.  She finished writing her first adventure the next night, and we played through it as a group at dinner immediately afterwards.
The Haunted House on Haunted Hill
This was Hannah’s adventure.  She built it as a one-shot using the DMG’s experience point budgeting tables, and it turned out much better than expected.  I really want to write it up now and share it because it was wildly more imaginative and unexpected than I’d believed it would be.  The hook went something like this:
The party is sent to explore a haunted mansion that appeared on a hill outside of town one night after a storm, only to discover that the storm was actually a wandering rift to the Elemental Plane of Water and that the house is inhabited by water demons and sea creatures now living some thousand miles from the nearest ocean!
We started in a library with spinning book shelves, fought a ghost, and then a basin spilled and instantly filled the house with waist-deep water.  From there, we fought a collection of giant octopi, reef sharks, and assorted demonic sea creatures until at last we’d defeated the demons and made our way clear.  We even rescued a puppy, who turned out to be the faithful companion of some kind of weird-ass water sorcerer.
All in all, it was great.  Definitely NOT what I was expecting.  Especially not when we started in flat-ass farming country.
Back to the Citadel
Hannah wrote The Haunted House on Haunted Hill for 3rd level characters.  I let the party stay at 3rd level for the rest of The Sunless Citadel.  We made our way through to the kobolds’ lair, befriended Meepo, and had him take us to the Kobold Queen.  The kobolds were initially suspicious, but Autumn negotiated a truce, and the party agreed to find and return their missing dragon.  This was probably my favorite part of the adventure, both because we got to roleplay at length and because it forced the girls to use their Charisma-based skills.  Sunless Citadel offers little for characters specializing in Insight1, Performance, or Animal Handling, but by the end of the section with the kobolds, both girls understood Persuasion and Deception thoroughly.
The party trekked around the corner, eradicated the giant rats, and then surprised me by finding the hidden sanctuary.  They took a beating from the skeletons in the sanctuary, but that was an interesting fight, and by the end of it, Emma was looking for any excuse to use Elaina’s 2nd level spell Shatter.  From here on out, I felt like both girls did a good job balancing their resources.  By the time they’d fought their way through the goblins to the white wyrmling, they were doing a nice job of approaching conflicts tactically and using resources in a proactive way.  On her own, 12-year-old Emma had Elaina Emboo cast Magic Missile as a 2nd level spell to target multiple goblin archers and used her Potion of Fire Breath to save the party from the white wyrmling.  This was critical because the wyrmling caught the rest of the party in the cone of its breath weapon, knocking Nathaniel and Autumn unconscious instantly and leaving Maleeka on her last legs after just one hit.
The party shackled the wyrmling and returned it to the kobolds, who named them heroes of the tribe.  They then took a long rest.  We broke for the evening and agreed to pick it up the next day.
We spent one more session in Maine playing through the hidden vault with the dragon priest-turned-troll and fighting through the rest of the goblins, but we didn’t quite finish the first level before we had to leave Saturday morning.  So we packed up everything and decided to try to finish the adventure in the car while Sally drove.  This was an unsatisfactory experience, however, because the girls had to rely on the dice-roller and character sheet apps on my personal cell phone.  It wasn’t until we got back that they got the appropriate apps and whatnot installed on their own devices for next time.
Verdict: D&D is fine in the car, but it takes considerable technical preparation to make it run smoothly.
"Get ready for the cookpot!"
Sally drove from Green Lake to the Massachusetts border over the course of maybe two and a half hours.  In that time, the girls fought through Goblinville, made good use of Nathaniel’s Dreadful Aspect to intimidate the goblin commoners and focus fire on the tribe’s warriors, defeated the Goblin Chieftain, and explored most of the dungeon’s second level.  This second level was in many ways less challenging than the first, both because there was more straight-ahead fighting with fewer secret doors and because there were fewer, bigger monsters generally.  The girls also bypassed a few of the dungeon’s nasty surprises.  For example, they found but avoided one of the fire snakes in Belak’s laboratory, and they also avoided most of the irrelevant rooms.
My favorite part of this last day was watching the druid Autumn become increasingly angry at the desecrations of nature she found in Belak’s subterranean gardens and laboratory.  The girls Intimidated and Persuaded their way out of fighting Belak’s goblin minions, killed all the bugbears, found, fought, and killed the shadow in the temple of Ashardalon, and then successfully sneaked through the twig blights in the underground grove.  They came to the final fight at the Gulthias Tree in good shape via smart gameplay.  Autumn was aghast when she discovered that Belak himself was a rogue druid, and from there, the fight was on.
The final fight was largely satisfying, but it was by no means the hardest part of the adventure for our particular group.  The group won initiative, save Nathanial.  Maleeka entered a Frenzied Rage and made short work of Sir Brafford while Autumn used Thunderwave to separate her enemies and knock Belak back against the Gulthias Tree.  Elaina blocked Sharwyn’s Magic Missiles with Shield and followed that with Shatter, hitting both Belak and the Tree in one blast.  Autumn soon realized that the tree was vulnerable and set it alight with Conjure Bonfire.  Maleeka then laid into the twig blights surrounding the Tree while Autumn held off Sharwyn and Elaina finished Belak off with her longbow and Magic Weapon.
Nathaniel was the only party member who took real damage in that final fight.  He was trying to help Maleeka with Sir Brafford when Belak’s giant frog jumped out of the branches of the Gulthias Tree and swallowed his head whole!  He spent the rest of the fight wrestling with that stupid frog, only to be saved by Maleeka once the Gulthias Tree itself was a pile of ash.
Both girls loved this.
Next Steps
I’m a little torn.  On the one hand, I want to run the next adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal, a straightforward dungeon assault called The Forge of Fury.  In a brief downtime follow-up session back home, we established that Elaina had acquired a map to the Forge during a successful stint of “carousing” in and around the gaming halls of Wanderhaven.  Hannah and Emma have friends locally who also like to play D&D, and it would be relatively easy to bring them onboard for Forge of Fury.  But school started yesterday, and Real Life is once again as busy as it’s ever been.  Finding time for the four to five sessions it might take us to get all the way to the Black Dragon at the end of Forge might take months.
The Forge of Fury from Tales from the Yawning Portal
Both girls, however, would enjoy that last fight.  Hannah in particular is on fire to play Autumn through her first shapeshift into a sea creature, and the fight itself is well structured.  The PCs should be able to take on a Young Black Dragon by the end of Forge, but the terrain heavily favors the dragon, forcing smart roleplay.  
That’s a good thing.
On the other hand, Hannah also wants to write an undersea adventure, and we’ve already spent a lot of time talking about what this might look like.  The upside is that Hannah really likes to write, and she’s one of the very few who can actually write as fast as I can.  We could do the adventure design as a joint project without spending a lot of time together in one place.  Sally and I both have work, Army Football is back in season, Hannah is now a high school freshman, and Emma is looking to make the junior high cross country team.  Hours of family together time are about to come at a serious premium.
Finally, I need to find some time to get Hannah’s notes for The Haunted House on Haunted Hill, clean them up, and put them somewhere people can find them.  
But like everything, this is easier said than done.

1. Insight is one of those skills that D&D packages poorly but that would be a true killer application in Real Life.

No comments:

Post a Comment