Actual Play – The Dragon Tree (4/29/2012)

GM: Sean Nittner
Players: Three kids 10 and under
System: Dungeons & Dragons 4E

My daughter and her friend have been asking me for a while to play Dungeons & Dragons. Not TSoY, not Dungeon World, not Burning Wheel or Mouse Guard. Dungeon & Dragons. Like Ron years ago, I lost to the cultural icon of D&D.

We stated by talking a little about Dungeons & Dragons as a game. A little about the setting (fantasy setting, magic, dragons, etc) and then a talk about what kinds of things they wanted to do. What I got from the three of them was: Explore dungeons, Solve mysteries, and train dragons. I told them that D&D is built on fighting monsters, so a lot of the game would be trying to achieve those ends and enemies trying to stop them. They were pretty down with that.

I wanted to build the world around locations and events, so I pulled out a blank piece of paper, write down dungeons, mysteries and dragons on it and then told them to start drawing major landmarks and naming them.

The world we live in

Dragon Tree – A giant tree that used to have a dragon rook at the top of it, but the dragons have been gone for generations. At the foot of the tree was a sprawling city, ruled by the Elven King Varis.

Troll City Ruins – Ancient (and giant) ruins of a troll city that is known for the dungeons below. The trolls once lived on the surface, but they have retreated underground.

Ghost city. A city of the dead. Filled with burnt sycamore trees.

Dissapearing Lake. A beautiful and flat lake, that people have dissapeared into, never to return.

Red tower. A giant tower where the dragons now live, locked inside. The tower is surrounded by a mountain range and the one pass in is blocked.

Heroes of Dragon Tree

Jengoh – A Dragonborn Wizard

Kaplatch – A Dragonborn Rogue

Audrey – A Halfling Ranger

I didn’t ask a lot of “tell me about your character” questions, because the girls didn’t seem to keen is talking about themselves. They were more interested in what they were going to do and what they had (“I have a short sword and throwing stars.” “I can cast a cloud of daggers.” And so on).

Making characters with a single PHB and new players predictably took a long time (about 2 hours before we actually started playing). In part this was because I haven’t played D&D is 643 days, so I was a bit rusty. In part, it’ just a lot to slog through. I could tell the girls were getting bored, so I just skipped feats, we’ll add those next time.

Backstory

So, now we had something of the world and the characters, but I wanted to know how the characters were going to fit into it. I started with the vague and drilled down to the very specific.

  • Q: Why do you care about Dragon Tree?
  • A: It is the old home of the dragons, and we want to see them return.
  • Q: What do you do in the city?
  • A: We are expert climbers. We haven’t made it to the top, but we’ve climbed higher than anyone in recent history. The only one who has climbed higher was the Tiefling Paladin Kobok, who got almost all the way to the top, but is rumored to have vanished at Disappearing Lake ages ago.
  • Q: What horrible thing just happened, that has everyone upset?
  • A: The tree is cursed. It’s been cursed for a long time since the dragons left, but now the curse is worse.
  • Q: Who did the curse just strike?
  • A: Nadaar, the king’s best knight. A half elf. He was climbing the tree and fell off it.
  • Q: Why do you care about Nadaar?
  • A: He rescued us from a vampire dragon. Even though all the dragons are locked up, vampire dragons are free.
  • Q: What time is it when Nadaar falls?
  • A: Midnight
  • Q: Hmm… I wonder why he is climbing at midnight, that isn’t a very safe time to climb. It must be something urgent. What are you doing when he falls?
  • A: Chasing squirrels and burning them with our acid breath.

Sweet, that was totally enough to get rolling.

The play is the thing

In the dead of night you hear a scream from above and you can hear the sound of your hero, Nadaar falling from the Dragon Tree. There is a horrible thud as he hits the ground below. Immediately after you notice small creatures, the size of Audry sneaking through the streets. They hop off buildings, rush from alleys, and scamper down from nearby wagons to run into the plaza where Nadaar fell. At first you think they may be halflings, but then as one turns, beneath his hood you see menacing red eyes, burning in the night. Roll initiative!

I can’t believe I started the game with roll initiative, but it seems fitting for the first thin you do in your first game of D&D. I wasn’t worried about rounds, or a battle mat, but I did let the girls pick out miniatures from my collection and I put a big d20 in the middle of the map we drew indicating the tree. I put a fallen knight at the base of it and a bunch of d4s (evil, evil d4s) around him.

They rushed over to find out what these creatures were and what they wanted with Nadaar. Kaplatch was up first (a natural 20 for initiative. The first roll of the game, that seemed like a good omen). He ran over to get a better look at the creatures (I encouraged all the kids to use the skills they had trained as they were good in them and that I would try and find ways to help them use them if they couldn’t figure out a way themselves). The roll was low however, even with a sizable bonus and immediately I was struck with the D&D conundrum I hate: Failed rolls = null results.

I couldn’t really accept that, at least not at first. So i decided that the reason Kaplach couldn’t get a look at them is that one was in the Dragon Tree and jumped down from a branch onto his head and pulled his cloak down over his face so he couldn’t see. This was fun because it gave Audrey something to do immediately, which was to wrestle the creature off. Jengoh followed up to get a good look at the creature and find out it spoke dragon tongue. It screeched in a language that only the two Dragonborn could understand “Your city is doomed. Visceriath will control it all!” From it dragon tongue and reptilian skin and snout, they knew it was some kind of dragon-kin creature but I told them, it isn’t one that has been seen for generations. Jengoh made a history roll (it was his best skill, a +10, see there is a benefit to playing a Dragonborn Wizard) and was able to identify the creature as a Kobold, the servants of the vampire dragon Visceriath.

After that fighting in earnest broke out. Another failed roll, this time Audrey with her battle axe, introduced a second SoV (Servant of Visceriath) with a whip that caught the haft of the blade in mid swing. The kobolds didn’t really want to fight, they wanted to get to Nadaar. And the heroes wanted the same thing but neither side wanted the other to get to him, so fight it was. The kobolds were dispatched (it took some time though, things are freaking tough in 4E) but notbefore the heroes realized that they were afraid of the dragonborn, especially a wizard. The tried to run but Audrey used her daily power: Split the Tree to fire a deadly arrow at both of them.

After their skirmish was done, Kalpatch climbed a bit up into the Dragon Tree to get a look at what was going on. I treated her “scouting” as an aid maneuver. Since she got a 10+ on her perception roll, she could give someone +2 on a roll to help out Nadaar. What she saw though was a grisly scene. Nadaa was fighting on one knee, his leg was broken in the fall. He was swarmed by the Servants of Visceriath and even though he would fend off one, another five would leap in to attack.

Since the rogue was up in the tree the the other two characters were both ranged fighters, they started just trying to pick off the kobolds but spreading their attacks out to hit as many as they could. Jengoh used his powerful Acid Arrow spell to hit three of them, and Audrey shot another. This got their attention, but in the middle of the fight one of the servants finally struck a killing blow on Nadaar. After that they grabbed a ruby pendant from his neck and ran off into the night.

Audrey was there to hear Nadaar’s last words “Audrey, it seems I saved you once, now you will have to return the favor. I am not long for this world, but my cause is just. You must carry on my quest, find the ruby pendant in the Troll Cave Ruins, and use it to fight the evil Vampire Dragon Visceriath.” With that he reached under his armor and pulled out three dried roses (I happen to have cut three roses before the game, and new I would find some way to use them). “Take these, they will protect you from the diseased filth in the Troll City Ruins.” To find you’re way there, first you must go to the ghost city. Good luck Audrey, you are all the kingdom has.” And then he passed.

Life after Nadaar

Audrey wanted Nadaar to be brought before the king so he would know that his knight died valiantly, but she rolled poorly on her diplomacy check. I thought for a bit about having the guards think the heroes had killed him, but I didn’t thing we were playing that game. Instead I decided that the king was heartbroken that his knight had died and so King Varis would mourn for a year and a day after his fallen Nadaar.

I had a real reason for this. It was a great opportunity to show the players that evil was afoot and not only were they the only three bearers of “Nadaar’s Rose”, they were also the only ones who would do anything about, because the kings was in mourning.

They hit the library, found that the books there had old or wrong information (due to really bad rolls). One said that they pendants allowed the wearer to speak with dragons, but it also said they were all destroyed, and clearly they had just seen one. The other said that were tunnels under the mountains around the red tower, but gave no information about how to find them. All in all, I think I gave them just enough information to get started, stay curious strike out on a noble quest.

Next up

I’ll put the fire under the burners. The evil dragon Visceriath has all he needs now to wage his war against the Dragon Tree! Will the heroes be able to find the ruby pendant in time to keep him from destroying the Dragon Tree itself?

Thoughts on this game

Wow, we did some cool stuff with the backstory questions. I was very pleased with the characters connections.

Character creation took forever. Next time remember to give them feets.

I wasn’t sure how much XP to give them for the fleeing Kobolds. Since we’re not likely to play often, I gave them 300 each, which was generous, but I’d like to see them gaining levels every 3rd game or so if we do keep playing.

I think avoiding the battle map was a good idea. Yeah, it make the rogues sneak attack more arbitrary, but frankly I think it worked out fine, and kept the feeling of the game fast and exciting.