D&D Encounters Report — Digital DMing and The Road to Elturel Part I

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Adventurers League

After eighteen weeks as a D&D Adventurers League Encounters player, last night I took a seat on the other side of the Dungeon Master’s screen. Well… sort of. I didn’t actually have a DM screen; instead, my laptop was my primary source for information and tables, as I’ll explain shortly.

I showed up at Titan Games & Comics with my laptop, some handmade maps, and dice among other things. Not lugged along? My 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide. Wait, what? You heard right. Take a look below.

DMG on iPad

Yep… that’s the DMG on the iPad. I do have fond memories of lugging copies of the AD&D DMG, Players Handbook, and Monster Manual back and forth for gaming sessions as a kid… but my plan now is to be more of a Digital DM. I took my DMG, scanned each and every page with text search enabled, and now… if I type in “Staff of Fire” the PDF jumps to page 174 (on the left in image below) where the text is found and highlighted in a list of magic items. A simple tap on the “Find Next” icon (see in the bottom right corner of the image below) takes me to page 201 (on the right) where the keyword(s) are highlighted and I can now read a description of the magic item.

Search the DMG

Note: Please don’t ask for a copy. Copyright law allows me to make a digital copy of the books I own for personal use, but I cannot distribute the documents. If you don’t have access to a book scanner (check with local makerspaces for homemade versions or click here for a number of plans to build your own), I can also offer this solution — 1dollarscan.com. Send them your 320-page DMG and they’ll charge you $4 to scan the entire book (full color) and will then email you a link to your PDF. For an extra $4, they’ll also convert the entire thing to a searchable PDF. $8 for a digital DMG. The catch? You don’t get your print version of the book back — they shred the book to avoid copyright violations.

I’m about halfway done scanning my Player’s Handbook and I’m only about 25 pages into the Monster Manual. I’ll get around to finishing it, but for now I have an alternative solution I’ll share shortly for when I need to access monster stats.

I use the GoodReader app often, and it allows me to switch back and forth between the books. As you can see below, all three books are open in tabs (the two toolbars disappear when you tap in the center of the screen). Rotate the iPad and a two-page spread appears. Three books

Two page spread

For running the adventure last night, I relied on what is probably one of my favorite digital services — Evernote. I’ve written lots of posts in the past on Evernote, and I will continue to sing its praises. There are books galore that can train you to become an Evernote ninja, so I won’t go into a detailed discussion on how Evernote works. Instead, I’ll just share with you some screenshots. But first a little background on what you’ll be seeing.

For the Adventurers League event last night, players would continue with the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure by starting up with Chapter 4. (I wrote up my experiences as a player for Sessions 1 to 18 which covered Chapters 1, 2, and 3 — I’ll put a link to those at the end of this post.) Adventurers League will be starting back up in March with a new storyline, so if players want to finish Chapters 4-8, they would need to find a DM to run them separately. Our coordinator, Topher, polled the players late last year and asked what we wanted to do for the eight Wednesdays in January and February. Most wanted to continue with the Hoard storyline. These eight sessions would be Session 19-26.

But here’s the problem — Chapter 4 of Hoard is a bit thin, and I’m not the only person to think this. And while Chapter 5 has a very cool mini-adventure in it, it’s a very short chapter. Topher put it to the DMs to come up with our own adventures to get players to the end of Chapter 5. There are a small number of tasks/checkpoints in Chapters 4 and 5 that need to be met — we aren’t supposed to deviate too far from those key events, but other than that… the four DMs have been given a lot of leeway. YEAH!

As I began brainstorming the four two-part adventures I would run, I opened up Evernote and got to work. I created a Notebook titled “On the Road to Elturel” for the first two-parter that would hold a number of notes. Notes would include not only the text I would read to my players but also behind-the-scenes details I would need to recall. Below you can see the Notebook and the Notes it contains (minus some edited out details – sorry). Area 0 shows the text that I will read to the players highlighted in yellow.

Area 0

Evernote allows you to create links to other notes — in the image above, you can see I have a link to Area 1. I could just as easily click on the Area 1 note in the left column, but sometimes I hide that column to conserve screen space on my laptop. The multiple notes labeled X- contain a lot of things. The X-Sounds, for example, contains actual mp3 files I dragged into Evernote that can be played when I need them. The X-Combat note contains an embedded Excel spreadsheet that I can open and close as needed; I use this spreadsheet to track Initiative for players and enemies as well as HP, AC, and other required info.

I mentioned earlier that I haven’t scanned in much of the Monster Manual yet. It’s a thick book and usually a DM really only needs to consult a small number of creatures from its pages. What I do is create an X- CREATURE NAME note and embed a photo of the creature’s stats. An example is shown below.

Guard Drake

There’s not a lot for me to give away here to players who may still be heading into Chapter 4 and on; this is a completely custom-made adventure that is not found in the Hoard book. That said, I’ll still issue a SPOILER WARNING below just because I might mention a few minor items or tasks that must be accomplished in Chapter 4.

*** NOTE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS BELOW ***

*** Some information related to Hoard of the Dragon Queen below ***

*** NOTE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS BELOW ***

The first goal in Chapter 4 is to get the players to the town of Elturel… what happens on the road between Greenest and Elturel would be up to me to decide. And I’ve got two sessions to get it done.

For Sessions 19 and 20, I chose to create a two-part mini-adventure that takes place on the road halfway between Greenest and Elturel. Given the cultists and a few other bad guys/creatures encountered in earlier sessions, I decided to try and create an adventure that would be loosely linked to the goings-on along the Sword Coast. Joining my table for the night were the following adventurers:

Essie – Human Fighter
Chi Tan – Human Fighter
Oenn – Dwarf Cleric
Rolann – Elf Ranger
Edaliu – Gnome Bard
Borax – Dwarf Cleric

Note: If some of these names are familiar, that’s because I fought side-by-side with many of these players with Niloshis, my Half-elf Sorcerer. It was fun and an honor to have these six players at my table last night.

All the adventurers were well rested, spell slots full and weapons and supplies replenished. They were on horseback, heading to Elturel to catch up with the monk, Leosin, to deliver the information that had been gathered on the cultists and their plans.

Greenest is not yet a full day’s ride behind you, but the monotony is beginning to take its toll. The skies are gray, and clouds in the distance and a strong breeze are indicating a storm is building. You’re anxious to reach Elturel and deliver the information you’ve gathered on the cultists to the monk Leosin Erlanthar, but pushing the horses harder on the rocky and uneven terrain is unwise.

 

You’ve passed a few travelers heading to Greenest; your warnings about the recent attacks were disappointing to them, especially the merchants looking to sell their wares. A few of these encounters  simply provided details of what you already knew — smaller towns attacked up and down the coast, rumors of dragons spotted.

 

At the mention of cultists, a weathered old dwarf who introduces himself as Brishum, a scribe from Waterdeep, informs you that a small group of retired guard, members of the Order of the Gauntlet from Elturel, have trapped some men dressed in red robes in a crypt just a few hours further down the road. He doesn’t know many more details, but the soldiers were extremely upset and are planning on camping and waiting out the men.

 

The group continued north on the road for another hour before coming to a journeyman graveyard on the right. A group of human males could be seen arguing with a small halfling just inside the gate that surrounded the small graveyard. Having spotted the adventurers, the halfling asked the men to wait and approached and introduced himself.

Orwerd Hardy, a 48yr old halfling male, runs a journeyman’s cemetery for travelers on the road between Elturel and Greenest. For a small payment, Orwerd will ensure that a dearly departed’s resting place is maintained and protected from scavengers and other risks to a freshly buried corpse. For one year. After that, another payment must be made or Orwerd will “recycle” a plot.

The adventurers made some inquiries with the human males — these were retired guardsmen from Elturel. They were on the road when they were attacked by a large bear — one of their number was killed. During the burial, one of the men observed a man in red robes stealing from one of their wagons. The man ran straight into a large crypt on the edge of the graveyard. Forward knew little about the history of the crypt — he confirmed the gate had been locked just a week ago but did appear to be unlocked now. Six months prior, a small group did visit the crypt (with a key to unlock it) and kept to themselves. They left less than an hour after they arrived.

The Graveyard
Crypt in upper-left corner. Two wagons below. Freshly dug graves mix with older graves and spots with new residents.

The guardsmen admitted that what was stolen was a large bag with a mix of gemstones and gold pieces — their pooled retirement funds that were going to be used to buy and operate a lodge in Elturel. When pressed further, they finally acknowledged that two helmets were stolen as well — one a normal helmet but with sentimental value and another with magical properties. The guardsmen did not give chase — they were unarmed and unarmored and heard the red-robed man yell at someone inside. They made an appeal to the adventurers — go into the crypt, bring back our supplies and we will give you each 20gp and the magical helmet. The adventurers agreed…

An examination of the crypt’s gate shows that it is unlocked. Orwerd insists that this crypt was locked last week during his weekly inspection. The guardsmen inform you that the red robed men ran straight for the crypt and did not stop before entering. Inside, an open sarcophagus sits on a central dais, the marble lid cracked in half and lying on the floor on the left. The sarcophagus is small and square-shaped. A false floor has been lifted and leans against the wall, exposing descending stairs.

 

The adventurers proceeded down a small staircase that widened and ended in a small natural cavern with two large wooden doors ahead of them. They listened at the doors, but not much was heard except for the sound of wood hitting wood. Spreading out, the adventurers readied bows and swords… the two doors were pulled open.

A mix of chairs, altars, and benches shares this space with rows of lanterns, candelabras, and rolled tapestries. A few lanterns are lit and hanging from hooks on the walls. Two matching large doors on tracks are closed at the rear of the room.

The room was quiet. Crates and barrels were everywhere, a rolls of tapestries rested next to stacked carpets. Chi mentioned to his companions that the room had the look and feel of a smuggler’s den. Halfway between Elturel and Greenest, this would make an ideal place to hide stolen items and other black market commodities.

The players cautiously entered the room and began inspecting various areas. It was only when they were halfway into the room that they realized they were not alone. A figure hiding behind some barrels stood up in the rear of the room and pulled on a rope; stacked barrels and crates tumbled down onto Essie. At the same time, the double doors at the rear of the room opened — a male figure holding a chained drake stood glaring at the group. Two other men appeared — one had been hiding in a barrel and another up high on a raised platform.

Supply Room
Players enter on right side. Raised platform in rear-right corner. Crates and barrels everywhere. Two closed doors in rear of room.

They attacked as the drake ran towards Essie who was sprawled on the ground. These men were no match for this group, however. All but one of the men dropped either from an accurate arrow or the swing of an axe. Chi and Essie took on the drake as Rolan fired arrow after arrow… the beast didn’t last long.

Hidden behind the barrels is a whimpering man; the one who triggered the trap on Essie. He begs for his life, offering information if he is released. He admits that his colleagues were anticipating the older unarmed men on the surface, not this battle-hardened group. After further threats, he reveals that “down below” many more men and one woman are involved in some sort of ritual. The woman hates eye-contact, and told this man’s colleagues to guard this supply room and to not step one foot out the rear doors. And there’s a quiver of magic arrows. He heard one of the men below talking about it at camp one night. That must be worth my freedom, right?

 

The man shakes his head as he recalls someone named Jonix running through the room with a bag and some helmets, shouting at them that men are chasing him. He slammed the rear door shut and must have headed down. Where? He doesn’t know.

The man is freed; the party reasons the guardsmen up above will capture him anyway. A search of the room begins. Essie discovers a concealed door and opens it — inside is a small chest and two empty barrels. Edaliu attemps to enter the room but is forcefully knocked back. She senses an evil presence in the room. Essie tries to enter and is able to open the chest without incident. Inside she finds three bottles filled with liquid, a small pile of gold coins, and a map.

Rolan also makes an interesting discovery. The barrels are either empty or filled with spoiled wine, but the crates offer up a surprise. Most crates are filled with useless items but one contains six small round objects that Rolan immediately recognizes as explosives. Grabbing a bag, he fills it but one of the small objects slips from his grasp. He is fast enough to dive away before it explodes. Strangely enough, the explosion is quiet but delivers an amazing punch of power. He is hurt and won’t make that mistake again.

Edaliu donned her special cloak and offered to scout beyond the now opened rear doors. When she returned, she offer up a description and sketch of a rickety wooden circular ramp that disappeared  after a couple of turns. The group stayed close to the stone wall and proceeded to follow Edaliu. As they reached the wooden ramp, chanting could be heard from below. The cavern they were in was enormous. The dwarves huddled together and agreed that the party had to be right below the crypt above. Stairs allowed the party to move to a lower circular ramp where they could see yet another level below that one. Borax joined Edaliu on the edge and they peered over and down into the darkness.

Four levels are seen, each circling halfway around the large cavern before a set of stairs leads down to another level.  Below, a large round stone can be seen with a strange symbol chiseled into its surface. But it’s not the symbol that concerns you. It’s the creature curled up on its surface. It appears reptilian, but the darkness and distance make it difficult to be certain. Circling the stone are five men and a single woman. The woman chants and stops. The five men respond in unison. The chanting continues in this manner.

As the group discusses what to do, a deep growling is heard. Edaliu returns to the edge and looks down — five drakes are seen circling the men and woman. And these drakes are much larger than the one they fought above. Rolan suggests dropping the bag of explosives down into the group, but many in the group agree that the explosive force might kill or injure a few… but not enough. And especially not the drakes. The dwarves once again huddle together and begin whispering. They nod in agreement and then suggest to the group that if the remaining five explosives are properly detonated at specific locations, the entire circular ramp could be taken down one level at a time. This might trap the group below… but it might also backfire and bring the entire ramp down before anyone escapes.

And next week… we’ll learn how this ends.

I had a LOT of fun developing this adventure. I’m not the best artist, but creating my own maps is always enjoyable. I like to keep a certain pace in a game, so I look for ways to have things set up and ready to go as soon as I need them. That said, there were a couple times last night that required a pause in the action… and I’ve already figured out how to address those next week.

Some odds and ends that might be of interest to DMs out there:

I really like to deliver something memorable to my players. For this week’s two-part adventure, I wanted to create something really different. I’m a big fan of Christopher Perkins (@ChrisPerkinsDnD) and his DMing events; this last one he did at Pax Prime had a 3D castle and an actual airship model for the miniatures used in the Acquisitions, Inc. game. It was amazing.

I didn’t have THAT amount of time on my hands, but as I told my fellow DMs last night as I pulled out a few surprise items from a bag… “this is what happens when you’re a work-at-home-dad and don’t currently have any writing projects going and you have a D&D game scheduled in a week.”

Stairs will be added before the 2nd-part session.
Stairs will be added before the 2nd-part session.

The PVC tubes are just for support. In the game, the circular ramps and stairs are supported by old, rotting wood struts and beams. The thing shakes and wiggles as you walk across it. I don’t recommend jumping up and down. These weren’t hard to make, folks — photocopied a 1″ grid mat, cut out two rings then cut those in half, glued onto black foam core, and then hot glued PVC tubes on bottom. 4x 3″ and 12x 6″ lengths. If you’re in Atlanta and you can wait a week, I’m happy to loan them out…

As I said… I’m currently in a holding pattern waiting on a contract for my next writing project… so I’ve had some free time. I don’t have an assortment of miniatures, so I took the suggestion of a fellow DM (and now one of my six players!) — Chris W. — and used some images from Google to create my own paper miniatures. Easy enough — I used Pages to create two 1″ squares that shared an edge. I resized a bunch of images — drake, cultists, etc… and shrank them down to fit in that square. Copy and paste… copy and paste. Ended up with a dozen or two crates and barrels and just the right amount of enemies. Printed them out on card stock, cut them out, and folded in half. But how to make them stand? I thought about just gluing them onto pennies. But wait… my players deserve better. Instead, I opened up Tinkercad, created a small .75″ diameter base and two small spacers on top… printed out nine at a time on a 3D printer and I was in business. Here’s a link to download the STL file to print your own nine bases at once. (Will easily fit in a 4×4 print area.) A little drop of hot glue on the back ensures they won’t be coming out. Thanks, Chris, for the great idea!!

Minis and Bases

Lastly, although I do love to roll dice as much as the next person, sometimes dice rolling can really slow down a combat situation on the DMs side. I hate to make my players wait… but it’s inevitable here and there. To try and limit that, I like to stack combat situations up ahead of time, including having my Initiative rolls for enemies already done. One of the tools that I did use last night and I plan on using even more is a great little phone app called Dice Ex Machina.

Yeah, there are dozens of dice apps out there, but the reason I grabbed onto this one was the basic dice rolling feature is 100% free and is eye catching — a set of dice sit in front of you and a single tap on a d20 or a d12 rolls that dice. Tap it again and you get another roll and the total at the top. There’s even a + and a – so you can add modifiers before rolling the digital dice. You can even pick from eight different colors for the dice that are displayed and turn on or off a Fudge Die if you have a game that uses it (and a 50/50 coin takes its place if you turn it off).

The Dice

But the app also has a pay-once feature called Dice Sets ($1.99) that allows you to create a series of pre-configured dice rolls complete with Descriptions. For example, for a Drake that has a Bite and Tail attack, I can create a Dice set that allows me to roll a d20 and add the +5 To Hit Modifier for the To Hit Bite roll. Below that, I have the Bite Damage and a single tap there gives me the damage. Next, I have the To Hit Tail roll and below that the Tail Damage. A single tap takes me back to the master list of all enemies I’ve pre-configured.

Drake Attack and Dmg Rolls

All in all… a great night. And I hope it was enjoyable for the players. I’ll be back here next week with a wrap-up summary of the adventure.

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Player Reports for Encounters Sessions 1-18:

Session 1 – Session 2 – Session 3 – Session 4 – Session 5 – Session 6 – Session 7
Sessions 8-9 – Session 10 – Sessions 11-15 — Session 16Session 17Session 18

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