Behind the DM Screen: Sitting behind a laptop screen means playing more often

It’s hard to find time to game.

When we last left off, I had finished running my four friends through Curse of Strahd‘s Death House introductory adventure. It took two sessions.

Then we took a full two months to play another session.

After that, it took another few months to play the next one.

See, I have a brand new baby. Two kids 3 and under, a marriage and a busy day job makes it hard to play games. And everyone else in our Curse of Strahd game has marriages, kids, jobs and, well, other campaigns to play.

It’s really hard to find the time. Someday, my kids will be old enough that we can schedule it like a weekly or monthly poker game. I can see it in my dreams.

But for now, getting together to roll dice is a matter of much advance planning that includes five people checking work and family schedules until we can find a night where we can all be together. (Or, as it happens, at least some of us.)

Fast forward to the last month and we’ve played three sessions. We’re moving through the story faster and the players are interested again.

What did it? Playing online.

Thanks to services such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, we don’t have to get together in a room. As the Dungeon Master, I prepare the maps, miniatures and everything else, and everyone logs in from their computer.

This helps those of us with kids, who can simply put them to sleep at bedtime and jump on a laptop. This helps our pal who travels a lot for work as he can join the fun from whatever hotel room he’s at. It also helps me, the DM, as I don’t have to load up two backpacks with books and miniatures. I just spread everything out on the kitchen table. (And promise my wife I’ll clean it all up before everyone wakes up the next morning.)

Of our last three sessions, two have been online. One was done in person. The next will certainly be online.

We use Roll20. On our podcast, Pathgrinders (shameless plug), we play on Roll20 and record via Google Voice chat. Both are free and very easy to use.

Though we don’t record our sessions in Barovia, I still use Roll20. It’s intuitive, it’s easy and it’s free.

(Curse of Strahd spoilers ahead!)

So we got down to business. Last time, the guys had just finished destroying the monster in Death House. They thought they’d backtrack through the house to loot the place and find any clues as to their current whereabouts, but (surprise!) the whole place was suddenly on fire and full of traps.

They got out of there quickly and ventured further into town. They heard someone continually wailing in pain, which grew louder and clearer as they approached a few occupied buildings in the center of Barovia village. The first was a merchant’s shop, who offered them wares at greatly inflated prices. Then they stopped at the nearby tavern where they found a few colorfully-dressed Vistani men and a lone guy who beckoned them over and bought them drinks.

This was Ismark, son of the town’s mayor. “The town’s mayor?” my players asked. “Why, he sent us this letter asking for our help.”

Plot twist! Ismark informed them that his father was dead. And aside from that, the letter was most certainly not in his father’s handwriting. But he sensed something in these adventurers and welcomed them to stay in his home. He could use the help.

That moaning from before? It was getting louder, and they found a despairing woman in her home who bemoaned the loss of a daughter to Strahd. She was incosolable, so she left.

Eventually, they met Ireena, Ismark’s sister and (though they don’t know it yet) she’s the apple of Strahd’s eye. They find out that the dark one has bitten her and he’s been harassing their home every night. But Ireena is less concerned with herself and moreso with her father. She’ll leave the village for a safer place, but she insists they first bury their father at the church.

The next morning, the crew headed to the church. There they found an insane priest and something crying out from the basement. Upon inspection, they found a vampire, y’all!

It was their first encounter with a vampire, so I made sure to have him bite as many of them as possible. He bit Kaulder, the party’s blood hunter, and he also bit Ismark. Before he could make it to the cleric, Kali, he was taken down. But the two suffered some serious damage from the bites.

By the time the fight was done and their father was buried, it was mid-day. But Ismark insisted they leave for the fortified town of Vallaki even if they would have to travel some after the sun went down.

The road between Barovia Village and Vallaki is long, and it is filled with landmarks including Castle Ravenloft itself.

They set off and mostly ignored those places preferring to move quickly away from the imposing castle and its surroundings. At a crossroads, they saw a gallows with a body hanging from it that looked identical to Kali. The cleric proceeded to burn the creaking gallows to the ground with a spell.

As the party put Castle Ravenloft behind them, night fell. They were getting closer and closer to Vallaki when something walked out into the road in front of them. It was a scarecrow and he immediately tried to frighten the characters before charging at them with his knifed fingers.

Up ahead, I also lined the road with scarecrows. If they don’t move, the monsters are indistinguishable from a regular scarecrow. There were six scarecrows total lining the road. Four were going to be monsters. The other two were nothing more than burlap and straw, but the players didn’t know that.

I also asked each player for his character’s passive perception. I attempted to have the stationary scarecrows move forward by rolling secret stealth checks vs. the PCs’ passive perception. I succeeded every time, and the scarecrows began to move forward without the party noticing.

Just as the party finished off the first scarecrow, suddenly the remaining monsters came charging in for a second round of fighting. I succeeded in knocking one PC unconscious and gave the party quite a run for its money.

They hustled the remaining mile to Vallaki, where they persuaded their way past the armed guards and made it to the local inn.

So where do they go from here? They have tons of options in Vallaki as well as all the local landmarks they passed by in their rush to get to safety.

I do know that it will be a lot easier to plan our next session. We’ve been cranking out a lot of games by playing online, and we’ll surely be doing a lot more.

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