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Birthday parties are kind of my thing. Streamers and piñatas. Costumed pub crawls and Nerf gun battles. Homemade cakes frosted to look like farm scenes, Transformers, or the Seahawks logo. Not to mention to-do lists and shopping lists and color-coded production schedules. All. Of. It.
And so, for my husband’s recent milestone birthday, I went all out. A cabin weekend with fifteen friends, and snow and games, and fondue, and yeah, the piñata. And since he’s a nice D&D-loving fellow, I set out to create a special birthday-themed one-off adventure that our extended group of friends could play in.
But this was tricky, for a number of reasons:
- I’m a newish DM, and rather scared of writing my own adventures.
- Turnout was a crapshoot. I might get thirteen people interested in playing, or three.
- Only some of the party attendees had ever played anything resembling D&D.
But I knew it could be great, because:
- Birthday themed adventure = fun + funny, right!?
- Party-planning adrenaline and optimism kicked in.
- Friends and coworkers took pity on me and offered to help.
After I decided to add this D&D game to my party itinerary, I spent a lot of time online looking for setting and plot ideas. Since I didn’t know in advance how many of my friends might want to join the game—and with so many of them being new to roleplaying—I needed an adventure that was flexible, fast, and straightforward. But above all else, it needed to be interesting. Those were a lot of notes to hit, and I worried that my first test as an adventure writer might be too great a challenge.
Enter Hero Number One. After sending some pings out in the office looking for help finding a setting, Greg Bilsland reached out and suggested I leverage Confrontation at Candlekeep. This adventure was run at GenCon in 2013, and it featured a multitable, multiphase cooperative plot that could be scaled up or down depending on attendance. Convention-caliber storytelling and classic D&D flavor. Bingo.
Confrontation at Candlekeep was also a great choice because it was written for 2nd-level characters. Since almost all my potential players were new, this seemed like a good fit. After all, it’s one level more interesting than 1st level, but the characters’ abilities aren’t so complex that play becomes overwhelming.
I knew, however, that even 2nd-level characters would be hard for such a large group of new players to create on their own. Creating and adjusting characters can be a highlight of the game, but when I look back on my early days as a player, I remember one thing: creating a character is hard. Before I knew what D&D really was, or how it was actually played, I remember how daunting it felt to try to wade through a myriad of options and come up with something that wouldn’t embarrass my new shiny d20. Never mind dreaming up a character who would be effective against deadly traps or an orc raid.
I decided that if I wanted a decent chance at convincing my friends they could totally handle (and enjoy!) a game of D&D, I would need to skip character building. That meant pregens. Luckily for me, Greg also sent me a bunch of pregenerated character sheets, so I printed out a nice variety of adventurers and thanked him. Now I didn’t have “Create a zillion different characters” on my to-do list.
Any way I sliced it, I knew that splitting the players into multiple tables was my best bet. New players, being new and all, can sometimes need extra time on their turns as they get the feel for the game and their characters. And since I always want to show off D&D at its best (and hopefully hook people into the game), I especially wanted to avoid the adventure getting bogged down by a long turn order.
Luckily, one of my good friends—a D&D lore expert, as well as a player in the ongoing campaign I’m currently running—became Hero Number Two and offered to run a second table if needed.
Confrontation at Candlekeep drops an oddball collection of characters into a classic D&D locale, and then challenges them with an immediate threat that they must eliminate to save the keep. When cultists of Asmodeus infiltrate Candlekeep’s famous library, the adventurers are split into parties by the head monk, tasked with raising wards and seeking and fighting off enemies in various areas of the keep.
The full adventure has two forty-five-minute phases. I decided to run only one of those phases, hoping this would allow us to complete the game in an hour and a half (we had a busy party itinerary). The first phase had content for eight challenges around the library that the adventuring parties could be tasked with. It was difficult to choose which areas to send the parties into, but I ended up selecting two that met my criteria:
- They taxed both brawn and brains.
- They featured interesting enemies to take down (acolytes lurking in closets, giant stone frogs, and so on).
- They paired together well and drove the parties to meet up for the surprise ending (read on for that one).
We ended up with seven players who stayed up late enough to take part in the adventure. Rather than explain the whole adventure process at once, I decided to dole out information piecemeal. All the players knew what D&D was as a rough concept, but they didn’t know what a game actually looked or felt like. I decided to abide by the storytelling advice of “show, don’t tell.” It went something like this:
- Gather together.
- Bathroom break and regather.
- Let everyone pick a character sheet. Most players chose their characters based on a quick glance at name and background. But for those who wanted more information, I offered up quick explanations of character stats and how they impacted the game, particularly combat.
- Assume the character of the head monk of Candlekeep and introduce the setting.
- Divide the players into two parties. I split up spouses and mixed new and experienced players to heighten the ragtag nature of the challenges.
- Ensure at least one person at the table, besides the DM, knew what in the world was going on.
- Protect the keep! Our intrepid adventurers, having split up to fight doppelgangers and mercenaries, were also tasked with recovering a mysterious spellbook and activating a precious runestone. Once the parties brought these magical items back together at the shrine of Oghma, the head monk would use them in a feat of magic to protect the keep.
As the game unfolded, I’m happy to say that I learned a few things. First, “sink or swim” works well with eager participants. I and my assisting DM launched into the story right away. Initially, this was confronted with two or three faces full of “So . . . what do I do?” But once we pointed out one or two actions their characters could take, the players ran with it.
Second, lack of spellcasting simplifies things. By happenstance, only one person out of seven chose a spellcaster as a character (a minimally magic paladin). This ended up being a boon, since we had only two Player’s Handbooks and didn’t need to worry about multiple players needing to look up spells at the same time. Because the adventure was short and had plenty of flavor, the lack of splashy magic didn’t seem to dull the experience.
Lastly, it was great to see roleplaying come from unexpected sources. My friends are totally rad, but though I knew they’d be good-natured about playing, I didn’t expect some of them to so wholly embrace their characters and the setting. As players, they slipped into the skins of their half-orcs and wood elves, so that every action and decision was in step with their backgrounds and stats. It was so cool.
If I were asked to visualize what I enjoy about D&D, it might look something like this:
I wanted my game to celebrate all these things. And so although it was lucky to have an adventure like Confrontation at Candlekeep written and available, I also knew I wanted to adjust and rewrite sections to boost the flavor and foreshadow a surprise birthday-themed ending, all wrapped up in a neat package. This included small adjustments, such as describing how light in the keep was cast by multicolored balloon-like orbs floating in the halls, or noting that thirty candles flickered to life when the runestone was activated on a round stone altar. But the big reveal happened at the end.
With the magic items brought to the shrine, the head monk (me) and his acolyte (my DM friend) used them to try to raise “the great shield” that would protect the library from further intrusion. As both parties watched, with fallen cultists at their feet and the sounds of battle raging outside the keep, the monks began chanting unintelligible syllables out of the spellbook. Alas, they had not the power to raise the shield. Not alone. So they turned to the adventurers and beseeched them to add their strength and join in a slow chant:
HAaaaaa PPYeeeeeB IRrrrrrrrTHD AaaaaaYT Oooooo YOUuuuuuu (Repeat)
It took a little while for our friends to realize what they were chanting, but when they did, we sped up the chant and started singing the birthday song for real. With the players laughing, we finished the song and described a thundering crash outside the keep and the thirty candles blowing out. When more colorful orbs appeared to bring the room out of darkness, magical confetti started falling from the rafters, and all the ‘dead’ enemies stood up smiling, giving each other high fives and hugging my husband’s bewildered character. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
Of course, after the fact, I thought of a whole heap of other ways I could have flavored a birthday adventure. (I still can’t believe I didn’t dress all the enemies in pointy cone hats.) That said, I think I hit a good balance, because none of the players realized the true nature of the adventure until its enjoyable end. Moreover, my edits worked, my hooks stuck, gameplay was entertaining, and I now have a new batch of D&D initiates ready for a new adventure.
About the Author
Katy Laurance is a senior business intelligence analyst for Wizards of the Coast, and well on her way to lifelong D&D fandom. Not even her love of code and charts can get in the way of a good tabletop game. She’s also a dab hand with a glue gun.