April 13, 2012

PAX East 2012 DM Challange

Pregame setup

PAX East 2012 has come and gone in a whirlwind of activity. Among my favorite events this year, as was last year, was WotC's DM Challenge. Although I found many of the same troubles and frustrations as before, this time around proved to be at least a little more fruitful, in no small part to hard work done at Dungeon Oracle.

The Dungeon Master's Challenge is a somewhat unique event wherein DM's are invited to bring the biggest and baddest adventures in a competitive fashion, bound only by a very loose guideline. Dungeon Masters provide everything, including pregenerated character sheets. This year’s theme was “The Elemental Chaos”, and adventures would be created for 7th Level characters.

You can read up on some of my thoughts on last year’s event here.

Each group of 6 players then secretly rates their Dungeon Master after about 3 or so hours of play, judging them on a handful of criteria such as “creativity”, “level of fun”, “preparedness”, etc. Participants start lining up near the WotC area around 6:00pm. By 6:30pm or so the line is cut off, as there are always too many players and not enough DM’s, and whomever was able to squeak through the cutoff point gets to clumped together to form 6-player parties. Parties are then sent to the various Dungeon Masters’ tables willy nilly.


There are a number of issues I take beef with on this event, the primary frustration for me being a lack of objectivity.

At its outset, each group only sees what a single Dungeon Master has to offer and has no idea what the other DM’s have in store. It’s entirely possible, indeed even likely, that a Dungeon Master will bring a mediocre or even good adventure and be blessed with soft-hearted players who score the Dungeon Master with very high marks. On the flip side, a Dungeon Master could be cursed with total bastard players (as I suspect happened to me last year), and get very low marks all around. One possible solution here would be to have groups cycle through multiple DM’s, going through abbreviated play sessions with official WotC pregen characters.

Also, things such as player play preferences and level of game proficiency varies all over the spectrum for this event. PAX East, at its core, is a video game convention. The tabletop games are just a small sliver of the pie here. As such, a very large portion of the players have little experience with D&D, much less this particular ruleset. Moreover, the individual tastes of a group; their appetite for roleplaying, exploration, combat, etc. vary so much that it can spell the difference between 1st place victory and last place defeat. Again, having a more granular approach with multiple groups judging each Dungeon Master would give a better aggregate to the scoring, providing a more accurate result.

I certainly don’t do this event for the prizes. They’re nice and everything, but my primary motivation here is the honor and prestige of winning. If you couldn’t tell yet, I really get a kick out of competitive gaming, especially D&D. So, in the end, I’m going to keep coming back and entering this event, despite its flaws, but it would be nice to see it done in a way that I think is better. There are a few different ways the event could be tweaked to eliminate or at least alleviate some of these ills. I’m looking forward to the future and hope for the best.

The Adventure

All this bitching aside, this was a really fun event for me and I’m very glad to have signed up. When I did sign up, I knew I would be pressed for time on all fronts. I knew I wanted a really good adventure, one that had puzzles, very difficult combats, and high on the exploration side of things. I needed a solid Fourthcore Delve.

To save on precious time, I decided to start with looking over Murder of the Maelstrom Queen from Dungeon Oracle, a really creative and innovative adventure that was designed to be played in a quick session, perfect for this timed event! To make it fit the mold of the event; I boosted the numbers up from 1st Level (as originally designed) to 7th Level and used the Adjusted Damage Numbers I had been working on. The original adventure already had a very strong watery theme to it, perfect for tying into the Elemental Chaos requirements, but I went through and tweaked some of the more gory descriptions to better fit with the event. For example, the floating river of blood with piranhas in Room A became a floating river of fire with lightning piranhas. Boom! Reskin. Done. Further, the adventure was originally made to be a “back pocket adventure”, meaning something quick to whip out when the DM didn’t have a full length adventure available, so many of the usual Fourthcore bells and whistles (rumors, etc.) are in an abbreviated format. To up the game, I went through the adventure and created color printout cards for everything that needed it. It bears emphasis here, the backup adventure from Dungeon Oracle was used by me as my biggest and baddest. To complete my planning, I went through each room and created a full size color printout with some high res textures taken from modern DooM and HeXen projects.
some really sweet looking maps
For the character sheets, this came up at the very last minute of my planning, mistakenly having thought this year’s pregen character sheets would be provided by WotC up until just a few days before the convention. In a panic, I grabbed a hold of an old standby, and used my SND-02Pregen Character Sheets from almost a year ago, with an extra Level thrown in to match the event’s stated guidelines. The character sheets were a little weirder than typical D&D sheets, so it took the players some time to warm up, but they eventually came around to them and really enjoyed them.

I also went one step further and created a series of Elemental Manifestations, based on the myriad of racial encounter powers from the various Genasi sub-species that could be used as an interrupt by dead dungeoneers to help out their surviving comrades, not unlike that seen in Revenge of theIron Lich.


In the end, everyone at my table had an amazingly fun time. There was a lot of danger, the players felt like at any moment they could die, many of them did indeed die at the end, but through cunning and guile they were able to piece together the mysteries of the adventure, find (one of) the lost artifact(s), and destroy the Maelstrom Queen with a cool 3 minutes to spare. The game ended with the table shouting jubilant cheers of victory. Smiles all around as this motley band bounded together and, despite the odds against them, came away triumphant.

Later that night, I would find that I had indeed claimed victory to triumph over my peers. I had won 2nd place, and with it copies of Heroes of the Elemental Chaos and Heroes of the Feywild! All that hard work was recognized and rewarded, huzzah!!!


  1. Congratulations, man! It's a fundamentally ridiculous competition, but it sounds like fun regardless.