Dungeons & Dragons Online

Introducing players to DMing by making them DM alternate dimensions in a harrowing metaphysical adventure


Giving Players an Opportunity to Try DMing

My brother runs a game for me and three friends each week, and asked me to fill in while he was out of town. I reflected on how unfortunate it was that three long time players had never gotten a taste of the other side of the screen, and an idea was born.

With their consent, I wrote them each a simple outline to follow and crafted this simple, powerful one-shot. There's really two considerations that I'm describing:

  1. What kind of story lends itself to this concept?
  2. What practical considerations are necessary to prepare a player to act as DM within a story?

1. The story it takes place within

Put simply, the justification for players being DMs is that they've mind-melded with a celestial of Ao, and the celestial is using each player in turn to channel an alternate dimension for the other players. The player being channeled is the DM, and this alternate dimension is fragile: the celestial can only maintain each for around 30 minutes.

Here's what it looked like

A standard cave crawl takes an epic twist when a level 5 party stumbles upon a celestial trapped in a magic circle ringed with three idols placed by cultists who summoned the celestial intending to sacrifice it and underestimated its power. It killed them, but months later remains immobilized.

While the party is struggling to even stand in the presence of such power, a swarm of panicked myconids encountered previously in the cave meld everyone's minds, and suddenly the players find themselves with 30 minutes to locate the idols trapping the celestial in each of their teammates's memories in turn.

Once the meld began, a constitution check determined which player acted as DM first

Our tiefling rolled highest, so the first alternate dimension the other players explored was in a market in the infernal plane in search of the idol. This was my tiefling friend's chance to run a simple city encounter as the rest of the party searched for one of the three idols. The players had 30 minutes to find it and destroy it or die trying. They haggled and threatened, but ultimately ran out of time and returned to the mortal plane wounded. See below for the session outline my friend was working off of.

When the mini-session ended, the players were swept back to the cavern they left and each took 2d8 damage before they felt a suffusion of purple light as the celestial began the exercise again.

In the second case the players appeared (restored in health and materials) outside the monastery where our monk trained and was cast out. This time, the players found the idol, and in a close fight against the whole monastery managed to shatter it, returning to the mortal plane safely.

The description of the return made clear that success is much more pleasant than failure, and the exercise began a final time.

Third, the players appeared in a cursed cathedral of the patron of our former warlock. They attempted to sneak to the altar but were detected, and a team of warlocks hunted the party down. To her dismay, our former warlock's rolls were outstanding, and the warlocks butchered our party, who returned to the mortal plane very injured but alive. In each case, the NPCs were all basically clones of the player's current character.

With one of the three idols destroyed, the celestial escaped the circle. They gifted the party a single feather and shifted to another plane. The party finished collecting the mushrooms they'd been hired to recover and limped home, shaken but alive and now with a buff against the first psychic attack after a long rest.


2. What I did to prepare players to DM

Obviously I'd recommend adapting this to your situation, but this is how I instructed the players before hand. During, I made myself available but did very little to help them unless requested. If things ran long or went off track, I let the player in charge have the freedom to try things and fail. I did message them privately to warn then when time was running out.

Here is what I sent to the first player:

Story

1. Arrival and establishment

I recommend that Bluff not be present, since playing as a character while DMing is much more difficult.

Have everyone roll for perception, and tell the highest roller something like this:

"As your vision clears you see a city marketplace where tieflings and fiends are haggling over nefarious blades and unfamiliar spices. A cavernous ceiling 200 m or so above suspends large caged bonfires that provide a dusky illumination by which the creatures conduct their business."

You can tell other players what you like relative to their rolls, but the first thing they need to know is that there is an idol of the same kind they've seen just before they were swept here, and they must destroy it. I recommend you start by having a random NPC confront them and ask what they're looking for, and let them express confusion. This NPC might be trying to sell them something, or better yet pickpocket them, but in this encounter find an opportune moment to tell them what they're looking for.

'Surely you've come to market in search of something you need! Let me be of service!' The words shake lose an awareness that is not your own, yet is an unshakable truth: there is an idol here in this market of the kind that ensnared the celestial, and you're being given an opportunity to destroy it, and that opportunity will not last long.

2. Seeking out the idol

The players may wander around looking for it or they may insist upon a crazy ruse or try to use magic. As a player, I'm going to let Si and Jeff do most of the scheming, unless I think of something too good not to use. In any case, let them problem solve for a few minutes.

This is an opportunity for some great role play. They may try to ask those around if they've seen this item, and you should just misdirect them. Challenge them to complete a minor task and then send them to someone who doesn't have it. Let them spin their wheels. You can choose how obvious to make it that no one will help them.

If they fall for it, after 15 or 20 minutes remind them of the ticking clock by waiting for an opportunity when they make an appropriate roll or instructing them to, or just dropping the information on them:

"You sense the celestial is exerting themselves to let you be here. They cannot maintain this reality for long. The idol must be destroyed in ___ minutes at most to escape this place alive."

If they search in a dedicated manner, let the second or third merchant have it.

3. Obtaining the idol.

Once they've located the idol, the merchant should try to keep it away from them, initially by denying that it's in their possession, but make their lie obvious. You can describe them as clearly nervous, or say that when the players approach they throw a sheet over a display case, but make it clear that this merchant is scared of them finding that the idol is there.

Once the players find it, it's up to you how the conversation goes, but it should eventually become clear that the merchant won't part with it willingly. Watch the clock. If it gets to 25 minutes and they're still trying to talk their way to it, I recommend that you lay it on really thick:

'I cannot sell it to you lot! It's only here to remain in my protection and protect it I shall! Now leave or pay in blood!'

And then

'At that moment every creature present besides you and your companions spasm or give a twitch as a kind of invisible wave washes through the market like a gust shockwave, and you know that if the idol is not destroyed within five minutes, this market will cease to be with you inside it.'

The players can decide here whether to just draw their weapons and tango or to attempt some kind of guile or to try to grab it and dash. Let them find it's in a wrought iron case with 20 HP, perhaps by pulling off the cloth concealing it or perhaps by charming the merchant into showing it to them. It's up to you what you're willing to allow, but I suggest that as the pressure rises, you turn things violent if they don't do so first.

4. Fight!

You don't have to fight, but know this: you want the players to experience this story, but you should want it to end with their death and failure, while making success possible. That failure can be because they were all murdered or because they ran out of time, but you're trying to strike a balance. You DON'T want the story to wander and the players to lose track and then suddenly learn that it's over. That's boring. You also don't want them to bonk one guy over the head, hit the case once, and hit the idol and suddenly gain victory. You want them to feel frantic and desperate to the last minute. I normally don't try to kill players, but this is a minigame where death won't be permanent, so if you want them to have fun, try to make them just barely lose, and if they surprise you or get good rolls, they'll love it.

This can happen any way you like, but I suggest you force them to get desperate with 5-10 minutes left and then have one NPC with insanely high armor class and hit points start slaughtering them with 2d10 attacks, or have a bunch of NPCs with the same stats as Bluff wail on them. Feel free to reach out if you want any advice.

5. Conclusion

If they destroy it:

'Everything slows down and eventually stops except the three of you.'

Pause and let the players react.

'The creatures around you catch fire, still motionless and are immolated in seconds, followed by everything besides you and your companions.'

If time runs out or the last member standing is killed:

'There is a deafening shatter, screeching in a pitch outside of sound itself. You feel yourself shredded from existence, the last spark of awareness you experience is the sense is passing beyond death; of being unmade.'

Either way, this is when I take over again.

Gameplay

Role play: Just role play the NPCs as you play a character.

Knowledge sharing: Keep in mind the stuff above. Most DMs tend to withhold too much rather than share too much, for what it's worth.

Combat: This is typically the hardest part. Fortunately, the creatures can all have bluff's move set, so you can just play all of them as you play him. You shouldn't have trouble killing at least one player if you're really trying by simply adding more fighters, or if they need to do more damage, have them grab a weapon from nearby with crazy high stats or a magical effect. If the players die in combat, you'll receive a 30 XP bonus.

The hardest part of playing a bunch of NPCs in a fight is tracking turn order and HP. For turn order, I recommend having a notebook in front of you, and writing down all the players and NPCs in order of turn and sticking to it.

For HP, there are two ways to do it. The first is to draw circles or tick marks for their HP, and as they take damage cross them off. The second is to use the Roll20. For each token, if you click on them three circles appear above them. You can enter their HP here, and if you click and type -5 it'll automatically do the math.

If you have any questions, just pause the game and ask.

Here is what I sent to the second:

Story

1. Arrival and establishment

I recommend that Number 2 not be present, since playing as a character while DMing is very difficult.

Have everyone roll for perception, and tell the highest roller something like this:

"As your vision clears you recognize your new surroundings. You're in Undercliff. Before you is the Hin Fist Monastery. The celestial knows that inside the monks guard the idol which must be destroyed to free them from the summoning circle, and because they know it, you too know that you must destroy this idol to safely escape."

You can tell other players what you like relative to their rolls. The idol is in the center of the prayer courtyard in the lower right. Depending on their rolls, you can tell them this automatically or withhold, but it will be visible on the map to everyone, so the players will likely know it.

There are 8 monks on the board, and their names are under their token. You can give them whatever voice or personality you like.

2. Entering the monastery

They may knock or try to sneak in by jumping a wall or picking a lock, and you can make them roll how you see fit for this and any sneak moves or distractions.

I'm imposing a 30 minute countdown: if the players don't destroy the idol within 30 minutes, the session ends and they fail. I recommend you don't say this immediately, but wait about 5 minutes after they arrive and instruct the players to roll a wisdom check or wait for a relevant check of their own, such as detect magic or search for traps, then say something like this:

"You sense the celestial exerting themselves. They cannot maintain this reality for long. There is but twenty minutes or so in which to use this chance to destroy the idol, otherwise the plane will collapse."

It's up to you whether destruction in this session will persist after it's over, and it's up to you to decide whether to tell them this.

3. Confrontation

It's up to you to decide if they can sneak or bluff their way to the idol, or how quickly the monks intuit their objective, but I'd recommend letting them sneak or bluff their way part way before a fight starts. Once they're inside, either a monk might discover their intentions or reveal they knew and lulled them into a trap. You could force a series of charisma checks, and wait for a low one to justify the discovery. They may ask for a tour and get shown around, but I recommend they are strictly forbidden from entering the prayer courtyard, so at the very latest, they either reveal themselves by fighting their way in, or if they sneak in someone comes in and finds them.

At this point, I recommend reminding the players that a clock is ticking by making them roll perception or just using a recent perception check to say something like,

"You feel the celestial's strain, and for the briefest moment the whole world dissolves and then rights itself. There is at most ____ minutes before all you see returns to nothing."

4. Fight!

At this point, you can decide how many NPCs they have to fight. I would suggest at least three, as there will be three players, but more is better. Make the party fight ALL EIGHT MONKS if you're comfortable controlling that many NPCs. Otherwise, have them fight some and then have others arrive through the fight as you feel comfortable doing or if one falls. Sprinkle in some flavor during the fight with lines like this:

'You will never have your prize! This idol is everything to us, and you are NOTHING!'

'Prepare yourselves to face oblivion!!' ' The void awaits you!" (And then a sick punch)

If someone picks up the idol, immediately remind them of the time. Feel free to shorten it if they happen to get here with like 10 minutes left.

'It's power burns your fingers. You can only endure the radiating light of it for two minutes, at most.'

Be sure to try to have an NPC knock it from their hands or steal it if possible here.

5. Conclusion

If they destroy it:

'Everything slows down and eventually stops except the three of you.'

Pause and let the players react.

'The sky fades to purple and gently that purple silently contracts toward you. The world around you is gently being put away, and as it is it's replaced with the forest clearing.'

If time runs out or the last member standing is killed:

'There is a deafening shatter, screeching in a pitch outside of sound itself. You feel yourself shredded from existence, the last spark of awareness you experience is the sense is passing beyond death; of being unmade.'

Either way, this is when I take over again.

Gameplay

Role play: Just role play the NPCs as you play a character.

Knowledge sharing: Keep in mind the stuff above. Most DMs tend to withhold too much rather than share too much, for what it's worth.

Combat: This is typically the hardest part. Fortunately, the monks all have Number 2's move set, so you can just play all of them as you play Number 2. Keep in mind that you should really use this to your advantage. Number 2 is pretty powerful, so honestly you shouldn't have trouble killing at least one player if you're really trying, and I want you to. I want you to give them a chance, but seriously try to kill them all or delay them so they fail to destroy the idol in time. If you do, you'll get a 30 XP bonus.

The hardest part of playing a bunch of NPCs in a fight is tracking turn order and HP. For turn order, I recommend having a notebook in front of you, and writing down all the players and NPCs in order of turn and sticking to it.

For HP, there are two ways to do it. The first is to draw circles or tick marks for their HP, and as they take damage cross them off. The second is to use the Roll20. For each token, if you click on them three circles appear above them. You can enter their HP here, and if you click and type -5 it'll automatically do the math.

If you have any questions, just pause the game and ask.

Here is what I sent to the third:

Note that everything I'm sharing is meant to be helpful, but you're free to disregard it and do whatever you like when you're in control.

Story

1. Arrival and establishment

I recommend Nippy isn't present, as playing while DM is very hard.

Have everyone roll for perception, and tell the highest roller something like this:

"The world resolves into a dim cathedral. The smell of stale animal sacrifices hangs in the air. It's late dusk, and you hear voices talking amongst themselves faintly ahead."

You can tell other players what you like relative to their rolls. The idol is on the altar at the front. The players will be able to see this on the map, but it's your choice how you share this information. I recommend you first let the characters each react to the environment for a moment before sharing more. It's likely they will ask questions or do a lore or wisdom check, or examine artifacts around them, otherwise you can instruct them to roll and then share more. Or you can answer questions out of character, or have a voice tell them these things. But what they need to know is that their goal is to destroy the idol before revealing the clock.

"The idol hanging above the altar is too small to see from this distance, but it reveals itself in senses beyond sight. Along with this, you know you must destroy it as quickly as possible to return to the material plane unharmed."

2. Proceeding into the Cathedral

As they walk forward, you'll want to give them a sense of the vibe: it's an evil spooky horror temple, and the people here are evil spooky dangerous folks.

Once they know they need to destroy the idol, the next piece of information should be that they have 30 minutes to do it or they fail. You can wait until they make a check while examining the surroundings and share this, or if they don't make checks, tell them to, or just say it unprompted:

"You sense an urgency, as if your presence here is a mosquito buzzing around reality itself, and it is only a matter of time before you're swatted."

"You can't say with certainty how long you have, but it's not more than 30 minutes at the maximum, and possibly much, much less."

As they move forward, they'll likely try to sneak to the front unnoticed. You can decide how easy to make this for them, but as they pass rooms you may want to let them overhear things that explain whose temple this is. The surprise reveal is that this is a temple to Caldera Inferno, Nippy's former patron, and the residents here are Caldera's warlocks. Try to make the players understand that these warlocks are all dangerous killers, perhaps like this:

"I'm really getting the hang of chill touch! Have you seen? Did you see how fast I froze that milkmaid to death? I just grabbed her by the throat and she was dead before she screamed. I think Caldera is taking notice."

Realistically, I don't expect them to remember that name, so feel free to remind them that Nippy had a patron she left that was evil and was going to immortalize her and trap her head in a clay jar and bury it in a graveyard for all time.

The party may seek to cause a diversion to get the warlock or warlocks in direct sight of the alter to go away, and you can decide what check to impose and how successful it is.

3. Confrontation

As they get close enough to see the idol, make sure they're aware that it's hanging from a rusty chain about 6 feet above the ground. You may or may not describe objects they can move to reach it, or how fragile the chain is, or if the chain is connected to any winch.

It's up to you to decide if they can sneak or bluff their way to the idol. At some point though, the warlocks should become aware of the party. You can force checks until the party fails, or you can set an alarm (either mechanical or magical), or better yet a trap that serves to alarm the warlocks. I would suggest that Calera speaks:

"Children!!" The familiar voice rings out from the ceiling. "Intruders have entered my holy place! They smell of a wayward sheep who strayed from my flock… HMMM…. I hunger for lamb chops!"

I would recommend not letting them get closer than 20 spaces before a confrontation occurs. However they're found out, they'll likely then make a mad dash for the idol.

4. Fight!

At this point, you can decide how many NPCs they have to fight. I would suggest at least three, as there will be three players, but more is better. Make the party fight ALL EIGHT WARLOCKS if you're comfortable controlling that many NPCs. Otherwise, have them fight some and then have others arrive through the fight as you feel comfortable doing or to replace any killed. Sprinkle in some flavor during the fight with lines like this:

"You shall be sacrificed! Prepare to shed joyous bloood!"

"Our lord's nightmare embrace welcomes you!!!"

There are stairs to the sides of the room. If you like, you can describe that these lead to a balcony from which you can slide down the chain or smash the hook it hangs from. If someone reaches the idol and begins trying to smash it or pull it down, remind them of the time. Feel free to shorten it if they happen to get here with like 10 minutes left.

'It ripples with frightful power, and you know that you have mere minutes … perhaps only one… left to escape this plane alive.'

The idol has 8 HP, so it likely will take several strikes.

5. Conclusion

If they destroy it:

'Everything slows down and eventually stops except the three of you.'

Pause and let the players react.

'The smell fades first, and an incongruent scent of a forest appears before the walls of the cathedral and the dank corners are suffused with a purple glow, which gives way to the clearing from which you left.'

If time runs out or the last member standing is killed:

'There is a deafening shatter, screeching in a pitch outside of sound itself. You feel yourself shredded from existence, the last spark of awareness you experience is the sense is passing beyond death; of being unmade.'

Either way, this is when I take over again.

Gameplay

Role play: Just role play the NPCs as you play a character.

Knowledge sharing: Keep in mind the stuff above. Most DMs tend to withhold too much rather than share too much, for what it's worth.

Combat: This is typically the hardest part. Fortunately, the warlocks all have Nippy's move set, so you can just play all of them as you play her. Keep in mind that you should really use this to your advantage. If you outnumber them, you shouldn't have trouble killing at least one player if you're really trying, and I want you to. I want you to give them a chance, but seriously try to kill them all or delay them so they fail to destroy the idol in time. If you do, you'll get a 30 XP bonus.

The hardest part of playing a bunch of NPCs in a fight is tracking turn order and HP. For turn order, I recommend having a notebook in front of you, and writing down all the players and NPCs in order of turn and sticking to it.

For HP, there are two ways to do it. The first is to draw circles or tick marks for their HP, and as they take damage cross them off. The second is to use the Roll20. For each token, if you click on them three circles appear above them. You can enter their HP here, and if you click and type -5 it'll automatically do the math.

If you have any questions, just pause the game and ask.

Out of game, the players loved it and I loved reversing roles to be their player. They made the typical newbie fumbles — two struggled to manage time, and only got through half the story material I'd provided — but they roleplayed as well as NPCs as they do as PCs, and they managed combat as well as any new DM I've seen. Each said they found it fascinating, and would like to explore GMing further, and my brother is delighted to follow up on some of the story consequences of their harrowing experience. This has got to be one of my favorite sessions this year!

Source

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