Dragons of Autumn, August’s Campaign of the Month

This month we’re joined by GM RobertKey to talk to him about his awesome Dragonlance game Dragons of Autumn, August’s Campaign of the Month! Read on!


First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Alter Ego’s? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet? Let us know if you feel so inclined!

I’m originally from the Philadelphia area, but relocated to Portland, OR in 2007. I met my wife, Laura, while we were both serving in the US military. We bounced around the US for a few years before settling outside Portland.
We love to travel, but we’ve spent a significant amount of time in school over the last few years. My wife and I are recent honor graduates from University of Phoenix with Bachelor of Science degrees in Human Services Management and Business Management, respectively. I decided to remain in school and am currently pursuing a Post-Baccalaureate degree in Computer Science from Oregon State University.
I use some social networking sites, but mainly to keep in touch with friends all over the world. My Obsidian Portal handle doesn’t leave much to the imagination so feel free to look me up.

DoneginTell us about Dragons of Autumn in a nutshell. How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?

I really have to credit my wife and friends for that. A few years ago, my wife and I met some new friends who regularly play D&D. My wife, being the good sport that she is, agreed to give role-playing a whirl – she took to gaming like a duck to water. Unfortunately, our DM at the time had to step back from gaming for a while. Having been a Dragonlance fan since the 90’s, I was excited at the opportunity to run a game based on those campaign settings (D&D 3.5).
To my amazement, only one person in our group had ever heard of the Dragonlance series! This was almost too good to be true – how often do you get an entire group that can play a boxed campaign without prior knowledge of events? I examined the campaign settings and prepared to run the group through the first set of modules, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I find this compendium to be a lot of fun and a terrific introduction into the world of Krynn. The only downside, as with most modules, is the narrow scope corralling players into following a specific series of event.
We will have been playing for two years as of this October and the group is finally nearing the end of the first book of pre-packaged scenarios. Now that they have a better idea of the various political, geographical, and cultural intricacies for this “universe,” I look forward to taking off the blinders and seeing what they will do.

How regularly do you play, and where do you play? (If you play online, do you use any certain tools to accomplish your gaming such as Google hangouts, roll20, etc.)

We play about once every other week from August until February and we try to play at least once a month from February through August. We only play in-person, but I find the idea of playing via Google Hangout or roll20 intriguing. Currently, I’ve been trying to create a gaming environment where players can refer to their mobile devices and tablets during a game to reference materials on the Autumn Dragons wiki. In a world where Google and Siri answer so many questions for us, it’s nice to have a resource where players can seek answers during the game. Considering each of our sessions has an average of five players, the wiki saves time in the form of recaps and general knowledge.
I’ve been playing with the idea of incorporating Google Translate into the game. So often, players will encounter a message in an unknown language. If I text them what the message says in a foreign language, I’d assign XP for a successful Decipher check based on who “translated” the message first.

With the upcoming D&DNext do you have any plans of moving from 3.5? Would it or will it make you bust out your old Dragonlance adventure modules?

We have no concrete plans for converting to D&DNext, but I have been reviewing some of the proposed rules and like what I see. My custom rules on Death and Dying are inspired from some of these materials.
As for adaptation, I own both the AD&D and 3.5 modules, campaign settings, etc. for the Dragonlance universe. Having played the 3.5 version most recently, I’ve noticed that many of the details from the second edition version were left out, specifically the later modules in the Dragons of Autumn Twilight, DL4. I’ve actually been spending more time in my second edition materials lately than looking ahead for “what comes next.” However, I would be much more inclined to consider a different rule system that included a re-release of the Dragonlance campaign settings. What can I say, I’m a pushover when it comes to Dragonlance.

Aside from Dragonlance lore, where do you draw inspiration from when preparing your game?

Oh my goodness, how do I answer that? Well, we’re playing a boxed campaign right now so much of the material is already prepared. However, I’ve found that the materials are often vague when it comes to details and mood.
Part of my inspiration results from attempting to repurpose canned scenarios. I had a recent discussion with some soap-obsessed DM friends where I lamented over the simplistic encounter scenarios in the module. “Suddenly, DARKMANTLES!” is such a terrible transition into combat and I prefer to create a scenario resembling role-play instead of simple combat. Many monsters were designed around these types of scenarios, like Cloakers. (If you’re interested in seeing an example, check out Session 21 and search for Darkmantles)
Player reaction is also a large part of my inspiration. Along with the campaign story, I prefer to provide personalized content based on player feedback and character behavior. If I see that the players are not enjoying something, I’ll switch gears.
The remaining inspiration comes from anything I encounter in life. DM inspiration is a lot like the Flat-rate box at the US postal service – if it fits, it ships.

buletteAside from D&D I’m sure you play other systems too, if so, which ones?

I’m a pretty staunch D&D player, the different campaign settings are a terrific option for creating alternate game play without changing rule systems. I’ve had a few run-ins with GURPS, Shadowrun, and Warhammer 40k, but the story-based campaigns I’ve seen on Obsidian Portal using the Dresden Files RPG are incredible. I’ve already begun schmoozing my wife into trying it out.

How did you get into tabletop gaming?

I find that most people started with paper and pencil games like D&D and eventually move on to PC/console games, card-based games, or board games (my apologies for generalizing the table-top game market). I started with PC/console games in the late 80’s. I always had an affinity for adventure games like Quest for Glory, Space Quest, King’s Quest – a lot of “Quests.” In ninth grade, I was taking a literature class and our instructor allowed us to read anything we wanted. I started with Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles; it’s a good book, but it went completely over my head. As I searched the library for something else, I came across a well-worn red novel – I still remember the smell of it! The book was Dragons of Autumn Twilight, A Dragonlance Novel. The novel appealed to my love of adventure. I was hooked on Dragonlance novels after that.
On a trip to the bookstore to look for more Dragonlance Novels, I discovered my first D&D books. I bought a few books and a board game version, but none of my friends had an interest in playing. Everything collected dust until a coworker/friend of mine invited me over to play AD&D with his friends in 1999. We played once a week for a few years until I left for the military in 2002. I didn’t get back into gaming until 2007, but I’ve been playing ever since.

How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?

I joined Obsidian Portal in early 2012. Autumn Dragons had been running for about six months at that time. As a hobby, I would often novelize each session and e-mail it to everyone for reference, but mostly for fun. I was surfing the net one day when I came across an ad banner for Obsidian Portal. I looked into the site, and loved the idea that I could centralize my gaming materials in a wiki format. I created an account, posted my session logs, and started compiling my wiki pages for the players.
This early version of Autumn Dragons was primarily for reference, as I mentioned, but I had fun finding and posting images I felt conveyed a visual comparison to an event or person in the game. I update the website after each session and I use it constantly during the game.
Just as random as my discovery of Obsidian Portal, I discovered the Reforge Kickstarter while participating in the Dwarven Forge Kickstarter. I was excited at everything Obsidian Portal planned and even more excited at the notion of “Immortal Status.” Considering Ascendant Status was $40/year, I figured a lifetime membership would pay for itself after 7 years. Once the Kickstarter ended, I considered my involvement in the Obsidian Portal community.
After perusing the forums, I discovered that many people were using CSS code to enhance their website. With my Computer Science degree program starting in the Summer of 2013, I decided to brush up on my coding by improving the CSS code for Autumn Dragons. The Obsidian Portal community was very welcoming, supportive, and helpful during my design and implementation of those CSS upgrades. They are definitely the reason I keep coming back to Obsidian Portal.

Bejeweled_helmYour wiki customization is probably the most extensive I’ve seen yet, it looks amazing, do you do it all yourself?

I’m very big on giving credit where it’s due. I’ve been trying to avoid posting links in this interview, but I’d really appreciate it if readers would check out the Credits page at http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/autumn-dragons/wikis/credits. Everything on Autumn Dragons relates to source materials, images, art, music, code, etc. I may have molded everything together, but I certainly stand on the back of giants.
As for the actual customization, I write all of the code, session logs, wiki pages, and content. There is certainly content that is extrapolated from the modules and campaign settings, but one of the terrific features at Obsidian Portal is seamlessly merging standard settings with customizations in a reference format. A decent helping of compulsive behavior helps too, especially with something format related like CSS.
As for code that I generate (e.g., the interactive map, sliding header bar, and the Google Maps alignment fix), it’s all available for review on the code page of the wiki. I also post a tutorial for each script on the forum. NinjaFlashX does a terrific job compiling all of those CSS tutorials on the forum.

If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most? Do your players get involved on the wiki too?

Obsidian Portal helps me with organization the most. Being able to access all the content for my campaign from a mobile device or tablet in a structured format is immeasurably valuable to me personally. My players rely on the wiki for reference materials, reviewing the previous session log, and customizing their character pages. I was concerned that the deluge of content available on the wiki was deterring some of them, but the wiki navigation bar I implemented has alleviated much of that.

How much time do you usually spend prepping your sessions, and how do you go about it?

I would say that I spend about four to six hours over the course of the week preparing for the next session. First, I read the next section of the module and write some reference notes for what could happen and what I’d like to happen. Then, I create some scenarios for random encounters. Since the encounters are “random,” I never use them all. My bag of random encounters is overflowing so I limit myself to only one or two additional scenarios per planning session. All of that takes about an hour; the remaining time occurs throughout the week as I rehearse the possible player interactions, NPC voices (yes, I do voices), and brainstorm enhancements and devices that will keep the players invested in the story.
However, the real investment of preparation is in the session log. Each session log covers four to eight hours of game play and includes as much detail as I can recall. Writing these logs takes about a week of writing and locating multimedia, but it’s my hobby so I enjoy it. I feel the session logs (or adventure logs) are an intrinsic requirement for anyone who plays in the game. No one can remember everything and new players need a resource to catch up to the rest of the group.

What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?

Session 7, “REORX WHO IS EVERYWHERE!!!”. The party had befriended a clan of Gully Dwarves (a sub-race of dwarves who enjoy living in squalor and ignorance). The Gully Dwarf Thane was highly impressed by the first-level cleric spells that one of the players cast. The role-playing that ensued as the players tried to explain the concept of “god” and holy magic was a perfect moment of comedy. The players explained that the dwarven god, Reorx, was “everywhere” since the notion of omnipresence was so far beyond the comprehension of a gully dwarf who has an intelligence score between three and nine. Wanting the power for himself, the gully dwarf thane began to yell loudly invoking Reorx; hence, “REORX WHO IS EVERYWHERE!!!”
At this point, it’s important to understand that the campaign setting for this era on Krynn is one where the mortal races have turned their backs to the gods. After 350 years without divine magic, the concept of power from a greater source is a difficult concept for most NPCs with average intelligence to grasp. On the other hand, the pantheon of Krynn derives its power from worship. With the gods preferring a steady stream of worship, they are quick to grant prayers.
After a few unsuccessful attempts at “praying,” the players eventually coach the thane into casting a proper 0th level orison, create water. “Reorx, who is everywhere, me want something to drink!” resulted in a steady stream of water from the thane’s fingertips. The NPC was a lot of fun to role-play and the players often reference him with a smile.
However, the comedic gold of these events would soon turn to drama as the player-character largely responsible for teaching divine magic to the thane died, but I’ll leave that for everyone to read about in Session 7.

Are you excited about the upcoming changes to Obsidian Portal?

Ecstatic — Thought I was going to be long-winded, huh? :^)
Honestly, I’ve been avoiding the forum posts related to the reforge. When I was a kid, I accidentally found Christmas presents in my parent’s closet. I spent the next few months trying to un-know that information so I could be surprised on Christmas day. I’ve learned my lesson and prefer to be surprised.


The interactive trail maps within you campaign are awesome, how did you make those?!

Thanks for that! It took a long time to make, but it was a labor of love. After reviewing the work of Gaaran on Dark Queen of the West (an interactive map resembling the map app of an iPhone), I wanted to create my own map with pop-up icons. I used a map from the campaign settings and coded the pop-ups. After some diligent adaptation, I share this early version with my wife. She liked it, but pointed out that the map lacked an intuitive quality. For example, someone who had not played in the game or read my incredibly long session logs would have no idea what these places were or the order in which they were encountered. We talked about a possible solution when she brought up that scene in Indiana Jones where the red line follows the airplane along the map.
After some more brainstorming, I decided to create an animated gif that provided a similar effect with red dots. I also enhanced the map with location icons that bounce when the red-dotted-trail markers cross over. After that, I just uploaded the map into the existing code.
For anyone that is interested, I used the open-source program, GIMP, to create my animated gif’s. A tutorial is also available on the Obsidian Portal forums.

Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of wisdom.

Games are meant to be fun – be sure your players enjoy the game.
No matter how high-tech it gets, bring a pencil and paper.
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst.


That’s it for this month, remember to post in the forums or let me know which games you think deserve the honor that is CotM. Until next time!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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