Last night was the first session of my otherwise long-running tabletop RPG game in over a year. Our old venue had become unavailable, last year, then other complications came up, and finally when things seemed like we could get things moving, there was just a lot of inertia to overcome. Finally, I sent out a grumpy, "Should we just call things off forever, or what?" Fortunately, I got quick responses from everyone: no, the previously mentioned date is good. Unfortunately, the date was in just a few days, and I only had the next session planned in broad strokes.
I had basically planned a dungeon crawl. Dungeon crawls are fun, but I find them difficult to run successfully. Producing a dungeon is, for me, quite a lot of work. I never quite feel like I've made the place plausible enough, and I don't think I end up with rooms of the right size, shape, or layout for particularly interesting encounters. I've begun to think that the right course of action is to start stealing liberally from published (and well-liked) modules. I've picked a few to read through, to see if the encounters and maps can be stolen. One complication is that I generally prefer to run games with my own bestiary, but 4th Edition makes it fairly easy to reskin whatever monsters they chose with something I'm happy with.
In the meantime, I started with the donjon random dungeon generator, futzed with settings for a long time, loaded it into Dungeonographer, and made some corrections. The problem with that approach is that then I've got to start with a blank map and rationalize each room. After making a pass at that, I started to realize that the room sizes were all sort of bizarre, and placing furniture was a mess. I ended up with a furniture-free map, which made combat just a little more bland. Next time, I'm going to start in Dungeonographer and design it all myself -- which means I'll probably start with a list of planned locations and encounters, and then add just enough connecting material to keep things sensible.
Planning encounters is tough, too. Interesting encounters are hard to build. In 4E, almost all combat encounters are long. (I have yet to actually try out Sly Flourish's 30 Minute Skirmishes ideas.) If the encounter isn't interesting and dynamic, the players will get bored, and by the end everyone will more or less be droning, "I use cleave on the one next to me" every round. The DMG advice to build encounters with monsters of different roles is really important advice. I need to get a much better feel for what groups of monsters make for an interesting encounter, and how to roll them out over an encounter. (I want to complain that this would be easier if there was a greater selection of low-level monsters -- but while I wish there was a better selection, I don't think I'd actually be any better for having more to choose from.)
We didn't finish the entire dungeon, unfortunately. We started later than we used to start, and there was a lot of small talk, as usual -- especially because we hadn't been together in one place for so long. Even if we'd started an hour or two earlier, we couldn't have finished things up in time. I need to get a better handle on the speed at which things go. It's really important because I'm trying to keep a good balance between having the overall campaign move at a reasonable pace, while not having each session be a rush through a seemingly-meaningless set of events. This is especially difficult because we play, at best, every three weeks. Having to split one adventure up over two nights delays the whole storyline by three weeks or more, which can be frustrating, at least to me.
I've been thinking about running an online campaign for a long time. I couldn't find any online battle mat that I liked, and this was a serious blocker for me to get started. A few weeks ago, Nick Perez (who had been complaining that I kept teasing him with the prospect of this game) took up the challenge and found Gametable, which has a weird, sort of ugly interface, but does absolutely everything I needed. The chances of this online game happening are greatly improved. I'm also excited by the notion that I'll be able to use Dungeonographer and Hexographer to build maps for the game, especially once a small feature request for Dungeonographer is fulfilled.
Before the game starts, though, I think I'll be able to use Gametable for a dual purpose: I can get used to running games with it, and I can run short one-combat sessions to try out new encounter ideas. All I need to do is plan some encounters, conscript some players, and carve out some time!