I wasn't originally planning on making this a series, but I am enjoying running my 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons game and continually writing about the experience afterwards. I like the idea of sharing what I am doing/experimenting with when DM-ing each game, especially the player responses. I also enjoy possibly of getting some feedback from my friends who shoulder some DM-ing responsibilities in other campaigns (hint hint).
As I noted before, I am running a very small game, with myself as the dungeon master and two friends playing low-level dwarves. One is playing a warden and another is playing a runepriest, meaning the party does not have a dedicated striker. This is not a detriment as far as I see it, as I always preferred games where the protagonists are the underdogs, succeeding despite all odds set against them. The Dungeon Master Guides have a couple pages where they explain how to scale down encounters so that they can still be challenging, but not overwhelming for smaller parties. Also, the three of us have an agreement to downplay magic in the world, and once again, the Dungeon Master Guides cover this with several options. One of the things I am greatly enjoying about 4th edition is how much the DMGs cover non-combat stuff.
As with last game, I incorporated a couple cut-away vignettes to great success. The first vignette was in a tavern where two small groups of rival dwarven clans get into a brawl. I had one player be half a dozen dwarven ruffians and the player be their opponents. A short combat encounter, some customized dice rolling, and a few creative dwarven insults later, one side was overcome by their rivals and by some heavily armed town guards that hauled them away for the evening.
This little scene served two purposes. First, it really helped set the mood and tone of the town our protagonists were on their way to visit. As a group we all contributed ideas as to what was going on in the town to have these rival clans in the same place at the same time, despite their obvious readiness to get into shenanigans. We ended up inventing the town, the layout of some of it's important buildings, a grand autumn festival that was currently in progress, how each clan was trying to one-up the other, and even a dwarven sport called "rockbee". When our players' characters rode into town, I was not required to describe the state of the town, the state of affairs within the town, the attitude of it's population, or any of that jazz. All three of us already had a clear understanding of all the necessary details, having all helped create it in and around the bar fight scene.
The other purpose was for story's sake: when the players came into town, one of them ended up at a pub with five or six of his friends... and was both surprised and ecstatic to discover himself in the very bar brawl we had run! In the vignette, he had played the opposite side of the brawl and won, so now, he already knew his character was going to lose (badly) and get hauled off to the local jail. What might have been a frustrating turn of events if run "normally" was turned into an amusing story development the players not only enjoyed, but encouraged.
The second vignette we did was less of an actual roleplaying scene and more of setting development. During the town's festival, we agreed the leaders of the dwarven clans would get getting together to discuss important matters. Each of us taking up the role of one of the leaders, we described how they arrived to this meeting, how they dressed, how they would act, how they would act to the others, who he brought to the meeting with him as advisors or protection, and what they came to discuss; each of us had at least one long-standing grievance that never gets resolved at these sort of meetings, and one thing they were willing to offer to help get some sort of concessions. We kept this mostly out-of-character, describing it rather than trying to make it up while in-character. This kept it all moving quickly and had everyone presenting and adding details rather than getting wrapped up in what could have been boring political debates. This vignette helped not only round out some non-player characters who only existed in name before, but also started creating plots and subplots amongst the clans; deals that were being cut above and below the table, how recent events to our main characters might have been influences by one or more of the people in that room, etc. Again, rather than a single DM coming up with these plots and trying to explain to the players why they are important to their characters, all three of us contributed to it, making the end result several levels deeper. Also, having hand a hand making it, everyone also was instantaneously invested in it.
There wasn't much in the way of traditional combat encounters in the three and a half hours we played, but there was a great skill challenge where our heroes had to get through a doubly-busy mass of bureaucracy... only to fail. But, as pounded into me by experienced DMs, knowledgable friends, helpful blog posts, and the DMGs themselves, failures should always lead to more plot, not dead ends. In fact, this failure ended up placing our dwarves in a situation that was much more interesting than any success could have been. It also made one hell of a cliffhanger, something I am always keeping an eye out for when wrapping up a session.
When I originally organized this game, we were only going to try one or two games. It was more of a chance for me to try my hand at DM-ing rather than setting up a long campaign. When we sat in coffee shops creating the characters and collaboratively building the immediate world around them, we realized we had at least two or three games worth of material we all wanted a chance to explore. In two weeks, we will be playing our fourth game and we are not even half-way through our initial storyline. All three of us are excited about where these two dwarves may end up adventuring further down the line. This game has been as much fun as I hoped and several magnitudes more successful that I was expecting :D