You Say You Want a New Edition

Okay, so I’m probably the last to weigh in even though I woke up just as the news broke and followed the story all day today. And if you’re getting the news from me, you seriously need to expand your blog reading. Anyway, yesterday, Wizards of the Coast announced a “new iteration” of Dungeons and Dragons was in development and that they planned an open playtest. Despite all the “news” coming out, this is pretty much the only information there is. Everything else is speculation or extrapolation from obfuscating quotes from designers.

So here’s what I’d like to see in a new edition of D&D:

  • No Vancian magic. For you newbies out there, this was the old magic system used in Dungeons and Dragons up until 4th Edition, where spellcasters prepared their spells every day after resting and once a spell was cast, it was “burned” from their memory. Based on the novels of Jack Vance, this magic system isn’t a lot of fun and ruins anything approaching flexibility for spellcasters, something desperately wanted if the number of class features and feats that allow Wizards and Clerics to change their prepared spells. I’m just not a fan. Also, I always hated it when the wizard was sitting in the back firing a crossbow because they cast their one spell for the day and had nothing to do until the rest of the group rests – both as a player and as a DM.
  • Keep class balance. If Vancian magic is kept out of the game, this will do a lot to help as one of the big problems was that, as a caster class levels, it gets more spells and more powerful ones. Meanwhile, fighters are stuck with “I hit it with my pointy stick.” This Linear Warriors/Quadratic Wizards problem has its own page on TV Tropes (which I will not link to save your ability to be productive for the next week). One of 4e’s strengths is that no class is really much more complicated than any other to learn for a player, and no one ever feels like they’re left behind.
  • Make magic magical again. There’s two ways this is a problem in 4e, one of which I’ve talked about before. The first is that magic items no longer feel magical when they’re expected. As part of the character advancement in 4e, a PC is expected to get a full “set” of magic items (weapon/implement, armor, and amulet) and it’s part of the game balance. It takes a lot of the fun and mystery out of magic items when they’re treated this way. The other way to bring back the magic is to bring back the more utilitarian nature of spellcasting. In previous editions, only a handful of spells did direct damage to enemies, such as the classics Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and Magic Missile. The rest were less obvious direct attacks, with spells like Web, Sleep, and various illusion spells. This in turn helped…
  • Encourage player creativity. Since the casters couldn’t do as much direct damage, they had to think outside the box and use their abilities in ways the DM didn’t plan for. I can’t tell you how many times seemingly pointless spells like Create Water foiled very (at least in my opinion) ingenious traps. But it was more than that in previous editions. Exploration held a lot of weight in the game, with players fiddling with everything in a room to find secret doors and traps. Sometimes I’d throw things at my players with no specific idea in mind as to how they’d accomplish the task just to see how they’d do it. Players can be devious little buggers, and I like it when they’re playing their characters more and their power card list less.
  • No save-or-die effects or squishy first level characters. When I ran 3rd Edition games and, to a lesser extent, when I run Pathfinder games, it was an effort on my part as DM to keep the players alive in combat for the first couple of levels. Casters had no punch to them and dropped if you breathed on them funny (I once lost a wizard to a friggin’ housecat as a player), and even heavily-armored fighters would drop with one good hit from an orc. This and the save-or-die effects bothered me as a DM because it boils down to the same thing: PCs dying because of a single die roll that wasn’t in their favor. 4e fixed both of these problems brilliantly by making 1st level characters able to take a couple of hits before dropping as well as removing any save-or-die effects (the worst offenders still giving players three saving throws before killing them instantly). While it adds to the lethality of the game and thus the excitement, it’s no fun having to sit out half of a session because the DM happened to crit on the first attack and killed you outright. It encouraged players to not get attached to their characters as they could die at any moment, and made any sort of long-term storytelling difficult at best.
  • Fix the 5 Minute Workday problem. This is another previous edition problem that was fixed in 4e (but that caused others, see below) where, especially at lower levels, players would explore around, get into a fight, blow all their biggest spells to end the encounter quickly, and immediately camp and rest for the day to get all their spells back. The At-Will/Encounter/Daily power structure prevented this problem because players got most of their powerful attacks back at the end of the encounter and just saved their Dailies for the “big boss”.
  • Fix the Encounter-Heavy design.When 4e fixed the 5 Minute Workday problem, they shifted almost all of the resource management of the party to an encounter-basis rather than a daily-basis. This means that, between encounters, players can spend healing surges to get themselves back to full HP and recover almost all of their powers they used except Daily Powers. What this means is that, as a DM, each and every encounter has to be unique, interesting, and dangerous. In previous editions, you could have one or two goblins lurking in the tunnels taking potshots at the characters to whittle down their HP, but in 4e that just isn’t possible because they’d just kill the goblin in question with an encounter power and be done with it. This also makes traps ineffective because what’s the point of fiddling around with a bunch of skill checks when you can just walk into the trap, take the damage, spend a healing surge, and move on? The way 4e is set up makes it challenging for me as a DM to create an interesting adventure and encourages burnout because I have to constantly come up with new and creative encounters for the players.
  • Keep the ease of encounter design from 4e. Yes, I know that’s kind of the opposite of what I said above, but starting a Pathfinder game this week really made me appreciate how simple it is to design an adventure for 4e. The most challenging part is just coming up with something fun and new, while in previous editions up to and including Pathfinder, the bulk of the time is spent generating monsters/NPCs. Since monsters in previous editions could take class levels and you only had one stat block for any one monster, any variation between say Random Orc Grunt #5 and Grand Clanmaster Oog was that the latter had class levels, which meant you had to make a friggin’ character for every important NPC including feat choices, attributes, skills, etc. Sure, it wasn’t as big of a headache as making a PC because you could bend the rules, give an extra feat or boost an attribute if you want. But it’s still time consuming. It takes in my estimation twice as long for me to design a Pathfinder session than a 4e one, even though 4e has more combat and thus more monsters. Because everything in 4e is balanced, I can just thumb through the Monster Manual/Vault books and drop in whatever I need. Aside from writing the story, I spend probably 80% of my prep time as a DM in 4e tweaking encounters, terrain, and maps so that each encounter is interesting and only 20% of the time futzing with picking monsters and fiddling with their stats. In Pathfinder and 3rd Edition, flip those. What this means is that in previous editions, the NPCs may have been more well-developed, but encounters were boring because I just didn’t have the time or energy to make them more interesting after having to fiddle with pretty much every single creature in the game so that there was a bit of variety in the enemies.
  • Keep Minions. I’m trying to figure out a way to use minions in Pathfinder, but it’s just not working for me (I don’t have the math skills to do deep game design like that). But I friggin’ love minions. Players love them because they get to mow through bad guys and it makes them feel powerful. I love them because I get to put a crapload of minis on the board and cackle without actually risking a TPK in every encounter, and it’s a crapload of creatures on the board where I as DM don’t have to keep track of a damn thing. No HP, no damage rolls, no nothing. They’re hit, they’re dead. They hit, they do X damage and we move on to the next one. Brilliant and simple. I love them and want more of them. Don’t get rid of minions!
  • Backwards compatibility. One of the rumors floating around based on a quote from one of the designers is that you’ll be able to use products from every edition of D&D with the “new iteration”. While 1st and 2nd Editions weren’t too different from each other, 3rd Edition was a big leap in design philosophy. I know this first-hand because I’m currently bastardizing a bunch of old 1st Edition modules for Pathfinder since direct conversions just aren’t possible. And if 2nd to 3rd was a leap, then 3.5 to 4th was a three-stage rocket. I just can’t see how I’ll be able to use material from each edition. I’d love to be able to pull out Keep on the Borderlands or the old GDQ modules and run them as-is with a new and updated version of the rules yet still keep all the push/pull/slide effects that make 4e combat so much fun.

So were a lot of my desires contradictory? Of course they were! So are most of everyone else’s, to be honest. I believe that @TheAngryDM summed it up best yesterday on Twitter: “Feedback says players want: simple games with tactical combat and a high degree of customization but not too many choices…”

Published in: on January 10, 2012 at 10:15 AM  Comments (3)  
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Why Roleplaying Games Are Good

So now that I’ve explained what you need to get to start roleplaying, let’s talk about why you should start gaming. Roleplaying games are good. I’m not even talking about for children/teenagers either, but for people in general. Here’s a list of reasons for adults to play more tabletop games.

  • It’s a social activity. Unlike many other hobbies these days, a roleplaying game requires social interaction with others. Video games are typically played alone or with people online, more and more people are watching movies at home instead of going out, but roleplaying games require you sitting at a table with your friends.
  • It helps keep the mind sharp. Have you at any point in your adult life tried to use algebra or write an essay? It’s very hard if you’re not doing it on a daily basis like you were in school. Roleplaying games require some level of math and a lot of creativity.
  • It supports small businesses. With only a couple of exceptions, every roleplaying game or tabletop game company is a small, independently owned business. They have a handful of employees who work tirelessly, giving money to their local economy. Most of those companies are also American companies who subcontract out localization to other small, local companies when publishing in other countries and languages. Many independent publishers print and manufacture in the United States as well, and others try their best to do so within the limits of financial feasibility.
  • Reminds you to be a good host and guest. Games typically take place in a private home. If you’re hosting the game, you have to make sure your house is clean and you have food and drink for everyone. If you’re visiting, you should always bring something like a snack or some soft drinks/beer/bottle of wine for everyone to enjoy. Many gaming sessions I’ve played or attended ended up being potluck dinner parties that included polyhedral dice.
  • Low overhead investment to get started. Most hobbies have large initial cost outlay. You want to start a musical instrument or home improvement or carpentry, you have to buy hundreds or thousands in tools and raw materials. As I stated in my last post, you can start gaming for around $100-150 and be set. And that cost can be spread amongst the entire group.
  • No demands of your time. You can spend as much or as little time as you like gaming, from a couple of hours every few weeks to marathon all-day-long sessions every weekend. You can go months without gaming and pick it up again right away. Your character’s stats won’t suffer from being away so long and you won’t be incredibly far behind even if you spend years away from the hobby (unless a new edition comes out, of course).
  • Escapism. Sometimes, life just sucks. Roleplaying is an escape for a few hours, letting you slip into the life of someone else or running a game engaging in collaborative storytelling. It lets you get out of the cubicle  mindset for an evening and fight an epic battle against evil.
  • Learn all sorts of new things. Many of the terms that are common in roleplaying games are collegiate-level vocabulary. The monsters and races in fantasy games draw from the mythologies of many different cultures. A lot of adventures are based on classic works of literature. While a lot of the knowledge you gain may not be useful in the “real world”, knowing different types of medieval polearms might just make the difference between winning or losing on Jeopardy someday.

So if you need any further encouragement, there you are. Best to go out and buy one of those starter boxed sets, join your local gaming store’s D&D Encounters session, or look around online for a local group you can join.

Published in: on January 4, 2012 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Would You Like to Play a Game?

I’ve seen a lot of posts around from new players who have never played a roleplaying game before not sure where to start or what they need. The last version of this post I wrote was a long time ago, so I’m going to help you out to pick which fantasy D20 game is right for you and tell you what you need to get started. I have provided links to Amazon for your convenience, but I do not get any money if you purchase through these links and I encourage you to spend your hard-earned money at your friendly local gaming store. Almost all such stores are independently owned small businesses, and they support the gaming community by offering a place to play, product advice, and a focus point for the local community allowing you to more easily find other gamers.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition vs. Pathfinder

I’m going to draw controversy right off the bat and say that neither one of these systems is any better or worse than the other. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, and each one is suited to a different style of game. Anyone who tells you that one system is categorically and objectively better than the other is lying and/or trolling.

If you want to star in a fantasy action movie, you want Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. The game is built for combat, with most of the rules focusing on actions in the middle of a fight. You can still have a fulfilling game without ever having a combat encounter, but the system is really built for combat encounters strung together with non-combat encounters to move the story. The system is also easier to learn for new players, as it draws inspiration from more modern gaming design and especially video games. If you want to jump right in and start slaughtering orcs and zombies on your way to whatever the MacGuffin, this is the game system for you.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, shows its roots much more clearly. It’s basically the second major revision of the third edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules (some people call it D&D 3.75, but I like to think of it more like “D&D 3rd Edition, Service Pack 2”, probably because of my IT background). This ruleset lends itself far more to exploration and adventure, crawling through tombs and trying to discover its secrets. There’s a lot of combat focus here, but not nearly as much as 4e. The rules, however, can be far more complicated for new players, especially ones who have never played any d20 style game before and who hasn’t dealt with a Vancian style magic system. The learning curve is much steeper, but not insurmountable. If you want to play Indiana Jones or National Treasure, exploring a tomb and putting together clues until you find the band of orcs and zombies to slaughter, this is the game system for you.

Where to Start – Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

The first thing you should buy in my opinion is the Red Box starter set. It’s available for under $20 and has everything you need to run a game. You have a pre-generated character, tokens, a set of dice, rulebooks, an adventure to run (plus another you can download), and a poster map. You can buy this to try out the game and see if it’s for you and your friends. If you like it, you can start expanding with a solid base to start with.

The next thing you want to get is the Rules Compendium, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Monster Vault, more dice, and a reusable mat. The Rules Compendium is all the rules for the game updated with errata so you’re using the most up-to-date version of the rules. Heroes of the Fallen Lands gives you more options for characters, with new classes, new builds, new feats, and new powers. Monster Vault gives you not only a book full of monsters you can use to write adventures, but more tokens, another poster map, and an adventure you can run.

After you’ve run the Red Box adventure, you’ll surely realize that you’re going to need more dice, since sharing the single set becomes a problem. You can pick them up in sets for $5-8 each at your local gaming store or online, or you can buy dice individually for $.10-$1.50 each at most gaming stores in their dice bucket, or you can order the Chessex Pound ‘O Dice and get more dice than you could ever need (though you’ll always want more). The reusable mat can be anything from the Paizo laminated poster maps for around $12 each or one of the nicer vinyl mats from Chessex for around $20 for the medium size and $30 for the large one (which can also double as a tablecloth). You can also pick up the Dungeonmaster’s Kit as well for two more adventures, two more poster maps, more tokens, and a book with lots of information and advice on how to run a game, but I personally don’t think it’s as necessary as the other books.

From this point, you have everything you need to run an ongoing campaign. After you’ve been playing for a while using these, you’ll know enough about the game to know what of the other books available will work well for you and your game. Your total investment to start out will be somewhere in the $100-150 range for all the books, dice, and maps you’ll need. At this point, you may also wish to sign up for a membership to Dungeons and Dragons Insider, which is an online subscription service for around $10 a month with Wizards of the Coast. It gives you access to the Character Builder software (so you get nice professional looking character sheets with all the power cards and everything, plus no more math), PDF issues of Dungeon Magazine (tips on running a game and several adventures you can run each month) and Dragon Magazine (articles on playing the game, various settings, fiction, comic strips, and new character options like powers, feats, themes, backgrounds, magic items, and more), and access to the Compendium (a searchable database of magic items, feats, traps, monsters, etc. which makes writing an adventure far easier).

Where to Start –Pathfinder

The first thing you should buy in my opinion is the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. It’s available for about $25 and has everything you need to run a game. You have a pre-generated character, stand-up tokens, a set of dice, rulebooks, an adventure to run, and a laminated poster map you can reuse with dry or wet erase markers. You can buy this to try out the game and see if it’s for you and your friends. If you like it, you can start expanding with a solid base to start with.

The next thing you want to get is the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and more dice. This book has all the rules you need to run the game, from making characters to running combat to magic items to all the rules for playing. It’s a beast of a book, but it has everything you need to expand on the Beginner’s Box. The next purcahse you should make is the Pathfinder Beastiary, which gives you more monsters to use in your adventures. There are currently three volumes available, and I personally think you should start with the first volume. However, any of the three works well for expanding your options for adversaries for your group. Finally, the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide drastically expands your options for games, adding in backgrounds, more classes, more spells, more weapons, and just more for your characters (both PCs and NPCs) to use.

After you’ve run the Beginner’s Box adventure, you’ll surely realize that you’re going to need more dice, since sharing the single set becomes a problem. You can pick them up in sets for $5-8 each at your local gaming store or online, or you can buy dice individually for $.10-$1.50 each at most gaming stores in their dice bucket, or you can order the Chessex Pound ‘O Dice and get more dice than you could ever need (though you’ll always want more). The reusable mat you got in your Beginner’s Box is the same as the Paizo laminated poster maps for around $12 each and are great, but you may want to upgrade to one of the nicer vinyl mats from Chessex for around $20 for the medium size and $30 for the large one (which can also double as a tablecloth).

From this point, you have everything you need to run an ongoing campaign. After you’ve been playing for a while using these, you’ll know enough about the game to know what of the other books available will work well for you and your game. Your total investment to start out will be somewhere in the $100-150 range for all the books, dice, and maps you’ll need. You may also want to get a copy of Hero Lab, a character creation and tracking program available for a $20 license (with additional fees to get data sets from other sourcebooks). The software is powerful, easy to use, and cuts down on character creation time both for PCs and NPCs by a significant amount. If you want to try it out, there is a free demo version (you can’t save or print unfortunately) and a completely free version that only has the rules and options from the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box.

That’s Really It

I talk a lot on this blog about miniatures, dungeon tiles, special combat trackers, and everything else. Gaming is a passion of mine and I like to spend my money on good products for it. Others feel the same way, so they also brag about their collections. It can be very intimidating to see someone’s Dwarven Forge set-up or my 7 foot tall, 8 shelf bookshelf that is crammed with gaming books and products, thinking that it’s necessary to buy all that to get into gaming. But roleplaying games have probably one of the lowest investment-to-time ratios. With either system above, the purchases I listed are enough to run the game with plenty of options. You don’t need anything else to play for years, and it’s one of the great things about gaming as a hobby.

Another thing I should point out is that you don’t need to buy everything all at once. Take your time and spread out your purchases. Pick up the starter set box from either edition and start playing. If you like it, get the Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Pathfinder Core Rulebook books. A few weeks later, spend another $20-30 on the next book listed. My collection of gaming books, boxed sets, miniatures, and dice may look impressive, but it’s a collection that I’ve slowly built over the last twenty years of my life. I’d buy a book here, a box of miniatures there, a dice set as an impulse buy when I stopped by the comic store for the Sandman hardback. Take your time and buy at your own speed and budget. You’ve got a whole lifetime of gaming left to buy everything.

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 12:01 AM  Comments (2)  
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2011 Product Reviews for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

This has been the lightest year for publications since 4th Edition launched back in 2008, but I figured I’d end the year with a quick recap of my personal opinions on the various books and products that Wizards of the Coast have gifted us with this year.

DN1 Caverns of Icewind Dale – I’m an unabashed fan of Dungeon Tiles. I think it comes from how impressed I was once I got my hands on them combined with my childhood love of Lego building blocks. I bought this set only recently, and only really because it was the only set I didn’t already have one or two of that wasn’t out of print. I rarely use ice or winter encounters, so I probably could’ve saved my money. If you frequently use those type of environments, this is a great set. This is also the only cavelike Dungeon Tiles set that’s currently in print and it doesn’t look like any of the sets coming out soon are going to include them, at least from what I can tell.

Heroes of Shadow – Some good ideas and some really bad ones. This book and the one that follows it on this list were what we got instead of a Ravenloft campaign setting. I loved the revamped Assassin, which is more traditional and less mystic ninja (as the original Dragon Magazine version was) and the Blackguard has some interesting potential. Some of the classes were horrible ideas from the start, such as the infinite stacking of undeath (Revenant Dhampyr Vryloka Vampire) and the insanely boring Vampire class in which there’s pretty much no choice at any level whatsoever. Also wasn’t a fan of the two new Mage builds as they didn’t seem to add enough flavor and were woefully underpowered compared to other builds.

The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond – This was another mixed bag for me when it should’ve been a shoe-in. I’m not a fan of boxes when books work better, but that’s probably due to my personal distaste for tokens and poster maps which make me feel like I’m paying extra money for stuff I’ll never use. The deck was the best thing about the set, and thankfully all the rules were presented to run a Ravenloft game in 4e even if they didn’t call it Ravenloft.

DN2 The Witchlight Fens – I like this set much more than Icewind Dale. Swamps and marshes are far more my domain as a DM, so combining this with DT2 Wilderness suits me perfectly. Same high quality, art fits with the previous sets, and this set is far more versatile than the Icewind Dale set.

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale – My biggest disappointment of the year. What I really wanted was basically Monster Vault 2, a second book updating monsters from the Monster Manual, Monster Manual 2, Open Grave, etc. to the design style from Monster Manual 3 and Monster Vault. What I got was a very good group of monsters for use in a campaign tied deeply to the Nentir Vale telling stories I wasn’t really interested in telling and only about 120 pages worth of them at that. And I had to pay a premium to get more blankity-blank tokens and poster maps I’ve never used and probably never will. I want to make it clear, this book is very good and well-designed. I just expected something completely different and it colored my opinion of the material.

Neverwinter Campaign Setting – I have to be honest, I’ve only skimmed over this book. I’ve never really understood Forgotten Realms as a setting, but I’m really trying. I swear! I really wished more work was done to make the Backgrounds in this book more unique, rather than just being another set of “+2 bonus to this skill or that skill” with a different name. The Themes, however, are very well done as are the racial variants (something I’ve wanted since 4e came out). Not a big fan of the Bladesinger class, but there’s nothing really wrong with it per se, just not for me personally. And that’s pretty much as far as I got in the book as everything else is pure Neverwinter setting information, which made no sense to me as someone not already that familiar with the setting. Maybe once I finish some of the novels, I’ll appreciate it more and understand it better. But for a book that really wasn’t written with me in mind, there was a lot of good in this book.

Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium – Probably the best “Here’s a book with just a bunch of magic items” book I’ve ever seen. Books like these always feel like a tax levied upon me as DM/GM, since I have to buy them for my players to use as a reference. Shadowrun’s been the only game system I can think of that made these interesting with their Shadowtalk sections for the new gear, and Wizards of the Coast used something similar by putting in a lot of writing in-character. By the way, is it just me or is Mordenkainen kind of a dick? “Don’t use the arcane arts? You suck. Use the arcane arts but not as a wizard? You suck. A wizard but not one exactly the same way I am? You suck.” The new approach to magic items is exactly what the game needs as all the magic items feel magical, with a history and personality rather than just a generic grouping of game effects. This was the most pleasant surprise I had of the year.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey – Take a classic D&D artifact and completely castrate it. That’s what it feels like this set did bringing the Deck of Many Things to 4e. Now I have to preface this by stating that the Deck of Many Things played a key role in my first ever game of D&D, so it holds a special place in my heart. I love the adventure seeds presented here (if not the adventure itself) about the Deck being scattered and needing to be reassembled. However, using the Deck as it was originally used in previous editions just doesn’t translate to 4e. The rewards are fine, but the penalties are far too low for them to be a real threat. It’s an extension of 4e “no more save or die” design philosophy (one which I personally agree with wholeheartedly), but I feel that the Deck of Many Things would’ve been a great place to throw that into the game. There should be the threat that picking the wrong card will be an instant end. It adds to the thrill when you flip it over and it’s something good. Again, I must reiterate my distaste for paying for maps and tokens I’m never going to use, but I must say I do like owning an actual Deck of Many Things.

Heroes of the Feywild – This was another big hit-or-miss book for me. Anything describing the Feywild itself was pointless for me since I have my own ideas on how the realm of the Fae is in my games. I like that Wizards is taking a bit of a chance here by forcing story-related fluff onto races, with Satyrs being always male and Hamadryads being always female. It’s something that can be easily ignored if you don’t like it, but it adds something to the game for it to be there. The races are great, especially the Pixie (though do you have any idea how hard it is to find Tiny-sized minis?!) and the class builds aren’t my thing personally but seem far better done across the board than Heroes of Shadow. The stand-out here though are the Themes. I love using the Fae in my games (probably due to the amount of urban fantasy novels I read and their ubiquity in them), and these Themes fit perfectly with how I like to use them. Just like with the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, the Backgrounds are boring. But the feats…I’ve had players who would’ve given an arm and a leg for the Two Weapon Expertise feat in my last campaign, which is ironic considering they would’ve then been disqualified from taking it.

DN3 Shadowghast Manor – Considering I posted an entire review of this set already, I have to reiterate how much I love it. It’s perfect for me and my gaming style as I have a preference for the macabre.

The Book of Vile Darkness – Speaking of my taste for the macabre…I have to admit that I haven’t given this set much attention yet. I only just got it a few days ago and I’ve been busy with other things. Unfortunately, it looks like this will be a disappointment for me. Another stupid poster map I have no use for, and the books don’t look like they live up to their promise of helping me as DM make my villains more evil or give me the tools to run a game of evil PCs. Most of the latter actually seems to just be a lot of advice on why it’s a bad idea and how to get around the reasons it’s a bad idea while still calling it a bad idea. Sorry, but I paid for the book already. That means I probably already know what I’m getting into. This may actually be more useful for other DMs, since my early games ranged from morally ambivalent to downright evil – both as a player and a DM – so I’m used to this sort of gameplay and how to make it work.

So I believe that’s about it. Or at least that’s all the stuff I’ve gotten my paws on over the year. I’ve also picked up the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and Pathfinder Beginner’s Box, but the former has reviews all over the place while the latter has a very detailed unboxing video available from Paizo, and attempting to review either would spark edition wars. And I’m fiddling around with a Pathfinder vs. D&D 4e post anyway, so maybe I’ll open that particular can of worms next year.

Published in: on December 30, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Tools of the Trade – Electronic Edition

I’m going to admit up-front, I’m a bit old school when it comes to how I run my games. Even though I have the nice map design software and a good printer with a library of map images (sorry, can’t share since I don’t have permission, but Google Image Search is very helpful), I still tend to use graph paper even though elephants with paint brushes in their trunks have more artistic talent than I do. But I’ve tried several gadgets during my games and I admit that they can be useful. Since many gamers aren’t as set in their ways as myself and there seem to be a lot of posts concerning how people use various devices, I figured I’d give me opinions on them.

eBook Readers – These aren’t that useful at the table in my experience, but can be great for prep on the go. Anyone who has tried to haul a small library of books to the office or on a vacation knows exactly how big of a pain that can be – literally, if you have back issues as I do. The problem is that the processors on most eBook readers are not very powerful and they’re slow if you’re trying to do something other than read a novel. Taking a few seconds to load the next page isn’t a problem with a book, but can be frustrating if you’re flipping through trying to find rules. This is especially infuriating if you’re running an adventure off of it and need to go back and forth to describe something or because the players took a different route than you expected. The most limiting factor for these devices is that no publisher I’m aware of offers electronic downloads in eBook formats aside from fiction. PDFs tend to be incredibly laggy on these devices, and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve seen a single game rulebook in any other format. I haven’t played with the touchscreen LED versions (which are basically just underpowered tablet computers), so I’m not sure if the processor is as limited on those. So while I love my new Kindle Touch (an amazing Christmas present from a friend), it’s only really good for reading novels.

Laptop Computer – A much better option for research and running a game, laptops these days are just as powerful as their desktop counterparts these days with the exception of netbooks, but even those have enough processing power to handle text searches and quick paging to go through PDFs or run character generator software. They’re amazing for prep as you can do so much these days, but they’re not as good using during the game as they’re bulky for the table. Even with the thinner designs, a laptop will take up almost all of the space behind a DM screen and you’ll be rolling your dice on the keyboard. However, if you have the table space, you can do a lot with a laptop from background music to dice rollers or even a PowerPoint presentation with images and maps on your TV screen.

Tablet Computer – Everything a laptop can do during a game but in the space of a single piece of paper, tablets are the best of both laptops and eBook readers. Not as good on the prep side even with the apps out there since image manipulation isn’t as easy on a tablet (unless I just suck unless I’m using a trackball), but amazing for running an adventure. You can thumb through the rules, do searches for research, and everything else you could want to do in a much more convenient size. Many tablets also have video outputs so you can throw images up on a computer monitor or TV screen as well, giving great visual aids to your game.

Smartphone – All the problems of an eBook reader and small enough you can’t read! Sorry, I’ve tried running a game off both my old iPhone and my current Android and the screen’s just never big enough. Even with my inFuse and it’s massive screen, I’m still zooming in so much so I can read the text that there’s barely a paragraph on the screen. I’ve also had a player once try to play a character off their phone and even he didn’t have enough room to keep more than two powers on the screen at once.

Printers – If there is any invention that I believe was made solely for gamers, it’s the inkjet and laser printer. Have horrid handwriting (like me)? Type up your adventure notes and print them out. Don’t want to type in all those monster stat blocks? Use the D&D Insider Compendium to copy the stat blocks or the Pathfinder SRD to copy and paste them. The only time you can draw a straight line is when you were trying to draw a crooked one? There’s not only image manipulation software specifically designed for making role playing game maps, but there’s even software that lets you tell it what sets of Dungeon Tiles you have and map out the entire dungeon. Suck at math? Use a character generator and print out a nice, pretty character sheet. There are even many free Dungeon Tiles you can buy online and print out on cardstock to use.

Why I Don’t Use Any of These at the Table– Distractions. Perhaps others have better self control than I do, but if I pick up my phone or turn on my computer, it’s just too easy for me to hit the Facebook icon and check what’s going on (even if most of my friends are sitting around the gaming table with me). How many times have you opened up Wikipedia just to look something up real quick and realized three hours later while reading the IMDB profile for voice actor Frank Welker that you forgot what the hell you were looking up in the first place? It’s not so bad if you have a slow office job or you’re stuck home sick while everyone else is out and you have time to kill anyway, but it’s another if you’re doing it while 3-6 friends are sitting around a table waiting on you.

I also hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate automatic dice rollers. It seems like anytime anyone uses a tablet, phone, or laptop at the table, they want to show off their dice rolling app. Even the nice ones that use real physics engines to clatter the dice around the screen just don’t feel right to me. That clacking sound as the plastic hits the game table is part of the experience and you lose that tactile sensation when you use a dice rolling app. Plus, you can’t take a blowtorch to your iPad because you rolled back-to-back critical failures (also known as “pulling a Holkins”).

Maybe I’m just easily distracted or maybe it’s because I started gaming back when the guy who went to the library to photocopy character sheets out of the back of the book was badass since all the rest of us had were pages of notebook paper with the little fringe from where we ripped it out of our spiral notebook for Biology still dangling, but I just really don’t like seeing too many gadgets at the gaming table. Maybe in a few years when the Microsoft Surface is ready and affordable or when Wizards of the Coast finally releases their virtual tabletop, I might be more accepting. But for now, I’d still rather have a character sheet, some graph paper, a crapload of dice, and a pencil.

Published in: on December 28, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Bring the Magic Back to Magic Items

One of the biggest complaints I have with 4th Edition is that it doesn’t really feel as magical anymore. And I don’t mean the power system (I really like that), I mean magic items. Since magic items are pretty much a requirement to stay on-par (with a player replacing their complete set of weapon/implement, armor, and amulet 6 levels), they seem to have lost some of the awesome they used to have. In previous editions, magic items were expected in a way, but they weren’t necessarily required to be effective (save for getting around damage reduction). This means that magic items were special and highly valued, regardless of their level. I’ve been trying to think about how to handle this, and I’ve managed to come up with a few ideas that might help out other DMs who remember fondly the excitement of getting that +1 Longsword rather than taking it for granted that they’d get it.

The first is to start using the optional rules for Inherent Bonuses. If you’re using the D&D Character Generator, there’s an option you can choose to turn this on automatically, or you can find the full rules on p138 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. Basically, all you’re doing is removing the “new magic item every 6 levels” requirement by giving the players the bonus automatically. At 2nd and every sixth level thereafter, the PCs get a +1 untyped bonus to both attacks and damage, while at 4th level and every sixth level thereafter, they get a +1 untyped bonus to all defenses. You can change this up or break it up as you see fit for your campaign. It keeps the players on par with what’s expected of their characters by the design of the game while removing magic items from the equation.

If you go this route, you’ll need to also start reducing the amount of treasure you give out. As players as no longer expected to replace or buy new weapon/armor/amulet sets every sixth level, they no longer need as many magic items or as much gold to keep up. This does remove many of the special options from magic items, such as additional abilities and powers and the bonus critical hit damage. However, you can get around this easily by giving out items which add those bonuses, moving those bonuses to other items (the bonuses from a Holy Avenger, for example, could become bonuses granted by a holy amulet or a special helm). You can also continue to give out some magic weapons/implements/armor/amulets at a reduced frequency, but this will end up with players getting higher attack bonuses (which can be either a good or a bad thing depending on the style of game you run).

Another way to approach this problem is to allow magic items to level up with their wielders. As the player character levels up, their magic items get periodic bonuses to their basic stats. These can be based on the amount of time the character has used the item or having the item’s level equal the PC’s level (so that a player who goes from 5th to 6th level with a +1 Longsword has their sword upgrade itself to a +2 Longsword as the item itself goes from 5th to 6th level). This also allows for magic items to gain new properties as the player levels, letting a +1 Longsword the player got at 1st level to eventually become a +1 Frost Longsword when the character reaches level 3 (and then a +2 Frost Longsword at level 8 and so on). This works best if you encourage your players to be creative with their magic items, making them a part of their character backstory and ongoing development as they name their weapon and attune themselves to it in order to unlock its abilities.

If you really want this change to be transparent to the players, you can reduce all monster attacks and defenses by 1 for every 6 levels and reduce their HP by using the formula (Monster Level) * (Average Party Level / 6) (note: I’m not entirely sure that the math works for the HP, someone with a better grasp of the math behind the game please feel free to correct me in the comments and I’ll update this post). This shifts the math from the player’s end to your end, so that a PC with a mundane longsword has the same chance to hit the monster with reduced stats as they would have if they’d had a +1 Longsword and an unmodified monster. It’s effectively the same as the inherent bonus, so you’ll need to reduce treasure just as if you’d gone that route. It also puts a lot more work on you as you then have to do all the math and adjustments yourself rather than allowing your players to just add a number to their character sheets.

These are simply ideas I’ve had or modified for a problem that may or may not even exist in your games. While I miss the treasure trove of magic items from previous editions with all their strange and odd effects, it can be overwhelming and adds more work to running the game. Make sure that you give thought to how making any of these changes to your game will affect game balance and be sure that your players are still being challenged without losing their edge. Remember, the goal is to have fun and if doing extra work doesn’t seem fun to you, it’s probably not going to be fun for your players either.

Published in: on December 26, 2011 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  
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What’s on Your Table – Maps

There are many different ways to represent where the PCs and monsters are at any particular moment and what their condition is. I thought I’d run down the list and give my personal thoughts on each. Please note I’ve included links to the various products in question, but I receive no money from any of the links. They’re just for your convenience.

Graph Paper: Ah, the old-school staple. Anyone who’s been gaming for longer than a decade or so has used graph paper at least once, usually just behind the DM’s screen to map out the dungeon. However, I have used graph paper as a gaming map with varying levels of success (take my advice, make sure the squares are 1-square-to-the-inch to save yourself a lot of hassles). You can also get them in larger easel formats that are better suited to gaming, but they’re a bit pricier unless you can find a sale at the local office supply store.

Poster Maps: Some other bloggers are big fans of these, but I personally hate them. It’s nice if it’s part of a boxed adventure to be used with that adventure, but they’re only good for a one-shot. Since you can’t reuse them, I don’t like them. The map packs from Paizo’s Gamemastery line tend toward the generic, but they’re still not that reusable as every inn or graveyard in your campaign will look exactly the same. The only ones I’d consider purchasing personally would be the Paizo Gamemastery Flip Mats and even then only the ones that have a blank grid on the flip side. Unlike other poster maps, you can use wet or dry erase markers to draw on them to modify the terrain, mark conditions, or just to change up bits you didn’t like. But if you’re going to do that anyway, I’d recommend…

BattleMats: Probably the most versatile ways to go, the Chessex Vinyl BattleMats are perfect for gaming. The one I’ve linked to is huge and is double-sided with squares and hexes on the alternate sides. My personal mat is this size, but unfortunately doesn’t have a hex side. This size can also double as a tablecloth if you like, it’s so big. There are smaller sizes, but I really like this one because it perfectly fits the table I generally game on. These are great to use because you can draw the map as you go quickly, or you can draw it in advance if you want more detail. Some people feel that the ability to only use wet-erase markers (as opposed to dry erase) as a flaw, but I’ve never seen a store sell dry-erase without also selling wet-erase at pretty much the same price. Warning: If you have any permanent markers like Sharpies, bury them in the back yard before the game! It doesn’t matter where you store them, if you have one in your house, one of your players will accidentally grab it and use it on your mat without realizing it.

Dungeon Tiles: I’m a bit new to Dungeon Tiles, as I was initially not interested in the product. That changed the moment I actually got my hands on a set that one of my players brought to the game. These aren’t thin, cheap little bits of cardboard like you might expect, but thicker than a board game board and very durable. The art’s solid and they’re specifically designed to be mix-and-match. Maybe it’s because I grew up with Lego building blocks, but the idea to collect a bunch of sets and put them together however I like really appeals to me. The only drawbacks are that you’ll need to spend about $30 or so to get a good collection that’s not quite as versatile as a similarly-priced battlemat (I’d suggest the Master Set: Dungeon and Master Set: Wilderness, then adding additional sets as fits your personal gaming style) and that they tend to slide around if on a table with no tablecloth (my Chessex BattleMat does the job well). This can be fixed by using some shelf liner (though I’d suggest stopping by your local dollar store as they tend to have the stuff there cheap) or by using Poster Tack (the sticky putty-like stuff, not thumbtacks) to hold the tiles down.

Printable Maps: There are a lot of PDFs you can purchase or download for free that you can print out and use as maps. I prefer this method over poster maps if you desire this sort of thing, but they’re not as good as Dungeon Tiles because they’re printed at home (thus won’t have the same level of quality unless you have an expensive color laser printer) and they’re not going to be as sturdy, even with the cardstock that can go through a printer.

Full 3D Terrain: Dwarven Forge is the Cadillac of gaming. No, the Bentley, the Lamborghini, the Rolls Royce. It adds a lot of realism to the game, but it gets pricy fast. And from what I’ve heard, it’s addicting to buy them. You can never have enough. The advantages are…well, just look at it! The disadvantage outside of price is that they’re heavy and you pretty much need to set up the whole dungeon in advance, so it’s hard to keep parts of the dungeon secret. Bendy Walls are a cheaper and more flexible (no pun intended) option, but they’re not nearly as good in my opinion. They don’t look as good (not surprising since they’re a fourth of the price for twice the quantity) and they’re not really that stable. Use of the aforementioned Poster Tack can help, as can using the magnetic conversions they sell, but don’t buy their story that you can build terrain on the fly. It just doesn’t work and slows things down.

Personally, I use a combination of Dungeon Tiles and my BattleMat. The tiles work best for preplanned encounters as you can sort out the tiles into different piles and drop them on the table as required, while the mat underneath keeps the tiles from sliding too much as well as acting as a place I can draw maps for encounters I weren’t expecting the players to get into (like getting into a fight with the city guards when I assumed they’d try to talk to them) as well as giving an “overflow” as it were for outdoors encounters I don’t have enough tiles for. The main advantage that tiles have over the mat and the reason I use both is the ability to add elevation easily. Using just a mat, you have to make little marks to indicate where a drop-off or cliff is. Using Dungeon Tiles and some unfinished wooden blocks bought in bulk dirt cheap and painted black, I can easily add elevation to my games. I bought several 1″ and 2″ cubes to use, allowing me to stack them up and create scale elevation that adds a lot to the game.

There are other methods, from using Lego bricks and figures to just ignoring maps altogether old-school style and running combat without them. If you and your group does something unique to map things out, leave a comment below and let everyone know.

Published in: on December 23, 2011 at 8:27 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Another Apology for Late Updates

I currently have a pulled lower right lumbar muscle which has left me in a crapload of pain. I really intended to keep updating regularly again, but when rolling over in bed leaves me trying to strangle screams of pain, it’s a bit distracting to try to write. I’ll have a few new posts up as soon as I possibly can.

Published in: on December 20, 2011 at 1:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

Late Post

Sorry, I really wanted to stick to my old M-W-F update schedule, but life interfered in the double-punch of my father going to the ICU for a blockage in his carotid artery (he’s okay now) and my back leaving me bedridden for the past 24 hours. My plan is to have a proper post up by this afternoon.

Published in: on December 16, 2011 at 8:10 AM  Leave a Comment  

Pining for the Fjords – NPC Edition

You put on your shrill, Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) Necromancer voice and say, “I’ll see you again, but you won’t see me!” Switching to your normal voice, you continue, “The Necromancer shimmers as shadows fold around him and he starts to teleport.”

“I use my readied action,” the Fighter says.

“What readied action?”

“I said after I beat that last skeleton that I’m using my action point to ready an action if he tries to move. He’s trying to move so I’m going to use Crack the Shell against him.”

“Oh,” you say, looking nervously at the squishy Necromancer’s armor class. The die thuds to the table, echoing in the dining room. Of course it’s a critical hit. And of course it’s more damage than the Necromancer had in HP before he took the damage from the Wizard’s zone and the Rogue’s volley of arrows. He’s D-E-D dead.

You have a mere handful of seconds to decide what to do as the next five adventures you wrote all require that the Necromancer be alive and plotting against the PCs. What do you do? What do you do?!

Well, you have a few choices. Either you can fudge the results and let the NPC live or you can let him die and figure out where to go next. Personally, as much as I agree with the Gary Gygax quote “The only reason the Dungeonmaster rolls dice is for the noise they make”,  I disagree with fudging the results in a situation like this because it ruins the accomplishment of the player in both sound tactics and pure luck. So we let him die, but then what?

If the player’s characters can be raised from the dead, why can’t the bad guys do the same? Well, you can do this, but it feels cheap to me and makes it seem as though there’s never going to be any closure to the campaign. Who cares how many hundreds of times you kill the BBEG if he’s just going to blow a few thousand gold and come back? This would only be interesting to me if he pulled a Freiza. If you never watched Dragonball Z, basically Freiza was the biggest, baddest creature ever for all time in the entire universe. Until he was defeated. Then he just became the buttmonkey of the villain world as the next villain had to be even stronger. So it’d be interesting to me to bring back the BBEG that threatened the party all through their first eight levels…after they were level 15 and just so they can feel more powerful by slaughtering him. But if the players are killing the NPC every other session and he’s just coming back more powerful, they’re never going to feel like there’s an end in sight.

Another not-as-fun option is “But you never found the body”. In the example above, the teleport spell finishes with his dying breath and the body vanishes, but it turns out he made it to the evil priestess who healed him. The only problem with this trope is that it’s turned into a cliché. If you let the body get away, your players are going to expect the NPC to come back and thus ruin any surprise you try to set up. In fact, I’d be surprised if it’s not the first thing out of your players’ mouths if you tried to pull that. Maybe you can figure out a way to pull it off creatively, but I haven’t been able to think of a single idea that hasn’t been done the hundreds of 80s horror movies and cheesy sci-fi movie sequels.

There are other options, especially in a fantasy setting like Dungeons and Dragons. Instead of being a living BBEG who gets raised, he could become an undead BBEG in the form of a Lich, Skeleton, Wright, or some other form of undead. Not only will this probably fit in better with your game world, but it will also explain away the increased power level when the PCs run into him again.

Another option is the man-behind-the-man. Leave the body sitting there, slaughtered by the players. Turns out that he was just the lackey of an even more powerful enemy! Gasp and shock! Just sub in the master for the lackey they killed in all your next adventures and you’re done. You could also have the apprentice for the NPC step out of the shadows to take over his evil organization. Maybe the apprentice is getting guidance and instructions from the original BBEG whose spirit is on another plane. Either one of these may require some re-writing of the future adventures, but shouldn’t require much fiddling or ruin any major plots. The only way this wouldn’t work is if you’d set up some story situation where the BBEG was the “last of his kind” or “only one with the forbidden knowledge”, which would require serious re-writing in order to use this idea.

A related trope you could exploit is the “this is bigger than we thought!” If you’re a quick enough thinker, you could plant a mysterious letter on the body of the BBEG for the players to find, indicating that the actions of the BBEG were actually just part of a larger scheme run by a shadowy organization. He was just a middle manager and there’s a large network out there advancing these plans. Not only will this give you freedom to keep the plots you had in mind, but also allow give you an out if another NPC you’re setting up gets killed prematurely. Until they get to the big confrontation at the end, they won’t be able to dismantle the entire organization and allowing you to keep the plot going as long as you need it to.

The worst option, though, is to completely toss your work just because the NPC died. Odds are you’ve spent several hours both in game and doing prep building up this story, so the very last thing you should do is let that work go to waste. Even if you have to scrap the entire plotline you’ve been building to keep the encounters you’ve built or vice versa, don’t let that much work go to waste. I know, this goes against my previous advice of being willing to let go of work, but there’s a difference between ditching a couple of encounters and completely trashing a campaign just because of one unforeseen incident.

Whatever way you decide to go, it’s important to allow the actions of the players have impact. Even if you steal the kill from the players and let the NPCs, think of some way to make that amazing hit still matter. The story’s all about them, not your villains. Adjusting your plans is a small sacrifice to retain the feeling that your player’s actions still have meaning in your world.

Published in: on December 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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