Dangers of Pop Culture References

In both of my long-term campaigns, I dropped in a lot of pop culture references.  However, in doing so, I made quite a few big (but different) mistakes in each.  Everyone loves a good joke at the gaming table or to live out their fantasies of being someone cool from a movie/book/comic/whatever (you have no idea how many Wolverine clones I’ve seen in Shadowrun).  However, I’m going to highlight the two massive mistakes I made in my two campaigns.

The first was my 3rd Edition campaign.  I’d DMed a lot by then, but nothing more than a few sessions and typically in games other than D&D.  So I didn’t know the rules nearly as well as my players did (especially since most of them had been playing since I was in diapers).  I was a big fan of the anime series Slayers and had just finished reading the Dragonlance books, so I decided to throw two of the artifacts from those into the game.  One was a Philosopher’s Stone and the other was an Orb of Dragon Control.

I knew what a Philosopher’s Stone was.  I was big into mythology as a kid, so I’d read about it.  The only problem was I’d read about it when I was 10 or 11 and was running this campaign at 19-20.  Therefore, when I decided to add in the Philosopher’s Stone, the two just weren’t linked in my brain for some reason.  I had just used it as a MacGuffin that the players had that the NPC needed for his “I’m going to destroy the world” ritual without realizing it was an actual magic artifact with game stats.  So I was stuck with a bunch of players who wanted to actually use the Philosopher’s Stone and getting annoyed everytime I’d tell them it didn’t do anything.

The Orb of Dragon Control was an even bigger screw-up on my part.  I knew that they were items because I’d ripped it off of a D&D property.  There was one big problem.  The Orb of Dragon Control listed in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was completely different from the Dragonorbs in Dragonlance.  I assumed the two were the same just with different names, so I’d only skimmed the item’s description.  This means I’d just handed a bunch of old-school minded players a friggin’ artifact that let them control dragons and cast a massive Wall of Fire spell anytime they wanted, amongst other insane buffs.  At level 5.  I tried repeatedly to get it away from the player who had it (since he’d started dominating every single game) and eventually had to trade him for three massively overpowered (but not nearly as much) magic items.

My last campaign, thankfully, didn’t get completely broken by my idiocy.  But pop culture references still had a massive impact on the game.  It started innocently enough.  I was creating an entire world including my own pantheon of gods.  My roommate was enamored with the idea of the Avenger class.  We’d been talking, and he was on his eighth beer of the night while I was on my fourth of fifth double vodka straight-up on the rocks.  So to say we were a little drunk would be a massive overstatement.  The first thing I did was create each god I’d need to cover an entire pantheon, then assign a gender, then keep randomly generating names until I got one that fit.  My roommate saw this and was helping me pick names as well as deciding on which god he wanted for his Avenger.  In the alcohol-fueled haze, I don’t remember who picked the name for the God of Vengeance.  But we decided to name him “Zod”.  Yes, after General Zod.  What did my roommate decide would be his character’s Oath of Enmity?  “KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!”

It quickly turned into an avalanche.  The group’s name was Wyld Stallyns.  Anytime anything died, I said “Huuuurk!  Blaaaaarg…“.  The fae-pact Warlock made her pact specifically with a Winter Court fae named Lea.  NPCs kept getting named (or renamed by the players) after movie characters.  So did magic items they carried around.  If it wasn’t from a movie, it was from a book, a TV show, a comic, a video game, an internet meme…I believe I may have actually created a pop-culture density that threatened to collapse a black hole when I cut my players off at the pass and actually named the half-vampire Avenger undead hunter NPC “Buffy D Blade“.  Guess what happened when the players killed the vampire who was her dad?  I double dare you to guess.

Now we had a lot of fun with all the references, don’t get me wrong.  But it got in the way of the plot.  Everyone’s backstory, every quest, every NPC, everything ended up some sort of reference.  Any attempt to tell a real story was derailed almost immediately by our need to cram just one more reference into the game.  Looking back, I wonder if things would’ve been different.  Would the ritual book they were hunting after have stayed more in focus if they hadn’t decided to rename it the Necronomicon (Evil Dead reference, not Lovecraft)?  Maybe the players would’ve taken the liquid metal golum more seriously if he wasn’t listed on the initiative board as “T-1000”.   I’ll never really know because not only did I encourage this sort of action from my players, I participated in it.

I’ve made a pledge to myself with my new campaign I just started.  Pop culture references will be OOC only.  I’m going to thoroughly read every magic item I hand out, then Google the damn thing just to make sure I’m not missing some historical background.  I’m not going to stop my players from having fun and being silly at the table, because that’s a lot of the fun of playing a game of D&D – sitting around a table with your friends and hanging out.  But that doesn’t mean I have to let those things seep into my game world either.

I don’t it’s going to help, though.  My roommate’s Drow Assassin is already triggering his at-will teleport ability Shadow Step by saying “Bamf!”

Putting the “Fun” in Failure

The most fun I’ve ever had playing D&D (not running a game) was a campaign run by my RPG mentor and owner of the shop I used to play in all the time.  Unfortunately, the campaign only lasted three sessions because I was apparently the only one having fun.  Everyone else hated the game for the exact same reason I loved it – we were horrible.  Everything our group touched turned to crap.  I’ve detailed one of those failed encounters from this campaign before, but I really wanted to write about all three sessions to illustrate how much fun you can have in a game just by failing miserably.

For the TL,DR crowd who haven’t read my previous post, the campaign took place in the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep.  We were a group of 2nd level Rogues playing in 3rd edition attempting to start a thieves guild in the city.  Each of us had three PCs we could “swap out” depending on the mission and one of those was allowed to be up to a CR-3 creature (mine was a werewolf).  The DM was very old-school in his approach and he did not coddle us as characters at all, which probably provided a lot of the fail that went on.

We hadn’t done anything other than set up a guildhouse when someone busts in from a much more powerful thieves guild demanding 500gp or they’d kill us all for poaching on their lands.  After a quick look at our shabby tools and lack of anything cool, the Tony Soprano wanna-be took pity on us and gave us 24 hours to pay, even giving us a mission to help us out.  He said he’d pay us 1000gp for a magic item held by a certain person in town so we’d have enough to pay him.  We, being the stalwart adventurers we were and completely disinclined to acquiesce to the request…immediately said “Yes sir thank you so can we shine your shoes sir?”

So we do a bit of research and find out that our mark always went to the town square at a certain time on a certain day of the week.  Lucky!  And convenient!  So we make out a plan of attack.  We spread ourselves around the city square and would each take a run at stealing the magic item off the guy.  We placed ourselves so that our best pickpockets would get the first swipe and so on until they got to the end of the line where I (with my werewolf character) and a half dragon would give it a shot then pick a fight as a distraction and try again.  So our most nimble pickpocket sneaks up and…

Rolls a friggin’ 1!

The mark had a bodyguard who is about to draw his weapon and #2 in the chain decides the plan’s now screwed and, being a Tiefling, decides to cast Darkness.

In the middle of a city square.

In a city that doesn’t exactly look highly on Tieflings in the first place.

So I use the confusion to put on my Registered Pet collar (yeah, I bought one just for situations like this), shifted to wolf form and got the hell out of there, while the guy who botched shoved the mark down and ripped the magic amulet right off him, but didn’t have enough actions to run so he threw it to someone else down the line who did manage to run.

Massive Charlie Foxtrot situation later, we got back to the guildhouse with the amulet.  Only to have the bodyguard show up with the city guard demanding we give it back or get arrested.  We feigned innocence well enough they almost bought it, but they demanded to search the place.  I honestly believe the only flat-out success we ever had in the entire campaign run happened next.  We managed through a combination of Sleight of Hand (replaced in 4e by Thievery) and Bluff to manage to pass that amulet around between us while they searched the guildhouse and us so that they didn’t find it.  We paid the bribe and had 500gp left over.

This was our last successful mission ever.

Our second mission and my only experience with a TPK was detailed in the link above.  It was bad.  Please read it and laugh at my suffering.

The final mission we took up was a smuggling operation.  We were hired to leave the city, pick up a wagon full of contraband in barrels (I can’t remember what it was, but I think it was Dwarven Ale and they didn’t want to pay the city taxes or something like that).  We spent probably two or three hours strategizing exactly how we were going to go about it.  We discussed every possible option to sneak these things into the city, going over scenarios and counter-scenarios and counter-counter-scenarios with Plan A, B, C, D, E, and F with each one having two fall-back plans and eventually, after a lot of work, we picked the best option.

Wait, did I say “best option”?  I mean we decided to try to just wheel the damn cart straight through the city gates.

I can’t even remotely understand why we possibly would’ve picked that stupid plan other than the other ones we came up with must’ve been even more moronic.  Maybe we thought the inspections were random?  I have no idea.  Long story short, we wheeled the cart straight up to the gates, were found, tried to bribe the guard but didn’t have that much money to bribe with, so we were immediately attacked.  Two of us managed to escape, three were arrested, and three were killed.  The best death, though, had to be my friend’s halfling.  My friend had decided to stand up and draw his sword standing next to the driver of the cart.  He didn’t have enough actions to attack anyone, so he just stood there waiting for his next turn.  The guy driving the cart decided to charge straight through the gate when everything hit the fan, which jerked the halfling right off the cart causing it to roll over him and kill him instantly (I believe the DM used the word “bisected”).

I really loved that campaign, but no one else did.  So we went back to our generic “Here’s a dungeon with a bunch of monsters now go kick in doors” game, which I hated.  Maybe because I kept trying out new character concepts and never managed to keep a character alive for more than two sessions.  Oh well, it gave me a lot of experience in creating characters and I think I can honestly say I’m the first person to ever attempt to create a Gnome Bard-barian (it seemed like a good idea at the time!)

Published in: on February 27, 2011 at 12:36 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Time for a New Name?

This post isn’t so much about D&D as it is about the blog.  When I started this, it was originally meant to be a blog to help new DMs or to convince players to become DMs.  The reason behind this was a selfish and altruistic one all at once.  The more DMs there are, the more games there are and the more chances I could get to play in a game instead of always having to DM.  I figured many others out there were having the same problem, so I might be able to help them.

Quickly though, the blog became less about helping new DMs and more about exploring the art behind DMing a game.  The reason for this shift came unconsciously then consciously to me.  I’m not the best with rules or all the crunchy stuff like balancing encounters and giving treasure of an appropriate level and all that.  What I am good at when it comes to running a game are the more abstract qualities a good DM needs.  The ability to read your players, improving, creating interesting NPCs, things like that.  So my articles went more in that direction and a lot of it wouldn’t be that helpful to new DMs.  Also, my google search for similar blogs to my concept came up dry and it turns out there’s dozens of them already, so I made the conscious decision to shift the focus.

However, writer apathy set in.  Also, the style I was using was horrible.  Big blocks of text and complex sentences (the earlier articles came in somewhere around a 8-10th grade reading level…even 8th grade textbooks aren’t written at an 8th grade level) made everything hard to read and I was using a lot of wall of text articles with no cool pictures or videos or even links.  On top of all that, my attempts to convince my friends to play D&D fell flat and I didn’t have a game.  So I put the blog on hiatus.

Almost immediately, my friends were suddenly really interested in D&D.  Not coincidentally, this was around the time Community aired its D&D episode.  I also had started re-listening to the D&D Podcasts and YouTube videos.  So I was exposed to D&D stuff all over again almost constantly.  Again, I put up a post on a Sunday I was putting the blog on hiatus and less than one week later all this was happening.  So I had a lot of D&D floating around my head and needed an outlet for it all aside from my adventures.

So I started posting on here again.  And instead of the thrice-weekly update schedule from before, I was posting daily.  Only the style had changed.  In case you haven’t noticed, everything I’ve written since then was conversation in tone and just about D&D in general.  While I’d like to think the posts are still helpful, it’s just not the same site I originally created and I’m just not sure what to do with it.

I like having this blog.  I don’t really have an audience (my biggest page view numbers in one day so far has been 25…and the second highest is 14 and the third is 5…not exactly ready for a big IPO yet), but I like that there are a few people reading what I write.  However, I think I’m confusing people with the name of the blog.

This blog isn’t about new DMs anymore.  Again, the advice I give will be helpful to them because the art behind DMing a game is probably the most important but least written about aspect of the game.  It’s also one of the things that only experience can give you, either by experiencing it yourself or reading the experiences of others.  Also, I’m not new to the DM game.  I’ve been doing this for 20 years at this point.  I’ve run two long-term weekly campaigns, one 3rd Ed that ran for about 16 months and one 4e that ran for 8 months.  I’ve run literally hundreds of one-shots in D&D (2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions), Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, D20 Modern, MechWarrior (yes, I got the name right…I’m referring to the roleplaying game based on BattleTech), Paranoia, Earthdawn, Star Wars (d20 version), a few indie published games I can’t remember because they’ve faded into obscurity, and dozens upon dozens of homebrew games.

What this means is that people coming to this site for the first time will see the name and assume either A) I’m a new DM writing about my tribulations and/or B) I’m writing for new DMs to help them out.  So I’m asking you, my three regular readers and whoever clicks on my links I post under #DnD on Twitter.  Should I keep posting on here or move to another blog with a more appropriate title?  Or should I just try to rebrand this website (which apparently will take an Act of Congress or a crapload of money if I’m reading WordPress’s options correctly which I’m probably not)?  What do you people think?

If you have an opinion, please leave a comment.  If you don’t…leave a comment anyway so I know you’re reading but just don’t care what I do.

Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 8:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts I’ve learned from DMing over the years:

  • I will spend days cleaning every inch of my apartment just so I can say “I’m sorry about the mess” when people come over.
  • If you cut the round tips off five popsicle sticks and lay them out side-by-side, they measure almost exactly 4 inches by 2 inches.
  • If you gather more than 4 geeks in any location, no reference you make is ever obscure.
  • You will not find that d4 someone dropped during the game until you’re next walking through the game room with no shoes on.
  • If you make a little bit of food, everyone will eat it all then complain they’re still hungry.  If you make a lot of food, no one will touch it and you’ll be eating half a gallon of homemade chili over the next three days so it doesn’t go to waste.
  • Never serve any food you don’t want all over your game mat, your minis, and your dice.
  • No two people pronounce RA Salvatore’s character’s names the same way, but they’ll argue for hours that their way is correct.
  • The more prep time you spend on a specific encounter, the more your players will go out of their way to make sure they either go nowhere near that section of the dungeon or find some way to end it within ninety seconds.
  • The more money you spend on fancy dice, the more 1s you’re going to roll.
  • You spent three hours researching linguistics, anthropology, etymology, mythology, etc. to come up with a creative and original name for the Big Bad Evil Guy.  Your players are still going to call him “Steve”.
  • Never put your iTunes on shuffle when other people are around.  No matter how closely you check the settings, the most embarrassing songs you have WILL come up.
  • Spent 4 days crafting terrain, your players don’t care.  Name an NPC after a TV character from the 80s, they’ll be talking about it for weeks.
  • Repeating a joke will not make it funnier.
  • Somehow, you will always end up with two players who have the same name.  For some reason, it will usually be “Mike, “Brian” or “Gary”.
Published in: on February 25, 2011 at 6:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Secret Confessions of a DM: Part 1

My trio of players did amazingly well finishing up their adventure Monday night, slaughtering not only all the kobolds and slaying the fearsome Black Dragon (wyrmling) to free the gypsy’s daughter.  Then the dragon’s mother (an Elder Black Dragon) came in and they did exactly what they were supposed to do.  They ran!  And they made it to the town Briggsfell I created for the lower levels of the campaign (I figure they’ll move on to Fallcrest or Hammerfast after 6-8th level) to collect their rewards.

However, next session I’m doing something I’ve never done before.  I hate to admit it, but even after running two long-term campaigns (one in 3rd Edition that lasted 16 months and one in 4e that lasted over 8 months) and countless one-shots and short campaigns, I have never once in my entire life run a pre-published module or adventure in D&D.  No Tomb of Horrors, no Keep on the Borderlands, no nothing.  Every single adventure I’ve run was something that I created myself.  I may have been inspired by an encounter or borrowed a map online, but everything I’ve used I’ve heavily modified personally.  But for the next session, I’m running an adventure called Storm Tower written by Chris Perkins and popularized in a beta version when played by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade, Scott Kurtz from PvP, and Wil Wheaton from the 80s and early 90s on the second D&D Podcast series.

What’s causing me to do this?  The adventure seems very well crafted (even though Perkins states that he wasn’t happy with the linear nature) and it suits my sensibilities.  It also works well into some ideas I have for the campaign later on.  And frankly, it just looks like a lot of fun!  I’ll let you know how it goes, but I plan on doing just as much prep work for this as I would for an adventure I wrote myself just in terms of re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reading the adventure to make sure I’ve got everything covered.  If you’d like to run it yourself, pick up the Dungeon Magazine Annual hardcover book (please note I get no money from this, I just like the book) and check it out, or extrapolate for yourself from the enemies that Acquisitions Incorporated faced.  Just keep in mind that sample PDF in the link above will only give you the set-up and none of the actual information you’ll need.

So what’s taken me so long to try a pre-published adventure?  Because I’m very strange about the sorts of adventures I like to run.  Everything has to make sense to me.  Not just make sense, but make sense to me.  That may seem like an odd distinction, but what it means is that I have to be able to understand not only all of the traps, monsters, skill challenges, and everything else  involved but also why those things are there.  The adventure has to be interesting enough to me that I’ll want to read it over and over again because if I can’t, I’ll never know everything that’s going on in the adventure and then I won’t be able to adapt or improv as necessary so my players don’t feel railroaded.

There have been others that have piqued my interest, but I’ve never had one that was both the appropriate level for my PCs that fit all the above requirements.  Now that I finally have one, I plan to run it.  So we’ll see what happens…and I’ll make sure to let you know how the experience differs after my group can get together again (busy weekend coming up with lots of birthdays).

Published in: on February 24, 2011 at 7:42 AM  Comments (3)  
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Everyday Items for the Gaming Table

TV cooking show host Alton Brown once asked “Is there a word for a tool that is really bad at the job that it’s designed for, but really good for other things?”  I’ve never learned the answer to that question, but it has vexed me for ages.  It was also going to be the title for this post as well.  There are a lot of things that are insanely useful at a gaming table, but are of little use to the average everyday person outside of a roleplaying game.  Sure, many of them had great uses once upon a time, but they’ve been rendered obsolete by the advancing technologies of the day.  Some of them are great for other uses, but even better for gaming.  And some are just good things to have around.  Here’s my list of the best non-gaming items you can have at your gaming table.

Wooden Clipboard – Cheap and frees up table space.  I play around my massive coffee table, but that requires everyone to lean forward constantly which can kill your lower back after a marathon session.  A clipboard with a character sheet attached allows players to sit back for most of the game and relax more.  It also allows me to keep the game going even if I need to step on the patio for a cigarette or go get a refill on my drink by taking the adventure with me.

Pipe Cleaners – Bend these into squares and you have the perfect marker for a zone.  Red for fire, green for acid, blue for cold, black for shadow/necrotic, white for healing, and yellow for psychic/illusion.  Drop them on the board when you need them, pick them up when they’re gone.  Also great for blasts/bursts for new players to help them grasp the concept quickly.

Yarn – I’ve seen a lot of solutions out there for the different conditions/marks that can get put on a character or monster during combat.  Soda rings, stickers, poker chips…none of them worked that well or were too distracting for me.  However, small snips of yarn are great.  Black for an Assassin’s shroud, green for a Ranger’s Hunter’s Quarry, white for an Avenger’s Oath of Enmity, red for a Warlock’s Curse, blue for a Fighter’s Mark, etc.  They hang on most minis easily and they can be easily added/removed without knocking anything over.  And since you only need an inch or so, you can probably get them for free if you have a friend or relative who knits and you might be able to ask for samples online or through the mail to get what you need.

Popsicle Sticks, Toothpicks, and Cardboard – With these, some garden sheers or a utility knife, and some glue; you can create some amazing 3D terrain for your game.  So far, I’ve made scaffolding, wagons, crates, ladders, and a banner using just the above and a little paint.  I got all the materials for under $10 and the most time consuming part of the whole thing was waiting for the glue and paint to dry (and keeping my kitties from demolishing them).  Helpful Tip: Don’t use the same bookshelf to store said homemade minis as you use to hold your Player’s Handbook and other hardbacks.  One bump and all my work was reduced to splinters.

Styrofoam – You want a very specific type for this, the kind they sell in the crafts section or the garden section for making flower arrangements with fake flowers.  Take a utility knife (or a steak knife you don’t like) and some paint and you can create whatever sort of terrain you need.  I have a two foot tall cliffside I made sitting in my room just waiting for an opportunity to bring it out again for my new campaign.  You can still get uses out of other types, though.  Next time you get a package, break up the styrofoam and paint it grey or brown and use for rubble or boulders.

Tailor’s Tape Measure – The downside to creating all these cool terrains (or even buying terrain originally designed for wargaming or model railroading) is that it typically won’t have a grid on it.  If you don’t want to take the time or ruin your work by painting a massive grid, use a tailor’s tape measure.  It’s floppy so it can be folded up to stay out of the way, and you can use it to measure any distance in the game.  Use with the pipe cleaners above for zones/blasts/bursts and you’re set.

Sticky Tack – This is the sticky blue or yellow putty stuff used for hanging posters.  I’ve never had luck keeping a poster up with the stuff, but it’s great for those minis that keep wanting to fall over.  Non-Wizards of the Coast items like the Bag o’ Zombies zombies, Bendy Walls, and model railroad trees (all of which I’m a huge fan of) are notorious for this as are many of my homemade creations.  A little sticky tack on the bottom and they’ll stay upright without any problems.

Color Laser Printer – Okay, this one’s cheating a bit, but if you have access to one (and please make sure it won’t get you fired if you use the one at work – trust me, IT does monitor that stuff…they just log it up until you annoy them enough to turn you in), your character sheets and Dungeon adventures will not look any better.  If you can afford the outlay, pick one up for yourself.  They’re not nearly as expensive as they used to be, and you can usually find used ones from companies who are moving/upgrading/closing.  Sure, the toner’s expensive, but that’s not even going to be an annual expense to replace them.

Card Sleeves – Nothing will help new players figure out At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers faster than color-coding them.  Buy 3-4 sets of sleeves; one green, one red, one black, and one blue if you can.  When you print out character sheets, cut out the power cards and place them in sleeves corresponding to the frequency the power can be used (yes, utilities go in green/red/black depending on if they’re At-Will, Encounter, or Daily).  Place the “cheat sheet” character sheet cards, magic item cards, and any powers that are always on such as class features in the blue sleeves.  When the player uses a power on their turn, tell them to turn the card over.  If it’s green, leave it face-up.  If it’s red, turn it face-up after a short rest.  If it’s black, turn it up after an extended rest.  It also protects the cards so they’ll stay legible throughout the entire session.

Cotton Balls – Yeah, I know a lot of other bloggers are fans of the fake spiderweb stuff you can get in September and October.  Unfortunately, it’s only February.  Cotton balls are dirt cheap and can be stretched just like the spiderweb stuff, and it’s available year-round.  Of course if you have the chance, stock up on the spiderweb stuff on November 1st when it’s on clearance.  Smoke, clouds, mists, fog, spiderwebs…dirt cheap and looks great.

Okay, if you’re eating, skip my name for this one…but I have no idea what it’s called and I’ve never heard the stuff called by another name…but it’s Booger Glue.  It’s that glue that looks like…well…yeah…that direct mailers use to attach those pretend credit cards and membership cards to letters.  I bet you’re kicking yourself right now for the number of miniatures for oozes, jellies, and slimes you’ve just been throwing away.  You can get something similar by putting a thin layer of rubber cement on wax or parchment paper, letting it dry, then peeing it off.

Coffee and Tea – Great for the throat for those long expositionary scenes, but even better for brushing on hand-outs to give them a weathered and aged look.  I’m southern, so I go through a lot of iced tea.  I’m also an American, so I drink a lot of coffee.  Instead of pouring out that last little bit that isn’t enough for a cup or glass and tastes kinda funny because of all the sediments, pour it into a jar and save it for staining your hand-outs.

White Boards – Best initiative trackers out there if you don’t want to buy Paizo’s tracker, which is basically a white board that has a magnet in it and comes with a bunch of little magnets you can write on and slide around.

Chess Pawns – If you’re like me, you have a chess set in your house missing either a rook or a bishop (those are ALWAYS the pieces I’m missing).  Grab all the pawns from that set and use them for Action Point tokens.  My players are terrible about forgetting to use their Action Points, but I’ve found that a 3D token works wonders over anything else I’ve tried to keep them in my player’s thoughts.

Plastic Pizza Thingies – These probably have a real name as well, but I don’t know what else to call them.  It’s the little white plastic tripod things you get from some pizza companies to make sure the box isn’t smooshed onto the cheese.  Trim the legs down to about half an inch with scissors and paint it brown and you now have a great table mini.

I know there are a lot of other things I’m missing from this list, so I’ll probably come back and post more later.  However, these items can really help your game, either by helping you create more realistic terrain, by simplifying concepts, or by speeding up your game.  Look around your house and your office and I’ll bet you’re throwing away or ignoring a bunch of things that would be great at your gaming table.  Those paperclips could be bent into bars for a cage, you could fill your cast iron dutch oven with dry ice and use it as a cauldron, that clear 2″ square plastic case your electronic doodad came in could be a Gelatinous Cube mini, the silver serving tray you got as a wedding present and has been collecting dust is a perfect extraplanar surface or sheet of ice…

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 9:28 AM  Comments (2)  
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Ain’t No Party Like an Infighting Party

One of my fears happened last night…I only had three players for a game that was designed for 5-6 players.  They even screwed up and let the kobold watch get away which warned all the kobolds inside their lair know they were under attack.  This made the two easy Level 2 encounters combine into a hard Level 4 encounter as they were in one room instead of two and in defensive positions.  But they managed it even though they were horribly outnumbered and outmatched.

Unfortunately, it took so long since there were only three of them that it was too late to do the last encounter.  And they were beat.  Thankfully, they were able to find the potion hidden in Siwos’s private room that granted them the benefits of an extended rest (seriously, I didn’t make that part up just to help them.  It was in the adventure I wrote).  So we’re going to get together today to finish up before we move the game to a friend’s house that is cat-free so we can fill out the party.

Something interesting I didn’t anticipate happened though.  My roommate is playing a Drow Assassin.  S is playing an Elf Barbarian (laugh if you want, she has INSANE mobility).  They spent the entire encounter bickering between one another.  It was hilarious, and it managed to bring back some of that previous edition feel.  At least for me.  It’s possible that it just may have been my group I played with when I was younger, but there was a lot of party infighting in the old days.  Lots of passed notes and secret rolls so that not all the players knew what was going on.  Sure, when the monsters came around, we stopped fighting each other and focused on whatever was attacking us, but we still worked alone as much as we did as a team.  My last campaign, I never bothered with secret notes because anytime I did, they reported it to the others.  They got along famously and there were no problems between characters.  And frankly, it was boring.

Buddy cop movies are fun because the two cops never get along properly.  Ensemble casts on TV series are the same way.  Each character has their own motivations and they act accordingly.  They never get along 100% of the time, and that interplay between them is what makes you want to watch the show.  Would you want to watch a movie or TV series about a group of people who get along all the time and always agree with each other?  Hell no!  You’d be bored senseless.  Jayne doesn’t get along with Simon.  Everyone distrusts River.  Shawn and Gus are horrible to each other.  Spike spent five seasons trying to get all of Buffy’s Scooby Gang killed.  Are Veronica Mars and Weevil working together this week or at each other’s figurative throats?  Are Spike and Angel working together this week or at each other’s literal throats?  You’d need a flowchart to understand all the interpersonal relationships on Galactica, and can you name one companion of The Doctor who ever, ever stayed put when she was told to?

So what’s the difference between this sort of interaction and a party falling to in-fighting and PvP combat?  When the chips are down, they have each other’s backs.  Even if their motives are less than pure (Spike only wanted to stop the world from ending because it was like an unlimited buffet of fun torturing people), they were still able to work together and overcome the bigger threat to everyone.  That’s the difference.  I’m fairly certain that, at some point, the Elf Barbarian and Drow Assassin are going to come to blows.  But I do know that it’s not going to happen when they’re in the middle of fighting the big bad black dragon I’ve got waiting for them under the kobold’s lair.

Also, here’s a little freebie for you.  In case you were wondering what that monster is on the side, let me explain.  The party of three consisted of the two aforementioned strikers and a controller – a Human Mage with a very blaster-strong build.  I knew they were going to get hurt badly without a leader, so I gave them a little friend.  With the help of a few people on the Wizards of the Coast D&D Forums, I was able to get this to its current form and I can say it works pretty well.  It kept everyone on their feet, but didn’t unbalance the game in the PC’s favor.  Feel free to use it in your games as well.

Published in: on February 21, 2011 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Back in the Saddle Again

I’m writing this the night before, but when this goes live, I’ll be in the middle of DMing my first real session of D&D since October 2009.  I wonder how hard it’s going to be to get back in the swing of things.  I’ve been working on my adventure for about two months now, and I’ve even playtested the major encounters twice to make sure they’re challenging without being overwhelming.  I’ve got my minis already in a little plastic bag under my spot at the table so I can set them up behind the screen.  The adventure’s printed out and I’ve double-checked it to make sure everything printed out properly.  But I’m still worried…

What if I’ve lost my touch?  I prepped a lot for this session, but I’m not usually big on the advance prep.  I like having a vague idea about where the story needs to go, the NPCs/monsters for the encounters, a map, and that’s it.  The more I plan, the more I feel locked into those plans so I can’t adapt on the fly nearly as well (and I’ve got at least two players who are really going to make me think on my feet it seems).  I mean it’s pretty straight-forward for one of my adventures, and it was designed that way.  I’ve got too many new players to have too much fun with terrain.

What if no one shows up?  I’ve only got a couple of people I know are going to be here.  My roommate obviously will.  But what about L and her husband?  I might’ve said something to piss her off when we talked tonight, and I said they couldn’t bring their dog (I have two cats who’ve never been close to a dog larger than chihuahua sized).  And M and R haven’t said a word to me, but my roommate says they’re both playing (which is odd because I thought R was very allergic to cats).  M and R are also married and have had a tendency to get into fights over M hanging out with me and my roommate – not like that, but it’s a very long story that’s frankly none of your business.  I’m making braised pork for everyone, but I don’t know if anyone’s even going to show.

And no one’s playing a Leader.  Sure, M, R, and D haven’t made their characters yet.  But my roommate and S are both playing Strikers, while L is playing a controller.  Knowing M’s personality, she’s probably going to go for a Striker too.  R could go either way.  And D’s really green when it comes to D&D.  If no one plays a Leader, what am I going to do?  I don’t want to run the game with the kid gloves on, but at the same time I don’t want a TPK.  I’ve got a couple of solutions up my sleeve that might help, but it just won’t be the same without a Leader to keep everyone on their feet.

And, worst of all, what if I completely bomb?  I suck at doing accents and voices.  I don’t know if they’ll want to interact with the NPCs much, but I just can’t think of anything interesting I can do with the one NPC they’ll be able to interact with.  I know M plays a lot of Storyteller/World of Darkness games, which are a lot more talky than D&D is.  How is that going to work out when I can’t even hold a British accent for more than a few sentences?  What if I can’t get the new players to understand the rules?  What if everyone hates the adventure?  Or me as DM?

Of course, this is just nerves.  Once I sit down behind the screen, I’ll be fine.  This happens every single time I’m about to start a session, from the moment one ends until the moment I say “Okay, so you’re…” and start everything off.  Once I get going, I’m never worried or nervous or stressed.  And once it’s done, I never worry about how well I did.  I already know exactly how well or poorly I did the second we’re done.  It’s always the next session I’m worried about.  But once it’s started, all I see is the game world, the map, and the PCs.  And honestly, that’s how it should be.

Out with the Old…

I started thumbing through the classic modules from editions past.  Thanks to my old Friendly Local Gaming Store owner selling many classic books and my impulse buying, I’ve got a good chunk of the old modules.  Plus Wizards of the Coast nicely placed many of the adventures online to download for free (link goes to a Wikipedia article, but the ones listed under “Notes” as having an Official Download can be grabbed for free, even without a DDI account).  I decided to skim through them to see what I could rip off for my own campaign and came across a realization: You can’t.

My game is a 4e game.  I prefer the system to all the previous editions.  However, adventures for 4e just aren’t structured the same way as they were in previous editions.  Healing surges saw to that.  In old modules, a series of halls or tunnels lead from chamber to chamber, and were usually trapped.  But a trap in the middle of a hall doesn’t mean much anymore.  “Oops, I triggered this falling rock trap that did 2d6 damage to me.  Guess I’ll have to spend a healing surge.”  Sure, it’s resource attrition, but it’s just not the same.  A trap just isn’t going to kill anyone in a party that has a Leader in it, not even the Leader.  Most of them even have Encounter abilities that can heal without costing Surges.  Sure, it might not heal much, but every little bit counts.  But you can’t just dump Healing Surges from the game.  It’s one of the main abilities that prevents characters from dying constantly.  All of healing in 4e is based on the premise of the Healing Surge.

So how can we recreate that old edition feel into our games aside from asking our players bring three characters each and play them in turn as the last one dies?  I wish I had the answer.  The move to a mini-based game makes drawing such maze-like maps impractical.  Is it just nostalgia that even makes me want to try to run one of these old modules?  Or was there something to the threat of imminent death around every corner?  Is it worth the effort to try to convert say White Plume Mountain or the original Castle Ravenloft?  I’m not sure.  I may try it.  Or I may just keep thumbing through these old books just in case there’s something in here I can use for my own games.

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 1:42 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Gold Ain’t No Thang

I’m breaking my hiatus.  I can’t promise I’ll update regularly, but I have started a new campaign so I’ll have a few things on my mind.  This is as good a place as any to get them off my chest.  Plus it seems like people keep checking in periodically by the site statistics, so I figure I’ll put something up.  This is going to be far more stream of consciousness than my previous posts, though, so be warned.  I tend to meander sometimes.

One thing that came to my mind today was gold.  It’s a motivating factor in D&D games going all the way back…but it isn’t anymore really, is it?  Your average peasant probably makes a handful of gold per year.  Yet by the time a party of 5 first level adventurers reach 2nd level, they should amass a fortune worth 720 gp plus 3040 gp worth of magical items.  That’s 752  gp each.  That is more gold than your average craftsman would earn in his entire lifetime.  Another 1072 gp should be received by the time they reach 3rd level would be a fortune.  Why not retire?  Live in a life of luxury for the rest of his days, similar to what Bilbo Baggins did.  One adventure and he lived out his days with his treasure.  Why aren’t your characters doing the same?

Gone are the days where your DM nickels and dimes you for every little thing.  There used to be tables for tracking the wear and tear on your boots so you’d have to have them cobbled or replaced.  Tracking every crossbow bolt, arrow, meal…when you’d be lucky to find a few silver on the corpse of the fallen, picking up their gear just so you could sell it to get more jerky for the next delve.  If your DM still makes you do this, you know he played back in the day when this was the norm.  But after first level, there’s not even a reason to keep track of non-magical projectiles.  With just a single treasure parcel in 4e, you can buy enough arrows, bolts, daggers, throwing axes, or anything else you can throw at an enemy.  More than you can carry even.  So what’s the point of tracking non-magical items anymore?  Even tracking healing potions can get cumbersome by 7th or 8th level.

So if you’re so rich so quickly in your adventuring career, why do you keep doing it?  Well, odds are there’s a plot going on as to why everyone’s doing it.  They have to stop Big Bad Evil Guy from his Big Bad Evil Plans don’t they?  But even that may not be enough depending on your game.  It actually came to me as I was writing this out.  The Deadliest Catch.  Those guys risk life and limb to go out on boats and hunt crab.  Why would they put themselves through that?  Because for two weeks of work, they can earn more than I’ve made in any single year in my entire life.  And the sort of people who sign up for missions like that tend to be the sort who thrive on that level of excitement anyway.  So yes, I’m saying the reason your characters keep poking dragons with sticks and walking into crypts they know have mummies and zombies and skeletons and liches is because they’re the same as base jumpers.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the glory.

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 4:42 AM  Leave a Comment  
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