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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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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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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Review of Dungeon Tiles DN3: Shadowghast Manor

I received the Dungeon Tiles DN3: Shadowghast Manor as a promotional mailing from Wizards of the Coast, so I thought it was only fair that I do my part in promoting the product. I can’t write an Amazon review until the official release date, and I don’t have any other venues to write about it, so I decided to dust off this old blog and post it here. Also, I’m about to start a new campaign, so I’ll probably be posting more once again.

Anyway, back to the new Dungeon Tiles set…

Image from with link to the product

I think it may be my favorite small-set of Dungeon Tiles I’ve seen.

The tiles themselves are what you’ve come to expect from the line. The cardboard is very thick and sturdy, the art is good and the same style as the other Dungeon Tiles products (so you can mix-and-match sets without clashing), and the tiles are easy to punch out without damaging. There are six double-sided sheets total, with tiles the following sizes:

  • 8×8: 4
  • 8×4: 2
  • 8×2: 3
  • 4×4: 4
  • 4×2: 5
  • 2×1: 1
  • Other: 4

The “Other” listed above is something I haven’t seen before on the Dungeon Tiles. It’s a tile that’s meant to represent terrain but isn’t part of the “1 inch square” style. They’re about 2 inches long, but only half an inch wide. One side is a wrought-iron fence while the other is a dungeon wall. They appear to be meant to be used as edge borders for pieces that don’t have a wall or possibly laid on top of other tiles to create terrain without covering up the existing tile completely. Either way, it’s a great addition to the set.

This set focuses on a macabre mansion vibe on one side and a tomb/catacomb on the other. On the “dungeon” side of the tiles, there are exactly three (if you don’t count the mini-tiles) that do not have a casket or tomb on them, and even two of those have skulls. The “mansion” side of the tiles has a gothic horror feel, with small details like Celtic-influenced patterns on the stone floors, spiderwebs in the dark corners, and even roses hanging from the walls on a couple.

The only real downside to this set is that it is not a stand-alone product. This was meant as an expansion product for use with the other Dungeon Tiles Master Sets, and it’s obvious in the packaging. The six card tiles have a paper folder around them and are shrink-wrapped, but that’s it. Inside the “folder” are two suggested map layouts you can use, but there’s no storage options. If you already have one of the Dungeon Tiles Master Sets, this won’t bother you because you’ll probably just end up dumping the tiles into the same box anyway. But if this is your first Dungeon Tiles purchase to test out the product, you’ll want to make sure you have a box or heavy-duty gallon zip-top bag to store the tiles so they don’t get lost. Also, I’m not sure Wizards waited so long to release these as they would’ve fit in great as tie-ins for the Heroes of Shadow and Shadowfell sourcebooks released in Spring of 2011, rather than the Feywild-theme books currently being released (Fall/Winter 2011).

Overall, this is my favorite Dungeon Tiles product so far. The tiles have a unique feel to them, but are still generic enough that they can be used with the other Dungeon Tiles products without issue.  I wouldn’t recommend them as your sole Dungeon Tiles first purchase unless you’re running a horror-themed game like Ravenloft, but they’ll make a perfect addition to the other Dungeon Tiles products.

Here are a few pictures I took of the set as I unboxed it. I apologize for the poor quality of the images and for the cat hair on my bed, but I was excited to get these opened and didn’t realize how poorly the pictures turned out until after I’d already popped out all the tiles and added them to my growing collection. The art in these images is copyright Wizards of the Coast and published solely for review purposes with their kind and generous permission.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 1:04 AM  Comments (4)  
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Adventure Interruptus

Tonight, I did something I’ve never done before.  I ran a pre-published adventure.  I talked about this before, but I ran into a little bit different of a problem this time around.  I’m used to pulling all-nighters.  Game sessions usually run until everyone’s nodding off or I’ve run out of material.  Due to scheduling issues, I’ve had to schedule my games on a weeknight.  And since we’re not in our teens and twenties anymore, we had to stop – not because someone was too tired or because I couldn’t pull anything else out of my ass – because someone had to be at work in the morning.  And it happened mid-game.  I’m going to talk about the first half or so of “Storm Tower”, the adventure appearing in Dungeon Annual 2009 and Dungeon Magazine #166 (D&D Insider account required to view the adventure) written by Chris Perkins and popularized by being the adventure in the second session of the Penny Arcade podcasts.  If you haven’t listened to the podcasts or read/played the adventure, some of this may not make sense to you.  Just keep pushing through, I really do have a point.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault.  Combat wasn’t too slow and things didn’t take any longer than normal.  The only problem was that everyone got too into things.  The first three hours of the session were all role play.  The PCs met John Briggs, the mayor of Briggfell (yes, I will post that write-up as soon as I’m finished with it).  And they had a lot of fun hating him.  I intentionally made the guy as annoying as possible, a boisterous former adventurer who bragged constantly about his life.  He committed a cardinal sin in the player’s eyes.  He asked them about their stories, then interrupted them to tell them about his adventure which was similar but much more dangerous, thrilling, and exciting.  I had to start glossing over the events of the night to keep them from killing him in the middle of the tavern!

After that, they got lucky.  I think I actually improved one bit of Chris Perkin’s adventure.  In it, he had an idea that Sorik Orvash would be a doppelganger, but he couldn’t figure out why he’d lead the PCs to the site if he was.  So he created this weird situation where the doppelganger is posing as a dwarf hostage who “escapes” then attacks them from behind and…it’s a bit of a mess, and I even Perkins said he wasn’t happy about it.  You can even see his desire in the podcasts to have Sorik be a doppelganger, but he couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense.  Well, I managed to.  Sorik Orvash made it back to town to tell them about the attack on the watchtower Goldenhawk.  However, Celk the doppelganger followed him, killed him in his sleep, and took his place to find out how much he’d told the city guard (Nathan Farringray of Fallcrest in the adventure, Sheriff Thiek of Briggsfell in my version).  After taking the dwarf mason’s place, he was unable to figure out a way to escape and report back to Jeras Falck without raising suspicion.  So he had to keep playing the part.  Thanks to the players setting up a watch each night (and having a Drow in the party, who is aware of his surroundings while in his trance), he couldn’t attack them in their sleep.  He figured his best move was to wait until they were distracted fighting the watch Falck set up and attacking them from behind.

However, the dwarf in the group figured out something was wrong.  The suspicion spread, and eventually they all did well enough on Insight checks to suspect him of duplicity.  I set up an impromptu skill challenge whereby they tried a combination of Bluff (to fast-talk the fast-talker), Insight, Diplomacy, History, and even Nature (the argument was made that the dwarf in the party would know about physical features of dwarven settlements or dwarven folklore to trip him up).  Once successful, they attacked him.  After a bit of torture (and a LOOOOT of Insight checks, since I had the doppelganger lie as a knee-jerk reaction), they figured out the whole story and even got some info about what they’d be facing in Goldenhawk.

All of that together ate up three hours of game time, and they hadn’t even gotten to the damn tower yet!  But everyone was having fun so I went with it.  They fought the guard set on the ground and had a curbstomp battle down below (the only reason anyone got badly hurt was the dwarven Warden decided for some reason to make his initial attack against the Chomper and then pulled it adjacent to him! In his defense, both the Mage and the Artificer did miserably on their Arcana rolls to figure out what it was, not even getting the most basic info.  But the killed all the big enemies within two rounds, and had to spend the rest of the time mopping up the bandits on the scaffolding.

At the end of this battle (and of course looting), a couple of my players realized it was almost 11 PM and, having work in the morning, needed to leave in order to get enough sleep.  I was feeling tired, but more than ready to keep going.  Unfortunately, everyone shared their opinion and I was forced to do something I really don’t like doing – ending  a session without an Extended Rest.  What this means is that there will be additional bookkeeping.  I have to put a lot of trust in the palyers.  They hadn’t used their daily powers really, so I don’t have to worry about that.  However, they do have Healing Surges to worry about.  Then there’s remembering clues seeded early in the adventure (and no, I’m not quite going to post those yet…never know if any of them are reading this, and if you know the adventure, you know what I’m talking about).  As much as I wanted to go on, I can understand their position.  I wouldn’t be happy if I had to work on four hours sleep, even if it was for gaming.  So I guess I’ll just have to go with it.

Of course, they seem to be having a bit too easy of a time so far.  And to make up for that, I’m going to have a full week to come up with new and horrible ways to make that final encounter just that much harder for them…Mwuahahahahaha!

DM Worksheet

Sorry the posts are a little lacking these days, but I’m completely reorganizing my notes as well as cleaning the apartment.  I’m also working on a town for my campaign I plan on releasing as soon as I finish up all the notes.  However, I do have one little thing to give you guys.  It’s a DM’s worksheet.  Yeah, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s a lot of good information to have at your fingertips during a game.  No more spoiling passive perception/insight checks by asking everyone what their skills are, and you won’t have to interrupt your NPC’s monologuing to ask what your method actor’s vowel-challenged multisyllabic character name is.  Hopefully you’ll find some use for it.

DM Worksheet in PDF format.

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!”

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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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.