You Say You Want a New Edition

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

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

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

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

Published in: on January 10, 2012 at 10:15 AM  Comments (3)  
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Would You Like to Play a Game?

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

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition vs. Pathfinder

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

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

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

Where to Start – Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

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

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

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

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

Where to Start –Pathfinder

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

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

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

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

That’s Really It

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

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

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 12:01 AM  Comments (2)  
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Tools of the Trade – Electronic Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on December 23, 2011 at 8:27 PM  Leave a Comment  
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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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The Character Filter

A lot of posts online from new players and Dungeonmasters seem to ask the same question: How do I get in character? It’s a tough question since most of us haven’t had several years of improvisational acting experience so they may not be used to the idea of thinking on their feet as someone other than themselves. Thankfully, my gaming career started in the Drama classroom back in 5th grade. I did horrible skits that weren’t nearly as funny as my friends and I thought they were and a lot of improv. We’d get a slip of paper, a couple of minutes to plan a scene in the hall, and then we had to perform in the scene on the fly. Because of the timing of this, I learned at the same time I started playing role playing games the very tricks I needed to stay in character. Now, my training (if you can call it that) was meant for grade school children and happened almost twenty years ago (which was a LOT of bourbon ago), so there’s probably a proper term for this, but I’ve always called in the Character Filter.

The character filter is simple. It’s a little filter set up in your mind that everything you take in and everything you send out – both in actions and speech – go through. The filter itself is just the question “What would my character react?” That’s all there is to it. Just run everything you see and hear through that filter as well as everything you do or say, and you’ll be in character. Okay, maybe it’s not that easy. It takes a lot of practice to get that filter in place without slowing things down too much and reacting normally. It can also be a hard concept to grasp as well, so let’s try an example.

I am Darryl. I’m 31 years old, out of shape, intelligent, logical, have no fighting training, am a human born and raised in the late 20th century on Earth, and I try my best to avoid confrontation as much as possible. My character for a time was Grimlock (yes, it was that sort of a game…we had more pop culture references than game terms flying in every encounter), a Half-Orc Fighter (who was basically a Slayer before Essentials was released). He was 19 years old, big and muscular, dumb as a rock, wielded an axe bigger than he was almost, was raised in a tribal culture, and loved to fight. If the troll with the big maul standing over me said to me, “I’m gonna turn you into jelly!”, I (as in Darryl) would probably need to change my shorts before whimpering, “I’m sorry I’ve offended you, sir.” Even Darryl playing the game would think, “This troll is a couple of levels higher than our average party level which means this is going to be a difficult encounter and our Wizard is the only character that can do fire or acid damage so his regeneration is going to be a big problem and I’ve only got two healing surges left and I’ll need to Mark him and his average damage output’s going to be blah blah blah metagaming blah blah blah.” Grimlock, however, neither thought nor said those things. He stepped up, greataxe in his hand, and said “Me Grimlock no be jelly! Me Grimlock make TROLL JAM!” and swung for the fences.

This entire event took exactly two seconds because it went directly through my filter. My thoughts were all tactical and game-related, but Grimlock’s thoughts were solely about his pride at being threatened and his need to respond to that threat with force. I took the insult from the troll, knowing that it meant he was targeting me with his attack as Darryl, put it through my filter of “What would Grimlock do?”, and that filter gave me the answer of “Respond with a similar threat and attack.” So that’s what Grimlock did.

It can take a lot of practice to get that filter in place. It’s even harder when you’re the Dungeonmaster as you have to change that filter constantly in order to portray the various NPCs in your game. There are a few tricks you can try that might help you get your filter in place. Try using an accent or different voice for your character. Don’t worry if all you can do is a crappy Sean Connery impersonation. Do you know what a Hammerfast accent sounds like? Maybe it’s exactly like a crappy Sean Connery impersonation. You can also pick up an affectation, like your Rogue talks with his hands or your Warlock constantly cracks her knuckles. Both of these can help you by giving you something to focus on to put you in character. You’ll start associating that knuckle-cracking or that accent with thinking like your character, and soon you’ll be doing it without realizing it. A filler phrase can also help. If your Dwarf says, “By Moradin’s Beard!” when he’s surprised, that not only helps get you into character but it also buys you a precious second or two more time to think of what he would say.

The longer you spend with a specific character, the easier it will be to predict what that character will do. After a few sessions, you should know if your character is tactical or brash when it comes to combat, if he or she is soft-spoken or loud, rude or courteous. The longer you play the character, the most history you’ll have with him or her and the more you’ll know how he or she will react to things. One trick you can do is writing a journal of your campaign from your character’s point of view. At the end of every session, take some time and write about what happened that week in your character’s writing. This way, you can take your time and really think through how your character would react to everything going on in the campaign. This will also give you the benefit of helping you remember smaller details about the campaign and the story your Dungeonmaster is telling.

Be sure to realize is that you’re sitting around a table with your friends. No one’s going to be expecting method acting and no one’s going to care if it takes you a few seconds to think of how your character would act. You’re basically doing improv for between two and eight hours every week or two. You’re going to do something silly in character that’s going to make everyone laugh. That’s part of the point. Give yourself license to screw up and turn it into character moments.

This goes double for a Dungeonmaster as he not only has to do all that, but he also has to switch between several if not dozens of characters over the same time period along with keeping track of the story, running the combat, adjudicating the rules, and everything else going on. Your players will definitely cut you some slack if you need a few seconds to figure out how an NPC will react to a player. You can also use stalls such as taking a bathroom break, refilling your drink, making a food run, or anything else to give you a few moments to figure out how Lord Greyson will react to the party’s Dwarf Shaman mooning him.

The most important thing to remember is that this is a game. You’re not on stage. Feel free to take your time and screw up if necessary. It’ll take a little practice, but once you’re used to using that filter, it’ll become second nature. Once it does, your character may end up doing things that surprise even you, the filter works so quickly. And that’s part of the fun.

Published in: on December 12, 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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Definition of a Geek

Or nerd or dork or whatever moniker you prefer. I’m going to list some activities and you tell me whether or not they’re geeky.

1. Sitting around with a bunch of friends playing a Fantasy game, using statistics and guesswork to figure the odds to score the most points and win the game.

2. Discussing the intricacies of different designs, going into minute detail on the advantages and disadvantages of different options and modifications.

3. Playing in an immersive MMORPG which requires questing with your friends in order to upgrade your items.

4. Regularly spending hours with friends discussing plot points and character motivations for a genre series.

Alright, time’s up! NONE of these activities are considered by the mainstream population geeky, nerdy, or dorky. They’re considered perfectly normal activities that perfectly normal people do.

1. Fantasy Football/Baseball

2. Muscle car shows/magazines

3. Farmville

4. Twilight

The strange thing is, each of these can also describe an activity which IS considered geeky/nerdy. Pokemon, case mods/overclocking/OS customization/programing, World of Warcraft, and Star Trek/Star Wars/Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Firefly/Dresden Files/Doctor Who/etc.

So tell me, what exactly is the difference between a grown man pretending he’s Tommy Lasorta trading players in Fantasy Baseball and a guy playing Magic: The Gathering?

Published in: on August 30, 2011 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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I’m Not Dead Yet!

Yeah, my players will find the title funny because I have a unilateral ban on Monty Python jokes at the table.  However, I just wanted a quick post letting you know that, even though I haven’t updated in a while, I haven’t abandoned the blog.  I just don’t really have anything to say at the moment.

Published in: on March 16, 2011 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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