Thursday, December 13, 2018

GM 101, Ep 4 - Cheap & Easy D&D Terrain

You don't need to spend a fortune to put some cool visuals on your table. If you're playing on the grid there are cheap and easy ways to put a little pizzazz into your encounters.

In this episode, I review the various inexpensive terrain solutions from off-the-shelf dungeon tiles to do-it-yourself paper and styrofoam crafting. Links to resources are below the video.

Pathfinder Flip Mats (and Forests)
D&D Dungeon Tiles and Adventure Grid

Papercraft Terrain
Fat Dragon
Dave Graffam
Hovel model
Coach House model

Crafting for Beginners (YouTube)
DMs Craft (DM Scotty)
DMG Info
Black Magic Craft

Pictures from some of my adventures in crafting:

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Daytime D&D

The dragon was not so keen about the sorcerer's lightning bolts.
Due to the vagaries of holiday scheduling with our normal campaign, my group decided we would take a work day off to just play D&D all day long.

I gotta tell ya, if your group is like ours and can only get together every other week on average (and you have the vacation availability), I highly recommend you try this in a given month where scheduling might otherwise be challenging.

On a typical night, after we have our pre-game chat and distractions, we often only get about 3 hours of game in on a good night, with some of that eaten up by recap and catch-up discussions. That means we're really only gaming about 6 to 7 hours per month. When you compare that to a solid 6+ hours of straight gaming in a day...

Piper blasts another lightning bolt up the dragon's tail pipe.
Packing styro makes a decent ice cave.

Daytime D&D is like daytime drinking... Addictive and potentially detrimental to your employment. You go outside all high on the adrenaline and you're like "Oh, geez. The sun is still up." I was certainly a still floating after 6 hours of D&D... until the adrenaline (and sugar) crash.

But seriously, I forgot how much fun an extended session can be... and how far you can progress! My players took out their first dragon of the campaign. I hope we get to do it again soon!

Grehk (Mike F), Piper (Kelly) and Marcus Drinksblood (Al). Not pictured Bartholomew (Chris), and Crow (Mike R).

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

PAX Unplugged: A First Time Critique

Ran into some friendly faces at the Loews bar.
So, I started to write this PAX Unplugged post and it appears on the surface to be a bit of a polemic. I had a lot of fun as a first-time attendee, but I also experienced its shortcomings.

This post is not intended to be a hit job. However, my critiques are unabashed. It would be inaccurate to assume I was disappointed overall as I quite enjoyed the convention. However, I saw a lot of potential unfulfilled. So, here’s your trigger warning:

The following post is unflinching in its critique of PAX Unplugged.

The TLDR version is that it’s a good convention that could be a lot better with some relatively simple adjustments. So, that’s my disclaimer.


I have mixed feelings about the security at PAX Unplugged. I understand that a large event like this needs to appear secure, but it’s almost entirely theater.

First Day lines were pretty long, and there was an big
issue letting people by the queue for the main theater.
Of the several times I had to pass through the security line, the security workers barely glanced inside the backpack and passed it along the table past the metal detectors (meaning any concealed weapon would not have been found). Only once did one of the gatekeepers actually look inside with real effort.

Secondly, the groups of people bunched up in lines by the doors would have provided a juicy target for any crazies. So basically, security is an inconvenience for attendees, raises the costs of the event, and offers only a tissue paper shield of safety against anyone who actually intends harm. I guess that’s just the world we live in now because that’s true of most event security, not just at a PAX event.


The Enforcers at PAX Unplugged were pleasant and helpful. I have only praise for those who volunteer time to help out other gamers. PAX has a lot of moving parts and the volunteers do their best to contribute to the positive outcome of the show.

Expo (Vendor) Hall

The Expo Hall was quite large -- not quite, but coming close to the size of Origins. There was a variety of vendors from RPG and board game publishers, as well as an array of accessory vendors. I found it a little hard to get bearings as the published maps were rotated 90 degrees from how one might navigate in your head (for instance, I think of the front entry doors as the "top" of the map), but that's just a personal foible. I read a few complaints that re-sellers dominated the space (rather than original publishers), but that thought had not occurred to me. There were a few re-sellers such as Cool Stuff that had large, centrally located booths, but I didn't think that detracted. Most publisher booths were generally smaller and less flashy than one might see at Gen Con or Origins, but for the most part, there was plenty to see for a con of this size.


Tried out the Pathfinder play test with
none other than Erik Mona as GM.

One thing PAX Unplugged has going for it is that its association with Penny Arcade means there will always be an Acquisitions Incorporated show, as well as other gaming streams, appearing at the convention.

Being a "PAX", it is likely to attract people in the industry who are fan favorites, as well as many game industry insiders. I was able to say hello to many well known industry people -- Patrick Rothfuss, Satine Phoenix, Jim Zub, Scott Kurtz, the Dice Tower crew (Tom, Zee, and Sam), Erik Mona, Jeremy Crawford, Joe Goodman, as well as many other designers and artists. Given that it's a PAX, it's bound to attract the heavy weights every year.

Event Scheduling

Warning: Ranty wall of text.

I think this is where PAX Unplugged really loses against just about every other gaming con I’ve attended. Attendees were only allowed to register for some of the largest game tournaments, as well as some D&D Adventurers League modules. There was little way for show attendees to find other RPGs or board games, as there was no centralized schedule or listing of the smaller events.

Even at the RPG HQ (where attendees were intended to find RPGs run by GM’s attending the con), there were only about a dozen different RPGs for which to sign up. I checked the room at the beginning of each day and a few other times, but there was only a very limited selection each time I was there. I think this sign-up service may have suffered from lack of promotion.

At the Games On Demand area, there were probably ½ dozen games going on at any time, but you couldn’t sign up for specific games. You had to get there early to stand in line in hopes of getting the game you wanted. You weren’t guaranteed to play the one that interested you. For example, when I investigated, there was Mutant Year Zero RPG being run, but also a Monster Hearts and several other indie RPGs that just didn’t appeal to me. You don’t sign up for a specific game… you get placed in the pool of all the games being run that time slot. First come, first served.

I’m sure Monster Hearts is a perfectly good game, but I wanted to play a sentient, cybernetic badger in a post-apocalyptic Hellscape, not a teen-angst filled wolf boy. I didn’t want to wait an hour only to find out the game I wanted was full and I’d have to choose another random RPG (or just leave, having wasted an hour in line).

Board gamers may have had it even worse. You either had to hope to get in a very short demo of the game in the vendor hall, or ask at the publisher booth if they knew of anyone running the game in the free play area… Or you just walked around aimlessly in the free play area hoping to find a game you wanted to play with open spots. You were utterly on your own if you wanted to find a game. As it turns out, there were some people on the Board Game Geek forums scheduling their own ad-hoc pick-up games. This is honestly ridiculous. A large convention should provide a means of hooking players up together. PAX Unplugged didn’t even have its own user forums for this kind of matchmaking.

Looking at the schedule for a convention like Origins, all the major publishers can list a schedule of their game demos or tournaments. Independent GM’s can list their own RPGs or board games being run. Board games and RPGs are assigned table space and time slots which can be searched for by attendees in order to register ahead of time or, at the least, show up at game time in hopes of getting a spot. Smaller conventions might use Warhorn or Tabletop Events sites to list their games (or allow attendees to list their own events in order to find players).

There quite a few technological solutions that allow GMs to post games and attendees to sign up (just stay the hell away from Event Brite). This isn’t the case at PAX Unplugged. Attendees are forced to meander around the “free play” area in hopes of a random pick-up game.

It’s the worst.

I found myself on Saturday doing exactly that. I wandered around looking hopefully for a game that needed players. It was a huge waste of time, and extraordinarily hard to find the games I wanted to play. By contrast, Origins or Gen Con has a listing of hundreds of events for any given time slot. PAX appeared to have hundreds of games going on in the free play area, but good luck finding one you want because they appear on no schedule anywhere. It’s a scavenger hunt that no one wants.

I understand that Gen Con and Origins are both decades old and can still have issues with event registration, but the PAX team isn’t exactly new to the convention circuit. For me, this is one of the single greatest faults of the convention. There’s really no excuse to not have a system of sign-ups and wait lists that extend beyond just the D&D Adventurers League events. Even local conventions of a few hundred attendees provide this most basic event listings -- event location, time slot, number of players -- even if they don’t provide full on-line registration.

Any other gaming convention of this size would be widely panned for not including some kind of game listings or registration. Somehow PAX Unplugged gets a pass because it's a PAX.

Had a really fun crew to play with at the D&D Open.

D&D Adventurers League

One of the few event categories that did have pre-registration was D&D Adventurers League. Of course, the slots filled up within minutes of registration opening, which meant if you wanted to get in on the waitlist, you had to arrive really early before the event to be at the front of the wait line. I was lucky enough to get into the D&D Open from the waitlist. Due to the length of the Open (9 hours), Not many people waitlisted and they sat everyone. The Tier 2 games were much harder to get into except for Sunday.

The Role Initiative (TRI) did a good job keeping things organized. They’ve only been doing this a couple of years, but as far as I could tell, DDAL games ran fairly smoothly. There was a small shortage of Friday/Saturday DM’s due to sickness or no shows, but that is largely out of the control of organizers. Consider helping out TRI at future events. There was plenty of demand for Adventurers League and willing DM’s are always needed regardless of the size of a convention.

Final Thoughts

A convention like PAX Unplugged has a high bar to clear. It will inevitably be compared to other heavy weights in the gaming industry like Origins or Gen Con, which each have their own issues.

Event registration has been problematic for Origins in recent years and limited housing is Gen Con’s Achilles Heel. PAX Unplugged, on the other hand, has plentiful nearby hotels, but absolutely no event listings, other than the large games and seminars (many of which require standing in huge lines for hours).

If PAX Unplugged can manage even the most rudimentary event registration for smaller RPG and board games (aside from Adventurers League), it could easily surpass Origins as the go-to gaming convention for those living near the East Coast.

Lastly, support your local cons. There are a bounty of wonderful, smaller cons popping up all over the country that could use your love. The East Coast hosts many, such as BFG Con, 1d4 Con, MACE, Mars Con, PrezCon, RavenCon... Keep an eye out. Attend. Volunteer. Run a game.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Wizards quietly updates D&D Basic Rules PDF

You may have already read that Wizards of the Coast updated the errata PDFs for the Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide found here. But you may not have noticed that the D&D Basic Rules PDF has also been updated as of November 2018.

This update includes a fairly major overhaul of the content and layout. A good amount of artwork and stylistic improvements have been added to the text. The grayscale line art is particularly nice for a document which will be printed primarily on a home or office printer.

While previous versions of the Basic Rules separated the Player and Dungeon Master rules into two PDFs, the new document incorporates all the rules together. This is a big improvement... However, there is still a lot to be desired even with the combined rules document.

Wizards of the Coast has not addressed the organization of the monster stat blocks. Dragons are still not found under "D" and Giants are not found under "G". Instead of any categorization, there is literal alphabetization such as "Adult Red Dragon" appearing under "A" and "Young Green Dragon" appearing under "Y". These are also the only two dragons appearing in the entire document.

While I don't expect every monster in the SRD to appear in the Basic Rules, the fact that there are only two dragons contained in the Basic Rules is a massive failure. The name of the game is Dungeons & DRAGONS, for Pete's sake. The Basic Rules should at least contain some variety of dragon types -- a wyrmling or two, a couple examples of young dragons, a couple examples of adult dragons, at the least.

I'm really glad to see re-released, cleaner version of the Basic Rules that includes artwork, but the decision to overhaul the document without fixing the monster stat section and adding at least a few more selected creatures from the SRD has me scratching my head.

Warduke, by Richard Whitters (source: Basic Rules)
So, Mike Mearls, if your are listening, here's what you should do.
  1. Add more dragons. Seriously. This is a no-brainer. I mean... C'mon. Perhaps also pick a few others creatures from the SRD not currently in the Basic Rules.

  2. Put a Print-On-Demand version of the Basic Rules (with a really cool cover) on the DM's Guild for a relatively low price point ($10 - $15 if possible). 
Obviously, you would not want to put the Basic Rules into retail as this could cause consumer confusion and competition for the PHB, Monster Manual, etc. I get that. However, for D&D fans who want a cheap, introductory game to give to friends, a Print-On-Demand Basic Rules set (with a few more monsters) would make an amazing low-barrier-to-entry gift for non-gamers. I guarantee it would make enough money to be worth the minor amount of additional editing, and another great way to introduce new players.

Edit: For clarity, one thing to note is that the D&D Starter Set does not include the section on the Basic classes with the character generation rules, all the class features, and spells, etc. A PoD Basic would be a low-cost, portable and complete rule set with monsters stats.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Ep 9: Kraken's Gamble - Running Storm King's Thunder

In Episode 9 of Running Storm King's Thunder, I recap my group's run through Kraken's Gamble with an emphasis on what I did right and wrong and how you can adjust the encounters to make an exciting adventure for your group.

  0:00  Introduction to Kraken's Gamble (only $3!)
  1:25  The Kraken's Motivational Gaps
  3:30  Integrating Kraken's Gamble into larger SKT plot
  5:20  Oosith's Motives
  7:10  Developing new hooks into Yartar
  7:30  Giant Slayer Sword (Triboar Quest)
  8:06  Oosith and the Hand of Yartar
11:30  Missing Nobles
14:55  Challenging higher level PCs
16:00  Ramping up the Koa Toa encounter
17:30  Koa Toa tactics
18:40  Encounter balance considerations
19:10  Spreading out PC damage output
22:45  Simple ways to enhance the grid with 3D elements
28:30  Ramping up the Aboleth encounter
29:50  Dealing with Banishment
34:10  Using Domination wisely
36:00  Misdirection with Phantasmal Force
38:20  Limiting meta-gaming
40:45  Aboleth tactics
42:10  Concealment and Escape
43:10  Lair and Legendary actions
44:40  Using Domination on PCs
47:20  Altering the water flow to create more danger
50:40  Aboleth tactics recap
54:15  Aftermath and Future Yartar Hooks

Here are the pics from the terrain I set up (or created from scratch):

While the party is distracted by the Otyough, the Koa Toa attack from behind.

Level 2 - In the Aboleth lair, I simply carved and painted packing styrofoam to add some depth to the reservoir.

Level 1 - I combined 3D printed tiles alongside Dwarven Forge to build the full sewer layout

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

GM 101 - Why I Don't Fudge the Dice

Last year, I wrote about fudging dice rolls, but this topic has resurfaced due to a video Matt Colville put out the other night. In Matt's game, he is free to do what he believes is right for his group, but I think his take is bad advice for new Dungeon Masters. I think he glosses over potential problems at the table that may result when a DM fudges the dice.

Fudging die rolls can remove player agency and break the trust between a DM and the players. I'd hesitate to use this as a tool. It's unnecessary, as there are multiple other tools in a DM's toolbox to mitigate an evening of bad luck... and even a night of bad rolls can be fun and epic.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

D&D Is My Lifestyle Brand

D&D T-Shirt model
Need a t-shirt?
There is an infamous asshat curmudgeon who likes to complain that D&D has become a "lifestyle brand". The complaint is that Wizards of the Coast is more interested in selling D&D shirts, hats, bumper stickers, or what not, and not actually promoting the tabletop game -- that D&D "brand consumers" are more important to Wizards of the Coast than D&D players.

Who's got two thumbs and doesn't give a shit?  THIS GUY... and a lot of other people actually.

Here's the thing: More marketing for D&D is AWESOME. Seriously... When I go into Target and I see a D&D t-shirt on the rack I think,  "F*CK YEAH!"  Honestly, I would start shouting "F*CK YEAH!" all over the store if there weren't security concerns.

Source: 2warpstoneptune
Do I care if the person buying the D&D t-shirt has ever played before?  F*CK NO.  This is exactly why I want to see D&D art and logos on t-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, jigsaw puzzles, puffy stickers, Trapper Keepers (make it happen, Mead!), GMC cargo vans... Put the logo every-freaking-where.

Because that's how you attract new players!

If you don't get that, you are a moron.

Sure, I understand the counter point. I know Hasbro is looking enviously over at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and salivating over the money fights happening in the executive lounge. But that honestly doesn't matter. Any marketing of D&D as a wider brand also builds the player base, and that is the key to a vibrant table top community.

Because kids, I remember the Dark Times... Let me tell you a story.

Dungeons & Dragons portfolio
Source: eBay
Once upon a time, Gary Gygax had to defend Dungeons & Dragons on 60 Minutes as a game of fantasy and imagination, and not occultism and devil-worship. D&D was even forbidden at some schools. Think about what it felt like when playing D&D was considered weird... when people were ashamed to admit they played the coolest game on Earth.

Even though D&D audience was growing then (although not like today), I also recall the time TSR was mismanaged out of business and D&D had to be saved by a buyout from Wizards of the Coast.

Think also about what it was like living in the mid-to-late 1990s when table top RPGs were rapidly spinning into decline and bankruptcy. It wasn't just TSR. West End Games... Game Designer's Workshop... Big names in table top were disappearing completely, along with their IP.

So, when I'm out wearing my D&D t-shirts, like I did this past weekend at the local Oktoberfest, and at least 4 different people stop me to say "Cool shirt!", I reply

F*ck yeah!

D&D Basic art on a van
Shopping for my future ride...

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