Tuesday, August 14, 2018

GM 101: The D&D Quest Log

Campaigns have lots of moving parts. There are likely dozens of NPCs, a couple main quest hooks, and several side quest hooks. There are also clues, rumors, random bits of lore, and locations of significance that your players will stumble upon over the course of months. It's hard enough to remember what happened in the game 2 sessions ago, much less 3 or 4 months ago.

Quest Log note card
Notes in a quest log can be short and sweet.
How do they keep track of all of that?

The Quest Log

One of the biggest player challenges (and probably one of the simplest to solve) revolves around player note-taking. Ideally, there's at least one player at the table who is keeping a set of notes written and organized for easy reference... And yet, remembering (or finding) the information the PC's need, even when there are extensive notes, is often still a chore. 

One of my players keeps extraordinarily detailed notes. So detailed that the Google document is now dozens and dozens of pages long. I think he may be planning a novelization... But even with such extensive notes, something as simple as finding all the recent NPC hooks is a daunting task.

To simplify the burden, the GM should keep some simple colored index cards on hand during the sessions. Each time the PCs get an clue, plot, or quest hook, simple jot a couple quick notes down an hand it to the player. It's as easy a 4 lines.

Short hook description, NPC name, NPC location, notes... Perhaps a date stamp for organization. If you use a variety of colors, you can even use the card's color as part of the organization. Yellow for NPC quests, pink for plot clues, blue for interesting locations (with no specific quest attached)... Or anything along those lines. 

EDIT: For those that use a wiki and/or notebook, this method would not necessarily replace those notes, but enhance them with a stack of quest cards right at the table during play for easy reference.

Again, keep it short and simple. The idea is not for you to write all their notes for them, but to give them an easily organized visual reference for specific hooks to which they can add more notes. It should take no more than a minute or two to jot the quest or plot hook down, and your players will have a quick reference for all sorts of happenings in your game world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Problems Players and the Social Contract - GM 101, Episode 2

If social media is any indication, newer game masters have a lot of issues with disruptive players in their game. These issues are not difficult to resolve if you and your players understand the what the social contract is and how it applies to in-game and out of game behavior at the table. Here's advice on how you should manage disruptive players at your gaming table.

  0:00   Introduction
  0:55   What is the Social Contract?
  1:11   (moment of dementia)
  1:40   Rule 1 - Don't be a jerk.
  1:54   Don't do these things.
  2:22   D&D is a team sport.
  4:44   Don't be "that guy" (or gal).
  5:50   "It's what my character would do."
  6:52   How to manage the problem player as the DM.
  7:00   Don't "punish" the player. Talk to them.
  7:25   Example of how to approach the problem player.
10:20   Consensual in-game conflict
11:30   The DM also facilitates the social interactions
12:05   Personal anecdote of problem players
14:30   Summary points

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Is Gloomhaven overrated?

Gloomhaven pops up on my social media radar every couple weeks where inevitably someone asks “Is it really that good or is it all hype?”  

And inevitably there are two camps that answer.

Pro-GH: It’s the awesomest, amazingest best game ever. There’s a reason it’s #1 on BGG!

Anti-GH: Oh God. It’s soooo over-hyped and overrated. It’s just a boring/grindy RPG wanna-be card game.

Ok, perhaps a bit of hyperbole there, but the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. I don’t usually write about board games, but this game in particular is RPG adjacent and I find these discussions on social media do very little to help the potential buyer know whether they might like it or not, so I’m adding my (hopefully) more measured response to the discussion.

So the question I answer is really “Given my game preferences, will I like Gloomhaven?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

D&D: The eSports Conniption

D&D social media pooped its pants the other day when the Hasbro CEO referred to “eSports” in a conversation about Magic, D&D, and their respective profitability.

So, first thing’s first. Unknot your panties and clean out your shorts.

First of all, if you actually watch the entire interview and look at context (I know, I know, it’s so much more fun to get mad about out-of-context quotes…), the Hasbro CEO was discussing the digital brands of Magic the Gathering and D&D… In other words, video games and such… not tabletop. He also specifically mentioned viewers watching competitive Magic the Gathering.

It’s not unimaginable that we might see PvP-style multiplayer video games with either Magic or D&D branding. Recall that the WotC President, Chris Cocks, comes from a video gaming background. Video games are high on his list of priorities. But hopefully something a bit more exciting than last year's Dungeon Chess (unfortunately, not kidding here).

Second, let’s pretend for a moment that he was talking about tabletop D&D -- to be clear, he wasn’t. Dungeons & Dragons has a long, long history of tournament adventures created for conventions.

To the Aid of Falx
The Egg of the Phoenix
The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
The Ghost Tower of Inverness
White Plume Mountain

The list goes on and on. Given the popularity of D&D streams, it’s not out of realm of possibility that adventures like these could be run as one-shot tournament streams for viewers, alongside longer campaigns like Critical Role.

So, take a pill and relax. You are literally already watching D&D on YouTube and Twitch. Tournament style D&D is just kickin’ it old school.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

D&D: Who is Ravnica for?

Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica
Possibly useful for an urban homebrew campaign?
Yesterday’s announcement of a new hardback for a Ravnica D&D campaign setting has a lot of fans scratching their heads.

Eberron fans only got a PDF update with some fleshed out UA content that has gotten a bit of a “meh” reaction. Forgotten Realms fans are griping, “Where is our full campaign sourcebook?” (Given the release of SCAG and other edition resources from the DM’s Guild, a campaign guide is not likely to happen any time soon). Greyhawk fans are pissed that 2nd Edition was really the last time the setting saw any love what-so-ever… And there’s Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Planescape, and others... One can only hope for a PDF update on DM’s Guild (which I discussed yesterday).

So Why Ravnica?

It’s actually not too hard to figure out… Money.  As in, Magic the Gathering brings in way more money than D&D ever has. On a 2016 earnings call, Hasbro management estimated that they have from 15 to 20 million active Magic players. That's a lot of potential consumers.

D&D as a brand is growing and Wizards/Hasbro wants to leverage that brand for their other consumers. Magic is an obvious low-barrier avenue to expand the player base. Even though it’s a Pokemon-esque card flopping game, it is fantasy-themed and has a deep lore associated with it. Wizards of the Coast already has their internal “lore bibles” for all the Magic releases, so why not leverage all that unseen content?

EDIT: To be clear, I am not against this decision. It is a smart and profitable move by Wizards to expand the D&D audience.

There is a certain synergy in bringing the brands together in a joint marketing push.

1. Magic players are already familiar with Wizards of the Coast, and even if they don’t play D&D, they are certainly aware of it. There is already some Wizards of the Coast brand loyalty that exists.

2. Retailers can display the new D&D book right alongside their Magic decks and booster. There is a perfect “Hey, have you heard they released a D&D campaign setting?” sales pitch built in.

3. Don’t discount the power of the parent’s wallet. Younger kids may be playing Magic, but the purchase power really comes from Mom & Dad. Many of the parents may have played D&D in their younger days. Many of them even play Magic with their kids today. It makes sense to court the parents as well as the kids.

But Will It Sell?

There is always financial risk in courting a different market from your core fan base. Magic has deep lore built into the game… But how many Magic players actually care about the flavor text on their cards? Are there fans of Magic who are deep into the fluff of the game? Will they actually care enough to spend the money?

Plane Shift: Ixalan
Hmm... This could be a thing...
What we also don’t know is whether Ravnica will be a complete game with PC classes, game world, and monster stats all included, or if it will mostly be only a D&D campaign guide (the book cover and Planeshift PDFs seem to indicate the latter). We do know that D&D does not have a magic system that would support the “5 mana color” flavor of Magic spells. Will those lore fans be disappointed at a spell slot system that has none of the feel of Magic the Gathering?

Wizards likely has the market research that tells them this will at least be a moderate hit, and I’m sure they know exactly how many people have downloaded their D&D Planeshift PDFs… but downloading a free PDF is a far cry from purchasing a $50 hardback book.

However, if they are able to sell this book to one-tenth of 1% of their Magic fan base, that’s at least a half-million dollars in revenue. If they sell to half of 1% of their existing Magic players, that will likely be between $1.5 and $2 million in revenue for the D&D brand.

Final Thoughts

One thing I have noticed, is that the Plane Shift PDFs have come out in close proximity to similarly themed D&D adventures. Innistrad went with Curse of Strahd. Ixalan matches somewhat well with Tomb of Annihilation... and now Ravnica corresponds roughly with the release of a Waterdeep-based urban campaign.

For me personally, Ravnica holds little interest. Plane Shift: Ixalan feels like it could have been fleshed out even more into a full blown campaign setting. I’ll likely browse the Ravnica book when it hits retailers to see if there might be anything useful for a homebrew game, but I admit I am not the target market. The goal of Wizards is to turn at least a small percentage of their Magic players into D&D players.

And that would be a damn big payday for D&D... But it also risks of a big pile of unsold books. Let's hope for the former.

Monday, July 23, 2018

D&D: Eberron for 5th Edition is a Seismic Shift

Wizards of the Coast announced not just one, but two new campaign settings for D&D 5th Edition. The Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron is an PDF update release through the DM’s Guild for $20.

Eberron was originally introduced during D&D’s 3rd Edition and remained popular even during the D&D 4e rule set. Releasing this update through the DM’s Guild instead via print will be sure to upset some fans, but make a lot of business sense from Wizards’ perspective.

1. It allows them to gauge interest in the setting without the massive costs of publishing a hardback book. Assuming interest is strong, Wizards may offer a hardcover print-on-demand version through DM’s Guild. (Mike Mearls has already confirmed a POD version will be available when the rules are out of beta).

2. It opens up another setting to the DM’s Guild creators aside from Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft. This is especially nice for those with magic-tech ideas that might not fit more traditional D&D fantasy genre.

This is a seismic shift for Wizards of the coast, since no other official 5th Edition product has been offered direct-to-consumer through the DM’s Guild. There are some drawbacks with this move, though.

As noted, fans of the setting may feel slighted that Eberron is not getting a print release while Ravnica is. Additionally, the Friendly Local Game Stores may feel a bit of trepidation as this is the first direct-to-consumer offering from Wizards of the Coast. Up until today, no official D&D 5th Edition product has been offered as a PDF. If I were a bricks & mortar retailer, I might be somewhat unsettled by this development (while feeling somewhat calmed that Ravnica is coming -- more on that later).

Other Updates to Come?

For my part, I am immensely excited at the prospect. I’m not a big fan of the Eberron setting, but this development means there may be hope for other 5th Edition updates that are unlikely to get a hardback book. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, and Planescape are all likely candidates for a PDF-only release.

Greyhawk hasn't seen an official release for... well, longer than most people can remember. Dragonlance had a major update during the 3rd Edition and Dark Sun got its own 4th Edition hardback... but any one of these could be a nice outreach to fans of those settings. Given that psionics is openly being worked on at Wizards of the Coast, Dark Sun would seem to be a strong candidate for the next PDF update, and since it is not as "generic fantasy" as Greyhawk and Nentir, it doesn't compete as much with the Forgotten Realms.

However, I’d really love to see an update for the Nentir Vale. During D&D’s 4th Edition, a Nentir Vale campaign setting almost (but-not-quite) saw print. It hit the release schedule, but was later removed. A fair amount of the content for the proposed book made it into Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, which was probably one of the best products of the entire 4th Edition line. However, a stand alone setting book was never released.

Recently, Mike Mearls has been updating his “home game” version of the Nentir Vale document and showing the occasional sneak-peek on Twitter. These peeks look a lot like what one might find in an official update. A Nentir Vale update on the DM’s Guild would be an amazing win for fans of 4th Edition and the Vale.

Friday, July 13, 2018

GM 101: Build Meaningful Encounters

D&D bar fight!
There is little doubt that combat encounters with fantastic creatures is a core focus in Dungeons & Dragons and its like. Often times, this contact may involve the judicious use of deadly force, but not always. Non-combat encounters also make up a large portion of the game.

When building encounters, present them in such a way that they don’t automatically result in a fight to the death. Encounters, as a general rule, should serve some larger purpose or meaning within the game beyond just rolling dice and killing orcs.

So as a GM, when you design an encounter, ask yourself, “What is the story goal?”
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