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?”

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

D&D: Myths and Legends of Encounter Balance

Grumpy Old Man
In my day, we even didn't have armor. We tied dead raccoons
to our bodies to protect us from orcish arrows and we loved it!
“In my day, we didn’t have encounter balance. That’s the way it was and we liked it! The party would either run away or get eaten. We loved it!”

I constantly hear a old school grognards bitching and moaning about how the game is “terrible” now that “all encounters are balanced”. They rail against CR (or EL) as a tool because somehow believe it puts training wheels on the game.

I call bullshit.

First, CR is a tool, like any other, at the disposal of the Dungeon Master so that they might know how difficult a group of opponents may be to a party of of a particular level. Does this mean all encounters must be matched with the level of the party? 

Of course not. It’s a canard to suggest otherwise, to put it nicely. Or to put it less nicely, “Bullshit.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

GM 101: How Not to Run a D&D Convention Game

I debated whether I wanted to write this. I am the first to admit I am not the greatest DM out there. Almost all of my advice columns come directly from mistake that I made at the table that I only recognized in retrospect.

This is not a substitute for a room description.
However, I had yet another sub-par experience with D&D Adventurers League and there seem to be some obvious adjustments DMs could make for both games at conventions and in their home. Forgive me if this gets a bit ranty, but looking back in retrospect has bubbled up all those frustrations I had during play.

Don’t Skimp the Descriptions


This is my single biggest beef with organized play… and it has happened to me on more than one occasion.

DM: You’re enter the room and here’s what you see (places some markers on a map). Roll initiative!

Seriously, this pisses this shit out of me. D&D is a game of imagination. Players can’t immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the game if you don’t freaking give them any mental picture. A square with some squiggles on a dry erase map is not freakin’ enough!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Gaming 101: Bullies and Samaritans

Miniature skirmish games often have awesome terrain.
I hate to start a post-con wrap up with this topic, but I think this is singularly important to point out what I witnessed this weekend. Notice I didn't say “discuss” because there is no discussion. What happened was awful behavior and I want everyone to recognize it and put a stop to it when they see it.

While this incident happened in a miniatures game, I've seen this kind of behavior in many different kinds of games, and even once at my own table... so the lesson here is universal.

My wife and I attended a miniatures event this weekend at a well known convention, which should have been incredibly fun, but was hamstrung by events that occurred in the first turn. The set up was this: the players were all monsters and the town was the focus of our destructive behavior. It was a players vs. the environment situation. It was like “Rampage” (the video game) but with giant miniatures and a pseudo-medieval setting.

However, there was a caveat -- PvP was allowed in the game. It wasn’t against the rules to attack another player, but it was obvious (to me at least) that this kind of thing might happen later in the game when chaos was in full swing and the event was winding down.

So, here’s where things went sideways.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Ep 8: The Slog at Grudd Haug - Running Storm King's Thunder

The long overdue episode 8 where you can learn from my DM'ing mistakes!

Not only did it take my group forever to finish off this particular giant lair (basically, my fault), this video also runs a bit long... So if you just want the meat of my advice, watch the beginning and the end using the index below.

Addendum: One thing that I don't think I stressed enough in the video, is that I didn't create enough of a sense of urgency. As an example, the party didn't know Guh had prisoners that were on the menu. Even when the thief scouted, he did not specifically scout the prison area. I should have created a scene for him to witness with the prisoners suffering at the hands of the bugbears or similar to emphasize that time was a critical factor in their assault on the lair.




01:45 Considering the challenges in running a large lair with a multitude of opponents
2:00 Will it be a cakewalk or TPK?
4:20 How will the lair react once combat breaks out? Where will the creatures move?
6:40 When the PCs do commit, how to the monsters react based on their intelligence and allgiences?
8:40 How does one present clues and options to the players without telling them what to do?
9:00 When you group meets infrequently, how do you optimize sessions and keep momentum to get through a large lair like Grudd Haug?
10:00 - 35:00 My group's hit and run tactics on Grudd Haug
38:48 Send opponents in waves to amp up the combat pressure.
46:45 Give scouting hints.
47:10 Don't save them if they get over their heads, but consider non-TPK options if it happens.
50:00 Don't hold back intel. Better to overshare clues to keep them party moving than to give them too little.
52:00 For giant lairs, chop it up into larger combats, instead of lots of small combats with few opponents. YMMV.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

GM 101: Ep 1 - The Importance of Session 0

The first episode of my new GM 101 video blog is a companion piece to my earlier article on Session 0, I talk about what "Session 0" is and why it's so important to establish a baseline of expectations for your campaign before it starts, including aspects such as play style, realism, PvP, and character compatibility.

Sorry that the color balance is so far off. I may need to re-shoot, but I hope the content makes up for the video quality.



0:55 What is Session 0 and what does it entail?
1:50 Session 0 establishes the campaign framework and sets player expectations.
3:00 What is the genre? What is the level of realism? Heavy RP or kick-in-the-door combat?
5:00 Establish your genre and play style baseline.
6:50 How incompatible play styles can harm the fun.
7:55 Session 0 involves some compromise.
8:30 Discuss home brew rules so players aren't unpleasantly surprised.
9:40 The dangers of PvP aspects in a game, and how it can be handled at the table.
11:45 Example of how incompatible play style can break up the game.
17:20 Don't make a character incompatible with the group.
19:05 Discuss how the characters know one another and trust each other.
20:50 Next video teaser: the Social Contract

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Did the OGL save D&D?

Teos Abadia (@Alphastream) posted a “controversial” tweet about the Open Game License (OGL) which spurred a good debate about D&D and RPGs in general. I wanted to write more about that… not as a virtual poke in Teos' eye (whose ideas contribute greatly to the community), but more as a reflection of how I think the OGL has benefited the hobby as a whole.

@Alphastream wrote:
My unpopular opinion: I don’t think the OGL does much to keep our game alive. Real “life” comes from active community and active developing rules. You can keep playing the same old edition, but that is unlikely to thrive. Look at 5E for thriving.
So, I think I know where he’s going with this. If I am not taking him out of context, the opinion is that a new edition has the power of active designers publishing new materials, as well as an active player community. Whereas “old” editions slowly dwindle because there is little new development and new players aren’t really being brought into the community.

He’s not entirely wrong. D&D 5th Edition thrives because of the very active designers and players in the community, creating enthusiasm and outreach to a broader audience.

But I think that he missed the point of the OGL/d20 SRD as a “savior” (for lack of a better word) of D&D. The OGL was a preventative measure to ensure that D&D (as a concept, not a brand) would continue to be played as a tabletop RPG, rather than a shuttered intellectual property. The OGL was really an insurance policy against a large corporation acquiring the brand and sitting on it.

As Ryan Dancy wrote: "I also had the goal that the release of the SRD would ensure that D&D in a format that I felt was true to its legacy could never be removed from the market by capricious decisions by its owners." (Paizo forums, Nov 23, 2010)

You see, when a company like Hasbro acquires an IP like D&D, that doesn’t necessarily mean its future as a pen & paper tabletop game is assured. D&D as a brand is valuable for video games, movies, board games, and other future media (VR? Augmented Reality?).

Luckily for us, Hasbro (it seems) recognized that the value in the brand has tabletop at its heart and has given Wizards of the Coast the autonomy to grow the tabletop part of the brand in the best ways they are able… but it could have gone very differently.

The other point I think Teos didn’t closely consider is that the OGL is largely responsible for a large portion of the growth of RPGs as a hobby outside of D&D. This is the critical detail, in my mind, of how the OGL benefits the hobby. The OGL is largely responsible for the success of nearly all of the 3rd party publishers out there, making content not just for D&D, but also other IP developed under the OGL.

Paizo, Goodman Games, Kobold Press, Troll Lord Games, Green Ronin, Monte Cook Games, Frog God Games… the list goes on. Most of these companies were founded during d20 era when WotC published the d20 System Reference Document. The OGL allowed these nascent publishers to build D&D content (or D&D-like games) without having to worry about hiring costly lawyers to advise on all the IP and copyright restrictions (hazards) of publishing D&D-adjacent titles. The OGL was a one-stop shop for avoiding WotC/Hasbro lawsuits.

After these publishers established success using D&D as a stepping stone, many of them moved on to build other games. Pathfinder, Numenera, 13th Age, Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Mutant Future, Spycraft, Cypher System…  Manyof these spawned directly out of the d20 SRD, while the others are new creations that grew due to the economic benefit provided by the OGL. These publishers have also grown their own player communities within the hobby.

Final Thoughts


While the OGL may not have “saved” D&D, as a brand, it certainly has provided the hobby the fertile loam upon which independent publishers have grown and flourished which has, in turn, created a healthier ecosystem for D&D and its brethren.

In that way, the OGL has preserved D&D (and other TTRPGs) for future generations, regardless of what company holds the brand.

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