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.



Links
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.

Security


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.

Enforcers


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.

Celebrity

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...

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

D&D Dragon Heist: Random Miniatures Suck

Trigger warning: Rant incoming.

I’ll never learn. Every once in a while I swear off random miniatures “for good”...

Then, a few sets go by which I avoid, or only buy a few singles, until one comes along where I’m all like “Hey, I could get a Griffin...  a War Elephant... a Beholder!”

Bzzzt! Dumb ass.

This is not entirely my fault. WizKids has this F’d up distribution where it’s actually likely that you may not get a Rare. Many boxes come with two Uncommons instead.

Not only that, but the Dragon Heist miniature Uncommons have some serious crap. In the few boxes I opened, not only did I not get a Rare miniature, I got the crappiest Uncommons in the list -- the Animated Door and the Vargouille.

Who f-ing idea was it to put both a Common and Uncommon Vargouille in the set? Who even uses that stupid-ass monster? I’ve been playing the game for 40 years and not once have I used or encountered a Vargouille. Not only that, but it’s a craptacular sculpt… and Animated Door? Really? How about something useful?

Animated Door - Vargouille
Seriously gang... Whose stupid ideas were these?

I get that sometimes you have to mix the popular, larger, and more expensive sculpts with ones that are cheaper to manufacture in order to keep costs down. But some of the minis is recent sets are just plain useless.

So here I am with an Animated Door and a Vargouille. I literally would prefer any other miniature from this set over these two pieces of Uncommon garbage. Heck, I can’t even find a damn non-random, unpainted Beholder... but that's another topic altogether.

I will never f-ing learn.

WizKids, you can do better.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Hommlet - Best of D&D 4e

The Village of Hommlet 4th Edition cover
While the new cover art was pretty cool, it
did a poor job of illustrating the module itself.
Best of 4th Edition, Part 4 - The Village of Hommlet

Wait, what?!? I thought this was about the Best of 4th Edition... 

It is!  You see, during the D&D Encounters days, Wizards of the Coast gave out a limited edition, revised version of the Village of Hommlet to D&D Encounters DM’s. They later reprinted these revisions in Dungeon #212.

In this revision of Hommlet, they altered some of the encounters a bit to tie the moat house bandit activity directly to Lareth the Beautiful’s overall plan. The changes to the encounters give the adventure a bit more internal consistency.

However, Wizards had to fit the moat house on a single poster encounter map, so the scale of the fortress was altered (to the chagrin of some). The revision also includes a bit more detail on the major NPCs and the “delve” page format of the 4th edition version makes it easier to run.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Dungeon - Best of D&D 4e

Dungeon #221 cover
Dungeon #221, December 2013
The Best of D&D 4th Edition, Part 3

Be sure to also check out Part 1 and Part 2.

As noted in my prior article on The Chaos Scar, product support for 4th Edition flourished under the Dragon and Dungeon PDF publications as a part of D&D Insider subscription. But what became one of the gems of the 4th Edition digital tools, had a bit of a rocky start.

In 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, which also marked the end of the print publication of Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. With the last issue (Dungeon #150) scheduled for release in August 2007, many fans of the magazines, myself included, were saddened and outspoken on Wizards.com forums about the demise of the print support.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Chaos Scar - Best of D&D 4e

Keep on the Borderlands

The Best of D&D 4th Edition, Part 2


Wait! Be sure to also read Part 1 of Best of D&D 4th Edition.

The 3rd Season of D&D Encounters (which later became Adventurer’s League) introduced the Chaos Scar in Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents. This Encounters season was a thematic hommage to the original B2 - Keep on the Borderlands module from 1980. It was not written as a conversion of the original module, as the Caves of Chaos were replaced by the Chaos Scar, a much larger ravine created hundreds of years prior by the crashing of a chaos-infused meteor from the Far Realms into the lands.

The Season of Serpents module was divided into 5 chapters, with 4 distinct 2-hour scenarios per chapter. The plot outlines a power struggle between Zehir and Tiamat cultists which involves machinations to control the Keep itself. Due to the D&D Encounters format (and the limitations thereof), the adventure is a fairly linear checklist of pre-defined combats to be run at game stores in order to introduce new players to the game. But, it is a fun adventure and the Chaos Scar setting itself was also supported through articles in the Dungeon Magazine PDFs, which immensely strengthens the overall utility of this module. The right DM can cobble the D&D Encounters module along with all of the supporting materials into a nice low-level sandbox campaign.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Reavers of Harkenwold - Best of D&D 4e

Reavers of HarkenwoldThe Best of D&D 4th Edition, Part 1


If you skipped D&D 4th Edition for whatever reason, you missed out on some amazing adventure content. Wizards of the Coast was testing out a different adventure designs with a publishing layout format requiring individual encounters within an adventure to fit on two pages only (mini-map included).

This format had its pros and cons, but despite its eventual abandonment, the format appears to have wrestled the creative juices out of the designers at the time (or perhaps in spite of it). The longs and short of it is that some of the adventures written for D&D 4th Edition are some of the best I’ve ever run over the course of many editions (for whatever reasons).

In this multi-part article, I will detail some of the best adventure content to come out of the core product and Dungeon Magazine teams that can be adapted to your D&D 5th edition (or any edition, really) game.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Low Cost D&D Terrain

Some simple 3D elements can make your table pop!
People who enjoy watching live-play D&D streams will notice some of the amazing terrain and dungeon set-ups that are often featured on these shows. There are products like Dwarven Forge and Miniature Building Authority that would make anyone oooh and aaah over the amazing creations that DMs can bring to the table… and there's a temptation to think we need to be as visually impressive in order to run a quality game.

But those props come at a relatively steep cost that make most game masters pause.

Do you really need those kinds of fancy props? Absolutely not… but sometimes you still want to put something out on the table that makes your players go “Wow… Cool!” You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to do it. Here are some cheap and easy options to spiff up your game.

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 riding the Cult-of-New wave.

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?”

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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

GM 101: Quick & Dirty Memorable NPCs

Pathfinder Face cards or similar NPC artwork
can help imprint NPCs into your players' memories.
Source: Paizo.com
There is a plethora of great advice on the web on making a memorable NPC, but often that advice assumes that NPC is one you have hand-crafted for a campaign as a spotlight character. Sometimes, you need an NPC on the spot, and you don’t want your players to regard him or her as “Random NPC #5”.

In a vibrant campaign, the potential should be there for the party to create a relationship with any NPC met along the way. Often times, the most surprising role playing can come out of a chance meeting with a random NPC.

There are a couple quick and dirty tricks I use which I call the “Quick & Dirty NPC Generator”. It's basically a sheet of paper with some notes to have nearby during your sessions. Here's how it works.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

D&D/OSR: Encumbrance Made Easy Redux

Ridiculously Encumbered PC
OK, but do you come with a cork screw?
Encumbrance is a bit of a pain in the rear, and has always been a tug of war between players and DMs, which is why most DMs hand-wave it. Players rarely track their weight, and PCs end up carrying all kinds of ridiculous equipment that apparently takes a single object interaction to get out of who knows which hole on the PC’s body.

In a previous article, I attempted to come up with a solution to the Swiss Army PC, but my players pretty quickly found the holes in the system, and I did not enforce its restrictions as I should have. Working on my BX-5 home brew rules, I’ve attempted to come up with a simpler, improved solution which can be more easily enforced.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Origins Registration Crapfest... Again

Every year, it's "Next year will be better!"

And then it isn't.

UPDATE 7:00 PM - The single event cart bug just got fixed, but the search is awful, since you need provide the date AND category along with the event name or number. Lots of small press RPG events appear to be missing from registration even though they are listed on the event grid csv.

UPDATE 05/03:  Missing - Every event from 9th Level Games, Most (about 20) from Pelgrane Press, and several others missing events from the registration portal (Steve Jackson, Green Ronin, etc). Of the roughly 6000 events, only about 3500 are present in the registration portal... an absolute sh!t show.

I hate being the Debbie Downer, but this absolutely preventable poop-storm just pisses me off. Again, this year (and just about every year since about 2010), Origins Game Fair registration arrived with yet another server or code catastrophe (or both)... because you can't always anticipate the unexpected, right?

Monday, April 30, 2018

D&D 5e: A Slower Healing Variant

For many who have played D&D over multiple editions, especially those from the TSR days, the rate of healing and recovery in 5th Edition may seem a bit fast. PCs come into every fight feeling fresh and energetic, which is a bit counter to the old school play style.

I wanted to be a healing and death to be a little more gritty than standard 5th Edition. I also wanted falling unconscious to be more dangerous and the possibility of instant death more likely. My desire was to removes some of the pop-tart effect of constantly letting the fighters drop to 0 hit points only to spring back up 6 seconds later. The healers should be doing their jobs before the front line falls unconscious.

When considering the changes, I thought the 7-day long rest variant as outlined in the Dungeon Master's Guide was overdoing it. While want healing magic to become a more important resource to be managed, I did not wish to alter other long rest recharge powers. In that vein, I wrote up a slower healing variant for B/X-5, my own home brew homage to Old School D&D. I think this modification strikes a balance between seemingly fast default healing and  overly slow variants I've seen. Healing works essentially the same as in 5th Edition with some minor changes highlighted below.
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