26 August 2013

Dealing With Stat Blocks

Stat blocks are an increasingly larger portion of D&D that I don't particularly agree with. If you look at how the blocks have evolved between second to fourth edition, you'll see how the area taken up by it continues to grow until they take up about half of a full page on their own. I hate that. I like to use a wide range of monsters and I've never been one to flip open the Monster Manual every time there's a new encounter. Those books take enough use without having to worry about them slowing down the game.

So what do I do? I usually make my own stat blocks in a word processor on my computer. It takes a bit longer to prep beforehand, but over time it's ended up saving me a ton of time during games as well as paper and expensive ink. As my collection of prepped monsters increases, it becomes easier and easier to prep games, as I can just copy and paste the relevant ones I want to use that night to a separate piece of paper. Essentially what I'll do is have about two and a half to three pages of stat blocks, and another half page with male and female names for when a player asks an NPC their name, and a series of short potential plot ideas that may or may not ever come into play. That will all fit into about three or four pages, and those quick, easy to reference pages have all the information I could possibly need in a night, or even several nights.

My stat block takes a page out of second edition's method. It's a packed block of text that has all the relevant game information in it, with no ecology information. My memory will serve that part, and oftentimes my ecology of a monster might be different than what's written, so it ends up being inconsequential. Things like languages spoken and treasure type are thrown out, and only combat information remains. This does not mean that the players can only engage in combat with anything they encounter, but for my style of DMing, it means that combat is the only time where rules will take a particularly enforced position. Otherwise, the creature or NPC is there to serve my purpose, and will engage with the players in a way I see fit for the situation. This is important, as it is vital not to let the rules get in the way of an interesting non-combat situation. The rules are there to serve you, not enslave you. Something my players need reminding of now and then.

So the stat block goes like this:

HD , HP , Int: +, Speed: , AC T F, Str  Dex  Con  Int  Wis  Cha , BA/CMB/CMD: +/+/, Attacks: , Special Attacks: , Special Qualities: , Saves: +/+/+. CR: . Gear/Treasure: . Space/Reach: /.

I'll fill in the name in bold and tack on the type at the end. So a simple goblin stat block looks like this:

Goblin: HD 1, HP 6, Int: +6, Speed: 30, AC16 T13 F14, Str 11 Dex 15 Con 12 Int 10 Wis 9 Cha 6, BA/CMB/CMD: +1/+0/12, Attacks: short sword +2 (1d4/19-20), short bow +4 (1d4/x3), Special Qualities: darkvision 60ft, perception -1, Saves: +3/+2/-1. CR: 1/3. Gear/Treasure: leather armor, light wooden shield, short sword, short bow, 20 arrows. Space/Reach: 5/5. NE Small Humanoid (Goblinoid).

You'll notice no special attacks there. For something with special attacks or the like, a stat block might look like this:

Chuul: HD 10, HP 85, Int: +7, Speed: 30 (swim 20), AC22 T12 F19, Str 25 Dex 16 Con 18 Int 10 Wis 14 Cha 5, BA/CMB/CMD: +7/+15 (+19 grapple)/28 (32 vs trip), Attacks: 2 claws +14 (2d6+7 plus grab), Special Attacks: constrict (grapple as free action, deals 2d6+7 dmg/rd) paralytic tentacles (can transfer grappled victim from claw to tentacle as move action, FORT DC 19 or be paralyzed for 6 rds, mandibles deal 1d8+7 dmg/rd), Special Qualities: darkvision 60ft, perception +19, sense motive +9, immunities (poison), amphibious, Combat Reflexes (can make 4 AoOs in a rd), Blind-Fight (reroll miss chance due to concealment, invisible attackers don’t gain bonuses), Saves: +7/+6/+9. CR: 7. CE Large Aberration (Aquatic).

Careful observers might detect that the Chuul actually has more feats than described. I ignore feats that are already rolled into the monster's stats, as they would just take up space and ink otherwise. In this case, Alertness, Improved Initiative, and Weapon Focus (claw) are all already accounted for in the monster's stats. Detailing that there was a feat to do so is pointless while running a game. In addition to simplifying the block, I also like to make the monster's name link back to the d20pfsrd or the dandwiki, so on my computer I have easy and instant access to the official stat block. I find it helps, and keep a record of any changes I might have made with a template or the like.

The general point is to ignore unimportant information. While it may be interesting to know that a chuul has Knowledge (nature) +8, how relevant could that possibly be to a player when confronted by one in a swamp? Or to a DM who can make up what it knows anyway? Not very.

Feel free to steal the basic stat block if you want or need to. By no means is it the most comprehensive version, but it does save me space, and in-game time. How about you? Do you have a unique solution to the massive stat blocks that are presented in the Monster Manual and the Bestiary? An opinion on the way they are done? If so, leave a comment.

Relevant Links
D&D Wiki

30 May 2013

How To Counter Meta-Gaming

Defined, meta-gaming is a character using the knowledge that a player has. When a player knows that a baatezu is immune to poison when his character has never encountered one nor studied one before, that's not meta-gaming. When that same character tells the party not to use poison on it, that's meta-gaming. All players will have knowledge their characters don't, it's only when that knowledge is used and applied to the game that it becomes meta-gaming.

The act is generally frowned upon, since it ruins the immersion of the game, and finding players who can refrain from doing it is difficult. Not that they are being malicious, it's just hard to do. A player themselves is the first line of defense against meta-gaming. I have one player who is very adamant about not doing it, and will go to lengths to not only not look up information in the books his character wouldn't know, but also make decisions he knows are ill-advised in order to not break immersion. These players are gold and should be cherished, but not held to as a standard. Not everyone can match that level of commitment. Not to mention intentionally walking into danger can be scary when the DM is as lethal as I am.

When the players are unable to avoid meta-gaming, the DM can step in to do his part. Be careful assuming that this is a problem that always needs fixing however; some games do just fine with it, and the occasional slip up won't ruin a game. But if your players are doing it all the time, knowingly or not, the DM can make moves of his own to stop it. Allow me to profer some suggestions:

Call It Out: Simply let the players know that it's happening and to make attempts to curtail it. Usually this is enough to stop it, though most players I've noticed will come up with some convoluted reason why their character knows that trolls are weak against fire. This can be fixed by agreeing with the players what is considered common knowledge and what isn't. If trolls are a common nuisance that is dealt with regularly by simple folk, sure. If there's only one troll in a thousand miles, maybe not.

Subvert The Trope: Everyone knows the mysterious stranger that comes to them in the tavern is totally going to betray them. That ring that has a mind of its own is super evil. The town full of innocent farm folk is just waiting for the moment to prove they're a crazy cult. Everyone knows these tropes, and can see them a mile away. What I like to do is make a few short mini-adventures show-casing exactly what they expect. Yes, the ring is evil. Yes, the mysterious stranger betrays them. This makes the players feel comfortable and even a little smug in their predictions. Not only that, but playing into established tropes can be really fun at times. It can even get players who don't normally role play to join in the fun, fulfilling the trope's hero roles that are expected of them. It's when players abuse this series of expectations that I will subvert what is expected. Suddenly the bad guy won't be the dark figure in the robe but the nice old lady who fed them soup when they were beaten and tired. It will be their trusted friends. The suspicious town will only be suspicious because they were planning a birthday surprise for the mayor, but they will only discover this after they've killed everyone in town. Changing what is expected can teach players that your world is not a cliché, and that meta-gaming will not be allowed.

Lie: How's your poker face? This is my preferred method to deal with the problem, and it counter-acts the most prevalent version of meta-gaming; reading the DMs face. Besides what the players already know, they actually get most of their cues from the game from you. This is perfectly understandable since their only window into the world is what you tell them. If you don't tell them something exists, it doesn't exist. Watch your players' faces the next time you are running a game. You may notice they look at you quite a bit, obviously for the aforementioned reason, but also for another. They're reading you for clues. Do you have any tells? Things you only do in certain situations? It may behoove you to study yourself sometime and see if you're the biggest problem. Since realizing this, I've become quite good at facially lying to my players. As DM I have to be truthful in my words, at least when regarding what the players perceive, but I will never let my face betray what is really going on. Even something as simple as a smile may tip off the players that a trap lies hidden on this door.

Not only can a good poker face keep meta-gaming at bay, it is all but required to convincingly play lying NPCs. If the players think the DM is lying, they will think the NPC is lying. This is also part of why I don't have every NPC know everything they ask. Why would a cobbler know anything about the city guard's schedule? Why would he care? So when the players talk to a knowledgable character, they are glad to find someone who knows about their inquiry, not thinking that everything he says could be a lie. If they display other trustworthy habits and mannerisms, all the better to make them seem reliable. Not every character lies, obviously, but some may. I have a player who intentionally says things like "I think he's lying" to his fellow players, then darts a look at me to see my reaction. He's reading me for a tell, to see if I'll give away whether he's lying or not. A shift in my gaze, a nervous roll of the dice. I give him nothing. In those moments my face is a wall. It has gotten me the reputation with that group of having a very good poker face. But it doesn't stop them from still trying. They are attempting to meta-game.

After I realized what they were doing, that's when I started to intentionally change my reaction when I wanted to instill doubt in them, whether the NPC was lying or not. Characters they knew and trusted would act normally, but I would act differently, putting on a show, acting, to make them think maybe they were lying. I was doing my duties as DM, but turning the tables against their meta-gaming. They cannot trust what they read from me to affect their knowledge of the game, and that is as it should be. DMs should remember that not only are they acting to portray NPC characters, but they are also acting for their players. There are two games going on at every RPG table, and a good DM is adept at both.

I hope I've helped you or given you some ideas on how to curtail meta-gaming at your table. I'd love to hear how other gamers managed to stop it as well, so feel free to comment below if you have something to add to the discussion. Thanks for reading!

12 May 2013

Ending A Campaign

Ending a campaign is a difficult process. One of my games is coming to a close within a month or so, and I'm actually extremely nervous. This current campaign is the final one of three that have taken three years to come to fruition, and now that the end is nigh, I have to worry about making it truly epic and worth the investment my players have put into it.

Part of the trepidation comes from the inevitability of The Big Reveal, in which a secret that I've hidden clues to throughout the campaign is unleashed, leaving the players hopefully with minds blown. Pretty much the entire game has been leading to this moment from level one all the way to level twenty. How does one reveal a game changing secret without making the players feel betrayed or cheated, and how does one end a campaign three years in the making?

My first campaign ended on a cliffhanger, with the players having unwittingly revived an evil god from the dead, leading to the death of the paladin's god and the players being banished to a realm of eternal war and strife. It was dramatic, intense, epic, and suitably final if the players didn't wish to continue. The second campaign that grew from the first ended almost peacefully, though they did change the very face of Sigil and had an encounter with the Lady of Pain. It was more a self-contained campaign story that held elements of the overarcing plot but the ending didn't expand on it much. I was a tad disappointed in that ending. Now on the third and final campaign of the story, I find myself drawn to the same elements that ended the first one. Overblown set pieces seem to really make good endings, so I hope to include some in mine.

I'm a firm believer in cliffhangers, and I am going to incorporate one into this one, despite it being the end of a three part series. The characters will move on and get their happy endings, but of course, a darker, more powerful enemy lies in the shadows, waiting for the world to lower its guard once again. I don't know if we will ever return to this campaign world, but I want to be able to go somewhere with the plot in case we do. An important part of serial story-telling, which tabletop gaming most definitely is, is not trapping oneself in a corner where the only way out is through ham-fisted deus ex machina mechanics (coughcoughCrisisOnInfiniteEarthscoughcough). Leaving a story element unfinished leaves that strand to be pulled later. Even if it's years later.

As for The Big Reveal, this is what's been giving me an ulcer since it was first conceived years ago. Keeping a secret from the players can be tricky. If you spring it on them with no clues they feel cheated and abused. As DM you are their only window into the world, you control all information, and by not sharing the proper information, one runs the risk of alienating their players. On the other hand, showing too many clues can betray the secret too soon, and the players may come to the realization before the plan can reach its natural epic conclusion. This occurrence is not as big a deal in my mind, because if they do figure it out, it's up to the DM to reward that ingenuity. Besides, enemies can always have contingency plans, or perhaps something even more epic will happen as a result of a ruined plan.

In my case, I have dropped several subtle clues here and there throughout the game, even going so far as to completely misdirect the players in the wrong direction using clues. I'll cover more on those sort of techniques in my entry on using player meta gaming against them. In the end, I plan on referencing all the clues to show the players this did not come out of nowhere. One proven method for my group is the passage of time. The longer apart my clues are, the harder they are to piece together. In a three year game, clues can be months apart. Any questions they ask about past events that they may not remember are immediately answered however. It's not my job to hinder the players in matters that their much more adept characters would know.

In the end, I think I'll probably make the final set piece into a grand encounter against their nemesis who is attempting to rise to godhood mid-fight. He will advance to different levels of deity using the Deities & Demigods rules, eventually advancing into an enemy so mind-bogglingly powerful they will truly despair and feel weak in comparison. The party had used imprison against a llinorm earlier in the adventure, well what if the fight took them to the center of the earth where it was imprisoned in stasis, and the nemesis attempts to bring it back to attack them? What if they rode the llinorm through the core of the planet? What if he teleported the whole party across all the realms of reality? Making them suffer each plane's particular side effects? There's really no reason to hold back now, it's the end of the game!

I'll be writing more regularly now that I'm finished with my short hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. As for what happens with my campaign I'll let you know in a few weeks when it concludes as epically as I hope. In the mean time, please share with me some awesome campaign endings of your own, or even final encounters that went out in the most grandiose of ways. I love hearing about them. Maybe they'll give me an idea or two for my own game. Thanks for reading!

Relevant Links
Divine Ranks and Powers
Divine Abilities and Feats
B is for Boss
The End is Nigh

30 April 2013

Z is for Zero Hour

To me, a zero hour is essentially a time limit. And a zero hour item is an item that will destroy itself in a certain amount of time. Whether that be a time bomb, or some item that requires constant charging or feeding. Time limits in tabletop games are a tricky thing, but I know from personal experience they can be extremely rewarding. The difficulty arises from the passing of time. How does one fairly adjudicate how fast time passes in a game where a lot of the details are glossed over for ease of play? If players trust the DM to be on their side, everyone can work together to make a time limit fun and tense. In my games, I tend to use zero hour items. Some sort of item that will self-destruct if not cared for properly. I've already spoken of the wondrous item that breaks if not charged once a day. But today I'd like to talk about the best zero hour item I've ever given a player, and the resulting mad dash that drove a party to their absolute limits.

In their quest to kill an evil god, the players re-constituted a broken artifact called the Godsbane. Being the only weapon that can kill a god, they desperately needed it for their quest, lest the evil god return to wreak havoc on the realm. However, this weapon had a caveat; it was designed to kill a god, and since it had not yet tasted a god's flesh, it instead hungered each day for something similar. Gods are outsider type creatures, so it yearned for the soul of an outsider of 16 hit dice or more once a day. If it did not deal either the killing blow or its instant death effect to a powerful outsider in a calendar day, it would break forever; never to be constructed again. Obviously, the players, having played for two years previously to get to the point where they could even start to think about taking on a god, did not want to fail this quest.

Their journey took them deep within the earth, where they faced numerous undead. The day was long and tiresome, and no outsiders appeared. The players fought every inch through the darkness, hoping, praying their DM would show mercy. None was forthcoming. At first it was of no concern, but the further they traveled, the more undead they slaughtered, the more tired they became. Then the unthinkable happened. Two members of the six party team died to a banshee. The clerics had not brought resurrections with them that day, not having considered that the day would drag on as it did. The dwarf hoisted the dead up and continued their journey.

After a time, they came across salvation! An outsider! But halt, it was a bound angel, held against his will. The paladin knew no other thought, and freed the angel without hesitation, much to the wielder of the Godsbane's chagrin. Time was wasted arguing over the wisdom of this decision, before they knew they had to continue or risk losing all hope. On they went, avoiding combat any way they could. I had never seen such lateral thinking and careful planning to avoid combat, especially at such high levels where a character can cleave the sun. It was impressive.

Further on, dismay set in, the next level of the deep presented itself, with no outsider in sight. Their guide, an evil blackguard who was the twin of the paladin, held against his will, was allowed a sword and freed of his bondage to aid in the survival of the party. No rest was in store. They asked how much time they had left before the Godsbane shattered: four hours. Their stomachs turned and they continued. It was here the blackguard hatched his escape plan: in this deepest cavern, lie the dreaded fiendwurm. Unbeknownst to those new to these hell beasts, they feed an eternal pit that opens within their stomach into a layer of the Abyss. Through there would the blackguard find his escape.

When they encountered the endless maw, he charged it, fooling the others into thinking he was either brave or foolish. Bit as he approached the creature, they remembered an old tome they once read that spoke of these things and their portal to another realm. They cursed their luck, they needed their guide for these caves were massive and without a map they would wander forever, and certainly not find an outsider in time. And yet, pursuing their captive, where would they end up? They might feed the weapon's thirst but how would they get back? Would the evil god return on his own if they delayed too long? In the end, they could not afford to lose their zero hour weapon, and ran into the wurm's belly, screaming and cursing their foul lot in life.

They emerged through and instantly saw their first outsider, a massive demon-dragon that informed them that surrender is their best option. He waved toward a large sack for them all to climb into and accept their death. Of course, the paladin told him in no uncertain terms where he could put said sack. He was pulverized and instantly turned into a soggy meat in armor. Tired and worn out, with almost no spells, and low hit points, the others obeyed. They were taken to a demon prison where they waited out the remaining few hours. They looked at the clock and knew it was an hour until all hope was lost. That is, until an imp named Puck, the bane of their existence and the enemy of the party saw them. Puck was a devil, in the Abyss to convey recon for an invasion of devils. He told them he would break them out and that his boss, Dispater, Lord of the Second Layer of Baator wanted a word with them. From six now to three, the remaining party agreed.

Teleported immediately to Dispater, the players recalled that they had had dealings with this devil before, and that when last they met he had allowed them to leave in exchange for a future boon, which he asked of them now. They agreed, but informed him they needed to feed the Godsbane first. Dispater, being not unreasonable, agreed only if they would best a concordant killer (a type of devil/angel) in an arena. So with an army of devils around them, they entered a small caged arena. They were tired, broken, weak, low on spells, and had the exhausted condition. The three remaining survivors saw that there was only ten minutes left on the clock, and prepared for the most important battle of their lives. The angel's opening move was to forcecage the wielder of the Godsbane, trapping him completely. The players despaired. Rule books were pulled out, spells were researched. There's got to be something they have to get out of forcecage! Time passed while I allowed them to grasp at the straws they had left. Until finally, the wizard came into a realization: dimension door! He used it to get into and then out of the forcecage, freeing the player, who promptly threw the Godsbane at the angel. The weapon flew true, striking the angel in the gut. It rolled its saving throw... and failed! The essence of the outsider was drawn into the weapon as he screamed in agony and fear. The Godsbane pulsated with a greenish glow, and the greater good was served so that a god could be killed.

My players blew a sigh of relief! Glory! A single day of endless fear and desperation. A zero hour run that ended in the most harrowing experience of their adventure yet. To this day, my players still talk of this day, played out over at least two months worth of gameplay sessions. In my opinion, the players had never been so strained or taken to their limits, nor had their characters. They proved to me and themselves what they could accomplish in a single day. They showed me that ingenuity will arise when the characters are stripped of almost all they have, and the game did not suffer, but was instead improved. Sure, today they speak of the day in fear, as they never want to do it again, but they still speak of it. They still remember it. They still revere it as the most tension they have ever had playing this game we call Dungeons & Dragons! Thanks for reading my final A to Z Challenge entry. I hope you enjoyed it. I, for one, am going to take a well-deserved break from writing in this for a few days. But I will return, and continue to write all my opinions and suggestions and hints about how to be the best Dungeon Master one can be. I hope you'll join me and continue to read. What a month!

Relevant Links
Godsbane Wikipedia
Dispater Wikipedia

29 April 2013

Y is for Yesteryear

It is no secret that I am a fan of older versions of D&D. I'm fact, if I could convince my players, we'd all be playing second edition, maybe even first. Generally this preference stems from a distaste for rules, as the more modern the system, the more encyclopedic one's knowledge of the rules must be to play. But a large portion of this preference is due to nostalgia, and a desire to harken back to the good old days of yesteryear.

The first edition I learned to play was second. My older brother introduced me to the game and I remember taking hours crafting my first character. He was a dwarven fighter with an 18/86 Strength named Mad Gort. You may have read little excerpts of his adventures in previous entries. Ever since then I've had a soft spot for fighters, and dwarves. The game had a strange draw to it I couldn't explain. I felt immensely powerful, something that second edition I believe did very well; though still maintaining power in the DM's hands. It had its problems of course, who could forget the confusing system of THAC0, negative AC, and having to remember when rolling high was good and when rolling low was good? Monsters didn't have CR so it was up to the DM to craft his own encounters and hope it was enough to challenge the players but not overwhelm them.

I remember being totally enraptured in the game, to the point where I played until 3am any night we played. The adventures of the past will always be sacred to me. I think that companies have been capitalizing on nostalgia of late, specifically Wizards of the Coast re-releasing the 1st edition rulebook set. I hear the 2nd edition is in the works as well. I will no doubt buy them both.

In the older editions, I felt as if the world was more oppressive. More threatening and dangerous. Random encounter tables were more common then, and occasionally a die rolled an un-winnable encounter. What did the players do? It revolved more around the ability to think on their feet, do things the rules may not allow for, and most importantly encourage creativity in the players. I ran a game where partway through the story, the game switched from 2nd edition to 3rd edition, because most of my players joined in the era when 3rd edition was the primary version. They felt more comfortable using those rules. Almost immediately I saw a decline in the creativity of the solutions for problems, I saw a drop in the way in which they dictated their actions in combat. In went from "I run at the githyanki and make a downward chop to break his face open" to "I make a charge, moving double my speed to the githyanki and make an attack". The descriptive words were lost. All their solutions to problems somehow incorporate their abilities and powers now, not their minds. Lately I will admit I've purposely presented problems that can't be solved by powers and seen a return to the old form, so one could easily make the argument that the problem was me, but I find I am not the only person to have noticed this change in thinking between editions.

I dont want to sound like I don't like 3rd edition and Pathfinder and the OGL rules in general. They're great. I run two OGL games currently. I'll pick up 5th edition when it comes out and probably convert all my games to it. I'm in the beta currently and running a third game of that, just to try out rules and the like, with a party comprised of my wife, my sister, her boyfriend, my brother, and even my mom. It looks good, and if it holds to the old-school vibe I've been getting so far from it, I'll adopt it. But I'll talk more on that another time. Finally if you love old-school gaming, I encourage you to read a file I previously mentioned called "A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming". Tell me about your favorite editions, what edition you were introduced into the game with, and why you love it so much, then tell me about your favorite memories of yesteryear. Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for the last day of the A to Z challenge in "Z is for Zero Hour".

Relevant Links
A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming

27 April 2013

X is for Xenophobia

I gotta tell you, I struggled over X for a long time. I was on xill for a while, then to xorn. I had to skim through a dictionary before I settled on xenophobia. In the D&D games I've witnessed, xenophobia is not often addressed, but its something I like to put into my games when I can. Essentially, it is the fear of the strange or different. This can be culturally, racially, sexually, anything really. The fear of whatever is not you. In this way it goes beyond racism, it encompasses all that is different.

The tropes of fantasy lend themselves to the stereotypes that elves and dwarves do not get along, and that orcs are generally disliked by the other 'civilized' races. In a way, xenophobia makes itself shown all over the genre and the games. The elves tend to be withdrawn and isolationist, dwarves tend to mistrust other non-dwarves. Even humans, who are generally considered the most accepting of the demihuman races, live primarily among other humans. Of course, all races prefer their own kind, but when was the last time you heard of a human or elf living in a dwarven city?

I try to include instances of blatant racism in my games when it seems appropriate. I've had several characters flat out show hatred for specific races. A particularly aloof elven lord was famous for hating humans, though I did add some interesting character development in that he was inexplicably in love with a particular human woman, a fact that made him hate himself. I've had some NPCs be actively spiteful to party members of a certain race. I really love to do it to the race of whatever the paladin happens to be. Paladins tend to put time and skills into diplomatic relations, so if the NPC the party needs information from happens to hate the paladin's guts, it can be fun to watch the party attempt to make up for their lost member.

Sexism has also played a huge part in one of my favorite stand-alone adventures. Two elderly dwarven widower kings needed to marry their children to ensure the continuation of the family line, incidentally merging the two kingdoms together. The prince and the kings assumed the prince would take over and the princess would do her womanly duties like all good women should. Of course, the princess had other plans. She sought to assassinate the prince so that she could take full control of both kingdoms, having had her fill of male oppression. The plot was extremely intricate, and is heralded by my players as the best mini-adventure I've ever done. All from the idea of sexism and how it affects the women involved. She was a broken and angry woman, but by the end of the adventure, almost every NPC had done something despicable, and yet every one had their reasons and could be sympathized with. The players too, had to do some underhanded forgery to ensure a corrupt dwarf went to prison. All in the name of "justice".

The reason I include these aspects in my game is because I do not see my campaign world as perfect. People are flawed, and sometimes those flaws include xenophobic views of the world. More often than not I have characters who are unshakably convinced of their views, even when those views are unpopular with modern societal norms, or just plain wrong. Just because we no longer see xenophobia as the norm anymore (or at least the willingness to admit it) doesn't mean a feudal society would not. Often, the fear of the other was encouraged to provide a sense of unity against invading forces. It's like my brothers and I have said many times, if Earth was invaded by aliens tomorrow, every nation would band together to defend our home against the other. Our xenophobia is an evolutionary tool to protect us, and denying its existence, preventing it from appearing in my game, merely hinders my creativity in character choices. Thus, I embrace it, and allow my NPCs to take it as a trait. Thanks for reading, stay tuned Monday for "Y is for Yesteryear".

Relevant Links
Sexism in Fantasy

26 April 2013

W is for Wondrous Item

I've always loved wondrous items. I think they're the best category of magic items, primarily for their utility uses. While a magic weapon deals primarily with offense and magic armor deals primarily with defense, no one can generally say what a wondrous item does without investigating the item itself. They also allow the most creative freedom in their creation, as they are not restricted by rules governing other magical items. They also happen to be the first and easiest magic item that a player can create.

Wondrous items are very flexible in that they can emulate most other spells, but since they are not spell completion items, aren't subject to most rules regarding the Use Magic Device skill. Any schmuck can use a wondrous item with minimal fuss, making them particularly useful for fighters and rogues, whose inability to cast spells makes them prime candidates for enhancement through magic items. I've seen characters whose primary source of damage and combat strategy revolved completely around wondrous items. He would craft them and then use them almost exclusively, eventually phasing out his own class' attacks and abilities. It was a surreal thing to witness.

The wondrous items in the book are fairly straight forward and not usually too complex. But that doesn't mean that an enterprising DM has to use them. I've recently introduced into my Pathfinder game a long-dead wizard who was a bit of a nutter, and he created a number of wild wondrous items. The wizard's sense of humor is a little off, so as a result his creations tended to have rather peculiar features. For example, the first item they found was a trinket that could cast lightning bolt once a day. However, it had to be charged at exactly 10pm every day when a magical storm occurs overhead and strikes the trinket. Anyone touching it at the time obviously would have a very bad day. If the trinket is indoors at the time or is otherwise unable to be charged, it breaks forever. This may seem not worth the trouble, since it merely recreates a spell, but the party is only level two at the moment, and so a spell they can only reach at level five at the minimum is extremely powerful to them. Of course, I get to have fun cause I told them I would be watching them like a hawk and the moment they forget to charge it at the proper time or are holding it at the time, bad things happen. I plan to introduce more eccentric wondrous items as time goes by.

I've seen a wondrous item used to save a character's life against all odds; I've seen a campaign completely turn its ending around based on a wondrous item's properties; I myself have written entire adventures around a wondrous item. Beyond that, I don't have much to say about them, other than they're fantastic. How about you? Have any good stories involving wondrous items? Ever designed one you were particularly proud of? I'd love to hear some comments! Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for "X is for Xenophobia".

Relevant Links
D&D 3.5 Wondrous Items
Pathfinder Wondrous Items

25 April 2013

V is for Vancian Magic

“The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time. Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.”
No other mechanic in D&D history has ever been so argued over as Vancian magic. But I'm not here to argue, I'm just here to say that it's the best! (Warning: this entry features lots of proud grognard flag-waving)

You can read almost anywhere that the concept of Vancian magic came from an author named Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series of books. In them, magic is a difficult art to master, requiring study and memorization of spells and formulas, and then casting the spell using command words. Once cast, however, the spell is immediately forgotten by the caster, requiring him to once again spend time re-learning it. His mind could not hold the power of the arcane, and as spells have somewhat a mind of their own in this setting, they escaped free the moment they were cast. This method of magic was used in a few video games, perhaps most note-worthy being in Final Fantasy, which was essentially a D&D game. But long before that Dungeons & Dragons picked it up and it has been the magic system ever since.

If I had to guess what people's primary problem with Vancian magic is, its that they have tried other magic systems from things like video games and somehow want to integrate those systems into D&D. The thing is, this is D&D's system. Its what it uses. If you don't like it, don't play. Sure, some books like Unearthed Arcana have alternate methods of dealing with magic, but whatever you end up playing it will not be Dungeons & Dragons. To me, Vancian magic is an irremovable part of the game and the setting. Magic users are meant to struggle through the early levels, because everything is made up for at the higher levels when they are literally breaking the entire game with their godlike powers. The term Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards is iconic of D&D for a reason.

I've always viewed magic as a power beyond the control of man. It uses the forces of the universe, and we as frail mortals can only begin to tap its potential by bending it to our will, however temporarily. This idea of magic being too powerful for us is as ancient as the first cavemen, when we gazed into the starry night and felt how small and insignificant we were. To truly grasp magic would drive us mad, tearing our tiny minds to shreds. When a wizard casts a spell, he has put the time and effort into attempting to bend reality, and the ability to do so is his reward for that effort. As a result, he has neglected other studies, such as weapon training. Magic to me actually is too easy to cast, and I enjoy going back to an even more archaic form of magic, one that takes a toll on its wielder for casting it.

The players in my campaign had been unable to stop a mad god from assassinating the goddess of magic in her sleep. As a result the Weave, the source of all magic that the goddess held domain over was broken, affecting all arcane casters and even divine casters. I concocted a complex system where being connected to the weave for more than a standard action was draining to the character, and would actually drain their life force. Mechanically, this meant that for every spell that took a round or more to cast, every two spell levels above first would drain 1d6 years of life from the arcane caster, and every four spell levels above first would drain the same years for divine casters. I had every caster calculate their maximum age (another mechanic that rarely gets used) and told them that if they died of natural causes (i.e. old age) that they would be irretrievably dead. No raise dead, no resurrection, no nothing.

Painstakingly I went through every spell in the Player's Handbook and found that this was 76 spells of 371 total spells for a wizard, making it roughly 20% of their spells; 57 of 219 total spells for a cleric, making it roughly 26% of their spells; and 4 of 44 spells for a paladin, making it roughly 9% of their spells. These were the only casters I had so I didn't bother with ranger, druid, sorcerer, or bard spells. Admittedly this was a larger portion of cleric spells, but since their magic was funneled to them by a god, the process was slower. Some casters didn't mind as much, on account of them being demihumans with naturally long life spans, but my wife was a human cleric. She started at age 18 and now I believe she is in her 50s. Alternatively, a dark form of the Weave called the Shadow Weave existed, that only arcane casters could access, but it dealt them damage and accrued something called Taint that would stain their very souls. Too much Taint and they would become so evil I would take their character away from them, as I do not allow evil characters in my campaigns.

The true purpose of this was not only to make magic more intense and a harder path to take, but most importantly to make my players think and make choices. At high levels they could not simply teleport from location to location, or summon massive fire storms and dominate the minds of the weak. They would have to judge whether the assault on their natural time on this world was worth the spell's effect. Magic had to be thought through and considered. To me, that is what magic should be, and Vancian magic is an extension of that thought process. A player's spells are limited, he must choose for himself what he wishes to do, planning and deciding the best course of action. A system of magic points or recharging magic doesn't carry with it the danger of failure. It doesn't reward the player for thinking ahead or fit the idea that magic is a force beyond his comprehension. That is why I will never adopt or support another magic system in Dungeons & Dragons. It already has the best system.

If you're at all interested in reading more about the system's history, refer to the links section for a fantastic article called A Brief History of Vancian Magic. The Evil GM doesn't have a high opinion of Vancian magic, but he delivers the history quite well, and I learned a lot. Interestingly enough, despite not liking the system, his summation merely convinced me how much I like it even more! Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for "W is for Wondrous Item".

Relevant Links
Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards
A Brief History of Vancian Magic

24 April 2013

U is for Undermountain

"Welcome! Welcome brave patrons of the Yawning Portal! Tonight we have quite a treat for you! We have not one, not two, but three courageous bands of adventurers prepared to brave the horrors of Halaster’s dark dungeon! For those of my customers who are unaware, Halaster Blackcloak was a sorcerer gone mad in ages long ago. There are rumors he came from Netheril, or from the far east. Still others claim he hailed from the Cradlelands, the lost kingdoms that gave rise to Faerûn and the distant lands of Kara-Tur! Whatever his origins, the stories all agree on one thing: that over a thousand years ago, he left all dealings of men, and came to Mount Waterdeep accompanied by seven of his apprentices. For years they worked the inner depths of the mountain, carving out vast halls and summoning the most nefarious of beasts this world has ever seen! They say that Halaster’s dealings with his summoned servitors changed him, that the lack of human contact and the company he kept in such a maddeningly labyrinthine mountain drove him to insanity. I say he was always a madman, and that he took the depths for his own, to act out his sick fantasies and laugh at the ill-fortunes of the men who ventured into his realm. He created the world’s most wicked traps, designed to amuse him as he watched the suffering of any who dared trespass. As the years passed, his apprentices lost contact with him, and over the years as they sought to find him, they found only death and traps and beasts wandering the halls, but no sign of the wizard. He was gone! There are rumors that there are even more layers to this pit than ever known, and that he hides within their depths, watching the deaths of brave adventurers. If so, no one has seen them and returned. Now, a thousand years since first he stepped into Undermountain, his dungeon riddled with hundreds of deathtraps, the word is out that Halaster is dead! Is he, says I? Some say he discovered a method to regain his youth eternally, and that he still roams the mountain, watching, and waiting for poor fools to gut themselves on his vile dungeon. Either way, the treasures that lie deep below are untold, and I myself have made away with barely my life intact, and my arms full of treasures beyond my wildest dreams. Tonight, three troupes of adventurers go into the darkness. Will they meet an untimely doom? Or escape with the most powerful artifacts that Undermountain has to offer?"
Undermountain! The biggest, bestest, most stupendous of all megadungeons! King of character killing! Lord of lavish luster! If you want your players to live the rest of their meager lives in a dungeon, this is the place to take them. If they delve deep enough, they may even gain the chance to die in the deepest layers of the mad wizard's lair itself! But I am getting ahead of myself, we need to start at the beginning of this epic death trap. I speak of course, of the Yawning Portal.

The Yawning Portal is only one of a several entrances into Undermountain, but it is the primary one and generally acknowledged to be the "beginning" of the dungeon. It is an inn built around a massive pit in the earth with a winch that lowers players one at a time down into the megadungeon. The owner of the inn, a man who made his fortune by delving into the dangers below, charges a modest fee for those wanting to enter the pit. His primary profits however come from the betting of the tavern's patrons on which groups will return alive and which won't. Delving parties are allowed to bet on themselves, and most bet a hefty sum, on account of not needing the money if they're dead.
Once lowered into the dungeon, parties make their way through the first, and least dangerous of levels. This level has primarily been picked apart by other adventurers, so worthy loot is scarce and usually not too interesting to parties beyond the first few levels. Several traps have already been set off, and the halls are mostly filled with goblins and orcs who made themselves a home of the place. Just beyond the first few rooms are classic traps like the hall of mirrors that spawns doppelgängers, or the dropped coin that shoots a thin jet of flame so hot it burns down to lower levels. Very quickly, an observant player can find a great deal of history within this place, as the second room has hidden compartments and clues to mysteries that lie deeper within the mountain.

It should be noted that Undermountain is created by an insane wizard named Halaster Blackcloak. It's structure and design is not subject to typical architectural conditions. Flagstones change color and stone; tight tiny rooms open up into massive coliseums; hallways end in dead ends for no apparent reason; and worst of all there are no bathrooms. The dungeon does not make sense, and to think too much upon it would be pointless. As for its creator Halaster, the wizard was known for having a particularly lethal sense of humor, and would take pleasure in harassing people who went into his dungeon. Not always so directly, he preferred to lead them to their deaths in rather elaborate ways with random teleportations and traps. He seemed to be particularly fond of the "out of the oven and into the fire" style of dungeon crafting. And speaking of teleportation, the wizard's magical seals on the entirety of the dungeon are so powerful that it is impossible to teleport or scry anywhere into it. Mechanically, this kept high level parties in check, as they were unable to use their powerful magic to make a mockery of the dungeon's dangers.

Canonically, Undermountain is beneath the city of Waterdeep on the Forgotten Realms campaign's Sword Coast. However the megadungeon was designed with the ability to apply it to any fantasy setting rather easily. For myself, I once had a catastrophic event occur to the city of Waterdeep. So devastating that years after the players had explored a portion of the epic dungeon, it was destroyed into a massive hole. The players descended into it to find what I called the Undergrave, an enormous grave made of the bodies of the local Waterdhavians. They sloshed through the piles of bodies; along the way fighting all types of horrific undead, turned unholy by the Undergrave's dark magic. They found remnants of the city above them, and went through areas of the former dungeon. From this they descended to a lower level of enormous dug out caverns, created by a linnorm I had built a mythology around. A beast so big and so ancient the dwarves had worshipped it as a god back when they were simply proto-dwarves, mere shadows of what they would one day become. In the darkness and the fear, they encountered this horrific nightmare, and knew only the terror of its endless maw. The adventure continued on but the point is made: Undermountain can be whatever you make of it. But it is important to me, whenever I introduce it into a campaign, that it be the scariest, biggest, most intense dungeon the world has to offer. That, to me, is Undermountain's spirit and intention.

I apologize for the lateness in the day recently in posting, I've been rather busy these past few days and fell behind. Tomorrow though I plan to be back on track to finish this challenge. Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for "V is for Vancian Magic".

Relevant Links
Forgotten Realms Wiki Undermountain
Wizards of the Coast Return to Undermountain

23 April 2013

T is for Trap

 "Mad Gort ran through the dungeon, his steel boots causing a ruckus. The howling gibbering mouther that chased after him suddenly stopped, turning down a different corridor with a hurried cadence. Mad Gort chuckled to himself, stupid aberration. As he started back his face smashed against something invisible and he fell on his butt. What's this nonsense? The far wall at the end of the hall suddenly made a loud stone-on-stone shifting sound and it started at him. The invisible wall remained where it was, undeterred by his hollers and fist pounding. It seemed Mad Gort had gotten himself into another trap."
Traps are a great tool for a DM with little time. There are so many traps in the history of tabletop games that I could not even begin to cover them all, and anyone can utilize them quickly to populate an area and make it more dangerous. I myself keep a short list of level-appropriate traps on a piece of paper that I can throw in at any time I am feeling the need to. It's great for when the players are becoming too complacent and forgetting to check for traps. Though one could argue it's unfair to place traps in places there weren't any before, that's really a topic I want to cover later.

One reason I am so fond of traps is also their speed of resolution. While one can always use traps as huge set pieces, if I need something to engage the players but not take too much time, a simple pit trap or poisoned chest will do it. Then it's on to the next encounter. Of course, some traps don't make much sense. Obviously a farmer's barn wouldn't be trapped and if it was, the explanation as to why would make an interesting story in its own right. But the point is not everywhere is trapped. Usually I reserve traps for dungeons, abandoned crypts, or a royal palace. Canonically I attempt to put their placement in a logical place. Trapping a broom closet seems tedious and odd. Unless the dungeon's creator happened to be insane. Then I have a free-for-all.

Some traps cost money, and there are some books that will create a budget for traps in a dungeon based on the size and danger-level of the place. I always ignore these rules and make whatever I feel I want to make. For me, focusing too much on reality kills fun. As a result, I sometimes like to create elaborate trap rooms where some traps set off other traps. In fact, if you like full-room and dangerous traps, I'd suggest reading a book called "The Wurst of Grimtooth's Traps". It's a book famous for its particularly lethal traps. Most of them are better suited for an outlandish style that lends itself well to mad wizard dungeons or megadungeons, but it still has some laid back traps that can be put into most any situation.

Traps have a somewhat passive feel to them. They lie in wait until a hapless adventurer sets them off. But some traps can be used much more actively, like when paired with a combat encounter. A monster that knows of a trap can prepare themselves to stand in a safe spot, and set it off themselves, or they may already be in a trapped area and are immune to the effects. Some monsters are built into the traps effects itself. One trap I read about in the above mentioned book has a party fighting a flint golem in a room with wax and fumes. Every metal weapon blow against him setting off sparks that could set the whole room alight. Another from a different book had a beholder in huge circular room that oscillated like a teeter-totter when the trap was activated. The beholder floated above the room blasting the poor players fighting against the floor. These and other examples like them provides a lot more life to a trap.

If you've never used traps or prefer a more roleplaying style of play, I would still suggest integrating traps somewhere into a game. Evil plotting chancellors could most likely trap the door to their room or to the desk that holds all their information. I most recently used a spell that cast destruction on the player, and it terrified them so much they became paranoid and started to check absolutely everything they could just in case. This is something that traps can really do effectively. For a DM who is running out of time for content, a heavily trapped dungeon can slow things down enough for him to come up with something meatier. Speaking of which, I'm falling a bit behind right now, and my players are waiting for me to continue their adventure, so I'm going to cut it short for today and hopefully revisit traps another day. Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for "U is for Undermountain".

Relevant Links
D&D 3.5 Traps
Pathfinder Traps
Dungeon Deathtraps

21 April 2013

S is for Swarm

My players know: I love swarms. Without a doubt in my mind, they are hands down the scariest and most threatening of all monster types, up to a point. Obviously they have their limitations, but when used at the proper time, they are truly a terrifying force to be reckoned with.

From a DM standpoint, the swarms primary strength is that it cannot miss, as it occupies a character's square to attack. No matter how much armor, Dexterity, or dodge bonuses a player has, it amounts to nothing in the face of a swarm. Automatic damage each round is a great threat. At the same time, every swarm has a distraction ability that effectively nauseates a character if they fail a Fortitude save, denying them the ability to act. They sometimes are accompanied by things like fire, poison, or acid damage. The base damage of a swarm isn't very high; it increases by 1d6 every five hit dice, so players are unlikely to succumb quickly to one. But as mentioned previously, they make up for this fact by never failing to hit.

The next strength of the swarm is its malleability. A swarm can fit through any space large enough for its component creatures. This means that a swarm of fine creatures can follow players under doors, through unfinished walls, or past any barrier short of something completely solid and airtight like a wall of force. Obviously this makes simply running from a swarm a bit difficult. It states in the swarm subtype that swarms are 10ft on a side, meaning that if you're using a standard grid with a square representing five feet, a standard swarm fills four squares. These squares should be connecting at all times, but can take any shape they require. However if you feel you need a larger swarm, you don't have to bother with templates or size charts, simply add more swarms to the group, remembering to keep each square adjacent to another. To avoid having to remember stats for each swarm and keeping them separate, I'd just roll them both into a single unit, and combine their hit points. When I do this, I calculate their new combined hit dice and see whether they qualify for extra damage dice. This method is not problematic since a swarm does not dissipate until its hit points reach zero, but its still the same creature effectively.

Finally, in summarizing the strength of a swarm, they also have no discernible anatomy, meaning they cannot take critical hits, flanking, or sneak attacks. They are immune to spell effects that target a specific number of enemies, as there are literally thousands of their component creatures. Fine and Diminutive swarms take no weapon damage whatsoever, nor are they subject to combat maneuvers such as grapple or being tripped.

Swarms don't get to make attacks of opportunity, though a particularly merciless DM (i.e. me) could rule that every five foot square of a swarm that the player moves through simply does more damage as the swarm surrounds them. This doesn't exactly follow the rules as written so I'd only suggest using that method if you want swarms to have a particular bite (harharhar!). You can also apply templates to swarms, like making them skeletons or fiendish, but it can be kind of tricky, based on the peculiarity of their type. It can be difficult to know when to apply certain changes and when not to. For example, I tend to ignore the changes to damage or the addition of special attacks from a template, since their attack is nonstandard.

Swarms do have a few weaknesses, the biggest of which is a susceptibility to wind effects for Fine and Diminutive swarms. A simple gust of wind spell can cause a swarm of any size to have a really bad day. They also take extra damage from area of effect spells, so low level parties should always have a burning hands on them and then graduate to fireball. Other methods of dealing damage however are extremely ineffective, torches and lanterns can be used, but deal very low damage. Besides area of effect spells and winds however, a swarm is deadly effective, and very hard to kill. Most tactics suggest running, or attacking from range if possible. A party unprepared for a swarm can quickly find itself overrun and in a bad situation, as I have born witness to in both of the tabletop games I run.

I usually like to throw a swarm into the worst possible situation. For example at the bottom of an extremely deep pit trap, where the player is unlikely to escape. I've had them appear when a player wandered off into the desert alone after her errant camel, killing her instantly. I've had two spider swarms burst from a pair of webbed villagers in a horrifying homage to Aliens. I've had a swarm of crabs crawl onboard and attack a ship with little place to run to. I've had four swarms of bats appear in a tiny room with only one exit, while the players were trapped within and unable to get out. I would imagine throwing one at players who were already compromised in some way, like attempting to swim across a river, or while sleeping. As you can see, they are extremely versatile, and able to overrun and intimidate players of any level. In short, swarms are the best. Thanks for reading, stay tuned tomorrow for "T is for Traps".

Relevant Links
D&D 3.5 Swarm Subtype
Pathfinder Swarm Subtype

20 April 2013

R is for Rule

Rules rules rules! D&D has too many rules! Combat is a slugfest of counting squares and remembering what triggers an attack of opportunity; the wording of some of the rules directly contradict each other; spells are so confusing to keep track of their myriad of effects. Rules are the bane of my existence as DM, but I understand their use and in the case of my players, it is their only defense against me, so they are important to their survival. Rules are simultaneously what makes the game run smoothly and what makes it grind to a screeching halt.

Matthew J. Finch's "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" states that the first zen moment he had about gaming was "Rulings, not Rules". The idea is that modern DMing has become too much about following rules, strictly following what the game dictates happens, when once it was more of a nebulous experience, with the DM as arbiter between the events and the players. To me, I see the game in the old days as the DM having all the power. As the game evolved and editions progressed, the power slowly started to shift to the players. In my opinion, 4th edition has the players having almost all the power. DMs exist mostly to tell the players what happens, not actually act as referees; there are too many rules (I'm not a huge 4th edition, if it isn't obvious). 3rd edition and Pathfinder has a healthy balance in my opinion, though still a bit too rules-heavy.

Its no secret that my favorite edition of D&D is 2nd edition. It was the first edition I ever played and it blew my young thirteen-year-old mind. The way I DM today tends to mix 3rd edition rules with 2nd edition heart. The game is difficult, with victory not guaranteed or even expected, but I'm not able to use rulings as much as I'd like to, as the rules are clearly defined. The players have a lot of power, and the rules act as their shield against the DM. I can see the point of this shield, as in a ruling system with little clearly defined rules, a bad or inexperienced DM can ruin a game. I'm sure when the game kept progressing, the designers were trying to make life easier for the DM, allowing for those inexperienced Masters to jump in, since there are already so few of them.

I personally feel that the game lost something in this change, a certain magic and fun that made it stand out from other games. Now players clamor about 'balance' and 'scale'. These notions when applied to games are a modern convention, brought about by video games in my opinion. In modern video games, a game is designed to be beaten. A player spends $60, he wants an experience he can see from beginning to end. Thus, the game has certain checks built in for balance, e.g. not attacking a level 3 party with a level 60 dragon king or some such encounter. The video game follows certain rules and cannot deviate from those rules. If this encounter ends up in a game, unless a programmer remembers to program a way around that encounter, the player must fight it and lose. In Dungeons & Dragons, the balance is as balanced as the DM makes it. If he chooses to attack his players with a fight they cannot win, do they stand and fight like programmed sprites unable to deviate from the rules given? No! They run their butts off, or come up with an ingenious plan to defeat the dragon king anyway, if the DM uses rulings, not rules, to allow them to do so. This is tabletop's ultimate strength, and why it has survived the test of time, and what it offers than no video game can ever reproduce. As the DM, you are what makes the game, along with your players. The books are just there to help the process along, but one should never see them as writ in stone, to do so is to deny yourself the glory of D&D.

In conclusion, I highly recommend reading "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" if you get the chance. It's a free PDF, only 13 pages long, and has a lot of really awesome information for aspiring Dungeon Masters. If you're feeling like tabletop RPGs have too many rules, I would suggest checking out an older edition of the game, scaling back to just the core books, or integrating an "old-school feel" by making more rulings, not rules. Thanks for reading, stay tuned Monday for "S is for Swarm".

Relevant Links
A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

19 April 2013

Q is for Quest

Quests and adventures are the meat of the RPG experience. Some might consider them to be the same thing, but I hold that a quest is something that a character undertakes while an adventure might be undertaken or might have it thrust upon them. Quests have clear goals and ends, adventures might be more open-ended.

Some quests are simple; given to the party by a mysterious figure in a tavern. Speaking of which, when I first started DMing I tried to avoid the cliché of a mysterious figure in a tavern, not wanting to seem like I was using the same old ideas that had permeated the genre for decades. But oddly enough now I relish in clichés and enjoy treating my players to the typical D&D tropes. Mysterious figure, dragon terrorizing town, mad wizard's death trap tower, the king is in need, save the princess! Especially with new players, these tropes provide a basis of expectations from the game. The first couple quests they are given will set the tone for the whole campaign; they are vitally important.

For religiously aligned characters (or comically, non-religiously aligned characters), some quests can be given by the gods themselves. This is particularly potent as a motivator in Forgotten Realms, where the gods are a very real and influencing force. In that campaign setting more than any other the gods tend to interfere with the everyday folk, sometimes just for their own kicks. Nothing motivates quite as well as the threat of being smote into oblivion. When it comes to god-given quests, these tend to match a particular goal of the god itself, perhaps to retrieve a lost artifact, or destroy a cult that opposes their will. Obeying a good god can lead to rewards, but being commanded to obey an evil god could lead to some interesting adventures, or chances for role playing. Does a good character obey? What happens if they don't? Does the evil god hold something or someone dear to the party hostage? Is gaining the wrath of a god of hellfire worth the moral high ground? What happens to their good allies if they do obey the command? Simply accepting or not accepting a quest can lead to quite a lot of questions.

Not all quests are given though, some are taken on by a character themselves. I would put a caution on self-accepted quests, as they run the danger of dividing the players if not everyone shares their conviction. I once had an entire party begrudgingly travel several hundred miles to get somewhere they never actually ended up getting to; fighting the entire way. It was definitely a mistake to allow a singular character to hijack the party based on a self-accepted quest. I could imagine a general motivation like "kill all slavers" being okay, but anything more specific or time-sensitive being a problem, particularly if it consumes their entire character.

Quests can be long or they can be short, usually depending on the DM. A mixture of the two is a good balance, to prevent boredom. I personally like to mess with player expectations and make the simplest sounding quests unfold into epic dramas and the epic sounding ones end confusingly fast. That way one never knows what to expect from me. I'll cover more on that topic in a future post about meta-gaming. When a quest goes on for a long time, sometimes breaking it up can be relieving for the players. Chasing down the evil wizard king can really take it out of them, maybe let them save a farmer's chickens from dire weasels just to break it up a bit. Who knows, maybe there's a way to weave that plot into the larger one, making you seem like a story-crafting genius.

That's an important note to touch upon I feel. Interweaving your quests into one another. Sometimes the way a quest plays out can lead itself to eventually playing into another. Done deftly, this seems natural and thought-out, making the DM look really good. A character saved in a throw away quest may turn out to be a helpful aid in another, or a mysterious object in one quest may reveal additional properties when exposed to the rocks in an unrelated underground dungeon. There are thousands of ways to tie your campaign together and make it seem like a cohesive world.

Adventurers without quests are merely treasure looters, no better than grave robbers or highwaymen. A quest gives them purpose, gives them a direction to focus their powers and efforts. No quests means little directed plot, little story, which leads to bored players. A sandbox world works great to a point, but in my opinion every campaign should eventually lead toward a goal that the whole party can unify around. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned tomorrow for "R is for Rule".

Relevant Links
100 Adventure Ideas (it's actually 316)
101 D&D Quest Ideas
Another 101 D&D Quest Ideas

17 April 2013

P is for Planescape

"Sigil's a cage for everyone: for the celestials, for the fiends, for the tieflings and the Clueless, and for the Lady. That's why the cutters who set their cases - uh, their homes - in Sigil call themselves Cagers. The Cagers who know the place best are us who teach; we're known as touts. My name's Etain the Quick, and I do my level best to tell a cutter everything he needs to know to survive in Sigil. Not everything there is to know, mind you: That'd cost extra."
Planescape. This campaign setting is in my mind, the absolute best expansion to the Dungeon & Dragons game by far. Most modern gamers, if they've heard of the setting at all, have usually heard about it from a PC game called Planescape: Torment. Unfortunately, it's hard to find much information on the setting that doesn't relate to the game without finding the actual books, as its quite an older setting, having been released in 1994 for AD&D 2nd Edition.

I first learned to play D&D during 2nd Edition, and it is unabashedly my favorite version of the game, no doubt due somewhat to nostalgia. Part of that nostalgia links directly to the planes, and their rather insane way of looking at the multiverse. Now, the planes had existed far before Planescape was created, but books attempting to describe them and create a unified vision for them before and since have lacked the level of detail and love that this setting had. This one had a completely different language, with words like "cutter", "berk", "jink", and "screed" that required a dictionary of terms to master. It was not unlike cockney in inflection and style. The box set had seventeen planes of existence of infinite length, not counting quasi-planes or meta-planes. It had fifteen distinct factions within the setting's main city, each with their own philosophical leanings. The setting was perfect.

The planes were each assigned an alignment that they leaned toward. If a visiting player was of the opposite alignment, they would find travel times to be excruciatingly long, while a player of the same alignment would travel at great speed. The way this worked was peculiar: each plane was infinite in length, and thus distances were meaningless, one's attunement to the plane was all that mattered. Magic was also affected in each plane. Some had entire schools of magic that were altered by the plane, while sometimes a singular spell would be affected. Some schools would be powered up while others weakened, some needed items called spell keys to counteract the negative effects of the plane. Traveling between the planes required gate keys, and entire adventures could revolve around simply finding out what a gate key was. In fact, I once had an entire campaign's only goal be to find the gate key back to the Prime Material plane of Toril. On the planes sometimes time flowed differently. One could go in to a plane for a day and emerge two weeks later. A few planes even had peculiar gravity or unbreathable air. Traveling the planes was a dangerous activity not fit for prime berks looking to stay outta the dead-book.

All these planes and wild adventures centered around a city at the top of an infinite spire called Sigil, the City of Doors. Yes, I said the 'top' of an 'infinite spire'. Don't ask. Ruling over the city is a mysterious being known as the Lady of Pain. No one knows anything about her, but the entire city fears her for her ultimate power to send anyone and anything to an endless maze from which only one being has ever escaped (sort of not really). With her power the city holds a tenuous peace, excepting the few times the Blood War spilled into the streets and the tanar'ri and baatezu claimed a chunk of the city as their own, or the time the fifteen factions all declared war on each other for a bit until the Lady saw fit to exile almost all of them.

Speaking of the factions, each one has its own philosophical opinion on the nature of the multiverse, and provide a service for Sigil related to that philosophy. For example the Fated believe that those that have strength deserve to take what they can. If you are too weak to defend what's yours, or too stupid to avoid being conned out of it, you don't deserve it. Thus, it's only fitting they act as the city's tax collectors. If they happen to squeeze more than the taxes require well that's too bad for the regular berks what let 'em do it to 'em. The faction called the Mercykillers acted as the police, believing that only two punishments existed: ten years of imprisonment for minor infarctions and death. They held to the belief that chaos must be culled at every turn, and only extreme diligence to lawfulness would stem the eternal tide of pandemonium. Needless to say, one tended to avoid the Mercykillers even when not on the lam. Each of the factions had certain ally factions and enemy factions, based on their beliefs, and it was entirely possible to set them off against the other for any number of slights.

When bringing players new to the realms into Planescape, I recommend starting in one of the other established campaigns like Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms before bringing them in to the planes as clueless primes. That way the players will be as confused and wondrous as their characters when you introduce them to the strange worlds that are the planes. It's always best when players experience things for the first time along with their characters. Just be sure to include lots of the local cant or else they won't see it as that different from the Prime Material.

I'd like to take a moment to comment on the art of the campaign setting as well. The art for Planescape is phenomenal. The particular style that Tony DiTerlizzi and his colleagues brought to the planes speaks with such a unique dark madness; I have yet to see any edition match its presence. The art in all the editions has its own charm, but Planescape really speaks to me on a level that really identifies with the emotion and feeling the campaigns creator was trying to craft. Outlandish and strange, comically dark, and yet bursting with character. Not enough can be said for the beauty of the art. I'll end this post with a selection of art from the boxed set, because I simply could not limit it to just the three that I normally share. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned tomorrow for "Q is for Quests".

Relevant Links
Tony DiTerlizzi
Voila's Dictionary of Planar Cant
Pyramid Pick's Review of Planescape