Saturday, December 25, 2010

...And To All A Good Night

Greetings, Readers!

Christmas is here!  That being the case, I wanted to take the opportunity to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

Regardless of which of the several holidays you participate in this time of year, I think we can all agree that each of us needs to take a moment and think about someone other than himself/herself.  Remember, despite the circumstances you find yourself currently in, there is always someone else out there who's situation is even worse.  If you can, take some time to help one of those people out.  No pressure.  Help has help can.  It's all good.

I leave you with the following Christmas wish:  May peace be with you and your family.  No matter how you celebrate the holiday, it is my wish that we all remember that we are fellow travelers on this little blue globe.  Here's hoping we can all just get along a little better.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Your Frosty Doom - Epic Wintertime Foe

Season's Greetings, Readers!

The month of December is pretty busy, so I thought I'd post up some holiday themed foes for your hapless players to bang their heads against.

This year I chose to stat-up a snowman-like elemental that will surely give your players cold chills.

Here's the Epic version (Click on the pictures, to see the larger images):

This solo throws off the occasional minion.  Here are the stats for that minion:

I hope you've enjoyed the scary snowmen over these last few days.  If you end up using any of these creatures at the game table, I'd love to hear about it!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Your Frosty Doom - Paragonic Wintertime Foe

Season's Greetings, Readers!

The month of December is pretty busy, so I thought I'd post up some holiday themed foes for your hapless players to bang their heads against.

This year I chose to stat-up a snowman-like elemental that will surely give your players cold chills.

Here's the Paragonic (Yep, just making that word up) version (Click on the pictures, to see the larger images):

This solo also throws off the occasional minion.  Here are the stats for that minion:

In a couple days, I'll post the Epic Version of this very dangerous snowman.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Your Frosty Doom - Heroic Wintertime Foe

Season's Greetings, Readers!

The month of December is pretty busy, so I thought I'd post up some holiday themed foes for your hapless players to bang their heads against.

This year I chose to stat-up a snowman-like elemental that will surely give your players cold chills.

Here's the Heroic version (Click on the pictures, to see the larger images):

This solo throws off the occasional minion.  Here are the stats for that minion:

Over the next few days, I'll post the Paragon & Epic Versions of this very dangerous snowman.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, December 13, 2010

So Say We All

Greetings, Readers!

So it seems that lately I've been on a Battlestar Galactica kick.  I wasn't very interested in the series after viewing the pilot, and not long thereafter, I gave up my subscription to the "good" cable.  As a result, I've come late to the party on this series.  I'm really enjoying it so far, and I've been lucky that I've not been given many spoilers as to how the series ends, or how major plot elements are supposed to unfold.  I'm well into Season 4, and while the series has gotten a bit "out there" (if you will), I'm still enjoying it.

Let me stop right there. You might be asking yourself, "What the hell does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?  You know, the subject of this blog?"

Well, I'll tell you.  As I continue to watch the series, it occurs to me that the idea of a whole civilization of people fleeing for their survival across the vastness of space, and facing a terrible and driven enemy was a FANTASTIC idea for a campaign setting. However, for awhile, I couldn't figure out how to translate such an epic story into a fantasy campaign of the same scope.  My biggest problem was the vastness of space covered in  Battlestar Galactica.  The other day, I finally figured it out.  What you'll find below, is a rough outline for a FANTASY themed campaign setting based on the themes and devices found in Battlestar Galactica.  

Note:  For typing ease, I've replaced "Battlestar Galactica" with "BSG" and "My Campaign" with "MC".  Here goes:

01) In BSG, the survivors of the Cylon attack flee across space in a collection of civilian & military spacecraft.  In MC, the survivors of a Githyanki attack, flee across the Astral Sea in a collection of fortified & unfortified islands and fortresses.

02)  In BSG, the main bad guys are the Cylons (who look like humans) and their machine servitors.  In MC, the main bad guys are Githyanki (who can disguise themselves as other races in this setting) and their construct servitors.

03)  In BSG, the survivors (humans) are searching for a mystical planet called Earth.  In MC, the survivors (a number of races) are searching for a mystical Prime Plane called "Earth" (or substitute alternate world of your choice).  For me, there's something intriguing about a group of fantasy inspired races searching for a "real" Earth, the source of their original creation.

04)  In BSG the main protector of the fleet is a large space battle ship/carrier called, "Battlestar Galactica" (hence the show's name).  In MC, the main protector of the fleet is a large floating keep called...well, I haven't decided what to call it, yet.

05)  In BSG, the fleet "jumps" to different parts of the galaxy using an FTL (Faster Than Light) drive.  In MC, the fleet "jumps" to different parts of the Astral Sea by using a special "Create Portal" ritual.  

06) In BSG, only Humans are mentioned (although they come in several different races based on their planet of origin).  In MC, many races exist (members of a very large empire).

That's the biggest chunk of what I've worked out so far.  There are a number of things I haven't worked out. It's not a requirement that the campaign setting exactly duplicate everything from the Battlestar Galactica television series.  For example, I left out the whole "Humans created the Cylons and now they're rebelling".  There may be some connection developed for that, but for now I'm leaving it.

Well, that's about all I have.  What do you guys think?  Are there enough BSG fans out there, that this could be developed into a campaign setting?  I'd love to your thoughts.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials - Monster Vault: An Un-Review


While I don't really do reviews on this site, I have promised my readers in previous posts to give you my comments about the various Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products that are coming out this year (and into next year).  Yesterday in the mail, I received my order from the Nobel Barn of two of the Essentials titles:  Dungeon Tiles Master Set - The City, and The Monster Vault.

I'm actually not going to review the first one.  Everyone has done un-boxing and review posts over the tile sets.  The only thing is that like all the tile sets, you really need to get TWO of them to have an effective set.  This is my opinion, of course, but with the tile pieces often doing double duty (sewers on one side, walkways on the other), to construct anything really effective, you need a couple of sets to do that.  Enough said.

Let talk about the Monster Vault, instead.  Like other Essentials reviews I've done, I'm not going to tell you how I feel about the monster stats, the quality of the module, or that kind of stuff.  Instead, I want to talk to you about the things I fell in love with, and why I think this is one of the best sets I've seen in a LONG time.

So let's get right to it.  The Monster Vault contains three elements:  A digest-like monster manual that contains descriptions of the monsters, a set of monster counters, & an adventure suitable for 4th level characters.  Let's take each of these in hand and discuss:

The Module - I thumbed through it.  Looked pretty icy (the setting, not the style).  There seemed to be a dirigible at the end, which I thought was pretty cool.  Modules are modules for me.  Most of the stuff WotC puts together for adventures are pretty workable, so I really don't have much to say about it.  Looks like it was designed to be run after heroes complete the module in the DM's Toolkit.  I believe the stories are set in the same land (Nentir Vale), but I don't believe the stories are linked.  

The Counters - Oh my Heavens, the counters!  So far, we've seen three different Essentials products come with a selection of counters.  The Starter Set (otherwise known as the "Red Box"), came with a few counters to cover basic heroes and the monsters in the introductory adventure that was included.  The DM's Toolkit also came with a nice selection of monsters, enough to provide counters for every creature (and I think every NPC as well) for the adventure included in that boxed set.  Between the two sets, I had enough counters to nearly fill a re-purposed and almost 1/2 gallon plastic gellato container.

The counters contained in the Monster Vault flat out blew that away.  I haven't done a careful check, but I suspect there's at least one counter to represent every creature listed in the Vault.  It was 10 sheets (if I remember correctly) of medium, large, & even huge creatures.  In addition to that, there were huge sized "adapter rings" for converting large creatures into huge ones.  It was an interesting innovation.  Admittedly, the rings look like giant tractor tires, but still, it's a pretty cool idea, since the large counters fit neatly inside them.  So many counters.  By the time I had gathered them all, my poor gellato container was overflowing.  I had to remove the large and huge counters and place them in the Monster Vault box.  Now, of course, my OCD is going to require that all of these counters get sorted.  I'm looking to coin collecting tools to help organize these.  When I've done some more research, I'll have a post devoted exclusively to storing and managing your counters.  I can't say it enough.  With all three boxed sets (Starter, DM Toolkit, and Monster Vault), you get a metric f-ton of counters.  I really can't get enough of fiddly bits like this.  It is a good thing.

The Monster Manual - Let me begin by just re-quoting myself from Twitter last night:  "Okay, Monster Vault.  I am in love with you.  Best Monster Manual since the original 1st Edition AD&D one".  I meant it, too.  Like the rest of the Essentials line, the Monster Vault book is a monster manual that presents in the same digest form as the rest of the books in the Essentials line. That's just the sexy outer form, though.  The real reason I'm gushing, is how the material inside the book is presented.  Others have written about this, but I finally saw it for myself.  WotC has returned to giving us some background for the creatures we use in the game. I haven't seen a Monster Manual do this effectively since the ones written for the 1st Edition.  Seeing a monster manual do more than just give pages & pages of stats was refreshing.  There's enough background material on most of the monsters to build entire campaigns around.  I was most impressed.  I now have a monster manual I can enjoy reading, instead of just referencing.  

Finally, I really like the appendices in the back of the book.  A section on just animals.  Why, this is AWESOME!  Also a table of monsters by level?  STUPENDOUS!  Of course, like the rest of the Essentials books, they didn't skimp on either the glossary or the index.  Kids, this is a complete book.  

Conclusions - If you don't get any of the other Essentials materials, do yourself a favor and pick up the Monster Vault.  It's utility is bar-none, and the monster manual contained within is the best written one in years.  I look forward to it providing loads of campaign ideas and monster goodness for years to come.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shoppe - Final Considerations

Wow...I sort of left you guys hanging, didn't I.  

The dust was getting a bit thick here, so I thought I'd better get back to it.  I've not been completely, idle, though, as that wacky Oregonian @ThadeousC has been keeping me busy doing some things HERE & THERE.

It's also the start of the holiday season, so my weekends have been pretty occupied.  However, you didn't come here for excuses, so let me wrap up this loose thread - that being, how best to use the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Equipment cards.

Any DM with a notepad and something to write with, can come up with a table of values.  Instead of printing off cards, you can write down the expected things to find at a certain store, make a list, assign values to the items on that list, and then roll a die or dice to determine what is actually available.  

But really.  What fun is that?

Instead, you might follow some of these suggestions:

Print off a complete set of all the cards.  In addition, I recommend printing off a couple of sets of each of the supplies cards.  It's a total of 10 sets of cards, I believe.  

Separate the different types of cards.  One pile for armor, one pile for simple weapons, one pile for military weapons, and one pile (the largest pile) for supplies. Remember to take the ranged weapons and split them up into either simple or military weapons. If you have specialty shops, perhaps you have an "Archery" shop.  Place all the ranged weapons and ammunition supplies in this stack, if that's the case.

Determine the type of shops you have.  If you have really small towns, you might only have one "general goods" store that sells a little of everything.  Larger towns and cities will have specialty shops.  

For specialty shops in large towns, use the whole deck (or multiple decks) of the same kind of item.  It's likely they'll have a complete & redundant inventory of items.  For smaller, general shops, take a portion of each pile and mix it together into one deck.  Then draw only a portion of that deck to determine exactly what's on hand at the shop.  Such a technique works well with travelling merchants, too.  Draw like only 6 things from an entire deck selection.   Maybe the characters get lucky.  Or...maybe the merchant is only carrying six candles.  Be sure to role-play that up, too!  

As an added bonus, you can give the players the actual cards, or they can simply update their character sheets with the items.  Also, you might reshuffle the deck after a visit to the shop, and redraw new items.  This way, you represent a turn-over of inventory within a particular shop.

Don't have the card files yet?  I've now placed all the links to the card files on my Publications page.  Just look over there to the right-hand side of the screen.  You'll see the link there.  Click that link.  

Finally, just have fun with the cards, and let me know what your experience is with them!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Supplies, Part 3

My Good Readers,

Here is the final post regarding the Supplies card series for Dungeons & Dragons Essentials®. I appreciate your patience, as I've had to break up these general supplies into three posts. The reason for this is that the tool I'm using to create the cards (Go Deck Yourself), has a limitation on the number of cards you can produce per PDF. This final deck should download about as quick as the last one, being nearly the same size.

Remember to right-click on the link below and choose "Save Link As" (or Save Target As) to download the PDF file.

Supplies: Flash through Torch

In a few days, I'll be posting a final note on these cards, and a more detailed explanation on how to best use all the cards.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Supplies, Part 2

Greetings, Readers!

Here is the second post to continue the supplies card series for Dungeons & Dragons Essentials®. I appreciate your patience, as I've had to break up these general supplies into three posts. The reason for this is that the tool I'm using to create the cards (
Go Deck Yourself), has a limitation on the number of cards you can produce per PDF. While the first one was pretty hefty, this second one should go a little quicker.  One more post will follow this one, about the same size as this one.

Remember to right-click on the link below and choose "Save Link As" (or Save Target As) to download the PDF file.

Supplies: Candle through Fine Clothing

In the next couple of days, I'll be finishing with the general supplies and providing a nice summary post on how to best utilize these cards in game play.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Supplies, Part 1

Greetings, Readers!

I apologize for the delay this last week, but I return once again to continue my series of equipment cards for Dungeons & Dragons Essentials™. Now available are Supplies. I've broken up this general supplies into three posts.  The reason for this is that the tool I'm using to create the cards (
Go Deck Yourself), has a limitation on the number of cards you can produce per PDF.  This first one is pretty hefty, so I apologize in advance for the download size.  The other two posts that will follow this one, are not quite so large.

Remember to right-click on the link below and choose "Save Link As"  (or Save Target As) to download the PDF file.

Supplies: Adventurer's Kit through Arcane Implement, Wand

In the next couple of days, I'll be finishing with the general supplies and providing a nice summary post on how to best utilize these cards in game play.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Ranged Weapons

Greetings, Readers!

I return once again to continue my series of equipment cards for Dungeons & Dragons Essentials™.  Now available are Ranged Weapons.  Because there's not as many items in this deck, I've combined both the Simple and Military Ranged Weapons into a single deck.  

Remember to right-click on the link below and choose "Save Link As" to download the PDF file.

Ranged Weapons

Coming up this week, I'll be doing the actual equipment cards.  There's quite a few of those, so I'll probably do them in two different decks.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Military Melee Weapons

Greetings, Readers!

A short post today, simply to let you know that a third set of equipment cards is now available.  This deck contains the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials™ Military Melee Weapons.  Before I link those up for you, a bit of warning.  This file is about 21 mg, so download with caution (broadband users should have no trouble).  Here's the link, it's best to right-click the link and choose "Save Link As":

Military Melee Weapons

By now, you get the drill.  Print out the cards, shuffle them, and select a number of them based on the size of the community the weapons shop is located (click HERE for an example).  As these are military weapons, the DM might require a special license for a shopkeeper to sell these kinds of weapons.  The choice is up to you!

I'd love to get some feedback as to the usefulness of these cards.  Let me know!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Simple Melee Weapons

Greetings, Readers!

As promised, our merchants have been busy building weapon shops all over your campaign setting.  Linked below are another set of cards you can use to determine what weapons can be found in what shops.  Using these cards works just the same as using the armor cards; which are described here.

Large City      Draw 36 Cards.
Small City:     Draw 24 Cards.
Town:            Draw 18 Cards.
Village:          Draw 12 Cards.
Hamlet:          Draw 06 Cards.

I've changed the distribution a bit on weapons, as it was my feeling that weapon shops would probably carry more weapons than an armor shop would carry armor.  Of course, your campaign will vary, so adjust the number of cards in your "inventory" deck to suit your needs.

You can link to this set of cards by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.  For easier opening, I recommend right-clicking on the link and choosing, "Save Target As".  

I'd love to hear your comments on what you think of the utility of the cards.  Let me know what your're thinking!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ye Olde Provisions Shop - Armor & Shields

Man, everyone needs provisions.  Armor, weapons, implements, equipment.  All that stuff needs to be acquired so that you can take on the bad guys and win the day.  However, when you roll into town, how do you know whether or not a merchant has a specific item?  More importantly, how can you make sure the DM knows whether or not a merchant has that certain item?  Are you really going to make your poor suffering DM come up with all these tables just to see if a merchant has that suit of chain mail you need?

Friends, I have an answer for you, and it comes in the form of a set of cards you can download right here at Initiative or What?.  These cards are free, and were created using a great site called Go Deck Yourself.  That site has some great templates for creating cards for just about any tabletop game, and all for free. I've probably talked about them before (spoiler: they're awesome), so I won't go into that here.  What I want to speak about more specifically is how to use the cards.

Before I go any further, let me link up the cards I currently have available for download.  CAUTION!!  This a pretty hefty PDF file (a little over 17mg), so download with care.  ARMOR & SHIELDS SHOP.

Okay, I'm not going to brag about the cards.  I specifically designed them to be simple, and to easily communicate all the vital information you need for that type of item.  FYI, all the stuff you see here is coming out of the 4e Essentials rules.  In this case, they're right out of Heroes of the Fallen Lands™.

Now, here's how you use them:

You're the DM.  You have different communities of different sizes, with correspondingly differently sized shops.  So, let's say the town has an armorer (smithy, metalworks, what have you).  After the cards have been cut out, shuffle them and draw a number of cards that correspond to the city's size.  You can go with my suggestions, or you can use your own system:

Large City      Draw 36 Cards.
Small City:      Draw 24 Cards.
Town:            Draw 12 Cards.
Village:          Draw 06 Cards.
Hamlet:          Draw 03 Cards.

The cards drawn represent the assortment of armor (and shields) that particular shop has on hand that day.  Of course, popular merchants will get shipments in all the time.  My own recommendation is for each week of game time, shuffle the deck again and draw the same number of cards.  That way, a new selection is always available.  If you're an especially benevolent DM, you might even hand the player the card of his choosing, to keep for his records.  If the player trades in that card for something better (a suit of magical armor, perhaps), then you can slip it back into the deck "shop", for future shopping.

Over the next several days, I'll be making additional equipment cards for the items that can be found in the Essentials rules.  That way, no matter what kind of item your heroes are looking for, you will be sure to know how to find it (at least the ordinary stuff, anyway).

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

D&D Essentials - Object Properties


So, I'm going through the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Rules Compendium, and came across the chart that helps determine the object properties for items you find within the game (it's on page 177).  Object properties can be important if the heroes want to put the smack down on a statue, or throw glass wine bottles at a hobo on the street.

Whatever the reason, it's important to know the basic stats (AC/Reflex/Fortitude) and the hit points of the object in question.  The table given in the book is great, but it contains (wait for it)...MATH.

I really hate math.  Granted, it's not complicated math, but when you have two variables you have to take into consideration (type & durability), it's more math than I care to do.


Starting with the basic table the Rules Compendium gives us, I created an expanded table for easy reference, with all the math completed (I used a calculator).

You'll find a .pdf link to the table RIGHT HERE.

For you impatient types, here's an image of the table.  You can click on it for a larger view.

Let me know if you find this chart useful.  I might pick some more low-hanging fruit like this for enhancement.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Into the Myst


I'd like to talk a little bit about my Dead Orcs Society campaign, but before I do that; let me lay out the following  alert:

WARNING:  If you are a member of the Dead Orcs Society and are reading my blog, please be aware that there are spoilers below.  I'm happy you're reading the blog, but don't ruin the game experience for yourself. Take a look at another article instead!

You.  You're one of them!  Your time is not at hand.  Go.  Go now before it's too late.

Okay, thank you for that indulgence.  On with the post.

Well over a year ago, I mentioned a couple of times that I'm a HUGE fan of the Myst series of games.  By today's video game standards, they seem pretty basic.  The game consisted of a linear plot with slide-show like presentations of graphics, augmented by a little animation here and there.  At the time, the game was amazingly innovative, as it was the first game released on CD-ROM.  Also (for its time), the game had beautifully rendered 3-D graphics.    Each image was like a photograph.  In addition, the images, combined with the curious puzzles and haunting music, made for an entertaining experience.

The creative story line behind the Myst (and later Uru) series of games seems tailor-made for a Dungeons & Dragons type of game.  Haunting locales, devious puzzles, interesting artifacts all combine to create an intriguing experience.  However, using the Myst universe as a basis for a campaign had some challenges.  This post is how I plan to hurdle these challenges and create a rewarding experience.

Challenge #1:  Technology

Atrus (the main protagonist in the early Myst games) was a writer capable of describing some amazing worlds.  As a result, some of the things that he "wrote" into these worlds were technological devices.  Thus, I had to figure out how to deal with these in a campaign that previously had little technology.  Fortunately, this was pretty easy to do.  Most of the technology described in the Myst series of games is of an organic nature.  That is, the tech is so incorporated into the world, it looks like it belongs there.  Most of it is naturally powered, or uses strange energies.  The nice thing about this fact, is that it's so well integrated, anything unusual can be chalked up by the character as "magic".  In my own campaign, that will be the default explanation as well.  I won't prevent my characters from finding out about how the technology works (and in some cases they'll need to, in order to solve a puzzle), but for the most part, it just does.

Challenge #2: Transportation

One of the main features of the Myst campaign setting, is the fact that certain D'ni (the race from which Atrus sprang) individuals were trained at an early age to be special writers.  These writers could write books describing just about any fantastic place.  The writer could then pen a "linking book" that would take you straight there.  From a campaign perspective, that's a pretty powerful magic.  For my campaign, writing books like this would require a VERY high leveled ritual, extremely special materials, and a great deal of time. While I won't make this magic impossible to acquire, most of my heroes will be far too busy to deal with it.  At the same time, I couldn't allow this kind of magic within the heroes' home setting.  Since using linking books takes you to a different world, that's exactly what will happen.  The Myst portions of the campaign take place on different worlds, effectively isolated from the home world.  Hence, no dangerous magical contamination.

Challenge #3: Linear Plot

Although the game of Myst encourages exploration in many different directions, the main plot is pretty linear.  You can count on one hand the number of possible outcomes of the game.  Fortunately, this isn't too much of a problem with my own campaign.  The Dead Orcs are used to a linear campaign & wide sweeping story arcs.  Thus, the Myst universe portion of the campaign, shouldn't be too difficult to sell. 

Challenge #4:  Monsters & Other Dangers

This challenge is the biggest one to hurdle.  Myst was created as a pretty relaxing game.  While there are some endings where you can "lose", at no point in the game can you really be killed or injured.  The slide-show type of presentation means you cannot travel to those places the game won't let you.  You can't accidentally fall into a pit or impale yourself on a machine, etc.  In addition, no monsters are going to come out of the woodwork to try and kill you.  Obviously, these game conceits simply won't do for a Myst-based D&D game.  The challenge means incorporating creatures and dangerous terrain that could be found in the setting.  Fortunately, the haunted & abandoned feel of the original game lends itself to using undead.  Also, the existence of strange devices using unusual energy sources, means that elementals of various types could be used prominently.  These kinds of monsters are best, because you can "drop" them into the plot.  You don't have to write huge back stories to explain why such things exist, as you would if you dropped in humanoid tribes, for example.  For my own campaign, there will be plenty of opportunities for the heroes to fight creatures.  In addition, terrain features are can be deadly, and so will be dealt with accordingly in the campaign.  You don't do a cannonball off of Stoneship, unless you're prepared to swim several hundred miles through open ocean.

The nice advantage to Dungeons & Dragons over the original Myst is that the heroes actually have a chance to change the plot.  They can choose whether or not to help Atrus, or do anything at all about his sons.  In addition, (at least for my own campaign) the heroes will be able to actually claim one or more of the worlds for their own use (if they so choose).  Of course, the heroes will have to be able to find their way home...

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Dungeon & Dragons Essentials - The Un-Review

Greetings, Readers!

By now, I'm sure you been flooded with all sorts of blogs & media regarding the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials product line and what it means for the industry, the hobby, & your game.  Many folks far more knowledgeable about the subject than myself, have put out a lot of great information.  Maybe you decided to purchase it or maybe you haven't.  

But I'm not going to talk about that.

I will tell you, that I have purchased the Essentials product line, and am enjoying the products.  For the record, here's the items I have so far:

  • The Red Box Introductory Set
  • The Rules Compendium
  • Heroes of the Fallen Lands
  • The Basic Dungeon Tiles Set (x2)

Instead of regaling you with my opinion on what I think of the rules, the game play, or even the various components of the game, I want to speak instead about the aesthetics of the set.  Too often, reviewers gloss over what I think is an important part of any set of game rules.  That is, the physical attributes of the set.  As table top role-players, this is understandable; but I think it's important to realize when a product has been cleverly designed.  For me, Essentials is a cleverly designed product.  For examp:

The Books are Table-Top Friendly:  This has probably been mentioned, but the "trade paperback" size of the main books (The Rules Compendium & Heroes of the Fallen Lands) are sized just right for the tabletop.  For the first time, I feel like I can keep a D&D tome on the actual table without it getting in the way, or being used as the backdrop for a dice roller.  The Rules Compendium, especially, will always have a place at the table.

The Books are HEAVY:  I was impressed with the "density" of both the Rules Compendium & Heroes of the Fallen Lands.  They feel like true digests, and not like textbooks.  When you open them, they seem jammed with rules, and for me, that's a good thing.  An encyclopedia at my fingertips.

The Counters are Clever:  I liked the fact that different monsters were printed on both sides.  I plan to use the counters as minion pieces, and the utility of having more monster types as minions is really appealing to me.  The counter material is dense, and while not quite as sturdy as plastic, it's probably more sturdy than anything I could print off at home.

The Tiles are Bountiful:  I've owned tile sets in the past, having purchased a couple each of the Harrowing Halls & Dark Sun sets.  Ten sheets of tiles in the Dungeon set, is quite generous for the cost (as far as I'm concerned).  Some folks have raised issue with the fact that the designs are recycled and not original ones.  That fact doesn't really concern me too much, as I've never really seem them before myself.  Oh, I  have to award bonus points for the frames the tiles are set in.  My wife, Anna (@FELTit on Twitter), is using the stout frames (empty now that the tiles have been punched out of them), as templates for felting projects.  Go utilitarianism!

This S**t Stacks Together:  I discovered this by accident.  If you place the Rules Compendium & Heroes of the Fallen Lands side by side on the Dungeon Tile set box, they stack.  The friggen things actually stack!  I don't know if it's an accident of design; or if the product design gurus over at WotC were sitting around thinking, "You know?  D&D nerds are going to be carrying this stuff to conventions, Encounters sessions, and to distant games. I wonder if it would be helpful to be able to stack all that stuff neatly together?". Well, whether they intended it to be like that, or not, it is a Cool Feature.   

Well, that's my "Un-Review" of Essentials.  As additional products are released, I'll see what I can do about identifying other unique properties of this Dungeons & Dragons product called, "Essentials".

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Map, Your Way - A Proposal


So I'm at the office, busily working away on those things that you do in an office, when my friend, Alex, IMs me.    He works at the same office, and also happens to be a member of my game group, The Dead Orcs Society.  Alex is a casual DM himself, and has been interested of late, with the new dungeon tile sets Wizards of the Coast are releasing with the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line.  Alex is also interested in the DDI tools, and we've had frequent discussions about what WotC might do with their online assets.  

Today, those two interests combined to form what I hope is a pretty cool idea.  I told Alex to throw it up on the WotC forums to see what others have to say about it (not sure if he'll do that or not). I also asked him if I could do a blog post about it.  He told me, "Yes".  So that's the point of this post.  Just wanted to cover that.  The following idea is his:

Alex proposed that WotC create (as one of their DDI tools) a tile mapping tool that would allow you to either draw your own maps OR use any of the existing tiles from WotC's current and previously released sets.  WotC does have a tile mapper, but it's my understanding it's not really updated with new tile sets (I might be wrong on this point).  Here's the kicker.  Once you create your map, you could send it to WotC who would print the tiles for you and ship them to you.  Basically, you build your dungeon (using their tiles), and WotC would print it off and ship it to you (for a fee, of course).

The model isn't exactly new.  LEGO® has been doing this for several years, now.  You can build an object using their online tools, and they'll count the bricks, add up the cost, and send you the model.  It's not a cheap process (you pay a premium), but it apparently gets plenty of use, since the feature is still available.  Beyond the usual corporate reasons (money, resources), I'm not sure what reason they'd have for NOT wanting to do this.  Just in case though, here are a few reasons they should:

  • WotC could continue to sell old tile sets - Many of the encounters and published modules use these older (and now rare) tile sets.  A customer could recreate those online (using the online tile mapper) and have it shipped.  Essentially, WotC would be getting money for a product they no longer sell.

  • Print on demand is a reasonable technology - While it's true that WotC could simply store dungeon elements in a big warehouse somewhere, it's more practical to just have them printed to the cardstock on demand.  With laser cutting, each dungeon set is packed and shipped for you, as though you ordered a boxed product off the shelf.  

  • WotC could make money hand over fist - Well, that might be an exaggeration, but there's money to be had, charging a premium for this kind of "on demand" product.  I'm not an expert on the subject, but I suspect they could make enough to cover their printing costs.  You could even charge by the tile, like LEGO® does.  Maybe they charge $.25 for a single tile item (a boiling pot tile, whatever), or a $1.00 for a 2 x 6 corridor tile.  I think the demand would be high enough, you could work out a profitable system (and still make it attractive to users).  You could even build the online tool so that if forms a certain size template.  You could charge by the template, allowing the user to put as many tiles as possible in the proscribed space.

Obviously, such a program would not replace the current tile sets that WotC releases.  Like LEGO®, their model builder program hasn't stopped them from releasing scores of sets each year.  A program with dungeon tiles could work the same way.

If you're listening, WotC, give this some consideration.  Imagine your customers laying out their own custom dungeon using YOUR dungeon tiles.  It would be a BIG deal!  Thanks, Alex, for such a great idea.  If WotC hires you, remember the little people that helped make you famous, okay?

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Bit of Cartography, Eh?

Greetings, Readers!

I'm heading into a long weekend with my amazing wife, Anna (@FELTit on the Twitters), and thought I'd leave you with a little mapping inspiration for the weekend, since I don't know how internet dark I'll end up being (it's Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, so who knows).

If you've read my blog for long, you'll remember that I'm the DM for a couple of games now, and both of those games are set in a world called Gaia.  Right now, the two different gaming groups are gaming in separate parts of the continent (called, unsurprising enough) the Shattered Continent.  

The first gaming group, The Dead Orcs Society, games in the region that was formerly the Kingdom of Renard.  After the Rendering, the kingdom fell apart (the capital is now a ruin), and all that remains are various city-states.   It is into this land that I shoehorned the Nentir Vale region described in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide. Take a look at the map, you'll see some familiar names (do click on the graphic for a larger image):

My second group, which has fewer players, is called my Small Group (they have yet to decide on a name for themselves).  The land they adventure in is a bit further south, and is called Florence.  It's government managed to stay more or less intact after the Rendering, but many areas were destroyed.  The various towns and villages all swear fealty to the king, but pretty much run things as they like, locally.  The adventures placed here are from the Chaos Scar series presented by Wizards of the Coast.  I've only used the adventures, and sort of a unifying hook.  In my campaign, there is no real "Chaos Scar region").  Here's what Florence looks like (again with the clicky for the biggie):

I don't really count cartography as being in my skill set.  I use a number of different online tools to construct the basics for my maps, then use Macromedia's Fireworks to add additional features and text.  For these maps, I used an online hex mapping program called Hexographer from Inkwell Ideas.  It's a great program, and really comes in handy for overland mapping!  Once I have the basic terrain down, I import the graphic into Fireworks (I know, I know.  There are better graphics programs out there.  I use Fireworks because I'm comfortable with the tool set).

A good map is invaluable to a DM for helping to set the tone for a campaign.  When I see places on a map, my mind jumps to all the different possibilities the terrain and place names generate.  Whether you're using online tools or just scratching it all down on notebook paper, mapping is a vital part of the DM experience.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Integrating the Sandbox

I currently run two games as a DM.  The first one is my Dead Orcs Society game.  That game has a fairly linear story line.  I don't like to use the term railroad, but the story arc is pretty well defined, and it would throw things out of kilter if the PCs decided they wanted to go off and do something weird.  It's not a bad thing, because my players recognize this, and so we're all in mutual agreement with regards to how that game is going.

That game, however, is not the one I want to talk about today.

My second game, my "small group" game, features just my wife (@FELTit), and another couple we're friends with.  When I started that game, I wanted it to be more of a sandbox game.  I wanted the PCs to be able to choose from several different paths.  The game would play itself out based on what quests the PCs encountered.

The only real issue I had with this idea, was that I didn't know how best to communicate to the PCs, where the quests were located.  The MMO method, where quest givers have a brightly colored exclamation point above their head, doesn't really translate well to the table top.  In addition, I didn't want to feel that I was leading my PCs on by having them just "bump into" the various quest giving NPCs.  I saw two issues.  The first one, is that the "oops, I just ran into you, here's what I want you to do" method is a bit contrived.  The second issue, is that the  method has a tendency to make the PCs jump at the first thing that will put coin in their purses.

The method I hit upon was to use a newsletter.  With a newsletter, I could present information about all the adventures in a veiled way.  The articles are written in such a manner, that the PCs are encouraged to follow their own leads.  Additionally, a newsletter isn't out of the question for a "points of light" campaign (which mine is).  The Old West (before the advent of the telegraph) was a similar "points of light" situation.  However, the Pony Express existed at that time period and enabled communities to communicate with one another.  I see no real reason a small printed newsletter couldn't be transmitted to various communities in my own campaign area in the same fashion.

I think I've hit on a pretty effect method of driving PC activity.  However, don't just take my word for it.  Have a look yourself.  Download the .pdf of the first newsletter RIGHT HERE. (right click on the link & go to "save link as". It will download the .pdf directly).  In order to make a little better sense of the newsletter, here's an accompanying map to the region (click the map to get a larger image):

If a lot of the info in that newsletter seems familiar, it should.  Most of the adventures hinted at in the newsletter are from the "Chaos Scar" series published online by Wizards of the Coast.  Some things have been changed, of course, for my own campaign; but all the 1st level Chaos Scar adventures (I believe) have been represented.

As the heroes in my campaign continue to advance in level, new editions of the newsletter will be released.  In fact, it's quite probable that the heroes themselves will (at some point) end up as subjects in the very newsletter they use to find their next job.

Let me know what you think!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Skill Challenges - A Necessary Follow-up seems I wrote a little blog post a few days ago, explaining how I wasn't a fan of skill challenges, because of the "mechanical" nature of the structure, and the way they are presented in the rules.  I received several great comments on the post (thanks, everyone!), but I wanted to clear up a few issues of concern the post generated.

First. I never intended to imply anything specific regarding how most DMs run their skill challenges.  It's quite apparent to me that most DMs ARE NOT running skill challenges as they are presented in the source material.  I should have made that clearer in the post.  I'm glad to see the mechanical nature of the presented skill challenges is being interpreted by DMs as a framework for the encounter, NOT a method for running the encounter.

Second.  I want to re-emphasize that I think Quinn Murphy's (@gamefiend) work in skill challenges is some of the best stuff I've seen.  Contrary to what might have been interpreted in my original post, Quinn has been able to take the original concept of the skill challenge and stretch it to some amazing places.  Please go read his blog (At-Will) and see what I mean!

Third.  I had a brief discussion about this topic with Sarah Darkmagic (of the New Hampshire Darkmagics).  She told me (and I think it's good advice) that while my "re-writes" of the example skill challenges I wrote were nice, she thought it might be even more helpful, if some general advice regarding running alternatives to skill challenges were presented.  That way, new DMs (on which she's an expert) can get a better handle on what I'm talking about.  It's a good idea, and I'll mull it over.  Some of the comments I received on the original post seem to indicate that I was still working with skill challenges, I was just defining them in another way.  That point leads me to this one:

Fourth.  On the DM Roundtable Tuesday, our group was lucky to have Chris Sims join us.  I don't need to restate his RPG credits here.  Chris was nice enough to drop by.  During our discussion on skill challenges, he made what I thought was an important point.  "Skill Challenge" is just a name.  You don't call combat encounters "Power Challenges".  I think (and of course, correct me if I'm wrong), that what Chris was saying, is that any kind of an encounter that's not a combat encounter could be considered a "Skill Challenge".  That doesn't mean it has to be framed or spelled out with specific mechanics.  For my part in this discussion, I need to embrace that.  It's easy to get caught up in the name, and I think it's easy for new DMs to perhaps do the same.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Skill Challenges: A Differing Perspective

Skill challenges. Along with defeating monsters and completing quests, skill challenges form the third side of the XP triangle for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Designed as a framework for non-combat encounters, skill challenges allow a DM to create a scenario where the heroes can overcome a challenge using their skills (hence the name) and without necessarily resorting to combat. Skill challenges are usually designed to fit into the flow of the story, and are thus given an XP rating to reward the heroes for their success.

I’m not a fan.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to offer a great deal of respect to those DMs that have embraced the skill challenge mechanic and have made a science out of building new ones. Folks like Quinn Murphy (@gamefiend) and Paul Unwin (@pdunwin) strive for excellence when creating skill challenges, and for questions about them, they are a fantastic resource. Look them up on Twitter. They’re good cats.

Despite these efforts, however, I can’t help but feel that skill challenges are a clunky mechanic; a sort of artificially manufactured framework for game actions accomplished through simple role-playing, basic skill checks, and what I call “hidden quests” (I’ll get to that last term in the moment).

Illustrated below, are a couple of re-imaged skill challenges using the actions I would take in my own game. I’ll reference the location of the original challenge, and present my alternative to the skill challenge referenced. Again, let me reiterate that I don’t think I can do it better. However, I do believe I can do it different, and in a way that’s less disruptive to the flow of play.

For our first challenge, let’s explore the encounter with Sir Keegan from “Keep on the Shadowfell”. If you don’t have this adventure, it can be downloaded for free, from Wizards of the Coast. During this encounter, Sir Keegan (an undead warrior), threatens to attack the heroes if they don’t convince him they’re on the side of good. Take a moment to review that skill challenge and come back.

Okay, all set? Now…here’s how I would handle the encounter.

Skill Challenge Redux: Sir Keegan 

Set Up: The encounter begins as shown in the adventure, with Sir Keegan leaping out of his tomb to confront the heroes. He immediately challenges the entire group to prove their worth. Initiative is rolled, but only to provide for combat should it break out. Players can act in turn, or talk at once. Sir Keegan addresses the characters as if he were really surrounded. He makes gestures that indicate that he would speak to the heroes. A parlay, perhaps.

Useful Skills: This encounter involves a discussion with a powerful creature. The DM should choose skills appropriate to a discussion. In this case, those choices should be: Bluff, Diplomacy, & Intimidation. The hero can gain a +2 bonus to his skill check if he first watches Sir Keegan speak to another hero & also succeeds a DC 15 Insight check. The hero is required to interact with Sir Keegan BEFORE rolling the check. The nature of the interaction is what determines which skill is appropriate. It’s possible (even probable) that a player will attempt to use a skill not specified by the encounter. Challenge the player to explain how they’re using the skill. A good rationale for the skill, should allow the skill to be used. (Note: this should be a caveat to all such encounters. Reward creative play with at least attempts, even if they’re not ultimately successful).

Success: A character succeeds in convincing Sir Keegan of his worthiness if he succeeds with a DC 15 skill check for the appropriate action within the conversation. In other words, if the character tries to be “tough”, this DC 15 skill check will be against Intimidation.

Failure: If Sir Keegan feels that more than half the party is unworthy, he’ll attack. Combat proceeds normally from there. Essentially, that means that in a five player party, if three fail, combat will ensue.

You’ll notice the encounter works out the same way, but with less artificial posturing. No need to declare a “skill challenge”, no need to quiz players on what skill they’re using. It’s more organic.

Okay, here’s another example. This one is an example of a physical skill challenge. It’s called “Navigating the Tainted Spiral”, and is found in an adventure that can be downloaded from Wizards of the Coast (this one might require a DDI subscription). It’s from an adventure called, “The Tainted Spiral”. When you’ve read that skill challenge, come on back.

Skill Challenge Redux: Navigating The Tainted Spiral 

Set Up: The encounter is set up in such a way that the heroes must successfully navigate a series of confusing, winding tunnels in order to progress further in the adventure.

Useful Skills: This encounter involves the use of physical or knowledge skill in order to succeed. I’m okay with the skills suggested for the original challenge with the exception of Arcana. Thus, Dungeoneering, Nature, or even Perception skill checks could be possible for this encounter. It’s possible (even probable) that a player will attempt to use a skill not specified by the encounter. Challenge the player to explain how they’re using the skill. A good rationale for the skill, should allow the skill to be used. (Note: this should be a caveat to all such encounters. Reward creative play with at least attempts, even if they’re not ultimately successful).

Success: Have the players choose a hero that is trying to find their way through the maze. If the hero succeeds a DC 15 Dungeoneering or a DC 20 Nature check, they succeed and find their way through the maze of tunnels. A successful DC 20 Perception check allows the hero to add a +2 to his Dungeoneering or Nature check.

Failure: Each failure of the above skill check costs 15 minutes of game time. After each interval, the DM should see if the same hero would like to continue to make checks, or if another hero would like to step in. As an option, each failure could mean an encounter with a wandering group of monsters. For the purposes of this adventure, the heroes would encounter additional Fell Taints.

Again, what I’ve tried to do here, is to simplify a largely mechanical experience into a more organic one. No announcements (except for one like, “you’ve been wondering these tunnels for awhile, and you now seem to be lost. What do you do?”) need to be made, and no break in the game flow need commence. If you think that the heroes deserve additional XP, simply add it on to the next encounter.

Speaking of XP, I am reminded that I mentioned something called “hidden quests”. Even before MMOs placed little exclamation points above certain NPCs’ heads, there have been quest givers. Perhaps it was the king of the land, or the crusty innkeeper, or even “the old man from scene 24”; regardless, it’s usually quite clear when the heroes have a quest to perform. In many scenarios, the successful completion of these quests rewards the heroes with XP. At the same time, however, there are also little parts of the adventure that deserve rewards, even though it’s not directly part of an actual quest.

Let me give you an example. While working on a quest, the heroes investigate a local teamster who just might be smuggling flumphs into the city for some horrible scheme. You’d like to reward the players for discovering this tidbit of information. The original 4e way would be to design a skill challenge around the investigation, create all the accompanying conditions, and assign some XP to the challenge.

Not me. I call little parts of the story like this, “hidden quests”. The DM knows that such things will have to be done to move forward with the story, but doesn’t advertise them with a big yellow exclamation point. You really don’t need a skill challenge for this kind of thing.

Instead, I would simply role-play the investigation and have heroes make various skill checks where appropriate (bribing a shipping clerk, threatening a guard, etc.). It’s simple, keeps play in motion, and doesn’t require a great deal of overhead. In addition, if I felt that accomplishing this little story task was important, I’d add some additional XP to the total for the eventual quest it helps complete. No muss, no fuss.

Again, let me state that I have great respect for those DMs that create and run skill challenges. For some, the ability to wrap up a task normally accomplished by role-playing and a few simple skill checks with mechanics, is an exciting and vital part of their gaming experience. I wish them great success in these endeavors. They’re just not for me.

Until next time….

Game excellently with one another.

PS: I have to admit, this article was one of the most difficult I’ve had to write, since converting my blog over to one about Dungeons & Dragons. I love the 4e game and continue to play it. I struggled with how to present this information, because I know that a number of my blogging friends have embraced the skill challenge, and have done great work with them. I hope I have not offended them, or made them think their work was pointless. Perish the thought. My wish continues to be that you “play your game your way”.