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  • Leave This Atmosphere for Alliances, Odysseys, and Shy Planets

    by W. Eric Martin

    • One of the familiar settings of modern games is outer space, with players typically focusing on fighting, finding things, or figuring out how to stay alive — and sometimes all of the above.

    Cédric Lefebvre's Space Gate Odyssey, due out in Q1 2019 from French publisher Ludonaute, seems to fall into the category of fighting, albeit in a pacific "fighting for space in space" kind of way. Here's aa detailed overview of this 2-4 player game that bears a 90-minute playing time:

    The future of humanity awaits you in Space Gate Odyssey. A system of viable exoplanets has been recently discovered and the Confederations are flocking into space to colonize it. In this 2 to 4-player development and flow-management board game, you play the leader of one of these Confederations and play your influence in the Odyssey command station to send as many of your settlers as you can on these exoplanets.

    After decades of research and technological development, humanity is preparing to leave the Earth to colonize this discovered system. To get there, only one possible means of transport exists: space gates. For reasons related to physics and other quantum aspects, these gates can be built only in space. The Confederations have therefore embarked on the construction of their own station in orbit, equipped with space gates.

    At the beginning of the colonizing era, these portals make it possible to go on one of the first three discovered planets. As soon as an entire contingent of settlers has joined the gate of a space station, it is teleported to the corresponding exoplanet. The landing conditions vary according to the planets and the choice of colonized spots quickly becomes strategic.

    As soon as one of the three exoplanets is fully colonized, each Confederation gains influence according to its placement, then access to one of the two later discovered exoplanets becomes possible. At the end of the colonization of the five exoplanets, the stations are teleported to the Hawking planet and the influence of each Confederation is assessed. The leader of the most influential Confederation will be promoted to the rank of Governor of this new system.

    One of the biggest challenges in Space Gate Odyssey is your ability to quickly develop and intelligently arrange your space station. The better you optimize the flow of your settlers to your station, then to the exoplanets, the more of them you can send to the favorable spots and thus gain influence.

    The choice of the modules, their arrangement, and the distance between the airlocks and the gates are therefore essential elements — especially since, at the end of the game, the domains of the modules you used to build your station will bring you additional influence points if they are in line with the position of the domains on the Hawking planet Predominance.

    Finally, you must be careful not to leave too many open corridors on the space void as this represents a real danger for your settlers and could therefore damage your reputation.

    Your most amazing quest starts with Space Gate Odyssey. Will you be able to take over your opponents in order to take control of the new system, or will you stay at the dock?

    Alderac Entertainment Group has announced the first of what will likely be many expansions for John D. Clair's Space Base, with a March 29, 2019 release date scheduled for Space Base: The Emergence of Shy Pluto, which offers the following experience:

    A strange new galactic body has emerged within the Milky Way. The greatest minds of The United Earth Services find themselves bewildered by the sudden appearance of Shy Pluto. Get the crews to their stations — it's time to deploy your ships.

    The Emergence of Shy Pluto is a "Saga Expansion", that is, a collection of story-based scenarios that introduce new content to the game via a narrative structure. Not only are new ships added, but new scenarios are included as well. Once the story is completed, it may be replayed or the contents may be added to the Space Base base set.

    On Twitter, Clair noted that not all Space Base expansions will have a narrative structure, but "generally yes", they will.

    • In July 2018, Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games tweeted about the "(not-officially-announced) 'Core Worlds: The Board Game'".

    Five months later, we still don't have an official announcement, but Buonocore has confirmed that Core Worlds: Empires — "a standalone board game set in the very thematic, rich Core Worlds universe" — is being developed by designer Andrew Parks and his Quixotic Games development team. No release date has been set since the game is still under development, but here's the game overview for now:

    Six empires have risen from the ashes of the Galactic Realm. Still cemented by the alliance that enabled their unprecedented conquest of the galaxy, the six independent kingdoms now seek to consolidate their power, each hoping to carve out the strongest dominion in the cosmos. Conflicts among the young realms are inevitable, but will the galaxy return to a state of civil war?

    Core Worlds: Empires is a worker placement game for 2-6 players. Each world in the galaxy occupies a board space that ambassadors (workers) can visit during the game. The worlds that appear during each game are variable. Each player starts with a certain number of worlds under their control, and more worlds enter the game as play proceeds.

    At the start of the game, each player controls one unique worker that represents their faction leader (Chancellor Augustus, Baron Viktor, Prince Aaron, Empress Elona, Simon the Fox, or Lord Banner), as well as three generic ambassadors. All players periodically receive new generic ambassadors, but each player always possesses the same number of "workers". Players may upgrade their generic ambassadors into unique heroes in order to increase the quality of their individual workers.
    Read more »
  • VideoNew Game Round-up: Revisit Glen More, the Weimar Republic, and the Dawn of Mankind

    by W. Eric Martin

    December used to be a slow month for game announcements, but these days it seems like we have only busy months and really busy months. Let's get to it:

    • In Q2 2019, Tasty Minstrel Games plans to release Dawn of Mankind from Italian designer Marco Pranzo, and the short take on this 2-5 player game is "worker moving and aging" with a medium take being this:

    In Dawn of Mankind, the people of your clan move along paths, gather resources, have children, create art, discover new methods of doing things...and eventually grow old and die. As your clan goes through these ordeals, you need to pay attention to when your food is going to spoil and where other people might want to go because if they choose the same path you've already trodden, they may inadvertently help you along your way.

    You earn points for a variety of things, and whoever has the most points in the end wins.

    CMON Limited has picked up Emiliano "Wentu" Venturini's Walls of York — which Cranio Creations debuted at SPIEL '18 — and plans to release this game in North America in Q1 2019. Here's a summary of the gameplay:

    The city of York is being built. Many buildings have already been built, but without a protective outer wall to defend against the Viking raids, the city is bound for failure. The king has called together his best architects to design defensive walls for the city, but only one design will be used. That architect will be hailed as the greatest architect in all the land.

    In Walls of York, players must use the plastic wall pieces to construct a defensive barrier around the buildings on their city map. Each turn, a player rolls the building die, which dictates which types of walls are to be used. Players must enclose their city, containing the required buildings from the King's decree — but players must beware for the Vikings will come and lay waste at the end of the first age, forcing players to build anew in the second age. The player with the most coins at the end of the second age wins.

    • In early 2018, U.S. publisher Compass Games hired Uli Blennemann to lead a new "Eurogame division" within the company, and the first title to appear within this division is Krzysztof Matusik's Cargo Express, a 2-4 player game that plays in 45-75 minutes and that's due out in early 2019. An overview:

    In Cargo Express, players take over the roles of train entrepreneurs that accept orders and transport goods.

    Cargo Express is mechanically simple, but planning the best moves is complex. Moreover, each player has to cope with always changing conditions. Each game turn consists of a planning phase and three player turns in which one of three cards is played.

    Let your fellow players watch sparks fly from under the wheels of your dashing train!

    • For a title that's more typical of a Compass Games release, we can turn to Weimar: The Fight for Democracy, a game for precisely four players from Matthias Cramer that plays in 5-6 hours. In a YouTube announcement of this title (starting at 10:30), Compass Games's John Kranz notes that the game is '80% political and 20% military". An overview:

    On the 9th of November, 1918, the cold autumn air in Berlin is full of tension. The workers are planning to strike and since the city is full of troops, they do not know if they will survive that day. Three hours later, the German monarchy does not exist anymore, and the first German democracy is born.

    Weimar: The Fight for Democracy is a game about the major actors in the spectrum of the new Republic. The Social Democrats and the Conservatives are trying to defend the democracy. Communists and Nationalists are looking to overthrow the government and install their own regime. Will this infant Republic survive? Or will Germany — as in history — fall to the Nazis and become a lawless state? Or will there be a Union of Socialist German Republics?

    Weimar includes two major "battlefields": In public opinion, the parties struggle to influence the important political issues like the economy, the media, or foreign affairs. Winning these issues scores points and allows them to take significant decisions. At the same time, the parties try to control the streets and position their followers in the major cities of Germany for demonstrations, street fights, and actions taken by the paramilitary organizations.

    Weimar is a tense and exciting card-driven game (CDG) on a most interesting topic. Cards may be played for the event, for public opinion, or for actions in the street.

    In each of the six game turns, the parties play one agenda that defines their strategy for the turn (e.g., modifying their twelve-card play deck, defining issues, getting advantages in the streets). The goals of the parties are asymmetrical and contradictory. While the democratic parties score for stabilizing the state and removing poverty, the non-democratic parties score for coups and unrest.

    • Speaking of Cramer, waaay back in February 2016 I wrote about him working on a new version of Glen More that would have improved components and new mechanisms, a version that "won't be released before 2017".

    Well, that's one promise kept as Glen More II: Chronicles won't appear until the second half of 2019, with the game coming from new German publisher Funtails, which plans to hold a Kickstarter campaign for the game in early 2019.

    The "Chronicles" in the title — a set of eight expansions included in the box — are a major part of what's new, and each Chronicle adds a new gameplay element to the base game. The "Highland Boat Race" Chronicle, for example, tells the story of a boat race in which the winner needs to be the first to reach their home castle after navigating their boat along the river through all the other players' territories. The "Hammer of the Scots" Chronicle adds a neutral "Englishman" playing piece to the time track that players struggle to control to get an additional turn — if they can afford him, that is, as he is paid using the market mechanism. All Chronicles can be freely combined, but says Cramer, "you would have a monster game. We recommend using one Chronicle for a 75-90 minute game or two Chronicles for experienced players."

    Here's a summary of the gameplay, along with a comparison of what differs from the original game:

    In Glen More II: Chronicles, each player represents the leader of a Scottish clan from the early medieval ages until the 19th century, a leader looking to expand their territory and wealth. The success of your clan depends on your ability to make the right decision at the right time, be it by creating a new pasture for your livestock, growing barley for whisky production, selling your goods on the various markets, or gaining control of special landmarks such as lochs and castles.

    The game lasts four rounds, represented by four stacks of tiles. After each round, a scoring phase takes place in which players compare their number of whisky casks, scotsmen in the home castle, landmark cards, and persons against the player with the fewest items in each category and receives victory points (VPs) based on the relative difference. After four rounds, additional VPs are awarded for gold coins and some landmarks while VP penalties are assessed based on territory size, comparing each player's territory to the smallest one in play.

    The core mechanism of Glen More II: Chronicles and Glen More functions the same way: The last player in line takes a tile from a time track, advancing as far as they wish on this track. After paying the cost, they place this tile in their territory, with this tile activating itself and all neighboring tiles, triggering the production of resources, movement points, VPs, etc. Then the player who is last in line takes their turn.

    Improvements over the original Glen More include bigger tiles, better materials, new artwork, the ability for each player to control the end of the game, and balancing adjustments to the tiles for a better suspense curve. The game is designed to consist of one-third known systems, one-third new mechanisms, and one-third improvements to Glen More.

    Aside from the Chronicles, another major change to the game is the ability to invest in famous Scottish people of the time, who are represented through a new "person" tile type. Persons not only have their own scoring, they also trigger one-time or ongoing effects on the tactical clan board. This adds a new layer of decision making, especially since the ongoing effects allow players to focus on a personal strategy of winning through the use of the clan board.

    Five of the Chronicles in the game Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • Worldbuilding Power: Underground
    Worldbuilding Power: UndergroundPublisher: Dancing Lights Press

    Use Underground Realms in Character Development, Adventure Design, and Worldbuilding

    The concept of an underground world comes straight out of the classic hero’s journey. The hero leaves home, descends into the underworld to be tested, and returns a changed person. It’s the part of the story where the challenges are faced, the glory is earned, and the treasures are acquired. Other mythologies portray realms under the earth to be the land of the dead, where souls go after a person dies. A lot of folklore, and quite a bit of fantasy fiction, depicts underground as the place where evil dwells.

    For characters, underground realms are places of legend. Any adventurer worth their salt has descended into the earth to battle all manner of bizarre and terrifying creatures. There are stories of entire civilizations that have fled the light to dwell in darkness, carrying with them an abiding hatred of the surface world that shunned them. Parents frighten their children with tales of the monsters that come up from the deepest caverns, simply to eat naughty boys and girls who don’t finish their porridge.

    Antagonists will find the underground to be a place of sanctuary and power. There will be allies there possessed of the same loose morals and twisted ethics. It may be that the underworld is their home, their point of origin, providing a metaphorical if simple explanation for their distorted views and baser desires.

    Among common folk, the underworld will represent the unknown. As a place few have ventured, it will be a source of folklore, fear, and superstition. While there may be truth to what passes for common knowledge, it will likely be greatly distorted. The popular version of underground realms, for surface dwellers, will be rooted more in theme and motif than fact.

    In this book, we’ll show you how to utilize the underground in your worldbuilding endeavors. You’ll see how it can influence character, setting, and story elements. By the end, you’ll understand how to better utilize underground realms as essential, useful, and entertaining parts of your campaign.

    Price: $1.00 Read more »
  • Starship Narrow Bunk Cabin
    Starship Narrow Bunk CabinPublisher: 2nd Dynasty

    Expand your Starship deck plans with these narrow bunk cabin tiles suitable for use with 28-32mm miniatures. Compatible with other 2nd Dynasty tiles or any other OpenLOCK-compatible tiles.

    Compatible with the OpenLOCK system created by and available at Printable Scenery. Important! You will need the basic OpenLOCK templates to print clips to connect these products, available free from Printable Scenery.

    Please note that these are STL files only! You will need a 3D printer or print service in order to print the parts. The parts have been designed with FDM printers in mind at 100-200 microns using PLA or ABS plastic, although you will achieve better results with SLA/DLP printers (resin) or higher resolution FDM prints. You may need to rotate objects for optimal printing or add supports, particularly for overhanging areas, such as the top of door frames.

    Parts are designed in 28-30mm scale (1" squares), but can be rescaled easily in your 3D printing software package.

    This package includes:

    • Narrow Bunk Cabin (2x3)
    • Door

    OpenLOCK license

    Price: $2.99 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • The Evil Mule Story
    The Evil Mule Story

    This story has been told before, way back on the Treasure Tables forums, before they became You Meet In A Tavern, before that site also went defunct. Since none of those places exist anymore and I doubt the story got caught by the wayback machine, and since it was well received back in the day, and since I anticipate this being relevant soon, I will again share the story of the Evil Mules.

    2007-2008ish. It was game time, 3.5 DnD. The PCs were a troupe of morally gray government enforcers in a point of light in a post apocalyptic world. And I had nothing prepared.

    I asked the players what they wanted to do for the session, and the consensus was that they were going to head into the mountains to hunt for trolls so the druid could learn to shapeshift into them. (Yes, base druids can’t shift into monstrous humanoids. He had some splatbook kit/prestige class or something. It’s not important to the story.) I skimmed the Monsters by terrain list while we took a pre-game snack break and noticed that it included mules… They weren’t an appropriate Challenge Rating for the party. Mules are CR two, the party was around level six but I had a moment of Evil GM Inspiration and literally sat at the table cackling in anticipation while the players gave me weird looks.

    So, the PCs go into the mountains and discover an abandoned mining town. Buildings stand open and dilapidated, weeds grow in the streets, the occasional skeleton pokes out of the rubble. And milling about are dozens of mules. They chew absently on the overgrowth and eye the PCs warily. The PCs poke around a bit, discover nothing much of interest and try to befriend some mules with handle animal checks without much luck, and try speak with animals abilities and get ignored. The whole time I’m emphasizing the way the mules keep staring at them and acting strange so the PCs decide to infiltrate the mules. The druid changes into a mule and goes up to a mule and starts trying to communicate with it. The mule wanders off, stopping periodically to wait for the druid to follow. After they leave, the party notices that the rest of the mules have wandered off as well. They find themselves in a deserted street waiting for the druid to come back and report. Meanwhile, the druid is on the far side of town surrounded by a small pack of mules all staring at him silently.

    The mules press in closer, then without a sound all start to attack. He was the party tank and mules aren’t that dangerous in combat so he wasn’t in much danger, but rather than discover these mules are more dangerous than he thinks, he runs and regroups with the rest of the party. The mules don’t pursue and the PCs keep exploring town, giving the mules a wide berth. Eventually they discover a weird cave that has a pit full of skeletons, strange crude half man half mule statutory, carvings in an unknown language they can’t decipher and a very evil aura.

    The PCs have had enough of this and book it back to town, but along the way they have mule haunted dreams and repeatedly encounter mules, all of whom seem to be giving them the evil eye. Bunking at an inn, the party rogue wakes from her nightmares in the middle of the night and heads to the stables to check on her noisome troglodyte henchman (Mike the troglodyte. That’s a different story.) and is startled by a mule which seemingly appeared right behind her! One panicked sneak attack later and an early morning explanation of a dead mule to an incredulous stable master, and the PCs decide that something must be done to halt the evil mule menace that is slowly infiltrating their homeland.

    After some amazing diplomacy checks, the local lord grants them a contingent of soldiers and several wagons of salt and they march into the mountains, slaughter every mule they can find, tear the village down to its foundations and scatter the stones, and literally burn and salt the earth for miles (not that that much was growing on the side of a mountain anyway). They also had the foresight to bring a scroll of comprehend languages with them, and translated the script in the cave before effacing it, tearing down the statuary and consecrating it to the priest’s god. The script was the testimony of a villager driven mad and inspired by dark forces relating the story of the village:  A dark god had sent an avatar to the material plane in the form of an intelligent infernally virile and darkly evil mule. This scion quickly bred with the local stock and after there were enough of his descendants, in a bloody coup forced the villagers to erect the shrine and sacrifice one another to his dark master.

    They never did find any trolls.

    In the years since, the evil mules have cropped up now and again in items I’ve created.

    P.S. In case you were wondering: Evil Mules are telepathic, and can understand common but have their own language they use with each other: Donk-ese. They are also prolific and crossbreed with anything they can (despite the fact that mundane mules are sterile). Their progeny have the half-ass template.

    P.P.S.S. I take no credit for this and I’m 100% sure he was in no way inspired by my game, but Weebl made a music video about the dangers of donkeys that is appropriate to the topic. Great minds and all that:

    Read more »
  • Level Up Your Classroom With Tabletop RPGs
    Level Up Your Classroom With Tabletop RPGs

    In an unpublished dissertation, Alice Pitt (1995 – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) noted that “learning about content is not the same thing as learning from it.  In other words…learning is something more than a series of encounters with knowledge; learning entails, rather, the messier and less predictable process of becoming implicated in knowledge” (p.298). As such, gaming tables are undoubtedly places where informal learning happens. The growing variety and accessibility of tabletop roleplaying games present educators with powerful tools to provide students with the agency to shape the trajectory of their learning within and outside traditional classroom settings. From traditional subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and art, to social skills and resiliency, RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons can serve as powerful tools with which to collaboratively interact with curriculum materials and the world beyond the gaming table.

    “RPG Math”

    Whether you realize it or not, gaming tables are informal spaces to practice math. The variable interplay between rolling dice and mathematical formulas to determine narrative outcomes results in opportunities to make math feel real and beneficial. I’ve never been good at math, but I’ve always been good at what I call RPG math. By that, I’m referring to any math that would involve dice rolling or using a character sheet (aka player spreadsheet). From the shape recognition and geometry associated with using polyhedral dice to the basic operations of arithmetic required during character creation and turn taking, there’s no denying that many popular RPGs, particularly the dice-heavy D20 or Year Zero engines, are exercises in mathematics. Let’s not forget that character sheets are essentially spreadsheets.

    A few of my favourite RPGs for practicing math:

    • Dungeons & Dragons
    • Pathfinder
    • Coriolis

    “The History & Science Books You Always Wanted”

    Photo by Kiron Mukherjee

    Whether it be indirectly or directly, analog games draw on the collective experiences of humanity to inform their worlds. Just take a look at the genre staple Dungeons & Dragons. From the multitude of fantastical creatures to the arms and armour players use, almost everything has a parallel in the cultural or natural history of the earth. Even the Magic: The Gathering crossover world of Amonkhet (a fantasy Egypt) demonstrates the lengths to which the most popular RPG in the world takes inspiration from reality. Some games take it even further by encouraging players to develop culturally relative perspectives of history. Two of these games immediately stand out, both for their attention to historical detail and educational intentions. Night Witches by Jason Morningstar draws players into the fictional lives of real-life WWII aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – known to the Germans as Nachthexen or Night Witches. This Powered by the Apocalypse game is particularly popular with my students at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), who enjoy continuing their education of WWII through gaming…all while playing in the museum’s galleries! The second is Thousand Arrows by James Mendez Hodes and Brennan Taylor, another Powered by the Apocalypse title which takes place during Japan’s Warring States period (the Sengoku Jidai). I myself have also endeavoured to author an RPG for educational purposes – Ross Rifles. As an educator, few roleplaying games have helped me teach science like The Warren by Marshall Miller. In this indie RPG, players assume the role of intelligent rabbits navigating the natural world and the dangers of being at the bottom of the food chain. The Warren is an excellent example of how science can come to life in the form of a story game. From the stellar art by Shel Kahn to the text, it so perfectly captures and communicates one aspect of the natural world. I took this a step further and co-created a rules-light RPG called Zany Zoo. In Zany Zoo, players take on the roles of animals escaping captivity. Think Madagascar meets Finding Nemo/Finding Dory.

    A few of my favourite games for engaging with history & science:

    • Night Witches
    • The Warren
    • Thousand Arrows
    • TimeWatch

    “Level Up” Your Social Skills

    Despite all of the above, playing RPGs are first and foremost opportunities for human connection and community. Aside from the amazing human beings I’ve met playing and designing RPGs, these games have personally provided me with the opportunity to internalize and communicate my feelings, develop self-confidence, and flex my creative muscles. With both the Royal Ontario Museum and Level Up Gaming, I have nearly 7 years of experience using tabletop RPGs to facilitate opportunities of people with autism and other disabilities to develop their social skills. During this time, outlined on episode 3 of the Asians Represent! Podcast, I came to appreciate perhaps the most powerful educational aspect of the RPG hobby. The seemingly intuitive “unwritten rules of social behaviour” are naturally codified by games. A session of any tabletop RPG is a highly structured and safe social environment. There are rules of engagement, objectives, and moderation. While gaming, everyone at the table is tasked with recognizing and defining problems, exploring options, considering strategies, putting their plan into action, and reflecting on the process and outcome. Unlike multiplayer video games, those of the tabletop variety provide uniquely democratic spaces for exploration. Everyone at the table is involved to a degree that they are comfortable with, and analog games have the narrative and mechanical freedom to be tailor-made to the needs of the players. Story games provide impactful and structured opportunity for social connections where you can learn how to exchange space in conversation, communicate needs, and provide help to others when asked.

    A few of my favourite RPGs to practice social skills:

    • Emberwind
    • Tales from the Loop
    • The Veil
    • Urban Shadows

    From both a professional and personal perspective, games that encourage meaningful and engaging connection to the world never cease to amaze me. They enrich our lives beyond simple entertainment and make each us of better with every playthrough.

    Stay curious and game on!

    Daniel Kwan is an educator, media professional, and game designer based in Toronto, Canada. He is one of the co-founders of Level Up Gaming, an organization that provides individuals with autism and other disabilities opportunities to develop their social skills through group gaming experiences. His first educational RPG, Zany Zoo, was released in 2018. He is currently working on Ross Rifles, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG about the lives and experiences of Canadian soldiers stationed on the Western Front during the First World War. Daniel has over a decade of experience using tabletop RPGs in educational contexts at the Royal Ontario Museum.

    Works cited:

    Pitt, A. (1995) “Subjects in tension: engaged resistance in the feminist classroom’, Unpublished Dissertation, OISE/UofT, Toronto, ON.

    Read more »

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  • D&D's Nastier Specials

    I love the roleplaying game 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. Written as a love-letter to D&D by two designers who worked on two different editions of D&D, 13th Age has some of my favorite rules for running great roleplaying games. Like Dungeon World, it's a RPG that often gets pilfered for great ideas DMs can bring into our own games like the "one unique thing", the escalation Die, and their method of abstract combat.

    I also love the monster design of 13th Age. As a simplified version of 4th Edition D&D's monster design, monsters in 13th Age are easy to use and are some of the most well-balanced monsters in any d20 game I've played.

    It also has a really cool feature that, like the others mentioned above, we might pilfer and use in our 5th edition D&D games: the nastier special.

    Many monsters in 13th Age include a way to beef them up to build a really tough challenge if the GM wants one. Here's an example for the Hezrou:

    The fifth edition of D&D doesn't have clear dials like this we can use to change the threat of a monster. The system, however, is flexible enough that we can come up with our own, often improvising them right on the spot if we want. Once we have some experience built up, if something feels right, we can drop in our nastier specials without any work at all.

    We've talked before about building stronger encounters and how to improve boss fights. This article goes hand-in-hand with both of those.

    A List of Nastier Specials

    The following is a list of a few potential nastier specials we might add to our monsters. My hope is that these are simple enough that we can keep them in our head and use them when the time feels right for it. We shouldn't need to write them down. Above all, these specials need to make sense within the story. Why are these specials in place? We're not doing it to be mean to our players, we're doing it to add fuel to the fire of the story.

    Maximize damage. One of the easiest ways to dramatically increase the threat of a monster is to maximize its damage output. Monsters suddenly start hitting for a lot more, sometimes nearly twice as hard, when their damage is maximized. Are you worried that your high level characters are going to kill Tiamat when they face her? Not if she's breathing for 156 damage as a legendary action! Ok, that's an extreme example, but you get the idea. If you really want a monster to be dangerous bordering on lethal, max it's damage output.

    Add extra attacks. Along with or instead of increasing damage, we can give a monster extra attacks. Maybe it attacks faster than others of its ilk. Maybe it's hastened. Maybe it has more appendages available for such attacks. More attacks increases the number of times a monster will hit so you can spread its damage around to multiple targets instead of hammering on one target all the time. This is a good nastier special when a creature is fighting by itself against a full party of adventurers.

    Maximize or double its hit points. Bigger nastier versions of a monster could have significantly more hit points than the average listed in the Monster Manual. We are free to change these hit points as much as we think fits the story within the range of the hit dice. We can also just ignore it and double a monster's hit points if there's a good reason. One dirty trick that helps us maintain pacing is to keep in mind the maximum hit points a monster might have and, if it fits the story and the pacing, change those hit points during the fight so a monster sticks around a little longer or drops at the right moment. Yes, it's cheating, but it's for the good of the pace of the game.

    Add Legendary Actions and Resistances. We can make any monster a legendary foe by giving it legendary actions and resistances. Typically legendary actions will let a monster attack or move up to three times between its opponents turns. Keep in mind that the power of a legendary version of a monster will be much stronger than it otherwise would be. Legendary resistances also help monsters, particularly monsters fighting alone, to break out of nasty save or suck effects like hypnotic pattern or dominate monster. Again, these should be used sparingly and only when they make sense within the fiction of the story. Why are these monsters legendary?

    Damage shields. The spell fire shield is powerful on its own but it's really powerful if it's on a monster that everyone is going to hit. Put it on a dragon and that dragon becomes a lot more dangerous. We don't need to stick to fire or cold either. We can add any element we want to the damage shield. A lich might have a necrotic damage shield or a demon might excrete poison or acid. We can also increase the damage on this, maximizing it to 16 or more if we think it's right. Note that this is particularly hard on monks who attack about seventy times a round and will take damage every time.

    Give Monsters Spell-Like Abilities. If you're looking for a nastier special, look no further than the hundreds of spells at our disposal in the Player's Handbook. These spells aren't just for player characters. We DMs can build entire stories around the spells found in that book. And they make fantastic ways to customize monsters. Spiritual weapon, shield, misty step, wall of fire; the list of useful spells for monsters goes on and on. We can reskin and reflavor these spells to fit the theme of the monster as well. A powerful devil might invoke a wall of screaming souls that acts very much like a wall of fire except it does psychic damage instead of fire damage.

    We can make these spells more useful by making them part of a monster's attack action instead of using up a whole action for the spell. A drow spellblade might be able to hurl a lightning bolt right after slashing with its own lightning-enhanced scimitar, for example.

    We can also give monsters spells that might not otherwise be in our game, like spells from third-party publishers. Unlike giving them to characters and potentially changing the face of our game permanently, a monster with a spell like this will only hit the table once and then be gone. My current favorite monsterous spells are the Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch by D&D writer and creator of Shadow of the Demon Lord Rob Schwalb. They're awful spells that are perfect for lichs, vampires, demons, devils, hags, and any other hideous spell casters.

    Give Monsters Exotic Potions. Monsters don't always have to have access to spells to gain some interesting new abilities. Instead we can give intelligent monsters access to potions or scrolls with some interesting and dangerous abilities. Potions of displacement could give a monster the same trait as a displacer beast. Potions of greater invisibility could give an assassin a seriously dangerous edge. Potions of giant strength can turn monsters or NPCs into mountain-crushing horrors. It makes sense that powerful NPCs like the gladiator or champion would have access to a potion like this. A champion with a potion of storm giant strength is a true foe to be feared. It doesn't hurt if the characters get access to reserve potions like this so they can gain the same benefit even if it's only for a few minutes.

    Building Your Toolkit of Nastier Specials

    All of these are just examples of the sorts of ways you can tune monsters to be something interesting and unique. New armor, magic weapons, potions, scrolls, and spell-like-abilities are ways to change monsters within the fiction. Simple mechanical effects like increasing it points, increasing damage, and adding attacks are easy to implement and turn a normal monster into a brute.

    Build your own mental list of nastier specials that make sense for the situation and are relatively easy to implement. With a good set of nastier specials you can turn the hundreds of monsters in the Monster Manual into tens of thousands of monsters your players will remember their whole lives.

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  • Easier Initiative Cards

    Note, this article has been updated since the original written in 2012.

    Many DMs like to use tent cards hanging over a DM screen to run initiative and this is a fantastic way to do it. There are a few small businesses out there who sell very nice tent cards for characters and monsters to use this way and custom character cards look great when printed nicely.

    There's a lazier way, though. It's one I've been using for the past six years or so and, though it isn't nearly as beautiful and elegant, it's fast and easy. It requires very little preparation, no upkeep, and you don't need a DM screen to use it.

    I first learned of this technique from Teos Abadia (Alphastream on twitter) who learned it from Paul Ellison, one of his long-time players back during the Living Greyhawk days. I've since had the opportunity to meet and play with Pual at a couple of gaming conventions. His fan-dance larping is second to none.

    But I digress. Here's how these easier initiative cards work.

    Easier Initiative Cards

    Preparing the Cards

    Take nine or so 3x5 note cards and fold each one in vertically in half. Then number them on both sides with the biggest black marker you can find, numbering them from 1 to 9. When you're done, you should have a set of folded 3x5 tent cards numbered 1 to 9 written on both sides.

    Rolling for Initiative

    When it comes time for initiative, have everyone roll their initiative result and then hand out the cards, with the highest initiative winnner starting at 1 and counting down. Each player puts their initiative card in front of them at the table. Now everyone can see who goes in what order.

    Monsters too get their own initiative card which goes in front of the DM. The nine cards will cover six players and up to three different monsters. Any more than that and you have far bigger problems than how to handle initiative.

    When you begin combat, look around the table to see who has card 1. After that person takes his or her turn, look for the next card down the list and so on.

    At the end of the battle, have the players throw in their initiative cards to prepare for the next battle.

    Delegating Initiative

    One way to make your life easier and help keep your players' attention on the game is to delegate the handling of initiative. At the beginning of your game, ask for a volunteer to handle initiative. If no one is forthcoming, ask someone in particular to help you. With the initiative cards in the player's possession, he or she can call for rolls and pass out the cards. This makes it easier for you to roll monster initiatives and give your scores to the delegated lord of initiative. It also spreads around responsibility for the management of the game which has side benefits as well. Players may be less competitive with the DM when they're helping to manage things outside of their character.

    No DM Screen Needed

    Unlike previous initiative card systems, this one requires no DM screen. Some DMs, myself included, now forgo the screen to keep dice rolls open and knock down the physical barrier between DMs and players. Letting go of your DM screen also keeps your DM kit small.

    Caring for your cards

    To keep your cards always standing upright (*snort*), use a binder clip to bind them together when not in use. Make sure to bind them in the folded position, not flattened, so they'll hold their shape over time. If treated right, this single set of cards could last the rest of your life. These cards are an excellent accessory to throw into your DM walk-away kit.

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