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  • Tag the Streets, Power the Cities, and Settle the Moon

    by W. Eric Martin

    • In mid-November 2020 I showcased two titles from Brazilian publisher MeepleBRBrazil: Imperial and Paper Dungeons — and as is often the case, once I started digging for details on those two games, I discovered several more from the same publisher that I hadn't known about previously.

    Luna Maris, for example, is a 1-4 player game from first-time designer Ricardo Amaral that plays in 30 minutes per player. Luna Maris is due out in the first half of 2021, and the setting and gameplay works as follows:
    Space exploration is developing thanks to the cooperation between private corporations and governments around the world. Before the challenge to occupy another planet, however, we need to create a Moon base to extract resources from our natural satellite. Iron, titanium, water, and a powerful fuel, helium-3, are natural riches available in the Moon. To get these riches won't be easy; it'll require lots of work to install lunar probes, process extracted minerals, and ensure the working conditions of scientists and engineers in the crew.

    In Luna Maris, you take on the role of a coordinator in charge of the lunar operations of a big company, organizing the crew, fulfilling demands, supplying worker's necessities, improving rooms in the complex, and respecting the strict environmental parameters.

    Prototype components
    You start the game with six scientist cards, with which you can perform actions; to do so, place a scientist meeple in a room in the lunar complex, discard the appropriate scientist card, pay the activation cost (energy, water, oxygen, etc.), then receive the benefits of that room. The ten rooms each have their particularities and special rules:

    —Exploration Plant: Don space suits and install lunar probes to extract minerals.
    —Industrial Complex: Process extracted minerals. Also, control the air filters and decrease the CO2 emissions.
    —Greenhouse: Create food to sustain the crew members.
    —Expedition Area: Ship cargo to Earth and receive victory points.
    —Mining Room: Extract basalt and titanium to sustain a high level of production.
    —Communication Room: Hire better scientists and improve the human resources of the lunar base.
    —Power Plant: Juice the solar boards for an extra energy supply.
    —Recycling Plant: Recycle your waste to obtain resources in a green sustainable economy.
    —Laboratory: Use research to improve the Industrial Complex, Recycling Plant, and other facilities.
    —Dormitory: Take time off to recuperate.

    Food cards
    A game lasts five rounds, and during that time you can focus on installing lunar probes and producing raw resources; investing in the industrial complex to guarantee access to water and helium-3; hiring high-level scientists and optimizing your actions; or doing other things that will deliver victory points in the long run. After five rounds, players tally their scores to see who runs the base and who gets ejected into orbit. (Kidding!)

    Grafito is a 2-4 player game from Rennan Gonçalves, another first-time designer, and the game is currently being aimed for release in the second half of 2021. Here's an overview:
    The four elements of hip hop are deejaying, rapping, break dancing, and graffiti painting, and these elements inspired Grafito, a rondel-based game about street art in the modern cities. Each player takes on a role of a graffiti artist, and you need to pick paints, and combine and use them to create great panels with your signature. Are you ready to control the walls of the street?


    To set up, place eight paint cubes in each of the four rondels of the main game board; each rondel looks like an old-school LP record divided into eight colored sections. Use only primary paint cubes (blue, red, yellow and white) for now, then place the wall board next to the main board. Take an individual player board to organize your components, then shuffle the mural cards and reveal four face up.

    On a turn, collect paint cubes or use a mural card to occupy a place on the wall board. By scratching the LPs — that is, turning the rondels — you can collect paint. You can rotate a rondel one space for free or spend workers to move more spaces or a second rondel; by matching colors across LPs, you can collect paint. By discarding a worker, you can use Basquiat's Lessons to duplicate paint cubes in your bag, change their colors, or obtain secondary colors.

    Digital version
    Once you have the necessary components, you can complete a mural card by discarding the paint cubes required, possibly creating secondary colors along the way by discarding primary cubes. You receive points for these cards at the end of the game, and these cards depict different elements of hip hop, with you scoring bonuses from bonds of matching elements on the wall board.

    When the wall board is finished, the game ends, and whoever has the most points becomes King of the Wall!

    • The third title from MeepleBR is Eléctrica, a 2-4 player tile-laying game from Lucas Machado Rodrigues that might see release before the end of 2021.

    Here's a summary of gameplay:
    In Brazil, a great amount of energy is produced by hydroelectricity. Dams are responsible for providing energy to industries, markets, and houses across the country. This electricity is distributed by great networks of transmission. It's a big business that moves billions every year.


    Elétrica invites you and your friends to take on the role of energy entrepreneurs. During the game, you need to increase the size of the map and construct lines to supply energy to cities. With each new line, you can complete contracts and receive victory points.

    In more detail, following a set-up phase in which you each place a tile next to the starting spring river tile, on a turn you either (1) reveal and place a new tile or (2) build. The tile-laying works as you might expect, with tiles needing to be adjacent with the elements on each side matching. After placing a tile, you can place a marker on it to reserve it.

    The game includes five types of constructions — hydroelectric, electrical substation, transmission tower, utility pole, and city — and to build one of them, you use workers on a tile and choose an available construction, following certain limitations on building. A hydroelectric construction must be placed on a tile with water, for example, while a city can't be built next to a transmission tower and three constructions can't be neighbors to one another on a triangle of tiles.

    Prototype components
    When you build a functioning network, you can complete a contract and score points. Two constructions of the same type earns you 2 points, for example, while more complex combinations earn you more.

    Once the final tile is revealed and placed, the game ends and whoever has the most points becomes an energy magnate!
    Read more »
  • Assemble Orbital Modules, Ceremonies, and Lucrative Contracts

    by W. Eric Martin

    While I've been focusing on games released through traditional means the past few weeks, a number of crowdfunding campaigns have come and gone that might be of interest to you once the games hit the market. Here's a sampling of those campaigns:

    Star Scrappers: Orbital is a re-working of Jacob Fryxelius' Space Station, one of the first releases from publisher FryxGames in 2011.

    Over five rounds in Star Scrappers: Orbital, you add new modules to your starting core module, using your crew to take actions within those modules and repair them. At the end of each round, you score points for each of the six colors of modules for which you have the most. Publisher Hexy Studio ran a Kickstarter (link) for this new revised game in mid-November 2020, with delivery expected in mid-2021.

    Kokopelli seems like an atypical Stefan Feld design and a very typical Queen Games release, with the 2-4 players in this card game playing ceremony cards into the four spaces of their own village or onto certain spaces in neighboring villages.

    In each game, you use twelve of the sixteen types of cards — with nine more types being available in the Ceremonies expansion. Each time you start a ceremony in your village, you gain the special power for that card as long as the ceremony is active. Each player has three copies of each type of card in their deck, along with a few jokers, and you need four copies of a card to "close" a ceremony and claim one of the point tokens for it, so you and your neighbors will sort of collaborate on closing ceremonies, but you want to be the one who finishes the job since only then will you score for it. Queen Games plans to deliver this title and expansion to Kickstarter backers (link) in June 2021, with the game hitting retail some time later.

    • In October 2020, Indie Game Studios ran a Kickstarter (link) for Jason Dinger's Crescent City Cargo from Spielworxx, this being the second title in Dinger's "Cajun trilogy" following 2018's Captains of the Gulf, a reprint of which could be acquired during this KS.

    Here's an overview of the game, which will be available only from Spielworxx, Indie Game Studios, the BGG Store, and Amazon prior to a possible release through distribution in 2023:
    New Orleans, affectionately known as "the Crescent City", is an important hub of commerce on the Mississippi River. The Port of New Orleans is a key conduit of imports and exports that are critical to the interconnected international economy.


    In Crescent City Cargo, players take on the roll of competing logistics companies vying to fulfill lucrative contracts with domestic railways, foreign cargo ships, and future speculated trade opportunities through shipping containers waiting to be loaded at the dock. Players receive goods from warehouses and use them to improve the state of their company or earn valuable capital that will serve to establish their dominance in the local trade market.

    Logistics can be a cutthroat tactical environment as others vie to grab the best contracts before you can. Will you be able to manipulate the market, complete your goals, and in the end stand atop the competition as the most profitable company?

    • Designer T. Alex Davis, who co-authored 2020's Deep Vents from Red Raven Games is partnering with the publisher again for Rift Knights, an asymmetrical game for 2-6 players in which one side controls holy knights who must hold off demons until dawn while protecting elders, and the other side would be perfectly happy not to see those elders protected. Here's a bit more detail about gameplay:
    During the game, you choose a unique knight or demon, each with a variety of special powers, such as the Flame Knight's ability to surround his foes in fire, or the Bone Crusher's power to summon skeletal minions. You also play cards from your hand to perform actions each turn, and each card can be used in three different ways. Careful planning with these cards is rewarded with memorable, game-changing moments. A set of unique location tiles allows you to create the monastery with a different layout every game.

    Although the Kickstarter campaign (link) had met its goal, Red Raven Games decided to cancel the project for now based on feedback from supporters and rejigger it for another go in the future.

    Read more »
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    DriveThruRPG.com Newest Items

  • Kovid's Nineteen
    Publisher: Chaosium

    Set in Sartar in darkseason, near the dragonrise, with winter on its way, the adventurers stumble of a desperate plea for help. One that they should not ignore. How much help they give is up to them, but taken to its conclusion the scenario will pit them against a mighty Malian priest, sort of... The exact nature of events will be heavily dependent on the adventurers.

    The scenario is pitched at four or five slightly better than beginner adventurers, fewer adventurers will need to be stronger, in particular in spirit combat. There will be activity in both the middle and spirit worlds and opportunities to learn spells that may help. A few items, not perhaps obviously useful, will also be made available as they proceed. 

    Kovid's Nineteen is both a scenario and perhaps a campaign resource with options to develop it further.

    Kovid's NineteenPrice: $4.58 Read more »
  • The Knife
    Publisher: Tibbius

    Complete game rules and setting in 16 pages, using a 2d6-roll-over game engine that is compatible with Tunnel Goons and Troika! (this product is not affiliated with Melsonian Arts Council). Including new rules for bonecarving and surgery, commerce and currency, contriving and operating mechanical marvels, distilling and consuming herbal elixirs and alchemic essences. Compatible with Goon Squad for larger combats.

    Keep both eyes open for the edges of The Knife.

    In the decadent and diminishing royal city of Thelav, called The Knife, the locals call themselves sharps and act that way. Extreme wealth contrasts with scarcity, from the royal environs to the slums and from the fish-teeming sea and verdant farms to the dusty highlands. Aristocratic intrigues ensnare the least of citizens as pawns; sometimes the pawns become barons.

    Your sharp will find their way amid the tumult of the streets, maybe out into the placid lands surrounding Thelav, maybe further up into the highlands where the ancient ruins stand.

    Additional pages for the farmlands, the ruins, favors asked and owed, and other intrigues of Thelav will be forthcoming within the next month.

    The KnifePrice: $4.00 Read more »
    -

    Gnome Stew

  • VideoGnomecast #105 – Playing in a Recorded Game
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang, Jared, and Senda for a discussion about the ins and outs of playing a game for broadcast or recorded media! Can these gnomes produce a good enough performance to avoid being thrown in the stew?

  • Information Gaps – When The Information Runs Dry
    A decaying boat sitting in the middle of a lake

    In a recent game, my players reached an impasse. They had talked to two parties, which were in conflict with one another, and had gotten similar but not exactly the same information from both of them. The issue was that they felt that neither side gave them enough information to make a decision clear about who to trust. They were stuck in an information gap, not sure which way to go, based on the information they had. As I sat watching them discuss the issue, I realized that we were in this place where this could go on for a while, unless I nudged things along, but not before I thought a bit more about this situation, and how we as GMs have to help players through these parts when they get hung up on the rocks, so to speak. So here we are…

    Making Informed Decisions

    In general, players take in information from the GM and use it to make decisions for what to do next in the game. When we are playing there is a back and forth. The GM gives information in the form of description and exposition from the NPCs, the players ingest that information, they then declare their actions, and the GM narrates what comes next. A beautiful loop.

    The GM’s role in this is profound. Depending on how we describe a passageway may influence if the players send their Rogue ahead looking for traps, or they could have the Fighter take point expecting an ambush. We walk a fine line of providing evocative descriptions and telegraphing what is coming next. 

    As GMs our job is to be a perfect narrator, providing truthful descriptions to the players. If we, as GMs, obfuscate what is going on, it will lead to a place where the players won’t trust anything their characters’ sense. That said, an NPC interacting with the players is not required to be fully truthful, and can tell the characters anything they want. 

    The Doldrums of Information

    There are times in a game when the GM does not have any more information to provide. They have given out the description of the scene, they have answered the player’s follow-up questions, and perhaps the characters have made checks to try to get more information. At some point, there is no more information to be had until the players take an action.

    The loop has become stalled. The players have all the information that is currently available, but they do not feel like it is enough to clearly see what to do next.

    Normally, what happens next is discussion and debate. The players, sometimes in meta or as their characters, will begin to discuss what they know and try to build a consensus on what to do next. Depending on your group this will be smooth or bumpy.

    It is in this spot that as GM, you are walking another fine line. How long do you let the players debate and see if they will make a move until you intervene and get the action restarted? What tools do you have?

    How To Keep Things Flowing

    The worst thing that can happen is that the player discussion stalls out or the players lose focus and someone does something chaotic stupid, or the flow of the game breaks. So what can you do to keep the group talking and make their decision-making process productive? Here are some ideas:

    Recap

    You can take a moment and recap for the players what they do know. This can help bring up details that some of the players may have forgotten and it might remind them of things that will help them arrive at their next action.

    Tell Them Things Their Characters Know

    In many cases, the characters know many more things about the world they live in than the players. When the players say something or question something that their character would know, tell them. Clear that up for them. This may help them come up with a fact that they need to act.

    Ask Them What The Are Unsure Of

    Asking the players to tell you what they are stuck on, which is preventing them from making a decision, can help to clear up any misconceptions. Sometimes, they will be stuck on something that they truly don’t know, but other times when they tell you what they are stuck on, you may be able to clear that up with either of the two techniques above; by recapping some information or telling them something their character would know. 

    Announce Something Approaching

    While having a discussion and debate is good for the players, if it starts to drag on too long, you can announce that something is approaching. It could be the sound of something coming through the woods, it could be a text message on their phone, but give them the hint that the world is moving along, and that they are going to need to get moving.

    When To Push

    Knowing when to get play started again is a bit of an art. It is understanding if the discussion is productive and/or entertaining, or if it’s starting to drag on or become annoying. One of your jobs as the GM is to observe the discussion and get ready to push the game back into action should the discussion become non-productive or annoying. Depending on the circumstances, the players may not need to resolve the current discussion in order to take action. They may be held up in a room in the dungeon debating on what to do with the Big Bad, which they will encounter much later and they can get moving and resume the discussion at a later time.

    When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”

    When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”

    If needed, you can take that thing that was approaching, and have it arrive. Then ask, “What are you doing?”  Then the players keep debating about the Big Bad when a wandering Ogre hears them and comes to the room to find out what is going on. 

    Some Games Are More Prone To This

    There are some genres that are more prone to this problem than others, but it can occur in any game. Games that require a lot of planning and games that deal with mysteries and investigations often run into this issue. In these games, the story is propelled by acting on information, and if the players are not comfortable with the amount of information they have, they can hit one of these doldrums.

    In investigation games, the answer to this problem is nearly always to get more information through investigation. The players may be stuck on where to go next for a clue, and you may have to help them find where to go next, through some of those tools.

    In games with lots of planning, like games with heists, the group will not want to execute without the information. This is tricky because often they can never get quite enough information. The best of these style games have flashback mechanics that allow the game to operate with less information, and let the characters emulate hyper-competence. If your game is missing those mechanics, then more intel gathering is their only option. 

    Feel The Flow

    The flow of information is necessary for a game to stay productive and to keep moving forward. As the GM you have a vital role to play in making sure that information is available, while at the same time, remaining hands-off as the players make decisions. When the players bog down in discussion and debate, your job is to gently keep the flow going by assisting them in their debate, while remaining hands-off. If all goes well, the players will find their way into their next move, but if it does not, you have to be ready to jump in and get the game flowing again. 

    How do you manage when your players are short on info and stuck making decisions? Do you have other techniques from the ones I mentioned above? Do you find that certain games or genres have this problem more often than others? 

    Read more »
    -

    Gnome Stew

  • VideoGnomecast #105 – Playing in a Recorded Game
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang, Jared, and Senda for a discussion about the ins and outs of playing a game for broadcast or recorded media! Can these gnomes produce a good enough performance to avoid being thrown in the stew?

  • Information Gaps – When The Information Runs Dry
    A decaying boat sitting in the middle of a lake

    In a recent game, my players reached an impasse. They had talked to two parties, which were in conflict with one another, and had gotten similar but not exactly the same information from both of them. The issue was that they felt that neither side gave them enough information to make a decision clear about who to trust. They were stuck in an information gap, not sure which way to go, based on the information they had. As I sat watching them discuss the issue, I realized that we were in this place where this could go on for a while, unless I nudged things along, but not before I thought a bit more about this situation, and how we as GMs have to help players through these parts when they get hung up on the rocks, so to speak. So here we are…

    Making Informed Decisions

    In general, players take in information from the GM and use it to make decisions for what to do next in the game. When we are playing there is a back and forth. The GM gives information in the form of description and exposition from the NPCs, the players ingest that information, they then declare their actions, and the GM narrates what comes next. A beautiful loop.

    The GM’s role in this is profound. Depending on how we describe a passageway may influence if the players send their Rogue ahead looking for traps, or they could have the Fighter take point expecting an ambush. We walk a fine line of providing evocative descriptions and telegraphing what is coming next. 

    As GMs our job is to be a perfect narrator, providing truthful descriptions to the players. If we, as GMs, obfuscate what is going on, it will lead to a place where the players won’t trust anything their characters’ sense. That said, an NPC interacting with the players is not required to be fully truthful, and can tell the characters anything they want. 

    The Doldrums of Information

    There are times in a game when the GM does not have any more information to provide. They have given out the description of the scene, they have answered the player’s follow-up questions, and perhaps the characters have made checks to try to get more information. At some point, there is no more information to be had until the players take an action.

    The loop has become stalled. The players have all the information that is currently available, but they do not feel like it is enough to clearly see what to do next.

    Normally, what happens next is discussion and debate. The players, sometimes in meta or as their characters, will begin to discuss what they know and try to build a consensus on what to do next. Depending on your group this will be smooth or bumpy.

    It is in this spot that as GM, you are walking another fine line. How long do you let the players debate and see if they will make a move until you intervene and get the action restarted? What tools do you have?

    How To Keep Things Flowing

    The worst thing that can happen is that the player discussion stalls out or the players lose focus and someone does something chaotic stupid, or the flow of the game breaks. So what can you do to keep the group talking and make their decision-making process productive? Here are some ideas:

    Recap

    You can take a moment and recap for the players what they do know. This can help bring up details that some of the players may have forgotten and it might remind them of things that will help them arrive at their next action.

    Tell Them Things Their Characters Know

    In many cases, the characters know many more things about the world they live in than the players. When the players say something or question something that their character would know, tell them. Clear that up for them. This may help them come up with a fact that they need to act.

    Ask Them What The Are Unsure Of

    Asking the players to tell you what they are stuck on, which is preventing them from making a decision, can help to clear up any misconceptions. Sometimes, they will be stuck on something that they truly don’t know, but other times when they tell you what they are stuck on, you may be able to clear that up with either of the two techniques above; by recapping some information or telling them something their character would know. 

    Announce Something Approaching

    While having a discussion and debate is good for the players, if it starts to drag on too long, you can announce that something is approaching. It could be the sound of something coming through the woods, it could be a text message on their phone, but give them the hint that the world is moving along, and that they are going to need to get moving.

    When To Push

    Knowing when to get play started again is a bit of an art. It is understanding if the discussion is productive and/or entertaining, or if it’s starting to drag on or become annoying. One of your jobs as the GM is to observe the discussion and get ready to push the game back into action should the discussion become non-productive or annoying. Depending on the circumstances, the players may not need to resolve the current discussion in order to take action. They may be held up in a room in the dungeon debating on what to do with the Big Bad, which they will encounter much later and they can get moving and resume the discussion at a later time.

    When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”

    When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”

    If needed, you can take that thing that was approaching, and have it arrive. Then ask, “What are you doing?”  Then the players keep debating about the Big Bad when a wandering Ogre hears them and comes to the room to find out what is going on. 

    Some Games Are More Prone To This

    There are some genres that are more prone to this problem than others, but it can occur in any game. Games that require a lot of planning and games that deal with mysteries and investigations often run into this issue. In these games, the story is propelled by acting on information, and if the players are not comfortable with the amount of information they have, they can hit one of these doldrums.

    In investigation games, the answer to this problem is nearly always to get more information through investigation. The players may be stuck on where to go next for a clue, and you may have to help them find where to go next, through some of those tools.

    In games with lots of planning, like games with heists, the group will not want to execute without the information. This is tricky because often they can never get quite enough information. The best of these style games have flashback mechanics that allow the game to operate with less information, and let the characters emulate hyper-competence. If your game is missing those mechanics, then more intel gathering is their only option. 

    Feel The Flow

    The flow of information is necessary for a game to stay productive and to keep moving forward. As the GM you have a vital role to play in making sure that information is available, while at the same time, remaining hands-off as the players make decisions. When the players bog down in discussion and debate, your job is to gently keep the flow going by assisting them in their debate, while remaining hands-off. If all goes well, the players will find their way into their next move, but if it does not, you have to be ready to jump in and get the game flowing again. 

    How do you manage when your players are short on info and stuck making decisions? Do you have other techniques from the ones I mentioned above? Do you find that certain games or genres have this problem more often than others? 

    Read more »
    -

    Sly Flourish

  • VideoOwlbear Rodeo: A Simple D&D Virtual Tabletop

    If you're seeking a lightweight virtual tabletop, try out Owlbear Rodeo. It's awesome.

    Covid-19 forced many DMs to move games from in-person to online. For a lot of us, running games online is an entirely new experience. I moved all of my games, about three a week, online and lept into trying out all sorts of systems for online play. My favorite, and the one I've been using for eight months now, is to run D&D over Discord. By copying and pasting pieces of maps, usually grabbed from Dysonlogos, I can show the players where the characters are without using a full virtual tabletop like Roll 20. For combat, I use text-based combat tracker for rough zone-based combat more similar to theater of the mind than gridded combat.

    There are times, however, where dropping down a map with tokens for monsters and characters can be useful. Many players and quite a few DMs prefer this style of play.

    The big dogs among virtual tabletop tools are Roll 20 and Fantasty Grounds. There are other popular and well-loved tools as well like Foundry but these two typically come up when someone talks about virtual tabletops.

    These other VTTs are fine all-in-one systems that integrate D&D's rules with the rest of the tabletop.

    The problem is, I'm fine with running games mostly on Discord. I don't need a fully integrated D&D experience in my VTT. My players like using D&D Beyond and I'm not picky about how they roll dice, whether it's with Avrae in Discord or a plug-in like Beyond20.

    Unleash the Owlbear Rodeo

    When I want a VTT, I really just want a map and tokens. That's what Owlbear Rodeo provides. Owlbear Rodeo is a slimmed down virtual tabletop that focuses on maps and tokens. It has no integrated ruleset, although it does have a shared dice roller in it if you want one. Owlbear Rodeo makes it easy to drop in a map and includes a bunch of default tokens you can use if you don't feel like adding your own.

    If you do want your own tokens, you can upload a bunch of them right into Owlbear Rodeo all at once, whether your tokens are from Printable Heroes (my personal favorite tokens; search for "vtt") or your own hand-made tokens using Token Stamp. Grabbing an image off the net, dropping it into Token Stamp, and uploading it to Owlbear is fast and easy.

    Owlbear Rodeo requires no login or account from either you or your players. You can log in if you want to keep track of your previous maps and tokens, but it isn't necessary. Owlbear uses some sort of cookie to keep track so if you come back it will likely remember what you already uploaded but only if you're coming in from the same machine. Not requiring a login makes it easy for players to jump right in. No accounts means any player can move any token around since everyone's permissions are the same. I'm assuming your players aren't a bunch of 4 year olds (that's a big assumption, of course).

    Owlbear Rodeo has two features that aren't the easiest to figure out at first: grid alignment when bringing in a map and using the fog of war. This three minute video by GoGoCamel camel shows how to use both the grid-alignment feature and fog of war. It's well worth the watch.

    If you're used to a more full-featured VTT like Roll 20, you're likely to find features missing from Owlbear that you really want. If you dig more powerhouse tools, it probably isn't for you. I prefer to keep my D&D games as minimal as possible. I want tools that only do what I need them to do and keep the cruft out of the way. Owlbear Rodeo does just that. I can run the rest of my game in Discord and only drop into Owlbear when I need to use a VTT. When I'm done, we drop right back out again.

    At this point I've used Owlbear Rodeo with dozens of players and have heard no complaints. Many have described it being the exact kind of VTT they want. If you're in need of a lightweight virtual tabletop, give Owlbear Rodeo a try.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

    Read more »
  • VideoPaths for DM Expertise

    John B., a Sly Flourish patron, sent me a note describing an awesome video series by Wired on levels of complexity. Two of them really grabbed my attention, the levels of complexity of origami and Tony Hawk's levels of complexity of skateboarding. Tony Hawk's video begins with the basic ollie and ends with two moves having never been done at the time of the video. It's fascinating to see how the levels of complexity get exponentially harder the further along the rank you go.

    D&D complexity, however, doesn't always make our games better. I'd argue Matt Mercer's Vecnca Ascended; the finale of the 114 previous episodes of Vox Machina, is about as complicated and amazing as any D&D campaign we're likely to see. It isn't, however, a realistic model of the vast majority of D&D games. Like pulling off a 1260 on a skateboard, games like this are nearly unattainable. And that's ok because complexity doesn't make great games.

    I'm fascinated to look at D&D through the lens of escalating complexity but it isn't exactly practical. We may have run incredibly complex campaigns from 1st to 20th level, with detailed character story arcs, amazing tabletop dioramas, beautiful handouts, and cool props; but they're not necessarily the model of all great D&D games. A great D&D game might be a one-shot drawn from the inspiration of the DM at the spur of the moment. It might be run totally in the theater of the mind. Sometimes the best games are the simplest games: four adventurers crawling through a dangerous dungeon seeking a valued treasure.

    Though simplicity may be a virtue in great D&D games, that doesn't mean we DM's can't get better at DMing. What are the paths we DMs can take to get better at running D&D games? What would it look like as a curriculum?

    Instead of breaking D&D games down into levels of complexity, I'll describe potential paths for getting better at DMing D&D games. These are often parallel tracks, not a single path. There are likely as many paths for DM proficiency as there are DMs but I'm going to offer my own suggestions here.

    Along with the videos on complexity in origami and skateboarding, this article was also heavily influenced by Mark Hulmes's Youtube video on Becoming a Better DM. Check it out.

    The Beginner's Path: Running the D&D Starter Set or Essentials Kit

    One can do far worse than to start running D&D games with either the D&D Essentials Kit or the D&D Starter Set. A set of pregen character sheets from the Starter Set is a great way to get new players on board with D&D. Other than making your way through the rules and through the adventure, I wouldn't expect a new DM to do much else. We're not necessarily going to have deep character background integration, detailed story threads, or amazing tabletop displays. This is just plain and simple D&D and it can still be an awesome time.

    In reading tons of posts on Reddit's D&D Next, and the DM Academy subreddits and clearly many new DMs choose to go the homebrew route. I don't recommend it for new DMs but likely others disagree and I doubt I'll be listened to by those who want to anyway. I do, however, recommend keeping things simple. Avoid house rules until you know the system. Choose straight forward character options. Start at 1st level characters and be nice. That said, I still recommend starting with the Starter Set or Essentials Kit.

    Recommended reading: Getting Started with D&D, D&D Starter Set, D&D Essentials Kit.

    Running Your First Short Campaign

    With a few games under one's belt, the next level of experience occurs as a DM runs their first campaign up to about 5th level. Here I'd expect the DM to begin to customize the adventure to fit the backgrounds of the characters. Maybe the guy running the inn is the cousin of the dwarven cleric. DMs here should likely begin improvising some scenes as they come up, including building NPCs on the spot when the moment calls for it. DMs here can hopefully start developing situations instead of building scenes already planned out.

    Beyond this is when the complexity of DMing goes up and the paths to becoming a better DM split into parallel tracks. Each of these parallel tracks shores up different areas for being a well-rounded DM.

    Becoming the Characters' Biggest Fan

    Once we get beyond the basics, it's time for a DM to look at the people around the table and the characters they bring to it. We can deeply internalize a concept from Dungeon World to become the characters' biggest fan. Here we put aside any idea that we're competing with the players in a game. We put aside our own drive to force a story down one particular path. We play to see what happens. We put the characters first and foremost in the spotlight. We make reviewing the characters the first step in our game prep. We run session zeros to calibrate everyone's expectations of a campaign.

    We serve the fun of the game first and foremost. Our goal is for everyone, including ourselves, to have a great time.

    Recommended reading: Dungeon World.

    Run Lots of Games, Run Lots of Systems

    We get better at DMing by DMing more games. We also get better by playing more games, with as many other DMs as we can, good or bad, so we can see how it's done. Playing and running other roleplaying game systems also helps us become better DMs. There are lots of ways to run RPGs and lots of systems to help you do so. These systems often have great ideas we can bring back into our D&D games. Running games for a wide range of players also teaches us a lot. Convention games and organized play programs offer great opportunities to run games for many players.

    Recommended reading: Numenera, Fate Condensed, Blades in the Dark, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord.

    Flexibility, Adaptability, Improvisation

    As the most valued DM traits; we can follow a lifelong path for improving our flexibility, adaptability, and improvisation skills. We can work harder at thinking on our feet, building scenes as they occur during the game instead of planning them ahead of time. We let go of fixed scenes and predetermined stories and build situations. We can learn how to improvise NPCs. We can seek out the tools that help us best improvise during the game. Learning how to stay flexible, go where the story goes, and steer it delicately towards the fun is an advanced DM trait that leads to more enjoyable games for both DMs and players alike.

    Understanding Pacing

    According to RPG veteran Monte Cook, there is no more important skill for a DM to learn than pacing. Robin Laws teaches us that understanding how upward and downward beats feel during the game and knowing how to shift them one way or the other to avoid apathy or despair is an advanced and critical skill for running great games. Like a curling player, our job is to smooth out the path in front of the story, not grab control of it. Recognize and take hold of the dials you have available to change up an encounter, a scene, or a whole adventure to fit the feeling and theme of the adventure's pacing as it plays out.

    Recommended reading: Hamlet's Hit Points.

    Maps, Props, Terrain, and Handouts

    Physical stuff increases the immersion of a game. When players have things they can see, touch, and hold that ties them to the world, that world becomes ever more real. While not necessary to run a great game, tabletop accessories, when used well, can make a great game better. Some of these things can be made at home for almost nothing. Others can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. These exponential costs often result in linear gains, however. Before spending a lot of money, consider that there are often ways to make our games better that cost nothing at all.

    Rules Proficiency, Not Rules Mastery

    One might think that a better understanding of the rules is critical to run a great D&D game. Certainly being proficient enough with the rules to run the game is important but, according to tens of thousands of surveys conducted by Baldman Games for their organized play program, rules mastery, as one of four tracked attributes, has the least correlation to a fun game. Instead, being friendly and being prepared have a far greater correlation with running a fun game. DMs should have enough of an understanding of the rules to keep the game running smoothly. Rules mastery, however, isn't required. Instead, focus attention on the other areas that have a higher impact described above.

    Recommended Reading: Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual.

    Learning from Other DMs

    The internet has given us unparalleled access to other DMs. We have unlimited sources to run our ideas by other DMs, see what ideas they have, and get differing points of view. I argue that the D&D-focused subreddits on Reddit offer some of the best access to DMs of all experience levels. Look at the questions those DMs are asking and learn from the answers they receive. Further, if you happen to be running a published campaign book, there's almost always a subreddit focused on it with advice, tips, tricks, and accessories to help your own campaign run well.

    Recommended reading: DM Academy, D&D Next, DM Behind the Screen, numerous campaign subreddits.

    A Lifelong Pursuit

    Being an expert DM is a lifelong pursuit. Never have we had more access to more knowledge about being a great DM. We have access to videos of more D&D games than we could ever watch. With a few clicks we have access to the knowledge of thousands of other DMs. Spend time figuring out what makes a great D&D game for you, build your own path, and keep running D&D games.

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    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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