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  • VideoTime for the SPIEL '18 Re-Broadcast with Game Demo Videos Galore!

    by W. Eric Martin

    For five days at SPIEL '18 in late October, the BGG crew interviewed designers and publishers for more than eight hours a day, with a new game or expansion featured roughly every ten minutes. In case you missed our livestream on the BGG Twitch channel — or don't feel the need to watch every item covered — we've now started to post the individual game demo videos on the BGG YouTube channel, with each of those videos also appearing on the appropriate game or publisher page in the BGG database.

    More specifically, you can head to the SPIEL '18 playlist to see the fifteen videos posted so far — most recently an overview of Dice Settlers — and I plan to post a new video each hour from 8:00 to 20:00 EST (GMT-5) each weekday until the video spigot runs dry. (That schedule depends on others doing the actual editing, and BGG.CON 2018 might interrupt that timing, but right now even with only the videos from day 1, I'm set through Friday, Nov. 16 at 9:00. Fifty-four videos just from day 1 coverage! And if the timing works out, we'll be done with SPIEL '18 coverage in five weeks. We'll see...

    Aside from the videos shot in the BGG booth, this playlist will include those I recorded elsewhere during SPIEL '18, such as this overview of the forthcoming Vampire: The Masquerade – Heritage from Babis Giannios and Nice Game Publishing.

    I didn't record too many videos on my own as I was also taking pics in the press room, recording notes about upcoming games in 2019 (such as those from Portal Games [link], Lookout Games [link], and IELLO [link] that I've posted about already), and running around like a maniac for a wide variety of reasons. I vow to do whatever it takes to get through all of this material before the pressure of the 2019 Spielwarenmesse and FIJ conventions starts building — although I have started assembling that preview, along with ones for Gen Con 2019 and SPIEL '19. No time to waste!

    Youtube Video Read more »
  • Designer Diary: The Great City of Rome, or How Long Did You Say Rome Was Gonna Take Again?

    by Brett J. Gilbert

    by Matthew Dunstan (with italicized interruptions by Brett J. Gilbert)

    As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was the game that went on to become The Great City of Rome.

    I had been tinkering with city-building games at many different points over the past seven years, always trying to emulate that familiarity and fun associated with games like SimCity.

    There were many prototypes hastily built, then abandoned after one play (not a recommended strategy for actually finishing a game), and while on holiday in Snowdonia in 2015 I even went so far as to hand-make 150 cards for an entire city-building game that was never actually played — an act of lunacy that stands out in my memory even today.

    •••Matt's ability to "just do it" and make something is miraculous. I am reminded of a period during which he would regularly arrive each week at our Tuesday playtest meet-up with a brand-new, completely realized Eurogame, brimming with multiple, interconnected mechanisms and replete with boards, tokens, cards — and perfectly playable!

    I guess you could say that I hadn't found the right starting point — or more accurately that I didn't have enough patience. It was lucky then that in the days after SPIEL in November 2015 that I would come up with an idea that worked on the first time!

    Trawling back over the files in my computer and emails with Brett like a forensic accountant reveals a now-familiar process about how we go about co-designing.

    Step 1

    I have an idea and hastily put together a hand-drawn prototype. The reason I know this happened for The Great City of Rome is that the versions of the prototype I have on my computer actually start with B, the A version being only a half-finished Excel file which I'm sure I gave up on in favor of actually getting the game to the table in time!

    In this case, my idea centered around a classic trade-off between better choice and better actions during a player's turn (a trope we explored previously in Pyramids), with players playing their pieces on an action strip in order.

    •••While we're here, let board game historians record that The Great City of Rome and Pyramids are both part of a single thread of tableau-building games we've developed, each based on a different geometry, with Pyramids being a triangle and City of Rome a square. Keep your eyes peeled for a new game with two lines of parallel cards ("walls"), and — maybe! and even then not till 2020 at the earliest! — one that stacks cards vertically ("towers").

    The position of each player's piece on the action strip would determine not only the order that they get to pick new buildings, but also the actions they would have available to them as they would receive the actions printed on their space and everything ahead of them. Do you place early, ensuring a good pick but few actions, or do you place near the end, being able to do a bunch of actions but having the worst choice of new cards?

    These cards would all be built in a 4-by-4 grid and would score for various things being adjacent to them, such as having different amenities close to different apartment blocks. I was able to finally meld that city-building vibe with a simple enough shell that could be played!

    Step 2

    Playtest with Brett at the Cambridge meet-up. I even know the exact date — Tuesday, November 3, 2015 — and player count (five). Having a weekly meet-up always provides a good motivation to actually get a playable version ready and onto the table (which is probably why I abandoned a more time-consuming option for Step 1).

    •••I don't recall that first playtest — it was three years ago! — but I do recall one I ran in January 2016, which I mention here not for the details of the game itself, but for the calibre of the players. I was joined around a cramped pub table on that particular chilly Tuesday evening in Cambridge by two other designers: Alan Paull (entrepreneur, wargamer, raconteur) and Wolfgang Warsch. (Such a nice guy! I wonder what happened to him?)

    Some of Matt's early prototype cardsStep 3

    Wait for Brett to email me, usually the day immediately following the playtest. He will most likely have a number of extremely useful insights into the playtest, with precise suggestions for improvement. In this case, it is spooky to see how many of these suggestions (made after the first play of the first prototype) were right on the money and feature in the final game:

    * Game perhaps shouldn't play up to five — too much downtime. (In the end, we settled on a 2–4 player game.)
    Change the starting factory (now production buildings) to give money, not more cards, as this ensures players can more readily buy more symbols that they need.

    * Players need some starting money so that they also have more freedom early to be able to buy symbols they need.

    * The final tourism card (now influence cards) should work like the others and be awarded only to the player with the most influence rather than an alternate majority scoring. Also, the cards don't all have to be worth the same number of points as the game progresses, so there can be more to play for later in the game.

    * Players should receive 1 point for each $1 remaining at the end of the game.

    * Transport cards (now aqueducts) should be simpler; perhaps they can be placed only in a row or column that doesn't already have one.

    Right here is the core of why Brett and I can get games finished so often. I am quite adept at pinning down a new idea into a playable prototype quickly so that we can see what it plays like (and often I'm the one quite down after the first test that doesn't work out quite how I'd hoped). Then Brett turns his developer brain on and quickly points out the key places for improvement, all the while assuring me that the game is, in fact, not terrible!

    •••Matt's being uncharacteristically complimentary, but this combination of skills really is at the heart of why we've made so many games. This basic efficacy is certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient to ensure we make *good* games, but that's not the point. Do, or do a man operating a diminutive plastic puppet once observed in the 1970s. And I personally think The Great City of Rome is an exemplar of how effective and immediate that collaboration can be at its best.

    Step 4

    Iterate! With a good core and suggestions for specific improvements, I make new versions, we test, we analyze, and so on. The last version on my computer is dated Dec. 10, 2015, beyond which Brett took over designing a much prettier looking prototype. (Another one of his valuable skills!)

    A work-in-progress overview of all of the cards; we designed the game to be only cards (and only 110 cards at that)so this scheme includes cards that were later rendered as other components during development

    •••Getting stuck in making a "pretty" prototype often reveals structure in a design that was otherwise hidden — but simply making something look nicer is vastly less important than making it mean more: color, layout, iconography, typography can all be put to work. And when I really get into this, I very often begin to see the game in different terms, which can often bring details to light that feed directly back into the game design process.

    Step 5

    Pitch. We were lucky that "City Cards" — we're not that inventive with naming our prototypes — came together quickly, so quickly that we were ready to pitch it to potential publishers at the Spielwarenmesse Toy Fair in Nürnberg, Germany in February 2016.

    Amongst these meetings was one with Matthias Wagner at ABACUSSPIELE. We'd been meeting with Matthias regularly at SPIEL since 2012 but hadn't yet presented the right project to pique his interest. He took a copy of "City Cards" away with him, and in April 2016, he offered us a contract to publish the game. Success!

    •••Reflecting on this timeline now, it's remarkable. I don't do German board game publishers any disservice by observing that they are deliberate in their decisions. Generally speaking, that means those careful choices take time — and quite right, too! We did a good job as designers and made something good and made it well. We were thrilled to finally hit the target for Matthias, and his and his colleagues' enthusiasm and passion for the design shines out of the final product.

    Step 6

    Wait. Matthias was quietly developing the game in the background and also revealed the new theme for the game: building Rome!

    The only downside of this thematic shift was that our powerful building "Statue of Taylor Swift"* would have to change its name. Darn.

    •••* Surely a monument that any self-respecting city would be proud to erect?

    Step 7

    A bit more waiting.

    •••But we busied ourselves designing more games! And patience, in any case, is a virtue. Some things should simply not be hurried.

    Step 8

    Profit! "City Cards" had become The Great City of Rome, co-published by ABACUSSPIELE and Z-Man Games, and was released at SPIEL '18, amazingly finishing at the top of the Fairplay rankings.

    •••The appearance of the game in the Fairplay rankings was a complete surprise to us, but a fantastic endorsement of the work done by ABACUSSPIELE. They were very pleased indeed with the game's reception, and I was very pleased for them. Bravo!

    I've been happy (and surprised as always) with the positive reception the game has received, and kudos must go to Matthias (and Steve Kimball from Z-Man Games) for making such a wonderful product.

    Turns out you can build (The Great) City of Rome in around three years, and we can't wait to share it with the world!

    Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • Era: Survival - Definitive Edition Rulebook
    Era: Survival - Definitive Edition RulebookPublisher: Shades of Vengeance

    The Definitive Edition of Era: The Consortium is an updated and expanded 300-page Rulebook, intended as a Collectors Edition!

    It contains the all of the same content as the Survival Core Rulebook – history, a complete guide to character creation, a list of implants, weapons, equipment and spacecraft encountered in the Consortium universe, the rules, complete with worked examples and a section for the GM which contains everything from sample campaigns to pre-made characters.

    It also contains almost 100 pages of bonus material! Extra story, new details on the realities of Gaia, new options for Infected and much, much more.

      Price: $19.99 Read more »
    • Era: Survival - Karma Cards
      Era: Survival - Karma CardsPublisher: Shades of Vengeance

      In Era: Survival, your Karma controls what happens to you: good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to evil people. However, even when bad things happen, you can uusally find an advantage from it.

      While the cards are not entirely necessary for play, they add a weighted element to the situation, allowing you to get smaller abilities more frequently than powerful ones!

      This Digital Set can be printed and used for play!

      Price: $3.99 Read more »

      Gnome Stew

    • Tachyon Squadron Review
      Tachyon Squadron Review

      I was extremely young when my family took me to see Star Wars at the drive-in, and there were a lot of details I didn’t remember until years later when I viewed the movie again on HBO–but I remembered Luke flying in his X-Wing. A year later, with slightly better cognitive functions, I was fascinated by Battlestar Galactica and the starfighter combat between the Colonial Vipers and the Cylon Raiders.

       Did I outgrow my love of starfighters when I got older? Not if the hours I spent playing TIE Fighter, Freelancer, or Rogue Squadron are any indication. Even today, my favorite part of Star Wars Battlefront 2 is the starfighter missions.

       Tachyon Squadron is a supplement for Fate Core that focuses on playing military science fiction campaigns that center on a starfighter squadron and the pilots of that squadron. 

      Sizing up the Spaceframe

       This review is based both on the PDF version of the product, and the hardcover release. Tachyon Squadron is a 184-page product, with a four-page index, two-page quick reference sheet, a ship sheet, and a character sheet in the back.

      The physical book is a digest-sized hardcover, similar to other Evil Hat releases. It is a full-color book, with numerous line art illustrations of pilots, starfighters, and capital ships. Formatting is similar to other Fate releases, with clear headers, call-out boxes, and very easy to digest pages of information.

      Tachyon Squadron and Creating a Pilot

      There is a brief five-page introduction to explain the style of science fiction that Tachyon Squadron is emulating. It’s a has a strongly military flavored sci-fi feel, and features humans skirmishing with other humans, rather than dealing with alien threats. Adversaries will include pirates and oppressive regimes, and FTL and artificial gravity technology exists without too many details. There is also a quick callout box to explain how the Fate rules are used and modified for the setting.

      Creating a pilot delves into some of those ways in which the setting utilizes and modifies the Fate rules. While creating a character will look familiar to anyone that has spent some time with the Fate Core rulebook, there are a few key differences.

      • You don’t just need a name, you need a callsign
      • You don’t have a Trouble aspect, you have a decompression aspect
      • You get two personal stunts and a gear stunt–the gear stunt representing a special piece of equipment you have available to your character

      There are example names and callsigns, as well as some archetypical skill assignment arrays. There are sidebars discussing player safety when it comes to exploring decompression aspects, as well as some guidance on how disability isn’t a limiting factor to fighter pilots in the setting.

      Unlike a standard game of Fate, in Tachyon Squadron, the Trouble aspect is, instead, replaced with the decompression aspect. This aspect is split between a positive means that the pilot can decompress, and a negative means. The only way a pilot recovers stress is to decompress. If they fail their check to decompress in a positive manner, they can always blow off steam in a less productive manner, which is likely to cause problems for them, now or in the future.

      Skills and Stunts

      The next section of the book delves into skills available in the setting, example stunts, and new rules for gear stunts that are introduced in this book.

      Skills are broken up into the following groups:

      • Spacefaring Skills (Gunnery, Pilot, Tactics, Technology)
      • Action Skills (Athletics, Fight, Notice, Shoot, Sneak)
      • Social Skills (Discipline, Empathy, Investigate, Provoke, Rapport)

      Those categories help to summarize the expected scenes that pilot characters will play through in the game, as they fly their ship, participate in ground-based missions, and interact with civilians and military personnel between starfighter missions.

      Gear Stunts introduce some new rule interactions into Fate. These stunts represent equipment that a character has available on their missions, but they can allow characters to maximize a die in certain circumstances. Maximizing a die is just taking a die from the dice, after they have been rolled, and setting it to “+.” If multiple pieces of gear would both help, you may get to maximize more than one die, but you can never have more than two maximized on one roll.

      While the Gear Stunts introduce ways in which characters can maximize their dice, this is also where the concept of minimizing dice is introduced. In some disadvantageous circumstances, characters may need to set a die from the rolled dice aside and set it to a “-.” Like maximized dice, you never need to minimize more than two dice in a single roll.


      The turn order in starfighter combat is resolved in a different manner than other Fate conflicts. The next chapter in the book explains how to run engagements, and what the phases look like.

      Engagements have the following parts:

      • Detection
      • Maneuver
      • Action
      • End of Round

      Detection involves using the technology skill to determine if both sides know how many fighters the other side has, and where those ships are. Maneuvering involves using the tactics skill to determine what order the ships take their actions. The action phase involves performing standard Fate actions using whatever skill is appropriate to the action. The end of round phase degrading the tactics score that was used to determine ship order, as well as being the phase of the engagement where ships that declared their intent to escape leave the scene.

      At a brief pass, that all can sound a lot more complicated than a standard Fate conflict, but the maneuver chart included in the book helps to illustrate how the rules work, and the individual phases are very clearly explained.

      Undetected ships can’t be attacked and can attack anyone in the fight. Other ships can only attack ships with their own tactics result or lower. A ship that attempts to bug out can be targeted by anyone, but if they make it to the End of Round phase, they escape the fight unscathed. There are undetected and special spots on the maneuver chart, and the special slot goes after everyone else. This is where capital ships take their actions in a fight.

      Unlike a standard Fate conflict, in the action phase, players may take actions in Step 1 or Step 2 of the round, with some special actions taking both Step 1 and Step 2 slots. Some actions allow a pilot to reroll their tactics check to move up (or down) the chart, while others may allow a pilot to harass an opposing pilot to change their score and position on the chart. Characters can also do things like making emergency repairs or recovering ejected pilots.

      Fighters have specific fighter sheets that show what happens when a given component takes damage. Enemy fighters might use full ship sheets, they may use simple damage rules, or they may be organized as flights (several fighters using simple rules, adding shifts to damage as they act as a unit), or as swarms.

      Swarms are one of my favorite rules for adding a ton of fighters to a battle. They act as free invokes for other ships, and the aspect representing the swarm can be removed depending on the actions taken by the PCs on their turn. Nobody in a swarm is wearing a Corellian Bloodstripe.

      The Galaxy and Combat Pilots at War

      The next two sections detail what the galaxy looks like and what the pilots of Tachyon Squadron do on a day to day basis. There are various example planets and space stations, as well as explanations of the daily duty and routine of fighter pilots, and what various mission profiles look like.

      In short, the galaxy was split between two big human empires, who were at war. The war came to an end, but a third group split from one of those empires and is now catching all kinds of heat from the less friendly of the two superpowers. Because the Draconis System is a new player in the galaxy, the fighter pilots of Tachyon Squadron are technically volunteer civilian contractors, waiting for the full-fledged Draconis military to get up and running.

      This sets up the player characters as the underdogs in most fights, trying to cause enough hassle to their better funded and backed enemies to get them to back off, rather than trying to conquer or overthrow any empire on their own.

      GMing Tachyon Squadron

      The next section in the book starts off by presenting consistent, current, impending, and future issues for a typical Tachyon Squadron campaign. Consistent issues are thematically appropriate story beats for the whole campaign, current issues are the “starting” problems that the group will likely be taking on, impending issues are those that are ready to move into the forefront in the near future, and future issues are emerging long-term issues that surface once the PCs have had a chance to play with the setting for a while.

      The chapter then moves into advice on how to structure engagements, with some example opposition for different types of missions of varying difficulty. There is advice on how to handle concessions in starship combat, as well as how to transition missions into “out of cockpit” encounters.

      The chapter wraps up with examples of how to structure a campaign, with advice on how to determine the opposition’s objectives, and how many times the PCs can stymie them before they change tactics, and eventually start to turn the tide.

      I’ve always been a big fan of games clearly presenting how they are intended to be played, and this chapter has a very clear set of examples not just for individual missions, but for how the beginning, middle, and end of a campaign should look. 

      Ships to Fly and People to Meet and Example Player Characters

      The next two chapters have statistics for spaceships, modular equipment, and characters that can be found in the setting. The example player characters can serve as examples, pre-generated characters, or NPCs if the players decide to make their own characters.

      There are statistics for capital ships and fighters, and the opposition fighters have separate stat blocks for “regular” opposition and aces. The ships have aspects, skill ranks, and stunts, and the more detailed ships have lists of damaged components that can be used in a similar manner to minor consequences, with each damaged component having a special narrative effect, or causing certain rolls to be minimized.

      NPCs and sample player characters are very diverse, including characters with various gender identities, sexualities, physical abilities. While I always appreciate an RPG setting that has that degree of diversity, it’s great to see actual examples of that diversity, rather than just seeing it stated in the higher-level descriptions of the setting. The commanding officers, other pilots, and civilian contacts your character runs into will reinforce that element of the setting. 

      The Pirates of Kepler Valley and Defense of Arcosolari Kalamos

      The next two sections of the book contain sample campaign arcs for the game. One campaign focuses on defending outposts and caravans from pirates while also fighting the Dominion, and the other revolves around a space station hub where the PCs may have to root out spies and Dominion sympathizers as well as flying starship missions.

      To reinforce the idea that Tachyon Squadron doesn’t have unlimited resources and is fighting against a bigger, better-supplied force, the campaign setup section lays out what equipment the PCs can expect to have available to them when their own gear conks out, or when they need specialized tech for missions. There are also outlines of specific scenes that may come at pivotal moments in the campaign, and new NPCs and locations.

       If you have ever thrilled at starships shooting lasers at one another while dodging fire from capital ships, the text is going to hold your interest. 
      Inspirations and Influences

      Inspirations and influences is a section of the book where various media that inspired the game can be found. One thing that interests me is that, the longer the RPG industry is around, the more diverse the inspirations become. In this instance, I’m not just referring to a broad range within certain media, but that influences now include tabletop games (including older RPGs) and video games.

      Target Lock

      Tachyon Squadron does a remarkable job of explaining exactly what it is trying to do and showing you how to achieve that goal using the rules and structure provided. Minimizing and maximizing dice are tools that may prove useful for modeling other thematic elements in future Fate games. The structure of starfighter engagement creates a procedure that feels like dogfighting without needing to track exact positioning, distance, and orientation. The diverse range of characters reinforces a setting element with substantive content.

      Pull Up

      One of the book’s strengths could also be a weakness–the procedure for engagements may be just a little bit too structured depending on the flavor of Fate you prefer. While it’s not hard to adapt, Tachyon Squadron defaults to gritty “everybody’s human” military science fiction, so if your love of starfighter combat involves lots of crazy ship types, alien co-pilots, and maybe space wizards, you may need to pull from other Fate sources to fill out your preferences.

      Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

      This product is a great example of using existing rules to reinforce the tropes of a genre. If you have ever thrilled at starships shooting lasers at one another while dodging fire from capital ships, the text is going to hold your interest. Even outside of Fate, the structure for creating tactical dogfights without using exact positioning is something you may want to check out.

      Have you ever adapted an RPG to model your favorite starfighter video games? Do you have a preference on how to model tactical maneuvering between ships in a sci-fi game? How gritty do you like your military sci-fi? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

      Read more »
    • Getting Started on the DMs Guild – Part 1: Your First Product
      A screenshot of the Dungeon Masters Guild homepage

      In early 2016, Wizards of the Coast and OneBookshelf launched the Dungeon Masters Guild, a site with a new kind of license that allows fans of D&D to publish and sell their own D&D content. I began publishing on the Guild in October of the same year, and in the last two years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Do you want to publish on the Guild? Because I’m here to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve gleaned from others so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes as we have.

      The Initial Bubble-Bursting

      Do you have an idea you want to work on? Something to write, to publish, to share with other passionate D&D fans? Awesome. Let me get the less-good stuff out of the way now, then, before you start writing.

      There are some things you cannot publish on the DMs Guild at all. Here’s a quick rundown:

      • Your own homebrew settings – the only settings licensed for publication through the Guild are the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, and Eberron. I’m sure more are in the works behind the scenes, but this is what we have access to for now. You can also publish things that are “setting neutral” or “setting agnostic” meaning that they don’t have a specific world that they’re linked to.
      • Any editions other than 5th – the current edition is the only one eligible for the Guild. WotC is selling PDFs of older edition books through the Guild, but previous editions are off-limits for us regular publishers.
      • Work that contains intellectual property for Critical Role or The Adventure Zone or your other favorite D&D show – the licenses for these shows aren’t owned by Wizards of the Coast. ‘Nuff said.
        • Vecna – yes, this includes anything mentioning or pertaining to the lich god Vecna, who is technically from the world of Greyhawk and thus not eligible for the Guild. I’m specifically calling that out because I’ve seen more than one product pulled from the shelf for including an Eye or Hand of Vecna.
        • Any other intellectual property – this should be fairly self-explanatory by now.

      DMs Guild Licensing and the SRD

      The DMs Guild uses a slightly different licensing system than things published elsewhere using the SRD, or System Reference Document. For example, you can write an adventure in which the player characters fight Xanathar, the renowned Waterdhavian beholder, not that I’d ever recommend going toe-to-eyestalk with him. That could be published through the Guild, because the license gives publishers access to exclusive WotC intellectual property, like beholders, mind flayers, specific places and NPCs, etc.

      On the other hand, if you were to publish elsewhere using just the SRD, you couldn’t include Xanathar or Waterdeep or any beholder at all. The trade-off here is that if you were to publish directly through DriveThruRPG, you keep a higher percentage of the royalties as a content creator than you do through the DMs Guild.

       …they’re more likely to turn to the DMs Guild than DriveThruRPG. 

      It’s also key to mention here that anything published on the DMs Guild is then considered the property of Wizards of the Coast and cannot be published elsewhere. Even if you take it down from the Guild, making it no longer available there, it is still not “eligible” for publication elsewhere.

      What I’ve found to be the main benefit of the Guild is that it has a much larger audience of D&D fans specifically than DriveThruRPG. When people want a new, unique monster or magic items to include in their games, or they want a pre-written one shot so they don’t have to prep much for game that night, I find they’re more likely to turn to the DMs Guild than DriveThruRPG.

      Writing and Playtesting

      So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s get down to business writing that neat idea of yours! My biggest advice here is to look at how information is presented in the three core D&D rulebooks. For example, if you want to publish a bunch of new magic items, take note of how the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are shown. The name of the item, the type and rarity, if it requires attunement, and then any other description text. Your readers will already be familiar with that format, and anything you can do to make using your product easier for them is a good thing.

      For adventures, look to the published adventure modules – Storm King’s Thunder is my favorite example because I feel it’s the best organized of the current storylines. A description of a location might be the first thing under a new header, followed by events that happen while the players are there under a “Developments” header, and then all that good loot under a “Treasure” header. Sticking to the familiar layouts wherever possible is going to help you, in part because it makes your work look more professional.

       Sticking to the familiar layouts wherever possible is going to help you… 

      When it comes to playtesting, I’ll be the first to tell you that while playtesting is good and important, it’s not the be-all, end-all of your product. My bigger suggestion would be to run your work by other players and DMs (both experienced and new ones if you can) and ask them what they think. Ask a DM if they would run your adventure and if anything glaring is missing. Ask players if they’d be interested in your magic items if they happened to appear in a hoard. Don’t try to make your product perfect. Perfect is the enemy of done.

      Art, Covers, and Formatting

      Speaking of looking professional… you don’t want to just upload a plain word document, do you? Of course not. You want a spiffy PDF, complete with the nice D&D fonts. If you intend to publish anything on the Guild, your next download needs to be the “DMs Guild Creator Resource – Adventure Template”. It’s a free resource provided by WotC and OneBookshelf to help you make your products look clean, professional, and uniform with the rest of the D&D brand. Use their official fonts, headers, stat block templates, etc. and you will save yourself a headache later wondering if your document is legible.

      As for art and fancy covers… opinions vary, to say the least. Some people will say that a beautiful, full-art, full-color cover is the only way to sell a product, to hook a potential buyer. Other people will say that the plain-text cover with the big bold title and the DMs Guild logo is good enough for the Adventurer’s League (see above), so it’s good enough for them. There’s pros and cons to both: art can be an expensive upfront cost for a new creator, and a badly-designed cover is worse than no cover at all. Use your best judgment, and if you find that you’re getting really stressed out about the cover, don’t bother with fancy design. Make sure the title is legible and let everything else go. The same goes for interior art. I personally consider it nice-to-have, but not need-to-have.

       As for art and fancy covers… opinions vary, to say the least. 

      If a budget is all that’s holding you back from including art, there is quite a lot of free or low-cost art available. Many artists sell bundles of images through DriveThruRPG and only ask that you provide proper attribution in your final product. Other times, you can find public domain and historical art that is able to be used for free (but should still be credited to the creator – come on, guys). I like to use illustrations from old books of fairy tales and folklore, which bring a classic look and feel while still having an element of the fantastical. You don’t have to commission full, unique pieces with exclusive commercial rights. I downright would advise against it, just because you will never see a full return on investment for that.

      DMs Guild Logo

      Dotting Your i’s and Crossing Your T’s

      A few finishing touches are all it takes to make your product ready for publication. Make sure you have all of the below. Then double check. Maybe triple check, too.

      • Legal boilerplate text – a chunk of legal boilerplate is available in the FAQ under the “Content Guidelines” section. Read it and then copy-paste it at the end of your product, tweaking the year if need be. This is to cover you, to cover WotC, and to cover OneBookshelf. No one wants a lawsuit over this.
      • DMs Guild logo on the cover – it has to be there, no ifs, ands, or buts. You also cannot include any personal logos on the cover. You can put those inside, but not on the cover. There is a high-resolution image of the DMs Guild logo on that same “Content Guidelines” page (and above!).
      • Proper attribution and credits – if you used art, credit the artist. If you had playtesters, list their names. If an editor revised your project, list their name. This isn’t technically part of the DMs Guild Content Guidelines, but if you don’t do it, you’re a jerk.
      • Save it all as a PDF, but keep a separate Word doc version to incorporate later edits – yes, you may likely find your product will need edits or revisions later on.

      And voila, just like that, you’re ready to publish! If that’s got you a little intimidated, never fear- in Part 2, we’ll talk about publication, marketing, and sales.

      Let us know in the comments what you’re working on for the Guild!

      Read more »

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      Sly Flourish

    • Why I Love Madness

      As part of the work we did on the Lazy Dungeon Master's Workbook, I surveyed the Kickstarter backers of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and asked them which references, charts, and tables they found most and least useful while preparing and running their 5e games. The three madness charts trended towards the bottom of the list.

      I'm not completely surprised but a little sad at this. I love the madness charts. Ever since using them in Out of the Abyss, I've used madness here and there throughout my D&D games and always found them to be an enjoyable addition. Today I'm going to dig into why I love these charts so much and what they can bring to their game.

      Regardless of the results, I stuck the madness tables in there anyway. Hell, it's my book. Today I'll talk about why.

      (art by Walter Brocca)

      The Great Equalizer

      Madness is a strange effect. It isn't technically a status effect but when it hits a character, it acts very much like one. We don't know exactly what that effect will be should a character fail a madness check but it sure won't be good.

      When we have high power characters, it can be hard for us dungeon masters to challenge them all the time. Many times that's perfectly fine. It's fun to carve through all sorts of monsters when you're a high level and high power character. Since D&D isn't tuned around magical items, the items characters acquire push them outside of their expected power level and that feels great.

      Sometimes, however, particularly for really powerful monsters, we want to show the danger. We want players to be scared of things. If Demogorgon rises out of the black waters of Dark Lake, we don't want the characters to just start preparing their attacks and jumping in.

      That's where madness comes in. Some creatures are just too horrible to behold. Their very presence pushes the mortal mind outside of the bounds of sanity. The walls of reality crack and in seeps the horror of worlds beyond.

      It doesn't matter how many attacks a round you can dish out, a DC 24 Charisma saving throw will turn just about any fighter into a slug-eating buffoon, at least for a few seconds.

      The round a demon prince comes out and that aura of madness hits the characters, that's the most dangerous round in D&D. And that danger can be really fun.

      When To Use Madness

      Madness is an effect we should keep in our back pocket and not use all the time. The appearance of a demon prince or lord of hell is a great time to drop in madness. The arrival of a powerful entity of the Far Realm might be another. Should Slarkrethal the kraken rise from the depths of the seas, it's psionic wave will crash on them like water tearing down mountains.

      Other circumstances might also warrant a madness check. Opening up and gazing upon a book of terrible rituals, maybe the Book of Vile Darkness itself, could crack the minds of the strongest wizards. Staring into the shifting planes of a portal to an outer world might invoke madness. Some Fantastic Features containing the depths of evil and studied too rashly might drop waves of terror upon those who gaze upon them.

      Again, madness should be used infrequently but, when the situation is right, it's a powerful effect.

      Tuning Madness for Fun

      As written, madness might be too powerful. The biggest reasion is that it offers no saving throw at the end of a turn to get rid of the effect. We can easily add this end-of-next-turn saving throw when a character is hit with a short-term madness effect during combat.

      If the saving throw is too high, though, as it might be for characters who have poor charisma scores, this might not even help. A fighter is going to have a hell of a time beating a DC 24 Charisma save even if they get it at the end of any round. A number of spells can remove madness, as described in the Dungeon Master's Guide including calm emotions lesser restoration, remove curse, dispel evil and good, and greater restoration. We might also argue that damage done to the character can snap them out of their daze or at least give them advantage on the check.

      The Creativity and Improvisation of Madness Effects

      One of the reasons I love the madness effect so much is that it's full of flavor. While a stun is generally just a stun, madness carries such flavorful effects as "the character experiences an overpowering urge to eat something strange such as dirt, slime, or offal." Hard to beat that for flavor!

      Other status effects too have such flavor but it's tied to the way it hits the character. When a drow mage casts web on a character, we know more than just that the character is incapacitated. We know that they are cocooned in a magical sticky web, stuck to the wall or ground and gasping for breath. We might forget this when we're deep into the mechanics of the game but it behooves us to go there and remember what is really going on in the game's fiction.

      Likewise madness brings flavor to the game beyond its mechanical effects, which are substantial. Think about the source and describe what happens. One of my favorite questions is to ask the player to describe their happy place when they retreat into their own mind due to a madness effect. A player will describe a nice leatherbound book, sweet pipesmoke in the air, and the familiar softness of a leather chair in front of a warm fire while the rest of the party is being shredded by the tentacles and mental probes of a cyclopean titan risen from the depths. Oh what fun!

      Though we tend not to use it often, short-term madness is a wonderful flavorful effect to add into our games from time to time. The next time a character witnesses something outside the bounds of the mind, time to hit that madness chart.

      Read more »
    • Our Ability Check Toolbox

      The more we focus on the story of D&D, the more ability checks become the main mechanic as characters interact with the world around them. Asking for checks and getting the results sounds easy. Ask the player for a roll, add the appropriate modifiers, and match it up against a DC. Simple.

      When we're running our game, though, it isn't always as easy as it sounds. It isn't always clear how we should call for checks, to whom, and how we should adjudicate the results. What if a player does a particularly good job roleplaying an encounter with an NPC but rolls poorly on their persuasion check? Is all that good roleplaying lost? What about when a character wants to examine a door, rolls a 2, and everyone else at the table wants to jump in and check the door as well?

      In today's article we're going to dig deep into how we use ability checks in the story of our D&D games.

      A Summary of Ability Check Options

      This is a big article so here's a summary.

      • Read up on the intent of ability checks in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook and chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Freshen up regularly before you start changing how you run things.
      • Consider how randomness fits into the world and the situations in which we might call for an ability check. Does this check warrant a roll or is a passive ability check enough?
      • Roll secretly for a character's ability check when the character might not know if they succeeded or failed such as when searching for a trap.
      • Offer advantage on checks in which players roleplay particularly well or when an aspect of their character gives them an advantage in the situation.
      • Allow full table rolls if the circumstances allow for it. The highest roll learns the in-game results first.
      • If needed, curb full-table rolls by determining if only one character can reasonably perform the check or by accepting only the first roll.
      • Be prepared for an entire table to fail a check. Make sure it doesn't halt the game.
      • Ask for rolls only from those trained in a skill when a particular level of expertise is required such as decoding magical runes.
      • Ask players to describe how they aid an ally or guide them with guidance.
      • Build your own toolbox of methods for adjudicating ability checks.

      Understanding the Rules As Written

      Whenever we're going to dig deep into any mechanic in D&D, it's best to read the rules and understand their intent. In the case of ability checks, we have chapter 7 page 173 in the Player's Handbook and chapter 8 page 237 in of the Dungeon Master's Guide to give us the written rules and some solid advice on how best to use ability checks. If you're going to monkey around with ability checks or find that things get confusing at your game, spend a few minutes reading both of these sections to reinforce how the designers intended for ability checks to work.

      One thing of note, particularly for DMs who have played older versions of D&D, there are no skill checks. In the fifth edition of D&D, there are only ability checks. Skills are subjects in which characters are proficient and add to an ability modifier when the circumstances allow it. This sounds pedantic but the distinction matters, particularly in the vocabulary of the rules.

      These sections in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide give us the basics of using ability checks including group checks, aiding another character, and using advantage and disadvantage based on the circumstance of the check. It's worth reading and refreshing ourselves on these rules regularly, particularly once we've seen how they actually play out for the group at the table.

      The Random Chances of the World Around Us

      The real world around is is constantly and continually moving based on random chance. Very likely the reason I am writing this and the reason you are reading it are based on very slim random occurrences that happened over our lives and the lives of our ancestors. When we interact with the world around us, random chance plays a big part in those interactions as well, even if we don't see it or choose not to.

      The same is true in the world of our D&D games. In the Dungeon Master's Guide, we're given the advice that we need not worry about asking for ability checks when the task being done is either so easy that it's almost assured or so hard that it's nearly impossible. There's another way to think about this, though, and it's by considering how much randomness exists in the situation itself.

      If the characters are talking to a town guard, maybe there's randomness in the response of that guard. Maybe he ate something bad earlier that day or got in a fight with his husband before work. Maybe we want to account for that potential random circumstance when our charismatic sorcerer decides to ask him about the secret tunnels beneath the ruined watchtower.

      But maybe we don't. Maybe, for the sake of the story, its just easier of the guard tells the characters what they want to know. Regardless of any digestive or domestic issues the guard has, he's still likely to tell a charismatic sorcerer about the tunnels. We don't need to roll for this.

      Page 236 of chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has a whole section called "The Role of Dice" that discusses when DMs should consider rolling or ignoring dice. The section called "The Middle Path" likely offers the best option: use the dice when a bit of randomness makes sense for that situation or ignore it when the characters approach the situation in a way that makes failure unlikely.

      It's important for us to understand why there is a random component when it comes to interacting with the world overall. This randomness isn't there to take some excellent roleplaying and throw it away on a shitty roll. It's there to help the world feel as unpredictable as any realistic world would feel. It's also there to make the story more interesting. If everything were simply comparisons between static ability scores and difficulty classes, we could predict every interaction before it occurred (hello Leplace's Demon!). With the roll of the die, mysterious things happen and that's fun for both players and DMs alike.

      How we inject this randomness into our games and how we tweak it based on the context of the story takes some deeper understanding.

      Passive Checks

      There's a whole interesting discussion to have about passive checks; particularly how passive perception and passive insight work. Jeremy Crawford talked about this on a previous episode of Dragon Talk. Here's a clip from the episode where he goes into details.

      In short, passive scores (perception and insight) are always on as long as you're conscious. Players don't get to say that they're using it. Passive perception is intended to be the floor of a character's perception. They might not notice anything specific but they'll know something is going on. If a player rolls perception, they might roll lower than their passive perception but the passive perception is still going on. Anything they would see with that, they'd see anyway.

      We can use passive scores for just about anything if we want to but they're most likely to be used for these sort of "always on" skills. As mentioned above, if we feel like the random elements of a situation don't exist in a particular situation, we can opt for a static check on anything. If a rogue has +7 to stealth we can consider it having a general stealth of 17 if they're sneaking through a whole area and we don't want to roll on it all the time.

      We might use passive checks instead of rolls in the following circumstances:

      • When randomness isn't a meaningful factor in the situation.
      • When we'd normally have to make a large series of checks.
      • When a skill is "always on" as the characters explore. These skills might include Arcana, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Religion, and Survival.

      DM Rolls and Hidden Checks

      There are times when the results of a situation might be a mystery to the characters regardless of a success or failure. The ability to detect a trap, for example, might be known or not regardless of the results of a roll. Yet when we ask a player to roll to detect a trap, they will know the result because they can see the result.

      Instead, we might ask for a character's Wisdom (Perception or Investigation) bonus and make a hidden roll to see how it goes. This gives some mystery to the results. If they detect the trap, they know it's there. If they did not detect a trap, though, it could be because there isn't one there or they missed it. That's exciting.

      There aren't many circumstances where we'd roll an ability check for a character and keep the results hidden but it can be useful and fun when it does happen. Here are a few circumstances when rolling a hidden check might be appropriate:

      • Detecting a trap
      • Negotiating with an NPC who hides their responses
      • Checking for secret doors or hidden compartments
      • Detecting whether a liquid is poison or not
      • Recognizing the traits of a monster

      This technique can be fun but should be used sparingly. It's almost always best for players to roll their own checks.

      Awesome Roleplaying, Poor Rolls

      Sometimes, and we can see this in a lot of streaming games like Critical Role, players do quite a bit of awesome roleplaying when interacting with an NPC. Sometimes, however, their character actually isn't particularly good at that type of interaction. The character has an awesome bit of dialog intimidating the goblin but has an intimidation bonus of -1.

      Sometimes we might ask for the check after such a narrative exposition and then see a terrible roll come up. All of us know, based on what was actually said, that it should have gone better than that.

      There are a couple of ways we can handle this. First of all, we're within the intention of the game to offer advantage to the player for a fine bit of roleplaying. We can even give them inspiration if they want to hang on to the advantage for another check.

      We can also lower the difficulty class on the fly based on the particular approach that was taken with the NPC. We might even use our shades of gray on the roll to turn a bad roll into an interesting divergent path in the situation.

      We might even let the roll go away completely and, based on the awesome roleplaying, determine that there's basically no way the interaction will go against the character when they take the approach they're taking. No matter what, we are not slaves to the dice. If the approach and the situation are stronger than random chance, we can judge it a success and move forward.

      Full Table Rolls

      Invariably we sometimes get into a situation where a character wants to spot something, announces their intention to look around an area, rolls a 2, and then the whole rest of the group jumps in and wants to make the same check.

      This can happen in both wide circumstances, like keeping an eye out for monsters while resting or something small like checking a door for traps. When the players see another player fail a check, they want to leap in to make the same check.

      The circumstances of such a roll matter a lot in how we adjudicate this. We might, in our minds, have a clear idea that only one character may see or miss seeing such an event only to realize that if everyone tries, someone is bound to make the check.

      If the task at hand is something only one character can reasonably do, we can simply veto the checks when the rest of the group wants to roll. We might argue that only that one chance could work and subsequent attempts won't succeed. Other times, however, we might shrug and go with the group check.

      Here are some circumstances when only one character can reasonably perform a check:

      • Detecting a trap
      • Disarming a trap
      • Picking a lock
      • Forging a document
      • Manipulating an object
      • Reading arcane energy off of an object
      • Climbing a wall

      And here are some example circumstances when a whole group can reasonably check.

      • Investigating a room
      • Scouting an area
      • Foraging for food
      • Forcing open a door
      • Studying a written document

      If we do find circumstances where the whole group can participate, we might instead call for a group check. See page 175 of the Player's Handbook for details. We use a group check when the whole group acts together and succeeds or fails together. The most common group check is the group stealth check to avoid being seen as a group travels through an area but we can use it in other circumstances too. In a group check, all participants roll for the check and more than half of them must succeed in order to succeed at the roll.

      If things seem too easy when the whole group would roll on a check, we can use the group check to even things out a bit.

      Full Table Failures

      Sometimes we want to pass some information to the characters and we ask for a full group check expecting that someone will pass. Sometimes, however, the dice work against all of us and no one succeeds. If the information was vital, we might find ourselves stuck in a corner of the story. We expected someone would pass. Now what?

      Even when we're calling for a group check in which only one member of the group must succeed, we must be ready to handle it if no one succeeds at all. In these circumstances it might be best to give the highest rolling player the required information and "fail forward" with a complication of some sort such as giving away their position or not noticing the arrival of another group of creatures before it's too late.

      Only Those Trained Can Succeed

      The fifth edition of D&D expects that all checks are "ability" checks, not "skill" checks. Thus, when a DM calls for a check, they ask for an ability like "give me a wisdom check" to notice something coming closer in the distant sky. We might also tag on a skill with it and say "give me a wisdom check and add your proficiency if you're trained in perception". I imagine most DMs skip this and go straight to "give me a perception check" and players know to roll flat wisdom if they aren't trained.

      One way to ensure that an entire group doesn't try a particularly narrow skill is to ask for only those trained in the skill to check. For example, understanding arcane runes protecting a vaulted door might require that it be checked only by those trained in Arcana. Understanding the intricate information stored in a religious text or recognizing the origin of a buried statue might require someone trained in Religion.

      Requiring proficiency in a particular skill goes outside the bounds of the intended D&D rules, but it is a good way to make those proficiencies count during the game. We might stack on other backgrounds, races, or classes onto this list as well. If the characters come across a mystical tome, maybe only those trained in Arcana or those able to cast spells can attempt to decode the book's secrets using their spellcasting ability score to understand it. Perhaps only someone trained in Religion can recognize the ancient buried statue except for dwarves who might recognize that the statue is of a dwarven deity lost long ago.

      Here are some example circumstances where we might only ask those who are trained to make a check:

      • When decoding powerful arcane runes
      • When investigating ancient religious artifacts
      • When picking a difficult lock
      • When hunting a deceptive beast through the jungles
      • When digging through formal histories for a particular nugget
      • When attempting to brew a particular poison
      • When seeking the particulars from the wounds found on a corpse

      Again, this method for ability checks goes outside the expected rules and, as Jeremy Crawford says, it should be used sparingly.

      Offering Advantage for Character Traits and Backgrounds

      It's always nice to reinforce a character's interactions with the world through that character's race, class, background, or any other trait of the character that gives the character an advantage in a particular situation. In these circumstances, we can give a character advantage for a particular check based on this trait.

      If the characters are examining an ancient fresco buried underneath centuries of moss, the high elf character might get advantage on the check since the fresco depicts elements of the ancient elven struggle between Corellon and Lolth.

      The Dungeon Master's Guide specifically discusses when to use advantage and disadvantage on ability checks. Page 239 includes circumstances when one or the other makes sense with one particularly interesting statement: "Consider granting advantage when circumstances not related to a creature's inherent capabilities provide it with an edge."

      When a rogue is disarming a trap or picking a lock, we don't give them advantage for being a rogue. Their proficiency is already wired into being a rogue. Picking locks and disarming traps is what rogues do. We already know that barbarians are particularly athletic, they don't get barbarous advantage for bending bars or lifting gates. They actually get it anyway if they're raging at those vexing bars.

      Backgrounds already offer skills so we might think of that as an inherent capability already but if the details of a background can aid a character beyond a skill proficiency, we can consider that enough to offer advantage on the check.

      Here are some examples where we might offer advantage on an ability check based on a particular trait of a character.

      • When a sailor is examining a wrecked ship
      • When a sage is reading through an old tome
      • When a dwarf is investigating the construction of an underground citadel
      • When an Warlock serving a Great Old One patron peers into a portal to the far realm
      • When an assassin investigates a potential poisoning

      Describing Aiding and Guidance

      The aid another action is a great way for two characters to work on a problem with one of them giving advantage to another. The most common problem I've seen with this is that the player of the aiding party grabs a d20 and rolls without thinking about the fact that they aren't the ones supposed to be rolling. If this happens, we can tell the partners that this second roll counts as the advantage roll and add whichever modifier is higher between the two characters.

      We can apply a small cost to this aid as well by asking the player to describe how they're aiding. This is a nice trick to get players into the story. It isn't enough for them to say "I'll aid them", the question is how they'll offer that aid. Fun stories can come from such questions.

      The same is true with the cleric's spell guidance which offers 1d4 to any ability check. When a cleric casts this spell, we can ask the player to describe what that aid looks like. Is it a holy light that fills in the nooks and crannies of a difficult lock? Is it a small glowing halo that surrounds the rogue as she talks her way past the town guards? Is it a tiny glowing light in the eyes of the wizard as she decodes the magical glyphs embedded in the wall?

      Getting players to answer these in-game story-focused questions is a great way to get them outside of their character sheet and into the world you're creating together.

      Ability Checks: The Primary Mechanic between Players and the World

      When we think about it, ability checks may be the biggest mechanic of D&D. In our more story-focused games, these ability checks guide nearly every challenging interaction between the characters and the world around them. The basic mechanic of ability checks; rolling a d20, adding a modifier, and matching against a difficulty class; seems so simple but how we actually implement these checks into the game can have a big impact in how the game is played and how it turns out.

      Read the rules, see how they play out at your own table, and build a toolbox of methods for calling for and using ability checks in your own game. Let these checks act as the chaotic vehicles for the awesome stories that unfold at your table.

      Read more »