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  • Designer Diary: Kauchuk

    by Yaniv Kahana

    Kauchuk is both the first game that I developed together with my friend Oren Shainin and my first published game. The gist of the game is simple: Use rubber bands to enclose areas on a game board to collect energy and treasure. ("Каучук" is Russian for "rubber".)

    The process of developing Kauchuk taught me many things about designing games. First, developing games with partners has many advantages. Each designer has a different blend of strengths, preferences, and experiences, and they balance each other out. The mutual brainstorming allowed me to take part in a creation that is completely different to what it would have been had I worked alone.

    Second, I realized the great importance of having patient playtesters who are willing to play the same game over and over again and continuously give us meaningful and honest feedback.

    At a very early stage of the development process, Oren and I knew that the hook of the game would be the rubber bands. Our muse was Ticket to Ride, a family game that gamers also enjoy playing as a medium filler.

    Being the beginner designers that we were, it took us a few months to find the right theme and mechanism. We tried many different themes, like mining gold and colonizing galaxy planets, but the one we decided to use was fighting city crime, which was changed during our collaboration with eventual publisher Lifestyle Boardgames.




    The first playtest I organized was a real learning experience. Our mechanisms, which worked nicely for two players, did not work for four. I had to change the rules on the spot so that we could continue playing.



    First prototype vs. final design

    After many more designing and playtesting sessions, we were ready to go public. We collaborated with the best board game shop in our area — The Kingdom — and organized a playtesting event there.




    It was the first time we had tested the game with kids (as young as five years old!) and other non-gamers, and we got positive results. The kids loved the rubber band element, and the adults enjoyed the possibilities of area movement and enclosure that the rubber bands allowed on the board.


    Celebrating with Kauchuk's old board design on a cake

    We planned to present Kauchuk at our first visit to the Spielwarenmesse toy fair in Nürnberg, Germany in 2017. In preparation, we consulted with the designer Jeremie Kletzkine and made some quick additional changes before the fair. (That, of course, led me to playtest Kauchuk dozens more times to validate all the changes we had made.)

    The fair was exciting as we met many publishers who were interested in checking out our game. Pretty soon after the fair, we signed a contract with Lifestyle and started working on the development of new levels for Kauchuk. One of the major issues we dealt with was finding a solution for the board; our original prototype, made of a wooden board and nails, was not such a user-friendly family game...

    It took two years, and at Spielwarenmesse 2019 we met our new Kauchuk prototype for the first time. It was overwhelming! Alexander Peshkov and Maria Kravchenko from Lifestyle had done an amazing job in creating a board on which it's easy to both position rubber bands and replace the board levels (as the game now includes multiple double-sided boards to put players in different environments facing different challenges).


    Kauchuk boards

    During the fair, publishers talked with us about our prototype which they had seen, and during one of our meetings at the fair, the person we met even drew our game from his bag. He told us that he had taken it for evaluation. That was a very cool surprise!

    Kauchuk was the game that paved the way for me as a game designer, and its creation wouldn't have been possible without my partner Oren Shainin, all of our amazing designers and playtesters at GravitiX Games, my editor Sally Halon, and the amazing work of Alexander Peshkov, Maria Kravchenko, and the entire team of Lifestyle.

    After Kauchuk, I continued to work with partners (Oren, Izi Eshkenazi and others), then after five additional games, I decided it was time to do something alone. That was when I developed Super Farmer: The Card Game, which will also be released SPIEL '19!

    May the Kauchukium be with you!

    Yaniv Kahana Read more »
  • VideoLinks: On Deciphering the Rules of Ancient Games and Not Terraforming Mars

    by W. Eric Martin

    • Not to burst anyone's bubble, but in this PBS Space Time video, host Matt O'Dowd explains why Terraforming Mars should be moved from the "science fiction" category on BGG to "fantasy".

    Okay, he doesn't say so in those exact words, but that's one conclusion you can draw from the material presented:

    Youtube Video

    • Game designer Cameron Browne was featured in an August 2019 Vice article by Matthew Gault that highlights Browne's work as "principal investigator of the Digital Ludeme Project, a research project based at Maastricht University in the Netherlands that's using computational techniques to recreate the rules of ancient board games". An excerpt:
    Browne and his colleagues are working on a general-purpose system for modelling ancient games, as well as generating plausible rulesets and evaluating them. The system is called Ludii, and it implements computational techniques from the world of genetics research and artificial intelligence...

    The first part of the process, Browne said, is to break games down into their constituent parts and codify them in terms of units called "ludemes" in a database. Ludemes can be any existing game pieces or rules that archaeologists know of. Once a game is described in terms of its ludemes, it becomes a bit more like a computer program that machines can understand and analyze for patterns. Cultural information, such as where the game was played, is also recorded to help evaluate the plausibility of new rulesets.

    Using techniques from the world of algorithmic procedural generation, the team then uses the information in the database to infer and reconstruct rulesets of varying plausibility and playability for these ancient games.

    In some ways, this work seems like a continuation of Browne's previous projects, which included creating a computer program that would create and evaluate new games by combining and altering rule sets of existing games. Browne wrote about this program, Ludi, and one of the games it created, Yavalath, on BGG News in June 2011.

    • On his company blog, AEG owner John Zinser examines the results of their decision to publish fewer games than they have in year past, a decision apparently taken one year ago, albeit made public only in April 2019. An excerpt:
    We are just a bit behind where we expected to be at this point in the process. We have not yet replaced the income from cutting back on the number of games we publish and [from] selling Love Letter, but almost all of our releases this year have out-performed our projections and are individually more profitable than past games.

    The plan to give each game more attention at launch is working. From last year, Space Base and War Chest have continued to be strong sellers. From this year, Tiny Towns has been a mega hit, Point Salad is a treat that sold out in one day, and early buzz and pre-orders on Ecos: First Continent tells us that it will also be a winner.

    One lesson learned:
    Hitting your schedule is even more important when doing fewer games, especially with Kickstarter. We continue to learn the hard lesson that weeks matter. Our schedule slides have cost us more in cash flow than any other mistake this year...

    • The retail store Cape Fear Games in Wilmington, North Carolina (by chance, about two hours from my home) has acquired a game, toy, and LEGO collection valued at more than $1 million, and it's selling tours of the collection to show off what's available to buyers. As [url=noted in Wilmington's PortCityDaily, "The collection comes from the estate of Darryl Rubin, who in the 1970s was a member of a Stanford Research Institute (SRI) team that developed the technology underlying the TCP/IP protocol". An excerpt from the article:
    Perhaps the collection's most prized item is a chess set carved by renown ivory sculptor Oleg Raikis from 20,000-year-old mammoth ivory found in Siberia and heartwood ebony, valued at $27,000. When employee Connor Locklin first saw the set was made of ivory, he thought it'd be an issue — the commercial trade of elephant ivory has been banned in the United States since 2016.

    "I looked it up and found its saving grace — it's mammoth ivory, not elephant ivory, which you can sell," Locklin said, pointing out that the mammoth elephant has long been extinct.

    Photo by Mark Darrough from the Port City Daily Read more »
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    DriveThruRPG.com Newest Items

  • Tower of the Moon
    Tower of the MoonPublisher: Night Owl Workshop

    Tower of the Moon

    A classic style adventure of Gothic Horror for three to five 4th-6th level adventurers.

    A tall tower stands like a fang on a stark hill, silhouetted against the moon. The old folk say this hill was always sacred to the moon goddess Lukariel Sherikira, the Howling Huntress, patron of love, hunting, dance, and wolves. A generation ago, upon becoming high priestess of Lukariel, the cleric Artesia dedicated a great chapel on this holy site, the Tower of the Moon. Artesia began taming the borderlands around it in her goddess’s name, with the help of her trusted henchman Mordark, a powerful magic user, and the aid of the pack of werewolves the goddess granted her. For a decade, Artesia ruled from the Tower of the Moon, and many youths and maidens were taken to serve in the temple as acolytes or transformed into wolves for her guardian pack.

    But the minstrels sing that Mordark grew jealous of his mistress, and asked to rule as an equal, or sought her hand in marriage. When she refused both advances, the mage instead created a simulacrum of snow and magic in her shape, to replace her with it, and rule her domain with an icy puppet at his side. However, Artesia discovered his plot, and in her wrath sentenced Mordark to be torn apart by her werewolves. But Mordark had drunk a potion of silver dust and wolfsbane. The feasting werewolves, maddened by this poison, went berserk, turning against their mistress and her acolytes. The tower filled with howls and screams. Tales say that all perished in the struggle, the frenzied wolves even turning against their pack mates and devouring one another; only a few servants escaped to tell the tale, and recall Mordark’s dying words to Artesia before he was eaten alive: “if I could not share the Tower of the Moon beside you in life, I do so in death...”

    Today, the Tower of the Moon is a monster-haunted ruin, its shadow falling over dark forest and desolate wilderness. Only the brave or foolish dare its secrets.

    Price: $3.00 Read more »
  • Strongholds of the Dragonlord | 20x30 Battlemap [BUNDLE]
    Strongholds of the Dragonlord | 20x30 Battlemap [BUNDLE]Publisher: Seafoot Games
    This special bundle product contains the following titles.


    Seafoot Games - Dragon Lord’s Crumbling Throne | 20x30 Battlemap
    Regular price: $2.99
    Bundle price:
     $1.00
    Format:
     PDF
    Dragon Lord’s Crumbling Throne This ancient crumbling hall once belonged to the giants of old, but more recently has been taken over by a bandit king. He calls himself the Dragon Lord due to use his of dragons in his raiding conquests. The inner sanctum holds the treasures from his raiding expeditions among the crumbling rocks and hundreds of wooden crates. Quarters for his two lieutenants lie side by side off the main hallway which once served as the entrance to this place. One carries weapons of war. Armor, swords and axes. While the other carries knowledge of the occult and magics of the world. The main hall contains the throne above a set of stairs so that the Dragon Lord may look out on his subordinates, around him are thousands of gold coins and chests containing ...

    Seafoot Games - Dragon Lord’s Temple | 20x30 Battlemap
    Regular price: $2.99
    Bundle price:
     $1.00
    Format:
     PDF
    Dragon Lord’s Temple This ancient crumbling temple once belonged to the giants of old, but more recently has been taken over by a bandit king. He calls himself the Dragon Lord due to use his of dragons in his raiding conquests. The inner sanctum holds the treasures from his raiding expeditions among the crumbling rocks and hundreds of wooden crates. Quarters for his two lieutenants lie side by side off the main hallway. One carries weapons of war. Armor, swords and axes. While the other carries knowledge of the occult and magics of the world. The main hall contains the throne above a set of stairs so that the Dragon Lord may look out on his subordinates. Around him are thousands of gold coins and chests containing his favorite spoils. Six stone statues watch over the ha...

    Seafoot Games - Dragon Lord’s Throne | 20x30 Battlemap
    Regular price: $2.99
    Bundle price:
     $1.00
    Format:
     PDF
    Dragon Lord’s Throne This ancient crumbling hall once belonged to the giants of old, but more recently has been taken over by a bandit king. He calls himself the Dragon Lord due to use his of dragons in his raiding conquests. The inner sanctum holds the treasures from his raiding expeditions among the crumbling rocks and hundreds of wooden crates. Quarters for his two lieutenants lie side by side off the main hallway. One carries weapons of war. Armor, swords and axes. While the other carries knowledge of the occult and magics of the world. The main hall contains the throne above a set of stairs so that the Dragon Lord may look out on his subordinates. Around him are thousands of gold coins and chests containing his favorite spoils. Six stone statues watch over the hall...

    Seafoot Games - Mausoleum of the Dragon Lord | 20x30 Battlemap
    Regular price: $2.99
    Bundle price:
     $1.00
    Format:
     PDF
    Mausoleum of the Dragon Lord This ancient crumbling mausoleum was created by the giants of old, a gift to the mortal men that lost their lives fighting in the war of the stone, over a hundreds of years ago. It is said that the mortal men would ride great scaled beasts through the skies. And that the Dragon Lord was the king of the human realms and the rider of the great dragon Veross, who stories say still lives onto this day in the deep woods of this vary forest. The inner sanctum holds the tomb of the Dragon Lord and six of his commanders, as well as other important human figures from the war, their bodies placed in well crafted sarcophagi that have over time been damaged by the crumbling ceilings. Six stone statues watch over the hall, holding swords carved in the style of ...

    Seafoot Games - Tomb of the Dragon Lord | 20x30 Battlemap
    Regular price: $2.99
    Bundle price:
     $0.99
    Format:
     PDF
    Tomb of the Dragon Lord This ancient crumbling tomb was created by the giants of old, a gift to the mortal men that lost their lives fighting in the war of the stone, over a hundreds of years ago. It is said that the mortal men would ride great scaled beasts through the skies. And that the Dragon Lord was the king of the human realms and the rider of the great dragon Veross, who stories say still lives onto this day in the deep woods of Arlak. The inner sanctum holds the tomb of the Dragon Lord and six of his commanders, as well as other important human figures from the war, their bodies placed in well crafted sarcophagi that have over time been damaged by the crumbling ceilings. Six stone statues watch over the hall, holding swords carved in the style of the ancient giants. ...


    Total value:$14.95
    Special bundle price:$4.99
    Savings of:$9.96 (67%)
    Price: $14.95 Read more »
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    Gnome Stew

  • Exploring Encounter Theory: How to Craft RPG Adventures
    Exploring Encounter Theory: How to Craft RPG Adventures

    Want to write better adventures?

    Want to prep more efficiently?

    Sick of players skipping all of your best content?

    Prep Smarter, Not Harder, with Encounter Theory

    Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Workbook is a fresh way to look at adventure design by Ben Riggs, the voice of the Ennie-Nominated Plot Points podcast. Using his background in teaching and adventure review, he dissects what we think of as an adventure and helps us get to the core of what makes a one great—the encounter.

    Adventure Craft and You

    How did you learn to write tabletop adventures for your players? You’ve had creative writing assignments in English, maybe even taken a course in creative writing. Perhaps, you started by delving into old D&D modules or stared at the cloudlike white space of a sheet of paper until a story began to form. But, what are the steps? Where are the instructions on how to do this? Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure?

    Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure?

    But Pete, I’ve run many great adventures!

    Sure, but how did you do it? How do you write a good adventure, can you explain it? Better yet, can you show me how? A good GM can make the best of a badly written adventure just as they can homebrew their favorite system to work for any setting. It doesn’t have to be perfect to pass for fun. As GMs, we get SO good at improvising, that we can work with “good enough”. But, do you really want to settle for “good enough” adventures?

    Principles to Adventure By

    Why the encounter, because the encounter is the core experience of play and our most quantifiable unit. As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play.

    As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play.
    Each encounter or scene feeds the player a description of the setting and the characters, something for the players to mentally chew on. Then, narrative control shifts as players are free to act on that description, often begging the question, what do you do? That’s the moment all of this work goes from prep to play.

    Description is the BIG word there. Adventure writing is hard, mostly because we drown the reader in it or offer too little, too generic, to capture the mood. Arguably, the greatest feature of Encounter Theory is that it can help a GM narrow down just how much description we should apply in adventure design.

    Guiding Principles of Encounter Theory Design:
    • Face the Player and Free the Player
    • Present Problems Not Solutions
    • Use the Dungeon as Adventure Structure
    • Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description

    Encounter Theory is a method of efficiently focusing GMs on creating adventure plans that are ONLY player facing and that maximize player agency. Unlike other mediums of fiction, tabletop roleplaying is collaborative. So, providing any description that is not actionable for a player at the table is a waste of your prep time, as it doesn’t fit how the content is used (excess location history or long NPC backstories). Players need specific descriptive information that is short and sensory. They need to be provided description in a way that their characters can interpret (smell, sight, touch, hear, feel). Anything that does not help a player understand a situation through their character is more to read, more to say, and ultimately, more to delay play. Players come to play!

    Unlike writing short stories, the narrative of where play goes should be decided by the players, not the Game Master. A GM should present problems but avoid presenting solutions. That’s not to say that you can’t help players if they get stuck in the fog. It is to say that players should be free to create solutions and find their own way to the next encounter, their own way through the adventure. We have the freedom to explore endless options to solving problems, why limit ourselves to a few dialogue options like some sort of a video game.

    What Does This Look Like

    Imagine the model of a dungeon for your game session, plot plan, or campaign storyline. Players begin their adventure at its start with a call to action. As the GM, you set the scene, describing where they are, what’s going on, and a problem for them to fix. No matter how they go about solving their problem, there is a clue, a lead, to have them visit the next room, the next encounter. A series of encounters act as rooms leading to the climax, boss fight, or final revelation.

    Encounter Theory helps a GM create only as much information as is necessary, minimizing prep, and helping players to get to play faster. It trims down the size of adventures, so that we as GMs can get to running them faster. It helps to focus GMs on player facing information that is immersive (five senses) and to the point. When writing RPG adventures you shouldn’t be writing novels. We’ve learned how to write short stories, maybe even written books, but writing adventures isn’t the same. They are imaginary sandboxes put out for our players to play with, and for the GM to revel in. Save time and focus on your players. Give them what they need to find their fun!

    Want to Know More

    For more on Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Handbook, pick up a copy at DriveThruRPG. The book offers a variety of playplans (as seen in images throughout) to help you put these principles into practice for a variety of settings and situations. Use the Adventure Starter to develop adventure ideas, the Opponent Starter to create worthy adversaries, the list goes on and on. Ben even includes a 5E adventure laid out as an example or for your use at the table. For more on Ben Riggs, adventure design, and his work chronicling TSR, download an episode of Plot Points.

    What did Ben miss?

    How would you add to Encounter Theory?

    How did you learn adventure design? 

    Read more »
  • Camdon Turned Me Into A Vampire–The Introduction
    Camdon Turned Me Into A Vampire–The Introduction

    One day, a few weeks ago, I received a message from the incomparable Camdon Wright. Camdon asked me if I would be interested in looking at Thousand Year Old Vampire, a single player “journaling” RPG by Tim Hutchings, Kickstarted in November of 2018.

    When I started reading through the PDF, I was seized with a cold and compelling thought. My greatest regret is that I cannot always playtest the games I am reviewing. This thought clouded my brain, burrowing deep into my consciousness, and caused me to focus on a singular aspiration—I could play this game!

    This is when I realized that I was doomed. Camdon had turned me into a vampire.

    Content Warnings

    I’m not planning on spending too much time on the potentially problematic aspects of the questions in this game, but I did want to issue a warning up front. The game intentionally asks you some hard questions, and puts you in bad situations where your vampire is likely to do terrible things.

    Because the prompts ask you pointed questions to determine your skills, resources, and contacts, when they reference these items that you have generated, you must resolve questions through the lens of the skills and resources you have. This often means that when all you have is a hammer, every mortal looks like a nail.

    While I’m not planning on making the choices too detailed, the game does funnel you towards the consequences of immortality and losing touch with humanity, so it may touch on some issues like the cheapening of human life, resolving threats through violence, and other events in the vampire’s history.

    How Does it Work?

    The game asks you a number of questions to establish your character, including the generation of skills, resources, memories, mortals, and immortals in the story.

    You can only have five total memories, with three experiences under each memory. Your experiences are essentially the answers to the questions that you generate from the prompts. Eventually, you start to lose memories. You can start a journal to save memories, but the journal is a physical object that you can lose, and those memories, once saved, aren’t really “part” of you anymore.

    Various prompts will ask you to spend resources or check off skills to resolve a situation. That means that if you only have a specific skill to resolve something, you need to answer the prompt in a manner that incorporates that skill.

    You roll d10 and subtract d6 from this, and this tells you how many prompts to jump ahead. The further forward in the prompts that you move, the closer you get to a question that essentially draws an end to the story of your vampire.

    Inspiration

    How did I come up with my starting point? If you know me, if you give me infinite options, I will spend infinite time trying to narrow down my options. To break this loop, I looked up an event exactly a thousand years from the date I was generating my vampire.

    The event I found in 1019 was Yaroslav I becoming the Grand Prince of Kiev with the help of the Novgorodians and Varangian mercenaries. This particular event jumped out at me for one reason—Godbrand, the Viking vampire from the Castlevania animated series on Netflix (voiced by Peter Stormare) was one of my favorite characters in the series. Viking vampire it is!

    Our Vampire

    We’re going to wrap things up by summarizing the vampire I created from the initial prompts in the game. As I answered questions, here is what developed:

    Skills

    • Killing with heavy weapons
    • Enduring hardships on the road
    • Knowing what business partners to trust

    Resources

    • My loyal troops
    • My hoard of gold
    • The goodwill of other Varangian mercenaries

    Mortals

    • Ranssi—the broker that found our band and made us wealthy as mercenaries
    • Anichka—the woman I have fallen in love with in Kiev, that my friends fear has made me soft
    • Konstantin—the Novgorodian soldier that causes trouble and hates my men as outsiders

    Immortal

    • The Black Wolf—a supernaturally large wolf that savaged me in the woods, and left me for dead. It is part of the local legends that all of us assumed was but a story to scare children.

    Marks

    • My fangs are always present

    Memory #1

    • Experience #1

      I am Jorgrimr, son of Julfir, come to Kiev to help the Great Prince secure his throne, for the promise of gold.

    Memory #2

    • Experience #1

      When my gold is delivered, I buy a lavish home in Kiev for Anichka, and possibly for myself.

    Memory #3

    • Experience #1

      After the city is secured, Konstantin’s troops threaten us, but Ranssi calms everyone with his words.

    Memory #4

    • Experience #1

      The mercenaries we saved last month come to our aid, and there is great friendship after the battle

    Memory #5

    • Experience #1

      I travel into the wilderness to duel with Konstantin, to rid myself of him. Instead, a huge black wolf savages me, and I inherit its fangs.

    Future Installments
    I am already worried that the prompts are going to tear my heart out as I deal with my bonds to my fellow mercenaries and Anichka.

    In this first article, I wanted to focus on just the creation of my vampire. I am already worried that the prompts are going to tear my heart out as I deal with my bonds to my fellow mercenaries and Anichka. I’m already hoping the people closest to me end up just . . . drifting away, rather than facing what I have become, and what that means for them. Tragedy right from the start!

    Journaling Games

    While we’re talking about journaling games, have you ever played one before? Which one? Did you feel like sharing that journal, or was it something that felt deeply personal when you finished? Has playing a journaling game every given you ideas for other games that you might be playing or running?

    As always, we would love to hear about this in the comments below. I’ll be looking for your responses. From the shadows. Hungrily. Are my teeth growing?

    Camdon!

    Read more »
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    RPGWatch Newsfeed

  • Vaporum - Vaporum Review
    Forgottenlor checks out the dungeon crawler Vaporum. Since the success of The Legend of Grimrock in 2012, many indie developers have tried their hand at making a first-person grid based dungeon crawler with varied success. While Vaporum might look like a Grimrock clone at first glance, it does enough different to stand on its own feet.... Read more »
  • Ni no Kuni - Review @ Gamerant
    Gamerant has reviewed Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remaster: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remaster Review Despite having a bit of a disappointing sequel, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a JRPG that has already established itself as a classic in the genre.... Read more »
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    Sly Flourish

  • Running Downtime Sessions

    Most of our Dungeons & Dragons games focus on exploration, roleplaying, and combat. We typically describe time in minutes and hours for exploration and roleplaying and seconds during combat. Sometimes, though, our characters find themselves with a lot more time on their hands. After recovering a damaged ship, the characters find themselves with a week in Saltmarsh to investigate leads, run errands, talk to NPCs, and engage in other activities.

    Sessions like these, called Breather Episodes in TV tropes, extend the scope of our game from minute and hours to days and weeks. They're not the typical sort of D&D game we're used to running. They can be, however, an interesting change of pace in our games and bring a lot to the story we're sharing around the table.

    Here are some quick tips for running great downtime sessions:

    • Let your players know ahead of time that a downtime scene or session is going to take place so they can prepare for it.
    • Suggest to the players that they read about downtime activities in chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook and chapter 2 of Xanathar's Guide to Everything.
    • Read up on downtime activities yourself in the above chapters and in chapter 6 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
    • Write down a handful of custom downtime activities for the characters' current location and place in the story.
    • Prepare some secrets and clues to fuel your downtime activities.

    Suggestions from Twitter

    In preparation for this article I asked folks on Twitter for their best tips for running downtime sessions. You can read the whole D&D downtime twitter thread here. There were a lot of responses to this query and they tended to fall in a few different groups:

    • Let the players know ahead of time that downtime is coming.
    • Feel free to run some downtime events away from the table.
    • Hand the world over to the players.
    • Define downtime options.
    • Frame events.
    • Clarify hooks.
    • If you and your group isn't into them, skip them completely.

    We'll dig into a few of these as we discuss how to make the most of downtime sessions in our D&D game.

    Reviewing the Core Books

    When considering a topic like this it always helps to go back to the core books and see what they have to say on the subject.

    Chapter 8 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook includes descriptions of various downtime activities characters can perform when they've returned to town, immediate threats have subsided, and time in our game's world stretches out. We can recommend to our players that they read up on downtime activities in the Player's Handbook if we think we're going to be running a downtime session in the near future.

    Chapter 6 of the Dungeon Master's Guide likewise gets into this topic, offering advice for DMs on how to run such sessions. This is a good section for us DMs to review before we run downtime sessions.

    Finally, Xanathar's Guide to Everything extends these downtime activities in Chapter 2 with optional downtime rules for rivals, selling magic items, crafting, carousing, pit fighting, and more.

    These are all excellent sections of the core book to review before we run our own downtime sessions. These books really are packed with a lot of the information we need.

    Let Players Know Ahead of Time

    I recently ran an eleven-session campaign of Shadow of the Demon Lord. One of the interesting things I did was to run every session as a full adventure, beginning with at least two days of downtime since the previous. Thus, when we began each session, we'd go around the table and figure out what the characters did in the time between sessions. The players all knew this structure ahead of time so they had time to think about what their characters might be doing. These sessions also tended to focus on the profession of the character instead of their classes or focused on how the character advanced since the last session.

    This format worked well throughout the entire campaign and I believe it did so because the players knew we were having a downtime scene at the beginning of every session.

    Players probably expect traditional adventures when they sit down at our table. They're ready to hear about the quest they're going to go on and then get into the action. They're not likely thinking about what their character might do if they had a week off. Probably the best thing we can do to run a smooth downtime session is to let players know ahead of time that a downtime session or scene is coming. This gives the players ample time to think about what their character might do if they had a week to themselves. If they have any personal goals or activities tied to their backgrounds, this is the time to bring it up. If they expect they're heading down into a dungeon, they're not likely to worry about visiting their mother or commissioning a new suit of armor.

    Define Downtime Activities

    We love D&D because it's generally open ended. We don't know what is going to happen and we don't know what twists and turns the story may take. Players have many options when it comes to the actions of their characters. These options can sometimes be paralyzing which is why we're comfortable with a bunch of characters in a dungeon. Those halls and doorways give us a nice finite number of options.

    Those options fall away in downtime sessions taking place in towns or cities. The number of options are generally endless and that can be completely paralyzing.

    We can help our players out by defining some clear options. These don't need to be the only options; players are free to choose their own; but a handful of default choices can help players who might not otherwise have ideas in mind.

    We can stick to five to seven options, some general and some tailored to the adventure, location, or even the character themselves.

    Custom downtime activities can help tie characters to the story. Beyond the suggestions in the Player's Handbook we can add a handful of new ones and offer them up as suggestions. Here are some example activities for my [Ghosts of Saltmarsh] game:

    • Research the Black Hunger (an ink-black whale that sunk many ships).
    • Meet the local wizard Keledek.
    • Pick up rumors at the Empty Net.
    • Hunting for Ned Shakeshaft, the elusive spy.
    • Conduct ceremonies at the druid's grove or the temple of Procan.
    • Research the Endless Nadir.

    The players are, of course, free to come up with their own activities beyond these. Our goal is to offer some structure when players might not otherwise have something in mind.

    Secrets and Clues: Your Fuel for Meaningful Downtime

    A lot of options for downtime lead to the discovery of new information. As they can in many areas of our D&D games, listing out a number of secrets and clues can help you drop in useful bits of information in many different contexts during a downtime session. Carousing, meeting local contacts, or conducting research can all serve as vehicles for secrets and clues.

    If you're running a downtime session, you may want to use more than the standard ten secrets and clues recommended in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Since a good piece of the session may revolve around learning such secrets and clues, you want to have a lot of secrets ready.

    Adding Small Adventures

    Even when running a downtime session adventure may find the characters. Perhaps they hear about someone lost in the sewers beneath the city. Maybe they heard about bandits lurking around the burnt-out ruins of the waystation outside of town. Maybe there's an ancient crypt beneath an old knotted tree behind the crabshack, one from which madmen hear voices begging them for release. Even in the middle of a downtime session our players may want their characters to switch back to adventure mode and engage in one of these small adventures and who are we to say no?

    Keep a handful of maps to small lairs handy to support such small adventures. Dyson's maps, the maps in the back of the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the lazy lairs in the Lazy DM's Workbook can help you improvise such small adventures in the middle of your downtime sessions.

    A Different Type of D&D

    Both players and DMs tend to think about D&D within the context of exploration, roleplaying, and combat. Downtime scenes are their own kind of scene; different from the others. The extended amount of time in such scenes and the nearly unlimited options of activities set them apart from our typical group-based adventures. Running downtime scenes without the proper preparation can lead to slow, boring, and frustrating sessions. With some preparation, however, downtime scenes can end up defining the characters and building the story more than any other scene in our game.

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  • The Case for Static Monster Damage

    This article has been updated from the original written in November 2015.

    The Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition Monster Manual includes static damage as the default in every monsters' stat block and yet 90% of us still roll for damage. The 40 year tradition of rolling for monster damage is a hard habit to break and many have no intention of doing so. This is, of course, perfectly fine. In this article, however, I'll make the case for using static damage values for monster attacks.

    Static Damage Speeds Up Combat

    Combat speed isn't a critical factor in the fifth edition of D&D like it was with the fourth edition but we can always trim out parts of our game that aren't as vital to the story unfolding at our table. Rolling for monster damage may be one of those parts. Rolling only attack rolls, even when compared to rolling attacks and damage together, is much faster than rolling both attack and damage rolls. It isn't just about the roll, it's also about the math. Some of us are really good at doing quick addition in our head but its still not as fast as reciting a number we already have in front of us.

    Other independent RPGs such as 13th Age and Numenera have moved to static monster damage not only as the default but as the only method of quantifying monster damage. Those of us who have played these games have seen it work well.

    There's also an advantage in needing less dice. I've carried a small set of Easy Roller metal dice in my on-the-go DM bag for a while now and I've never need more dice than the seven in that little box (I replaced the percentile die with another d20 for advantage and disadvantage). A simple kit means I can spend more time thinking about the world and less time fumbling around with a giant bag of dice. Blasphemy for some, I am sure, but sometimes we must let old gods die.

    While combat length is no longer the problem it once was, using static monster damage is a quick and easy way to speed up our game and put our minds where it belongs—in the story.

    It's Within the Rules

    Take a look at Monster Manual stat block and you'll notice that the static damage is outside the parentheses with the dice equation on the inside of the parentheses. The implication is that the static damage number is the default rule but, of course, you can roll the equation if you want. Most do. You'll notice that hit points are the same way. How many people roll for a monster's hit points? I'd bet hardly any. How many roll for monster damage? Nine in ten. Why? Because it's what we're used to.

    If you think using average monster damage is against the rules, it isn't. It's right there on the page. If you think it goes against the spirit of the game, you might consider that the spirit has changed across editions. Rolling for monster damage isn't as important as it used to be.

    No One Cares

    The easiest argument to make for using static monster damage is that, generally, no one really cares. Players love to see the variance in their own damage but they tend not to pay much attention to how well a monster's damage roll went. If things are really down to the wire they might pay attention to how many hits they have left but unless its right on the edge, it still doesn't matter.

    "My players will metagame" is a common argument I've heard as I proselytize the use of static monster damage but I don't think it happens that often and, when it does, I don't think it matters that much. If you do see your players continually metagaming monster damage, ask yourself if it really matters that much. They can guess the average amount of damage anyway if they're already paying attention. If the metagaming gets bad, you might have a bigger problem going on. Why aren't the players drawn into the story? And, of course, you can always switch back to dice damage if you want to.

    Rolling attack rolls matters a lot. There's a whole lot of variance in that 1d20 roll. There's far less variance in that 6d6 + 7 that a fire giant rolls for damage. Make your life easier and stick to the 28. Focus more of your attention on the story going in on the game and the descriptions of the world as it unfolds and less on the math.

    Handling Crits

    How do you handle critical hits when using static damage? Given its infrequency, this isn't a bad time to pull out the dice. If a monster has a static damage score of "9 (1d8 + 4)" and rolls a critical hit, just roll the extra 1d8 you would have rolled on a hit. On a crit, roll whatever dice are listed in the equation. If you happen to know the average of each die (rounded down), you can use that instead but only if it is actually faster than rolling. It's probably easiest is just to roll the die.

    -3 + 1d6

    If you want to add a little bit of variance to your damage rolls, you can use the Chris Perkins trick of subtracting 3 from the static damage amount and adding the results of a single 1d6 roll. A fire giant's attack might do 25 + 1d6 instead of the static 27. Honestly, I'm not sure that matters very much and at that point we're back to rolling dice which defeats much of the advantage we had with static damage in the first place. Its one option, however, if we're worried about too little variance.

    Tune Monster Damage On the Fly

    One other huge advantage of static damage is that we can tune monster damage on the fly based on the story and pacing. We can use the listed average but we don't have to. When I spoke with Jeremy Crawford on the DM's Deep Dive he mentioned that we are free to tune monster damage within the listed dice range, including maxing it out if we desire. This lets us tune monsters as we're running the game to hit the right level of danger when needed. That fire giant's 27 points of damage seems scary. You know what's scarier? A fire giant hitting for 43 damage every hit. That's scary.

    In my experience, many of the higher challenge rating monsters don't hit nearly hard enough to threaten higher level characters. Maxing out their damage is an easy trick to increase their threat where it should be.

    Sure, you can add more dice to a damage roll to get the same effect but players will notice and the swing is going to change a lot. Adding another 6d6 onto a fire giant's attack gives you the same general average damage but now the fire giant is hitting for 12d6 + 7 and that might have too high an upper threshold.

    Give It A Try

    Even after reading this you might still be apprehensive about using static damage for monsters. It might not feel right to you after all those years rolling monster damage. If you really don't want to use it, you certainly don't have to. You might give it a try. Maybe use it on a battle with a lot of enemies whose damage variance is largely inconsequential. See how it feels.

    Like me, and like many others who have since switched over to static monster damage, you just might start to like it.

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