- Video● Time for the SPIEL '18 Re-Broadcast with Game Demo Videos Galore!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!
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- Designer Diary: The Great City of Rome, or How Long Did You Say Rome Was Gonna Take Again?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! —Brett
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.
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!
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?)
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 not...as 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.
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!)
•••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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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- Game Industry Happenings: Goliath Buys, Buffalo Sells, Dietz Founds, and Kovaleski Founds Monster Fight ClubGale Force Nine, the company that he founded and ran for twenty years. Kovaleski is joined by fellow veteran GF9 game designer Aaron Dill (co-credited with the game design of most of the GF9 gaming range) and former GF9 operations expert Peter Przekop, who has been in the hobby game industry for over twenty years. Asked why they've split from GF9, Przekop (who serves as spokesperson for MFC) said, "Our departure from Battlefront/Gale Force Nine was completely amicable. There were some factors regarding our office space in Virginia that required some action, and we felt it would be a good time to split off from the company and focus on our own projects and ideas."
In addition to developing its own hobby game products, Monster Fight Club is forming an in-house digital design studio and a master-class resin casting facility and is partnering with other hobby game and entertainment companies to provide creative and manufacturing services.
As for previously announced titles from GF9, Przekop said, "I can no longer officially speak for Gale Force Nine, but I know that they have a robust schedule of games and game expansions to release and future plans for other games. Our Virginia-based design team has long completed work on crew expansions for Firefly Adventures and the new board game, D&D Vault of Dragons. Before we left the company, we completed designs for two-player expansions for Star Trek: Ascendancy as well as work on a small expansion for another GF9 board game. (I don't know what they have announced, so I don't want say what it is.) Work on the Doctor Who expansions and the Aliens game [Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps!] was being handled by another team within the company, so our departure should have no effect on those projects. We're excited to see all of those projects on the tabletop upon their eventual release."
Jolly Roger Games in 1996, sold the company to Ultra PRO in 2015, then subsequently left that company when, in his words, "my ideas for how to run a business didn't jive with the person hired to 'supervise' me". Rather than start a new game publishing company, in July 2018 Dietz founded the non-profit The Dietz Foundation. Here's what he has in mind for this new venture:
The intention of the Foundation is to promote education through scholarship endowments, funds to schools for purchasing alternative materials for education, and hopefully in the near-future, funds for teachers/school administrators to go to conferences to learn how to use games, group projects, etc. in new ways — because the world is constantly changing.
I want to do that through producing games and books — just like a normal publisher. The difference is that the profits aren't going into my pocket — they are going back out there to do good.
completed its purchase of jigsaw puzzle and board game manufacturer Buffalo Games for an undisclosed amount. From the press release:
Mason Wells, along with Nagendra Raina, Chief Executive Officer of Buffalo Games, and other members of the management team, acquired the business from the founders, Paul and Eden Dedrick...
Founded in 1986, Buffalo Games is the largest manufacturer of jigsaw puzzles in the U.S. and a leading provider of party and board games for adults, children, and families. The Company designs and manufactures millions of puzzles each year at its Buffalo, New York headquarters...
"The last few years we have seen Buffalo Games achieve rapid success in both the board game and jigsaw puzzle categories across the retail landscape and, in particular, with mass market and online retailers. Buffalo Games' biggest asset is our team and innovative culture that nurtures creativity and consumer engagement in a fast-paced and fun environment," said Raina. "This partnership with Mason Wells will continue to accelerate growth and open up new opportunities for us. Importantly, it will allow us to extend our strong innovation and growth platform, and further strengthen our deep relationships with our retailers, licensors & inventors. This is an exciting time to be a Buffalo Gamer."
Goliath Games has acquired MacDue Toys & Games, which was founded in 1980 (the same year as Goliath) and which the press release describes as "one of the top ten companies in the Italian toy market". An excerpt from the press release:
Goliath and MacDue are pleased to announce their cooperation for the Italian market. Goliath, global leader in the toy and game industry, has decided to invest strategically on the Italian market, relying on the distribution expertise of MacDue Spa, a company with a history of toy & game distribution for over 40 years.
"We are delighted to welcome MacDue's team to the Goliath family. Having done business together already for many years, they are an excellent fit for us, similar family business principles and with already many products that we also sell in the rest of the world. With our recent acquisitions and European success, it made perfect sense to take this step", said Adi Golad, founder of Goliath. MacDue, currently the exclusive distributor for Italy of the Maisto, Bburago, Polistil and Rubik's brands, will support the launching of Goliath Italy in the distribution of the vast Goliath portfolio — including Otto il Maialotto, Mr Ficcanaso, Acchiappa il Coniglio, Triominos, Sequence, Rubik's Cube and "Essere o non Essere".
• In mid-September 2018, UK publisher Games Workshop announced that it had signed a lease for its five hundredth "Warhammer and Games Workshop" store. From the announcement:
Read more »It's been a busy few years for our stores, with dozens of new shops popping up across the globe, in Europe, Asia and America, including the much-anticipated opening of the Warhammer Citadel in Texas.
This new 500th Warhammer store will be located in Hong Kong, China, situated in the Amoy Plaza shopping centre.
- Lucca Comics & Games 2018 I: Cleopatra Returns, The Dutch Prevail, and Costumes AboundLucca Comics & Games fair in Lucca, Italy started only three days after SPIEL ended, so I made the short hop from Düsseldorf to northern Italy to take in this fair once again.
The experience differed greatly from what I encountered in 2017 — covered in three reports here, here, and here — partly because I had already encountered the show once and knew what to expect (reminiscent of why I think it's so important to play games more than once prior to reviewing them!) and mostly because rain on the first three days of the fair kept me and my family saying, "We'll go the next day" repeatedly until we finally did attend on Saturday, and hoo boy, was the show ever crowded!
The train from Florence was jam-packed before we even left the station, with me harassing people to move their bags from the seat so that my mother- and father-in-law could sit. Did you pay for a ticket for your bag? I don't think so, signore, so move it and make way for Nana!
My son Traver and I found seats after the third stop when some folks departed, but from that point on the train got only more crowded, filled with jedi, anime heroes, alien creatures, and Hogwarts students from every house. If J.K. Rowling gets a cut of every wand, scarf, and robe sold, then the HP books could disappear from store shelves and she'd still be set for life. When I attended Lucca in 2017, I went on my own, so I didn't recognize many of the anime characters around me, but now my son could point out everyone from Naruto, One Piece, Fairy Tale, and many other manga and anime series. As he said later, he didn't care about missing Halloween in the U.S. because it was way more fun watching adults dress up in far better costumes at Lucca.
Once off the train, you shuffled through the streets following the cosplay crowd, several people wearing costume-style onesies, and many more people wearing "normal" clothes to the fair's main entrance. You didn't have to buy a ticket to enter the Lucca Comics & Games fair because the event takes place across the entire city center of Lucca, which is surrounded by the remnants of walls from Renaissance times. If you wish, you can walk the city for free people-watching, but to enter the fenced-off locations of the fair that contain Japantown, the games hall, and the other specialized exhibits, you needed to buy a ticket (€19-21 for those ten and over, free for younger attendees).
Inside the game hall, I found a layout reminiscent of what I saw in 2017: game publishers occupying roughly three-fifths of the hall, with role-playing publishers, fantasy artists, retailers, video game publishers, and tchotchke sellers splitting the rest of the space.
Two new booths stood out from everything else: Z-Man Games was hosting the 2018 Pandemic Survival World Championship during the Lucca fair, and game designer Matt Leacock was on hand to observe. (Leacock noted that the challenges during these events are designed in-house by Z-Man and not by him as they used to be, mostly because Z-Man wants to give him the opportunity to focus on designing new games instead of one-off scenarios.)
I was on hand for the start of the third round of play, with eight teams of two being introduced to applause from the crowd (with cheers on behalf of the Italian home team). One interesting holdover from the previous ownership of Z-Man Games by Canadian Sophie Gravel is that Canada holds separate events for English speakers and French speakers — and the winners of each of those events were still in competition for the grand prize at this stage of the tournament. Perhaps someday the tournament will end with an all-Canada finalé, leading players from other countries to protest for an equal shot at winning, but in 2018 the Dutch team prevailed, following near disaster in the second round as Leacock watched them on the verge of elimination for turn after turn after turn until they turned things around.
The other new booth that proved to be a huge draw was an area reserved for artists to create new works in front of an audience, with those works then scheduled to be auctioned for charity. I walked by the booth several times, and at least a half-dozen artists seemed to be at work each time, a crowd around them admiring the work. Plenty of artists had separate booths where they sold prints and books of their work, but this booth stood out as a way to watch someone exhibit their skill in real time — which is not something that game designers could do in a similar way.
As for the new games being sold and demoed at Lucca, many of them had just debuted at SPIEL '18 the week beforehand, but now they were being sold in Italian by Italian publishers who had far larger stands at Lucca than they had at SPIEL. In Essen, for example, Giochi Uniti had two new games — Gnomeland and Monstrite — that were a focal point of their booth, but in Lucca they had those two titles, along with Italian versions of many other new games, not to mention an extensive back catalog of games as well as a separate shed filled with games at clearance prices.
In Essen, dV Giochi is always located within the ABACUSSPIELE booth and practically invisible if you aren't looking for it, whereas in Lucca dV Giochi had an enormous stand with many more titles than the Catalyst and new Deckscape game seen in Essen. You want new SPIEL '18 releases Forum Trajanum, Cuzco, U.S. Telegraph, and more in Italian? Then you'll find them waiting in the dV Giochi booth.
In terms of announcements of forthcoming games, I didn't see much that was new to me. CMON Limited, for example, was promoting several titles hitting the Italian market in late 2018 and throughout 2019, but I had already seen these games — Narcos, Wacky Races, Trudvang Legends, Sugar Blast — at the press event during Gen Con 2018 and some titles, such as Kick-Ass: The Board Game, were being touted as future releases despite being out in the U.S. While some parts of the international game market have moved toward simultaneous release, as with the dV Giochi titles mentioned above, other companies still roll out games in bits and pieces based on the specific demands of each potential marketplace.
One interesting aspect of the CMON booth is that it wasn't a CMON booth at all, but rather an Asmodee booth that featured titles from CMON Limited. In the U.S., CMON delivers its own games to a variety of distributors, whereas everywhere else (to the best of my knowledge) CMON partners with Asmodee for distribution, possibly due to Asmodee having purchased the main distributors in locations such as the UK, Germany, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries. Gamers in the U.S. might think of Asmodee and CMON as adversaries for market share and mindshare among gamers, but elsewhere the two work hand-in-hand as increasing sales of CMON titles outside the U.S. benefits Asmodee through the distribution side of its business.
Trudvang Chronicles RPG
One announcement that was new for me, and possibly for you as well, is that Italian publisher uplay.it edizioni is founding a new brand — Mojito Studios — for the publication of a new version of Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, a Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc design that first appeared from Days of Wonder in 2006.
This new version will feature artwork by Miguel Coimbra, and instead of using the box top for the base of the palace, players will build a 3D palace over the course of the game, adding elements to it to make it more complete. Creative director of uplay.it Giovanni Messina says that Cathala and Maublanc have been redesigning parts of the game based upon more than a decade's worth of feedback and additional design experience, and the company will start talking about the game in more detail at the Spielwarenmesse and FIJ conventions in early 2019 ahead of a mid-2019 Kickstarter campaign.
The Long Road, a new design by Stefania Niccolini and Marco Canetta, who are well-known for the far more involved Railroad Revolution and ZhanGuo. Here's an overview of this game:
In the old west of The Long Road, players have the difficult task of leading large herds of beef through prairies and highlands to the livestock markets. In the course of the journey, players try to guide the long caravan according to the most favorable route. Once they finally get to the destination, they split the proceeds from the sale. This division, however, doesn't happen fairly, but according to the rules of the far west: The best armed (or the smartest) takes most of the booty.
A player's turn takes place as follows:
• You MAY change your caravan cards.
• You MUST play one caravan card on a destination.
• You MAY play a character card if you didn't before on this destination.
• You MAY apply the effect of the caravan card.
• You MAY buy one weapon.
• You MAY assign weapons to one character.
• You MUST draw cards to refill your hand of three caravan cards.
When a destination is full, the sale takes place and the players get proceeds from the caravan cards based on the effects and values of the characters they've played, a value that could be increased by weapons. Then character cards are split as well.
The game continues until the fourth sale triggers the end. At that point, the richest player wins.
Messina told me that uplay.it has been in contact with multiple possible publishing partners for an English-language edition of The Long Road, but for now the game is available only in Italian. I'm taking a copy home with me from the show and hope to get a translation from the publisher in order to play at BGG.CON or elsewhere...
The other item from uplay.it edizioni is a new edition of Kramer and Ulrich's The Princes of Florence that appeared only in Italian at the end of 2017 with new art from Mirco Paganessi, metal coins, and a new look with the graphic design.
I have more to post about the games and publishers at Lucca 2018, but let's save that for the next post and wrap this report with a tiny sampling of the cosplay on display during the fair. The most audacious costume by perhaps only one was this:
Why do I label this the most audacious cosplay? Because this woman had an entire bed as part of her costume, and she was rolling it with her down the street!
There's a weird dissonance with many of these cosplayers, though, and that's the reaction of those who admire the work and want to post with the person. Here's the uncropped image of what's shown above:
Dude, you look awful happy to be posing with a demon-possessed little girl. What gives? This experience is repeated over and over again during Lucca as with these women who also posed with the faux-Regan. Note also the anime character behind the priest, the other anime character with green hair across the canal, the costumed man tending to his companion's sort feet behind the first anime character, and the woman with a dog in the stroller. That's the spirit of Lucca in one shot!
These two had a nice set-up, but I'm baffled by the heads floating above the hands instead of laying in them or in the crook of the arm. Am I missing a pop culture reference here?
I saw fewer Game of Thrones characters than I would have expected, but perhaps that's my fault since I've actually watched GoT and seen barely any anime relative to what's been released. Saw a few other Daenerys Targaryens around, including in line at the Il Trono di Spade booth, but no pics of them, alas.
My son seems indifferent to being turned by the Night King. Oh well.
The best way to attend such a fair in cosplay seems to be as part of a group. These folks memorialized their experience in Japantown prior to walking the streets.
More to come! Read more »
- Previews of IELLO's 2019 Line-Up: Little Town Builders, Legendary Forests, Bunny Kingdom: Cloud Kingdom, and Much MoreIELLO ran me through some of the titles they plan to release in 2019. Note that many of the games shown in this post do not have final graphics, and in many cases I'm giving only a sampling of the gameplay. BGG plans to be at the Festival International des Jeux in Cannes in February 2019, and by that time IELLO will be releasing some of these titles and have final or nearly-final versions of others that we can preview in more detail.
For now, though, we have overviews, as with this new version of Shun's Little Town Builders, first released in Japan in 2017 by Studio GG. The Little Town Builder, as this version is tentatively titled, features the same gameplay as the original release:
In Little Town Builders, you lead a team of architects and must dispatch workers to the town, collect resources and money, build buildings, and develop this little town.
In the game, which lasts four rounds, you can acquire resources such as wood, stones, fish, and wheat from the surrounding squares by putting workers on the board, with three workers being placed each round. When you place a worker, you acquire the resources available in all eight surrounding spaces. You can build buildings by using these resources, and you — or any other player — can gain the effect of the building when place a worker next to it; if you place next to a building owned by another, however, you must pay them a coin before you can collect those resources.
Players collect victory points by using the powers of buildings, by constructing buildings, and by achieving goals dealt to them at the beginning of the game. After four rounds, whoever has the most victory points wins.
• Legendary Forests is another JP design being reworked by IELLO for a new edition, with the original release having been Toshiki Sato's 8bit MockUp from his own Sato Familie brand in 2017. This design won a "Best Game" award from voters at Tokyo Game Market in December 2017. My description below is for the original game, but it's applicable to Legendary Forests as well if you replace "monument" with "tree" and make other word replacements
8bit MockUp is a multiplayer solitaire game akin to Take it Easy! or Karuba as each player has an identical set of tiles and plays the same tile at the same time to their own tableau — but where each player places each tile may differ...
In more detail, each player creates their own world by connecting the landscapes on their tiles. Each player starts the game with the same starting tile in play. One player, the "Leader", shuffles their tiles face down, then removes five tiles from play without looking at them. On a turn, the Leader reveals the next tile, calls out the number on it, then everyone places that same tile somewhere in their landscape, with the adjacent edges of each pair of tiles needing to match.
When the Leader draws a tile with a red number, everyone places their piece, then starting with the player who holds the God piece (initially the Leader), everyone draws a monument tile from the center of the playing area and places it on an area in their landscape. Monuments come in three colors (while the landscapes have areas in four colors), and you use only two monuments of a color for each player in the game. After placing monuments, pass the God piece clockwise to the next player.
The game ends after everyone has placed their twenty tiles, then players score points based on the areas where they have monuments. Each non-purple edge of a tile has a half-circle on it; when two such edges are placed together, the owner of those tiles has created a "cookie" in that area. To score, you look at each area where you have a monument. If you have no half-circles in this area — that is, the area is completely enclosed — then you score 2 points for each cookie in that area. If you have any unconnected half-circles in this area, you instead score 1 point per cookie. Whoever has the most points wins!
Richard Garfield's Bunny Kingdom will expand to new realms in February 2019 with the release of the Cloud Kingdom expansion, which includes new cards, new types of resources, a set of playing pieces that allow five bunnies to play in the same game, a larger type of building that increases your influence in that area by a factor of five, and a new game board to the world of Bunny Kingdom that allows you to link fiefs in the sky with those on land.
Kanagawa: Air for Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier's Kanagawa from 2016. This expansion includes cards and scoring elements for three new elements — kites, parasols, and paper lanterns — and to use them, you replace any two elements in the Kanagawa base game with two new elements.
Some of the cards in this expansion include a yokaï symbol that is visible whether you place the card in your painting or in your studio. When you place such a card, you take a yokaï marker from the reserve or from another player, and if you collect all three such markers, you receive a reward. You hope that someone else will claim them later, though, because players with yokaï markers at the end of the game lose points.
Topa Topa prototype, which puts its own twist on the genre by having players draft cards that they draw on their individual player board. The game lasts three rounds, and in each round you score for completing levels, using different shapes in your area, and doing other things as well. Coins allow you to break the rules for drafting and drawing.
8Bit Box, and in its press area it showed off 8Bit Box: Double Rumble, an expansion in development meant to simulate the fighting arcade games of old. In the game, players need to confront the bad guys facing them, either in a solitaire game or playing co-operatively with one other player, in order to defeat the boss at the final stage of the game.
High Risk, a 2-4 player game from Trevor Benjamin and Brett J. Gilbert, wasn't on display in the IELLO press room, but the game was included in its catalog and press file, so here's the little that I know about it:
In the press-your-luck game High Risk, you want to move your climbers up the mountain at the right pace without getting greedy and risking a fall...
LOKI, with Monsieur Carrousel being a Sara Zaria design (or perhaps a Sara Faria design depending on how you read the typeface) that will debut at the FIJ 2019 in Cannes in February. Here's what happens when you take the game for a spin:
Each turn in Monsieur Carrousel, the active player rolls the colored die. If a space of this color is open, you place a child disc in this space, with everyone trying to remember which object is under which child.
You then spin the carousel. If the child ends up on the yellow half of the game board, you pick up a yellow stick — representing a ray of sunshine — and place it in a trough on the board; most troughs need two sticks to fill, and if the stick doesn't fit the space exactly, then you place it back in the reserve, so pick carefully! If the child ends up in the gray half of the game board, then you instead add a raindrop to the board.
If you roll a color that has children in both spaces on the wheel, then you spin the carousel. If the clown on the game board is now pointing at a child, then you must successfully state what's under this disc. If you do, place a sun stick; otherwise place a raindrop. The game ends when either the sun comes out fully or rain covers the sky!
Monsieur Carrousel includes multiple image wheels for variety in gameplay.
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- Steph's Photo Guide to Spiel 2018!
by Steph HodgeSteph's Awesome Spiel Photo Guide 2018!
Tribes: Aufbruch Der Menschheit
Tokyo Highway (four-player edition)
Pandemic: Fall of Rome
Rising Sun: Kami Unbound
Caverna: Cave vs Cave – Era II: The Iron Age & Patchwork Express
BATTALIA: The Stormgates
Strange Vending Machine
Discovery: The Era of Voyage
Realm of Sand
A Pleasant Journey to Neko
UBOOT: The Board Game
Atlantis: Island of Gods
Cerebria: The Inside World
Magnificent Flying Machines
Founders of Gloomhaven
Walls of York
Adrenaline: Team Play DLC
Staka & Team UP!
Roll & Wall
The Great City of Rome
7 Wonders: Armada
Rolling Bandits & Once Upon a Castle
Slide Quest (Blue Orange Games 2019)
My First Adventure Book- Finding the Dragon (Blackrock)
Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra
Here Comes the Dog
Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy
7 Wonders: Armada
Tokyo Highway (four-player edition)
Tales of Glory
A Feast for
OdinAldie: The Norwegians
A Thief's Fortune
7 Wonders: Armada with Antoine Bauza
Crossroads of Heroes
The Tales of Ki-pataw
The Frog Kiss
Chocobo Party Up!
Robin Hood and the Merry Men
Architects of the West Kingdom
Passing Through Petra
KeyForge: Call of the Archons
Catch the Moon
Age of Civilization
DIG IT UP
Random Assortment of Con photos!
Always a line @ Feuerland Spiele
Thanks for joining me!
-Steph Read more »
- Designer Diary: Marvel Strike Teams, or A Marvel Zombie's Love Story
by Andrew Parks
Marvel Strike Teams is not a game about zombies, but it was designed by a zombie, specifically a Marvel Zombie, which I've been since the age of 5. For those who don't know, "Marvel Zombie" is a derogatory term for people who love Marvel Comics so much that they don't read other comic books.
That's not entirely true in my case as I've read plenty of DC and Dark Horse Comics over the years, but my comic book heart has always resided primarily within the Marvel Universe and its rich collection of characters. And so as a game developer who had been designing licensed games for over twelve years, I was determined to make a game that summed up everything I loved about Marvel.
Here's the story of my love affair with a board game.
Entering the Marvel Universe
The normal process for a game designer to work on a licensed property is to be contacted by a publisher who has worked with the designer in the past and who now has the opportunity to publish a game based upon a particular license. Often, the publisher already knows the kind of game they want and has already laid out the design parameters, leaving the designer to fill in the blanks and make a complete game. This was the case when WizKids and I worked on the Justice League Strategy Game, for example. Other times, the publisher has the rights to reimplement an existing game based upon a new license. This was how things got started for us with Star Trek: Frontiers, which reimplemented Vlaada Chvatil's Mage Knight Board Game.
But it's less common for a designer to propose a brand new game based on an existing license from scratch. Yet with the rising popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and my own continuing love for Marvel characters, I was determined to propose a new Marvel game to WizKids, with whom I have worked on many games. It's a long process to go from concept to published game, but I was ultimately given the task of creating a "one vs. all" miniatures game that pitted one Mastermind player against 1-4 Hero players, with variable map layouts, a wide variety of characters, and story-based missions. In other words, it was a zombie's dream come true!
Quixotic Development Meeting
For the past fifteen years, I have worked with a team of incredible developers who have made all of my designs possible. Fortunately for me, the Quixotic Games designers are also big Marvel fans, so before getting started on my own, I hosted a meeting with about a dozen game developers who were interested in working with me on the project. Since I teach game design at Rutgers University, I also invited one of my former students, Banan El Sherif, who is an avid Marvel geek; she may even border on zombie status. I've found that bringing in the next generation of game developers always improves our games, and Banan would end up being a priceless member of the team going forward.
Stories and Character Relationships
At this meeting, we settled on broad design parameters that we determined would be integral to the overall design. Foremost on everyone's mind was the game's story. The word "story" was probably mentioned a hundred times during this first meeting. After all, the unique stories of the Marvel Universe are what sets it apart from other comic universes. Unlike other "one vs. all" games, we wanted the players themselves to contribute important details to the story. So instead of setting up each mission from a booklet, we wanted to have each mission procedurally generated from a set of scenario cards, with individual plot details being supplied by the players themselves.
It was also important that the stories focus not only on thwarting (or promoting) villainous schemes, but also on personal relationships among the characters. To simulate the Marvel Universe, it wasn't enough to just be trying to destroy a superweapon; you had to be trying to destroy a superweapon while carrying on a strained romantic relationship and/or working out internal conflicts with another teammate, sometimes with your fists!
It was Banan who made the boldest statement during the meeting: "It has to be possible, in the middle of the game, to discover that Captain America is secretly a traitor." Now Banan loves Cap more than any other Marvel character, so this was quite the suggestion on her part. These sorts of things happened all the time in the comics — Skrulls, alternate reality versions, sacrificing one mission for the greater good, etc. — but I initially balked at the idea that a character controlled by a player could suddenly be revealed as a traitor. Yet the game designer in me said, "Can we make that work?" (Hint: The final version of the game includes a "Stop the Traitor" scenario card.)
How to Handle Luck
One of the parameters that we discussed was limiting the amount of luck that occurred during the game and to make the experience less about dice chucking and more about the players' tactical decisions. There would be plenty of variable elements during mission set-up, but once the mission started, we wanted players to be able to attack and defend tactically, to outmaneuver one another like in the comics rather than by rolling better dice.
But we knew that there had to be an element of randomness to the combat to avoid chess-like paralysis, so we settled on a "press your luck" element whereby a player could roll a die to achieve bonus action points (the main economy of the game), but if the player rolled poorly, they would instead cede the extra points to the opposing team. This meant that a player could avoid rolling dice entirely if they wanted, or roll for extra points each and every turn if they were adventurous enough.
A World That Breaks
One element that became central to the design was the concept that everything in the world could be used for cover, smashed to pieces, or even picked up and thrown at an enemy. Therefore, we developed a material strength system in which every door, wall, and object in the game would receive a label that would determine how durable it was, as well as rubble tokens that would simulate things getting destroyed or tossed around. We never wanted a mission to end without the place getting completely trashed!
Missions Aren't Just About Fighting
Combat is central to the gameplay of Marvel Strike Teams, but based on our desire for rich stories to develop during the game, it was important that the mission elements also involved non-combat elements. Otherwise, some characters would have little value since they don't possess the same degree of raw power as others.
In the comics, some characters had special skills that were absolutely necessary to complete a mission, even if they weren't as physically powerful as the other characters. It was important to us that each heroic character be given equal usefulness in the missions. Some were certainly better at fighting, while others could better inspire and coordinate the team, or use their skills to make the mission succeed in other ways. We never wanted anyone to feel that their character was an inferior member of the team, so individual character utility became an essential part of the design.
Heroes and Villains
Marvel Strike Teams is set in the mainstream Marvel Universe from the comics, but we knew that many players, especially younger ones, would know the game's characters primarily through the movies and television series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We therefore determined to choose characters who were in both the comics and the MCU. Based on our desire to see missions focus on all sorts of activities, we wanted a mix of characters with superpowers and those who had other skills, such as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who often work with the Marvel superheroes on delicate missions.
We initially proposed that sixteen characters be in the base game, but WizKids suggested that we split the initial release into two games (the base game and the Marvel Strike Teams: Avengers Initiative expansion that's releasing at the same time) so that it would be less expensive for players to try out the base game. With this in mind, we settled on four starting heroes, as well as a starting array of villains. Captain America and Iron Man are two of the most popular Marvel characters, so they easily made the cut. We also added two of the most popular Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: the super-powered Quake (Daisy Johnson / Skye) and Agent Melinda May. Since these four characters have never gotten the chance to work together in the MCU, we thought it would be exciting for fans to see them co-operating for the first time.
For villains, we wanted to start with powerful masterminds who would each have the equivalent game value of two normal characters. Loki and Ultron were easy choices due to their popularity, and they ended up being included in the Avengers Initiative expansion. Since we were going to use Hydra Soldiers in the base game as henchmen on the map, we wanted to tie the villains together thematically using Baron Strucker as the mastermind and the Winter Soldier as a main villain. We had room for one more villain in the base game, so we chose Radioactive Man, whose powers were a great complement to those of the other villains during our playtesting sessions. (He's actually the only character we created so far who is not yet in the MCU.)
Many of the other heroes we developed would be included in the Avengers Initiative expansion mentioned above, including Vision, Black Widow, the Falcon, and Agent Phil Coulson. We were choosing groups of characters who had a variety of talents and fighting styles, so that a "strike team" of heroes would be those who had abilities that worked well synergistically to complete each mission.
For expansion villains, in addition to Loki and Ultron as masterminds, we added the Absorbing Man as a villain to take full advantage of our material strength system, as well as the traitorous Agent Ward.
The First Playtest: A Disaster Worthy of Doctor Doom
Sometimes your first playtest allows you to see a glimpse of your design vision in action — and other times, well, it doesn't. After several weeks of prototyping, I sat down with testers for our first dry run of the game, and we were all excited to try out the new system. Too bad the game didn't work at all. In fact, it couldn't even start!
The engine we had created centered on an action point economy that would be used for everything: moving, attacking, activating special powers, and interacting with the map. Each character would generate a certain number of action points each round, and any points they did not spend could be used for defense during the opponent's turn, or saved up for the next round. We didn't have a mission for the first playtest as we were just going to test the combat system, and guess what? Everyone decided almost immediately that the best strategy would be to just sit at the opposing entrances doing nothing but accumulating action points. Whoops!
Part of this would be solved when we added missions since they would have limited durations, but the limitless accumulation of action points was a flaw that would always be waiting to be exploited beneath the design surface if we didn't correct it right away, so rather than play the first game, we sat and talked...for three hours. Some suggested that we simply cap the points for each character at the amount they generated each turn, with no possibility for accumulation. This would have certainly fixed the immediate problem, but removed a lot of strategy once the heroes and villains met face-to-face to battle and accomplish tasks. After all, if I saved points for Captain America's defense, my opponents would simply attack someone else, and those saved up points would be lost. It was essential to the system that Cap be able to bank those points until the next turn if no one attacked him.
We finally settled on the concept of two different sets of map zones that would exist in the game: Starter Zones and Battle Zones. Characters would be capped at their starting amount of action points while in the Starter Zones, and capped at a much higher number (12) while in Battle Zones. After many tests, we realized that the Starter Zones could be relatively small, as long as they weren't far from each other. This allowed us to keep our tactical system in place without players hanging back for a few turns at the start of each mission, which would have been a design disaster worthy of the King of Latveria.
To Roll or Not to Roll: The Action Die
Once the game actually started working, our early playtests focused on the game's core action system. Storylines and other fun stuff would have to wait until the core mechanisms were firmly in place. I spent a lot of time during these early months watching (and re-watching) all of the MCU movies and shows to get a feel for how superhero combat should work.
One of the things that impressed me was how some characters could defend themselves so adeptly, even when facing a more powerful foe. Or how some characters would slowly build up to a moment when they would launch a sudden barrage of attacks, hoping to land at least one solid blow. To simulate this, we allowed players to move and attack as many times as they could afford each turn, with no maximum (except for henchmen, whose actions were more limited). This would allow characters to focus on defense for a turn and save up points to launch a big attack later.
Occasionally, the characters' best-laid plans plans would fail because they were short by one or two action points, so we dealt with this in two ways.
First, we added command dials that allowed each team to accumulate command points at the start of each round. These command points created a slowly growing pool that could be transformed into action points for one character on the team. This allowed the team to work together to build up to an epic moment in which a single character would be able to move just a bit further, or launch one more attack, or defend themselves when all seemed lost.
Second, we had the action die provide an option for more points. In our early tests, we kept forgetting to use this, even if someone yelled, "Oh, what I wouldn't give for one more point!" It was Banan who would always remember first, and without saying a word, she would pick up the die and slap it meaningfully on the table in front of the complaining player — and there it would sit silently for a moment, a source of terrible temptation but also of heroic possibilities.
Getting the odds correct for the action die was not easy and took a great deal of testing. During early tests, there was a 50% chance of either something good or something bad happening if you chose to roll the die, and we soon realized that no one wanted to take that chance because the consequences for failure seemed too grave. We upped the odds to 2 in 3 of something good happening and 1 in 3 of something bad happening. At first, players thought the system would be broken and announced that they would simply roll the die every turn since, over time, the odds would be in their favor, but fortunately that strategy never seemed to succeed as hoped, and we weren't sure why.
We finally realized that the bad result — giving points to the opponent — had an extra sting since, unlike the rolling player, the opponent wasn't taking any risks to receive their free point. Also, to keep things easy to track, we had ruled that if you rolled a negative result on the die, the extra point would go directly to the opponent's command dial, which provided the opponent with versatility since they could use the point for any of their characters. In this way, there was a hidden opportunity cost to rolling the die since you were taking a risk and your opponent was not. Also, if you failed, you would give your opponent something greater than what you were attempting, even though the odds of achieving your goal were higher.
Another function of the action die was that you could achieve up to three bonus action points, but you had to declare how many points you were attempting to achieve before you rolled the die. You would declare a number from 1-3, then roll the die. If you declared "1" and rolled a black 1-3 (a positive result), you would receive only a single action point, no matter how high you rolled. If you declared "3" and rolled a black 3, then you would gain three action points; if you rolled a black 1 or 2 after such a declaration, neither you nor your opponent would gain anything. And of course, a red 1 (a negative result) denied you the extra points and awarded your opponent one command point instead.
The die's final odds are shown below:
There was a time when one of the red numbers was a "2" and awarded two command points to the opponent. This ended up being so devastating that we realized it was simply too much of a penalty, so we returned both red numbers to "1".
After scores of playtests, the decision to roll or not to roll the action die remained a tough choice based upon the circumstances of the game state, so we were confident that we had struck the proper balance.
Once the core mechanisms were working smoothly, we started playing with the scenario card system. There are three stages to every mission, and each stage is represented by a different, randomly drawn scenario card. In addition, there are parameters on the scenario cards, such as placing objectives and designating the characters who share special relationships, that are chosen by the players themselves. This allows unique stories to develop during each mission.
One of my favorite scenario cards is the Stage 3 "Master Plan", which requires the mastermind to save up and spend twelve action points to explain his scheme to heroes who are nearby. The heroes must do everything in their power to avoid being subjected to his wearisome monologue!
One issue we encountered with the scenario card system over time is that certain combinations of missions created bizarre stories that didn't make much sense. For example, if too many relationship-based stories came out at once, there wasn't room for mission-based objectives. We experimented and came to the conclusion that certain types of missions had to be divided into categories that belonged to each individual stage. In this way, two scenario cards with similar goals wouldn't be drawn for the same mission.
Stage 1 scenarios ended up being long-term scenarios that had consequences for all three stages; Stage 2 scenarios were plot twists that added new intricacies to the story; and Stage 3 scenarios were climactic moments that provided opportunities for an exciting finish. The players themselves would suggest thematic reasons why the three scenarios belonged together. The players' involvement in crafting the story together was exactly the outcome that we had hoped for right from the first meeting.
We experimented with allowing the players to take turns placing map tiles during set-up to determine exactly how the battleground for each mission would take shape. In theory, this sounded like a good idea, but in practice, it was very time-consuming and invariably created maps that were slanted too much to the advantage of one side or the other.
We simplified this system by printing six different maps on map cards that would serve as blueprints for creating the various maps out of the map tiles. One map card would be drawn at the start of each mission. The placement of individual elements on the maps, such as spawn points and objective tokens, would be chosen by the players according to particular criteria determined by the scenario cards.
Our initial playtests took place in a warehouse filled with crates, barrels, forklifts, and furniture that could be used for cover or destroyed by weapons, but after several playtests, we were hungry for more varied elements. We therefore decided to create a second map type (the enemy base) which would be printed on the reverse sides of the map tiles. Each map card would therefore feature either a warehouse map or an enemy base map, the latter of which allowed us to add ammunition dumps that exploded when attacked or thrown at enemies, as well as gun turrets that could be controlled by carefully positioned characters, and this added a whole new layer of tactical decision-making to the game.
The Campaign: Leveling Up and Gaining Power
Part of our hope from the beginning of the design process was to make Marvel Strike Teams a campaign game, which would allow players to level up their characters between missions and watch them grow in power. To make this work, we needed to create eight unique action cards that were devoted to each individual character, then allow players to "build" their characters with these action cards by spending build points that were based upon their character level.
During early testing of the campaign system, we required the characters to earn new action cards rather than allowing them to have access to the full suite of powers available to their character. As we playtested entire campaigns, we learned that it was much more fun to give players full access to each character's unique action cards right from the start of the campaign and to allow them to build their characters however they wanted based on the number of build points they had to spend and the parameters defined by the current mission. The same character could enter a new mission with a completely new combination of their own action cards, for example. This provided much more variety at the start of every mission and allowed each character to shine for the particular mission on which they were about to embark.
It was an imperative part of the design that Marvel Strike Teams be a fun experience with the full range of players (2-5), and therefore two players needed to be able to play a full campaign and have the same amount of fun as five players. In order for this to work, we needed the game to flow naturally even if both players played multiple characters. Although new players can choose to play one hero per player, the system needed to work just as well with players controlling up to four characters each.
To make sure this would work through an entire campaign, I sat down for a long playtest weekend with Kyle Volker, a Quixotic developer who I've been friends with since the age of 10. In fact, he was the first person to ever call me a "Marvel Zombie". (As kids, he read from a much greater variety of publishers than I did!) In the 1980s, Kyle and I had also played tons of missions together from TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG, so we both had a sense of what we wanted to experience from a full Marvel campaign.
For six consecutive missions, leveling up existing characters and intermittently introducing new characters throughout the campaign, we played through every scenario card and map in the game. While we did so, we were particularly excited not only about the stories that developed during each mission, but the longer storylines and character relationships that evolved over the course of the entire campaign. This weekend represented some of the final playtest sessions of the development process, and we were very excited to share our stories with the other players after the full saga had been completed.
The Future: Solo Rules, Mutants and More!
We developed and fully playtested many characters who didn't make it into the base game or the expansion, including Nick Fury Jr., Mockingbird, and the Chitauri henchmen, and they are ready to go if we are asked to create future expansions.
We also have countless expansion ideas, including bringing the X-Men, Deadpool, and countless other characters into the mix, as well as standalone expansions with new scenario cards and settings with new sets of map tiles.
We're also developing solo rules that allow one player to face an AI-driven collection of enemies during a solo mission. This involves the use of a dynamic deck of cards that changes based upon which villains are in the game, as well as which scenario cards are in play.
We hope you get a chance to try Marvel Strike Teams when it releases in November 2018! If the game is well received, there is no limit to what we can create. We hope you join us for the cosmic journey ahead.
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- New Game Round-up: Jonathan Strange, Men in Black and Ghostbusters Come to the Table for a Piece o' CakeOsprey Games plans to release Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic, an adaptation of the 2004 novel by Susanna Clarke by designers Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello, with art by Ian O'Toole. Here's an overview of the game's setting and what players need to do:
After centuries of absence, magic has returned to England, but not all are using it for good...
Take on the role of an aspiring magician and start your journey down the path to greatness. Collect rare books, flit between social engagements, and impress your peers with feats of magic. Be careful to strike a balance between your studies and your status, for the gentleman with the thistle-down hair has plans of his own, and it will take all of your strength to stop him.
In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic, players take on the role of four principle characters from the novel — Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell, Miss Redruth, or John Segundus — and travel around England and Europe, attending social engagements and performing feats of magic in the hope of becoming the most celebrated magician of the age.
On their travels they encounter a host of familiar characters, from the jovial Mr. Honeyfoot and beautiful Lady Pole to the extraordinary Stephan Black and the enthusiastic Lord Portishead. All the while, they must build up their magical abilities as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair is weaving his magic in the background and must be stopped for any player to have a chance of claiming victory.
Ghostbusters: The Card Game due out in Q4 2018 and now late 2019 will see Men In Black/Ghostbusters: Ecto-terrestrial Invasion from the unexpected sources of IDW Games, Panda Cult Games, and Ninja Division.
More specifically, IDW Games is the publisher of record, with that company having signed a licensing deal with Sony Pictures Consumer Products for "a series of tabletop games for both Men in Black and Ghostbusters franchises", with the crossover game mentioned above being the only title revealed for now. Here's the short pitch for it:
Men In Black/Ghostbuster: Ecto-terrestrial Invasion is a miniatures games that pairs the world's foremost protection teams to take down a threat like they've never faced. The Ghostbusters team includes Peter Venkman, Egon Spangler, Ray Stanz, and Winston Zeddmore, and the MIB team includes Agent J, Agent K, Agent L, and Zed. The game features fast dice-rolling and take-that card play as well as detailed miniatures from Ninja Division.
Panda Cult Games is credited with the game design. The press release notes that "Additional stand-alone games for each franchise are also currently in development and slated for release next year", i.e. in 2019.
Rio Grande Games has picked up Vladimír Suchý's Underwater Cities, which debuted at SPIEL '18 from Delicious Games, for release in the U.S. and elsewhere in the first half of 2019.
• North Star Games has announced a September 2019 release date — and a Gen Con 2019 prerelease date — for Oceans: An Evolution Game, which has been in the works for several years. For more details on this standalone title in NSG's Evolution line, along with watercolor artwork from Catherine Hamilton and an opportunity to sign up as a playtester of the nearly finished design, head to the NSG blog.
Jeffrey D. Allers' 2006 game Piece o' Cake was transformed from after-dinner filler to a main course meal (sort of) with the release of New York Slice from Bézier Games in 2017, but now Japanese publisher New Games Order will debut a new version of Piece o' Cake at the Tokyo Game Market in November 2018, with new cake imagery to match the tastes of the Japanese public.
For those not familiar with this title, in each round one player lays out the pie tiles at random to form a complete pie, then splits the pie in a number of pieces equal to the number of players. Starting with the player to the splitter's left, each player takes one piece, with the splitter taking whatever's left. When you take a piece, you can keep the individual tiles or eat them to score the whipped cream points on them. At the end of the game, you score for a type of pie only if you have a majority in it, so eat now or forever hold your piece?
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- Links: Variability, Rulebook Quality, and Game Classification
• On his blog Go Play Listen, designer Chris Marling advises us that "variability doesn't equal replayability", pointing out that "[d]esigners and developers are flogging themselves to death creating variants which can be set up 'X' different ways for games which will likely sell a maximum of 5,000 copies and be played once or twice by each purchaser". An excerpt:
If you look at the games that have stood the test of time, they haven't needed this kind of variety to make their reputation. Poker, Chess and Go – or modern classics Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne – couldn't be simpler on setup and components. They rely on simplicity, randomness and interaction rather than powers, variable setups or asymmetry. Even Catan, with variable setup, uses everything in the box. Classic modern war and board games that have been in print for decades are usually similarly unburdened. Most games don't need it to be successful.
article on Opinionated Gamers, Chris Wray introduced the concept of the Rule Quality Index (RQI). Says Wray, "RQI is simply the number of ratings a board game has [on BGG] divided by the number of rules threads a game has inspired. It's a crude way to evaluate the problem, but it's the best method I could think of." The problem to which Wray refers is one of rulebooks that make it difficult for one to play the game, something that seems antithetical to what a rulebook should do. An excerpt:
I was recently chatting with some fellow game reviewers about Charterstone, a game I gave a negative review after struggling to figure out how to even play parts of it. They seemed skeptical of my criticism, so I pointed out that, despite it having only about 5,600 ratings on BGG, it already had more than 740 rules threads. That's shockingly bad: there's a rules thread for about every 7.5 ratings.
Wray included all types of caveats for his measuring system since not every player rates their games on BGG. He also noted that legacy games seem particularly prone to rule questions, possibly because each playing of such a game has more relevance and consequence than something that's a one-off experience.
• The graph above comes from Reddit user Shepperstein, who downloaded BGG data for board games released between 1990 and 2018 that have at least twenty ratings in order to visualize how board game categories on BGG relate to one another. The graph below indicates how games within categories relate to one another in complexity (with larger nodes indicating a higher average complexity) and in ratings (with redder nodes indicating a higher average rating).
Designer Oliver Kiley riffed on Shepperstein's work to create a relationship chart of his own that merges information related to both categories and mechanisms to see how these overlap and get a better understanding of how such things could be reorganized. An excerpt:
In the dead center are a few big communities, including card games and the obviously associated hand management, along with Dice and press your luck type systems. Some of these, like cards and dice are so ubiquitous across domains of games that it's not at all surprising to see them in the middle of the graph with connections to just about everywhere. I tried excluding them from graph and it basically had no structural impact at all, more or less confirming this assessment. Of course you get things like "take that" games and "trick-taking" games [that] are very closely associated with card games, so I left it in for clarity and completeness.
I also thought it was interesting to compare opposite sides of the graph. Wargames are directly opposite to Children's games. Highly thematic games in the Fantasy/Fighting, Science fiction, and Cooperative realms are all opposite to Economic (euro-style) games and abstract games. Likewise, games that focus on area control/majority elements and derive much of their deep strategic play from spatial positioning and the like are opposite to party and deduction style games, which emphasize an entirely different sort of player-to-player interactions.
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- In 2019, Lookout Games Brings Grizzlies to Bärenpark, Roll-and-Write to Patchwork, and Card Play to MandalaLookout Games in the first half of 2019, so naturally I thought I'd share what I know with you, dear reader.
Let's start with the original title of the batch: Mandala from Brett J. Gilbert and Trevor Benjamin, which from the short presentation I received seems like pure card game goodness. Here's an overview of what will be the latest title in Lookout's two-player game line:
In Mandala, you are trying to score more than your opponent by collecting valuable cards — but you won't know which cards are valuable until well into the game!
The playing area has two circles on it with a horizontal area that passes through both circles. Each player has a hand of cards, and on a turn, you can play cards of one of the six colors to either the center horizontal area of a circle or to your side of a circle. Once a color has been placed in the circle, then more cards of the same color can be placed only in the same location, so if your opponent places red cards on their half of the circle, then you can't play red cards in that circle at all. If you play cards to the central area of a circle, then you draw more cards; if you play cards on your half of the circle, then you don't.
Once a circle has all six colors of cards on it, you resolve the circle. Whoever has placed more cards on their half of the circle wins the cards in the middle of that circle. If they have not claimed cards of this color previously, they place one of these cards in their lowest scoring area and the rest of the cards face down in a pile to be scored at the end of the game. The scoring areas are worth 1-6 points, so cards of the first color you claim are worth 1 point each, cards of the second color you claim 2 points each, etc.
Once a circle has been scored, players can start playing cards into it once again. Once the game ends, players tally the points for everything in their individual scoring pile, and whoever has the highest score wins!
Phil Walker-Harding's tile-laying game Bärenpark has been well-received and even more people would probably be buzzing about it if the game supply hadn't vanished along with Mayfair Games in late 2017. In any case, the base game has been reprinted by main publisher Lookout Games and is on its way to the U.S.. Aside from that, Lookout is preparing an expansion that adds new elements to the game. Here's what to expect in Bärenpark: Die Grizzlies sind los! (a.k.a. "The Grizzlies Are Coming!"):
Bärenpark: Die Grizzlies sind los! contains three separate modules that can be used individually or together with the Bärenpark base game.
One module contains a set of new goals that can be shuffled together with those in the base game.
A second module allows you to add grizzly bears to your bear park, with the grizzly bear tiles occupying six squares in a park section. That's quite a lot, isn't it? Well, to give your park room to grow, you now must add a fifth park section and fill it in order to complete the game. This expansion contains four new park sections, each with an exit gate so that visitors won't be stuck inside your park forever.
A third module contains skinny monorail tiles that start with a value of ten points and decrease in value as you add them to your bear parks. How does one add a monorail? First you need to place tiles in your park that each contain space for a pillar, and you need to place them at the proper distance. Once you have two pillars in place, you take the topmost monorail tile, then balance it on the pillars. Now everyone can scoot around your park looking down at the bears!
Uwe Rosenberg's Patchwork from 2014 wasn't the first title to use polyominoes, but that game's success has seemed like the origin point for many other such titles in recent years, including several such games at SPIEL '18. On top of that is a blitz of roll-and-write games, with every publisher seeming to have at least one in their catalog, some of which also feature polyominoes, as with the SPIEL '18 releases Bloxx! from Noris Spiele and Brikks from Schmidt Spiele.
Now Lookout Games will have a roll-and-write of its own in the form of Patchwork Doodle, which specifies that it supports up to eight players, but I think that's because the box will have only eight starting cards and pencils. Gather more writing utensils and allow for duplicate cards, and the player count is limited only by visual access to the cards in play. As for what you're doing in the game, which is due out in Q1 2019, here's a summary of gameplay:
In Patchwork Doodle, each player has their own 9x9 grid to fill in over the course of the game. Each player sets up by drawing a unique polyomino card from the starting deck, then drawing that on their sheet.
In each round, players lay out a number of polyomino cards in a circle, then place the rabbit between two cards. On a turn, someone rolls the die, moves the rabbit forward, then removes the card indicated by the rabbit. Each player must draw the polyomino indicated on this card in their grid. Once a certain number of cards have been played, the round ends, players score points, then you lay out more cards for the next round.
Each player has four special actions available to them during the game: You can choose to draw the card before or after the chosen card, you can cut a polyomino into two pieces before adding each piece to your grid, you can fill in a 1x1 space in your grid, and you can do one of the above actions a second time. When you take one of these actions, you mark it off as each can be used only once (except for the one you use a second time, if you know what I mean).
You lose a point for each space that you don't cover, so try to pack everything in as tightly as possible!
Read more »
- ● 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.
- ● 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 »
- ● Age of Night (Volume 1: Business Between Brigands)Publisher: Skirmisher Publishing
Join Drake, runaway avatar of the God of Night, Rhonwen, a naïve mage of the White Order, Thelonius, a spy and assassin hiding from the Shadow Houses, and Kamaria, a thief with ties to no one but her companions, as they embark on their journey! In their quest to free Drake from his bonds to the Covenant of Mandra they will journey across the Republic of Amathea and face many challenges and enemies along the way.
Search for freedom. Find your place.
This edition of the graphic novel includes a bonus short story and appendices of sketches and work process, some theological notes on the goddess Mandra, and a character profile of Drake.Price: $9.99 Read more »
- ● ND1.3: The Sultry Swamp of the Cursed CronePublisher: Talbot S. Raiche
A foul smelling fog rolled into Yarlstone and with it came creatures made of vines. They have carried off the children from the orphanage. As the villagers looked on helplessly, they heard the cackling of an old woman receding towards the dark swamp from which they can faintly still hear the children calling for help.
The Sultry Swamp of the Cursed Crone is an adventure for level 3. It is presented in minimal format, making it useful for many fantasy adventure systems.Price: $1.99 Read more »
- The Rifter® #82 Sneak PreviewPublisher: Palladium Books
This is a sneak preview of The Rifter® #82.
This sneak preview includes the front cover, credits, contents, From the Desk of Kevin Siembieda, Palladium News, Coming Attractions, an excerpt from Erick Wujcik, Remembered, an excerpt from The Impact of Age for Nightbane®, an excerpt from Hitting the Gym with the Physical Training Hero for Heroes Unlimited™, an excerpt from Chaos Earth Nebraska, Part Three, for Rifts® Chaos Earth®, and an excerpt from the Rifts® Bestiary Preview for Rifts®.
The Rifter® #82 will be available around November 26, 2018. For more information, please visit our website.Price: $0.00 Read more »
- ● 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:
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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 »
- Bringing The Streaming Fan To The Table
Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace fans of streaming RPG games
It has finally happened to you. You, the veteran Dungeon Master, are adding a new player to your gaming group. You’re taking in a new player into your home game, your inner sanctum. Your baby. Maybe a player at the table is bringing along a significant other, or maybe a friendly coworker wants to make the leap to tabletop RPGs and has asked to play.
“No problem.”, you think. You’ve taught a lot of people to play. Why would this be any different? This isn’t your first rodeo. You get know the person socially to see if they’ll be a good fit. You ask the questions about schedule and commitment. The stars align, and they look like a good fit. So you ask the tough question, “What inspired you to invest time into a tabletop role-playing game?” (You may even silently think yourself so clever and accommodating to avoid the gatekeeping three letter acronym “AR-PEE-GEE”.)
“I love Critical Role.”
And there it is. It can’t be taken back. They watch streaming RPGs ON THE INTERNET and a million questions form in your brain. “How do they find the time?” “Why would they watch a game of Dungeons and Dragon without ever playing?” Maybe your first reaction is defensive. “Ugh. So Hollywood.” Maybe some self-doubt creeps in. “I’m not as good as Mercer. He’s a professional voice actor. And he has all that DwarvenForge”. Or “I’m not Chris Perkins. I don’t have his encyclopedic knowledge of the Realms.”
“Ugh, why me? This sucks.” How could this happen to you? You’ve been a Dungeon Master for decades. Hell, you still have your Basic Edition Redbox. When people are asked about their favorite artists, your friends say things like “Jackson” or “Picasso”. You mumble something socially acceptable, but inside you scream “LARRY ELMORE”. Have no fear fellow Dungeon Master, we’re here to help you through these difficult times.
How do you, the person who has been DMing for so long you can convincingly lie about liking Fourth Edition, handle this situation?
What is all this streaming about, anyway?
Let’s take a moment to review the most influential streams, in case you’re not familiar with the streaming scene.
Dice, Camera, Action! (DCA) is a Skype-based stream produced officially by Wizards of the Coast and run by the legendary Chris Perkins. DCA features the current storyline published by WotC and features four players with an occasional guest star. The game has been playing for several years and features the same characters across multiple published campaign books. The characters advance slowly, deliberately keeping suppressing the power curve to allow the characters room to grow and expand without breaking the power curve of the setting. Each session lasts about two hours and is streamed weekly. DCA is a helpful reference for deconstructing published campaign material into a player focused experience, yet keeping the flavor of the original book.
Acquisitions Incorporated (AcqInc) is a live play game run again by the legendary Chris Perkins played live at the table during most Penny Arcade Expos (PAX). These games are short, lasting about two hours, and feature the founders of the Penny Arcade webcomic Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins as well as noted fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. A fourth player is frequently rotated in and out of the game. This game started in 4th Edition days and focuses and grand set pieces and largely absurdist comedic in Forgotten Realms. The PAX Acquisitions Inc game can provide guidance for running a classic “beer and pretzels” game with a focus on high action and hilarious moments.
A relatively late entry into the streaming realm is the Acquisitions Incorporated: C-Team (C-team) game. This is also a live table game, DMed by Jerry Holkins. Thematically, it is very similar to the AcqInc main game but features a very different table feel. The game is more chaotic and self-referential than any of the other games on the list and can be challenging to follow due to a large amount of crosstalk and inside jokes told at the table. The game streams for two hours on a weekly schedule. Of all the major streamed games, this feels most like a traditional table game.
The most prominent of the RPG streams is, of course, Critical Role. Critical Role has been streaming for several years and is DM’d by voice actor Matthew Mercer, featuring a cast of more professional voice actors. Critical Role’s success, while polarizing in some communities, has been an important influencer on the success of 5th Edition.
Let’s get started
So, where to begin? First, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Showing interest in what excites the player will forge an early bond every Dungeon Master needs to make with their players. Unlike most new players, the stream fan will have a solid understanding of what an RPG is, and how to behave in at the table. Ask them what they like about their chosen stream. Find out who their favorite character is on the show. Do they answer with a character name or with a player name? Answering “I like Liam.” versus “I like Vax.” can tell you a lot about the new player’s expectations. For example, answering with a player’s name may indicate they enjoy strong performances at the table. Answering with the character’s name may show they are more interested in a building a deep, tragic story for their character.
Second, understand watching a stream is a way for a person to be a part of the RPG community. A DM prepping for a game, or players plotting out how to attack the next session are just ways we interact with our hobby away from the table. Taking in a stream is no different. It’s critical to keep in mind playing in a game is just one of many ways we build and participate in our hobby.A person who enjoys talking about Critical Role will almost certainly bring that level of engagement to your table.Armed with this information, you’ll be able to direct your game in a manner enjoyable for your new player. Hopefully, this opportunity can be used to expand your perspective on DMing, too.
Lastly, it helps to understand how RPG streams differ. There are many different streams a person could choose to watch and this will give you helpful information useful for integrating a new player in your game. A Critical Fan vs an Acquisitions Inc. fan could indicate predilection in tonality (a more dramatic tone instead of a more comedic tone. A fan of Dice, Camera, Action might be into world building or enjoy game steeped in lore.
Of course, people are complicated, and it’s not all chromatic orbs and CR 2 unicorns. A player coming to D&D from a streaming background will have a head start over the traditional new player. They’ll understand rules, table protocol, and probably spotlight sharing better. This knowledge will also come with certain expectations one should be aware of to ensure a good experience for you and all of your players. There are some basic steps you can take you help ease the player in your game.
The obvious answer, watch some episodes of the stream, is probably the least practical one. The task before you now is setting expectations. Based on the game you’re running, the player’s expectations may need to be managed in different ways. Running a published adventure comes with engagement challenges to even the most experienced D&D player, much less a player whose only experience with D&D comes from a campaign built only solely around extract the most from a player backstory.
Running homebrew content also comes with challenges. Every Dungeon Master injects themselves into the world they create. Interests, beliefs, or even our aspirations influence our world and might cause friction with the player’s expectations. As with most situations, open and honest communication is the key to working through these situations.
In short, “How do you want to do this?” is a great way to integrate a streaming fan into the participating at a table, be it physical or virtual, and expand our hobby to new fans!
With the influx of new fans to 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, how have streaming shows like Critical Role changed your game?Read more »
- Troy’s Crock Pot: If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Spectacularly
I was recently invited to a friend’s house to take part in their playtest of the second edition of Pathfinder RPG.
The first week went fine. Gameplay quickly revealed that my player character — Spindle, a gnome bard — had little affinity for the shortbow he was carrying.
It was hardly surprising. Singing and inspiration were his hallmarks.
If Spindle’s arrows went ker-plunk, that was to be expected. He was a first-level character, after all.
The following week I arrived determined to emphasize Spindle’s bardic skills. One problem — the player with the dwarf fighter couldn’t make it. I looked at the player with the rogue, and he looked back at me. Then we both looked at the druid and the wizard. For this night’s play, our characters would be the melee combatants?
OK Johnny, rosin up that bow …
But this isn’t a story about how our misfit band of spellcasters prevailed in a dungeon designed to test the ruleset — although that did happen. It’s really about me rolling spectacularly bad, owning those rolls in the moment, and incorporating that into the role-play.
Spindle’s first d20 attack roll of the night was a 1.
It appeared to be a continuation of Spindle’s record of near- and not-so-near misses.
So be it.
As a player you can throw a pout, get angry at the die, curse, or demonstrate your displeasure in any number of ways.
Or, you can scoop up the die and describe how spectacularly bad that arrow shot was.
I chose the latter. (If I was GMing, it’s what I hope my players do.)
It was a move that paid off.
Not by getting better rolls, but by continuing to roll poorly and bringing those fails to life with energy and interaction that other players could feed off of.
Spindle offers to assist the rogue attempting to disable the trap by holding back a distracting gate.
Spindle searches for the key to the locked chest.
Spindle attempts to climb the rope to reach the ledge.
Spindle makes a skill check.
And with each 1, Spindle was coming alive at the table. With every miss, his personality emerged. Admittedly, he wasn’t contributing to the general welfare of the party — which could have used a nice solid attack roll. But I was getting to know Spindle, and so were the other players.
Hands jittery and nervous hovered over the quiver. Reaching in, they shook so badly he knocked two or three arrows out for each one he withdrew.
He might be a hapless, inept bowman, but he was my hapless, inept bowman. And that’s what the table got to experience. A gnome that was out of his league, out of his element, off-balance … perhaps, even a liability.
Spindle renewed his attack and almost tossed another 1, but the die stopped on the seam in the table … hovered at 1 … but then teetered onto 19. Clearly, that shot ricocheted past the target, bounced off the back wall and got the goblin on the rebound. Something like that.
With that, I sensed I was in for a change of fortune, so I switched gears.
“Enough!” Spindle declared, tossing down the bow. He drew out the rapier, tossed magic missile and true strike at the boss opponent and was suddenly back on offense.
I have written in a GS post before about the importance of the GM taking roleplay cues from dice results.
But having a player do it is important, too. Probably moreso than relying on the GM to shoulder the burden. When four players around the table are riffing off their dice rolls, the narration sizzles. The rogue takes poison from the needle trap, and despite the illness and the loss of hit points refuses to retreat. The druid steps up into the fight, slicing at her foe with her scimitar. The wizard calls forth lightning, but it fizzles out, doing only 1 point of damage. Oops.
Unlike a stage play, an rpg session doesn’t have a script.
But it does have lines, of a sort, and they are revealed with each toss of the dice. Hit those cues and you’ll have a session to remember.
- Craft Free Magic Items In 3, 3.5 And Pathfinder? Yes Please!
I was reading the Pathfinder item creation rules recently and I was struck by one piece of the RAW. Aside from some exceptions, creation of magic items requires “materials” equal to half of the end market value of the item produced. These items are specifically left vague. One presumes this is for several reasons:
- So the rule books don’t have to be a grocery list of items required for magic item creation.
- So that reasonable substitutions can be made. Do you really need Medusae venom for ink for your scroll of flesh to stone? Can you not use distilled Gorgon Breath?
- So that you can flavor items depending on materials. A magic sword created from iron ingots, obsidian chunks, or the trophy teeth of a great beast will all look very different and might lend themselves to different secondary enchants.
- So that I can explain why the RAW explicitly allows for free item creation… Whaaaa? Yeah really. (but seriously, as GM you don’t HAVE to allow this any more than any other rules loophole but I think it’s kind of cool personally and would allow it.)
So according to the magic item creation rules you need half the market value of the item to be created in unspecified “materials”. And creating the item takes time based on item value (and in 3, 3.5 also xp). But since “materials” is left vague, there’s no reason at all that those materials can’t themselves be magic items as long as they are also appropriate materials for crafting the item in question. So magic ingots of metal, magic wood, magic silks, magic crystals, magic nuggets of pure elements — if you can imagine it, you can make magic items out of it. Again, that’s part of the goal of the system. Making a magic greatclub from any of the above makes wildly different items, each of them interesting and cool in their own way.
But here’s the catch: You can make a magic sword worth 16000 gp from 8000 gp worth of magic iron ingots and magic crystals. But how much does it cost to make 8000 gp worth of magic iron ingots and magic crystals? 4000 gp of “materials”. But can those materials be magic? Why the heck not? So you can make 8000 gp worth of magic ingots and crystals from 4000 gp worth of magic ore and uncut gems. But can those be magic? Hell yeah! You see where this is going, right? Start with a nearly worthless commodity and enchanting it into “unspecified magic version of itself” doubles its gp value. Rinse and repeat, doubling each time. And there is even historical precedent in fiction. You are literally spinning straw into gold there, Rumpelstiltskin.
You can just trust me and leave it at that. Kind of hand wavy but it clearly works and is RAW. As a GM you can deny it to your players, that’s up to you but that is the way the rules work. But if you don’t want to leave it there, let’s codify it a bit:
Ingot of Crafting
Price: Varies; Slot: None; CL: 1; Weight: Varies; Aura: Transmutation
These gold ingots come in a variety of sizes and values. Any Crafter can concentrate on any number of them while crafting which causes the ingots to transform into an amount of materials appropriate to the craft the user is creating equal to the value of the ingots used.
Cost: Varies; Feats: Craft Wondrous Item; Special: Caster must have access to the transmutation school of magic
So if you wanted a 500 gp ruby to use in your staff you could gather 500 gp worth of Ingots of Crafting, concentrate on the pile and poof! Ruby!
Clearly the market value of these Ingots of Crafting is equal to the value of materials they produce. First, it says so right in the item description. Second, if the Ingot was worth more, no one would pay for them over just buying the materials themselves. If the Ingot were worth less people would buy up all the ingots selling for LESS than the value of materials they produce (thus driving up the cost of Ingots to material value), turn them into materials and sell those materials. So: obviously market value equal to what they produce.
Note that this seems weird but absolutely works and has been borne out by many discussions about how DnD and Pathfinder magic works off market value in the past. The classic example that you can find discussed ad nauseam online is the 3, 3.5 pearl. If you crash or rig the pearl market, you STILL need a 100gp pearl for identify. It doesn’t matter if that pearl is a seed or a monstrosity. It only matters that it’s market value is 100gp.
Note: In Pathfinder, this may seem to be in opposition to the 3rd party Artificer’s Salvage ability, but it’s really not. The Salvage ability lets you turn a magic item that is not an appropriate material for an item you are crafting into half its value of materials that are appropriate to any crafting attempt. In effect it is making explicit that universal magic materials that are useful in crafting any and all magic items do in fact exist.
So the catch is: if you have an Ingot of Crafting you could use it as materials to make: an Ingot of Crafting worth twice as much (because it has half the market value of what you’re creating) and you could use that one to double again, etc… etc… until you have the value you need to make whatever item you want.
Doesn’t have to be exactly this. You could create enchanted iron ingots or ensorceled silk that give you a bump to your crafting roll when you use them as materials or whatever. The Ingots just are a simple obvious example.
BUT of course it’s not quite that simple. The additional crafting steps still take time, and in 3, 3.5 also xp. In order to make an item of value X, you need 1/2X in value. In order to make the 1/2X of value you need 1/4X etc… etc… and since crafting takes linear time (and xp), making the components for an item worth half it’s value takes half the time (and xp) the item does, and making the components for that item takes half the time (and xp) again, 1/4 the original etc…
This is a classic geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8+ 1/16… = 1
So according to RAW you can craft any item you want for essentially free, but the catch is in order to do so you have to spend twice the time (and xp) making it. This means that rushed crafting of items still takes money/materials. It also makes sense that to create magic materials you would need the Craft Wondrous Items feat and perhaps access to certain appropriate spells, meaning that creating free items has additional prerequisites.
QEDRead more »
- Pathfinder Playtest Review, Part 4
This is part 4 of my review of the Pathfinder Playtest from Paizo. You can see part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. In this part of the review, I’ll finish up my comments in this series with Game Mastering through Appendices.
If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site:
The section starts off with six bullet points to give overall guidance to the GM. I think the guidance misses the mark a bit, but it’s a good start. Unfortunately, the advice given out in that brief segment makes it appear as if the bulk of the work for the world, characters, events, and storytelling land firmly on the GM’s shoulders. This is, to some extent, true. However, I feel that this was a grand opportunity to let the GM know that they are not the driver in the storytelling effort, but a participant with the players in the storytelling. The advice given is solid, but the tone here sets the stage for making new GMs think they are in charge. Any veteran GM will certainly tell you that this is not the case once the players start rolling with their own ideas.
Starting a Session
The segment that covers how to start a session is fantastic! I hope to see this expanded a bit in the final book, but this is a wonderful set of advice. I even learned a few new tips and tricks in this area. Well done, Paizo!
Adjudicating the Rules
This area gives great advice about not looking up specific rules and gives guidance on how to “wing it” when necessary. This is something every “core” rulebook for every RPG should have.
This section is given in a brief sidebar. I have a problem with this because quite a few readers of RPGs will skim those areas thinking they are not important. This is a perception thing because if it were important, it would be in the main text, right? I think the six bullet points I mentioned above could be combined with this sidebar to create a new approach to collaborative gaming that excels at great fun and excellent storytelling. Merging these two concepts, I think, would lead to a more powerful statement.
Modes of Play
Just as a refresher, modes are split up into encounter, exploration, and downtime.
The encounter section is too brief. This is the most technical part of the game, and this can lead to it being the hardest to adjudicate properly because of the number of rules, feats, spells, skills, powers, items, monsters, and characters involved. I know. I know. Many books (and articles!) have been dedicated to this very topic, and I don’t expect Paizo to replicate what’s already been covered. However, I think a deeper dive into encounters would be best.
The exploration and downtime modes are covered very well. These two sections are lengthy and solidly give the GM the right information to execute what is a new concept for Pathfinder. The guidance and tips found within these two sections will make running them go very smoothly for an experienced or fresh GM.
Now that I’ve read the entire “Modes of Play” section, I think I figured out what is bothering me with the encounter section beyond its brevity. The encounter section was written for experienced GMs. The exploration and downtime sections were written in a manner that targets new GMs. I feel that Paizo needs to take a fresh look at the encounter section and rewrite it (and expand it) as if they were attempting to teach a brand new GM (as in, brand new to RPGs, not just Pathfinder) how to run an encounter. If they revisit and expand the encounter section with this in mind, I feel it would be a much stronger contribution to the GM section of the book.
I’m going to be brief here. These three pages are well thought out, clear, and give some great examples on how to come up with target numbers on the fly or apply adjustments where necessary. Paizo’s team did an excellent job on this section.
I’ve been looking forward to hitting this section ever since I learned that each level requires an even 1,000 XP to obtain instead of an upward-climbing slope of more experience points for the next level than the current one.
Unfortunately for me, the “kill a monster” XP is listed in the supplemental bestiary, which I haven’t taken the time to flip through the PDF yet. I guess that’ll be next on my list of reading (but not reviewing). On the flip side, the XP awards for minor, moderate, and major accomplishments are laid out as 10, 30, and 80, respectively. Even though they call it “group XP” it’s not divided between all the characters. If the group accomplishes a moderate goal, then all the PCs involved gain 30 XP.
There’s a sidebar for “Story-Based Leveling” that is in this section that calls for the GM to decide if and when the characters level up. This puts a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a personal opinion here, but I really don’t like these approaches at all. The players should see the steady gain of XP for their characters (even if they don’t level yet), so there is a sense of accomplishment in that area. Having the GM suddenly decree, “You go up a level.” feels too much like the GM is controlling things. Of course, this could just be me and my experiences with GMs wanting to have too much control. Your mileage may vary in this area.
There are several pages dedicated to terrain, climate, and hazards. While the lists aren’t complete (I’m assuming they will be more comprehensive in the final, larger book), what is listed there and how the various environmental conditions impact the game are well stated. I like what I see as a set of building blocks toward more content.
The hazards section is very well done. A hazard is the generic term for traps, pits, dangers, and magical effects that can harm or impede the PCs. There are ways to find, trigger, disable, destroy, and/or dispel various hazards depending on their nature. The playtest book came with a sample of three hazards. I had kind of hoped for a few more, but I’m assuming they didn’t want the playtest book to bloat up too much. I’m looking forward to seeing what the final product (and the various expansion books and adventures) have along these lines.
The loot! We’re finally at the gold and shiny and magic and wonderful stuff portion of the book. Yeah, I’m a little excited here because I’m interested in seeing how things change up in this section, if at all.
This section opens up with the usual text explaining what they’re going to be talking about, teaching some keywords, and generally laying out the approach to treasure.
After this comes all sorts of tables outlining (almost proscribing) what treasure different level parties should (must?) receive for a fair and equitable game to be run. The fact that the treasure allotment is so heavily proscribed makes me extraordinarily sad.
No more random treasure.
Yeah. You read that right. There are no more dice rolls involved in generating treasure with Pathfinder. This breaks my heart, to be honest. As a GM, I always loved rolling up treasure because it would spark new ideas, thoughts, plot arcs, and cool stuff in my brain. Yeah, if I happened to roll up a majorly disruptive magic item for a low-level group, I’d probably shift things around a bit (or re-roll). However, randomly creating magic items for folks to find is gone. I’ll be over here in the corner shedding a tear for days gone by.
Okay. I’ve had my cry. I’m mostly better now. Looking at the new approach at handing out treasure is fair and balanced. It will assist new GMs from overloading their group with disruptive items while keeping the party well-equipped for future challenges. This is super helpful for new GMs, and I can appreciate this approach at handing out goods. I just wish they’d kept gems, jewelry, and/or artwork as a form of gaining wealth because those can, once again, inspire stories and side plots, not just a gain of wealth. Now, the party will just gain some gold from the hoard and move on.
If I ever run this version of Pathfinder, I’ll most likely break out my 2nd edition AD&D treasure generators (or the first Pathfinder versions) and run with those. They’re more fun than hand-picking treasure, to be honest.
After the list o’ treasure tables ends, the book delves into materials, which is one of the best write-ups of “non-normal” materials I’ve ever seen. Excellent job here. Obviously, the list isn’t complete, but I expect it to expand in the final version.
While flipping through the treasure section, I hit the sections for snares (crafting, detecting, triggering, etc.) and I was baffled here. I’m not sure why these were listed here under treasure, instead of above with the hazards. Did the wrong pages get dropped into the layout in the wrong place?
After snares, comes the alchemical items. This is a cool section. I highly encourage everyone to check this part out. There are oodles of examples, tons of ideas, and great information about how they play in the game. Loud applause for you here, Paizo.
Runes come next, and this is the part of enhancing weapons and armor with special powers. I love how weapons and armor must now be etched with cool-looking runes to become super special. This adds flavor to the world and storytelling options (as well as some neat intimidate/perception uses when someone wearing a well-etched suit of armor walks in the door) to the whole feel of the game.
Last come the details of the various magic items that don’t fall into “weapons and armor.” This comprises the bulk of the treasure section, and I’m not going to detail each item or neat thing. I do want to say that I really want to play an archer (preferably with the elven ancestry) with an Oathbow.
This is probably going to be my shortest write-up of any of the sections in the book. The appendices simply are: traits and glossary.
The traits are all of the capitalized keywords (such as Strike) used within the book. The glossary is a good collection of phrases, terms, and things found within the book that may not be readily known to every player.
I think the most telling part of “is this a promising product” would be to answer the question, “Would J.T. play this game?”
The answer is, “Yes.”
This is a good foundational book for what promises to be a pretty cool system. There are some rough edges (as there are with any playtest document), but I figure Paizo is wise enough to listen to the feedback sent to them (and hopefully this series of articles) to improve the game.
There is another question looming, however. That question is, “Would J.T. play this version instead of the original Pathfinder?”
The answer is, “No.”
There are a few reasons for this.
The first is that I’m already heavily invested with knowledge, money, habits, and familiarity in the first version of Pathfinder. I have too much “edition inertia” going on to abandon Pathfinder 1.0 for Pathfinder 2.0. If the shift were more subtle between the two, I could see picking it up. However, everything will require major conversions to get from 1.0 to 2.0.
The second is that I’m extremely concerned with the lack of random treasure. Yeah. It’s that big of a deal. I feel it’s a departure too far from the “source material” that was created way back in the 1970s. I don’t like that one bit.
The third is that I don’t see anything drastically improving the game that much. There are tons of incremental improvements and quite a few major changes in the playtest document, but none of them really blew my socks off. There are some new concepts and ideas in here that I think I could shift back into a Pathfinder 1.0 game, but that now leaves me with Pathfinder 1.0 and some house rules (which I already have).
Final question is, “If J.T. were completely new to RPGs and presented with both versions, which one would he pick?”
I’d probably go with the playtest version, to be honest. It’s a better game, and my prejudices built up from playing RPGs for decades (and my Pathfinder edition inertia) would not be a factor in choosing which game to go with.
I know. I know. I’m giving a mixed message here, but there are different angles to look at things.
Paizo put out a solid effort here. I’m impressed with the amount of thought, care, effort, and experience that went into developing this game. They’ve certainly evolved the game. There are some high points in the evolution and some low points as well. I think the high drastically outweighs the low.
I’m very much looking forward to the final version of the game. I’ll take a look at it then and reevaluate things at that time to determine if my stance on moving forward to the new version will change.
Thanks to the Gnome Stew readers out there that stuck with me through these very long articles!Read more »
- mp3Gnomecast #52 – Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Interview
- The Horror Of The Mind’s Eye
What types of stories scare you the most? Is it the madness of the unknown from Cthulhu or the social and body horror of Bluebeard’s Bride? Some find terror in the monster’s teeth inches from their character’s neck, while others flee from the faint noises and shapes in the darkest part of night.
I’m going to tell you a not-so-well-kept secret that I’ve heard from most horror GMs; you will never describe anything as scary to a player as what they create in their mind when left with unanswered questions.
Things that dwell in the unknown
“In the center of the room is a simple wooden table. A dark liquid is dripping from the tabletop onto the floor. As you get a little closer you can see an ivory letter opener that, while dull with age, is perfectly clean and untouched by what you now recognize is blood. It’s almost like opposite poles of a magnet pushing and battling against each other. The letter opener appears to be winning.”
This scene sets up players to have a lot of questions and tension without any direct threats. The danger, if there is any, exists in the unknown parts of their situation. It’s a simple setup that works in a dungeon, 30’s noir mansion, or on an alien space station. Little gems like this are things that you can create, use, and remix for future horror games. The threat isn’t the monster that awaits them, rather it’s the fear of not knowing what form danger will take. Is the letter opener their salvation or their ultimate ruin? Time and their decisions will answer that question.
I will caution you that this doesn’t mean that you should make everything an unknowable mystery. Just like in the classic, “A gun in the first act will go off in the third” trope, the objects and people that inspire fear should pay off in the end. Too many red herrings quickly stink up any story.
The mundane becomes the terror
There is a great guest post by Patrick Benson from back in 2006. It’s all about using those creatures that would normally be considered harmless in an RPG, like a bumblebee, and turning them into fear inducing beings.
I was in a Halloween game of Dread playing the owner of a small country inn. The innkeeper asked the other characters if they were hungry. When a few said yes he walked over to the freezer, protectively peaked inside so that only he could see the contents, and said, “Good! We have meat.”
That changed the way everyone saw both my character and that simple freezer. What was inside? Without knowing the answer, the other players filled it with fear and the frozen bodies of those that had not been smart enough to avoid evil. Really it was just full of poorly organized deer meat. A cold storage device became an object of terror that I still think about whenever the subject of horror comes up.
You can bring that same sense of drama as a GM with normal things acting in abnormal ways. Players are looking for things to be scared of, so plant the seeds of fear! An analog phone disconnected from the wall that still rings anyway is a classic trope for a reason. If that ever happened to me in real life I’d burn the house down and move away because I’ve seen a horror movie. Jim, my innkeeper with a creepy freezer full of meat, might feel differently.
Sounds like a scary situation
People have been using music and sound effects to set the mood at the table for years. Now horror has been gifted with the popularity of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). They are audio recordings of certain noises like tapping fingers, brushing hair, or whispering that evokes a response from the listener’s brain. They are all over YouTube if you’re curious. It was a Twitter user, I can’t remember who, that I first saw talking about using layered ASMR tracks as background noise during a horror game. If you know who it was please leave their name in the comments so that I can give them credit!
Trust me when I say that having multiple voices whispering in the background and making your brain tingle is unsettling at best. Even a single non-verbal track adds a weird atmosphere to your game. Two hours of gloves caressing a microphone and stroking a feather can sound downright sinister!
You can always check your favorite streaming music service for Halloween themed sound effect albums. They do the job in a very thematic way. Try combining the two!
When in doubt ask
“A hellish creature bursts through the door. It is the embodiment of your deepest fears. What does the monster look like?”
Giving the player ownership of their character’s deepest fears is powerful. I know that some GMs have trust issues when it comes to giving players control. What if they try to be silly and say, “It’s a giant rubber ducky?”
My response might be something like, “It looks cracked and worn by years in the sun. There is an intensity in its painted eyes that triggers the long-buried memory of your cousin Justin’s death. You can see in your mind’s eye the image of a much smaller version of this same duck floating next to his lifeless body. Much like then, you could swear that it just smiled and winked at you.”
They asked for it, so give it to them. As a person I know what to do with a maniac with a chainsaw; run away. When it comes to a giant plastic duck that is murdering my bloodline I have no idea. As a GM, take their ideas and build on them.
Horror automatically comes with a high potential for traumatizing players, so I always make sure that I have a full safety toolkit at my disposal. There have been several wonderful articles written here on the Stew that cover the subject.
Read them, find what works best for your group, and have fun in the freedom of getting scared! This is the chance for all of you to really terrify each other while everyone stays safe!
What tricks do you use to scare your players? What is the most terrifying moment that you’ve ever experienced in a game?Read more »
- All the World’s a Stage
Halloween is nearly upon us, and soon, no one will look twice at a person dressed as the murderous Michael Myers or as a walking talking human sized piece of candy corn. Halloween encourages everyday people to imagine costumes to wear, attend parties, and even to play a little pretend. Take advantage of the spooky season and introduce some new players to role-playing games! The next time you need another player for your game, don’t just think about who plays the games you do. Think about who should play the games you do. Let them know what they’re missing!
So, what’s your costume?
Why do we rack our brains over who to be and explore endless costume racks for what to wear for Halloween? Not to mention, occasionally we spend an obscene amount of money to manicure every detail. Why do we do it? Why do we go through the hassle year after year?
Can it be that it is just fun to do? I mean, it only comes once a year. When else are you going to dress up, put your feet in another person’s shoes, and get to play a character? See where this is going?
Role-playing in disguise?
- Theater: We pay big money to watch, or possibly experience, theater. We audition just for the opportunity to play a part. Skits are used on big time shows like Dancing with the Stars to amplify dancing competitions, they preempt Christmas choir performances, and they are used in comedy all the time. SNL anyone? We prize actors of the silver screen, paying our favorites absurd amounts of money collectively. People pay for the privilege to observe, to experience, and to be entertained.
Maybe we do it for the prestige, the story, or the love of acting…
- Comic Conventions: They attract thousands of people at shows all over the country. A few of them attract over a hundred thousand attendees per convention. Thanks to the internet and our social media obsession with images, we are inundated with pictures of cosplay super heroines, anime heroes, cartoon characters and everything in between! There are even shows, contests, and prizes dedicated just to creating costumes.
Maybe it is a form of hero worship, or we do it to honor the creative crafting spirit of it all.
- Historical Reenactments: There is something to be said about retelling history. Reenactments help us get in the mindset of other times, other places. Reenactments are a long-held tradition like storytelling through performance. Is time what gives these activities their general acceptance?
Maybe we do it for the value of passing on history or the act of storytelling itself?
I can’t quite put my finger on why we dress up, why we embrace the opportunity to be someone else, but there is an enjoyment and general affection that is shared among the participants in these activities.
Maybe we all crave escapism…
What is abundantly clear is that there is common ground for why we wear costumes and why we enjoy role-playing games. So, why aren’t game tables overflowing with role-players like candy pails on Halloween?
Wearing a Costume
Shakespeare famously said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.
The point is, it isn’t weird that you like to be someone or something else sometimes. It isn’t weird or wrong that you feel different in different clothes. Identity is powerful and we identify with how we look — how others look. Far too many role-playing enthusiasts are shy to speak about their impassioned hobby. For a good reason too, Dungeons & Dragons has been socially polarizing for many of us over the years. The funny thing is, people are playing role-playing games all around us. They always have!The funny thing is, people are playing role-playing games all around us. They always have!
When you were young, maybe you had tea parties with your imaginary friends. Have you ever played Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians? I for one used to run around the school yard acting out comic book characters. Maybe you just sat on the sofa imitating British accents or your favorite cartoon voices. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, whatever nerd stigma came of the past is no longer so divisive, so ostracizing. Given how widely we imitate others, how often we mask ourselves, what do we have to hide in the first place?
We are all actors and actresses. Maybe you like yourself better after a beer buzz. Is that suit you wear to work for show or do you feel empowered by it? What if you were a baseball player, a police officer, or a doctor; is it the confidence in how you wear the outfit or the skill of how you actually perform in it?
Take a minute to carefully consider how you hide your hobby… and ask yourself, does it matter anymore? Worse…are you not including someone else in what makes you happy?
Don’t hide your games from the public. Don’t make excuses. If times haven’t changed, then we are definitely starting to see them differently. The next time you need another player for your game, don’t just think about who plays the games you do. Consider the kid practicing their British accent. Consider the Dad who is reenacting Pickett’s Charge this weekend. Ask anyone who has ever auditioned for theater — or ever wanted to.
With the spirit of Halloween all around us, you couldn’t be more surrounded by people with a reason to be interested in playing a role-playing game with you. Your next player is right in front of you, quit looking past them.
What audiences can you think of that are role-playing in disguise!? Who did you role-play as when you were a kid? How do you hide your role-playing hobby from friends and family?
- How writing a TTRPG strengthened my Chinese-Canadian identity
It’s 2018, and with the release of Crazy Rich Asians we’re starting to see a proliferation in high profile projects by Asian American and Asian Canadian creators in film and television. But the way I see it right now, the Asian design community in tabletop roleplaying games finds itself in a situation similar to that of mainstream North American cinema in the late 90s and early 2000s.
On episode 14 of the Fun with Dumb podcast, Dante Basco, best known for his groundbreaking roles as Rufio in Hook and Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, said “99% of Asian roles you’ve seen in your lifetime…roles I’ve played and seen…have been the experiences of a white man”. The same goes for tabletop roleplaying games. With the legacy of Orientalist works such as Oriental Adventures (1985) and the continued popularity of Legend of the Five Rings (1995-present), consumers continue to face selective renderings of “Asian cultures” designed for western audiences. Similarly, with others like The Mountain Witch and High Plains Samurai, predominantly white consumers are given the means to explore and integrate cultural tropes from East Asian cultures into their games.
Now don’t get me wrong, these kinds of games aren’t necessarily racist. They’re just damaging in their misrepresentative natures and reliance on dated tropes.
They don’t tell our stories or enable people to tell real Asian stories.
But here’s the catch. We don’t want to be a reactive community. We can’t just shout into the void calling for proper, positive representation in RPGs. If we want to design games, consume games, and represent ourselves in ways we want, we have to do what creators in Hollywood did. Participate or remain underrepresented. Tell your stories or remain invisible. Act with your dollars and create the projects that you want on the market.
So I did just that and made my voice heard in the Canadian gaming community.
On Curiosity in Focus, the podcast I independently produce, I interviewed a retired engineer named Jack Gin. At the request of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, Jack had recently discovered a lost story from the First World War that would forever change the direction of my life. It was about Frederick Lee – a Chinese Canadian man who never returned from France during the First World War. Frederick was one of approximately 300 Canadians of Chinese ancestry who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the only known Canadian born Chinese soldier to die in combat during the Great War. In the face of widespread social and legal discrimination faced by Chinese communities in Canada, Frederick saw combat during the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a machine gunner for the 172nd (Rocky Mountain Rangers) Battalion and was later killed during the Battle of Hill 70. Like me, Frederick was a Canadian-born Chinese man from a family that emigrated from southern China.
His story is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s one of self-sacrifice, loss, and a search for belonging.
Sounds like it’d fit perfectly into a tabletop RPG, right? I think so! So I searched, looking for a game that might allow me to tell stories in a WWI setting. There was Weird War I – Savage Worlds or Wraith: The Great War, two alternate historical spins on a First World War infused by the dark arts and supernatural. These were naturally not the best choice due to their fantastical elements. PATROL: The Trench Raiders, an expansion of PATROL – A Vietnam War Roleplaying Game and OneDice WWI also presented themselves as an option. And of course, many of the setting agnostic systems like Fate would also work.
I wanted depth. I wanted a game that included a rich historical setting that provided a backdrop through which to tell a characteristically Canadian story. Beyond the readily available games that feature a pseudo-feudal Japanese setting sprinkled with aspects of other Asian cultures, there exist few games in other genres that feature Asian characters or stories.
So alongside two friends, we began to write one of our own – Ross Rifles.
Ross Rifles is a Powered by the Apocalypse game where players create and inhabit fictional members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) stationed on the Western Front. The game will not only teach players about Canada’s contribution to WWI but also highlight the struggles and sacrifices made by Canadians of all backgrounds to the war effort. This process would deepen my connection with Asian-Canadian history and complicate my understanding of who could be a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during one of Canada’s defining conflicts. When conducting research for this book, I was unsurprised to see that most popular sources of the war featured almost exclusively white men fighting in the name of Canada. This wasn’t the war I had come to learn about. This wasn’t the complicated and diverse fighting force I was trying to tell stories about. For me, like Frederick Lee, belonging was really important. From my perspective, Ross Rifles is about telling the story of those underrepresented in history texts and WWI media. It’s about complicating our understanding of Canadian identity during the early 20th century. It’s also a way for me to contribute to my own community here in Canada.
So let’s write our own games, create our own networks, and represent ourselves.
Daniel Kwan (@danielhkwan) is one-third of Dundas West Games and Level Up Gaming. You can learn more about Ross Rifles at dundaswestgames.com/rossrifles. He’s a creative producer, teacher, GM for Hire, and co-host of the Asians Represent! podcast (@aznsrepresent) on the ONE SHOT Podcast Network.Read more »
- ● The Waylanders - Update #15There's a new Kickstarter update for The Waylanders: ALPHA access, German translation and free location After a great weekend, we are super close to our goal! And we want to thank you for your amazing support with 3 new surprises: a new awesome add-on, a new FREE ingame location and the translation of the game to German! New Location We are adding an important location on the map of The Waylanders, which will expand your game experience.... Read more »
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- ● 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.
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 »
- VideoThe Hunger: A Level 1 to 20 Gnoll Campaign
Reading Volo's Guide to Monsters, along with the Monster Manual is a fantastic way to fill our head with D&D lore that helps us plan our games and improvise while we're running them. If you get nothing else out of this article, consider how much value you can get by reading these books cover to cover to steep yourself in D&D lore.
Reading the section on gnolls in Volo's Guide got my head spinning around the idea of a full level 1 to 20 fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign built around gnolls. I had in my head an image of a hyena twitching in the remains of a half-digested corpse of a villager (gory, I know). As the characters watch in horror, the hyena starts to twist and break like the best scene in American Werewolf in London. The party witnesses the full transformation (or maybe partial transformation if they decide to blast it to pieces before it finishes) of a hyena into a gnoll.
A whirlwind of events would take them from that single scene all the way into the Death Dells where they will hunt—or be hunted by— Yeenoghu the demon prince of gnolls and the most powerful minions on Yeenoghu's home plane of existence in the Abyss.
Can we build an entire campaign around this central pillar? I believe we can! Of course it won't JUST be gnolls. We'd have lots of side threads going on too, but building a full level 1 to 20 campaign arc focused on Yeenoghu's Hunger sounds like a lot of fun to me, so let's dig in.
The Campaign Elevator Pitch
Following the steps in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for building new campaigns, we start with a central theme for the campaign. The shorter the better, so here is my campaign pitch in three words:
End Yeenoghu's hunger.
That's simple but it's a good central pillar around which to build the campaign. It's a quest the characters can get early on in the adventure and work towards all throughout their characters' levels.
Six Truths of the Hunger
Next we come to the campaign's six truths. What sets this campaign apart from others? Here we list the six things that make this campaign unique among campaigns. These are truths we will share with the players so they know what to build their characters around.
A blood moon rises in the sky each night and has for a full month with no sign of stopping.
Signs of a twisted new cult have begun to appear. Some whisper of cannibalism.
Trade between smaller villages and towns have begun to cease. Some say entire villages have been found slaughtered and devoured.
Hobgoblins from a warband known as the Black Fist have sprung up in greater numbers.
Cities of the lands have begun to close their borders and seal their walls. Even they do not know exactly why.
A great black and green storm swirls over the mountains of Shattered Teeth. Sages say the very atmosphere over the mountains has changed.
This is going to be a campaign of overland exploration and dungeon delving and will have all three pillars of play. We can reinforce to the players that they will will want to build players with the following goal:
"My character wants to work with their fellow adventurers to find the source of the bloody hunger that grips the land and end it."
We don't have to build out an entire campaign from end to end here, but we will outline the major story drivers of the campaign. We've borrowed the idea of Fronts from the excellent RPG, Dungeon World.
- Front: Yeenoghu and the gnoll hordes
- Goal: Devour all humanity in the world.
- First Grim Portent: Packs of gnolls in great number stop trade between the major cities of the land.
- Second Grim Portent: Yeenoghu and his gnoll hordes attack a smaller settlement.
Third Grim Portent: Yeenoghu and his greater horde attack one of the larger cities.
Front: The Cult of the Hunger
- Goal: Pave the way for Yeenoghu's cleansing.
- First Grim Portent: The cult grows larger as it recruits from disenfranchised towns on the outskirts of major cities.
- Second Grim Portent: The cult steals the powerful Tome of Savagery from the greatest library of the land and uses it to open a second portal to Yeenoghu's realm, the Death Dells.
Third Grim Portent: The Cult of Hunger assassinates the leaders of a major city and sends its armies into chaos.
Front: The Black Fist hobgoblin mercenary army
- Goal: Let the gnoll horde weaken the defenses of the cities and then sweep in and take over.
- First Grim Portent: The Black Fist hobgoblin army takes over a ruined castle within striking distance of two major settlements.
- Second Grim Portent: Black Fist scouts track Yeenoghu's trail of destruction.
- Third Grim Portent: The Black Fist stands outside of a major city, waiting until both sides are weakened before sweeping in and taking it over.
We hold these fronts loosely. New fronts might pop up and old fronts might change drastically. Volo's Guide includes a wonderful section on hobgoblins as well as gnolls so we can add them as a third party that might end up as allies of the, enemies, or both for the characters and their goals.
When it comes to the selection of monsters we might choose or this campaign, Volo's Guide has an excellent section on the Anatomy of a Warband and on Gnoll Allies that works as a great checklist of potential monsters we can sprinkle throughout our campaign.
A Loose 1 to 20 Outline
While we don't need anything more than the above to run a decent start to a campaign, it might be fun to write a loose outline of the places the characters might visit and the events that might occur as they go through the campaign. I picked twenty such places and events, one for each level of the game. I have no illusion that these will all get used at exactly the right level but it gives me a loose outline of ideas I can go through when running adventures. I am happy to throw any or all of these away as the campaign progresses.
Level 1: The Dying Hyena. The party encounters a dying hyena that turns into a gnoll in front of their eyes. More hyenas howl in the distance.
Level 2: Slaughter at the Village of Nix. The party sees the slaughter of the village of Nix and hunts down those that committed the act.
Level 3: The Charnal Pit. The party witnesses the gnoll's feast at the charnel pit outside of Nix.
Level 4: Assault on Fort Kellum. The party arrives at Fort Kellum to see it under assault by the gnolls.
Level 5: The Dead Gate. The characters explore the ruins of a planar gate previously used by Yeenoghu four hundred years ago and the ruins of dwarves and deep gnomes that surround it.
Level 6: Citadel Gallax. The party explores, infiltrates, or is invited into a ruined citadel now rebuilt by the Black Fist hobgoblin warband.
Level 7: The Tower of Fangs. The party faces the cult of Hunger at one of its temples and discovers their dark portents.
Level 8: Mountain of Broken Teeth. The party backtracks to the Mountains of Broken Teeth where Yeenoghu first came to the world.
Level 9: The First Portal. The party finds and close the portal Yeenoghu used to enter the prime plane.
Level 10: Dragonspear Castle. The party goes to Dragonspear Castle where the Black Fist warband wages war against a huge gnoll army.
Level 11: The Temple of the Hunger. The party faces the cult of Hunger and its high priest to recover the Book of Savagry.
Level 12: The Demon Rift. The party discovers and must close a rift spilling out scores of maw demons like an infected wound in the world.
Level 13: The Hunters at the Twisted Shrine. At a long-forgotten shrine, the party must survive an assault by a war band of gnolls specifically born and bred to hunt them down and slay them.
Level 14: The Assault on Baldur's Gate. The party arrives at Baldur's Gate to find Yeenoghu and his army waging an assault on the city.
Level 15: The Prince of Savagery. The party faces Yeenoghu and his army in order to save Baldur's Gate.
Level 16: The Gateway. The party faces Yeenoghu's gatekeepers and enters the gateway to the Death Dells.
Level 17: The Death Dells. The party begins their exploration into Yeenoghu's Abyssal plane.
Level 18: The Maw. The party travels through a huge sinkhole consisting of the rotten corpse of a single huge maw demon.
Level 19: The Hunting Grounds. A twisted maze of brambles surrounds Yeenghu's lair in which the mightiest gnolls of the demon prince eternally hunt their prey.
Level 20: Yeenoghu. The party faces the Prince of Savagery on his throne of corpses.
A Loose Outline and a Fun Exercise
When we sit down to plan a campaign like this, we need not plan too far. Things are going to go off the rails from the very first session and that's what makes these games so much fun. We can, however, get our minds working by thinking about what might happen and have some fun diving deep into the lore of the game to see where our minds go. Such exercises keep our minds limber and keep us ready to run some great games even if we never get around to running a campaign like this.
When you think of your own campaign, where does your mind go?Read more »
- Handling Tag-Along NPCs
In the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Out of the Abyss, the party has the potential of grouping with a number of NPCs as they all attempt to escape from their captors in the depths of the underdark. In Storm King's Thunder, the party can be accompanied by Harshnag, a powerful frost giant wielding an incredibly powerful magical axe. Finally, in Tomb of Annihilation, the characters have the potential of grouping with assassins, a Couatl, or an artifact-donning hero and his lizard companion wielding a holy avenger.
Some DMs may not have any problem handling these tag-along NPCs in a game. These NPCs find their place in a group and work their way into the story as it unfolds. Other DMs, myself included, have trouble with tag-along NPCs. Here's why.
First, tag-along NPCs make our lives harder as DMs. Running a whole world is already hard work, even for the lazy. Adding tag-along NPCs gives us a whole other set of variables to handle.
Tag-along NPCs also make combat take longer since there's another character in the mix. Sometimes we can hand this off to one of the players but not if the NPC has a secret identity. If you hand Dragonbait over to a player, I bet that sword is getting traded.
These tag-along NPCs also skew the balance of power in a group. Challenges that the party might have had a hard time with suddenly got easier. That extra NPC adds to the overall synergy to the party and that synergy is a huge power boost. If we want to challenge the characters, we're going to have to account for it.
Probably the worst offense of tag-along NPCs is that they draw the spotlight off of the characters. Our attention should be on the characters and how they interact with the world around them. Now we have this new character that doesn't belong to anyone but who also takes some of that spotlight away. This gets exacerbated if the NPC overshadows the characters in power, like Artus Cimber, Dragonbait, or Harshnag.
How do we handle it when tag-along NPCs become a burden to a game? Many DMs discussed the problem and potential solutions in a Twitter thread on the topic. The following includes ideas they discussed as well as some of my own.
Don't Let them Tag Along in the First Place
If we know these tag-along NPCs might show up in our adventure, we can head them off before they actually join the characters. Maybe we just don't have them show up at all. What is their reason not to join the party? I hinted at Artus Cimber and Dragonbait in my Tomb of Annihilation game but never pulled the thread on them and never had them show up. Maybe I would have if they came up in a random roll of the dice but maybe I'd simply roll again. This is certainly likely after hearing how difficult these high-level NPCs can be when they join a game.
The easiest way to deal with tag-along NPCs is simply not to. Don't let them become tag-along NPCs.
Have an Exit Strategy
If an NPC does join the party, it always helps to have an exit plan for the NPC. When will the NPC leave the group? What circumstances will lead to their departure? How do you steer things to ensure that circumstance actually takes place?
Harshnag in Storm King's Thunder had an exit plan; getting crushed under a million tons of ice in the Eye of the All Father. I don't know that Artus Ember and Dragonbait had much of an exit plan but they might come to either fear the characters or fear for the characters and head out during the night. The various NPCs in Out of the Abyss might eventually betray the characters or leave for other reasons. The guides in Tomb of Annihilation might get sick or might have another tangential agenda that leads them away from the party.
Keep your options open when considering how to get an NPC to leave the party and be ready to enact it if you find the NPC is overstaying their welcome.
Limit Their Utility
What the NPCs do while their with the party can also make a huge difference in how things play out. If an NPC agrees up front to stay out of combat, that makes things easier. This works best if the NPC clearly isn't much of a combatant to begin with. It's harder when you see a lizard with a holy avenger sword who's standing back while you fight ancient crocodiles by yourself. There are few reasons why a combat-focused NPC wouldn't fight but, if there's a good reason within the context of the story, that can work out. Lets pretend Jarlaxle joined the group. He has a clear reason to disappear every time things get dangerous even though he's a hell of a combatant. It's a lot less likely Drizzt would stay out of a fight, though.
Instead, we have another way we can keep them out of the way.
Make them Background Scenery
One way we can have a combat-focused NPC in a party and still not causing much trouble is to make them part of the background. If the party is facing three ogres, maybe they're actually facing four and our combat-focused NPC is taking care of the fourth. We pull these two combatants out of the actual battle and simply describe the battle taking place between them in the narrative. No dice need be thrown, no damage needs be tallied; we just make it part of the scenery going on while the main battle takes place in the foreground.
This has limits, though. This style will likely get stale if you do it over and over. This problem points back to getting them out of the party as soon as you can so it doesn't get that stale.
Let Players Run Them
In the case of an NPC who isn't seriously outclassing the rest of the party, let one of the players—maybe the player with the simplest character—run the NPC. You can give them a copy of the stat block, maybe taking a picture of it with their phone, and let them run the NPC on their same initiative. This is usually quick since monster stat blocks aren't terribly difficult.
If the NPC has a secret identity, say like Eku from Tomb of Annihilation secretly being a Couatl, you can instead give the player the stat block for the NPC they're pretending to be, say a spy or a veteran. These characters are likely to pull their punches anyway so as not to expose their true selves and that can be accounted for in the false statblock. It also keeps their power under control.
Be Aware of the Spotlight
Beyond adding extra power to the characters that might make potentially challenging situations trivial, NPCs in the party can have a tendency of pulling the spotlight away from the other characters. No one wants to watch DMs play with themselves. This can get tricky if the NPC is clearly the right person for a particular job, either because of what they know or the skills they happen to have. Why wouldn't the NPC who already knows the king be the one to negotiate for the party? This is something you'll want to noodle through before it starts to happen in your game. The spotlight should always be on the characters and tag-along NPCs should always be in the background. We might have to fudge the story a little bit to get them there but its important enough that it's worth bending the story to make it happen.
Player-Provided Tag-Along NPCs
So far we've been talking about NPCs in the adventure who, through the purposes of the story, end up tagging along with the group. Sometimes, however, players will bring their own tag-along NPCs as part of their characters. Maybe they hired a hireling or maybe they summoned a pet. Maybe they have their own simulacrum walking around with them or some sort of intelligent pet. This is a slightly different situation because you can't simply route the NPC out of the group. If a character's NPC starts to hog too much of the spotlight, it might be worth having an out-of-game conversation with the player to determine how you can ensure their NPC isn't stealing the joy from the rest of the table. Mabye that shield guardian of theirs wanders off unexpectedly. Maybe that hireling quits. Maybe the simulacrum goes back to protect the characters' airship.
Other times these player-provided tag-along NPCs aren't that much of a problem. You can always account for them when determining the challenge of a fight if a challenge is what you seek by adding one or two monsters to balance them out. They also often make juicy targets.
One nice house rule you might incorporate is the rule of mutually-assured destruction for tag-along NPCs. This works well for delicate pets and familiars. If a character's NPC doesn't come out in a fight, you won't target them; even with area of effect spells. This helps them keep their delicate NPCs without worrying about them getting killed in every fireball that happens to target the party.
Just Say No
Many of these problems and potential solutions go away if, when you have the chance, you simply forgo having tag-along NPCs at all. If an adventure calls for an NPC to follow the party, consider whether it really needs to happen and, if it does, how they will exit out again. Be particularly careful with high power NPCs like Artus Cimber, Dragonbait, and Harshnag. They can completely unbalance an adventure if they stick around too much.
The easiest thing is to simply avoid such NPCs. That's what us lazy dungeon masters do.Read more »
- Running Ravenloft
Note: This article has been updated since its original version published in November 2012.
Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, was ranked in 2004 by Dungeon magazine as the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.
With the release of Curse of Strahd, we have a fully updated 5th edition D&D version of Ravenloft. Though intended for a long campaign, we're going to strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 8th level characters perfect for us to run on or around Halloween every year.
Let's take a look at how to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.
The Party's Goals
We'll start by stripping down the goals of this adventure to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, we're killing Strahd to prevent him from enthralling Ireena Kolyana and making her his dark bride.
To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle. These three artifacts include the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.
You'll notice that we replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit with the theme of the game. A paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. We can replace this with a large bowl of clear water suitable to restore the vitality of the party once, giving them the equivalent of a short or long rest depending on how hard a time the characters are having.
We're also going to add a trait the Tome of Strahd that helps streamline this adventure. If Strahd is defeated, the Tome of Strahd can be burned to destroy him within his coffin regardless of where the characters are when they set it ablaze. In truth, this is the only item the characters actually need assuming they can defeat Strahd without the Sun Sword or the Icon.
Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his stalkerish ways and is taking the fight right to him. Ireena is a veteran and can be controlled by a volunteer player who is already running a simple character.
Alternatively one of the players can play Ireena. She is human but otherwise can be any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.
Ravenloft Character Bonds
We're going to keep the bonds between characters very simple. Instead of a whole slew of interconnecting bonds, every character has the following bond for this one-shot adventure:
By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect Ireena from the devil Strahd.
Now every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft with Ireena, and destroy the vampire once and for all.
Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenoft and the Drawing
When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:
The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road that leads to Castle Ravenloft. As you peer out one window, you watch rocks from the road fall one thousand feet to the river below. Looking ahead you see the carriage master, his cowled face turned your way and staring at you with invisible eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back impossibly far with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.
A raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins that make up Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins to place them on the small table in the center of the inside of the carriage.
We will be using the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: we're going to skip the ally and just stick to the three artifacts and Strahd's location. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck:
- Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
- Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
- Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
- Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
- Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
- Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
- Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
- Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
- Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
- Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
- Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
- Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
- Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
- Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
- Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)
Ireena places out four cards, three from the common deck (one for each artifact) and one from the high deck which represents Strahd's location. With those cards placed, the adventure is ready to begin.
The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. Instead of an illusion of Strahd playing the grand organ, it is Strahd himself. As they dine, Strahd lays out the rules of his "game" which, in short is the following:
"Defeat me and you save Ireena. Perish and she is mine."
In his unfathomable cruelty he asks Ireena a simple question:
"Give yourself to me now, my love, and you can save their lives."
Ireena looks to the party for guidance. If she appears as though she will give herself to Strahd, he turns to them and asks:
"and you would allow this?".
Should they choose to hand her over, Strahd looks very disappointed.
"They are obviously not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle. Let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."
Strahd then departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.
Should the characters decide to confront Strahd there and then, Strahd is accompanied by two vampire spawns and has an additional spawn for every character above four. They're not likely to survive.
Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd
The party must find all three artifacts before facing Strahd. 45 minutes before the end of the game, Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever they have. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot defeat the vampire. Depending on how difficult you want the fight, he might come with his three brides, each a vampire spawn. One of these vampire brides has the casting capabilities of a mage. One has the fighting capabilities of a veteran, and one has the capabilities of an assassin without the poison.
Throughout the session, Strahd might decide to jump into a situation to harass the party if they have been having too easy a time. Strahd will arrive in his hybrid bat form or his hybrid wolf form, poke at the party, and then leave. Each time Strahd arrives, his entrance is foreshadowed by his children of the night.
Facing Strahd von Zarovich
45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's full entry in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies.
If we want to run Strahd on "hard mode" if the characters have been having too easy a time of it, we can use our "nastier specials" from our Running Strahd article. This includes the following:
Use the following changes to increase Strahd's difficulty:
- 200 hit points
- 19 AC (mage armor from a scroll)
- Unarmed strike does 11 (2d10) bludgeoning and 21 (6d6) necrotic damage.
- Bite does 9 (2d8) piercing and 14 (4d6) necrotic.
- Switch out the following spells: shield instead of comprehend languages, counterspell instead of nondetection, lightning bolt instead of fireball, and dispel magic instead of nondetection.
- Add Beguiling Gaze.
Beguiling Gaze. As a bonus action, the vampire fixes its gaze on a creature it can see within 30 feet of it. If the target can see the vampire, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or the vampire has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of the vampires next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for the vampires bite attack. A creature that cant be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against the vampires gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.
A Halloween Tradition
With Curse of Strahd in hand and our streamlined plans in place, we can make Castle Ravenloft our very own Halloween tradition. Give it a try!Read more »
- A New Dungeon Master's Guide For Building Encounters
Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the sixth in a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:
- Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group
- Starting Strong at your First D&D Game
- Tools for the New D&D Dungeon Master
- Improvisation in D&D for New Dungeon Masters
- A New Dungeon Master's Guide to Miniatures
- A New DM's Guide For Building Combat Encounters (this article)
In this article we're going to dig deep into one of the most challenging aspects of running a D&D game: building combat encounters.
This article goes hand-in-hand with my original article on Building Encounters in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. That article contains charts and tables to help you choose the right number of monsters for a given situation.
Here's a quick summary of this article's approach towards encounter building:
- Let encounters develop from the story, the situation, and the actions of the characters. We don't have to pre-define encounters as "combat", "roleplaying", or "exploration". We only have to set up the situations and let the players decide how to interact with them.
- Choose the type and number of monsters that make sense given the situation. Sometimes this might be two sleepy guards at a cave entrance. Other times it might be an entire hobgoblin warband. Give the characters openings to take different approaches towards the scene.
- Keep an eye out for unexpectedly deadly encounters. Understand the loose relationship between monster challenge ratings and character levels. Remember that fewer monsters are generally easier than lots of monsters. Use a tool like the tables in Xanathar's Guide to Everything if you're not sure. In particular, be nice to level 1 characters. They're really squishy.
- Adjust the encounter as needed during the game. Vary hit points within the hit-dice range. Increase or decrease damage. Add or remove monsters.
- Mix up encounters to keep things fresh. Add interesting terrain or fantastic features. Throw a mixture of easy and hard encounters at the characters. Use waves of monsters.
We're going to dig into all of these things throughout the article.
Develop Encounters from the Story
Dungeons & Dragons breaks down scenes into three different types of gameplay: NPC interaction and roleplaying, exploration, and combat. In the vernacular of D&D, all of these types of scenes are considered "encounters".
We don't have to define any scene as being a roleplay scene, an exploration scene, or a combat scene ahead of time. Instead, we can set up the situation and let the players choose how to approach it. Maybe they attack the bugbear leader of the goblins directly. Maybe they try to bargain with them. Maybe they sneak up the garbage chute and try to listen in to the bugbear's plans. We don't necessarily know what choices the players will make when they leap into an encounter and not knowing is half the fun.
It's common to break up our game into a set number of roleplay encounters, exploration encounters, and combat encounters but consider setting those categories aside and simply developing situations. These situations have interesting things going on in them that the characters can get involved with, but we don't have to know how they will interact with it. Sure, some scenes lean one way or another. When a horde of goblins attacks a wagon filled with friendly farming families (FFFs), the player characters are not going to go investigate rocks. Many times, however, we DMs can simply set the stage and let the players act within the scene as they want. That's a big part of the fun of D&D.
Choose Monsters that Fit the Situation
As we described earlier, the story and situation drives what encounters takes place. The same is true when we select monsters. Choose the monsters that fit the situation. A hobgoblin war camp might realistically have twenty-five hobgoblins and fifty goblins in it. They might not all charge the characters at once but that's the size of the war camp. A single hobgoblin patrol might consist of six hobgoblins and a captain. A war party might consist of twenty goblins, twelve hobgoblins, two hobgoblin captains, and a hobgoblin warlord.
We don't try to balance this war camp with the characters. This is the size of the war camp, the patrol, and the war party regardless of the characters. How the characters decide to deal with a small patrol or approach the war party is up to them.
Sometimes the characters might corner off two hobgoblins who went to examine an old dwarven statue. Other times the characters might find themselves overwhelmed with two dozen hobgoblins and two captains riding on scarred worgs. The story drives the encounter.
Determining Deadly Encounters
Most DMs want to have a vague idea of how difficult an encounter will be. A group of level 17 characters won't have much of a problem blowing this war camp off the face of Faerun but a group of level 4 characters running up against an entire war party at once could be deadly.
Before an encounter turns to combat, it helps if we know it's rough potential difficulty. Doing so helps us steer the situation and offer other options to the players before it becomes a surprise total-party-kill (TPKs). Understanding encounter difficulty is tricky and can cause real problems for new DMs. Most commonly, a new DM will pit the characters against monsters that are way too hard and inadvertently kill the characters.
Accidental TPKs are much more likely to happen at level 1 than any other level in D&D. Anyone who thinks a battle between a group of level 18 characters against Tiamat will be rough hasn't seen what happens when level 1 characters fight too many rat swarms.
Above all else, be gentle with level 1 characters. However squishy you think they are, they're squishier. If you want to throw some monsters at your level 1 characters, choose fewer monsters than characters (maybe one for every two characters) and make sure they have a challenge of 1/4 or less. Even two or three challenge 1/2 thugs can wipe the floor with level 1 characters. Be nice to these poor young adventurers and you'll have 19 more levels of delightful pain to inflict.
The Dungeon Master's Guide has detailed instructions for building encounters at various difficulties. These are the guidelines that Wizards of the Coast themselves use to design monsters and balance combat encounters. I suggest that you ignore these guidelines. They're too complicated, take a lot of time, and don't usually give us the results we're after anyway.
In a wonderful episode of Dragon Talk, lead D&D Designer and rules sage Jeremy Crawford goes into detail on these rules and explains that the main goal isn't to "balance" encounters but to help DMs gauge the difficulty of a combat encounter, particularly if it's deadly. The math in the Dungeon Master's Guide can give us this rough gauge but so can a number of other easier methods. I'm going to offer three different methods for determining whether an encounter is deadly or not and you are free to choose the method you like the best. Two of these methods use the same underlying math of the Dungeon Master's Guide but are easier to use.
First, Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a much-improved set of guidelines and tables for determining encounter difficulty. Instead of attempting to calculate encounter balance based on experience budgets, difficulty, and the number of monsters, Xanathar's Guide includes charts we can reference to determine the equivalent number of monsters to characters at a given character level and monster challenge rating.
Second, I'll offer some rules-of-thumb you can keep in your head to give you a rough idea of whether an encounter is deadly or not. This takes a little work to memorize but once it's wired into your head, you'll need no other tool or chart to gauge an encounter's difficulty. This method compares the challenge rating of monsters to the levels of characters.
Third, you can just wing it. The more experienced you get with D&D; the monsters, the mechanics, and the capabilities of the characters; the easier it will be for you to judge the difficulty of an encounter on your own. There is, of course, a lot of variance during a fight, but as you run games you'll become better at judging the difficulty without any sort of forumlas or tables. Many experienced DMs ignore any sort of encounter balance rules and take an estimated guess at the difficulty of any given encounter.
Comparing Challenge Rating to Character Level
It's important that we understand what the challenge rating of a monster represents. According to the Monster Manual, a group of four characters should be able to defeat a monster with a challenge rating equal to the level of the characters. Thus, a group of level 2 characters should be able to defeat a challenge 2 ogre.
If we reverse-engineer the encounter building math used in the Dungeon Master's Guide, we can figure out a few other relationships between challenge rating and character level. These comparisons assume a fight that is not quite deadly, but close.
A single monster is roughly equal in power to a single character if its challenge rating is roughly 1/4 of the character's level. This increases to 1/2 if the character is above level 4.
A single monster is roughly equal in power to two characters if its challenge rating is 1/2 of the character's level. This increases to 3/4 if the character is above level 4.
Two monsters are roughly equal in power to a single character if the monsters' challenge rating is roughly equal to 1/10 of the character's level. This increases to 1/4 if the character is above level 4.
Here's a small table that might help. This comes from the upcoming Lazy DM's Workook, the Kickstarter stretch goal for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master
Any encounters above these amounts, in the quantity of monsters and the challenge ratings of monsters compared to the level of the characters, will be potentially deadly.
This system can't give you a perfectly accurate view of how a battle will go, however. Too many variables determine the difficulty of a combat encounter. These variables include the experience of the players, the synergy of the character classes, how many battles the characters have already encountered, what spells the characters have, what magic items the characters have, the environment they're fighting in, and, of course, the roll of the dice.
Thus, any guidelines you decide to use to help you understand encounter difficulty won't be perfectly accurate. Instead, you'll have to judge for yourself by seeing how the characters fair against various types of fights throughout an adventure or a campaign. Sometimes you'll need to ease back and make battles easier. Other times you'll need to increase the number of monsters to challenge the characters.
The more experience you get under your belt running combat in D&D and the better you understand the capabilities of the characters, the easier it becomes to see what the characters can handle and adjust accordingly.
Adjusting Encounter Difficulty on the Fly
There's a dirty secret among DMs. We're all cheats and liars. We do, however, cheat and lie for the fun of the game and the enjoyment of the players. We can, for example, vary the hit points of a monster depending on how the battle is going. If the battle is becoming a slog or is simply too hard, we can reduce the number of hit points a monster has. If the characters are carving through monsters too easily, we might increase them to add to the challenge. As long as we're varying hit points within the hit dice range of a monster, we're technically not cheating.
For example, an ogre has an average of 59 hit points and its hit dice are 7d10 + 21. Thus, any ogre could have between 28 and 91 hit points. A bigger brute might have 90 hit points but the weaker ones might only have 40. We don't have to make these changes ahead of time. We can change their hit points during the battle to keep up the high energy pace of the game.
We can likewise tweak the damage of a monster. Like hit points, we're given an average amount of damage and a damage equation. If we want, we can increase the damage the monster inflicts up to the maximum of that dice range and still be within the rules. Likewise, a hit might be less if we find that the monsters are inflicting way more damage than we expected.
Finally, we can add or remove monsters to tune a fight. Maybe six more hobgoblins rush in when they hear their fellow soldiers being attacked. Maybe two of the hobgoblins flee to get help or become distracted by a third party.
All three of these techniques give us dials we can turn to change the difficulty of a fight while it's happening. We don't want to do this sort of thing all the time, but the options are there if things aren't going well and the game's fun factor is dropping.
Add Interesting Terrain and Fantastic Features
Six hobgoblins in an open field isn't that interesting. Four hobgoblins and their four worg mounts camping out around an ancient dwarven archway is more interesting, particularly if that archway is swirling with eldritch energy.
When we're developing the scenes in our adventure, we can add texture by throwing in interesting terrain or fantastic features. Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes two tables of monuments and weird locales we can use as inspiration for some fantastic features to include in our combat encounters. Appendix A of the Dungeon Master's Guide also includes similar tables for dungeon features. Describing them can give our players ideas about how to use these features in combat which makes the whole battle more dynamic and exciting.
Features like this add an element of exploration and mystery to our scenes.
Final Thoughts on Building Great Encounters
Building great encounters is a skill, like improvisation, that gets better the more we do it. It's a skill we can improve on for the rest of our lives. By keeping some general guidelines in mind and experimenting from scene to scene, we can learn what works well, what does not, and what things we want to try out in the future.Read more »
- Giving Characters Hard Choices
Dungeons & Dragons is a game full of choices. From running campaigns to running characters, from steering world-shaking events to choosing an approach while having a conversation with a merchant, players and DMs make all sorts of choices when playing D&D.
Choices are also the root of what makes D&D fun. How should the characters interact with an NPC? How will they accomplish their goal? Who gets the fancy new magic sword? All of these choices, and the consequences of them, bring life to the game.
Sometimes, though, the best choices aren't easily made. Sometimes all of the options are reasonable and other times, all of them are fraught with consequences. Today we're going to look at these hard choices and see how we can make the most of them in our D&D games.
Which Front to Face
In the campaign building advice in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I recommend using Fronts from Dungeon World as a way to see what major movers and shakers are changing the face of the world. When these fronts all become visible to the characters, the characters will have to make a hard choice about which front they want to stop.
For example, in the D&D adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, the characters have three potential factions they have to deal with: the ice witch Hedrun, Akar Kessel the undead mage, and Valish Gant the schemer of the Arcane Brotherhood. When the characters navigate this adventure, they must decide which of these three villains they wish to thwart knowing that the other paths will move forward unhindered.
If we're not careful, these always-moving fronts can be frustrating for players. While focusing on one villain, the characters find they're two steps back with the other two. If the players begin to feel screwed no matter which direction they go, perhaps slow down on the progression of the other fronts.
"You can hit four enemies with your fireball, or eight if you're willing to hit the fighter and rogue..."
One of the fun design elements of the excellent RPG 13th Age is how it includes deals made between players and the GM. A fireball in 13th Age can hit 1d3 enemies in a group or, if you cast it recklessly, an extra 1d3 enemies, but it will hit any of your friends engaged with those enemies. That's a great way to get fireballs to work well without a grid.
Making deals are a great way to put hard choices in front of players. Do you want advantage on your next attack? All you have to do is swing from that chandelier up above? A failure, of course, could result in a nasty fall.
Advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration are three currencies we DMs always have on hand to sweeten deals and put hard choices in front of the characters. Waving an inspiration token at a player is a great way to get them to accept some risk when things would otherwise feel too safe.
Here are some example deals we can put in front of our players:
- Turn a failed ability check into a success but at a cost.
- Give the character advantage on their next check by putting themselves in a risky position.
- Give a character additional targets in a spell's area but only by putting something else in that area at risk.
- Giving a single-use ability or power but with a chance of corruption, damage, or arcane feedback.
- Give a character some vital information but only by guaranteeing the safety of someone the characters desperately want to slay.
The Curse You Don't Want to Get Rid Of
What if a fungus-cursed hydra bites one of the characters and that character contracts some sort of hideous disease? That's not a hard choice. Go find the nearest caster of cure disease or greater restoration and get that thing cleaned up!
But what if this infection did something to the character, something interesting. What if this character could start to see through other plants? What if it gave them access to new powers they could cultivate such as entangle, spike growth, and grasping vine? What if the strange infected would knit itself closed with tendrils of vines and roots? What if, on their death, they are returned in their original form but inside they're all plant stuff, a physical vessel sworn to Zuggtmoy?
Simple curses are easy. Characters certainly want to get rid of them and will do so. If we turn those curses into hard choices, though, maybe they'll live with the curse.
Maybe an abolith is willing to impart the vast knowledge of the abolithic sovereignty to your character, giving them a history as old as the millennia and current intelligence all over the Sword Coast? What if all it cost was the character's own mental independence? Hmmm.
Choosing Villainous Factions
Often, when we're prepping our D&D games, it's hard for us to see villainous organizations as anything other than a big pile of monsters for the characters to kill. If the characters go into a thieves' den, it might end up being room after room of bandits getting slaughtered.
One way we can turn monstrous lairs into opportunities for roleplaying and hard choices is to ensure there are multiple factions within the band of monsters or among the villainous organization. This way the characters can work within or against these factions. If both factions are purely hostile to the characters then it might end up as a slaughterfest anyway so we'll need to ensure the factions have reason to talk to the characters and vice versa.
For example, in Tomb of Annihilation, the characters can go into the Fane of the Night Serpent. There are two factions in there; those loyal to Ras Nsi and those loyal to Fenthasa. Ras Nsi has no intent at going into the Tomb of the Nine Gods to stop the Soul Monger so he has a reason to talk to the party: convince them to go into the tomb itself and stop the Soul Monger. Fenthasa might have another goal. She wants Ras Nsi dead and the obsidian dagger from the Tomb returned to her. She might aid a party willing to end Ras Nsi and return to her the dagger within the tomb.
Now, instead of the characters just going in and slaughtering all the yuan-ti, they might get involved in the rift between two factions and have to choose which faction they want to support.
These factions might be rivals within a group or subordinates who no longer want to work with their superior. Any rift like this is an opportunity for the characters to get involved and a hard choice for them to make. Which faction, if any, will they support?
Here are some examples of factions within villainous groups:
- Each of two rival factions want to usurp the other.
- A subordinate secretly plots against their master.
- Two monstrous groups are separated by a valley and neither group can get the upper hand on the other without the characters' help.
- A powerful leader actually wants to leave the gang they're in.
- A spy for a rival group has infiltrated a villainous group.
- The characters possess an item that makes a faction in a villainous group covet and worship them.
What Would Make Them Choose Differently?
Whenever we want to throw a hard choice in front of the characters, we can, when the choice in front of the characters seems inevitable, we can ask ourselves "what would make them choose differently?"
For example, if the yuan-ti want to open a huge door into the realm of the Night Serpent and they need one of the characters to actually open the door, what would convince them to do so? How could the yuan-ti convince the characters that opening the door is the better option? Maybe only the Night Serpent can stop the horror Acererak feeds in the depth of the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Maybe the only way to stop the Night Serpent is to face it. Maybe something the character loves more than mortal life lies beyond those gates.
When a choice seems too easy, what might steer the characters to choose a different way?
A Game of Choices
D&D is a game full of choices, some of them small and some as big as the multiverse. One of our jobs as dungeon masters is to put meaningful and interesting choice in front of the characters whenever the pace of the adventure calls for it. Without putting too much decision fatigue on them, we can insert hard choices so the players can see the true impact of the choices they make. Use hard choices to make your game unique and fun.
Special thanks to Taylor on Twitter for the suggestion to write this article.Read more »
- A New DM's Guide to Miniatures
Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the fifth of a series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:
- Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group
- Starting Strong at your First D&D Game
- Tools for the New D&D Dungeon Master
- Improvisation in D&D for New Dungeon Masters
- A New Dungeon Master's Guide to Miniatures (this article)
- A New DM's Guide For Building Combat Encounters
In a previous article we talked about the tools we need to run our D&D games. We glossed over one giant topic, however, the topic of miniatures.
When we say "miniatures" we're really talking about the physical objects we use to represent the characters and monsters in our D&D games. The options are vast.
Groups don't actually need to use anything to represent monsters or characters in Dungeons & Dragons. We can use a gameplay style known as the "theater of the mind". When running D&D in the theater of the mind, the DM describes the situation, clarifies it from the questions of the players, listens to what the players want their characters to do, and describes the outcome. It is the same for combat as it is for exploration or roleplay.
Ever since D&D game out forty years ago, however, players and DMs have often used some sort of miniature to represent their characters or monsters. Back then it was often lead or pewter war game miniatures, sometimes painted and sometimes not. The use of miniatures has evolved in the four decades since, but even today there is no perfect solution for representing monsters and characters at the table. We have a wide range of options, from no cost at all to thousands of dollars, but none of these options are perfect.
No matter which of the paths we take or products we buy for D&D miniatures, we'll always make tradeoffs. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's time, sometimes it's physical space, sometimes it's the flexibility of our game. Even if we spend thousands of dollars on miniatures, as some veteran DMs have, finding the right miniature can take too long to make it useful when running a game. No matter how many miniatures we own, we still will not have exactly the right one or exactly the right number for every battle. While no perfect solution exists, we can mix and match a few ideas together to design our own personal best-case solution for representing characters and monsters in combat.
The Free Options and the Theater of the Mind
As mentioned, we can describe combat and use the occasional paper sketch to help players visualize what is going on. This method is fast, free, and doesn't break the flow of the game from scene to scene.
Running combat in the theater of the mind means we can run any sort of battle we want. With a zero cost comes infinite flexibility. We can run a battle atop a massive titan's skull surrounded by a thousand screaming ghouls if we want to. We can run a ship battle in the depths of the astral sea fighting against a pair of githyanki warships. Whatever sort of battle we can imagine, we can run. Even if we do choose to use miniatures, keeping this gameplay style in our toolkit gives us the option when we want it.
Combat in the theater of the mind isn't for everyone. When battles get complicated, some representation of the characters and monsters helps. We can start by representing them with whatever we have on hand. Game pieces from other games, dice, coins, glass beads, LEGOs, and a any roughly one-inch-square object can serve as tokens for characters and monsters. This is a fine option when starting to play D&D that may serve you well for your entire D&D career. Even if you do end up getting more miniatures and better representations, keeping some generic tokens on hand can help set up an improvised battle and save you a lot of time.
Low Cost Do-It-Yourself Options
Some crafty DMs learned how to print paper versions their own miniatures either as tokens or as stand-ups. This is a low-cost solution but does take time to build them out. Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, wrote a popular guide to making tokens with print-outs, a one-inch hole punch, a washer, and some glue. More recently he posted a great trick of making one token per monster type and then using generic tokens to represent the rest of those monsters. These hand-made tokens are a wonderful and scalable solution that won't break the bank.
The folks over at Alea Tools have a wonderful suggestion for making tokens out of old Magic the Gathering cards. They suggest punching out the card art you like with a one-inch punch, and sticking adhesive one-inch epoxy stickers to the top to make it feel like a hard plastic token. I spent a weekend making about one hundred such tokens and the look and feel great. The epoxy stickers, originally designed for bottle cap necklaces, work just as well on printed artwork like in NewbieDM's solution above. The one-inch punch and epoxy stickers can make just about anything into a great usable D&D token for pennies. A few generic tokens made this way can also augment our miniatures collection by representing additional monsters whose miniatures we don't own.
Many other creators have published PDFs of tokens and stand-up paper miniatures. Trash Mob Minis and Printable Heroes are two such creators. These print-out miniatures require your time and the right equipment, which can get expensive if you don't already have it, but offer a nice pocketbook-friendly solution that gives you the exact type and number of miniatures you want.
Pawns and Flat Plastic Miniatures
For those who would rather save time and are willing to spend more money, we come to cardboard pawns. The most popular of these are the Pathfinder Pawns Bestiary collection which offers a large number of cardboard stand-up monster tokens for a low price. Though designed for Pathfinder, these tokens work just as well for D&D.
Other producers like Arcknight Games have come up with flat plastic miniatures that cost more but, in my opinion, look much better on a table and pack light since they're considerably flatter than cardboard stand-ups (full disclosure, I have a curated set of Flat Plastic Miniatures available through Arcknight Games).
These flat stand-up miniatures are a great way to build a large collection of monster representations without breaking the bank.
The Wide World of Plastic Miniatures
We now come to the large topic of plastic miniatures which come both painted and unpainted. Pre-painted miniatures often come in random booster boxes while specific unpainted miniatures can usually be purchased in non-random blister packs. Some sets of individual painted miniatures exist for heroes which is a great way to build up a small collection of hero miniatures without resorting to random selections.
Unpainted miniatures can be used as-is or painted. Painting miniatures, of course, adds the cost of paints, brushes, and other painting accessories on top of the time it takes to paint them. Painting miniatures is a fun hobby all on its own but it isn't for everyone. Backing the occasional Kickstarter by Reaper for unpainted "Bones" miniatures is one way to get a large collection of miniatures for a relatively low cost-per-mini.
Pre-painted plastic miniatures are, by far, the most common solution. Wizards of the Coast and their partner, WizKids, released thousands of miniatures over the past fifteen years. They've almost always been in randomly assorted packs but the price per miniature has changed dramatically over the years, and not in the direction we'd hope for. DMs collecting for many years might have large collections but building one today costs more than it did ten to fifteen years ago. If random boosters aren't your bag, you can buy miniatures on the secondary market but the cost per mini will be about $3 to $4 per mini on the low-end. Miniatures for our heroes and boss monsters might be worth it but it's probably not worth getting a warband of twelve orcs together for $36.
An Evolving Marketplace
The world of tokens, stand-ups, and miniatures continually changes. New ideas, like printable paper stand-up miniatures, pop up quickly and become very popular while older solutions like cardboard tokens or cheap pre-painted miniatures tend to fall out of production. Sometimes one can buy cardboard stand-ups easily and other times they're out of print and selling for four times the cost. This all points to the same core truth of miniatures: no miniature solution is perfect.
If you thought miniatures were the end of the D&D money sink, you are mistaken. The top of the line D&D accessories include 3D terrain to go with all of those miniatures. These fantasy terrain arrangements look absolutely stunning, showing off full three-dimensional maps and areas including dungeons, cities, towns, and castles. The most popular vendor for these accessories is the venerable Dwarven Forge and their creator Stefan Pokorny. These are the setups that everyone drools over on Pinterest and Twitter. Matt Mercer uses Dwarven Forge on Critical Role.
The costs for these elements of terrain are as high as the sets are beautiful. A table-sized representation of a complicated castle or dungeon can run thousands of dollars.
There is also a hidden cost with this terrain. The time to set up such an arrangement leaves little flexibility for the game to go anywhere else. If you set up a castle, the characters are definitely going to that castle. Likewise, the terrain takes up a lot of space to store and time to set up. I am a huge fan of Dwarven Forge and own many sets myself, but it is not a requirement to run a great D&D game.
For now, admire the pictures people put on the web but stick to your blank battle-mat for a lightweight, cost-effective, and flexible alternative.
Some Final Recommendations
Given the imperfection of the D&D miniature market, I have no clear solution but a few recommendations.
First of all, even if we don't use it all the time, running combat using the "theater of the mind" offers us infinite flexibility and no cost. Even if we do have a collection of miniatures, we don't have to use them all the time. Keeping this style of play in our DM toolbox keeps our game fast and flexible.
Players love to have nice miniatures for their characters. Character miniatures can show their marching order when heading down a hallway, who is on watch, and a variety of other non-combat situations on top of their obvious representation in combat. They're also just plain fun to play with. Investing in a good set of character miniatures, either as full miniatures or stand-up tokens, can help bring the characters to life.
As far as monsters go, sticking with cheap representations of monsters with whatever objects you have on hand is just fine. Hand-made tokens are fast, flexible, easy to transport, and cheap. Plastic and card-board stand-up miniatures give us a large collection of monsters for a reasonable cost. Painted or unpainted miniatures look great at the table but the costs are high. Choose which ever of these options best fits your budget and the type of game you want to run.Read more »
- Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: Running Phandelver
As the introductory adventure to the fifth edition of D&D, Lost Mine of Phandelver is likely the most-played adventure of D&D 5e. It's also one of the best. In this article we'll discuss tips and tricks for getting the most out of running this wonderful D&D adventure.
If this is your first time running Dungeons & Dragons, you may want Starting Strong at your First D&D Game.
Use the Pregen Backgrounds
The backgrounds included with the pre-generated characters in Phandelver are written to hook characters into this adventure. Even if your players bring custom-built characters from the Player's Handbook, you may want to recommend that they choose backgrounds from the Starter Set pre-generated characters to better tie them to the story. You can email these pre-generated characters to your players before your game so they can use them as the seeds when building their own custom characters.
When your players have chosen backgrounds, read them over and write them down, perhaps on a campaign worksheet. These backgrounds can help you choose which hooks to highlight in the rest of the adventure. The town of Phandalin is packed with quests, many of which are tied to these character backgrounds. Instead of piling quests on them that may or may not be relevant, only expose the hooks that tie to the backgrounds of the characters.
Lost Mine of Phandelver begins with a goblin ambush against a caravan protected by the characters. Before the battle begins, this is a good chance to help you tie the characters together, if they aren't already with some loaded questions:
- Athrund, how did Celvak save your life previously?
- Teraman, who among the Red Brand bandits do you and Yeshta hunt and why?
- Gormun, what debt do you and Uthar owe to the Rockbottom brothers?
Questions like this help tie charaters together early and move some of the storytelling over to the players. You can use Fiasco-style relationships to get all the characters tied together if you have the time. You might also have all of the characters tied to a single faction such as the Harpers, Lord's Alliance, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet, or Emerald Enclave. This is a built-in group connection and ties them to a specific NPC in the town of Phandalin when they arrive.
Now on to the battle!
The first thing to remember in this battle is that level 1 characters are extremely fragile. It would suck for new D&D players to start their D&D experience with a total-party kill (TPK) so be careful.
This first battle is a great chance to try your hand at Theater of the Mind combat instead of using maps and minis. It will get both you and your players used to battles that don't use a grid or miniatures. It's good practice and will help you with many of the other battles in this adventure.
You'll also want to stick to the static damage output of goblins at level 1 to ensure you avoid any major damage spikes that drop characters in a single hit. Dropping on the first shot is a lousy way to experience a new edition of D&D.
If you want to complicate the battle, add an NPC driver of the cart the party can protect. Use your handy random name generator and whip up a character archetype from your most recent favorite movie or TV show. Have the goblins harass this poor soul to give the characters something else to protect than their own hides.
Get Them to Level 2 Fast
Level 1 is brutal in the fifth edition of D&D. You may want to get your characters to second level as soon as you can, even as early as the middle of the Cragmaw Hideout. There's also nothing stopping you from starting them at second level. Those extra hit points and hit dice of healing will help them significantly when facing off against the foes in the first chapter of this adventure. You can level them to third level when the story dictates it normally and everything works out well after that.
Hone Your Lazy Dungeon Master Skills
Lost Mine of Phandelver is a series of small sandboxes stacked together. This is a fantastic opportunity to practice the art of the lazy dungeon master. Part 1, the Cragmaw Hideout, is a great dungeon sandbox with multiple paths and multiple ways to defeat its enemies. Instead of pushing the players down one particular path, relish in their discussions about which way to go and improvise as they take their chosen path.
You'll likely want to avoid any elaborate battle maps for this dungeon and instead use a blank flip mat to draw out rough locations as the players choose a direction. If you pre-build parts of the dungeon, you're more likely to consciously or subconsciously lead them that way. Instead, relax and let them choose whatever path they want.
You will also want to consider how the goblins react to the approach taken by the characters. It's a great time to see through the eyes of the goblins. As the characters invade their secret headquarters, the goblins act as they would in reaction to this.
Part 2 and part 3 of the adventure expand the sandbox considerably. There are tons of things to do both inside and outside Phandalin. Feel free to let the group decide whether to stay inside the town and deal with the Redbrands or to leave the city and deal with some of the interesting locations found in part 3. The characters should be free to leave and return to Phandalin as they choose, though the plots of the Redbrands may escalate if not taken care of.
Part 4 returns us to a sandbox dungeon delve. Again, give your players the freedom to choose whatever path they want to explore the dungeon. Wave Echo Cave is big so don't feel like the characters have to explore every nook and cranny. If it starts to get stale, cut off certain passages or remove redundant monsters to keep the pace moving well. If they happen to go straight to the boss, let them do so.
Weave In the Dopplegangers
There are two dopplegangers in this adventure, Vhalak and Vyerith. Both of them work for the Black Spider and are written in at specific locations in the adventure. Both of these, however, make for fantastic reoccurring villains you might bring on early in the adventure. Give characters the feeling of being watched. Let them see shifting shadowy figures lurking in the background. Maybe one of them actually attacks the characters if the timing is right. These two foes should be smart villains who won't engage if they don't have an escape plan, so don't let them simply walk in and get killed. If the characters do manage to kill one of them early, they might see them again as the second doppleganger changes its shape to match the first one.
These two dopplegangers are your chance to add in a whole new variable to the villains in the adventure. Make use of them.
Watch Out for Venomfang
There is one single villain in Phandelver that stands a significant chance of wiping out the characters—the green dragon Venomfang. When you introduce Venomfang, make it clear that the characters face a significant foe. Give them plenty of chances to realize that a simple stand-up fight might not be the right way to go. There are also many opportunities available to aim Venomfang at other enemies than the characters through subtle manipulation of Venomfang and the cult who courts him.
A Useful D&D Kit
Beyond the adventure itself, the books in the D&D Starter Set are extremely useful. They're a perfect companion to your DM kit, containing maps, rules, adventures, and monster stat blocks to run many adventures outside of the pages. The pre-gen character sheets are also extremely useful, mainly for their ability to level up from 1 to 5 right on the sheet. The various maps of the locations in Phandelver also fit very common locations in many adventures such as ruined castles, rogue dens, ruined villages, monster-infested caves, and dwarven mines. We can easily repurpose these locations to fit our own adventures. While this Starter Set gives us roughly a 12 hour adventure, we could make adventures for hundreds of hours with the materials we have inside.
At $20 MSRP, the Starter Set is a real bargain.
A Fantastic Adventure to Start your D&D Campaign
Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters. Take your time, understand the material, go with the flow, and get ready to spend a bunch of hours having fun with your friends.Read more »
- Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master
Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the spiritual successor to the Lazy Dungeon Master is now available for purchase! Currently you can buy the ebook package which includes the PDF and ePub version of the book. The softcover and hardcover versions of the book are due for release in early October 2018.
It's been five years since the release of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Back then, D&D was transitioning between fourth and the fifth edition. Even written during this transition the book did extremely well and the ideas in it still resonate with GMs today.
After Fantastic Adventures, I went back through the original book to see what worked well, what fell short, and what needed to be refined. I studied dozens of gamemaster books for many different fantasy roleplaying games and books of advice for running great fantasy RPGs. I watched tons of Youtube videos by folks like Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, and others. I poured over forums and websites and blogs that talk about how to run great D&D games. I went back over the six thousand responses to the 2016 Dungeon Master Survey and dozens of Facebook and Twitter polls. I dug deep to see how we actually prepare and run our games.
Then I took a month off from everything and wrote the first draft of the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. In February I launched the Kickstarter for the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and the support blew the doors off of any of my expectations. I was able to finance not just the full production of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master but a full Lazy DM's Workbook to go even deeper into helping GMs run great fifth edition games. That book is due out in late fall or early winter 2018.
I kept the price of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master low—$8 for the ebook package—to help as many GMs as possible get it into their hands. The smashing success of the Kickstarter let me bring on industry titans like Scott Fitzgerald Gray for editing, Marc Radle for art direction and layout, Jack Kaiser for two incredible covers, and Pedro Potier for the internal artwork.
There's a two-chapter sample of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master so you can see what you're getting and this sample also acts as a crash course in the new lazy DM's checklist so it's usable on its own. Give it a look and see if it's the style for you.
I've also recently taken to Twitch to broadcast myself preparing for my weekly Tomb of Annihilation game using the new Lazy DM's checklist. If you want to see the steps in action, take a look at the Youtube archive of previous Lazy DM prep videos.
I've poured decades of experiences running D&D games into Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. I poured centuries of experiences from other GMs into this book as well. Everything that I've focused on when helping GMs run great roleplaying games I polished and put into this book. If you like what I've been doing on this site over the past ten years, this book is the refined culmination of everything I have to offer.
I hope you love it as much as I do and I thank you for your support.Read more »