Thursday, June 28, 2012


 Captain Tarkin: It's when things do not go as planned that concerns me. What then?
Anakin Skywalker: It's when things don't go as planned that we Jedi are at our best. Trust me. 
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Citadel 3.18

One of the traits that most Dungeon Masters (and everyday people in general) have trouble with is spontaneity.  People freeze with the thought of going into a situation unprepared, whether in real life or in gaming.

Today, I had a "real life" situation where I had to be spontaneous.  I had to go to a meeting to present to a director of a program.  The meeting was supposed to be cancelled, but the e-mail service got jacked up and didn't process until halfway through the meeting.  It didn't matter.  We continued anyway.

Afterwards, I realized how calm and comfortable I felt during the entire thing.  Why was this?  What made being spontaneous work?  The only time I had to gather my thoughts was during the walk down to the office.

I've done some thinking, and this is the ideas that I have:

1. Use what you have.

This is easier said than done; however, when applied correctly, one realizes that there are more strengths than initially thought.  Look at your options.  What do you know?  What don't you know?  Quickly divide those things up in your mind and focus on what you know.  In my real life example, I had some files and charts that I had been working on in the last day.  I figured I could start by explaining those, even though my data processing wasn't complete.  It didn't matter, it was a starting point to lead into a deeper discussion.  Use the same kind of thing with your games.  Say the players start to venture to an area you haven't completely fleshed out yet, but you know it's overrun with orcs.  Start by showing signs that orcs dwell in that area.  Perhaps they meet an escaped NPC prisoner.  Such things start getting the juices flowing in your mind, so that as time goes on, you're able to be more and more imaginative.

2. Don't Be Afraid of Not Having Everything

Some DM's (myself included) tend to over prepare.  I love drawing all sorts of maps and coming up with monster encounter groups, and just having a general idea for being prepared for anything to come my way.  In reality, that rarely happens.  Players (and people) will always catch you by surprise, and you just have to roll with it.  Once again, focus on what you have, and use that to the best of your ability.  You don't need all the answers.  Maybe you don't have all those orc warbands statted out yet, but the players surprise you by trying to interact with the NPC prisoner and escorting him/her back into civilization.  Perhaps they decide they want to explore someplace else.  Or, perhaps they decide to sneak into the orc territory.  This is a perfect place to describe what they're up against.  Maybe you throw only a few orcs at them.  Regardless, use your strengths and don't be afraid when you don't have the answer.  Just because you don't possess THE answer doesn't mean you don't have any others.

3. Be Confident

Just because you weren't ready to be in this situation doesn't mean that you can't handle it.  In real life, you obviously know something, as a DM, the players chose you for a reason (in some groups, you simply chose to be the DM.  That already shows a level of greatness).  Roll with it.  You can handle it.  Promise.

As always, be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf, and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


"Make Mine Marvel!" - Stan Lee

About a month ago, I picked up the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying book.  While I'm still learning the rules (and need some friends to play with), I find the concept of the game really exciting and enjoyable.  The game seems to flow more from roleplaying and actually being your character instead of trying to roll dice/kill things.  The game system is set up to take full advantage of using your powers to create great story points.  It's like an action vs reaction kind of a thing.

How does this apply to DnD?

First, most DnD players seem to complain that there isn't enough roleplaying, or that their players don't get into the game enough.  Though not every player is all about roleplaying (or every group), there are some subtle tricks that can make things head in that direction.

In MHRPG, each character has milestones they can reach.  This includes things such as mentoring an ally, or stepping up and becoming a leader.  These milestones encourage players to roleplay/make decisions for their character.  We can use the same thing in DnD.  At any time (this works great in outside of game emails), you can ask each character for three goals.  Then, be sure to try and find ways to weave those goals into your gaming sessions.

For example, I have three goals for Kov Nitikki, my goblin character, and ways my DM might use them to create interesting moments in the story.

1. Return to Raav (the goblin city) - DM's can always present interesting choices with this.  Perhaps Kov and the party can find a boat/airship that will take them to Raav, but there is a more pressing concern with where they are (like a village under attack or something).  Each choice has consequences: either return home and allow a threat to grow larger, or put off the goal of returning home again.  While this might not be a huge issue, it will cause the player (me) to grapple over my choice, debating with my fellow players over what is the 'right' choice to make.

2. Learn More Alchemical Formulas - While this goal may seem mundane, know that players will definitely include goals like this.  I think 'find treasure' is something many players will put for the sake of needing a goal.  However, creative DM's (and aren't we all creative) will find interesting ways to make this work.  Perhaps the only way to learn more formulas is to venture into some of the most dangerous places in the campaign.  Perhaps the quest that the DM wants the players to take has some formulas as a reward.  Regardless, take these mundane things and use them to entice your players

3. Create A Better Place for Goblins in the World - Now we're talking about some crazy goals!  Some players will give you crazy in depth goals and it will be your job as a DM to figure out how to incorporate them.  Moral dilemmas are always good.  Maybe Kov has to choose between either defeating an enemy or showing mercy and increasing people's opinions of goblins.  Or, put two goals in the dilemma.  Make the choice between getting more alchemy or helping goblins.  Choices like this will really test the players, and create memorable moments.

I've been trying to delve into other RPG lately, trying to take concepts from them to help with DnD.  With DnD Next, it seems that Wizards is attempting to take all sorts of ideas and give them a place in their games.  I'm trying to do the same.

As always, be sure to follow me @artificeralf on Twitter, and leave lots of comments!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Oh, the Places You'll Go

 "...accurate maps don't come cheap. In fact, it's often more profitable to steal an accurate map than try to buy one on the open market, or so many sea captains claim." 
- Chris Perkins, Iomandra Wiki Page

I spent part of yesterday browsing through the wiki page for Iomandra, Chris Perkins' home campaign.  In it, he has posted various maps of his world and some of their cities.  I was quite amazed, needless to say, as mapping my campaign world is something I've been trying to do for a while now (or at least finding a way to map Genkar, the city the heroic tier characters have been involved with).

For quick reference, here is the link to all of Chris' maps:

I looked at the map of Io'galaroth and was amazing by the detail Chris put into his map.  I was determined to start making some maps of my own, and started brainstorming how I was going to do this.  I figured Genkar would be the best place to start, as the PC's have spent significant campaign time there (the entire heroic tier has pretty much revolved around the city), so I pulled out my notes of the city and wanted to start getting to work.

Scaling is always an issue.  Chris states on his Io'galaroth map that 1 square on the grid is equal to 200 feet.  This means that 40 squares of a dungeon tile equals 1 square on his map.  I spent some time trying to do the math and figure out how big certain locations need to be, and to be honest, such a thing froze me in my tracks.  Putting numbers to these locations of my campaign world became extremely scary and made me feel like I had to start designing every little location.

For example, at one area of Genkar we have the Tower of the Protector, a tall tower surrounded by a lake.  Underneath the tower is the Tomb of Genkar, the gold dragon founder of the city.  When I drew it, it was a 2x2 circle.  That gives it a 200 foot radius.  If I have adventures there, do I really need to make sure an entire area of the tower goes for about 40 squares?  These are the questions I've been having, especially since I plan on mapping a section of the Tower in the next session.

Re-reading that paragraph, I'm telling myself I'm over-reacting.  I think scale is just something used to convey a sense of grandeur for cities and certain areas.  Chris doesn't put scales on all his maps (especially his world map), yet I still feel a sense of depth and wonder when I look at them.

I grabbed my copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to double check the maps there.  I was 95% sure that LOTR had scales with the maps, but I wasn't sure about Hobbit.  Hobbit does not have a scale.  The distances are just drawn in.  Does this take away from the map?  Once again, I have to say no.

Game of Thrones don't have scaled maps either.

I'm now starting to see a pattern as I go through all these books again.  Map scale really doesn't matter.  With Thrones, the biggest city and the small cities are all conveyed by a dot, so they effectively are the same size.  This is probably something handy to apply to DnD too.  Scale doesn't really matter; it's all about creating what you want.  If everybody knows that the Tower of the Protector is a huge building, I don't have to show every single little detail.  I can show it to them in chunks and develop what needs to be developed slowly.

Squares and distances in dungeons function the same.  These things take up however much space they need to in order to tell a great story.  Maybe they snake underground.  Maybe they're magically made to look smaller than they really are.  There are a plethora of reasons for why things are the way they are, and most players probably won't bother asking about scale.  For us world builders though, such things seem to be extremely important.

Ultimately, I think I will simply continue mapping Genkar without worrying too much about scale.  When it comes to world maps, I think I can convey basic ideas like "X is closer to Y than Z".  Unless you want to play a super hard core game, distance is relative.  It's not the destination, it's the journey.

As always, please leave comments and let me know what you think.  Be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Playtesting DnD Next

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." 
- Semisonic, Closing Time

 I apologize for my lack of blogging in the past two months.  Since April began, I've been going back and forth with Wizards on an article I'm trying to get published, so my writing efforts have been more about the article than anything else.  

That being said, I have also got to experience the joy of being a DnD Next playtester.  My e-mail arrived, and I happily went and printed out my packet to take a look.  Just from reading the rules, I was already stoked about playing.  The rules seemed much cooler, and everything seem more streamlined and more supportive of exploring and interaction.

I started playing DnD two years ago with 4E, sometimes delving into older source books to see what the hype about 3.5 was.  I've always DMed 4E, and nobody has ever asked me to play anything else, so while my experience of editions is limited, I know the kinds of games/storybuilding I enjoy, so I've always tried to apply that to 4E, and really wanted to apply that to my new games.  So far, it's been great.

The playtest came with an adventure, but as I only had two other friends who had signed up for playtesting and were available, we decided to improvise a bit (as is the nature of DnD products).  What we decided was to take an encounter from the adventure and create our own map/background for it.  The adventures didn't connect, they were just something to try out.  With three people, we were able to get through about 3 encounters in an hour an a half.  They all felt fast and interactive, and I was always engaged.  My fellow playtesters agreed as well.  One commented that 4E sometimes bogs down in combat (which has been said before), and this seemed to flow fluidly.

That being said, let's discuss our encounters.  Our playtesters were me, Peachey, and Paul.

Encounter 1: Goblin Warrens (DMed by me).  Peachey: Elf Wizard. Paul: Dwarf Fighter

The goblins shoot their bows from the stairs.  The one lying down is asleep.
In this encounter, I had the players (Dwarf Fighter and Elf Wizard), going through the warrens of a goblin lair.  They walked through rooms, exploring and rolling perception and asking questions/exploring.  For every 30 feet (6 squares) they moved, I rolled the percentile dice.  They had a 50% chance of encountering a goblin raiding party of 6.  This was a sentence that was really cool to read in the adventure.  For a player like me, it felt more old school, and seemed to give the dungeon a realistic approach.  I chose to keep it for my adventure.

When the goblins were finally encountered, the battle began.  The goblins were pretty much minions to the dwarf, and the wizard got to cast some cool spells (like sleep).  Sleep was much cooler in the playtest than in 4E, and the spells felt like they had more variety instead of 4d6 fire damage, 4d6 cold damage, etc.

My friends were very excited after this first round.  Peachey said the wizard actually felt like a wizard, having low hit points but being able to cast lots of cool spells.  Paul loved the fighter, as he was simplistic in playing, yet did a lot of damage, just like what he wanted from a fighter.  I was surprised how easy the monsters were to run, and how fast combat seemed to flow.  It was a lot easier to keep combat flowing, and the players seemed to be more excited to describe their actions in combat, other than just rolling dice.

Encounter 2: Orc Watchtower (DMed by Peachey). Me: Goblin Rogue. Paul: Dwarf Fighter

The orcs are surprised.
Despite my character sheet saving halfling, I asked Peachey if it was ok that I pretended to be a goblin, as that's the character I've been trying to play since I started DnD.  He agreed.  One of the first things that I noticed was that despite my sheet being for a halfling, it was really easy to re-flavor this as a goblin.  For some reason, it seemed easier than 4E.  Maybe I've just become more open to taking the rules into my own hands.

I thought the rogue was a blast to play.  The advantage/disadvantage system is much more fun that having to calculate bonuses.  I think Wizards is on to something with the "roll two dice and take the higher one" rule.  The rules for hiding and lighting was much simpler.  I also like how skills are handled by ability modifiers; Peachey said it was a lot easier than trying to remember which orc had higher perception than others due to a stat block.  All one has to do is use a Wisdom modifier.

Encounter 3: The Orc Cheiftain (DMed by Paul). Me: Goblin Rogue. Peachey: Human Cleric (of Pelor)

The Chief and his guards
This was another interesting battle, as we got to see the cleric use his magic.  Paul, a relatively new DM, did awesome.  He described the action of the enemies in a really good way.  I could tell that he was getting into the game and for Peachey and I, we were just as excited.  In the end, my goblin killed the chief, but was knocked unconscious in the orc's death throw.  Good thing I was hanging with a cleric.

All in all, I'm extremely satisfied with the new system, and will continuing experimenting.  We all agreed that the monsters were very easy to run, and it seemed that this format encourages DM's to participate.  It was also cool to see that a party of two characters had a chance of surviving.  The mundane gear and items the characters carried on their person seemed to play a lot bigger role than they ever did in 4E, something I was extremely happy to see.

I really like the background section on the character sheet.  It seems that some classes will get training in certain skills (which seems to be a +3 bonus), while background gives you training in certain skills.  There also doesn't seem to be a skill list; skills seem to be however you want to describe what your character is good at and you write it from there.  This makes me excited as a DM, as this means it would be pretty exciting to sit with a group and come up with your backgrounds/skill sets.  In my campaign, this could be something like Genkarian History +3.

I'm stoked for this next edition and future playtests.  Let me know what you think in the comments.