Sunday, October 21, 2012

Unfinished Tales

"This is my story." - Tidus, Final Fantasy X

I'm starting to hit that point where I'm having too many adventure/story ideas and not enough time to play them.  My original group has kind of disbanded, and I have a lot of trouble locking onto a third player.  If I could have at least three, I'd feel a lot more comfortable about running a stable game.  I'm not upset about my lack of games, just frustrated because I have plenty of ideas and themes I would like to explore.

In my last post, I wrote about the Notebook, a project my friends and I started back when I was in high school.  It was basically diceless DnD, except it had a lot more character interaction and a lot less combat.  Even though it has been a number of years since we've actually had a Notebook, the ideas and adventures we did have really have resonated with me.  I would love to start fleshing them out as adventures to either re-play, or as places to visit sometime in the near future.

I was able to re-visit my old character Kurnar Leafbaum in a DnDNext playtest.  I made an elf fighter who was a sharpshooter, since that was how the character was originally.  His Charisma was low due to his arrogance, though he was a Noble so he got some help to his social skills.

My other friend, Kyle, was able to take his 4E character, Krenlor and build himself a DnDNext version.  Kyle's only lament was that there weren't any minor fire spells, since Krenlor specializes in fire magic.

Kurnar and Krenlor
My little brother played a human swashbuckler named Dax.  Dax's big problem was that he ran into many rooms and fell into pits, got swarmed by rats, and basically spent most of the playtest session sitting out.  He was also extremely lucky that the kobold dragonshields weren't able to coup de grace him.

Rats!  There's a huge dire rat too.
While the playtest was most about the rules and examining the kind of play everybody enjoys, it really makes me want to play as Kurnar in a group.  And by that I mean have a person DM while I get to sit and play.  There are a lot of adventure ideas I have for Kurnar, and I would love for him to get the chance to explore and fighter, all the while being arrogant and proud.  Flaws are what make the story interesting.

At the end of the summer, I wrote a post about the continent of Vellyn.  All my players were super excited about this campaign, and the campaign world, but unfortunately, the campaign didn't work.  Let me explain.

I live about 25 miles away from where I work.  Most of the group lives right by where I work.  So, as the DM, I would need to transport everything I need to each session.  My one player had an apartment with a giant table that would've worked perfectly.  Unfortunately, he had a huge issue with his schooling and got switched to a night class on the day that we were all going to choose to play.  I thought the issue would be resolved, but it never did.  We tried to put together a session in the local university's library, but the room was cramped and the table was small.  It just didn't work out well (although we had a great session).

This was the small room we played in and the small table we played on.
 So what does this all mean?  I had a great story, and honestly had great players.  They were super involved and really care about who they were playing.  My friend Sara was a girl named Narcissa, who was found alive yet frozen in a block of ice.  She has no idea who she is or where she is from.  Sara really got into this entire role.  She bought special dice, asked a lot of background questions for Narcissa, and really played the character well.  I spent my brainstorming time coming up with all the answers to Narcissa's past and was looking forward to either revealing them in December or next April.  Unfortunately (for now) that has to be put on hold.

Narcissa (upper left) and Dashvert (far right) try and survive a yeti siege

At this point, this blog probably sounds like a lot of excuses for why my campaigns failed.  Maybe it is.  To me, it's kind of nice just to write these thoughts out, as I'm sure this is an issue many people struggle with.  I've been listening to Behind the DM Screen, a podcast where three DM's chat about their campaigns and give advice to one another.  One guy is lucky to play once a month, and the other guys kind of harass him about it.  However, I'm starting to believe that once a month may be a norm for some people.  Life can get pretty hectic.

So for now, I don't plan on campaigns.  I plan on one shots, like playtests or one night dungeon crawls.  Expect to explore, fight monsters and save the princess in the cave.  Don't expect to unravel the mysteries of the kingdom or anything huge.  I have to turn down my story scope and instead just focus on the joy of getting to play.

A scene from a Vellyn dungeon I planned but never got to play.
I believe that I will be campaigning again very soon.  At the very least, maybe I will hear back about some of the pitches I submitted and will get to playtest that stuff.  With the few friends that are able (and still want to) play, they mostly care about getting to pretend to be their favorite character, not whether their character becomes the greatest wizard of all time.  And I really need to remember that.  Because one of the things I've learned as a DM is that it's pretty easy to have fun if your players are enjoying themselves.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Quite a Character

"I'm a character.  People are always saying to me, 'You know, you're quite a character'."
-George Costanza, Seinfeld

My little biography at the end of The Trinket Lord mentions my love of characters and how I've been creating them my entire life.  While that may not be as long as some other people, it's still a pretty good chunk (I think), and it's always my most favorite part of creating new worlds and stories.  As a child, I was always more interested in my lego characters than the buildings and ships I could build.  If I didn't have great characters, what was the point?

When I was a freshman in high school, I wanted my own RPG game with my own world and kingdoms.  At the time, I only played the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, and had no concept what Dungeons & Dragons really was about.  I also maybe had some ideas about 3.5 edition, but it seemed to crazy and complex that I opted out of playing it.

And so, my good friend P@ and I began creating a world of our own.  We only had the western side of the continent started, with an abbey (the Redwall books inspired me in middle school), an underwater kingdom (P@ is the water guy in my group of friends), and a great, vast forest simply known as the Sacred Forest in the common tongue (I named it as such).

I am confident in believing that this came about in the spring of my freshman year, as I would go running through the woods by my house during those times.  My teammates and I would pick up sticks and run around pretending we were mighty warriors or gods.  When you were running 8 miles a day, there were things you had to do to keep yourself entertained.  One of my teammates found an old lighter one afternoon and informed everybody that he had fire magic.  It might seem strange to the readers, but I'm sure my fellow runners understand.

Those woods (it was actually an abandoned gun range) became known to us as the Sacred Forest.  I dubbed it that one day, bringing my creative thoughts out, and the name stuck.  It was a code name to everybody on the team so that our coach wouldn't find out and get ticked.  For me, this place was truly the Sacred Forest.  Despite being kids growing up in suburbia, this place was far away and new.  Like a land outside of time.

By the time the fall of my sophomore year hit, P@ and I wanted to venture into this world.  He rounded up a couple of other people (another one being Robyn, who goes by Nybor), and we started writing third person accounts of our characters in a notebook.  The notebook would simply get passed around between people, and we would all take turns and create a story.

My first character in that notebook was an elf of the Sacred Forest.  I made him an elf of prophetic birth, calling him the Chosen One.  I named him Kurnar (his name started with a K, just like mine), and gave him the last name Leafbaum (baum being the German word for tree).  He was an archer.

P@ was basically a sea elf named Lunaki Sesh, who was a magic user.  Nybor played a half-elf vampire named Celeste Veron.  She was pretty much a ranger/fighter, as she used two swords, but she also took a level in badass.  There were some other people in the group, but after time, they either all fell out because of issues/commitments.

The story then was really more character driven, creating relationships between characters and really fleshing out these characters.  By the spring of my sophomore year, Kurnar had been exiled from the elves, having been named Su-Manakaiyu.  He appeared in a story I wrote later that summer, but after that, I have never wrote or thought much about Kurnar again.  His story just seemed complete.

I also never looked to play Kurnar in Dungeons and Dragons, as I couldn't ever seem to find a class that was suitable for him.  Nothing "felt" like how Kurnar should be.  However, with the playtest packet being offered, the Archer Fighter is exactly what I want for Kurnar.  I have found myself thinking about him more and more, and will probably be playtesting as Kurnar again soon, ready to dive into his world and his head, playing the proud elf warrior.

My second character for the notebook was a human druid named Ragnarok Senzez.  You may have noticed that I've written about him on here a lot, as well as shown many pictures of the miniature I use for him.  When I first started playing D&D, I really wanted to be Ragnarok at some point.  As time went on, the additional options for 4E have allowed me to fully craft the character.  Let me discuss some of his finer points.

Ragnarok was created in spring of 2005.  This was during all the hype for Revenge of the Sith.  Me, being the Star Wars fan that I was, could not wait for this movie.  It heavily influenced my creativity, as I started to take a lot of Star Wars concepts and turn them into fantasy.  For example, Ragnarok was from an order of druids, much like the Jedi Order and had it's own Druid Council.  Ragnarok revered nature in a way that Jedi would revere in the Force.  Even his appearance was based off of Anakin (along with certain aspects of myself).

My art skills aren't great, but you get the idea
I spent the whole summer writing in an online notebook with all my friends while school was out of session.  Unfortunately, the site closed down and we lost everything from that adventure.  Personally, I think that adventure would make a great D&D campaign.  It included a lot of awesome things, such as a ship battle, a masquerade/ball at an enormous castle, and then the ball crashed by servants of a powerful necromancer, with the final battle happening on the ramparts of the castle during a thunderstorm.  Visually, in my head, it was all stunning.

Ragnarok was not a hero without flaws.  He was jealous, prideful, and paranoid (somewhat like Anakin, and somewhat like my young self).  However, I loved his strengths.  He fought with a quarterstaff that he infused with Nature.  He was a werewolf, able to transform and fight in an entirely new way.  He was also able to wield Nature magic.  He talked to animals.

We all have heroes and characters that we have created in our heads at some point.  D&D is a great way to bring those characters back to life and re-visit the great characters of our past and bring them into the present once again.  Next time your DM talks about character creation, think about a character you used to know that you weren't able to do justice, and bring them back.  Or, re-visit an old favorite.

Despite not having played D&D in my middle school/high school years, I believe that the Notebook adventures help set up a solid foundation.  It made me understand shared storytelling (believe me, I wasn't always a fan), and made me focus more on story and character development than killing monsters.  If you think your group needs to re-visit its roots, take a combat-less session.  I ran one a few months back when the heroes met with the Council of Genkar (which, was a city that was created when Ragnarok was).  My players were really impressed, saying it felt different and that they enjoyed diving into who their characters were, with their motivations and personalities.

Let me know about your favorite characters in the comments below.  As always, be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf

Monday, October 8, 2012

What to Buy

"Money for Nothin', Get Your Chicks for Free" 
- Dire Straits, Money for Nothing

With the announcement of D&D Next, many players have been complaining that there is no new material to purchase for Dungeons and Dragons.  I heartily disagree.  There's already a lot of solid 4th Edition books to pick up that will transfer well for a new edition, as well as countless other tools and accessories.  So, if you're sitting on tons of cash and want to know what D&D stuff to pick up, let me offer a few suggestions.
  • Poster maps
  • Miniatures
  • Various roleplaying books
  • Dungeon Tiles
Poster maps are some of the most cost effective ways of being able to throw down an encounter location time and time again.  Mike Shea (of swears by these things, and has written a couple articles about their effectiveness (as well as hosted a nice gallery of all the maps and where to find them).  In my foray to 4E, I managed to snag quite a few, and they are stored nicely in my Dragon Collector Set box.

An easy way to get six poster maps is to simply buy the map packs produced by WotC.  We have Haunted Temples and Vaults of the Underdark currently, with Shattered Keeps due out December 18, 2012.  Both of these are good value, and I'm sure the next one will be as well.

In 3.5E, there's another set of posters maps that came out with mini adventures for miniatures.  These packs, called Fantastic Locations, offer two double-sided poster maps, giving a grand total of 4.  The maps are really nice, and you can pick up the packs on  Fane of the Drow is about $6 right now (combined with shipping should be under $10).  If you watch the listings, you may be able to get a deal on one being offered even cheaper.  I managed to snag The Frostfell Rift last week for under $10, simply because somebody was selling it cheap.

Miniatures are another great investment, if your group plays with them.  A lot of people have complained that WotC isn't putting any new ones out, but I have to disagree.  The Dungeon Command game offers 12 miniatures (and tiles and cards) for about $40.  The miniatures are excellent (I review them here:, and the game is a blast to play.  Get one faction (or two) will give you a solid start to whatever you're looking to play.  I'm especially excited for the fourth set, Curse of Undeath ( to be released next month.  WotC released a preview today of the Larva Mage, a totally brand new sculpt.

I consider there to be a solid amount of 4E books and useful material no matter what edition of Dungeons and Dragons you're playing.  The Neverwinter book is one of my favorites, simply because it gives DM's an understanding of how to put an entire campaign world together.  My Vellyn campaign introduction was created based off how the Neverwinter book was put together.  In short, the book helped my world building skills.

The Monster Vault (both 1 and 2) are great resources.  Even if you don't plan on playing 4E, the book provides lots of adventure hooks with the monsters, and the tokens are a great resource if you don't have a lot of miniatures.  They both even come with poster maps!

After that, I think that depending on what kind of campaign information you want, you should buy books and products based on that.  If you're into the Feywild, look for Fey books and adventures.  If your FLGS has older material, grab that and flip through it.  I've got some good AD&D modules from mine for about $10, just because they were lying around.  The adventures are pretty cool too, and give a lot of inspiration/feel.

Some people are against Dungeon Tiles, but I really like the creativity they bring.  It might take more time to build maps, but I'm all for not laying out the entire map and simply covering things up.  When I first used Dungeon Tiles, they allowed me to keep my players guessing with no idea of what was around the corner.  I still enjoy using them for that reason.  The 3-D ones are my favorites, so I would suggesting getting a set or two of Harrowing Halls, and, if you want more, Deserts of Athas.

Is there anything else that players should be looking at?  If so, be sure to let me know in the comments, and be sure to follow me on Twitter @artificeralf