Sunday, February 24, 2013

Passing the Torch

"A king's time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king."
- Mufasa, The Lion King

I've been the default Dungeon Master since I started playing D&D.  I spent some time as a player, yet when my DM decided he didn't want to play anymore, the duty fell to me.  I jumped on it and haven't looked back since.  However, I realize that while I DM, there have been very little opportunities to let others DM and get some experience.

My brother has spoken of DMing for a long time.  However, when it comes to large groups and large games, he always ends up being a player due to the fact that he's participating in the campaign, not working behind the scenes.  However, with the D&D Open Playtest, this gives a lot more opportunities for one-shot games and exploration of the rules and just trying to have fun with the various aspects of the game.  And so, my group gave him the reins and told him to create an adventure for us to explore and interact with.

He started the game with some orc raiders that were ransacking towns and raiding villages.  The heroes interrogated some of the orcs and found out they were collecting the captives to fuel some sort of rituals.  In the last battle, the heroes tracked down the orcs to a fallen stronghold in the woods.  Due to some careful scouting, the party knew pretty much the entire layout of the keep.  It was packed with orcs.


As a group, we were excited to see something like this.  However, my brother, the new DM, had thrown us for a new loop: there were some drow working behind the scenes with the orcs all along.  What they wanted, nobody knew, because as the heroes attacked the keep, the drow decided that had enough of the orcs and began fighting them to steal the captives and use some ruined stairs to escape back into the Underdark.

For myself, this was a huge twist in the adventure.  The drow escaped, and the heroes had no answers.  To make matters worse, one of the PC's fell, and the orcs scooped him up as a prisoner and escaped into the Underdark.  Maybe he's not dead, but he can't really be played anymore for now.  At the end of the evening, I was in complete shock, and realized that I had emotional investment in the return of these townspeople.  I then realized that my brother had done a great job, not just with his encounters and making the game feel epic, but creating twists and plots and involving me in the story.  

I sat there at the end of the night and thought "Holy cow, he could be a really good DM."  The group decided that he would continue to DM our next adventure, as we all want to dive into the Underdark and find out what's going on with the prisoners!

I think most DM's have a very hard time giving up the reins and letting somebody else take over, especially when running a long campaign.  Lately, I've been having a lot of fun running mini games, just to see what other DM's are going to run and allowing myself a chance to play.  I'll be honest, getting to play instead of DM was a great relief and brought a lot of happiness to sit back and focus on my character.

I hope this story gives everybody else some inspiration to let others try their hand at DMing. Seeing someone succeed at it is extremely satisfying to watch, and being a part of an adventure when you don't know all the answers is an experience that is sorely lacking from behind the DM screen.

As always, be sure to leave comments below, and follow me on Twitter @artificeralf

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Hulking Out

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Those of us who play Dungeons and Dragons to create fantastic and wonderful characters are often paralyzed with fear during character creation when we realize that one of our characters Ability Scores will give us a negative modifier.  "Oh no!" we think.  "How can I have a character who is not perfect?"  As I've spent time converting characters from my past into D&D playable characters, I've come across the same issues and sometimes have the same thoughts.  However, if you take a moment and think, it's possible that the score of 8 your character has in Intelligence doesn't make him an idiot at all, just a different form of intelligent.  As the title suggests, this article will take a look at weaknesses, like puny little Bruce Banner, and turn them into powerful storytelling agents, like the transformation into the Incredible Hulk.

I never really liked the way the Player's Handbook would talk about what being bad in every category meant, as it always made me worry about having some majorly flawed character.  Every hero we read about in the stories we love isn't perfect.  Neither are our D&D characters.  However, these flaws ultimately make them better characters.  Let's dive into the six ability scores and talk about what a negative ability modifier means.

STRENGTH: I don't always see a low Strength score representing a character as weak or non-athletic.  In fact, I take this to be quite literal.  The character simply isn't a huge, bulky figure.  In high school, I ran cross country, average about 8 miles of running a day.  I was lean, I was mean, and I was fit.  But I wasn't strong.  In D&D terms, I probably have a Strength of 8.  To offset this, I probably had some nice skill bonuses to Althetics, or Climbing, or however skills are broken down.  I could still accomplish tasks/be physical.  Those things just weren't as easy for me as others.

DEXTERITY: Low Dexterity just means the character isn't nimble.  That isn't always a bad thing.  Maybe they have big hands, so picking locks is a difficult task for them.  Maybe being sneaky is hard because their body is too big that they always knock something over.  Low Dexterity shouldn't always mean that a character trips over their own two feet.  It just means they're not as good at maneuvering it.  I don't see Chewbacca or the Incredible Hulk being very dextrous.  Their Strengths lie in other areas.

CONSTITUTION: A character with low Constitution is generally described as sickly and weak.  Not always the case.  Maybe this just means they get winded quicker.  Maybe they're from a different location in your campaign world, and a lower Constitution represents them being unaccustomed to whatever the living conditions are like where your campaign is starting at.  Maybe they aren't very good at pushing their body through the pain.  

INTELLIGENCE: A character with low Intelligence can still be smart.  To me, Intelligence always represents book smarts, while Wisdom represents street smarts.  My druid Ragnarok has low Intelligence, simply because he has spent so much of his time outdoors and training other skills.  He knows little about history, the various kingdoms, and the wider world at large.  However, he is able to track food and tell all about nature.  He's still a smart character, just not in the educated sense.

WISDOM: As I mentioned above in Intelligence, Wisdom represents street smarts to me.  A character with low Wisdom isn't always great a thinking on their feet, or using logic and reading signs to make assumptions.  They can still be quite intellectual, but those gifts do not like in common sense and piecing things together.

CHARISMA: Low Charisma sometimes meant the character was ugly.  While that may be the case, I also feel like it could do with arrogance and maybe a sarcastic demeanor, making it so that people have hard time dealing with them.  Perhaps it represents one of those people who you can't always tell if they are joking or not.  I think there are a lot of reasons why a character might have a low Charisma, and it's not always about making it the dump stat.

I hope this article gave a few more brainstorming ideas for players to consider as they create characters.  It's not always the most fun to have a negative ability modifier, but rationalizing it and applying a solid story component to it will make it less of a bad thing, and more of a good storytelling hook.

As always, leave comments below and follow me on Twitter @artificeralf 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Elbereth Gilthoniel!

"There's only one god ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that!"
- Captain America, The Avengers

As the campaign world that I and my friends have designed over the years has grown, so to have a number of other questions and issues of things that we originally left unanswered.  However, the biggest one has to be the issue with the gods and their place in the world.
When I was younger and first started reading fantasy literature, I had some issues with the ideas of exploring other gods and deities of great power.  To me, the concept was foreign and almost sacrilegious.  I was raised Christian , and am heavily involved in the youth ministry within my own church.  Having "other gods" didn't sit right.  In my own games and imaginations, the gods are very rarely talked about.  Nobody ever really plays religious characters.  Instead of a Divine power source, my players typically go for Arcane or Martial (sorry Psionics).  Perhaps they have some of the same issues as me.

It's well known that C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were two devout Christians who who a lot of allegory and symbolism into their writings.  Aslan the lion, from Lewis' works, is symbolic for Christ.  Tolkien's representation of Christ in his own novels is more complex, with the Christ being Prophet, Priest and King distributed to Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn respectively.  As I grew older and began to read more Tolkien and learn about who the man was, I began to understand that the concepts of gods and other beings of power within my own fantasy worlds was all right.  I was not forsaking Christ for a fake god, but rather creating something myself in representation.  Tolkien has been a great source for guidance on this sort of matter.  I looked at his own Middle-Earth creation story (also known as the Silmarillion), and (in my own personal opinion) we see a very similar nature of powerful beings set up, each with their own attributes and domains.  
File:Varda Elentári.jpg
Elbereth, from Tolkien's Middle-Earth
Up until this point, my campaign world was almost like Dark Sun, where no gods exist and nobody every really questions them.  My group of Druids from the Lupine Wood were Jedi-like beings who looked for Nature to guide them and protect them.  Elsewhere in the world, there was very little divine interaction.

When I started using D&D for my campaign world and started playing games, I simply went and used the default 4E pantheon, as that gave DM's and players a quick base to determine how they wanted to play the game.  As time has gone on, I'm starting to see the pantheon slowly becoming tweaked.  The Vellyn campaign will be tied to the War of Winter, Khala, the rise of the Raven Queen.  Certain other deities will take their place in the world, slowly but surely, as I flesh them out and place them in their respective locations.  I wouldn't be surprised if some fade away.  There were 4E deities I didn't really ever use, and others I've used all the time (Bahamut comes to mind immediately).  Fey-wise, Corellon, Sehanine, and Lolth have always felt more like extremely powerful Archfey than gods (simply because of how they are written).  I've also become a fan of Grummsh and the legends surrounding him (from the History Check article about him and the Blood Of Grummsh adventure recently published in Dungeon).  Both articles include some interesting options and takes on Grummsh and Corellon, ideas that can span an entire campaign.

In creating worlds, I think focusing on what kinds of aspects you want your deities to have.  The D&D Next playtest packet does a great job of helping players establish how they want to create deities and gods for their own campaign by providing a list of ideas to build on, including The Lifegiver, The Lightbringer, The Protector, The Reaper, The Stormcaller, The Trickster, and The Warbringer.  I think the flavor of the Cleric is spot on, and look forward to seeing other Divine classes.

Biblical events are also great ways to use them in campaign adventures.  Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is an extremely popular movie, based off many of the events of the Old Testament relating to the Ark of the Covenant.  Some of the ideas in the movie are non-Biblically based, but the core is there.  In the past, I wrote about a Garden of Eden adventure.  I pitched the idea to WotC, but it didn't take, and I'm sure it will be something I can use in the future at a later date.  Why are these ideas significant?  Sometimes breaking down Biblical events allow us to understand them better.  I lead a youth confirmation small group, and I'm constantly making references to movies and various pop culture things to tie the lessons together.  I brought the Avengers in once to demonstrate an idea.  The same can be done with D&D.

Playing D&D allows me to become a new sort of Tolkien or Lewis by using Biblical events to tell my own stories.  As time has gone on, I've felt more comfortable expanding on the idea of gods in my own D&D games, and hopefully a player will decide to play a Divine character soon.  

On another note, I've begun using Pinterest for inspiration.  My boards can all be found here.  Feel free to look and get some inspiration.  Leave comments below, and follow me on Twitter @artificeralf


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Seven Questions for Jeff LaSala

“I have performed for the council of the Silver
Tree, the Queen of Dusk, and all Seven Brothers
of Night. I have recited epics for lordly centaurs
and lady satyrs, cried eulogies for hags and sang
dirges for cyclops in the realms below. But nothing
would give me greater honor, esteemed sirs, than
the opportunity to make sausage with your guts.
- Marrot the Fool

One of my goals this year was to interview other contributors to Dungeons & Dragons and get to know them better as players, DM's and individuals in general.  This month, I interviewed Jeff LaSala, a real live author!  For those that don't know, Jeff has written the Eberron book The Darkwood Mask, and was even interviewed about in on WotC's website here.  He's also authored numerous DDI articles, the list of which can be found at this location.  Lastly, he's also involved with Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero.  In a nutshell, this book is a collection of short stories set in a futuristic world.  The cool part about the book is that it comes with a CD.  Each story has its own soundtrack to listen to, creating mood, tension, or just plain excitement.  For more information, check out the Foreshadows website here.

I first started talking to Jeff last November when I saw that the Tarrasque articles were going to be published on DDI.  Scanning through the November comments, I saw that Jeff responded to someone stating how excited they were to see the Tarrasque again.  I messaged Jeff introducing myself as another freelancer, and we started chatting from there.  We're also officially friends on Facebook, so I felt pretty cool about that.  Out of all the authors I've met, Jeff has been the one to give me the most advice about being a writer, and just how the business works in general.  I'm hoping to write a DDI article with him soon!
So, with that being said, let's get to the questions!
1. From reading your website and various "about the author" postings, your wife seems to be an incredible source of support for you. Does she game with you? How has she supported your love of gaming? I'm getting married this year, and my fiancee deserves a lot of credit for all my adventure planning, map-making, and overall daydreaming that I do. I figured your wife deserves the same.

A great leading question! Yes, Marisa’s awesome and has always been supportive of my writing. I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid, but never really took it seriously, or professionally, until she helped encourage me to do so. I wrote her a short story once, just for her, about a young explorer, an island, some evil, snake-bodied lamia, and the lamia’s “disfigured” sister who was born with the tail of a fish instead of a serpent. That helped quicken my interest again, and eventually I started submitting to the Wizards of the Coast open calls for novels.

She does indeed game with me. She played a half-elven monk named Aunyxia in my years-spanning Forgotten Realms-turned-Ravenloft campaign. Now she’s Elody Skullgrinder, a half-orc cleric in my 4th Edition Isle of Dread campaign; a big girl with a big mace, who has a sunny disposition and a fondness for halflings.

This is a great response!  Ironically, my fiancee was the one who kept encouraging me to submit my ideas as well.  Looks like you got yourself a great woman!
2. When did you first get into the Eberron campaign setting, and what about it makes it your favorite?

When I first saw bits and pieces of the upcoming Eberron campaign setting (back in...oh, 2003?), I was initially skeptical. Magic trains? Really? When it came out, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then there came the open call for a novel in the War-Torn series of Eberron, and I wanted to try for it. So I bought the Eberron Campaign Guide and read it cover to cover and in so doing became an instant fan.

Eberron is a setting with depth. It’s a Dungeons & Dragons world that considers the societal and economic developments in a world where magic is accessible, even common. When spellcasters put their heads together, wondrous inventions—or whole industries—can come of it, and it will change the course of civilization. Eberron is not just a place where freewheeling wizards roam across a pseudo-medieval land and monsters lurk in dungeons for no reason—although that’s all still possible, if you want it. There are organizations and agencies about, mercantile houses, government spy networks, powerful factions and secret societies. There are universities for magic and archaeology. There is flightcraft (airships and soar sleds); mass communication (chronicles and speaking stones); living constructs (warforged); and organized systems of transportation (lightning rail and other elemental-powered vehicles). And none of these are cheap knock-offs of technology; they’re still magic-based, they’re still D&D.

Even the adventurer, as a character concept, makes good sense in the world. Adventurers might be veterans of the Last War, mercenaries hired to guard an archaeological expedition, scholars launching said expeditions, or inquisitives investigating nefarious crimes. And the classic, monster-infested, trap-filled dungeon—as a trope of roleplaying fantasy—still have a place in Eberron but they make better sense in context. Ruins of the Dhakaani Empire, of the fallen civilizations of the giants of Xen’drik, or ancient fortresses from the Age of Demons. And there’s a crazy ton of bad guys you can work with, if you’re a DM. The Lords of Dust, the daelkyr, the Aurum, the Quori...any of of these can be the overarching villains of a campaign.

Basically, Eberron’s got something for everyone. If you don’t want the complexities of urban intrigue, you can run off into the jungles of Xen’drik or Q’Barra for an Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunt or venture into the Demon Wastes and take on powerful fiends. Whatever, it’s all there. It’s a sad thing that Eberron doesn’t have the support it used to.

3. You're an author of Eberron as well as a fan. What has been the coolest part of that experience (besides having contributed to the world you love)?

Well, I became personally invested in the setting because I was eventually picked to write a novel there—specifically for the Inquisitives series—but I’ve stayed with it since first contact. Freelancers are hired guns; you write what you’re paid to write, then you move on. That’s what I’ve seen again and again. But when something’s really great, you don’t always want to just move on.

Really, just contributing to a D&D campaign world is the coolest part of the whole endeavor. I’m a little jealous of how Realms novelists were able to affect the game setting of the Forgotten Realms in their stories. But it was decided fairly early on that Eberron novels wouldn’t impact the canon of the Eberron sourcebooks—they would remain separate incarnations of the setting. But still, I enjoyed fleshing out one corner of the setting. Namely, Karrnath and Korth, with a bit of Sharn sprinkled in. I went on to do that sort of thing again with a second Eberron novel, but it was never released since the series it was to be part of was cancelled.


4. You have a blog where you write about playing in Eberron with D&D Next rules. How has this DM experience gone for you? What are your thoughts on playtesting with the new rules?

Well, if you’re referring to the Winter Coalition site, it’s more of a blog recounting the sessions of the campaign than about trying out the new rules. My priority in this game is fun. All of my players were new to Eberron—some even new to D&D itself—so being too thorough with playtesting D&D Next mechanics is merely a second priority.

That said, I’ve got a lot of good things to say about D&D Next rules so far. But they’ve still got much to accomplish and iron out. I didn’t want to limit my players to the races and classes presented in the packets so far, so I’ve had to do a lot of filling in myself—some of it borrowed from 3.5 and some of it just my own designing. The party consists of:
  • dwarf cleric (Onatar)
  • drow wizard
  • human barbarian
  • half-orc fighter (dragonmarked; House Tharashk)
  • shifter ranger
  • warforged artificer

5. Who is your favorite NPC that you have ever played? What made them special?

Oh, I have a bunch of favorites, though I’m fairly sure that my favorites aren’t the same as my players’ favorites. I tend not to give NPCs a lot of “screen time,” though, because I never want to upstage the PCs. They’re usually temporary allies or shadow players who spend more time in my head than in actual gameplay.
            I guess if I had to pick one, I’d go with a current one, and it would have to be Histra. She’s a human necromancer in my play-by-post online Eberron game (which is a game where NPCs can have a wee bit more spotlight, since it’s easier to write about them than act them out in person; cheating because I’m a writer?). Histra is a “frenemy” in that she’s on the evil end of neutral but she dallies with the party’s warlock and hates the others characters. Ultimately, she’s on the good guys’ side but she’s on a whole different moral wavelength than they are and she thinks little of animating the dead or harming the innocent. To her, few people are innocent, anyway. She’s just got a different worldview and that makes her fun to depict. She’s also got a pact with the aforementioned warlock character: she gets to be the one to kill him some day, probably in some foul ritual. If he dies by some other means, she’ll be very angry with him. And you shouldn’t piss off a necromancer; death is no escape.
            Actually, there’s one other NPC in that game who’s even more complex that I’d love to talk about, but I can’t, because some of my players will be reading this and I don’t want them to learn the dark secret.

6. What happened in the best D&D session that you ever ran as a DM?

One of my friends, who played the party’s cleric (of Ilmater, god of suffering), had to leave our game because he was joining the Navy. In his final session, his character had to go his own way...and so the session was full of emotional portent, parting wisdom and advice, and real life tears. It was amazing to watch. But it didn’t have much to do with me as a DM, just all of us as a group who collectively made some memorable stories.

In general, my favorite moments as a DM are when I can sit back and watch the players and their characters discuss or argue a course of action. Every minute that passes when I’m doing nothing but observing feels like a little victory. It drives home the fact that the game is not, as many people say, the DM’s story. It’s everyone’s.

I would have to agree.  Watching the players interact with the scenarios the DM creates and talk amongst themselves is one of the most rewarding times at the table.
7. What's your favorite Dungeons and Dragons monster and why? Do you have any cool stories, as a player and a DM involving this monster?

The gargoyle. Which is almost a shame, because they’re not really an iconic D&D monster. They’ve just always been there. But the first short story I ever wrote, written for a class project when I was in 5th grade, involved the adventures of a gargoyle who decided to leave the castle he was perched on and see the world. Gargoyles also played the villains in one of my first D&D campaigns (“campaign” being a loose term when you’re a kid), when I was the DM and my only player was my brother. And I’ve used gargoyles one way or another in just about every game I’ve ever run.

But now that I’ve written about the tarrasque (in Dragon issue #418) and have its imminent rise as the backdrop of my current 4E Isle of Dread campaign, I’d say it’s a contender now, too, for the spot of favorite. But the tarrasque is more of a plot device, not a casual monster you just drop into a game. Although I would like to actually run a combat with it once. That would be awesome.

To represent how awesome the Tarrasque is, I've posted the art in gigantic format.  No blog border should hold the Tarrasque!!!


Thanks to Jeff for agreeing to an interview with me!  I hope everybody else enjoyed it as well.  Be sure to leave your comments below.  You can follow Jeff on Twitter @Jeff_LaSala. I'm always @artificeralf