Being Johnny Diceseed: Making New Gamers

When my wife and I first watched Netflix’s Stranger Things series, I was struck (just like so many of my peers) by how powerful the D&D nostalgia was. We were those kids in 1985 (minus demonic monsters and psychic girls). Much has written about the connection between us 40-something gamers and the Stranger Things kids, so i won’t rehash it here. But an experience last night reminded me that you did not have to be 12 in the 1980s to be those Stranger Things kids: you can be 12 right now, in fact.

 

Obviously, I make no secret of my geekery and neither does my wife, so it was not unusual that Dungeons and Dragons came up in a conversation between her and a friend at work. It turned out this friend, S, had bought her son J a full set of the D&D 5th Edition books (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual as well as the Starter Box) for Christmas. Part of the reason was because S wanted J to put down his tablet and interact with friends more. J and his buddies had tried to navigate D&D on their own, S told my wife, but had crashed and burned. That is when my lovely wife offered up my services to teach J and his friends how to play D&D. I was to be Johnny Diceseed, progenitor of a whole new crop of D&D players.

 

I will admit, at first I balked a little. I am used to running games for strangers at conventions, but those are usually adults, and if there are any kids they tend to be with their parents. My sense of humor and imagination are not PG rated, and f-bombs, shit jokes and bloody decapitations are likely to fly during any given moment in one of my games. In addition I was not confident in my ability to teach kids the very basics of a game that is so ingrained in me after 30-plus years of playing it. Are you a parent? Do you remember the frustration of trying to teach a child to ride a bike when you could not actually articulate how to keep the bike upright? That’s what I was worried I was up against.

 

Nonetheless, I agreed. After all, the couch is cold. As the event got closer, I found myself rehearsing things in my head, planning out how I would explain this aspect or that aspect. I remembered being me trying to master the weird game in the red box and I got both a little misty and excited to impart that on a group of kids. I have purchased D&D for friends’ kids before, trying to pass on the hobby, and have offered advice to those kids. My own kids have been resistant, with my son being more active than tabletop gaming allows and my daughter being too young until recently. This would be the first time I really tried to teach the basics of the game to kids I had not met before. It would be much more like those convention experiences of a table of strangers.

 

None of my plans survived contact with the enemy, so to speak, but even so I was able to herd the kids and get them pointed in the right direction. J was quiet but deeply interested. Of the other four kids at the table — at boys about 12 or 13 years old — two were obviously natural gamers. One, B, is going to be their DM — he says not, and they want to make J do it because it is his stuff, but I can spot a DM a mile off and B is going to be it. Two of the other boys were a little more distracted and had little interest in the nuts and bolts of their characters, and if I had to guess those two would play for a while on occasion before wandering off back toward other activities.

 

One thing I found to be difficult in the process what that non-gamer adults never understand how long D&D takes. The kids wanted to learn to create characters AND play the game. Our window was about 2 hours. I got the kids through the rolling stats, picking race and class and spells, part of character generation and then told them we would fill in the other details as we went. Then, I ran them through a forest ambush with a hobgoblin and some goblins to give them a taste of the combat rules. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. It is hard to articulate until you sit down and think about it, but there is quite a lot that happens in your average game of D&D. No single 2 hour session can hope to teach it all. But, again, as Johnny Diceseed my job was just to plan a 20-sided acorn.

When I learned to play D&D, we had just a 32 page player’s guide and 64 page DM guide to navigate, along with a solo adventure to explain the basics and a pre-stocked dungeon to get the DM started. I like the D&D starter set and think the Lost Mines of Phandelver is a great introductory adventure, but I actually prefer Paizo’s Pathfinder beginner Box for teaching the very basics of tabletop D&D style role-playing. Kids just getting into D&D now have a lot more material to try and digest.

boxbackfinal

If it were up to me, I would teach a group to play D&D over the course of four sessions. The first one would be a short adventure with pre-generated characters to teach the basics of play and the assumptions of the world of D&D. The second session would be a character generation session where the players went through the entire process, had time to read their options and so on. The third and fourth sessions would be a somewhat longer adventure using those newly minted characters, designed with the goal of introducing the variety of activities that can happen in D&D, from dealing with NPCs to delving dungeons to traversing the wilds to selling loot and upgrading their gear. By the end of those four session, I think any group of kids that was interested in D&D should be able to navigate their way through the sometimes arcane rule books and adventures.

 

My philosophizing aside, I got to see at least a few gamers made last night. They cheered when they eviscerated a goblin and laughed when the barbarian whiffed twice in a row. They only got to peek through the door into this world, but they decided based on what they saw they were going to set their shoulders against that door and push. I am excited for them, for all the adventures they will have and the friends they will make and the worlds they will create.

Getting Weird: Why I Can Never Run A Grounded Campaign

It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?

 

The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”

 

First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.

 

I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach  to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.

 

But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?

 

What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.

 

This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.

 

To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.

The Fate of Zaskettr

sigurd

In the cold mountains of Vermont, the great wyrm Zaskettr met its fate.

Let’s back up. Last weekend was Carnage, the annual northern New England tabletop gaming convention that currently takes place at the Killington Ski Mountain Resort. It is a great con, with hundreds of attendees playing all manner of games. This year, I ran a long form game called The High Guard which you can read about here. For the purposes of this discussion, only one detail of that adventure matters: the fight against, and victory over, Zaskettr, the great wyrm responsible for the death of the High King and following chaos.

 

Dragon fights are notoriously difficult in D&D. As very powerful singular monsters, dragons can be both overwhelming for a party and at the same time anti-climactic. This is due to the nature of threats, combat and so-called “challenge ratings” in D&D. As what can be referred to as “boss” or “solo” monsters, dragons have tons of hit points and the potential to deal a lot of damage. As such, they can be very deadly, even for level appropriate PCs. Despite this, they can also seem somewhat weak. As singular monsters, they are inherently the focus of a heroic party’s energies and all those arrows, swords and spells stack up quickly. This is doubly true when, such as at a convention, the party is larger than usual.

 

Zaskettr began as an indistinct concept. I wanted to create a setting defined by a central monster, one that would always be present but not necessarily involved. This being D&D, the obvious choice was a dragon. Not any dragon, mind you, but an ancient red wyrm, the most powerful evil dragon in any edition of the game (barring deities and the like). The dragon would have destroyed not just the king and his castle, but the very stability of the kingdom. It would be the ultimate boss monster for a party that started out as zero level nothings trying to survive giant rats in the inn cellar.

 

Of course the idea evolved over time. Eventually when I was deciding what sort of long form game to run this year, I remembered the idea and created a world around the creature, which I called Zaskettr based on some random googling. Despite whatever details changed, the core idea remained the same: the dragon was the monster that had brought down the apocalypse and whatever else the heroes accomplished, destroying it would be the ultimate test. That said, I did not actually go into the con game expecting the PCs would tackle the dragon. I thought they might so I prepared, but it was just one of a few threads. It became clear early on in actual play though that if you put a dragon at the center of a game, the players are going to want to kill it.

 

Many adventures led up to the direct conflict with Zaskettr. One of the things I believe I am really good at from a Dungeon Mastering perspective is working on the fly. I create a realized setting and I prepare some expected encounters and Non-Player Characters. So armed, I am confident in letting the players go whatever direction and dealing with it as they go. Truth be told, I prefer this method of DMing simply because I get to be surprised, too. Who knows what a random group of players are going to do at a convention game, let alone one that stretches over 5 or more slots? I certainly don’t, and I like it that way.

 

Eventually, the PCs did come into direct conflict with Zaskettr. Twice, actually. Once the party had acquired the weapon with which to defeat the dragon, they went looking for it in its domain. That location proved very challenging and when they retreated to lick their wounds, the dragon, drawn by the very weapon designed to defeat it, attacked. The party barely survived and managed to escape through sheer luck. (Aside: that luck happened to be in the form of a helm of teleportation that one player rolled as a random starting item at the beginning of the first session. I believe in random input into the game. I can’t think of everything, and sometimes a random die roll, whether for an item or an encounter or even just a name, can completely change the course of an adventure. As I said, I like to be surprised.)

 

After the party fled, they chose to seek aid from the lords, churches and common folk of the land. With such aid, they drew the dragon away from a populated area and used magic to create a battleground of their devising. Zaskettr met them and this time the wyrm and the party were far more evenly matched. Even so, there were tense moments where only lucky die rolls on the part of the PCs or unlucky die rolls on my part spared their lives. It was glorious — everything a tabletop D&D fight with a dragon should be. I guess that an outside observer inexperienced with the nature of play would probably have been bored to death as we worked through a single battle for 2 or more hours. But for us at the time, it was thrilling. By the way, in my opinion that, in a nutshell, is tabletop gaming.

 

In the end, the PCs managed to whittle Zaskettr down. I had the dragon all set to flee the battle and force the PCs to come to its lair for the final round. Sadly, I did not leave the poor beast enough hit points. I did not expect the last round of luck the PCs had and before Zaskettr could fly off, the party cut the dragon down and impaled it with the magic spear that would keep it in torpor so long as the spear remained in Zaskettr’s heart.  They whooped and hollered on their victory and, to be honest, so did I. I talk a good “killer DM” game but in the end I want them to succeed just as much as they want to. After all, what we are all really looking forward to is a good tale to tell afterwards.

 

I gleaned a lot more from that extended game at Carnage this year than the fun of the party defeating Zaskettr. I will go into that in a future post. But for now, the joy of a well fought battle that mattered to the players, even at a convention without any of the weight of a home game, is enough to make me smile. This is why I run games and why I run games at conventions the way I do. Success after 20 hours, even if you as a player was not there for every single moment of it, is still far sweater than after just four.

The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.

 

Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.

 

Embracing the Virtual Tabletop

fantasygrounds2

Thanks to Fantasy Grounds, I have officially slain my inner Luddite.

I am not a technology averse individual. I am as tethered to my smartphone as much as any modern person. I own computers and tablets and gaming consoles and weird robot ladies that live in little black towers that play music when I want. But one place where I consistently resisted embracing technology was table top, pen and paper roleplaying games. Certainly, whenever I would run the Pathfinder RPG I made use of the extensive on-line SRD and associated apps, but I refused to actually play online. I resisted the siren song of Maptools, Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, despite having friends that successfully used each, as well as simply getting together to game on Google+ Hangouts or Skype.

I think my resistance was based on the way I perceive myself as a Game Master. When I run a game, I rarely sit down. I see my roll as referee and storyteller, but most as entertainer. It is like an interactive one man show or stand up comedy for a select group of hecklers. Though I am not sure I ever articulated it in my protestations to VTT enabled friends, I thought that my style of GMing, what I literally brought to the table, would not translate to a microphone and computer screen. And if I am being honest about it, how I perform as a GM is embarrassingly important to me.

What finally made me reevaluate using a VTT was when I realized I wanted to play more often with people who lived far away. Once a year I drive 500 miles to cram 30 hours of table time into 4 days to continue a campaign that has been going on for 20 years and counting. It is awesome. No gaming experience matches it for pure immersive fun. But it is also limiting. That world and its stories are told in annual event stories. Little is accomplished outside of those events so the characters don’t get the kind of small scale, personal stories that created the foundation on which we still play. It turned out that the game system we use for that campaign, Mutants and Mastermind 2nd Edition, was not supported by Fantasy Grounds, but the newer 3rd Edition is.  I decided to give FG a try, to see if we could use it and then whether we wanted to make that edition transition. Somewhere along the line, I happened to accidentally fall in love with running Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

Fifth Edition is fully supported by FG and even free, at least in its Basic Rules form. Being completely unfamiliar with FG but very familiar with 5E I decided to mess around with FG using the 5E rules. With the help of the friend who had been successfully running games on VTTs for years, and who was ever berating me for avoiding the technology, I learned just enough to be dangerous — to my wallet. Fantasy Grounds is not an inexpensive platform for the GM, especially when it comes to running D&D. A quick check on Steam shows that you can get the Complete Bundle for D&D at a cost of over $300. If you want to be able to host players without them having to buy the software, add another $100 for the Ultimate License, or pay a $10 monthly subscription fee. I tend to view the purchase of gaming materials not from a “how much does this one thing cost” perspective but a “hours of enjoyment” perspective. Even at the high cost, if I use FG even half as much as I plan to it will come out to be some of the least expensive entertainment ever.

As an aside, I think that is true of table top RPGs in general. Sometimes books do cost a lot, and sometimes they sit on your shelf, but if you actually play an RPG regularly its cost per hour of entertainment can’t be beat.

After that initial exploration of Fantasy Grounds, I quickly fell in love with it as a platform. I invited far flung folks with whom I have and/or currently game to give it a shot. That resulted in almost universal excitement. Now I have more potential players than I know what to do with and am developing a new campaign world — about which I will blog in the near future. There are still technical hurdles to overcome — we have gone through a couple VOIP solutions so far — and scheduling is likely to be a bear. Even so I am excited for what the future holds: how long before it is a VRTT*?

*Virtual Reality Table Top

Return to the Isle of Dread: TotalCon Report

This past weekend marked another TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts. It was a great con and as usual I had a lot of fun with old friends and new. As it relates to running games, it was my most successful convention by far.

 

Each of the six 4 hour slots I ran of the Return to the Isle of Dread was full (all 8 tickets sold). There were always folks waiting to see if they could get in, as well. Even more, the 48 total seats available were filled with somewhere on the order of 15 to 20 individual players — meaning that many players returned to the game for multiple slots. It is hard to express how gratifying this is as a GM, especially that last part: players were willing to spend a large portion of their con at my table, sometimes even dumping other games for which they had signed up.

 

This, I think, is an illustration of the strength of the format more than any measure of my game mastery. Dungeons and Dragons can be fun to play in a limited format, but it really shines when treated as an episodic or serial form of entertainment. It isn’t just accumulated treasure and experience points, but accumulated lore, allies, enemies and relationships that make long term play so powerful. I wanted to bring that experience to convention play based upon my experience cramming long hours of play into a single annual long weekend game event. (I will talk more about this in a future post.)

 

Imagine my surprise upon realizing it actually works.

 

Actual Play Report

 

On the off chance that anyone is interested in what actually went down during play at TotalCon, I have compiled a brief synopsis. Note that this was a continuation of events that had occurred at Carnage on the Mountain in November. Also note that this synopsis is neither exhaustive nor chronological, since so much happens in the midst of play that my poor beleaguered brain stands no chance against it. If you were there and want to correct me you can do so in the comments. You can even lie. I won’t know.

 

Back in November, the player characters uncovered an ancient Yuan Ti temple, if the actual definition of “uncovered” is “unsealed, thereby releasing that blight back onto the Isle after eons in torpor.” Swarms of poisonous snakes attacked Farshore in search of stolen gold, which led the PCs to head into the wilderness and track down the site from whence the stolen goods came. In doing so, they had to contend with a despoiled cairn in the swamp that created two will o’ the wisps and a shambling mound. The ranger died by a will o’ the wisp after “escaping” engulfment by the mound via the “back door.” What they found there would lead them to the source of the snake swarms — a very angry spirit naga — and result in the longest string of sub-5 rolls I as a GM have ever had. That the ranger player’s follow up wizard lived trapped alone with the naga while the rest of the party listened to him scream is a miracle of miracles. That naga’s death would also result in a vessel rechristening, but I am getting ahead of myself.

 

Pterosaurs are dangerous! Especially ones that are nested 500 feet above the sea and 150 down from the top of the cliff. This is doubly true when would be nest raiders in service to a dishonored knight of House Karameikos (aka the PCs) decide to hang right over the ledge. It’s complicated. But it did result in a bloody death as the poor high elf thief chose to plummet to her death rather than be torn to shreds in midair. It may also be of use to know that it takes 4.3 seconds to fall 660 feet. Believe it or not, that figure would come up again.

 

Somewhere in this mess of events the party hired a small sailing vessel called the Red Queen, which was captained by a lovely but less than kind woman named Lydia. During their travels on the Red Queen, the party’s valour — and Sabrina the bard’s Bossom of Charisma — had the motley crew of rejects and half wits start looking fondly upon them and less so upon Lydia. Eventually there was a tussle for control and Lydia lost her head while Sabrina gained her hat. After the aforementioned killing of the naga, the barbarian Garth took the thing’s head and hung it from the figurehead and they renamed the vessel the Black Cobra. Many “Karate Kid” jokes were made and no NPCs ever called it that because all my notes said “Red Queen.”

 

Once the PCs had their own vessel the sessions took a decidedly piratical turn, though that was never my intention. The real motivating force behind that element was not so much the acquisition of the ship, which really just served to force me to roll on a different random encounter chart as the PCs travelled, but the outcome of one of those random encounters.

 

Not the ship that was really a mimic, though. That encounter was fun and scary and ultimately very cool but did not have a huge impact. But still: a ship that was actually a huge mimic.

 

The game changing random encounter was with the Tusk. The Tusk was my go-to vessel for pirate encounters in the seas around the Isle simply because I like the idea so much: a human captain and his orc wives crew the vessel with their dozens of half orc offspring. It is gross and fun and over the top all at once. It turns out, though, that when a ship has cannon as part of its armament, it is highly susceptible to fireball slinging wizards. The Tusk did not last long and given that the captain was one of the three pirate lords of the Isle, the Red Queen/Back Cobra suddenly earned a great deal of prestige.

 

Interlude: On Emergent Story

 

I try not to go into a sandbox or open world game with a “story” idea in mind. There are little stories, of course — the ones that make up the encounters or the NPC stories so they have motivations and personalities. I like to create just enough in the way of backstory so that I can manage play as it happens, jumping on ideas that seem fun at the time and responding to players’ antics. In other words, I throw a lot of shit at the walls and see what sticks. If an open world game is working right, though, a story inevitably emerges. It is a twisted mass of a story, an organic thing like a briar all turned in on itself, but it is there. Players will choose the elements they want to explore and I will flesh out the bones with ideas that come to mind, the results of random encounters and the players’ conjectures (this last one is super top secret; don’t tell anyone). So even as I argue “against” story as it relates to RPGs and D&D, I am really arguing against a pre-determined plot, not “story” itself.

 

Back on the Isle…

 

The story that emerged in the last half of the sessions was one of escalating hostilities between the pirate king Guy Voral and the PCs. There were other events of course: the hunt for necromantic flowers used to make rease dead potions that led to a vampire’s lair guarded by an undead treant, the battle atop the 600 foot tall ancient war machine brought back to life by goblin shenanigans and others. But that growing rivalry served as the centerpiece and served well.

 

First, the Council of Farshore asked the party (as the owners of the Red Queen/Black Cobra) to sign on as privateers. They declined. Then, Captain Guy asked the PCs to fly pirate colors. He would have even offered them the Tusk’s old station as the third pirate lordship. They declined that as well, but did so with gusto: they levitated the pirate flag into the air and set it alight for Captain Guy and his whole crew to see. Understandably miffed at the rebuke, Guy later convinced a few members of the Red Queen’s crew, which were some of the lowest scum sailing the seas as it was, to release fire elementals onto the deck of the Queen. The party defeated the summoned creatures and decided on a measured response: they went to Guy’s pirate town, freed his slaves, killed his men and burned his opulent mansion to the ground. On their way out they ran into a powerful ally of the pirate king: a seas dragon that lived in the bay. The dragon did not harass them since it was paid by Guy to keep ships from coming into the bay, but it did promise to report to the pirate so that it might renegotiate its contract.

 

After this affront, guy turned to the mysterious drow Assassin’s Guild to deal with the player characters. Simultaneous attacks from the shadows, with both blade and poison, nearly did the party in but they managed to survive and capture an assassin. After some intra-party squabbling they decided to make an offer to the Guild to buy out Guy’s contract on them. Events would not allow for them to hear the answer from the Guild, but the assassin they spoke to did escape to present the offer. Finally, the party decided to seek divine aid in finding out where Guy was hiding and discovered he had fled to the headquarters of the final pirate lord: the undead captain of the ghost ship Kraken. Coming into the Kraken’s bay at sunset to hid themselves in the glare, the Red Queen was able to get close enough to unleash it’s devastating super-weapon: control water.

 

Seriously. Have you read this spell? I had not. Holy crap. It might not look like much in the context of a bunch of dungeon delving tomb robbers, but on a ship, in battle against other ships? It is a nuke.

 

It turns out Guy had upped the promised wealth to his sea dragon ally (he was double dipping on what he promised the drow assassins, assuming he would only have to pay one or the other) and the dragon was guarding his ship while Guy was on the Kraken negotiating with the last pirate lord. When the cleric tried to use control water to sink Guy’s vessel, the sea dragon responded in kind and they wrestled for control of the ocean. For many rounds the sea dragon attacked the PCs while magically protecting Guy’s ship. The party wizard also had control water and used it to sink the Kraken (after all, the sea dragon had not been retained to protect that vessel or even specifically Guy’s life — dragons can be such lawyers). The party hurled fireballs at the sea dragon while it attacked them with dragon fear and its tail (it’s main action was held up with the control water spell). Once the dragon finally lost concentration on its spell due to the damage done to it, it breathed on the wizard. By that time, though, both the wizard and the cleric were controlling water beneath Guy’s ship and with water rushing in, the Storm Whore was destroyed (but not before the water walking barbarian could loot it at least a little — priorities, people!).

 

Eventually, the party had done enough damage to the sea dragon to convince it to flee. It bore into the hull of Guy’s ship to retrieve it’s promised pay (whether it deserved it or not) and then took the better part of valor. As to the fate of the captain of the Kraken or Guy — no one knows. One would presume that powerful pirate captains might have ways to escape sinking vessels, however.

 

That is where we ran out of time. I don’t think we will see those characters on the Isle of Dread again. I like to create a new sandbox with ever convention season. But who knows? perhaps there is another story yet in the Red Queen — okay, okay.. in the Black Cobra.

 

After all, there is that little matter of the Yuan Ti and their stolen artifacts…

Over the Isle of Dread, a Dark Phoenix Rises

 

When the Return to the Isle of Dread continues this weekend at TotalCon 30, it will be playing under the banner of Dark Phoenix Events. Operated by good friends of mine, DPE is an honest to goodness business designed to provide high quality gaming experiences — not just at conventions, but at private venues as well. The folkks behind it are not just wonderful people and hardworking Game Masters, they are dedicated professionals that want to provide the best experience for your money.

 

Don’t believe me or think I’m biased? That’s okay. Come to TotalCon and play in any one of the number of games DPE will be hosting there. Aside from my own ongoing Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition hexcrawl, there will be immersive cosmic horror and more from Andre Kruppa, comedic horror and more from Nik Palmer, strange mystery and more from Jason Marcure, sci-fi horror and more from Alexander Jackl, steampunk action adventure and more from Scott Legault, Firefly adventures and more with Sean Murphy, super-heroic adventure with David Clarkson, and Star Wars themed Fiasco from Petra Jackl. A number of those GMs are winners or runners up for the Northeast Regional Iron GM competition.

 

Conventions are great places to find new games, meet new friends and hook up with new polayers. This wonderful group of folks that make up Dark Phoenix Events are friends I met at TotalCon and with whom I fell in love with long before Scott and Petra decided to kick off this business. They are all great folks and even if you don’t ever think you will want the services of DPE, you should sign up to play with them because they are just that good.

 

See you at TotalCon 30!

Seven Sandbox Essentials, Revisited

I have believed in the value of so-called sandbox DMing for a long time. In September, 2008 I tried to codify my views on the subject in a blog post on the ENWorld gaming site. It went over pretty well. But now seven and a half years later, i wanted to revisit it. Sandbox gaming is more popular than ever — I attribute it to the ease with which one can run such a game using 5th Edition D&D — and my perspective has probably evolved.

 

What follows is the original post (with some minor editing for spelling, etc…) with my annotations in bold italic text. If you are interested in reading the original version, follow this link to ENWorld.

 

Seven Sandbox Essentials

 

The “sandbox” setting, in which players are not only allowed but encouraged to make their own fun by exploring and interacting with the setting, is, in my opinion, a fundamental requirement for satisfying, rewarding D&D play. Adventures and setting that force players along certain paths — or worse, away from certain paths — cannot hold a candle to sandbox play.  No DM’s or designer’s story has a hope against the story that the players themselves create through their actions and the consequences of those actions (with a healthy dose of DM input and dice-based uncertainty,to boot).

 

Well,that was kind of absolute — and we know who speaks in absolutes. It is interesting to see how one’s perspective on internet communications changes over time. I now cringe at the preceding paragraph, all to aware of the intended authoritative voice despite not possessing much in the way of authority besides some years running games and a few RPG sourcebooks.

 

Here are seven essential elements for a good “sandbox” setting.

 

  1. Big, but not Too Big: A sandbox setting should cover a relatively large geographic area, with room for varied terrain and environments, as well as multiple political entities.  However, one of the things that makes a sandbox game so enjoyable is the players’ ability to engage it as a whole, to see all four corners and to uncover its nuances and secrets.  Too big a sandbox makes each part indistinct — the DM likely doesn’t have time to flesh out every aspect of a whole world; nor do players likely have time, or even interest, to visit it all.  By limiting the scope of the setting and containing it geographically, the DM has the opportunity to delve into the whole setting and so do the players.  Something on the order of the British Isles works well, size and scope wise.

 

Not surprisingly, I was running a D&D campaign set in a mythic post Roman Britain at the time. That said, I actually agree with myself here. Both of my very successful convention based ongoing hexcrawl sandboxes have hewed to this rule. The Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread are both contained geographical regions with varied terrain types and locations.

 

  1. Lots to Do, Lots to See: As stated above, a sandbox needs to be diverse in regards to where the players can go and what they can do when they get there.  It isn’t enough to litter the place with 100 dungeons.  Rather, there should be a handful of dungeons, a handful of towns, a handful of active fortresses, a handful of mystic locations, etc…  This applies to political, religious and mercantile groups, as well. A monolithic nation that covers the whole setting won’t do.  At the very least, there should by various states or provinces with different cultures and conflicting interests.  Even better, numerous small nations or city states work well.  In addition, even if the DM chooses to have a dominant religious entity, schisms and sects within the church, with their own temples and own interpretations of scripture are necessary. Players should want to explore the setting to see what is around the next bend or over the next hill.

 

And here I think I overstated the need for such a high degree of diversity. In retrospect this advice runs counter to the previous advice. Geographical containment or not, having multiple states, multiple institutions and multiple other kinds of factions is a heavy workload that can lead a DM to never actually finishing preparing his sandbox. In my experience with the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread as sandbox settings, a couple settlements and a couple factions of important are plenty.

 

  1. A Life of its Own: The setting should “live” like a real place.  The diverse locations and groups discussed above should interact and those interactions should be both internally consistent and produce movement within the setting.  Groups that are opposed might be moving ever toward open conflict. The heir to a city state might try and hasten along his inheritance.  A lowly peddler might slowly climb to the top of the mercantile heap.  A dark cult might be waiting for a soon approaching celestial event to unleash their dark master on the setting.  It isn’t that the setting ignores the players and their characters’ actions.  Rather, there’s something of a timeline or assumed evolution to the setting that the players can interact with and disrupt.  Knowing what would happen in a given situation without the involvement of the players allows the DM to better interpret what happens when they do get involved, as well as allowing the DM a plan if the PCs don’t bother with a particular setting element or subplot.

 

This advice still rings true. What’s more, I think it applies to all kinds of campaigns, not just sandboxes. In my experience, players respond to a living, breathing world and having some idea of what everyone might be doing if the PCs weren’t throwing wrenches into the works helps the DM maintain that kind of setting.

 

  1. No Scaling: The sandbox should not scale to the level of the PCs.  If there’s a “12th level” monster in the Darkenwood when the game begins, that monster remains there — barring its involvement in the above — whether the players choose to go to the darkenwood at 2nd level or 20th (or both). A scaling setting breaks verisimilitude and suggests to the players that whatever growth they have is irrelevant.  instead, the setting should include a wide array of “levels” of adventure locales, NPCs and monsters, distributed throughout the setting in a plausible and internally consistent manner.  This is not to say that the setting can’t include “zones’ that are geared toward certain levels of play, but too much of this inhibits the open nature of the sandbox. Mix it up instead.  But make sure that there aren’t too many “invisible” major threats.  Powerful creatures and characters produce legends and rumors and even inaccurate information will give players a glimpse into what lies ahead, allowing them the opportunity to make a meaningful choice as to where to go and what to do.

 

This advice is built around the issues of Challenge Ratings and the steep power curve of D&D 3.x and Pathfinder. Since 5th Edition’s power curve by level is more shallow, reminiscent of 1st and 2nd edition where lower level characters could get lucky and take on higher level threats while higher level characters might get slaughtered by even common enemies likes orcs, I view it a little differently now. I usually apply an assumed CR to a geographical locale or “zone” and then include both “easy” and “deadly” as well as typical encounters for that locale on the chart. In this way, the uncertainty of random encounters is preserved at the same time as some internal consistency is maintained for the locale.

 

  1. Wandering Monster Tables and Random Encounters: One of the key conceits of the sandbox is that players are free to go where they will, do what they wish and engage the setting through their characters without being pulled or prodded into the DM’s “story”.  This requires a lot of work on the part of the DM, creating many adventure sites, placed encounters, NPCs and organizations before play even begins.  But even with all the work done, there’s still a good chance the players will go somewhere the DM hasn’t thought too much about or had a chance to flesh out.  This is where the value of random encounter charts comes in.  With such tables, built specifically for the setting and informed by the detail the DM has done, can provide fun for everyone even during those sessions where the players simply strike out down the road.  These random encounters shouldn’t simply be a collection of monsters listed by terrain type.  Instead, the charts should include little glimpses into the setting.  What tribe are those orcs from? Who are the bandits? Where is the merchant caravan heading?  By making specific encounter charts for the setting, the DM ensures that more of the work he has put into the setting sees use.  By exposure, players are given hooks to choose for themselves to investigate and engage aspects of the setting.

 

Still solid advice. In fact, as time has gone by I have become more and more comfortable with “on the fly” DMing and relied more and more on random encounter tables for inspiration. The part about not everything being a fight is true, too. When the encounter comes up, a little creative application can turn what was likely a short fight with a couple specters into a tragic love story the PCs got to not only witness but resolve (as happened on the Isle of Dread at CarnageCon last November).

 

  1. New Blood: Characters die.  They retire.  Players get bored or want a break from the usual.  Inevitably, a player is going to need a new character, or a new player will join the group.  It may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked: the setting must allow for the introduction of new heroes (i.e. PCs) without breaking plausibility. As such settings that are mostly wilderness or wastelands with few settlements don’t work as well as those that provide a diverse selection of races and classes within the population.  As a related aspect, this means the setting must be adventurer friendly and reasonably wide ranging in regards to which races and classes are available.  While it is okay for the DM to establish some limitations to better suit the genre or setting he has in mind, too many restrictions hampers the introduction of new characters and should be avoided.

 

Both the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread include gateway towns for this very reason. they are frontier locations where adventurer types come to test their mettle. The only requirement for a new PC is that they want to head off into the wilderness for fortune and glory. With the more shallow power curve as explained above, new PCs can be introduced at whatever the “starting level” of the sandbox is (be it 1st or 10th) and likely both survive and be able to contribute as they quickly close on the veteran PCs, level wise.

 

  1. Meaningful Choices and Meaningful Consequences: Most important of all, the actions of the players should have direct, noticeable impact on the setting, at least insofar as the PCs degree of influence.  Information should be plentiful enough to allow the players to choose which actions they will take, and those actions must have consequences.  Who the players ally with, and with whom they make enemies; what meta-setting secrets they uncover, and which they bury; those monsters they kill and those that they merely enrage: these all should change the setting to some degree or another.  If the players feel their adventures and explorations within the sandbox have a real impact, they will be both more inclined to engage the setting, and more thoughtful of the consequences of their actions.

 

I think this is another bit of observation that rings true regardless of the sort of campaign you run.

 

Revisiting an older piece is an interesting experience. I may do it again sometime.

 

Summon Boredom Elemental

Long story short: I have an introductory AutoCAD class that is required for the degree I am pursuing. I also use AutoCAD most every day, all day, and have for close to 20 years now. Thus was born:

 

monster

Cute, ain’t he? It’s like the smoke monster from Lost and Krumm from Ahh! Real Monsters got it on and had themselves an abominable baby boy. Since I went to all the trouble of trying not to fall asleep, I figured I might as well stat the little darling up for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

 

Ravenous Cloud

Huge Elemental, neutral

Armor Class 15

Hit Points 130 (20d8+40)

Speed 40 ft., Fly 40 ft. (hover)

________________________________________________

Str 20 (+4) Dex 14 (+2) Con 14 (+2) Int 8 (-1) Wis 16 (+3) Cha 11 (+0)

________________________________________________

 

 

Skills Perception +9, Stealth +8
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities exhaustion, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 18
Languages Auran, understands Common but doesn’t speak it
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)

Special Traits:

Cloud Form The ravenous cloud can pass through spaces occupied by other creatures and stop there. Any creature within the cloud’s space has disadvantage on any ability checks and attacks that rely on normal sight. It can also pass through openings as small as 1 inch in diameter.

Actions:

Multiattack The ravenous cloud can make 2 slam attacks and one bite attack on its turn.

Slam: Melee weapon attack, +8 to hit, reach 10 ft, 1 target. Hit: 16 (3d6+6) bludgeoning damage

Bite: Melee weapon attack, +6 to hit, reach 5 ft, 1 target. Hit:  26 (4d8+8) piercing damage

Scan: In place of its slam attacks, the ravenous cloud may scan its surrounding for invisible foes. This acts like see invisibility with a range of 120 feet but only lasts for one round. (Recharge 4-6 on 1d6)

Hailing from the elemental plane of air, ravenous clouds are alpha predators from that windswept realm. On their home plane, their primary prey are invisible stalkers and even when found on the Prime Material they prefer that above other meals. As their name implies, though, ravenous clouds are constantly hungry and will stalk and devour whatever they can.

 

Unlike invisible stalkers, ravenous clouds are not easily summoned and bound by spellcasters. Sometimes an attempt to summon an air elemental goes awry and a ravenous cloud appears, usually attacking and devouring the summoner. More often these monsters slip through places where the veil is thin between the plane of Elemental Air and the Prime. They are dumb, hungry brutes with whom negotiation in impossible. They can be distracted with prey of their favored sort, however, and are capable of enough low reasoning to be intentionally redirected in that way.

 

Ravenous clouds are not tactically savvy, choosing enemies seemingly at random but with a strong preference for those that use stealth or invisibility. If there is an invisible stalker within sight of the ravenous cloud’s scan ability, it will attack that enemy regardless of what other threats are present.

The 5E OGL Is Here!

Yes, those are orcs dancing the dance of joy. Just like me!

 

Had you asked me two days ago, i would have said that Wizards of the Coast would never repeat the “mistake” of 3rd Edition and create and Open Gaming License and a System Reference Document for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons — no matter how much I wanted one.

 

It has never felt so right to be so wrong.

 

As explained in this ENWorld thread, WotC has not only opened up 5E to the Open Gaming community, but has created a marketplace for commercial, fan generated adventures and other materials in D&D’s own Forgotten Realms called the Dungeon Master’s Guild. It is going to take some time before we know whether this produces a glut of terrible products like the d20 Boom of 2001, or if it will provide a steady stream of quality material. Expect the former, hope for the latter, and you can’t be disappointed, I say!

 

What I will say is this: a strong OGL for 5th Edition is not merely a good thing but, I think, is fundamental to a long life for the edition. 5E is a great version of the game, no question about it, and is a market leader. But it is a leader in a progressively more niche market. A lot of people are “in the know” regarding D&D due to the rise of geek chic over the last decade or so, but if you ask most of those people what edition it’s on you would get blank stares in return. Even the savviest nerd among them is as likely to tell you, “Uh, Baldur’s Gate just got an enhanced edition,” as answer correctly. Tabletop role-playing is a niche hobby. It always has been and always will be. Rightly so, Wizards of the Coast has trimmed the staff, outsourced material and focused on media tie ins and digital games in order to remain profitable. That has left some folks, especially those that remember the broad support of 3rd edition by outside publishers or are current Pathfinder RPG fans, a little underwhelmed by the output of D&D 5E game materials. Offloading that work to the fans, both in the no-holds-barred world of the OGL and the more restricted but presumably stamped-with-approval arena of the Dungeon Master’s Guild, means 5E gets the support it deserves.

 

Hardcore players and Dungeon Masters, the kind of fans that clamor for new character classes and monster manuals, are the people that bring new blood into the hobby. I think that for some years now a lot of that introduction to the hobby has happened through Pathfinder rather than D&D. I myself gave two sets of young kids a Pathfinder Beginner Box because there was not an equivalent D&D product until The Lost Mines of Phandelver came out (which i immediately bought for one of those kids). Exciting existing players about D&D will generate new players as they share that excitement. New products are one way to keep excitement running high.

 

As 2016 progresses and details become clear regarding the DMGuild (not to mention me finishing projects I am already working on) I will be looking to publish for 5E under the OGL and possibly even the DMGuild. I don’t expect to make much if any money doing it. D&D is one of my great passions, a fundamental aspect of my inner geek older than comic books and only slightly newer than writing fantastical stories. Being able to put my thumbprint on even the smallest corner of the game, in however unofficial a capacity, is way too awesome an opportunity for this old geek to pass up.

 

An Aside: If you are interested in my Return to the Isle of Dread and don’t follow me on Twitter, fix that! I am currently creating a d100 random encounter chart for the Isle in the lead up to TotalCon 2016 and want to share it with you — yes, even you, over there, in your underwear eating a bowl of Ramen while you read this. Find me @IanAsItWere