Friday, June 27, 2014

Environmental Hazard

The throne room is lavishly decorated, floored in gold and purple tiles. At the head of the room, a single throne sits on a raised dais. There, next to the throne, Alcinia’s white rabbit twitches within a small cage. The party advances into the room. Behind them, the door swings closed. The two foxes whom the party have been seeing throughout the mansion enter the room from a door near the throne, followed by a woman in a mask. The Trickster Queen has finally revealed herself. One member of the party steps forward in an attempt to convince the queen to release the rabbit. She insists that the party has not amused her enough yet.

The foxes attack and the room begins to change. First, the room lose gravity. Physical attacks become more difficult to land, and the party and foxes both resort to magic. A round of fireballs and lightning bolts seem to defeat the enemies. The foxes lay still but the room changes again. The room flips upside down. There is no effect on the floating players other than a brief moment of disorientation. Despite her throne now being on the ceiling, the queen sits patiently. With a wave of her hand, the foxes appear in front of her. A magical light surrounds them until a giant dire fox stands in front of the queen. It jumps back into the fray, brushing off minor magic attacks from the party and turning invisible. Again, the room changes. Where there had once been purple floor tiles, there are now squares of lava. That’s right, the floor is lava. The players now have to worry about what happens if gravity gets turned back on.

Throughout the fight, things continue to change. Not only must the party deal with a magical, invisible, dire fox, they must also contend with a raging storms, lava bubbles, complete darkness, an inability to communicate, and a player becoming a teapot. At the end of the fight, the Trickster Queen laughs, professes herself amused, and the mansion dissolves around them, leaving the party standing in an open field with a pile of treasure.

I was quite proud of this fight. Throughout the mansion, the players had been walking into a room only to have an odd effect activate. I had marked certain rooms on my map and every time the party entered, I would roll from a chart of effects. They ranged from random encounters to weapons becoming marmalade to character mind-swapping (each player had to pass their character sheet to a different player until everyone was someone else). I had a total of 20 effects meaning, unfortunately, that not all of them got to be used within the house. So my goal in the boss fight was to roll one every round, compounding the environmental effects the longer the party lasted in the fight and letting the players experience all of the craziness that I had written.
The environment of an adventure can be more than just a setting. There are intrinsic challenges to the jungle or an icy mountain that are not present in a desert. My dire fox boss fight took place in a Wonderland type setting, so my goal was to mimic the challenges of Wonderland. Alice never knows where she is or what rules she will be expected to play by next. She gets bigger, and smaller, and falls through endless holes, and at some point her tears become an ocean. So, I had ridiculous things happen seemingly at random to my players. Zugg even ended up eating his plate armor when it turned into chocolate.

As another example, an adventure that I played in recently centered around a water temple (yes, just like in Legend of Zelda). It featured floors of puzzles with switches that changed the water level and rooms that would drown you if you didn’t rig them right. Zugg got chased by hydras. It was rad. Water was the environmental challenge. We had to carefully ration out our water breathing potions to ensure that we could get through the dungeon. This also meant that we couldn’t take long rests for fear of wasting the time in which the potions were active. Not only that, but we had to be conscious of how our spells would change when underwater or surrounded by water. Electricity spells could shock your friends, fire spells were less effective, sonic spells were doubly effective.

If a player is smart, they will try to use the advantages provided by an environment while avoiding the pitfalls. These types of challenges provide another layer to your adventure and can also result in some pretty creative player solutions to problems. If you’re struggling to come up with challenges for your environment, get some inspiration from the Legend of Zelda games or another game franchise with diverse settings.

Sally forth and create havoc!

Baby DM out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rave Reviews 1

On Monday we showed you a few Kickstarters we have our sights set upon but it’s also important to look back at incredible board games that our group plays regularly. Today, gentle reader, I’m going to reveal to you two card games that our gaming group has played a few times. And by “a few” I in fact mean several hundred. We play these games all the time.

Sentinels of the Multiverse



A game that began as a Kickstarter and has become something truly beautiful. Like a caterpillar that turned into a majestic and pristine cheetah. I’m not a biologist. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a cooperative card game for 2-5 players. Each player takes the role and deck of a superhero set in the Sentinels universe. These heroes are comic book archetypes that heavily reference other comic books, television programs, movies, science, etc. For example, it has the fastest woman in the world, a lesbian scientist who regularly references Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother. I don’t know why more games don’t have one of those.

Players use their decks to build their superhero with equipment and powers, all the while contending with a unique villain and a unique environment. The villains are also archetypes that want to power-murder the heroes and they play themselves, following strict rules for when they draw cards and use their murder-powers.. The environments range from a Mars base to Atlantis to an interdimensional prison and they also want to power-murder the heroes but sometimes also the villains.The environments are what I would call “neutral.”

When we first got this game we played it a few times and it was alright. Then we started getting expansions and we started to hone our strategies for each heroes deck. This game got deep real fast. We play it all the time. We buy every expansion that comes out. We have favorite heroes. We can quote the flavor text on a lot of their cards.

Don’t let my dull description and lack of enthusiasm fool we: WE LOVE THIS FREAKING GAME!!! They have since posted online comics tying into the game, they regularly have new Kickstarters to add expansions on, and there is always a hero you haven’t played and a villain you haven’t fought.

I would give this game a rating of: Buy it. Play it. Buy the expansions. Play them.

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer



This game is a personal deck builder. By that I mean that each player begins with the same 10 cards and use those cards to buy new cards or destroy monster cards in order to acquire points. It sounds simple enough and it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. You can play in about an hour with 2 people and each person you add on adds about 10-15 minutes of game time. You really shouldn’t play with more than 4.

The theme of this game appears to be some soft or pre-apocalyptic fantasy world where you are helping four factions (Enlightened, Void, Lifebound, and Mechana) to … do something. I have to be honest I really don’t understand what’s going on in this game I just know I have to beat other players because they’re bad and dumb and I want all the points and I hate Zugg’s player and his Enlightened decks.

That got away from me. Allow me to explain. Each deck has a specific flavor that lets it do things better than another deck. Void gives you a lot of monster-slaying power and lets you banish cards from your deck in order to cut out some of those 10 beginner cards that are less valuable than the other cards, Lifebound gives you plenty of purchasing power, Mechana allows you to more easily buy more Mechana cards which are worth the most out of any other deck at the end of the game, and Enlightened lets you draw more cards each turn. Zugg, I may have mentioned Zugg before, regularly builds Enlightened decks that let him cycle through his entire deck - buying new cards and slaying monsters all the while - several times before he grows bored with his omnipotence and takes pity on the other players. I’m not bitter. I win sometimes. Shut up.

This is another one of those games that we started playing slowly and then about a week later we played it all the damn time. We play it at game nights. We play it when we’re bored for an hour. We play it half an hour before we need to be places and we can’t just stop mid game that’s crazy talk we can be a few hours late it’s cool.

I would give this game a rating of: Wait it has expansions? The game store is like right down the street let’s get them right now.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kickstarter Highlights #1

This week marks the launch of those articles that we’ve been meaning to do as a regular thing and haven’t. So today, I bring you Kickstarter Highlights!

In Kickstarter Highlights, we’ll be pointing out the gaming Kickstarters that we think are rad. Our focus for now is on the cool things being produced for tabletop roleplaying, but in the future we may spotlight a cool board game or video game that we think is worth mentioning.

Urban Shadows RPG

5 days to go. Goal Exceeded.

Urban Shadows RPG specifically caught my eye today. We’ve focused on D&D and Pathfinder here at Rules & Riddles because it’s what we know. But really, tabletop RPG is awesome in all incarnations.

Urban Shadows is an urban-fantasy game, with different factions, a ton of classes (called Archetypes), and a bundle of settings based on real cities to play in. When I read that the creator had drawn on some of my favorite shows and books (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Dresden Files, and the Iron Druid Chronicles to mention a few) for inspiration, I knew I had to own this system.

A $10 pledge will get you the PDFs of all of the rules as well as the PDFs for all of the specialty stretch goal material (like the city manuals for New York, LA, Chicago, and Tokyo). A $25 pledge will get you a softcover printed version of all rules in addition to the PDFs.

We’ll be testing out and reviewing Urban Shadows here when it comes out.


Pop-Up Miniature Terrain Kit

4 days to go. Goal Exceeded.

Terrain for gaming is usually expensive as hell. Check out Dwarven Forge and then try to figure out just how much money it would cost to do a fully terrained one-shot. Good luck with that. So this pop-up terrain is really cool. Beware though, for those of you who are craft challenged, assembly is required at the basic pledge levels.

$15 will get you the PDFs and instructions to print and assemble your own set of buildings, but I would go with the more expensive $32 offering. The $32 comes with a printed set of buildings that are probably higher quality than anything you can print at home and doesn’t use your ink.

I personally like the graveyard scene the best. It’s open enough to play on and detailed enough to give spooky atmosphere.


Treasure Chest: Realistic Resource Tokens for Board Games

15 days to go. Goal Exceeded.

Ever wanted a bitching hoard of treasure? This may be as close as you’re going to get. This Kickstarter is for a treasure chest full of resource tokens, meant to be used for games like Agricola and Stone Age. Personally, I have no use for this chest other than to stare at it and run my hands through all of the resource pieces since I don’t own any compatible games. But really, isn’t that enough of a reason…

The resource pieces are beautifully made of metal and resin. The box is cardboard, but looks really cool so I don’t mind so much. One chest full of riches will run you $33.


If you see any awesome Kickstarters that deserve a special feature, let us know by comment or email. For now, adios and happy spending. 

Baby DM out.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

An Evil Party

The party has been regularly concealing treasure from the guild, refusing to pay their dues. They looted a temple of Pelor, Neutral Good God of the Sun, and shed no tears after the fact. They brawl, duel, wrestle wild animals, lie to town guards, impersonate town guards, impose nonexistent taxes, betray pirates, spare cannibals, and try their very darndest to keep as much wealth, power, and magic as they can to themselves.


I have good news and bad news. Mostly bad news. In fact, let’s call it “evil” news.


An evil party is … interesting.


A fun challenge, certainly, but one most DM’s would prefer to not discover four sessions into a campaign. When you have a fallen paladin as your villain, serving a sorcerer king hell bent on world domination through the awakening of distant star gods you probably don’t want your party to feel neutral toward them. If they start trying to see things from the point of view of the star god you may need to completely rethink your campaign.


There are plenty of instances where playing with an evil party is what you intended. Playing the evil overlord and her minions has a certain appeal to many people (my players certainly included). Warlocks that dabble in dark magic and rogues and rakes who murder the innocent can be a nice escape from living life as a neutral good 5th level office worker with 1 level in gardener.


When your players surprise you with their morally dubious ways, many DM’s can be overwhelmed having to rethink their entire world, storylines, and villains. Suddenly the heroes, companions, and allies you had planned for your party would probably kill them on sight. This may have happened to me with a certain character named Zak. I’ve mentioned him before.


I mentioned good news, didn’t I?


  • You get to play the good guys. Instead of leading the forces of evil and trying to end the world, you’re more likely to play the paladins and clerics trying to save it. The assassin you had planned to target the party may be a bounty hunter out to collect the sizable amount of gold on their heads. Heroes do not get a free pass to murder, steal, and loiter. Good people will come after them.


  • You get to play the scoundrels. You know who likes having their loot stolen? NO ONE! Neutral characters, be they true or chaotic, love their treasure. Evil characters rolling up to their secret hideouts and treasure troves are the enemy and they cannot be allowed to continue their destructive, stealing ways. Thieves, assassins, crime lords, and pirates aren’t any friendlier with evil than they are with good.


  • You still get to play the bad guys. Evil doesn’t like competition. The Emperor from Star Wars kept Vader around because he was a convenient tool, not because they were besties. Devils hate demons. Tyrants hate orc hordes. An evil party might be tolerated for a time before they become a nuisance. And of course, tyrannical overlords tend to have nice treasure stockpiles for the party to thirst after.


  • You get to punish them. Tavern keepers may no longer deal with their kind, shunning them from their favorite time sink. That’s a punishment that will, I promise you, wake them up to the horrible things they have done. What’s the point of collecting all the world’s treasure if you can’t get drunk, laid, and brag about it?


  • You get to reward them. Evil parties invariably acquire more loot. They aren’t caught by moral traps like helping orphans, preserving magical balance, and not manipulating others. They get more gold, more magic items, and more opportunities to start fights.


  • They will constantly surprise you. Some people may see this as a bad aspect but I love it. I love being challenged by my party to come up with interesting dungeons and nemeses and factions. Everytime they surprise me by going shark-fishing with a bard, I feel the same pride a parent might when a child plans their first bank heist. Instead of me, the DM, being a passive force introducing that session to them, they force me to remain active and aware to come up with responses to their ridiculous, amoral, illegal shenanigans. It’s like Christmas to me.

What’s my one rule? An evil party is interesting.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Filler Episodes


My last article stressed the idea that a simple game is a better game. Well, I guess I have a thing for sequels. So, here’s part 2…

As the dungeon master, it feels like you’re expected to create awe-inspiring settings and epic mysteries. And sometimes, you are. Sometimes, your players want to explore an underwater cave with evil mermaids and puzzles galore, and they expect to get a lot of really bitchin’ treasure at the end. These types of adventures are a lot of work but they pay off immensely. Now let’s return to the first part of that statement. They are a shit-ton of work.

But don’t despair, fellow dungeon master, for there is a reprieve. A veritable loophole, if you will. Your players are crazy, treasure whore, drunkards, who like nothing better than to terrorize the local populace whether through their talent for drawing trouble in an attempt to right wrong-doings or through actual terrorizing.

DMs, have you ever planned a long elaborate adventure only to have your players throw your plans off by hanging out in the tavern for a few (literal, for-realsies) hours? You are not alone.

Contrary to DM belief, players eat up the simple stuff as much as the elaborate stuff. It’s all about variety, and that variety includes at least one session where the characters in your adventure spend a night on the town or enjoy a local festival. If bar wenches or prostitutes are included, you’ve just succeeded in occupying the Y-chromosome element of your table for the next 4 hours.

So, when you have had a really long week and your 8-floor desert tower masterpiece of a dungeon is a little less than finished and your friends are coming over in a few hours and there is no way in hell that this dungeon will ever be completed on time and if you just had one more week it would be perfect and awesome and your players would be singing your praises as a dungeon master for years to come…. Take a deep breath. This is the time when you pull out a filler episode and allow your players to entertain themselves.

When running a filler episode adventure, such as a tavern, keep a few things in mind.

  1. Keep it loose.

No doubt your players will throw you for a few loops when let loose on an open world. At our table, that meant things like a duel and the abuse of a bard who refused to sing a song about one of the party members. The trick here is to be flexible. Let players create their own adventure for the night and improvise around their desires.

  1. The DM is just a referee.

If you don’t have an agenda for the night, limit your meddling. For the night, you are a referee in a game with ever-changing rules. Keep your characters in check, but don’t stop them from playing. Rather, inflict consequences on them when they get out of hand and let them learn from there. A player wants to rough up the biggest guy at the bar? That guy lays them out and everyone at the bar buys the big guy a drink. Now, the player can’t score with a single waitress because he got beaten so badly. You’ll get more interesting results by reacting to the actions of players.

  1. Have a wide cast of characters.

The craziest player schemes will evolve around a colorful cast of characters. My favorite trick is to pull out characters from other campaigns to help populate my world. I usually know these characters well and so they provide a little more depth to the world. Characters with strong personalities work better as love interests, new besties, and nemeses, than a two-dimensional stock NPC ever will.

  1. But don’t get attached to them.

There is always a chance that your characters will decide to execute an NPC. It’s the greatest danger of living in a fictional world centered around a party of megalomaniacs. Don’t be too attached to any of the NPCs that you introduce into a free-for-all night. And if you are attached, make sure they have a method of escape should the need arise.

  1. Provide background events.

These events don’t need to be entirely fleshed out, but it is important that the dungeon master understands what is happening in the world around the players. Players will inevitably ask what is happening around them. Who do they see? Does anyone look suspicious? And the always important, what dirt does the bartender know? Any attempts by players to dig into the lives of your NPCs will need to provide fruit (I think I just mixed analogies…).

An easy way to do this is to assign each NPC a reason for being there. Some people may be at the tavern because they had a long day at work, or they’re meeting a friend, or they’re looking for love, or they’re getting together with friends to summon Cthulhu. If players are having a difficult time coming up with their own adventure for the night, this can give them (and you) a jumping off point.

Filler episodes are a great way to let players rest between death-defying adventures, as well as an exercise in improvisation for the DM. Try to plan as little as possible to really test your abilities, and don’t forget to provide some kind of avenue for treasure, even if it has to be stolen off the body of a pirate.

Baby DM out.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Helping Hand

New players need a helping hand, not a knife in the back. You want to ease them into Tabletop gaming before you begin flaying their characters or introducing them to concepts like “permanent injury.”

Three years ago one of our players introduced us to Zak, the most hilariously chaotic evil bard on the planet. His sole motivation was money and he literally didn’t care at all how he got it as long as it was his. He used charm magic on NPC shopkeepers for better deals, he lied to party members, he ignored combat to loot weapon lockers, and he released dangerous prisoners because he didn’t want to worry about losing any of his newly acquired “prison swag.” In some ways his legacy has infected all my current players.

Certainly my newest player, Sarven Sylmaris (you may have heard of him), has latched onto this lifestyle after hearing the many stories I and my compatriots have to tell of Zak and his antics. To Sarven those are all stories he is hearing second hand. To the rest of my players those are legends they saw first hand. Three of my players are veterans of my campaigns. They have survived running the Gauntlet of Chokers. Only two fell to the terrible fury of the Carafe. Still they speak in loud, obnoxious tones about my Elven southern accent (I was young and foolish).

Sarven is brand new, carving his own youthful path in a party of old farts. Having a new player is kind of nice. He doesn’t have their hangups. He doesn’t know to fear every dark corner and every treasure chest (though he’s learning quickly). But he’s new to Tabletop Roleplay in general which made me sit down and consider how I was helping incorporate him into the usual rhythm my cohort of insane friends has cultivated.

Lists … lists … everywhere and now you get to read:
  • While they’re doing that, what are you doing? Each time I focus on one player’s role play antics (it’s always in a tavern) I make sure to pause and ask each of my players in turn what they’re doing at the same time. Most players want to be active in some way. Let me put that another one. Even if all Sam-MuRye is doing is leaning against the bar, watching everyone, he wants to tell me that. In some ways he needs to tell me that so that I can incorporate him into my plans. While Carolina Braxwell is conducting a negotiation with pirate captains Zugg the Half-Orc and Sarven are torturing a gnome bard. It’s side plot but it’s still important and it lets them awaken their Roleplay side without having to be directly in the spotlight. It helps. Trust me.
  • Think about it, I’ll come back to you. Sometimes my players aren’t ready. Sometimes they need a second to think. Sometimes they’d rather see another player do something. Sometimes they just weren’t quite paying attention or didn’t imagine they could even be doing anything. Giving them a little wake up and then giving them time to think about something is all it takes, now and again. Maybe they come up with something mundane like drinking and playing cards. Maybe they go shark-fishing with a gnome bard. It’s really very subjective. Depends on the mood that day.
  • Paint me a word picture. This is an expansion of the One-Away Rule I stole from Mike Krahulik. If you roll 1 short of a monster’s DC I give you a chance to still hit by describing your action. How do you break through their defense? How do you distract them? How do you avoid hitting your comrades? Paint me a word picture has become common lingo at my table. Sometimes my players can even anticipate it when I take too long to tell them if they’ve hit. Sometimes Ree Singga, the monk, preemptively tells me exactly how he’s ending some poor barbarian’s life.
  • Let’s roll some backstory. Coming up with character backstory can either be the most exciting part of character creation or the most stressful. It isn’t as cut and dry as determining statistics and powers and feats and spells. Where did your rogue come from? Why did your cleric become a cleric? What exactly is your barbarian afraid of? What’s your wizard’s one annoying vice? Simple things like that can completely change the way a player plays their character. Alcinia the Illusionist wouldn’t be as interesting if she weren’t lazy as can be and terrified of spiders. It wouldn’t be the same. Sarven Sylmaris wouldn’t be as interesting if he weren’t a fame-whore pirate who’s afraid of drowning.
  • Dice and a mini? Four bits! These one-shots we’ve been running and I’ve been hinting at throughout writing this blog have been a rejuvenation for our Tabletopping group. We all love the game but we wanted something different and we wanted some fresh blood. Hence Sarven. He was brand new to the game when we invited him along and that meant he had no dice and minis to speak of. So we bought him some. A set of dice pulled from the bargain dice bin and one of my own old minis I rarely used since I had replaced it. It helped bring the new player into the group even more. It made certain to that person that we enjoyed having them at our table and that we wanted them to keep coming back. It helped that he got suuuuuper addicted to the game and printed way too much stuff out for it. But what are you gonna do?
  • Nemeses. I’ve already done an article on Nemeses but I’m going to include it here as a method of retaining new players. A good nemesis means good motivation to come back and learn more of the story, to have one last duel on the tavern floor, to get revenge or finally wipe that smirk off their face. Give your players, new and old, something that will bring them back to the table week after week.

What’s my one rule? New players need a helping hand, not a knife in the back.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Dice Aren't Everything

Zugg has failed his last three Will saves. He’s listening to the voices in the fog telling him to jump into the freezing cold waters where dwells a mystical presence. Sarven Sylmaris (you may have heard of him) turns to the Dungeon Master:

Sarven: “I distract him. What do I roll?”

DM: “You haven’t told me how you want to distract him.”

Sarven: “Well what could I do?”

Not every scenario requires the roll of the dice.

I personally hate leaving the outcome of the game up to chance. Unfortunately I also don’t like diceless systems. I’m an enigma my precious reader. You don’t know me.

I knew a player once who wanted nothing more than to be the charismatic face of the party. He wanted to do all the talking. In other words he wanted to play my favorite character. I was a player in that game so I was happy to sit back and be the silent rogue assassin. When it came time for him to step up to the plate he wanted to rely solely on his diplomacy score. Our DM prompted him: “What do you say to them?” She asked. “Well … I rolled a 35 so whatever would work.” He replied.

I nearly punched him. I walked away from the table for a bit and got a drink. Calmed myself down. I wasn’t even running that game and his response filled me with what I can only describe as an inferno of rage and discomfort matched only by the fiercest of hurricanes.

Here’s my issue: RPG’s are about ROLEPLAYING. It’s the first two letters. It’s literally ⅔ of the name. It’s a game and it’s fun to generate the statistics that bind your character within the game’s rules but if you can’t sink yourself into the role of the suave and convincing front man then maybe you aren’t meant to be the front man. Maybe you’re meant to be a sorcerer who occasionally offers advice.

Because it’s a ROLEPLAYING game not every instance in the game requires you to roll dice. If a player gives me a compelling speech trying to convince a pirate to give up his ship and it’s equal parts terrifyingly intimidating and rakishly simple then I don’t necessarily need them to make a roll. They sold me, the dungeon master, on the performance and that’s enough to satisfy ⅔ of the game. I may have them make a roll to maintain appearances but I don’t have a difficulty in mind. I’m just making sure they don’t roll a 1.

The greatest instance of not requiring dice rolls is when players want to interact with other players. If you want to convince another player or intimidate another player or lie to another player then do those things. Tell them why you deserve the +2 Cutlass of Sea Monster Summoning. Give them a reason to fear you if they take a certain action. Lie to them about what you’re planning to do with all that innocent blood you’ve collected, necromancer party member. You’ve got to sell it.

This, of course, requires all party members to sign the social contract known as “not being a total douchecanoe at the table.” I don’t require actual signatures but I do reserve the right to drop bears on asshole party members. If they aren’t at the table for some cooperative roleplay that will lead to incredible stories down the line then they don’t get to enjoy the sweet storylines I spend hours weaving for them. Think about it economically. The demand for assholes is very low but the supply seems neverending. You can always find a replacement for a bad player.

Of course if they want to roll dice they can roll dice. I’m not a tyrant … well … not a malicious one.

What’s my one rule? Not every scenario requires the roll of the dice.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Throw Out Your Rulebooks

“What kind of ingredient would you use to make an insomnia poison?”
“I don’t know, what kind of creature can put a player to sleep?”
“Let me search it… Ooh! The eyestalk of a Beholder!”
“Yeah, those things are creepy looking. That should work. You named the rage inducing poison ‘Honey Badger’?
“It’s made with the fur of a dire badger...”

While spitballing ideas for the upcoming sessions, my co-DM and I decided that we wanted to add in some classes and game features. D&D Next, the system we run for our one-shots, is a pretty barebones system at the moment. It leaves a lot of room for improvisation and gives you very few limiting guidelines. This may seem like a bad thing. Why use this unfinished system when you could buy (or find on the internet. Let’s be real…) all of those D&D 3.5 books? Then, all of the rules would be right in front of you. But using just the base rules is kind to both the DM and the players, especially in a new group.

First of all, who in the hell wants to read all of those books and memorize the rules? As DM, you will be expected to answer any rule questions and in the heat of the game the players do not want you to be paging through manuals to locate the single relevant rule (or worse, figure out which rule to use if there are conflicting rules for the situation) in that gigantic stack of books. Starting with the basic rules means that fewer rules need to be memorized and the rest can be left up to DM discretion.

No rules for shark wrestling? Have the player roll a d20 and then ask yourself if you want them to succeed or fail. Make it so or let the dice tell the story. D20 systems are made to keep things like this simple. Is the shark-wrestling player a halfling or a half-orc? Logic can help you determine the outcome in this case. Tadah! You’ve just made up some rules without having to open up a book.

The other downside of drawing from a vast array of reference material is that players either have to read it all or feel like they are playing a game whose rules they don’t know (because, you know, they don’t know them…). It’s setting a bar for entry into the game. Either read this stuff or play at a disadvantage. A basic packet of rules is easy to look through and lets players make informed decisions on an even playing field.

A new DM may find this improvisational play style to be intimidating. What if something is unbalanced? What if the class you create is too powerful or too weak? The lesson here, like in many of our other articles, is to learn by playing and possibly failing. If the created class is too weak, give it some more powers or an extra feat. There is a simple solution for most every problem you will encounter.

Still too scared to throw out your rule books? Use them for ideas while simplifying the actual processes. D&D Next takes out a lot of numbers and replaces them with advantage or disadvantage, the process of rolling two d20’s and taking the higher or lower number respectively.

Advantage is a great tool for making up rules on the fly. It was discussed a bit in the earlier post ‘Rules for the Table’ as being an exceptional method for giving slight bonuses or penalties without breaking the game. It doesn’t guarantee success or failure, and that’s what makes it so good. An idea for a cool coat that would make someone more persuasive can be easily put into the game by making it give advantage on charisma rolls. Too strong? It only gives that advantage once a day.

No matter what game you are playing, don’t be limited by what there are and are not rules for. Pull ideas from books, TV, and other games. Simplify your rule set and don’t lug your 10 D&D 3.5 books around. If you need to make something up, feel confident that you won’t be scarring your players or ruining your game.

Break away from that rule book!

Baby DM out.

Friday, June 6, 2014

New Dungeon Masters

“How big exactly is a giant?” Zugg’s player asked me one day as he sketched on a pad of graph paper and wrote notes in the margin.

“I don’t know! Like … 4 squares? Maybe 9? Does it really matter?” I responded and questioned, clearly annoyed that a human was bothering me before noon.

“Well I want to know exactly how big so I can plan my dungeon.” He sounded a little exasperated but I was used to that.

“Oh my god you are the dungeon master. Giants can be any size you want. It’s your game.”

I rarely ever consult monster manuals or the dungeon master’s handbook.

Does this lead to instances of inconsistency at my table? Sure. That’s happened. I have a player who loves to tell me when a new rule I have contradicts or alters a rule from three weeks ago. And that’s fine, I’ve been doing this for six years now. I should know better than to let illusion magic do something one week and something different another.

But new dungeon masters? They have a bit of freedom starting off. If Zugg’s player wants to have a dungeon with giants that are fifteen feet tall or ten feet tall or even twenty-five feet tall then that’s up to him, in my opinion. The word giant is broad enough in my mind to allow for some height wiggle-room.

Making your first dungeon is a right of passage for many new dungeon masters. It may not be the first time you’ve put graphite to blue and white grid paper but it could be the first time other humans ever see how weird or strange your map is. It may be the first they’ve heard of your room randomizer chart or it may be the first time you’ve had to improvise an accent on the fly and you went with valley girl for your prostitute (no seriously, this happened, no accent shaming).

The problem is that relying on strict rule interpretation or implementation can be stressful and may even impede your ability to finish your dungeon and effectively run it. Constantly checking some arbitrary rulebook so you know the exact DC for a treasure chest needle trap is waaaaaaaaaaay too much work for your first dungeon. Don’t know it off the top of your head? Make it up. If it turns out to be too high when the rogue actually goes to disable the trap and they rolled like a 19 then your trap may have been too difficult for the party and you’ll have to scale.

My point, rambling though it may be, is that you are the fucking dungeon master. The god among peasants. The word master implies a lot about your rule regarding this dungeon. If illusion magic isn’t working for you that week, tweak it. Do you want there to be a new trapped scroll paper that explodes when a wizard tries to use it? Do it. Laugh while they burn, too. It unsettles people.

Is it list time? I think it’s list time.
  • You. Are. The. Dungeon. Master. Whether you’ve been doing this for six years or less than a week. You are the arbiter of a world you keep locked in your head, a world that only you truly understand or comprehend and can never seem to quite explain to the people sitting around your table eating your pizza and drinking your soda. The rules are helpful guidelines set forth by prophets of the tabletop world but they are not gospel at your table. You are.
  • Magic is magic. Seriously, it’s magic. It can do anything. ANYTHING. It can explain any trap you want to have in your dungeon, any artifact you want to give to the players, any weird race that has shark fins and pedipalps and for some reason talons. Make magic work for you, don’t let it be an anchor keeping you from doing the cool thing you want.
  • Wizards in the past were just better. Why can’t your party members do the cool things your dungeon or your undead archmage, or your +2 Sword of Soulmaiming can? Because magic users in the bygone, ancient eras were just the best. They were better magicians who could do cooler things faster and with more glitter and got to sit at the better lunch table. Ancient wizards get to go to the best parties and drink the tastiest drinks because they can magic better than current wizards. It’s the single greatest argument for why your magical traps can’t be made by the party.
  • Sometimes monster manual monsters don’t work. Maybe they aren’t the right level for your party but you really want them to fight a hydra because hydras are cool? Change them. Or make a new template for them. Or create a Hydra-Lich who can manifest and breathe decay and rust to degrade the party’s armor. Why not? Because it’s not in the monster manual? Look at my first point about whether or not you’re the dungeon master. Are you still the dungeon master? Good. Make that Hydra-Lich permanently reduce maximum health, too. The party’s getting a bit too strong, don’t you think?

What’s my one rule? I rarely ever consult monster manuals or the dungeon master’s handbook.