Review: Scenes of Chance

I just received my shipment of Scenes of Chance from Twizz Entertainment via Kickstarter.

This system-neutral supplement basically consists of a deck of cards, where each card is about twice the size of a traditional playing card. Each card has several icons printed on it. I choose a card with an appropriate scene (say, an underground cavern) and reference the icons. Each of the icons corresponds to a reference card with 20 options. Either roll a d20 or pick something that catches my interest, then repeat for each icon on the card. All the cards have at least two versions with different icons except the ship. I chalk that one up to a simple packaging error, but I didn’t mind because two of the cards have iconless versions and of course nothing prevents me from deciding on my own which reference cards to use.

As an example, if I use a card for an underground cavern card that closely resembles how I envision the Underdark, there are icons for Cave, Mountain, and Oddity. When I roll d20 on each of them, this time I get:

Cave: A puzzle of fallen rubble blocks the travelers’ way
Mountain:
A hibernating Yeti camouflaged in the snow is startled awake
Oddity:
 The mad ranting of a thousand voices blows in the wind

In the case of Mountain, I will probably modify the monster slightly to fit my campaign. Maybe I’ll use a Fomorian instead of the Yeti. Rule 0 applies everywhere!

Twisted groveI really love the paintings on the cards. Many have eye-catching little details, like the cave under the island castle or the fossil in one of the caves. The construction feels sturdy and professional; these cards should last a long time.

Twizz Entertainment did a fine job with this and I look forward to seeing what happens with their next project, a collectible card game called Summoners.

No more Dungeonscape

Closed TrapdoorAt least, not as originally planned. Trapdoor carefully worded its announcement with passive language, just saying that the two companies “will no longer be working together to develop DungeonScape for Fifth Edition D&D, and we will not be releasing the product in its current form.” But Wizards of the Coast wrote a little more actively, taking the responsibility for ending the relationship.

Of course I feel bad for the staff at Trapdoor. A small startup with no cash flow losing their only major client will inevitably have to let some people go. That has happened to me several times in my life. It disrupts everything and, in some situations, can cause major trauma to a person or a family. My heart goes out to anyone who’s affected by this.

As a participant in the web beta, I only ever saw the character generator. It worked decently (modulo one or two relatively straightforward bugs) as long as you were following the Player’s Handbook directly. They didn’t yet have full support for customization like player-developed backgrounds, which the PHB explicitly allows on page 125. But Dungeonscape’s chief selling point didn’t really have much to do with character generation anyway. They have talked about some tech called The Story Machine to parse sourcebooks directly without manually entering all the data and statblocks, which certainly seems feasible. Possibly the as-yet-unreleased “public license” from WotC, telling players what we can and cannot do with our home-developed material, somehow interfered with this.

So I speculate that the problem has to do with the revenue and pricing model. Trapdoor has always carefully avoided any public discussion about it, and I always had the impression that was because WotC had not agreed with them on things. With the end of October upon us, it seems that they’d reached some sort of impasse.

Here’s hoping that Trapdoor can take their core Story Machine technology and do something cool with it. And here’s hoping WotC’s public license comes out soon and doesn’t completely kill the momentum for digital tools they’ve already interrupted.

Play Report: Lost Mine of Phandelver Episode 2

RPGs may be at their most fun when everything goes pear-shaped due to adventurer decisions.

The story

The group, consisting of a fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard, explored Phandalin with great caution. They expect intrigue, conspiracies, and betrayal at every turn (meaning I need to find a way to give that to them). The adventurers meandered about town to investigate the eponymous “lost mine”. Several encounters with the Redbrands occurred in the village streets during this investigation. Sildar Hallwinter executed a sort of coup d’etat and named himself the Sheriff of Phandalin. The village didn’t care much for the prior ineffectual townmaster anyway.

NothicAt this point, my group finally decided to head into the Redbrand Hideout. Acting on a tip from a local village boy about a side entrance into the hill, the adventurers sneaked in at night without incident. The rogue ranged over the large hall encompassing the crevasse. He has a dangerous tendency to run a bit too far afield, even with creepy telepathic voices whispering in their heads. While he crept down a side passage, a nothic crawled out from the crevasse. Just about then, the rogue came back around the corner and saw the monster. He immediately drew down and landed an arrow right into it. This led to a running fight along both edges of the chasm, a dead nothic, and an unconscious fighter. After the group stabilized their meat shield, they poked around in the chasm. But only the rogue (who prefers his shortbow) wanted the ancient, mysterious sword they found.

The discovery of secret doors gave them some choices, and so they decided to raid the armory and explore a little past that. Undead skeletons chased that rogue back to the group, until a dragonborn cleric turned them. One of the undead ran so far, in fact, that it fell into a pit trap and collapsed into a heap of bones. The party also found an enslaved family. (The captors didn’t survive more than a few seconds.) This stoked the party’s bloodthirst tremendously. So when another guard elsewhere in the hideout surrendered at the end of a fight, the party had no mercy and slew him.

Despite the group’s successes, they made several important tactical errors during the raid. They would bunch up in corridors and thus not bring their full range of options to bear. That led to some problems but they’d managed to eke out victory each time. Later, they decided to take a short rest on the edge of the chasm. The adventurers agreed that the cleric should not use his spell slots, and the fighter didn’t want to use his Second Wind. (I didn’t understand why, but I did ask several times whether that seemed like a good idea. That’s the best hint I can give to reconsider the plan.) So as their rest completed, two patrolling bugbears came around a corner and surprised them.

Bugbears love surprise attacks, in case you didn’t know.

The monsters immediately applied massive blunt trauma to the fighter’s and cleric’s heads. The wizard had already disappeared due to a player who didn’t show. The rogue decided that he didn’t stand a chance against two angry furry monsters and fled back to town alone.

I will make a quick analytic note here. The bugbear encounter decreased from three to two monsters because of the missing PC. This meant that they faced a base of 400 XP . The encounter difficulty for three characters and two monsters tell us to multiply this by 1.5. So this puts the encounter right at the Deadly threshold (200 XP for second-level characters). As originally written, this encounter contained 300XP of monsters per characters. That put it way above the Deadly threshold, so if anything I nerfed it.

What’s next

The players could have chosen capture rather than death. They could try to escape in conjunction while the rogue attempted a rescue with some NPC companions. Instead, they decided that they preferred to reroll. The players in question decided that their characters just didn’t fit them well. They did communicate quite emphatically that they’d had fun, which relieved my mind a little.

I have some logistical issues now, owing to a player who’s missed two sessions in a row. His distant time zone might present too much of an obstacle for him. If so, then I will recruit a replacement. With the others, we’re going to keep having fun with new characters. I have already started to work with the two rerolling players to hook them into the adventure, of course. We might use the factions in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline for that purpose. Or they might just have their own reasons to drift into town. This might give me a better reason to get them to Thundertree. Iarno Albrek aka Glasstaff also remains at large with a significant force at his dispoal. If they don’t go after him immediately, that’s going to lead to Bad Things in Phandalin. The Black Spider will react with concern to this disruption regardless.

Maybe it’s time for some intrigue after all…

Madness of Iliasha: Campaign Concept

Underdark artAs previously noted, I have begun work on a fresh campaign. Using the working title Madness of Iliasha, I have included elements from the Underdark and Deepholm. This means a fully underground world with no concept of a “surface”, filled with mind flayers and aboleths and fungi and stone elementals.

I intend to run it more or less “old school”, which (for me) means:

  1. Lots of generated elements rather than individually crafted
  2. Deadly for adventurers (player characters)
  3. Less concern about encounter balance and more about fitting a theme
  4. Players and GM shaping the world together
  5. Emergent narrative through gameplay and interaction
  6. Sandbox exploration of the world via hexcrawl
  7. Hexes for “outdoors”, squares for “indoors”

However, I am adjusting a few other elements from the old days, particularly turning the fantastic racism and sexism way down. We can imagine subterranean cities in worlds suffused with magic, so we should be able to imagine universes where your actions, not your ethnicity and gender, play a larger role in determining your identity and reputation. In fact, I have united all the “humanoid” races (humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes) so that they are just different flavors of “human”. Some individuals may hold racist opinions and even take actions based on those, but in general the societies are not organized along those lines. Conflict still exists, naturally. But rather than base it on “race”, instead we have factions competing for resources. These power struggles won’t always impact the adventurers, of course, particularly at low levels. But they will progress on their own and bring the world to life, very similar to Dungeon World fronts.

I still have lots of planning infrastructure to build. Because much of the world will come from random generators, for example, I have started gathering from other sources, hacking them to fit, and in some cases building from scratch. Each region has:

  • Hex map (6-mile scale) for exploration
  • Random encounter tables for the different terrain types (e.g. fungal forest versus crystalline fields)
  • Points of interest (e.g. significant monsters, cities, mines, dungeons) with a few sentences each.
  • Initial quest hooks

Right now most of the first region, Ositrailum, already exists. I haven’t yet completed customizing the randomly-generated map to a nicer-looking one, because presentation counts. The terrain-based random encounter tables will come next, plus a few special events I will make available throughout the region. Dungeons will mostly come from the gorgeous work of other mappers like Dyson plus occasional randomly generated maps. Donjon has my favorite dungeon generator but I will end up customizing heavily based on material from other sourcebooks.

While I won’t actually launch until my Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign concludes, Madness of Iliasha excites me tremendously for 2015.

Dungeon Master’s Guide Table of Contents Preview

Dungeon Masters Guide Table of Contents

Wizards of the Coast released the Table of Contents for the Dungeon Master’s Guide as part of their participation in the Extra Life fundraiser this weekend. I’ve been anticipating this preview for some time, probably like most everyone else playing D&D 5e.

Looking at the contents

Even from just this table of contents, we can get a good sense of what WotC wants to accomplish here. Time to dig in.

Part 1

Chapter 1 looks like something I will enjoy greatly. Others have written plenty of system-neutral and system-specific advice over the last several decades on world building, so I really want to see material that addresses it within the context of this edition in particular. Guidance on how to incorporate lower-magic settings, for example, will help me a great deal. And the pages on Factions and Organizations could help just as much with the setting I’ve started developing.

Chapter 2 will probably answer some questions for me, as I’ve never quite understood the cosmology of D&D. But it probably won’t occupy my attention past one or two read-throughs.

Part 2

Chapter 3 again looks like most of the advice could apply to lots of systems. Perhaps some streamlining of the existing encounter building guidelines could show up here. For my personal style, I’d like to see suggestions on creating tables and generators rather than just a few tables that we will all hack anyway.

BBEGChapter 4 should get into really system-specific advice. How do we build our BBEGs? What about guideposts / herald type characters, or the ‘dudes in distress’ that the party will rescue? As somebody who occasionally runs a solo game for my daughter, I will also appreciate the Hirelings section. The writers probably intend Villainous Class Options for NPCs, but that might come in handy for player characters in certain types of campaigns too.

Chapter 5 sounds generic. But if they had really excellent folks writing it, then it could serve as an excellent guide for building the environments in which we place our various encounters. A five-page section on traps pales next to Grimtooth but certainly belongs in the core material!

Chapter 6 will probably find its greatest value in the Downtime rules. This matters quite a bit for some activities like crafting and whatnot. Adventurers League games also use this feature quite a bit.

Chapter 7 has already had quite a bit of material previewed so I don’t have much to say about it here. Other than balanced rules for random treasure, not much will matter to me.

Part 3

Chapter 8 reminds us that RPGs can do so much more than just serve as squad-level combat simulators. Looking at another world through the eyes of a fictional character inevitably leads us to explore it and meet other characters within it. D&D has always focused heavily on dice mechanics even for these things, though, so let’s see what the DMG has to say about exploration and social interaction. This also seems like a bit of a “miscellaneous” chapter, with rules for chases, siege equipment, and diseases & poisons. (Plus titling a section “The Role of Dice” is nice wordplay.)

Chapter 9 gets to the heart of what a DMG has to cover. What options make sense within the existing notions of balance? How do I create a monster and estimate its XP value and Challenge Rating? The section on Character Options also looks like it will matter a great deal.

Appendices

weird_dice1Appendix A on random dungeons could go either way. Lots of generators already exist, like Donjon and even special dice. But more options mean more fun, particularly if the appendix here spends its time on creating coherent, thematic dungeons. The 4th Edition book Into the Unknown: Dungeon Survival Handbook contains a section on exactly this. An update of that material would really please me.

Appendix B hopefully contains the proper index to the Monster Manual and maybe some additional categorizations. Other players have produced a lot of that already, though, so I don’t know how much of it we will actually need.

Unknown Unknowns

I don’t see section headings here for some things I really want. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, because some of the preview material (like Firearms and Explosives) doesn’t appear directly in that ToC. But I really hope for official conversion guidelines for material from earlier editions. Guidance on older, non-Forgotten Realms settings like Eberron would also satisfy a lot of people.

Encouraging all kinds of people to play games

Cover of the book "The Player of Games" by Iain M. BanksNB: I’m not using the hashtag or phrases related to recent controversies about women in gaming, because I want no part of that. Hostile comments will be marked appropriately.

All my life, I have considered myself a “gamer”. That phrase has suffered some tarnish at different times for different reasons. The term “player” has worse connotations when spoken out of context, though. The phrase “player of games” works too, although it might sound a bit unwieldy. I fit some elements of the stereotype: socially awkward middle class white straight male with interests in math and science fiction. My parents and I disagreed about some gaming issues in my childhood, e.g. “Dungeons & Dragons is spiritism” and “Wolfenstein 3D has too much gore”. That just came with the territory. No one ever made me uncomfortable in my hobby, though. Nobody ever told me “you aren’t a real gamer”.

Now, as a man in my late 30s with a literal neckbeard, a family, and a career, I have a bit more perspective on things. D&D no longer makes me think that literal demons will invade my home, although I still try to avoid games with lots of gore. I understand why 14-year-old me loved the idea of Lechery as a character trait – in fact I understand why 34-year-old me did, too. At least by then I saw it as a flaw, not a strength, though at this point in life I can understand why that would seem off-putting to other folks anyway. My personal likes and dislikes in games don’t restrict anyone else, except insofar as they want me as part of their target market. Games like Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption will likely have a significant market share for many years. Nobody is taking your games away. As much as I dislike sexism and extreme violence, those things play too much of a role in our society to disappear tomorrow or even during this generation.

I want to encourage other people who might enjoy playing games to do so. Maybe that’s Bejeweled, or the next Civilization game, or Dungeons & Dragons, or maybe it is something I don’t even know about. Any sort of restriction on a gaming audience doesn’t sit well with me. “That’s just for guys” or “No Girls Allowed” signs appear too often in this hobby. You don’t have to say those literal words to exclude people, by the way. Pictures of people playing a game often look the same. When everybody looks like me, then that ends up telling people “unless you are One Of Us, you don’t belong here.” We often don’t have that intent, of course. That only means that we should consider what adjustments we should make so that our actions accomplish what we really want.

From a selfish point of view, no one has the right to tell me who I can and cannot play games with. And from the far more important and broader view, no one has the right to tell anyone else how they should enjoy their spare time or what profession they should practice. (Perhaps contradicting myself here, I’d discourage anyone from pursuing a career in games right now, but sexism is only a small part of that. Other structural issues, like burnout and low pay, make it a demanding career choice.)

I avoid one specific group of people: those who only want the good things in life for themselves and people like them. That sort of tribalism is destructive and hurtful. I hope that those people will open their eyes and their hearts with time.

Games are now, and have always been, part of the society in which they exist. People play games who don’t belong to this particular subculture, but the broader culture of the 21st century West encompasses that. Therefore I want women and kids and trans people and people of color and everyone else to play whatever games they want to play. Sometimes I get the opportunity to share their gaming experiences. I have enjoyed playing games with people from all those groups. That taught me something that applies as much to this hobby as it does to anything else in life. Having many kinds of people enjoying the same thing together makes it better for everyone. We all learn new ways to enjoy that thing because we start to see it through someone else’s eyes.

We live in a cold, uncaring universe, and the time we have in it vanishes quickly. If someone brightens else their life a little more by playing a game, then at a minimum it does no harm to you. In reality, it should brighten your life a little as well. Happiness is self-reinforcing and multiplicative. That laughter of kids playing baseball is only slightly different from the same laughter at a women’s fast-pitch softball game. And that is even less different from what you’ll hear at a men’s baseball game. Baseball isn’t my game anymore, but hearing people having fun is precious in the best possible way. This principle carries over to computer games, tabletop games, and board games. Imagine listening to little kids playing Candy Land, or a bunch of people streaming their WoW raid.

When you hear all sorts of different laughter and the players genuinely enjoying each other’s company, that is just a little glimpse of paradise.

PS: If anyone reading this would like to try out RPGs in an inclusive, safe, welcoming environment, please let me know. I will happily do everything I can to help you find the right game and group for you.

Cancelling my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign

Cover of Hoard of the Dragon Queen
I decided a few days ago to cancel my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. The module felt far too linear for me, as it consists largely of a plot rather than situations. For the purpose of organized play across many groups where players can come and go as they please, it probably works fine (at least for some GMs). But it doesn’t fit the way I like to play. Other issues specific to that group and my organization of it had led me to dread both prep and game night. These include a huge variation in player understanding (both of D&D and of computers in general) and my need to stick closely to the rules as written for both Fifth Edition and Adventurers League.

While Lost Mine of Phandelver certainly has a plot to follow, it also has enough non-linearity that the group has significant leeway. The players in my group have bonded fairly well (at least it seems like that to me). I haven’t done a lot of customization of the adventure, but a group that intends to stick together after completing the module could twiddle quite a lot of knobs without breaking things. It just feels more robust in this way, which makes sense given its intent as part of the Starter Set rather than as the centerpiece for the game’s main storyline.

I would probably enjoy HotDQ more as a novel, though, as such things go. Wizards of the Coast will almost certainly start to publish more Tyranny of Dragons fiction next year in addition to the comics already available on their site. In fact, that’s precisely what damns this adventure for me: I feel as though we are experiencing a predefined arc rather than adventuring through the world. We experience the episodes as theme park rides, albeit gorgeously crafted ones. The maps provide some really gorgeous eye candy and the NPCs and magic items could end up in an independent campaign. Actually, a GM could forklift one or two of the episodes for some extra spice. So I’m glad I have the book, although I probably won’t pick up Rise of Tiamat immediately upon release.

Instead, I’ve started preparing for a new sandbox campaign in a unique setting. I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks, especially after the impending release of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Gamers who don’t enjoy combat

A recent question on /r/rpg caught my eye and I thought I’d write a bit more on my thoughts about it. Here’s the core:

I love the game but everyone (including myself) seems disappointed when combat happens. I try to narrate it a bunch and make it exciting with surprises and stuff but it still pails in comparison to the fun we have when we’re not in combat.

My question is, how can I…eh…reduce the length of combat while still making it seem important. I don’t want to remove combat entirely, I think it’s important my players fight monsters and the baddies. Afterall, fights are an amazing plot device. Still, it takes way to long and it feels like a necessary chore for everyone. Note that ALL of my players have expressed that they prefer non-combat scenarios.

Iconic photo of a lone man facing down four tanks in Tiananmen Square

He rolled a natural 20 on his saving throw against fear.

I feel like this isn’t so unusual. I’ve met many roleplayers who just don’t like tactical play. They want to focus on inhabiting a character, maybe throwing around some magic, solving puzzles, and interacting with people from behind a different pair of eyes.

But no one should feel guilty about this. There’s no shame that anyone should associate with enjoying (or not, as the case may be) certain play styles. Gamers who don’t like narrative and roleplay and instead prefer straight up dungeon crawls shouldn’t feel “guilty”, either. If you like vanilla ice cream more than chocolate, or just prefer carrot cake to ice cream, that doesn’t say anything about your value as a human being. No moral question arises here.

So if the group prefers other aspects of gaming like exploration and RP/social interaction, then the GM should lighten the mechanics considerably. Boil things down to a few numbers (ranged attack / melee attack / defense), roll against those things, then get back to what’s fun for everyone.

Perhaps the group should even switch away from Pathfinder (the system used by the group discussed in the initial post) to another game system that focuses on narrative, like FATE. Groups with philosophical objections to combat should consider this option, because nobody should feel compelled to engage in a pastime that runs counter to their morals for whatever reason.

Spending time on combat scenarios when you and all your players prefer something else seems like a waste of that time. And we all have finite time in life, much less for hobbies like this.

You can tell that…

Compare:

You can tell that the goblin is lying. versus The goblin glances from side to side, looking for any excuse to cover his lies.

You can tell that the temple has not been visited in some time. versus  A thick layer of dust indicates that the ancient temple has not seen any visitors for years.

You can tell that the cultists don’t see you. versus  The cultists have their back to you and their chanting has not changed in pitch, giving no indication that they’ve noticed you.

Cover of "You Never Can Tell" by George Bernard ShawWhen watching or listening to other GMs, I’ve noticed something that really frustrates me. After an ability check or an inquiry to the GM about something in the game world, [1] have a bad tendency to say “you can tell that…” followed by the answer.

This sounds really dry and immersion-breaking. It doesn’t follow the guideline of “show, don’t tell” and it doesn’t give your players any flavor. Instead, help them understand what they see and how they can tell. This probably requires a little more visualization on your part, of course. You have to think about what that NPC might be doing or what might exist in the world to indicate the answer.

Because of that, however, you’ll end up doing more than just making the world come alive in your players’ minds. You’ll also inadvertently create more hooks for everyone to follow. Maybe that goblin is lying because there are factions back in her camp. Maybe the temple is filled with dust because of an unholy wind. Maybe the cultists are caught up in a frenzied ritual that the party has to interrupt right away.

Either way, don’t just give players answers. Give them a little picture of their world.


[1]: I probably do it sometimes, too.

Cyborg Mind Flayer commission

Cyborg Mind Flayer

I commissioned this from nabfreelance on Fiverr. The request was:

I would like a sketch of a cyborg mind flayer / illithid (the Cthulhu-esque race from D&D etc.). The race is highly intelligent and unredeemably evil. I imagine something cybernetic integrated into the bulbous head or possibly even a limb. I’ve attached one of the official drawings of the race for reference.

I couldn’t be happier with the result.