Microlite20 and solo play: winging it

On quiet nights here at home, my daughter (just shy of 11 years old) occasionally asks if we can play D&D together. Tonight, I told her that we’d try something a little different. Rather than try to slog through a nerfed version of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, we’d do things the way I did when I was about her age.

So we busted out the Microlite20 PDFs, some dice, pencils, and character sheets. It took less than five minutes to roll up a human female ranger randomly named Xunari Emerald. Since she had no party members, I gave her a pet wolf that she promptly named Briggan. In response to a few probing questions, she told me that Xunari stood about 5’11” with an athletic build, had black hair and green eyes, and grew up around the village of Kohona.

Because we had precisely zero prep time, I didn’t have anything prepared for her. Donjon saved the day, of course: a few clicks on the random quest, encounter, and NPC pages, and we had enough for an adventure! A local noblewoman asked Xunari for assistance in tracking down the “beast of Thernigoia” that had attacked several outlying farms. Some livestock had gone missing and the town wanted to get rid of this monster before it could attack a child.

She set off down the road, but before she got too far, she heard the plaintive cries of a halfling girl caught in a web between some trees on the side of the road. Xunari and Briggan started to free her from the web just as a giant spider appeared on the scene. The halfling girl, Ennen, finished getting free and the three of them fled! After exchanging thanks, Ennen continued back down the road to the village, promising to write a song in Xunari’s praise.

Just before reaching the farm where she’d start her investigation, a highwaydwarf attempted to waylay her. The ranger and her wolf quickly disabused him of that notion and sent him scurrying off into the woods, promising never to return to Kohona.

scorpion tracks
Once she reached the farm, a peasant woman with auburn hair, thin blue eyes, and a toolbelt named Beada greeted her and explained the situation. Oddly, Xunari asked to speak to whomever was in charge. (My daughter was taken aback when Beada said, “ye be talkin’ with her”, based on some social studies lesson at school I think.) Anyway, I showed her this image and told her it led to a sandy area around some large boulders that had collected at the bottom of a hill and formed a small cave. When she looked around, there were animal body parts and a thin, brownish-green ichor smeared on the ground in a few places. At this point, she decided to go into the cave anyway – where she found a giant scorpion.

The scorpion felt threatened by having a human and a wolf in its personal space and a fight ensued. At some point, the wolf fell to the ground bleeding. But the farmer landed a few crossbow bolts into the monster, and Xunari finally finished it off. She took the stinger for a personal trophy and the head for proof. The ranger then carried her injured companion inside the farmhouse where they stopped the bleeding and got it back on its feet.

On the way back, she met a kindly old man and accompanied him on his way to the village. When a flock of sheep scattered across their path and the shadow of a manticore fell on them, her slingshot and his fireballs brought it down. (OK, mostly the fireballs.)

When all was said and done, she’d reached level 2, the town hailed her for keeping them safe from the encroaching wilderness for another day, and she and her wolf could get a much-needed night’s sleep.

Old-school roleplaying let us spend some nice family time together when the mood struck her and I could cater directly to what she wanted out of the session. That set the mood perfectly for my Roll20 session with my regular group later that night…

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
A hibernating Yeti camouflaged in the snow is startled awake
 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.

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.


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.

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…


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.