Monday, December 28, 2015

Moving to

Hi Everyone!

From now on, new content will be streamed through my account (, and will be uploaded to my YouTube channel (

The blog will still be used to chronicle my ongoing RPG games.

See you at Twitch / YouTube!


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pace Maker

I searched for the word "Pace" in Wikipedia. Here's what I've found:
All time arts – music, dance, drama, film – are enormously concerned with pacing – with rhythm or tempo. As the film director translates events in a script into actions that make up scenes and sequences, that is, as the director shapes the actors' performances and stages the other actions in front of the camera, one of his paramount concerns is pacing, making the action swell, subside, and swell again. The director does this to keep the scene from losing its energy and intensity. Later, after the shooting is over, the director, working with the film editor, will further control, construct, and perfect the pacing in the way he builds shots into scenes and sequences.
In my home campaigns, events usually unfold at a pace that is dictated by the players. Their characters do X, and event Y follows. I rarely declare that something happens "out of the blue". It keeps things simple around the table, and also reward a proactive play style.

But sometimes it really messes my prep time.

For a couple of years I follow the advice of Chris Perkins, who showed how to create a single summary page per session, with a recap, a list of major NPCs, and a short summary of up to 5 events you (the DM) want to see in the session. That single sheet of paper, along with some scribbles, is usually all I need to pull off a good session.

In my last session with one of the groups I run, something funny happened. I did the recap. I presented the first 3 or 4 NPCs, and kicked in the first event. And that was it. For nearly four hours, we played (and I mean played, with roleplaying scenes, combat, everything) that single event out of my notes.


This isn't a bad thing - mind you. There was a lot of improvisation going on, and I surely didn't have comprehensive notes for all the locations, RP scenes and combat encounters that session encompassed, but I felt it was a good session, and some of the players even said so themselves (feedback! from players! I know...unbelievable....)

But I kept wondering, throughout the session and afterwards: Did I waste my prep-time? Did I plan too much ahead? Did I really expect the group to go beyond that first event, or was I overdoing things? Maybe the session would have been much better if I took that one event and used my prep time to make it better, and worth a whole session (investing in monster tactics, an interesting terrain to fight on,  fleshing out NPCs etc)...

So, here are my own thoughts:
  • Did I waste my prep-time? No, but I probably could manage my prep time better. I keep forgetting that combat can eat a lot of time (fun time!), and looking at my notes I had roughly 4 potential combat encounters planned, plus almost a dozen non-combat encounters outlines. Way too much.
  • Did I plan to much ahead? Yes. But sometimes players bypass entire encounters, short-cutting the plot. So planning ahead is important, just in case. But maybe I can plan for those cases in a different way. Instead of plotting to far ahead and writing it down in my notes, I can "expect the unexpected" outside my session notes - those should focus on what I expect to see during the session.
  • Did I really expect the group to go beyond that first event? Yes! I always have that feeling that players can see right through my plot, so I usually don't take into account time for non-combat encounters (such as talking to an NPC). I assume those will end in 5 minutes. Combat is easier to gauge. I estimate 15-30 minutes for a "small" encounter, and one hour for a "big" encounter. Maybe I should think about estimates for non-combat encounters. 5 minutes for a short encounter, 15-30 minutes for a heavy role-playing scene with a lot of interaction? Maybe.
Thinking about it, the best sessions I ran (technically) had the following in common:
  1. A clear goal, theme or concept.
  2. An interesting villain.
  3. A good explanation for why NPCs do what they do.
  4. Well placed combat encounters.
Goal - if the players know what are they trying to achieve during the session, things usually run very smoothly. Convince the king to dispatch troops. Steal an artifact from a noble. Save a young girl from slavers. Find the map that leads to the hidden tomb. Once players agree on the goal, they will do something to achieve it. As long as prep-time is invested in making that something interesting, you're good to go.

Villain - a villain doesn't have to mean someone the PCs have to fight. A villain is anyone with an agenda that crosses the PCs path, usually (but not always), in a collision course. If the players can spot the bad guy and interact with him during the session (again, that doesn't always mean a fight), then things get interesting. Prep time invested in fleshing out this villain, his motives, his actions and reactions is prep time well invested.

NPCs - a very small percentage of role-play scenes are initiated and played in PvP mode. More often than not, role-playing is PvD (player vs DM). To prepare for it, you need to have someone the players can interact with. But creating 3-d NPCs is hard, especially if you do it on the fly. Prep time used to create interesting NPCs is very well invested. Motives, ideals, bonds, goals, agendas, secrets - the players will enjoy them in an NPC, and its worthwhile to invest in it.

Combat - I'm done with prepping for combat. IMO the monster manual should do the work for me, all I need to provide is the setting. But prepping for the why/what of combat is something I still do. Combat should not just be all about tactics, maneuvers and XP. I try to think about "why" combat occurs (the PCs insulted a noble, so he hired some thugs to shake them) and "what" happens during and after combat (the city guard arrives, but stand down because their sergeant knows the thug as a hireling of a powerful noble). I also use combat to inject some life into a sleepy table. Sometimes all the players need is some butt to kick.

I'm still thinking about how to incorporate the above into my single-page session summary. Obviously fleshed out NPCs, villains and combat encounters require much more than a single page, so I'm still considering how to incorporate this into a structured format I can use as a template (which I love - the single sheet summary template I have is working for me for years now, but I think its time to innovate...)

Will keep you posted..

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Three

You chose a campaign-setting, you have a basic plot outlined, you have an idea to bring the PCs together, and you even have some interesting notes about cool locations or NPCs.

You even got your players to send you some notes about their characters. Great! Your campaign is about to start - but to start it properly, you need to prepare for the first session.

I usually start campaigns at 1st level. For me (as the DM), it reduces the risk of a high-level PC bypassing plot elements with a single, powerful spell in the very first session. It also helps the players to settle into their character roles comfortably, as low-level PCs are relatively easy to use mechanically wise.

With a bunch of first level characters, I usually look into the background the players provided for inspiration. I want to build the first session in a way that will engage all the players, and if possible, provide a good reason for each of the characters to pursue the campaign story line further.

Let's start with an example. Suppose we got four players, giving us the following backgrounds:
  1. A rough veteran who once served in a bloody war, now serving as a spiritual leader for his community (human cleric)
  2. A dazzling elven maiden who escaped imprisonment by an evil wizard, now seeking  revenge for his abuse (elven rogue)
  3. A plumb merchant who lost everything he had to a nasty rival accusing him of cult work (a halfling sorcerer)
  4. An old mercenary carrying a relic belonging to his clan, sent on a journey to unveil its secrets (a dwarven fighter)
Let's assume you decided the campaign takes place in Cormyr (the Forgotten Realms) and revolves around a dragon trying to reclaim his ancestor's kingdom by assassinating the King of Cormyr.

By looking at the characters backgrounds, we can conjure a simple "how the characters meet" story: The veteran is the one helping the elven rogue escape from her imprisonment. While she was searching for information about her captor she stumbled upon the the dwarven mercenary who was about to travel to the wizard to consult with him about the relic. The trio prepare for the journey (the cleric and the rogue wants the wizard to pay for his crimes, the mercenary dwarf is willing to cooperate as long as he gets his questions answered). On their way to the wizard's tower they meet the halfling merchant, who is travelling to the wizard hoping to sell him an ancient tome he recently procured.

Here we go, a classic D&D story involving adventurers traveling to an evil wizard's tower. After conjuring that story, I would have sent the players a short handout explaining the above in a little more detail, to ignite their imagination and create an initial bond between the characters.


But the characters backgrounds made the story a little more complicated than the classic cliche. The halfling doesn't want the wizard dead or in prison - he wants a contact for future trade. The dwarf also doesn't really care if the wizard pay for his crimes - he needs information about his relic. I personally think that contradicting goals can be a lot of fun, as long as the players don't end up exchanging blows for it..

Note that the way I constructed the "how the heroes meet" story also provided me with a great first session adventure, one that involves a classic D&D cliche (slay the evil wizard in his tower). To complete my work for the first session I need:
  1. Details on special encounters during the travel to the wizard's tower
  2. Information on the villain of this story, namely, the wizard
  3. Notes on the tower itself and the region surrounding it
  4. Leads to the next adventure, and the campaign
The above four points are relatively easy to complete, but I want share some tips I use to spice up the session. Look at each of the bullets above and note the following tips:
  1. To connect the adventure with the campaign, I'll probably include an interesting NPC the heroes can encounter on their way to the tower. A merchant, a traveling bard or a noble with his bodyguards. The NPC can talk about recent rumors - something about an artifact stolen from a nearby temple, with the local militia worried. This NPC can ask the characters where are they traveling to and why, to allow the players to role-play. A body-guard might try his line on the elven maiden, or the merchant will identify the halfling, just to spice things up and create an interesting scene.
  2. To spin the cliche, I'd probably find a way to make the "evil wizard who imprisoned an elven maid" somebody the players will want to keep around for a while. He might turn out a "good guy", kidnapping the elven rogue to protect her from someone. Or he might indeed be evil, but his experiments (using her pure blood to unveil the writings of an ancient elven prophecy) revealed some horrible truth and he now needs the heroes to help him avert a coming disaster. They might find him badly wounded, with a royal inquisitor searching his private rooms, bloody blade in hand. Anything that can provide a twist and create an interesting scene to drive the story forward.
  3. The wizard's tower can be a great site to explore for a new group, especially low-level. I'd include "a room for every player", meaning elements in the tower that will appeal to every player. A trophy room with (animated) dwarven arms and armor for the dwarf. A room with elaborate traps obviously guarding a special treasure for the rogue. A room with undead skeletons doing menial jobs (such as feeding the garbage to a hole with a gelatinous cube), to test the cleric's mettle, and so on and so forth.
  4. We already decided that the campaign revolves around a dragon trying to reclaim his kingdom. It's best, however, if the main story arc becomes apparent only in a later stage of the game. This way, you'll have time to adjust if you find the players pulling the story in unexpected ways. You can use the first couple of sessions to saw seeds - The rumors about a stolen artifact as told by the NPCs the heroes just met might relate on an ancient magical sword forged to protect the crown (stolen by the dragon's minions). The prophecy unveiled by the evil wizard might mention an undead army that is about to rise (created by the dragon to fight for him), etc. Each of these can be used to spur the next adventure. You'll need to stay tuned to the way the players react to those bits of information as you hand them out, and pick the one that seems to engage them the most as the seed for the next adventure.
One last tip before the first session: I always prepare a "backup" plan, in case things really get out of hand. For example, what if the rogue sneak attack AND crit the wizard before he even makes his case? What if the cleric persuades the group to travel to the nearby temple from which the artifact was stolen first, and only then tackle the wizard?

(you can say that the first case is easy to solve - have the wizard have a protective spell, or have him have 90 hit points. I hate to do it - it will be obvious that I fudge, and I hate to nullify a well-placed blow or plan for the sake of my encounter)

So, what to do?

(Source: google images)
I simply prepare the following:
  1. Two combat encounters that are in actuality mini-adventures (with a map, NPCs, monsters and a cool environment to fight in). For example, a recently raided caravan with gargoyles trying to take off with one of the passengers. I don't usually over-prepare them, but I include notes to allow me to improve on top of them.
  2. Notes about what happens if the PCs "aren't there to adventure". Meaning, what happens if the PCs decide to stay at the inn and enjoy another mug of ale instead of adventuring. Maybe the wizard (after learning the truth behind the prophecy) goes to seek out the elven rogue, to gain more of her blood to continue his inquiries? Maybe a royal inquisitor appears, asking questions about cultists in the region, and trying to hire adventurers to accompany him to the tower? Or the local militia returns from the assailed temple, looking for a scholar to assert the importance of the artifact stolen from there (the evil wizard being the nearest scholar available). I use these bits of information as improvisational aids to help me get the story on track if needed.

Here you go - a first session packed with role-play opportunities, a rather detailed plot with many potential branches for the heroes to explore, and a cast of characters with goals you can build on to create an engaging session - the first in your new campaign.

Good luck!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Rage of Demons - Out of the Abyss Review

Got my copy half a week ago, and spent some time reading the first couple of chapters. I skimmed through the subsequent chapters - so this post is all about first impressions....

Tons of Underdark Goodies
This book really makes the Underdark come alive. Unique locations, weird and interesting creatures and personalities, exciting encounters - and all with a very consistent and cohesive wrapping. I think the designers did a great job with the presentation and the material, and the amount of energy invested in the book leaps out of the pages.

For Experienced DMs
Tyranny of Dragons and Princess of the Apocalypse felt like massive adventures, but I can see an inexperienced DM running Tyranny of Dragons, or even Princess of the Apocalypse. Out of the Abyss will stress out an inexperienced DM, and might prove to be a challenge even for an experienced one. The very first encounter has a dozen well detailed NPCs, each with an agenda of its own - and the PCs are going to interact with them all. From there, it's a sandbox. Non-linear, and very open. The amount of information the DM needs to digest before the game is truly immense. That said - the book is very well written, and the setting screams to be read, enjoyed, and played. The Underdark is a dangerous place for 1st level PCs, so you can expect a lot of roleplaying moments, as well as tense combat situations - and a good DM is needed to make sure a TPK doesn't happen 15 minutes into the session.

A Sea of Madness
The book makes use of many special rules presented in the Player's Handbook, like madness, getting lost, foraging, crafting and more. The Underdark is portrayed like never before, with alien landscapes, bizarre personalities and unearthly locations. The book provides great advice on how to narrate travel in such locations - and how to bring the Underdark to life while traveling days from one location to another. And don't forget - the demons are Out of the Abyss, so this dark, evil place have become even scarier than before. Players can expect to interact with creatures considered natural enemies of the surface-dwellers if they want to survive, and the constant threat of a knife in the back is ever present. Role-players will have tons of opportunities to shine, and combat encounters will require a lot of cooperation and thought to escape death, imprisonment or both...

All in all - I was very excited to get my hands on this book, and even more excited to see the great material to be found inside. The quality of adventures is constantly improving, with a positive slope from Tyranny of Dragons to Princes of the Apocalypse - to Out of the Abyss. I think Wizards are finally doing it right - and I really hope their Aboleth Overlords have even greater plans for the future!

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Best Session Ever

I was watching a lot of live-stream D&D games lately.

I don't get to play as much as I want, certainly not as a player (been a very long time since I had my own character in a D&D game), and so I take advantage of the recent increase of live-stream gaming channels to troll other groups as they play.

From the quality production of the Acquisitions Incorporated games hosted at PAX (see the link above) to the casual, anonymous group playing and streaming using Twitch, I manage to see a lot of different playing styles and skill levels on both ends of the DM screen.

(There is even a group composed of actual voice actors running on Geek and Sundry Twitch channel - and it is simply a joy to watch them go about it. Check it out here.)

One thing that pops out immediately is the totally different vibe between the high-end D&D "shows" and the other, neighborhood-friendly D&D gaming groups.

The average gaming group (among those who stream their session) is not different than the groups I had along the years: just a bunch of friends who meet to play a game they love. Some sessions are good, some fail to make an impression, a few fall flat, and fewer still are outstanding. Some players are tired, some lose interest during the session and drift off to play with their laptop or mobile, and some try to be the living spirit of the game, with the DM usually doing whatever possible to keep the game going.

The high-end D&D "shows" are something totally different. No yawning, unfocused players here. If a scene falls short, someone will step in to make it shine - even if its just about the characters interacting with a guard. Jokes are cracked, each player role-plays with mimicry, intonation and character background in mind. Characters talk between themselves, and the DM is ever-full of ideas, NPCs, interesting locations and great plot twists.

It's like the difference between a Burger King advertisement, and the real dish that lands on the table.


Sad, isn't it?

You want your session to be the best 4 hours of the day, right? I mean - we invest in it so much, even if its "just" time and nothing else, why not make sure this investment pays off big time? A lot of players come to the table expecting a good time - and a lot of DMs are laboring between sessions to make sure it happens - so why our sessions fall flat sometimes? Why don't they all look like those D&D shows, with everything going smoothly under the spotlight?

Some might say "that's life". We don't live in a movie, and so things around us don't arrange themselves to make every thing we do perfect. But I think we can at least try to arrange some thing that will probably improve our experience around the table:

  1. Don't come to a session if you're dead tired. Simply don't. If you're wasted, and all you can do is sit, stare at the wall and yawn, you'll bring everyone down with you. It's a death spiral. We all have busy lives, and we all come to the table after our day's work. If one is wasted and two are "just" tired, it means 3/5 of the group is simply out. Sessions don't take off this way. They stall, and only luck prevents them from crashing down.
  2. Your characters are the heroes of the campaign, act accordingly. Sessions take off when players are in-character, moving the story forward. It doesn't matter if the campaign is humanistic, goofy, or laden with dark fantasy and grim action. Stay in-character, look at your background and character sheet, decide how you want to play your turn, think: "is this going to make for an interesting scene that will move the story forward?" and if the answer is YES, go for it. If the answer is "I don't know", "No", "Just let me roll the dice" or "C'mon...", then you might not be helping the session take off. If you need, communicate with your DM before hand. Some DMs don't take cues. or hints When a player asks a DM "is there a chandelier on the ceiling?", he means that he wants to pull of some cool stunt. Some DMs aren't aware of this, and answer "No" instead of helping you create a cool scene. Talk to your DM, tell him you want to help making the game better, and if he's trustworthy (see below), things will improve fast. 
  3. Describe, Describe, Describe, Describe. Even if its a simple one liner. Even if its a regular scene you've played a hundred times, even if no one around you does it. It doesn't have to be first person. Say something like "My fighter enters the inn and looks at each of the patrons before choosing a private corner far from the fireplace", enough to get those imaginative juices flowing. I was once part of a group of 5 players, with 3 of them avoiding any descriptions of their characters whatsoever. "I attack" and "I'm down to 12 HP, I need healing" was all you heard from them. On the other end, I have players who role-play their character being wounded. ("The giant swats you for 23hp", "Damn! my fighter reels, shaking his head, wiping blood from his nose and shouting the name of the cleric!"). D&D is a game based on imagination. With out avid descriptions, we're not getting that feel of the scene that will make it memorable and vivid. The DM is describing as part of his job description, but help from the players will be most welcome.
  4. Trust your DM (unless you can't trust him). No one is perfect, and DMs are as diverse as players with regards to gaming styles, preferences and tendencies. But if your DM is trying his best to make everybody happy around the table, then support him, and trust him. Such a DM won't kill your character to punish you for something. If you blunder horribly, that DM might severely hit the party, but he won't make it a point to kill your characters for good (but if you press it, a TPK is a real consequence). If you say "My fighter challenge the merchant to a crossbow shooting contest, with 20 gold on the table" in order to get a discount in a cool way, such a DM won't make the merchant a retired level 18 ranger all of a sudden (he might make it a retired low level adventurer to make things fun, but that's it). A DM you can trust works with you, not for you, or against you. If you feel "cheated out of fun" then talk with your DM. A trustworthy DM will discuss it with you, and something will change (either on his side or on yours). If you don't think your DM is trustworthy (namely, it's his way or the highway), take the highway. Truest me (pun intended) - you're better off that way.   
  5. Positive Feedback goes a long way. And I mean it in a PvP way. I was once an unexperienced player in a very experienced group, and I chose to play a "Raistlin" like wizard. One of the players was nasty about it, but the other two players hushed him, and at the first roleplaying scene I did (speaking in a low voice, saying enigmatic things, you know, Raistlin) - they had big, appreciative smiles on their faces. I sucked - but they realized I was in the right mindset, and it was more important than my selection of character theme. They gave me a mental "thumbs up", and the game just got better (and I got better) from session to session. Saying "good one" or "nicely done" to a player after a good swing, or role-playing scene can go a long way. For the same reasons, saying a nasty thing to a player and excusing it with "it's what my character would say" is bullshit and should be avoided. Help the other players shine by providing positive feedback to enhance good behaviors. Just like with kids. And like with kids, the only time you need to step in and stop what's happening is when they're about to get hurt, or hurt someone else. 
So here you go. My 2-cents about how to make your next session memorable and exciting, as all D&D sessions ought to be!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Two

In the last post, I wrote about the process I have for drafting a campaign. I usually start with notes about the following:
  1. The campaign setting.
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
I also come up with one sentence that sums up the campaign, to serve as a lighthouse to guide me when fleshing out the events that make the campaign tick.

But the single most important element of the campaign isn't the setting, the plot or even your skill as a DM - it's the players that matter the most.

This is the reason I don't develop my drafts until I know who will be joining the group. In my experience, it's best if the campaign is tailored to the players' expectations and skill level - otherwise the first session might be the last.

Think about it this way - your role-playing heavy plot will evaporate soon enough if three-quarters of the group enjoys combat and tactical play the most and aren't worrying too much about character death. It works the other way too. To mitigate, I usually ask the players what interests them in a game (usually via e-mail), and try to incorporate these interests into the draft I'm fleshing out.

I plan to discuss fleshing out a campaign in a later post, but once the campaign is fleshed out to a point I feel confident enough to start running it, most of its success is on the players shoulders. I found out that campaigns that are driven by engaged players enjoy a lot more success that campaigns driven by an engaged DM...

The way to engage players differ from group to group and from a player to player, but I found out that most players respond to the following:

  1. A Coherent plot that involves the characters
  2. Meaningful choices
  3. NPCs


I try to make the characters a big part of the plot. It's easier when the players provide you with a background to work with, and it's a lot easier when players realize they are the main focus of the campaign, and act accordingly. The characters can be the heroes a prophecy revolves around, or natural born leaders who can 'show the path' for others, or powerful individuals destined to do great things. The plot revolves around them - they are like the main protagonists of a book. As such, they can accomplish great things, or fail miserably - but if their actions make a great story, it doesn't matter how it ended. A good player recognizes this, and act accordingly. I had players portraying their character's death scene in such a gripping way that it made me forget I was the DM - I was simply enjoying a great scene from a story, even if that scene was all about a hero losing his life.

It's important to make sure your players will connect with the plot. If they don't, engagement will fly through the window. Before the campaign starts, I ask them and make sure the plot I have in mind is something they will enjoy playing. During the campaign, simple checkpoints can help you make sure everybody is interested in the story (more on that in the next post).

Meaningful Choices

I hate railroading. I really do. As a player, I feel like being cheated out of my D&D experience, which is all about my character and the dent it leaves in the universe. When the group's choices mean nothing, players will do one of two: trot along gritting their teeth (and eventually leave the group), or try to wreck havoc (before leaving the group).

The only way to make sure the players feel like their choices have meaning, is to actually plan for it to happen. The heroes defeated a major villain? his forces will disperse. The heroes stole a relic from a temple? the cultists will seek them out. The heroes persuaded two merchants in different towns to cooperate? A new trade route will be opened, with new wealth flowing through the realms.

Same goes for poor choices and failed attempts. The heroes did nothing when a vampire asserted control over the town's council? The town will evolve into a bastion of evil. The heroes failed to protect an high-ranking diplomat they were assigned to protect? War might erupt between two kingdoms. The heroes fail to avert an evil god from entering the world? Well, bye bye world...(not really - our job as DMs is to make sure the story goes on...again, more on that in the next post).

The important thing to remember here is that we (as DMs) need to challenge the players, give their characters the right tools to succeed, but never look the other way if things go bad for them. The game is much more rewarding this way - even if somewhat difficult. Players choices should matter - and they should be very well aware of that.


NPCs are the best tool a DM have in his toolbox to engage and entertain players. A lot of DMs don't use them enough. I know I don't use them enough.

NPCs can serve as the DM's secret weapon. When you want to know what interests the players? Here comes the talkative barkeep that simply asks them that. When your players a in dire-straits and need directions? Here comes a hunched man with a glass eye to whisper words of wisdom. When the group is debating about how to approach the upcoming attendance with the king, going into circular logic discussion? That old dwarf coughs politely and with a heavy accent says: "Heard ye be talking on the king's court? Been there myself, lately..."

The problem with NPCs is that a) the heroes need to be in a place were other people are present and b) running then can be a real challenge.

Sometimes the group is adventuring with no one close in sight. While monsters can be good NPCs, more often than not it's the "tell us what we need to know or die" scenario (can be uttered by the adventurers or by the monster, BTW). But even if the heroes are in a city, with NPC interaction opportunities abundant, most DMs (myself included) have issues with coming up with a score of NPCs unless we prepared for it (I "love" that fraction of a second delay when a player asks the NPC "so what's your name", revealing the fact that the DM just came up with the NPC a minute ago).

But all that said - NPCs are hands down the best tool the DM have to make the world real, evoke some response from the players, and move the story forward. I guess practice makes perfect, and the new 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with advice on creating and running NPCs.

So here it is - with a campaign draft, and some information about what makes your players tick, you are ready for the next level: fleshing the campaign out, and preparing for the first session. All will be discussed in my next post.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part One

I currently have 12 "campaign drafts" sitting and collecting digital dust in my Google Drive RPG draft folder.

New campaign ideas keep popping into my head, so I jot them down in my draft folder, and every weekend or so I pick one draft and flesh it out further. I usually delete those drafts who didn't get any attention for some time (a month or two, usually), so the folder now contains around 12 half-baked campaigns, almost ready-to-play.

When starting to work on a new campaign, I usually don't have any information about the players who will be playing it, so I can only develop it up to a certain point.

I usually jot down the following:
  1. The campaign setting (I default to the Forgotten Realms these days, but some campaign ideas work better in other settings)
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
Campaign Setting

I don't really have the time to develop my own campaign settings. I have some drafts (again) or worlds I created, but running a campaign in a home-brew world requires a lot of ongoing work between sessions, and I don't have the time to invest in world building anymore. 

Published settings suites me better, especially those who get some new content published on a regular basis. I don't mind using settings that aren't officially maintained (Greyhawk comes to mind, and Eberron), but settings like the Forgotten Realms, who seem to get endless love from Wizards of the Coast works best for me, as I can loot stuff from adventures, modules, articles and books published with FR in mind. I also own the old FR grey nostalgia definitely play its role here.

Most of my campaign ideas revolve around a main theme that can be described by a single sentence - such as "Gods meddle in human affairs" or "A demon found a way to get himself free from his eternal prison", or even "An evil alien race is about to invade the planet - with a similarly evil warlord planning to stop it". Some campaign settings are more suited for some themes, but I think any D&D setting can host any theme, with some modifications. So, if my idea can work in the Forgotten Realms, I just assume the campaign will be played in the Forgotten Realms.

The General Plot

I usually start with a single sentence, something that can help me focus when the campaign is already underway. I found that most of my campaigns rarely unfold as designed, mainly due to the fact that I try to avoid railroading as much as possible. In addition, sometimes players have ideas that can take the campaign to a better direction than I envisioned - and I do my best to cooperate. So a single sentence that describe the overall story is often vague enough to allow some flexibility in the story, while providing a 'lighthouse' for me to keep the ship in the right direction.

Most of my campaigns are epic in nature, with a world changing event looming or already underway. Such campaigns can be run for many sessions, with the story slowly unfolding. Characters can go from first level to the 6th or even 8th before the main story really kicks in. It allows for character development, and some "getting sense" of the players' interests. If needs be, I modify the story in a way that stays loyal to the original plot line, but entertain the players as much as possible.

The 5th edition D&D Dungeon Master Guide has some great advice on creating campaigns - while reading the first chapter I had a sudden realization that 90% of my campaign ideas are about big events that literally shake the world. I'm sensing my next campaign will tone-down the action level and focus on smaller regions and tighter plot lines - but that's remains to be seen.

How the Characters Meet

I learned in the hard way that in order for the campaign to start on the right foot, the party must already be 'a party'. Namely, while the players might be playing for the first time, the characters must already be familiar with each other, and have a clear goal and, preferably, a patron to send them off to their first mission.

Why? Well, you want some glue to make sure the party stays together and heads in the right direction at the first session. I had groups splitting on the first session, simply because characters had different interests, or because players failed to realize that D&D is a cooperative game. I don't mind in-play debates or splits in session 18, deep inside the story, with the characters expressing different opinions in a heated argument. But I don't enjoy several strangers sitting around my table heading each in his own direction without thinking about the guys sitting next to them. I found that declaring the group as such in the beginning, and making sure they have a patron that can 'show them the right way' to adventure works best. The campaign can break later on, with the players at the reins, but the first session should be run as smoothly as possible.

Examples can be:

  • The characters are working as 'special crimes' investigators, reporting to the local temple and handling cases with suspected demonic involvement.
  • The characters are handling barely-legal deals for a shady merchant with a love for ancient arcane devices.
  • The characters are responsible for transporting dangerous prisoners from and to the local asylum, with a dwarven lord (running the prison) as their patron.

It's best to keep it simple, and make sure the patron (and the party's current "job") actually fits into the story, so the relation stays intact at least for a couple of sessions.

Sometimes, no patron / specific goal comes to mind. In this case, I just plan for the characters to be at a specific time in a specific place, with some event bonding them together, at least until the campaign hook sinks in. This method works best with groups you are already familiar with, and with players who are willing to "play along" at the first session. I still prefer the former approach.

Good Ideas

Sometimes ideas flow that don't really match your current campaign draft, or you sometimes have this really cool encounter idea, or an NPC that clicks with the story. I jot down a paragraph or two every time I have one of these ideas. You never know when those things will come handy.

Ideas run out, and inspiration might go away for a while. DM 'burn out' is a real thing, and so jotting some notes when inspiration strikes ensures your campaign will survive a 'dry season'.

I also made it a habit to invest time in reading published adventures (old or new), easily read fantasy books (anything under 300 pages) and material found in Wikipedia in subjects that can be related to D&D campaigns (such as the history of the Roman Empire, naval piracy, ancient Egyptian legends etc). Such "pools of inspiration" can really save the day. I remember running a session with NPCs build from sigmund freud's definitions of Id, Ego and Super-Ego. Inspiration can come from a lot of sources, so I invest time in exposing myself to some, and jotting down ideas so I can revisit them when in need.

(Source: tumblr)
Following the above steps - my draft campaign folder grew to 12 campaigns that just need several hours of work to make them playable.

So how to continue from here? What do you do after you have your draft campaign ready, and you even have players who are willing to participate?

More on that in Part Two of "Starting a New D&D Campaign"....

Friday, August 21, 2015

4th Edition Retrospect (with Kids!)

My 4th edition campaign ended over a year ago, and we quickly moved to D&D Next and 5th edition once it came out.

Surprisingly, my home campaign (with my kids) is still run using 4th edition rules. I thought it would be a good exercise to convert my son's current character - an Eladrin Paladin - to 5th edition, but he got bored just after generating stats, and refused to continue.

I thought long and hard about it, and tried to understand what did I do wrong. After all, he loves reading his 4th edition player's handbook over and over, so why didn't he enjoy creating a 5th edition PC?

I realized that 5th edition took away the single element he liked best in the game - "Powers".

In 4th edition, many skills, attacks, spells and special abilities are formulated into At-will, Encounter or Daily "Powers" the player can activate.

For a kid used to playing games on computers, tablets and consoles, 4th makes a lot of sense. You have a character, it has powers you can activate, go have fun adventuring in the Forgotten Realms.

Generating a character is fast, revolves around selecting those powers, and at the end of the process you have a rather powerful character - lots of hit-points, self-healing abilities and at-will powers means you can have fun with even that single character adventuring.

In 5th edition, the situation is a little different. Yes, there are a lot of choices to be made, but the 'interesting stuff' only happens around level 3, and level 1 PCs are weak in comparison to 4th edition characters. The layout of the 5th edition book makes it hard to understand at first glance what the PC can do - and that was very important to my young players.

So we kept using 4th edition at home.

Things got more interesting when I allowed my son to run a game for us (with my daughter and myself as players). Here, 4th edition really shined. All he had to do is come up with a simple story (he's 9yo, so the stories were largely influenced by the recent TV show he'd watched, or the recent movie - which was cool). Once he had the story, 'designing' encounters was easy - pick XP budget, select monsters, go!. Hard to make a mistake here.

In a sense, 4th edition technicalities makes it a very easy and fun system to run, as long as the scenarios are kept simple. Too many players fighting too many monsters with too many abilities makes the game hard to track - but with a DM and two players running 1st level characters, we had the famous RPG "sweet spot" right there and then.

But what about role-playing and out-of-combat scenarios? Well, here 4th edition skill system shined. The simplified skill system made it easy to complement dice roles with "acting out" and pretending to be the characters speaking to the King or the Evil Wizard.

The main take-away is that 4th edition is very structured, and its presentation makes that structure obvious and easy to grasp, which is a bless when playing with kids who are mature enough to bite into a role-playing system, but still small enough to need easy to understand rules and easy to press "buttons" to play the game.

It's interesting to note that my own introduction to D&D was with the Basic Set (the red box), which was a very simple system combined with a presentation that was meant to inspire. When reading the player's booklet as a kid back then in the 80', I felt so excited to see game that presented a system that 'sorted out' all that buzzing imaginative energy I had as a kid and laid it out neatly so me and my friends could share wonderful moments of role-playing in a fantasy-world. I didn't look for 'what my character can do'. I knew it could do anything I wanted, the system was there to make some sense of a fantasy character wondering around in a fantasy setting.

Now it seems a 10 years old kid is already so familiar with gamification terms such as 'level', 'power', and with the slew of fantasy movies (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Hobbit and their likes) that a role-playing system trying to focus on imagination fails to hit the mark, but a system focused on 'levels' and 'powers' and that 'trick Legolas does when shooting 4 arrows in one pull of the bow' connects easily.

In a sense, 5th edition is the closest to the spirit of my old Red Box D&D, while having the technical aspects of a modern RPG system. It will be interesting to see if the young generation of role-players will find 5th edition digestible - they'll probably need help from old D&D veterans like me to show them the way. At least the setting stays the same - my kids were always adventuring in and around Neverwinter. But more on that in a later post....

Saturday, April 18, 2015

And Now for Something Completely Different

Recently I was re-introduced to a great game called Magic the Gathering.

Magic the Gathering (or MTG for short) is a collectible card game in which you assemble a deck of cards and battle against an opponent and his deck. Each card represents a magical spell or a creature which you cast to knock your opponent from 20 life to zero.


I dabbled with Magic when I was younger, but very few of my friends played the game, and since it required buying rather expensive cards on a regular basis I ditched it and focused on the pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons instead.

I recently learned that several co-workers were into the game, and so we dusted off our old decks and started playing on a semi-regular basis.

So what makes Magic such a fun game to play?

  1. First and foremost, it's heavily fantasy-flavored. Vampires, wizards, dragons, goblins and other 'D&D-like' creatures and spells are all over the place (and the art on some of these cards is simply stunning)
  2. It's a war-game with simple rules, but some of the cards can break the rules in certain ways, allowing for a wide variety of tactics and strategies to be employed. In a sense it's like playing Chess. The basic rules are simple, but winning the game requires more than just moving the pieces according to the rules...
  3. Deck building is a big part of the game. Each player needs to construct a 60-card deck, but there are virtually thousands of cards out there, and new cards are released throughout the year (every year since 1993!). There is no 'best deck', as each deck has ups and downs, and the luck of the draw still plays a part in deciding a game.
So how is the game played? Well, simply put (and omitting a lot for the sake of simplicity), you got two types of cards in your deck. Lands, and Spells.

Lands come in colors: Black, White, Red, Green and Blue. Here is an example of a Blue Land card:

Spells also come in colors. Here is a red spell card for example:

In a nutshell, players 'cast spells' (play spell cards) by using 'mana' (land cards), with the goal of reducing the opponent from 20 life to 0 and win the game.

Here is an example of a Magic game 'battlefield' layout in the midst of a game.  


I won't go into the details of the rules any further - I urge you to browse the official 'how to' section at Wizards site if you want to get the hang of the game, and if you want to enjoy my future posts about Magic the Gathering!

While I still plan to write D&D related posts (got an interesting retrospect on 4th edition coming up), I will also delve into MTG gameplay every once in a while. Nothing to worry about - D&D is still in my heart, but if I want a fantasy-flavoured casual play to fill up half an hour - MTG is definitely the way to go!

Here's a (rather nerdy) introduction to MTG (by Wizards of the Coast).


Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Pattern

I really like the Eberron Campaign Setting.

(Image: wikipedia)
Quoting Wizards of the Coast: 
[Eberron] combines pulp adventure and intrigue in a world where magic-driven technology has produced airships, trains, and similar advancements comparable to early 20th-century Europe.
It's a rather low-level D&D setting, with very few NPCs topping level 10. If the DM emphasizes the setting's grit and intrigue elements over the techno-magical ones, the campaign can express the mindset and tone of movies like Brotherhood of the Wolves, From Hell, The Name of the Rose, Pirates of the Caribbeans and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Taken into the techno-magical grey-zone, scenes from movies like Blade or even League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can be depicted.

This versatility - along with the relatively low power level - is what attracts me the most to this setting. I can cater to a lot of tastes, grabbing ideas from various books, movies and TV shows while stilling feeling I'm playing D&D.

Want a vampire slaying session, with the PCs armed by a shady governmental agency dedicated to undead-slaying supplying them with Batman-like gadgets? Check!

A James Bond scene in which the PCs try to hijack a gnomish submarine in order to bring it for inspection by the authorities? Check!

An out-of-the-blue Startrek session with the PCs serving onboard the Enterprism - a House Lyrindar Airship sent to explore strange, new lands?


And the list goes on and on…

One of the most interesting aspects of Eberron is the 'shades of grey' approach to everything related to Alignment. Unlike most D&D settings, Good and Evil in Eberron are in the eyes of the beholder. A nation that employs undead as troops in the Forgotten Realms setting (think Thay) is an evil force to be reckoned with. No good-aligned ruler will even consider such a horrendous idea. But in Eberron, the nation of Karrnath have used undead as troops for years now, but it is a proud human nation with a strong military tradition. Evil? some will say so, but most of its citizens shrug and continue with their daily lives, dismissing their undead guardians as a necessity in a harsh world.

DM'ing a session in Eberron is actually a lot of work, especially for me, as I really like an intrigue heavy plot with lots of NPCs and 'powers behind thrones'. It means I need to be prepared with various agendas, goals and secrets each NPC have, in order to easily improvise when the players interact with them.

Again Eberron's way of 'doing things' works the way I like it - as Eberron encourages plenty of slow-paced investigation scenes broken by a few fierce combat scenes. It's never a 'room after a room' with Goblins (or other monsters) guarding chests of treasure and a boss fight in the end. In Eberron, the dungeon is most likely deserted, with the only real danger being the double-agent guide the PCs hired..

Because Eberron's tone is different from the baseline 'Heroic Fantasy' assumed by the D&D rules, the simple 'kick-in-the-door' style of play (played with one-line background PCs) will never life up to the full potential of the setting. If you want a successful Eberron campaign, you should consider to add the following ingredients:

  1. A patron to kick-start the first few 'quests'. It can be an agent of an shady organization, a noble with aspirations, or a merchant 'who knows too much'. Someone the PCs can trust (at least to a point) with the ability to point them in the right direction if they are lost.
  2. PCs with goals, agendas and secrets, with some ties to the patron. Goals, agendas and secrets are a must if you want rounded PCs that will be able to pick the story up and drive it themselves. Ties to the patron are needed for the first few sessions, until the PCs find another anchor to build their story around.
  3. Slowly expanding 'fog-of-war' circles. In an intrigue heavy campaign, the PCs spend most of their time in the dark. But that darkness needs to recede if you want them engaged. It also need to recede slowly enough to allow you some room to maneuver, since intrigue scenarios are really susceptible to unexpected PC actions. Your plot should be two or three steps ahead of the PCs 'sphere of influence'. Too close, and you risk them 'blowing your cover' and killing your campaign too soon. Too far, and you risk a very loose coupling between the story and the PCs actions.    

You'll also want to discuss the world with your players. Knowledge of the world's history is not a must, but some familiarity and 'openness' to the setting's quirks can a boon.

Here's a good finisher to exemplify the special tone of this setting:


Care to guess which is which?


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Post Mortem

Writers write.

“Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.”
—Ralph Keyes
As an aspiring Dungeon Master, I made it a routine to sit down once every month or so and outline a campaign: writing a handout, a campaign bible, and a first adventure. I discovered that it's the best way for me to hone my writing skills, and keep the 'juices flowing'.

I also try to do some retrospect, think about the last adventure / campaign I ran, focusing on what went well and what fell apart.

So here's a snapshot from a recent campaign I ran: The heroes - low level characters - are walking through large city at dusk when a demonic portal opens and belches out a demon. A fight erupts, and the heroes kill the creature, but the portal is still open. After investigating the portal, one of the players suggests to 'hand off' this issue to a 'high level NPC', as clearly 'someone else' should handle it.

Now, I just want to be clear: the portal was not a 'random encounter'. The heroes were dancing around the issue of a demonic manifestation in the city for several sessions, so the portal was not a big surprise, and actually a story element.

But - to be completely honest (and hence the post-morterm), I never even considered the players would go and search for 'somebody else' to fix this portal issue for them.

Big mistake.

I mean - what was I thinking? A demonic portal, a large city, and a group of low level characters? I should have planned for them to go and seek someone to figure this out…

So here are some points to consider, analyzing myself as a DM:

  1. I see the PCs as the 'main event' of the campaign. I therefore tend to downgrade NPCs to a point of making them weaklings. Authorities, local rulers, high-level wizards, all have 'reasons' why the PCs should handle things, or 'excuses' why they can't do it themselves. It's wrong, and it breaks the suspension of disbelief. The PCs are the stars of the movie, but in order for the movie to succeed the stands and the rest of the cast should come into life when needed, make an impact, and dissolve into the background right after their scene is done
  2. Running a D&D session as the Dungeon Master is the Art of Moving Forward. If something doesn't go as planned, the DM's job is to smooth the corners and keep the story moving. I did recognize the players' valid reasoning as they expressed the need for a higher-level official to handle a demonic portal in the middle of a bustling city, but I got stuck on making excuses instead of saying yes and moving forward. The art here is to identify you're in a "no" mode, and quickly move into a "yes, but…" mode.
  3. I wrongly assume that the players see the story from the same perspective as I do. That's simply a bad way to look at things. The DM's screen should be a good reminder that the players might perceive and experience the game in a very different way than the DM. Building on the movie metaphor - they are like actors who don't see the whole picture, don't have access to the complete script, and get to act in front of a green screen. The DM's job is to make sure the players know what's going on, feed them with bite-size story chunks, and challenge them appropriately. 

So what did I learn from this, as I write my new campaign outline?

  1. If I want the players to try and overcome a challenge, it should be within their abilities to overcome. It might be difficult or dangerous, but within their limits. Placing the bar too high might drive them away - which is good if that's the purpose of the challenge. But if you want engagement, the problem at hand should be within their capabilities to solve.
  2. The keyword in the above bullet is "try". The players should have choices to make, and walking away from an encounter is a valid choice. As long as the story moves forward, and the players are now presented with the consequences of their choices, all is good. The trick is to present meaningful choices, and for that, the players might need to know the consequences up ahead. Easier said than done, though.
  3. The story should always be present. As a shadow, or as an aura, but always there. The story should develop slowly, but consistently. Slowly, to allow the players to digest, and to allow you to diverge if the players don't show an interest. Consistently, because the players don't see the whole picture, and consistency over time helps them understand something is going on, grasp its importance, and make good decisions up the road.

And for the name of my new campaign: The Ancient of Days, set in the Forgotten Realms, in the small town of Port Llast, where rumors of a Seer amassing power in the northern city of Luskan makes the locals nervous….


Sunday, March 22, 2015

D&D 5e Impressions - Dungeon Master's Guide


That's what went through my head as I frantically flipped through the pages of the new DMG. After reading the Monster Manual and enjoying it page after page, I was really eager to put my hands on the definite guide for all those dungeon masters out there - and boy am I impressed!

If one word could be used to summarize my thoughts and feelings while reading through this book - it would have to be this one: Inspiration.

This whole edition feels like someone was trying to get the rules out of the way and inject as much possible inspirational material that can be used to create great adventures, campaigns, characters, locations and story lines. The DMG is the pinnacle of that effort - and IMHO the best book out of the trio.

Don't get me wrong - the previous two where superb (especially the Monster Manual) - but the DMG makes you want to throw everything aside and write that great campaign or adventure you always wanted to run. The book focuses on inspirational material, leaning much less on mechanics, and therefore reads like a textbook, and not like a rule-book. It covers topics previous DMGs did not even get near to - such as alien technology(!), sanity and madness, siege-weapons, and other 'non-D&D' concepts such as firearms, fear-and-horror, and explosives. Variants of many classic rules are presented, that allow further customization and 'breaking' of the mold.

If 4th edition was extremely codified and 'strict', 5th edition is all about returning control to the DM, and allowing him to tell his story in his own way, while providing as much advice, examples and ideas to spark that flame of imagination and wonder that somewhat diminished over the last few editions.


It seems to me that every time I crack open the DMG, falling on a random page, I find something interesting to read. It's a good pastime book, even if you're not running a campaign - and it certainly makes you want to run one. The book doing a good job expanding on subjects like world-building and NPC creation, delving deep into adventure design and game running advice. It provides tips and advice on 'out-of-game' activities for players and DMs alike - just look at that Dungeon Master Inspiration page at the end of the book - a collection of works that can 'help you become a better storyteller, writer, performer and mapmaker'.

I've been playing (and running) D&D games for more than 25 years now, and I'm still amazed by how much I don't know about the various aspects of this game. The new DMG uses the collective knowledge of players and dungeon masters, binding that knowledge into a book that can inspire, teach and ignite that spark of imagination that keeps us scribbling notes about that old castle in the mire, or about that vampire lord plotting the downfall of a paladin.

At this point in my life, the last thing I need is a book full of rules, codes and mechanics. What I need is inspiration, ideas, advice and examples I can learn from and put to good use, and the new DMG provides just that, and plenty of it.