Friday, July 31, 2009

The Polls Are Closed!

The votes are in!

For those just tuning in, two weeks ago I started taking suggestions for how to best spend a $10 Amazon Gift Card I won from Exfanding Your Horizons (who were also nice enough to send some link love my way today). A week ago, I gathered the suggestions and opened a poll with the five options which received over 60 votes.

The voting was heated, and three different products took the lead at one point or another. When the last day of voting hit, Pathfinder RPG and Mouse Guard RPG were tied at 20 votes! As the day ended the winner, by one vote became clear.

Pathfinder RPG!

So, following my promise, I've thrown in a pre-order for Pathfinder RPG and will post a detailed review once the product is released as I've had a chance to play it. As a side note, due to the large amount of interest also in Mouse Guard RPG, I will try to purchase this product as soon as I have the disposable income to throw at it, so hopefully somewhere down the line I'll be able to review this product as well. In the mean time, Gnome Stew has a really great review of Mouse Guard over at their blog.

Anyways, not much today in terms of a post, but if you haven't read my post from yesterday about "saying Yes" in your game, you should go check it out. (I'm proud of it!)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learn To Say "Yes"

"Yes" can be a powerful word. In improvisational theater, actors are taught to always "say yes", because it opens doors for the scene to continue. "Saying Yes" does not always imply actually saying the word "Yes" of course, rather, it means accepting what the other actor is saying as possibility and not turning down ideas or potential directions the scene can go in.

In improv, it doesn't matter what the question is, the answer is always "yes" - and add more detail. For example, in a scene you might be asked, "Do you sell fenceposts?" A tempting response might be, "No - we don't sell anything". That might get a laugh, but it offers no new directions for the scene to go in and gives your partner nothing to work with. So just say "Yes" - and keep going by adding more concrete detail. "Yessiree, I've got a cow-fencepost here that even a 4,000-pound cow was unable to tip over." Now something is happening. That could trigger just about anything in your scene partner's imagination. "Oh, good! I've only got two 2000-pound cows, but they like to team up. Now let's see, I've got them enclosed in half an acre... How many fenceposts am I going to need?" Now, in just two lines, we've gone from nothing to the beginnings of a plot. - The Improv Wiki

Why talk about improvisation on an RPG blog? Because I love the theater! I don't care what those critics say! Broadway, here I come! Because a good Dungeon Master will always say "Yes" too.

Let's put it this way. No matter how amazing a Dungeon Master you are, and no matter how well you've written your campaign, or how excellently you've planned ahead, or how extraordinary the published adventure you're using is, it is impossible to account for player... creativity.

If you think you can predict the actions of four to six creative folk huddled around a table with imaginary swords and lightning bolts with nothing but a tiny bar of text that says "alignment" to guide them, you are in for a treat.

Sometimes, running a game can be stressful. I've seen many a Dungeon Master start sweating bullets as they brainstorm furiously for a plan to keep their campaign intact as they try not to panic while their precious plothooks were burned to the ground along with the tavern they were set within.

So, the players have killed the king's messenger after thinking he was a spy, hired no less then three members of the assassin's guild to kill the king after following a red-herring sidequest where the very same assassin's guild planted rumors that the king was a doppleganger, and have burned down half of the city in a fight they never should have gotten themselves into with the town guard.

Do you get angry?
Do you call the campaign quits?
Do you start hurling dice at your players until they stop?

No. You say "yes".

Players will have crazy ideas, but it's not your place to stop them. "But, but I'm the Dungeon Master! I control worlds! Universes!" A classic mistake that many Dungeon Masters, Storytellers, and Narrators make is thinking that the campaign is a movie, and they are the directors - controlling everything. This is an understandable mistake, but one that all DM's need to be aware is wrong. The only people who control the characters are the players.

I mentioned the hazards of critiquing roleplaying in my recent New DM Mistakes article, and the great rpg blog Gnome Stew actually has a pair of articles that tackle this issue directly, both on DM's not being the director, and how Dungeon Masters should never say that players are doing something "wrong". A player can't play their character "wrong". It's their character - not yours.

So, the issue of why you shouldn't say "no" is covered, but now, how do you say yes? Before getting into how to say Yes correctly, lets cover how to say Yes incorrectly.

Saying Yes, but while kicking and screaming "NOOOOO!"

"Sure, you can tie up the tailor and steal the silk shipment he's asked you to deliver... little did you know he was actually a MIND FLAYER IN DISGUISE! ROLL YOUR WILL SAVES YOU REBELLIOUS BASTARDS!" *evil laughter*

Yes, I know you're upset. Your carefully crafted plothook is being kicked in the face. You overestimated the player's dedication to your railroad plotlines. Put down the gun and no one will get hurt.

An unfortunately common response that Dungeon Masters have to players going off the beaten pass is to make it so difficult and frustrating for them that they will damn sure never want to bother again. This is usually done by making the actual act of "rebellion" incredibly hard to do - by raising DC's up to extraordinary levels, or suddenly making a level 1 commoner into a level 10 wizard half-dragon - or by going overboard on the consequences, making them unnecessarily harsh and/or deadly.

Obviously, there are always consequences for the actions your players take and you should make sure that such consequences occur. You should be careful however, to ensure that the consequences which occur are not unreasonable, unfair, or unlikely.

For example, if a messenger from the King meets the PCs on the road and the PCs then kill the messenger and bury his body somewhere - the King probably won't know. No matter how much you wish it was true, the King probably doesn't keep individual scrying beacons active on all of his messengers at once, and since this is a world filled with monsters and bandits, truth be told his messengers probably don't return intact or alive all that often anyway.

If you allow the PCs to kill the messenger, only to torment them brutally for it afterwards, this isn't "saying yes" correctly. This is punishing your players for their creativity, and your players will recognize what you're doing. Yeah... don't do that.

Saying "Yes", or Going With The Flow

The best Dungeon Masters are pros at going with the flow. If you have plot planned, and the PCs do something you aren't expecting, this shouldn't close any doors - only open new ones.

The hardest part about this is that it makes you have to think on your feet. Speaking as a DM who is not the best improviser out there, this can be hard - especially for new DMs. You have to greatly alter your plots all at once, and quite possibly even completely throw out what you were thinking.

There's two ways to tackle an unexpected event. Either, find some way to twist it, or some new way to approach the PCs to get them eventually back on track to your initial plot, or to indulge their actions and take the story in a new way following what they've done. As long as you allow PCs to be independent and to drive the story forward in interesting ways - rather then you driving the story with them just along for the ride - they'll be happy.

The trick, and the hallmark of a great DM, is to make absolutely everything that happens in a session look like you planned for it.

If the PCs go off the beaten trail, keep your cool, pretend like you expected it, and seamlessly string together what was your scripted plot, and what is now coming off the top of your head.

If you get upset, become overbearing with unnecessary consequences, start tearing your hair out, or generally get all mopey - the players won't have as much fun because in the back of their mind they'll know they're screwing up your plot. Since the PCs are the main characters of this story though, the plot is them, regardless of what you've written, so go with the flow and they'll think it's the best campaign ever.

Take a Breather

Do not feel ashamed if you need a moment to think. Every so often, the players will take the campaign in such an unanticipated direction that you literally have nothing to go off of.

Call a smoke break, or a snack break, and move away from your players. Take a pencil and some paper to start making notes about possible outcomes of your PC's actions. Turn it into a plot. Some of the best advice here actually comes from your players! If your players killed the king's messenger because they were CERTAIN he was an assassin... Well, maybe he was! Maybe these assassins captured the real king's messenger. If the PCs track down the assassins and rescue the true messenger he can give the PCs the same plot hook the original one was going to give, but now you've satisfied the craziness of your group's imagination.

If you don't have much time left in your session, you can also just try to hold out until the end of the session. The easiest way to do this is with a decent sized battle (which may or may not have any purpose) to slow the game down and stall until the session ends. Battles could also be used mid-session if you're good at multi-tasking. As the battle is waged you can scribble notes furiously behind your screen.

Either way, take a breather, and get some notes down - even just the most basic of guidelines. Break out a name generator, and any spare encounters/maps/NPC sheets you have kicking around. Create the side quest as you go, and constantly shuffle some papers around behind your screen to make it sound like you're going for a pre-made character sheet.

Put a smile on your face and offhandedly mention, "I was hoping you guys might do that". The players will think they gained access to a secret sidequest that you put time and energy into and will LOVE IT!

Regardless, learn to say YES! It will take some practice and some trust in both yourself and your players, but it can take a campaign in fantastic directions you'd never imagined. Have fun with it!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One Year Anniversary!

It's been a great first year here at Beneath the Screen. Even with the regrettable absence while I was finishing up my final year of school, I'm happy to see the blog still running and thriving! For my anniversary post I thought I'd take a look back at my very first post to see how I've been keeping up with my initial goals and also link to some of the favorite posts I've had so far.

When this blog started, I laid out four main topics I wanted to cover with it: Adventure Recaps, Homebrew Stuff, Product Reviews, and Getting Published. In addition, "Everything Else" was one of those initial topics, covering everything from Tips for DMing, to thoughts on the philosophy of roleplaying, and other senseless ramblings. Let's see how I did!

Adventure Recaps: With 13 recaps of various tabletop games, this worked out pretty well. Unfortunately, now that I'm out of school, I'm not running any games and have nothing to recap! All in all though, my players seemed to enjoy reading through the recaps and adding their own comments (earning XP for it of course). Once I have a chance to start up some new games, I hope to continue this!

Homebrew Stuff:
Here are some of the homebrew rules I've come up with. I haven't posted anywhere near the number of homebrewed magic items and feats I've created unfortuntely, but I'm hoping though that once Pathfinder RPG is released I'll be releasing a lot more, no doubt about that!

> Robe of Useless Items
> Gunslinger Base Class
> Leadership Feat Rules
> Dealing with PC Death

Product Reviews:
I haven't had too many opportunities to do official product reviews beyond my review of Kobold Quarterly #10. I did however do a general review of D&D 4e, and threw out my thoughts on the edition wars. I've talked to Wolfgang Baur about doing a review for Dwarves of the Ironcrags though, so I'm hoping to be doing that sometime soon as well.

Getting Published: I've been published! Two of my posts were published in OPEN GAME TABLE: The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Volume 1! With my blog only a year old, I was so happy to be recognized in this publication, and am excited to continue being a part of it through future volumes! *fingers crossed*

I am also currently a Content Developer for Nevermet Press, a great site with a lot of system-independent content daily! My first piece with them is going to be published this Friday!

Everything Else: I've had the opportunity to write about tons on this blog, and I have dozens of ideas for fun posts to come. Here are some of my favorite posts so far:

> Alignments: The Good & The Bad
> Roleplaying With Royalty
> Moving Beyond the Backstory
> A DM's Dilemma: Dealing With Powerhouse Parties
> A DM's Dilemma: Dealing With Deadlines
> Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes

Well, there's a recap of this year's high points! I hope to have many more in the year to come!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Words of Thanks (and Link Love!)

Now, I promised myself if I ever got famous I would remember all the little people and not let it get to my head. That being said, BOW BEFORE YOUR NEW BLOGGING MASTER PEONS! I RULE YOU! BWAHAHAHAHA! *Ahem* Just kidding of course. However, my excitement is no lie!

Since this blog's creation about a year ago, it's had a more or less steady number of daily views floating between the low thirties to - on a good day - the upper fifties. Little did I expect to go onto Google Analytics yesterday, as is my morning ritual, only to find that the blog had received nearly 200 page views!

Pardon me for one moment...


Now then...

Thanks to everyone who swung by to check out the blog and my Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes post! I'm really happy that I was able to write a post that caught so much attention! I hope people were able to use the advice.

Also, I wanted to send a special thanks to some blogs and bloggers who have linked my way or who have otherwise shown support of my blog recently!

- - -

JohnnFour from Roleplaying Tips linked to the 10 DM Tips article on his twitter! Roleplaying Tips is actually a really great site with TONS of resources for gamemastering. Check it out!

Kobold Quarterly linked back to me following my review on Issue #10 which they seemed to enjoy! Seriously, Issue #10 is a great contribution to any 3.5 or Pathfinder game. Go buy it! KQ was also nominated for an Ennie, so don't forget to vote!

Sean Holland from the Sea Of Stars RPG blog has been a steady reader these past few days so I wanted to send some link love his way too. Now, maybe it's just me, but I think the sling is one of the coolest weapons in D&D - when used appropriately. I mean, what's better then a gnome warrior taking down a giant with a sling! It's practically biblical... well... it is, but yeah... Anyways, Sean's got a great post over at his blog on magical sling bullets not to mention two other recent posts on a pair of cities that you could throw into any campaign if you're looking for scholars or sparkle.

Nicholas from over at Dungeon Mastering was kind enough to mention my DM tips in his most recent Nerd Watching! (SQUEEE!) *Ahem* I wouldn't even know where to begin in describing how awesome Dungeon Mastering is. Nominated for an Ennie, and with good reason, Dungeon Mastering is a site every good nerd should subscribe to!

Questing GM recently did a wrap up of a lot of really great recent RPG blog posts over at his blog. He linked to both my post on dealing with campaign deadlines, and turning PC death into plotline!

I of course have to make my standard "thank you" to Flashman85. In addition to being a dedicated follower he's done a pair of great guest posts for me. If you consider yourself a "fan", regardless of what you might be a fan of, you should check out his blog Exfanding Your Horizons!

If you're looking for more RPG content then you could shake a stick at, regardless of what game you play and what system you use, you can't go wrong with Nevermet Press. Seriously, there is some great stuff over here. I was lucky enough to be welcomed as a Content Developer on the NMP team and have my first piece being published this Friday so get psyched! As a side note, I'm going to go ahead and be the first to say this. NMP has at least one 2010 Ennie award waiting for it.

Bonemaster from RPG Circus has also been a steady reader so I wanted to throw a thank you and a link his way. The RPG circus recently had an interview with Chatty DM which is worth checking out. Also, it conveniently segues into my last thank you...

ChattyDM! In addition to running a fantastic gaming blog, Phil has helped me out over and over again with my blog's development, allowing me to bounce both ideas and questions off of him. All in all though, he's got everything from DM advice, to blogging tips, to entertaining tabletop recaps over at his blog, so make sure to pay Musings of the Chatty DM a visit!

- - -

So, there we go. Buckets and barrels full of thank-yous! I know I haven't hit all of my readers, but I tried to thank everyone who's commented recently or thrown a link my way. So, keep reading, and I'll keep trying to post more 200+ visitor-worth posts!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

5 Tips for Dealing With PC Death

It's a dirty dark Dungeon Master secret that we don't actually want to kill PCs. Many Dungeon Masters, especially new ones, when faced with a character on the verge of death will bend reality itself to keep them alive, or grant them a swift resurrection by their God or some other divine force. As an experienced DM will quickly point out though, without a fear of death in the world, a campaign can very quickly go off it's hinges.

Dungeons and Dragons, and many other tabletop games, already call for a certain suspension of belief but if - despite a combat-heavy game - your players know that you'll swoop in and save them every time they near death, things will go... downhill.

Your players may begin taking foolhardy actions, attack without thinking, and generally disregarding planning or tactics. A certain recipe for disaster indeed...

To expand on a point I made in yesterday's post, character deaths should be taken seriously and given weight. Here are some tips to make character deaths a more meaningful part of your story.

1. Talk About It Beforehand

One of the best ways to deal with a character death is to preemptively have talked about the possibilities of death with your players. Explain that characters do die and that it's an essential part of any proper campaign. Also, it's good to explain why death needs to be a factor of the game. Remind them that adventuring is a dangerous profession, and that it wouldn't be fair to them as players if you cheated so that they could survive.

It's also good to lay out the house rules for what will happen if a character should die. Obviously, immediately following the character's death, the player will probably have to sit out for the rest of the battle. Explain ahead of time that this is a possibility and this fact won't weigh you down too much mid-battle.

2. Control the Mood

The moment a character dies, especially if it's the first death in your campaign, the mood of your game (or at least your session) should shift drastically. Your job as the DM probably won't be to create a change of mood, since your players (especially the one who just lost a character) will probably be moody enough as it is, but rather the control the mood.

When a character dies, things you might see include:

> Players becoming uncomfortable
> The player in question getting upset
> Players checking frantically over character sheets
> Players raising up torches and pitchforks.

It's important that you control the sudden tension, depression, and rebellion that's sweeping over all your players at once. The best way you can do this is to immediately take control of the situation. I usually put the game on pause for a moment and speak directly to the player involved, asking "before I play out your death scene, are you sure that you've done all the math correctly?" Everyone at the table typically pours over their character sheets to check for any magical ability or item they have that might have stopped the death - usually there isn't one, but it's good to check before you continue.

Following this - it's good to steer the emotions that the rest of the table is feeling into combat. Players may be frustrated and upset to the point where the best option in your mind might be to take a break. In reality, the emotions caused by a character death can more often then not be filtered into an emotional climax to a battle, causing it to actually be one the characters enjoy.

The first step to doing this is to put the numbers out of your head for a second and to give the character a memorable "death scene". Consider your favorite fantasy movie when a main character dies - think Boromir's death scene in the LOTR movies (go watch it if you haven't seen it). Describe in detail the valiant death of a hero.

If you use a soundtrack for your game (which everyone should), before the campaign even starts you should select a death theme. My death theme is "Beauty Killed the Beast I" from the King Kong Movie Soundtrack (works very well trust me). Something emotional is perfect, especially if it breaks the upbeat fighting songs you've been using for the battle up to this point.

The reason I love Beauty Killed the Beast I is that one minute into the song drums start playing. The feel you're going for here is not unlike the death scene in movies where all the characters are screaming but the actual sound is muted and all you can hear is the music. Once your description of the death scene ends, continue on with the battle.

Now that you have turned the death of a character into a powerful part of the story, the players should have shivers running up their spine because... sh*t just got real.

3. Bolster Their Companions

In fantasy movies, there's no such thing as a TPK. Why? Well, because that would make for a fairly cruddy movie. More importantly though, the heroes are bolstered by the sight of the fallen comrade.

Cries of "I will avenge you!" and "You shall not have died in vain!" echo through the battlefield as the heroes call forth some inner reservoir of gumption previously considered unattainable. Suddenly they are better archers, braver warriors, and able to muster more powerful magics then ever before.

Is it adrenaline? Magic? No one really knows, but it makes for a damn fine action sequence - and who are we to question it. The question is, can we harness this raw power into a tabletop campaign? Of course you can!

How you choose to give the still-standing characters that extra oomph is up to you - whether through bonuses, increased stats, an extra second wind... It's wise to not make the benefit anything too extraordinary, or PCs might start killing each other just for the bonuses! Make it a small bonus that lasts for the remainder of the battle however, and not only will this encourage your players to avenge their fallen comrade, but it will make the fallen PC feel useful and lessen the chances of one of those icky TPKs.

4. Clearly Explain The Options

When a player loses a character and has to sit out of the session for a little bit, it's good to have options for them to consider, so they don't feel up a creek without a paddle when their character kicks the bucket (too many metaphors?).

For example, I usually give my players three options. One, they can do nothing and hold out for resurrection. If a player gets really frustrated this is usually the option they pick because if resurrection isn't an option in the near future they can leave the session early.

Two, they can take up the role of an NPC temporarily while they await resurrection. This gives the party a little more wiggle room in terms of leaving a fellow player hanging, and may be the best option if they're in the middle of a quest far away from resurrection.

Three, the player can make a new character, or take on an NPC permanently. This choice usually cuts off the opportunity for resurrection, and is used if resurrection is unlikely, the player wants to bring in a new character, or for whatever reason the character wouldn't come back even if raised.

Obviously, the options available to your players are up to you. You can explain the options ahead of time to your players, or pull them aside and discuss them following the battle or encounter in which they died. Both of these are probably good ideas. No matter how you disperse the information, make sure your players know that they do have options. You should never have a character death mean a player has to leave the campaign, make sure to plan ahead and ensure that even death won't exclude a player from at least some level of involvement with the game for too long.

5. Sidequest: The Afterlife

In many fantasy tabletop games, like Dungeons and Dragons, the game will actually in some way explain what happens to people after they die - usually dealing with some sort of afterlife, or traveling to another plane of existence to see one's God. If your game allows for it, I strongly suggest utilizing this!

Nothing dulls the pain of having a character shuffle off this mortal coil then a personal side quest, right?

Pull the player aside for a few minutes and throw them a small roleplaying encounter as they meet their deity. If you're feeling generous and they have reason to be in their God's favor, have the deity offer to answer a question of theirs. Even this small personal attention can help a player deal with a character dying because they actually get a small reward.

If an afterlife doesn't exist in your game, there are many ways to still entertain a player. For example, you could offer their character a dream or cutscene revealing something that the rest of the party doesn't know. If you are playing in a campaign where the character has no chance of returning, this step isn't as vital, but in a fantasy campaign a brief meeting with their God before pitching a character for good is still a wise idea.

If you want to take a page from my book, utilize Death Packets! Essentially, what a Death Packet is, is a few pre-written pages tailored to each of the PCs in my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It includes a short story detailing their character's spirit as it travels to their home plane and what they see. I usually end the story with them being beckoned into their deity's chamber to speak with their God or Goddess. I also include in the packet a list of their options now that their character has died.

What the Death Packet allows me to do quite easily is entertain a player after their character died. It gives them something to read over as the battle continues onward, and something to think about. Once the battle ends, I can pull them aside and flesh out the conversation between them and their deity, now that the preliminary story is done with.

Given, the incorporation of Death Packets takes a lot of preparation, but it's worth it. If there's anything players like, it's getting their own personalized handouts that no one else can read - and it certainly dulls the pain of death, even making a character's death exciting in some ways. "Yes! I get to read my death packet now!"

Aside from a player's options, and the short story surrounding their character passing on to the afterlife, there's really no limit to what you can put in a Death Packet. Visions, dreams...

In Kobold Quarterly #10 (which I recently reviewed) they have an article on death feats and flaws for your character (only attainable after being resurrected). I've included information like that in Death Packets as well, giving players some interesting character development or advancement options that are only open to them now that they've died.

Again, giving a player some extra toys to play with and essentially rewarding them for dying can go a long way to cheering them up.

Well, those are my tips for dealing with PC death. As you might imagine I've had to deal with it a lot. Initially, the death of a PC is always a terrifying prospect, but if you are properly prepared to deal with the fallout, the entire scenario can actually be turned into a powerful and memorable moment in your campaign. So, don't fear death - just be prepared for it!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes

And how to avoid them! As a note, even veteran DM's can make some of these errors so don't forget to be careful!

A tabletop can be a crazy place, but to avoid a rebellious player uprising keep these tips in mind.

I think it's also worth mentioning that I know articles like this and boatloads of Dungeon Master advice are all over the blogosphere, so today I'm going to try and approach some problematic areas you may not immediately think of, but in the end always seem to crop up.

As a final note, these are numbered but not in any particular order.


1. Names Don't Matter.

Why this is wrong: Names are small but important building blocks which maintain the consistency of the world your characters are playing in. Obviously, names of characters, NPCs, and locations add up to a large amount of rather random information, but keeping track of these names and encouraging your players to do the same will keep the reality of the world alive.

Solution: Take notes. This is generally a good idea, but especially useful for names. Have a whole page or two devoted to names that you can refer to. I suggest referring to your players by their character's names, even in combat, and encouraging your players to do the same. Small name-plate note cards can be used initially to help this along, or "Hello. My Name is _____" stickers.

Also, in terms of NPCs, nothing makes NPCs seem more insignificant then the DM having to take five minutes just to create a name for them. Use a name generator or your own creativity to come up with a bank of 10 male and 10 female names that you can have on tap for just such scenarios. If your players have their characters walk into a random shop and you have the shopkeeper ready with a name, your players will suddenly give the encounter much more attention, assuming that it's important. Trust me, it works!

2. Not Making Expectations Clear.

Why this is wrong: Everyone plays tabletop games differently. Different DMs work out different social contracts with their players (refer to the great blog Gnome Stew for some additional information on social contracts) and expect different things from them. When a game starts, both the Dungeon Master and the players are expecting different things out of the game.

As the Dungeon Master you cannot simply expect your player's expectations to match up with yours.

Solution: Communication. Tell your players what you expect out of them and out of the game. This can be anything ranging from out-of-character chatter, to who's bringing the snacks, to house rules, to whether or not drinks go on coasters. You cannot be mad at your players for, as an example, saying "I only have 5 hit points left" unless you've told the group that they shouldn't tell other people that information.

Your players can't follow your expectations unless you actually share them. Communication is key.

3. Downplaying Character Death.

Why this is wrong: Character death in any campaign, regardless of system, is a big deal. Even though your NPCs die by the truckload, when a player character dies, HANDLE WITH CARE. Such moments can be emotional ones for any player, especially if they really enjoyed playing the character. NEVER brush off a character death like is nothing. It should be an important moment in your campaign, so do not neglect to treat it like one.

Solution: There are many ways to deal with a character death appropriately. First and foremost, the best method to handle them is by talking about the possibility of character death before the game even starts. Explain that death is a possibility, and what the options are for players should their character die - such as taking over an NPC, building a new character, waiting for resurrection, etc.

The second step you should take with character death is making a big deal out of it during the game. Whenever a character dies in one of my games, I change the music immediately to my death theme (which starts off sad but then powers up with these crazy drums) and take a good minute to describe dramatically how the character dies. I then carry on the fight, with their allies fueled by the warlike music as they avenge their fallen comrade, giving everyone a small boost (+1 or +2) to rolls for the remainder of the fight.

The third step in facing character death is to NOT make the player sit out. Even if a character isn't available for them to play, give them some personal attention in a side quest - for example in a high fantasy setting as they meet their god or goddess. Give them access to something special because they died - maybe a divine meeting, or a peek into a cut scene that their ghost sees. This will make them feel less like they died in vain.

4. All Good Villains Vanish.

Why this is wrong: One of the most annoying things that can happen in a campaign is having the villain simply vanish or teleport away just when they're nearing death. Now, before I go any further, there are many reasons why you might do this that are completely legitimate. If it is built into this character to have such abilities, it makes sense that they would retreat.

What you want to avoid however is the idea of "Wow, they weren't supposed to do that much damage to him. He's supposed to be a recurring villain. He was supposed to escape. Ummm..." and then make him teleport - even though the enemy had no capability to do so - just so you can hold onto a villain for the future.

Solution: If you throw a villain at the PCs who is "supposed to get away", make sure they have treasure that allows them to do so in their inventory. If they've been rubbing a ring of teleportation for the last seven battles, that ring better damn be on that body when the players finally drop him. Along these lines however, don't throw a ring of teleportation onto a villain without it being accounted for cost-wise. Such items are expensive, and should not just be freely given to annoying CR 2 villains willy nilly.

There are many ways to solve this issue, truth be told. The bottom line is that you should never throw an enemy at your players where it's destruction would ruin your story. When PCs see a foe, they're going to try their hardest to kill it, and may pull out stops you weren't prepared for. Be prepared for the possibility that any enemy you throw at them might die, and don't toss in countermeasures at the last minute because then you weren't really giving your PCs a fair chance to begin with, which trust me - they'll catch on to.

5. NPCs Can Be The Heroes Too.

Why this is wrong: Well, it's not completely wrong. NPCs can be great heroes. In fact, any fantasy world worth its salt is full of heroes which drive its legends and tales. What is wrong however, is the fact that NPCs could be heroes in your story. In your story, the player characters are the heroes. Sending uber-powerful NPCs in to save the day and your PCs, or having them accompany your players on an adventure only to mercilessly show them up will just leave your players wondering why they're even there.

Solution: If you have NPCs join your heroes - whether as the cavalry or accompaniment on a journey - ensure that they never take the limelight away from the PCs since they are the true heroes of the story. If your PCs feel under appreciated or not needed, it will make them start questioning why they ever went on the adventure in the first place while there were clearly much more able-bodied NPCs just kicking around. Awesome NPCs can exist without overshadowing the true and rightful heroes of the story - your players.

6. Relying On Initial Story Hooks.

Why this is wrong: Every adventure begins with a story hook. Sometimes an individual hook for each character is needed to pull together the party and send them on their way. Sometimes, PCs will decide to stick together and form an adventuring party. When this happens, fantastic. You've lucked out!

However, more often then not, especially in a party with strong-headed characters, it won't be long after the campaign starts (especially after their first quest ends) that your players might start wondering why they're still sticking around with these people.

Solution: Bottom line? You can't rely on the initial story hooks to keep your players together. Obviously your players should understand that a party needs to exist for the game to work, but it's your job to give the characters a reason to stick together.

Give your players a reason to have their characters stick together. There are hundreds of ways to do this, whether through dreams/visions, a bounty on their heads, or any other such method. The trick is to either impress the fact that either it will be in their best interests to stick together, or it would be a particularly bad decision to split apart.

7. Critiquing Player Roleplaying.

Why this is REALLY REALLY wrong: You should never tell a player how to play their character. Why is this? As the Dungeon Master you control pretty much everything, from the world to the NPCs to the storyline and onward. The only real control a player has is over their characters. If you don't like the way a player is playing their character you have to remember that players put a lot of time and energy into developing their character's personality. It can be severely insulting to a player to critique their roleplaying style.

Solution: If a character is severely interrupting gameplay, talk to the player after the game to find out what's driving their character and what their character's goals are. If a player is having their character act in a rebellious way, it may be because they don't feel like they fit in with the rest of the party, or dislike other party members. If this is the case, bring encounters into the game where teamwork is essential, or where you think the players can learn a little bit about where the particular character is coming from. In the end, the key is to make sure that everyone is having fun. If a player is not having fun playing their character in a particular party encourage them to bring in and try out a new character.

8. Speeding Past In-Character Discussion.

Why this is wrong: When going into any session, a DM has an idea about how much they want to accomplish in that session. Ending on a good note is important after all, but sometimes this can go too far. Putting a time-limit on character interaction, or forcing players to come up with a solution or plan quickly can actually condition your players to act quickly without thinking, and to steer clear of roleplaying and character development.

Solution: Despite how quickly you may want to get from point A to point B, you shouldn't stand in the way of character interaction and careful planning. You shouldn't feel any need to push your players along to the next encounter if they're not ready to move forward. Sit back, put your feet up, and wait for your players to be ready. If they feel rushed and then the next encounter goes poorly, rather then learning from their mistakes they'll wind up blaming you. Never rush character interaction. Enjoy it.

9. Bragging To The Players.

Why this is wrong: Often in any tabletop game, your players are faced with choices. Who they trust, who they capture, which door they go through, how they siege the castle, which wire they cut to disarm the bomb... The life of a DM is hard because you never know ahead of time what choice the PCs will make, so you prepare for each outcome, putting thought into each option.

It's important however, to keep such preparation secret. Why? If the PCs pick Door A, and you brag later about all the treasure they would have gotten through Door B, regardless of whether or not they tried to pry the information out of you, if the missed the better option they're going to be upset.

Solution: If you never brag about what the PCs could have or should have done, then they will - for the most part - never really regret the decisions they made. Believe it or not, the actions most parties make - even inane actions from where you're sitting - are reasonable in their minds given the information that they have.

Keep in mind, they can't always see the whole picture like you can, so they're usually making the best guesses possible, and will usually think "With the information we had, that was the best decision we could have made." When you start telling them otherwise, they feel idiotic and get upset.

So, quite simply, don't brag about what could have happened to your players. Keep what was behind Door B a secret, whether good or bad. Your players may hate that they'll never know, but at least they'll think they were doing what they were supposed to be doing and be confident in their decisions.

10. Excluding A Player.

Why this is wrong: Parties split up and go down opposite tunnels. Party members stay in the tavern or hospital to be nursed back to health or to nurse a cold drink. Thieves strike out on nightly adventures. All of this is fairly standard, but a big mistake a Dungeon Master can make is leaving a player out during a session.

Whether a character stays behind because they don't think the party's being intelligent, or stands outside the cave on guard duty, leaving a player high and dry for an entire adventure just because they didn't follow the adventure's plot precisely can lead to players feeling left out and punished by the Dungeon Master.

Recently in a White Wolf campaign, because my character thought the party was being foolish and going off to their deaths, I stayed at the safe house to wait through the night. Because of that decision, I was left out of the game for three hours. I waited tirelessly with a smile on my face and interest in the game for the Storyteller to throw even the smallest bit of attention my way, but wound up just being bored out of my mind.

Solution: Never let a player sit out. Obviously, going back to #7 you shouldn't force a character to come along on a quest, but you should never let a player feel left out. Whether it's a five minute side-quest, letting them control an NPC, or slightly reworking the story hook to encourage them to come along, anything will work really. If a player is ever sitting for 30 minutes with nothing to do however, you're doing something wrong.

Obviously when a player goes against the grain it can be hard for a Dungeon Master to multi-task or to think up an appropriate side-quest on the spot, but attention to every player is necessary. Give everyone at the table a ten minute break if you need to so you can collect your thoughts and plan. Anything's better then sitting out of a game for three hours, trust me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Choose Your Review: The Polls Are Open!

As I said last week, I was lucky enough to win a $10.00 gift certificate to recently from the great comic-based blog Exfanding Your Horizons, and I am opening up the decision of what I should buy and review to YOU the readers!

I only received a few responses - most via email - but I think a decent set of options has been provided. Over the next week, please weigh in with your opinions. I will purchase whichever product wins and, after taking some time to playtest/read through it, I'll provide a review of the product itself. So, choose your review!

These are the options up for vote:

1. Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game
2. Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Core Rulebook
3. GameMastery: Combat Pad
4. Pathfinder Chronicles: Harrow Deck
5. The Game Inventor's Guidebook

In other news, this blog will be celebrating it's one-year anniversary next Wednesday, so I hope to provide you all with exciting posts this coming week. Some post topics on the horizon that you can look forward to are...

> Top 10 Mistakes Gamemasters Can Make
> Top 10 Mistakes Players Can Make
> Keeping Secrets At The Table
> A Time and Place for Personal Plot
> Storyteller Innovations: Death Packets

In the meanwhile, if you - my noble readers - have any subjects that interest you, I am always eager to please. A couple days ago I made a post about deadlines in D&D for Mark, one of my readers. I'm both willing and eager to write about what interests you so leave a comment and let me know!

Don't forget to vote!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: Kobold Quarterly #10

When Kobold Quarterly came out initially, I was hesitant. I was a true fan of Dragon Magazine in it's heyday, and was sad to see it switch to 4e - a transition I was less then psyched about. From what I'd heard about KQ, it was designed to sort of pick up where Dragon left off. Truth be told, I've heard some great things about KQ and have been trying to come up with some article topics so I could write something for them, but I simply haven't had the time.

Regardless, I've wanted to sneak a peek at Kobold Quarterly for a while, and lucky me - here comes issue 10, and I've been asked to give a review/preview of it! I've seen a truckload of other bloggers already discuss the magazine so rather then give a breakdown of the whole issue, I'll discuss my thoughts on the parts which stuck out.

4e On The Horizon?

Several of the "letters to the editors" were from concerned readers worried or angered about the encroachment of 4e on the magazine. The response was a respectable one - namely that the magazine would follow what the subscribers were interested in. If subscribers played 4e, they would publish more 4e content, and same for 3.5 D&D.

This is quite sensible of KQ - why wouldn't you print what your subscribers wanted to read? It's nice to see that Kobold Quarterly is a flexible magazine that is both capable of growth, and eager to please.

Admittedly, being a diehard 3.5 fan, were I a subscriber it would be worrisome if KQ wasn't consistent with it's material, knowing that the next issue might only have a handful of articles I had any interest in. Dragon Magazine, for example, simply was 3.5 back in the day. Readers could count on that and it was never an issue - they knew they would get their moneys worth.

Now, this is hardly a soap box moment, but that issue caught my eye since I'd always heard KQ described as the new 3.5 magazine. Flexibility is a good thing, though I can see how some other 3.5 maniacs like myself might be a little put off by it.

Reader Friendly Layout

All in all, the magazine itself is a well-laid out collection of articles. Ads are quite large, but rarely invasive. The artwork is absolutely stunning. And the general type is easy on the eyes, and very readable.

I got a lot of old-school Dragon vibes from the layout and was overall very pleased with what KQ put forward. The magazine was masterfully crafted and a pleasure to read.

Great Article Content

There was a lot of great content throughout the magazine. From prestige classes to magic items to everyone's favorite monster: the gelatinous cube! Very cool.

As mentioned before, there were some 4e content articles which I skimmed over. I don't really know enough about the edition to know if the content was usable, but if the rest of the magazine was any indication, KQ is full of ready-to-use content.

The more I read, the more I was impressed by all of the many topics this issue covered. Spells, artifacts, playable templates, notes on classes, player advice, monster stats, and an entire playable character race! One of my favorite parts of Dragon Magazine was that I could find content on pretty much every page that was usable in my very next gaming session. Kobold Quarterly does not disappoint!

Unique Insights

One of the best parts about Kobold Quarterly was that the authors went above and beyond all the normal RPG topics to develop content dealing with unique and creative aspects of Dungeons & Dragons that I never would have even thought of.

One such article that really grabbed my attention was the introduction of Death feats and flaws - additions that can only be granted to a character after they've been brought back from the dead. Before I'd even finished the first page of the article I was printing it out and adding it to my Dungeon Master's Notebook.

Another article that stuck out to me was a short discussion on Lycanthropy and how to make it still instill fear in your players. Skip Williams offers some really great advice on the subject - the same great level of advice for both players and dungeon masters offered throughout the entire issue.

Informative Reviews

One really great feature that I'm glad to see echoed over from Dragon was a series of reviews for fantasy and RPG books on the market now. I was particularly happy to see a review of Open Game Table: The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Vol. 1 with a handful of the "best" articles in there pointed out.

My articles sadly didn't make the cut, but all of the reviews were well-thought-out and very informative.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, this magazine is great. Issue #10 is KQ's longest issue to date, but if the other issues carry the same density of ready-to-use content, then I am thoroughly impressed. I've heard wonderful things about KQ and this issue went above and beyond anything I could have expected. All the things I loved about Dragon Magazine have carried over beautifully in addition to the unique content KQ's writers have come up with beyond what I would have expected. Bravo.

You can check out Kobold Quarterly, purchase issue 10, and subscribe to their magazine releases at the KQ website:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A DM's Dilemma: Dealing With Deadlines

The end of the school year. The end of summer. The end of that amazing institution known as unemployment. What do these things have in common? Potentially, a swift end to your tabletop game. Obviously, every so often an end to a campaign comes suddenly and without warning, but when a Dungeon Masterdoes has time to prepare, or there is a clear dead end to the game in the future, there are some steps any Dungeon Master can take to ensure their game ends on a good note.

1. Tell Your Players

If you're moving away at the end of the summer, there's no reason to keep this from your players. It will keep your players focused (especially towards the end) and hopefully help them try to enjoy each session more, knowing that the campaign will indeed be ending.

2. Stick To Commitments

Canceling sessions, or calling games early - while sometimes unavoidable - may make your players more upset the normal if they know you only have a limited number of sessions left. Plan ahead. If you have to cancel a session, do it a decent deal of time in advance and not last minute.

3. Remove the Excess

Random encounters? Who needs em! Not you! You have plot! Juicy juicy plot! Anyways... If your using a published adventure, look ahead for encounters that are just there to be there. Regardless of what game you are playing, combat generally takes the longest. If you're working on budgeted time, every fight should have a purpose and/or advance the story. If you're using a homebrewed adventure, put that random encounter table away!

Remember, when the campaign finishes, your players won't be thinking back to the more or less senseless battle with the orc bandits. I'm not saying random encounters are bad, but when working with a deadline you should weigh the value of each to your game before throwing them in there.

4. Keep Things Exciting

When you're running a short campaign, it's important to pack a lot of enjoyment into each session. The best way to do this is to find out what your players will enjoy and making sure that they're enjoying your short time together. Keep lines of communication open with your players and get regular feedback from them.

This is especially important when your campaign is coming to an end. If you have to end a campaign early or cut our some extraneous side plots it's key to let players finish the plots they are interested in - not necessarily the ones you are.

If they really want to track down the thieves guild that got in their way during the first couple sessions, even though that plot's all over, make sure they get the chance to do that. Prioritizing what your players are interested in will maximize their enjoyment and ensure that they get what they want out of the campaign.

5. Closure is Key

Even if you can't end a campaign the way you, or the adventure's author, previously imagined, you need to give your players an ending. Obviously, if you're not sure which session will be your last, this is impossible. If you do have the final day planned however, plan as far in advance as you can to make the ending a good one.

If you won't be playing with the group again or for a very long time, try to steer clear of cliffhangers and give your players some proper closure. Let them kill the villains, hand out some titles/prestige, and tie up any loose ends.

Giving them a dragon's horde worth of treasure isn't suggested, and in fact I'd warn against it. Treasure at the very tail end of any campaign is generally a bad idea because your players will be sad they don't get a chance to make use of it. At the end of a shorter campaign it's especially good to avoid since you last session shouldn't be bogged down with treasure identification.

- - -

In the end, if you have enough preparation for the end of a campaign, keep your players in the loop, give forward thought to each session to maximize player, and plan out your ending, even short-lived campaigns can be enjoyable and stress-free!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Check Out This Website!

If you haven't already heard about Nevermet Press, now's the time to go check it out! Providing more system-independent content then you can shake a d20 at, NMP is an amazing resource for any game you might be running or playing in. Fresh off the ground they run the gamut from organizations to plot hooks to adventures to magic items to short fiction.

"Nevermet Press offers system independent content for use with any tabletop roleplaying game. Our content is community driven and supported. Once you find content you want to use, look for links to blogs participating in our Distributed Workshop program for system specific support of your preferred roleplaying game."
- Nevermet Press Homepage

This website is definitely worth checking out. And yes, it is a bit of a shameless plug since I work as a Content Developer for them. My first piece will be a short fiction coming out at the end of the month. I'll keep you all updated on the publication process of that, but in the meantime GO CHECK NEVERMET PRESS OUT!

Now, I'm off to finish my article. Yay!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Holidays in D&D: Part Seven - The Conclusion!

So ends my series on the use of holidays and festivals in D&D. I may revisit the topic in the future, but for now I've got a shopping list of potential posting topics that I'm eager to get going on. Here is a recap of my posts in the series so far for ease of navigation.

Part One: The first part of a piece of short fiction detailing the Festival of Adventurers, a totally usable celebration in any campaign.

Part Two: An outline of the good sides and bad sides to holding festivals and celebrating holidays in your D&D campaign.

Part Three: A continuation of the short fiction and a description of four types of holidays, namely traditional holidays, religious celebrations, treating your PC's as guests of honor, and birthday parties (for players and characters).

Part Four: The fiction continues with the opening meeting to the Festival of Adventurers.

Part Five: The second to last part of the fiction, in which our heroes make their way through the streets to the Temple of Pelor to have their first team meeting.

Part Six: A ready-to-use encounter in any 3.5 D&D - the Masquerade Ball. Put your players through a series of skill challenges to see who will be lucky and talented enough to bring someone home after a night of wine and dancing.

Our last part is the final installment of the short fiction I've been accompanying this series with, wherin the adventurers have the rules of the Labyrinth explained to them. I used this fiction as a launching point for an urban campaign I ran a while back, making heavy use of the city of Saltmarsh as laid out in the Dungeon Master's Guide II.


- - -

As if on cue, there is a light knock on the door, before it opens. You can make out a short figure bowing graciously before Father Balthazar, before striding happily into the room and climbing up on a small foot-stool to see you all over the table. Before you is a short gnome, standing just over three feet. His appearance is almost laughable, as he wears very extravagant purple robes with yellow stars stitched in, and a similarly styled tall pointed wizard’s hat with a wide brim. His mustache curls in an otherworldly fashion, and he walks with a carved walking stick that looks more for show then practical use. The top of the staff looks to be carved in the shape of a toad, but upon closer inspection, the rust colored frog seems to be alive, sitting atop the staff, rather then as a part of it.

The man looks down for a second, the brim of the hat shading his eyes. For a moment there is silence.

"WELCOME!" The man exclaims suddenly in a high, nasally voice, throwing his arms up into the air. Colored lights dance around the room, and the shock is so great that he wakes even his sleeping toad, which jumps off of the staff, landing in the center of the table, croaking loudly at you. "Team Chimera! Welcome, welcome, welcome! May I introduce myself, I am..." he take an overly dramatic pause here, as if making sure he has your absolute attention, "Maekor The Magnificent!" He beams a smile at you, as his frog croaks again. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you've heard of me. Now then, I am Chief Mage of the Adventurers Guild and will be your team's guide for the next three days through the Festival. Lucky you! Now then... the rules..."

He places his hands down on the table, as a shadow falls over the window, darkening the room. His face becomes faintly illuminated as if by some ghostlike candle. His face becomes almost comically spooky, as he lowers his voice as much as possible, to intensify the mood. "You are only a few minutes away from facing our greatest creation... the labyrinth. Heed my words, ye who would enter there. Or perish within..." He pauses. "Well, sort of." He reaches into a side pouch, pulling out a long scroll, spreading it out on the table. You can see written upon it a small list, and in very intricate handwriting "The Rules" is written across the top.

"Now then, listen carefully." He clears his throat and begins to recite from the scroll. "Welcome to the Festival of Adventurers insert team name here! I am insert name here your guide for the festival. Before you stand many challenges, as you have seen on your festival schedule. Sign ups for all such events will take place following the first team event, the Labyrinth, pause for dramatic tension. As to the first event which I’m sure you’re all worried about, first let me say, lay your worries to rest. We will have guild member wizards watching your progression through the labyrinth, and should it look like anything may deal you a lethal blow, you will be swiftly teleported to safety. That out of the way, lets move to the rules. To win the labyrinth, your team must be the first of the four teams competing to reach the flag, and remove it from the pole in the center of the labyrinth. Along the way however you will have four types of challenges to face."

He pauses here, taking a breath, and continues.

"First, there are monsters within the maze. Yes, monsters. These monsters have either been captured by the guild, or are guild member mages in disguise. This will test your physical prowess in battle. Second, there are traps within the maze. Each team has been fitted with at least one trap finder, so use them well. Third, there will be riddle crystals. Should you use a riddle crystal successfully; good fortune of some kind will befall your team. To activate a riddle crystal someone must physically touch it while at least half of the team is within five feet of it. It will give you detailed instructions following it’s activation. Finally, while you do start out in your personal quadrant of the maze, you may have to deal with the three other teams in the maze. You may use any means necessary to overcome these teams, and as stated before, should any blow look like it will kill you, you will be swiftly teleported to safety."

He smiles at you and continues.

"The labyrinth itself has been constructed of spiked briars, so passage through or over the walls is not suggested. The druids of Oak Island have been kind enough to enchant some of the briars with poison, though you will not know which. So again, climb at your own risk. Familiars and Animal Companions are allowed within the maze; however they are not permitted to pull the flag from the pole in the center. Beating monsters, overcoming traps, answering riddles, and getting rid of the other teams is not required to pull the flag, however you will be given points based on everything you overcome, which will rank you not just against the three teams you’re up against but every other team in the tournament. The team that pulls the flag will be given a year’s free membership into the Adventurers Guild and minor prizes, while the team that scores the highest, second highest, and third highest in point totals will be given the grand prizes."

"Stop here and ask for questions."

He wraps the scroll up and looks to all of you, slightly out of breath. "Any questions? None? Wonderful!"

You make your way through the streets, passing by the familiar shops and sights. You make mental notes of all the places you will have to see once you're not being bustled around from one place to another. Maekor the Magnificent notices your interest and falls back a little ways to walk beside you all.

"I know you haven't really had much time to explore yet, but once you're done in the Labyrinth you'll have a lot of free time for the rest of the night. This was our big first day event, and tonight will be filled with celebration. I suggest findin' a nice shady spot to sit after you're done, and checking out everything in your packet. There's a map of the city, some coupons and a schedule of events. Then tomorrow and the day after we'll get into all the smaller events, and things like that. You'll have plenty of time to explore. And a'course I'll find ya tomorrow mornin' to take ya around to whatever you wanna go to, or ta give ya advice on what ta do."

He smiles at you, walking ahead. Every so often you pass by a member of the Adventurer's Guild who will bow or tip their hat to Maekor. You start to get the feeling that he may actually be the Chief Mage or at least hold some position of authority to have so many people recognize him. You also begin to see the large mob of people you saw before, only now the other festival goers are broken up into groups of four, walking down the streets or sitting in a tavern, similarly with a member of the guild, talking them through rules, or pointing out things on the map.

Eventually you cross the bridge back onto Oak Island. It is much more deserted now. A few individuals stand around, most of them being from the adventurers guild, in addition to what seem to be a few teams standing at a distance from you and each other, watching the maze intently and discussing amongst themselves. From within the maze you can hear a ferocious roar, a large pop, and the echo of laughter. A guildmember approaches Maekor and after bowing slightly, addresses him.

"Master Maekor..."
Maekor clears his throat. "Err... Master Maekor the Magnificent, is this team Chimera?" The two walk away briefly in quiet discussion before Maekor returns to you.

"Two of the teams are in the final chamber, so you have about ten minutes to do any last preparations." He points over to a series of small tables. "If you desire, you can purchase some basic equipment there. Once you hear the horn blow, you should report to starting gate two. Good luck!" He smiles at you and walks over to join a small group of guildmembers.

Soon, a bell tolls, and you know it is time to begin...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Choose Your Review! What should I buy?

I was lucky enough to win a $10.00 gift certificate to recently from the great comic-based blog Exfanding Your Horizons. Many of you may know Flashman85, one of the blog's authors, as a guest writer here on BtS whose written two fantastic posts already (one just a few days ago)

Anyways, I was planning on just running to the site and buying up the Harrow Cards I've been considering getting, but then - glancing down my wish list of RPG books and game aids I've been considering buying - I realized that there was a lot I wanted to buy. Frankly there was a TON I wanted to buy.


SO, I'm leaving the decision up to you, the READERS! I have a small list already brewing in my head of potential things I could purchase, but throw your opinions in the ring! Is there a game, adventure, campaign setting, game aid, map pack, or anything else you've been curious about? Should I grab up the Mouseguard game everyone's talking about, or throw a pre-order in for the Pathfinder RPG? Want a review on a Gamemaster aid, or even The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen?

If you have a product (or several) you'd like to suggest, reply in a comment or send me an email directly at beneaththescreen AT gmail DOT com. I'll take suggestions for the next week and then write a follow-up post, setting up a poll with all of the options. Once I've purchased the product I'll provide a step-by-step recap of my experience with the item and a review of my thoughts on it.

In other news, the jury is in on my new banner.

The verdict? For the most part, folks who were familiar with my old banner enjoyed it more then the new one I had up. While the new banner wasn't BAD (new viewers seem to enjoy it), all in all most people weren't a fan of the new banner.

At the end of the day, I'd love to get a snazzy new banner. I mean, just look at these fancy blogs I'm sharing the stage with! If I ever get my hands on something award-worthy maybe I'll hold a banner-making contest. I may just wait for the inevitable day I switch to wordpress and buy my own domain though... like all them fancy bloggers.

Anyways, we're back to the original banner for now. I look forward to hearing some of your ideas for product reviews. Leave a comment!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Holidays in D&D: Part Six - Party Time!

In conclusion of my Holidays in D&D series, here's an encounter your whole group can enjoy!

I ran a festival for my 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons group this past year - a holiday based specifically around actions the characters had taken. The celebration consisted of three parts.

The first part of the holiday was a full-town celebration. The characters had been invited back to the town as guests of honor, and throughout the small settlement people cheered them on as they walked through the streets in a pseudo-parade fashion. Stores had special bargains for them, and wherever they went they were welcomed into homes with fresh-baked pies and other small gifts.

The second part of the holiday was a feast in their honor. I took some time to allow the players to mingle and to describe the delicious meal. During the meal, the third part of the holiday was revealed - a masquerade ball to be held the following evening...

The Masquerade Ball CR: NC-17
Every hero needs a break, and what better way to relax then to par-tay. A night of dancing, drinking, and eventually - *gasp* finding someone lucky to go home with. Surely the most difficult challenge your heroes will ever face...

This encounter contains three parts, with the eventual goal of, yes, your noble adventurers getting lucky. No this is not the kind of encounter you think it is! Rather, it's designed to be a light-hearted and comedic encounter, built to give your players a chance to cool down after closing out a big chapter of their campaign. It also is a prime place to seed future plots or drop any number of juicy rumors.

The first part of this encounter entails preparing for the ball - specifically, purchasing costumes. The second part includes the party itself, where the players can take on a variety of party "roles" to increase their chances of getting lucky and determining who exactly they get lucky with.

The third part, is of course, the roll to determine who goes home alone, and who parties their way into the arms of another.

Encounter Set-Up: This encounter assumes that the players are familiar - at least on a basic level - with some of the individuals who may be attending this party. It is best held in a city which the characters have spent a lot of time in, or have done a little adventuring in - having already met some key characters. This is because part of the ball will be an opportuity to discover the identity of specific party-goers in order to plan carefully which of the guests the adventures want to use their... charismatic wiles on.

Even a general familiarity with townspeople, such as "Hey, wasn't there a portly baker woman who made us the most amazing pies ever? I bet she'll make me pies for breakfast. Wink wink. Nudge nudge." should work fine.

Feel free to set up your gaming table for this encounter however you'd like. The simplest set-up is to take five note cards and lay them out on your gaming table however you'd like. On the face-up side of each card, write one of the "party roles".

On the face-down side of each card, write the appropriate reward for successfully achieving that role.

Stage One: Dressing the Part
"Thank you all so much for being able to come to the feast. It truly is an honor to have you in our fair little town, especially given all you've done for us." The mayor smiled sweetly. "I trust we'll see you all at the masquerade ball tomorrow night.

Remember to bring a costume!"

Every good masquerade ball attendant needs a costume. The more elegant, extravagant, and inconspicuous the outfit, the better. Encourage your players to shop around town and design costumes that suit their characters best. The amount of money each character spends on a costume grants a bonus to their "The Big Score" roll which will be made at the end of the night. DM's should make a note of the bonuses privately until all players have made their purchases.

Encourage your players to describe their guise as they enter the party, and feel free to ham up the many heads that turn for the more expensive outfits. As a note, the lowest end of costumes probably consist of little more then a half-face masquerade eye mask, while the highest end are full face masks accompanied by extravagantly crafted clothing, platinum jewelery, and fine jewel accents.

Stage Two: Now The Party Can Start
"Why, good sir, I don't know who hides behind that mask but I must say whoever it is knows a thing or two about dancing!" The rogue smiled, "Lady, you ain't seen nothin' yet!"

As the encounter begins, invite your players to take turns (starting with whoever has the best costume and so on) to place their miniatures on the party role of their choice. To begin, only one character may attempt each role, though after each round (regardless if it's a failure or success), they may choose to move to other roles allowed by the role they were previously on (even if it's occupied), or to stay and try to attempt that role again (again, even if they succeeded the first time - the rewards are all cumulative).

For each role, the character will be given a set of potential skill checks. They may choose whichever skill check they wish to make, and must succeed at a DC 15 skill check for that skill. If they succeed, they gain the reward for that party role. This entire stage of the encounter has five rounds (ie. five chances to succeed at skill checks). If you'd like to make the party longer, feel free to make it ten rounds and simply cut the rewards in half.

Lord of the Dance: Leave those ballroom dancers in the dust. When you're the Lord of the Dance, none can stand to your funky moves. Stand back ladies and gentlemen, the Lord has arrived.

Jump - Jump around! Jump! Jump! Jump!
Perform [dance] - Did he just invent that move?
Tumble - They're break dance fighting!
Sleight of Hand - Look at her twirl those sunrods!
Concentration - And step, one two, and step, ball change.

Reward: +2 bonus to a character's Big Score modifier.
Progression: From this role, a party-goer can move to the Smooth Talker, Life of the Party or Master of the Bar roles.

Life of the Party: Now that you're here the party can really start. Sure, you make a fool of yourself, but sometimes standing out can be the best thing. And when you're not falling down, standing out is something you've mastered.

Climb - Get off the curtains!
Perform [sing] - Oh man, I LOVE this song!
Knowledge [local] - How refreshing, social commentary!
Survival - We're out of booze? Don't worry, I can find some.
Search - Marco! Polo!

Reward: +2 bonus to a character's Big Score modifier.
Progression: From this role, a party-goer can move to any party role they choose.

Mysterious Stranger: Tall, dark, and handsome. You cling to the shadows, picking out the perfect moment to make your move. Catching the eyes of a handsome noble, or a fair farmer's daughter from across the ballroom and then vanishing into the crowd leaving them wondering... Yeah, all that and more you sly dog you.

Disguise - I have no idea who she is, but she's amazing...
Move Silently - Oh my, you snuck up on me... *bashful giggle*
Gather Information - I owe the mayor a dance. Seen her?
Spot - There she is!
Hide - I was dancing with this girl, but then... she was gone!

Reward: A character can successfully identify a fellow party-goer.
Progression: From this role, a party-goer can move to the Smooth Talker or Lord of the Dance roles.

Smooth Talker: "If your AC weren't so high, I'd totally hit that..." Oh you, master of the silver tongue and the golden pick-up lines. No one can resist your wily charms, and you know it.

Diplomacy - Excuse me miss, care to dance?
Bluff - You know, we halflings get a pretty versatile size bonus...
Listen - Did someone say they needed some punch?
Sense Motive - She digs me.
Knowledge [architecture & engineering] - Need I say more?

Reward: A character can successfully identify a fellow party-goer.
Progression: From this role, a party-goer can move to the Lord of the Dance, Mysterious Stranger, or Life of the Party roles.

Master of the Bar: Adept at serving up drinks of all shapes and sizes, you can hold your own and keep everyone else riding the buzz all the way home. Pelor bless you spinner of the sauce.

Open Lock - Guess who found the liquor cabinet?
Craft [alchemy] - I call this one Alchemists Fire Water!
Heal - I got the drink what heals ya.
Balance - For when the world starts spinning!
Intimidate - I think you've had enough...

Reward: +2 bonus to a character's Big Score modifier.
Progression: From this role, a party-goer can move to the Life of the Party or Mysterious Stranger roles.

Stage Three: The Big Score
The night is winding down. Your adventurers have spent the night asserting themselves as the true heroes of - not only the town - but the party. Dancing, drinking, and sweet-talking the night away, some of your adventurers know the identity of those they're trying to "seal the deal" with, while to others... it remains a mystery. Regardless, it's time to try for the big score.

All players may now make a DC 25 "Big Score" Check. This, again, is a skill check chosen from a list of potential skills. The characters may add the modifiers gained from their costumes and their achievements throughout the night. If they have identified individuals from the party, they may target a specific individual - otherwise it's up to you who they have the potential to go home with.

Ride - [Censored Explanation]
Escape Artist - [Censored Explanation]
Use Rope - [Censored Explanation]
Handle Animal - [Censored Explanation]
Decipher Script - And you thought that skill was useless.

At the end of the night, a round of light applause for the victors (and perhaps a private roll to see if any kids will be knocking on their doors a few years from now) should be in order. What comes of these one night romances is up to your group, but all in all it should be a fun break from their typical adventures to take on a real challenge.

What waits for them the next morning, besides the true identities of their bedmates and a hangover is up to you!

If you're really looking for a fun awakening, take a page from my book and make it the very morning that an army of stone giants come streaming over the hilltops with a red dragon in tow and their eyes set on taking the town by force.

DM: Belthez, you are awakened by three things. The smell of sizzling bacon in the next room, a splitting headache, and the distant sound of war drums just outside the cities walls.

Belthez: Wait a minute. Did you say bacon?

Have a delightful party, and remember:

Friends don't let friends scry-n-die drunk!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Campaign Continuity: Ever get that nagging feeling you forgot something?

Posts don't write themselves while you're LARPing (or recovering from LARPing), so Flashman85 is here to fill in with a guest post.


It's bound to happen: Whether you're writing book sequels, making a TV series, or running a tabletop RPG, eventually you're going to run into continuity issues. Maybe you mention in passing that the king has a throne made of gold, and when the heroes meet with the king, he's actually got a silver throne. Maybe a character's brother perished before his eyes in a terrible accident, yet the brother makes a live cameo later on, defying all logic. Maybe the absolute top speed of that zeppelin is 75 km/hr, yet the heroes go cruising off at an even 100 km/hr without any modifications or magic.

Sometimes, things just don't match up. Sometimes these things go unnoticed; sometimes you look really stupid. Tabletop RPGs run a higher risk of continuity errors than most other creative endeavors. No matter how much planning and preparation go into a session, when you're giving your players (or your GM) information on the fly, it's all too easy to forget minor details and say things that you'll later wish didn't become canon as soon as you said them.

If you're a player, continuity isn't such a big problem most of the time: flesh out your backstory in advance and write down anything you make up as you go. Easy peasy. If you're the GM, however, you're keeping track of far more than just one character and her cookie-cutter tragic childhood. If one tiny piece of your universe falls out of place, it might just mean your universe has one tiny little piece out of place... or it could mean that the stability and continuity of your universe are in jeopardy.

As a GM, you have 3 major options for addressing a continuity error:

(1) Just ignore the error. Hope no one notices, write it off as inconsequential, or accuse the players of being liars and blame them for pretending there's a continuity error. But if that won't work...

(2) Come up with a plausible in-game excuse, no matter how dubious it may be. Twist the game universe until continuity is restored. But if that won't work...

(3) Admit you've made a mistake and go with whichever version of the truth best suits the situation, even if that means completely erasing or revising something you've already told the players. Alternately, you can just kill off the whole party and start over from scratch.

Options 1 and 3 work best for covering up tiny mistakes, but if EVERYONE says there can only be two Sith--one master and one apprentice--running around the galaxy at any one time, you had better have a darn good explanation for why there are now FIVE Sith currently attacking the party.

Manufacturing a plausible in-game excuse, especially in the middle of a session, isn't always easy, but there are many ways you can get yourself out of a jam.

What I present here is by no means an exhaustive list of remedies, but hopefully these ideas will put you on the right track when you encounter the inevitable continuity catastrophe:

Bad information: NPCs lie. People have bad memories. Spoken words are misheard. Characters misjudge time, distance, weight, etc. Wise men don't always know everything. Maps are inaccurate. Ancient scrolls are mistranslated. Musty tomes contain typos. It's not necessarily a continuity error if the in-game source of information isn't entirely trustworthy for one reason or another.

Simple omissions: Why did it take seven days to reach the castle when last time it only took six? Oh, well, I forgot to mention that you were moving a little slower because of the weather, and you had to take a minor detour because one of the roads was closed. How did that bounty hunter suddenly get her hands on a disruptor pistol when you said she was totally unarmed and wearing a jumpsuit with absolutely no place to hide a weapon? Oh, well, you didn't look at her back to see if she had a pistol strapped to it. Remember, even if you're picturing a clear path to the castle or a bounty hunter with no hidden weapons, the only facts are the things you've told the players.

There's more than meets the eye: How did those rival archaeologists beat us to the excavation site if whe had them locked up in prison when we left town? Well, perhaps a mysterious benefactor sprang them out and arranged for faster transportation, or maybe those people you see before you are impersonators. How is it possible that the villain is really a vampire, yet he attacked us in broad daylight yesterday... while eating garlic!? Well, maybe vampires in this universe aren't the same as the ones you're used to, or it could be that he knows of some way to defend against normal vampiric weaknesses.

Without conclusive proof that something is completely impossible, there's always a scenario to explain the inexplicable.

Supernatural intervention: The ocean used to be twenty miles away from town... until the god of the sea got angry and pushed the coast inward about ten miles. Sure, the villain's hair used to be brown, but that Super Soldier Serum she injected into her arm last week seems to have a side effect that occasionally changes her hair color. When all else fails, blame it on magic--it's powerful stuff that can alter almost anything. Or, chalk it up to time travel. I mean, I've done it.

Remember, you don't always need to resolve continuity errors immediately; "That is an interesting question," and "Well, what do you think?" are perfectly valid responses to a player's suspicion or accusation that there's a problem with your story's continuity. Just be sure to think up an answer before an answer is absolutely required.

Do keep in mind that fixing one continuity error can lead to worse continuity errors, so if your players question the villain's ability to jump unnaturally high, don't place the blame on gravity elves if there's nothing supernatural or elfy about your campaign. Keep your fixes as simple as possible, and don't tell your players how you've resolved the problem unless it's brilliant or unless your players really need an answer--a single hiccup in continuity is often better than a convoluted solution.

Of course, proper preparation and self-monitoring really help to prevent continuity errors in the first place. Map out those crazy plot twists as far in advance as you can. Come up with very solid explanations for why anything will be different than it used to be. Have one of your players keep a log of all the major events in a session and all the key details you give. Jot down quick notes for yourself whenever you spontaneously come up with names or character backstories during a session. Go over relevant information from previous sessions if the players will be returning to familiar locations and meeting with familiar characters. That kind of thing.

Know your campaign universe inside and out, plan as thoroughly as possible, pretend that the easily fixed problems were part of the plan the whole time, and flex some creative muscle when everything falls apart. There's no continuity error you can't handle.

But if there is, you really can just kill off all your players to spite them.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gone LARPing!

Well, I'm off to battle evil and such. Have a great weekend everyone, I will be back on Monday! In the meantime, please enjoy some steampunked Nerf guns! Happy blogging!