Laidback DM: The Virtues of the Mini-Campaign

I like short role playing game (RPG) campaigns. That’s not to say I don’t like the occasional long-termer, but mini-campaigns (say, around 3-4 months) are my current preference.

For those not in the know, a campaign is a series of adventures linked by a common thread or goal—a bit like a season of a modern TV or cable show. Some RPG campaigns can last for years, representing long term investment in player character stories and plot development. Some campaigns might last only a few months, representing a tangible milestone completed—for example, a huge Orc Boss whose ongoing machinations to take over the valley the heroes call home is finally brought to his knees. It’s these shorter campaigns I’m talking about.

Laidback DM - stevestillstanding.com
Short or Long Campaign? Either way, I’m ready!

I enjoy long campaigns, however I don’t like them going any longer than a year. This is due to time restraints, but also because any longer can sometimes lead to burnout—mine, specifically. I found this the case playing Tomb of Annihilation with one of my groups. All up it took about nine months to play, and I was glad when it finished. We stuck to mini-campaigns after that (DM’ing Curse of Strahd was a different matter—that’s one I would have enjoyed even if we played for longer than the seven months it took).

Long campaigns are great because players see their characters, the game world and the story they are contributing to, evolve like a living thing. But mini-campaigns have many attractions, too:

1. Generally less preparation is required

2. The goal is tighter and more specific, so players don’t lose focus on what they’re trying to achieve

3. It’s easier for players and DMs with busy lives to commit to a shorter campaign

4. Mini-campaigns don’t tend to drag because they have a short end date, so there’s less chance of DM and/or player fatigue

5. The goal can easily lead into another mini-campaign—remember that Orc Boss? Turns out he had an even bigger boss manipulating him behind the scenes…

So give some thought to the mini-campaign. You can still have a long endgame goal, but break it into smaller, more manageable chunks. It could save you a few headaches.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

Laidback DM: Avoiding The TPK

As DMs, we’ve all done it at some time or other: we’ve killed the entire party and drained the fun out of the D&D session. Sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes it’s mean spirited, sometimes it’s to punish players for being complete d$&@s.

But no matter how you look at it, the Total Party Kill (TPK) is a bummer for your campaign. No one wants to go out that way, unless it just happens to be the final battle of the campaign and a TPK means the big bad gets it as well.

Most players get attached to their characters. Having them all die at once can lead to losses from your gaming group, or players giving up playing the game altogether (a bit extreme, but it does happen).

Total Party Kill
Odds are, they’re not getting out of this one alive.

Here’s some ways to avoid the TPK:

1.Have a contingency prepared – perhaps the PCs were all knocked unconscious and saved as they proved useful to the villain’s plan. They awaken chained up and breaking rocks. Now you have a cool prison escape scenario instead of multiple funerals and habitual moaning and mourning.

2.Fluff your dice – I’m not a fan of this option, but you’re the DM. Just don’t make it too obvious.

3.The Deus Ex Machina – something amazing happens that saves the party: A company of Dwarven Commandos intervenes; the ground cracks open, swallowing the bad guy before he can deliver the coup de grace; an even bigger bad guy appears and fights the villains, giving the party time to escape. Just make sure the rescuer/event is relevant and part of the ongoing story, not something that just happened “because” (even if it did).

4.The alternate universe/another plane save – the PCs are dead, but now they find themselves in the afterlife or a screwed up version of their world (come on, you always wanted to run one of those Star Trek Mirror Universe episodes, didn’t you?). Now, they just have to find their way back home. A quest to return to life!

5.It was all a dream – This is another one of those options I don’t like much, but it could work if used the right way and if it makes for a better story. Perhaps the real big bad is a dream deity manipulating things behind the scenes and wants the players to suffer both mentally as well as physically to harvest their energy on the way to achieving ultimate power?

In the end, if the PCs are just being stupid, then maybe they need to die to teach them a lesson. As always, it’s up to you, the DM, to decide. Just remember this: killing everyone almost always kills the fun.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

Laidback DM: Free Map – Duergar Stronghold

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: Duergar Stronghold

Down into the Underdark we go, to a Duergar Stronghold protecting the only bridge connecting north and south for 300 miles!

What are the mysterious stone-carven columns over the bottomless chasm’s north side, and why do strange lights flicker and move amongst them, barely perceived out of the corner of one’s eye? Any who linger amongst the columns are never heard from again…

The Drow Outpost on the north side supplies local Duergar addicts with Faerie Dust, the latest magical hallucinogenic drug. What’s their true purpose here?  

And what is the mysterious mist that rises from the Stronghold’s streets, bringing madness in its wake? 

Duergar Stronghold - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding copy

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve

P.S. I’m writing a book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Symbaroum – a tabletop fantasy RPG that reeks of deep darkness, blighted evil and drawn out death. Fun!

One of my favourite Tabletop Role Playing Games, ever! Here’s a post many may have missed when I posted it back in early 2017. I must be feeling nostalgic 🙂

Steve Still Standing

(“You and your crazy role playing games,” says Alpha Girl surveying the books, sheets and dice on the kitchen table. “You’ve even got Beta Max involved.”

“It’s all good fun,” says Beta Max, rolling a handful of dice and cheering at the result. “Another dead goblin, thank you very much.” He sits back, hands behind his head, looking smug. “Any time soon, those magical math powers will kick in.* ”

“You know, you could play if you want,” I say.

“Would I be able to kill you?” says Alpha Girl.

“I guess so-”

“I’m in. Tell me what I have to do.”)

I like role playing games (RPGs). I can’t help it. There’s something about giving up mundane reality to become a fearless knight fighting evil monsters in fantastic and mysterious lands. Yeah, it’s nerdy, but that’s okay. It helps to relax my overwrought brain. It also enables me to…

View original post 600 more words

Laidback DM: D&D 5e Rules Summaries

Hi All!

I’ve been DM’ing and playing D&D 5e since the new version premiered (and AD&D – or 1e – previously), and like many people I occasionally forget rules. So, I created a few placemats your players can use as reminders.

Starter Placemat – Laidback DM – stevestillstanding (just click on this link)

  • This one is for beginners – those who have never played the game before – it has pictures of the various polyhedral dice on it as well as the rules summary.   

Rules Summary Placemat – Laidback DM – stevestillstanding (just click on this link)

  • This one is for more experienced players – those who just need a reminder about the rules every now and then – and doesn’t have the dice on it.

They look lovely when they’re printed and laminated (I’m a bit of a laminating junkie).

Free to use and enjoy!

Cheers

Steve 🙂

For more Laidback DM posts, including free maps, CLICK HERE! 

Laidback DM – Free Map! Dungeon A La Carte

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: Dungeon A La Carte

A simple dungeon map I drew with a 1st-level party in mind. Some easy monsters, a few traps: the north-east room fills with water while the PCs solve the puzzle; the south-east room has two teleporting pools that shift stuff back and forth while gargoyle heads spew poisonous gas; the central chamber is a floor tile puzzle that, when solved, reveals the secret door behind the statue (an easier way to the main treasure room); several trapped and impossibly locked doors; pit traps; triggered floors; undead guardians. Phew!

Dungeon A La Carte - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding copy

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve

P.S. I’m writing a 52-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM – Free Map! The City State of Ranisvlad

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: Ranisvlad, City State of Thieves

Anything goes in Ranisvlad, a murky, muddy and depraved city state in the outlands, ruled by Ranislov, so-called Lord of Thieves. Humans, humanoids and otherworldly creatures mingle and mix, fight and trade. Dangerous job offers and shady deals can be found all along Skull and Dagger Way. Disputes are settled in the Lord’s Arena, the only real justice in town. In Ranisvlad, you can find fame, fortune or a quick death, if you choose.

Beware the dark secrets of Barislev Tower, where vampires and wizards collude to raise the Demon King of Bats. Lone travellers are often waylaid by cannibal brigands on the Bridge of Thieves. The necropolis of Death’s Throne is the repository for Ranisvlad’s dead, who rise from their graves at night to claw at the cemetery gates…

Ranisvlad City State of Thieves - Laidback DM - stevestillstandingAbove: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 52-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Map – Demonic Prison

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: Demonic Prison

Ever wondered where evil wizards keep their raised demons? How about a special-built magical prison in the side of a cliff? Heck, why not? Have fun using this baby!

Demonic Prison - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 52-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Barrow Mound – Free Map!

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: The Barrow Mound of the Ghengar Urgs

The Ghengar of the mightiest Orc War Band to ever plague the world was put to rest in a burglar-proof  barrow mound, his many Urg Leaders buried with him. Magical energies seeped up from the underworld and re-animated the bodies, changing them into Wights, Zombies and Unger Dogs; the Ghengar himself was transformed into an undead Deathlok. For a hundred years they have waited for release.

Recently, an adventuring party came across a strange Orcish statuette, one that sages informed them fits the oddly shaped depression in the barrow mound’s door…

Barrow Mound of the Ghengar Urgs Map - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 48-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Cave Map/Encounter!

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: The Caves That Bleed

Find the missing kid! The Caves that Bleed await! The notes are self explanatory.

Cave Map - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 48-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free City Quarter Map!

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: Poorside – A city quarter map

You can use this map for any overcrowded area in a walled city. It’s nestled against the ramparts and includes lots of back alleys for shady deals and ambushes. Many buildings’ floorplans are exposed for you to use them as bases, lairs, safe houses, taverns, inns, etc.

Poorside Map - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 48-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Map/Encounter – A Simple Trader

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: A Simple Trader

The text on the map contains encounter information, compatible with D&D 5E!

stevestillstanding - A Simple Trader

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. This is just a sample of some of the stuff I’m writing for my 48-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Free Map! The Living Tower of Moka-Shul

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: The Living Tower of Moka-Shul!

So, who is this Moka-Shul guy anyway? And what’s the go with his living tower? Well, I picture Moka-Shul as a powerful wizard, perhaps a Lich or Vampire. His tower exists on a lower plane and travels inter-dimensionally depending on its master’s whims.  The tower is populated with all sorts of beasties the players will have to confront as they make their way to the top.

The tower is alive, the walls extruding living tentacles in surprise attacks that suck targets into fleshy maws that appear wherever the tower needs them. And the inhabitants aren’t immune to this either, which is why they regularly bathe in the waters of the fathom beast, one of Moka-Shul’s pets. The fathom beast sweats a particular oil that the tower recognises as friendly. But the fathom beast isn’t very amenable and often makes a meal out of bathers!

The Living Tower of Moka-Shul

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 48-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

The Laidback DM: Big Books of Monsters – mini-reviews

I love using new monsters in D&D and other fantasy role playing games (RPGs), and players love the uncertainty and the challenge that comes with them. Like many time-poor DMs, I’m always on the lookout for new monster books so I don’t have to waste time making my own (I still do, but a lot less than I used to). Luckily there are some great books on the market to cater to my laziness.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

Official D&D 5e product from WOTC, similar to Volo’s Guide but with a higher page count of 256 pages. They obviously listened to the feedback after the rather short Xanathar’s Guide. Extensive background on numerous races, including new race options. A number of new creatures, including more higher Challenge Rating (CR) beasties. My faves include the Cadaver Collector, Oblex and the Gnomish Clockworks.

• Great and consistent production values.

• Good race options for players looking for more variety.

• Some of the monsters are drawn from previously released adventures.

• Not as many monsters as I’d like and some of the higher CR creatures are a bit easy for their level.

Kobold’s Tome of Beasts

Kobold’s beastie book has been out for a while, and features 429 pages of D&D 5e monsters, many quite horrific. New dragon and giant types, fey lords, demons, devils and undead, and a riot of new and exciting creatures, including many high CRs. These monsters are much more challenging than WOTC’s offerings. Some of my faves are the Void Dragon with its gravitic and stellar flare breaths, Sand Spider with impaling legs, and the array of cool Clockworks.

• Fantastic art, thick paper and well bound (not likely to fall apart from use).

• Great variety of challenging and unusual beasties.

• Better value than the official D&D monster products.

• One or two beasts (Titivilus, for example) have been superseded by official content. But then, you can choose which version you prefer!

Monster Codex

A new core book recently Kickstarted for the awesome Swedish grimdark fantasy RPG Symbaroum. New monsters with adventure seeds, loads of NPC and beast listings, new monstrous traits and guidelines for balancing encounters and developing monster-specific adventures like hunts. Not only is Symbaroum a great system, it features the best layout and art of any fantasy RPG on the market.

• Awesome, atmospheric art worth drooling over.

• Write-ups and supporting documents in the style of old-time bestiaries and grimoires.

• Could have been a little longer, but the quality more than makes up for the length.

Cheers

DM Steve 🙂

The Laidback DM: Murder Hobos vs. Negotiators

Is your party the kind that prefers to fight their way through a role playing game encounter (known in the trade as ‘Murder Hobos’)? Or one that likes to talk to the bad guys, using their role playing ability or character’s skills to get out of a tough spot (negotiators)?

I believe players that prefer fight- over talk-based solutions may result from the following:

• Old school, ‘experience points-from-monster-death’ mindsets

• Characters created with an emphasis on fighting skills/abilities

• The enjoyment of a good battle

• A personal belief they’re not good role players

• Negotiating/talking means too many variables/potential outcomes

So, how do you get around these particular issues? It’s quite possible that your players just prefer fight-based adventures. But you may be growing tired with running these sorts of games all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of variety. Here’s some things you can do:

Write some deliberately role playing-focused adventures – nothing like a good murder mystery, or an adventure where the party are unable to use weapons. They’re forced to use other approaches.

Use milestone advancement in place of experience points – 5e includes the option for milestone advancement, and it sure saves a lot of XP calculations. Players think less about killing monsters and more about completing goals. Or if you really love XP, reward for solution-based outcomes rather than killing.

Reward players more for good role playingInspiration in D&D is an extra D20 that can be rolled in a tight spot to replace another D20 roll. Reward players more often for role playing and they’ll start role playing more. If you have people in the group who aren’t good role players, reward them for inventive use of player skills/spells.

Make them think more – use more puzzles and interesting traps for players to think their way out of.

Offer alternative outcomes to hacking and slashing – monsters have feelings, too! Let them have opportunities to talk their way out. I like one of the rules in the 13th Age game: everyone speaks the same language, unless the story calls for a different one. It makes it easier to negotiate. Or at least understand the bad guys as they’re dispatching you.

Emphasise consequences – sometimes your players need to see the repercussions of their violent actions to start thinking more. The orphanage for homeless goblin kids whose henchman parents were killed in that last lair assault, for instance. Or the bad guy, whose brother was killed, coming to murder the party in their sleep. Try not to get too grim, though.

Most of all, don’t forget to keep it flowing and keep it fun!

Cheers

DM Steve 🙂

What did Steve just rabbit on about? Don’t know what D&D or RPGs are? Click here.

The Laid Back DM: Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

I’ve been a Dungeon Master (DM) for many years now, ‘refereeing’ role playing games in many genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror, modern age. I’ve had experience running all sorts of adventures (an interactive story the players undertake to complete a quest or mission, sometimes as part of a larger campaign), and I’m currently writing a Dungeons and Dragons 5e supplement to publish.

Back when I was just a beginner, I would ‘railroad’ (a linear series of events that can’t be avoided) my players through the story. Over the years I’ve grown in experience and now my adventures are looser and offer more opportunities for improvising.

Here are some hints for DMs who want to fly by the seat of their pants:

Plan Less

Don’t write or plan as much for your adventure as you may have in the past. Have a basic plot, your major NPCs, a few encounters and a map or two, but don’t go big on filling out the details. Decide things as the players decide—let them help drive the story. It will save you lots of time and take the adventure places you may never have dreamed of.

My adventures are rarely longer than a page, nowadays. And that includes the map!

Know Your Players

Some players like to role play more, some like battles, some like puzzles and some hate them. Know your team and have a balanced mix of encounters for each adventure, so that no one is left out. Players will be more engaged if you know their character’s traits and what they like, making stories and introducing subplots accordingly.

Use Random Tables

Sandboxing is a gaming artform whereby the players decide what, when, where and how they want to do things. You generally need to be able to improvise well to run these sorts of campaigns, but if you need some help, keep a bunch of random tables on hand to generate NPCs, encounters, names, etc. on the fly.

Kevin Crawford (the man who wrote Stars Without Number and other great OSR RPGs) includes random generators in all his books, and there are numerous random table/plot supplements available from various companies.

Say ‘Yes’ More

A method used in improv comedy is to say “Yes, and…”. In other words, agree with a player’s course of action and then see where it takes them next. Saying “yes” more often to players can be liberating and take the story in unexpected directions. Don’t worry, you can still say “no” to the really outlandish stuff. You’re still running the game, after all.

In a recent D&D adventure, the party was asked to help out with a murder investigation. One of the players decided they needed a writ from the vice mayor to show they were deputised, which they used several times to question townsfolk and gain access to buildings. After a run in with a local trader they decided to break into his shop at night to investigate some potentially illegal goods. The party decided to confront one of the murder suspects at the local lighthouse where he worked and during the meeting they sabotaged the light so that one of the ships in the port suspected of piracy would maroon on the rocks when it returned that night. I decided the lamp was mechanical, rather than magical, and rotated by way of two harnessed dogs, which the party co-opted to track down an Orc lair on the outside of town. The players decided to use one of the cleared suspects to stage a ruse and draw out the murderer.

None of that was planned. All of it came about because I made up stuff in response to what the players wanted to do, and said ‘yes’ more often. It opened up several options that kept them enthralled and made the adventure more fun for me as well.

So, learn to fly by the seat of your pants. Before you know it, you’ll be running the adventures you’ve always wanted to.

Cheers

DM Steve 😊

What did Steve just rabbit on about? Don’t know what D&D or RPGs are? Click here.

The Laid back DM – Mini-Reviews

Hiya all! It’s been a while since I reviewed any tabletop role playing games (“What the?!” I hear you say. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out this link here).

Without further ado:

Vagabonds of Dyfed

This lovely little game was the result of a recent Kickstarter. It’s an elegant little system, based on the Apocalypse engine and some additional stuff from a few other games. It uses a simple, trait tag-based system in place of numeric characteristics, but still has traditional Armour Class and Hit Points.

vagabonds of dyfed RPG

The 2d6 + trait roll (with 6 or less meaning things get worse, 7-9 being a partial success, 10-12 a complete success and 13+ being a critical success), allows for lots of narrative options to push the game forward. Light on rules, but big on creativity, this is a game for more experienced game masters and players (some experience with Apocalypse World-based games or FATE is handy, if you’re only used to D&D).

The rulebook—black and white with a square layout, simple instructions, great illustrations and design—is gorgeous and easy to read. You can also use it with all those old d20 D&D modules you have laying around (if you’re old school, like me lol) with minimal conversion.

Ideal for GMs who like flexibility and less rules.

Stars Without Number

A few years back Kevin Crawford started his game-designing career writing a little Sci-Fi RPG called Stars Without Number. This is a revision of it, successfully Kickstarted not too long ago (yes, I went through a bit of a Kickstarter phase).

stars without number RPGD&D in space? Sort of—this OSR ruleset uses d20 systems as a baseline for a science fiction game, minus the fantasy tropes and adding some nice new mechanics like character foci and backgrounds (which are not too dissimilar to feats and backgrounds in 5e), new rules for starship combat and lots of tables to support sandbox-style gaming.

The rule book is in colour, with some lovely art and Crawford’s verbose but not overbearing style (I would like it more if he used bold or italics for highlighting important rules, as all that uniform text tends to make it harder to quickly find relevant bits in a paragraph). The great thing is, even with the changes, it’s still compatible with the loads of Stars Without Number supplements Crawford has written over the years, as well as old d20/OSR adventures. The sandbox element and lack of setting may not appeal to everyone, but this is a flexible system with a wealth of roll-up tables designed to support GM creativity: use the game as you see fit. The d20 rules are recognisable to anyone who has played D&D at some point.

Well worth a look and a lot simpler (and cheaper) than Starfinder. Plus, there’s a free PDF version, too.

Barebones Fantasy Role Playing Game

One of the shortest complete rulesets around, this percentile-based system uses simple mechanics that makes it ideal for beginners.

Barebones Fantasy RPG

This is dungeon crawling on a budget—the monsters are straightforward and easy to run, the spells and level progression limited—but still captures the essence of old school AD&D. The handy A5-sized rulebook is concise: aside from the usual character creation and game system, it also includes tables for adventure and dungeon generation, a bestiary, magic items, rules for magic item creation, and a pocket-sized fantasy setting (Kingdoms of Keranak)—all in 80 pages.

This is a lean and mean system ideal for beginners, which experienced players will still appreciate.

That’s enough for today. Until next time!

Cheers

Steve 😊

Dragon’s Ahoy! Like Chips Ahoy, but with less chocolate…

Time for another of my Laidback DM posts, and a new free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I’m giving them away every chance I get.

This week: Dragon’s Lair!

This large cave system has a number of shelves that vary the level of the terrain throughout the caverns, making for interesting challenges for the party. You can make the shelves any height you want, of course—the bigger the better. There’s also lots of hidey holes between pillars and stalagmites.

What the dragon doesn’t realise is this cave system’s original plunderer inhabitants built a number of well-disguised secret passages. Or maybe it does realise, and woe betide any characters that use them…

Dragon's Lair Map

Above: Actual map size is 14cm x 20cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

It’s about time for a free Dungeon Map!

Time for another of my (currently) irregular Laidback DM posts, and a new free map! Map drawing for D&D adventures is my thang. I have far too many maps, so I’m giving them away every chance I get.

This week: Border Keep!

Reminiscent of the original Gary Gygax classic D&D Keep on the Borderlands castle, this outpost is much smaller, but can be filled with murder, mystery and intrigue…Of course, I leave that up to you, intrepid DMs!

Border Fort Map

Above: Actual map size is 14cm x 22cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

Free Dungeon Map!

Time for another of my (currently) irregular Laidback DM posts, and a new free map! Map drawing for D&D adventures is my thang. I have far too many maps, so I’m giving them away every chance I get.

This week: They Came from Outer Space!

You can use this map for any type of RPG, but the protagonists are obviously aliens/robots of some kind. For D&D, I’d fill the place with Clockwork Huntsmen and Clockwork Mymidons (from publisher Kobold’s wonderful Tome of Beasts), with the installed laser turrets firing as per high level Magic Missile spells when PCs walk over the touch plates. Sprinkle a bunch of Clockwork Hounds and various oozes through the ship.

For good measure, why not have a bunch of Bearfolk (see Tome of Beasts) pinned down in the main area by clockworks, with the PCs having to either join them or fight them for access the ship.

In the big cave on the other side of the crashed ship, place some big alien Boss Monster. I’m sure you can create one or find something suitable.

They Came from Outer Space - 20x13 - stevestillstanding

Above: Actual map is 13cm x 20cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

Mutant Year Zero – Gamma goings-on in the wasteland

MYZ book cover

I said ages ago (yes, literally eons, in a time when winter frost covered the land like icing sugar. Hmmm. That’s a stupid simile) that I would review some Tabletop Role Playing Games, as I am a complete nerd nut for these things.

Today, I’m going to talk about a lovely little Swedish RPG called Mutant Year Zero. It’s an update of an RPG that originated in the 80’s in Sweden, and was very popular. Mutant Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where a colony of mutants on the ‘Ark’ is eking out a meagre existence amongst the ruins of the ‘Zone’, battling for the colony’s survival against various threats and attempting to solve the sterility of the ark survivors—no new ark children have been born in years.

I loooove post-apocalyptic anything! This isn’t Mad Max, it’s not Gamma World (the mechanics in Mutant Year Zero are MUCH better than d20), but it’s a crap load of fun.

Mutant Year Zero is a sandbox game, meaning that your players basically call the shots as to what they want to do and where they want to go. Two Zone maps, of future London and New York, are included, or the Games Master can create their own Zone for the players to explore.

Some cool things about Mutant Year Zero:

Excellent Dice Pool mechanic. Uses six-sided dice (D6) of three colours: Base dice are yellow, used for attribute checks; Skill Dice are green, used for skill checks; Gear dice are black, and are used to supplement checks when a character is using special gear or weapons. A six on any of the dice means a success, a 1 on either the Base or Gear dice can mean raging mutant powers or gear breaking, respectively. The number of base dice you roll are determined by your attributes, the number of skill dice you roll by your skill level. The number of gear dice depends on what gear you are using, and these are added to the dice pool.

Character attributes equal the number of Base dice rolled. Simple as that. Four attributes: Strength, Agility, Wits, Empathy. Assign 14 points amongst these, with your key ability (depending on your class) having a maximum of 5. The attribute number is how many dice you roll in a check, and each attribute is associated with particular skills, so the base dice are supplemented by skill dice.

Skill levels equal the number of Skill dice rolled. 10 points to distribute amongst skills, with a maximum of 3. You also get Talents, special abilities determined by your role (class, for all you old grognards). Some of these are Fast Draw, Loner, Zone Cook (more important than you think!), Sleepless, etc.

MYZ stalkerCool Roles/Classes. Eight roles, like Enforcer (the heavy), Gearheads, Stalkers (scouts), Fixers, Dog Handlers(!), etc. They are all well balanced, and have their part to play in the game.

Everyone is a mutant. Yep, everyone gets to have a crazy mutation (or two, in some cases). They are all powerful, interesting and relevant (i.e. none are there for show). There aren’t many, but the idea is the gaming group isn’t going to be huge so there won’t be any overlap in powers. You spend Mutant Points (MP) to activate powers during the game. You can win more MPs by pushing your rolls, where there is a greater chance something could go wrong. The powers include Acid Spit, Human Magnet, Puppeteer (mind control), Rot Eater, Telepathy, etc.

Everyone works together and the ark is a major ‘character’ in the game. You are working with your fellow mutants to save the ark. You interact with NPCs, get involved in disputes, deal with petty jealousies, food shortages, external attacks. The ark has four development levels: food supply, culture, technology and warfare, and you can undertake projects to improve any of these, using your skills, your characters and time. This is another fun aspect of the game, much like building a community in computer games like Fallout 4.

Combat is easy. Anyone familiar with a tabletop role playing game will find the combat generally easier than most other games. There’s the usual rolling for initiative, take one action (roll a skill check, activate a mutation, help another character, defend, etc.) and one manoeuvre (advance, retreat, flee, etc.), or two manoeuvres. You roll a number of D6s equal to your Strength plus your Fight skill to hit in melee combat; if you use a weapon, you do the weapon’s damage (e.g. Brass Knuckles do 1 damage) plus additional effects if you score more than one 6 on your roll. The target can defend to reduce damage and effects. Ranged combat works similarly. Damage effects attributes, and if one is reduced to zero your character is broken, with the impact relating to the attribute e.g. if Agility is zero, you are physically exhausted. You can also get critical injuries, which can kill, maim and traumatise your character.

Recovery is relevant. Resting four hours and eating a ration of grub helps recover Strength; water for Agility, sleep for Wits, company for Empathy. It makes the resources you recover in the wasteland more important to your characters, as well as the ark.

There are lots of opportunities to role play. Essentially, the players drive the plot by exploring and interacting with NPCs on the ark. Each sector on the map is one square mile, and it will take time for the PCs to search. The GM rolls random encounters for the sector, or uses some handy pre-designed Zone settings/scenarios (which are very open ended to cater for the players basically doing anything they want). You will find that those players who thrive on the role playing aspects of RPGs will love this game. It also encourages team work—working alone or against the group will quickly get your character killed.

Lots of adventures. Over half the book is devoted to campaign materials, so you won’t run out of things to fuel your sessions for a long time! Some of the sectors include a crazy cult in a missile bunker, a trading post in a grounded ship, and a full campaign arc, The Path to Eden.

There are a number of extras available: Genlab Alpha (a complete game in which you play intelligent, bipedal animals), Zone Compendiums (with additional scenarios/settings), maps and signature dice.

Mutant Year Zero has won several design awards, and so it should. It’s a player-driven, open-ended experience, that is fun and easy to play, with great mechanics and minimalist rules. It’s one of the best post-apocalyptic RPGs available at the moment, and well worth your time and investment.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

Mutant Year Zero  is available at the Modiphius Games website–https://www.modiphius.net/

MYZ ruins

 

The Laidback DM #12 – Free Village Map!

Time for another of my irregular Laidback DM posts, and a new free map! Map drawing for D&D adventures is my thang. I now have far too many maps, so I’m giving them away free each week.

This week: Village at the Crossroads!

At first this may seem like a boring little map, but imagine your player characters defending it against an attack by Hill Giants, Trolls, Ogres and Ogrillons, led by an Arch Mage! Just got a lot more exciting, huh? And imagine there’s a mysterious tomb under the local temple that the Arch Mage is trying to access to recover a powerful magical staff, that will give him enough power to take over the region (gotta start small: today, this village and region, tomorrow, THE WORLD! Bwah-ha-hah!

Actually, I drew this map in the style of those found in the old Judges Guild’s City State of the Invincible Overlord supplement. Anyone remember that classic? Ah, memories. What good are they…

Village at the Crossroads - 13x20 - stevestillstanding

Above: Actual map is 13cm x 20cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laidback DM #11 – Free Dungeon Map!

Yes, it’s that time of the week, and in the tradition of my irregular Laidback DM posts, here’s a new free map. I really enjoy drawing maps (nerd alert!) for D&D adventures, so much so that I have more maps then I know what to do with. So, I’m giving one away free on my blog each week.

This week: Plentar’s Mine!

I created this map because I really wanted to learn how to draw raised shelves (not cupboard shelves, cave shelves) and ledges properly. I was happy with the results. So happy, in fact, that I’m not even going to give you any hints for a scenario. You’re smart enough to stock this baby yourselves.

Plentar's Mine (Map)

Above: Actual map is 19cm x 13cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laidback DM #10 – Free Map!

Yes, it’s that time of the week, and in the tradition of my irregular Laidback DM posts, here’s a new free map. I loooooooove drawing maps for D&D adventures, so much so that I have more maps than I know what to do with. So, I’m giving one away free on my blog each week.

This week: Slaughter Sewers!

Who doesn’t love a good sewer to romp in. And very appropriate, given that my last poem, Enthroned, was about sitting on the toilet (read it, you’ll get it then). These sewers could be under an existing town or a ruin; up to you.

I love monster versus monster conflict in D&D games. In this instance, Lizardfolk and Troglodytes are having a go at each other. Additionally, a bunch of Wererats have moved in and set up house. And a Myconid group for good measure. And lots of other beasties I’m sure you can dream up.

The daughter of the Lizardfolk king and the son of the Troglodyte king have fallen in love (a Romeo and Juliet thing), and the opposing kings don’t like that one bit. The PCs can help solve this dilemma via diplomacy. Or killing lots of things. Either way.

In the meantime, the Troglodytes have started worshipping a Giant Shark that found its way into the central water pit and got trapped when the underwater tunnel collapsed. It now depends on food sacrificed by the Troglodytes, Naturally there is a nice bit of treasure down at the bottom of the pit, but watch out when crossing that wooden bridge: the shark can leap out of the water (gives ‘jump the shark’ a whole new meaning…).

I see this as a 2nd level scenario (watch that shark, though, players!), but get that imagination flowing and come up with something better! Happy to hear your ideas in the comments.

Slaughter Sewers - 14x21 - stevestillstanding

Above: Actual map is 14cm x 21cm. Just right-click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laid Back DM #9 – Free Dungeon Map!

Yes, it’s that time of the week, and in the tradition of my irregular Laid Back DM posts, here’s a new free map. As you know I like to draw maps for D&D adventures. Often I have more maps then I know what to do with. So, I’m giving one away free on my blog each week.

This week: Lava Caves!

The raised path is three feet above the surface of the lava river, which flows beside and under the path. This cavern is occupied by Firenewts and their Giant Striders, plus a few Firenewt Warlocks (see Volo’s Guide to Monsters), who will vigorously defend their lair. There are heat-acclimatised Piercers along the path through the caves, which will drop down at inopportune times when the party is fighting Firenewts. Additionally, in the lava at several points along the way are Fire Elementals, which will leap forth and drag PCs into the lava.

At the end of the path is a giant, crystalline formation, which is the hibernation shell for an adult Red Dragon, who was trapped by a spell many years before, encased in crystal. Of course the PCs are unaware of this, having heard about the ‘huge crystal’ and investigated. The Firenewts worship the crystal, but if the shell is broken the Red Dragon will awaken…

Lava Caves

Above: Actual map is 18cm x 12cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laidback DM #8 – Yet Another Free Map!

Yes, it’s that time of the week, and in the tradition of my irregular Laidback DM posts, here’s another free map. As you know I like to draw maps for D&D adventures. Often I have more maps then I know what to do with. So, I’m giving one away free on my blog each week.

This week: a river keep ruin a stone’s throw away from an Ogre lair. The current occupants of the river keep are Goblins, and they’re not on good terms with their Ogre neighbours. Let’s just say the feud has been going on a long time. The Goblins have trained the giant spiders that nest in the grove of trees near them to work as watchdogs and mounts, which gives them a bit of an edge against the larger and more vicious Ogres. To spice things up, a Green Hag lives in the tower on the ruined wall, and has nothing to do with either group, although she has been eying the tower as a possible new lair. Meanwhile, down in the valley below the caves and keep, a group of Treants is having a meeting to determine what to do about their warring neighbours. Looks like the player characters could be entering the scene just as everything goes to hell…

River Keep and Caves - 20x13 - stevestillstanding

Above: Actual map is 13.5cm x 20 cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laidback DM #7 – Another Free Map!

I like to draw maps for D&D adventures. Often I have more maps then I know what to do with. So, I’m giving one away free on my blog each week.

This week’s map is a Kobold and Demon lair. Whoa, you say? The game’s weakest creatures with some of the game’s toughest? If you’ve read the section on Kobolds in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, you’ll know that they are artful little trap-setting beasts. And the entrance to this lair is full of traps designed to bottleneck the PCs and make their life hell. I haven’t filled in the details so you can let your imagination soar.

As to the Demons? It just so happens this cave system used to be used by demon worshippers, and the Kobold’s Shaman unwittingly opened a gate to the Abyss. The demons are kept in check because the Kobold Chieftain has a soul-capturing gem which can imprison up to ten of them, so they have an uneasy alliance. The kobolds can call on the demons when things get a little hairy, making this lair no walkover for PCs assuming they’ll have an easy go of it.

Aside from the quicksand, arrow slits, tripwires, locking pit trap with poison spikes and six foot high brick walls with arrow slits, the kobold lair also has its own fungus farm (on the south wall), water source (in the northern cave), demonic gate (the southern cave), stolen supplies and a secret treasure room.

Kobolds and Demons Map 15x10 - stevestillstanding

Above: Actual map is 15cm x 10 cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laidback DM #6 – Free Map!

Despite being a bit laidback when it comes to D&D Dungeon Mastering, I do like to draw time-consuming maps. Since I don’t always use the maps I draw, I thought I’d offer them for free here on my blog.

The following map is a base for a bunch of pirates who have an alliance with a Blue Dragon. The pirates are part of a death cult that regularly raids coastal villages for sacrifices before returning to their island. Naturally they provide the Blue Dragon with a sampling of treasure. They have a high observation post for spotting incoming ships. The tide plays an interesting part in this map—as it rises the caves on the left of the map are swamped with water. The Blue Dragon’s lair is above the tide level of course, and it can conveniently use its lightning breath to electrify the water if anyone approaches during high tide…

Pirate Cove and Dragon Lair Map

Above: Actual map is 15cm x 10 cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

Three Loves. A Haiku Trilogy.

Film Lover
Movie watching love
My shared escapism
Better with a friend

Tabletop Gamer
Playing RPGs
Becoming a new person
Only for a night

Guitar Player
Guitar strings strummed
Emote in rhythm and rhyme
Musicality

The Laid Back DM #5 – Foiled again!

Don’t know what a Dungeon Master is? How uncool. Click here to find out. 

So what happens when that wonderful adventure you put together, with all its interesting surprises and nasty traps, gets circumnavigated by the party because they have some nifty spells and additional tricks up their sleeve you didn’t think about?

Aside from taking it on the chin and continuing in the spirit of fun, there’s not much you can do for that session. But it can give you some ideas to prevent said players from getting out of similar traps next time:

1)      Use a trap that breaks concentration. Something that projects loud noise, for instance. Have them save each round in order to keep their concentration up (you have to be fair, after all).

2)      Make traps only respond to human/humanoids, or have a weight limit. Using the poor mascot or familiar to activate a trap is just nasty, but some parties do that sort of thing. Think about your trap set up for next time: perhaps the mechanism is too complicated for an animal or it’s too light to activate it.

3)      Surround your mechanically-based traps with an Anti-Magic Shell. No magic works inside its 10 foot radius sphere. Take that, player characters…

4)      Trap the walls or the air. Now this is really evil. If the characters climb up the walls to avoid the trapped floor, the wall trap triggers. If they fly over the floor the air trap triggers. Bwah ha ha!

5)      Make their spells go haywire.  If the characters cast a Fly spell in the trapped area, make the spell go crazy and fly them straight into the wall, damaging them and possibly breaking their concentration. If they persist, have the spell go crazier still. You can ad lib the various effects if needed. You’re the DM, after all.

In the end, the whole point of traps is to challenge the players and let them have a good time figuring it out. Yeah, you can make them hard, but they shouldn’t be impossible. You want some of them to survive to play another day, don’t you?

You can find more Laid Back Dungeon Master posts by clicking here.

The Laid Back DM #4 – ‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’ Leaves me Yearning for Something Better

I received ‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’ the other day, after ordering it from the Book Depository. I’d heard that Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) were updating some of its best known modules to 5e, and was looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve been reading it for a few days now. And all I can say is – WTF WoTC?! Let me explain.

‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’? They couldn’t come up with a more inspiring title? And the titular tavern is featured in TWO pages of the book. Why bother with it at all? It’s supposed to be a linking device for the adventures. But guess what? It’s not! It’s just…there. Maybe it’s a plug for a future Yawning Portal adventure. It’s fantastic that the Undermountain dungeon (Which adventurers can access via the tavern) is mentioned so many times in those two pages, but it’s NOT IN THE BOOK. Yawn!

These adventures were some of the best, and most dangerous, of all time. One small problem: they are all dungeon crawls. There is no variety. They are all dungeons, with no wilderness, urban or role playing components (okay, ‘the Forge of Fury’ has a tiny bit of wilderness). I love some of the old modules (I own the AD&D (1e) ones featured), but come on! A dungeon crawl is a dungeon crawl – but seven of them? 

And ‘The Sunless Citadel’ is boring (sorry, all you people who loved D&D 3e). ‘Tomb of Horrors’ is still spectacular. ‘The Forge of Fury’ and ‘White Plume Mountain’ are great.

Supposedly the adventures were selected so that you could play the book as a campaign. But why bother? In the same line WoTC suggests using them any way you like, as fillers. And there are no real reasons for linking them as a campaign, except for the first two adventures (which followed each other in D&D 3e), other than the fact your PCs should be at the required level by the next chapter.

And why make some of the maps so small? Would a map to a page for some of the earlier dungeons be such a big ask (some of the later dungeons have maps to a page).

There are heaps of monsters included in the back, many of them from ‘Volo’s Guide’ (I guess it didn’t sell as well as they expected).

In WoTC’s defence: the adventures have been converted well. The artwork is great. I still dislike not having monster stat blocks in the room descriptions. A monster name in bold is NOT ideal. I know WoTC wants to sell more ‘Monster Manuals’, but shortened monster stat blocks are used by other companies producing 5e adventures, so why can’t they? And like all WoTC’s offerings, the text entries for each room are always too wordy. When I’m running an adventure I don’t want to have to drill through loads of text to get the information I need.

In summary, I was a little disappointed by this offering. Yes, some of the dungeons are great. But after so many great campaign releases, overall this was a bit of a let down. And I wish they’d left the Yawning Portal tavern out of it. I would also prefer they excluded the seminal ‘Against the Giants’ adventure, and released it with ‘Descent into the Depths’ and ‘Queen of the Demonweb Pits’, all together, the way it should have been. In fact, maybe they should have released that collected edition rather than ‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’. 

If you’re looking for some killer (literally) dungeon crawls, then this is the book for you. If you already own most of these adventures, save your cash and do a manual conversion instead.

The Laid Back DM #3 – Maps and random encounters?!

Welcome to my occasional series on Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)* refereeing (makes it sound like a sport, doesn’t it? Well it is, my friends: a sport of the mind. Okay, that sounded better before I read it out loud…).

Here’s some more time saving stuff:

  • No random encounters – hold on a second?! Didn’t I just say ‘save time’? Or something like that? Prior to the session I think about what the ‘random’ encounters will be. In a four hour session the players might have 1-2 random encounters, as well as play part of the main adventure, with its pre-set encounters. All I need to know is the monster types. I then ad lib the encounter as appropriate for the number of players present, terrain and challenge rating. Screw rolling for it.
  • Provide maps – there are lots of great maps in published adventures, but I hate mapping and so do the players. Sometimes you have to map manually; other times I use the story to give the players the map: maybe they get the town map from a local merchant or town guards, or find the dungeon map in a crevice in the wall, left behind by the original architect. Is it really that big an issue if they know where some of the secret doors are? You can always set additional challenges for them when they open them. And if you prefer theatre-of-the-mind, don’t use a map at all. Just describe the areas. Screw mapping.

More stuff in future columns. Subscribe if you’d like email notifications 🙂

* What is this guy raving about, I hear you say? Click here.

Didn’t see the previous columns?

For more on RPGs, check out my Top Ten favourite Roleplaying Games, or if you like D&D inspired poetry, my D&D Haiku Tetralogy.

The Laid Back DM #2 – New-fangled Electronic Gizmos?

Welcome to the second of my Dungeon Master (DM) columns. (Didn’t catch the first one? Click here.)

Today I’m going to talk about all these new wiz-bang apps and stuff that you can use during your sessions. (“What did he say?” Says the old grognard, raising his ear trumpet. “What’s an app? Is that some kind of new pill?”) Yeah, old timers. It’s like Viagra for your RPG sessions.

Android

The Spellbook – Every D&D 5E spell. The spell opens as a drop down, so you don’t have to go back and forth between pages. Sortable, and you can create and import custom spell lists. Free – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.troublesomeapps.dnd.spells

eRPG Tools – Designed for you to enter party and encounter data, keep track of initiative and combat. Or you can use it for monsters, spell and magic item look ups. Also has treasure and NPC name generators and dice roller. Free – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mentiromano.erpgtools

5th Edition Spellbook – For magic using characters, contains every spell. Each spell has room to add individual notes. You can add new spells, create custom lists, and save multiple character spellbooks. Free – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.spellsdd5

Loot Generator for D&D 5e – Generate treasures, magic items and spell scrolls randomly, by challenge level, and for individual monsters or hordes. Free – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.dante.paul.lootgeneratorfordnd5e

Dice 3D – Awesome dice rolling simulator. You can add any number of dice to the table top. Tilt the tablet to roll the dice and listen to the sounds of the dice rolling (I love it!). Free – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=fr.sevenpixels.dice

iOS

Most iPhone/iPad apps are paid, but a few are free. Not as many apps for D&D 5E as on Android. Go to the App Store on your phone and search to find these ones.

5E Spell Book – at first, you’re annoyed, because the spells are NOT pre-loaded. But there’s a link on the REDDIT page by a nice person who has manually coded all the spells (NOT the developers, I might add. Talk about lazy!). The update process for each spell is a bit tedious. You can sort by name and level. Supposedly you can add custom spell books, but to do this you have to create them individually. Possibly the most in-User-friendly app I’ve EVER used. If you just want a sortable list of all spells using the REDDIT link, go for it. There’s not a lot on iPhone for 5E spells. Paid app.

Fifth Edition Character Sheet – Update and maintain multiple characters. Pretty basic, but does the job. Free app.

Fight Club 5 – The free version allows you to create and save one character. More attractive than the previous app; I have some players who use it regularly and think it’s great. Free/Paid app.

Game Master 5 – lets you enter campaign and encounter information, run combat, includes compendium of spells, monsters, items. Compatible with Fight Club 5. Paid app.

Natural 20 – critical hits and critical misses. Provides variety for your crits, for weapon and spells. The effects add variety, however they are NOT balanced, so discuss with your players before you decide to use this. Free app.

DiceandDragons – Dice rolling app. Create customised dice rolling options for your characters. Create combos and add damage automatically. Flick the dice with your finger on the screen to roll them. Free app.

PDF versions of manuals

I own every D&D 5E manual and adventure in hard copy. Despite this, I find it easier to have the manuals in PDF on my tablets, especially when travelling around for games. I know some of the PDFs I own have been scanned illegally, but as I’ve already paid for the books I think I have the right to use them.

Come on WoTC – get with the program and provide proper PDFs for your manuals and adventures–other companies do. You could include a digital code inside each manual sold. That way you have a list of all the codes used so people don’t give them to their mates. I’d rather have a proper, pristine PDF version of the original book than a dodgy OCR version, scanned manually.

 

These are just a few examples. You don’t have to use electronica in your sessions. But it sure could save some time.

For more on RPGs, check out my Top Ten favourite Roleplaying Games, or if you like D&D inspired poetry, my D&D Haiku Tetralogy.

The Laid Back DM #1 – Empowerment

I’m a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) fan from way back ( to find out why, click here).

I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign for eight players over the last few months. Everyone is having a lot of fun as they progress to the final inexorable encounter with the big bad in his castle overlooking the valley that he terrorises on a regular basis.

I’ve learned a few things over time as a Dungeon Master (DM). (Yes, it’s a silly name, but I didn’t think that one up. Blame the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who co-created the role playing game hobby, and the very first D&D rules, back in the 1970’s.) I’ve realised that it’s often better to do less, rather than more, when preparing for a game. It’s also handy to empower the players, so that they take a more active role in both the story and running the game. And it’s not just because I’m lazy. Players enjoy it more when they participate and engage with the game more actively.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be posting irregularly about DM’ing. Here’s a few things to get the ball rolling (or should that be dice rolling? Okay, crap joke).

There are a few things I’ve implemented to allow my games to run more smoothly:

  • Players roll all the dice rolls, including those for monsters attacking them – yep, no more rolls for the DM. This frees me up to describe battles, participate actively (but in a laid back way) and generally enjoy how the players freak out when they roll well for the monsters. It really adds to the tension. In a good way, of course. I also use the average damage number for monsters, rather than have more dice rolls (there’s enough dice rolling in the game already).
  • Players track initiative for every combat – another time saver and empowers players to do more, rather than have me ‘parent’ them. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t do this years ago.
  • Player decisions can and should change the adventure – nothing new here, but some DMs find that they prefer players to do their adventures on rails: that is, being led from encounter to encounter. Players can, and should, be allowed to go off on all sorts of wild tangents during the game. So be flexible, be laid back, and go with the flow. Ad lib it! You’ll be surprised how well it all turns out.

More stuff soon (not sure if I can call them tips, or not…)

For more on RPGs, check out my Top Ten favourite Roleplaying Games, or if you like D&D inspired poetry, my D&D Haiku Tetralogy.

D&D. A haiku tetralogy.

Dice

Polyhedral dice
In your hand, controlling fate
Hack! Slash! “Die, monster!”

Delve

Deep dungeon delving
Party of five outsiders
Death or glory here

Dauntless

“My hit points are low”
Rest or spells to recover
“Ready? Time to smash!”

Dire

“Awful acting, yeah?”
Comedic celebration
Shared gaming love


These haiku are about my love of tabletop role playing games (RPGs), particularly Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I loooooove RPGs.

Don’t know what D&D and RPGs are? Read about them here and here.

Mindjammer – SF role playing that’ll bring you back for more

I guess you can tell by the title of this post that I love this game. I included it in my recent Top 10 Tabletop Role Playing Games.

Mindjammer is far future space opera role playing, a la the stories of Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. It’s a world of exploration, political intrigue, cultural conflict, post-humanity, virtual existence and rediscovery. The name of the game is taken from the sentient starships that carry communications and information between the stars.

Mindjammer uses the excellent Fate Core System as its engine. I wrote about this system recently, so to find out more about how it works, click here. The Fate Core System is about cinematic storytelling and making your players look and feel awesome. It empowers players and Gamemasters (GMs) to stretch the envelope. This means that Mindjammer adventures can be…flexible, and as such, the game probably requires a reasonably experienced GM.

The New Commonality of Mankind is the setting, 10 000 years in the future. And what a huge setting it is. The Mindjammer hardcover rule book is almost 500 pages long, and it contains literally everything you can think of for a sci-fi campaign–-technology, equipment, weapons, armour, starships (including sentient spaceships), constructs, vehicles, cultures, history, synthetics, races, divergent evolution, environments, life forms–and more.

Although characters can be New Commonality humans, there are also hominids (humans who have evolved to suit their new environments, like the genurgically-enhanced Chembu, low gravity Javawayn, symbiotic Hydragand-Dezimeer, and the artistic Viri), xenomorphs (uplifted animals, like canids, cetaceans, felines, pithecines, ursoids), synthetics (intelligent starships with humanoid avatars, mechanicals, organics, installations, etc.), Aliens (the warlike Hooyow, the mysterious Lowhigh) and post-humans (Evanescents, Evolvers, Extenders, and Longevitors). And the rules are flexible enough to allow creation of your own genotypes so the sky is, quite literally, without limit. There are multiple occupations, with suggested aspects, skills, stunts, enhancements and equipment for quick builds, but players have the freedom to create builds from scratch.

In the far future, nearly everyone has Mindscape implants that enable them to connect with everyone else via a virtual network, enabling technopsi powers. The Mindscape stores memories and personalities of the dead, and can provide additional skills. It’s another environment for players to adventure in, or can be used as an adjunct to their ‘physical’ adventures.

The New Commonality itself stretches over 3000 light years from Old Earth, and contains so many systems that only a small number are in the book (The included Darradine Rim is a great introductory setting, nestled on the edge of the New Commonality and bordering the Venu Empire–lots of intrigue and cultural stresses to fuel adventures). Full rules are included for creating your own systems and sectors.

Adventure seeds are peppered throughout the Mindjammer rule book, to give GMs ideas. There are extensive sections on creating adventures and campaigns, which can be any type of sci-fi the GM and players want. There is so much contained within that it’s a bit overwhelming at times, and impossible for me to cover here. The rule book is impeccably written and edited by author Sarah Newton (who also put together the great retro-fantasy Monsters and Magic RPG, which I’ll also get around to reviewing sometime…).

There are various adventures and supplements available, including The Far Havens, Blue, The City People, Hearts and Minds, and the quickstart PDF (introductory rules and adventure) Dominion, which is only $4.00 (Australian).

Mindjammer has a Traveller-version of the game, for grognards old and new (I have many fond memories of Traveller campaigns from my way-distant past).

Mindjammer is a fantastic game and setting. The Fate rules engine is flexible and easy to use, the sci-fi setting is suitably vast, fascinating and challenging, and the options for style of play are many. You can’t go wrong with this game. Even if you already have a preferred ruleset, you can just adopt the setting.

Try Mindjammer out with your gaming group. I guarantee they’ll be coming back for more.

 

Mindjammer is available via Modiphius Games at https://www.modiphius.net/collections/mindjammer-press

Fate Core System – Story telling table top role playing at its finest

I’ve been threatening to do a Fate Core review for some time now (it’s one of my Top 10 Favourite Role Playing Games), but you know how it is, so much to do and so little time… But today’s the day!

So, what is Fate Core? It’s a table top role playing game*, or TRPG**, which focuses on dramatic story telling. In the last decade or so, a number of games have entered the TRPG market that emphasise player engagement and involvement via storytelling and role playing***, including Apocalypse World, Mouse Guard, 13th Age, etc.

I believe Fate Core is one of the best cinematic story telling games around. It has some crunchy dice rolling mechanics and emphasises player awesomeness. It encourages players and Gamemaster (GM) to work together to create the story proactively as you play the game. And it enables you to play any type of game imaginable.

Here’s a few things about Fate Core:

  • Fate Core uses fudge dice. The player rolls four of these to determine if they pass or fail tests. Fudge dice have two pluses (+), two blanks ( ) and two minuses (-), and when rolled together show an outcome, where pluses are positive (obviously), blanks mean nothing (again, obviously) and minuses subtract from the pluses and blanks (you can use standard dice to simulate these if you don’t have fudge dice). When a player wants to do something cool (for example, running across the backs of crocodiles to get to the other side of the stream), the GM sets the opposition (the previous example might be considered great, or +4 opposition). The player rolls the dice and has the opportunity to invoke an Aspect (see below), or use stunts (see further below) or skills (see even further below) to add to the roll, or use Fate points (see even further down below) to influence the outcome. Once rolled, the player describes what happened and the game moves forward.
  • Players and environments have Aspects, which are phrases that describe some interesting and individual detail about the character or place e.g. “Tempted by Shiny Things”. These aspects are used in the game during Scenes, which are dramatic devices used to describe action and events. If you can describe how your aspect can add to an action, then you can get a bonus on your roll. This is called invoking, and usually costs a Fate Point. Alternatively, the negative component of an aspect can be compelled – that is, used to make things more difficult for the player. This earns them a Fate point they can use later.
  • Fate Points are the currency of the game. Players start the game with 1-3 Fate points (depending on how they build their character), and you can spend them to invoke aspects. You gain them for compelling aspects (see earlier).
  • Skills are used to do complicated or interesting actions with the dice, and are added either when you build the character or during the game – they range from +1 to +4, and you are limited in how many you have. For example, Rapport is a skill for social interaction.
  • Stunts are special tricks a player can use to get an extra benefit out of a skill or alter some rule in your character’s favour e.g. “Another Round?” Is a stunt a character with rapport can use to give a bonus to gain information when drinking in a tavern.
  • Damage is done to characters via physical stress or mental stress – a bit like hit points from D&D, but not. Physical and mental stress is recovered after each scene. A player or GM can also opt to take consequences from actions – these are longer lasting impacts that play into the story telling elements of the game, and in some cases, can affect your rolls.

What I’ve explained is very brief and doesn’t capture how cool all these elements work together when playing a game (I’m sure the authors, if they ever read this, will roll their eyes and say “But he’s just scratched the surface!”). Trust me, the rules are well written and play tested, and work really well in a live setting, allowing you to play any type of situation.

Fate Core also has an easy version called Fate Accelerated, which is quicker to learn.

One of the fantastic aspects of Fate Core is that the GM and players can make up any sort of background/setting they want to play in. There are also a number of pre-made Fate Core settings, that you can use for quick or extended games, such as Morts (zombie apocalypse), Red Planet (Soviet pulp sci-fi), Save Game (set inside a video game world), and Romance in the Air (political intrigue/steampunk), to name a few. These can be downloaded from DrivethruRPG.com, for as much as you want to pay for them.

Fate Core is also the system used in a number of other games, such as the totally cool far future transhuman Mindjammer (one of my top 10!), The Dresden Files, Spirit of the Century, Atomic Robo, Eclipse Phase (Transhumanity’s Fate), War of Ashes, and even an indie Fate Core version of Mass Effect.

If you haven’t played this game before, get some fudge dice (or regular six-sided dice), grab the rules from EvilHat.com or DrivethruRPG.com and start playing! You won’t be disappointed.

 

* Don’t know what a TRPG? You don’t know what you’ve been missing! Click here for an explanation

** Or just RPG for all the old school grognards out there who don’t get computer RPGs and table top RPGs mixed up

*** Despite what RPG implies, some RPGs are so crunchy and combat focussed that they are almost not RPGs at all, rather board games with character and skill building

Top Ten Tabletop Role Playing Games

Without further ado, my current favourites:

  1. Symbaroum – awesomely evocative Swedish fantasy TRPG. It’s all in the atmosphere. Cool systems, too. Check out my review here.
  2. Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition) – my old favourite. 5th edition is miles ahead of previous D&D versions. To find out why I love the game, click here.
  3. Fate – possibly the best ‘story-based’ TPRG around. Players and Game Master create the stories together – any genre, any type of game. Read my review of Fate’s epic awesomeness here.
  4. 13th Age – great combination of crunchy D20 mechanics and story-telling. Read my review here.
  5. Coriolis – The Third Horizon – those Swedes just keep pumping out great games. This Sci- Fi TPRG uses the cool mechanics from Mutant: Year Zero. The setting is Arabian Nights in space. Very cool. I’ll review it as soon as I finish reading it (it’s a big rule book, y’know).
  6. Mindjammer – fantastic, far future, Transhuman Sci-Fi, using the excellent Fate system. One of the best written rulebooks I’ve ever read. NO typos or grammatical errors! The spelling nazi in me was overjoyed. Reviewed here.
  7. Mouse Guard – it’s a joy to play as a mouse in a fantasy setting, where mice have towns and cities and the Mouse Guard protect them from wild animals and other threats. Uses the excellent Burning Wheel system. Must find time to review…
  8. Mutant: Year Zero – post-apocalyptic mutant mania! Another amazing Swedish game with  great sand-box play and cool D6 mechanics. My review is here.
  9. Stars Without Number – Cool old school D&D-system Sci-Fi game, with lots of sand-box tables that can be used across other games. Lots of supplements. A second edition is on the way. Where will I find the time to review all these games?
  10. Cogs, Cakes and Swordsticks – Charming English Steam Punk TRPG, with possibly the simplest games mechanics I’ve ever seen. Great game to play over tea and crumpets. I am determined to review this! Sometime.

There are LOTS of TPRGs available. My list could go on and on. But ten’s the limit. For now…

13th Age – Storytelling and innovation set this Fantasy RPG apart from other D&D-derivatives

13th Age is a fun and interesting fantasy role playing game (RPG). It’s meat and potatoes RPG elements are very much in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons, but it differentiates with a number of innovative mechanics, some of which are transferrable to other D20 systems. 13th Age is a game created on the back of the Open Game License, or OGL* for short.

The designers of 13th Age, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathon Tweet, are veterans of the RPG industry, having worked on previous incarnations of the D&D game. In 13th Age they have taken the best elements of their D&D design experiences, and added a focus on role playing and storytelling, with individual character backgrounds and relationships helping to drive the plot.

13th Age is set in the Dragon Empire, during that world’s tumultuous 13th Age. Players take on traditional D&D-style character roles (e.g. Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Rogue, Paladin, Ranger, etc.), create a ‘unique thing’ (which can be any type of story element the player wishes), and chooses one of thirteen ‘Icons’ to have a positive or negative relationship with.

The icons are extremely powerful entities which can influence the characters and their adventures. They include such figures as the Archmage, Dwarf King, Emperor, Lich King, Great Gold Wyrm and Prince of Shadows. At the start of each adventure the players roll their icon relationship dice to see what part (if any) their icon will play in the game.

There is an emphasis on character backstories shaping character skills. Adventures tend to be more character-centric than traditional D20 games, and are more flexible as a result – Game Masters (GMs) will need to do more thinking on their feet. It suits ‘sand box’-style play (where players make the choices as to where they go and what they do). For this reason, the system is oriented to more experienced referees.

Characters are customised via class and background feats. I like that starting characters have three times as many hit points as in regular D20 games. I’m not a fan of dying in my first adventure, and having more hit points allows players to focus on the epic nature of combat.

There are 10 levels for characters to advance, and within those levels are three tiers – Adventurer, Champion and Epic. The tiers aid GMs in balancing encounters – a lot of balancing has gone into this game to ensure fairness and to enable GMs to generate adventures and monsters quickly.

Hit Points and damage modifiers accrue exponentially as each character levels up – they get powerful quickly. This helps to further establish the player-centric nature of the game.

Spells are handled well – instead of hundreds of spells as in most D20 systems, there are a core of spells for each spell-using class, with effects that vary/accrue based on level or tier. I don’t like massive spell lists, they tend to be unnecessarily repetitious and slow down the game as players look up their effects. It’s one of my major criticisms of D&D’s spell system. The system in 13th Age is manageable and has enough variation to keep things interesting.

Combat is similar to other D20 games, with initiative, D20 to hit, Hit Points, Armour Class, specific combat actions, etc. A standout innovation is the Escalation Die, a 1D6 that increases players chances to hit from the second round onwards. The die reflects the characters building up momentum and strategy as the battle progresses, thus making it easier for them to hit their opponents. The bonus goes from +1 in the second round to +6 by the seventh round, but can reduce if the players actively avoid combat. The physical die is a handy reminder of the bonus.

Characters recover hit points via quick rests or Full Heal Ups. Combat is fast and furious, but with enough crunch to keep grognards happy.

Rather than keeping track of multiple monster abilities during combat, certain attacks are activated based on the monster’s D20 to hit roll. Another great innovation that saves the GM time and keeps battles moving, and possibly my favourite aspect of the game (being a long-term GM who dislikes having to remember cumbersome monster abilities).

I like that Heinsoo and Tweet provide intimate little asides about how they play and referee the game. I also like the fact that the rule book is printed on heavy stock paper and is perfect bound (no chance of this rule book falling apart with use, unlike some other games. Yes, Wizards of the Coast, I’m referring to your D&D books).

The artwork in 13th Age is stylish, and the artists Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell received cover credit along with the authors. It’s not the breathtakingly evocative work found in Symbaroum, my current yardstick for fantasy RPG art, but it’s still good.

13th Age is a fun game for both GMs and players. It focuses on player stories and spectacular, fast-moving battles. If you like D20 systems but want something that emphasises player stories and fast, innovative gameplay, this could be the game for you.

 

13th Age is published by Pelgrane Press, and is available via their website.

 

* The OGL was introduced by Wizards of the Coast, owners of the D&D game, to promote usage and enable creators and contributors to create content (and other versions of the game) without the need to worry about copyright infringement. The official OGL statement must be included in every derivative product.

Symbaroum – a tabletop fantasy RPG that reeks of deep darkness, blighted evil and drawn out death. Fun!

(“You and your crazy role playing games,” says Alpha Girl surveying the books, sheets and dice on the kitchen table. “You’ve even got Beta Max involved.”

“It’s all good fun,” says Beta Max, rolling a handful of dice and cheering at the result. “Another dead goblin, thank you very much.” He sits back, hands behind his head, looking smug. “Any time soon, those magical math powers will kick in.* ”

“You know, you could play if you want,” I say.

“Would I be able to kill you?” says Alpha Girl.

“I guess so-”

“I’m in. Tell me what I have to do.”)

 

I like role playing games (RPGs). I can’t help it. There’s something about giving up mundane reality to become a fearless knight fighting evil monsters in fantastic and mysterious lands. Yeah, it’s nerdy, but that’s okay. It helps to relax my overwrought brain. It also enables me to exercise my imagination – ideal for any would-be writer. (What’s an RPG? You can find out more here.)

A while back I bought a tabletop RPG called Symbaroum. It’s a dark-edged fantasy set in a kingdom on the edge of Davokar, a massive forest consumed with corruption, wherein lies ruins of the ancient kingdom of Symbaroum. Adventurers based in border towns like Thistle Hold, venture warily into the dark forest to loot the ancient ruins, battle elves, trolls and blight beasts. This often ends in madness and hideous death. Yeah! Sounds like good times all round.

Symbaroum is the brainchild of Mattias Johnson and Mattias Lilja, of the Swedish games company Jarnringen. Symbaroum is big in Sweden, and is slowly breaking ground around the rest of the world. Modiphius Games distribute the English-translation of the game.

The game uses some interesting RPG mechanics, a few of which I’ve listed below:

  • Whilst there are archetypes to create base characters (Warrior, Mystic, Rogue, each with multiple occupations), and five races, players can elect to build their characters from scratch, selecting abilities (skills) they believe relevant, up to the limit of the build.
  • The eight attribute values that underscore each character range between 5 and 15. To succeed at an action, the player rolls a D20, with success below the tested attribute value. Traits, abilities, weapons and conditions provide positive or negative modifiers. Tests compare one of your character’s attributes against another character’s/monster’s attributes.
  • Players roll all the dice in the game. This includes defending against attacks. The Games Master (GM) never rolls at all.
  • Magic and artifacts can cause corruption in characters, turning them into blight-stricken abominations, if they’re not careful.
  • Battles are hard. More often than not, players may run from conflict. That doesn’t mean they don’t fight at all, but battles can be deadly.

An adventure, The Promised Land, is included in the rule book to introduce players to the systems used.

The campaign background is very detailed, focussing on the country of Ambria and the nearby Forest of Davokar – a small section of the overall game world. The location and background establishes the flavour of the setting – it’s very dark, dank and mysterious, full of horror, manipulative factions, layered history and deep secrets.

The art in this game is by Martin Bergstrom, and it is phenomenal (see the image above for a teaser). Never before have I seen such evocative, haunting and awe-inspiring artwork in an RPG. It really helps to set the scene and emphasise the dark nature of the game.

There are a number of supplements that have been released, with the latest being Thistle Hold: Wrath of the Warden, the first in a grand campaign called Throne of Thorns.

Symbaroum is a great role playing game. It’s well worth your attention. Even if you’ve never played a role playing game before.

 

(“Hah!” cries Alpha Girl. “I killed you! You’re dead! DEAD!” She’s dancing in her seat.

Beta Max and I look at each other bemusedly. Beta Max whispers in my ear: “I think she’s getting into this game a little too much.”)

 

* Disclaimer: I never said playing RPGs would give you ‘magical math powers’. For more on that, click here.

 

You can order Symbaroum online from the Modiphius Games website at http://www.modiphius.com

Thistle Hold: Wrath of the Warden is available in print/PDF from Modiphius, or PDF from DriveThruRPG at  http://www.drivethrurpg.com

To find out more about Jarnringen, visit their site at http://www.jarnringen.com (in Swedish, Google will translate the page for you)

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