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. Need to review this, too…
  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…

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑