Laidback DM: Free Map! Giant Mound

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give away my hand-drawn maps any chance I get.

This week: Giant Mound

You can use this map for any kind of giant insect or burrowing animal you like: Giant Ants (KTOB), Burrowlings (KTOB), Thri-kreen (MM), Kruthiks (MTF), Cave Fishers (VGM), Chitines (VGM), Choldrith (VGM), Meenlocks (VGM), Neogi (VGM), Tlincalli (VGM), Dogmoles (KTOB), Millitaurs (KTOB), Ratfolk (KTOB), Giant Rats (MM), Tosculi (KTOB), etc., to name a few.  

Change the scale and suddenly it’s a Purple Worm (MM) breeding mound! Or home to mutant insect/dragon hybrid creatures! The sky (or rather the mound) is the limit!

Giant Insect Mound - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding.jpg

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 😊

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Map – Tower and Undertemple

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

This week: Tower and Undertemple

Local villagers have been going crazy after visiting a ruined tower on a peak not far from town. Something has been climbing up from the bowels of the earth, infecting them and the denizens of the ruined temple below the tower with madness. The huge cracks lead to the source of the infection, deep down… 

The lowest section of the temple is partially flooded, and a cure for the infection lies in the south-eastern cavern. The PCs need to get past the crazed guardians before they can claim it, and try to stay sane themselves…

Ruined Tower and Undertemple - 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 😊

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Map – Big Bad Boss Castle

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

This week: Big Bad Boss Castle

Yep – there’s always an endgame, and the Big Bad Boss is the dude or dudette at the end of the adventuring horizon. Here’s a castle for them, hovering miles above the world in a patch of magical ocean. Eldritch sigils prevent flying/teleporting, impossibly sheer cliffs prevent scaling – I guess it’s time to grind through high-level beasties from one keep to the next. Every bridge is a new underboss and a new environmental hazard. Taking to the water? Sea Dragons and Water Super-Elementals might make your PCs think twice.   

Big Bad Castle - 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 😊

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Map – Clifftop Temple

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: Clifftop Temple

After climbing all the way to the top of the cliff, the PCs must bypass the Animated Armours (MM), various traps and crazed Zombie (MM) monks to access the inner well. Down the well, past flying Flameskulls (MM) to the undercliff, where a terrifying Draegloth (VGM) stalks those who seek the treasure of the pool. Watch your step, as quicksand, Piercers (MM) and pit traps abound… 

Clifftop Temple - 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 😊

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Map – Entombed!

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: Entombed!

This partly collapsed tomb features magic guardian statues in the reception antechamber, a number of sarcophagi with undead occupants, treasure rooms and narrow tunnels, home to infected, undead underdwellers. Enjoy!

Entombed - 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 😊

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

Laidback DM: Free Maps – Four Encounter Settings

Time for some free maps! 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: Four Encounter Settings

Here are four maps that I’d call basic encounter settings: a small mansion, a country farm, a tiny temple and a mountain pass. It wouldn’t be too hard to combine all of these into a single adventure – come on, DMs! You can do it!  

 Basic Setting Maps - Laidback DM - stevestillstanding copy

Above: Just right click and save.

These maps are free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website stevestillstanding.com. If you want to use them 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.

Laidback DM: New Approaches to Inspiration Rewards

D&D fifth edition (or 5e) has this lovely little bonus for players called ‘inspiration’. It’s an extra d20 that is awarded to the player for doing something cool, great role playing, etc. They can use it to re-roll a d20 roll they’ve failed. It’s a groovy concept, but it is a bit limiting (they can only have one at a time), and I’m one of those DMs who often forgets to give it out. Doh!

Laidback DM - stevestillstanding.com
I was ‘inspired’ to take this photo. Yeah, I know. Sorry.

This is complicated by the fact that some players are more extraverted or better role players than others, which can make it a bit harder for others to shine. As DM, it’s our job to ensure everyone gets their time in the sun, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to award inspiration!

If you’re like me, maybe you need a new approach to inspiration awards. Here’s a few ways you can up the ante with inspiration:

1.Inspiration Pool – each time the party does something great as a team—like working together to cross a tricky ravine or solving a puzzle collectively—award the party an inspiration d20, added to a pool in the centre. This can be drawn on by anyone in the party (as agreed by the team). The pool can be carried over from game to game and has no limit.

2.Multiple Player Inspiration Awards – each player starts the game with an inspiration d20. During the game they can award their inspiration die to any other player, but not themselves. A player can be awarded multiple d20s.

3.End of Adventure Inspiration Awards – everyone receives a d20 inspiration at the end of each game session—the contribution and inclusion award. It has to be used before the end of the next session (yes, this is a lazy way of doing it, but it does make your job easier).

4.Fate Points – the Fate Core game has ‘Fate points’, allowing players to invoke or compel aspects during the game. The DMG includes a system called ‘hero points’. Fate Points in D&D would not be limited by the hero point rules. Each player would have 5 Fate Points per game to spend on d20 re-rolls, no matter what type of d20 roll it is—including an NPC’s roll. This gives players a LOT of heroic leeway, but is fun nonetheless (especially when multiple rolls fail, lol).

5.Inspiration Fails – the player is awarded an inspiration die when they fail a skill roll. Sort of a reward for screwing up—“better luck next time”. The normal inspiration rules apply i.e. one die per player until used, but means they should get more inspiration dice on average per game.

I hope you were inspired by these ideas, if not the bad pun.

Keep on gaming!

Cheers

Steve 🙂

For more Laidback DM, click here.

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 😊

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A review.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is Wizard of the Coast’s (WOTC) official new rules supplement for D&D 5e. Its 192 pages contain new sub-classes, racial feats, spells, magic items and lots of tables, including expanded magic items, random encounters and character background generators.

Overall, I felt a bit ripped off. All the content included is non-essential reading. Sure, it’s nice to have some new class options, and the tables of names and backgrounds may come in handy for some of my players, but the rest of the material is already available elsewhere (most of the spells are from the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure / free Elemental Evil Player’s Companion) or is stuff that I already homebrew (rules for simple and complex traps, for instance). This book is the same price as the core rule books ($60 AU / $50 US) with far less pages and useful content; maybe if it was $40 AU I wouldn’t have been so negative. XanatharsThe production and art is a high standard, as with all WOTC products, but is it worth $20 more than what a supplement should be priced at? And still no free PDF linked to the copy you buy, as most other game companies do. I’m willing to bet that this book also costs a motza on D&D Beyond, the new online pay-for-content digital toolset.

I would have preferred some of the tables (random encounters, for example) be added to the next printing of the DM’s guide, so that future DMs get the updated versions (I don’t use encounter tables, but there are others who would appreciate them). I must admit that I did like the inclusion of Tool Descriptions and DCs for tool usage (really, this should have been included in the Player’s Handbook originally), but once again, it’s not essential to play the game.

I am realistic and aware that WOTC needs to keep making money, so they can keep producing content. I’m hoping future supplements won’t be as short shrift as this one, though.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is a supplement ideal for new DMs and players looking for new character options, spells, feats and backgrounds. More experienced DMs and those who own all the existing books may want to save their money and give it a miss.

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 #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 😊

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.

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…

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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