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What Do You Use For Miniatures?

posted Tuesday, November 27th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Miniatures, or ‘minis’, are a fantastic tool that can enhance any combat-based Dungeons & Dragons game. In theory, they’re almost necessary for the game, with long-time Dungeon Masters owning huge collections of monsters. In practice, however, it’s not always feasible to own a complete set. Aside from the limits of what’s available to buy, few Dungeon Masters have the pockets deep enough to buy every single miniature they are likely to need, and many forgo the use of minis entirely.

A quick Google suggests that a Medium sized creature costs about £1 (US$2) in inch square base form, a Small creature £0.50 (US$1), and a Large creature anything up to £10 (US$20). For larger minis, you’re looking at US$40 (£20) for a gargantuan black dragon (4 inch base) and $74.99 for the colossal red dragon (6 inch base). These are prices for the official D&D miniatures line, prepainted, and plastic – expect to pay more than this for metal miniatures. Warhammer miniatures are a ready source, but somewhat limited in variety, and more expensive (£15/$30 for ten orcs, £33/$66 for fifteen). In either case, generic miniatures are often cheaper, but come unpainted and the selection available can be unpredictable.

The only real issue with miniatures is the sheer number required. The RttToEE miniatures list suggests that the average campaign will need approximately 27 miniatures per level: that’s two per encounter, or 540 over the course of a twenty-level campaign. This isn’t even counting multiples: at an arbitrary estimate of double, you may need over one thousand miniatures to complete a twenty-level campaign, many of which will cost a premium and only be used once. Even then, many monsters (including those published in monster books) don’t even have minis available to buy. This brings us to the topic of miniature stand-ins.

Straightforwardly, a “stand-in” is anything you use in place of a miniature. It’s effectively impossible to always have the right miniatures, but there are a variety of options open to you depending on your budget, some of which can replace miniatures completely. Follow the link to after the jump, where I’m examining a list of options for quality and cost-effectiveness. Continue reading this article »

Fourth Edition News Recap

posted Wednesday, November 21st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

While fan-favourite D&D site ENWorld has been dutifully the news on fourth edition, I’ve had a reader request for some more news on the topic. Here’s the distilled edition of the big D&D 4e news from the past few months.

Right now, the news is that all three core books will receive a June 2008 launch. I believe that Dragon magazine writers are out of luck right now, since this pretty much saps any demand for 3e-based articles. Those of us who can’t wait will find the first 4e adventure H1: Keep on the Shadowfell released in April with quickstart rules, and we’re also seeing a D&D Miniatures Game starter set in April too. If you can’t wait that long, the D&D Experience convention in February (formerly Winter Fantasy) will have the first public preview of the game.

How will the game change? One factor of interest is that the game rules are simplifying down into more unified mechanics. That’s not the say the game is being dumbed-down, but rather that rules work the same way in similar situations. All attacks now use the same “attacker rolls a d20 and adds his bonuses” mechanic, including spells, breath weapons and traps, and all of these can critical or fumble. Epic levels from 21st to 30 are included by default, and (finally) traps aren’t limited to CR10. We’re also seeing a broad range of thematic changes, which ultimately I think will make the game more interesting – if you disagree, remember that D&D is always “DM’s choice” when it comes to the flavour.

Now for an important question: How will it hit your pocket? D&D 4e seems to place a larger emphasis on complex, professionally-written dungeons instead of homebrew monster-after-monster dungeons. This is good news for freelancers (who will be pleased at the writing opportunities this opens up) and players (who see a more interesting play experience), but it places a little more financial strain on the DM. Encounters with numerous monsters instead of one are the norm – this is good for gameplay, I’m certain, but if you use miniatures it means buying more of them. Ultimately I can tell you that while minis and prewritten adventures improve a combat-based D&D game, it’s going to be tricky for us Dungeon Masters who get stuck with the bill.

For those of us who can’t wait and need something new to play for the next five or six months, Iron Heroes and Star Wars Saga Edition feature many of the rules improvements that we’re going to see in 4th edition. Iron Heroes is a Conan-esque low-magic, high-action combat game, while Star Wars should need no introduction. Alternatively, if you’re running an extended D&D campaign, now’s a good time to push your game toward a conclusion. Whichever you do, have fun.

Summoning Variant Rules

posted Sunday, November 18th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

The other day I posted five house rules from my old Talen’s Forge archives. Another, more involved variant rule I used to employ involved monster summoning. The game rules as written are weak and often boring, but summoning exotic creatures should be interesting and involved! I decided it could use some livening up.

Preferred Summons: A spellcaster who is capable of casting summon monster or summon nature’s ally spells may choose one individual, named creature per caster level as a Preferred Summons. The caster is by no means limited to only summoning these creatures – he simply has a special rapport with each of them, who are above average members of their species. Each such creature gains the following benefits:

  1. Their ability scores and hit dice are rolled as if they were a player character
  2. The caster can choose the creature’s feats
  3. The caster can impart objects with the creature’s personal rune, allowing it to retain equipment across summons

Each time the character levels up, he may add one individual creature. It may be a creature he has summoned before, or a new one. Establishing a new Preferred Summons takes one hour. Additionally, each time the character levels up he may trade out one existing Preferred Summons for a new one.

A character with the feat Spell Focus (conjuration) treats as level as two higher for the purposes of Preferred Summons capacity. A caster able to cast both spells, such as a multiclass character, keeps two separate lists.

Five House Rules

posted Wednesday, November 14th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

On Saturday when I was hooking up redirects from my old site, Talen’s Forge, I found an even older version of the site that had my old house rules from 2004. Some of them I’ve since found better solutions to, but here are the best of what I’d keep.

  1. No players lagging behind on XP. If a new character joins an existing game, they start with the same XP as the average of the rest of the party. Further, no player shall ever be more than one full level behind the highest level player character. In practice, a player lagging several levels behind is no good.
  2. Raised characters suffer only temporary negative levels. You can thank Andy Collins for this idea. A character who is raised suffers a negative level until the next time he levels up. The negative level cannot be removed before then by any means, short perhaps of a wish. This discourages players from simply abandoning their character for a new one to gain new equipment and avoid level loss.
  3. Ability scores for familiars and animal companions are rolled as a player character, instead of picking average. With this setup, players put more pride in their animal. It’s much more personal when you get lucky and roll a 17 or 18 for this bear, and need to go through character generation to get a new one.
  4. Starting gear is determined by DM. One of the oddities of third edition high-level play is that you’re able to pick your own starting gear. I don’t like this. Newly created characters, having had the luxury of picking from the list, are more powerful than organic characters, who must either deal with what they find or sell unwanted material at half-price.
  5. If the party forgets to loot the bodies, the party forgets to loot the bodies. Corollary: If nobody writes it down, you left it in the dungeon.

I came up with some summoning variant rules too, which I’ll see about posting in a few days’ time. See you then.

Related Posts

Your Campaign’s First Roleplaying Encounter

posted Sunday, November 11th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

You’re starting a new campaign. Your players are going over their characters to make sure they’ve forgotten nothing. “Racial attributes? Class abilities? AC? Equipment? Saves? Feats? Skills? Weapon proficiencies?” It all checks out, and your campaign is ready to go – or so it seems.

Six game sessions in, you decide that a little parley with a dark elf NPC is in order. “Does anyone speak Undercommon?” Leafing through their character sheets, players all together realise that they forgot to assign languages at character creation. You let them pick now to get it out of the way, and suddenly all of your players are fluent in Undercommon.

As I talk to more Dungeon Masters, it turns out that their groups suffer from this too! A solution is to make sure you get this out of the way early on. Your first non-combat encounter, therefore, should always be with someone who doesn’t speak a common language.

There are two major benefits to this. One, by putting it in a roleplaying encounter as opposed to an action encounter, the action isn’t stalled by leafing through books trying to decide who wants to speak Sylvan. Two, by having him speak an uncommon language you give players a choice – pick the language that’s immediately useful, or choose something more common that will be useful more often later on.

Undead Are Our Friends

posted Tuesday, November 6th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

Back when I ran a D&D game with the group that first got me started playing, we had this one fellow who was a huge fan of undead. Originally he was disappointed at being roped into cleric, until he realised the benefits of playing “chaotic neutral”. In the long run, his strategy of undead use proved to be so popular, I’m almost surprised to find spellcasters without their own skeletal minions.

Starting from level 1, a cleric who channels negative energy – this does not have to be an evil cleric, merely a nongood one – can begin to command undead. Should you be lucky enough to encounter any, you can maintain control indefinitely over up to two human zombies or three human skeletons, or similar. Any undead with half your hit dice is vulnerable to control, and at any given time you can hold a total equal to your hit dice. However, the benefit of commanding undead is limited as you rise in level. As you rise in power relative to your minions, they become increasingly fragile and replacements are hard to find.

Luckily, there’s another option. At level 5 for a cleric, or level 7 for a wizard, our budding evil overlord gains access to animate dead, a handy spell that lets you create your own skeletons and zombies. Not only that, but you can create undead worth twice your caster level (instead of half) and automatically control 4HD per caster level indefinitely, on top of any undead you command. This spell is the mainstay of any undead user. At level 5 you can create a 10HD ettin skeletons and control two such creatures, and at level 9 some 17HD cloud giant skeletons. Its drawbacks are the cost and the level cap – 25gp per HD non-refundable, and skeletons/zombies are limited to 20HD.

The next spell up is create undead, available from level 11 for both cleric and wizard, allowing you to create ghouls, ghasts, mummies and mohrgs. However, this spell has two major drawbacks. One, it costs twice as much as animate dead – 50gp per HD. Second, you have to control the creature yourself by commanding undead. In other words, at 11th level you can control five ghouls, at 12 three ghasts, at 16th a single mummy, and actually controlling the mohrg you can make at level 18 is out of the question. At this point, you’re almost better sticking with animate dead.

Level 15 sees create greater undead, which lets you create a shadow, wraith, spectre or devourer. Although you won’t be powerful enough to command the devourer before level 24, the incorporeal undead you can create here are good value for money since they’re immune to many opponents’ attacks. A fifteenth level cleric can spend 750gp – a third of one percent of his total wealth – on three Strength-draining incorporeal shadows, while a 20th level cleric can own two level-draining spectres and one Con-draining wraith. Not exactly epic level power, but it fills up what at high level are useless command undead slots.

It may seem very cleric-biased here, but thankfully the sorcerer and wizard still have a few tricks up their sleeve. The second-level spell command undead gives you control over a single undead for one day per level, making it friendly to you – you can generally count on them as an ally for the rest of the adventure. However, undead tend to have high Will saves, and you don’t control them outright. Seventh level sees a spell which does afford you complete control for a shorter duration, control undead. It also affects multiple targets, with a hit dice cap of twice your level.

However, both command undead and control undead rely on you finding undead creatures. Although you can create them with create undead, you are at best spending a lot of gold pieces to create and control an undead for a single adventure, whereas a careful cleric can keep control of his own minions indefinitely.

In any case, for an additional investment it’s often wise to equip your undead with anything they’re able to use. Often you’ll find wondrous items that are only going to sit in a bag of holding until you get back to town, and some undead (skeleton and zombie warriors included) are proficient with weapons and armour. Even when they’re not, a full-plate clad human commoner zombie with a large shield can still act as an AC21 DR5 meat shield, or at worst a moveable barrier. Finally, you can always try to take a vampire cohort with the Leadership feat, and, if your DM is as malleable as I was back then, start building toward lichdom yourself.

Socratic Design

posted Friday, November 2nd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Surprisingly, there are more RPG blogs out there than I’d initially. One such website goes by the title of Socratic Design, a blog from the author of an RPG called Ember Twilight. I haven’t had time to read the entire backlog, but so far it looks to be of interest to any budding RPG designer, with articles including What’s it like to publish an RPG? and How can Magic be used in an RPG?

If you’re interested in the field of RPG writing, it’s definitely worth having a look at Socratic Design.

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