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How To: Character Background

posted Friday, July 24th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Player Advice

As a DM I often find that I get one of two extremes when I ask my players for their character’s background story. More often than not I will get either a few curt words about who the character is and where they came from, or I will get a long, detailed story about the character’s life and exploits to the start of the campaign.

Unfortunately, neither of those is particularly useful for me as a DM. I’ve learned to be specific about the kinds of background details I’m looking for in particular and have found that now I get results that not only can I use, but leave my creative players feeling less frustrated about their hard work going to waste and my less creative players feeling less lost when they write their backgrounds. Continue reading this article »

The Art of the One-Shot Adventure

posted Wednesday, July 22nd 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

One shot adventures can be very difficult to use. They interrupt a campaign, don’t involve a lot of opportunity to advance the characters involved, mechanically or through roleplaying, and offer little in the way of obvious rewards for the players involved—after all, once the one-shot ends, so does their time with that character, so any experience gains or treasure acquired feels meaningless.

Still, there are plenty of good reasons to use one shot adventures: Continue reading this article »

Beyond “You Hit”: Describing Damage

posted Monday, July 20th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth EditionPlayer AdviceThird Edition

Last month’s article discussed hit points from a player character’s perspective. Today we’re taking a further look at hit points and what that number means for creatures in general.

Hit points and you

To summarize our last article, hit points are an abstract number representing how much damage a character or monster can take. That number can represent a great range of things, including injury tolerance, resistance to pain, stamina, morale, luck, discipline, training, magic and even divine protection.

Now as a Dungeon Master, or even as a player who wants some descriptive flair to his actions, deciding just what this means can add realism and common sense to your game. That in turn can make your game more engaging, and more enjoyable. There are many ways you can describe the effects of damage and resisting damage. Continue reading this article »

Are Tabletop RPGs Doomed?

posted Saturday, July 18th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignNews, Reviews & Culture

Last month’s state of the RPG industry address by publisher Joseph Goodman invoked a lot of discussion.

At Kobold Quarterly, there’s a new interview with Joseph Goodman. Regarding his post in June:

“In order to establish that my opinion on 4E sales was qualified, I listed my credentials. Some readers interpreted that as a sign of arrogance. If I were to rewrite the post I would have been a little less forceful about the credentials, and more clear that I was listing them simply to establish the basis for my opinion.”

Particularly interesting is his perspective on 4E:

“Yes, it’s a fun game, but I personally prefer earlier editions of D&D. I’m not really the target market for 4E. I also recognize that my personal preferences are not the way to run a business. Goodman Games will always publish old-school products because that’s the most fun for me, but it’s 4E that pays the bills. Take the market for 1E and add a couple zeroes to get to the people who still play 3E, then add several more zeroes and you’re up to the 4E market.”

Publisher James Mishler makes an interesting post titled The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling. James is pessimistic about 4E sales figures, and of RPG industry sales figures in general:

Back in the day, Judges Guild sold upward of 10,000 units on even a bad product, and 50,000+ units on a good one; today, unless you are Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and maybe Green Ronin, Goodman Games, Mongoose Publishing, or Steve Jackson Games, you are lucky to sell 1,000 units on a good product… very lucky. At the beginning of the d20 OGL run, sales of 10,000 units were not impossible; by the end, 1,000 units were the norm.

Paizo’s Erik Mona chimes in with a comment:

Part of the problem, here, is that you’re assuming that anyone can make any kind of money at all selling 1000 units of just about anything. I’m not sure that’s ever been true at any time in the history of the tabletop gaming industry, and it’s certainly not true now.

You’ve got to find a way to develop and audience for your product that is larger than 1000 potential sales. Every product Paizo produces, for example, must endure a rigorous cost/profit analysis before it gets the green light. Everything we do has realistic break-evens in the sub-2000 units category, and only extremely rarely does a product in our lineup not sell significantly more copies than that.

Interesting reads all round. Those links again: Goodman’s post in June, my report of that article, Kobold Quarterly’s new review, and James Mishler’s doomsaying (scroll down for Erik Mona’s reply).

You’re Dead!

posted Friday, July 17th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering AdvicePlayer Advice

“The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap, and I declare her dead.”
“NO! NOT BLACK LEAF! NO, NO! I’M GOING TO DIE! Don’t make me quit the game. Please don’t! Somebody save me! You can’t do this!”
“Marcie, get out of here. YOU’RE DEAD! You don’t exist any more.”

It happens to every party sooner or later. Maybe that last fight was a little bit too rough, or maybe the dice just weren’t on the party’s side—whatever the reason, someone’s kicked the bucket and now it’s time to decide what to do about the dead character. Obviously the death has to have some effect on the game—if dead player characters just wandered back in after the fight ended none the worse for wear, death wouldn’t mean very much at all. (Unless you’re playing Paranoia, in which case that’s half the fun.) On the other hand, if the penalty for dying is too harsh, it can lead to death really being the end—players will not want to continue with the game with characters who have been heavily penalized if it means they’re going to be at a disadvantage from then on. It may seem ludicrous to consider a player being forced out of the game simply because their character has died, but it’s entirely possible for excessive penalties for character death to cause a player to become frustrated enough to quit. Continue reading this article »

Five Ways to Make Your Players’ Lives Easier

posted Wednesday, July 15th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

This is a follow-up to an earlier article, Five Ways To Make Your DM’s Life Easier.

As a DM you’re arguably the most important person to any campaign. Without you there’s no game, in a very real sense. Many DMs relish this responsibility and the power it entails—it is their job to literally create and populate the world the player characters live and adventure in. Unfortunately it’s all too easy to forget that without the players, there’s no game either—so it’s in every good DM’s best interest to ensure that his or her players are happy and content at all times.

Below are five helpful hints towards accomplishing that goal.

(Note: If any of this looks familiar, it’s not just you. This is a very real case of what’s good for the goose being good for the gander. Just as many players overlook the importance of maintaining a good relationship with their DM, many DMs don’t consider the importance of returning the favor.) Continue reading this article »

Product Review: Eberron Player’s Guide

posted Friday, July 10th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Note: The following review is by 4E Dungeon Master and avid roleplayer Brandan Landgraff. His previous articles on D20 Source include D&D Campaign Setting 2010 and Five Ways To Make Your DM’s Life Easier.

I like Eberron. I was first introduced to the setting by Jonathan shortly after it came out, and I found it resonated with my own personal tastes quite well. (Every film on the list of influences found in the original Eberron book is among my own favorites.) In light of that, the 4th Edition rules for the campaign have been among the books I’ve been most looking forward to since they were announced.

In a move most likely prompted by customer feedback, the Eberron Player’s Guide was released before the Eberron Campaign Guide—the opposite was true of last year’s Forgotten Realms books. In a way, neither case is ideal, as both leave us with only half a campaign for the period between the releases. The best way would arguably have been to shift July’s Divine Power release forward a month and release the three Eberron products—Player’s Guide, Campaign Guide, and the adventure—simultaneously, as was done with the core rulebooks last year. It can be understood, then, that the Eberron Player’s Guide does not function especially well on its own as a tool for DMs, although a good deal of the information it presents will be important for a Dungeon Master intending to set a campaign in Eberron to know. On the other hand, this release does contain everything that the players will need to know about playing a game in Eberron. Continue reading this article »

Golden Rules of Game Mastering

posted Wednesday, July 8th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

On Thursday, Brandan posted five ways to make your DM’s life easier. As a Dungeon Master, however, it’s incumbent upon you to repay your players’ efforts. Here are two guidelines for all Dungeon Masters.

Golden Rule 1: The game must be fun.

The Dungeon Master must ensure that the players enjoy the game. They must not become bored or unhappy.

Your role as Dungeon Master is to keep your players entertained. All else is secondary: rules, plot, and even game balance are only tools toward that goal. Throw any of these under the train if you think it’ll provide a better game experience.

Don’t be afraid to examine your dungeon mastering style for faults. For example, in my last session we took a full hour to get to the adventure proper, because as DM I wanted to avoid sacrificing the planned story to hurry things along. Although the story kept going, it meant that the players were bored for an hour.

Golden Rule 2: The DM is always right.

The Dungeon Master is the authority on the game. If the rules disagree, they are wrong.

Yax at Dungeon Mastering calls this his Golden Rule. As DM, you have authority to change, counter or ignore a rule to favour the game. The game rules are your tool and not the other way around. It’s also called “Rule 0″: a hypothetical rule pencilled in on the inside cover of the DM’s rulebook.

Here’s the catch: You need to know the rules first, so that you’ll know how to break them. Moreover, the DM’s only right because he’s responsible for the game. In other words, the first rule overrides the second. If your game is poorly received, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Anything else?

Feel free to drop a comment: What other “golden rules” of dungeon mastering are missing from this list?

Twitter For the Discerning Gentleman Player

posted Monday, July 6th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

A short post today in honour of Twitter, the web service that lets you read and post messages with a 140-letter limit.

Why use Twitter?

Twitter’s advantage over blogs is that posts are short and concise, so they’re quick and easy both to read and write. You can use the tag #dnd to make it easy.

I use Twitter to leave short summaries of my weekly D&D game. People rarely want to read a ten-page description of someone else playing D&D, but they’ll happily read a 140-character synopsis. Likewise, you can use Twitter to leave gaming advice, perhaps after learning from a mistake or a success during a game.

Things to read

Twitter’s advantage is posts are short enough so you can easily read a hundred or more in one sitting. Your first stop is the Twitter tag #dnd, for a copious amount of Dungeons & Dragons talk each day. Fourth edition players should #4E for edition-specific posts.

Second for 4E players is @SlyFlourish, a daily advice feed.

Several RPG writers and publishers are on Twitter, some exclusively so. We have @monkeyking (Wolfgang Baur), @KoboldQuarterly (Wolfgang Baur’s Kobold Quarterly), @brucecordell, @mikemearls, and writer/entrepreneur @ephealy. Twitter is also home to @rsdancey, former D&D brand manager who’s seriously knowledgeable about the RPG industry.

Other bloggers, sites and projects also have Twitter feeds, either to link their updates or supplement their content. We have @grandoglwiki (a very dedicated project to collect D&D 3E OGL material, @shamusyoung of blog Twenty Sided, @ChattyDM, @stupidranger, @gamecryer, @criticalhits, @JohnnFour (of Roleplaying Tips), @martinralya, @rpgobjects, @DaveTheGame, @newbiedm, and gamer @wilw (Wil Wheaton). I’m on there too as @jonathandrain.

I can’t have covered every D&D feed on Twitter, so leave a comment on thist post if you have any suggestions.

Five Ways To Make Your DM’s Life Easier

posted Friday, July 3rd 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Player Advice

Tabletop roleplaying games are special among their peers in that they require a GM or Game Master – in D&D terms a DM, or Dungeon Master. The DM is a source of the D&D’s strengths, but it’s also a weakpoint: if your DM isn’t having a good time with the game, there’s a good chance he’ll up and quit, leaving you gameless. It stands to reason, then, that D&D players should keep their DM happy and content at all times.

Below are five helpful hints towards accomplishing that goal. Continue reading this article »

D&D Campaign Setting 2010

posted Wednesday, July 1st 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Jonathan notes: The following D20 Source article is the first by new contributor Brandan Landgraff. Brandan is a long-time roleplayer from Canada, and played a rogue-sorcerer in an online D&D v3.5 game of mine a few years ago. He currently runs D&D 4th edition and collects out-of-print RPG books.

With Eberron out properly by the end of July and Gencon Indy coming up in August, it stands to reason that we’ll be hearing from Wizards pretty soon about what the next D&D campaign world to be released will be. There seems to be a general consensus of sorts that Dark Sun is the most likely setting for 2010, but it’s far from the only option available. D&D campaign settings have a long and storied history and with Forgotten Realms and Eberron out of the way, the field looks pretty open for some of the old classics to make a comeback.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the choices. Continue reading this article »

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