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When Things Go Wrong

posted Wednesday, September 30th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Even the best of DMs with the best of players can have the occasional off-night. Whether it’s simply the players taking an unplanned direction while the DM draws a blank, or external stresses bubbling over and causing an argument, no campaign goes off without ever having a problem.

There is, however, a difference between a minor problem and a game-ending problem. A minor problem may conceivably lead to your game being cancelled for the evening to give the DM time to think up a way for the adventure to continue in the unexpected direction (or even to let tempers cool) but a major problem could cause players to permanently leave the game, or even end friendships. Most major problems begin as minor problems that, through improper handling or neglect, develop into a serious issue. Continue reading this article »

Wizard Needs Food Badly: Eating Monsters

posted Monday, September 28th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame Design

When a character eats the corpse of a monster, what side-effects await him? Will poison or magical effect make the attempt more trouble than it’s worth? Or, might he gain some strange and wonderful power?

Below are effects for several iconic monsters in D&D fourth edition. You are encouraged to invent your own. I’ll try and post a third edition conversion of this article on Friday if there’s interest.

As a general rule, monsters must be eaten promptly when slain to have any effect. Preserved corpses (frozen, pickled, etc) may provide nutrition, but lose their special efficacy when stored. A Medium creature provides enough vital body parts to feed two characters, plus one for every size class above Medium.

Orc or gnoll

According to the human barbarians tribes of the cold north, eating the liver of savage humanoids is a way to gain their courage. However, it’s not without risks.
Risk: Character risks acquiring blood parasites. Treat the parasites as a disease. (Savage Bloodflukes, level 8 disease. Attack: +11 vs Fortitude. Endurance: improve DC 25, maintain DC 21, worsen DC 20 or lower. Initial effect: Target suffers -1 to all attacks and gains +1 to damage with melee weapons. Worsens: Target’s powers treat all allies as enemies, and target automatically makes opportunity attacks against allies. Final state: target loses free will, enters a frenzy and fights until slain.)
Effect: The next time the target spends an action point in battle, he may use a healing surge.


Dragon meat is tough to eat and difficult to prepare. Cooking red dragon meat is impossible without magical fire.
Risk: Dragon flesh is toxic. Roll an attack with the bonus of the Dragon’s breath weapon vs the character’s Fortitude. On failure, character takes 1d6 poison damage for every four levels the dragon has (minimum 1d6).
Effect: Gain energy resistance to the dragon’s breath weapon type, equivalent to half the dragon’s level. The effect lasts until the character takes a full rest. Continue reading this article »

More D&D Resources

posted Friday, September 25th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & CultureThird Edition

Dungeons & Dragons Wiki is a new D&D 3E and 4E homebrew content site. Dungeons & Dragons Wiki aims to compete with existing sites such as D&D Wiki by holding to a mantra of “quality, not quantity”. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out. Both sites have large amounts of homebrew material, especially useful if you’re looking for a supply of 3E content.

Loaded Dice is a new D&D webcomic from D&D resource site Red Dragon Inn.

Dungeon Mastering Tools from popular RPG blog Dungeon Mastering now offers 384 monsters for D&D 4th edition, 43 magic weapons, 12 traps and 4 power cards, plus tools to write your own statblocks.

Also, if you missed it the first time, I linked more D&D resources in March of this year.

Bringing Back the Magic

posted Wednesday, September 23rd 2009 by Brandan Landgraff

Magic items have always been an integral part of D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games. Even before the roleplaying game was invented, magic items captured the imaginations of generations, be they weapons like Excalibur or the Gae Bolg; articles of clothing like a cloak or cap of invisibility, seven league boots or winged sandals; or even the legendary magic ring and lamp that summoned genies to grant wishes. Folklore, myths, and legends are full of magic items, and it’s only to be expected that D&D would be as well, drawing as it does on all of those as sources.

The problem is that all too often it is easy to think of a magic item as a +3 flaming sword, rather than the legendary fiery blade wielded by the mighty conqueror Hulkgar the Bad during his annexation of the kingdoms of the north. Treating magic items as simply a better class of regular gear removes the most important part—the magic itself is gone.

Fortunately there are a few ways to make magic items feel more evocative. A few are listed below:

  • Lore is a great way to make magic items feel special. As mentioned above, perhaps the flaming sword +3 your players have just found once belonged to a conqueror who united the ancient empire. Perhaps the links of the suit of chain armor they found was forged using metal provided by the five great dwarven mithril mines of the lost dwarven holds. Even when the PCs are enchanting their own gear, by adding a bit of detail on the components or the process, or perhaps a minor quest to find specific rare reagents required for the ritual can make the item feel more special.
  • In older editions, magic items were often activated by way of a command word. Finding the right word or phrase to activate an item may be simple, or it may become a minor quest in and of itself. In 4th Edition, the way magic items are structured makes this approach work quite well; since the enhancement and properties are mechanically distinct from the activated power, players aren’t at a disadvantage while they seek the command to trigger the item’s full potential. In fact, if you are inclined more towards a campaign where items grow in power along with the heroes instead of being replaced every few levels, you could even use command words to trigger each increase in power.
  • Acquiring new magic items could be the specific focus of a quest. This is almost always the case with powerful artifacts, but a quick foray into the territory of a band of kobolds whose leader has been rumored to carry a massive axe of pitted black iron that seems to spread infection and corruption from even the slightest of wounds inflicted can be a worthwhile diversion, as well as a good opportunity for a set-piece battle without needing to directly relate it to the main story. One could almost build an entire campaign around the simple motivation of collecting magic items, if so inclined. For those who prefer more depth of story, consider giving a weakness to the antagonist or common enemies, and spending some time seeking magic items to exploit it—blessed weapons for taking down a vampire, perhaps, or silver weapons to deal with a marauding band of lycanthropes

These approaches are just a few ways to make the magic items in your campaign feel special. Take care not to use them to excess, however. Players will soon become bored if every item has a back story longer than their own character’s background. Command words add some mystique, but not everyone enjoys roleplaying out using the word—not to mention that the player may not remember the word if it’s been awhile—and sometimes items should be simply work, no strings attached.

Finally, if every magic item the players get becomes the object of its own quest, there will be very little time for activity not related directly to the acquisition of treasure. That, of course, assumes that that isn’t precisely what you’re looking for in the game. If so, by all means, continue—the entire purpose is to have fun, after all.

Why I Can’t Stop Playing NetHack

posted Monday, September 21st 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & CultureNone of the Above

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of an ancient computer RPG called NetHack.

&   a major demon (Juiblex)

I mentioned this game almost exactly two years ago today as an example of how not to run a D&D game: lethal, obscure, and impossible to win. And yet, over twenty years since release, a game with text characters for game art remains popular. So what lessons can Dungeons & Dragons players take from NetHack?

1. Danger is exciting

NetHack is infamously deadly. Less than 1% of NetHack games completed on alt.org resulted in a victory. Bad luck will kill you, as will polymorph traps, food poisoning, food shortages, choking on food, cursed equipment, angry deities and ghosts of your former characters. When you are killed, there’s no respawn, no raise dead, and you can’t even re-load your save game.

And yet NetHack is still addictive: not in spite of the challenge, but because of it. I can attest that some of the most entertaining Dungeons & Dragons games happen when there’s real risk of total party kill. The danger, or element of risk, is a vital part of the game’s excitement. This is why DMs shouldn’t be too lenient. If the players discover you’re afraid to kill off their characters, the gig is up.

2. Exploring is fun

Exploring is an important aspect of NetHack. Not just exploring corridors and rooms, but also the rules, the strategy, and the arcana. Learning the game’s many secrets is not just interesting, but vital to success.

Dipping a longsword into a fountain when of lawful alignment can turn it into Excalibur. A pet can be pushed onto a polymorph trap to become a more powerful creature. A lizard corpse cures petrification, while a unicorn horn cures poison. Cursed items glow black when placed on an altar.

In the same way, Dungeons & Dragons is most interesting when you have opportunity to learn about the rules, the world and the arcana, and most rewarding when you are able to reap the benefits of your knowledge.

3. Players will try the unexpected

Tabletop RPGs have something called the Fifth Door Rule: Put the heroes in a room with four ways out, and they’ll find a fifth. Players have a knack for finding solutions that you hadn’t considered. That a human DM is available to adjudicate unexpected actions will always be a strength of traditional roleplaying games.

In a rare example among videogames, NetHack has been programmed to handle many of these logical, if unorthodox player actions. Dipping a potion into a fountain dilutes it. A cockatrice corpse can be thrown to petrify opponents. Smearing grease on your helmet protects you from the tentacle attack of a mind flayer. Pets can be trained to steal from shops.

4. Balance is boring…

The above screenshot shows me (@), a level 1 character hopelessly overpowered by a water demon (blue &) and the unique demon lord Juiblex (green &), after a failed attempt to summon a friendly water demon from a fountain on the chance it would grant a wish. If successful, however, I would have begun this game with the best suit of armour in the game.

There are wonderful instances in NetHack where luck or cleverness can grant you some huge bonus. Magic items beyond your normal level, lucky finds of gold, rare equipment, unexpectedly powerful pets, and even wishes can all boost your power in almost game-breaking ways. Finding a power boost is always exciting.

5. …but sometimes necessary

However, there’s usually a balancing factor so that the decision to take extra power isn’t a no-brainer. A pickaxe lets you cut right through dungeon walls, but it’s heavy so you can carry less treasure. Magic amulets increase your food requirements. Any magic item could be cursed. Even when you find a wish, you find yourself worrying that you could have wished for something better.

Morever, the game remains a challenge even when you do have the best magic items and all the obscure bonuses. In Dungeons & Dragons, there’s nothing long with a player keeping some unexpected boon, as long as they still face credible dangers (perhaps because of it). The player will be that much happier when, not only can he keep the incredible item or ability he won by his own luck or clever thinking, but that power is a major factor in battles to come.

Play Old-School Rules-Light D&D

posted Friday, September 18th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & CultureOther Systems

Sometimes, the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons just seems too complex. Perhaps you want to play something less elaborate for a change, or find aspects of the rules too restrictive. You may want to use a simpler RPG to introduce new players. Special lightweight D&D editions are nothing new, and I’ve recently discovered another of particular interest.

Searchers of the Unknown is a single page implementation of Dungeons & Dragons, based on the original 1970s D&D game. There are no powers, feats or skill points in Searchers of the Unknown. Nor are there prestige classes, paragon paths, or magic item lists. In its search for simplicity, even spellcasting classes are omitted. The entire rules weigh in at 900 words, fewer than D&D third edition uses to explain grappling.

Old-school, rules-light

The concept is this: If old D&D monsters required only six statistics (AC, movement rate, hit dice, hit points, number of attacks and damage), why can’t a player character be as simple? A sample statblock is 67 characters long, including character name: Humphrey the bald (AC 5 MV 6 HD 3 hp 14 #AT 1 D 1d10 with a voulge).

Character generation consists mainly of choosing armour and weapons, with no character classes and all characters taking d8 hit dice per level. Heavy armour offers better AC (as in old D&D, low AC is better), at the cost of significantly reduced speed. Heavy armour also penalizes initiative and physical skills. Race, class and so forth are descriptive and have no mechanical advantage.

Combat starts by rolling 1d10+AC for initiative (remember that low AC means heavily armoured). Attacks roll 1d20, and try to roll under the opponent’s AC plus your level. HP are fully restored between battles. Morale is used as in old D&D, where monsters may flee if outnumbered. Oddly, the morale check is 1d10 to beat the monster’s hit dice, meaning 10HD monsters and up will never flee.

Skills roll 1d20 and aim for under the character’s AC+level, while saving throws and skills unaffected by armour are under AC+4. Traps, spells, falls, etc, deal 1d8 damage “if it looks like it could kill a man”, 2d8 if it could kill a horse, and 4d8 if it could kill an ogre. Spells usually come in scrolls which any PC of sufficient level can read; inventing spells is left entirely as an exercise to the DM. Level up adds 1d8 hit points, with the interesting feature that all hit dice are rerolled and the player takes this result if it’s higher than his current hit points.

So what’s so good about it?

A few things about this game particularly interest me.

Morale helps to cut the fight short when the heroes are clearly winning. You can do this in 3E or 4E, but there are no rules for it, so I feel like I’m breaking balance.

Rules-light combat can run faster. In D&D 4E, a combat turn includes a standard action, move action, minor action and managing status effects. With Searchers of the Unknown, turns are faster so you see faster results, and players don’t have to wait as long for their next turn. Monsters have fewer hit points, which avoids long, dull slog-fests.

Rules-light also makes it easier to add new game material. Try creating a character class for D&D 4E, where a class is fourteen pages long. Adding character classes to Searchers of the Unknown can be done quite easily. This manner of experimentation is how character classes originally came about. You have a lot of freedom to invent game elements (monsters, magic items, spell effects) without heavy prep time or rules balance knowledge.

It’s possible that old-style D&D has an appeal that more elaborate current D&D lacks. This is more subjective, and harder to pin down without play.

Leave a comment if you’ve played this game or have insight into a rules-light or oldschool D&D variant.

How To Introduce New Players

posted Wednesday, September 16th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

It happens to every group sooner or later. Someone moves away, or suddenly gets scheduled to work on the regular game night, and the party needs a new member. Or maybe someone brings their friend, or significant other. Whatever the reason, introducing a new player to an ongoing campaign can be a delicate process. Many play-groups become quite close-knit and bringing in a new member can feel awkward for the new and old alike. Here are some tips to help avoid anyone feeling like a fifth wheel:
Continue reading this article »

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

posted Wednesday, September 9th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff

One of the elements that I love about the Eberron campaign setting is the existence of newspapers. Newspapers make a great way to bring in adventure hooks, to provide clues and directions when the PCs are lost, or to provide a bit of color and flavor to the campaign world.

The characters may scan the headlines to catch up on current events they may have missed while they were out exploring, and because the papers are published weekly, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to stay abreast of events. Continue reading this article »

Old Advice Is The Best Advice

posted Wednesday, September 2nd 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth EditionThird Edition

I’d like to share a classic DM’s tip that really helped me in the last game I ran.

At the beginning of the session, ask your players for their core stats: AC, Fort, Ref, Will, and the Perception (4E) or Spot/Listen (3E) skill bonus. Write these down in a table with player names on the left and stats along the top.

Player stats chart for a DM.

This table has two uses. First, you can see stats at a glance, so you can quickly tell if your attacks hit without asking the player. This is particularly useful in internet games where communication is slow, and in 4E games where Fort, Ref and Will are flat numbers like AC instead of player rolls. Remember that your players may have temporary bonuses or penalties that aren’t listed on your grid, so take care if your roll is only a few points off the number when you know that there are modifiers in play.

Second, you can use it to make secret rolls for the players. It’s particularly useful in third edition for secret Spot/Listen checks (so you don’t tip the players off if no characters notice anything) and secret attack rolls and saves (mainly for illusions and mental domination effects). You might also record other skills where the DM rolls so the player doesn’t know if he’s failed, such as Stealth (4E) or Disable Device (3E).

If it helps, you can do the same for your monsters. I find this useful when holding the Monster Manual open at several pages and flicking between the two. This keeps important stats like a monster’s AC readily available during player turns.

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