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World Building 101: Races

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

When writing a campaign setting, certain considerations must be given to the options you are giving to your players when they are creating and growing their character concepts. Your vision of the campaign world may be wide open and permissive, including anything and everything the players bring to the table. It could also be very restrictive, with only a select few options being deemed appropriate for the campaign you want to run.

Most DMs will find their personal style falls somewhere between the two—there are relatively few completely permissive or restrictive DMs out there. When building your campaign world, you need to ask yourself what does and doesn’t fit for anything that could affect a player’s options, and whenever possible, a good reason needs to be provided. Nothing is so frustrating to a player as having a character concept rejected out of hand “because I said so,” after all. Continue reading this article »

World Building 101: When Are Campaign Documents Needed?

posted Wednesday, December 23rd 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time discussing ways to create and use campaign documents. One topic I haven’t really covered is where to use campaign documents and where not to do so. There are probably as many styles of campaign as there are DMs, and not every game has the same needs in terms of setting details and tracking. Here are a few campaign-styles to consider, along with discussion of the relative need for campaign documents in each.

The One-Shot

Running a one-shot adventure frequently requires little to no cohesive world-building to be enjoyable. The characters are only rarely given deeper backgrounds than required to direct them into the plot of the adventure, and frequently retired after the game finishes. For a single adventure, it is often not necessary to put together a campaign brief.

However, it can still be useful to create guidelines for one-shot adventures, whether to provide some direction for a specific plot hook you want to try, because you want to use the one-shot as a part of a larger campaign setting later, or simply to ensure that everyone makes a coherent group. On the other hand, campaign bibles, unless you’re running every one of your one-shots in the same setting, are probably not required.

The Mini-Campaign

For a short series of three or four adventures it can definitely be worth the effort, for almost all the same reasons you would want to use one for a full campaign. There should be enough room in a mini-campaign to explore character backgrounds to some degree, and the details of the world will therefore matter more than for a typical one-shot. In most cases you won’t need to provide quite as much detail, but otherwise campaign briefs are important. Campaign bibles, while more useful here than in a one-shot, are still largely more trouble than they’re worth. There is little reason to spend a lot of time on in-depth details for a campaign that will likely conclude by the time you’ve had a chance to compile everything, after all.

The Shared World

Some groups enjoy a play style in which DMing duties are passed around between several members. This lets everyone get a chance to play once in awhile. For this kind of game, a campaign brief and campaign bible can take on even more importance than normal, as it’s vital to maintaining an internally consistent setting and keeping track of plot threads from each DM. When beginning a campaign of this sort it’s vital to have everyone who intends to DM sit down together and hash out the details of the campaign setting, ground rules to prevent any one DM from breaking the plots of the others, and so on. This should be included in the campaign brief, which all DMs involved should help create and sign off on. Running a shared world campaign without campaign documents can be a real chore.

The Dungeon Delve

As a delve may represent anything from a single one-shot to a full-blown campaign, the usefulness of campaign documents can vary widely. A short crawl may require nothing more than a capsule description of the environs and a set of guidelines to describe the kinds of hazards the players might expect to face; a full-blown dungeon campaign would require a more in depth document discussing the history and cultures of the complex. While it may seem that PC backgrounds are less likely to come into play in this style of campaign, there are still numerous ways a DM could involve them–a long-lost father or childhood friend were last seen going into the same dungeon, a quest for a lost heirloom, and so on. Should you opt to do so, then a campaign bible would be well worth the effort.

The Published Campaign

Of all the campaign types mentioned here–barring one-shot adventures–this may seem like the style that least requires the types of campaign documents we’ve been discussing. After all, the point of the published campaign is that the heavy lifting of world-building has already been done, and the setting is ready-made. However, campaign briefs are still essential for the published campaign, because they narrow the scope of the campaign to a managable level by specifying what elements you intend to focus on; if your players are less than familiar with the campaign setting then this can be a game-saving effort, as otherwise they will not know how much of the (typically lengthy) published setting details they need to read to understand the game. Campaign bibles, similarly, can still be used to store your campaign-specific locations and NPCs, as usual. The main benefit is that most of the rest of the campaign world details have already been created for you to draw on, but that should never be taken as an invitation to neglect your bookkeeping.

The Homebrew World

More than any other campaign style, maintaining clear documentation is critical to the homebrew world. Most of what I’ve discussed so far has been directly in relation to this kind of campaign. Campaign briefs give your players their first taste of the world, guidelines to the sorts of characters that are appropriate, and campaign bibles give them a sense of the meat of the setting without overwhelming them. It’s also worth noting that it may be worth a third type of document, which we will call a setting bible. A setting bible is related to and builds on the campaign bible, for the purposes of codifying all the information you have as a DM that is either not directly related to your campaign or that is not intended as player knowledge. To date we have focused on campaign briefs and campaign bibles, specifically, since they are the most directly useful documents for running and documenting a game. For now all that needs to be said about the setting bible is that it is typically NOT a player document, and should not include anything that the players need to know; the campaign bible, by contrast, should include only things the players need to know. Between setting and campaign bibles and the campaign brief, this type of campaign is easily the heaviest in terms of bookkeeping but can also be some of the most rewarding games you will ever run.

These represent only a smattering of play styles, but hopefully it’s more clear the kinds of considerations that go into choosing what kinds of documents to keep for your game. Next week we’ll begin more closely examining some of the choices that a world-builder faces in regards to what to include or exclude from your campaign world.

Fourth Edition, Another Year On

posted Monday, December 21st 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNone of the Above

Over a year ago I posted five things I liked about D&D 4e, and five things I didn’t like. With fourth edition in its second year, how have these impressions held up?

The good

Dungeon Master advice: The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is still as useful as it was in 2008. Particularly important are the guidelines on player motivations and pacing, which I probably haven’t paid enough attention to. Dungeon Master’s Guide II mainly provides new game rules, but has some good DM advice articles including contributions from game mastering expert Robin D. Laws.

Monster archetypes: Several cracks have appeared in the creature archetypes system, particularly that Solo creatures make for long and boring fights. Monster Manual 2 and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 reveal new guidelines which fix these issues. Soldier type creatures are still very stodgy and Minions still feel a little weird when they go down in one hit.

Faster, more interesting combat: I’m not certain that this held up. Between increased hit point values, increased miniatures use, fewer spells known and more status effects to track, the game in my experience is slower, if anything. This is in online play using a digital gametable setup without voice, so perhaps the real issue is that 4E only works if you have good communication between players. Other players I’ve spoken to report that the game is faster overall.

Rules balance: We’ve yet to see anything truly game-breaking that isn’t quickly errata’d. There are allegations of power creep, though we may see the power balance level out as designers get a better grasp of the game’s power level.

Easy monster creation: This is definitely still the case. First up, the D&D Insider Compendium and Monster Builder has over 3,000 monsters you can repurpose or mine for ideas – there are currently 154 monsters of level 7 alone, all official content. You can scale them up or down by as many as five levels, or apply one of 28 templates (16 DMG, 12 DMG2) or 17 classes (8 DMG, 9 DMG2). There are solid monster creation guidelines for creatures of all types, and a Monster Builder tool to aid the process.

The bad

Ugly races: Tieflings still look stupid with horns coming out of their forehead. Both tieflings and dragonborn still look like monsters in the book art, even when they’re alongside humans and elves. (Perhaps I’m just racist?) There’s a lot of 4E art in general that doesn’t ignite my imagination. Even if it looks good, it’s still just some heroes posing or engaging a monster, without leaving the viewer with questions to imagine wonderful answers.

Cheesy in-character text: “I see the secret patterns of magic, and through the items I carry, I can use that magic to protect you, heal you… or make you explode.” Why would anyone ever say this phrase? Is he at an adventurer job interview? It exists only to summarize the Artificer class in smug first-person. It doesn’t invoke a scene or fire the imagination. There’s hope, though, as the monk’s introductory quote sounds like something he might genuinely say to a villain or an ally: “You fight well, but without discipline and focus, you will fall.”

Too abstract mechanics: This is still the case, but as 4E blog At Will writes, nothing stops you inferring your own meaning into the game mechanics. When the rogue’s Cloud of Steel power lets him shoot a crossbow at ten opponents in a round, perhaps it’s a spell he’s picked up. A healing surge might literally relate to some in-character attribute of personal stamina: for further discussion, see the June article Hit Points and You.

Skill challenges: I still don’t get skill challenges. It feels somewhat arbitrary that you succeed based on the number of times you make a successful attempt, rather than what it is your character succeeds at accomplishing. Perhaps it’s possible to create a good skill challenge that handles both. Errata has improved the skill challenge rules and DMG2 offers further advice for creating good skill challenges.

Pushing other WotC products: This still occurs, but it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s not very prevalent even so.

4E Gridless Combat

posted Friday, December 18th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Fourth edition blog At Will has an article up titled Fluid 4E: Gridless Combat. I considered D&D without a grid last year, but didn’t give it much thought. Quinn Murphy has given it some serious thought in Gridless Combat.

At Will has some other interesting articles, while we’re here.

Off the Grid: Using your powers in roleplaying situations discusses injecting some of the in-character meaning back into fourth edition, and I strongly approve of this. “Make your players explain how the power fits,” suggests the article. “Sometimes just the name of the power alone will fit the situation, but allow your players flexibility. As long as they explain how that power represents the character’s approach and mindset, everything is going well.” It also advises, “Give them a bonus. Don’t give anything for at-wills, or your ranger is going to constantly be “twin-striking” in conversation.”

There are also several series of practical 4E articles, including How to Design a Skill Challenge (6 parts) and How To Make Skill Challenges Fun (4 parts), so go check those out.

World Building 101: Campaign Bibles and Scope

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

World building is enjoyable and rewarding, but it’s easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal of your campaign bible when you begin scribing the details of the campaign world. A campaign bible should be an almanac and an encyclopedia, but it’s important to keep the focus on the campaign as you are running it, and not on the world itself. The distinction between the two may seem blurry, but it’s a vital difference.

Including something in the campaign bible creates expectations in those who read it that the information has been included because it is important to the campaign. If your campaign bible includes a myth about a man who found a legendary spear that was used to slay a god-dragon, then your players will—consciously or otherwise—be on the lookout for that spear to appear in the game at some point. If you only included that to make the world feel deeper, though, then your players will be disappointed when it doesn’t appear.

The second important factor in writing your campaign bible is one that has already been discussed—keeping everything organized. We’ll look at the base categories I discussed last week, examining each in more depth. Continue reading this article »

Product Review: Portrait of a Villain – The Desire

posted Monday, December 14th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

The fine folks at Nevermet Press have released a PDF for 4th Edition entitled Portrait of a Villain – The Desire, focusing on—unsurprisingly—a villain named The Desire, and providing a variety of material surrounding this woman and her organization. A number of contributors worked to create a range of material, from locations to encounters to organizations and groups, all focusing around the titular villain.

Presentation

The PDF comes in two formats, a full-color landscape version intended for easy reading from a screen, and a black and white portrait layout that’s a bit printer-friendlier. Both versions are laid out quite well, very readable, and presented in a well organized and clean fashion. There are only a few really noticeable spelling or grammar errors throughout, and the art, while not being spectacular, is competent and not unappealing. The maps especially stand out as being on par with anything put out by Wizards of the Coast. The content is interesting and varied, as well, with the unifying theme of the Desire bringing together the diverse contributions.

Mechanics

Mechanically the product is fairly solid, with nothing immediately game-breaking or unsound. The Desire herself has a slightly larger suite of powers than comparable creatures from official sources, and seems to be missing the +2 to saving throws for being elite in her stat-block; several of the other new creatures presented are also slightly off the power level of official creatures in comparable roles. This is not an especially large problem, however, since with a few minor tweaks it’s easy enough to bring everything in line with the normal power curve without losing any of the unique flavor. A few mechanical oddities exist that are potentially confusing, but all told the enemies presented within are fairly solid. Many of the enemies are rather directly linked to the Desire and would be more difficult to use in something unconnected to her, but at least as many of them can stand up on their own with no tweaking required.

The encounters presented vary slightly in quality of design. One is clear, straightforward, and easily used in any campaign involving intrigue and deception. One is potentially very interesting but seems a bit unfocused, with a large variety of special terrain options and a potentially very divisive map. A third is something akin to a mini-adventure in and of itself, but would require a fair amount of revision to be used in an unrelated campaign.

The single paragon path included in the PDF is neither incredibly powerful nor incredibly weak. It may not be the premium choice for players concerned with optimum character options, but it’s very flavorful. The direct connection to the Desire makes sense in the context of the source, but it could also be very easily reflavored to suit just about any campaign.

Flavor

On the subject of flavor, the material is a bit more risqué than the standard D&D 4e fare. The Desire and her minions are very definitely themed towards the mature end of the spectrum, though there’s nothing that strays out of PG territory. Still, those with younger players at the table might want to be aware of the content before passing it on.

The location included in the PDF, Highcourt, is an interesting if basic city with plenty of opportunity for adventure hooks, whether or not you want to run a campaign involving the Desire. There is enough detail to give a good sense of the place without going into minutiae, and the surrounding wilderness has enough variety to provide for a number of options for adventure sites of your own.

The organizations are largely focused around the Desire’s allies, enemies, and rivals, and provide a rich environment in which to drop players if you’re running a campaign focused around the Desire. If you’re more interested in pillaging for seeds for your own campaign, there’s still enough to go on for one or two, but not all of them work without the central focus of the product.

The short fiction included towards the end of the PDF is probably the weakest in terms of editing throughout the entire product, but it does give a good example of the ways the Desire can be introduced as a villain before the PCs directly meet her. As the product is primarily an RPG resource, it shouldn’t be a major concern. There are also a couple of NPCs offered with the short fiction that could be useful in any sort of campaign.

Final Thoughts

Portrait of a Villain – The Desire offers a fair amount of useful material, and not just for a campaign or adventure specifically featuring the title antagonist. While the book covers a lot of ground with different types of material, that’s definitely a strength, as it allows it to provide diversity in content. The inclusion of a printer-friendly version of the PDF is a great idea, and it’s just as readable as the full color version. At $9.95 from e-junkie.com and RPGNow.com, it’s a pretty good value for the variety of material included, especially if you’re looking for something to add to an existing campaign. It’s not quite enough material to run a campaign out of alone, but it would be easy enough to use the provided content to put together several adventures for mid to high heroic tier, culminating in a final showdown with the Desire herself.

Further Reading

The following sites have more reviews of Portrait of a Villain – The Desire:

The following sites offer conversions to other game systems:

Mac Character Sheets and Old D&D Names

posted Friday, December 11th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

A few neat links I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Do you confuse your OD&D from your D&D Classic? Your BECMI from your Moldvay Basic? D&D ID is a guide to the names and abbreviations used to refer to the old editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game. An accompanying comments page briefly describes each edition.

DnD Numbers is a Mac spreadsheet for Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition characters.

World-Building 101: Keeping Organized

posted Wednesday, December 9th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Last week we discussed the pros and cons of various formats for campaign bibles. The one thing that remains true no matter what format you select, though, is the importance of creating and maintaining a system for keeping the information organized and accessible. Fortunately this is fairly simple if you begin with organization in mind and keep it as a consideration throughout the creation of the campaign bible, regardless of format.

It’s worth stating that before you begin writing anything for your campaign bible—excepting perhaps what you included in the campaign brief—the organization of the document should be considered. An organization scheme early on ensures that from the start all your information is accessible and will remain so—trying to impose organization later can be a mess, especially if you have simply tossed all the information together willy nilly.

There are a wide variety of ways to plan organization schemes for your campaign bible.

Continue reading this article »

Pathfinder’s New Summoner Class

posted Monday, December 7th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & CultureThird Edition

Paizo has released a new character class called the summoner, compatible with Pathfinder RPG and D&D 3.5. The concept is an arcane spellcaster who has a permanent summoned companion that increases in power when the character increases in level. The class is also a specialist with summon monster spells.

The summoner’s spell list mainly contains arcane abjuration and conjuration spells, making this a good support mage class. His summoned monsters can be used to set up flanking manoevers and such, reach enemies in difficult positions, block opponents from charging, and all sorts of useful things.

The best way to explore this class is to examine it at various levels, which I’ll do now. Continue reading this article »

Where to Find Cheap D&D Miniatures

posted Friday, December 4th 2009 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Kobold Quarterly’s website has published an article of mine titled Fistful of Lead: All the Monsters on a Budget. It’s a detailed, entry-level guide to buying roleplaying game miniatures, and describes how you can own 90% of the miniatures you’ll need for several years’ play, for an outlay of only a hundred dollars. If you’ve wanted to use miniatures but have been dissuaded by the cost, now’s your chance.

That article again is Fistful of Lead: All the Monsters on a Budget.

World Building 101: Campaign Bible Formats

posted Wednesday, December 2nd 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Last week we discussed keeping a campaign bible, a collection of notes and documents detailing the world in which your campaign is set. Campaign bibles are important tools for any DM, but especially for those who are building their own campaign setting rather than running your game in a published setting created by someone else. They enable you to create the same familiarity with your world as one might have with a published setting or a setting from popular fiction, such as Star Wars or Forgotten Realms.

One of the first choices you make when setting down your campaign bible is what format you wish to use to create it. Once, the only real choice was to create a series of hand or type-written documents in a notebook or binder, but with the ease of availability of computers and the world wide web, there are now a number of options open to an aspiring world-builder.

Read on for a few of the more common choices, along with some pros and cons for each option:

Continue reading this article »

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