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Robot Chicken D&D: It Hides Well

posted Saturday, February 27th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

After stealing an intelligent flamethrowing ballista, our heroes engage in the age-old debate: left or right? Here’s Robot Chicken D&D part 10, 11 and 12.

Under the cut are parts 11 and 12, and DM’s commentary for parts 5 and 6. If you missed the previous episodes, get caught up on part 1-3, part 4-6, and part 7-9 plus DM’s commentary for parts 1-4.

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World Building 101: Here There be Dragons…

posted Thursday, February 25th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

I love maps. Not the new, highly accurate, full color satellite maps, now—I’m talking about the kind drawn on faded parchment, where the margins have “Here there be Dragons” and the oceans are depicted with sea monsters frolicking. Whenever I get a new fantasy book I always, always study the maps before I begin to read, and frequently refer back to them throughout. Maps help to make the fantasy world more concrete.

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D20 Source 400th Post!

posted Tuesday, February 23rd 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

Image by PunkJr via flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

D20 Source this week makes its 400th post! Thanks to all the readers, contributors and other bloggers who have made this one of the most popular Dungeons & Dragons blogs. Over 11,000 people read D20 Source each month and around 1,100 people subscribe via RSS.

I’d like to take the opportunity to ask for your feedback. What are your favourite articles? What are you interested in reading that D20 Source doesn’t already cover? What D&D problems need solving and what is the game missing?

Hit the commment link below and give your opinion!

Robot Chicken D&D: Jaundice and the Ballista

posted Saturday, February 20th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

D&D writer Chris Perkins continues his D&D game for the writers of Robot Chicken. I posted parts one to three and parts four to six. Here’s parts seven through nine, plus DM’s commentary editions of the first four parts.

Click onward for parts eight and nine, the DM’s commentary edition parts one to four, and an important note on the slip-up Chris Perkins makes in an earlier segment.

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World Building 101: Organizing your Organizations

posted Thursday, February 18th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Once you’ve populated your campaign setting with NPCs, ranging from the lowliest stablehand to the mightiest of kings, you may feel you’re ready to move on. If you’re running a short term game meant to last only a couple of sessions, or a campaign focusing on dungeon crawling, then perhaps this is enough, but for those looking for a more involved campaign world there is more to consider. As alluded to previously in this series during the discussion of individual power sources, there are numerous possibilities for organizations that your player characters may wish to ally themselves with, join, or who might oppose the player characters for whatever reason.

Fortunately, defining these organizations is not as complicated as it might at first appear. In many ways you will want to ask the same sorts of questions you would ask when creating an NPC:

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D&D Gaming on Microsoft’s Surface

posted Tuesday, February 16th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

CNET reported on Wednesday about the D&D application for the Microsoft Surface from Carnegie-Mellon’s SurfaceScapes team. According to CNET, the team is working with Wizards of the Coast to potentially roll this out commercially, perhaps to gaming stores. Here’s a video of the table in action:

It’s a cool concept, but having run D&D games online for more than two years now I’m seeing a few flaws in this preview release.

First, despite the CNET writer’s opinion that this will speed up the game, this app is actually quite slow. Players appear to wait in turn to roll initiative using a shared d20, something no traditional D&D group settles for. The table simulates real dice like the iPhone app Mach Dice, when there’s no real need to. Anyone who’s run a tabletop game online in real-time will tell you a computer can calculate rolls much more efficiently than a human rolling a lot of real dice. Once you’ve lost the tactile sense of real dice, there’s no benefit to simulating rolls except to look good in a preview.

The virtual table dice also roll slowly for graphical effect, like an oversized d20. You can also see the dire wolf in the video move quite slowly, much more slowly than a real Dungeons & Dragons player would move his miniatures. Units in Rome: Total War move slowly across the world map like this, and the first thing I do is hit the key to speed them up. One would hope the DM’s interface is good.

Another difficulty in producing this product commercially is creating 3D models for the miniatures of the game’s massive number of monsters. When I counted the D&D Insider Compendium in January, there were 3,143 monsters not including templates. Each monster in this demo has animations for moving, attacking and standing idle, and we should also consider powers, terrain, and alternately coloured versions of the same monster to differentiate special units (orc captains, for example).

Even very high-profile videogames have a hard time including a tenth as many 3D assets as this: for example, Pokémon Battle Revolution, a game which features 3D graphics for all 493 Pokémon and 499 different attacks, pales in comparison to D&D 4E’s 3,143 monsters, 4,813 powers, 7,203 items and 342 traps.

I shouldn’t sound too negative, though, as I really like this concept. A D&D-specific gametable could handle lighting and line of sight much more accurately than most normal DMs care to. It can track powers and status effects more quickly and reliably than a human Dungeon Master. The Character Builder software could include QR code blocks that let the table read your character. And, as I said in December, you don’t need exact models for every miniature: a few hundred is plenty to adequately represent most of the creatures you’ll come across.

What would be especially cool is if you could roll real dice and have the table read the dice by OCR. It might announce results by voice – “Twenty-five. Critical hit, max damage.” The table could even be used to check dice for bias by rolling repeatedly. You would of course need a wider table area for people to keep their character sheets and dice, with a raised edge around the screen so nobody’s dice nudges onto the screen accidentally. Certainly a snazzy way to get new players into the game, and as a Dungeons & Dragons blogger who’s always interested in new readers, I naturally approve.

Youtube Sunday: Robot Chicken Play D&D

posted Saturday, February 13th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Wizards of the Coast’s Chris Perkins runs a D&D session for five writers of Robot Chicken. Last week I posted parts one through three. Today I’m posting parts four through six.

Click onward for the next two parts.
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World Building 101: Populating your Campaign World

posted Thursday, February 11th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

One of the more interesting parts of being a DM is that you have an opportunity to play not just a single character, but every member of the supporting cast that the player characters encounter, from the lowliest shopkeeper to the most powerful of archvillains. This is a great responsibility, and can be a lot of work, but if it’s done correctly it can be a great deal of fun. While there is a lot of improvisation involved in any game, by keeping notes and documenting the NPCs you use, you can help ensure that your world feels fully populated and alive.

The old saying goes that all men were created equal, but this definitely does not hold true for NPCs. Sometimes all you need is a name and a capsule description, with no stat block required. This is generally the case for incidental characters met along the road. At the other extreme you’ll want to have a fully fleshed out background, stat block, and supporting cast of their own to make a given NPC work. It’s generally a good idea to keep notes even on the incidental NPCs, though, since you never know when your players will decide to go back for a visit, and chances are they’ll remember every detail you improvised when they first encountered the character.

When designing NPCs, it’s worth starting by deciding how you want them to be used. This helps determine how much detail you’ll need to put into fleshing them out. There are several roles that your NPCs may need to fill in your campaign setting:

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Improvised Weapons and Terrain Powers

posted Tuesday, February 9th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame Design

RPG blogger Chatty DM made an interesting Twitter post last week about solving the 4E end-of-combat grind that happens when everyone’s down to their at-will attacks. His idea is to increase the efficacy of improvised weapon attacks to the level of “page 42″ damage rolls for terrain-based effects.

Interacting with the environment is something I encourage DMs to make use of. One of the big things in 4E designer Mike Mearls’ earlier works Book of Iron Might and Book of Iron Heroes was the use of attacks or skill checks to interact with the environment, such as swinging from a rope or pushing over a boulder. Even Mearls’ contribution to the Age of Worms adventure path, the third edition adventure Three Faces of Evil, features a precariously-balanced statue which can be pushed over to form a bridge.

Clever use of terrain has been extremely popular in video games that support it. You only have to look as far as Worms, considered by some the greatest Amiga game of all time. Your units in this game can use their environment to take cover, bounce grenades from walls, swing from “bat rope” style grappling hooks, drown opponents, dig trenches for safety, even make difficult shots using the wind to advantage. They can really affect the environment and the environment can really affect them, and that’s just the ticket for an engaging and dynamic game experience.

I spotted a similar rule set in 2009′s Dungeon Master’s Guide II, called Terrain Powers (page 62-63). This formalizes what I think DMs have been doing since the early editions of D&D, and that’s rules for attacking with the environment. There’s a rope bridge attack, for example, where you make an Athletics check to shake the bridge and knock people prone or off the bridge. Strictly speaking you don’t need these rules (and you should be able to rule terrain attacks on the fly as your players come up with clever ideas), but the examples given are an excellent benchmark for balance. This is especially important if you want to publish your own adventures including terrain powers.

Now I love the idea, but one thing about this bothers me. The powers scale with encounter level, so a terrain power that requires a moderate DC Athletics check at level 1 will still require a moderate DC Athletics check at level 25. Your problem is that this gets absolutely ridiculous with some terrain powers.

Take Table of Combustibles, a table you flip over with a difficult DC Athletics check to send fire and poison gas everywhere. At level 30, you’re still struggling to flip over the tables you encounter. What tables are these that require a DC 37 Athletics check to flip over? Giant adamantine tables studded with diamond? Is it bolted to the ground with expensive magic? I’d better get to keep the table as treasure.

Or Swinging Rope or Vine, which requires a moderate DC Athletics check and rewards you with some quick movement. A regular dungeon vine at level 1 asks no more than DC20, but the level 30 vines that Orcus keeps around take superhuman ability to grab hold of. Don’t high level black dragons keep any regular vines around? Are they greasing up all the vines in their lair as a defensive measure?

However, I do like Ruined Wall, which you can push over onto people. I imagine that by level 30, applying an Athletics check to any nearby wall will make it fall whether it was ruined or not to begin with.

Video: Writers of “Robot Chicken” Play D&D

posted Saturday, February 6th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

I’m just going to leave this here.

Read on for three more parts.

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World Building 101: There Can Be Only One–Single Power Source Campaigns

posted Thursday, February 4th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth Edition

One of the conceits of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that each character class falls into a power source. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing and exploring ways to fit each power source into your own personal setting—but what if you want to go a different direction? While it’s usually a good idea to offer as many options as possible, 4th Edition lends itself reasonably well to running campaigns that use a single power source for all characters, creating a unique feel for your campaign setting. Today we’ll look at considerations for this kind of campaign.

One of the chief issues with a single power source campaign is that your players will almost certainly be limited in their options for class selection. For this kind of campaign, therefore, it’s particularly important to ensure that your players are on board with the idea from the outset. To be perfectly clear: currently counting all character classes from all official sources, a player with no restrictions can select from over twenty distinct options; limiting your campaign to a single power source can drop this number to as few as four choices.

In other words, make sure your group is okay with this beforehand, and make sure everyone communicates their intentions to minimize redundancy—while there are several options for building each class, with a group of five players there’s a very good possibility that you will have more than one player interested in a given class. Try to ensure that your players give each other enough room to make unique characters within the restrictions of the campaign.

Martial Campaigns could represent a group of soldiers on the front lines of a war, or could be used in a low-magic setting. You may opt for a gritty feel, or emulate the epics of grand heroes of old. A martial campaign can be very easy to conceptualize, but it does present certain challenges on a mechanical level. Moreso than any other fully fleshed out power source, the options for players are limited—there is no controller class in the martial power source, and with a group of five players, one or more party roles will be a little redundant. Fortunately, there are enough builds for each martial class to make it likely that no two characters will feel identical, but as Dungeon Master you will need to be somewhat more aware of the makeup of your party when designing encounters.

You will also need to decide, if you have a low-magic setting, precisely what variety of fantastic creatures exist. Be careful not to restrict racial options too heavily in a single power source campaign, as you are already limiting your players fairly severely. Talk to them before beginning to ensure that any additional restrictions are acceptable.

Arcane Campaigns, by contrast, represent a high-magic environment. Perhaps your campaign focuses around an arcane academy, or perhaps magic is so common in your setting that everyone uses it in some form. Whatever the underlying reason, an arcane campaign will generally have a high fantasy feel, with magical creatures and fantastic terrain being everywhere. Arcane campaigns have the largest number of available classes, and cover all player roles, so your players should hopefully not feel too restricted in their options—especially since any race fits quite well into the high-fantasy feel.

Divine Campaigns involve a heavy investment of time into detailing your pantheon, as the gods themselves will almost certainly play a vital role in the campaign, as will their servants. Divine orders of a single deity might send out a group of faithful to accomplish a specific purpose, or a group of aligned deities may each provide one of their servants towards the task at hand. Traditional foes for a divine campaign could include demons, undead, or the servants of dark gods, among other things, though there’s no need to limit yourself to these. From a player perspective, much the same as with a martial campaign there will be some doubling up on at least one class, though unlike the martial campaign each player role is represented among the divine classes.

Primal Campaigns are keyed to a setting without so many of the trappings of civilization. Your player’s characters belong to a tribe in the hinterlands somewhere far from cities and more civilized life, or your campaign world itself may have no such places. It’s even possible to have them hail from cities and reject the ways of the “civilized” world. It’s important not to think of primal characters as foolish or ignorant, especially when they are to be the core focus of a campaign. Campaign hooks could include fighting off threats to the natural world, or following the guidance of a patron spirit or spirits. In this kind of campaign especially it’s critical to ensure that you have a very strong sense of the spirits that exist in your setting. The Primal source is heavy on controllers currently, but should have enough options to give a full party choices when creating their characters.

While there are other power sources available now or in the near future—the psionic and shadow sources, for example, and more to come as more material is released—the above should provide a good sense of what is available and the kinds of things to consider when you decide to run a campaign focusing on a single power source. If your players are up for it, a single source campaign can be exciting and an interesting way to create a memorable world.

What Is True20?

posted Tuesday, February 2nd 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & CultureOther Systems

Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I decided to buy a PDF copy of True20, the the D20 roleplaying game variant from Green Ronin. True20 features numerous rules changes and has a respectable following among both players and writers. So what does it bring to the table?

If you’re familiar with D&D 3E or another D20 game, True20 brings two major changes. First, it streamlines certain rules to expediate combat and place more focus on character and story. Secondly, it’s a “generic” system, meaning you can play modern, sci-fi, fantasy, horror or something else, using the same rulebook. I’ll go through just how it does this in more detail.

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