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Running Minis Games at Conventions

posted Sunday, June 27th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Publisher and game designer Chris Pramas has written a useful article on Running miniatures games at conventions.

The article gives some useful insights.

When I was about 12 years old, I “designed” my first wargame scenario. I tried to recreate the Battle of Kursk using Avalon Hill’s classic Squad Leader boardgame (I know, I know; I was 12). In practice this meant setting up four boards and filling them with as many German and Russian tanks as I could. My brother and I tried to play it and of course it was too big and unwieldy to finish. My attempt was a failure but it taught me an important lesson. Designing a good scenario takes more thought that just using everything you have and yet this is a trap many big games fall into.

Chris Pramas runs publisher Green Ronin, which published the Dragon Age tabletop RPG this year. You can hear more from Pramas in the Out of Character podcast episode 66.

The Unassailable Wall of Realism

posted Friday, June 25th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

It’s that darn real world intruding on the fun. The Unassailable Wall of Realism.

The UWoR never stands in the way of fantasy games. Because its fantasy, the GM can make anything up, and it’s as plausible as you want it to be, more or less. I don’t just mean handwaving mistakes away by saying “it’s magic” (although there’s some freedom in that too). I mean that the town guards don’t have to act like historical town guards or modern policemen. They can act like however you want them too, and it’s not incorrect. Since you make your own definitions in fantasy, you can’t do it “wrong.” You might create a fantastic situation that someone else doesn’t care for, but there’s no objective way to measure it all. It’s all subjective.

– Monte Cook, Top Secret.

World Building 101 – Keeping Track of Time

posted Thursday, June 24th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

A question that is often neglected when initially considering the details of a campaign world is how the inhabitants mark the passage of time. Precision measurements of time are relatively recent, but even tens of thousands of years ago people were calculating and measuring time. For your campaign world, defining a calendar and the common methods of measuring shorter intervals can be a very good way to add verisimilitude and character to your setting.

Continue reading this article »

Most Six-Sided Dice Biased by 75%

posted Wednesday, June 23rd 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

The myth is true: Warhammer six-sided dice roll 1s more often. That’s the conclusion of an American engineering professor who rolled dice 144,000 times and dissected them using a hydrogen-cooled diamond saw.

The experiment tested Games Workshop dice, Chessex dice, and precision casino dice. The GW and Chessex d6s rolled a ‘one’ 29% of the time, when the average should be one in six or 16.6%. That makes the dice almost 75% more likely to roll a ‘one’, giving your rogue a crappy damage roll or your Warhammer unit a pass on a leadership test. The casino dice were spot on at 16.6%.

The best theory is that rounded edges cause dice to keep rolling longer. Gravity paradoxically favours the heaviest side at the top, since gravity causes dice to stop rolling:

Game room logic, poor source of anything, would dictate that the side with the one is heavier and would therefore be on the bottom more. Unfortunately this is just not true, take popcorn or batholiths as an example. The 6 is too light to stop the momentum of the dice, the rounded corners cannot prevent the dice from turning due to the weight. In the end 1s are by far the most common result.

Dice inventor Lou Zocchi has a similar theory.

But who is this anonymous professor? Could he be a secret plant for the manufacturers of casino dice?

World Building 101: Inns and Outs

posted Thursday, June 17th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

This article previously appeared on August 19th 2009. It reappears here as part of Brandan Landgraff’s World Building 101 series of articles.

At the end of a hard day adventuring, the most popular place for PCs to rest their weary heads is typically the local inn. It is the adventurer’s home away from home, base of operations, and the best place to celebrate a successful journey.

As it is generally one of the places that you can expect your PCs to be spending a lot of time, it makes sense to put a bit of effort into making the inn more than just a place to sleep. A memorable inn can be so much more—a place to introduce new characters and plot hooks both major and minor, and a place that actually feels like home. It could even be possible to run an entire adventure based solely in the inn, if it is set up correctly.

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Saturday RPG Links

posted Saturday, June 12th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Frank Trollman at RPG forum The Gaming Den takes a rare look at a Cold War era Czech D&D clone:

So today we’re going to be doing a little bit of a review of the Czech exclusive RPG Drači DoupÄ› Plus, or as it is known in short hand: DrD+. In case this wasn’t immediately obvious from the name alone, this is an old school Dungeons & Dragons clone. The things that make it different from any of a thousand fantasy heartbreakers you will never play is that this one was designed behind the Iron Curtain by Czechoslovakian gamers in secret, and then released to the masses shortly after the wall came down in 1990.

Penny Arcade posts a ten minute video on why D&D is important to players.

Dicecreator’s Blog posts a guide on making your own custom dice.

In an old post from Jeff’s Gameblog, Jeff Rients reminds us that D&D was just a fad and may never become mainstream popular. Harsh!

Big Ball of No Fun offers a use of the Insight skill to gauge enemy strength. This could also be applied to D&D 3e’s Sense Motive skill.

World Building 101 – Choices and Player Agency

posted Thursday, June 10th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Dungeons and Dragons, as with most any tabletop RPG, is at its strongest when the players and the Dungeon Master work together to create a world and a story that everyone involved enjoys and feels a sense of ownership towards. This sense of ownership comes readily to the DM, who creates the world and most of the population, behaving as the players’ senses and giving life to the NPCs they encounter. For the players, though, it can be less obvious where their role in world building comes in, and thus how their ownership of the world can begin.

Continue reading this article »

Schrödinger’s Gun (and Other Useful Tropes)

posted Tuesday, June 8th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Television cliche wiki TV Tropes has an ever-expanding collection of common gimmicks and genre conventions that will be familiar to players of tabletop roleplaying games. (Be warned: TV Tropes is rather addictive, so expect to spend several hours clicking links.)

TV Tropes are especially useful for Dungeon Mastering ideas. One such trope is Schrodinger’s Gun, a rule defined as such:

“The state of anything in a Tabletop RPG that has not been observed by the players is undefined until the players’ actions affect it.”

–Schrödinger’s Gun

You are free to change any detail that the players haven’t seen yet. An example of this from my home game is when the players were looking for a prophecied hero named the Faith Scion, who I was going to have turn out to be one of the PCs all along. When that player left and another joined the group, I decided that the new player was actually the Faith Scion all along, and that his unusual choice of weapon played an important role in his backstory.

You can also use this rule when the players guess the ending to your mystery ahead of time, or an important NPC is killed unexpectedly. Reveal that the real villain was someone else all along, or that the mage they killed was actually a simulacrum created by the mage as a decoy. Use this carefully, as players don’t like to be robbed of their achievements.

Another rule is called Chandler’s Law, named for a piece of advice by pulp writer Raymond Chandler:

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

– Chandler’s Law

This rule applies readily to Dungeons & Dragons, and in fact I believe it appears in editions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. When the game is going slowly, roll for initiative! Combat is engaging and interesting, and gives the opportunity to introduce new information or modify a difficult situation.

Some other useful RPG tropes include Pragmatic Villainy (see also the Evil Overlord List) and Dangeously Genre Savvy. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a few more hours of TV Tropes.

The History of the Ioun Stone

posted Saturday, June 5th 2010 by Jonathan Drain

I’m particularly proud of this website’s Ioun stone guide, a collected list of over 154 different ioun stones from more than 15 different sources. Most are canon D&D sourcebooks, with some from third-party publications. The list has grown by 75% since originally posted, including 43 stones added this month from an AD&D sourcebook and six from a 1991 issue of Dragon magazine.

There’s a surprising amount of background story to the ioun stone. The ioun stone actually predates Dungeons & Dragons, appearing in Jack Vance’s 1973 short story “Morreion”. Vance’s works had a major influence on D&D and the ioun stone made its way into Dungeons & Dragons through The Strategic Review, TSR’s gaming magazine:

“FLASHING SWORDS! #1 (Dell, 1973) contained four excellent swords & sorcery yarns, including “Morreion” by Jack Vance. In this tale there was a magical item of highly unusual value — IOUN stones. Mr. Vance was kind enough to allow us to enlarge somewhat upon his creations and list them as a D&D “Miscellaneous Magic” item.”

– The Strategic Review #4, Winter 1975

Dragon Magazine issue #174 (October 1991) describes that according to Vance’s “Morreion”, ioun stones are recovered at great risk from the hearts of obliterated stars.

In that issue’s article, “Bazaar of the Bizarre: Ioun Stones”, Matthew Hargenrader offers a separate origin story for the ioun stones in D&D. Rare ioun stones grow gradually in the Demiplane of Mineral, a place where the Positive Energy Plane meets the Plane of Earth. This plane is hostile to human life and guarded by numerous crystalline creatures, but contains a wealth of gemstones and minerals, including the ioun stones.

TSR’s 1996 book Netheril: Empire of Magic gives an origin story for the ioun stones of the Forgotten Realms setting, where the NPC lich Larloch has a famous preference for the items:

“The Shadow King’s body was in stark contrast to that of Tam. While the Zulkir of Necromancy strove to maintain his human appearance, Larloch was nothing more than a collection of bones partially covered in fine garments. The Netheril lich’s bones were bright white in color, and trails of emerald energy traveled across his form. More than two dozen ioun stones circled his skull, and globes of red light gazed up at Szass Tam as he approached.”

– Netheril: Empire of Magic

The book describes the inventor of Ioun Stones, an Netherese arcanist born 4,000 years ago named Congenio Ioun. As this Ioun lived for over 900 years and was an extremely talented spellcaster, it’s not impossible that he ascended to become the deity Ioun of D&D 4th edition.

The earlier Dragon article dislikes the idea that a human wizard might simply have invented the ioun stones, considering it unworthy of the majestic star-cores of Vance’s Dying Earth series:

“This method lacks any spirit of adventure and is very straightforward: It is supposed that ultrapowerful wizards who live on some alternate Prime Material plane simply make these magical gems. The only interesting thing about this origin is that the magical effects created by such wizards are greatly superior to those encountered in a standard AD&D campaign.”

–Dragon magazine #174, October 1991, “Bazaar of the Bizarre: Ioun Stones”

I have to admit that I took this approach in Kobold Quarterly #6′s “Rolling Stones”, presenting new 15 new ioun stones as invented by a human inventor named Darven Regance. In deference to Vance’s work and other creation stories I wrote that only these new stones were man-made, and quite likely reverse-engineered from the original stones.

In retrospect, perhaps my character Regance is Congenio Ioun in disguise, or he simply took his “inventions” from the Demiplane of Mineral.

World Building 101 – We Built This City

posted Thursday, June 3rd 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Eventually, every adventuring group will want or need to spend some time in environs more civilized than the wilderness or dungeons that are their bread and butter. From the smallest of hamlets to the largest of bustling capitals, your players will appreciate towns and cities with a bit more personality than a generic, nameless place that exists only to give them a place to shop and bunk down for the night.

Continue reading this article »

Pathfinder’s XP System

posted Tuesday, June 1st 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

Recently I noticed that Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG system uses an alternative XP system from the D&D 3.5 system it’s based on. The observant will recognise a strong similarly to the “Level-Independent XP Awards” variant from Unearthed Arcana (page 213), described as “a way of easing the DM’s job of adventure design and the task of experience-point calculating at the end of a game session.”

The big difference with the Pathfinder/UA experience system is that instead of earning a different amount of XP from a creature depending on your party’s current level, you gain the same XP amount regardless of party level, but higher level monsters give much more XP, and you need more XP to level up. The overall effect is that the XP numbers get much higher (millions of XP to reach level 20), but players still level up at the same rate as normal.

The main benefit here is that DMs can combine monsters in encounters more easily and calculate XP rewards more easily. It’s now possible to calculate the XP total for an encounter in advance even if you don’t know what level the PCs will be. A similar system is employed by fourth edition D&D, although it’s unlikely Pathfinder copied 4E’s rule here: this system originally appeared in 2004′s Unearthed Arcana, four years before 4E.

Another change peculiar to Pathfinder RPG is the choice of three XP rates: slow, medium, and fast. Some groups prefer to level up frequently, while others prefer slower levelling.

Fast is closest to the Unearthed Arcana equivalent and therefore the standard 3.5 progress rate, requiring 1,300 XP or 13 average Pathfinder encounters to reach level 2, and 2,400,000 XP to reach level 20. Medium requires about 50% more XP than Fast, suggesting Pathfinder favours a more gradual levelling rate. Slow requires 50% more XP than Medium, and 2.25 times as much as Fast, with players levelling once every 30 encounters or so.

If you’d like to try Pathfinder RPG, even if only to mine for ideas or house rules for a 3.5 game, the 576 page full-colour PDF is a very reasonable $10 from Paizo.com. The new XP rules appear on pages 30 and 398.

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