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Merry Christmas!

posted Saturday, December 25th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

No blog post today. It’s Christmas! Spend some time with your loved ones.

If you have no loved ones, buy Eversion on Steam. It’s a deceptively neat platformer, on sale for the next few days at 50% off, making it cheaper than a beer (and lasts longer too). Absolutely nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, but I recommend it all the same.

Links Roundup: 19th December 2010

posted Sunday, December 19th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

DriveThruRPG enters a Brave New World, via Stargazer’s World. A review of DriveThruRPG’s new print-on-demand service. This could become something important for the RPG industry.

Understanding the Economy of Actions, via Sly Flourish. An in-depth analysis of actions per round in D&D 4E. It discusses the difference between heroic tier and high epic level, and ways for DMs to counter PCs with a ludicrous number of attacks per round.

Five Reasons to Love Gamma World, via Sly Flourish

Did I miss anything good this week?

Now That’s What I Call Terrain

posted Thursday, December 16th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Uncovered this old post from Penny Arcade, where Gabe shows off his artistic talents by creating elemental planets for use as D&D terrain. The effort that went into these constructions should be an inspiration to every Dungeon Master.

Links Roundup: 13th December 2010

posted Monday, December 13th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

The Things We Do For Love, via Penny Arcade. Webcomic on DM burnout.

Semiprecious Stones, base 50gp value, via Jeff’s Gameblog. Actual photographs of gems from the D&D treasure list. See also last week’s Links Roundup for the 10gp base value gem list.

The Largest RPG Download Store introduces POD, via Stargazer’s World. In short, Drive Thru RPG is doing print on demand now.

The Executive Barrier, via Kayinworks. The designer of I Wanna Be The Guy discusses reward, skill and difficulty in game design.

89 Colorful Kennings, via Kobold Quarterly. Metaphors from Viking myth. I can’t think of a way to integrate this into a D&D game but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Understanding the Economy of Actions, via Sly Flourish. Fourth edition mechanics.

Five Reasons to Love Gamma World, via Sly Flourish.

What I Like About Pathfinder

posted Thursday, December 9th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

From Rise of the Runelords:

Exceptional Stats (Ex) Karzoug was destined from birth to become one of the greatest wizards of his age. As a result, his ability scores were generated using 32 points, rather than the standard 35-point elite array. Additionally, he has much more gear than standard for an NPC of his level. These modifications increase his total CR by 1.

The real reason for the character’s stats is probably balance, as writers knew as far back as Dungeon’s print run that solo mages in D&D 3.5 are defensively underpowered for their challenge rating. You can see this in Touch of the Abyss (by Wolfgang Baur, Dungeon #117, December 2004), where a wizard is possessed by a malevolent spirit to raise his ability scores and makes especially optimal use of spells and terrain to survive.

What I like about this statblock though is that it explains the character ability with an in-setting context. It evokes the sense of something in-setting, rather than something mechanical.

A movie character might shoot someone because it’s dramatically appropriate at the end of act two of the main plot, but that’s not how the audience is presented with it. They’re engaged in the story and the motivations of the characters and the conflict, not the nuts and bolts. Even if some film student understands a movie on a mechanical level, as a game designer or dungeon master might in his game, he’s also watching on the level of the fiction that everyone else sees.

What makes Dungeons & Dragons engaging, for me, is the connection to a malleable, coherent, fictional world. If you’re just playing like a miniatures skirmish game, then for me, that’s missing the point. Aramil the dwarf isn’t just a collection of fighter feats, and the places he adventures to aren’t just encounter sets. I think the biggest advantage of tabletop RPGs over video games is how you can go beyond the depiction of graphics and experience a world which, although fictional, is coherent and interactive and interesting all the same.

Links Roundup: 5th December 2010

posted Sunday, December 5th 2010 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

What I Learned Running a 1 to 30 D&D Campaign, via Critical Hits. Now that D&D 4E’s been out long enough for a campaign to have run to completion, Mike Shea gives his insights into what we used to call “the new edition”:

Near the end, there wasn’t any bad roll that couldn’t be boosted up by five points using some combination of forgotten feats, situational bonuses, magic items, or triggered actions. People would say things like “deep rumble strike” and then hit an invisible monster for 130 damage. [...] There wasn’t a way in hell I could tell if they had a real power or were just making up nonsense words and then doing whatever they wanted to do.

I sound like I’m complaining but 3.5 was even worse for me. Chainwielding half-orcs and solid fog spells trivialized every monster I ever threw at them. High level D&D games pre-4e seemed to end up as coin tosses. Heads you kill them all, tails they kill you all. [...] Of course, with 4e, I miss having monsters even potentially that lethal.

The (Lost?) Art of Trap Placement, via JD Wiker.

R.A. Salvatore Is A Grognard from Cave Of Chaos, via Cave of Chaos.

Real Steel: The Tetsubo, via Kobold Quarterly. Interesting article on the Japanese long spiked club.

Maybe there’s method in Wizards’ madness after all, via Greyulf’s Lair. Brief speculation on Microsoft’s port of Silverlight to the Xbox 360 and what this could mean for the D&D character software.

State of the Mongoose 2010, via Paranoia blog. While the Paranoia: Troubleshooters core book has sold well, the alternate core books Internal Security and High Programmers have been less successful. The news is excerpted from Mongoose’s 2010 report, a mammoth 10,000 word document of interest to anyone in the RPG industry.

When Is It OK To Railroad?, via RPG Blog II.

Ornamental Stones, base 10gp value, via Jeff’s Gameblog. Picture of the gems appearing on the low end of D&D’s treasure chart.

That’s probably the perfect mentality, I think:, via Quote Unquote. On developing a game, whether a video game or tabletop RPG.

How to Captivate Your Audience with Story (From America’s Greatest Living Playwright), via Copyblogger. Advice on story writing applied to marketing, but equally valuable to the tabletop games writer and Dungeon Master.

Possibly Intriguing D&D Virtual Table News, via Grognardia. There’s a rumour that D&D’s virtual gametable will support systems other than D&D 4E. Nothing that Maptools and OSU-GT Gametable don’t already do, and I suspect that few oldschool-only players will subscribe to D&D Insider at full price just for the Gametable, but still.

The Smallest of Gaming Groups: DM+1, via Newbie DM. How to run D&D 4th edition for a single player.

competing processes of play, broad appeal, and improving D&D, via Elliot Wilen’s RPG theory/design/philosophy journal.

World Building 101: Life Long Rivals

posted Friday, December 3rd 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Every story has a protagonist or protagonists. They’re the heroes, the viewpoint characters, the ones we root for–in roleplaying games, these are always the player characters. (It’s possible to have protagonists who are not player characters, but if your player characters are not protagonists there’s a good chance something’s going wrong.) A story also requires, to be interesting, that the protagonists have some sort of opposition or struggle–often in the form of antagonists. Antagonists are the villains, the “bad guys”, or at the very least, the characters who get between the protagonists and their goals. These descriptions can be much more complicated, but for the purposes of the discussion, the definitions above will suffice.

While a lot of the opposition player characters face in a D&D game is short term–monsters who last one single fight, or to the end of a given adventure–sometimes a DM will bring out long-term rivals or create a nemesis, a recurring character who time after time foils or escapes the player characters. This is not a bad thing, nor is it unique to roleplaying games. Comic books and serial stories in just about any medium have had these types of characters since well before D&D. Sherlock Holmes faced off against Professor Moriarty many a time, and the Joker from Batman is at least as iconic as Batman himself. In a roleplaying game, you can use a recurring villain or rival to create a sense of continuity as well as to give the players someone they love to hate.

There’s a complication, though. In fiction, we love to hate the recurring villain on behalf of the characters we’re reading about, but in a roleplaying game, a character who constantly foils the heroes and seemingly escapes their every effort to stop him can quickly become frustrating to the players. Constant escapes or a villain who always gets the better of the player characters regardless of their actions can make the players feel as though they are being shut down, or as though they are ineffective. Always be careful to give the players a chance to defeat the villains, and try not to cross the line between running a character they love to hate and running a character they just plain hate.

Don’t leave the characters in a position where they feel unsatisfied with their inability to overcome a recurring rival or nemesis. This doesn’t mean you need to let them kill off your favourite villains prematurely, but consider that there are other forms of defeat. Remember also that in D&D, death is not necessarily the end–a vile and murderous assassin might be slain by the players only to return a few adventures later as an undead creature. The trick to bringing a character who the PCs kill back is to give it time. Don’t have them immediately return as if nothing is wrong. Even in a case where the recurring nemesis successfully escapes the wrath of the players, take an adventure or three where they don’t show up at all before you bring them back around for another go. Using a recurring villain every adventure can feel like you’re rubbing in the players inability to stop them.

When you do give your characters a chance to finish off one of your recurring villains, though, make it grand, and make it memorable. Let the player characters relish and delight in their foes getting their long-awaited comeuppance. Don’t cheapen it by taking away their chance to avenge themselves for the slights they’ve suffered at the hands of the rival. Not every recurring character needs to be killed to be dealt with, either–some rivals who are not directly opposed or evil, but just keep getting in the way or one-upping the heroes could find themselves humiliated or imprisoned, forced to eat humble pie at the hands of the main characters.

Giving the characters someone to love to hate is great, but in the end, the satisfaction of victory over those special villains is what makes them work. A villain who can’t be defeated is one who provides nothing but frustration, and frustration is a good way to kill the enjoyment of a campaign forever. Don’t just hand over the victory, but don’t deny it forever, either. That’s the trick to handling recurring villains.

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