Roleplaying games originated from miniatures wargaming, as any historian of the genre knows, but over time many gamers moved away from using them. D&D Fourth Edition brought the use of miniatures kicking and screaming back to the table. For some players, accustomed to painting little metal men (and women, and monsters) from miniatures wargames, this was not all that daunting. Others, myself included, who never painted a mini before, found other solutions, such as the D&D Minis prepainted line, or by making tokens from washers or other appropriately sized pieces. Painting those tiny little guys is daunting, especially if you’re doing it for the first time, but as Tycho from Penny Arcade and I have both recently discovered, there’s a big difference between painting and applying paint. It’s not easy to do a paint job on a mini that others will recognize as a masterpiece, perhaps, but it’s not hard to do a paint job that looks good, and while getting enough minis to run an entire campaign can be expensive, if you start small and work your way up, you can find yourself with plenty of nice-looking pieces without a ton of effort, and they really do add a lot to the game—especially since you’ll be able to feel a sense of pride for having painted them yourself!
There are a lot of different sources of advice and tips for all levels of skill out there, and I’m still far too new at painting minis myself to provide any real pointers on technique that you won’t find with a quick google search. I can, however, share some of what I’ve learned since I started.
Get the right tools for the job, but don’t overpay. Minis don’t require some specific type or brand of paint to look good, and a lot of the hobby-store paints sold specifically targeted at miniatures painting are priced higher than the exact same stuff would be at a regular craft store, and for less paint. Shop around, pay attention to the specific types of paints you’re using, and the amount you’re getting. You can get a very wide range of colors with only a few paints, with a bit of mixing, too, so don’t feel the need to purchase paint in every conceivable hue to get started. On the other hand, if you want to ensure consistent shading over a large number of minis—say you’ve got an army of kobolds that are attacking the town in your campaign—you might consider getting a color you could otherwise mix, just to ensure it matches for every one of them. For brushes, you can get by with a starter pack, rather than buying the individual brushes—once you get the hang of things you may want to invest in more specific shapes and styles, but at first it won’t be as vital.
Shop around to find minis you like. While you shouldn’t discount cost in your consideration of what minis to purchase, painting a mini or set of minis you don’t particularly like the look of is pretty unrewarding. There are a wide variety of styles out there, by a wide range of companies—look around at galleries and find some you really like. Don’t go wild with buying a huge number of them, though—remember that it takes time to paint everything, and spread out your purchases.
Take your time. This is probably the most important thing I’ve found. If you try to do a rush job, it will show, and it won’t look good. Be patient, and be careful, and you’ll have much better results. When you get tired of working on a mini (or set of minis), stop. Set it aside and come back to it later. Working on something when you’d rather be doing something else isn’t fun, and you may find yourself rushing to finish, and making mistakes. You may feel like you’re wasting paint if you stop halfway and the paint on your palette dries out, but you’ll be wasting paint and time if you have to go back after and correct the careless errors made in a hurry. While you do paint, it helps to have on some music or a movie in the background to listen to—I personally like to throw on a podcast or audiobook and tune out the world.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You can always paint over a little slipup, and in the worst case scenario it’s not that hard to remove a “ruined” paint job entirely and start it over from scratch. Every mistake is a learning experience, and every mini you paint is an opportunity to improve. Don’t sweat it, just take your time and go over it until you’re satisfied.
Read up on what others have to say about painting. There is a LOT of guidance available out there for the beginning painter, from a lot of sources. If you have friends who do it, ask them for tips. Google for guides online for starting painters or advanced techniques. Read through as much as you can to learn the techniques others have used, but remember not to get discouraged if your early attempts don’t look quite as nice as the beautiful paint jobs done by the experts who’ve been at it for a while.
It’s not that difficult at all to make a mini look attractive with basic techniques, and it can be quite relaxing to do and rewarding to look at your finished work. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it’s worth trying out before you decide one way or another.
Magic items have become a character-building tool. Players regard their magic weapon as integral to their character design. This is a problem since it adds yet another exploitative element that can create difficulties at the table. Magic items should be strange, wondrous, and exciting […] If a player wants that +5 holy avenger, create ways to gain the item, environments the player must explore and quests the player must complete to secure the item.
This is close to the attitude taken in my 2007 article, Realistic Magic Item Shopping, so I like the sound of it. In 3E terms you can have your players roll a Gather Information check to discover the locations of items they want; I forget the 4E equivalent to this skill check off-hand.
Stealing the Idol’s Eye, via Robert J. Schwalb. How to make D&D 4th edition feel more like AD&D 1st edition. Interesting suggestions include using the AD&D equipment list, granting XP for treasure found, training to level up, strict light-source rules, and rewarding unconventional solutions.
The advent of v.3.5 — even its self-designation is awful — presaged a shift in tone, content, and business plan that slowly lost me.
DDI Virtual Table goes Beta!, via Square Fireballs. A 2D version of WotC’s gametable is in production, but can we trust it after a disastrous month in which D&D Insider released an unusably buggy new Character Builder and an unfinished Assassin class? What features will it have over Maptools or OSU-GT Gametable?
The astute reader will have noticed that over the past few weeks, the World Building 101 series of articles has trailed off. I really enjoy writing WB101 pieces, and do hope to continue the series, but I’d prefer to avoid writing about bizarre minutiae simply to keep it going. (I’m pretty sure some of the articles already got close to that point as it stands, in fact!) That said, I do intend to continue WB101, but at a slower pace. In the interim I’ll be continuing to write DM advice, though with a slightly different focus than worldbuilding. Today’s piece will focus on DM logs.
I have previously written about writing and maintaining a campaign bible—a document containing details of the setting and events of your game. A campaign bible may also contain notes for the Dungeon Master’s eyes only, but this is not a DM log. The purpose of a DM log is quite different—rather than tracking the story or NPC notes, a DM log tracks notes on the actual act of DMing.
Every session you run can be a learning experience, and it can be very helpful to keep notes on what worked and what didn’t work, to improve your game sessions in the future. Keeping a DM log will help you do just that. After each session you run, take a few moments to jot notes on things that your players seemed to enjoy, or things that fell flat. Doing this can help you marshal your thoughts and give you something to reflect on before your next session, and can also be used to track your progress or remind you a few weeks or months down the line of problems you encountered in game and how to avoid them.
Make a point of talking to your players regularly about the campaign, as well, and note the results in your log. You don’t need to do this every session, but you should do it once every three to five sessions at least. Ask what they like and didn’t like about the session you’ve just completed, as well as what they want to see more of (and less of) in the campaign as a whole. Look over these notes when you’re planning future adventures, and you’ll find your players stay very happy and keep their enthusiasm for the game high.
Another technique you might consider—though this is not something that may be possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons—is to record a session and listen to it after. You can often hear in the players’ body language and tone of voice what they enjoyed or disliked during the session, and get more specific details about it than you would with asking them after—they may not remember everything as clearly at the end of a session, but by observing their reactions during play you can pinpoint it. You can also monitor your own performance, checking for bad habits when providing descriptions (lots of “ums”, pacing problems, repetitive word choice, or just droning), and take notes on what you can be improving that way. If you do want to record a session, though, make sure your players are all okay with the idea before you do so, and if any of them are uncomfortable with it, don’t press the issue.
Keeping a DM log is something that can help you improve your technique and reduce your bad habits or mistakes. It gives you a written record of the lessons you learn after each session and helps you remember things you want to do more (or less) of in the next session. It’s a tool I’ve found invaluable when I run games, and I can safely say that my dungeon mastering has improved a great deal as a result. Even a few short moments of taking notes and reflection can be enough, so give it a shot!
For a large segment of the roleplaying gamer population, familiarity with the rules of their game of choice is something that is almost taken for granted. After more than a few months of playing with any game, to suggest that a player or DM should refamiliarize themselves with the system is a breach of etiquette and often met with dismissal or outright derision. After all, we’ve play once (or more) a week every week over the course of a year, obviously we know what the rules are, right? To suggest otherwise is insulting the intelligence and the integrity of the gamer, especially if it’s directed to a DM, who must adjudicate fairly for his or her players on top of merely knowing the relevant rules for one particular set of actions.
The problem with the knee-jerk defensiveness that can arise so readily from such a suggestion is that in many cases it’s a valid suggestion. As a DM I make a habit of actively reading the rules every three to five months—and not just skimming, either. Each time I do so, I discover some nuance of the rules I’ve missed, or that I’d misremembered during a session and had to make a quick call on to keep the game running. Each time I make a point of noting down what the correct rule is and make certain to adhere to it more closely in the future.
Something that can exacerbate the issue is that many (or most) groups play with house rules in place, and over time it’s relatively easy to lose sight of which rules are the “official” rules and which rules are in place only at your particular table. This is less important if you only ever play within the same circle, but when you bring in a new player (or play at someone else’s, or in a public game at a convention, game day, or Encounters night) it’s crucial to be able to distinguish between the two. Even something relatively minor can throw people for a loop.
Refamiliarizing yourself with the rules isn’t hard, and it’s not a particularly onerous task. The most difficult part is simply forcing yourself not to assume that you’re familiar with a given rule and skim past it—read it again as though for the first time, so as not to miss anything. Your understanding of the game will improve, and you’ll always be able to speak confidently and with assurance when you need to make a rules call, even if it’s a relatively obscure bit of mechanics that doesn’t come up very often. Don’t sweat too much if you’re not always spot on, though—nobody’s perfect.
Ritual, via NeoGrognard. Some excellent insights into the development of D&D 4th edition by Stephen Radney-MacFarland, former WotC writer:
There was this idea that if you could make D&D speak less jargoned, that new people would have an easier time learning it. […] I’m willing to bet that some kid who grew up reading Harry Potter novels and playing console RPGs doesn’t need to be glad-handed with less jargon, they need to be inspired. They need to find a new world to explore. They know the jargon game. Some of them love the jargon game.
Thanks to the blogs and articles linked for their work over the past three weeks.
I’ve been hoarding links for the past three weeks, expecting only a few top-notch articles. I was pleasantly surprised to discover I’d accumulated thirty-five links worth sharing. I’m going to post the rest over the next three days.
Experience points are one of the most widespread concepts in roleplaying games. Many RPGs use point-buy experience systems or provide variable scale rates of advancement. D&D 4th Edition’s experience system functions by characters accruing points and gaining levels at specific point totals. The system, as presented in the PHB and other resources, uses a single scale of experience point values required to level up, and the stated assumption is that characters will gain a level around every ten encounters, give or take.
This assumption can be used to calculate roughly how much playtime it will take to go from level 1 to level 30. In practice, the experience required to go up a level can be gained in fewer than ten encounters, thanks to a combination of quest rewards, experienced gained from skill challenges and other noncombat encounters, and higher-level combat encounters. One can generally assume around seven combat encounters will provide sufficient experience to gain a level.
According to the assumptions of RPGA organized play events, a four hour session should be sufficient to make it through about three encounters and a bit of roleplaying. In my own experience as an RPGA DM, this assumption is not too far off the mark. Thus, for every two to three sessions of play (at four hours per session), one can expect to gain a level.
If the above assumptions hold true, then gaining 29 levels should take roughly sixty to ninety sessions, likely leaning towards the higher end. A campaign running from level 1 to level 30, then, can be expected to take over a year of play, even if a group plays once a week without fail. In practice, it is likely to be somewhere between a year and a half to two years of play, with one session of four hours a week.
Once you understand the expected duration of a 1-30 campaign, based on the assumed rate of advancement, it becomes much easier to play with it. Some DMs don’t bother tracking experience totals numerically, advancing their players in level whenever it feels appropriate to do so. This works well, but can lead to some levels being “longer” than others if it is not tracked—going by the numbers at least ensures a consistent rate of advancement. Numbers can be adjusted easily, as well.
For example, if you wanted to slow advancement slightly, you might shift the total experience required to level up to reflect twelve encounters rather than ten—three to four sessions, rather than 2-3. This would mean that second level is reached at 1200 experience, third at 2500, fourth at 4300, and so on. You could also speed things up, aiming for 8 encounters, ensuring a level increase every second session—second level would then be 800 experience, third at 1800, fourth at 3000, etcetera.
Adjusting experience requirements isn’t difficult, especially once one understands the play time the numbers represent. There are two things one must bear in mind, however, before deciding to go forward with such an alteration. First, the treasure parcel system will need to be adjusted to reflect any changes. If you reduce the number of encounters between leveling up, you should either hand out treasure faster or use the inherent bonuses system presented in the DMG2—simply because the defenses and attacks of monsters assume that at certain levels, a certain minimum enhancement bonus will have been applied to players. The other consideration is that you must let your players know before you begin about any adjustments you have made.
Experience and advancement are an important part of any roleplaying game, and by understanding the assumptions the game designers have made in creating these systems it becomes much easier to adapt them to suit your group’s particular requirements, be they for a speedier game or a lengthier campaign duration.
I’ve been hoarding links on D&D Essentials. Here are the most interesting I’ve read.
The Alexandrian takes a look at the Essentials Starter Set, with a historical comparison to the 1983 Red Box and a frank discussion of the place of the new game. The Alexandrian has previously been critical of 4E, having been a 4E playtester. His most notable complaint is the article Disassociated Mechanics, lamenting 4E’s lack of the fiction-to-mechanics tie that characterized good 3E sourcebooks:
Of course, you can sidestep all these issues with house rules if you just embrace the design ethos of 4th Edition: There is no explanation for the besieged foe ability. It is a mechanical manipulation with no corresponding reality in the game world whatsoever.
At that point, however, you’re no longer playing a roleplaying game. When the characters’ relationship to the game world is stripped away, they are no longer roles to be played. They have become nothing more than mechanical artifacts that are manipulated with other mechanical artifacts.
The Escapist, home to video game review series Zero Punctuation, snuck in a D&D column when I wasn’t looking and set up an interview with Mike Mearls, who is now D&D’s lead designer. It gives a sense that Mearls’ predecessor Rob Heinsoo is responsible for the “disassociated mechanics” situation and that Mearls is hoping to set things right with Essentials. It’s certainly the case that Essentials is an effort to bring back players who disliked D&D 4E’s direction, though it’s subjective whether those changes improve the game or merely pander to old players.
If you look the 4th Edition handbook and you look at those players - you have to be well versed in D&D to understand the difference between the classes. It’s the old - I see this comment a lot online - “It doesn’t read very well, but it plays very well.”
I think what we were looking for in Essentials, especially for beginners, because there’s plenty of people out there who have stopped playing D&D - you want them to go “This reads well too,” because you’re dealing with an audience that isn’t already playing your game. […]
Just going forward from a design standpoint, when you have more visceral design like that, I think it just leads to more interesting challenges for designers. You’re looking at things in more of a world point of view - “What is this guy doing in the world of D&D and how do we express this mechanically,” rather than vice versa.
In my mind, the issue is that if you’re looking for a realistic simulation, you’re in the wrong place. 4E isn’t trying to be a documentary about martial arts, realistically showcasing what can and can’t be done. Instead, it’s a Jackie Chan movie. […]
For me, this is exactly what limited-use powers are. If my adventure is a movie, they are the moves that only get used a few times in the movie — the cool movies that ad some flair and excitement to the scene. This is tied to what I mean if I call 4E “cinematic” — because when I say cinematic, part of what I mean is that flavor is more important than realism. I don’t storm out of the Jackie Chan movie saying “Why didn’t he just trip that guy?” — because I know going in that realism isn’t what he’s aiming for.
I don’t like this rationalization. It would make this the least realistic D&D edition yet, and that’s abandoning what made the game popular. A commenter named Michael Pfaff makes an insightful reply that I think sums up the disassociatd mechanics issue:
The real disassociation […] comes from when those mechanics aren’t tied to anything from a fictional perspective.
In older editions of D&D (3E and prior), you had to fictionally look into a medusa’s eyes in order for it’s “gaze” to affect you. Without this fictional action, there is no effect. In the 3E SRD, the description even states, “It uses normal weapons to attack those who avert their eyes or survive its gazeâ€¦”
This makes sense. I can fictionally say, “My character closes his eyes, or shields them from the medusa’s gaze.” Right?
However, in 4E, the medusa’s power is written with no fictional backbone, only it’s mechanical weight […] by RAW, my character can only not be affected by this attack if he has the “blind” or “blinded” keyword.
Nothing I do fictionally matters. I can avert my eyes, I can conceal my eyes, I can close them. I’m not “blind” though, am I? So, the medusa’s gaze attack affects me none the less.
Keith Baker replies:
You can say that “The rules never clearly state that a character can voluntarily blind himself by covering his eyes”, but in doing so you’re really missing the flavor I LIKE about 4E, which is that in encourages improvisation. The 4E approach to skills has always been “Rather than concretely stating everything that can be done with a skill, we expect you to be creative in your application of it, and for the DM to be the final judge of what can and can’t be done.” This is spelled out more clearly in the Rules Compendium and Essentials, but it’s always been the premise, and again, it’s always been my favorite thing about 4E.