How To Get Published in D&D Insider

Wizards of the Coast announced that they’re taking submissions for D&D Insider content during April and May. As someone with a few publishing credits in Dragon magazine I can tell you it’s pretty cool to see your work in print (even if it’s digital now), and getting paid for it’s not bad either.

But what are your chances of making it into D&D Insider if you haven’t written for Wizards of the Coast before? D20 Source takes a look.

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Before 4e: Iron Heroes

Mike Mearls is well known as one of the developers of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition and various expansions. But less well known is his 2005 work Iron Heroes, which removes the spellcasting classes and magic items from D&D and expands the rest to fill the space. The result is an all-martial version of D&D 3.5 with several innovations I still think are really cool.

Iron Heroes class abilities cost power points to use (like 3e psionics or spell points). These power points are called Tokens, and can be accumulated during an encounter by taking tactical actions which vary by class. For example, an Archer can spend a move action to aim at his target and gain 1 point.

I like IH’s token pools far better than 4e’s encounter powers, because they make narrative sense. It’s hard to explain why the fighter can only trip once per combat, but if he can only trip an opponent after taking some action that sets him up for the trip, it makes more sense. The tokens system is also more versatile, because you can use the same encounter power twice.

IH’s system neatly solves another problem in 4e: the grind of weak at-will powers when you run out of encounter powers. Most IH classes gain tokens during combat, so special attack use scales with combat length.

It’s like 4e in some ways, though. IH heavily uses per-encounter resources rather than per-day. It also uses the reserve points, an early precursor to 4e’s healing surges, which lets you recover hit points between combat without a cleric. This is down to IH’s lack of magical healing, I think, as opposed to 4e’s design to remove reliance on a cleric PC as a healing battery.

I also like that like 3.5, IH supports miniatures but isn’t reliant on them. Distances are in both squares and feet. You can flank on your own by moving around an opponent and attacking in the same round, at the cost of your move action (i.e. no full attack this round) and an attack of opportunity.

You can buy the 2007 revised PDF edition Iron Heroes at RPGNow now for £9.43 or whatever that is in your currency. There’s also a complete Iron Heroes bundle for £22.07. If you’re looking for a low-magic setting or a change from your current D&D, Iron Heroes is still as good as it was in 2007.


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Mike Mearls’ Combat Maneuvers

Yesterday I mentioned the manoever system from Book of Iron Might. Mike Mearls, who later went on to design Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, wrote this mechanically interesting expansion for D&D 3.5 in 2004.

The maneuver system (I’ll use the American spelling to stay consistent with the book, as it’s a game term) allows you to perform a wide range of combat techniques without taking a feat, but at the cost of a large attack penalty of -10 or greater. This penalty can be offset by taking drawbacks.

Lets say you wish to knock an opponent prone. You can do so, at the impossibly high penalty of -20 to attack. However, you can reduce that penalty by 10 if the maneuver provokes an attack of opportunity, by a further 5 if your opponent gets a saving throw or opposed check, and another 5 if the attack only knocks prone and doesn’t deal damage.

Other possible maneuver perks include disarm, bonus damage, ability score damage (2 points), blindness (1d4 rounds), speed reduction, daze, stun, and disabling a natural attack or special ability such as the beholder’s antimagic eye.

This deconstruction of the 3e combat system is what got me to first take note of Mike Mearls and his grasp on mechanics. His later work, the similarly titled Book of Iron Heroes, formed a lot of the groundwork for D&D 4th edition. I’ll write more about Iron Heroes in my next post.

If you’re interested, you can buy Book of Iron Might at RPGNow for £4.41 in PDF, £7.25 in print, or whatever that is in your currency, which looks like Monopoly money to me.

One Weird Feat Discovered By A Sean

For some reason today, a strange feat came to mind. It’s called Reciprocal Slaying, and it appeared on D&D writer Sean K Reynolds’ personal website in 2003.

The benefit is this: As a full attack action, you can allow an opponent to make an attack against you as if you were helpless. If it hits, it counts as a coup de grace - for reference, this means he automatically deals a critical hit, and you make a Fort save or die (DC 10 + damage taken). However, if it hits and you survive, you then get to make a coup de grace attack against your opponent in the same way.

Thinking back on it, this is a really terrible feat. It’s something you might use in an emergency, but not often enough to warrant a feat. It’s more of a “Book of Iron Might” manoever: a special attack with benefits and drawbacks that balance out but don’t require a feat to learn. I’ll blog more on those later, they’re interesting.

Imagine it in the hands of monsters, too. A kobold insta-kills your high level character. Or an undead uses it, because he’s immune to coup de grace.


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The Law According to Dungeons & Dragons

Here are five reasons why you don’t want to live in the world implied by the Dungeons & Dragons rules - unless, of course, you’re an adventurer.

1. Theft is legal if the owner is already dead
Dungeons never belong to anyone. If they did, you wouldn’t need traps and monsters to guard your treasure - just an alarm spell that calls the police. Likewise, if you kill someone, it’s pefectly legal to take their stuff.

2. Orcs don’t have rights
Neither do kobolds, goblins or ogres. You want to live in uncivilized tribes, you don’t get the protection of law. In fact, it’s considered polite to murder you on sight. The exception is if they’re an adventurer. If you’re a crazy enough orc to steal from dungeons instead of raiding caravans, the law begrudgingly accepts you as a good guy.

3. Adventurers pay no tax, ever
Somebody must be paying for all these town guards, city walls, roads, abandoned fortresses and cultist-infested public sewers. The king evidently funds all of this with some kind of tax, but nobody ever taxes the adventurers. Impoverished farmers pay ten percent of their crop while millionaire dragon-slayers waste their savings on personal fortresses and marginally sharper magic swords.

4. Prices are fixed by the government
No matter where you go, a Magic Sword +1 costs the same amount. Whether it’s 2,000 gp in your kingdom or or 360 gp, you’ll never get a better or worse price. Why? Clearly, the king is secretly price-fixing to control the supply of magic items. Otherwise, supply and demand would eventually let every peasant own a magic sword and the people would overthrow their tax-happy king.

5. Beggars are the richest peasants in town
If you’re a farmer, you maybe earn the equivalent of one or two silver pieces a day. A hundred gold pieces is more than you’ll see in a year. Imagine how much more profitable it is for the beggar in a major city, when a high-level adventuring party drops him 100 gold in “spare change”. All he needs to do is sit outside any tavern with adventurers staying in it, and he has a hard-working man’s annual salary. No wonder the peasants are fomenting rebellion.


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Make Your D&D Website Better than WotC’s

When I’m not writing about Dungeons & Dragons, I’m a website developer in my day job. I find myself habitually critiquing websites, and Wizards of the Coast’s official D&D homepage is no exception.

Here are my top five problems that you want to avoid to make your site better than WotC’s D&D website.

Keep page load times to a minimum

Opera web browser has a little-known feature that shows you how much data. WotC’s site takes a whopping 2MB to load. If you felt like their site was slow, it’s because it’s transferring five to ten times more data than a normal website.

Even in this age of broadband internet, keep your webpage below 500KB, and ideally below 200KB.

Keep design uncluttered

In the late 1990s, the trend in website design was to cram as much content into the top of your page, on the mistaken belief that users don’t scroll down. The result was cluttered websites that make it hard for the user to find what they’re looking for.

Modern “web 2.0” principles recommend a minimalist layout that helps the user find what he wants, rather than what the publisher wants the user to find. Nobody comes to a website to read advertising billboards.

Let your users stay logged in

When I visit the D&D Compendium to look up some monster stats, it logs me out after a day or two and I have to enter my username and password again. This is a very short time to keep a user logged in. Many popular websites allow you to stay logged in after a month or even more.

If your site has a login, let users stay logged in for at least a month, unless you’re running something high-security like a bank.

Readability is key

In 1999, the trend was to use small fonts, because they looked neat at low resolutions. Now, the average screen resolution has doubled and anti-aliasing makes bigger fonts look good. The average web user is older, and not all of us have perfect eyesight any more, but WotC’s using an even smaller font size than their own website 13 years ago.

Make sure your main article text is well-spaced, has good margins on either side and is an easy to read font size.


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So Long, Fourth Edition

With the recent announcement of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, D20 Source is coming out of retirement to respect a roleplaying games tradition that’s older than D&D itself: complaining about the old version of the rules.

Personally, I was a big fan of D&D third edition. It was the first version of D&D that I played a proper campaign, and there was a lot of technical consistency to the rules that I could get a grasp on and create meaningful material with. I even wrote 3e material for some major publications.

Over the years, I began finding imperfections in D&D 3e, as did a lot of long-time 3e players. High-level combat took too long without instant-kill effects. Groups needed a proper mix of class roles to succeed, and so on. When 4e was announced in 2007 I looked forward to seeing those issues addressed.

What let me down most about 4e is that it not only failed to solve the worst problems, it only codified and made them worse, while taking out some of the things I liked the most.

Take solos, for example. In 3e, one of the worst combats I ever DMed was an elder earth elemental versus two PCs, a paladin and a monk. It became what’s been nicknamed “padded sumo”, a fight where both sides have lots of hit points and just keep hitting in a boring battle of attrition. 4e didn’t solve this. It just gave lots of hit points to both PCs and solo creatures.

Slow combat in general was the number one problem that 4e failed to solve for me. I gamed online where the limits of communication slow play more than you’d expect. 4e gave PCs more hit points, more combat options and more things to fight, without any way to compensate for the way this made combat turns take longer. At least low-level 3e combat was quick and decisive!

It’s too early to tell exactly what D&D 5th edition will be, but it’s my hope that it’ll be a game that solves the problems a lot of people discovered with both previous editions, and in doing so, unifies the Dungeons & Dragons playerbase that was fragmented by the release of 4th edition. It’ll be interesting to see what the designers come up with.


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What I Like About Pathfinder

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.


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