Thursday, October 31, 2013


Don't forget to enter for your chance to win a signed copy of Mark Lawrence's King of Thorns!

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and I have a couple of traditions that I always follow, even when, like this year, I don't do much to decorate.

I highly recommend that if you have a free hour or two, check out the original radio dramas Dracula and War of the Worlds from Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater. And you might follow that up by listening to RadioLab's story on War of the Worlds' 75th anniversary.

I also wanted to share with you a couple of monsters I wrote up an October many years ago.

Broken Men

Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 2+2* (M)
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 1 weapon
Damage: by weapon +1
No. Appearing: 3d4+4 (1-2 or 3d12+12)
Save As: F3
Morale: 10
Treasure Type:
Intelligence: 7
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 35

Monster Type: Humanoid
Broken men were once human, but were warped into something twisted. This can come about because of exposure to a powerful undead spirit, a manifestation of chaos, intentional experimentation of those who seek to know too much, or a wide variety of other horrifying events. Due to their twisted nature they receive a +2 to their saving throws against sleep, charm, and hold spells, and any attempt to read their minds will cause the loss of 2d6 points of wisdom, recoverable at a rate of 1 point per week of total rest.

They are sly killers, and will track their prey, unless an easier kill crosses their path. They are also highly territorial, and often keep their area littered with grisly totems


Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 3* (M)
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 2 claw or 1 missile
Damage: 1d6/ld6 or 2d4
No. Appearing 1d6 (0)
Save As: F3
Morale: 12
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 7
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 40

Monster Type: Planar Monster, Enchanted (Uncommon).
Gourdghosts, aka Pumpkinspirits are an elemental spirit that gains access to the material plane at the end of harvest time, and remain until the first hard frost when they are again banished to wherever it is they originally come from.

Standing a gaunt 7 feet tall, with shadowy stick like bodies, and a grinning pumpkin (or other appropriate local gourd) for a head, they are vicious though rarely deadly creatures. They delight in torment, taking sadistic pleasure from their cruel tricks. When forced into physical confrontation they will rake with their claws or throw burning gourds (10/20/40) which explode on impact. Targets of the thrown gourds can save for half damage.

Gourdghosts are never encountered during daylight hours or in dungeons. As they are not undead, they are immune to turning. They are immunities to sleep, hold, and charm spells.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Encounter Balance

Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?

Encounter Balance is a much more important feature in my 4e game than it is in my old school games. In 4e there’s the expectation that the PC’s are “Heroes!” able to overcome nearly any challenge. “Heroes!” don’t run from dangerous monsters, they face them, usually head on!

This takes some work, but because my players are so good at character building, I usually have to make things harder than they are as written in the adventures that I've been running them through.

In my old school games… there are things that are best run away from. Many of them. They can be overcome, but not usually by running in like a hero. Careful planning and preparation is the way to go if you want your characters to survive.

That isn’t to say that I’m just going to drop an ancient red dragon on my players without any warning. I mean, it isn’t like an ancient red dragon is going to sneak up on anyone… They tend to make an impression on the local area. The same holds true with lesser monsters too. Ogres, orcs, goblins, and just about every other monster out there will mark their territory in some way. The PCs just need to pay attention to the signs, and then interpret them correctly.

It’s up to the PCs to balance their greed with their ability… If they want to take on a dragon, that’s up to them!

The flip side to this is that even a lowly goblin with a rusty knife, when the blood moon rises, and the constellation of the lady of luck is in the shadow of the dark cloud, and the DM's dice are hot, and the players are not... Encounter balance doesn't mean a thing.

This post is #13 of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge

A reminder, if you're interested in winning a free signed copy of King of Thorns (and you want to win) click here and leave a comment!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Table Rules - Keeping Focused

"Look at the fangs!"

"Never tell me the odds!"

"Why is the Rum Gone?"

"I cast magic missile at the darkness!"

Keeping everyone at the table focused isn't always easy. Sometimes the mood of the room, especially with long running groups, can make it all too easy to derail things, and send the session into a purgatory of in-jokes and goofing off.

Sometimes (but not often) that's okay. There are times when it's a better idea to can the game, toss in a movie, and do something else.

Other times, you want to keep everyone on track. There are a couple of tricks you can use.

1. Silence - Stop paying attention to the table. Reread your notes, make sure you're set to jump back into the game, but don't say anything until they're ready to get back to it. Alternately, "take 5" and walk away from the table.

2. Roll some dice. Give the table a moment to laugh at the joke, then pick up a couple of d6s or d20s, and make a show of rolling. Smile. Grin even.

3. Random encounter! Have someone kick down the door, and gain free attacks since the PCs are clearly too occupied to have been ready for an attack.

4. XP Penalty - have them lose 10 or 100xp/minute. Count every minute. I don't actually encourage this one... It works, but makes the players rather unhappy.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the players may be getting distracted because they're just not that into the game. If keeping them focused is an ongoing problem, talk to them, and see what's bothering them.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Contest: King of Thorns

Mark Lawrence, author of the Broken Empire series has a stack of signed books that he's giving away, and I'm helping him out! One lucky person who comments on this post before 11/1 will win a signed copy of King of Thorns.

Seriously, all you need to do is leave a comment, and trust me, it's worth it!

And in case you missed my reviews:
Prince of Thorns
King of Thorns
Emperor of Thorns

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Inspirational Image: Lilith

I posted the Bone Hut picture accidentally yesterday, so here's a bonus pic. You might recognize it as the cover of Eldritch Witchery by Tim Brannan over at the Other Side Blog.

by Isra2007

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bones, Bits, and Bobs XVI

Reaper's done it again. Their Bones II Kickstarter wraps up today, and as of this posting they were over $2,663,837 and 139 minis and 80 bases for a basic $100 pledge. While it's not quite the deal that it was for their first Kickstarter, it's still impressive, and the add ons this year are even better than they were last time! You've got under 10 hours still to get in on this.

And if that's not enough for you, the next big stretch goal is a not-Tarrasque.

You know you want in on this...

This is an old post, but some good advice from Zak S. about How to make a D&D Sandbox.

Random Wizard put together a random map generator for that classic module B1. Every time you go to this page, you'll get a new map like this one.

Over at Geek Related there's a great review of Rule 0 over the years. I hadn't realized how differently it's been handled over the years.

Sunday Inspirational Image: Skull Hut

It's the weekend before Halloween... would you knock on this door?

by UnidColor

Friday, October 25, 2013

House Rules

I have never, ever played in a game with the rules as written. Not once. Every game, even board games, tend to be tweaked to fit the participant's wants and needs.

For example, I just played Risk GodStorm last weekend. If you've never played it, it involves conquering the ancient western world (including Atlantis) and gods, temples, and the underworld play a big part. There are 4 gods that every civilization can call on: War, Death, Air, and Magic, and they all have the same rules across the different civilizations. Every god of war is the same. After playing, even a bit during the game, we spent some time talking about tweaking the rules to give everyone slightly different rules so that the choice of civilization actually has an impact on the game.

In my old school D&D games, I use the following house rules.

"Order of the d30"**
Once per game session, a player may choose to roll a d30 instead of any normal dice roll. This cannot be used for any purpose during character creation or for hit point rolls.

"Chop When they Drop"
Fighters dedicate their entire lives to mastering their skill at arms. Because of this single-minded dedication, fighters (not including dwarves or elves) are able to dispatch multiple foes at a rate that astonishes other classes. Anytime a fighter kills an opponent, he immediately gains a free attack on any other enemy within reach. Should he slay the opponent as well, he gains another free attack on a nearby enemy. This series of events continues until the fighter either misses, fails to kill and opponent, or runs out of enemies within the reach of his weapon.

"Shields Shall Be Splintered"
Shields Shall Be Splintered: Anytime you are about to take damage and have a shield equipped, you may choose to attempt to sacrifice the shield in order to avoid incurring the wound. Make a saving throw vs. death and, if the save is successful, the shield is sundered by the blow and destroyed, but you take no damage. In the case of spells that allow a saving throw for half damage, you may invoke this rule if you fail your save against the spell. Doing so successfully reduces the damage by half. In the case of magical shields, invoking this rule successfully means that you take no damage from blows (or half from spells) but the shield loses one "plus" from its enchantment. Thus, a +1 shield would become a normal shield, a +2 shield becomes a +1 shield, etc.

"Dutch Courage"
Dutch Courage: Any character may heal themselves by spending twenty minutes binding their wounds, catching their breath, and consuming a pint of wine. Doing so heals the character of 1d6 points of damage. This method of first aid may only be used once per day.

"Mortal Wounds"
When a character reaches zero hit points, he or she is falls unconscious. Players then roll on the Mortal Wounds chart from ACKS. This rule replaces the previous "unconsciousness and death" rule.

Magic users may use the Zap spells as outline in this blog post.

**This rule is also in effect for my 4e game.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Player Homework & Low Prep /No Prep Games

One of the things I've discovered is that almost no one wants to do homework between games. Playing games is fun, and homework isn't. If it was, it would be called homefun (or maybe a 'game').

I used to try to assign my players homework, and it never went over well. It didn't matter if it involved reading world background, or writing up something for the world or the game. I rarely had anyone willing to do any outside reading or writing aside from maybe a brief character background.

Now I offer my players 150xp per character level to write up a summary of what happened in the game. I usually get one back, at least for my old school games.

As a DM, I've found that I also don't really want to do homework either, and the biggest pile of DMing homework is prep. There are a couple of ways to cut down on prep, aside from the “just wing it” school of gaming. While that's great for someone with fantastic improv skills, the rest of us we need a little more.

One strategy is to have a nice selection of random charts that you can roll on before hand or at the table. Depending on what type of game you're running will determine what type of charts you'll want. For a hex crawl, you'll want random encounter tables and a random hex table, and maybe a random weather generator. If you're running a random megadungeon crawl, you'll need some sort of dungeon generator, and again, encounter tables.

Another option is to grab a module that you've got kicking around, and running it cold, or nearly so. This works really well if it's one you've run before, but even if it's not, you can still do it. Just give it a read through, and then get to the table. If you mess something up, go with it. Let it be weird and fun and a little crazy.

The big thing though is to keep moving. Don't pause a lot, don't say "Oh I messed that up, there wasn't a trap there" after rolling damage. Guess what? There WAS a trap there, and it caused whatever damage you just rolled! Know why? Because you already said so, and you're the Dungeon Master! Keep the game moving. If your players are dithering, give them a random encounter roll.

Heck, just start rolling dice, and look like you're consulting the charts you brought with you.

Have someone kick in the door and start shooting. Have a peasant charge them with a pitchfork. Have the sheriff come to arrest them. Have a flying saucer crash! It may not make much sense. It might change whatever you were doing before. It will probably be one of the most memorable sessions you and your players will have together.

This post is both #9 and #10 of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Preping for a Game

How do I prep for each session? I’ve actually written about my prep habits multiple times in the past, and the basic answer is - it depends.

Sometimes it depends on the game I’m running. 4e takes me a fair amount of prep time, but nothing compared to running 3.x at similar levels took. OSR games tend to take less time, but that’s balanced out by the fact that I tend to do everything myself.

For 4e I’m running the WOTC adventures, so the prep time isn't necessarily difficult, but it can b time consuming. Mostly I just need to adjust the stats to deal with the fact that the game balance wasn’t quite right initially and my players are excellent character builders. I’ve also done a bit of tweaking of maps and a bit of monster/trap swapping to make things feel more cinematic.

In my 3.x days I had a lot of work to do, since I was running multiple groups at the same time. While I was using modules (mostly) I was also heavily modifying things as the games went on. Prep time for 3.x games was one of the reasons I latched so quickly onto the OSR once I discovered it. Being able to make adversaries for my players took forever, and most of it ended up not being used. Who cares what 1st levels spells the 20th level lich has? Is it going to show up in game? Probably not. Lessons learned.

As far as my old school games go, lots of the prep has been spent building my megadungeon. The times I’ve run Stonehell, there’s been very little prep. I just read the area I think (or know) the players are going to head into, and then I roll some dice. If they venture into a different area, I take 5, read, and back to the game.

Aside from direct prep, I also like to prep the area I’ll be gaming in. For my old 3.x games and my 4e, it means setting up the table, having the minis handy, making sure that distracting things are out of the way/out of sight, and that I’ve got my game music queued up and ready. Snacks and drinks were usually someone elses job when I DMed.

Online games are similar, I want to make sure I have my needed books, maps, etc. handy, along with a notebook, and again, something to drink. I don’t usually eat during my online games.

DMing is a thirsty business. Usually I go for water, since I mostly just need to keep my throat hydrated, but sometimes I’ll have a beer, then switch to water.

Post 8 in the 30 Day DMing Challenge.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Prepping a Campaign

Prepping for the start of a campaign is an exciting time, full of possibilities before the realities of the PCs tear everything down.

Ok, it's not actually that bad... most of the time.

It does describe one of the things you really have to watch out for as a DM - falling in love with your campaign before it begins. Inevitably it will morph, mutate even, the longer it goes on. Players will do things that you're not going to expect, and that you're going to have to deal with. It's normal, if sometimes painful. Just keep that in mind as you get started, and remember that it isn't just your campaign. Every second of table time makes it a shared experience.

The beginning of any campaign can be found in the seed of an idea. Whether the seed becomes a thriving living thing, or withers right away will depend on the buy-in of your players. It doesn't really matter how awesome or original an idea it is, if your players don't like it, they're not going to play it. They might show up at the table and roll dice, but the will either be unenthusiastic, or they will try to take the game in a different direction from the one you had in mind.

Talk to your players. Sell them on the idea. Have an elevator pitch ready to go, and really, seriously sell it. It doesn't matter how outlandish or standard it is: Clockwork golems finding allies to defeat the evil priest kings, or murder-hobos looting a sprawling ancient tomb. See if this sounds like something your players would be interested in playing, and don't be afraid to work with them to develop something everyone will enjoy: Pyro-goblins in the sprawling dungeons driving off the ancient undead priest kings from their tombs.

Once you have buy-in from your players, you need to decide how open a game it's going to be: Sandbox, Rail Road, or something in between? Maybe for the first game it'll be something a little more defined until everyone gets a feel for the game. Maybe everyone's agreed to play the railroad. Either way, this is where you'll prep what you'll need for the first session, and write down some ideas to follow up on depending on how things go in the first session.

That sounds really organized, doesn't it? In reality, while I spend an awful lot of time thinking about it, and making notes (incomprehensible even to me the next day), I usually go in pretty unprepared unless I'm running something someone else wrote, and then DM by the seat of my pants. When I get really organized, I've usually over-prepared, much to the determent of the game.

Post 7 in the 30 Days of GMing Challenge.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Bits and Bobs XV

I know that traditionally romance in D&D games tends to be limited to "is the bar wench hot?" but the existence of games like Blue Rose suggests there is at least some interest in it. I'm actually reading a friends hard copy of the rule book, but that's a different post. What I'm sharing today is this short PDF of courtship rules from Fictive Fantasies. Why might your players want to engage in courtship, gain a spouse? Well, aside from the role playing opportunities, it also gives XP!

Wizards of the Coast published a high resolution map of Nerath, the default 4e campaign setting. I know most of my readers aren't big fans of 4e, but most of you like maps.

JD Jarvis put together an interesting chart of components necessary for wizards to scribe scrolls. I really like the fact that two different wizards scribing the same spell can have completely different component requirements.

Jasper Polane of Weird Opera posted about orc babies. The summation of his post is: Let’s get one thing straight: no orc is a “non-combatant”. He then follows up with stats for orc babies and this nearly perfect picture.

Star Wars: Rebels is coming soon, and the concept art for it looks pretty cool. I don't get why they have to introduce a new villain, since you've already got Darth Vader, but...

And if you need some disposable minis for your Star Wars (or other space opera) game, check out these free paper minis!

 This post is getting a little heavy with Star Wars items, but I've got to share this last one. First, Triumph & Despair is a blog about the newest version of the Star Wars RPG that I think I've linked to in the past. It's well worth your time to follow it if you have any interest in Star Wars type games. This post on rolling up vignettes is especially worth checking out. Dropping 5d10 gives you an adventure seed, complete with complications!

One thing that the OSR has really been lacking was a fresh, rewrite of the AD&D spell lists. Adam Taylor took on the herculean task:

OK, folks - that didn't take very long at all. Here's a shared .zip file that contains a comprehensive rewrite of AD&D spells, both for wizards and priests. Because I've renamed a lot of the wizard spells, there's a little widget on that page that lists the original name + the new one, for reference.

Plenty of new spells too.

You'll need to open the pages in a browser, and no, it won't work in Internet Explorer, because I can't face the struggle of battling whatever the hell IE is doing with it. Use Firefox or Chrome instead.

It's printable; it will look best if you turn 'Print background images and colours' on. But it will use up about 300 pages...

There's a ReadMeFirst.txt included too:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: The Tomb of Rakoss The Undying

The Tomb of Rakoss The Undying is the first published adventure by Mischief, Inc.

Once again, I was pointed to this pay what you want adventure by Tenkar.

Rakoss was a great wizard of ages past who served the Emperor of Maere. Tales tell of his prowess as a military strategist, but they also tell of his fall. It is said that although he won campaign after campaign for his emperor, just one failure earned the wrath of his master. The Emperor had Rakoss, his generals, strategists and personal guard sealed in a tomb somewhere in the Ganlaw Mountains, and cursed them.

Who knows what treasure was buried with Rakoss and his retinue, or what horrors remain to test any who might enter the tomb. Certainly only a brave few would dare seek out the final resting place of Rakoss, and even fewer can survive the terrors of The Tomb of Rakoss the Undying!

The Tomb of Rakoss the Undying" is a challenging adventure for 3-6 characters of level 4 to 6.

I'm afraid I was taken in by the great cover art, and the price. I was really looking forward to reading an adventure that wasn't an intro level adventure. And it's true, this isn't an intro level adventure, but it sure reads like one.

The introduction on the first page describes things that someone running an adventure for 4-6th level characters should probably know already, including the fact that a good aligned cleric would be useful, and that there are some creatures that are only able to be harmed by magic weapons.

Then the introductions talks about how one of the writers goals is to present an OSR Compatible adventure, and it sort of is. It most closely resembles a stripped down 3.x, pretty close to Microlite 20 (M20). This isn't bad, but I don't understand what benefit is to spending half a page explaining their own style rather than just picking one of the already easy to convert systems out there like S&W or LL or ACKS or DD or any of the other retroclones.

Adventure Background, Getting the Players Involved, The Default Narrative, and Alternate Plot Hooks take up the next 2 pages, very little of which actually impacts the adventurers at all.

Finally we get to the start of the adventure. The tomb is located a fortnight's journey from anywhere, and in that entire time there is only one encounter a day out from the tomb. It's a literal example of No random encounters

The tomb itself has a number of ongoing effects, including the fact that the place is freezing. So if your adventurers weren't prepped for really cold weather, they either have to suffer the effects, or go back to town and back to get their coats and mittens.

The layout of the map is very linear. The treasure seems really random and large. There's a spell book with 1st-5th level spells. Presuming there's a 6th level wizard in the party, they're only casting 3rd level spells.  About half the monsters picked are overpowered for this level of adventure: Stone Golem (8HD), Flesh Golem (10HD), Mummies*2 (7HD), Demons*3 (7HD), and a Manticore (9HD)? Really? 

Overall it's a very professional looking package, with a very amateur adventure inside that's bound to be a TPK for all but the largest and most experienced parties.

Friday, October 18, 2013


It's hard to advise a GM on world building. The extent to which you'll spend your time working on it will depend in large part how much you're planning on breaking off from the default setting that almost every game comes with. Most world building is simply a matter of cutting out the bits and pieces you don't want, and flavoring up the ones you do.

I do worldbuilding from both the top down and bottom up. Top down so I understand the underlying metaphysics of the universe. Am I going to go with the classic D&D outer planes, or do something more like 4e or something completely different? Are there a handful of powerful gods, one over god, or a plethora of deities.

Much of the world building also gets taken care of by the default rules of the game. If I'm playing D&D, then there are things that will be included, like goblins, fireballs, and turning undead... unless I say they don't. But that's an active decision I have to make, and if I don't make it, then things remain at their default settings.

From there I zoom in on the local area I want to focus on at the start. Usually an area with a single city, some towns, villages, and hamlets spread around, and lots of wilderness. Usually I'll know where, generally, other local cities (often enemies) are, but not exactly, and most importantly, where the starting adventure locations are. This will usually include a couple of small dungeon type locations, a few wilderness spots, a few city adventures, and an entrance to the megadungeon.

Of course none of this is necessary if I'm using a prepared world, or if the game I'm prepping for comes built in with a world, for example Star Wars, Ghostbusters, or The Forgotten Realms. In those cases, I just prep what I need, and go.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stealing like an artist

The old saying that “Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal” is no less true when it comes to being a GM.

One of the most memorable games I played in had our party, looking for a witch to remove a curse, arrived in a run down city built primarily of the local green marble. None of us spoke the local language, and the halfling citizens were annoyingly helpful, though we couldn't understand them. It wasn't until after that session that I realized we were in Oz. The groans from my fellow players and the grin from the DM showed just how effective it was.

Some of the sources I've stolen from include Earthsea, the Conan cartoon, Narnia, Star Trek (TOS, TNG, DS9), real life history, Sailor Moon, Highlander, Valdemar... and on and on. Movies, books, radio (I love old radio dramas), people I know in real life.

People? Yes people! Renaissance painters had a habit of inserting people they didn't like into their scenes of hell. I've done the same sort of thing. Some NPCs are modeled on people I know, and not all of them people I like. If you know someone with a really strong personality, USE IT! If you're at the table and their dealing with a really grump gnome or goblin, think about Danny DeVito. Brash young military officer? Chris Pine as Captain Kirk or Amanda Tapping as Sam from SG1. Noble leader who's doomed to die? Sean Bean in just about any roll he's ever played. Need a farm kid who's going to tag along with the party, Renee O'Connor (Gabrielle from Xena) or a young Mark Hamill.

If you're gaming with your friends and fellow nerds, it's very likely that they'll be familiar with the many of the same sources you are. That's ok! Even after knowing that we were in the Emerald City of Oz, it was still exciting to see how our DM twisted and changed things for his game. Plus it helped unify our collective vision of that the city looked like. Those twists and changes though... those made it really memorable. So go ahead, snag something, anything, from whatever is inspiring you right now! Give it a tweak, a twist, splash a coat of paint on it and call it yours.

Day 5 of the 30 Day GM Challenge

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Monster: Electrogator

The waters parted and boiled, as the great shape surged forth.
Her scarred hide was riven with protruding spikes, and
Energy crackled as her golden eyes locked upon the Runelord.
Lightning flashed, jaws snapped, and fair Harold was caught.

Book of Roomba, ZAAP, 121-47 - 067-86


No. Enc.: (0) 1d3
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 90' (30')
Swim: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 5
Attacks: 1 (Bite or Special)
Damage: 2d8
Save: L4
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: V
XP: 350

The electrogator is a cybernetic monstrosity that rules the lesser southern swamp. It's enhancements allow it to discharge a blast or bold of electricity every other round. In the water, the blast stuns everything within 20', causing 1d4 damage and on a failed save, causes them to be helpless for 1 round. On land, the bolt causes 3d4 points of damage to a single target, and causes them to be knocked unconscious for 1d6 rounds, no save. The hoard of the electrogator can be found in the precious metals used in the beast's augmentations.

Thanks to Reynaldo Madriñan for the picture!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pre-published Adventures or DIY?

Do you use pre-published adventures or write your own?

I think that like most DMs, I use a combination. It's almost impossible to run a campaign and always use someone else's adventures all the time. Things happen at the table that make it hard to fit in pre-published adventures, making it almost necessary for a DM to do their own thing.

Having a module to work from doesn't mean the DM's job is done. It's a rare module that ever gets run as written. Even the most comprehensively written adventure isn't going to address everything that the players will come up with. No adventure survives contact with adventurers! Sometimes the adventure doesn't survive the prep before the game either.

For example, I've been running a slowly ongoing 4e game, running through the WotC published adventure path from Keep on the Shadowfell to the Thunderspire Labyrinth, to the Pyramid of Shadows. All three have been modified to one extent or another. Some of the changes have been minor, just tweaking monster stats or adjusting the layout of a room. Other changes have been fairly major, like redrawing the entire map. If my players and I weren't so interested in running the series, then we probably would have done something else, and I would write something a little more interesting, story-wise.

There are advantages to doing it entirely yourself. No one knows what you want, what your players will enjoy, better than you. It's much easier to run something you know inside out, because it came from your own imagination. Even if it's an adventure you wrote not in conjunction with a campaign, say a one shot for a convention or gamesday event, it'll be one that you are more likely to enjoy running.

The downside to doing it yourself is that it can be an intimidating undertaking. I know that when I work on my own adventures, I worry that my ideas aren't interesting enough to keep the players attention. I worry that I won't strike the right balance between challenge and reward.

So far I've found that the benefits of running my own adventures outweigh the downsides.

This is post 4 of the 30 Days of GMing Challenge.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Vile Worm and The Manse on Murder Hill

Today's review are both courtesy of Tenkar's Free Game of the Week/Free OSR posts. 

I downloaded The Vile Worm after seeing this over at Tenkar's Tavern:

Arcana Creations has released the S&W adventure, The Vile Worm, for free. It's a conversion of the DCC adventure of the same name published by Brave Halfling, which itself was a conversion of The Vile Worm of the Eldritch Oak, which was included in the Swords & Wizardry White Box boxed set by none other then Brave Halfling.

So yes, The Vile Worm conversion for Swords and Wizardry is a conversion of a DCC RPG conversion of a Swords and Wizardry White Box adventure. Talk about returning to one's roots.

Deep within the forest, an ancient oak has grown huge, twisted, and evil. Ages ago, a savage cult haunted these woods and this tree became the focus of their unspeakable rites. Below it, they carved out a chamber of sacrificial horror where innocent victims were offered to a hideous worm-like god. As the centuries passed, the cult faded into the mists of time, but the twisted old oak stood fast, awaiting the day when the creeping evil in the dark below would be summoned once more.

This isn't really an adventure... it's more of a side-quest or a really involved random encounter. Given that it's so short, I can't say a whole lot about it without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that The Vile Worm is interesting enough to keep your players entertained for a couple of hours, so it's definitely worth the price, but don't expect it to take the whole session.

It clocks in at 7 pages, plus cover, map page, and OGL page. It has a couple of pieces of decent art, and a very nice map.The adventure doesn't give a level range, but it would be a tough fight for a 2nd level party.

The Manse on Murder Hill

Several children of Little Flanders have gone missing near an abandoned house of evil repute. A desperate town has begged your heroes to exorcise the house of evil spirits and rescue the children. Will you brave the dangers of the Manse on Murder Hill?
A Labyrinth Lord adventure for levels 1-3

I haven't run very many rescue adventures, and I don't think I've ever run a rescue adventure like this. It's well thought out, it has things in one room responding to things in other rooms, there's a rumor table, two wandering monster tables, a couple of interesting NPCs, a fairly well fleshed out small village (probably more so than it needed given how small it is), and a fun twist at the end.

The manse itself is great location all by itself. A boarded up, abandoned mansion at the top of the hill with a dark reputation? Just the sort of spooky place that's perfect for a Halloween game. I also like how the ongoing back story goes on, and can lead into the next adventure.

I did note a couple of editorial errors, but they were pretty minor. The map of the mansion is in that old TSR blue style that I never cared for, and the map of the village seems to show the Manse much closer than the text indicated. Aside from that It's really solid product and well worth your time, and the price (free) is absolutely perfect.

The art by Stuart Robinson is a surprising and welcome addition to an already solid free adventure.

29 pages long, including 2 maps, a set of pre-generated characters, handouts, and the cover.  

On a personal note, I really wish more products were formatted for booklet style printing. The Manse on Murder Hill was very compressed with wide margins and tiny type when I printed it as a booklet.

I am curious, how do you read your PDFs? I've added a new poll on the right.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Iron Painter WIPs

On Friday night, my FLmGS (Friendly Local miniature Gaming Store) Dropzone hosted a short notice 24 hours of gaming event, including an Iron Painter Challenge. The idea was to paint at least 25 miniature between 5pm Friday night and 10am Saturday morning. A mere 17 hours... And also a very long 17 hours!

In the past when DZ has done these challenges, they've focused it on army building, so it needed to be models that would fit into an army list in a particular way. This time it was wide open, so I decided to take advantage of that, and get some more of my Reaper Bones painted up. I wanted to avoid doing a whole lot of characters, since they take longer, generally. So I decided to focus on the sorts of monsters you'd find on level 1 of a dungeon:
12 Goblins
2 Rat Swarms
2 Scarab Swarms
2 Spider Swarms
2 Bat Swarms
2 Giant Spiders
2 Giant Scorpions
2 Giant Beetles

I also included some dungeon decor:
2 Candelabras
Evil Alter
Stone Sarcophagus
Fountain of Evil

And to round things out:
Pathfinder Red Dragon
Sir Forscale

And in the end I also started working on a couple of old treasure piles that I picked up many years ago, and don't know who made them.

I have to say again, it was a LONG 17 hours. I even ended up taking an hour long nap around 6:30am in my car. I don't actually think that helped, in retrospect. I was tired and punchy before that, and after I was just thick headed and foggy.

If you follow me on G+, you've already seen these WIP pictures that I shared during the event.

I'll post the finished pics just as soon as I get them taken!

Bits and Bobs XIV

Last week temperatures were unseasonably warm. The thermometer was in the mid to upper 80's, making it feel more like the middle of summer, rather than early fall, while at the same time the leaves are turning from green to gold and scarlet and brown. My back yard is already blanketed in a layer of fallen leaves... but weather isn't just weird, sometimes it's really weird, like in this cave system in China. It's so large it has it's own weather system!

Michael Wenmen over at Observations of the Fox has been inspired by Dyson (who isn't) and has putt together some map making tutorials. Tutorial 1, Tutorial 2 Villages, Tutorial 3 Jungle Trails.

Reaper is at it again. A week into their new kickstarter, Bones II, they're already approaching $1.5 million, and a $100 gets you 142 minis (and growing).

I'm a big fan of props, and prop building, and I really appreciate when prop builders take the time to show how they did what they did. In this case Landron Artifact's Twin Serpent Guardian Spirit Wall Relief. I'm sharing this one because the base material was sculpted out of white foam, which I've never seen used before given how weak and fragile a material it is.

Mark over at Spes Magna has a simple, but iconic spell: Virmon's Simple Repulsion for when your wizard really needs to get out of the middle of a swarm.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Finding players

When I first started playing D&D, I played with a couple of friends from school who were into the same sort of geeky things I was into. Then I moved, and went to a new school. Almost immediately I found some guys playing Magic The Gathering at lunch, and it turned out they played D&D too. During and after college I worked in a game store. Another move, and things got a little more difficult. There wasn't really a good local game store. There was, in it's place, a young but growing group of bloggers who talked about old school D&D, and from that grew the large community on Google+, where I mostly do my gaming now.

Finding players for a new GM can be an intimidating process. Unless you've got a built in group of people, you'll be talking to strangers about things that are still looked down upon by society (see Big Bang Theory). It's not as bad as it was (see Marvel, Community, Satanic Panic) but it can still be difficult to approach a bunch of strangers to talk about an RPG, even if they're showing geeky interests, or even talking about the game you're interested in running.

So what do you do? If you've got a friendly local game store (FLGS) they often have bulletin boards that you can post notices up on. If they've got a gaming area you can even run a game in the store to start with. Talk to the people who work at the store, and see what's up. Generally they'll know if they have customers who are looking for a game.

If you're without a FLGS, check the local comic shop. Generally they won't have a place to game (unless they do something like Friday Night Magic), but it isn't a bad place to look for gamers.

Remember, we're living in the future. Checkout web sites like and see what's out there. Within 5 miles of me there is a wargame club, a chess club, a Magic club, and 3 RPG clubs.

Meeting up with people isn't always viable. Depending on where you are, there may just not be a local population of gamers. In that case, check out options for playing online over G+ or Skype. I've had a lot of success finding games this way.

This post is day 3 in the 30 Days of GMing Challenge.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Random Wizard is Trolling Again

The Random Wizard posted another set of Ten Troll Questions:

(1). Should level drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do?

I go back and forth on this. I really prefer ability score drain over level drain. For one thing, it's way easier at the table. For another, unless the monster traditionally drains/eats memories, why XP loss? It just never made much sense to me.

(2). Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do?

I go with the 1d8 damage for 2 rounds rule.

(3). Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicated instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work?

Conditionally, yes. But that's a pretty rare poison. I like there to be a wide variety of poisons that do a whole bunch of different things.

(4). Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead?

I'm going to like the death and dismemberment table more and more. Of course, if someone coup de grâce the one at 0hp, then yeah, dead.

(5). Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a "memorize and forget system" (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use?

Yes, but I also use cantrips.

(6). Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc...) for damage?

I never liked the everything does d6 damage thing.

(7). Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No?


(8). Should a character with an strength of 18 constitution get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics?

An 18 gets you +3, as per the Rules Cyclopedia.

(9). Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else?

I like the 3 save system from 3.x and 4e. The 5 saves from classic D&D just seems unnecessary complex with no payoff.

(10). Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level?

Starting clerics get ZERO spells at first level. Being granted miracles (even minor ones) doesn't happen right away. Besides, they already have better armor, HP, and weapons than the magic user, plus turning undead!

Favorite DMing Tools

Day 2 of the 30 Days of GMing Challenge: What are your favorite GMing tools or accessories?

Random Charts
As a game master, I really love random charts of all types. I don't use them all that often, and almost never at the table, but before hand while doing prep? They're fantastic inspiration.I especially recommend checking out other peoples random tables. There's lots out there to choose from, and don't be too picky either. It doesn't really matter if it's from the wrong genre, or the wrong edition of the game. It really doesn't. The point is to give you a jumping off point for your imagination.

Media: Books, Movies, TV shows, Radio/Podcasts
Consume all types of media in as wide variety of subjects as you can. You never know when a silly Bollywood movie, or a French documentary on pastry chefs, or a book on William the Conqueror, or a story on NPR will catch and link up with that episode of Star Trek or a song lyric from a Broadway show, or something from Nightvale and come out as something that'll be great at the table.

Lined, unlined, graph paper, digital, whatever. Any place you can scribble notes, maps, ideas, and sketches is a must have. You might want to try to keep from proliferating them too much, otherwise you'll never remember where they all are, let alone which idea is in which. You might also go the route of having a 3 ring binder or something where you can insert and remove pages as needed.

Dry-erase Markers and Battlemap
Even if you're not using minis to the extent that 4e needs, being able to sketch out areas for your players to see is always useful. Keeping it on the dry erase board has the advantage of forcing your players to redraw it themselves if they're doing their own mapping.

DM Screen and Dice
Now, I tend to do most of my combat rolling in front of the screen, but having the screen does allow me to keep my notes hidden, and roll dice for non-combat reasons. It has the advantage of amping up the paranoia of your players and helping to keep their focus.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Advice to new GMs

Probably the best place to start with for the 30 Days of GMing Challenge

What advice would you give a first-time GM?

Don't try to be perfect, especially your first time out. There will be a strong temptation to over prep, to want to know everything before you get to the table. It's never going to happen, and besides, your players will be sending you in more and different directions than you can ever totally prep for.

Roll with the punches. When your players throw you a curve, when you screw up a rule, when something just goes wrong, just keep going! There's an improve technique "Yes, and?" which is a good one to remember at the table. When shit happens, go with it. Don't try to fix it! The bandits overpowered the party? If they're not particularly blood thirsty, maybe they bandage up the PCs and try to recruit them, or hold them for ransom. Suddenly your game goes from dungeon crawl to prison break. If you can master this skill, your players will probably never know things aren't going like you expected!

Go with it. Yes, you want to run Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, or Game of Thrones, and your players end up more like Monte Python or Knights of the Dinner Table. Epic tales still come out of Monte Python and KoDT!

Above all else, have fun! The whole point of getting together with a group of friends is to enjoy yourself.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

30 Days of Game Mastering

Kat over at Triple Crit has written up another 30 day challenge, inspired in part by the one I just finished. This one is less D&D centric, and instead focuses on gamemastering advice. I'll be working my way though this challenge, but I don't think it'll be every day.

Here's the list:

  1. What advice would you give a first-time GM?
  2. What are your favorite GMing tools or accessories?
  3. How do you find players?
  4. Do you use pre-published adventures or write your own?
  5. Stealing like an artist: what inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc?
  6. Worldbuilding–what’s your process?
  7. How do you prep for the start of a campaign?
  8. How do you prep for each session?
  9. Player “homework”: what do you ask of your players before and between sessions?
  10. What are your tips for running a low/no prep game?
  1. House rules: what are your favorite hacks, mods, and shortcuts?
  2. Table rules: how do you keep players focused on the game?
  3. Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?
  4. How do you facilitate combat? Any tips, tools, or cheats?
  5. Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative?
  6. Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?
  7. Structure and time: how do you use flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives in your games?
  8. How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?
  9. What was your worst session and why?
  10. What was your best session and why?
  1. What are your favorite books about gamemastering?
  2. A novel solution: what’s the best advice you’ve borrowed from a totally different field?
  3. What effects do the system mechanics have on the story?
  4. Canon vs. alternate universe vs. original settings? What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?
  5. Problem players and drama llamas: what’s your horror story and how did you resolve it?
  6. Are GMs bad players? How do you step back when someone else is running the show?
  7. Have you ever co-GMed? Would you consider it? What are the pros and cons?
  8. Transcending the material plane: how do you GM online?
  9. Teaching the rules: how do you sell players on the system while running a demo or con game?
  10. How do we grow the hobby?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: DCC Free RPG Day 2012

I'm only about a year and a half late in getting around to reading the stuff I picked up from last years Free RPG Day, but it was worth the wait.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics offering was a 16 page module with two adventures packed into it, as well as a 2 page Mystery Map Adventure Design Contest.

The first adventure, The Undulating Corruption, written by Michael Curtis, has the adventurers happen upon a scene of recent desolation and corruption. Over the next 6 pages they will follow the trail of destruction across farms and to the gates of a large town, and face an otherworldly being which may actually be beneficial before they destroy it.

I really like several things about this adventure. The backstory sets things up wonderfully, but then totally tosses the expected dungeon crawl out the window in favor of a wilderness chase. The creatures that the PCs will encounter are interesting, and are written so that they will present a challenge and also be potentially one of the stories they'll tell in the years to come.

The Undulating Corruption is written for a party of 5th level characters, especially if it includes a wizard with some corruption. Because it's a big chase, it's a pretty linear adventure, but that doesn't take away from it at all, and (presuming this is dropped into a campaign, and not used in a one shot) should the players opt to not give chase, it can have some nearly death frost doom level consequences.

The Jeweler That Dealt In Stardust is a 3rd level heist written by Harley Stroh. He recommends The Tower of the Elephants by Robert E. Howard and Lean Times in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber to help you get into the right mindset prior to running the adventure. The basic story is that a mob boss/jeweler hasn't been seen in a couple of months, and his shop has been shut all that time. No one has been seen going in or out... and neither have any of the treasures reportedly kept in the shop. Like any good heist, there are some twists and surprises.

It's written in such a way as to allow the players maximum flexibility in how they want to handle the heist, whether it's through the front door, or the back garden, or whatever else they can come up with. There's lots included to help set the tone of the heist, and to keep players on their toes.

The front inside cover of the module has a handout for the PCs, while the back cover has an ad for the DCC RPG. The artwork throughout is sparse, but well placed, and typical of the DCC ascetic.

If you managed to grab a copy last year, congrats. If you didn't, it might be worth snagging a copy, even if you don't run DCC. I think it's a bit steep at $5 for 16 pages, especially when it was available for free in hard copy format, but if you find it for cheaper, grab it!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Dungeon High Fashion

While it's true that you probably don't want to wear your couture robes or bespoke suits when you're exploring sewers and dungeons, or mucking about in the untamed wilderness, there are times when it pays to look good.

Now, there have been some weird fashions over the years. Take these for example.
Narrow but very wide dresses

Crazy hair

Even crazies hair/hats

These are mens shoes.

Kind of crazy... On the other hard, D&D is full of crazy, so really, not so out of place. But not everyone wants to look like that.

Here are a few examples of modern takes on what I would describe as quasi-medieval style.




Friday, October 4, 2013

Book Review: Emperor of Thorns

Where to begin...

It's too late to start at the beginning, and too soon to start at the end, yet here we are. The final page has been turned, the cover closed, and as much as I hate Mark Lawrence for creating Jorg and releasing him into my mind, I also can't help but be blown away. The Emperor of Thorns was just about as perfect an ending to the trilogy as could be written.

Seriously. Perfect.

As with the previous books, this one splits its time between the main plot of Jorg and company heading to Rome for the 4 year congregation where the kings of the broken empire vote for a new emperor (there's never been a successful vote), and years in the past with Jorg exploring more of the world, and this time instead of the diary pages, it's the story of one of the Dead King's necromancers Chela.

I absolutely loved how the congress and the pope were handled. The truth of the Dead King I guessed kind of early on, but that didn't take away the impact of it. Jorg's interactions with the ghosts in the machine was fascinating, especially in light of the ghosts' own agendas.

As I pointed out before, this world of the Broken Empire is a dark one. It is violent and grim, but never gratuitously so. Mark Lawrence never, in the entire series adds more violence than the story calls for. Even the violence that Jorg perpetrates is done out of... necessity is the wrong word but with the right meaning. In the previous book Orrin was good and noble, a uniter. Jorg is only a uniter because he wants to be emperor, and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. The world of the Broken Empire forces that necessity, and rewards Jorg, because the good and noble and pure can't exist there. Jorg would take great offense at being told the world had rewarded him for anything...

If I write much more I'll spoil the whole series, which is unfortunate because it's so good and I want to write about it! I just hope that while this is the end of Jorg's story, we'll get to see more of the world of the Broken Empire.

I would like to thank Mark Lawrence and his publisher Ace Books for sending me a free review copy of the Emperor of Thorns. I didn't know when I signed up for it that it was the third book in the trilogy. Yet, if I hadn't signed up, I probably wouldn't have started the series, and that would have been a shame.