Monday, April 28, 2014

Campaign Building 101

So, if you’re a newbie DM, or maybe a long-time DM that just can’t seem to get a good campaign down on paper (or on word-processor), this week’s article is for you! I’m going to take you through my step-by-step process for creating a great campaign and show you how it all comes together in the end. So take notes (or cut and paste) and enjoy!

Step 1
Decide if you want to make your campaign a) character based or b) plot based.
What is the difference? Well a character based campaign is where you are building the campaign around a certain type, race, combination, or class of character. This could be an all Dwarf campaign, or all wizards, or all knights, or all evil alignment, or no magic, or only Gnomes and Halflings, or any other combination you wish. These can be fun because they usually unite the players on a different level and have some purpose beyond an adventure's normal goals. On the other hand, a plot based campaign is where the races, classes, and types of characters don’t matter because the plot will generally work for any character the players wish to make. This is much more open for the players to be creative and make the characters they really want to play but it also requires strong storytelling to keep things moving.

Step 2    
What’s the big idea?
Every campaign needs a big idea. The world is about to be taken over by black puddings! A Demon Lord has possessed the King! A massive earthquake reveals a lost dungeon! Some madman is out to rid the world of all of its cheese! Big ideas don’t need to be pages long. As you can see above, I put four big ideas into about a dozen words or less. It’s the same process that authors and script writers have to go through then they are asked to “pitch” their ideas. What is the point of your campaign in one or two sentences? If you’re having trouble coming up with your big idea, I usually go to a few regular places for inspiration such as movies, television, theatre, anime, comic books, video games, and novels. Still stuck? Try going to some of the online D&D forums and websites such as Wizards of the Coast (here) and EN World (here) and you’ll find hundreds of people sharing their own big ideas. No shame in swiping one and making it your own!

Step 3
What do you plan to accomplish?
If you can answer this important question you can also answer many lesser ones. Depending on your big idea, you now have to decide on how your characters are going to deal with it. Are they going to tackle the main problem directly with no side steps (thus making a shorter campaign with less experience and levels gained), or are they going to have to work their way through several smaller issues before they get to the main problem (extending the life of the campaign and thus more experience and levels). Also, ask yourself: how much time do my players and I have to devote to this campaign? If you know you can only play three hours a week for two months, plan accordingly. Oppositely, if you have no limits to your time, go nuts! There is no rule set in stone that says how long a campaign needs to be. I’ve seen ones that lasted as little as twelve hours and ones that went on for years.

Step 4
Who’s pulling the strings?
Every campaign needs an antagonist and preferably more than one. Who or what are they? Why are they causing trouble for the PCs? What motivates them or is forcing them to act? Is there a major antagonist pulling the strings behind a minor antagonist? And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of making one-dimensional villains. “They are doing evil because they are evil” doesn't cut it in my world. What went wrong with their lives to make them the way they are? How did they fall from grace? How were they betrayed or abandoned?  How did they rise to power and what did it cost them? Don’t forget that many of the best villains of all-time started out as heroes and were forced somehow to become evil.

Step 5
What is the character starting point?
If you've come to some firm decisions on the previous steps then you should be ready to build your setting/starting point for your characters. How are they starting off? Where do they begin their adventure? Are they already heroes or are they nobodies? Are they criminals? Have they been tarred, feathered, and kicked out of the village? What level will they be? What gear/items will you give them? Do you want this to be a slow start or a fast one? Remember, first impressions are usually the most powerful. If you show your players that this campaign is going to be violent, harsh, and nasty right off the top, your players will expect that type of game to continue and they will adapt their characters accordingly. Similarly, if you show them a comedic, silly, laid-back opening, that’s what they will roll with. Beginnings are important!

Step 6
Putting it all together.
Now take everything you've decided on thus far and smash it together. How does it look? You might be surprised how much two of your previous ideas clash with each other when viewed side-by-side. Don’t be afraid to go back and change it up. Better now than in-game and on the fly. And who knows, maybe you’ve uncovered two ideas that go together so well you’re suddenly filled with more ideas and plot points. I know that’s happened to me so it can happen to you. Sometimes these things take on a life of their own.  

And that’s basically the whole process in a nutshell. Once you’ve gone through all six steps and are happy with your decisions, your campaign is more than half planned out. What remains are the details about monsters, traps, dungeons, and NPCs. I realize that seems like a lot but it all comes together much quicker and easier once the rest of the foundation is in place.

So, to demonstrate, here’s something I whipped up using this exact system in just fifteen minutes:

Step 1: Plot based campaign with all characters as young wizards.

Step 2: An elder wizard, the players’ mentor, dies horribly and his apprentices must find out how and why.

Step 3: The characters will go at the problem directly, played over six 3-hour sessions. By the end, they will have discovered that their mentor is still alive.

Step 4: The wizard never really died, he just faked his own death to test his apprentices. Thus, he is the one pulling the strings.

Step 5: Characters will start in the wizard’s tower which is hidden in a forest. They will begin at level 1 with basic gear and regular spells.

Step 6: Everything seems to fit.  

Try this system out for yourself and tell me how it goes!    

Friday, April 25, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: Goblins Abound!


I asked my Facebook community to tell me their best Goblin stories. Here are a few of the responses:

-        I like playing my Goblin PC with his "ridiculously wide brimmed hat" and scabbard that's too big for his sword. He believes he's a Goblin paragon who stands for what all Goblins should. He's super effective at killing horses and is afraid of written words of course.

-        Long ago we forced some Goblins into a small cave and then proceeded to hole them up in it. We build a massive fire and wanted to deal with them via smoke inhalation. It took out a good 15 of the buggers before the rest stumbled outside to be cut down.

-       Our party needed to investigate an unfinished tower used by a necromancer to instill eternal night. Me, being a rogue, sneaked my way to the top, accompanied by the Shifter warden. On the top floor we see two Goblins crouched over a book, studying it. The warden and I run up to the two Goblins and threw them off the top floor of the tower. The warden rolled a 20, which essentially reduced his Goblin to a puddle, and I rolled a 16, landing the Goblin pretty much at the entrance to the tower. We healed up that Goblin, who had only suffered a broken arm, leg, and a couple ribs, and he became a wonderful minor ally.

-        Some very funny scenes but I think this was the best: The low level magic user in the party was running out of spells in front of an attacking group of Goblins. He panicked and dove down a well screaming "Why am I out front!!?". The Goblins never touched him, but he took 10 points of damage from the fall into the well.

-       I was running a generic dungeon crawl into a Dwarven mine overrun by the loathsome vermin. Now when the party came up to the entrance they saw that there were some Goblins guarding the cave with lots of mining equipment and barrels lying about the base of the rocky mountain side. The party noticed that the rocks on the mountain seemed a little loose so of course their first reaction was to hurl a fireball at it to "make it rain" for the unfortunate little green cretins. They successfully created the avalanche and killed most of the Goblins but the boulders kept coming towards the group. As I advised the group to start making Reflex rolls the Warforged member of the party asked if he could try catching the boulders instead and knock them away. It peaked my interest so I allowed it and like a strongman/magic-robot hybrid he used his strength to knock them out of the way, actually rolling high enough on the last boulder that he caught it and then threw it at the last living Goblin, leaving a red and green stain

-       I had a friend which I played D&D together with when I first started playing. We had a lot of trouble with the Goblin layer in B2 "Keep of the Borderlands". When he ran it for his grandfather who had been in World War II, he did amazingly. He showed us the efficiency of Molotov cocktails and how to take cover. Oh, and we found out the importance of having some sort of ranged weapon.

-       I recently had a segment of a dungeon full of Goblins. I gave the team a puzzle to solve, but they were having trouble with it. They decided they would interrogate a Goblin for the answer to the puzzle, but decided that "keeping one alive" meant "burn him until he has 1 HP left and then ask him questions". By the end they were left with a gurgling, charred Goblin clinging to life by a thread because it kept making a constitution save and not dying from fire damage. It was quite funny, in a very schadenfreude kind of way.

-       During Seekers of the Ashen Crown, my PCs actually sprang for a Raise Dead for a Hobgoblin. If you know the module, it makes you absolutely love those Goblins.

-       I was DMing a short adventure for my twelve year old daughter who was playing for the first time. She was going solo into a Goblin’s den to retrieve a child who had been kidnapped from the local village. Roughly half-way in, she discovered a crudely made wooden cage with a Goblin inside who seemed to have been captured by the others. Figuring out that he was more friend than foe, she got him out and together they rescued the child and sent the other goblins running!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

3000 Reader Milestone!

Hey Everyone,

I just wanted to take a moment and thank you all for reading and supporting this blog! Its my pleasure to announce that we've surpassed the 3000 reader mark and are now averaging more than 150 readers a week.  It's been a very rewarding experience over the past four months and despite my long-winded nature, you folks have returned week after week. Here's a really big thanks from me to you and, as a small reward, enjoy this classic:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

D&D Minigames

As a player or as a DM, I’m sure that you've encountered a time when you needed to step out of character a bit and play a minigame. What do I mean by this? Well the classic examples are a game of chess or hand of cards. Maybe your character is playing for money in a tavern, maybe you’re playing for your life against a dragon, or maybe someone has set up a diabolical trap in a dungeon and you need to play to set yourselves free. There are lots of reasons and situations where minigames can pop up and as a DM, you should have a few “tricks up your sleeve” to accommodate these.

Now it would be foolish to ask the DM or the players to bring along a full chess set to every session when you may only need it for one night out of twenty, so here are few more practical ways to handle minigames when they crop up:

1)      Use The Dice You Already Have Available
Everyone already has dice so use them whenever possible. There are lots of games out there that involve nothing but dice and the one that I’ve used quite often is the game Liar’s Dice or Pirate’s Dice (See Here for the rules). In addition to regular dice games, I’ve also used the dice for a simulated chess match making both sides roll Intelligence checks until one player wins four out of seven. I’ve also used percentile dice to simulate games of spinning a wheel of fortune or roulette wheel. In those cases, all the DM needs to do is figure out what the odds are of the player winning the spin, assign the percentage to it, and let them roll.

2)      Playing Cards
It’s not such a bad idea for a DM or someone in the group to carry around a deck of ordinary playing cards. Honestly, they are light, small, and can be extremely useful in many situations. Players often find themselves in taverns or amongst gambling folk and a few rounds of poker, or blackjack, or even cribbage, with some roleplaying thrown in, can create a very productive session. It also gives the illusion that the players are actually “playing” for their character and that can be very exciting/empowering. Playing cards also come in handy with some of the magical items like The Deck of Many Things and The Deck of Illusions. I’m also sure that an innovative DM can create many other home-brew games/items with a deck of cards.

3)      The Digital Age     
The vast majority of us now have smartphones or tablets or handheld consoles, and I suspect that many of those carry a wide range of games. So if you’re feeling adventurous, why don’t you break them out? It may not be a traditional way of doing things but who’s to judge if two players want to decide who gets the +2 Chainmail over a game of Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies? This might also be the good option to handle the more bulky games like chess, checkers, or what have you.

Additionally, if you do have access to the real thing or digital versions, players and DMs might want to consider the following games that have been in existence since (and sometimes before) medieval times to give your minigames that “authentic” feel:

A)     Backgammon: This two person board game is one of the oldest in existence having its origins in Persia around 3000BC.

B)      Dominoes: Started in China around 1300AD but its modern incarnation was created in Italy during the early renaissance.   

C)      Vaikuntapaali (aka Snakes and Ladders): Believe it or not this game has been in existence since the 1500’s originating in India.

D)     Mah Jongg: Although its roots go back to China around 800AD, the modern version has been played since the 1800’s. 

I enjoy inserting a minigame into my adventures now and then because it has many benefits. It breaks up the normal routine; gives players a chance to play their characters on a whole new level; and, for the most part, these games use a different set of mental skills from D&D that some players may appreciate. Also, as a DM, I feel it’s a nice break from the action and it gives you an opportunity to collect your thoughts, especially if you’ve been improvising the adventure.

However, it’s important to not fall into two traps that the minigames may create. Firstly, they can railroad your adventure if they are played too often. Minigames are a gimmick that should be used sparingly. I would say once every seven or eight sessions at the very most. If used too often, the players will begin to expect them and may even demand them. That could turn something that was meant to be a treat into something that is more of a distraction. The second trap is inserting minigames into an adventure for no concrete reason. In my opinion, everything you do in an adventure should move the story forward on some level and minigames should be no different. Make them worth something! This can be done by gambling or betting on needed coin, items, or even a character’s life. Minigames can also be excellent vehicles for roleplaying. Instead of simply talking to NPCs at the back of a tavern, why not engage in a minigame with them? As a DM, I know that my NPCs might be a lot more accommodating with information or aid if the PCs let them win some gold over a few hands of cards. Oppositely, keep in mind that the players may not win/lose the game as you expect, so don’t pin the whole adventure’s outcome on the result. Players have a funny way of upsetting your best laid plans.   

So whether you keep it simple with cards and/or dice or if you go with a digital or physical game, minigames can play a pivotal role in your D&D adventure. Both DMs and players will appreciate the short break from the game and, if they are attached to the plot of the story, they can become fun and interesting twists.

I would however stop at letting your characters play D&D while playing D&D. That’s just insane.   

Thursday, April 17, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: The Chosen One

Hey folks, here's a summary of a campaign I ran a while back.This was one of my longer ones that lasted more than 90 hours.

The players were starting off as an adventuring band looking for work. During a quick dungeon delve detour, they found a large crystal with what looked like an angel frozen inside of it. One of the spell casters hit it with a dispel magic and the crystal shattered freeing the angel inside. Once freed, the angel proceeded to tell the PCs a prophecy about a chosen one that must be found and the journey would begin in a city not too far away. Without any further explanation, the angel fades away. A bit confused but still willing to check it out, the PCs left the dungeon and headed for the city.

Once they arrived, it didn't take them long to find the one they thought they were looking for. He was a young man of twelve or thirteen and had been captured by a local noble for attempting to steal a valuable diamond ring. As punishment, he was in the process of being hanged as an example to the rest of the commoners. The PCs rushed in immediately to save the child and made a serious enemy in the nobleman. Later that night, while they tried to get some rest at the local inn, the nobleman showed up with some hired mercenaries and a huge tavern fight ensued until the city watch and some knights arrived to arrest everyone.

As punishment for resisting arrest and fighting within the city, the PCs, along with the chosen child, were all banished and kicked out. They took this in stride and continued on their wanderings. While they were out on the road, the PCs quickly discovered that this child had a few psionic powers as he managed to tame/dominate a grizzly bear and even managed to make a few bandits attack their comrades.The PCs took this as a sign that this chosen child was beginning to come into his own.

A few sessions later, the PCs found themselves in another dungeon and had reached the final boss in a very haggard state, by design I might add. All of them had no more than ten or so hit points each and their spells were almost completely spent. That's when they discovered that their final fight was going to be against an adolescent Red Dragon. Their chances of defeating such a creature in their current state were very, very slim. Thankfully, the child (still no name given to him by the way, just "the kid" or "the child") stepped in and managed to bend the dragon to his will. Now he had a grizzly bear and a dragon for those of you keeping score at home. The PCs were extremely grateful for his save of the situation but were becoming a little uneasy with the traveling zoo.

It wasn't long after this incident that the PCs woke up one morning to find the bear, the dragon, and the child all gone. They did a search but quickly realized that they couldn't track a flying dragon. With no other options, the party moved on to the next point of civilization. Time passed, adventures were had, and just when the PCs had begun to forget about their little tag-along they started hearing rumors about someone taking over a nearby city with the help of dragons and monsters. Hoping that their suspicions were wrong, the PCs decided to go check it out.

When they arrived the city was crawling with monsters of all types and the main castle was being guarded over by three young dragons (this was years before Game of Thrones by the way). And yet the PCs were not attacked. In fact, they were escorted by a small army of Trolls and Orcs to the main castle where they were given an audience with their former ward. He informed them that he had taken over the city and had plans to take over many more in the name of wiping civilization off of the map and returning nature to its rightful place. He then offered the PCs a place by his side.

It wasn't as easy a decision for some PCs as you might think, but in the end the party choose to not accept his offer. That started a fight between the PCs and the Trolls and Orcs, while the child and his dragons flew away. The PCs managed (albeit barely) to escape from that city and while they were not sure what had happened to their cute little chosen one, the PCs vowed to hunt him down. The result was a few sessions with the PCs traveling from destroyed town to destroyed town and cleaning up his messes.

In the end, the PCs had another visit from the angel which told them that the true chosen one had yet shown himself. The angel then bestowed some magical enchantments upon the PCs weapons and armor and wished them well in their quest to stop the child. A day later, the PCs met up with the child face to face for the first time in weeks and the ensuing battle was epic. The PCs downed all three of the young dragons and wounded the child. However, he still managed to sneak away to a nearby swamp. After an extended rest, the PCs went after him.

Much to their surprise, when they finally found the child all that was left of him was a broken body. Not convinced that he was truly dead, they did an area search and discovered some nearby ruins. Going there, they were quickly stopped by a very imposing Elder Black Dragon. It wasn't hard for the PCs to soon realize that the child had somehow used his psionics to transfer his consciousness to the dragon. The child was the dragon now! Convinced that he could not be reasoned with, the PCs attacked.

This was as brutal a fight as I have ever run and, again by design, only one PC made it out alive. In the aftermath, the angel returned for the third time and proclaimed that the sole surviving PC was meant to be the true chosen one. And on that note, the campaign ended.                      

Monday, April 14, 2014

D&D v. Technology

If you would be willing to indulge me, I would like to begin this article with a little trip down memory lane. I began playing D&D in the fall of 1995 with 2nd Edition. At that time, we didn't have cell phones, tablets, projectors, fancy computers, or even the internet! (I personally didn't get connected to the internet until mid-1996. Wow, I feel old now!) So we played with paper (both lined and graphed), pencils, dice, magazines (like Dragon or Dungeon) and piles upon piles of books. In fact, I believe the most sophisticated bit of gadgetry we had in our gaming room was a CD player usually pumping out Queen, Guns and Roses, Alanis Morissette (long story), or Metallica. Yet despite our lack of technology, we had an absolute blast.

Fast forward fifteen years to 2010. At this time, during an average session of 4th Edition, I would be using a laptop connected to a flat-screen television to run the MapTool program for miniatures; a smart phone connected to my wifi to look up quick references; all of my books on PDF; and the Lord of the Rings Soundtrack pumping out of Winamp. Not to mention all of my players using their smart phones to send each other messages and even a few using tablets to run their character sheets and Player’s Handbooks. With all of this powerful technology at our fingertips we were still having fun but, to me personally anyway, it felt a bit off. You may call it nostalgia or maybe I’m just old-fashioned but I found something missing when we used all of that technology.

Fast forward another four years to present and I am currently playing D&D Next. I have a tablet which keeps my maps and PDFs running but other than that I use no technology. I’m back to paper, dice, and pencils. I no longer use miniatures of any kind as I much prefer the “theatre of the mind” system and I have deliberately cut out the use of anything I can do without. I find, as a DM, this makes me happier and more focused on what really matters: the players and the story. But this brings about a very interesting question: what place does technology have in a D&D game? In my opinion, it’s whatever makes the story better but that answer may not be as straightforward as it seems.

Originally, I thought that projecting miniatures and well-drawn 3D maps onto a flat-screen television would “up” my game; and while I’m sure that some of my players loved it, I hated it. It was a constant distraction for me during a session (making sure everything looked/worked right) and took up 2-3 hours of preparation time per session outside of the game. Additionally, I found that it also took away from the game on the player level. My players were so focused on the maps and miniatures up on the screen that they would go into what I like to call “head-space mode”. They would stare at the screen and plan their next round more akin to a game of Warhammer or Risk than D&D. I also found that inter-group interaction waned and improvisation in combat was almost non-existent. The players began to forget that D&D was a dynamic roleplaying game and began to treat it as a miniature/strategy game instead. In essence, the technology changed the nature of the game. The words of Marshall McLuhan (see here) began to ring loud and clear in my mind.

Now I realize that part of the problem was the 4th Edition system itself, which was a very miniature based game; however, I have no illusions that any edition using too much technology could easily fall prey to “head-space mode”. So, when the D&D Next playtest jumped onto the scene in May 2012, I decided to do a full 180 and go back to basics. I stopped using miniatures, 3D maps, my laptop, and flat-screen televisions. I went back to paper, a DM screen, and printed booklets. My conclusion: I was a lot happier.

At present, not much has changed. I have deliberately limited myself to one-piece of technology at the gaming table. It used to be my smartphone for looking up things on the web and at but now it’s my tablet for doing the same and having a few reference maps/PDFs close at hand. I've limited myself like this because I’d like to think I've learned a valuable lesson: D&D is sociable and technology is not. When I DM there are three critical things I feel I must keep an eye on: 1) What is happening with the story; 2) What is happening with the characters; and 3) Am I maintaining my players interest/involvement with the game? However, when I throw a lot of technology into the mix, I suddenly have to start splitting my attention into four parts (looking after the technology itself) instead of three and the difference is huge. Now some people may point out that good technology will make things easier/faster than pencil and paper and this will free up the DM’s time to concentrate on the other areas. I suppose that may be true but, from my own experiences, the trade-off is unnoticeable.

To clarify, I’m not giving all technology in D&D the thumbs down. What I’m saying is: all things in moderation and in harmony. Don’t immerse yourself in the “bells and whistles” of programs, apps, videos, and animations at the cost of losing the foundation of the game. D&D is a game about people and stories so keep the people and the stories the main attractions. I’m currently having more fun now than I have been since the beginning. I’d like to think that part of that turnaround is due to finding the right level of technology, i.e. the sweet spot where it helps but doesn't distract. Thankfully, D&D Next seems to be geared toward this kind of outlook and that makes me very excited!

Do you have a D&D/Technology story? Please share it below. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: Darts! So many Darts!


Here’s another story from my personal collection. Enjoy!

My friends and I were in the character creation phase of a 2nd edition Dark Sun campaign and my friend had decided that he was going to play a Thri kreen warrior. For those who don’t know, Dark Sun is an exotic desert world with a few races that don’t appear very often in the other settings. One of these races is the Thri kreen who look like the picture to the right, basically a humanoid Mantis.

Two of their more impressive traits are four arms that can all work independently and exceptional strength in the range of 19 or 20 without any bonuses. With this knowledge in mind, my friend asked our DM if he could specialize in a very odd weapon: the dart.

Darts are usually reserved for rogues or wizards or other classes who can’t handle the larger more “damage dealing” weapons, but my friend was adamant. Darts he wanted and the DM shrugged and said, “sure”. It was 
one of the worst mistakes he ever made. Using the 2nd edition rules to their ultimate min-maxing glory, my friend began to construct one of the most deadly horrors I have ever witnessed.

Under these rules, he was able to roll his stats so that he his character had 20 strength and this gave him +8 to all of his damage rolls. Also, under normal circumstances, darts can be thrown at a rate of three per round. However, as a warrior, and starting at 3rd level, he was able to take dart as a proficiency as well as a specialty. This increased his rate of fire to four darts per round and also increased his damage by +1. But then, he also spent three proficiency slots to make himself ambidextrous in all four of his arms. This then increased his rate of fire from four to sixteen! If you then do the math, he was doing 1d4+9 damage per dart x 16 throws per round. That means that should he hit with all sixteen shots he would do a minimum damage of 160 points and a maximum of 208, per round! Even if you average it out, only hitting with eight out of the sixteen shots and only rolling 2s on the d4s, that’s still a whopping 88 damage each round. Imagine if he ever got his hands on a potion of speed! 

During the first battle of the campaign, my friend unveiled this devious masterpiece of min-maxing like Grand Moff Tarkin revealing the Death Star. All of us players and our DM sat in fascinated horror as he decimated our foes in less than two rounds almost single-handedly (he did over 200 points of damage I believe). It didn’t seem possible but there it was in black and white, all of it perfectly legal under the rules. After the fact, we must have debated, laughed, researched, and argued about it for an hour or more.

Long story short, our DM eventually put a ban on my friend’s character and made him roll a new (and more sensible) one. But still to this day when I hear players bragging about the amount of damage they are doing with critical hits and/or magical weapons, I think on my friend's four-armed dart machine gun of a Thri kreen in Dark Sun and politely inform them that they don’t know sh*t.

Monday, April 7, 2014

5 Fantasy Series You Should Read If You Play D&D

Movies, television, and theatre are wonderful places to get ideas, concepts, and even plot-lines for great D&D campaigns. However, for true inspiration and a real feel for how adventures/characters should play out, nothing beats a good series of novels. When you have several volumes to work with and each one is hundreds of pages long, authors can really immerse you into their character’s world. This is exactly what DMs should do with their players and a really good fantasy series can show you how.

So, with that being said, I’d like to offer up five fantasy series that I highly recommend anyone with a strong passion for D&D should read. Each of these series has amazing characters, a gripping plot, and the kind of sweeping grandness that I strive for in every one of my campaigns. I know that there are dozens more that I am neglecting, or simply haven’t discovered yet, but these feature most prominently in my mind and I’ll give you the reasons why:    

(In order of release date)

1.       The Land of Oz Series, by L. Frank Baum (1900-1920)
I think it’s a tossup between this series of books or The Legend of Zelda for NES as my earliest exposure to fantasy. What I loved about these books as a child was their unending creativity in a world that was both alien and familiar at the same time. As an adult, I love them for their whimsical nature and the evolution of characters that continually show that they have more intelligence, courage, and heart than many of us. What I feel this series most has to offer a DM: how to be creative.   

2.       The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955)
It may be cliché but this is really the series that ushered in the modern-day fantasy era and I have my doubts that D&D would have ever become as popular as it did without these books. The reasons why are as long as my arm and although it can be criticized for being long-winded; Tolkien’s masterpiece trilogy is sublimely rich in its texture, complex and dynamic in its characters, and almost overwhelming in the depth of its world. It spawned entire languages, introduced races and fantasy concepts that are now foundations in the genre, and most importantly it told a damn good story. It is currently the high-water line to which almost all fantasy is compared and what many DMs try to emulate in their adventures to many varying degrees of success. What I feel this series most has to offer a DM: how to be epic.     

3.       The Legend of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore (1988-Present)
Bob Salvatore is a living legend in the fantasy world and his characters, especially a certain Drow Ranger, have been selling like hot-cakes for close to thirty years. At the time I first read the Icewind Dale Trilogy (circa 1996), Salvatore was already nine books into the series and the quality, in my opinion, only gets better. They are fun and easy reading books with a lot of D&D references. Also, you can’t help but pick up on that “this guy loves his work” feeling. Salvatore is also famous for his fight scenes and the ones between Drizzt and Artemis are mesmerizing. To this day I still challenge myself to make all of my in-game battles as dynamic and thrilling as those. What I feel this series most has to offer a DM: how to run an amazing battle. 

4.       The Wheel of Time Series, by Robert Jordan and Branden Sanderson (1990-2013)
Most people either love this series or hate it. Those that hate it have issues with the meandering plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere for chapters at a stretch or with the daunting length of the series at nearly 12,000 pages over 14 books. However, for those of us who love these books, we know the value of a long set-up for a huge pay off at the end. We fell in love with characters who seem almost real and who are forced to make difficult decisions in hard times; we learned about the history, present, and possible future of a world almost as intricate as Middle Earth; and we witnessed the rise and fall of the Dragon Reborn. What I feel this series most has to offer a DM: how to pace/build your story for the long haul.    

5.       A Song of Ice and Fire Series, by George R.R. Martin (1996-Present)
These books are a perfect example of a terrific fantasy series becoming quickly overshadowed by its media version (Lord of the Rings is the other good example). But compared to the groundbreaking television incarnation, these books are even better. Until Martin came onto the scene eighteen years ago, no one before him had so expertly mixed a fantasy story with dark, gritty, backstabbing politics. Further, he stepped into a realm that very few before him dared to venture: he was willing to kill any character, even loved ones, at any time! Not sure if you could classify this series as “edge of your chair reading” but it certainly feels like it at times. The constant fear that “your” character might be the next on the chopping block makes you fall in love with them even more. What I feel this series most has to offer a DM: how to create/manage intrigue.

Honorable mention goes to the following:
-          The Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett (1983-Present). Read this one if you want to know more about fantasy mixed with comedy.
-          The Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (1984-1985). Read this one if you crave more D&D references in a beautiful story about the Heroes of the Lance.
-          The Serpentwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist (1994-1998). Read this one if you like your fantasy light on magic but high on combat.     
-          The Old Kingdom Trilogy, by Garth Nix (1995-2003). Read this one if you’re interested in undead and how to walk the fine-line between good and evil.

Do you have a fantasy series that you think D&D players need to read? Post it below!

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Ill-Fated Rescue Attempt

Our party was made up of a group of old friends with a new friend to keep things fresh.  So for us, even when we were playing a more evil alignment campaign, we (almost) always tried to save our party members. Often it worked, this time it really didn't.

Our party was fighter heavy with three melee types (two fighters and a rogue), a bard, and a wizard.  No cleric and thus no healing.  We were making our way room-to-room through a very frustrating dungeon with lots of dead ends and nasty traps. We had just picked up again after having to take a few weeks off so we were all raring to go, which is why events may have happened as they did.  We rushed into the next room which was square and had a stone path down the middle with 10’ deep pits of fire to either side. At the far end of the stone path was a large urn. We had encountered a similar room earlier in the dungeon and we knew that if we opened the urn it would release a wraith. However, we needed to defeat that wraith to obtain a piece of the key for the door out of the dungeon. So, we jumped into the battle with the wraith first and took the time to actually look at our character sheets second.  That’s when we realized that all of us, with the exception of the rogue, only had 10-20 hit points left from the previous battle. Also, the wizard had no leveled spells left so he was fighting with cantrips and staying out of the way. Mistake number 1. 

The Dwarf and Half-Elf fighters along with the melee rogue engaged the wraith, while the bard and wizard held back.  During the second round, the wraith accessed a hidden compartment to reveal a lever in the wall. We knew from the previous encounter that wraiths pulling levers would release unknown terrors but despite our best efforts he managed to pull the lever. Mistake number 2.

Suddenly, the floor broke into 5’ squares and started to shift/shuffle around the room, mixing with the fire pits like a carnival ride. All of us had to make Dexterity checks to keep our footing and we all passed with the exception of the Halfling bard.  He stumbled and fell into a pit of fire taking enough damage to knock him unconscious while still burning. Mistake number 3.

The wizard rushed over to help while the other PCs continued to fight.  He could not jump down into the pit directly as he didn't have enough hit points to survive; however, he used his mage hand to try and tie a rope around the Halfling and pull him out.  All he needed to succeed was for the rope to pass its saving throw vs. the fire. It didn’t.  Mistake number  4.

The Drow rogue, forcing interest at this point, took out his Wand of Wonder that had been found earlier and pointed it at the Halfling and said ‘Wuba-Wuba’.  The wand transformed into a Lyre of Building and when played would allow the player to do the work of 100 men.  The Drow, not trained in musical instruments at all, took a breath and began to play. He rolled a 1 which caused a string to break and caused the lyre to lose all of its magical properties. Mistake number  5.

Meanwhile down in the pit, the Halfling had failed the first of his death saving throws. The Dwarf then heroically raced across the room and leaped into the pit with the intention of throwing the Halfling out to safety.  For his gallantry he rolled a 1.  The Halfling was scooped up, lifted, and hurled…straight into the wall which he bounced off of and landed back into the fire.  Mistake number  6.

After that, the Halfling failed the second death saving throw. Then the wizard finally figured out something helpful and used Ray of Frost to put out the fire in the pit. This allowed the Dwarf and wizard to tie a rope on the poor Halfling and get him out of the pit with no more damage.  In the next round, the fighters managed to kill the wraith just after the Halfling failed his third death saving throw. 

Despite all of our efforts, the Halfling was dead…and crispy.