Monday, June 30, 2014

Real Life Gimmicks in D&D

During the course of my D&D life, I've seen a lot of DMs use real-life gimmicks to keep their games interesting. Here's a couple that come to mind: One DM would go out and buy small glass bottles and fill them with juice or soda and give them to his players when they found a potion in the game. Whenever it came time for their character to down the potion, the player would have to do the same. According to the DM, this added a small touch of realism to his game. He also mentioned how making the player drink the potion in real life made the potions in his game so much more important. Another gimmick that I recall is a DM who used poker chips to represent coins. Anytime a player gained or used or lost coins they would have to keep track of it in real time with the poker chips. Apparently, this made the players a lot more careful with their in-game currency and much more cautious with their dealings which, in turn, enhanced the roleplaying.

I've also heard of many other gimmicks such as giving out glass gems to represent in-game ones, only allowing the player with the "talking stick" to speak during combat, and even asking the wizard of the party to speak in Latin when casting their spells or the Bard to actually sing his/her songs. All of these extra bits are designed with one purpose in mind: to get the players more immersed in the game. And frankly, as long as none of these gimmicks go too far or are potentially harmful in some foreseeable way, I'm all for it.

To illustrate, here are three of the real-life gimmicks I have used myself:

1) The Character Obituary
Shortly after their character has died, a player may be feeling a bit down. They've worked hard on creating something that has now been lost to them in some manner. Surprisingly, some players may take the loss of a character harder than they would a distant real life relative. I know I've seen something along those lines and I'll bet I'm not the only one. So, to help them move on and maybe even look back with a fond memory or two, I've come up with the Character Obituary. This is just a short little blurb about the character that would appear just as any other obituary would in your local newspaper. Here's a sample of what I mean taken from the death of a character in one of my recent games:

"Obituary: Mal
Mal, Drow Rogue, assassin specialty. Mal's life, while not that long, was full of good memories and many good laughs. His primary claim to fame was being the official trap detection device for his party, as well as picking locks and backstabbing foes when it suited him. He found particular joy in killing goblins and other such small unseemly creatures. Alas, Mal was felled by a Beholder via turning him into stone, biting off his statue's head, and grinding it into gravel. Although there was a suggestion tossed around that the head could be glued back together like a 3D puzzle, it was ultimately denied. Mal is survived by his fellow party members and a talking parrot by the name of Grady O'Malley."      

It's simple, not hard to do, and it will allow the player and the group as whole to remember a character that may have played a big part in getting them where they are. Personally, I like to post these up on Facebook but you could print them off and give them out almost like sympathy cards.

2) The Achievement Badges
Another little thing I've been experimenting with is giving out my groups and players achievement badges. These badges are earned in-game just like the old Boy-Scout and Girl-Scout badges and they help the players and groups remember major events in their gaming careers. A badge  would usually be given out after a major event like the group killing its first epic monster, or surviving a centerpiece dungeon, doing something extremely rare like finding a +5 weapon, or even completing a whole campaign. Again, I post these badges on my playing group's Facebook page, but I'm sure you could find dozens of interesting ways to create real-life ones. Perhaps even create actual badges to be sewn on backpacks, jackets, etc.   

3) The Retelling of the Story
I've used this one on and off for years and I think I've decided that I need to keep it around for good. At the beginning of each game session I ask one of my players to volunteer to recount the events from last week. Now how they do this and in what style is completely up to them and let me just say that I've found some of them downright hilarious.

For example, I've heard the story retold like a 1930's radio announcer recounting what happened in the "last episode". I've heard the story retold in a completely biased manner that made the coward of the party seem like the hero. I've heard the story retold in slurred "dunk speech" and I've also heard it told in many ways that put extra emphasis on the really bone-headed moves some of the party members made (to which everyone would laugh). Personally, I reward my players with 100xp for each time they tell the story and I'm proud to say that most players jump at the opportunity to put their little spin on the history of the adventure.    

Simple little things like these help make the D&D experience seem more real and gives the players something that they really can't get from most other games: personalization. When your DM or your fellow players care enough to give or make something exclusively for you or for your character ,you can feel like the most important person in the world. For me, that's a big part of what D&D is all about.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Art Gallery IV

“Cutting Things Down To Size”
Artist: Jeff Easley

This week I wanted to take a fun look at the most prolific of all the TSR/D&D artists, Jeff Easley. Mr. Easley has produced literally hundreds of works for several of the most important books and adventures in D&D history. While you may not recognize his name off the top, go do a search of his work and I'm sure you’ll recognize more than a few pieces.

In particular, I've always been a fan of this piece listed as “Cutting Things Down to Size”. I believe that this work was featured in either the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide. Either way, I find it to be a fun depiction of what happens when a character/NPC/monster thinks it can have its nasty way and then it learns otherwise. As a DM, I find that you have to give your players opportunities from time-to-time to assert how talented they are. This is not to say that you allow them to get egos the size of New Jersey, but it is fun to let 

them flex their muscles occasionally. For me, this painting shows one of those times perfectly.

Looking at the piece, we can see that a Hill Giant thought he was going to have an easy time with a female human. Based on the slices of his club and the shards of his shield covering the ground, I’d say he bit off more than he could chew. The fact that he’s now on his butt with his nose ring at an uncomfortable angle says to me that it’s just about time for the negotiations to start. What do you think our woman Fighter/Ranger might want from our large and obviously outmatched friend?

The only unfortunate part about this piece is the cliché scantily clad woman. Although she’s in a position of power, she is still showing a lot of skin and I’m not too sure how much protection that tiny leather shirt is going to provide (AC! Hello!). Regardless, she sure does seem to be in charge of the situation and that it is a lot better than the standard “damsel in distress” motif. 

Overall, this piece reminds me of almost every time I’ve seen that glint in my players’ eyes that says “Is that so?” and they go on to teach some NPC or monster a lesson. I like seeing their excitement in those moments but I also make sure to never let them think that they can bully all of their encounters around. That leads to arrogance and that’s the one thing I always hope players never achieve. Thanks Mr. Easley!                

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Design a Dungeon Room Contest!!

Well here we are! In just over six months’ time I’m humbled to admit that my little blog has gone from 20 readers a week to the current average of 175. That translates into over 5000 readers in just 29 weeks! I’ve learned a lot in that short amount of time, including things about myself, about this game called D&D, and especially about you folks, the people who play and read about and love roleplaying. Sincere thanks to every one of you, even those who critique/disagree with me!

So, with all of that being said, I feel that something special is needed to celebrate 5000 readers and over six months in business. Thus, I have decided to have my first contest! What kind of contest you might ask? 
Well here are the details:

Design A Dungeon Room Contest

The Idea: You must design a single room for an underground dungeon.

The Task: Make the room a challenge (not a killing zone) for a party of 4-5 players of level 3.  

The Rules:    1) You can use traps, monsters, riddles, magic, or all of these together, but the room
     must be survivable and/or have a solution. That is to say it cannot intentionally wipe   
     the party;
2) The room must have at least one entrance and one exit (i.e. two doors/passages);
3) You may use the rules from any edition of D&D, including the 5th Edition Playtest/Starter Set;
4) You may not use “epic” or “boss” level monsters in your room, just a normal difficulty
     encounter for a party of 3rd level characters;
5) The room can be no smaller than 15’x15’ (3x3 grid) and no larger than 100’x100’
     (20x20 grid);
6) The room must be one continuous space. For example, you cannot make three small
     rooms that add up to 100’x100’. You can however make your room a “split level” via
     the use of stairs/ladder/etc.;
7) Your submission must be in PDF format and have the following layout:
a) Page 1, Title Page. This should include the title for your room, your    
    name, and your e-mail address.
b) Page 2, Map Page. A detailed drawing/image of your room and please use
    a 5’x5’ box grid pattern on the floor.
c) Pages 3 & 4, Outline Pages. Your description and details about the room
     including monsters, traps, riddles, magic, secret/hidden things and special
     features including any info on monsters or NPCs.  (Please try to keep it less
     than 1000 words)
                         8) Maximum of three submissions per person.

The Judgment: All submissions will be marked using the following format – Mark out of ten for
adherence to contest rules, mark out of ten for creativity/imagination, and a mark out of ten for practicality/usability. This will give all submissions a total mark out of thirty.

Submissions will be accepted from 6am on July 1 until midnight on July 15, 2014, all times North American Eastern. Submissions are to be sent to with the subject:  "Design a Dungeon Room".
The winner will be announced no later than July 31, 2014.     

The Winner: The winner of the contest will receive a “Design a Dungeon Room Champion” certificate in
          the mail. They will also have their design displayed on my blog as the undisputed super
         amazing awesome designing champion!

The Legal Stuff: Any submissions of drawings, images, and other copyrighted material taken from other
sites, contests, publications, books, etc. will be disqualified. All material submitted must be original. Additionally, the author/artist of any original material submitted hereby consents to allow this blog to publish/display this material without restriction.   

I hope to see lots of submissions! Good Luck!

P.S. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave it in the comments below. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

5 Boxed Sets That Deserve 5th Edition Makeovers

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, TSR decided to get back to its roots and began to release 2nd Edition material in boxed sets. In my opinion, these sets were top notch and provided exactly what most DMs needed: playgrounds. They provided just enough information to get an adventure or a campaign started and left more than enough blank spaces for the DM to fill in with their own ideas and material. There was usually a fully developed pre-fab adventure to introduce the PCs to the location/setting and then the box was jammed full of extra goodies like NPC pre-gens, very high quality maps, and monster manual supplements. Aside from my core books, these boxed sets were the most used materials in my library by a very wide margin.

So what happened to them? Well the simple answer is Wizards took over TSR in 1997 and released 3rd Edition in 2000. As the new edition came in, the old boxed sets went out. This was more than likely done to cut costs as the profit margin on a 100 page hardcover book retailing for $40 is quite higher than a boxed set with three booklets, four maps, and supplemental material retailing for $50.
And that’s not to say that I feel Wizards were being cheap. They were only trying to get the brand back to profit as TSR was on the brink of bankruptcy before they were bought out. I do feel however that they may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. (love that expression for some reason)

So now with 5th Edition on the horizon and the “Starter Set” being released as a boxed set, I think Wizards has an excellent opportunity to revisit the concept of releasing boxed sets on a regular basis. Thus, to give them a friendly nudge in the right direction, what follows are five previously released boxed sets that I feel could use a 5th Edition makeover:

1) The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting

Both Chris Perkins and Mike Mearls have gone on record as saying that the Forgotten Realms will be the flagship campaign setting for 5th Edition. If this is so, then I feel that a boxed set is not only recommended, it should be mandatory. In 4th Edition, all we got was a player’s book, a DM’s book, and one map. Does that sound like a flagship to you? More like a row-boat!

Instead, I would publish a new Forgotten Realms Boxed Set as follows:
-One large fold-out map to cover the whole realm as well as several smaller (say 11”x18”) maps for critical places like the Sword Coast, The Sea of Fallen Stars, and The Far North.
-Then I would publish three books as follows: A book on the countries, territories and larger cities (Waterdeep, Bauldur’s Gate, Calimport, etc.); A book on the history of the realms including a who’s who for NPCs and factions/guilds; and finally a book for the DM’s eyes only outlining the many dungeons, ruins, and dangerous places a PC can stick their nose into. Now that sounds more like a flagship to me!
2) The Dark Sun Campaign Setting

Dark Sun was the late arrival to the lineup of D&D worlds in 2nd Edition and I guess the designers were aiming for something a bit more brutal than the others. If so, they succeeded! In a world with little water, almost no metal, scarce magic, few cities, no gods, and almost everything designed to wear you down, hope can be a difficult thing to find.

I found it very unique and refreshing that just surviving Dark Sun can be a quest in itself. Unlike the Realms or Dragon Lance, there is little room for gallantry and glory when all you’re trying to do is find the next water spring before the horde of half-giants find you.

That being said, such a unique campaign setting deserves better than just a book. Again, it would be nice to see some world maps and a city map of Tyr. Also some booklets on the races and factions of Athas would be nice. What are the Thri-kreen really like? Why do the Halflings eat people? What does it mean to be a Mul? Do the slaves of the arena have their own culture? Who is the sorcerer-king and who are the people that make up his inner circle?
3) The Ruins of Undermountain

Out of all of the dungeons ever released under the D&D brand, the Ruins of Undermountain were the largest, most insidious, and most frustrating. Tackling these halls were almost a campaign by itself as a group of players could get lost down in the ruins for game time weeks and real time days. It was also home to the infamous Skullport and boasted more than nine levels of dungeon crawl madness. 

If one simply takes the time to google The Ruins of Undermountain and takes a look at the “images” section, one will quickly realize the mind-boggling scope of the place based on the maps. It is, in my opinion, a testament to the amazing depth of Ed Greenwood and a wonderful place to send your players if they’ve been bragging about how good they are at clearing dungeons. Good luck suckers!

A re-release for 5th Edition would be an excellent opportunity to update and make small adjustments to something that already works well. Also, since Ed Greenwood is back as a key developer for 5th Edition, I’m sure he would love the opportunity to revise this old love.     

4) The City of Splendors
As far as the Forgotten Realms go, Waterdeep is THE city. You can visit many others, but nowhere else can you find the perfect mix of opulence, danger, intrigue, debauchery, gallantry, heroics, and death. It’s sort of like smashing the whole of Game of Thrones inside of a single sprawling city. And to paraphrase some famous words, “I don’t always do city campaigns, but when I do, I set them in Waterdeep.”

Recently, the board game Lords of Waterdeep and its expansions have been a huge seller for Wizards. Why not have a nice box set update for 5th Edition that will better reflect the quests and intrigues players have come to know from that game? Add in a whole new book on the factions and the lords themselves and you’ve got pure roleplaying gold!

Personally, I feel that the old maps/paintings of Waterdeep were among some of the best ever published under the D&D brand. Keep that bar set high with some new maps and fresh artwork regarding the city as a whole and some specific areas/buildings of the city we have yet to see.

5) Menzoberranzan

And I’ve saved my personal favorite for last. The Menzoberranzan boxed set was, in my opinion, the perfect mix of maps, information, and plenty of open-ended plotlines and adventure hooks to keep a DM and a group of adventurers busy for months. It was also one of the few campaigns where I encouraged my players to be evil and indulge in their darker sides.    

So now that R.A. Salvatore is onboard as one of the principle voices for 5th Edition, it makes perfect sense to me that Menzo needs an overhaul/update. Many important events have happened in Salvatore’s City of the Drow (see the Forgotten Realms novels) since this set was first published and I would love to see it all get brought up to speed with the new arrangements of houses and the growing displeasure with Lloth growing among the population. I’m sure that over the past 20 years, the popularity and cult following of this boxed set has only grown and today it would make for a huge seller.    

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Art Gallery III

So this week I decided to jump back into the present and have a look at this fresh new art for the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set. It depicts a band of goblins on a bluff looking down at a party of three around their campfire. The goblins are obviously up to no good and you can almost smell the combat coming. 

I love the fact that the artist (if anyone can find out who the artist is, please let me know) has given the goblins for 5th a distinct new look that I believe put them much closer to the Orc family than previous depictions. I’m also very happy that each goblin has its own distinctive role in the band. One can surmise that going from left to right there is a scout, a leader, a rogue, I believe the two with the spears might be barbarians , and a warrior. (What two with spears you might ask? Well take a closer look up in the branches of the trees.) The only thing I can think of that is missing would be a shaman but perhaps the DM is saving him/her for another encounter ;)

Overall, I’m quite happy with the direction of this new art. It reminds me a bit of Todd Lockwood’s work of which I’m a really big fan.  What do you think?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Love, Sex, and D&D

Well, I knew this day would come sooner or later, so here it is: Everything you wanted to know about love and sex in D&D and were afraid to ask. This is where younger players blush, older ones sigh, and more than a few say, “Oh? Tell me more…” Alright, I will!

First off, let me begin by saying that anyone who joins a D&D group for romance or for the gratuitous nudity is really, REALLY in the wrong place! I can remember playing as young as fifteen, with other teenage boys, our hormones raging out like the Hulk, and still sex/love hardly ever made it into any of our games. It simply didn’t seem to be the right place for it. It wasn’t until a few years later, sitting in on a group made up of mostly girls, with a female DM, that I was exposed (pun intended) to sex in D&D. I wish I someone would have snapped a picture of my face when these female players started to describe in detail how they were seducing an NPC. I’ll bet my eyes were as big as saucers and my jaw almost on the floor.

It was something that I had thought about; I mean, really, when do people not think about sex? But in D&D? It was like swearing in church, it just felt wrong. However, I slowly began to realize that, just like television, moves, and advertising, sex can also be a powerful tool in D&D. Nothing will grab a player’s attention and pull them into a roleplaying situation faster than “he/she meets your eyes, smiles at you, and seems to like what they see.” After all, it’s a perfectly normal interaction in real life and it’s certainly been well represented in other forms of fantasy in the past, why shouldn’t it crop up in D&D from time to time? Is it truly that offensive to our Victorian sensibilities? If so, then I ask why do we have no trouble whatsoever with hacking away limbs, heads, and other appendages but have such a problem talking about people’s naughty bits?     

However, that being said, sex can be a double edged sword. What I mean is, sex will unquestioningly get your player’s attention, but it may not be the attention you expected or wanted.  After including this taboo’ish topic into one of your games, I think you will find that your players will quickly divide into three camps: one group will find it so offending or embarrassing that they will want nothing to do with your game, or request to be left out until the “episode” has past; the second group will listen with a grin on their faces and make some lewd remarks or whistle at certain junctures, essentially turning the whole session into a joke; and the third group will not only take it seriously but may even find it stimulating. In any of these three cases, one can easily see how quickly sex can railroad your campaign.

So what do you do if you feel that romance, love, and sex need to be a part of your game? Well there are only a very few options. Perhaps the most infamous, and in my opinion the most ridiculous, is the use of a book entitled “The Book of Erotic Fantasy”. This is no joke, go ahead look it up. It was published by White Wolf in 2004 under the Open Gaming License (OGL). Incidentally, this book was one of the big reasons why the OGL was eventually scrapped. However, from a DM’s point of view, this book was not only rather useless, it was also way too extreme for its day, or any day thus far for that matter. The one good thing I can say about it was that it was totally unafraid to tackle any sexual topic, any topic at all. But when confronted with the dilemma of how to combine D&D with the unbridled raunchiness of its pages came around, everything was reduced to a table and a dice roll. How anticlimactic (pun intended) is that? Overall, I think most people agree that this book was just an inch short (oh innuendo, how I love thee) of a complete farce.

Another option is to do away with tables and dice and simply roleplay it out. You might have a peek at charisma scores and maybe see if someone is trained in a skill that the other person finds attractive (I’m thinking Athletics, but History can be attractive too right?) but other than that you just hash it out in real time, face to face. Of course the issue here boils down to a simple question: How comfortable are you with flirting/romancing your DM? I know that some of you are laughing or doing spit takes right now, so I’ll give you a moment to get that out of your system. I realize that there are some “tough guy” playing groups out there who wouldn’t be caught dead giving the bedroom eyes to their DM, and on the flip side there might be some players out there who are so in-touch with their sensual sides that they might make the DM a bit uncomfortable describing certain erotic situations. The answer to this dilemma is simple communication. Talk with your players and to the group as a whole if need be. If you know that something like this is going to be a factor, open up the dialog and get an idea of what will work best for everyone. You might be surprised how far the “tough guys” are willing to go!

If tables and rolling seems too cold and roleplaying in real time seems way too intense or intimidating, then I suppose the middle ground would be to plan it out in advance with your DM/player/players. Fantasy is filled with amazing love stories, Lancelot and Guinevere, Aragorn and Arwen, Drizzt and Catti-brie, and D&D should be no different. If you are a DM that wants/needs a romantic couple in your game; or if you are a player that feels as though having a partner is what completes you; then why not talk to the other people in play and work it out in advance. It’s doesn’t need to be set in stone or have every tiny detail mapped out in Power Point, but simply going up to your player or DM and saying, “Hey, this is what I was thinking should happen…can we work that into the game?”, is a great idea. The DM gets to run a game with a whole new emotional level and the player/players have greatly enhanced the depth of their character(s). If the relationship is worked out in advance, it eliminates the awkwardness of trying to establish it from scratch and can be worked into the storyline right from day one.

Overall, the DM and the group have to find the common ground that will work best for everyone. Romance, love, and sex can be added to a game just as easily as combat and NPCs, it just needs to be handled according to the comfort level of the group. I realize that the jokes and the embarrassing moments will be almost unavoidable; however, if you’re serious about it, I challenge you all to give it a try and see how it goes!            

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday Art Gallery II

Dwarf Pursuit by Larry Elmore
Appeared in The Complete Book of Dwarves (2nd Edition), 1991

This week in the art gallery I wanted to show off one of my absolute favorite pieces and definitely in my top five all time. Larry Elmore has so many talents I don’t even dare to list them all; however, looking at this piece in particular, I’m struck by how good he is at capturing a specific moment in time. If you’ve been a player of D&D for a while and haven’t had that “Oh crap, we’ve done it now!” moment, then you’re doing it wrong. And, in my opinion, this is the exact meaning of this painting.

Looking at the work in detail, we see a group of eight Dwarves (because seven would be just too cliché) bootin’ themselves and their ill-gotten booty away from castle ruins who have obviously been sheltering a Red Dragon and its horde. That was until this stout band of adventurers decided to crash the party, more than likely while the Dragon was away on a hunting trip. You can tell from the expressions on their faces that the Dwarves want nothing to do with that Dragon; however, it also doesn’t look like any of them are willing to give up on the treasure either. The Dwarf pushing the wheelbarrow seems especially terrified as if he expects his fellows to abandon him at any moment and leave him with his hand in the cookie jar. I know this would be exactly the thing I would be worried about if I were playing his character and my friends were playing the other Dwarves. Maybe that tells you something about the kind of folks I’m used to playing with.

Although the situation seems pretty bad for the Dwarves in this piece, I’d like to point out that there is hope also. Just like any situation in D&D that seems like a no-win scenario, it usually brings out the best in a hero and Larry Elmore knows this. For example, pay close attention to the Dwarf on the far left. If you ignore his striped pants that remind me of the Norwegian Curling Team, you’ll see that out of all of the Dwarves he is the only one grinning ear-to-ear. Why? Well I’d like to think that he’s thinking about the great story he’ll have to tell about the time a silly Red Dragon decided to pick on his friends and he sent it packing. And besides, he’s shirtless so that has to mean he’s bad-ass right?

No matter what happens in the next moment, or in the one after that, Larry Elmore has captured what I think is a perfect moment in time in which we, as Dungeoneers, can all relate. It’s about the thrill of the chase, the hope that the loot will stay in our hands, and the excitement inherent in playing out a life-or-death scenario for our characters. It’s moments like these that I love to experience both as a player and as a DM. Maybe that’s why I love this piece so much.             

Monday, June 9, 2014

5 Steps to Making A Great NPC

As I look back on the hundred plus adventures I’ve Dungeon Mastered as well as the hundreds of hours I’ve spent as a player, I can really only think on one campaign that didn’t have any NPCs. It was a long drawn-out dungeon with nothing but traps, riddles, and endless hordes of monsters. In fact, it may have been an Undermountain campaign redesigned with no exits (at least, that’s how it felt). As you might suspect, it was not one of my favorites with no story and no real antagonist. Exactly the kind of campaign I have repeatedly warned against any level headed DM creating/running. In my mind, comparing campaigns with NPCs to those without is akin to comparing silent movies to ones with sound; they just add so much more to the experience.

Now, with that being said, I have had the good fortune of creating a few NPCs that I would consider to be excellent and the regretful experience of creating a few that were well below average. Sometimes they are someone you need in a pinch to sell a magic item to a PC and will be in and out of the campaign in no time; sometimes they are going to be a companion to the party to help explore a dungeon or an area and will be around for several sessions; and other times they could be the main antagonist of the story and will cause havoc from day one until the final battle. I feel that the length of time that the NPC is going to be present in an adventure dictates the amount of effort a DM must put into their creation, backstory, and personality. You don’t want to spend an hour working on an NPC that is only going to appear in your story for fifteen minutes and oppositely you might want to spend more than fifteen minutes working on an NPC that is going to be in your campaign for multiple hours.

So, for those times when you need a really excellent NPC to make an impression and stand up to the test of being involved in the story for long periods of time, I have devised the following five areas you should focus your efforts to make the very best NPC possible. Here they are in no particular order:

1)      Use an actor/character you already know as a template.
Who is this character like? This is usually the first question I ask myself when creating an NPC. Is he a tough guy like Rambo? Is she adventurous like Lara Croft? Is it a bit crazy like Gollum? If you have a character/actor in mind, then you’ve got a great base from which to build. In the past, I’ve used actors from all walks of life as my inspiration for NPCs. Some examples include Brad Pitt, Steve Buscemi, Sean Connery, Emma Watson, Samuel L. Jackson, Nathan Fillion, and Katharine Hepburn (who, by the way, provides the template for almost every Drow Matron I’ve ever portrayed). I’ve also used characters from fiction with no real actor attached to them such as DC super hero Green Arrow, anime character Edward Elric, the characters of RA Salvatore and Robert Jordan, as well as characters from classical sources like Shakespeare and the Roman/Greek myths.

2)      Give them a distinctive voice/accent.
Players will appreciate an NPC a whole lot more if you can make their voice come to life. Now that doesn’t mean you have to be an award winning actor or spend countless hours learning accents and inflections. Simple changes can make a huge impact. Talk slower or quicker; use a different pitch or tone; employ catch phrases that are unique to certain characters; and place emphasis on certain sounds like “s” or “f”. It might be a bit cliché, but I usually drop my voice to its most baritone level for larger NPCs/monsters and pitch it into alto for goblins and tiny creatures. Personally, I do have an ear for accents and will quite often throw in Scottish, Irish, Queen’s English, Cockney, French, German, Jamaican, Russian, Indian, and Chinese on occasion. And before anyone objects, I don’t do this to be disrespectful or to make fun; I do this to make my NPCs vibrant and distinct. So, if you feel comfortable with any of these, I say go for it.     

3)      Give them a memorable name.
I’ll admit that this is one area that usually gives me trouble. I’m terrible with creating interesting names on the fly, which is why I have to either try to create them in advance or have a good name-generator standing by. Out of those two choices, I much prefer to make up my own names because I find most name generators are very poor; however, sometimes you need an NPC on the spot and don’t have the luxury of really brainstorming a great name. Another naming option is to “borrow” names from other sources of popular fiction/history. However, it is my opinion that if you are going to swipe a character name from some popular place (like history, a novel, or television, etc.), you must endeavor to make your character fairly similar to the original. This will help your players remember them even more and it will give you a good guideline to follow when portraying them. Regardless, a memorable name is essential to having your players believe in the realism, respect the words and actions of the NPC, and successfully integrate them into the story.     

4)      Give them a memorable feature.
Think about it, almost every memorable character in history has had one or more very memorable features. It might be in their mannerisms, looks, clothing, fighting style, or in their inventory but they are usually there from the beginning or picked up along the way. Gandalf has his pointy hat, Captain Jack Sparrow has his almost drunken posture, Thor has his hammer, Drizzt has his scimitars, and Neo knows Kung Fu. There are an almost unlimited number of ways to make an NPC stand out and the DM’s job is to find the one that is best suited to both the character and the situation of the story. Maybe a pet lizard might be a good fit for an NPC but it could be a poor choice if the story is set in a frozen wasteland where it would quickly freeze. Personally, I like to adorn my NPCs with some memorable flaws like addictions, tempers, and phobias. Choose wisely and you’ll be surprised how much one or two unique features can make a good NPC great.     

5)      Create a backstory.   

If you’ve left this task to last, look back at the previous tasks and you might find creating a backstory a lot easier. If you’re doing this task first or in the middle, ask yourself this fundamental question: Who do I need this character to be and what backstory is going to a good fit for that role?  If this person is going to be a teacher or mentor for the PCs, where did he/she/it get their training? If the NPC is going to be a villain, ask yourself why are they doing the horrible things that they are doing and what drove them to this evil? If the NPC is going to be a loyal henchman, or a squire, or a turncoat, or a traitor, it would be a good idea to understand their motivations for being who they are. I also have a rule for backstories that has served me well: “The weirder the character, the more detailed the backstory”.     

Friday, June 6, 2014

Friday Art Gallery I

Hey Folks!

So I have decided to move in a new direction on Fridays. For the past few months I’ve been posing the D&D Campfire Stories; however, for the foreseeable future, I’m changing the format. Over the next few weeks (and possibly months) I’m going to be taking an in-depth look at one area of D&D that is often overlooked and yet is one of the strengths of the brand: Art. From the early days right up to the men and women working on 5th Edition, D&D has been blessed with great artists, illustrators, painters, and digital masters and I’d like the opportunity to show off some of my favorites.

So to kick off this new section with a bang, I’d like to begin with two pieces of recently released cover art for the D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide!

1.       5th Edition Player’s Handbook Cover (2014) by Tyler Jacobson.

Some of you old school players might be thinking that this art looks really familiar. Well you’d be right.
This amazing piece by Tyler Jacobson is an updated version of art done of King Snurre—the titular monarch of the 1978’s The Hall of the Fire Giant King adventure module. The foreground depicts two heroes, a male elf or half-elf standing on the rocks and a female human or possibly half-orc going after the king in what the artist described as “a last ditch effort”. In the background, you can also make out the king’s throne and his two giant fire hounds waiting for their turn to snack on the two intruders within their master’s lair. The king himself is quite intimidating with his fifteen foot long broadsword and White Dragon Hide armor. I also love the fact that this piece depicts a very intense battle scene without being too busy or crowded. Going with just two heroes in this instance seems to have been the better choice over a full party of four or five. If you’re interested in seeing the original pic of King Snurre, or learning more about the iconic villain, check out his entry on Greywiki. (Here)

2.       5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide Cover (2014) by Tyler Jacobson.  

Once again we have a wonderful piece by Tyler Jacobson and once again the old school players are getting that funny feeling. Well your feelings are well placed as this is a re-imagining of the lich Acererak, undead villain and primary adversary from 1975’s the infamous Tomb of Horrors adventure module.  According to Jacobson, this is a depiction of the lich shortly after a major battle against several foes who fell to his power and are now being raised back up as undead. I think someone is trying to encourage the DM’s to go on a little power trip (as if we needed the push!). I enjoy the angle on this piece (near the ground looking up) as it makes me feel like I’m one of the poor souls who lay near death and I’m just getting a preview of what is in store for me very shortly. Again, if you’d like to know more about this villain, check out his entry on Greywiki. (Here)

If you’d like to learn more about the artist, Tyler Jacobson, you can have a look at his blog:

Monday, June 2, 2014

5 Very Awkward Gaming Moments

If you spend enough time roleplaying, either as a player or as a DM, you will eventually encounter a situation that is supremely awkward or makes you feel uncomfortable. It is almost inevitable given enough experience. After all, many roleplaying groups have at least one or two outspoken/strong-willed members who aren’t afraid to say things or even do things that would make the rest of us pale. Additionally, roleplaying is a social game and sometimes being social means stepping to uncomfortable situations or having awkward conversations.

So, I would like to share with you some of my own experiences in the land of uncomfortable gaming to potentially aid you when something similar raises its ugly head in your game. I’d also like to preface this article with a perfectly good disclaimer: I am not a trained councilor or psychologist. Even though I may give advice on how to approach these situations, I fully accept the fact that my method and way of handling things could be interpreted as incorrect by a professional. All I can say is, I’m just an average guy with (what I think is) above average decision making skills.

Now with that out of the way, here we go:

1)      The Racist/Sexist Remark
Now this event can vary greatly depending on the group of people playing. I’ve had the experience of being a member of an all-male group throwing out constant remarks about the opposite sex that would make a feminist quite irate. Oppositely, I’ve also had the privilege of running an all-female group of players where the jabs toward the male half of the gender were coming fast and furious and more than one at my own expense. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of hearing what could be considered raciest remarks in games and, to be perfectly honest, I myself might have crossed a line or two in the past and I am regretful for doing so. I really don’t believe that any of it was done with the intention of true hate, just jokes and regurgitation of punchlines from famous movies to make the others laugh. However, ultimately jokes and punchlines can still be sexist/racist no matter what the excuse. So what do you do if you are present when something like this happens? I think the big mistake here is to overreact. Berating your fellow players or the DM may eventually happen but it shouldn’t be the first reaction. To begin, I would speak up and let everyone in the group know that you are uncomfortable with that kind of talk/language. Make it quite clear that it is unacceptable to you. After that, I believe that most groups would be responsive and follow your advice. If that isn’t enough, then your next step might be to pinpoint who sparks these remarks and why. Once you discover the cause you may just discover the answer and be able to diplomatically confront it. Keep in mind that the people involved may not even realize what they are doing!

2)      The Temper Tantrum
This happens more often than you think, especially among people who take their games very seriously. Maybe they lose a favorite magical item, maybe someone else steals their kill, maybe another player has ticked them off for the last time, or maybe their beloved character has just died, etc. Whatever the reason, something sets them off and the rant/tantrum is on like Donkey Kong! It’s also important to note that these tantrums are not just confined to the players. I’ve also seen the DM go into one of these episodes when things didn’t go exactly to his/her plan. These tantrums are not only childish and futile, they can also seriously hurt the group unity and decrease respect for a player/DM. No one feels good about witnessing one of these and the awkward silence afterwards can really make a player or DM question if playing with this person is really worth the effort. If you are one of these folks or play with one of these folks my advice to you/them is simple: give them a D&D timeout. If they want to act like children, then they should be treated as such.  Maybe being temporarily kicked out of the group or stepping away from playing for a few weeks may shed some light on the underlying issue. If the person truly loves the game, then they might realize that playing with an even-temper is more important than playing poorly and getting kicked out. Similarly, if they are removed from the group for a time, they might realize that the cause of their anger was the fact they never really liked playing in the first place! A roleplaying time-out might provide just the perspective required.        

3)      The Couple Conundrum
Let me begin by saying this: I really enjoy when couples play the game together. I think it is a good bonding experience and an excellent opportunity for two people to spend some fun times in a different atmosphere. However, the problems arise when the two people in question bring their personal issues to the gaming table. I’ve had the “pleasure” of witnessing at least two of these meltdowns in my career as a DM and I really hope that I don’t get to see a third. The long and the short of it is this: if you both need to step away from the table, or need to miss a few sessions to work something out, then do it. Better to face the problems head on and as soon as they happen rather than bottle them up and try to “play through the pain” so to speak. It is extremely unfair to both the other players and the DM if two people are spending the whole adventure “not talking to one another”. Don’t let D&D and roleplaying be your excuse to put off something you need to deal with. Also, if you are a DM overseeing this kind of a situation and the couple can’t seem to get it together, perhaps you need to give them a push by sitting down with them and expressing your concerns. You never know, they might not even realize just how much tension there is between them and how much extra tension they are making for the rest of the group until you bring it up.    

4)      The Grudge
This issue can arise between DM and player, but it more often presents itself between player and player. This is where someone is convinced that someone wronged them in the past, whether by action or inaction, and now the trust between them is completely gone and only the argument remains. “You remember that time you screwed me over?” or “Oh sure, abandon me again!” or “Why are you never there when I need you?” and other similar phrases are thrown around frequently. These grudges usually start as small molehills but can grow into mountains over time. For example, I can remember two players in the past that irritated each other to the point where I had to ask one of them to leave the group. Their arguments and disagreements over almost everything overpowered the roleplaying and left the other players in the group feeling more like observers than players. In this situation, my advice is for the DM to examine the underlying issue. If the cause of their friction is being caused by something in-game, make any adjustments you can even if you really have to go out of your way. Believe me, the headache of making the necessary changes will be less than the headache of hoping it works itself out. However, if the cause of the problem is something out of game such as personal issues, school issues, work issues, or even something deeper like a cultural, sexist, or racist divide, then I would personally stay out of it and inform the players that they are not welcome at my table until these issues have been permanently sorted out.       

5)      The Cheater
This one always confounds me regardless of how many times I see it. One of your players suddenly rolls far too well, or inexplicably has a few extra spells up their sleeve, or seems to have an extra dozen hit points stored away in their backpack. Is this a miracle? No, it’s good ol’ fashioned cheating and nothing you can do as a player will piss your DM off faster. Now I can understand why some people engage in this practice, it makes them the hero and raises their status both in-game and as a player. But when the truth comes out, and believe me the more you cheat the faster it will be discovered, your reputation is going to be toast. The DM will suddenly be looking over your shoulder every time you roll and your fellow players will start calling you out on everything, even the things you are doing correctly. Put simply, it really isn’t worth it. And, as far as I’m concerned, cheating goes against all of the major principals of playing a game like D&D. The randomness of the dice, the strategy of combat, using spells at the right time and for the best effect, and even dying are all great parts of the game and need to be embraced, not avoided. If you want to cheat, go play a PC game and fill your boots. If you want to experience roleplaying, fly straight and carry on.