Friday, August 29, 2014

The Royal Museum of Dice Shaming II

As you may be aware, I recently finished up a Dice Shaming Contest. Here are some of the entries:

And The Winner Is...

Congratulations to Chaz Denny of Lorain, Ohio!

                                Your new dice will be in the mail shortly. May they treat you better.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Five Cardinal DM Sins (Part 2)

Last week we had a look at Arrogance and Affluence and this week we look at the last three: Attachment, Adherence, and Anal.

3.       Attachment (being too attached to your NPCs or monsters)

“The root of suffering is attachment.” – The Buddha

I love it when a DM puts in the time, effort, and imagination to create something both interesting and challenging for the players. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an original work/adventure/idea but it should have that particular DM’s personal touch added. This is the difference between a good DM and an excellent one. However, when a DM puts in their time, effort, and creativity into a project, something diabolical and sinful can happen from time to time. This would be what I like to call the “Attachment Effect”.

Essentially, the Attachment Effect is where a DM has created something that they love so much it becomes more important than anything else. Depending on what it is, the DM can become so protective of this thing that it begins to railroad the adventure and perhaps even alienate the players. Here are two examples of the Attachment Effect that I have personally witnessed:

1) Attachment to a Monster. Our group had been on the trail of a Dragon who had attacked a nearby town. We followed it into a labyrinth of underground caverns and began to prep ourselves for the big fight. Our DM however, had other plans. Unknown to us, he had worked for hours creating an elaborate backstory for this Dragon and he had planned for our group to find him, have a dialog, and eventually come to terms peacefully. Our group however, attacked the Dragon on sight despite the pleadings of the DM. This lead to a total party kill (TPK) and the DM eventually scrapped the whole campaign.

2) Attachment to an NPC. Sometimes DMs like to put NPCs into the mix as their way of getting in a little playtime for themselves. This is not a bad thing on its own but can develop into a problem when the NPC begins to have more playing time than the actual players! If you suddenly find that the DM’s NPC is doing most of the talking, making most of the decisions, and even winning most of the battles, something needs to be done and fast.

To combat this Cardinal Sin the DM must be continually reminded that the players and the story need to be the two main foci for any adventure. NPCs and monsters are great tools for accomplishing the task but they are just the means to the end, not the end themselves. NPCs and monsters are no more an adventure than a hammer and a drill are a house. 

4.       Adherence (being a rules lawyer)

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” – Abraham Lincoln

Being a rules lawyer is one of the worst qualities I can think of in a player. And, let me be clear, there is a big difference between someone who knows the rules well and someone who continuously brings them up. But, when the DM himself or herself is the rules lawyer, it creates a very unbending and harsh environment where players can feel restrained. This is the total opposite of what D&D should be, in my opinion.

Make no mistake, the rules are a fundamental part of what makes the game work and everyone, both DMs and PCs, should have a solid grasp of why things are the way they are. But understanding and enforcing do not always go hand-in-hand. For example, I recently had a PC in my group, the Bard, attempt to give a rousing speech to a group of local villagers to boost their moral and give them the courage to defend their town from an impending attack. I told him to roll his diplomacy but in my mind the roll really didn't matter. I was going to give him their undivided attention and he was going to succeed no matter if the die had come up 1. It was an iconic moment; it was a critical piece to the story; and, from my point of view as the DM, the rules could bugger off. His actual roll was, in fact, very good; however, if I had been a rules lawyer and the roll had come up 1, the villagers would have ignored him and several negative things would have happened. The player would have felt discouraged, his fellow players would have been let down, and the story would have been placed in crisis because without the villagers the PCs would have had to defend the town alone. Why unleash all of those issues over one stupid roll?

In my mind, the rules are nowhere near as important as the story and the story should trump the rules every time. If you feel like, or have been told that you are a rules lawyer, I want you to repeat the following ten times before every game: “Knowing and enforcing the rules at every opportunity does not make me superior. It just makes me annoying.”  

5.       Anal (being overly concerned about every single tiny teeny-weenie detail)  

“Fastidious taste makes enjoyment a struggle.” – Mason Cooley

‘So as you approach the entrance to the cavern you notice that there are several bushes nearby with dark green, almost black, leaves interspersed with bright red berries that remind you of strawberries, although they are smaller and more round in shape similar to snake berries. The bushes are about three feet high and have a kind of chocolate brown bark to them. There is also a smell in the air around their proximity that has the initial scent of cinnamon, but then turns very sour like that of a lemon or grapefruit. Sorry, where was I?’  *Bang!* (that would be the PCs taking matters into their own hands).

Fortunately, I’ve really only seen one DM in my experience who committed this sin regularly. However, when it exists it can be a game killer. Now, in the defence of some, this issue can be temporarily brought on by nerves (maybe it’s the DM’s first time or first time with a new group and they are trying extra hard), or it could be brought on by the DM playing for time while he or she frantically thinks about what’s supposed to be next. These circumstances make this Cardinal Sin forgivable. What is not forgivable is a DM that does this regularly because they are a little stuck inside of their own mind. How does a DM get stuck in their mind? It usually has something to do with being a perfectionist or trying very hard to be as detailed as possible (often in an effort to impress the players). Ironically, this can be one of the quickest ways to alienate or disengage your players from you and the game.

The best advice to handle this Cardinal Sin is to RELAX! Not everyone needs to be J.R.R. Tolkien when they describe things. Players just want the basics and if they need something specific, they will ask. In fact, the only time I go into more detail about a room than two or three sentences is when I’m trying to set something up that will come into play later such as a trap or a hidden monster or a secret passage. As a DM, be aware if you are doing too much. Also, do your best to work on the quality of your words, rather than the quantity. Let your motto be that time honored cliché: keep it simple stupid.

Do you have another Cardinal DM Sin you’d like to add to the list? Make a comment below!

Friday, August 22, 2014

5th Edition is Here!

To celebrate the official release of D&D 5th Edition this week, here are few pics of very happy people!



Monday, August 18, 2014

The 5 Cardinal DM Sins (Part 1)

In my article from last week, I mentioned that it was a Cardinal Sin for DMs to assume that they knew exactly what their players were going to do at any given time. This got me thinking about all of the Cardinal DM Sins and so I thought I would outline the top five for you. Now this list is by no means complete; however, I feel that these five terrible sins are the worst and should be avoided at all costs. If you are a DM and you recognize that you have one or more of these issues, you should seek advice from your players or even other DMs as to how to cure these terrible afflictions.

1.       Arrogance (assuming that your players will always do exactly what you think they will do)

“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life – becoming a better person.” – Leo Tolstoy

I will begin where I last left off. Too many DMs, especially the ones who have been playing with the same group for years, think they can predict down to the last breath how their party is going to react to any given situation. This problem can present itself on the DM side of things (i.e. the DM is stuck in a boring routine and is never prepared for the wacky side-adventures of his/her players when they do happen) or on the player side of things (i.e. the players never do anything wacky because they are stuck in a boring roleplaying routine). Both of these scenarios are unacceptable for all people involved.

One of the foundations of D&D is how open ended it can be. In fact, I’ll bet that if many of you recalled your favorite or most funny moment in D&D, it probably came out of something improvised on the spot. It is that capability for the player and/or DM to be creative that sets roleplaying apart from every other type of game available. If you want to just sit on the couch and play a perfectly planned game with a straight-up plot, there are thousands of console games in which you can indulge. Go fill your boots! In my opinion, D&D is better because it’s not “straight-up”.

Thankfully, atoning for this sin is easy. Firstly, if the problem is with you, the DM, you must always have a good plan in place as to where you want the campaign to go next and be prepared for a few side-adventures. There’s nothing wrong with these so long as you can eventually get back to the main plot. Secondly, if the problem is with your players, you need to do something unexpected to shake things up. It’s time to think outside of the box, get out of your comfort zone, and engage in half a dozen other clichés that gets the group as far away from their normal routine as possible. It doesn’t have to be long-term or even something so wacky your players will be wondering if you’ve suddenly become possessed, it does need to be different and memorable and put the idea into the player’s heads that something about this campaign is going to be different so they should pay more attention and take a few more risks than usual. Try your best to find a balance between your regular game and something totally off the wall.           

2.       Affluence (giving away too many items and/or magic with no challenge or consequence)

“He who wants everything every time will lose everything any time.” – Vikrant Parsai

        In many ways, players are like children. In game you have to teach them values, morals, and show them what their limits are. Sometimes they should be rewarded, and sometimes they should be punished. And, just like children, you have to be wary of the trap of spoiling them in an effort to buy their love or maintain their interest. Keep in mind that there is a big difference between your players liking you and respecting you. Personally, I would much rather my players dislike my stingy nature with rewards and yet respect me as a DM than like me for what I give them and not respect me as a DM at all.

        Spoilt children always expect something bigger down the line, and spoilt players always expect that their characters will get better and “cooler” as they grow in levels. How do you expect to maintain that expectation when you give away most of the cool stuff too early, or for little effort? And when you fail to meet their expectations down the road you will find yourself in the very interesting position of having given away everything the players ever wanted and they still are very displeased with both you, as the DM, and the campaign in general. Why? Because human nature dictates that enough is never enough.      

        To combat this sin, you have to do two things: 1) Do not give in to the wants of your players just to “keep them happy”. Giving out rewards or needed items is one thing and handing over +5 armor just because the guy next to you keeps whining about it is another. Remember that you are the “parent” in this situation and sometimes you have to put your foot down and make the hard calls. They may not like it but they will eventually respect you for doing so. 2) Always try to couple risk and reward. Nothing should come for free in D&D and, if you are inclined to give your players that +2 sword or a wand of magic missiles, you should make damn sure they have to work for it. Maybe they have to slay the two-headed Ogre; or find the well-hidden treasure room in the dungeon; or even save up thousands of gold pieces from an entire campaign to purchase it from an NPC. However they get their hands on that “whatever”, make sure that it is a reward and not charity.

Stay tuned for next week’s article which will have the remaining three Cardinal DM Sins!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Art Gallery IX

Drider by Anne Stokes

This week I’m taking a look at another amazing female artist, Anne Stokes. Anne (also known by her nickname, Ironshod) currently lives in the UK and began her career around 1998. Her D&D credits include: Monster Manual III (2004), Player's Handbook II (2006), Monster Manual IV (2006), Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss (2006), Complete Mage (2006), Magic Item Compendium (2007), Monster Manual V (2007), Rules Compendium (2007), and the 4th edition Monster Manual (2008) and Manual of the Planes (2008).

Overall, there is a richness to Anne’s work that seems to transcend the page. Her colors are always vibrant and never clash. I’m also impressed by the way she can put real heartfelt emotion into her characters; be it love, sadness, hate, pride, joy, etc. It’s easy to fall in love with her work because the work itself is like a love letter: passionate, well crafted, and beautiful.

To have a closer look at the piece known as Drider, one can quickly pick up on the flowing color palette of purples and grays common to many depictions of the Drow. It’s also interesting to examine the expression of hate on the face of the once powerful female Drow (most likely a priestess in my opinion) who is now magically altered to have the body of a giant spider for the rest of her days. Where does that hate come from? Well, for those who may not know, the process of turning a Drow into a Drider is considered a permanent punishment in Dark Elf culture. Sure, you get to be much larger and stronger, but the trade-off is a loss of intelligence and a breakdown of one’s will. Essentially, you become an easy-to-control killing machine. C’est la vie!

Also, a quick look at the background reveals that Anne Stokes knows much about the Drider’s environment as well. Nestled into the back of a small cave, the Drider’s webs have been carefully threaded among the stalactites and stalagmites. And it also looks like she's been busy as she's collected the skulls of many unprepared visitors. The whole work just screams "underdark" to my eyes.

If you’d like to see more of Anne’s works, including her unforgettable, fantastic dragon pieces, check out her website at:  

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Best Laid Schemes of DMs and PCs...

Here’s a question that I hear a lot: As a DM, what do you do when your players don’t do what you expected or have planned? Answer: I beat them ruthlessly with large metal objects.

Thanks, have a good week!

Well okay, maybe I don’t do that, but the thought has crossed my mind! Seriously however, every DM has been in that situation where they think they know exactly how their group is going to handle a situation and they run off in totally different and unexpected direction. I’ve heard these events called “side-quests”, or “unexpected adventures”, or even “chaos content”. I simply call them tangents and they are nothing to be feared.

Tangents are almost always linked to choices that the players have to make in-game.  Choices like killing an NPC or keeping them around as a prisoner; or running away from the gang of thugs in the alley or staying to fight; paying the merchant a fair price or stealing what you need; following the rumor you heard at the tavern or ignoring it as gossip. Each of these choices have consequences (or they should) and the DM must be ready to handle any choices the PCs might make. It is a cardinal sin for DMs to assume that they know exactly what choice the PCs will make and only prepare for one decision. If you feel that way, why give them the choice in the first place? It is much better to be open to anything and flexible enough in your planning to adapt for the inevitable tangent.

But how do you do that, you might ask? Well it all comes back to good campaign planning. Personally, my goal for every one of my campaigns is to provide a novel-like storyline for all of my players to run though. However, that doesn't mean that I plan out every scene, action, or event down to the last detail. Doing that would just be inviting disappointment and frustration. Instead, what I generate are plot points I call guideposts. Depending on how long I want my campaign to be, I can set as few as three or four and as many as ten or twelve. These guideposts can really be anything. Some examples are: combats, dungeons, events (such as murders, suicides, invasions, political change, a natural disaster, etc.), the PCs discovering a secret, uncovering a hidden plot, you name it! Once I have my guideposts, all I need do is set them out in order and (eventually) follow them. To give you a better understanding of what I mean, what follows is a detailed example. 

So, to begin, I decide that I want to run a campaign that will be played one night a week, three hours a night, for three months. That’s a total playing time of 36 hours. For a campaign of this size I would be planning for three guideposts. That’s three major events I want to see happen in the time I have. Now let’s say that those three events are going to be: 1) a combat that leads to a NPC(s) being taken hostage, 2) a dungeon, and 3) the fight with the final boss. Simple enough and I’m sure you can fill in the details with any number of possibilities.

So now that I have my three guideposts, as a DM I’m capable of handling almost any situation/decision my PCs can make without fear of never getting back to my story. But what if the PCs don’t care about who has been taken hostage and don’t want to give chase? Give them a reason to care! Offer a reward, make the hostage takers old rivals that the PCs are aching to see behind bars, make the NPC(s) important to their background, raise the stakes! But what if the PCs decide that the dungeon can wait for a few days while they level up elsewhere? There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you have the time to spare. And, if you feel like you are running out of time, maybe it’s time for a strong reminder like having some of the hostage takers attack them in the night and steal some of their equipment! But what if they attack the final boss with almost no hit points or spells? Two answers here. Firstly, if you have some time to burn, maybe the boss defeats them the first time around without killing them and they need to run into each other a second time for the “real” fight. Secondly, if time is short, your answer might be cutting your final boss’ hit points down to “easy” level, or perhaps tipping your PCs off to a big weakness in his defenses.

Here’s the main point: there’s nothing wrong with letting the characters go on a little side adventure, or wandering off in a previously unexpected direction, or even taking unexpected and foolish risks as long as the DM can eventually pull them back to the central plot, i.e. the next guidepost. Sometimes, I even find it a challenge to indulge the PCs in their side-quests until I can manufacture a way to integrate what seemed to be a tangent into the main story.

For example, let’s say that your campaign hinges on the PCs tracking down a thief and interrogating him for some vital information. But, when the time comes, the PCs kill the thief before he can give the vital information away. You’re stuck right? Wrong! Embrace the fact that you are about to embark on a tangent and start working on the countless ways that you can bridge the gap between where you wanted to be and where you are. Are you in a hurry? Maybe the thief has the information marked down on a piece of parchment back at his inn room and the PCs have to find a way inside without being seen. Do you have lots of time to spare? Then why not make this unexpected happening a part of the journey and go on an elaborate tangent to find the “only other person in the world” who knows the information you need.

A sudden change of circumstances and patching plot holes on the fly is one of the biggest tests a DM can face. Some are very good at it and can make any tangent appear seamless. Others get very uncomfortable and can bend under the pressure. However, I believe that good planning and easy to follow guideposts can help even the most inexperienced DM stay on the path of good gaming. Open your mind to the possibilities, accept that things are not always going to go to plan, and organize the chaos.       

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dice Shaming Contest!!

Since the Royal Museum of Dice Shaming was such a hugely popular article, I’ve decided that it’s time for you folks to show me how well you can shame your dice! That’s right, the only thing you have to do to enter this contest is take a quick pic of your die or dice with a nice shaming caption next to it/them explaining how it/they screwed you over…and over…and perhaps over.

You can enter as many times as you like and send your entries to: with the heading “Dice Shaming Contest”. I’ll be judging the best entries on creativity and humor so do your best to make your dice rolling misery as hilarious as possible.

If you are reading this, the contest is already open and I will be accepting entries until Friday, August 22, at midnight, North American Eastern Time. The winner and the “best of” entries will be posted to this blog on Friday, August 29.

The winner will receive…(drum roll)…a new set of dice! Yes, I will mail you a brand new, never been opened or used in any way, set of dice to hopefully reverse those horrible fortunes you’ve been having with your present ones. You’ll also receive a “Certificate of Awesomeness” and the countless laughs/groans of your fellow roleplayers.

Looking forward to seeing what y’all can come up with. Good luck!     

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Art Gallery VIII

This week I return to the amazing work of Larry Elmore and a piece that I have adored for years. This one is entitled “Cities of Mystery” and was the cover art for a boxed set in 2nd Edition of the same name. Incidentally, if you’ve never had the chance to look at that boxed set, I highly recommend it. It was full of great ideas, plotlines, and NPCs that could be used in any urban setting.

Getting back to the artwork, I love this piece because it grips the viewer immediately. I think the first thing that draws your eye is the grinning character (Gnoll? Werewolf?) on the right side. It’s only after closer inspection that you realize that he is very well hidden and the real focus should be on the “beggar” luring in the two unsuspecting travelers. I’d also like to think that those two travelers are spending their very first day inside the walls of the big city. Unfortunately, they seem on the verge of learning the hard way that cities can be full of deceitful people.

Looking at the details of the piece, the “beggar” seems to be trying to attract attention by the use of a small pendant, perhaps asking the travelers if they are interesting in buying it. However, I’d also like to think that perhaps the pendant has magical properties making the “beggar” appear friendlier and more inviting than he really is. Either way, he seems to have the travelers’ attention as they are turning inward for a closer look. Interestingly, the travelers do have their weapons drawn and that could be a hint that these folks won’t go down without a fight.

My intuition tells me that the next few moments after the one depicted here will result in a very interesting fight. But who will be the winner? You decide!