Monday, December 22, 2014

5 Major Do's and Don'ts for New DMs

(Blog Note: This is an update on an earlier article.)

With the arrival of 5th Edition in full swing, many players and DMs are getting in on the D&D action for the first time. This is excellent because a) it shows that many people are not only interested in the brand but also are willing to give a whole new edition a chance; and b) it is expanding the already diverse and impressive D&D audience. I personally get a real thrill out of meeting first-time players/Dungeon Masters and asking them what they think about the product and what motivates them to play/run games.   

In that vein, I’d like to welcome the new DMs to our wonderful world of roleplaying with a few major do’s and don’ts that can easily make or break an adventure. Keep in mind that a lot of my advice is geared toward DMs running their own homebrew material and all of it may not apply to those of you running pre-generated adventures.

1.      Don’t Kill the Story Over the Rules
Eventually, every DM reaches a point where they have to choose between the story and the rules. For example, the story would suggest that the players need to win a battle in order to move on to the next plot point. However, the rules are telling you that the players are about to lose this fight and be wiped out. In my opinion, the story should almost always win out.

Do Bend the Rules in Favor of the Story
Using the example above, the DM needs to step in and make a few minor adjustments to the battle. Drop the foes’ hit points, ease up on the spell casting, or maybe add in some extra help in the form of an NPC. There’s no reason why you can’t make the game challenging and still keep everyone alive. I find that many DMs, both new and experienced, seem to think that character death equals a truly challenging adventure. While there is no doubt that a character death can really sober your players up to the fact that your adventure is going to be difficult, it is by no means the only way to do so. 

2.      Don’t Play Favorites or Give Friends Special Treatment
One of the fastest ways a DM can lose the respect and attention of his or her players is to place one or two characters above the others. This can include, but is not limited to, such things as: handing out treasure, spending extra roleplaying time, offering extra rolls of dice or re-rolls, and planning adventures/dungeons so that particular characters will fare better than others.

Do Keep Things Fair and Random
First of all, there will be moments in both roleplaying and combat situations where certain characters and players will shine more than others. That’s perfectly fine and expected. What I don’t like to see is one or two characters getting the “royal” treatment over long periods of time. It’s a huge let-down for the ones who don’t get anything and it compromises your integrity as a DM. Secondly, players and DMs roll dice for a reason. They are intended to be random and unpredictable. This randomness is one of the great differences between a tabletop game and a console or computer game and part of what makes D&D fun. Ignoring, changing, or altering rolls on a consistent basis renders this whole random dynamic useless and cheapens the game.

3.       Don’t Delve Too Deeply Into Just Roleplaying or Combat
As I have mentioned many times in the past, D&D can be broken down into two major components: roleplaying and combat. Roleplaying is where your PCs interact with each other NPCs, and monsters on a conversational/social level. Combat is where the PCs interact with each other, NPCs, and monsters in a round/turn based system designed to simulate battle. As a DM you must be aware that you are going to run into players who greatly prefer one component over another and other players who enjoy both equally. Be aware that if you delve too deeply into one component over another you may alienate some of your players.

Do Keep Roleplaying and Combat Balanced
My goal, as a DM, is try to hit that magical 50/50 split. However, I am often happy if I achieve a 60/40 (usually in favor of combat). This means that in a four hour session I would ideally spend two hours in roleplaying and two hours in combat. Now this may not always be possible every session, especially if your party is in a dungeon. However, realize that if you spend an entire session running from room to room killing undead, you may want to have an all roleplaying session the next week to balance it out and vice-versa. Different players like different things so try to keep it varied and don’t fall into patterns.     

4.      Don’t Try to Make Your Campaign Too Funny or Too Serious
Players appreciate good humor in a campaign, particularly after a big moment or battle. Similarly, they also appreciate getting down to serious business after the humor and laughs have died out. Too much of either can kill the campaign. I have met a few DMs in my day that embraced both sides of the coin too much and ended up with similar results. An excessive amount of comedy in a campaign makes the players think that they don’t need to take the adventure seriously. They feel as though they can float around in your world with only “cartoon consequences” and this makes them ultimately uninterested. On the other hand, a campaign that is too serious or too intense can actually stress your players and they will eventually reach a point where they will lash out. This can lead to players quitting, trying to force the humor out, and it makes them ultimately uninterested.

Do Add a Little of Both to Every Campaign
As a DM or group, there is nothing wrong with making a conscious decision to have a “serious” campaign or a “funny” campaign. However, it is important to note that even the most serious movies, television series, books, plays, and other forms of storytelling have elements of humor, and vice versa. Don’t get so hung up on the idea that “I have to make this funny” or “I have to make this intense” that you lose sight of everything else.

5.      Don’t Give In Every Time
One of the biggest mistakes that a DM can make is to give in the wills and wishes of his/her players on a regular basis. You can listen to what they have to say, consider their opinions, but in the end the final say is yours. Don’t give a player the +2 Bow just because they ask for it every session. Don’t let a whiny player have his/her way by giving them something shiny. Don’t let players bully you into making the story about them or what they want to do. Being a DM is a lot like being a parent in this regard. The more you bend the more spoilt your players become.   

Do Be Tough But Fair

In case you haven’t caught on yet, the overall theme of this article is balance and this issue is no different. DMs need to be both tough and fair. Being empathetic, understanding, and compromising are all excellent qualities for a DM to have but they also need to be tempered by a sense of fairness, effectiveness, and making the players earn their treasures. Believe me, a player that had to go through hell (sometimes literally) to get that +5 sword is going to appreciate it a whole lot more than picking it up off the side of the road. And, as an added bonus, you might find that the players respect you more for the trouble.          

Friday, December 19, 2014

Fan Art Expo #1

This week I kick off a new series where I will be showcasing fan art. Do you, or someone you know, have some great fan art they want to share? Follow (THIS LINK) for the details. Enjoy!

RURIK FROSTBEARD (submitted by Gobbo)

This is my Hill Dwarf Bard [College of Lore]. He plays Didgeridoo as his main instrument and has the Sage Background. He is Lawful Good in nature and has a love for all things concerning knowledge and research.  While he can be easily distracted by new information, or the promise thereof, he is dedicated to helping his friends in searching out catacombs and hidden ruins and to see where the information contained therein leads them.

Tal Maggros (submitted by Malcolm)

This was my first character I ever rolled up back in fourth edition. I saw the Dragonborn and fell in love with the idea and looks. Tal was a Greatsword Fighter and a former Gladiator.  He was given the red mark on his face as sort of a trademark for himself.
I ended up drawing this in the tiny "portrait" box on the standard character sheet. That’s why it is only a shot of his head. The scales on his brow were going to be less purple then this, but I worked with the colours I had a available and ended up liking this look much more.

Agrippa Mossroot and Octavian Cloudrunner (submitted by Alex)

In our campaign, the Grippli are all but extinct, barely living off the land in scattered tribes. After the loss of her entire Mossroot tribe in a vicious raid by the Sahuagin, Agrippa (Ranger) roamed the land in search of other Grippli tribes, occasionally taking up mercenary work to put arrows in her quiver and gear on her back. This travel is how she met up with the rest of our campaign's adventuring group.
One day, she received word that a nomadic band of Grippli were attempting to bring the tribes together in order to preserve their race, and it became her life's wish to help see that goal through to fruition. Through battles with everything from vampires to barbarians, (usually with the help of her non-Grippli adventuring companions) she proved herself worthy to become chief of the newly forming tribe, now named Deeproot, and gained the exceptional loyalty of a young Octavian (Rogue). Together, they work to oversee diplomatic relations between contacted tribes, and to defend their new homeland.
Both are chaotic neutral and put the survival of the Grippli race and the Deeproot tribe above all else. Agrippa is very confident, proud, rowdy, and often sarcastic, while Octavian is more of a quiet intellectual.

Monday, December 15, 2014

8 Pop Culture Villains Perfect for D&D

Quite often, the “Boss” or reoccurring villain in a D&D campaign is more than a number of hit points with an evil laugh. They, like their PC counterparts, should have personalities, backgrounds, and back stories that give them depth and substance. In many ways, the more interested the players are in your villain (rather it be love or hate) the more exciting the moment will be when the inevitable resolution comes.

So, if you are a DM looking for villainous inspiration, where do you turn? For me personally, the answer usually comes from another source. To quote Aaron Sorkin, “The good borrow from the best and the great steal from them outright.” To illustrate what I mean, here are eight examples of villains I have picked from various sources of pop culture who make perfect additions to many D&D situations.    

(In Alphabetical Order)

Agent Smith (The Matrix Trilogy)

There’s something to be said for a drone-like foe who suddenly finds itself growing more powerful than its masters. Why just take out the hero when you can take out the hero and make yourself lord of the world at the same time! Specifically, I think that Agent Smith is an excellent example of a villain that shows growth at roughly the same rate as the hero does and that’s an excellent goal for all DMs to strive towards. If you are going to introduce a baddie, especially a reoccurring one, don’t make them exactly the same encounter after encounter. Keep adding to and changing them, after all, villains should gain levels too.   

Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Star Wars Universe)

This is the best example I can think of for the “once great and now fallen hero”. Anakin began his career with so much promise and accomplished so much good before his corruption to the dark side. Then, after his transformation to Darth Vader, he quickly became one of the most feared and terrible villains in the Star Wars Universe. Personally, I have dabbled with this concept many times in my adventures and often to very good results. I usually have an NPC join the party at an early stage and then slowly corrupt them over time. Then, at some point around 7th or 8th level, they break off from the party and become the main antagonist for the remainder of the campaign. The final battle with these types of villains can be terribly bittersweet for both the DM and the players.  

Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)

Here’s a little experiment for those of you who are both fans of the HBO television show and Drow Elf society: Every time there is a scene with Cersie Lannister, I want you to close your eyes and picture her character as a Drow Matrion Mother. They fit together eerily well except for those times she decides to obey her father. Anyhow, from a DM’s point of view, Cersie Lannister is exactly the type of villain you want when there is backstabbing and intrigue to be done. She is competitive, fierce, devious, and fantastically brutal when the need arises. Combine all of this with her fanatical loyalty to her family and you’ve got quite a lot of material to work with.  

The Joker (DC Universe)

“Some men just want to see the world burn.” When you need a villain to misbehave just for evil’s sake, there’s no better template than The Joker. If he were a recipe, he’d be a cup of insanity mixed with a cup of genius blended together and then added to a gallon of chaos. And, one of the best aspects of The Joker, is almost everything he does is meant to test, challenge, incite, and confuse his foes. In my opinion, this kind of psychological warfare can be ten times more damaging to heroes like Batman than anything that could be done to them physically. Why not carry that over to your PCs? If you’ve never had a villain more interested in messing with the PC’s minds than doing damage, I highly recommend you give it whirl.   

Locutus (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

What do you get when a relentless, fanatical foe manages to convert one of your best players? Trouble. This is a concept that I have also used a few times in the past to very good results. It works something like this: You start off with a normal group of players but you allow one of the players to have a few extras. Maybe they have a special item, or maybe you give them a small bump to their stats, or an extra ability, etc. Then, after a few levels, you raise them up a bit higher by giving them access to some mysterious power. They probably have no clue where it comes from, only that it works well so they use it when the need is great (and the DM should make sure that the need is great quite often). Eventually, the power consumes them and the story becomes less about fighting evil and more about the other players trying to save their comrade (just like Locutus). How does it all turn out? You decide.  

Loki (Marvel Universe)

This baddie is similar to The Joker in the way that he leans more toward the mental and emotional attacks than the physical ones. But where Loki really distinguishes himself is in the realm of ambition. His sights are firmly placed on his end goal which is asserting himself as the supreme ruler of Asgard and all of the worlds under its protection, including Earth. He is a wonderful example of how a villain can be defeated time-after-time and still manage to progress and get stronger. His schemes, aided by his illusions and other powers, are complicated, often misleading, and keep his foes guessing/paranoid. This often leaves them tired from chasing non-issues by the time the real danger arrives and it is an excellent strategy for any D&D villain to emulate.  

Lord Voldemort/Tom Riddle (Harry Potter Series)

Here is the story of a young man so wrapped up in the search for his own immortality that he ignores any reservations he may have about morals or the wellbeing of others. Indeed, one could say that Voldemort’s entire existence was in the pursuit of immortality and it ironically got him killed. This kind of all-consumed or zealous villain is common, but from a DM’s point of view, I think that it is important to give these villains as much depth and color as possible. From Harry’s point of view, Voldemort was someone to be both reviled and pitied. So too should your villains be seen by your players in multiple lights.  

Magneto (Marvel Universe)

Ah yes, the perfect example of the villain who sees the world as a flawed place that needs to be destroyed so that it may be rebuilt. In many ways, these antagonists don’t view themselves as evil. They are just willing to do what needs to be done for the greater good. Personally, these are my favorite types of villains because they are always straddling the line between what should and shouldn’t be allowed. Magneto in particular has a very strong argument for the remaking of the world because he grew up during a time in human history where someone was trying to remake the world in a very negative way.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Class Showcase: Wizards

It’s week ten and the final week of my Class Showcase series, where I take a class from D&D and give three examples from popular culture. This week: Wizards.

#1 Gandalf (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy)

On the one hand, Gandalf is really much more than just a Wizard. In certain ways, he is a demi-god charged with snuffing out the fires of evil through the purifying fire of light (indeed you could say he fights fire with fire). But, on the other hand, he is the quintessential forgetful Mage who is so wrapped up in his own grand thoughts and plans that many of the smaller details pass him by. This makes him both invaluable and flawed which is exactly how Wizards in D&D should be played. Yes, they wield incredible powers that can stop entire armies in their tracks; but they are also vulnerable in many ways and require the help of others more often than they would like to admit. That’s why Gandalf is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of a Wizard in popular culture.   

#2 Harry Potter (The Harry Potter Series)

“You’re a Wizard, Harry!” I know that it sounds corny but who hasn’t wished to for magical powers from time to time? The power to change your world with a few mystical words and a flick of the wand, for better or for worse, is a very desirable thing. That subconscious desire is a part of what makes the character of Harry Potter so exciting and interesting for millions around the world. His innocence and naivety towards magic draws us in and we learn about his world at roughly the same pace that he does. In many ways, this is also the path that I’d like to see many players who assume the roles of Wizards in D&D to progress. Magic should be a wondrous thing, even in a magic heavy world, and both players and DMs alike should always give arcane powers a level of mystery and respect. Trust me, it’s a lot more fun.   

#3 Merlin (Various)

As near as anyone has been able to decipher, the character of Merlin was originally an amalgamation of several historical and legendary characters brought together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written around 1136 (Wikipedia). His name was Merlin Ambrosius and he was depicted as one of the heroes of the Romano-British War. Over the centuries he has evolved from a prophet soldier, to the chief advisor and teacher of King Arthur, to the magic wielding wizard many of us are familiar with today. And, despite what many believe, Merlin is not just a British figure. Many examples of the Merlin legend have been written in France, Norway, Finland, Germany, and Italy. In almost all of these incarnations, Merlin uses his vast knowledge of both the real world and the fantastical to bring about peace and justice. I consider him to be the original Wizard and the foundation for almost all who have come after him.    

Honorable Mention: Bavmorda (Willow)

So I had to sneak in Bavmorda because, as a boy watching this movie, she was the one Wizard I always loved to see get what was coming to her. Willow is, in my opinion, a terribly underrated film. It was the precursor to many of the modern fantasy franchises of today (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, etc.) and it was also the first time in years that a fantasy film was done with great care and attention to detail thanks to the wildly creative folks at Lucasfilm. Getting back to Bavmorda however, she was delightfully evil and, unlike many of the Wizard villains of the past, she was able to back up her words with some impressive magic. The fact that she is eventually brought down by some slight-of-hand and showmanship was the icing on the cake.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fan Art: Character Portraits

Thanks for swinging by! If you, or someone you know, would like to show off your/their work and character; this is the place! Here are the guidelines for submission:

1) All art works must be original and without copyright.
2) All characters depicted in the art works must be original and without copyright.
3) All submissions must be in either JPEG or PNG formats and not exceed 2 MB.
4) All submissions must come with a short (one or two paragraph) explanation on the character including name, race, class, etc.
5) Nudity is allowed, however, I reserve the right to "blur" or "black out" sections of the art work for the public.
6) Please send all submissions with the subject line "Fan Art" to:   

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Royal Museum of D&D Memes

Hey folks,
This week I am celebrating the one year anniversary of the blog! As a huge thank you to the 60,000+ readers so far, may I present The Royal Museum of D&D Memes:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Class Showcase: Rogues

It’s week nine of my Class Showcase series, where I take a class from D&D and give three examples from popular culture. This week: Rogues.

#1 Arya Stark (Game of Thrones, Television Series)

Here we have the beginnings of what I believe to be an Assassin build. As Arya’s story continues to unfold we see her becoming more and more skilled, in control of her emotions, and making the most out of her opportunities which are usually hard won. Her ability to slip into and out of tough situations as well as her willingness to do anything (even kill) when necessary, speaks volumes about the path that she is walking. Regardless of her ultimate fate, I look forward to the day when she reaps the countless promises of revenge she has planted. That is assuming that she lives long enough. 
(She is a Stark after all! lol)

#2 Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit)

Mr. Baggins is the original fantasy burglar and the character who has, in my opinion, shaped the way we view both rogues and halflings alike right up to the present day. Although much of Bilbo’s “skill” in sneaking and hiding seems to come from his use of the One Ring, it cannot be denied that during the course of The Hobbit he proves his natural ability is up to accomplishing many tasks. The most telltale moment for me, which defines Blibo as a rogue, is the scene between himself and Smaug. Darting around in the treasure room and under the pressure of staring an ancient dragon in the face, Bilbo still manages to discover the weakness of the dragon and the Arkenstone.       

#3 Catwoman (DC Comics)

Since her first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940, no other adversary has had such a love-hate relationship with old Batty. And, despite the fact that she has been portrayed in countless ways by hundreds of artists and actresses over the years, she is fundamentally a rogue in all of them. It is also important to note that in many of her incarnations she is considered to be not only one of the best thieves in the world but is usually stealing items to benefit others and not herself (like a female Robin Hood, with a whip). A fact that is not missed by Batman as he often tries to reform her rather than send her to prison. Regardless, her rooftop work, impressive dexterity, her ability to sneak/hide, and get into and out of high security areas undetected make her one of the best rogues in all of the DC Comic Universe.