Thursday, January 22, 2015

Welcome to Role Initiative!

Dear Readers,

Dungeons & Dragons: Past, Present, and Future now has a new name, a new day, and a new home! 

My weekly article is now called Role Initiative and you can find it over at every Tuesday morning at 8am Eastern, 9am Atlantic. For previous articles, select the "column" option at the top of the home page and go to "Role Initiative". 

Tribality is a great website providing quality articles on D&D, roleplaying, and the gaming world as a whole and I am honored to be a member.

I hope to see you all over at the new digs!

-A.A. Amirault 

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Art of the Secondary Villain

When I design a campaign, one of the first things I ask myself is: Who is the main villain going to be? DMs are always eager to create intimidating, tough, unique, and slightly terrifying baddies. However, I find that very little attention is paid to the main villain’s support team. Think about it, most PCs have a very good support team. They have other PCs, often a mentor or a guide NPC, sometimes they learn special skills or pick up special abilities from adventuring, and often collect magical items that enhance what they can accomplish. So where is the villain’s support?

Sure, the DM can always up the hit points and the armor class, or give the villain a few items or special abilities, or also surround them with lackeys and minions; but the real challenge, and perhaps reward, lies in creating a true secondary villain. What do I mean by a secondary villain? I’m talking about a mini-boss and the main villain’s right hand man/woman/thing. Think of a secondary villain as the moat the PCs have to get over or past in order to get the castle (main villain) beyond.

Pop culture uses the secondary villain frequently and effectively. They are often first perceived by the heroes as the main villain until they later realize, usually to their dismay, that another and more powerful foe has really been pulling the strings all along. I personally created a home-brew campaign once that had three secondary villains, all of which the PCs thought were the main villain at some point. When they finally realized that a fourth and much more powerful foe was behind all of the problems, they freaked and I laughed.
If you need a little inspiration, or simply don’t quite understand what I mean by a secondary villain, here are a few examples from popular movies:

General Kael (Willow)

As the leader of Nockmaar’s armies, General Kael seems to genuinely enjoy riding around and killing others. What else would you expect from a man who fashioned his helmet out of a human skull and an animal’s jaw? Even more intimidating are his skills in combat and strategy that allow him to do this killing efficiently. General Kael answers to no one but the evil Queen Bavmorda and even then you sort of get the sense that he is only humoring the Queen until the time is right for him to claim it all. These sort of secondary villains who do the grunt work for the more advanced main villains are cliché but effective.      

Boba Fett (Star Wars Universe)

Sometimes you need to employ an undesirable to eliminate an undesirable and such is the case with Boba Fett. It is also interesting to note that here is a secondary villain (Fett) being hired by a secondary villain (Vader) to serve the purpose of the main villain (Palpatine). And this illustrates a good point, the number of layers you want to add to your campaign is limitless. In D&D, having your main villain employ mercenaries or even other adventuring parties makes for great story fodder and can eventually lead to big confrontations, crossovers, and even double-crosses.  

Saruman (The Lord of The Rings Trilogy)

Here is an excellent example of a character that you think is on your side and then turns against you at your weakest moment. These kinds of secondary villains can be the most heart wrenching for your PCs, especially if they don’t see it coming. It’s also an amazing process to try to pull off an 11th hour betrayal with one of the PCs themselves! I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a player, with my previous knowledge and consent, secretly work against his own party the entire campaign only to fully expose his treachery at the very last battle. It’s nothing short of delight to see that “I can’t believe it!” look plastered over your players’ faces.  

Snape (The Harry Potter Series)

Just the opposite of Saruman above, the character of Snape illustrates a secondary villain who you think is completely against you from the beginning but ends up being one of your biggest allies. These sorts of transformations may not be as shocking as their opposites but they do carry a good amount of satisfaction for the PCs. There is no small sense of accomplishment when players can struggle against an NPC, sometimes for months, and then finally win them over to “the good side”. It’s also interesting to set up the scenario where an NPC comes off as a villain but they are really just trying to challenge or toughen-up the PCs for the trials ahead.   

Nebula (The Guardians of the Galaxy)

Here is a great example of the “what’s in it for me” secondary villain. In Guardians, Nebula is hoping to attach herself to a main villain powerful enough to slay her father, Thanos. Thus she will work for anyone and any reason necessary to accomplish that goal, even though she herself may not be completely evil. These kinds of secondary villains bring a lot of options to your D&D table simply because they are constantly motivated by opportunity rather than emotion. This means that they can change their allegiance several times a campaign depending on which side, or master, may give them the best chance of reaching their goal. Something I've never tried before, but might be extremely interesting, is a secondary villain serving more than one main villain. (Would you call that co-main villains?)  

Regardless of their background or nature, a secondary villain brings depth and dynamics to your campaign. Give them the weight and the respect that they deserve and I promise you they will pay off. Perhaps you might even come to realize, as I have in the past, that a secondary villain can be even more fun/interesting than your main baddie. (I smell sequel!)      

Friday, January 9, 2015

Special Announcement!

Dear Readers,

Over the past year my little blog about all things D&D has grown faster and farther than I had ever hoped. Dungeons & Dragons: Past, Present, and Future began with just a few dozen hits a week in the beginning and now enjoys more than three hundred views a day. It has been both exciting and humbling to entertain, inform, and even challenge you all to be better PCs/DMs.

Now that the first year is behind me, I feel that a bit of expansion is in order. So, in that regard, I am happy to announce that I will be starting up a new pod cast in February called "Role Initiative". This pod cast will, just as my blog does, focus on Dungeons & Dragons. However, it will also branch out into other RPGs and topics from time to time. You will eventually be able to find this pod cast over at and there will be several links on this blog site once it is up and running.

Thanks again for all of the support and I look forward to carrying on in 2015!

 - A. A. Amirault

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Grand Tangent NPC Chart

Every so often a DM has a powerful need to go off on a tangent. Sometimes it is simply for a stress break, sometimes it’s to regroup and rethink, and sometimes it’s about a change of pace or to shake things up. Whatever the reason, the fastest way I know to send your PCs rolling down a new path or to distract them from their current quest is to throw an NPC at them.

But where are you going to find the time to create a new NPC with a distracting story? Never fear! What follows are thirty four examples of terrific NPCs ready to go with tangents built into their design. Feel free to choose whichever one best suits your wants or needs. Or, if you feel brave, have a roll on the accompanying chart. Please note that this chart is specifically geared towards 4th and 5th edition; however, it can easily be converted to all editions with a few minor adjustments. Good luck!

Tonk Gabber
Female Gnome Wizard
On the hunt for lost magical item needed to save her family.
Geri Levandis
Female Elf Druid
Injured after goblin attack.
Tommis Pellarc
Male Human Cleric
Searching for nearby ruins.
Gabby Marc
Male Dwarf Fighter
Hunting for wanted bandits.
Jerric Belindo
Male Drow Wizard
On the run from Orcs.
Messa Farrow
Female Human Monk
Needs escort to local monastery.
Kendra Plunk
Female Halfling Rogue
Looking to sell cursed item.
Naus Ferderra
Male Dragonborn Barbarian
Asks for help to avenge dead tribe.
Soren Jullun
Male Elf Warlock
Thinks PCs are trying to arrest him.
Tamara Cobb
Female Half-Elf Ranger
Searching for missing children.
Dominic Deller
Male Human Paladin
Hunting for nearby demon.
Jannis Lamra
Female Tiefling Bard
Wants to steal money from PCs.
Ageron Ionic
Male Elf Sorcerer
Looking for abducted wife.
Meltia Copperboot
Female Dwarf Barbarian
On a quest to prove herself.
Helena Loom
Female Human Druid
Tracking  a pack of Gnolls.
Gobran Jonns
Male Gnome Rogue
Tied to a tree and left for dead.
Markus Ashenleaf
Male Elf Wizard
Searching for rare spell component.
Serra Markenfell
Female Half-Elf Fighter
Asks for help recovering lost gold.
Tibby Fozoni
Male Halfling Bard
Wants help following treasure map.
Candori Misk
Male Dragonborn Warlock
Accidentally opened random portal.
Dori Pewter
Female Dwarf Paladin
On quest to find mount.
Jenna Wellward
Female Human Ranger
Poisoned and looking for cure.
Ordon Grell
Male Half-Elf Cleric
Searching for stolen holy item.
Lissa Winn
Female Elf Monk
Was attacked and has amnesia.
Kellar Duan
Male Tiefling Rogue
Almost dead from sickness.
Fiona Tanger
Female Halfling Fighter
Is an old girlfriend of one PC.
Duggan Monty
Male Human Wizard
Is lost and has memory issues.
Kallico De’Juani
Male Drow Sorcerer
Being hunted by other Drow.
Cammie Aya
Female Half-Elf Bard
Is searching for her lost twin sister.
Smolts Brassblood
Male Dwarf Cleric
Tracking an evil necromancer.
Talon Quanto
Male Elf Paladin
Recently bitten by a Vampire.
Deanna Velna
Female Human Druid
Hunting nearby Kobold clan.
Tori Husk
Male Dragonborn Fighter
Mistakes PCs for old foes.
Damerjam Mookie
Male Gnome Wizard
Wants escort inside rival Wizard’s tower. Compensation TBD.

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.