Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Design a Dungeon Room Contest Winner Is...


With his dungeon room: Treasure Vault of the Mad Duke

I will be sending out Owen his Certificate of Awesomeness shortly and will be posting the PDF of his design for all to see in a  few weeks. Thanks to everyone who submitted and keep your eyes peeled for more contests to come in the near future!

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's A Kind Of Magic

So you've decided to be a spell caster!

It’s a good career move with lots of exciting options and mystical powers to explore. When roleplaying, you’ll be able to use your magic to aid you in searches, persuading others, deceiving others, repairing items, healing, aid travel, create food and water, and the list goes on and on. In combat, casting spells can be some of the most damage dealing actions in the game and they can also lend support to other characters in countless ways, especially healing. In short, spell casting is a huge part of what makes a game like D&D fun. 

Now, when it comes to casting magic spells in D&D, there has always been the standard Vancian System. This system was inspired by a series of novels by Jack Vance known as “Dying Earth” or “Dying Earth World”. In order to be cast, the magic spells in this world needed to be memorized by the spell casters and could only be cast once a day, or at least once between full rests. This is the method I first learned, as I’m sure most of you did as well, and the method that has survived through every edition of D&D so far. However, some folks may not realize that there are several other systems of casting magic available and some even specifically designed for D&D. What are they and how do they work? Let’s have look:      

The Point Based System
Also known as the Mana System. Anyone who has ever played Magic: The Gathering or a Psionic class will know this system well. Basically, you have a set number of spell points per day/rest and all spells have a casting cost. Once you’ve spent your limit, you cannot cast any more without having another rest or waiting for another day. This system, much more than the Vancian System, allows the caster to keep their options open as to what spells they can cast, how many times they can repeat the same spell, and when they can cast it. The only real catch to this system is the difficulties that can arise from keeping track of your points especially when it comes to maintaining concentration with ongoing effects. It can also be fertile ground for dishonest players to “bend the rules” in their favor. Furthermore, it is important to note that sometimes this system is linked to hit points rather than separate spell points. That would mean cashing in hit points for spells and creating the dynamic that casting spells is so taxing on the body that it drains you of your very life-force.   

The Event Based System
This system has two main branches: 1) events in time; and 2) situational events.

An event in time can be easily explained as a spell that can only be cast once within a certain time period. This system is best exemplified in the 4th Edition system where by spells were divided into categories of “at-will”, “encounter”, or “daily”. It has also been used since 2nd Edition for certain magical items that required a day, or a week, or perhaps even longer to recharge between uses. To expand upon this idea, it is also possible to limit the use of certain spells to certain times of day, night, season, or year. For example, only allowing necromancy spells to be cast at night or only allowing frost spells to be cast during the winter months, etc.   

A situational event is explained as magic that can only be performed as long as something else is nearby or happening to the caster. For example, a Druid who can only summon animals while in or near a forest, or a Wizard who can only perform fire spells as long as there is a burning fire within sight, or a cleric who can only heal her companions so long as she holds her holy symbol/item in her hands and is powerless without it. This system would suggest that the main power source for the spell caster’s magic comes from something outside the caster themselves and they have to adapt to every situation to keep their connection to their powers alive.  

The Ability Based System
The ability based system is for characters that are born with, grow into, or are otherwise given a natural ability as opposed to learning it or being taught. The best example of this would be superheroes like Superman, The Hulk, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman. In this system, casters are able to use their abilities in almost unlimited amounts so long as they can keep themselves alive and healthy. In essence, every spell becomes an “at-will” spell and they require no memorization, book, item, or other focus because the magic is built into the character’s body. Now this system might seem a little over powered at first, but if you consider that the caster is probably stuck with the same three or four powers for the rest of his/her life, it becomes clear that they are sacrificing diversification of spells in return for unlimited use.  

The Skill Based System
This system assigns a difficulty roll to every spell and the ability to cast it completely depends upon your good fortune with the dice. Thus, all the Wizard must do to cast the spell that they want is to hit the difficulty number by rolling a d20 and adding their Intelligence modifier. I’m sure that many folks can come up with their own system as to what the DC should be for each spell, but the one that I’m most familiar with goes like this: (15 + level of spell) - level of caster. Thus, when a 10th level wizard wants to cast a 5th level spell the DC would be (15 + 5) – 10 = 10. Or when a 2nd level cleric wants to cast a 1st level spell the DC would be (15 + 1) – 2 = 14. This system can be both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting when you blast out three or four spells in a row and decimate a horde of enemies but frustrating when you go three or four rounds with nada and your party begins wondering why they keep you around.    

The Component Based System
Going all the way back to AD&D, spell components have been described or at least hinted at for most spells. I know that some DMs enjoy making their players work with these strange and sometimes even goofy ingredients, but for the most part I’m willing to bet that most DMs assume that the wizard has them on hand or perhaps they are ignored altogether.  However, this system not only insists that the spell caster use them, but the caster and the DM are challenged to make the gathering of these components the only prerequisite for casting any spell. In short, if you have the ingredients, cast away! The upside of this system is it leads to a lot of searching and roleplaying for the caster to acquire the goods that they need. The downside is keeping track of the dozens of components required to keep a good range of spells at the ready.

No matter what system you choose to implement, I believe that the main goal should always be balance. No one wants to see a Wizard that can cast lightning bolts for days and who takes the challenge out of any fight. Similarly, no one wants to see a cleric that can heal so many hit points that none of the PCs fear death. Too much of a good thing is bad my friends. Experiment, adapt, and enjoy!       

Monday, July 21, 2014

4 Ways To Use Weather in D&D

I live in Atlantic Canada and around these parts we have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Essentially it means that our weather changes so often that you never know what you’re going to get. Also, our long history with fishing and farming means that many of us were raised keeping one eye on the weather and knowing what it means. Learning how to read and predict the weather can be a very valuable asset when your life and living depends upon being closer to right than wrong.

With this in mind, I’m often struck by how little emphasis is placed on weather in D&D. I can vaguely recall a weather chart in a 2nd Edition book, perhaps the DM’s Guide, but have failed to see it since. But beyond the charts, I wanted to make the point that weather can play a huge role in setting up many fun, challenging, and exciting moments for a group, provided that the DM knows how to put it to good use. With that in mind, what follows are four fun ways a DM can use weather to maximum effect:

1)      Weather for Roleplaying
 One of the best roleplaying sessions I ever had was during a hurricane. The DM set it up perfectly that my group was forced to take shelter from the storm in an abandoned castle. It was there that we actually found another dozen or so travelers also hiding from the wind and the rain. We spent the night talking to them, getting to know the land in which we were traveling better, and asking about a certain individual we were tracking. It would later be revealed that the primary “bad guy” we were looking for was one of those travelers and we slept no more than ten feet away from him all night and didn't know it! As a result, my group and I would spend the next two weeks hunting him down. Weather can bring people together and it can also force them apart. Using it to full effect when you want to start a roleplaying session is an easy and perfectly explainable way to get the conversation going.

2)      Weather for Combat
 Honesty, who doesn’t feel that the epic final battle between a party of adventurers and the final boss at the end of campaign couldn’t be made better with a lightning storm raging in the background? Or what about going up against a group of Yeti in a blizzard? How about trying to take down that giant scorpion in a sandstorm? As a DM, I can use weather to both enhance the ambiance of a battle and/or make it more difficult for the PCs. Suddenly the players have to begin factoring for difficult terrain if the snow is up to their knees, or for wind resistance during a twister (-2 to all ranged attacks?), or for limited vision (20 feet) in thick fog. And don’t forget about the extreme weather events like red-hot ash and cinders raining down from a volcanic eruption or giant hail stones from a weather front, both of which can cause area of effect damage over a long period of time. All of this can add an extra dimension to your fight and make even experienced players sit up and take notice.      
3)      Weather as a Trap (It’s a trap!)
 Far too often DMs (myself included) limit ourselves when it comes to setting traps for our PCs. My first reaction is to go to spikes, cleverly hidden crossbows, poison darts, you know, Indiana Jones type stuff. But standard and classic dungeon traps like, compacting walls, acid filled pits, and giant slicing axes just don’t cut it out on the road. So, if you need a trap to throw at your PCs while they are out wondering around under the open sky, why not consider a weather trap. Any NPC Wizard of decent level can set one of these up, or perhaps you might bestow a magical item to your antagonist that could do the trick. Either way, imagine the faces of your players when they are suddenly hit with an ice storm in the middle of the jungle or a major downpour in the desert! Also, consider some of the side-effects that can occur during weather events such as mud-slides, flash floods, water freezing, animals going nuts, trees falling, lighting strikes starting fires, etc. There’s lots of great opportunities here to make your PCs work for their progress.          

4)      Weather as a Plot Point
             What does this mean? Well perhaps the good people of someandsuch village are suddenly 
              wondering why their dry and hot summer is stretching well into the fall months; or maybe some 
              Lord, Duke, or Count is in a panic because it’s been nothing but rain in his country for weeks; or 
              maybe the merchant caravan that your group works for suddenly finds themselves laid off because                   the snow has continued to pile up without end well into the spring. These and many other                               situations can be caused by simple magic manipulation of the weather and they can be great                           starting points for an adventure. What is causing these anomalies and what can be done about it?                   Perhaps it’s as simple as a Wizard exacting his revenge on the locals for some kind of slight. Or
                perhaps it’s as epic as a Demon Lord who has managed to escape the Nine Hells and is testing
                his powers. I’m sure there are dozens of great story lines one can come up with using something
                as simple as the weather for a starting point.

In retrospect, I think weather has been getting a bad deal over 3.5 and 4th edition. I’m not sure yet how it will fare in 5th but I’m glad there were at least some references in 2nd Edition. In any case, I’m a huge advocate for the DM utilizing everything at their disposal to make an adventure more exciting, unique, and interesting and I would certainly consider the weather to be one more tool on my belt to accomplish that goal.          

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Art Gallery VII

Eva Widermann, "Rest and Recovery"

This week I wanted to look at an amazing work by Eva Widermann. Her work for D&D includes: Player's Handbook II (2006), Monster Manual IV (2006), Complete Mage (2006), Cityscape (2006), Complete Scoundrel (2007), Magic Item Compendium (2007), Drow of the Underdark (2007), Monster Manual V (2007), Elder Evils (2007), and the 4th edition Monster Manual (2008). She was born in Germany and currently lives in Ireland.

One of the things I love about her work is the amazing character detail she creates. Everyone one of her characters have a great mix of depth, emotion, individuality, and life. That is the reason why I wanted to showcase this piece with it's five great characters (six or seven if you count the cat and raven). I believe that we have the following from left to right: A Human Barbarian; an Elf Wizard; a Tiefling Bard; a Halfling Druid; and a Half-Elf Rogue. We also have the short-haired cat that I believe to be the familiar of the Wizard and the raven which probably is a companion of the Druid. All of whom are engaged in that time honored tradition of camping for the night.

I also love to zoom in on the "inner dialog" that each character is projecting in this piece. The Barbarian is obviously married to his duty and honor as he keeps a steady eye out for any danger. The Wizard is doing her best to be aloof and show her displeasure with the group while the Bard gently plays for her in an attempt to ease her back into the fold. The Druid experiments with her magic and seems happy to be in her element surrounded by an enchanted wood. And finally, the Rogue is engrossed in his notes and maps of what looks like a dungeon and perhaps the group's next destination.

Lovely work from a very talented artist!  

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Endless Stats Debate

Here’s a question that every DM gets asked a hundred times: How do you roll stats/attribute scores? Doesn’t sound like a terribly tough question, does it? But, depending on your players and the kind of avatars they are accustomed to playing, the answer to this question can be the foundation for the entire future of the character. I mean, let’s face it, a Fighter with 8 Strength is going to get laughed at and a Wizard with 19 Intelligence is going to kick some butt. That’s just how the math works. So this week I thought I would look at some of the more popular, successful, and interesting variations on finding your perfect, or at least acceptable, attributes.  

To start off, let’s have a look and see how it’s done “by the book”. According to the D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules PDF, the most current rules available at the time of this writing, the definitive system to use is the 4d6 System. It breaks down like this:

1) Roll 4d6, dropping the lowest number and adding up the higher three. Record the number.
2) Repeat step 1 five more times for six numbers in total.
3) Assign the six scores to whatever attributes best serve your character.

An alternate system mentioned in the Basic Rules PDF is the Set Scores system. That is where you take these numbers: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8 and place them in any attribute scores you wish. This is meant to save you time and create an average, well-rounded character.  
Another mainstream “by the book” system is known as the Custom or Point System. The latest version of this system was offered in the D&D 5th Playtest. Below is the excerpt directly from the source:

Personally, I have used all three systems in the past and find the first much more appealing than the other two. The averages that you get from the 4d6 System work out to be a little higher and sometimes even exceptionally higher. Of course, by using this system you are always going to have that one person who rolls four 10s and two 8s and will whine until the cows come home. Thus is the burden of being a DM.

For my own in-house games I have tinkered with the 4d6 System under the suggestions of others and I like to give my characters a little boost in order to handle my more challenging adventures. Here are two examples of what I do:

1) When rolling the 4d6, re-roll any 1s. This can really make the difference between an average    
     character and a super powered one.
2) After you have rolled a complete set of scores, roll a second or even a third complete set and take the
     set of your choice.

However, if you’re looking for something completely different, here are a few different examples that I have pulled off the net:

-          Roll 4d4+4 per ability (I believe that this was a Dark Sun method);
-          A group roll where everyone rolls a set of stats using the 4d6 system but then all of the scores go into a communal pool and who gets what is negotiated amongst the group;
-          All stats start at 12 and you can add to some by taking away from others up to a maximum of +/- 4 points;
-          Roll 3d6 ten times. Eliminate the top two rolls and bottom two rolls, place the remainders as desired;
-          Straight d20 rolls for each stat ignoring anything under 5;
-          The 6x6 Matrix where you roll six sets of 4d6 stats, arrange all of the results in a 6x6 box, and then choose what set you want either horizontally or vertically within the box;
-          And for something off-the-wall: The player rolls a set of stats using the 4d6 system and places the scores where desired. Then the DM rolls a set of stats using the 4d6 system and places them where he/she thinks they should go for that same character. Neither player nor DM shows each other their stats until they are finished. Once it is over, the two sets are revealed and then averaged (rounded up) for the final score in each stat.   

But the award for the most original method I’ve encountered goes to the Blackjack System. This would be where the player is dealt out playing cards Blackjack style. They can choose to stay on any two cards, draw up to a maximum of five, and the total of the cards is their score for their ability. That means that some stats can even get as high as 21! But the flip side shows up when the player busts. If they do that, they are forced to take the minimum stat of 8. Not sure If I would use it but it’s certainly original.

Regardless what method you use, stat creation can be fun too! Working the numbers and trying to prognosticate what bonuses you will need and where can be extremely rewarding when you choose right and a bit painful when you choose wrong. Take your time and put some thought into it. The payoff might surprise you!  Additionally, here are a few tidbits of parting advice concerning stats:

For the Players: Try your best to not min/max all the time. I think a well-balanced set of attributes is one of the most underrated talents a character can have. Also, if you do end up having a low stat, remember that it isn’t always a bad thing. A good player can always turn a low stat into a great roleplaying opportunity. Here are some examples: the insanely strong warrior with the scarred face (low Charisma); the young, devout cleric who’s all thumbs (low Dexterity); and the stealthy, quick witted rogue who can barely lift his own backpack (low Strength). These are all great starting points for some wonderful backgrounds and conversations.   

For the DM: Try to mix up your stat creation styles once and a while to keep things fresh for your players and keep in mind that creating a character can be a player’s favorite part of the game. I know that sounds weird but it’s true. Some folks find pure joy in bringing characters to life, so don’t make the mistake of dismissing it out of hand as a necessary evil. If you can’t find a way to make D&D fun and exciting from the first die roll when everyone is fresh and hopeful, how are you going to manage during the really difficult parts? Do your best to make every part of the game, even creating stats, count for something.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Art Gallery VI

This week I decided to look at my favorite piece from Todd Lockwood. Mr. Lockwood cites Jeff Easley and Frank Frazetta as his biggest artistic influences and he got his start with TSR doing character portraits for their Spellfire card game back in 1995. (Wikipedia) Since then, he has produced hundreds of works for the Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance settings, as well as the cover art for dozens of D&D related novels including this one for R.A. Salvatore.

I’ll admit, when it comes to Todd Lockwood, I’m a huge fan. To my eyes, there’s a kind of movement or action to his style that always makes me think, what happens next? His detailing and his personalization of every character is top notch and I can’t think of anyone else who can show such a huge range of emotions within one painting. For example, take a close look at this piece. To start with Drizzt, I see determination and focus. Then have a good look at the other Orcs and you will see anger, joy, fatigue, shock, terror, rage, uncertainty, pride, and arrogance. Not to mention a whole lotta teeth!

Some of the best details of this piece are hiding in plain sight (another talent of Mr. Lockwood that I enjoy). Almost every weapon held by the Orcs is stained with blood. That means that these Orcs have already killed (or at least wounded) this day and are bursting with bloodlust. They also have Drizzt completely surrounded with even more reinforcements on the way in the far background. This is adding to their confidence and blinding them to the fact that they are about to take on the greatest swordsman in the Realms. However, check out the Orc that sits almost dead center of the lower third of the piece (the only one that seems to be staring outward at the viewer). He has no weapon and seems to have an indecisive look on his mug. If I were going to bet money on it, I’d say this guy is about to do the smart thing and run.

I believe The Thousand Orcs to be a benchmark in cover art. When I first saw the book my only thought was : wow. And since that time, I cannot think of another cover that has made me think that way. Hats off to you Mr. Lockwood, you are setting the bar very high.            

Monday, July 7, 2014

3 Steps To Building A Simple Dungeon

To coincide with my Design a Dungeon Room contest (See Here For Details) I thought I would do an article on how to build a quick and easy dungeon. Now I know a lot of DM’s out there who find creating original dungeons not only fun but enjoyable. I also know more than a few who would say it is their least favorite part of planning the game. Maybe it’s because they were never any good at it, maybe they don’t have the time, or maybe it all boils down to personal preference. Just like some players live for combat and others love roleplaying, a DM is allowed to dislike dungeons. So what can a dungeon dreading DM do when most players are expecting at least one or two dungeons during the course of a campaign? Well there are the obvious choices such as a) Creatively avoid dungeons all together, or b) Take previously made dungeons from various sources and make them your own. The former seems a bit too extreme while the latter smells like laziness. However, I must admit that I have swiped many previously made dungeons in the past, especially when in a time crunch.

Generally, I always do my best to create original dungeons for all of my campaigns. Is this time consuming? Yes. Is it worth it? Most definitely and I’ll tell you why: if you’ve made it yourself then you know all there is to know about the dungeon and can change, alter, and revise as needed during the game. It’s a huge advantage to DM when your players are staring you in the face and you can answer them back in less than two seconds instead of looking things up and getting back to them in thirty seconds. Times that by around forty questions asked during the total time spent in the dungeon and you’ve just saved yourself twenty minutes! It’s also important to note that when you make a dungeon yourself you have a much better vision of what it looks/sounds/smells/feels like in your own mind which will help you greatly when it comes to describing things and setting up the really big moments.

So, in an effort to get more of you to create your own material, here’s my three step guide to creating simple dungeons! Now keep in mind that this is just a template and will not be all things for all people. This is just a starting point and the real challenge will be how much flexibility and innovation you can pour into this framework.

Step 1: location, location, location.
Where do you want this dungeon to be located? Is it in ruins surrounded by jungle? Is it an abandoned castle in the mountains? Is it what remains of a tower or a temple? You have to start with the basic questions of what and where. Once you have that answer, the next steps become a lot easier. If you can’t decide and would rather have fate/luck take the wheel, here’s a quick and very basic table you can use:


Step 2: how big are we talkin’ here?
Another fun question is how big do you want this dungeon to be? And the answer can be made in several ways. How many playing hours do you want it to be? How much ‘game time’ do you want the characters to spend in the dungeon? How many encounters do you want the group to have, and many, many more. Personally, I like to tackle this question from the ‘how many playing hours do I want this dungeon to eat up?’ angle and I’ve found a fairly simple and accurate time system to help me calculate. Rooms or hallways with no encounters or traps and/or riddles count for 5 minutes; rooms with traps and/or riddles but no encounters count for 15 minutes; rooms with small encounters count for 20 minutes; rooms with large encounters count for 30 minutes; and ‘Boss’ rooms count for 45 minutes.  Then, after you’ve calculated the total, you add in 10% for miscellaneous/extra time.

Here’s all of that information in another little chart to help you out:

Room Type
Simple Room/Hallway
5 min
15 min
Small Encounter
20 min
Large Encounter
30 min
“Boss” Encounter
45 min

By this thinking a DM can quickly design a dungeon based on how much time they have to run it. For example: Let’s say you want to run a full dungeon in roughly 3 hours. That gives you 180 minutes to work with. Start at the back and move forwards. 180 minutes – 18 minutes for the 10% miscellaneous/extra time gives you 162. Take away 45 minutes for the “boss” gives you 117. Say you want to add one large encounter and two small encounters, that’s a total of 70 minutes to take away from 117 gives you 47. That leaves time for roughly two traps/riddles and three simple rooms/hallways. In summary, we have just devised that our dungeon will be nine rooms in total with two trap/riddle rooms, four encounters, and will take approximately 3 hours to run. That sounds good to me.

Step 3: Select a Theme.
All of the great dungeons have a unifying theme. Sometimes it has to do with the types of monsters/encounters inside such as undead, demons, bandits, etc.; other times it has to do with the history of the place such as an old Dwarven stronghold, Elven burying ground, or an ancient battle site; and there are also things that can be done to theme together traps and riddles. The possibilities are almost endless.

So how do you decide? Well, if you are following this guide, I think you have to take a moment to look back at Step 1. Take a look at the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ and that will help you decide on a solid theme. For instance, I just went back to Step 1 and rolled caves in a forest. So I’m immediately thinking about what theme works best with those two choices. A den for Orcs and Goblins jumps to mind, or perhaps a lair for an adolescent Green Dragon. Either option would make a for a great adventure and once you get the ball rolling on either Orcs or a Dragon as your focus, I think you will find the rest of theme comes together easily.

Another option that I use on a regular basis is my “this-is-my-this” dungeon. The easy example is “this is my Indiana Jones dungeon”. Another might be “this is my anti-gravity dungeon”, or “this is my Greek myths dungeon”. You can easily take themes from movies, books, television, history, and even other dungeons!

Challenge yourself to take interesting and “out of the box” options and you might like what you come up with. Let me know how it goes!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday Art Gallery V

Halfling Welcome
By Emily Fiegenschuh

This week I wanted to focus on a female artist and I decided to go with Emily Fiegenschuh. Although she is probably best known for her work in the New York Times Bestsellers A Practical Guide to Dragons and A Practical Guide to Monsters, she has also lent her talent to Wizards of the Coast for several 3.5 and 4th Edition books including Races of the Wild, Complete Arcane, Player’s Handbook II, Draconomicon, Monster Manuel III and more. I find that her work has a tangible playfulness to it and that’s why I think she is one of the best people to be illustrating Halflings. That’s also why I chose this piece.

I love the fact that A) the Halflings are welcoming this apparent stranger (an elf no less) into their camp with literal open arms; and B) the Elf has a grip on his coin purse strong enough to choke out a Bugbear. Which leads me to an interesting question: Do you think the thieving Halfling is a stereotype/cliché? I know that many of the Halfling PCs in the games that I have run were a wide range of classes and not just rogues but many people still seem to think that Halfling = thief. I suppose that Tolkien is to blame for that one. Personally, I love to see the weird combinations like Halfling Monk, Barbarian, and Paladin. (For the Shire!)

Getting back to the art, I’m always looking for some small details in every piece that brings it to the next level of storytelling and this one has a few. Firstly, take a close look at the elf and notice that he’s not just passing through the Halfling camp for the fun of it. He seems to have multiple injuries (bandaged calf/knee, cut on upper thigh, and cuts on upper arm) and that would suggest he’s looking for shelter and a place to rest. Secondly, despite the fact that the three Halflings in the foreground appear quite accommodating, take a closer look at the two in the background. These two seem to me to be a mother and daughter, with the mother holding her child back from getting any closer. Is she just being protective or could it be she doesn’t trust her youngling around such a handsome looking fellow? You decide!

Thank you for this and many other fine pieces Emily Fiegenschuh!