Public DM Rolls and Other Thoughts

A fair number of people participated in a twitter discussion last week over public DM rolls. I happen to be one of those DMs who likes to roll on the table. There are two reasons for this. First, I only know the guys in my group so well, except for my husband that is, and I'm really concerned about the trust issue. I want to provide a real challenge to the guys, but I don't want any of them to feel personally singled out if something bad happens to their character. The second issue is that I'm a 5-foot tall woman. This provides me two distinct disadvantages when using a screen. The first is that I need to use the shorter screen if I want to be able to see and interact with the other players and, even then, I can't see the rest of the table. The second is that, well, I have less frontal clearance than a man would. This makes it really hard for me to reach over the screen to move my characters around.

Besides the issue of public rolls, I ran my first longer session that I created myself. I think it went very well although I was completely drained at the end of it. On the DM side, there was one particular incident of note. Due to how the story was set up, the players almost made a decision that made sense story-wise but could have killed them all game-wise. Basically, there was a comparatively high level oni who had taken over as leader of the local lizardfolk town. They figured if they could get her to reveal her true identity during a ceremony at the lizardfolk temple, those in town who were following her would realize their folly and dump her as a leader. So the group came out with guns blazing and were able to bloody her before she disappeared and ran for the stairs. They still had to deal with a normal level encounter and once they had dispatched the rest of the creatures, they thought they should go in quick pursuit of the oni as she was already bloodied.

I had a real dilemma on my hands here. If they don't take a short break, they don't get their encounter powers back and can't spend their healing surges. That is their decision to make, but I really didn't want a TPK. In the end, I assured them that she wouldn't use the time to heal herself (which also made sense story wise since she needed to collect her most important things and try to leave). I think some people would say that I should have just let them suffer the consequences of that decision but I didn't think that would be fun either.

Anyways, that's a bunch of what's been going on. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Alternatives to Minis

I understand the allure of minis. If you have an extensive collection, it really helps the players to visualize the scene. But what can one do if they are just starting out and/or don't have a lot of money to invest in them?

Option 1: Create your own tokens

Example TokensExample Tokens

NewbieDM has a great post on his website on how to create your own monster tokens. His article has information on where you can get all of these items.

The requirements for his process are:

  1. A copy of image editing software such as PhotoShop or Gimp.
  2. A copy of the TokenTool software, a free token making utility.
  3. A printer, preferably color.
  4. 1-inch metal washers. 2-inch for larger creatures.
  5. 1-inch hole punch. 2-inch for larger creatures.
  6. Extra Strength Glue Stick.
  7. Option 2: Glass beads

    Glass Beads as MonstersGlass Beads as Monsters
    I have a number of different colored glass beads to use as monster stand ins, particularly for minions. Mine happen to be from Chessex.

    Option 3: Bananagrams

    Bananagrams as MonstersBananagrams as Monsters
    I saw the Bananagrams game at my local variety store and was instantly reminded of the letters used to indicate the positions of monsters on maps. They are somewhat easier than the glass beads since there are many more options (26 letters versus however many shades of beads you can find) and it's a little easier to remember what the letters mean.

    What do you like to use?

Mythology in D&D

A recent episode of Fear the Boot explores the, at least perceived, lack of mythology in fantasy role playing games. The main thrust of the argument appears to be that since there is a known pantheon of gods and that clerics of those gods have known and provable powers, there is no superstition or mythology in the game. It is based on the opinion that the reason we have gods, myths and the like is that things happen in the course of our lives that we have a hard time explaining and that we create explanations for these events. Over time, these explanations become the basis of the myths and legends that form our cultural knowledge. In many fantasy RPGs however, there is this lack of mystery about how and why things happen. Or more succinctly, "they lack mythology because everything is real." In the end, however, it's less about what is and isn't detailed in the rule books and more about the fundamental tensions of playing a cooperative, story-based game on top of a number of competitive encounters and challenges with characters whose knowledge does not mirror the player's own.

While it's true that many of the things that we, as players, consider to be myth are "true" in many fantasy rpgs, this is not the reason why myths and superstitions are so hard to create in fantasy role playing games. Instead, one of the hardest problems to overcome is that people don't like to do poorly in a game, particularly among friends.

This leads many players, particularly power gamers, to read as many of the rule books as they can. Shelly Mazzanoble illustrates this tendency in her book, Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress. She states that in preparation for her first game, she read Dungeons & Dragons for Dummies, the Player's Handbook and the Monster Manual. Most people don't enjoy failure and they will try whatever tricks will give them an edge even if they interfere with the atmosphere the dungeon master might be trying to create. It becomes socially more difficult to create new monsters who don't act or behave in ways the players expect.

In addition, players who have been around the block a few times have gained quite a bit of their own knowledge regarding the game and its tropes. While this isn't an issue in itself, it leads to a situation in which players assume certain things mean x because that is how the books mean them. Since they are not the dungeon master, they forget the fundamental rule that all of the books are meant to provide guidance and a bare framework for the dungeon master's game. This makes it a lot harder for DMs to create a sense of myth and legend using known monsters.

Finally, most dungeon masters, at heart, want to be nice guys. While they might stack the encounter against the player characters, they are still supposed to be the impartial judge of the rules and, well, they are usually friends with the other players. This often leads to a situation where dungeon masters don't want to overly harm the players without warning. But this warning dispels the magic of the story and makes it much harder to create the atmosphere required to have superstitions and myths. Mythology, as mentioned in the podcast, requires a sense of mystery and the easiest way to create this sense is to add terrain elements and powers that are uncommon knowledge and may lead to a feeling of "unfairness" among players.

* While it may seem difficult or wrong to not give your players every bit of knowledge that you have about the world, hold some info back if they don't make the appropriate skill roll. The campaign guide for Eberron has some nice examples of this.
* Players shouldn't assume that the stuff available from the books is how things work in a particular world. It's not true until the dungeon master says it and, even then, it still might not be true.
* Richer, more detailed environments have more chances to create the sense of mystery. This includes terrain features, non-player characters, and even the marking of time. Does the whole town pray at a certain time of day? Why do they celebrate their mid-autumn festival with large paper lanterns?

Geek Toys (Or things I want to work into my game)

There are a few items over on the ThinkGeek site that I've been wanting to incorporate into my game. They are a little pricey, but basically they are toys I want anyway and think they would be great doing double duty as gaming props.

Wooden War Engine Kits

Wooden War Engine KitsWooden War Engine Kits
What war would be complete without a war machine or three? There are two different kits. For shorter range targets, use a catapult, and reserve the trebuchet for long distance fighting. You can set up a skill challenge for your players and what better way to celebrate a success than letting them play. Then bring them to the office and surprise a few co-workers with your awesome battle skills.

Wooden Hydraulic Machines Kit

Wooden Hydraulic Machines KitWooden Hydraulic Machines Kit
What evil scientist's lair is complete without a cherry picker? What ancient dragon's tomb can't use an excavator? The package comes with a total of four kits: Scissor Lift, Platform Lifter, Cherry Picker, and Excavator. Use these wooden hydraulic machines to provide a sense of wonder to your game.

Magnetic Accelerator Kit

Magnetic Accelerator KitMagnetic Accelerator Kit
Perhaps there is a pressure sensitive plate in the floor that your fighter doesn't recognize or maybe it goes off in the face of your party's thief. Either way, this is a fun little device that will evoke memories of movies like Indiana Jones.

Magnetic Levitation Activity Kit

Magnetic Levitation Activity KitMagnetic Levitation Activity Kit
It's a train or at least a floating platform. Although it's probably more evocative of Eberron than any other D&D setting, I just love the thought of this device. Want to play out the train coming into the station? Now you can. magnetic levitation for the win.

Slash and Cast: New D&D Podcast

Slash and Cast PodcastSlash and Cast Podcast There is a new D&D podcast in town. The host, Antony Gettig, a veteran podcaster and former radio personality, played Dungeon & Dragons in the early 80's and recently started playing again. Like me, his interest was piqued by the D&D podcasts done by Wizards of the Coast.

Most shows will feature D&D news and a main show topic, generaly a discussion with a co-host or an interview. Show notes for the first show can be found here. The next show will focus on ways to maximize your role playing experience and some tips for playing dungeon delves.

Perhaps most importantly, he spent some time talking about my homemade dungeon tiles. I definitely look forward to listening to more episodes in the future. In particular, the news feature will be incredibly useful since I can listen to it while I work.

Look at Forgotten Treasures: L2. The Assassin’s Knot

As an adult, newbie dungeon master with a full-time job and other such responsibilities, I don't have as much time to devote to crafting my game as I might like. Which means, while I would love to spend hours drawing maps, doing so would take time away from what I consider to be even more important items, story development and encounter planning. For this reason, I've been looking through some of the 3rd edition archives available on the Wizards of the Coast website.

This led me to discover what I consider to be a pretty cool module written in 1983, L2. The Assassin's Knot. While my main interest in the module at this point is for the maps and some descriptions of the town and its inhabitants, I think it would be interesting to update the module for 4th edition play. Unlike many modules I've read, you get to play Sherlock Holmes instead of going to "here there be monsters" and slaying them. I know my husband has been wanting to play in a game with more intrigue and mystery, so I will probably be borrowing those elements over time as well.

For my Newham campaign, Garroten becomes Derby, a small town on the Susswasser River, the House of Abraham (inn) becomes the Crown and Arrows, and the castle becomes the home of the Duke of Derby, his wife, his son Alric, and daughter-in-law Margaret. Without her husband's knowledge, Margaret had promised her first-born to a goblin in exchange for the secret of how to spin straw into gold and, well, the payment is about to come due. I kept most of the stores available in Garroten but added my own twists to them and changed the temples to revere the gods that the inhabitants of Newham Shire are most likely to celebrate. So far, using the preexisting structure from the module has allowed me to add a lot of flavor to the game without taking a lot of effort on my part. I get to fill in the blanks instead of having to come up with the blanks and then filling them.

The DMG suggests that dungeon masters "steal" as much as they need to craft their games and I think these archives are a great resource for doing just that. I'm thinking of modifying the maps from Return to the Temple of the Frog for my Lizardfolk city.

3.5 D&D Archives
Adventure Archive

Homemade Dungeon Tiles

I really like tiles. They let me create encounter maps in a modular setting and make things up on the fly. While I like the ones created by Wizards of the Coast, I find that you often need multiple sets and that can get expensive over time. Besides, I really like the arts and crafts time I get to spend when I make my own.

* Foam sheets - I got mine at Ben Franklins. They are 9x12 and are available in a number of different colors.
* Markers - I used Sharpie brand permanent markers.
* Clear contact paper
* A ruler - It can double as a straight edge for drawing the lines.
* Card stock - Use it to create removable terrain features.
* Adhesive tack - Use it to "pin" down the tiles.

1. Draw grid on the foam. Permanent markers work pretty well, just don't push down too hard.
2. Cover the tiles with clear contact paper.
3. If you want to make the rooms, doors, and other items to be permanent, draw them out now with permanent marker. Mistakes can be removed by wiping the tiles with a dry paper towel or cloth. Some marks can be removed the next day with rubbing alcohol.
4. Place the tiles down on the surface. You can use adhesive tack to help keep them in place. In my case, I like putting them down on a battle mat to make lining them up easier and, in cases of town settings, the rest of the encounter area is already set up. In addition to the tiles, you can make encounter features out of card stock, such as crates, trees, and beds.

Blank foam sheetBlank foam sheet
Foam Sheet with GridFoam Sheet with Grid
Laminated tilesLaminated tiles
Example estateExample estate
Example innExample inn
Adhesive tackAdhesive tack
Apply tack to back of tileApply tack to back of tileExample dungeonExample dungeon
Example courtyard with treesExample courtyard with trees

Wizards DM Hotline

Most people reading my blog already know this, but Wizards is hosting a DM hotline October 8-11, between 2pm and 6pm PDT. More details can be found on their site.

This is a great idea and I hope they do more of them. Now I just need to think up some questions to ask.

Lessons Learned

Over the past few weeks, I've been running the Newham Shire/Arcadia campaign for my group. I've been having a blast and I think my group is having fun as well. Recently, however, I think I made a pretty big beginners mistake. Many of my story lines have been a bit more complex than the normal, "there be bad guys" type campaigns, and I really thought my players might appreciate a couple of encounters with clear bad guys that one doesn't have to feel so bad about killing. The second of these encounters involved a small band of spriggans (5 in total) who were demanding a toll in order to cross a bridge. I thought it was going to be a pretty fun, if a bit of a hard encounter and I spent a fair bit of time figuring out how the different members of the spriggan team would act and how to use their powers most effective.

However, in all my planning, I didn't expect that my players might not want to fight. Just as important, I couldn't see how these little guys (who dip their hats in the blood of their victims) wouldn't want either a very large toll from the players or their blood. This failure to think a bit outside of the box led to a rather awkward incident where my players rolled fairly high but it was well near impossible to get the result they wanted.

If I had thought about this possibility in advance, I could have done a much better job meeting my player's expectations. Their attempts to use diplomacy and intimidate could have been part of a harder skill challenge. The failure condition could be that they were required to pay an even higher toll or just that they would have to fight the spriggans. I would have felt better about it and I think my players would have as well. In the end, my players really appreciated the more difficult and challenging encounter, but I think it would have been an awesome encounter with the addition of the skill challenge.

A Brief History of Sarah's New Hampshire

Sarah's ancestral homeland, New Hampshire, is a peninsula connected to the mainland on the northern side and mostly protected from it by a range of nearly impassible mountains. A land of great beauty and magic, many wars had been fought by those seeking to rule the land. These wars greatly saddened some of the gods and they finally grew tired of the strife and destruction that made the land ugly. The gods sent word to the inhabitants of the land, warning them to flee north or else be buried beneath tons of glacial ice. The inhabitants fled north to the desert of discontent. It is said that the lake that formed there was created from the tears of those who had to leave and that is why the river that runs from it, the River of Sorrow, has such bitter water.

Glaciers covered the land for one thousand years. The gods hoped that all would forget about the magical place and it would once again be their playground. The glaciers left behind large lakes in the mountains, which still contain the magic from the glaciers themselves. This magic trickles its way from these lofty lakes in streams and falls and makes its way to the River of Sorrow, over time turning the bitter water sweet.

This river runs south to the Lake of Lost Memories, so named because ruins of the previous civilizations ring it. It passes through the Dwarven town of Andernach, built on the hills Krahnenberg and Engwetter. It passes under the great stone Dwarven bridge and onwards to the great lake.

In the center of the lake is an island with a tall tower. To the northwest lie the woods of the Eladrin, to the northeast, the elves, to the southwest, swamps and to the southeast, the city of Abernathy. Abernathy is a human city, their capital for the region. Humans have lived here just for the past 99 years and this was the first city founded, as much of the magic in the lower portion of the region is concentrated in the lake. Here is where the nobility dwells.

Further south of the lake, where the Sweet River (Süßwasser) runs into the ocean lies the port city Barmouth. Most of the town is inhabited by newcomers, involved in merchant trade or the ship building industry. The natural and magical resources from the rest of the region are shipped through this town and goods from abroad come through here. The ships built here are highly desired, as the woods are full of trees of exceptional strength and flexibility. The town is run by a council of 9, with the majority of the members appointed by the nobility who make their home in Abernathy. While the nobility is quite benevolent and try to allow the city to conduct its own affairs as much as possible, there is some tension because the newcomers want to rapidly expand the city boundaries and push ever closer to the woods and swamps of New Hampshire.

The humans haven't explored much of the woods, although some have traveled to the Eladrin city. The well trained eye can see a number of elven towns in their woods. Since they've been here for just 99 years, the human cities and towns aren't well built up yet, and the whole area has a colonial feel to it. The exception would be that the ruling Darkmagic family lives in an old stone castle left over from an earlier time.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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