Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. – My Take, Episode.068

After a considerable hiatus, I have returned to continue writing as I am inspired.

His decision was critical as his companions faced certain doom.  The black dragon reared its huge head in preparation of unleashing its fiery acidic breath blasting down upon the unprotected heroes.  Meanwhile the infamous necormancer, Pyrex, grinned maniacally from high above as he neared completion of his resurrection spell that would bring back the fallen the heroes had just slain.  The decision was critical or his companions were surely dead, but he couldn’t decide who to focus on…..so he brought out two pipes and played them in unison for he was the Grand Master Bard.

I am among those who resented the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast published in 2008.  Although I adored playing MMO video games such as World of Warcraft at the time, the 4th edition books felt too close to those when I wanted to play more of a traditional role playing game that reminded me of the older editions.  Perhaps I am an old man who doesn’t like change, but the game play mechanics simply did not fit my style and preference.  So I was hesitant on even giving 5th edition a try when it was released in 2014.  In took me a year before I sat down with a group to experience it for the first time.  I will say this – I am very impressed with the effort and result that Wizards of the Coast put forth in the books.  Very impressed.

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For one, there doesn’t seem to be as much necessary crunch as before.  While I would say that 3rd and 3.5 editions were built to be more of a strategic role playing game, utilizing the innovated battle maps and miniatures, 5th edition feels more akin to the 1st and 2nd editions.  These were less of a visual game play and more of the mind.  While maps were still used back then (and even pewter miniatures were frequently sold), the maps were mostly drawn on-the-fly by the players as they ventured through dungeons.  There were few times when a top-down view of the immediate surroundings was drawn and miniatures were placed strategically on the battle field.

Fifth edition allows for battle maps to be used if desired for those who enjoy or need a better visualization on how the fights are laid out.  It caters in this regard to the 3rd edition lovers.  It isn’t necessary, however, to use them, and in fact many times I have gone through entire fights without them.

Another feature that I really like is the advantage/disadvantage system.  This is a simple but very effective way for a Dungeon Master to make a challenge difficult without having to do much math on adding modifiers to a roll.  On either account, you roll 2 D20s rather than one, but depending on whether you have advantage or disadvantage, you take the best or worst roll of the two.  There are still options to add the thousands of modifiers to a roll if desired, which was very common in 3rd edition, but if you wish to just give your players a little edge or challenge to their roll without having to over think it, this feature gives a quick result.  And that makes a good point in that streamline and pace, which I have talked about numerous times on how important they are, can be maintained with this feature.  Dungeon Masters need not look at a chart on their screen in front of them and hunt for the right situation modifier that will probably wind up being +1, +2, or +3 to their rolls.

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Short and long rests are a wonderful addition to the rules.  All too often the typical “rest” that a party faced in the past would result in an 8-hour stoppage of adventuring.  This would be mostly for the magic-users to regain their spells after blowing them all.  I always felt that it bogged play down and hindered magic-users a bit too much.  I would often find myself being very hesitant on casting a spell at an enemy because it was “early in the day” and I didn’t want to use up my 4 spells so soon.  Instead, we now have a short rest, typically 30 or so minutes of downtime for the characters before continuing on.  One of the classes fairly new to the list of Dungeons & Dragons game is the Warlock, which benefits greatly from this feature.  Although they are severely limited to the number of spells they can cast per day, they are given the ability to regain all of their spent spell slots after just a short rest.  This allows them to cast theoretically as many spells or more as a wizard or sorcerer if the party takes necessary short rests throughout the day.  Warlocks could then regain the spell slots right before a fight and concocting a plan of attack with whatever spells he knew.  Wizards would have been stuck with whatever they studied the night before and face possible expended spells used earlier that day.

Cantrip spells have become more useful.  Spells like Eldritch Blast now unleash considerable damage for magic-users who don’t want to spend any of their hard hitting spells but wish to contribute during common encounter fights.  There are even “bonus spells” that allow magic-users to cast more than one spell during a turn, giving them more options.

One of the most annoying rules that 3rd edition introduced was Attack of Opportunity or AOO.  This came into play when a character or opponent would pass by close enough to a target who could attack them.  There were ridiculous options and feats to this that really made players have to talk out the results on whether or not the situation even called for an AOO.  In 5th edition, AOO is only granted when an engaged combatant leaves their opponent’s melee area.  As long as they stay within that zone, they can move about as freely as they wish.  Just having to pay attention to characters leaving combat zones is much easier.

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And then there is the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I have only gotten to work a bit through.  However, what I have seen so far is even more impressive.  There is a good portion of the book dedicated to people who want to become a Dungeon Master, which is to be expected in a book like this.  I have been asked many times by people wanting to know how to step into the Dungeon Master’s chair, and this book is a great start.  It works on NPCs, which honestly is an unnecessary task of creating and working with since many times they are here-and-gone in an encounter.  Creating monsters and spells is another area that Dungeon Masters like to produce, and both are thoroughly explained in the book.  Monsters are more modular, in my opinion, being able to swap abilities among other monsters for unique experiences.  If one monster has a sting ability but you want that ability on another monster, it can be done and the calculations of its improved difficulty is a snap to follow.

There’s a section to make random dungeons on-the-fly by dice rolling.  This is almost exactly what can be found in the 1st edition.  It provides all kinds of listings that can be rolled and sought out, allowing you to not have to really give a lot of thought into whether a turn in the corridor is a good idea here or if a 10×20 foot room is needed and with what to fill it with.  If anything the book is inspirational for Dungeon Masters with a lack of experience or a lack of ideas.

In the end, we all have our own preferences when it comes to what we enjoy playing.  You may not even like the fantasy genre and focus just on RIFTS, Shadowrun, or Traveller.  You may just focus on the Weird West of Deadlands.  You may only wish to play Paizo’s Pathfinder because you still have a sore attitude towards Wizards of the Coast for releasing a “3.5” edition only 3 years after releasing their 3rd edition (even though Pathfinder plays much like 3.5 and you paid $50-60 on a book after refusing to buy the 3.5 books, thus ironically doing the very thing you said you wouldn’t do).

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Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most flexible systems I have ever played.  Wizards of the Coast allowed for gamers to voice their opinions on what they wanted in a rule book, and the publishing company actually listened and made the book for them.  The result is satisfying (and if it didn’t become successful, it was the gamers’ fault because it was their creation essentially).  You can play it like 1st edition with charts and exclusively with the mind or you can crunch it up with modifiers and battle maps like 3rd edition.

I encourage those still with hesitation from 4th edition to find yourself playing the game in the future.  Empty your mind and biased feelings of any previous editions you didn’t enjoy and focus on the features this new set of rule books has to offer.  You may be surprised and have a new system to spend your money on and clutter up your already cluttered bookshelf.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Bringing Back Balance To Your Game Episode.052

“How much?” he asks as he holds the jeweled pendant in his hands in front of the drooling merchant, anxious for a big sell today.  “For you, I will part with such a rare item for three quarters of a hundred thousand.”  The man looks up with an emotionless expression on his face. “Fine,” he replies and places a heavy chest on the counter with a thud and a deafened jingle from within.  The merchant wets his lips at the sight, never having seen so much money at one time…and all for him.  He looks up to thank the buyer, offering his hand, but his shop is completely empty.  The little bell above his door never once rang when he left.  “How did he move so quickly?” thought the merchant, and then shrugged his shoulders as he eyed the chest and worked at the latch to open the container.  Outside moments later, bystanders heard a shriek of horror and pain from within the shop.  By the time someone investigated, they found nothing more than a pool of liquid beside the opened chest, a burning sizzle rising from within the container that had a spring-loaded acid trap, now spent.  The only one who knew of the mysterious man’s existence was now dead, but the world would know of him very soon.

One thing that always baffled me are players who find enjoyment for long periods of time playing characters who are clearly overpowered for the game in rpgs.  While it is very satisfying and rewarding when you work hard to build a character from very little to a very powerful character, the latter half should still be as challenging, just on another spectrum.  Challenges, obstacles, or bumps in the road make up any storyline and create interest.  If you were to take out those setbacks or achievements that need to be accomplished, then you are living essentially a “slice of life” story where it is merely a segment of one’s life in everyday living that just happens to have little to no difficulties.  We may live ordinary lives every day, but they are still filled with challenges both great and small.  We can think that life would be so much better if we lived in a utopia where there was no work and all play, it would lose its value and enjoyment.  If we don’t mix things up, we lose interest.  Those living in paradise eventually get used to living day to day there and it loses the charm.

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So what brings on the charm of being so powerful in an rpg you find little to no challenge in each session?  It may be fun to enjoy dominating an encounter, rolling extremely high numbers (ridiculously high, in fact), but just how far can the enjoyment of that go?  Sooner or later, repetition is going to sink in, and you will find yourself going through the motions rather than the joy.  The excited rolls of big numbers will eventually become “why bother rolling?”  As a GM, it becomes more difficult to find challenges for players who prefer to become more powerful than they know what to do with.  Generally the two areas of power a character can get are money and equipment.  The former brings the latter unless you accidentally give them the opportunity to acquire the equipment.  I find that if you are able to limit the amount of gold and reward what they get as they progress, you will be able to control their power.  This is much easier said than done.  In fact, there are charts in most guides for GMs explaining how much reward you should give a group depending on their level (not just fantasy rpgs but in general).  It’s so easy to just dump a large amount of gold at the players.  When they get powerful enough to hunt dragons, for example, or attack corporate companies that have Swiss bank accounts, that’s when you need to be on you’re A Game.  But let’s say you made a mistake and allowed the party to either have too much gear or money too soon.  How do you bring it back to a level playing field without you having to tell them point blank you need to remove some things from the game?  Here are a few suggestions to get your brain storming started:

  • Curse Items – This is for fantasy settings when things like magical gear are available. It won’t be as critical in modern day or future settings.  However, in a setting where they are present, cursed items can really help bring characters back on a level playing field although it is only a temporary fix.  If they acquired their gear by money, they probably still have a ton left.  However, keep in mind that curse items that cause your gear to go mundane is extremely powerful and should be in a logical area.  It can also cause your players to up and quit the game (had one do that in a fit of rage).

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  • Give them opportunity to buy cool things that are essentially worthless. Strongholds are the best that come to mind.  These can produce gold, but not as quickly or as much as the wealth they have on hand.  Building structures takes lots of workers, tons of material, and constant protection until it can properly defend itself.  Once built, then it takes time for people to move in and be taxed.  Tax them too high and a GM can choose they begin leaving.  Let them build their own traveling vessel like a ship.  Just because the price “in the book” says a value doesn’t mean that is how much it is.  YOU are in charge of your world.  It’s your baby.  Different parts of the real world have varied prices depending on inflation.  Pure economics will dictate and allow you to choose the values of things.

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  • The countries they are in can hold a ton of options on reducing gold or valuables. It can be a highly taxed environment that does an outstanding job of keeping an eye on everyone through scrying means.  There could be a form of IRS that is a collection of wizards working for the king who use their powers to spy on every single person in the kingdom and makes notes of who pays and who doesn’t, then sends a powerful group of assassins or adventurers after them to collect or soften up.
    • The country could be very anti-magic to the point the entire country (or a large part of it) is domed with an anti-magic field, rendering their weapons mundane. Instead of the entire area being a neutral area, you could introduce anti-magical weapons.  These pieces of equipment could be enchanted with a means to negate the enchantment of the weapons the party uses.  Armor could essentially work as damage reductions, negating the magical bonus the weapons have, and their anti-magical weapons could cut through their enchanted armor.
    • Not every country uses monies to buy and sell things. Bartering could be an option, and when they have to come up with something valuable enough to acquire that very expensive magical item, it may be a challenge.  Often bartering doesn’t have a price or value.  It is based on what the two need.  The man with the weapon may have a need for a cow, but they are in the desert where cows are extremely hard to find.  The country may be against the country where they acquired the gold and refuse to accept or exchange it, calling the coins “tainted.”

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  • Another possibility is for actual theft. This is a bit tougher to pull off because just about any gaming party is by nature extremely paranoid because they know whatever they are capable of doing other people are just as aware and capable.  But not everyone is at the same level of skill as the party is.  Just because they are around the 4th level (or whatever equivalent in the system) doesn’t mean everyone in the world is the same.  Much more prevalent in a more realistic, living campaign world where the party can and will encounter all kinds of danger, they can often be reminded that the world is a dangerous place.  Just because they are overly cautious doesn’t mean they are completely safe.  As a GM, you can compare the situation to hackers in modern day where no company can guarantee their systems are safe.  No matter how careful the party is in keeping an eye out, if someone wants your stuff bad enough, they are going to take it.  This can lead to having a reoccurring villain or villains who continue to thwart the party as they try to catch them.
  • Finally, always keep track of encumbrance when they acquire too much gold.  Carrying 150,000 gold pieces takes up A LOT of space!  If they then choose to put it in a bank, it’s not like modern times where we can wire money from bank to bank.  Where it is held is where your money can be accessed.  Then you have the threat of it being stolen.  They could put the money in a dungeon they have cleared, but then it’s a cleared, unprotected dungeon.  Putting the gold all on a wagon is fine, but think about that for a second: a wagon filled with gold jingling anywhere is bound to attract constant attention.  They definitely can’t carry it all on their bodies without being highly unencumbered, too.

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It is tempting to reward your players too quickly and by too much.  This is especially the case after the party accomplishes a very difficult task, and you feel that they should get a considerable award for their achievement.  Be very careful with awarding treasure and rewards on the fly!  I can’t stress this enough.  If you know something is coming up, prepare yourself beforehand by making a list of things they will acquire if they complete a task.  However, if you are suddenly working on-the-fly, making things up off the cuff because the players are going a different direction than you had planned, there is nothing wrong with you making a note to the players the reward will be given later.  Yes they may be belly-aching because they want to know now, but leave it as a cliffhanger if you want.  “After vanquishing the beholder and gaining access to its secret chamber, you open the door to see….” And make them wait until next session.  It will make them anxious to come back to find out, and it will give you enough time to clearly think of a fair and balanced reward for them.

Take your time, think things through, and proceed with caution and wisdom instead of being zealous or careless.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Making Memorable NPCs Episode.041

It has been weeks since you have seen a civilized person as you trek your way across the desert wastelands of Arubina.  Your supplies are low, and your navigational instrument is becoming cloudy from exposure of the elements.  But the dot that you picked up on the horizon three days ago has definitely formed into a humanoid as it approaches you steadily.  There has been no warning shots from the target, and you have no idea if it’s friend or foe.  However, something in your gut makes you feel your luck is about to turn as a reflection of the person’s glasses catches your eyes.  Finally within range, you show a broaden smile that fills your entire face as the group’s old friend, Masterson, approaches with a canteen in hand and outreached towards you.  He smiles and says the gods were guiding him to a place in need and he has arrived.  It has been a long time since you all saw him, but great memories come back from when you all were younger and inexperienced adventurers and how he saved your lives more than once.

What I like to call “Roleplaying GMs,” that is those who lean more heavily to RP than combat, thrive on NPCs.  I consider myself one as it is the only time I am able to enjoy role playing.  So when I make NPCs that I create to last more than a brief encounter, I put as much work into them as the players put into their characters.  What’s more enjoyable is when you make an NPC the players not only remember but brighten up when they encounter them.  That’s when you know you’ve done your job on making a memorable NPC.  But what does it take?

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Well personality goes a long way as Jules says in Pulp Fiction.  Whether they are liked or disliked, if they have an interesting aura about them, they capture our attentions better.  Instead of tavern owner being just friendly to the party, he personally flips over patrons onto tables who are misbehaving or tries not to pay their bill.  He could have minor magical powers such as levitation that allows him to float glasses and plates of food across the room.  He could be acrobatic and handwalk trays on his feet to the table.  Perhaps his background involved assassinations that he seldom talks about (or boasts about) that everyone knows.  These things give an NPC more life and attraction to want to know more.

Another area to consider is motivation.  If he is just someone passing through with no particular reason other than getting to another city, well then he will be soon forgotten.  Make the NPC a merchant who collects and sells puppets, some of which are magically enchanted to perform basic tasks.  Being a traveling merchant with that kind of uniqueness to his business would make a lasting impression on the players.  You can occasionally keep the thought of a favorable NPC on their minds by showing signs or hear of their presence in recent past traveling through the area.  Having them see a puppet carrying a tray of food in a tavern in some distant land brings the merchant back to the player’s minds, gives them an understanding of the merchant’s expansive territory, and also creates a more believable/alive world for your campaign.

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If you have a villain, or just an all-around jerk, consider what drives them.  They might have multiple motives besides the grand scheme of things.  Instead of just being hell bent on dominating the world, perhaps they have a desire to find a seat in a council committee in order to promote a change in city laws.  Another option would be for a jerk attitude ruffian to constantly wish for a party member to look bad or screw up in an effort to provoke him.  What he does isn’t illegal and would constitute the party member going to jail if acted upon violently.  Having an annoying character show up at the worst times to cause issues can still be a memorable NPC even though they aren’t favorable.  If you can make the players groan and grit their teeth when they run into the same ruffian 3 months of actual play time later, you have definitely done your job well on creating a solid, believable NPC.

Perhaps the NPC has an unique ability; perhaps they are mysterious.  A lone traveler they run into every once in a while who gives cryptic words of wisdom that eventually makes sense when future events occur could be someone they remember.  Complete the mystery and lock in the memorable feature by making the figure have an unusual appearance.  The traveler has ram horns that are a part of his skull but is not a demon.  Or have someone always wear a mask but never talk about why or what he’s covering up.  The element of wonder will usually keep their thoughts on the subject for quite a while.  They might have the ability to teleport short distances at will.  Perhaps the individual is a talented illusionist who always alters the appearance of reality when present.  In fact, the players would automatically begin recognizing his work if their environment suddenly shifts without warning before he makes an appearance.  Again, you have successfully created a good NPC if telltale signs or initial warnings remind them of the NPC without the NPC being there.

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It may come to the party enjoying the company of the NPC for a while, feeling reassured because of something they can do or the talents the NPC possesses.  Having a sharp shooter with you, knowing their eyes are better than yours, makes for a less stressful moment as you travel through the forest, knowing that you’re being hunted by something.  In moments of desperation or dread, when all hope is lost and the fate of the party seems to be doomed, the sight of an old friend in the form of an NPC can make the actual players breathe a sigh of relief at the gaming table.

When the NPCs become close to the players, when the party thrives off their presence, and when they treat the being as if they were a part of the team, you can really utilize the situation for more flavorful moments.  Put the NPC in harm’s way to get a reaction out of the party, often making them act in haste, which creates mistakes sometimes that the GM can take advantage of.  Rushing into a dark room when they hear their NPC friend cry for help can lead to their demise or the trap you wanted them to fall into.  As I mentioned in Episode 40, “Never Surrender!”, having that NPC relationship can aid in persuading the players to surrender a battle rather than fight to the death if the NPC is in jeopardy by the opposition.  They can be used to spark an adventure by having the NPC fall to a disease and needing a remedy that is difficult to obtain.

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When you build up a nice library of NPCs, it will probably be wise to have a small document with notes of each to keep track of them.  Make notes of how the party interacts with them, especially if they make a request or do something special that might lead to the NPC changing in some way or needing to do a task for them.  Have NPCs interact with other NPCs that are favorable both in passing and at separate timelines to bring more life to your world.  One NPC mentioning they saw another pass by not long ago will make your players feel like they are in a living, breathing world again.  Things are happening elsewhere, throughout the world while they continue on their journey.  Treat your NPCs like you would that fresh, new character you roll up as a player, and enjoy the involvement the party takes in them.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Never Surrender! Episode.040

You scan the terrain, looking for an escape route, surveying the damage of your party as they all lie battered, bruised, and beaten by the oncoming force.  The enemy’s scouting report was priceless as they knew precisely where you would be most vulnerable to their attack.  But it is clear they wish not to kill you as all of your companions still lay breathing.  Their captain pushes passed his comrades to the front line and addresses you cordially, commending you and your party for the gallant effort and ferocity in battle.  However, he offers a choice of surrender in assurance no harm upon your capture will come before you.  Although his superiors did not indulge the reasoning for seeking out their capture, he swears of his warrior’s oath that they will receive no pain including proper nutrition.  He looks at you for your response.  And with your eyes narrowing and the grip of your sword tightening, the captain knows your choice is to seal your fate.  He sighs at this, understanding as a warrior your reasoning behind your decision but saddened by it.  The rest of the enemies are signaled to finish the job.

As a GM, and even as a player, there is one thing that I really enjoy experiencing in a session: captured as prisoners.  I seem to be one of the few out there who plays RPGs who enjoys facing adversities and hindrances to my character throughout.  Although I do enjoy finding power eventually through the struggles, I hate being handed gifts of power too easily and often.  One thing that really strips the character down to his core is being held prisoner.  It’s a fascinating concept that basically never occurs in RPGs.  People who play RPGs tend to not understand that although your character can die at any moment, if your character is alive, no matter what happens, the campaign continues.  They often feel that if anything ill happens to their characters, they automatically lose the character and either hand it over to the GM or throw it in the trash.  This is not the case.  Ever.  It should be preached more often by GMs to their players.

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This always leads to the “fight to the death,” mentality that drives me nuts as both GM and player.  If your character triggers a trap that ends the character in a perma-death, you aren’t going to be too happy about it.  You lost that character.  It’s gone forever unless the game offers a resurrection spell of some kind.  Otherwise it’s gone.  If you go up against a giant and you are killed because it dishes an obscene amount of damage on a critical to your head, your character is gone for good.  It’s not coming back.

So why in the world would you deliberately choose your character to be handed over to the GM, permanently, to avoid being captured?  It is ludicrous at best.

Some of the most amazing stories ever told involve prison breaks.  The Count of Monte Cristo immediately comes to mind.  Movies such as The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape and TV shows like Mission Impossible are filled with excitement and suspense.  These are just as exhilarating as any other action moment in a RPG.  For some reason, the majority of players I’ve faced at conventions and at home are against it.

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I’m not completely ignorant in realizing that players feel their freedom of choice and power in the game suddenly becomes limited and in control of the GM.  However, this is but a moment – the moment they are captured.  From that point of actually being captured it immediately shifts back over to the players’ control.  It is entirely up to them to break themselves free.  They are always in power of their actions and abilities to get out of danger, including imprisonment.  Just because you are in a cell, doesn’t mean you can’t get out.  There have been hundreds of prison breaks throughout history, some successful, some not.  So it is not out of the question for characters that are built to be larger than life to be successful at it as well.  A few things need to be taken into consideration, however.

First, players need to be told up front, before the campaign or adventure begins that unless their character is completely permanently dead with no chance of resurrection, the game will not end.  Explain that throwing their characters away foolishly should be reconsidered.  You don’t have to come right out and say “if you guys get in over your head, surrender.”  I would never plan a session where my idea for a story is to overwhelm them to capture them for a prison break.  I would, however, gauge encounters correctly with intelligence where it is necessary.  Humanoids may not want to just randomly kill.  Those with intelligence may not want to know why the party is in this area or why they are trespassing into their home country.  Not every monster is meant to kill, especially those with above a low intelligence.  Curiosity can be more powerful than hostility.

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Approach a possible surrender moment with dialogue.  Don’t expect players to surrender or yield when your villain merely points a sword at them and demands for their surrender for no other reason.  Describe to them the need to capture beyond questioning.  Perhaps it is only for the enemy’s protection to make sure the party isn’t a true threat or their intentions are good.  Use the idea that there is a greater foe in the vicinity, but they must be cautious with the party to make sure they won’t attack, so they are taken prisoner but treated better than a typical prisoner would be.  Sometimes you can use NPCs to convince them to surrender such as when that NPC is captured or threatened to be executed if the party does not surrender.

But when this rare moment occurs, make sure you give them a great experience as prisoners.  Be flexible on their actions, reward them on their choices.  If they are stumped, give them hints of what they could do to get out (a loose stone, a hairpin, a lazy guard).  Make sure they are able to retrieve their gear!  Or, if the gear isn’t particularly amazing such as a longsword +1 (devilish longsword), place replacement items that are slightly better than what they had in various places during their escape.  Reward them with new information that might pertain to one of the character’s story arcs or the overall campaign story.  Give them an ally for future encounters.  Have them stumble upon a secret that the group that captured them are unaware of (underground tribal fortress, abandoned temple, holy relic that is buried in an unmarked grave).  And finally, make it heroic and suspenseful by keeping the pace high.  Once they are out of whatever is holding them imprisoned (cage, magical barrier, etc.), speed up pace by having them constantly chased or followed.  Guards will quickly discover them gone and begin searching.  They might be spotted and chased for a bit until they lose their tail.  Give them a scene where they feel they have to catch their breath for real when the scene ends and they are safely out of harm’s way.

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Generally being captured will never happen as too many players loathe this for some reason.  Perhaps give them homework to watch a few prison break movies such as The Rock, Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz to see if it sparks any interest.  If they talk about how clever it was for the escape to happen, then it might be something to consider in a future encounter instead of creating a TPK.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Rotating Dungeon Masters Episode.038

Having recently returned from the world of the Old West after liberating the mysterious Kung Fu from jail, you now face the next chapter in your journey.  This time you are needed in 945 A.D. along the Norwegian Sea of planet Earth.  An expedition is about to embark north into the frozen Arctic Sea, but scouts have returned with tales of colossal beasts that are lurking just below the ocean’s surface.  Your equipment will be provided to reflect the time period, but it will be up to you to gain trust of the clan’s leader to lead the expedition.  Rumors have spread from the scouts’ tale of a giant cyclopean eye four times the size of their longboats that currently sleeps.  It may be the slumbering god you have been hunting through the cosmos.

Personally I don’t like running long campaigns because I run out of steam and ideas.  It takes time to run a proper RPG.  You may feel you can pick up your dice and just adlib the entire session, and that’s fantastic, but if you are meaning to have a decent plot, encounters, well-developed NPCs, and bridges with the characters’ background, you’re going to have to do some prep work.  Unless we have literally nothing to do every day, finding time to take notes and get them prepared for next week’s session seems to always be put on the shelf for more important, real life issues.  Generally I prefer to go on short, intense campaigns that last 3-5 sessions maximum.  However, there is one concept that I’ve used with my friends with fairly moderate success that will allow for much longer campaigns: Rotating Dungeon Masters.

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Perhaps you have already tried this.  The idea is simple:  every session or every couple of sessions, your role as DM changes to another person in the group.  You take control over your character, and the player assumes role as the DM.  That person then runs the session or a few sessions before they temporarily resign their role and resume their character.  You continue enjoying your character and playing the game, free from having to come up with an idea of what to throw at your party next week.  Eventually your turn as DM returns, but you have been able to play for several sessions to rejuvenate your imagination.  While you are the DM, your character will take the support role of an NPC or simply wander off for a time before meeting up with the group at a later date.

Now the concept may sound easy, but making sure things run smoothly between DMs requires a little planning and setup.  First, there is the issue of “DM Secrets.”  These are the plot twists and storylines the PCs haven’t discovered yet.  As a Rotating DM, either the secrets that carry over must be ignored by the next DM, or you must resolve that secret for the PCs before you resign your DM role.  For example, if the PCs don’t know one of their traveling NPCs is secretly a vampire spy sent to assassinate one of the PCs, either give enough hints or opportunity for the PCs to discover the truth or keep it secret and hope the other DMs don’t thwart your plan by killing him off.  Essentially don’t carry over huge plot events between now and your next role to avoid having things blow up by an unsuspecting DM.  Feel free to run a few sessions before stepping down in order to finish those story arcs.

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Unless agreed upon, your session (or anyone else’s for that matter) should not hinder or restrict the next DM.  If your game runs through the frozen wastelands of the north, the next DM should not be forced to make an adventure progressing down to warmer weather.  Assume between each session a bit of time has passed.  It won’t be critical, and it should not be so much so that the PCs age significantly.  It’s more like the episodes on a TV show like Hercules or Xena where each episode took them to another location, yet they never aged.  Allow for story immersion to fall on the current DM’s desire.

Having a Rotating DM has another benefit that can be utilized.  If the group is seasoned players, consider dimension traveling.  The players are a part of a central hub that bridges any dimension in time and space.  They are capable of journeying anywhere, but they have to remain restricted to the technologies and advancements of the time.  Perhaps using the Prime Directive as a Golden Rule.  This would allow for any of the DMs to run any RPG they wished.  Not all of us enjoy running a traditional medieval fantasy RPG.  I personally prefer running 1920s Call of Cthulhu.  Some might enjoy running a game of Deadlands.  But then how do you deal with character sheets changing each week?

The easiest is to plan out what settings each DM is interested in running and create characters for each.  Assuming you don’t have a Rotating DM class of more than 4 or 5, it shouldn’t be out of the question to handle.  For advancement, you can eliminate experience points and award levels based on the number of sessions.  To reach 2nd Level, you must complete 2 sessions.  Each character should be leveled at the same time to reflect the individual character’s progression as a person.  Skills and various abilities would transfer as close and reasonable as possible.  Some abilities will not be available in certain settings such as magic in a modern world.  That is just part of the uniqueness behind this option.DMG_MagicItems

If you are in a group that insists on divvying out experience points, then some conversion or DM “creative license” must be implemented.  Assign a list of XP per level like you see in many advancement RPGs and adopt it to every setting that offers leveling characters.  Generalize XP rewards that reflect similar situations to those rule books that are laid out clearly.  For example, if the party kills a Wendigo in Deadlands (which offers its own format of XP) and you want to utilize Pathfinder’s XP advancement track of medium, then merely take an educated guess as to the difficulty and XP value based upon your knowledge of Pathfinder.  This method is far more tedious, less exact, and can lead to arguments if the party objects to the decisions.  Personally eliminating the XP system and merely rewarding them advancement in leveling per so many sessions is the easiest to go.  There are some exception rule systems that don’t offer 20+ levels to advance such as Deadlands who only has 4 (I believe) or Monte Cook’s Numenera that would have to be taken in stride.  Simply take a moment to reflect the maximum levels for each setting, if offered, and set up a ratio.  For every 5 levels in Pathfinder, you go up 1 level in Deadlands.  Numenera currently I believe has 6 levels, so every 3 levels in Pathfinder.  Again this is all done before you begin the campaigns, so a simple chart on your character sheets will help you identify when your character advances.

The benefits behind this concept are considerable.  First, you don’t get burned out as a DM.  You remain fresh by only running a few times then breaking to play as much or more often.  Your creative juices get reenergized by playing more and listening to other DMs share their stories.  Everyone participating gets to experience what it’s like being a DM without tackling a long, drawn out campaign.  Even newcomers can try their hand here by running a one-session adventure to see if they enjoy it.  Rotating DMs also creates a new group each session.  You’ll have one new player in your particular group to change play style up a bit.  This allows for different relationships between characters, different reactions and behaviors, and completely different experiences throughout the campaign.  Finally, you get to see a different style of game every week as we all DM differently.  One person will run an over-the-top fantastical session followed by the next person running a modern horror followed by a session in Rome.  It may all remain in one setting but shift regions from tropical to tundra and offer more roleplaying opportunities one session and nothing but combat the next.  It’s a unique approach to a system that has more traditions than anything.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Notable Figures as RPG Characters: Zelda’s Link Episode.036

Now that you have fully healed yourself, you’ve regained your key abilities.  It is a good thing to as you are surrounded by a small band of gnolls.  Swirling around in a complete circle, your whirlwind ability slashes deeply into them, felling each one before they have a chance to swing at you with their halberds.  They were foolish to get so close with such a large weapon.  Spotting one last straggler attempting to run and warn the rest of the tribe, you flash your sword in his direction, sending a phantom of your blade into the enemy’s back.  Catching your breath from the skirmish, you reach down and hold the large crystal heart over your head in triumph as you feel your energy expand a bit more.

On occasion, it is fun to take an existing character in media, literature, or gaming and challenge myself to create an accurate, playable character for an RPG.  Typically I use a modern-style rule system such as Pathfinder or D&D 3.0+ as they give me more variety on options.  Although I can create a general likeness of a famous character in a 1st edition AD&D game, the choices to make that character are much more limited and simplified.

My favorite character to create is Link from the Zelda video game series.  Although most would classify him as a fighter type character, ever since the N64 “Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” he has clearly been a bard.  A bard is the truest form of jack of all trades.  They are the cleverest bunch, able to sort out just about anything from their wealth of knowledge during their travels.  They are capable of understanding things merely but inspecting them and remembering either studying from their college or adventures.  Magical items are familiar to them.  They can cast spells.  They can pick locks and disarm traps.  They can brandish weapons and pit against warriors.  They can heal.  They can speak dozens of languages.

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Focusing on Link and his history throughout his long-lasting series of games, he has always had a sword and a shield.  He never wears heavy armor.  He has a backpack full of both magical and mundane tools and lots of them.  He can play musical instruments.  He’s handy with the bow.  All of these point him in the direction of the bard.

Using a system like Pathfinder, we begin with the basic elements of the character.  Link is a Hylian in the video game series, which according to lore, matches very closely to Half-Elves in Pathfinder.  We’ve already established him as a bard although he could multiclass into ranger, paladin or alchemist for the use of bombs if the GM allows.  Statistically he is great with a one-armed sword and shield, so he will need some strength while his bow shots demand his dexterity to be respectable.  His intelligence and charisma can be dumped because even in the cartoon he wasn’t the brightest person.  In fact, I don’t believe he ever talks in most of the video games (not saying a mute is ignorant, but someone with low intelligence might be remain quiet from confusion on what to say).

Since the N64 version, he has had the ability to roll to dodge attacks, so his Athletics skill should be as high as possible.  He never has had a need to pick locks as obtaining keys for locked chests has been a staple in his series, so save the points on that for now.  Knowledge Arcana, Dungeoneering, and Nature should be purchased as he has respectable backgrounds for each.  During the games since 3D was featured, when something important was within proximity, the game would immediately focus on that point, so his perception should be high.  He can ride Epona, so Riding should be another feature along with the feat that allows him to shoot a bow while riding, Mounted Combat.  Swimming was a feature after acquiring flippers as far back as Links Awakening and a Link to the Past, so Swimming would be fitting although perhaps not as important as a usual choice.  Finally Use Magic Device would be a definite choice as he has used an assortment of magical items.

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He doesn’t wear any armor, but if we were to truly keep him accurate, gauntlets would be required, preferably Gauntlets of Ogre Power since they were exactly that in the game, giving him the ability to lift heavy boulders.  His tunics were nothing but leather or cloth, but some featured resistances to various elements such as fire in A Link to the Past.  For now, the gauntlets will suffice although perhaps a ring of protection +1 might be nice to help his starting AC depending on what level to make him.  Beginning a character from scratch, the only way to present the gauntlets would be an inheritance though it would still give the low level character quite a starting boost.

His choice of weapon has always been a long sword to accompany his shield, which changes throughout the games.  Almost all of his shields have been all metal, so no need for wooden shields, and they must not be larger than a medium size.  He had only a few shields that were capable of blocking just about everything, but it should be assumed they were small enough to handle easily and still be dexterous rather than carrying a tower shield.  Call the sword a Master Sword (longsword).  He could acquire a Mirror Shield later on as he advances.  A composite longbow will round out initial weapons for now as the hookshot, boomerang, and other iconic weapons can be acquired as he progresses.

His choice of bardic instrument would be the ocarina, naturally, as he is most famous for playing such.  Similarly to the N64 game, the instrument could be a progressive magical item, granting him a new song every few levels.  This would be a house rule as typically the bard’s ability to either counter alluring songs or hypnotize others is through his magical ability as a bard and not the instrument itself.

For feats, Toughness would need to not only be a choice, but a regular choice throughout.  Granted hit points increase naturally as you gain levels like the rest, but his increase in life comes from acquiring quarter and full hearts.

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The whirlwind attack is another feat to add as he picked up that ability in the SNES version.  When he is fully healed, his sword was capable of blasting phantom versions of his blade at enemies.  Although no feat does this, there are a few spells that have similar effects such as Death Ray that can be placed upon the longsword.  Alternatively, the sword can have a simple House Rule where it deals electrical damage as a ranged touch attack when wielder is at full health.  That is a bit powerful for a beginning character, so perhaps it can merely attack as a ranged attack, using Dexterity instead of Strength, when at full health.  The former suggestion could be something acquired much later in advancement.

So Toughness, Mounted Combat, Whirlwind Attack, Dodge, Mobility, Spring Attack, Weapon Focus/Specialization (longsword), Shield Focus because why not, and Combat Expertise.

Feel free to post a PDF of your version of Link as a character suitable for your favorite RPG.  I’ll post mine later this evening on here for easy download.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

So You Want To Get Into RPGs Episode.035

Welcome to your first role playing game experience.  I shall be your host, the Dungeon Master, and as you are my guests, the players, I will do my best to take you through a journey of the mind that will give you memories that last a lifetime.  This will not be a cakewalk, nor will it be impossible.  Keep your wits sharp about you and your sense of adventure always on high, and I will make sure you have a great time.  I see you are equipped with your favorite set of dice, your characters, and a pencil, so without further ado, lean forward to the edge of your seats as we embark together on the unknown.  The game has begun!

There are times I look back to when I first learned how to play a roleplaying game.  The concept initially was a little unusual for me because it was tough for me to understand I could do basically anything in the game.  There was no true ending to a game like the board games I had played before.  We worked together in teams with various abilities and skills that let us overcome amazing obstacles.  But we were just in charge of our own characters’ action, not the game itself as my mom thought the one and only time I talked her into playing (she thought her dwarf automatically found 16 gold coins by walking under the tables of a tavern just because that’s what she did).

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I was fortunate enough to have someone sit down with me and explain the rules of 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons when I was about 11 or 12 years old (although looking back, there was some considerable misunderstanding of the rules from my tutor).  I was given the general idea of the rules, explaining the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom.  Combat was a bit challenging to understand what ThAC0 was, which I changed the word to simply “Fighting.”  But there still was a lot of guess work that I had to make in order to run the game.  I didn’t quite have the attention span to read an entire Player’s or Dungeon Master’s rulebook.  I was too anxious to get started.  Ironically I never played in a game with my tutor.  My first game I ever participated in was me being the DM.  In fact, it wasn’t until I was 15 before I sat down as a player, which turned out to be a disaster I’ll tell about in a moment.

Granted I was very lucky in that someone who was somewhat knowledgeable with RPGs was around about the time I was old enough to start playing.  For those who are unfamiliar with the game but have always wanted to get started, this article is for you.  Here are the basics to know:

DICE

Do you really need that many dice to play the game?  I’m sure you have seen players dump their Crown Royal bag o’ dice onto the table at a convention, select the 5-7 dice they need, and then slowly refill the bag of the rejects.  Since dice come in so many shapes, sizes, and colors, it is no wonder people enjoy collecting them.  There are some dice people will call “lucky” as they seem to roll more satisfying results.  There are those who will roll poorly with one die numerous times, put it back in their bag and grab a new one as if it will magically do better.  I’m not going to talk about mumbo jumbo hoodoo or mojo dice because, honestly, I don’t believe in it.  There are dice that have more worn down edges, which make them roll a little easier than the sharp-edged dice you see in the casino or with Game Science, but we are talking just dice in general here.

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The number of dice you need will solely depend on the game you choose to play.  Shadowrun, for example, uses large pools of D6 (6-sided) dice while modern editions of Dungeons & Dragons mostly use a D20 for the majority of rolls, leaving the rest to determining damage amount.  Although there are random variants, such as a D30 die, traditionally you can feel safe to purchase one each of a D4, D6, D8, D12, and D20.  You might only need one D10, but there are times when you need to roll what is called a percentile dice, or D100 (sometimes referred to as D%), in which you will need two D10s.  One of these dice should be a different color to easily identify the number to represent the “tens” place and the other for the “ones” placement (6 as the tens and 4 as the ones, for example, would be 64).  There are specially marked D10s that have 10, 20, 30, etc. instead of single digits to help eliminate the need to assign either dice a certain role.  FYI, if you roll either two 0s or a 00 and 0, this results in a roll of a 100.

So really, you only need a maximum of 7 dice assuming the rule utilizes the entire set.  Even more, if you ever go to a convention to play, don’t worry about buying dice when you are first seeing if you like roleplaying games.  I guarantee you my life savings of $0.53 that you will always be seated at a table with people who have dice.  They will be more than willing to share.  Sometimes you will ask “Does anyone have dice I can borrow?” to which you will have literally handfuls of dice tossed at you from everyone.  Buy your dice after your first couple of games so you aren’t investing in something you aren’t too wild on.

KNOWLEDGE OF THE RULES

This rulebook is HUGE!  Do I really need to know all of the rules to play?  Not if you’re playing you don’t.  Generally the rules master should be the GM as the players need to concentrate on their own character only.  You don’t need to know that it will be a -4 penalty on your roll to leap from the balcony onto the chandelier.  That’s the GMs job, and he will let you know prior to making the attempt.  They will lay out the risks for your actions generally before you do them if they are risky to begin with.  The GM isn’t going to point out “Well you could walk across the tavern to buy a beer, but it’s going to be a guarantee you won’t have any problems walking.”  Nine times out of ten, your choice of action is going to be okay with the GM.  Look for traps, slay the monster, open the door, loot the chest, talk to the guy, ride off on the horse, set up a look out, head down to the arena, etc., will all be acts that might have consequences but aren’t risky.  Things such as hiding from someone, picking someone’s pocket, backstabbing someone, shooting someone in the head, etc., will be explained if need be by the GM before you roll dice.  Regardless of the risk of these actions, you need not know the rules of any of the games in order to play your character.  Only having an idea of how you want to play your character is all you have to know.  The rest is up to the GM.  Sit back and enjoy the storytelling by your GM, pipe up when you have an idea of what you want your character to do, and interact with your fellow characters.

It is worth noting, however, that you should not ignore the rules being used entirely when they come up.  For example, if the process of combat involves you rolling dice and adding a number from your character sheet to that result when you use your sword, remember that and do so in future encounters to help keep the pace going.  If the GM repeats himself/herself to you on things you can or cannot do, don’t continue bringing them up and be mindful of the limitations, if any.

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CREATE A CHARACTER THAT EXCITES YOU

The movies and books we love most generally have something to do with the characters within them.  Stories with characters that aren’t interesting or are unappealing tend to be forgotten.  The most powerful ability you have as a player when sitting down for the first time to play an RPG is the character’s creation process.  You don’t really need to know the rules in full here either as the GM should be able to help provide suggestions based upon your initial concept.  This concept is key.  If you have the time or inspiration, it behooves you to put as much time as you can into the character, down to the littlest idiosyncrasies such as his allergy to wheat or his recent loss of his father to an unknown disease.  Think about how that person acts not just overall but to specific situations such as when he is ostracized by the villagers the party just arrived in or when around snotty nobles who look down upon him.  Think of how he feels about each of the other characters in the group.  Likes, dislikes, quirks that drive him crazy, random pet peeves, etc.

Then begin creating their backstory.  If you have a good GM, they are going to not only thank you for this but also utilize unanswered segments in the story in the actual campaign you’re about to play.  Talk about your character’s family.  Siblings, parents, uncles.  Are they alive or dead?  What did they do when they were around?  Did any of them have noteworthy lives?  What is your relationship with them?  Did you inherit anything?

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When coming up with all of these answers, keep asking yourself if you like the idea.  If you are forcing yourself to fill in gaps, stop.  Back up and refresh yourself on that area by approaching it another way.  If you have to come up with a good idea why your father is no longer living but can’t think of anything good, begin thinking of movies that you enjoyed.  Think of the ones that had a death in it of a noteworthy character like Obi-Wan from Star Wars.  Think about why his death was so appealing to you.  Let your mind wander for a moment with that thought, maybe to other films with similar scenes.  Sooner or later your mind will start concocting the ideas you were looking for.  You just have to give it some fuel to work on.  Movies are always a good place to start.

FIND A GOOD GROUP OF PEOPLE TO PLAY WITH

Quite possibly the most challenging thing even if you have tons of friends who are eager to play.  Finding the right group that gels could be written up in a blog all by itself.  It isn’t the easiest thing to have 3 or 4 others who A) have the same free night to play regularly, B) keeps interested for the long run of a campaign, C) works well with others, D) isn’t a rules lawyer, E) isn’t bossy.  Some people are just so used to their behaviors they fail to see they are affecting others.  This is the case when you have a player who wishes to be the center of all attention during a game because he thinks he is funny and “knows best.”  It can be problematic at best.

Sometimes even the group of your best friends are not the right group to play an RPG with because the things you generally do together doesn’t involve working as a team.  Usually you’re out to the movies, going to dinner, having some drinks, playing video games, enjoying a round of golf, etc.  So don’t be upset if your ideal team turns out to be a group of total strangers.

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Just about every city that isn’t a one-horse town has a gaming store within driving distance.  If I am looking for players, I will go there and either see if I can leave my contact info on the bulletin board if they have one, or I will ask the owner what day their business days are and show up with what I need to play.  If you are a GM, finding a group is a lot easier because everyone can play the game; few can run it.  I will set up my GM Screen, lay out the books from the rule system I’m running, and even put a sign up inviting newcomers.  If I see anyone look my way, I’ll gesture them over to talk about the game in general and size them up on how interested they really are.  As a player, I would hover around game sessions as the store, always making note of those with either 3 or 4 in a group as sometimes GMs will allow it to get up to 5 players.  Don’t interrupt their game, be super respectful and just watch how they play.  Pay attention to their actions.  If they are spouting rules back and forth and arguing a lot, you probably shouldn’t try to join them.  After the game or during their break, introduce yourself and be point blank asking if they are looking for an extra player in the game.  When joining a game in “campaign progress,” you might be limited severely on the character you can pick because others have already been chosen, and their choice comes first unless duplicate classes are allowed.  So be flexible.  This is your first time.  Also be sure to point out it will be your first time playing so they understand you aren’t a moron when you sit down and begin fumbling around with your papers and dice.

On the flipside of in-person, finding groups online is much easier although it is much tougher to hold them together in the long run.  There’s a likelihood of time zone conflicting or loss of attention during game play since no one is sitting together to interact with.  Having just audio only without anything, even each other, to look at sometimes causes our mind to drift.  We also have the temptation to surf the Internet or play a computer game while we are just sitting at our computer.  However, despite the possibilities, there are forums galore to post on that can allow you to connect with fellow like-minded players.  The website, Reddit, offers discussion pages that bring players together.  Again, it falls back to finding the right group of people.  Don’t jump on the first wrangled players just because you found a group because they may not be as motivated as you to go the distance or enjoy your style of play.  Be selective like you’re buying a car because you’re going to be with these guys regularly for a while.

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KEEP CALM AND GAME ON

When I sat down for my first game to play ever, I was 15, and it was at Def Con 3, a convention that ran for about 4 years in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  I was given a pre-made character, the Cleric, in a traditional 2nd edition AD&D game.  I felt I was comfortable enough, and I was eager to play a “real” game as I had been running games with my friends for a few years.  I had no idea I had made up so many house rules for the system until that day.  For example, I would let magic-users and clerics cast their list of spells however many times per day they felt.  Not knowing it was a one-use and gone system, I chose 1 cure light wounds spell among my 3 for the day.  When I had announced I had only picked the one about 1 hour into the game session, I remember everyone at the table in unison yell, “JUST ONE?!” followed by a series of “Oh my god!”  “We’re all dead!”  “How could you be so stupid?”

Naturally I was a bit upset at the realization that I had apparently jeopardized the safety of the group, but I was also mystified how much I really didn’t understand the rules.  Naturally after that day, I read through the entire PHB and DMG and began my addiction of memorizing 100s of rulebooks for the next couple decades.

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The point is that we all have to start somewhere.  We all have to learn anything in life.  No one begins as an expert at something.  So don’t let others try to badger you because you don’t know the rules.  Explain up front you have never played before, and 9 times out of 10 you will be welcomed with open arms and will see enthusiasm from the others in helping you learn the game.  Generally we are passionate about playing RPGs, and we are delighted when we see newcomers wanting to learn because it means more interest and more life in the industry.  If you don’t like the particular game you play, try another one because the rules vary greatly among them all.  Try going to a convention and purposely sign up for a different game in each slot so you can sample them all.  It will give you the quickest and easiest way to tell if you are really interested in getting into this incredibly rich and imaginative world of role playing games.  Game on.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Weather Phenomenons in RPGs Episode.034

For the past hour, you have kept an eye on the approaching storm through the partially shuttered window of Killian Tavern dreading the worst.  Slow as it may be, the latest arriving caravan reports it was far more powerful than usual as they could see trees falling over from a distance as they just outraced it by a few dozen miles.  The atmosphere of the tavern this evening is grim as the news from the storm has even the heartiest men worried of the structure of the building – the only source of protection for dozens of miles.  Barchlet, the tavern owner, has announced the small fruit cellar has as many ladies and kids as it can hold with a few remaining in the main hall.  You know there is little else to do but hope it isn’t as bad as the reports.  Suddenly there is a loud crash on the roof as an object missiles through it cleanly, leaving a huge opening to the elements outside.  A motionless body now lies on the floor having shattered a table and chairs.  Gripped in his hand is a wet piece of parchment that is tough to read, but if your eyes aren’t deceiving you, it reads, “The city Frasnel is gone by way of the storm.  Something lives within it.  Run.”

As many times as I have played in an RPG, few moments have I experienced weather or elements as a major factor to either the plot or current situation.  There have been moments when a steady stream of rain has occurred, but very seldom has it been torrential enough to seek shelter or have lasting consequences.  There are so many natural catastrophes and elements that could really spice up a session or even a campaign: hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, thunderstorms, hail, fog, sleet, snow, sand storms, blizzards, tsunamis.  Given so many choices, it’s a wonder why more games don’t include these Mother Nature moments for more than just aesthetic atmosphere.  Perhaps you have frequently included some of the above ideas, and if that is the case, excellent work.  However, I think they can be implemented into a game for more than just a significant nuisance.

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Let’s take a tornado for example.  There should not be any mentioning of the Fujita scale as the rating is too scientific for a fantasy setting.  However, describing it as a half of a mile wide is more than adequate to give players the proper mindset of how powerful it is.  In a large city, the town would be in utter chaos because of the size.  Chances are, very similar to real life, tornadoes will be geographically common.  So citizens will be familiar with how dangerous they can be.  It may be tempting to simply have the tornado be caused by an air elemental, but then it feels less like a natural occurrence of Mother Nature and more of a special ability or spell.  There is something about a natural phenomenon that makes it more menacing than something that is artificially created.  Natural occurrences need not be completely alone in its occurrence.  Wizards with divination powers can predict its coming and plan accordingly either for good or evil.  Preparations could be made to brace for the impact that the players could help with while an evil diviner could arrange for creatures to attack just after the storm when everyone is in disarray.

Flash floods can be handled similarly to a chase that many rulebooks offer.  Both realistically fantastically carried out, players could roll to keep a steady pace just ahead of the flood (although realistically they would be overrun easily by it).  Characters are supposed to be more fit than average humans with higher stats.  Even a wizard should be able to utilize their spells to keep them alive in that situation.  If they should fail, they should have the opportunity to quickly scale a strongly rooted tree.  It may trap them there for a while, but at least they are alive.  Perhaps some agility tricks to leap from branch to branch as the tree branches nearby are thick and sturdy to support the weight.  They could cut a branch off and hold on for dear life as they leap with it into the water and swept away.  Think that isn’t a possibility?  Roleplaying games are supposed to be above the norm of life or else we can just go outside and live out them for real.  Make the situations daring.  Keep them on their toes and create death-defying situations for them to overcome.

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Most of the time, players will immediately think of shelter when any kind of natural element occurs.  This can lead to a quick departure of something suspenseful and exciting the GM had concocted.  Timing these moments is key in “forcing” players to face the elements head on.  One option is to unleash whatever phenomenon Mother Nature has in store during a great battle to add to the thrill.  You could have house rules implemented such as moving full causes 1 extra square movement, chances of weapons slipping out of wet hands, ranged attacks at a penalty due to wind or tight wind, or 1 square less when walking due to thick mud.  If you really want to add an interesting feature, add lightning strikes to random squares of the battle mat through dice rolling.  Granted in reality they would probably be dead, especially if they are wearing armor, but, again, play the game on a fantasy level because most of the action movies we watch anymore are completely unrealistic yet we love the thrill.

You can use weather elements in a campaign focus as well.  Unusual weather patterns have sprung up all over the country causing a blanket of snow on everything with cold, harsh temperatures.  Discovering what is causing the phenomenon before the people run out of food would be a driving force for the PCs.  Entire country sides that are covered with thick fog can add a nice, somber mood to the already dreary terrain.

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Mixing terrain into the elements is another way of adding life in your adventures.  Desert wastelands will have flash floods sweeping across the valley floor, breaking up the cracks in the dirt to small chasms.  Climbing a mountain that explodes its peak to reveal it is a volcano causes the players to leap over rivers of lava as they narrowing climb the face.  Expand the threat of molten lava to filling a valley, keeping the lava from cooling entirely by creating underground magma currents.  During the winter months, these underground magma rivers keep the valley from freezing over and allowing only Spring, Summer, and Fall to occur.  However, when the lava fills the valley, it slays all living things and blackens the earth for several years.  While the valley recovers, the blackened earth and all those who perished in the heat are summoned to animation by a powerful necromancer.

Mother Nature is far more powerful than most creatures GMs throw at their players.  And because it is nature, there really is nothing they can do to reckon with it except try and survive.  This can become especially useful when GMs find their party is becoming a bit too powerful and taking advantage of a generous GM.  When a Tarrasque becomes  child’s play for your group, send in the big hitting Mother Nature and let them come up with a way to defend themselves.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Mastering at Game Master: Traps Episode.031

Shoving the door with your shoulder, it wedges open just enough for your skinny companion to slip through the crack.  He forgets to be quiet and whistles in aw, which echoes off the walls of the large room inside.  Someone has gone to the trouble of nailing furniture to the walls and ceiling, creating a strange sensation of being almost upside down.  When you enter the room, the combined weight of the two of you causes the floor to drop suddenly down.  It appears the entire room is shaped like a sphere with no 90 degree edges anywhere.  The ball-shaped room quietly rotates and swings gently up and down to compensate for the sudden added weight before settling back down, albeit slightly below level.  You wonder what the purpose of this room was as you try to make your way across, readjusting your step as the unstable floor continues to rock from your motion.  Your foot almost trips over a wire, but it snaps to your strength.  Suddenly the pivoting room begins to churn and rotate faster, despite your weight.  The speed intensifies rapidly as you feel the force slowly push you down to the floor.  Dizzily spinning, you realize you have but a minute to figure out a way out of this trap before the force will render you unconscious.

Ah traps.  GMs love to use them, PCs find them annoying.  Yet they are such an essential part of a dungeon crawl.  Although they can be found anywhere, they are always first thought of in some dark abode of a dungeon.  GMs have to be cautious when applying a trap to their game.  Too lethal, and you run a risk of a PC death or a total party kill (TPK).  Too easy, and the thief is boasting about how simple the place is for the next hour.  There are so many books about traps, some good and some bad, that a GM should have zero problems finding one to use.  However, sometimes those just don’t fit the kind of place we are building at the time.  What if we are out in the forest, but the terrain is very rocky?  Or what if the forest is extremely thick to where you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you?  That boulder trap isn’t going to fit very well nor will the snare trap work very effectively with all the vegetation.  So let’s build the trap on our own.

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The first thing to consider is the most obvious question: how lethal do we want it?  This is such a difficult question because we naturally want it to be dangerous and challenging, but GMs really don’t want to kill players on purpose.  We love running RPGs, and with the PCs we would not have an RPG to run.  So the next step would be to look at the character sheets and take note of all their health whether it is in the form of hit points or wounds or whatever.  If the trap is leading up to something they have sought for, for quite some time and is highly important, consider shooting to take out about 25-30% of their health with a trap.  Naturally damage will fluctuate depending on system, but we are talking slightly below a third of their health.  That way, they could theoretically spring 3 traps and remain barely alive assuming no other ill fate befalls the group in that time.

If the trap is going to be more of an inconvenience that sets them up as slightly wounded for the upcoming encounter, then only about 10% of the health should be necessary.  That way they aren’t going into the fight fully healed, but they aren’t going to get wiped on a single hit.

Once we determine whether to set the traps to stun or kill, we need to brainstorm the concept of what would fit in the particular location that is aesthetically sensible.  For this exercise, I’ll go away from the traditional hallway dungeon as my environment and instead create one for a tavern.  That’s right.  For those who try to steal the extremely expensive and rare Blue Dragon Ale, they will have to face this trap of doom.  And for this, we’ll shoot for the hazardous level at about 25% of their health.  Traps we typically enjoy can be re-used if we set the damage to a percentage rather than a set number of dice.

  • Trapdoor into a container of acid below the wood planks
  • Wrought-iron chandelier collapses on their head
  • Panther uncaged from backroom
  • Spring-loaded blade from behind counter
  • Bag of scorpions or venomous ants
  • Animated zombie head
  • Thousand needle spring
  • Extreme sonic boom
  • Extreme bright light
  • Giant mouse trap
  • Rope snare attached to weighted pulley

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I like the idea of a panther being caged in the backroom of a tavern that no one knows about.  The cat is almost always silent, and it moving through the tavern would be equally quiet.  There would be no time for surprise from the thief.  However, let’s keep the trap mechanical in nature and use a combination of the spring-loaded blade and the trapdoor as a secondary trap.

The blade is going to be hidden under the counter top, so unless the bartender is either a giant or a Halfling, it will be around 3 feet off the floor.  This would hit most targets below the belt, somewhere on the legs.    Realistically this would be good to keep the 25% health in mind.  It might cause them to lose a leg until magical restoration.  We could make it more lethal by adjusting the locations of the bottle.  If it is sunk into the ground under a small trapdoor, the perpetrator would be kneeling to reach down.  A blade to the upper torso is far more lethal, even if you are just counting hit points.

The trapdoor could be wide enough to fit an adult human, suspending a small board for the box containing the bottle.  The blade would be the first part of the trap, but the second part would be after succeeding in avoiding it.  Dodging the blade on instinct doesn’t usually bode too well for their environmental surroundings and they simply dive in a direction away from the danger – in this case, the trapdoor in front of them.  Cover the acid with a sheet of cloth to hide what’s below the platform might catch them off guard as they will smell the acid but not identify its location.9

I seldom see double traps, but I try to implement them into my games.  They are essentially a GM’s “Plan B” to the easily succeeded trap avoidance by the PC.  There are ways of combining two or more traps in succession in order to cause more chances to fail.  For example, the box containing the bottle might have the animated zombie head that attempts to bite the thief and inflict its disease into him.  Avoiding the creature by moving their hand out of the way quickly, bumps into the hidden trigger that sets off the thousand needle trap, imbedding tons of little prickly spears into them.   Either put them in a situation where moving is one option to avoid the trap, or give them an ultimatum to which neither are great choices.  Not all choices they have are going to be ideal.  Sometimes they are just going to get screwed, and they have to decide which kind of screwing they want.  The chandelier is falling, but they know the only direction behind the bar they can go is across the open pit of acid that they now have to jump across.  The giant mousetrap for humans doesn’t pin them down but launches them across the air and into a shelf which contains a jar of venomous scorpions.  Don’t be afraid to give them the 1-2 punch when it comes to danger in a game.  Just because they avoid one bad situation doesn’t mean they can’t go through a gauntlet.

You can even have a trap within a trap.  You’re standard spiked pit trap could be spring loaded, sending the victim back out of the pit, which is great, but the momentum points them onto a few sleeping manticores.  They must try to twist their body like Super Mario to alter their trajectory or try to land on a single tip toe between the sleeping beasts and acrobat through their momentum beyond them.

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Traps are great for railroading unsuspecting PCs.  If you make it look like a trap but include a difficulty that is highly challenging, it will look more natural.  That collapse in the tunnel that makes them turn back, the explosion in the forest that collapses trees, a sinkhole that opens to another tunnel, spilled acid from a cauldron that opens up a new path to temp an alternate route are all possibilities.  Sometimes temptation is a great way of diverting the party in the direction you want by placing an obvious trap that is in their way.  They can try to disarm it, but it will be extremely taxing and time consuming.  Meanwhile they notice another route in a slightly different direction.

Feel free to make traps that are more as an oddity than a conniving weapon.  For example, the floor gives way to the party falling into a cage below the surface unharmed, but it is suspended above a huge pig pen.  Other cages are suspended with victims in as well; giving hint there are numerous trapdoors in this complex.  Cages begin to lower into the pig pens one at a time and are opened to starving pigs that begin gorging on the other victims.  Their cage never lowers, and the roof of the cage remains open to the tunnel they were traveling in.  It is merely a visual of what might happen in the future if they aren’t safe.  Another situation could be a door that triggers a lock, keeping them trapped inside for a few minutes while a mechanical puppet show springs to life in a nearby nook and tells the tale of the history of the abandoned palace they are exploring.  Make PCs feel they sprung a trap, but you don’t have to always make it damaging.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.traps

Mastering as Game Master: Conceptual Dungeons Episode.030

You find yourself following a series of twisting corridors barely illuminated by your dying torchlight.  It’s been nearly two hours now of walking on the cold, stone floor, and you begin to feel the stiffness in your knees.  Most of the doors have been locked and barred from the inside.  With no means of entering them, you have been forced to press on.  However, you have heard whimpering behind each one, and the constantly increasing number of barred doors has made you start to wonder about things.  What could be behind them?  Why would denizens of a dungeon keep themselves secured inside so many rooms?  And what is causing them to whimper?  The questions are immediately erased from your mind as your last torch begins to flicker its final light, and the sound of hundreds of high pitch clicking noises enter your ears.  There is movement up ahead, but the light is faded and gone, leaving you in the darkness with the source of the sound.  You’ll soon find out what is making the noise, but then it will be over.

There tends to be a fairly decent separation between RPers:  those who began playing RPGs in the 70s and 80s and those who began playing in the 90s and 2000s.  I have met enough gamers in the last 20 years to convince me that this holds true.  The style of gameplay, the focus of the adventures (especially published modules), and the setup of each encounter has changed drastically.  Dungeons have grown smaller with notable occurrences much closer together than before.  What was once a long, winding series of tunnels that eventually led to a room are now more compact, almost as if they were written for short attention span players.

Encounters are the most significant change.  It once was expected in a description to have a block of text to read to the players, describing the situation followed by some notes for the DM to be aware of.  Although some of that remains, the larger publishers out there who produce miniatures focus the fights more on strategy and utilizing their full-graphic battle maps and pre-painted miniatures.  Of course, it’s a smart move financially as you want to promote and encourage consumers to purchase your entire product line.  These features can enhance or clarify situations that otherwise might become cloudy.

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More modern RPGs have a more tactical approach to combat.  There are more rules for combat these days that try to answer every situation and provide all forms of maneuvers.  It can add more visual elements to the table and more flavor to the excitement as the fighter no longer simply swings his sword but bull rushes against the opponent, sending him over the cliff’s edge.

Traditionally, the earlier you go back in history of RPGs, the more the game is focused on developing the scene in your mind.  Although it still holds true to today that the game’s core concept still resides in the mind for the most part, there are now elements that take away that need for imagination such as the use of figures on the table.  Twenty plus years ago, the game relied entirely on great storytelling to make sure everyone had as close to the same understanding of what is going on as the other.  Naturally there were times reiterating the situation was necessary in order to more clarify and paint the mental picture better, but for the most part, everyone tended to enjoy their own version.

We generally prefer to play the games we were first exposed to.  Playing for years in 1st edition AD&D, one might be less inclined to playing Pathfinder for very long.  There is a more comforting feel of a game that we are familiar with.

I prefer dungeons that are long, drawn out.  I keep track of things that other DMs may not such as torch and lantern life.  However, more traditional dungeons sometimes take a different approach in order to keep the pace going as the corridors can stretch for considerable length and have numerous turns.  A single level filling an entire page of notebook paper is not out of the question.  If you have stuck to more modern dungeons and are interested in trying to bring back a more traditional style, there are a few things to keep in mind.

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Don’t describe things in 10 foot intervals.  Nothing can be more boring and dragging than to say, “You continue down the corridor, traveling 20 feet.  Up ahead the corridor continues another 40 before turning to the right.  You continue down 40 more feet.  The hall turns to the right 90 degrees.  Up ahead the corridor continues before making a left.”  This proves nothing except point out the corridor continues on for a while.  There is no need to go into that much detail when talking about a dungeon unless something is important such as an encounter.  In long years past, the thief was the leader in a dungeon, checking for traps every 10 feet to assure the rest of the party doesn’t succumb to a fatality.  It is a terrible idea to have the thief check every 10 feet.  Broaden the scope of checks and allow for an entire corridor to be checked.  It goes with rooms as well.  Even if the room is tremendously large, the roll should be about finding traps and not based on the size of the room.  Instead factor the time it takes to search the entire room and calculate any chance for random monsters if applicable.  Keep the game moving.

Structure your dungeon with logic.  This is a big change in the evolution of dungeons over the years.  One could almost deduce that the architects of dungeons 20-30 years ago were all completely mad, creating illogically laid out dungeons that made zero sense.  The monsters roaming around would soon die from lack of food and water unless the place had a steady stream of adventurers, to which would mean that the odds are against the monsters surviving every party.  Every dungeon does not have to be filled with just monsters.  Roaming creatures that are harmless but are meant to be food for predators can not only make your dungeon more believable but give more realism to the experience.  I often will throw the old “cow’s eyes” trick on players where their lantern sees 2 glowing eyes in the darkness outside their lantern’s light.  Nine times out of ten they fire an arrow at it because they are spooked.  Then they discover it was just a cow.  There can be kennels, stables, even special grazing dens for herd animals.  Yes, herd animals can be in dungeons.  Rooms can be large enough for grazing, and as long as there is some form of light source somewhere, life, uh, finds a way.  Natural lighting can come from a hole in the ceiling high above like a cave, or there can be magical means from an old permanent spell.  Perhaps the vegetation itself casts light that aids in other vegetation to grow.  Every living creature must sleep at some point to regain strength.  Therefore they all must have places of rest.  The more intelligent the creature, the better the accommodations will be as they appreciate comfort more.  Be creative in sleeping quarters for monsters that are not bipeds.  Don’t just make them sleep on a pile of hay.  Maybe they sleep on a pile of warm coals that are heated by lava far below but is just far enough to be toasty and bearable.  Some could sleep in a hammock that was abandoned years ago by someone.  Wood crates that are opened at one end could be a nice nook for a creature to cozy up in.  Flying creatures might have rings suspended from the ceiling to roost on.

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Dungeons don’t always have to have a plot to exist.  There usually is a reason for every dungeon’s existence, but there doesn’t have to be an actual plot.  There might be small situations such as a prisoner wishing to escape but has nothing to do with the overall scope of the dungeon.  More traditionally, dungeons are built to protect something or someone or just torment adventurers.  They are fortresses in a sense because they are there as an obstacle.  Players may simply stumble upon a half-hidden door in the side of a mountain or even a small sink hole no bigger than 3 feet in diameter in the middle of a forest clearing that leads to a colossal dungeon.  They can be more of a grab n dash where the purpose is nothing more than to clear out the monsters and loot the treasure.  Plot can exist, yes, but create the dungeon to the plot itself if doing so.  For example, if the players must discover why archaeologists have been disappearing from a cleared out dungeon, build plenty of rooms that are half-excavated with proper tools lying about.  Provide fluff such as journals that discuss the history of the structure they are working on.  It can slowly unfold the plot of what is causing the disappearances as they learn more about the place.  If the plot involves a beholder who is coordinating assassinations on a nearby town in order to wipe out a family line prophesized to slay it in the future, provide rooms that demonstrate the various eye stalk powers and spells as a hint of what is going on but offer confusion as to the source.

Keep things moving.  Unless there is a door, trap, monster, or split in the corridor, move things along.  Describe it as a whole.  For example, “The corridor spans about 100 feet before making a series of turns, left and right, with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it.  Finally your walk ends at the beginning of a stretch of doors on either side of the corridor, all made of wood and lined with old iron.”  Even that was too long winded.  It is important to give them the mental picture that the dungeon twists and is maze-like (if it is), but the overall movement goes from situation to situation.

Try to keep your dungeon at least 60/40 with interesting rooms.  Empty rooms can be rather boring, but sometimes they need to be to keep the meaningful rooms more meaningful.  These empty rooms are not truly empty; they are there for the logical side of the dungeon’s structure such as sleeping chambers, eating quarters, storage rooms, or even a latrine.  However, don’t overdue one or the other or the value will be lost.  I generally  like to provide 1 meaningful room for every 2 empty rooms.  I also won’t hesitate to make one of those empty rooms have something meaningful hidden within such as a secret door.  Players will begin wondering if they should pass the room up or investigate further.

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Utilize unique rooms wisely.  It is tempting to throw all of your aces into each room the players come across.  Especially when the creative juices are flowing, we have a book full of great ideas to entice the players.  However, it is important not to saturate the dungeon too much or else the flair will be lost.  Unless the dungeon is in the style of “Through the Looking Glass,” which players are expecting everything to be off-the-wall unique, use them sparingly.  Don’t worry about thinking outside the box in your more traditional dungeon either.  It’s okay for one room to be a reverse gravity arena where everyone is on the ceiling or a living tropical jungle that spans several miles in every direction.  Make part of the dungeon multidimensional.  Just make sure there is a proper balance, that there is some constructive thought behind your placement and not just random chaotic crap.

Give your players enough room.  This actually doesn’t matter if you are using battle maps with miniatures and modern rules or exclusively classic rules with just the imagination.  There is still the need for movement.  Sure it is fun to wedge your party into a narrow area and pit them up against a challenge that requires mobility, but in the end, it becomes cumbersome to manage.  At first there will be the sense of dread as the players realize their traditional method of fighters dancing around in melee while the rest move for cover in the back won’t work this time.  As soon as that realization wears off, it still has to be dealt with.  It’s very uninteresting (not to mention too fair) if one player is forced to take the entire blunt force of the opposing enemy simply because the design of the place is inadequate.  It is okay to put them in tight situations, but give them opportunity to have some freedom.  Don’t constraint them to the point they might as well be fighting out of cages.  The game is about allowing players to do whatever their characters can do not tunneling them down a glorious vision the GM dreamt up.  If you are using battle maps, blow the entire place up bigger than you think.  A 3×3 room may be a nice 15 foot wide space, but when the miniatures take up 1/3 of the width, it becomes tight very quickly with 3 or 4 in there.  Let the players and monsters dance a bit.

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Don’t let players map your dungeon out.  This takes forever.  I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog months ago that falls into pace.  No one in their right mind is going to bring pieces of paper, quills, and ink with them on a dungeon excursion to document every turn.  It’s highly cumbersome to begin with.  There are no cartridge pens in a fantasy setting.  Future settings would just use some kind of a GPS system to coordinate it all out.  Using quill and a bottle of ink requires a table.  It’s not something you can stop and press the paper against a nearby wall and dabble the quill in ink then proceed to draw it.  Not to mention that graph paper didn’t exist either.  Adventurers are there to explore.  If the players get lost, have the one with the highest wisdom deduce backtracking.  Recommend the players use landmarks or even simple notations such as an unusually large crack in the wall near a juncture in case they do have to retrace their footsteps a bit.

These are just suggestions for dungeons, and the suggestions could keep on going such as making dungeons more narrow and vertically oriented with the risk of falling through the floors.  Perhaps keep the initial dungeon relatively small and simple with dimension doors that take players all over the world to explore part of a ruin or a few rooms of a sunken temple before finding an important clue and returning to enter another dimension door.   The point is in this entire article is that we need not commit ourselves to just one look or line of RPG.  Our comfort zone may be in one edition or another, but opportunity abounds as long as we keep an open, positive, and willing mind to keep exploring.  Traditions and modern concepts need not be kept in separate cages.  Dig out the books you’re not used to using to find new inspirations.  Give yourself a chance to look into classics that you didn’t think was possible or interesting before simply because it didn’t feel right.  Nostalgia might always be nagging at you to go back home, but don’t let yourself miss the chance of discovering what’s over the next hill.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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