Tag Archives: advice

On Temptation

I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about temptation in an RPG setting. None of these thoughts are fully fleshed out. I’m putting this up in the hopes of starting some sort of discussion on how to best approach the problem. Please comment, Tweet, etc. I would love community input, as I don’t feel like I have a good answer…yet.

Temptation is a tricky business in RPGs, especially if you have a group that isn’t necessarily “role playing” focused. This is primarily because the character and the player are two separate entities; even though the player is supposed to be making decisions in a manner that reflects their character’s personality, that is often not the case. Continue reading

DMing For One

A few weeks ago, my new Gamma World campaign was scheduled to start. I run for a group of high school kids, and we meet at the library to play. They’re a new group, so I was excited to meet them, and get things rolling. I had my Escape from the Badder Warren adventure all ready to go. I printed out their character origins cards and their origin power cards. When I got to the room though (in the basement, oddly. Even in a public building, RPG play is relegated to the basement…) only one of my players was there. I knew ahead of time that a couple of them wouldn’t be coming, but I was expecting three, not one.

“You the only one here?”
“Yup.”
“Have you heard from the others?”
“Nope.”

Decision point. I could just call it off, and tell my one player that because no one showed up, we’d just postpone until next time. Or, I could try a little “DMing for one” experiment. Continue reading

Storytelling For The Five Senses

As a DM, when I describe a scene to my players, I generally start with what the PCs see.  Unfortunately, I often stop there as well, assuming that my visual description is enough to draw the player into the scene.  This is a problem because when we enter new environments, our bodies give us a lot of sensory input that is non-visual.  In order to truly draw the player into the scene, we need to play to these other senses as well.  So we ask the question: how can we start to describe scenes more fully?  I’ve begun using a “blind characters” approach.  By that I mean, assume that the characters are entering an environment with their eyes closed, and at the end, they open their eyes.  With that in mind, I describe the visual last.  By filling in all the other sensory input before giving the full visual picture, I am forced to think about what the characters experience rather than what they see.  It’s a useful distinction to make.  In order to make sure I have all my bases covered, I use the palindrome mnemonic STHTS to help me remember the order in which to describe the environment; or if you prefer, Stop To Hearken The Senses.  Here’s how it works: First, look at the picture below.  How would you describe this scene to players?

Photo by Troy Lilly via National Geographic's Weekly Wrapper

A visual-centric description would focus on the vibrant green, the waterfall, and the odd concentric circles in the pool (what’s about to pop out of that?).  It’s an ok starting point; I admit it’s necessary to give players a frame of reference before filling in the rest of the sesory input, but we can’t stop there.  Instead, this is simply a setting of the stage with a quick visual sketch before adding some easy, vibrant detail for the rest of the senses.  You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool.  The stage is set; we’ll fill in other visual details last.  Let’s use our mnemonic to flesh out the scene for the other four senses first.

SMELL

We start with smell because that’s one of our stronger sensory inputs, and probably one of the most neglected when describing a scene for players.  Smell can trigger strong memories, and the emotions tied to them.  While it’s difficult to actually bring a scent to the table, you can usually pinpoint a scent pretty well. The air smells fresh and wet. If you want to get more detailed: The earthy smell of wet soil is mingled with the smell of water mist and moss.

TASTE

I will admit that there is rarely a chance to describe taste to your players.  Unless they’re eating something, there really aren’t many opportunities.  However, there is a strong reaction tied to smell that makes this sensory input a logical one to follow.  Even if the characters aren’t eating anything, are the smells described likely to induce hunger, nausea, are they neutral?  In this case, I’m going to say there is no “taste” reaction, so we’ll leave this out.

HEARING

What do the characters hear?  Is it eerily silent?  Is water dripping somewhere?  This is a chance to create a little mystery because we can often hear things that we can’t see.  You can also set down some communication barriers as well – is it too noisy to hear others?  How will they commnuicate nonverbally?  The waterfall splashes noisily into the pool as the stream exiting it babbles happily away.  Birds are chattering and a steady breeze creates a pleasant hush sound…

TOUCH

Like taste, we might be tempted to say that there isn’t much chance to bring touch into the equation.  Unless PCs deliberately handle or touch something, there is no texture or weight to describe.  Let me disagree.  The human body is surprisingly sensitive to temperature and air movement.  If PCs touch or pick something up, by all means, describe away.  However, even if they do not, you must answer the following questions:  What is the temperature, and is it uncomfortable? Is it a normal temperature for where the characters are?  What is causing the temperature?  What about air movement?  Is the air still or active?  What is causing the air movement?  Will the answer to any of these questions make the hair on the back of the character’s necks tingle? …and rustles your hair.  The air is cool in the shade, but not uncomfortably so.  In fact, after a long hike through the woods, the idea of dipping your feet in the pool’s cold water may seem inviting.  (Note the word “may.”  As the DM, it’s unfair to dictate character action, though I’m not opposed to suggestion)

SEE

Finally, we will fill in any visual details.  This is not hard to do, looking at the picture.  It’s helpful to describe color (or lack thereof) and any details that the characters may find relevant.  It’s perfectly fair to layer the relevant information in pure fluff.  The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

Now, let’s put it all together.  If we were only describing visuals, we’d have this: You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool. The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

And that’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.  But this is better:

You enter a moss covered clearing in the forest.  There’s a waterfall feeding a small pool. The earthy smell of wet soil is mingled with the smell of water mist and moss.  The waterfall splashes noisily into the pool as the stream exiting it babbles happily away.  Birds are chattering as a steady breeze creates a pleasant hush sound and rustles your hair.  The air is cool in the shade, but not uncomfortably so.  In fact, after a long hike through the woods, the idea of dipping your feet in the pool’s cold water may seem inviting.  The waterfall is cloaked in a fine mist, and in the center of the pool, the water is generating strange concentric circles.  Looking more closely at the waterfall, you notice a dark opening in the rocks behind it.  Whether it is a shallow cave or the entrance to a deep cavern, you cannot tell.  Vibrant green moss covers most of the rocks, and birds happily hop from one to the next, fluffing their feathers as they bathe in the water.

I should note that most of the “relevant” details in my description are in fact visual (the disturbance in the water and the cave opening).  It doesn’t have to be so.  I noted ways in which you can give players cues that are non-visual – sounds, smells, abnormal temperatures – and I would encourage you to do so.  For example, we could have used one of these for our picture above:

  • The air is filled with a strange ozone smell -or- …filled with the smell of baking bread.
  • The sound of ticking clockwork comes from somewhere.
  • There is an unnatural chill in the air.

At first, describing scenes so fully may seem a difficult task.  You will generally find yourself writing out the scene ahead of time to make sure you hit all the details.  With practice, however, you will begin to describe for all five senses with ease, and eventually will be able to do it off the cuff without even thinking about it.  Just remember STHTS – smell, taste, hearing, touch, see.  Stop To Hearken The Senses.  Let’s practice.  Describe the following scenes using our new technique:

Photo by Flora Liu via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Jack Paulus via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Jennifer Cortright via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

Photo by Luis Bermejo via National Geographic Weekly Wrapper

All the images featured in this article are courtesy of National Geographic’s Weekly Wrapper webpage, where you can download any of them as desktop wallpaper.  Also, thanks goes out to the Dice of Doom podcast, who first got me thinking about this, and practicing it.

Dealing with Accidental Inconsistencies in your Story

  • DM: The captain of the vessel informs you that he will give you free passage to your destination if you can capture his nemesis, a foul gnoll cleric who killed his father.
  • Players: Ok, we roll some streetwise to track this guy down.
  • DM: Success!  You discover where he’s staying.  It’s at the Boar’s Knuckle tavern, on the other side of town.
  • Players: We go to the tavern where he’s staying, and look around.  Is there anyone in the common room?
  • DM: Well, it’s midafternoon, so it’s pretty empty, but the barkeep and errand boy confirm that yes, in fact a gnoll has been staying here for a week or two.  He’s in room 12, though he hasn’t paid for tonight yet, so it’s likely he’s leaving sometime today.
  • Players: We go kick in the door.
  • DM: He’s standing by the window, he looks like he was packing his things, but when you burst in, he charges at you to gore you with his horns.
  • Players: Horns?
  • DM: Yeah. He’s a minotaur.
  • Players: I thought we were tracking down a gnoll.
  • DM:………..

It happens to even the best DM. It’s usually a more subtle detail than the one in the example above, but at some point in any campaign, a player points out an inconsistency in your story or campaign world.  This is especially apt to happen in a campaign where there is a lot of improvisation by the DM, or where the players go in a direction that the DM is not expecting.  What to do?  Stammer, stutter, and apologize? Backpedal?  “Oh, yeah, you’re right, ummm, he’s a gnoll, I forgot that detail…let’s try that again…”  No. Not by a long shot.

Step 1: Deny, deny, deny

Don’t admit that you made a mistake. Don’t don’t don’t. Why? Well, because you didn’t make a mistake. You created a story opportunity. If your players call you on a story inconsistency, don’t admit that you weren’t paying attention to the details.  Instead, either insinuate that the characters were given faulty information at some point, or better yet, simply smile conspiratorially at their observation.  This will make it seem as though you’ve been planning this little revelation all along, and the players have just stumbled across some larger truth that should give them pause.

Step 2: Stall

If at all possible, give yourself some breathing room.  It’s pretty hard to come up with good plot twists and explanations in the middle of a gaming session, especially if you weren’t expecting to have to.  Ideally, throw an encounter at them that will last until the end of the night.  That will give you a week (at least) to sit back and decide what’s “really” going on.  If stalling isn’t an option, here is your fallback position: Magic.  The beauty of fantasy setting is that pretty much anything is possible with magic.  Your best bet is to have the players roll some arcana checks, and say something vague like, “You feel strong residual magical energy here. It’s possible that you may have stumbled across some magical shenanigans.”  At this point, you don’t want to commit to anything specific.

Step 3: Brainstorm

So, you didn’t make a mistake, you created an opportunity.  You handed yourself, unwittingly, a plot twist.  What does it mean? How will it play out? Take some time to run through the possibilities in your head. Don’t rule anything out, and try to come up with at least three different explanations for the information the PCs received.  For example:

  • The Minotaur/Gnoll is a shapeshifter
  • The Minotaur is a bounty hunter who actually got to the Gnoll first, and was going through his things
  • The ship’s captain set the PCs up, and the minotaur is his trigger man

All three of these could be taken in wildly different directions, and that’s without leaning too hard on the “it’s magic at work!” crutch.  Once you have a valid explanation (or at least one that the players will buy), go with it! Set up some scenarios where the PCs gradually uncover the truth, and turn the mistake into something the players will be talking about for a long time.

The example given at the beginning of the article actually happened to me a few years ago (too much improvisation, too little thinking), and I turned “I thought that the guy was supposed to be a minotaur” into a plot twist that the players had a lot of fun with.  It “turned out,” you see, that the players had merely captured the apprentice of the bounty they were hunting.  Their employer ended up calling them all idiots, and torturing the truth out of the apprentice.  This led to a whole side quest in which the PCs tracked down the guy they were supposed to have captured in a single encounter.  All because I slipped up at the table.  Make the explanation as simple or as complex as you like.  Change the whole direction of the campaign, or simply create a small mystery for the players to solve.  It’s up to you.  Just don’t waste the opportunity.

What do you do when your players call you on a story inconsistency?

Creating an Investigative Adventure

Recently, I ran the Living Forgotten Realms adventure “Crafts” by Andrew Cowan (DRAG1-7) for my group. In running this adventure, I was surprised at the elegance with which the author presented the “investigative” part of the adventure, and wanted to share it so that others could benefit from it. Often, writing a good investigation is difficult because things get complicated quickly.  I think you’ll see that keeping it simple is best.

As you read this, you should keep in mind the following:

  • This is a Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventure, so the plot is pretty railroad-y. However, the organization that was used in the investigative part of the adventure can apply just as well (maybe even better!) to a sandbox game.
  • The investigation was framed as one big skill challenge spanning several locations and scenes. We’re not going to touch on that at all, but rather the planning and presentation of the information.
  • LFR adventures are written to be run by many different DMs, and often the adventure is “pick up” (i.e., not a lot of prep time for the DM). Clear presentation and common sense organization of the material are paramount to writing a good adventure, good plot notwithstanding.
  • Since I don’t know the author, I’m making some pretty big assumptions about the PROCESS involved in writing this. If the process that I present doesn’t suit you, that’s fine; use what works for you. What I’m really doing is pointing to the finished product as an example of a well organized investigative adventure.
  • I shouldn’t need to say this, but will anyway: there are spoilers involved here, so if you haven’t played “Crafts” and are planning to, go away and come back when you have.

With these things in mind, let’s look at how the investigation was organized and presented in this module.

The setup:

The PCs are contacted by some sisters from a local church, and asked to put a stop to the sale of a new drug in the city. The sisters’ temple has been caring for those going through the debilitating withdrawl of the drug, and has become overwhelmed with the number of new “patients.”  If the spread of the drug isn’t stopped soon, the city will soon succumb.

It is important to remember when creating an investigation that at some point, there needs to be a “bottleneck” of information; everything needs to point to one culprit.  Put another way, all paths of investigation need to lead to the conclusion.  Granted, one path may be a red herring (ONE), and some paths may take longer than others. There may even be some overlap. In the end though, the PCs need to be able to conclude their investigation.  There are no unsolveable crimes in D&D.  With that in mind, you need to start by deciding where the investigation will conclude.  This will make it much easier to draw “paths” to that conclusion.  In “Crafts” the conclusion is the compound where the drug lords reside.

From there, you start wherever the PCs will start, and work forwards.  Come up with several leads for the PCs to follow up on; they don’t have to be obvious, either.  For example, the PCs could talk to some of the patients to find out where they were buying the drug (obvious), or the PCs could try and find a dealer on their own (not as obvious).  Finally, they could check with the city watch and find out what they already know (some groups may not even think of this).  It’s important to spend some time brainstorming possible investigation paths that the players may think of.

After you have initial leads, the rest of the investigation is simply adding some dots to connect start with finish. In other words, you don’t want the first lead they follow up on to bring them directly to the drug lords’ doorstep.  So you add some more leads.  Let’s look at how the dots follow from the “find a drug dealer” lead:  Find a drug dealer >> Obtain a sample of the drug (or) ascertain the dealer’s supplier.  So we have another choice for the PCs to make, keeping in mind that, either way they go, they will be pointed to the conclusion.  Let’s follow the “Obtain a sample” lead: Obtain a sample of the drug >>  ascertain the drug’s ingredients.  At this point, the PCs really only have one choice that will produce results.  That’s good, because now we have a bottleneck.  From here, the PCs only have to trace the ingredients back to their source, the drug lords’ compound.

There are actually other bottlenecks in the investigation.  For example, talking to patients in the infirmary (one of the initial leads) points you to seeking out a drug dealer as well.  While the PCs followed a different initial lead, they are sent along the same path.  That’s a bottleneck – no matter what the PCs do, they should be pointed towards the conclusion.  The more of these overlaps you can come up with, the better.  If you can use the drug dealer encounter when the PCs choose lead one OR two, that’s one less encounter you need to write. 

When you’re ready to map out the investigation in your notes, there are several ways to do it.  You could draw a picture, or make an outline.  I prefer an outline, because you can type it and save it, but if you’re more graphically driven, a picture with circles and lines works fine too.  Here’s what our investigation might look like in outline form:

  1. Talk to Patients
    1. Go to 2.
  2. Find a Drug Dealer
    1. Obtain a sample
      1. Ascertain the ingredients
        1. Find merchants who deal in those ingredients
          1. Go to conclusion
    2. Ascertain the supplier
      1. Get inside the supplier’s house
        1. Go to 2A
        2. Go to conclusion (with appropriate skill checks)
  3. Talk to the city watch
    1. Go to 2Bi

Of course, this is the barest of outlines, and should be a kind of “Index” pointing you to more robust notes elsewhere.  There is all manner of information, and many skill checks not included in this outline.  As an aside, I always advocate putting more information in your notes than less.  That way, later you can come back to something you’ve done and re-skin it, or possibly use it again as is.  It’s tempting to only include the outline in your notes, and rely on your memory for the rest because that’s less work.  However, you will most certainly forget the details in a year or two, and when that happens, the bare outline will require you to do the work of fleshing it out all over again.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a starting point for writing investigations.  I’m sure there are other ways of doing them, but what I saw in this adventure really made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to write my own.  If anyone else has tips, or a different way of doing them, feel free to leave advice in the comments!

Using T0rtvre

I had to change the title and content of this article because of the disturbing number of people who search “t0rtvre” and find this blog.  Not D&D specific, mind you, just that one word.  So I’ve changed every instance of the word in this article in the hopes that I’ll be demoted in Google’s rankings, while still preserving its usefulness to DMs.

The subject of this post most likely has made you a bit uncomfortable. I will freely admit that, even as I type this, I too am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of using t0rtvre in my campaign. That’s a good thing. It makes you normal.  Hang on to that feeling as you read this. Having said that, I am going to delve into an argument for using t0rtvre in a campaign, and then give you a bit of homebrew “crunch” to help you implement it.

Before I begin, let me point out that there are two ways to use t0rtvre in your campaign.  There’s t0rtvre that the PCs inflict on NPCs, and there’s t0rtvre of PCs by NPCs. I’m not going to discuss the first kind of t0rtvre. There is a wide range of opinions on that subject, but  in the end it’s a decision that is made by your specific group.  Whether or not you want to put your players in the position of “we need this information NOW and this is the ONLY way to get it!” is up to you, and I can’t really answer how your group will react to such a situation.  Recently, television series have explored the use of t0rtvre by the heroes of the narrative, and whether it’s ok. “Lost” and “24” spring immediately to mind. You may want to start there if you’re considering allowing the PCs to use t0rtvre.

Argument

There is a long cinematic and literary tradition of villans using t0rtvre on the heroes of the story. If not t0rtvre, often a “slow, painful death” which isn’t really that far from t0rtvre. Wesley is t0rtvred in Princess Bride. James Bond is t0rtvred in Casino Royale. Han Solo is t0rtvred in Cloud City. There is an entire “Legend of the Seeker” episode depicting Richard being t0rtvred by his captors (yes, I watch Legend of the Seeker). And those are just the examples that come immediately to mind. While we may cringe at such a scene, we accept it as a plot device because the evil nemesis in the story is the one perpetrating the t0rtvre.

Considering this, why don’t we see t0rtvre more often (if at all!) in our campaigns?  Chances are, the DM is uncomfortable t0rtvring a PC; perhaps the DM feels he is condoning t0rtvre by using it, or perhaps there is a feeling of “I am doing this” rather than “the evil NPC is doing this.”  Neither of these statements are true.  Here is a statement that is true: sometimes, doing what is uncomfortable can take you to new and unexpected places; this is especially true when you’re telling a story.  Even though the idea of t0rtvre makes us uncomfortable, it is an appropriate thing for the villans in our stories to do.  You may find at some point that putting your reservations aside and using a villan to t0rtvre one of your PCs will move the story forward, make the villan that much more despicable, and create very real dramatic tension.

Problem

Assuming you agree, the problem with t0rtvre isn’t necessarily a moral one, but a logistic one.  In other words, how do we use t0rtvre when the party usually stays together?  Using NPCs to rescue the party from a t0rtvrer makes them the victims, not the heroes.  T0rtvre is only an effective plot device when the party has been split in some way.  Ideally, one party member is somehow separated from the rest, and the focus of the adventure suddenly becomes rescue of the missing comrade.  Here are a few ideas to help; whether you want to take advantage of such a situation if it arises, or if you want to deliberately create such a situation is completely up to you.

  • Instead of a TPK, some party members flee a fight, leaving the dying behind.
  • In the middle of a fight, some bad guys drag one party member away.
  • A party member voluntarily leaves the rest of the party to explore on their own.
  • Middle of the night abduction
  • A party member is captured between adventures

Crunch

Here is what I came up with to houserule t0rtvre.  In my mind, there are two distinct aspects to defining t0rtvre.  First, the t0rtvrer needs to make the PC feel pain.  That will be an attack against their Fortitude defense.  Second, in response, the PC will need to wall off their mind from the pain so that they do not break.  That will be an Endurance check.  We also need to consider what will happen when the PC eventually breaks; the results of failure will depend largely upon the intent behind the t0rtvre, whether it be for information, to dominate the subject, or simply a means of slow death.   So here’s how the mechanic is going to work in my game:

I don’t want to treat the attack versus Fortitude as an “in combat” attack.  So we’re going to write that part up as a ritual, with a 1 hour “casting” time.  There will still be an attack roll however; the 1 hour prerequisite simply precludes an NPC from using this in combat.  It assumes that, for t0rtvre to be effective, the t0rtvrer needs ample time and the right environment.  Combat allows neither.  The attack roll will be based upon Wisdom.  I chose Wisdom primarily because that’s the ability tied to Heal; it seems to me that Heal, while generally considered the opposite of t0rtvre, would encompass knowledge of human anatomy.  If the PC is hit by this attack, the t0rtvrer is considered to have inflicted excruciating pain upon the PC, and the PC must now make an Endurance check to try and keep their mind from breaking under the intense physical pain.  For every Endurance check failure, the PC loses a healing surge.  Failure with no surges left is a complete breakdown of the PCs mind and body.  The t0rtvrer has won.  You could also use a “3 strikes” rule instead of losing surges – things would go faster, but the relative “hardiness” of high CON characters wouldn’t show through.

So what happens when the t0rtvrer wins? That depends upon the intent of the t0rtvre.  If the t0rtvrer is looking for information, it is conceivable that there could be bluff or intimidation checks after each failed endurance check.  In the spirit of simplicity, however, I’ll use one of three conditions: Compliant, Catatonic, or Dead.  The t0rtvrer chooses one of them when the subject is broken.  Compliant means the PC will do whatever the NPC asks, and willingly give true information.  In the future, the PC has a -5 to attack the NPC (in the event they escape, or attempt to).  Catatonic is a breaking of the mind, reducing all the PCs mental stats to 1.  Dead is, well, dead.

Here is a PDF of the rules, outlined as a ritual.

The wording of all this is intentionally vague; whether you want to describe in detail what is going on, or whether you want to simply say, “you’re being t0rtvred” is, again, up to you. 

A Warning

Please pay attention to your players and their responses to the t0rtvre.  If they seem excited rather than concerned, you should probably abandon the use of t0rtvre as a plot device.  If they seem eager to t0rtvre every single person or monster they come across, you should probably abandon the use of t0rtvre.  Also, I wouldn’t recommend using t0rtvre on a regular basis; like most extraordinary circumstances in our campaigns, less is more.  Once is usually enough.

Even if you’re not intending on using t0rtvre in your campaign, I hope I’ve at least given you something to think about.  I’d love to hear some thoughts.  It t0rtvre ever appropriate? Would you ever let the PCs do it?


Adding Continuity to your Living Forgotten Realms Campaign

One of the often heard complaints about Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) is the lack of coherence when playing modules.  There isn’t an overarching storyline within the campaign (that I know of, anyways), and the availability of the modules for any given level of play forces characters to travel extensively.  This creates a sort of “jet lag” for players, evidenced by the common comment “where are we again?”

For example, any given region in LFR currently has only two Heroic Tier 1 (H1) modules available for play.  After that, in order to continue adventuring in the level 1-4 range, it becomes necessary for characters to travel to another region.  Assuming 3 modules per level, a character will have travelled to six different regions by the time they reach level 5, not counting core modules.

Am I against travel?  Of course not.  Setting aside the DM’s difficulties of being well versed in all of Faerun’s cultures, I think it’s great that PCs get to travel all over and “see the world” as it were.  The problem for me comes when you trace the travels of any given party; it looks a little like something my three year old might draw: a meandering line that crisscrosses the continent with no direction or purpose.  And direction and purpose is exactly what every campaign needs.

Now, I know that there are storylines within every region that tie several modules together.  Unfortunately, those storylines often span several tiers of play, so once you’ve played “part 1” of the story at H1, you have to wait until level 4 (at the earliest) to play “part 2.”  By that time, the players, and probably the DM, are sitting around trying to remember what happened in the first module.  Not exactly the most efficient way to tell a story.

So, is there a solution to this problem?  Or does playing LFR sentence you to a “campaign” that feels like a string of one-shot adventures?

The solutions

I must backpedal a bit here, and apologize if I’ve made the campaign look like it was not well thought out.  There are legitimate problems, in my opinion, with the way “story series” span several tiers, and the lack of an overarching campaign-wide plot, which I mentioned above.  However, the campaign has a few features built into it that are meant to address the disjointed feeling that sometimes results from playing LFR.

The first is MyRealms adventures.  This is a kind of “make up your own campaign” option.  As long as characters and adventures are created according to the campaign rules, a DM can basically make up his own campaign that is totally LFR compliant.  Just to be clear, the rules specifically state that only the DM who makes a MyRealms adventure can run it.  This is a great option for people who want to adventure in the Realms, be a part of the living campaign, and want to make up their own storyline.

The second is Quest Cards.  The campaign has published quest cards with associated tasks that will unlock a special module.  The tasks can be fulfilled in specific, predetermined modules spread across Fearun.  Let’s face it, sending your players on a quest can give them a good reason to be trekking across the continent.  As they travel through a region in search of the next quest item, they complete “side quests.”  These side quests are basically just published modules for whatever region they’re travelling through.  Right now, this is the technique I’m using for my group.  They all received the Zhentarim quest card, and have begun pursuing leads that I’ve peppered into existing modules.  They’ve only completed one quest task so far, but they have played through five modules since they received the quest.  My plan is to make sure they’re the appropriate level by the time they unlock the quest conclusion, “Black Cloaks and Bitter Rivalries.”  Unfortunately, right now, there are only two quest cards available (that I know of), and if anyone is listening, I’d love to see more official quests.  For now, the alternative is creating your own quests, then adding task fulfillment randomly to existing modules, and using MyRealms to conclude them.  In my opinion, quests are the best way to lend purpose to the LFR campaign.

The third way the campaign has provided for continuity is through the Adaptables and the Mini Campaign.  Granted, these are only for level 1 characters, but if you need a good starting point, you could either play through the adaptables or the mini campaign.  The adaptables are basically the sample adventure in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide followed by The Scepter Tower of Spellgard (they take place in the same general area), and an adventure from one of the Dungeon Magazines.   The mini campaign is a fun series of adventures that take place on Returned Abeir, which is far west of Faerun.  Where you go after using the adaptables (or mini campaign) is up to your players, but I would recommend making use of quests at that point.

 With that, I would like to announce a new feature to the site.  If you check out the menu bar, you’ll see there is now an “LFR Modules” tab.  Click on that, and you’ll be taken to a map of Faerun that clearly outlines the areas of the world that have pre-published modules available.  Below that is also a spreadsheet listing every module available for play.  I developed this page as I was trying to figure out which modules the players should do next as they travelled across the Realms, and decided to share it so others could make use of it.  If you want the characters’ travels to be more linear, and make more sense, it’s the place to start.

 Special thanks goes out to LFR Oxford whose list of LFR modules was my starting point; they also have lots of other information about LFR modules and quests that I don’t.  You should check them out.

 

I hope you find it useful; it’s a permanent addition to the site, so bookmark it and come back as often as you need to!

Some Advice for a Group of New D&D Players

I received a tweet this week from a reader asking advice for an entire group of new D&D gamers. The question gave me pause because I started out as “the new guy” in a group of experienced gamers, and I think that’s how most new D&D players start out. While I suspect it’s not common for an entire group of players to be new D&D players, what follows is advice that I came up with. I’m sure I didn’t hit everything, so feel free to chime in with your own advice.

Start with the Red Box

The Red Box is a product specifically developed by Wizards of the Coast to introduce new players to the game. It comes with everything you need to play, right out of the box. This is probably the easiest way to get into playing D&D when there’s no one around to teach you. You can get the Red Box from the D&D Adventures section of our store.

Try and find a local group to play with

As I mentioned earlier, many, if not most, D&D players were introduced to the game by veteran gamers. Finding a local group to play with, even if it’s only for a few sessions, will give you a better understanding of the game, and how it’s played. Unfortunately, there persists a sense among many Dungeons & Dragons groups that they’re the only ones playing in their local area. However, with the ubiquitous internet, it’s difficult to say that with any conviction anymore. There are just too many avenues to find other players.

  • Warhorn: Many local groups use this site for their gameday and convention registration. Search through the events listed to see if anything is local to you.
  • Yahoo! groups: Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) is probably the largest D&D shared campaign in the world. The Yahoo! group LivingFR is the largest Yahoo! group serving this D&D community. Even if you don’t want to play LFR, there’s a good chance someone on that forum can at least point you in the direction of a local group.
  • Wizards forums: Check out the Wizards of the Coast forums for local groups. Unfortunately, there’s no “find a local group” page, but I’m willing to bet, if you ask around, someone can help out.  You can also try the ENWorld forums.
  • Encounters at your local game store: Is there a Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) near you? See if they’re running D&D Encounters, or if they have a bulletin board where people have their D&D game advertised. (There’s a box to type in your zip code on the linked page to do a search for local Encounters games)
  • Others may chime in with ways to contact other local D&D gamers.

You don’t necessarily have to join another local group; you could attend a convention, gameday, or ask a local veteran to run a few sessions for you until you feel comfortable with the game. This has several advantages – not only will you be learning the game faster and from someone experienced, but you’ll be benefiting the gaming community as a whole because you, even as a newbie, will bring something unique to the gaming table.

Have the right books

Every player should have the Player’s Handbook (PHB). Technically, that’s the only book a player needs. The Dungeon Master (DM) should also have a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Rules Compendium, and The Monster Vault. You could also buy these books as a group.

Understand the Rules – but not all of them

You don’t need to understand every nuance of the game, and you don’t need to create an optimal character right away. I’d say there are only a few things you need to know to get started:

  • How to read powers
  • Where to find things on your character sheet
  • How actions are resolved in combat (Roll a d20 versus one of an enemy’s defense scores, and if you meet or exceed that number, roll damage)
  • The difference between minor, move, and standard actions, and which you can do on your turn
  • The difference between at-will, encounter, and daily powers
  • Status effects, aka “Conditions” (just bookmark this one in your PHB, you don’t need to memorize them)

Use published adventures to start

Instead of trying to design locations and adventures as you’re trying to figure out how the game works, get your hands on a pre-made adventure. With an adventure already made for you, you won’t have to worry about mapping a town, balancing encounters, or making skill challenges. Instead, you will be able to focus on other aspects of the game, such as learning how combat works, and how the game works outside of combat. You can either purchase a published adventure from Wizards of the coast, or find a free one online. The D&D Adventures section of our store has a selection of adventures published by Wizards of the Coast; I’d recommend either Keep on the Shadowfell or Dungeon Delve. Keep on the Shadowfell is a place to start a campaign. Dungeon Delve is a series of self-contained dungeons that won’t become a campaign, but are a good way to practice the game before you start a full-fledged campaign.

Take turns as DM

The game is very different on the “Other side of the screen” (i.e., as the DM). Learning how to run a game will benefit you when you’re a player as well. Even if you have one person who is the “regular” DM, taking a turn once in a while is a great way to up your game.

Finally, Rule Zero: Have fun!

D&D is a game. It’s supposed to be fun! If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong. Figure out what that is, and fix it!

I will leave you with one last piece of advice:

At its core, D&D is a cooperative team game. Unfortunately, even veteran gamers forget this sometimes. One of the easiest ways to reinforce this concept on yourself is to follow this simple rule: In every situation, find a way to make someone else’s character shine before you worry about how to make your character shine. Do that, and you’ll be 90% of the way to being a great player!

Streamlining Combats: Tips for DMs and Players

A common complaint about 4th Edition D&D is that combats (especially high-level combats) can take a very long time. Depending on the DM and players, this can be painfully true. However, there are some simple things that both players and DM can do to streamline combats, both at low level and high level. This makes combats less of a drag and gives more time for creativity and roleplaying.

 Players: Know your character!

 Nothing is more frustrating as a DM or as a player than having another player at the table waste everyone’s time by not being familiar with their character. When you sit down at a table with a character you haven’t played for a while, familiarize yourself with the basic mechanics your character uses. For example, if you’re playing an avenger, remind yourself how oath of enmity works.

 You can also help yourself out by having a well-organized character sheet and power list prepared ahead of time. The Character Builder does a pretty good job of this, but it’s also a good idea to write down a list of conditional modifiers or damage bonuses that don’t always apply. For example, if your character is a rogue, write down your sneak attack bonus dice in a convenient place. You might even write these dice underneath each power that they apply to. This is especially important if your bonuses only apply to some of your powers. If you are a warlock, for example, you might write “+1 to hit with Prime Shot” underneath your eldritch blast power, but not write it underneath your howl of doom power, since Prime Shot does not apply to that close blast power.

 Players: Be ready to go

 As much as possible, plan your turn ahead of time. Pay attention, even when it is not your turn, and plan out what you want to do. Sometimes things will change dramatically and you’ll have to re-evaluate when your turn comes around, but typically you should be able to figure out what you want to do before it is your turn. This way when the DM calls your name, you have dice in hand and can take a quick turn. You can also take some of the time between turns to look over your power list and remind yourself about conditional bonuses and make sure that you know exactly what your hit and damage bonuses are when you roll your dice.

DMs: Don’t go backwards

This may seem harsh, but once a player’s turn (or a monster’s turn!) is over, that’s it. If a player says “hey, remember two turns ago? Yeah, that guy was actually dazed, so he couldn’t have done that thing he did,” just say “sorry, too late.” This keeps the flow of the game going forward, and helps encourage players to keep track of their own effects.

 DMs: Make players responsible

One of the toughest things about being a DM in 4E is keeping track of the various effects that players toss around. Dazed, vulnerable, slowed, etc. can all stack up in confusing ways. Most players use magnets or other indicators for effects on monsters as reminders. Many of these effects are important to keep track of; for example, if a monster is dazed, then that’s something you should have marked on its initiative card. However, if a monster is vulnerable to cold damage, then that is usually something only the player needs to keep track of. If you make it the player’s responsibility to add the vulnerability damage, then that’s one less thing for you to keep track of. The other thing to keep in mind is: if you forget to account for something, it’s not a big deal. Your main job is to keep things moving forward and to help players have a good time. If you realize a couple turns later that you forgot to apply a penalty to a monster’s attack, and that penalty would have made the monster miss, then instead of going backwards (see above), either just don’t worry about it, or go ahead and (secretly) apply the penalty to a future attack. This, incidentally, is why I like rolling dice behind a screen. It allows me to adjust for things I may have forgotten without letting the players realize that anything happened.

DMs: Call combats when they are effectively over

The best thing a DM can do to keep high-level modules moving forward is to be willing to “call the combat.” When it is clear that the monsters have lost, and will be unable to inflict any more serious damage on the PC’s, just award the PC’s the win and move on. Some PC’s may complain that you did not give them the opportunity to show off some awesome power, but most will appreciate that you are simply trying to not waste their time. You should also consider calling a combat even when it is not truly “in the bag,” especially if you are running short on time. You might say something like, “well, this guy has 300 hp left, and he’s got some good stuff left, but you’re going to win, so I’ll call it, but everyone spend an extra healing surge.”

If you follow these principles, I think you will find that combats at high level will run much more smoothly, and you won’t find yourself running combats that last 2 hours or longer.