Craft Sticks, Construction Paper, Giant Apes, and Dinosaurs

IMG_20150412_172352960I am a huge, HUGE fan of the whole Lazy DM movement (Thank you Sly Flourish). 5th edition is quite a bit easier for lazy DMs to work with than 4th edition was, which I very much appreciate. However, sometimes, you just want a huge battle map with tons of minis and scenery. My session this past weekend was one of those times. I spent almost all of my prep time not in the Monster Manual, or the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but at my painting/crafting table.

I like to do big, memorable encounters like this at the beginning of a D&D session. I realize that is backwards from what you’d expect, but I’ve had too many Big Bads not get a fair shake since we only had 30 minutes left for the encounter. So far, it has worked out pretty well, and my players don’t seem to mind at all. Using cliffhanger endings seems to keep the momentum going between sessions as well, which is a nice bonus.

A quick bit of story: my players are lost on the Isle of Dread, and had just returned to the village of Tanaroa after retrieving some missing villagers from a lair of lizardfolk. The lizardfolk attacked the huge wall guarding the village, and the players, along with some important NPCs, village warriors, and zombie minions, were set to defend the village.

IMG_20150412_201458603The first thing I needed was the wall itself. I had picked up a piece of Mage Knight terrain on clearance several months ago, the Castle Gatehouse. That took care of my gate, but now I needed the rest of the wall. I dug through some junk I had accumulated and found the perfect item: craft sticks that were pointed on one end. Regular craft sticks would work fine too, I imagine, but these looked more authentic, like they had been sharpened for defense. Other than these, I only needed a strip of cardboard and some plain ol’ Elmer’s glue.

I glued the sticks down to the cardboard, leaving about three inches uncovered on either side. Next I used a 1″ brush and some cheapo dark brown craft paint to give it a good first coat. After, I used a smaller brush to paint the crevices between the sticks black, then did a light second coat of brown to fix any sloppiness. Finally, an easy drybrush of light brown made the wall pieces look great.

IMG_20150412_201505847The only problem left was how to make the walls stand. The extra cardboard on the ends was intended for this purpose. Making two folds and taping them down gave plenty of support on either end. I ending up making two wall sections, one for either side of the gate. When stacked next to the Castle Gatehouse piece, they looked pretty good. The Great Wall of Tanaroa was complete.

The next step was to add some huts to the village. I really struggled with a good way to do this without too much effort. (I am lazy, remember?) In the end, I decided to dig out the old Dwarven Forge game tiles from the first Kickstarter, and see what I could do. Making a stone hut was very simple. I decided to leave off the doors, since these are supposed to be primitive huts after all.

IMG_20150412_201421986But what to do about the roof? I thought perhaps there were some rooftop Dungeon Tiles, but a quick look at DMDavid’s Index showed that there really wasn’t a good option. (His site is great, and you should visit it often, by the way.) I cut some cardboard a bit larger than the roof size, and set it on top. It was plain, and would work, but something was missing, for sure.

IMG_20150412_201429922I thought back to the paste, scissors, and construction paper art projects I had enjoyed as a kid. Grabbing a green piece of paper and a pair of scissors, I cut a rough rooftop sized piece, then made repeated cuts around the edges, all the way around the roof. I glued this down to the heavier cardboard I had originally planned to use. Turns out, this step was overkill, and if I were doing it again, I would go with the construction paper alone.

IMG_20150412_201446951By folding the fringed edges of the paper down, I ended up with a reasonable approximation of a palm-leaf roof over a stone hut. I considered doing some cross hatching on the rather plain rooftop but decided it wasn’t worth the effort in the end. I ended up using two huts like this, and during the fight, village archers used the rooftops as vantage points to defend against the invading lizardfolk. That makes me think, would palm leaves be sturdy enough to hold up a human? Hmm…

All that was left for the battlemap was actually drawing it. As you may have guessed from the pictures above, I used Gaming Paper for this map. I like this stuff quite a lot, it flattens nicely even when rolled up for long-term storage. It’s also easy to draw on with a sharpie. I didn’t go too crazy with details here, just showing a central path, some tar pits, which were the second line of defense if the gate was opened, and a graveyard on the opposite end of the map from the wall. This was used to animate some undead defenders by the friendly neighborhood zombie mistress.

IMG_20150413_170828113I was excited to use some of my Warhammer Fantasy lizardman army for this session. I had picked up a used lot at a fair price, and the showpiece was a lizardman riding a huge dinosaur. In D&D terms, this was a lizardfolk king riding atop a tyrannosaurus. In order to avoid focus fire issues, I gave the king and his mount a shared pool of hit points. This made for some cool scenes, as when the lizard king would have died, I described that long bloody gashes appeared on the tyrannosaurus, and the blood from these wounds oozed over the king, rejuvenating him. This worked well, providing a cool narrative as well as extending the challenge.

The best part of the encounter, though, was an inventive idea the druid had. He let me know that he intended at some point to polymorph the barbarian, played by my son, into a giant ape. My son had an old King Kong toy that was perfect for this. There was even an action feature where you would push a button on Kong’s back and he would bash with his fist. Conveniently, the lizard king mini fit into Kong’s hand. When the party surmised that removing the king from his mount would break the magical bond between them, all it took was an Athletics contest roll, and then the mighty lizard king was used to pummel his own tyrannosaurus mount into oblivion. My son’s day was absolutely made at that point!

IMG_20150412_174218698The encounter ended up taking a long, LONG time. In addition to their own PCs, the players ran a major NPC each and a couple even were responsible for village warriors and zombie defenders. This freed me to take care of the lizardfolk attackers, their king, the tyrannosaurus, and also some rakasta and human captives that the lizardfolk had used an enraging poison on before setting them loose in the attack. The fight was finally over after just under three hours, but everyone had such a good time, it seemed to fly by. It was among the most epic experiences of the campaign so far, for sure!

Obviously, I won’t have the time or the inclination to go to such lengths every time. Most of the time, theater of the mind and near/medium/far zones on index cards work just fine. Every once in a while, though, you want something more. You can get great results with the most inexpensive materials. If you don’t have the perfect minis lying around, a trip to the toy aisle of a dollar store can be a great source of inspiration, as well. And if at all possible, include a giant ape in your epic battle scenes. Your players will be glad you did!

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“More Game of Thrones, Less Time Bandits”

latestSince 5th edition launched, I have been playing D&D regularly, and loving it. The group consists of my son, a guy I played D&D with back in high school, plus his daughter, and a good friend I met after we both were pretty much done playing D&D back in college. It has been a fantastic experience, and I have been overwhelmingly happy with the way things have gone so far. My players seem to enjoy themselves, too.

I was chatting with the buddy I met in college about the campaign. He ran one session, and did a fantastic job of it. We love discussing ways to make the game better. I know storytelling and interaction are two things he really loves, and I asked him if he felt like the game was meeting his needs in this respect. What he said really threw me for a loop.

“I am having a great time, and please don’t take this the wrong way. But I guess what I’d really like is something more Game of Thrones, and less Time Bandits.”

I’m assuming everyone reading this knows about Game of Thrones, but Time Bandits is more obscure. Time Bandits is an 80s movie that could best be described as an eclectic time travel fantasy adventure. It is about as far removed from the grim realism of Game of Thrones as you can get.

time_bandits_xl_02--film-ALooking back at the past few sessions, I can see that our campaign went to some very odd places. The group had just used a gnomish diving bell to parlay with sea elves, whereupon they were swallowed by the Great Elemental Lord of Whales. They ended up in his diseased lungs, where a mad necromancer had set up a tower and was poisoning the creature in order to spread death and decay across the multiverse. They fought mutated worms, slimes, and a host of kuo-toa zombies before defeating the necromancer and claiming his trident of fish command as their own. The previous session ended with the group being spewed out of the blowhole of the Whale-Lord.

So, yeah, I suppose my friend has a point. That is, in hindsight, some nutty stuff.

When I asked him what I could do to improve, he said “I want something to love, something to hate, and something to fear.” While he admitted that the games have been fun and interesting, he felt little to no personal involvement with the unfolding narrative. He felt as if the story was happening to him, and didn’t feel much motivation to do anything other than sit back and watch.

His words were tough for me to hear, but I can certainly see his point. Playing NPCs “in character” is a weakness of mine, and he had not developed any sort of strong feelings one way or another about any of them. (Though he did admit he found a few irritating, like the gnome who inventing the diving bell, for instance. Which I suppose is good, right?) Without this emotional involvement, our D&D games were basically no more involving to him, story wise, than trips from one quest giver to the next in World of Warcraft.

isle-of-dread-831As I thought about his advice over the next few days, as I planned our most recent session, I considered ways to increase his involvement. I was planning to set the new adventure on the Isle of Dread, which is wonderfully open-ended. Looking through my options, I came up with the following.

Something to love

The easiest choices here would be the Tanaroan villagers, plus possibly the rakasta and phanaton settlements. When the PCs made their way to the village, I did my best to make sure they were treated as honored guests and as curiosities, too. The villagers asked all sorts of questions about where the group came from, marveled at their powers and abilities, and basically treated them as friends. The rakasta, after challenging the group to a contest to secure saber-tooth cubs, agreed to assist the group in rescuing a kidnapped villager from the lizardfolk. I did much more direct “in character” roleplaying with voices and such for both the villagers and the rakasta, and tried to name more NPCs than I normally would.

Something to hate

The clear choice here was the lizardfolk. I have many lizardfolk minis from a Warhammer Fantasy army, so I wanted them to be a focus. I decided to use yuan-ti instead of humans in the City of the Gods, and that group, too, will make good villains. Attacks and raids by lizardfolk among the other, more peaceful NPC factions should raise the level of animosity the PCs feel. I’m also considering having the lizardfolk use captured slaves in battle after inflicting them with an enraging poison (inspired by the deranged ankylosaurus encounter). Dirty tactics like this should paint the lizardfolk and eventually the yuan-ti as evil menaces that must be stopped.

Something to fear

Right now, our campaign has no real arch-villain behind the scenes. The Isle of Dread has one inhabitant who should fit the bill nicely: the green dragon. I decided that the dragon is manipulating the lizardfolk to amass power, numbers, and weaponry in order to make an assault on the yuan-ti in the City of the Gods. The dragon wants a powerful artifact that is said to be lost in the City which will allow her to travel between the planes at will. The PCs, of course, can use this same artifact to get back home to the Forgotten Realms. Perhaps they will even find themselves allying with the dragon, which should certainly be interesting!

Being a DM isn’t an easy task. Being a good DM is even harder. One of the toughest things we must do is listen to feedback, both negative and positive, from our players. DMs have a responsibility to make sure the expectations of all players are being met. Getting shot out of a massive whale’s blowhole may be fun some some, but not necessarily all. Most player groups have a mix of players who enjoy different aspects of the game. Make sure combat, exploration, and role-playing each play an important part at your table. Your players will be glad you do.

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I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool

10408026_10152993022196341_2406874802052122860_nI am proud to announce that I have written a book! It’s called I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool, and it’s available for at the Amazon Kindle store. This little book is a collection of memories and tales about what it was like for me as a young nerd in the 1980s. The book is humorous and melancholy at times, moving and engaging through all 30,000 words. There is plenty to reminisce about inside, with dozens of references to pop culture from that glorious decade, as well as more geeky fare like sci-fi, comic books, and of course, fantasy.

I devoted an entire chapter to my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons on the playground in fifth grade. A selection from this chapter is included below. Take a look at it, and if you like it, why not purchase a copy of the full book by clicking on the cover image above?

Jason led us on a journey to a dark, mystical land called Barovia. Packs of wolves howled in the distance as we traversed a muddy road shrouded in eerie fog. A creepy fortune teller cackled as she made predictions about the dire fate that awaited us. We made our way through thunder and pouring rain to the gothic towers of Castle Ravenloft. Inside, the treasures of the vampire wizard, Count Strahd von Zarovich, lie ripe for the plunder. The gloomy setting was incredibly evocative to my ten-year-old mind.

Jason would occasionally present choices for us, asking for our responses, and take the story a bit further. He deftly weaved our ideas and input into a compelling, if not campy, adventure story. It was as if all three of us were reading and writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book together at the same time. I loved every minute of it.

Inside the castle, we encountered all sorts of horrific entities, ranging from stone gargoyles to ancient witches and animated suits of armor. All manner of deadly traps had to be overcome, but vast stores of gold coins and ancient, powerful magical artifacts made the risk worthwhile. Anti-paladins and assassins are not exactly renowned for their sense of community and sharing, and thus Marty and I inevitably betrayed one another, but it was all in good fun. All too soon, the recess bell rang, pulling us from the clang of swords and daggers on undead bones back into the real world. Oh, what I’d have given for a longer recess that day, but it was not to be.

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Best Monster Manual Ever?

04-PRODUCT-INFO_Tabletop_Hero_MMI picked up the new D&D Monster Manual shortly after it was released. The quality of the book is striking, from the physical appearance to the content inside. There is quite a lot to like about this, the second major rulebook for 5th Edition. Reviews all over the blogosphere have been overwhelmingly positive, and deservedly so. The amazing cover, meticulous graphic design, and sturdy heft of the book make it look and feel wonderful in your hands. The interior art ranges from simply good to bedazzlingly perfect, and the book strikes a balance between pleasantly fluffy and satisfyingly crunchy. It is a fine follow-up to the Player’s Handbook, and bodes well for quality of the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide.

But is it the best Monster Manual ever? If you had asked me this question the first night I read it, I wouldn’t have hesitated at all before answering a resounding “YES!” However, after the new has worn off slightly, I am not as certain. It might not be a fair question. Does the 5th ed Monster Manual need to be the greatest one of all time? Not really. I think it is a contender, but a few offerings from the past might actually be better, or, at least, just as good.

For the purposes of this comparison, I am only referring to official material from TSR or WotC, released for any version of “core” Dungeons & Dragons. No other game systems, or setting specific stuff. (Sorry, Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium.) I should also disclose that I have no experience at all with D&D 3.0 or 3.5. Fans of those tomes, please don’t get upset when I don’t mention them.

monster_manualLet’s get the obvious out of the way. The first edition Monster Manual for AD&D is the gold standard. All subsequent collections owe too much to the original for it to not be considered as the best. The 1E Monster Manual is iconic and deserves a place in the discussion. However, as the first in a line of continuous revisions, it falls short when compared objectively to its descendants. The art, layout, and overall weirdness of old school AD&D make it less useful at the table. That doesn’t make it less important, but the book isn’t even close to perfect. For similar reasons, the Fiend Folio is out of the discussion, even though I love it so much.

Most of my D&D playing years took place in 2nd edition. The first “Monster Manual” for 2E AD&D was the Monstrous Compendium. The brilliance of this release was that it was a three-ring binder full of one-sheet descriptions of monsters. For a guy like me who was (is) a little OCD about organizing game components, the Monstrous Compendium was the greatest thing ever. Bigger art, more descriptive text, and slick Jeff Easley cover art made this a huge improvement over previous offerings. The expandable, customizable nature of the MC was its greatest strength; you could keep all your monsters in one place, or just use the ones you needed for a particular adventure. Only two things mar the otherwise flawless nature of the Monstrous Compendium: the page holes tore easily, and monsters would often be printed back to back, ruining the otherwise glorious alphabetical order once multiple supplements had been obtained.

Skipping forward almost two decades, we move to the 4th Edition era. The finest offering from this edition was the last: Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. While I dearly love the original Monster Vault, its successor is a superior product. The larger format of the book was welcome, and the included map and token sheets were even better than those that came with the first Monster Vault. But the best part was the wonderful design of the monsters inside. 4E had really hit its stride when this was released, and the creatures in this book married theme to mechanics in a way few other Monster Manuals have managed to replicate. Additionally, the book was dripping with lore and adventure ideas. I especially loved the one of a kind monsters contained within. Threats to the Nentir Vale is the high water mark for 4th Edition, and a serious contender for “best ever”.

3headredSo how does the 5th edition Monster Manual stack to these three? Let’s compare them in reverse order.

Threats to the Nentir Vale and the 5E MM are clearly very, very different products. The former was released near the end of 4th Edition’s lifespan, and it is clear that the designers really had a good understanding of what 4E offered. Remember all of the issues with the monsters in early 4th edition? They were quite a mess. Both Monster Vaults fixed many of these issues, and the monsters were amazing as a result.

In contrast, the newest Monster Manual is one of the first 5E products to hit the shelves. It is certainly a useful tome, but it doesn’t quite have the level of razzle dazzle I was expecting. The Player’s Handbook was a showstopper, but the MM seems a bit lacking. The designs of the monsters are a bit too generic, some seeming to be just collections of statistics without distinguishing characteristics. Orcs and goblins feel nearly the same mechanically, and that’s a pity. I’d also like to see more variety among the iconic monster varieties; we have dozens of dragons represented, but only two bugbears, for example. The monsters inside the 5E Manual are perfectly usable, but not particularly imaginative.

mcvol1Let’s move back next to the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium. Obviously the 5E MM blows its ancestor out of the water from an artistic standpoint. The illustrations are painted, and in full color to boot, eclipsing the black and white line art of the MC. Moving beyond that, there is a roughly equal amount of lore and background in the two. The layouts are quite similar, in fact.

The biggest advantage the 2E binder has over the 5E tome is tabletop usability. Using the binder system, I could put the monsters in any order I liked. As a bound book, the 5E Monster Manual cannot be altered in this way. That wouldn’t be an issue if the entries were arranged alphabetically. But they aren’t. There is a monsters section, a “Miscellaneous Creatures” section, and an NPC section. I don’t care for the pulling out of NPCs, but can understand the difference between them and monsters, at least. But I cannot understand why “Miscellaneous Creatures” are listed separately. Is a Giant Spider a monster or a creature? Who knows? It has caused delays in my games already, and probably will continue to do so.

MonsterManualADnDFinally, let’s compare the original AD&D Monster Manual to its 5th Edition descendant. These two seem to have the closest relationship. The new book truly feels like a remake of the old one; not a terrible “re-imagining”, but a thoughtful remake using modern technology and the benefit of nearly four decades of RPG development. If the 5E MM were the first such book you had ever seen, you would walk away from it with the same feeling of wide-eyed awe that some of us did when we gleefully devoured the 1E version years ago. I consider this to be the most important aspect of the Monster Manual: to inspire Dungeon Masters to populate great adventures with fantastical foes. By this measure, the 5th Edition Monster Manual is a success.

So is the 5th Edition Monster Manual the best one ever released? It’s an impossible question to answer. Just as I couldn’t choose which of my sons I love the best, I cannot decide which Monster Manual is the greatest. Threats to the Nentir Vale has amazing mechanics, the Monstrous Compendium is a neatnik’s dream, and the first Monster Manual is a nostalgic favorite. The 5E MM has advantages and disadvantages over all three of these, and deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of which is the best. Despite a few nagging bits here and there, the new Monster Manual is a magnificent book, and will surely provide many hours of enjoyment at D&D tables for years to come.

 

 

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A Boy, a Dad, and the Player’s Handbook

Excerpts_PHBAs I was perusing my shiny new copy of the Player’s Handbook in my easy chair a few weeks ago, my thirteen year old son asked me a question. “Hey Dad, does that have the rules for making a barbarian instead of a fighter?” Nodding, I flipped back a few pages, opening the book to the well-rendered portrait of an impressive barbarian accompanying the class description, and handed it over to him. Curling up on the couch, he started reading.

At first, he was a bit distracted by whatever was on the TV screen at the time. Within a few moments, he had assumed a more comfortable pose, the Player’s Handbook on his lap, turned away from the TV. I watched him closely. As he read, his eyes widened, nose inching ever closer to the pages of the book. The TV was forgotten; he was enthralled by the fantastic tome, oblivious to the world around him. He only came out of his trance long enough to share the most incredulous bits. “Dad! Did you see this? The path of the totem! You can be like a bear!” He was only distracted from his reading by the arrival of supper.

basic13thWatching this unfold in my living room was a special moment. I got my wife’s attention, pointing at our boy. “That right there on the couch is me twenty-something years ago,” I whispered to her. And it’s true. I was very much the same at his age, spending time playing video games, reading comic books, and devouring Dungeons & Dragons material. In my case, it was the Red Box Basic Set. In his case, Fifth Edition. In most respects, the experience was the same. The sense of wonder has always been D&D’s biggest appeal to me, and the latest version of the world’s greatest role-playing game provides this in spades.

I will always and forever be a fan of 4th Edition D&D. It was what got me back into the game after so many years away. I love battle maps, my collection of dozens of miniatures, and my Dwarven Forge set. I love the complexity of the characters, and the ease of balancing encounters for the DM. My favorite part of 4E was the capability of making showstopping final combats with a whole variety of wicked foes, masses of minions, and crazy environmental effects. Some of my favorite D&D memories were made during 4E.

But as I watched my son reading the Player’s Handbook that night, I thought back to the 2+ years we played 4th edition. I cannot recall him ever picking up a rulebook. He rarely even used the three pages of power cards for his Essentials paladin. The tight, complex ruleset that tickled my intellect was irrelevant to him. He just wanted to go to cool places, to act heroic, to swing his sword at the bad guys. I believe to some extent, 4th Edition was an obstacle to what he really wanted from Dungeons & Dragons.

157997_IconicPartyRedDragon_DarenBaderIf the amount of time he has spent reading the Player’s Handbook the past few weeks is any indication, 5th Edition is just right for him. The entire system is easier to learn and master. Characters have plenty of options, but are still unique from one another. The quotes from D&D novels he’s read, the fluff embedded throughout the book, and the gorgeous, evocative art throughout have led my son to take the PHB with him on long trips in the car, to read before bed, or when he gets home from school. He’s eating it up, and I am thrilled, incredibly pleased, that he is getting such enjoyment from something that I have loved for years and years.

Do I have concerns about Fifth Edition from a DM perspective? Yes. Balancing encounters is unintuitive, for one. I also feel there should be more options for variety in monsters like kobolds, orcs, and the like. Shouldn’t there be stronger or at least different goblins, troglodytes, and lizardfolk, just as there are elves, dwarves, and humans? I have some concerns about feats, as well. Some of them look like must-haves. I worry that feats will lead to overpowered characters. Perhaps the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual will alleviate some of these concerns.

But any misgivings I have about Fifth Edition are easy to overlook when I think of my son. We talk about D&D every day on the drive to school. One of the players in my new campaign wants to run a session soon, so I am making a character myself. We have talked about classes, abilities, which god to serve, what weapons to use, the background story, places we’ve been, even down to hairstyles of our characters. His excitement and enthusiasm are contagious, and it’s hard to worry about feats and balanced encounters when we talk about the fun stuff, the stuff that D&D is really about.

The Three Pillars that 5th Edition has been designed around are exactly right. My kid wants to go to cool places, to act heroic, and to swing a sword at bad guys. That’s exploration, interaction, and combat, right there. Each is equally important, well-supported by the mechanics of the game. The rules are no longer a barrier to entry, something emphasizing one aspect of the Three Pillars over the other. My son is loving it, I am loving it, and it even looks like I will have two campaigns going on at the same time before long. The new Player’s Handbook is an amazing book, and I am thrilled to see what is to come from Dungeons & Dragons in the future.

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Fifth Time is the Charm

Art_StarterSet

It has been a long, long time since I have posted. After reviewing a couple D&D Classics releases this past winter, this blog went silent. In April, I made a half-hearted attempt at a post entitled “D&Doldrums”. It was almost as boring to write as it would have been to read. And so, almost five months went by.

As the news of 5th edition’s release drew near, my anticipation grew by leaps and bounds. I picked up the new Starter Set on release day, downloaded the Basic Rules, and consumed them. Much has been said by many more experienced reviewers than I, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that I think the Starter Set is a fantastic bargain, and the Basic Rules are a solid starting place for anyone who is interested in D&D. Both products are exactly what they need to be.

As a longtime fan of the old school D&D Basic rules, I feel the new Basic Rules are robust enough for many, many hours of adventuring. I am still looking forward to the Player’s Handbook, since the basic four classes are a bit restrictive for most players. More choices for races and classes are good, though I personally won’t allow all of the PHB options in my campaigns, unless the player makes a very strong case for it, of course.

wallpaper_Illo 2A lack of monsters is a bit of a problem, but with a little creativity and some reskinning, you can do quite a lot with just the options in the Starter Set. New monsters are supposed to be added to the Basic Rules once the PHB is released. Hopefully it will be enough to last until the Monster Manual hits later this year.

But products and rule sets alone don’t get me excited enough to write. Actually sitting down to play D&D with people, though, that will do it. This past weekend, I had one of the best gaming sessions of my entire life. One of my best friends who I have known since junior high (and played plenty of D&D with before) is one player, and he brought his 11 year old daughter, a first timer, as well. My son, now thirteen, was thrilled to play, and another great friend I’ve played games with since college rounded out the group.

Each of the players took the time to develop an interesting backstory. I initially chose Dragonlance as the setting, which had me all gooey inside. However, due to some Krynn-unfriendly class choices (two players wanted to convert their wizard and cleric to warlock and druid after the PHB hit), and a desire to use the upcoming Tyranny of Dragons material, I decided a swap to Forgotten Realms was in order. I am looking for a good primer on the setting as it currently exists, so let me know if you are aware of anything.

unnamedDuring play, it became clear we had a great mix of player types. A good balance between power gamers and story tellers is great for a DM; I delegated initiative tracking and mapping to the power gamer, while the story teller thrived when I asked him “tell me what that looks like” after a critical hit. The younger players provided a level of joy and humor to the game that made it much more fun. It was an amazing experience from start to finish, and we are all excited to play again soon!

So, to conclude, I guess the message is: I am back! The new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is for the most part, exactly what I am looking for. Using theater of the mind as much as possible, I can concentrate on reacting to the players and improvising more. But sometimes I want to get out the poster map or Dwarven Forge tiles and minis for a set piece encounter, and the rules allow this seamlessly. (I am interested in a few more options for gridded combat, presumably in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to come.) I hope to keep the new group up and running for a long time to come. It’s a great time to be a D&D fan!

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D&D Classics Review: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

gaz1It’s a quiet time for the D&D fan. 4th Edition is done, but the new version of the game (whatever it might be called) is months away. Coupled with this lull in activity is a sense of nostalgia due to the 40th anniversary. These two factors have caused me to turn my eye to the digital offerings at D&D Classics. Having the chance to purchase a few titles from the glory days of my youth is certainly worth a few bucks. Today, I am taking a look back at GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, a book I absolutely loved when it was released. Does this first Gazetteer hold up to the modern eye?

The first thing that struck me about reading through GAZ1 after all these years was the sheer amount of text. There are extensive sections without any illustrations, charts, maps, or anything of the sort. The first 25 pages are walls of three column text. It’s a lot to get through, in all honesty. The Player’s Background takes readers on a brief tour of the map of Karameikos before launching an interesting section for character creation. Players roll dice to randomly determine social standing, ancestry, and their home town. There are even special charts for the three demihuman races Basic D&D supports.

gaz1npcsRules for skills are also included in this section. At the time, I thought skills were a fantastic addition to the game, and never played without them. While I appreciate the inclusion, which added some depth to Basic, the three page rules here don’t really go into the depth that such a system requires. There is lots of room for interpretation, a bit more than what I am used to after the much stricter skill system in 4th Edition.

The overwhelming majority of GAZ1 is devoted to fluff, with a vast array of details giving background information to your campaign. A timeline of the region’s history is very helpful. A section devoted to politics includes an interesting sample story hook. One of the largest portions of the book details Karameikan society. And I mean, DETAILS, including social ranks, religion, military forces, the legal system, even fashion trends and a calendar. There is almost as much text describing Karameikan dress as there was about the skill system earlier in the book. The economy and major geographic regions, as well as information about communities scattered through the land, are also detailed. The end result is a very well thought out and highly realistic setting.

The largest section of the book is devoted to NPCs. There are dozens of characters in this listing, from the Duke himself all the way to suggested big bad evil guy, Baron Ludwig von Hendricks. For each person, paragraphs about history, personality, appearance, DMing notes, and game statistics are provided. There is a tremendous wealth of useful information here, and it would be easy to find an NPC for almost any need in your campaign.

gaz1heraldryGAZ1 closes with more crunchy elements. A list of suggested monsters is supplemented by two new creatures, the chevall (horse/centaur shapeshifter) and the nosferatu (variant vampire). A few final, very helpful pages with DM advice round out the book. I particularly liked the short adventure starters, arrayed in a nice progression from Basic to Master level. This is the sort of thing I craved when I was younger. Often, getting a good hook was the hardest part of making a new adventure.

So, does The Grandy Duchy of Karameikos hold up more than two decades later? For the most part, yes. The sheer amount of edition-free fluff makes it a good read no matter what game system you are using. But it really doesn’t do much as a supplement for Basic D&D. Later entries in the GAZ series would tend towards more crunch, but this first release is disappointing if you are looking for rules-heavy content. It is interesting from a historical perspective, and would be a solid campaign setting for any edition, even 4E or Next. But there’s not a lot of new ground broken here; Karameikos is the very definition of generic medieval fantasy, albeit one that is well designed. It’s certainly not nearly as unique as Dark Sun or Spelljammer. Unless you have a strong nostalgia for GAZ1, I’d suggest waiting to spend your digital dollars for more unique Gazetteers to come in the future.

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