What I Learned from Collecting D&D Minis

Note: the following post has been updated since its original publication in 2011. 

The glorious Gargoyle miniatures from Castle Ravenloft, painted by me

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is an extremely flexible system. It is simple enough to teach quickly, but deep enough for a compelling experience. While previous editions relied heavily on the use of miniatures and battle maps, 5E runs just fine using the “theater of the mind” approach.

This is all well and good, but for those of us who enjoy a three dimensional representation of tactical combat, 5E can definitely support it. There’s nothing quite so fun as plunking an impressive mini like a dragon or giant down on a battlemap or Dwarven Forge setup, and surrounding it with minions like orcs or kobolds.

The problem is, miniatures for D&D can be very, very expensive. The 3.5/4E era miniatures are long out of print. The newer prepainted miniatures line, as well as the Attack Wing series, can be very pricey. Thankfully, there are some better values out there, if you know where to look.

This guide is intended to help new DMs create a good collection of miniatures without breaking the bank.  The focus will be on minis that are first of all inexpensive, but secondly those that can fill many roles throughout your campaign. 

The D&D Adventure Game Series is the first place to start for a budget-conscious miniatures collector. This game series provided some of the best miniatures value for the buck of any product. The games cost around $50-$60, and include 42 miniatures plus lots of useful dungeon tiles. At well less than 2 bucks per mini, that’s a good deal! The tradeoff, of course, is that the miniatures are not painted, though they are cast in colored plastic. They still look really nice on the table, and you can always paint them yourself later.

Adventure Series games include three copies of several monster types, as well as single miniatures that represent heroes and villains. There are a few  larger minis in each set that are your basic “boss” monsters.


D&D Board Game: Castle Ravenloft

Groups of three:

  • Skeletons – probably the most common opponents your PCs will face
  • Zombies – not quite as common, but can stand in for ghouls, wights, other undead
  • Wraiths – can be any ghostly undead
  • Spiders – widely useful in a variety of settings: jungles, caves, forests, etc.
  • Gargoyles – can represent many monsters, including demons or devils
  • Wolves – very common in encounters, can also be hellhounds, blink dogs
  • Kobolds – classic low level creatures, can be used as any small humanoid
  • Blazing Skeletons – made of transparent plastic, a very neat effect

Singles: The zombie dragon and flesh golem are especially nice. The Dracolich is fantastic, probably the best miniature in any of these games. The Castle Ravenloft set should strongly be considered the best first purchase. There’s so much great stuff in it!


D&D Board Game: Wrath of Ashardalon

Groups of three:

  • Kobolds – you can never have enough of these critters
  • Orcs – most campaigns use orcs, and you get both ranged and melee versions
  • Duergar – probably most useful as regular dwarves
  • Cultists – highly useful for enemy mages and other spellcasters
  • Legion Devils – can pass as tieflings
  • Snakes – found in all sorts of settings, can represent many creatures
  • Bears – moderately useful, can stand in for owlbears

Singles: The otyugh and rage drake look especially great.  Of course you get a huge red dragon that is bound to scare the wits out of your players! This set is less useful for a standard campaign due to the inclusion of strange creatures like grells and gibbering mouthers.


D&D Board Game: Legend of Drizzt

Groups of three:

  • Water Elementals – could be used as any goopy foe
  • Hypnotic spirits – spectres, ghosts, etc.
  • Goblins – classic foes, and you get six of them!
  • Drow duelists – useful as generic fighters even outside the Underdark
  • Trolls – great sculpts, and useful as many different large humanoids

Singles: All the singles are particularly good in this set. The drider is very impressive, as are the mind flayer and shadow dragon. The big draw (literally) is a balor, a truly impressive miniature. Strongly recommended as an early purchase, even more so if you think you might adventure in the Underdark someday.


D&D Board Game Temple of Elemental Evil

Groups of Three:

  • Gnolls – they are a bit large, but good generic beast-man types
  • Bugbears and Hobgoblins – you never have enough humanoids
  • Firebats – could represent any small winged creature
  • Four different types of elemental cultists – good for generic humanlike foes
  • Dopplegangers – appropriately, could be used as anything
  • Troglodytes – could be lizard men or yuan-ti in a pinch

Singles: Again, a very strong selection of single miniatures. One of each type of elemental, each of which get plenty of mileage in most campaigns. The ettin could be any type of giant, and there’s another big ol’ dragon, this one actually sculpted in flight. This would be another good set to begin a collection with.


D&D Board Game Tomb of Annihilation

This set is probably the least useful for a generic campaign. Many of the miniatures are specific to the Tomb of Annihilation setting, like vegepygmies, batiri, and pterafolk. Even the generic miniatures like skeletons and zombies are jungle-themed. On the other hand, there are some highlights in the singles: Acererak is a great mini useful for any undead boss, and the four-armed gargoyle is quite intimidating. If you are running the Tomb of Annihilation campaign, you will likely rate this set much higher. 

While the D&D Adventure Games are the best value for miniatures, there are several other more expensive but still reasonable options available. While I’d still begin with the D&D board games every time, sometimes you need a specific miniature to fill that hole in your collection.


Assault of the Giants

Giants are a classic D&D monster, and this board game is full of them, with a few giant killer minis thrown in as a bonus. There are twelve giants, two each of hill, stone, frost, fire, cloud, and storm varieties. The regular version of the game has each type of giant molded in a different color plastic. The deluxe version has fully painted minis, and is at the time of this writing available for a reasonable premium.

The giant minis in this game would be especially valuable if you are running Against the Giants. This module is one of the most highly regarded adventures ever, and it was revamped for 5E in Tales from the Yawning Portal.


Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures

One of the better options available is the unpainted minis line going by the fun name Nolzur’s Marvelous Minatures. This is probably the best way to go if you are looking for a specific miniature, or you don’t have the budget for a board game with 40+ miniatures in it. There are  tradeoffs: you will nearly always pay $3-$5 per mini, and the minis are all gray in color (though primered and ready to paint).


Origin Miniatures Enemy Minions Battle Pack

Another intriguing bundle comes from Origin Miniatures. The set includes 3 copies of 12 different miniatures. Orcs, skeletons, zombies, and more are each commonly used types of foes in D&D. You can represent many different types of monsters with these minis. The sculpts look a bit soft, but for the price (less than $1.50 per mini), it’s a good value. There’s even a foam-lined carrying case to protect them!

There are, of course, many other options out there.  The key is to find minis that are generic enough to represent many specific types of creatures, or those that are very common in your campaign.  It’s nice to have the perfect mini for every occasion, but you’ll be spending hundreds of dollars in a hurry if you take that route. Splurge and buy a $10 – $20 single every once in a while if you like, but spend most of your budget on generic bad guys, and you’ll have a larger, more useful collection that will serve your campaign needs well for a long time to come.

What’s the best way to transport all your minis, dice, books, and other supplies? Check out my suggestions for a “D&D Box”.

Do you want to try painting your cool new miniatures? Be sure to take a look at my guide for new painters.

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Running Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Screen shot 2010-12-07 at 7.07.45 PMAfter a significant break last year, I’m back in the swing of Dungeons & Dragons again. I’m playing on an online campaign through Roll20.net, and DMing two different tabletop campaigns. One group is running Curse of Strahd. In the other, we just finished Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I’ve wanted to run this module for years now, and finally I did! Here are some things I learned from the experience.

You Can’t Run It All

First of all, there’s just plain too much content in the crashed spaceship to get through in a reasonable time frame. Our group meets roughly once a month, for 3-4 hours each session. I knew I wanted to get through the adventure in three sessions, so I really had to prioritize things.

I read through the module, highlighting cool scenes and encounters as I went. I decided that the vegepygmies, police robots, both medical androids, the telepathic plant, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” plant, the froghemoth, and the mind flayer were must-run encounters. Everything else would either be ignored totally, found dead, or just described before running away from the party in fear.

But there were so many rooms! How was I to adequately and accurately describe them all? Well, I totally cheated, that’s how. I made copies of the maps for level 1, 3, and 4, and simply gave them to players when the time came. It made sense that there would be maps on the walls in such a big spacecraft, and it really sped things along.

Also, in the interests of expedience, I let the group find a red key card (which works on all locks) by the end of the first session. I realize all the backtracking and finding new cards was part of Gygax’s intentions when he wrote it, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I’d rather see my players do something epic than collect colored keys and backtrack all over the ship.

No Minis? No Problem

The second big take-away from running Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is the lack of miniatures for most foes. I was able to find no official vegepygmy miniatures, so I decided to make some myself. As a backer of the first Reaper Bones Kickstarter, I had tons of unpainted minis available. I’ve got plenty of zombies and skeletons already, so the Bones zombies and skeletons could be repurposed as vegepgymies. It was quite simple and the results were great!

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I layed on a black basecoat, followed by a sloppy drybrush with dark green. Next was a lighter drybrush with a brighter green, followed by a heavy wash in brown ink. I knew I wanted to have some texture to the minis, so they wouldn’t simply appear to be green skeletons. The perfect texture was easy to find; I just opened up a couple of teabags. I also mixed in some green flock I had lying around, but you really wouldn’t need that.

Mixing a few drops of water into some plain old Elmer’s glue, I “painted” each mini liberally with the glue. Then I sprinkled my tea bag mix over each mini, and let it dry completely. I then mixed some more glue up, and applied it to the mini again, as I didn’t want pieces flaking off. Finally, I based them and sprayed them with a heavy coat of matte sealer. Very simple, and they look nice. The minis are great for vegepygmies, but also any plant-like humanoid, twig blight, moss man, whatever.

barrierpeaks_33On to the main event, then: the dread Froghemoth. I knew I wanted this fight to be the closer, and so a suitably epic miniature was needed. An official Froghemoth mini was produced in limited quantities, but I was unable to find one. There were some very expensive alternatives, but I’m cheap. The third Bones Kickstarter offered a Froghemoth as an addon. I backed it (late), and the anticipated delivery was last fall, well within my time frame. However, the delivery has been significantly delayed. As the day of the Froghemoth approached, I had no mini to use. Making one was my only remaining option.

I decided to hew closely to the actual illustration from the module instead of modern reinterpretations. I ordered this frog toy from Amazon, and used the tentacles of this octopus toy. This project would require heavy customizing, more than simple limb/weapon swaps and such I was used to. Prepping the frog was easy: just cut off the frog’s eyes and front feet. I used grey stuff to fill in the eye holes, smoothing out the head.

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Attaching the tentacles was tough. I drilled small holes in the leg stump/midsection and each tentacle, then pegged a small piece of dowel in between. (The process was similar to pinning a smaller miniature.) Multiple applications of grey stuff were required, the first to simply stick the pieces together, the rest to smooth it out. Time was short, so added one twisted eyestalk with eyes looking in every direction rather than three separate eyestalks. A simple mouth and tongue wrapped up the sculpting.

Next up: painting! I primed the creature using the gradient method. A heavy coat of dark gray, then a lesser coat of medium gray, and finally a burst or two of white for highlighting. I went with glazes of thinned paint over the gradient, which ended up looking great and saved me lots of time. The tentacles were tough to paint, with so many bits and bobs everywhere, but a coat of orange followed by a red drybrush ended up looking OK. Next, I washed it all with Nuln Oil, (from Games Workshop, the best wash IMO) and sealed it with matte spray.

Overall, I think the froghemoth turned out fine. If I’d had more time, I’d have used toothpick ends to make some gnarly teeth, and better sculpted the eyestalks and nostril-thingies. Still, my players thought it was pretty awesome when I dropped the froghemoth on the table, resting on a 5 inch square base.

What about that mind flayer? There are plenty of mind flayer minis out there, why not just use one? Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s clear that the mind flayer in this module is not your traditional robe-wearing squidhead. Second, I had a conversation with a player that led me to want to go in a different direction. We were discussing the new Ghost in the Shell movie, and I commented that they added a Robocop element to the story (a forgotten identity). My buddy responds “DUDE we’d better run into Robocop somewhere in this spaceship.” That’s when I decided that this particular mind flayer would be wearing power armor.

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I had a War Machine figure from an old game lying around, but a Heroclix Iron Man or even a 40K Space Marine would work fine. I spent $4 on a two pack of mind flayer minis from the new Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures series, and cut off one’s hands and head. Some grey stuff and a paint job later, and the mind flayer was done. When he showed up, my players named him Power-Cthulhu. If you think a mind flayer is tough on its own, add in some spells and power armor. You’ll thank me later.

The Big Finale

I knew I wanted to use the froghemoth as the centerpiece of the big final fight. KNowing how OP my group’s characters already were, before they found power armor and stun grenades, I knew I’d need to really crank up the challenge. I beefed up the froghemoth with Legendary Resistance and actions, similar to those of dragons. The wing attack was replaced by a RIBBIT power that dealt modest damage in an area, knocking foes prone if a save vs. Con was failed. The auto-damage dealt nicely with summon woodlands creatures shenanigans from the druid.

Even with these alterations, I knew the froghemoth would die quickly. So I went with a multi-stage fight where other residents of the spaceship, including Power-Cthulhu, made appearances.

Stage 1: Froghemoth fights alone, the mind flayer simply observes

Stage 2: Froghemoth is joined by charmed vegepygmy minions with 1 hit point (throwback to 4E). These were useful for disrupting concentration and blocking positions. They also burst spores upon death. In this stage, Power-Cthulhu hovers around, taking potshots at the party with the laser blaster in the armor.

Stage 3: Vegepymies all die. Froghemoth is nearly dead, so Power-Cthulhu steps it up, unleashing his spells and stun attack.

It was a tough fight. The rogue got swallowed by the mighty Froghemoth first, then the barbarian. It took all the 10th level party had to fell the beast. This was the closest the group has come to a player death since level 2. The casters had used up nearly all of their spells. And yet they still had a mind flayer arcanist with a laser blaster and 100 hp of power armor left to face.

Good thing for the group that Power-Cthulhu was ready to parlay. The froghemoth was blocking the only way out of the ship, you see. The froghemoth was too much for the kind flayer to handle alone, so he used the heroes to fight the beast for him. Power-Cthulhu offered a way to destroy the ship (to prevent an infestation of alien vegepygmyism) and directions to the exit if the party simply let him flee.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was an incredible experience. Sure, it’s over the top, almost Monty Haul with all the technology, and by far the weirdest adventure in the history of D&D. But it’s also a great deal of fun. Focusing on the highlights, making miniatures for key monsters, and tying it all together in a huge set piece finale will make your crawl through a fallen spaceship a memorable one.

Have you read my books yet? Check out more information about them at marcallie.com/books!

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Don’t Stop the Geekin’

MarkBook2_CoverHave you been wondering where The Learning DM went? I haven’t been DMing the past few months, but enjoying the D&D experience as a player. I’ve also been busy writing a new book! Don’t Stop the Geekin’ is full of more stories from my childhood in the 80s, growing up in a world that was much less friendly to geeks than it is now. There are some funny moments, some cringey moments, and plenty of pop culture references that 80s kids will appreciate.

Chapter titles include:

  • I Was a Second Grade Pencil Thief
  • The Summer of Ms. Pac-Man
  • A Tale of Two Johns
  • Knowing is Half the Battle
  • Mad Math: The Slope Warrior (Beyond Polygons)

Don’t Stop the Geekin’ is available now at Amazon’s Kindle Store. Print copies are coming in May 2016. Sign up for my email list for all the latest news on my books! I’d also encourage you to check out my author blog over at marcallie.com if you are interested in more general geeky stuff.

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The Perfect Prop

IMG_20150516_190903726It’s been a few months since I’ve posted, but my 5th Edition D&D campaign is still going strong. I am having a great time with system, particularly with the flexibility and ease of running things on the table. If I want a quick, narrative only encounter, I can do that, but when I want a map and minis and all that, the system supports it seamlessly. I’m very happy with 5th Edition in general and with our monthly campaign in particular.

I wanted to share a cool idea I had, sort of at the last minute, before our last session. For context, a bit about the adventure: the party was exploring the depths of a dangerous yuan-ti temple. As they got deeper in the temple, all manner of puzzles, encounters, and traps impeded their way. I had one room I wanted to put something cool in, just before the archetypical big bad fight at the end of the dungeon. Unfortunately, I had pretty much run out of inspiration and there were only 20 minutes before the players were to arrive.

I started thinking about props, which I love to use as often as I can in my games. Did I have anything readily available that might work? Maybe some strange artifact that asked a riddle? Too late to find a good one. Maybe I could print out a maze puzzle or something? That would probably take them out of the immersion. I stood in my game closet, looking around, and something caught my eye.

IMG_20150627_160329681When the group finally arrived at the magically barred door to the final room, a puzzle awaited them. I described a stone pedestal topped with an inscribed turquoise surface, perfectly round in shape. The edges of this beautifully crafted circle were inlaid with garnets. Strange symbols, forged delicately of gold, were evenly placed around the frame.In the center of the strange table was a lever, also made of gold.

When the rogue stepped up to pull the lever, after checking it for traps, the gold symbols raised up from the surface. At the same time, depressions in the turquoise surface appeared. These depressions shared the same shape as the golden symbols. The lever began to inch slowly back into place with an ominous ticking noise.

perfectionAt this point, I dropped the classic dexterity game Perfection onto the table, and twisted the dial to the start position.

The players all loved it, particularly the young lady playing the rogue. She managed to deftly place the golden symbols into the proper depressions before time ran out. When she did, the arcane locks disappeared and the players walked through to the final fight.

The last room was large, with a smaller inner chamber. The walls to this chamber were protected by a shimmering, multicolored barrier. I wanted the group spread out for the big battle, so I described four statues, each in the corners of the room. A gemstone was set in each statue, and from the gem, beams of energy burst out, powering the barrier to the chamber. Each stone was a different color, represented on the map by a glass bead. The PCs needed to destroy (via damage) or disable (Arcana check) the gemstones to proceed. Pretty cool, right? It looked good on the table and I was proud of it.

Then one of the players said “Sweet! Do we get to play Simon?” And immediately I felt like an idiot, because that would have been way more awesome! This got me thinking about other games or puzzles that could be used in D&D. You could even use in-game skill checks (likely Intelligence, Dexterity, or Wisdom) to give advantages to the players. Here are a few examples of games that would work well, with the advantages players could earn.

  • 1304_classic_simonSimon – give the players a small number of colored glass beads they could use to help remember the pattern
  • Mastermind – extra chances to guess before failure, or begin the game with a clue or two already given
  • Crokinole or Sorry! Sliders – Allow additional “flicks”of the discs or pawns
  • Operation – Begin with some of the pieces already removed

I could easily see Simon and Mastermind themed in-game as arcane locks or barriers. Crokinole or Sorry! Sliders might be a challenge from a particularly nimble NPC. Operation is more of a stretch, but you could use it to represent a dormant golem that must be reactivated or something similar.

Card and dice games could be implemented in your sessions as well. I have a copy of Three Dragon Ante that is very thematic, though sadly the original with the traditional chromatic and metallic dragons is out of print. A simple dice game like Farkle would add a little bit of flavor to an encounter in a seedy tavern. A set of playing cards with fantasy themed art can get you lots of mileage as well.

My players got a kick out of mixing a little Perfection into D&D, and it was very easy to theme it in such a way as to avoid immersion. The next time you are stuck thinking of a cool new thing to present to your players, take a look in your game closet, toy box, or the board game aisle at your local game shop or even big box store for inspiration.

Have you read my book yet? Check it out, if you haven’t!

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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


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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