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.

Help support The Learning DM by purchasing D&D Classics here!

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Dragonlance Finally Available Digitally!


In 2012, Wizards announced that they would go back to releasing select items from the back catalog digitally again. As an old school D&D fan, I found this news quite exciting. I immediately made a wish list of favorites I wanted to see at dndclassics.com. Two items on this list, the original Dragonlance modules and the Mystara Gazetteer series, were nowhere to be found in all of 2013.

I was thoroughly tickled, then, when both of these series were included with the first new releases of the year. It looks like one Dragonlance module and one Gazetteer will be available for download each week, if the current trends hold. I have so far downloaded DL1 Dragons of Despair and GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I thought I would share my initial thoughts on reading these iconic though dated classics through the eye of a post-4E Dungeon Master. I will cover Dragons of Despair in this post, with The Grand Duchy of Karameikos to come later.


First off, a caveat: I never actually played through the DL series, either as a player or a DM. I did pick up a copy of DL5, Dragons of Mystery, which was basically a sourcebook, during the heyday of my Dragonlance reading frenzy. I had always supposed that the adventures followed very closely with the events of the Chronicles trilogy. This supposition was backed up by research in the past decade or so. Many people across the community have been unkind to the DL series, painting the picture that it is as railroad-y as adventures get.

I was honestly surprised then, by my first readthrough. It is true that the major events from the first half of Dragons of Autumn Twilight are here. The party encounters Goldmoon and Riverwind at some point, and they are driven by the dragonarmies to the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. But that is basically the only real railroading going on here. There is a lot of room for exploration, flexible encounters, and really more to do here than you might expect from reading the novel.

The city of Xak Tsaroth itself is an enormous dungeon, filled with hordes of draconians, potential gully dwarf allies, and of course a mighty black dragon. It is an interesting setting, different than the standard dungeon, yet it still has that vintage crawl feel. I particularly appreciated the design of Onyx, the dragon, who interacts with the party from the beginning instead of merely waiting in her lair to be slain.

tassReading through DL1 was very enjoyable for me as a fan of the Dragonlance saga. While it is clearly a story-driven adventure, there is a good amount of leeway for the DM and freedom for the players. I am considering running the series myself, with a mixed group of some who have, and some who haven’t read the books. I think those who are familiar with the story would enjoy seeing it as a “what if” tale, especially if we used new characters. Those new to the setting would surely appreciate the epic nature of the saga. I am very much looking forward to picking up further releases in the series.

One last comment: it is quite shocking to see the stats for eight different PCs all fit on one page (front and back). It was originally a page intended to be cut out and passed to the players. Imagine being able to note a PCs relevant stats and abilities all on one small piece of paper, with only equipment and a background paragraph on the reverse side! How things have changed.

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I Deserve a Break Today

breaktodayAs I write this post, it has been almost two and a half years since I began this blog. For a good portion of this time, I’ve been running a regular D&D campaign. In early 2011, our group started with five PCs and myself as the DM running 4th Edition Essentials. After six months or so, we lost a player, and the campaign changed from a brisk weekly pace to a more leisurely monthly schedule. Subsequently, another player quit, and a lengthy hiatus was the result. However, in the summer of 2012, two new players came on board, and we’ve been playing regularly since.

Several months ago, after completing Madness at Gardmore Abbey, we switched to D&D Next. I was hoping the more compact rules would be a good fit for our campaign, and they certainly were. I had a blast taking my players through White Plume Mountain and the original Ravenloft. After one more session in a few weeks, the players will hopefully defeat Strahd and free the land of Barovia from his tyrannical hand, for at least a while.

After that, we are taking an extended break. For the first time in what seems like quite a while, I won’t be actively running a D&D campaign of any sort.

busy-calendarThere are many reasons for taking a break. I’ve been frustrated by coordinating a free night for a group of five busy adults (and one preteen) once per month. Every time, it seems as if I choose a night, everyone agrees, and then the conflicts start. Typically, several dozen emails are involved in making the arrangements. That’s a sign, I think, that it is not important enough to all my players, and perhaps time to move on. In any event, I am weary of the struggle to simply find a good time to play each month.

Another issue has been the state of the D&D Next playtest. I am generally pleased with the way the new version of D&D is shaping up, but wading through a sea of PDFs and paper printouts is an obstacle. Running a one shot adventure with the test documents is fine, but it’s not easy to do a campaign this way. We are really feeling the lack of well organized books to use at the table. If we can take time off right now, and come back in full force when the books are released (next year, I presume), things should be better.

IKRPGOther role playing systems are also calling to us. This summer, we played a session of the Iron Kingdoms RPG, based on the world of the Warmachine and Hordes tabletop miniatures game, which we also play and enjoy. It was quite fun, especially for me, as I had the chance to be a player and not a GM. One of my regular players has expressed an interest in running an IKRPG campaign, which is quite exciting. Another player wants to run Castles and Crusades, an old-school AD&D clone. I am not sure whether these games will ever get off the ground or not, but I am happy to step away from the DM seat and let someone else take over for a while.

Perhaps the greatest factor in my decision to take a break from the campaign is the simple fact that other interests are taking my attention. A look at the publication dates here on my blog shows that I have been posting less and less over time, particularly in 2013, and this corresponds with my increasing apathy towards D&D in general. I would rather spend my time painting miniatures, playing video games, or a whole host of other hobbies and activities. With the “between editions” lull in exciting D&D material, there are just too many other new, shiny things I’d rather be doing.

the-endWith any extended break, there is always the question: is this just a break, or is it the end entirely? Back in my college days, I played what I thought would be my last D&D game ever. It wasn’t, but if you had asked me five years ago, I would have told you I was done with D&D forever at the age of 23. This time, though, it’s different. I don’t think it will be another 15 years before I run another D&D campaign, especially with a 12 year old son who is still very interested in role playing. I plan to follow the D&D Next news over the next months, and hopefully, sometime in 2014, I will don my DM hat, grab some index cards and a handful of dice, and start telling stories with my players once again.

In the meantime, expect less D&D related content here at the Learning DM. I will probably focus more on the other RPGs we play, board gaming, and that sort of thing. I do enjoy writing about what I have been playing, whether it’s D&D, Warhammer, Magic the Gathering, or even Pokemon. Well, not Pokemon so much. (Though I do love my Froakie.)

Perhaps now will have time to paint all my Reaper Bones Kickstarter minis, and get my new Dwarven Forge tiles dry brushed…

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What I Learned from White Plume Mountain

dnd_products_dndacc_s-series_pic3_enIn my group’s monthly sessions this summer, I’ve been running White Plume Mountain. It can be found in the recent premium hardcover adventure compilation Dungeons of Dread and also in Tales from the Yawning Portal. Back in the day, I was mainly reading the Basic D&D material, so I never got to experience White Plume Mountain before. Looking over it as a D&D Next DM, I thought it would be lots of fun to run, and to see what my players came up with. I thought I would share some tips for running your Next playtest characters through the crazy dungeon of the enigmatic wizard Keraptis.

The first problem I needed to overcome was the level of the adventure. My PCs are 10th level, and that is the upper end of the recommended range. Next characters feel more hardy than 1E characters anyway, so I knew I’d have to adjust some things here and there. Thankfully, the playtest packet includes Next versions of the monsters in White Plume Mountain. These are just a bit too low level, though. I generally adjusted hit points up by 10-20, and added one or two to AC and to hit. This tweak seemed to work fairly well.

D&D Next allows for quick, easy combat, and many of the potential fights in White Plume Mountain are simple enough to be run in the “theater of the mind”. Minis alone worked just fine for the kelpie fight and would probably be sufficient for others as well. However, sometimes, you just want to bust out a cool map and throw some plastic monsters on it. Looking through the adventure, I identified the following as encounters that could possibly merit a full on map:

  • Flesh Golems (if the riddle was failed)
  • Ctenmiir the vampire
  • Burket and Snarla
  • Sir Bluto and his fighter minions

imagesI purchased the printable maps for White Plume Mountain available on DriveThruRPG (a steal at 50 cents). I printed out the maps for the rooms above, plus a few other areas that might be hard to visualize, like the mud geyser room. Even with the printed maps, however, the fact is, White Plume Mountain is rather plain. Keeping in mind it was designed when I was still wearing Underoos and watching Superfriends, I decided to throw in some interesting environmental effects and terrain a la 4th edition.

Probably the best instance of this was the encounter with the vampire Ctenmiir. I had worried ahead of time about the mud geyser room. The obvious solution my players took, one I foresaw, was to use fly to avoid the geysers entirely. But the room was so interesting, I tried to use it anyway. My goal was to move the fight from the rather boring small, enclosed coffin room outside to the dangerous, cinematic geysers. I figured the darkness would be a good incentive to move the players outside. To discourage dispel magic, I tossed in an environmental effect of swarms of flies that disrupted spellcasting concentration unless a skill check was made. A secondary effect was the nerf the casters a bit, and give the melee folks time to shine. I figured between the flies and the difficulty of dispelling the magical darkness, they’d want to move the fight outside. Flying around in a geyser-filled room, chasing a vampire who summoned giant bat minions, sounded like a good thing to me.

In reality, my players were determined to stay in the coffin room. It took several rounds of fighting in the dark, but eventually one of the wizards managed to maintain concentration and successfully dispel the darkness. A turn undead and a couple solid hits from the fighter later, and the vampire was toast. While it wasn’t quite what I had planned, it was still very tense and a memorable fight, so I have to consider it a success.

downloadAnother really neat encounter in White Plume Mountain was the room with the globes. I was trying to come up with a way to make this more exciting, maybe use a prop somehow. It finally occurred to me to use plastic easter eggs to represent the globes. Inside each, I placed a short description of the contents, folded up fortune cookie style. For the globes with creatures, I put in tokens from my Monster Vault set. A few glass beads and other random trinkets represented gems and jewelry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a ring on hand, nor time to “arts and crafts” one, for the talking ring. (This ring was fun, and I allowed the fighter to use the ring’s wish to allow the ring to work outside the room… at my discretion, of course). My players really enjoyed opening the eggs, alternating between fear and greed in grand procession as they cracked them all. This just reinforces what I already knew: props are awesome, and DMs need to use them more.

Another piece of advice I have for DMs who will be running White Plume Mountain is to have a few extra riddles on hand. My players actually got out of the dungeon unexpectedly (more on that in a moment), and had passed the sphinx peacefully the first time through. I googled “fantasy riddles” and ended up with this list from the old PC game Betrayal at Krondor. My players failed two riddles, and would have been attacked by the sphinx had they not answered the third at the last possible moment. You can never have enough riddles, so consider printing a list or bookmarking that site.

white-plume-mountainThe three wing setup of White Plume Mountain is ideal for my group, with enough in each wing to last our typical two to three hour session. I gleefully admit I railroaded my players into saving Blackrazor and the Ziggurat for last. That room screams “final encounter” all over it. I am hoping to assemble a 3D ziggurat to use, and I’ve ordered a pack of cheap crab toys from Amazon to take the place of the giant crayfish. I’m still looking for other minis to use as well. I think the ogre mage alone in a small room afterwards would be anticlimactic, so he will make an appearance in the ziggurat along with the monsters. I am quite excited about the next session, and hope to have some pictures of the ziggurat here at The Learning DM soon.

One final note: if at all possible, end a session of White Plume Mountain with the giant crab encounter. A huge, dangerous beast, a magical, intelligent trident, and being shot out of a volcano in a hastily-created bubble of force combine to make an excellent end to an evening of gaming. White Plume Mountain is a strange place, but it has made for some truly enjoyable experiences for myself and my players. The D&D Next playtest works quite well with the classic module, and I look forward to trying out the other famous adventures in Dungeons of Dread in the near future.

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In Praise of Dungeon Command

Dungeon-CommandThis is a very strange time for D&D as a product line. 4th Edition is all but finished with the announcement and public playtest of D&D Next. I’d guess that most groups are playing either 4th edition or Next, and for both of these editions, there are few or no products on local game store shelves. In the interim, Wizards of the Coast has dug deep within the vault of the past, releasing definitive premium versions of classic material from many editions, as well as re-entering the digital release realm at dndclassics.com. I never thought I’d see a “new” 1E Player’s Handbook sitting next to a fully updated 3.5 Player’s Handbook at my game store on the current release shelf, but that’s exactly the situation we are in right now.

Into this bizarre and rather random release landscape comes a unique series of games: Dungeon Command. I wasn’t too sure about this series when it was announced, but after playing several games with my Curse of the Undead set against almost all the other boxes, I have changed my mind. A dice-less tactical miniatures game with card driven combat is interesting, and the different factions are fun to play out of the box, even if you ignore the customization options available if you own multiple sets. If the large area dedicated to the game at my local store is any indicator, the game has been a success on its own merits.

images (1)For many of us, though, the real appeal of Dungeon Command is using the components at our role-playing tables. I began this blog just over two years ago, a few months after the final D&D Miniatures set, Lords of Madness, was released. It was a good time to buy these minis, with many sculpts available for $1 or less. Since then, however, the stock has dried up, and many of the cheap options I suggested in my first D&D minis post have gone out of stock or are several times more expensive. The Adventure System games are a good option, but unless you are willing to paint them yourself, they just don’t compare to prepainted minis. Thus, the release of the Dungeon Command sets is a godsend for gamers who want good looking painted minis without breaking the bank.

By far, the best part of Dungeon Command is the thematic nature of the sets. You know exactly what you are getting when you purchase a box. No more blind packs, where you really want more goblins and open a yuan-ti instead. Dungeon Command features groups of foes that would likely be used together in actual D&D adventures. You can tailor your purchases to match what you have planned in your campaign! Here are my recommendations.

heartofcormyrHeart of Cormyr – This would make a great first purchase for a new campaign. Almost all of the minis represent common player character races. They would be equally useful as NPCs. The earth guardian looks great, and there’s even a copper dragon which can fill many roles in a pinch.


stingoflolthSting of Lolth – if you ever plan to visit the Underdark, this set is a must. Spiders show up in many different environments, of course, and the Umber Hulk is one of the best looking minis in any of the sets. The drow can represent many different evil NPCs if you squint your eyes just right.


tyrannyofgoblinsTyranny of Goblins – a fantastic set that fills needs in most campaigns. Goblins and their kin are common at most D&D tables, and you can always use another wolf. The troll is magnificent, but the horned devil is the superstar, and could be used to represent all manner of nasty opponents.


curseofundeathCurse of Undeath – Probably the best value in the entire line. Zombies and skeletons are useful across all levels. Three minis in particular make great “boss” encounters: the lich necromancer, the disciple of Kyuss, and the dracolich. This was the first set I purchased, and I’ve already used most of the minis in my own campaign just a few months later.

bloodofgruumshBlood of Gruumsh – the latest set, unique in that it uses new sculpts, not those recycled from the previous line. The minis have a different look to them, based on concept art from D&D Next. They are gorgeous, and since orcs and ogres are iconic D&D monsters, it’s a great set to pick up. Plus, it has an Owl Bear, what’s not to like?

Perhaps the greatest part of Dungeon Command from the perspective of a DM is that the players are encouraged to purchase miniatures when they otherwise have little incentive to do so. There is a full fledged and very compelling tactical game experience inside, not just a pile of minis. I’ve only had to purchase one set myself, since my players have all the other sets between them. If I need spiders, orcs, or dwarves, I just let my players know and they bring their sets to D&D night. DMs typically spend much more than players in D&D, and anything that encourages that the costs can be shared is a good thing.

As of this writing, no more Dungeon Command sets have been announced. I must admit I find this perplexing and a bit disheartening. It’s easily one of the most versatile and valuable releases from Wizards in the past two years. For a reasonable price, you get a dozen miniatures in various sizes that are thematically similar. The tiles included in each set are quite useful, too, and can be mixed and matched in lots of ways. Quality miniatures like these are always useful, no matter what version of D&D you play. I am very hopeful that more Dungeon Command sets will come out this year, in the lull before D&D Next is officially released.

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What I Learned from Painting Miniatures (Part 2)

2013-04-01 14.11.22In my last post, we looked at the process of painting miniatures, mainly concerning ourselves with the mindset you need to develop (it won’t be perfect, and that’s okay) and some of the basic supplies needed to get started. Today, I’ve got a tutorial for painting a Castle Ravenloft miniature, the ranger hero, covering priming your mini and methods for base coating and dry brushing. Remember my disclaimer from last time: I am by no means an expert, and my minis aren’t perfect. I wanted them to compare to the prepainted D&D and Dungeon Command minis, and for the most part I think they do. If that’s acceptable to you, read on.

The first step is to use primer on your mini. It’s a good idea to carefully wash your mini in soap and water and let it dry before priming. There may be leftover dirt or oil from play or even the manufacturing process, and these can interfere with the paint job. I use masking tape to attach minis to a piece of cardboard, which I then take outside for priming and drying. Do be careful about the temperature when you prime outside: consult the can for more information.

Use light bursts of primer, from a distance of about six to eight inches. Spray from all directions to ensure even coverage. However, don’t use too much primer, or the mini will lose detail. The mini should dry for an hour or so minimum before painting. There are always parts of the mini that do not get coated with primer, like armpits, the bottoms of legs, etc. It’s a good idea to paint these areas first to get a solid color to build on. I always use black paint, thinned down with several drops of water, to paint these unprimed areas.

2013-04-01 14.11.22Next up is dry brushing. A good practice is to dry brush the mini first, because dry brushing is very messy and you will get paint into other areas than what you’d like. By painting this way first, you can simply paint over the sloppy parts later. Dry brushing is quite different than standard painting. Put a small amount of paint onto a brush, then wipe the brush back and forth on a napkin or paper towel until most of the paint is gone. It should look dry, not wet, thus, the name of the method. You’ll think the color won’t show up, but it will, trust me.

With your paint brush loaded with dry paint, press the bristles down with a good bit of force on the area you want to paint, and swipe back and forth. Do this vigorously, in order to get the almost-dry paint to cover the raised areas. In this case, the purpose of the dry brush was to bring out the detail in the scale armor that the ranger is wearing. I used copper paint, as I wanted a brown and green color scheme for this character. Metal armor should almost always be dry brushed, as it gives very good results. You will likely mess up your brush, so it’s a good idea to keep one brush you use only for dry brushing. We will revisit dry brushing later on.

2013-04-01 14.28.26Now we move on the base coats. For the ranger, I decided to do the cape next, using a forest green color for the base. Squeeze some paint into your mixing tray, and add a couple drops of clean water (this is especially important for the cheaper craft store paints which are mixed very thick). I use plastic school-quality brushes which only cost a few cents a piece for mixing my paints with water, as they are all but disposable. Mix the paint and water together until you have a nice smooth texture. You want the paint to flow easily, but not run. It’s better to use multiple thin coats of paint than a single thick coat to show detail.

Dip a good brush into the paint, until about half the bristles are covered. Remove, swipe excess off onto a napkin or even your mixing tray, then begin. Use long, smooth strokes as much as possible. Remember, you want even coverage, so don’t glob the paint on too thick. Spread it out like a thin coating. It’s a good idea to leave some areas of black primer showing as shadows. On the ranger, there are some deep folds in the cape that I left unpainted in this way. On the underside of the cloak, I used fewer coats, and only painted the areas closer to the edges. These dark areas make the mini look more realistic.

2013-04-01 14.36.19At this stage, I decided to highlight the cape. You don’t always need to highlight, especially if you plan to use a wash, but in this case, I wanted to go ahead and do it. Capes are very easy to highlight, and show good results. I simply chose a brighter shade of green, more grass-like, and used the same dry brush method as before. Instead of dry-brushing the entire cloak, though, I simply did the edges and tops of the folds. The brighter paint in these areas will make the cloak look more realistic, as if light is reflecting off the surface. While the brighter green paint was mixed, I painted the ranger’s bracers to make her more interesting visually. I didn’t dry brush on the bracers, instead base coating them like I did the cloak. A base coat of dark brown on the boots and belt helped to break up the armor a bit.

2013-04-01 14.45.32The next part was the toughest: the ranger’s skin. Since I will be using a brown wash later, I used a lighter skin tone than I normally would. She looks almost undead, I know, but the tone will be quite a bit less garish after the wash is applied. I used the smallest brush I had, mixed the paint and water very thin, and only dipped the tip of the brush in the paint. The key with this sort of thing is to go slowly, and do multiple coats. You will inevitably get some of this color where it shouldn’t be. That’s ok, once the wash is on, many of these errors will be hidden, and we can fix the worst later. I like to leave a bit of black in between one color of paint and the next, as you can see on the tops of the bracers. It’s another way to help prevent errors.

I used a metallic color next, in this case, P3 Pig Iron from my local game store. I base coated the swords, blades first in a heavier coat, then just a dab on the hilt and pommel. The transition from hand to sword isn’t very clean, but that’s acceptable, since the wash will really help tidy up areas like these. After some consideration, I decided to help break up the darkness of the color scheme with some careful dry brushing of this same color on the rangers mail tunic. The larger scales on the legs in copper contrast nicely with the steely surface of the tunic.

P2013-04-01 14.56.53ainting hair is difficult. I touched up the over-brushed green, copper, and flesh errors in the hair with black paint. For any type of brown, gray, or even red hair, I use a black base. For the ranger, to keep it simple, I dry brushed a bit of burgundy red just to show some highlights. It’s a little too red now, but when covered in brown ink, it will look more natural. The end result should be a dark, almost black color or hair. If you plan to paint blonde, I recommend a basecoat of brown. Yellow paint over black takes on a greenish tint that looks anything but blonde. Dry brushing is definitely the way to go for hair.

Finally, the hard part is done. You may be a bit disappointed in your miniature at this point. There will likely be small mistakes, lack of detail in the face and hands, and many more things that bug you. That’s okay! You are very close to having a great looking mini with just two more steps: an ink wash, and a spray of dullcote. Once these two things are done, your mini will look much, much nicer on the table. In the final portion of this series, we’ll go over these two steps in depth, and give some more general advice for getting your D&D minis looking great.

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What I Learned from Painting Miniatures (Part 1)

2013-03-05_21-31-50_813Over the past year or so, I’ve been enjoying playing Warmachine, a tabletop miniatures game. Though the game itself is fun, most of the enjoyment I’ve gotten from Warmachine has been the hobby elements of the game, especially painting. With a little bit of practice and some common sense, you can get good results. I’ve also painted my Castle Ravenloft board game minis, and have used them in my D&D games. Like many others, I am looking forward to receiving my Reaper Miniatures Bones Kickstarter shipment soon. I thought it might be a good time to share some miniatures painting tips for other beginners like me. Today, we’ll discuss setting reasonable expectations for yourself, plus some supplies you’ll  need to purchase to get started.

At first, you won’t succeed, so keep trying
If you are like me, you will be disappointed by the results of painting your first minis. Like any other skill, you will get better and better the more you perform over time. The toughest mini to paint is always the first one, because you keep telling yourself you can’t do it. But you really can! Just keep at it, and over time your results will be more and more acceptable.

2013-03-05_21-31-31_149Let me just say right away that I know that I am not a great painter. I’m not even a good painter, but the quality I have achieved, such as it is, is acceptable to me. The Ravenloft minis I painted myself don’t look out of place next to standard D&D or Dungeon Command minis. That was the goal I set for myself, and it’s a good expectation in mind as you begin. Your minis may not win any painting contests, but with a little practice, they will work just fine for your tabletop.

Spend wisely on your basic tools
It would be very easy to walk into a game store and spend hundreds of dollars on paint bottles, high-quality brushes, expensive primer, and the like. Don’t do this. For the most part, avoid your local game store and head to a craft store like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, or even Wal-Mart. You wouldn’t buy a Stradivarius violin for a novice, so don’t break the bank as a new painter.

513ZPQCDKALYou will want a set of brushes. Don’t go for the cheap plastic brushes kids use at school. I recommend a pack of a half dozen or so in various sizes. You can probably find a set like this one for $8 to $12 at most places. You’ll get the most mileage out of the smaller brushes, since miniatures are small (obviously). Don’t worry about a super fine brush at the moment. Details like teeth and eyes can be done with toothpicks for now, or just left undone. Over time you will develop brush control, and when you do, that’s the time to pick up better brushes.

Primer is a very important part of your starter tools. Primer allows the paint to bond better with your mini, making the process easier and the final result smoother. I recommend Dupli-color Sandable Primer. It’s intended for automotive use, and can be found at most auto parts stores, or the link above. It is very reasonably priced and has excellent coverage. I prefer to prime my minis in black, which gives good shadows but can require extra paint coats at times. Some people prefer gray or even white.

Your choice of paint will be the most important. There are many brands and types out there, ranging in price and quality. Obviously, you get what you pay for. Game store brands like Privateer Press P3 or Games Workshop are very good quality, but will run $3 to $4 for a small bottle. That can get very expensive, especially when you are starting from scratch and need lots of colors. These should be avoided from the start, with a few exceptions. I’d go ahead and spring for metallics from these brands, as the cheap metallics are noticeably harder to get good results with. If you use bright reds or yellows often, it also might be worthwhile to get better paints, which tend to have better coverage.

51hOcOeAM+L._SX450_Cheap paints from a craft store are your best value as a beginner. Brands like Apple Barrel, Folk Art, and Americana are fine. Be sure to get acrylic paint, as it is easy to use and cleans up with water. As far as color selection, it really depends on what you are painting. For the Ravenloft minis, I used lots of grey, black, brown, and other dark colors. Just buy what you need for your first few minis. A friend of mine had good results with an acrylic paint set like this one. In general, these cheaper paints are mixed very thick, so always blend in a drop or two of clean water when you use them.

You will want to pick up an ink to use as a wash. Ink acts differently than paint does, flowing naturally into crevices and details. Using an ink wash will cover a multitude of mistakes, which is great news for a beginner! I’d recommend a brown ink to begin. Black is too dark, but a blue ink can be useful if you plan to paint lots of armor and other metallic surfaces. I like P3 Brown Ink and Armor Wash, but you might be able to find less expensive inks at a hobby store.

2013-03-05_21-32-00_720To round out your collection of supplies, you’ll need a few more inexpensive items. A paint tray is good for mixing and thinning your paints. Two containers, for clean and dirty water, are needed; I use old baby food jars for this. Keep an eyedropper handy as well. Lastly, you’ll want a can of Testor’s Dullcote. When your minis are finished, a quick spray of this will lessen the gloss of the paint, making the fabric, metal, hair, and skin look far more realistic.

This post is already fairly long, and there is plenty more to cover, so I’ll wrap it up here. Painting miniatures can seem like a difficult thing, too much trouble to mess with. However, if you keep your expectations reasonable, and have the appropriate supplies for the job, you’ll be able to get results you can be happy with. In my next post, we’ll look at the process of painting a mini from start to finish.

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D&Development: The Mystara Gazetteer Series

gaz13aIt has been quite some time since I’ve written an article in this series. The purpose of the D&Development posts is to discuss some of the biggest influences on me as a Dungeon Master from the earliest days of my time playing D&D. Previously, I’ve looked at favorite settings, books, the animated show, and even non-D&D novels. (You can find a list of the previous articles by clicking on the D&Development header above.) Today, I wanted to bestow some praise on the Gazetteer series of accessories, detailing the world of Mystara.

During my junior high years, unlike many of my friends and fellow players, who preferred AD&D, Basic D&D always had a soft spot in my heart. It wasn’t until 2nd edition that I really made the transition. As a result, in 1988 and 1989, when I was moving from junior high to high school, I was still entrenched in Basic through and through. As rich as the boxed sets and Basic adventures were, I was perfectly happy reading them and using them in my games. I did envy the greater options available for classes, spells, and skills from AD&D, however.


The Gazetteer series came along, and went a long way towards filling in the blanks of Basic compared to it’s Advanced sibling. Several new classes, particularly for non-human characters, became “official” with no house-ruling required. A system for skills was presented throughout the series, adding even more options for characters. Like any good supplement, the Gazetteers included many new spells, as well. From a rules perspective alone, the Gazetteers were amazing, and gave Basic a depth that, by this point in my DMing career, I craved.

But there was far more to the series than just “crunch”. The “fluff” was amazing, too. I spent hours and hours reading about all the different locations, people, and cultures across the default D&D world, which I now knew was called Mystara. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the first GAZ I ever picked up, gave details about the world that were only hinted at in the Expert set and other adventures. I set many of my adventures in the town of Threshold, which was obviously a pretty good home base for players to adventure out of.    It was a fairly standard fantasy setting, but I didn’t see any problem with that at the time, and still don’t today, preferring to set my 4E campaign in the Nentir Vale.


The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, great as it was, wasn’t enough, so I picked up other Gazetteers when I could. The supplements dedicated to non-human races truly hooked me on the series. The Elves of Alfheim, the Dwarves of Rockhome, the halflings in The Five Shires, and especially The Shadow Elves were incredible. The cultures were at once fantastic and yet still believeable, and went a long way towards distinguishing between one elf or dwarf from the next, which was difficult with the whole “race as class” issue in Basic.  I remember reading The Crystal Shard, and thinking how odd it was that Drizzt was dark-skinned, instead of light, like true underground elves were. I realize now how backwards that really is; the shadow elves were the imitation of drow, not vice versa. In any event, I read and reread these Gazetteers time and time again.

Perhaps the highlight of the series was GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar. Far more than what you might think from the title, this Gazetteer included rules for PCs of all the major humanoid monster races. Yes, you could finally run a campaign with a kobold, a goblin, an orc, and a troll as unique playable races. It was hilarious fun. The inclusion of the game Orc Wars was just gravy. I know PC dragons, a la the memorable Council of Wyrms boxed set, might be more epic, but it couldn’t have been more fun than humanoid PCs. Think the A-Team, but with bad grammar and bloodlust, and you’ll have a good idea of how much fun a monster campaign can be.


The remainder of the Gazetteer series was solid, though not as memorable as those I’ve already mentioned. Most of these books were basically D&D interpretations of real-life cultures, ranging from Vikings and Native Americans to the Greeks and Romans. It may seem at first glance that this practice was like putting a square peg in a round hole. In my experience as a novice, I found the material to be easier to assimilate into my memory because of the real world associations. It’s far easier to remember that Ylaruam was like the Middle East than it is to remember all the different factions in Waterdeep, for example. I’m not sure if this ease of use was the intent or not, but it made the Gazetteers very useful for me either way.

Overall, I have many fond memories of the Gazetteer supplements, and remember using them so much they were practically falling apart. All of the extra classes, skills, and spells added much-needed depth to Basic D&D, and the lore and other background information was extremely useful in my early campaigns. It was also fun to simply read through, whether I used it or not. I’m hopeful that the Gazetteers will be released digitally at dndclassics.com soon. If they are, I will enjoy rereading them, reliving the memories of my youth, and perhaps even running one more monster PC mini-campaign again someday!

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Using Descent: Journeys in the Dark in Your D&D Game

descentcoverAs my D&D group is meeting only on a monthly basis now, our weekly dedicated game night has been more focused on board and card games. I’m always looking for games that are fun on their own, but also provide bits and pieces I can use on my 4E D&D table. Due to a major discount at Amazon during the holiday sales, I decided to pick up the second edition version of Fantasy Flight’s Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Thematically very similar to classic D&D, almost all of the components in Descent are useful in 4E, providing a fantastic value even at the normal price.

Tokens are a functional way to represent your monsters in 4E, but I prefer minis if at all possible. You can never have enough of them! It seems like there is always some creature you want to feature that you have no miniature for. This new version of Descent gives a serious boost to your mini choices, including no less than 38 monsters in the box. Here’s a list of the Descent monsters, with a few comments for each.

2013-01-15 19.31.36Goblin archers – very useful for low level campaigns, or anytime you need humanoid minion archers.

Giant spiders – common to many settings and always creepy, though they don’t look very dynamic.

Zombies – overdone? Maybe. Probably my least favorite sculpt in the set, but they can represent so many types of undead they are still useful.

Barghests – an odd creature, would make an acceptable fill in for wolves or other four footed predatory animals.

Flesh Moulders – creepy aberrant spellcasters. Could represent diseased or Far Realm-touched humans. A bit niche for common use, though.

2013-01-15 19.30.13Elementals – a mix of all four elements. Very much unlike D&D style elementals but you could make do with a little reskinning of attacks and abilities.

Mirriods – my first thought was I no longer need to find hook horror minis. They are almost alien in appearance and could represent a variety of other weird monsters.

Ettins – An amazing sculpt, very imposing with the armored helmets. Ignore the second head when you need a normal hill giant or ogre.

Dragons – The sculpt is detailed, but the pose is a bit bland. They don’t have the distinctive look of chromatics in 4E but that doesn’t bother me too much; they’re still dragons after all!

There are a couple drawbacks to the monsters in Descent. They are molded in colored plastic, similar to the Ravenloft and Ashardalon minis. Unlike the latter games, the plastic color doesn’t match the mini in any way. Ravenloft had white skeletons, for example, that look nice even unpainted. Most of the Descent minis are an off-white color, with one “master” of each set molded in red. I think even a solid-color mini is preferable to a token, but some may disagree.

2013-01-15 19.29.13

Another issue is the bases. Some of the minis have oval bases that don’t follow the 4E pattern of a medium, large, and huge bases being square. The wolf creatures are 1×2, and the dragons are 2×3. I’d recommend using these minis as is, regardless of the non-standard base size. If you prefer not to do so, make it clear to your players exactly how many squares these oddly sized bases take up by using a paper template underneath them.

Descent has a selection of eight heroes, and each of these is represented by a miniature. I find these sculpts to be very well done, with interested poses and an exaggerated art style reminiscent of Blizzard’s Warcraft and Diablo PC games. The heroes are molded in gray plastic. The only real problem with the Descent hero minis is the size. They are sculpted slightly smaller than standard D&D minis. I personally don’t worry about scale too much, but for some, this might make the hero miniatures unusable. Otherwise, these heroes work well as PC minis, and are especially well suited to NPCs or villains. (Incidentally, the Descent monsters are in similar scale, but apart from the goblin archers and zombies, you’ll hardly notice in play.)

2013-01-15 19.33.07I’ve cooled off a bit on my urge to collect lots of Dungeon Tiles, preferring poster maps and those I draw by hand on Gaming Paper. Still, having access to lots of Dungeon Tiles is an advantage for any 4E DM. Descent uses the same 1 inch grid system for movement that 4E does, and includes several dozen sturdy cardboard tiles for use in encounters. Unlike the official Dungeon Tiles from Wizards, the Descent tiles interlock with one another and hold together quite well. You’ll be able to make maps quicker and without the need for poster board and sticky tack. The tiles are double sided, with an outdoor setting on one face, and a stone floor interior scene on the other. One of the neatest inclusions is a set of doors that stand up vertically in clear plastic stands. These are great for dressing up your maps. I like the Descent tiles quite a bit, and they should be especially useful for unplanned encounters due to the ease of assembly.

Less obvious than the physical components of Descent, the Campaign Book can be a good source of inspiration for your campaign. It would be a bit silly to run the Descent campaign story directly, especially if you play Descent and D&D with the same group. But there’s quite a lot of fluff that you can pick and choose bit and pieces from that could fit in. I always struggle with interesting NPC names, and there are plenty to be found here. It’s a minor advantage, but still worth mentioning.

There is a tremendous amount of bang for your buck when using a copy of Descent Second Edition in your 4E campaign. Dozens of monster and PC or NPC miniatures alone make it worth a purchase, and the tiles just give you that much more value. It retails for a steep $80, but can be purchased online for a significant discount. It compares very favorably to the D&D Adventure Series games like Castle Ravenloft from a components perspective. In addition, Descent is a pretty cool game on its own. I highly recommend it to any 4E DM who is looking to expand his collection of useful gaming bits.

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The Best of 2012 from The Learning DM

new year 20122012 is past, and a new year beckons ahead. From a blogging perspective, 2012 was a good year for The Learning DM, but perhaps not as great as 2011 was. A variety of factors, both gaming related and not, caused my productivity to falter as the year progressed. I started very strong, with multiple articles each month, but by the last half of the year, the postings became more and more infrequent. Still, I am proud of my work here in 2012, and wanted to highlight two of the more successful posts of the year, as well as discuss a bit about what to expect from The Learning DM in 2013.

Though I am not a Reddit user, I became very familiar with the effect that Reddit can have on a website this past January. One of my posts, Did Cartoon Tiamat’s Design Influence the Look of Modern Dragons?, was posted to Reddit, and drew more visitors in one day than ever before. I’m proud of the post, which compared the look of Tiamat from the classic D&D cartoon from the 80s with the Wizard’s modern style for dragons. There are some very clear influences, but not quite for the reasons I suspected. Cartoon Tiamat takes many design elements from the original 1E Monster Manual dragons, which I was unfamiliar with at the time of writing. I have since obtained a copy of the original MM and it’s obvious to me now that modern dragons are based on those designs. I feel a bit silly for writing the article in the first place, now, but I still think it’s worth a look for fans of the history of D&D’s art style.

AshardalonThe second most popular post of 2012 was a real surprise to me: my review of 4E’s Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons. As a book from the early life cycle of 4th Edition, I wasn’t expecting much attention, but the review has had a steady stream of readers throughout the year. While the book itself is wonderful from a lore perspective, the mechanics and other crunch are woefully outdated. Still, it’s worth picking up for DMs who plan to use evil dragons heavily in their campaigns.

Disappointingly, very few of my remaining 2012 posts seem to draw much attention. Many of my 2011 posts still get far more views than most of my 2012 material. I’m not exactly sure why this is. It could be that D&D Next is attracting more interest, or it could be my less than regular posting habits as the year progressed. I still believe there are some gems to be found, most notably my thoughts on adding new players to a campaign and my review of the Silver Anniversary edition of Ravenloft.

As I look back on my experiences as a Dungeon Master in 2012, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it looked for a good long while that our D&D campaign was finished as of early 2012. There was a four month space where we didn’t play at all. We ended up losing a player, wrapped up a few loose ends story-wise, and then added two new players to the campaign in early summer. We’ve been meeting on a monthly basis ever since. While I am very thankful to still be playing D&D regularly, I’d rather be playing more often. Additionally, my group is totally disinterested in D&D Next after only one playtest session. I find the concept of playtesting the upcoming edition of D&D very exciting, but my players are very happy with 4E. Small problems, to be sure, especially when compared to the prospect of not playing D&D at all, but they still stick in my craw a little bit.

As it stands, then, I am happily running a successful 4th Edition D&D campaign. Later this month, it will have been two years since we began. I have learned much over this time, and though there is always more to learn, I am confident in my abilities to run a fun, efficient, exciting game that keeps both me and my players entertained. I’m looking forward to moving into paragon tier this year, and will definitely watch the development of D&D Next with great interest. 2013 will certainly be an interesting year for D&D fans!

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