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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Six Reasons Why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the Best

4As an old school D&D player and DM, I have many fond memories of classic adventures from the past. Ravenloft, Isle of Dread, and many others were among my favorites. As far as 4E adventures go, my favorite was Cairn of the Winter King. But having run my players through several sessions of Madness at Gardmore Abbey, I am of the opinion that it is easily the best 4E adventure, and compares favorably to such beloved classics as Keep on the Borderlands and Tomb of Horrors. Here are six reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is great.

1. The Deck of Many Things

The big maguffin/villain in Gardmore Abbey is the Deck of Many Things. This artifact is one of the most appealing in all of D&D, embracing the random nature of the game. The Deck has been around since the very early days, first appearing in the original Greyhawk supplement. Assembling the deck and debating about whether to draw make the Deck a great source of roleplaying opportunities. Plus, with 4E’s use of cards for powers and abilities, the Deck is a natural fit.

itw_20110705_6Even better is the inclusion of a gorgeously designed physical deck of cards to represent the Deck of Many Things. I love using props in my games any time I can, and the Deck has been a smash hit with my group so far. Finding new cards here and there throughout the Abbey has added to the coherence of our campaign. The Deck is interesting both in real life and in game, and one of the biggest reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is awesome.

2. Tokens, Maps and Dungeon Tiles

One of my biggest pet peeves is when adventures refer to miniatures, maps, or tiles that I don’t have access to. It’s nice to have a big collection of miniatures available, but with the old minis game out of print, and the new Dungeon Command series less than a year old, it can be expensive to find just the right one. Maps and tiles are much the same; sure, I can simply use what I have on hand, but it still bugs me when my best option is to draw a map on Gaming Paper.

dd_20110921_1Madness at Gardmore Abbey doesn’t have these problems. Sturdy tokens, similar to those of the Monster Vault series, are included for the most of the monsters and NPCs. A sheet of Dungeon Tiles enables the DM to create the encounters exactly as intended. (One nitpick: the tokens and tiles have a dull finish, not the glossy sheen of standard dungeon tiles and the original Monster Vault tokens.) Best of all, for those like me on the lazy side, excellent poster maps for important fights are also in the box. These are rendered very nicely, but still generic enough to be reused in the future. If you have access to the Monster Vault and the first Essentials Dungeon Tiles set, you’ll be prepared for each encounter in the Abbey.

3. Hits the Sweet Spot of 4E Levels

Though I’ve not had much experience running high level 4th Edition sessions, the problems with paragon and epic level games are well known. Increased options and combinations of powers for PCs leads to excessively long combats as well as broken gameplay. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for characters of levels 6 to 8. Coming in on the upper half of Heroic tier, PCs have plenty of options and good survivability, yet at the same time, they don’t have a fifteen page character sheet to look through every turn. This makes for an adventure that balances challenge with simplicity to great effect.

Whether by intention or not, Madness at Gardmore Abbey follows the line of adventures in the Essentials series very well. Running the Red Box adventure, the Iron Circle material from the DM Kit, and the excellent Winter King adventure included with the Monster Vault will take characters to level 5. Gardmore Abbey would work pretty well right after this, and in fact the adventure includes story ties to these other adventures. For all intents and purposes, Madness at Gardmore Abbey IS an Essentials Adventure.

34. Ties to Other Planes

One of the biggest changes in 4th Edition D&D is the “nerfing” of the planes. No longer is traveling to a different plane restricted to high level characters with access to powerful magic. While still dangerous, 4E style planar adventures are possible for characters of more modest abilities. I see this as a net positive; anything that gets players into fantastic environments sooner is a good thing, in my book.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey has direct ties to two planes: the Feywild and the Far Realm. An entire quest chain with significant links to the Feywild is available, and can lead to further adventures in the plane of rampant growth. The Lovecraft-inspired Far Realm has directly intruded upon one location in the Abbey, with suitably horrific events playing out as players explore. As with the Feywild, you can easily toss in some bread crumbs here that lead to further exploration of the dread Far Realm later in your campaign. Extraplanar adventures have a big “wow” factor with players and this adventure gives you an easy way to head that direction if you so choose.

155. Features Iconic Monsters

Ask any person on the street what types of monsters show up in a fantasy setting, and you are all but guaranteed to get dragons as an answer. Madness at Gardmore Abbey uses a young red dragon in a showcase encounter. I just ran my players through it, and the fight was a gloriously challenging epic battle that lasted almost two hours. That’s far longer than I typically prefer, but it felt fresh throughout due to the almost video game-like stages of the encounter. I won’t spoil them, but suffice it to say that fighting a red dragon equipped with several cards from the Deck of Many Things is a fantastic experience.

And there’s much more to Gardmore Abbey than just one cool monster. Another iconic creature, the beholder, is a major antagonist, in a truly creepy environment. Orcs, another staple, make a significant appearance, as does an ettin, in a particularly memorable encounter that doesn’t have to be a slugfest. The catacombs beneath the Abbey are full of undead, one of my favorite types of monsters to use. Gardmore Abbey has so many classic creatures inside, it may as well be called “Monster Vault’s Greatest Hits”.

6. So… Much… Content!

Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for characters of level 6 to 8. There is more than enough adventure inside to be the entire focus of your campaign for these levels. You could use only the content inside and spend all of levels 6, 7, and 8 before you got through. An incredible amount of resources, encounters, NPCs, plot threads, and suggestions for smaller side adventures and quests are included. It is really more like a miniature campaign setting than a standard adventure.

6Since my group only plays once a month, and is level 8, I’ve cherry picked the more challenging encounters and quests to use at my table. I’d estimate I’ve only used about one third of the content by doing so. That leaves plenty of cool stuff available for the future. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is a treasure trove of interesting locations, characters, and challenges that can be swapped into nearly any campaign. Whether you use it all in a marathon adventure chain, or simply pick and choose, there is a wealth of useful material here.

As D&D Next is in active playtest, just over the horizon, support for 4th edition has fallen off dramatically. It’s a bit sad that Madness at Gardmore Abbey will likely be the final published 4E adventure. I’d love to have seen more like it, assuming the high quality of this module continued in further products. As it stands, Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the final pinnacle of adventure design in 4th edition, and I believe it deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest adventures in D&D’s rich history.

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What to Do When Players Go the “Wrong” Direction

When I first began blogging here at The Learning DM, most of my posts were basically session reports. In these writings, I pointed out things I had learned from the evening’s activities. I’ve not done one of these for quite some time, and since a rather interesting thing happened in my campaign’s last meeting, so I decided to share my thoughts about it.

Last week was our third session playing through Madness at Gardmore Abbey. With such an open-ended adventure, it might be good to detail exactly how I am using it. Our group is 8th level, so I adjust encounters upwards slightly to provide a challenge, but still allow for quick combat. Our play period is typically 3 hours, so I aim for two combats alongside light role playing and exploration. (I’d prefer more of the latter, but my players really enjoy   fights!) To get through the adventure in a reasonable time frame (meeting once a month), I’m skipping most encounters, either by just describing empty rooms, or encounters that have been overcome by the rival adventuring group, who of course will show up later. The group has thus far explored the Dragon’s Roost area, aided Sir Oakley in his failed purification attempt, and recently found the Brazier in the Garrison.

I emailed my players an in-story request for how they wanted to proceed. I sent them a map with some notes on it about what had been explored, further areas to check out, etc. Most everyone agreed that they wanted to go deeper beneath the Abbey to find the remaining items for the ritual. Speaking as Sir Oakley, I recommended to the group that exploring beneath the Temple would be the best way to start. Not hearing anything different from the group via email, I found miniatures, whipped up a map with Dungeon Tiles, and familiarized myself with the Catacombs entries in the Encounters book. I felt totally ready to DM, and was certain that it would be another exciting session.

In turned out it was indeed exciting, but for a totally different reason. After a brief skill challenge, the group made their way to the Dragon’s Roost. I described the scenery briefly, and just as I flipped in the book to the descriptive text for the Catacombs, it happened.

One of my players grabbed the map with notes I had printed off, and noticed that there was another set of stairs in the Hall of Glory. He asked Oakley if he had any clue where it led. Without really thinking about it, I explained that these stairs likely led to Vaults containing relics of the paladins’ past glory. “You mean, treasures and such? Makes sense that the Bowl and Chalice would be there, and probably some other great loot too. Let’s go this way instead!” The rest of the group agreed, and I found myself in a predicament.

I could, of course, run the Catacombs instead, though it might lead to some inconsistencies later. After all, the players didn’t know what was supposed to be in the Vaults. But this felt dirty to me. So, I threw caution to the wind, and ran the group through the Vaults encounters. I had only read this section briefly several months before. I had no maps or miniatures ready at all. Certainly, having a published adventure helped considerably, but I still felt woefully unprepared.

In situations like this, you have to just roll with it and see what happens. I had already identified the two encounters I wanted to use in the Vaults on a note card when I first read through the adventure months ago. On the fly, I made the decision to cut the whole minotaurs vs. gnolls subplot. My players were expecting orcs beneath the Abbey anyway, so I decided to reskin the encounters as needed.

I owned a few orc minis and collected them, dug around for some orc Monster Vault tokens in my D&D box, and ran to my closet to grab some Gaming Paper. For the most part, the initial exploration went well. I had feared that the group would immediately head for the dragon encounter. I very much wanted to save that for the next session, since it was really one of the centerpieces of the entire module and deserved better prep on my part. I led them away from that section of the map with some subtle (and even some not-so-subtle) nudging.

One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was having to edit flavor text passages on the fly. I wanted the Vaults to be mainly empty, but most of the text described rooms with monsters inside. I stumbled through the text as best I could, and used my imagination for the rest. In hindsight, it would have been a better idea to read ahead and pencil out references to monsters during quiet moments when players were making skill check rolls or other down time. Even without monsters, there were plenty of interesting things to differentiate the rooms. The designers were very descriptive and creative, a fact I greatly appreciated when running unprepared. I also decided to plant clues about the other adventuring party in these “empty” rooms.

I usually prefer poster maps, or even Dungeon Tiles to drawing my own maps, but in this case, it couldn’t be avoided. Looking at the various encounters, each of them seemed fairly complex to run, so I made a decision to use the stats from a generic village orc patrol encounter instead. Whipping out a sharpie, I detailed the room as best I could. A statue of Bahamut as a human knight was changed to that of a dragon instead, represented on the map by a small white dragon mini. I set up Urthak the Vicious as the orc leader, with a set of four Orc Terrorblades, plus eight orc token minions. This was more than the encounter called for, but I knew my players were higher level than the norm, and I wanted to challenge them.

I kept in mind how I wanted to run the encounter to make it exciting. Hit them hard early,  to get them scared, then, when the tide turned their way, have the remaining orcs flee as an “out”. It worked out quite well. The lead orc smashed the group with an AoE attack, flinging them across the room. Half the party was bloodied by the end of the second turn. With a few key heals and control spells, the group came back just fine, as heroes do, and the orc minions fled, ending the encounter.

I made the decision to end on a cliffhanger if possible. The players obliged by exploring right up to the room with the sleeping red dragon. The sense of fear and anticipation was all over their faces as I read the descriptive text, and ended the session. My players were very complimentary, and I can tell that they are excited about the next meeting.

So what can we learn from this? First of all, running by the seat of your pants is OK. Monsters in 4E are very easily reskinned into whatever you need them to be. Rely on flavor text, but make sure the narrative still flows nicely. Don’t worry too much about how pretty your battle map is, either. Even a modest collection of minis and tokens will work just fine;  even in 4E, much of what makes D&D enjoyable is still what happens in the theater of the mind. I don’t plan to run with little to no prep very often, but I must admit it was a good session anyway, and hopefully the improv practice will aid me in future Dungeon Mastering.

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