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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Using Dungeon! in Your D&D Game

This past week, I went down to my friendly local gaming store and picked up a copy of Dungeon!, the recently revamped version of the classic board game that came out earlier this month. I’d never played Dungeon! before, which is a bit surprising given my love for board game versions of D&D. I’ve enjoyed the short time spent playing the game so far, and it occurred to me that there are components of Dungeon! that could be incorporated into a more traditional D&D gaming session, whether you are running 4E or D&D Next.

Treasure Cards
Perhaps the most obvious inclusion are the various treasure cards in the game. As players explore Dungeon!, they accumulate treasure cards. These cards range in value from 250 gold up to 5,000 or even more. But what makes the cards interesting for use in a D&D campaign are the illustrations. Smaller amounts are represented by a simple bag of gold, but for more valuable pieces, pictures of gems, trinkets, and other treasures are shown on the card.

I’ve grown fond of using poker chips to represent the accumulation of wealth in my campaign. It’s a nice way to combine a physical prop with the slightly boring process of bookkeeping. But what if you want your characters to find a nice gemstone, or a statue made of gold? Handing over the poker chip equivalent of this kind of treasure takes players out of the immersion. But with the cards from Dungeon!, you can instead hand over a small card with a nice illustration of the treasure instead. The gold piece values don’t match up with the D&D equivalents very well, but I think the fact that your are handing the players a physical object to represent their loot more than makes up for it.

Monster Cards
The other set of cards that comes in the Dungeon! box are the monster cards. Arranged in six levels of difficulty, these cards are illustrated with art from other D&D products. I’m not sure where all the art came from, but I do recognize many illustrations from the Monster Vault. The Dungeon! denizens include common D&D opponents ranging from rats, orcs, and goblins all the way up to vampires, purple worms, and dragons. So how could these small cards be of benefit to your D&D game?

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. I often try to show the party a picture of what they encounter. While the Monster Vault book’s illustrations are great, they are also on the same page as stats, which can certainly spoil the fun. Handing over a small card with just a picture, and no game information, beats giving your players a quick glance at the Monster Vault entry.

The monster cards are very small, so they could easily be attached to initiative numbers with a paperclip, if you use a method like this one for tracking initiative in your 4E game. If you are playtesting D&D Next, and prefer the “theater of the mind” approach, you can use the monster cards to represent relative locations. Telling your players the Black Dragon is surrounded by a protective wall of Orcs is one thing, but representing this with monster cards is another. This might prevent arguments over line of sight, range, etc. that often come up in map-less sessions.

The Game Board Itself
The Dungeon! board itself combines the classic, sprawling map of the original with the slick, modern design Wizards of the Coast does so well. The dungeon sprawls all across the board, a massive, labyrinthine web of corridors. It’s very reminiscent of old school dungeons from the earliest days of 1st edition. But unlike those old maps, this one is meticulously presented, with realistic stone paths and nicely detailed large rooms scattered throughout.

The map could serve as a physical prop for your players. Perhaps they come across the intricate map in the abandoned hideout of a villain. Maybe the royal cartographer has come across the map in his research, and asks the party to verify its accuracy. Finding maps with the promise of ancient treasure may be one of the oldest tropes in the fantasy genre, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a fun romp for you and your players!

A Night at the Improv
If you are feeling particularly brave, and want to flex your improv muscles a bit, you could even run an entire session using the Dungeon! map itself, and drawing cards for encounters and treasure as you go. Let the players explore the map, and when they get to a new room, draw a card to see what happens next. Maybe it’s just a bag of gold, but it could be a massive sapphire that appears normal, but is in fact the phylactery of a lich. The jade statue the players find might be an intelligent artifact that will answer questions about the rest of the dungeon… but are the answers accurate?

When drawing from the monster deck in an improv session like this, you don’t necessarily have to begin a combat each time. Intelligent monsters might try to hire the party for safe passage outside. The zombie they face might be the corpse of an NPC met previously, which would certainly lead to all manner of role playing opportunities. Of course, sometimes, you’ll draw a black pudding, which means your options are limited to rolling dice for initiative!

Dungeon! is a bargain to pick up for $20 on its own, but when you consider the additional value you get by using some of these elements in your D&D game, it becomes a real steal. Treasure cards, a deck of monsters, and an excellent map prop could all add much to your table. Pick up a copy of Dungeon!, use it in your game, and let me know what you think!

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Game Night Blog Carnival: Cosmic Encounter

Fantasy Flight’s edition is definitive

This post is a part of the Game Night Blog Carnival, dedicated to games you can play when your full RPG group isn’t available.

While Dungeons &  Dragons has always been and will likely always be my favorite game of all time, it is not really what most would consider a traditional board game. While the subject of this month’s Game Night Blog Carnival entry is not what I consider the best board game, or the most balanced, or even the most mechanically interesting, it is undoubtedly my favorite. Cosmic Encounter has been one of the most heavily played games in my collection for almost two decades.

In 1994, Magic: the Gathering was all the rage. I played that game heavily (and still play some today), and probably should write about it someday, but at this time in my life, I was voraciously devouring any and all information about the game. I was reading an interview with Magic’s creator, Richard Garfield, in Dragon Magazine (if memory serves me right). Garfield mentioned two games as being influential on Magic’s design: Wiz-War (another game I should write about) and Cosmic Encounter. As a rabid fan, I promptly sought out copies of both, and grew to love them both, but especially Cosmic Encounter.

Cool 70s box art for the first Eon edition

Cosmic Encounter is a game with a long and varied history. Originally created in 1977, it has been popular enough to remain in print for most of the time since. I purchased the Mayfair edition in 1994, played it voraciously during my college years, then sold it for an outrageous price on Ebay shortly after I got married. In 2002, I obtained the Avalon Hill edition, which had amazing artwork and extremely detailed components, but a shortage of alien races. It was still fun for me and my kids to play, but when Fantasy Flight’s updated version was released a few years ago, with more aliens and cleaner rules, I didn’t delay long in picking up a set. This version hits my game table on a regular basis, but not nearly as often as I’d like.

At its core, Cosmic Encounter is a simple game. Each player takes on the role of an alien race bent on galactic conquest. Each player controls a home system of five planets, and an armada of spaceships. The object is to be the first player with five colonies in other players’ systems.

The Mayfair edition; you never forget your first!

Combat is card driven, with each player playing a card, adding in the number of ships on each side of the fight, and comparing totals. If the offense wins, they gain a colony. If the defense wins, they fight the invaders off. The choice of where to attack each turn is controlled by drawing from the Destiny deck. Other cards, like artifacts and kickers, add to the variety, but the actual mechanics of combat are elementary.

The complexity of the game, and its greatest appeal, is in the alien races. Each race has a special power that allows it to break the rules of the game in some way. The Macron is a good example; each Macron ship counts as a value of four. Thus, they are very difficult to dislodge from their home bases, and lose far fewer ships even on offense. Another good example is the Sorcerer. These tricky aliens can swap their combat cards with the opponent if they choose. Other alien powers are not as obviously strong, like the Parasite, who can choose to ally with a player even when not invited, hoping to snag a low-risk colony or more cards in the process.

The glorious bits of the Avalon Hill edition

The Fantasy Flight edition of Cosmic Encounter includes fifty alien powers, which allows for thousands of potential combinations. Each new game brings a totally different gameplay experience as a result. Often, alien powers that are strong in one context are weakened by the inclusion of other powers. For each alien race, a special flare card is shuffled in the deck, which allows for a one-shot, extremely powerful effect when used by the appropriate alien. The sheer variety in the card selection, alien powers, and number of players (up to eight with all expansions) provides a replayability factor higher than almost any other game in my collection.

Politics and table talk are a huge part of the Cosmic Encounter experience. Both sides of any battle can choose to invite allies, and allied ships count towards each side’s total. Begging for help from your neighbors when the odds are against you often works well. Then again, there’s always the chance your ally will throw the battle on purpose, causing you to lose precious ships to the warp! The inclusion of Negotiate cards allows for deal-making between players, as well. The social elements of the game truly shine, and many epic, memorable situations occur that will be the talk of your gaming group for weeks if not months.

Alien cards from the Fantasy Flight edition

I should also mention an anecdote from my childhood that is tangentially related to Cosmic Encounter. In my early teenage years, I really enjoyed the books of William Sleator, a prolific science fiction author who wrote for young adults. One of my favorite stories of his was Interstellar Pig, in which a teenaged boy was introduced to a unique board game by his mysterious neighbors. In this game, each player took on the role of a different alien race, with varying powers and abilities. When I played Cosmic Encounter for the first time in the early 90s, I was struck by the resemblance to the game in Interstellar Pig. Whether Sleator was familiar with the original version of Cosmic Encounter before Interstellar Pig’s publication in 1984 or not, the similarities are quite uncanny. I suppose the appeal of Cosmic Encounter for me is partially due to this resemblance to a beloved book from my past.

If you enjoy board games in any capacity, you absolutely must give Cosmic Encounter a try. I have played it with Euro gamers, wargamers, Magic players, and even those who only have Monopoly or Scrabble in their gaming closet. There are aspects of the game that appeal to each of these varying groups: the thrill of competition, the social element, and the sheer scope of the replayability. Cosmic Encounter may not be the greatest board game  ever, but it’s not too far from the top of that list.

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Ten D&D Products I Can’t Wait to Download

Last week, I sat down with my 11 year old son to watch Wizards’ keynote address at Gencon. (We had just finished watching an episode of Doctor Who; clearly I am raising this one right!) My three main take-aways from the presentation were a 2014 release for D&D Next, an impressive focus on the Forgotten Realms, and the digital release of the back catalog next year. A longer development cycle for D&D Next is certainly good news, though I am less thrilled by the Realms stuff, never being a huge fan. I was simply ecstatic by the announcement that older D&D products will become available for download digitally soon.

Though many of the details are unclear at this point, my mind is reeling with thoughts of what might become available. I realize that the releases will inevitably be a slow, steady stream, and also that it’s unlikely that everything I want will become available. Still, there are at least ten items that I would download immediately upon release.

Original D&D Boxed Set

There could be no better place to start than at the beginning. The original set of three booklets from 1974 set the tone for everything that would follow, and indeed, altered the landscape of gaming in general forever. As a fan of the history of Dungeons & Dragons, how could I leave this off my list?

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

I’ve always been fascinated by this one, though I never read it or even saw a copy that I can remember. All that I know about it has come from online research, and it quite simply looks amazing. The genre-shifting environment is absolutely brilliant, and though some may call it corny or outlandish, I personally think a little bid of oddness and humor should be sprinkled through even the most serious campaign. Do they make a froghemoth miniature, because a 4E conversion could be really fun!

Fiend Folio

Purely a nostalgia pick. There are many other tomes full of monsters out there, but I have a very clear personal memory attached to this one. I was sixteen years old, a newly licensed driver, and my mother sent me to the butcher shop just up the road. Afterwards, with a bag of bologna and corned beef in hand, I took a quick detour into a used bookstore a couple doors down. A small section of RPG material included the Fiend Folio. Its fantastic cover and quirky selection of creatures impressed me, so I picked it up with the change from the butcher. I probably got into some trouble with my mom, but the Fiend Folio was so fun it didn’t matter too much.

Isle of the Ape

I am a min-maxer at heart, and thus this high-level adventure based on King Kong is a favorite. The adventure is a deadly challenge, but it was even more lethal when a friend offered to run it for my group. By the end of the night, the DM was clearly cheating to kill us. Worst example: knowing a room full of kobolds (don’t ask) were just beyond a door, the thief opened it, while the mage let loose a prismatic spray. “Well, all the kobolds were laying down on the floor, so your spray misses them. 120 of them stand up and hurl poison spears at you.” I learned much about DMing that night.

Manual of the Planes

One of my favorite books to just flipping through during my 2E days. The cover is gorgeous, and the sheer imagination on display inside makes it something truly special. While I appreciate 4E’s changes to the cosmology, particularly in making the planes more accessible at lower levels, there’s something to be said about the challenge of simply surviving in the planes as written in this book.

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

The Gazetteer series is among my favorite D&D books of all time, and this was the one I used the most in my D&D Basic campaign. The world truly seemed alive, with so many allies and villains for my players to meet. It was an ideal setting for me as a beginning DM. Other favorites from the line include the Orcs of Thar (with the sweet Orc Wars game inside), the Shadow Elves, and the dwarf, elf, and halfling based offerings, which included new character classes for these races.

Dungeon Master Design Kit

This may seem like a very strange choice. The book was filled with forms and such that could be used to plan an adventure or even a full campaign. It’s unlikely the forms would be properly digitized, but still, the book would be useful. I learned quite a lot from it, in the days before there were dozens of DM advice websites available with the click of a mouse.

Rules Cyclopedia

Basic D&D is what I cut my teeth on, and will always have a special place in my heart. The Rules Cyclopedia combined all of the rules from the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master’s boxed sets into one hefty hardcover tome. Of all the D&D stuff I’ve sold or lost over the years, this book is the one I miss the most.

Monstrous Compendium, Ravenloft Appendix

The looseleaf Monstrous Compendium releases were brilliant. You could mix and match the different versions depending on which setting you used, keeping all your monsters together for inspiration. It would have been best if each monster had a full front and back, for DMs who were picky about alphabetization, but I really liked the customization options. Wouldn’t mixing and matching digitally be a great solution? The first Ravenloft MC was particularly appealing to me because of the inclusion of monsters inspired by classic horror films.

Dragonlance Classics 1, 2, and 3

The Dragonlance saga, the Chronicles in particular, was my bread and butter for many years. To me, it will always be the definitive fantasy setting. My kids have enjoyed the books, as well, and I would love to run a campaign using the original modules with them some day. Yeah, it’s railroading, but when the view outside the window is this nice, I don’t think the players will mind too much.

Of all the items on the list, my guess is that the original boxed set and Barrier Peaks are the guaranteed to be reprinted, with the Manual of the Planes and the Fiend Folio a tad less likely. Everything else is a more unreliable, with the DM Design Kit having the smallest chance. In any case, the next year should be one of the best for fans of classic D&D, and I look forward to it very much.

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Game Night Blog Carnival: King of Tokyo

This post is a part of the Game Night Blog Carnival, dedicated to games you can play when your full RPG group isn’t available.

Remember those old commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” The takeaway from this goofy series of ads was that sometimes, combining two different things is absolutely delicious. Today, I’m covering a game that blends two of my favorite things: giant monster movies, and the designer of my favorite game of all time, Magic: the Gathering.

King of Tokyo is a very flavorful, light dice game, created by the great Richard Garfield. Though Garfield’s magnum opus is Magic, I’ve also enjoyed many of his other games, especially RoboRally and The Great Dalmuti. King of Tokyo, though it’s relatively new, has become one of my favorites, as well, and I’ve played quite a few games in the short time since I obtained my copy.

As you might expect from the title, King of Tokyo is all about a group of giant monsters, all duking it out in Japan’s oft-attacked capital. The monsters, represented by cardboard stand-ups, are reminiscent, if not blatant copies, of famous film creatures. There is a giant lizard, a mechanical dragon, a squid-faced monstrosity, and my favorite, a rabbit-shaped giant mecha armed with missiles, named Cyber Bunny. The characters are well illustrated in a comic-book style, and are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of any monster movie fan.

A slick player board, with two wheels for tracking health (hearts) and victory points (stars), is provided for each monster. There are two ways to win: be the first monster to earn twenty stars, or reduce all other monsters to zero hearts. Sounds easy, right? Not so much, with a handful of other giant monsters out to do the same thing.

A set of eight custom dice are included, though only six are needed in most games. On a player’s turn, they roll the dice up to three times, keeping as many as they like after each roll, as in Yahtzee. The faces of the dice are 1,2,3, heart, claw, and energy. Rolling three of a particular number will earn the player stars (three 2s counts as two stars, for example). Hearts heal damage (unless your monster is in Tokyo; more on this later). Claws do damage to other monsters, while rolling energy awards green cubes, which can be used to purchase power up cards.

A small game board, representing Tokyo, has room for one monster in a 3 or 4 player game, or two in a 5 or 6 player game. Entering and leaving Tokyo is where the decision making really comes. If Tokyo is empty, and you roll at least one claw, you must enter Tokyo, scoring one star in the process. You score two more stars each time you begin your turn in Tokyo. However, the monsters on the outside want in, and when they roll claws, any monsters in Tokyo take damage, but can choose to flee, allowing the monster that damaged them to take the spot. It’s not all bad, though, because rolling claws while you are in Tokyo damages all the monsters on the outside. The push and pull of knowing when to stay in Tokyo, and when to leave, make for some great decision making, giving King of Tokyo a unique strategy element that elevates it higher than similar games like Zombie Dice.

Unsurprisingly, for a Richard Garfield game, the included power up cards drastically alter the shape of the game, allowing monsters to break the rules. Three cards are turned up at any given time, and if you have enough energy, you can purchase one at the end of your turn. There is a huge variety in the cards, ranging from simple things like scoring a set amount of stars, or healing a few hearts, to game-changing abilities like an extra reroll, an extra die to use, or, my favorite, a card that scores you nine stars if you roll one of each face. The cards add variety and even more significant decision making to the game.

I am totally enamored of King of Tokyo. It plays very quickly, ranging from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the number of players. Each game feels very different; sometimes, it’s an all out brawl, others, it’s a less interactive race for stars. The theme is extremely effective, and the component quality is top notch. King of Tokyo is one of the best warm-up or filler type games I own, and I highly recommend it to any gamer.

Thanks to boardgamegeek.com users Mike Hulsebus and Raiko Puust for the pictures. Check out the rest of this month’s Game Night Blog Carnival entries here.

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D&Development: DragonStrike

It’s been a few months since my last D&Development post. In these retrospectives, I like to discuss some of the most important influences upon me as a D&D fan. Generally, these are things like my first rolepaying experience (Ravenloft), a favorite campaign setting (Dark Sun), or genre-related media (the Dragonriders of Pern, the D&D cartoon). Today, we go ona different track, with a product that wasn’t so much profoundly influential as it was a guilty pleasure: DragonStrike.

In 1993, I was in my second year of college, and had been employed at a small Waldenbooks store for several months. It was a time in my life I look back on fondly. As a student, living at home, but working 20-30 hours a week, I had a decent amount of disposable income. Couple this with the discount I got on any purchases at the bookstore, and you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I was buying a lot of stuff. This was the heyday of TSR’s output, with lots of campaign settings, supplements, novels, and adventures coming out regularly. It seemed like each week, I was spending a big chunk of my paycheck on D&D stuff, and loving every minute of it.

Though I was purchasing plenty of 2nd edition AD&D material, I still had a fondness for Basic D&D. When the Black Box set and the Rules Cyclopedia hit the shelves, I purchased them immediately. I was especially fond of the Black Box set. This was the new, easy to master D&D Basic set, with a slick map and cardboard stand-ups for characters and monsters. It might seem quaint now, but I had never really used a map like this for my D&D sessions. Mostly, our group used graph paper mapping and if we used minis at all, it was for formations, marching orders, and that sort of thing. Using a map made D&D seem more like a board game, and this was appealing to me.

Since I loved this Basic set quite a bit, you can only imagine how I felt when DragonStrike arrived at my bookstore. It was so much better than the Basic set, from a components perspective, at least. While the former included only one map, and cardboard stand-ups, the DragonStrike game had no less than four colorful maps, plus a set of plastic miniatures. DragonStrike had a sheet of cool tokens, plus character cards that weren’t paintings, but rather photographs of actual actors! I’d seen nothing like it at the time, and this sort of thing is still pretty rare.

The most unique inclusion to the game was a VHS tape. This video was about half an hour long, and used the same actors from the character cards in a sort of low-budget dungeon crawl. A narrator explained what was going on, and introduced some of the basics of role playing to new players. I was far from a new player, but I still thought the video was awesome. Especially considering the use of brand new computer generated effects, which were eye-popping at the time.

I remember reading through the rules over and over again, and playing through all the solo adventures. I never played DragonStrike with my regular D&D group, though I did use the maps in my campaign from time to time. I spent quite a bit of time with some younger kids from church one summer, and played the game with them a few times. They were probably around seven or eight years old, and they really enjoyed it. I can’t imagine they had more fun playing it than I did running it, though!

Looking back on it now, DragonStrike is a delightfully cheesy artifact of the time period in which it was created. The video is unintentionally hilarious, with ham-fisted acting and the worst CGI effects I’ve ever seen. The miniatures are in garish colors, just as many toys of the era were. But I still look back on it fondly. DragonStrike may not be the most important thing TSR ever made, and most people will hardly remember it. Lots of different D&D “starter sets” have been introduced over the years, but in my opinion, none will ever have as much charm and personality as DragonStrike.

Thanks to rpggeek.com for images and YouTube user catjams for the video!

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What I Learned from the D&D Next Playtest

Early last month, our group got together for a session with the D&D Next Playtest material. I was thrilled to be able to get some time in with the new rules, and the players were excited to be beta-testers, if you will, for the next generation of D&D. The evening was enjoyable, as it always is, and now that I’ve had some time to ponder it, I wanted to share my thoughts, just like 90% of the bloggers out there.

First, some clarification as to the makeup of the group. I was the DM, and have had experience with nearly all editions of D&D, though only minimally with late 2nd and 3rd. My son, age 11, plus a twenty-something guy and three fellows ranging from 35-42, were the players. Three of these players had a year and a half of 4E experience, while the other two were newcomers to 4E. Besides myself, only one player had any prevous experience in D&D. For most of the group, 4th Edition D&D is the standard, the only form of the game they are familiar with.

The character sheets themselves were very clear, easy to understand. Though 4E is a different beast, the basic tenets of ability scores, hit points, and to-hit rolls share enough similarities that the players had no big problems at all. The backgrounds, themes, etc. seemed to be a hit, both from a gameplay and roleplaying perspective. These were definitely worthwhile, and will surely be a good source of customization, for players who want to tweak their character a little bit. The hit dice mechanic was a bit harder to explain, but the similarity to 4E’s healing surges helped them assimilate this feature of the ruleset.

One problem that came up was “so what exactly can I do?” The power cards from 4E seem to have spoiled the players a bit. One the one hand, the abundance of power options makes  the game more complex, but on the other hand, powers serve as a good starting point. The non-caster classes, in particular, seemed to be a bit dry, with fewer options. I know that this issue will be addressed in future iterations of the rules, but as it stands, the disparity between spell casting and “I’ll swing my axe… again” was something my players brought up as a negative.

The spells themselves were quite different than the players were used to. Instead of very mechanical effects with only minor descriptors (as in 4E), the spells in D&D Next are more like rules subsystems all on their own, in many cases. For those of us who grew up casting sleep and burning hands, the D&D Next equivalents are easy to understand, if not identical to the older editions. But spells like command or mirror image are somewhat more difficult to pick up on. Adding to the issue was having to locate the spell in the “how to play” packet all the time. It made me wish I had something like my old set of Wizard spell cards from back in 2E. Power cards like 4E have their own problems, but you didn’t have to go scrounging through a rulebook to understand what they did, either. Perhaps a shorthand of some sort, similar to reminder text in Magic: the Gathering, could be added in future versions.

So, on to the adventure itself then. The old-schooler in me appreciated the direct translation of the classic Keep on the Borderlands module. It is perhaps the greatest “open world” type adventure ever. However, I’m not sure it was the best choice for the first major public playtest. The adventure as presented was light on descriptions and details, with more of an emphasis on the big picture. That’s all well and good, but it certainly requires a more improvisational DM style than what I have become used to in 4E.

In a sense, the Caves of Chaos is something like Madness at Gardmore Abbey. It is chock full of cool and interesting things for the DM to use and the players to interact with. There are multiple paths to take. There are lots of different ways to get things done. But it can be tough to make a coherent, enjoyable experience out of it all, depending on your flexibility in running the game. I believe a more straightforward, less chaotic (pardon the pun!) adventure might have been a better choice. Running something with a simpler set of options, like Cairn of the Winter King, as a good 4E example, would allow the DM and players to spend more time evaluating the system itself rather than figuring out what to do next.

Our group experimented with mapless encounters in 4E before, as I detailed in a previous post. I was hopeful that this would make the increased emphasis on the “theater of the mind” would be easier as a result. For the most part, my players had no trouble with mapless fights at all. When we did get the map out, it seemed like a waste of time. There really wasn’t much reason to do so, with the fewer options available to the players. I realize that a more complex, map-based ruleset is coming, but my players definitely see the system as too simple as it stands right now. Perhaps the low level nature of the adventure made the problem seem worse than it really is.

Thus far, my thoughts about D&D Next have been more general in nature, but there was one specific issue we ran into that I feel needs to be addressed. The wizard cantrip ray of frost seems far too powerful. My players ended up fighting a couple creatures that should by all rights have destroyed them: the minotaur and the ooze in the pool. Using ray of frost, they managed to prevail quite easily. By freezing these melee-only foes in place, the wizard allowed the rest of the group to pick them off at their leisure. I was torn between allowing the rules as written, and “cheating” in order to make the fight more interesting. In the end, I let them freely wail on these much stronger foes, but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m certain the melee-only players found it boring, too.

Of course, there are many ways the DM can get around ray of frost, but it certainly seems very powerful for an at-will, repeatable effect available at 1st level. I’m not sure what the exact answer to this problem should be. In my mind, altering the rules for the cantrip such that it cannot be used on the same target in consecutive rounds seems like a good compromise. Or perhaps we could steal from the old Mortal Kombat game, and have the freeze effect bounce back on the caster when abused!

Though my overall feelings for D&D Next were mostly positive, I was still mildly disappointed by it. I was expecting something that would fix the major problems in 4E, a set of rules that would be a clear upgrade that I would love and my players would readily embrace. This was not the case, though our experience is admittedly short. The rules as they stand right now feel too watered down, like they have swung too far on the complexity spectrum towards simplistic. However, it’s very early on in the playtest, and I know the D&D Next rules are in flux. I am very interested in the modular parts that will be coming along in the future, and hopeful that we can find a good balance for us as a group. In the meantime, we’ll keep playing 4E, and enjoying it.

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What I Learned from Adding New Players to the Group

Last month, we added two new players to our group. I was quite nervous about doing this, as the campaign has been going so well, I didn’t want to mess it up. After thinking it through, I decided to take a few steps to make the transition as seamless as possible. By using a one-shot adventure, with low-level pregenerated characters, starting with simple encounters, and using archetypes to encourage roleplaying, what could have been uncomfortable ended up being quite natural and very easy for everyone involved.

Run a one-shot adventure

Your natural inclination when adding new players will probably be to have them roll up characters of the appropriate level and jump right into the campaign. While that might work just fine, it can cause problems. It can be difficult to work in a logical way for new characters to join the party. A hamfisted entrance into the established story can be awkward, and might cause resentment or tension from established players. In my case, I felt that the campaign has been going so well, I didn’t want to screw it up if things didn’t work out with new players.

Running a one-shot is a good way to see if the new players are compatible with the old ones, with no real risk at all. Think of it as a trial run.

You can also use the one-shot to tell a side-story in the main campaign. I had my established players give a bit of the history of their adventures in the Nentir Vale, setting the one-shot in Winterhaven since I will be using Madness at Gardmore Abbey soon in the regular campaign. You could also incorporate NPCs from the main campaign into the one-shot, or even use the PCs from the campaign as quest givers. The possibilities are endless.

Another benefit is allowing players to try out a new class without abandoning the old one, or, in the case of new players, without making a long term commitment. The paladin, wizard, and slayer in our campaign became the slayer, ranger, and wizard in the one-shot, and they really enjoyed themselves. And the new players got to sample a class before making their final decision.

There may be some drawbacks to using a one-shot when adding new players, but I can’t imagine they outweigh the benefits.

Use pregenerated low-level characters

One of the most difficult parts of any edition of D&D, especially 4th edition, is character creation. With dozens, if not hundreds, of options for race, class, feats, and skills, making a character from scratch is likely too overwhelming for new players. For a one shot, I recommend using premade characters, preferably level 1 if at all possible.

Level 1 characters have few options available to them, which is very important. Learning the game system itself should be the focus, not interpreting ten different skills and abilities. Essentials characters make the process even easier. In our case, we had the new players take on the role of a Knight and a Warpriest. As gamers, they were familiar with the concept of a tank and a healer, so the transition was smooth.

The folks over a Dungeon’s Master have compiled a list of all the pregenerated characters for the D&D Encounters program. These are ideal for one-shot adventures, because they are intended for newer players. Additionally, the character sheets look fantastic, which really adds to the excitement of the game. We mixed and matched characters until we had all the roles covered, and it worked out very well for us.

Ease into complexity

The battlefield can be a very messy place in 4th edition D&D. Five characters, several groups of monsters with varying abilities, different types of terrain, environmental effects, traps… the list goes on and on. For the first battle with a new mix of players, it’s best to keep things simple.

I would recommend no more than two groups of monsters. In our case, it was very simple: a group of orcs, half with bows, half with swords. The melee orcs ran to engage the party, and the archers went for high ground. Even in such a simple setup, there are still plenty of interesting decisions to be made. The stats for each orc were the same, so that too saved a bit of complexity. Once you’ve established what a vanilla encounter is like, you can add in “toppings” like minions, traps, and spell-like effects in later fights.

Tap into archetypes to encourage role-playing

In a one-shot, you don’t really want to spend too much time on character backgrounds. You don’t need to know about homelands, ancestors, hated enemies, or any of that stuff to run a character for one evening. On the other hand, roleplaying is an important part of the game, so you want the characters to have personality to encourage that.

One good solution is to tap into archetypes. For our game, I pulled from pop culture and fantasy literature. The dwarf was a grumpy braggart. The snobby elf considered non-elves inferior. The mage was young and brash, quick to leap into action. In just a sentence or two, you can give your players something to expand upon in their roleplaying.

At the end of our first evening with the new players, everyone was very pleased. You never know what you will get when you change up the mix, but in our case, we were lucky. By running a one shot adventure with pregens, and easing into the complexity and tapping into common archetypes, you put your players (and yourself!) into a position where they can have a great game.

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Game Night Blog Carnival: Zombie Dice 2

It’s time once again for the Game Night Blog Carnival. This month, we’re tying in Game Night with May of the Dead, and covering undead-themed games. Looking through my game closet, I didn’t really have many thematically appropriate games. I’ve already covered Ravenloft this month, so the first D&D Adventure System game, based on that classic adventure, was out. This left me Zombie Dice, a fun little “push your luck filler”, as well as it’s small expansion, the unimaginatively named Zombie Dice 2.

Zombies are well known for their insatiable appetite for the brains of the living. In Zombie Dice, players take the role of a hungry zombie, prowling the streets for humans to prey on. These humans are represented by custom dice, and come with three different faces: brains, shotgun blasts, and feet. Three different colors of dice have these faces in different ratios. Green dice have more brains and less shotguns, yellow are balanced, and red have more shotguns than brains.

It’s fun to speculate as to what types of humans you encounter when you roll; a green die might be a little old lady or a toddler, yellows might be soccer moms, and red dice could represent retired soldiers or redneck hunters. There’s no real point to such speculation, other than the fun and often hilarious stories that sometimes develop. Those soccer mom/toddler combos can be dangerous at times!

Players roll three dice at a time, and set aside any shotguns or brains. The object is to eat as many brains as you can, while avoiding a fatal third shotgun blast to your poor zombie head. Any feet that are rolled are added to the next roll, though you never toss more than three dice at a time. You can choose to stop, and add the current round’s number of brains to your running total, or get greedy and press your luck in order to get more. The first lucky zombie to obtain thirteen brains signals the end of the game, giving the rest of the undead only one more round to roll. Whichever zombie has eaten the most brains after this final round is declared the winner.

If all this sounds very simple, it’s because…well, it is. But this is a game with tons of dice and a zombie theme. It doesn’t aspire to be Agricola or anything like that. Zombie Dice is fast, fun, and a great way to open up a game night, or a nice filler in between heavier games.

On to Zombie Dice 2, then. This sequel/expansion to the original just came out in the past few weeks, so I haven’t had too much experience with it yet. Even in such a short time, I have found Zombie Dice 2 to be average at best, arguably making the base game worse, which certainly isn’t what you want from a good expansion.

Three new dice, each with unique colors and faces, are included in the package, along with a brief rules sheet. The three dice include a pair, the Hunk (white ink on black) and the Hottie (pink ink on black), as well as Santa Claus himself, represented by a red die with white ink. These unique dice represent characters you might find in a zombie movie, and swap out for yellow dice from the base game. You can use the pair alone, just Santa, or toss in all three to really mix things up.

The Hunk is a very tough guy, indeed, with a super deadly double shotgun face. This risk is balanced by the fact that he has a two-brain face, which raises questions when you think about it, so better not ponder it too long. The Hottie is not as dangerous, but much harder to capture, with an extra foot face, meaning you’ll reroll her often. A special rule for the pair adds a bit of complexity. If the Hunk has been set aside for brain harvesting already, and you roll the shotgun on the Hottie, the Hunk is freed back into the dice pool to be rolled again. The Hunk can free the Hottie in the same way. It’s certainly cute, but I’m not sure if it really adds much to the fun.

Santa Claus is one tough dude. He has the standard brain, feet, and shotgun faces, but also a double brain, a football helmet, and an energy drink. The double brains are apparently from Santa’s bag, which is creepy. The helmet lets the zombie player survive an extra shotgun blast, and the drink turns feet on green dice to brains. If you play Santa with the Hunk and the Hottie, he can rescue them, and be rescued as well. One odd quirk, though; Santa’s double brain face cannot be rescued, since they aren’t really his brains, they are gifts. Santa is even less fun than the other pair. The helmet is fine, but the odd double brain rescue rule and the energy drink effect don’t come up often enough to be worth the extra complication.

The real draw for Zombie Dice is simplicity. It is easy to teach, to learn, and to play. The new dice add lots of new rules, but not much extra fun. The Hunk and Hottie alone aren’t that bad, with only the rescue rule needed to use them. But Santa Claus, with two brand new faces to teach and learn, and the bizarre rescue rule quirk, isn’t really worth it. The first game included lots of dice and a nice container, all for $13, while Zombie Dice 2 is $8 for just three dice. That is too much money for too little product, in my opinion. Unless you are a diehard Zombie Dice fan, you can probably skip Zombie Dice 2. Like most sequels in the horror genre it parodies, the expansion just doesn’t hold up to the original.

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May of the Dead: Ravenloft Silver Anniversary Edition Review

This month, several RPG blogs are participating in May of the Dead. All month long, undead-themed posts will be available for zombie-crazed readers to devour. For my offering, I wanted to look back at a classic D&D product with a strong focus on the undead: the Silver Anniversary Edition of Ravenloft.

As I wrote about in the very first D&Development column, my introduction to roleplaying was via a diceless playground session during one afternoon recess my 5th grade year. My friend, the Dungeon Master, ran the adventure from memory, and likely took many liberties with it. Though the details are fuzzy, I still remember encountering Count Strahd and his creepy castle home. I never played the original Ravenloft module more formally, though I did spend much time playing and DMing in the Ravenloft campaign setting in the early 90s.

Last fall, I was perusing the used item shelves at my local game store during a 50% off sale. While the selection was heavy on the hardcover AD&D books, it was very light on adventures, which I was most interested in. I did manage to find a copy of the Silver Anniversary Edition of Ravenloft, for a reasonable $5 on sale. I’d have preferred an original, but still, you can’t beat that kind of value.

While Ravenloft was originally released for 1st edition AD&D back in 1983, this Silver Anniversary version was published in 1999, the 25th anniversary of the D&D. (It’s hard to believe we are coming up on 40 years so soon.) This version of Ravenloft has been converted to the 2nd edition rules that were in effect at the time. Though I don’t have an original to compare to, I suspect that the layout is new, and that non-mechanical tweaks have been made throughout. Still, it’s a very nice presentation, as is fitting for such a well-known piece of D&D lore.

Upon even a casual reading of the module, it’s clear that the main focus of the entire adventure is on the villain. Strahd von Zarovich is a great character, for many reasons, so I suppose his prominence makes sense. He is interesting from a gameplay perspective, with a formidable blend of vampire and necromancer abilities. Another interesting aspect is Strahd’s ties to the land; in a sense, the entire environment is an extension of Strahd himself. The vampire lord’s tragic backstory, revealed as events unfold, gives him far more personality and motivation than the stereotypical dungeon boss. Strahd is one of the definitive NPCs in D&D’s history.

Another standout feature of Ravenloft is the innovative use of playing cards. Madame Eva, an NPC Vistani seer, performs a reading for the PCs. The module presents two different methods for this, one with a partial and the other with a full deck of standard playing cards. Tantalizing tidbits of information about what is to come are presented based on which cards the PCs draw. Props are always a great way to draw players into the game, and in this case, it couldn’t be any easier to find the prop, yet it’s still great thematically. The locations of key items, and even Strahd’s villainous goals themselves, change depending on what cards are drawn. This randomization adds a welcome level of replayability to the adventure. The Tarokka deck reading adds to the mystique and sense of immersion in Ravenloft.

The legendary maps are very impressive. There are two covers to the module. On the inside of each are two maps detailing Castle Ravenloft. They are, quite simply, gorgeous. Rendered in a slick three-dimensional view, these make the graph paper style maps of most other modules from the time look very plain in comparison. A more traditional hex map of the land of Barovia adorns the outside of the inner cover, printed in color. This map seems like overkill. There really isn’t much to it, due to the small scope of the environment, consisting mainly of the castle and a small village. Ravenloft is famous for having great maps, and the 3D views of the castle, in particular, certainly live up to the hype.

The bulk of the module is devoted to the castle itself. For the most part, it is very much like a traditional dungeon crawl. However, the choices for monsters, and the tone of the very descriptive boxes of flavor text, give the “dungeon” a gothic horror feel. As you would expect, there are all sorts of undead, plus a good variety of wolves, spiders, and bats, for the PCs to fend off. When you are used to the longer, small number of fights in 4th edition D&D, it’s strange to see a dungeon like this, with dozens of encounters listed. It reflects a different era in D&D history, and I look forward to trying to adapt a trip to Castle Ravenloft using the D&D Next ruleset.

Though Ravenloft is unquestionably an excellent module, easily one of the best adventures of all time, it is not without its flaws. The initial hook is weak; the heroes walk through some magic fog, and end up in Barovia. There is a significant amount of railroading, as well. The party is hamfistedly prevented from leaving until Strahd is defeated. It’s clear that there is an emphasis on the plot, particularly Strahd’s actions, almost to the point that the PCs involvement is secondary. Combat and interesting encounters are largely absent, and quite simply not the point. These issues, though obvious, aren’t so distasteful that they detract from the overall excellence of Ravenloft.

Many times, things that we are nostalgic for are disappointing when we experience them again. Many video games I remember spending many hours on as a child seem shallow and boring today. I was somewhat apprehensive that this would also be the case with Ravenloft. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by how unique and well crafted the adventure was, even almost thirty years after it was originally published. Strahd is a great villain, the maps are superb, and the use of props was certainly unique. The art, as well, is excellent, and among Clyde Caldwell’s best. I look forward to running a few sessions set in the gloomy environs of Castle Ravenloft in the near future.

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