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.

Posted in D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying | Tagged | 3 Comments

D&Development: Dragonlance

It’s been a while since I wrote a D&Development post. While I have already covered two of my favorite campaign settings, Ravenloft and Dark Sun, I’ve only mentioned today’s entry, the world of Krynn, in a few posts here and there. I’ve wondered why this is so; I consider Dragonlance to be one of my favorite D&D-related things of all time. However, I am more of a fan of the novels than the actual gaming products, so perhaps that explains my lack of Dragonlance coverage so far. Nontheless, I am still quite fond of the setting from a gameplay perspective.

I was born in 1974, so by the mid 80s, when Dragonlance first hit the shelves, I was actually able to earn some money on my own. I mowed lawns and assisted my mother with her cake decorating business, using the money on trips to the mall, where I would usually hit up the comic shop, arcade, and bookstore. Looking for new Adventure Gamebooks one Saturday evening after we’d worked a wedding all day, I noticed a bright red book with an awesome title and even better cover art: Dragons of Autumn Twilight. This book served as an introduction to fantasy literature for me, and boosted my interest in D&D, too.

I read all three of the Chronicles books that summer, and to say that I enjoyed them would be an understatement. The characters were so interesting to me; I realize they are archetypal and not especially complex, for the most part, but that didn’t bother me at the time (and doesn’t get my feathers ruffled too much now, either). The carefree kender Tasslehoff, the gruff dwarf Flint, the noble Knight Sturm… I loved them all. I adored Raistlin and Caramon, which should come as no surprise to anyone, and was especially intrigued by the way magic worked on Krynn. The idea that it was physically exhausting for Raistlin to cast spells, especially more powerful ones, was quite different than the wizards I had seen in video games and movies. This made the fanciful elements of the book seem so much more realistic.

While the series has been criticized for its black and white depiction of good versus evil, I had no problem with it. The heroes worked together to help others and save the world, the villains were mean and treacherous, and that’s how I liked it. Classifying mages into colors by their alignment seems goofy on the surface, but it seemed ordered and structured, logical, somehow, to me. It might just be the nostalgia goggles affecting my judgement, but Dragonlance was so different than anything I had read, these flaws didn’t bother me at all at the time, and seem only minor upon rereading the series today.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect was the focus on dragons throughout the story. The idea that there were different kinds of dragons, each with a different breath weapon, habitat, and disposition, blew my mind. Of course, this all came from the Monster Manual and other D&D products, but I’d never seen it used in a story like this. A large-scale war, with dragons, both evil and good, Knights and draconians, wizards and warriors, all in conflict with one another, was fascinating. My daydreams were filled with such images for many months.

I continued to read the Legends series, and loved it. The blending of time travel with the fantasy genre and the tragic tale of Raistlin’s attempt at godhood kept me turning the pages at a frantic pace. My appreciation for Dragonlance was so great that I found myself buying the game products, even though they didn’t really work too well with the Basic D&D set I was most familiar with. Reading the events of the Chronicles books in module form was interesting to me, but my favorite was DL 5 Dragons of Mystery. I poured over this sourcebook for more information about the world of Krynn for many hours.

I only ever played in one Dragonlance campaign that I can remember. There were only three of us, and we all took on the role of magic users. I wanted to be (surprise!) a neutral human mage. However, during an introductory solo play session detailing my characters Test, Dalamar himself appeared and offered to take me as an apprentice if I would don the black robes. I of course accepted, and the campaign thus began with a party of three wizards, one of each color robes! When you are thirteen, it doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

While most of my Dragonlance memories are fond ones, there is one that still bothers me to this day. I have a tendency to get almost obsessive over one thing at a time, and focus on it to the exclusion of other activities. I am better about it now, but when I was younger, this caused some concern for my parents. During the height of my Dragonlance-crazed years, my father called the school librarian and asked if the books were appropriate for a junior high student. She declared the books to be “too adult”. Perhaps she was just buying into the anti-D&D hype (which my parents did not, thankfully) but in any case, my parents took away the Dragonlance books from me.

I was devastated, to say the least. While I know my parents did a great job raising me, I still disagree with this one decision. They should have read the books themselves first before taking them away from me. While I certainly went overboard with Dragonlance books, I don’t think it was unhealthy at all. I ended up just moving on to the next big thing, probably comics or Nintendo, and obsessed over that instead. Within a few years, my parents relented, and I purchased and reread the books again, though at a more reasonable pace. It wouldn’t be the last time I would enjoy doing so.

The best Dragonlance experiences I have aren’t childhood memories, but are much more recent. Several years ago, I shared my Chronicles books with my oldest son, and he enjoyed them, and the Legends series too, though certainly not as much as I did when I was a kid. Over the past year, my youngest son has really enjoyed anything to do with D&D. He recently bought a copy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight for his Kindle. He will turn eleven next month, a bit younger than I was when I first read it. He loves the book. We’ve had great conversations about it, and it’s interesting to see how his opinions are so different than mine. Tanis is his favorite, and he wrote a character report about him for school. Sharing one of my favorite book series with my children has been an amazing experience, one that I will treasure forever.

I owe a great portion of my identity as a Dungeon Master to the Dragonlance saga. An emphasis on dragons and a clear line between good and evil are appealing to me, and I find myself using both concepts in my games often. While I have not followed many of the newer books, I still reread the first two trilogies every few years. While I am disappointed in the lack of Dragonlance products for 4th Edition, I’m hopeful that many of the classics from the past will be reprinted or released digitally soon, and will be easily integrated into D&D Next campaigns.

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Is D&D Next Having an Identity Crisis?

To say that the past few days in the D&D universe have been interesting would be a bit of an understatement.

First of all, Monte Cook is off the D&D Next team. That’s bad. Just a few hours later, the public playtest date of May 24 was announced. That’s good… isn’t it? Then, leaks at Barnes & Noble revealed reprints of the 3.5 PHB and DMG, with errata, coming in September. Also released that same day is another product, with the obvious placeholder name “Provolone”. The cherry on top of the sundae is Amazon’s listing for a reprint of the classic Dungeon! boardgame. (It might or might not be a fake.)

What is up with all this?

I am most curious about Monte Cook’s departure. While he isn’t specific about his reasoning, he indicates that he left voluntarily due to differences with the company, but not his fellow designers. Couple this with the rumors of reprints, and you have to wonder if there is a significant push to get product on the shelves at any cost. Perhaps Monte thinks the game needs more time to develop than the business-side folks do, or something of that nature. That sort of thing happens more often that not, it seems.

Regarding the playtest date, D&D Next was said to be only partially complete a few weeks ago. Now, in less than a month, it’s ready for a public playtest? That’s concerning to me. From all accounts, the version of D&D Next played at DDXP was fairly complete, and it could be that the public playtest will use the same material. That would be acceptable, as there are so many of us who want to get our hands on it. If it’s not different, though, I won’t be able to shake the feeling that the open playtest is more damage control after Monte’s exit than anything else.

And what about those 3.5 rulebooks? Could “Provolone” be the missing third of the core books, the Monster Manual? Obviously, there are many fans of 3.5, but reprinting revised (with errata) versions of these books while woefully out of date versions of the 4e core books are still on shelves seems counterproductive. And why offer these at Barnes & Noble? I would think that reprints of books almost a decade old (niche products by almost any definition) would be better off as hobby store exclusives, similar to the 1e reprints coming this summer.

The Greyhawk Grognard is speculating that “Provolone” is really D&D Next, and that the 3.5 reprints are just placeholders for the Next versions of the books. While it seems shocking and outrageous on the surface, maybe there’s something to it. It would certainly explain Monte’s departure, a quicker timetable for playtesting, and the outright bizarre notion of selling 3.5 products at a mega-bookstore.

It might also explain the lack of releases later on in the year. Right now, the only product announced after August is the version-neutral Elminster’s Forgotten Realms supplement. Everything between now and then is similarly edition-less, including a Dungeon Tiles set and the Menzoberranzan campaign book, (as confirmed here). If D&D Next is indeed coming this fall, it might explain the empty spaces on the release calendar.

Speculation aside, there’s a lot to think about, and it’s clear that Wizards is shifting gears at the moment. I am a bit disheartened by all the tumult, and will probably remain cautious in my optimism about D&D Next until more information becomes available. Wizards really should be as transparent as possible here, and I suspect we will hear some official stances on these things very soon. In any event, I, like many of you, will be watching developments very closely.

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Game Night Blog Carnival: Lords of Waterdeep

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.

I’m a D&D junkie, which should not be a surprise to my readers. I love the game, loove the brand, and am probably too willing to pick up anything, be it a book, video game, or even a movie, if it has Dungeons & Dragons on it. Sometimes, this tendency bites me in the butt, like the recent Xbox Live release Daggerdale, or the Dragonlance animated DVD. Other times, the D&D label is attached to something great, like the old Capcom video games, or the subject of this month’s Game Night entry, Lords of Waterdeep.

Historically, board games released with the D&D label have been very thematic in nature. Many of them have been little more than stripped down versions of the RPG. Even in the past two years, D&D branded games have been heavy on theme. Castle Ravenloft and the other Adventure System Games are dungeon crawling cooperative experiences, and Conquest of Nerath is a large scale clash of fantasy armies. In board game terms, these would fall under the unfortunately named genre of “Ameritrash”, which typically features randomization, thematic mechanics, and direct conflict.

Lords of Waterdeep, on the other hand, is more of a “Euro” style game. In these games, the mechanics come first, and the theme is merely secondary. Random elements like rolling dice are emphasized less. Eurogames are usually lighter on player interaction, and more abstract in nature. Lords of Waterdeep includes worker placement and resource management mechanics, other hallmarks of Euro type board games. It’s quite unusual when compared to its D&D board game peers in this respect.

As the game begins, each player chooses a color, which thematically represents a faction within Waterdeep but doesn’t have a game effect. Secretly, each player draws a Lord of Waterdeep card, which dictates what varieties of quests will score extra points for them at the end of the game. You get two quests to begin the game, and these require the services of a set number of adventurers and/or gold. For example, a quest might need 3 fighters, 2 rogues, and 4 gold. Quests are the primary way to score victory points, which determine the winner at the end of the game. Each player receives an equal number of agent meeples, used to select actions each round, and the game begins.

On the board, several different buildings are presented. Each building is associated with a particular action. Placing an agent on the Blackstaff Tower gives you one purple cube, representing a wizard. There are similar buildings for the other character classes. An agent at Aurora’s Realms Shop gives you four gold. Other buildings allow you to play intrigue cards, collect new quests, or build new buildings. These new buildings, when selected, give resources to both the Lord that places an agent on them, and also to the builder. While the different options available can be confusing at first, after a round or two, it all falls into place.

While the interaction between players isn’t quite as obvious as it is in say, Conquest of Nerath, there are plenty of ways to mess with your opponents. You might be able to steal adventurers from other players, or force them to perform a low-reward mandatory quest, by using an Intrigue card. The selection of actions is also important; if you see an opponent using the build action every round, you might decide to build a few yourself, denying them their possible bonus points. Predicting what your opponents might do is a large part of the fun, in my opinion.

The presentation of the game is incredible. The board shows a map of Waterdeep, with a scoring track around the outside edge. The art on the Intrigue and Quest cards is top notch, and in full color, with flavor text. All of the bits and pieces are sturdy and colorful. It is one of the more visually appealing games in my collection. Of course, for fans of Forgotten Realms lore, many of the factions, Lords, and buildings will be very familiar. The currency is distinctive, giving even more of the flavor of the reknowned city.

It may sound silly, but I am absolutely in love with the box insert for Lords of Waterdeep. Many board games have a cheap cardboard insert that requires baggies or just allows all the pieces to mix together in a mess. Not so with the thoughtful plastic insert here. There is a place for every piece, and everything packs together just so, with little room to scatter around. I particularly like the angled slot for cards, that lets you press down on one end of the stack, popping up the other, for easy removal. There’s even a section in the rule book dedicated to how the bits and such should be stored. The attention to detail is something many other game companies should emulate.

Lords of Waterdeep is a fantastic game. It is easy enough to teach in a few minutes, but deep enough to challenge even experienced gamers. The mechanics are, if you’ll pardon the pun, intriguing, and the pace never slows so much that you are bored. Game length is about an hour, in my experience, so you can get a few plays in in an evening if you like. While it is very different from the other D&D board games, it’s an incredible game and I expect it will be very popular with many different types of gamers.

Check out the rest of this month’s Game Night Blog Carnival entries here.

Posted in Board Games | Tagged | 4 Comments

“Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons” Review

It has been quite a while since I reviewed any D&D material. As my campaign met more and more infrequently over the past months, I found myself purchasing fewer new products. So, I decided to look through some of my earlier items for review, and the first that came to mind was the first 4th Edition installment of the Draconomicon, focusing on Chromatic Dragons.

As we look to D&D Next, it may seem strange to look back at what was a relatively early book in 4E’s development. According to the product page for the book, it came out in November 2008, less than half a year after the core 4th edition books hit store shelves. From the perspective of a person who came into 4E through Essentials, the book looks quite different than what I am used to. For the most part, though, the book is still very useful, particularly the non-statistic content.

The first section of Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is titled “Dragon Lore”, a broad category that covers many separate topics. The first half of this section reads a bit like a biology textbook, detailing the physiology and life cycle of dragons. I felt the book gave a bit too much detail, stuff that was not immediately useful in a campaign, but the following pages on draconic motivations, society, and the relationships of dragons to the gods are more easily integrated.

The second section of “Dragon Lore” looks at each specific variety of dragon in depth. The differences between the various dragon colors have been emphasized in the past few editions of D&D, from an art perspective, at least. These pages give lots of information about what, apart from looks, makes each color unique from the rest. I appreciated this very much, as will most DMs who use a variety of evil dragons in their campaigns, and who want them to feel distinct from one another.

The “DM’s Guide to Dragons” is the second major portion of the supplement. Unsurprisingly, these pages are among the most useful in the entire book. Sample encounters are provided, in both combat and skill challenge form. A few new traps are listed, most appropriate for dragon lairs but easily dropped into any adventure. I am especially fond of the pages devoted to adventure hooks, quests, and even two full-length campaigns all heavily involving dragons. Regardless of which version of D&D (or, I suppose, any other RPG) you are using, there is plenty of inspiration to be had here.

Another excellent resource in this “DM’s Guide to Dragons” is the detailed rules for creating a dragon’s treasure hoard. Though intended for the large treasure parcels associated with dragons, these charts and guidelines are useful for any large hoard. Sample parcels for each level are included, but the best part are the different options and suggestions for interesting valuable items. Using art objects or fine materials instead of piles of gold coins in your treasures makes your fantasy world seem that much more real. A handful of draconic artifacts, including the Orb of Dragonkind, a favorite of Dragonlance fans everywhere, are also detailed here. The guide wraps up with new rituals and a nifty section on the magical properties of dragon parts.

Next, the Draconomicon spends a hefty number of pages on “Dragon Lairs”. This section is a mixed bag. Though the background information and maps are quite useful, it’s painfully obvious that the encounter design is very early in 4E’s development. Still, there’s plenty of good stuff here, but be prepared to do some serious tweaking before taking it to the table. Nine different adventures, each eight pages long, are presented.

  • Ruins of Castle Corvald – 5th level, young white dragon
  • Cliffside Lair – 6th level, kobolds and a young gray dragon
  • Feywild Lair – 9th level, eladrin and a young green dragon
  • Where Shadows Fall – 16th level, Shadowfell based vampiric dragon
  • Heart of Darkness – 18th level, Underdark lair of an elder purple dragon
  • Volcano Lair – 19th level, elder red dragon guarding a “doomsday device”
  • Tomb of Urum-Shar, 27th level, underground ziggurat of an ancient brown dragon
  • Abyssal Lair – 28th level, a deathmask dragon in the Blood Sea
  • Regnant Fane – 29th level, Tiamat’s eggs guarded by a dracolich and polychromatic black dragon

The remainder of the book, just under half of the total page count, is devoted to “New Monsters”. I got the impression that everything draconic that didn’t fit into the first 4E Monster Manual was crammed into this section. Sadly, the statistics for these monsters are in the early monster block format, very hard to use in play. Also, this was written before the MM3 changes, so extensive alterations might be needed, particularly for paragon and epic tier foes.

Details about brown, gray, and purple dragons begin this section. These creatures are hardly new to the game, previously being known as sand, fang, and deep dragons, respectively. Stats for various ages of these beasts are provided, as well as tactics, lore, and sample encounters for each.  Following the “new” chromatics are entries for wyrmlings of the various colors, in case you want your PCs to beat up on a baby dragon sometime.

Planar Dragons come next. Dragons, as such an integral part of the game, can be found on almost any plane your group might visit. The dragons listed run the gamut from incredibly evocative to quite mundane in theme. An example of the former would be the Frostforged Wyrm, a white dragon captured by demons and forced to wear painful armor plates, constantly being nailed on by small imps. An evocative image to be sure! Blight dragons, shadow dragons, and the various Feywild dragons are also worthwhile additions to your adventures. The dragons of the elemental planes, too, are quite interesting, and thematically appropriate given dragons’ strong ties to elemental magic. The dragons from the astral plane, though, seem quite vanilla compared to the others. They deviate very little in theme or mechanics from their standard brethren.

Several varieties of undead dragons are also presented. The fan favorite dracolich appears in no less than four separate varieties. A few other standard monster types are grafted onto dragons as well, including wraiths, zombies, and vampires. Following these horrors are a few dragon related monsters, and these are hit and miss. More kobolds are always nice, and the Kobold Victory Table is as awesome as it sounds. Abishai are here, and rightly so. But some of these monsters are really stretching it; draconic parasites and drakes are dull, at best. On the other hand, living breath monsters, embodiments of draconic elemental power, certainly make up for the less compelling creatures in this section.

Perhaps the best part of the Draconomicon, from a lore perspective, is the “Dragon Hall of Fame”. Eight different dragons, well detailed and suitably villainous, are available to be used in your campaigns. Each one of these would be a fantastic catalyst for an adventure, or perhaps even as the theme for an entire campaign. My favorites include Ashardalon, Cyan Bloodbane, and of course Tiamat herself. While the mechanics on these villains are probably woefully outdated, the motivations, backstory, and tactics presented for each are very inspiring, no matter what edition of D&D you are playing. A few templates and alternative powers are the last pages in the book.

So what’s the final verdict? There is so much fluff here, it’s hard to not find something you like. If you play D&D, chances are you like dragons, and the Draconomicon is a vast resource for story and potential villains and encounters. It’s unfortunate that the book came out so early in 4E’s lifespan, as most of the crunch included here really needs updating before it can be used directly in your game. To me, I found the fluff elements alone worthwhile. Being an older book, it is likely available used at your FLGS or online; I paid around $12 for my copy a year ago. If you plan on using dragons heavily in your game, and don’t mind adjusting or, in high level scenarios, entirely remaking stat blocks, Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is certainly worth a look.

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A Year of Learning

It is difficult for me to believe that today marks the first birthday of this blog. One year ago, at the tail end of March 2011, I wrote two posts; the first of these was an introduction, and the second was a recap of what I learned from running my first 4E D&D adventure, The Twisted Halls, from the Essentials Red Box. It is now 366 days, 57 posts, and more than 17,000 page views later.

I started The Learning DM mostly for my own benefit; writing is a good way for me to reflect on what works and what doesn’t in my campaign. Another reason to begin the blog was the obligation I felt to the D&D community, which had been incredibly helpful for me as I returned to the game after many years away. Creating a D&D blog felt, on some small level, like a way of paying forward the advice and encouragement that other sites had given to me. A third purpose for this blog comes from a quote from my very first post: “to make my campaign the best it can possibly be.”

As I look back over the past year, how effective has The Learning DM been at meeting these three goals?

First of all, reflection; how much thought and consideration about my campaign has taken place? In this area, success has been a mixed bag. When my campaign was going at full speed, I ran slightly behind in writing my posts. Often this meant the insight I gained upon writing my reflections came a bit late. On the other hand, I learned so much about being a good DM from those first few sessions! I know that the time spent pondering the successes and failures at the gaming table was beneficial in this regard.

What about my second goal, to make a contribution to the community? The blog has more than exceeded my expectations in this area. The Learning DM has grown steadily in audience from month to month. I was able to reach even more people when Mike Shea included me at 4eblogs and dndblogs. I am quite grateful and honored to be included there, alongside many of the blogs that inspired me to begin writing in the first place. The highlight of my contributions to the community are the series of reflections on the adventures from the Essentials line, from the Red Box to the Monster Vault. For someone new to the role of DM, who comes into 4E through the Essentials products, these posts should be very useful. They have been popular and I’ve had lots of good feedback from many new DMs. As far as community payback goes, I’d say the blog has been quite successful.

Moving to the third, and perhaps most important goal, to make my campaign the best it could possibly be. That was a very, very tall order. I do not consider myself a master DM at all; there are many others who could have run the campaign with more skill than me. Could I have done a better job as DM? Absolutely. Is the campaign on the downward slope right now? Sadly, yes. But when I look back at all the D&D games I’ve ever played, the 4E campaign is absolutely my favorite. Playing the game again, with good friends and my own children, has been such a joy. Perhaps it wasn’t the best campaign possible, but it’s been a great experience nonetheless.

Overall, then, I’ve done a fair job of meeting my three goals. I learned from my mistakes and successes by reflecting on what went on at the table. I was able to share that learning with the D&D 4E community. And I’ve enjoyed the greatest campaign of my life! Not too shabby for a year’s worth of work.

As I look forward to the next year of the Learning DM, I expect that there will be some changes. I will be wrapping up our 4E campaign in the next few months, and will likely not start another long-term game until D&D Next arrives. Because of this, the blog will likely not focus on 4E as much during the coming year. I don’t see this as much of a problem, as there will be plenty of new edition discussion to be had.

I plan to continue my monthly features, the Game Night Blog Carnival and D&Development. Since we are playing less D&D, we have more time for board and card games. Writing about these games is great fun, and likely of interest to most readers. D&Development is perhaps more important now than it has been before. With the next edition’s apparent focus on getting back to the basics, looking towards the best of the past seems like a great idea.

In closing, I want to thank you, the readers. I hope that the blog has been useful for you this past year, and will continue to be in the future. Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic game, and I am glad to be a part of the great community that enjoys throwing a few dice, moving some miniatures on a map, and most importantly, telling great stories together with friends.

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Game Night Blog Carnival: Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards Duel at Mt. Skullzfire

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.

There’s a saying that you’ve probably heard a million times throughout your life: “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” The wisdom of this old chestnut applies in the case of novels, people, and certainly for games as well. Many times, I’ve picked up a game because the art is appealing, or the bits are impressive, yet the gameplay is lacking. Sometimes, though, what you see on the box lid gives you an exact representation as to the contents, and this is certainly the case for my choice for Game Night Blog Carnival this month.

Wrap your head around this title: Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards Duel at Mt. Skullzfire. A lesser game might go for a shorter part of this impressive moniker. Epic Spell Wars alone sounds decent, though a bit generic. Battle Wizards could have been a video game you played on your NES back in the 80s. Duel at Mt. Skullzfire? Now that is quite a bit more interesting, particularly with the leet-speak spelling of the titular mountain. Each piece of the title standing on its own is fair enough, but put all three together, and you have a name that transcends the boundaries of awesomeness.

And then there is the art. It is a cross between the Simpsons and something that could have been in the liner notes of your old White Zombie CDs. The art is funny and yet horrific at the same time. You will have a smile on your face, for sure, but might also feel a bit sick to your stomach. Blood and fire are everywhere, as are sliced body parts and a generous helping of innards. The box art alone is intriguing enough, but the depictions on the cards inside are where the unique visual style really shines.

The first thing that catches your eye is the cardboard representation of Mt. Skullzfire itself. Composed of two pieces, it assembles easily and stands perhaps six inches tall. I thought at first that such a glorious game piece had to have a tremendous effect in play, but this is not the case. The entire point of this cardboard Mt. Skullzfire is to look awesome. I find this hilarious, and indeed awesome, but some may not.

There are several wizard cards in the box, each one depicting one of the Battle Wizards. With full sized art on one side, the only game-related information on the other is an area for hit point tracking. The choice of wizards has no effect on play (yet, though this is an easy area for expansion). Thus, you will be arguing over who gets to be what wizard only on the basis of how cool looking they are. While all Battle Wizards are hilarious, a few favorites of mine include Princess Holiday & Her Furicorn, Fey Ticklebottom the Enchanter, Krazztar the Blood-o-mancer, and Pisster the Pissed Wizard, who is truly a sight to behold.

The actual game itself is very simple. Each Battle Wizard is dealt eight cards, most of which represent spell parts. A spell can have up the three parts, including a source (leftmost position), quality (middle), and delivery (rightmost). You can mix and match the different parts of the spell in order to maximize the carnage you wreak on your opponents. Spells are revealed simultaneously, with initiative determined by number of cards played (fewer parts go off faster) and by a number given on each delivery spell card. Spells all resolve in order, then you draw up to eight cards and do it all again, until there is only one Battle Wizard left standing.

There isn’t really a whole lot of strategy or even tactics here. Some spells parts naturally better work with others, but there are no game winning combos to be found. Many spell parts require the use of the included dice for determining effect. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky, sometimes, your spell will backfire on you. If you are one of those people who dislikes randomness and chaos on your table, look elsewhere. These Epic Spell Wars are not for the highly analytical; they are intended for those who enjoy the unique theme and art style.

One caveat, particularly for those with young children who might be interested in playing. There is adult language in the game, though the F-bomb in the manual is far worse than anything in the cards. Some of the more, shall we say, colorful illustrations are definitely PG-13. I am a very conservative fellow, and took out a few of the more extreme cards when playing with my ten year old son. As with most such matters, you’ll need to see the cards and decide for yourself what is appropriate.

If you are considering playing Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards Duel at Mt. Skullzfire, ask yourself this question: does casting a spell called Professor Presto’s Ballsy Cone of Acid on your buddy in between taking swigs of soda and dipping chips and salsa sound like a good way to spend some time? If so, you should definitely give the game a try. Just watch out for that Phister Cannon.

Check out the rest of this month’s Game Night Blog Carnival entries here.

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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

As I write this post, it has been more than four months since I ran a session of D&D. In late October, we had our last game. A combination of factors has lead to this lengthy break, and as I look to getting back in the swing of things, looking at some of the causes of the break, as well as planning for what might come next, might be useful.

This is not the first lengthy break for our group. We started playing last February, with a full group of 5 PCs. In June, the only member of the group (besides myself) with any previous RPG experience moved away. We took a break until late August, then resumed the campaign. In the fall, my oldest son got a part time job and a girlfriend, leaving him less time for gaming. This left just three regulars, one of which was my ten year old boy.

While it’s not impossible to run a game with three players, since the campaign began with five, it makes things harder, from both narrative and paperwork perspectives. The moved player’s character was given a graceful exit, but my oldest son’s character is still hanging around. This means someone needs to run the Thief in addition to their own character. My youngest needs help from time to time, as well. My friends have been gracious about this, but it’s not an ideal situation at all.

Party composition is another big problem. With just the three PCs (leaving out my oldest’s Thief), the group will be Defender/Controller/Striker. Missing a leader makes it more difficult, but not impossible, as I discussed before. But I fear that not having the damage output of the second Striker will cause issues. I don’t feel like I can run encounters from premade adventures without significant tinkering. More time spent customizing encounters puts a larger burden on me as a DM, especially due to my inexperience.

The biggest problem we are having, though, has got to be player apathy. After we decided to take a break through the holidays, I decided to wait and see if either of the two adult players asked about when we were playing next. My son asks about playing all the time, but my friends didn’t even mention D&D until earlier this month. This makes me think that they don’t really enjoy playing D&D as much as I enjoy DMing. I wonder; is this a problem all DMs face, or is it unique to my group?

I’d be lying if I said the announcement of 5th Edition, or D&D Next, whatever you’d like to call it, isn’t a factor as well. D&D Next sounds much more like the game I grew up with than 4E has been. Though I will forever be fond of 4E since it was the edition that truly brought me back to the hobby, I would really rather play a simpler, faster version of the game. It takes a significant amount of work to forge 4E into what I’d like it to be. With the prospect of a cleaner system on the horizon, it’s hard to get excited about wrestling with 4E again.

Part of me wants to just forget about it, and keep playing board games every week like we have done for months. We are having a great time doing it, that’s for sure. There are many games I don’t get to the table as much as I’d like. And none of them require the significant prep time that D&D does, freeing me up to do other things. Many of the games we play, like Talisman, Catacombs, and (obviously) Castle Ravenloft, scratch the D&D itch anyway. Still, I miss the storytelling of a full-fledged campaign.

Earlier today, I updated the adventure log at my campaign’s Obsidian Portal site. Besides making me wonder if my players ever even use it, I found it was quite difficult to remember all the little details I had in mind for the campaign. We left on a bit of a cliffhanger, but the effectiveness of that plot device is surely lessened after so much time has passed. With the characters at 8th level, I had originally planned for a grand finale at the end of heroic tier, but I doubt we make it that many more sessions. Perhaps I will advance them at a much faster rate, maybe a level every couple adventures, so we can reach a good ending place in the story after a handful of sessions, coinciding with the natural break after 10th level.

Beyond that – who knows? Perhaps a few solid games of D&D will rekindle the spark we once had. I might even renew my DDI subscription, which I let lapse last month. Or, we might just decide it was a great ride, and we had fun, but now we are ready to move on. As a group, we will make the decision together. Either way, I truly feel like I need to give 4E D&D one last hurrah. Whatever else happens, this campaign will have been a success, easily the best one I’ve ever run in my DMing experience.

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Game Night Blog Carnival: Warmachine/Hordes

It’s the last Tuesday of the month, which means another Game Night Blog Carnival is underway. I’m joining several other RPG bloggers to discuss board and card games that are fun to play when the D&D group can’t get together, for whatever reason.

For the past month or so, I have become absolutely addicted to a new tabletop game. One of my close gaming friends had encouraged me for more than a year to check it out. It took several other gamers from the area getting started before I relented. I’ve always been leery of “lifestyle” games, those in which there is an entire hobby and culture based around the experience. So far, though, I am having a great time playing Warmachine/Hordes.

You might be wondering which game I am playing; is it Warmachine or Hordes? The two games are different from one another, but fully compatible. Warmachine has a steampunk feel, with mechs, guns, and artillery, while Hordes includes monstrous creatures, and more traditional fantasy elements. From a rules perspective, there are some distinctions between the two games, as well. There’s so much in common between the two systems, though, that they are totally interchangeable, to the point that you can play Warmachine vs. Hordes seamlessly. Thus, most players refer to them interchangeably.

Both games are probably best described as miniatures wargames.  Players can choose from a whole host of models, depending on the faction they choose. Warmachine includes five major factions, including the holy warrior Protectorate of Menoth and the necromanctic Cryx. Hordes has four factions, one of which is the nature-based Circle of Oroboros. I chose another Hordes faction, the Skorne, as the basis for my army. The Skorne are quite creepy, a savage race that enslaves and tortures various creatures into serving their cause.

I was lucky enough to find a fully painted used Skorne battlebox (basically a starter pack) at my friendly local game store. Using this, I was able to learn the basics of the game. You begin by deploying your forces on a 4′ by 4′ table. The first player activates each of his or her models in turn, then the second player, and so on. Each model has a stat card that details the abilities and statistics it has. It’s fun to measure out each unit’s movements, mark status effects with tokens, and of course roll lots of dice to resolve combat.

The overall objective is to defeat the leader of your opponent’s army; in Warmachine, these are called warcasters, in Hordes, warlocks. These units are the backbone of your forces, especially because of the focus and fury mechanics. Focus and fury are basically the currency that moves the game along, similar to mana in Magic. Warcasters generate a set amount of focus each turn, and can cast spells with it, or use it to power mechanical contructs called Warjacks. Warlocks feed their fury off of their warbeasts, in an elegant system that requires foresight and planning. Warmachine’s unit management is more straightforward, while managing Hordes units is more of a balancing act.

Depending on the size of your collection, you can scale the number of units on each side for as epic a fight as you would like. Each unit has a point cost, and as long as all players are within a few points of each other, the game should be balanced. Most battleboxes contain from 12 to 15 points, which usually takes half an hour to 45 minutes. A typical tournament match is 35 or 50 points, and take up to two hours. I really like the scalable nature of the game, which you can custom fit to the time you have available.

While Warmachine and Hordes are both great as far as game systems go, probably what I have enjoyed more are the hobby aspects. While I quickly purchased a few more painted used models, the real fun has been assembling and painting them myself. The few minis I have worked on so far are all metal, but plastic and resin are used for some models, depending on the size. You can assemble the models in lots of ways, and of course no two paint jobs will be the same. Even if you stick to the recommended standard color scheme for each faction, you can do all sorts of cool things, like alternative poses, or unusual bases, that make your models look fantastic on the battlefield.

While I am enjoying my time spent playing Hordes, I realize it’s not for everyone. I was very lucky to find well-painted models for less than half off retail price, but I’ve still spent well over a hundred dollars and can only field a 25 point force at most. If I hadn’t had a fair amount of hobby gear like green stuff, brushes, paints, and other tools, the initial cost would have been even higher. There is also a significant learning curve. There are many different options and decisions to be made, and analysis paralysis can be a big factor. It’s not for a more casual gamer, that’s for sure.

However, if you enjoy the concept of cool painted miniature armies fighting one another across a huge battlefield, Warmachine/Hordes is a fantastic choice. Though there is no role-playing, the game scratches many of the same itches as Dungeons & Dragons does. (Incidentally, Hordes models, especially, would look great on a 4E battlemap, though at 30mm scale they are just a hair big.) If you have a chance, wander over to the check out what the minis wargamers are playing sometime when you are at your local game store. You might just get as addicted as I am!

<<List of blogs participating in the carnival  Next blog in the carnival: Roving Band of Misfits>> 

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D&Development: Endless Quest and AD&D Adventure Gamebooks

It’s time once again for a post about the biggest influences on me as a fan of Dungeons & Dragons. This time around, we’ll look back at the world of that distinctly 80s item, the interactive gamebook. More specifically, we’ll discuss the TSR branded gamebooks: the Endless Quest series, and the more game-like follow ups, Super Endless Quest (also known as AD&D Adventure Gamebooks).

Like most every kid who grew up in the 80s, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. You’ve likely heard of them, even if you never read one. These books don’t read straight from front cover to back cover, but instead present the reader with choices at different points in the story. These choices send the reader to different pages, where the narrative unfolds in various ways. You an read the same book over and over again with different outcomes each time. As a kid, I found the concept fascinating, and sought out as many Choose Your Own Adventure (hereafter abbreviated CYOA) books as I could find.

The CYOA books were a smashing success, spawning the development of other, similar lines. Two of my favorites were the Time Machine and Be an Interplanetary Spy series. Time travel was a natural fit for exciting adventures, and I read Search for Dinosaurs over and over again in the summer of 1984. The Interplanetary Spy series focused more on puzzles, mazes, and other brain teasers, often requiring the reader to write in the book. I still have my battered copy of The Galactic Pirate.

TSR got in on the gamebook action, too, starting with the Endless Quest books, the first of which hit bookstore shelves in 1982. I was immediately drawn to these books. Not only did I love the gamebook format, but the cover art was amazing! And of course, they were branded with the Dungeons & Dragons name, which I was familiar with from the cartoon. Unsurprisingly, I read as many Endless Quest books as possible. Dragon of Doom, in particular, was quite memorable for me. I picked up my copy at a bookstore in a mall in another city we were travelling through.

Pardon a brief aside: when I was young, going to a new bookstore was like entering the tomb of King Tut; who knew what exotic new treasures could be found within? I pored over the shelves of every library, grocery store, and newsstand I could, looking for the next great book. Finding something I hadn’t seen before was such a thrill. Now, you learn about new products weeks or months in advance, and I’m not sure if that is as big a benefit as it seems to be on the surface.

In hindsight, it is clear that, aside from cashing in on the gamebook fad, the primary purpose of Endless Quest was to get kids involved in TSR games. Dungeons & Dragons was the most popular, for sure, and so most of the EQ books were set in the world of Greyhawk. But there were also a few Gamma World books. Interestingly, a handful of books featuring licensed characters like Conan and Tarzan was available. The 2nd person perspective of Endless Quest, as well as the decision making aspects, made the transition from a book to the full-fledged RPG a smooth one.

The Super Endless Quest line made this natural progression even easier. This series changed its name to AD&D Adventure Gamebooks early on in the run, and for good reason. These books provided a bookmark that doubled as a character sheet, including such concepts as hit points, spells, and inventory management. There was even a little bit of character customization, where you could spend points on different ability scores. In essence, each AD&D Adventure Gamebook was the same thing as the solo adventure from the Mentzer Basic set: a fantastic introduction to role playing games.

My favorite Adventure Gamebook was, without a doubt, The Soulforge. The reader took on the role of Raistlin (yes, THAT Raistlin) during his Test at the Tower of High Sorcery. At the time, this was the only account with the details of what happened to Raistlin during this intriguing part of Dragonlance history. Isn’t it odd that such an important part of Krynn’s lore was only found in a gamebook until later detailed in an “actual” novel? Other memorable books in this series were Master of Ravenloft, The Sorcerer’s Crown, and Gates of Death. This latter book was purchased for me as a reward by my aunt, after I helped her clean my grandparents’ house all night while we listened to the La Bamba soundtrack over and over again. (Isn’t it odd how memory works?)

The AD&D Adventure Gamebooks were a big part of my development as a fan of role-playing games. When I couldn’t get together with the group, I could still go on an adventure just by opening the pages of one of these stories. While the TSR books were always the ones I sought out first, I also voraciously devoured the Lone Wolf books and even a few Fighting Fantasy entries. Such was my mania that I even developed a few new characters for use in my gamebooks. Gamebooks were an excellent outlet for my creativity, and ignited a love for roleplaying games in me that is still unquenched more than twenty years later.

I highly recommend readers who are interested in Endless Quest or other gamebooks to check out Demian’s Gamebook Web Page. Though a bit hard to navigate, it’s a tremendous storehouse of information, and was where I found the pictures in this post. Thanks Demian!

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