D&D Next: In Search of the Unknown

Any person who has even a passing interest in Dungeons & Dragons has likely found the past week to be very exciting. A new edition of the original role-playing game will be coming out next year. Several signs pointed to this happening, from the obvious (the hiring of Monte Cook) to the less conspicuous (the folks at D&D headquarters playing through all editions of D&D recently). Still, coming so soon on the heels of 4th Edition, it’s a bit of a surprise that the cycle will begin again sometime next year.

The cynical among us think that a new edition a mere five years after the previous edition was launched is just a money grab, with Wizards rolling out shiny, expensive new editions of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual for us to buy. There may be a financial motivator, especially considering the rise of Pathfinder, a derivative of D&D that was uniquely positioned to take in disgruntled gamers when 4E was presented. The almight dollar might be the motivation behind the new edition (be it called D&D Next, 5th Edition, whatever), at least in part.

I personally disagree with that point of view. Wizards is definitely saying the right things this time around. It appears that they are genuinely interested in the opinions of all D&D fans, from the original white box down to 4th Edition Essentials. Feedback has been directly solicited in Monte Cook’s Legends & Lore column, which reads like a next-edition design journal. An open playtest is underway, with several notable bloggers already having their hands on the new rules. Believe me, I’d love to be attending the D&D Experience later this month, so I could check it out myself. But since I’m not in the playtest, nor headed to Indiana in a few weeks, all I can do is present what I believe are the keys to a successful new edition.

First of all, D&D Next must embrace the grognards. The Old School Renaissance is in full effect, with dozens of blogs dedicated to the golde age of the hobby. Thanks to 3rd Edition’s Open Game License, retro clones in all varieties have sprung up, catering to fans of every era in D&D’s history. Obviously, there is a group of people out there who are craving “new but old” content for their games and campaigns. The folks at Wizards have done very little to embrace this niche of the audience. In fact, they have ignored or more often been at odds with them.

Nowhere is this bias more apparent than the lack of digital distribution of the D&D back catalog. As I understand it, many such products were available for purchase at one point, but Wizards decided to pull them off the market several years ago. This shows a shocking lack of insight. With the rise in popularity of the iPad and other tablets, it makes even more sense to release these gaming gems from the past in electronic form.

Finding copies of the originals can be very, very expensive on Ebay or other secondary markets. I know there are dozens of books I’d like to have available on my iPad or Kindle, to read for nostalgia’s sake, if not use in my game outright. The Gazetteer series, covering the different nations of the world of Mystara, comes immediately to mind. I would love to run a campaign based in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos once again. What old school D&D player wouldn’t love to digitally flip through Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or Tomb of Horrors? Opening the vaults and making them available online for a reasonable price would generate a tremendous amount of goodwill and interest from the OSR crowd.

Second, the promise of a modular, customizable D&D Next must be fulfilled. This is important, and definitely intriguing from a design standpoint. A robust yet flexible backbone holding the new system together is a must. Wizards must absolutely nail this one, and make sure they get it right the first time. There can’t be a situation like 4E/Essentials, where the can of worms can’t quite be shut again. If the designers can come out of the gate strong, with a buffet-style set of rules, where you can choose what you like, and ignore what you don’t, then D&D Next could be the greatest version of the game ever.

That’s a tall order, though, and it may be that being all things to all people won’t end up appealing to anyone, making D&D Next a failure. Some DMs like a light rules set, which gives them the power to adjudicate as they wish. Others enjoy complex systems, where there is a rule for everything, and no guesswork is required. Tactical combat with miniatures or tokens is appealing to some, while it turns off others. By building a framework of terminology (AC, hit points, ability scores) and an intuitive set of rules to extrapolate from (die roll + modifiers > target), I think it can be done.

Emphasis must be placed on inclusion of all different types of players and DMs. When rules are presented as options, it makes a huge difference. An example from the board game world would be Agricola. There is a “family version” of the rules, with no random elements, and slightly simpler options. The normal version uses cards with special player powers, and though the rules are much the same, the game plays quite a bit differently. Both are equally valid ways to play, and use the same bits and pieces; they are just different from each other. This is exactly what D&D Next needs in order to meet the lofty goal of being something players of all previous editions will enjoy and find worthwhile.

The more I think about the possibilities that a new edition of D&D provides, the more excited I get. I enjoy 4E, as it was what got me back into the hobby. But it is a bit too rules-heavy for my taste. I’ve tweaked it into something I am more comfortable with, but there’s always that nagging doubt that I’m not running the rules as intended. If D&D Next provides me lots of valid choices as to how to run my game, each of which are accepted as “real D&D”, then I will love it. This, along with releasing the back catalog digitally, with the original and revised stats side by side, will make for an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that will put an end to version wars, hopefully forever.

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Did Cartoon Tiamat’s Design Influence the Look of Modern Dragons?

If you are reading this blog, you are undoubtedly a fan of both dungeons and dragons. While dangerous trips to underground caverns and cellars filled with treasure and strange creatures are great, I have always found the dragon part of the game’s title the most interesting. I love all the different varieties of dragons, their breath weapons, personality quirks, just about everything about them.

Tiamat, as the biggest, baddest dragon of all, has always been a favorite of mine. I was spellbound by her representation in the D&D cartoon (which I gushed over once before here). When you are nine years old, a giant five headed dragon is about as cool as it gets. When I was older, I enjoyed Takhisis from the Dragonlance saga, as well. Elmore and Easley were my favorite artists back in the day, largely because they really knew how to paint my favorite reptilian villains.

When I got back into D&D last year, one of the first things that struck me was how different the five types of chromatic dragons were from one another. Other than size and color, there really weren’t many physical differences between the varieties in old school D&D. These days, each breed has traits that make them unique, like the skull-faced blacks and the horn-crested blue. I love this, as it makes the different types feel much different from one another.

As I perused the different miniatures, flipped through the Draconomicon, and looked at images online, I somehow found the modern look of dragons to be familiar. Recently, I watched an episode of the D&D cartoon again, and a light bulb went off in my mind. The “house style” for modern dragons looks to have been inspired by the iconic presentation of Tiamat in the cartoon. It’s not an exact match, but there are a few similarities that are so obvious, I can’t help but think they are intentional.

I was unable to find anything about the subject online, so I decided to use my elite MS Paint skills to compare the cartoon and modern versions more directly. Using graphics from the official Wizards site, as well as crops from the image of cartoon Tiamat above, I was able to place the old and new versions of each chromatic dragon side by side. You might be surprised by how similar the two are!

We’ll start with the smallest type of dragon, one that has been partnered with frost giants in adventures since D&D began: the white dragon. In this case, the similarities between the cartoon and the modern dragon are striking. The finned crest at the top of the head is almost exactly the same between the two. It’s very distinctive. In both versions, the white dragon is rather plain in appearance, without any horns or spikes to speak of, compared with the more colorful breeds.

Next we come to the black dragon, dweller of swamps and bogs. The modern black dragon has a unique skull-like face, far different from its modern companions. While the cartoon dragon’s face doesn’t share that same shape, it is similarly shortened, with a higher nose, like the modern. The flat shape of the head is unique to the black in both the cartoon and modern versions. Most especially, the signature downward curved horns are the same between the two. Overall, the black dragons are one of the closer matches.

A step up in size, we find the green dragon, well-known for being sneaky and cunning. Here, the similarities between the two are not quite as evident. The cartoon green has a series of spikes down the back of its neck, as does the modern version. But the webbing between the spikes is missing in the modern green. Conspicuously absent from the cartoon green are the prominent nose horn and cheek spikes of the modern. I suppose one could argue that both have a bumpy, elongated snout, but that’s really stretching it.

The mighty blue dragon, with its lightning breath weapon, is next on our list. Here, perhaps, are the most obvious shared characteristics. The cartoon blue is the only one with a nose horn, and this feature is mirrored in the modern blue’s large forehead horn, though the location is slightly different. A row of spikes down the back of the neck is another common feature. The large spiky flaps on the ear area of the modern blue are reminiscent of the cartoon’s webbed fins. The blue dragons probably have the strongest correlations between the cartoon and the modern version.

The largest, most powerful dragon breed, the magnificent red, is a fitting end to this little study. Unfortunately, the cartoon and modern red dragons have very little in common. I always thought the cartoon red had an almost Oriental-style look to it, more lion-like than reptilian, very much unlike Tiamat’s other heads. Thus, there only a few similarities between the two, and they are far less specific. The orange, hair-like spots on the neck and cheeks are vaguely similar to the fins and spikes on the modern dragon. The prominent eye ridges on the cartoon red are perhaps indicative of the regal horns of the modern counterpart. But overall, the modern red looks more like its newer brethren than it does the cartoon red. Disappointing, for the purposes of this post, but nonetheless true.

The final tally, then, looks something like this. The blue and black dragons are very unique in the cartoon, and their modern equivalents share many of the same attributes, like the black’s downward facing horns and the blue’s large horn crest. The white dragons are not as close a match, but still very much alike; the green is only vaguely similar. The red dragon in the cartoon is wildly different from the others, and shares only a passing resemblance to the modern equivalent. If this were school, I’d grade the similarities as two As, a B+, a C, and a D- (passing only because I don’t want a mad red dragon parent after me). That averages out to a B-, which I’d say is a fairly strong correlation.

Maybe I am just totally off here, but I think it is clear that the artists who designed the look of modern dragons were influenced by the design of Tiamat in the cartoon. Perhaps this was intentional, as a sort of nod to the past, or perhaps it was subconscious. It might even have been a bald-faced coincidence. Whatever the case, taking a look at this has been very interesting for me, and hopefully for you as well. What do you think?

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The Best of 2011 from The Learning DM

A new year is fast approaching, which often brings us to reflect on the events of the past year. As I look back on 2011, one of the highlights for me personally has been playing D&D again after so many years. This blog, too, has been a source of great enjoyment for me. Being a better DM is a challenge all of us face, and the act of writing about my experiences has forced me to be more reflective about what works, and what doesn’t, in my game.

This post is my fiftieth since I started the Learning DM blog in late March. Slowly but surely, more and more people have visited the blog, which has been a great encouragement to me. In September, I was honored to be added to Mike Shea’s compiled list of the best 4th Edition blogs at the appropriately named 4eblogs.com. Since then, the audience has grown even larger, for which I am very grateful.

I thought it would be a good idea to look back at my posts from this year. Many of what I consider to be the best of my posts came before I joined 4eblogs, and thus perhaps many of my current readers haven’t had the chance to read them.

My most-read post was Quick and Dirty Combats in 4E: The Brawl Encounter. Frustrated by the lengthy combat times in 4th edition, as are many other DMs, I experimented with an alternative for 5 minute fights, much more like the combats in earlier editions of D&D. By limiting players to at-will abilities only, and using just minions, you can shave off a significant percentage of combat time. Used sparingly, this can be a nice alternative to a full on, by the book combat encounter.

Incidentally, I wrote up a pitch for DDI based on an expanded version of my brawl idea. The pitch was rejected (not entirely unexpectedly), with the following reasoning:

It’s a bad idea to try to speed up play by taking away the PCs’ options in a situation that otherwise plays the same as the regular game. Rather than feeling “streamlined” it will feel
“restrictive” to the players.

I obviously disagree with this, thinking that the vast number of options available to players is a real detriment to the game, at least as far as combat speed is concerned. Still, it was nice to get some feedback on the issue, and I hope to follow up with further thoughts on brawl encounters in a forthcoming blog post.

Moving on, we come to an older, well-visited post: What I Learned from Collecting D&D Minis. Though Wizards of the Coast seems to be focusing on tokens in most current products, miniatures add considerably to the enjoyment of the game for many people, myself included. However, with all the official D&D minis sets out of print, and the new game miniatures-based game still to come, it can be expensive to track down the miniatures you want. In this blog post, I presented a few methods to ensure you are getting the most bang for your miniatures buying buck.

Rounding out the top three posts of 2011 was my personal favorite, How I Learned to Stay Organized: The D&D Box. There are lots of moving parts to a typical D&D table, with character sheets, books, charts, initiative cards, maps, and miniatures to keep track of at any given moment. Maintaining a good narrative can be very difficult when you have to dig through a bag with minis dumped inside, and nothing drags a combat out like searching for a die you forgot to pick out ahead of time. I solved this problem by picking up a large Plano tackle box and adapting it for my Dungeon Mastering needs. I’m especially proud of this article because the pictures turned out great, but even more because several people have told me they purchased their own D&D boxes and use them regularly. The entire point of me writing about my DM experiences is to help others, and this post is perhaps my biggest success in doing so.

All in all, 2011 was a great year for me personally. Playing D&D again after so many years away from the hobby is an amazing feeling. I have learned much about becoming a better DM in the past twelve months, and I truly enjoy writing about these experiences. I thank you for reading the blog, and invite you to come back to the Learning DM often next year for more D&D related content. Happy New Year!

Posted in D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying | 2 Comments

Should DMs Be Responsible for Character Generation?

I apologize for not posting last week, some personal and family issues came up, and I had no time to play D&D, much less have anything interesting to say about it. This week, things are looking better, so I want to discuss something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while.

In my campaign, we originally started with five players and myself. Only one of the players had any experience with D&D at all, and it was largely due to the excitement he and I shared about the game that we began. He and I both got DDI accounts, and he handled character generation for himself and one other player, while I took care of two more. One other player had a DDI account for a month or so, then asked me to handle his character for him when he switched from being a Knight to a Slayer.

Early this summer, the experienced player moved away, leaving me with the responsibility of managing the four remaining players’ characters, as well as doing DM stuff like, you know, running a campaign. While this arrangement does have a few advantages, and big ones at that, I think overall it is a detriment to the D&D experience.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to this system is that I as the DM have total control over what my players bring to the game. I can allow whatever sources I want. To keep things simple, I used only Essentials classes, and that has been a big benefit. This avoids many of the problem skills and feats that other DMs have discussed at length since 4E began. We don’t have big problems with severely overpowered characters, with the possible exceptions of the Thief and Slayer, both of whom are single target damage machines.

Another benefit to handling character creation myself is that I am also very familiar with the capabilities of my players’ characters, so I can build my encounters to showcase their talents, or to give them a tough go of it, depending on what I need for the campaign. An example would be using lots of minions to keep the Mage happy, while keeping the damage dealing prowess of the strikers less important.

I hesitate to mention it, but another plus to this arrangement is that we only need one DDI account. I’m not sure how other groups handle it, or whether sharing accounts is OK with Wizards, but in our case, we are able to use the Character Builder for each character for a relatively low price. I don’t see a problem with it, since I am the one making all the characters myself, but I do realize this may not be the intended use for DDI.

These benefits are certainly substantial, and I think any DM would see the value in them. In particular, having the final say in what feats and skills are available makes a lot of sense for any campaign. I feel like all DMs have the right to veto whatever they like, but in my case, I can do so without any bad feelings from my players. Having said all that, I’m not sure that having the DM handle all aspects of character creation is an ideal solution; in fact, I think it may be killing my game, albeit very slowly.

One drawback to the arrangement is that my players seem less interested in their characters. Leveling up is not very exciting when you don’t really know what cool new stuff your character can get. Though my door is always open, and I have made it clear to my players that I would be thrilled to sit down with them and discuss options for their character, no one has taken me up on the offer. I can’t tell whether they just don’t care, or they feel like it’s too difficult to handle on their own, or what. In any event, it’s frustrating for me.

Another disadvantage is the sheer amount of time required. Leveling up a single character isn’t that bad, but multiply it by four, and you will get tired of it very quickly. Using only Essentials classes helps, but there are still tons of options to wade through. And then I have to worry about making sure I get them printed, which is just one more thing to remember before game night. Running a 4E campaign is supposed to be easy, but to me it seems like a lot of work, and the additional responsibility of dealing with characters just adds to the list of stuff to do before each session.

Another issue, and perhaps the biggest one of all, is that there simply isn’t much for the players to do. All they have to do is show up with some dice, and I take care of everything else for them. This fosters a sense of apathy from the group. I’ve noticed we are playing less and less, and for shorter amounts of time. I fear that the campaign will not last much longer. D&D night doesn’t seem to be a priority for anyone except me. I still enjoy getting together with them to play board games and even an occasional Xbox night, but it’s still disappointing.

In the final analysis, though there are some advantages to having the DM handle character generation and leveling, the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits. I’m not sure where my campaign is headed right now; it may be time for me to move on to other ways of playing D&D. I have to wonder if by doing so much for my players, I inadvertently took away one of the most fun aspects playing D&D, that of creating a character. My advice to other DMs out there is to be very careful in order to avoid making the same mistake I did.

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Game Night Blog Carnival: Get Bit!

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.

Playing D&D, particularly 4E, can be hard. There are many variables to track, abilities to remember, and tactics to discuss. From time to time, it’s good to step back and relax a little. Playing a quick, simple game with friends can be a good way to unwind, and Get Bit! is one of my favorite such games at the moment.

Get Bit! was designed by Dave Chalker, of Critical Hits fame. The theme is quite fun: you control a colorful robot, who has gone for a swim for some inexplicable reason. I suppose these robots are so advanced that they do not rust or malfunction when wet. As you might surmise from the title, the splashing group of robots attracts a hungry shark, who doesn’t know the difference between steel and human flesh, apparently. The robots make a nice, neat line and try to swim away to escape. It’s silly, yes, but that just adds to the fun.

Each turn, you will secretly choose a card, numbered from one to seven, to reveal. Starting with the lowest number, players move their robots to the front of the line. Thus, to make sure you aren’t last in line (and thus bitten by the shark), you’ll want to play higher numbers. But if you play the same card as another player, neither of you move. This adds an interesting bluffing element that I really enjoyed.

The last thing that happens each round is the robot at the back of the line loses a limb. Pulling an arm or leg off the adorable robots is quite fun. As small consolation, the player who got bit is able to take back all previously cards into his or her hand. So, the more you lose, the better your odds are to have a good card to play, a nice balancing feature. Play continues in this manner until a robot loses its last limb, whereupon the robot at the front of the line wins the game.

It’s one of the most lighthearted and laughter-inducing games I’ve played this year. The appeal of the plastic robots and their easily removable limbs cannot be denied; many times, the game slows down to a halt as you put the robots in all sorts of cool poses. Even after a game is finished, you’ll want to fiddle with them, playing with the interchangable parts and acting out scenes from Jaws. The component quality in general is very good, with a sturdy box and thick cards in addition to the awesome robots.

One of the best things about Get Bit! is the flexibility built into the rules. There are different versions of the game for small groups as well as large ones. I backed the game on Kickstarter, so we have a copy of the 7th player Sharkspansion, which allows you to play as Mr. Teeth himself. The gameplay is simple enough to play with children, and they will love the LEGO-like components; my son will sometimes get into the box just to play with the robots!

I highly recommend Get Bit! It’s a nice change of pace from a serious session of D&D or more cerebral board game fare. Sometimes, you just want to shove your friend in front of the gaping, serrated maw of nature’s deadliest predator, and this game allows you to do just that, in between snacking on Chex Mix and downing root beer.

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

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D&Development: The Dragonriders of Pern

Last week, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Anne McCaffrey. As most of my readers undoubtedly know, McCaffrey was a prolific science-fiction and fantasy author. Her Dragonriders of Pern series is her most popular work, and it had a great influence on me as a D&D playing teenager. It is only fitting, then, that I dedicate this month’s D&Development to Anne McCaffrey and her glorious dragons.

I came upon the first book in the series, Dragonflight, when I was in junior high. I was in the thick of my Dragonlance fandom, voracious in my consumption of dragon-related material. While browsing at a local bookstore, the spine of the book caught my eye, most likely due to its mention of my favorite fantastic creature. The cover itself was what sold me on the book. Michael Whelan’s illustration of an enormous, majestic, golden dragon soaring through a green sky struck me as incredible. I was a fan of the D&D art from the time, but this painting was much different, totally intriguing me.

Though the book was categorized as fantasy, it was really more science fiction. There were no magic spells, wizards, and no orcs or goblins. There were, of course, dragons, but these magnificent creatures were far different than their D&D counterparts. Telepathically bonded to their riders, and able to teleport at will, the dragons of Pern were quite alien and yet somehow realistic. The different colors of dragons didn’t relate their alignment as in D&D, but instead represented different sizes or genders. Small greens and blues and even the larger brown and bronze were each dwarfed by the golden queens. The dragons were friendly and intelligent, working with their riders to defend Pern from the threat of dangerous space-born spores called Thread. These dragons obviously played against the stereotypes in fantasy literature, which I’m sure was McCaffrey’s intent.

As impressive as the dragons were, the real appeal of the book, to me, came from the richly detailed setting. The society of an agrarian culture by itself would be quite mundane, but the ever-present danger of Thread, which consumed all living matter it contacted, made the stories compelling. People lived in fear, hiding in caves or stone buildings as the Thread fell. Bases full of dragons and their riders, called weyrs, were scattered across the world, in order to best patrol the skies. An elaborate, almost military system of defense had developed over the centuries. But during a particularly long period without the fall of Thread, all but one weyr had been abandoned, and the dragonriders were barely able to survive, since most people considered Thread to be a myth. This was where the story began.

All this background information might sound complicated, and it really is. But to me, this just goes to show you how imaginative and yet natural the world of Pern was. McCaffrey had created a speculative, yet very believable world. This is what the best science fiction is all about, in my opinion. By carefully crafting a world that was fantastic and different, yet still made sense, McCaffrey’s Pern became one of my favorite settings in any medium.

Though it wasn’t the typical D&D world, the Pern books certainly ignited my imagination in a way that few other series ever did. The political intrigue and strong characters from the books would sn influences on my campaigns. I used good dragons in my stories often, many of whom acted like or were even named after those in the Dragonriders novels. I have tried to keep my campaigns as logically consistent yet still fantastic as the Pern stories, though I of course cannot hope to live up to such a high standard.

Recently, I reread the entire Dragonriders of Pern series from the beginning, and my enjoyment of it as a thirty-something adult had not diminished from my teenaged fervor. The books are every bit as good as I remembered them, and frankly have aged better than many D&D novels I read in the same time period. Thank you, Anne McCaffrey, for creating such a rich, lovingly detailed world to share with the rest of us. You will be missed.

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Legends, Lore and Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters D&D

This week’s Legends & Lore has stirred up quite a discussion. The overall concept behind Mr. Cook’s article is that rules should only appear when you need them. He uses damage resistance as an example. Damage resistance doesn’t typically appear too often in low level 4E play, but is very common (and important) in later tiers. It’s unclear exactly what Cook is suggesting, but the underlying implication is that more complex rules like damage resistance not be included in the core rule set, but rather in individual adventures, or perhaps something like a paragon-tier sourcebook.

It seems most people are opposed to such a system. I find this quite surprising. Scores of articles and blog posts have been written about how to streamline 4E D&D so it runs more smoothly. It’s a mixed message; most people want to reduce the complexity of many of 4E’s systems, but they are opposed to Cook’s suggestion of a way to do just that. It doesn’t make much sense to me to hold both positions.

Having a simpler set of core rules is of utmost importance for getting new players to become regular players. The Essentials Red Box did a fairly good job of this. Not every rule or circumstance was presented in the box, in order to keep running your first D&D game as easy as possible. Fewer, simpler character classes and powers, with a small selection of easy to run monsters combined for a very user-friendly experience. It’s not a perfect set, by any means, but it does manage to get you up and running a D&D game fairly quickly.

The next step in the Essentials Line was the Rules Compendium (or, alternately, the DM Kit). Here, a huge range of rules is presented, which is daunting enough. But compounding the issue is that you still need the Heroes books or a DDI subscription for perhaps the most important aspect of the rules: character creation. Don’t forget you will need the Monster Vault, too, to fill your adventures with foes. Each of these books has content from 1st to 30th level (though admittedly the latter levels are not as well supported). That’s a lot of material for someone to wade through.

Do you see the problem here? The needs of a DM running a level 2 adventure are vastly different than one planning for level 9, 19, or 29. Clarity is lost due to the breadth of the material. There is so much to comprehend in these rule books, it’s daunting. Wouldn’t a method of delivering rules that gradually scales up in complexity as a campaign progresses be a better way? What would such a product line look like?

In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, and the accompanying pictures, we’ve already seen a D&D product that broke the rules down into easy to digest chunks. The classic Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters sets from the 1980s did exactly that. Basic covered levels 1-3, Expert 4-14, Companion 15-25, and Masters 26-36. The Immortal set even let you go further, though it was largely a different game at that point. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what Mr. Cook is thinking about.

I am strongly in favor of breaking the rules system down in this way. It’s a natural progression, one that can be easily mastered, if you’ll pardon the pun. I am a teacher in real life, and one of the most important parts of my job is making sure my students understand concepts I teach fully before moving on to new material. When I teach division, I have to make sure my students have an easy understanding of the concept of multiplication first, or else they will be hopelessly lost. It’s the same when learning a system as complex as D&D; you have to learn the basics before you add in any complications or additional options. Dont we need to make sure DMs learn to walk before we tell them how to run?

In 4E D&D, even the Essentials line, after you are done with the Red Box, the entire ruleset is presented for you at once. There is very little guidance in how best to proceed. A modular system would be a better method for learning to play D&D. Complexity can be introduced gradually, with a flatter learning curve. Maybe Mr. Cook had the old D&D boxed sets in mind when he wrote his article; perhaps not. But these classic boxed sets presented the material in a way that was easy to understand, which is not exactly true of modern D&D. If 5th edition can fix this problem, it will become a better game as a result.

Thanks to The Acaeum for the pictures.

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The DM’s Guide to the Holiday Hiatus

We are quickly approaching the holiday season. As Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s roll around, people get very busy. Family dinners, parties with friends, and extended periods of travel take up lots of time. As a result, many times, you and your players don’t have any time left to get together for D&D.

Calling a break for a few weeks could be a good idea. Chances are, you don’t have as much time to prep as you normally would, anyway. It’s probably better to go on hiatus for a while, rather than have poorly planned campaign sessions where only half your players show up.

The problem is, when you take a break, you risk losing your momentum. In my own experience, it often takes a session or two after a break to get back into the groove of running a good game. It’s like an athlete who skips training for a while; when they taketime off and then get back to performing, they are probably not able to run as fast or with the same level of endurance they had before their break. DMing is very much the same way. When you are running regular games, you are progressively better at it each week. When you take a break, you unavoidably come back a bit rusty.

So what is a DM to do, then? Even if you can’t run your regular campaign when your group is on holiday hiatus, there are still lots of D&D-like activities available to you. While these aren’t exact replacements (just like a basketball practice isn’t the same as playing a real game) they are good substitutes that will keep your Dungeon Master “muscles” in shape.

Work on your campaign journal
Many DMs keep a journal or record of their home campaigns. I personally use Obsidian Portal, and I have been quite pleased with it. A written record of what happens from session to session is a great tool for you to use when planning new adventures. If you can look back and catch up on past events in your campaign, it’s easy to maintain a sense of continuity when you are getting ready for the next session.

If you are anything like me, though, your campaign journal might not be what it should be. Perhaps it’s out of date, and you didn’t record the last few sessions. Maybe you left out important details, like plot hooks, or NPCs that might show up in the future. Since you have time due to the hiatus, why not get caught up? Your creativity will stay sharp, and your games will run even better when the hiatus is over.

Play D&D Adventure System Board Games
Sure, everyone in the group is very busy over the holidays, but perhaps you can still get a few people together for a short time here and there. Running one of the new D&D board games is perfect for situations like this. It may not be the full blown 4th Edition experience, but it is a very good substitute. You are still with your friends, rolling some dice, shuffling miniatures around, and doing many of the other things that make D&D what it is. There’s even a narrative structure, with roleplaying opportunities available. The latest game in the series, The Legend of Drizzt, is particularly strong in this respect, with ties to the popular novels.

Playing a simplified board game may not exactly push you as a DM, but it does scratch the D&D itch. You could even get inspiration from some of the monsters, encounters, and scenarios used in the board game that you can incorporate into your campaign. Best of all, you might get someone to play the board game that isn’t in your D&D group. Who knows? That non-gaming spouse or acquaintance might get interested, and end up as a player in your D&D campaign.

Run a one-shot adventure
Another possibility is to run a one-shot adventure. As with the previous suggestion, there might be times when you can get three or four players together. Maybe that’s not enough to continue the campaign proper, but why not run a one-shot instead? Use those Game Day adventures you have lying around, or pick an interesting adventure from DDI. Your players can try a new class they are interested in, or experience a unique setting much different from your campaign world. A change like this could be good for them.

And running a one-shot is great for a DM, too. There are no worries about tying the story in with what has gone on before, or giving clues to what’s to come. You don’t even have to worry too much about balance, either. If a pre-made adventure is too tough or too simple, just fudge the numbers a bit until it feels right. This option is one of the best on this list, since you are still playing full-on D&D, and thus keeping those DM skills sharp.

Play a D&D game by post or email
As your holiday schedule fills, time becomes a precious commodity. You might have plans almost every evening, but there are still bits and pieces of your day here and there that you could use to play D&D. Playing the game via email, message board, or other online methods can be a good way to keep playing D&D even when your calendar is totally packed.

I’m no expert in this area, by any means, but I did play in an email-based 2nd Edition campaign many years ago, and I really enjoyed it. Good places to start looking include the EN World forums, or RolePlay onLine. Considering post that you are interested in playing by post or email on Twitter using the #dnd hashtag. Obviously, playing this way is no substitute for getting together with your friends face to face, but it’s hard to argue the convenience of being able to play D&D on your smart phone after a big turkey dinner at Grandma’s, or while waiting in line for a Black Friday deal.

The holidays can be a very stressful, busy time. Trying to get everyone together so the game can continue is next to impossible. Putting your campaign on a holiday hiatus until things calm down is probably a good idea. You can still be quite productive as a DM by keeping your campaign journal up to date, playing board games or one shots, or joining an play by post or email game. Just because the campaign takes a break doesn’t mean you have to!

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“Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium” Review

As I’ve stated here many times before, I came into 4th Edition through the Essentials Line. Starting with the new Red Box, and moving on through the DM Kit and both Monster Vaults, I’ve learned much about running a 4E game. One area that I missed out on, however, was magic items.

No one in my group ever purchased the “Heroes of…” books, and so the only insight I had into magic items came from the rarity system in the DM Kit. While the Compendium and Character Builder have been helpful, I always felt like there was something missing. Various posts in the D&D community, as well as my own experience, led me to believe that the Essentials rules for magic items weren’t exactly what they need to be.

As you might expect, then, I was very much interested in what Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium had to offer. A tome full of new magic items using the Essentials design sensibilities is just what I needed. I managed to find a copy at my local game store, and picked it up, hoping it would be just the thing to fill the holes in my magic item expertise. The Emporium did just that, and quite a bit more.

The most striking thing about this book is the style of writing used throughout. Most of the books in my admittedly small 4E collection are quite clinical, and read like technical manuals, which is exactly what they are intended to be. That’s fine for learning to play the game, but the dry explanatory text is tedious to read at times. Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium uses a far different style, written as if it is a secret copy of a powerful tome. Flavor drips from every page, from the faux historical introduction to each chapter down to the creative descriptions of the various magical items. While there are dozens of stat blocks for these items, most have interesting expository text that gives DMs lots of ideas. This shift in writing style makes the Emporium stand out as the easiest reading 4E book on my shelf.

The first two chapters cover the most popular types of items, the ones that really get players excited: armor and weapons. As a 2nd edition veteran, I was thrilled to see classic armor sets like studded leather and splint mail included in 4E for the first time. Unusual weapons are also provided, such as the falchion, rapier, and morningstar. In addition to the items themselves, new feats are also provided, including an interesting system for power strike weapon specialization. Slayers will find these additional options quite welcome. Besides the mundane gear, a wide range of magical armors and weapons are listed, including some that have been in the game for decades, like the flame tongue, frost brand, and maul of the titans. The grognard inside me was grinning when I read the names of these awesome weapons once again.

The third chapter details new implements for spell casters. Superior implements and their requisite feats provide some decent boosts that will make mages happy. An enormous variety of holy symbols, magical orbs (including the awesome Prismatic Orb, which calls to mind a favorite spell from the old days), rods, staffs, tomes, and wands are all presented. Even shamans get some love with three new types of totems.

Chapter four is the longest in the entire Emporium. Types of magical gear for every slot from head to toe are cataloged inside its pages. As with previous chapters, there are many callbacks to items from earlier editions, including but not limited to boots of elvenkind, true gauntlets of ogre power, and even ioun stones! My favorite new item is the horrific the helm of seven deaths, a creepy piece of equipment, for sure. Any character can find some cool new ability or trait to improve their character in these pages. Many items have story hooks provided, giving the DM an easy method to work them into the campaign seamlessly. The wondrous items section is just as the name implies: wonderful, with fun, clever items like the broom of flying, climber’s rope, endless quiver, and instant campsite. I personally love crazy, off the wall, non-combat items like these, but they may not work well in more realistic, gritty, low-magic campaigns.

I am a huge fan of potions, and my players are too. They love them because they can use them with a minor action. I love them because a few healing potions here and there let me get away with some threats I might not otherwise be able to use on my healing-light party. The extensive list of great potions and other consumable items in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium will be of tremendous use in my game, and I suspect for many others as well.

Chapter Five deals with Artifacts and Curses. Again, the real emphasis here is on the story elements instead of just the gameplay effects. Probably the best section in the entire book, as far as DM advice goes, is the discussion of Story Items. No stat blocks are listed here, just six full pages of unique ideas for using special magic items as plot points in your campaign. There is some excellent material here that can be used as the basic for individual adventures or even longer campaign arcs.

The remainder of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium takes on non-magical items, those that are still useful but aren’t necessarily infused with enchantments. From the small (ball bearings, caltrops) to the large (palaces and castles), all manner of purchasable items are listed, including alchemical preparations. The appendices provide rules for hiring henchmen, and several pages worth of charts of various purposes. The book clocks in at a reasonable 160 pages.

Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium is an extremely useful book. For an Essentials DM, it really expands on an aspect of the game that isn’t covered well in the DM Kit. For the old-school D&D fan, it’s full of throwback items that will call to mind the glory days of yore. I highly recommend the book for any DM, and also for players who are looking for more cool magical items to bolster their character. Let’s hope that future books continue the high standard of Mordenkainen’s tome!




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What I Learned from Making an Epic Tier Dragon

As I discussed in a recent post, my group had a one-time “flash forward” session where they played as 25th level versions of themselves. Overall, the experience went very well; my players had fun, and I certainly did as well. One of the highlights for me as the DM was being able to use my Gargantuan Blue Dragon figure in an encounter. The “mini” looks fantastic, and is easily my favorite among the Icons figures I have (sadly, no Colossal Red Dragon for me…yet).

Knowing I wanted to use the big blue dragon in the battle, I decided to twist the players’ expectations a bit and present it as an ancient blue dragon with a red bloodline (inspired by the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons book). In my campaign, the PCs have been learning about Tiamat’s plan to breed together these mixed-bloodline dragons in order to create hybrid two-headed dragons as her special servants. I went to the custom Monster Builder to come up with stats for the oldest of these mixed-blood dragons: Apzu (name stolen from Babylonian mythology), an enormous blue dragon, infused with the twin elemental energies of fire and lightning, a consort of Tiamat herself and one of the most powerful dragons in existence.

Immediately, I ran into a problem. The ancient dragons in the Monster Builder used the old, pre-MM3 layout and stats. I decided that customizing the highest-level Dragons from the Monster Vault was the best plan, since these were very-well designed solo monsters, and used the new, more dangerous damage math. I was leary of using the Builder’s new customization features alone to scale the dragon up, so I also took a look at Sly Flourish’s epic-level dragon, Shademaw, which was presented in a tutorial with some excellent epic-tier advice. I used an elder blue dragon from the Monster Vault as the base, and tweaked it by adding in some red dragon characteristics. Here is what I ended up using, along with some thoughts about what worked and what didn’t.

Traits were fairly easy; there wasn’t too much to do here. I kept the full lightning resistance, and added in a similar amount of fire resistance, based on Apzu’s red bloodline. Action Recovery and Instinctive Slash are both great ways to shake off the most brutal status effects, so I kept them in unchanged. Uncontained Lightning was very flavorful, but the damage was fairly low. I’d probably change it to 15 or 20 lightning and fire typed damage if I had to do it over again.

Apzu’s standard actions were only slightly modified from the elder blue dragon baseline. After having used this monster in the wild, though, I would change two things. First of all, Gore was about useless. It simply doesn’t keep up with the damage output of Claw, which can be used twice each action. I believe I used Gore one time, just for variety’s sake, and while the flaming, lightning-infused horn strike made for an interesting description, it did an underwhelming amount of damage. To fix this, I would remove Gore and add in the Bite attack from the elder red dragon instead. The grab and ongoing damage effects of that attack make it significantly different from Claw, but not inferior to it. The second ability I would change is the blue dragon’s Breath Weapon. Being limited to only three targets isn’t great, and “dazed save ends” is redundant with Thunderclap (see below). I would revamp this by using the stats from the elder red’s Breath Weapon, retyped as both fire and lightning damage.

Minor and triggered actions are where Apzu received the most changes compared to the elder blue dragon template. Based on the advice given in the Shademaw tutorial, I changed the spell-like powers to be minor actions, significantly adding to Apzu’s damage potential. Flame Burst is simply a renamed and re-typed Lightning Burst. Thunderclap was good enough to be used unaltered. I stole the Tail Strike power from the elder red dragon. All three of these abilities worked fairly well, but I was a bit disappointed in Tail Strike. It quite simply never triggered. I suppose I should have moved Apzu around more, in the hopes of triggering it. Perhaps changing it to a knockback type effect, triggered the first time an enemy came within three squares, might work better. Still, these minor and triggered actions combined to make Apzu a very deadly opponent.

Here is the revised stat block for Apzu, taking into account the changes listed above. I’m new at altering monsters like this, and certainly quite inexperienced with Epic tier, so let me know if you see there are any issues with it. As the name of this blog suggests, I would love to learn how to be a better DM!

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