Wednesday, July 5, 2017

D&D: The Pros and Cons of World Building

(with apologies to Roger Waters)

In a recent Tweet, Mike Shea (@SlyFlourish) made a controversial pronouncement about world building (he has since moderated his stance a bit), but I considered it thought-provoking enough that I wanted to “deep dive” on it a little, especially for those who don’t follow the #dnd Twitter verse… and I also made a bit of a joke that I was going to refute each one of his tip tweets with a blog post (It was only a joke).

I had meant to write this post back when this occurred, but with Origins and other life events, it took me a couple weeks to post about it. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original tweet (possibly deleted, since he clarified his stance later), but you can see a fair amount of the discussion that ensued by searching through the various Tweets and replies.

As noted, Mike moderated his stance after reviewing both sides of the debate, but the original gist of the comments were:

No one cares about your world building. Spend more time becoming a better DM (encounter building, PC hooks, etc) rather than exploring the intricacies of your fictional world, especially given that players will not see (nor possibly care about) most of that effort.

This stirred up a bit of a bees nest, because he is both absolutely correct and utterly wrong at the same time (yes, I know this statement appears self-contradictory).

Roger Dean paintings always put me in a world building mood.

First, I’ll start with the Cons as Mike (and others who agreed with his stance) originally stated them:
  1. If you build a big sprawling world, your players will not see most of it and therefore your effort is wasted.
  2. Time spent world building would be better spent focussing on the PCs, their backgrounds, recent actions in the campaign, etc. Focus on the players and work on what they care about, rather than spending a lot of time on what you care about (which they may not).
  3. If your detail a lot about the world, it doesn’t leave as much room for the players to contribute to the details of the world.
  4. There are oodles of pre-published worlds out there. Use one of them instead of spending scads of time building one from scratch (i.e. - Why reinvent the wheel? Your generic fantasy world is not a special snowflake).
  5. Once you’ve spent a lot of time on your snowflake, you may be hesitant to let the players make large changes to your intended timeline of events or political landscape, which would lead to railroading, rather than letting the player’s agency contribute to the shape of the campaign.
  6. When prep time is constrained, world building time is better spent on game preparation which has a more immediate and lasting impact on the quality of play.
These are actually all perfectly valid points. Assuming you are spending more time on world building than you are prepping for the upcoming game sessions, you may be falling into one or more of these traps.

However, there are also Pros (Pro’s?)... benefits that came out of the discussion which I will attempt to summarize (and add my own thoughts):
  1. World building is one of those solitary D&D activities where the DM can stretch their creative wings. Just like players who build PCs that they may never use in play, it's an exercise in imagination that keeps creative juices flowing and generates new ideas.
  2. It is not necessarily time wasted as most GMs will likely focus development on the areas in which the PCs are already exploring. This creative endeavor will very likely produce NPCs, hooks, and adventure ideas for the campaign.
  3. Without homebrewing, no one would have invented Forgotten Realms (Greenwood’s homebrew), or Eberron **. 
  4. A homebrew is not weighed down by published game world canon, nor is there much mystery left in those well known settings. (i.e. - “What’s over that next mountain?”)
  5. The players may engage more if the GM is world building with the players' interests as well as the their own in mind.
** There is some debate whether Keith Baker created Eberron specifically for the WotC setting competition or if it (or elements of it) existed prior to the competition.

These are all perfectly valid points as well.

All Things in Moderation


Like Mom says, “There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. All things in moderation.”

It always boils down to moderation. If you spend more time world-building than you do on campaign prep, you may be on the wrong track because you are focussing your energies in ways that may not directly lift up your game mastering skills or the player’s engagement. On the other hand, if you focus your world building on the things that your players do care about, then it is likely your creative labours will cultivate some in-game fruits.

One of the best adventures of the 4e era
As an example, I ran a Nentir Vale campaign based on the Reavers of Harkenwold module for D&D 4th Edition. The module doesn’t go into a lot of detail as to why the Iron Circle is invading Harkenwold. They are merely presented as the conquering Bad Guys and no more need be said about that. While Nentir Vale is technically a "published setting", there is actually very little published about it, so it's largely a blank canvas. During my own Nentir Vale home brewing, I built up some backstory about the Iron Circle and gave the villains their own ideals and motivations. This lead directly to several ideas about how the important NPCs would react to the PCs’ interventions and created other hooks as I opened up the sandbox wider. Not all of the notes I wrote up directly impacted the PCs, but it did give me a scaffold upon which to hang future events and adventures. It also turned a "Levels 2 to 4" module into a 3 year campaign encompassing 8 or so levels of content.

There is also something to be said about deriving your own enjoyment from your campaign. A GM’s enjoyment is as important to the game as the player enjoyment. As a GM, you don’t want to burn out, and if world building keeps the fires lit, then more power to you. However, keep in mind that the actions of Queen Forgothername from 400 years ago will probably not be important to your players. It’s fine if you want to write out a complex history for your own sake, but don’t let yourself be frustrated by the player’s disinterest in the historical trivialities of the world… because they likely won’t care. However, throwing in a piece of historical trivia here and there does add verisimilitude and may lead to other adventure hooks (or red herrings) if the players do happen to glom onto a casually-mentioned historical aside.

Roger Dean
As general world building advice, I would recommend prioritizing the aspects of the game world that have a more direct impact on the PCs, their backgrounds, NPC relationships, etc. Detail those people and places with which the players are already building a relationship. I would also prioritize those ideas that make the world a bit different than the traditional fantasy world, especially details that have impact or consequences related to the actions of the PCs. Those consequences will add interest for the players in what might otherwise be setting noise in the background.

There may be times where you are drawing maps or detailing places the players may never explore, and that is OK as an exercise in solitary creative fun, but make sure you also leave time for planning for the next few upcoming sessions of your game and improving your GMing skills.
If the time spent world building negatively impacts your session organization and how well you are actually running the game, you need to rearrange your priorities to improve the game at the table rather than the setting awaiting in the wings.

Final Thoughts


There are always two sides to every coin and at least as many in any debate. World building can be an excellent way to get into a creative flow for your game as well as come up with new ideas for adventures, plot hooks and NPCs... But make sure the hours spent world building help improve the overall game as well. Don’t short change the session preparation side of the equation and make sure your world building involves and integrates the players’ actions and interests.

What fun or interesting ideas have come out of your world building that paid off in the campaign? Tell us in the comments!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Origins 2017 Post-Game and Owlbear 500K

Last weekend, I spent my long overdue vacation time attending Origins Game Fair. During that period, Raging Owlbear crossed the 500,000 page view mark. Three years ago, I could have never guessed I’d get more than a couple thousand page views in any given month. It’s been pretty surprising the blog has grown the way it has. Thanks for the support!

Anyway, back to Origins… If you don’t already know, Origins is one of the largest tabletop gaming conventions aside from Gen Con. This year saw approximate 17,000 attendees in the Columbus Convention Center.

In a prior post, I ranted a bit on the issues encountered during pre-registration. Thankfully, the on-site badge pick up this year was fairly quick and painless. This year they had multiple laptops available on which one could perform a self check-in and have your event tickets printed.This was a welcome improvement over the last year where check-in took anywhere from ½ hour to 2 hours depending upon when you arrived. This year, we were in and out of the line in a matter of minutes.

For the most part, the convention appeared to run fairly smoothly, although I did hear from a Mayfair representative that all was not perfect. Mayfair, who is a major sponsor of Origins (and publisher of many popular games such as Agricola, Caverna and Patchwork), submitted over 700 events into the pre-registration system which, due to a technical snafu, were not in the registration system, nor printed in the events program. Because of this, the Mayfair hall was very lightly attended in comparison to other years. There is bound to be some damage to the relationship, as Mayfair has been a headline sponsor of Origins for as long as I can remember. I hope this doesn’t create a permanent rift.

From my perspective, the convention went quite well and some of the lost esteem due to pre-registration was regained over the course of the weekend.

Highlights:
  • Played Castles & Crusades with author Davis Chenault (which I wrote about). He’s a true mensch.
  • Had a chance encounter in the hallway with Chris O’Neill of 9th Level Games. Not only did he remember who I was, we had a pleasant (but quick) conversation about 9th Level and their new releases. Super nice fellow.
  • Briefly watched Ken St. Andre GM’ing a game of Tunnels & Trolls. I would have liked to say hello, but I did not want to interrupt his game.
  • Won a Tie F/O model playing X-Wing. 
  • Played a truly enjoyable home brew Savage Worlds scenario.
  • Participated in a crazy Paranoia LARP
  • And a crap-ton of D&D Adventurers League (probably too much, to be honest).
Misses:
  • I did not get an opportunity to chat with any WotC people.
  • There were a few well-known authors/bloggers I wanted to meet, but did not.
  • I really wanted to get to play a demo of Dragonfire which looks like it could be a hit.
  • There just isn't enough time in the day to fit in all the extra gaming.
  • I don't have tickets to GenCon this year... sigh.

Let me know about your Origins experience in the comments!

Owlbear and the Troll Lord
These come equipped with ER-PPCs, right?
Bit of a furball going on...
7 evades in a row?!?
Hey Guys... What's in here?
Meeting Chris O'Neill in 2016
Dice Tower's Tom Vasel
Acerak demands your.. erm... devotion.



Thursday, June 22, 2017

D&D Character Sheets - a $10 Review

TLDR Summary: Don’t buy this. Not worth the price.

Wizards of the Coast recently released a new character sheet folio for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. I recently previewed this in an article a couple week ago, but here is a “full review”.

The D&D Character Sheets contains a folder with a ampersand dragon artwork, 4 copies each of 3 standard character sheet designs (12 total), 8 copies of the "newbie" character sheet, and 4 copies of the spell sheet. Basically, a folder with 24 sheets of paper.

Don’t buy this crap. Seriously. Just don’t.

With two exceptions, the character sheets included in this folio are all directly downloadable for free from the Wizards.com website. If you don’t have a printer, go to the library. They have internet and printers. I just saved you $10.

http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/character_sheets

The folder? It's a folder. It's glossy. It's made of card stock. It's basically the same as any other glossy folder at an Office Depot (are those places still around?), but with the ampersand artwork seen above on the cover (originally a Dragon+ cover) which I find less than inspiring. Looks a bit like an 80's metal hair band album cover. These are character sheets. Why doesn't the illustration contain characters? Inside, it has a list of actions in combat, but MPMB's combat reference sheet is much better -- see below.

If you want more pictures, you can check out Grand DM's blog.

"Newbie" Sheets


One exception to the freely downloadable clause is the character sheet designed for new players. It uses a larger font with a larger layout area for the most basic numbers a new player would need (AC, Initiative, Saves). It leaves off ideals, bonds, flaws and the full skill list for a shortened fill-in-the-blank one. It also includes two sections called "Things You Should Do" and "Things You Shouldn't Do" to help the players take notes on good and bad idea.

Under "Things You Shouldn't Do" it should have listed "Buy these character sheets" as the first entry. These newbie sheets are not a terrible redesign, but they don't really bring anything new to the table.

Where is the Value?


Is a glossy folder with an ampersand logo really worth the $10?

If you want a fancy folder, buy a 3-ring binder. Print out your own custom artwork for the cover sleeve. Wizards.com even provides the same artwork on their folio as a wallpaper… but you can also just search “D&D wallpaper” on Google image search and find all kinds of awesome imagery... many of which actually contains characters doing character-y things.

Want help making your own character sheet folio with a player reference? Try these links:
http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/character_sheets
https://crobi.github.io/dnd5e-quickref/preview/quickref.html
http://swshinn.com/dnd-5e/rules-summary/
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2Fbq7v8pucJVENWZlE5Z2h1T00/view
https://olddungeonmaster.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/combat-reference-sheet_b.pdf

Final Thoughts


If you really want to waste $10, go for it... but this just encourages Wizards of the Coast to put out crappy products when they should be focusing resources somewhere else. If they had come up with some interesting character sheet designs that weren't available online, then maybe this might have been worth a look... but as a product, this whole thing is an underwhelming money grab.

If you want a truly useful character sheet, download  MPMB's fully-automated printer friendly character generator (mobile link) which is Pay What You Want from DMsGuild.com. This sheet is truly worth $10, but all that is asked is a voluntary donation.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Random Encounters with a Troll Lord

Best SWAG from Origins this year
First a bit of background… In 2004, Castles & Crusades by Troll Lord Games was the very first OSR** game to hit the market. It utilized the Open Gaming License released by Wizards of the Coast to re-create an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, but with updated mechanics. This was years before anyone used the terms “retro-clone”, “OSR” or had published D&D-adjacent games like Pathfinder.

This past weekend at Origins, one of the game masters in C&C game for which I had tickets did not show up. Even though it was not an official C&C event, the Troll Lords had heard about it and another GM from the community offered to run a different adventure in its place.

As a bit of a “sorry this happened” consolation, C&C author and lead game designer, Davis Chenault, showed up to the game with a handful of C&C beer stein swag and sat in on the game with us. The next day I had a very pleasant conversation with Davis about C&C and D&D 5th Edition, and he generously gave me a signed copy of A1 - Assault on Blacktooth Ridge for D&D 5th edition (I own the C&C version).

Owlbear and Troll Lord
I don’t have any connection to the Troll Lords other than being a huge fan over the last 10 years, but these folks are definitely the Good Guys of the industry and very committed to their fans. I urge everyone to support their work. Davis Chenault is a class act and his modules A0 and A1 are two of the best RPG adventures written. They are up there with Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands in style and substance and as good as the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set for starting a new campaign.

A0 - The Rising Knight
A1 - Assault on Blacktooth Ridge

Don’t forget that in addition to Wizards of the Coast, there are several other small publishers making awesome content for Dungeons & Dragons. You should check them out!

** Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

New D&D Products in 2017

The Wizards of the Coast "Stream of Annihilation" was accompanied by a plethora of product announcements (in addition to the few that had dribbled out in prior weeks). Some of those products elicit eye raising, while others might be a bit more eye rolling. Here's my take (as if you cared... or perhaps you do, because you're reading this, right?)

First off, on the eye rolling side of things...

D&D Character Sheets


Yes, for the low, low price of only $10, you can get what you already download for free, but in a pretty folder! Seriously, who f@$%ing buys character sheets in this day and age?  Several weeks ago, I noted that there is a huge amount of revenue that could be had for little cost by putting out core book PDFs, and some of the WotC defenders said Wizards had "bigger fish to fry"... Yeah, apparently instead of spending time on PDFs which could net a lot of revenue, they are putting out a product that can already be had for free. Way to build new revenue, WotC!

By the way, if you are not already using MPMB's Pay What You Want character sheet (mobile link), you need to get your butt over to DMsGuild.com and donate to this author. Like, right now. This is the single best character sheet builder you can get pretty much anywhere. Not that I want to dish on Hero Lab and the like, but this guy is essentially giving away (for a voluntary donation) what others are charging $35 for. Toss a buck or two his way. Well worth it.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything


In the same way Volo's Guide to Monsters was not a Monster Manual II (it kinda was), Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is not a Player's Handbook II or Unearthed Arcana (it kinda is). Xanathar's Guide is going to take many of the UA website articles and combine them into a larger book. I am extraordinarily interested to see exactly what this book contains. I haven't bought SCAG, or VGtM (yet)... but this one is certainly on the "eye-raising" side and I'm pretty certain this will make my own must-buy list.

Hopefully, this will quell some of the bitching over 5e "not having enough character options". Back in my day, we had four damn classes (and 3 race/classes), and we were happy with that!

Tomb of Annihilation


At first, I was a but skeptical because I've had about enough of Tomb of Horrors or other death trap dungeons. It just doesn't speak to my play style... but, the more I've read about it, the more it seems to be a spiritual successor to X1 Isle of Dread. This, I can get behind. I'm not at all interested in running this one, but I am pretty damn sure I want to play in it instead. I think I need a little gonzo in my game, and it zombie dinosaurs sounds about right.

Tomb of Annihilation Dice


I'm a bit of a dice fiend, but have broken my habit in recent years. At first, these prompted a kind of "meh" reaction, but when I looked more closely, I actually quite like the color scheme. At $20, it's a little on the high side, but not a terrible deal for a full set of dice (assuming you want something nicer than a big bag of random dice or factory seconds). It will be interesting to find out if the Epsom salt test shows if these d20s are balanced or not. Pearlescent dice are notorious for bias because the different resin plastics can create density variations. This is generally not a problem with a single color plastic die.

Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated


I've always been a fan of DM screens even though I almost never use them in play. I feel like they are too much of a physical barrier (and sometimes a mental one) to the rest of the table, especially given than I like minis and 3D terrain so much. Despite that, I have a big collection of DM screens from AD&D (first edition) onward.

D&D 5th edition screens have been notable for their lack of utility. Other than the condition chart, the real estate on the screens published in support of the adventure paths has been wasted space. They mostly showcase artwork for whichever adventure path they correspond. With several helpful PDF DM screen layouts on the internet, the desire to purchase yet another condition chart is pretty low.

Supposedly, the new screen design is going to be better. First, it will be landscape to be lower, which I like... and it also "provides an at-a-glance reference for the most relevant and often used in-game information," according to the Wizards.com website and has been "revisited and refreshed as a direct result of feedback," but that really tells us nothing. This is very much a wait and see product, since they've had several iterations to try to get this right already.

D&D Adventure Grid


This is essentially the competition to Pathfinder Flip-Mats... but at twice the price. For $25, you get a single double sided map, which appears to be 20" x 24" (hard to tell exactly from the images, but that would correspond to fold lines for a map that folds down to 8x10.  The Pathfinder Basic Terrain Multi-Pack offers 2 double-sided maps at 24" x 30" for the same price. I like that Wizards is getting back into the accessories business. I recommended this very thing in prior posts. It's just a shame that they can't be more competitive on price. While I like the color patterns, because of the price, I have to give this one an eye-roll as well.

Nolzur's Marvelous Minis


These have been out for a while now, but I hadn't talked about them on the blog. I love these. I am so sick of random miniatures and these are at an excellent price point for the Friendly Local Game Store because they can match the same price as offered online. Please go out and support your local game store by purchasing these miniatures. They are excellent. I just wish these had been available years ago when I was trying to bulk up my collection of iconic monsters like goblins, kobolds, orcs and gnolls. Now if we could just get an affordable beholder or huge dragon, that would be a major bonus.

D&D Adventure Module Collector’s Editions


This is another item that I am looking at with guarded anticipation. Wizards of the Coast is partnering with Goodman Games to create updated reprints of classic modules. Starting with B1 and B2, they appear to be more than just a stat block updates, and will include some rewriting as well as extra content. Many of these classic modules can be run today with community created conversions. I am hoping Goodman Games brings a little more to the table than just a stat block update given the price difference. Classic Modules Today conversions are an extraordinarily cheap way to have someone else to your conversion leg work.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate


While Betrayal at the House on the Hill is not one of my all-time favorites in my game collection, I do enjoy breaking it out from time to time as a light, beer-and-pretzel traitor mechanic game. I am cautiously optimistic about this re-skin of the game. Betrayal is one of my wife's favorites, so this is likely to enter our collection at some point. I just hope they play test it better than the original or expansion. It seems there is almost always some missing text or rule clarification needed for almost every haunt. This really knocks down the overall enjoyment, especially when a misunderstanding of a haunt mechanic can alter how the haunt plays out in game. This is probably the most frustrating aspect and one of the major reasons I do not enjoy the original game more.

Final Thoughts


A lot of people online have been poo-pooing the speed at which Wizards of the Coast is bringing out new D&D product. I actually think the publishing pace has done pretty well for the game. One of the banes of prior editions has been the need for multiple splat books (and the inevitable power creep that results). So far, D&D 5th Edition has avoided this pit fall and the designers appear to be cognizant of that trap. Given the recent Unearthed Arcana articles, Xanathar’s Guide appears to be a step in the direction of providing additional PC options, without creating power-game creep of older editions.

With the addition of more non-book accessories, Wizards also appears to be strengthening their non-book revenue stream, which is a good idea... but Wizards, you really need to learn how to promote on your web site. Your products shots suck. Who doesn't offer zoom-ins or multiple angle product images in this day and age?  Seriously, offer some fracking high resolution images, for Pete's sake.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

D&D / OSR: The Dunning-Kruger Effect on GMs

We are all terrible Game Masters, but we [mostly] don't know it. Why do I say this? Because of Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect basically says there is a bias in cognitive ability that prevents us from evaluating ourselves objectively. Basically, we all think we are better than we are because we may not have the skills (or the lack of bias) to judge ourselves appropriately.

This is especially true for "soft skills" where it is harder to judge success or failure in a given task. If I am a terrible juggler, I know I am bad as soon as I can't make it past the first few seconds of fumbling objects before they come crashing to the ground. If I am bad at telling anecdotes at cocktail parties, my friends are likely too polite to tell me I'm a shite story teller. So I may never know. If I am a terrible leader, I may still believe I am a godsend, even if the press and a majority of my constituents are believe I can't count to 21 without taking off my pants.That is Dunning-Kruger in action. Out incompetence masks the ability to recognize our incompetence.

Real knowledge is to know
the extent of one’s ignorance
So what is a thoughtful Game Master to do? 

Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Socrates was also famously quoted as saying , "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing," which makes one wonder if he had somehow heard of Eastern philosophy.

As a Game Master, your best bet is to assume you are bad at it. Only through that lens of reality will you aspire to be better. If your initial reaction to reading the first sentence of the post was "I know I'm a good GM because my players don't complain," then it is highly likely you may actually need help.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

GM 101: Just Say No To Fudge

Bonus points if you can spot the Easter Egg.
+Venger Satanis wrote a little piece a while back about GM fudging which I found thought-provoking, but also found the advice a bit concerning, especially for a new game master.

In addition, on my post about Fun and Story over Rules, several comments mentioned "fudging rolls" as a way to bend the rules with the goal of enhancing story or fun.

For the record, I am strongly against this. I am more than willing to change a lot of parameters in a scene or encounter on-the-fly for the purpose of storytelling, but once dice hit the table, reality becomes static. (Read on for the why).

While I agree with a few of Venger’s musings, there needs to be a lot more context for anyone who is a relatively new game master for a role playing game like D&D. Some strong words of caution: Fudging can destroy a game just as easily as it can help it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

GM 101: Does Story trump Rules?

Another Facebook thread tweaked my interest a few weeks back where the poster simply asks, “Do Rules trump Story? Or does Story trump Rules?”

For those of us who have been DMing a long time, the answer may seem obvious (and most of the responses were in accord), but there is some nuance to that question that requires a bit of analysis for our younger, newer Dungeon Game Masters.

There is a famous quote by one of the original authors of Dungeons & Dragons:
“The secret we should never let the game masters know is that they don't need any rules.” - Gary Gygax

You see, the rules and mechanics are there to provide us a framework for telling the story… but they are not the story and should not necessarily dictate narrative. The rules are not what make the game fun. What makes the game fun is the collaborative storytelling and epic moments produced by the players and DM working together. But, what’s really important, and not stated in the original question is fun. Why do we play these games? To have have fun… Otherwise, what’s the point?

Caveat: There is a difference between the game as a whole being “fun” versus any given moment of the game being “fun”. A favorite character dying can be a bummer, but the experience that lead up to the character death may have been the best time ever… And sharing memories with your friends about that time Dave’s PC epically died in a heroic (or decidedly unheroic, but humorous) way can be great fun, even if, at the time, it was a bit of a downer.

Given the above stated assumptions, the “mathematics” of D&D is basically:  Fun > Story > Rules

Almost always, but again, there is nuance (and caveats).

Thursday, May 11, 2017

D&D: The Slippery Slope of Saying Yes

GAME BALANCE!!!
As expected, the reactions to my last post were quite intense and often fierce... but there was were a few themes among the Rules-As-Written purists that I found intriguing and wished to explore deeper.

Game Balance


There were quite a few people who cited game balance as a major objection, which I found peculiar given the small magnitude of the change being discussed. They cited that this change wasn't "extensively play tested" or "balanced against other racial abilities" or some other silliness about min-maxing. This kind of anxious hand-wringing seemed overwrought for utterly minor change to a racial stat. I mean how much min-maxing can occur with just one point? (and BTW, they are giving up a point of DEX for it).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

D&D: Just Say Yes, For F*ck Sake.

And we will call it "this land..."
...Or The Case of the Curiously Intelligent Elf.

On a recent Facebook post, the OP asked a simple question:
“My player wants to play an Elf Wizard and would like +2 INT, +1 DEX for his Elf Racial Bonus instead of +1 INT, +2 DEX. Would you allow that?”

Yes. YES! For F@CK SAKE YES! …and yet in the poll, over 800 people, a staggering 60%+ of respondents answered “I would never allow it.”

What is wrong with you people? I hate when people tell others they are having Bad Wrong Fun, but I’m sorry, in this case, you are doing it wrong (yes, that's a satirical comment in case you missed it).

Here’s the thing. In 5th Edition, a Forest Gnome can get a +2 INT / +1 DEX (and also has Darkvision, etc), so we know that this minor change doesn’t break the game mechanics at all. All non-human races get some combination of +2/+1, and Elves already get a boost to INT and DEX… so it isn’t a stretch at all to just swap their bonuses.

The racial bonuses are completely arbitrary anyway (and even differ significantly from one edition of D&D to the other). Why does an Elf get +2 DEX? Because Mearls and Thompson decided that’s what they thought an Elf was at this one moment of time. Why does the Gnome get the bigger INT bonus? Who the f@ck knows. It’s just a game of “Let’s Pretend”. The Player’s Handbook is not some religious scripture handed down by the gods.

SO WHY THE HELL WOULD YOU TELL HIM NO?

The most important job of a DM is help the players have fun. The players only have power over their characters. The rules on everything else in the world -- setting, genre, NPCs, cities, populace, everything -- is basically in the control of the DM.

By saying "No" to this entirely minor and arbitrary change, you are telling the player “the trivial rules of my game world are more important than your character concept or enjoyment of the game.”

If he enjoys a tiny amount of PC optimization as part of character generation, why not let him have fun with that part of the game? Who cares if he gets to INT 20 at 8th level instead of 12th (assuming he picks no Feats)... It will make no difference to the game at the table. [EDIT: Actually, all PCs can get to INT 20 by level 8 with point buy. The only difference is the player that starts at 17 will also get a Feat. This makes the change have an even smaller impact.]

AD&D Half-orc photo bomb
And racial bonuses are entirely arbitrary and trivial. This isn’t a game breaking request. Elves have always had arcane abilities. As an example, in the original Basic D&D sets, the Elf class was a fighter/magic-user hybrid. So why not just let him play an Elf from some special Elf school of trained Elf wizards... or something. Who the hell cares what the rationale is. Maybe he just doesn't want to play a damn Gnome.

As another example, I had one player decide he wasn't crazy about his Feat selections when he reached 4th level (Human). I said "No problem. Just re-pick whichever ones you want". It made no difference to the game. It made a huge difference in his level of fun.

Take the broomstick out of your posterior and let him swap the ability bonuses.  Just get out of the way and facilitate the fun. That is your most important job. 

PS -- This obviously doesn't apply to AL legal characters since there are very strict chargen rules for Adventurers League. Also, if you comment a rebuttal using some example like giving darkvision to a Human, or some other bulls#!t straw man, I will f@#%ing cut your heart out with a spoon. (Rest in peace, Alan Rickman)

[UPDATE]
I just wanted to note an awesomely on-point comment by Robert Ehrman on Facebook:
"This whole article is just imploring DMs to be the bigger person at the table because a 1 point differential isn't going to be truly relevant to either party and player satisfaction matters. Clearly that point went over like a lead balloon."

Yes. YES! A thousand times YES!

I'll go one step further. As I noted in comments:

This article is not about a stat swap. It's about a philosophy. It's about not being married to rules. It's about facilitating ideas from the players. It's about keeping an open mind to player input because it's not the DM's game. The game belongs to everyone at the table. Saying "yes" to a player is not about giving them some insignificant +1... It's about saying "your ideas are just as important to this game as mine are." You want a sub-race of Elves that are tied more to the Arcane through a connection to the Feywild? Awesome! Let's incorporate that idea. We share this game world together.

Update: I posted an follow-up based on some responses.

My Last Origins

This will be my last Origins.

Just about every year, Origins opens its registration system to a rush of several thousand attendees. Just about every year, it’s a disaster of web site unresponsiveness, and just about every year they say, “Next year we will improve.” Every year, they don’t. Last year, they couldn’t even get badges quickly to people attending on the first day because of “computer problems” and ran out of convention programs.

This year was no different… and actually even worse than usual.

You see, this year in order to make sure I was ready for event registration day, I attempted to login to my account prior to event registration. For whatever reason, my password was not working. I was not terribly surprised, as I have a whole bunch of different passwords in order to minimize any attack on my identity. After trying several different times, I just decided to just use the “Forgot Password” option.

It didn’t work.

It was a few days before registration, so I emailed the Origins contacts so that I might get it reset before the event registration started. At first, there was no response, so I emailed again, and I called. They assured me it would be fixed before registration starts, and they would notify me as soon as it was.

Days pass. I email again the morning of registration. I asked if they could change it manually. “It will be fixed prior to registration opening,” I was told again. “We can’t change the password. We will let you know as soon as it is fixed.”

It wasn’t. They didn’t.

My wife and I were screwed. I had registered us both for the weekend pass, but could not access either account because of the password issues and thousands were about to flood the queue.

There was, however, a small breakthrough for us. We had two other family members that were going to attend, but doing events that were not the same as ours… So we asked if we could register our events under their itinerary  in order to hold the spots. Thankfully, they were totally cool with that.
So, on Wednesday, event registration opens and the site fails dramatically. No one can login without getting timeouts. No one can search events without all kinds of Java site errors or 503 Service Unavailable errors. The website was crashing so often, NHTSA said they were going to open an investigation.

Over the course of 3+ hours, my wife and I managed to get enough page loads between us to get into about 10 events… Or about 3 successful event registrations per hour.

Origins then announces on Twitter and Facebook that they will close registration until Friday at 1 PM to get the issues fixed… but then they secretly re-opened registration on Thursday without telling anyone they had told to wait until Friday. So, basically, if you listened to them, you were screwed out of events you might have wanted because other people kept trying anyway and found that registration has been re-opened earlier than announced (and the password issue was still not fixed).

The password issue was eventually fixed over the weekend, four days after event registration was initially opened (and after almost everything was completely booked). I was extremely lucky that I had family that could grab the slots my wife and I wanted to play. I’m certain many others did not have that opportunity.

They never emailed to let me know the password recovery had been fixed, despite telling me repeatedly they would. No notification. No apology.

S#!t technology… Even s#!ttier communication. For a 15,000+ attendee event, this is the worst event management I’ve ever seen. They apparently don’t even test the most basic functions of the website -- login, password recovery, and event registration -- which is basically everything you need to have a convention website.


I have been a major proponent of Origins on this blog and among my gaming friends, but there are other smaller cons that are growing each year with better customer experience -- Gamehole Con, BGG Con, Dice Tower Con, PAX East, and now PAX Unplugged. Origins may be the #2 spot in terms of size at the moment, but if it keeps offering crap customer experience, it will find itself less relevant as time goes on. It certainly will be for me as my family and I  will be seeking other alternatives and recommending others do the same. If they can't fix their management issues, they do not deserve our money.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Remembering MUDs

I recently poked my head into a G+ conversation between two random commenters on a random thread that had nothing to do with RPGs... but it sparked some really strong recollections in the dark corners of my brain.

One of them noted the the "/me" emote was from World of Warcraft. Of course, being an old, pedantic fart, I had to add my 2 cents by explaining how they were mistaken.

The /me emote actually pre-dates modern MMO's by a few decades. Back in the days of 300 and 1200 baud modems (yeah, one could actually type faster than they could display text), people with access to university computer systems (or a spare IBM XT) would set up what were called "MUDs" or Multi-User Dungeons. They were text-based like the old Zork games, but you could "see" and interact with other users through text chat and emotes.

So, the screen might read:

> You walk to the entrance of the Hedge Maze. Passageways in the hedge head off the the North and West. Steve_the_Barbarian and Sorcerer_Tonya are here.

$ /me wave
> Marty waves.
$ /say "Hey, what's up? Are you heading into the hedge dungeon?"
> Marty says "Hey, what's up? Are you heading into the hedge dungeon?"
$
> Sorcerer_Tonya waves.
> Sorcerer_Tonya says, "yup we're heading in"
$
> Sorcerer_Tonya invites you into the group.
$ /follow Sorcerer_Tonya


It was a lot of typing just to do pretty rudimentary stuff (and it was real time combat, so you had to type fast or have macros ready!)... but these were literally the first seeds of the modern MMO.

I'm not sure what the whole point of this post was except to think... Jeebus, we've come a long way and damn... I am old.

D&D 5e: Running Storm King's Thunder - Part 3

Source: Tumblr of Gabriel Cassata, freelance artist 
(used with permission)
This series of articles started out as "Running Nightstone" but is expanding as I delve deeper into the book and learn lessons from running my group through it. This first post is mostly generalized tips I’ve learned over the years and are applicable to almost any adventure you may be prepping.

First off, I have to say if you are DMing Storm King and not already watching Tom Lommel's (aka Dungeon Bastard) Disorganized Play on YouTube or Twitch, you need to start right now. There are about 50 hours of content, which is a lot to take in, but there is a plethora of fantastic ideas in there if you can spend the time listening to it in the background like a podcast.

Some spoilers ahead so be warned.

Monday, April 24, 2017

D&D 5e: Hex Crawling through Storm King’s Thunder

In a Twitter conversation, +Mike Shea (slyflourish.com - who you should definitely be following, btw), noted that he thought Chapter 3 in Storm King’s Thunder has an excess of information about the Sword Coast and the North. From the conversation, it can be inferred that the page count could have been better spent on detailing 10 to 20 specific locations with maps, encounter locations, deeper hooks, etc. rather than spend 60 pages on 164 distinct locations, many of which only get a very small paragraph or two. He further states that the kind of information in Chapter 3 is better in a book like Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide rather than an adventure like Storm King’s Thunder.

He is not entirely wrong… but he’s not quite right either.

It’s true, that with 60 or so pages, one could detail 10 or 15 really kick ass locations. If you are given 3 to 6 pages for each location, rather than just a few paragraphs, you can really do a lot with that page count -- several side quests, maps, hooks, etc.  However, I disagree with his with the premise that Chapter 3 is less useful than 10 or so more detailed encounter locations. It's more a matter of preference.

A few very mild spoilers ahead, so be warned.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

D&D 5e: Scads of People Really Really Want Legal PDFs

On Saturday, April 1st, I shared a little fake news story about Wizards of the Coast finally selling PDFs for the D&D 5th Edition core rulebooks.

And it got a lot of attention. A CRAP LOAD, one might even say.

Let me give some perspective. I am a nobody in the RPG blogging world. I mean, I have a small amount of recognition on Google+ and the regulars on the D&D Facebook communities may vaguely recall the name of my blog... maybe. But really, I don't get a lot of traffic compared to some more "famous" bloggers. Last year, a really active month was 15,000 to 20,000 page views for the whole month. Lately, a good month is in the mid to upper 20's.

In one day the PDF "press release" article got about 13,000 page views in ONE DAY. That's more than half of my monthly traffic from all of February, and about 45% of the March total.

So, clearly, it got a lot more attention in the community than a typical post. So what does that tell me?

People really want those f@&%ing PDFs to be a reality.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Wizards of the Coast announces D&D 5th Edition PDF core books

Please note this article was originally published April 1, 2017.

In an effort to enable more D&D players use their books on any platform, Wizards of the Coast announced that D&D 5th Edition core rulebooks, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, will be available in PDF format.



In a statement Wizard of the Coast President Chris Cocks reports, “We’re bringing D&D to the 20th Century… and besides, there are already so many bootleg scans on the Internet, we finally just figured ‘What the f@ck.’”.


As an added bonus, Cocks also announced that owners of the existing hardback books will receive $5 off the PDF price, as long as they present proof of ownership at their offices in Renton, WA.

“We believe $44.95 PDF price is an amazing discount for current D&D hardback owners. I don’t think you’d see a discount like this anywhere else in the RPG industry... and all you have to do is show up at our doorstep with your books in hand.”

Yeah... I guess you already knew this was an April Fools joke from the headline. Too "on-the-nose"?

Wizards of the Coast announces new D&D VR video game

Wizards of the Coast announces the first virtual reality video game out of their newly formed game studio!

In a collaboration with Sir Tech, Wizards of the Coast is bringing Wizardry into virtual reality with its new title: Dungeons & Dragons Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Sword Coast Lords


"You will be amazed at the 3D virtual reality dungeons we have created, complete with 5-foot square movement, a hallmark of the D&D tabletop experience," comments Chris Cocks, President of Wizards of the Coast.


"Once inside the Proving Grounds of the Mad Sword Coast Lords, you will experience a rainbow of 16 color virtual reality. We are pushing VR to limits not yet seen from Wizards of the Coast. Not since Nintendo Virtual Boy has anyone experienced VR like this!”


"With this title, alongside Battle Chess Dungeon Chess, we are are bringing VR to the 20th century!"



(p.s. - Dungeon Chess is an actual thing...)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Raging Owlbear - now with 400K resolution!

I am ridiculous... and yet so awesome.
To all 5 of my loyal readers, thanks for getting me to 400,000 views. Your index fingers must be completely swollen from all the clicks.

It took well over a year to get my first 100,000 and now I'm getting 100K in less than 4 months. I must really be pissing people off. ;)

Let's see if we can hit a half million before July.

Serious moment ahead:

There's a lot wrong out there right now. People are suffering. Some humans are treating others like their worth is less because they are from someplace other than "here" (wherever "here" is). Fear and prejudice are outweighing empathy and compassion, and as in countless centuries before this one, the poor and downtrodden are suffering at the hands of the wealthy and powerful.

D&D is our escape from these problems, but it should also serve as our guide.

Be the Lawful Good Paladin you are inside. No matter what your political lean, we can be better than this.  Volunteer in your community -- a church, a food bank, a civic group. Fight for those without political or economic power. Play games with people with whom you might not otherwise socialize. Embrace the other, even if you don't always understand, or see eye to eye. And judge not, lest you be judged.

There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 27, 2017

D&D: A Digital License To Kill

The announcement of D&D Beyond stirred up a bit of resentment in regards to D&D 5th Edition content. What it boils down to is this. If one has purchased a D&D hardback book, why does that consumer have to keep spending another $50 every time there is a new D&D-related app they wish to use?

Update: Please note this is not an article about D&D Beyond. It's about a licensing option for any 3rd party digital tool. Keep that in mind before you comment.

Adult Blue Dragon SRD stats on DnDBeyond.com
As an example, I may buy the Storm King’s Thunder hardback ($40 - $50 at retail). if I want Storm King’s Thunder content in Roll20, that’s another $50. If I decide to change to Fantasy Grounds, another $50… D&D Beyond?  Unknown at this time, but probably another $50. Same with the Player’s Handbook. Hardback $50. Fantasy Grounds $50, D&D Beyond... probably another $50.

Since Wizards of the Coast does not offer PDFs of their content (the most asinine decision in this day and age), I might have to pay an additional $100 - $150 in digital content for the same damn book I already own in hardback. (I don’t want to get into the PDF debate, as that is not key point of this article).

So is there a better way? 

Damn right there is. Wizards could implement a one-time digital license purchase.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A few thoughts on D&D Beyond

Sneak peak screenshots of D&D Beyond
This week, a new set of D&D tools were quietly announced called D&D Beyond (sometimes you have to pay very close attention to Wizards.com news feed). While specific information about the tools is extraordinarily sparse, it would appear to be an official 3rd party replacement for "D&D Insider" coming sometime this summer.

Note: D&D Dungeonscape (née Codename: Morningstar, now known as Playbook) was also announced in a similar quiet manner about 2 years ago and ended up being abandoned by Wizards of the Coast, so this announcement may need to be seen for what it is... Quiet and short on details until we actually see a working beta.

From the brief description and screenshots, we can see a character builder and a rules compendium (including classes spells, monsters, etc), but not much else that appears terribly exciting. The website also notes news article and forums, so there appears to be some form of community.

Playbook for Pathfinder
(formerly "Codename: Morningstar" and "Dungeonscape")
Now, don’t get me wrong. It will be nice to have a resource that goes beyond what is being offered in the SRD (assuming that is actually what is being offered). There isn’t clarity if this includes everything that is not part of the SRD 5 (such as all the class paths in the PHB and SCAG), but that would be a relatively safe assumption, as there are already several tools out there that include all of the SRD content for free (or for a very low app purchase). If D&D Beyond wants to compete in this market (especially with a subscription price), it will have to include all official D&D content.Price is also not mentioned, but if it follows the D&D Insider model, one might assume a monthly fee.

UPDATE from D&D Beyond developers on Reddit:

I'm Adam Bradford, DDB product lead for Curse. I'm flying back from PAX today, but I'll give a brief reply between flights.

A few things that I can hopefully clarify here:

D&D Beyond is a responsive web application that can work on any device - definitely not a desktop client or mobile app only available for iOS or Android. We care a great deal about offline capability, and you'll be able to access your characters, etc. just fine on the terrible WIFI at those conventions. :)

The DDB toolset is being developed by Curse Media and is not a directly tied to the former Curse App that was recently shared has become the Twitch App.

At launch, players will be able to access SRD content and build and view a small number of characters with a free D&D Beyond account. We don’t have exact pricing nailed down, but you will also be able to buy official digital D&D content for all fifth edition products with flexible purchase options. You can pay only for the D&D content you need. If you only play fighters, for example, you’ll be able to just pick up the stuff you need to track swinging that giant two-handed sword. This is NOT a microtransaction model - we aren't forcing anyone to buy the content in small chunks - it can still be bought all at once. It's all just flexibility.

A small monthly subscription will be needed to manage more than a handful of characters and to enable more advanced features, like homebrew content integration. At this time, we don’t know exactly how much the subscription will cost, but please continue to check dndbeyond.com for the most up-to-date announcements and information!

I can't share much else yet, but we're terribly excited to get this into players' hands for the beta very, very soon. Thanks!

Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 have specific one-time costs for access to the books, such as the PHB and the various adventure paths. The question then becomes, if one already has content access through tools like Fantasy Grounds and Roll20, is there room for a subscription service in the market charging for the same content? Of course, the intended audiences are slightly different given that VTTs are aimed toward DMs while this clearly targets the players.

As I’ve noted in prior articles, it would be nice if there could be an official single multi-platform tool that would be usable by both players and DMs, such as a complete Player and DM toolbox (character builder, rule and spell compendium including all the rule books) along with a VTT. Codename Morningstar attempted to walk that line, but that did not end well.

It seems like Fantasy Grounds comes closest to a "universal" online D&D tool, as it does have a character builder independent of the VTT where you can create a character for use in any Fantasy Grounds game. The Fantasy Grounds character creator is not quite as dynamic and step-by-step as the Character Builder that D&D Insider had for 4th Edition, but it’s serviceable enough. It also does not support character sheet printing out-of-the-box (although it can through a 3rd party tool) Fantasy Grounds should that feature very high on their software road map. Roll20 only appears to have a DM-facing character sheet, and not one that can be used by players to build character independent of an online game (Please let me know if I missed that feature).

Pricing


UPDATE: Unfortunately, there isn't an official word on the final pricing, but comments from the developers on Reddit and EnWorld don't look promising to me. The SRD5 content will be free and you can probably make a couple characters using that for free. However, if you want access to more of the rule set, not only will you need to pay for a subscription to the tool, you also need to pay for the non-SRD content separately. This, for me, is a non-starter right out of the gate. Pick subscription, or pick flat-fee for content. Picking both is a craptastic money grab. I'm hoping the final pricing structure is not as brutal as it currently appears.

Final Thoughts


With a character builder to accompany the VTT functionality in Fantasy Grounds, there would not appear to be a strong consumer reason to choose D&D Beyond, unless there is some price advantage or functional differentiation that isn’t obvious from this initial press release. Character creation in Fantasy Grounds is a little unwieldy from a UI perspective (and does currently include character sheet printing without use of a 3rd party tool), but it allows you to join VTT games hosted anywhere in the world with your character. Roll20 has an excellent VTT, but they need a player-facing character builder for use offline as well.

Curse (publishers of D&D Beyond) is taking sign-ups for their upcoming beta. Hopefully, I can get myself beta access and write up a complete feature review.

UPDATE 2: Ok, so a few people are missing the point of the article (and that's partly on my rambling writing style), so I thought I'd clarify a bit. I know D&D Beyond is not a virtual table top tool. However, if a Fantasy Grounds player license gives you all the same rule book content and a character builder, what advantage does a Beyond subscription have over a flat-priced application like Fantasy Grounds (given that FG also gives you online play)?

Friday, March 10, 2017

WTF Dungeon Chess?

Back in June, Wizards of the Coast added Chris Cocks as the new President. This was seen as significant because Mr. Cocks has extensive experience in the digital games space. He has even announced the formation of a digital game studio recruiting talent from Valve, BioWare and other known developers and publishers. Everyone is aware how Wizards of the Coast has wanted to expand the D&D brand further into video games and other digital channels, but their efforts in the last years have been... wanting.
So what turned out to be the first big digital initiative?

Chess...

I shit you not.

Wizards of the Coast just announced “Dungeon Chess”, a game where you put on virtual reality goggles in order to enter the 3D world of the Yawning Portal Tavern in Waterdeep! From there, do you brave the dangers of the Undermountain? Do you fight epic battles with iconic monsters in 3D? Do you adventure into deep, dark dungeons in search of treasure and magic?

No… You sit down and play chess.  WTF?!?

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