Monday, October 26, 2015

Map Monday 2 - The Known World of Arim

For #mapmonday, here is what's known of Arim, the world of my current campaign.

Its just a mechanical pencil drawing on graph paper I printed on my laser printer.  Then I scanned the drawing and darkened up some of the lines using photo editing software to give them a bit more contrast.

Have yet to do any ocean detail or color for this map, although its not out of the question for the future.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Map Monday 1 - A Humble temple

For #mapmonday here is a simple map of a humble temple of Ioun, goddess of knowledge, prophecy and skill.  This temple is not vast or especially grand.  The long brown blocks represent shelves jammed full of tomes, scrolls and other recorded history, knowledge and magic.  The Green rectangles are couches, benches, overstuffed chairs and the like.

Up the spiral stairs are three office spaces with desks, (this is starting to sound like a real estate listing).  More shelves hold more tomes and ancient, unreadable texts that Ioun's followers study to attempt to divine their true meaning.

The stairs down descend to a crypt where Ioun's revered are buried - valiant and loyal clerics, priests, and paladins who have served their mistress well.

I ran this map last week, and it worked out really well - the alcoves with the sarcophagi in them provided excellent cover for both my casters and the party's rogue who made good use of hiding.  Thanks to 5th Edition's allowance of mixing up your move with your attack, it made for a great fantasy "gun battle."

Feel free to use this map in your campaigns or plainly rip it off and improve on its design - it is my own work and may be used for any purpose, although I'd appreciate some attribution ;)

I plan to do the occasional #mapmonday post just because maps are so cool and useful.  Its always good to horde a stack of maps, you never know when one might be just what you're looking for.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Literally ANY Distraction Will Do

I simply cannot focus on putting together the D&D session for my group this week.  Why don't I post one of my campaign's maps instead?  That should provide an adequate distraction for about 6 minutes.....

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Shameless Plug for a DM Tool

As expressed in the title, this post is a shameless plug for my DM Tool, Campaign Encyclopedia.  This post hopes to explain its origin and purpose as well as how best to use it.  I'll stop plugging this thing soon, I promise.  :D

Why does it exist?
I always used to draw a bubble and line diagram that showed character / place / thing relationships in my campaigns.  It was a useful tool in my initial campaign plans that helped me to figure out who was who and what they were up to.  As campaigns grow more complex, these drawings can get out of hand and difficult to modify.

Another thing I would do, only slightly more successfully, is create an "encyclopedia" of my campaign.  Where I would write a short blurb about each of the peopleplaces, and things in the game.  This would work out better than the relationship diagram, but would still prove difficult to keep up to date as the game took unexpected turns.

It was clear that if I really cared about such things (and as a recovery world building addict, I do), I would need a digital solution.  Campaign Encyclopedia is that solution.  I put my campaign info into it, and it can generate the relationship graph, the encyclopedia, a timeline and makes it easy to see how the parts of my game worlds fit together.

How NOT to use it?
No post about dungeon masters tools would be complete without including a few quick notes about how to abuse tools like this.  It is the natural tendency of many dungeon masters to over-prepare, over-document, over-specify and over-do everything.  Most dungeon master's tools are enablers of this sort of obsessive behavior - and Campaign Encyclopedia is no different.  

Here are a few rules of thumb - you can probably get away with breaking one of these rules from time to time, but overall they're here to guide you toward the best experience possible when building your world with Campaign Encyclopedia.

  • Do not put EVERY entity (person, place, thing or organization) that exists or may exist in your game world into this tool before you start playing.  Put in only what you need right now and get playing.  Let the game world grow organically.
  • Descriptions for entities should start out simple and grow over time.  A simple sentence or two is more than sufficient for most NPCs and towns.
  • Do not put in EVERY relationship an Entity has into Campaign Encyclopedia.  Only put in relationships that really matter.  Doing so makes for better relationship graphs.
  • Do not let a sparsely populated game world keep you from playing.  It doesn't take much to get started.

How SHOULD you use it?
Now that I've told you how NOT to use Campaign Encyclopedia, let me say that I have a campaign file for the tool that describes a world that I have used in three campaigns stretching back over seven years.  This is a campaign with a TON of lore, history, home brew deities and magic items and over fifteen different player characters over the years.

Over the last six months since I started working on this tool, I've entered nearly all of the notes I have on the world of Arim into this tool.  It has a LOT of entities (over two-hundred), a lot of relationships (over seven hundred), and a lot of timeline entries (75).

So yes.  You CAN use this tool to define a very rich, detailed world - but the advice in the previous section still stands - let that world grow slowly on its own and let those gaps fill in naturally.

Star Wars
In preparation for this post I watched Star Wars: A New Hope and created a campaign for it using CE.  Avid Star Wars fans might feel that I left out some key information - I tried to only use data that was gained from the film and its spoken dialog, not using any of my Star Wars knowledge or expanded universe information.  (You can open the link on the image in a new tab or window in order to see it in better resolution if you wish)

The key thing to notice is just how simple the relationship graph of this epic movie is.  No, I didn't record ALL of the relationships that existed between every entity in the movie, but the most important parts of the story are captured in this graph.

You can download this sample campaign here.  Feel free to check it out in CE.

The Dream
I do have a dream that one day, my players will use this tool to record what they experience in my campaign.  This will, of course, never happen because of the ungrateful and lazy nature of players (love you guys!), but wouldn't it be cool if your PCs gave you a copy of the campaign file they created?  It would be an excellent way for them to show you just what they're taking away from your games.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The 5e Dungeon Master's Guide Table Index

The new Dungeon Master's Guide is absolutely awash with tables, and I couldn't be happier.  Tables, particularly those found in the DMG have long been a staple of Dungeons & Dragons.  Whether you roll on the tables to make actual decisions at the game table or you just skim them for inspiration, you know you love tables too.

I decided that an index of sorts to help me better search the wealth of tabular data bestowed on us by those wizards near the coast would be an invaluable tool when putting together a game session.

The PDF files below include the tables name as printed in the book, the associated die roll (if any) along with the chapter and page number.  I did not include all of the tables for the magic items, as these tables are laser focused on a singular magic item which you would likely just look up anyway.

You can download the table indices here:

If you encounter any errors in the index, please let me know in the comments below and I'll try to make corrections as soon as I can.  I do hope that the index proves useful to you.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Evil Necro-cleric Seeks Adventuring Party for Fun and Profit

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a player who was playing in a D&D fifth edition game.  He was lamenting because his character was seen as a jerk by the rest of the party.  I asked him what he meant, and he explained that his character had chosen to kill a couple of NPCs that the rest of the party had wanted to leave alive.  Additionally, his character was somewhat abrasive in temperament and had already had some in-character issues with the other members of the party.  Out of character, at least one of his friends told him his character wasn't fun to play with.  

Oh, and one last thing - in a party of do-gooders, this player had chosen to play a chaotic-evil cleric of Cthulhu who fancied a bit of necromancy when corpses were available.

For me, the narrative of a D&D game is extremely important.  Initially, I felt like this problem was unlikely to be resolved satisfactorily.  After all, the player did not want to change his deity or alignment, and his party did not wish to become evil.  I began to think about ways to resolve this problem while maintaining a believable story.

As a dungeon master, I wouldn't normally encourage my players to introduce this type of element into our game. Believably integrating a chaotic-evil character into a good party sounds like a virtual impossibility on the surface.  But what if you have a player who's dead set on it and genuinely believes his character can help to promote great story and role-playing moments?

Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins both of Wizards of the Coast say that dungeon masters should say "Yes, and..." (or "Yes, but...")  When their players do something that challenges the status quo of the game. Saying "Yes, and...." grants the player the freedom that only a table top RPG can deliver and also allows the dungeon master to levy constraints that make for interesting game play or story telling.

The following are some "Yes, and...."s that I might levy against this Cthulhu worshiping cleric.  Each of them would be discussed with the player beforehand and we'd collaborate on making his character's story arc one to remember.

  1. Yes, and after a few game sessions I'm going to turn your character into an adversarial NPC who betrays the party.  What type of character would you like to play at that point?  Yep.  The ol' character swap.  At some point the evil nature of this player character and his secret aims will come out.  He does something terrible and the DM gets an awesome villain; one who's betrayal really resonates with the party.  There's no better villain than a character the party once loved who has broken their hearts by turning on them.  This is a great solution if the player in question really loves knowing cool in-game secrets and wants to have major input into the direction of the campaign.
  2. Yes, and over the course of a few game sessions, lets come up with some crazy events that cause your character to have a change of heart - something that makes them question what they've always believed or known.  Great literature, cinema and yes - even great RPGs are stories that contain characters who change in a significant and meaningful way between the start of the story and the end.  They learn to conquer their fears and tap into their true potential.  They discover that a deep-seeded belief they've always held true is not all its cracked up to be.  Maybe an experience changes the way they see the world?  Maybe its a slower transition that the DM and PC collaborate on so that little by little the player comes to learn the error of his ways?

    Personally, I've always liked the idea of a cleric - good or evil - deciding that being so zealous has gotten him nowhere, and this causes a shift to neutral-neutral while he reconciles his place in the world.
  3. Yes, but don't come crying to me if the rest of the party kills you.  One great thing about a party of do-gooders is that they do good.  If a player chooses to play an evil character, and that character is actually doing evil, then that character is demonstrating that they are a threat to society.  Good parties kill evil creatures.  If your character is evil you are accepting the risk that every monster in the Monster Manual has to accept:  a party of heroes is coming to kill me.

    Hopefully,this option is the kind of thing that can be (and would be) discussed openly with the person playing the character to be killed so that the narrative can be preserved and so that no one gets their feelings hurt.  All too often this sort of thing happens without involving that player.  This is usually the result of players solving player problems in-character - this is not ideal.
  4. Yes, but lets talk to the group.  Inviting intra-party conflict is a decision a gaming group must make together.  This is the closest I'd come to saying no. Some players really like to have parties with conflicting ideologies and goals.  This can be an interesting part of your game provided that all players at the table are interested in this sort of conflict.

    If the one player's fun negatively affects the fun for one or more other players at the table, there is a problem.  Don't force this intra-party conflict without first discussing it with your gaming group and see if they're as interested in it as you are.
  5. Yes, but why are you a member of this party?  It is extremely rare for a cast of characters to not experience conflict when those characters have conflicting beliefs and goals.

    Maybe you play in a game where backstory and narrative aren't important - if so, this post isn't for your group.  Go have fun and don't be bothered with this fluff and nonsense.

    For the rest of you - if you have a conflicted party - have the conflict.  It could be awesome.  but also have a reason that the party originally formed and how they hold together.  In my games, I make sure that each member of the party has at least one unbreakable bond with another member of the party.  It has to be something their character would fight to the death for.

    The reason for this is a simple one:  adventuring parties require unflinching trust.  Party members regularly trust one another with their lives. Maybe the rogue doesn't trust our Cthulhu fanboy but he trusts his brother, the fighter who has vouched for the cleric's trustworthiness.

    From a story perspective there has to be a believable and compelling reason for this trust to exist between a good party and an evil character. In the case of our Cthulhu-worshiping necro-cleric, that's an incredibly big ask. Evil characters, especially chaotic evil characters, are the definition of untrustworthy.
  6. Yes, but its unlikely this alliance will last forever.  Eventually it will make sense for your character to move on, how do you feel about that?  Okay, so we have decided not to turn your character into a nemesis for the party, you don't really see this character experiencing a change of heart, we're really hoping the rest of the party won't kill you, we've gotten the rest of the table's buy-in on having some intra-party conflict for a while, and we've established a near-unbreakable bond between your character and some of the other party members.  That's great!

    Although it is possible to explain why an evil character might collaborate with a party of plucky do-gooders, these alliances are often temporary.  
    Eventually the characters part ways at the appropriate time.  This is an opportunity for a character to gracefully leave the story (for now) and retain some mutual respect between the characters.

    Saying goodbye to your character can be hard.  Having the courage to let a character go at the right time to serve the story is an role-playing badge of honor.  There should be an achievement for that.  You wouldn't want your character's shtick to become tired and old hat would you?  Besides, maybe now's the time to roll up that ranger everyone has been clamoring for....
So can it be fun to play Sinister McCorpseblood, Cleric of Cthulhu, Raiser of Dead, and Enslaver of the Nine Realms?  Yes!  And there are a lot of things to consider.
To sum up:

  1. Your character may not be a permanent fixture in this game.  If this idea appeals to you, think about your character's arc and plan an awesome exit for them.
  2. Your character could undergo a meaningful change due to a series of events that cause them to evaluate who they are and what they stand for.
  3. The party may kill you.  Sorry - not sorry.
  4. Inviting intra-party conflict to the table is not one person's decision.  Talk to your gaming group before doing this.
  5. Develop at least one unbreakable bond with another player character - justify why you are a member of the party.

How does your group handle intra-party tension and story elements?  Would you allow this player to participate in your game?  If you were a player, would you conspire to kill them?  Have you played this type of character?  What worked?  What didn't?

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Dungeon Master's Study

I've recently made the transition from player to game master in my gaming group.  I must say, it's good to be back in the GM's chair.  It's where I started my role playing journey several years ago, creating a gaming group where none existed before.  Since that time I've moved to a new city, found a new table of nerds, and had the opportunity to both play and run various games.  Recently I decided that, at least for me, being the game master is simply the best way to experience a role-playing game.

One of the coolest parts about being a dungeon master is creating an environment where you can develop your campaign and build an entire world for your players.

Most of the game masters I have known have a little room secreted away somewhere.  It's where the DM goes for inspiration, reference material, and solace.  It's typically behind a heavy wooden door with a lock that can stump the most skilled rogue.  It's warded by an arcane ritual put in place by a corrupted player-character-turned-lich who now serves a terrifying evil.  It's protected by pit traps and a pair of those gargoyles who always lie or tell the truth.

It's a special place.  A happy place.  This room is the dungeon master's study.  A laboratory of secrets, lies, treasures unimaginable, and terrors unknown.  Every shelf, every surface is awash with books, dice, miniatures, maps, drawings, paints and brushes, and notebooks with illegible writings scrawled in an invented ancient dialect created for a campaign that may never happen.  This place is a monument to the mental investments that DMs pour into their games.

If you are ever invited to visit such a temple, do accept the invitation.  It's a really neat place to be.  During your visit, the DM may scramble to hide away some hastily written notes they don't want you to see.  Don't make this any more difficult for them than it already is.  When a dungeon master has a great idea for an upcoming game, it's hell holding it inside.  They want to spill the beans.  That's part of what makes a DM a DM.  They want to share what they have planned for the next game session.  Especially if the idea will fuel the characters to make choices that make them multi-faceted, conflicted, and interesting.

My gaming studio contains ideas that have been cross-pollinated with a mountain of RPG source books from various settings and systems and at least one book on historical sailing ships.  Lots of hand drawn maps, sketches and diagrams.  Fictional family crests and curious runes scrawled on scraps of paper scattered across my desk.  All of this paper-based content is balanced with a dose of technology - my computer, a scanner, some custom-written software, and folder after folder of digital photographs of ancient castles, weapons and armor, far off places and incredible landscapes that serve as inspiration when building worlds, characters and artifacts in my mind.  In one corner is a box full of dice, another is full of paints, half-painted miniatures and a multitude of tiny brushes.  These are the tools of the trade for me.

What kind of stuff is in your Dungeon Master's study?  How does it help you prepare for your games?