Friday, October 2, 2015

Rage of Demons - Out of the Abyss Review

Got my copy half a week ago, and spent some time reading the first couple of chapters. I skimmed through the subsequent chapters - so this post is all about first impressions....

Tons of Underdark Goodies
This book really makes the Underdark come alive. Unique locations, weird and interesting creatures and personalities, exciting encounters - and all with a very consistent and cohesive wrapping. I think the designers did a great job with the presentation and the material, and the amount of energy invested in the book leaps out of the pages.

For Experienced DMs
Tyranny of Dragons and Princess of the Apocalypse felt like massive adventures, but I can see an inexperienced DM running Tyranny of Dragons, or even Princess of the Apocalypse. Out of the Abyss will stress out an inexperienced DM, and might prove to be a challenge even for an experienced one. The very first encounter has a dozen well detailed NPCs, each with an agenda of its own - and the PCs are going to interact with them all. From there, it's a sandbox. Non-linear, and very open. The amount of information the DM needs to digest before the game is truly immense. That said - the book is very well written, and the setting screams to be read, enjoyed, and played. The Underdark is a dangerous place for 1st level PCs, so you can expect a lot of roleplaying moments, as well as tense combat situations - and a good DM is needed to make sure a TPK doesn't happen 15 minutes into the session.

A Sea of Madness
The book makes use of many special rules presented in the Player's Handbook, like madness, getting lost, foraging, crafting and more. The Underdark is portrayed like never before, with alien landscapes, bizarre personalities and unearthly locations. The book provides great advice on how to narrate travel in such locations - and how to bring the Underdark to life while traveling days from one location to another. And don't forget - the demons are Out of the Abyss, so this dark, evil place have become even scarier than before. Players can expect to interact with creatures considered natural enemies of the surface-dwellers if they want to survive, and the constant threat of a knife in the back is ever present. Role-players will have tons of opportunities to shine, and combat encounters will require a lot of cooperation and thought to escape death, imprisonment or both...

All in all - I was very excited to get my hands on this book, and even more excited to see the great material to be found inside. The quality of adventures is constantly improving, with a positive slope from Tyranny of Dragons to Princes of the Apocalypse - to Out of the Abyss. I think Wizards are finally doing it right - and I really hope their Aboleth Overlords have even greater plans for the future!

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Best Session Ever

I was watching a lot of live-stream D&D games lately.

I don't get to play as much as I want, certainly not as a player (been a very long time since I had my own character in a D&D game), and so I take advantage of the recent increase of live-stream gaming channels to troll other groups as they play.

From the quality production of the Acquisitions Incorporated games hosted at PAX (see the link above) to the casual, anonymous group playing and streaming using Twitch, I manage to see a lot of different playing styles and skill levels on both ends of the DM screen.

(There is even a group composed of actual voice actors running on Geek and Sundry Twitch channel - and it is simply a joy to watch them go about it. Check it out here.)

One thing that pops out immediately is the totally different vibe between the high-end D&D "shows" and the other, neighborhood-friendly D&D gaming groups.

The average gaming group (among those who stream their session) is not different than the groups I had along the years: just a bunch of friends who meet to play a game they love. Some sessions are good, some fail to make an impression, a few fall flat, and fewer still are outstanding. Some players are tired, some lose interest during the session and drift off to play with their laptop or mobile, and some try to be the living spirit of the game, with the DM usually doing whatever possible to keep the game going.

The high-end D&D "shows" are something totally different. No yawning, unfocused players here. If a scene falls short, someone will step in to make it shine - even if its just about the characters interacting with a guard. Jokes are cracked, each player role-plays with mimicry, intonation and character background in mind. Characters talk between themselves, and the DM is ever-full of ideas, NPCs, interesting locations and great plot twists.

It's like the difference between a Burger King advertisement, and the real dish that lands on the table.


Sad, isn't it?

You want your session to be the best 4 hours of the day, right? I mean - we invest in it so much, even if its "just" time and nothing else, why not make sure this investment pays off big time? A lot of players come to the table expecting a good time - and a lot of DMs are laboring between sessions to make sure it happens - so why our sessions fall flat sometimes? Why don't they all look like those D&D shows, with everything going smoothly under the spotlight?

Some might say "that's life". We don't live in a movie, and so things around us don't arrange themselves to make every thing we do perfect. But I think we can at least try to arrange some thing that will probably improve our experience around the table:

  1. Don't come to a session if you're dead tired. Simply don't. If you're wasted, and all you can do is sit, stare at the wall and yawn, you'll bring everyone down with you. It's a death spiral. We all have busy lives, and we all come to the table after our day's work. If one is wasted and two are "just" tired, it means 3/5 of the group is simply out. Sessions don't take off this way. They stall, and only luck prevents them from crashing down.
  2. Your characters are the heroes of the campaign, act accordingly. Sessions take off when players are in-character, moving the story forward. It doesn't matter if the campaign is humanistic, goofy, or laden with dark fantasy and grim action. Stay in-character, look at your background and character sheet, decide how you want to play your turn, think: "is this going to make for an interesting scene that will move the story forward?" and if the answer is YES, go for it. If the answer is "I don't know", "No", "Just let me roll the dice" or "C'mon...", then you might not be helping the session take off. If you need, communicate with your DM before hand. Some DMs don't take cues. or hints When a player asks a DM "is there a chandelier on the ceiling?", he means that he wants to pull of some cool stunt. Some DMs aren't aware of this, and answer "No" instead of helping you create a cool scene. Talk to your DM, tell him you want to help making the game better, and if he's trustworthy (see below), things will improve fast. 
  3. Describe, Describe, Describe, Describe. Even if its a simple one liner. Even if its a regular scene you've played a hundred times, even if no one around you does it. It doesn't have to be first person. Say something like "My fighter enters the inn and looks at each of the patrons before choosing a private corner far from the fireplace", enough to get those imaginative juices flowing. I was once part of a group of 5 players, with 3 of them avoiding any descriptions of their characters whatsoever. "I attack" and "I'm down to 12 HP, I need healing" was all you heard from them. On the other end, I have players who role-play their character being wounded. ("The giant swats you for 23hp", "Damn! my fighter reels, shaking his head, wiping blood from his nose and shouting the name of the cleric!"). D&D is a game based on imagination. With out avid descriptions, we're not getting that feel of the scene that will make it memorable and vivid. The DM is describing as part of his job description, but help from the players will be most welcome.
  4. Trust your DM (unless you can't trust him). No one is perfect, and DMs are as diverse as players with regards to gaming styles, preferences and tendencies. But if your DM is trying his best to make everybody happy around the table, then support him, and trust him. Such a DM won't kill your character to punish you for something. If you blunder horribly, that DM might severely hit the party, but he won't make it a point to kill your characters for good (but if you press it, a TPK is a real consequence). If you say "My fighter challenge the merchant to a crossbow shooting contest, with 20 gold on the table" in order to get a discount in a cool way, such a DM won't make the merchant a retired level 18 ranger all of a sudden (he might make it a retired low level adventurer to make things fun, but that's it). A DM you can trust works with you, not for you, or against you. If you feel "cheated out of fun" then talk with your DM. A trustworthy DM will discuss it with you, and something will change (either on his side or on yours). If you don't think your DM is trustworthy (namely, it's his way or the highway), take the highway. Truest me (pun intended) - you're better off that way.   
  5. Positive Feedback goes a long way. And I mean it in a PvP way. I was once an unexperienced player in a very experienced group, and I chose to play a "Raistlin" like wizard. One of the players was nasty about it, but the other two players hushed him, and at the first roleplaying scene I did (speaking in a low voice, saying enigmatic things, you know, Raistlin) - they had big, appreciative smiles on their faces. I sucked - but they realized I was in the right mindset, and it was more important than my selection of character theme. They gave me a mental "thumbs up", and the game just got better (and I got better) from session to session. Saying "good one" or "nicely done" to a player after a good swing, or role-playing scene can go a long way. For the same reasons, saying a nasty thing to a player and excusing it with "it's what my character would say" is bullshit and should be avoided. Help the other players shine by providing positive feedback to enhance good behaviors. Just like with kids. And like with kids, the only time you need to step in and stop what's happening is when they're about to get hurt, or hurt someone else. 
So here you go. My 2-cents about how to make your next session memorable and exciting, as all D&D sessions ought to be!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Two

In the last post, I wrote about the process I have for drafting a campaign. I usually start with notes about the following:
  1. The campaign setting.
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
I also come up with one sentence that sums up the campaign, to serve as a lighthouse to guide me when fleshing out the events that make the campaign tick.

But the single most important element of the campaign isn't the setting, the plot or even your skill as a DM - it's the players that matter the most.

This is the reason I don't develop my drafts until I know who will be joining the group. In my experience, it's best if the campaign is tailored to the players' expectations and skill level - otherwise the first session might be the last.

Think about it this way - your role-playing heavy plot will evaporate soon enough if three-quarters of the group enjoys combat and tactical play the most and aren't worrying too much about character death. It works the other way too. To mitigate, I usually ask the players what interests them in a game (usually via e-mail), and try to incorporate these interests into the draft I'm fleshing out.

I plan to discuss fleshing out a campaign in a later post, but once the campaign is fleshed out to a point I feel confident enough to start running it, most of its success is on the players shoulders. I found out that campaigns that are driven by engaged players enjoy a lot more success that campaigns driven by an engaged DM...

The way to engage players differ from group to group and from a player to player, but I found out that most players respond to the following:

  1. A Coherent plot that involves the characters
  2. Meaningful choices
  3. NPCs


I try to make the characters a big part of the plot. It's easier when the players provide you with a background to work with, and it's a lot easier when players realize they are the main focus of the campaign, and act accordingly. The characters can be the heroes a prophecy revolves around, or natural born leaders who can 'show the path' for others, or powerful individuals destined to do great things. The plot revolves around them - they are like the main protagonists of a book. As such, they can accomplish great things, or fail miserably - but if their actions make a great story, it doesn't matter how it ended. A good player recognizes this, and act accordingly. I had players portraying their character's death scene in such a gripping way that it made me forget I was the DM - I was simply enjoying a great scene from a story, even if that scene was all about a hero losing his life.

It's important to make sure your players will connect with the plot. If they don't, engagement will fly through the window. Before the campaign starts, I ask them and make sure the plot I have in mind is something they will enjoy playing. During the campaign, simple checkpoints can help you make sure everybody is interested in the story (more on that in the next post).

Meaningful Choices

I hate railroading. I really do. As a player, I feel like being cheated out of my D&D experience, which is all about my character and the dent it leaves in the universe. When the group's choices mean nothing, players will do one of two: trot along gritting their teeth (and eventually leave the group), or try to wreck havoc (before leaving the group).

The only way to make sure the players feel like their choices have meaning, is to actually plan for it to happen. The heroes defeated a major villain? his forces will disperse. The heroes stole a relic from a temple? the cultists will seek them out. The heroes persuaded two merchants in different towns to cooperate? A new trade route will be opened, with new wealth flowing through the realms.

Same goes for poor choices and failed attempts. The heroes did nothing when a vampire asserted control over the town's council? The town will evolve into a bastion of evil. The heroes failed to protect an high-ranking diplomat they were assigned to protect? War might erupt between two kingdoms. The heroes fail to avert an evil god from entering the world? Well, bye bye world...(not really - our job as DMs is to make sure the story goes on...again, more on that in the next post).

The important thing to remember here is that we (as DMs) need to challenge the players, give their characters the right tools to succeed, but never look the other way if things go bad for them. The game is much more rewarding this way - even if somewhat difficult. Players choices should matter - and they should be very well aware of that.


NPCs are the best tool a DM have in his toolbox to engage and entertain players. A lot of DMs don't use them enough. I know I don't use them enough.

NPCs can serve as the DM's secret weapon. When you want to know what interests the players? Here comes the talkative barkeep that simply asks them that. When your players a in dire-straits and need directions? Here comes a hunched man with a glass eye to whisper words of wisdom. When the group is debating about how to approach the upcoming attendance with the king, going into circular logic discussion? That old dwarf coughs politely and with a heavy accent says: "Heard ye be talking on the king's court? Been there myself, lately..."

The problem with NPCs is that a) the heroes need to be in a place were other people are present and b) running then can be a real challenge.

Sometimes the group is adventuring with no one close in sight. While monsters can be good NPCs, more often than not it's the "tell us what we need to know or die" scenario (can be uttered by the adventurers or by the monster, BTW). But even if the heroes are in a city, with NPC interaction opportunities abundant, most DMs (myself included) have issues with coming up with a score of NPCs unless we prepared for it (I "love" that fraction of a second delay when a player asks the NPC "so what's your name", revealing the fact that the DM just came up with the NPC a minute ago).

But all that said - NPCs are hands down the best tool the DM have to make the world real, evoke some response from the players, and move the story forward. I guess practice makes perfect, and the new 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with advice on creating and running NPCs.

So here it is - with a campaign draft, and some information about what makes your players tick, you are ready for the next level: fleshing the campaign out, and preparing for the first session. All will be discussed in my next post.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part One

I currently have 12 "campaign drafts" sitting and collecting digital dust in my Google Drive RPG draft folder.

New campaign ideas keep popping into my head, so I jot them down in my draft folder, and every weekend or so I pick one draft and flesh it out further. I usually delete those drafts who didn't get any attention for some time (a month or two, usually), so the folder now contains around 12 half-baked campaigns, almost ready-to-play.

When starting to work on a new campaign, I usually don't have any information about the players who will be playing it, so I can only develop it up to a certain point.

I usually jot down the following:
  1. The campaign setting (I default to the Forgotten Realms these days, but some campaign ideas work better in other settings)
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
Campaign Setting

I don't really have the time to develop my own campaign settings. I have some drafts (again) or worlds I created, but running a campaign in a home-brew world requires a lot of ongoing work between sessions, and I don't have the time to invest in world building anymore. 

Published settings suites me better, especially those who get some new content published on a regular basis. I don't mind using settings that aren't officially maintained (Greyhawk comes to mind, and Eberron), but settings like the Forgotten Realms, who seem to get endless love from Wizards of the Coast works best for me, as I can loot stuff from adventures, modules, articles and books published with FR in mind. I also own the old FR grey nostalgia definitely play its role here.

Most of my campaign ideas revolve around a main theme that can be described by a single sentence - such as "Gods meddle in human affairs" or "A demon found a way to get himself free from his eternal prison", or even "An evil alien race is about to invade the planet - with a similarly evil warlord planning to stop it". Some campaign settings are more suited for some themes, but I think any D&D setting can host any theme, with some modifications. So, if my idea can work in the Forgotten Realms, I just assume the campaign will be played in the Forgotten Realms.

The General Plot

I usually start with a single sentence, something that can help me focus when the campaign is already underway. I found that most of my campaigns rarely unfold as designed, mainly due to the fact that I try to avoid railroading as much as possible. In addition, sometimes players have ideas that can take the campaign to a better direction than I envisioned - and I do my best to cooperate. So a single sentence that describe the overall story is often vague enough to allow some flexibility in the story, while providing a 'lighthouse' for me to keep the ship in the right direction.

Most of my campaigns are epic in nature, with a world changing event looming or already underway. Such campaigns can be run for many sessions, with the story slowly unfolding. Characters can go from first level to the 6th or even 8th before the main story really kicks in. It allows for character development, and some "getting sense" of the players' interests. If needs be, I modify the story in a way that stays loyal to the original plot line, but entertain the players as much as possible.

The 5th edition D&D Dungeon Master Guide has some great advice on creating campaigns - while reading the first chapter I had a sudden realization that 90% of my campaign ideas are about big events that literally shake the world. I'm sensing my next campaign will tone-down the action level and focus on smaller regions and tighter plot lines - but that's remains to be seen.

How the Characters Meet

I learned in the hard way that in order for the campaign to start on the right foot, the party must already be 'a party'. Namely, while the players might be playing for the first time, the characters must already be familiar with each other, and have a clear goal and, preferably, a patron to send them off to their first mission.

Why? Well, you want some glue to make sure the party stays together and heads in the right direction at the first session. I had groups splitting on the first session, simply because characters had different interests, or because players failed to realize that D&D is a cooperative game. I don't mind in-play debates or splits in session 18, deep inside the story, with the characters expressing different opinions in a heated argument. But I don't enjoy several strangers sitting around my table heading each in his own direction without thinking about the guys sitting next to them. I found that declaring the group as such in the beginning, and making sure they have a patron that can 'show them the right way' to adventure works best. The campaign can break later on, with the players at the reins, but the first session should be run as smoothly as possible.

Examples can be:

  • The characters are working as 'special crimes' investigators, reporting to the local temple and handling cases with suspected demonic involvement.
  • The characters are handling barely-legal deals for a shady merchant with a love for ancient arcane devices.
  • The characters are responsible for transporting dangerous prisoners from and to the local asylum, with a dwarven lord (running the prison) as their patron.

It's best to keep it simple, and make sure the patron (and the party's current "job") actually fits into the story, so the relation stays intact at least for a couple of sessions.

Sometimes, no patron / specific goal comes to mind. In this case, I just plan for the characters to be at a specific time in a specific place, with some event bonding them together, at least until the campaign hook sinks in. This method works best with groups you are already familiar with, and with players who are willing to "play along" at the first session. I still prefer the former approach.

Good Ideas

Sometimes ideas flow that don't really match your current campaign draft, or you sometimes have this really cool encounter idea, or an NPC that clicks with the story. I jot down a paragraph or two every time I have one of these ideas. You never know when those things will come handy.

Ideas run out, and inspiration might go away for a while. DM 'burn out' is a real thing, and so jotting some notes when inspiration strikes ensures your campaign will survive a 'dry season'.

I also made it a habit to invest time in reading published adventures (old or new), easily read fantasy books (anything under 300 pages) and material found in Wikipedia in subjects that can be related to D&D campaigns (such as the history of the Roman Empire, naval piracy, ancient Egyptian legends etc). Such "pools of inspiration" can really save the day. I remember running a session with NPCs build from sigmund freud's definitions of Id, Ego and Super-Ego. Inspiration can come from a lot of sources, so I invest time in exposing myself to some, and jotting down ideas so I can revisit them when in need.

(Source: tumblr)
Following the above steps - my draft campaign folder grew to 12 campaigns that just need several hours of work to make them playable.

So how to continue from here? What do you do after you have your draft campaign ready, and you even have players who are willing to participate?

More on that in Part Two of "Starting a New D&D Campaign"....

Friday, August 21, 2015

4th Edition Retrospect (with Kids!)

My 4th edition campaign ended over a year ago, and we quickly moved to D&D Next and 5th edition once it came out.

Surprisingly, my home campaign (with my kids) is still run using 4th edition rules. I thought it would be a good exercise to convert my son's current character - an Eladrin Paladin - to 5th edition, but he got bored just after generating stats, and refused to continue.

I thought long and hard about it, and tried to understand what did I do wrong. After all, he loves reading his 4th edition player's handbook over and over, so why didn't he enjoy creating a 5th edition PC?

I realized that 5th edition took away the single element he liked best in the game - "Powers".

In 4th edition, many skills, attacks, spells and special abilities are formulated into At-will, Encounter or Daily "Powers" the player can activate.

For a kid used to playing games on computers, tablets and consoles, 4th makes a lot of sense. You have a character, it has powers you can activate, go have fun adventuring in the Forgotten Realms.

Generating a character is fast, revolves around selecting those powers, and at the end of the process you have a rather powerful character - lots of hit-points, self-healing abilities and at-will powers means you can have fun with even that single character adventuring.

In 5th edition, the situation is a little different. Yes, there are a lot of choices to be made, but the 'interesting stuff' only happens around level 3, and level 1 PCs are weak in comparison to 4th edition characters. The layout of the 5th edition book makes it hard to understand at first glance what the PC can do - and that was very important to my young players.

So we kept using 4th edition at home.

Things got more interesting when I allowed my son to run a game for us (with my daughter and myself as players). Here, 4th edition really shined. All he had to do is come up with a simple story (he's 9yo, so the stories were largely influenced by the recent TV show he'd watched, or the recent movie - which was cool). Once he had the story, 'designing' encounters was easy - pick XP budget, select monsters, go!. Hard to make a mistake here.

In a sense, 4th edition technicalities makes it a very easy and fun system to run, as long as the scenarios are kept simple. Too many players fighting too many monsters with too many abilities makes the game hard to track - but with a DM and two players running 1st level characters, we had the famous RPG "sweet spot" right there and then.

But what about role-playing and out-of-combat scenarios? Well, here 4th edition skill system shined. The simplified skill system made it easy to complement dice roles with "acting out" and pretending to be the characters speaking to the King or the Evil Wizard.

The main take-away is that 4th edition is very structured, and its presentation makes that structure obvious and easy to grasp, which is a bless when playing with kids who are mature enough to bite into a role-playing system, but still small enough to need easy to understand rules and easy to press "buttons" to play the game.

It's interesting to note that my own introduction to D&D was with the Basic Set (the red box), which was a very simple system combined with a presentation that was meant to inspire. When reading the player's booklet as a kid back then in the 80', I felt so excited to see game that presented a system that 'sorted out' all that buzzing imaginative energy I had as a kid and laid it out neatly so me and my friends could share wonderful moments of role-playing in a fantasy-world. I didn't look for 'what my character can do'. I knew it could do anything I wanted, the system was there to make some sense of a fantasy character wondering around in a fantasy setting.

Now it seems a 10 years old kid is already so familiar with gamification terms such as 'level', 'power', and with the slew of fantasy movies (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Hobbit and their likes) that a role-playing system trying to focus on imagination fails to hit the mark, but a system focused on 'levels' and 'powers' and that 'trick Legolas does when shooting 4 arrows in one pull of the bow' connects easily.

In a sense, 5th edition is the closest to the spirit of my old Red Box D&D, while having the technical aspects of a modern RPG system. It will be interesting to see if the young generation of role-players will find 5th edition digestible - they'll probably need help from old D&D veterans like me to show them the way. At least the setting stays the same - my kids were always adventuring in and around Neverwinter. But more on that in a later post....