Sunday, March 22, 2015

D&D 5e Impressions - Dungeon Master's Guide


That's what went through my head as I frantically flipped through the pages of the new DMG. After reading the Monster Manual and enjoying it page after page, I was really eager to put my hands on the definite guide for all those dungeon masters out there - and boy am I impressed!

If one word could be used to summarize my thoughts and feelings while reading through this book - it would have to be this one: Inspiration.

This whole edition feels like someone was trying to get the rules out of the way and inject as much possible inspirational material that can be used to create great adventures, campaigns, characters, locations and story lines. The DMG is the pinnacle of that effort - and IMHO the best book out of the trio.

Don't get me wrong - the previous two where superb (especially the Monster Manual) - but the DMG makes you want to throw everything aside and write that great campaign or adventure you always wanted to run. The book focuses on inspirational material, leaning much less on mechanics, and therefore reads like a textbook, and not like a rule-book. It covers topics previous DMGs did not even get near to - such as alien technology(!), sanity and madness, siege-weapons, and other 'non-D&D' concepts such as firearms, fear-and-horror, and explosives. Variants of many classic rules are presented, that allow further customization and 'breaking' of the mold.

If 4th edition was extremely codified and 'strict', 5th edition is all about returning control to the DM, and allowing him to tell his story in his own way, while providing as much advice, examples and ideas to spark that flame of imagination and wonder that somewhat diminished over the last few editions.


It seems to me that every time I crack open the DMG, falling on a random page, I find something interesting to read. It's a good pastime book, even if you're not running a campaign - and it certainly makes you want to run one. The book doing a good job expanding on subjects like world-building and NPC creation, delving deep into adventure design and game running advice. It provides tips and advice on 'out-of-game' activities for players and DMs alike - just look at that Dungeon Master Inspiration page at the end of the book - a collection of works that can 'help you become a better storyteller, writer, performer and mapmaker'.

I've been playing (and running) D&D games for more than 25 years now, and I'm still amazed by how much I don't know about the various aspects of this game. The new DMG uses the collective knowledge of players and dungeon masters, binding that knowledge into a book that can inspire, teach and ignite that spark of imagination that keeps us scribbling notes about that old castle in the mire, or about that vampire lord plotting the downfall of a paladin.

At this point in my life, the last thing I need is a book full of rules, codes and mechanics. What I need is inspiration, ideas, advice and examples I can learn from and put to good use, and the new DMG provides just that, and plenty of it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

D&D 5e Impressions - The Monster Manual

I didn't know what to expect from the new Monster Manual. I mean - the new Player's Handbook was an interesting read, and I really enjoyed the new presentation (story and background before game statistics and rules) and the way the new rules mixed the best of D&D from all editions - but the Monster Manual is just that, right? A book about D&D Monsters...


Well, I am happy to say that Wizards did the impossible and created a Monster Manual that (again) puts story and background before game statistics.

It's the first creature centric book I had the pleasure of picking up for the sake of inspiration, as part of my adventure creation process. With previous Monster Manual editions, I skimmed through the monster books to find critters to challenge my players with. I mostly looked at the statistics, checking whether this particular creature will be a good or bad challenge for my group.

Not anymore.

Now - before plunging into the details of the next session, I take the new Monster Manual from the shelf and just flip through the pages, reading the various bits and bites of story and background provided with each monster description. Some of the little 'notes' dotting the pages here and there are especially inspiring - in a tongue-in-the-cheek kind of way.


All of the usual suspects are represented - goblins, giants, dragons, demons, devils and many other 'classic' D&D critters - along with some new creations. The stat blocks (when I actually get to read them), are clear and convey all the needed information in a glance. All the information is present where you need it - no need to flip pages or open another book to understand how a specific monster works (expect spell-casting monsters - you still need the Player's Handbook for the spell descriptions). It's a real blessing, as I hardly have the mental capacity for minute details or hard-to-remember tactics and traits.

I have to say that the new Monster Manual feels superior to previous editions - from mechanics, story oriented material, presentation and art. Dungeon Masters can actually build entire adventures out of the inspiring story surrounding a critter, and it feels like the non-mechanical material was designed with that goal in mind. I totally appreciate any attempt to ease things for the Dungeon Master. I personally don't have a lot of free time, and I prefer to 'copy-paste' bits of information to create encounters and scenarios. Since this book is full of worthy content, 'copy-paste' actually works in this case - allowing me to focus on the story and back away from the statistics until I really need it.

The Player's Handbook was a great kickoff for this new edition. It seems to me that the Monster Manual release managed to top that. The package containing the Dungeon Master Guide is already underway - and I can't wait to get my hands on it...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

D&D 5e Impressions

One of the things I like most about this new D&D version is the way rules get out of the way.

It started with The Sundering modules. The modules described the story, the characters involved and the setting, and provided a lot of information for the Dungeon Master. The rules of the game were pushed into downloadable PDFs that made the module compatible with D&D Next, D&D 4th Edition and D&D 3.5 Edition at once.

The idea that a module can consist solely of story elements and still fill 30+ pages (or triple that number - see Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure module) means that rules take the backstage and the characters, the players and their actions through the evolving story is what's matters the most.

That said - a simple ruleset often means more work for the Dungeon Master, as players try to do things not covered by the rules, requiring the DM to make judgement calls all over the scenario. In addition, simple rules sometimes mean simple characters, with players unhappy with the few options the rules provide for character development.

So I looked at Fighter class and compared the Basic D&D version of it to the 5th Edition version of it, reasoning that the Fighter class had always been a 'simple' choice, and the default one for new players joining an existing party.

Basic D&D described the Fighter in a single page, summarizing the class by saying that "Fighters need no special abilities to survive and prosper. Their great strength, hit points, strong armor and many weapons make them a powerful character class."

In Basic D&D, playing a Fighter was easy rules-wise. Tell the DM what you want to hit, roll a die, and hope for the best. That's it. The first 3 levels didn't include any special feature or maneuver - these came after level 4, but summed up to some fighting abilities using lances and spears. The Fighter was designed to be durable, that's it. Players often steered off of the Fighter class, and only exceptional players could bring a Fighter character into life.

In 5th Edition, the Fighter's description is spread over 4 pages, with each level adding some feature or ability the player can use. The Fighter is still designed for durability, but it now had some interesting options the player could use to gain the upper hand in battle. The Fighter main functionality remained the same: pick a target, roll a die - but now the player could put things like Action Surge, Fighting Style and Martial Archetype features into good use.

In addition - 5th Edition now include a whole chapter dedicated to Personality & Background, which helps novice players (and let's admit it - even seasoned ones) to paint a unique picture given a race and class combination. So your "Level 1 Human Fighter" can become Theodar, an Acolyte of the Masked Hive Queen or Sinadi, the half-crazed Hermit living in the Fog Mountains, kickstarting an ocean of possibilities for role-play and social interactions.

It D&D 5th Edition perfect? Probably not. I (as a Dungeon Master) still find Basic D&D simplicity a bless. But I have to admit - creating a character in 5th Edition is interesting, especially if you let in some randomness using the information presented at the Personality and Background chapter. So the system is not Basic D&D simple, but it's definitely not 3.5e complex - I was able to use a random 5th Edition monster stats without taking 15 minutes to read it before session, and I was able to run several 5th Edition sessions without memorizing the Player's Handbook.

Moreover - I find the module design (I currently own all the Sundering modules and Hoard of the Dragon Queen) very DM friendly and story oriented. Again, not perfect - I still cringe when 'high-level' NPCs send the player characters to do their dirty work for them, but any module containing a list of 20 non story central NPCs your players might interact with during a caravan trip on the Trade Way to Waterdeep is worth owning, reading and using...

I'll wait for the Dungeon Master Guide (and the Monster Manual) for completing my overview of the system - but so far it looks very promising.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

My DM's Notes

Sometimes, a player will approach me asking to see my "DM Notes".

Maybe he's running a campaign of his own and he want to have a look at another DM's work.
Maybe he's just curious about the difference between what I planned and what really happened during the session. Maybe he wants to get ideas, or maybe he just want to know "how stuff works" behind the curtain.

I love these questions, but I don't usually answer them - at least not right away. I love these questions, because they mean that someone is at least interested enough to ask them.

I don't usually answer them because answering them might say too much about my way of thinking, breaking the player's suspension of disbelief and possibly taking away some of the magic taking place around the gaming table.

But here are some role-playing "secrets" from behind the DM's screen I am willing to share with the world (and all my players):

Having the right players is key to the success of the campaign
You know these guys. They'll do whatever they can to keep the game going. They'll show up to your sessions and will do anything they can to help you and the other players have a great time. They'll come up with ideas for cool things to do, they'll interact with your NPCs (even if you suck in portraying them), they'll bite into your half-baked hooks with a wink and they'll pop a good-hearted joke when you fumble with some plot element. In short - the game just gets better when they're around. They're worth their weight in gold. If you find such players - do whatever you can to keep them around!

Prep, prep, prep, improvisation!
Coming up with a good story to drive the campaign isn't hard. Coming up with an good, original story is. This is why my stories are never original. I steal what I can from movies, TV shows, books, comics, and other DMs. I just make sure to coat everything with my own, special flavored sugar to make it somehow distinct. I do lots of prep (just ask my wife), trying to make sure 99% of what's going on around the table is (at the very least) thought of. But - every now and then things get "out of control", when the players do something unexpected. Suddenly, all my precious DM notes are irrelevant. You know what - it's even more interesting that way. As long as you've got those "right players" in your group, everything will be all-right. The campaign doesn't break because someone does something unexpected, and the more experience you have,  the more you become proficient in handling these situations. Let the players tell their own stories - it's your game their playing, but it's not your show.

One common goal, many stories to tell
I learnt that the running the game is easier when the group share a common goal they thought of together without the DM forcing it down their throats. It's not that hard to pull off - it just means that the DM cannot build a complete campaign before the group meets (is that a real issue?). Have the players talk about what they want to do in the game, have them think of a way to form a group around that idea, and you have a bunch of gamers ready to start their first adventure with a specific goal in mind. It's like getting into a car that's already started. Each character should still be distinct, with its own story to tell, but having a common goal really helps to get things going. Then, as the players pursue their common goals, their individual stories can surface every now and then, and so they have a way to "side-step" and refresh themselves when the main goal becomes a bit of a grind.

Listen to feedback, but make your own choices
Every now and then a player will come out and ask for something. Maybe he wants more political intrigue in the game. Maybe he wants a chance to research a magical item. Or maybe he wants things to move faster, as he's bored with all that "talking" taking place in recent adventures.
Now - feedback is always welcome. A player that takes the time to talk to you after the game about something that bugs him is a good thing. You can learn a lot about how your gaming sessions look from the other side of the screen. But make sure to understand that all you get is that player's perspective. If one players asks to have more fights with undead, then OK, you might want to introduce an encounter to satisfy his whims. But if 5 players ask for the more fights with undead - you are onto something BIG. Maybe your players have an itch to scratch, and the story so far don't even come close? Maybe they had some expectations that weren't met? Talking to your players can give you a lot  work with. And even if a player says "I'm not happy, you should fix this and that", don't fret. Fixing "this" or "that" might earn you a happier player, and if fixing it doesn't make other players unhappy, then its a win-win situation. Just make sure this is the case before making drastic changes to your campaign.

Rules are important, but not to the point of going to court
I personally believe that a rule-system gives a certain feel to the game, and I prefer running by the books than house-ruling my own flavor of one system or another. I also feel that players operate better when the rules are on the table - things are less arbitrary. You should use a rule-system that you are comfortable with, one that helps you getting through that sense of the campaign setting to the players. But that's it. The rules should help you create and run your game - but it is your game. Don't let the rules (or rules-savvy players) dictate how things work around your table. Be consistent, be clear, and be fair. If you have those "right players" around, you can count on them to help you run it (especially if they know the rules better than you), but they'll never take your position as the final arbitrator, or question you just for the sake of making a point.

Finally, tell an interesting story
It's not hard if you remember that the story is about the player characters, not your NPCs. The story will be interesting if it's about the characters your player run. If a player hands you a background full of details about his character - then you have to use it as a basis for the campaign. Otherwise, you're telling your own story, and it will suck, because the players don't come to your table to participate in your show. They come to put up their own show while playing your game.
It's very hard to trust players to the point of letting them run the show - I know. It doesn't mean you do everything they ask. It means you take into account their stories, likes and dislikes when planning the adventure - even before starting the campaign. You challenge them, making their quests interesting and unexpected, helping them to tell their characters story in your world. Now, for obvious reasons, most players are not invested in the campaign as the DM is.  But if you try and have them tell their stories instead of yours, you might be able to create something that is really unique and even beautiful - a unique experience of shared storytelling done around a table with a bunch of friends.

It gets even better with Pizza.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil

Yes, this is precisely what I feel.

(Source: Wikipedia)
The D&D Next play-test is over, and I feel that I had enough with rules changing every other week. I want a system that is stable, flexible and...well...D&D at its core.

Now, don't get me wrong - D&D 3.5e is definitely stable, flexible and recognizable as D&D, but it's also very difficult to run if you go by the books. Broken builds are everywhere, and some of its mechanics are simply notorious (Grapple anyone?).

So I decided to do something I usually don't do. Run a 3.5e campaign using only the core books (PHB, DMG, MM) and throwing out all of the unneeded complexity. If I managed to run a D&D Next campaign that lasted 12 months by using a single die roll for Grappling, I don't see a reason to use 3.5e's interpretation of Grappling at the table.

Players are now free to use the flexibility and matureness of 3.5e to reconstruct their current characters, which is a good thing. D&D Next was simple to run (for both players and DMs), but that meant characters were not as complex as some players wanted. You couldn't make your character fit the picture you had in your mind, unless that character fell neatly into one of D&D Next's molds. 3.5e doesn't suffer from that.

The problem with 3.5e (IMHO) is that it's complex to run from the DM perspective, and it has some truly broken character builds.

I'll try to solve the broken build issue by limiting my players to the Core PHB book, but the complexity of 3.5e still remains. I mean, Attacks of Opportunity rules, Grappling, Sundering, Sneak Attack rules, Stacking rules, and basically everything Wizards wrote about in the Rules of the Game column years ago.

So what can I do? Here's what I think:

  1. Think story-wise, and not rules-wise. If a player tries a "complex" action (Sundering, Tripping, Grappling), there should be a roll involved, but that's it. The story (description, coolness factor of the action) is more important that the consequences of the action itself. And an adventure shouldn't end of the PCs manages to break the Vorpal Sword of their Vampire opponent.
  2. That said, the rules should not be ignored. I need to follow the "spirit" of the rules, even if I don't follow them to the letter. For example, the Mounted Combat rules are full of nuances (see here), but does the game break if I allow a PC riding a horse to just ride and attack giving a +1 to the attack? That said, the rules do specify some Skill checks and penalties to be taken into account when the PC is trying to perform some actions on horseback (ranged attack, spell casting), so I should not ignore them completely.
  3. Stay away from constructing NPC stat blocks that are detailed to the last spell/item. If possible, use Monster stat blocks, and stat blocks provided in books such as Enemies and Allies. Taking an hour to build a Mage NPC that will be killed in 3 rounds is a complete waste of time.
  4. And most important of all - keep the game running smoothly. Rules can be checked after the game ends, but they should be checked and explained, especially if a player tries to abuse them. It was hard to "abuse" something in D&D Next, as it had lots of blurred edges and the DM had a lot of say. But in 3.5e, a lot of rules are very detailed, making it hard for the DM to reject them or say "it doesn't work like that" without getting the players flipping the pages of the PHB. So rules should be applied, but in a way that is fair, helping the players (and the DM) create a fun and rewarding game experience.