DMG in review: Inbetween Knights

Chapter 6. What they call interstitial activity. In vocab school or very posh artisanal games I guess. For our needs, the bits between the dungeons. There’s a swiftly despatched essay on linking and foreshadowing, but then it’s on to the meat. Making and Do-ing.

Back in the day, there were all kinds of things characters could do when they were not actively adventuring, like build towers, or gather followers, that sort of thing. Largely this acted as a way to relive them of the stupid amounts of cash that they would acquire from the modules. As well as that, it was about some kind of Endgame, or Lord level play, which was something for PCs to aim for. Now, that never was a motivation for me and mine, not then, not now. We play D&D for loads of reasons, with heroic adventure top of that non existent list, and grinding out a day job as a carpet seller isn’t on there.

I don’t begrudge anyone having these things if that’s what they want, it just seems like a lonely kind of fun to me. Crafting. Professions. Training. All very real, but who wants that level of reality in their fantasy? Who am I kidding. Loads do, see Pathfinder. To make it work for me, I simply need to bring those activities back to the centre of the gaming. Building a stronghold won’t be the plot of the scenario, but it could absolutely be a backdrop or springboard to such. That’s where this DMG shines, it makes the accounting actions gameable.

It runs as a kind of expansion to what the players already got in their handbook. The list now includes; building strongholds, carousing, crafting, training, planting rumours and others. Each gets no more than a para or two (rather than the entire supplement each would have produced before) and occasionally some rulesyness in the form of a chart or table. There’s nothing here that wouldn’t fit in the PHB, so I wonder how many players will spontaneously ask for carousing results without being aware of these rules?

I should mention crafting in particular. This sort of activity, backed by rules, is the sort of thing that gets fans very exercised indeed. Fora have these little blooms of magic item economy threads every now and again. Like crafting itself, a very isolated kind of fun. I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter, but essentially, your wizards aren’t encouraged to be manning the lab benches so much any more. What rules there are, are simple, and refer you directly back to the DM should you try to destabilise the world they spent the first five chapters setting up.

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Odd chapter. If this downtime stuff is your thing you might feel shortchanged. For me, it’s just about right, and gives me enough and no more. As a precursor to the next chapter, it works. And as the next chapter is the Magic Items one, I’d better get cracking. There’s a lot of them!

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I Can’t Get No (Resurrection)

I ran a game at Dragonmeet this weekend. It turned out really well, and I got some great feedback from my players (all old friends, and it was great to get the band back together for that)

I tried something new to me, a game with very limited prep. I usually go overboard and type up what’s almost a publishable scenario, along with all the trimmings. It’s good, but a high overhead for a one off game. For this, I fancied using Fate Accelerated, and really going with the advice in the book, and just coming up with interesting and dramatic characters with hooks, in great locations with things to do. Sounds easy.

For a setting I went with an all time fave of mine: the D&D afterlife. It’s been part of Planescape, Spelljammer and really every campaign world ever written. The mortal worlds are all very different, unique to each DM, but once into the planes? That’s where the canon kicks in. I am unlikely to get a vanilla D&D game off the ground to cover the multiverse, but I wanted to hit a few high points in the one off and take in a few sights.

The idea of having all the PCs dead at the start of the game just tickles me anyway, but I thought it a good hook for a Con session. I always liked the notion in Wraith of ghosts floating about carrying their death wounds before they got to their permanent afterlife. In D&D, this is a temporary situation for any adventurer. I wanted to see what would happen if the people the PCs left behind tried to get them back with Raise Dead or Speak With Dead spells? What about if it were bad guys? Would the PCs want to move on, or stay as ghosts to protect their loved ones? Interesting dilemmas, and not ones I wanted to personally resolve in the prep. Let the play decide.

Making characters was fun. I didn’t want to do full char gen at the Con, even with a simple game like FAE. Too long, or more likely, choice paralysis. Nor did I want to do full pregens as a big part of Fate’s fun is the group making the decisions. So I mooted a card based idea, and ran with it in the end. I wrote 6 high concepts onto cards and let the players pick.

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This got great buy in straight away. None of this is set in stone and I deliberately wrote Aspects with flex in them. Then, Troubles, on another six cards, and again with plenty of flex and some obvious conflicts written in.

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At this point the players were brainstorming away and looking at each other’s picks. This was a big plus for me. Usually with pregens, players are so intent studying their own paper that they don’t pick up on the other PCs. With this, everyone was super aware of the party, all of it.

Then I put out some rules in the form of some pre picked Approach numbers, written on cards, taken straight from the FAE book. (see page 10). Easy. Then I killed the entire party.

I asked if the guys wanted to choose their deaths or go random. As in life, randomness won out. I handed out 6 cards: Stabbed! Suicide! Crushed!poisoned! Eaten! and Burned! Then the guys each took turns to narrate their deaths, with me throwing in a few facilitating questions along the way. Within seconds we had a pirate captain found swinging from his neck in the rigging of his own ship, witnessed by a prisoner chained in a cage on board. Who was poisoned by his lover in a game gone wrong. Who was eaten by sea monsters. Who fed on the survivors of the sea battle that crushed the cleric. Who couldn’t save the warlock from being stabbed below decks. Or the diviner who didn’t see his own end coming by swallowing acid.

Awesome.

I gave out some generic stunt cards too, but actually they weren’t effective. I should have either completely filled them in, or bette, left them out entirely. The game wasn’t long enough to accommodate them. And perhaps I should have done a card for stress and consequences too, but nothing too big a deal really.

So after 20-30 minutes we hadn’t rolled a dice but there were 6 players and one GM bent fascinated over the table looking, plotting and imagining. A great start, and one I had no real idea what I was going to do with. The only solution, call a comfort break, and pull out my 6 plot cards.

More on that another time.

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Into the Undercroft

I’ve got this sneaky fondness for the OSR, or as I know it, the way I played back in the day. Some of it makes me chuckle, some of it raises a wry grin, while other bits make me slowly shake my head. Occasionally I come across something that makes me simultaneously reminisce about the past and be excited for the future. The Undercroft does that.

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It’s a zine. Remember them? Home made publications full of scratchy drawings and enthusiastic articles and house rules, usually never made it into double figures? Well, they’re back, and they’ve been back for a while. The ubiquity and relative cheapness of home publishing makes these a newly viable project, and one that works on a different level to that of a blog or a pure pdf. You can scrawl notes in the margins if nothing else.

Dan Sell is an old mucker of mine. We hadn’t bumped into each other in years despite having mutual friends, and as it turns out, a mutual love of fantasy RPGs. A chance reunion online led to him sending me review copies of his labour of love and I’m so glad he did.

Issue 1 kicks off with syphilis. Did I mention this is FRPGs through the lens of Lamentations of the Flame Princess? Yeah. It’s all creepy and grim and fungal. Having disease as your opening salvo tells you all you need to know really. Halflings+athletes foot=eeeww.

Ever read an article about Lawyers in FRPGs? Not like this you haven’t. Dan serves up the bastard love child of Plunkett & Macleane and Rumpole of the Bailey, but set in the world of Locke Lamora. It’s finished off with a d30 table with 90 entries to get you an answer when you get to make your one call.

Finally, a short scenario that showcases a custom monster, the corpse lion. It’s full of eye widening details, that you can sprinkle all over your usual GM patter. Example? “Three corpse lions dragging a polar bear towards #25. It’s almost dead and can’t do much more than growl”. The adventure doesn’t really have a structure, and certainly no defined plot. Instead, it’s built out of sensations, and ones that will stick in players minds for a long time. Gleeful in its insouciance.

Look, the whole issue is designed to make your players hate you, while all the time grinning and mock bemoaning their precious PCs fates. If you like Lamentations… then I’m pretty sure this will tickle in the same horrogenous zones.

This stuff smacks of the sort of thing we used to get in magazines back in the day, and fanzines even backer in the day. Yeah, you see blogs that purport to cover this sort of thing, but they’re more ephemeral and often more interested in quantity than quality. If you want a decent read, that will give you ideas to use or delete as appropriate, and something to have on your actual physical shelf, then look no further. Well actually look here on Dan’s blog, and Dan will sort you out. Tell him I sent you.

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DMG Review: Save the Environment

There are three biggies when it comes to adventure locales: the dungeon, the wilderness, and the city. Chapter 5 helps the DM bring them to the table for 5th ed.

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This is another chapter which, to be fair, has been done to death across more than the various D&D editions. It’s a staple of articles, blogs, and every other GM toolbox publication out there. But, what we get here is good, succinct and crucially, relevant.

The dungeon section gets stuck straight into tables to roll on or seek inspiration from. They include, location (including exotic), creator (including sub tables for cults and religious groups, alignments, and class), purpose and history. Then some advice for inhabitants and playing off factions.

It’s finished off with a run down of fixtures, fittings and hazards, which is a bit dull really. Sometimes this DMG does this, it zooms in on some sections (rules for doors) but stays vague and loose on others. I think this is a preference thing rather than a focus thing. But for me it means skimming a few bits to be honest. Also, not much on stocking the thing at this point, and for me, the monsters can have an effect on the design so probably bear that in mind. And being really picky, the sample map doesn’t make me want to explore it, and that’s a rare feat indeed.

Wilderness. Rather than head directly to nuts and bolts we get a couple of essays on travel-as-montage and an hour-by-hour approach. It’s a good read. After that it’s back to the tables to stock your maps. They include: monuments and weird locales, as well as brief discussions on lairs, ruins, strongholds and settlements.

And then the ghosts of previous editions rise with the inclusion of detail for details sake with weather tables for temp, precipitation and wind. Ok, it doesn’t take up much room, but really? The wilderness hazards are more like it, because I can see them getting players interested. More so than “rolls… Yeah it’s light rain today, a few degrees warmer than is usual for this time of year”

Now, back in the day, each of those environments merited entire hardback volumes all to themselves. I say merited, I never personally got much use out of them. What’s presented here is a call back to that, but it’s brief, to the point, and easily skipped if you like. I’ll take that.

Settlements. Again, a classic subject with city books and town guides galore. This DMG hits the randomiser button again for settlements themselves, and the buildings as well as the random encounters you could have within them. It’s all fine, and I rolled up a couple of samples, and they got the grey matter firing. As with the other sections, this doesn’t work as a read, but it does work as a tool to be used. I like that. This stuff is designed to see DMs get dice and note paper out and actually start doing the thing that DMs should be doing, creating. It’s something that I’ve slacked off on in recent years, but this book really encourages it.

There’s some more stuff in the chapter. Brief looks at under/sea and airborne locales, and then traps. Traps? Here? Yep. You can tell the age and or edition of choice of a person by their approach to traps. From the early days of Grimtooth, to the 4e approach of them as a combat component. This book rolls them into the environment chapter on the basis that they are part of the scenery I guess. There’s no hint of xp for defeating them, which is a change. We get eight examples, which is perhaps a little mean, but they act as templates for your own flavour as well. Still, seems a little cursory.

Only a couple of chapters to go in the Mastering the Adventure section now, and I can see how the individual chapters all hinge off of one another. I’m learning as I read (and after 35 years behind the screen I didn’t know I’d still be learning) and I’m keen to read more so I can pull all the threads together. Even now, I reckon I’ve got enough to create my own world and campaign, and that’s quite a big deal.

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DMG Reviewed: N to the P to the C

“By their actions, villains provide job security for heroes.”

Chapter 4 fills in a couple of blanks from the Adventure Design chapter, specifically, making your NPCs. Mind, this is all still words more than numbers, we get further directions to Chapter 9 to fill out the maths. Right now, it’s table time again, along with some basic stuff on followers, hirelings et al. None of that is in any great rules depth, it seems these things are best left to the table if they want complexity (or more likely, in a future setting book designed around Leadership. That would be my guess). Of note, the idea of having different levels in the party crops up as an aside again. This is a change. Never really seen it happen in real life, but I’m not against the idea.

Let’s roll on some tables to get a detailed NPC then.

Appearance 7, missing teeth
Abilities. High, 1, Strength (add a descriptor, like brawny). Low, 6, Charisma (erm… Boring as a descriptor)
Talent, 19, skilled dancer
Mannerism, 4, slurs their words (as per missing teeth I guess?)
Interactions, 4, rude
Useful Knowledge, left to DM (pull this from your adventure design notes perhaps?)
Ideal, choice of six charts, dependent on alignment. I’ll go with Chaotic, 6, whimsy.
Bond, 7, protective of a sentimental keepsake
Flaw/secret, shameful or scandalous history

Ok, that’s loads to work on. I’m thinking about an exotic dancer/wrestler from the wrong side of the tracks, possibly the goblinoid side. Imagine a Mata Hari type character, but with broken tusks. Or something.

What I do like about this is that in fewer than five minutes I’ve got a character with more oomph than many a PC I’ve encountered! I’d need to roll up a few more, but I can already see a pretty interesting set of characters, possibly a weird new party coming from this.

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Next, villains. These are given a massive table to roll on, as befits their importance to the adventure.

Scheme, wealth, marry into it.
Method, torture, the rack
Weakness, falls when an ancient enemy forgives it’s past actions

Ok, so the table might be massive, but the results are fairly pithy. Add this onto the top of your NPC results and you’ve got your main antagonist. Yeah, that works. And I think this rounds out the adventure design quite nicely actually. If anything I’d like longer tables as I’m not sure how much I’d get from these in the long term. But for now, they do a bang up job of getting something down on paper.

Last thing, there’s a bit of crunch in the Villainous Class Options, which include the Death Domain for nasty clerics, and the Oathbreaker option for (anti) Paladins. DM gets the baddies, players get to suck it up.

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DMG Review: Chapter 3 Creating Adventures

I’ve always leaned quite heavily on the module for my adventures. I know that creating my own stuff is an area of my DMing that I’m quite weak on, despite it being commonly held to be “one of the greatest rewards” of DMing. I often just don’t know where to start, and I get all wound up on the formatting and literally lose the plot. 4e was a real help for me in that regard. It’s encounter based design paradigm really got me over a hump in adventure design. It felt like one of those Lego sets where you start off building the picture on the front, but can then start to modify it, or strip it back and custom build it. The real genius of 4e was in giving the DM a massive stack of game Lego bricks and instructions for how to put them together. It’s detractors would say the pictures on the front of the metaphorical boxes weren’t the right ones, but what can you do? Can’t please everyone, though Lord knows 5e tries.

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Fifth ed goes back to making adventure design as much art as science, and really emphasises the word “story” whenever it can. This is the kind of advice that so many folk will skip right past. That’s cool if you are the sort of DM who can dream up scenarios with no bother, but even if that is you, I’d still advise reading though this. Here’s the elements of adventure list:

A credible threat
Familiar tropes with clever twists
A clear focus on the present
Heroes who matter
Something for all player types
Surprises
Useful maps

There’s good short advice for each of these elements. It’s not an obvious list, but it does make sense. Next up is the types of adventures with Location Based getting the first of many inspirational tables. Let’s roll to give you a flavour:

Goals
Dungeon Goal. 7. Find information needed for a special purpose.
Wilderness Goal. 16. Pursue fleeing foes.
Other Goals. 11. Interfere with the operation of a business.
(I guess you would pick one specific goal, or mix them up for a longer scenario. These ones point to a Slaver type affair?)

Important NPCs
Villain. 10. Humanoid cultist
Allies. 8. Raving lunatic.
Patrons. 15. Old friend.
(That ally is a nice touch! Not sure what it means yet, but food for thought)

Location details
(All covered in another chapter. Boo.)

Introduction
1. While travelling in the wilderness, the characters fall into a sinkhole that opens beneath their feet, dropping them into the adventure location
(I think I’ve seen that before? Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan?)

Climax
12. The adventurers must discover the main villains secret weakness before they can hope to defeat that villain.
(Memo to self, bear this in mind when pulling the Monster Manual later. Already thinking: vampire)

Plan Encounters
(Tba)

Not bad! Looking through these lists it’s clear to see that there are little nods to classic modules of the past, as well as new (to me) little ideas to act as springboards for the imagination. With the rolls I made above, yeah, I could make a nice little adventure out of that.

Then it’s on to Event Based adventures, which are acknowledged as slightly more tricky to plot out. There’s a couple more tables here, concentrating on a villain and their overall goal. Then there’s discussion of specific types of scenario with Mysteries, and Intrigue called out. Finally this section is wrapped up with Framing Events. Let’s roll!

62. Migration of monsters.
(Nice. I like the Koru Behemoths from 13th Age)

And complications, twists and side quests. Phew. That’s going to get you a side of A4 covered in good notes in no time at all. For some games (Dungeon World?) that might be all you have to write. For the rest of us though, the chapter then delves into the nuts and bolts of building encounters.

Page 82 is going to get heavy use at my table, as it’s where the combat budgets are set. It’s not complex, but neither is it foolproof like the 4e version was. The big difference is a return to single monsters as the default combat encounter. 4e loved the cantina band approach, and that’s still possible, but adds in multipliers to XP tables. There’s also explicit guidelines to the ‘adventuring day’ that 4e really hammered home. Here it’s a bit looser, but the structure is available to help everyone stay on message.

And finally, a couple of pages on building Random Encounters tables. These were conspicuously absent in 4e, as everything in that game was tooled to precise tolerances. With the return to vague story ideals, this section uses the old Wandering Monsters trope as a world building device. Yeah ok, I guess. Not for me, but I don’t begrudge it being there.

Overall. A good chapter, full of interesting tables that really help you get past the blank page syndrome. After that it’s all a bit looser, and not massively newbie friendly (perhaps a sample adventure would help here). The sole crunch comes from the XP/encounter stuff and that looks… Ok. With a couple of areas still to be fully explored in later chapters, I’ll leave this chapter on probation for a bit.

Back soon.

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DMG Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse

What do you mean ‘creating a multiverse’? Usually, this is created for us, and sits above the material world like a bigger, better, more adventurous version of the setting we have to come up with from scratch.

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I love the planes as expressed throughout D&Ds history. They are really fleshed out by now, with their own setting best exemplified in 2nd eds Planescape. I’ve always found it odd that campaigns are expected to be made up from scratch (or bought off the shelf) but that the planes are the ultimate destination, and that one DMs planes will be much like another’s. At the same time as all bets are off as far as fantastic locations are concerned, the big story becomes more straight jacketed by its supplements.

Until now. Just as in Chapter 1, it’s now the default for a DM/group to make decisions about their multiverse. Plenty of examples here, including wheels, trees and axis, and others. The planes are described briefly, but they’re all here, in a gazetteer format. Each location has a quick optional rule to help enforce its otherworldliness, and the logistics of travel and survival are addressed. Basically, you get a mini Manual of the Planes inserted into your DMG.

I love it. None of it is particularly new, but it’s all to hand and distilled into its most gameable and easy to digest chunks. The book is at pains to note the sheer optionality of the work. Pick and choose as you feel, and when you feel. You won’t be ‘wrong’. Sure, it doesn’t go into massive detail, but it doesn’t need to. If you like what you see here, then the older sourcebooks will fill in the gaps, and they’re on D&D Classics on pdf.

That’s the end of part one of the new DMG. If you follow it to the letter, you’ve just created your setting, including the multiverse it sits in. Not bad for 68 pages.

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