Archive for December, 2014

One night during a fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons game, my players got completely trounced by an evil tiefling necromancer and his undead minions. During the battle the party was separated. Half of them could only retreat through a portal to the Shadowfell, while the other half ran away to lick their wounds inside the villain’s stronghold. At the end of the session, though the characters were miserable, the players themselves had a blast. Still one of them couldn’t help be feel they had done something wrong.

That player would later ask me, “What were we supposed to do in that last battle?”

My reply was simple. “Win.”

“How?” he asked.

“That’s not up to me.”

Why Single Solutions Are Bad

In the days of my youth I often planned the solution to every challenge I lay before the players. I thought if I didn’t provide specific solutions to every single challenge I was a bad DM. I thought that I hadn’t planned ahead properly without those solutions.

There are problems with this philosophy. If you have a single solution for everything players will feel frustrated and railroaded.

For instance, the only way to get a world-destroying elemental orb from an ancient altar is to hit it with a crazy dwarf king’s magic hammer. The only way to get the secretly-hidden-away-in-a-special-plane-which-only-the-dwarf-king-can-access hammer is to speak a special phrase verbatim to the mad monarch. The only way to learn the phrase is by talking to his brother in a small village before heading out to see the king. The only way to know to see the brother is to ask the right questions at a dinner party with a group of nobles. At any point during this scenario, taken from the published Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle adventure, adventurers could easily skip over something and end up not getting the world-destroying orb. Instead a rakshasa gets it. He already has every other world destroying orb too, because the all-or-nothing quest won’t work out if he doesn’t. Awesome. So one enormous dungeon crawl later, your players are frustrated and unfulfilled.

There’s another problem with single solution challenges. The DM can become married to the solution and less likely to reward out of the box thinking. In the example above perhaps players think outside the box and decide to try to read the mad king’s thoughts to find his hammer or they go for a more gruesome option and kill the king and cast speak with dead on his body. Certainly these are outside the box ideas that get results, but I’ve played with and been one of the DMs who blocks every solution that comes up that isn’t one they thought of. Let the players make choices, roll dice, and you check out and adjudicate the result. The creative solution is not only fun, it moves the game along and provides a dynamic future for your story. Sure the PCs could have spoken the phrase from the brother, but now that they magically read the kings thoughts won’t he send his armies after them or their patron? If they kill the king what crazy consequences that would that have? Letting the players figure things out on their own will provide a much richer story.

In the example I give at the start of this post the fight was unlucky for the PCs. A few bad dice rolls and a few precious resources used generously in previous encounters meant that they’d be turning tail and running. It was a classic mistake. They thought they’d have one more chance to rest before coming upon the villain. Rather than me giving them an out or killing them for foolish resource management and bad luck, they came up with their own. Suddenly I had half the party in the Shadowfell and the other half licking their wounds and trapped inside the villain’s abode. If I had simply had them stumble upon a portal which allowed them to return to town or slaughtered them because “they weren’t supposed to escape,” that would be a far less interesting story.

Make Specific Single Solutions Clear

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a few single solutions. That’s the kind of thing that defines a big, mythic story. Here’s an example from Lord of the Rings. The One Ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom where it was forged. Now, note that the route Frodo and his fellowship take to Mt. Doom is up to them to choose. The story doesn’t say, “And to cross the Misty Mountains, you need special boots. You can only get those boots by speaking the name of Gandalf’s grandma in Elvish to her long-lost brother in Bree.” Sure their might be some single solution puzzles along the way (looking at you, “Speak, friend, and enter”), but for the most part the solutions of problems are left to the minds of the adventurers.

One other thing I’d note is that this single solution, which drives the story, is loud and clear. There isn’t a lot of guesswork involved and it’s known as soon as the quest is assigned. I’m not saying you can’t have mystery in your campaign, but at some point big story single solutions should be made clear to players so they know what they’re doing and where they’re going. It’s fine for the occasional door to be opened by the answer to a riddle, but don’t make your players guess which of the 50 ancient swords they’ve come across will slay the dark lord.

Let Players Solve the Small Stuff

When I’m setting up a challenge or problem for my players to solve, I find it always helps to think of at least two ways it might be tackled and solved. This will open your mind to any other ideas the players may think up and get you thinking beyond the single solution.

Let’s face it. As a DM you’re busy. You may not have time to think of two solutions for every challenge you throw at the PCs not to mention the challenges you may be coming up with on the fly. Let your players solve the small challenges for you. Write your traps, encounters, hazards, and anything else you create and let the players be the ones to come up with a way out. Odds are if you haven’t thought of a solution you’ll be more open to anything the players want to try. It makes less work for you and more fun for them.

Track Those Consequences!

As I mentioned above, sometimes players will think of solutions that have lasting consequences. Maybe the wizard chops off his hand to get out of a devious trap or maybe the PCs sink an evil artifact to the bottom of the ocean rather than destroy it. Whatever the action write it down in your notes or the digital tools you use to track your campaign. Trust me. This method makes life easier, your game more fun and relaxed, and your story richer.

I’d love to hear more stories of players coming up with creative solutions. If you have one from your gaming sessions please share in the comments below.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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I sit down with Mike Shea, Topher Kohan, Joe Lastowski, Christopher Dudley, and Liz Theis to talk about our recent Tiamat Takedown live event which Mike DMed and the rest of the us built level 20 fifth edition character to take on the Queen of Chromatics. We faired… poorly. Hear us discuss high level combat in the new edition of D&D. This podcast was recorded on December 14, 2014.


Links:

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of my podcast, Bonus Action, is up on The Tome Show’s website.


In this episode Sam Dillon and I discuss the Concentration mechanic. You can find an explanation of this rule in the Basic D&D PDF on page 79 or in the 5e D&D Player’s Handbook on page 203.


Links:

RPGMusings.com

Eric Michaels Music


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, The Round Table and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

 

Perfect gift for a naughty PC.

First things first. Here’s my gift to all of you. The Legendary Lineage background and the Cook background. Check them out below. These will always live in the Free Game Resources section of the site. Thanks for the feedback on these!

Legendary Lineage Background

Cook Background

But Wait, There’s More!

My players are awesome. You’ve probably heard a lot of them on The Round Table podcast I host so you know that it’s a group of kind, hilarious, amazing people I am privileged to call my friends. I wanted to send them a little holiday gift so here’s an email I sent to them. This idea is taken from the The Geeky Hostess who was a recent guest on the Dungeons and Dragons podcast where she talked about giving D&D themed gifts. These cost nothing but a little of your time and are usually quite fun for your players. It was a genius idea so I stole it!

Hey People of D&D,

First of all you rock. Thanks for taking time to roll some bones with me once a week or so. I love the stories we tell together. The highlight of my week is sitting down and relaxing with all of you to play some D&D.
I wanted to give you all a little gift this holiday season to show you my appreciation. So, below are a few bullet points that you can each invoke one time during any fifth edition D&D game I DM in the future.
  • Gain advantage on any d20 roll before rolling.
  • Turn any roll of a natural 1 on a d20 into a natural 20.
  • Gain 5 temporary HP.
  • Add one potion of the DM’s choice to any treasure hoard.
  • Automatically stabilize after failing a death saving throw.
Hope you enjoy! Looking forward to seeing all of you soon!
Love,
James

The gifts you give your players are FREE and very easy to scale up or down based on what you want to give your players. Maybe instead of all the idea above you grant them each an uncommon wondrous item. The options are endless and awesome. Let me know what you might give your players in the comments below! My players really loved this gift and have already used some of the benefits bestowed upon them. Just in time for all the D&D you’ll be playing over the holidays! Happy holidays everyone!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


I sit down with Rachael aka Hobo the Delightful and Chris Matney of Trapdoor Technologies to talk about their recently launched Kickstarter for Codename: Morningstar, formerly DungeonScape. This podcast was recorded on December 14, 2014 and serves as a follow-up to Round Table 47.

Links:

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

UPDATE: The partial background found in this article is a preview. It is fully available as a Pay What You Want product on the DMs Guild in a pretty PDF with art and 14 other ready to roll backgrounds.

Artisanal is a word you hear a lot these days and it’s almost always applied to food. It used to be that the word was applied to handmade signs you would buy at a craft fair that you’d proudly display on your front porch or blown glass ornaments you’d hang upon a holiday tree. Now we hear about artisanal cheeses, breads, salad dressings, and all sorts of food. You need not travel far to view this word applied to edibles. Just walk into the closest supermarket or deli and I’ll bet you see the word brandished about in full force.

How’d we get here? Well I bet all the cheese, bread, and salad dressing makers realized they were putting in just as many hours to make just as little money as the glass blowers. Why shouldn’t they also get to advertise their products as artisanal?

When you hear that word, it conjures up a quality product made by an artist with a passion for the craft. This product wasn’t made by machines on an assembly line. Nay! It was lovingly formed by the hands of a master. It wasn’t mass-produced for just any old person, but rather made specifically for those who appreciate the art of the particular product as much as the crafter.

All this is to say that I can see why the word gets applied to our eats so often these days. As a big time lover of food living with an amazing woman who has a food blog of her own I have grown to appreciate quality ingredients and meals. That doesn’t mean I’m above eating some Cheetos with a can of Sprite, but I understand the appeal.

My Compliments to the Chef

When I looked at the Guild Artisan background and artisan’s tools in the Player’s Handbook, it was fun to see the cook’s utensils and the brewmaster’s supplies getting a piece of the action. It made me think of Samwise fighting with his pots and pans in the Fellowship of the Ring. It got me thinking about all the cooks and brewmasters who weren’t actually part of a guild out there. Why would the tavern cook or personal chef belong to a guild? Does the street vendor go to meetings or travel as a merchant or do they stay in one place? Selling pies and cheese is a little different from selling armor or barrels and so I figured I’d create a background to go along with that idea.

So it is without further adieu that I present the Cook background and a few new tools for your PCs to use.

Cook

To you food is more than just sustenance and pleasure. A great meal is great art which brings people together for consumption. You might have worked in a tavern, a bakery, as a personal chef to a family or noble, or within a military unit as they marched or set sail. Decide what kind of cook job you had or roll on the table below.

Something has called you away from full-time cooking and into the world of adventuring, but you still take pleasure in the craft. Preparing and cooking food is a big part of who you are and how you communicate with others.

d10 Cook Job
1 Tavern cook
2 Fancy restaurant chef
3 Baker
4 Street vendor
5 Personal chef
6 Candy maker
7 Military cook
8 Caterer
9 Cheesemaker
10 Brewmaster or vitner


Tool proficiencies:
Any food-related set of artisans tools

Skill proficiencies: Deception, Persuasion

Languages: One language of your choice spoken by another civilized race

Starting Equipment: A set of common clothes, a set of artisan’s tools related to your craft, an iron pot, a book of recipes  you’ve gathered over the years, and a belt pouch with 10 gp.

Tools of the Trade

So this background called for a few additional artisan’s tools. Use the table below to help you out!

Item Cost Weight
Baker’s supplies 5 gp 9 lb.
Candy making supplies 5 gp 5 lb.
Cheesemaking supplies 2 gp 4 lb.
Vitner’s supplies 25 gp 8 lb.

What do you think of the cook background? Let me know in the comments below before I add it to the Free Resources section of this site.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, a few Round Tablers got together for the second time to find out just what high level play was like in the new fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. So Mike Shea crafted a grueling combat experience for Chris DudleyJoe Lastwoski, Liz TheisTopher Kohan, and me to throw down with the toughest 5th edition monster known to us – Tiamat! If you missed the livestream, check out the videos below! Wrap-up Round Table podcast to follow.

Links:

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

UPDATE: The partial background found in this article is a preview. It is fully available as a Pay What You Want product on the DMs Guild in a pretty PDF with art and 14 other ready to roll backgrounds.

Of all the backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook, the most interesting to me is Folk Hero. When I first wrote the Farmer background, a lot of people were saying it was just like Folk Hero, but I insist these two backgrounds are very different. A Farmer starts out as just that – a person working a field and/or tending to livestock. A Folk Hero already has a winning reputation and has committed some heroic deeds to earn that status. I mean, it’s right in the name! So that got me thinking that there should be unknown farmers who rose to fame only after leaving home and beginning and adventuring career, like Luke Skywalker or Eragon. Thus the Farmer background was born.

Awwww… look at the little not-yet-famous guy!

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Folk Hero again. What if an adventurer had a level of fame before his or her career began, but he or she didn’t actually earn it? What if, instead, this fame was inherited? What interesting pressures, advantages, quirks, morals, and obstacles could that instill in a person?

With those questions in mind, I set about designing the Legendary Lineage background. Got a PC with famous adventurer parents? A heroic grandma? Then this is the background for you. It also works if you’re designing a Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton PC. Check it out below!

Legendary Lineage

You have heroes in your family background and the story of your ancestors is known far and wide. Perhaps your parents were a famous adventuring duo, or a grandparent hunted and killed many great evils. Maybe your heroic bloodline has many heroes within it going back as far as any can remember. Whatever the case, the deeds of those who came before you are great and the public’s expectation of your accomplishments is even greater. The weight of your family name affects all you do.

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, History

Tool Proficiencies: One type of gaming set, vehicles (land)

Equipment: A set of traveler’s clothes, a wood figure made in the likeness of an ancestor, a signet ring, and a belt pouch containing 15 gp.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


James Introcaso sits down with Keith Baker, creator of the Eberron campaign setting, Gloom card game, novelist, and game designer to talk about the games he’s playing, his career, and his soon-to-be-launched Kickstarter for an entirely new RPG from his company, Twogether Studios. This podcast was recorded on December 9, 2014.

Links:

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, The Round Table and Bonus Action, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Everything has fallen apart. Jaela Daran is dead. Bel Shalor is free. It’s all your fault. The Silver Flame burns no more. You have started the apocalypse.

That is how epic tier began for the players of my fourth edition Eberron game. How did the 20 previous levels of adventuring get them there? Read on, and I’ll show you my method of making big plot twists pay off. This post is inspired by this month’s RPG Blog Carnival theme, With a Twist. It was chosen by Mike Bourke over at Campaign Mastery. Thanks for a great topic and for hosting, Mike!

The Campaign

My Eberron campaign was full of twists, turns, backstabs, betrayals, and secrets. The PCs were wrapped up in so many schemes it was difficult for them to know friend from foe, even amongst their own party ranks. Eberron is perfect for this kind of game, since Keith Baker designed his world with plenty of spies, terrors, and hanging story threads for DMs and players to yank on.

The main arc of my game for the first 20 levels involved the mystery surrounding the Day of Mourning. If you’re unfamiliar with Eberron, one of its mysteries is that an entire country was enveloped in a deadly magic mist, killing millions and creating monstrosities which are still active in the borders of the mist-shrouded wasteland now called The Mournland. No one knows what caused this disaster, but there are several options. In my game I chose to have the events on the Day of Mourning caused by the test of a doomsday device gone horribly wrong. The adventurers slowly discovered the plot and exposed the subsequent coverup. Eventually they gathered all of the scattered pieces of this device before rival and enemy factions might. That’s how things went bad for them.

The adventurers all cast themselves as agents of the Church of the Silver Flame (think Dark Ages Catholic Church). The Church, which also has an entire country and army under its power, worships a literal silver fire, which burns at the site of a showdown between the paladin Tira Miron and the demon lord Bel Shalor. The Silver Flame itself is said to be the soul of Tira Miron (and her couatl ally) who gave her life to bind Bel Shalor in the plane of Khyber. As long as the flame burns the demon lord cannot break free of his prison.

Imagine the adventurers’ shock and horror when they realized their own actions extinguished the Silver Flame and set Bel Shalor free.

Set Up

In order for a twist to pay off, it shouldn’t come out of the blue. A good twist should be something the players don’t see coming, but also gives answers to one or more unanswered questions. Past moments of the campaign that didn’t make sense will suddenly click into focus. Lay the ground work early for your twist. Good twists are not just surprising, they’re rewarding. There should be an “It all makes sense!” or “We should have seen this coming!” moment.

My twist had its groundwork laid in the first session. Bel Shalor was imprisoned, but his right hand was free – a rakshasa called Durastoran the Wyrmbreaker. The party encountered this lore early in their adventuring days since they and their patron, Cardinal Gaffin, were members of the Church where the story is common knowledge. They knew that Bel Shalor, though imprisoned could still speak to people of the material world, though he could not otherwise influence it directly. Rakshasa are shape shifters, so Durastoran could be anyone.

Bel Shalor himself contacted each of the PCs at least once, usually pretending to be the voice of the Silver Flame giving divine orders. He even convinced two PCs to do multiple evil deeds for what was seemingly a greater good.

Other hints of Bel Shalor rising came here and there throughout the campaign. Symbols of his cult were found in dungeons and settlements, suggesting his followers had become more active. A blind orc soothsayer told the players to abandon their current path and help him prevent a great evil from rising. They put his idea on hold because they saw their immediate help needed elsewhere, planning on coming back to him later. When they did try to find the orc, they found that he had been murdered. Clues like these were peppered everywhere.

Perhaps one of the most baffling things that happened to the PCs during those first 20 levels was that followers of Bel Shalor appeared in one of the characters’ most desperate moments and offered them aid. Though wary, the PCs accepted this help since it came during a time when the alternative was death.

All of these hints made the actual moment of the twist more than a WTF moment. It was a moment that was able to answer many big questions at once and satisfy some story threads while exposing entirely new ones.

Now you’d think all these threads would make players think, “Oh man we have to investigate all this Bel Shalor stuff!” but as I noted above the players had far more pressing concerns and were caught in the middle of a tangled web of politics, deceit, and war.

Distraction

One reason the players didn’t discover the twist in my campaign until the appropriate time was because their minds were elsewhere. There were more immediate concerns in their lives and the world than dealing with Bel Shalor (or so they thought). Keeping your players busy will keep the hints you drop just hints as they deal with threats everywhere and navigate a treacherous landscape.

As I mentioned above, my players were racing to find out what happened on The Day of Mourning and then gathering the pieces of the device which caused it. Why were they racing? Because other people wanted this device to use for their own nefarious purposes. In Eberron their are large merchant houses who were looking to lay hands on the device, some to keep their involvement in actual events covered up, others to use it themselves, there were rival governments looking to recover the device, radical factions within the Church, and terrorist organizations who wanted the doomsday weapon for obvious reasons.

So this race took up a lot of the PCs’ time and resources. Add into this numerous side quests and each PC’s individual character backstory quests and their plates were full. “Who cares that Bel Shalor’s followers saved our lives? We’ll investigate it once we have this device in hand.”

One of the distractions.

Trust

Often a twist involves a betrayal or at least the unexpected action of one NPC (or PC). Just watch Game of ThronesArrow, or almost any serialized genre television show and you’ll see what I mean. Characters drive the action of stories. If the world just blew up for no reason other than it was time for the world to blow up, that’d be surprising, but it would be unsatisfying. If the world blows up because an NPC put it into motion ages ago and secretly had the characters helping him or her along the way, well that’s a very satisfying twist. In order for that particular twist to work, the PCs really had to trust the right NPC.

With so many spies and sneaky NPCs in my Eberron campaign, it was difficult for my characters to know who to trust. Yet, there was one person they trusted – their patron, Cardinal Gaffin. From the beginning, Cardinal Gaffin showed himself to be a friend to the players and a good person. He saved their lives several times with valuable information, exposed spies within the Church, educated and warned the PCs about their enemies, and put himself at risk for the adventurers. He trusted them and eventually they returned this trust. It was evident they did since they broke him out of a super secure prison and then helped him become the High Cardinal in the Church. It’s easy to achieve mutual trust in the players’ minds with all that life saving going on. Gaffin was their rock of trustworthiness.

It was very convient for me when they went to Gaffin and asked him to create a special ritual so they could hide all the pieces of the doomsday weapon they were gathering in a secret extradimensional space. No one would have access to these pieces accept for the party… and Gaffin because he designed the ritual of course.

Challenges

Turning challenges into weaknesses is easier said than done, but when it comes to a big plot twist, you’re going to come up against challenges, especially if you’re dropping hints for your players. Remember that as the DM with a little creativity, you can turn challenges to advantages for your twist.

The biggest challenge of pulling of a twist like this is tracking everything that’s happening in your game and making sure your players are still in control and driving things. The worst thing that can happen to your twist is you railroading your players into it. When the PCs decided they wanted to look at the activities of Bel Shalor more closely, I allowed them to do it, but I made sure their other enemies kept working to recover pieces of the doomsday device. This kept the PCs from looking too deep. It was a chance for them to uncover a few more clues and also a chance for me to add in even more distractions. As I mentioned two of my PCs were unwittingly working with the demon lord and the rest of the party uncovered this in their investigation. This caused party in-fighting which pulled their focus from the big twist that was coming.

Then there are, of course, the bookkeeping challenges of keeping track of the your different threads. Regularly emailing your players updates, keeping a lot of Google docs, using software like Realm Works, or using a website like Obsidian Portal help you keep your story organized. They’re quick, easy, and you can even have the players help you out.

Payoff

Finally, savor your payoff when the moment arrives. Lean into it, believe in it, have fun, and your players will too. If you’ve set everything up well your players’ minds will be blown when the reveal occurs and they’ll be hungry to know what happens next. It should play out like the end of a great season of television.

My payoff was, of course, that Cardinal Gaffin was actually Durastouran the Wyrmbreaker. Once the players had assembled all the pieces of the doomsday weapon, which caused massive magical phenomena, Gaffin threw a banquet in their honor. During the banquet, he stayed behind and turned on the device which extinguished the Silver Flame and set Bel Shalor free. As the PCs arrived on scene they were able to teleport the device into The Abyss before it did too much damage, but they were not yet strong enough to take on the already free demon lord and had to regroup and gather new allies. The players loved the twist and the stage was now set for the epic tier of the campaign.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends, share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!