Category: D&D

Every DM should run a game of Dungeon World

Dungeon World is a fantasy take on a narrative RPG system under the Powered by the Apocalypse umbrella (coined from Apocalypse World, the first game which used these rules). PbtA has your typical players and GM type of setup, but the game is highly narrative driven. Action is pushed forward by PC choices and outcomes from their die rolls.

Not to get too deep into the rules, but generally each player describes what they want to do and the GM chooses the appropriate move (action) that they will test for. Pretty much just about like any other RPG out there. The tweak is the simplicity and the potential outcomes. Players roll 2d6. On a 10+ they succeed. On a 7-9 they are successful but at some cost. While a 6 or less is a failure. Simple.

Immediately what you find playing this is that mixed success results become the norm. Additionally players will also get a slew of failures rolling sixes. As dice outcome probabilities go, results of 6-8 will be common with 7 being a typical roll. This pushes the GM to drive the players into interesting situations, layering on complications and forcing the players to make hard choices, especially when they fail.

When they fail outright on a 6 or less, the GM has control of the narration. They can introduce more baddies, cut off expected routes or resources, and in short drive the story in another direction. While players have a lot of agency with this system those failures allow the GM to throw a big wrench into the works. Nothing like having players expect to rest and recuperate from a long dungeon expedition, only to return to the local village and see it burned to the ground from a goblin raid.

Running PbtA games can stretch your GM chops. You have to learn to be adaptable and improvise more. Continually finding mixed success outcomes is especially a wonderful way to strengthen skills for running RPG games. Your typical D&D game can slip into binary outcomes. Either you succeed or you fail with an ability check. Having to constantly think of that ‘success BUT…’ with a mixed 7-9 dice roll result in PbtA really can help you find ways of using it in other games.

Say you’ve got your thief trying to break into a merchant’s room, eager to steal off something valuable to get some useful information. They make their check to open the door. Make a stealthy move around the room. Possibly a perception roll to find any important information. Pretty much they will either succeed or not. Cut and dried.

Throwing in the mixed success suddenly adds more outcomes and a more engaging experience. Roll a 7 trying to open the door? That thief has successfully gotten inside, but accidentally knocked over a brass candlestick. They hear guards approaching to investigate. Do they make a run for it? Do they instead make a frantic check through the room first? As a GM you might leave a hint of a small chest on the floor, or a table with several papers scattered about. They could likely have enough time to get either the chest or the papers, but not both. On their way out, maybe they sneaked away successfully, but left the door slightly ajar. The guards begin a search through the keep, ramping up future complications.

We like to think we run our D&D games like this, but with so many rolls of that d20 I would expect most sway back to those ruts of just having a pass/fail result. While Dungeon World instead has this type of outcome in the structure of the rules. Yes you can get a fantastic success, or potentially get a disastrous result, but commonly your get what you want at a price. The mechanics of PbtA games push for more complicated outcomes.

This actually fits well with fifth edition. The advantage/disadvantage and inspiration rules allow you some tools to introduce mechanical benefits to the game as well. Having a poor outcome for an ability check might not mean that the PC fails outright. Instead they might be thrown off their feet, with their next check being at a disadvantage regardless of what ability/skill being used. Make a wildly successful check? Consider throwing the player an inspiration token. If a player just barely makes that check to avoid falling over a cliff edge, they might instead lose some critical gear, weapon, or ammunition which falls into the chasm.

So I highly recommend if D&D is your bag to give Dungeon World a stab as a one shot. It’s easy to run and get characters generated. There is a lot of free material out there. In fact likely before getting into the rule book too deep, I would consider looking at the Dungeon World Guide first. As a fan-made resource it picks apart the base rules of PbtA system and gives you a firm understanding of how to interpret dice rolls from your players and what types of checks/moves are appropriate, making that first game much smoother to run.

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A more common kind of evil in your game

Evil PCs and NPCs have been on my mind as of late. For villains most DMs seem to go with the typical kick-a-puppy type. You’ve got a baddie and they are mean. Occasionally you’ll dabble in the Mr. Freeze type, a villain that thinks they have moral justification for their evil actions. But for the most part you’ve got villains running around doing really bad things to good people.

Thugs, bandits, warlords, necromancers, you can pretty easily sketch out what drives that type of evil. But if you broaden your definition of evil some. You start to see how easily it can be a label placed on many NPCs, organizations, and even for the players.

What I define as evil in much of my campaigns is a lack of empathy and selfishness. You’ve got a merchant that scraped their little store together from nothing. They’ve been ruthless against competition and unyielding with their prices and policies. Want to get something on credit? Sure, but you pay hefty interest. They’re the kind running a company store for mining claims. They are evil.

Think of a wealthy merchant that built trade empire on white lies and uncaring adherence to the law. They never busted heads or threatened anyone with violence, but they sure got signatures for contracts through pure browbeating and other underhanded tactics (cutting off water rights, undervalued offers for land, etc.) that would make a fictional character like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview seem mild.

If anything Lawful Evil would be a fairly common description of most the evil NPCs in my game. While they might not outright break laws, they certainly bend them and find loopholes. Even more so they’ll also unerringly seek to enforce laws that play to their advantage. The most important characteristic they share would be lack of empathy and being selfish. They are a literal embodiment of ‘F&*K you. Got mine.’

It’s their family, loved ones, and kin that might get an expression of kindness or caring. Everyone else might get a furrowed brow of concern at the most. After all, they can’t give away all they have to help everyone in the world. And this logic is used to cloak themselves from shame when turning their backs on strangers in need. When you adopt that type of mentality for evil NPCS, you begin to see these types of people can be found everywhere in your game.

Alignment isn’t an absolute. Those good villagers might be distrustful of strangers, and circle more around those that they know. But they can be goaded into doing the right thing. However for my evil NPCs I see them doing good deeds as a way to adhere to quid pro quo. Yes, that evil noble will donate to an orphanage but it isn’t an act of charity or compassion. They know they are getting something from it. They know it helps seat them in power and sway the peasants to his banner. He is using that act of charity to further his own selfish goals.

This is easily something that can be adopted for your players. The evil PC is going to get theirs, no matter what. Tasked with clearing out a warren of goblins? Okay. But the village is going to pay. The PC will get a reward AND keep a share of treasure found, no matter what. It’s literally a mercenary way of thinking. And when this type of motivation is expanded some, ensuring a PC gets compensated sufficiently for every ‘good’ deed that is done, your game opens up to playing evil aligned characters.

I would argue it’s the Neutral characters that are the most difficult to play. I see these types more akin to zen-like monks that see the value in letting the universe just be, and not align with any particular moral force. These types seem to hardest to properly stoke motivation in navigating through potential story lines and adventures.

In the past I’ve put my foot down on having players helm evil characters. More from my laziness in not wanting to wrestle with thinking up the right type of adventure hooks and lures to get the group going in a particular campaign direction. But lately I’ve reconsidered acceptable motivations for PCs that swerve into more selfish territory. Once you allow the notion of evil being acceptable for PCs, you’ll also start seeing it a more common NPC personality trait too. It can add more complexity and depth to the type of interactions your group has with denizens in your campaign, and something worth exploring around the table.

Finally taking the plunge with 5E D&D

A long while back I swore off picking up RPGs I’d never play. I was buying rules pretty much to just have them, rather than buying stuff I’d run. So I decided to focus on picking up RPGs and books that would likely hit the table rather than take up space on the shelf.

Sadly 5E was one of those games that would fall to the wayside. I was (and still am) playing Savage Worlds regularly. My players like it as we can shift genres and still keep the core rules the same, making it an easier experience for everyone. I ended up just getting the 5E starter set. Honestly, for the price there’s no reason not to especially as the core rules are available as free PDFs too.

But after a while I started to get that itch. We’ve been at our sci-fi Savage Worlds game for a while now. I think everyone is ready to wrap it up and try something new. I had been reading through the Lost Mines of Phandelver and dangled the idea of playing DnD to them. Everyone took the bait.

They dug the Savage Worlds Dark Sun game we did. Most were really eager to get back into fantasy and the others were just keen to get out of sci-fi for a bit. We’ll likely be finishing up the current campaign and trade off between both systems for a while as we make that transition over to 5E.

We’ll be having our session 0 soon. Folks are excited to roll up their characters. I think I’ll just stick with published stuff for now in a generic setting. If things get moving and it really takes off, I’ll likely start another campaign and set it up properly in Forgotten Realms. Either way, it’ll be fun to finally give 5E a real shot around the table.

Life in Athas: Wages

As I ran my Savage Worlds Dark Sun game for a while, I really wanted to flesh out the world some. I opted to tinker with a lot of stuff including the notion of days, weeks, and months in a year. So I ended up changing quite a bit to fit what I wanted Athas to be.

One particular idea I enjoyed was that metal was rare and ceramic coins were used exclusively in city states. However if anyone follows my blog, they’ll realize I dumped keeping track of coins and stuck with abstract tallies of wealth being shares of treasure instead. It’s worked well for me, but I still needed some general yardstick of the value of currency for players.

If they found a haul of coins, how much would hirelings cost? If they needed to hire caravan guards or craftsmen to build something, what would be a fair price? So I decided to whip up some background information on typical wages in Athas.

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Wages in Dark Sun

Wages in Athas are loosely based on the piece standard (or silver standard for free folk outside the city states). For a 10 day week’s labor, a wage of one piece or one silver is earned. Most of that wage will go towards housing, meals, and water, allowing a laborer to have 2 or 3 bits (2-3 copper) pocket money for additional goods. While not earning a wage, slaves also would cost their owners approximately one piece per week.

Free citizens and craftsmen earn 2 to 10 pieces a week. Even though most laborers have wages twice that of a lowly slave, they still need to live somewhat frugally. Nonetheless they can eventually acquire some extra pieces each month, allowing for some luxuries. Most bodyguards and thugs will also take a wage of 5 pieces a week, while professional soldiers commonly get wages of 8 to 10 pieces per week. Although it might be expected these are low wages for such dangerous work, life is brutal and hard in Athas. Most able bodied warriors are willing to take a low wage if it avoids the alternative of toiling away as a day laborer (or even worse as a slave).

The more upper echelons of society ‘earn’ wages of 20 to 50 pieces weekly. This varies from wealthier merchants and low ranking nobles, up to more powerful merchant house leaders and highborn nobles. At this income, it is expected that even the most modest noble houses will have have at least 2 to 3 servants. However, commonly most of the upper society requires an income of roughly 15 pieces a week to keep up with household expenses. While they live quite comfortably, they likely do not have an exceedingly opulent lifestyle. The truly extravagant nobles would spend three to four times that amount weekly and be typical of a great lord or high ranking Templar.

Although Athas generally accepts a wage of one piece per week, this is commonly used as a yardstick for determining a fair wage for free citizens. Labor is cheap in Athas and most foremen will strive a hard bargain for that uncommon laborer being paid wages. Instead they will be offered 7 to 8 bits a week, as much as it would cost to have a slave to do the work instead.

In Tyr, this disparity in views on what is a fair wage has been coming to a head. As Tyr has thrown off the mantle of slavery, many of the newly freed citizens are calling for a two piece wage. This 2 pieces movement is exceedingly popular among the poor and low status populace. They feel this is a wage enjoyed by free citizens in the past and should be applied to all.

Many trade leaders and crafts guild leaders are countering with making one piece a true wage standard in Tyr, ensuring that all laborers and unskilled workers get this wage each week. The more shrewd merchants and nobles hope that this is popular enough among the third of Athas laborers now getting 7 or 8 bits per week, that they will agree with this compromise. Currently the 2 piece movement leaders and various head merchants and nobles are in fierce negotiations on what the wage standard in Tyr should be. Eventually, the rebellion King Tithian will have to make some official decree on the matter.

Running the Game: a DM tutorial series

I’ve got a player eager to take the helm running a D&D game periodically. I’m super excited to see them flip to the other side of the screen and be a DM. They freely admitted struggling some with thinking up an appropriate way to kick off the game, and the decision to dabble in making up their own world or run something pre-made. They also wanted to know if I had any advice. So I pointed them over to Running the Game, a YouTube series about being a DM.

It’s done by Matthew Colville, a writer that also works in the video game industry. The videos he creates run between 15 to 30 minutes and commonly cover a specific RPG topic. Some address a specific issue most DMs will face at the table or when planning out their session. He also has a series that covers his own game more in detail and the problems he occasionally has when playing.

Now a big caveat with the advice is that what he will regularly state the tidbits he throws out are his opinions and how he likes to run his own games. Your mileage might vary with his advice, and he’ll freely admit his approach might not be for everyone. Another point is that much of the series is about running D&D. I think if you were a GM for other game systems a lot of his advice would still be great but you are going to get some chunks of content not quite applicable to a non-D&D game.

This last point touches on a few episodes. One is related to the Deck of Many things (which dragged some for me), and if not playing D&D or including that magic item in your campaign, much of the video will be not helpful. However you might pick up some interesting tips and ideas handling a similar powerful, legendary magical item in your own game. The concept of using a few props to spice up your game is great and I particularly like the idea of a little sleight of hand to make players think they have full agency (when in reality you are guiding events some).

Another ding with the video series is the speed that Matthew speaks. He talks fast. You might want to slow down the playback speed at little. I think especially if English wasn’t your mother tongue you’d have a hard time keeping up. I enjoy his rapid fire dialog and find it engaging and quippish, but keep in mind he speaks at a fair clip.

But these are quibbles. You’ll find his videos a great resource. I especially like that he also talks about things that fall flat at his table. We tend to just spout off the things that work in our sessions and not dwell on the times when things just didn’t work. I agree with his opinion that sharing stuff that failed can also serve as helpful advice.

In the end you have a fantastic introduction to being a DM. Seriously, for the uninitiated wanting to sit down and try their hand at running a game, this is a great series. The first four are especially solid tutorials for DMing your initial adventure. There really are some golden tips covered in them. It’s such a helpful and entertaining bunch of tutorials. I really can’t recommend it enough to new DMs, and if you’re a bit long in the tooth as a GM, give a few videos a watch. You’ll either be nodding your head in agreement or picking up a few good ideas for your own game.

Terrene – a Savage Worlds fantasy setting

For a long time I had Expeditions of Amazing Adventure going which was a series of posts on some manner of a location or culture that could serve as a springboard for an adventure. Primarily my inspiration was a picture and I’d whip up some fantasy locale and occasionally throw in some adventure hooks. It was all very general and my original focus was for 4E D&D.

That series grew and eventually I had a ton of posts. So much so I compiled them into their own section. But it sort of lingered in my brain to do something more with it. I rolled around the idea of maybe compiling them together in a campaign setting.

For my 4E game I ended up making my own setting thrown onto a map from Warhammer. Mixing in the points of light setting along with tweaks I made (using the map as fodder for names), I ended up with Terrene. For well over a year, it was home to my players for our 4E campaign.

I stopped playing 4E and drifted over to Savage Worlds, but the thought of revisiting Terrene was still there. So I looked over at my expeditions blog posts and decided to write them up as part of a generic fantasy setting for the world of Terrene. Adding a sparse bit of rules and some twists to the SW Fantasy Companion, I ended up with a pretty open setting with a few key points:

Few new rules and edges – There are a smattering of new things in the setting. I pretty much wanted to keep it a vanilla setting easily sticking with the SWD and Fantasy Companion books. I have a new race, a new humanoid monster type, and sprinkled in a default skill choice for all of the races.

Portal gates – One quick means of getting around would be through portal gates that allowed instantaneous transportation, but at the same time it is unreliable. Maybe players will land at their intended destination, or maybe not. I think this helps facilitate grand adventures. If the players want to take off to the frigid north or steaming jungles, they have the means to do so and not get mired down in spending weeks or months on the road.

However the travel comes at a cost. Maybe you’ll end up where you want and maybe you’ll end up stuck deep underground in the middle of some lost city. I dig that and it can make for some fun adventures. The portal gates open doors for adventure, not close them off.

No one major power – The Empire exists but there are lots of other kingdoms. The Empire is not necessarily a force of good either. Many leaders, nobles, and lords have selfish interests. This allows for players to be heroes in the world, or be able to serve as mercenaries to the highest bidder if they wish.

There is also some room to play off other powers, be in wars, or take part in espionage if players want. Competing regions means there’s some room for players to have some fun working for different kingdoms, or potentially carve out their own fiefdom.

Long history and fallen cultures – The Pomdarians that are somewhat of a mystery. They are this ancient race of lizard folk that had an immense empire and then overnight they disappeared. What happened to them? There was the entire continent of Alondarra that sank to the bottom of the ocean. What became of them? Over thousands of years many races reached epochs and declined, leaving a wake of ruins and treasure to be found. That makes for some interesting stuff to base adventures on.

So you can find Terrene and a basic map in the downloads section. Admittedly a lot of the the location names are awful. I hobbled myself originally sticking with some goofy alliteration for the expedition posts, but they are serviceable (and certain folks will be changing them). However I hope folks find some useful stuff here for their games.Willingham-Centaur

 

Keeping campaigns organized with blogs and wikis

I’ve been fiddling around with my sci-fi Savage Worlds game getting everything together. Something I’ve been a stalwart supporter for over the years is using online tools as information repositories for current games. I tend to game pretty infrequently, just about every other week. So for long campaigns I need a place to keep track of major events that happen. Another plus is I don’t need to saddle my players with scribbling down the name of every major NPC they come across. The important stuff I can put on up the campaign site for reference later.

Additionally we have about 2-3 different settings going on. I sometimes get a little burnt out GMing a particular setting and like to have an occasional one shot game once in a while. It can be a challenge for my players to keep track of the types of worlds they are playing in. Sometimes they need something to jog their memory on who the major movers and shakers are for that campaign. In these cases having an online wiki or blog is great keeping everything together.

For a long while now I have been using Obsidian Portal for a few of my games. It’s a great tool but lately I’ve migrated towards having more simple sites. I’ve found I don’t usually need the complete functionality of a wiki. I can just keep a running page or two of major NPCs or locations. So currently I’ve been leaning towards using blogs instead.

For my Savage Worlds superhero game it’s been a great means to provide a quick reference for major criminal (and neutral) organizations. Also by adding posts and tagging them, my players can filter out a lot of stuff and skim through past posts looking for specific enemies or topics related to the campaign. I haven’t been keeping a running adventure log going for that, but it could be done.

With my sci-fi game I’ve found this especially helpful. Above all other settings I think players sometimes need a little more information on the game universe. Sci-fi encompasses so many styles and themes, it can be difficult to accurately get across to players the levels of technology or how proliferate alien species are. Having a site that they can navigate to get that information is helpful.

Mind you have to be realistic about how deep players will dig through your site. Some may enjoy it but expect many to be willing to skim through about a paragraph at most. So I try to keep things brief if possible, especially for adventure recaps.

One last point though on having a campaign blog or wiki, it’s public. While it’s a way to share your world and ideas with others, it’ll also show how messy your games run including all the lackluster ideas. Just roll with it. Because sometimes you’ll have people mine your stuff for adventure ideas to use in their own games (Hee… or learn about things to avoid if scouring my campaigns). Honestly that alone is a great reason to have your campaign material up on a wiki or blog.

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Jumped off the deep end of miniature Kickstarters with Reaper Bones

ReaperBones3I’ve avoided the siren’s call of Reaper Kickstarter campaigns of past. But the temptation to pick up a slew of minis is just too much. Their current Kickstarter campaign wraps up in less than 3 days. As usual, you get a ton of plastic minis. The bonus for me is that you don’t need to prime them.

I prefer to use tokens for my RPG sessions over using minis. But I am pretty deep into miniature gaming and been taking a gander to some different systems as of late. Pulp Alley looks neat and Frostgrave is certainly on my radar for something to pick up. As a back up, there is always Chain Reaction which is generic enough for a variety of light arms skirmish games. Yet, I’ve heard some cool things about Songs of Blades and Heroes too for fantasy melee. Yeah…. guess I’ll have plenty of games to run with these KS goodies.

Drawing villains from PC back stories

So you are sketching out a new campaign and drafting up a list of villains, trying to figure out their motivations and what drives them. Sometimes you will blank out on new ideas or potentially start recycling villains. To get around this consider looking over your character’s backgrounds and see if there is any synergy to incorporate their past with NPC villains you are making up.

For my weird west game I had a few general ideas of the villainous movers and shakers in the alternate 1870’s world I was crafting, including some evil organizations. As a first adventure, I set about the players being asked to deliver a holy artifact after being betrayed by a trail guide. However, I only had the barest of ideas though and needed to solidify a few main villains for the game. Tasked with this I scoured over the backgrounds of my players to get a few ideas for evil NPCs.

I fell in love with the 6th Gun comic and really dug the idea of a relentless group of undead soldiers. One of my players was a former soldier so I prodded him for a few more details. He saw himself from a long line of farmers that bred horses. His family and farm got wrapped up in the Civil War and he found himself fighting for more out of defending his home than for political reasons. At the conclusion of the war as it ground to a stalemate and eventual truce, he lost his family and land when it became territory for the other side. Losing everything he became a despondent snake oil salesman out west, more keen on drinking laudanum than selling his wares.

Sixth-Gun-concept-art02Getting that background, I asked for more from him. Of course he was a former cavalry officer, so I asked for more details on his commanding officer during the war. The only bit of solid information I requested would be that officer was someone the PC despised and thought sadistic. The result from him was Major Clancy ‘Buck’ Futter. A gross glutton with an enormous gut that nearly buckled any horse he rode. Joking aside with the nickname, this got my mind running with ideas.

I latched onto that key characteristic of a fat glutton and the idea of someone with a ravenous hunger surfaced. I envisioned the unit near the end of the war getting caught up in a siege. Cut off, surrounded by an enemy army with winter set in, Major Clancy Futter ordered the horses to be eaten. Starving still for weeks, some rumors in the fort fell about that wounded soldiers were quietly disappearing. When the enemy finally stormed the fort, the player had escaped believing his commanding officer was killed in the battle. All of this back information the player knew about.

What my player didn’t know was that Major Clancy Futter survived. Aching with hunger and fearful of starving to death, he was enticed into invoking a ritual of dark magic with some of his men following suit. Culminating this foul ritual by eating human flesh, he would transform and be undying. It was successful but he was cursed with the wendigo. Forever alive, he would be driven with a ravenous hunger that could only be sated for a short time by consuming human flesh. His cadre of men around him were also cursed with this affliction.

That villain stuck out for the campaign. One of the first clashes the group was at a church, the group inside surrounded by men on horseback. Unable to enter the hallowed ground they called for the PCs to throw out a holy artifact they wanted. My snake oil salesman player quipped something back. I then described some of the men parting and a gaunt fellow riding slowly forward. Despite its emaciated frame covered with a tattered uniform and cavalry officer hat adorning its head, it still had a grotesque paunch of a gut. The villain called out the PC by name, ‘Cyrus McClintock! That you in there? So you made it out of Fort Bean alive.‘ Trust me, jaws dropped at the table as players realized someone in the group had dealings with this creature before.

A small idea from a player back story cemented into a foundation of being a major villain for the game. It became a driving, relentless evil force, ever pursuing the PCs. Additionally it was taken from a player’s past and was a way of drawing that PC into the world, as they had a shared history with the villain. Instead of me having to fill in the story, that player could step up around the table at that moment describing how they knew the NPC, and its likely intent.

So I encourage looking over your players’ back stories and try to mine it for adventure ideas. People and events of note in their past can easily become the villains for a campaign. Asking details from players on a name, description, and mannerisms all can help give the NPCs a life of their own. Best of all the players become part of the world building process for the campaign and become greater invested in the setting. So don’t try and force yourself to think up everything, allow the players to help carry that creative load.

Spartan Games terrain Kickstarter

This popped up on my radar. Spartan Games for a long while has been in the wargame and mini business. They’ve really grown into making some stellar resin miniatures and I’m a fan of Firestorm Armada.

It looks as if they’ve decided to dabble a bit in making terrain. There is a Kickstarter campaign running now to offer miniature terrain sets. What’s pretty clever is that it’s a modular frame system, where different artwork for the walls and floors can be swapped out depending on the genre you are playing. While much of the flooring and walls are card, it appears that parts can be upgraded to acrylic and laser cut MDF.SpartanGamesKS-B

It looks pretty neat. The sets seem reasonable. However my beef would be with the artwork packs. Seems the lower pledge options are for one style of artwork (reasonable), but if wanting to get another style of walls/flooring, you are going to have to pony up about $30 USD and that’s without shipping.

Regardless, it appears this will be a product that they’ll be eventually pushing out into retail. If it looks like something that would tickle your fancy, the KS campaign likely would be a great way to get some of the sets accumulated.SpartanGamesKS-A