Saturday, August 28, 2010

Art of DMing: Making Published Modules Your Own (Part II)

I didn't intend to leave this big of a gap in between the entries in this series, but real life and scheduling problems intervened and I didn't want to get ahead of what actually happened in the game.  As you might remember from Part I, my players were looting clearing monsters out of a castle that had been purchased by a local merchant with too much money and too little sense.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Casting spells from damaged spellbooks

Zak's post over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars discusses "poorly remembered spells": giving a wizard an extra spell of any level that has a 50% chance of backfire.  It reminded me of my own set of rules for memorizing spells from damaged (or poorly understood) spellbooks.

In my 3e Freeport campaign, the players were shanghaied aboard a slaver ship bound for the Caliphates, which took an unexpected turn in bad weather and wrecked on the shores of an island near and dear to any old-schooler's heart - the Isle of Dread.  The wizard was stranded without his spellbook, but soon discovered the book of another mage - ancient, weathered and heavily damaged, with some spells legible and others…not quite as complete.

"This time, for sure!" — B. Moose
For each of the incomplete spells, I prepared a short list of spells related in some way to the original spell - maybe a thematic or elemental relationship, with some spell effects lower than the level of the spell and some higher.  Whenever the spell was cast, a die would be rolled to find out how the magic actually manifested.  A successful roll on an appropriate skill or attribute (Spellcraft in 3e) will allow you to realize what form your magic is going to take in time to change targets (if necessary).

As an example, a partial fireball spell might look like this:

  1. lesser fire orb
  2. flaming sphere
  3. flame bolt
  4. fireball
  5. wall of fire
  6. resilient sphere (they were out of fire, so you just get the ball)

While invisibility might be a bit different:

  1. disguise self
  2. invisibility
  3. glitterdust
  4. darkness
  5. displacement
  6. improved invisibility

For added complexity, you could roll a Fudge die (if you don't have one handy, use 1-2 for a -, 3-4 for a blank, and 5-6 for a +) and give a further bonus or penalty based on that result.  3rd edition makes it easy - just choose a random metamagic feat to apply on a plus, and do the same but reverse it for a minus.  For earlier editions, roll 1d4:

  1. A random aspect of the spell (range, duration, casting time, # of targets, etc) is doubled/halved.
  2. Caster is treated as being 1d4 levels higher/lower for purposes of the spell.
  3. Target gets a +2 bonus/penalty to save, if any.
  4. Other change (damage/element type, reversed spell, etc)

Since the results are random, tilt the tables slightly towards a net positive - especially if your player is being forced into using spells like this (like mine was).  Even if they're using them by choice, they're giving up control and the ability to plan tactically for their effects.  For the same reason, put some care into picking the effects - don't go for opposites (faerie fire for invisibility, for example) but for interesting twists that can be used in similar ways (glitterdust can blind an opponent as well as reveal an invisible creature)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Inked Adventures Modular Dungeons

Disclosure: these products were complimentary review copies provided by the publisher through RPGNow.

Having a visual representation of an area can be invaluable for playing a game.  Even if you're not in combat, the ability to say "I go over here" rather than trying to describe in words in a scene that each player might be imagining differently can be an enormous time-saver.  You can make do with a vinyl mat and an overhead marker, but if your drawing ability barely extends to straight lines like my own the results are something less than impressive.  On the other end of the scale are things like Dwarven Forge and Hirst Arts - high end modeling supplies that will produce a 3-D dungeon that looks incredible.  But they're expensive, bulky, and difficult to transport - and they don't work well if you're playing on a virtual tabletop, either.

Terrain tiles like the ones I'm reviewing today occupy the middle ground that make them the most useful to me and gamers like me: they're cheap, they're PDF format so they can be used electronically or printed out, they're easy to transport, and if they get damaged they are replaced at minimal cost - but they look far better than anything I'd scribble out on my Chessex mat.

A product like this will live or die on the strength of its art, and these sets by Inked Adventures are right up my alley.  These are not hyper-detailed textures or simple cut-and-paste jobs.  The art is hand drawn by the pseudonymous "Billiam Babble", who gives it a funky old-school feel. The tiles have clean lines and are high enough in contrast that they look good in both color and greyscale, and the movement grid is worked into the design rather than being overlaid on top.

The main set, Inked Adventures: Modular Dungeon Cut-Up Sections Basic Pack, is an enormous bargain.  You've got doors (single and double in a variety of styles, stand-up or flat counters, plus specialty doors like a tomb door, a secret door and a portcullis), 5 and 10 foot corridors, corners (square and curved), junctions (T and 4-way), and dead ends.  You get your choice of either diagonal corridors or adapters that let you hook normal corridors on at a 45° angle.  You get stairs (straight and spiral) and rooms of various sizes.  And you get separate counters of dungeon dressing: furniture, chests, pits, trapdoors, pools, rugs, corpses, piles of bones, piles of treasure, statues, tombs, fountains, bridges (over water, lava, or simply dark chasm), a dungeon entrance, and an idol room for human sacrifices. Phew!

Inked Adventures: Evil Summonings is a supplemental pack.  Much smaller than the Basic Pack, it presents a four-room mini-map featuring a summoning room (is that circle inscribed in blood?) with a cell off to one side.  Behind a heavy door is the warlocks room, with four-poster bed, bookshelf, desk, and stacks of tomes. A secret concealed alcove holds two treasure chests (one decorated with skulls), more books, and a pair of dubious-looking sacks.

All in all, these are some great, high value packages if you like the art style (there's a free sample if you want to see what it looks like).  I'm glad I was sent these as a review copy, because I had no idea they were out there, and I'll definitely be watching for more Inked Adventures in the future.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Art of DMing: Everything I Needed to Know about Random Encounters I Learned from J.R.R. Tolkien

Back at the end of July I mentioned a random encounter I had rolled for my players, and how I tied it into the ongoing adventure.  While listening to an episode of Fear the Boot discussing travel in RPGs, I got to thinking about random encounters again.

The Boot guys (Booters? Booties?) seemed a little bit dismissive of random encounters in general, cracking jokes about the obligatory one random encounter during any particular travel scene and generally regarding them as speed bumps getting in the way of the real story. I think that's selling them short.  Random encounters are, if used correctly and in the right kind of game, a great tool for DMs - and to show what I mean, I'll be using examples from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Setting Design, or, Why I'm Probably Not Old School

As you can tell by the list over to the right, I read a lot of RPG blogs, many of which have some kind of connection to that nebulous school of thought called the "Old School Renaissance".  They're a continuous source of interesting thoughts and inspirations, but there are times when I'm brought up short by the vast gulf between the Old School and…whatever mishmash of schools I have wound up as.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

RPGNow Mini-Reviews: Gems, NPCs, and Terrain Tiles

Ever since I signed up for the RPGnow Blog & Podcast program I have been positively inundated with coupons for products to review.  I wish I had time to read, play, and review everything that's out there, but it would take a full-time crew and probably some support staff to handle it!  I'll be focusing on the products that are either generic or for games I play so I can give them a fair shake.

Today we've got a mixed bag of small products (I've got some longer works in the queue but I need to read and digest them first). Each of these items was a complimentary review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Time, time, time…

As I noted over on my twitter feed, I was working on a Ken Hite-style article inspired by a few interesting things I'd run across here and there.  Halfway through, however, I found out that Ken had already written it! Since the article was all about stolen history, I think it's pretty clear that Mr. Hite was performing some kind of temporal presearch here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August Giveaway!

Recently I signed up for DrivethruRPG/RPGnow's affiliate program.  If you buy stuff that I link here I get some kind of kickback, yadda yadda - but the interesting part is that they give out coupons for freebies and discounts.  Yes, free PDFs just for being a reader of this blog.

But there's a catch. (You knew it was too good to be true, didn't you?)  Yeah, this is no Monty Haul blog.  You have to earn the freebies.  I have three codes to give away, and here's what they are for:

Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion - pair this up with the Explorer's Edition and you've got a ready-made fantasy game with the power of Savage Worlds behind it.

Dark Heresy: Inquisitor's Handbook - an advanced player's guide for the WH40K RPG.

and Paths of Power for the Pathfinder RPG, with additional classes, class options, etc for the Pathfinder RPG (or other compatible OGL games).

If you're interested in one of those, all you have to do is this: go down into the comments below and tell us a gaming story about treasure - finding it, divvying it up, losing it, whatever you want.  First three treasure stories get the goods! I've only got one of each of these to give away, so make sure you put in your choice.

For the rest of you, there is a coupon!  It's good for 20% off on any products from the following publishers:

A Terrible Idea
Aethereal Forge
Bailey Records
Crucifiction Games
Dream Pod 9
Fantasy Games Unlimited
Final Redoubt Press
Gold Rush Games
Goodman Games
Highmoon Games
Morbid Games
OtherWorld Creations
Palladium Books
Rogue Games
RPG Objects
Savage Mojo
Tricky Owlbear
Vigilance Press

There's some great stuff on sale up there.  Follow the links, and if you buy anything, enter this code to get the discount:  DTRPGAugust2010BlogPCast

All the codes are good until September 10.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Last week, James Malizewski started a mini-flood of blog posts on the topic of psionics in D&D, spurring a post from Talysman and a mention from JB as well.  I've got a bunch of posts half-written but nothing I want to work on in my currently sleep-deprived state, so instead I'll talk a little bit about my own love-hate relationship with the topic.

Friday, August 6, 2010

In Which I (Respectfully?) Disagree with Another Blogger

Over at The Tao of D&D, Alexis posted an article entitled Creativity And Breast-Feeding, in which DMs are told in no uncertain terms to quit buying gaming stuff and make up your own already.  Keeping up with new games is characterized as a "dependency problem", and the people who do it are "weak".  Given that I recently made the first post in a series about making published adventures your own, you're probably right if you suspect I don't agree.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: Umläut: Game of Metal

Umläut: Game of Metal
by Rich Stokes

Having my previous GMing plans for Bisbeecon XI sidetracked by a lack of preparation time, I turned to my collection of small press games looking for a low-stress substitute. I settled on Rich Stokes' Umläut: Game of Metal, a game about trying to make it big in the world of heavy metal music.  I had played the game once before with the usual group of Wednesday night suspects and figured that its easily accessible theme and reasonably simple rules would have us all rocking out by the end of the night.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Inspiration: Science Fiction Edition

Radoxist: "Worth enough"

Do yourself a favor and click through to Radoxist's site and look at this full size.  The level of detail here is amazing.  (Check out the alternate views, too - a couple of them are top-down views of the low-tech area, and could make for excellent battlemaps.)

What is this place?  I picture a Traveller game where someone randomly rolled a Class A spaceport and a low tech level: