A Place for Ale and More

The Tavern.  The Inn, the meadhouse, the common house.  Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most iconic parts of any Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  It’s that home away from home for you players.  Nothing is worse than having a place you’re players visit regularly that’s just boring.  Here are some ways to make that trip to the inn more than just an extended rest:

-A great name.  A memorable and topical name for your tavern will turn it into a great part of your ongoing story.  When I say topical I mean a name that fits the setting.  If you’re running a game where dragons are extinct, and the average person isn’t familiar with dragons, The Sleeping Dragon is probably not the best name for your inn.  A story behind the name will add that much more.

-A great cast of characters.  Most bars have their weird group of regulars and taverns are no different.  From the one eyed dwarf who runs the bar to the orc who nurses his drink and never speaks, a well populated bar gives you a lot to work with.  It gives you characters that can lead to new adventures, it makes changes (new people, weird behaviors, etc.) stand out, and it gives you a great way to give your players information (or misinformation) on current quests from trusted sources.

-The little touches.  Don’t be afraid to describe those little things, they give the players a view of the area they’re currently in.  Is the food decadent or questionable?  Are the rooms posh or dingy?  Is the place safe or should they sleep in shifts?  Those details and more will show the players if they’re in a nice part of town, if they’re in a country that accepts their kind, really anything you want.

The tavern is more than just an incidental location.  Eventually you’re going to have to put your players in one, so why not put them in one you’re proud of?

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A Visit to the Campaign Graveyard

This weekend I took a trip home to clean my old room and found some things I hadn’t seen in many years: my old campaign notes, my campaign graveyard.  While looking over my old notes and maps, I wondered why campaigns fail.

The major issue I’ve seen is that people simply stop having the time to play.  I wrote before about keeping in touch with your group, but what happens when your group’s free time starts to change.  Players will move, players’ jobs will change their hours, and life will just generally happen.  This can be the death knell for most ongoing games.  I remember this happened to my Goldfields campaign.  We were students and after the end of the semester, we couldn’t play anymore.  It’s rough how it works out sometimes.  This is one of those problems that can’t always be solved.  Sure, you can take a long break or play online.  But when your game becomes the victim of life, it’ll never be the same after.  You may as well be playing a different game as this point.  The best effort you can take to avoid this is to plan ahead.  No person can see the future, but planning a campaign that will fit what you’re sure you’ll be able to play will give you a much better chance of having a lasting game.

One thing that kills a lot of campaigns is a phenomenon known as DM burnout.  DMing is a hard job.  It can be unforgiving.  Players take out their characters shortcomings on you, they break the game, they get in fights with each other, and they just generally make your life more difficult.  Some days you just don’t want to do it anymore.  This is another one of those unavoidable sort of problems.  You can stack the deck in your favor against this by hand picking your group.  This has worked magically for me.  You can avoid doing too much work by having guest DMs or experimenting with other systems.  There is no shame in one off games.  But sometimes it just becomes too much, you get sick of chasing players, you grow tired of all the time you put into and you just won’t find a reason for it anymore.  It’s even happened to me.  My Gotheer campaign died because I just couldn’t do it anymore.  It happens, you can’t stop it.

While we’d all like to end every campaign on our terms, sometimes we just can’t.  The best thing you can do is the shortcomings and failures from your broken campaigns and use them to feed your next game.  The only time you truly fail is when you don’t learn from it.  Do this and you can look back at your campaign graveyard with nostalgia instead of regret.

The Bones: Why We Love Our Dice

I have a well documented love for dice.  For some reason, nothing gives me greater joy, nothing draws me into a game more, and nothing is more synonymous with play to me than the act of rolling dice.  At my table it’s the visceral way in which I interact with the world I’ve created.  With my deep connection to these pieces of plastic also comes a brace of superstitions.

No one touches my dice without my permission.  And no one ever rolls them.  If anyone reaches for my dice, I quickly pull them away.  I don’t want someone to ‘infect’ or ‘poison’ my dice.  My dice are currently filled with my ‘mojo’ or what you want to call it and I worry, I actually worry, that if I let someone else use my dice, my dice will turn on me.  I never deviate, when buying dice, from my favored brand (Chessex).  I have dice that are ‘better’ than others.  My blue dice are my best dice.  When I need a high roll, I pull out my blue d20.  When a die rolls poorly, I place it at the corner of the table in ‘time out’, forcing it to watch while others get used as a punishment.  I’ve also been known to ‘flip’ my dice, which means I set my dice on the table showing their highest face and line them up by number of faces.  Jeremy shares this habit with me, as do many other gamers.  We do this to teach the dice what they’re supposed to do.

The mother load

Rituals involving these little plastic totems are unsurprisingly common.  In one memorable scene of the documentary The Dungeon Masters, one of the DMs interviewed shows how you punish your dice.  His includes freezing and smashing it with a hammer, it’s probably a more extreme example, but it shows the kind of attachment we have to these things.  I reached out to my Gamers with Jobscommunity, seeing what kind of superstitions they held and got some great stories.  One told me that they used to put the dice of others in their mouths to ‘curse’ them.  Another talked about how he made his other dice ‘watch’ as he mutilated one with a blowtorch.   The best story shared with me was one player who told me he would only buy certain dice, always translucent ones.  He treated his dice like rare jewels, keeping them in a felt lined case and knowing the location of each one.  To him, dice were tools, and coming from a family of mechanics, tools were treated with respect.

This is what it’s about

Buying new dice for each new character, having special sets for certain situations, burying dice that are cursed, punishing dice that are bad, there’s no end to the superstitions we have concerning our dice.  But why shouldn’t we treat them with a certain amount of gravitas?  They are, after all, the portal we use to interact with the world we make.

Other Things to Play: Zombie Dice 2

Before I really get into it today, I have this video that I wanted to post with this article.  It gives you a really good idea of how amazing Mesa Mundi’s product really is.  Enjoy.

Now here are my thoughts on Zombie Dice 2:

Zombie Dice 2 is a sequel from Steve Jackson Games consisting of three dice.  Two represent the ‘summer blockbuster’ and the third is Santa Clause as in ‘Santa Meets the Zombies’.

From right: the hunk, Santa Claus, and the babe.

It’s less of a sequel and more of a mod, meaning it’s not a new game, but a new way to play the same game.  You remove dice and replace them with the new dice.  It gives you three options: the summer blockbuster, which uses the hunk and babe, Santa Meets the Zombies, which uses the Santa die, and the direct to DVD release that uses all three.

The stars of blockbuster.

The hunk and babe replace two yellow dice.  The babe introduces nothing new.  She just has more feet (the ‘get away’ face) but the hunk introduces two new die faces.  The two brains and two shotgun faces.  They also introduce a rule that allows them to save each other.  If you roll a shotgun on either of them while having the other as brain, you lose the brain and return the other to the cup.  I enjoy the slight change they bring.  The babe can be incredibly frustrating with her habit of always escaping and the hunk can be nerve wracking, knowing that one bad roll can cause you to lose the brains you’ve accumulated.  Overall, I like the small change, but I’d like a greater difference.

Santa, complete with presents!

The Santa die is where this really shines.  Santa has six different faces.  One is a brain, one is a shotgun (I love the idea of Santa shooting a shotgun at a zombie), one is feet, the other three are ‘Christmas presents’.  Santa can give you two brains, a football helmet (which lets you take one more shotgun blast), or an energy drink (which allows you to change any green feet into brains).  I love playing with Santa.  This one die can change things so much; it really is the perfect change.

Playing with all three is a huge change.  It makes the game so much different and really enjoyable.  I love the idea of replacing dice.  I wish more games would do this sort of expansion.  Replacing things to change the game is a really awesome idea and I’d like to see more of this from other companies in the future.  I really hope they make more of these sequels, I’m excited to see what they do and what kind of crazy combinations I can put together.

The Challenge of Skill Challenges

I remember when I ran my first 4e adventure; I had trouble with a skill challenge.  I thought the system was clunky and slowed things down.  I thought skill challenges were just a way to take up space and XP when you didn’t have an encounter ready.  I realize now, I had no idea what I was doing.  In the years since, I feel I’ve gotten much better at skill challenges.  I’ve turned what was once a weakness into a strength.  Here are some tips to make your skill challenges better:

  • Have a reason and a plan.  Just throwing a skill challenge at your players isn’t going to make a memorable experience.  Make sure you have a reason for the challenge that makes sense in the context of the adventure and the ongoing narrative.  If the challenge is just filler, your players will treat it like filler, where if the challenge decides whether they catch their enemy unaware they feel much more involved.  This also raises the point that you should have consequences for the challenge.  If the players fail the skill challenge and nothing comes of it, why did it happen?  Or, if they succeed and gain nothing, again, why did you do it?
  • Skills are the focus, but don’t exclude low skill classes.  Trying to have skills that every player has is good, rewarding interesting player ideas is better!  By asking ‘what do you do’ instead of ‘what do you roll’ you have players coming up with interesting ways of using their skills to help the situation.  I had a player once try to use Insight to glean how a battle had played out from the battlefield.  I told him this would be more of a Perception or Nature sort of thing.  You should never punish good player ideas in a skill challenge, but always reward them.  Never say no, instead suggest a more fitting skill.
  • Have a good mix of group rolls and secondary skills.  Secondary skills are skills the players can role to assist of gain bonuses on future rolls.  They are incredibly useful for giving players a feel like everyone is contributing, even if only one player has the skill to run the challenge.  Group rolls show in a very tangible way that all the characters are currently experiencing the same difficulty.
  • Don’t be afraid to have various ‘steps’.  I like to make skill challenges where halfway through, the challenge will change.  For example, they track a group of orcs to their village, and with those last few successes, they sneak into the orc camp.  It’s a great way of making the challenge really light up and look like something tangible is actually happening.
  • Show your players how many successes and failures they’ve rolled.  This creates awesome tension, especially when they don’t know how many of either will end the challenge.

So there you have it, follow these tips and you can make skill challenges go from bland to the most exciting and engaging part of the game.  And to further help you, here’s an example of one I used that my players loved.  This was after Black Claw reanimated before them.  The challenge was to blow the hall they were (because Black Claw was too strong for them to fight) and then escape before it exploded.

Skill Challenge: Blow the Place in Time 8/4  600xp

Stealth: Moderate dc

Endurance: hard dc, failures don’t count.  Damage after surges, 7 hp

Arcana: Moderate dc

Thievery: Hard dc

Secondary

Intimidate: +2 to Endurance

Perception: +2 to others

Failure at this point: They lose 2 healing surges, any reduced to below zero are knocked unconscious and must make 3 death saves.

After 5 successes

Athletics: Easy dc

Acrobatics: Easy dc

Failure at this point: They lose 2 healing surges, any reduced to below zero are unconscious and must make 2 death saves.

The Arcana and Thievery checks were to set off the bombs and the Endurance check was to buy time for those setting off the explosives.  Failure represented getting caught in the explosion and collapse.  The after 5 successes is when they primed the bombs.  They needed to escape at this point.  Feel free to adapt this challenge and use it in your own campaign.