How to Beat Writer’s Block for DMs

It’s a common problem every DM has. If you let it get too out of control it can turn into a full blown case of DM burnout. I’m talking about writer’s block. Being an aspiring writer myself, I know a few ways to beat this scourge. Here are some tips to keep writing that game:

Look over old material: Looking through your old notes, players’ backstories, and campaign notes can help get you back in the mindset you had before writer’s block attacked. And while you’re there, maybe you’ll notice a plot hook you dropped that never came up or you’ll see something a player wrote in their backstory that you sink your teeth into. Sometimes, when I’m looking over my old notes, I notice important NPCs or campaign themes that haven’t come up for the players. Figuring out how to incorporate these into the next game session can help get the creative juices flowing.

Look at monsters: Nothing gets me excited about an encounter quite like exciting monster art. Go online or crack open your books and look at some sweet van style, fantasy art. Some artists that always help me are Michael Komarck and Wayne Reynolds. Their vibrant and active styles always get my writing muscles ready to flex. A great exercise, when you’re having trouble writing encounters, you should try to recreate the fights depicted in the art.

Write the adventure you’ve always wanted to write: I have this dream encounter I’ve always wanted to run. After sneaking on to an airship, the players find themselves on the open air observation deck, facing down a major antagonist. This is when the fireworks start. I’m willing to bet every DM has these dream situations to put their players into. If you’re like me, you always say ‘someday’. Why not make someday today?

Recycle: Don’t be afraid to reuse old stuff. Hey, you wrote it. I have a reoccurring minor villain called The Lizard King and I have no idea how many things I’ve run him into players. If you’re worried that your players will be upset that you’re using things over, don’t be. It goes one of two ways: they either get nostalgic or don’t really notice the difference. Hey, this stuff inspired you before for a reason.

So next time you get hit with writer’s block, try some of these tips. They work for me. I’m also interested to know what works for others. What’s worked for you?

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The Hard Goodbye

I’ve written about ending games before, but sometimes those endings are unplanned. Every now and then, a campaign will end suddenly, without your consent. When this happens, you have to keep the spark alive. Don’t let this extended break kill your love of running campaigns.  There are a lot of things you can do to keep the torch burning.

The first thing to do is not panic. Don’t get upset, or angry, or blame anyone. Getting mad is only going to help contribute to your DM’s burnout. This is only going to lead to you wanting to DM again. Stay calm and look at it objectively. Life happens. So relax, and enjoy the new free time you have.

Think about it, you have the time now, you can expand your hobby, and you can take up a new game, anything you want. That miniatures game you’ve been coveting, take it up. That hot new roleplaying system, try it out. You have the bandwidth now to do the game you you want. But don’t stop running games.

Run some one-offs. Now’s the time to experiment with those new settings and systems you’ve been wanting to try. This is the time to do the things you’d never do with your normal group, to find new players, and discover new ways of running your table. Use this time to grow as a DM. Work on the weaknesses in your game, write adventures that wouldn’t have fit in your old campaign, and make yourself better for your next campaign.

This is the time to start planning that next game. You have the time to play with ideas and themes now. Make the world you’ve been daydreaming about for months. Your next game will be better from this forethought. The planning will lead to more rounded and robust world. You can take your time and make a game world you’ll be proud of.

And take some time to sit on the other side of the table. Playing gives you a better perspective on roleplaying than anything else. Seeing how others run games, build worlds, and approach adventures is a huge learning experience. By experiencing what others do right, you can absorb it and make it your own, if you like it.

So, instead of looking at this as a bad thing, look at it like this: you’re free. Like the man from the Twilight Zone, you have time now, just be careful with your glasses.

The Other Side of the Table

Recently I was able to play an RPG for the first time in years.  It was weird being on the other side of the table.  We made characters and jumped right in.  My friend was running Nightbane by Palladium games.  I don’t have a ton of experience with Palladium; I know they made a lot of games in the Eighties.  The extent of my experience is that I had a copy of Heroes Unlimited pass through my hands.  I donated it to my college’s gaming club.  I remember it having a lot of charts that you rolled a percentile on to generate powers.

Nightbane wasn’t much different.  There were a lot of charts (that we didn’t find out about until later) that turn you into quite the hideous monster.  In Nightbane, you play as a typical Eighties movie monster.  It’s a pretty cool setting, all of it very old school horror.  Being a huge fan of that sort of thing, this game really hit the spot for me.

Our DM made a smart decision by not having us finish our characters until we transformed for the first time. Usually I don’t like rolling to generate anything in a game, but this time it was a blast.  Maybe the idea of a hideous transformation appealed to me because I’ve been watching too many horror movies lately.  I rolled and found my humble mechanic transformed into a were-weasel with sixteen arms and missing patches of skin.  When I suddenly transformed into a horrible beast and killing a mugger it was awesome.

So we ended up having a neat little session where our characters transformed, dealt with the fact that they were no longer human, ran from the police, and fought a weird creature.  It was fun.  I forgot the simple joy in showing up and letting someone else take my imagination for a ride.  I found myself absorbed in a way that just doesn’t happen when I’m running the show.

The main thing to take away here is to keep things in perspective.  If you usually run the game, never ignore a chance to play.  It will give you new ideas, a new view of gaming, and refresh you for the next session you run.  It’s always good to be on the other side of the table.

My Greatest Monster Hits

I’m going to start this post by asking you to bear with me and the walls of roughly formatted text.  Monster Builder (the original, not the awful new one) doesn’t play nice with WordPress.

I was going through some of my notes from my current and past campaigns and thought I’d share some of the monsters I’m particularly proud of and the stories behind them.  First up is Black Claw. I’ve written a lot about him here, here’s how he was when I used him for the first time (the first session of the Eberron Campaign):

Black Claw of the Red Jackals

Level 2 Elite Controller (Leader)

Medium natural humanoid (shifter)

XP 250

HP 70; Bloodied 35

AC 18; Fortitude 16; Reflex 13; Will 18

Speed 6

Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1

Initiative +3

Perception +5

Low-Light Vision

Traits
O Bloodlust • Aura 2
Each ally within the aura gains a +1 bonus to attack rolls.
Standard Actions
m Claw • At-Will
Attack: +7 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 1 damage.
m Quarterstaff (weapon) • At-Will
Attack: +7 vs. AC
Hit: 1d8 + 5 damage, and the warshaper slides the target 2 squares.
M Claw Flurry • At-Will
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper makes two claw attacks.
Minor Actions
R Unleash the Beast (charm) • At-Will
Attack: Ranged 10; +6 vs. Will
Hit: The target makes a melee basic attack against an adjacent creature of the Ashbound warshaper’s choice as a free action.
Aspect of the Beast (healing, polymorph) • Encounter
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper assumes the form of a primal beast. Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper gains regeneration 5, its speed increases by 2, and it can make claw attacks. While in this form, the Ashbound warshaper cannot make quarterstaff attacks and cannot use unleash the beast.
Razorclaw Shifting • Encounter
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper’s speed increases by 2 and it gains a +1 bonus to AC and Reflex.
Skills Endurance +6, Intimidate +7, Nature +10
Str 16 (+4) Dex 14 (+3) Wis 19 (+5)
Con 11 (+1) Int 9 (+0) Cha 12 (+2)
Alignment unaligned     Languages Common

For this, I just renamed and dropped the Ashbound Warshaper on page 136 of the Eberron Campaign Guide three levels.  When they fought him again, he had just fallen under the possession of an otherworldly entity.  Here’s that version:

Black Claw of the Red Jackals

Level 4 Elite Controller (Leader)

Medium natural humanoid (shifter)

XP 350

HP 104; Bloodied 52

AC 20; Fortitude 18; Reflex 15; Will 20

Speed 6

Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1

Initiative +4

Perception +7

Low-Light Vision

Traits
O Bloodlust • Aura 2
Each ally within the aura gains a +1 bonus to attack rolls.
Standard Actions
m Claw • At-Will
Attack: +9 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 2 damage.
m Quarterstaff (weapon) • At-Will
Attack: +9 vs. AC
Hit: 1d8 + 6 damage, and the warshaper slides the target 2 squares.
M Claw Flurry • At-Will
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper makes two claw attacks.
Minor Actions
R Emergency Healing (healing) • At-Will
Attack: Ranged 10 (targets one ally); +9 vs. AC
Effect: The target regains 5 hit points and can make a saving throw.
R The Eyes Have It (weapon) • Recharge
Effect: Black Claw makes an eye ray attack chosen randomly from the following list. Using an eye ray does not provoke opportunity attacks.1—Fire Ray (Fire): Ranged 5; +4 vs. Reflex; 1d6 + 3 fire damage.2—Exhaustion Ray (Necrotic): Ranged 5; +4 vs. Fortitude; 1d6 necrotic damage, and the target is weakened until the end of Black Claw’s next turn.
R Unleash the Beast (charm) • At-Will
Attack: Ranged 10; +8 vs. Will
Hit: The target makes a melee basic attack against an adjacent creature of the Ashbound warshaper’s choice as a free action.
Aspect of the Beast (healing, polymorph) • Encounter
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper assumes the form of a primal beast. Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper gains regeneration 5, its speed increases by 2, and it can make claw attacks. While in this form, the Ashbound warshaper cannot make quarterstaff attacks and cannot use unleash the beast.
Razorclaw Shifting • Encounter
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper’s speed increases by 2 and it gains a +1 bonus to AC and Reflex.
Skills Endurance +8, Intimidate +8, Nature +12
Str 17 (+5) Dex 15 (+4) Wis 20 (+7)
Con 12 (+3) Int 10 (+2) Cha 13 (+3)
Alignment unaligned     Languages Common

I added a power from Boontah, Goblin Champion (found in issue 177 of Dragon) to reflect the influence of the entity within Black Claw.  Both versions were challenging and fun according to my group.  The new power really hooked them.  When he started shooting lasers from his eyes, my players were confused, but intrigued.

Next up is a creation of mine only known as the Murderball.  The Murderball is all me from the ground up.  It’s a massive construct that transforms into a spiked ball.  Here it is:

The Murderball

Level 7 Solo Brute

Huge natural animate

XP 1,500

Initiative +6                          Senses Perception +3
Whirling Blades aura 1; Creatures that start their turn within the aura take 5 damage.
HP 425; Bloodied 212
AC 22; Fortitude 26; Reflex 20; Will 19
Immune fear; poison; disease
Saving Throws +5
Speed 6 (8 while in ball form)
Action Points 2
m Fist Slam (standard; at-will)
Reach 2; +10 vs AC; 2d6 + 5
M Grab (standard; at-will)
The Murderball grabs an enemy and places them in itself to be ripped up by internal blades. A grabbed enemy is immune to murderball’s aura.  Only one enemy can be grabbed at a time.
Reach 2; +8 vs Reflex; target is grabbed -2 to escape checks
 Frenzy (standard; at-will)
The murderball may make 1 grab and 1 fist slam attack or 2 fist slam attacks per turn.
 Internal Blades (free; at-will)
The murderball tears apart a grabbed enemy once per turn.
+12 vs AC; 3d8 + 5
 Tranform! (standard; at-will)
The Murderball transforms from body form to ball form or vice versa.  In ball form, grab cannot be escape and murderball gains a +2 bonus to ac.  It can no longer make Grab or Fist slam attacks if in ball form.  It cannot make a trample attack in body form.
M Rolling Trample (standard; recharge 6)
murderball moves its speed, through enemy spaces.  Each enemy moved through takes the following attack
+10 vs AC; 3d6 + 5 and the target is knocked prone. Miss: Half damage and the target is slide 1 square.
 Reinforcements (immediate reaction; encounter)
When the murderball is first bloodied, he releases 4 Incomplete Forge Drakes to assist in the battle.
Alignment Evil Languages Common
Str 19 (+7) Dex 16 (+6) Wis10 (+3)
Con 25 (+10) Int 10 (+3) Cha 13 (+4)

Paul still talks about this one.  All of its abilities were extremely active, meaning he’d grab a player, move a player, or roll through a group.  I’m still proud of this one.

Finally here’s the villain of my last campaign.  She fought that group four times over the course of the heroic tier.  She increased in power right along with them.  She was always a bit different but had the same core group of abilities.  Here she is when they encountered the first time:

Sorena

Level 5 Elite Controller

Medium shadow humanoid

XP 400

Initiative +6                          Senses Perception +3
HP 126; Bloodied 63
AC 19; Fortitude 21; Reflex 19; Will 20
Saving Throws +2
Speed 6
Action Points 1
m Scythe (at-will; standard) • Weapon
Reach 2; +10 vs AC; 2d4 + 3
M Life Sapping Scythe (at-will; standard) • Necrotic, Weapon
Reach 2; +10 vs AC; 2d4 + 3 necrotic damage, and the target is slowed until the end of the hobgoblin warcaster’s next turn
M Cage of Gloom (recharge 5 6; standard)
Sorena makes a scythe attack. If the attack hits, Sorena makes a secondary attack as strands of shadow coil around the target.
+7 vs Reflex; the target is restrained (save ends)
C Deep Shadow (encounter; standard; sustain minor) • Necrotic
Aura 2; thick, writhing shadows surround Sorena. Sorena and any other shadow creatures in the aura gain concealment. In addition, enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 5 necrotic damage, and enemies (including flying ones) also treat the area within the aura as difficult terrain. Sorena can sustain the aura as a minor action. However, the effect ends if she uses shadow jaunt or moves more than half her speed on her turn.
 Shadow Jaunt (encounter; move) • Teleportation
Sorena teleports 3 squares and becomes insubstantial until the start of her next turn.
Alignment Unaligned Languages Common, Abyssal
Skills Acrobatics +11, Stealth +11, Thievery +11
Str 12 (+3) Dex 18 (+6) Wis 12 (+3)
Con 15 (+4) Int 18 (+6) Cha 15 (+4)
Equipment Scythe, Leather Armor

And here’s what she looked like when they fought her for the last time:

Sorena Darkfeather, Mistress of Shadows

Level 13 Solo Controller

Medium shadow humanoid

XP 4,000

Initiative +12                        Senses Perception +9
HP 524; Bloodied 262
AC 27; Fortitude 29; Reflex 27; Will 28
Saving Throws +5
Speed  6
Action Points 2
m Scythe (standard; at-will) • Weapon
Reach 2; +18 vs AC; 2d4 + 5
M Life Sapping Scythe (standard; at-will) • Necrotic, Weapon
Reach 2; +18 vs AC; 2d4 + 5 necrotic damage, and the target is shrouded in gloom
 Come to my Aid! (minor; recharge when minions are dead)
Sorena summons 4 Shadar-kai grunts.  When all are dead, she’ll use this power again.  They act immediately after her in the initiative order.
M Cage of Gloom (standard; recharge 5 6)
Sorena makes a scythe attack. If the attack hits, Sorena makes a secondary attack as strands of shadow coil around the target.; 2
+15 vs Reflex; 2 the target is restrained (save ends)
 Shadow Burst (minor; encounter) • Cold, Necrotic
Close blast 3; +17 vs Reflex; cold or necrotic damage, Sorena chooses for each attack, and the target takes ongoing 10 damage (save ends); 2d8 + 6
C Frightful Presence (standard; encounter) • Fear
Close burst 5; targets enemies; +15 vs Will; the target is stunned until the end of Sorena’s next turn. Aftereffect: The target takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls (save ends)
C Mark of Terror’s Grasp (free, when first bloodied; encounter) • Necrotic
Close blast 3; +16 vs Fortitude; 3d6 + 6 necrotic damage, and the target is immobilized (save ends)
 Fearful Pulse (minor; recharge 5 6) • Cold, Necrotic
Targets only those under the effects of Frightful Presence, Shadow Burst and Mark of Terror.  Target takes 10 cold and Necrotic damage.
C Deep Shadow (standard; sustain minor; encounter) • Necrotic
Aura 2; thick, writhing shadows surround Sorena. Sorena and any other shadow creatures in the aura gain concealment. In addition, enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 5 necrotic damage, and enemies (including flying ones) also treat the area within the aura as difficult terrain. Sorena can sustain the aura as a minor action. However, the effect ends if she uses shadow jaunt or moves more than half her speed on her turn.; 2
 Shadow Jaunt (move; recharge 4 5 6) • Teleportation
Sorena teleports 5 squares and becomes insubstantial until the start of her next turn.
 Shrouded in Gloom
While shrouded in gloom, a creature takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls and gains only half the benefit of healing effects.
Alignment Unaligned Languages Common, Abyssal
Skills Acrobatics +17, Stealth +17, Thievery +17
Str 16 (+9) Dex 22 (+12) Wis16 (+9)
Con 19 (+10) Int 22 (+12) Cha 19 (+10)
Equipment Scythe, Leather Armor

Feel free to use any of these monsters in your campaigns and let me know how they work out for you.  If you make any changes or improvements, I’d love to hear about it.

Reaper Launches Kickstarter for Bones Line

I recently raved about the Bones line of miniatures from Reaper.  They were giving them out at the paint and take table they had set up at PAX East.  Everything I said before holds true: they take paint really well, they have amazing amounts of detail, and they have a low price.  I wrote about how I would love to see an expansion of the line (there are currently 17 models available); apparently I’m not the only one who felt this way. Reaper has launched a Kickstarter to help pay for the costs of expanding their line of low price polymer models.  It was funded quite quickly.  Their plan will have the Bones line expanded to around 60 models by the end of the year.  The line will now include larger models, like giants and dragons, as well as player characters.

Goldar the Barbarian, one of the models to be added to the Bones line.

This expansion of the line is fantastic.  The addition of new monsters will help DMs grow their collection giving them customizable monsters to assault their players with.  The addition of charismatic models (like the one pictured above) players now have the option to create a unique miniature for their character and DMs can create one of a kind villain miniatures.  And the polymer material alleviates the problems of price and difficulty to paint.  There’s nothing worse than paying 10 dollars for a metal miniature that I’m afraid to paint and worried I’ll never use.  With Bones, I’ll pay a dollar or 2 for that same miniature.  That’s a gamble I’ll take any day.  Players and DMs alike will be able to amass collections like the old days.

I’ve already started my collection!

One of the best miniature companies in the business is looking to release awesome models at an awesome price.  If this is the future of role playing miniatures, then I like this future.

For more on Reaper, check out their website.

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.

d20 Pro and Mesa Mundi NUIT

At PAX East, I saw yet another digital tabletop program.  It was called d20 Pro, and despite having a fascination with that type of thing, I still needed to be impressed.  And I was.  Even without the touch screen interface (which I’ll get into very soon) d20 Pro is a very powerful piece of gaming software.  It has the standard things you’d expect from software like this, integrated dice roller, plenty of maps, taking care of all the numbers for you, that sort of stuff.  Where this really shines is two places, control for the DM and ways to play.  When I say ways to play I mean that you and your players have several different avenues for access to this.  You can play with your NUIT (wait for it, it’s worth it), online using your own computer as the host, in person using your HDTV as a second monitor, or any other way you can think up.  As for the control, this software has an incredible DM interface.

Shot of what the DM sees. The blue is 'fog of war'.

You have complete control.  You can even use ‘fog of war’, which I thought was a nice touch.  Everything you need is right at your fingertips, easily accessible and ready to slide right into the game.  This software really shines when paired with the right hardware, and the right hardware is the Mesa Mundi NUIT.  The NUIT and the nature of d20 Pro software allow you to go as far down the rabbit hole as you’d like.  You can use the entire functionality of the software or you can use it merely as a map for your own collection of minis.  Now let’s talk more about the hardware.

The NUIT being used with d20 Pro

The Mesa Mundi NUIT(Natural User Interface Technologies) is a touch screen interface with so many incredible uses.  You can use it for D&D, for digital board games, for massive versions of Android games (I played Angry Birds Space on there and it was pretty epic), even for watching TV.  There are some really cool digital versions of classic board games already available with more to come.  This interface has the ability to create incredible social experiences.

Gaming on the NUIT

The best part is they’ve partnered with Geek Chic to make my ultimate dream piece.  The Locus table.  It’s all the beauty and artistry of a Geek Chic table with a NUIT built into the table top.  The coffee table version has a built in motor to lift the screen to a vertical position.

Just amazing

I know what my spare change is going to.