Enter the World of Dungeons & Dragons, Toren Style

I’ve played lots of different D&D games. By different, I mean different styles, rules sets and…sub-genres if you will. You may not know that there are subgenres but indeed there are. You can play high magic or low magic. You can play Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun campaign settings. Etcetera. The game I’m running now I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of as a DUNGEON MASTER and I’ll tell you why.

In detail.

Point by point.

Right now.

LOCATION

We’re playing the Green Ronin setting “Freeport: The City of Adventure.” Pirates are as huge as greys were ten years ago, and though I am not a pirate fanatic, it makes a good setting for D&D (minus the gunpowder). Freeport is a city founded by pirates and it’s a backdrop that everyone understands and has fun with.

DANGER

Apart from the pirate theme of Freeport, the setting is steeped in certain aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos, which appeal to me for obvious reasons. If anything I find the normal D&D rules and approach of monsters and secret knowledge pretty tame, so I inject a little more deadly danger into these aspects.

MAGIC

Magic is a bit of a paradox in my setting. Arcane magic, which is that used by wizards, is rare. I think that realistically if there was magic, the people with control of the magic would rule the world, and I didn’t want that so I decided to go the medieval route where witches are persecuted. In my setting, much like in R.E. Howard’s Conan series, all arcane magic is dark magic – the Black Arts – and people in Freeport caught using it have their hands and tongue cut off so they can’t use their spells to summon demons, set buildings on fire and take over the minds of city officials. (And yet, it is not unheard of that kings and other powerful people in the world may employ such wizards as can gaze into crystal balls and eliminate their enemies subtly and from afar)

The other side of the coin is Divine magic, which is the kind used by priests and holy men. In my campaign almost everyone believes in the gods in the same way that the characters in the TV series ROME do, and the people who represent those gods are given the greatest respect. In the D&D rules divine magic is all about defense and healing, so this works out handily.

MONSTERS

Do orcs even exist? Pirates have tales, but none of the player characters have ever seen one. Sure everyone believes in the supernatural – if you believe in gods then you gotta believe in ghosts and demons, right? But surely bugbears and manticores are just fancies made up to keep children in line! That said, most pirates have accounts of sea monsters, and more than a few animals of unusual size have been spotted by those frontiersmen who cull lumber from the tropical island jungles north of the town. It took until the fifth session for the PCs to go up against any adversaries who weren’t human!

RACES

In the official Freeport setting, the city is a haven for all sorts of peoples – dwarves and elves and halflings and even orcs and other monstrous humanoids walk the streets freely and in numbers. That’s a cool setting to play in, but it’s not mine. In my setting, non-humans are unusual. So far we haven’t seen any dwarves or halflings. One of the player characters wanted to play an elf, so I let her, on the understanding that this choice would be a handicap. In my Freeport, elves are valued as slaves and persecuted as sub-human by 80% of the population. Others may think that elves are magical kin to the faeries, perhaps revering and superstitiously fearing elves, but these people are rare and don’t announce their feelings.

NOT A PC WORLD

No, in my Freeport, I play the race card in the traditional non-fantasy sense. I’ve divided the citizens of the city into the Northmen (white), the Orientals, the Persians (dusky skin) and the Nubians (blacks), with equally broad languages to match. The group came across a bar that only catered to Orientals (the nerds among you will know the Kara-Tur setting), for example. There is plenty of prejudice and racial stereotyping in my version of Freeport, and I am not afraid to play it up to add in some interesting historical accuracy and character stereotyping (read: overt racism) – but it’s a game and I’m okay with that, in the same way that I can watch a Western movie and not get outraged that the women are doing the dishes.

Freeport is also full of some of my favourite aspects of history that are largely ignored by Dungeons and Dragons: drugs, prostitution, and slavery. I made a point of telling all my players that I play a very non-politically correct game world before we started. The world of pirates is about raping, pillaging and general heresy, after all.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

INJURY
I like my D&D a little more gritty and realistic than typical D&D. I don’t do critical hits the rulebook way. Crits do normal damage, but they come with a bonus. I mean come on, do you think that pirates START their career with eye patches, hooks and peg legs? The fun part about the critical hit chart is that all the players make it up collectively as we play, in this manner:
a) Someone confirms a critical hit
b) That person rolls a d20 and consults the chart
c) If the number they rolled doesn’t have an entry, they make it up.
Of course “hit in the junk” was among the first to be added to the chart. The hilariously ironical thing is that the players’ choices for critical hits are way meaner and permanent than my additions. They also chose ‘put eye out’ while a couple of my entries are ‘knocked down’ and ‘gut injury – pain.’

MADNESS IN FREEPORT
Also in the gritty category, let’s revisit what I said about the Cthulhu mythos. I have incorporated Rob Shwalb’s “Insanity Points” system into the game, but we are still tailoring it to our satisfaction. Basically this introduces insanity into the rules, similar to what’s done in the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but hopefully a little simpler. This means that every time a character sees a real monster or reads a book of forbidden lore or even has his mind affected by arcane magic, his mental health takes a blow. I joyfully got to put this into effect when the PCs saw skeletons animate and attack them! I MEAN THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE ISN’T IT?!?

BUTTERFINGERS
I’ve always used a Fumbles/Critical Failure chart of some sort when I GM, generally only for combat. If you roll a 1, roll a d20 again and if it’s 10 or less, something bad happens, such as:
You damage an ally or innocent bystander (not making any friends here); You drop something important – all your potions or valuables spill out onto the ground; Your weapon, armor or gear breaks; An old wound acts up painfully; Low flying seagull!; You stumble or fall, provoking an A.O.O and/or becoming prone; Lose your weapon – it becomes stuck/tangled up into your opponents shield or armor; or you lose your grip on it and it flies away; You hit yourself.

SMART LUCK
Recently I made up another stat for the characters: a POSITIONING score. This is almost a saving throw – it’s kind of like a cross between luck and streetwise. When everyone’s bunched up in a group, who does the assassin attack? When everyone’s going through a trapped tunnel, who steps on the wrong stone? This is determined by making a Positioning check. Positioning at the very least is equal to your Wisdom bonus (or penalty). If your Survival score is better, use that. If your Knowledge: Dungeoneering score is better, use that. And so forth. A Positioning roll is 1d20 plus your Positioning score. The person with the highest roll chooses where he stands in the group, though the DM may coax him away from a danger zone. The person with the lowest roll is positioned by the DM in the worst possible place.
This came into effect most recently when the group was ambushed by enemies who rushed them through a secret door.

CHEATING, BY-THE-BOOK
Now that I’ve screwed over my players in a myriad of ways, here’s where they get something to undo all my plans: FATE POINTS. These are much like Hero Points from Mutants & Masterminds or Zero Dice in Spaceship Zero. These can be used to reroll crappy dice results or act outside of initiative or generally bend the rules in your favour. If the players have done well during a session I’ll reward a Fate Point to each player, which are cumulative. The bad guys generally don’t have Fate Points but if I decide I need to break the rules to bend the story in the opponents‘ favour, I’ll hand out more Fate Points to the players as compensation.

So that’s where we’re at and from a DM perspective, this is one of my more successful D&D grooves. I hope the players are finding it as rewarding.
Comments, feedback, critiques welcome.

Dungeons and Masterminds

The D&D campaign I’ve been playing in recently is now over! It was a short campaign run by Paul and it was a lot of fun. I played Zabsurast Hoohoo the Barbarian/fighter/ranger with a rogue cohort named Hives (pronounced HEE-vays like you would pronounce Chaves, but Zaburast always pronounced it like the skin condition). In a nutshell, we were sent on a ship to an island where a modern stoner from California had been imprisoned by wizards because his ‘inventionÂ’ of gunpowder would tip the balance of power.

This last session could well have been a total party kill (TPK) as Paul had no compunction about sending numerous deadly foes at us since we all knew it would be the last night for the campaign, but we pulled through with flying colours (though it was harrowing for a couple of us for a while there).

The Mutants & Masterminds game I’m in should wrap up next week, right after H.P. Lovecraft’s Birthday Party, which gives me no regular gaming outlets until Caleb starts up his Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. I’ve been waiting to play that for years.

In the meantime I’m desperately trying to figure out what I’m going to do for Spaceship Zero at HPL’s Birthday Party!

Did I mention that I played World Wildlife Federation of Justice last week and it went really well? I’m looking forward to running it again on the weekend.

Adapting the D&D Cartoon to Playable Adventures, Part 1.

The Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon: 30 Years Old Today - GeekDad

Recently I decided to do a short, episodic D&D campaign based on the D&D cartoon series. As many of you know, the D&D animated television series “was a coproduction of Marvel Comics and TSR, and made in the US during the 1980s. Based on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, the show was popular in the US and Brazil, and ran for three seasons. Although aimed at a young audience…the show had distinctive plots, and was quite unique in children’s television for the amount of ethical awareness and empathy displayed to and encouraged in the viewer. It was not unusual for members of the band to lose hope or break down in tears, only to be comforted by others, or reinvigorated through good works. The general premise of the show was that a group of kids were pulled into the “Realm of Dungeons & Dragons” by taking a magical rollercoaster trip at a fairground. Invariably, the children just wanted to get home, but would often take detours to help people…. After arriving in the Realm, the…Dungeon Master appeared, assuming the role of their mentor, and gave them each clothing and magical paraphernalia to suit their abilities.” These abilities and weapons related directly to character “classes” in the D&D roleplaying game.

It debuted “on the 17th of September, 1983 and ran for 27 episodes until December, 1985. In the style of most Western animation the series was nonlinear. There was no clear plot being followed and most episodes ended up where they had begun, having no bearing on any future episodes in the series.” (http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node=Dungeons%20%26%20Dragons )

My campaign would adapt only a selection of these episodes. Here’s a quick glance at the full episode lineup:

Season One (1983):
Episode 1 – The Night of No Tomorrow – 17th of September, 1983
Episode 2 – Eye of the Beholder
Episode 3 – The Hall of Bones
Episode 4 – Valley of the Unicorns
Episode 5 – In Search of the Dungeon Master
Episode 6 – Beauty and the Bogbeast
Episode 7 – Prison Without Walls
Episode 8 – Servant of Evil
Episode 9 – Quest of the Skeleton Warrior
Episode 10 – The Garden of Zinn
Episode 11 – The Box
Episode 12 – The Lost Children
Episode 13 – P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster

Season Two (1984):
Episode 1 – The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow – 15th of September, 1984
Episode 2 – The Treasure of Tardos
Episode 3 – City at the Edge of Midnight
Episode 4 – The Traitor
Episode 5 – Day of the Dungeon Master
Episode 6 – The Last Illusion
Episode 7 – The Dragon’s Graveyard
Episode 8 – Child of the Stargazer

Season Three (1985):
Episode 1 – The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn – 14th of September, 1985
Episode 2 – The Timelost – 21st of September, 1985
Episode 3 – Odyssey of the 12th Talisman – 28th of September, 1985
Episode 4 – Citadel of Shadow – 12th of October, 1985
Episode 5 – Cave of the Fairy Dragons – 9th of November, 1985
Episode 6 – The Winds of Darkness – 7th of December, 1985 (?)

In the series, there were six children. Hank was the oldest and was the begrudging leader of the group. Dungeon Master gave him a magic bow and called him “Ranger.” The bow shot bolts of energy that could not only do damage, but also be used for pretty much anything a cartoon writer could come up with, including fireworks, a rope and a trampoline!

Sheila the Thief was given a cloak that, when the hood was up, turned its wearer invisible (and sometimes – but not always – intangible). Sheila was the big sister of Bobby.

Bobby, Sheila’s little brother, was the youngest of the group. His ‘class’ was Barbarian and he was given a magical club that knocked down buildings, produced small earthquakes, and generally smashed things. Bobby was very protective of his sister and even more so of his girlfriend, Uni (see below).

Eric was a bratty, obnoxious, spoiled kid who said “Gimme a break” a lot. He was a coward and a whiner, and incidentally probably the most realistic character! He always injected the “modern” zeitgeist into the otherwise fantastical realm. He was voiced by Donnie Most (of Happy Days fame) and his class was (ironically) Cavalier. Dungeon Master gave him a magic shield that seemed like a bit of a ripoff but it did keep the group from being blasted into oblivion or crushed by an avalanche.

Presto, the nerdy “magician” was given a magic hat out of which he could prestidigitate all manner of things, from an aircraft carrier to a cow, although nine times out of ten the ‘spells’ would backfire or produce something entertainingly useless.

Diana the acrobat (a non-standard class that I think appeared in Dragon magazine or in Unearthed Arcana) was given a versatile ‘javelin’ that was actually more a staff. She used the javelin to vault over all manner of things, and the one time it broke she just put it back together as if it were no big thing.

Other characters included Uni the girlish Unicorn – the token cutesy animal sidekick found in cartoons around the time (Gleek, Slimer, Snarf, etc). Uni bleated like a goat and had an strange relationship with Bobby.

None of these above characters appear in my campaign. I allowed my players to make up characters using the traditional 3.5 edition D&D rules, with a few alterations which I’ll describe below. However, other characters appeared (or will appear) faithfully as from the series:

Vengers sister

Dungeon Master was a little gnomish, Yoda-like character whose hobbies included speaking in riddles and disappearing right before combat broke out. DM served as the group’s mentor and tormentor, as it was pretty obvious that the kids had been transported to Hell and their punishment was coming ju-u-u-u-ust within reach of the exit every episode.

Venger was the “force of evil” in the world, and he also had a Darth Vader/Obi-Wan thing going on between him and DM. He rides a “nightmare” – a bat-winged demon horse from the Monster Manual, and has a little spy shadow demon servitor.

Tiamat, the invincible and super-nasty five-headed dragon, was purportedly the only thing that Venger was afraid of (though I think he also had a fear of success). She pops up throughout the series at random times in random places just for kicks, or so it seems.

Next I’ll be explaining my basic approach to adapting the series and going through the characters my players came up with.

PART 2 IS HERE https://torenatkinson.com/2005/04/16/part-2-campaign-adaptation/

How to DM – The Long (Old) Post

Being a Dungeon Master takes a lot of skills. First off, everyone expects you to know the rules. If you’re lucky (and I often am), one of the players I DM will know a specific rule, so I don’t have to spend 5 minutes looking up the “trip” rules, for example. Keeping all the players waiting while you look up rules is a no-no. The rules in D&D are pretty intimidating if you’re not Adrian or Jon. These are smart, smart guys who can read something once and absorb it for all time. I, for starters, don’t take the time to read through the rulebook (historically, I’ve spent more time creating my own rules than poring through someone else’s) so that’s a point against me right there. If I arbitrarily decide that a rule works this way or that way on the spot, is that going to skew the balance of an encounter?

More importantly is being consistent with the rules. If, for example, I decide on impulse that a certain spell or game mechanic works a specific way (whether or not it’s in line with the actual rules), the players will expect it to work the same way next time. If it doesn’t, the suspension of disbelief is in danger of being compromised.

As a DM – you have to give everyone their fair share of showtime. It’s kind of like being the director of a play. If you give too much time to one character/player, the other players may not have as much fun. It’s really easy to favour (give more attention to) one player over another, if one player is boisterous and forthcoming while the other is shy and quiet. Especially in my situation now, where I am DMing a group that is not as experienced as I usually game with, this can be a challenge. I don’t want anyone to lose interest because they’re not getting the coaching that they need to understand the ins and outs of just what is going on, what is possible and what is not possible, rules-wise or situationally. D&D combat can essentially be a strategy game, and the more you know the rules the better your strategy can be. When the opportunities arise, I introduce the special moves like flanking, grappling and bullrushing, one at a time, to the group.

Control of the table is another issue. Whenever you game with a group of people who get along really well – which thankfully is 95% of the time with me – it’s easy for people just to crack jokes and basically socialize at the table. That’s a lot of fun and there is usually nothing wrong with it – but it can get out of hand. Especially with larger groups, certain players will go off on tangents that may include the whole group or just a couple of players, which can be distracting as a whole. This was a huge issue when I was playing with Chris Woods, Warren and Bob back in Chilliwack. We would just bullshit for at least an hour before we even started gaming, and including our many, many, many tangents could cut an evening of D&D in half. If everyone is fine with this, it’s no problem. But if you want to accomplish a certain something in a session and you’ve got a limited amount of time to do it, socializing can cripple your chances to do that, and you find yourself having to call a game at an inopportune time (like the middle of combat). If people stop paying attention, you find yourself wasting others’ time describing the same things over and over again. If someone doesn’t pick up on a vital piece of information because he wasn’t listening, it can cost their character his life, and that leads to serious pouting. One of the most often heard paraphrases at a gaming table is “well if I had known this then my character would never have done that!”

Crafting a tale is a whole ‘nother kettle of piranha. I DM for 2 different D&D campaigns – in one “Adventurer’s Guild” campaign each adventure has absolutely nothing to do with the next except that each is in the Freeport area and involves many of the same characters from episode to episode. The girl group I run on Wednesdays, on the other fist, is part of a long campaign that I have plotted out. This requires me to take the players on an epic journey from point A to B to Z, and I have to know where I’m going ahead of time. I’m not writing each chapter myself – I’m stringing a series of published adventures together with a common thread, and this in itself is a task. I have to adapt the individual themes of the scenarios into a cohesive campaign. I have to introduce a setup for each payoff. I have to introduce foreshadowing. I have to know the parts that each player character (PC) and non-player character (NPC) will play.

At the same time I’m giving the characters direction with my various plot points, I shouldn’t make my players feel that I am marching them down a corridor with no exits. The players have to be able to make choices that will affect the story. If a player has no control over his destiny, where is the fun? So as a DM I have to be prepared that the players will make decisions that could quite possibly derail my story. I have to try to anticipate their actions–based on the player’s attitudes and the character’s motivations–that I can adapt the story so it doesn’t fall apart. And if I fail to anticipate, which happens from time to time, then I have to be prepared to make stuff up on the fly, and it’s best if the players can’t tell what’s improvised and what’s pre-planned. If they can tell, that’s one more botched suspension of disbelief, as they acknowledge the man behind the curtain.

There are many other things to consider: Am I not giving them enough rewards (Experience & treasure)? Are the magical items I’m providing going to bite me in the ass when the PCs use them? Will they destroy the challenges I set against them too easily, or will I accidentally pit them against a monster or trap they can’t possibly beat? Am I balancing out the combat-to-plot ratio properly?

Are the NPCs I create memorable? Are they characters? Do they have their own personality? Right now there’s an NPC called Wainscotting (an NPC name I use in most of my campaigns) tagging along with the group, and he’s said all of three sentences to the group. In that tiny amount of interaction with the group the players have come to their own conclusions about Wainscotting. Michelle doesn’t trust him. Marlo thinks he’s not pulling his weight with the group. Really, I’ve been building his personality as we go along (but for the players who may be reading this – that’s not to say that everything about his presence is an “accident”), and I’m quite happy with the way things have turned out. I guess I’ve never had a problem creating characters with personality (maybe it’s the actor/impressionist in me) – in the Freeport campaign I had to play two dozen different characters for Sea Lord Drac’s fancy dress ball. It was a challenge, but from playing the head of the wizard’s guild (Alec Guinness) to Drac himself (Christopher Walken) it was also very gratifying to see the players have fun interacting with the NPCs.

I’m a little worried that I haven’t planned enough; that my lack of reading ahead will make the transitions between adventures too rough. But right now, I think the biggest problem with my current group is “dead air.” This happens to some extent in every campaign, but because most of my players are new and inexperienced, if I’m not telling them that something is happening, there is a tendency to avoid decision-making. I guess this is better than a lot of arguing. I don’t want to lead the players around by the nose so I am giving them plenty of breathing room to get accustomed to the game and to one another, and I’m sure as the group plays more and gets comfortable, these awkward silences will shorten and disappear.

That all said – I think this campaign is going pretty well. I think last night’s session was one of the most fun and memorable for everyone: they finally found some treasure, got the opportunity to soundly bash some monsters (in this case skeletons), and found and rescued the guy they’ve been looking for for 5 sessions. Now for phase two: Mwoo-hahahaha!

APPENDIX: Toren’s Secrets of GMing.

I love to keep my players in suspense and keep them guessing. Poker face is key. There is nothing more blatant than going through an entire adventure and glossing over every room saying “you search the room and find nothing” and then getting to a final room and when a player searches you ask them “where are you searching, exactly?” It’s obvious that the room contains something hidden, and the players will keep trying to search the room until they find it. I approach every room and every area as though it had everything the PCs could possibly find: traps; monsters; treasure; damsels in distress; whatever. It may seem a little pedantic and time-consuming, but I think constantly asking the question “who is turning the handle on the door” when somebody says “we go into the next room” simply adds a bit of realism to the encounter (or non-encounter, as the case may be). Randomly rolling huge numbers of dice behind the screen serves a similar purpose – the players should never become complacent that nothing bad could possibly happen while the DM is sitting back with his head resting on his hand.

A final word about NPCs. Non-Player Characters are, to me, a fantastic tool. Apart from all the usual entertainment factors, they provide a mouth through which information (true or false) can be provided. If you need to impress upon (i.e. – warn) a group that a situation is extremely dangerous – you can kill off a beloved NPC to hammer home the point – I find this provides a slap of realism to PCs who become complacent that their characters are immortal. Although I am usually loathe to use them this way, NPCs can be the DM’s deus ex machina: if something needs to be done to advance the plot and the PCs aren’t doing it – you the DM can take control of the situation if need be without a blatant hand of god coming out of the clouds to set things right. It’s a good thing Wainscotting was around last night or Deanna’s brand new character might have been nourishing a growing Grey Ooze instead of healing up in the temple of Dorl Tavyani. Not that that was the only way out, but it just so happened that all the other characters nearby couldn’t win a grapple check with all the grace of Terak on their side.