All posts by Dragonhelm

Deva Heritage: Elan

The exact origins of elan devas are unknown. Some say that a special enclave of deva, known as the Cullers, seeks out deva with psionic potential. Those who pass the screening process undergo a ritual that causes them to be reborn in the next lifetime with psionic powers.

Physical Description: Elan devas tend to have chalk white skin with dark patterns on their bodies. Unlike other devas, elan devas have red hair. They also tend to wear red clothing.

Language: Elans speak Common and may choose two other languages. Elans are known for adding phrases to their speech from other tongues, such as orc curses, halfling culinary terms, elven musical expressions, dwarven military phrases, and so on.

Elan Titles: Elan devas use a set of titles among themselves to help identify their life’s path after rebirth. Newly reborn elans in the heroic tier are called Newmade. Those elan who have progressed to paragon levels take on the title of Made. Then those who advance to epic levels are known as Eternal.

XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery Review


Disclaimer: I should say up front that I have known Tracy Hickman for many years. Despite that, I shall endeavor to give this book a fair review. 😉

XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery is written by New York Times bestselling author and game designer Tracy Hickman and his son Curtis Hickman, with illustrations by Howard Tayler. According to editor Sandra Tayler, Tracy and Curtis “wanted to find a way to help role playing gamers remember to enjoy their games rather than get caught up in the mechanics of systems.” This book does just that.

Throughout XDM, one theme is clear: ditch the rules, the fiddly bits, and anything that gets in the way of having a good time at the gaming table. XDM explores making the game the best it can be, both from the player’s standpoint and from the XDM’s. Yet the book does so with the right touch of humor to set the tone.

I should probably mention that several of the chapters in this book are based on seminars that Tracy Hickman has given over the years. Much of this is familiar to me from the GenCon I spent stalking Tracy at his various seminars.

After the obligatory introductions, the book begins with the “Secret History of XDMs.” This chapter is an account of the “history” of XDMs, from ancient Babylonian times up to the modern day. This chapter is just for fun, but it gets into the mood of the book.

We move on from there to Getting Started as an XDM. This section deals some with some fun initiation material, but has a really good page on what an XDM does and what he doesn’t do. This is an invaluable tool for understanding the content of the book.

The next section is on the theory of XDMing. There is a good section on the types of players an XDM may have at his table. While not as detailed as what we’ve seen from Robin Laws or in the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, the three archetypes presented here are a fairly accurate summary of the types of gamers.

We move on from here to a section on storytelling, which is one of the gems of this book. This includes a variant of the Campbellian Monomyth, designed for use for storytelling. I’ve been using the monomyth in my current game, and the results have been great!

We move on to designing games for story, which takes the premise of story and moves it to practical gaming application. The next few chapters adds on to the foundations of the prior chapters.

From there, we move on to a section where we go beyond normal game mastery to the realm of the Ultimate XDM. Imagine adding sound, lights, lasers, holograms, and fog to your game! And yes, there’s even a bit of pyrotechnics.

What throws the book off, though, is the next chapter, on magic. This chapter talks a lot about various magic tricks, but doesn’t really explain much about how magic tricks deal with a role-playing game. This chapter really felt like it disrupted the flow of the book, and was hard to get through.

However, the book is saved once again with the next chapter on Killer Breakfast, a fun event that Tracy runs at GenCon. I’ve played in Killer Breakfast for several years, and this is a nice behind-the-scenes on how to do it. I’m not certain this is something you can do with friends, but it would be great for a game at a convention.

We then move on to another gem in the book – How You Play the Game. Tracy’s GenCon seminar on this very topic has been quite inspirational to me. One story in particular regarding a barbarian Tracy once played really set the mood.

From here, we go into the next chapter on the XD20 role-playing system. It exemplifies XDM principles in its simplicity. Despite knowing what the authors had in mind, it just wasn’t engaging to me. In a way, having a game system may run counter-intuitive to what this book does best – giving advice on making your game great.

The book finally ends with an afterword called “Waiting for Gygax.” Truthfully, this section should have been the forward. It sets the tone perfectly, and would have been a great place to start. In fact, many of the ideas in this book would have been better served if organized differently. I think some editorial reorganizing would have helped tremendously.

The illustrations helped to make the book what it is. Each one was fun and funny, and I had a good time going through them. It’s too bad that the book wasn’t in full glorious color.

Overall, this book has a lot of great ideas. Yet it has a few flaws, too. The biggest flaw of the book is the excessive amount of typos. It is my understanding that the book was produced in five weeks. It shows. Grammar mistakes run rampant throughout the book, making it distracting. Likewise, the book comes with footnotes. A few here and there would have added just the right spice to the book, but I felt that there was so many footnotes that we were drowning in flavor. Plus, the paper stock reminded me of the type of paper used in the 1st edition AD&D books.

The book seems to be designed for players and GMs who have played RPGs for a while. It’s also a great resource if you’re a Tracy Hickman fan, or a fan of adventure writing.

This book is a masterful resource, one that every GM should have. However, the book is in need of some editing to make it shine. Certainly, for the information inside, it is a valuable and indispensible resource. Yet the book comes across as a bit of a diamond in the rough.

I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Drive Review

driveWhen I first heard of Drive, I knew I would like it. I grew up on car shows and movies, such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Cannonball Run, and Smokey and the Bandit. Plus, this show had one of my favorite actors in it – Nathan Fillion. Now perhaps Nathan’s character in Drive acted a bit much like Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, but that’s okay. Both had lost something very important to them. The difference is that Malcolm Reynolds had little to live for save for flying another day while Alex Tully was obsessed with finding his kidnapped wife.

The basic premise of Drive is that contestants are forced into an illegal cross-country race with high stakes backers behind them. The star of the show is Nathan Fillion as Alex Tully, whose wife has been kidnapped by the powers behind the race. He has a secret past, one which drew him into the race. What’s sweet is that he drives a 1972 Dodge Challenger.

Other contestants are two half-brothers who recently found out about each other, a soldier and his girlfriend, a mother who is trying to protect her child, a father-and-daughter duo, and several others. There’s even a lady who got into the race due to a race that happened a generation earlier, one that had profound repercussions on her life. Oh, and the guy who is playing the representative of the race is priceless.

Drive is a fantastic show, and FOX played true to character by canceling it before its time. The decision to cancel Drive once again makes me ask…what the FOX?

The Verdict

THE GOOD: The show is highly character-driven, and was making some real progress into character development before its untimely demise. The high action adds to the clever dialogue. Truly, this was a car show for the new millennium, providing a fast-paced, visually attractive, and story-driven series.

THE BAD: The show falters in that it probably shouldn’t have been a TV show to begin with. I could see getting a season or two out of it, but in the end, the premise is better suited for a movie or mini-series. It is a finite story, one that must eventually come to an end. Furthermore, FOX made a huge mistake by only airing four episodes then having the other two only available through their site.

Dragonhelm Keep is Live!

Greetings, friends, and welcome to the new and improved Dragonhelm Keep! I’ve had this site for a while, piddled around with it, but have done nothing serious with it until now.

For those that don’t know me, I’m the administrator of the Dragonlance Nexus fan site, the host and producer of the Dragonlance Canticle podcast, a Dragonlance RPG designer, and a voice within the podosphere.

So why have my own blog? I believe in having a voice on the internet, where I can talk about the things that interest me without having to worry about other peoples’ format. This is my own private playground.

What can you expect? Talk about RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows, and other fun geeky things that interest me.

I’ve started out by reposting my Fear the Boot blogs here. So there’s lots of yummy content. I will try to make this site even better still.

So sit back, and enjoy the ride. Dragonhelm Keep is live!

Who says that role-playing stops when the dice drop?

In some recent episodes of Fear the Boot, Chad has made the statement that role-playing stops when combat begins. He ascertains that the world somehow is put on pause while the dice are brought out, to-hit and damage calculations are made, and monsters are wiped from the field. Chad makes a very convincing argument, which you should check recent episodes for.

I will state up front that I think Chad is fan-tastic! He has a lot of good thoughts, and I truly enjoy him on the show.

However, I have to call shenanigans on this one. I have been in too many games where we role-played in combat to think that it doesn’t exist when the dice are brought out. Are we not role-playing when we make a skill check? Now, if you say that role-playing changes a bit, I won’t argue there. There is always a different vibe role-playing out of combat and role-playing in combat. But the role-playing doesn’t have to go away.

Need an example? In my current online game, I have a three-way battle going on. There are no real good guys and bad guys, just folks on different sides of the fence. Had I just rolled dice, we would all be pretty bored right now. However, I didn’t. We have a lot of banter going back and forth. One character is goading another, who is obsessed about his cause. Meanwhile a third is trying to stop the combat from escalating. It’s all very tense. It’s the type of epic role-playing that really helps to shape and mold the characters.

So how do you keep the role-playing going while in combat?

Imagine what your character is going through in combat, and then act it out. Is he afraid? Maybe he stutters a bit when combat begins. Maybe he begs the bad guys not to hit him.

Does he use witty banter? Think of Spider-Man here. Spider-Man often uses witty banter in combat, whether it’s to calm his own fears or to lure the bad guys into dropping their guard and making a mistake. This is particularly good for your roguish scoundrels.

Or perhaps your character is more on the serious side. Does he like to intimidate his foes? Personally, I’d be a bit scared if a dwarf yelled at me before going into a rage. Or maybe your character is very devout and swears an oath to his god before going into combat.

Also, be sure to play off of the other characters. When your character is surrounded by three ogres and the other player just dispatched his foe, feel free to say, “Hey, could I get a little help over here?” Or you may just say, “Not bad, for an elf.”

I will admit that there are some limitations to watch out for. You don’t want to be so busy bantering that you forget to let everyone have their fair turn. Many game systems allow you to have a free action during combat. Banter during that time. Sometimes, the banter may come up naturally in a combat, so go with the flow. Just remember that when the turn is over, let the next person join in.

I submit to you that role-playing and combat are not independent. With a little practice, role-playing can take your combat from being a matter of rolling dice to a scene straight out of Hollywood.

Evil Characters

It is said amongst gamers that you should never allow evil characters in the party. There is a good reason for this. As a Dragonlance fan, I’m reminded of the Law of the Dark Queen, which states that evil feeds on itself. This is a truth that surpasses the Dragonlance setting. When you have an evil character in the party, they often cause untold havoc. They don’t work as part of the team, as their motives are self-serving. In other words, they don’t play well with others.

I experienced this phenomenon a couple of times myself. I will say upfront that I, as (a much younger) game master, was as much at fault as anyone else, if not more so. I knew that evil campaigns ended badly, but I didn’t heed the warnings.

In one case, I ran a Realms game where the player characters were determined to kill, rape, and plunder everyone in sight – often in that order. It didn’t last more than two game sessions. By the time it was all done, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. A gamer should never leave a game with that sensation.

In another case, I thought that a couple of bounty hunters in a Star Wars game could still work within the mold of a heroic game. As it turns out, heroism doesn’t pay well. The players abandoned the whole premise of the campaign in one fell swoop. Before I knew it, the party was somewhere else in the galaxy other than where my game was, and I sat there staring. I was a game master defeated.

Mercenary games, in general, are not to my liking. I like some of the concepts of games like Shadowrun, but the idea that all you’re doing is adventuring to get more money so you can buy more stuff is just not something that interests me personally. Plus, mercenaries can be jerks at times. I like heroic games, where you fight for some greater cause and some better purpose.

Yet can’t evil fight for a greater cause? Many evil organizations do just that. Look at the Empire in Star Wars, or the Knights of Takhisis in Dragonlance. Both entities seek to bring order to their respective settings. It’s when evil puts aside its own ambitions for something greater than itself, whether misguided or not, that it becomes palatable to play.

If you are dead-set on playing an evil character, then my recommendation would be to assign characteristics to the player character that makes him more than some murderer. If you want him to gel with the party, give him a reason to. Maybe he’s working under orders, or has a code of honor he cannot break. In these cases, I would recommend using a character with a Lawful Evil alignment. They seem to be more likely to work well with others, whereas Chaotic Evil would just kill and maim everything indiscriminately.

Maybe the character has something he cares about more than being evil. If his wife has come down with the plague and the party is questing to get the antidote, he might decide to play nice. Or, maybe the character was once good, but was misled, and so now he lives a life of evil. I would recommend placing some chances at redemption if you go this route.

While I still do not recommend evil characters, I think they can work so long as the players are experienced and willing to put aside any issues that would disrupt game play. Use the group template, and talk to the other players and GM about how you can make this work.

Vampires? Enough, already!

I came home this evening, opened my e-mail, and saw an e-mail from  I subscribed to their newsletter to check out some of the cool action figures they have, as well as all the other goodies that are way out of my price range. 

This time was different.  You see, it seems that wanted to get an early start on Halloween this year, so they sent out an early Halloween newsletter.  I opened the e-mail, and to my horror (pun intended), I saw a picture of Princess Leia as a vampire.

Vampire Princess Leia

I was utterly disgusted.  First, to use Princess Leia as a vampire is just ridiculous.  This was originally some sort of Halloween party invite that was turned into a product to sell.  Fine, I get that.  No problem with them wanting to make a buck.  Then they made the pic look like it was straight from the pulp era.  Fine, no worries there.  But Princess Leia as a vampire?

Vampires have gone from being unique, or at least rare, monsters who scare you to being the everyday, average monster on the block.  We no longer have Dracula, Nosferatu, or Strahd.  Now we have entire vampire societies, roaming about.   In Stargate: Atlantis, you have the Wraith, who are little more than space vampires.  Even in Dragonlance, you have the Beloved of Chemosh, who are a variant of vampires in their own right.  No matter how you disguise these monsters, they keep coming up as vampires.

Let’s also consider why we glorify them so much.  There’s supposedly some sort of sex appeal there.  Beyond physical beauty, I don’t see it.  I don’t find sucking blood to be attractive – not unless you happen to be a leech.  Maybe it’s the horror factor.  We have been bombarded by vampires so much in the last few decades that they no longer seem to scare.  It’s kind of like how you watch the evening news and are no longer shocked by a murder.  Likewise, vampires just don’t scare me anymore. 

Why did Lucasfilm do this?  Because it was easy.  Vampires sell, and making money off of this is a guarantee.  Yet in the process, the Princess’ image of a strong female protagonist is tarnished.  How could the Princess fall prey to the likes of a vampire?  Why should a company known for its creativity resort to the most uncreative thing they could do?

There are a few lessons that we, as gamers, can learn from this.  First of all, a unique monster is more memorable than several.  Dracula scares me.  The umpteenth vampire that Buffy slays doesn’t.  This is also true of other gaming elements too.  Let’s take Tasslehoff’s Magic Mouse Ring for example.  As a unique magic item, the ring has a certain notoriety.  When they revealed it to be one of many, the ring became lackluster.

Be true to the characters.  If you have a white witch NPC who suddenly dresses in black and wears a rainbow wig, your players will look at you funny.  If your dumb goblin suddenly sprouts off Shakespeare, something isn’t right. 

Don’t take the easy way out.  Let’s say your players are fighting against a cult dedicated to your local God of Death.  Good thus far.  But then the cult reveals themselves to be vampires, or sends zombies after you, etc. etc.  You might as well give all your players pillows for their nap.  Mix it up some.  Find a new monster from your latest monster book, or invent something new.  If you must use a vampire, then at least take some time to give it some unique qualities.  Maybe your vampire absorbs natural light, or is blind, or is a vegetarian due to his religion. 

I am very disappointed in Lucasfilm, as I expected better.  Certainly, they deserve a punch in the junk from Krazy Joe of Slice of SciFi fame.  However, this is part of a larger issue that permeates pop culture.  We need to get away from this vampire hysteria so that they can become a monster to be afraid of again, rather than being commonplace, like goblins.

What path will you choose?  Will you take the easy way out, or will you push the bounds of your creativity to come up with something unique to wow your players with?

Reinventing Characters

One of the tricks I use to learn a new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game is to re-envision an old character in a new edition. Often times, I pick some NPC who got little “air time” to make it easier. He has no mega-history to worry about, and only a very basic amount of rules and story development. With the new 4th edition rules, and in particular the Player’s Handbook 2, I decided to toy around with the character builder (available through a D&D Insider subscription) to see how I can make the old new again.

I should mention that the 4th edition D&D character builder is addictive. It’s relatively quick, it presents choices and suggestions. I love it. Combine that with a love for all the options 4th edition has to offer, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

I decided to go hard-core. I pulled out my old half-giant gladiator from Dark Sun. He was an NPC I had who followed around one of the player characters. In Dark Sun, every character gets a psionic wild talent. My character, Kalador, had this power from the Dragon Kings sourcebook titled Strength of the Land. It had two prerequisite powers that he gained automatically as well – Lend Health and Share Strength. Something about a half-giant who could give of his strength and HP to fellow adventurers seemed great. The fact that he could draw power from the very earth beneath him was just awesome.

Imagine my surprise when I got the PHB2, cracked it open, and saw the warden class. Here was a class that seemed to be based around the Strength of the Land theme! I was so excited. I also had my eyes on the goliath race, which had awesome written all over it. I knew what I had to do.

Using the character builder (Did I mention that I dearly love this program?), I transformed my old half-giant gladiator into a goliath warden. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I found a few tricks that may help you if you decide to re-invent your character.

1. It’s okay to change the race. If a new race works out better, or if the race is thematically similar to your old one, give it a shot. Sometimes you will find some new gem, whether rules-based or fluff-based, for your character.

2. Ditto with classes and powers. In my case, I went from an arena gladiator to a primal warden. Yet they share certain similarities. I went from one defender type to another, and I maintained the Strength of the Land theme. In fact, I built upon the theme. I’m not certain yet about the other powers, but maybe PHB3’s psionic power source will have something to offer.

3. Backstory can be modified, but you can also keep it as-is and provide an in-game explanation for the change. I had a 3.5 wizard recently that just wasn’t cutting it for me. An in-game change made him into a favored soul. The cool part about this change was that it added some fantastic story to the game.

4. You will always lose something, but you will always gain something. It’s the trade-off of making a change.

5. Did I mention themes? You won’t ever get a direct translation, but you can use the themes to re-build characters from the ground up. Just remember to build them within the game system you’re using, keep your foundations, and be open to change. My goliath’s tattoo pattern, for example, is eerily similar to his old slave tattoos.

6. Above all, have fun with it. This isn’t too serious of stuff here. If the changes fit, great. If not, don’t convert!

So give it a try and see what becomes of your old characters. You may find new life to old characters, and the desire to play them once more.

Buying Books for the Wrong Reasons

Recently, I bought a book not because I liked the author or subject matter, but because I wanted to support a guy whose book got some undeserved criticism. J. F. Lewis was recently interviewed on Dragon Page: Cover to Cover episode. His book, Staked, was the cause for him and his family to nearly be kicked out of their church. It’s hard to explain, so I can only recommend that you listen to the podcast. I was quite appalled at the way the church talked to him about the book, and so I decided to buy a copy to support the guy.

While my intentions may have been noble, I have discovered 90 pages into the book that I really shouldn’t have bought the book. There were a few reasons. Mainly, the book came across as juvenile to me. The transitions in the book were bad; the characters didn’t act in a believable way. Also, I haven’t read vampire novels in the past, but I thought I’d try something new. I should have listened to my gut instinct here. When I think of vampires, I think of Dracula. I prefer to think of individual monsters with strength of personality, not some sort of secret society caste system where being a vampire is almost commonplace. At 90 pages in, I’m ready to trade the book in at a used book store. Others may find it to be good, but it just didn’t work for me.

I began to look at this book and think of other books that I bought over the years, and wondered how many others were bought for the wrong reasons. First, though, I think we should define some good reasons to buy a book. Perhaps you enjoy a particular setting, or you like the author. Maybe the book has art that you enjoy, such as a comic book. Maybe the book has vital information, such as an RPG sourcebook. You may have a friend who broke into the business and you want to offer him your support. The list goes on.

There are, however, some reasons not to buy a book.

1. I’m making a statement. See my story above as an example. All you’re really saying is, “Here’s my cash. ”The chances of your hard-earned dollars making any sort of statement are minimal at best. In the case above, I may have been better served either e-mailing the author to express my point of view or just venting to a friend. Now I’m out $14 on a book I probably wouldn’t have read normally.

2. The author had one good book, so they must all be good! This one is real tricky. How do you know? You might be able to catch some clues from reviews, but oftentimes, you won’t know until you read the book yourself. I enjoyed Scott Sigler’s podcast novel The Rookie quite a bit, so I also listened to the podiobook of Infected. It was well-written and well-produced, but had way too much gore for my tastes. I tend to buy print copies after hearing the podcast novel version, but I really can’t justify spending the money on this book when it is just…gross. Don’t get me wrong, I like Sigler’s writing. I just think he can write a good story without all the gore.

3. It’s got a cool cover! Remember foil covers for comic books? They could sell the worst of comics because they were all shiny. And the price was jacked up too.

4. It’s part of a collection. Guilty! I’ve got quite a bit of that collector gene in me. I collected the original X-Factor comic book series, and have every issue. I was quite proud of this collection. Yet despite having them all, I hadn’t enjoyed the stories since issue #100. That’s nearly 50 issues I bought just for the collection’s sake. I read characters acting out of character, had bad art…all for the sake of a collection. I need more.

There are probably a few dozen more, but you get the idea. You’re not buying the book for the right reasons. Your brain suffers a serious malfunction, and you spend your hard-earned cash.

I don’t have a lot of advice here. If I did, perhaps I would know how to stop myself. I think, though, that the best one can do is to just stop, put the book back, and think about it for a while before making the purchase. If you’re still interested later, you can just get your book. However, you may find that the interest is fleeting at best.

I may have lost a few dollars and a few hours reading Staked, but I came out of it knowing a few things. I know now that vampire books are not for me. I know what genres I like and what ones I don’t. I’m not afraid to try new things, but I must expect that I won’t like them all. I know that buying a book based on some sense of’ righteous fury’ just isn’t good. In other words, I know that I bought the book for the wrong reasons.

Be sure that, when you buy a book, you do it for all the right reasons. Happy reading!

Balanced? Yeah, but is it fun?

When 3rd edition D&D came about, one of its promises was to have a balanced game system. In fact, game balance had become so prevalent that it seemed that every other topic on some forums was about whether some element of gaming was balanced. Is the new prestige class balanced? What about X spell from Y sourcebook? It would go on and on and on.

I have to admit that it reached such levels that I wondered if this is what new players thought gaming was about. Were they assigning numerical values to every class ability and weighing them against one another? Was there a mystical set of scales by which all things were weighed upon? Were those scales provided by Hiddukel, the evil god of tricks and lies in Dragonlance known for his symbol of the broken scales?

I wondered how all this talk of the almighty Balance entered our vernacular. I remember the occasional talk of something being “overpowered,” but we never used the term “balance.” That isn’t to say the term wasn’t used, just that my own experience never saw the use of the word. I would say that it was the internet that saw the term gain prominence. Despite the mass-communication medium, it also takes a force to drive the new terminology. Enter the game designers, perhaps most notably Monte Cook. They used the term “balance” quite frequently.

Needless to say, the almighty Balance began to annoy me to no end. Why was it that people were asking if every little rule was balanced? Why this obsession? Did nobody ever have fun before the almighty Balance? I sure remember having fun playing AD&D with some off-balanced rules.

That’s when it clicked with me. Why do we ask left and right if something is balanced? Why do we not ask instead if something is fun? I mean, that’s why we came to game, right? To have fun?

Don’t get me wrong. As a game designer, I fully understand that game balance is an important factor in the game. You don’t want your wizard doing nothing while your fighter is having all the fun. Everybody should be able to take part in the gaming experience.

However, we should not forsake the fun in the name of game balance. Keep balance in the background, but focus on the fun. You will find your gaming experience to be so much more enjoyable because of it.