Category Archives: RPGs

Articles about RPG settings and systems. Get out those dice and roll!

Return to the Five Shires

The Five ShiresYears ago, when I was first playing D&D, I went with a friend of mine over to play with a group that he played with. It was a large group, where it seemed that everyone had multiple characters they were playing at once. In retrospect, the whole situation was ridiculous. I was playing my second ever character in what would be, for me, a one-shot – and I was overwhelmed.

My character was a halfling paladin, a prince of a land known as the Five Shires. It was about to be invaded by orcs, so as all good adventurers do, we abandoned the kingdom to go adventuring for something long lost that would save our kingdom. Huzzah! Unfortunately, I had to call the night short and never saw the finale.

Something about that night stuck with me. The name of The Five Shires haunted me. Obviously, it was an homage to The Hobbit, which I read around the same time. After years of searching, I eventually found the module, and have now found it on DNDClassics.com.

I recently saw The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and my thoughts wandered once again to The Five Shires. Much has changed since I first began playing in 2nd edition. It’s 5th edition now, and there are new tools to use and new ideas to explore.

For example, I’m toying with the idea of creating a halfling warlock with an infernal pact, then tying that concept in with blackflame. Blackflame, in short, is an odd sort of energy. It’s fire that deals cold damage, and burns ashes. I haven’t worked out the details yet.

Likewise, I’m just jazzed about halflings in general right now. And not the genericized halflings of D&D. I’m talking about hobbits, their pastoral lifestyles, and hobbit holes.

As I was looking at the history section of The Five Shires on DNDClassics.com, this section caught my eye.

Expanding the Forgotten Realms. Greenwood also uses the word “hin” to describe the halflings of the Forgotten Realms. When asked whether “The Five Shires” could generally be used for Forgotten Realms play, Greenwood said:

“Sure. Superimpose the Luiren cities and government structure, shift places ‘just a little’ to make room for them, and, yes, it works admirably for that. Almost as if someone designed it that way.”

Needless to say my purchase of The Five Shires led to me getting the 2e and 3e versions of The Shining South so that way I could learn more about the halfling lands of Luiren.

Where is this leading? I’m not quite sure yet. There are so many possibilities, and I want to explore them all!

What I can tell you is that there is a lesson here worth learning. Even a product that is 27 years old can still inspire the imagination today. So take a look around and see what products from yesteryear might spark the old imagination today.

Death…Hollywood Style!

By: Andrew Mahon, David Miller, Kenneth Reed, Michelle Stutzman, Patrick Stutzman, Karen Thronebury, and Trampas Whiteman.

You’re facing the Big Bad End Guy, and have him down to just a few hit points. One more thrust of the sword, and he dies. You have been waiting all night for this moment! You thust your sword and…he falls down.

What? That’s it? Epic fail! That’s not the way it should have ended. There should be an epic ending, something straight out of Hollywood.

That’s what “Death…Hollywood Style!” is all about. Now you can add a little Hollywood style action to your game the next time a character dies. But beware, as that character may be yours! Be warned, as well, that the authors who created this chart may not be all right in the head. Continue reading Death…Hollywood Style!

13th Age – A Bardy Pirate Act

Today, I got to play 13th Age at The Roleplayers Guild of Kansas City, Ltd. game day at Game Cafe. I’ve been itching to play a bard, and I played one that was very different than any other I have seen. I played a pirate bard.

Hook
My character inspiration.

My character was Captain Sam Bellamy (named after an actual pirate). His basic story is that he is a pirate captain who dared to sink a ship of the Emperor…who later repaid him in kind. Down on his luck, without a ship or a crew, he’s trying to survive by his whits and his musical talent. I figure he looks a lot like Captain Hook from Once Upon a Time.

I also took some inspiration from the Musical Blades. I think the song Brave and Mighty Captain kind of sums it up. In fact, one of my character’s backgrounds is Musical Blade. He was performing at the local castle when everything went haywire.

His intro to the party was perhaps the best intro I’ve ever had with a character. He was hanging upside down inside a spider web cocoon.

We had a castle full of undeath to tackle, and finally made our way to the big boss at the end. And this is one of the most unique monsters I’ve ever faced. It was a mechanism that was attached to the castle, causing the castle to shift. It spat razor-sharp cogs at us, and was powered by 12 dead wizards.

So, mechanics-wise, the bard is one of the most challenging classes to play in 13th Age. I tried to work in a battle cry, but I didn’t quite get it. I need to work on that more. One of my bardic songs was a Song of Heroes. So my character sang about the greatest hero he knows – himself! He also used a Song of Thunder to help take the huge mechanism down.

This was the most fun character that I’ve played in a long time. The rules are going to take a little getting used to, but they are familiar enough. It’s D&D, and yet it has its own vibe.

The best part is that this has a chance of becoming a regular monthly game. Which is great, because I absolutely LOVE this group!

Dragonhelm’s D&D Next Game Day Report

scourge of the sword coastYesterday, I played the first week of Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast, the current Encounters adventure.  I have a particular interest in this adventure, as the first D&D game I ran was set in the town of Daggerford. It’s weird being a player in this setting. Still, I am grateful for all the attention Daggerford has had of late.

I played the pregenerated halfling rogue. He had the sailor background. I figured I should base him somewhat on one of my favorite pirates, so I named him Saxton (Musical Blades reference). He wore a bowler and everything. He was a two-weapon fighter, having two short swords. He even got to kill a wolf by slamming those swords through its back, and adding the sneak attack ability. Sneak attack, btw, is SO much better in this edition. It’s a lot easier to understand and pull off.

The adventure itself (thus far, as this is Encounters) was pretty standard fare. Fight some goblins and wolves, then address a group of refugees trying to enter Daggerford with the guards forbidding entry. Nothing too complicated, but I was impressed that one of the encounters was more of a role-playing encounter. MUCH better than I’ve previously seen with Encounters. Up until this point, Encounters felt like a bunch of tactical miniatures fights. Now, it began to feel like D&D. Props to WotC on that one.

What was interesting to me was the group’s reaction to this system. The group was mostly high school kids, with the exception of one guy who appears to be older than me. The kids seem to have only known 4e, although I will give the DM props for studying up on prior editions. I thought the kids wouldn’t like this system, but I was wrong! In fact, they seemed to love it. They loved the quicker combats, and the simplicity of the rules. They were sold.

For me, it feels like I’m finally coming home. This is the iteration of D&D I have been waiting for. It feels like AD&D. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed that feeling. And yet, it has the basic d20 mechanics that I have come to love. It’s a nice blend. It even incorporated some elements from 4e that I liked (backgrounds!). I think I’m coming to like the proficiency bonus. It’s used to represent skill training (kind of like 4e), and has some of the feel of Castles & Crusades to it. The proficiency bonus can be used in attacks, as a skill bonus, or for certain class abilities (amongst other things). Reminds me a little of Castles & Crusades.

There were a few questions on the rules and pre-gens at the table. What I found is that the other players were looking more at a mechanical side of things, rather than roleplaying. One person asked why the warlord wasn’t incorporated with the bard. I’ve heard that same thing before, as they both have the inspiring thing going, but I quickly reminded them that the warlord is more of a front-line fighter who yells things like “shake it off!” to boost his comrades. The players also seemed a bit baffled by the concept of subraces. Most have never known subraces. I have known nothing but. There was also some talk about how feats were optional. I told them this was a good thing, as it addressed different play styles. So, for example, I could have an old-school AD&D era friend play with a new-school d20 era friend in the same game, and both would be happy.

The guy playing the paladin pre-gen was dumbfounded when he saw the minstrel background. Music and performance are the domains of the bard, right? And yet, here his paladin could do those things. It seemed so counter-intuitive to him. And yet, by game’s end, it became part of the plot, as he used that to affect the crowd at the entrance to Daggerford. I hope a light bulb went off with him on what could be done.

Overall, I was very happy with the game and the system. It was kind of a back-to-basics feel. No, we didn’t have all the options of other game systems, like Pathfinder. But that was okay. Sometimes, those options can be a bit distracting. More options will undoubtedly come down the road. What we have before us is the foundation for a very good system.

I hope my schedule allows me to play again.

Creating Spelljammer for 3rd Edition

Introduction

SpelljammerWith the licensing of some of Wizards of the Coast’s settings, such as Dragonlance and Ravenloft, there has been talk among fans of licensing out some of the other older settings as well, such as the Spelljammer setting.

Despite there being an interest in having such a license, the fan base is split on how it should be approached. Some will tell you that classic Spelljammer should be updated to 3rd edition rules. Some will say that Spelljammer should be based on Shadow of the Spider Moon, the d20 Spelljammer mini-game in Polyhedron, written by Andy Collins. There’s plenty of other divisions as well, including what tech level Spelljammer should be set at.

As we look at the possibility of licensing the Spelljammer campaign setting, we must look at it through a different lens than in the past. While this is true with the rules, this becomes especially true with the setting.

Spelljammer as a Setting

Spelljammer would have to be looked at in its entirety if licensed, and as one complete setting. You can’t look at it as the Spider Moon setting vs. the classic setting. If you choose one over the other, then you’re bound to alienate a portion of your fan base.

For example, if one built a new 3rd edition Spelljammer solely off of Shadow of the Spider Moon, you would lose a bit of the classic Spelljammer crowd. On the other hand, if one were to focus solely on the classic material, you would lose the new fan base that has come about due to Andy Collins’ work.

Integrating both works together would, in my opinion, be the way to go. You could use Andy’s Spelljammer rules to get you started, and his sphere (which fans have dubbed Pyrespace) would make a good starting point for adventure. Go beyond that sphere, and then you can tie it all together.

Beyond integrating both of the materials, though, is one more key element. You must build a cohesive setting that has materials that are familiar, but also a setting that has some new, interesting, and exciting elements to it.

Perhaps there are new races, and maybe one of them is trying to conquer the other spheres. Perhaps new spheres and new worlds are being discovered (a great way to integrate the classic and d20 Spelljammer settings). Perhaps there is new magic, new technologies, and new ships.

Through tying together the setting, and building upon it, you’ve accomplished one of the hardest goals.

Spelljammer as a Concept

Spelljammer is more than a setting – Spelljammer is a concept. The idea of traveling from world to world through means of magically powered ships with no futuristic technology whatsoever was a new and fresh one, and ripe for adventure.

While building a setting so that players have a place to adventure is important, it is equally important to present Spelljammer as a concept.

This concept of traveling from world to world through fantastic means should be set up to where you could travel to any world, whether it be a D&D world, or the worlds found in your favorite fantasy novels.

Conclusion

Spelljammer is a world that has infinite possibilities. So much can be done with the concept of fantasy space travel. By presenting a cohesive setting while also allowing Spelljammer to be a tool added to any fantasy setting, you ensure your road to success.

Shackles of My Own Making

My handwriting is horrible. Whenever folks need a visual representation of the Klingon language, they ask me to write something. If you go by the stereotype, I should be a rich doctor. And yet, it is what it is. Just kind of sloppy and hard to read.

My character sheets were equally hard to read. My writing is kind of big, so to put it in teeny tiny boxes…well, it gets hard to write it all. Like any gamer, I like accuracy and detail. And yet, my own handwriting was limiting me.

That’s when Wizards of the Coast released Character Builder. Here was a program that would help me build my character (thus being appropriately named) , and would do so in a fashion that would produce a neat, clean, detailed character sheets. Plus it had those attractive D&D 4th edition power cards as well. I was elated, and spent many an hour converting old characters to 4th edition or coming up with new character ideas.

Character Builder had become my salvation. It had become my jailor.

You see, I’m also part tinker gnome. Maybe it’s my Dragonlance roots talking, or maybe I’m like a lot of gamers out there. I like to build and craft within my game. We gamers are notorious world builders and amateur game designers. It gets in your blood. New races, new roles to play within the world, monsters, villains….it’s all wonderful stuff. And a lot of it needs stats to implement in-game. And like good little tinker gnomes, we love to craft those rules.

So it was that my frustrations with Character Builder began. You see, the miracle program had one big flaw. It wasn’t friendly towards house rules. You could put some in, but you were limited in other areas. And there was always an annoying little icon reminding me that my character wasn’t “legal” (whatever that means). What happens when I want to use house rules for a 4th edition conversion of some rule from a prior edition? What happens when I create something new I want to implement?

I found limits in other ways too. For example, I would have to wait a month between publication of a book and the time when it would be implemented on Character Builder. I found myself just waiting on baited breath for the release of the next update. A few months ago, such an occurrence was happening again. I had been waiting a year for the release of the 4th edition version of Dark Sun. I got the books, and knew it was just a matter of time before I could update my old Dark Sun characters in Character Builder.

That day didn’t come. The update didn’t come. WotC was pretty silent on the issue. Through a comedy of errors, Character Builder was delayed, and then those dates weren’t met. Wizards was not communicating with the public to keep people informed. We finally got half an update in October, but still no Dark Sun. Essentials was coming out too, and we wondered if that would be included.

And so I waited and waited, until finally, the new online Character Builder was released. I jumped into it, but with caution. As it turns out, caution was warranted. Character Builder was filled with errors and liked to crash. It was even worse about house rules as well. I play Dragonlance a lot, and yet I couldn’t even type the name of a Dragonlance deity into the appropriate box.

I had had enough. Something finally snapped within me. I had known for some time that this program was inhibiting me from a creative standpoint. I realized that it was holding me back, and was serving not so much as an aid, but as a crutch.

And it was my own fault. I had brought this on myself. I allowed a program to control my fun.

The Character Builder fiasco had a couple of good effects. First, it was a reminder of how we used to tackle character sheets – by hand. We didn’t worry about what some silly program told us was legal.

But wait, my handwriting is like bad Klingon. Was going back the way to go?

As it turns out, the gaming community is quite creative, and not just within the confines of the game. They have a knack for creating some of the best toys, such as form-fillable character sheets and power card generators. I’ve known about them, but have taken a closer look in light of the Character Builder fiasco. And you know, I’ve found some neat toys. I feel like I can tinker again.

The moral of this story? We all have our shackles. We all have those things that limit us as creative individuals. Maybe for you it’s the rules, to which you might feel beholden. For me, it was Character Builder. And while I think it can still be a useful tool, I no longer feel that it is necessary for me to play the game. Because it isn’t.

Try to recognize those shackles that hold you down. They can be hard to identify at times. Recognizing them is the hard part. Once you do, though, search for a way around them, and remember that there are always alternatives.

Dragonhelm’s Gamma World Game Day Report

gamma-world

While I have known about Gamma World for many years, I only got to play it for the first time today at the Gamma World Game Day. Basically, you go to your local participating game store, sit in on a game, and get to experience what Gamma World is all about. I took my 13-year-old son with me today, and we had a blast.

Does Gamma World measure up to past editions? I can’t say either way, as I’m not familiar with those prior editions. What I can comment on is this version of Gamma World. It’s a variant of the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules that combines classic role-playing, a card game element, and incorporates tactical game play.

The Gamma World boxed set claims to be, “A wacky, wily roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic peril.” On this, it delivers. Your character begins with two origins. Basically, you pair up two mutations to see what you can be. My son was a speedster doppelganger. I was a radioactive mind courser. Since radioactive characters can shoot radioactive beams from their eyes, I decided to take some X-Men inspiration and have only one eye. My character’s name? Psi-clops. My son got to make copies of himself, who could go into situations, attack bad guys, and keep my son’s character safe. Think Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, from the X-Men comics.

The adventure, Trouble in Freesboro, had the party being hired as mercenaries to take out these bad guys who set up shop in town, and are creating some super-weapon. It consists of three encounters, with an optional third encounter. The first encounter was all combat.

The second, though, went very differently than I thought would happen. I came in expecting a lot of combat. But in this encounter, a little fast-talking had us making friends with humanoid cockroaches who had a Mexican accent. This was more than an encounter. This was role-playing. We didn’t fight, and we convinced these guys that we were the new hires, sent to work with them.

We worked our way up to the top, where we faced the final enemies – a group of porkers and other assorted mutants. The big boss-man was a toughie, but we dispatched of him.

The game includes Alpha mutation cards, which function as Gamma World’s variant of encounter powers. It also has Omega tech, which functions as magic items. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief necessary to really get into these, but once you get into it, it’s fun. Gamma World assumes that random mutations happen, so that’s how you get your Alpha mutation cards. Then it’s assumed that the collision of realities (kind of the background to Gamma World) leads to Omega tech lying around.

I should mention at this point that my son has only gamed a handful of times. For Gamma World, he says that character creation was hard, but once that was over, he was fine. He says he really enjoyed this game, more so than playing D&D. He told his mom that she should play, and he has asked me when we will play next. In my mind, that’s the sign of a successful game.

For me, seeing this sort of positive reaction in my son is all I need to have me sold on the Gamma World game.

Dragonhelm’s Essentials D&D Encounters Report

keep-on-the-borderlands-coverFor the first time tonight, I got to play Encounters. This season, the adventure is none other than the classic Keep on the Borderlands. I had never played it before, so I was excited to do it.

My friend Curtis and I were it for our table, so we were going to play two characters each. Another group was also short, so they combined us. What’s funny is that we had a lot more role-playing when it was just me and Curtis. The others were probably half our age (or close to it) and only out for the combat. One guy was metagaming like crazy, and another guy kept rolling his eyes any time anyone else did something.

We basically had a bit of setup, then proceeded to the encounter. We battled some dragonborn and various other reptilian creatures, all servants of Tiamat. The DM was a lot of fun, and pulled no punches.

For tonight’s game, I played the pre-generated fighter, Quinn. Quinn utilizes the new knight build found in Heroes of the Fallen Lands. I have to say, the pre-gen felt like a knight to me. Of course, I played up the part. One might even say I hammed it up.

At one point, I had a battle with a monster that kept trying to throw a net over me. He got me in a pit, but I climbed out. Another player moved him into the pit. I went all Hollywood, and jumped in after the monster, pressing my advantage. Eventually, I defeated him.

I have to say that I really enjoyed playing the Essentials fighter. It felt more like the basic fighters of prior editions. Yet the cool stance and aura abilities made for some fun possibilities and nice visuals. I miss having the daily power, but the rest made up for it.

While the Essentials fighter was good, I can’t say that I was terribly enthused about Encounters. It’s a neat idea, but the name is self-explanatory. You’re just playing encounters. Our DM commended the role-playing that Curtis and I did and said that they didn’t have that much role-playing the entire time they did the Dark Sun encounters. I just found that sad.

Now, I’m debating on whether to go back or not. Did I have fun? Yeah, it was a good time. But it wasn’t a great time. I haven’t made any decisions yet, but I think I prefer games where we can get into our characters a bit more.

The Mark of a Successful Game

How do you know when your game is successful? How do you know that you have one of those games where the players are really into the story and action? How do you know that your game isn’t just good, but great?

These are hard questions, to be sure, ones that don’t always have clear-cut answers. Sometimes players won’t tell you if they’re not having fun because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Sometimes you misread your players and think they’re really into your game when they might not be.

I believe the mark of a successful game is when players give back. Perhaps they want to create something for your setting, such as a new technology for your sci-fi game. Or maybe they want to expand their character’s backstory to fit in better with your game, which in turn gives you new NPCs to use in future games. Maybe they want to build a new fortress or space station.

It’s at this point, when players give back, that you know they are invested in your setting, and you have a successful game.

Games of the Imagination

Earlier tonight, I interviewed Tracy Hickman for a future episode of the Dragonlance Canticle podcast. During the conversation, we talked about gaming, and an interesting topic came up. The basic gist is that role-playing games have become very good at being simulations in nature, but have gotten further away from narrative storytelling and creativity.

Is this the case?

There are those that say that story is independent of the rules. We as gamers bring the story to the table. There’s a lot to be said for that. I know that, no matter the game, I bring the same killer storytelling to the game table.

Can rules be a deterrent to storytelling?

Frankly, yes. Want proof? Look no further than 4th edition’s Character Builder. Don’t get me wrong, Character Builder is a wonderful tool. Yet at the same time, I find that Character Builder is not the most conducive to house rules.

Many rules systems have a mechanic like feats that show extra-special abilities characters can do. They’re faster, they have new powers, they’re great with a sword, etc. etc. If the ability is not listed on the character sheet, do we even try it? Probably not. Yet it may be more dramatic to the story of the game if you can at least try things not on the character sheet (within reason, of course!).

For example, let’s say that you’re playing a rogue. Your rogue is running from a local thug who is out for blood, and the alley dead-ends just ahead. There’s nowhere to run. As the thug comes in, the rogue jumps against the wall, bounces off and does a mid-air flip, landing on his feet on the other side. He’s then able to attack the thug.

Now, in this scenario, we could look up a bunch of rules and find that there isn’t a specific rule covering this. Perhaps you, as the player, were also recently frustrated when you discovered there were no rules for fighting on a tightrope.

Rules can not cover every possibility. They can serve as guidelines. We, as gamers, can easily be drawn into the idea that if the Rules As Written (RAW) doesn’t offer an option, then it can’t be done. Yet this is a restriction on creativity and storytelling. The game suffers in the process.

My advice is to find the rules you want to use, and then approach them in broad strokes. Sometimes, a simple skill check or ability check is all you need. Our rogue from up above may have made an Acrobatics or Dexterity check to pull off that amazing flip. The DM sets an appropriate target number. If the player makes it, then you’ve got Hollywood action in your game.

Allow for the player to be creative and loosen up on the rules. It will allow everyone to have more fun and be a creative boon to your world.