Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: D&D Character Sheets

So, this past weekend I decided to pick up new Dungeons & Dragons Character Sheets. Even though I can print character sheets to my heart’s content, it just seemed like a fun thing to do. Part of me was hoping to stir up old nostalgia, back when character sheets were a rite of passage! Unfortunately, I think Wizards of the Coast missed a big opportunity with this product. From a marketing stand point, I would not call this a success by any stretch of the imagination.

So what does it include?

A “lavishly illustrated protective folder.” OK, it’s definitely illustrated, and with a cool ampersand, but I’m not sure what the skulls and roses are there for. Maybe a set of dice would have been a better choice? With Stream of Annihilation, and the announcement of the Tomb of Annihilation, the artwork on these folders should have been the Green Devil Face. The timing was perfect, and it would have helped generate more excitement for those upcoming products.
 
This would have been such a cooler cover.

Inside, the folder flaps contain the following helpful information:
  • Actions you can take in combat.
  • Things you can do in tandem with movement.
  • Things you can do on your turn.
  • A place to write your name and character name. 



    I think all of the above is good reference material to place inside the folder. I see beginners and veteran players alike routinely forget this information. In terms of the character sheets my folder included:

    • Four copies of a new sheet that does not include Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.
    • Eight copies of a new, single page introductory character sheet “designed specifically for new players.”


     

       

      OK, so just to recap, three of the five included products you can already download and print for free. The modified new sheet is certainly not worth the price of admission. The thing I’m most disappointed in however the introductory character sheet. I think from a design standpoint the larger boxes were a good idea. The sheet is definitely easier to read, especially for a new player who is learning for the first time. But the back of the sheet is blank! They could have at least included the information contained on the folder flaps.

      So what else would I have done to improve this? Well going along with my Green Devil Face idea I would have included some green colored character sheets. You know like the old school basic sheets? Hell, include the Green Devil Face in the design! That at least would have made the product more unique, and worth its $10 price tag. I would have kept some white versions as well for those who wish to scan the sheets.


      If you don’t have access to a printer, or maybe you’re a collector, then definitely check these out. Overall I think this was a cool idea but poorly executed. Oh well, not every product can be a critical hit. Have fun playing the game, and remember sometimes the best character sheet is just a piece of notebook paper, a 3x5 card, or whatever else you can scribble your hit points on!

      Thursday, May 18, 2017

      Throwback Thursday: Gaming Unplugged

      http://www.gamescience.com/?AffId=3UNPLUG definitions.
      disconnect (an electrical device) by removing its plug from a socket.
      remove an obstacle or blockage from.
      relax by disengaging from normal activities.

      Looking that those definitions, I can’t help but to think back to simpler times. Back when the phone was attached to the wall, and NEVER in anyone’s hand all the time. In 2014, Android users combined looked at their phones one billion times a day, according to Google I/O’s keynote! Fast forward to 2017, and I’m sure those numbers are even more staggering. So how do we detox from this smartphone addiction? Well, one great way is to unplug for a few hours and play tabletop games!

      Smartphones at the game table are a pet peeve of mine, and unless someone needs to be on call, not permitted. How can you possibly be immersing yourself in the tabletop experience if you are surfing social media? It reminds me of a friend who went to Disney with another family. He explained how the oldest daughter spent most of her time posting selfies. It was more important to let everyone know what she was doing, rather than to enjoy the experience herself.

      I found all the pictures below at 2warpstoneptune, and thought they were perfect. Do me a favor and look them over for fun and nostalgia. But most importantly, what device is missing?

      1978

      1981

      1982

      1984

      1985

      1986

      1987

      1988

      No smartphones! I’m sure someone might say, “well duh, they were not invented yet.” If that is your retort, then I will suggest you have missed the point of this post entirely. The gamers at these tables are experiencing the session together, role-playing, and having a blast. They are not allowing a voluntary, external source to distract them. Look, no one can accuse me of being some crusty old guy that does not like technology. I use my smartphone liberally, and post on social media platforms all the time. But when I play a tabletop game, I like the escapism, and everyone unplugged.

      In my last post, I was a 10-year-Old Dungeon Master, I spoke about recapturing your imagination. Being willing to put down your smartphone for the majority, if not all a game session, will help with that. You must make time for yourself, free of external distractions, as an adult. It’s great that someone posted a picture of their favorite pizza slice on Facebook, or a new meme appeared on Twitter, but how does that pertain to your tabletop experience? The essential point is it can all wait until a break, or after the game session.

      In all honesty, I think we are seeing a renaissance of sorts in terms of being unplugged. People really need to interact in a face-to-face social setting. That is why we see so many tabletop related Kickstarters, and even a new convention in Philadelphia this November, Pax Unplugged. By the way, I will be there, and maybe even running a game session. That said, your smartphones may need to make a saving throw!

      But it’s just not us that needs to learn how to do this. Everywhere I go tweens and teens have their faces buried in their devices. Pull your kids away from the smartphone abyss occasionally, even if they protest, for some tabletop gaming. The adage of “everything in moderation” could not ring any truer. In my professional career, I see 20-somethings that have virtually no ability to articulate themselves in a face-to-face setting. But they sure can fire off emails all day long! Just a theory, and anecdotal at best, but I bet that has a something to do with not unplugging enough.

      So get out there for some fun tabletop when you can. Gaming unplugged need not just be a throwback, it can be all the time!

      Wednesday, May 10, 2017

      I was a 10-Year-Old Dungeon Master

      It was the summer of 1984, and I sat at the dining room table writing. Ironically in the background, the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts played on the television. My imagination was on fire since later that day I would be dungeon mastering some neighborhood kids. I was staying at my grandmother’s house in Philadelphia, and these were new players. I had just started reading Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon, so of course that inspired me to make a similar scenario. With some graph paper and a pencil, I toiled away filling rooms with monsters and traps.

      My grandmother had an ornate dining table, with metal studs on the legs. The tall chairs that complemented it seemed like something from Hrothgar’s mead hall in Beowulf. One of my cousins walked by and suggested I look at the National Geographic magazine she just finished reading. It had an article about exploring a 140-year-old ship under arctic ice. This was a great stuff. It seemed like all around me there was high octane imagination fuel to inspire my games. Everything about Dungeons & Dragons was new, and there just was not enough hours in the day to play it!

      Fast forward several decades, and countless players are trying to recapture those early days. You know the ones where you played all weekend long in a Mountain Dew induced stupor? When there was no internet, and RPG information came from print magazines or the local hobby shop? Most importantly, when YOUR imagination was the primary force behind the game. Sure, there was outside influences, but nothing like the media overload of today. In those early days of the hobby we were less connected to the world, but maybe a tad more connected to our own creative process.

      For years now players have tried to re-capture those early days by dusting off older editions, making retro clones, and soaking up any nostalgia they can find. While those things may be helpful, I would suggest it’s only part of the solution. Social media is replete with articles, opinions, and even entire web series dedicated to watching people play Dungeons & Dragons. There is certainly value in all these things, but it may not be the medicine you’re looking for. Instead you really need to go back to basics, to simpler days when your own imagination did the heavy lifting.

      So, you’re a busy adult with a family or maybe a career that is demanding, or worse both! It’s hard work trying to make it to scheduled games and even harder to design them. You look to blogs like this one, and other places on social media for inspiration and ideas. Then it becomes easier just to play in someone else's imagination entirely, and soon the game sessions don’t have that “magic” anymore. Hmmm, it must be the edition, or maybe you’re just tired, or perhaps you have just outgrown this silly game?

      All of those are wrong! You just need to make time for your 10-year-old self to fire its imagination back up. You cannot allow yourself to become so saturated with outside influences that you can no longer think for yourself. Now I’m not suggesting you stop being inspired by the works of others. Liberally steal ideas from everything and make them part of your sessions or character! But if you want to head down the path of the old days, you absolutely need to re-kindle your own imagination. This could be while you’re driving in your car, enjoying your morning coffee, or just a walk through the park.


      Every time an idea pops into your head jot them down! This could be on a 3x5 card or via an email you send yourself. Don’t let that fire burn out! Eventually you will have enough imagination fuel gathered to start your engines. You know, the 10-year-old engine that was full of wonder and approached the game wide-eyed at every turn? Sure, we will probably never get those days back fully, but damn we can try. Like most things, role-playing games benefit from everything in moderation.

      Do your best to balance using the material of others with your own. As kids playing the game, we HAD to make stuff up. An allowance alone did not pay for many game books or modules. Now as an adult, you may be bankrolled to purchase anything you want. My game closet is evidence of that alone, but I still use the material as inspiration. I have never allowed myself to be completely pulled away from home brewing RPG material.

      In closing, remember that Dungeons & Dragons is about sitting around with some friends and using your imagination. As an adult, I find the creative and playing process just fantastic escapism. I love nostalgia as much as the next player, but the continued experience of the game is much more satisfying. These tips may not work for everyone, but they have kept my RPG engines running for decades. Now that my own son is a 10-year old Dungeon Master, I see the process starting all over again. Wow, what awesome adventures await him and his friends!

       

      Tuesday, April 18, 2017

      Need a Dungeon Master?

      So, you want to play D&D but there are no Dungeon Masters in your area. There are plenty of characters all dressed up with nowhere to go? Then it’s time to become the Dungeon Master yourself! For many people, just the idea of taking on this responsibility causes anxiety. I will be honest with you, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to step into that role for the first time. Studies have shown the only thing people fear more than their mortality is public speaking. Sure, you may be DMing for friends and family only, but it still involves putting yourself out there at the head of the table.

      I’m here to tell you that none of that should dissuade you. Without a Dungeon Master the game simply cannot be played. Someone must be the organizer and do all the creative work to make the game come together. This is what happened when I was ten-years old, and I had no idea what I was doing. But let me tell you, wow was it fun! Thinking back to those earlier days, one of the reasons for my success was because we played with only a shadow of the rules.

      A common theme I see in other blog posts about Dungeon Mastering is, “you must be an expert on the rules”, and I’m here to tell you that is a load of crapola. Please don’t let that stop you from taking up the Dungeon Master mantle. Without getting into edition wars, I recommend using a more rules light system for first time DMs. This will allow you to hand wave things more often. An important skill of a good DM is making rulings, not looking up rules. Furthermore, if you have a rules lawyer at your table, they are effectively disarmed in a rules light RPG.

      Systems with complicated combat, or voluminous character options can end any fledgling DM’s career. Trust me, you have enough to keep track of with the adventure being played to worry about that sort of minutia. If those sorts of things appeal to you, they can always be re-visited later when you are more seasoned as a DM. Dungeons & Dragons is foremost a collaborative story-telling game. If you want work on an early skill, that is the one to focus on. Anyone can use charts, measurements, and roll dice. The ability to become any NPC, describe the environment, and shoot from the hip is what sets the great DMs apart from the rest.

      Another valuable lesson I learned over the years is different personalities affect the ebb and flow of the game session. The one to be on the lookout for is akin to a jury foreman. They speak the most, are usually veteran gamers, and will play the session for everyone if permitted. As a fledgling DM, this personality may confound or exasperate you and the other players.

      The best way to handle this situation is by establishing good DMing habits early. There will also be quiet or timid players at your table, or just less aggressive players then the jury foreman. It’s imperative to get into the habit of going around the table to ask everyone what their characters are doing. Don’t let the jury foreman speak out of turn, or rush other player’s decisions unnecessarily. Everyone deserves the spotlight, and it’s your job as the game referee to make sure that happens.

      Foam dice make good stress balls...or objects to toss at players!
      The final thing I would like to offer some advice on is criticism. Over the years, I have gotten into the habit of asking everyone what they liked or disliked after a session. It’s a good idea to take the temperature of your group occasionally to make sure everyone is on the same page. For the most part after several decades now I have found this information invaluable. However, occasionally someone will feel the need to offer unproductive DMing advice. Interestingly, the source is usually someone who has never sat behind the DM screen in their life. Or alternatively, you can count on two hands the number of times they have.

      Don’t let these experiences frustrate you into giving up Dungeon Mastering. I will tell you now it can be a thankless job, but you are very much needed to keep the hobby alive. Just look at any of the big game conventions for evidence of DM demand. Every year they are scrambling to find people to run games. Why? Because it’s much more work than just sitting down to play the game. As a DM, you are the coordinator, designer, production crew, and ALL the supporting characters.

      If story and world building appeals to you, Dungeon Mastering is something you should try. The early stages of your DMing career will have some bumps in the road. But like anything in life, with a little perseverance the experience is very rewarding. Don’t let any of the potential issues I highlighted keep you from running a game session. Rather be on guard for them, have fun, and keep the hobby alive!

      If you are a veteran player who reminisces about the days of old, why not take up the DM mantle? I love talking about games sessions from decades ago also. Old characters are like friends and we speak of their adventures with fondness. That said, there is plenty of time for new stories and your player experience make you perfect for Dungeon Mastering. Don’t just read about RPGs on social media, get involved again!

      Also, if you are that veteran player attending a session with a new DM, take it easy on them. Don’t be a hindrance or take advantage of their lack of system savvy. If you truly want to have regular sessions to play, then being supportive is very important. This is especially true in the public game arena, where the RPG trolls sometimes crawl out from under their stones. Don’t let a troll sour a fledgling DM into potentially quitting the practice all together.

      Dungeon Masters, we salute you! Thank you for running the game on behalf of the countless players out there. Remember relax, and don't sweat the small stuff. You will make make wrong decisions, blunder rulings, and misread your group occasionally. All that matters is that everyone had fun, because that is what this wonderful hobby is all about!


      Thursday, April 6, 2017

      Surviving the Tomb of Horrors

      While looking through my copy of Tales from the Yawning Portal I felt compelled to blog about the Tomb of Horrors. Well here is the bad news, you probably won’t survive! There are some things you need to consider before sitting down to play the Tomb of Horrors. All those old-school vibes you hear us grognards grumble about? They will help you have a positive experience!

      For this adventure, you need to think beyond the four corners of your character sheet. Modern D&D does a good job of trying to portray a character’s abilities and life experiences through game mechanics. However, with the Tomb of Horrors, the players cannot just rely on that fail safe.

      Instead you must really take in the environment and use your wits to explore it. Ask questions, lots of them. The Tomb will test the mettle and patience of most players, since you cannot hack-n-slash your way through it. The latter is a consideration you must marinate on as a player before attending a session. This is an adventure of restraint and creativity on the part of the players. Suddenly mundane items modern players like to poke fun at, like a 10’ pole, have immense value.

      The Tomb of Horrors always makes me think of the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones, using a regular item like bag of sand, switches it for the golden idol. He has arguably made his dexterity save to accomplish this, but alas it does not matter. A whole series of traps are initiated as a result interacting with the idol. This is the sort of experience which can happen in the Tomb of Horrors. Employing the same strategy will not work in every room or passage. You really need to expect the unexpected and prepare for the worst, as it’s around every corner.


      Be forewarned, the Tomb of Horrors is like playing a game of dungeon roulette. I would suggest experiencing it as a one-off or “what-if” adventure if you use regular characters. This way if a long standing favorite character is lost, it does not really count in terms of the continuity of your campaign. Even Gary Gygax himself on this EN World posting from 2006 warned against using favorite characters:


      So, what does it mean to really survive the Tomb of Horrors? In my opinion, any expedition into the tomb which results in exploration and the characters leaving is a success. We could probably count on two hands the number of players who have legitimately defeated the tomb over the years. I’m sure social media will have some boasting now that Tales from the Yawning Portal has unearthed the Tomb again. A DM wearing kid gloves or heavily home-brewed characters do not count! And quite honestly, if that is what it takes for a group to defeat the tomb, they have entirely missed the point.

      The Tomb of Horrors is the final resting place of an incredibly powerful being. It does NOT want anyone or anything robbing its treasures, even in undeath. The tomb can be a deadly meat grinder that to some extent does absolutely rely on your skill as a player. Sure, that style of play may not be for everyone, as it’s a departure from heavy dice rolling to explore the game world. Instead, using your ability to observe, experiment, and think about the environment and the tools available to your character is best. For all you D&D greenhorns out there, trust me, it will make you a better player.

      Know you well adventurer, that survival is unlikely, but should you succeed the bards will sing your tale!

      Tales from the Yawning Portal excerpt.
       

      Monday, March 20, 2017

      Review: RPG Coasters 2, Cthulhu.

      Alexander Ingram has just launched his second RPG Coasters Kickstarter! The theme this time? Cthulhu. For the uninitiated, the name is pronounced in some circles as kuh-THOOL-hoo. Now be careful when saying that to loud, as it may awaken H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder One from its eternal madness. That said, per mythos the human tongue cannot accurately pronounce it anyway.

      The Call of Cthulhu was first published in the February, 1928 edition of Weird Tales. The creature was an elder god held inside a sunken city named R’lyeh, which featured bizarre, non-Euclidean architecture. Fast forward to 2017 and this sort of material is a wonderful playground for role-playing games. When beings such as Cthulhu threaten to break free of their cosmic prisons, investigators and adventurers must put a stop to it! Well that is what the GM tells you anyway, before your character becomes a blithering idiot from cosmic madness.

      “It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.”
      ― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

      With that background, Lovecraftian novice and veteran alike can appreciate this new RPG Coasters theme. I love to review cool gaming swag, and these gorgeous coasters stand apart. Full disclosure, Alex sent me this set to review ahead of the Kickstarter launch. So, consider this a sneak peek if you are marinating about pledging. These are identical in construction to the fantasy themed coasters which I reviewed here. If you want to see how the coasters match up to different types of drinking vessels, I encourage you to visit that link.

      Alex does all the work personally on these coasters in his basement workshop. The coasters are offered in beautiful hardwoods of Cherry, Hard Maple, and Black Walnut. The latter seems to really make Cthulhu pop on my sample Keeper coaster! These same materials were offered and delivered in the first RPG Coasters Kickstarter.

      “seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly on a rectangular block or pedestal covered with undecipherable characters.”
      ― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call Of Cthulhu

      One of the things that really jumped out at me with this new set was the level of detail. The coasters and all the artwork on them are CNC (computer numerical control) routed by a several machines Alex created in his shop. The Antiquarian coaster may be my favorite since it contains an interpretation of Lovecraft’s own sketch from 1934. For reference, the etching on the coaster is about an inch tall!






      If you are fan of Lovecraftian horror, these coasters are the perfect conversation piece for your table. As seen above, available now are the Antiquarian, Criminal, Keeper, Parapsychologist and Private Eye. The full set, not including the stand, is a $40 pledge. The stand is an add-on for $10. Maybe you just want one coaster to fend off a wayward Shoggoth? There is a $10 pledge level for a single coaster! Below you can see some of the artwork waiting to be unlocked from its eldritch prison:


      I’ve had RPG Coasters in the Game Tavern for over a year now. Everyone that visits comments on how cool they are, or inquiries about where we got them. Not only are they epic gaming swag, but they are pieces of furniture. The holidays are still far away, and the Kickstarter looks to deliver before then. Why not surprise that relative or friend that has everything? Or just treat yourself to a glass of bubbling madness on a Cthulhu RPG Coaster!

      “Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.”
      In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
      ― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu





      Tuesday, February 28, 2017

      Be Kind, Please Rewind

      Don’t worry as I’m not referring to the Blockbuster VHS tape motto from yesterday. Rather to think back to when some of us started playing Dungeons & Dragons, so long ago. You know, those early years when the game was new, and we were still learning as we played? With that foundation in mind I wanted to talk about something that really irked me this past weekend. At first I wasn’t going to follow-up on the event, but it just keeps gnawing at me. What could it be? How about a very young DM being pushed around by some older players.

      For background my 10-year-old son and I decided to visit all the local game stores, and do some shopping together. Now an avid gamer, it’s great quality time together with my son, who admittedly is still wide-eyed when it comes to role-playing games. One of our stops landed us in a store which had several Adventurers League games going in the back room. While browsing the miniature racks, I could not help but overhear the session being played right next to me.

      The table was being run by what appeared to be a very young tween (maybe 12-13). The players were in their 40s based on appearance alone. Our young DM is describing what a temple room looks like, to which one of the players obnoxiously makes a sexual reference. The latter is never appropriate in a public game, but that is the subject of another post. Soon thereafter a combat ensues in which the real problems started.

      As soon as initiative was rolled, the older players at the table took every opportunity to quote rules and mechanics nuances. It was not done in a helpful way at all, but rather a chiding manner, which quite honestly, I found offensive. Exasperated and literally ganged up on, our young DM caved and went with the crowd at every turn. At one point my son looked to me quizzically and said, “why don’t they just let him DM?” It was that question that hit the nail right on the head in terms of this event unfolding before our eyes.

      I could empathize with this young DM, since my time behind the screen started when I was ten years old. Very quickly my player circle exploded, many of which were seniors in high school. Some of those early sessions were rough with the older kids trying to exert control. That said, I learned to establish rule zero if I was going to maintain any semblance of order at the table.

      When DMing in a public venue it’s even harder since you never know what sort of personalities may show up to play. A DM already needs thick skin, and the ability to deal with many different idiosyncrasies. Now add to that being potentially decades younger than the players at your table. Why is this important? Because it’s going to start to become more common place around gaming venues everywhere. There is a whole new generation of players growing up in a time where role-playing games enjoy a popularity never seen in the past.

      But as always there is a shortage of game masters, regardless of the system. Putting yourself out there, in the public to run a game session, takes a tremendous amount of courage. Some people are just naturals, and others take the role out of necessity. Some players, myself included, prefer to make a world rather than just one single character. Whatever the reason may be, there is a whole cadre of new Dungeon Masters coming up through the ranks now. The older generation of players and DMs alike need to be supportive, and help grow the hobby. Admonishing a young DM for not being a rules encyclopedia, and embarrassing them publicly helps no one.

      DMing is arguably a thankless job sometimes. You are the director, production crew, all the supporting characters, and ultimately the organizer. Ironically over the years I have found the players most critical of a DM have spent little to no time behind the screen themselves. It always reminds me of my children’s sporting events. The parents which are barking and being the most obnoxious are usually the ones that never played a sport themselves.

      If a young DM has their enthusiasm lessoned by bad public experiences, chances are they will eventually hang up their hat. Or alternatively, they will switch to only home games with friends and family. Either way this is not good for the hobby, and older players need to be mentors when afforded the opportunity. Sure, all the memes like “I have dice older then you kid” are funny, but where does that ultimately get us? I think sharing the love of this awesome hobby, and helping to bring new players and DMs up through the ranks is much more important.

      Before leaving the store that day I found that young DM outside opening a tube of dice he had just purchased. I spent a few moments offering some advice and directed him to my blog. But most importantly, I thanked him for being a Dungeon Master, and encouraged him to keep forging ahead. He was very receptive, and seemed genuinely uplifted by our short talk.  Who knows, he could be the next great fantasy writer, a game designer, or perhaps a DIY publisher someday. Or maybe he will just continue being a DM, because another gamer took the time just to say thank you.