Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Dungeon Master's Screen

Over the years I have seen plenty of argument for and against them. I have used a DM screen since my earliest game sessions in 1983. Back then when playing AD&D, it was originally so I could easily reference the attack matrices. But as I started to grow as a storyteller the screen began to add a sense of mystery to the table. In those earlier days I often would spend hours drawing NPCs, locations, and treasures. I wanted everyone at the table to have a unified vision of certain things. Being able to spread them out behind my screens before the big reveal was very helpful.

The sense of the unknown that the DM screen provided just became part our table sessions. Fast forward to 2016, and I still use a screen but not in the traditional sense any longer. Now I use it to hold tokens, conceal enemy miniatures, and keep handouts at the ready. Sure we are all adults, but that simple barrier helps to make sure surprises are not spoiled. My screen also serves as a tool to display my initiative tracker, which are simply close-line pins with all the player names on them. Having it elevated and in plain view helps to speed combat along and put players on notice when it’s their turn.

The argument against using a DM screen as I do, or for reference, always involves dice. Some DM’s prefer being completely transparent by rolling everything in the open. My own style is to roll the majority of the time behind the screen. Then for the big moments I roll in plain view to create tension and get everyone on their feet.

Another concern often voiced is not using a screen prevents temptation for a DM to fudge a die roll. At the end of the day, role-playing games are a social activity designed to create a fun experience together. The dice can be cruel masters and the players suffer them every time they roll already. No DM should be ashamed to occasionally fudge if it moves the story forward in a positive way. Sometimes the dice are there just to make noise. If the players don’t trust the DM to play fairly then perhaps they should consider other options.

The other argument is that anything which separates the DM from the players is detrimental for the game. Three decades and thousands of hours at the table later, I cannot agree with that statement. Never once has a player pulled me aside and said, “Hey…umm…that screen makes this experience feel more adversarial and less collaborative.” That being said, I respect the style choices of other Dungeon Masters, even if I don’t agree with them.

Now in terms of gear, I use a Dungeon Master’s Keep, originally purchased from Gale Force 9. I find the visual of a castle at the table adds several levels of badassery to the environment. The dice tower allows the DM to easily roll dice onto the player’s side of the table. I’m not sure of its availability any longer, but Fat Dragon Games currently makes a cool paper cut version. I recently ordered the Curse of Strahd DM screen even though its usefulness may be limited. I will probably use it specifically for those sessions just for unique campaign atmosphere.

For game conventions I usually go full DIY and clip together several three ring binders. The portability and cost effectiveness of this method is excellent. Plus being able to customize the art with your own inserts makes it easy to switch from a fantasy game to a sci-fi game in literally seconds. This 2012 video, by Jeremy Tully, shows exactly how to assemble your own DIY screen. Check it out; every screen using DM should have one in their convention pack.

So what type of screen do you use? Also does anyone have any fun stories involving their DM screen? I had a player once who became a legend for tossing dice when they repeatedly rolled a one. During one particular incident, it ricocheted off the wall and into my screen. Since that day I always tell players my screen is an ablative dice barrier!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ravenloft: Vampire Killing Kit

This box contains the items considered necessary, for the protection of persons who travel into certain little known countries of Eastern Europe, where the populace are plagued with a particular manifestation of evil known as Vampires. Professor Ernst Blomberg respectfully requests that the purchaser of this kit, carefully studies his book in order, should evil manifestations become apparent, he is equipped to deal with them efficiently. Professor Blomberg wishes to announce his grateful thanks to that well known gunmaker of Liege, Nicholas Plomdeur whose help in the compiling of the special items, the silver bullets &c., has been most efficient.

My family and I are members of the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. With the Curse of Strahd being released, I thought this would be a good time to discuss my favorite exhibit, the Vampire Killing Kit. These were very popular items purchased as late as the 19th century by superstitious visitors to Europe. Unfortunately, as cool as it may be, the Mercer kit is a fake. So why still display it? According to this article at vamped.org, the Mercer decided to display the kit full time because its curiosity value mesmerizes. This video, posted on the Travel Channel, shows just how they determined the kit was indeed not authentic.

That being said, this is still wonderful inspiration material for a Ravenloft campaign. Professor Blomberg could easily become an NPC that exists in the Domain of Dread. Perhaps Blomberg is just a charlatan, selling fake kits to those desperate to combat the likes of Strahd? In the very least I could see imitators hawking fake kits just like gothic snake oil salesman. Imagine the dread some hapless player character would feel when their kit does absolutely nothing to help them!

For purposes of this post, I will be using the Mercer exhibit as foundation material for a working Ravenloft kit.  As you can see from the pictures, one of the most curious items included are the silver bullets. My immediate reaction as a long time gamer, was to scratch my head since silver is for lycanthropes, right? Well there is apparently some argument against that theory.

Silver bullets as a tool against vampires were first published in 1928. The Vampire, His Kith and Kin by Montague Summers has the following entry: In some Slavonic countries it is thought that a Vampire, if prowling out of his tomb at night may be shot and killed with a silver bullet that has been blessed by a priest. But care must be taken that his body is not laid in the rays of the moon, especially if the moon be at her full, for in this case he will revive with redoubled vigor and malevolence.

Lycanthropes, namely werewolves, may find their alleged vulnerability to silver from the Beast of Gévaudan tale. In 1767 Jean Chastel is recorded as slaying the beast with a blessed silver bullet. Many argue that Chastel's use of a silver bullet is nothing more than a later embellishment on the story. Whatever the facts may be, this does not diminish the possibility of silver being useful against vampires. In terms of the kit I will be presenting in this post, the silver bullets will absolutely be effective. Below please find the kit presented for use with the 5th edition Curse of Strahd materials.

Vampire Killing Kit 
This ornate, walnut box is hinged and latched in iron. Inside are the tools necessary to combat the race known as "vampyr."

Availability: rare
Cost: Usually acquired through barter.
Weight: 15lbs

  • One pistol and set of black powder accoutrements (DMG page 268).
  • Two blessed silver bullets (these count as magical ammunition when dealing damage to a vampire).
  • One dire boar ivory holy symbol (doubles as a wooden stake).
  • Two vials of holy water.
  • One wooden stake with a silver tip.
  • One vial of powdered garlic clove (4 doses).
  • Professor Blomberg’s Serum (counts as a Potion of Greater Healing)
  • One Magnifying Glass of Corpselight (Grants advantage on investigation rolls associated with undead once per day. Recharges after a long rest)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Leprechaun Poitín

There's a neat little still at the foot of the hill,
Where the smoke curls up to the sky,
By a whiff of the smell you can plainly tell
That there's poitin, boys, close by.
For it fills the air with a perfume rare,
And betwixt both me and you,
As home we roll, we can drink a bowl,
Or a bucketful of Mountain Dew

For background before there was whiskey, there was poitín. Pronounced putch-een, it was first brewed by Irish monks sometime around the end of the 5th century. At the time it was known by the name Uisce beatha (pronounced ish-ka-ba-hah, or water of life). Soon the knowledge of this mountain dew found its way beyond the cloistered walls of the monasteries. The alchemy of distilling the potent beverage became common knowledge throughout the land. No longer was it the secret of monks or royalty that could afford it.

Interestingly, in 1661 King Charles outlawed this beverage crafted from barley, potatoes and beets. This of course did not stop commoners from building hidden and quite illicit distilleries. Often a small portable vat known as a poitín (Gaelic for little pot) was used. Chances are if you found a potatoes farmer they knew where to get a bottle of the good stuff. Very often the average poitín packed quite a punch at 95% ABV (alcohol per volume), making it even more legendary. In 2008, Irish poitín finally became a commercially produced spirit.

So how does this tie into game material? Well the leprechaun is probably the most famous of the Irish faerie folk. According to Yeats, they were a solitary faerie generally known for toiling at crafting shoes. From this they most were very rich with many buried treasure crocks. He goes on to say, They are withered, old, and solitary, in every way unlike the sociable spirits of the first sections. They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms. They are the great practical jokers among the good people.

All that shoe making I imagine makes for a very dry throat! That being said, I decided to create two different types of leprechaun poitín for use in your campaign. The mundane version of this forbidden elixir already is attainable only on the black market. But what if there were magical recipes of poitín crafted by the faerie folk? The lengths that Kings, Queens, powerful wizards, and merchant guilds would go to acquire some would be great. So bring your tankard and try a wee dram, they say the first drop is the best!

Leigheas Poitín 

The etymology of Leigheas is from Old Irish leiges‎, meaning healing or medicine. This strong version is crafted with blackberries for added sweetness. A favorite of the faerie folk, it is renowned for its curative and euphoric powers. Some say that rare fungus from the Sidhe gardens is a secret part of the recipe. Drinking a mouthful of this enchanted beverage will instantly make the imbiber intoxicated. Any pain or discomfort they were feeling is completely numbed by the beverage. In addition any magical charms affecting the drinker are immediately ended. Finally the imbiber heals 1 point of damage a round for 3d6 rounds. Unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the intoxication is also cured after the last round of healing. However, the resulting hangover is as nearly debilitating, but not in a good way.

Amadán Poitín

The etymology of Amadán is from Old Irish ammatán, meaning fool or simpleton. Leprechauns craft this mind-altering tonic simply for entertainment or to beguile humans. It is well known that finding a bottle of non-labeled poitín comes with inherent risk. It is often discovered in abandoned cabins, lying against an old tree, or around a bed of mushrooms. For those commoners thirsty for a drink of poitín, often the risk is not long considered. This is exactly what the leprechauns are often counting upon, and more often than not they are successful. Consuming Amadán is the equivalent of drinking a liquid Charm Person spell. The caveat being, as a willing participant no saving throw is permitted. One task must then be completed for the leprechaun. The task may be simply to dance and sing or may involve something a tad more mischievous.

If you enjoyed this post and plan on running a Celtic, Irish, or Faerie folk themed adventure consider Tales from the Game Tavern issue#3. Available now in print and pdf it includes a complete adventure involving a leprechaun with supporting material throughout the zine. If you are a home-brewer and interested in crafting your own poitín you may want to visit this link. Just be sure you drink from the correct bottle as you never know what pesky leprechauns may be around!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Tales from the Game Tavern: Issue #3

Spring is finally here and the faeries have started to awaken after the long winter. The tales involving the wee folk are very popular around St. Patrick’s Day. Whimsical, and often very dangerous, faeries are perfect for gaming inspiration. In this third issue you will find a complete adventure and supporting material. What you won’t find is any gold at the end of the rainbow. Unless of course you catch a leprechaun! As always, the entire issue is RPG system agnostic. So whether you play BCMI, a retro clone, or 5E, it does not matter.


  •     Ecology of the Redcap: Murderous wee folk that haunt ruined places.
  •     Sídhe Fungus Gardens: Strange fungi and bacteria of the faerie mounds.
  •     Crock of Gold: A drop die table for use in your campaign.
  •     Mr. Tweed’s Spectacles: A mid-level adventure involving a leprechaun.
  •     Beer Bread: They will be begging for it every game session.

Thematic material is always fun to use at the game table. As you can see from above, this is a complete game night package. Furthermore, there is enough supporting material to use this issue as the kickoff for a small sandbox or additional game sessions. Are you looking for something with Celtic or Irish overtones for your March gatherings? Then your quest is completed!

Part of the included adventure, Mr. Tweed’s Spectacles, involves magical glasses. These need to be printed, cut out, and assembled for players to wear during the game session. Alternatively, if you are having a St. Patrick’s Day party and need fun glasses, look no further! These are perfect for kids and adults alike. The template for the glasses are offered here free to download:

Treasure Cheaters

Finally, we will be doing a giveaway for one new set of Gamescience Emerald Gem Dice. How do you win them? Well besides the luck of the Irish, you need to wear a pair of Treasure Cheaters and post a picture of yourself. Then of course tag me in the picture (On Google with +GrandDM or on Twitter @Grand_Dm) and you are entered in the giveaway. You do not need to purchase a copy of the zine to enter the contest, but your continued patronage is greatly appreciated. The deadline to submit your pictures is April 5th, 2016. I will then randomly select a winner with the roll of a trusty die.