Monday, October 23, 2017

Twenty Questions with Rose Estes

In 1983 I was given a few Endless Quest books for my birthday. Already voraciously consuming anything Dungeons & Dragons related I could find, these were a great gift. The idea of a book where you could make story choices and change the outcome was a great concept. After all this was the very spirit of the game, where the players are crafting the story at the table together.

For me the Endless Quest books were just another reason to love D&D in the 1980s. I poured over each of them dozens of times, trying every possible outcome. My young imagination was on fire and these little books were fueling it. Now so many years later I have passed the books onto my own children, who similarly have enjoyed them.

Rose Estes was the creator of the Endless Quest series, and a name that will always be dear to me. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rose recently, and would like to share it below.

Twenty Questions with Rose Estes

Grand DM: What was it like working at TSR Hobbies in the 1980s?

Rose Estes: Working for TSR in the early 1980's was very, very exciting. You knew that you were part of something important and that it was headed nowhere but UP! You never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next, but it was only going to be good in the long (and definitely in the short) run. You had the sense of being on a fast-moving train and all that you could do was hold on tight. It was exhilarating and every morning one wondered and looked forward to: "what will happen today?!"

Grand DM: Did you ever have a chance to interface with Gary Gygax?

Rose Estes: In the early 80's Gary's office was only a few doors down the hall and everyone interacted. Gary was obviously leader of the pack, but he was available to all.

Grand DM: I read my first Endless Quest book in 1983. As a young Dungeons & Dragons player, those stories really resonated with me. Could you tell us how the Endless Quest books came about?

Rose Estes: Well, in 1982 I took a leave of absence to travel with friends who were part of a tent circus, I figured that it would make for interesting newspaper articles. I had been with them for only a few weeks when we set up in Decorah, Iowa and went to town to do some laundry. There was a bookcase and books that one could borrow or buy and I picked up one of R.A. Montgomery's Choose Your Own Adventure books. I realized instantly that the books would be the perfect method of explaining D&D to both adults and kids. It had been my job to try to explain the game to adults, most of whom disapproved of the game without understanding it. So, I cut short my trip and called a friend to come and get me.

When I returned I tried my best to convince the powers that be that TSR should do a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book. But the idea met with little interest despite my many attempts to convince them otherwise. Finally, annoyed that I kept on about the idea I was told that if I thought it was a good idea, I should write it myself.

The thought had never occurred to me. I had worked as a journalist, but had never written or even envisioned writing fiction. But I was so aggravated that I did just that, I went home and wrote the first of what would become the Endless Quest series, "Return to Brookmere." I wrote it longhand on legal pads.

Eventually, the project was introduced at a Random House TSR sales meeting in Puerto Rico in January of 1982. The upshot was that Random House was very familiar with Montgomery's series and agreed that it was a perfect vehicle for introducing D&D to a wider audience. I was tasked with writing three more books in the next three months which I did, all in long hand on legal pads.

Grand DM: Return to Brookmere is a personal favorite of mine. So much that I have often included the “Ruins of Brookmere” in my own D&D campaigns. I was curious what your inspiration for that story may have been?

Rose Estes: "Return to Brookmere" was actually the first book, not "Dungeon of Dread." I had lived in the tiny town (pop. 16) of Brookmere high in the mountains of British Columbia, 400 miles north of Vancouver, B.C. for two years in the late 60's and had always hoped to return. But I never did. So, I suppose subconsciously, it was my way of paying homage to a brief, idyllic time in my life.

Larry Elmore cover for Return to Brookmere

Grand DM: Of all the Endless Quest books you authored, which one are you most proud of?

Rose Estes: Oddly, I have no particular favorite in the series. You have to understand, I had no background in writing, not in journalism or in fiction. I never had any writing classes of any sort and what I wrote came out of my own head, I can't blame anyone else for it. So, being thrust into fiction with no time to think, plan or even worry about it, I just wrote the books as quickly as I could to keep up with the demanding publication schedule. Each of them, I would later realize, was a learning experience and I did my best to adapt to the needs of the stories.

Fortunately, set up as they were, call and response, so to speak, the story-line and choices dictated what needed to be written, as good as an outline or a blueprint and drove the story from beginning to end. I could not have intentionally created a better teaching tool. I learned from each and every book and so, gradually, my skills improved. I had no time to be fearful or to wonder what the heck I thought I was doing pretending to be an author and writing books! Some years I wrote as many as five books, it was a hectic pace and obviously, it changed my life.

Grand DM:  I’ve heard that you were not a D&D player and it surprised me. It certainly did not seem to affect your ability to create very thematic stories. What was your secret?

Rose Estes: I think this is the most important question you've asked. No, I never played the game. I was drawn by the stories but had little to absolutely no interest in all of the dice rolling which seemed tedious and worse, interrupted the flow of the narrative. I realize this is heresy, but so be it.

Few things in my life have had as major an influence on my life and creating the person I am than reading, so, despite my lack of formal training, I am first and foremost, a storyteller and that was always the impetus behind the books. Obviously, the game created the framework and provided both the background and the characters/creatures/action and the E.Q.'s could not have existed without D&D. So, if there's a secret, that's it.

Grand DM: Over the years, there has been some controversy over the Greyhawk: Endless Quest books. I know they were published after Gary’s departure from TSR. Fans complain they were not true to the source material. Could you share with us some background and your thoughts on that?

Rose Estes: I'm not surprised that there has been controversy over the Greyhawks and if I could go back in time, I would apologize to Gary and his fans for what I did to his much loved world of Greyhawk. Writing E.Q.'s was far, far different that writing a serious novel. I had myself, left TSR and was dealing with the financial vagaries that are the due of a writer. When I was offered the Greyhawk series, I was not in a position financially to say no, but unfortunately, I didn't have the skills to do them justice.

The first two Greyhawks that I wrote embarrass me to this day. Frankly, they were awful. And yet, they are the real launching pad for the writer I've become. I cut my teeth on them and left them much the worse for being gnawed upon. I apologize wholeheartedly to anyone I disappointed. But, I think that by the time I got to books 6, 7 and 8, they and I had much improved. Unfortunately, most people had stopped reading them.

Grand DM:  I know you stopped writing for a period of ten years because of a terrible motor vehicle accident. Have you recovered from your injuries?

Rose Estes: It's very strange the way life works. Yes, the accident was a game changer. I sustained a closed head injury that killed the part of the brain that retrieves vocabulary. Isn't that ironically bizarre?  But, because I had a large vocabulary pre-accident, it might have seemed that nothing was wrong, I could still carry on an intelligent conversation, but it completely altered the way that I thought.

Before the accident I used to have to beg friends like Jim Ward for plots. Post-accident, my head overflowed with plots, ideas of all sorts gushing forth 24/7 and the problem became how to manage and live with my chaotic brain and all that it spewed out. Early days it all but overwhelmed me.

I MUST mention that I might not have survived as a writer had it not been for my longtime partner Tom Wham who helped me write and finish books that were in the works and during this period of time, and Bill Fawcett who gave me work and all but supported me at times. I owe them both a huge debt of gratitude. Over the intervening years, my brain and I have reached somewhat of a truce. It grudgingly allows itself to be caged when I have to concentrate on life and in turn, I allow it to run rampant after I'm done working. It's a strange existence being both jailer and prisoner contained in the same body.

So yes, with caveats, I have recovered. I began writing again in 2004 and wrote three books of nonfiction on the evolution and development of various dog breeds. Writing nonfiction is easier than writing fiction.

1982 Endless Quest Ad

Grand DM: Dungeons and Dragons is now enjoying what many consider to be, mainstream popularity. Obviously social media and shows such as Game of Thrones have brought in new fans. Will we see any more writing projects from you that are fantasy related?

Rose Estes: Several years ago, I was contacted by Ryan Schifferin (through Facebook!) who offered me the opportunity to write a story using characters of his creation. It was great fun and I gained a lot of confidence in doing so. Then, this year, I wrote a story for an anthology called Sisterhood of the Blade for Jonathan Thompson and Ed Greenwood, who were kind to invite me to be a part of their project.

I have not contacted any of the main stream publishers whom I wrote for, nor do I have an agent, so I am just feeling my way forward. I'm currently writing a digital E.Q. type book for Randy Price's company 2 Kings.

I do have several plots that are swimming around and demanding loudly that they be written, but I am having trouble constraining them to short formats like E.Q.'s, they all aspire to be novels. Not sure what will happen there.

Grand DM: The Endless Quest books were translated into 28 languages and have sold over 16 million copies. That is really a stunning accomplishment. If you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be, and why?

Rose Estes: Advice to my younger self.....I wish I could have told myself to relax and enjoy the moment more than being so focused on plans for the future. But I probably wouldn't have listened.

Grand DM: At the end of Inside the Actor’s Studio, James Lipton has a list of interview questions. He always credits them to French novelist Marcel Proust (1871–1922). I would like to ask you those questions.

Rose Estes: Sounds good.

Grand DM: What is your favorite word?

Rose Estes:  I've always been fascinated by the fact that in the Chinese language, disaster and opportunity are the same word. Since my life has often been defined by both, I'd have to say that is my favorite word.

Grand DM: What is your least favorite word?

Rose Estes: I have several words that are my least favorites, all equally disliked: Li Berry (instead of library, and I admit to disliking people who can't be bothered to say it correctly. SMIRK (frequently over-used and used incorrectly). Amazing! Awesome! It would me everything to me! All are totally overused words and phrases and have become all but meaningless.

Grand DM: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?

Rose Estes: Creative turn ons: Beauty. New thoughts, generally gained from television or books that explode in my brain and consume me. Emotionally: music and interaction with animals. Spiritually, music, watching the ocean which is at my doorstep and the night sky.

Grand DM: What turns you off?

Rose Estes:  Being told that I can't do something. Intentional meanness of spirit.

Grand DM: What is your favorite curse word?

Rose Estes:  I rarely curse, I'd rather find words that mean what I think.

Grand DM: What sound or noise do you love?

Rose Estes: Music, a cat's purr.

Grand DM: What sound or noise do you hate?

Rose Estes: The sounds of politics for personal gain, greed, destruction of all that is good that so many have strived for, cruelty, ignorance, racial division.

Grand DM: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Rose Estes: When my late husband Gary Hauser, was diagnosed with cancer in 2006,  I took over running his gallery, thinking it would only be until he recovered and returned. Unfortunately, that never happened. As I'd never even thought of having such a business, I was at a loss. His advice was for me to follow my passions. Which I did with his full support. It has enabled me to explore and collect some of the most interesting objects from around the world, which seem to delight and resonate with large numbers of interesting people. The objects and the people allow me, at this late date in my life, to vicariously travel the world. The sculpting of animals is simply a private passion.

Grand DM: What profession would you not like to do?

Rose Estes: I would hate and be incapable of working with anything mathematical, analytical or rigidly formatted.

Grand DM: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Rose Estes: “Well done, you made a difference in children's/animal's lives."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tomb of Annihilation: Mundane Dangers of Chult

With the release of Tomb of Annihilation, I wanted to expand some on the dangers within a jungle setting. So I decided to base a few adventuring challenges off real life. While fantastical flora and fauna is expected in a game such as Dungeons & Dragons, sometimes the mundane is just as deadly. Below I have listed some things that could happen to player characters as they explore the wilds of Chult. As a Dungeon Master, these occurrences will help you bring the environment even more to life.

Biting Midge Swarm

Although their average life span is only a few days, biting midges are not to be ignored. They are most active around dawn and dusk, and congregate in vertical columns, or swarms. They are commonly mistaken for mosquitoes by the unwary traveler. Female midges voraciously bite because they require blood to help form their eggs. The swarms are attracted to both humanoids and animals because of carbon dioxide generated by their breath. They are also very in tune with the smell of natural body odor and sweat when hunting for blood.

For this iteration, the swarm is considered a hazard. A living creature encountering a Biting Midge Swarm must make a DC12 Constitution saving throw or become Prone for one minute. This saving throw may be attempted again at the end of their next turn. For every round a creature is within the biting swarm, there is a 15% chance they contract a disease. Roll 1d4 on the following table to determine the disease:

1.    Shivering Sickness (Page 40, ToA)
2.    Sight Rot (Page 257, DMG)
3.    Cackle Fever (Page 257, DMG)
4.    Sewer Plague (Page 257, DMG)

What preventative measures may be taken?

Aside from using magic, such as a Gust of Wind spell, the following are some mundane tips:
  • Insect Repellent (Page 32, ToA). Caveat: This will not keep the whole swarm away, but reduce Prone time by half on a failed save.
  • Face Net. Advantage on Saving Throw against becoming Prone. Disadvantage on Perception checks.
  • Citrus or Smoke. Good for camps to keep swarms away, but may draw the attention of other things!
  • Yeast in the blood. This may just be a local myth, but some suggest midge hate the flavor. But hey, another reason to enjoy dwarven ale!


Listed below are two types of common infection within the jungle. In fact, they are so common that a party resource such as Lesser Restoration may be drained quite often.

Fungal (jungle) Rot: This occurs when the character’s feet are exposed to constant moisture and humid conditions. Each day a DC12 Constitution saving throw is required, to avoid bacteria infecting saturated feet. On a failed save, raised ulcers or carbuncles form in one day, causing terrible pain. Characters at this stage gain one level of Exhaustion. Within 1d4 days the feet will swell and gangrene will set in causing another level of Exhaustion. If this is not treated within a reasonable time (DM’s prerogative) with healing magic, amputation will be required. For this reason, it’s common to see foot amputees in Port Nyanzaru, most of which are foreigners.

What preventative measures may be taken?

Dry your feet. This can be done manually, or even with a Prestidigitation cantrip. Characters who do this daily gain advantage on saving throws against fungal rot.

Nyanzaru’s Revenge: This condition comes with a fever, nausea, vomiting, cramps, and the abrupt onset of diarrhea. They won’t be laughing long after their characters are infected with it. With dehydration a constant threat (Page 38, ToA), characters in Chult are drinking all the time. Any ground or river water which is consumed without first being boiled is considered contaminated. In addition, the unsanitary handling of food can also cause this condition.

Any time a character consumes water or foodstuffs which is potentially contaminated, they must succeed on a DC15 Constitution saving throw. On a failure they have Nyanzaru’s Revenge, and gain a level of Exhaustion. The condition will then last 1d4 days, with subsequent saving throws allowed. For each new failure, gain another level of Exhaustion.

What preventative measures may be taken?
  • Avoid food and water from shady street vendors in Port Nyanzaru or neighboring villages.
  • Be certain any drinks were created with boiled water.
  • Be very, very nice to the Dungeon Master.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Three DM Lifehacks You Should Consider

After sitting behind the DM screen for many years you learn a few things. As a Dungeon Master, I’m always on the lookout for cheap, but effective ways to improve the tabletop experience. Listed below are three DM Lifehacks I think will benefit you, but obviously every group is different. If you have any hacks of your own please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Since the early 1980s I have seen countless attempts at initiative trackers. I personally have used everything from a dry erase board, legal pad, 3x5cards, and even designated a player to do it. There have even been apps developed for it and recent crowd funding projects. But nothing has done a better job than the simple old clothespin. You can buy them in bulk from the dollar store and then all you need is a few sharpies. They can be clipped right to your DM screen and are in plain few of everyone in the room. If you don’t use a DM screen they can be attached to just about anything else on the table. I have seen people use everything from a metal paper towel stand, to a upside down box lid. So, you also want to speed up combat? Think about clothespins for visible initiative tracking.


Pizza Box Stand
They come with your pizza order to keep the cheese and topping from sticking to the box. Showing elevation from flying or levitation has always been a challenge with miniatures. Most gaming groups order pizza anyway, and you get these free elevation stands! In my current Sword & Planet campaign we are using them to represent hover skiffs. I have seen another DM mentioning the use of narrow straws on the tripod legs to raise them even higher. If you’re using a battle map it’s easy just to write elevations next to the stands as well. They also have various uses for spells such as Spider Climb, or even Floating Disc. The limit really is your imagination when it comes to little hacks such as this. Certainly, as a quick reference they make for an easy table visual that comes with a delicious treat!

Dark Inspiration Dice
I first mentioned these in my Death House post last year when originally dreamed up. I have always been in favor of bennies (slang for benefits) in my D&D games. With the introduction of Inspiration as a mechanic in 5E I wanted to take it a step further. With Dark Inspiration, there is a pool of six-sided dice prominently displayed in the middle of the game table. At any time, a player may use this resource to increase an attack roll, skill check, or saving throw. The catch? The player also hands the DM one of the dice, who can use it anyway they see fit as the adventure progresses. For those of you starting Tomb of Annihilation, this is a perfect mechanic to add more danger and suspense to the lands of Chult! In terms of creation, I used some old board game D6s and splattered them with reddish-brown acrylic paint. The blood represents the overall danger of using this power…as it will backfire on you eventually!


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tomb of Annihilation: Cinema Treasure Inspiration

Ta Prohm Temples of Angkor
With Tomb of Annihilation being released, many adventurers will be braving the dangers of Chult. For the uninitiated, Chult is part of the Forgotten Realms setting. It’s a land of savage monsters, poisonous flora and fauna, and trackless jungles. As a setting, jungles have long been a favorite to explore by authors. Just to name a few inspirational ones:

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Lost World (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Land That Time Forgot (1918)
Michael Crichton: Congo (1980)

The jungle is a perfect backdrop for a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. Under the great canopy there is little light, everything is mysterious, the heat and humidity oppressive, danger lurks in the shadows, and the unknown is ubiquitous. In terms of taking the players (and their characters) out of their comfort zone, a jungle setting certainly delivers.

Over the years there have been plenty of cinema experiences also that used the jungle. Below I have picked three with fun treasure inspiration for your Tomb of Annihilation campaign. After all, what would a jungle based adventure be without ancient ruins, deadly traps, and legendary treasures!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Can you hear the theme song yet? When you think of jungle adventurers, Indiana Jones is right at the top. The Golden Idol and the resulting consequences of looting it remain one of favorite cinema moments. The idol is a believed to be based on the Aztec goddess, Tlazolteotl. Her domains were interesting and  covered purification, fertility, and filth. That said, this sounds like something perfect for a place such as Chult. Perhaps the idol can cure or minimize disease, but at great cost. Maybe there is a nasty curse associated with the idol? Replicas are available online from many different vendors and makes for a great table prop.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

In this story, the adventurers are seeking a massive emerald named El Corazón ("The Heart"). The map and gemstone are perfect examples of easy table props. Players love handouts and a crystal gem such as this can be purchased at your local craft store. Gemstones are usually associated with fantastical treasure hunts, which are perfect for a Dungeons & Dragons game. Something like El Corazón would almost definitely come with curse, but also may be the key to something. In the very least the temptation of unearthing a massive gemstone makes for a wonderful side quest in the jungles of Chult.

Jumanji (1995)

How fitting, a movie about a boy who is trapped in a board game! One of the things I always thought was cool were the actual Jumanji game pieces. The four animal shaped tokens include an elephant, crocodile, rhinoceros, and monkey. I think these would make perfect Figurines of Wondrous Power! The characters could find an old copy of Jumanji, or alternatively some other Chultan game during their travels. For added coolness replicas of the figurines are available online to use as game props.

In closing remember there is inspiration all around you. With a published adventure such as the Tomb of Annihilation, one of the best things you can do is make it your own. Borrow, steal, and use material from other sources liberally. The insertion of favorite moments from cinema and story makes for memorable Easter eggs at the game table. If your group is the type that appreciates inside jokes and nostalgic moments, got for it! Besides what DM does not want to unleash a giant boulder trap on the PCs? Pro Tip: Use a D100 and knock over the miniatures for added effect!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review: DM's Screen Reincarnated/Tomb of Annihilation Dice

I have been using a Dungeon Master’s screen since 1983 and have more iterations then I can count. One of the big disappointments with 5E has been the lack of a useful screen offering. Because of this most DMs have just created their own DIY solution, which still really is the best option. That being said, the Dungeon Master's Screen Reincarnated is a step in the right direction.
The outside of the four-panel screen depicts an ancient red dragon by artist Tyler Jacobson. I would not have purchased the product if it were covered in Forgotten Realms locations or NPC heroes. The dragon is iconic and screams Dungeons & Dragons. This was a perfect selection by whoever was responsible for picking the artwork for this product.

Moving along, the most important part is the information behind the screen. Wizard’s FINALLY has given us a modern screen with useful reference material for the 5E Dungeon Master. Below are pictures of all four interior panels:

As you can see from above, the designers did a good job of populating these screens. I think the reference material they picked is commonly looked up by most groups. Also of note about this screen is the sturdy construction and landscape design. The latter is particularly nice since the screen does not tower over the table and obscure your view. So, would I recommend this product? Yes. I think this is a useful for tool for Dungeon Masters of all seasons.

I also purchased the Tomb of Annihilation dice accessory. Just to be clear, I only purchased this for the tin box. The Green Devil face from the Tomb of Horrors is one of my favorite pieces of D&D imagery. The box is cool, but I was a bit disappointed in the product overall. The images of the tin and dice in the marketing material is a bit different. The tin is very green and the dice appear to have sharper edges, like Gamescience dice. Instead the dice are rounded, seem a tad smaller then a normal set, and are a flat green color. Would I recommend this product? Only if you really want the box because the dice are certainly underwhelming.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Twelve Magic Torches

A while ago I posted some information on how to add torch creation to your campaign world. With 5th edition, one of the things that seems to have been cast aside is the common torch. In the early days of Dungeons and Dragons they were a staple. Now with the Light spell and Darkvision being so prevalent, hand held light sources are not overly valuable. That being said, I decided to spice torches up a bit!

Since ancient times, humans have associated magical properties with various types of wood. That theme fits wonderfully into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. For this idea let us assume that two versions of trees exist: one mundane, and one enchanted. The latter being rare and guarded jealously by druidic circles, malicious fey, and even xenophobic elves.  Occasionally a sapling from one of these magic variations may appear in the lands of the common folk. Or alternatively, a group of adventurers may be retained to hunt and fell these trees. Imagine their surprise if a treant template was added to one!

Once prepared, the wood from these arcane trees make valuable torches. Although expensive in coin or trade, magic torches are something interesting to add to a merchant’s shelf. If you would like to add some flavor to your games, and see torches in the dungeon again, these may be a fun addition. Below please find twelve torch variations and their respective magical properties.

Base Torch:

A torch burns for 1 hour, providing bright light in a 20-foot radius and dim light for an additional 20 feet. If you make a melee Attack with a burning torch and hit, it deals 1 fire damage.

Magic Torch Subtype:

01. Apple Wood: Beware, fey are attracted to the dancing flames it creates. While holding the torch you may cast Faerie Fire one time before it burns out.

02. Ash Wood: The smoke generated by this torch assists with concentration. Anyone within 10’ of the burning torch gains advantage on one Intelligence based roll before it burns out.

03. Beech Wood: The greenish flames of this torch have divination properties. While holding the torch you may cast Augury one time before it burns out.

04. Birch Wood: This magic wood is favored in cleansing rituals. Druids of the deepest wild covet it. While holding the torch you may cast Lesser Restoration one time before it burns out.

05. Cedar Wood: The smoke from this wood creates a hazy sphere of energy. While holding the torch you may cast Protection from Good and Evil one time before it burns out.

06. Cherry Wood: Sylvan beings favor this wood as a magical focus. Anyone within 10’ of the burning torch gains advantage on one Wisdom based roll before it burns out.

07. Elm Wood: According to legend, the fey use this wood in rebirth rituals. While holding the torch over a fallen companion, you may cast Spare the Dying one time before it burns out.

08. Hickory Wood: Druids have long used the blueish flames of this wood in their influence rituals. Anyone within 10’ of the burning torch gains advantage on one Charisma based roll before it burns out.

09. Holly Wood: A torch designed from this wood can double as a magic weapon. While holding the torch you may cast Shillelagh on it one time before it burns out. It still gets its +1 flame damage bonuses.

10. Maple Wood: The soothing warmth generated by this torch has legendary healing properties. Anyone within 10’ of the burning torch gains one extra hit die to spend during a short rest.

11. Oak Wood: Legend holds visions of great heroes can be seen if you stare into the flames of this wood. Anyone within 10’ of the burning torch is inspired with bravery, gaining +1 to hit one time before it burns out.

12. Willow Wood: Perhaps the rarest of magical trees, the flames generated from this wood are said to burn away the cold clutches of death. While holding the torch over a fallen companion, you may cast Revivify one time before it burns out.

As the effects above vary, I encourage each Dungeon Master to develop their own value system. Obviously purchasing these torches should not be prohibitively expensive, but we also don’t need characters with golf bags full of them. I would consider adding them as treasure items, and barter material from merchants. Additionally, the characters could find one of these trees and attempt to make torches themselves. Don’t be afraid to use these torches against the characters also! Finally, do you have ideas for other types of magical torches? Please feel free to share any with a follow-up post.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Great Ziggurat of Draconis

I have awakened from my long blogging slumber! This past weekend was Ultracon 6, our friends and family convention. The theme for this year was a sunken city named Draconis, which had risen for various campaign reasons. We had fifteen players, in three groups of five playing the adventure. The player characters were submerged the entire day Saturday, which made for some interesting three-dimensional combat. To make the latter work better we created water stands that would slide up and down a dowel. After some quick measurements from a ruler, you were swimming up and down in no time!

Our water stands in use for 3D combat!

Their enemies included Deep Ones, Mind Flayers, Aboleth, and an Elder Brain. But the big battle would be at the Great Ziggurat at the center of the city. There Nethyrmaul the Undying, the ancient dracolich, would be waiting for them. We designed the encounter so Nethyrmaul took turns attacking a different group each round. All the while the PCs had to deal with an army of ghouls, stone guards, paralyzing traps, and caustic water spouts.

To facilitate this, we decided a piece of custom terrain was needed. My friend Ike Horton, and fellow DM Team member, volunteered for the task. For background Ike is the person who introduced me to the Dungeons and Dragons game all the way back in 1983. He is also a very talented paper craft artist so it was no surprise the Great Ziggurat would be a visual feast when completed. Ike shared various progress pictures along the way to the DM Team, but nothing compared to when it was finally revealed.

As you can see from the pictures below, Ike made a monstrous piece of terrain. The entire ziggurat is scratch built and measures an eye popping 7’ long, 5’ high, and 3’ wide! We had to use four tables in the hotel just to set the ziggurat up before the big reveal to the players. One fantastic part of the design is all three sides separate from the main ziggurat. This way each of our three tables had a piece as the different groups battled their way to the top.

Front view of the Great Ziggurat

Here you can see how the sides connected.

Another view of the sides.

A close-up of a Tiamat sigil & caustic water spouts.

Nethyrmaul waiting for a PC to snack on.

Example of a detached side at the game table.

I just want to commend Ike again on his amazing work designing such an unforgettable game prop. You can find Ike on Facebook here. If you have a piece of papercraft art in mind, or maybe even some custom gaming terrain contact him. Ike has a busy schedule, and often multiple commissions, but I’m sure he would love to hear from you!

We have already started working on Ultracon for next summer. If you have never tried, I highly recommend putting together a family and friends convention. It's very rewarding gathering together old friends and new for a weekend of gaming, camaraderie, and steel on steel! You would be surprised how many crafty people are in your circle, and all the amazing things you can create together.

Custom terrain and props by another member of the DM Team.

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 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?









      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!