Dec 29, 2011

The Monster Engine

During one of my recent wandering on the tubes, I came across a site called The Monster Engine where the artist started off with the children's drawings and then add light and shadow, depth and shading, all the while retaining all the physics-defying, physiology-stretching, lack of reality from the original drawing.

The results are highly disturbing, and from a D&D point of view, look like something right out of the Far Realm. I could easily see the "finished" creatures being stat'ed up as something truly bizare, like something from Raistlin's Lair of the Live Ones (see Jeff Easley's painting here).

Alternately, I could see a modern horror game centering around the original children's drawings, only for the heroes/investigators to confront the manifestations of those drawings (and showing the finished art for that reference).

Either way, I highly encourage you to check out the The Monster Engine.

Dec 22, 2011

Dragonlance Comics (Issue 31) - Sword of the Kinslayer (Part 2)

This story begins a few days after the last issue.

Once again, we start with a nice little paragraph from Astinus recapping previous events and setting the stage for this issue.

The wolf-clan dwarves are disposing the bodies of the dead neidar (hill dwarves) in a ritual fashion. Wolfthane stops the clan shaman's ritual short, not caring about his "mumbo-jumbo" and fearing the shaman's horn might cause an avalanche.

Meanwhile, the surviving neidar, including Theolin are camped nearby, huddled around a small campfire and saddened that they must wait for another day to honor their dead.

Elsewhere Riva tells Stonehelm a story from her childhood. One day as a little girl, playing in the courtyard of Castle Silvercrown, Riva came upon a clutch of eggs. As she reached out to touch one, the mother goose, trying to protect her children, let loose a wild attack upon the little girl. She cowered in fear until her father chased away the goose and pulled Riva to him. She recalled how safe she felt and wished her was with her now.

Around the corner, and unseen by Riva or Stonehelm, Wolfthane hears Riva's story and seems touched by her "fragile light of innocence".

As he enters the room where Riva and Stonehelm are being held, there is a slight tremor, which Wolfthane dismisses as the "way of the mountain".

Wolfthane gets into a discussion with Riva. She asks how Wolfthane can kill help hill dwarves. The clan leader claims that everything he does is to make the dwarven peoples stronger. That they once followed the old ways, but now some, like hill dwarves, have grown weak, and others, like Stonehelm, are just mercenaries fighting for money. Wolfthane promises not to kill Riva, and will even spare Stonehelm, since the mercenary is Riva's friend.

Meanwhile, back at Castle Silvercrown, Lord Silvercrown is growing even more obsessed at possessing the Kinslayer blade that Wolfthane owns. When Maric informs his father that Riva has been missing for the last few days, Lord Silvercrown orders Maric to form a search party. The lord begins to say, "to find my sword", but quickly changes it to "Riva".

Elsewhere Wolfthane and his followers are outside the entrance to a cave, along with some of their prisoners Riva and Stonehelm. Wolfthane offers Stonehelm the chance to join with him, to help "bring back the days of dwarven glory".

Stonehelm looks in the cave and appears to see something shocking. But still, rather than join with Wolfthane, the mercenary would rather enter the cave. Stonehelm beseeches Wolfthane that if he really does respect the old ways, that the clan leader will let Stonehelm die like a warrior. Wolfthane honors the mercenary's request--he unshackles the dwarf and gives Stonehelm a weapon to defend himself.

Stonehelm chargers into the cave at full speed. From within the cave there is a deafening roar and a blast of bone chilling frost spills out of the opening along with Stonehelm's weapon.

Then a voice from within the cave speaks, asking if Wolfthane found the girl. He replies that he has, but questions the need to kill her. The voice from the cave demands the girl's death.

Just then Riva breaks free from her chains and she and Wolfthane fight.

Elsewhere, at a crossroads in the hills, Theolin, leading the hill dwarves away to safety, comes across Lord Silvercrown, leading his troops into the mountains. Theolin gives Lord Silvercrown information about Riva and begs him to destroy the Kinslayer blade that Wolfthane possesses. Lord Silvercrown laughs at such a suggestion, claiming that the sword will be his to wield, as he and his men ride off into the mountain.

Meanwhile, Riva is trying to run away from Wolfthane. The dwarf is close behind her, impressed by Riva's resourcefulness. When a mountain tremor knocks Riva off the cliff edge, Wolfthane is quick to her rescue. The dwarf is able to pull Riva to safety, but then finds himself hanging on to her for his life. Wolfthane notices the hesitation in Riva before pulling himself to safety.

The dwarf leader then knocks Riva out with a punch and carries her unconscious body back to the cave lair of "his mistress". From outside Wolfthane hears instructions to kill Riva with the Kinslayer blade. The dwarf hesitates for a moment before pushing Riva away from the cave mouth in defiance. From within the cave, a blast of freezing cold wind blows over the dwarf. Afterward, only the bones of the dwarf remain, still clutching the Kinslayer blade.

The dwarf shaman goes for the blade in an attempt to seize leadership of the clan, but the voice from inside the cave scares him away. Riva is given the chance to grab the blade, and is even shown a hint of the great things she can achieve (including knighthood), if she takes the weapon.

Riva, sensing a trap, refuses the blade, just as her father and his men arrive. Lord Silvercrown pushes her out of the way of another freezing blast from the cave mouth. While his men are engaged with the other wolf-clan dwarves, Lord Silvercrown takes the opportunity to grab the Kinslayer sword for his own.


Wow. Another great issue that works on all levels.
The art is just as fantastic as the previous issue, from the uniqueness of each of the wolf-clan dwarves, to all the detail in the background mountains. The chase sequence where Wolfthane is following Riva though the mountains, along and edge and eventually rescuing her from the fall is fantastic work. The pacing flows smoothly though these pages. There's also a great visual metaphor about a wild flower that underlies the chase sequence and ties in to Wolfthane's thoughts about Riva during this issue.

The other visual element I really liked was during the sequence where Riva seems a glimpse of her future self. Here we see Riva in the outfit she is wears throughout the rest of the series.

Story-wise this issue has been on par with the first one. What really worked for me was Wolfthane. In this one issue we see so many sides of him, that he becomes someone we begin to at least understand, if not identify with. He is clearly one of the strongest, well-rounded characters created in this comic (and does so in just a pair of issues). His death towards the end of the issue was a bit of a shock, but seems to be a great way to clear the stage for the finale which I suspect will be Riva v a possessed Lord Silvercrown v the thing in the cave.

At this point, I'm eagerly looking forward to the last, concluding issue, to this story.

Dec 15, 2011

Did You Know? Jeff Grubb's Dragonlance Connections

While many people think of Dragonlance as the creation of Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, there were a lot of other people involved. Remember, Dragonlance originally started out as a campaign setting and module series before the idea of writing accompanying novels was added to the mix.

One of the people who was involved in the early creation process of the setting was TSR employee Jeff Grubb. Mostly known for his work on the Forgotten Realms and Al-Qadim settings, it turns out Mr. Gurbb spent more time on Dragonlance than evidenced by the pair of novels he wrote for the setting (Lord Toede and Tymora's Luck).

The Grubb Vault is a page collecting details on many of Jeff's contributions to the setting. Of note are several links detailing the gods from Jeff's personal campaign that were appropriated for the Dragonlance setting.

Happy reading!

Dec 8, 2011

Dwarven Forge - Free Planning Tools - Part 2

This is the second of the two part series on planning tools for the Dwarven Forge Room sets. Last time I release a PDF of simple illustrations for the Room Set. This time I'm following up with another PDF of the Rooms and Passages set.
Note, I also updated the PDF of the original Rooms set. If you've downloaded that one when I first posted about it, you may want to check out the new version.

Both PDFs are available here.

Dec 1, 2011

The First Dragonlance Comic

I was recently surprised when I learned that prior to the TSR/DC Dragonlance comics series that ran in the 80's, there was a pitch for a Dragonlance comic that was made back in the earliest days of the setting.

Stephen Sullivan, and author (including several books in the Dragonlance New Adventures series) worked with noted comic artist Tim Truman.

While nothing every came to be from their proposal, the pitch did include 2 sample pages.

Stephen's website includes images of what those pages looked like... the very first Dragonlance comics.

Check them out on his website.

Nov 23, 2011

Wizard's Open Window About to Close

Hopefully by now you are all well aware of Wizard's Open Window policy on submissions for the online publications.

Just as hopefully, you've been working hard on your best ideas to send in (I know I've been kicking around two or three for the last month).

Now if you haven't heard about the open window, check out the posting on their website about it here. It has all the info you need, including some helpful advice.

For the rest of us, this is just a friendly reminder, that their window is fast approaching. It ends at the end of this month.

So get those ideas in and help make D&D the best game it can be!

Nov 17, 2011

Did you know? Gray Dragons

A little know official Dragonlance monster, the gray dragon, first appeared in issue #146 of Dragon Magazine (cover date June 1989). Appearing as part of the magazine's dragon theme issue, it was one of several new dragon types described in an article titled "The Dragon's Bestiary".

The article offers a few other new dragon types, but none of them are specifically stated as coming from Krynn.

The gray dragon is very similar in size, nature, and habitat to a white dragon. In the 3.5 Bestiary of Krynn book, gray dragon's are presented as just a list of adjustments to a comparable white dragon of the same age.

The forth edition book, Draconomicon - Chromatic Dragons, offers up a gray dragon, but has no connection to the previous versions in terms of description, or similarity to white dragons.

Nov 10, 2011

Dungeon Bastard

There's a lot of great D&D humor on the Internets, but one of my recent favorites is also one of the best.

The videos are short, most under 5 min, and most take the form of the Dungeon Bastard responding to read emails. The production values and video quality are top notch, and with such a simple setup, it gets right into the D&D humor right away.

If you haven't checked out the Dungeon Bastard, you should do so at his website for all the YouTube links, or check out one of my favorites below.

Nov 3, 2011

Dragonlance Comics (Issue 30) - Sword of the Kinslayer (Part 1)

After last month's slight departure to the realm of Spelljammer, we return to the regular ongoing Dragonlance comic. This issue finds us back in time, just after the War of the Lance, when Riva was still on Ansalon and not yet a knight of Solamnia.

The story opens with a splash page and text (from Astinus, no less) that sets the time frame for the story. This is a pretty good idea since for the last 8 issues (since issue 22), we've been following her adventures in Taladas several years after the War of the Lance.

The story opens in northern Solamnia, during winter. A group of neidar (aka hill dwarves) are in route to Castle Silvercrown with a cache of weapons that they will sell to feed the village for the winter. Along with the neidar is Andvari Stonehelm, a hylar (mountain dwarf) mercenary they've hired as their peaceful community finds itself under assault by unknown forces that always strike under cover of night.

On the trail, springing out of hiding are a barbaric group of dwarves, lead by Uurthrym Wolfthane. They attack the caravan, killing everyone and taking the weapons for their own.

Unknown to them, Stonehelm survived the battle.

Meanwhile, at Castle Silvercrown, a tournament is under way. On the battle field, two armored warriors fight with swords till one yields. Lord Silvercrown is pleased with the fighting prowess of the victorious person, until the helm is removed and it is revealed that the would-be knight is his own daughter, Riva.

Then Lord Silvercrown berates his daughter openly for embarrassing Jethan, the son of a noble and political ally from Sancrist, on the battlefield moments ago. He quickly disarms her and sends her away, not before ordering his son, Maric, to follow Riva.

Riva, still fuming at her father's condemnation of her goal to become a knight overhears talk about the missing dwarves that were supposed to be presenting their weapons to Lord Silvercrown. Riva, seeing a chance to prove herself in a real situation, saddles her horse and heads out of town.

Maric, follows some distance behind her, eager to earn his father's praise.

Riva comes upon the carnage of the battlefield and finds a weakened Stonehelm.

Nearby, Maric has lost her trail. While drinking from his wineskin the dwarf barbarians sneak up on him with ill intent. Wolfthane quickly recognized Maric by the crest on his tunic and orders Grimvaar, one of his men, to stand down.

The dwarf leader bluffs Maric into believing they were bring the weapons to Lord Silvercrown when they were attacked by hobgoblins. Maric agrees to lead these dwarves back to the castle where he promises much gold will be waiting for the weapons they bring.

Later, at the neidar village, Riva sits with Stonehelm and Theolin, the village chieftain and priest. The dwarves talk about the clan of Wolfthane, and how they will be back. Stonehelm urges Riva to contact her father to send knights to the village, while Riva instead wants to train the local neidar on her own.

At Castle Silvercrown, Wolfthane arrives and presents the neidar weapons as his. Additionally, Wolfthane says he will forge a sword for the Lord, a sword of unsurpassed quality, such as his. The dwarf reveals his sword, which he calls Kinslayer. Lord Silvercrown is mesmerized by the weapon and momentarily demands that he have that blade an no other. After a moment, the lord of the castle calms down and accepts that the dwarf will craft another weapon for the lord.

Meanwhile, as Riva trains the locals, Stonehelm continues to urge her to get knights from her father claiming that the dwarves are not ready to battle the clan of Wolfthane and many will be killed.

Elsewhere, in the cavernous keep of Wolfthane's clan, their leader is prostrate on the ground talking to a figure deep within the cavern's shadows. The figure tells Wolfthane that Riva is the key to some plan, not Lord Silvercrown.

Back at the castle, Lord Silvercrown angrily tosses aside a crafted sword as being inferior for him. At the same time, he quickly dismissing the announcement that Riva has gone missing.

At the village, Riva, Stonehelm, and some other dwarves plan a defense of the village. Just then they are attacked by Wolfthane and his followers. Riva, seeing the onslaught finally yields to Stonehelm's pleas and leaves to get knights from Castle Silvercrown.

But before she leave town, she changes her mind, racing back with sword drawn, ready to fight. After a fierce battle with Wolfthane, she is taken prisoner. As the dwarven barbarians lead their prisoners out of town, which include Riva and Stonehelm, Theolin, who hadn't been captured, leaves the village without been seen.


Wow. What can I say. I've been complaining about the quality of the story and/or the art on and off for most of the series, and here, finally at issue 30 do I find myself writing a glowing review. This issue marks one of the most exciting starts to a story, since the very first issue (which was also, coincidentally, the debut story for Riva).

This first issue (the first of three for this story, according to the cover), does a great job setting the stage. The Wolfthane dwarves are a dirty, savage enemy practically explode on the page. The magical sword that Wolfthane calls Kinslayer clearly has some power and influence over Lord Silvercrown.

We once again get to see Riva as a young girl (issue 21 featured a "flashback" story to her younger days) trying to earn knighthood, which is consistent with her original portrayal. We also get to see Maric, and in a nice touch of continuity, he exhibits the same drinking problem we saw in issue 2.

The story continues to build nicely as we see Lord Silvercrown succumbing to an obsession over the Kinslayer at the same time as Riva tries to rise to the challenge of training the neidar to fight. Then we learn that there are larger forces at work, and that somehow Riva is the key. Finally we get an ending that just sets the stage nicely for the next chapter.

As much as I liked the story, there are a few complaints. While I liked the consistency this story tries to have with the original Riva tale, there are some things that can't be overlooked. The biggest is the time frame. This story is supposedly AFTER the War of the Lance, but Riva's first story takes place just BEFORE the War of the Lance, and it that story, she was a few years older than described here. Also, in that story, Maric is dead and here he's alive, so this story has to be before that one.

Lesser complaints are that Maric's name is spelled different than it originally was ("Marik"). Likewise, Lord Silvercrown and Maric/Marik look very different from their earlier appearances. Lastly, Maric makes reference to the dwarves earning a lot of gold for their weapons, when the base unit of currency in Dragonlance is steel (unlike practically every other D&D setting and most fantasy stories in general). Considering how much I'm liking this story (from writer Adam Blaustein), I'm more than willing to overlook these incongruities.

As much as I liked the story of this issue, what really impressed me most was the art, from original artist Ron Randall. It seems the recent break he had allowed him to attack this story with great vigor. The dynamic fight between the Wolfthane clan and the other dwarves was very well depicted. The opening splash page with the Kinslayer sword bursting out of the snow bank the dwarves where hiding helped set the deadly and fast pace of these pages. The detail on the various minor characters, from all the dwarves, to knights and pages at Castle Silvercrown is something I haven't seen in this book in a while. 

All in all, this is an A plus issue, with great story groundwork for the next issues and lively art. I'm really looking forward to the next issue.

Oct 27, 2011

DM Tools: DDM RPG Cards and the DDMdb

Recently, while prepping for an upcoming D&D session, I was re-reading the module (I always review the 3 or 4 encounters I think the party will get through during an upcoming session) and I noticed two things: the seemingly underpowered opponents the module was calling for, and the repetitiveness of the encounters.

The previous session, my players ended up having 2 of the three battles that evening against stirges, which I don't think are interesting enough to take up 67% of the combat. It just so happened that the party went from encountering them in a room, to the main lair where the rest of these fantasy-mosquitoes hung out. In retrospect I should have gone "off script" and changed up the encounter, running something else in that second room, and had the stirges menace both groups, or moved the stirges' lair to another room, or dropped them all together. That's sometimes one of the downsides to running pre-made modules, and I'll talk about in another post later.

But let's finish this post first. So, I was unhappy with the repetitive nature of some of last session's combats and looking ahead at this week's session, I was seeing the same thing. Thankfully it wasn't stirges, but still looking over the several troglodyte encounters the party could logically run into one after the other, I kept seeing mostly the same thing: 2 troglodytes with low hit points (they are CR1 creatures after all) and the same tactics -- throw two javelins and then close for combat.

In my game this doesn't work for two reasons: my players have some pretty effective characters and most of those trogs would go down in one or two rounds. Secondly, none of my players have any ranged weapons, except for the mage, so everyone would be running up to engage the trogs in melee as soon as possible.

So in order to vary things up, I knew I wanted to beef up and customize the trogs. I could have manually added class levels to give them extra power and diversity, but rather than spend the time to do all that work myself, time which I obviously don't have if I'm running pre-made modules, I called on a great, FREE, resource.

I've been a big fan and collector of the D&D plastic pre-painted miniatures since the original Harbinger set was released in 2003 (collector as much as my budget would allow). With each miniature there is a corresponding game card. On one side it features stats applicable to the skirmish game, and on the other side, stats for the then-current version of the roleplaying game (D&D 3.5). Note: The last few sets did away with the RPG stats.

The RPG stats were great because they could be used at the game table with the corresponding miniature. Since I didn't have a complete collection of any set, there were gaps in the cards I had access to, not the mention having to go through the cards by hand for what I wanted.

Then Wizards of the Coast did something very useful for all 3.5 DMs. They made all the cards available as PDFs for free. Now, you didn't even need to have the figure to have access to stats, treasure and equipment for a variety of monsters, NPCs, or instant PCs if needed. If you haven't checked these out, here's the link for the files:

While having the PDFs is great, searching through them is still a chore. That's where my second recommendation comes in: the DDMdb. The DDMdb is a fan run project that contains basic information on all the miniatures released so far with an easy to search database and plenty of category tags for further searching.

For instance, I was looking for troglodytes, and I knew that in addition to the standard trog, the miniatures sets also put out several variations (monsters with class levels). By simply searching for "troglodyte" in the tag search (as opposed to the name search) I got a bunch of results, including the Troglodyte Barbarian (trog with a level of barbarian), Troglodyte Captain (trog with a few fighter levels), and Cleric of Laogzed (trog cleric). Note: a "name search" would only return results where Troglodyte appeared in the name, so the Cleric of Laogzed would have been omitted.

The results include not just the name of the miniature, but also an image, what set it came from, it's monster type and CR, along with some other details. Clicking on the mini name brings up further details, including, in many cases, scans of the skirmish as well as the RPG stat cards. While not all stat cards are readable (this is where having those PDF files can come in handy!), it can be a great starting point for narrowing down the next new threat for your players. If you click on some of the other data points, like CR or monster type, you can see results matching that criteria, such as all barbarian minis or all CR4 minis.

The variations this search returned quickly allowed me to tweak the upcoming combats by giving me a few options to throw at the PCs. Instead of the same two "standard" creatures, I was now able to throw a few Barbarians and a Captain at the group, and instead of the same javelin, javelin, melee attack, these guys now had spiked gauntlets, great clubs, and enough hit points to last more than 2 rounds.

Note: For all you 4e DMs out there, it seems there were a few sets of cards with 4e RPG stats available online here. Since these go back to the beginning of 4e, and with all the rules changes since their release, I'm not sure how accurate they may be.

If your like me, and you don't have as much time to plan your games as you would like, or you're pulling something together at the last minute, resources like the RPG stat cards and the DDMdb can be a game saver. I hope you get as much use out of them in your games as I do in mine.

Oct 20, 2011

Dwarven Forge - Free Planning Tools

As the new proud owner of a Dwarven Forge - Room Set, I was very eager to use it in my game at the first opportunity. But I had no easy way of planning what rooms I could layout with my one set.

I could, of course, pull the actual pieces out and arrange them on my dining room table, but I'd like something a little easier. I've also seen references to some PC programs that would help with the planning task, but I'm a Mac guy and I wasn't looking for something that elaborate (maybe if I had a bunch of sets that might be more useful), but for me and my single set, I was looking for something quick and low tech.

Basically, all I really wanted was a PDF with paper versions of the pieces in the Room Set that I could print, cut and arrange as needed. The nice thing about the PDF is that if I had multiple versions of a given set, I could just print out extra copies. Or, if I was planning something elaborate, I could print out as much as I needed and that would show me how many of a given set it would take to match my design.

Since I couldn't find anything like that on the Interwebs, I decided to create my own. If you down load the PDF from the link provided here (or click on the PDF thumbnail at the top right), you'll see it contains very simple representations of the pieces in the Dwarven Forge Room Set. These are not meant to replace their sets, just ease the planning process. If you get any use out of this, please post a comment to let me know.

Oct 13, 2011

Spelljammer Comics (Issue 10)

Exile on Taladas

We take a slight break from the regular Dragonlance comic reviews to take a look at this interesting little gem I recently uncovered. While I was an avid reader of the Dragonlance comics, I also dabbled in some of the other TSR/DC comics of the day.

I read the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons comic for at least the first year, and the Forgotten Realms comic through it's entire run. Some of the other titles, like Spelljammer and Gammarauders, I only read a handful of issues before moving on. So I was very surprised recently when I learned that this issue guest-starred Riva Silvercrown, the only ongoing character in the Dragonlance book.

If you're not familiar with the Spelljammer setting and concepts, check out the wikipediia page for some reference information.

The story starts off with a spelljamming ship crash landing on the Krynn continent of Taladas. Riva and Ktarrh see the burning ship from the skies and investigate. On the ground, a lone human male defends himself against attacks from a group of bakali (taladian lizardmen). Riva joins in and soon all the lizardmen are defeated and the strange man introduces himself as Sir Giles Warwick.

Sir Giles, while not looking like a mage, is able to conjure up a magical feast tent, complete with manservant and fully stocked larder and wine cellar. Sir Giles begins to tell his tale.

Sir Giles came from a world called Astrylon that prized art and beauty above all other things. They took to Spelljamming as a way to contact other worlds, and bring back the best they could find for artistic inspiration. This world was also in regular conflict with a sister planet, Barrara, and regularly went to war against them in space.

Amidst this backdrop, Sir Giles found himself distract by a beautiful woman named Nimone. She was on the planet to convince the ruling body to join several other planets in a war against Barrara. But in turns out the other nations were already aligned with Barrara against Astrylon.

Soon Sir Giles found himself a prisoner on a Barrara pirate galleon ship. As was his right, he challenged his captors to combat, and after defeating 12 men, joined the pirates. Sir Giles rose in rank among the pirates, till he was their captain, and was leading several ships in raids against the Barrara.

Now Sir Giles fights for the time when he will free his home planet from the puppet leader currently on the throne.

After telling Riva his story over food and wine, she agrees to escort him to the League of Minotaurs, where she thinks he will have no problem earning the money and magic needed to once again return to spelljamming among the stars.


This ended up being a tough story to review. Since I wasn't reading Spelljammer at the time, I don't know if this was the beginning of an ongoing storyline in the comic. The fact that the issue ends with an "end" tag and not a "too be continued" makes me think this might have been a one and done story, or maybe the beginning of plot that would have been picked up much later (it couldn't have been too much later, the Spelljammer comic only ran for 15 issues or so).

Either way, I'm forced to review the comic just on the 20 some pages here. In that regard, it could have been an interesting story, but the execution was horrible. First is the writing. I see in the credits that the author Don Kraar is listed as guest writer. I have no idea what other comic writing credits he has, but this clearly feels like an inferior work. Here's some of the opening text, to set the stage for the character of Sir Giles.
Fate beckons and not even the boldest can disobey
For even the boldest know that they are not immortal
And if fate beckons the bold, then there is none bolder...
Yikes, I get it, he's Bold, and he's Beckoned! There's more of these literary gymnastics throughout the rest of the book, and that leads to the next issue, the format.

The issue starts off like a regular comic, with sequential art, word balloons, etc. But when Sir Giles tells his story, we instead get pages that look like like an illustrated book--paragraphs of text and a single illustration per page. Only at the end, when Giles has finished his story and Riva and him are talking, does the book return to a typical comic book presentation.

The illustrated story layout certainly allows the author to tell this long tale in just one issue, as opposed to a whole slew of issues if this were presented any other way. The down side is that the writing has to carry the weight of story telling, and as I point out above, the text isn't strong enough to do that.

As for the art, we only have a few pages to judge, but from those few pages, it is mostly impressive. What's interesting to note is that the artist of this issue is listed as Joe Quesada, who would later have a very famous career at Marvel, being named Editor-in-Chief, and now Chief Creative Office of Marvel comics.

Back to the art, except for depicting Sir Giles spelljamming chair as looking like a Lazy-E-Boy, most of the art is dynamic and captivating. The fight sequence between Giles, Riva, and the bakali is exactly the opposite of what I was complaining about in the last Dragonlance comic issue. Here we see swords clashing, lizardfolk being run through, and even one being decapitated by Riva. Granted their blood is neon green, but I'm sure that was a concession to the CCA. This made what is basically a framing sequence just as interesting as the story Giles tells.

The last way to review this story, especially on a Dragonlance specific blog, is to look at how it fits in with the established setting as well as with the then-current Dragonlance comic. In terms of the former, it's depiction of Taladas, what little is show, is accurate. Riva and Ktarrh look like they do in the other book, and the bakali are the taladanian versions of lizardfolk. I appreciate the attention to those details, especially since the main book sometimes misses those basics.

What's harder to do, is the second criteria, that is, to see how this issue fits in with the continuity of the Dragonlance comic. Riva mentions that she is new to this land, but we already see her first appearance on Taladas in the Landfall story in issue 22. Also, she knows about the League of Minotaurs, so she's not that new. Secondly, she's alone. If it's after Landfall, where are the rest of her companions? Why doesn't she mention them, especially since the elf casters might have some idea on how Giles can create a new Spelljamming ship? If it's after she parts ways with the rest of the characters in the main book, then clearly she is not new to this land. Lastly, in the main book, she's constantly being hunted by the League of Minotaurs, why would she recommend that Giles join up with that lot, and why is she taking him there?

These are all the little nit-picky things that continuity junkies like me obsessive over, and shouldn't be held strongly against this issue. Overall, I liked the story, I just wish they told it in a traditional format, so that the Quesada artwork could help lift up the Kraar script.

Next time, we return to reviewing the last few Dragonlance issues in the original DC run. See you sometime next month.

Oct 6, 2011

Steve Jobs - 1955-2011

This has nothing to do with Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, and yet every word I write, every digital image a create, every post, tweet, or status update usually involves one of the many devices he brought about that has helped usher in the world we all live in.

Sep 29, 2011

Winter is Coming/Winter is Here

If you haven't already heard, the Wombat's Gaming Den of Iniquity blog is in the middle of running a blog festival called "Winter is Coming". The idea is that several different folks wrote up anything game related (from adventures, classes, creatures, etc), for any gaming system, with the common theme of winter.

So, grab your favorite warm beverage and check out the submissions here, or click on the image above.

And be sure to check out my submission, my first ever collection of D&D 4e items here.

Sep 22, 2011

Comics Update

Not since the heyday of the DC Comics/TSR agreement back in the 80s, has there been so much new Dungeons and Dragons comic material, plenty of which you might want to consider taking a look at.

First, IDW has a license to do trade reprints of those old DC/TSR comics. Currently available are volume one of the Dungeons and Dragons comic and the Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms comic, which are both actually set in the FR setting.

Here's a little back story to clear things up. The Dungeons and Dragons comic was originally release as the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons comics (since it was during the days of 1e/2e). This book was set in the city of Waterdeep and followed a diverse group of characters including the paladin Priam Agrivar

The Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms comic was started about a year after the first comic, with Priam leaving the Waterdeep group and meeting up with a new group. The first 2 volumes of the Dungeons and Dragons comic will feature Priam before leaving and joining the FR comic, so it may be a little confusing depending on what order you read the books.

The ideal reading order would be:
* Dungeons and Dragons Vol 1
* Dungeons and Dragons Vol 2 (not yet released)
* Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms Vol 1 (already available)
* Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms Vol 2 (not yet released)

Hopefully IDW will continue to release trade versions of both books for the remainder of their runs. The Dungeons and Dragons book only ran for 36 issues, and the Forgotten Realms book ran for 25 issues (not including various Annual specials).

In addition to the reprints of the 80s comics, there are a number of other more recent series coming to a trade paperback near you, including:

* Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Sun - Ianto's Tomb
* Dungeons and Dragons Volume 1: Shadowplague Hardcover - this is the new ongoing comic that started about a year ago. In addition to the first story arc, the book also contains the 4e game adaptations of the first two issues.
* Dungeons and Dragons: Legends of Drizzt Omnibus TP Vol 1 - this book collects the comic book adaptations of the Drizzt novels Homeland, Exile, and Sojourn that Devil's Due released starting in 2005.
* Lastly, speaking of every one's favorite Drow ranger, there is currently a new Drizzt comic telling an original story by  R. A. and Geno Salvatore. Issues are still coming out in comic form, but I suspect a trade will shorty after the last issue.

Sep 15, 2011

Dragonlance Comics (Issue 29) - (Untitled)

A Sort of Homecoming

UntitledThis issue starts off with Riva and her friends still on board the ship of Captain Antara. They are (once again) in the middle of a shard storm and trying to get into a harbor cave, but the magic password Captain Antara knew no longer seems to work. To avoid slamming into the heavy doors at the mouth of the cave, the tiger elves Sulia and Maraghiz work their magic to pry the door open.

Once inside they are meet by the local council, including Aris (whom Antara seems to know), and Krey, a mage recently appointed to the council. We quickly see that Krey is a brash youth rigidly following his people's traditions.

Just then, from outside the cave (and just as the raging storm has passed), the local harvest fields are besieged by a swarm of horax (huge bug-like creatures). Riva and her friends spring into action along side other glass folk in an attempt to keep the horax from destroying their food supply.

During the fight, Krey unleashes a fire spell that not only harms the horax, but also starts a brush fire among the community's grain supply for the winter. For his actions, the council sentences Krey to death, in accordance with their code.

While Riva sees Krey's actions as foolish, she doesn't think the young mage deserves death. She tries to convince the council to show mercy, and embrace the teachings of her god Paladine (who is unheard of on the continent of Taladas). Riva learns that instead of death, the council has chosen to exile Krey from the community, just as another shard storm begins.

Riva and her companions rush out to rescue the young mage who would sure perish all alone in the storm. When they return, Riva's dragon Ktarrh, crashes through the gate to get back in. This starts a fight between the glass folk and Riva's companions, with Riva and Captain Antara forced to take sides against each other.

During the fight, Krey lunges at Aris, choking him and saying "Tournament me no longer Aris! Set me free or end it now!" Just then he is hit in the back by an arrow from Tanal, a glass folk archer that Riva saved earlier during the horax attack.

The next day, Riva and Captain Antara make amends as they sail off. The captain comments that Riva's quest to bring knowledge of Paladine to the people's of Taladas may be "a fool's errand".


Unlike many of the previous issues, overall the story here wasn't bad, just not well plotted. This issue was written by Charles and Lisa Moore, not regular scribe Ron Randall. The art, by Alan Kupperberg (also not the regular artist), on the other hand was atrocious.

In the opening sequence, with the ship caught in the shard storm (which wasn't that original as we saw a similar situation a few issues earlier), everyone is dressed in storm gear that looks like it came from an REI catalog, instead of belong to warriors and wizards from a fantasy setting.

Later, during the battle with the horax, the various fights lack any intensity, or blood for that matter. Everyone seems to attacking the horax in the most subdued manner possible. Here was definitely a lost chance to set the tense for the second half of the story.

Later we see Riva going to the council, and why she wants to speak with them, but before she makes her case, they basically say "ha, ha, we've already kicked him out". Here was another lost chance to show Riva trying and failing, and then rushing out to get Krey as more an act of her redemption than Krey's.

Lastly, we see this silly fight between the glass folk and Riva's companions. While the stand off between Riva and Captain Antara could have been more interesting, if better developed, the "fight" between Krey and Aris made no sense (why was the mage strangling him when he should have had plenty of spells) other than to provide a plausible justification for Tanal to shoot the mage in the back.

Tying in the fact that Riva saved the archer earlier, only to see that good deed come back in a bad way was a nice touch, but too little in an otherwise bland story.

The preview for the next issue promises the return of the regular writer and artist. While they haven't really inspired me before, maybe this time will be different. Always the optimist with Dragonlance, I keep hoping the book will get better.

Sep 8, 2011

Off the Rails

"I'm going off the rails on a crazy train" - Ozzy Osbourne

As I get ready to prep for tonight's game session, I'm reminded of how much time I try to spend getting ready, and how much of that prep comes into play during an actual session.

More often than not, I read, re-read, and plan out the various encounters I expect the party to get through in a given session (I'm familiar with the whole module, but there's no point focusing on the dragon at the bottom level when they are still cutting teeth on the orcs at the top of the complex).

Needless to say, my party at least, rarely moves in a predictable path. If I expect them to go right, they go left. If I plan for them to go down a level, they decide to head back to town.

Some DMs might find this frustrating, but more often, I find it the most enjoyable part of a session. Now I'm not some kind of sadist who enjoys watching all his prep time washed down the proverbial drain, but there is a part of me that like flying by the seat of my pants, that enjoys making up things on the spot, and taking the game, and sometimes the campaign in a totally unplanned direction.

One thing is important to state. I don't use this as an excuse for not prepping for a session or game. I still think I need to prep work to make myself as familiar as possible about the module and encounters (especially if you run pre-made adventures and not your own hand crafted gems), and given the chance I will try to steer the party in the general direction, but as long as I know the expected flow of a module or encounter, then it's that much easier to improvise a new encounter when the players go in an unexpected direction.

For example, if I know that a series of rooms are the sleeping quarters for several groups of goblins, and they will sound alarms at the first sight of intruders, then when the party polymorphs into goblins in an attempt to sneak into the first location, I can guess there will be guards on post. If I know from the module details that each room only holds a dozen goblins, then I can assume the guards will recognize the party as goblins who aren't familiar. Unless they start making some serious Bluff checks, I'm pretty sure they aren't getting too far into the complex before fighting starts.

So hopefully, if you're like I used to be, the next time the players zag when you expect them to zig, just take a moment (I find it a great time for a soda refill), and start improvising, and hopefully you'll have just as much fun as the players!

Sep 1, 2011

Meeting with the Dragon Sage(s)

Several days after returning to Blackwater Keep, when Marzena was feeling better, the party got to talk with the wizard about the Black Scourge and the bone shards still embedded in their bodies.

Marzena told them what little she knew. It seems there were various mentions of this elder dragon, a piece here, a paragraph there, in various documents and journals she'd come across. Interestingly, one of the most detailed accounts of the Black Scourge came from one of the most unreliable--a kender tale.

Note: 'kender tales' is a krynish euphemism for a story where the veracity of the details is highly suspect.
It seems that Brother Eglin, a librarian at the Temple of Gilean in Flotsam, had been corresponding with Marzena on the subject of dragons, along with all the official documents and papers he could find, he sent along a collection of children's stories, all featuring a young kender girl who gets into one mischief after another. In one fragment of a story, the kender girl finds herself on a jungle island where she encounters a might black dragon. In this tale, the dragon is referred to as a Great Scourge on the island, a clue that this story might be referencing the Black Scourge.

One last thing she mentioned concerned the embedded bone shards. The party would need to confront and defeat the Black Scourge before those shards permanently infected/poisoned the each of them.

The party then proceeded to follow up directly with Brother Eglin. This meant a return to Flotsam, a town they had been away from for several months. When they arrived, the party was shocked to find that the city was in disarray. It seems the light house that had been the focus of construction in Flotsam for the last several years had been destroyed, and town ruler was dead.

In the power vacuum, many city council members were seeking to consolidate their base and seize leadership of the town. Amidst this background the players met Brother Eglin, learned more about the kender tales, in particular what island the story might be referring to. From there, they were able to find a ship captain that was willing to take them near the island.

After further preparations, they were off...

Aug 30, 2011

Humor: Orcus's Little Known Ability

Little known Daily Power of Orcus, Demon Price. Once per day he can summon scrubbing bubbles that follow his commands.

Remember, they work hard so Orcus doesn't have to!

Aug 25, 2011

Adventure Gravy and Cornbread (A Gamer's Receipe for Success)

It seems inevitable in my games that when the PCs finish up the meat of an adventure--when the princess has been rescued, or the one ring destroyed--they start acting like a piece of cornbread at the end of a meal, sopping up the last bits of gravy from the adventure.

In almost every game, there seems to be rooms the PCs skipped, or failed Search checks that leave them thinking they've missed something useful. In these cases, when the bulk of the adventure is over, my players at least, start retracing every step, rechecking every room, and researching every scrap of paper they can find. In times like this, part of me wants to call a time out and move on to the next story point in the campaign. At the same time, I understand as a player wanting to find all the loot, defeat all the creatures, or learn all the secrets.

In trying to understand why my players behave like this (and why I behave like this sometimes as a player), I think part of this stems from the reward system built into D&D.

Dungeons and Dragons rewards players in two ways. On one hand there's level advancement, including all the benefits that confers such as increases to hit points, ability scores, as well as additional feats, new powers, spells, etc. On the other hand there's the reward system composed of treasure. By treasure I'm referring to coins, valuable non-magic items (gems, jewelry, art), and magic items.

Unlike level advancement, which is strictly a function of game mechanics, and typically handled outside of the game proper (often occurring between sessions), treasure provides both a meta game reward system and an in-game one.

In the game world, treasure sometimes provides the incentive and usually part of the reward for completing the various dangerous labors player characters undertake. In-game there is sometimes a patron sponsoring the party ("Here's 500 gold if you clear this dungeon") and always a dead body to search ("Do the dead kobolds have any coins on them?"). These rewards can provide a lot of role playing material for the characters, money can help pay off an old debt, an old brooch can be the starting point for the next adventure, and an ancient book of spells can give the caster new power.

But unlike level advancement where all the benefits of an advancement are clearly spelled out (at X level you get get Y hps, the following increases to saves, 1 new feat, etc), treasure acquisition isn't just handed out between sessions, it's provided in game, and the players have to find it, not have it thrust upon them. Certainly, that is as it should be. Finding the false floor board and uncovering hidden gems is a fun aspect of the game.

Unfortunately, older versions of the game took the "treasure hunt" aspect a little too far, with gems hidden is monster's stomachs or in the hollowed leg of a table/desk. With that kind of history, and the limitless creativity of DMs, it makes sense for players, through their characters to start tearing up every inch of storytelling scenery looking for those last coins.

While I don't think it can be, or should be, completely prevented, there are certainly ways to curtail or control it in your game.

One thing, I've done in the past was to set up an adventure where there were time constraints on the party, so after finishing up one chapter, they needed to rush off to the next location and didn't have time to search every sofa cushion. Unfortunately, that little trick can't be employed every time.

The other way is to lessen the influence of money in your game. In older editions money was required to train for a new level, monthly upkeep between adventures, purchasing new armor, potions, and spells.

Regardless of what edition you're running, there's a lot of helpful advice you can get from the new Rules Compendium book. You can start off by not requiring PCs to train for a new level (unlike earlier editions), or allow them to train for free (I've discussed character training before).

Additionally, make treasure relevant to PCs, don't have a short sword treasure when no one uses it. I've never read a story where the hero finds a magic weapon, only to sell it for cash to buy one he CAN use.

Lastly, reduce the PCs ability to sell items. Once again, the Rules Compendium has an interesting new rule on mundane items, which is simply, PCs can't sell them, or if they can, the PCs can only get 1/5th their value (Rules Compendium, pg 265). This alone should go a long way to preventing PCs from wandering in to town with every battered (and bloodied) suit of leather armor that could be stripped off a goblin, or every blade pried from the dead hand of a defeated orc.

A certain amount of treasure hunting is too be expected in your game, no matter what, but with a bit of work and some planning, you can keep the players focused on the meat of your stories, and less time on the gravy.

Aug 18, 2011

Gen Con: Aftermath - 3.5 Days of Gaming

This year, for the second year in a row, I got to attend the Mac Daddy of gaming conventions, Gen Con. If you're not familiar with this legendary convention, you certainly owe it to yourself to do some research, and then, hopefully, plan to attend next year's gathering.

This year, due to some real life issues, I wasn't able to head out early for the con. It's typical for folks to start arriving Wed afternoon (or earlier in some cases) even though the convention doesn't start till Thursday. In my case, I didn't arrive until Thur night, having missed most of the first day.

I was lucky enough to get over to the convention with plenty of time to get my badge and walk around the con. The Dealer's Room was closed at that time, but everything else was in full gear. That first night I even ended up playing one of the Dungeon Delve scenarios in the Dungeons and Dragons area of the con.

Personally, I think the Dungeon Delve is a great way to sample 4e at a con. It has a very basic structure wherein you get to chose a pre-gen character and have a basic story which includes a lot of "kill anything that moves". The goal is to get through 2 encounters in the one hour time limit. For my first Delve this year, my team had no problem.

Teams are 5-6 players and it's a fun way to meet people at the con. I met a number of people over the Delve's I've played in, and look forward to seeing them again next year.

Additionally, there's some neat features to the Delve where you earn points each time you play--points you can redeem for items (like bonuses to armor and weapons) that you can use the next time you play the Delve, or non scenario items like limited edition miniatures or Fortune Cards for your home games.

Lastly, there are a number of scenarios that are all part of the Delve, so you can replay multiple times, each time encountering different areas and creatures.

I ended up playing the Delve only twice. I tried several other times, but there seemed to be issues with not enough DMs on hand for all the available people. I had so much fun this year (and previously) that I'm making it a goal to come back to GenCon next year and serve as a DM for the Delve.

The other big part of the convention is the Dealer's Room. To call it a Dealer's Room isn't really doing it justice. Image a huge mall, but instead of stores like Macy's and Lord and Taylor, it's WotC and Paizo, while places like Lids and Williams Sonoma are replaced with Chessex, FFG, and Mayfair Games. Typically, all the major publishers are there, as are a lot of artists, not to mention card dealers, miniature companies, replica weapons, costumers and video dealers to round out the selection.

Visiting the dealers room is always an under taking, and you need a plan. If you just walk around willy-nilly, (and you're like me) you'll quickly loose your bearings and start heading in circles. I typically pick a start point and walk up and down each isle. After I've made a first pass, I then focus on the dealer's I'm most interested in. This year, I was looking to pick up a number of miniatures, and maybe a pre-printed map or two. On top of that, I was also planning to stop at the Dwarven Forge booth and pick up my first set.

One of the other great things about Gen Con is getting to hang out with folks you don't regularly see and bond over a few beers, and a few games. This year some of the folks I was planning on attending the con with couldn't make it, but I was able to reconnect with a few buddies I've seen at past cons. We ended up having some drinks, catching up, and playing the new Wiz Kids game, Quarriors.

Overall it was a great time. The energy of so many people just having pure fun, whether it's playing D&D or MTG, or dressing up in costume, or any one of a hundred different activities at the Con is something to cherish all year long. I can't wait to go back next year!

Aug 11, 2011

Dragonlance Comics (Issue 28) - Featuring 2 Complete Stories

2 StoriesIt's been way too long since my last comic post (or any post for that matter). Luckily, this is a standalone issue so no previous storylines are referenced here.

This issue contains two stories, one featuring a minotaur of the Imperial League, the other featuring a lowly hobgoblin questing to be the leader of his tribe. Sadly, while Myrella (the female wizard last seen in issue 16) appears on the cover, she does not actually appear in either story--already this issue is off to a bad start!

The Path to Power

The first story starts off with an arena combat where a minotaur, Cantavian, defeats another minotaur, Platius. Afterward, the Emperor talks with Cantavian and the leader of the Black Cloaks minotaur legion. Due to his win in the arena, Cantavian is grudgingly given support for creating a new unit similar to the Black Cloaks. Apparently this plan was originally the idea of Cantavian's cousin, who it turns out to be was General Axantheas (last seen in issue #25).

What no one else knows is that Cantavian is looking to create an army in the service of Erestem, and fulfill the bargain Axantheas made with the goddess and receive the power she was to give the general.

Upon hearing Cantavian's plan, Quillian, his trusted assistant, threatens to expose him. Cantavian is forced to kill the other minotaur in his quest for power.

Later, we see a group of robbed minotaurs who turn out to be part of the priesthood of Erestem, and they are not to happy to learn that someone else in the city seeks the favor of the dark goddess. Just then Cantavian bangs on the door demanding entrance. He pushes his way in, and then kicks down another door to get to the high priest.

Cantavian demands to speak to Erestem to claim his reward. As the dark queen animates a five headed dragon statue, the heads encircle the minotaur and then douse him in fire, leaving his burnt remains on the temple floor.

The Perilous Power of Feh

This story starts off with a group of traag draconians on the trail of Riva Silvercrown. Riva, much like Myrella on the cover does not appear in this issue.

The draconians encounter an area of swampy forest reeking of the foulest odor. One of the draconians comments that the hobgoblin's in the area cover the perimeter of their lands in filthy sludge to keep outsiders at bay. The draconians end up taking a detour around the stench.

Meanwhile, in the hobgoblin lands, Snonk has captured a huge slug and the rest of the tribe surrounds him in adulation. That is everyone except Feh, the Sludge-Spreader. Feh toils away in his thankless job, all the while bitter that he doesn't receive the adulation of his tribe, or the affections of Olob, a female in the tribe.

When Feh learns that Olob and Snonk are engaged, he takes matters into his own hands by seeking the help of Hanuk, a village shaman. The shaman has recently acquired a draconian scroll with directions for brewing a potion. The potion allows the imbiber to commune with the dark goddess Erestem. Before Hanuk can figure out the warning on the scroll, Feh drinks the concoction and finds himself in a dream realm where the goddess takes notice.

Feh asks for power and the goddess grants it to the hobgoblin. In exchange for the power to defeat all who stand before him, Erestem will call upon Feh for a service in her name.

Feh awakens in Hanuk's cave, seemingly unchanged. At the same time, the draconians find an opening in the sludge ring and decide to attack the hobgoblin village. While Snonk fights the draconian leader without success, Feh is able to unleash powerful magic on the draconian, defeating him in one shot and taking the leader's magical ring as Erestem had instructed.

Instantly, the village showers Feh with praise, and Olob takes Feh for a mate.

Some time later, Erestem visits Feh in a vision, reminding him that he still had a great service to perform for her. It seems she selected him to go confront Riva instead of the draconian leader because the hobgoblin looks so unintimidating.

As Feh leaves the village, Snonk returns to take control of the faltering village and get his revenge on Feh. It seems the hobgoblin went to visit Hanuk and learned the warning of the scroll that Feh never bothered with. While Feh has the power to conquer all who stand before him, he must also "watch his back".

As Feh wanders off, he has no idea of the creature stalking him from behind, or the limits of his powers.


I didn't really care for the first story. The plot was too simplistic and the art was really bad. The artist clearly didn't have experience with D&D style creatures since all the minotaurs looked like regular people with distorted faces and the close up shots looked like a horse with human eyes.

As for the story, it was not very engaging. An angry minotaur storms around for a bit and ends up getting killed for his arrogance. Not very original, and the "twist" ending was apparent too early for it to be shocking.

The second story was a bit better. The art work from Tim Gula really captures the swampy forest, and all the characters have a great amount of detail, from the draconians to all the various hobgoblins, as well as the main hobgoblins Feh, Snonk, Olob, and Hanuk. If there's any complaint about the art, it's that it has a very cartoony feel, and the hobgoblins look more like Saturday morning cartoon characters than real D&D creatures.

The story also features a twist ending, which is a bit predictable. What really makes this story stronger than the first part, is how much introspection we get. We see so much of Feh's situation and what he hopes for, we understand his willingness to deal with the devil (or a dark goddess in this case).

While the story didn't feel like a Dragonlance story (this might have been more at home in the cartoon pages of Dragon magazine), it was at least enjoyable.

Aug 9, 2011

Return to Blogging

I know I haven't been on this blog lately, but I'm working on several related items that I'll be writing about and sharing with you in the coming weeks.

To that end, I'm going to try and write on a regular basis. I'm setting a goal of at least one post a week, while I continue to figure out how to juggle my games, my family, and my job.

I just came back from Gen Con and feel re-energized about my D&D game and what I want to contribute to the community at large. Part of that will start within these posts.

Apr 12, 2011

How I Learned to Love the Skill Challenge

AKA: Creating My First Skill Challenge

Recently, I was working on an original adventure for my gaming group. My goal was to try and apply the principles from Wolfgang Baur's excellent Adventure Builder article series from the WotC archives but something unexpected occurred as I was reviewing my work. As I looked over the adventure, and the party's goals, it started to occur to me that I had unwittingly left myself open to incorporating a skill challenge into my adventure.

Needless to say I was quite shocked... especially since I'm running a 3.5 edition D&D game!

When I first heard about the Skill Challenges concept, my initial thought was this was the death of "Role" Playing; that the new edition was trying to codify and distill some of the most exciting, spontaneous, and free-form moments from my games into a series of dice rolls.

The more I thought and read about Skill Challenges, as well as listening to several different podcasts from the community at large as well as commentary from Wizard's employees, I started to see a different picture. A picture where skill challenges and "pure" role playing can function side by side.

The first and most obvious thing to realize is that Skill Challenges have always been a part of the Dungeons and Dragons game. The 4th edition may have been the first edition to give it an official name, but when my first edition thief repeatedly used his Move Silently skill to sneak past guards on a quest to locate the kidnapped princess, I was effectively engaged in a Skill Challenge.

Once I accepted this, I started thinking about all the times, as a DM, I've used role playing encounters as a means to advance my stories, as opposed to just social interaction (like haggling for the price of an item with a merchant).

In one case the PCs needed a certain item from a local noblewoman, and the party's Knight of Solomnia was not about to condone stealing. Instead, he and the party's bard approached the lady and tried a number of tactics to gain her trust, her compassion, and eventually convinced her to loan the party the item they needed. (Hopefully from that last sentence, you can start to see the rough outline of what was effectively the skill challenge.)

The players did all this through role-play and never once reached for their dice. As DM, I had to adjudicate their efforts on the fly based on how convincing the PCs' arguments were (as well as bonuses for how well they were role playing their characters). I didn't have a lot of structure planned around this encounter, in part because I was a new DM, also in part because the rule set at that time never considered how complex such an encounter could be.

But now, with 4e we get a set of guidelines, or "framework" as it's referred to in DMG2 for setting up a series of skill events that allow a PC, or group, to achieve an objective. I think it's telling that in the revamp to the Skill Challenge rules in DMG2, that they use the word "framework". I do think that was intention, as that word doesn't appear in the original DMG section on Skill Checks.

In software development, a "framework" can be thought of as a collection of code that can be used to build an application. In 4e, the Skill Challenge framework is used to build out the structure of a non-combat encounter. Thanks to the processing capabilities of our brain, the implementation of the Skill Challenge framework doesn't need to be exhaustive, only representative of how to achieve the set goal. As DM, we can interpret if the players try unexpected strategies against our structure.

Similarly, we can interpret pure role-playing as it relates to the skill challenge structure. If the player is acting out his or her character being threatening, we don't need to ask for an Intimidate roll, we can judge the effectiveness of the role-play and consider it a success, a failure, or ineffective as it relates to the challenge. And, if needed, we can call for rolls when appropriate, or in the case of players not comfortable with fully immersive role-playing.

Looking at Skill Challenges in this new light has really changed my perception about what it can give me as a DM regardless of which edition I'm actually running. Instead of seeing this as the death of role-playing, I now see just another tool in my DM arsenal for telling stories, one that allows for all the role-playing or roll-playing I want.

Mar 17, 2011

DM Tool - Free Web Tokens

For a while now I've been looking for ways to give back to the hobby that I love so much. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons since 2nd edition AD&D. During my earlier years, I had created a bunch of forms and props and other content for my various games, but not so much during the 3.x and 4e years.

Recently, I was prepping a game session and I knew I was going to have a bunch of spiders menace the PCs. This meant I also needed to account for spider webs. Then I recalled something I built back in my 2e heyday, pages and pages of tokens, standups, etc, including a page of various sized web tokens. Since I'm not an artist, these tokens are all based on the same piece royalty free clipart I had available.

So click on the image here to be taken to a page for the PDF download. If you like the product, let me know, and maybe I'll dig up some more of my older game content for future posts.

Note: Don't let the 4shared preview scare you. The page looks like the image seen here, not what their low-res preview shows.

Mar 2, 2011

Nat 20

One of the things I like about 4e is reading the "why"s, why one rule was changed, created, or abandoned. Even though I'm still running a 3.5 game, as a DM, I get a lot of mileage out of knowing the thoughts of the game designers, folks who focus on this game much more than I have the chance to do (case in point, my new Second Wind rule for my game).

Recently I've been thinking about the critical hits. In 4e, there is no critical threat/confirm critical for the simple reason that if you threat and fail to confirm, you go from being a hero to a loser in 2 seconds, and that certainly isn't as much fun as being the hero.

Now, I'm not ready to adapt the 4e style for crits (especially since the threat range is kept much smaller than it can be min/max'ed in 3.5). But I do think something should be in order.

Going forward, I'm going to try the following: On a Nat 20 (not necessarily a crit), if the player fails to confirm the crit, they still get +2 damage. I had previously played with the idea of giving Max damage, but depending on the roll, max single damage can be better than double damage, and on average is only slightly worse than average double damage.

Just a thought...