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: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/mi/20070315c

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.