Dec 7, 2012

Everything Old is New Again Part 2

It's been awhile since my last post, so it's only fitting that this post is really just a continuation of the last one.

Seems that while there were a number of reprints in 2012, in 2013 we can look forward to even more, including core reprints for 2e (Players, DM, and MM), supporting books for previous editions, including UA for 1e, and Spell and Magic Compendiums for 3e.

On top of those options, next year will also see legendary modules, like the S series and the A series getting hardback reprints for the first time ever. The A series hardback will also include a new prequel module, A0 - Danger at Darkshelf Quarry.

What I find interesting is that the A0 module will first be appearing in D&D Next format at Winter Fantasy in January of next year. Just goes to show how easily compatible next seems to be with earlier editions.

But the most interesting product to me on the Amazon schedule for next year is Storm Over Baldur's Gate: Sundering Adventure 1. Without enough details to know for sure, this looks like it could be either a D&D Next adventure or an edition neutral module. With all editions of the game having reprint books available by the time this module comes out, I can't say for sure what we'll actually get.

Guess we'll just have to wait and see...

Jun 27, 2012

Everything Old is New Again--D&D 3.5 Back on the Shelves

A few months ago, WotC announced the reprint of the first edition D&D books, known back then as AD&D. In a way, it made perfect sense as proceeds from the sale were going to the Gygax Memorial Fund.

Just the other day, WotC announced another reprint. This time they are announcing reprints of the three core 3.5 edition D&D books. Actually these are updates as the books will include the latest 3.5 errata. I first heard about these books several months ago, when an astute fan found the pre-order listings on the Barnes and Noble site and a thread was started on ENWorld.

At the time everyone discounted the listing, and a few days later the listing disappeared off the site.

Even now as I read the announcement, I find myself scratching my head and wondering why? This reprint does not benefit the Gygax fund, or any other charity, it's not the follow up to first edition AD&D (that of course would be 2ed edition), nor is it the current edition of the game.

As WotC embarks on developing D&D Next, and trying to build support for what is supposed to be a game system that would allow for sessions that feel like any edition of D&D, it's interesting that they are restocking the shelves with the next to last version of the game, after a 4 year absence.

There are a couple of reasons why this should not be too much of a surprise.

WotC/TSR have been down the edition road before, and they've learned that once you announce a new edition, sales for the current game drop off, and demand for new product for what is seen as a "lame duck" system dry up.

Since they can't suspend their publishing schedule completely, in the past they've announced certain products as being "compatible" with the next edition, or products that are "edition neutral".

In that regard, it makes sense to fill up their schedule with the 3.5 books, since that version of the game is the root of the very successful Pathfinder system. On the other hand, Pathfinder is a complete game, and they've release enough books that cover and expand on the same content in these books.

Lastly, the publishing technology is probably such that it's relatively inexpensive to reprint these books, even with errata corrections. They probably still have digital files for 3.5 in QuarkXpress or InDesign, and can easily make the necessary changes and hand over the new version to a commercial printer. Unlike 1 and 2e, which probably aren't available in digital format, or if so, they are on some legacy system that commercial printers no longer support.

Overall it's not surprising to see products like this on the schedule. I wonder what more we'll see between now and whenever Next comes along.

Mar 16, 2012

DM Tools: Tiles and Stands

I've recently come across two sites offering some interesting accessories for my D&D games.

First on the list is Dapper Devil. They offer colored bases for D&D miniatures, in various sizes and colors. I think this was originally intended for use with the D&D skirmish games to help identify one person's minis from another.

For my D&D game I use them to help distinguish different versions of the same creature. If I have a bunch of lizardmen attacking, I can use the same mini, but each with a different color base to help keep track of hps and effects on each.

In addition to the miniature bases, the site also has a number of tiles that can further aid in a game, from various status effect tiles to spells, and even treasure tiles.

For character tiles, or paper standups, there are a number of companies that make plastic stands, from Steve Jackson Games, to Fantasy Flight Games. But I've found a solution I like more than those two for a number of different reasons.

RolcoGames sells pieces that can be used for a number of board games. The one product that I like for my game are the game stands. They are available in a number of different colors and at 3/4" x 3/4", they fit within a standard 1" space. Again, I like the color variety since I have multiple versions of the same creature with different color bases to track each independently. Also the price for these game stands is cheaper that the other companies listed.

If you use a lot of D&D minis or flat cardboard minis, check out these companies, I'm sure they have something you just might be interested in.

Mar 1, 2012

Dragonlance Comics (Issue 32) - Sword of the Kinslayer (Part 3)

This story begins a few moments after the last issue. Lord Silvercrown has just claimed the Sword of the Kinslayer for his own, as the evil force from within the cave emerges, and is revealed to be a white dragon.

As the dragon lays waste to Lord Silvercrown's men, the dragon is also silently communicating with Lord Silvercrown, instructing him to kill his son, Maric. Riva struggles with her father as Maric makes his escape. The dragon then instructs Lord Silvercrown to slay his daughter.

Riva runs away, her father close on her heals. While on the run, she falls down a snow covered shaft and finds herself in one of the mountains caves. Here she stumbles across Theolin who reveals a terrible find, deep in the cave are dozens of dragon eggs.

Theolin reveals a magical device, a Horn of Blasting, that he will use to bring the mountain down upon all the hatchlings.

At first Riva dismisses the idea, claiming that creatures aren't born evil, and that it could be a glorious site to see the Knights of Solamnia riding these dragons in the service of good. As Riva coddles one of the hatchlings, it bites her and then flees from the cave. Theolin instructs Riva that she chase down the dragon and slay it.

Outside the cave she wonders why she must kill the infant dragon, and if she could kill her own father that seems determined to see her and her brother dead. Just then she encounters the remains of her father's forces. They pledge to follow Riva's command. As she leads the men through the snow she begins to see herself grown up. She also sees her father, fully possessed by the Kinslayer blade. Vowing to destroy him, Riva charges at her father only to hear a voice whispering inside her head to kill her father, and take his sword. As Riva dispels the voice, she also see her followers disappear, mere illusions that were never really there.

Her father, on the other hand, is real, and ready to kill his daughter as a way to seal his pact with the dark mistress that gave him the blade and access to it's power.

Just then one of the white dragon hatchlings gets in the way and Lord Silvercrown first tries to dispatch the beast. For a moment, Riva sees her father, not as the blood thirsty killer before her, but the kind and protective man that chased away the mother goose all those years ago (as seen in issue 31). After being struck by Lord Silvercrown, the hatchling flies away with the blade impaled in its body.

Lord Silvercrown is distraught, but just then Riva hears the sound of a horn and realizes that Theolin is going through with his plan to destroy all the other dragon eggs before any more monsters are unleashed on the world.

In the cave, Riva is able to pull Theolin free, but not before she is confronted by the adult white dragon. Riva battles long enough to give Theolin time to sound his horn. She is unintentionally knocked free of the cave by the dragon as the walls and roof collapse all around.

Outside, Riva is greeted by her brother who tells her that Lord Silvercrown still appears to be possessed. Just then, the white wyrm bursts from the mountain, wounded and bleeding, but determined to avenge the deaths of all her dragon eggs.

Riva, armed only with the polearm bearing the family standard confronts the dragon. The dragon reveals that oracles claim Riva is destined to be the destroyer of dragonkind at it lunges at the young girl. Riva plunges the polearm into the dragon's neck, killing the beast.

In the aftermath of the battle, Riva's father has returned to his senses and warmly embraces his daughter. He admits that maybe he was wrong to oppose her entrance into the knighthood as his men around him cheer "Hail Riva!".

Riva, happy to have her father back says that knighthood can wait, and that she would prefer to enjoy her childhood a little while longer.

Commentary

I really enjoyed the ending of this arc. Overall, I might put this as the second best story line of the series (after the original four issues). Once again, the art and story were leaps and bounds above what the previous issues and arcs have contained.

Sadly, the writer on this arc only wrote these three issues of the comic, and this would be the last art from Ron Randall for the remainder of the book, which is such a shame because this duo really crafted a fun story and I would like to have seen more output from them.

First, I liked story in this last issue, even if there were a few weak spots. I thought having Riva chased AGAIN through the snow was a bit redundant. On the other hand, the way parts of this story tie in to the overall story of Riva (the claim that she will be the destroyer of dragons is a reference to some of the previous arcs) and the first issue (Riva's father fighting the white dragon wyrmling recalls Lord Silvercrown defending Riva from the mother goose).

Lastly, the ending was in great Dragonlance tradition with father regaining his senses and reconciling with his daughter, even if it is a bit contradictory with the first arc.

With the art, Ron Randal leaves the books with some of his strongest work. The detail in the caves, and the dynamic energy of the fight scenes are things I've been looking forward to all along.

Next time, we'll look at what will be the beginning of last arc of the DC/TSR Dragonlance series.

Feb 17, 2012

DM Tools: Maps, Maps, Maps

In previous posts, I've mentioned how much I like and use minis, and various other props at my gaming table. Along with all those props are the battlefields they stand on.

I currently use a number of different options depending on the need.

First and foremost is my trusty erasable battle mat. There are plenty to choose from, but I tend to like Flip-Mats from Paizo. These mats allow you to use dry erase, wet erase, and (according their literature), even permanent marker and still remove it when you are done.

On side of the Flip-Mats usually has a specific scene, like a forest crossing, a dungeon, or a town square, while the other side is sometimes a simple color pattern, like dark gray for the dungeon stone, like gray for paved city, or green for forest. Since I'm in the middle of running a lengthy dungeon crawl, I have the handy dark gray mat in the DM kit.

The nice part about the scene specific side of the battle mat is that there is usually enough detail to get any DM's mind racing with great adventure ideas. In fact, I was looking at one of their mats the other night, and starting to craft the beginning of an adventure around it.

Recently Paizo have been tying their battle map products into their Adventure Path modules, so for a given map, there may be an existing scenario already available for it.

Beside Paizo, there are a few other companies creating maps and map products. Wizards of the Coast have been including maps in most of their 4e modules, as well as a few pre-4e products. In addition, they've started releasing Map Packs, which are collections of maps, mostly from out of print products (older modules, as well as maps from their miniatures line), along with two new maps in each set. The only downside to their maps are that you can't draw on them, even with erasable markers.

Gale Force Nine is another major company producing battle maps. They have a license with WotC wherein they have re-released some of WotC's older maps, but on vinyl, allowing you to use dry erase markers. In addition to the reprints, they also have original maps covering a variety of different locations, from market square, abandoned town, to evil temple.

All of these companies make great products that I've used again and again in my games. Check them out, I'm sure you'll find something you can use too!

Next time, I'll look at some other map products, like tiles and 3-D terrain.

Feb 9, 2012

Lost Art of D&D

This isn't going to be a post about how the subtleties of being a really good DM, or player, have vanished in the modern day. No, this post is actually about the lost art of D&D. 

Literally.

It turns out that back in the early days of TSR, when they were developing and designing all those great classic books, the company had a policy of not returning art originals back to the artists.

Compounding the issue, at some point TSR threw away classic art from a number of highly revered books and modules. But there is the next best thing.

Artists Jeff Dee and Diesel LaForce are currently organizing Kickstarter campaigns to recreate art from various books, included the 1e version of Deities and Demigods.

If you're interested, here are links to their respective pages where you can sign up to be a patron and get some nifty items for your contributions that would make great art for your gaming room!

Jeff Dee Kickstarter page.

Diesel LaForce Kickstarter page.

Feb 3, 2012

Dragonlance: One Story to Rule Them All?

In his recent Dragon magazine editorial, Chris Perkins talks about many of WotC's older campaign settings. In particular he sites the Dragonlance Chronicles as the "most iconic D&D story". However, he then goes on to assert that the Dragonlance setting is hamstrung by that fact that it only has one story to tell (the aforementioned Chronicles).

I disagree wholeheartedly with Mr. Perkins' viewpoint. Dragonlance supported a huge number of books and even today there are many fans still wishing for more content about this world.

Furthermore, Mr. Perkins asserts that after the world spanning War of the Lance storyline, everything else feels subpar. I would ask then, based on that same premise, if the Forgotten Realms were rendered moot after their epic world spanning Avatar Trilogy, or Horde Invasion?

Where he sees the end of story potential in the Dragonlance setting with the War of the Lance, I would say that the War opened up vast areas for epic stories focusing on:
  • The return of the Gods and the reestablishment of their churches throughout the continent.
  • The return of dragons of all colors and alignments and the awe, fear and mistrust they create.
  • The rise of new nations and new political intrigues.
  • Rebuilding after the epic war
That last bullet point, I should point out is also one of the very corner stones of WotC's last fully developed campaign setting, Eberron. Based on the above points, I therefore can't subscribe to Mr. Perkins' notion.

There is one point where I actually agree with Chris Perkins; the idea that the Dragonlance setting was hamstrung, not by story potential as he believes, but rather the way it was handled by TSR (and later WotC).

For instance, while the Forgotten Realms debuted with a lavish box set, with large maps and plenty of world detail, Dragonlance didn't get an official source book until three years after it debuted. And even then, much of the book was repackaged information from the original module and novel series as well as articles from Dragon magazine.

Later, rather than build out more details about the setting, like the Realms was doing through the FR series of sourcebooks, TSR abandoned the well known Ansalon continent in lieu of Taladas, a hitherto unknown continent that had minimal connections to the lands, people and stories that were the basis of all previous Dragonlance material (in today's vocabulary, we might call this a "reboot"). At the same time the Forgotten Realms was being further expanded with the Hordelands and Kara-Tur settings.

Two years later, in 1992, TSR would go back to Ansalon with the release of the Tales of the Lance box set. This was followed up with another box set and a handful of modules (again, including a pair of mini-module anthologies). But this was short lived, by 1993 TSR stopped developing any material for the setting outside the successful novel line.

In 1996, after the much heralded return of Weis and Hickman to the Dragonlance setting and the release of their new novel, Dragons of Summer Flame, rather than relaunch the setting using the AD&D rules, instead the decision was made to revive the setting, but now with a completely new set of game mechanics; the diceless, card-based SAGA system.

While the SAGA system still has a small but loyal fan base, most D&D gamers didn't take to the new rules engine. This was unfortunate as a good deal of content was developed for the setting under the SAGA rules. I strongly believe that if the same material had been developed with the D&D rules, it would have been much more acceptable to the role playing fans that were already invested in the D&D mechanics, and not a new unproven diceless game.

When 3e arrived, Dragonlance was one of the many "orphaned" settings, but a few years later, when 3.5 was released, WotC entered into an agreement with Margaret Weis to allow her company to develop 3.5 content for the setting. And develop they did, releasing a number of detailed sourcebooks (the likes the setting hadn't ever really had) covering the most popular time periods from various novels, as well as books focusing on the most popular character classes, like mages, clerics, and Knights of Solomnia.

And for a couple of years everything seemed to be going great... until WotC pulled all their license deals, and basically closed ranks prior to the release of 4e.

As you can see from the above time line, there are many different places where I think TSR, and later WotC, mishandled the property, including:
  • Failure to further develop the setting with details on the lands, cities, and peoples not covered in novels.
  • Failure to explore the exciting logical themes that came out of the War of the Lance (as mentioned above).
  • The decision to reboot the franchise with the Taladas continent to the exclusion of new game material for Ansalon.
  • Later, the decision to relaunch the game using the SAGA rules.
  • And lastly, not allowing the setting to advance to 4e either in house, via article continent in Dragon and Dungeon magazine, or through a third party license.
In conclusion, I think there was (and still is) great untapped potential in the Dragonlance setting, but a failure to nurture it properly ultimately lead to its marginalization, not any inherent deficiency in the setting.

Jan 26, 2012

Prepping for the Con (GenCon 2012 Warmup)

While I was working the company booth at an industry convention, I noticed folks walking this way and that (rarely stopping at our booth), all with the various goodie bags they picked up from the other vendors at the show.

Between failed attempts at using the force to compel folks to visit our station ("This is the booth you're looking for"), I started thinking about GenCon (and how it couldn't get here soon enough!).

Thinking about the con made me realize two important thinks:

  1. Pre-reg starts this weekend! That's right. If you're planning to go, you can pre-reg starting this Sun at noon. Pre-reg saves you a couple of bucks and is of course the first step to booking a room as well as events.
  2. I need to start training! That's also right. If you've been to GC before you know the layout is massive, and the reports are that it will be even more spread out this year, with more nearby hotels serving as the site for various games and seminars.
In order to be up for the challenge, I need to get back to the gym, and get back to a regular routine of weights and cardio. The dealer's room alone can feel like a half marathon if you're not used all that walking. And the weights? You will be amazed at how fast a few purchases can start to weigh down on you.

And, if you're like me, looking to get ready for the con, know that you are not alone. Take a moment and visit (and sign up) at plus5cha.com to read about and hope get inspired by other geeks also looking to get in better shape.

Jan 23, 2012

Listen to Your Characters

As a follow up to my previous post, "Let Your Campaign Talk to You", I've been thinking about new ways to approach developing character backgrounds, and looking at various techniques from literature and television.

Rather than what I suspect is the standard approach, that of drafting the background and incidental details all at once, and typically before even the first game session has taken place, what I'm now envisioning is a process where the character background grows organically over time.

In this new approach, players should at the time of the first game session, know the basics, what's readily apparent from their character sheets, but details beyond that can be left somewhat vague and filled in over time. This could be something as minor as character details, or something as major as character motivations and goals.

In the past I might have a character background that states that "Johnny" is the oldest of 5 siblings. But in this new approach, I might not know for sure if Johnny has has sibs, until a role playing moment comes along where having a sib, or being an only child has some emotional impact. Maybe Johnny did have an older brother who died at a young age, so when Johnny and the group are investigating a series of child murders, the events impact him pretty hard.

Maybe my character at first seems to be adventuring as a way to earn money, but later reveals that he seeks revenge on the man that that killed his parents, who just so happens to be the Big Bad of the current adventure. Plot twists like this are a common staple of literature and TV.

In fact, soap operas offer outrageous examples of "flexible" characters -- where a character is first introduced as a nice quaint doctor, then revealed to be the evil-twin thought to be dead brother who is actually a rogue Soviet assassin. And we think of fantasy literature as highly creative...

By keeping the character background flexible, new plots and dimensions can be added organically from the events in the game so characters and be integrated in ways that can be both interesting for the player as well as the DM.

Now this type of approach does have some caveats. First, all the players and DM have to have a trust one another. It can be easy for some players to monopolize the role playing elements by creating a number of different hooks while other characters don't have much of connection. What you want to avoid is a party where one player is Crocket and everyone else is Tubbs, or worse, a group where one is Drizzt and everyone else is, well, everyone else!

But that said, with the right group of people, this flexible approach can easily open more role playing opportunities,  and provide adventures with more emotional impact.

Jan 10, 2012

"Good Complexity" - Initial Thoughts on the next edition of D&D

In case you missed it, WoTC confirmed Monday one of it's worst kept secrets, that they are hard at work on a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Read about it here from CNN, or here from Forbes. The announcement was also carried by the New York Times and EN World.

This new edition, cleverly referred to at the moment as just "D&D Next", seems to have a very daunting mandate, to re-unite the various splinters of the D&D community that have grown out of a dissatisfaction with the 4e rule set. We now have not only groups that still cling to old rule sets (like Basic, 1e, 2e, etc), but also active supporters on emerging edition variants, including Pathfinder and the OSRIC branch of D&D.

I've tried to take some time to distill my thoughts on what I think would be needed for a successful next edition of D&D, beyond things like Vancian magic and

  1. Digital Support - WoTC needs a digital publishing plan, and they've needed it for the last few years. PDF support is a no-brainer at this point, with the proliferation of laptop and tablet's at the gaming table, they need to tap in to that user base.
        And don't just provide a flat PDF. Really leverage the electronic format. Provide crosslinks to other sections in the doc, use PDF layers to provide additional information.
  2. Optional Tools - I like the idea of online/offline tools to help Players and DMs, like Character Builder, or Monster Builder, or encounter planners, but what I don't like is when game complexity is so high that use of the tools seems almost mandatory.
         And this isn't just a 4e issue. In my 3.5 game, I found it almost necessary to use online calculators for figuring out experience from an encounter.
  3. Some kind of open license like the OGL - I hope the new edition will include something along these lines. It was a bold move when WoTC did it for 3e, and the watered down version of what was developed for 4e, was never really took off. I think the benefits far outweighed the perceived costs. By allowing all those 3rd party publishers to rally around a common game mechanic, you cross promote the system, allow the 3rd party to publish the niche products you can't, and take their resources away from non D&D Next projects.
  4. Bring back Greyhawk - in some form you need to acknowledge the first setting for what it is. It's as much a part of the history of the game as Magic Missile.
         And also a rule system that doesn't require altering the setting to fit the game principles. The ruleset and the setting should be independent of each other (think HTML and CSS for all you web folk out there).
  5. Faster Combat - The single biggest complaint I read for the longest time was about how long combat took. I seem to recall Chris Perkins admitting that combat can get complex at higher levels (in one of the GenCon podcasts). If it takes me 90 mins to run one combat, and my normal play time for a game session is 3.5 hrs, that doesn't feel like an optimal allocation of time per session, especially if I want to fit in some pesky roleplaying and plot advancement. 
  6. "Good Complexity" - one of my favorite lines from the Forbes article about the playtest the writer took part in concerned how the new rules have a return to "good complexity". I know what it means to me, and I look forward to hearing/playtesting what it means to WoTC in the upcoming months.

Jan 5, 2012

Let Your Campaign Talk to You

My typical progression for a campaign may be little unusual. In the beginning, when the PCs are newly minted 1st level characters that have just been created by their players, I run adventures that don't tie too closely into any character's background.

The reason for this is two fold. At lower levels, simply put, characters may not survive. I never go out of my way to kill a character, but to quote the villainous Leland from Needful Things "these things happen". Secondly, I want to leave things open in case the player decides "this character blows" and wants to play something else.

Replacing characters is much easier to do when said character has no integral connection to the overall campaign. When it's established in the first session that these six noobs are destined to save the world, it's a little hard later on shoehorning in a new character--like the convoluted solution on Charmed when the "Power of Three" needed a new Third after one of the actresses was fired.

I try to avoid this by waiting for the players to see if they like their characters enough to keep them for the long haul, and for the characters to get a few levels under their belt and therefore become more sturdy.

Now the other guiding rule I follow when setting up a campaign is to "let the game talk to you". When I first start a new campaign, I have "notions" of where I would like it to go. But it's important to be flexible with those notions, and let them develop organically from early game sessions into ideas and roadmaps.

For example:

* If the PCs find a particular bad guy troublesome or aggravating, consider upgrading him to BBG status (even if you have to bring him back from the dead). I did this in my first game, when a kidnapper escaped the party, and one of the players frantically searched the area for any trail to follow.

* If you dangle a particularly juicy plot line that the PCs don't follow up on, consider dropping it in favor of something else. In another game I thought the group would research a rare and evil tainted item they had recently acquired. When they left it aside for a foray into a new dungeon, I simply dropped that idea (somewhat).

* If the party shows a preference for dungeon crawls, think about recasting your campaign in way that features more of what the party likes. As I mentioned above, when the group was more interested in a new dungeon rather than hours of library research, I ran a delve, and added some of the same story ideas into that dungeon (through journals and history/religion checks) that would have resulted from the tainted item they possessed.

Every campaign is different, just like every player and every character. You can learn a lot about your own game just by simply listening...