D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

“More Game of Thrones, Less Time Bandits”

latestSince 5th edition launched, I have been playing D&D regularly, and loving it. The group consists of my son, a guy I played D&D with back in high school, plus his daughter, and a good friend I met after we both were pretty much done playing D&D back in college. It has been a fantastic experience, and I have been overwhelmingly happy with the way things have gone so far. My players seem to enjoy themselves, too.

I was chatting with the buddy I met in college about the campaign. He ran one session, and did a fantastic job of it. We love discussing ways to make the game better. I know storytelling and interaction are two things he really loves, and I asked him if he felt like the game was meeting his needs in this respect. What he said really threw me for a loop.

“I am having a great time, and please don’t take this the wrong way. But I guess what I’d really like is something more Game of Thrones, and less Time Bandits.”

I’m assuming everyone reading this knows about Game of Thrones, but Time Bandits is more obscure. Time Bandits is an 80s movie that could best be described as an eclectic time travel fantasy adventure. It is about as far removed from the grim realism of Game of Thrones as you can get.

time_bandits_xl_02--film-ALooking back at the past few sessions, I can see that our campaign went to some very odd places. The group had just used a gnomish diving bell to parlay with sea elves, whereupon they were swallowed by the Great Elemental Lord of Whales. They ended up in his diseased lungs, where a mad necromancer had set up a tower and was poisoning the creature in order to spread death and decay across the multiverse. They fought mutated worms, slimes, and a host of kuo-toa zombies before defeating the necromancer and claiming his trident of fish command as their own. The previous session ended with the group being spewed out of the blowhole of the Whale-Lord.

So, yeah, I suppose my friend has a point. That is, in hindsight, some nutty stuff.

When I asked him what I could do to improve, he said “I want something to love, something to hate, and something to fear.” While he admitted that the games have been fun and interesting, he felt little to no personal involvement with the unfolding narrative. He felt as if the story was happening to him, and didn’t feel much motivation to do anything other than sit back and watch.

His words were tough for me to hear, but I can certainly see his point. Playing NPCs “in character” is a weakness of mine, and he had not developed any sort of strong feelings one way or another about any of them. (Though he did admit he found a few irritating, like the gnome who inventing the diving bell, for instance. Which I suppose is good, right?) Without this emotional involvement, our D&D games were basically no more involving to him, story wise, than trips from one quest giver to the next in World of Warcraft.

isle-of-dread-831As I thought about his advice over the next few days, as I planned our most recent session, I considered ways to increase his involvement. I was planning to set the new adventure on the Isle of Dread, which is wonderfully open-ended. Looking through my options, I came up with the following.

Something to love

The easiest choices here would be the Tanaroan villagers, plus possibly the rakasta and phanaton settlements. When the PCs made their way to the village, I did my best to make sure they were treated as honored guests and as curiosities, too. The villagers asked all sorts of questions about where the group came from, marveled at their powers and abilities, and basically treated them as friends. The rakasta, after challenging the group to a contest to secure saber-tooth cubs, agreed to assist the group in rescuing a kidnapped villager from the lizardfolk. I did much more direct “in character” roleplaying with voices and such for both the villagers and the rakasta, and tried to name more NPCs than I normally would.

Something to hate

The clear choice here was the lizardfolk. I have many lizardfolk minis from a Warhammer Fantasy army, so I wanted them to be a focus. I decided to use yuan-ti instead of humans in the City of the Gods, and that group, too, will make good villains. Attacks and raids by lizardfolk among the other, more peaceful NPC factions should raise the level of animosity the PCs feel. I’m also considering having the lizardfolk use captured slaves in battle after inflicting them with an enraging poison (inspired by the deranged ankylosaurus encounter). Dirty tactics like this should paint the lizardfolk and eventually the yuan-ti as evil menaces that must be stopped.

Something to fear

Right now, our campaign has no real arch-villain behind the scenes. The Isle of Dread has one inhabitant who should fit the bill nicely: the green dragon. I decided that the dragon is manipulating the lizardfolk to amass power, numbers, and weaponry in order to make an assault on the yuan-ti in the City of the Gods. The dragon wants a powerful artifact that is said to be lost in the City which will allow her to travel between the planes at will. The PCs, of course, can use this same artifact to get back home to the Forgotten Realms. Perhaps they will even find themselves allying with the dragon, which should certainly be interesting!

Being a DM isn’t an easy task. Being a good DM is even harder. One of the toughest things we must do is listen to feedback, both negative and positive, from our players. DMs have a responsibility to make sure the expectations of all players are being met. Getting shot out of a massive whale’s blowhole may be fun some some, but not necessarily all. Most player groups have a mix of players who enjoy different aspects of the game. Make sure combat, exploration, and role-playing each play an important part at your table. Your players will be glad you do.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Best Monster Manual Ever?

04-PRODUCT-INFO_Tabletop_Hero_MMI picked up the new D&D Monster Manual shortly after it was released. The quality of the book is striking, from the physical appearance to the content inside. There is quite a lot to like about this, the second major rulebook for 5th Edition. Reviews all over the blogosphere have been overwhelmingly positive, and deservedly so. The amazing cover, meticulous graphic design, and sturdy heft of the book make it look and feel wonderful in your hands. The interior art ranges from simply good to bedazzlingly perfect, and the book strikes a balance between pleasantly fluffy and satisfyingly crunchy. It is a fine follow-up to the Player’s Handbook, and bodes well for quality of the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide.

But is it the best Monster Manual ever? If you had asked me this question the first night I read it, I wouldn’t have hesitated at all before answering a resounding “YES!” However, after the new has worn off slightly, I am not as certain. It might not be a fair question. Does the 5th ed Monster Manual need to be the greatest one of all time? Not really. I think it is a contender, but a few offerings from the past might actually be better, or, at least, just as good.

For the purposes of this comparison, I am only referring to official material from TSR or WotC, released for any version of “core” Dungeons & Dragons. No other game systems, or setting specific stuff. (Sorry, Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium.) I should also disclose that I have no experience at all with D&D 3.0 or 3.5. Fans of those tomes, please don’t get upset when I don’t mention them.

monster_manualLet’s get the obvious out of the way. The first edition Monster Manual for AD&D is the gold standard. All subsequent collections owe too much to the original for it to not be considered as the best. The 1E Monster Manual is iconic and deserves a place in the discussion. However, as the first in a line of continuous revisions, it falls short when compared objectively to its descendants. The art, layout, and overall weirdness of old school AD&D make it less useful at the table. That doesn’t make it less important, but the book isn’t even close to perfect. For similar reasons, the Fiend Folio is out of the discussion, even though I love it so much.

Most of my D&D playing years took place in 2nd edition. The first “Monster Manual” for 2E AD&D was the Monstrous Compendium. The brilliance of this release was that it was a three-ring binder full of one-sheet descriptions of monsters. For a guy like me who was (is) a little OCD about organizing game components, the Monstrous Compendium was the greatest thing ever. Bigger art, more descriptive text, and slick Jeff Easley cover art made this a huge improvement over previous offerings. The expandable, customizable nature of the MC was its greatest strength; you could keep all your monsters in one place, or just use the ones you needed for a particular adventure. Only two things mar the otherwise flawless nature of the Monstrous Compendium: the page holes tore easily, and monsters would often be printed back to back, ruining the otherwise glorious alphabetical order once multiple supplements had been obtained.

Skipping forward almost two decades, we move to the 4th Edition era. The finest offering from this edition was the last: Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. While I dearly love the original Monster Vault, its successor is a superior product. The larger format of the book was welcome, and the included map and token sheets were even better than those that came with the first Monster Vault. But the best part was the wonderful design of the monsters inside. 4E had really hit its stride when this was released, and the creatures in this book married theme to mechanics in a way few other Monster Manuals have managed to replicate. Additionally, the book was dripping with lore and adventure ideas. I especially loved the one of a kind monsters contained within. Threats to the Nentir Vale is the high water mark for 4th Edition, and a serious contender for “best ever”.

3headredSo how does the 5th edition Monster Manual stack to these three? Let’s compare them in reverse order.

Threats to the Nentir Vale and the 5E MM are clearly very, very different products. The former was released near the end of 4th Edition’s lifespan, and it is clear that the designers really had a good understanding of what 4E offered. Remember all of the issues with the monsters in early 4th edition? They were quite a mess. Both Monster Vaults fixed many of these issues, and the monsters were amazing as a result.

In contrast, the newest Monster Manual is one of the first 5E products to hit the shelves. It is certainly a useful tome, but it doesn’t quite have the level of razzle dazzle I was expecting. The Player’s Handbook was a showstopper, but the MM seems a bit lacking. The designs of the monsters are a bit too generic, some seeming to be just collections of statistics without distinguishing characteristics. Orcs and goblins feel nearly the same mechanically, and that’s a pity. I’d also like to see more variety among the iconic monster varieties; we have dozens of dragons represented, but only two bugbears, for example. The monsters inside the 5E Manual are perfectly usable, but not particularly imaginative.

mcvol1Let’s move back next to the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium. Obviously the 5E MM blows its ancestor out of the water from an artistic standpoint. The illustrations are painted, and in full color to boot, eclipsing the black and white line art of the MC. Moving beyond that, there is a roughly equal amount of lore and background in the two. The layouts are quite similar, in fact.

The biggest advantage the 2E binder has over the 5E tome is tabletop usability. Using the binder system, I could put the monsters in any order I liked. As a bound book, the 5E Monster Manual cannot be altered in this way. That wouldn’t be an issue if the entries were arranged alphabetically. But they aren’t. There is a monsters section, a “Miscellaneous Creatures” section, and an NPC section. I don’t care for the pulling out of NPCs, but can understand the difference between them and monsters, at least. But I cannot understand why “Miscellaneous Creatures” are listed separately. Is a Giant Spider a monster or a creature? Who knows? It has caused delays in my games already, and probably will continue to do so.

MonsterManualADnDFinally, let’s compare the original AD&D Monster Manual to its 5th Edition descendant. These two seem to have the closest relationship. The new book truly feels like a remake of the old one; not a terrible “re-imagining”, but a thoughtful remake using modern technology and the benefit of nearly four decades of RPG development. If the 5E MM were the first such book you had ever seen, you would walk away from it with the same feeling of wide-eyed awe that some of us did when we gleefully devoured the 1E version years ago. I consider this to be the most important aspect of the Monster Manual: to inspire Dungeon Masters to populate great adventures with fantastical foes. By this measure, the 5th Edition Monster Manual is a success.

So is the 5th Edition Monster Manual the best one ever released? It’s an impossible question to answer. Just as I couldn’t choose which of my sons I love the best, I cannot decide which Monster Manual is the greatest. Threats to the Nentir Vale has amazing mechanics, the Monstrous Compendium is a neatnik’s dream, and the first Monster Manual is a nostalgic favorite. The 5E MM has advantages and disadvantages over all three of these, and deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of which is the best. Despite a few nagging bits here and there, the new Monster Manual is a magnificent book, and will surely provide many hours of enjoyment at D&D tables for years to come.



D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

A Boy, a Dad, and the Player’s Handbook

Excerpts_PHBAs I was perusing my shiny new copy of the Player’s Handbook in my easy chair a few weeks ago, my thirteen year old son asked me a question. “Hey Dad, does that have the rules for making a barbarian instead of a fighter?” Nodding, I flipped back a few pages, opening the book to the well-rendered portrait of an impressive barbarian accompanying the class description, and handed it over to him. Curling up on the couch, he started reading.

At first, he was a bit distracted by whatever was on the TV screen at the time. Within a few moments, he had assumed a more comfortable pose, the Player’s Handbook on his lap, turned away from the TV. I watched him closely. As he read, his eyes widened, nose inching ever closer to the pages of the book. The TV was forgotten; he was enthralled by the fantastic tome, oblivious to the world around him. He only came out of his trance long enough to share the most incredulous bits. “Dad! Did you see this? The path of the totem! You can be like a bear!” He was only distracted from his reading by the arrival of supper.

basic13thWatching this unfold in my living room was a special moment. I got my wife’s attention, pointing at our boy. “That right there on the couch is me twenty-something years ago,” I whispered to her. And it’s true. I was very much the same at his age, spending time playing video games, reading comic books, and devouring Dungeons & Dragons material. In my case, it was the Red Box Basic Set. In his case, Fifth Edition. In most respects, the experience was the same. The sense of wonder has always been D&D’s biggest appeal to me, and the latest version of the world’s greatest role-playing game provides this in spades.

I will always and forever be a fan of 4th Edition D&D. It was what got me back into the game after so many years away. I love battle maps, my collection of dozens of miniatures, and my Dwarven Forge set. I love the complexity of the characters, and the ease of balancing encounters for the DM. My favorite part of 4E was the capability of making showstopping final combats with a whole variety of wicked foes, masses of minions, and crazy environmental effects. Some of my favorite D&D memories were made during 4E.

But as I watched my son reading the Player’s Handbook that night, I thought back to the 2+ years we played 4th edition. I cannot recall him ever picking up a rulebook. He rarely even used the three pages of power cards for his Essentials paladin. The tight, complex ruleset that tickled my intellect was irrelevant to him. He just wanted to go to cool places, to act heroic, to swing his sword at the bad guys. I believe to some extent, 4th Edition was an obstacle to what he really wanted from Dungeons & Dragons.

157997_IconicPartyRedDragon_DarenBaderIf the amount of time he has spent reading the Player’s Handbook the past few weeks is any indication, 5th Edition is just right for him. The entire system is easier to learn and master. Characters have plenty of options, but are still unique from one another. The quotes from D&D novels he’s read, the fluff embedded throughout the book, and the gorgeous, evocative art throughout have led my son to take the PHB with him on long trips in the car, to read before bed, or when he gets home from school. He’s eating it up, and I am thrilled, incredibly pleased, that he is getting such enjoyment from something that I have loved for years and years.

Do I have concerns about Fifth Edition from a DM perspective? Yes. Balancing encounters is unintuitive, for one. I also feel there should be more options for variety in monsters like kobolds, orcs, and the like. Shouldn’t there be stronger or at least different goblins, troglodytes, and lizardfolk, just as there are elves, dwarves, and humans? I have some concerns about feats, as well. Some of them look like must-haves. I worry that feats will lead to overpowered characters. Perhaps the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual will alleviate some of these concerns.

But any misgivings I have about Fifth Edition are easy to overlook when I think of my son. We talk about D&D every day on the drive to school. One of the players in my new campaign wants to run a session soon, so I am making a character myself. We have talked about classes, abilities, which god to serve, what weapons to use, the background story, places we’ve been, even down to hairstyles of our characters. His excitement and enthusiasm are contagious, and it’s hard to worry about feats and balanced encounters when we talk about the fun stuff, the stuff that D&D is really about.

The Three Pillars that 5th Edition has been designed around are exactly right. My kid wants to go to cool places, to act heroic, and to swing a sword at bad guys. That’s exploration, interaction, and combat, right there. Each is equally important, well-supported by the mechanics of the game. The rules are no longer a barrier to entry, something emphasizing one aspect of the Three Pillars over the other. My son is loving it, I am loving it, and it even looks like I will have two campaigns going on at the same time before long. The new Player’s Handbook is an amazing book, and I am thrilled to see what is to come from Dungeons & Dragons in the future.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Fifth Time is the Charm


It has been a long, long time since I have posted. After reviewing a couple D&D Classics releases this past winter, this blog went silent. In April, I made a half-hearted attempt at a post entitled “D&Doldrums”. It was almost as boring to write as it would have been to read. And so, almost five months went by.

As the news of 5th edition’s release drew near, my anticipation grew by leaps and bounds. I picked up the new Starter Set on release day, downloaded the Basic Rules, and consumed them. Much has been said by many more experienced reviewers than I, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that I think the Starter Set is a fantastic bargain, and the Basic Rules are a solid starting place for anyone who is interested in D&D. Both products are exactly what they need to be.

As a longtime fan of the old school D&D Basic rules, I feel the new Basic Rules are robust enough for many, many hours of adventuring. I am still looking forward to the Player’s Handbook, since the basic four classes are a bit restrictive for most players. More choices for races and classes are good, though I personally won’t allow all of the PHB options in my campaigns, unless the player makes a very strong case for it, of course.

wallpaper_Illo 2A lack of monsters is a bit of a problem, but with a little creativity and some reskinning, you can do quite a lot with just the options in the Starter Set. New monsters are supposed to be added to the Basic Rules once the PHB is released. Hopefully it will be enough to last until the Monster Manual hits later this year.

But products and rule sets alone don’t get me excited enough to write. Actually sitting down to play D&D with people, though, that will do it. This past weekend, I had one of the best gaming sessions of my entire life. One of my best friends who I have known since junior high (and played plenty of D&D with before) is one player, and he brought his 11 year old daughter, a first timer, as well. My son, now thirteen, was thrilled to play, and another great friend I’ve played games with since college rounded out the group.

Each of the players took the time to develop an interesting backstory. I initially chose Dragonlance as the setting, which had me all gooey inside. However, due to some Krynn-unfriendly class choices (two players wanted to convert their wizard and cleric to warlock and druid after the PHB hit), and a desire to use the upcoming Tyranny of Dragons material, I decided a swap to Forgotten Realms was in order. I am looking for a good primer on the setting as it currently exists, so let me know if you are aware of anything.

unnamedDuring play, it became clear we had a great mix of player types. A good balance between power gamers and story tellers is great for a DM; I delegated initiative tracking and mapping to the power gamer, while the story teller thrived when I asked him “tell me what that looks like” after a critical hit. The younger players provided a level of joy and humor to the game that made it much more fun. It was an amazing experience from start to finish, and we are all excited to play again soon!

So, to conclude, I guess the message is: I am back! The new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is for the most part, exactly what I am looking for. Using theater of the mind as much as possible, I can concentrate on reacting to the players and improvising more. But sometimes I want to get out the poster map or Dwarven Forge tiles and minis for a set piece encounter, and the rules allow this seamlessly. (I am interested in a few more options for gridded combat, presumably in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to come.) I hope to keep the new group up and running for a long time to come. It’s a great time to be a D&D fan!