Sunday, February 11, 2018

Why Do I Prep?

  • So I don't have to draw maps or explain complex tactical situations at the table
  • So I can have the right terrain and minis
  • So I can prepare dynamic lighting and tokens in roll20
  • So I can prepare music and background soundscapes
  • So I can practice appropriate voices before the session
  • So I don't forget my best ideas
  • So I can collect and organize my thoughts about all the things that could happen
  • So I can think about NPCs and foes and their motivations
  • So I can take the time to create and scale just the perfect foes to move the spotlight around in the party
  • So I can bring fresh new ideas to the table without falling back on things I have already used and am comfortable with
  • So I can plan literary style elements like foreshadowing and foils
  • So I don't waste time thinking and letting players get bored
  • So I can choose the best way to handle different potential scene
  • So I can work in connections between PC backstories and the plot
  • So I can practice pronunciation of new names
  • So I can use a premade setting
  • So I can review stale or new rules that might come into play
  • So I can prep vignettes for players to read before the session with world info
  • So I can get excited about what is coming up in the game
  • So I can feel confident and unstressed at the table
  • So I can practice my dialogues and choose just the right words
  • So I can make cool handouts
  • So I can make cool props
  • So I can prerecord special sound effects for foes and NPCs
  • So I can give players a heads up when a PC-driven storyline is coming up and make sure they can be there for it
  • So I can prepare details that PCs might want to know
  • So I can venture outside of my comfort zone
  • So I can create mechanics to support new scenarios
  • So I can make combat more interesting with details and skill challenges
  • So I have something to come back to when we miss a few sessions
  • So I have recorded memories of our games
  • So I have something I can refer to to reuse content
  • So I don't get caught off guard
  • So I can be the best GM I can be
  • So my players can have the most fun possible

Thursday, September 7, 2017

An Unexpected Gender Experiment

When I resurrected my gaming hobby several years ago, I did it as a father bringing his 4 daughters and wife into the hobby. For me, this was a really cool experience and I wanted to share it so I started this blog, the Pink Dice Chronicles. Now, years have passed, daughters have grown up and moved out and it is me and friends just playing now. Along the way though, I found that I wanted to help more people in the hobby, so I started a twitter account, and the PinkDiceGM twitter handle was born.

On twitter, I accidentally started an unexpected gender experiment. I left off anything to indicate my gender, not on purpose. With a name like PinkDiceGM, I must be a woman, right?   So the experiment began without me even noticing it.

Now I've been around the internet (been online since '92) and I know there are always jerks and trolls. Twitter is no exception. When I ran into jerks here and there, I did what I have learned to do. Engage politely, and then block if needed. I had to do this a lot. The biggest difference, in hindsight, was my experience was filled with a lot more people arguing semantics. At first I didn't think anything of it. Now I wonder. Were these arguments targeted at me because of my perceived gender, because they certainly weren't based on merit of argument. I also had the experience of having to block several followers for plagiarizing my content. When you post a #GMTip one day and see someone else posting it reworded the next day as a #DMTip, it feels rotten. Again, I block.

At least once along the journey I was also accused of being an overly sensitive millennial, which anecdotally I also find amusing.  Keep in mind that I've been gaming for over thirty years across every version of D&D. I'm no millennial; my daughters are millennials, not me, not that it matters. It's just another useless label.

Throughout all of these negative experiences, no one ever stood up for me. I had to stand up for myself. Is that just part of our culture, to let folks fight their own battles, even when someone is obviously being a jerk? I don't know.

The other side of the coin I saw was the attraction of people looking for women in gaming. Several times people tried to include me in special lists and refer me to people as a "woman in gaming". I felt a bit of disappointment, as did the people that made the mistake, that I wasn't a woman. Being an overweight middle-aged straight white guy in the hobby is nothing special, and my voice isn't that unique.  For me it is sad in two ways. It is sad that we have so few women in the community. It is sad that my contribution is somehow judged differently by my gender, for better or for worse.

I remember the countless horror stories about being treated badly at the table. I recall the entire groups of people that have been ignored or portrayed poorly in our gaming culture. I hold to heart the matra "Not about us without us".  In these times ahead, it becomes even more important for us to focus on protecting those in our community. Complacency is the enemy here. If you see someone unfairly attacked, get involved. If you see diverse voices and ideas being ignored, say something.  Keep in mind, that for everything you might believe, the opposite might as well be true. We don't all have to always agree, but we should all be working to allow all voices to be heard without fear.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Tales from the Yawning Portal: DMing the Tomb of Horrors

Tomb of Horrors has always been a favorite of mine to run as a session or two for fun. When Tales of the Yawning Portal popped up with a 5th edition version, I had to get it and run it. Luckily my group was totally on board for a different experience for a few sessions, so away we go.

I've run ToH in multiple systems and I have seen the ins and outs. I know all the tricks. I know what fun looks like and what frustration looks like. ToH is a great experience dating all the way back to Gary Gygax's original group. Let's take a look.

My game was run with 5 players, although we swapped out a couple of players along the way. It lasted about 3 sessions of about 4 hours each. All of the players started with multiple 14th level characters, so they could switch to new ones as characters died. My party ran no rogues, which was just weird.

This is all my opinion. Your game may go differently, your gaming group may have different problems and successes. I'm not going to argue that I am right about any of this in the context of your game. As always, do what works for you.

Here's my recap of the good and the bad at a generic spoiler-free level.

  • I set expectations that this is a PC-killer dungeon. Players were told to make several PCs and be prepared for them to die. If you don't set this expectation, your players will likely get upset.
  • I let all options from my list of playable content into the game.
  • I let the PCs have all the mundane equipment they can carry 3 uncommon and 1 rare magic item of choice, and one totally random magic item from all the tables in the DMG.
  • I relaxed the rules for spells -- no preparing, no selecting. You get your spell list. Spell slot limits still apply.
  • I had a banner map printed ( and covered all of the area with labeled cardstock stuck on with mounting squares. It was OK, but I would prefer a different approach that I give in the spoiler section. I oversized all of the squares and made them weird shapes to attempt to hide secret passages.
  • I explained that all skill checks require a complete description of what you are doing, what you are touching, where you are looking, etc.
  • I gave the party maximum HP at every level. This turned out to be too much. Average HP at every level would have been better.
  • I let them be level 14. This is great except there are too many "I win" spells for casters. If I had to do it again, I would stick with 10th level (or lower) characters, giving a maximum 5th level spell in play.
  • I think some players had seen the ToH before, so I should have modified it more. Having a preprinted map didn't allow for that. 
  • I never use a DM screen. For this one, I should have, and probably should have slipped a copy of the map with notes to it.

For here on down, we're talking specifics so SPOILER ALERT!!!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two Groups in the Same Campaign: Madness or Brilliance?

For years I have been planning an Asian-inspired campaign, in fact, since before D&D 5E even came out. Originally it was to be a Pathfinder campaign. Instead, something better came together out of a combination of 5E, some homebrew, and the Forgotten Realms Kara-Tur setting. The campaign concept evolved over a period of years to become a group of monster hunters in Asian-inspired Kara-Tur somehow getting caught up in the Blood War, the eternal war between demons and devils. I knew to do this right it was going to take a lot of homebrew and a lot of prep. In the end, there are 3 custom races, 7 custom classes / archetypes, a whole new weapon set, and several house rules. Prep involves coming up with lots of place names and character names in a setting I am not particular well-versed in, either specifically or by genre. To save myself a lot of work, both of my Roll20 groups play different parties in the exact same campaign.  Prep once, play twice.

Half the prep is a wonderful thing. It turns out, however, that running two groups through the same campaign has far greater advantages. As GMs, we all put together those interesting fights, only to have a quick series of failed saves or critical hits skew the fight into something different than we planned. We've all had players miss clues and drag the campaign off in unexpected directions. The question lingers: was it bad design or was it just a crazy random happenstance. Now with two groups in play, I often get those answers. I learn what is design and what is random.

A good example was a recent mission that both parties undertook in the town of Trunau. Something was killing commoners in one part of the city. They needed to figure out what was killing, find it, and kill it. It is a classic trope: investigate, locate, and kill. Both parties followed the same rough path through investigation, each clue leading to the next. One party had great luck at determining most of the special immunities and resistances of the monster. The other party had no luck.  Both parties ended up camped out in the middle of town at night trying to catch the creature. However, one party upset the local guard captain so badly that a PC was temporarily jailed, while the other party followed rules of honor and kept in the guard captain's good graces.

In the yokai fight, one party made most of their saves. The summoner failed and had to stay back during the fight. They knew very little about the yokai and charged into melee, killing the monster quickly, but still getting badly hurt by the tentacles flying in every direction. The second party almost entirely failed their saves. Being frightened, they couldn't move in on the creature. The summoner instead summoned a giant snake onto the monster which easily grappled it. The snake then moved the yokai within range of the PCs so they could attempt to hit it. This party had several PCs with little or no ranged weapons and it was a challenge.  Unfortunately, despite the much longer fight, the yokai couldn't seem to hit anything and the PCs mostly walked away unscathed, with the giant snake taking most of the damage.

By seeing the different ways this investigation, hunt, and eventual combat went, I learned a lot more about the overall design. I learned where things pulled the PCs in a consistent direction. I learned where dice rolls made a huge difference and where they didn't matter. If I were writing this campaign to share, running two or three groups through it simultaneously would have been the optimal approach for testing the design. By choice, I would run 3 groups through: 2 to test the initial material, and a 3rd to test the material after I made some tweaks.

Now this approach isn't for everyone. Trying to run two or more games at the same time takes some serious time commitment and organization skills. It turns out, it also takes some thorough notes to keep the parties straight and the information that the parties know separate. It is a real challenge, but if you are up for the challenge, there are some definite advantages that come out of it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Abyssal Winds: A New Style of Campaign

I've GMed over 100 sessions of Dungeons and Dragons 5E now, with over 40 different players across multiple campaigns. I think I have finally learned enough to make a meaningful commentary on the system. I really love it, except for one thing: my bad guys, NPCs, and monsters are always getting ran over by the PCs as they sprint through encounters. They don't even think about it anymore. Bing, bang, bam -- they run in and kill the baddies. I had a level 15 take out a level 21 lich in a round and a half without breaking a sweat.

My new campaign has been years in the making and I really wanted to get a different feel from combat and NPC interaction. The party is a group of monster hunters in Kara-Tur, the Asian-inspired part of Forgotten Realms.  To slow down the action, I really have emphasized two major changes: making NPC interactions trickier and making monster interaction trickier.

For NPCs, the PCs now have to navigate the subtleties of honor and tradition. Each PC has 7 stats now: the traditional six plus honor. Honor rolls are used to figure out how to say and do the right thing when approaching an NPC. Botch the honor roll, and the PC is going to say something insulting or commit a faux pas that will make even the best charisma not matter. Honor is a gatekeeper that slows down milking the NPC for information. It makes the party have to work for information. It also works quite nicely with the near-Ebberon levels of politics I have brought into the setting.

For monsters, I pulled heavily from monster hunters across popular culture, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy has the scooby gang, and before every fight, they spend their time figuring out what the creature is, what it wants, and how to kill it. I want the PCs to ask that one relevant question: "Does it have any weaknesses?".  In Kara-Tur, my monsters often have only one weakness. You walk into one of these monster encounters without doing your research, and you'll end up dead. That werewolf can't be hurt unless you have silver weapons. The troll regenerates without being hit by fire in a way that makes the PCs ineffective without it.  The players are now using investigation, perception, and a hodge-podge of techniques to gather and assemble information before they jump into a fight.

The results so far have been magical. They two groups I am running through this campaign are roleplaying more, interacting more, and scheming more. NPCs suddenly are an obstacle, not just a formality. Monsters are dangerous again, even for the monster hunters. It is by far the best start to a campaign I have ever had.

It is even more pleasing that all of this interaction and roleplaying actually reduces my preparation time.  I can build a generic village, throw down a few useful location tags, and keep a list of names. The players send their PCs looking for specific people to talk to, specific locations to find, and I improvise the interaction in-game. The only real detail I need in advance is some rough semblance of the local customs that I can reference with the honor rolls. Add a scenario with monsters and a little local political intrigue, and I am ready for a session or two missing that really plays well.

I'll keep an eye on it as it continues and share my results here as things progress. I am very optimistic that this will be my best set of campaigns yet.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

It's All About the Crits: Critical Successes and Failures

When you roll a 1, something bad happens; when you roll a 20 something good happens. It is a simple roll in many systems that can be the curse or bane of players and GMs. Today we're going to be discussing it in D&D 5E, however this rule applies lots of places.

Lets get some terminology out of the way first. An attack roll is made when a creature attempts to hit a target using a weapon (which could a natural, like a fist or claw) to hit a target. A saving throw is a a creature trying to resist or avoid an effect of something like a spell or a trap. A skill check is used when a creatures applies its knowledge to answer a question or its skill to perform a task.  For our purposes, this creature will be a player character.

For attack rolls, a 20 deals double damage dice, and a 1 misses in 5E RAW. These two effects nearly cancel each other out over the long haul, although not perfectly (math left as an exercise for the reader).  Every PC on every attack has the same change of a critical failure (miss) or a critical hit. This does a nice job of reflecting the crazy randomness and risk in a battle. A couple of crits one way or the either can results in an unexpected outcome.

Now, let us insert the favorite houserule that something worse than a miss happens on a critical fail.  In many cases, a significant percentage (if not all) of these critical failures ends your turn. These failures include things like dropping your weapon or clumsily falling down. Here's where an unintended consequence pops up. A level 1 character gets to attack once. A level 20 fighter gets to attack 4 times.  Because every attack has the same chance of a critical fail, the level 20 fighter is 4 times more likely to have  critical failure during their turn than a level 1 noob. Even worse, is that a critical failure may cost the level 20 fighter some of their subsequent attacks during the turn.  It makes the level 20 fighter look like a complete clown at fighting.

For skill checks, there are no critical failures or success in 5E. Let's assume once again we insert the critical failure / success houserule. First our level 1 noob untrained in athletics wants to jump onto the roof of a house DC 25. Does out noob succeed with a 20+0 as if they had all the skill of a level 20 fighter maxed out in acrobatics? How about if that fighter has a +10 in acrobatics and rolls a 1 tying his shoes DC 1? Does that means he fails? The bottom line is that critical failures and successes don't seem to fit, because they make the unskilled perform unrealistic tasks and they make highly trained characters fail at the mundane. Sure, the GM can try to moderate this, but ultimately the base rule doesn't fit, because it breaks the assumptions of what "being skilled" means.

Lets try one more -- the saving throw. Once again, 5E doesn't have critical fails or critical successes. Lets add them. Again, the level 20 maxed dex fighter trips jumps into the fireball, and the level 1 noob jumps behind the fighter, does a tuck and roll over the nearby wall, and takes cover. Clearly we aren't doing any better with the realism with this than we did with the skills.

Ack! So that means we don't use our favorite houserule? What ever shall we do to get our failures? I share this sentiment. Failure is the best part of the games. Most of the stories told and retold (Aoefel and the acid pit) revolve around failures, not successes. From my playbook, here are a few options:

  • Use GM intrusion style mechanics from the Cypher system. For 5E, it could look something like this:
    • On a roll of any one, the GM can make an intrusion i.e. add a complication to the scenario.
    • If the player doesn't accept, they have to give a hero point back to the GM. If the player has no hero points, they have to accept.
    • On an accepted intrusion, the player receives two d6 dice called hero points. The player then immediately hands one of the 2 d6 dice to another player and gives a reason for doing so.
    • In the future these hero points can be added to any roll (limit of 1 to a roll) before its outcome is known.
    • A player can only have as many hero points as their proficinecy bonus.
  • Allow crit fails on attacks only, and only on the last attack in the attack action. This gives everyone an equal chance of a turn-ending effect without the higher level classes losing all of their extra attacks.
  • Just play with RAW and use the plot to set up your own critical failures. Put the players in a scenario where they can fail and don't give them limited or complex information to figure out what will happen.
So those are my thoughts on critical fails, critical successes, and 5E. Have other thoughts? Drop me a message on twitter @PinkDiceGM.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Stern Warning

Dreden slammed his fist against the table. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!"

"Yes," said the two hobgoblin warriors who faced him across table.

"You cannot go above ground. We cannot be discovered, " said Dreden, his brow furrowed so that it was nearly touching his nose. "This mission will fail if you disobey."

"Yes, commander," the two repeated, one slightly before the other.

Dreden sat into the chair, lumber creaking under his muscular hobgoblin physique. The two warriors seemed fidgity. It was the white cloaks and the white helmets. They were too bright, too clean, and too civilized when they were above ground.

"Now what is the status of the tunnels?" Dreden spoke slowly. His face was normal again.

"The southern tunnel is slow going. There is bedrock under the river." said one warrior.

"The northern tunnel is a day ahead, so far as we can tell, " said the other.

Dreden frowned. "Escort Gitrid to the forward camp so she can make the assessment. We don't want any mistakes."

"Yes, sir", replied the warrior. "We're just being cautious after the first tunnel flooded."

Dreden leaned forward. "I can respect that. We lost too many to the first mistake. Still get Gitrid to help you. She bores me, she drinks too much, and I don't care for her company. Let her do something useful."

The warrior nodded.

"And check back at the end of a fortnight." Dreden paused while the warrior look confused. "The battle plans will be ready by then, and I want you to report back then. Now GO!"

The two slammed their arms to their chests and spun with a quick exit.

Dredn returned to pouring over his maps, scratching at his side. These white cloaks did seem, unnatural.