GAMEMASTERING: Style or Evolution?
Youtuber Kevin Mason recently did a video on a subject that got me thinking, I encourage you to watch it, he identifies several styles of DMing and discusses the positive and the negative aspects of each. Here is the link so that you can go view it, Gamemaster Style: What Kind of Gamemaster are You?

Kevin Mason identifies four different styles:
  • Rules
  • Story
  • Fun
  • Balanced
It got me thinking, I have been all of these extremes at one point or another. When I first started out, I was very Fun. I catered to all of the player's desires and did whatever it took to get people to play at my table. That wasn't the only reason why I did it, there was also the fact that there was so much cool stuff in the DMG and I wanted to use it all at the same time! This, of course, got boring and convoluted.  It did help me figure out how lots of things worked, just throwing everything out there and seeing how things function. Sure the game lacked challenge, but it was a stepping stone.

What if the game is teaching itself to us? We all see these examples floating around, we suggest to new gamemasters to avoid traps and perils, usually from our own experience, but what if that is exactly what we are supposed to do? We learn more from making mistakes than we do from somebody telling us anything . . . at least I do.
My next evolution was one of story-telling. I wrote overly detailed notes and didn't realize that I was removing the players from the scenario. In essence, I was playing the game during prep. The story was great, and my players did enjoy this aspect of the game. Mastering this state is also one of trial and error. Spending 20-40 hours prepping an eight-hour session is a waste of energy. I learned by cutting back and experimenting with levels of story elements until I found one that satisfied the players, but was told not at the prep stage, but during play itself. If the players cannot interact with it, it isn't a game.

We buy modules, and we want a good collection of different styles. Sometimes we run them, sometimes we don't, but they are nice to have. They aren't all that practical though, by their very nature they are self-limiting, which forces the DM to either accept this limitation or start tinkering and molding modules to fit the style of the players, which eventually leads to writing your own material, and then cutting back until you are actually playing the game the way that it was originally designed to be played. At this point, I think that we start another evolution.

We discovered that the rules can either work against us, or for us. We become obsessed with them and say weird stuff like: If you aren't following all the rules to the letter, you aren't playing System X! We keep our story, but we force it to bend to the will of the rules. We become inflexible and this leads to predictability and stagnation. But, we have to know the rules before we can disobey them. This is a natural stage. Going back through the core handbooks and applying everything that we know thus far to the rules and seeing what complies and what doesn't. 

We are building upon our knowledge base, and the trick is to find players who will put up with our learning the game until we decide that enough is enough. Once we get tired of looking up rules all the time, being controlled by the system, being interrupted by mechanics that we feel offer nothing to the game, we get a feel for how these specific rules function and can begin improvising our own mechanics quickly, and in a way that complies with the ruleset itself. We have mastered the rules and can once again return to the beginning, applying what we now know into the structure of a fun game that satisfies all elements in a style and is ours. Balanced! We've earned the title Gamemaster, and can now come up with our own designs.

I don't think that any of this is a mistake. Perhaps, just as a player's character advances in level, so does the DM. I remember my mother once asking me what level of DM I am, just wanting to connect with me, but maybe she wasn't all that far off base? Perhaps DM's do have levels, we do evolve, and I bet you that we all evolve the same way. This means that the system itself is teaching us how to play the game as if it were self-aware and completely independent of us. A natural progression that taps into the human mind, and maps it.

There are, no doubt, more evolutions than just the three before we hit the stage of balance, or perhaps we go through a short stage of balance prior to taking the next steps of evolution. Maybe if we can figure out what these specific evolutions are we can better understand how our minds function.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it may make the journey too easy. Are we better DM's because we took this evolution with no outside aid of any kind? We had to fight for each evolution without the knowledge that we were evolving? Or, on the other hand, if we spell it out for new users, can we as a whole benefit by them applying the established evolution faster and beginning evolutions that we will never know?

The time required before fully exploring an evolution is individual, there is no one size fits all. We can spend years on an evolution without achieving any groundbreaking success at it, or cycle through a phase fairly quickly, easily mastering it. Perhaps when we say things, such as, "My style of DMing is Character-driven" we are detailing the personal evolution which we are currently exploring?


New AD&D Crossbow Rules (variant)
I've got a lot to do this week, what with Spring here, as well as a fresh copy of Robert J. Kuntz's new book to read. This week, I've decided to take it easy.

I like weapons that function differently from one another, it is a total AD&D 2e thing. We can make the rules as complex or as simple as we like. One of the things that bugs me about the system is, as the title says, The Crossbow.

The Crossbow was a terror on the battlefield, and was, at the time, considered to be much like the nuclear bomb is today. It was an unfair advantage. Bowmen had to spend hours honing their craft, it is a weapon of skill, while the crossbow was not. Anybody could pick up a crossbow and use it to kill other men.

What the crossbow lacked in distance, it made up for with accuracy. It's kind of like a shotgun today, you don't need to be a good shot with a shotgun, you just aim the barrel in the general direction of what you don't want to be there anymore, and when it gets close enough, you pull the trigger.

This factor really isn't all that apparent in the AD&D Weapons table. There are multiple ways that we can go about fixing this:

  • You can have the weapon always fire against AC 10. 
  • This weapon was slow to load, but the power behind it was pretty impressive, much better, I feel, than the damage listed in the book. We can alter this, either up the damage die used, or if max dmg is rolled, roll the same die again and add that to the total. The problem, however, with this solution is that the die in question is fairly easy to influence, a d6 would give you much better results than the d4, or you can roll the d8 but have it only give you results of 1-4. 

I do think that the damage needs to be altered, I'm not sure why it was set so low. DEX does make it more accurate and more dangerous, but I think that the best solution might be focusing on its ease of use.

  • One doesn't need to spend a Prof. point on this weapon, those that do are actually now specialized in that weapon, and anybody can specialize in it at least once, fighters can spend multiple slots specializing in it further.

I also think that the Range might be set a tad too high, I don't see how a heavy crossbow could reach 250 yards and still be able to hit. Maybe it could, I've honestly never shot one, but I am kind of in the camp of cutting those numbers in half. It would remove the hand crossbow from play, but I think that I'd be happier with play-testing this system.


Dave Arneson's True Genius Is out now

Dave Arneson, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons has been a long-standing debate in our circles for a really long time. What, exactly, his involvement is has been difficult to determine; very large egos were injured. There is a lot that we don't know about this figure, but that is now over. Robert Kuntz was there, he's been teasing us about this book for quite some time now, and it was FINALLY released today.

The book itself is a private release, click the picture and it will take you to the website where you can learn more and order your copy. Or click the link below.

Unlocking the Gygax Code, the game hidden inside of AD&D

FREE-FORM KRIEGSPIEL is the system which the designers took for granted that you knew. All wargaming systems have the same basic rules to function. When variant designers, such as Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, published their changes they didn't really focus on the basics. Not only did the people who bought these books not want them, but, honestly, wargame players become blind to them. They are just there.

There is actually enough basic wargaming rationale in the AD&D system that it makes it fairly easy to understand the more complex processes of kriegspiel and how to get a game on a tactical level to function, and I recommend that you do! There are principles and theories that can be carried over to the D&D table which will greatly help the DM understand the art of war. Understanding is key to running Free-form Wargame scenarios.

When one thinks about wargamers, there is an image in your head which features men standing around a highly detailed battlefield moving finely painted miniatures, determining combat through highly complex rules; this game exists, but it isn't native to AD&D. Folks have incorporated that game into the system, and it can function! If you want to see how a specific large scale war will affect the world, this probably is your best bet, but it isn't necessary, and there are some serious flaws with it that make it incompatible with the D&D system.


This is the image that comes to mind for most people. Those who have incorporated it into their games had to deal with pounding a square block into a round hole; it is a bad fit, and since it is a bad fit you have to alter the game until it does fit. It can be done, but it is clunky and awkward for one simple reason, the figure representing the player does not follow the same rules as the rest of the units. Elaborate rules have been introduced in an attempt to fix this, but only serve to extend an already long game into something even more tedious.

Another problem is the players themselves. Anyone who is interested in strict kriegspiel can tell you, we are rare breeds. Buying or creating these games, learning the complex rules, modifying them to your own specs, painting figures- this is the easy part. The difficult part is finding opponents.

Just because you build it, doesn't mean that players will come. Your players don't want to learn these new, very specific rules, and even if they did, strict kriegspiel is a long game that they probably don't care about and are not interested in. While not scientific in any way, I estimate that about 1-10 players of tabletop RPGs are even interested in experimenting with this system, those that find it fascinating and discover enjoyment from it, maybe 1-50.

There is also another glaring problem with the strict wargame format, it is a 2 person game. You can break up into teams, and have fun, but this is not D&D. At its heart, strict kriegspiel is nothing but a complex and heavily modified game of chess. While two players can enjoy it, a DM expecting to challenge the entire table to a strategy game is going to get destroyed. This removes the need to simulate the event and makes the act pointless.

Another problem with 4+ players as powerful as D&D characters is that it takes longer to set up the board than it takes for advanced players to destroy the enemy. This was built into the system by the designers on purpose, that purpose being to eliminate the need for strict kriegspiel altogether.

Kriegsspiel was originally invented by the Prussian military, it was not designed to be entertaining, it was designed to run thousands of scenarios which allowed the small German army to resist the overwhelming might of the French; a feat that (I believe) was successful!

The game was also used to train officers, and strict kriegspiel had the same problems with accomplishing this as we D&D players do; the participant has the ability to see the entire battlefield from an unrealistic position, overhead. This position also makes it too easy to study and accurately predict the strategies of your opponent.

To fix this, and make the game more realistic, the referees concealed the board. The participants didn't get to see it, they had to ask questions and command their troops through written messages which the referee would take into the room with the board and they would interpret the commands of the player. Commanding Officers would apply the changes to the board and decide what happens, and then update the player.

This sounds exactly like Dungeons & Dragons, and this is exactly how the game was intended to be played. This style is called Free-form Kriegspiel, and the benefits are obvious; namely that the players don't need to know the rules at all. 
via Pinterest
Studying the mechanics of D&D itself, and comparing them to kriegspiel, you gain an appreciation for the true genius of Gygax and how his invention was designed to limit the number of dice rolled, while not limiting the game in scope in any way.

Free-form Kriegspiel applied to the rules which govern Dungeons & Dragons eliminate the necessity of an actual board completely. Often, the results of a player's commands to his units can be compared to the tactics which were defined by the DM prior to play, and logic will dictate if an entire battle was successful or not.


Advanced players have known for years that you don't need to kill them all, you just need to figure out ways to trigger a morale check as quickly as possible. In this way, a party of 4-6 high-level adventurers can easily defeat small to medium sized armies. Even mid-level PCs can overwhelm entire armies on the field of battle if the players are skilled enough. They don't even need followers or an army to do this.

The Morale system is the key. This is the tool that makes Free-form Kriegspiel function without the need of a board. When we use this tool, even if a battle doesn't go well for the players or we want more involvement from the participants, we can update the players to the situation and use the morale system to quickly determine the actions of NPCs with very little fuss and just a few die rolls. The play doesn't stop because we have to move a bunch of little pieces and determine combat on a tactical level.

Speed and playability are always desired over specifics and realism.

Applying followers and allied soldiers to the game is made practical once we understand the mechanisms in place to govern their actions. Gygax could take the players into the midst of a full-scale battle, and decide how the player's choices interacted with the event taking place around them without ever having to set up a single miniature soldier. The only person who had to understand the inner-workings of these mechanics was the Dungeon Master.

The DM can alter the challenge of a battle and the players level of involvement by using the Morale System, Enemy morale can be high or low, the higher the level of enemy morale, the more actions and involvement will be needed on the part of the player.

The Language of Free-Form Kriegspiel

Now the folks who played in Gygax's campaign and helped him play-test the designs were all avid wargamers, this is where it can come in handy to do some study, just to acquire some common concepts and the vocabulary. The player need not write down his commands as the rules of kriegspiel were applied to soldiers, we are doing this for entertainment. You can give leeway and continue the standard D&D guideline of trying to error in the favor of the PCs, but the more specific and precise the command, the better.

Once the DM has these vocabulary words, the players will pick them up. A Unit, for instance, represents a number of people, “You see a couple of units of cavalry riding in your direction.” is a good description. The players don't know exactly how many men on horseback are approaching, but it is fair to say that it is more than 10. The statement above is enough to start a dialog, the players have time to ask specifics and come to a conclusion as to what course of action would be best depending upon the information that they were able to get before either side enters each other's range of attack. Exactly how much time and information being dictated by the DM, as always.

Buy a PDF from Drivethru RPG
It is also helpful to study the old rules of CHAINMAIL, you don't necessarily need to use CHAINMAIL during the game, but it will greatly help you determine results without actually having to run them, Free-form Kriegspiel relies heavily upon the laws of averages, for example: if equal numbers of infantry attack an equal number of cavalry, the cavalry are going to win. Both sides may suffer casualties, but the infantry will be routed. 
CHAINMAIL even has the mathematical principals behind exactly how many cavalry units may be lost before the infantry are slain. The actual results may vary if the scenario is physically run on a board with dice, but we want to eliminate that step, thus the averages add to playability and speed of the game.


Once the DM understands the rules and logic of Free-form kriegspiel, many of the strange or obscure rules and mechanics will finally make perfect sense; the hidden wargame is revealed and the genius of the design is exposed. The system becomes neat and tidy and we discover that we were over-complicating things.

Art by Giuseppe Rava via Pinterest
Art by Giuseppe Rava
It can be difficult to find a DM who will allow followers, but now fighters can enjoy the full ability to gain and use their troops as they were intended to be used. Followers are loyal, can guard treasure and property, keep night watch at camp, search large areas so the players don't have to, their uses are very functional; besides, when the fighter walks into town with a military escort it is awesome!

An unlimited number of NPC actions can be determined with very little work, it enforces the separation between player skill and character skill in a balanced way that truly has to be experienced to be appreciated. CHA matters to this game, it is not a drop stat; an enemy with a high charisma is going to be much more dangerous than a wizard with high intelligence.

This doesn't mean that we can't make complicated tactical battles if we want to, this just means that we have the ability to run them, keeping all of the players involved, and preserving the DM's ability to challenge them. If you need to keep a tactical map secret from the players, do it. If you want to play the CHAINMAIL system or the BATTLESYSTEM rules, you can do that too, but Free-form is what was intended.

The Complete Bards Handbook: or, What is Class?

Via Medieval Life & Times
2127 PHBR7 The Complete Bard’s Handbook was released in April of 1992 and was designed by Blake Mobley. I know that a small, but very loud group of people think that Bards, as written in the AD&D system, are the best class ever written in the history of the written word; to those gentle readers, I suggest that you click away as I am not remotely in that camp. Those who continue reading this, you have been warned.

Despite what the title of this post says, I'm not really going to review this specific book. I have never owned it, and am never going to. I had once borrowed seen a copy and the thing is just so counter to everything that I believe that a good product should be that I wouldn't even know where to begin. If you were expecting a grade, I think that you can connect the dots. This title has been used as evidence that by 1992, the life-cycle of AD&D was already over; that statement isn't true, but this is a horrible book in every sense of the word.

I have no idea what TSR was thinking; logically The Complete Race Handbooks should've been completed before scraping the bottom of the barrel, if we have done anything here we have already established that TSR executives had no idea what they were doing.


I don't play bards; I hire them. There have been some awesome bardic characters that have appeared in literature, unfortunately, the AD&D system does not allow you to play them. They just don't fit the mold of what AD&D is about. If I could ask Dave Cook anything, I'd ask him if he included the Bard template to visually show how weak a character who can do everything is, or should be.

The AD&D bard can fight, do some thief skills, and cast spells, the catch is that he isn't very good at any of this. He can't hit, he can't steal, and he can't control his spells. One should never play a bard, and instead focus their attention on specializing in one skill set, only then do you offer anything to the team. As the bard sits, I hire them when we are dealing with mass combat, or using the morale system; THAT is their specialty. That also doesn't make for a very interesting character.


Here is the deal, you make a fighter, or a thief, or a wizard: have him learn how to play the harp, you've got a bard. The other Complete Class Handbooks were about taking the templates and skills of a set class and using them to define what a character is, not based upon their chosen class, but upon the identity of the character itself.

Bard isn't the best example, so we'll instead examine the Druid: as it is laid out in the "2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook". Once you look at the entry, and read the decription, you will notice that this really isn't a class at all! It clearly defines all of the skills that specific character gets per level, as well as listing all of the requirements that must be met beyond just gaining XP to actually level up. 
The Druid is a poorly labeled example of what a cleric should be, something very specific to the character that the player is using. Something unique that is only based upon the class system itself.

Now, we look at the Paladin or Ranger and I think that we see the same thing going on. None of the Sub-Classes are true classes, but examples of blending ideas together. This begs the question, are we supposed to be blending?


Another example: The Barbarian, this isn't a class either, but a race of people. The template assumes that the Barbarian is a Fighter, but honestly, a barbarian can be a cleric, a thief, a whatever. Barbarian doesn't define his skill set, it defines his background.

Things got really muddied once many of the Original Dungeons & Dragons classes became races, the elf could multi-class now, he could be a Fighter/Thief/Wizard which is all fine and dandy at lower levels of play, but once the other players are fighting dragons, this guy has to hide in shadows because he's been playing 3rd level for the last eight years.

The very concept of Race is strange now, the player who chooses to play a demi-race gains all of these special abilities, but they never improve; the only thing that improves is their skills dictated by class. 
There really isn't anything special about them anymore. An Elf used to be able to pick at the beginning of each session if he wants to play as a Fighter or as a Wizard, the Dwarf was a much sturdier fighter than the one that we have now; he's been lost among the other demi-races and in regards to mechanics, there is nothing really all that unique about dwarves anymore.


Via: Pinterest
Is class our job? Do the things that we are good at define who we are as characters? I have always just assumed that Fighter or whatever was nothing more than a job. A character that is really good with a specific skill set. 

We can choose to play a fighter by the book, but even playing it core to the rules it doesn't really define us as characters, it just defines how our characters progress if we survive. How we define our characters is still up to us. That is what makes the fighter class so solid.

Somewhere along the lines, class attempted to define us. It got really bad with later editions, so bad in fact that the language changed. A player was no longer a Fighter but a Demon Slaying Doom Lord, or what have you, whatever they called themselves it was so precise and well-defined that one must ask if that is even truly the player's character or just some definition that they read in a book. 
The idea of Min/Maxing and Powergaming is not a new concept, it happened right away, but to set it at such high levels that you can't even identify the basics anymore implies that something, somewhere, was lost in translation.

How far should we be going to blend classes? Does it change the language when we do it? If we make the connections laid out for us in the Players Handbook, we can use these strict examples of what somebody at some time did to make a character unique to them, and apply it to our games. And, we don't need a supplement or splat book to do it either.

One of the things that have always irritated players the most is the Battle Mage, or why can't a wizard pick up a sword. . . Gandolf used a magic sword, I want to too!

Well, lets first identify our Battle Mage as not a wizard at all, but as a fighter. We'll place limits on the mage's spell abilities by stealing the Ranger's spell progression, but instead of cleric spells, he uses wizard spells.

We'll also borrow the XP charts from Paladin/Ranger and apply them to our Battle Mage, and DONE!

If the battle mage wants to cast a spell that requires free movement, he can't be wearing armor; he has to decide if taking it off is worth it or not. We can also stipulate that the only sword a battle mage can use is a magical one, all normal swords interfere with his spells.

The battle mage can't specialize in weapons, but he can become proficient in their use and must use the Wizards Proficiency chart of progression instead of the Fighters.

via pinterest
You get the point; if we put enough thought into a specific idea, we can tailor it to actually identify what the character is. We just have to figure out which rules to use to keep this character fair for the world which we created it for. A real mage is going to be able to cast more spells, and a real fighter is going to be more dangerous, but the battle mage pays for the privilege of being both.

If we take this logic and apply it to the bard, we see that that is exactly what happened. In order to be an effective character, one must play a bard for a very very long time, even longer than a wizard except that low level wizards, while fragile, don't suck.
If we ignore the bard, and instead set out to make a character that better suits what we want to play; say, Will Scarlet, we can accomplish this goal better by the player and the DM sitting down and designing this character and agreeing on a set of rules and limitations that apply to him as an individual.

Bilbo never considered himself to be a burglar, Conan wasn't just a barbarian, Robin Hood was not a thief, these were just things that other people called them. They were all special cases, and this can transfer over to our game.


This book, I feel, endorses a lie. It takes a misconception and instead of clarifying it, gives it flesh and blood and perpetuates it. Yes, it has some new things in it, but once again, why are we getting an entire book made for a couple of good ideas? Of course the answer is that TSR wanted money and they made poor Blake Mobley waste his time writing garbage that offers nothing to the hobby itself. This description fits much of the products that are published, good ideas are hard to come by, I get it; but does that really mean that we have to lower our standards in order to feel like we are succeeding? Well, it probably does.

With all of this said, I can perhaps skip reviewing the Complete Sub-Class Handbooks altogether, and I no doubt will. Books like this one are what irritated me at the time, and still give 2e a bad name. People remember the system for garbage and dirty tricks and forget the good stuff, the great ideas that came about in the 90's. We DMs of the period ignored the titles we didn't like, and if we were suckered into buying books like this, most of us left those things where they belong, on the shelf, collecting dust and holding the bookcase down so that it doesn't float around the room.

Medieval Life & Times: Bard

A special thanks to Mormonyoyoman from the Ruins of Murkhill Forum for inspiring this change of direction. If you experience any problems, blame him.

Gothic Earth Session 8: Curse of the Belalp Witch

It always takes so damned long to get into the game, but once we do we have fun. Normally we play every 4 weeks, but this time it was only 2 weeks. It really didn't change how much we remember the previous game. I will tell you that I love my prep style for these last few sessions, it was a ton of prep work, taking a full four weeks to design, but we are getting a whole lot of bang for our buck!

Everybody was tired as hell, so I cut everyone some slack. There was also some concern on their part that they are getting dazzled again while the witch is getting away. They had decided to go down the mountain and follow a lead, they had heard that a reclusive goat herder who lives at the bottom of the mountain between Naters and Blatten is the custodian of an old medieval church that isn't used anymore because of it's location (out in the middle of no where) called The Church of Saint Laurentius. Due to bad weather, it was a long climb down the mountain, but eventually they reached the herdsman. He told them that the church hasn't been used since his father passed away, but loaned them the keys to help them with their research.

The Church of Saint Laurentius is an isolated structure located well off the beaten path out in the wilderness. Opening the door of this ancient building, they see a very odd sight; instead of a statue of Jesus or crosses, the symbol dictate snails and features a larger than life statue of Saint Laurentius, the patron Saint of Librarians; against his leg rested a wooden rack, in his left hand he held a glacier, and in his right a mountain; an odd curvy crack went from his heart up his face and to a snail perched on his head.

This was definitely a clue; my wife cheated with her smart phone, but it kind of worked; she discovered that Laurentius was also the patron of witch hunters. I think that it got the players more excited when they found out that this was a real Swiss Saint, and they found a picture of him to look at. Eventually they figured out that the caretaker had removed all of the valuables from the church in case looters broke in, among them an old mirror elaborately decorated with the images of St. Sebaldus, when they hung the mirror up behind the statue, an oddly plain window perfectly framed the nearby mountain peak.

Now, the caretaker refused to let them borrow the mirror, as it was priceless; but he did accompany them and since it was too dark to travel back through the forest at night, they stayed in the church. In the morning, as they were preparing to go, and the sun was rising over the Reiderhorn, the diamond set in the pane of glass focused the sun into a beam, which reflected of of the mirror and for just a second, lit up the snail on his head. (Indiana Jones lifted once again!) They found that St. Laurentius Day was just under a week away.

Sam White climbed back up to Blatten and sent a pigeon message up the mountain for Van Helsing to come down, later he messaged back that he couldn't, as there was an uproar in Belalp.

They had a few days, so they did some low mountain investigation. They were able to secure some real meat, hunting a deer that had wandered near by, and found the Blatten Lumber camp that was said to had been torn apart by yeti. The camp was badly damaged, but the mill, that was the scene of something very large and powerful; entire logs looked like they had been broken over one's knee, some logs weighing hundreds of pounds had been thrown high up through the walls and were lodged there. The scene told them of a giant creature who wanted to shut this operation down, probably under the orders of somebody who didn't want the lumberjacks in the area anymore. There was something here, but they wanted to figure out what the church mystery was first.

After a couple of days, they saw the spot on the wall stay longer and longer, finally they went back to the caretaker who had planned on bringing the mirror on St. Laurentius Day, and talked him into letting them borrow the mirror early (we've got some smooth talking characters that know that CHA isn't a drop stat), on the long walk through the woods, they were ambushed by giant men, at least 20 of them! Hiding in the dense forest and hurling rocks; we have a character whose player has a hard time making it to games, while everyone else is at least 7th level, he is only 2nd, and as the giant men had gained a surprise, they tagged him, dropping him down to low hp before the battle could even start! Sam, the gunfighter, gave him the mirror and Charlotte cast Sanctuary on him. I determine targets randomly, and my dice really hated that 2nd level thief and wanted him dead! Luckily for him, the monsters sucked at making their Saving Throws.

On a technical note, I had wished that I had laid down the play mat and used miniatures, but we didn't; however for enemies I had so many to track I just gave them 4 hits and dead, drawing circles for each one and dividing each circle into fourths; instead of rolling damage, the party was shooting wildly into the woods, I had them just tell me when they hit or not, if they rolled 20's then I took off 2 HD but mostly it was just 1 HD per hit. It kept the combat fast and much easier to track considering the number of enemies. A combat scene which normally would had been boring because I took to long, could quickly be played out without losing anything; in fact it was probably easier on the monsters as guns dish out 2d6+1 damage, they were naturally 5HD creatures. For determining the monster targets, I throw a d10, I had 1-6 represent players, 4-10 meant that the creatures missed and targeted the giant man across from them.

It was pretty exciting as I was nailing the players and whittling them down, the 2nd level thief tried to escape, but a giant man caught him, and made his saving throw; he attempted to grab the little man, but failed, and gave a great target for the other players to shoot at. At the end of the combat, the party was badly beaten, Charlotte healed the worst off of the lot; examining the bodies of the enemy, they identified them as giant wild men, they had no money and looked like they have lived rough their whole lives. They deduced that some of these guys had been behind the destruction of the Blatten lumber operation.

They made it back to the church, locked themselves in; fearing that the witch now knew that they were up to something and was trying to stop them, somehow they had managed to save the mirror. They took it easy that day, and in the morning, they had just enough time to draw the cryptic drawings that were projected onto the floor by the sunlit snail, and wrote down a weird written phrase in an unknown language, however the name Belalp was clearly being refereed to.

That task done, they made their way back up into the mountains, to the village of Belalp satisfied that they had made some sort of headway, they planed on showing the drawing to Van Helsing, believing the language to be Latin, which he can read, however once they get into town they see that a large wooden pyre has been constructed in the village green. They find everybody all in an uproar, Van Helsing could care less about their discovery, he is trying to talk sense into a mob who is intent on dragging the old woman being held in the jail to the village green and burning her.

A lot has happened while the party was away, the Belalp Sheriff lay in a coma, the victim of witchcraft, a totem exactly fitting the description of the one that had been used against one of the party members last game had been used on him. The thief was able to talk the mod down, and give them a couple of days to either clear the woman's name or prove that she is in fact the Belalp witch. They immediately start investigating.

Sam and David head up into the mountains to try and find some mountain carrots which David knows can counter the poison and the spell of the totem doll, meanwhile the rest of the party began the investigation. Talking their way into the jailhouse, passed the armed officers who have the old woman in protective custody, the part is allowed access to the evidence and Van Helsing was finally able to get a good look at one of the totem dolls, and was able to determine how it worked, it was some sort of contact poison, the doll contained an article of the sheriff's clothing and he was charmed into touching it. Van Helsing fearing for the safety of the Relic of Sebaldus and quickly returned to their rented cabin.

The rest of the party went to the Sheriff's house to check on him; they startle a woman who instantly tries to escape, but they won't let that happen. Antonia a Prussian officer and master spy has assumed responsibility for this investigation, she orders Bart (the 2nd lvl thief) to see what the woman was doing, and he finds a weird drawing under the sheriff's pillow. Charlotte is able to determine that this is a weak protection from evil spell, and identifies the woman as a faith healer, and a spiritualist. The suspect admits to using magic, but for good; the party warns her against it, especially while the villagers are on a witch hunting kick, and they send her on her way.

Eventually the two fighters come back down the mountain, it was hard finding the herbs that they needed but they got it done. David Marshal brewed up the bitter mountain carrot broth and administered it to the sheriff, the man woke up, and while he would be forced to rest for the next couple of days, he should be fine.

Sheriff Hoffer is in no shape to do his job, he tries to get up instantly verifying that the old woman being held is just a crazy old lady. Hoffer says that there is no such thing as witchcraft, he's just allergic to those damned Alpine skinks, he must had touched one really good for this to happen.

Their investigation has uncovered some unsettling facts:

  • All of the wives take turns helping the bachelor sheriff with his housekeeping, so all the women had access to him.
  • The totem that had been used on the party member Vanessa Smith, required someone who had access to her things, the only suspect being Nela Saner who offered herself to be their housekeeper right away.
  • Ivan Hoffer also had access to Vanessa's property as he was sleeping in the tent with them at the time of the attack.
  • Lynn Tuller, the woman who was caught administering Sheriff Hoffer and practicing folk magic is not above suspicion either. Van Helsing says that she is no doubt a practitioner of spiritualism, a relatively new pseudo-religion that is in vogue right now, and they rarely practice alone.
  • Corinne Meyer, a none-native transplant and author who moved up here for the tranquility. She lives alone in the woods and has written a book on the Belalp witch.
  • Agatha Gammenthaler, the old woman kept in protective custody to protect her from allegations of witchcraft.
  • Van Helsing suggested that Charlotte refrain from using her skill set, else she becomes a prime target of the current local rage, and says that he believes that they aren't looking for a human witch, but fears that they are in fact dealing with the ancient undead. He says that the only way that they will be able to identify it, is by the aura of fear that all powerful undead share.

That is where we left off, and that is where we will begin again in four weeks.

Logic Vs. Creativity: Where the magic happens

Source: Pinterest
Prep and Improvisation,

These two ideas are very different from one another, but both play an important role in any game. In my novice years I would over-prepare, I would write a story involving the players, and then I'd expect them to be happy because I did this. 
 I had made some very bad assumptions and when nobody wanted to play this thing, I gave up, and I felt hurt and angry about it. I didn't even try to figure out what was wrong, I blamed them, and just ran more published adventures before taking a very long hiatus from the game. 
 I was actually ready to start writing my own material, but I had no idea what I was doing. I mistook the game for something that it wasn't. The point isn't a story, the point is focusing on problems that aren't yours for a few hours. The DM supplies the problems, and the players try and figure out the solutions.That is all.

Well, that isn't ALL, is it. A DM has to own his mistakes, and not blame other people. You've got two camps, or two versions of the Dungeon Master's role; there is the cold calculator who is there just to make sure that the players are abiding the rules. They manage conflict, interpret player action and arrive at plausible outcomes based on those decisions. 

Because of the nature of the game, the rule set isn't complete, and the rules themselves have been worded in such a way that they must be interpreted in order to properly apply it to the context of the game itself. 

This version of the DM has the task of setting up a playable scenario in a legal way prior to the players interacting with it. He or she has identified the terms of losing the scenario, as well as identifying the perfect game.

On the other side of the coin you have the DM who is the Artist. This Dungeon Master interacts with the players in the form of describing the world around them, he is an entertainer. He role-plays and engages the players directly. 

This DM is playing the game with the players. 

It is this DM that the players probably see the most; he controls the flow of the game, he slows it down and speeds it up. He takes the notes that the other DM drew up, fleshes them out and adds a touch of drama to them. Sometimes he'll go off script or change elements around based on what he thinks will work best. It is a magic trick, and he is the magician.

Much like the left and right halves of our brains, or better yet, if we look at it like a motion picture, you've got the writer, and the director; they have to work together
On their own, each is dangerous; you got the boring guy who will refuse to give anything away. If he wrote that the only person who knows what the players want to know is the Blacksmith, then that is just the way it is. 
If the player comes up with a different plan, say, asking the little girl who sells flowers by the fountain all day, the creative one will identify that they are probably right, and switches the role to the flower girl. Maybe even keeping the personality traits assigned to the blacksmith because it would be entertaining to have a little girl who spits and threatens the players with violence all the time.

We've got to be careful of the creative DM as well, he'll give everything away if you let him. 
He'll seek to become the star of the game, he'll give away too much treasure just to make people happy, he'll undermine the challenges written by the logical DM, he'll freak out when the players have stopped interacting with him and are discussing what to do next. 

"Riding Down The Avenue" Rusty Russ

 The creative DM needs to be kept on a leash. 

The DM does need to play the game, but he needs not to play the game at the same time.

When we give either of these guys too much power or influence over our game, bad things happen. Balance. This sounds like a logical thing that we all do, but it isn't. Balance is impossible to maintain, what this all means is that when these two enemies, logic and creativity, are getting along, that is where the magic happens. 
When you notice that something has changed, or has stopped working, these two guys should be your prime suspects; figure out who did it and counter it.

A game that goes off script is pointless, but so is a game that is static. The logical DM in us can populate a dungeon level with monsters, but he needs the creative DM to give these monsters movement. 

A drawer in a room description is empty until a player looks at it, and opens it up and asks what is inside. The logical DM will say, “Nothing.” but the creative one says that there is some papers, and when asked what the papers say, he'll just start babbling until the player comes to the conclusion that it says nothing. One way provides nothing, the other, allows the player to get an idea about the personality of the NPC who wrote it. Which one is correct? Which one provides the better game? The player may make a mistake and take the paper thinking that it means something, then we have to decide if it really does mean something or not. Is that going too far off script? Maybe. 

There is a conflict going on inside of us, and it is healthy. 

Source: Pinterest
 Some DMs would see this as a waste of time, other DMs know that in order to get things to stick, you've got to throw a whole lot of spaghetti, if the players latch onto this and they failed to see the hints that were placed logically, then make it a clue. If they have too much information already, then don't. 

Is this playing the game, or is it being logical?

I think that we all struggle with this. It took me way too long to learn about my Logical DM. Almost all of my major mistakes and failures were caused by me not knowing that he was there. Once I figured it out, and started listening to him, my players have started to really enjoy the game a lot more. 

  • I don't always have to be involved. 
  • This isn't my story at all, it is theirs. 
  • One of the hardest things for me to do sometimes it to just shut up and listen. 

I seek to hide the mechanics, make random encounters feel like triggered ones, all of that is great! But until I figured out how to remove myself and my influence over the game, my games sucked. Other DM's no doubt have the opposite problem, they have a hard time getting involved and engaging with the players.

How does knowing this stuff benefit us?

It allows us to identify what the game is and what it isn't.

The fact is that we can play this game for years and have no idea what it is that we are doing; I'm not saying that it is a bad thing, some people prefer to game this way, and if it works for your audience than you are playing it right. All I am saying is that once we identify what the system does we can focus on its benefits and tailor it to our specific needs.

Identify Elements and their function within the context of game design.

The DM's most important job is game design. Before hiding our mechanics it is necessary that we know what they are. All games should contain the same elements: Mystery, Role-playing, Conflict, Exploration, Logic, Reward, there are probably many more, but these five things are required in varying degrees to have a successful game, the more we can discover the simpler we can keep our game design. The rules of the game are complex enough, the idea is to make things simpler to play, not harder. Once we identify what the players really like to do, and what they don't, we can use this during our design stage.

Allowing the game to function

"The Sky Makes Them Crazy" Rusty Russ
This is a hard lesson to learn, we don't like to see our friends lose, we are afraid that they will get upset; however setting up “You Win” scenarios is insulting to them. If we take away the risk of failure, we also take away the glory of success. If we let one player fail a saving throw and get away with it just because he has low hit points and will die, than what is the point of putting the trap there in the first place? If the person behind him fails their roll as well, but has the hit points to take it, it isn't fair that they have to suffer the effects while the other person did not.

It sucks to lose, we all know this; but we've accomplished nothing by coddling players. If all of the players die because of the traps, then we know that it was poorly designed (or the thief is sleeping), and the scenario was unbalanced, and not fair. If that is the case, then the plan must be altered, and the players may try again with the same characters.

Remaining flexible 

While we want the game to be functional, at the same time we don't want our game design to be fixed. We have no idea what the players are going to see in our design, and we don't want to be over predictable. I say it over and over again, D&D is a cooperative game, and that includes us. If the players come up with a new idea during their planning stage, you get to decide whose idea is better, your original one, or theirs. A good game design features ideas that can be swapped to different places. Making a game easier or more difficult can be done at the table during play . . . in moderation. We don't want to remove any risks and replace them with instant rewards, but we don't want the player's to feel like they aren't getting anywhere either. The bigger the risk, the greater the reward but the harsher the consequences if it doesn't pan out.

Be Brave, don't give up on a design right away, let it play out.

If a scenario looks like it is going to go really bad, let it. See where it goes before over-reacting to it. Players are well known for implementing ill advised high risk plans hoping that you will crumble; as the DM, be brave, and let it ride. Total Party Kill resulting from a high risk venture is a logical outcome. Just because the party made things worse, and is now dead doesn't mean that the scenario is over. They have done something that is just as meaningful to the campaign world as defeating a powerful enemy, they have made it stronger. The victory conditions have been satisfied, the enemy has won. The story continues, the fantasy world still revolves, what does this mean for the new characters? That can be just as exciting as winning the scenario. It now belongs to them.

Source: Pinterest

Don't be controlled by logic.

Innkeepers who always fit stereotype says something to the player, forget me. To have characters be memorable they should break stereotype. Don't be afraid to be bizarre, to allow nonsense into your game. Random Generators were designed to provide unpredictability, use them. It is fun to try and make sense of two things that don't go together. A completely logical game that is totally all planed out and is executed perfectly to the designed specifications implemented by the DM is boring. We shouldn't be responsible for interpreting everything, we might know these answers, or we might not. It is just like the drawer up above, it doesn't matter until the players open the drawer.

Don't be controlled by creativity.

Creativity thrives on limitations; it requires defined perimeters to stabilize it else it will fall apart under the close scrutiny of the user. Creativity should enhance logic, not replace it. They can and will work together, if you make them.

Source: Pinterest
As always I am wide open to constructive input and the data held in your head. Does this make sense or am I over thinking things? 
Is an important part of playing the game learning this stuff on your own, or can we further the hobby by attempting to identify it for the next generation so that they can push the hobby further, without having to tread so much old ground? Personally I feel that only by burning ourselves can we learn not to touch the stove, but this idea is an abstract one. We typically aren't aware when we are fouling this up, so maybe this post has an audience? 

Who tends to mess up your game? The Creative Genius, or the Devious Mastermind? Maybe it is another DM I haven't noticed yet? 

12 Things I Wish I Would Had Known Before Running My First Game

  • Don't ignore older Editions, no system is complete.
  • Story happens during play, not during prep.
  • When players can try anything, there is no such thing as balance.
  • Challenge is dictated by the players, not the math.
  • Don't use 10 different monsters when just 1 will do.
  • Original ideas are easier to run than published ones.
  • Text-blocks are for the DM, not the players.
  • People wrote these books, learn from them.
  • Don't control players, react to them.
  • General ideas are better than specifics.
  • Resist using new ideas right away; let them develop as not to waste them.
  • Over-preparing is worse than being under prepared.

    Related Links:

    The Disoriented Ranger


    Methods & Madness  

    Pontos de Experiência  TRANSLATED  to English


Gothic Earth Session 7: Welcome to Belalp

After a long delay, we finally got together and played again, and to get back on schedule we'll be playing again in 2 weeks, thankfully I have very little prep to do. We had a hard time focusing on the game, we had two R/L parties going on, our AD&D game, and my youngest just turned 13-years-old and we let him invite a bunch of his friends to come over for a sleep-over. This was something like our 4th annual St. Patrick's Day game? We went through a bunch of corned beef and cabbage, and we had a great turn out!

My computer took a dive, but I finally got my brand new computer! I can't tell you how many years it has been since I didn't have to make due with a hand-me-down; thankfully I was able to keep my old files this time, which is rare. I'm still in the process of getting this new laptop up and running how I like it, so please excuse the delays.

Hard at work blogging with my wifes old PC

The game! Like I said, it was really hard to stay focused; I can't tell you how many times that we had to start and stop because of interruptions or people getting side-tracked, in spite of this, we still had a very productive game. I designed this scenario in a rather modular way, and to last us at least 2 more sessions. There are some little things that I have to tweak which I wasn't happy about.

The players were very lucky with Random Encounters (RE), in the wilderness, but I had set the table too low in my haunted mine and had to improvise a lot to bring it alive. For some reason, I had failed to create a RE list for it . . . not sure why, or maybe I did and I misplaced it? I don't know, I wrote up a quick list just prior to the game; I had set the RE to 1 in 10, it really should stay at 3 in 10.

I also committed a very amateur mistake, I have a large list of NPCs which I had color coded but failed to organize in any cohesive way. Every time the players wanted to talk to somebody it took me way too long to find the proper NPC; little things like this really upset me. It was such a stupid thing to do, but one that is easily fixed, I reorganized the lists into their colors and alphabetized them so that I can find them fast without having to skim the entire two column NPC sheet, now all I have to do is print that list off and throw the other one away. It wasn't a total waste of time, though, since I did alter a few of the characters from my original design; so this one will be more accurate as well as functional. It is those little details that get you every time!

That was really just a hick-up, the thing that spooked me the most was the gaming board that I had set up; if this thing didn't work then the whole game was in question. I am glad that I had filled it in ahead of time, my biggest concern was a specific player who knows me very well and can usually spot where I hide things; he could look at a map and point directly to where the whatever is and be dead on correct, this one, in spite of being mostly filled in, has kept its secrets, which is good! That is the point of the game.

I was very impressed and happy with how the game map functioned; it was easy to grasp, easy to use, and easy to understand. It aided both myself as DM and the players. Movement is controlled by 1d6, and a table that I keep hidden behind the screen, the modifiers to movement are simple and intuitive for everybody; Days are broken into 4 turns, and follow the guidelines for RE in the DMG, each HEX = 1 abstract mile, and it is very close to the MR listed in the core rules for Mountains, but it varies to better simulate mountain conditions and environment without turning into “survival porn”, unless we want it too. Locating elements within the hex involves either a passive check, or the players can invoke an improved check, but nothing is guaranteed. I really like it! It slows the game down just enough to FEEL like you are traveling through the mountains, yet is abstract enough to not become tedious.

I do have to change the way that my caves function; the players discovered two of them, but they always went back to the one that they originally discovered, which isn't the problem, the problem was that I had set it so that movement between the caves lasted 1d12 days, which is too long, it does nothing but eat up my calendar; besides, my original intention was a kind of warp zone, I think that I will change it to 2d12 hours, and see how that goes, but I'm not really set on that. That aspect really does need some fiddling until just the right balance is found. My RE is set too low in those sections as well, but I'm not sure what to put down there . . . I do like the concept, though. It should be faster below ground but unpredictable, I know that it is a maze of natural cave systems, which are impossible to navigate with any certainty, namely because I'm not going to map it.

In regards to story: the players explored the remote village of Belalp and uncovered some of its secrets. I helped one of the players correct her alignment, Chaotic Neutral is not an easy alignment to play, and she has constantly played somewhere between Lawful Neutral and Neutral Good, I didn't dock her any XP, and instead did it through story, the Relic of Sebaldus which they are hauling around is also unpredictable, the spirit of the Saint visited her and asked her leading questions about who she is, and through those answers we settled on LN; I always consider alignment to be more of a tool than a hard fast rule that must be obeyed; maybe if somebody is being a jerk about it I'll enforce the rule of level loss, or if it serves the scenario, but so far that has never been an issue.

The players did get a chance to use some of their NWP skills, which, honestly, we don't really utilize all that much; we tend to use them more as guidelines: How do you know this information? Because I have herbalism. This game put many of the skills that they chose to the test, which is nice and exactly what I want to happen. Too many times I just skim over elements that make some player choices pointless, such as NWP skills. While it isn't my job to make sure that these things are used, it is my job to provide opportunities to use them.

Despite the fact that we had a hard time focusing on the game, there was some fancy playing going on! I don't always make things easy, that isn't my job either, in fact, it is my duty to make things difficult. In this instance, the party really wanted to explore a haunted mine, but besides the fact that workmen said no, the Archaeologists that had been hired to investigate and debunk paranormal activity were jealously guarded because they too planned on making a profit by publishing a book about the place. I wasn't concerned with the how, I just made it difficult but the players found a way in, when trying to impress the two novice wizards with their amazing credentials didn't work, they quickly went to the next best thing, catering to their egos: Asking them for their help learning the lore of the land. It was shrewd and effective. Subtly, that is a trait of the master player. Fast too, I hadn't planned on actually letting them in yet.

They had the opportunity to make an impression upon the archaeologists, and they did it in truly heroic fashion; exposing a nightmarish and incredibly powerful creature that was hidden and getting away with murder undetected the entire time, a monster that I had hidden in many of my dungeons but had always managed to elude detection, the icky otyugh, a tough monster to fight when you have the advantage, never the less when it does. Their goal wasn't to actually go fishing with the cleric as bait, but that is exactly what happened; they just wanted to access a section of the mine that was unexplored, but the squiggly tasty cleric dangling just above the diseased and smelly water was just too much for the otyugh to resist, it went after her. The two fighters of the group have their hands full, as they are trying to haul her up before the nightmarish blob of horror could catch her, and it tried! It's tentacles barely missing her as she is helplessly being hauled up this 60' pit, they get her back up and had reduced the things attack to just one, as the other tentacle was needed to hang from the chimney above the pit; it grabbed one of the fighters before he could get a shot off, and intended to use his body as a shield, but the gunfighter was a dead-eye and was able to put a bullet into it.

2e Otyugh says he borrowed your toothbrush
The otyugh dropped the explorer, who fell into the fetid water below with a fresh bleeding wound caused by the creature's fang encrusted tentacle, and tried to nab the remaining fighter; it missed and Sam unloaded both pistols into the thing, as well as the cleric behind him. Their problems were over, but the fighter who had popped his head, screaming in disgust looked up to see this giant dead blob of filth falling towards him, he just barely got out of the way before it splashed down. Out of this misadventure, they not only found treasure of an unknown origin, it isn't roman nor medieval, it's gold coins minted with images of different vegetables? But they also became gods to these two low-level wizards who had never in their lives thought that a horror like that could actually exist. You could say that it went well, and it was all the players doing. They even role-played the disgust and terror, once the gold was hauled out of the bottom of the pit, the Explorer, stinking and covered in things that make otyugh happy was adamantly done with this place for awhile, whatever secrets were kept down here could just stay down there. He bathed and threw away his clothes and bought new ones. The players even made him do all of the nasty work; since, you know, he's already dirty; he can clean the 4000 gold pieces so that they can sneak this stuff back to their cabin. For a DM, the discussions going on was immensely entertaining. Make the DM laugh and get lots of XP, that is how you win the game!

This one goes into the books as a success. Everybody had a lot of fun, it has the players thinking while away from the table, there was joy, there were tears, and there was poop; D&D just doesn't get any better than that, does it?


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