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 


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?

Adding a new tool to my DM Equipment List

Today I’d like to do something that I normally never get to do; look at a modern product! I am a legendary tightwad when it comes to gaming. I’ve got two children who are very skilled at discovering new and innovative ways of disposing of cash as efficiently as possible; and with my current game, I was already over-budget. Whenever one turns the printer on it costs money, and I printed a lot of stuff! But there was one thing that I couldn’t print myself; I wanted a big hexmap to act as a game board. It needed to be big enough for all of us to see, and we’ll be using it for a while. Creating a DM wilderness map is easy as dropping toast butter-side down, but copying the wilderness map over to another medium is not!

Traditional vinyl gaming mats are great products, however you’ve got to take care of them, and I fear staining those things, so I always keep them clean. Thus, using a vinyl-hex map is not an option. I’ve even got my homemade jobby, which is easy as heck to keep clean, however I’ve also got 2 cats that love playing all of those tabletop strategy games, including AD&D, and they are very good at it! They can wipe out entire nations and still have time for a nap. Armies that take us months to defeat are of no challenge to the cats. Sometimes you want something that is permanent, and of a size that you can’t print, but Gamingpaper.com has a magnificent invention, selling 1” Hex paper by the roll! Maybe you noticed that I added the link to my sidebar? I highly recommend this product!

First off, this stuff is cheap: Including Shipping & Handling, I only spent $9. It is 30”x 4’, which is a lot of hex paper! 30 hexs is exactly the bottom width of the hex paper I typically print off myself, thus I can get lots of maps out of this stuff, which I really wasn’t expecting, I thought that I’d have to cut the stuff to size.

The paper itself is exactly like wrapping paper, it has a waxy kind of coating which improves it. You can use whatever you want to draw on it, I used your everyday Crayola wash-able Magic Markers, the ink dried fairly quickly, and I put it on pretty thick. The color stayed where I put it and didn’t bleed, I did have to use a clean cloth to protect what I had done from my wrist while coloring, but that is normal whenever you are working with markers; the clean cloth stayed clean, and didn’t damage the drawing in any way, even dark colors were set and dry in under 10 minutes. The colors didn’t bleed through the paper, which really impressed me, I was worried about staining my workspace (which has happened more often that I’d like to admit too), I even used a permanent red Sharpie to highlight a road and the ink didn’t bleed out or through the paper which is amazing.

Taken with my crummy camera
Folks have complained that if you use dry erase marker, you can’t fill in, but regular magic markers worked perfectly. I have it hung up on my big dry erase board, to keep it safe; like wrapping paper it tears and wrinkles really easy.

I was also surprised how easy it was to keep flat. I just used some dice boxes to keep the paper in place, and a few times I had to reach over wet ink and just touch the paper with the marker and the paper stayed in place. It allowed me to work as fast as I could without having to worry about anything and could focus on accurately copying my map over to it.

Gaming Paper has a new customer in me. I was able to achieve exactly what I wanted to inexpensively, and without having to worry about it. THAT IS A GOOD PRODUCT! I give it an A+, it is functional and easy to use. I look at what I did and it looks pretty professional! It’s at least as good as a good ol fashion AH game. We’ll be using it exactly like that, too. Since it is hanging on a dry-erase board, we can use magnets as markers for the party, but I feel safe enough marking the gaming paper with a magic marker and not have to worry about it bleeding through, it is safe from the cats but when we are done with it, I can throw it away. I will definitely be buying more.

This is just one of several products that they offer, so go check them out and tell me what you think. Is this something that you think that you can use? Would it make bigger ideas easier to achieve? What would you use this for?


9335 BATTLESYSTEM Skirmishes Review

BATTLESYSTEM was an intriguing product that fell victim to TSR’s inability to market its product. It had a terrible name that did not really identify it, I remember reading a reference to it in The Castle Guide, but not knowing which BATTLESYSTEM that they were talking about, but I think that its biggest failure was the lack of support for the system. This, I believe, was something that Dungeon Masters would really be into if it was better designed, and if further supplements helped us use it more confidently. As it sat, we had no idea how to build a fair army, nor did we really know any basic military strategies that would work well with the system.

The 2nd Edition of BATTLESYSTEM had reduced the amount of bookwork required, but there was still a lot to keep track of. The Castle Guide did provide an update to the BATTLESYSTEM and allowed users to conduct sieges, which was awesome! The Siege Engine didn’t really need the BATTLESYSTEM to function, but if added together with the alterations made to BATTLESYSTEM in The Castle Guide, they say that it improved the experience.

9335 BATTLESYSTEM Skirmishes, was released in October of 1991, there was a planned push for the product line, linking it with the upcoming Dark Sun setting, and Skirmishes was intended to make the BATTLESYSTEM even easier to use!

Skirmishes, was designed by Bruce Nesmith, co-designer of Ravenloft. The idea was to make BATTLESYSTEM easier to use for the purpose of role-playing; The battlefield itself was shrunk down from War level, to a more manageable Melee level that fell more in line with the Core AD&D rules, and instead of 1 miniature = 10 units, in Skirmishes, 1 miniature = 1 character.

This product allowed for all tables to be able to run some very advanced combat scenarios! It could handle the Siege, it could handle war-like battles, and it allowed the DM more precision in design. An ambush that plays out in our minds played out in a completely different manner on the table. Skirmishes added a new element of challenge to what we were doing.

The greatest advancement of Skirmishes was the elimination of almost all of the book work. Tracking BATTLESYSTEM armies was still a difficult task that would slow the game down considerably. Skirmishes system is FAST! Perhaps too fast; instead of hit points, the system used hit dice; a 7th level character was dead after 7 successful hits, which can be dangerous. It is balanced by the difficulty to score a true hit, allowing for the morale system to function, so it probably isn’t as bad as it sounds.

This game also used less dice, BATTLESYSTEM had required several buckets of d6’s so this improvement is seriously appreciated, and while this is a very good step in the right direction, it wasn’t perfect. It still did not remove the need for BATTLESYSTEM if you wanted to simulate large scale combat, however if you took the principals of Skirmishes Combat system and carry them over to the War scale it would make it easier to run, but it still doesn’t help us make fair armies, nor teach us advanced strategies.

Another problem with BATTLESYSTEM Skirmishes is the book itself is horribly over-written. I still don’t know if this was a replacement or not, all of the rules had been included in this book, but so many rules that comparing them to BATTLESYSTEM and the AD&D Core Rules is beyond what I am willing to do, so you are on your own in that department.

The text itself is so dry and boring that reading the back of a bottle of Tylenol is more exciting. There is just so much information here that  isn’t needed, and repetitive, especially if you’ve played AD&D for any length of time. Why they felt the need to completely re-write a book that had been out for less than 2 years is a mystery. While more complex, BATTLESYSTEM 2e was better written than this one. It would have been nice if Skirmishes did more updating and supporting than it did.

The sad thing is that this product was not utilized any more than the original BATTLESYSTEM, Dark Sun supported it for only a couple of months and then it disappeared. The greatest support that this product ever got was actually from Forgotten Realms, when the Horde attacked, unleashing a massive war that was kind of awesome, but still unneeded. Most users still ignored this product and just wrote around the war.

As far as Skirmishes legacy goes, this idea was allowed to go dormant until Wizards of the Coast took over. WotC provided an excellent update that made it even easier to use in Player’s Options: Combat & Tactics. Though I think that Skirmishes still has a place at our tables for the combat system alone; let’s face it, sometimes the players make some really dumb decisions that may require an impromptu and unplanned for miniature scenario, and we can get through it faster and easier by using Skirmishe’s faster combat system, but do you really need the book itself at the table? No. All the changes that you want can be summed up on a couple of sheets of paper, making this product more desirable in PDF form.

I give BATTLESYSTEM Skirmishes a C. It did improve the BATTLESYSTEM line, and it could of change the way that we game, but it was just so overwritten and didn’t go places that would had been more helpful to the users. It is a big shame that TSR didn’t have more faith in this product, if they would had kept at developing the line, it could had been very profitable for them, and offer us some really cool options, but it was dropped prematurely, I feel due more to lack of advertising and support than actual content issues. AD&D clubs could had used less Forgotten Realms dogma and more BATTLESYSTEM (God, I hate that name).  


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