By - November 18, 2014 - 7 Comments

How I Play D&D – and Why It’s Fun (Part Two) »

Part Two: The Butt Kicking Begins – So, Too, Does the Fun

e6pklI haaaaated (loathed) the DM and he wasn’t much of a fan of mine, either. He was boring, lackluster, couldn’t out act Tommy Wiseau, and never prepared in advance – instead choosing to read from a dungeon guide at the table. I would be bored beyond my wits, look at my watch, realize that only an hour had passed in a four hour long game session, and pray for a quick death.

Despite how it made me look unfavorable, though, I decided that the most important thing was to play my label, the, “idiot”, perfectly.

I poured through the Spell Compendium and made sure to pick up Chain Lightning. Then, in the midst of a room crowded with books, PC’s, and a nasty Vampire, I attached a Chain Lightning spell to an arrow, shot it at the Vampire and wreaked pure havoc. Because my Caster Level was so high (level 12), I was able to roll 12d6, plus whatever damage the bow did (I think it was 2d8). Trust me on this – I roll well – that Vampire was toast and if anyone at the table had rolled poorly in their attempts to dodge the arc from my spell, they would have suffered the same fate.

I could have slapped a single-target lightning spell on the arrow instead, but that would’ve defeated the purpose. I was supposed to be an, “idiot”, so I did something idiotic. I laugh about it because it took everyone by surprise.

I continued to make foolish moves throughout the time I played – from shooting spells at dark pits and unidentified objects to tackling walls head first and uncovering hidden treasure. Each time, because of good checks via the lucky rolling of a d20, I completely undermined the DM’s plans because he didn’t see it coming – and all I was doing was playing my character, having fun, come what may, while everyone else was too afraid to make a move and too afraid of facing consequences.

How did it all end? Simple – the DM waylaid us with unidentified monsters. The penalty for failing to dodge their onslaught was a literal loss of an entire character level. Ouch.

But this, “idiot”, was the only PC that was too swift for the monsters at hand. The DM was furious as a result and quit at night’s end.


Because I was a newbie and made dumb decisions, I had a blast. These were the actions that the type of character that I was playing dictated.

When you play a game of D&D, you’re whomever you choose to be! If you have the option of doing something crazy, don’t be afraid to do it. There’s nothing more lame than a chaotic evil character being as bland as a turkey sandwich and as evil as indigestion. Take some risks!

In short, I always make sure to:

  1. Be my character
  2. Take risks
  3. Roll with the punches
  4. Have fun

To me, that is the essence of play.

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By - November 15, 2014 - 5 Comments

How a Newbie Played D&D- and Why It’s Fun (Part One) »


e6pqhWhenever I play Dungeons & Dragons, I always take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean that I never have fun. After all, F-U-N is precisely the whole point of playing this old school game, isn’t it?  Why we’re rolling weirdly shaped dice and why you’re taking time (thank you) to read this.

Believe me, it is quite possible to truly do both at once. By playing your character seriously while getting your hands dirty, you can enjoy the fullness of D&D as an interactive group storytelling.  To demonstrate, I’ll share how this D&D newbie managed to outshine veteran players.  But most importantly having fun while doing it.


Part One: D&D – My Early Days

I had this friend, once, and I would go over to his house on random occasions and hang out. There wasn’t ever much to do, but his wife made some awesome rangoons, so I was always down. One night, however, apparently frustrated from the routine he demanded that I come over for sheet pizza (yuck) and none other than Dungeons & Dragons.

I’d never played D&D, before – as a matter of fact, I knew absolutely nothing about it, but I decided that it couldn’t hurt much to give it a shot. So I showed up and the scene was shocking- sprawled out upon his giant, oaken table were maps, charts, huge stacks of books, playing fields, papers, markers…I felt like we were trying to study for a toy exam.

I took the seat next to him while another guy immediately handed me a blank character sheet and grunted in my general direction. Of course, I just shot him a look of inquiry.  Who would have ever guessed that some gamers can display anti-social tendencies?

My friend, God bless his heart, tried his best to actually help me build a character, but I had no idea what I was doing or the type of world that I was playing in (more of the DM’s fault than mine), so I picked the most, logical choice of character for a fantasy world filled with dwarves, dragons and well, dungeons: John J. Rambo of First Blood fame.

It was brilliant, I thought. I had even figured out a way to emulate Rambo’s explosive arrowheads that he used in First Blood Part II. I decided that, despite a head-first mentality, he should know a bunch of spells and that these spells could be imbued into arrows which could then be shot from a bow. He’d be tough, sneaky like an assassin and deadly – a true credit to the character that would do Sly proud.

This, of course, didn’t turn out like I had planned. I was quickly ostracized from the group and labeled as, “the idiot who actually put Rambo in a fantasy game”.  Again, that anti-social thing rearing it’s Tiamat number of heads.  Like Wil Wheaton says, “Don’t be a dick.”

Yet that was O.K. I was about to teach them a lesson that they’d soon not forget – how to really play a game of D&D, but that will have to wait for Part Two, coming tomorrow.  I have the sudden urge to go watch Cobra and maybe Demolition Man. Eyyyy-yo.

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By - November 9, 2014 - 4 Comments

Four Simple Questions for Dungeon Crawls »

65fc027bf483dfae4241474fac075241_largeFour Simple Questions

(A Play Dirty Look at Dungeon Crawls)

Hello Dungeon Masters! My name’s John and I design games. Lots of ‘em. But more importantly, like you, I’m the guy who usually ends up running them. Ever since I bought my first RPG (Call of Cthulhu, by the way), I’ve been the guy on the lonely side of the screen.  But today I’m opening up with a short essay giving all of you some advice on running what we professionals like to call, “the dungeon crawl.”

What? You guys call it that, too? Well, professional secrets aren’t what they used to be.

I wrote a book of unorthodox GM advice called Play Dirty a few years back. It caused a bit of a raucus. But a lot of folks said, “John, this kind of stuff works in a lot of games, but it doesn’t work in dungeon crawls.”

Well, I took that to heart and actually kicked up a dungeon crawl game myself, just to see what I could and couldn’t get away with. And it all comes down to Four Simple Questions.

Simple Question #1: “Why Are We Doing This?”

So, you’re sitting in front of your computer reading this essay and you get an email. The email tells you that there’s an opportunity to earn a whole lot of money if you quit your job, leave your family, move to a country you’ve never heard of, pick up a gun and murder people you’ve never met.

Big money. Like hundreds of thousands of dollars. All you have to do is leave your life behind, pick up a gun and kill people.

Interested? Well, why not?

Now, I’m not going to insult your intelligence. You know the metaphor I’m using here. But let’s be honest. The thought of being “an adventurer” is not glamorous at all. In the novella I wrote for Wicked Fantasy, The Courage of Tamyn Taval, our titular character tries talking an old friend, Valera, into becoming an adventurer again.

Valera refuses. She’s become a courtesan since retiring from adventuring. Now, she has wealthy admirers who pour money on her for just the illusion of love. She has a beautiful home, jewelry, expensive food delivered to her door every day. She drinks wine, eats grapes and lives in luxury.

She asks, “Tell me why I would leave all of this for mud and rain and broken bones and orks shooting arrows at my head?” 

The question, “Why are we doing this?” is an important one. In fact, I’d argue its just as important as strength, dexterity and hit points. It’s something your players should consider, and it’s something for which they should have a good answer. Here’s an example.

I once played a thief (not a rogue; rogues are wanna be thieves) who was the son of a tavern keeper. His name was Tal Tevish. Little Tal was a thief because he was the son of a tavern keeper. He learned how to pick pockets because he was always on the look out for it. He learned how to “backstab” because he had to take out drunks. He learned how to move in shadows because it’s easier to get through a tavern without being seen.

Now, Tal’s dad got himself in trouble with the local thieves guild. He loved to gamble and one day, he gambled too much. Now, the guild wants his tavern house.

Tal became an adventurer to get his dad out of debt. He needs the money and he needs it fast. The best way to make fast money–without attracting legal attention–is by joining a group of adventurers. Yes, it means he’s putting his life in danger, but it’s his dad. His dad worked his whole life for that tavern. Tal can’t let him lose it over a few stupid card hands and a few bad dice rolls.

So, Tal joins up with a crew heading out to take care of some mess with a necromancer and his goons.

After the first encounter, Tal nearly gets himself killed, but when the fighting is over, he’s looking at a pile of coins. A pile of gold coins.

Remember: a gold piece is enough to keep a family fed for a year. And here’s two hundred of them. The party divides the shares up equally and that means Tal gets forty gold. A good start.

By the end of the adventure, Tal not only had a few hundred gold, he also had a magic sword the fighter didn’t want (it didn’t have enough plusses or something) which turned out to be worth a few thousand gold.

A few thousand gold. Enough money to feed an entire city for a year.

So, at the end of that adventure, Tal retired. After selling the sword, he had enough coin to get his dad out of debt. He took over the tavern, became a local hero and that was that.

Of course, a clever DM can figure out a way to get Tal out of the tavern and back into the adventuring business, but that’s a different story.

The moral of all this is: if your players give their characters good reasons to be adventurers, those reasons carry through the adventure and influence the choices they make. Plus, we have a word for someone who goes on a killing spree for no reason at all.


Simple Question #2: “Where Is This Place?”

This is an old trick I’m gonna share with you called “The Dirty Dungeon.” You may have heard about it or seen it on my Youtube channel, but these days, whenever I run a dungeon crawl (or just about any kind of “mission” adventure), I use it. Here’s how it works.

Before our heroes get to the dungeon, they have to find the dungeon. How do they do that?

Well, they’ll do research in libraries, ask older adventurers who may have been there, check with the bard for some handy information…

Sure. That’s all well and good, but why not make a mechanic out of it.

Get yourself a bowl. Then, get yourself a bunch of counters, beads or even small candies like Hershey kisses. Then, tell the players:

I want you to tell me what you find out about the dungeon. Yes, I mean, I want you to make stuff up. Like, where it is, hold old it is, what kind of monsters and traps are in it. Anything you can think of. I can veto stuff, but if it’s cool, I’ll probably accept it.

For every cool or dangerous part you add to the dungeon, I’ll throw a candy in the bowl.  You keep adding stuff, I throw more candy in the bowl. I’ll write everything down and it will be part of your “research” for the dungeon.

Each candy is a bonus d4 on any roll while you are on the adventure. Go ahead and take the candy out. You can eat it if you want. When you make a roll, add a d4 to your roll. The candy represents the benefit of research.

If you do something really cool, like hand me a hand-drawn map of the dungeon, I’ll put two and maybe three pieces in the pot. The more dangerous and/or cool you make it, the more pieces you get.

However, for every five pieces of candy, I get a piece, too. My piece is called a “complication point.” Which means, I can use it any time during the adventure to counter a piece of research you’ve done. For example, you can be looking at your map as you try to escape and you see there’s a secret passage leading out. You get there and…

… I use one of my complication candies to say, “There’s no secret passage there. It’s been walled up.”

I can use complication candies to cancel or thwart your plans.

* * *

And that’s really how it all works. There are a couple of advantages to this plan.

First, the players tell you what kind of stuff they want in the dungeon. This is always a good thing. Players communicating what they want to you makes your job easier. You don’t have to guess and you don’t have to hope. They say it. You give it to them. Everybody is happy.

Second, you’ve done no prep!

I mean, think about it. They’ve done all the work for you. They’ve drawn a map, they’ve listed the monsters, they’ve devised the traps. They’ve done everything for you. You don’t have to spend a week coming up with this stuff, it’s already done.

Finally, they’ve done it in character. It’s part of the adventure. If they stay in character, they can talk about how they interviewed the bard who told them about the rhyming trap. They can talk about the old adventurer who lost his leg fighting the giant rat monster. They’re doing all of this in character. And that’s more than awesome.

Of course, a common question arises whenever I detail this little trick. “What about the jerk who doesn’t play fair and screws it up for everybody else?”

I always have the same answer.

“Why are you playing with that guy?”

Simple Question # 3: “What’s That Smell?”

With the players sitting comfortably, I stand up on the other side of the DM screen and say…

You approach the place the legends and maps hinted at. The side of the mountain. The twisted tree. The black rock. You step closer…

… and you see a hole in the side of the mountain. Carved stone floor. But you also see a rotting corpse trapped under three iron spikes. One of the spikes has split his skull open, brains spilling out onto the carved stone floor. You see small animals and bugs scatter as you approach and interrupt their feast.

And you smell… you smell what can only be the rotting flesh of the corpse. Fetid and awful. A sweet, rotten smell. You can see that his death unlocked his bowels and left a mess in his trousers. His evicerated guts have been quite the meal for local fauna.

As you come closer to inspect the trap this unfortunate soul tripped, a mouse emerges from his open mouth and skitters down the corridor into the darkness. You hear a metal snap!

More traps waiting. But first, you have to deal with this one.

* * *

We’re talking about a hole in the ground, right? You know what lives in holes in the ground? A whole lot of really scary and deadly stuff.

When your players go down into a dungeon, remember that this is a place that’s been exposed to the elements for hundreds of years. There are entire colonies of bugs waiting for them. Spider webs they have to walk through. Not giant spiders, just regular old eight-legged, eight-eyed freaks that skitter down your armor and bite your backside. And there’s probably worms and maggots and tons of flies. And mosquitos. I come from Minnesota, man. Don’t you ever underestimate the power of mosquitos.

And the stones are wet and covered in black mold. The air is thick and wet. It gets hard to breathe down here. Adventurers start coughing. Ever have a coughing fit? You know when it’s the worst? When you’re stressed out and exerting yourself. You know, like when you have to fight those damn orks.

(The preferred spelling, by the way, is “ork.” Not “orc.” That’s the elven spelling. We’re racially sensitive here. Oh, and you don’t want to know what the elven word for “human” is. Trust me.)

You start coughing so hard, you can’t breathe. Coughing so hard, you throw up. As someone with asthma (raises hand) can attest: it ain’t pretty. And it can be damn scary.

And the place stinks. It stinks with corpses of past adventurers (that your party can stumble across and deal with as they wish), corpses of monsters, mold, mildew, fungus… you name it.

Don’t be bashful or shy about this. You are the players’ senses, remember? You tell them what they hear and see. And smell. A stink so bad they can taste it on their tongues.


Don’t skimp on the sensations. Give them all cannons blazing.

And speaking of senses, let’s spend a moment talking about the most important one…

Simple Question #4: “Who’s Holding the Light?”

GM: So, you turn the corner and you see a dozen orks going over the bodies of another group of adventurers!

PLAYERS: Charge!

GM: Who’s holding the light?


GM: The orks can see in the dark. They don’t need lights. You do. Who’s holding the light so you can see?

WIZARD: I need my hands to use magic.

FIGHTER: I need one hand for my sword and the other for my shield.

THIEF: Don’t look at me! I can’t sneak around while holding a torch.

CLERIC: I need both hands for my shield and hammer.

GM: So, who is holding the light?


GM: Okay, while you figure that out, the orks get initiative…

* * *

It’s a simple question. But those kinds of questions can stop everything.

My grandmother used to say, “It’s the little things that make the soup.”

Light is such a little thing. We take it for granted. Whenever we walk in a dark room, we instinctively reach beside the door for the light switch.

Think about the little things.

I remember a friend of mine talking about playing Tomb of Horrors. He said, “One of us, the wizard, got teleported naked at the beginning of the dungeon.”

“I remember that,” I said.

He said, “Yeah. Then ten minutes later, we were crawling down one of those little tunnels. Remember that?”

“Yeah,” I told him.

He said, “And I was behind the wizard. And I remembered that he was naked. And he was bent over and I was right behind him, looking straight up his…”

I stopped him there. The visual was enough.

The little things. Keep them in mind.


So, that’s just a brief glimpse at a few little things I take into consideration when running a dungeon crawl. I’ve got a few more, but I’ve run out of words and I don’t like taking up too much of a stranger’s time.

But, if you’d like to see more, give me a ring.  Or better yet, join me on Kickstarter:

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By - October 30, 2014 - Leave a comment

Behind the Gear-spun Curtain: A Purely Steampunk Look at Game Design »

As the leaves turn and the skies grow cloudy, we turn our minds toward All Hallows’ Eve and things of an often creepier, spookier, or more macabre appeal. Let us turn our minds then toward a sweet sample of the garish gallery to be found in the westerly lands of the Pure Steam™ Campaign Setting.

As one ventures west across the Feral Expanse of Ullera’s frontier, one discovers more and more dangerous monsters akin to those we know so well in fantasy role-play across all genres. In our hands, though, these creatures take on a vibe that breathes into them American folklore and cryptology, much as the very geography and culture of Ullera is a “weird-Western” steampunk mirror of the real world.

This gruff humanoid has the upper torso of a weightlifter, the sturdy legs of a bighorn sheep, a pair of ox-like horns, wooly hair, and a prominent hunchback.
XP 1,200
N Medium fey
Init +2; Senses low-light vision; Perception +18


AC 17, touch 12, flat-footed 15 (+2 Dex, +5 natural)
hp 52 (8d6+24)
Fort +5, Ref +8, Will +7
DR 5/cold iron


Speed 40 ft.
Melee light pick +7 (1d4+3/x4), horns +2 (1d8+1)
Ranged short bow +6 (1d6/×3)
Special Attacks powerful charge (gore +9, 2d6+2)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 8th)
At will—create water, know direction, longstrider, speak with animals
1/day—gust of wind, summon nature’s ally III, quench


Str 16, Dex 14, Con 16, Int 12, Wis 16, Cha 12
Base Atk +4; CMB +7; CMD 19
Feats Endurance, Improved Bull Rush, Improved Overrun, Power Attack
Skills Acrobatics +10, Bluff +7, Diplomacy +13, Intimidate +13, Knowledge (geography) +11, Knowledge (nature) +11, Perception +18, Perform (dance) +11, Perform (percussion), +11, Stealth +10, Survival +14; Racial Modifiers +4 Perception, +4 Perform, +4 Stealth
Languages Common, Sylvan


Environment plains
Organization solitary, pair, band (3–6), or militia (7–11)
Treasure standard (light pick, short bow plus 20 arrows, other treasure)


Powerful Charge (Ex) The bison satyr deals an additional 2d6+2 damage on a charge when attacking with its horns.


A nomad living in peace with the animals on the prairies, the bison satyr is otherwise very aggressive toward people in motorized vehicles, or toward those who create loud noises disturbing its serenity. It has no difficulty mixing in with wild bison or other herds as they are also herbivores.

Regarding monsters like these, Brennan, our Lead Designer, notes: “The design philosophy behind each of their abilities was to first match their lore, and then add a little Pure Steam/Pathfinder spin on the creature. We also tried to design them around the standard power level of Ulleran inhabitants, when determining their CR. We wanted their CR to be somewhere slightly above that of a common person, but not so high that the creature’s power went beyond its folklore; a CR that made them just mysterious, dangerous, and troublesome enough if confronted by a small group, but not so powerful that they could wipe out entire settlements single-handedly. Aside from the design philosophy and techniques employed, the reason why we chose the monsters we did, out of the sea of suggestions, falls to Davin.…”

This doll-like figure is dressed in colorful feathers, furs, and beadwork. It peers inquisitively out from behind the contours of an elaborate mask that hides its face.
XP 200
NG Tiny fey
Init +3; Senses low-light vision; Perception +6


AC 15, touch 15, flat-footed 12 (+3 Dex, +2 size)
hp 3 (1d6)
Fort +2, Ref +5, Will +4; +4 vs. mind-affecting effects
DR 5/cold iron


Speed 20 ft., climb 20 ft.
Melee quarterstaff +1 (shillelagh, 1d6-1/x2)
Ranged sling +6 (magic stone, 1d6-1/x2)
Special Attacks hatred (goblinoids and constructs)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 1st)
At will—dancing lights, magic stone, prestidigitation, shillelagh, vanish
1/day—faerie fire, speak with animals, speak with plants


Str 6, Dex 16, Con 10, Int 12, Wis 14, Cha 14
Base Atk +0; CMB –4; CMD 9
Feats Great Fortitude, Go Unnoticed
Skills Acrobatics +7, Diplomacy +6, Escape Artist +7, Knowledge (nature) +6, Perception +6, Stealth +15, Survival +6
Languages Sylvan, empath 30 ft.
Special Qualities wild empathy


Environment Any
Organization solitary, war party (4-8), or tribe (9+)


Empath (Su) Kachinas possess a crude form of telepathy, allowing them to transmit mild impressions, general emotions, and remembered sensations to other creatures that don’t share their language. This form of telepathy cannot convey language or hinder a target in any way (such as by transmitting pain). Thus, a kachina can relate a feeling of fear or the faint smell of leaves, but cannot directly warn an ally of a monster or tell of a treasure under a dirt mound.
Hatred (Ex) Kachinas receive a +1 bonus on attack rolls against humanoid creatures of the goblinoid subtype and creatures of the construct type due to special training against these hated foes.
Wild Empathy (Ex) A kachina can improve the attitude of an animal. This ability functions just like the druid class feature of the same name, using the kachina’s HD in place of its druid level.


Kachinas appoint themselves the guardians to communities, tree groves, springs, mountaintops, and canyons in the southwest. They are brightly garbed in feather and bead costumes and body paint given to them by locals in hopes of earning their good will and protection. A fine costume is a tremendous status symbol among kachinas. Travelers should make an offering to local kachinas to appease them or they risk being harassed and harried so long as they remain in the kachina’s territory. A kachina may adopt a child, family, or community that is especially generous and guard it from predators and pillagers. The most hated foe among kachinas are goblinoids and their clockwork constructs due to centuries of Dominion raids.

Davin, our steampunk guru, shares, “Many of the new creatures for Westbound have a supernatural feel to reflect the campfire tales and pulp fiction popular in the 19th century. We touch on examples of ‘science-gone-wrong’ with our steampunk lich and clockwork plague. Native mythology is represented by kachinas, the rachache, and the cataract. We’ve even mined more recent myths like the jackalope, the dire armadillo, and the loch satyr. The rest are based on native animals gone monstrous such as the gigante gila, the dire roadrunner, the beaman, and the tumbling razorweed.”

From all of us at the Pure Steam DevTeam to you, have an eerily happy Halloween! And join us next month as we delve into the design thinking behind feats and skills — until then!

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By - October 28, 2014 - Leave a comment

Early ‘treats’ for Halloween »

2014-GreatGolemSaleJust to be clear, is written to be as ‘System Neutral’ as possible to allow as broad a leadership as possible.  Certainly d20 design is hard to ignore, so apologies to any grognards still rolling THACO with 2nd or even rocking 1st Ed. And yes, I’m currently in Darkwarren’s Rise of the Runelords (Anniversary version) campaign, playing a diminutive Halfling Dawnflower Dervish every Thursday night.  That’s the closest admission to a ‘Paizo preference’ that you’ll get from me.

But the good folks out at Redmond, Washington have 2 very cool seasonal things for gamers and we wanted to be certain that our readers were at least aware of them.  The first is their annual Great Golem Sale, with some gaming stuff up to an absurd 90% off.  Moreover, for orders over $100 (which won’t be hard to do) Paizo will pay the first $10 in shipping costs.  Here’s the direct link to the madness:  This sale lasts through November 2nd, and of course supplies are limited.  Even more so after we went through & dumped a few dozen things into our shopping carts.  {cough}  Such as D&D adventures for $3.50 or even just a buckMonte Cook’s Collected Book of Experimental Might (OGL) Hardcover for $2, and a very cool glow-in-the-dark Cthulhu rubbery toy.  And of course there’s dice, shirts, comics, board games, art.  And more.  My personal favorite is the 4’x6′ Yoda banner for Imax, MSRP $200, on sale for $30.

The second is an open playtest for their upcoming (Summer 2015 release) Occult Adventures.  It “includes 6 new base classes to add to your game, each one focusing on one aspect of psychic magic. Similar in some ways to arcane and divine magic, psychic magic ventures into new territory, utilizing the power of the mind, body, and soul. Each of the classes in this playtest uses psychic magic in different ways, from the raw power of the kineticist to the subtle manipulations of the mesmerist.”  Much like their playtest for the Pathfinder setting/game, people review the initial design then offer commentary on the forums.  The Devs then try to take this feedback into account, modifying where appropriate.  This was such a Duh way to do things most game companies from the personal to WotC have followed suit.

The 6 base classes in this book are: “the reality-warping kineticist, the spirit-infused medium, the manipulative mesmerist, the relic-wielding occultist, the mind-master psychic, and the phantom-bonded spiritualist,” which all sound pretty dang cool.  And of course there’s more spells, gear, archetypes, and magic items.  Which is always a good thing.

Here’s the link to the playtest where you can download a PDF of Occult Adventures yourself:


Happy Early Halloween!

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By - October 26, 2014 - 2 Comments

D&D Lessons from The Walking Dead Season 5 Premiere »

imagesThe new season of Walking Dead premiered spectacularly a short time ago, and then in typical AMC fashion the show was re-run before the newest episode.  Having seen it twice now, here are some lessons for your D&D games.  And yes, spoilers abound- you’ve been warned.  (Plus we’ve waited over a week to do this so get to your DVR/On Demand/Piratey Bay already.  Here we go.

When you know they’re planning to go for the throat, gas them from above WHAT WE SEE: So the episode opens with the group imprisoned in a cargo shipping container, quickly making improvised weapons out of belts, nails, hoop earrings, boot laces.  Anything they can from what little they still have left.  They’re ready to rush whomever slides open the door, gouging eyes and throats.  Too bad the people imprisoning them have an effective counter- dropping tear gas through the roof first.  HOW YOU CAN USE IT: If the antagonists in your story have had the chance to enact their plan a few times, then that plan has had the chance to be improved upon.  Meaning any obvious reactions have already been taken into account.  The smarter the party’s opponent, the more variations will be possibly checkmated- creature like Dragons, Liches, or Mind Flayers would have dozens of moves sorted in advance.  But even bandits could pull out some new tricks in their ambushes; try to be creative by thinking like bandits would have stayed alive by being successful would.

Never underestimate the power of a last ditch weapon WHAT WE SEE: His neck literally on the chopping block, (actually a trough) Rick carefully saws through his bonds with a sharpened stick that he managed to keep concealed in a boot.  Surprise round on his side, the former sheriff then plants it in the necks of both of his would-be executioners.  HOW YOU CAN USE IT: Always give your important NPCs a way out, whether it’s a Possum Pouch, a secret go-to stash, a Contingency spell, magical shiv etc.  In fact, give them 2 last ditch weapons so if the PC’s find or otherwise take out the first one, the backup might still let your cool NPC escape.  Or at least go down swinging- such as with a bead from a Necklace of Fireballs.  Speaking of fire…

Normal Fire + Zombies = Flaming Zombies WHAT WE SEE: A Carol-caused explosion of a natural gas tank turns several walkers into flaming walkers which means that instead of just being regular chomping teeth, they now also do fire damage.  The burning biters  keep stumbling forward, not only eating a few people but also spreading the fire further.  HOW YOU CAN USE IT: Whether by accident or on purpose some undead get set on fire.  They now do d6 extra in flame attacks while also alighting any nearby squares.  If the PCs aren’t careful, they’ll soon be fighting Fire Zombies as well as a full-blown fire.  You can mark map squares with red X’s or just describe the scene becoming more hellish by the round.

You’re either the Butcher or you’re the Cattle.WHAT WE SEE: A Terminus member tries to justify her group’s murderous lure of safety with a claim of cannibalism for preventative self-defense.  Suffice it to say, explanation denied and segue to another great Carol moment of killing karma.  HOW YOU CAN USE IT: In the D&D cosmos, per the Book of Exalted Deads, the ends never ever justify the means.  Ever.  Evil is evil.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean it won’t try.  Perhaps appealing to the PCs that what they were doing they had to do, or otherwise offering up an explanation for their acts.  It’s quite possible that some NPCS or even entire races don’t in fact consider themselves evil at all- in their world view, it’s the PC’s who are the bad guys.  Hey, there ARE a lot of Murderhoboes out there.  But bottom line, try having the bad guys give out some motivations behind their misdeeds or at least their actions.  Maybe not full-blown long expositions, just some general rebuttals or taunts.  A lot of interesting villain creation never gets shared with the PC’s, so try to wedge it in through quick conversation.

Well that’s what I got out of watching Episode 501, titled “No Sanctuary.”  After I’ve seen 502 for a second time, I’ll do a write up for that one as well.  But is there anything I missed?  Or if you haven’t seen the show, did any of these lessons seem applicable to your gaming?  Please let us know in the comments section.  Thanks!

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By - October 15, 2014 - 1 Comment

Mannegishi »

pen2Welcome back to Pen & Pixels, where I share stories about of the the RPG images that I’ve created as a professional artist.  Here’s a Halloween-ish piece I illustrated for Four Winds Fantasy  for one of their monster books. This particular creature was a Mannegishi, a trickster race from Cree folklore. In doing my research on this one, I learned that Mannegishi were semi-humanoid, six-fingered creatures with thin and lanky arms and legs and large heads but no nose! Now THAT sounded like a fun illustration to do.

Mannegishi lived among the rocks in rapids. They delighted in tipping over canoes and then drowning people once the’d fallen into the water. A charming and friendly folk to be sure!

So, I needed to come up with what a creepy little water-dwelling trickster with thin, lanky arms and legs, six fingers and a large head but no nose was going to look like!Mannegishi

The resulting illustration is what you see here. I gave my Mannegishi long stringy hair that looked partially wet and added little water droplets to his skin. I also sometimes like to add little extra details to my illustrations, so I gave him tattoos on his chest and forearms that resembled stylized American Indian symbols. I can’t remember for certain anymore, but I think I even based the tattoos on symbols for actual American Indian water spirits.

Now that I’m looking at the illustration and remembering the fun details of these nasty creatures, I think I need to find a way to incorporate a few of them into a future adventure. All I have to do is figure out how to get the PCs into a canoe …

Coolest Comment
Since this dude is so creepy and odd looking, post you best caption for the illustration. It can be funny, witty, clever or just cool. Best caption gets the  Mannegishi original art

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By - October 1, 2014 - 1 Comment

The 09-11 column we weren’t sure we we were going to run »

Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start: this is not an attempt to write something ‘sensationalist’ or otherwise capitalize on a tragedy.  However a weird thing happened this past (13th) anniversary.  That Thursday night I was playing Pathfinder with my weekly group, currently being run by fellow columnist Darkwarren.  And over the course of a 4ish hour D&D session, I don’t remember the September 11th attacks being mentioned.  I wasn’t necessarily expecting that we’d do anything formal, like pause for a moment of silence before the dice start rolling.  But thinking back, I just found it…weird…that the subject didn’t come up at all.  Which made me wonder if other gaming groups went through a similar situation, & then later on, if there was a way to respectfully incorporate aspects of what horribly happened on that tragic day into roleplaying games.

And after much back & forth, then forth & back, I honestly still don’t know if there is a way to do that latter part.   This piece that you’re reading is admittedly an attempt that is more of thinking aloud onto a white screen with a keyboard.  And despite coming in at the end of the month, I didn’t want to be completely absent of the topic this year, as we have in year’s past.

When I was traveling after 2001 & people asked where I was from, (I have one of those faces that everyone seems to think is someone else) answering ‘New York’ inevitably brought the question, “Where were you when the Towers fell?”  I explained that I was teaching high school, & that our classes watched what happened as it was unfolding on TV.  Cue the ‘Couldn’t-you-see-it-out-the-window’ question, followed by my explaining how I lived in the part of New York state that has more cows than skyscrapers.  Also a local delicacy appropriately known as garbage plates.

Yet as the years went by, the NY/NYC confusion gradually diminished less & less until it’s stopped coming up at all.  Which got me wondering this week about humans & how we remember or don’t remember historical occurrences.  And this memory fading of ours compared to how Elves/Dwarves/Dragons would most likely recall almost everything.  So in the context of 09-11, if there was a fantasy equivalent, at some point the humans of that world might still recognize that event.  But as the years pass- and more and more of the Humans who were alive then pass on, the remembrance shifts from part of the collective psyche to historians.  A good example would be Pearl Harbor, which had only 50 survivors attend last year’s memorial ceremony.   Days which will live in infamy eventually- perhaps inevitably- become just another day.  Go far enough into the future & they can be forgotten entirely, as a civilization falls with others rising to take it’s place.

However other longer-living races would still vividly recall a monumental event decades or possibly centuries afterward.  While they might not literally say, “Why, I remember that comet crash like it was yesterday,” when they’re describing it, the level of detail should suggest that in fact they sort of do.  And they would probably resent how human characters did not still share that or have the same amount of respect.  If you live hundreds or thousands of years, certain disasters like earthquakes or fires could blend together; one icestorm can be much like the other.  Yet it’s unlikely that they’d ever truly forget when the Drow tried to block out the sun or the time a Tarrasque came to town.  Particularly when the past isn’t that ‘past’ at all.

I don’t know.  This is obviously a touchy subject & although D&D has it’s share of controversy (I remember an old adventure that had mind-controlled townspeople taking Delayed Blast Fireball Gems into town) I was wary of delving too deep here.  Certainly you could include such elements as a kingdom rushing to war, conspiracy/False Flag theories, civil liberties being curtailed, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ etc.  Or that might simply be too much reality intruding in on your fantasy.  Big reason I go to a different world every week is to take a much-needed break from this one.  So I’ll definitely respect anyone who doesn’t want to use any of this at all.

But at the very least, please consider having your gaming group mark the occasion of September, 11th.  Thank you for reading.

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