By - October 1, 2014 - Leave a 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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By - September 22, 2014 - 1 Comment

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

Pure-Steam-logo-300x90Gamemastering at GenCon can be a blast. It’s a way to introduce people to a game you love, or even a game you’re trying to publish. It can also be a way to play obscure games that just don’t have a big following in your hometown. It’s a lot of work, though, and can be taxing. Here are some tips we’ve learned the hard way after a few years at GenCon.


  • Set a goal. Are you simply going to run a couple games for fun? Are you trying to build support for your indie project? How much time do you want to spend just “enjoying” the convention and playing games GMed by others? GenCon will comp a 4-Day badge if you GM a minimum number of player-hours (citation needed – GenCon Exhibitors Guidelines). They’ll discount your hotel room if you hit a higher number of player-hours, and if you can get a group to run enough hours of games, you can get your hotel room paid for!
  • Prep like a pro. Depending on how much time you set aside for your session, you may not have a lot of time to play. Players sometimes show up late. Others may not know every rule or character option. Reduce the amount of time it takes you and the players to get up to speed, and maximize play time. For our Pure Steam sessions this year, we printed all our encounter maps in full color, and laminated them. When it was time to roll initiative, we just pulled out the map, slapped it on the table, and had the players arrange themselves. This saved a a few hours of drawing on battle mats over our 20 sessions of play. If you’re providing pre-generated characters, consider printing the explanatory text for all the feats, class features, and traits you’re giving the pre-gens. At the very least, provide the sourcebook and page reference. Bottom line: anything you can do to streamline.
  • Broaden your horizons. Consider running an event that stretches your comfort zone or allows for people with no experience, of any age, to play. My favorite moment of GenCon 2014 was a session of Pure Steam which a family of three attended. I had it set up for all ages, no experience required. The mom, dad, and six-year-old son jumped right in. I quickly realized the parents were entrusting their youngster’s first roleplaying game experience to me—a sobering thought. That boy rolled his first natural 20, resulting in a critical hit and a kill on a bandit, and raucous cheers for the boy’s heroism. He beamed with pride, as did his parents. A stranger at the table—who had loaned the kid some dice—told the kid to keep the d20 he used on his first crit. It was awesome.


  • Let your devotion to GMing wreak havoc on your mind and body. You may feel like a rock star for a day or two, but by the end of the convention you could find yourself sick (“Con Crud,” Fort DC 16, 1d6 Cha damage), exhausted, and emaciated. Hydrate, eat healthier than you would normally, and take some sort of vitamin supplement. Expect to lose your voice, especially if you’re GMing next to seven other tables competing with you on decibels. Force yourself to eat on some sort of schedule, even if you aren’t hungry. One day during the con, it was mid-afternoon when I realized I hadn’t taken in any calories that day. As a result of this and the general intensity of my GMing schedule, I lost six pounds during this year’s con. Those were pounds I was happy to lose, but it wasn’t a healthy way to do it. Just take care of yourself out there behind the screen.
  • Run the game like you would at home. Homebrew rules tend to be a no-no at GenCon, as there isn’t time for people to get acclimated to them. Folks come from all over the globe to rock their favorite games, and imposing new restrictions on them can spoil the table relationship. If you are going to change/augment the published rules of a game, share those changes as early as you can, preferably in the event registration info.
  • Forget to turn in your event tickets, if you want your badge/hotel room to be compensated.

These rules can be applied to any convention, with some tweaking, but your average local convention just doesn’t have the size, options, or challenges as “The Best Four Days in Gaming.”™

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By - September 18, 2014 - 2 Comments

FREE D&D Audiobook! »

All rights reserved.  Please don't send a magical panther after us.

All rights reserved. Please don’t send a magical panther after us.

Like free stuff?  Have an Amazon account?  Want to listen to a dozen voices you’ll (probably) recognize read an unabridged RA Salvatore collection?    In case you haven’t heard by now, there’s a FREE (as in free-free) D&D Audiobook; The Legend of Drizzt: The Collected Stories.  And when they say unabridged, man do they mean unabridged: 10 hours & 24 minutes of double scimitar-wielding Drow action.

But the offer ends real soon (September 20th 2014 11:59PM ET soon) so get going guys.  Put on your Boots of Speed.  It does take a little finagling to make it happen, yet its nothing that gamers can’t problem solve.  After all, we’re the ones who both invent & circumvent dungeon traps.

Someone from will post an article about lessons from this audiobook for your D&D games after we’ve had a long weekend to listen through.  ’til then.

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By - August 31, 2014 - 4 Comments

Bonus to your Save vs. HotDQ »

WARNING: This is not a review.  In fact, I don’t own the product in question.  Haven’t even flipped through it.  What this is, instead, is an attempt to make a decision about said unowned book based on information gathered from the Interwebs.

Ok, still with me?

I had done a piece about the first actual module for D&D Next- Hoard of the Dragon Queen, & why I was recommending people ‘pass’ on it.  It garnered some reaction, mostly negative, so before I delve a little deeper, (most likely in a follow-up to this follow-up) I wanted to reply to the criticism.  Here we go.

Now my recommendation mainly came from a single review on a website called which up to then, I hadn’t known about.  But bar none, it was absolutely the most thorough review out there.  However here’s what bothered readers as well as my responses to them:

  1. he seems to think that adventures should spell everything out and that the DM should not be using what he finds as a spring board for a really creative adventure.” Honestly if I’m paying 20 bones for an adventure written by acclaimed game designers who have won awards, then yeah, I expect things to be pretty well spelled out.  That’s what I’m paying them $ for; anyone can come up with a stop-the-cult-before-it’s-too-late idea. More importantly if this is the flagship of a new edition which is supposed to do nothing less than revitalize the ailing D&D brand by introducing a new generation to it, then yes, some hand holding is in order, no?    
  2. There’s very little in the various editions of D&D that meet his (the reviewers’) high standards.”  Actually there’s a list of 45+ adventures that Bryce gave an A/B rating to: 
  3. MythicParty did not dig even 10′ deep by reading one review and judging the product solely on the contents of that review.”  Just FYI, I started with everything about it on Amazon (16 as of when I write this), then branched out.  Read one from Diehard GameFan which was lengthy but felt pretty general, a Nerdvana one which called it a ‘cult classic,’ then onto TheRPGsite where I learned in a book missing monsters there was a page of ads, & ended with tenfootpole.  Was that enough to form an intelligent opinion?  Guess it depends. Also although I usually genderbend & play female characters, very much a dude.
  4. I was hoping for a substantive review when I saw this, and what I got was a regurgitation of someone else’s opinion. This in no way helps me decide whether or not this module is worthwhile for me.” I get the expectation looking for something deeper, but the reality is rather than pay for the book then find out it wasn’t up to snuff- contrary to most of what’s out there- I thought it instead worthwhile to offer readers a dissenting opinion via pointing them towards an actually comprehensive review: 5,550 words of comprehensiveness.  
  5. {paraphrased} “I already have the book”/”I wasn’t buying the book.” Congrats to you both- but I still think there’s something to be gained from reading a detailed analysis of what an experienced module reviewer felt didn’t work & why it didn’t work.  If you have the book, you could modify things for when your group plays through the adventure.  If you weren’t going to buy the book anyway then you still might learn some things to look out for.  The very least of which is to not blindly trust Amazon reviews.

That’s it for now guys.  Part 2 of this I’ll highlight those things from the tenfootpole review I found to be the most convincing & why you might want to pay at least a little attention to them.

Thanks for reading.



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By - August 30, 2014 - 7 Comments

Save yourself & skip this D&D Next adventure »

Copyright WotC.  Please don't fireball us.

Copyright WotC. Please don’t fireball us.

So in the last column I talked about how I was cautiously optimistic about the latest incarnation of D&D.  The 90ish Amazon reviews for the 5th Edition  PHB were overwhelmingly positive, & a lot of the concepts from this version sounded like they’d genuinely improve the game.  For the first time- in a very long time- I felt something serious for Dungeons & Dragons: excitement.

But then reality crashed down on the fantasy about fantasy.  The next (+1 pun) step after getting yourself a PHB is waiting for the Monster Manual/DMG to come in.  And while inevitably waiting, you of course check out any available adventures aside from the introductory one.  In this case, the only thing currently available is Hoard of the Dragon Queen, written by industry veterans Wolfgang Baur & Steve Winter, with a Kobold Press design credit.  It’s part 1 of a 2 module arc that is set within a Forgotten realms storyline that will be the central plot background of D&D.  (Part Deux, The Rise of Tiamat, is due in October, with other pieces happening in comics/video games/minis/organized play sessions at FLGS’).  And the problem is that while the reviews on Amazon, blogs, & other gaming sites were usually pretty favorable, they were usually very vague or even completely unspecific.

So I dug deeper.  To be exact, 10′ into the web deeper.

And I came across a scathing review of HotDG written by Bryce Lynch whose blog,, promises, “I bought this stuff and read it so you don’t have to.”  And in the case of Hoard, Bryce makes it quite clear that you (and me) should avoid this one.  It’s not just brutally honest, it cuts through the rotten bits like a rot grub through a Son of Kyuss.  You’re welcome grognard readers who got that Monster Manual II reference.

And while Bryce has some pretty lofty Review Standards, they’re not completely unreasonable- Evocative atmosphere, Terse writing style, Foreshadowing of the main villain, etc.- for professional designers to meet.  His 5,500 word evisceration critically guts HotDG, going through each of the 8 Episodes in the adventure & telling you bluntly what worked & (more often) what didn’t work.  And why.  Specifics galore people.  Details upon details.  No generalizations like what you find in all the glowing “reviews.”

So while I’m somewhat bummed that the first read module for 5th Ed is not up to par with the new edition, I’m happy I didn’t spend $20 to find that out.

If you think I’ve been exaggerating, well, simply head on over to tenfootpole & read their review for Hoard of the Dragon Queen yourself.  Or simply trust us because we’re trusting 10′ pole.  Save both your $ + your time.  Someone will write a great 5E adventure.  It just wasn’t this one- which needs to get chucked back into the hoard.

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By - August 27, 2014 - 7 Comments

D&D Next Review Coming… »

Copyright WotC

Copyright WotC, please don’t fireball us.

Zone of Truth style Confession.  Even though we’re a D&D-focused Blog, we here at DungeonMastering honestly had a hard time getting excited about D&D Next/What 4.0?/5th Edition.  Maybe it was weariness of those Edition Wars, or maybe it was the wallet-closing $49.95 MSRP.  Or just the simple fact that everyone already has dozens of unplayed- sometimes even unread- book sitting on their shelves, gathering dust like a Wizard’s library.

But thanks to the distribution centers of Amazon (motto: “This Drone Army won’t build itself.  Yet.”)  it can be had for the much more gamer-realistic $29.95 w/ free Prime Shipping.  When I saw that, I raised an eyebrow that would make Mr. Spock proud & stopped to read the reviews.  Guess what sport fans?  Overwhelmingly positive.  How positive?  Of the 82 people leaving feedback, a Colossal-sized 66 of them are 5-Stars.  8 more are 4-Stars, while 3 are 3-Stars, leaving only a diminutive 5 people didn’t like it.

Five.  My gaming group literally has more people (lucky number 7) in it.

So the book is on it’s way, & once the big brown truck has dropped it off, I intend to curl up in a chair then read it hard cover to hard cover.  After that, I’ll try out some things with my guys & maybe run a 1-shot to test it out.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, anyone more open-minded then we were & already have or even starting played D&D Next?

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By - August 22, 2014 - 3 Comments

On Rewards and Balance »

So I’ve talked a lot about the beginning and end of a campaign, from character and session creation to developing a villain to hate. What I haven’t covered with you is what to do at the end of a campaign. In this article I would like to specifically talk about the inbetween variety of ending. Most of us have been playing long enough that we’ve founded a group of good friends and great players, the kind that you stick with even after a campaign comes to an end.


Normally, when you come to the conclusion of a campaign the DM can feel free to throw out any kind of reward he’d like; the game is over and balance isn’t an issue, afterall. But what do you do when the party wants to stay together for another adventure? The unlimited wish and millions of gold pieces is looking a little less likely, now. On the other hand, your players have worked hard, and they deserve to feel like they’ve earned a great reward, so where do you find the median? That’s what I’ve come here to tell you. The key is in providing character-oriented rewards.


For example, I recently ran a campaign involving an estranged noble’s son. When the campaign finally came to an end, the king presented the titleless bard with a blank crest. It took the player a moment to put two and two together, but when he figured out he was ecstatic. I could see his thoughts developing, plans for his character forming and a smile broke out on his face. Mechanically speaking, the most the reward did was provide him with access to a prestige class, and some contacts and revenue he didn’t have before– Nothing too game-breaking.


The other option is to take a simple item and dress it up. Take a +1 Corrosive Scimitar. It’s magical, and obviously much stronger than a mundane item, but it’s nothing game-breaking. Throw that in a pile of loot and the players will be happy enough to take it, but present it to your players as an end-game reward and it might fall a little flat. But what happens when you give it a name, or a history? How would they react to a one-of-a-kind item?


After honoring all of you with a rousing speech and a great feast, the Duke calls the four of you to his private study. There he presents each of you with a special reward. To you, Eric, he presents a beautiful sword, the hilt and blade curve in opposite directions marking it as an Eastern blade. The hilt is wrapped in silk and golden wire, the crossguard and pommel made of gold and embedded with emeralds. You recognize this as the Fang of the Third Wind, an ancient and deadly weapon gifted only to the captain of the Sultan’s Elite Guard.
Now that sounds like a weapon worth months of travel, pints of blood, and a lifetime of danger to get. There’s no need to spoil your players, just do what you’re meant to as a Dungeon Master: tell them a story. I can guarantee that it’ll make your players happier and your rewards more satisfying than ever before.

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By - August 11, 2014 - 3 Comments

Games within Games: The Shifting Tower »

Everyone has their own kind of favorite dungeon. Some of my players prefer gauntlets of traps and monsters, while others prefer dungeons from the likes of Legend of Zelda, where puzzles appear frequently and everything revolves around a central theme or element. My kind of dungeon is the unpredictable, seemingly random one. A dungeon where you never know what the next room holds. A magical place where the only thing separating near death experiences from wondrous treasure is a simple matter of chance. The Shifting Tower is an idea that plays upon this kind of encounter.


For this game, I recommend a session or two and a Jenga tower. To those unfamiliar with it, a Jenga tower is a large tower of 54 rectangular blocks, each stacked three by three. In Jenga, a player removes blocks for the tower and places it on the top, hoping not to knock down the tower. In the Shifting Tower, each Jenga tile represents a “room” of the dungeon, a self contained piece of the Shifting Tower. While you need not prepare a separate encounter/setup for every single room, I recommend making 15-30 different designs (Jenga tower typically has 54 pieces, though I often use 15, 24 or 32 for smaller towers). Each can house anything a slowly falling ceiling, to a maze of pits and tripwire traps, to monsters and guardian, and even house little areas of respite and rewards. As each room is self contained, each can have their own little theme or mindset.  Don’t feel any obligation to make the rooms long, rectangular or jenga block shaped, vary them up a bit. For maximum enjoyment, balance how much puzzles, combat sets and relaxing respites your tower might have.  Roll each room as it appears, and always take note to what the room has in it, as chances are, it might be found in a future floor of the tower.


The premise is simple. The players encounter a tower, flavored however the GM desires. This tower can be said to hold the MacGuffin they need, house ancient treasure, or perhaps they just want to explore for explorations sake. As they ascend the tower, pieces of it move around, causing the tower to change shape. Prepare your Jenga table, and place it somewhere that it hopefully won’t get knocked down.


Players enter the first room, and they are informed how this works by a sentinel of sorts. As they proceed, the tower shifts, altering its form. When players clear rooms, they alternate removing any room from the tower, whether conquered or not, and placing it on the top of the tower. The sentinel warns them that by forces unknown (hint: a player’s shaky hand, earthquake or maybe a cat knocking the tower down), the tower sometimes kicks out its guests, only to reshape itself once more. Clearing the contents of a floor leads takes the players to the next one. As such, more stable structures result in more rooms for the players to undertake, while riskier, more dangerous structures minimize the number of rooms, but increase the danger of the tower falling. Players may arrange that some tower floors have only one room, but if so, the integrity of the tower is at risk. The DM might want to put a goal in mind, such as 10 floors, or let it go on until the tower falls.


Three doors exists on both sides (the long sides, not the stubby sides), ensuring that players can access the next room. If the center piece is removed, the players travel across the “roof” of a previously clear room into their next destination. Most doors will open and just reveal the sky if they don’t lead anywhere, giving the players a bit of knowledge of how high they are in the tower to help prevent them metagaming those details. Lastly, every five or ten rooms or so, let the sentinel appear after clearing and offer the players a way out. If resources are dangerously low and you don’t feel like killing the party, you can even extend it to them when things look dire.


The most interesting part of the game is when players begin to catch the metagame of the scenario. If you offer them a room with a fountain in it, allowing them to replenish their health, a smart player will take note of it, and move it to the top in anticipation of future use. As the players near the top of their tower, they are encountering old scenarios, and must shape the tower to their advantage if they want keep progressing. Players can reduce the number of rooms in a floor by removing rooms from floors above, but doing so makes future floors’ content a secret. If the players remove floors only below them, they are encountering more rooms, but have greater control of the future look of the temple.
So here is what the Shifting Tower is. It is a 1.) random/procedurally generated dungeon that 2.) has unique elements not found in a typical dungeon crawl that 3.) offers DMs the ability to present self contained locations, enemies, friends and puzzles. While I have seen Jenga towers used in D&D and Pathfinder games before, I believe this idea to be fairly unique and while awfully experimental, can lead to some interesting sessions and breath some life into the dungeon crawl.

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