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.



Leave a comment (4 comments so far) »

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.

Leave a comment (7 comments so far) »

By - August 27, 2014 - 6 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?

Leave a comment (6 comments so far) »

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.

Leave a comment (3 comments so far) »

By - August 11, 2014 - Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment »

By - July 29, 2014 - Leave a comment

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

Character classes are the gateways through which players enter our games. As DMs, it’s important for us to understand character class design and what kinds of classes our players might enjoy playing. Remember this maxim: “What works for one game or one set of players might not work for another!” I took the liberty to interview two other key members of the Pure Steam™ build-team to see what their thoughts were on the subject of class design.

“The one thing player classes can’t be is boring,” Davin ‘grimgrin4488’ reminds us in starting to think about the basic things we all might expect from a class, “and there are several pitfalls to avoid. The class needs to be fresh. It can’t be too derivative and needs a unique hook or cool factor. If the player feels he has seen this [or that class] before it won’t fly. The class needs to be flexible. [‘I can bend my wrist like this, how about you?’ said the double-jointed rogue to the paladin in full plate.] Players need to be able to personalize the character to feel a sense of ownership, and classes in most RPG campaigns need to have a role in and out of combat.” [‘I attack the barstool!’ said the fighter with ADHD.]

He further elaborates, “The character needs to be easy to play. If the class rules are too complex, the player may not understand the class or play will drag as the player or GM has to keep checking the rules of play. Alternatively, if a class has too may options, creating the character may feel like too much work. [‘Okay guys, so the next 6-hour session we’ll set aside for leveling-up. I need your forms in duplicate, and make sure you get them notarized.’] Finally, a campaign world needs a variety of classes. Not everyone likes the same things [Remember the maxim.] and you need a full spectrum of classes for wide game appeal.

On our work for Pure Steam, he says, “Developing classes for Pure Steam is a team effort. There is a synergy of ideas where others’ ideas spark your own and they can see the errors you will routinely overlook.

“For Westward classes and archetypes, we looked at actual history and ‘wild west’ tropes and imagined how they would mesh with the Pathfinder ruleset and interact in the campaign setting. We extracted the core character themes, fleshed them out, and made them into unique classes that Pathfinder gamers would enjoy playing, leveling-up, and customizing.”

Brennan ‘sellsword2587’ speaks more to this where archetypes are concerned: “Designing Pathfinder archetypes has similar challenges to base classes, but is a bit easier due to the preexisting framework, character archetypes, and themes of the Pathfinder base classes; how closely does this character concept, such as flavor and mechanics, relate to a Pathfinder base class? The Ructioneer, for example, is a rabble rouser with a love for brawling and an unorthodox fighting style. [‘My style? I call it, the art of fighting without relenting.’] While the Barbarian certainly fits that criteria, we wanted the Ructioneer to be a bit more formulaic and dedicated to his fighting style, not just a rampaging brute as steampunk-themed characters typically have an expected level of sophistication about them—as much as a Ructioneer could have, anyway. So, the Fighter base class served as the root for the Ructioneer’s abilities.

“The same design philosophy holds true for our Westward archetypes. In a wild west or frontier setting, you need cowboys and ranchers, characters that know the land and are good with animals [‘Uh-yeup! My gun’s named Bessie, and my horse’s Spitfire. Ironic, ain’t it!’], so using the Ranger base class as the foundation for our Cowboy archetype fit perfectly; a character specialized in riding a mount, shooting a firearm, and wrangling with a lasso or whip. What is the West without snake oil salesmen? [Ya got me!? A lot healthier, and friendlier to snakes?] The Huckster, an alchemist archetype, fills that role with his ability to create a ‘polypurpose panacea’ that he utilizes for both effect and profit. With the expanse of the steam-engine railway into the West, it seemed fitting to develop the Hobo archetype for the Rogue, a cunning loner good at surviving on the move by jumping trains and utilizing a network of geocaches and ciphered cant, known as the ‘hobo code,’ to find supplies and information. These, along with numerous other archetypes, stem from the need to match our steampunk-wild west theme where traditional fantasy character options would simply seem out-of-place.”

And that’s the way of it! Meet us back here next month when we bring you our recap of experiences and lessons learned from our upcoming GenCon appearance. Until then, we hope to see you there!

Leave a comment »

By - July 18, 2014 - Leave a comment

“There can be no heroes where there is no doubt.” »

Being that our name is, we often get emails about DMing questions.  Here’s some from one of our readers, Seth, who writes:

So I am an aspiring DM who is trying to sort out my approach for an upcoming campaign. I would really like to dig into the meat and bones psychological aspects of adventuring and explore the feeling of a dark epic horror with less fluffy ‘ooo look they’re dark sorcerers’ and more 
‘but why?’ 

Growing up I remember spending a lot of time sitting around the table with an unconscious and possibly dying hero in front of me. As I’ve continued to play I’ve found very often that the threat of character incapacitation and death as a guiding force in player psychology is often completely avoided by many, if not most DMs. 

So my thought is this: if I wanted to set up the party to be part of much larger group taking on a truly formidable foe which they would not truly be able to defeat on their own, how would one split XP and what would you recommend as far as DMing tactics for allowing them to both prove useful to the battle, but also still have an uncertain chance of survival? 

I’m not opposed to killing a couple characters if I have to. I really think that the players should know, like their characters, that there is always truly a time to run away. There can be no heroes where there is no doubt.” 

Hi Seth!  Love that last line.

The first thing I’d say for any DM is that even before the dice start rolling, you talk about your ideas with the players.  If they’re not interested in the concept or you can’t get them to buy-in to the tone you want the campaign to take, then that’ll be a problem for everyone.  I’d start by sharing with them a piece of fiction or a movie clip that captures the vibe you’re hoping for.  Not only is including the players in the process crucial to their being better involved, they undoubtedly will have suggestions to improve things. So don’t bother with a single character until you’ve had a session or two where everyone can talk about what they’d like to see happen for the campaign.  After all, shared an RPG is not just a story but a collaborative story.

Ok, you’re looking for a way to have the party be part of an organization.  One that is opposed to ‘dark sorcerers’ & while trying to stop them, is uncovering their motivations.  They could be a clandestine part of a church or maybe just in the employ of a witchhunter or inquisitor.  Either way, they’re trying to stop a growing evil that is causing corruption.  You can allow their patron to come to their aid if necessary, but if they do need to call upon a benefactor then that assistance costs in terms of XP.

Now, when it comes to the meat/bones of adventuring, my feeling is that you want to make sure you start by conveying the difficulty of that as a profession.  Track rations.  Encumbrance.    Make selling back any treasure an actual in-game activity rather than an auto 50% off tally.  Then get into the real dangers of the job.  The risks that need to be taken before the rewards.  Have any critical hits cause lasting scars even after the cure spells & potions have brought back HP.  Include rules for horror, psychosis, or other mental issues- Unearthed Arcana has guidelines for Tainted people/places & using Sanity (or rather, losing it) in D&D games.  Finally, make death a permanent thing- ala what we mentioned when telling you guys about Diablo 3.  That’ll make even the bravest PC wonder if it’s time to cut bait.

Well other readers, how’d we do answering Seth’s questions?  What other suggestions would you give?  Any questions of your own? Let us know!


Leave a comment »

By - July 11, 2014 - 1 Comment

Gargoyle! »

pen2This is another illustration I did for the Behind the Monsters Omnibus from Tricky Owlbear. I was pretty happy with how it turned out and even happier when the publisher told me the illustration reminded him of those old school illustrations from First Edition AD&D. Since I loved those BW drawings and idolized the artists, such a comment was high praise indeed to me!

I started playing AD&D in the mid to late 70’s when I was around 10 or 12 years old. Since I was also an aspiring your artist (my mom often got comments from my teachers like “Marc is a good student, but can you please get him to stop drawing pictures in the margins of his tests and homework?”) I spent a huge amount of time studying the artwork. In fact, I’m sure I spent more time when I was a kid studying the artwork in the original Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual than I did actually reading the rules!

Anyone remember the cartoon about these guys?  It had almost every member of STtNG in it.  Seriously.

Anyone remember the cartoon about these guys? It had almost every member of STtNG in it. Seriously.

I alone among my fellow 12 year old gaming friends could identify the work of David Sutherland, David A. Trampier, Jeff Dee, Bill Willingham, Erol Otus. I day dreamed about what it must be like to be one of those guys and actually have illustrations in a D&D book or module. Soon, I also discovered and fell in love with the likes of Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell and Keith Parkinson and learned to distinguish their art styles. 12 year old me absolutely revered these people – they inspired my dream to become an artist, especially those early BW artists I loved so much!

I owe them all a debt of gratitude and a massive “THANK YOU!”

So, when anyone tells me my work reminds me of old school BW D&D art … well, it makes me smile.

A LOT!!!

Coolest Comment

Tell me who your favorite D&D artist from the early days is and why. Best post gets the Gargoyle original illustration

Leave a comment (1 comment so far) »