Playing Card Treasure Generator

I talked about why I started using playing cards as a random generator in the previous post. In short, as a young gamer I didn’t have the spare cash to pick up every new gaming aid that came out, so I improvised with what I had. And like any gamer, what I had were decks of regular playing cards. Thus was born an entire series of Game Master generators that I used for several years. Today I’m going to talk about my treasure generator. Note that I’ve adjusted it for use with 5e D&D, but it’s just as useful for Pathfinder and other fantasy systems. With a few adjustments you could also use it in a modern setting.

As with all these generators, the treasure generator gives you the framework of a treasure hoard (general value, types of items) and allows you to add the specific details that fit your campaign. So the generator can tell you the characters found jewelry, for instance, but you have to decide if it’s a Third Dynasty Dwarven necklace or a platinum Gnomish puzzle ring.  Or both.

To start, decide what type of treasure hoard you are generating. For a small, personal stash I’ll deal out a blackjack hand (two cards); if I’m going for the Big Boss’s treasure I’ll deal out a five- or seven-card stud hand (but keep all seven). For a dragon hoard or similar big treasure, I’ll do the full Texas Holdem of ten cards (five card hand, five card river). There are ways to adjust the values of these cards to better tune the amount of treasure as well, which we’ll touch on in a bit.

Once you’ve decided how many cards you’re drawing, draw them and look at the suits. The suits tell you the type of treasure present, as follows:

  • Diamonds: Money, Gems, or Jewelry (anything where the primary value comes from its gold-piece value)
  • Clubs: Mundane Items or Trade Goods (anything from the equipment section of the PHB, or bulk trade goods like bolts of fabric or barrels of pickles)
  • Hearts: Crafted Items or Objects of Art (chalices, paintings, tapestries, statues and so on)
  • Spades: Magic Items

Then look at the value of each card. The numbered cards give you a gold piece value based on the card’s number x10. The Jack is worth 150gp, Queen is 250gp, King is 500gp, and the Ace is 750gp. For Spades, the card value gives you the commonality of the magic item: 2-10 is Common, Jack and Queen is Uncommon, King is Rare, Ace is Very Rare.  I purposely left Legendary out of the generator, as I feel it’s the GM’s perogative to add those items to her campaign.

If you want to adjust the overall value of the treasure found, you can do that in one of two ways. Either change the multiplier up or down, anywhere between x2 (for very pitiful treasure) to x100 (stumbled into an efreeti’s vault). Alternatively, change the monetary base up or down. Gold is the standard, but you could change the values of everything to be in silver pieces or even copper if you want very small value treasures, or up to electrum or platimum to raise the overall value. I tend to adjust the multiplier only, but you can experiment to find the amount of fine-tuning that works for you.

That brings us to the Jokers. Drawing a Red Joker indicates the characters have found something of extreme benefit to them, whether they realize it or not. This could be a magical artifact, a signet which identifies them as allies to the right people, or a scroll with information or a spell they will need later. A Black Joker, on the other hand, means the characters have found something of detriment. This could be a cursed item, a signet which identifies them as allies to the wrong people, or information which leads them into a trap. Either way, the joker tells the GM it’s time to get creative and allows her to add in some plot specific items if she chooses.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Goblin Raiding Party: 4 of Hearts, 9 of Hearts, Jack of Spades. The raiding party was on it’s way home from robbing a small roadside chapel, and so is carrying candlesticks and other temple finery worth 130gp, plus the sacred waters of St. Fluvius (potion of Hill Giant Strength).
  • Ogre Lair: 9 of Diamonds, 4 of Clubs, Queen of Hearts, Ace of Spades, Black Joker. The ogre has been accosting travelers and merchants for a few weeks, but it wasn’t until it snatched the Baron’s son that the party was called in. After a hard-fought battle they’ve found the creature’s treasure, consisting of assorted coinage (90gp value), some barrels of cheap wine worth 40gp total, an assortment of gold filigree, silver wire and other artisan supplies worth 250gp, and the Baron’s son’s sword (a Dancing Sword). Sadly, they also find the body of the freshly deceased and partially eaten Baron’s son. Despite it not technically being their fault, the Baron is unlikely to ever forgive them for returning his son to him dead.

As you can see from the examples, while you get the bare bones of a treasure there is plenty of room for you to adjust the details to better fit your campaign. And much with the GPC generator, you could use the treasure generator ahead of time to have a stock list of treasures ready to go. You could even use it as a very rough method of generating some random encounters, by generating a treasure and then fitting a monster or monsters to that treasure.

If you give it a whir, let me know what you think. Do you have some tweaks or suggestions to make it better? Drop me a line in the comments.

Playing Card GPC Generator

I didn’t always have the budget for gaming that I have now. I’m certainly not complaining, it’s nice to be able to pick up a supplement if I want to, without having to decide to go without groceries or maybe hold off paying the phone bill for a bit. But I did have to get creative with my gamemastering supplements. Most of the time I resorted to using items I already had laying around from other games. And more often than not that meant a deck of cards.

Back then I was also a much more improvisational GM than I am now. It was for the best of reasons; I was running many more games than I am now. So many, in fact, that it ate into my prep time. So I adapted a simple deck of cards to cover a multitude of sins, serving as a random generator for many campaign needs. I used playing cards to generate GPCs on the fly, generate treasure as needed, figure out random monster encounters, and even help build and stock dungeons quickly. I’m going to outline the first below, saving the other uses for future posts.

These generators give you a framework to build on, as opposed to detailing everything for you. That suits my style of GMing, as I prefer to modify and customize NPCs and treasure to fit the campaign. Your mileage may vary but I hope you’ll find these at least somewhat useful. For each, I use a standard deck of playing cards with the Jokers left in, giving me 54 cards. I refer to the red and black Jokers, as the decks I have make that distinction. If your’s does not, simply mark one Joker so you can tell it from the other.

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Gamemaster Character Generation

It happens to every GM at some point. Your players have ignored the careful trail you’ve laid for them and strayed into an area you haven’t prepped. Now they want to talk to that innkeeper or wainwright you haven’t fleshed out. This generator allows you to give that GPC a quick bit of personality to hold you in the moment, and a framework to build on if the characters are likely to keep interacting with those GPCs down the line. Combine this with a list of character names and you’ll be able to generate GPCs on the fly whenever you need them. Alternatively, you can sit down for an hour and generate a list of 27 generic GPCs to slot in without needing the cards during play.

Take a deck of playing cards with the Jokers still in. Draw two cards for each GPC. The first card signifies the dominant trait of that GPC, based on the suit of that card:

Diamonds – Appearance (facial features, dress, overall demeanor)

Clubs – Physical (height, weight, body shapes)

Hearts – Personality (first impressions of the GPC’s attitude)

Spades – Secrets (the GPC is wrapped up in keeping a secret. Note this, then draw another card ignoring

The second card gives you an approximate rating for that trait, from 2 to Ace. Roughly, numbered cards describe a range of below average to average, Jack to King is above average, and Ace is exceptional in some fashion.

If you draw a Joker as the first card, that denotes either a potential ally to the party (Red Joker) or a staunch enemy (Black Joker). Draw a second card to get the actual trait and a third card for the intensity. If you draw a Joker as your second card, ignore and draw another card. Some examples:

  • Jack of Hearts (personality), 5 of Diamonds: GPC is annoyingly friendly, to the point of unwanted familiarity and contact.
  • Ace of Spades (Secret), Queen of Diamonds (appearance), Queen of Clubs – The GPC is immaculately handsome and finely dressed, and gives the impression of some sort of nobility. It is all a sham, however. All the GPC has is the (mostly faux) finery on their back and is desperate to keep anyone from finding that out.
  • Black Joker (Enemy), King of Clubs (Physical), 3 of Clubs – The GPC was painfully crippled during some altercation the party was involved in. Now the GPC is doing all they can to make the character’s lives miserable and working towards their ultimate revenge.

As you can see, the method still requires you to interpret the results, but I’ve found it to be a great way of generating quick GPCs. Slap a name on them and it’s enough to play them for a session, before fleshing them out later.
Do you use playing cards to aid your game-mastering? Have you taken this GPC generator for a spin, and did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

Guest Post: The Elven Monk

One of the things I wanted to do for the site this year was get some guest bloggers to contribute, and to do some guest blogging of my own. Jesse C. Cohoon over at Fantasy Roleplaying Planes reached out with a post, and I’m currently working on a post for his site as well. In an earlier article I talked about how I had changed some races to better fit my campaign. So Jesse’s article seemed like a good fit, as an alternate way to look at the Elven people. I hope you enjoy, and take a look over at his site if you have the chance.Brent

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The Elven Monk

Elves are typically presented as aloof, long-lived protectors of the forest, experts in magic, sword, and bow. But this is only one interpretation of what elven culture can be. What would happen if a sect of elves decided to remove themselves from society altogether, abandon their forest homes, seeking instead lives of meditation and quiet contemplation? Elves have a serene quality about them, and due to their longevity if they bend their minds and wills to focus on this, have a wisdom which few can match.

Lands & History

This branch of the Elven people withdrew from the world. They were tired of the constant need to protect the land from invaders. So they found a mountaintop constantly shrouded in blizzards and built a home there, daring anyone to try to take it away from them. They built a community with their temple at the center of it, which they named Yana Halt tel’ Loomi Raumo, translatedto common as “Leap of the storm clouds.” Despite this limiting factor of their location, they seem self-sufficient in getting all they need, having learned how to garden indoors, coaxing vegetables and fruiting plants to grow in what sparse light they have.  They also have a herd of alpacas which they use the meat and wool to weave their simple robes from.

Community

The Elven monks of this community spend their times training their minds and bodies to perfection. Everyone shares in chores alike: men, women, and as they are able to, children. Even though they are a temple, there is a sense of community and commonality for all there. This is not to say they’re not strict about their members adhering to the temple’s standards. If a member violates its rules, they may be asked to leave. For the most part, they do not welcome strangers into their lands with open arms . That is not to say they are inhospitable; if someone stumbles into their temple grounds needing help, they’ll supply them with what is needed: be it food or a guide, and send them on their way.

Appearance

They are typically lithe men and women who wear simple robes of a single color, oftentimes decorated with a sash of a different colored material to note their status or position within the community. When adventuring, this sash also doubles as storage for anything they’re carrying with them. On their feet they wear simple sandals.

Everyone originally from the community is first encountered bald. Newcomers to the temple for training or to join are required to shave their heads.

Personality

This group of Elves are isolationists, preferring not to get involved with the outside world. This is not to say they will not; if the situation arises and someone can convince them that their skills are needed, they will venture out into the world to face and defeat the evil. They’re fearsome foes to those that oppose them. Woe to be the enemy that confronts them in their mountaintop home.

Most of them are soft spoken, and will rarely initiate a conversation, preferring to mind their own business rather than getting involved in outside situations, unless failing to do so would violate their oath.

Weapons & Armor

They don’t typically wear armor, as it interferes with their acrobatic movements, but that’s not to say that they’re defenseless. The monks are trained to use their sash to parry attacks and use it to misdirect attacks from vital areas, sometimes blocking them from hitting completely. They typically carry a long three section staff that has a length of rope coiled onto it. The rope can be uncoiled to reveal a folding grappling hook. This combination is used similarly to the o-kusarigama, and can be used to cross gaps, and trip or entangle foes.

Skills & Powers

Due to their constant exposure to the elements, this branch of Elven monks can ignore the side effects of normal cold weather. If their training is advanced enough, they may be able to shrug off cold damage. They can deliver a chilling Ki attack with their palm strikes. Also, due to their physical training makes them surefooted in all but the most unstable of circumstances. They also are excellent climbers. Unfortunately, due to their social isolation, they aren’t good conversationalists, and despite their serenity, sometimes don’t make a good impression on others.

Adventures

Elven monks from Yana Halt tel’ Loomi Raumo may be found adventuring if they are seeking more advanced training, coming back home from guiding a lost traveler, or after having fought other evils.

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Jesse Cohoon is a blogger who writes about tabletop gaming. His strength comes from being able to pull his experience from fantasy novels, video games, and real world experiences and combine them into one. His blog can be found at fantasyroleplayingplanes.blogspot.com. Contact him if you want him to do a guest article for your site.

From the Campaign: Tome Guardian

Even though I’m not entirely finished with this creature, I thought I’d share something I pulled together for my home D&D campaign. My party is going to be exploring many places which have not been seen for almost five hundred years or more, and this is one of the creatures they may encounter in their journeys. It isn’t finished, of course. Not only have my players not encountered it, and therefore I don’t want to be posting all of its abilities here, but I also envision this as the “base model”, with adjustments and changes depending on the race which created it and the specific site it was created to guard. But this is enough to be going on with, and I’ll adjust it as it comes into contact with the characters.

Feel free to use it in your own campaign if you are so inclined, as is or modified to fit your needs. If you do modify it, maybe share that with me so I can see to what purposes you put it.

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Tome Guardian
Medium construct, unaligned

Armor Class 18 (natural armor)

Hit Points 55 (5d10 + 25)

Speed 30 ft.

STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
18  (+4) 14  (+2) 20  (+5) 14  (+2) 10  (+0) 1 (-5)

Saving Throws Int +2, Wis +0

Skills Skill +0, Skill +0

Senses Darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 10

Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing

Damage Immunities Force, poison, psychic

Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned

Languages Understands Common and Draconic but can’t speak

Challenge
5 (1800 XP)

Force Absorption. Whenever the tome guardian is subjected to force damage, it takes no damage and instead regains a number of hit points equal to the force damage dealt.

Immutable Form. The tome guardian is immune to any spell or effect that would alter its form.

Magic Resistance. The tome guardian has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Magic Weapons. The tome guardian’s weapon attacks are magical.

Spellcasting.  Tome Guardian is a 4th-level spellcaster that uses Intelligence as its spellcasting ability (spell save DC 10; +2 bonus with spell attacks). The Tome Guardian has the following spells prepared from the cleric’s and wizard’s spell list:

  • create water
  • prestidigitation

ACTIONS

Multiattack. The tome guardian makes two melee attacks.

Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage.

Force Wave (Recharge 5 or 6). The tome guardian sends a wave of force energy from its outstretched hand in a 15-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw, taking 16 (4d6) force damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

 

REACTIONS
Reaction. 4 (1d8) bludgeoning damage.

Built to guard libraries and other locations storing knowledge or artifacts, tome guardians are able protectors of both the location and the objects within. Imbued with minor abilities which allow them to care for the books and artifacts they guard, tome guardians also act as research assistants, as they are programmed with a catalogue of the items under their care. Tome guardians are unfailingly polite until one seeks to endanger a book or artifact they are charged to protect. They then go on the offensive quickly and decisively.

Mapping your World, Part 1: Getting Started

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgAlong with my renewed interest in campaign creation has come an interest in making good maps. My map-making skills are okay, at least when it comes to dungeon mapping. But I’ve always felt my terrain mapping skills were a bit…well, bad, if I’m being honest. Since I’m in the process of creating a new campaign world for my players I want to show them the world I can see clearly in my mind. To do that, I’ve been searching the web for help, and practicing the techniques that appeal to me. If you’ve got an interest in developing your mapping skills, I’ve collected a few of my favourite resources in this post to help get you started. This post centers on mapping by hand, without the computer. Later on I’ll post about getting started with computer-aided mapping, but since I’m currently mapping by hand that’s what I’m touching on.

First I wanted to say something, something I think is important to realize. When you start, your maps are not going to look great. You won’t be happy with them, and that’s fine. Don’t stop. The important thing is to keep drawing maps and keep practicing. The artist Bob Ross had a saying, “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.” If you keep going, I promise you’ll get to a point where you’re making maps you’re happy to show your players.

Materials – How you map is going to depend a lot on how you’re using your maps. For reference mapping, you’ll be fine with a pad of graph paper (4 or 5 squares per inch is ideal) and a regular pencil. If the scale isn’t important, or you intend to start with area maps and not dungeon maps, you don’t even need the graph paper. Grab any empty sheet and start drawing. In fact, I often start with a blank sheet of paper even when I’m drawing a dungeon layout, because I find the graph paper can be restrictive during the planning stage.

When you’re happy with what you’re drawing, and you want your maps to look a little tidier so your players can read them, it may be time to use pens. You still draw the initial map using pencil, but then go over the lines with a coloured pen, usually black. I use Pilot™ pens for my map making, in four main colours: black for the line work, green for forests, swamps and the like, blue for water features, and red for location icons and to add highlights to other features. If you want to get fancier with the colour you can pick up a box of coloured pencils and use as many colours as you like. Just be careful of making the map too “muddy” with excessive colour use.

If you are running a game which uses a lot of miniatures, you can pick up flip-chart paper with 1”-squares marked on it from any stationary store, making it perfect for transferring your reference maps to the table. Gaming Paper also makes a variety of papers for the tabletop, in a wide range of colours and sizes. The paper quality is also excellent, so you can make some great reusable maps. As with your reference maps, start with pencil, then work your way to felt markers, either black or in as many colours as you prefer.

Cartographer’s Guild – Honestly, I think this should be the first stop for anyone interested in fantasy and sci-fi maps, for any reason, not just gaming. You’ll get inspired by thousands of examples, and the forums and blogs cover a wide range of topics for all skill levels. You can learn a bunch just by looking at a particular map and trying to copy its style, and you’ll never run out of examples here. Plus, it’s just a beautiful site. I’ve become lost down the rabbit hole of looking through page after page of maps, never regretting a second of it.

WASD20 – Inspiration is great, but when I’m ready to make my own maps I need to see the process happening in front of me. Besides being a great general-purpose gaming channel, WASD20 has an entire series of helpful videos on fantasy mapping, collected in their own playlist. He even breaks the process down by terrain types, and offers different style suggestions for your mapping so you can choose a style which works for your skill level. If you’re like me and need to see it happening to do it yourself, I’d definitely recommend these videos. Need a second opinion? Check out the Questing Beast channel for their take on map making.

Those are some of my favourite resources to get started; what are some of yours? What tips would you share with a new cartographer? Let me know in the comments.

 

The Ordinary Life of the Players: Feeling Happy?

rpgblogcarnivallogocopy[R.G.: The third of my RPG Blog Carnival posts; the first two are here and hereThis is a little less put together than some other posts. I had a number of thoughts on the subject and as disjointed as they seem to me I wanted to get them down. After all, I can always follow up with a more coherent post later, one of the joys of blogging.]

A sample question on the November RPG Blog Carnival asked, “If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?” That got me thinking along a number of avenues: mental health, self-care, what purposes RPGs can serve beyond entertainment. So let me commence to ramble and we’ll see where we end up.

My initial reaction is, yes, of course I do. Beyond simple entertainment (and I’m not knocking that, it’s a huge part of why I game), for me there is an important social component to gaming that sometimes get overlooked. When I get together with one of my regular groups I’m also spending time with friends, even if that friendship primarily exists around that table and nowhere else. And I want my friends to be happy, so if I can use the game we’re playing to let them escape their problems for a bit and blow off steam, why wouldn’t I? Don’t we play these games to be heroes? Where’s the harm in sliding the spotlight their way and letting their character shine when the player needs a hero the most?

I briefly considered that con games and other one-off sessions are the exception to worrying about this, but that’s not actually true in my experience. Whether I’m running or playing a game at a convention, I’m usually paying more attention to the mood of the others at the table. There’s a saying about con games that goes something like, “Every table has an asshole. If you can’t spot them, it might be you.” I’ve taken that to heart over the years, and I try to be very pro-active (with varying levels of success) about not being the asshole; more, of trying to be the anti-asshole and protecting the rest of the game from the asshole, once identified. Because this particular group is together for only a short period of time, I tend to work hard to make sure they have the best time possible, doubly so if any of the players show up in a bad mood. The games are why you go to a gaming convention, so if they aren’t fun you’ve pretty much lost out on the reason for being there.

Now this all works great for the players at the table, but it can be difficult as the game master to show yourself some self-care during a session to alleviate a bad day. Sometimes just running the game is enough, but occasionally you might need more than that. Maybe you need your hero moment and that can be difficult to pull off. In many games, for your NPCs to shine the characters (and by extension the players) need to fail. That can be fun every now and then as a dramatic beat to your campaign, but if you make a habit of crushing the characters on a regular basis you’ll soon find you don’t have anyone who’ll play with you.

My solution was to slowly, over time, change what I considered to be “winning” as a GM. The adversarial approach was great through junior high and high school, but as I got older I figured out that if I wanted the players to come back for more than a few sessions I had to stop thinking about beating their characters. Instead, I tied my wins to the player experience. For example, if the party encounters a ghost my win is not tied to the ghost beating the characters, but to making sure the players are scared of character death throughout the encounter. When they do beat the ghost they get to win for surviving and overcoming the obstacle, and I get to win because they felt they were one step from doom the entire time. Tying my win condition to the experience my players have has the benefit of my putting the focus on their entertainment and enjoyment, which I think is where it should reside. This doesn’t mean I don’t take a little pleasure when I manage to take down a character (I’m not made of stone), but it isn’t what drives my campaign design any more.

Rambling over. I hope this was somewhat interesting or helpful. What do you think? Do you adjust your game to help out players who feel down? Do you worry about mental health in your games at all? Let’s chat in the comments.

The Ordinary Life of the PCs: Making Magic Magical

This is my second in a series of articles for the November RPG Blog Carnival; the first can be found here. Enjoy!

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rpgblogcarnivallogocopyIt’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. A not-so-quick trip back through the archives of my blog give that away. One of the things I love about the game is how streamlined it is, compared to 3.5e and 4e. It’s still a very robust set of rules, but it manages that without a great deal of clutter. One of the benefits of this, I’ve found, is greater latitude for DMs to customize and house rule for their own campaign.

When I first looked at the rules for magic item creation, I was impressed by how simple they were. The rarity of the item determines how much the material to create it will cost, and in turn that determines how long it will take to construct. For instance, if you want to make a Common item, it costs 100gp and will take a single person 4 days to create (half that cost/time if the item is a consumable item like a potion or scroll). There are a few additional rules about spells used and whether multiple crafters are working on an item, but that’s the gist. I like it; it’s enough of a cost in time/money to keep item creation from being something the players will take for granted, while still allowing it to be an option for just about any character with the necessary levels and tool proficiencies.

As much as I like the rules, though, I feel they’re missing something: the magic. As written, the process is very transactional, almost like buying the item with time and money. But think about it: the character is drawing upon one of the key forces in the universe to craft an item which essentially makes magic manifest. Crafting a magic item should be an event. There should be stakes involved, and sometimes a cost beyond just gold and days spent in toil.

So here are a few ideas I have for putting some magic back in item creation, with the rules as written as the base-level process. At the DM’s discretion, these can work to either shorten the amount of time it takes to craft an item, and/or reduce the crafting costs. Or perhaps, if the characters make poor choices, increase the time or gold spent. And there may be other consequences. After all, cursed items have to come from some where, right? For all of these, the more rare the item desired, the more effort should be involved in assembling the right components. For the very rarest items, assembling the elements of a successful crafting could form the basis of an entire series of adventures.

Location, Location, Location – Where is the character carrying out the crafting? Are they carefully illuminating that healing scroll in the divine scriptorium of a cathedral, or scribbling it out in their room at the inn? Are they crafting that ring of fire elemental command at the local jewellers, or did they set up their workshop next to an active lava flow to better connect to the element? If a character is just brewing up a basic potion it might be okay to use the kitchen at the inn for a few days. But the grander the item being crafted, the more impressive the location or environment should be. Encourage the players to let their imaginations to run to the extreme and exotic. And then craft an adventure around getting them there.

Only the Finest Ingredients – It’s assumed that the cost of crafting covers special ingredients. You can’t just scribble out a magical scroll with a ball-point pen, after all. Scrolls need special inks, magical armour needs rare or specially mined ores, and wondrous items need…the sky’s the limit, really. So maybe the character doesn’t have the money on hand to scribe that scroll of fireball. But she does have that vial of fire giant blood she kept for…reasons. Maybe if she mixed that with a bit of rare ink? Again, let the players’ imaginations come up with connections between the odd and rare items they come across in their adventures and items they’d like their characters to create. At some point they might move from using the oddities they’ve found to figuring out where to hunt down the oddities; now the DM has a whole new set of adventures to use.

Collaboration is Key – For many of the items, a character will have to find help in their crafting. While a puissant wizard brimming with arcane skill, they just don’t have the smithing chops to craft the sword the party fighter dreams of wielding. Sure, the local blacksmith might do for the “average” magic sword. But only Angmar Granitethews of the Golden Hammer School of Smiths will do to craft the weapon you need. Of course, these craftspeople didn’t get where they are by taking every commission that walks through their door. Or maybe they did, so why should they put those jobs aside to assist you? You might get their attention with bags of holding full of gold, but maybe riches aren’t what they need. And off the party goes, on a whole new set of adventures to secure the services of Scandibar of the Winding Way, Most Cunning of Arcane Artificers.

What Are You Prepared to Do? – It’s a fairly common trope that wielding the most powerful magic items can come with a cost. Shouldn’t crafting them cost something as well? Need that scroll but can’t afford to spend two days? Maybe you work a 16-hour day but take a level of exhaustion that takes longer to get rid of. That special sword you wanted may just require that you use only it, eschewing all other blades if you want the magic to work for you. Maybe that staff of the magi needs a bit of actual magi as part of the creation and after all, do you really need ten fingers? And when we start talking about sacrifice, the players and the DM will have to decide how far they want to take that. Is an alignment shift worth it to get the item made just right? Maybe, and the story of that decision makes for a great adventure.

The common thread through all of these points is to encourage the players to use their imaginations. Not all players will be into it, or you may decide that common items don’t need this level of detail. But even if you only use it for the most powerful items, working these elements into your magic item creation can help bring a sense of wonder to magic items in your campaign.

The Ordinary Life of a GM: Getting Lost

rpgblogcarnivallogocopyIn what I’m hoping to make a regular occurrence, I’m taking part in the November RPG Blog Carnival. This month’s topic is Ordinary Life, and there is enough material there that I’ll likely have a few more posts this month around this topic. But today I’m talking about game masters.

Getting Lost and Coming Back

It happens to every Game Master.  You’re mid-campaign, and in an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere.  But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up.  You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it’s only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either.  And when the players lose focus…

It’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you, my struggling GM.  Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:

1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore.  Why are backstories so rich in plot?  Because your players are highlighting the things, people, and events important to their characters.  That significance allows you to build encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally.  Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn* Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring an age of darkness?  Now you have your player’s attention.

So go back to those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out.  Now look at your plot-threads.  Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory.  Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters.  Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again.  Take a tip from television; make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another.  The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.

What’s that?  Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign?  Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking!  Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:

  1. What is your characters most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
  2. Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
  3. What one thing does your character covet above all else?  What one thing does your character fear above all else?

Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.

2)  Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game.  The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet.  Then you do it again with another NPC, and another.  Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.

So don’t.  Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie.  Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a.  But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty.  Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think.  Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together.  Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.

3)  Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play.  No problem.  See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into you plot?  Perfect!  Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it!  The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?).  After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world?  Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.

Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things.  One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important.  Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes.  Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out.  Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well.  You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots.  And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.

So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and try these suggestions.  You can get untangled.

 

DnDtober the 31st: Tarrasque

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThe tarrasque is meant to be a legendary destructive force in any campaign, a monster so terrible that it can’t be destroyed by mere mortal ability, even mortals as powerful as the adventurers. The characters must acquire something special to deal with this impending threat, whether divine (or infernal) intervention, artifact-level magic items, or simply finding the tarrasque’s favourite snuggy which will help it fall dormant once more. Even with this aid the creature often can’t be destroyed, simply forced back into dormancy until the time is right for it to wake again.

All of which sounds amazing, right? But too often the tarrasque is used as just another bag of hit points for the characters to face. Or worse, the DM throws it in as some sort of weird prize/punishment for reaching high character levels. But used properly, the tarrasque can be the lynch pin of your campaign. Here are three suggestions for including this awesome force of nature in your game.

1) Knowledge is Power – Decide how much information is available to the average person about the tarrasque. Will the party have to research in hidden libraries full of ancient tomes, or simply consult the latest edition of the Tarrasquenomicon? In most campaigns the tarrasque is a recurring threat, appearing over and over throughout history. Obviously it would be a big enough event for someone to write it down, but that doesn’t mean an unbroken string of information exists. Books molder or go missing, libraries can burn, and even if an ancient account survives to get in front of the characters, it may be damaged or just poorly written. Also keep in mind, the people best suited to comment on the tarrasque and its abilities are the people who fought it. More often than not, though, they aren’t around after the fight. This leaves the characters with second- and even third-hand accounts, with all the inaccuracies that implies.

Maybe this is the tarrasque’s first appearance in your campaign world, and there simply aren’t any historical accounts to pull from. This doesn’t mean there is no information about the creature. But it does mean the characters will have to go further afield for their knowledge, travelling to other planes or summoning planar allies for a study session.

2) Scary is in the Eye of the Beholder – The “classic” tarrasque is an enormous beast, all teeth, horns, and claws. But that doesn’t mean your tarrasque has to look that way. Maybe your tarrasque always takes a different form, depending on the circumstances of its summoning/wakening. You could borrow a page (film frame?) from Ghostbusters, and have the tarrasque appear in the first form someone thinks of as it appears. Imagine the scene: the party waits near the site of the tarrasque’s awakening, weapons at the ready. As the time draws near a voice barks a demand in the minds of the characters, “Choose the form of the Destroyer!” Without thinking, a character’s thoughts flash back to his youth, and the voice bellows, “DONE!”  In a flash of lightning and fire, the horrible creature appears…as a twelve-year-old boy. One of the characters instantly recognizes the boy as Genry, his bullying tormentor from school…

For that to work, of course, the final form of the tarrasque should have little to no effect on the creature’s abilities. Genry, for example, should hit just as hard as the stock tarrasque and be just as hard to damage. If you’re like me, the thought of taking the characters apart with a middle-schooler should fill you with warm fuzzy feelings.

3) Don’t Hold Back – There are times, as a dungeon master, when it is right and correct to adjust the encounter currently facing the players. We want to challenge our players, after all, without murdering them at every turn.

This is not one of those times.

The tarrasque is a terrible and epic threat in your campaign world. The players should have been given every opportunity to have their characters prepare for the tarrasque’s arrival and you should take the effect of those preparations into account. But once the creature is awake, it shouldn’t pull any punches. It needs to be just as scary as promised, if not scarier, or the players are going to feel cheated. They’ll feel doubly cheated if they actually catch you fudging things. So don’t do it. This should be the ultimate fight of their adventuring careers to this point. Characters may, and likely will, die. So be it. If you’ve done a good enough job of building toward the fight, the players should feel immensely satisfied if their victory results in character death. What better way for an adventurer to go, after all.

How do you run the tarrasque in your campaign? Let me know in the comments.

DNDtober the 18th: Mimics

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThere’s a gaming joke making the rounds right now that goes something like this:

The tavern keeper asked why we always wore our weapons and armour in the tavern. “Mimics”, I told him. He laughed, we laughed, the table laughed. We killed the table and it was a good night.

Funny, right? But it also points up how I think mimics should really be used in a D&D campaign. Mimics are essentially ambush hunters; they camouflage themselves as something innocuous and wait for their prey to draw within striking distance. Great so far, but the “standard” mimic camouflage is a wooden chest. I get it, if you’re trying to catch adventurers you put out the adventurer bait. But this raises questions for me. Are there so many adventurers coming through the mimic’s lair that a chest is its go-to form? How many stupid adventurers has this mimic eaten, then? Because if I’m exploring a cave network, say, and I come across a chest sitting by itself in the middle of a cavern, that raises more red flags than the Kremlin on May Day. Which is the opposite response a camouflage hunter wants. Ideally they want their prey to want to come closer, but at the very least they want their prey oblivious to their impending entree status.

So here’s a few ideas which I think will make mimics a more interesting challenge to the players. In no particular order:

Anything But a Chest – Unless it’s a room full of chests. But seriously, if a mimic is smart enough to make itself look like a chest when it wants, it should be able to look around and pick a more appropriate item. So yes, maybe the mimic makes itself into the table, or a chair, or a bench. Can you imagine the look of terror on your player’s face when they sit down for a moment’s rest and you ask for an Athletics check at disadvantage (because who is expecting their chair to grapple and eat them?). Definitely brown trouser time.

One is the Hungriest Number – Just because camouflage hunters in our world are usually solo acts doesn’t mean mimics have to be. There is no reason why mimics in your game couldn’t operate as pack hunters, combining their talents to bring down larger groups of prey. Imagine this. Your party is exploring a room, which appears to be some kind of long-abandoned bedroom. The rogue is picking the lock on the wardrobe as the wizard explores the desk, and the fighter is prodding at the bed with her spear. Suddenly the desk grabs the wizard and tries to stuff him into its maw. The rogue turns around at the commotion, only to be engulfed in the jaws of the wardrobe. Frozen in indecision about who to help first, the fighter is attacked by each of the bedposts in turn. The cleric, who stepped down the hall to use the little boys garderobe, returns to find most of his party in the process of being eaten. Out of the corner of his eye the ornate picture frame on the wall begins to move…

Look What my Pet Can Do! – In the real world people train dangerous animals to follow commands all the time. Any animal you’ve seen in a movie that wasn’t a digital construct has been trained to follow commands and generally not eat the people around them. So why not mimics? I can imagine a mimic would make a great pet for wizard looking for a bit of special home protection. Rogues could definitely make use of the mimic’s unique skills; not only stealth, but for getting rid of those pesky leftover bodies at the end of a job. A ranger with a mimic animal companion would be all sorts of fun to play. Training would need to be handled perfectly, and there would almost certainly be some training mishaps as the pet learned who not to grapple and/or eat (“Has anyone seen the neighbor’s cat?”). But the occasional pet is a small price to pay for a cool and creepy animal companion.

How do you handle mimics in your campaign? Do you use them as pets, and if so, do you paper or litter train them? Let me know in the comments.