When Old and New Collide

In a tower, in a prosperous trade city, an archmage desires a guardian and an assistant. Familiars are useful but fragile things. He knows of golems but they are unintelligent, inflexible things. He wants a finer creation. He studies, researches, and experiments. He crafts a better golem body – strong and dexterous – and armors it with finely forged steel. Finally, he begins the invocations to animate the construct – but he goes a step further and imbues it with the tiniest shred of his own soul to give it life.

“If this works I will create more,” the mage swears quietly to himself as he waits.

The construct’s eyes flicker to life, and it moves. Limbs bend and twist. Its legs fold and shift. Turning, it rises to its feet and stands over the mage, looking down at him with glowing blue fire in its eyes.

“What is your name?” the mage asks keenly, waiting to hear how this new creation responds without any other prompting.

The construct’s eyes flicker with surprise and it considers this question. Finally, it answers.

“I should like to be called Mohr, I think.”

The mage smiles, amused.

“Welcome, Mohr. I look forward to getting to know you.”

As D&D Next continues to ramp up, I’m reminded of what happens when two editions collide in the context of a home campaign. Specifically, how we as DMs deal with the change of materials and how it affects the canon of our homebrew settings. Thinking about the changes from 4th Edition to D&D Next reminded me how a new element joined my campaign while another element gracefully bowed out during the edition transition from 3rd Edition to 4th.

I began my homebrew setting, Solista, in early D&D 3rd Edition, easily transitioned into 3.5 Edition, and finally transferred happily into 4th Edition. Most new 4e races fit right into my world, or else had very easy explanations to squeeze them in with the rest. Genasi? No problem. Tieflings? No problem. Changlings? No problem. Warforged No prob- w-wait, what!?

Warforged seemed pretty cool to me as a player and as a DM. I never thought of them like robots, instead I had mythological Galatea-living-statue type inspirations. Regardless, warforged simply hadn’t existed in my setting previously. I didn’t want to ban the race, so I embraced their existence in my setting. I added them to a city the players had never visited, and established their numbers were few, but enough that my players could choose to play one.

In 3.5 Edition I had crafted, playtested, and perfected to my personal satisfaction, a custom homebrew race. They held an important place in my world’s history and lore. Unfortunately, 4th Edition had no room for them – mechanically they just didn’t work out at all. After much playtesting and pulling of my hair, I eventually accepted the fact they would not be a good fit for 4th Edition rules. While I could just change them to monster stats, it didn’t feel right. So I embraced another change and took things to their next logical conclusion: the homebrew race had to go.

Over the course of a few plot arcs, I established that the race, called gryfalkyrie, packed up and moved out without so much as an explanation or a farewell. They left behind their cities and their villages. I used this to spark controversy and war. Kingdoms that conflicted with the gryfalkyrie now surged in to claim their lands. They disputed over new borders, treasure hunters looted the empty cities, and preservationists protested potential destruction of the nearby natural wilderness. A new organized was formed to protect the forests – the Wardens – which became a basis for an entire campaign in of itself. This and so many other things evolved from my setting just from dropping a single homebrew race.

D&D Next may or may not bring new things to my campaign setting, but it may very well remove some things. I don’t need to make that a bad thing though – it can mold and shape a new age in my campaign, which is good. Nothing should stay the same way for too long.

Et tu, DM?

Betrayal is a classic trope. I think every DM uses it sooner or later. Betrayal reminds our players to question what they hear, to think about other perspectives; to anticipate betrayal means  thinking about what benefits your betrayer. Players that fail to do these things fall victim to betrayals easily.

The key to DM planning for a betrayal is flexibility. You can never truly predict a party’s cleverness and reactions. As a result, I take a sort of “Schrodinger’s” approach to NPCs – an NPC’s goal can be changed at any time until observed definitively as one particular goal by the PCs. I’m not perfect, I can’t perfectly predict every possible outcome of my group’s actions, therefore I have to take a reactive approach to planning certain twists. I find this makes them more believable. After all, this is sort of true in life as well – any person can change their mind at any given moment: including the bad guys.

Types of Betrayals

The Inevitable

Most of us are familiar with the quote “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” (shaking your fist when you say this is usually required.) We tend to think of betrayals as a surprise, but some are not so unexpected. The Inevitable is the betrayal you see coming from a mile off.  Sometimes we can’t help it. Evil Bart the local trail guide is obviously going to betray the party at the first possible chance, but sometimes a party just has to take that risk to gain other benefits.  Like the stabby equivalent of a surprise birthday party, the party knows the NPC is going to throw one, it’s just a matter of when and where. The best way to make an Inevitable betrayal more interesting is to challenge the party’s assumptions. Listen carefully to your party’s opinions about your NPCs for ideas – consider if you can twist those perceptions even a little. It wouldn’t hurt to encourage some wild speculation while you’re at it. Whatever the players are expecting, try to take a different angle.

Well-placed Inevitable betrayals will build a gritty atmosphere in a setting where you want to portray a lot of corruption and strife. Lightly handled Inevitable betrayals can bring an air of humor to an otherwise serious transaction. Out of all betrayals, Inevitable betrayals are the easiest on the trust between a DM and the players. By continuing to interact with the NPC, they acknowledge they’re accepting that possibility. Personally, I feel Inevitable betrayals should never be huge story-changing betrayals. They work better with smaller consequences that the party can recover from quickly.


Blind-siding my players is sometimes immensely satisfying. This betrayal is all about it. Give no clues, reassure the players frequently about trust, raise no alarms and when no one in the party questions their loyalty that is the prime moment to strike. Treasure the look on everyone’s faces when they realize their fervent ally just jabbed a poison dagger in the party’s collective back.

As the DM, you control all the information your party receives. Therefore the WTF is the easiest betrayal to pull off by simply denying your players knowledge of the impending betrayal. The easiest to prepare and use – you don’t necessarily have to do any long-term planning. You can simply decide on the spot to suddenly have a trusted NPC suddenly sell out the party – for no particular reason if you need it that badly (although gold, lots of gold, is usually a solid stand-by). Be warned though! The WTF betrayal is an easy crutch. Used poorly it comes across as petty: a cheap shot at the players for daring to trust their DM. It’s a sudden and shocking experience and it burns bridges fast. Use it too much and your players will soon trust no NPC, regardless of undeniable proof or sincere gestures of loyalty, because they will no longer trust YOU.

The Hindsight

The best betrayals are the ones the group should have seen coming, but didn’t. This is the villain’s betrayal. The masterpiece. I call it the Hindsight because all the clues were right there all along: seen but never suspected. Only when they look back do they see how they were played all along. Unlike the WTF and the Inevitable, the players will only blame themselves after a beautifully executed betrayal.

The Hindsight betrayal is the opposite of the WTF in that, as the DM, you must shower your players with hints about their impending betrayal without ever revealing their doom. Too much info and it tips over into the Inevitable territory. Not enough and the players will be oblivious and WTF’d by the outcome. It’s a narrow and delicate line to tread.  It can involve providing clues that seem unimportant, by distracting the characters with a scapegoat, or an over-abundance of information that mixes truth and falsehood.

The downside of any betrayal is sometimes you’re not as clever as you think you are – or your players are far more clever than you gave them credit for. Always stay prepared for a premature epiphany. If someone does figure out betrayal is inevitable (heh), you have a few options depending on your situation. If the evidence is still in the early stages you can back out of your plans and perhaps play up a sense of unfounded paranoia. This can be great for some games – a sort of “reverse betrayal” in which you can “betray” the party’s sense of distrust and paranoia by surprising the group with intense acts of loyalty or piety from the suspected NPC.

In late stages it may be best to let your plans unravel. Perhaps the villain realizes the gig is up and has to change their tactics to their own disadvantage, or the villain could carry on as usual and your players end up with the upper-hand, surprising the villain with their preparedness. Either way reward, don’t punish, the players for their insight. Allow them to enjoy having the jump on your villain’s plans for a change – you’ll surprise them again soon enough.

Game Masters: What Makes Us Evolve?

Trevor Kidd posted a great question on his G+ where he asked the following:

What was the first game (video game, board game, RPG, whatever) that resonated with you? Has it shaped the way you think about games or other aspects of your life?

I was immediately inspired by the question and posted a reply about Myst, Riven, and games with puzzles. You can read it here.

Answering Trevor’s question made me realise why I personally have never enjoyed any module or idea of a dungeon that employed puzzles. Thanks to my early limited experience with D&D, I was convinced at first that all dungeons were supposed to have traps and puzzles: that was the “right” way to make a dungeons. Frustration grew when I experienced puzzles in dungeons that were not fun, both as a player and as a DM. As a player, I could see other players argue and languish in frustration but it never occurred to me. As a DM, it didn’t feel fun, so I must have been doing something wrong, right? Over time my mind worked out a subconcious formula of dungeon=puzzles and puzzles=not fun therefore dungeons=not fun.  If I couldn’t do it right, I had no choice but to avoid it. My DMing style changed, I rarely ran encounters in a classic dungeon style setting.

I think that being unconciously driven away from dungeon environments pushed me to think about games that went beyond “go here, kill anything that moves, get loot”. Not that any DM doesn’t think of these things, but at the time there was a wealth of material for things with Tombs and Keeps and Lairs. A lot of maps and modules I bought were always full of walls and tunnels and rooms and secret doors. The maps I drew were full of open areas: a farmer’s barn, an open field, the rooftops of a crowded city district, etc.

Later, when I gained confidence as a DM, I returned to the occasional puzzle, but they were easy to solve, or I made sure they were heavily woven into the story. If my solution was never figured out then I would co-op the players’ proposed solution as if that was the correct answer the entire time, knowing it was wiser to reward the creative thinking than punishment for not thinking of my exact solution. Despite some successful uses, I still don’t feel comfortable including puzzles in my game. I no longer feel the need to expressly avoid dungeon settings, but neither do I feel an urge to use a dungeon setting very frequently either.

Trevor asked what video game resonated with people, so I’ll end this by asking a question too. To you Game Masters out there, what was something that profoundly affected the way you GM? Was it positive or negative? How did your style evolve as a result?

Paper Zone Markers

Listening to Thursday Knights Podcast I’ve heard them mention their paper zone markers. Essentially these are small paper triangles folded in half so they stand up. Place four of them to mark a zone. The text on the triangle can show what the zone’s effect is. This is really great if you consistently use zones and need to remind everyone where they’re in effect and what they do.

Thursday Knights posted the instructions up on their webpage along with a download for the Photoshop template to make your own customized zone markers. The template is really amazing and I plan on using it.

Now, the zone markers are amazing but they also rely on having Photoshop. This made me think about who could access this template. Photoshop is a great tool, but not everyone has it. The template is also so specialized I don’t think that it’ll work if you convert it to another program, like Gimp for example.

I had an idea so I carefully pieced together my own template. Not nearly as beautiful as Thursday Knight’s template, it makes up for it in its accessibility. This pdf should be customizable by just about anyone that has a pdf reader on their computer. Free pdf readers are abundant, so anyone can use this template. Simply click inside the top triangle of each column and type your own text. Print on colored paper to make the zone marker more noticeable, or print on white cardstock and add color with markers or highlighters.

EDIT: I’ve updated the template to fix some errors I’ve since discovered.

Click Here to Download PDF!

Lair Assault Tools!

Here there be Spoilers: Players wanting to be surprised when they play Lair Assault should steer away now!

Dungeon Masters that are gearing up to run some Lair Assault: Forge of the Dawn Titan might find these little standees useful.

The Lair hands out very few items, but those items have a pretty significant bonus: 5 fire resistance and +5 bonus to saving throws for ongoing fire damage. These standees will help remind players and DMs to include these bonuses during play.

Included on the sheet is one gem for the jeweled statue and three cloaks for the robes in the three closets. Simply print, cut, and fold to use these at your table.

Download the PDF here!

Review: Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium

I received my copy of MME last weekend at PAX. This excellent resource is scheduled to come out September 20th (premier game stores will have it early) and it’s suggested retail is $29.95. If I hadn’t already gotten it, I definitely would be dropping the bucks to buy this beauty.

The book is hardcover, standard D&D book size, with quality glossy pages inside. The spine is sturdy and the binding seems very good. My husband accidentally stepped on the spine of my copy and it did not suffer for it (but my husband did!) it is still in excellent shape. I have to say I really like the cover art more than the Adventurers Vault books, more of a visual kick. Inside is a mix of new and recycled art. There isn’t too much recycled art either, so the book doesn’t feel dated.

Inside is well organized and readable. One thing I really enjoy are the excerpts from Mordenkainens “journal”, especially the tidbits quoted throughout the item entries. They go a long way to making the book feel less like a dry index of equipment and more like an interesting catalog of fascinating creations.

There are new armor proficiency feats to take advantage of the new armor properties. Certain new armors have non-magical properties to reduce damage taken, or thwart critical hits. This is a fun element, I think it will be especially great for campaigns that focus a bit more on realism, or low-magic campaigns were even a non-magical suit of armor is valuable (Dark Sun, I’m looking at you). There’s also a handful of new weapon feats, mainly expertise and strike feats, and the book moves briskly on to the good stuff: magic equipment.

The magic items are varied and interesting. I haven’t had the time to read every single item entry but out of the dozen or so that I have read they all seemed balanced, useful, and sometimes entertaining. Most items include a snippet or two about the item – usually a bit of fluff about it’s origin. These bits are gems amid the item entries. You’ll feel like you actually want to sit down and read this book, versus flipping through it to scan for certain items and only reading relevant sections.

The items run the usual gamut from armor to wonderous items, including consumables, artifacts, and cursed items. The cursed items are well presented and include suggested mechanics for overcoming those curses that are very attainable. After these, the Emporium introduces a new item type: story items. Story items are basically MacGuffins, magic items that are more important as plot devices than they are as equipment. This sounds the same as an artifact, in fact the book even says in the artifact section that artifacts are mostly important as plot devices – so what is the difference between a story item and an artifact? That mostly depends on the DM. A story item could have virtually no mechanical benefits, or it could be completely unique item with powers and motivations similar to an artifact. I have a hard time seeing much separating them other than the story item section doesn’t suggest implementing Concordance. In my eyes, the difference is a blurred line.

Still, the story items section gives useful information for creating and implementing them in your game by providing examples, inspiration, and framework for making story items. New DMs that feel anxious or uncertain about inventing weird items that don’t follow typical item rules will find these guidelines very useful. Experienced DMs that don’t hesitate before inventing crazy magical talking spoons that know the location to the lich’s phylactery may still gain some inspiration by browsing example items provided in this section.

Next is a section on mundane equipment. Great stuff like ball bearings, jar of glowworms, or a charlatan’s kit (which includes great things like a disguise kit, a glass cutter, and gambling cheats) await you in this section. If you have one of those players that come up with a 100 uses for every mundane item in the PHB, reward them with some of the great gear in this section.

Finally, the last section in the book is a number of extremely useful appendixes. Hirelings and henchmen provides costs and services for commoners that might help your players. Magic item stories suggests that even the lowliest +1 dagger can have a unique background and provides two tables so you can generate random item backgrounds with a d20 roll. Item levels as treasure suggest that instead of constantly replacing items, DMs can allow players to increase their items power (some I already do in my home game: I call them “heirloom items”). Last of all is the Items list. This is no squinty-eye list in the tiniest font crammed onto a single page. Spread across multiple pages, with well formatted tables sort the items by level, cost, rarity, and page numbers makes this index a useful and usable quick reference for DMs and players.

Altogether I found this book very satisfactory and one of the best equipment books released by WotC. While the Adventurers Vaults bring a lot of great gear to the table, they’ve never truely impressed me like the Emporium does. If you’re a new DM, I recommend this book because it will be a great resource in multiple ways – helpful DM advice, rarity tables, and story items. If you’re a DDI subscriber and you’re thinking about passing on this book because eventually the items and feats will be in the Character Builder and Compendium, then I must point out you won’t get to enjoy the wonderful fluff text liberally included in this volume. If that doesn’t matter to you, fine, but if you love gobbling up well written fluff then don’t miss out on this book.

I <3 Engine Heart

I played Engine Heart (which I keep trying to call Gear Heart by mistake) last night at Guardian Games. The game master, called ‘The Programmer” in Engine Heart, was a great guy who ran a fun little game set in a post-apocalyptic future Portland.The system uses a simple d10 system that was easily understood and quick to jump into. Once we understood what our attributes stood for, it was easy to figure out how to do anything we wanted to try.

The evening was full of hilariousness as our bots attempted to make sense out of the strange world around us. Our group consisted of a five bots under the benevolent guidance of an AI named Eve. AIs in Engine Heart have all the “mental” stats and none of the physical stats as they are usually housed in computers instead of mobile bot bodies. Our home was a disused mega church and Eve was tasked with it’s overseeing maintenance. Eve sent us to scavenge solar panels and to repair the local network so that maybe Eve could access the internet again.

The fun thing in Engine Heart is roleplaying the point of view of a bot with limited understanding of human concepts. Your HumanCom score reflects how well you understand humans and human-related things. For example, we stole solar panels from another AI in charge of a Buddhist temple. The other AI was defenseless, so we ruthlessly scavenged 8 solar panels from it’s building while the AI protested uselessly. As we left, the Buddhist AI warned us about bad karma. Our group concluded Karma must be a type of bot the AI was going to send after us to take back the solar panels we stole. We never saw another bot chasing us, but we were certain Karma was a dangerous bot and we were on constant vigilance for it for the rest of the game…Engine Heart

There was much more to the game, we puzzled over human things like money and a gun, traveled across town, rode a train, negotiated with police bots, and pondered why humans never recycled their parts like bots do. The game was cut short when we ran out of time, but every minute of play was fun and I am looking forward to playing the system again.


You can learn more about Engine Heart and get the game at their wiki.