Sunday, 15 October 2017

Dungeon Master: Outside Our Comfort Zone

There are many kinds of campaigns you can run and many ways to describe a campaign. However, people tend to have certain ideas, themes, or enemies they prefer to use. One of my earlier posts said the same thing, and I know I'm guilty of it. Undead are just so much fun. However, it can also be incredibly rewarding to break out of our comfort zones and do something new. It can be difficult, that's for sure, but the benefits are often worth it.

Why?

This kind of thing can be a bit risky. The hope is that by going outside your comfort zone, you can get game experiences you otherwise wouldn't have. Such a thing can be particularly important when you hit a wall or start getting bored with running games. However, I find it works best if you really want to go after that new experience. It can be very hard to do things you've never done before and having the resolve and desire to do so goes a long way. It makes it seem less intimidating. Doing it in a responsible manner is very important as a Dungeon Master as well. Both sides of the table should be having fun.

Big Bad

One of the most effective ways to get outside my comfort zone for a campaign is to play around with the mastermind behind the events opposing the players. Typically, this kind of character influences the campaign in incredibly large ways based on who they are even if it's taking place in the same campaign location. What kind of henchmen do they have? Where are they? What's their plan? How do they like to achieve their goals? How do they act when they have the upper hand compared to being bested? All of these details stem from the adversary of the campaign and can go a long way to inspiring something you might not have thought of otherwise. It's also one of those things where we often have a favourite type and need to fight the urge to repeat the same kind of villain.

Setting

On the other hand we can start with a setting first. Particular settings can inspire and lend themselves particular kinds of villains. What that particular kind is can vary based on the Dungeon Master, but in general I've found it works very well. Even looking at published adventures, I tend to be drawn to different kinds of encounters and ideas when running a Ravenloft campaign compared to a Planescape campaign. It generally doesn't come from general appearance, though sometimes the appearance can go a long way to help come up with the rest. A village in a prairie region inspires very different ideas than being in hell itself. However, in these cases the appearance aids coming up with ideas and rules for the world. It's those rules and ideas that tend to have the biggest effect on me. It's not uncommon for the rules I come up with to influence the physical characteristics.

There are many different rules we can think of and not all will apply to every setting. However, some general ones come up fairly often. Can the players escape? In Ravenloft, the rules of the world typically try to trap them there with the horrors. How and to where can players travel? Cities? Dimensions? Other planets? By spaceship or by portal? The other major one that often comes up is on how magic is treated. Are spell-casters generally accepted and are magic items common? A bad guy afraid of death and going to any lengths for a potion of longevity makes far more sense in a low magic world than in a world where you can buy one on any corner for a silver. And of course, such a choice can result in certain themes and situations to arise that otherwise you wouldn't have thought of. A potion of clairvoyance can also sometimes be used as the motivation as well, particularly if the bad guy wants to find something.

Danger

It's very easy to have every campaign in the same kind of level of danger. Either resurrection magic is plentiful, it's rare, or it's somewhere in the middle. Regardless of what the preference is, I've found that Dungeon Masters typically stick to one. This can be fine. It tends to be the level of danger we are good at. However, playing with this element of a campaign can result in big changes to the feeling of the campaign. It can also influence the previous 2 elements if it's core enough. An occasional harder combat encounter is one thing. No healing magic at all is another. Playing with this idea can lead to some interesting situations. A deadlier game lends itself far better to horror type games. A less deadly one can be more easily played for laughs, since players will need to optimize their actions and characters nearly as much.

Tone

Tone is a hard one to talk about. Still, the general impression you want for your campaign can help give inspiration for the previous things we mention. If you want a darker campaign with an emphasis on dark humour, your ideas will be different. Approaching the campaign with that mindset tends to lead me with different ideas. On the other hand, if I want a more light hearted campaign, it leads me to others. Some ideas can be played in both ways. A colony of mind flayers or a creature that takes over a person (from my experience this tends to be some form of ghost or an intellect devourer, though a doppleganger can also be used in similar ways) can be incorporated in both types of games. The horror aspect is fairly obvious but the totally obvious strange guy with the party that the players always dismiss due to increasingly silly reasoning is an idea I've seen used before for comedic effect as well. One thing I want to note here is that sometimes being aware of the tone you want to go after can make a big difference subconsciously and actively. 

Personally, I find that the first step is often the hardest. Get the ball rolling and things get easier. Good luck to you all. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Dungeon Master: Trust

There are many important pieces to being a good Dungeon Master. The ideal Dungeon Master is able to think on their feet, come up with interesting situations that inspire player actions, create sprawling dungeons that don't get boring, and a million other things. Trust is perhaps one of the less noticeable elements, but nevertheless is an extremely important thing for a Dungeon Master to have. However, it's also a nebulous thing that greatly depends on the players, and scenario. And it's that topic that I hope to explore today.

What Is Trust In Tabletop Games?

I think the best place to start is to go over what trust means in tabletop games. In regards to the Dungeon Master, trust means that the players feel that you are both against them and for them. Things could go badly for the players due to pure luck, a bad decision, or for some other reason. Even so, the players expect that they have a real chance to succeed (whether actually win or able to escape), and feel the Dungeon Master isn't playing favourites. For some groups it also means that if things go off the rails because things turned out to be more difficult than expect, the Dungeon Master will bring things back on track. For others, it's that the Dungeon Master will let things fall where they fall. Regardless, there is a sense of consistency and players know abstractly what to expect.

The Social Contract

Entering into a tabletop role-playing game is also entering into a social contract. The specifics can vary from group to group but there tend to be some common basics. The Dungeon Master should be “fair”, whatever that means in the given context. One campaign may be more or less deadly than other but the idea is that there should still be multiple ways out of a situation. They won't be thrown into unwinnable situations and all die just because the Dungeon Master felt like it. It could be that the players expect to die a lot in the game. It's set up to be deadly. However, since it's part of the social contract they aren't blindsided and know at a very abstract level what to expect. That's not to say things can't change, and I've seen quite a few times where they do. One such example is with a new group of players. Often times I've seen Dungeon Masters hold back with them as they get used to the rules. After they get the hang of things, the training wheels come off.

Doesn't Mean No Danger

There tends to be a second competing condition as well. Players expect to be challenged in some way. It could be through combat, through puzzles, through interesting role-play scenarios, or whatever else. Having the trust of your players doesn't mean you can't kill player characters off or challenge them with difficult encounters. However, it means that they will expect you to do so in a fair way and understand that it is a possibility.

How To Get It?

It's a steady thing that gets built up over time. It's also one of the reasons I find playing with the same group tends to go smoother. You have that built trust ready to go, even for a new campaign. It also important to know that it doesn't mean you need to be right every time. Making a mistake and correcting things in a satisfactory fashion will help as well. When doing so, however, I want to make a clear distinction that the players shouldn't always be happy. Depending on your players, some may push for what is beneficial instead of what might be fair. There are still compromises to be made.

Breaking It

Even if it may be for dramatic effect, I would be very wary of trying to break the trust of your players. This is not to say that a character can't betray the players. However, they shouldn't feel that the Dungeon Master betrayed them. Part of this is making promises. I've seen before where a Dungeon Master might make promises to individual players that they can't keep. Don't do this, especially where items are concerned. A list of items they want isn't a guarantee that they will get them. Instead, it's the start of a compromise and the players should understand that too.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Dungeons & Dragons: Tomb of Annihilation Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • A real sense of urgency is built into the concept of the adventure
  • Lots more full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • A poster sized map is included (if you remember Curse of Strahd, you know roughly what to expect)
  • 256 pages long not including the tear away map
  • Glad to see the dramatis personae back
  • Player handouts! (These also include some drawings of the guides your players may end up spending a lot of time with)
  • A variety of jungle themed enemies to throw at your players
  • Quite an assortment of fun role-play situations for both Dungeon Masters and players a like
  • A good assortment of combat situations and situations that can be solved without combat
  • Layout of adventure is extremely easy to follow thanks to an adventure outline and an alphabetically ordered list of characters
  • Many of the characters in the adventure have ideals, flaws and bonds presented
  • It is very different from the Tomb of Horrors in application, which it seems to have been inspired by, though it seems to share much of the same spirit

Could Go Either Way:
  • Only new player options are 2 backgrounds and some magic items. If you don't care much for new class options or even dread them because of how they mess with balance, you'll be happy. If you wanted more new stuff ... sorry.
  • In and out of dungeons there is a general focus on exploration. The way one of my players described it is “like D&D meets Indiana Jones”. The jungle setting probably contributed to this.
  • Did I mention there is lots of jungle?
  • There's quite a bit of Dungeon Master preparation here. Some potential plot threads, such as the one involving Artus Cimber are largely left for you to fill out. It's probably more accurate to describe these elements as plot ideas than plot threads, but some of them are mentioned a few times throughout the adventure.
  • Milestone leveling is gone! Welcome back tracking XP and all that entails. Of course you can add your own milestones, but you'll need to do some planning for that.
  • Quite a few puzzle and riddle components. They are also quite deadly, inspired by the Tomb of Horrors no doubt.
  • It looks damn deadly. As written there is no raising characters from the dead. This obviously makes things more deadly. How you feel about that will contribute to your enjoyment. It also means you'll probably need a couple of clever ways to get a new player character or few into the game.
  • There are some out there/humorous elements such as goblin battle stacks and dinosaurs. They form part of the aesthetic and character of the area so if you don't like the sound of that, it'll probably be a minus for you.
  • Quite a bit of dungeon delving at the end. If that sounds great, it'll obviously be a plus. This is a marked difference from the first part, which so far feels more open to me. You probably won't like this as much if you prefer it when things switch up every so often to keep things from getting stale. The second part is very focused on the dungeon delving part but if you like that, it'll be a plus.
  • Due to the focus on exploration the flow can quite different from the layout of the book. I'd really recommend making a small cheat sheet for this adventure in particular.
Cons:
  • Some of the riddles and puzzles aren't the clearest, though there are ways to provide hints/avoid some of them provided in the adventure. I get the feeling this will be compounded if your players don't like riddles or puzzles like this and instead prefer combat or social situations.
  • The book is a bit shorter than it appears because some monsters from Volo's Guide to Monsters are included in the appendix. It's not that much of the page count but it still eats into it.
  • You'll need the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide to run the adventure (no more supplement PDFs)*
  • No PDF version*
  • No included battle maps*


* Denotes nitpicking. I say this every time. In the case of needing other books to run the adventure, I've come to expect this now but mourn the loss of the good old days when the basic rules were enough.

Tomb of Annihilation cover sans text.
The image used for the cover, sans text.

Introduction

On September 19th, 2017, Wizards of the Coast released a new adventure called Tomb of Annihilation. Inspired by the infamous Tomb of Horrors, as the name suggests, the adventure promises to give more killer dungeon goodness and I would say delivers on that aim. It also has a strong exploration emphasis both in dungeons and out of them, complete with the hex overlaid map such a situation would often suggest. If the size of the “Could Go Either Way” section was any hint at all, this is one of those adventures where I feel your tastes will have a large effect on your enjoyment. However, I think there is still much to enjoy here. With all that said, let's jump into the details.

Tomb of Annihilation city image.
One of the images that missed the book. Still looks great and I'd definitely use it as a handout to establish the look of a city.

The Adventure

New Player Options

There's not very much here. We have 2 new backgrounds and some new items. The magic items probably don't really count, being that it's heavily in the Dungeon Master's court to decide what the party gets and therefore players often don't have much choice, but I'm always happy to see no magic items. I've made it clear earlier that I prefer to come up with my own player options along with my players, so this doesn't bother me. Of course, if you did want more player options, this detail won't make you happy.

New Monsters

We've got 32 pages worth of monsters here, though that includes art, and some of them are repeats from Volo's Guide to Monsters. By my count 25 out of the 59 creatures found in the Stat Block section of the book are repeats. If you never bought Volo's Guide then you won't notice. For those of us who already have the other book though, it's pages we already have. It's also not quite fair to call all of them monsters either since they also include named NPCs that come up in the adventure, though such things are also welcome since they can trivially be made into more generic monsters.

What You Need to Play

The Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide are referenced at the start of the adventure. If you wanted to use the basic rules and/or the SRD, you are mostly out of luck again. If you know what you are doing you can of course make your own stuff to fill in the blanks. A lot of the monsters are covered in the SRD and basic rules, but enough aren't that it wouldn't be a trivial matter. The thing that throws the biggest wrench into the situation is that the book references traps and magic items from the Dungeon Master's Guide. However, you'd need at least the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide if you didn't want to remake magic items and creatures in order to play the adventure.

Map Included

We have a tear away map include just like we had in Curse of Strahd. The map itself is different of course, but the style is very much the same. It's quite a nice thing to be able to show players, though it takes up a lot of space so you might find that players prefer to use their own printout. Still, options are never a bad thing especially when they don't take away from the page count.

Tomb of Annihilation Skeleton Room Image
Another image that didn't make it into the book but looks good in my mind.

The Adventure Itself

The adventure is very exploration heavy. Of course, other adventures had exploration as well. However, this adventure has a heavy dose of dungeon delving exploration, and overland exploration using the hex overlaid map of Chult. It's probably this emphasis combined with the jungle setting that triggered the “like D&D meets Indiana Jones” reaction from one my players. This also means it's far more open for players to choose their own path than some other adventures, such as Out of the Abyss. This means I'd make it a recommendation to read through the whole book before trying to run this adventure. 

There are some things in the adventures that are definitely more out there than previous adventures. Dinosaur jungle island is very much the thing you'd expect from old pulp books and some of the other elements are also quite out there (goblin battle stacks!). If you like a more serious and less out there game, this obviously won't hit your sensibilities. If you feel up for a change though, this setup lends itself to some good laughs and moments of "wow".

The breakdown of the adventure means that there are quite distinct parts. The first is very exploration heavy and allows a lot of freedom as players search for the Tomb of Annihilation. With an adventure name like that, I don't think I'm giving anything away. As you'd expect from something inspired by the Tomb of Horrors, there is a lot of dungeon delving after finding the tomb. If you like smaller, more varied and diverse chunks you won't be happy. If that sounds fine, I find the focus works well for what it sets out to do: build up, establish and throw players into a killer dungeon.

This adventure is deadly as written. The ability to explore in this way means players can find themselves in situations that they are not ready for. Beyond that, it takes place in the kind of location where even without the animal and plant life wanting to eat you, disease and supplies are a concern. Add in a story point that makes reviving fallen players impossible, and you have a recipe for dead player characters. Now, you'd expect some danger when having a jungle adventure, but be aware that you may spend some time carefully looking at and/or tweaking the difficulty for your players if you don't like the idea of a high death toll. Of course, that's if you don't want to run the adventure as is and let the dice fall how they will. The adventure gives you and players tools to manage this, including suggesting starting player characters at higher levels. Doing so can make the earlier levels less drastic but even at those higher levels, things can be very deadly eventually. However, I think that's part of the point of this adventure.

Clarity is a bit of an interesting topic when it comes to this adventure. Especially in the first part, players have a large amount of control over where they go and how they go about going after their objective. This is because of the heavy focus on exploration, and the exploration rules from the Dungeon Master's Guide are put front and centre here. The inclusion of the hex overlaid map makes this possible.

The environment areas are not as varied as some other adventures. The overland areas are very much based around cityscapes or jungle terrain, though on the map there are some rare instances of other kinds of terrain. They thematically fit, it's just that some might prefer more variety over the course of a campaign. The dungeons can be quite varied as well, with different kinds of challenges and different aesthetics. I know from experience though that changes in dungeon scenery isn't enough for some people. In Storm King's Thunder, for example, the different element and aesthetic per type of giant meant that there was quite a bit of variety in locations. This is more focused on the jungle aesthetic.

As you'd expect with an exploration heavy adventure, there are wandering monster tables. Even if you don't like using them and instead plan the encounters from the tables, I'm happy to have them. I consider them an extremely effective way to represent what the creator intended the population of enemies is like in an area to be.

Puzzles and traps. It really wouldn't be exploring a dungeon without running into these guys, now would it? They also make for good elements that can be shamelessly “reused”. This adventure has quite a few of them and in general they work quite well. There are a couple though that I'm not so sure about. Luckily in these cases I think there are enough ways built in to avoid the issue or to provide hints that it's not a major issue. However, I would recommend going through them and knowing them. They are also some of the elements that can easily be lifted.

Beyond the puzzles and traps, there are other portions of the adventure that can find new life when re-purposed. There are quite a few maps for dungeons and discoveries on the surface world that can easily be lifted in whole or in part. Anyone who stole a single level of a multiple level dungeon will know what I mean. Conceptually I think it's clear why that kind of recycling would be easy.

Tomb of Annihilation Gargoyle Image
Another image that didn't make it into the book but do I ever like the style. There are a few more in the book in this same style.

The Art and Book Build Quality

I'm not sure what it is, but I liked quite a lot of the art in this book. I like sketch style maps that look like something that was ripped right out of the world. I also like having detailed and fairly realistic in style scenes of areas populated by their inhabitants. I found both here. There are of course some I don't care for as much, but they aren't bad by any means. I tried to include my favourites from the press images they released but there are others in the adventure as well. You can see them on the website here. The issue with them is that some of them aren't in the book (images 3, 5 and 6 in particular)! But hey, even if you don't have the book you have access to those images. Truthfully, I'd have preferred more like those. They are some of my favourite artwork related to this release. From those actually present in the book, the images on pages 9, 43 and 179 in particular caught my attention.

The cover isn't bad at all either. It isn't my favourite D&D 5th edition cover, but it's definitely solid and looks good. Thankfully, you don't need to rely on my opinion and can judge that for yourself. I always love it when pictures are provided. The binding this time was perfect in my book. With my previous experience I'd still recommend checking the binding if you pick one out at the store. You'll obviously be at the mercy of chance if you buy online.

My one major complaint art wise is that the hexagonal grids on the small handout map can be hard to pick out. Just look at the free player handouts to see what I mean. It's on the first page. The large map makes it far easier to see these features but it's far more awkward for the Dungeon Master to try to hide it from their players. It also makes things far easier when your players can see clearly, especially if they'll be going to Shilku at one point or another.That portion of mountains makes it particularly tough to see the hexagons. 

Tomb of Annihilation Chapter Image
A more typical example of the art from the book.

Price

The suggested price on the book is $49.95 in the USA and $63.95 in Canada, as we have come to expect. Online prices are lower as usual but won't support your game store. There's nothing new here.

What I felt was Missing

I feel like I may be saying this until the day I die. There are again no PDF versions of the files. Being able to search through such a book quickly would be amazing. Of course I'm not surprised, but it would have been really nice.

There's no grid map, sheets, or anything like that. If you like using battle maps, you'll need to find your own tiles for the dungeons. If you've run D&D games before you probably have something already. However, it's still something that needs to be mentioned. 

Some side threads are suggested and mentioned a few times but not really fully fleshed out. If you are the kind of person who likes control over this and would've changed it anyway, you won't mind. If you were expecting something more complete, you might be slightly disappointed. They aren't major parts of the story as written, but they can add a lot to the adventure. Isn't that often the case with side quests and story lines?

Free Stuff

There isn't much free stuff this time outside of the free images and player handouts on the website. Having read the adventure, it doesn't have a chunk that breaks off as easily as some of the adventures before it. Still, I may have been a little spoiled by Death House from Curse of Strahd.

Summary

At this point in the run of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, I've come to expect that the adventures will be solid. They may require some work to get to a place where they run the way I want them to at the table, and there may be parts I don't love but they will have something about them. If you like an emphasis on exploration, killer dungeons, counting experience as opposed to milestones, riddles/puzzles, and a bit more out there concepts (dinosaurs, goblin battle stacks, etc.), I think you'll have fun with this adventure. If those worry you, you probably won't be as kind. So far I've been having a good time with this adventure and look forward to more.If you were critical of the previously published adventures, I'd also be skeptical about this adventure being the one to win you over. If you enjoyed the previous ones, I think there's a good chance you will enjoy this one. 

Other Stuff
  • Reading through I noticed a handful of typos. I don't think they ever changed the meaning.
  • I recall two times that I had to reread a section multiple times to get the meaning. Am I allowed to complain about this with my command of the English language?
  • This adventure is deadly due a combination of traps, puzzles, enemies and lack of reviving the dead
  • Even as a Dungeon Master I found my life far easier when I was able to use the player map there to recall where the party left off last time. You can even mark off what they've discovered as they go, which greatly helps me jog my memory.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Dungeon Master: DM Min-Maxing

Dungeon Masters, like anyone else, can fall prey to the allure of min-maxing. And just like anyone else, it can happen unintentionally. However, it comes with many down sides. It takes focus away from the collaborative storytelling, encourages players to Min-max and metagame, as well as often punishing players for trying out new things. It is for this reason I hope to get my thoughts on the matter in text. That way I can reflect on the situation. Hopefully it helps someone out there too.

What Do We Min-Max?

What I find typically happens is that when I feel the pull of min-maxing, it's in a combat encounter. Often the problem is very similar to when we railroad. We want the combat encounter to be interesting and challenging so we set it up to be so. The problem is that we, as the Dungeon Master, have more information than players will. Making a combat encounter that is optimized to be difficult when approached correctly can and probably will be frustrating when approached in another way. Often times characters in a combat encounter aren't outside of it. This also means we often don't have the same checks and balances a player does. A player will need to use their character out of combat as well to role-play. Many of the things we put our players against won't be seen outside of combat, allowing us to min-max purely for combat. This is especially true if you use the player character rules as inspiration but also comes up when making stats for creatures.

I almost think of this as a particular kind of railroading. Only in this case, we are restricting a combat encounter unintentionally. We can also design an encounter to hit our players right in their weaknesses. Every party will typically have something about it that can be exploited. Now, an occasional encounter that reminds players of their weaknesses and forces them to overcome them or tough through isn't bad. However, we also don't want to only hit them in their weaknesses either. Sometimes we'll want to play to their strengths, or both at the same time in creative ways.

The Long View

It's also important that often, even when I min-max, I do it for a single encounter. The further issue is that a gaming session tends to be more than one encounter. If you prefer to have a single set piece battle for your games, it'll be easier. It'll be a hard fought battle that will end and allow a chance to rest. However, if there are multiple encounters such as occur when going on a dungeon delve, it might not make sense. We want to think about the entire period before the players get a chance to rest. If we don't, we can't be surprised if the players want to try and rest after every room. After all, with our encounter building there aren't too many other options (excluding unreliable accidents such as players getting lucky or out thinking the Dungeon Master). Thinking of the entire session or campaign from time to time is a good idea to try to avoid this kind of optimization on our part.

Players Make Trouble Themselves

Another issue comes up quickly when we move beyond theory and throw some players into the mix. Play a tabletop role-playing game long enough, though it won't take very long in my opinion, and you'll run across a situation where player ingenuity can make the impossible trivial. However, there is also the other side of the coin. Players can, and will in some cases, turn a trivial situation into a serious one. Clever players can do this too by over-thinking things or things just not going according to plan. If we try our best to give our players hell and min-max our encounters, we run the risk that they'll dig their grave even deeper instead of climbing out of it.

Min-Max Arms Race

Where this gets tricky is who did it first. There is a bit of a feedback loop that takes place here. I think I've mentioned it briefly before. If our players think we are being unfair, they very well might start min-maxing. Then we will raise the difficulty in order to challenge them and everything can spiral out of control. Things get a bit more complicated because some players get a real sense of enjoyment from min-maxing. However, I'd be weary of doing this in kind. The other players who don't like to are unlikely to be happy. Instead, though it isn't ideal either, finding a separate way to challenge the min-maxed player is usually a better way from my experience. Also making sure that the other players have a role to play goes a long way too.

Chance

Rolling is part of the game and combat in general. This means we also need to consider the impact of bad luck. Of course, there's the small chance everyone rolls 1s for the entire session. However, that's unreasonable to expect. Instead, we need to remember to expect some failures. Some attacks will miss, even if their expected value is above the AC of a creature. This little feature of statistics, combined with min-maxing an encounter, can lead to massive issues that I've seen too many times. Instead, when looking at how much damage your party can dish out, look at the average damage weighed by their chance of success. This gives a more realistic expectation of damage. Don't forget to factor in the possibility of certain actions doing half damage as well. I've seen many encounters that turned out easier than expected because of that overlooked detail.

Closing Advice

Consider the background of your characters before throwing them into an encounter. Just because we can move stats to Dex, Con and Str for a new creature/character doesn't mean we should, even if we are outside of combat. I find it helps to realize these things tell an implicit story. If the guards of a town in the middle of nowhere outclass your player characters, the implication is different than if they come across veterans coming back from a war or the body guards of a rich noble. Again, I prefer to design a scenario for my players to encounter. I usually don't want to force my players into a particular solution. I do make exceptions for situations that they created for themselves through unreasonable actions (if you try to hunt down and fight a dragon at level 1, you better run unless that was the point of the adventure from the start). Don't forget about the compounding effect that encounter after encounter has as well.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Dungeon Master: Sub-Optimal Actions

There are many actions we can take in a tabletop role-playing game, both as players and as Dungeon Masters. However, many will be sub-optimal. Such options aren't a bad thing, since they will often make sense due to the characters involved or situational reasons. They also help add character to a game, since there wouldn't be much of a point if players always just did the optimal thing in every situation. However, managing and account for them can be a bit of a challenge. With that in mind, I hope to share some of my thoughts on the matter.

Players Will Naturally Do So

When you design a combat encounter, in particular a challenging one, there will often be things we include that can be exploited to make things easier. Even more generally, some creatures have strengths and weaknesses which also account for their difficulty. However, we can't reasonably expect a player to just instantly know the weakness of the creature. In some cases they will because they have experience, but they might still act otherwise since it makes more sense for their character.

Dungeon Masters Often Optimize

I know that when I'm doing a combat encounter, I can optimize when I don't really want to. When fighting an intelligent creature there should definitely be a feeling of intelligence in the opponent. However, intelligent doesn't mean omnipotent. It can be immersion breaking if the opponent seems to perfect. Even worse, it can force your players to optimize as well. While combat is also about choosing a good option, it's also a way for a player to bring their character to life. The more optimized our Dungeon Master plan, the more players tend to optimize as well since players typically don't want their characters to die. They aren't against an honest loss or death, but they will try to keep their characters alive. This also includes meta-gaming. I find it's far more likely to have players use their out-of-game knowledge when they know they'll need it to have a fighting chance.

Account In Difficulty

I think I've made it known that my opinion on encounter difficulty is that the rules provided are guidelines. They can be a good place to start, but the situation will also greatly contribute to the difficulty or ease your players encounter. The more intricate the encounter, the longer it might take to find a solution. Again, I say a solution because there should be multiple. Otherwise it gets too rail-road-y and too optimized, running into the issues from the previous section. What it means in practice is that there may need to be a turn or two in order to let the players fumble for an answer.

How long of a buffer we should give or how to adjust difficulty is not an easy question and again, is very situation dependent. It also depends how clear things are. Having part of the encountered enemy fall back to a better position allows the players to take out some of them isolated, making the encounter easier. However, they then have to solve the issue of the superior position. They may choose to wait for the enemy to leave or attack. They could also spend a couple turns scouting and coming up with a solution. Weaknesses, such as areas of sunlight (particularly good against vampires or shadows), particular kinds of damage (anyone who has fought a troll will know this one), may also take some time to effectively exploit. If we also want to have players take sub-optimal actions because their character wouldn't know about the weakness, it might make sense to send a couple fewer enemies or at the very least have them act in such a way that they have a chance. Part of it is trust. If the players trust that things are still do-able even if they don't optimize as much as possible, they'll for more comfortable with improvising and fumbling for a solution. Turns tend to go faster too, since they feel more comfortable acting instead of deliberating as a team .You can of course try to force them to act quicker, but combined with everything else this can lead to resentment.

Optimization Feedback Loop

I briefly touched on it, but these kinds of situations can form a bit of a feedback loop. You'll optimize all your encounters, which forces the players to optimize theirs, which forces you to optimize again in order to challenge them, and so on. As players get more accustomed to the rules you'll see this as well. This case is to be expected. However, it's important not to go too far and take away player choice and expression. The problem is in the freedom. It constrains things further because sub-optimal actions are always to be avoided in this case. Anything else is probably death. There is, of course, always some wiggle room too because of the element of chance. However, that can go in either way.

Rewards

We can also reward sub-optimal actions. If we are playing D&D 5th edition, we might give inspiration for them every now and then if it still is inline with the character. Another one I've seen is extra experience. The problem here is that it can shift things too far the other way because the external rewards make it more advantageous to take the previously sub-optimal action. If required this can be solved with keeping the danger real, forcing a choice between the rewards and staying alive. Not consistently rewarding the behaviour may also be enough. These considerations are why I personally find this method of encouraging sub-optimal actions to be difficult to employ, though I've seen them work well as a player before.

Clear Optimal Actions

A big issue here is that an encounter or situation has an optimal action. I designed it like that, but I really didn't want to. It just happened. What I find is it often helps to either design the encounter with multiple in mind, or do a quick check at the end that there are at least a few. If we can quickly think of a bunch, most often there are many more that are there as well from my experience.This is important since it will still allow a situation to be fun even if optimization occurred on both sides. This is because it's still a problem to be solved instead of a solution to be applied. Having an encounter that is nothing but applying a solution isn't fun. Even if they have some item that should be exploited, getting themselves in a situation to do so will require the players to solve a problem first. It also might mean that a sub-optimal action this turn may lead to a better optimal action next turn, forcing a trade-off. An obviously easy encounter may also provide situations for players to express themselves, while also saving resources for later.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Marble Sanctum Battle Map Review

Review copy courtesy of Black Scroll Games.

Pros
  • Visually, we know what to expect by now. It's the style we are used to, however with the added bonus of having water in parts of the map. It's a very nice detail.
  • 3 levels of map composed of about 56 tiles (some edge pieces are a bit smaller than a page and are put on the same page).
  • Made for the 1 inch is 5 feet standard scale.
  • Isometric visual aid provided (as Black Scroll Games often does, and did again).
  • VTT jpgs provided.
  • Both broken into pages and single poster versions are provided for easy printing.
  • Layers are present to allow the option of grid lines and no grid lines. If the area has natural grid lines due to the stone work or other means, grid lines aren't added.
  • Area descriptions and background story is included, and it's pretty good for getting the creative juices flowing.

Could Go Either Way
  • Just like last time, this map is also done in the same 3D style that other Black Scroll Games maps and tiles are done.
  • Like with their work that I reviewed just recently, the majority of the map uses the shapes of the stones in to denote squares for movement. This once again looks great but isn't applied for the entire map, though it is for most of it. If you don't like grid lines on your map and prefer for squares to be denoted by the design of the location, you might not like those areas.
  • The map is specialized, but not as much so as The Portal Under The Stars. The size and fact that it's broken up into different levels makes it a bit easier to steal from. However it's also arguable not as useful straight out of the box since it isn't based on an adventure. This leaves it somewhere in the middle between

Cons
  • The same grid issues I mentioned in my review of The Portal Under The Stars are also present here. I'm hoping it'll get updated in the future, and will update this if it occurs. I've been told this isn't the case on the card version of the tiles (the ones for $40.00 USD), but I have not seen them myself.
  • Secret rooms aren't noted. Not noting secret entrances could be a plus if you prefer coming up with that part yourself, but not noting the secret rooms is a different situation.
Note: Everything below is about the PDF version of the battle map.

I reviewed of a Black Scroll Games release right before this. However, given that they had 3 releases there is more reviewing that could be done. And more reviewing I shall do, this time taking a look at The Marble Sanctum. What can I say, I like battle maps. It follows the established tradition of Black Scroll Games previous work, though as I said before every map comes with it's own strengths and challenges. This one in particular is quite large compared to other maps they've released previously. 

The Tiles

Well, there's quite a lot of these guys. Assuming you don't print it as one massive poster, it comes out to 56 tiles. Of course, with how maps are broken some pages are only partially filled. However, that is still an impressive number. The map is further broken up into sections. In total there are 4 spread across the three levels of the sanctum. This is because the second level has 2 disconnected parts.

The areas of the map themselves are quite varied and well done. The flooded areas in level 3, the hidden lake, the foliage areas (really only around exits and entrances), and the status field alcoves are my favourites. There are also little details that caught my eye. The bones, and rusted weapons are a nice touch and help add character to the area. The entrances are also done nicely with loose rocks and vines being detailed. It's the kind of things that you wouldn't expect to find in a generic map or a map tile set. Those tend to be more general and less niche. However, sometimes you want that niche but unique room and for that purpose these kinds of rooms are useful. Tile sets don't tend to have a flooded version either. As you'd expect, there are also some rooms that are more plain. In a map these kinds of rooms are important to flesh out the location (not every room can be the throne room), but the ratio between them and the more unique rooms is also important. I'd recommend a look at the images provided on the product page in order to form your opinion on that topic. The images there are a bit small but should be enough to get an impression of the layout.

There is some rubble detail on the map. However, if you wanted rubble piles that could be used for cover and other things, you'll probably have to add it yourself. The same is true for traps, though there are plenty of areas where they could easily slot in. I would recommend thinking about these carefully, since sources of cover can be hard to come by. The secret doors will also require a bit of work since they aren't noted and neither is the mechanism by which to open them. This is another thing where your opinion will vary based on how much you like pre-done for you when you buy this kind of map. Instead a room without an obvious entrance is a secret room and will require a secret door. This will mean you'll spend some time staring at the map to find the secret doors. I would have preferred them to be noted on one of the visual aids.

Background Story

The addition of descriptions and adventure inspiration is a nice touch. It also hits me in the right spot since the story involves undead, and by now you should all know my stance on them in adventures. Having a springboard like this to help create an adventure is definitely helpful. It has some very cool options. It also isn't authoritative, aiming to inspire by giving different ways to take things on more than one occasion. The result is that it feels you can take as much or as little as you want, which is my preferred tone for this sort of thing. The writing in general is done well for what it is. The final room where everything builds to is potentially really cool encounter (Dungeon Master skill obviously a factor). I don't think you'll buy the map just for the background story, but it is well done and definitely is a welcome addition. It's just that it's not a complete adventure. Some products are adventures that happen to feature some maps (usually to small to make useful in combat, but that's for another review and another product) but this is a map that happens to have some adventure hooks.

Reuse

The map has quite a few interesting rooms that can be reused in ways the original design did not intend. Quite a bit of it would require use of scissors, but it's still fairly easy to do. The way certain parts are broken or combined means that sometimes parts of other rooms are on the same page or that a part that would have been nice to have on the same page is on another. That's not so unexpected, given that it's meant to be used as a whole map. Still, I was able to run part of the second level and part of the third level for my campaign last Friday. The fact that it's broken into three levels, or 4 sections, means that those individual parts can quite easily be reused.

The Art

I still feel that the best way to get a full impression about art in this kind of thing is to see some of it. That's why I'd recommend looking at a Black Scroll Games map. You can get their free map here (you'll need to enter your email) or can look at their product page. However, some of the stand out things about this map are the lighting and water. By this point I've come to expect great lighting from Black Scroll Games. Water can be quite tricky to get right, and also changes appearance based light. Having the water looking this good was a nice surprise for me. Take a good look at that water on the third level, since it's shown off on the product page. This map in particular also has quite a few nice other details, such as drag lines, rusted weapons and skeletons.

There is some over extending of grid lines, like I pointed out in the other product I recently reviews, but I don't think it was as noticeable here. I think it's because of the colour. The darker brown of the rock and vines together make for a background that makes the grid lines stick out less. Still, the larger chunk doesn't require the grid lines and like before, grid lines aren't added when they are already built into the design of the floor. It's still not perfect, but I think this version is closer to what I prefer.

Other Considerations

This map is quite big but it also is quite expensive compared to some others. I don't normally comment on price, but in this case it might be hard to justify if you are not looking for a pre-made map. You can buy 2 tile sets from the same company and still have some money left over. Of course, if you wanted a ready to use map and instead focus on filling out the adventure, it would be exactly what you want and tile sets wouldn't be a replacement. You'd need to design the dungeon first and then fill it in. If a ready map is what you wanted, than taking a look at the layout of the 3 levels on the product page will give you a good impression if it is right for you. Of course, since this map is more specific it also tends to have more details. Depending on what kind of map you want, your opinion will differ.

What I felt was Missing

Black Scroll Games are basically one of the standards I use for what I consider a complete map package. See? This is how you do it. Make it easy to print as a poster, to print in pages (especially important given how this is the most likely used method), to use in VTT, provide backstory/adventure hooks, and provide overview pages for Dungeon Masters. 

That said, it isn't an out-of-the-box ready to run adventure. It'll need work to turn those ideas into a fully fleshed out and ready to go state. This can go either way. Some people would prefer to do it how they like it and have full control. Some people want something mostly done. Some people like something ready-to-run and then tinker with it until they are happy. Depending on which of those people you are, you might see the lack of fully fleshed out adventure as a con or not mind, since you would've ignored it anyway if it existed. However, if you wanted a full adventure you won't find it here. You'll need to fill it in yourself.

I would have also liked to see the entrances labeled on the cross-section visual aid. It just helps give a better sense of the space as it was imagined originally, especially for the second level. Since you can rearrange the relative layouts of the separate sections however you want easily, it's not much of an issue. However, since we have the visual aid it would have been helpful without sacrificing anything.

Price

The digital map is available here for $19.99 USD. It costs $45.00 USD to get both the digital and printed map and $40.00 USD for just the printed map.

Summary

It's a big map that has almost everything, like Black Scroll Games always does. VTT, poster maps, map broken up into pages, isometric view, vertical view, and back story/plot hooks. It's all here. And it's also good. The visual style is great as well and the water in particular almost feels like showing off. This map also has nice added touches and details. The drag lines in particular are one of my favourites as well as the water effects. The grid lines being overextended again is disappointing since it looks so good otherwise. There is also the opportunity costs. It's a good set but you could buy two tile packs from Black Scroll Games instead and have money left over due to it's high cost. Those sets won't have as many small details, but they still look great. If you want a battle map with the adventure left you but with basically everything else you could hope for in an adventure included, you'll probably like this. Just look at it and I think you'll know if it's for you.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Portal Under The Stars - Battlemap Review

Review copy courtesy of Black Scroll Games.

Pros
  • The great looking style of map Black Scroll Games does. When looking at their previous work I felt that lighting was one of their big strengths and this map shows it off again. The stone floors are also very detailed looking as are the other little touches and details.
  • 15 pages and 17 pieces worth of map (not counting the one statue counter)
  • Made for the 1 inch is 5 feet standard scale
  • Isometric visual aid provided (as Black Scroll Games often does)
  • VTT jpgs provided
  • Both broken into pages and single poster versions are provided for easy printing.
  • Layers are present to allow the option of grid lines and no grid lines.
  • Shortened area descriptions from the adventure are present.

Could Go Either Way
  • Again, this map is also done in the same 3D style that other Black Scroll Games maps and tiles are done. If you like it as I do, then it's a plus, but if you don't it'll obviously be a drawback.
  • A majority of the map uses the shapes of the stones in to denote squares for movement. This looks great and work well but it doesn't fully carry through the entire map. Though this is the exception and not the rule (and only present on the second level), this may be a con if you don't like grid lines on maps.
  • Unlike the modular inn set I covered and many of their other sets, this one is obviously meant for a particular adventure. This makes it perfect if you want all the bells and whistles for running that adventure, but does hamper the reusability compared to a tile set. That said, you could quite easily use the maps to suit your own purposes.
Cons
  • There are some places where the grid lines seem to extend a tiny bit too far on the second level of the map. It's not obvious but I wish it wasn't an issue at all.

Introduction

This week has been a good week for Black Scroll Games. Though they had a total of 3 releases this week, I'll be looking at the map for the Goodman Games adventure The Portal Under the Stars first. I've given my opinion on their maps before and it should come to no surprise that I like their work. However, every map is something new to look at and has areas of strength and weakness. So with no further delay, let's take a look at this new map. With this kind of thing, seeing proof of work really helps to get a good understand of the product. If you are at all curious, I'd recommend taking a look at their free map as well. You'll need to enter your email to receive it though. Otherwise, their page has quite a few images of the map. 

The Tiles

This map is really 2 maps connected via staircase. It's made up of 8 rooms, an entrance area and multiple connecting hallways. The end result is a map made up of 17 tiles, not including the one counter used for a statue. Seeing it assembled really helps bring the scale into perspective. It's not a small map. In particular, the starting area to the dungeon, the ending room and the gazing pool are standouts. The rooms I find myself liking the best are the ones with extra details such as lighting or special items. The final room in particular really looks great. Human shapes can be among the hardest to get right in that kind of situation and I think it nailed it.

Of course, the purpose of this map is to bring to life the Goodman Games adventure. In that regard, it does a very good job. The original adventure provided a drawn map but I really like the way it is brought to life here. Since the adventure is being sold, the addition of descriptions for each room are appreciated. That way the map has a life outside the adventure as well.

Typically Black Scroll Games maps come as a complete map set. Here it's no different. There are VTT files ready to go. There are poster and broken up versions of the map. There is an isometric view (I always liked this addition). There is a tactical map. There are also filters in the PDF to enable and disable grid lines. This last area is where I find an issue. There are a few cases where I think the grid line extends a bit too far, particularly on the gazing pool. It's not that noticeable but I really wish it wasn't the case. There many areas that don't use the lines at all because the stonework design makes them redundant as well. It's just a little thing that doesn't need to be there. Some areas really benefit from the grid lines so turning them off isn't a perfect solution either.

Reuse

You can still get some mileage out of the map without the adventure. The second level could easily be reused as the resting place for an evil undead. And given how often that situation comes up in games I'm a part of or generally in the near vicinity of, I reckon that it makes it quite useful. The entrance is also easily reusable as is the gazing room. Really, almost all of the rooms can find a new home. The way the map is broken up means that there will often be pieces from other sections include in a tile. However, using the magic of scissors, this problem is easily ratified and allows for some clever reuse for your own games. Being that it has a few different paths and some very nice rooms, you can make use of what's here. It seems clear to me, however, that it wasn't the intention and more of a happy accident. The focus is still on bringing the original adventure to life.

The Art

I have a soft spot for the art style of Black Scroll Games tiles and the same style is applied here as their earlier work. The perspective gives a nice depth to the tiles and remind me of 3D printed tiles. There is also special attention paid to lighting, which enhances the effect. Together they give a good impression of depth. However, there is an astounding amount of extras that further show off the art. The isometric view is a nice addition and looks really good. It hits me right in the old CRPG nostalgia. The tactical map is also very nice to see. Really, I feel every map should have one of these. It makes planning things for the Dungeon Master so much easier. I could try describing it further but I really do think seeing some of the images(http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/219022/The-Portal-Under-The-Stars--Battlemap?manufacturers_id=7523) or their previous map(http://www.blackscrollsgames.com/#openModal) is the best way to understand.



Other Considerations

Of course, to make full use of the map you'll need the adventure or the core rulebook which also includes the adventure. That's assuming you don't have the adventure from a Free RPG Day gone by. I'd recommend the full RPG book since it's a better value between the 2 and it also has a kind of important part: the rule system.

Black Scroll Games has quite a few other tile sets and maps at this point. Choosing this one over the will probably mean you want to run the deluxe version of the The Portal Under the Stars adventure. However, you may be tempted to buy a different one of their sets. In a way, you can reuse parts of the map for your own adventure. In another, it isn't as versatile as their Modular-Inn set which allows you to buy many different sets using their tiles. They are also the same price.

What I felt was Missing

They've included basically everything I could ask from them for this kind of product. The wide number of options is really impressive. VTT? Battlemap? Poster form? Cut up for 8.5”x11” paper? With grid lines and without? All are here. This is what I want to see in a map. That said, there is still one thing I would have liked to have added. One of the maps is full of statues but there is no marker or token for them like their is for a different statue in the encounter.

Price

The digital map is available here for $7.95 USD. It costs $19.99 USD to get both the digital and printed map from the same link.

Summary

I'm beginning to feel that this is my standard response to Black Scroll Games maps and tiles, but they really are nice. Overall, I would say the set isn't as versatile as same other sets such as the Modular-Inn set I reviewed earlier but that's also not the point. This time the point is to create a beautiful map specifically for the adventure The Portal Under the Stars. In that goal I would say it succeeds, though with the blemish of grid lines that are slightly off in a few places. If you are after a nice map to run the adventure, this is for you. If you won't be getting this map I think it's because there are other maps that you want instead, and not because this isn't a good map. It also has to be noted that you will need to get the adventure separately.