Sunday, 30 April 2017

Player: Be Ready for Death

If you play tabletop role-playing games for long enough, you'll eventually have a character die. It could be that the rule system has character death as a feature, the Dungeon Master is out for blood, or your dice decided to hate you that day. Regardless, as players we still have choices on how to deal with it. I've talked about this topic on the Dungeon Master side so I thought I should be thorough and look at the player side too.

Be Ready

This is really more advice for newer players, but it still stands. Be prepared going into the game that your character could die. As a player, you are there to experience a story through your character. Even if you are there for the dungeon crawling, you will probably come back with at least one story you like to tell people. Part of that experience is having the world, or at least part of it, against you. Risk is part of the game but also part of the fun. It makes those close calls meaningful. However, when death does strike, you have to accept it and get on with the game. Your Dungeon Master might let you come back or be revived or something. Even if your character doesn't come back, there is still a story to experience and you don't want to make things less fun for your fellow players. Your death could very well add something to the experience.


Part of what makes a character death painful is the investment. We put time into coming up with our characters, their mannerisms, their motivations, their actions and everything else we need over the course of the game. However, if you know going into a game that death will be extremely common, you might want to think twice about investing a couple of hours coming up with a backstory. Many of the games I played like that, the Dungeon Master specifically warned us a head of time not to get too attached to our characters and not to bother writing short stories about them. These kinds of expectations often happen. How can you expect your players to spend hours making their backstory if they won't last 30 minutes? If your Dungeon Master makes it hard to die permanently though, don't be too surprised if they also expect you to take more care in your character's background. This might not be the case though, so you might need to ask them point blank (though they might like it if you do, they might not expect it). Instead, you might come up with a large part of it as the game goes along or other things might be more important.

Think Ahead

Kind of like the earlier “Be Ready” section, a piece of advice that I think is quite good is to think about your next character a little bit. One of the issues that come up due to character death is that the story can get muddled on the player's side of the screen. If this bothers you, you can tie your next character to either your previous character's history/death or even to another character's (this can be quite fun, though you might want to ask the other player for permission so you don't step on their toes). Since the new characters are related, it ends up building on the story of the previous character.

You don't want to do this every time, though. Sometimes, the campaign could really use that one character death that brings home the costs of what's going on or just some fresh blood. It also can seem way too convenient if characters die very frequently and you use the same technique every time. People only have so many cousins and brothers who want revenge. Think of this idea more like a consideration or a possibility and less like a general piece of advice.

Wanting a Change

Sometimes players plan out their character deaths. It's that classic situation of a player who doesn't like their character anymore and wants a new one. In that case, it's often great all around. There gets to be a character death that makes things seem more dangerous and the player gets a new character. Just like the earlier case, you probably don't want to overuse this. There is the occasional person who likes playing the redshirt and has fun with a character that rarely lasts the whole session. If that's not what you or your Dungeon Master wants though, remember it's not the only option. It could also make player death feel too scripted and odd in a campaign where player death isn't very common, and resurrection magic is a trip to your local abbey away.

All That Starts

Some stories run longer than others. Some characters have stories that are shorter than others. But if you have a story you remember fondly or makes you want to go play D&D or whatever system you like, you are doing it right. Sometimes character deaths are one of them.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Dungeons & Dragons: Tales from the Yawning Portal Late Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.
A bit late to the party, as usual, but without much further ado, here is my Tales of the Yawning Portal review. At the time of writing this, I've read through the book and have run The Sunless Citadel.

  • Lots of maps for dungeon delving
  • Production values we've come to expect for this edition (including art)
  • 7 adventures/dungeons with a nice spread of levels

Could Go Either Way:
  • It's all reprints and no new material (bonus if you like the originals, like the new version of D&D and don't want to convert them yourself)
  • Very dungeon delve heavy (if you like that it's great, if you like more narrative based stuff you won't be happy)
  • No new player creation stuff. It's all about the dungeons and adventure (anyone who read my previous reviews knows that's how I like it)!
  • Bundle of older D&D adventures updated to newer version (for new players who are interested in some of the older stuff this could be great but it makes it a far harder sell to the veterans)
  • Adventures are kind of release date clustered (if you just want good dungeons, you won't care)
  • Maps can shift styles from adventure to adventure due to the massive year gaps between them (if you like consistency, it's a con but if you like seeing different styles, it's a pro)

  • The adventures included are quite disconnected. Connecting them together requires some serious work and creativity and still will probably end up feeling episodic. Not sure I'd end a campaign with Tomb of Horrors either.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.


It's obvious D&D has a history. It's been around a while and from modern role-playing games to some of the strange criticisms modern games sometimes receive, D&D has left its mark. Part of that history is the large pile of D&D modules created over the years. It's not so surprising then, at least to me, that sooner or later we'd get re-releases of some old adventures for the new version of D&D. Tales from the Yawning Portal is a collection of 7 previously released adventures, converted to the 5th edition rules, that explores some of that history.

The Adventure

New Old Monsters

Well, I guess they aren't really new monsters since they are from adventures previously released. Still, there are a few new ones for this edition. My favourite is probably the vampiric mist. However, the list isn't as big as it would first appear. Some of them, such as the spell casters, are copied exactly from Volo's Guide to Monsters. They also only take up about 18 pages so it's clearly not the main draw. On one hand it's convenient and nice not to need to buy Volo's Guide as well but it does bring down the useful page count down a little bit.

What You Need to Play

You'll need the core books. They are still making no effort to reference the SRD or the basic rules. Still, it looks like you can mostly get away with them if you really need to and if you know what you are doing when creating your own monsters. Still a bit disappointing though. Would've been a nice feature to keep in this edition.

The Adventures Themselves

Well, it's not just one adventure this time. We've got 7 of them. Naturally, since the adventures included aren't originally from the same edition or time period it makes things a bit difficult to talk about. Still, let's give it a shot.

There is a lot of dungeon delving here. Dead in Thay, in particular, is a massive monster dungeon. The structure of the adventures is to give some background and then define the dungeon for the adventure. If you love dungeon delving, and a lot of adventures seemed to be dungeon delves back in the day, you'll probably like this. There are also a lot of maps and encounters that naturally come with a lot of dungeon delving. Such things make for good inspiration. However, if you wanted some variety you might be disappointed. If you are a veteran player and you like the idea of running these adventures for D&D 5th edition without having to do a conversion yourself, this might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Likewise, if you are new Dungeon Master and wanted to see/run some adventures from D&D history, it'll be right up your alley. If the idea of re-released adventures is one you outright hate, there isn't much I can say or can be done to change your mind.

The adventures cover a wide range of levels and can flow from one to another if needed. That is in theory, at least. I would be hesitant in running such dungeon delving heavy adventures back to back unless your players really like that kind of thing. I'd also be hesitant in ending a campaign with Tomb of Horrors. Whenever I saw it played, it was usually reworked to allow some kind of respawn mechanic (players were avatars of gods, there was some kind of cloning machine, the players weren't interested in role-playing their characters and just wanted to have the badge of finishing the tomb, etc.).

All of that said, it would be pretty easy to take a hand full of adventures from here and use them to create a campaign. 2-3 adventures could be combined into a sort of mini-campaign and padded out with more story elements and origin work. I like quite a few things from the dungeons presented here. Some of them are plot hooks, some of them are traps, some of them are encounters, but in general there is quite a lot here that can be used, retooled, or just plain lifted if you don't plan to run it. The number of maps makes it quite easy to retool for your own person use. Some are easier than others, though. Dead in Thay has such a large dungeon that parts can be recycled quite easily, but others would need to be sectioned off. This kind of sectioning off often makes it difficult to show your players a map, if you like doing it that way. If you make your players sketch their own maps, it isn't a problem. 

The selection of adventures is interesting. It's quite dungeon delve heavy, as I mentioned earlier, but there are 2 other potential problems. Dead in Thay came out quite recently so a newer player might have already tried to run it using the now outdated D&D Next playtest rules. Around that time there was also a D&D Next conversion in an issue of Dungeon Magazine for Tomb of Horrors (I want to say #213). If you've already got those recently, it's even harder to give a good argument for a newer version. This is compounded by the closeness of D&D Next compared to D&D 5e, especially in the case of later versions of D&D Next, making conversions pretty easy. The balance might be slightly different, but it does affect the value of the book when 2 of the adventures are less appealing.

What I've said so far may have come out more negative than I intended. I like classic adventures and I enjoyed getting the chance to read some old adventures updated to the rules system I'm more familiar with. However, the heavy dungeon delving and disconnect makes it one of those things that you'll either love or hate. If you like shorter games that can be finished in a few sessions, these kinds of smaller adventures may be exactly what you needed as well. All of this makes it hard to point at something and say “this is great”. I almost need to do 7 reviews. Instead it's a bunch of things that can go either way.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The build quality is more of the same we have come to expect. Some wavy pages may still be found but the binding seemed good and the page layout and design is inline with the rest. I like the cover art, though it still doesn't dethrone Rise of Tiamat as my favourite cover art. Luckily you can see some examples of the art and make a call yourself on the Wizards of the Coast website.


It's the same list price we've gotten used to at 49.95 USD. If you are Canadian it's still 63.95 CAD. As always, you can find it for cheaper if you look online at the right places. Obviously this won't support your local games store. Make the choice that works for you.

What I felt was Missing

Besides what I already mentioned, there is the PDF thing I keep mentioning every time and have to continue to do so. These adventures are provided as PDFs already by Wizards of the Coast so a compilation of them would've been nice. It would have been really nice for completion's sake and for historical curiosity to include the original versions of the adventures too. Sure, they'd be unplayable using 5th edition rules but there were some conversion notes given earlier in the edition. It would also help the value for some people. Not too surprised they didn't do it though since it would probably appeal to only a small part of the community, and be unusable without getting the old rules for most.

The publishing date spread is interesting. We have 4 adventures between 1978 and 1981 and then 2 from 2000 and an odd man out published in 2014. That's a pretty interesting 20 year gap. I would have been curious to see how they would have done with a 4th edition adventure. The rules and economy of actions for players were so different it might have been more like a rewrite than a conversion. For those you liked that edition, it could also serve as an example of how to convert them over, assuming it turned out well.

With the page count being 248, I think they could have stuffed another short adventure or two from D&D history in here. Just a little more value would have helped make the book more appealing I think and closer to a must-buy.

Free Stuff

Some material is provided for free on the Wizards of the Coast website and can be found here. Compared to previous releases, it's not much. I don't think that's so unexpected since the book is conversions of modules they still sell on D&D Classics.


This is a hard one to talk about for me. The disconnected nature of the adventures makes it, for me, a book I'd far more likely use for parts and to pick and choose a small subset. Running all of them in a row would be tough unless your group really likes dungeon delving. Tomb of Horrors also has a risk of not going over well as a campaign finisher. On the other hand, if you are a newer player to D&D and want to see some of the older adventures from before your time, it could look tempting. It's a similar situation if you fondly remember these adventures and don't want to have to convert them yourself. However, it's hard for me to recommend it ahead of some of the other stuff we've already had in this edition. It's not a bad book, especially if a bunch of smaller adventures from D&D history appeal to you, but I don't think the value is as good as some other adventures we've had. It's also very dependent on the kind of game you like. Still, I liked the chance to get an updated look at these adventures since I had no prior experience with 4 out of 7 of them. If anyone reading this has questions, feel free to ask.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dungeon Master: Owning Property

There are many different kinds of rewards at the disposal of the Dungeon Master. Money and items are the ones typically thought of. However, player owned property is another way to reward players. They are also something players could spend their rewards on. Expanding and repairing costs money. This kind of versatility gives them the potential to be very interesting for players. However, it also makes it harder on the Dungeon Master, can end up less effective than desired or cause unforeseen problems. 


I've found property works best if there is a reason behind its inclusion. Try giving your party that love nothing else but raiding tombs ownership over a tavern and see how often they'll use it. Like all rewards, property really only work if your players actually want it.

Of course, there are other reasons to give your players property. At the start of the game, a property can be a great source of resources. If your players start off as nobles who each have lands, collect taxes, and have castles, the scope and kinds of issues they'll engage in will be different. Even the simple inn can be a great source of resources. Any business that earns money helps provide a way for players to finance some of their more complicated adventures.

As a Resource

I've lightly already touched upon the idea of property as a resource. Typically, it generates money. Money can be spent on things such as ladders, chisels, and enough gunpowder (or similar substance that goes boom) to blow open a tomb. However, there are often other things that come along with them. If you have a castle, you'll probably have guards too. Those guards present an incredibly potent resource when used in the right way.

Beyond their game mechanics as well, they provide a resource for role-playing. Having something that anchors your character to the world generally helps with role-playing. It provides a motivation, and also somewhere to return to when everything is over. Sometimes, that “beyond the end of the adventure” can be one of the hardest things to role-play. Thinking about where the property is located also helps. Some will have employees, suppliers or similarly related people. All of these are potential story ideas or elements for a character's background. You also can't underestimate the usefulness of connections, such as a supplier of wine and food.


Coming along with property are responsibilities. These add a liability side of things. You don't want to make the property nothing but a liability or the players will just try to pawn it off. You can't really blame them for that either. However, castles generally need castle guards to prevent them from being attacked or looted. They also need staff to keep it in decent repair and to keep it clean. This means a player could start off with an amazing amount of financial wealth for a level 1 character, but be able spend very little of it because it's almost all tied up. As well, buildings are typically hard to move. This means that if there is some kind of war drawing closer to their property, a player may feel far more of a personal connection to the conflict. There may be times where a property is not doing very well and need to be supported by the player. However, there needs to be promise of good times as well or it just won't be worth it. Likewise, the liability and repair costs of larger properties should generally increase and the potential (best case) and general (likely case) returns should increase as well. Otherwise why even expand?

The Math

I don't like a lot of the math involved with properties, and running businesses. D&D 5th edition has this problem as well. The thing is, the odds should be in such a way that they make sense. It's one thing to start off as the owner of a piece of property. However, it's another if you have to buy it first. Quite a few of the rules I remember reading will have your players die before they ever see a profit from a business they built.

I think it's generally a good idea to keep both sides of the equation in mind. You can increase the costs of a building or the potential costs if they have a bad period of business, but the earnings should increase as well. The average case, the best case and worst case are all important in this regard. The average case is particularly important to make sure things are viable in the long term. It's also affected by the prices in your campaign. Though I don't see it done too often, some Dungeon Masters like to price things their way. This, of course, includes property.


One of the issues with something like player property is that it can shift the focus. Something that big, profitable and important to the players naturally would. Unfortunately, I don't have much advice in this case. If everyone starts with a castle, you might want to think about if they will all ever get used. Some players are perfectly fine with a castle that is being run in the background by their advisers and they get to spend the money generated. Some will want to see it and have it take part in the action. If the plan isn't to have the action shift between the castles (it can happen with other properties but castles are what I've seen used most often), it may be a good idea to think of a way to have everything centered on a shared piece of property. Everyone being a relative of the real owner and currently no heir being named generally works fine the few times I saw it employed (though it depends on the inheritance structure of your world). You can also locate them all fairly close by and have them be part of the same tight network of defense.  

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Dungeon Master: Precedent

When you are a Dungeon Master, you make rulings. However, one of the things that makes things difficult is that rulings often end up setting a precedent. You don't want to live with a bad decision for the entire game, but inconsistent decisions make can make things harder for the player. After all, how can they decide what they want to do when they aren't sure about how things work?

What Kind of Precedent?

Precedent is quite a broad concept encompassing everything from rules interpretation to campaign specific things. The most common ones are the rareness of magic items, death, and rules. Unlike consistency, which you want your campaign to usually be, precedent is often implicit (sometimes I've seen Dungeon Masters making an announcement that this is how things will be from now on) and as such allows for more accidents.

So You've Made a Big Mistake

If you realize you've made a serious mistake, I found that it's generally better not to stick to the precedent. It can be annoying in the short term, but a bad precedent is annoying in the long term. All that said, it's still worse than not needing to in the first place. Keeping in mind the idea of precedent when making a ruling helps catch some of the obvious issues ahead of time.

Recently I played a game where a player tried to push someone into a fireplace. This did a lot of damage and killed the enemy. However, from then on everyone tried to throw everyone into the fireplace. If you do the same thing for combining oil and fire, for example, expect that your players may make it a staple of their combat style. You could also make exceptions in special situations, but you'd need to have some way for your players to know. Otherwise they won't realize it was a one-time thing and try it again, or since it never worked before they won't try this time.


The first death of your campaign tends to be a trend setter. Going forward, they are going to expect more of the same. However, if you go easier sometimes you might run into issues. You don't want to play favourites or look like you are playing favourites in most cases. It just goes over badly.

Magic Items

Magic items are the easiest to fool around with. Even in a low magic world, you could have some bad guys who have been hording magic items for centuries. This means that even though the world is low magic, your players might still run across and use many. It also means that as your players level up and face bigger threats, they can get into a position where magic items are no longer a rare sight for them. For the result of the world, it still is. Where issues tend to come up is with the usefulness of magic items and how they are allocated. If the only item the party comes across is a bow for the ranger, there may be problems. I say “may” because if you rolled stats and use the bow to even thing up, it could be fine. However, players tend to expect magic items if someone else in the party got one.

Changing Precedent

It can be perfectly fine to change the precedent of the game in the middle of a campaign. Magic items might have started out very rare but now that they are at a higher level, they might be more common. If you are starting out with new players you could start the first few levels being very merciful when it comes to death, but after they reach a certain threshold remove the training wheels (this can be a good way of helping players get used to the game but I'd advice to make sure the players know this will happen or it may blindside them).

A lot of this comes back to the idea of having some level of internal consistency. In order for your players to be able to make satisfying decisions, there needs to be some level of understanding and consistency. Precedent change in favour of players will probably go over better than something that comes out of nowhere and blindsides them. If there is a reason for it that they know ahead of time, it tends to go over better.