Sunday, 30 September 2018

Player: Creative Character Backstories

If you are coming into a tabletop role-playing game, coming up with a character is one of the first things you'll need to do. And an important part of that is coming up with a back story for your character. However, it isn't an easy thing to do and can become harder as time goes on and your well of ideas starts to dry out. I know I still occasionally struggle with it but I hope some of what I do helps. If anyone has their own input, I'd be happy to hear it too.

Same Character Problem

It can be hard to play a new character sometimes. If you've played one for a while, it can be hard to switch to a new one. There is also another situation that can come up. If you are the only member of the party who died and your fellow players care a lot about party balance, they might very well want you to play a similar character in combat. This isn't a problem if you can switch from one class to another (wizard to sorcerer) but is one if they want you to play the exact same class. After all, that may be why everyone went with their classes: it created the best party. I won't be talking about the solution here, but felt this problem was common enough that it should be mentioned. Plenty of groups aren't nearly as prescriptive in their approach to forming a group. 5 bards? Sure. Why not.

New Background

Even if you end up making a fairly similar character mechanically, your choice of background can have a large impact on your character themselves. When I say background, I mean the big overarching details before the start of the campaign. It could be their place of origin, their profession or even related to their family. Such big changes tend to cause ripples through other aspects of a character so I find making this kind of change helps me come up with characters that feel different. In a system that lets you pick a background and have it result in a different character mechanically, the usefulness of this kind of thing is amplified because it gives you mechanics as well. I'd also include race in these section. It often comes with ramifications for who the character is in the world. If elves stay to themselves, why is this one radically different?

Prototype

Even if you pick a different background for your character, they might effectively end up acting the exact same. The difference would just be their origin story. Some people I know tend to start off with a prototype of an existing character and change things to come up with their own. I occasionally use it too, though the background technique tends to work out pretty well for me. You can also lift elements from multiple characters into a brand new one. It can result in some characters that aren't too exciting because everyone has seen them before, but it can also result in non-typical characters as well. All it takes is using an obscure character as your inspiration.

One player I had wanted to make a spartan like character using heavy armour, spears and shields. Incidentally he had just seen 300 recently. People usually pick a weapon with a higher damage dice, but the player made it work through clever use of the thrown property and a backup weapon. However, he also wanted to have a character that would make sense in such a background and so they constantly fought against their desire for rigidity in the face of new circumstances.

Flaws vs Quirks

I tend to find that finding real, meaningful flaws for your character is an incredibly powerful tool. Since they tend to be meaningful and large, they tend to touch multiple parts of a character and force you to come up with a differences. However if you want a radically different character, I find it's important that they aren't quirks. Quirks can help make your character unique and memorable in a scene, but they often don't change the fundamental underlying character. Sometimes you don't want something radically different but different enough, and for that quirks can go a long way. I find that some of the best flaws involve thinking of the character themselves, and the problems they would face in such a world. Classic examples are naivety, prejudices, mistrust, greed, apathy, and discontent. The question once you have one becomes why? Why are they like this, or lacking that particular thing?

When you find one, though they can improve and get addressed over the course of the campaign, it is best that they don't all completely disappear. I've seen it before where 5 sessions in, almost all of the flaws evaporated completely. I've also seen where they became less severe, but the character had to agonize in not letting them best them. Having somewhere else to go or something else to address works wonders.

Dungeon Master

I like to give my players a heads up on what the world they will be playing in is like. Many of the Dungeon Masters I played with were the same. Players can even bounce ideas off the Dungeon Master once they know, and get some ideas to be better integrated into the world. It's collaborative story telling, and you shouldn't be afraid to talk about things with your Dungeon Master. Some elements can come up naturally later over the course of the campaign. Doing so makes the character far more tied to the campaign. It can also inspire people to come up with new characters after hearing about where it will take place. Naturally, this is greatly affected by how strong the setting is. That human factor can still often make it easier for people to get the ideas flowing.

As a Dungeon Master, don't be afraid to introduce some new mechanic things to make characters unique. It's can be tough to balance, but little things can go a long way. If your player wanted a character with divine origins, would it be that harmful for them to be able to teleport their weapon into their hand using a bonus action? Or set a minimum armour class if you planned to attack your fighter while they didn't have armour?

Other Players

People in your group don't need to come up with their stories on their own. They can also team up to make stories that cross each other's path again and again. The great thing about this kind of approach is that it gives you someone to interact with and as a result come up with things you otherwise wouldn't on your own. Put another way, it becomes more like improv. This works great for some people can be very intimidating for others. One of the most memorable parties I had in the past involved to players who decided to play as members of the same organization. They were two fighters and a cleric of war on a campaign. Another involved two players who made their character brother and sister halflings.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

D&D Endless Quest: Into The Jungle Review

Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press.

Think of Dungeons & Dragons and you think of adventures, and rule books. That never stopped D&D from branching out to other things like colouring books, cartoons, and gamebooks. And speaking of gamebooks, the new Endless Quest series was released on September 8th, 2019. I say new, because it's really an act of book necromancy. Endless Quest existed back in the TSR days, but now it's back. And today I'll be looking at the Into The Jungle book from the revived series.
Endless Quest Into The Jungle
The soft cover version of the book.


The Book Itself

The premise of the book is that you are a cleric sent on a quest to locate Artus Cimber and the Ring of Winter. The book itself is roughly 122 pages long, and has the kinds of choices you'd expect from a gamebook. Which way to go, who to trust, and whether to stay your ground or fight. It's written in a brisk pace, and even manages to fit some characterization.

It's a quick read, and has many references to the D&D we know and love. If you read or played Tomb of Annihilation, you'll recognize some locations, similarities, and monsters as it does take place in Chult. It's a nice touch, especially considering how I don't think many in the target demographic would recognize them unless they play the adventure some time later. Should they get the chance to do so, I think that moment of realization would be magical.

The book isn't afraid to kill you off, and has a bit of a trial and error feel at times. However, it's also not one of those adventure books or adventure games that has one right path and every other path is death. As a result the book also has multiple endings. Some are more pleasant for the main character than others and it's nice to see, especially since I remember some such books from my youth with only one ending. They also give you some guides on your journey, which is a much needed touch for a better D&D feel. The short page length prevents these touches from being extremely detailed. It is my impression that this was done to appeal to the target audience of 8-12 year olds. It also doesn't seem like all the books are linked in an overarching story. For example, they could all be involved in the side effects of the Rage of Demons story.

The page count I mentioned earlier isn't telling the whole story. I'll go into more detail further down, but there is a lot of art here and it's a bit of a double edged sword. I'd say it's a worthwhile trade, but it does mean there is less space for words. I wish the book was longer, as it would allow for a bigger story and more choices.

Endless Jungle Pterafolk
A pterafolk image from the book. A pretty good example of the style and quality to expect from the art, though a lot of it is smaller.

Format

The layout of the page is stretched of text and pictures together. As you'd expect, the picture on the page is directly related to what is being experienced. Being chased by zombies? There's zombies. Hearing about aarakocra? Well, here's a picture. It's available in soft and hard cover version, but I received the soft cover version.

Art

If there is one standout thing about this gamebook, it's the art. There is lots of it, and it is well matched to what is happening on the page. My experience with these sorts of books in my youth were that they were mostly text. Actually, most of the time they were exclusively text outside the covers. Admittedly, some had amazing covers. Dungeons & Dragons on the other hand had tons of illustrations. Adventures, core books, setting books, they all often were loaded with great art and keeping that here is something that helps make it more than just another gamebook. It looks a lot more impressive than the grey paper pictureless books I remember. The one thing that takes away from it is that you'll recognize many of the pictures if you've read through the current books in this edition. I doubt this would be an issue for the 8-12 year olds it targets, but I think it's still worth noting.

Endless Quest Jungle
An example two pages of the book. Looks pretty good, doesn't it?

Price

The suggested price is $8.99 USD or 10.99 CAD. That's around standard for such a book, though if you are outside the demographic putting the coin towards the D&D starter set will be tempting.

Overall

If you are the target audience (8-12 years old and like gamebooks) I think you'll enjoy it. It's a tough recommend outside of that area, but I'm sure I would've enjoyed it when I was that age and I'm hard pressed to remember a better gamebook I read at that age. However, it is a gamebook themed with D&D and while I could see it bringing interest to D&D, it doesn't bring the same experience. Treat it as its own thing. It's also a bit on the short side, but I could see such a thing being really interesting to young people who never heard of D&D or can't find a group but heard of it. Hopefully it brings more interest to the hobby and system.

Other

  • Anyone have a kid that read a book in the series? I'd be very curious to see what they thought. I can also see that some D&D experience would make it all the more exciting, and vice versa. Like a feedback loop.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS ENDLESS QUEST: INTO THE JUNGLE. Copyright © 2018 by Wizards of the Coast LLC. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Dungeon Master: Threat Level

Managing expectations is one of the major responsibilities for a Dungeon Master. An area where this is incredibly important is when dealing with combat. Player need to know what they are getting into. To make things more difficult, things often change. The high risk combat situation from last session's dungeon delve changes into light risk combat and mostly role-play this session. Handling this change is an art, and in hopes of helping others as well as myself, I'll explore my thoughts on this subject.

Setting the Basis

When a game starts, there are some big overarching things that need to be set. A big one is the deadliness to expect. And again, I'm not talking about if the players have a chance for their characters to die. Some groups don't like running. They want the encounters balanced so that they have a good chance of vanquishing their enemies. Others are fine when a victory in an encounter means getting away alive. However, if they know from the get go that they may need to run, that idea sticks. They won't always run, but they'll know it's a valuable tool in their arsenal. If you instead build the idea that they can win any encounter with proper planning, they may stay and fight even when it doesn't make sense. Adult dragon at level 5? Well, our Dungeon Master wouldn't use something we can't kill. The towns folk telling us that we aren't strong enough is just to build tension.

You can also do this with words from the very beginning during your session 0. It's the safest way. More experienced players will know roughly what it means to face a wight or vampire spawn at level 1, however existing players won't necessarily know they should run.

Re-Establishing the Situation

I find it's a good idea to have a couple of hints from the beginning for players to know what to expect. There are many techniques that can be used for this. If we are talking about a dungeon, the general expectation is that it will get harder the deeper they go in. If the first room is a tough encounter, the players will be weary. Bodies are also a good signal of things to come. If there is a fresh body torn in half, bonus points if it's someone they met earlier so they roughly know their strength, it tells players to be on their guards. Footprints, movement reports from scouts in the area, patrols being decimated, and other battle scenes also help set up player expectations of what they are wading into. It's also a great opportunity to help develop the story as well. If the party they previously helped is found in a zombie state, they'll be concerned and also start thinking of the possible reasons. Necromancer? Wight?

Be Weary Of Tweaking Creatures

Some vampires are stronger than others. It makes sense that some individuals will be exceptions to the rule. However, we also need to be careful when making alternate versions of a creature to put against our players. The first encounter with a creature will set their expectations for the ones that follow. Again, this is especially true for new players but also to a degree for ones that are experienced. Even if the Monster Manual gives a general range, that doesn't mean vampires in your world will work the same way. Vampires might be beastly in appearance instead of humanoid. Or this one might have access to items. Or have a permanent injury inflicted by the arch mage the players met. In these cases it's a good idea to mention that the creature is an exception, preferably in world. Have one of their wizard contacts mention how it must have been a weak variant, or they'd have been torn to shreds. Or how they got lucky and managed to find the vampire while it was resting during the day. Some rule systems have multiple variants of the same creature so players know what to expect, or at least should be aware of this practice out of the gate.

Resources

There is a tug and pull between wanting to continue for the day and resting to regain limited resources. If there is no pressure, the answer is simple. However, having some knowledge about what's going on goes a long way in allowing players to make decisions. If things are quiet, you can expect more use of utility spells and being right on the heels of the criminal. If they are fighting a vampire spawn who knows they are present and they are lower level, they'll probably be more cautious. Of course, they can retreat if they run into a vampire spawn while out of resources. If they missed the clues, it may be their only choice. The act of making the decision can often be a source of the fun, as can piecing together the clues.You also want to have some pressure so the players don't rest every 10 minutes of play. Maybe that vampire spawn will get away if they don't chase it now.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Monster Group: Vampire Spawn & Minions

A vampire don't always travels alone. Keeping some help around can prevent easily getting a stake through the heart while they rest. Vampires are versatile monsters, and can be found in many different situations. Here I outline a group that a vampire might use as they travel, or flee for their life after a setback.

Composition
4 Bandits using short swords, and crossbows
1 Carriage with 2 horses
1 Vampire Spawn

* Find stats for the Vampire Spawn (page 354) and Bandits (page 396) here.


Tactics

The vampire will typically either use it's minions that it travels with as a source of blood to stay alive, or use them to aid in staging attacks. The chosen strategy depends on the disposition of the vampire in question, with those with poorer self control and those enjoying the hunt praying on innocence instead of their minions. A vampire that can subsist on its minions will typically develop schemes to hide its tracks and goals that reach beyond their basic needs.

Using the carriage and its minions, the vampire will either set up a base and use the carriage as a quick escape if things get too suspicious, or travel over a large area to spread out the attacks. The minions watch over their master's hide out, spacing out their rest to ensure there is always at least one lookout. The presence of minions means that even during the daytime, the vampire can be moved.

Due to a vampire's forbiddance, and the legends that people at large are often aware of, it's not uncommon for villagers to stay indoors at night once a vampire is suspected. For a vampire who enjoys the hunt, they need some creativeness to overcome the issue. The most common of which is to change hunting grounds, to have spies operating in the area who gain the trust of locals and invite the vampire in, having their minions use force to break into a house containing potential victims and then inviting the vampire in, forcing occupants out of a building and attacking them when they leave, or for the vampire to invite people over to their home for parties in the attempt to elicit an invitation (it's not good form to kill people in your own house unless you can get away without being suspected).

Size

Different vampires will have different numbers of minions. In this group I've set up a small group that transport the vampire. However, it can have more minions planted in the village or city. It can also have the addition of an honour guard if need be. It could also be moving between areas of large influence. Depending on its goal and situation, the behaviour can change greatly.

Relationships

A vampire could spend a great deal of time working its way into the good books of local nobles and influential people. They could even play the part of commoner to ensure no-one with power looks at them twice. This means that finding out who the vampire is could be just the beginning. The players may need to deal with innocent guards doing their job, characters who simply don't believe their wild accusations, and many different forms of backup the vampire can raise.

Things Not Going as Planned

A vampire spawn knows that it can die, and will try to preserve itself if in distress. However, it also knows that it has tremendous regeneration abilities and may come back minutes later, ready for more while its targets are low on resources. Regardless, it will try its best to preserve itself and the location of its resting place, fearing the possibility of being staked.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

200th Post!

As the title subtly hints, this is my 200th post. When I started, I never thought I would have gone on for so long. It's not that I planned to quit before this point. It's just the thought never really struck me. I simply wanted the chance to ramble about whatever I wanted and offer advice no-one asked for. As time went my ambitions expanded to the point where I also wanted to review D&D books as they were released up as well as a wide assortment of 3rd part content. It was and I hope continues to be a tremendous experience.

When I started posting it was meant purely for me. There are many things that you notice in a general sense while playing, but being able to put it into words requires a deeper understanding. Taking my vague feelings on the topic of tabletop games, and trying to express them forced me to think about things in greater detail and better understand my own opinions. I could have just wrote for myself and left what I wrote in notebooks or files on my computer. However, being out there for others to read had the potential to help others and start conversations. On the second point I think I largely failed, but tomorrow is a new day. I also realized that I actually enjoy writing on the topic.

Plans For The Future

200 posts down and who knows how many more to go. I hope to continue to cover new D&D books as they are released as well as 3rd party products. Maps and 3D printable terrain in particular have my notice. I hope that going forward I might get the chance to do some interviews too. My focus will continue to be mainly on tabletop and board game topics, but I'll try to do more video game stuff as well on my other blog. If the time comes and I have to chose, I will do as I've done in the past: pick tabletop gaming. I've had the idea to do video game stuff for a while, but the blog just sat deserted.

Thank You!

First, I'd like to thank my players who let me try to kill – I mean play tabletop games with them. You know who you are.You've bargained with devils, hunted and been hunted by vampires, got lost across the planes, and befriended gods. And all in the last couple of months. You've inspired a lot of this, both directly and indirectly. Again, thanks guys.

Next, a big thank you to Wizards of the Coast, and the legacy of TSR. Besides giving me a game to play and write so much about, it gave me a life long hobby, an uncountable number of stories, and a fair few friendships that wouldn't have existed otherwise. Tabletop games have also led to some of my favourite video games. They'r everywhere.

Also a big thank you to 360PR+. In Particular thanks Mark, Sheila, Mary-Catherine, and Katie. They've always been incredibly helpful, even under a barrages of questions from me. The review copies make it much easier on my part too.

And also to Antal Kéninger and Black Scroll Games. They've released some wonderful sets and 3D printable models. It was a pleasure to be able to review them. I look forward to the new things you have planned.

Lasty to my readers. Some of you have commented, some of you haven't. Thanks for the chance to write for you all and I hope you found at least something of use within the thousands of words.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Dungeon Master: Nudges

Sometimes things get lost in the bustle of a session. The plot went off track. The puzzle you designed isn't going over as well as you intended. Or perhaps a player wants to look around for magic items they can spend their hard earned coin on. Regardless of which of these situations you find yourself in, one of the tools at a Dungeon Master's disposal is giving a slight nudge or hint. However, you also don't want to yank your players back on course. And it's for that reason that I hope to go over the topic today.

When Is It Needed?

Let's start with one of the big questions. And like many topics, I find there are general rules of wisdom but no hard and fast rules. If your players are lost, they'll want some direction and hints. This can happen for a large number of reasons, but challenging puzzles probably are the most common one.

Player Buy In

You don't want to too heavily railroad your players. What might be railroading for one group of players may be a cool twist for another, so the distinction between what isn't railroading and what is isn't clear. However, they typically want some kind of consistent plot and events that unfold so there is some level of buy in required. If your players run somewhere else at the first sign of combat or events unfolding, you can't really have much of a game. You need your players to buy in, and when they do there will be some level of nudging. Some mystery is unfolding in the slums of the city? Well, as we find clues they will lead to conclusions, which will lead the party to the culprit eventually.

Reflecting What They Want

When nudging players, it is far smoother when it is in the direction players want. If a player is looking for a magic item, they'll expect hints and nudges towards that goal. Of course, they are looking for them after all. They will be actively looking, or spending their downtime to locate a magic item. They don't know where it is, so they are begging for a hint and a nudge towards their goal. If you aren't sure, then remember what we are talking about here is a nudge. The players choose whether to follow or to turn elsewhere.

How Is It Done?

The ideal nudge is one that is virtually invisible. We often do this without really noticing it. Clues pointing to other possibilities and outcomes are probably the most common technique. Journals containing cryptic entries, for example. Conversations while players are hidden is another. The more difficult situations to handle in my opinion are when a puzzle doesn't land, or your players get lost. You don't want to solve the riddle for them. Instead, I find that it works best to let players look for ways around it. Perhaps the puzzle isn't necessary and they can just brute force their way through using a pick axe at the cost of time? I've also seen situations where the party goes and hires an expert to come back and solve the riddle for them. In one other case, they hid in the shadows and let the group of baddies after the same artifact solve it for them.

Sometimes though, they will need a hint and often times it makes sense that the character will have more knowledge than the players. If someone is looking for clues in the room to find any other switches, perhaps they notice that dust isn't disturbed in some areas compared to others. The key here is to give something that is minor, fits with what their character would know, and doesn't blow open the puzzle. I'd also be careful about situations where players must solve a puzzle to proceed, and recommend that time be spent on alternate approaches or hints in case it doesn't land as expected. Of course, alternatives work best when they have their own pros and cons.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Outlined

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Adventures Outlined Colouring Book Lich
Lich page from the Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Outlined colouring book.
D&D has seen its properties used in many different forms over the years. There have been movies, novels, video games, and even cartoons. And colouring books. We've had colouring books in previous editions, we've had one released in 2016, and now we have a new colouring book which will be available everywhere on August 21st, 2018 and can already be found at game stores.

I'm also using this as a trial run at a new “look at” format, where I don't go as in depth on a product but take a high level look. I mean, most of my usual sections for reviewing an adventure don't apply at all.

Format

The book usually takes the form of a picture on the right page and a small description of what is being shown on the left. When I say small, I mean it: it's under 2 sentences. As a result, not every page is something that can be coloured. By my count there are 43 pictures to colour, and roughly another 43 pages of descriptions.

Art Style

The art in this book is stylized. It's not the art found in the core books like the previous colouring book for this edition. As usual with art, I'd recommend taking a look to see if you like it. And towards that end, I've included a couple of shots from inside the book.

Adventures Outlined Colouring Book Mimic
An example of the art style found throughout the book.

Price

I find the price to be interesting. At an MSRP of 16.95, that's just a few dollars below (~3 for those of you counting) than the Starter Set. Clearly the Starter Set isn't a colouring book, but getting Lost Mine of Phandelver and a set of dice makes it a tempting alternative.

Free Stuff

Currently there isn't anything on the website. For the previous book there was a sample page and a map page. Perhaps this will be filled in with some time as has happened with some previous adventures. We'll see.

Overall

It's a colouring book. In that regard it meets what you would expect and is rather long as far as colouring books go. Whether you like the stylized appearance of the pictures will depend greatly on your art preferences, and I'd suggest looking above at the examples I provided to get a feel. It's hard to recommend it due to its price and niche compared to the D&D Starter Set. The result is that its a niche product, or a collectors item. 

Adventures Outlined Colouring Book Mind Flayer
Mmm, brains. Can always count on an illithid to want some brains.

Other

  • I laughed hard after seeing the page for the mind flayer with a description explaining how they eat brains. Seeing that in a colouring book made it all the better.
  • Interestingly, the pages aren't numbers. So I had to count them myself.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Dungeon Master: Session Postmortems

There are many issues that can occur during the course of a campaign. Many have simple solutions, many others have complex issues, but regardless you still need to be aware of a problem to address it. A newly formed group will also tend to have more issues than a veteran one, where players haven't had time to work out their issues and get into the flow of things. What I've seen used, and used myself in these cases, is the idea of a postmortem. At the end of some milestone, you have your players look back over what happened and give their opinions.

Being On The Same Page

One of the big things in tabletop gaming is being on the same page. Players need to know what actions they can take and reasonably know what their odds of success is within limits. Dungeon Masters need to know what tools they have at their disposal and what players are willing to tolerate. All of this starts with an understanding between players and Dungeon Master that their concerns will be addressed. Communication break downs and differences of expectation are what postmortems give you the opportunity to address by having a structured system built in where players know they can be heard. You also don't want this kind of stuff to quietly simmer if your players have a problem.

How Often

It depends on your group and their experiences. Doing one per arc is very manageable and makes sure that player concerns are heard. However, earlier in a campaign you might seriously wish to consider doing one per session. This is especially true if you didn't know your players before the campaign started. The more distance there is between you, the more of a necessity there is. Eventually you can get to a point where you don't need them anymore, but I'd still recommend calling for one if concerns are brought up. The big thing to address in this case is if there's a difference of opinion. If fixing the problem for one will cause a problem for another, you'll need a clever compromise or to pick a side and have your players understand.

Taking Too Much Time

The issue that can often happen here is that the postmortems run too long. And especially at the start, this will happen. However, as Dungeon Master you can move on to other topics and then circle back around to the issues that result in a lot of discussions. If necessary, you can have that discussion outside of the session and take it into your favourite chat program or email. Having a structure that people are aware of is also extremely helpful in these cases. Have people mention what they liked (that way you know what is well received and maybe can be used again), what they didn't like (potential problems that need to be solved), and any other comments they might have. I find this setup works well as it touches on the aspects we are really after: what are the likes and dislikes of our players. It may also be an execution thing in some cases, and having that feedback is important.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Unexpected Magic Items

Players often have items in mind for their characters. And why shouldn't they? It really should come as no surprise that the sword and board fighter in a vampire centred campaign dreams of having a sun blade. However, often times the most memorable and loved items are the ones they never expected to have. The trouble is that many items can end up getting sold off, so how do we make items that players want to keep that they never wanted?

Selling Off Items is Fine

Having the party sell off excess magic items is fine. It makes sense, particularly in a high magic setting, that not all of the items they get from their enemies would find a use in the party. It also gives you a nice way out in case you miss. The worst case scenario is have a quest to sell it off and another small shortfall of money.

Why Bother?

Sometimes players like surprises. Finding a really useful magic item they never considered is one of those times. There are a lot of cool magic items already in D&D so I've typically found that new players are often impressed by some of the classics. Veteran players have already seen those items so you need something else to get their sense of wonder going. There are also holes in the list of magic items that you don't always realize until running a campaign. You may want specific items to resist and kill illithid in your campaign, and it makes sense that a group whose goal is to hunt illithids will be trying to develop countermeasures.

Look At Things They Miss

There are a few things that I find my players often don't notice when thinking about useful items. One of which has to do with sight. If you are a human, being able to see at night can be a massive advantage if combat often happens at night. It may also be useful to be able to reveal undead with a magic lantern. Alternatively, building on the existing abilities of a class in ways the player didn't expect often goes over well. I remember one campaign where the fighter got a battleaxe that allowed them to use a modified version of the blink spell. Seeing them dark around the battlefield hitting people was something special and it became one of that player's favourite items. 

Non Combat Uses

Players often think about items that give them an edge in combat. Combat is a tense moment where an extra +1 could have made a difference. However, there is more to magic items than that. This is especially true if you have new players that don't have experience with items like bags of holding. Such an item changes inventory management and makes things more convenient for players. However, it also changes the game. The players are no longer concerned about being attacked while they lead a cart of equipment through dangerous terrain. They no longer have to protect the horse pulling the cart, or devote players to push the cart if it died during an attack. 

Some items have minor effects or only good for role-play. In one campaign I ran a ring was given to the party. It was a plane band, but it had the continual flame spell cast upon it. It diminished the need for lanterns, left the hand open for use since it could be worn, and when the party wizard learned the spell they made similar items for the rest of the party. Characters could easily stash it away and pull it out later when they needed light, which was very useful since they were often traveling at night. Role-play are similar but are even more minor in effect. Clothes that don't dirty or a candle that never runs out are handy, but they don't drastically change the game. The ring I mentioned earlier was used similarly to how a never ending candle could be used: to read at night. However, it was a favourite item since it saved on minor costs and was commonly used by the character since they would read or write often. They were a wizard after all.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Unique Magic Items

There are many reasons to put unique magic items in the hands of your players. They range from rewarding players for accomplishing great deeds, to necessity in a campaign featuring sparse use of magic items. However, regardless of the reason, the end goal is the same: to create special items that your players will remember for years to come and are uniquely their own. Though I am far from a master of this art, I hope to share some of my experience in my pursuit and in the process hope to help someone out there. And of course get inspiration for a few new items, but that doesn't sound as noble.

Special Touch

One little well thought out thing that pulls everything together can work wonders. Of course, we can also go bigger and add a massive benefit. However, I generally feel a collection of abilities that work cohesively are the most effective. Of course, it isn't a general rule and I'm sure you can find cases where two unrelated abilities make sense by expanding the magic item's utility. It can also help expand the item's story.

Common Magic Item Creation Types

Combination of Magic Items

Often in a campaign where magic items are rare, you'll end up with a magic item that is really an amalgamation of multiple magic items together. A flame tongue might also reflect a spell back to the caster if the save is good enough and also give advantage against spells. This is a reasonable thing to do, but it can be a bit uninspired. However, if the combination is chosen intelligently it can lead to amazing items. A common one I've seen is a mash between 2 different staffs to give the user access to more spells. Cool, and allows for more choices for the wizard using it, but I would argue this is an example of an uninspired item. To fix this add a special touch. A flame tongue mashed with staff of fire is a bit more inspired though it has the same origins.

Magic Item Reskin

My player likes the ability of the arrow catching shield, but doesn't like the shield part. I could give them gloves of arrow snaring, but I could also make a greatsword with the perks of the arrow catching shield, but not too much of it to make the new item just better than the gloves (bigger damage die and same AC increase, oh yeah). This is a very common technique. Like the flame tongue ability but are a bow character? You now have a bow with similar abilities. Maybe the Dungeon Master will lower the damage a little, but it will still mostly be a reskinned flame tongue. Like combining items, this can be uninspired and the reskin not different enough to make it really unique or memorable. Again, try to add a little special touch to make it a bit more unique. Examples I've seen done is to give the bow charges and let it used burning hands and fireball (similar to a flame tongue mixed with a staff of fire), immunity to fire damage and the ability to regain 1d6 health when taking fire damage, and the ability to teleport to sources of fire within 30 feet.

Look At Spells

We have a wealth of spells included with each version of D&D. Even 5th edition, being a relative baby compared to its older brothers, has a fairly wide selection of spells for us to choose from. These spells can be combined or tweaked in interesting ways to create cool magical items. For example, in one of my games I had a flame tongue. However, it wasn't just a flame tongue. It was a +3 flame tongue with the ability to use blink once per day without an action cost and to use a bonus action to teleport 10 feet. Jumping into a group of enemies and jumping all over the place using this magic item was something special. I do find, however, that the magic items best received aren't just mirroring a spell. The spell is somehow changed to better reflect its new purpose. With this item, it was the intent of the Dungeon Master to let me use both the teleport and the blink ability at the same time, so it needed to be tweaked.

Break A Rule

We have a wide range of rules. However, I would say that a good amount of magic items at their core are about bending, modifying or breaking a rule to the player's advantage. You roll a d20 + strength + proficiency to see if you hit? Well, my +2 sword modifies it in my favour further. Fall damage is 1d6 per 10 feet? Well, maybe my magic item lets me ignore this rule. Opportunity attacks are also a good candidate. Once we identify what rule we want to break or bend, we also need to identify how. We could just let a player fall as far as they want and not take damage. We could also give them a casting of feather fall once per day.

What Do We Want To Do?

Another way to go about this is to come up with a concept for something cool you want to do. One thing a player might say is, “I want to be able to touch people and do fire damage as well as catch swords”. Well, if we want to give them what they want, we can make gloves that make a punch or touch do 1d4 + strength modifier fire damage instead of the normal one. Also, if they are hit with a melee or ranged weapon attack they can use their reaction to reduce the damage by 1d10 + dex modifier if they have a free hand. This is similar to an existing item (gloves of missile snaring), but also has its own new touch that allows it to do what our player wanted. In this interpretation, the enemy can pry or slide the sword out of your hand afterwards. You could also let the player grab the weapon if the damage is reduced to 0 damage, but this will make it significantly strong. I typically recommend looking at existing items to see if we can modify them to do what we want. This is both for balance, as it makes it easier for new Dungeon Masters to make balanced items, and it is a surprisingly effective way to get the creative juices flowing. Of course, we can still horribly break items in this way but I think often the risks are lower. It also can narrow things down since we don't have to wrestle with how we are going to do the sword catching part of the item. Steal the arrow catching part from an existing item and also apply it to melee weapons. A player may want to bring an existing item from some other medium to life instead of having a concept. This is fine, but I also typically tell my player to do something slightly different to make it their own.

Add Drawbacks

Not all magic items need drawbacks, but they can make an item more interesting. It also lets you impose a cost for suing an incredibly powerful item. Extreme care is needed here. Be too punishing, and you've created a magic item that might as well not exist: it will never be used in your campaign. Common methods are to allow health to be traded for damage output, though the damage output often needs to be higher in order to justify the costs. For some reason I've seen hit point cost resulting in 2 hit points of damage to the enemy done most often. They can also be role-play related draw backs. If the local church recognize a soul stealer sword, they may have some unkind words with you. Again, exercise care here. Often having charge limits on an item is enough to prevent overuse but in some cases, such as items with infinite uses, a different cost may be required.

All Of The Above

When we make an item, it could purely be one of the above sections. More often though, I find it's a mix of multiple ways. For example a player may want to do something, and there is already a spell that's close to what they want that we could add to an item. We may add an extra perk for them because it makes sense in context, and add something that breaks a rule. The point of the above wasn't to give exact answers on how to make a magic item, but instead some of the most common ways I've seen to make magic items. There is always room for other techniques and strikes of inspiration. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Magic Items as Stories

Magic items are capable of a great many things. They can give players and villains alike a needed boost in strength. They can be the source of entire adventures, or trinkets that the players don't think twice about. However, they tend to get stories associated with them over the course of adventures. Even otherwise seemingly useless items may gain life for their utility, or be remembered fondly for the one time they proved to be useful. At this point they become more than just a magic item, they become a story. And it is this topic I hope to explore today.

More Than A +1 Longsword

An easy first step is to avoid giving +1 weapons. Make the item something special by adding a couple of details. Even something small like a few notched on the cross guard can lead to an interesting story when someone they run into finds it familiar. Now, I'd usually recommend something bigger but subtly can be surprisingly effective too.

In terms of function, I've found going big is most memorable. Something that changes the game. The real potential for story telling with these items isn't that it's just a sword like my old one but does more damage. It's that it opened up new options previously beyond the player's reach. The new options that open up allow for new stories to be told. However, you can do both aspects or one or the other. The great part about an item, even if it's just a +1 longsword in combat, is that it might open up role-play opportunities not otherwise possible. A +1 longsword in a world with almost no +1 longswords becomes something more. It will be coveted.

Let's Find Them!

There is always the classic story of trying to find an item. A whole campaign could revolve around finding an item. Whether that's because it's valuable to the players or the NPC that hired them is irrelevant: the item has value and they'll look for it. It takes care though, and players who are willing to go after such a goal.

However, I think that you can't rely on the item itself in this case to drive the whole campaign and story. Instead it's a catalyst for the players and forces who want it to perform actions. As such, the location where the item is and the path to getting to it is the real core of the story. Where and how an item is found, even one that wasn't sought, tells quite a lot about that item and can hint to a larger story. This may sound obvious but I've seen all too often that an item becomes all that is important in a campaign instead of a setup.

Purpose

An item needs to be made by someone for some reason, and if the players aren't going to pawn it off at the nearest stand they'll need a purpose for it too. The purpose may not be foreseen, since it's up to the players to find creative methods to use items. However, if the players realize they are about to face a dangerous situation it isn't uncommon for them to look for ways to change the odds more in their favour. And a common method is through magic items. Scrolls, magic rings, world shattering devices, a sun blade in a vampire centred campaign, take your pick. What's great about these situations is that since the players are actively seeking these items out, it means they already have a purpose. Of course, the trouble with this method is that if the players always break to look for magic items and resources, a good portion of the tension will fly out the window. They can't always run into a situation perfectly prepared.

When it's on the other side of the DM screen I find that the items should help further the goal of the NPC in some way. If the NPC or villain is also chasing after the same item, they need to have a reason. Money is an easy one, but something more personal can often lead to better results. Potions to prevent aging, or the severed limb of a now crippled death knight who wants to regain his power. Those sorts of things.

History

Magic items can become part of the identity of a character. I think we can all remember a character we had that had a certain item that was closely associated with the character in question. Even if it's a published item like a sun blade, the moment it was used cleverly to kill 3 vampire spawn goes down in campaign history and leaves an impact. What it requires to become more in this case is a special moment and use for it. After all, a sun blade wouldn't have been nearly as fondly remembered in a campaign with no vampires, though it would still prove to be more useful than a regular old short sword. This also means that if a player character dies, their old magic items have a history attached to them. I've seen this occur both in cases where players reacquired items their old characters used to have (the campaign was set a thousand years after their previous ones), or where a new player joining a group received the items from their recently dead friend. The responsibility to do justice to their fallen comrade that the player role-played was something hard to describe. The reactions the players had to regaining their old items that now had a long storied history in the world was also hard to describe. The item became a character in the campaign itself, and it was like seeing an old friend NPC come back.

On top of that, some magic items can help tell the story of a character. It's not that uncommon to see a player character who is a disgraced noble or hero. Besides their magic sword, and memories of grander days, they have virtually nothing. You can also have the item grow in power over the course of the campaign as the player becomes more powerful and gains more control over their magic item. In this case, their starting weapon is closely linked to their personal story and has a history all their own. It's also a history you can let the player come up with. Whether it's the magic sword of their fallen friend that they will take to finish their work or whatever else, such a history is a great opportunity for telling stories and role-playing.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Dungeon Master: When to End a Session

Part of plotting a session is trying to figure out when you will call it a day. Eventually time runs out and we need to take a break. However, we also want the sessions to be fun and interesting. This is why it is so hard and so much of a skill. Balancing interesting things, and allowing players the chances to do what they wish within a defined time is tough. It's made even tougher by the nature of role-playing games: things often don't go as planned. Hopefully my thoughts on the matter will be useful and as always, I'm happy to hear other opinions.

Too Short Better Than Too Long

I am of the opinion that running too short is better than running too long in most cases. There are some exceptions that immediately come to mind, but the good thing about running short is that it means you still got through what you had planned. This usually means that there isn't much of a risk of a dead session where nothing happened. Some sessions will naturally be more interesting than others, but something happening is better than nothing. Of course, things could have gone off track but full of interesting events. My group also tends to have strictly timed sessions because of other commitments so I have this opinion by necessity.

What happens if we get through everything we planned? We could of course keep going and in many cases, I'd say this is the correct choice. We have the time so let's use it and continue in the story. The risk we run into is pacing and structure issues. Jumping into a half completed segments, combat encounters especially, can be rough. If we know that we only have 20 minutes left, it may be a good idea to break early instead of expecting everyone to jump right back into a half finished encounter. We could also end up ending on a low note after a tough and engaging combat encounter. In practice, I'm not really worried about this option. I find players often appreciate some breathing time after and to reflect on what happened. Still though, it should progress even if slowly. Some extra time at the end is also perfect if you plan to do a session postmortem.

When Is it Better To Run Longer?

There is also the option of running the session a bit longer sometimes. It will depend on who you have. It could be the only thing they have left for the day so whether they leave at 11pm or 11:20 doesn't matter as long as it ends reasonably close. In these cases, the right choice might be to just do the encounter and end on the high note. We'll run long but we can afford it. It is also sometimes a good idea to let your players know the session will run longer if you know ahead of time. This is especially true for the end of a campaign. If you normally have sessions that run 2-3 hours, it might be a good idea to run a longer 4 hour session and finish everything in one chunk. That way everything is fresh and rolls together well.

Why Are Breaks Bad?

It's been my experience that sessions tend to be scheduled weekly or by-weekly for groups. A week or two are perfect amounts of time to forget things and even with experienced groups, it can take a little bit of time to file the rust off and continue. I find it's somewhere in the 10-15 minute range. For this reason, starting a session in a half-completed combat encounter doesn't generally work the best. If you are using digital tools, it's less of a concern because the map will be untouched. Physical maps and miniatures need to be put away unless you don't need that table for 2 weeks. Sometimes it's unavoidable. I found my players prefer ending a bit early and starting the combat encounter next time. Some combat encounters can be very large and ornate, and in those it's more reasonable to find a logical spot to stop and commence. If the fight takes place in a tower where floors are breaking, stopping just as they fell to the final floor is better a less defined and memorable situation. And obviously the longer the time span between sessions, the worse it is.

Play Until Done

I've played in sessions where the target was about 2 hours, but everyone would stay until it was done. As a result things would often run long (3 hours, and once 4 hours) but each session felt like a complete experience. This worked great for this group, but not everyone has that kind of flexibility and out-of-game factors overrule the game in these cases. But man, is it satisfying to spend a most of a day playing a tabletop game.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Dungeon Master: What A Roll Says

Chance is an important part of a tabletop game and the dice is our tool for introducing it. That little object can determine success or failure for our actions. However, one thing I've wrestled with for as long as I've been gaming is what the roll actually says. In some cases it is rather straight forward. You swung your sword and you hit. In others, such as rolling to determine if someone is lying, things get weirder. As a player, you can even ignore your roll in this case. And it is with the intent to explore this idea that I write today.

Same Idea

Regardless, I find things work best when the meaning of a roll and its result is understood by all at the table. It makes things work far smoother. That way a player knows what the roll failure means and can role-play accordingly. Restarting a scene is something I feel should not happen during play. It takes away one of the great strengths of tabletop gaming: the commitment to choices and progression of story. It is also a major thing that marks it to be different than most video games, though some try to do this as well (though some fiddling with your appdata folders is still possible).

The Roll

So I roll my dice to see if the character was lying. Whether I succeed or fail, we are in a bit of an odd situation. If I failed, and they are in fact lying, do I think they are telling the truth? If they are telling the truth, do I think they are lying? This also adds an extra issue: if I do this consistently, the meta-game becomes obvious. If I failed I get the opposite result. If I rolled a 1 I know what is going on by process of elimination. I can obfuscate it and sometimes tell the truth and sometimes lie. I can also say they don't know when they fail and give the players an answer when they succeed. I'd say this last one is the most common and the simplest to implement. In general, it would be my suggestion for those things that involve recollection or mind related checks. Of course, introducing some exceptions into the mix can make for fun gameplay moments.

Ignoring Them

I don't mean ignoring them like when you don't bother to roll because a player role-played their character well and brought up an excellent point that doesn't need a charisma check. What I mean is that even if a player thinks a character isn't lying, they may still choose not to believe them. This is where things get a bit rough. Is a lie of omission a lie? Technically it is, and I'd argue that a roll should help you figure out that something is being hidden from you based on things you notice from the person who told the lie. However, even if that checks out, a player may still choose to ignore the result and not believe the character. This character broke their word thrice already. Why would I believe them again? Even if they don't lie, they are setting something up. There is a trick somewhere. These moments are great since it's the character the player created overpowering what the player knows or think they know. The roll gave them something, be it knowledge or a new position after climbing a wall. What they choose to do with what they gained is their business.

Did We Succeed?

Your character is trying to convince someone of something. Maybe they are lying, maybe they aren't. Still, how do you know if you succeeded? In this situation, it's hard to tell until the results come back to you. If a bad guy saw through your lie because they are better at reading your actions, or because they know something that directly contradicts what you said, you won't know until they spring their trap. Sometimes you will by a change in disposition. However, sometimes the result of the roll won't be known until farther along, because they'll use the chance to trap you. Again, it's fine and niche in application, but still important. Just make sure to note it for later use. It's easy to forget that your bad guy noticed if you don't.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Maintaining Player Interest

I recently wrote a little bit about hooking players. However, that's just phase one. Once we have them hooked, we need to keep them. This is far more subtle, and still requires serious attention. It involves delivering things that were promised, but often not in ways originally expected. Part of it is also getting your players to think of the future, and look forward to their options. And of course, there is much more to it as well. So let's jump into it.

Giving Players What They Want

Part of a campaign is giving players what they want. Now, this could mean a lot of things and be delivered in different ways. It could also change from player to player. Some players will want elaborate, complex, and challenging combat encounters. Others will want situations they can talk their way out, or rally allies to their cause. Others still will want to unravel a mystery, or navigate the complex political relationships between kingdoms, alliances and empires. Keep hitting these notes that your players love, and they'll be looking forward to more. Seems simple right? Well, not necessarily.

What If They Don't Know?

There is more than that. It's great if your players know themselves well enough to be able to tell you what they want. However, they may miss things. Likewise there will be constraints. You can't have massive battles every session at the same time as deep political intrigue, and a hunt for a lost magical item without it getting jumbled occasionally. So the player who likes political intrigue may need to wait a session or two to have their favourite part come back.

These situations are tough. Finding out what your players like when they don't can be a game of trial and error. However, don't be too worried. Well executed searches that are in the right ballpark go over fine. There just might be other things your players enjoy more that you'll find as you search. You may need to balance everyone's wants as well, and a player might not get their favourite thing but still get enough to enjoy coming back every time. Sometimes players want something new. What is that? Well, they'll know when they find it. It's not exactly helpful advice but it does remind us that looking for novel things isn't a bad thing.

You can also hit something else. There may be a root cause to why your player likes what they like. You may also learn that your player likes the other aspects of the game too, even if they didn't previously say it. This could happen for a wide variety of reasons from their previous game experience, to something just working in ways they didn't foresee. You might have also hit the real root cause of why they like what they do. A player who loves combat encounters may end up really enjoying a political intrigue campaign because they have many options to try to bring people over to their side instead of their enemy. This situation of weighing options, each with their advantages and drawbacks, and making decisions could be the real reason they like combat encounters. You can target this, of course, but more often I find you'll stumble upon these kinds of revelations. Just keep an eye and try not to miss when they fall into your lap.

Paying Off Promises

There are promises that are made when starting a campaign and bringing in players. If you said there would be combat encounters, they expect some combat. Chances are your players were looking forward to them. Some may have been pushed over the edge and decided to join the campaign because of them. Likewise, as you build things during the campaign, players expect them to lead somewhere. Anywhere. You can't guarantee players will like twists and turns as much as their own ideas, but they tend to be far more interested when they know that they are building towards things, and that there will be a reveal.

Also, when thinking about this topic, be careful about going too specific. That there will be kobolds is probably far too specific to be the kind of promise I am talking about here. What makes this difficult is that the promise that the campaign will involve hunting vampires may not be too specific. Some players may really have decided to join the campaign to get the experience of hunting vampires. They loved the idea of living a version of their favourite fiction. However, often times the promise will be higher level. Figuring out what promises you made, and making them accurately in the first place is difficult. However, carefully keeping this in mind is important. Sometimes you can break them but you need to give something in return that is as valuable. What? I don't know. It will depend on your group and it's part of what makes running campaigns hard. However, exercise caution since it's very easy to fail when subverting a promise for something better. You also don't want to do it too often, otherwise promises become meaningless.


Sometimes People's Opinions Change

It's easy to get the idea that things are fine and keep doing it. And often times, this works well for a group. However, it's also important to note that sometimes people's opinions change. The players who were super into dungeon crawling may want a break for a few sessions. If you notice this, or are informed, incorporate it into your campaign. Don't take it personally either. You could make the best spaghetti in the world, but sometimes people want something else. It can happen to the Dungeon Master too, or just makes sense as the campaign evolves. Your intrigue campaign about gathering forces to stop an undead army may in fact end with a combat encounter. After all, doesn't it make sense for a massive battle to occur after so much buildup? It's not necessary, but more often than not your players will want such an awesome combat encounter after so much buildup.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Traveling Between Locations

Sooner or later, players need to cross some area to get to somewhere else. Whether it's moving from one city to another, or even one dimension to another, it's a process and there are many ways to handle it. Do we just skim past it and go to the action after? Do we give side content (some levity and variety could be welcome)? If we do, is it a distraction or does it give them resources they need later? Do we do meaningful stuff that somehow ties back into everything? There are many ways to handle such a situation and what makes things even harder is that it can be very situationally dependent. For these reasons I wish to explore the topic a little.

It's Not Easy

Traveling between locations is difficult in tabletop role-playing games. You want to make it interesting as a Dungeon Master, but it's easy to get mired in side details that people don't enjoy. At the same time, you'll find yourself needing to do something involving it if you have a ranger. Otherwise they'll feel a bit ripped off. Part of this is choosing the right granularity. If there's only one choice to be made for a 3 week journey, you might not want to do a day-by-day (asking everyone on every day what they wish to do) unless it feels like something can happen in between. You might want to give your players a day-by-day break down after they set their path and made decisions, especially if they know where they are and where to go. Or, they might want to know every time something in the journey changes and make a decision. There's a swamp in the way. Go around or go through it? Lose time in one, lose resources because of combat and struggles in the other. If you go this route, I'd recommend at least knowing generally what the location is like. A map makes things far easier. Still I find opinions can greatly vary from player to player.

Did the new Dungeon Masters reading this get scared? Well, don't be. It doesn't instantly mean that all your players will hate your game if you get it wrong. Just be aware of the possible issues that might arise and be prepared to change your approach if your group likes things differently. Experienced Dungeon Masters also run into this when playing with new groups or players. They just know how to handle it due to their experience.

Choosing Granularity

If you have a map in a pre-made adventure, you know roughly what the party will run across when setting a course and can describe it in ways that best suits your group. If you are making a map, that's where it gets difficult. You typically at least want to describe the general layout of the land, and possibly weather. If there is a change of location, such as rolling hills to desert, you'll also want to describe that. However, the big thing is to keep in mind when decisions will be made and these decisions often result in a time vs risk trade off.

Story or Simulation?

Part of this comes down to if you want a more simulationist or story driven experience. For some, role-play the travel can be the highlight of an adventure. Keeping an eye on food, trying to avoid detection, facing the elements, and still trying to arrive on time to their destination. On the other hand, the environment can be something to just skip past. Maybe nothing happened. A bear attack doesn't happen every time someone goes into a forest. Likewise, the trip can be unimportant. So make your choice.

Pressure

When traveling between to locations, I find that there should be some sort of pressure. Whether it's a competing group trying to reach a legendary ruin first, weather getting progressively worse, or the threat of supplies running out, there needs to be a catalyst for tough decisions. It also means that the travel paces in D&D 5th edition start to have meaning where usually they don't. Without this kind of thing, a fast travel pace will very rarely be chosen. Why are your players traveling anyway if they don't have a reason to?

Being Chased

A common and rather effective method for getting players from one place to another is through a chase. Such a setup ideally forces difficult choices to be made and provides a sense of tension. However, we also need to put some complications in. Otherwise it'll just involve the party running away as fast as possible. There also needs to be some solution to the problem at hand. We can't have an unwinnable situation behind the players, forcing them to run forward at full speed right into an ambush they can't win. And at the same time, if the situation they are supposed to run from is unwinnable, the players should know. Looking back, a hilarious number of situations that were meant to be chases ended up as slaughters because players picked fights they thought they could win and failed.

Risk vs Reward

There is an idea of risk and reward when talking about going between two locations. Why wouldn't I explore every place I run across between here and my destination? Well, often times it's the risk of losing time towards our goal. Perhaps having that town indebted to me would be helpful in the long run, but I'll also lose time and give my enemy a head start on the important magic item stored in the vault of the city 4 days away. If I only have so many rations and no ranger, I might not be able to enter every ruin I come across either. Instead, I need to selectively pick them, mark them down, and maybe revisit them later.

This idea also comes back into getting lost. What does it matter if the party gets lost if there is no risk or penalty for doing so? Oh, it takes me longer to get to my destination? So what? The exception to this is when inadvertently finding locations. In this case, getting lost found me a new cool location, new resources and/or allies. However, without risk and reward the party may often just go at a normal pace because they don't want to deal with getting lost. Or they might go at a slow pace because they want to sneak. This decision depends on your party, of course, but the party will typically have one approach they use for everything. This can be fine in general, but there will be cases where you want that added pressure.

Approaches

If decisions are being made there should be some outcomes at some point. Approaching a camp in the woods might allow multiple approaches. If we sneak, we might be able to get a sneak attack or poison their water. If we go fast, maybe we can get their before their hunting party gets back and use divide and conquer. Maybe we know they have hunting parties looking for us. If decisions are being made while traveling, they journey will probably be glossed over with a quick description. That's fine as it lets the party get to what they consider the good stuff. However, keeping in mind what choices the party has over their travels is a good starting place to make it more interesting.