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?


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


  • 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.


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.

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.


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).


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.


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.