Category Archives: General

Is this thing on? Also, Tomb of Annihilation!

Greetings, random internet people!

It has been some time now since I’ve joined the ranks of the ever expanding army of lapsed bloggers.  This is something that I’m going to try and remedy.  I’m posting to this to declare my intent (to myself just as much as to anyone else) to begin capturing my thoughts on the Tomb of Annihilation along with the details of my own ToA campaign once it starts.  I’m excited about this one.  My 5 year old is a total dinosaur nut, so when I told him about all of the dinosaurs in Chult he was pretty excited too.  He’s already offered to loan me parts of his extensive dinosaur collection to use as minis should my party happen to encounter some dinosaurs.  (spoiler: they will)

After wrapping up my Tyranny of Dragons campaign in Spring of 2016 we did a few one-off games as a palette cleanser prior to diving into the madness that is Curse of Strahd.  I’ll probably write a separate post summarizing my thoughts on Curse of Strahd down the line somewhere but for now let’s just say that it was basically my favorite adventure that I’ve ever run.  In addition to tackling Curse of Strahd,  I began running a second group that started off with the idea that it’d be fairly casual but quickly became a very regular thing.  The second group is a huge change of pace for me because it consists of my wife and my son in addition to two of my regular players and their daughters.  The kids range from roughly 10-12 and are super fun to play with.  My wife and the kids were all first time players so that group has a very different feel and very different challenges compared to running a game for a group of old hands.

With my original group running every other Friday and this new group running on the alternate Fridays, that means that I’m typically running at least one game a week.  I’ve found myself occasionally scrambling to keep with my game prep.  I’m getting better at it as time goes by which will hopefully allow for more time for me to post here.

Future posts may include such topics as:

Running D&D for kids
Recapping my Curse of Strahd campaign (spoiler: it was great fun)
My thoughts on Storm King’s Thunder so far
What we know about Tomb of Annihilation and how to prepare ourselves for it
Random terrain projects that I’ve completed in the last year and that I have in progress now
Using 3D printing in y our gaming terrain projects

What else would people like to hear about?

Initiative Tracker Mk. 2

Initiative tracking is one those thinks that DM’s never seem to get tired of tinkering with.  I don’t generally fiddle for the sake of fiddling, but if there’s something that I can do to save myself time during a game then I’m willing to give it a shot.  I’ve tried a few different methods for tracking initiative over the years but generally go back to just scribbling it down on a piece of paper.  If I’m playing away from my home table, that’s still what I’ll do.  However, game time is a precious commodity so if there’s anything that I can do to speed along the bookkeeping parts of the game I’m going to try and do them.

When I run D&D 5E games at home, this is what I’ve settled on.  Please don’t be too overwhelmed by the spectacular craftsmanship and production value.  I originally tried using write-on magnets on my whiteboard so that I could write down the name of each PC and creature involved in the combat.  This had a few problems.  Mostly, it took too long at the start of combat.  The names tended to wipe off when I handled them.  They were flexible labels so they were difficult to peel off the board when moving creatures around in the order.

My current system involves some Alea Tools magnetic markers that I purchased during 4E that I don’t have a lot of use for these days.  I labeled them with stick-on letters from the home office section of Whatever Big Box Store.

Green = Player Character.  The letter is the first initial of the PC’s name.

Red = Enemy or Enemy Group

Blue = Ally, neutral party, or environmental effect that gets its own initiative

When initiative is rolled, I grab tokens at random, call for that character’s initiative count, and place the token in the correct spot in the order.  No writing down numbers.  No re-sorting the initiative into order after writing everything down the first time.  One less piece of paper to keep track of during the fight.  Everyone can see exactly when their turn is coming so hopefully they’re ready to act when I call their name.

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The Most Skilled Man in the (D&D) World

There are a lot of discussions out there about character optimization, but I got curious about how much I could optimize a character based on skills.  Most normal builds get a pretty limited selection of skills, so you have to go to some weird lengths to really get a big array of skills.

 

Here are all of the possible sources of skill/tool proficiencies that I’ve been able to find:

Races

Dwarf – Choice of Smith’s Tools, Brewer’s Supplies, or Mason’s Tools.

Elf (High) – Perception.

Human (Variant) – One skill of your choice. One feat of your choice (see below).

Gnome (Rock) – Expertise in some History checks.

Half-Elf – Two skills of your choice.

Half-Orc – Intimidation.

 

Classes

Barbarian – Two from Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, and Survival.

Bard (Lore) – Any three skills, any three musical instruments.  College of Lore (any 3 skills) at Level 3.  Expertise at levels 3 and 10.

Cleric (Knowledge) – Two from History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.  Two languages of your choice.  Two from Arcana, History, Nature, or Religion (with expertise).

Druid – Herbalism Kit.  Two from Arcana, Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Religion, and Survival.

Fighter – Two from Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, History, Insight, Intimidation, Perception, and Survival. Champion gets Remarkable Athlete and 7.  Battle Master gets Student of War at 3.

Monk – Two from Acrobatics, Athletics, History, Insight, Religion, and Stealth.  One artisan’s tools or musical instrument.

Paladin – Two from Athletics, Insight, Intimidation, MEdicine, Persuasion, and Religion.

Ranger – Three from Animal Handling, Athletics, Insight, Investigation, Nature, Perception, Stealth, and Survival.

Rogue (Assassin)– Four from Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, Stealth.  Thieves Tools.  Expertise at 1st and 6th levels.  Poisoner’s kit and disguise kit at 3rd level.

Sorcerer – Two from Arcana, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Persuasion, and Religion.

Warlock – Two from Arcana, Deception, History, Intimidation, Investigation, Nature, and Religion.

Wizard – Two from Arcana, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, and Religion.

 

Multiclassing

Most classes don’t grant you additional skill/tool proficiencies when you multiclass into them.  These are the few that do.

Bard – One skill of your choice.  One musical instrument of your choice.

Ranger – One skill from the class’s skill list.

Rogue – One skill from the class’s skill list.  Thieves tools.

Cleric (Knowledge) – You don’t get any skills for multiclassing into Cleric, but if you choose the Knowledge domain you still get your choice of two from Arcana, History, Nature, or Religion (with expertise) as a domain feature.

 

Backgrounds

All the backgrounds are designed to give you a combination of four languages, tool proficiencies, and skill proficiencies.  Backgrounds with no languages will provide more skill proficiencies.

Acolyte – Two languages.  Insight, Religion.

Charlatan – Deception, Slight of Hand.  Disguise Kit, Forgery Kit.

Criminal – Deception, Stealth.  One gaming set, thieves tools.

Entertainer – Acrobatics, Performance.  Disguise Kit, one musical instrument.

Folk Hero – Animal Handling, Survival.  One artisan’s tools, Vehicles (Land).

Guild Artisan – Insight, Persuasion.  One artisan’s tools.  One language.

Hermit – Medicine, Religion.  Herbalism Kit.  One language.

Noble – History, Persuasion.  One type of gaming set.  One language.

Outlander – Athletics, Survival.  One musical instrument.  One language.

Sage – Arcana, History.  Two languages.

Sailor – Athletics, Perception.  Navigator’s tools, Vehicles (water).

Soldier – Athletics, Intimidation.  One type of gaming set, Vehicles (land).

Urchin – Sleight of Hand, Stealth.  Disguise Kit, Thieves’ Tools.

 

Feats

Many feats give you circumstantial bonuses to certain skill checks, but only one gives you flat-out proficiency in additional skills.

Skilled – Three skills or tools of your choice.

 

 

Given all of those options, this is the best skill-master that I’ve been able to come up with.  You could probably tweak the state placements and choice of expertise skills depending on your personal preferences, but I think that this is a good starting point for a highly skilled PC.

1st Level – Human (Variant) Rogue 1: Proficiency in 10 skills, Expertise in 2 skills, Proficiency in 3 tools

3rd Level – Human (Variant) Rogue 1, Bard 1, Cleric (Knowledge) 1: Proficiency in 14 skills, Expertise in 4 skills, Proficiency in 3 tools and 1 musical instrument.  Access to the Guidance cantrip.

5th Level – Human (Variant) Rogue 1, Bard 3, Cleric (Knowledge) 1: 16 skills, Expertise in 6 skills, Proficiency in 3 tools and 1 musical instrument.  Access to the Guidance cantrip.

Here’s an example of the “Most Skilled Man in the World” at Level 5.

Running a Level 0 Session in D&D 5E

Introduction

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is to run the first game of the campaign playing regular folks who by some turn of events are somehow thrust into the life of an adventurer.  There are a few benefits to running a Level 0 session.  First, it’s a great tool for fleshing out a character’s history in a way that will be memorable to the player down the road.  Secondly, it’s a good way to establish a long-term connection between your characters before your campaign even begins.  These people you’re fighting beside aren’t just strangers that you met in a tavern.  They’re your lifelong friends.  Finally, it sets a good tone regarding problem solving.  When you have a bunch of spells and attacks on your character sheet, it’s naturally tempting to go charging into every situation looking for a fight.  You have a hammer (sometimes literally) so therefore everything’s a nail.  By playing a Level 0 character initially, you’re hopefully forced to look for some alternative solutions to conflict.  (although some fighting will probably be inevitable)

The idea of a Level 0 game has been done before using many different systems by many different people, but it seems like an idea that’s particularly suitable to D&D 5th Edition.  With all of the focus on background and character traits along with the mechanics of bounded accuracy, we should have most of the tools that we need to run a productive Level 0 game session.

 

Character Creation

Your players probably may already a good idea of the character that they want to run once the regular campaign begins.  The idea here isn’t to force them into a choice that they wouldn’t make otherwise.  Give them the same level of background information about the campaign that they would normally have available to them (i.e. “A cult devoted to worshipping dragons is attempting to free Tiamat from the Nine Hells.  You must stop them.”) as players, have them decide on a general idea of their character concept.  You may want to discourage them from coming up with too many specifics about their final character so that they are open to being influenced by the events of your Level 0 session.

When it comes to creating characters, follow these guidelines:

  • Race: Depending on the demographics of your world, this could be simple or tricky. Do the good races all basically live together in harmony?  If so, then no special consideration is needed here.  If some or all races tend to live in isolation from one another, you’ll need to think about what has brought your likely multi-racial group together.  If there’s only one outlier, it’s easy enough to explain that they are from the only <whatever> family living in a town of primarily <whatevers>.  If your group is more diverse than that, you might want to center your adventure around a special event or place that could potentially bring different groups together.  It may not place in the hometown of any particular character, instead the group may all meet at a neutral location when they travel for a market, religious pilgrimage, etc.
  • Ability Scores: You could potentially use any of the standard methods for generating attributes. If your players are open to it, this might be a good opportunity to do some old-school rolling in order where you have little or no control over what number gets assigned to which ability score.  Remind your players that some of the best characters are defined as much by their flaws as by their strengths and that having abilities that seem “out of type” (fighter with high Charisma, a rogue with high Wisdom, etc.) can really help to create something unique and memorable.  Some players will be more open to this approach than others, so proceed at your own discretion.
  • Background: This will be the mechanical crux of your Level 0 character. Give them the skills and features associated with their background.  From a story perspective, some will be slightly easier to explain than others.  Noble, Urchin, and Outlander are all easy ones since those statuses are typically established at birth.  With others, you should assume that the character is still “in training” for their chosen background.  If they’re a soldier, they’re a recruit that is close to completing their training.  The same would go for an Acolyte.  Charlatans, Criminals, Entertainers, Guild Artisans, Sages, and Sailors could all be part of an “apprenticeship” period of their life as well.  Hermit is a bit more of a stretch, with two possible options being that the character was either raised by an isolationist family or that they literally grew up alone in the wilderness.  (i.e. “raised by wolves”)
  • Hit Points: These are individuals who are essentially fully grown but not exactly hardened adventurers. Give them one 6-sided hit die and 6 + <Constitution modifier> hit points.
  • Ideals, Bonds, Flaws: Select these as normal with some discretion. Anything referencing years of service or some dramatic event may need to be adjusted accordingly.  Consider allowing changes to these items after the Level 0 session is completed based on the outcome of the adventure.
  • Proficiencies:  +1 Proficiency bonus, skill and tool proficiencies per the character’s race and background, Simple weapons only.
  • Equipment: Per the character’s background. If you’re going to immediately dive into combat, give them some simple weapons as well.  (daggers, clubs, tools, etc.)  Otherwise, make those items available for them to find as needed.
  • Other abilities: Finally, give them a taste of what their Level 1 character might eventually be. Give them a choice between a +1 to hit on weapon attacks, proficiency in a single martial weapon, or a single cantrip. Any toned-down version of a Level 1 class ability would work here.  These people aren’t full fledged adventurers yet, but they clearly aren’t ordinary mooks either.  Give them something to set them aside from your average everyday non-adventurer.

 

The Adventure

Rather than trying to go directly from running Level 0 characters directly into a standard campaign, run the Level 0 game as a flashback that will feed into their established concept for their character.  This will be a look into the character’s past.  It should revolve around an influential event in each character’s life that introduced them to their adventuring companions and led them down the path to becoming an adventurer.  Set it during the equivalent of the teenage years for human characters unless someone specifically prefers a character that begins their adventuring career later in life.  Starting a Level 0 PC as a younger child may push the boundaries of realism or good taste, but consider allowing it if someone has a strong concept in mind.

The adventure itself should be something simple that can be resolved during the course of a single gaming session.  Try to incorporate aspects of each character’s background to highlight each character’s pre-adventuring life.  Use some combat to keep things exciting, but go easy.  As much as my inner killer DM rebels against this point, try not to make this a lethal session.  You’re going to great lengths here to set up a good back story for these characters.  That doesn’t have nearly as much impact if only three out of five of your characters survivor until the current timeline of the campaign.  Write in some “outs” for yourself, such as enemies that are more inclined to take prisoners than to kill.  If all else fails, plan a Deus Ex Machina to use in case things go badly.  If your fledgling adventurers fail in their task, perhaps they get rescued by a group of full-grown adult adventurers.  Something like that might have a big influence on a young person and lead them to take such a path for themselves someday.

If you have any long-term PC’s in mind for your campaign, now would be a good time to sow some seeds for future adventures.  Even if it’s only a brief meeting, you’ll be able to call back to that character far down the road and it’ll be more meaningful than simply informing a player that they happen to know this person that they just met.  Set up a grudge with a long-term enemy.  Establish who the party’s allies might be.  Give them items that they will consider significant later in their careers.

 

Conclusion

Ater your Level 0 adventure is complete, have each player consider what impact those events would have on their character’s eventual career.  Have each player explain briefly what their character ended up doing as a result and how they came to gather with the same group once again at the beginning of your campaign.  Some PCs may have decided to stay together and others may have chosen to walk their own paths as they underwent additional training.  Hopefully by now there is a bond formed among the group that will make starting your campaign that much easier and more satisfying for you as a DM.

Have any more suggestions for running a Level 0 campaign?  Please leave them in the comments!

Assembling a group, Part 1

Depending on your age and circle of friends, assembling a consistent gaming group can be incredibly easy or incredibly difficult. I happen to be in my mid-30’s with two kids and a demanding job, so I would rate my search as falling on the more difficult end of the scale. I relocated from Milwaukee, WI to Appleton, Wi around 5 years ago so we would have a better support structure for our kids. I don’t regret this in the least, but it did involve leaving behind my established gaming group of several years.

For the first few years I would schedule work trips to Milwaukee around my gaming nights, but my job responsibilities started to change and all of the driving began to take its toll on my psyche. During this time I tried on a few occasions to find an established group closer to home, but mostly ran into dead ends. I eventually came to the unfortunate conclusion that as long as I had my old group as a crutch to lean on that I’d never motivate myself to find a game closer to home.

Trying to find someone to game with can be hard. You’re looking for a minority (people who enjoy games as a hobby) of a minority (people who are in roughly the same phase of life as you) of a minority (people you actually enjoy hanging out with).  Plus, all of the usual scheduling conflicts that are involved with trying to impersonate a responsible adult.

Having ended by biweekly pilgrimages to roll the dice, I set about trying to find some local players.  I posted on various forums and Craigslist and eventually began making progress.  I joined a monthly D&D next playtest group as well as a weekly group that was trying to get an RPG going but primarily played board/card games at the time due to lack of consistent attendance.  Both of these groups were fantastic fun and several people from those groups became the players in my newly formed company, but neither one provided the exact experience that I was hoping for.  I’ve become spoiled by years worth of a consistent campaign in Milwaukee and I wanted to recreate that experience.

If I was going to get the game that I wanted, I realized that I was going to have to do the unthinkable.  I was going to have to run it myself.

What’s in a name?

“Dungeon left” is a term that will likely be meaningless to many yet incredibly familiar to the initiated few. Its origin is rooted in fantasy role playing games involving dungeons, particularly Dungeons and Dragons. “Dungeon Left” refers to the common practice among dungeon explorers of sticking to the left hand wall to avoid missing any areas or (even worse) getting lost. There are certainly other takes on this concept such as “Dungeon Right”, but I’ve always been a Dungeon Left man.

Ar this point I must make a minor confession and admit that I briefly toyed with a “Dungeon Center” policy, but that turned out to be an ill-fated experiment. Let’s just say that I’m glad that new character sheets are cheap and leave it at that.

Introduction

Hello.  This post is intended to be an introduction to myself and the purpose of this blog.  I’m 35, have two kids, and live in Northeastern Wisconsin.  You may be shocked to learn that I’m one of the rare RPG nerds that has a career in IT.  I am a new-again gamemaster in the process of starting a new campaign using the D&D Next playtest rules.  This blog is intended to chronicle the events of that campaign as well as the trials and tribulations of running a game.

As I said, I am a new-again gamemaster.  What the hell is that supposed to mean?  I’ve run games previously using a couple different systems and with varying degrees of success, but it’s been a number of years since I’ve attempted it.  This will be the first time that I’ve gotten behind the screen since becoming a married, employed, and arguably responsible father of two.  I’m comfortable enough with running a game session, but I expect trying to find time to adequately prepare those sessions may be a challenge.  Clearly the solution to this problem is to devote part of my already limited free time to writing a blog.

My other challenge is that I would like to expand upon the games that I ran in my younger days and try to do some fairly cool stuff.  I’ve recently started collecting gaming terrain, largely thanks to Dwarven Forge and their recent kickstarter campaign.  I’ve also aquired a decent collection of miniatures, largely thanks to Reaper and their kickstarters.  I’ve played in games using these materials before but this is my first experience in running such a game.  I expect that props and terrain will be a frequent subject here as I try to implement what I have and buy or build new pieces.

With all that being said, welcome.  Hopefully you’ll find something interesting if not helpful here.