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Death and Dying
March 18, 2014, 11:18 am
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I’m beginning to see a profound disconnect between the way I play D&D and the way most if not all of my players desire to play D&D. In the past it irked me, but now I’m seeing past my own biases to look for where we have common ground. This post is an effort to begin to resolve that disconnect.

When I play, as a player mind you, I make a character and then explore the world. The character  itself is created almost (sometimes completely) at random. I don’t do “backstory” and I don’t plan out what the character will become. To me, that’s the fun of the game. He gets the title “dragonslayer” when he slays a dragon, not for some imaginary dragon he slayed previous to the campaign.

My players seem to be more interested in exploring their characters. The challenges and battles and NPC’s are just a backdrop upon which they paint the epic story of their avatar. They come into my game as fully formed heroes in their own right, with tales and stories and abilities. That’s awesome, I just don’t always understand or remember it.

Thus a character dying is the ultimate disappointment. A disappointment because it means they aren’t as awesome as we’d imagined, but also because it ruins those well made plans. This view was brought into sharp focus when I listened to the most recent Nearly Enough Dice podcast and they spent quite a long time talking about how upsetting the unplanned death of a character was. That they had plans to develop the story of the character and that losing those plans actually robbed them of the desire to play!

It is my firmly held belief that good narrative comes from the intersection of difficult circumstances (and the catharsis of overcoming them) and the set up of random elements paired with the ingenuity of the DM and players. My personal favorite part of our current campaign was when the party was ambushed by goblins and one of their NPC’s was captured. The party rushed to his aid, and with the help of a druid, saved him from almost certain death. None of that was planned, it was a random encounter coupled with the decisions of the players and it was one of the most exciting combats I can recall. One player said he cheered out loud when they won.

So, I want to find a way to couple a campaign where the fear of death is real with a campaign where players can make long-term goals for their characters. I think the place to start is with the rules for dying. In my campaign, if you go to -10, you’re dead. When you’re below 0, you are bleeding out and can make a save each round to stabilize. When you’re at 0 you’re merely unconscious. I want to add an additional layer of “padding” to this scheme but it will also make things interesting.

Instead of immediate death occurring at -10, roll a d20 and if it’s under your Con, instead of dying roll on this chart:

  1. You take an arrow to the knee, speed reduced by half.
  2. Lose use of one body part 1d4 left arm, left leg, right arm, right leg.
  3. Lose use of one sense 1d6 hearing, sight, taste, touch, smell, speech (I know it’s not a sense, shut up)
  4. Bonked on the head, lose 1+1d4 int
  5. Wicked deforming scar, lose 1+1d4 cha
  6. Blown joint, lose 1+1d4 dex
  7. Deathwish, lose 1+1d4 wis
  8. Weakened, lose 1+1d4 Con
  9. Sudden onset rickets, lose 1+1d4 Str
  10. Lose a finger, you’ll never draw a bow again and -1 to hit with one handed weapons
  11. Your soul leaves your body for a moment and you see your deity who offers to return you to life, but you have to promise to be a cleric from now on.
  12. Your soul leaves your body for a moment but then you are brought back, but for a purpose (GEAS) by 1d4 a demon, a deity, an Outsider, an alien life-form.
  13. Your soul leaves your body for a moment but then you are brought back but now there’s an evil clone of you about, causing mischief and ruining your good (?) name
  14. You miraculously survive, but now you have a major grudge against whatever killed you. You must seek out any others and attack them on sight.
  15. You wake up in a vat in a wizard’s tower, naked and with strange memories of your old companions and your own death.
  16. After saying one last word of wisdom, you disappear like Yoda. You’re dead, but it was an awesome death.
  17. You totally die, but with your last breath you release your death curse on whomever killed you and they’ll die in 1d6 days in a very gruesome manner.
  18. You die, but your consciousness takes over the nearest NPC. Keep your mental stats and class, gain the hirelings physical stats.
  19. You awaken 1d6 days later but with permanent memory loss, lose one level. If you’re at 1st level, lose your class. You are a commoner until you gain 1000 xp and then you can choose a class and start again as level 1.
  20. You go towards the light and see a vision of how you will eventually die and then awaken. Dungeon master’s choice.

I think this is a cool solution. There’s still a big potential for death but if you roll well, you might have a chance to live on. I tried to make each of these interesting while still allowing players to maintain control of their characters core “person.”



I Know What I Know
March 11, 2014, 10:33 am
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A player recently asked if his character could know that an encroaching enemy was a swarm. I said that if he, as a player, thought it was a swarm, then his character thought it was a swarm. I said let’s make a deal: “If I’m ok with you using meta game knowledge then you have to be ok with me making up my own monsters and traps and classes and spells and applying different abilities and challenge ratings and xp totals to them.”
The player responded with:
I am OK with knowledge checks if you’d prefer that. But I am also OK with you adjusting monsters, as long as they don’t violate the spirit of the base model. For example a swarm immune to aoe. I see both sides…but I think our charcters (sic) should have some knowledge. If you feel out characters wouldn’t know anything about something tell the players. Some of the fun is finding out stuff.
The spirit of the model in every case is creating a unique challenge for the players, no?
In this instance I see myself with two options:
1. Insist that you, as players, forget everything you’ve ever seen, read or heard about role-playing games, literature and science and pretend that your characters are as ignorant as they were on day they were born.
2. Allow you to make assumptions and draw inferences that, although they may be wrong, are based upon experience and tradition and the themes upon which the game we’re playing are built.
I would suggest the first option is distasteful and antithetical to the game we’re playing. Therefore I’m left with option two.
The weakness, as you have at least alluded to, is that players must trust that the DM won’t create a challenge that circumvents the “fairness” or “balance” of the game. I might point to such esoteric monsters as the ear-seeker, the lurker above (or below), the rust monster or the mimic as creatures designed explicitly to mess with the party. (I’ll leave looking those up as an exercise for the reader since you probably won’t encounter them in my game.)
Now, I must stress again that I don’t actually care much for “fairness” or “balance” in my games. I do design the world in a way that makes sense to me for a party starting out. That is to say, you start in a village surrounded by level 1 monsters. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things out there, lurking on my random encounter tables, that will kill you quite unfairly.
I agree that your characters should have some knowledge, I just prefer to settle that based on my description and your problem solving abilities rather than with a roll. I can’t describe how much issue I have with using a roll for this stuff. It’s boring for the player, it undermines the dungeon master and it takes all the drama out of encounters.
I think that the uneven distribution of knowledge in these situations creates good drama. There are times when you go into a situation knowing pretty much exactly what you’re facing. An example is the last big battle where you knew you were fighting bandits on horses led by a fiery battle maiden. That can be fun. And the challenge there is “how do we prepare for this situation.” Another challenge might be “how do we react in an unfamiliar situation.” I understand the impulse to want to quantify every mechanical aspect of every situation in a game. It probably stems from having bad dungeon masters in the past who lord their knowledge over the players as well as the natural urge that many of us have to be in control. That’s not my game. What I don’t tell you in any instance is what I believe will make for the best game. I don’t think it has to be said that if I wanted your characters to die, they’d be dead. Then the game would be dead.
I think I’ve proven that I’m here for the long haul and I’m here to make your gaming experience just as good as I can. Not always instantly satisfying. Not always without some tense moments. But always compelling, always interesting, always unique.

Character Rules
February 26, 2014, 4:38 pm
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In aneffort to clarify and codify my rules for characters in the online play-by-post game, The Chronicles of Ashmont, here are the rules for player characters.

Decisions, decisions

1. A player may only play one character at a time. Hirelings, followers, servants etc will be played by the Dungeon Master and their stats will, in general, be hidden from the player. The one exception is for players who take the—final feat.

2. Play whatever character you want. You may switch between characters at appropriate intervals, generally when the party returns to a village or other “base.”

3. Change your “build” when you please (so long as it is during a rest period.) If you want to retain a character but are unhappy with the “feat progression” you’ve chosen, remake the character. I don’t want something like the relative “crunchiness” of Pathfinder to be the reason you’re unhappy with your guy.

4. New characters start at first level.

5. New characters do not inherit the gear of their predecessor.

6. You may “bank” experience points at a rate of 2 to 1 from your main character, saving it for the time when making a new character is required or desired.

New House Rules
February 18, 2014, 1:50 pm
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This is a crosspost from my online campaign, which is currently on hiatus:


I’m always considering ways to make gaming, and especially online play-by-post gaming, easier. During our hiatus I’ve had a couple of ideas that I think would make our work here easier and give us more time to do what we came here to do: play!


1. Initiative by side. I’m becoming disenfranchised with the granularity of initiative. It’s quite obvious to me that requiring every player to roll initiative increases the “time count” of our play exponentially but if I thought it helped the game in any way, I’d still be loathe to remove it. However, I’m beginning to be of the opinion that requiring individual initiative increases the granularity of combat in a negative way. That is, having everyone go on their individual turn actually makes it seem like combat is flowing more slowly than I think the narrative supports. I see combat happening all at once. Every round takes 6-10 seconds, but the thief is stabbing at the same time as the ranger is shooting his crossbow at the same time the minotaur is swinging his cudgel at the fighter.


Therefore I propose this change: each side in the conflict makes an initiative roll at the beginning of every combat round and each side goes in that order. If a player character wishes to defer, they will take their turn at the end of the round. Under most circumstances the roll for the party will be done by the character initiating combat or the character who is in the lead, using the best judgement of the Dungeon Master.


This has the added benefit of allowing the player characters a better chance to plan their tactics as a group without removing the verisimilitude of “the fray,” combat being a chaotic sort of affair.


2. Simplified Ranges. The fact of the matter is that Pathfinder, even my simplified Pathfinder rules, may not be the best candidate for an online game. The amount of “crunchy” rules makes for difficult situations when the game we’re playing is inherently more unsure than one played at a table. There will always be the danger of a disconnect between player and DM expectations, but that danger is amplified by the distance, and the time it takes for a single turn, in an online game. Mapping helps alleviate some of this disconnect, but the lack of reliable technology that allows player characters to move their own pieces on a real board limits the benefit. In most cases I think I’d prefer to spend my time writing up descriptions and running combat than updating a map once a round.


Therefore I propose this change: during combat, ranges will be simplified in such a way that positioning can be done clearly but without the benefit of a map. The ranges will be defined as Melee, Near, Far and Distant. Under ordinary circumstances, it will take a single move action to go from Melee to Near, from Near to Far and vice versa. Distant range will require a character to spend his entire turn from Far, as he must run to get to a Distant range. The dungeon master will do his best to adjudicate movement to the benefit of the player.


Thrown weapons are effective at Near ranges, ordinary weapons are effective at Near and Far ranges and longbows and crossbows are effective at Distant ranges.


The ranges break down as follows:




Weapon Examples



Dagger, Spear, Blowgun



Javelin, Sling, Shortbow



Longbow, Crossbow





3. Supplies. Book-keeping is embraced by some and reviled by others. At the table, a player might jot a few notes down on his character sheet and move on, trusting that the information will be there when he needs it. In an online enviornment where a single combat may take weeks in real time, that becomes a problem. I have, in the past, stated some rulings about food being taken on journeys. I want to strive to codify that in a way that allows the efficient management of food, ammunition and lodging. For this I am looking for suggestions. My current thinking is that food and drink for journeys be made a requirement, but available to be bought in “parcels” that reduces the book keeping of listing bread, cheese and mead on a character sheet. For ammunition, I’m also considering a “parcel” system that requires a roll after every combat to see if you’ve used up your ammo in that parcel. For lodging, I’d like to use a tiered system where you can choose to pay for basic or luxurious lodging and have some mechanical benefit for choosing the better lodging.

The Final Word on Jedi (For Now)
January 31, 2014, 4:25 pm
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So, grad school came in like a wrecking ball and I’ve been knee deep in homework and grading, but I’m still filling my Moleskine and my Evernote with ideas.

I’ve settled on what I want to do with Jedi for now. I’m going to keep it random. Every level, including first, every character that wishes can choose a number from 1-100 which will be written on the character sheet. Every level, including first, every character that wishes may roll a d100. If any of their numbers comes up, they will experience a Force Awakening and gain two force powers, one random and one selected by the player. Additionally, at any level a character may sacrifice up to 5 Luck to choose 5 more numbers. These numbers, however, only apply to the roll at this level.

Example: Mal Ratto is a level 5 Specialist and has chosen the numbers 17, 26, 36, 85, 90. He rolls a d100 and gets a 44. He has not “unlocked” force sensitivity for this level. At 6th level he chooses the number 8 and also elects to spend 4 Luck points to choose the numbers 19, 34, 71 and 86. Mal now has a one in ten chance of having a Force Awakening.

I’ll admit, I’m still worried that the numbers are too small for the game but I’m very happy with how they work for Star Wars.

P.S. If I wasn’t so skeptical about Bennies or FATE points or what-have-you, I’d make it so you can do “heroic acts” or something to get more “picks” on your Force Awakening list.

Oooooh, or let players get “picks” by doing Dark Side stuff too.

So maybe I’m not as settled as I said I was, but it’s how it has to be for the game to work the way I want.

My First Time
January 8, 2014, 11:35 am
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The first time I DM’d I was just out of college. I started playing D&D in college using the 3.5 rules. I was, as most people, hooked immediately. We played every week in my DM’s homebrew campaigns and we changed games every semester and sometimes multiple times during the semester. My first character was a human favored-soul named Chocho San (because of the Weezer song.)

Ok, that’s my history as a player, I’ll move on. So the summer I graduated I talked all my homer friends into playing with me. I made up this introductory encounter where all the PC’s were prisoners of a king and they were brought in and the king was poisoned and there was a passage behind the king’s throne where they could escape and…it was awful. If they hadn’t just gone through the secret passage, I would have had literally nothing for them to do.

The rest of that year is a little foggy for me. I think we played a couple more sessions but as usual everyone was busy and there were varying levels of interest and it just petered out. But a couple of the guys ended up getting really into it and we played quite a bit. I think they got really into story games after they moved away and I know they were much more interested in the story than the “rules” or things making sense.

That fall I got a job and one of the guys that was hired right after me was a D&D player and he had gotten his group, who had been playing since 1st edition, to try this new game called Pathfinder. I joined them in the spring playing a halfling bard and got really into Pathfinder. I played with those guys for quite a while and ended up sharing the DM’s chair some. I DM’d a lot of games off the top of my head and I began to realize that having a setting was advantageous over using pre-prepped modules because if you didn’t know the answer, you knew enough about the world to make one up.

This post is getting kind of long and since I think I’m probably the only person really interested in my gaming history, I’m going to list the campaigns I’ve written and give a short summary.

Weights and Measures live game, set in the capital city of Ashmont. The central theme was that in the government seats on the high council were auctioned off every year and if you had the gold, you could have the power. The idea was to grow a campaign all the way to high level with intrigue and stuff. It lasted maybe 10 sessions.

Chaos Rift The central theme was a demon had attacked the world and when he was smitten, his ruin opened a deep rift in the world where monsters came out and adventurers made their living hunting minerals and gems and killing monsters. Lasted a year or so with multiple players.

Lights of Dawn My first attempt at an online campaign with my ex-WoW friends. This idea came from Chris Perkins’ “points of light” explanation on the Penny Arcade podcast. The players started in a little town and were adventuring to rid the world of a blight. Lasted 6 months or so, but we only got through one combat before jobs and life took over.

Heart of the Mountain A one-shot campaign I wrote to play with those same ex-WoW friends came to my state for a visit. It was set in a steam-punk-ish world at the top of a dwarf mountain. This was a really cool campaign and part of me wishes the players hadn’t spent most of their time on side quests so they could have found out what was actually happening. I’ve kept it a secret for years now and I wonder if it’s about time I go ahead and publish that.

The Chronicles of Ashmont I cannibalize my own stuff quite a bit so the Kingdom of Ashmont was cribbed from my old Weights and Measures. I’ve been running two parties (actually three parties, but one is made up of some of the same people in a different part of the world) in Ashmont for a couple of years now. The home team is up to 5-6th level and the online group has just taken a break so another person can take a shot at DM’ing. Ashmont is a relatively generic D&D setting with the regular orcs and stuff. After the steampunk and a break with Star Wars d20, I wanted to get back to my fantasy roots.

So that’s that. I’m surprised by how much I’ve run and I’m also surprised at the relatively short time most of those lasted. I think it’s mostly due to my player’s being grown-ups and having other things like kids and jobs and mortgages to deal with.

Next post, I’ll talk about my new campaign setting project!

Previous Campaigns Introduction
January 7, 2014, 4:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It has occurred to me that, since I’m a terrible blogger, I haven’t actually posted all the campaigns I’ve run. Nor have I posted much of my history as a DM at all. I intend to correct that oversight in the next few days.

This all stems from the new campaign I’m brewing at the moment. A campaign setting I’m very excited about.