Sunday, 31 August 2014

Tyranny of Dragons miniatures

Dominic Matte
I went to Fan Expo today. In addition to attending the D&D 5e panel, I also got suckered into buying a few of the Tyranny of Dragons miniatures.

Well, okay, eight boosters and the ancient brass dragon. But they gave me a $30 discount on the dragon because I bought an eight-pack, and the eight pack saved $20 off individual booster price, so I'm going to pretend I didn't actually just spend $145 on more miniatures when the second Reaper Kickstarter shipment is on its way soon.

Click through for photos and impressions!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

How To Build A Campaign

Dominic Matte
I think I've talked a bit before about how I approach worldbuilding and designing a campaign, but a thread on the D&D subreddit asking how DMs prepare their campaigns got me thinking about a concise summary of my approach. So here's a slightly-longer-than-I'd-intended list:
  • Start with an idea for a story or world. Something like "dragons secretly run every country and are playing a game for control of the world" (which will be the working example for the rest of this post), or "the king has declared that all magic-users are to be executed".
  • Outline some backstory on how and why the world came to the state it's in now, but no more than a few paragraphs to a page. Example: a slightly more thorough version of "there were three ancient empires with dragons as their allies. Eventually the dragons decided they deserved the world and burned the capitals to the ground. But the remainders of the empires banded together and hunted down all the dragons. The handful that survived agreed that they needed to be more subtle. Hiding their existence, they now play a political game for control of the world - last dragon standing wins".  
  • This is where things get more complex. To flesh out the world I start skipping back and forth between a few areas because they tend to feed into each other. If I write in a country I'll add a few bullet points of its history, which creates interactions and political considerations with other countries, which need their own rulers, some of whom hold old grudges, etc.
  1. timeline of pivotal events in history
  2. rough map with countries and important locations
  3. overview of the current major countries and organizations
  4. major NPCs and their goals/allegiances
  • Once I've got a decent working idea of the world I'll start writing out story arcs for the campaign. Again, not too detailed to start; primarily major events and themes. Since I've been running 4e I usually plan an arc for each tier of play: heroic (1-10), paragon (11-20), and epic (21-30). I might start with "heroic is about resolving personal quests, emphasizing that PCs are little fish in a big pond, and learning about the game the dragons are playing; paragon is about the party as a cohesive group starting to influence global politics, get involved in the war, and start throwing wrenches into dragon's plans; epic is about confronting the dragons head-on at a massive scale and choosing the destiny of the world".
  • Finally, when I have a solid base of the world and the campaign arcs, I start planning individual adventures. I almost never plan more than one session ahead since my players are quite unpredictable (unpredictable as in "scout out the elaborate stealth heist scenario I've set up and then knock on the front door and announce their intentions"). But sometimes if I'm really excited about a particular event I'll plan that scenario well in advance - like the big setpiece battle for the transition from heroic to paragon (level 10 to 11). The PCs had just learned about the dragons' game, and though they'd fought a few low-level dragons, the idea was to really drive home the stakes and how much work needed to be done. The PCs joined ten thousand mercenaries and renegades for a bounty of a hundred million gold pieces to slay the dragon in the north, which turned out to be an epic-level threat that massacred the entire force in mere minutes... except for the PCs.

Usually I'm so thorough that no matter how unpredictable my PCs get I always have something to work with. That heist scenario I mentioned earlier? I had detailed patrol routes so I knew when and where they'd be spotted. I had personality profiles and histories for the garrison commanders so I knew how they'd react to a challenge. I had a map and inventory and mini-sidequests for every room in the garrison, so when a duel broke out and rolled across the entire base I had plenty of fun environmental effects and attacks to throw in. It turned out to be a great session even though I anticipated exactly none of the party's actions, because I had an answer for every crazy thing they tried.

So I guess the outline of my process might be helpful but the overall message works out more like, if you want to be ready for anything, overprepare to the max.

But this all turned out longer than I initially anticipated, so here's a TLDR summary of the summary:
  • start with an idea for a story or setting
  • quick and dirty backstory on how the world got to where it is now
  • Hop back and forth between mapmaking, NPCs, countries, and timeline, adding detail as I need it and without focusing on a single thing for very long
  • lay out major campaign themes, arcs, and events, typically divided into heroic/paragon/epic for 4e
  • write adventures on an as-needed basis since PCs are unpredictable

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Brachiosaur Artillery Crew

Dominic Matte
In one of the D&D games I'm running, The Long Game, there's a country - Aurum - whose military makes heavy use of the large exotic animals and monsters that exist in a fantasy world. Since it's my game and I do what I want, Aurum's artillery units are armoured brachiosaurs with massive cannons strapped to their sides.

I've been meaning to sketch one of these artillery brachiosaurs for some time, and finally got around to it today. But as I was drawing I started thinking about exactly how these things would work in combat, so I ended up writing stat blocks for the brachiosaur and its crew.
click to embiggen

Monday, 24 March 2014

Gryphon mini

Dominic Matte
Painted this majestic gryphon miniature from my Reaper Bones set the other day. Think it turned out well.



Sunday, 23 March 2014

D&D Next has crappy monster design

Dominic Matte
I had an argument a conversation on reddit today that really helped me solidify what I don't like about
Next / 5e's monster design. In one word, it's boring. It lays the work of building interesting combats solely on the DM when the monster stats should be doing at least half the work. There's some potential, but it's not being used properly.

Let's use black dragons as an example. I'll compare a 4th edition black dragon with a 5th edition dragon. Before I get started, I'll point out that yes, Next is still only in playtest; the point was to get the rules down and then focus on the extras. If monster stats end up being improved, just take this article as an examination of what makes a good monster stat block and what doesn't.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Dynamic Encounters: Monsters Ate My Money

Dominic Matte
Today I ran the first D&D session I've done in months! Hooray! Two of the three encounters were relatively simple compared to what I've been used to planning for The Long Game, but for the third I decided I'd try something different: tying the party's pay directly to their performance in combat.

Here's the setup: rust monsters are attacking the mining camp, and the party is charged with defending 10 stacks of pure steel ingots scattered across the battlefield. For each stack that survives the fight, the party earns 250g - or for those not inclined to simple math, 2500g if they manage to protect every stack. The catch is that the rust monsters can break down an entire stack of ingots with one standard action, so the party needed to control the bugs' movement and burn them down as fast as possible.

As the PCs were surprised by the attack, the first couple of rust monsters managed to consume a couple of piles of ingots in the first round or two. This group of players is pretty strong on damage - despite rusting weapons and the barbarian's loss of his greatspear, they managed to down the beasts pretty quickly. They were a little light on control, though, so despite the warforged fighter blocking access to one group of ingots, the party ended up losing a couple more stacks as the fight went on. They ended the battle with six stacks surviving, and so they earned 1500g as their reward.

Probably the high point of the battle was the heightened tension when a swarm of baby rust monsters latched on to the warforged and started eating away at his steel plating. Fortunately he survived relatively unscathed.


Monday, 10 March 2014

D&D, finally!

Dominic Matte
After a very long time it finally looks like I'll finally be running another D&D game! (The Long Game isn't over, but Dallas is over in France and we've only played one session since then)

A friend asked me if I had any material I could run. I told him it's not a matter of whether I have material, but which of these seven campaigns he'd like to play. I'm pretty excited and eager to get working on a new campaign, but first the group is going to have to pick one. I narrowed the list down to be a better fit for this group - we may not play super regularly, and we may be missing one or two people in any given session, so it'll have to be fairly episodic.

So here are the three options I sent over:

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THE FLOOD

The campaign is set in a single city experiencing a devastating flood. Trapped in the isolated city, you'll have to deal with the immediate consequences - ancient protective seals are washed away, waterlogged magical artifacts malfunction, monsters escape from an exotic zoo, soft ground lets coffins float to the surface and release undead... As time goes on and isolation continues, new gangs, organizations, and cults will form, and people will start to wonder what caused such a huge flood in the first place... 

This campaign focuses on a single city and how it copes with a major disaster, and looks at some unexpected problems that such a disaster might cause in a world full of magic and monsters, as well as the rising pressure of diverse groups trapped in one place.

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THE NEW FRONTIER

A prosperous, isolated kingdom is running dangerously short on resources. The king and queen send out a call for adventurers to explore the unseen lands beyond the borders to create maps and claim new resources, with pay based on map accuracy and richness of finds. But not all adventurers are honourable - competition is fierce and rivalries develop quickly. 

This campaign is focused on exploration, discovery, and rivalry. Do you go for the most claims or the best claims? What are you willing to do to secure your discoveries? What happens if someone steals your claim? What if your discovery already belongs to someone?
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HIGH SEAS

Over a thousand years ago, the entire continent sank beneath the ocean, and now the former mountain tops are the only solid land. Explorers and pirates make their fortunes rediscovering lost ruins and artifacts, both above water and below. Monsters and storms ravage ships and islands indiscriminately. Cities and small empires are made or broken by naval strength and cannon fire. Fragile alliances are forming for the first time in hundreds of years, and peace may finally be on the horizon... but so might all-out war. 

This campaign features a lot of naval play, including ship-to-ship and underwater combat. Diplomacy is important, but when it fails, so is strength at arms. There's plenty of room for a mix of exploration, politics, and naval warfare.

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Once the group decides on a campaign, I'll get to work. I'm excited - haven't worked on D&D in a while, it'll be fun to get back into it.