Sunday Night DM Podcast: Episode 3 – The Battle For Hommlet

Audio download here.

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Index Card RPG – First Look

Index Card RPG: Core is the work of Drunkens and Dragons creator Hankerin Ferinale. It’s a complete RPG system, built off the back of his Index Card ‘Volume’ packs, designed to give DMs the resources they need to either build stories on the fly, write adventures, or even do away with the traditional map systems some people use. I love the ‘Volumes’, and I have done since I first saw them used here. Hankerin talked a lot about the book in a Facebook livestream, and on YouTube, and they’re both worth watching in order to gain a fantastic insight into his thinking behind the rule set. Here, though, I want to give my rough first impressions on the ruleset as a whole, and a few initial thoughts on how to introduce elements into your existing games. Next week I hope to have a full review out, if I get the opportunity to actually play the game!

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Overview.

The book, in its entirety, is 121 pages, and includes separate pdfs of the character sheet (which, incidentally, is also in the book), and printable, paper minis. But the size belies what makes this system look so appealing; it’s is so, so simple. Combine that with Hankerin’s ability to concisely present concepts I have rarely seen explained well and you have a book that is quick and easy to read, while conveying everything you need to run, or participate, in the game.

The book itself is split into a few distinct parts, each of which I’ll look at seperately:

  • The Introduction,
  • The Rules,
  • Characters,
  • World Primers,
  • Game Mastery,
  • Monsters,
  • and Loot.

The Introduction.

The introduction is really what it says on the tin. It explains generally what you need in order to start a game, how to build the paper minis cheaply and well, and it gives you, the players and Dungeon Masters, the permission to do things your way. This last bit is what makes me most happy – “The game simply says ‘Let’s run with that.'”. Adaptation, houseruling, and flying by the seat of your pants are hallmarks of great RPG groups; your group doesn’t play like mine, which doesn’t play like the group Arveene exists in, which doesn’t play the way Critical Role does. They shouldn’t play the same. Hell, the rules are barely the same. That’s the way it should be. New groups take time to learn this, and I feel having it started, at length, is wonderful.

The Rules.

The meat of what you want to read, I’m guessing, but one of the smaller sections of the book! I’m not going to dive deep into the rules, but there are some things I want to pull out and highlight after my first couple of read throughs.

“On Your Turn.”

In the space of two pages, this book breaks down everything a new player needs to know about how to play the game. Not only that, it does so by reinforcing the text with images so evocative and simple to understand, that the text is barely needed in the first place. I have spent hours, over the last three years, explaining to players how combat works, or that their imagination is far more important to the game than knowing the mechanics of doing what they want to do. These two pages do that wonderfully.

Effort, and the Simplification of DC.

The game, at it’s heart, is D&D 5e. That said, it strips away so much obfuscation and complexity that it becomes it’s own creature. DCs are set at 12, with a +/-3 modifier depending on the difficulty. A hard jump, for example, would need a 15, an easy one a 9. Rolls are made on a d20, with the associated ability modifier (note, skills are nonexistent in ICRPG) added. And that’s that. Pretty much standard fare for 5e.

The major difference here, though, is the concept of ‘effort’. In ICRPG, binary checks are made as they are in 5e – you either succeed in jumping over the gulf, or you fail. Climbing a wall, on the other hand, isn’t a pass or fail. It’s something that you do over time, and that people can help with. First you make your climb check, a single d20 roll, plus your Dex bonus. You pass! So now you roll you ‘effort dice’. This is either a d4 (for basic effort), or a d8 (for magical effort). This, usually, has to add up to 10, and can take multiple rolls over multiple turns. Once you’ve gained the requisite effort, you complete the challenge. I love this concept; it’s a great throw back to the skill challenges of 4e, but over more mundane elements of the game. It’s one example (though there are others) of complexity of game mechanics sacrificed in order to bring life to the game by creating new challenges. What was once a single dice roll, with tension and suspense created by the DMs description, is now tense in itself. How quickly will you climb that wall, with the monster stalking behind you?

Time.

In ICRPG, initiative is not a temporary state. It is a constant of the game, the only distinction being the length of time a ‘turn’ denotes. Initially this was a problem to me; I feel like it would ruin the flow of the game outside of combat. In the context of things like recovery, or even the effort system (and how checks differ depending on how long the turn is designed to take), I can see this working. Personally, I don’t think it suits my style of play, or the players I tend to play with, but I do feel it’s worth mentioning.

Recovery and Death.

I love the recovery system. It simplifies the sometimes difficult Hit Dice system to this – if you spend a turn in ‘Recovery’, you gain a set number of hit points back. In a ‘Moment’, you gain a single hit point if you roll a 20. In ‘Hours’, you regain a full heart (10hp), and a ‘Day’ puts you back to full hit points.

Death, too, is simpler (see the pattern yet?). On your first turn after being reduced to 0hp, roll 1d6. You have that many turns to live. At the start of each of those turns, roll a d20, and on a 20 you leap up with 1hp to fight again. During the countdown any player can use their action to stabilise you, with no check required; that halts the countdown until medical aid is administered.

Again, both these systems are great. In this ruleset they’ll work incredibly well, and the death mechanic is one I’m considering introducing to my home games.

The Banana.

Just a quick one. If you use minis, Hankerin suggests using the Banana rule for movement. Range is broken down into three stages – Close, near and far. Near is a single banana length, and close is base contact.

Now, I realise, using a banana to measure distance in an RPG is as ridiculous as it is arbitrary. One banana will be bigger than another, after all. And that, in my mind, is the whole point! It’s an allegory for this whole ruleset! The game is meant to be fun and fluid, focusing on what really matters, rather than becoming bogged down in the minutiae of the game mechanics. That said, don’t expect to see me using this one.

Characters.

There’s only one thing I really want to talk about here.

Characters.

Do not.

Level up.

You read that right.

Characters advancement in ICRPG is made in one of two ways. Each character class has a number of ‘Milestone Rewards’, which the players can choose for themselves when directed to by the DM. Loot, however, is the most common way of advancing your character. But we’ll talk more about loot later on.

World Primers.

The world primers are pretty damn good. They describe the Alfheim, fantasy setting (one which Drunkens and Dragons fans should be aware of), and Warp Shell, Hankerin’s sci-fi setting. Both settings are nicely described, with just enough information to give DMs plot hooks and atmosphere, while leaving them open for individual groups to build their own mythos.

Game Mastery.

Required reading. Worth the money for this section alone. It even goes so far as including a section about how to fit elements of ICRPG into your own prefered game system. Other things include story construction, encounter achetypes, stuff like that.

Monsters.

Monsters feel fairly similar to those from D&D and it’s kin. The stat lines are incredibly simple, however, with monsters gaining a flat bonus to all rolls, for the most part, as well as other abilities. I don’t feel I can say much else until I actually get to use them, but the simplicity of the stat blocks has me wondering whether it wouldn’t be a better option to what I do right now.

Loot.

Loot is rolled up from d100 tables, and is what drives character advancement in this game, with each item giving a bonus of some kind. The really cool thing is a appendix at the end covering class-specific quests, and the types of loot that characters could be given at completion.

Conclusions (For Now)

I really like the look of ICRPG. It looks really damned fun, and I’m stoked to play a game of it. That in itself is strange; I’d pretty much decided that 5e was my jam, and that I could hack it to do whatever I wanted! Turns out that now I wanna play someone else’s 5e hack!

If you’ve looked through the rules, do let me know what you think. If not, then I heartily recommend checking out the two Drunkens videos linked above and deciding if you can fork out the $17 for the book. Check it out here. As always, thanks so much for dropping by; this month has been amazing, and it’s all down to your support. Thank you. Seriously.

Draft Cartography: Lair of the Xanathar

The final arc of the game I ran in the Forgotten Realms involved the party (11 people in total, at that point) returning to Waterdeep for Midsummer. In the midst of the festivities, Dexter Halebrakt, the renowned illusionist of Baldur’s Gate, displayed his incredible skills. As the show ended, the screaming started. The children of the Sea Ward were gone…

A series of investigations, fights and Skullport-related shenanigans the party fought Dexter, in the illusory guise of a two-headed, golden dragon, and the Ulitharid controlling him. After a brutal fight that the party won, they found the children, only to be approached by a Beholder, representing the Xanathar organisation of Skullport…

The Premise of the Dungeon.

This dungeon was designed to cap off an adventure through the middle layers of the Undermountain, specifically Wyllowood. The Beholder (known as Altas Verdax) is looking to overthrow the leadership of the Xanathar, and needs to clear house in order to do it. Fights, danger and moral quandaries ensue, but that’s not why we’re here. The Xanathar’s Lair is a dungeon level designed to test and kill characters, as befits one of the most powerful Beholders in Faerûn. It had trick doors, a sea hag, and a blinded Beholder.

The Dungeon.

The Lair of the Xanathar

My original notes and sketches of the dungeon.

Rather than brush over every aspect of the dungeon, I’d like to focus on three encounters within the dungeon:

The Sea Hag’s Lair

Immediately after one of my favourite traps (regular readers may recognise the ‘one-player-trips-the-plate-then-the-next-player-gets-trapped-between-two-walls’ concept…this is the dungeon I designed it for!) is a flooded cavern, in almost complete darkness. Broken stone stairs lead into the water, too deep to wade through, too high to keep your head above water. This is the Sea Hag’s lair. Now, of course, for eleven level 5/6 players, a CR 2 sea hag isn’t much of a challenge. In obscured conditions, underwater, with very few air pockets, however…

The intention here is to have the players approach the hag secretly, in very small numbers, taking out the hag, then leading the other party members through the flooded cavern. I designed the encounter to test the tactical aptitude of the party, and involved a creepy, evocative monster with enough magical ability to flounder magical attempts to remove the water. It’s about as simple as that, really.

The Blinded Beholder

Of the three encounters, this is my favourite, and the one I want to focus on the most. The concept is to introduce the party to the mechanics of the Beholder, a creature with the ability to annihilate them if they go about things badly, in a way that allows them some degree of leeway.

The room is large, round, and dimly lit. In the centre, chained to a plinth, is a large, scaled Beholder with a milky white eye, rocking fitfully in it’s sleep. Hiding in the shadows are tiny Beholders, dreamt into existence by their larger kin. This is the central mechanic of the room; the central Beholder creates enemies for the party in reaction to various stimuli.

The room contains a number of Gazers, and a new Gazer comes into existence beside the Beholder randomly, assuming nothing else has happened. The Gazers watch the party, and only attack if they see an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage. As the party make their way through the room, they roll stealth checks against the Beholder’s passive perception. If they fail, the Beholder lashes out in it’s sleep. Randomly choose an eye ray, then make an attack roll at disadvantage. If the attack hits, then the ray has hit its target; resolve the ability as usual, focussed on the relevant character. If it misses, then ignore the rays effect. If the party attack the Beholder, there is a 50/50 chance that it spawns a Death Kiss. The end goal is to reach the doorway leading to a riddle, then take the item disgorged from the riddle area to a second doorway in order to escape (PS; I’m a big fan of not letting my players know if they got the riddle right. Hand them a magic item either way, just make it cursed, or otherwise bad, if they get the riddle wrong).

The trick here is to be stealthy, but escort the characters who can solve the riddle, all while trying to avoid tiny Beholder-kin and eye rays. It’s also a good way to beat out murder hobos –  a blinded Beholder is one thing. Multiple CR 10 Death Kisses, on the other hand, with no real way to escape? Nah thanks.

Xanathar – The Death Tyrant

The idea of Beholders dreaming kinda caught me. Any individual so afraid of their enemies that they build the ridiculous, convoluted dungeon we’re looking at must be terrified of their own demise. It makes sense, then, that they would limit visitors, or cut them out entirely. It turns out that Beholders who are obsessed with their own death become Death Tyrants. That’s kind’ve it, really. The big reveal – the Xanathar is not the entity they were expecting, but something else entirely.

Conclusions

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas for yourself. The dungeon is by no means complete. The story arc was abandoned when I split my D&D group and handed both parts off to other DMs who were in the group, but it was a very formative dungeon for me, one that has bled into several things I’ve written and developed since. If you’ve got questions about anything else in the dungeon (like the ziggurat with the 50ft drop where you have to save against broken bones – something I flipping love), feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line. If there’s enough support for it I might even do up a proper map and PDF, if I get the time.

Anyway, cheers guys!

A Quick Word About Patreon

I recently launched my Patreon page, and I felt it was important to a) let you know that it exists, b) tell you my thinking behind it, and where I’d like to go with it, and c) ask you to give towards it while making sure you know that I don’t expect anything from you guys at all. Anything you give is absolutely appreciated, is a complete surprise, and motivates me to work harder and harder to be worth the money you pledge. But more on that later.

Why Patreon?

I love writing for D&D. It gets me up in the morning, keeps me alive during work, and relaxes me when I get home. I am constantly running ideas through my head for new campaigns, new regions, new characters, new monsters. I want to do so much; I’m already running one online game on a weekly basis, and am recording it to put up as a podcast; I try my best to write for the blog at least once a week (something I’m failing at due to pressures from work and other projects); I will soon be running a Patreon supporters’ game on a monthly basis; I’m building a campaign world, and campaign arcs for other DMs to use, for eventual sale through private channels (since I want to be able to provide PDFs to Patreon supporters, DMs Guild is out of the question).

Eventually, I want to be running two physical D&D games, each fortnightly, alternating weeks, to help build out Talomire and playtest the setting. I want to start writing Talomire-based fiction to give the world flavour and texture. I want to hire people to write, draw, etc. I want to add YouTube videos to my content, complimenting my posts or discussing things I can’t fit into 1,500 words. Finally, I want to get some of my friends together for a irregular podcast chatting about the differing ways we prepare for games, build worlds and run adventures.

Patreon is a fantastic way for me to begin to build this venture. It allows me to reward patrons with exclusive PDFs, access to our Talomire Slack group, and even to the patrons-only game! I really want to expand this, allowing patrons to be included in adventures, help create storylines and NPCs, etc, etc. I love the concept of fans contributing to the development of the thing they love, and Patreon is the best way for me to do that.

Rewards and Goals.

At the moment I have three reward tiers:

$3+ – PDFs of every map I make, along with descriptions of the rooms, and how I plan to use them.

I plan on getting back into map-making proper, and release a new map every two weeks. Alongside this I want to include a Homebrewery-made PDF detailing each of the rooms in the same way I would for a published adventure. The idea is that DMs can use these maps and the room descriptions in their own personal campaigns as a ‘drag and drop’ feature, should they ever need them. Eventually I’d like to be able to move this to once a week (and way down the line hire someone to help with this), doubling the bang for your buck.

$5+ – PDFs of everything I release for Talomire, before they are released for general sale, as well as access to the Talomire Slack group.

This is the level I really think is going to be worth starting at in the next few months. There are a number of full length campaigns I want to detail, as well as regional supplements and homebrewed rules, all of which will be included in this deal. Previous tiers’ rewards are also included.

$10+ – Access to the patron-only, online game (limited to 5 patrons).

I’m really excited about this game, and already have two backers who want to play! It’s giving me a fantastic chance to explore new areas of the map, and begin to expand Talomire beyond the Northwilds, which is awesome.

Eventually, if I earn enough through Patreon to work on it full time, I’d love to open this up to more backers and run a second (or even a third!) game! At the moment things are fairly open, but I do plan on setting a firm time and rough length for the game, to help me plan my month out. When this happens, all patrons on this tier will be given plenty of warning, should they wish to either adjust or cancel their pledge if the game is no longer viable for them. Of course, I don’t want this to happen, so I’ll be working with you guys to make it work for everyone.

Goals.

At the moment, my goals are as follows:

  • $150/month – I plan on starting print runs of my PDFs, complete with commissioned artwork.
  • $500/month – I plan on spending more time running the blog as a business, reducing my work hours to give myself more time to develop content.
  • $1000/month – At this point I want to be working full time on the blog (subject to conversations with my wife, of course!). This would include the YouTube channel, podcasts, etc.
  • $1500/month – This is where I get really pie-in-the-sky. I would love to hire somebody to come onboard. At the moment I’m undecided on the role, but it’s a toss up between writer and DM, hopefully with an artistic streak. This is very likely to be a way off (should I be so lucky), but I feel it’s important to treat these goals seriously, and mark out the path I want to be walking down eventually.
  • $2000+/month – Here we enter the world of investing in people and products; the world of starting a business, publishing my work on scale. Again, this is in no way defined, it’s just an idea of where I want to go.

The Call To Action.

I can’t do this without you. It’s really that simple. The things I want to release and the content I want to write and record need investment of both time and money, and I want to be in a place to give both . If you enjoy my content, and want to see more of it, have a gander at my Patreon page and consider giving some money towards the dream! That said, please don’t feel that you need to. The map PDFs will still be summarised in much the same way that Aesolyn’s Halls were, and all the Talomire content will available for sale.

If you do give towards the blog, then you have my unreserved thanks and gratitude. Unless you’ve been given money by people to do what you love, you can’t know the humbling experience that it is. It makes me want to work harder, smarter and better to give you all the content you deserve. Hopefully I can do that.

My Patreon can be found here: www.patreon.com/sundaynightdm

Thank you,

Chris.

DM Resources – Education

To kick off this short series of ‘articles’ (I shudder to use the word; it makes me feel like I’m weighed down by my almost-three years of 5e DMing experience…) on the various DM resources I use, I thought I’d tackle the topic of education and self-improvement. As the DM it is often our choices that decide whether or not our players had fun. The words we choose to describe the player’s surroundings, options and action; the monsters we choose to throw in their way; the plot twists we choose to spring upon them. Every moment we make choices that can make or break the fun your players are having.

Now while that’s all very dramatic, and not always 100% true, it should get the point across that your job is, surprise, surprise, difficult. And if your job is difficult, you’re always likely to get something wrong from time to time. That’s where these resources come in. They are designed to teach you the lessons of what must account to almost 100 years of D&D experience. Watch them, read them, absorb what you love, and put aside what you don’t.

1 – Matt Colville. Seriously, like, do I even need to say this?

Matt Colville is probably the best DM to watch online. Really. Regardless of how you feel about his DMing style, what he has to teach you in his Running the Game series is freakin’ gold. Wanna know how to control the flow of information? Here. Wanna understand the sociology of D&D? Here.

Matt has a wealth of experience, and puts it forward in such an infectiously energetic way that you immediately want to go and play the game. His videos, from the campaign diaries, to his series building a fighter in the early versions of D&D have inspired so much of what I run today. It’s incredible stuff, and I thoroughly recommend watching it from start to finish.

2 – Matt Mercer. King of the Geeks.

Yep, the other no-brainer. The obvious start point is his GM Tips series on Geek and Sundry, or Critical Role, but simply Googling his name and watching almost any video that comes up will do. Where Matt Colville has taught me the game, and how to run it, Matt Mercer has taught me the joy and the skill of roleplaying. This is his real strength, born from his career as a voice actor. His ability to drive narrative, switch between NPCs at the drop of a hat, to roleplay the good guys and the bad guys with such realism, all of this is truly inspiring to someone who has, only recently, attempted giving his NPCs accents, or even speaking in character. This literally changed my game.

All that is to say nothing of the man’s preparation. Whereas everything else on this list is specifically designed to educate, Matt Mercer is best watched and absorbed in his natural habitat; behind the screen. Seeing his prep, his ability to create new characters of the fly, his encyclopedic knowledge of Alexandria, and even the way he orders initiative, it is all a master class in DMing.

Lastly, I feel like a DM’s weaknesses are every bit as useful for teaching as their strengths. Matt’s constant use of certain words (I’m looking at you, Brackish, Energy, Entity, et al) has made me aware of how quickly someone can have their suspension of disbelief shattered at the jarring realisation that they’ve heard a word a lot in the last few minutes.

3 – Kobold Press’s Guide to Worldbuilding. 190+ pages of total genius.

This is something I literally discovered in Travelling Man Newcastle earlier today, so I don’t know a huge amount about it. What I do know is that after flicking through it and finding the essay on how to build realistic worlds that have a fantastical flair to them I needed to own it.

Truthfully, that’s about all I feel qualified to comment on, though I think you’ll be hearing more from me on it in the near future. Until then, go check it out.

4 – Drunkens & Dragons. The opposite of Matt Colville.

Hankerin Ferinale is a very different DM to the guys I usually watch. That isn’t a good reason not to give him a watch, though. Drunkens & Dragons is a much more mechanical game, where the DM screen is stripped away, where DCs are left out in the open for players to see, and where, often, big monsters’ actions are judged less by roleplay on the part of the DM, and more by predetermined reactions to certain stimuli (much like a series of If/Else statements in programming). The overall feel is more akin to a computer game in it’s mechanical fidelity than a shared narrative experience.

That said, there is so much depth and genius in here. From concepts like ‘room DCs’, where the DC for every challenge in a room is set to a specific DC, to countdowns, to creating video game-like patterns that the players can learn and use against the monster they’re fighting, there are mechanical wonders throughout these videos.

But there’s also a freedom to Hank’s game that was a breath of fresh air to me. Videos such as his Lair of Knowledge series introduced me to new rules systems, books on English landscapes and fiction that has had a lasting influence on the worlds I build. He doesn’t really play D&D. Sure, 5e is the backbone of his game, but stuff like DCC RPG, and his own Index Card RPG have made their way in, as he cobbles together all the rules he likes and just makes them work together through sheer force of will.

5 – WebDM. Thanks Andy, for this damned rabbit hole.

Again, I assume you already know about these guys, but they really are amazing. Good, long, 20 minute videos discussing a single topic, regularly things I’ve never really put much thought into. Lawful Outsiders, for example. Damn.

This one’s pretty cut and dry. They talk in depth about stuff, throw out ideas, and various ways to implement these monsters and concepts into your campaigns. They have a depth of knowledge, and they know the game incredibly well. They’ve played across a number of editions, and have all that lore to draw on. It’s amazing to sit and watch, and to learn from.

6 – Chris Perkins. The DM of all DMs.

The master himself, Chris Perkins has been writing and talking about D&D for decades. He was the lead developer on the Monster Manual, and is in charge of D&D story. The man is a creative genius. The Dungeon Master Experience is an amazing history of Chris’ home campaign, detailing his successes and failures, and how you can learn from them. Acquisitions Inc. is incredible. Until I saw Critical Role, Chris Perkins was the DM I emulated, and his various panels, games and articles are still teaching me to this day.

Honourable Mentions.

Without going into much detail, here are a few bits and bobs I think are worth investing some time into:

  • Dragontalk – The official D&D podcast (especially Lore You Should Know and Sage Advice)
  • Mike Mearls and/or Jeremy Crawford interviews
  • Well Met, Adventurers – One of my favourite fellows here on WordPress. Lovely guy. Check him out, and tell him I said hi.
  • The DMG. Really. I overlook it so much as a reference document, and ignore so much of the amazing content in there. Same goes for every other release. There’s something in every one of them.

If you have any other resources you love learning from, please comment and let me know. I wanna learn as much as I can so that I can give my players the best experience I can give them.

Quick Announcements!

Also, in other news, I recently launched my Patreon campaign. If you enjoy what I’m doing here, and want to contribute towards my time (and pick up some rewards in the process), then head over to https://www.patreon.com/SundayNightDM and see what’s on offer.

Finally, on Monday, myself, @the.dank.dm, Liam Lowery and Declan Keane recorded the first episode of our Talomire podcast. I ran Baldun, Ezikiel and Ethos (respectively) through their first steps in my world, and boy did it go interestingly…I’m looking to have that online this Sunday, assuming all things go well, otherwise next Sunday (14/5). That podcast will hopefully be uploaded weekly. I have plans for a second, irregular podcast, the first episode dealing with me and two of my friends, and how we DM. Really looking forward to recording that one.

Anyway, thanks again. Feel free to follow me on my various social media accounts (links below…Instagram is bae), and drop me a line if you wanna chat.

Cheers!

Instagram – www.Instagram.com/chris_hately
Twitter – www.Twitter.com/SundayNightDM
Facebook – www.Facebook.com/SundayNightDM