D&D Official Releases – An Overview

Since the publishing of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, in late 2014, Wizards of the Coast has kept up a steady stream of releases. From the ‘Core Three’, to Curse of Strahd, to Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, each has its own audience and purpose. So grab a coffee, take a seat, and let’s have a look at what we have to work with.

The Books

WotC’s D&D releases generally fall into three categories: Core, Adventure, and Supplement. The Core books are the big three; Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Player’s Handbook. These books, while no technically essential, are the cornerstone of Fifth Edition, and the foundation upon which everything else builds. Adventures are just as they sound; complete campaigns for DMs to run straight from the book. For the savvy DM, though, they can be much more, becoming treasure troves of dungeons, ideas, maps and creatures. Finally, Supplements are the optional books filled with rules, monsters, and other things the Core books don’t include.

The Core Books

While I believe the Core books are the first D&D purchase your should make after the Starter Set, it’s worth talking quickly about what’s in them, as well as some of their less well known uses.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide

The DMG is the most daunting, but also the most useful of the Core books. Filled with disparate information on a variety of subjects, the book gives DMs far more information than they are ever likely to need. Filled with background information on the planes of the D&D multiverse, advice on how to build and run settlements, NPCs and enemies, and a tonne of optional rules, there is something for everyone, no matter your game style or experience level.

Personally, I use this book more as a reference, jumping to the information I need, rather than reading it cover to cover, and I’d recommend any new DMs do the same. The book has very little in the way of core rules (almost all of which are in the Player’s Handbook), so reading everything is as likely to confuse people new to the game as it is to aid them. I do heartily recommend reading Part 2, and the first few sections of Part 3 (if you’re newer to the game), though, as the advice in this part of the book is useful for old and new DMs alike. Finally, for those of you more comfortable with the game, the Dungeon Master’s Workshop section has some fantastic optional rules to flavour your game. Be it futuristic weapons, permanent injuries, or introducing new ability scores, these rules can help to give a campaign a mechanical flavour, which transfers over into other aspects of the game.

Player’s Handbook

The essential book for players, the PHB is every bit as useful for DMs, with a fantastic spell-list, solid equipment section, and plot hooks galore in the class and race sections. While there is little in the way of background, compared to the DMG, or some of the supplements, there is more than enough in this book to keep campaigns running for a long, long time. If DMs can only choose one book, this is the one I would buy, having run a successful campaign out of this book alone.

Monster Manual

While the Monster Manual might seem to be nothing more than 300 pages of stat blocks, it is so much more than just that. Simply flicking through its pages is inspiration enough for myriad encounters, while monster descriptions are filled with background material and plot hooks. While the PHB is the only book you need to run games, the MM is all you need to write incredible stories.

The Adventures

WotC’s adventure books are generally very well written, and well produced books, though there are a few, well documented, short comings.

Horde of the Dragon Queen

Horde of the Dragon Queen (and Rise of Tiamat, to a lesser extent), suffer from being the first of their kind. The adventure feels strange, and it requires some serious reworking to run, in my personal opinion.

That is not to say, however, that this book is worthless, or without serious merit. The book is filled with wonderful maps, and while the story itself feels railroaded and dull at times, a truncated and edited version of the adventure will make a fantastic sidequest, or lead in to your own adventure.

Rise of Tiamat

Following on where HotDQ left off, Rise of Tiamat suffers less from the railroading of its predecessor. Introducing the players to the political structure and intrigue of Waterdeep, the first chapter of this book is useful for running urban, intrigue-based games. The basic premise of the adventure, the race between the party, and the Cult, is a very good example of offering two ‘end states’ of the campaign. Rise of Tiamat culminates in a battle, with a realistic possibility of Tiamat rising, and destroying the party. Any good campaign should have fail states, from which the party must make the best of their situation; the end of Rise of Tiamat is as good as any to steal for a home game.

It’s also worth noting that the game we’re playing is called ‘Dungeons & Dragons‘. The dragon encounters, and the environments they take place in, are great. Each lair is flavourful, and ripe for being picked from, or lifted into your own campaign. No, we don’t want to just run stereotypical games, but come on…everyone wants to fight a dragon.

Princes of the Apocalypse

A reworking of the classic Temple of Elemental Evil, Princes of the Apocalypse chronicles the rise of four Elemental Cults, and the party’s attempts to thwart them. This all takes place in the Dessarin Valley, on the Sword Coast of Faerûn. If you want to run a game in that setting, then this book is one of three adventures I would recommend buying. The Dessarin Valley is well thought out, filled with lore and history dating back to 2nd edition AD&D, and presented with beautiful maps that can very easily be handed out to players.

The setting also helps mitigate the issue that HotDQ and RoT suffered from, by introducing the players to a sandbox world, while giving them specific areas to investigate. This setting is fairly easy to reskin, allowing you to fit the encounter tables, NPCs and locations into your own world, or another setting of your choice.

Finally, Princes of the Apocalypse’s climax centres on a megadungeon made up of four quadrants. While not amazing, it is good, and be flavoured to your game with ease, if not lifted wholesale.

Out of the Abyss

Out of the Abyss, while having many failures as an adventure, is a treasure trove of ideas, maps, and encounters for any DM wishing to take their game underground. Presented as a hexcrawl, it is filled with great ideas, tables, and locations. What it fails in is lack of variety. In such a large environment, the party very quickly come to see the same encounters time and time again.

One way around this is to create your own encounters, or variations of the ones in the book. Rather than a simple encounter with a Drow patrol, you might have a list of potential encounter to flavour that encounter. Maybe the patrol were caught in a ceiling collapse, and they appreciate your aid, or perhaps you happen upon them eating? The tables, maps, environments and locations in this book can be the foundation of a game, though I recommend some work is done to liven them up and give them a more unique feel.

Curse of Strahd

Curse of Strahd is an absolute must-have if you want to run a gothic horror game. Even if you don’t, some of the encounters and locations of the campaign can be lifted and placed into myriad settings. Hell, I have even taken the Mad Mage found in the book, and thrown him into Lost Mine of Phandelver! Places like the windmill, the abbey, and Castle Ravenloft itself are all worthy of being placed into games and settings galore. The adventure may have its failings, but I honestly believe every DM who reads it will be better for the experience.

Storm King’s Thunder

A huge sandbox that leads the players around the northern Sword Coast, Storm King’s Thunder has no end of things to steal, be it Triboar, and the locations found within, or the lairs of the giant lords, the random encounter tables, or the tale of intrigue as dragons seek to destabilise a fragile alliance. I myself have set up SKT as something the party can investigate themselves, introducing them to a major NPC in their early travels, only to hear of her death later on. So much of the adventure relies on the unique political structure of giant culture, and the maliciousness of dragons, that it barely needs reskinning to fit into your own games either. A great book with a tonne to offer, and plot hooks your players will actually want to look into.

Tales from the Yawning Portal

My favourite part of Tales from the Yawning Portal is the first chapter. In no other WotC release have they described a tavern in such depth. While I have yet to do it myself, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be able to take the first chapter of the book, re-work it to your own ends, and place it into a city of your own making. The place would make for an incredible hub for the players, filled with intrigue, spies, rumours and trails to danger.

The adventures within, of course, are also worth a look. All perfectly reasonable adaptations of old adventures, they can be dropped into your campaign at various levels to give the players an interesting sidequest, or a little slice of D&D history to break up to main narrative. Some can even be used as major plot points (the Tomb of Horrors, for instance), or additional encounters in a grander campaign (using Against the Giants in SKT, for example).

Perhaps the most regularly useful aspect of the book, however, is the range of design encountered in the book. Covering 30 years of D&D design, studying the dungeons, encounters and traps can breath fresh life into your own dungeons, with rooms, concepts or traps making their way into your creations.

Tomb of Annihilation

Another great sandbox that suffers from a lack of variety in encounters. For those wishing to run a jungle game, or to play out ‘Heart of Darkness’, this book is simply a must. The cities and encounters are like nothing you will find in other WotC adventures, and the rules for dinosaur races can be utilised to give your own cities life outside of combat and adventure. The final dungeon, while relying a little too much on puzzles, is characterful and interesting, with loads to be implemented in your dungeons.

Also, it has rules for an undead T-Rex that vomits zombies. Tell me that’s not worth the money.

Dragon Heist, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage

At the time of writing, these adventures have yet to be released. I wanted to give my thoughts, however, based on what I have heard about them.

While several of WotC’s adventures have included elements of political intrigue, and urban gaming, they have yet to set an entire campaign in one city. That is set to change. Both Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage are set in, or underneath, Waterdeep, and will apparently contain rules for playing in the city. This is incredible news, as systems of law, urban locations, and ways to play a traditionally combat heavy game in a new way are sorely needed. I can’t wait to take Waterdeep’s rules and place them into my own cities, and run my own games using them, not to mention DofMM’s rules for going ‘off-map’ in Undermountain. I wait with bated breath.

The Supplements

The Supplements are books released to give new options to players and DMs. Often these contain background and lore elements, as well as more mechanical options.

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

In truth, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is the worst of the D&D supplements. While not bad, it is exactly what it sounds like; a history of the Forgotten Realms, specifically the Sword Coast. But, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make this a bad book, just one that needs to be used correctly. If you play in the Realms, this is a must have, with a potted history of the setting that can help you contextualise the published adventures, and go off-piste with them. The player options at the back, as well as the new spells, are a great way to inject flavour into any game. Imagine introducing your players to Bladesingers for the first time, or a racial subtype they’ve never seen before.

All in all, the book is good, though not for everyone. As a writer, I’ve found it has suited me best as a template for creating my own worlds, giving me a good idea of what it is a I need to be creating, and how much of it I need to create.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters

Volo’s Guide is incredible. Giving DMs a load of great information on monsters big and small, the first half of the book is a plot hook treasure trove. With maps of Mind Flayer colonies, Kobold lairs, and even the homes of Beholders, Volo’s is a must have for those wishing to build their own campaigns. The second half of the book is just stat blocks for new monsters, giving depth in some races (orcs and kobolds, most notably), and introducing us to new ones entirely. Outside the Monster Manual, this is the single best book for building encounters with.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Simply put, Xanathar’s is the best book WotC have released so far, outside the Core Three. Filled with material for both DMs and players, this tome is jam packed with new subclasses, rules clarifications, additional options, and even NPC name tables from every conceivable naming tradition. I cannot think of a single person who would not benefit from this book, and I only just stop short of lumping it in with the Core titles. Really, it is that good.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

Another fantastic release, along the lines of Volo’s, Tome of Foes deals with the major conflicts of the D&D multiverse. Be it the Blood War, the tension between the Elves, or why Halflings are lucky, this tome generates nothing but plot hooks, character backstory and other vital elements of running D&D. Any elf character should decide how they feel about the split between elvish types, and tieflings will begin to feel so much more a part of the world when the Blood War becomes a part of their lives.

The monster stat blocks are another winner, with a gruesome array of high level monsters provided to terrify the party. While there are a number of great options (and some Spelljammer classics hinted at pretty strongly), nothing can get the Oblex out of my head. A creature that feeds on memories, and created by my favourite monster (the Illithids), the Oblex grows to the point where it can create humanoid representations of the people it has eaten, all connected to the Oblex by a thin cord. This is body horror at its best, and my dream encounter is now to have an entire town eaten by one, only to be repopulated by the Oblex’s simulacra. Oh, the distrust that would create…

Conclusions

There is no such thing as a useless book. Every WotC release has its merits and its failings, and both are useful for us as games designers and writers. It’s my hope that this post gives you a bit more information into how I have read these titles, and used their content in my own games, and how each title has influenced my own game design.

Please, let me know your thoughts in the comments. How have you used these books? Have you found stuff particularly useful, or not? After all, I wanna learn from you guys too!

Till next time, cheers!

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DM Resources: Running Your First Game

Watching D&D livestreams like ‘Critical Role‘, ‘Dice, Camera, Action!‘, or ‘Acquisitions Inc‘, can make Dungeon Masters seem like masters of storytelling. The deep, nuanced and colourful worlds that Mercer, Perkins and Holkins have created are as intimidating as they are immersive and awe inspiring. So obviously, as a brand new DM, this is the cost of entry – a complete world, filled with meaningful and interesting NPCs, each with engaging backstories and unique voices.

Except, no. That’s ridiculous.

“How Do I Get Started?”

Getting started in DMing is as easy as getting started as a player. Really. Why? Here’s why.

Simplify the rules.

Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most popular role playing game in the world, followed closely by systems such as Pathfinder (itself based on D&D’s third edition), Call of Cthulu, Shadowrun, and many other games. The common factor between these games is the relative complexity of the rules. Dungeons & Dragons basic rules, for example, are 177 pages long, over two PDFs, while their complete core set trifecta is close to 1,000 pages. That is a ridiculous amount of reading to play make-believe. Thankfully, there are other rule sets on the market that can give you valuable DMing experience, without having to remember the rule for every little thing that will happen.

Index Card RPG

The bestselling brainchild of Hankerin Ferinale, of Runehammer Games (née Drunkens&Dragons) fame, ICRPG is an amazing game for DMs who want to master the game design element of the craft. My full review of the game’s first edition (the second edition was recently released, and contains a tonne more content) can be found here, but I want to quickly summarise why I think it should be one of the first games you look at before hitting the table.

  1. It’s short.
    ICRPG’s core rules cover about 6 pages, and the very basic rules are free (click here). It’s an incredibly short read, and the complete rulebook tops out at just over 200 pages long. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that, rather than the traditional American Letter size of RPG books, this tome is 6″x9″, and mostly written in a larger font, making it easier to read at the table. It also contains all of the rules on character creation, two world primers, monsters galore, and enough adventures to keep you going for a couple of months.
  2. It’s malleable.
    More than any other game I have encountered, ICRPG is designed to built by you, the DM. This might sound scary at first, but the rules outline the creative process, giving you the tools to go and build monsters, traps and even whole new rules for yourself. Using Hearts and tags, it gives you, the DM, the means to build anything on the fly. Need a new monster? Choose a dice modifier, a number of Hearts, and whatever you feel it’s defining feature it, and go hog wild. Need a troll? Well, how about 2 Hearts, +4 to all rolls, a club which deals Weapon Effort, and a vomit attack that all CLOSE characters have to avoid with a Dex check, but that can only be used once every 1d4 rounds.
  3. It’s quick,
    More complex games can very easily get bogged down. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be difficult as a new DM to know how to make these points interesting. ICRPG doesn’t have that problem. Keeping things in a traditional boardgame turn order, the action keeps moving along, and it is absolutely possible to run an adventure that would take weeks in D&D in the course of an afternoon.
  4. That damned Game Mastery section.
    I don’t care if you played Tunnels & Trolls in the ’70s, or don’t know what RPG stands for, the ICRPG Game Mastery section is a must read. It breaks down the very essence of running a role playing game, and all of the concepts within it are system neutral. Reading this will make you a better DM, whether or not you ever use anything in it.

Dungeon World

Dungeon World is another small press title, itself a mod of the Apocalypse World system. The value of Dungeon World, in my honest opinion, is not so much in the rules themselves (though they are incredible), but more in the collaborative nature of character and world creation.

While the rules are free, I don’t recommend going to them first. Check out videos of the game being played, and you’ll see a master class in how to DM well. To quickly summarise, though:

  1. Always ask questions.
    One of your players decides they would like to be an elf. The very first question you ask? “What are elves like?“. Well, in this world, elves are four feet tall, with scaled skin, and eyes which burn like embers. Their affinity for magic was stripped for them in eons past by a vengeful god, and they have strode to rekindle their arcane nature ever since.

    By asking that question you have done three things. 1 – You gave the player creative control, meaning that immediately they have a clear idea of what their place in the world is, and what their culture looks like. 2 – You found out what the player wants. Over the course of the campaign you know that the elf character wants to rekindle the arcane spark which has long laid dead. Gives them opportunities to move towards that goal, and to either succeed or fail in it. 3 – Your player has built a part of your world, and that world’s history, for you.

    Never stop asking those questions. Of course, make sure they hold a consistent logic, but allow your players to build the world around themselves, and use the things they tell you to craft adventures they will immediately engage with with ease.

  2. “Draw a map, but leave plenty of blank space”.
    One of the bits of DMing I love most is crafting worlds. Talomire is one of my true loves in life. But even this world, designed to be published for other DMs to use, is filled with blank space for players and DMs to fill.

    Draw yourself an outline of a map (or check out some of the resources below), and give it one or two major landmarks that you would like to use; a mountain range, a natural port, or a major city for example. During the first session, when players are creating their characters, and you’re asking questions, discuss what the world looks like. What is the climate? Who lives here? Where is the town you grew up in, and what is it called? Fill in the map over the course of the campaign, through the answers your players give, and the adventures you lead them on.

Outsource your prep.

Preparing a game can take time. For some of my more serious games I’ve spent tens of hours prepping a single 2-4 hour session. You do NOT need to do that. Prep enough for a single night of gameplay, around 3-6 encounters or rooms, and have enough content to one side to allow you to improv a game (trust me, DMing is like herding cats) if you need to. The resources I discuss below are all things I use at my table all the time, and I highly recommend you make the most of them.

  1. Predrawn maps.
    Drawing maps is not easy. Crafting dungeons or towns that have character, while still making sense, is time consuming work. Of course, there’s no need to use maps at all, you can simply mind map how the rooms in your dungeon link together, or how the buildings in a town relate to one another. If you do want to use maps, however, check out Dyson’s Dodecahedron. With over 500 incredible maps, there is enough here to never need to draw a map in your life. I regularly print out six or seven of them, just incase my players decide to ignore what I’ve prepared!
  2. Index Cards/Magic the Gathering.
    The Index Card RPG Volumes (seperate, but related to, the ruleset I mentioned above) are a great resource for a number of reasons. They’re fantastic tabletop resources, providing visual aides for players, but they’re also an important adventure-crafting tool. Here’s an exercise. Draw three cards, one after the other. The first card denotes the location, the second the obstacle, and the third the goal.

    I drew a bear trap, a waterfall, and a cave entrance which looks like the gaping maw of a dragon. So, my location is a beartrap. What could that mean? Well, the location could be a trap, somewhere we were lured by those who mean use harm. It could be a hunt, one we were invited upon by a local noble. It could be a torture chamber, from which we must escape to our freedom. The waterfall could be a literal waterfall, one we must cross to achieve our goal, or it could be a metaphorical one; a torrent of enemies we need to avoid or dispatch. The gaping maw, to me, dictates an entrance to something far more dangerous beyond.

    There. That could be a full night of gameplay, where the waterfall is at the end of a river you have to navigate on your escape from prison, or it could be the first room of a dungeon, where you have to escape your bonds and flee down a waterfall into the prison proper. Magic the Gathering cards work just as well. Imagine drawing Sulpher Falls, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and Sword of Feast and Famine, for example.

    Actually, that M:tG example was pretty pricy…anyway!

  3. Two Minute Tabletop and Paper Minis
    Miniatures and battlegrids are not compulsory. Theatre of the mind is a wonderful way of telling stories, and one I have enjoyed playing and running for years. If you enjoy tactical combat, or want to take some of the weight of remembering where everyone is in relation to one another, you needn’t buy 3d minis and craft beautiful maps. Paper minis are incredible. Cheap, easy to make and customise, and free with each ICRPG book and volume, they are a great choice for any DMing just starting out. The simpler the aesthetic the better, too, as it allows players to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, with the mini simply informing their interpretation of the character or creature.

    As for maps, Two Minute Tabletop is a goldmine for battle maps, and a few other bits and bobs. Best printed on A2, it’s easy enough to have these printed on decent paper, and kept in a roll tube for when you need them at the table.

Closing thoughts.

I hope this post has cleared up some of the mystique of DMing. Rather than the labour-intensive slog it can often appear, I like to see it more as an improvisational story, built on the back of the desires your players have voiced, and where game mechanics serve the story and get out of the way, rather than becoming the defining element of a session.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or complaints, fire me a comment or an email (sundaynightdm@gmail.com), and I’ll make sure to get back to you!

Until next time though, thank you!

Chris.

Welcome to Talomire

“Three generations have passed since King Hinton I ascended to the throne, fresh from his brutal campaign against his half brother and triumphant return down the Kings’ Road. King Hinton II, son of King Albert IV now sits upon the Autumn Throne in Arantal, his courtiers and clerics whispering foul poison in his ears and bending this weak-willed cumberworld to their own, selfish desires…” 

Brandon sat, seething. The three adventurers sat across from him, their brigandine ancient and decrepit, their steel helms either too small or too large for their young heads. Not one of them looked old enough to bother a maid, never mind  wield the spears and axes they carried. Hell, one of them looked a maid, not that it’d be the first time he’d seen a young lass flee the beating of her father or husband for a life of coin and violence. He looked them over one last time, his eyes lingering on the smallest figure with the hooded face. He could guess that one’s past, but knew better than to ask this close to Terracrios…

“Listen. History is all well and good, but all you need know is that a man with documents and supplies destined for the Northman’s cause leaves early on the morrow. I need fit and able escorts for this cart, and you three are all I have to hand. We expect no trouble, but the Kings’ Road is never a safe place this far north. It’s three days travel to Northtower. Two nights you’ll send camped on the road, one night you’ll likely be whoring your way through Low Briar’s wenches. Half payment now, half on arrival. How does that sound to you?”

Brandon knew the answer before he even finished the question. Still, even with these three ‘adventurers’ standing guard, he prayed to almighty Barachiel and all his angels that the Kings’ Road would be safe. He laughed mirthlessly. That would never be the case in the Northwild…

How Will You Make Your Mark?

Talomire is a low fantasy setting designed for use in any RPG system. It is a world where magic is outlawed, dangerous and secretive. It is a world where Kings command with an iron fist, while nobles and bishops rule from the shadows. It is a world of danger, intrigue and opportunity, where bold adventurers can seek fame and, more commonly, fortune. Seen as threats, as much as they are defenders or saviours, the adventuring parties of Talomire work for themselves, their loyalty only lasting as long as the coin does. Some fight for more philanthropic reasons, but they are rare and last only a short time. Infamy is all that awaits those with careers worth speaking of, those careers that don’t end at the hands of some terrible creature, in a long forgotten crypt…

Getting Involved.

Talomire may be my own creation, but it is ours to build. If travelling the dirt roads of the Northwilds sounds exciting; if walking the fertile plains and hills of the Terracrios stirs the soul; if the politicking of Arantal, or the fugitive-seeking patrols of The Spine set your imagination ablaze, then take my world and make it your own. Tell your stories, build your towns, rule your Baronies, or delve into the secrets of Talomire’s ancient past. Build the world with your fellow players and storytellers.

Learn More.

At present, Talomire is represented solely in the Talomire Campaign Primer, available for free on DriveThruRPG (click HERE to head there now), with the Talomire podcast expanding on the elements in that document in-game. This podcast is available on Apple iTunes (linked just above), as well as Google Play, Anchor.fm, and YouTube.

Over the next year, and hopefully longer, I aim to release more detailed sourcebooks for those of you who want to know more about the culture, geography and history, as well as ‘canonocal’ adventures set in Talomire. The first of these adventures “The Barrows of Northwild” is already well underway, and should be out soon. On top of this, the Campaign Primer is an ever-evolving document, with the information, art and background I feel gives DMs and players the best insight into my view of Talomire.

Please, Feedback!

I love to hear back from you guys. A recent survey I sent around to my customers directly led to two things; 1) development of a History of Talomire, from the point of view of someone in the world, called “The Death of Magic”. This is designed to be used by both players and DMs to help bring everybody into the same, shared, universe, as well as giving them a springboard for their own creativity. 2) I am currently working on splitting the Campaign Primer into a DMs document and a Players’ document. This will allow me to give players more thematic, in-world information and maps, not all of which will be entirely accurate, while giving DMs unfiltered access into Talomire’s ancient past, the dangers lurking in the unknown parts of the world, as maps with locations no man or woman has ever seen…or at least survived to tell of…

If you want to be a part of this, then please email me at sundaynightDM@gmail.com, or follow me on Instagram (@chris_hately), Twitter (@SundayNightDM), or Facebook, and tell me all about your character’s exploits, the town they were born and raised in, and the people and creatures they’ve met.

Last Words.

Thank you. Whether you spent a fiver on the Campaign Primer, got it for free, or haven’t even checked it out yet, the very fact that you’ve read this far means the world to me. Having people respect my content, often enough to call me out on what I can be doing better, is what makes this all worth doing, and I truly hope it continues. So thank you, and I hope to meet you in the taverns of Northtower…hopefully before the Kaimel Aioki returns from ancient slumber…

The Art of Adventure Prep

In my time running D&D games, there is one constant that has plagued me – bad prep notes. Try as I might, getting all the information I need into a form that leaves me able to accurately run the game I planned has eluded me, leading to one of two outcomes; a game where I feel strangled by my notes, or an entirely improvised game that is fun to play, but overly complex to build over multiple sessions.

Here, I’m hoping to spend some time critiquing my various prep methods. I hope this is useful to you (and myself), planning games in future. Also, please let me know if you prepare your notes differently. I’d love to learn from you guys too!

The DM Folder.

Of all the methods I’ve used, this is by far my favourite, but by the far most unwieldy. In the Sunday Night games I ran (after which this blog is named), I had a lever arch folder split into various sections. These ranged from a section devoted to the city of Waterdeep (maps, charts for shops, detailed descriptions of areas of interest, etc), a section devoted to NPCs (name scratch sheets, stat blocks for NPCs the characters had met, or could meet), and a section devoted entirely to pre-built adventures and spare maps.

This method was wonderful for a number of reasons. I had everything at my fingertips, all in bullet pointed format and easy to rattle off. I could make notes to my heart’s content and print off additional material when I needed. Flicking to the place I needed was made easy by good sectioning, and good labelling. The method’s huge downfall is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Before even beginning to worry about DM screens, dice trays, handouts, minis, 3d terrain and maps, and the rest of those things that we DMs love to use, the majority of our gaming table was dominated by my folder, even on a 6’x4′ table.

This method is something I use outside of the game now. My Talomire setting is wrapped up entirely in one folder, giving me all the resources I need to build adventures and plan nights of gameplay. It’s not something I can use at the table anymore, unfortunately.

The DM Journal

This single item is responsible for the vast majority of my RPG related creativity over the last few months. Constantly carrying a journal that is dedicated to maps, concepts, mechanics and lore means that so much of what would once have been lost to the aether has instead been codified and kept. The rampant creativity, the ability to riff on ideas over time, the ability to come back to ideas and maps down the line; these are all invaluable, and I recommend it unreservedly.

When it comes to running games from a journal you gain a lot of the advantages of a DM folder, but without the ability to properly organise it. It also requires you to be disciplined in your creativity, writing what needs to be written in order. With the way my mind works, this makes it difficult to run anything beyond a one-shot from my journal. Truthfully, this is entirely down to my own lack of discipline. My second journal, I’m hoping, will be much more organised, but I’m not really too hopeful.

My Notebook

With my latest campaign I decided to try and combine the two methods I’ve tried before. I bought a ringbound notebook and took notes on the published adventure I was running. Edge of Darkness is a free Dark Heresy adventure, designed in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. I took bullet point notes on each of the areas, cutting out the descriptive elements from the adventure and highlighting all the elements of that section that I felt were needed. My issue with published adventures has always been making them my own. Reading from the book I feel I need to keep to their vision, and as a result I stop improvising and creating. With this adventure I felt I was able to tear out the things I needed, shave off the parts I felt were surplus, and really make the adventure my own.

The problems I found were mainly due to my failings as a DM, rather than the method. I found myself reading the descriptive text, rather than using it as a guide. As such my descriptions were two-dimensional and lacking a certain something to really make the city immersive. Which leads to…

Prep Moving Fowards

Moving forwards I have two games that I’m planning, and I’m planning on preparing each game in different ways.

  1. Warhammer 40,000
    My 40k campaign is designed to be an open world, investigative game. As a DM that means I have to have all of my information in one place. If the players decide they have a lead on one planet that leads to a completely different planet, then I need to be able to flip to that information. The idea is to condense all of the preparation I need to run the campaign into bullet point format, and run from a ringbound notebook. Each NPC will have a specific motivation, and their movements will be jotted in sections at the back so I can keep track of them. Rather than large block of descriptive text, I plan on filling the book with artwork that depicts the scene I want to portray, with notes on each of the five senses to add flavour (no pun intended).

    A lot of my conceptual preparation for this campaign will be done in my journal, then  moved across to the notebook fully formed.

  2. The Monthly Brew Dog Game
    The Brew Dog game is going to be made up of a series of one-shot games. As such, this game will be run entirely from my notebook. A single map, with each room named to give flavour, and a quick rundown of the mechanics of the encounter within will cover a double spread or two, allowing me to improvise as much as I want without having to worry too much about continuity.

Final Words

I hope any of this is helpful. I plan (when my PC decides to start working again) on making a video detailing how I prep adventures, which should make a lot of what’s written here make more sense. I’ll post that up here when it’s done.

If you’ve got any thoughts, fire me a comment or a message. I’d love to hear how you prepare your games, so please teach me your ways!

Cheers!

Rambling On The Control Of Time In RPGs

This is the first post (if you ignore my first ever post) where I want to ramble about a concept that’s been on my mind. Don’t expect anything mindblowing, or anything fully formed, more a stream of conscious on a topic. I really hope it’s useful, and/or entertaining…

Time is an elusive concept in role playing games. For the players, time is incredibly subjective, and is impossible to keep track of. They dip in and out of character so often, and so fluidly, that time becomes meaningless. For the DM, time is one of those things that you tend to ignore until someone asks you about it. Keeping track of it is difficult at the least, and often almost completely impossible. That said, time can be an incredible resource in your campaign, one that the players must manage, and that the DM can use and abuse. Time in an RPG can relate to either in-game time, or table time, and each needs to be controlled in different ways.

In-Game Time

ICRPG deals with the issue of time by spending the whole game in a form of initiative. The game is essentially turn based, with each turn taking up moments, hours, or days. The DM can then control time by introducing timers and the like. My only issue with this is the breakdown of party discussion that I’ve seen happen when compared to much more open systems, such as traditional D&D. My problem, therefore, is how to combine these two concepts; structured time, with the team discussion and interaction of less structured systems…

This might seem incredibly obvious, but my current thought is to run a variation of initiative. First, allow the party a short period of time to discuss what they want to do. After that they each get two actions (move, make a check, etc). This ’round’ could cover anything from a few moments to weeks, depending on what the party are aiming to do. In reality the exact length of time doesn’t matter so much as the illusion that time is passing, and that wasting that time will have consequences of some sort.

To use an example, I’m about to start running a game based in the Warhammer 40,000 world. The party play an Inquisitorial group, investigating a planetary system. Behind the scenes the bad guys make their moves, fight one another, and work to attain their aims. Money is no resource, the team have regiments, battleships and the unrestrained authority of the Imperial Inquisition at their disposal. What they do not have is time. In general the campaign will run in large blocks of time. What do the party want to do over the course of a week. If they want to spend a week researching something, interrogating someone, or overseeing military operations, then a few rolls will be made, and that’ll be that. If it requires more detail, then we can delve into the details and run that period of time like a traditional D&D adventure.

I think that makes sense…I think.

Table Time

Round timers do a great job of creating tension. The players know they have limited in-game time to do something, and it sharpens their minds to the task. The opposite happens when you break out the egg timers and ask them to do something in three IRL minutes. Physical timers can be a great way to bring the tension that the characters would feel during the in-game timer to the players. This is the kind’ve timer I’m usually worried to break out, but that I’m often glad I did when I use them right. This, I feel, should be used at points where the players are beginning to feel comfortable, and in situations where the player’s characters would really begin to feel the pressure of time. Maybe the ship they’re on is crashing, or the room they’re in is filling with sand. Many of the same events that a random round/turn timer would deal with, the physical timer is a similar, but fundamentally different, way of adding tension.

Final Thoughts

Really hope that all makes sense. Like I said, I’m still formulating my own thoughts on this matter, and I would love to hear what you think about it. Comment down below with your ideas, what you’ve done in your campaigns, and how time has affected your characters. Until next time, cheers!

The Past, The Present, And The Future…

Sunday Night DM began life as somewhere for me to fire my thoughts on DMing, and to talk about Talomire. Since then it has expanded to cover system reviews, maps, adventures, and houserules. I’ve opened up a Patreon account, a YouTube channel, kicked off a podcast, joined Drunkens & Dragons for a couple of livestreams. And I have plans…oh, do I have plans…

The Blog That Was…

When I first started the blog, my main focus was writing about the things that interested me, or that I thought would be interesting to readers. My Instagram account was a flood of Dyson-inspired maps, pictures from my DMs Journal, and any other fun stuff I committed to digital image. The real aim was to chronicle the development of Talomire, my original campaign setting, and to host at least one game in that setting, to put out as a regular podcast.

The blog featured some good, if irregular, content, broaching a number of topics ranging from my first horror adventure to my first experience killing a player character. The podcast had some technical hiccups, with weird sound and difficulty discerning who was playing which character. The content, however, I was happy with. The adventure went in directions I never expected, and the players really seemed to own the world as their own, straight from character creation, then into the game itself. Talomire itself has appeared only sparingly in my blog (excluding the Preparing For Talomire posts), with none of the nation’s lore, or the players’ document I have lying around.

The Blog That Is…

The blog, as it stands at the moment, is a little directionless. I set up my Patreon account, but never really (in hind sight) put enough thought into it. My rewards are lacklustre, the pricing out of whack, and the general layout is underwhelming. Around the same time I recorded my first YouTube video, and streamed my first live ICRPG game. These did spectacularly well, netting me 42 subscribers, and over 12,000 minutes of watch time over around 900 views, all in around a month. I never, due to lack of time and tiredness, capitalised on that, though. I have another livestream to run, and another campaign diary, but have yet to have the time to do them. The blog has suffered as well, with blog coming in few and far between.

All of which leads us to the meat of this post…

The Blog That Is To Come…

Looking at my work over the last five months critically, I can begin to focus in on what I want to be doing, and what (in my opinion) my readers and viewers want to see.

  1. The Blog. I’m hoping to have at least two blog posts out per week. These are likely to be about anything and everything, but will contain a new map twice monthly. The map will be tied in with my Patreon rewards, but I’ll talk more about that further down. The blog will be, for the most part, system agnostic, although I do plan on posting either 5e, ICRPG, or Low Fantasy Gaming specific content from time to time.
  2. YouTube. I want to really begin to capitalise on my gains in YouTube. My initial thoughts (although I need to run this past my players) is to run two livestreams a week. The podcast game, set in Talomire, will run on Fridays, though this may change from time to time, depending on players availability. The second is going to be an Index Card RPG game, set in Warp Shell, continuing off the back of The Last Flight Of The Red Sword. No details, as yet, on the livestreams; they’ll come with time.

    Videos, however, I hope to begin doing fortnightly. Depending on how well that goes I might increase that to once per week. They’ll range from campaign diary-style videos, when I run physical games with my occasional-ICRPG group, to group discussions on topics with other DMs I know.

  3. Patreon. Patreon has been a constant source of inspiration to me ever since my first two Patrons decided I was worth paying money to. In future I want to use this far more. Firstly, all my posts on this blog will be published over on Patreon as well, to have everything in one place. In addition, I will be restructuring my reward tiers, as well as my goals, to better reflect what I want to be doing with the Sunday Night DM…brand seems a strong word, but let’s go with it. I’ll post more about that over on Patreon soon.
  4. Collaborations. Collabs are something I’ve always shied away from, through my own worry and introversion. Having worked with great people I’ve met online (Dank DM and Hankerin Ferinale to mention just two of the awesome guys I’ve had the pleasure of working with), I want to expand that group, and collaborate with anybody I can convince to let me work with them. Again, no details on this, but I’ll make sure to let you all know when I organise something.

I hope all of this sounds as exciting to you as it does to me. Coming away to Italy has given me time to really think about what it is I’m doing here, and given me a real focus for the future. Thank you for bearing with me.

Cheers,

Chris.

Taking Back Initiative – A Look At The Order Of RPG Combat

Initiative in role playing combat is something I’ve always felt is lacking a certain something. It’s difficult, however, to change much about it without making it overly simple, or overly complex. The two systems I’ve used, and enjoyed, are the Index Card system of ‘clockwise from the DM’, and the D&D 5e system of ‘1d20 + Dex, highest goes first’. Both have their upsides, and both have their downsides.

Note: Everything is this post is derived from my own tables, and is not necessarily indicative of other people’s games. I put forward these ideas to spark debate, and hopefully inspire you to go away and create your own initiative system. I do not expect, nor believe that you should, use this proposed system at your own table; make it work for your own context, whatever that looks like.

Dungeons & Dragons

D&D’s major problems are of order and speed. With so much going on in combat, it can be difficult to remember the order players are meant to act in as the DM, and with each combat turn taking so long it’s impossible for players to remain completely engaged for the full combat encounter. Either of these issues, on their own, would be fine. Without each turn taking forever, players can remain more engaged and take more responsibility for the order they act. If turn order was simpler, turn length and complexity wouldn’t matter as much, as people could very easily know whether they’re up next or not.

Index Card RPG

ICRPG’s system is the opposite of D&D’s. Turn order is simply around the table from the DM, with players being allowed to change their seating order between rounds in order to change the order they act. While this gets the party through mechanically complex, or large combat encounters incredibly quickly, I find it loses some aspects of D&D combat that I love. I find my parties tend to act less as a team, and more as a group of individuals. Strategy and tactics go out the window, as people fight the things they see as the biggest threat. Now, this isn’t wholly unrealistic, but I find it difficult to believe that people who have been fighting together for a long time have not learned to communicate and create simple plans on the fly, in the middle of combat.

Aiming For The Middle Ground.

My aim with my initiative system is to shorten the length of individual player turns, increase player agency and responsibility, without sacrificing mechanical complexity, or taking away the cool things players can do. I worked out the following (completely, as yet, unplaytested) system…

  1. The Planning Step.
  2. The Timer.
  3. The Initiative Step.
  4. The DM’s Turn.
  5. The End Step.

The Planning Step

This round happens at the beginning of initiative, before any effect takes place. The DM flips a timer (or sets off a timer on their phone; we’re not gonna be purists here), and from that point the players can talk to each other, and make their plan of attack. BY THE END OF THE TIMER the players must have their initiative decided, and marked down in some way (personally, I would use cards in the centre of the table, that the players can move around themselves).

The aim of this step is to speed up the decision making process of the round, meaning that the turns themselves are much quicker to run through, and that each other player has a vested interest in seeing how the round develops. It also gives the players a chance to act as a team, and develop a  team dynamic. The aim is not to allow the party to metagame, or to allow them time they simply wouldn’t have in a combat situation.

In terms of timers, my current thinking is between twenty seconds and two minutes, depending on the situation the party find themselves in. In a desperate fight for their lives I’d run a twenty second timer; something just long enough for them to decide on their own action, and run through the mechanics of that action (rolling dice, determining effects, etc). In something much more planned, where the players have control of the fight, I’d allow a much longer timer, up to around 2 minutes (adjusted, of course, with playtesting).

The Timer Step

This is the step where any turn/round timers, not carried over from the last round,  are rolled. The aim here is to balance the planning time the players have. While they might have control of a situation, random chance, and the actions of their enemy, will always impact that plan in ways they can’t guess. The main kinds of timers I use are as follows:

  • Monster action timers
  • Lair action timers
  • Narrative timers

Monster Action Timers are 1d4 turn timers. When the timer ends, one hostile creature can make a single action – it can move, attack, change weapons, etc. This does not replace their full set of actions they can make during the DM’s turn. This is to represent the eb and flow of combat, and make even simple creatures potentially lethal. These timers are rolled again when the monster’s action has been taken.

Lair Action Timers are 1d6 timers or 1d4 round timers. When they end, some huge lair effect happens; there is a minor earthquake, a new monster spawns, a platform falls into the lagoon, etc. These timers are rolled again when the lair action has resolved.

Narrative Timers are similar to Lair Action Timers, but relate to narrative elements, and don’t tend to be reset after they are finished. They can range from random timers (1d6, 1d12 rounds) to set timers (30 turns, or 13 rounds). The types of things governed by these timers would be how long it takes for the Tarrasque to wake up after the anti-magic field has been dropped, or how long it will take for the Riders of Rohan to arrive to Gondor’s aid.

You can have as many, or as few timers as you want. I suggest having at least one monster action timer per encounter, using more if you want the encounter to be more dangerous. Lair action timers are useful for adding a layer of mechanical complexity to the battlefield (such as having the battlefield shift and change layout), adding ever-spawning monsters, or creating dangerous elements, such as those found in a dragon’s lair.

The Initiative Step

This is the most conventional part of the system. The players act in the order they’ve chosen. The important thing, as the DM, is to ensure that player turns do not take too long. Their planning time is segregated, so the player turn should simply be a case of acting on the mechanical elements of the game. It should run fairly quickly, with the player describing, for the benefit of the DM, their action, and then acting through the mechanics of the action, be it moving their mini, rolling an attack, or describing a spell effect. The DM will then describe the result of the action, and the turn will advance to the next player.

Of course, due to circumstance, there will be times when the player’s action will be redundant. As the DM, it’s up to you how to run this situation. If you run combat narratively, then it might be appropriate to allow the player to choose a new action, or to redirect their action. Allow then a short period of time to do this, perhaps setting a short timer to avoid confusion. If you run combat in six second increments, and aim of a more realistic encounter, then I would recommend that the action still be taken. In the case of an attack, it makes sense that two people might attack the same target at the same time. In this case, neither might know which one killed the target, or even if the second attack was needed! It’s harsh, but so long as you warn your players that this can, and will, happen, they’ll account for it in their plans. Do NOT surprise them with this. It will annoy them, and they will see it as unfair.

The DM’s Turn

The DM’s turn is the turn in which all hostile creatures, controlled by the DM, act. NPCs can either act when the PCs feel they should act, according to their plan, or the DM can choose where to slot them into initiative. This step is fairly straight forward. It is also the turn in which you tick down round timers.

The End Step

This step is largely theoretical, and has few actual uses. It’s main aim is to clear up the battlefield, check hit point totals, and what creatures may or may not have died, and also to provide an end to the combat round before heading into the next planning turn.

One use I’ve considered is to not tell the players which creatures have died during their turns. If player 1 deals lethal damage to a goblin, I would describe the damage done to it. I might say “as you swing your sword you feel it shear through the goblin’s neck, as the head drops to the floor next to it…” if they dealt a lot of damage in one hit. I might say instead, “You slash the goblin across the chest, a deep gouge, and it staggers back in pain…”. The players don’t know, for certain, that the goblin is dead in either case. However, with the first example, they can make an educated guess. It is up to the next player in initiative to decide whether or not their planned action of attacking the goblin needs to be adjusted. I don’t tell them if the goblin is actually dead until the end step. The theory behind this is that during a six second timeframe, two people would act at the same time, so their actions would overlap. If one player’s action took three seconds, and the next player changes their action based on the result of it, then they logically cannot use the full three seconds. Giving them this uncertainty, in my opinion, adds to the realism of the players’ choices by leaving them unsure of the creature’s fate. I hope that makes sense.

Conclusions, And Variations

Like I said at the top, this is not a system for everybody (I’m not even sure if it’s right for my table; I haven’t played with it yet). I do think, though, it has it’s merits and it’s advantages.

There are a few variations I’m considering alongside this…

Mike Mearls’ Method

Mike Mearls recently published a short run down of his initiative system. Each player decides their actions for the turn, then rolls dice corresponding to each action (1d4 for ranged, 1d8 for melee, etc), with the lowest roll going first. Then, at the start of each round, everyone rolls initiative again with the actions they plan to use that turn.

I considered doing the same thing, but changing the dice rolls to the following:

  • Melee/ranged attack with a light/finesse weapon – 1d4
  • Melee/ranged attack with a normal weapon – 1d6
  • Melee/ranged attack with a heavy weapon – 1d12
  • Casting a spell – 1d8 + Spell Level
  • Changing equipped gear – 1d8
  • Other actions – 1d6

In addition, players can move, and/or take a single bonus action, adding 1d6 to their initiative roll.

Therefore, if a player wanted to move up to an enemy, attack them with a light weapon, and disengage as a bonus action, they would roll 1d6 (movement), 1d4 (attack with a light weapon) and 1d6 (bonus action), adding the results together to get their initiative score. The lowest score goes first, then proceed in order.

Enemy Initiative

Putting the enemies at the end of initiative simplifies the process, but for bigger, badder enemies it feels a bit…flat. There are two ways I’m thinking of getting around this.

1 – Timers

One concept I’m playing with is giving each ability the enemy has a timer. They can break their movement up over the course of these actions, but otherwise the monster is run entirely on timers. My major worry with this method is that enemies begin to feel either random, or somewhat predictable and formulaic.

2 – Initiative Dice

The other idea I had, assuming  we use the Mike Mearls system, was simply to give the creature/group of creatures an initiative dice to roll. This gives the battle a more fluid feel, and combined with timers should make it all feel a bit more dynamic.

Final Thoughts (I suppose this is the conclusions bit I mentioned in the last segment…)

This is a set of theoretical house rules that I have yet to run. I do feel, however, that there’s merit to them, with some playtesting. If you want to try them, feel free (and please tell me how you find them at your table). I’ll post any updates I make over time. Till then, cheers!