101 Days of D&D: web resources for D&D GMs #1

Administrivia: VERY busy this week with work projects, freelance projects, and planning a trip to KC this weekend to get the MINI serviced and do some Christmas shopping, so I’m going to hammer out a few short posts for “101 Days…”, though I’ve got a couple of longer posts percolating around the ol’ noggin. I realized I need to pace myself with this project. I’m only two weeks into a 12-13 week project. First up: the first in a limited edition mini-series about web resources for D&D GMs.

  • Save My Game: is Jason Nelson-Brown’s weeklyesque column at the official D&D website about advice for DMs who are having problems in their campaigns. Many of the topics come from posts on the D&D forums where DMs have asked the community for help with a particular problem she is having in her campaign. I don’t always agree with Nelson-Brown, but his columns always give me something to think about in regards to my D&D campaign, and he has helped save my bacon at least once. In some upcoming posts about particular topics (as opposed to particular resources — the othe axis), I’ll have more to say about some particular columns. In the meantime, his column is a good place to start when you’re having problems with a D&D campaign — or a good place to skim and read BEFORE you start having problems.

101 Days of D&D: miniatures vs. counters vs. air

Miniatures are one of the iconic accoutrements of RPGs. First, the “funny” dice, then maybe lots of books, then minis. Minis may be #2 and books #3. Not sure, nor does it matter. Minis are iconic, which is weird, because I’ve been playing off and on for twenty-something years, but I’ve only started using minis since playing D&D 3.5. I had — and painted — a small handful way back in my roleplaying career, but the prospect of getting enough of them to use in all my games was just too expensive then (when I was in junior high). I never got back into them when I could afford it.

But, now I’m playing a lot of D&D again, and D&D 3.5 is a game with combat that’s pretty tactical in nature and is designed to be played with miniatures. I’ve done it both ways now, and I really prefer playing with minis. It makes things like Attacks of Opportunity and dealing with reach so much easier to deal with. Sure, you can play just fine without them, but I think it enhances the tactical nature of D&D combat.

While I like minis, I don’t have the time or patience to paint metal minis (and I don’t really want to spend the money, either), and the way WOTC markets the plastic minis is a pain in the ass for us roleplayers. If they’d market them individually, I’d get the plastic ones. However, I’m too short of time (or too lazy, more likely) to hunt down singles or trade for the ones I need. I’m lucky that one of the players in my game is also a D&D Minis player, and we usually play at his house. So, I can just use his minis (and I usually do). I don’t, however, own any miniatures or counters or a battlemat.


I’ve been thinking about what to do about the minis situation. I’d really like to have something of my own to use in our weekly games (and other games as well), but I hadn’t really sat down and looked at all my options until this week.

Since you can’t (affordably) get pre-painted metal miniatures (and I’m too lazy to paint them myself), and the pre-painted plastic minis aren’t marketed in a way that’s convenient for us roleplayers, I’ve decided to go with counters.

Counters, on the other hand, are cheap and useful. If you have something like Fiery Dragon’s Counter Collection Digital (nearly a 1000 different counters), a ream of cardstock, and an ink-jet printer, you can print out all the ones you need for a session and not have to do any substitutions like you might have to with plastic minis. They’re also a lot easier to store and transport.

So, I’m going with counters (specifically the Fiery Dragon Counter Collection Digital, mentioned above). I’ve used a few I’ve gotten from other sources and samples, and I think counters rule.

Of course, once you pick your counters/minis, you need a field to play them on: a battle mat. I’ve played on the vinyl battlemats, and I’m not impressed. I think every one I’ve played on had some sort of “memorial” feature due to someone using dry erase instead of wet erase markers on it. That and they’re expensive and ungainly to transport and store. So, that leaves pretty much two options: Tact Tiles and the Flip Mat. Both are cool in different ways. I’ve got a set of Tact Tiles on my Christmas list, but I’ve already ordered a Flip Mat since they’re inexpensive and über-portable.

In addition to mats and counters, I’ve found one other cool related accessory: Fiery Dragon’s Battle Box. The quick-reference cards are worth the price alone, but you also get some spell effect overlay counters, some optional rules, and a single d20 (not sure why, but there it is).

So, there’s the physical landscape. More on the other stuff coming this week.

[NOTE: I started this last week, but we played our weekly session last night sans minis and I REALLY wished I’d had them. I’m addicted.]

101 Days of D&D: Holiday break

I’m pretty much familied-up for the next few days, and I’m cooking the Thanksgiving meal at our house this year, so I haven’t had much time to write anything.

I’m working on a scenario for this week’s game on Saturday night, and I’ve got a list of pieces for this series I’m thinking about, too, including:

  • miniatures vs. counters vs. air
  • Hit Points: man, do I hate ’em!
  • useful podcasts for DMs
  • much, much MORE!

Here’s to everyone having a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday!

101 Days of D&D: reward systems

I spent much of last night involved in a long email conversation with one of the players in my Eberron campaign, we’ll call him “Tim” (which is convenient, since that’s his actual name). Tim sent me a link to the Experience section of “Sweet20”, which is Clinton Nixon’s (of Shadows of Yesterday and The Forge fame) first part of his D&D re-working. Boiled down to its essence, it involved yanking the “kill things and take their stuff” reward system and inserts a pretty elegant and simple system for players deciding what they’ll be rewarded for.

Part of my problem with D&D is that I like the flavor of D&D (especially in the Eberron campaign setting), the vast amounts of published support for it, the communities (both online and in “real” life), and the tradition/nostalgia factor.

However, I seem to want that D&D “flavor” in a game that gets beyond “killing things and taking their stuff,” though I acknowledge that is D&D’s core story. There’s just no way around that. I want something more complex and compelling from a story perspective. In my experience, most D&D groups do that sort of thing anyway if it appeals to them, there just aren’t any game mechanics to support it in D&D 3.5. They just do it and it doesn’t have any connection to their reward/advancement system. But, the Sweet20 Experience system seems to offer a pretty plug-and-play reward mechanic which does support play outside that considered by the D&D core story.

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101 Days of D&D: "Spotlight episodes"

There’s a great RPG called Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson. It’s a heck of a game. It’s my favorite of the “indie,” narrativist RPGs. It’s really good stuff. I highly recommend it if you love good stories and good TV. It’s also a great one-shot or convention game, too.

Not only is PTA a great game in and of itself, it has really affected the way I look at running other RPGs, too, even D&D. In PTA you create a TV show and play through some episodes. Like with TV, not all the starring characters in the show (“protagonists,” in PTA lingo) are the star of every single episode. PTA uses a concept called “screen presence,” which dictates how much of the episode is centered on any given protagonist. Each protagonist will have a screen presence that will vary throughout the season. For example, in a short, five-episode season, Protagonist A might have a screen presence of 1,2,2,3,1. 1 meaning a minor, supporting role and 3 meaning A is the star of that episode. In fact, A’s not just the star, that episode is her “spotlight episode.” PTA defines “spotlight episode as:

Every protagonist has one spotlight episode per season, and it presents a player with a clear opportunity to reveal that protagonist’s complexity. Spotlight episodes are the ones where the studio knows they have a doozy and promote it like crazy all week. For this episode, the spotlight character blossoms in front of the camera, and by the end, that character can’t help but to have grown.

I really like the concept of spotlight episodes in RPGs. Sure, they often evolve naturally on their own, but I like the idea of planning an adventure around a certain character’s — and its player’s — personality, history, desires, fears, etc. in a way that might result in a big epiphany or victory (or defeat) that will change the character or how the player runs it.

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