Into the Unknown – How to Include Exploration at the Table

originalzelda20This past Friday, Wizards of the Coast revealed the title for their next big adventure: Tomb of Annihilation. This adventure will still take place within the Forgotten Realms, but not the Sword Coast like the previous ones. Instead, Tomb of Annihilation will be set in Chult, a land dominated by uncharted jungles, the ruins of ancient civilizations, and filled to the brim with dangerous threats (whether they be living or not).

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Chult is easily one of my favorite areas of the Realms, mostly because I have an affinity for the Indiana Jones-style of pulp fiction with a heavy dose of dinosaur awesomeness.

The other aspect of this announcement that got me excited was the designers saying they wanted to focus upon one of the Three Pillars they’ve admittedly neglected recently: Exploration. On pg. 8 of the Player’s Handbook, the writers list what they consider to be the “Three Pillars of Adventure”: ExplorationSocial Interaction, & Combat. The latter two have definitely been in the spotlight in previous adventures, with Exploration taking something of a backseat. Don’t get me wrong, it has been there, but nowhere near as much as the other Pillars.

Because Wizards hopes to bring this neglected Pillar more to the forefront with Tomb of Annihilation, I thought I’d take some time to discuss ways one might foster more exploration within their campaigns, inspiring their players to gather their gear, open up their maps, and venture forth into the uncharted wilderness.

The first piece of advice will hearken back to my post on running sandbox campaigns, which this can be seen as a companion piece to this one. Seed your setting with legends or rumors that will inspire your players to investigate them. Sprinkle interesting locales throughout your setting, hidden away within the shadows of the natural world. There could be an abandoned dwarven fortress tucked away within the mountains to the north, rumored to be filled with mountains of treasure. These rumors will not, and probably should not, be 100% accurate. They’re rumors after all. They should be intriguing enough to hook a group of curious adventures, encouraging them to set out to figure the truth out for themselves.

Next, make sure the journey is just as interesting as the destination. The key to making exploration entertaining is the journey being an eventful one. Trips that are nothing more than a series of camping montages will be boring beyond belief. Make sure to spice up the trip. You can do this by including random encounters, or purposefully seeding encounters along the way. The journey is also how you can include the other two Pillars.

One day the players might be ambushed by a band of centaurs while taking a shortcut through a nearby forest, while the next day could have them negotiating with a reclusive hedge witch for some healing potions in exchange for clearing out a family of pesky mites that have infested her garden. Just make sure to make these encounters varied. Throwing combat encounter after combat encounter at your players will cause the journey to become monotonous.

Third, limit the character’s resources. I know this might be a hard sell for some people. Tracking resources can be a real pain, especially if you do it as written. That being said, making sure resources remain a limited element will add depth to the exploration process. Players will be forced to think about their actions when they realize they might be be low on rations or ammunition. It might also get them to do things they might not normally do when resource tracking isn’t a thing, such as hunting or fishing. These can also give you openings to include an encounter. For example, maybe the group’s ranger decides to do some early morning hunting to restock the party’s food supply, but happens to stumble upon a pair of goblins attempting to kill a unicorn. That could lead to an interesting side quest.

Finally, and most importantly, let your players get lost & be surprised. The true joy of exploration is the chance at discovery, finding something you didn’t expect along the way. Let your players venture off course, whether they realize it or not. Let them investigate the little points of intrigue you toss out. Let them feel like they’ve discovered something, as if they found a secret they were not supposed to see. Let them get in over their heads, and let them run away so they can survive to fight another day.

This can easily be done by having published material that you can readily drop into the environment to represent hidden locations. You can also print out a very simplistic version of the setting’s map, maybe one that only notes the most commonly known locations, letting the players add to it as the venture out, noting down new spots or paths, letting them make it their own. Like sandbox campaigns, exploration is all about the player’s agency, letting them make their own choices, and reacting to them.

Exploration has earned its place among the Three Pillars for a reason. It is one of the core foundations of Dungeons & Dragons, enriching almost any campaign. I hope this post has inspired you to include more of it in your campaigns.

Getting the Band Back Together

dndgroupTell me if you’ve heard something similar to this before:

You have been summoned to the Wayward Knave, the seedy tavern on the outskirts of town. You arrive at the establishment and find yourself ushered towards a large table near the back of the lively taproom, meeting several other adventurers who received a similar invitation. You are soon joined by a mysterious figure, shrouded by a dark cloak, hoping to hire you all for a peculiar quest.”

This is seen by most as the stereotypical introduction for your generic Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It even has a page on TV Tropes dedicated to it. The trope is incredibly old, having been the subject of countless jokes and parodies over the years. That being said, the trope keeps coming back due to the fact that it allows you to jump right into the beginning of an adventure with little to no effort from either side of the screen.

Personally, I prefer for my parties to have some awareness of each other before they set forth on their first adventure together. This can be handled in a multitude of ways, but the method that I prefer is loosely based upon Fiasco‘s Set-Up.

The process works like this. During Session Zero, after everyone has created their characters, they will take turns defining the relationships they have with their fellow adventurers. On each turn, a player can perform one of the two following actions:

  1. Define the basic relationship their character has with the character on either side of them.
  2. Specify the exact nature of an already defined relationship their character has with another character.

This continues until every character has two specific relationships with two other characters within the party. The relationships can be just about anything the players can possibly imagine. The characters could be siblings, lovers, business associates, or even rivals. The goal is to have a group who has some knowledge of each other, have some reason to band together, and give the GM some possible hooks for future adventures.

You don’t have to be this structured with your approach to creating a party with pre-existing relationships. I just enjoy making a small mini-game out of the process. The biggest piece of advice I can give you about establishing these relationships, whether you use the method detailed above or one your more comfortable with, is to make sure the relationships actually have some meat to them, presenting some interesting elements for future stories in the campaign. Don’t be afraid to toss in a little bit of conflict, whether it be between the two characters, or from how the world reacts to the relationship.

I would also suggest having one shared element between all the characters. This could be something as simple as them all being from the same village, having a common acquaintance, or being present for a strange event. This shared event will most likely be tied to the first adventure of the campaign, giving them a reason to participate that relates to them personally.

How do you like to get your adventuring bands together? Do you like them to have pre-existing relationships, or be strangers? Tell me in the comments below.

Splintered Shields

Shields in Dungeons & Dragons have always felt somewhat lackluster. I can appreciate that little boost they grant to my character’s Armor Class, but there’s always a part of me wants to cast the old board aside so I can irk out a little bit more damage with that trusty greatsword.

Nine years ago, Trollsmyth decided to give the shield some love with a little house rule called “Shields Shall be Splintered“. The rule is pretty simple: whenever you take damage, you can have your shield absorb the force of the blow. The shield is destroyed, but you ignore the damage.

The rule has gained a great deal of traction, specifically within the OSR side of the hobby. I’ve always been intrigued by the rule, so I thought I’d take a crack at adapting it to 5e. Here’s what I have.

SPLINTERED SHIELDS

When a character who is wielding a shield is hit by a successful attack roll, they can allow said shield to take the blunt of the damage. This grants the character resistance against this attack roll, but the shield is destroyed and the wielder loses the benefit it provides to their Armor Class. 

Characters who are wielding magical shields can use them in this way several times before they are destroyed. The number is equal to the magical shields’ additional bonus. Once they have exceeded this amount, the shield is destroyed. For example, a character with a +2 shield can perform the above action two times before it is destroyed. 

The biggest change I made to the rule is that it now offers resistance to the wielder instead of negating the damage. This feels a little bit more thematic to me, and I feel would work better with 5e. That being said, one can easily convert it back to a complete negation if they wish.

I also decided tried to create a simple solution for the magical shield situation. I figured allowing them to be more resilient would be an easy way to handle it, and keeping the number tied to their bonus meant it was straightforward to determine. I admit I haven’t figured out what to do for magical shields that don’t grant an additional bonus to Armor Class, but I can tackle that later down the road.

Therapeutic Role-Playing

Earlier this week, Kotaku released an article putting the spotlight on several therapy groups across the country that use Dungeons & Dragons to help children with social issues. The piece is a short, but interesting read. I highly recommend you give it a read by clicking the above link.

This article managed to inspire some thoughts of my own. Thoughts about how role-playing games have been a therapeutic outlet for myself, helping me deal with the troubles of everyday life. They’ve helped me come out of my own socially awkward shell, learn how to cooperate better with others, and become a better person.

I can’t count the times where I’ve used a session or made a character for a campaign to help myself work through an issue I was having in the real world, having no other outlet. They gave me a space to express myself, getting the problems that were causing me stress off my chest, and have fun while I was at it.

Furthermore, I think role-playing games have helped me be more empathetic towards others. Being able to take on a role that is vastly different than oneself, seeing what it feels like to live in another person’s shoes for a few hours every week, and deal with the struggles they are subject to can help expand your own views while also helping you learn a little more about yourself.

It’s also just nice to be able to exit reality for a evening every week, getting to put the hardships of life on the sidelines so you can enter another world, one where you get to have adventures with friends, and possibly become a hero in the process.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced the therapeutic elements of role-playing games. How have they helped you emotionally in the past?

Making Monstrous Items

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In the Myth of Perseus, the titular hero killed the monstrous gorgon named Medusa, bringing her snake-covered head back to King Polydectes as a gift for a large banquet. Eventually, Perseus used the powers of the decapitated head to kill Polydectes once he learned about the man’s violent advances towards his mother Danae.

Similar situations occur within other myths. Tales depicting great heroes slaying various beasts, taking a part of said beast as a trophy or a gift for someone, then use that morbid item as a weapon (usually with mystical properties). Heck, there’s an entire video game franchise based around the concept: Monster Hunter.

Taking that into account, I think we can incorporate the idea into Dungeons & Dragons, allowing for the creation of a new kind of magic item: MONSTROUS ITEMS.

Unlike other magic items, monstrous items can take just about any form. They can be potions, wondrous items, weapons, etc. The only defining feature of a monstrous item is that it was made from the body parts (or fluids) of a particular creature. The item usually grants the wielder access to one of the base creature’s key abilities, but in a more limited fashion.

The key to creating a memorable monstrous item is similar to creating a memorable magic item: make sure the item is cool, yet thematic. For example, let’s continue to use Medusa’s Head as an example. The item allows you to utilize the creature’s petrification abilities, most likely by thrusting the head towards a creature, forcing them to look at it. Not only is the ability to possibly turn an enemy to stone cool, but it fits the flavor of the item.

I also suggest making monstrous items a rare sight within your campaign world. This will make acquiring one more special. It will also make encountering certain creatures more intriguing as well. You can explain the rarity away pretty easily due to the practice of turning the body part of a dead monster into an item could be seen as a little morbid, plus the magic needed to preserve the creature’s ability might be less common than other arcane skills.

Finally, I would also give these kind of items a weird cost or drawback. This might be my own preferences coming into play, but I find magic items that have a distinct quirk more interesting because they can lead to some cool moments within the story of the game. They also can make players think twice about using an item, possibly leading them to think of more inventive solutions to problems.

I’ll use the aforementioned Medusa’s Head as an example of what a monstrous item might look like mechanically:

MEDUSA’S HEAD (Monstrous Item, Rare; Requires Attunement) ~ This item appears to be the decapitated head of a maiden with a nest of vicious snakes as hair. The eyes and mouth upon the head seem to be shut tightly. You may use an action and point the head towards a creature within 30 feet that can see it. The eyes upon the head open wide, unleashing its cursed gaze, forcing the creature to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw.

Creatures that fail the saving throw by 5 or more are instantly petrified. Otherwise, creatures that fail the save begin to turn to stone and are restrained. The restrained creature must repeat the saving throw at the end of its next turn, becoming petrified on a failure or ending the effect on a success. The petrification lasts until the creature is freed by the greater restoration spell or other magic.

You must be careful when wielding this item because if you are ever made to look at it while the head’s eyes are open, such as using it before a reflective surface, you will have to make the DC 15 Constitution saving throw as well. You can spend a bonus action to quickly advert your eyes, allowing you to avoid the saving throw, but suffer disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks until the beginning of your next turn.

 

 

Starfinder Iconics Revealed

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The motley crew of the Starfinder universe

This past summer, Paizo announced they would be releasing the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, a science fantasy RPG based upon the Pathfinder rules. The game will launch at Gen Con 2017 with a Core Rulebook and a six-volume Adventure Path, as well as a Compatibility License for those wishing to make their own Starfinder content.

Paizo has steadily revealed information about Starfinder‘s mechanics, products, and setting over the past several months. Last Thursday, James L. Sutter decided to share Starfinder‘s cast of iconic characters, each capturing the core essence of one of the seven classes present within the game. Going clockwise from the leftmost character, we’ve got:

RAIA (LASHUNTA TECHNOMANCER) ~ The lashunta are a sexually-dimorphic race of telepaths. Technomancers are magical programmers who possess the ability to hack the laws of physics.

ISEPH (ANDROID OPERATIVE)Androids, as one would expect, are artificial beings. The operative is a class that relies upon stealth and skill. Think “space rogue”.

QUIG (YSOKI MECHANIC) ~ The ysoki are a race of hotheaded ratfolk. Mechanics are expert engineers who either build custom drones or use implanted AI.

OBOZAYA (VESK SOLDIER)The Vesk are powerful reptilian aliens, reminding me of the Klingons of Star Trek. Soldiers specialize in the art of combat, using heavy weapons and armor.

NAVASI (HUMAN ENVOY)Humans should require no explanation, mostly because I assume those reading this are human. Envoys use their wit and charm to help their allies or hinder their foes. They’re space bards.

KESKODAI (SHIRREN MYSTIC)Shirrens are an insectile race who freed themselves from a dangerous group known as the Swarm. Mystics channel the mysterious energies of the universe, similar to divine magic.

ALTRONUS (KASATHA SOLARIAN) ~ Kasathas are a race of four-armed beings who hail from a distant desert world. The solarians harness the energy of the stars and black holes, shaping them into armor or weapons. They kind of feel like Starfinder‘s jedi.

The first, and most obvious, element I noticed about Starfinder‘s group of iconics is the interesting lack of a human majority. Look at Pathfinder‘s iconics. The vast majority are some variety of human. Starfinder only has one representative of humanity: Navasi.

I rather like this because not only does it help separate this group from their fantasy counterparts, it also reflects the larger focus that Starfinder is placing upon non-human species. It also represents a nice example of the Cantina Effect, using the high density of strangeness within this image to help depict the kind of world this game exists within.

It also makes me really interested to see the actual mechanics behind these characters. For example, I’m dying to get my hands on the mechanic and the solarian. I also want to play an envoy so badly, but anybody who knows me shouldn’t be surprised by that. Bards are my favorite class, so I’d obviously love space bards just as much.

What about you? What do you think of Starfinder‘s iconics? Do you like, or do you hate them?

UPDATE: I have added links to the “Meet the Iconics” articles Paizo has been publishing on their own blog over the past couple of weeks.

The Art of the Unexpected – Improving Your Improv

The style of game mastery that I personally use at the table tends to heavily rely upon improvisation. This doesn’t mean I ignore preparation in favor of making everything up on the spot. I simply utilize a skill that I’ve developed over the decade or so that I’ve been running these kind of games, allowing me to not need as much preparation as I would otherwise.

Like any skill one might have, the ability to improvise behind the screen can be improved through practice. Today, I’ll present some advice on how to do this.

The first thing you should do to improve your improv capabilities is pretty straightforward: trust yourself. I know that sounds kind of corny, but that doesn’t make it any less true. You have to trust your abilities as a storyteller, believing that you will make logical decisions that will move the session forward, weaving a tale together with your friends. This is probably the biggest hurdle you will have to overcome to enhance your improv skills, but once you do, it will make everything else easier.

Secondly, prepare for the unexpected. This doesn’t mean you should try to prepare for every possibility that could even remotely happen during the game. That is an impossible endeavor. Instead, I’m suggesting you collect some “prop materials” you can utilize at a moment’s notice during a game. These are things like generic NPC stat blocks or pre-constructed encounters that you can re-tool on the fly to cover the majority of unexpected scenarios with very minimal effort.

The third piece of advice: remember to use”yes, and…” & “yes, but…”. One of the most important rules of improv is to always say yes to your partner, building upon their suggestion to further the scene. I suggest adopting a similar, yet slightly altered, version of this rule. When your players do something, try to respond with either “yes, and…” or “yes, but…” Build off their suggestions, incorporate them into the story of the session, make them feel like a part of the process. The trick is to make the continuation as logical as possible, making everything flow as naturally.

These are meant to be very broad suggestions to help you start improving your improvisational skills. I also suggest you remember to take extra notes during the session so you can actually remember what you created during it. I guarantee you will forget good chunks of it within a few minutes of the session’s end. Keeping notes is important regardless of whether you rely upon improv or not, but especially true if you do.

Do you have any improv tips or tricks of your own?