Build a Twyla Tharp Style Campaign Box

March 29, 2009

I’ve spent the past couple of months reading Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. Over the past couple of weeks, as I finished the book, it dawned on me how many of these habits – habits formed by a woman who produces and directs dances and shows on Broadway – could improve dungeon mastering.

For example, one of her more popular concepts, is Twyla’s Box. For every project she begins, she takes out a cardboard banker’s box, writes the name of the project on the box, and begins to fill it with all of the materials she’ll need for that project. To begin, she takes out a 3×5 note card, and writes her goal or key concept for her project on it, and throws it in the box. As the box fills and the project moves forward, she often refers to this card to see if she is on course.

Given the strange things we might use in a good Dungeons and Dragons campaign, this box metaphor need not be a metaphor at all. Why not take one of these $2 bankers boxes and turn it into your Dungeons and Dragons campaign box? Consider all of the things you might throw into it. Props, maps, hand-drawn notes, 3×5 cards filled with NPC personalities, lists of random names and backgrounds, miniatures for the campaign, parts of D&D Insider articles, hand-written skill challenge ideas, maybe even some music or sound effects files on a USB drive.

Probably a lot of us save our campaign information on our computers. I have a folder for each campaign I have ran that I fill with clip art, story outlines, NPC descriptions, customized baddies, villain descriptions, and any other adventure stuff I need. With D&D being mainly a physical game, though, a campaign box makes a lot more sense. Why not print all that material and jam it in the campaign box?

This isn’t the only tip applicable to Twyla Tharp’s book. There are many others I will likely write about in the future. If you’re looking to branch out and think of Dungeon Mastering more as a creative discipline, you could do a lot worse than buying her book and giving it a read. I highly recommend it.

So there’s your Sly Flourish tip of the week. Buy a $2 bankers box at your local Staples and turn it into your very own campaign box.

Dungeon Delve Review

March 20, 2009

The minute I heard about the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Delve product, I knew it was the product for me. While I have a nice weekly D&D game with five to six players and four hours of play time, a campaign where the PCs have just reached level 11, I always wanted something else too. I wanted a fast game, playable with fewer players in a shorter amount of time that focused on the most refined aspect of 4e, the combat system. I wanted something close to a D&D Miniatures skirmish game but with at least a little background story and a typical party of adventurers battling monsters of the depths.

I had the opportunity to play the Wizards and RPGA dungeon delves at the D&D Experience and at Gencon the past few years and I was hooked. It’s like speed chess for D&D. This book turns those fun fast battles into a product and it does so very well.

Let me start by stating what this product is not. This product doesn’t contain full length D&D adventures as we’re used to seeing them. Given the high number of adventures published in print and on D&D Insider, there is no lack for full length adventures with all of the background, skill challenges, and roleplay opportunities we’ve come to expect from D&D. In Dungeon Delve, there are few skill challenges and few stories outside of the seed to get the party into a battle. If you’re expecting a book full of full-length adventures, this isn’t the place to look.

Each of the scenarios in Dungeon Delve takes up six pages, with three encounter areas, a story seed, some expansion opportunities, and flavor text. There’s one delve for each level in the game, with encounters ranging from Kobolds to a red dragon and a pair of balors.

Each of the delves focuses on one or two sets of D&D dungeon tiles and clearly states which tiles you need. This is the first product I’ve seen from Wizards that directly uses the tiles as part of the adventure and it’s about damn time. It’s bothered me for years that the maps in the adventures published by Wizards of the Coast never fit their own dungeon tiles and often don’t fit the minis they use.

The tile problem is fixed in Dungeon Delve but the miniature problem still exists. There are many scenarios that have monsters currently not released as D&D miniatures. In other delves, the encounter uses multiple rare minis in a single battle. Who would be willing to pay the $80 for a pair of huge red dragons? In future products like this, I would hope that Wizards keeps their own miniature line in consideration along with the rarity of the mini. No encounter should require more than one rare miniature.

So where exactly does the Dungeon Delve fit into your game? One way is to pull out a delve when your regular group goes off the beaten path. Perhaps they find an old abandoned wizard tower when they’re exploring the big swamp. Perhaps you just want to step away from your massive campaign for a quick romp through a cursed sewer. Like the encounters found in Draconomicon and Open Grave, these quick three-room dungeons can fit into a regular campaign pretty easily.

Another way to use it is for one-shot adventures. With the Character Builder now online, its easy to whip up five quick pre-gen PCs and let your party try out some new classes. Maybe some of your old buddies are in town and want to roll some 20s without worrying about an entire adventure. Does your group want to try out those cool new Diva Avengers some night? Whip them up and run them through a delve!

A third way is to play the Delve a bit more competitively. This is how I’ve seen it at Gencon and D&D Experience. The DM isn’t your enemy, but he or she isn’t your friend either. This makes it a bit more like a D&D Miniatures skirmish game, but with a story line still intact.

Because the Delve is really a set of thirty mini-adventures, it lends itself very well to a PDF version. This way one can print out the six pages one needs rather than lugging the whole book around. Still, the quality of the print makes it hard to pass up the book itself.

For this reason, I’d very much like to see Delves as a standard for Dungeon magazine online. I’m not very likely to break up my campaign to play a full Dungeon-published adventure, but for a quick three-encounter delve? I’d download it and play it in a second. This style of adventure could really take D&D insider into the right direction.

Dungeon Delve fits a particular niche in Wizards Dungeons and Dragons 4e lineup. It isn’t an adventure and it isn’t a sourcebook. It is a toolbox of encounters designed to help dungeon masters quickly throw three rooms full of baddies at your friendly neighborhood players. For the amount of content you get, Dungeon Delve is worth every penny.

Hot

  • 30 delves, one for each level, with 90 total encounters for $20 from Amazon.
  • A tool box of mini-adventures to drop into your existing campaign.
  • Uses D&D Dungeon Tiles for every map.
  • Effective use of terrain in nearly every encounter.
  • Table-friendly tips, flavor text, and seeds to get your PCs into the action.

Lame

  • Overuse of rare D&D Miniatures.

  • Often uses the out-of-print “Halls of the Giant Kings” D&D Dungeon Tile set.
  • No competitive rules included – just general guidelines.
  • No pre-gen or quick-gen character generation rules.

Final words

An excellent deep tool box of encounters and scenarios to fit into many places into your game. Buy it.

Pyramid of Shadows Adventure Review

February 7, 2009

This review is intended for Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters. It will contain spoilers. If you plan on playing through this adventure, stop now and go read some Penny Arcade instead.

Pyramid of Shadows is the third published adventure by Wizards of the Coast for the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It is also the third adventure in my current campaign. I will save you some time by skipping over the vital statistics of the adventure which you can find from almost any other review. Instead I will tell you what my group and I thought of the adventure.

I also recognize that sharing stories of someone else’s D&D game is the nerd equivalent of sharing baby poop stories with other parents. You only REALLY care about your own baby poop story, so you suffer through another’s poop story just so you can get out your own. I will skip the details of our own poop story – or our own travel through the Pyramid – and skip to what I believe to be useful information to run your own poop story…I mean Pyramid of Shadows adventure.

In short, Pyramid of Shadows is an excellent, entertaining, and balanced adventure. It is well worth the $17 from Amazon. The players’ primary complaint was the lack of any sort of town where they could rest and buy and sell gear. This is sort of the point, however, so one cannot hold too much against it for that.

From a DM perspective, the Pyramid is an excellent throw back to the Gygaxian dungeons that made no ecological sense. Why on earth would three orcs be in a room right next to two umber hulks? What do they eat? Why have they not killed each other? How did they get past that huge spiked pit trap?

The adventure explains this by describing the Pyramid as a living changing structure. The walls, floors, and entire environments begin to morph and shift into a museum-display version of the habitat the inhabitant is used to. The white dragon has his own icy lair and the plant Arboreans have their own jungle habitat.

I took this part of the adventure a step further by describing, later in the game, that the pyramid itself is a living entity. It is a hellish construction, stuck out floating in the Far Realm, that twists and morphs itself around those living inside. For example, the bandit lord and his minions ended up in some strange bar or inn with fake mannequin-style barmaids and beer, neither of which brought real satisfaction to the hungry and randy bandits.

I made a few other modifications to the adventure that I thought built it out a bit better for our group. For one, in the Far Realm rooms later on in the adventure, I had an actual rift in the wall of the pyramid in room T5. It would seem the splinter of Karavakos within this section actually managed to tear open a wound in the pyramid but the terrible nightmarish void of the Far Realm warped him into the Far Realm Abomination. When the party killed him and left, the pyramid shut off this whole section, like cutting off a rotting hand.

I also made some major changes to Vyrellis. First, I had an actual physical skull I bought at a party store after Halloween. As the players found Vyrellis’s gems, I put balls of construction paper into the eyes and teeth. Little did the party know that, all along, they were slowly building her out as a demi-lich. In the final battle, as the real Karavakos fell, she used her drain soul power to suck his soul into her tooth. Should the party had decided to battle her, I was prepared to use the Acererak Construct from the newly released and totally awesome Open Grave sourcebook for her stats. Alas, the party accepted her offer to leave the pyramid so she could float freely within her new tomb deep within the Far Realm while her astral projection explored all the planes had to offer.

The pyramid has many memorable encounters including a battle against an ettin head-taker, a white dragon, a battle against a powerful solo Otyugh called the Charnal Lord, a beast the pyramid uses as a huge garbage collector, and even a super mario style room of water and pipes. Overall my gaming group enjoyed the encounters. Again, their only complaint was the lack of any real place to stay.

The Wizards published adventures have only a couple of real disadvantages. One, they only come with two to four encounter maps. The Pyramid came with three. Given the huge number of rooms, it is unreasonable to assume they would include them all, but worse, Wizards own Dungeon Tiles don’t work well to build out the other rooms. Why Wizards would not capitalize on their own products makes little sense. This same problem exists with the minis. Enough D&D miniatures have been released to this point that just about any creature in an adventure has a mini available, but it runs about $40 to $50 on the secondary market to buy all the minis required for an adventure. This gets really bad when the adventure calls for multiple rare minis such as three Skeletal Tomb Guardians (which run $8 a piece). Why Wizards is unable to coordinate their own products better is beyond me. Still, this is a minor complaint.

Overall, given the cost and the hours of entertainment for you and your group, the Pyramid of Shadows is an excellent adventure. The story is good, the encounters are fun, and the quality is high. My group enjoyed it one evening a week for ten weeks. I highly recommend it.

This work is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. Please send comments or questions to mike@mikeshea.net.

Manual of the Planes Review

January 1, 2009

After my happiness with the Draconomicon, I looked forward quite a bit to the Manual of the Planes. Who doesn’t want to read about the powerful and dangerous outer worlds? Who doesn’t want to find out what it is really like in the Shadowfell or the Elemental Chaos? Who wouldn’t want to throw their players into the deepest depths of the Abyss to face beings of terrifying evil in their home world?

Unfortunately, where Draconomicon made itself clearly usable at the game table, the Manual of the Planes was little more than an extension of the chapter on the outer planes found in the Dungeon Master’s guide. There are no encounters, no introductory adventures, no notable NPC stats, and a very sparse monster section that doesn’t seem to know what sort of monsters it should have. There aren’t even maps of the Shadowfell or Feywild.

Maybe it was a matter of having too much possible material that kept this book so vague. There are a lot of major places we would come to expect including details of the Astral Sea, the Elemental Chaos, the Shadowfell, the Faywild, the Abyss, and the Nine Hells. Unfortunately the book never gets into enough detail in any of these areas. Perhaps Wizards would have been better picking two at a time and focusing on them as they did with the Fiendish Codex series. A single book on the Shadowfell, for example, could be a lot more focused and a lot more usable.

Chapter one covers the basics of the planes including their structure, organization, travel, and other such things. This section also includes an all-too-brief section on Planar Hazards that includes only five hazards from level 11 to 26. I could have used about five hazards in each of the major areas – Astral, Elemental, Shadowfell, and Feywild.

Sigil is detailed quite a bit, the strange hold-out city that sits between worlds. Here we have some NPC personalities though without stats, without DM tips for running these NPCs, and without any artwork. There are also brief descriptions of the Far Realm and the Plane of Dreams.

Chapter’s 2 and 3 cover the Feywild and Shadowfell. These chapters are packed with lengthy descriptions of travel, inhabitants, and locations. Again, there are no maps, no stat blocks, no sample encounters, no DM tips for describing these bizarre worlds to the players, and no hazards. The Shadowfell section, for example, has a five paragraph, 3/4 page description of a being known as the Dread Emperor without any stat block to be found. How useful is that if I have to write up my own stat block?

Chapter 4 covers the Elemental Chaos and actually does have two hazards of level 14 and 16. It describes Primordials for 2/3 of a page but again without a single stat block. Even the Forgotten Realms campaign book includes a Primordial. This chapter also describes the City of Brass, this time without even NPC descriptions.

The Abyss is crammed into this chapter as well with six pages of general descriptions of huge areas such as the Demonweb, Thanatos, and Azzagrat. Again no sample encounters, no abyssal hazards, no DM tips for building atmosphere for players, nothing I can actually use at the table.

Chapter 5 covers the Astral Sea with more piles of words describing various worlds. There are pages upon pages of descriptions of places my players will likely never go including Arvandor, Celestia, Chernoggar, Hestivar, and Kalandurren. The Nine Hells, an area that received an entire book in 3.5, is down to eight and a half pages. This is one of the few areas where I don’t like the planar design. I can’t get my head around the idea that all of the nine hells are really one big planet. Why not nine interlinked planets? I preferred the pancake hells, myself, given that it was more like Dante’s Inferno. This is hell, after all,? Again, no stat blocks, sample encounters, or hazards.

Chapter 6 includes the Monsters of the Planes. There are a total of nineteen different types of monsters (a few more if you break them all out to their different tier versions). These monsters are spread from all over the planes. There’s Astral Constructs, devils, demons, Shadowfell beasts, and fox thingies from the elemental chaos. With such a wide coverage of areas, there was clearly no focus for the few monsters included. We get two demon princes but what about the others? We get one devil lord but what about the other eight? There just aren’t enough creatures for such a vast topic.

Chapter 7 is where the book really loses focus. Most of the other 4th edition books had clear designs for either the player or the DM. This is the only book I know if that includes ten pages of character material – mostly paragon paths. I would much have preferred WOTC to publish these paragon paths as part of D&D insider and use the extra pages for more hazards, maps, or sample encounters. How will this section be of any use to players if the book is held by the DM? I can’t imagine a player would ever bother to buy this book just for those paragon paths. This is the first time a 4e book wasn’t clearly focused for either the player or the DM.

Chapter 7 also includes a brief section on rituals and another on equipment. The equipment section isn’t bad. WOTC has learned how to pack in a lot of items into a little bit of space and there are a lot of items here. For this part, I have few complaints. I only wish the rest of the book was as useful as this section.

In conclusion, the Manual of the Planes disappointed me. This is a book that could have been far longer, as long as the Forgotten Realms Campaign Sourcebook, and included a lot more table-usable material than it did. Instead of useful sample encounters, DM tips, NPC statistics, and overland maps, we get piles of general description text that offers little actual use. The book seemed scattered, too brief, and unsure of its intent.

I love the planes and I love most of the 4e design philosophy behind them, but I need a lot more as a DM in order to run it well at the table. I’m hoping this isn’t the only book on the planes that we see. I, for one, would love an entire sourcebook on just the Shadowfell, for example. As it stands, now, the Manual of the Planes can be easily skipped. Unless you’re looking for an encyclopedia-style book on the lore of the planes, not an actual gaming rulebook, save your money.

Draconomicon Review

January 1, 2009

What would Christmas be without a fine tome filled with horrors buried in the deepest darkest depths of the known worlds? Pretty lame, if you ask me. Lucky for me, I was the proud receiver of Draconomicon, the Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition book on dragons. I wasn’t particularly excited by this one, clear by my actions to put it on a wish list rather than buy it outright. What I found on reading it, however, was something both entertaining and useful.

What struck me right away is the high amount of useful information. Though Draconomicon has a fair bit of descriptions of dragons, society, physiology, and other such fluffy aspects, the crunch here is quite crunchy. The book contains nine short adventures, three per tier, that show off nine unique dragons. Full encounters are laid out in the traditional 4th edition style with complete stat blocks for about three encounters per adventure. Each of the settings are unique including some extra-planar areas like a green warlock dragon’s lair in the Faywild.

The next most impressive area of the book are the statistics for many unique monsters of all levels. Wyrmlings will help challenge lower heroic tier players while some new big brutes including a pair of new dracolichs (who doesn’t love dracolichs?). The three new chromatic dragons; the brown, gray, and purple dragons; are all interesting variants and give us an opportunity to use those silver and copper dragon minis that have sat on our mini shelf for so many months. A purple worm mini might even work for the purple dragon if your group has enough imagination to put wings on his back.

The vampiric dragon Bloodwind is worth the cost of the book alone. Imagine a huge 23rd level vampiric dragon with an exanguanation breath weapon able to suck the blood out of three victims at once. Bloody brilliant!

As reported, the full statistics for Tiamat are included as well, although I can’t see many parties ever facing her and fewer still walking away from it. Overall there are over 80 pages of statistics for new dragons and related monsters.

There’s a fair bit of space used up for draconic treasures which probably isn’t necessary. I don’t need detailed breakdowns of art pieces but perhaps I am the only one with players who can’t convert everything to gold fast enough already. The draconic artifacts are interesting and the draconic traps are a nice bit of nastiness I hope to one day inflict upon unsuspecting PCs. The first half of the book, however, doesn’t include nearly the useful content of the second half. I suppose an adventurer’s vault style book packed with nothing but two hundred dragon stat blocks would turn a lot of folks off who expect more general descriptions so the mix of the two in the published book can likely win both sides over.

Between the draconic stat blocks and the nine mini-adventures, there is a lot of usable table-ready material for all three tiers of play. This alone justifies the cost of the Draconomicon.

Dwarven Forge Caverns Review

December 28, 2008

Every time I open a new box of Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles I am always surprised how much I love them. All concerns about the price, all concerns about the “investment”, all concerns that my money would have been better spent elsewhere disappear when I start to lay them out, build some rooms, and imagine the encounters I will run within them.

After using the cavern sets for a couple of months now I can say without doubt that the Dwarven Forge cavern set is the best set I’ve used. The size of the pieces, being mostly four by four blocks, make it easy and quick to build out a nice-sized cavern complete with stalagmites, platforms, and other interesting scenery. Adding in the Cavernous Passage set, the Chasm set, and the Cavernous River and Wall set all work together to build large and detailed caverns.

My primary intent for the cavern set was to run the module “King of the Trollhaunt Warrens” and I believe these four sets will do the job very well. Beyond that, however, I was able to use the set immediately in my Pyramid of Shadows game. All of the players remarked at the detail of the set.

With most of my collection consisted of the Fantasy Room and Passage sets along with the Fantasy Floors and Wicked Additions sets; I was nervous about getting into a set drastically different from the original. The nice thing about the sets I had is that they all worked well together, but the cavern sets look so different I worried that I wouldn’t be able to use them together.

My fear was unfounded. The two sets work very well together. The cavern set includes seamless transitional pieces that take you from the room and passage set into the cavern set. It is very easy to use all of the Dwarven Forge pieces together to build out an infinite array of encounter areas.

Dwarven Forge enthusiasts refer to their hobby as “the addiction” and it’s easy to see why. Starting with only two sets – the Medieval Building set and the Medieval Expansion set six months ago, I now have twelve sets. At about $120 each, that’s a hell of an investment for a roleplaying game. When I use them, however, there is no doubt where that money went. Sure I could us an erasable battle mat or D&D dungeon tiles or even large sheets of graph paper, but when I use Dwarven Forge, it’s a whole different game.

My only real worry, the only disadvantage I might apply, is that you better have a good consistent group of players to use this. I always worry that my gaming group will break up and I’ll be sitting and staring at a large pile of dungeon accessories I can’t really use. Getting a good roleplaying group together is the hardest part of the game and the one most likely to invalidate an investment of this magnitude.

My only other complaint would be with the Cavernous Chasms set which is harder to use than the others and doesn’t clearly integrate as well as the others. It’s still a good set and has a lot of nice pieces for building multi-level rooms, which I think is a clear advantage of Dwarven Forge overall, but doesn’t fit quite as nicely together as the other sets.

Last year I had a chance to chat with the owner and creator of Dwarven Forge. He made a bold statement but one which is easy to defend once someone puts their hands on the pieces or sees them in use in a game. His statement was that Dwarven Forge are the best 3d dungeon models in the world. I couldn’t agree more.

Dwarven Forge 3D Dungeon Terrain

August 5, 2008

You know you’re beginning to fall too hard into D&D when $100 a set for 3-D dungeon pieces seems reasonable. You really know you’ve hit heroin-levels of addiction when you look in your dining room and see seven such sets. Like my love for home theater back about ten years ago, I am finding that there is no upper limit when it comes to hobbies. Though D&D can be played with little more than the three core books, some paper and pencils, and some funny dice; there’s quite a bit more to spend your money on if you want to.

Dwarven Forge is a modular dungeon tile system that uses ceramic-like 3d blocks to build out dungeons. The blocks come in various sizes from 2×2 floors and walls to smaller steps and accessories and 4×4 or 6×6 floor pieces. Putting them together you can build small, medium, or for those with too much disposable income, very large dungeons.

The allure of Dwarven Forge is easier to see in pictures than it is to describe, though you can’t really appreciate them until you see them in person. Check it out on Flickr and from the Dwarven Forge website’s own photo gallery. True gamers instantly begin to drool at the idea. I know I did.

For the past two years I had successfully avoided Dwarven Forge for a few reasons. First, it was clearly expensive and I had no idea how many sets I would have to purchase before it was really functional. Two, I wasn’t sure how practical it was at the table. I have a hard time setting up D&D Dungeon Tiles at the table on the fly and I was afraid Dwarven Forge would be as hard or harder. Third, I never know if my gaming group is going to last a while or not. What happens when I hit that stage in my life where I can’t find a full group to run a game? A few books isn’t much of an investment but with an investment in D&D miniatures and Dwarven Forge, not having a group would be a real waste of such a collection.

Then last May, for my birthday, Michelle and her folks bought me two sets of the Medieval Building set for building inns, cottages, and other above-ground structures (have I mentioned that I am married to the greatest woman in the world?). It blew me away and I instantly had to have more. By the end of May I had four more sets. Earlier this month I ordered one more.

So how did it work out? So far, very well.

The cost is still very expensive. This is the sort of purchase that pushes you well into the hobby. You better plan to use it a lot to get the value out of it and I hope to. Right now I have a weekly D&D game and I use it nearly every game. It’s also great for running D&D miniature scenarios with even just Michelle and I as a sort of board-game version of D&D. I hope and expect to have a gaming group for years to come, even if it means hunting down new people to play. I recently expanded my group to six just to make sure we always had enough players at the table.

As far as setup is concerned, it turns out that Dwarven Forge is easier to set up than D&D dungeon tiles. For one, every piece is more useful than most of the D&D dungeon tile sets. Second, since all the pieces come in styrofoam packs, you can easily see where the piece you need happens to be. At the game table I’m able to quickly build some basic rooms in just a couple of minutes. The night before a game I’m able to build entire dungeons and reveal each section as it is explored. Both systems work though the room-at-a-time approach seems to be more enjoyable to the players and cheaper since you don’t need as many pieces.

The construction and design of the Dwarven Forge pieces is astonishing. Every piece has amazing detail, from the drips of candle wax coming from wall-mounted candles to the individual pits in the rocks that make up a rock wall. They’re beautiful and wonderful to use. Each piece feels like it is made out of stone. Though I haven’t exactly beaten them up, the pieces have survived many games without a single broken piece. They fit together well and are heavy enough to stay in place when you piece them together. One of my only problems is that the pieces are so beautiful and fun that players often start messing with their own little constructions in the middle of the game. They’re just too cool not to screw with. I’d go to the kitchen for a drink and come back with an entirely new design to whatever room I had. Everyone wants to play with them when they see them.

Unfortunately, individual Dwarven Forge sets don’t work well on their own. You can’t just buy one and figure it is enough to build out a room. Even with four sets of the fantasy dungeon rooms and passages, I had just enough pieces to build two medium sized rooms, one large double-layered room, and a few halls. Even with four sets I just barely had enough to build out an entire adventure worth of rooms. Now if you’re building out every encounter individually, you might get away with as few as two or three sets but that would be stretching it. Even as few as three sets still costs about $300.

I’ve been using my Dwarven Forge sets for two months now and I love them. They make me smile every time I set out a few rooms or passages. My players enjoy them, though they don’t distract too much from the story. They certainly aren’t necessary. D&D Dungeon Tiles, large poster maps, and erasable battle mats work just fine. However, they do add a whole new dimension to tabletop gaming.

Like my love of fine fountain pens, it is very very difficult – probably impossible – to justify the cost for such a thing, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them as much as I do. Dwarven Forge isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to make the plunge, you won’t regret it. Though the Dwarven Forge community is small, for who can really afford such things these days, every member clearly loves it.

I know I do.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Review

July 3, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons has been a staple in my nerd pedigree since I was 16 years old. I’ve played on and off since high school, playing D&D 2nd edition and D&D 3.5. For most of this time I was the dungeon master of the game, putting together adventures, customizing monsters and encounters, and building the story through which the players would all play.

About a year ago I got quite frustrated with D&D 3.5. Our gaming group, a group of adult friends who gathered monthly to play for about four or five hours, had reached level 13. Most of the players ran more than one character, sometimes because another member of the group left and sometimes to fill a role the party missed. During these games every battle took nearly two hours. It got so bad that I had to tune adventures around four, three, and sometimes as few as two combat encounters per adventure simply to ensure we’d leave at a normal time. Modules like "City of the Spider Queen" had to be completely re-written to let our group have any chance at finishing it.

At Gencon 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and, a year later, I now have the 4th edition Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide sitting on my desk.

D&D 4th edition solved many of the problems I have with 3.5. Combat is fast, characters are streamlined but still powerful, I’m able to write and run the adventures I want, and everyone at the table is having a great time.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is the best tabletop RPG I have ever played.

What makes 4th Edition Great

There’s a lot of great stuff in 4th edition but a few of these stand out as the clear advantages of the system.

First, the rules are simplified and more consistent. For example, attacks against enemies always mean rolling a d20 and adding your modifier. It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting with a sword or firing a fireball. You always roll attack rolls. This is a big switch from 3.5 where spells required defenders to roll saving throws while fighters rolled attacks against static defender ACs. The four defenses in 4th edition; AC, fortitude, reflex, and will; make sense and feel natural.

Second, all character classes are fun to play. The cleric in 4th edition sure isn’t your daddy’s cleric. Though healing is still a large part of a cleric’s job, the cleric can drop a lot of damage and boost a party’s effectiveness quite a bit. This is the first D&D cleric that is genuinely fun to play.

Third, class powers rock. I remember when I first saw feats in D&D 3.5 how I saw them as the evolution of skills. Feats were skills that actually meant something in combat. Now combat powers take that up a step further. Character powers are the true strength in your character. They are the abilities you will use the most often in any given combat. They are the cinematic action-packed moves that impress the rest of the players and make you feel like a real hero instead of a farmer with a sword.

Fourth, character power and monster power is very well balanced. The power curves in D&D is much smoother from level 1 to 30 than it was from 1 to 20 in 3.5. One of the brilliant changes in D&D 4th edition is the monster power levels. Instead of simply having a monster level that compares to a character level, monsters can come in four different types: minions, standard guys, elite guys, and solo guys. Minions may be as powerful statistically as a player at any level but any single successful attack kills them in a single blow. This way a level 23 party may get attacked by twenty level 20 abyssal ghouls but any single hit on any of them will drop them dead. Normal guys are the typical monsters we’re used to. Elite guys are powerful versions of normal guys but count as two, have twice the hit points, and often have some sort of secondary attacks. Solo guys, like dragons and beholders, can fight off an entire party by themselves. Again, these can be at any level, so a level 3 solo white dragon still counts as a single solo creatures as does a level 30 solo ancient red dragon. As a DM, these make it a lot easier to build powerful boss creatures surrounded by threatening fodder like a good John Woo movie.

Fourth, and most importantly, 4th edition is simply more fun to play. Players focus on their powers instead of digging into the minutia of the rules. Fighters have a whole pile of actions to perform while wizards are much more streamlined and focused instead of choosing from hundreds of possible options while the rest of the players look bored.

The Problems of 4E

D&D 4th edition isn’t perfect. For one, since every attack requires an attack roll, players will miss a lot more often than they used to in 3.5. Wizards always had the option to cast a magic missile and do a little damage. Now magic missiles can miss, something unheard of for the last 30 years. When your turn may not come around for ten minutes or so, it’s pretty lame to miss your roll and have to wait another ten minutes.

Second, 4th edition is really built around miniatures on a battle grid. While players can possibly play D&D with just dialog and maybe some paper diagrams, most of the rules focus on a square battle grid and miniatures. For the past two years or so I’ve become hopelessly addicted to D&D miniatures so this isn’t a problem for me. It justifies the money I’ve spent.

Third, character creation is still pretty complicated. Attributes, races, classes, and items all have modifiers to your baseline statistics that require quite a lot of page flipping. For example, to calculate your athletics skill check you have to know your level, your attribute modifier, your possible racial modifier, your class trained skills, and any possible armor modifier. For an experienced player this isn’t so bad, and its a LOT better than the overly complicated skill system in 3.5, but it makes it difficult to quickly build characters for a one-night game. I personally can’t wait for some sort of online javascript character generator that can help me quickly build PCs for a one-night game. In the mean time, I’m back to using PC-like D&D miniatures for quick games or 1 on 1 games.

The Fear of Change

There’s a lot of criticism surrounding 4th edition. Amazon currently posts a customer rating of 3 out of 5. Many of the reviewers don’t even own the books but simply attack with many various criticisms that generally come down to the following:

  1. 4th Edition is too simplified and misses a lot of the stuff I had and liked in 3.5.

  2. I already have too much invested in 3.5 and I don’t want to switch.

  3. 4th Edition is World of Warcraft on paper.

Nearly all of these arguments come down to a single problem; a fear of change.

I don’t know how many of the critics are actual Dungeon Masters and I don’t know of those who are DMs how many have tried 4th edition, but after reading through and playing through a few D&D 4th edition games, as a DM I can’t see ever going back. In my 3.5 games the planning was too complicated, too much time was spent at the table looking up strange rules, and combat took forever. 4th edition gets rid of all of that without losing the tactics and fun that makes a game like D&D great.

I can understand those who feel like their shelf full of 3.5 books suddenly became worthless. However, looking at my own substantial collection of books, I see very few I’d actually give away. Many of them, like the Book of Vile Darkness and the two Fiendish Codices bring me nostalgia even now. Game systems change and there’s no one forcing anyone to switch. Everyone knew Wizards would come out with a new version some day and frankly, I’m glad they did.

The "D&D = Warcraft" straw-man argument is perplexing. First, a pen and paper game is never like a computer game. Second, WoW is pretty popular so who cares if it does steal from it. There are elements to D&D that mimic some of the rules of WoW such as the talent trees and some of the character class attributes, but combat is still very much D&D and 4th Edition definitely has its own flavor.

D&D’s Biggest Problem

There’s one large unwritten problem surrounding a game like D&D, one that has nothing to do with the rules or the cost of the books. Sometimes its just hard to find a group with which to play. I’ve been lucky in my life to have four of five good D&D groups that played for over a few years. I’m very lucky to have two groups now, one a weekly game that I run with my friends and another that I play in every other week. This mostly comes from the location in which I live, there are enough people around the DC area to find a few different groups of folks. For folks living out in the sticks, however, finding a group can be rough.

Add onto this the stigma of being a D&D player, one we often enjoy together but one that gets in the way when we want to find or build a group, and many might toss D&D aside and focus on computer games instead. I know there were times in my life where I really wanted to play D&D but was too shy to really hunt down and find a good group. It takes a lot of guts to invite yourself into a group of a bunch of strangers, especially for socially awkward folks like myself who tend to gravitate towards games like this.

There’s no clear solution to this. The internet helps with sites like Meetup.com and various D&D boards where people meet and get together. However, as long as the game isn’t mainstream, it will be hard for a lot of people to play.

I can think of only one solution that may help give players the opportunity to play: adventures written for two players. Like D&D miniatures, D&D could be played by two players, one as a DM and one as a player. The player character would have to fight alone but could fight down a series of nasty bad guys and solve a simple plot. I’ve read enough posts to see a high demand for one-on-one adventures but so far have seen very few ever published. Like soloing in World of Warcraft, one-on-one D&D adventures have a better opportunity to bring D&D to more people. I hope to see this expand in the future.

Until better solutions can be found, D&D will always be a hobbyist game played by a few folks in dark basements scattered across the country.

4th Edition, My New Favorite Game

As a DM, 4th edition is a dream. It gives me all the tools to build an exciting adventure that feels like an excellent action movie without worrying about power balance. Combat is fast and fun, with lots of options for both the players and the DMs. The rules are easy enough for veteran players to jump right in with mostly logical conclusions to the questions that come up during gameplay.

As a player, D&D 4th edition makes every class fun, gives enough options and customization to build the sort of character one wants to play without so much customization as to overwhelm. Class powers are the next evolution in character action providing the action-packed actions we’d expect in a good book or movie.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is the best tabletop RPG I’ve ever played.