Five room dungeons are an idea from Johnn Four that makes a dungeon from five small challenges. The rooms can be large or small and arranged in many formations. The rooms are:
1. Entrance or Guardian
2. Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
3. Trick or Setback
4. Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
5. Reward, Revelation, or Plot Twist
They make session to session locations a breeze to make, giving you a nice, simple template to work with. I like that they are short, quick to make, and can be used for anything, not just dungeons. This really feeds my lazy prep style, and I enjoy making them. Here are six of my Five Room Dungeons.
1) Treasure Vault
Entrance or Guardian: Upon opening this hidden away area, you notice that it is or was recently inhabited. A tattered rug covers the floor, a table and two chairs sit off to the side, a small collection of books on a shelf of a bookcase, a comfy chair for reading them, and a long hallway stretches off in the distance. The rug hides a pressure plate that starts a slow rumbling in the hallway. If the players move immediately they can escape with no rolls required. If the players wait, they realize that they will be cut off from the rest of the dungeon if they don’t move. At this point a dexterity saving throw will get them past the falling rocks with no damage, half for failure. After the hall crumbles, it will take 250 man hours to unearth the whole 250 feet.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a woman, Sarin, caught in a circle of magical energy. She tells the party if the salt circle is broken, she can go free. She is a high level thief looking to loot the vault. She will betray the party if necessary.
Trick or Setback: This is a large room, it has small, mouse-sized holes that lead into hidden areas in the walls and ceiling. There is a hag, Hilda, hiding here who entered a pact to guard the vault for 101 years. If the vault is breached she will be trapped here forever. The hag uses the holes to enter the walls and cast from cover.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The vault is locked by a large circle divided into four quadrants. They are colored yellow, blue, brown, and white. To open the lock a spell from each element (fire, water, earth, and air) must be cast in succession. The order does not matter, as long as they are cast one after another.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Aside from gold in the vault, there is also a Ring of Three Whooshes. It can cast longstrider three times per day.
2) Giant Burial Chambers
Entrance or Guardian: An unnatural pond, on a mountain top far from much of anything. If you submerge yourself in the pond you will emerge in a dark, carved stone entry room with a similar pool.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: Three stone giant ghosts guard this area. They will warn the characters (in giant) not to disturb the contents of the tombs.
Trick or Setback: A stone giant lairs here, melded into the stone and watching over the tombs. He has been shunned by his people for something he did long ago.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: A fey lurks here in the shadows, seeking revenge on the giants that lay here. The fey will encourage the characters to seek the sword.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: A sword that contains their souls is here, if used and reduce a creature to 0 HP it will release a soul as a giant shadow under the wielder’s control for 1 hour before vanishing. It has 10 'charges' and turns to a non-magical sword after they are all used, damning the giants’ souls to the Abyss.
3) Shadow Monastery
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted monastery lies in near ruins; the veil between worlds is thin here and shadowy apparitions of the former students can be seen eternally practicing, trapped between life and death. An entrance can be found deep in the bowels of the old monastery, linking to a shadowfell version of the building.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A monk on the other side says that they are all trapped here by a bell that can be heard ringing in the distance.
Trick or Setback: If the party goes toward the sound they will have an encounter with aggressive monks.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The Bell is a construct with sonic attacks.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Before the monk leaves the shadowfell behind, he will open a portal back and give the party a ghost rune. The ghost rune can be transferred to a non-magical suit of armor or weapon. If attached to a weapon, the weapon can instead do cold or necrotic damage. If a creature is immune to cold damage, it is reduced to resistance for this attack; if it is resistant it is reduced to normal damage. If the creature does not have a resistance or immunity to cold damage and cold is chosen, critical hits do three times the normal effect.
4) Tower on the Border
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted tower is guarded by the ghost of a wizard; he warns that the darkness shall destroy you.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a black pudding here trapped in a large glass container with a door facing out. On the other side of this large room is an area that has one inch holes in the floor that go down twenty feet to a pressure plate that opens a secret blue portal. The pressure plate must have the weight of a large creature on it (the black pudding). The black pudding can then squeeze its way through a passage under the floor and back into the glass container through a hole in the bottom, resetting the puzzle.
Trick or Setback: There is a portal on each wall of this rectangular room, the one the characters step through changes to a different color (green). The other portals are (right to left) black, yellow, and red. If the players choose any but the black, they are teleported d4 hexes (24 miles each) away.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The wizard from the entrance is here and shadow touched. He is invisible and holds the key of a great cage that surrounds the party. There are signs of someone have been here recently and a tracking check will lead them to bump into the wizard. Defeating the crazy wizard or otherwise finding the key will let the PCs out of the cage. The wizard will explain how the players can get back using the closest shadow portal (d4x6 miles away).
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The wizard wears a Robe of Illusion, it has seventeen charges that can be used to can cast an illusion spell from zero to fourth level (DM chooses one spell per level). Each spell can be cast for the spells level +1 charge; e.g. a cantrip is 1 charge, a first level spell is 2 charges. It disintegrates after the last charge is used.
5) Prison of the Ravager
Entrance or Guardian: A shadowfell prison holds a bound carrion, or ghoul demon. To enter the foul jail requires a pound of flesh placed into a bedrock mortar in a large boulder in an out of the way place in the forest.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: The Ravager has been imprisoned here for countless years, he asks the party to free him and offers to make them generals in his army as well as lead them out of the prison.
Trick or Setback: This room contains five cauldrons full of burbling liquids. When the red, green, blue, yellow, and orange liquids are drank by themselves they do nothing, when mixed together they do a random result.
2 +1 strength
3 +1 intelligence
4 Paralyzed for an hour.
5 +1 wisdom
6-8 Aged by twenty five percent of current age.
9 +1 charisma
10 polymorphed into a sheep for an hour.
11 +1 constitution
12 +1 dexterity
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: An undead fey guards the exit and will die before he lets the demon leave. He knows the Ravager’s true name.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: There is a secret room that has a magic mouth that speaks the demon’s true name, Catullus.
6) Astral Erratic
Entrance or Guardian: An astral dragon, Ansmon, makes his lair in this huge chunk of rock and stages attacks on astral raiders from here.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A very young elven ranger named Laira resides here and serves as guardian to the dragon. She was captured infiltrating the dragon’s lair and has since joined the cause.
Trick or Setback: A monk, Ranek, lives here, forced into a contract when the dragon destroyed his monastery on a separate errand in the astral plane. He has been here for only a few years, arriving after Laira.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The dragon will attack any who enter here without Laira.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The dragon keep a journal of his conquests, including mind wiping Laira after destroying her trespassing family.
As you can see five rooms can vary greatly. A little inspiration and a half hour can generate two hours worth of content for your gaming table. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to try out this tactic next time you need a small destination.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture Reference: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/5-room-dungeons/
Depending on how you play the game, creating a backstory for your character is either the easiest or the hardest part of character creation. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the tabletop community for the last few years. Especially with the relatively recent influx of player thanks to the many mainstream representations of it such as Critical Role. In both seasons of that game, all of the players have had rather complex backstories that intermingle with both the world and the other players. Which can be intimidating. However, it isn’t terribly difficult if you have an outline. The first tip to give to any player, new or old, is to talk to your DM about backstory. They are the ones that will be able to help the most with integration into the world, because they are the ones who control the world. With that out of the way, I give you some story arcs.
1) The Redemption Arc
I mean, with Red Dead Redemption still being so hot, of course I would mention the redemption arc so I could name drop something that’s popular and increase the likelihood that someone stumbles onto this article while looking for something different. This is a very popular arc in both D&D and other forms of media because of how easy it is to build off of. If you used to be a criminal, then you likely have some contacts in the underbelly of society. If you betrayed them, then you likely have made a powerful enemy out of a thieves guild. You fled the country to avoid persecution? No contacts in the new one. You met a kind priest along the way who brought you to a church and began to make you pietus and bam you have your cleric with more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.
While this is very easy to write and work with, it can also be very interesting to play. The thought of working hard to fend off your more malevolent habits such as torture or violence can make for a very interesting dynamic, especially with good aligned characters, however make sure you don’t slip into murder hobo mode. Because no one wants to see the cleric stabbing a shop keep for a discount. I mean... I kinda want to see that. It’d be funny: “The power of Ao compels you… to give me a thirty percent discount.” Then the shopkeep is like, “I’m an atheist” and the cleric just starts chanting “by the power of Ao…” But all that aside, at its core the redemption arc allows for a lot of contrast within a character's personality, the residual gruffness from being a killer for hire contrasted by your new Paladin-esque oath, for example.
2) The Runaway Arc
At first you think “oh geez, is this guy just going to tell me to do what X-Men does with all its characters to trick the audience into caring about them?” And the answer to that question is yes… kind of. While the idea of a character running away from home because some sort of uncomfortable physical trait or power making people scared of them is novel in theory, in practice it only really works for certain groups of characters, in a tabletop setting. But here is the runaway explained better: for whatever reason, your original home is no longer an option to stay at and you flee to avoid death or further abuse. That’s it. The creativity comes from the reason. One of my players made a character who, as part of her backstory, was married away to an abusive noble to forge a peace treaty between her race and the humans that were beginning to settle in the area. Later, the noble violated the treaty and started a genocide of the race, while keeping the player character captive and treating her as something closer to a pet or trophy. She was abused both mentally and physically and she ended up running away from the place that she had lived her whole life. Not only did that set up a greater villain in her plot, but it also left her with a reason to adventure and travel. It even left the door open for random encounters during travel, as agents of the noble could track her down. In short, this backstory can wrap everything up in a nice little bow and even open a few doors for DMs.
The Runaway arc has a few endings which can really go in a number of directions. One is they return home after whatever force that opposes them is dealt with. Another would be that said force is destroyed, but so is their home in the process, forcing them back into the role of wanderer or having them decide to make a new home for themself and the people they used to live with. There is always the option that the force that opposes them never is defeated, and they simply change everything about themself and move on. All of this can be an appropriately dramatic way to flex your roleplaying muscles. Of course, if you’re just developing the character by the seat of your pants, then do whatever feels right in the moment. That is how most people play after all.
3) The Lost Soul Arc
We all know “that guy” who went backpacking through Europe and he like “totally found himself” and thought it was a “really spiritual experience” and that you should “totally do it sometime if you have the time to really connect with yourself.” While people like that, who will remain nameless (Keith), are typically obnoxious and won’t shut up about it, the need to find oneself is actually very common in the world. An old soldier who has seen too much death and wants to see what else the world has the offer other than blood, screams, and loss. A confused young wizard who has no idea what he’s going to do with all his academic knowledge, but knows he wants to see more. Even a lanky blonde douchebag whose dad paid for his two years off in Europe and wanted an excuse to eat foreign food and meet people whose grasp of english was poor enough to think he’s clever.
The Lost Soul Arc has a rather obvious conclusion; the finding of their purpose. It doesn’t have to be some great cosmic truth, perhaps the fact of the matter is, that young wizard was never happier than when he was with his wife and kid, so he hangs up the robe and wand to be the family man he’s happy being. Perhaps that grizzled veteran finds out that he has a passion for painting, and that's how he spends the rest of his days after his adventures. Of course at the same time, that young wizard could discover his spark for magic far surprasses almost all others and becomes the arcane protector of the entire kingdom, or as the veteran passes on into the next life a god approaches him and tells him of the fact that he was meant to be an instrument of war from birth, and that his stories will inspire hundred more young men and women to march headlong into danger for their loved ones. (He could take that a few ways depending on weather or not his perception on war has changed, but that's an article for another day.)
4) The Fallen Arc
Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, Gwyn Lord of Sunlight, and Michael Jackson all have something in common. They were all once much greater than they are considered now. This is definitely the most difficult one to work out with both your DM and yourself. It's a tricky process, turning dark. Bad eggs are rarely always bad, and a fall from grace is much easier to fit into a backstory, which would lead into a redemption arc, however if you want to develop your character in this direction it’ll 100% be something you need to work out with your DM and tell them about from the start. They would need to leave open opportunities for you to start exploring the darker side of your character. You’ll need to decide if your character plans to abandon, betray or simply continue to have conflict with the party. At least in most cases you’ll end up having some sort of conflict with the party as you begin this arc.
Of course the next thing to consider is that the most work often comes with the biggest payout. Your character could become the next BBEG of your DM’s next campaign. Your sudden but inevitable betrayal will certainly coax out the curses of your party, and as such maybe you’ll become the next villain of this campaign. Depending on how well liked your character was before their fall, it could cause major waves within your group, with both the players and the characters.
5) The Joe Schmo Arc
“It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” isn’t just something said by loveable farmers. You can say it too, in sharp ironic contrast with the imagery of you suplexing an orc into the dirt and snapping his neck instantaneously. This arc is seen time and time again. Good examples include Frodo and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, Harry from Harry Potter, and Kayley from the Quest for Camelot. A very good start for level one characters is just having them be a normal person who was swept away by circumstance. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time and everyone put you on a pedestal. For example, perhaps a giant monster was terrorizing your village and happened to fall off a cliff to his death, and you looked as if you were the one that rushed in and pushed him, when you were actually cowering. From there on you were heralded as a hero and slayer of monsters, despite only being a farmer for most of your life. The circumstances are wide open, and that is, once again, the best part. The development of these characters is always very unique, as a simple farm boy turns into an arch mage of near godly power, but still stops by home every other weekend to have dinner with mom and help milk the cows. The change of view is what changes the character and the literal gain of experience. Often times this is the best way to get a character that is shaped, almost entirely by the events that happen in game. Whether or not you consider that a good or bad thing, is up to you.
Really, this is the arc with the most built in comedy. It’s a big world out there, and having a view of the world where the best a person can get is a simple life with a family of 18 before dying at the ripe old age of 35 is typically very different from the reality of magic rich game universes. It’s very easy to forget the little guy when you’re out stopping wars, delving dungeons and slaying dragons. Being one of the little guys is very grounding for many parties out there (and in some cases can stop murderhobo-ing).
All of these are very general suggestions for characters and how they COULD develop. However, the simple fact of the matter is, more often than not you’re just better off building your character in response to the things that occur in game. You don’t have to have every little thing planned out from the beginning. The most important part of the game is the fun, and as long as everyone is having it, you’re playing it right.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/zuko-avatar-the-last-airbender-best-character
Japan and its tabletop games have long been an area of fascination of mine, and it’s also why I have an ever growing pile of games from Japan I’m as yet unable to read. Among the games in this collection is a game about an out of control dungeon, and the plucky adventurers called Landmakers that can bring some semblance of order to this wild world. This game is called Meikyuu Kingdom!
1) Who Made This?
Meikyuu Kingdom, also sometimes known as Make You Kingdom, is a game published by Adventure Planning Services of Japan. An official English translation was announced in 2013, however no new information has since been released, though rough drafts of a fan translation exist.
2) What’s The Premise And Setting?
Meikyuu Kingdom is, as its name implies, a Kingdom building game, set in a world called the Infinite Dungeon. The players take on the role of the members of the royal court. In addition to working to build the kingdom, each member of the court also has their own personal goal, such as claiming a certain territory as part of the kingdom, or slaying a certain number of monsters.
However, the dungeon is, in fact, infinite, and even familiar places can change abruptly through a process known as Dungeonification. Additionally, your kingdom isn’t the only one in the dungeon, and the others may not always get along with yours.
3) What Are The Mechanics Like?
The dice mechanics of Meikyuu Kingdom are relatively simple: you roll 2d6, add the relevant attribute, and compare it to a target number. This mostly pertains to combat and skills. Meanwhile, the game’s management system is more binary; you either have the items or stats you need, or you don’t.
The game is also divided into two distinct phases: the Kingdom Phase and the Dungeon Phase. The Kingdom Phase is where you make decisions pertaining to the kingdom’s development, as well as preparations to enter the dungeon. By contrast, the Dungeon Phase consists of the sort of classic dungeon crawling challenges fans of fantasy roleplaying games would be more familiar with.
There’s also a somewhat unique mechanic Meikyuu Kingdom introduces called the d66 roll. The d66 roll is used for randomizing options on charts, such as random names or encounters. You roll two d6s as if you were rolling d%, but the lower number is always in the 10s place, and the highest number is always the ones place. With this setup, a result of 6 and 1 would be 16, or a result of 3 and 2 would be 23.
4) What Is It Similar To?
The most apt comparison to Meikyuu Kingdom is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, particularly with how the scope of the game changed past level 9, where the focus of the game began including building and maintaining keeps. Additionally, both games have a simple core mechanic, but numerous sub systems with all manner of charts.
However, being a more modern game Meikyuu Kingdom is more refined; the core mechanic is consistent throughout, and the subsystems are related to each other in meaningful ways. Exempli gratia followers are the lifeblood of the kingdom, a staple in many skills, and there are numerous ways to gain them.
Despite these similarities, though, it’s worth mentioning that this is still a Japanese game, and thus much more structured than most games you can expect to find in the English speaking tabletop gaming community.
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes, but only if you’re interested in a silly, light hearted, kingdom making game. Being from Japan, this game is kind of rigid in terms of what it can be used to accomplish. Much of the listed skills all work towards one of two ends: either building up the kingdom, or crawling through the dungeon.
Another consideration is also that the fan translation doesn’t include any of the official artwork; so for many of the items, monsters, classes and jobs, you’ll be relying on names alone. (Which is a shame, because some of the monsters, such as Mayonaise King, are just plain absurd!)
To support the official release, you’ll need to import the books from Japan. This is great since they had released a new edition in October 2018, but not so great since importing is a risky and expensive prospect.
Aaron der Schaedel has no impulse control, and usually winds up buying any books in Japanese that have cute anime girls on the cover. His legitimate copies of the Meikyuu Kingdom books are no exception. You can try tempting him by showing him other such books via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://randompunk.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-world-of-meikyuu-kingdom-13-daily.html
As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
I was gone for quite some time. Decades, in fact. Now, don’t get me wrong, I kept cursory interest in the comings and goings of 3rd Edition and 3.5 Edition. I don’t think that I truly REMEMBER the release or products for 4th Edition due to my nearly all-consuming involvement in playing, Storytelling and writing for White Wolf Game Studios’ World of Darkness setting. But somewhere along the way, life happened and role-playing, running and writing games about monsters and the darkest aspects of the human condition stopped being fun for me and became more and more tedious in and of itself.
For me, my answer to the doldrums of role-playing was to pretty much abandon it altogether for a hobby quite new to me, which was tactical table-based miniature combat games such as Warmachine and Warhammer 40K.
I was “gone” for quite some time.
When the local store where I played my games closed in the Spring of 2011, I moved “full-time” to MMORPGs such as Elder Scrolls, EVE, and of course, World of Warcraft, which I had played off and on since its release. However, in the back of my mind and nearly always, there was this itch; all these games and all these settings and all the imagery and imagination that birthed them – all of them – had come from a singular parent.
Dungeons & Dragons.
So, I started to look online at where Wizards of the Coast had taken the game that had taught me – literally TAUGHT ME – how to tell stories, how to craft adventure, how to play, run and write for a role-playing game. I saw that 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a new, fat-faced four-year-old, was still pretty much in its toddlerhood… so I began to gobble up the books one at a time and search for a group to play with.
It didn’t take long.
Here’s what I learned from my origins in D&D to my abandonment to my rediscovery:
1) Always Imitated, Never Duplicated
There is a form and a function to Dungeons & Dragons that sets it apart from every other role-playing game, table top or MMO. The worlds created within Dungeons & Dragons have, since 1974, dwarfed and, in many ways, miniaturized Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Hyperboria and Moorcock’s Melnibone. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, the Underdark, Faerun, Spelljammer… the Basic Rules set for Dungeons & Dragons looks like a small island off the coast of Virginia with the rest of the individualized settings for the game spanning out away from it like the rest of the known world. It is the format against which other RPGs – nearly every “World Sized” RPG in publication since the release of Dungeons & Dragons – measure themselves. Some have met success.
Most have not even come close to being able to call themselves a mediocre knock-off of the original.
The scope of the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons is, for all intents and purposes, a world without end. Always imitated but never duplicated, in so many ways, all RPG roads seem to lead back to the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons.
2) High Adventure, High Fantasy
The 80’s were absolutely rife with high fantasy tropes; Conan: the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Ladyhawke, Willow… the list goes on and on and on. In a lot of ways, these cinematic offerings were a response to the times and there was a huge demand for them. On the other hand, these movies gave rise to the visualization of a lot of our campaigns and ideas that swam within RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. We began to write our own stories, inspired by the works of Moorcock, Salvatore, Donaldson, Brooks, Jordan, McAffrey, and McKiernan. With these scribblings, we learned how to tell stories. More importantly, we learned how to bend stories to our will because we became so well read. We learned how to not fall into tropes that worked just because they worked. We learned how to keep our players on the edges of their seats. We learned how to make a bad dice roll into something wonderful. We learned how to inject emotion and empathy into a game founded on myth and mathematics. We learned these things from playing Dungeons & Dragons. We learned that even though we may have had boring or inauspicious lives, all we needed for high adventure on a cold winter’s day was a couple of friends, a set of dice, some paper, a pencil and a good freakin’ story to tell each other.
What’s BEAUTIFUL about 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that much of what has been released and written regarding pre-generated campaign publications has come with emotion and empathy included at no extra charge. The writing has been top notch, there seems to be no expense spared on the artwork, and in a world where game stores can be hard to find and where bookstores close on the daily, sites like Amazon and D&D Beyond serve to provide to-the-door delivery for books, supplements, and gear you may want or need to create your own provinces within the aforementioned world without end.
3) No One Does It Better Than Wizards of the Coast
Let’s be honest here; book publishing and games are a part of entertainment. Entertainment is one of those things that you spend discretionary income on. I played Magic: The Gathering for about 15 minutes when it was first released in the 1990’s. The CCG scene simply wasn’t my bag, personally, but I always admired people who stuck with it and who became strategically good at mastering the ins and outs of it. But that’s the FIRST TIME I heard the name “Wizards of the Coast.” I remember wondering in the mid-90’s, when WotC bought TSR and the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, how long it would be until the company completely consumed the whole of the RPG industry. Then, in 1999, Hasbro played the wildcard and bought WotC for somewhere around the sum of $325 million.
Close to 2 decades later, we have Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. While Wizards of the Coast suspended previous products from being sold in .pdf format on sites like DriveThruRPG.com, in July of 2014 they released the Basic Rules box for 5th Edition.
In between 4th and 5th Editions of the game, a lot of the RPG community had gotten used to “community generated” content and “print-on-demand,” .pdf-formats for RPG books that allowed for less overhead and risk for game manufacturers and publishers on the one hand, but that opened the door for a stunning potential for piracy on the other.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books are hardbacks with crisp, quality printed paper and bindings that seem to be able to go the distance. They harken back to the “good old days” of RPGs, when there were core books and hardback supplement books and things people called splat books and the biggest difference (one that I personally like, to be completely honest) is that now, instead of your “modules” being these sort of flimsy little paper things that come in a little folder that can get grease-stained when some mouth-breather uses it as a pizza coaster on game night, they’re called “Campaign Sourcebooks,” and they’re hardbound, too. Woe to he that places a slice of pizza on the DM’s book…
Dungeon Tiles have been released to keep you from having to draw maps, Spell, Monster and Magic Item card decks have been released so that players and GMs have a more portable way to manage what they need when they must travel to and from a game. In short, it’s a class act. Wizards of the Coast has learned through doing what they do EXACTLY what players and consumers want. They listen to their marketing team, their play testers, and their product development people. Are their books and products expensive? Perhaps. When you’re talking
about discretionary income, ALL HOBBIES are expensive.
But they’re not Games Workshop’s level of expensive.
And when you buy a product from Wizards of the Coast, you most certainly will get what you pay for.
4) What’s Old Is New Again
I could sit here and literally rattle off a list of horror RPGs that I have played, or written for, or read about, or reviewed. Dungeons & Dragons did it first. Call of Cthulhu? Dungeons & Dragons’ 1st Edition of Deities & Demigods had the Cthulhu Mythos statted out for use as PC/NPC deities for use in the game. If you look long and hard enough, and you’re willing to pay the price for a copy in semi-decent condition, you can still find this book and you can, with a little elbow grease and brains, adapt Lovecraft’s mythos into Dungeons & Dragons. ShadowRun was (and perhaps still is, although I’m not certain that it is still in publication) Dungeons & Dragons in a science-fiction, Blade Runner-meets-Cyberpunk setting. Eberron takes Dungeons & Dragons into a fantasy, sort of steampunk-esque flavoring that works to compete and, in many ways, surpass games that have attempted to do the same thing in the past like Exalted. Here’s the deal: there is not a single RPG that I am aware of that is worth playing as it was written and published that CANNOT be adapted into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a talented Dungeon Master at the helm.
Some may say that they systems of play are too complicated, and to an extent I agree, but 5th Edition has streamlined the rules into very smooth playing with as little mathematics as possible slowing down the pace of the game. Some say that straight up d10 or d20 RPGs are superior because they – by the very nature of the dice you use to play them – eliminate most of the complications inherent to Dungeons & Dragons. I disagree with this in that when one mechanic is removed due to complication, another complication will arise due to individualistic perception of a rule as written, to wit, the only RPG that will ever be completely free of rules and systems complications will be the RPG that has no rules or systems. That’s not a game. That’s just chaos and tomfoolery while sitting at a table, so you might as well be playing Go Fish… although, there are rules for that game, too.
I find that the streamlined, more accessible and easier to understand rules system of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons a breath of fresh air. I sincerely missed it. I missed the Saving Throws. I missed the Perception Checks. I missed all the nuances that were available to you if you decided that you wanted to play a Halfling archer, although now, I’m more solidly set into the saddle of my Svirfneblin Gloom Stalker w/ Bracers of Archery.
While there are still some components of the game that can take some time to get used to, once you latch onto them, you’re hooked in, and things start to run as smoothly as clockwork… just like every edition before 5th.
5) It Makes Me Feel Young Again
I sincerely cannot remember a time when sitting down to write an outline for an RPG that I wanted to run didn’t feel like work to me. I cannot remember a time when playing an RPG didn’t disappoint me. Either there were too many constrictions on my splat, or there weren’t enough options for what I wanted to do with professions or skills or there were no modifiers for a specialization that I wanted to take for my character… so many of them just fell flat for me. It started to feel like work, and then, for a time, it WAS work, so I just gave it up for something else.
Then, about a month ago, I bought Mordenkainen’s Guide to Foes, and it was like looking at a photograph of your high-school sweetheart in her prom dress.
There they were: the Gith, the Lords of the Nine Hells, the Red Wizards of Thay. Names I hadn’t heard in literally decades. And it wasn’t enough. I got a fix… but I needed more.
So, I started to look up things that I didn’t know anything about; the Warforged… the Tiefling… the Dragonborn…
And I consumed these tomes one after another after another. Volo’s Guide to Monsters is hilarious… I read that one to my wife chapter by chapter, section by section (I did, however, skip the architecture of the lairs and dens to keep from putting her to sleep). Xanathar’s Guide to Everything - written by the Eye Tyrant Crime Kingpin of Waterdeep – Was fascinating in regard to the new subclasses and magic items that weren’t in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And then, around Christmas of 2018, I bought a DM’s Screen and I waited to hear whispers of someone needing a DM.
That fell into my lap recently, as the DM of the group that I’ve been playing with for about six months got a new job and dropped out of the game. I was asked “Hey, Shannon… do you think YOU could run a game for us?”
I hadn’t been asked that question in I don’t even know how long.
And I smiled.
And I said yes.
And now, as I bring this blog entry to a close, I begin preparations for the second night of running Curse of Strahd for my players.
For them, it will be a well-orchestrated and organized dive into the horrors of Barovia and the treasures of Ravenloft if they are able to withstand the onslaught of a vampire older than the Harpers Guild itself.
For me, well… I’ve never felt quite as young as I do when I get to say “Well, you can certainly roll to try.”
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
We got a chance to ask Ray Machuga some questions about his in-progress Kickstarter for Lex Draconis, which is a supplement for Modern RPG. This is an awesome looking indy RPG that I really recommend you checking out.
1) Tell us about Modern RPG, what is different about it from other games?
Modern RPG is a unique spin on fantasy. It places the characters in a story-driven urban fantasy setting that takes place in modern Earth, but one in which magic and monsters have always existed. It gives a rich, deep story to typical fantasy tropes and takes a very gritty stance on the role playing experience overall. Modern RPG gives realistic stories to the fantasy tropes you know, and creates a deep tapestry within which to play.
2) Why dragons?
Why not? There is no other beast that is more iconic. No other monster that is as clever or powerful in a fantasy setting. Much like Vampire: The Masquerade did for vampires in the 90s, I'm attempting to do with dragons in Lex Draconis. I want to give the myths and legends of dragons an anchor within which to create a deeply driven setting. I want to give dragons life. Moreover, I want to give players the chance to play dragons in a realistic, storied way.
3) What sort of game is this?
I like to say that it's story-driven urban fantasy. It's a d20-style tabletop role playing game in which you play the traumatized ancestors of the dragons of myth that embody mortal bodies.
4) From a long-term chronicle perspective, what sort of stories do you see being told with this game?
The beauty of Lex Draconis is that you can play a wide array of stories using the setting and system. Stories can center around draconic conflict where you and your clutch (a group of young dragons) face off against other clutches or even buck in rebellion against the machinations of the Old Wyrms - dragons of great age and power. Stories can also center around deeper issues of personal conflict where the dragon must come to terms with her new nature as a dragon, and determine what, if anything, can be salvaged from her mortal life from before she became what she is now. Balancing a dragon's previous mortal life with her newfound primordial power can be heart-wrenching and delve into great personal stories. Dragons can dive headlong into their legendary natures as well. These stories can delve deeply into the history of Earth and the cosmology within the setting and allow the dragon to "come into her own" as a Primordial Power. And of course, there is always the quest for a bigger, better hoard.
Check it out on Kickstarter now!
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
When coming up with a setting it’s easy to hit a block. Have you used up your creative juices on the last huge campaign you ran? Gotten halfway through and just got stuck? When writing up a campaign I like to use real world events to help my players connect to the game. “Write what you know,” as they say. So I have compiled a small list of six events in history that can be used to throw a bit of life into your creativity.
1) World Wars
The world wars were horrific, bloody and long lasting. If you have a huge campaign setting throw in one of your own wars, either one already started or one about to begin. Achtung Cthulhu! uses the backdrop of World War II to set its tone and offers an alternative timeline for supernatural and magical events throughout the war. Using this setting can be great for increasing tension or throwing your PCs into a huge battle to make them feel insignificant right before having to take on a great horror from the depth of space.
2) The Crusades
The crusades are similar in scale of the wars mentioned above but were very single sided in cause. A vast army of believers marched to cleanse the non believers from the lands. This concept could be used in many of your campaigns in various scales, whether a single cult or an army poised to attack a neighbouring land. This setting could be used very similarly to the world war setting with a more religious or belief driven story hook. Adding a magic system to this setting could be interesting, using it as the driving force of aggressor attempting to cleanse the land of magic or perhaps wishing to destroy ‘tainted’ magic similar to some wizards in the Harry Potter novels.
Long ago the greatest kingdoms sought to expand their empires by taking lesser kingdoms and utilising their resources. Colonisation was not met with warm welcomes; each smaller kingdom fought and most failed to deter the claims to their lands. The few perks of this were overshadowed by the treatment of the indigenous population and the attitude of the oppressors. Using this as a setting could set up guerrilla factions trying to stop their homes being taken by force, or even have the players on the side of the aggressor, enticing the players with land for conquering a region or simply wealth from the exploitation of the resources from with the area seized. Either way you could persuade the players with an item of great significance or usefulness to the party and let them decide how best to acquire it.
4) Cold War
The cold war was a tense time between nations and sparked a large espionage campaign by multiple countries. Tested alliances and covert treachery was rife throughout this period and makes a perfect setting for covert missions into enemy territory and delivering misinformation to sway events in your favour. This is the best conflict to read up on if you are interested in spy versus spy settings and can be readily applied to many cyberpunk style games.
5) Navajo Conflicts
The Navajo Conflicts were a series of battles ranging from skirmishes to raids between the Navajo people and various enemies including the Spanish and the American military. Using this as a setting could inspire very low tech guerrilla style combat where the party must infiltrate an enemy base steal supplies and escape unnoticed before beginning a full scale assault on the enemy positions.
These have been rife throughout history, anywhere there is power to be exploited there will be those who wish to do so. From Hitler to Castro there will always be people who feel superior to others. There will always be people who think that their ideals are more important than the public, those who believe that they are the only salvation for their country and will defend their power with everything they have. The perfect time for a band of misfits to come blow stuff up. Enter your PCs and a storyline that takes them on an opposing view from the dictator and let the chaos ensue.
History can teach us many lessons in real life and in our roleplaying games. If you do use a setting from history read up on it and find out the motivations behind the conflicts and how it affected the people around it. Try to find a way to allow your PCs to feel like they are part of a true struggle in their game world so they want to help the cause and no just farm the loot. There are many many more settings you can look into throughout history and chances are if you have read it in a supplement it probably has real world ties that you can look into and adjust for your own use.
Ross Reid is an RPG enthusiast who loves all things roleplay, from creating a local group to sponsored gaming marathons, he will dip his toe into anything that catches his eye.
Image source https://www.deviantart.com/zguernsey/art/Men-Of-Honor-111150790
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games