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TABLETOP WAR-GAME TERRAIN & SCENERY: Part two, the basic steps

Thinking of making your own terrain and scenery for tabletop games? Here’s our take on things, free and easy to use!

Last week we brought you an introduction into making terrain and scenery pieces to your tabletop games like Warhammer Age of Sigmar or Frostgrave. In this article you’ll find a little more detail on the early stages of modelling terrain features, with some images of the pilot projects we have currently underway.

I want to to make it clear that I didn’t plan any of these pieces – no more than just a casual thought and a pencil line went into the design, highlighting the point that planning isn’t everything for small projects like these. It can be fun and highly rewarding if you’re open to learning from the process and as Bob Ross would say, have some happy little accidents.

Our approach should hopefully mean less headaches for you and we hope you will enjoy the fruits of our labour!

Stuff We Used (But can be swapped for similar stuff)

  1. Styrofoam sheets (or polystyrene)
  2. Hot-wire Cutter (optional but very quick and smooth)
  3. Craft Knife (essential)
  4. Rolled / mushed up tin foil (optional)
  5. Hot-Glue gun (or PVA glue if you have more time)
  6. PVA Glue
  7. Mod Podge, matte (Optional but a very good sealer)
  8. Acrylic Paint (Black, Tan, Grey & White)
  9. Grass Flocking, gravel (optional)

Preparing the Base

The Styrofoam sheets were too thick, making the round bases 2 cm high, so I cut them down to 1 cm. This gave twice the number of bases I wanted – a great stockpile for future terrain pieces. I reckon these 1 cm high round bases are still sturdy, more so when we apply the various coats of paint and sealers to them. For bigger projects, I may in the future use MDF board.

However, cutting tall pieces of Styrofoam sheet proved difficult – despite my best efforts to keep the pieces upright,  there was always some flexing which caused a few uneven cuts… check out the damage!

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

I got round this by using some scrunched up foil and rolling / dabbling the foam base with it. This softens edges and adds detail. Be sure to use different parts of the foil so nothing looks uniform – or just get yourself a smooth cutting jig for sheets.

Perfect Bricks Begone!

In the previous article I mentioned that the bricks I cut were too perfect. And probably too big. This time we decided to cut smaller bricks than last time – they look better and if we want to make a curved wall, smaller bricks would leave smaller gaps. If we want to add foundation stones to anything, we could still use the larger bricks in the future.

To begin with, we used our very cheap Ebay purchased hot-wire cutter to make a lot of bricks and some bases out from our Styrofoam sheets. This took a bit of time, but now that there’s a box of ready-to-use bricks, we can focus on building and crafting!

To make life easier, I cut some strips from the sheets of Styrofoam and then simply cut the ends off, 1 cm at a time. With a bit of practice I was pushing 2 strips through the hot wire at a time, creating plenty of bricks in the space of an hour.

With the brick cutting process sorted it’s time to deal with the ‘perfect brick’ problem from the previous project. The best idea the internet had offer was to put those Styrofoam bricks into a tub, throw in some real rocks then seal the lid down tightly and shake for a minute. The result was nicely weathered, pitted and rounded edges on each brick. Perfect!

Preparation

Most of the prep work here is to ensure you can start creating great looking pieces of terrain quickly. If you follow our method, we think you’ll be all set up to get stuck in any time you fancy creating!

  • Cut out many, many 1 x 1 x 2 cm bricks. Don’t worry if they’re slightly out of shape – for ruins or even fresh built walls, a little variety adds some realism to the final product. You can go bigger if you’re after chunky masonry.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

  • Weather the bricks by tossing them into a container with stones as mentioned earlier or you could mush them about a bit with some scrunched up tin foil.
  • Prepare a base – for me a 1 cm thick circular base at about 6 inches diameter (inches because most tabletop war games use inches) was fine. The size is just right for some ruined walls without being a massive piece for the tabletop.
  • Mix paints and glues. We added a healthy dose of black to our Mod Podge, created mixtures of water and PVA and even prepared our flocking for creating moss. Cheap black paint with water will create a very simple and nice shade wash to douse your piece, this will offer depth of detail before you move on to painting it properly.

Now to have a think of what to make: to begin with we marked the base with very light pencil lines. These marked out where the bricks would be placed and glued and kept the bricks to a straight line. If you’re making a curved wall, find something to match the curve you’re after – such as a Pringle tube or a cup and trace around it. It’s probably more important for curved walls to trace the lines in.

So, without further ado, here’s our basic terrain formula. We use this formula to create terrain pieces speedily. Keep in mind that it’s pretty basic, but it should give a good coverage to your materials to enhance their structural strength.

Basic Terrain Formula

Hot glue gun. Glue each brick, one at a time. Give each row a few seconds to cool and harden so you don’t squash previous layers out of line. Build upwards, making sure you alternate the corners and rows – this isn’t just aesthetic, it actually builds a stronger wall!

Water down some PVA, about 60/40 (PVA/Water) and apply it to wherever you want to add gravel. Sprinkle the gravel on and leave it to dry. Drying times will vary. Give it plenty of time as the next layer will mess it up if it isn’t properly dry.

Mod Podge layer comes next. Get it right in the cracks, thin the Mod Podge down a little to get lighter coats and ensure full coverage. You can add a dash of water to the Mod Podge to thin it down. Allow to dry until it darkens all over.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Water down some cheap black acrylic paint with water, 60/40. Apply it all over! If you’re having trouble getting it into the cracks or its not covering properly you can add a literal drop of washing up liquid. Stir it in, don’t shake it! What you’ve made is essentially a shade wash – the paint will seep into the cracks and impressions, bringing out the detail. Don’t worry if it doesn’t stick to the whole surface, it’s not meant to! Allow to dry.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Dry brush with successive layers of tans, light browns, greys.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

  • Add any details such as grass, flocking etc.
  • Once you’re happy, give it a nice layer of hard-coat and allow to dry!

That is pretty much the basic formula used to create terrain pieces. It took a few attempts and some rescues in the first 3 pieces I made up, so don’t panic if you jump forward a step or miss a step – you can always go back, and reapply layers again. The important bit is Mod Podge first!

Details, Details, Details…

Weathering Foil

To weather our bricks, we grabbed some stones from outdoors, put them in a tub with a handful of bricks, and shook them about. Alternatively, we also rolled and scrunched up some foil so that it had uneven and sharp edges. Simply foll or dash the foil against the surface of the Styrofoam and you’ll get a stippled patina that looks like weathering.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Brickwork

When using bricks like this, it pays to get the first layer glued in properly. I lined up the bricks against a light pencil line drawn into the base. This allowed me to keep the brick laying straight, it also allowed me to approach the corners of walls without too much thought: make sure that each corner brick alternates with the row below it. You can see the detail in the images below.

I like to add some random fallen bricks and gaps in the walls to add a bit of life to the ruins… in my head I imagine the story behind them too…

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Pathing Stones

For pathing stones, I cut some strips of foam 2 x 2 cm and then just cut the ends off about 0.5 cm. Sanding the corners at this point saves doing it for each individual piece later – a nail file or fine sandpaper will do.  I didn’t need a lot of these but I cut more than I required. I think it looks better if the pathing stones are at an angle from the brick work. I traced some guidelines directly onto the foam base to get an idea of where to place them.

Moss (maybe Lichen)

To add moss, mixed PVA with water (75/25) and toss in a load of flocking so there’s a mulch of thin glue and flocking. You can add dashes of colour for a varied effect. With a brush, get a gloop and dab it in the brickwork gaps, hang it from beams etc. When it dries you can always add more. If its thicker, you can make it drip from beams, where, if you’re lucky, it will harden and look like hanging moss. If you’re feeling particularly special, you could add some tiny drops of colour to the dried moss, for flower details.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Extras

I’ve had an old sprue of assorted items from the original Mordheim game which contains a chest of gold and other bits and pieces. It must be older than some of our readers. I’ll construct, paint and seal these separately, but you can always add them into the formula above to make them look part of (and more involved in) the scenery.

There are a tonne of suppliers online for bits and pieces to add to scenery. Even the expensive GW products come with optional extras on the plastic sprues which you can scatter about for extra detail – weapons, shields, skulls etc. However, if you want to get some extra bits and pieces, I’ve included a link for your perusal later on.

Try some Mantic Terrain Crates

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

What I’ve Learned this Week

  1. It’s been fun!
  2. I realised that the number of happy accidents are more common than first expected. This element of randomness and chaosivity (to quote a theatrical costumer I know) has given me ideas which I’m going to try and emulate – randomness in a brick wall makes things more interesting than a homogeneous perfection.
  3. You can always go back and change something if you make a mistake, cut out bits you don’t like and just make it look like a natural part of the decay. The process we’ve given is very forgiving!

Coming Next…

So I think I’ve mastered the basics of ruined buildings. Now, I’m going to be setting my sights a little higher by building a larger more detailed ruin. I admit, that not putting much planning into this project is going to be a challenge, but also fun and rewarding.

A simple two story, battle ready building with details is going to look cool – here’s a sneak peak!

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

I’m away over the next bank holiday weekend, so I’ll get some steam rolling to bring you even more advice and tips on creating battle field terrain soon.

Good luck, and have fun!

Ferris

Part One…

Part Three…

Twitter @FerrisWrites or @TheCConsortium

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Tabletop War-Game Terrain & Scenery: Bombastic Buildings and Fantastic Features – Creating your Tabletop Battlefield

If you’ve ever played any sort of tabletop game that did not require a board of its own, you’ve probably considered terrain.

Terrain in tabletop war games is used to represent geographical features on a battlefield, whether it’s medieval France, the grim darkness of the 41st millennium or the post apocalypse. Terrain makes the tabletop battlefield not just look interesting, but offers tactical features, blocks line of sight and generally adds an extra layer to the tiny dimensions. Terrain features become part of the game.

The are lots of cool things out there already and a lot of it very cheap. Take for example, MDF laser cut buildings. Affordable and surprisingly detailed…

But what to do if you don’t have any terrain? How can you get it? Well, since I’ve not written much over the last month, I’m offering you a multi-blog series on my attempt to acquire and create tabletop terrain. Here goes…

Think Big and Start Small

I’ve been tabletop gaming for years, on and off. As a kid in the late 80s and early 90s it was impossible to buy terrain that was a) good and b) affordable. Now that I’m all grown up, it’s about time that I set aside some of my life and get together something which I can invite friends over to checkout and drool upon.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

What do I want?

Being realistic I’m not going to have all the space in the world. Everything needs to fit on my current gaming table (I dine on my gaming table, not the other way around). My trusty gaming table isn’t huge: it’s not quite 4.5’ x 3’ foot – that’s a couple of feet too small for most standard wargames.

I’m a player of Warhammer in its various forms, so ideally I’ll need something which is 6’x4’ but I’ll be honest – the size isn’t what matters to me (they all say that). I’m more about the terrain, fantastical features to bring life to the battlefield of the Age of Sigmar or the 41st Millennium. So, forget the size for now, lets see how we’re going to create the stuff!

Design Notes

I won’t be going into any great planning detail for this project. I know in my head what the theme of the battlefield will look like and I think that is enough for now. I’ve also spent a few weeks watching YouTube videos and reading articles to give me some sort of grounding in the techniques used by modelers with a tonne more experience than I have.

There are two very important messages that I’ve got from the internet; 1) It is OK to be totally new to this part of the hobby, 2) don’t spend your time painstakingly drawing up designs and measuring everything.

Part 1 seems sensible – everyone has to begin somewhere.

Part 2 seems a little silly at first, until you realise that modelling terrain is just like any other creative endeavor. If you enjoy planning to the millimeter then lucky you! But for everyone else, just get stuck in and learn from your mistakes – it’s totally worth it, just like writing and editing your NaNoWriMo each year – write it first and enjoy the creativity, then learn from your editing and proofing steps. Easy to say and read and I understand reality isn’t that straight forward, but there’s something to be said for just getting on with the task.

I will add that I am not a total stranger to crafts. I’ve got several years of leather working experience, completely self-learnt. Why is this important to you? Well in the interest of honesty, I can cut pretty much freehand… and it’s right first time. You guys probably can’t so please take your time cutting anything, and for heaven’s sake, be careful!

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Safety & Hazards

A word of caution, some of the stuff I’ll be using is considered toxic – but don’t panic too much. I’m talking about polystyrene based materials, which are essentially plastic.

Loads of people will cry out about how toxic polystyrene can be when you cut it with a hot wire or melt it. Yes, it is toxic, and yes the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) say it may be carcinogenic (may cause cancer) but I’ll point out that every MSDS is written from an industrial point of view where exposure is massive compared to that of a hobbyist. That said, always craft in a well ventilated area or if you can, outside. Always vacuum up any bits and pieces so they don’t stay floating around your house or work space for children and pets to inhale or ingest.

A clean work space is a safe work space.

Next up are materials and tools. I want to stress that you don’t need to go out and buy a load of expensive stuff. If you’re starting out you can get away with some PVA glue and a craft knife with some old packaging material. But if you want to make your life easier and have a small budget, you can get yourself some time-saving tools.

Materials

The great thing about making terrain is that you don’t have to buy in loads of expensive materials and tools. Chances are you throw out a lot of the materials we’ll be using in your household waste bin. Save some of it and recycle it into something useful.

Polystyrene – there’s a couple of varieties we may all be familiar with; Expanded polystyrene which is used in packaging and is normally made up of small spheres which crumble away when you break chunks of it up. It can be referred to as EPS. Extruded polystyrene is much more homogeneous and smooth. Extruded polystyrene is sometimes referred to XPS foam. If like me and you’re in the UK, XPS is generally referred to as Styrofoam. There’s a lot of confusion about what materials are named so if you’re in the know (and by that I mean: use the stuff at work or make it) please let me know!

Tools

I find that you can get away with the cheapest craft knives and some PVA glue, but if there was one essential piece of equipment I think you will benefit from its’ a hot glue gun. Not the massive sized ones, just a simple, small one. Why? Large glue guns get really hot and you don’t have as much control over them. A small glue gun is more precise and there’s less wasted glue. You can get cheap glue guns with a hundred glue sticks for less than £10, maybe even less than £7. I think I spotted some in Hobby & Craft for £5 (sans glue sticks). Shop around.

You can pick up craft knives quite cheaply. I recommend you have a disposable & retractable knife and a separate single bladed craft knife (the ones that look like surgical knives). Depending on where you are in the world, you can find these in hobby stores with extra / spare blades. Whatever you do, be careful with knives – I’ve cut myself more than a few times so I imagine you will too. GO SLOWLY.

The Ruined Tower

I’m going to wrap up this post with a few images and some constructive criticism of my own pilot project –  a ruined circular tower, which I’m hoping to use in Age of Sigmar, Frostgrave or even Warhammer 40K…

I made this up using a sheet of packaging polystyrene for the base, and polyethylene foam (the stuff they use to make LARP foam weapons) for the brick work. Some lolly sticks and gravel / flocking for the details.

Criticism Number 1 – the bricks. Polyethylene is quite robust. Easy to cut and apparently heat moldable. However, it doesn’t get battered easily. Even after I scraped it across the concrete outside, it still managed to hold itself together. It looks too perfect.

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Criticism Number 2 – Inside the tower there is a nice portion of what looks like a once highly detailed floor surface. I made this with a rolling pin made by Green Stuff World. The rolling pin kept sticking to my putty, no matter how much water or Vaseline I used, hence why it is only a small portion of the broken flooring!

wargame wargames terrain building modelling warhammer 40K age of sigmar AOS miniatures frostgrave

Criticism Number 3 – The dry-brushing. Dry brushing is when you add a bit of paint to the brush, wipe most of it off and very lightly and quickly move the brush over the item you’re painting. Because the bricks lack detail this didn’t turn out exactly how I hoped – but the textured bricks I hope to make next time may change that.

Overall I think for a first attempt this turned out alright. I’ve still got to finish off the edge of the base (you can see the bubbles of expanded polystyrene).

In my next post I’ll go into the formulation I’ve devised from my first test piece. I’ll make a visual account of it too so you get to see the different stages. I’ll also go into more detail in the next few posts.

Part 2

Twitter @FerrisWrites or @TheCConsortium

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Exploration in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons: Putting the Adventure back into Adventuring

It seems that much of the content out there today for role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) focus heavily on dungeons and politics or rescuing the village and various other tired troupes. Whether this is the case for you or not, I’ve noticed that many adventures are lacking the element of exploration, which leaves a huge untapped reserve of mystery. Sometimes people refer to this as the sandbox game, where the players are going in their own direction and the GM keeps up, supplying the adventure as the game progresses.

For me, what has been lacking from games over the last several years has been the mystery in exploration. All to often it seems that exploring has been dumbed down or glossed over by the need to keep the story going, to keep the narrative on track, keep the momentum bouncing. This isn’t a bad thing, but the details, the efforts of travelling in a (fantasy) world are completely missed.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

This is a shame, because years ago the old AD&D adventure modules contained heavy elements of exploration, where the players were encouraged to explore and reveal the mysteries of a forgotten land. Adventure modules such as the Isle of Dread (X1, 1981 & 1983), a wilderness adventure designed for beginners back in the day (a long, long time ago) were designed purely with exploration in mind.

In my hunt to recapture the feelings of excitement and wonder (a running theme in my blog articles at the moment) I did a thing. I’ve sailed the ‘net sea, battled excessive blogs and wrangled with the web in the search of good, wholesome and entertaining ideas to make travel and exploration exciting again. Here are my thoughts and the results of my search with some helpful links at the end for your own ‘further reading’ on the subject.

If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…

Perceived Problems with Exploration

Mention in-game travelling and most players will groan. Understandably, players have not really had a series of exploration adventures that has given them a fun game, even popular digital games such as Skyrim or the classical Baldur’s Gate allow you to travel instantly or in a series of chunks in seconds. But that’s OK, it’s why you’re here reading this article.

Exploration games are said to take their toll on the GM / DM both in preparation and in running the game session. This is a fair point – as the GM of any game you are responsible for hours of planning (or maybe just 30 minutes before the game, if that’s your gig), which often you don’t want to see wasted and unused in the event of player party mistakes. So why would you waste hours of planning on just travelling and exploring new locations?

Finally, keeping the flow and narrative exciting can be a challenge. Inclusive adventures must bring elements to the gaming table where any character of any build or design with even the most jaded of tastes, offers a challenge to each player, a chance in the spotlight.

Are these issues insurmountable? Of course not!

So here are the suggestions I’m putting forward for you, should you ever consider running an exploration themes adventure game of your own.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setup & Writing

Character & Plot Hooks

It’s always important to have your players hooked into the concept of the game right from the start. How do you write or plan this sort of thing? Well I’ve written a previous article which you can find here, it gives some suggestions on how to approach a character hook by making the hook relevant to the character, which, hopefully, will entice the player too. As always, it’s best to get a feel for what your player wants from the game, and hook them in based on this information.

It may be that your party is simply travelling overland to get to a place that is uncharted, and the plot of your story is already written. This makes it very easy as the plot hook is the adventure idea you already have.

I’ve written a few examples here to give you an idea:

  • Searching for a missing person(s) of importance: perhaps they were kidnapped and the characters have been hired to locate and return them safely (imagine King Osric’s daughter from the Original Conan film, 1982).
  • Searching for a lost city or civilisation which may hold the key to discovering how to deal with a threat to a characters homelands.
  • Manhunt – a traitor, criminal, dangerous individual or group has evaded the law and must be hunted down to pay for their crimes.
  • The player characters are being persecuted either on their own or with a group of people and have been forced to flee into the wilderness or an unmapped land.
  • Expedition – the player characters are hired to explore the new world and discover its rich resources and lift the veil on its mysteries… and its threats.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setting up the Player Party

Every expedition known to man has always had planning at the forefront. Without planning, any expedition is doomed from the moment it takes its first step, leading to a variety of disasters, starvation being the primary one. So it’s important to get your players into the frame of mind that travelling and exploring brings its own dangers. Sure, there will be monsters in the untamed wilds, but losing your food supply or drinking all of your clean water, brings challenges all of their own.

Ask the players some of the following questions before you plan to start your game:

  • How much can your character carry?
  • What food and water supplies will you be taking?
  • Are you equipped for exploration or a dungeon crawl?

An important aspect of any RPG is the role play, above all else it is what glues the game together. Some people find this awkward, but when players have something to talk about, the role play becomes natural. Asking player characters to assume one of several roles in a travelling adventurer party is a great way to overcome this, and also lends itself to more of a game.

These roles are real life examples of what we often overlook during play. In reality, how many of us note down how much of our rations we’re eating? Probably not that many because it’s considered a minor portion of the RPG experience.

Giving the players extra roles also reduces some of the work for GM / DM. By allowing the players to organise themselves and keep track of encumbrance, rations and other supplies, along with mapping duties, it frees up the GM to give a greater insight into surroundings and encounters.

Here are some of the role ideas:

Leader / Voice

The leader is responsible for announcing all final party activity to the GM with regards to direction and pace. Characters can still act in a solo fashion as normal. The leader also consults with and organises the marching order of the other characters present, including any allies that may be travelling with them.

Watchers / Castellan

Let’s face it, you will be stomping through unknown and wild lands, it pays to give someone the task of checking the horizon for trouble, the bushes for traps and the camp for snakes! Watchers and guards are also responsible for finding a suitable place to set camp and how the camp should be organised. For the GM, this gives them time to decide what happens in the night, or if the player party gets surprised.

Navigator / Cartographer

The navigator and cartographer are responsible for guiding the player party on their adventure, keeping a look out for points of interest and landmarks. Their role also involves the blank hex map you will have provided them (more on this later), updating and annotating as they travel. In this way they answer the questions of other characters in a role play manner, rather than relying on the GM to constantly keep checking their notes.

For a character to create a worthy map in game will require some sort of cartographers tools (for D&D) or a surveyor’s kit. Get the players to roll any necessary skill checks to determine the quality of their notes and drawings in case they get lost, or someone else relies on the map in their absence.

Hunter / Quartermaster

Hunters and Quartermasters keep track of resources and the carrying capacity of the party and its allies. Their most important role is to keep track of food and water and find replacements when they feel times are getting desperate. This has a great element of role play as the characters fret over how much they are going to use and what happens if they start to run low.

Generally if the quarter master has no record of something, such as equipment, it does not exist within the party. And if there’s a tonne of things to keep track of, there’s no reason why two characters can’t assume this role together. All characters should have their own equipment list, but the quartermasters will keep a copy of that and update it, especially if one character is lost down a ravine while carrying all of the rope!

(Re)Defining the GMs Role

The GMs primary roles will have lessened from traditional expectations. The key responsibility, other than role playing villains and monsters and refereeing the turn sequence and dice rolls etc, is to keep a track of time. In an exploration adventure keeping a track of time gives the gaming session more purpose and also allows the players to note down exactly what they’ve used up or require more of. It also means the players are told when they are getting tired or possibly feeling the effects of fatigue.

mountain surrounded with trees

Friends, Enemies and Adversaries

It pays to have non-playing characters (NPCs) with the player party, at least for some of the exploration, particularly if you think that there may be character deaths likely to happen – you’ll need a way of introducing new characters for the players when this happens.

Adding allies to mix will also give the players some impetus if the motivation dips during play, because allies need help and tasks undertaken which they could not normally do on their own. Here are a few examples of NPCs to keep in mind, depending on the type of exploration adventure you’re writing…

Allies

The expedition financier or their representatives, the young noble out to cut their teeth, the enthusiastic but clueless scribe seeking lost lore, or the mysterious elf apparently seeking to discover the lost homeland of his or her people – these are all NPCs which can give motivation to the players when they are out exploring. It’s probably best if these NPC stay at base camp, several days behind the party. These can provide quests literally or inadvertently and give guidance if the player characters are struggling with concepts.

Collective Adversaries

If you want to quicken the pace of the adventure and give the players some tension when they are making the important choices, you can introduce another adventuring party who are seeking similar goals. This competition can be right behind, or always one step ahead of the ultimate goal, or they can be unfriendly and unhelpful if they’ve managed to get across the ravine but cut the ropes to the bridge!

Perhaps these other adventuring groups need rescuing instead, the price of their impetus or ignorance!

Enemies!

Perhaps the land under exploration is not entirely empty, and savage tribes use it as a hunting ground. Perhaps one of those tribes sees the party as a target for initiation into adulthood or worse, required components in a bloody ritual!

two person riding boat on body of water

Mapping: Hex or no Hex, you’re travelling

Hex maps have been around for decades and carry with them a nostalgic feel for the days of mystery. Whether you like them or not, the humble hex is a great way of mapping out where the player characters have been, are currently and where they will be, because a hex is more dynamic than a square and easier to handle than a circle.

A hex has six sides, allowing you to plan the direction of the party – there are 8 easily identifiable paths the party can take on a hex, using either a flat side of the hex tile or a point of the hex. If you make your map and overlay a series of hex tiles onto it, you can track the adventurer’s progress with distance, speed and direction.

I suggest you start by making a world map, nothing larger than you need for the landmass your adventurers are crossing or exploring. Each hex should cover maybe a half or a full days worth of travelling, so in theory the party is moving one or two hex spaces in a session. This gives you plenty of opportunity to write and pace the adventure.

Look at your map and make a note of the terrain type of each hex, or whichever is more dominant. Terrain types can be forests, plains, desert etc. You can go one level deeper than this to have varieties of these terrain types, such as adding a height or incline like hills and mountains or valleys which can block or provide a line of sight (more on this later).

Once you’ve got this sorted, you can begin to define potential problems with different terrain types – it can be as simple of slowing progress or speeding it up, using important resources such as food and water, or allowing the characters to restock. There may be monsters which lurk in certain parts of the map, such as green dragons in the forest, or trolls in the swamps (or whatever). Think about your land of mystery and get creative. As the adventure grows you’ll likely want to think about the same challenges repeating. This could get bland so be prepared to allow some hex spaces to be easier to get across.

pine trees by lake in forest against sky

Creating a Map

You’re going to want potentially a large map with plenty of areas and space to explore. Sometime over the next week I’ll write small tutorial on how to put in hex grids in programs like Inkarnate (the free version) and the GIMP . In the meantime, you could do some planning of your own and take into consideration some of the important aspects of your map.

Whether you’re creating something entirely home-brew or using a pre-written adventure or setting, you need to consider the ecology of your map. Just like anything in the real world, things in a region or area run alongside each other and effect each other like an ecology. This won’t apply so much in a fantasy setting, but your map should reflect a realistic expectation so that your players can make logical choices in how they travel and where.

Consider some of the following suggestions and ideas…

Travelling Speed

As a guide, you can break each day down into 4 hour slots, of which most characters will require sleep and rest for 8 hours. How far they can travel will depend on what they wish to do, and how fast they travel, such as by foot or on a horse. As the GM, you will know how far each hex is in miles or kilometers and can set the pace of travel accordingly.

Landmarks

Landmarks are vital to the exploration and travelling game. Without landmarks your players are simply making arbitrary choices based on cardinal directions on a compass. This is incredibly dull and likely to put your players off right away. Landmarks give the players a real choice, offering tantalizing bits of mystery and story to get them to move and explore.

But what can they see?

Well it’s fairly simply: when the players arrive at the edge of the map they will want to plan their direction. Did anyone pack a spyglass? Good – then they can start scanning the horizon. Are they in a forest, is there anything obstructing them from scanning the distant horizon? If so, they’ll need to get to higher ground… and already they’ve determined their first objective – find higher ground.

As a general rule, player characters can probably see about 3 miles over flat ground, far less in forests or hilly terrain unless they’re at a peak in the region.

The player characters should be encouraged to scan the horizon each time they stop to rest. As the GM you can now give them tidbits of information about the surrounding area (hex tiles) allowing them to assume control of their own destiny.

Landmarks also give the players something to talk about, mark on their own maps or confirm their location if they get lost – everyone gets to use the role they have been assigned or chosen when they planned the expedition. Let’s hope they packed some sort of compass…

Landmarks can be constructed buildings such as towers, or natural phenomenon such as giant waterfalls, unusual rock formations or the sun bleached bones of titanic creatures!

white and black abstract painting

Locations

Locations  can be considered like any other encounter in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. They will be the meat of your adventurer meal. Don’t overlook the dangers of exploring. Exploration is dangerous in real life, and so it should be more so in a fantasy RPG! Stay your hand though, exploring locations should be about the story and not everything should be dealing damage or killing off players! Instead, capitalise on the mystery and narrative of discovering a new land – temples, hallow cities, strange structures and signs of ancient battles – not everything will be covered in traps or occupied by hobgoblins.

This is the hardest part for the GM, but should also be the portion of planning that takes up the most time. Once your map has been created, you should start to focus on the set pieces of your adventure (because it is still your adventure). A location, like any good dungeon should offer potential challenges to each character type in your player party, whether that’s physical obstructions, strange traps, ancient lore, riddles, clues or puzzles which help unlock or reveal something about the area. This shouldn’t always be the case though – otherwise it may become a formulation of ‘we need to use the rogue, and now the fighter and now the mage,’ which takes the narrative aspect of the game away.

If you can tie the revelation of this location into other locations, you begin to knit your world together. For example, let’s say the player party successfully breaks into an ancient temple and reveal a mysterious artifact, such as a key. What does this key unlock? Does it tie into a different temple or building in the region? What does it unlock, treasure, monsters, a terrible and ancient evil?

By all means include things to fight and slay, but try to ensure that the fight isn’t just a random event. It makes much more sense to disturb a nest or lair, or tackle a timeless guardian creature than hack their way through hordes of pointless minions. Use the monster or creature wisely, build up to its big reveal and make the fight mean something. If they can’t defeat it, they must flee… but where do they flee to? Are they in any fit state to fight, should they fight? These are the tension building moments for your player party in an exploration game.

Throw in monsters and creatures that they clearly cannot defeat to get the player characters to consider their options more deeply, but again, don’t make a habit of putting in impossible odds all the time. That sleeping dragon can be left to sleep if they just tiptoe backwards slowly and come back another time!

beautiful countryside creek environment

So how do they explore a hex tile?

First of all, describe exactly what stands out about a region or hex tile – does that rock formation look like anything? Then, if they decide to stop and explore the area in more detail, you can begin a series of encounters. One very simple suggestion is to draw up a small chart based on how many hours the player party wishes to explore the area. You can begin by asking the players how long they intend to stay and search the area in terms of hours. Then, consulting your small chart you can determine that if the party stops and searches for say 3 hours, they will come across up to 2 encounters for that region. Here’s my example:

  1. Hour 1 – They find nothing, but are slowed by the forest and rough terrain
  2. Hour 2 – As above
  3. Hour 3 – They stumble upon the grotto of a forest troll, roll against the parties passive perception to see if either side is surprised.
  4. Hour 4 – They find a cache of old supplies and a few ripped up skeletons, likely the result of a troll attack.
  5. Hour 5 – A small hatch in the earth that looked like a bolt hole for a temporary encampment ( a micro dungeon).

The party may not stay for too long, or they may wish to camp, in which case the troll may come out at night looking for food (an encounter in itself) which provides something for the watchers and guards in the party to deal with before the attack starts in full.

How fast they move, how much attention they decide to dedicate to the searching and investigating is up to the players. They will soon learn that just stomping over ground in the hopes of bumping into something may prove detrimental!

Getting Lost

Sometimes even the most experienced rangers can get lost, particularly in a new land! Becoming lost should always be an option and you should never allow the players to simply retrace their steps if they’ve surged onward without paying attention or exploring different regions or hex tiles.

Perhaps permit them to roll for skills to see if they can get back on track by setting a high difficulty based on the terrain they are in, and any landmarks they can see from where they are, lowering the difficulty for each point of recognition they can muster. If they fail, they are lost and must spend time (and resources) trying to find their original path!

photography of mountain range during winter

Keeping the Motivation During Play

How do you reward characters in exploration adventures? We want to reward the players for exploring, because we want them to enjoy the exploration aspect of the game alongside all the other aspects of RPGs.

Well, I think it depends on the scope of your adventure and the desire driving the party onward. Beyond gaining experience for slaying monsters and villains, perhaps the player characters also receive experience for discovering new areas, locations and landmarks, BUT they then also get experience for making a region safe (multiple hex tiles in the same region) for anyone following them, such as the baggage train.

If you feel a particularly hard region to explore exists because it contains high powered monsters or traps, you could assign different hex regions a challenge rating to reflect the adversity of making it safe.

Perhaps early locations were inaccessible at the start of their adventure, but now they’ve discovered a key, a token or something which will help them get to the that earlier region. This is a great idea because it means that previously explored hex tiles and areas or regions are not simply redundant after use. It can also lead the player characters to explore for specific things, giving them even more motivation to search and explore areas!

Phew! That is quite a long article, apologies!

If you think you’ve benefited from any of this information, leave a comment below – it really helps us if people think we’re doing good, and gives us direction for future articles!

Further Reading

How to be the Dungeon Master (DM)

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

The Retired Adventurer

The Angry GM (really angry and potty-mouthed!

Giants in the Playground

Killing in the Name of: Dungeons & Dragons and the unbridled passion of slaying the adventuring party – A few lessons learned

For the last three gaming sessions, I’ve been guiding my players as they attempt to uncover and solve the mystery surrounding the small fishing town of Sharholme. People have gone missing. There’s a taciturn lighthouse keeper who no one likes. Weird and exotic fish are turning up in the nets of the fishermen. What did it all mean?

Well I’m not going to give you all the details, where’s the fun in that? No, I’m going to give you an insight into when the adventuring party were fooled and the Dungeon Master commits to running the adventure to its inevitable end, whether that’s the final encounter or much sooner!

‘Some of your characters may die towards the end of this adventure – I’m testing the adventure on you guys.’

These were my first words when describing the adventure idea I had to my players, a week before they started. Perhaps subconsciously I was giving them a clue to play tougher or optimised characters, or perhaps I was trying to defend myself from any fallout that may occur if it all went wrong. Whatever the reason, the very next gaming session we started the adventure.

The beginning was cryptic – they were called north, along  the Sword Coast by a voiceless whisperer who would not allow them to rest unless they were moving. A brief stop at Candlekeep is all they needed. Get there, and perhaps some clues could give them answers.

But they will never know.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Photo by ahmed adly on Pexels.com

The first adventure was to warm them up. I was going to let them be goddam heroes and throw small hordes of easily defeated monsters at them. I was going to give them hostages to break out in a daring escape, maybe face off with the enemy leader and thwart the even stranger, deadlier nemesis who defines the backdrop of the narrative.

Alas, it was not to be. They believed they had reached the final encounter. They had not. The Prince Under the Reef was not the monster’s commander as they thought. I’m chuckling as I write this because some of them will only realise as they read this… yeah, it gives me an amusing tingle.

The adventuring party had, in fact, only reached the third to last encounter in the natural dungeon setting. They had suffered some terrible wounds and faced some unsightly horrors, many of them surprises. Up to this point they had advanced in a somnambulistic way perhaps thinking that, being the first part of a what was promised to be a long running campaign, they would have it easy. To some degree this was right.

grey skulls piled on ground
Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

Allow me to explain:

As a DM I had done my research, read endless articles by other DMs & GMs, consulted the oracle that is Reddit and gone back to basics. I even wrote this article, which, if any of them had read it, may have given them a clue into what to expect. I threw low-challenge creatures at them, made the monsters act in a fantastically pulp manner, unthinking but not to be mocked.

Then I hit them with a monster whose challenge rating was a single point higher than their party level. He was a large humanoid, fighting on even terms. He didn’t even rush them, instead he paused and waited to see if they would parley, to see if they could talk to him and see if they could find peace. They outnumbered him but they seemed tired – his minions had carried out their task of killing the adventuring party with a thousand paper cuts. All he had to do now was thrust his trident into the open wounds and finish them off.

What followed was five rounds of bloody mayhem.

The bird-man monk fell first, the priest next, followed by the halfling rogue who couldn’t quite dash into cover, leaving the archer as last-elf-standing. It was a bold gesture to cast away that bow and draw a long sword, after-all, the enemy had thrown his trident at them previously, disarming himself in the process. Both combatants were heavily wounded.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Taken from media-waterdeep.cursecdn.com 6/2/19

The elf stood little chance.

While the fight continued, his comrades bled to death on the wet subterranean sands of the oceanic grotto. Some would stabilize but be useless to sway the flow of battle. As the sun’s final rays set against the turbulent waves above, my heroic adventuring party slumped to the ground in a final gasp below the waves.

As the DM, I had defined my dungeoneering destiny and finalised the characters fates by not holding back. I had lulled them into a false sense of security and then pounced upon them with a well calculated challenge. Or so I thought.

The daft thing is: I expected them to get to the final encounter and then suffer tremendously through a terrifying race across an underground, underwater grotto ala Indiana Jones’ cinematic dash, avoiding natural traps and pitfalls as they barrelled along heroically.

In a nutshell, the DM did not hold the player’s hands and guide them through. I realised that if there is to be any fun in the game, it has to be risky. I knew this already, but the temptation to guide the players through the story had flattened the experience for me… it had simply lost some of its fun.

As for the players, well the fun reached a happy height above our gaming table. Although they were getting ripped to pieces, bleeding all over the place and possibly facing death (well, actually they did) they all seemed happy to go along with it.

Here’s the kicker for the players though – that challenging encounter left the monster with just twelve hit points. TWELVE! That’s one good or two average hits with a long sword… but the dice rolling was poor, and I was using my specially reserved Dungeon Master Dice. They never let me down.

So there you have it:

Dungeon and Games Masters, don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and kick their arses if it’s all going wrong, you’ll all enjoy it!

And Players; never trust the DM. Ever.

We’re sly a bunch.

J.D. Ferris

The Godless Realm – Update and Changes Made

We’ve been quiet on the social media and website front. We’re not lazy. We’ve been busy!

Four weeks ago I enlisted the help of an experienced RPG gamer and writer named Mr James, to bring some much needed energy and creativity. In that time we’ve packed a tonne of lore and story into the Godless Realm setting, making it meaty and plausible in equal measure.

Fantasy RPG Pulp Adventure Hero Knight Cavalry D&D
Edited Image, Originally by David MacKenzie from Deviant Art https://www.deviantart.com/jagged-eye/art/Lee-Warrior-4a-435067509

We’ve decided to make the Godless Realm system neutral, meaning it is chock full of lore content, with plenty of hooks and ideas to create your own adventures in whatever RPG system you desire. We still aim to release adventures and story arcs to fit into the Godless Realm, and we have planned several evolutions to the Godless Realm setting in the future as the world populates and widens.

The extra help from Mr James has given me time to rewrite the Pulp Core rules in two important ways; firstly it is streamlined and the probabilities now work properly. For a success, a dice roll now requires a single score of a 6. Secondly, we realised that the Core Pulp system has flaws and lost its direction. Based on the feedback we received, I’ve really hit the system hard and cut out irrelevant details and mechanics to tighten everything up. The development process, based on your feedback, has really helped us get this right. I am now much happier with the system and we’ve developed some interesting mechanics.

Pulp Fantasy, as it is currently called, comes in three documents which we are releasing to our reliable readers and testers soon. These will be a Player Guide, a Games Master Guide and a tome of Creatures & Inhabitants. We felt this would help keep the attention and excitement for players new to the gaming world, and keep some of the secrets for the GM.

mistings

The magic system has had a complete overhaul and now works in a fashion more inline with a ritualistic and narrative style. It is based on ritual preparations but also allows for desperate unprepared spell casting. We hope this makes it flexible and adaptive with countless possibilities for players and GM’s to create their own spells. We’re even encouraging the players to write down their spells as they think of and use them, essentially creating a tome of personal spells which will help them improve with character advancement. Best not lose that spell book, eh?

Bad Guys

Monsters have been a bit of a bugbear but we’ve settled on some nice ideas to break the mold of typical gaming habits. The biggest change we’ve implemented is the size and actions of larger creatures.

Larger monsters, though rare, will not act at a single point in the combat process each turn. Instead they will be able to act as several individuals, making special attacks based on the number of limbs and special abilities they posses. Now, a player will have to think twice about charging forward to get stuck in, because that Dragon hasn’t blown all its actions targeting the warriors in the party just yet, so getting too close is still dangerous. Players will have to think about their actions and weigh the chances of getting too close too soon.

femaleknight

Artwork Desires

On a little side project, we’ve been seeking artwork to help bring the world and documents to life and poke some imagination back into our minds. This has been difficult. We are not in a situation yet where we can pay artists to bring our world to life, so instead we’ve been relying on stock images and editing what we can get our hands on.

We’re working hard to make sure that the images we use are properly credited – we’re the Creator Consortium, we want people to be recognised for their hard work.

One problem we have encountered is the over sexualisation of female adventuring style stock photos. While this may prove titillating to some, it isn’t very inclusive. Since we’re looking for more realistic fantasy stock images, we may have to dig deeper to find something less bosom-heaving for something like more gritty realism. Watch this space!

We’re focusing on a process which will allow us to take any stock images and create some cohesion to make it less jarring to look at. Hopefully some nice black and white water colour effects will help the mystery blossom too. There’s a couple of examples dotted throughout this article, and we’re accepting criticism if you can show us a few tricks!

But we realise that people may want to print our documents at some point, so we’re going to be supplying some print easy options too. No one likes to spend a fortune on inks!

There’ll be a blog post this week to show how we’ve been editing our chosen stock images and I’ll go into detail about how to credit and reference people correctly for their hard work! It’s been a fun learning curve.

Until then…

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back with another update soon.

Mr Ferris

Here’s how we made our images!

Fantasy RPG Pulp Adventure Hero Knight Cavalry D&D

An Intro To The Pulp RPG Modular Framework.

An Intro To The Pulp RPG Modular Framework.

The Future Of Pulp RPG And You.

Dev Blog: Pulp Play-Test, Feedback, Zombies & Editing

Is Playing DnD Online Better Than In Real Life?

A new game of Dungeons and Dragons is always a nerve-wracking event as a Dungeon Master. There is so much to do, especially if you want to write your own adventure. Then you have to consider your players, you never really know what they are going to do, or if the content you’ve written will be “enough”.

Well last night I embarked upon a new campaign, written in about a week, using a digital tabletop which I’d never used before (I also haven’t ran many campaigns online), with an entire party of players I didn’t know. I don’t think it’s possible to present a DM with more of a psychological or physical challenge.

And frankly it was one of the best sessions I’d ever had.

This article is an attempt to get more people into DnD online. As a DM, you invest so much time and effort that it can be hard to step out of your comfort zone, but this session reminded me why that’s important.

We used Roll20: the free virtual tabletop which provides an absolute ton of functionality and really brings you as close as you can possibly come to being around a table. The dice roller even lets you roll big 3D dice!

https://roll20.net

As the DM, I found that every little need I had was met: I could set up encounter tokens, NPCs, new maps, handouts and even track initiative on the tabletop. This allowed me to involve the players in every part of my preparation. They could see the gears in motion so the session never really stalled or lost pace when I was setting up the next encounter.

For tracking characters we used DnD Beyond. An amazing official website by Wizards Of The Coast, which basically gives you every tool and rule to set up a campaign and actually play it. The site requires an entire article of its own, but suffice it to say that as a DMs and character’s toolbox, this site has it all.

https://www.dndbeyond.com

Then lastly we come to my players. I was so nervous about these guys, I’d never met any of them before, we just set up the game on a discord server I frequent before christmas then last night, there we were, confronted by a whole slew of new experiences.

As a DM, you always hope that your players are going to “get” your game, and certainly I was worried that my game style wasn’t necessarily going to be compatible with how they wanted to play. My fears turned out to be completely unfounded, as they really got their teeth into my session in a way that made the effort totally worth it!

This proves to me, that playing DnD online, with strangers is not such a daunting task as it used to be. The free tools are so good these days that you hardly feel divorced from the table. It certainly opened my eyes and I hope you give it a chance too! Especially if you can’t give up the time and effort it takes to get together with people on a particular day. As a 29 year old who works odd hours, that’s become of great concern to me in recent years, so last night’s session was almost a weight off my mind:
As long as you have a computer, you can play DnD.

Until next time,

Fozzie.

The Awkward, the Bad and the Great – Dealing with the Players

It is often all down to the DM to run the game and make it a good one. There’s always the expectation that this game is going to be as good as the last one or better. It’s capitalism of the RPG world – they want more and more each session. But the game isn’t purely the responsibility of the DM; players are there too and the expectations of all involved should be considered.

The expectations of the players are more varied than we might think; some are there for the story, others for the thrill of the dice and fewer, thankfully, are there to roll dice and crunch the numbers like Scrooge on Tax Day. Unfortunately for you, as the DM, you have to balance all of these aspects, but you shouldn’t pander to them all – it’s your game too.

I’m going to assume that you play with people you know, that they are reasonable people. I expect there are unreasonable players out there – the internet is full of those stories, so I’ll touch on those style of players too.

This article is about the bad players, the awkward players, but also the good players – and we’ll cover how to deal with the bad ones, and encourage the good ones. But first, let’s talk about the ones that aren’t bad players, they’re just… awkward.

This is all my opinion, and you’re welcome to discuss them, share some stories of your own – we can only learn more.

human fist

The Awkward Ones

The awkward ones, like the Deep Ones, are often hidden at first. We may think that their first character is just a bit of a buffoon and that soon they’ll get into the story. Sadly however this will not always be the case; sometimes we see an Awkward One develop and we need to make sure they don’t derail the story accidentally, or otherwise.

slippery foot dangerous fall

Comedic or one-dimensional characters may seem like a little light relief the first time have a tendency to become habit for some players. The first time it’s all fun and there’s no problems, but often these players will see it as scoring social points for themselves; it will feel good for them and so the habitual pathology sets in, the player now thinking that funny = best game ever! Eventually this will ruin the flavour and immersion of the game.

How do you deal with this sort of situation? In my experience the best solution is tact. Quite often a player like this needs attention, which in itself is not a bad things; we all need attention sometimes, but for the comedic player, it feels new and good and they probably don’t realise.

Give them a bit of space to enjoy being comedic, but encourage wit and humour rather than outlandish and excessive. A quiet chat after the first session to explain to them that actually, yes it can be amusing, but the harmony of the game is broken by the ever increasing hair brained ideas. People will laugh, then chuckle, then get tired real quick of it. There’s no need to kick them out of the group, if they’re willing to keep their exaggerated theatrics in check. Promise to reassess the situation if they seem amenable to the idea.

police money finance funny

The DM who Hijacked your game thinks they know better or perhaps don’t realise they are not the focus of attention anymore. This is normally purely accidental; as DMs we can grow accustomed to the idea of being the focus of attention, since we run the game and very little interaction or action occurs without our help. This one is fairly simple, you call the shots for this game, don’t be bullied into changing your mind, unless of course the idea they put forward is sound.

Chatter boxes, or social annoyances, who talk about non game stuff and don’t know when to stop, potentially ruining the immersion and tension in the game. I tend to get this out of the system of players before the game starts by having a catch up chat, getting all the news out in the open and discussed before sitting everyone down. I also ask that all media that isn’t relevant to the game is taken away or turned off, or at least not in sight.

If it’s persistent, you can ask that player, politely and aside from the others at a later time, if they want to be there to play the game or just because their friends are there. It’s cool to hang out, but don’t detract from the fun of the game that we enjoy.

Showboaters just love the attention and want to get in on the action whenever they can. This isn’t bad for a game that needs a bit of life injected into it (especially if it has been a hard day at the office). What isn’t cool is overriding other players or butting in on their turns to act.

This is a hard juggle, but as DM you are justified to point out whose turn it is, and that if a player needs the showboaters help or advice, they can ask for it. Remember, we don’t want to cut off their enthusiasm, we just want to let them know that other players are entitled to the limelight too.

purple liquid poison on brown wooden surface

The Bad Ones

Before I get into the stereotypes of bad players, I’m going to talk about the nature of the conversation around your gaming table (or wherever). It is best to openly discuss with your players before you start playing what sort of behaviour you all find acceptable during the game and on the sidelines; I’m talking about racism and sexism, amongst others.

It is perfectly acceptable to have these as elements in the game, it is after all usually set in a backward or less liberal society than our own. For this reason, you should let people have a say in what they find comfortable. If it’s a no from them, it should be a no from you, and vice-versa. D&D is an inclusive and cooperative game, and relaxed participants make far better adventuring buddies!

If it does crop up during play, as the DM you should be able to tone it down and talk to the offenders after the game session to suggest they tighten up – it’s ok to hate another race of people in character, but it shouldn’t spill into the real world, the same applies for sexism. If it happens that either of these topics comes out into play and is directed player to player, rather than character to character, you must stop it right away. Call it out, quash it dead. You are the DM, and you run this game.

So, the Stereotypes…

Player stereotypes have come to be identified from the internet – the internet has given us names for the power gamers, the min/max’er, rules lawyer, and the metagamers. Before the internet (I know, was there ever such a time?) we just thought they were annoying players who happened to enjoy the same hobby, so we were delighted at having the new player along for the ride. How wrong we were!

I’ve run a good number of gaming groups beyond my primary group over the years, this is how I dealt with the unhelpful ones.

golden statue under blue skies during day time

Not to be confused with the player who creates an efficient or optimised character, the power-gamer and the Min/Max player are those who either have to have it all at the cost of nothing, or throw everything out of the window to maximise a single attribute, ability or power – and use it at every possible moment. Normally a maturity issue, or the feeling of helplessness in their real lives leads them to want to show the world that they can do the thing, and force it on every situation.

Dealing with these players can be tackled in two ways in my experience: critically evaluate any character sheet prior to your game, with time to allow for changes, or subject your players to constrained resources, for example, only character material from the core Player’s Handbook may be used. As much as I love unearthed arcana and supplemental material, they tend to promote niche ideas into the game which can feel over balanced. These players will then latch onto these cool ideas, and completely overplay them.

Rules Lawyers: Players who spend most of their game in the source material, or spend all their free time reading the books and remembering every single bit of detail are fine, even helpful, like little biological libraries you can call on just by asking. However, it is the ones who keeping calling you out as the DM for your mistakes or lax enforcement of the rules who are the problem. Nothing ruins a cool cinematic moment when the party are about to hit the jackpoint with an amazing idea when the Rules Lawyer calls a stop to the game with the immortal opening line “I think you’ll find…”

blur close up focus gavel

There are very simple ways to explain this or overcome the problem.

First, all the source books ever made for games like Dungeons & Dragons, every single one, are purely guidelines given the misnomer of rules. You, as the DM, are capable of overriding some of those rules now and again if you think it works or if you think for this occasion they can be fudged – heck, most of being a DM is fudging the rules to get the most out of player interactions.

Secondly, if you’re more diplomatic and want to avoid arguments in game, call upon your powers as a DM to completely override their opinion, but only with the promise to review the rules stated after the session and come to a compromise. Or, for this session only you can maintain your DM ruling, and endeavour to assess the rule for next time. Rules lawyers can be compromised with – if they don’t want that, then they are free to evaluate their expectations of your game. You’ll welcome them back with open arms if they wish to return.

Metagamers are those players who use information or knowledge beyond the scope of their character. Weirdly, if you’ve been playing D&D for decades, it is almost impossible to not metagame on some level. There are always repeat or extreme offenders though. It may seem like they’re just being lucky in their assumptions about that monster at first, but eventually you’ll realise that the metagamer is using his or her outside knowledge to influence their actions and maybe even the actions of others.

I deal with this foible in a few different ways: I can ‘reskin’ my monsters in their appearance or stats to keep the metagamer on their toes by describing monsters differently or altering their behaviour style and resistance qualities and combat abilities (which can get exhausting without proper planning). But what if the player is metagaming the plot or story?

Plot metagamers use their vast knowledge of fantasy and sci-fi to guess where your adventure story is going by relying on troupes, or popular fiction to base their predictions on. When this happens, it can be frustrating; the story is often the most creative part of the DM process. How did I deal with this? Well if you can’t avoid current popular stories from movies and fiction, I suggest you plan your adventures with an open ending – whatever the plan was, whoever is the bad guy, make them the second to last badguy, and put someone else who they’ve met previously as the badder bad guy.

Or tell them to get out. 😉

silhouette photography of group of people jumping during golden time

Good Players and Encouraging New Players

This is the nice, positive part to being the DM.

I’ll make this brief, but you get the idea:

Good players…

  • Role-play and encourage role-play from new and old players.
  • They go with the flow regarding your narrative choices and instead of sulking justify the response of their character to keep things going without selling out on their character.
  • They don’t argue with your choices but if they get really narked, they’ll talk to you about it after the session, like a grown-up.
  • They ask pertinent questions, sometimes thinking aloud and usually on their own turn.
  • They play balanced characters, even after 20 years of gaming and realise there’s more to the game than crunching the numbers.
  • Characters they create have flaws, and if they didnt at creation time, they relish the flaws that develop organically from the game – they don’t whine and resist when things go bad – its part of the game.
  • They don’t expect special treatment, but they enjoy their share of the stage lights.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m all ears!

J.D Ferris, CC