Dec 10

Why have rules for the role-playing scenes in your RPG?

If folks are interested in a discussion of the pros and cons of having rules to support your RP instead of letting your RP be diceless, I will unashamedly pimp the two latest episodes of Return to Northmoor, wherein we discuss exactly that at length.

Here’s a quick summary though: You absolutely do not need rules to role-play. D&D has gotten by for 30+ years with a diceless RP mechanic. So, why introduce rules for that purpose?

1) You would like the rules to help you break out of RP ruts that your group may fall into through long-time play.

2) You would like to increase the engagement of tactically-focused players in “pure RP” scenes in your game.

3) You would like to increase and maintain the focus of your RP scenes on the characters, and not the players.

4) You would like the rules to encourage and reward your characters for taking RP risks as well as combat risks.

Just some thoughts… :)


Nov 05

Top Ten Reasons People Tell Me D&D 4e Cramps Their Role-Playing

Top 10 arguments I’ve heard about how 4e “destroys role-playing” (emphasis mine):

1) X (Gnomes, Bards, Drow, Half-Carrots, etc.) is missing. I can’t
play what I always play, therefore, it cramps my “role-playing”.

2) There are no “fluff” skills. I can’t take 5 ranks in Craft
(Basketweaving), thus the system doesn’t let me express my character.

3) My character must now be useful in a combat. I can no longer make
a character who is useless in combat, so it cramps my role-playing of
the sickly half-demon with the penchant for crayon-chewing.

4) The book gives a whole lot of options for what to do round by
round in a combat situation, but very few options (2-3 skills) for what
to do when I’m talking in character. Essentially, it continues the
proud tradition of the dicelessness of D&D for non-combat

5) Because the combat system offers more options, it slows combat down for new players, thus leaving less time for role-playing.

6) The combat system rewards PCs for cooperative action, thus
punishing me from running off and stabbing the bad guy on my own. I now
must discuss my “tactics” with the rest of the party, which cramps the
chaotic nature of how I like to “role-play” my character.

7) I can no longer have my spellcaster take a bunch of extra spells
that help define the deep inner angst of his upbringing as a blind
bookbinder’s illegitimate son. I now am limited to Spells which are
actually useful in combat, and Rituals that are actually useful at all.

8) It’s hard for me to make my Fighter have different abilities in
combat that are still cool. That guy across the table has the same
powers as me. If everyone is special, no one is.

9) The items and monsters are heavy on stats and combat abilities,
and short on descriptive fluff. I must now invent my own idea of how
they look.

10) The guy sitting across from me is a half-demon and/or a humanoid dragon. How can I take this seriously?

Oct 30

Speeding Up D&D 4e Combat

I’ve been running 4e for a while now, and here’s what I’ve learned about speeding up combat:

1) Each player has more options in each round.  If each player looks over each and every option as it comes to their turn, and not before, slowness ensues.

2) Having cards for each power (there are many nice ones available to print out) saves a lot of time, because you can turn over your daily and encounter powers as they get used, thus reducing the number of options you have to choose from.

3) Monsters have more hit points – the idea is that each PC will get a chance to do something to them before they go down.  So if you plan to have more than 2-3 enemies for the PCs to fight, consider using minions to pad out the rest, since they go down much quicker, but allow you to retain the tactical interest of a mob.

4) Dice matter a lot more, so if someone is having an off night, things will go longer.  One way to help with this is to make sure your enemies have a reasonable AC.  Even though the XP totals might work out, monsters that are 2-3 levels higher than the PCs are often quite hard to hit, which can slow things down.  Save those for special occasions.

5) Keeping track of conditions is better in 4e in that they typically only last one round, rather than dX.  That said, there are often more conditions to keep track of.  I’ve been using the little Alea Tools magnets to keep track of conditions, but condition cards that can be flipped over once someone saves might work even better.

6) I agree with Jonathon’s comment in that if your group isn’t used to working as a team, and considering how their actions affect everyone else, it can slow things down.  After 3-4 sessions, my group really got into the groove, and started really laying the hammer down.  So, one suggestion might be to run the encounters toward the bottom of the
XP range until your group gets in sync with their character set.

7) In general, they removed a lot of the aspects of combat that were slow and didn’t add tactical/RP interest.  However, they added a lot of tactical options, and powers that convey more of the spirit of each class.  But it’s still your job as DM to keep an eye on your group, and to present them a mix of encounters that they enjoy.  If they aren’t as interested in the complex tactical aspects, then send them simpler monsters, and/or ignore what’s not working for them.  I’ve often found that you can use say, a poison attack once or twice to get people the flavor, and then let it go for the rest of the battle to speed things up.

8) For newer players, I often will only give them one power card per level to worry about.  Some players will be happy with that forever. Others might want to branch out into more options as time goes on.

9) Mixing in the RP with the combat is another way to make things more interesting.  You might have three groups of enemies, and they are chasing the PCs around, rather than just having a slugfest in a room.

10) If you are running a published scenario, don’t be afraid to scale back the encounters in terms of numbers of enemies to speed things up…

Oct 04

Return to Northmoor

Kim and I have been working a lot lately on our new podcast, Return to Northmoor, which is a new idea for podcasting.  Much like audiobooks let you read while you commute, Return to Northmoor presents a D&D module for you to learn while you commute.

In addition to being able to reclaim time from your commute to prepare to run your D&D game, Return to Northmoor also gives you very specific gaming advice on the material being presented.  So in addition to presenting the adventure material in audio format, it’s enhanced with helpful ideas on how to run it, as well as lessons learned from when we ran it ourselves.

To add an entertainment factor to the instruction, we intersperse the “here’s this session’s adventure” episodes with episodes that go over actual play of a session that has already been presented.

In this way, by the time you sit down to run Return to Northmoor for your own group, you’ve had a chance to not only hear the material as it is intended to be run, but also how it actually ran for our group.  So hopefully, it will help someone who wants to run the adventure feel more confident than simply reading a standalone presentation.

Check us out!


Jul 25

Work-Proofing Your Game

One of the recurring themes as I’ve been preparing and running my
latest campaign is ‘work-proofing’. Since we play on weeknights, there
is always the chance that, since we all have very mentally-demanding
jobs, that the GM or the players will be brain-fizzled by game time.

So, you have to have an insurance-policy of sorts to keep the game
going if brains are fizzled. Since we only game every other week, no
one wants to give up the game, even if they are tired, so the game has
to have a structure that can stand up to the times when the players go
crazy with it, and the times that they just want to roll dice.

6-7 years ago, when I had a much less mentally-demanding job (and
was < 30) , I was able to run stuff out of my head almost exclusively…as my work responsibilities increased, and my brain
aged, I found that I had to take advantage of my moments of brilliance
when I had them, and not rely on them to be there on game night.

I love the indie games, and I’ve found that there definitely has to be an overall higher energy and brain-engagement level than with say, D&D.  Normally, this is awesome.  But there is a reason that a lot of the indie games are for one-shots, or for short campaigns – it’s hard to maintain that level of intensity week after week.  And, the best part of those games is the shared-world creation stuff, which usually peters out after the first game.

Not to overly-generalize, but indie games, and character-provided convention events are much more like films, whereas your typical ‘traditional’ RPG campaign, say D&D or the like, is much more like a TV show, where the intensity is spread out over a whole season of the show…

Jul 21

Pacesetter Games – Chill, TimeMaster, Star Ace, Still Available

FYI, all the Pacesetter games, including the
original Chill, and Star Ace (which was mentioned in a recent Fear the Boot episode) are
available for inexpensive PDF purchase via these days. You
can purchase the box sets from .

They had another product called Time Master, which, like Chill, did a
really good job of capturing the particular genre it was aiming for.
(Time travel agency fighting bad guys who were trying to corrupt

No one will disagree that Star Ace was by far their worst product…

Jul 20

D&D Podcast with Bob Salvatore

I don’t know how many of you listen to the
official D&D podcast with Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls, but the
episode that was an interview with Bob Salvatore was pretty
interesting, especially if you are a writer.

The hosting is, um, “rough”, but Bob’s comments are insightful as
to how writing and novels have changed over the last 50 years and why.

Even if you aren’t particularly a fan of Bob’s work, it’s really interesting to hear his thoughts.

Here’s a link to the podcast:

Particularly, I thought that his comments that people like Tolkien
and Eco and Melville (who’s writing styles drive me crazy) had to be
very explicit in their descriptions, because they were writing for
readers who had no shared context – no one had see TV shows on dragons
and monks and whales, so they had to describe them in great detail.

Today, detailed description falls away and pacing and characters
become king. Which I think is an interesting reflection of the FtB
host’s frustration with the “Tour de Realms” type game.

We can see a tour of Ireland or Scotland on TV now, whereas in Tolkien’s day, his words were that tour.

Anyway, just thought people might be interested…

Jul 20

Tim’s Theory of Inverse Preparation

Tim’s Theory of Inverse Preparation

1) The more you prepare ahead of time for a non-dungeon-crawl-style
game session, the more the players will diverge from your predicted

2) The one night you just chuck it and don’t prepare anything at all is the night that for once, the players don’t want to sit around an B.S. the whole time.

Theory Explanation

1) In any game where the players get to remotely choose their own
path, you must make assumptions about their actions in order to prepare
for them.

The more you prepare, the more assumptions you need to make. Layering
assumptions on top of assumptions is like averaging averages – it’s
guaranteed to make an Ass out of U and Me.

2) Players can sense weakness, and will go for the jugular.

Well, OK, there is more to it than that. People, especially geeky
people, appreciate having a skeleton on which to hang their

Whether that be a recently seen film or sporting event, or your desperate attempt to get somewhere in your game, having something in common to talk about gives people jumping off points for their own discussions.

No game=no skeleton, and conversation peters out after a while, leaving
everyone looking at you wondering why they drove 2 hours to get here if
you are such a slacker….

Jul 20

On Role-Playing in D&D

in D&D will be there just like it always has been, but the rules
have ALWAYS been about the dungeon crawling, monster killing fiesta,
with story as an after thought IN THE BOOKS. At your table, you play
the game however the heck you want.

D&D 3.x didn’t remove any
rules for role-playing from 2.x. But it DID make the combat section of
rules more rigid and interesting, so people spent more time with that
part of the game.

Bottom line, as many people have said, is that you don’t NEED rules
for role-playing. That said, I believe that certain games, such as
these story games, FOCUS THEIR RULES ON FACILITATING role-playing. This
is good for some people, bad for others.

So bottom line is that the game is still what you make of it, get a grip.

Jul 20

“Best of” D&D Tropes?

So, if you were going to write a 1st-3rd level
adventure for D&D, and you could pack it full of all your favorite
tropes from games past, what would you be sure to include?

Here are some thoughts:

1) A home base to call your group’s own, with people that know them and pester them for stories upon their return. (a la the Village of Hommlet)

2) A syndicate of villains – where you work up defeating the lower
level thugs until you eventually take on the head of the syndicate. (a
la the Slavers series)

3) An ancient temple to a forgotten god, with evidence of prior attempts at raiding it (a la the intro to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Temple of Elemental Evil)

4) Off the charts crazy traps (a la White Plume Mountain)

What tropes or moments in your favorite low-level D&D games do you
wish that people starting out with the game could get to experience?