Ego Check: Jeff Gupton of Blackbyrne Publishing

The following article is the first of two new features I will be adding to the blog this week. In what I hope is the first in a series of interviews with various players, gamemasters and other members of the roleplaying-game community, I present Ego Check. Ego Check will be a place to learn more about the people who you may have interacted with briefly on Twitter or through Comments on a variety of blogs. It is an opportunity for me to conduct a long-form interview to gain insight into how active members of the role-playing community are influenced and think about current topics and trends throughout the gaming world.  The first Ego Check is focused on Jeff Gupton of Blackbyrne Publishing.

In the interview, he recounts his journey as a young player of roleplaying games and how this eventually led to him creating his own publishing company. He speaks about the trials and tribulations of 3rd Party Publishing (3PP), and advocates for greater unity in the 3PP community. I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I did conducting it!

Can you please introduce yourself, and talk a bit how and when you started playing Dungeons & Dragons?

Greetings and Salutations! (ok, normally I don’t talk like that, but wanted to show off) My name is Jeff Gupton and I am the owner of Blackbyrne Publisher, a third-party publisher for both 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Jeff Gupton, Founder of Blackbyrne Publishing

It was the spring of 1981 when I saw some of my 5th grade classmates playing this odd game with no board, no pieces and these weird shaped dice.  Then I heard what they were saying, almost telling a story of sorts, so I sat and listened.  I heard about spells being fired off, monsters being slain and treasure being found and was instantly hooked.  That summer I saved all of my allowance and walked the four blocks from my home to The Hobby House and bought my first boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons.  (not the Red Box everyone knows, but the one just prior, yes I’m that old) That fall when I returned to school, I had my box in my backpack, filled with characters I’d written and adventures I’d planned, and was ready to fight the good fight.  It’s the feeling that I had when first playing the game that I hold on to as I write the adventures for Blackbyrne Publishing, hoping to convey or pass that along to the new fans of today.

As a side note, normally these were the same people who teased me about my weight issues and only kept me around to make fun of or play tricks on.  But when we were playing D&D, that changed, there were no jokes at my expense, we were a team, and I think that says a lot about the game itself.

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Brainstorming Solo Monsters: Bayonetta

“I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is more dead angels!”

Solo monsters and the way they play in D&D 4e have been on my mind lately. First, I ran a small set of encounters that culminated in the party coming face-to-face with an Orium Dragon. Second, I was throwing ideas back and forth with David Flor about the notion that solo monsters could possible be given more standard actions to make them more epic foes. Third, I’ve played through the first third of the videogame, Bayonetta. Trust me, the last point will tie into my thoughts on solo monsters!

First, the battle with the Orium Dragon was meant to be a challenge for the party, and it turned out well enough, but the dragon did not seem cool enough. Part of the issue was we only had four players that night, so I had to scale down the creature a bit. But overall, the dragon seemed to be limited to the breath weapon and the Draconic Fury, which basically gives the dragon three Standard Actions (2 Claw, 1 Gore attacks). Draconic Fury is a nice attack the first round or two, but the dragon does not have many other options if it’s breath is spent. PCs attack, dragon attacks with Draconic Fury, rinse and repeat. At least for me, the battle felt stale after a couple of rounds. There was likely more drama for the players because several PCs were dying at various points in the battle, but in terms of playing the dragon, it wasn’t as entertaining as I thought it would be.

After that, I was thinking about the next time my group runs into a solo creature and how I could make it more entertaining for them and for me. Between getting Monster Manual 3 in the mail and having some discussions online, I started to think about solos in a new way. Yes, they are a big, bad monster, but they should feel different from the monsters I play as a DM each week. Besides the extra hit points and high-damage attacks, playing a solo should just feel different. I thought about granting solo monsters more standard actions, and that idea seems to have merit. Around this time, I started to play Bayonetta – and strangely enough – that is when something clicked in my brain.

Continue reading “Brainstorming Solo Monsters: Bayonetta”

Stages of Group Development

The topic of group development and dynamics has been at the forefront of my mind during the past week for two reasons. First, the group I DM has undergone some challenges this year. Two players had to drop out entirely because of personal concerns unrelated to the gaming group. Another player is currently dealing with some medical issues, but is recovering well and will likely return in the coming weeks. As a result of the departures, we had to cancel our regularly scheduled game early in the month, and our session slotted for last Friday was on life support. However, we were fortunate to get two new players from Meetup and Pen & Paper Games. It was excellent to welcome the new players to the campaign, but it shifted the group dynamics in several ways.

"We'll get killed if we go through there, you twit!"

Second, I had to opportunity to participate in beta testing for the Dungeons & Dragons Virtual Table. I created a fresh character and played through an encounter with a new group of players and dungeon master. The experience was pleasant, but it was interesting to feel unfamiliar with my fellow adventurers and dungeon master. I have been gaming with the players in my two groups for well over a year now and know what to expect each week. 

Combined, these experiences reminded me of a theory of group development that could be helpful to consider while running your campaign. The theory was originally developed by an educational psychologist, Bruce Tuckman, and the linear stages are forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Below, I will discuss each stage of group development, how it can relate to your gaming group and offer examples of these dynamics at work during campaigns.

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Before The Id DM – Reader Contribution at NewbieDM

Before opening this site, I had been lurking around on a variety of blogs and Twitter benefiting from the knowledge, advice and discussion from the online D&D community. Several months ago, I approached NewbieDM with an idea for a post for his site. He agreed to let me submit a post for his site, and decided to accept it and post as a Reader Contribution.

The post detailed a process for creating an in-world newsletter that summarized important current events and NPCs for players in the campaign. If you missed the post back in January, then please visit the post above at NewbieDM for the information, a PDF example of a newsletter from my campaign, and a ready-to-steal Microsoft Publisher file that you can use to develop stories for players. The Comments to the post also detail how Google Docs can be used instead of MS Publisher to create a similar newsletter for your campaign. My thought process on creating the newsletter also meshes well with my previous description of world-building posted a few weeks back.

I previously thanked NewbieDM for agreeing to post the article. The process of writing the article was very enjoyable, and it motivated me to start my own site. It has been great to get The Id DM up and running. It feels like the site has existed for a while now, but my first post went up just over one month ago. I appreciate all of the feedback from readers thus far, and thank everyone for checking out the site!

The “Nightmare” Scenario

While working on this Friday’s upcoming campaign session, I had some communications back and forth with Brannon Hutchins about a campaign David Flor played in recently. By the way, follow the links above and check out both of their sites, which always have excellent content. And thanks to both of them for assisting with this post, which grew out of a discussion of David’s game.

David mentioned that he was running a PC in a new Level 1 campaign and got hit with 80 points of damage in surprise round by the DM. The amount of damage in one round at Level 1 struck me and others as quite severe and absurd. But in the discussion, Brannon and I touched on an idea that you could incorporate into any campaign you are running.

The Nightmare Scenario

This could be especially attractive if you are – like me – very hesitant to create situations where PC death is incredibly likely. In my mind, here is how The Nightmare Scenario could play out for the PCs.

Got halfway up the block, I calmed down and stopped screaming. Then thought, "Oh, I get it, I must be dreaming."

First, have the PCs interact with your world and gain a new mission or quest in the normal way. Perhaps the party is resting at an inn in town, and they are approached by a NPC with an offer of glory and riches. Perhaps the Queen of a kingdom requires a special task from the group. You can create any hook you like, but be sure to emphasis the rumored nastiness of the villain. Run this roleplaying encounter as you would any other hook in your campaign.

Allow the party to accept/decline the offer. And then make sure they sleep.

Now the fun begins. The party wakes up and goes about their business as usual. Perhaps drop very subtle hints here and there that something is amiss with reality. Have the party move along their business in the normal way whether they accept or decline the offer. If they accept, it makes it easier; guide them to reach the villain. If they decline the offer, then the villain finds them.

Then, beat the ever-living daylights out of them. Have them confront the Big Bad Boss but level him up to a ridiculous level. Have the boss flanked by other monsters that dish out a ton of damage. Create bizarre environmental effects that damage the party or make them less effective. Basically, set up an encounter that will result in the party dying. And if the party declined the mission, have the NPC that offered the quest also be killed.

Allow at least half of the party to fall in combat. You are the best judge of your group, so monitor when they should “wake up” from the nightmare and return to the point of the morning after they accepted/declined the mission.

Advantages

  • You can put the fear of Pelor, Moradin and whatever other god they happen to worship into the PCs’ hearts!
  • Learn more about your players. Watch them as they come to terms with getting busted up by a completely unbalanced encounter. How do they respond? Who retreats? Who freaks out? Who continues the fight no matter the cost?
  • Take the reigns off your hesitation to kill the party. The PCs are never truly in danger, but they will feel that their characters are dying. For once, you don’t need to worry about the ramifications of a PC death.
  • Glorious foreshadowing for the eventual encounter with the Big Bad Boss. How will the party respond? Will they take the nightmare as a sign that they should decline the mission request? What would the consequences be of turning down the request? If they declined the original request, do they now want to take it to save the town/kingdom/etc? Many roleplaying angles to go from the point of them waking up!

Disadvantages

  • You are lying to using quite a bit of deception with your players (Editor’s Note: it was pointed out to me by TheSheDM and others that lying was perhaps too strong of a word to use in this situation. The DM uses deception throughout the campaign). Ideally, The Nightmare Scenario would only last for one gaming session. Stringing the party along for multiple sessions through a “dream sequence” seems to set up poor dynamics. The party may never fully trust you again, and it could make some – if not all – of the players unhappy.
  • The party may decline the mission and go looking for another mission that leads them away from the Big Bad Boss. Prepare for this as a reasonable option, and have another path lined up as an option. But don’t make it that simple for the party. Ensure there are consequences for the party abandoning the mission. Perhaps they wish to seek out more help, such as a ritual that will make the enemy less powerful.
  • You are taking a risk. Again, you know your group the most out of anyone. Ask yourself if they will resent the situation and view it as just a way to get your giggles by killing them and toying with their emotions. If you think it will not go over well and cause long-term damage to your group, then stay away from the idea.

Final Thoughts

Think about preparing The Nightmare Scenario for your group, whether you are starting a new campaign or have your group already into the Paragon or Epic Tiers. If you prepare solid plot reasons for the scenario to unfold, and roleplay the ramifications of the party’s following actions, then it could be a great experience for you and the group.

Let me know your thoughts. And I apologize if I missed linking to another article out there that discusses this “nightmare” idea. I did not go searching for another post. If you know of an article that already exists, then please let me know. Thank you!

Vampire Lifestyle

I observed the recent “controversy” online about the release of the new Heroes of Shadow book. Players and DMs were discussing how the design choices in the book affected the ongoing debate regarding 4th Edition and Essentials. While I recognize the opinions on both sides, the entire debate is completely foreign to me. As a DM and player, there does not appear to be a good reason to fret over the multiple additions layered into 4th Edition.

Now you too can become "lost in the shadows."

Here is how my brain works, “It’s a hardcover book that has the same cover design and shape of every other non-Essentials 4e book out there. Well, it must be suited to 4e then. Great more options for people who feel they need them.” I’m simple, what can I say! I realize there are important questions that can be asked about some of the mechanical design issues with the new player options, but I believe those questions can be asked without it somehow turning into an Edition War.

For instance, the new Vampire Class is quite fascinating to me because it is a Class and not a Race. I have always equated Class with occupation since picking up 4e, and certainly would not conceptualize Vampie as an occupation. When I first learned that Vampire would be a Class instead of a Race, I was confused. Do you work as a Vampire? No, you are a Vampire. You don’t work as a Dragonborn, you are a Dragonborn. Why would they create Vampires as a class and not a race?

Wizards of the Coast posted their decision-making process for making Vampires a class instead of a race, and their reasoning is logical. They wanted the Vampire-ness to bleed through (pun somewhat intended) the entire gaming experience for the player/PC. Nothing in their reasoning makes me feel that 4e is “over” or “abandoned” in any way. But it did take me some time to wrap my head around the Class versus Race issue. But I think I came to a good conclusion that may help to mediate some of the 4e versus Essentials debate.

The Class category should be relabeled or reconsidered as Lifestyle. When looking through a few of the powers that have been posted, Vampire Lifestyle makes more sense than Vampire Class. You could also make the same substitution for all other classes. Cleric and Fighter are Classes/jobs, but it’s also a Lifestyle choice. Your Lifestyle influences most of the actions that you take in 4e; it’s your “calling” in the world. 

I typically think of your “calling” as something that is freely chosen. But perhaps you are pushed into a Lifestyle rather than choosing it? From a roleplaying standpoint, maybe you don’t really want to be a Fighter, but your parents (or party members because they wanted a Defender!) needed you to be a Fighter. You can become more flexible over time by multiclassing (multi-lifestyling?) to stake out your own path. Well, the same could be true for a Vampire – unless you are Bella Swan, you didn’t choose to be a Vampire (really, a Twilight reference?!), but now you are saddled with that Lifestyle. 

The mental leap from Class to Lifestyle works for me. It really shuts down a lot of the criticisms and worries I have heard about the new book and potential new “direction” of 4th Edition. Since picking up some 4th Edition books in 2009, I have played 4e exclusively with three groups – two as a player and one as a DM. I thoroughly enjoy the game, and look forward to continue playing it for years to come. I did not buy any of the Essential products at first because I had no interest in adding another set of options to our games. 4th Edition already has so many character-creation options, and none of us felt the need to deviate. I did pick up the Monster Vault, which is sweet, but to be honest, I’m not sure if that is considered Essentials or “4e.”

Perhaps this says something about me, but I play three or four times per month, follow a bunch of DMs and other people “in the know” online, and started my own D&D blog . . . and I still don’t really understand the 4e versus Essentials debate or where the lines are even drawn officially by Wizards of the Coast. In addition to my desire to remain blissfully ignorant of such issues, it tells me that I don’t care about the debate.

In a somewhat related note, I recently had a conversation with someone who said they should no longer sell the original Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master Guide because they were irrelevant. I disagree, you could be completely oblivious to the updates to the game and still have a blast playing with the characters and rules listed in those books. As players and DMs, we get to make the game our own. The release of new books and design options does not need to change what we do in our home games.

Take what you like from the new stuff, and ignore the rest if it doesn’t fit into your system.

Dungeon Master Definition (Part II): Ambushes & Destiny

In Part I earlier in the week I discussed recent communications with other gamers on Twitter, which led me to question the role of a Dungeon Master. I wanted to use an encounter I created last year as an illustration of some of the issues at work regarding the DM’s role in a campaign. I also wanted to present reactions to the encounter from one of the PCs in my group.

Download Merchant Ambush in PDF (1MB)

In this set of encounters, the party was charged with protecting a shipment as it moved from one town to the other. If you would like to see the encounter, then please download the file above. To provide some background on the design of this encounter, I had previously implemented the Sly Flourish Song of Power suggestion in our campaign. The players made song selections, and the Cleric in our group chose an instrumental tune from the original Star Trek series. (Check it out – a menacing Cleric song choice, if you ask me!) I knew our Cleric was a Star Trek fan, and I wanted to play around with the Redshirt character as the party escorted the shipment between towns.

I only dropped one or two hints in my description of events, and mentioned – casually, I thought – that Jerrod, one of the NPCs traveling with the shipment, was wearing a red cloak. I cannot recall exactly who, but someone in the group joked (out of character) about the connection and said something like, “Oh, he’s going to die.” Everyone laughed, but our Cleric indicated to Jerrod (in character) that the party would protect the shipment and their lives.

Only problem for our Cleric – red-cloaked Jerrod was going to die. I had numerous ideas for how Jerrod would die, but regardless of the PCs’ interventions, he was not going to make it through the encounter. The party was going to be ambushed between the towns, and Jerrod would fall in combat at some point. As the encounter played out, our Cleric tried to stay close to Jerrod, but he got separated during a round in combat. Once poor Jerrod was left alone in one of the wagons, phase two of the bandits’ trap kicked in and a fiery cart trundled down the hill and slammed into the wagon with Jerrod inside. I thought it was a fairly epic death scene for him.

The players cleaned up the bandits and eventually won the day, saving a good majority of the shipment from the resulting fire. But the Cleric in our group was really dissatisfied and bummed out the rest of the night. He had wanted to protect Jerrod, and even though he was aware of the Redshirt foreshadowing, he wasn’t able to keep him alive. At the time, I was somewhat pleased that I created a scenario that resulted in some real emotion from the player/PC. However, I return to that encounter now to discuss the DM’s role in allowing PCs to dictate the campaign.

Continue reading “Dungeon Master Definition (Part II): Ambushes & Destiny”