Curse With Purpose

I have been hesitant to give out Artifacts and Cursed Items to players in my Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Artifacts have intimidated me to a certain degree since it is one more facet of the game the players and I would need to track. I did not want to add another complication to the plot of the adventure, which has admittedly gotten away from me at times during the campaign. I could also never figure out how to adequately roleplay an Artifact, although experiencing the Narrator from Bastion gave me a fantastic template to bring an Artifact to life. I did give the party an Artifact in recent months, but they have ignored it for the most part (another article for another day).

“You have my axe . . . no, really, please take the bloody thing before it kills me!”

As for Cursed Items, I have been intrigued by them since reading through examples of items curses in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111-115). I am hesitant to punish players, and giving a player a cursed item certainly imposes a penalty on the player receiving the item and the party because the player with the item is now less effective. In a recent interview Monte Cook discussed the dangers of avoiding all forms of punishment as a game designer and DM. In recent sessions, several factors came together to grant me to opportunity to introduce a cursed item into the campaign.

Below I detail the circumstances that led to me giving out a cursed item to the players. I discuss how I provided clues to the players that the item was not all it appeared to be and emphasis how the item  fit into the story of the campaign. I discuss how the players have handled the discovery of the cursed item and conclude with alternatives to the specific Removing An Item Curse rules listed in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (p. 111), which seem quite anticlimactic.

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Ego Check: Monte Cook, Game Designer & Author

This edition of Ego Check was a long time in the making. When I first contacted Monte Cook to request an interview, it was January and he was still the Design Lead for D&D Next. I was eager to speak with him about his Legends & Lore columns for Wizards of the Coast, but the interview was delayed for several reasons including yours truly traveling to Middle Earth for two weeks. I was able to reconnect with Monte Cook in April after his decision to leave the position at Wizards of the Coast. During the past six weeks, Monte has been incredibly gracious with his time to discuss his experiences in the RPG industry, which have spanned four decades.

Blizzards cannot dampen Monte Cook’s spirit.

Below, he talks about how the roleplaying game industry has changed but how the players have remained mostly the same. He describes his personal evolution as a game designer over the years, and details his thoughts on what makes a rule good in addition to the challenges of presenting appropriate rewards and punishments to players within a game. We discuss the costs and benefits of incorporating system mastery as a built-in reward for players, and conclude with a conversation about his current game design project.

I thank Monte for his time and thought-provoking responses, which provided me with quite an education in game design. I wish him the best of luck with his current project, and look forward to seeing a final product of his “old-school, weird-science fantasy” game system!

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Procrastination & Self-Preservation

For weeks, I’ve had it in my mind to write about the topic of procrastination and how it relates to my role as a Dungeon Master. There have been moments when the urge to jot down thoughts on the subject was palpable and yet many others when the motivation to type out a mere sentence on the topic made me cringe. I have busied myself with other activities; some for the blog (conducting interviews) and some real-life distractions (furniture shopping, reading, etc). How I am procrastinating on writing a column about procrastination is enough meta to fry my brain.

When I created The Id DM over one year ago, I settled on the tagline, “Cramming before gaming nights just like everyone else.” At the time, I was finalizing details for each session up until the time players were filing into the gaming room. To be honest, that fact has not changed that much. I’m getting better but I continue to feel like my hair is on fire as I’m driving to a session because I’m not sure if I prepared enough. I assume most DMs procrastinate to some degree before most sessions.

Several questions about procrastination come to mind. First, why does procrastination happen? Second, what is the difference (if any) between procrastination for an unpleasant event – such as going to the dentist or preparing a work-related report – and a pleasant event – such as running a roleplaying game or writing a column for a blog that is a side hobby?

Instead of solely relying on my personal experience, of which there is plenty in the following column, I glanced through available psychological research on procrastination to answer those and a third and final question.

How can DMs reduce their level of procrastination?

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Ego Check: Grant Gould, Freelance Illustrator

In Spring 1999, Pacey Witter was a season away from kissing Joey PotterPresident Bill Clinton was dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Star Wars fans around the globe were camping out to buy tickets to the long-anticipated Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Remember that feeling of anticipation? There’s going to be a new Star Wars movie! And we’re going to see it on the big screen soon! At the time, I was in the process of completing my first year of graduate school at University of Minnesota – where Jesse “The Body” Ventura was residing as Governor of Minnesota. Looking back, it was a strange time!

Being a huge fan of Star Wars and not wanting to miss out on getting a ticket to the first show, I searched online for the nearest organized line – a task that was not as easy as it sound because social media like Facebook and Twitter didn’t really exist yet. I found a nearby group through an online message board and not knowing what to expect, I left class and drove 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis to a suburban theater. I immediately connected with the other guys and girls in what became simply known as The Line. There was a shared language we all understood – we were all nerds, damn proud of it and the enthusiasm and camaraderie was contagious. During the following days when I wasn’t in class, at work or home sleeping – I was at The Line.

New roleplaying game in development from Grant Gould.

One of the great people I met in that movie theater parking lot was Grant Gould. Grant is currently a freelance illustrator and developing a new roleplaying game, Blade Raiders, but back in 1999 he was just another guy camping out in line for Star Wars tickets. We shared many of the same interests and he and his friends were hilarious. If you’d like to read some truly unfortunate quotes – including several from yours truly – from The Line regarding Star Wars fandom and the build-up to Episode I, then check out this issue of The Minnesota Daily – the student newspaper for University of Minnesota – which profiled the people waiting in line to buy tickets. None of us knew about the trainwreck that was thundering in our direction. How could we have known!?

Grant and I stayed in touch after the hoopla of Episode I died down and he invited me to a party the next year in June 2000. I had recently graduated with my Masters degree and was leaving Minneapolis for good, but I really wanted to see all the people from The Line one last time. I decided to stay an extra week in town for the party and leave the next morning. At the party, Grant introduced me to his cousin, Emily. Four years later, Emily and I got married and we celebrate our eighth anniversary tomorrow. Without Star Wars – I don’t meet the love of my life – and I owe the equivalent of a Wookie Life Debt to Grant Gould.

Below, I interview Grant Gould about his journey from standing in line for Episode I tickets to working officially as a freelance illustrator for Luscasfilm and other big-name franchises like The Lord of the Rings. He talks about his long history of playing roleplaying games and his motivations for designing his own game, Blade Raiders. I’m obviously biased, but Grant is good people – and if you feel so inclined, then please check out his Kickstarter page for Blade Raiders.

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The Tome Show: Player Engagement & DM Preparation

I was recently invited to participate in The Tome Show, a long-running podcast devoted to Dungeons & Dragons news, reviews, interviews, and advice. I joined hosts Jeff Greiner and Tracy Hurley to discuss the topics of player engagement during a session and DM preparation before a session. Before we launched into those topics, the hosts discussed news items and articles leading up to the release of D&D Next. Listen to Episode 195 of The Tome Show for all the magic!

Jeff, Tracy and I discussed the challenges of keeping all players engaged at the table during a gaming session. Players have access to a limitless source of entertainment with cellphones, tablets and laptops, and we detailed how we cope with the technology during sessions. I personally do not mind the use of phones and other gadgets during a game; I find it very useful to see when a player is “checking out.” It alerts me to do something to bring the player “back in” to the session. We also covered the characteristics of a “good” player. As a DM, my list is fairly short – attend reliably (I’m personally bad at this!), play nice with others and contribute to the game. When playing the game, I enjoy when other players are cooperative, respectful and not offering too much unsolicited advice on how to play my character. We all have our gaming pet peeves, including announcing another player’s die rolls. Don’t do that!

We pivoted to the topic of DM preparation, and how best to use the time between sessions to create a fun and interesting game. I liberally refer to Mike Shea’s recent survey on DM Preparation at Sly Flourish and discuss my struggles with the combination of thinking about my campaign too much but procrastinating on actually creating content for the next session. We all offered suggestions for how to effectively use preparation time, and I detailed how I am now preparing more flavor text and dialogue to make combat encounters more interesting and engaging for the players. It all comes full circle!

I want to thank Jeff and Tracy once again for inviting me onto The Tome Show; it was a great time! Be sure to add The Tome Show to your list of roleplaying game podcasts! Finally, I decided to add a Podcast Category to the blog since I have now appeared on several podcasts during the past year. For those who would like to hear more of my thoughts on gaming – often with a lean toward psychological issues for players and DMs – the interviews can now be found in one place.