Keith Ammann joins me to discuss his book, The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, which provides highly-detailed tactical guidance for monsters in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. He speaks about the his interest in strategy games and how that influenced his approach to running gaming sessions.
He discusses how to run monsters realistically to further engage players and make their achievements at the table more meaningful. He provides examples from his book on creatures such as goblins and highly-intelligent monsters such as the mage. We explore multiple aspects of combat including complexity, difficulty, and morality.
The Monsters Know What They’re Doing reminds me of the write-ups for early 4th Edition D&D monsters, and that information is sorely missed in 5th Edition. I recommend the book strongly for anyone running 5th Edition sessions.
Enjoy the 58th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM!
My first memories of Dungeons & Dragons were from watching the animated show on television and begging my brother’s friends to let me play in their game. My brother, Albie, was about five years older than me so I was forever chasing him and his crew. While my brother would rather be outside playing sports, some of his friends were into other hobbies – like listening to Iron Maiden and playing D&D. Every once in awhile, his friends would set up shop in our den and play through an adventure.
I was extremely jealous; I wanted to play as well!
I finally got my chance after I bothered my brother enough for him to tell his friends, “Let him play.” The first game of D&D I ever played featured me creating a Fighter. While I don’t recall the scenario, I do remember that we were exploring a cave and I was in the front line. Some monster attacked, and I took a swing at it. A member of the party threw a flask of oil toward the monster, and the oil spread to me as well. Another member lit the oil with a thrown torch, and just that quickly, my gaming experience was over as my Fighter died from burning to death.
It was clear my brother’s friends didn’t want this little kid playing in their adventure, and they found a clever (and cruel) way to get me out of the game quickly. My brother got me into the action though, and it allowed me to get a taste of the hobby. He didn’t have to go to bat for me with his friends. But he did.
Exactly one year ago today, my brother jumped in front of a train and ended his life.
I could write a book about our lives together, and one day I just might.
There are portions of this post that will be difficult to write – and possible challenging to read. I’ll summarize first, and go into details second. For over a year, I have partnered with the creative minds at Limitless Adventures to update a collection of monsters I originally created for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I previously interviewed Andy Hand of Limitless Adventures in 2016, and after that interview we decided to take the monsters I created for my No Assembly Required series, which was originally hosted by the site, This Is My Game, convert them to 5th Edition, and package them into a book to sell through the Limitless Adventures site.
Earlier this summer, I was contacted by Andy Hand, the creator of Boccob’s Blessed Blog and co-owner of Limitless Adventures, which is a new endeavor by him and Michael Johnson. He contacted me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons products that are now available for purchase through Limitless Adventures and other outlets. Rather than a product review, I thought it would be more fun to interview him about the challenges and opportunities involved in self-publishing D&D content. Below, he speaks about he long history with roleplaying games and how the Open Game License has evolved over the years including the recent introduction of the DM Guild through Wizards of the Coast. We also delved into design philosophy between editions and entered a bit of a debate around issue of Dungeon Masters “fudging” die results for reasons. Enjoy the interview leave a question below if you have any thoughts or reactions.
You started Boccob’s Blessed Blog over six years ago, which was during the upswing in attention to all things Dungeons & Dragons based on the release of 4th Edition in 2008. What were some of the key motivations to start writing about gaming back then?
I started Boccob’s in response to 4th Edition. I started playing D&D with Basic in 1990; I still think the Rule Cyclopedia is the greatest D&D product ever written. Our group quickly evolved to 2nd Edition, and then moved to 3rd in 2000, so suffice it say, we’ve played a lot of D&D. We loved the changes that came along with 3rd edition and played it zealously for years. When 4th came out we didn’t care for it and started to archive as much 3.5 material from the Wizards of the Coast website as we could, knowing that they’d clear out the old to make way for the new – which they did, and a lot of great content was lost. I wanted a place to post new 3.5 material and continue the conversation started by the Open Game License.
Your experience is quite different from my own; I started writing in 2011 after falling in love with 4th Edition. I took a long break after playing some 2nd Edition as a teenager and still have yet to play any form of 3rd Edition D&D. The Open Game License first came about in 2000, and it has gone through a variety of forms over the years. How has producing D&D content through the OGL changed over the years and editions?
I saw Predator in a delightful micro-theater this week, and it has triggered a flood of warm thoughts and nostalgia.
Before DVDs, Blu-rays, videos-on-demand, and streaming services, the easiest way to watch a movie over and over again was to get it on a VHS tape. For this, there were two options; the first was to buy the movie from a place in the local mall (like Suncoast Video because Best Buy Amazon did not exist yet) or record it onto a blank VHS tape when it played on HBO or another cable channel. The VHS tapes could hold up to 6 hours of content, which allowed for a triple feature of action movies or comedies since those tend to clock in under two hours each. As I was starting high school in the early 1990s, a weekend pastime was watching my cobbled-together collection of VHS movies while falling asleep on the floor of our den. My adult self laments the terrible sleep-hygiene behaviors that I had during this time in my life!
(And really, I slept on the floor falling asleep to DVDs some nights well into graduate school years. The last gasp of this behavior was watching and listening to commentaries for A Knight’s Tale and Fellowship of the Ring. Good times!)
The triple feature VHS that got the most rotation during those years was the lineup of Predator, Action Jackson, and Blind Fury. I would throw this tape into the VCR and doze off as it played. As a result, it is safe to claim that I have seen the first 20-30 minutes of Predator at least 100 times in my life. The other movies on the tape were also favorites. Action Jackson was an effort by Carl Weathers to become an action star after his run as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films; it features Sharon Stone in one of her first performances, has Craig T. Nelson doing some heinously evil things, and climaxes with the hero driving a sports car through a house during a cocktail party and up a flight of stairs. It was fast and furious before that franchise existed! I also enjoyed that it featured “badguy” actors that appeared in films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, not to mention Mac and Billy from Predator. Meanwhile, Blind Fury was a Rutger Hauer vehicle with the featured him as a wounded soldier that is blinded in Vietnam during combat, trained by a small village to acquire fighting skills with a sword (even though he’s blind), and then returns home years later to help the son of John Locke from Lost. He’s basically Daredevil!
Movies like Action Jackson and Blind Fury are now cranked out by the likes of Jason Statham and other action stars. But I feel like action movies these days are missing what they had back then, and it’s why Deadpool was so successful. Deadpool – now that I think of it – reminds me of those late 80s/early 90s action flicks that had a simple premise, relied on humor, and did not take themselves seriously. If you have never seen Action Jackson or Blind Fury, find them and give them a view. They’re bad in all the good ways.
Getting back to Predator, watching it this week gave me the same thought as watching Jaws last year in the theater. This movie is outrageously flawless and well-executed. There isn’t a wasted moment. Every shot and line of dialogue accomplishes multiple things in terms of moving the plot and developing characters. And it does not rely on huge, 15-minute set-piece battles like the endless stream of superhero flicks (which I also enjoy); the majority of Predator is sneaking around in the jungle and planning ambushes.
It’s so good!
Below, I highlight three aspects of Predator that can apply to running roleplaying games in terms of character development, pacing, and conflict resolution.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, the You Tube videos were all pulled by WWE since I published the article.
Regardless of the actions that take place during combat encounters in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure the players know what they are fighting for and both how and why monsters are reacting to them in the environment. Earlier in the week, I discussed how DMs can respond to the increase of critical hits by players during Paragon Tier with new monster traits and immediate actions. These design features for critical hit protection may seem like “DM cheese” to players, so it is important to incorporate the mechanics into the story and flow of combat.
I sometimes think of combat encounters as professional wrestling matches. Yes, I’m talking about World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), although I prefer the previous name – World Wrestling Federation (WWF). You have the heel (monsters) and the face (player characters) facing each other in combat in the ring (encounter area). They are both playing to the crowd (DM and players) while executing scripted manuevers (powers, etc). The DM needs to be a combination of Ric Flair and Jim Ross – sell the events that are transpiring in the ring!
The moves of a wrestling match are often quite mechanical and boring, but when you have one wrestler acting like a move just broke his spine while the announcer is selling the audience that the wrestler may have to retire after the match, the viewer cannot help but be more engaged in the outcome. The wrestlers and the announcer are telling a story. During combat encounters, the DM must tell a story as well. Below, I provide examples of how this can be accomplished.
I am discovering a growing “problem” in my campaign. The number of critical hits leveled against monsters during any given combat encounter in our Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign is getting out of hand and it is effecting my ability to balance encounters. For example, I built up a villain over the past two months in my home campaign. The party was informed the leader of Ghost Talon was a murderous criminal set to rid Gloomwrought (and Beyond) of all but shadar-kai. Last week, the party finally took him on in battle . . . and absolutely crushed him and his guards.
I imagine the players enjoyed the session much like one might enjoy lazily reading a good book on a beach while the sounds of the ocean massage his or her ears. The question I have asked myself and others since the session is, “How do I respond to the critical overload happening in our sessions?” Below, I describe the growth of critical hits I’m witnessing in our games and discuss a variety of methods to cope with the problem.
The May edition of my monthly monster-building column, No Assembly Required, is now posted at This Is My Game.
The column, No Assembly Required, features a monster that can be inserted into a Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Each monster in the series includes comprehensive information including Origin, Lore, Combat Tactics, Power Descriptions and Stat Block. Visit This Is My Game to review this month’s monster, Thurl Bal’zud, Cleric of Laduguer. Thurl an Epic-Tier duergar who can be added to any campaign that might venture into the Underdark.
My goal with the character was to capture the vibe of fighting a Boss in an old Final Fantasy game where the Boss would have two stages. The first would be a defensive shell and the second would be a devastating attack. Going through the design process, I discovered that D&D 4th Edition already has this type of mechanic in the form of Lurkers. However, I don’t think Thurl plays like a Lurker.
Visit This is My Game for the full description of Thurl Bal’zud, Cleric of Laduguer, and decide for yourself. And be sure to check out previous entries in the series!
Many thanks to Grant Gould who provided the fantastic design and illustration for the evil duergar.
The April edition of my monthly monster-building column, No Assembly Required, is now posted at This Is My Game.
The column, No Assembly Required, features a monster that can be inserted into a Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Each monster in the series includes comprehensive information including Origin, Lore, Combat Tactics, Power Descriptions and Stat Block. Visit This Is My Game to review this month’s monster, Kemah Timmonen. Kemah is an Paragon-Tier female shadar-kai that will feel right at home in any campaign, but certainly an adventure in The Shadowfell.
My goal with Kemah was to create a ruthless villain to go along with the uneasy and violent themes of The Shadowfell. I wanted her to enhance her abilities as a Controller and crafted powers to fit into this theme. I modified what it means to be Dominated and created a new status effect, Conflicted.
And I also wanted her to have orange and black in her color schedule because it’s playoff hockey time and I’m a huge Philadelphia Flyers fan. The Flyers are currently battling in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs – so Let’s Go Flyers!
Visit This is My Game for the full description of Kemah Timmonen, and check out previous entries in the series!
Many thanks to Grant Gould who provided the fantastic design and illustration for Kemah.
The March edition of my monthly monster-building column, No Assembly Required, is now posted at This Is My Game.
The column, No Assembly Required, features a monster that can be inserted into a Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Each monster in the series includes comprehensive information including Origin, Lore, Combat Tactics, Power Descriptions and Stat Block. Visit This Is My Game to review this month’s monster, Weta Swarm. The Weta Swarm is an Heroic-Tier monster who can serve as a pesky creature and hopefully adds more “swarming” flavor than other monster options.
The Weta Swarm was inspired by my recent travels to New Zealand. I have thought about creating a swarm monster in the past because I often find that the current swarm options do not feel all that “swarmish.” Other than taking half damage from melee and ranged attacks, many swarms simply feel too much like other monsters. It was my intention to make the Weta Swarm feel like a significant threat just by sheer numbers alone. As always, I’m open to feedback so please post any questions or comments about the monster here or at This Is My Game, and come back next month for another ready-to-use monster.
My monthly monster-building column, No Assembly Required, has once again returned to This Is My Game as the site has been taken over by Randall Walker and Tracy Barnett. They are eager to maintain and improve the site, so I am excited they will be hosting the No Assembly Required series moving forward!
The column, No Assembly Required, features a monster that can be inserted into a Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition campaign. Each monster in the series includes comprehensive information including Origin, Lore, Combat Tactics, Power Descriptions and Stat Block. Visit This Is My Game to review this month’s monster, Durgauthbalavoar, Ghost Dragon. Durgauthbalavoar is an Epic-Tier monster who should provide the foundation for a dynamic combat encounter for any group of adventurers.
The mechanics for the dragon were inspired by my frustration of having too many combat encounters turn into static slugfests where enemies and players rush to one spot in a room and then trade blows until one group dies. Durgauthbalavoar is surrounded by various Auras – some that effect PCs nearby, and some that effect PCs far away – in addition to a teleportation power that will shift the flow of battle.
As always, the fantastic artwork is provided by Grant Gould. Visit This is My Game for the full description of Durgauthbalavoar, the spirit of an evil dragon slain long ago only to return to terrorize the lands once again! Please post any questions or comments about the monster here or at This Is My Game, and come back next month for another ready-to-use monster.