A DM’s review – The Shannara Chronicles

I have been waiting for this series a lot. Not that the trailer stunned me (although it looked mostly good), but there is a serious lack of fantasy series nowadays and this seemed to be something that could fill the void. I waited seven episodes to write about The Shannara Chronicles, so I could see more of it and watch it develop. If you haven’t watched it yet, you can still read on, I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible.

After having seen most of the first season I still can’t decide whether I like it or not. At least twice per episode I ask loudly “Why it had to be MTV?” There are some pretty irritating scenes which are clearly intended for teenagers, which I wouldn’t mind, if I didn’t feel that they wanted to make an epic fantasy at the same time. If they wanted younger audience, then they should have made it Twilight-ish, so 30-year-old geeks like myself wouldn’t even think about watching it.

But they brought half-epic fantasy into play, so I keep watching it still and roll my eyes every now and then. The three young protagonisits don’t add too much to the quality of the show unfortunately (and I was very diplomatic with this, I think), if we didn’t have John Rhys-Davies (King Eventine), James Remar (Cephelo) and Manu Bennett (Allanon) I probably would have abandoned Shannara already.  The world itself, the CGI looks great, a huge plus for this one, it kind of saves the show. Oh, and the demons too! The same can’t be said about the costumes and props unfortunately. The weapons are very sterile, and look like toys more than an actual weapons, most of the armors would protect from a butterknife, and clearly have no practical use, they are only intended to look cool. The only thing I liked was Allanon’s outfit, although he looks more like a warlock than a druid, but I don’t mind. I also liked the idea that the “old civilization” was today’s world, it doesn’t disturb the fantasy feeling, it adds some flavor instead.

I haven’t read Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, so I can’t compare the book to the series, which is a good thing I think, since Game of Thrones was a bit disappointing for me having read the books years (twice) before the TV show launched. So far I have no major problems with the plot and the story, it has some original ideas (for me), like the elfstones or the concept of the gnomes in this series. The plot twists and “big” surprises are predictable, has many clichés, but still, altogether it’s one of the things  because of which I still watch Shannara, it’s exciting enough to keep me engaged in the storyline, also a good for inspiration for later campaigns maybe.

As a DM, I think it’s a great plot for an epic campaign, although I would probably just borrow the starting concept and would introduce the grand scheme slower then the series, but of course, things have to go faster on the screen than at the table. Also I would definitely set the tone of the game somewhat darker, more hopeless. In Shannara I fell there is just too much hope, I can’t feel real desperation in the characters. Still, I’m going to hold on and watch the show, since there are no real alternatives in the fantasy genre.

 

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Becoming a better-rounded gamer: dabbling in CCG

A friend of mine recently “infected” me with a new interest towards a collectible card game (CCG), called “Cards of Power”. It’s a Hungarian CCG, only printed in my native language. The game got 20 years old in 2015, and is still going strong.

When my buddy told me that he is buying a pre-assembled deck to try the game, I said why not, I would give it a go as well. I have never been really into CCGs, but lately I started to expand my horizon of geekdom, and this was the push I needed to get invested into this one as well. So far, we are both just trying to build a collection and understand all rules of the game, getting to know our cards, trying find a concept we can build our decks around. I won’t go into details regarding this, I would like to focus what this means to me as a gamer, as a roleplayer.

I think playing a little casual card gaming is doing good to me, getting my mind off tabletop RPGs for a while, helping me reset a bit and start fresh when I get back to campaign or adventure writing. It also inspires me with the artwork (illustrated by some great Hungarian artists) and flavor text of the cards. Unfortunately, Cards of Power doesn’t have such a rich and extensive backstory as Magic: The Gathering, not many books to read to get to know the world, but still a pretty good resource for inspirtaion.

Another aspect of playing a certain CCG besides roleplaying is that you have to get used to new rules, it’s not the usual rulebook you already know by heart. It just keeps you on your toes mentally. It’s also interesting to see that with every new booster a new icon or some new rules are introduced to the game. This is a curse and a blessing. On the plus side, the game stays interesting and you need to find new concepts to stay on top of the competition. The downside is that after 20 years there are so many icons, phrases, rules that a beginner like myself has a really hard time to absorb, understand and apply. But that’s just how CCGs go I guess. Still, it’s a nice challenge to build a deck and understand the rules well enough to be able to compete in the Beginner’s League effectively. That’s a goal I set for myself, to enter a few tournaments and not suck entirely. We’ll see how it goes…

To keep myself motivated (and also to have a good laugh) I watch The Gamers: Hands of Fate every now and then, it grabs the concept and characteristics of CCGs perfectly. It just makes me want to have an own Gamer Shop and organize tournaments!

What keeps them going?

Reading some discussions on forums and blogs lately reminded me of some things why a story can get flat, and how some campaigns just run out of steam after a while. It happened to our group as well several times, and it probably will happen again in the future. I think one of the main reasons can be the wrong type of campaign for a certain type of characters.

I usually run two types of games, either I want the characters to go through a full, detailed story I wrote, or I just create a setting where they can go after their own heads, only throwing in adventure hooks every now and then. I usually prefer the latter, to see what interests the players. If they bite on one of the hooks, that’s a good start, maybe even to build a campaign on. In the first case I rather ask for characters fitting the adventure, so I wouldn’t have problems keeping the players on track.

The reason why I try to figure out the players’ or their characters’ tastes is to tailor the adventure to them. Even with the regular players around the table, the dynamics of the team and the motivations of the characters vary. Just a few factors that can make any great idea fall off a cliff:

  • Alignment: you wouldn’t really want to ask the mostly chaotic party to enforce the laws of the local lord, would you?
  • Religion: some players just don’t like religion involved, some would go on a holy quest. You can determine it with a simple adventure hook from the local priest.
  • Class: it’s great that you have everything lined up for the local noble’s quest, too bad the bard decided to lay his daughter last night…

The list goes on, but these are the most common factors in the party I think. It’s worth to have some adventure hooks prepared, but depending on your players and their motivations you can go for a complete sandbox if they are proactive enough, or if you are running a megadungeon then you should just toss them a few quests and let them loose. It’s all about keeping the players motivated, whether it is loot, story, uncovering secrets or having their own tavern. If you find the thing that keeps them going, you can build a whole adventure or even campaign around it and your players will be more than happy to play along with your plans. I think many DMs neglect this, and just focus on telling their own story, making the players feel it’s more about the DM than them.

I usually try and focus on my players and their characters, so everybody could have a great time, all characters can have their time to shine and be the hero of the day. And it’s true for darker settings, it’s worth to let the paranoid character play out his affliction and just wave a torch at every shadow, because “something moved there”. It all adds up to the flavor and atmosphere of the game. And it should be the players who add this with their own words and their actions, not just the DM narrating everything they do. This helps everyone feel more being part of the story, and not just being a pawn on someone’s chessboard.

Children of Moradin – I. Winged kobolds!

My dwarf campaign finally got on its way, and what a great start it was! My players did their best to get into their characters, we managed to finish what I prepared for my players by the end of the session, what else can a DM ask for?

Here are the heroes of the campaign:

  • Thorgar Redhammer, Cleric of Moradin’s Fire
  • Tormodan Horren, Paladin of the Legion of Ancestors
  • Bärin’Dour Irongrip, Apprentice Wizard of Groimdäll Icebeard
  • Borin from the Clan of Clanging Cannons, Master Engineer
  • Dimwar, Barbarian who is yet to get a name for himself

The story started in the small town of Millerstone, where a small group of dwarves lived after having to abandon their old home, the kingdom of Silver Vein a good fifty years ago. A comet crossed the sky about two months ago and many thought it was a sign to find a new home in the heart of a mountain again. The dwarves called the meteor Moradin’s Spark.

Bundragur, a veteran warrior and leader of the dwarves of Millerstone sent for the young dwarves and asked them to meet the Rockmawer brothers who went out a month ago in search of a legend. They should have come back or at least sent a message by now, and the old dwarf was getting worried about them. As Thorgar and Tormodan just came back from a pilgrimage, they weren’t really enhusiastic at first, but a few tankards of dwarven ale quickly raised their spirits. Borin received a gift from his father, a gunpowder horn, gauded with silver, bearing his name in runes. Bärin also got a little gift from his master, Groimdäll Icebeard, a wand of magic missiles with a few charges left in it.

The group set out the day after, but Thorgar was adamant on celebrating the morning prayer for Moradin at the shrine. His booming voice echoed throughout the town as he praised the Allfather, blessing the dwarves in his name.  Then the company took off towards the town a Phandalin, taking the road to the northwest. On the second day, late in the afternoon they found a cart with two humans shot in the back and the mule also had arrows sticking out from its neck. Thorgar recognised immediately that the arrows were of kobold work, while Dimwar found a cape tossed aside on a hill, near the forest, bearing a dwarven brooch. Upon further tracking the party found tracks leading into the woods and after a few hours of tracking they found a cave enterance. Just as they were about to enter, a chunk of honey-comb fell in front of Tormodan’s feet from above and soon a bear charged from the trees. It wounded the paladin, but Borin felled the beast with a single shot of his boomstick.

Finally they entered the caverns and found some really neasty surprises inside, the crafty little beasts were prepared for the intruders very much. Dimwar “found” a pit trap first and twisted his ankle in the process, but from that point forward, the careful dwarves managed to disarm or avoid all further inconveniences, except for the moment when the kobolds threw two boxes of giant centipedes in front of them. Tormodan couldn’t stand insects in any way, so even after emerging victorius, he kept whacking at the carapaces. In a large hall they were bombarded with rocks by the inhabitants, a lucky shot almost crushed Thorgar’s skull, and after Borin shot down a winged kobold they fled towards a tunnel to the west. Bärin and his friends didn’t fall for the trick and didn’t pursue, but rather took the other tunnel to the east and what a good call it was! They not only managed to avoid fighting a pair of giant spiders, Khyz and Nax, but also found the youngest of the Rockmawer brothers, Nudrek.

After the party managed to get out of the tunnels they wisely decided to collapse the enterance with the help of Dimwar’s dinamites. The young barbarian watched the destruction with tears of joy in his eyes. Nudrek (or Noodle, as Borin called him from their childhood) told them, that they indeed found some clues to the enterance of the legendary Wave Echo Cave, and he was sent as an envoy by his brothers to ask for the help of some of his sturdy brethren. Borin assured him that they will do what they can to help him and his brothers and they pressed on to the troubled town of Phandalin…

The DM’s note: I took the time in the beginning to build the mood for the campaign, and just wrote a short, introductory adventure for the first session, linking it with the Starter Set’s adventure, the Lost Mine of Phandelver. I won’t be telling the exact same story, but Wave Echo Cave and Phandalin are solid foundations at least for the next few occasions, probably even more. I leave it up to my players where they take the campaign. I am not pushing the story towards combat or dungeon after dungeon, if the guys feel comfortable just playing their characters and offer many great opportunities to move things forward only by roleplaying, so be it, I’m trying to be prepared either way.

A thing I learned over the years is that you shouldn’t be disappointed if the players aren’t going in the direction you want them to, or if they don’t explore evereything you designed for them. In this session they purposely went the other direction, didn’t let the winged kobolds lure them to the spiders and hence they missed the only loot opportunity of the game, but they stayed alive. On level one, the loss of even 3-4 hit points can be a great deal to a character. They were already a bit winded from the traps and the bombardment they took from the nifty little kobolds, so they tried to avoid further complications and they made a good call!

Also, a final note: you could see that there were only two “real” battles during the session, against the bear and the centipedes. The bombardment was rather a cutscene than a real encounter, after one of their kin died the kobolds retreated, trying to leave the dirty work to the spiders. I tried to emphasize the craftiness of the kobolds, I wanted them to annoy the dwarves, who intruded into their domain, and I succeeded in doing so. Fortunately the players didn’t mind at all, and played along, grumbling at the cowardness and tactics of their foes.

Journey Quest – Season 3 Kickstarter launched

Zombie Orpheus Entertainment‘s fan funded comedy could return for season 3, if it succeeds in its Kickstarter campaign. I don’t have too much doubts about its succes, since it reached $47.000 on the first day, a great start!

I have just recently stumbled on this hilarius fantasy mini-series, and it has everything a gamer usually encounters at the table. I just had to watch the existing two seasons without getting up from my chair, it just took me away with the first episode. It’s witty, it’s 100% geeky, but also has the charm, which just makes you love the characters. It wasn’t a question that I would pledge too. You can watch both seasons on youtube here.

So if you liked The Gamers: Dorkness rising and Hands of Fate, be sure to check out Journey Quest as well!

 

Guild of the Dungeon Masters

Wizards of the Coast decided to create its very own surface for D&D fans all aroud the world to create, upload and sell their very own materials for their beloved game, the Dungeon Masters Guild. Personally, I welcomed this initiative, although for me it’s quite clear, that WotC will win the most with it, but hey, finally the fans and aspiring living room authors (myself included) have their shot at making their very own published adventure and maybe get a little renown without having to worry about getting scolded for using official, copyrighted materials.

I won’t go into details about the pros and cons about joining this community and publishing here, since I didn’t delve too deep enough into this topic and I think it’s still to early to get anything else than impressions about it. I will try and summarize what this opportunity means to me, what my concerns or aspirations would be if I ever decided to publish and upload any materials to the Dungeon Masters Guild, which I am really tempted with.

I think as an amateur writer and DM, this would be an ideal opportunity to just try and see where I would be at if I uploaded one of my own ideas for a huge community to see. I think there would be at least a few people who would download this material and hopefully be nice enough to rate it. A few sentences of feedback would be great as well, to see if there was something in particular which they liked/disliked. Also I wouldn’t dare to ask for money and set a price for my very first “product”. I would just set the “pay what you want” option and be done with it, and just feel honored if someone eventually decided to pay for it. So altogether the Dungeon Masters Guild would be the perfect place for me to try my wings at designing adventures, backgrounds, etc.

At first I don’t think I would have too much concerns. Okay, people can plunder my ideas, use them as they wish, but as an amateur it would be more of a compliment than a nuisance if I saw any of my ideas reappear in a different context. Also, WotC would take half of the money I could get for my beautiful PDFs. But again, as an amateur, who has a job and takes role playing as a hobby so far, it isn’t that much of a problem. I would be surprised if I got any money from “pay what you want” anyway! Of course, if I were a publisher or someone who makes a living from RPGs (not too many of those out there I believe), I would definitely think otherwise.

To summarize, as someone who enjoys coming up with new adventures, writing a bit for himself and just loves do dive into the fantasy world from time to time, this new opportunity would be one of the best to see whether I write as good as I think, or have good enough ideas, to get other people’s attention. All this a hypothesis for the time being of course, but hey, who knows where life takes me?

 

From the DM’s bag of tricks: brainstorming

A couple of weeks back I agreed to DM an ad-hoc session of D&D, since we all had the time to game on a Wednesday and had no campaigns going on with this particular set of players. I had about three days to come up with a decent adventure for my players and I didn’t want to just do a cliché “go there, find that” type of quest. Well, or at least I wanted to give it a little twist.

In these cases I like to talk to my brother, who doesn’t play too much, but he reads a lot, just like me, and has many great ideas if I throw an idea or plot at him. So usually we just go back and forth, throwing ideas at eachother, until I finally manage to come up with the spine of the adventure which I like.

The story itself was nothing extraordinary: there was a city in ruins, just after a war, most of the buildings burnt, razed to the ground. There, a dwarf archeologist found something interesting, some old and cryptic text carved into the wall of a nearby cave. Pretty usual so far. From here came the result of the brainstorming, we figured out the previous residents of these caves, came up with a cool focus point of the caverns, a huge obelisk, bearing an ancient prophecy. Designing this mini-dungeon wasn’t easy, since I had only two players, so bigger combat scenes were out of question, but I still wanted to give the place an implied lethalty. Here, my brother had a great idea: to introduce a deceptive “lackey”, who had only one goal: feed the players to the monster lurking in the shadows. So if the players let themselves get fooled, well, the roper had a nice dinner…

It’s great to have someone reading a bit different kind of books, since a lot of ideas can be borrowed, for example from sci-fi. My brother is a huge fan of that genre and the idea of the obelisk with the prophecy came from him, since he just read about a similar situation. Most ideas are very easy to taylor to fantasy, and if you’re the type who lets technology into their adventures even the less work!

So all I wanted to point out is that for me, the easiest way to improve my ideas or get some more inspiration and ideas is brainstorming, an hour of this is worth days of thinking for me. Of course, it shouldn’t be the players to do this with, even discussing it in forums is a great way to spice up an adventure or come up with something interesting really fast. After that, all what remains is to write it down…