Rich Lescouflair melds D&D and sci-fi with Esper Genesis

With so many awesome RPGs on the market these days, the options can get overwhelming. As a dyed-in-the-wool Dungeons & Dragons fan i’m always and forever going to gravitate towards the world’s greatest roleplaying game, currently in it’s fifth edition. Each edition is better than the one that came before. (For those keeping score that means fourth edition, too – it’s a great system!)

Not withstanding a Tales from the Loop Mystery i want to tell, and an upcoming Star Trek Adventures game with some friends from Nerdarchy, i’ve got a lot of D&D on my plate. Tomb of Annihilation has arrived and beckons my group to the jungles of Chult, my tag-in DM’s game gives me a chance to play one of my favorite characters of all time, and another player is cooking up a monster hunters campaign for us, too.

On top of all that, our long-running primary campaign borrows heavily from second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Spelljammer lore.

Running the campaign brings me immeasurable joy,  both in the fact it’s still going on – defying the threat of campaign fizzle – and evolving into a vibrant setting now supporting an offshoot party of adventures!

The secondary party takes a step away from traditional fantasy elements and magic-accounts-for-everything nature of Spelljammer to take advantage of two very wonderful 5E-powered RPG systems.

One of them – Esper Genesis by writer, game designer and world creator Rich Lescouflair – came to my attention via Twitter. Although i am embarrassed to say Esper Genesis slipped past my radar, my immediate response to his tweet was of course yes, yes i DO need some [more] sci-fi in my D&D 5E! Continue reading

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D&D Campaign vs. Adventure?! Trials and triumphs of a full-time nerd in a part-time world

D&D campaign

“The Docks of Bral” [Art by deviantart creator SilverbladeTE]

When i first started writing a weekly column for Nerdarchy, the focus was on the ups and downs of finding time for Dungeons & Dragons amid the challenges of adult life. Things like full-time jobs, mortgages, families and other responsibilities make coordinating schedules for several people a complex game itself.

That series will continue here, and with my D&D gaming group approaching our one year anniversary it’s a great time to examine one of the biggest hurdles we’ve faced. Continue reading

Cantrip: Unearthed Arcana Getting Extraplanar

autumnelfFifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is truly like a fine wine, getting better with age. Every day that goes by, something about D&D invigorates my creativity, inspires new ways to approach and play the game, and strengthens my belief that the current stewards of the game are manifesting a golden age for the worlds greatest roleplaying game.

Today, D&D players received a present in the form of the latest Unearthed Arcana, the series of official Wizards of the Coast playtest material, completely free from the D&D team. Continue reading

Letting D&D players tell the story

i spend a great deal of time on my D&D hobby, that includes reading through various rules and source books, organizing campaign notes, updating a narrative account of my players’ adventures and maintaining our group’s Facebook page.

Outside of that, i watch a helluva lot of YouTubers and listen to podcasts related to D&D both for enjoyment and to glean whatever tidbits of tips, tricks and advice a DM might find useful.

The scope of variety in the kinds of games people play is endlessly fascinating. Whether a group plays together on a virtual tabletop like Fantasy Grounds; gathers at a customized gaming table with built-in computer screens; deploys intricate maps and minis; or shares a single PHB, set of dice and runs the entire game in their imaginations, the goals and results all share the commonality of enjoyment by weaving a fantastic tale together.

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As a DM, it’s very easy to get carried away with story ideas between sessions, regardless of your group’s playstyle or the sorts of adventures you’re running. Part of the fun for DMs is expanding your ideas outward. Just remember to give those ideas time and space to contract, too.

With published campaigns, for example “Tyranny of Dragons,” “Curse of Strahd” or “Out of the Abyss,” it’s exciting to think ahead to when your players will confront Tiamat, Strahd or Demogorgon.

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In a similar way, a classic dungeon-delving group hopefully survives long enough to leave Keep on the Borderlands and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan behind and tackle the Temple of the Frog or Descent into the Depths of the Earth.

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And then there’s homebrew adventures, with the additional level of anticipation for the players to uncover the themes, plots and stories DMs devise (or “borrow” from our favorite media).

The important thing for any DM to keep in mind though is that the story that emerges from your group is never yours alone. In fact, it is entirely the story of the players. In many ways, the DM is essentially opening a toychest and letting the players decide which ones look fun. What’s inside the toychest is up to the DM, and includes lots of dangerous things that players might get a peek of and want to try out.

A DM can certainly let players pull out the hazardous stuff as they wish, but as the referee and guide to the action, an important function is conveying safety warnings ahead of time. For example, a setting like the popular Underdark is alluring to many players, and DMs alike look forward to confronting their players with mind flayers, aboleth and other nasty denizens of the dark. The Underdark may in fact play a huge role in the campaign, whether something like Night Below or a powerful threat of the DM’s design.

If a group of low-level PCs is hellbent on exploring the Underdark, its the DMs duty to relay a sense of foreboding about the place. Accomplished adventurers or survivors of drow slavepits could offer dire warnings for instance. But if the players agree amongst themselves and insist on braving the dangers despite the DMs fair warning, it’s perfectly all right to let the group’s story play out in that direction. More than likely, an unprepared group of adventurers will meet an early end this way.

But that’s okay.

D&D is a storytelling game, and certainly, innumerable would-be heroes live short, unfulfilling lives. Their individual stories may not have become epic legends, and it can be upsetting when character die. But after about 30 minutes, players come up with exciting ideas for new characters, and the story continues. These new PCs might even be related somehow to their previous ones, and incorporate the story of their short-lived adventures into the new characters’ backgrounds.

All this is a wordy, roundabout way of saying it’s a good practice for DMs to get into letting go of your anticipations and allowing the players to steer the ship. Away from the gaming table is the time for a DM to let their imagination soar. Reflecting on what the players showed interest in and their adventuring style provides a context for developing what comes next.

This is why so many sources advise DMs to start small. There’s no telling what the PCs will do, and more often than not they’ll do things the DM never considered – no matter how many possibilities the DM plans for! This isn’t to say it’s fruitless to outline the big picture of your campaign. But keep aware that the path you envision to reach the end will without a doubt take many detours as the players follow their own interests along the path.

In my experience, the best approach to a campaign is to keep distill your big ideas into a few major plot points. On the road to reaching them, the players will do their part to fill in the details. That way you’re preserving their agency in the game by maintaining the sense that they’re in control of their destinies. Through their actions and words, players let DMs know what they find interesting and those engagement spark the DM’s imagination in a continuous cycle of feedback and implementation in the game.

For an example from the 5E Spelljammer-esque game i’m currently running, there is an overarching story taking place in the spheres that the PCs have been exposed to in small tidbits here and there. For various reasons, both through the characters’ and players’ perspectives, they’re not overly interesting in engaging with that story. Instead, they’re having a blast with the logistics of running a ship, maintaining a crew, making a living taking on various jobs and building their reputation. The major plot points continue to progress regardless if they are involved. Since they never set out to be heroes in the first place, it’s not hard to imagine they wouldn’t selflessly pursue a traditional heroic journey, and we’re all perfectly fine with that. Along the way, they’re moving in whatever directions appeal to them as a group. In turn, they’re challenging and fueling my imagination and together we’re developing our own story and fleshing out a lot more of the setting than i’d thought of on my own.

One of the best D&D YouTubers out there, Matt Colville touched on some of these concepts in his most recent video. The focus of his discussion is the idea of “Fantasy vs. Fiction” and he explores two approaches to D&D storytelling – the world as a manifestation of the characters’ internal story vs. the characters are the products of the world. Intriguing stuff to think about.

Of course, there are lots of things to keep in mind for your game like railroading vs. truly open-world adventuring, the value of improvisation vs. preplanning and keeping in mind the veil of separation between what the DM knows vs. what the players and their characters know. Those and many more are all topics worthy of being explored on their own here later on.

TL;DR

For D&D DMs (or any TTRPG GMs) it’s important to keep in mind that whatever story emerges at the table is a result of players’ choices and actions. DMs present scenarios, NPCs, locations and plot threads that can be woven into a much larger picture…but it’s up to the players to decide what their story will be. They may be adventuring in your world, but the tale they tell is theirs to shape.

There are lots of tips, tricks and tools DMs can use to point the needle in different directions. Just as vital, though, is allowing the players enough agency to be able to move the needle as well.

Start small, and keep your big picture in mind while PCs adventure in your game, but give them the freedom to take the story in their own direction. Don’t stick to a rigid structure of where you as the DM think the game ought to go. Instead, leave the trail of breadcrumbs but feel free to get lost right alongside the players. Remember – you can always alter where the breadcrumbs lead to anyway!

 

Tremendous value of D&D Session Zero

Whether you’re gathering a group of players together for a new D&D game or you and your friends are in the midst of a long campaign, investing time in a Session Zero is a terrific practice that benefits DMs and players alike.

The idea behind a Session Zero is providing a platform for the DM to present the setting, introduce nuances and quirks of the world and explain their expectations of playstyle and how they imagine the game might run. For players, it is an opportunity to let the DM know how they envision their characters interacting with the world, and their goals, motivations and expectations both for themselves as players and for their characters.

Typically, a Session Zero unsurprisingly takes place before any actual gaming begins, but depending on the circumstances of your group can be an effective resource at any time. In later cases it’s more of a “state of the game” session, but the spirit is the same.

In the game i’m running, i have players from a variety of tabletop RPG experiences. Our first session included a mishmash of players. One has never played any TTRPG before but was interested to dive in and become a regular at the table. Another had played 1st edition AD&D many years ago in high school, and he brought along a friend visiting from Japan for just the one session, who also had no TTRPG experience. A friend of mine who i’ve been gaming with for over ten years was there as well.

As the DM, i was excited for the simple chance to play at all, and i wanted to get the group right into the action. To that end i pulled out a sort of tutorial adventure i’ve had for a while that thrusts the characters into a pivotal battle as conscripts in a conflict between three human kingdoms, beginning in medias res on the front lines.

Taking time for a Session Zero in our situation wasn’t in the cards, since everyone wanted to dive in and start playing. They received a short introduction to the world and their place in it, and they were off and running.

One of the greatest joys i get as a DM is running a game for new players and watching for that moment when recognition clicks that they can try to do anything they can imagine, and with two new players at the table i got that secret glee twice. Everyone had a blast that first session, so i considered my DMing a success.

With a rotating cast of characters in subsequent sessions, running through the tutorial adventure, i began to think of ways to do things a little differently. Once the idea for adding elements of the Spelljammer setting came to mind, my imagination took off for the stars. At the end of our third session and the climax of the tutorial quest – a quasi-adaptation of the classic Against the Cult of the Reptile God – the party discovered a strange vessel after defeating the deadly spirit naga Explictica Defilus. At that point the party were all 3rd level characters and they were shocked and delighted to find the universe literally open up to vast possibilities for adventure.

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Because of the dramatic change in the campaign and setting, we started our next get together with a Session Zero. All of the players were excited for the opportunity to slow things down and really start discovering who their characters are beyond the numbers on the character sheets. Until then, they’d been plowing ahead at a breakneck speed, approaching D&D more along the lines of a video game. They wanted to get through the quest, defeat the evil cult and free the tropical island of the curse of winter that had isolated it from the rest of the world.

Our Session Zero took place as the party, aboard Illrigger, their newfound spelljamming ship, was escorted to the Rock of Bral for debriefing. As such, members of the escort ship Resolute’s crew came aboard Illrigger to aid in piloting and share supplies for the long journey. i let the players direct the action, asking questions of Resolute’s crew and talking amongst themselves.

What i picked up from them is that they all seemed eager to approach their characters from a more realistic perspective. As one player pointed out, they had acquired a lot of treasure and were essentially very wealthy. The entire party could live a comfortable lifestyle for about a year. With their own ship, they surmised that they could take on various jobs of their choosing, instead of letting adventure come to them.

They discussed coming up with a business name and hiring themselves out, using examples of shows like “Firefly” and “Cowboy Bebop” as inspiration for how they envisioned their characters’ lives. Looking over the blueprint of Illrigger they began planning how they’d renovate the ship, hire a crew and so on.

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Several other things emerged from their conversations as well that helped their characters become more fully realized. One of the characters is a dragonborn warlock, Krex, with a Great Old One pact. We’d never explored what that meant beyond the game mechanics. Krex’s player described that an otherworldly draconic presence reached out to him, offering magical might. One of the major features of the setting is a draconic threat from the Void, so it was a perfect fit that Krex’s patron was a part of that arc.

Another character, played by the brand new player, was an eladrin swordsman with the sailor background. He’d come up with a basic backstory previously, but was excited to explore how his background interacted with their situation running a ship now. He became quite interested in establishing a crew and making sure the ship ran efficiently.

The other core player, playing an elven monk with the hermit background, decided that his Discovery involved wildspace and the crystal spheres, paths that his mind wandered to during his hundreds of years in meditation.

As a DM, this was wonderful material that the player was adding to the campaign. The stuff that comes out of a Session Zero gives DMs a wealth of ideas to implement into adventures. They could be the basis of a grand adventure or a small detail the party comes across. Either way, the players will feel like they had a hand in the creation and that their characters have a unique place in the world.

The sailor swordsman player offhandedly asked if there were illicit substances like drugs out there in space, and found it hysterical that indeed i’d made some notes about that very topic. While making a stop to refresh their air and supplies, the party encountered a shady tiefling and one natural 20 Persuasion check later they had established a minor link to the illicit drug trade. The player seemed fascinated by this and took a few more opportunities to explore this aspect of the setting.

The most noteworthy moment of our Session Zero came while the party visited an underground club owned by a beholder. Chazzledazzel is also a popular crooner and the party was just in time to catch his show. Although i described the lounge and the performance area, when one of the players asked more about it, another player described how the room was deeply inclined with seating arranged in tiers down towards the circular pit in the center from which Chazzledazzel floated up to perform his show. The noteworthy part was that i hadn’t said anything about the seating arrangement, but the player let his own imagination add to the setting. It was a small moment, and i doubt anyone else thought much of it, but to me as the DM i felt like i’d achieved success by inspiring the player’s imagination. It was pretty cool.

A lot of our Session Zero played out that way. While it wasn’t a true Session Zero where the discussions take place outside of the game, the results came across the same way. We integrated the dramatic change in playstyle and setting, with the players presenting a lot of how they’d like their game to be through actual gameplay. Instead of instinctively looking to me to guide them on what to do next, they invoked their agency. It was a subtle shift from relying on the DM for prompting, to them telling me what they wanted to do.

It was less of me asking “what do you want to do?” and “can I try to intimidate the guard to open the gate?” and more of the players initiating the action by telling me “I want to persuade him to join our crew.”

After a while, when the thirst for adventure became too great, the players started their own investigations to find some action. There were a few hooks they discovered and ultimately decided to pursue a bit of clean up work for Chazzledazzel, who had a financial interest in some old docks that were disused and infested with vermin.

With his eyes towards renovating the area, and a natural 20 Persuasion check, the party struck a deal with the beholder for 3 percent of the profits over six months on whatever the old docks develop into in exchange for clearing the area up. They proceeded to do so in a somewhat unorthodox way (as players will always do).

For my part, i was thankful that i’d spent a lot of time developing vast amounts of random information to pull out as needed. These players want to know everything! As a DM, it is extremely satisfying to be able to provide as many good answers as possible. But that is a topic for another post.

TL;DR

Taking time from regular play to have a Session Zero is an invaluable resource for DMs and players. It gives the DM an opportunity to speak outside of the game to let the players know how they envision the game world and what sort of game they are offering. Players have the chance to let the DM know how they see their characters and what they expect to do in the game.

It’s not much fun to create a character who is an expert in Nature, for example, if the adventures never involve a need for that skill, or a character who is exceptional in social situations if the party never encounters other rational creatures.

Likewise, a DM can spend a great deal of time developing plots, arcs, timelines, NPCs, towns, cities and the like, but if all the players want to do is kick down dungeon doors and slay monsters, then that disconnect is going to make the game suffer for everyone.

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Session Zero works best at the start of a new game, when everyone is creating characters and the DM has prepared a starting point for the party. But a Session Zero can be implemented any time. Perhaps there is a dramatic shift in the campaign, or the players come or leave the group.

In my case it was a combination of all of those things as well as giving my players new to TTRPGs a chance to understand more what the game is like before exploring bigger concepts. They had a chance to do some adventuring and learn the ropes of the game itself for a few sessions, and develop ideas on how they wanted to play from there.

Call it Session Zero, a “state of the game” or simply table talk, spending time to let your players tell you what kind of game they’d like to play gives DMs invaluable information that helps them craft and guide experiences for everyone to have fun.

Go forth and game

It’s been a lean year for me in the writing department, at least in terms of reporting, having segued away from newsroom editing and journalism into design work that carried me from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio to Austin, Texas (and then back again).

What i have been writing, and reading, and watching and playing is a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, which likely comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me or picked up on any of the countless subtle or overt references i’ve made right here.

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In lieu of any reporting gigs, i settled on steering this ol’ blog towards my favoritest of favorite pasttimes. A friend and i have been talking about perhaps starting a YouTube channel or podcast about D&D as well. But i don’t know much about how to do that and i already have this site going. i can talk about D&D all day so, instead of jabbering at my friends about it, i’ll dump it here instead! There’s plenty of published adventures to review, tips and advice to offer, and campaign stories to share.

A really vibrant gaming culture exists in Austin. There are at least a dozen game shops offering gamers a chance to meet others of their ilk and participate in the tabletop gaming hobby. Organized D&D games through the Adventurers League take place in at least three stores i know of, and gave me a chance to dive back into a hobby that’s captivated my interest since the early 80s when my older brother’s classic red box ensnared my imagination.

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Supplementing the already deeply ingrained love of the game, a bevy of YouTubers streaming live games, tips, advice and campaign diaries speaks to the powerful resurgence of this decades-old hobby. In particular, Matt Colville’s channel has a heaping helping of videos aimed at inspiring players and GM’s alike.

If you’re more interested in seeing what a game of D&D being played can be like, it doesn’t get much better than the immensely popular Critical Role, where a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors stream their homebrew game on the regular every Thursday night on Twitch. (Videos are also at Geek and Sundry’s YouTube channel.)

i’ll include some additional links at the end for further exploration at your leisure.

Traditionally, i’ve always preferred to be a D&D player, rather than the DM. It’s much easier and, from a certain point of view more rewarding, to create a character and direct their actions along with the other players. This attitude is not uncommon amongst tabletop gaming enthusiasts – there are woefully fewer DMs/GMs than there are players out there. There are a lot of different playstyles, and some groups will trade DM duties every so often to give everyone a chance to play and a shot at running the game.

Despite a usual preference for playing, more often than not i wind up DMing because i’m usually the one among my friends who organizes getting a game together. But i did have an eye-opening moment a few months ago regarding the DM/player dichotomy: being the DM is like being the ultimate player – you get to create unlimited characters! Better still, they’re not bound by the same strictures as standard Player’s Handbook PCs. So to all you active and hopeful players out there: if you’re currently without a game, start one yourself! It can seem a daunting task, creating your own adventures or even running published ones. But once you sit down at the table and get going, keep in mind the only goal is for everyone to have fun so if you simply keep the flow going you’ll be all right.

And that’s exactly what i did. Over the last few months, i worked on my own campaign setting and a sort of tutorial introduction adventure. It started off with a literal bang, plunging players into the middle of a decisive battle between two opposing armies. The conscripted characters were quickly overwhelmed and their world fades to black. When they come to, a year has passed and they learn that another group of adventurers took their comatose bodies far away to recover, as they miraculously still had a spark of life in them – the only survivors of the conflict.

Despite wildly different schedules and responsibilities, i managed to get together a group of friends to play. One of them had never played a TTRPG before, and one hadn’t played since high school about 25 years ago. The other two had both played on-and-off with me over the years. At our first session, one of them asked if he could bring an out-of-town visiting friend who had never played. That fella had coincidentally gone on a high school trip to Japan with one of my close friends who’d played with me and they were both amazed to be reunited at the gaming table.

One of the most important lessons for a DM came to the forefront almost instantly once we started playing, and that is that, no matter what you anticipate your players might do and consequently plan for, they will invariably do something different that you didn’t expect. Essentially they went off script and off the reservation pretty much immediately. But that’s perfectly okay by me. i consider that an opportunity to test my improvisation skills and roll with wherever the players take the story (and hopefully steer it without them realizing it).

At the end of that first session, everyone expressed how much fun they had playing, and despite me winging it with a heck of a lot of stuff, that was the only benchmark i felt we needed to reach. Did they know there was a fully-populated village to explore? Were they aware i depowered some monsters because i didn’t expect them to go to the giantish ruins until they’d leveled up a bit? Had they picked up on the subtle clues about the nature of their benefactor, the battle they’d fallen in to start the adventure or the connections between the cultists and villagers?

Nope.

Instead, they cheered at their critical successes, laughed at their failures, relished in their participation in the story we were all creating together. They took notes, remembered NPC names and distinctive details, and slowly started to let their characters make decisions in a natural way. We all had fun, and that’s the only rule i adhere to as a DM.

Since that first game session, we’ve gotten together a few more times, and added more players to the party. Just the other night, they managed (barely) to defeat the classic boss monster Explictica Defilus, a powerful naga.

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“If you destroy me, I will return, and everyone you care about will suffer…”

In her chamber, they made a couple of amazing discoveries. The monk, failing a saving throw, was given a vision by a strange crystal beacon. Given a glimpse of the world’s cosmology, he was particularly intrigued because earlier that night the player and i discussed his hermit background discovery feature being related to this very thing. As a DM i was filled with glee, knowing what would come later that evening. As a player, he was super excited that his character’s story intersected with the adventure in a profound way.

The party also found a strange ship shaped like a cobra. On the bridge was an elaborate chair upon which a corpse sat. Using the Speak with Dead scroll they found elsewhere (thankfully they held on to it since i put it there expressly for this purpose) they were confused to learn the ship had crashed there. Sitting down in the chair, the warlock character found his senses expanding to encompass the entire vessel, and expressed his desire to get out of the chamber.

Before they knew what was happening, the island they’d been trapped on was rapidly shrinking below them as the ship hurtled upwards, through the clouds, into the blackness of space. Confronted there by a battle barge captained by a dragonborn, she hailed the ship and commanded them to stop and be boarded…and that’s where we ended.

That’s right – i took my players to the wonderful wildspace of Spelljammer.

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Next time, i’ll ramble on about something. Maybe classic modules that i enjoy? An update on what happens when the party finds themselves quite unexpectedly taken off-planet?

Links to some online D&D-ish content i enjoy: