Campaign cultures and equipment: more than dwarven axes and elvish bows

While the style of a weapon won't affect game stats, it can say a lot about your campaign.

During the course of the past several decades, fantasy games and literature have established associations between certain archetypical fantasy creatures and their equipment. Legacy and current editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game, for example, have linked elves with bows and longswords, connected dwarves with axes and hammers, and associated halflings with slings and daggers. Such archetypical armament is so deeply ingrained into gamers’ minds that it is the exception, not the rule, that makes D&D players suspicious: arm an elf with a two-handed war hammer, and many players will think it is an illusion or shape-changer.

Fortunately, the connection between campaign cultures and equipment doesn’t have to begin and end with dwarves, elves and halflings. A Dungeon Master (DM) can create similar associations for all cultures in a D&D campaign, thereby improving sense-of-place without radical changes in game mechanics; this post discusses several approaches for accomplishing the task, resulting in greater dramatic flavor in the game. Continue reading


Raise your game’s stakes with a rival party

One question worth asking at the start of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign involves whether or not the player character (PC)  heroes are the only heroes in the campaign milieu. In many campaigns, the PC party is the only group of adventurers in the story – a logical enough consequence of the PCs being the central characters – but a range of new plot and dramatic options become available if the Dungeon Master (DM) introduces a rival adventuring party to the story.

Before continuing, is important to distinguish between rivals and enemies. Enemies and villains represent evil forces that the heroes must overcome to succeed at their adventures, while rivals are usually affiliated with the forces of good. The campaign purpose of introducing a rivalry is to foster players’ emotional investment in the story, as their successes and failures are compared with those of their rivals in the eyes of the players, the rivals and the NPC population alike.

Creating a Rival Party

It’s a good idea to create the rival party at the same experience level as the heroes, unless the group is using the fourth edition (4e) of the Dungeons & Dragons rules; a 4e DM might consider creating the party a couple of levels higher, since 4e non-player characters (NPCs) have fewer powers than their PC counterparts. It is also helpful for the rival party’s composition be comparable to the PC party, both in number and in class distribution, as doing so helps ensure that each PC can have his own personal rival in the rival party.

After assembling the rival party, assign group goals and motivations; the rivals need a reason to work together, just as the heroes do. It’s also important to give the rivals at least one general goal that is identical to one the heroes have chosen, so that there will be at least one point of contention between the two parties. Continue reading

Basic Character Knowledge Sheets help players connect with D&D settings

Innumerable Dungeons & Dragons campaigns take place in settings that amount to little more than versions of Medieval Europe, stretched across multiple continents. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this condition – “default” settings such as that wouldn’t be so common if they didn’t work – the result is often one campaign setting appearing much the same as the next.

Thus, the challenge before dungeon masters is to create believable settings to which all the players can relate, but which retains enough of their own respective identities that each can still be unique. One tool at the dungeon master’s disposal to accomplish that goal is  to draft “Common Character Knowledge Sheets,” brief listings of facts relevant to specific character classes or races that characters in your game world would probably know. By disributing a list of these sheets to players before a campagin begins, the group will simultaneously have access to common information that enables them to connect with your unique setting, in addition to having character-specific information that makes a character unique to her peers in that setting. Continue reading

When the good guys don’t get along

All stories, role-playing adventures included, require conflict to drive their plots forward. It is for that reason that nearly every Dungeons & Dragons campaign has numerous villains and evil organizations, and an equally large number of good-aligned entities; both sides are at odds by definition, so conflict is never in short supply. There is, however, a second variety of conflict that is seldom employed in a D&D game, and players accustomed to bashing evil because it’s evil are often taken aback when they see it: good-aligned groups can be at cross-purposes, and situations can arise when the heroes’ opponents aren’t evil. Continue reading

Deconstructing the D&D game (the tale of the ‘No Dandelion Eaters’ campaign)

With the recent release of the fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 2 (reviewed here), it appears to be the appropriate time to discuss what happens to the game system when certain player character options, such as races and classes, are removed.

It is important to note that, as dungeon master, you have the authority to choose what elements of the game you employ. That authority is, of course, tempered by the desires of your players; if you decree that the only available character races are leprechauns and were-penguins, you may find yourself alone at the gaming table. Continue reading