Monthly Archives: October 2015

Quick Quip: Duregar

So here we get a preview from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide at EN World. My first thought is that I didn’t realize that there was much call for duregar PCs. OK, maybe now with the Out of the Abyss storyline set in the underdark I suppose. There always seemed to be a missing analogue to the renegade dark elf with the renegade, uh, dark dwarf, but it must have been deeply repressed in the subconscious. duregar

But hey! If you want to be an OP dwarf with enlarge/reduce and invisibility at 3rd, then game on my friends!  But here’s the deal. The description reads: “They have a typical dwarven appreciation for order, tradition, and impeccable craftsmanship, but their goods are purely utilitarian, disdaining aesthetic or artistic value.”  The above image accompanying this text kinda says something different doesn’t it? For a “purely utilitarian” culture, this guy sure has a lot of bling. Maybe he’s a renegade, ostracized by his peers for his snazy stuff?

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Off the Grid and the Tabletop Craft Renaissance

“HUGE … tracts of land you say? Now we’re talking!”

164989_482341861835562_1308677549_nGridless gaming is one of those anxiety inducing notions. But I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while now. The power of the grid is quite seductive. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It’s a universal game element that’s easy to understand, and you can tell at a glance how far your character can move, how far you can attack, or whether or not foes and friends will be caught in an area effect. Truth is, we all wind up counting spaces with our fingers, or plodding our figures along one space at a time like a giant game of Parcheesi. We already start out knowing that we’re playing a game and the grid is a visual element that starkly reminds us of that. Yet we’re also telling a story … which invokes an often bandied term “immersion.”

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Roleplaying games are really hybrids. They are part game and part story. Some may be partial to one element over another, and both are essential to the equation, but I believe that most of us are looking for a seamless experience where the game and story inform each other without interfering with each other. This is ground that, I feel, is most fertile for immersion. “Immersion” is a word with a moving definition in an RPG discussion, and It’s not always a useful term. Being engrossed in the story, being caught up in a role, having a deep mental involvement in the game mechanics: these are all elements of immersion, and if they happen, then great, they happen. Yet I’m always looking for an experience that embraces all of that potential. And If I’m looking at a physical representation of the scenario, and it’s basically a grid, I find it more difficult to divorce the story–or more specifically the situation–from the game in my thinking. It becomes something more akin to chess with limited moves and tactical possibilities than what the D&D (or most any tabletop RPG you can name) can offer, which is really bound only by an agreed upon logic.

Theater of the Mind
In a sense, I’ve already been gridless. throughout the years, my games have been, more often than not, “theater of the mind” which always requires a consensus ad idem or a “meeting of the minds” so to speak. In order for it to work, everyone needs to be on the same page. Everyone also needs to be flexible thinkers and good question askers as well…
“Is there a rock handy I can throw?”
“How far away are they?”
“Is there a back way out of here?”
In this style of play, the situations can be fluid since they are negotiated, but they can be downright confusing as well. And the consequence is often a backtracking, or retconning of the narrative in light of a new understanding for fairness’ sake.

An Evolution of Solutions
A simple solution can just be a basic drawing showing the environment, features, and the positions of characters. I did that quite a bit back in the day. If you want to get more miles from a drawing, then use dice, coins, or whatever’s at hand for tokens and you can use the map for the entire encounter. But already we can envision an incremental evolution taking place here. The graph paper becomes a wet erase board. The tokens get standardized with washers and printed images. You experiment with paper standups. You buy a few miniatures, and pretty soon you’re looking for more 3D options, buying dungeon tiles, looking up how to make terrain online, and at this point, you’re hip deep in game paraphernalia with a dwindling budget and no end in sight and you’re looking for a rehab or support group to no avail.

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“Less is more.” I’ve tried to keep things re-usable as well as “hide” the grid as with these felt ground pieces with just the corners of the grid marked in.

There’s also the problem of flexibility. Chances are you will never have enough terrain to fulfill the requirements for every situation. You can mix your media, add dry erase mats to dungeon tiles, you can agree on varying scales, you can even mix 3D and 2D elements. But it’s quite likely, you’re looking for a certain aesthetic, you have personal standards for what you and your players will accept on the table (hey, I understand!) and mixing media can definitely foil a target “look.”

The trick is, to make the terrain itself be flexible. You still won’t fix every problem. Essentially, you will still be bounded by the pieces you possess to represent tactical situations unless you forgo the table top for a pure narrative temporarily. Sometimes you just have to, things come up you can’t craft or purchase beforehand.

Less is More
And sometimes less is more. You’re balancing two aspects to 3D gaming: diorama vs. game board. I see a lot of embellishment on terrain pieces sometimes. And don’t get me wrong, it has its place, but if it’s something the PCs can feasibly interact with you’re going to have to anticipate questions like…”Is there really that much gold spilling out of that chest?”
“Can I pick that skull up and take it with me?”
“Hey, one lousy spell book? It looks like there’s a bunch of ’em on that table!”
Elaboration can make a visually stunning piece, but then you have to talk about what’s “for show” and what just is. Always leave some room for imagination, and remember that figures have a space they occupy that is governed by their bases. The real world is full of sharp angles and tight spaces, your game environment can’t, for playability’s sake.

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DM Scotty sparks a terrain revolution with 2.5D.

The RPG Crafting Renaissance
Enter what I call the “RPG Craft Renaissance.” There was a serious need for tabletop solutions, especially with 4th edition, making miniatures of some kind a necessity. There already was a great war gaming community out there with how-to videos on terrain for games like Warhammer et al., but not much for games like Dungeons & Dragons in mind. There is a large amount of crossover potential and many of the skill sets and techniques apply, but table top RPGs typically require more discrete and idiomatic settings for the action, like dungeons and interiors. So along comes DM Scotty with The DM’s Craft.

It’s difficult to put to words how praiseworthy this YouTube channel and forum  is. It’s an egalitarian on ramp to easy and cheap solutions for miniatures gaming. There is a prolific amount of content there with useful ideas for any skill set and budget. Now there is a burgeoning community of RPG crafters along with a growing host of other DIY personalities, like the DMGinfo, who emphases modularity, with his own style and whimsical brand of humor. But what makes this revolutionary is the reinvention of 3D and a return to wargaming roots. The idea is to forget the walls and forget the grid.

Mr. Dungeon Master, Tear Down This Wall!
I’ve seen many a building rendered for gaming complete with furnishings and fully realized interiors. Yet when it’s only the roof that comes off the building, just try getting your fat fingers down in there to move pieces around, or even see what’s going on without standing over it, for that matter. Form and functionality collide with these cheaply made tiles. And since things are kept cheap, the crafty DM can anticipate environments beforehand and pump out new rooms, caves, or whatever. You generally don’t need full scale walls to represent the scene in a visually pleasing way. You can suggest the walls and add shadows, even indicate windows and openings, all without loosing that …yup…immersion.

And if that’s not flexible enough for you, Scotty’s “2.5 D Next” concept utilizes large spaces bound by modular walls to define rooms and interiors rather than tiles. This makes the game more travel ready and offers a quick and visually consistent solution for those extemporaneous fights. Personally, I understand the value of the “Next” method, but visually, I still prefer the tiles. Moreover, you get great advice and how-to on dungeon dressing and even some DIY figures. What’s not to love?

Circles and Grids (or lack thereof) 
The second element this renaissance espouses–gridlessness– brings us full circle. You don’t see grids on these tiles (painted tiling notwithstanding). Tapping into the strengths of a miniature wargame style of play, movement can be measured with sticks or strings, and area effects can be indicated with 3D markers. You do give up some certainty and clarity in exchange for directional freedom and more nuanced movements that don’t rely on arbitrary increments, like 5 foot spaces. Spaces don’t have to line up, so terrain placement can be organic and free-form. Uncertainty is also an element embraced by some games. Not being able to pre measure adds a human error factor that can make for a more “realistic” or at least a more “interesting” experience. Also, less clarity can mean greater agency for the GM who gets to arbitrate when “almost” is “good enough.”

Moving (Gridlessly) Forward
The cool thing about 5th edition is that the miniatures rules are optional and flexible. Ranges and effects are given in feet and radii. It’s really up to the individual group to represent or not represent the encounters tangibly, however they want to do it. Since at the moment 5e is my game, I believe I’m going to take that plunge, and what we’ll see coming up on Random Treasure is some of those crafting results.

Comparative (Owl) Bear

“I find WHAT in its lair? Every one knows owlbears do that in the woods!”

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So, let’s face it. Owlbears are pretty hot right now. Perhaps, much like the beholder, we can chalk some of that up to it being iconic D&D IP. Yet it’s probably has more to do with its own charisma. Those founding fathers of TSR stumbled across the perfect alchemical blend of critters inspired by a cheesy plastic dollar dime store toy [1]. It has this neigh sorcerous dichotomy-busting power to be simultaneously amusing as well as fierce. And plus, it’s almost a believable animal. And who doesn’t like owls and/or bears? Who? Who? Anyway, (Anywho?) This modern day chimera has a number of different looks which I explored when in the planning stages of crafting my own.

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Here’s the 1st edition version. It just seems like something rendered
out of a Jim Henson workshop. I’m not saying that’s an altogether bad thing, but it may be inconsistent with the rest of your imaginings of fantastic monsters. Todd Lockwood helps us out here with a newer rendition with a nod to the original…

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Of course there’s the upright posture again with a massive upper body supported on dainty legs. The upper arms look more acclimated to evisceration than to locomotion. With the head and neck in a slouch posture, coming straight out of the torso, you have a sense that this is just how it gets around. Note how the head has a more generic raptor look rather than an owl-specific look.

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Here we get more of the owl in our anthropomorphic owlbear in the Elemental Evil line of minis. It has a fairly uninspired paint job in my opinion, but that’s what you get with mass production.

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“Gangway! I’m gonna puke!”

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Cool….but just what am I looking at?

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“Ooooh Yeeeeah!”

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“I say, an I say, stay back son, I got this.”

A lot of the owlbear miniatures available range from the bizarre to the goofy. The bottom of the above quartet invokes a Foghorn Leghorn vibe.  I get tinkering with what’s owl and what’s bear on the body, but chicken legs don’t do it for me as with the first one. The second Reaper Mini just seems far too contorted. You want a dynamic pose, but that one takes more than a second to parse what’s going on with it.

I turned to some illustrations of editions of the game I own, 2nd 4th and 5th. Straight off my bookshelf, I’m seeing something more believable as far as a fantasy critter goes. Bearlike stance, owl head, nasty temperament: that’s what I’m looking for in a miniature. I’m noticing Di’Terlizzi opted for feathered ears in the 2nd edition Monster Manual. That’s an interesting touch, But I find myself more a fan of the hoot owl face look. You may be familiar with the 3rd/3.5 looks or the Pathfinder version, these are just what I have in print.

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2nd edition

4th edition

4th edition

5th edition

5th edition

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Diterlizzi owlbear redux

Now, if you find Tony’s first illustration lacking, he went back and outdid himself later. The perspective, the anatomy, and the overall look is top notch. It must help to work without tight deadlines.

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What I came up with.

For my own mini, I definitely wanted a quadruped, it’s an owlbear, not an owl-sasquatch. I wanted something a little bit more than a static pose, but nothing too outrageous. Also, I wanted the head to be more owl-like, not just a bear with a beak.

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This one’s another Super Sculpey sculpt. I began with a wire and tinfoil armature. Sculpting can be an admixture of fun and frustration, especially if you’re pushing your skills with something new. Once the general shape of the body was zeroed in, I knew this was going to be a joy to sculpt. I just kept going all evening; finishing the sculpting in one night.

Like any endeavor, you learn from the process, possessing a greater skill or understanding at the finish than at the outset. If I did this over again, I’d give his beak a more jagged look. I’d tilt his body a bit higher at the shoulder to make it look like there was more power in his swing. He’s a tad bit large, and he dominates his base, over spilling his allotted real estate, but usually in monsters I like stuff on the big side, so I think it’s forgivable.  There’s a bit of a gap between the Sculpey part of the base and the washer I used for the bottom. Strangely, it held fast to the washer in the baking process but it receded a bit from the metal in parts during the baking process. I’ll have to keep that in mind for future reference, and I should have used some putty to fill that gap in.

Also, not a self criticism but worth thinking about in the future, I need to sculpt the detail on bits that need support first, then work on the well grounded stuff later. Specifically, I saved the paws for last, which is fine for the ones set firmly on the ground, but the one in the air needed a second hand to hold steady to resist bouncing around when I applied a tool to it. That means I have to go back over the stuff I touched to hold it steady. Live and learn.

It took a few days to finish the paint job, and normally that’s the fun part for me, but getting the shade of fur I wanted took a couple of coats. The base coat was black, and with all that fur texture, you’d better believe I had to go over and over it to get every speck of the original beige material covered. It helps if your paints are just thin enough. The pictures I took don’t seem to show off the some of the drybrushing very well. I’m told the mini looks better in person.

So, I’m left with something I’m happy with and not embarrassed to put out on the table. Owlbears are usually solitary, but I might need another one for some encounters so I’ll go for a very similar creature with a different pose. That’s the fun of a one-of-a-kind, you don’t have to worry about differentiating them during the game.

[1]Tony DiTerlizzi of 2nd Edition D&D illustration fame has a great post about the origins of some of these monsters that were inspired by cheap figures for the un-savvy.