Moving my board game blogging to Clay Crucible Games

Hi all! This is a bit of a meta post, about my blog itself.

I started Online Dungeon Master back in 2010, when I was fairly new to Dungeons & Dragons and was starting to run D&D games online. I didn’t find a ton of blogs to teach me specifically about how to do this, so I decided I would start my own blog, sharing what I learned as I went.

Online DM now has a ton of tips for playing RPGs online, lots of specifics about MapTool in particular, bunches of free maps, and even some free adventures. Just yesterday I received an email from someone who had discovered my Staff of Suha adventure trilogy and was loving it; that made my day!

In mid 2012, though, my gaming life took a left turn. I came up with the idea for what would become my first game design, Chaos & Alchemy. I started blogging about the development and publication process of that game, which has since been picked up by Game Salute and very successfully Kickstarted. Game Salute will be getting out to backers sometime in the next few months, and I’m excited about that.

The problem, though, is that my blog is called Online Dungeon Master, but I don’t actually play much D&D (or any RPG) anymore, and none at all online. When I blog, it’s about board gaming.

So, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to move my board game blogging over to my board game web site, Clay Crucible Games.

I’m not going to remove any of the content from Online Dungeon Master, but I do hope to mirror all of the board game content eventually over on the Clay Crucible site. And future blog posts about board games will originate there.

For a little while, I’ll still post a notice here on OnlineDM whenever I put up a new post on Clay Crucible, but eventually I’m hoping that my readers who are interested in board games will just drift over to the new site. And on that rare occasion that I do have something to say about RPGs, I’ll write it right here, just like I always have.

So, on that note, I put up a new board game post on Clay Crucible today, providing an update on my NaGaDeMon project, Otters. It’s ready to go on Kickstarter, and I plan to launch the campaign in late January or early February. I hope you’ll check it out!

Michael Iachini – the OnlineDM

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

New OnlineDM avatar, courtesy of James Stowe

If you see me posting in the comments here on the blog or over on Twitter, or on EN World or the like, you may notice a new avatar.

Since shortly after I started the blog, I had been using this image as my avatar:

You may recognize it as the Rune of Terror from the room full of zombies on the first floor of the Keep on the Shadowfell. I used it because it was the first thing I had drawn myself that looked at all respectable (even though it was my attempt at recreating something that another artist had drawn). Ironically, I never got to use that image in-game, as the group that I was running through the Keep ended up not being able to play any more.

I’ve felt for a long time that I’d like something better. I’ve asked a couple of friends of mine who are artists if they would be interested in a commission from me, and none of them really were. Then I saw James Stowe’s offer to do commission work. I really enjoyed the character sheets he had created for his kids, and I like the cartoon aesthetic, so I commissioned him to do a couple of pieces for me.

The first is a portrait of my beloved bard, Factotum. I think James nailed this one.

The second is an avatar of me, Michael the OnlineDM. I sent James the link to this picture of me and asked if he had any inspiration about how to get the “online” part of my name across. I think he came at it in a brilliant way:

So, don’t be confused if you see a little cartoon guy in a computer screen box instead of a rune of terror – it’s still me!

And if you’re an artist who might be interested in commission work for a banner for my blog, I’m offering to pay! Send me an email at if you’re looking for work and think you might be able to come up with something good.

Recruiting RPG players via Magic: The Gathering

Last night I went back to my old game for the first time in a year and a half: Magic: The Gathering. Yes, I know it’s widely derided in the RPG community, and ever since I started playing D&D I hadn’t been playing Magic.

But last night I wasn’t running my usual Friday night online game (sorry again for not being ready, gang!) and my wife was busy, so I decided to stop by my friendly local game store for Friday Night Magic.

Back when I played Magic regularly, my format of choice was called booster draft. This is where you open up a pack of cards, pick one, and pass the rest on. You take the next pack from the person sitting to your right, pick one, and pass the rest on. You keep doing this through three packs of cards and ultimately build a deck out of the cards you pick. It rewards good evaluation of the cards rather than a good budget to build a prepared deck of rare cards – much more my style.

I used to be quite good at booster drafting – my rating for that format put me among the top 20 players in Colorado. Last night, though, I was playing with cards that I had never seen at all, and was rusty in my play skills. I fully expected to do poorly, and I was okay with that (I was proud of having a good rating in the past, but it was never that a big deal to me).

The first good thing about last night was that somehow, despite not knowing ANY of the cards, I managed to win the draft! My first opponent was a first-time drafter, so I guess I would be expected to win that match. My second and third opponents were regular drafters, though, and I won a couple of close, hard-fought matches. That was a good feeling.

The second good thing was that I used the opportunity to try to recruit new D&D players! A couple of people at the draft were a pair of brothers, both of whom were familiar with D&D 3.5 but who were looking for a regular game and who had some interest in 4th Edition. I told them about D&D Encounters and Living Forgotten Realms, and I think they might come to check out Encounters. They’re really looking for an ongoing home campaign and actually asked if they could join my Friday night game, but that game is already VERY full.

So, despite the fact that I wasn’t playing RPGs last night, they were still on my mind. As for Magic, I like this quantity of play. I can see myself popping into a draft once or twice a year in the future, just to see how my skills hold up. It’s fun to see all new cards, too. And hey, if I can go into a draft completely cold and still do well, that’s a good feeling.

Out of the gaming closet

I put up a post a few months back that talked about the gaming closet – the fact that I didn’t really talk to my co-workers about my gaming hobby. I felt a little bad being closeted like that, but working in finance in a somewhat senior position, I was worried that being known as a D&D player might hurt my reputation.

I’ve since decided that I’m comfortable with who I am, and I’ve started letting people know that I’m a gamer when it’s appropriate. I first mentioned it to a co-worker who knew that I used to play Magic: The Gathering. He asked if I still played, and I told him that I had moved on to D&D. No bad reaction from him – that’s one good sign.

Next, a co-worker of mine who works in another state was visiting Colorado for work and I invited him over for dinner. He already knew that I liked board games, so I talked about D&D (and we ended up playing Castle Ravenloft). It turns out that he used to be a big D&D player several years ago, and he asked to be included the next time I start up an online game. Cool! The fact that I’m his boss probably means that the DM-player relationship would be too awkward, but still, it’s nice that he was enthusiastic about it.

Now we come to today. I’m excited about my plans to attend GenCon for the first time this summer. I work in Colorado, but my company also has offices in Indianapolis (home of GenCon). I travel for work from time to time, and I asked my boss about maybe making a business trip out of a personal vacation that I wanted to take to Indianapolis in early August (okay, so I haven’t told my boss about my gaming yet). He put me in touch with a co-worker in Indianapolis who could coordinate my business trip.

When I called that guy on the phone and explained that I was trying to schedule some work either before or after my personal trip, he asked about the dates and then what I was in town for. I said that my wife and I were going to a gaming convention, and he said, “You mean GenCon? I’ll be there, too!”

It turns out that he, too, is a gamer, as are some of the people he works with in Indianapolis. He invited me and my wife to join him for a game while we’re in town. How cool is that?

So, to sum up, I’m taking some confident strides out of the gaming closet now, and I’m glad for it. The air smells sweeter out here!

Are you in the RPG closet?

Here’s a question for the role-playing game community: Do you hide your hobby from your non-gamer friends / colleagues?

Friends who play games – well, obviously they know that you play D&D or Pathfinder or whatever might be your RPG of choice since you probably play alongside them.  Close family members (those who live with you) will almost certainly know as well.  But what about friends or family members whom you don’t see regularly?  What about colleagues at school or at work?

I work for a large financial services company, and I’m a well-respected, somewhat senior person.  I manage a team of nine employees.  Personally, I’ve never discussed my RPG hobby with any of my colleagues.  It’s entirely possible that some of them play RPGs, though I doubt it.  Would it ruin my career to talk about it?  Probably not, though I’m sure it might affect some of their opinions of me.  I already get gentle ribbing about the fact that I’m in a bowling league, and no non-bowler has the mistaken impression that bowling involves devil worship (well, at least I don’t think so).

I try to be a very open, honest person, which makes me feel a little bad about myself for not talking to colleagues about my gaming.  I’m not that close to these people – I’m not friends with them on Facebook, for instance.  But I would definitely feel weird knowing that they thought of me as a guy who plays D&D, let alone a guy who blogs about it.

What’s your experience?  Do your co-workers know you enjoy role-playing games, particularly if you work in an industry that might look unfavorably on such a hobby? Is it wrong to essentially hide your hobby from casual acquaintances like these?

Eat what you kill

There was a post on EN World asking how people have taught the rules of D&D Fourth Edition to new players.  I shared my story there, and since it ended up being a pretty long reply, I thought it would make for a good blog post.  I’ve told a little bit of this story in my first blog post, but here’s the extended version.

I was at a wedding in Florida (I live in Colorado).  The wedding was in the morning, and the festivities were done by mid-afternoon.  I was a pretty new D&D player at that point and hadn’t DMed at all, but I had brought the DMG 2 to read on the trip.

One of my friends, Zach, noticed the book and asked about D&D.  He had played World of Warcraft and knew a little bit about D&D.  I talked to him, and he was into the idea of playing, as was his wife, Lane.  She had never played anything like D&D.  My wife, Barbara, had been playing in a game with me for about three sessions at that point, so she at least knew the rules.

I helped Zach and Lane roll up some characters in the Character Builder on my laptop, guiding them through the process.  Then the bride and groom showed up and wanted to play, too, so I had Zach guide the groom through character creation on his laptop (CB is a free download for levels 1-3, woo hoo!) while I helped the bride.  Once they all had characters, I helped transfer their stats to sheets of paper in an abbreviated format (no printer, you see).  My wife used her character from our session at home (which we saved on the laptop).

Zach drew up a battle grid (freehand) on two sheets of letter-sized paper that we had on hand, and we fished around for coins and little dried fruits to use for PCs and monsters.  I found a free adventure to run (Keep on the Shadowfell), and we dived right in, right there in the hotel room.

So picture it: Six people seated around a hotel end table that’s been pushed to the middle of the room.  Four are sitting on beds, two on chairs.  There are a couple of laptops around, one of which is mine that I’m using to run the game.  People are busting out their cell phones to use online dice rollers (we had no dice, you see).  The PCs (coins) are attacking the monsters (little dried blueberries and pineapple chunks), enjoying the pleasure of eating what they kill (if you haven’t tried this, I highly recommend it).

As for teaching the game, it went something like this:

“On your turn, you have three actions you can spend – a standard action, a move action, and a minor action.  Most of the time you won’t have anything that’s a minor action, but you can use it for drawing a weapon, for instance.  Your standard action is usually going to be an attack, and I’ve laid out your options for those on your sheets of paper.  Your move action can be moving up to your speed or, if you’re standing next to a bad guy, you might want to just move one square – if you move away from a bad guy at full speed, he gets to smack you.”

“When you attack, you pick which bad guy you’re attacking and which of your powers you’re using for the attack.  You roll a twenty-sided die and add a number to it (the number is on the power).  I’ll let you know if your total is high enough to hit the bad guy.  If it is, your power will tell you to roll a different die and add another number, which will be the damage you’ve dealt to the bad guy.”

“You have a hit point total, which is how much damage you can take before you end up unconscious and start to die.  You’re trying to wipe out the bad guys before they wipe you out.”

That was it in a nutshell, and it was enough to get us through two encounters.  We didn’t do a lot of role playing, of course, but everyone seemed to get the gist of what they could do on their turn, and they had fun beating up kobolds and goblins.  It led to a recurring online game after we went home to Colorado, so I’d call it a success!

Treasure from the past

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I had tried playing a little bit of D&D years ago, under Third Edition (3e) rules.  My wife and I bought the 3e starter kit and later the core books (Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual).  We played through some of the starter kit dungeons (I was the DM, she ran several characters) and had a good time.  One of the people she worked with was a regular D&D player, as was his girlfriend, and they were interested in playing with us.  We set up a session where I would DM and the three of them would play.

I remembered that I had run them through a pre-packaged module where they had quickly taken it off the rails, and I was unprepared as a first-time DM to deal with it, so that ended badly.  They also fudged their dice rolls to get extra crits, which I also didn’t know how to deal with.  That turned us off of D&D for years until we picked it up again in early 2010.

Now that I’m running my Fourth Edition party through the Keep on the Shadowfell I’m having a better time keeping my wits about me when the unexpected happens (and no one is fudging their dice, either, which helps).  I’ll admit that I’m starting to get a little tired of the Keep, though, and I’m thinking ahead to what might come next.  I had come up with lots of neat little ideas, trying not to put too much effort into any of them because I don’t know what direction things will go.  And then I remembered something:

Didn’t I do some prep work for my own Third Edition adventure way back when?

I found my old manila folders for D&D 3e stuff.  There was a folder full of character sheets for characters that both Barbara and I had rolled up.  I learned two things here:

  • Wow, we sure rolled up a lot of characters, especially without Character Builder!
  • I think the old way of rolling ability scores must have been overpowered – those characters had some amazing stats.

That was a nice trip down memory lane (ah yes, Barbara’s elf Druid named Lyssiah Stormwhisper!  I remember her…), but what I really wanted was in the next folder:

  • The printout of the ill-fated pre-packaged adventure that I ran
  • A map for a world of my own creation that I had drawn in colored pencils (two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • An arena dungeon with multiple levels that I had created myself (two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • A cavern-style dungeon with even more levels that I created myself (again two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • A typed, four-page write-up of a full-on adventure through the cavern-style dungeon, complete with monsters, traps, difficulty classes to find doors and so on, read-aloud text…

I was blown away by the amount of time I must have put into creating this stuff – and I never used any of it!  None!  The full adventure write-up amazed me.  It’s not quite up to the quality of a professional module, of course, but it’s not completely amateurish, either.  I remember devising this dungeon and the back story now that I’ve re-read it, and I remember that I thought hard about verisimilitude when I crafted the dungeons.  For instance, I thought about why these creatures would be living where they did, why secret doors would be hidden, where the creatures slept and spent their awake time, and so on.

The question now is, what do I do with this?  I don’t think I’d use the “published adventure” that I wrote as-is since it was customized for the characters who were in the party at the time.  I could totally see myself using the dungeon maps, though, just with new monsters and even the same general logic of what types of monsters can be found where.  They still seem like pretty cool encounter areas.

What do you think?  Is something like this worth re-using?  To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ve put the world map that I drew below (click to enlarge).  If you’re interested in seeing the other maps and the adventure I had written, let me know.

Ervallen Map

My (very brief) history of Dungeon Mastering

My name is Michael, and I am a beginning Dungeon Master (DM) for Dungeons and Dragons, fourth edition (D&D 4e).  This blog will serve three purposes:

  • Chronicle my development as a DM, with a focus on the online aspects
  • Share my thoughts about how to be a better DM
  • Host my files for use in my online D&D games

First, some background.  I became interested in Dungeons and Dragons while in college around 2000, and I briefly played the game with my wife Barbara and some of our acquaintances. We were excited about the game, and I read all of the third edition rulebooks.  However, when it actually came time to play, we had a lousy time, largely because the people we were playing with were doing things like fudging their dice rolls.  “Cheating” at a game like D&D doesn’t make any sense to me – it’s not like you can “win” or anything.  So, that didn’t last long.

Fast forward to 2010, when my friend Nate talked about his and his wife’s adventures in D&D and offered to host a game.  Nate is a first time DM but a long-time gamer and professional game designer, so he’s a great dungeon master.  We’re having a blast with our campaign, even though we’ve barely gotten to level 2 with our characters.

I knew right from the start that, while I love playing as a player character (PC), I would also love DMing.  Strangely enough, I got my chance at a wedding.  One of our college friends was getting married in Florida (we live in Colorado), and since the wedding was at 10:00 AM, we had lots of free time in the evening to hang out with the bride and groom and some of our other friends.  I had brought the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 with me (reading it for fun), and one of my friends noticed and asked about it.  Soon, he had rolled up a character, and the rest of the gang joined in.  We started playing a pre-made adventure right there in the hotel room, despite the lack of a printer, a battle grid, minis or anything else – and we had fun!  My friends asked if we could keep it going online, and that’s where things stand today.

That’s enough background for one post. I hope to share my thoughts and learnings about being a good DM, especially for an online game, with anyone who is interested.  I’ll be using a program called OpenRPG to host the game and probably Skype for audio chat.  Let me know if you have any suggestions or comments, either advice for me or things you would like to see me address.