Kickstarter projects I’ve backed: Number 1 through 10 (chronologically)

The first time I ever backed a Kickstarter project was nearly two and a half years ago as of this writing – early in 2011. Today, I thought I’d take a look back at the first 10 projects I backed and note what made me want to back it, what level I backed at, and how it turned out. (Part 2 of this series is at this link.)

1. ZEITGEIST Adventure Path from EN World – April 2011

This was the first Kickstarter campaign I ever backed. EN World, where I was an active forum member at the time, was getting ready to publish their ZEITGEIST campaign. I was running their War of the Burning Sky campaign at the time for my online game, and I loved it. Furthermore, I had participated in a loose play-by-forum playtest of the first ZEITGEIST adventure run by its designer, Ryan Nock.

Why I backed it: I loved that play-by-forum taste of the campaign and I wanted to support it.

My pledge: All right, this is a little insane, and I’ve never done anything like this since. I actually ponied up a $500 pledge to participate in a game Ryan would be running at Gen Con 2011.

How it turned out: The campaign didn’t hit its funding goal. That’s probably a good thing for me, since I’ve run a grand total of one adventure in this campaign. I would have felt pretty dumb being out $500 on this in the end.

Interesting side note: EN World came back much later to run a Kickstarter for this adventure path, and I decided not to back it because I thought it was too expensive. Times change!

2. Dungeonmorph Dice – May 2011

Why I backed it: I thought the dice looked really cool, and there was an outside chance I might use them to put together a dungeon map on the fly someday.

My pledge: $20, for a set of five dice.

How it turned out: I eventually received my dice. They look cool. I don’t believe I’ve ever rolled them. Still, I feel fine about the experience.

3. Compact Heroes – June 2011

Why I backed it: I liked the concept of the game (an RPG based on a deck of cards – frankly, a little bit like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game).

My pledge: $50 for two starter decks.

How it turned out: I received my decks, more or less on time as I recall. I’ll admit that I’ve never played the game. Sigh. On a brighter note, the designer, Rod Waibel, was really helpful when I was trying to figure out how best to print Chaos & Alchemy cards a year later.

4. Mutant Meeples – December 2011

Why I backed it: The game looked like a lot of fun – a cool twist on Ricochet Robots (which I had played years before but did not own). I’ll admit that the video was pretty slick, too.

My pledge: $60 for the game and its expansion

How it turned out: I believe that this holds the record for the longest delay between when the game was supposed to be delivered (February 2012) and when it was actually delivered (December 2012, if I remember right) so far. It’s a pretty cool game, but I’ve only played it once or twice.

Side note: I have no idea why I didn’t back anything between June and December of 2011.

5. Gaming Dice in Chocolate and Sugar – December 2011

Why I backed it: Come on, these are cool! D&D dice that you can eat; awesome. Also, the creator was a fellow Coloradan.

My pledge: $25 for a chocolate set and a sugar set of dice.

How it turned out: Delicious! There were some production delays, but I was very happy with the final product.

6. The Order of the Stick Reprint Drive – February 2012

Why I pledged: I love Order of the Stick, and I hadn’t been able to find a copy of War and XPs anywhere.

My pledge: $45 for a copy of War and XPs (I wanted to pledge $60 for a signed copy, but those went too fast)

How it turned out: Awesome! The book is great.

7. Monster Stock Art and Minis – March 2012

Why I pledged: At the time, I had recently put out my free D&D 4th Edition adventure trilogy The Staff of Suha, and I thought that I might want to have some monster art to use in case I published future adventures like that one. Also, the monster art could be useful for the online games I was running in MapTool.

My pledge: $140 for a license to use all of the art that came out of the project commercially.

How it turned out: Until I started putting this blog post together, there was no way I could have remembered that I spent $140 on this art. I’ve barely used any of it in my MapTool games (which I stopped running in mid-2012 when I moved on to board game design), and I haven’t published any new adventures. Quality art, but a waste of money on my end.

8. Admiral ‘o the High Seas – Naval Adventures from EN World

Why I pledged: Largely to support the ZEITGEIST campaign (see item 1 on this list). I didn’t care much about the naval combat rules themselves.

My pledge: $45 for a PDF of the new supplement and the right to name a character or location in an upcoming ZEITGEIST adventure.

How it turned out: I turned the abbreviation for Online Dungeon Master, ODM, into a word – Odiem – that EN World used as the name of a spooky island location in a ZEITGEIST adventure. Cool. I’m happy with the investment.

9. DoubleFine Adventure

Why I pledged: I’ll admit it; I jumped on the bandwagon. I mean sure, I enjoy this type of game, but I’m really not a big video gamer these days and I wouldn’t have signed on if it weren’t for the “Kickstarter phenomenon” part of this campaign.

My pledge: $15 for a copy of the game.

How it turned out: Well, the game isn’t done yet. I guess this is really the most-delayed project I’ve backed (Mutant Meeples, you’re off the hook). They’ve apparently been putting out videos about the process, but I haven’t bothered to look at any of them (I just don’t care). A waste of money for the most part, but only a $15 waste.

10. Prismatic Art Collection – May 2012

Why I pledged: Mainly because I wanted to support a project that Tracy Hurley and Daniel Solis care about (two people I respect greatly). Also because the art might be useful for any adventures I might release on my site (same rationale as for the Monster Stock Art project).

My pledge: $25 for a thank-you on their web site.

How it turned out: Some art has been released. I haven’t used any of it. But I helped Tracy and Daniel reach their goal, so I’m fine with that.

Scorecard for my first 10 projects:

  • Number that were actually funded: 9/10
  • Number that were eventually delivered: 8/9 (and I think that DoubleFine will eventually come through, too, making this 9/9)
  • Number that I feel were ultimately worth it in retrospect: 6/9 (the three exceptions being Compact Heroes, Monster Stock Art and DoubleFine Adventure)
  • Total money spent: $425
  • Money spent on not-worth-it projects: $205 (sigh)

What’s next?

As of this writing, I’ve backed 49 total projects. I like the idea of going through them 10 at a time, so I’ll probably do 11-20 in the near future. (Edit: Here they are!)

What about you – how many Kickstarter projects have you backed, and how many have been worth it in retrospect?

Michael the OnlineDM

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

Book review: Characteristics of Games

A few months ago, one of my closest friends gave me a copy of a book for my birthday: Characteristics of Games by Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield and Robert Gutschera.

The quick review: I absolutely love this book. If you have friends who are interested in game design, this would make an excellent gift for them.


The authors spend the book analyzing and comparing games, but doing so in a descriptive manner (Game X has this characteristic, which is different from Game Y) rather than a prescriptive manner (game designers should do Z for a good game). They use copious examples from a wide range of games: classic board games such as chess and go, traditional board games such as Risk and Monopoly, modern board games such as Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, card games such as Magic: The Gathering, video games such as World of Warcraft and Mario Kart, sports like basketball, and other “games” such as crossword puzzles and “game theory” games.

I like their approach to definitions; they intentionally avoid saying “X counts as a game, but Y does not.” Instead, anything that people often refer to a game is treated as a game, and sometimes things that people don’t really refer to as a game (such as crossword puzzles) are also treated as games. This makes for a wide-ranging book.

The book assumes that the reader has a passing familiarity with the games it mentions, but there’s also a useful appendix with capsule descriptions of each game. These descriptions also tell you how important understanding the game in question is to understanding the book.

One thing that annoyed me was that the authors made the understanding of the computer game Starcraft very important to understanding many of their examples. I know that it’s a well-known game and that it has a huge following in South Korea, for instance, but having never played the game myself I found myself frustrated more than once at how often Starcraft came up. Ultimately, it’s really about the real-time strategy (RTS) genre in general, with Starcraft as the specific example used, but that’s not a genre I’ve played. Oh well; my fault for not being “well-played” enough!

Quick hit thoughts on individual sections

  • Introduction: I liked the coining of the words “orthogames” (games played for fun with more than one player, with winners and losers) and “agential” (characteristics that arise from the way people play the game, which can differ across groups)
  • Heuristics: Hugely enlightening for me. A good game has ways for new players to quickly pick up some basic strategies to get better at the game, but also ways for more advanced players to continue to get better at the game. Players enjoy this.
  • Player Elimination: I like the way they put concepts into words here, talking about players being strictly eliminated (out of the game entirely), logically or “mathematically” eliminated (literally cannot win, but still in the game) and effectively eliminated (theoretically could win, but really, really unlikely). Players tend to dislike being logically or effectively eliminated even more than they dislike being strictly eliminated.
  • Politics: Any game where you can choose another player and help or harm them will have some degree of politics. This can be good or bad, but many players dislike games that devolve into pure politics. Kingmaking is closely related (and comes out of logical/effective elimination).
  • Rules: The concept of first-order rules (the basics of how the game works) and second-order rules (these don’t often come up, but are useful for the situations where you need them) was enlightening. A good rulebook will make the first-order rules very clear, and de-emphasize the second-order rules for clarity’s sake.
  • Standards: Good games have some familiarity. Being completely novel makes the game hard to learn. It’s okay for players to say, “Ah, this works like Mechanic X in Game Y.”
  • Snowball and Catch Up:  These are very much on my mind as a designer already, and this section was packed with goodness. Randomness is a catch up mechanic. Games with lots of catch up lead to a sort of self-deception where the leader might feel like she’s farther ahead than she really is after taking the catch up mechanics into account; this is not a bad thing! It’s fun for many players.
  • Randomness and Luck: A surprisingly hard concept to nail down; for many players, they know it when they see it.
  • Downtime: One huge insight for me here is that Monopoly handles downtime well. The best things happen to you when it’s NOT your turn – that is, someone landing on your property and paying you money. That’s a fantastic way to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn.
  • Combinatorial Game Theory: Mostly handled in an appendix, I mention this because I knew nothing about it before. I actually hold a Master’s degree in economics with an emphasis in game theory, and the appendix on “Von Neumann” game theory was nothing new to me. But the combinatorial game theory section was totally fresh.

Closing thoughts

As I said, I really love this book. It aims to be useful as a textbook for a game design class; I would be happy to teach from it. As a developing game designer, I learned a ton from reading Characteristics of Games, and it’s a book I plan to keep recommending and to keep re-reading from time to time as well. Kudos to Skaff, Richard and Robert!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Review: Banners on the Cheap for vinyl banners – and battlemaps!

A few weeks ago I received a surprising offer: a person from a company called Banners on the Cheap (which also runs Signs on the Cheap and Magnets on the Cheap) wanted to give me a free banner in exchange for a review on my blog. This was surprising mainly because, let’s face it, Online Dungeon Master is pretty small potatoes as a blog! I’ve never had anyone offer me anything in exchange for exposure on my blog (aside from some obvious spammers).

Vinyl Banners

The creative twist here is that Banners on the Cheap thought I might be interested in ordering vinyl banners for use as RPG maps. See, many dungeon masters / game masters use a vinyl wet-erase mat with a grid on it for their basic mapping needs, drawing buildings and trees and chasms and so on for each map, then erasing. These folks thought that DMs might be interested in printing their own custom vinyl maps with whatever images they like.

It’s a creative idea, you have to admit. Unfortunately, I’m the Online Dungeon Master – I use MapTool for my online games and a projector for in-person maps, rather than a physical map on the table. So close but so far!

Except… as you may have heard, I’m in the process of developing a new card and dice game called Chaos & Alchemy. The game doesn’t use maps or anything like that, but I do plan to be at GenCon and having a cool vinyl banner to advertise the game sounded like an awesome idea. I get a free banner in exchange for this write-up on my site? Works for me!

I decided to keep things fairly straightforward in designing my first advertising sign. I wasn’t quite sure how big the banner should be, so I went with 6 feet wide by 3 feet tall (figuring that this might hang nicely over the front of a game table). The Banners on the Cheap folks seem to be able to do whatever size you want, which is cool.

From there, all I had to do was upload an image file, no bigger than 12 MB. I already had some beautiful cover art for my game, so I put that on one half of the banner. I also had a cool logo, so I put that on the top part of the other half of the banner. For the bottom right I put a slogan and the web site for my game. The image file I created looks like this:

Since I was given a $40 store credit and the 3′ by 6′ banner only cost $23.56 (excluding shipping), I decided to add hemming and grommets to make it easier to hang in case I end up hanging it somewhere. That added $6.99 to the cost. Shipping of around $8 brought my total to $38.58; still below my store credit. Excellent!

I let my BannersOnTheCheap contact know that I had placed my order, since she had offered to expedite it for me (ooh, the benefits of being a big-shot blogger!), and less than a week later I had this in my hands:

My apologies for looking kind of messy in the picture; I had just gotten home from playing tennis and was too excited to wait to open my banner. Cracking open the box revealed a bit of a “vinyly” odor, but nothing overpowering.

So how is it? I think it’s awesome! My art and logo look fantastic writ large, and the print quality is outstanding. The hemming and grommits feel very sturdy. The material itself is a bit reminiscent of the stuff duct tape is made of, but heavier – it has a web of some kind of reinforcing material running through the vinyl.

Since it’s a vinyl mat, just like a lot of the mats that most DMs use, it works great as a wet-erase mat (I tried this on the white reverse side of my banner). And just like those mats, this is not a dry-erase mat (dry-erase marker is permanent on it). The reverse side of the banner has more of the webbing texture, which may affect your ability to draw on it with wet-erase markers (you get a “bumpy” effect in your lines). The front side is plenty smooth, though.

So, what’s my verdict on Banners on the Cheap as an option for DMs/GMs? The quality is amazing, and the price is quite reasonable for what you get. I can see several situations where this kind of thing could make sense as a gaming map:

  • Putting together a few “evergreen” maps that you can use in lots of different situations (generic outdoor, generic cavern, generic castle, etc.)
  • Printing a simple grid on one of these maps to use as alternative to a Chessex mat (it looks to me like it would be a lot cheaper than Chessex, especially if you’re not using both sides of the Chessex mat)
  • Creating an awe-inspiring map to pull out for a campaign-milestone set piece battle
  • The GM is really rich and enjoys printing fancy new maps for each battle and then collecting them

I’ve got to say that this seems like a pretty intriguing option for DMs out there. A 2′ by 3′ custom-printed vinyl banner from Banners on the Cheap costs $12.81, plus shipping (which is admittedly pricey at $7.17, but that covers shipping for multiple maps). Still, that’s a big, durable, wet-erase-writeable vinyl map delivered to your door for less than twenty bucks.

To compare apples to apples with Chessex, I’ll go with 2′ by 2′. That banner from BannersOnTheCheap would cost $9.38 plus shipping. Chessex lists the equivalent size Battlemat on their web site for $22.98 before shipping (which is $7 for orders under $100). Now, that Chessex mat is reversible and the Banners on the Cheap mat only kind of is (again, the “bumpiness” on the reverse is not ideal), but I personally only ever use one side of my Chessex mat. You can get the Chessex mat from Amazon for $21.49 (and free shipping if you’re on Amazon Prime). If you’re a one-sided map user, BannersOnTheCheap is still cheaper for a plain gridded mat, shipping and all! And that’s even before you consider the fact that you can, you know, print a full color map on the BannersOnTheCheap option.

Ultimately, I’m surprised at how attractive this option is to me. If I weren’t a projector-toting DM, I think I’d spend a few bucks on some “evergreen” maps and one or two plain gridded maps from BannersOnTheCheap. They’re quite durable, they’re wet-erase, they look fantastic when you print designs on them, and they’re darn affordable.

Who knew? I’m actually really glad that these folks approached me, even though I don’t personally need physical maps. I think a lot of DMs might get some serious use out of this. If you do, please tell me about it here!

– Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

What’s the OnlineDM up to in May 2012?

Here are a few notes on what I’ve been up to lately.


I’ve now appeared on quite a few episodes of The Tome Show, including the recent review of Lords of Waterdeep and, before that, the review of Heroes of the Elemental Chaos. I’m currently reading Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook in preparation for recording a new episode with Jeff Greiner and Tracy Hurley next week.


I backed the recently completed Roll20 Kickstarter, and I’m a backer for the currently active Prismatic Art Collection and Sentinels of the Multiverse. Check them out – they’re OnlineDM approved!


I also just received my Dice Candies in the mail from last year’s Kickstarter, and I plan to ask my friendly local game store to carry them. And hey, they’re made in Boulder, not too far from my home in the southern suburbs of Denver!

I’m also excited about my participation in the recent Admiral of the High Seas Kickstarter, in which I subscribed at a level that allows me to have a person or place named after me in an upcoming ZEITGEIST adventure. Look for the cursed island of Odiem (ODM – Online Dungeon Master) in a future adventure.

D&D Encounters

I’m happy to share that I’m once again DMing for D&D Encounters. I don’t have my usual Wednesday night bowling league in the summer time, so I get to run some D&D. This week is the character creation session, and the adventure begins in earnest next week. Woo hoo!

May of the Dead

I’m participating in the May of the Dead blog carnival, with my post coming out on May 29. I’ll be sharing an adventure that I had originally created a year and a half ago to help hook my brother in law and his wife on D&D: Spooks Under Silverymoon. Ooooh!

Other fun stuff

I’ve been playing in a recreational volleyball league on Thursday nights, which has conflicted with Living Forgotten Realms games lately, but I’ve enjoyed the exercise (even though I’m lousy at volleyball). I’m also starting a regular tennis game.  Yes, OnlineDM is getting in shape.

I’ve done a lot of work on my MapTool framework for D&D 4th Edition, setting up pretty character sheets. The problem I have right now is that it’s slow to update for PCs with lots of powers (as is the case for the 20th-level party in my Friday night game). I think I know how to speed things up, but it’s going to take some time to program, which I don’t have at the moment. Someday, though, I shall have awesomeness to share.

– Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Fiasco – first play session and review

My RPG career has consisted mostly of Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, a game I love. However, I’m always interested in discovering new and exciting things. Having heard great stuff about Fiasco on the Jennisodes podcast and elsewhere, I decided I should check the game out. I paid my twelve bucks for a PDF of the game just before leaving for my cruise vacation a couple of weeks ago and then read the game for the first time while aboard the ship.

Game overview

Fiasco is a story game with no game master. The game begins with four six-sided dice for each player – two white and two black (although we used gold and purple in our game). All of the dice are rolled into a central pile, and then the players take turns choosing dice to let them pick from lists of Relationships, Objects, Locations and Needs for the characters that they’re creating on the fly. These lists come in Playsets, four of which come with the base game: Suburbia, Small Southern Town, Antarctica and Wild West.

At the end of this setup, each character will have some sort of relationship with the characters on either side of them, and each of those relationships will have a Detail associated with it (object, location or need). All the dice go back into the central pool, and the Scenes begin, with players taking turns.

When it’s your turn for a Scene, you can either Establish or Resolve. If you establish the scene, you describe what’s going on with your character in the scene and perhaps describe some conflict that the character will be working through in that scene. The players then role-play this scene at the table, bringing in the elements from the setup (relationships and details) as they go. At some point in the scene, the other players will decide whether the scene is going to end well for the main character, in which case they’ll give the player a white die from the central pile, or poorly, in which case they’ll give the player a black die. They’ll then play out the positive or negative outcome of the scene, and then the player will give their die to someone else (whoever they want).

If the player decides to Resolve the scene, then the other players decide what the scene will consist of, and the player in the spotlight will decide whether the outcome is positive or negative. They’ll take the appropriate die, play out the consequences, then give the die away.

After each character has had two Scenes, we get to the Tilt. Everyone rolls whatever dice they’ve collected so far (an average of two per player, but you could have anywhere from zero to six dice) and nets their white total against black. The highest net white total and the highest net black total will each get to pick an element from a Tilt Table: Crazy crap that will happen to the characters in the second half of the game.

The game then tells you to take a break and get a snack, talking about the game so far and where it’s headed. I like this rule!

You then move on to Act Two: two more scenes per character, working mostly the same as Act One. The differences are the Tilt elements, of course, but also the fact that the player who gets a black or white die based on their character’s outcome then keeps it instead of giving it away.

At the end of the game (two scenes per character in Act One, then the Tilt, then two more scenes per character in Act Two), each player again rolls their dice and nets white against black. The closer to zero your total, the worse the Aftermath for your character. You then take turns narrating what happens to your character after the movie is over, based on their Aftermath. A high white total or high black total will be a good ending for the character; low numbers are usually death or even a fate worse than death.

Our experience

Seven people showed up for games over the weekend, and Fiasco is not designed for more than five. So, three people who weren’t that interested in role playing decided to play Lords of Waterdeep while four of us sat down for Fiasco.

After I explained how the game worked, we passed around the play sets and decided on Wild West. A note here: Definitely print out the play sets with two pages on each sheet of paper. It’s plenty big enough to read, and then you only have four pages (one each for Relationships, Objects, Locations and Needs) instead of eight pages cluttering up the table during the Setup.

The ultimate layout for our Fiasco game. Tilts are in the middle of the table

My character’s relationships were Gamblers on one side and Criminal/Detective on the other, so it became clear that I was an outlaw. I decided to call him Pecos Pete.

The Detective to my left was Detective Stanton, a half-Chinese man from Chicago who was in Last Chance, Arizona – our made-up setting. Detective Stanton and Pecos Pete shared a Need to get away from an honest woman, ruined.

Stanton’s other relationship was Professional/Client, and we had established that Stanton was the professional detective. His client was the town sheriff, Sheriff McGinty, who had hired him to come to Last Chance to hunt down Pecos Pete. This relationship shared a location – the White Star Chinese Laundry.

Sherriff McGinty was a bit of a dirty cop, however, since his other relationship of Sheriff/Deputy was tied to a Need to get rich through fraud and trickery. He was working with his deputy to ultimately trick Detective Stanton into helping them defraud Pecos Pete out of his gambling winnings.

The deputy’s name was Roscoe, and he was trying to get rich along with the sheriff, but he was also a gambling associate of Pecos Pete. The two of us (I was Pete, remember) shared an object: A doctor’s black bag with and a jar of acid. Hm.

Act One saw the arrival of Detective Stanton in Last Chance and his first interactions with the gambling Pete and Roscoe, ending with him getting invited to a high-stakes after-hours game. We also saw the sheriff and his deputy, Roscoe, have a falling out after the sheriff learned that Roscoe was double-crossing and working with Pete to rob Stanton.

Stanton, meanwhile, ended up coming to the high-stakes game in disguise as Ling Wei, a Chinaman from the laundry who fancied himself a card player (but really had no skill). It was also established that the honest woman, ruined, that Pecos Pete and Detective Stanton shared a need to get away from was named Ruth. She had followed Pete from Chicago to Last Chance years before, and she had once been a lover of Detective Stanton’s.

Stanton closed out Act One with a jump ahead to a scene where he was standing over Ruth’s dead body in the laundry, hands bloodied. Deputy Roscoe came into the room, aiming to rob the detective, but instead stumbling upon the murder scene. Unfortunately for Roscoe, the Sheriff was also following Stanton, who managed to pin the crime on Roscoe. Poor Roscoe ended up in jail, awaiting trial for a murder he didn’t commit.

The Tilts introduced for Act Two were Innocence: Collateral Damage and Something Precious on Fire.

We began Act Two by establishing that Sheriff McGinty was going to try to get Pecos Pete to rob a government stagecoach for him, thus getting rich through fraud and trickery. Roscoe escaped from jail and switched Pete’s jar of acid with his sack of whiskey (I guess whiskey comes in sacks in Last Chance), without Pete’s knowledge. Stanton got stinking drunk after the murder of Ruth and decided to come and kill Pete, which failed miserably.

The sheriff hired some of his posse to act as snipers at the stagecoach robbery, killing Pete once he had taken out the driver and guard. Poor Roscoe came on the scene disguised as the sheriff – not knowing that the posse assassins were secretly associates of Pecos Pete and were planning to kill the sheriff on sight. Blam – dead deputy.

Pete managed to get onto the stagecoach and tried to use his acid to take out the driver, but since it was actually whiskey it ended up igniting thanks to a nearby lantern, engulfing the whole stagecoach in flames.

In the aftermath, things went badly for everyone. Pete ended up dead, having gotten only ashes of burned money for his trouble and then dying by acid when he tried to drown his sorrows in whiskey. Stanton ended up captured by Indians and tortured for years. The sheriff ended up dead, I believe self-inflicted, and Roscoe of course died in the final scene thanks to the double-crossing assassins and a poorly chosen disguise.

The review

Fiasco is an interesting game, and great for people who really love role playing. I think I had expectations that were a little too high, though. Our group isn’t great at role playing, so we struggled a bit. We still had fun and came up with a rollicking tale, but we had our awkward moments.

The whole game took us less than two hours to play, which was good. We kept our scenes short, and even had a few scenes that didn’t really involve role playing, just narration. This worked out well.

I was surprised to learn that my friends strongly preferred wackier play sets. I was expecting that we would start with Suburbia or Small Southern Town, but Suburbia wasn’t even considered. They preferred the zany settings. This was fine with me, but I wasn’t expecting it.

Overall, I’d say that I’m glad I bought and played Fiasco. I don’t think it’s going to be a game that’s in heavy rotation at my tables, since my friends seem to prefer killing monsters and taking their stuff rather than getting deeply involved in role playing. That’s okay with me, too, but it’s fun to play a game like Fiasco every now and then. I’d definitely give it another go sometime.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Lords of Waterdeep, and a break to build MapTool macros

I don’t usually go multiple weeks without a post here on Online Dungeon Master, so I thought I’d give my loyal fans an update.

I’ve been traveling for work a lot in the past  couple of weeks, which certainly interferes with blogging time. However, I HAVE been using the time for D&D stuff – specifically MapTool work. You may recall that I had built and shared some macros for quickly creating monster powers a few weeks ago. Well, I’ve been working on the same thing for PC powers in D&D 4e. It’s been tremendously time consuming to build the macros, but actually using them has been fast! (Aside from bug killing, that is.)

Three of the players in my long-running Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign created new characters for last week’s game (one new player, two existing players switching to new characters), so I had the chance to put my new PC power creation macros through their paces. I’m pleased to say that they worked like a charm! No problems at all so far, and the ability to recharge a power with a button click has been awesome.

The next step is to add a character sheet frame, similar to what I’ve done for Marvel Heroic RPG. I’d love for my D&D players to be able to scroll through their powers in a custom frame rather than the buttons in the Selection window. I could include the rules text of the powers in a small font, links to recharge powers individually, some nice-looking tables for organization purposes, and so on. But for now I still have a little tweaking to do on the PC power creation, though I hope to start sharing pieces of it soon. It’s a complicated family of macros, and I have not yet figured out how to break it into blog-post-sized chunks.

I haven’t run Madness at Gardmore Abbey in the past few weeks, which is a bit of a bummer. I finally have that whole campaign prepped in MapTool, so I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice! But the timing hasn’t worked out with my players.

I was going to try to revive my ZEITGEIST campaign for today’s gaming session, but two players had to bow out at the last moment. The day wasn’t a total loss, though, since the rest of us used the time to play three games of Lords of Waterdeep!

I’ve played a total of five games of Lords of Waterdeep now, and I absolutely love it even though I haven’t won yet. LoW feels like a streamlined fantasy setting of Agricola, another game that I absolutely love. We haven’t discovered a “dominant strategy” yet, which is a good thing. I love the design of the box itself – there’s a great insert to organize all of the pieces. The rulebook is excellent, too – very clear, with a handy summary of the rules on the back cover. It’s tons of fun, and everyone who has played it so far has loved it. I highly recommend Lords of Waterdeep.

I’m going to be out of town on vacation starting next weekend, so I hope to get another post or two up before I go. But if not, don’t expect to see anything from me until late April.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Review of Heroes of the Elemental Chaos

I’m continuing my recent habit of D&D book reviews. I loved Heroes of the Feywild. I wasn’t all that crazy about Heroes of Shadow.

Heroes of the Elemental chaos comes in somewhere between those two for me. As I said on Twitter, “It’s… okay.”

Chapter 1: Into the Maelstrom

This is the all-fluff chapter, and I think it’s awesome for dungeon masters who want to involve adventures in the Elemental Chaos. We learn about the nature of elemental magic and how it relates to the power sources. We get a few brief write-ups of locations in the Chaos (City of Brass, Kaltenheim, etc.).

Then we get into elemental-touched races. For those players who were hoping to get more racial options in this book, this is where you get disappointed. We get some ideas for being elemental-origin dragonborn, drow, dwarves, genasi, half-orcs and orcs. Then a paragraph each on how other races might be elemental-touched. Good fluff if you’re going for that kind of character concept, but this is not a crunch section.

The meaty, most interesting part of this chapter (at least for me) is the second half that gets into stories of the primordials. I’m new to D&D as of Fourth Edition, and I haven’t read the Plane Below or Manual of the Planes. So, whenever I’ve seen references to “primordials” in other books I’ve never really known what they meant.

Now I do. I know who Yan-C-Bin and Imix and Ogremoch and friends are. I especially liked the massive table at the end of the chapter that documents all 74 “known primordials” including those from places like the Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun. Useful stuff, and great for inspiration for high-level baddies.

Chapter 2: Character Themes

I’ve only recently begun using themes in my game, specifically the setting-focused themes for my ZEITGESIT campaign. I love the potential for themes to tie characters to settings; I’m not as crazy about more generic themes like the ones we get here. Still, some of them are interesting.

We get ten themes. Four of them correspond to the basic elements (air, earth, fire, water) plus one for “elemental metal”. We get a monk-focused theme (Elemental Initiate), a demon theme (Demon Spawn), a general “from the chaos” theme (Moteborn), a Primordial Adept and a Janissary (servant of genies).

The pure elemental themes are fine if you just love the elements. I didn’t find them especially exciting, but they’re all right. The Ironwrought theme (elemental metal) just felt odd to me, but it’s a fine theme.

Demon Spawn can work if you want a character who struggles against a dark nature. Not my own cup of tea, but some people might enjoy it.

The coolest theme in my opinion is the Janissary. You’re a servant of genies, and the back story is well done. The mechanics mainly give you a bonus to charging, but the flavor has a lot of potential for character hooks.

Chapter 3: Classes

No brand-new classes here, but we get some new options and new builds.

The druid sees support for both the Sentinel Druid (a Living Zephyr companion for the Druid of the Wastes) and the pre-Essentials Druid (Primal Wrath aspect and new powers at all levels).

The monk gets two new monastic traditions: Desert Wind (flurry lets you shift a square and can give a target -2 to attack) and Eternal Tide (flurry has reach and pulls the target). We also get new powers at all levels – fire- and water-themed.

The sorcerer gets a whole new build – the Elementalist. This is what some might call the “Essentialized” sorcerer. It does not get daily powers, and its encounter powers are spelled out for it. You pick an element and get your choice of two at-wills tied to that element. This is a really good build for someone who just wants to blast things with magic. And it’s a pretty darn good striker, too!  If you go with fire, you have an at-will single target attack that deals 1d12+Cha+Con+1d6 fire damage at first level, and another at-will that deals 1d10+Cha+Con in an area burst 1 and creates a zone of fire.

The regular sorcerer also gets new utility power choices, but no attack powers.

Warlocks get a new pact option – the elemental pact. You randomly get a new elemental affinity after each rest, which affects the type of damage you deal with certain attacks. There’s also a new option for Hexblade Warlocks, an elemental pact, which comes with elemental allies to summon at random at level 9 and 25. The regular warlock does get new attack and utility powers, too.

The wizard gets a new build – the Sha’ir, which I believe is originally from the Al Qadim setting. It’s a lot like a regular wizard, except that it has a Gen Servant (basically a familiar) who goes and gets spells for it each day rather than pulling them from a spellbook. This gives the Sha’ir a lot of flexibility (the Gen can get any appropriate-level spell), and I like that the player is encouraged to think about their Gen Servant from a role playing perspective, too.

Sha’ir spells are available to other wizards, and the at-wills don’t deal any damage directly. Several of them are nods to spells from older editions, like Alter Self and Reverse Gravity. I especially like Crack the World at level 29.

Chapter 4 – Elemental Options

This is the “everything else” chapter. It starts with ten paragon paths; my favorite is the Prince of Genies, who has a Genie in a Bottle to help it out. This path also gives us Limited Wish as a utility power – and compared to what I understand of earlier editions, this is a very, very limited wish!

There are only two epic destinies – Emergent Primordial, in which a primordial is basically taking you over from within, and Lord of Chaos, which has so much potential but a REALLY disappointing level 26 and level 30 power. Jeremy Morgan of Stormin’ Da Castle and @TriskalJM on Twitter was similarly disappointed when we talked about this on the Tome Show (episode forthcoming), so he took a crack at rebuilding the Lord of Chaos epic destiny. I chimed in with some edits of my own, leading to this:

-Level 21: As written, for now, though I’d personally like something cooler than the enhanced magic weapon / armor / neck slot.

-Level 24: As written

-Level 26: Upgrade the created zones to hazardous terrain as an improved Whim of Creation:

-Level 30: An improved Master of Chaos feature:

Whenever you bloody an enemy or score a critical hit against an enemy, roll a d6.
– 1: You teleport to any location within 10 squares; if the destination square is occupied by another creature, that creature teleports to your former location.
– 2: You gain 20 temporary hit points.
– 3: The enemy immediately takes an at-will action of your choice.
– 4: You become invisible until the end of your next turn and may immediately make a Stealth check to become hidden.
– 5: One ally within 10 squares immediately takes an at-will action of your choice.
– 6: The enemy makes a saving throw. If the saving throw fails, the enemy dies. If it succeeds, the enemy is dazed until the end of your next turn.”

After the epic destinies, we get feats. Strangely, we get Tome Expertise even though the Sha’ir doesn’t use tomes. Also strangely, there are a couple of illustrations of tome-reading Sha’ir earlier in the book. Anyway, we get a Born of the Elements feat that mainly serves to open the door to a bunch of other elemental feats. The most interesting of these is the Elemental Companion, which is similar to a beast companion. As with the Gen Servant, elemental companions are encouraged to be played for role playing potential. Personally, I’d let someone take the Elemental Companion feat without first taking Born of the Elements if they wanted it.

Finally, we get some magic items. Demonskin Armor has a good marriage of flavor and mechanics (wearing the skin of a demon makes you more intimidating). We get one weapon per element. We get a few tomes, including the Demonomicon (yes, as a tome implement). There are primordial shards, which I’ll admit I still don’t really understand flavor-wise. And lastly, we get Elemental Gifts, which are similar to Divine Boons. My favorite is the Gift of Chaos, which has an interesting random effect once per day when you roll a 1 or 20 on an attack roll or saving throw; I’d personally have it happen EVERY time you roll a 1 or 20 on an attack roll or saving throw. Yay for chaos!

Closing thoughts

As I said, I fell that Heroes of the Elemental Chaos is… okay. It’s great for DMs and players who want some flavor for elemental campaigns and primordials. The class crunch is available in DDI, and the class fluff isn’t worth the price of admission by itself. I definitely enjoyed Heroes of the Feywild more; the Bard’s Tales from that book were more entertaining and flavorful to me than the Elemental Viewpoint sidebars that pepper this book, providing commentary from various elemental denizens.

It’s not a must-buy, but it’s not bad.

– Michael the OnlineDM

Monster Stock Art and Minions Do It With One Hit Point

Here’s a quick post to highlight a couple of cool things I’m supporting on the RPG internet this week.

Monster Stock Art

As you undoubtedly know if you read my blog, I run lots of D&D games using MapTool (both online and in-person with a projector). One of the reasons I love MapTool for in-person games is that I don’t need to buy monster minis; I just use monster images on round tokens in MapTool to represent the bad guys.

I generally just use Google Image Search to find cool monster pictures online, but I’d love to have an all-in-one source for monster images. So, I was happy to discover and support Joe Wetzel’s Monster Stock Art project on Kickstarter.

Basically, he’s paying for a whole crapload of monster art to be delivered in either PDF or higher-resolution image form, with the option to also get monster stand-ins for physical tokens (which I obviously don’t need). Yay for cool monster images! Coming soon to a MapTool game near you (if you’re one of my players).

Minions Do It With One Hit Point T-shirt from d20monkey

I’m not a major reader of webcomics, but I do follow a few. These include the Order of the Stick, xkcd, The Oatmeal, and d20monkey. The latter of these has been coming out with nifty merchandise for a while, and he’s finally gotten me to bite on an item:

How awesome is that? This was featured in one of Brian’s comics in July 2011, and it’s finally available as an actual shirt. Get yours here! (Note: Man, did I have a hard time tracking down the comic where this idea originated!)

-Michael the OnlineDM

Interview with OnlineDM on Skyland Games

Here’s something fun: I was interviewed on another blog!

Thorynn over at Skyland Games reached out to me for an interview about online gaming. I thought he asked some great questions, and I enjoyed answering them.


Gee, I feel like such a celebrity now. <blushing>

-Michael the OnlineDM

ZEITGEIST Session Two: Recap and Review

Previous session: Session one

To avert war

Session two came later in Christmas week, two weeks later in-game. The PCs were invited into their boss’s office, where they met the foreign minister from Risur’s historic rival, Danor (the tiefling country). Things started getting hard to follow politically, but in a nutshell the Duchess had disappeared off the Coaltongue during the chaos of Session One and had resurfaced a week later leading a force of Risuri rebels to take over Axis Island, an island held by Danor. Ultimately her goal seemed to be to start a war between Risur and Danor, and the Danoran foreign minister wanted to head that off. So, the PCs were tasked with being the “B team” of RHC agents, traveling with an “A team” from out of town. They were going to help stop the Duchess.

The interaction with the Danoran foreign minister was a little odd; there was a puzzle for the PCs to solve that, in retrospect, seems pointless (though I think I ran it poorly). That’s a minor quibble.

Meet the A Team

Anyway, the “A team” was presented in the adventure with brief bios, talking about character quirks of Seven Foot Dan and the illusionist who leaves an image of himself in boring meetings while he leaves to get a snack, that sort of thing. The party gets to interact with this other team as they sail toward Axis Island. Naturally, being genre savvy, my players immediately assumed that their companions were doomed and the PCs would soon be in charge.


The mission involved swimming through an underground tunnel on Axis Island, climbing through a mine, traveling overland to a fort, using a Passwall scroll to get inside, getting to a lighthouse, opening a sea gate to the fort’s harbor, and then using a Pyrotechnics scroll to signal the Risuri fleet to sail in and take the island. Naturally, the A team was mostly killed in step one, swimming through the tunnel, and the PCs had to take over.

The mine was inhabited by a paranoid Danoran whom the PCs were able to eventually convince to stop shooting them. They acquired a magical coin in this mine that allowed their scout character (who fancied himself as being Batman) to have a jump speed equal to his walk speed while on the island. This will become important later, especially in Session Three.

Traveling overland was another skill challenge, but handled as individual scenes – definitely my preferred style of skill challenge. The most noteworthy of these was when the party spots a gigantic headless iron golem lumbering through the woods and hides from it.

Into the fort!

Once the Constables arrived at the outer wall of the fort, getting through it with Passwall was a piece of cake. The Batman PC then climbed onto a roof and jumped from building to building, helping the folks on the ground avoid the Duchess’s patrols. Eventually they made it to the lighthouse out on the sea wall that contained the controls for the sea gate.

This triggered only the second full-on combat of the adventure so far, which took place near the end of the second session. (Zeitgeist is not ideal for players who just want to kill things and take their stuff, in case that wasn’t clear.) The lighthouse was defended by rebel soldiers, including a wizard with a pet drake. I appreciated that the combat had some good 3-D elements, with the PCs starting on a wall about 25 feet above the water. There was a ship docked beneath the wall, with ramps leading to the top. The lighthouse was obviously a vertical feature, with stairs leading up to a porch and then the tower itself having multiple stories. There were lots of opportunities to push people off ledges and so on.

Once the lighthouse was secure, the Constables found the controls to open the sea wall and they signaled the fleet to come on in. They stayed put while a land/sea battle broke out. Eventually one of the higher-ranking naval officers, Captain Rutger Smith of the RNS Impossible, came to chat with them. I only mention Captain Smith because he’s referred to once in the adventure as Captain Impossible; I have no idea if that was just a typo or what, but I love that name! “Captain Impossible; hero of the galaxy!”

Hello little buddy

Captain Smith handed out cigars but said not to smoke them until the whole mission was accomplished: Securing the fort and taking the Duchess into custody. She was holed up in a tower in an inner fort. Anyway, the PCs were given a detachment of soldiers to help them out, which I ended up referring to as their “little buddies”. These were basically minions who tagged along with the PCs and would follow orders. They could shoot a gun once per encounter, auto-hitting. I asked the PCs to name their pals, which gave us Pop Tart, Princess Sophia, Robin (Batman’s buddy, of course), Watson (another PC styles himself as being like Sherlock Holmes) and Food on Legs (companion of our vampire). Good times.

What the heck was that thing?

As the party was relaxing in the lighthouse, waiting for the military to finish doing their thing, they spotted a commotion on a Risuri ship across the harbor. The ship burst into flames, and they spotted a figure jumping from the ship to the sea wall and running along the wall before becoming impossible to see in a cloud of smoke. What to do? Go after it!

Of course, this required navigating the sea wall to get back to land, but the sea wall was being defended by the rebels and bombarded by the Risuri navy. This particular course of action was not spelled out in the printed adventure, so it was time to improvise a fight. And that’s where we decided to end Session Two.

This session didn’t “pop” as much as the big bang fight on the ship of Session One, but it was still fun. I enjoyed role playing Seven Foot Dan and the gang for sure!

-Michael the OnlineDM