Howling Tower: A Terrible Place to Visit

How often have you heard the phrase, “It’s a great place to visit but I’d hate to live there?” When designing a fictional world, you’re actually aiming for the opposite reaction: “It’s a terrible place to visit, but I’d love to live there.” Your world is a terrible place to visit because it’s falling apart at the seams. It might be threatened with conquest by a godlike necromancer and his undead legions; it could be undergoing some sort of...

Howling Tower: Apocalypse or Post-Apocalypse?

All my favorite RPG settings are either apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. Yours probably are, too. Is that a surprise? Take a moment to think about it. The most obvious footprint of the apocalypse is the ruins it left behind. When was the last time you saw an RPG campaign map that didn’t have a symbol for ruins in its key? Somewhere in the Gazetteer there will be a discussion of the empires that rose and fell in the centuries leading up to...

Howling Tower: Question #1

Worldbuilding is about telling stories. Storytelling and worldbuilding flow from the same spring. When no one knew what lay on the far side of the hills or across the wide river, any story about those places was set in an imaginary land that could be as fanciful as the storyteller cared to make it. (“Snakes there have two heads, fish speak in riddles, and the people walk on their hands! I have seen these things, and I tell you they are true!”)...

Howling Tower: Taking Players Outside Their Comfort Zones

Balance has always been a big concern among RPG players and designers. My friends and I had our first debate about whether D&D’s classes, races, spells, monsters, and magic items were “balanced” during our very first D&D session. We reached no definite conclusion other than that balance is a fleeting target. D&D is not a competitive game. Players are not trying to force the DM into checkmate or each other into bankruptcy. The...

Howling Tower: Power Fluctuations

In roleplaying games, sometimes the characters who make up the adventuring party aren’t all at the same power level. In the olden days, that could be because a few characters died and had to start over at 1st level while the survivors were at 4th or higher, because one unlucky soul bore the brunt of the wight’s level draining, or because someone rolled a string of 18s during character creation. In newer editions, it tends to happen because a...

Howling Tower: Rise of the Miniature

It’s a piece of RPG legend that D&D arose from wargaming. Although that’s true, it’s a case of something not really meaning what people think it means. A more accurate statement would be that D&D arose not from wargames but from wargamers. After all, the magical spark at the core of D&D is that it wasn’t just another wargame; it was a little of this and a little of that rearranged into something startlingly new and different. But...

Howling Tower: Mounts

When is the last time one of your characters bothered to own a horse in a D&D game? How long has it been since anyone soared over the mountains on the back of a roc or traversed the underworld on a lizard or giant worm? Has anyone ever even seen a chariot? Considering the importance of horses, wheels, and beasts of burden in ancient and medieval cultures of the real world, horses and other mounts seem to get short shrift in fantasy games....

Howling Tower: Their First Expedition

Everybody starts somewhere. A person’s first experience with tabletop roleplaying will stay with him or her forever. That’s equally true whether it was good or bad. If the player didn’t like it, that player will never come back. If the player enjoyed the experience, the RPG club gains a new member and that person picks up a hobby that could last the rest of his or her life. So let’s say you’ve roped a group of...

Howling Tower: Setting the Hook

Adventure hooks are the grease that keeps a fantasy roleplaying game campaign moving forward without snagging up between adventures. When hooks work properly, one adventure meshes into another like the cogs in a fine transmission. Players transition from the third adventure to the fourth adventure like Steve McQueen upshifting from 3rd gear to 4th. In an earlier post on Baiting the Hook, I described how the best way to set hooks in your players...

Howling Tower: Strategy

“All that matters is that today, few stood against many.” —Conan the Barbarian (and John Milius)   Roleplaying games grew out of wargaming, and to those of us who followed the same vector, the pull of wargaming is still strong. But you don’t need to be an old-timer to feel the tug from strategy and tactics. Wargaming has important lessons to teach DMs and players about building drama in games. That might surprise folk who don’t play wargames....

Howling Tower: The Tongue-Tied Bard

The introduction of skills into D&D and its offshoots solved some important problems in the game, but those solutions came with costs of their own. The earliest editions had rules for fighting and not much else. That’s not surprising, considering they were written by wargamers, for wargamers. No one yet understood what a roleplaying game really needed or how varied play could become. The first skill-based class, the thief, didn’t appear...

Howling Tower: I’ll Take the Low Road

In an earlier column, I looked at ways to keep a road trip interesting. That article was about a standard walk in the sun. A different type of journey with problems and possibilities all its own occurs underground. Any fantasy world worthy of the label is practically hollowed out by a network of caverns, tunnels, and subterranean grottoes that would make terrestrial cavers wet themselves. Regardless of what it’s called—Underdark, Khyber,...

Howling Tower: Imagine a World…

Like the Scarecrow, I believe that one of the greatest rewards for having a human brain is the ability to think deep thoughts. To imagine the big picture. To envision a grand machine in your mind and then command its wheels to turn and its gears to mesh. It’s the joy of invention, of imagination, of pure creation. Different people find that joy in different forms. For some, it comes surrounded by dancing numbers that align themselves in...

Howling Tower: Conan the Instructor

I’m no scholar of Robert E. Howard, just a fan of his storytelling and his best-known character, Conan the Barbarian. Conan first crossed my reading list when I discovered a shelf of dog-eared paperbacks at the local second-hand shop. I was still a relative newcomer to swords-&-sorcery fiction at the time, and Conan was unlike any hero I’d encountered in the welter of Tolkien clones at the library. Being young and...

Howling Tower: Placing Traps to Serve a Larger Purpose

The trap is a D&D icon. Classic dungeons such as Tomb of Horrors and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan are famous for their mechanical ambushes. Traps are so central to the concept of dungeons that an entire class—the thief—was developed to deal with them (along with locked doors). In real life, of course, archaeologists have never had to deal with this abundance of traps in ancient tombs and ruins. No trap of any kind has been found in an...


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