The Roundup for July 1-13, 2019 Edition

(Skydancers by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.

For the past few weeks I’ve been running a group of players through the Dungeons and Dragons adventure Princes of the Apocolypse and while, on the one hand, it’s been a lot of fun I’m having to make a lot of adjustments to get the adventure properly started. Specifically, I’m fixing the way that the adventure absolutely fails to really foreshadow things. This lack is a serious problem in my opinion; the players don’t really get exposure to the different weird cults, the power organizations’ members (e.g., Harpers or Zhentarim), or other mysteries in an organic fashion: instead, DMs are tasked with dumping a lot of information on the players in (to my eye) awkward and blunt ways. Making things worse, the major ‘hook’ in the adventure — the travelling troupe from Mirabar — just comes out of nowhere, with the PCs not really appreciating the group’s significance or reasons for why the PCs should really care.1

To address some of these limitations, I started my players in Neverwinter and as a part of an adventuring society, ‘The Order of Three Feathers.’ After meeting with the heads of their society and, also, organically receiving a few early adventuring hooks the PCs went off to the region to investigate bizarre occurrences. On their trip I dropped in the Starsong Tower adventure, with modifications: a hill arose near them during the night, with light being emitted from a crack in the side. Within, they found a lost fortress of Lathander (God of the Rising Dawn) which had been discovered, and converted, by members of the Cult of the Eternal Flame. My modifications mostly just entailed rescinding the adventure, and replacing Savrin (the spectre) with Savrin (a Flame Guardian). All of the cult members were, also, members of the Bronze Lions adventuring party: I intend, later on, to use this enemy adventuring party as a kind of band of hunters, who will seek to disrupt the PCs and other cults. Also, the dead adventurer carrying the wand of mending turned out to be a Harper agent (denoted by a Harp pin on the body) who was working in service of the Culture of the Crushing Wave.

Before the PCs start into the Feathergate Spire adventure, where they’ll run across yet another cult, I’ll be exposing them a little more symbology surrounding the Elder Elemental Eye so they’ll be keyed to watch for, and be mindful of, its symbol in relation to any of the cult symbols. The goal of all the foreshadowing is to organically make the later information the PCs collect be more understandable. As the module is written, at least to my eye, the players are expected to make pretty wild jumps to link all the groups and clues; hopefully the early additions (and frequent little notes and such I plan to add throughout the sessions) will help to reveal the actual plot and transform a principally dungeon-crawl game into something that’s more dramatic and epic from a storytelling perspective.


Inspiring Quotation

“The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.”

— Keanu Reeves

Great Photography Shots

Paul Johnson’s work, showcased at Colossal, reveals the power of water and its ability to transform lands and spaces humans have terraformed and built upon.

Music I’m Digging

It turns out that I liked a lot more songs in June than I’d expected. The 53 songs bias towards rock, rap, and pop, and are from about a decade and a half or so of different albums. I’d totally forgotten about Bran Van 3000’s “Drinking in L.A.”!

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • The Agenda – The Problem with Plastics // This robust discussion engages with the benefits brought by plastics—massive reductions in food waste and other efficiencies are often discounted in speaking about the environmental harms linked with plastics—while also striking down some of the optimism about perfectly reusing or recycling plastics. I was shocked to hear that plastics use is only expected to reach an equilibrium by 2050 at the earliest; we’re going to get a lot more of this in our environment before we even consider reducing the actual amounts used on a daily basis.
  • Cyber – How Google Tracks Hackers // Ever wanted to know how Google thinks about, and responds to, the threats facing the company and its customers? This short podcast very nicely explains the rationales behind some of the company’s decisions and, also, how much the different threat intelligence companies privately communicate with one another to better understand the global threat landscapes.
  • Wag the Doug – How To Promote Friends And Alienate People // It’s incredibly frustrating to learn just how corrupt the current Ontario provincial government is behaving, and made that much worse by realizing how incompetent the people receiving the patronage appointments are for their allotted positions.
  • Lawfare – Mike O’Hanlon on the ‘Senkaku Paradox’ // This interview’s one of the eeriest I’ve listened to in a very long while. O’Hanlon provides a detailed rationale for why asymmetric consequences are suitable when or if adversaries seize territory that is strategically insignificant but demands a response due to either NATO or other mutual defense agreements. The thrust of the argument is that the West, and in particular the nuclear-armed Powers, need to find a way of possessing a gradual and significant escalation ladder that reduces risks of unexpected and potentially lethal escalation. If you think about kinetic, cyber, and diplomatic national security tools then this is a podcast that should be on your must-listen list: you’ll probably learn a lot and walk away unsettled about just how confused and confusing the escalation ladders amongst regional and world powers are currently.

Good Reads

  • The Hero Who Betrayed His Country // Weiss’ article on how an Estonian solider—an ethnic Russian who was a firm proponent of post-USSR Estonia—was turned by Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) and subsequently exposed information to Russian handlers over an extensive period of time is instructive of how contemporary efforts to recruit agents isn’t really all that different from the Cold War era. Many of the tactics and efforts that worked fifty years ago still to work, and speak to how human intelligence officers continue to prey off common flaws, weaknesses, and fears latent in a wide spectrum of the population.
  • What Does Putin Really Want? // Commentators often attempt to put the Russian government’s actions over the past few decades into a broader strategic context to grasp the goals of its leaders. Topol argues that Russia’s activities are best understood as a state opportunistically reacting to American withdrawals as opposed to attempts to force its way into the international stage. While there are elements of the argument that are certainly less robust, it does provide a reasonable and pragmatic argument to explain the Russian government’s activities as opposed to flights of fancy based on presumptions of Russian tactical genius.
  • Homeward Bound // Without a doubt, this is one of the more beautiful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. It focuses on the process of bringing rescues from the American South and up to New England. Throughout it, the strength and compassion of the protagonist, Heather Hobby, shines through, as does her absolute love for the animals she saves. And if by the end of the article you’re not in love with Tink then something’s probably wrong with you.

Cool Things

  1. Also: how are they supposed to really care about rescuing them when I can’t figure out why the hell they should care?

Playlists for the Lost Mines of Phandelver

(Roll for Initiative by Christopher Parsons)

I’ve now run the Dungeons and Dragons starter set, Lost Mines of Phandelver, for two separate groups. In both cases, the players were entirely new to 5th edition D&D; in the second case, none of the players had played a tabletop role playing game before, let alone D&D. In both cases, I spent a lot of time both doing some unique quest preparation—building out encounters that I thought would enhance the campaign as it unfolded for the relevant groups—as well as developing extensive playlists for the games.

All of my music is organized around Apple Music, and largely derived from my Dungeons and Dragons — Master List playlist. The following list outlines the different playlists that I used; feel free to adopt them for your own play through of the Lost Mines of Phandelver, or for any other adventures that you may be running!

I’m generally a massive fan of playing music while running the game; I find that customizing the music has a useful effect of helping me get into the mood, to say nothing of it working to enhance my players’ experiences. And in the case of new players, in particular, I’ve always found that adding music really helps to transport them into the world in ways that are almost unparalleled!

The Roundup for January 14-20, 2019 Edition

(Smile! by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.

I live a pretty minimalist lifestyle — I try to be super careful about new purchases and to not own more than I need — but it’s been a few months since I’ve done a purge. So over the past week I’ve gone through almost all of my clothing, cupboards, and drawers, and quickly and easily found four (small) bags of things to either recycle, donate, or sell. I still feel like I need to get rid of some additional things or, if not dispose of them, at least more tightly organize some of my spaces to dispense with any clutter in my closed storage spaces. I find that even organizing the ‘hidden’ spaces in my home — such as closed drawers that only I open — provides me with a sense of relief; it’s not sufficient that things outwardly appear organized and tidy, it’s important that even that which no one sees has the exact same properties. Sorta like how Steve Jobs demanded that his factories were organized by design principles and the insides of the early Apple IIs were meant as works of silicon-art…

Inspiring Quotation

“Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”

― George Orwell

Great Photography Shots

As is increasingly common — in part because I keep spending time looking at just how much you can get out of smartphone cameras, and even those which are years old! — I was struck by these black and white mobiography images. It’s really impressive how well the small sensors on smartphones, even those as old as the iPhone 6 and 6s, work when placed in ideal lighting situations.

Shapes and Shadows‘ by @bigpeabella
Haunted‘ by @corvis_carrion
Untitled‘ by @db.cooper
Favorite building in Los Angeles‘ by @mjhmalibu
Long way home‘ by Dina Alfasi
Untitled‘ by @agkolatt

Music I’m Digging

  • Jrd. – Growth // I’ve been listening to this album some through the week and been really enjoying its downtempo beat; it’s been great for quietly reading or cooking. If I have one complaint, it’s that many of the tracks seem too short – just as they start to find their full on-grove, the track is over and it’s on to the next one.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • 99% Invisible – Atomic Tattoos // I was struck by how during the Cold War, Americans were specifically taught to engage in resiliency preparation in the case of an Atomic attack. This podcast starts by examining why certain people had their blood type tattooed on their rib cage, but then proceeds with a broader assessment of resilience and questions whether Western nations are anywhere near as resilient, today, as they believed they were in the 1950s-1970s.
  • Hurry Slowly – Creativity vs Efficiency // I appreciated how, in this episode, the host explores how efficiency actually can act as a barrier to creativity. The manifold numbers of hinderances in life and creation can actually fuel the creative process itself and, as such, creatives needs to reflect on whether they really, truly, want to become ‘efficient’ and if so, why and for what specific benefits.

Good Reads

  • California’s Monarch Butterflies Hit ‘Potentially Catastrophic’ Record Low // It’s hard to imagine that in a few decades the only place we might see monarch butterflies is in butterfly conservatories and augmented reality representations.
  • The Rise and Demise of RSS // This is a tremendous summary of the history of the RSS protocol and the reasons behind why it was forked multiple times. I don’t know that I agree with the concluding assessment — that RSS is falling increasingly out of use — insofar as it still powers a lot of the backend of the Internet, unbeknownst to many Internet users. Moreover, as companies such as Feedly grow and attract subscribers I expect that people will use RSS more and more, even if they don’t know their reading is being powered by RSS feeds. Still, it has to be admitted that outside of a relatively tech-literate audience the protocol itself is largely unknown. Less evident, however, is whether knowing about the protocol matters so long as it remains in use.
  • If we stopped upgrading fossil-fuel-using tech, we’d hit our climate goals // While there isn’t any possibility that the world will generally swap its infrastructure to green technologies in the near future, this study (depressingly) shows how much of a difference would be made should we adopt green infrastructure now versus by 2030. Do it now, and we would likely limit limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial times; do it by 2030, and most of the simulations put us on the wrong side of 1.5°C but below 2.0°C.

Cool Things

  • The Homebrewery // This is a pretty cool latex installation that enables a dungeon master to robustly produce documents that looks and feel very similar to official Wizards of the Coast publications.
  • The Confessions Game // I’m a big fan of these kinds of ‘games’, which are really facilitated conversation starters that bypass trivial talking. This looks like it would encourage some pretty intense discussions amongst friends and partners.

A Past Life’s Dream Job

Per Wired:

Woods, a 30-year-old with neatly floppy hair, is dressed tonight in a black button-down shirt and jeans. His DM performances—and being a dungeon master is a kind of performance—are often marked by excitable narration and winkingly melodramatic theatrics; at one point during tonight’s game, he gleefully pounds a hand into a fist, mimicking an arrow’s impact on an opponent.

He’s spent nearly three months preparing for this showdown, even hand-building a few model towers out of scrap wood and dowels. It’s one of the most elaborate adventures he’s crafted in his four-year career as a professional DM at schools and homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Sometimes, like tonight, the games are run in his apartment, where the bookshelves reach high with graphic novels and board games, and where the walls are decorated with full-color maps from D&D classics like Greyhawk and Isle of Dread.

But while Woods is one of several DMs-for-hire out there, this isn’t his hobby or a side gig; it’s a living, and a pretty good one at that, with Woods charging anywhere from $250 to $350 for a one-off three-hour session (though he works on a sliding scale). For that price, Woods will not only research and plan out your game but also, if you become a regular, answer your occasional random text queries about wizard spells. “He’s worth the money,” says Kevin Papa, a New York City educator (and occasional DM) who’s been part of this Friday-night game for more than a year. “Being a DM requires a lot of brainshare. I don’t know how Timm absorbs it all.”

When I was in high-school or my undergrad, I can see this as the type of job that I’d have loved. Though I think that the idea of a campaign’s length and narrative being based on sessions clients are willing to pay would create some challenging conditions for planning long-term stories; it’d definitely lend itself to a serialized type of play, where each session was like a mini-TV episode, as opposed to early sessions functioning as the opening scenes of a feature film.


Surviving First Level

It’s a routine concern amongst both dungeon masters (DMs) and players alike: how can a first level group of adventurers possibly survive a ‘real’ combat encounter that doesn’t amount to fighting off largely insignificant creatures (e.g. rats) or a DM playing a set of humanoids as incredibly stupid (e.g. goblins)? The former approach — killing weeny things — tends not to ‘feel’ heroic to many players. And, in the latter case, portraying humanoids as particularly stupid sets a bad tone for the rest of the campaign when the creatures ‘get smarter’ as the player characters (PCs) rise in level and ability.

So what can be done to make first level exciting, without dumbing down encounters or presenting particularly boring adventures?

Roleplaying for Experience

If you happen to be running a longer game (say at least 15-20 sessions) the PCs should be given opportunities to solve problems without the use of their blades or combat magics. In fact, the first series of ‘challenges’ might be entirely roleplaying: How do the PCs manage to sneak a map away from a well guarded noble? What machinations are required to hide away several tons of fish, so that a criminal contact ‘owes’ them a favour to proceed with the quest? What steps must be undertaken to ensure that they win at a dwarven drinking contest, such that the dwarves will (begrudgingly) bring them to the site where their kin were felled by unknown forces?

The structure of these kinds of challenges can widely vary. DMs that prefer large amounts of structure before running sessions may go so far as to establish the kinds of checks that PCs can make, success rates, and so forth. In my case, I tend to establish a challenge and then set the challenge rating (CR) proximate to how hard I think that the process should be; in effect, I fudge things. If I want to make it hard to get the aforementioned map, then maybe I set a CR 2 or 3 and identify the various role playing hurdles that the PCs must overcome: they could convince servants to help them (and, in doing so, have to determine what those servants want or must happen to them prior to rendering assistance), they might try to bluff their way through (and if so, I need to think through what kinds of persons the noble comports with, and who might be a believable person calling on the noble), or they might try to join the noble’s guard or impersonate one already in the noble’s employ.

The work behind roleplaying challenges, ultimately, is to sketch out the various things that could cause problems for the PCs and, moreover, be willing to develop things on the fly as the PCs come up with plans. Maybe the PCs decide that they’re going to take a guard drinking but, unbeknownst to the guard, they’ve struck a deal with some dwarves: if the PCs outdrink the dwarves, they’ll ‘tend’ to the drunken guard while vouching that the PCs are there to meet the noble of the dwarves’ behalves, with one of the PCs reporting as the guard’s cousin to temporarily replace him on guard duty. And that’s just what happens before they get through the front doors!

The nice thing about starting a campaign or long series of sessions with ‘thinking and roleplaying’ challenges is that they can set the tone for the rest of the game. I don’t mean that it means the whole adventure will be about conniving against nobles (though that’s actually a lot of fun!) but that the players learn that playing ‘smart’ and talking their way through things is not only a reasonable way of defeating challenges, but it’s a way to overcome challenges and receive experience points.

Injured High Challenge Rating Creatures

What if the DM simply knows the players are going to hate a series of roleplaying intensive sessions; the play style is to enter areas, fight and hopefully win, and walk out with loot? How can we avoid the ‘rats swarm you’ kinds of challenges?

Personally, I’m a big fan of sending PCs into places where prior adventurers have ventured (and, oftentimes, perished). There’s nothing quite like entering rooms filled with the relatively-recent alive and now filled with not-yet disposed of corpses, and the PCs then realizing that those to be disposed of are the results of combat between prior adventuring groups and the inhabitants of the area in question. Since many of the creatures’ resources will have been previously expended (e.g. potions, magics, weapons, ammunition, etc) in the previous combats they may not be ‘as strong’ as expected. Moreover, if the DM has a set of rules where healing isn’t always as fast as a long-rest, it’s entirely possible that the remaining creatures are not just spread thin in the area that the PCs are exploring, but they are also injured and thus easier to slay. Consequently, you can throw monsters at the PCs that are more powerful yet, because of their depleted resources, are a suitable CR for the party of first level adventurers.

The other advantage of PCs venturing into recently-almost-cleared areas is that the creatures within may be more hesitant to pursue and slay, insofar as the PCs’ incursion might be regarded as a trap, or a trick, to lead the creatures from their comparatively ‘safe’ domain and into the open against more powerful adventurers. The consequence is that the PCs might be able to retreat, long rest, and return won’t being pursued by the dungeon’s inhabitants without undermining the game’s realism.

Of course, this kind of adventure also means that the PCs and players alike might be left with very real questions: why are they being sent/guided/etc into an area, where the bodies of fallen adventurers already littered the floor? What was so important? And who were those prior adventurers, and did they have the same patron?

Rising the the Challenge

Of course, another way of dealing with the concerns around surviving first level can simply entail the PCs dealing with the realities of bad and good choices alike. So, if they venture into a goblin cave and are not cautious then perhaps they are chased away, and are unable to actually complete that particular adventure or quest. Running away isn’t exciting, and likely won’t result in the full experience linked with overcoming a challenge, but rewarding even partial experience points can ‘teach’ players that sometimes retreat really is the better part of valour.

In a game that I recently ran, the PCs ran away or brokered appeasement deals with powerful foes on a regular basis. The foes recognized the PCs as useful, and certainly as more useful alive then dead. Moreover, given that the foes had often beaten the PCs once there was a perception (right or wrong) that the same outcome would follow from another combative encounter. And the PCs, uniformly, avoided provoking foes who had soundly bested them.

The result was the the PCs gained a much better understanding of their foes. They learned a lot more about the world and the politics and the conflicts between difference adversary groups. And they even gained some mentorship and protection: the PCs were so useful that their former-sorta-still-current enemies provided baseline assistance so that the PCs could accomplish the tasks set out by their former foes.


There are lots of actually neat ways of pushing first level PCs into terribly interesting combat encounters, even when using ‘classic’ enemies. But getting past first level shouldn’t exclusively depend on combat with ‘appropriate’ CR creatures and traps. There are other paths that can focus on roleplaying, on PCs dealing with weakened higher-CR creatures, as well as simply getting experience when only partially successful in completing adventures.

If players learn the multitude of ways of gaining experience, from the earliest points of the game, then there is a much better chance that largely-inexperienced groups can be ‘taught’ valuable lessons which may serve them well in later sessions and campaigns. It’s up the DM, however, to ensure that such learning opportunities exist and that players get positively rewarded (using experience or items) when they accomplish tasks that might otherwise result in minimal or no experience rewards.