Cheapass DM Tools: Art Card Tokens

If you go to gaming conventions even occasionally, you’ll probably find yourself loaded down with a certain amount of CCG swag, or sometimes even pretty art cards that aren’t linked to a game at all.

These are often for games that you don’t play. Here’s a way to make some use of them for your D&D games.

You need:

  • Art cards
  • A one-inch circle punch (get it at a store that sells scrapbooking stuff)
  • Glue
  • Stiff card

In my case, I used a bunch of Magic: the Gathering cards; I used to play MtG but I don’t any longer, and this lets me make some use of my collection*. All you need to do is punch out circles and glue them to a stiff backing to give them a bit of substance. As you can see, some of mine aren’t perfectly aligned; that’s fine. I use reclaimed cardboard from food packaging for backs: cake mix and pasta boxes are just about right.

I assign a unique token to each recurring NPC, and use duplicate tokens marked up with little numbers for generic monsters that appear in groups. I keep sets like “Thugs,” “Vampires,” “Wild Animals,” etc., in labeled baggies inside the index card case you see in the picture. Most of the sets have a couple of repeated ‘grunts’ and one or more unique ‘leaders’ so I have material for mixed but thematic groups.

There’s probably about fifty finished tokens and a baggie of unused backs in there right now, and plenty of room for more. It’s really easy for me to just grab the baggie I need for any given encounter, and it takes up less space than a novel.

Cheapass Evaluation: I had all the supplies lying around in my house, so it didn’t cost me a penny. If you’re building something like this from scratch, expect to spend five to fifteen bucks for the circle punch, a couple of dollars for a big pack of mixed common CCG cards from the gaming store, and a couple for glue. I’m sure that you have already budgeted for food that comes in a box.

*: As it happened, the last con I went to, Wizards were handing out free preconstructed decks in all five colors, so I got a large number of beautiful, mostly-current commons that aren’t worth really anything. They made for great token fodder.


Magic Items & Character Builds

D&D4e emphasizes a concept that 3e popularized, the “build”—a specifically constructed set of mechanical character choices for purposes of optimization. This largely comes from the game’s increasing emphasis on choice in character building, from the race/class matrix to feats, variable racial ability bonuses, and the menu of class powers and features that are available to players. All of these things were added to a relatively linear core through the span of several editions, replacing chance or single items with player decisions.

One part of the build, however, has remained squarely in the DM’s hands through editions—equipment. Although back in the day this was often supported by random item tables, the role of the DM in item placement was always clear—campaigns such as The Rod of Seven Parts or the central story of Dragonlance revolve primarily around the location and control of several plot-central artifacts. Other items, such as the Hand and Eye of Vecna, the Apparatus of Kwalish and its corresponding control rod, and even rare weapons such as holy defenders are set forward as potential campaign hooks or engines. In 4e there is the magic item “wish list,” which the players offer to the DM as a plea that he will offer items that are appropriate to their characters. This is nonetheless DM-driven, and furthermore it is a little artificial-feeling to my sensibilities.

In Journeys to Tanelorn, I don’t necessarily want all the work of distributing items to be in my hands. While there will be times when I hand-pick items to offer the players, for much of the campaign I want item selection to stay player-driven, so I’m adding a series of items I call warstones.

Warstones are conceptually similar to materia from Final Fantasy 7—when mounted in a weapon, they confer mystical properties upon the weapon in question. To permit choice and create simplicity for me, there are a limited number of warstones and each stone type covers a series of enchantment types; a particular warstone also has a level that limits the level of a magic item that it can create. Naturally it’s impossible for me to cover all the enchantments in this way, so some particular weaponry will need to be hand-crafted by experts or found as unique treasure.

Warstones can only be used to enhance armor, weapons, and implements.

The list of warstones is as follows:

  • Alabaster: Milky white alabaster creates acid magics.
  • Almandine: This reddish-purple warstone is used in healing applications.
  • Amberheart: Found in the brains of dragons, golden amberheart confers lightning enchantments.
  • Cairngorm: Smoky yellow cairngorm, found in old tombs, is used for necrotic magics.
  • Cymophane: A sap-green cat’s eye gem, cympohane warstones generate thunder enchantments.
  • Girasol: Red-gold girasol, filled with flashes of yellow and green, girasol is used in radiant enchantments and various holy items.
  • Jade: Many-colored jade does not offer any special effects, but can create magic weapons or enhance the level of other warstones.
  • Minium: An opaque red, waxy stone that offers enchantments that deal with “blood,” fear, or enhancing damage. Minium used with a blood sample creates a bane weapon.
  • Mormorion: Nearly-black mormorion is used as a locus of illusion enchantments.
  • Orpiment: A sparkling yellow ore that generates poison enchantments.
  • Plasma: A black stone marked with yellow speckles, plasma is useful for charm and fire effects.
  • Vermarine: Fragile blue-green vermarine warstones are the focus for force and psychic enchantments.
  • Water-sapphire: Changing color from blue to violet when viewed at different angles, water-sapphire is useful for teleportation and cold effects.
The Enchant Magic Item ritual is used to install a warstone; the gem replaces the ritual’s standard material cost. As an example, a level 13 plasma warstone can be used to create the following: fireburst armor up to +3, flameburst weapons up to +3, flaming weapons up to +2, a rod of the pyre +2, staves of fiery might up to +3, wands of fiery boltfire burst, and witchfire up to +3, and so on.

Tanelorn: Adventure Hooks

The first item that went out to the players was this list of adventure opportunities. I just offered several ideas that I came up with without worrying about them too much; most of the work I did in “editing” was to ensure that each opportunity on the table would be a distinctly different play experience, so we ended up with an escort quest, a diplomacy/intimidation mission, an investigation, and an explore/fetch quest. I didn’t have to do any work on these hooks, at this point.

This week, your agency’s street team has brought in the following leads:

  • The autumnal equinox is approaching, and so it is nearing time for the annual journey of the Unquenchable Fire of Pelor from the Summer Temple in Abtor Hor to the the Abbey at Sojahan, where it will reside for another quarter-year. The pacifist monks who carry the Fire traditionally hire a guard of heathens to protect them, since the pilgrimage route runs closely past a stronghold of Bane and hostilities between the two cults are almost constantly at a low simmer.
  • A bandit leader is rising in the east, plying the coast road used mainly by silk caravans from farther south. He would benefit from knowing what’s good for him.
  • Another agency team is being held in a nearby village, accused of banditry themselves. They will need to be investigated; depending on the results of the investigation, either they will need to be recovered or their contracts terminated.
  • It’s the hatching season in the Blackspine Mountains several days’ journey north, and drake-hide boots are fashionable in the city at this time. The profits from a decent harvest could be considerable.

After these hooks, the group asked me to make some maps, which is what led to the detailed mapping of the city and a rougher map of the region at large. We settled on running the Unquenchable Fire quest.

My next step was developing NPCs and encounters. For the NPCs from town, as well as the monks being escorted, I used a “three details” method, to give me something to go on when portraying the characters. For NPCs who might be involved in combat encounters, I came up with a detail or two just to make them unique and give me a little material in the event that the players chose nonviolent interactions.

A couple of the NPCs I developed (I don’t want to spoil them all):

Boss Green – the boss of the travel agency
  • Is a heavyset, middle aged elf
  • Missing half of his right ring and pinkie fingers
  • Likes lists, acts like he has a mental meeting agenda with everyone he talks to
Father Ulban – the Cardinal of Tanelorn in the Church of Pelor
  • Hesitates when he speaks
  • Peppers his language with religious references
  • Keeps his hands folded as much as possible
Sir Eric – a monk attending the pilgrimage
  • Used to be a knight; still wears his red tabard (Gules, a dragon’s head or)
  • Always seems gruff and tired
  • Fidgety, his fingers are always moving

After the first session, I’ll be reviewing the NPCs and thinking about what motivates them. I’ll also look over the unaddressed adventure hooks and update them depending on the amount of time that passed.

Being a Newbie DM

I’ve played and run a lot of indie games. I’ve also played a decent amount of Dungeons & Dragons throughout the editions, but never at the driver’s seat. Now I am starting a D&D 4th Edition campaign with some South Bay area friends, and I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts as I prep and run the game.

The initial setup is this:

Journeys to Tanelorn

The city at the center of the world, Tanelorn is the adventure-hub for the PCs. They are a team working for a “travel agency” in the medieval Chinese style: a combination of delivery service, guides, scouts, and hired swords. Apart from these more obvious duties, travel agencies also functioned as liaison to bandit gangs and corrupt officials, using alliances, pay-offs, and outright violence to manage them.

Tanelorn itself is a large and diverse city situated near the coastline, surrounded by rich farmland and close to a major trade route or two. This makes it a major trade center and destination for pilgrims and tourists. Its center is the point where the Red Brenn and White Brenn rivers meet to form the Great Brenn.

The first things I did to set up the game were to come up with some adventure hooks, get the players to make characters, and detail their home base. To give the city some texture, I thought about it as a growing, living thing: it starts out from a center and regions grow and change as the city ages and expands. While most of the city’s landmarks remain in place, the districts around them have shifted to reflect current realities.

What’s In The City

Tanelorn is divided into several major districts.

Old Town

Located in the ‘spike’ between the two lesser rivers, Old Town is the place where Tanelorn was founded. Now much of it has been cleared to make room for market squares. The buildings that remain are primarily homes, for the wealthy, the clergy, and the several families that trace their ancestry to the city’s founders and vie for its throne. There are several landmarks in Old Town: the Capital Citadel where the city’s Regent and Council sit, the Great Sky Temple where Pelor, Sehanine, and Corellon receive worship, the House of Queens home to the priestesses of the Raven Queen, Avandra, and Melora, the Spiral Hall magical academy, run by monks dedicated to Ioun, the ceremonial City Gates, Tanelorn University where the city’s scientists, surgeons, and scholars are trained, and the Capital Market, which by law is the only place in the city where imported goods (outside of the vague city-state borders) may be sold.

Mud Town

North and east of Old Town spreads Mud Town, a disparaging name for the agricultural outskirts of the city. The Temple-Colosseum of Kord lies in Mud Town near the point where it meets the Common Quarter and the Jewelers’ Quarter.

Jewelers’ Quarter

Slightly west and north of the Old Town, the Jewelers’ Quarter is another old section of the city, home to artisans, magicians, and scholars who are comfortably well-off but not so wealthy as to live in the Old Town itself.

Common Quarter

Located north of the Great Brenn and west of the Jewelers’ Quarter, the Common Quarter is home to many immigrants; it is the most diverse of the regions of the city, and houses a market second only to the Capital Market itself. Buildings here are tall and densely packed.

Little Sarnath

At the city’s western extreme lies Little Sarnath, mainly home to tieflings and devas.

Golden City

On the southern side of the Great Brenn is the Golden City, a recently gentrified area where the nouveau riche have created lavish, if hastily-built, homes. Here there is fine dining and entertainment. There is also the Palace of Justice, where criminals are brought to trial. Rumor has it that the Palace has a hidden entrance to the city’s underground prison-catacombs as well.

Flower Town

Spreading south of the Golden City is Flower Town, where most of the land is divided up between large farming chateaux, which are the traditional homes of the city’s elvish inhabitants. In recent years, some chateaux have welcomed outsiders inside their walls, and the borders between Flower Town and the Golden City are increasingly blurred. The city’s red-light district is at the eastern point of Flower Town, spilling over into the Necropolis and Golden City. The Gates of Tanelorn Dwarfholm are found here.


Across the White Brenn from Old Town is the Necropolis, where the Sacred Forest and Great River Temple Ruins can be found. It is the traditional burial ground used by all that dwell in the city, and so it holds active graveyards as well as the construct slums, once mausolea which have true to their name become home to squatters, mostly constructs (the golems and the restless dead). It is a quiet district that is rumored to also house the local assassins’ guild, although its precise location is kept secret, if in fact such a thing exists. The Necropolis also boasts a small market.

I’ll talk soon about adventure hooks and encounters for the first session.

Pillars of My Community

Think of this as, like, my Game Community Top Ten—the people in the sphere who I think are most important to our performing at top form.

Artisans: The palpitating heart of any art community are its artisans, the people who’re very good at what they do, and who care most about doing good work, and fuck what the rest of you think about it. That’s how I see Vincent and Nathan—their passion for craftsmanship moves me to do better work.

Innovators: The innovators’ job is to try new things, do experiments, give us new ideas. They don’t always do things best—that’s what artisans are for—but they do things first, and the work they do in breaking new ground keeps us from being mired in stale ideas. It’s why I keep an eye on Jonathan and Kevin—I know they’ll always be up to something I didn’t expect.

Liaisons: Of course, we would still stifle each other just with the weight of our company, if it weren’t for the liaisons like Emily, Eero, and Jenn, who keep us connected to related communities. Their bringing in fresh faces and concepts from other fields helps us avoid chasing our own tails.

Experts: Being a community with really strong interdisciplinary needs, we also benefit a lot from experts like Harper and Elizabeth, who are good at things that aren’t core to our community values—as I see it, we’re game artists, and that means, we are good at playing games, and sometimes we write about them—but support that core value by knowing things that we don’t all know.

Enthusiasts: Let’s not forget the most important part of the community, its social feedback engine. If it weren’t for wonderful people like Meg, John, and Eppy, we wouldn’t be doing what we do.

Mist-Robed Gate Character Sheets

Hey guys! A few hours late, but I made you character sheets as promised. There are two!

If you are into the complex naming customs of wuxia fiction, then you should pick up the ‘Drama’ sheet, which has spaces for your character’s given, family, and martial names. The ‘Film’ sheet has spaces for your character’s name, role, and the actor portraying them, instead.

Use the ‘Loyalties’ or ‘Synopsis’ section to keep track of what’s on your character’s mind. There’s some room in the reference zone to keep your voting chips. You can cut off the Prop and Set bits on the side to make cards.


Download the Drama sheet.
Download the Film sheet.

Mist-Robed Gate Play Aids

Hey, pretty kids. What’s up?

Two Scooters Press is back from GenCon and we had a great time there. We got to meet some of you and had some really good experiences. More on that later.

For now, I just wanted to say thanks for all the interest in Mist-Robed Gate. That really made my con. I’m hard at work on play aids for you—a character sheet, prop and set cards, and references for the knife ritual and wirework. I hope to have them available for you Thursday morning, at the latest, so keep your eyes peeled.