Thursday, August 6, 2020

Wheels as Bases

For years, I had been vaguely dissatisfied with the options available for minifig bases. Because I use a 1-inch grid, I need something three studs wide or less. This rules out the bases that come with collectible minifigs or Dimensions characters. 3x3 plates are very rare, so I usually ended up using 2x3 plates. These were less than ideal, because on a cloth surface they often tip over. There are some off-brand solutions, but I don't like buying expensive custom parts.

Recently, I realized that wheels placed sideways make perfect bases. The rubber gives them a weight and grip that make them more solid and resistant to falling over, and several types of wheel fit nicely in a 1-inch grid:

I have a large bucket of wheels that came with bulk lots, just sitting around waiting to be used somehow. The only constraint is the number of 2x2 plates with the pin in the bottom.

There are even some old wheels that already have studs attached:

The wheels are taller than baseplates, which can look odd, but I suspect that we will get used to it quickly.

And while while the wheels are slightly better for minifig bases, they are much better as the bases for flying creatures:

You can use a much larger selection of wheels here; they can be taller and don't need to fit in a single square if they are the base for a Large creature. Try to use the kind of wheels that are a bit wider than the plastic tire, so that only the rubber is touching the table.

Large Humanoids

When running a game, you will often find that you need figures to represent Large humanoids like ogres, minotaurs, etc. And you will often need many of them; mid-level parties will often encounter packs of them. Here a design that allows you to mass-produce such creatures using common parts, using an ogre as an example:

There are of course many possible variations for the shoulder armor (use whatever fender pieces have accumulated), head, arms, and equipment.

Minotaurs can be produced on the same general template:

As well as a variety of more exotic things like Slaadi

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Magic Town

It all started with a Corner Deli set that I got as a present:

I liked the architectural styling, and I had a lot of door and window pieces I needed to get rid of, so I started making more. First I made a palette-swapped copy:

Then I started using up all of my spare doors and windows to make more buildings with the same height and approximate roof styling, adding fantasy and magical decor.

Finally, I used the ancient tiny doors and windows from the 70s, and a lot of wacky printed pieces (I think that chicken came from a happy meal), to make a gnome building:

I am really happy about how this turned out. It may not be suitable for a traditional fantasy game, but it is perfect for the homebrew Spelljammer/ Planescape/ Eberron mashup that my games are set in. It made a good setting for an epic battle about a town being attacked:

In addition to being a good game backdrop, it is the most display-worthy things I've built. It is colorful and well-styled, reminding people of a brownstone neighborhood.

I especially like how it came almost entirely from 'junk' parts that accumulated from bulk lots: Town doors and windows and printed awning slopes, odd printed tiles, and primary-colored bricks. Throw them all together, and you get something that looks like a magitech Diagon Alley.

It was also easy to build. Planning out a creation requires thought and effort. But copying and extending a simple build that you recently made from a kit is much easier. If you build a simple two-story ten-stud-wide house/storefront facade every few nights, pretty soon you have a thriving village.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Set Recommendations: Summer 2020

For the first time in a very long time, the current lineup of Lego sets can conveniently give you everything you need to run a fantasy game, with minimal alteration. It won't be a traditional medieval European fantasy game with historically-accurate castles, but frankly most games have not taken place in that setting for over 20 years. Fantasy RPGs are not about castles, they are about a team of adventurers (usually from a variety of backgrounds and cultures) exploring strange (usually creepy, haunted, or magic-infested) locations, and this year has lots of great dungeon terrain.

Hidden Side is the hidden gem of the recent sets. I'd recommend half of them. Dropping $100 on the good locations will set you up very nicely for running games, giving you a "GM's toolkit" of terrain and monsters that is more flexible and useful than any castle:

The Welcome to the Hidden Side set is an excellent value: For $20 (list price, usually a few bucks cheaper in most stores) you get three ghostly monsters and terrain that can be used in your game with minor adjustments. Just take off the plates with the English-language words, and separate the sections, and you are good to go. For a bit more customization, you can remove the black tree branches to make a standalone black tree with blue leaves, and take off the face opening from the brick doorway.

Newbury Subway, Lighthouse of Darkness, and Abandoned Prison are also great choices for the dungeon crawls and outdoor ruins that games usually take place in. All of them are filled with the kind of interesting and interactive terrain that makes a game fun. Once you make them, you'll want to split them apart into separate dungeon dressing or wall segments for flexibility and reusability.

The 'castle' set (that actually resembles a Victorian era mansion) is nice-looking and tempting, but has less play value than a collection of the smaller sets. It is a distinct place that you may use once or twice rather than generic terrain you'll use every week.

Piling on the riches, this summer's line of Ninjago sets is much closer to a traditional fantasy adventure feel. Most of them, as usual, are giant creatures or vehicles with limited value, but the location sets are perfect:

Journey to the Skull Dungeons is also an excellent value: For $25 you get minis with really nice, unique equipment and accessories in addition to perfect terrain and dungeon dressing. Wu's Battle Dragon is also a great value: $20 for a dragon, goblin, old wizard, and some dungeon dressing with a nice treasure to loot. And if you want to go upscale, the full Skull Sorcerer's Dungeons promises loads of fun.

There is a third iteration of the Creator 3-in-1 dragon and monster sets that are always nice. If you have one of the first two, this doesn't add anything, but if you are starting out, you will want it.

Every game will run into giants eventually. One option is to go with Forbidden Forest: Umbridge's Encounter, which also gives you two centaurs, forest terrain, and three minifigs, a good deal for $30.

Another option is the sets sold as 'mech suits', which are a good way of getting a nice poseable giant for $10. You have to fix them a bit, usually by adding a head. Usually Ninjago has a couple that are serviceable, but this year I'd go with the Thanos Mech. With a bit of alteration, you can remove the 'infinity gauntlet' pieces so it looks like a normal giant hand, and if you swap out the helmet the minifigure will be a generic purple-skinned humanoid rather than anything unique to the Marvel universe.

Friends has a 'Jungle Rescue' mini-theme that, while not as good as the Elves sets, does add more character and terrain options to your GM's toolkit. The minidolls are still appropriate for elf characters, even without pointed ears. About half of them do not have any modern-looking vehicles. Variety is always nice, so I would recommend one of these $20-30 sets rather than buying a third or fourth set in one of the themes you already have.

You should have something to represent a town or storefront or manor house or other civilian location. If these kinds of adventures will not happen often, you can go with something small like Townhouse Toy Store or Emma's Fashion Shop. Either of these works well, especially if you replace the plate glass on the first floor with something more period-appropriate (or just use as is and add magic gizmos for a Diagon Alley type of place). If you are running a rustic or lower-magic setting, go with last year's Outback Cabin, while you can still get it.

But if you have the budget, or expect a lot of town adventures, go with Attack on the Burrow. While it's no Medieval Market Village, it gives enough terrain for a small historical-fantasy village, once you de-stack it, and also gives you eight minis that are good for townsfolk or low-level starting adventurers.

And finally, Creator has given us a wonderful pirate ship for $100. I don't necessarily recommend it for most people, because you will get more value out of the smaller location-type sets, but if you are running a nautical (or Spelljammer) campaign it could be the center of many adventures:

This is the best pirate ship Lego has ever produced, for the simple reason that it uses a brick-built hull and sails rather than special pieces. The whole point of Lego is that you should be able to make anything from basic bricks. The old pirate ships broke this rule, and trained people to believe that you had to buy the special pirate ship set in order to make a pirate ship. If you tried to make your own, it would feel like an inferior substitute. But with this set, Lego is sending the message that normal bricks can do anything. After you build this ship, you should be able to make more on a similar pattern using your own bricks.

The special bonus of a brick sail is that you can customize it extensively. The skull and crossbones can be replaced with the iconography of a faction or nation in the game you are running. And the ship itself is also flexible, with potential for alteration. One of the great things about introducing ships (or airships) into a campaign is that it gives the players a mobile base that they will always want to upgrade. With this ship, you can alter or upgrade almost anything, and even make it longer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Terrain: Ledges and Crags

The Lego company and the online builder community have trained people to make large complicated display-worthy sets. This is sometimes nice for a big climactic showdown, but in order to sustainably run a game every week, you need a collection of simple yet robust multi-use terrain pieces. Here is a useful bit of 3-D terrain that is fun to drop in a game:

The build is pretty simple; you can adjust to use whatever you have available and probably make it look better.

1) Start by making the base. I prefer to put 1x1 round plates in this pattern, to match the 1-inch marks on printed dungeon times or battlemaps, but you can also make them with 4x4 plates if you want more space for the minis and don't care about compatibility with the standard grid. Add a technic peg in the back:

2) Add height. This one is a rough cave-like wall, but you can also go with a masonry wall and have the top bit be a balcony:

3: After making the wall nine bricks high (eight on top of the base pin), add the ledge or balcony. This is a good use for those plate-width bases, but if you don't have those you can stack plates together. Put another Technic pin on top:

4: When it is a height of 11 bricks, i.e. 9 bricks between the technic pins, connect them with a 1x13 Technic liftarm or a 1x14 Technic brick. If you don't do this, it will fall apart in transit or whenever you put something on the top:

Another fun option, although much less robust, is the little eroded crag island from the Tiger Widow Island set:

I downloaded the instructions and mass-produced them, because it was a good way to use up that big drill piece, or larger engine pieces that otherwise have no place in a fantasy world. I ended up using them a lot to represent floating islands in my Spelljammer game:

If you were not running a sea or space game, you can replace the blue base with gray and have them be mountain terrain.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Older Set Recommendations

Many older themes had nice things for running a fantasy RPG. I'll be highlighting some of the ones that did not turn into collectors items, which means you can get them cheaply on bricklink. This is mainly about pointing out bargains, so I won't be discussing things like the Elves sets, Monster Fighters, or the Fantasy Era or Fright Knight castles, which cost slightly more than retail, or things like Vikings or Pirates that cost a lot more.


Chima sets were a gold mine of excellent humanoid minifigs. They had bird people, reptile people, wolf people, etc. etc. I got a lot of them, often on clearance, and the minifigs have been a staple of my NPC tackle box ever since. All of the molded creature heads can be removed to reveal printed heads that you can customize with helmets or hair so they look less cartoony. The only problem is that the faces are all double-printed, so you have to Brasso off one of the sides if you want to use them with hats or hairpieces that do not fully cover the back.

Here are some of the better ones, available for the original retail price, or less, after shipping:

Spinlyn's Cavern is an excellent adventure location with unique minis.

Razcal's Glider gives you a bird person (that also makes a decent feral vampire with the molded head removed) and a large bird build.

Stock up on lizardmen (or kobolds if you give them short feet) with the Crocodile Tribe Pack.
The Ice Mammoth is a bargain, much cheaper than the original price, and can be a great adventure if you put a little work into it.

The Gorilla Striker is also much cheaper than new.


Prince of Persia sets are useful and cheap, because the movie was so bad. The Quest Against Time set is an especially good deal and makes a good adventure location.

Ultra Agents is cheap forgotten theme with a lot of parts and people that fit very well into a campaign with magitech or a magepunk aesthetic.

Galaxy Squad has lots of small and large insectile critters:

Friday, December 20, 2019

Removing Paint with Brasso

I posted this on the Facebook group a couple of years ago, but the topic keeps coming up, so I am making this page to have as a convenient link.

Normally I dislike altering or customizing my Lego bricks, but sometimes it is useful to be able to remove the printing from a piece. I had a lot of Chima heads printed with two faces that I wanted to be able to use with normal hats.

I looked around online and saw a near-universal consensus that Brasso is the best way to remove paint from Lego without harming the piece. Back in the early 2000's people tried lots of things and shared tips, and concluded that Brasso worked best.

The smallest size is all you need, just put a pea-sized blob on a cloth and scrub the painted area. I tried it, and it worked very well. Each face took about a minute. Four or five strokes would remove the section of the face touching the cloth. Repeat a few times moving round the circle and the job is done. There was no damage to the piece at all; it looked like it came from the factory with only one face.

Some other notes:

The printing on torsos is a lot thicker and harder to remove. Brasso took far too long. For those, people recommend scraping off the paint with a new 'sword of exact zero'. But when I have a torso with inappropriate printing, I just put a suit of armor over it.

Do not use Acetone; it will melt the bricks. Acetone dissolves ABS plastic. People use it to weld pieces together, or completely melt them to make Lego paint to apply to other bricks. However, if you have used a mechanical scraping process that damages the bricks, you might be able to use a little bit of acetone to melt it back to a smooth finish.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Set Recommendations: Summer 2019

As always, I am recommending sets that will improve the GM's box of Lego terrain, monsters, and characters for a reasonable price. The best new set is Graveyard Mystery:

There is a lot of good terrain here. The play features designed for little kids usually work surprisingly well to make a game more fun. Separate it into five or six individual sections (gate, statue, grave, tree, fence with small grave) and then put those on a battle mat or printed terrain grid. The ghostly guy in overalls is a great enemy figure, the skeleton is always useful, and the two kids fit reasonably well with the Ninjago aesthetic.

The Wrecked Shrimp Boat set from the same line is almost as good, but is more heavily nautical-themed and so is less generally useful.

Harry Potter sets have returned, giving you lots of options if you don't mind paying the licensed-set premium. Hagrid's Hut and Whomping Willow are the best choices for medieval-looking terrain. The castle wall segment in Whomping Willow will be more useful and reusable than any of the other Hogwarts sets, because it is less recognizable and more flexible. Separate the wall build into segments and you will have good generic flexible terrain pieces that can be reused in many sessions.

Samurai Mech gives you two skeletons, a well-equipped PC, and something that can be turned into a fire giant with a little work:

Golden Dragon is also decent, although that dragon may be too distinctive to be reused often.

Fire Fang is a giant snake useful for a huge boss fight, and three snake people.

Monastery Training has flavorful dungeon dressing, and good accessories for high-level characters. Don't let PC's start with those golden blades; make them treasure that must be earned, possibly by taking them from enemies who are wielding them.

Hydro Man Attack gives good medieval-city terrain and a nice selection of minis and accessories, including the always-useful spider webs.

I highly recommend, when building your own walls, follow the lead of spider-man sets and add bricks with studs on the side. They look good, and they allow minis to attach to them in various places. Given that a lot of monsters climb on walls, and Spider Climb is a fairly typical utility spell, this play functionality will often come in handy.

All three builds of Outback Cabin are useful. A wilderness cabin, a houseboat, and a guard shack over a hidden cavern are all common adventure sites. Plus you get a brick-built wolf and eagle.

Hanzo vs Genji from the Overwatch line has some unique accessories and good terrain:

Deep Sea Creatures is not as good as last year's Mythical Creatures, but it is still a decent way to add more interesting monsters to fight, especially if you are running a campaign with massive squidly abominations.

If you want a basic box of bricks, then get Bricks and Eyes. Eyes are always nice, making this the best of the 'basic bricks' sets this year.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

GM Rules

I am a very good GM. Partly this is due to experience, knowledge of game rules and balance, and the fact that using Lego makes everything better. But those are nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves. The following principles are the core philosophy of how I run my games:

1) The character is completely and solely controlled by the player. 

I will never, under any circumstances, say what the character does, feels, says, or thinks. Player control of their character is absolute and sacred. They own it completely and nobody can take that away from them. This is the first rule. Violating it, in any way, means violating the authorship and agency of the players.

Some specific implications:

- Nobody else ever controls the character of an absent player. The default assumption is that they are away somewhere else doing something important or helpful.

- Nobody ever rolls Persuasion checks against PCs. I roleplay either good convincing arguments or bad arguments depending on how charismatic the NPCs are, and the players can respond to that however they see fit. If one PC wants to persuade another PC of something, no matter how minor, it gets role-played.

- By default, magical effects that cause emotions or compel actions are always presented as 'you black out for a couple seconds' or 'your body is being moved around by some other force'. Players can choose say things like 'I am scared and freaking out' but I will not say that. I simply report a failed saving throw and let the player decide what that means in their character's mind.

- I do not add any kind of storytelling flourish when describing any action done by the characters, whether it succeeds or fails. I simply report the result, and it is the player's job to tell a story about why the action turned out the way it did. At most I will make suggestions about how to interpret an event, but the player can always alter or veto those ideas.

2) The characters are competent.

The characters live in the world and know how to navigate it. More than that, they are rare and special people who are unusually competent at what they are doing. Most of the time, their background gives them years of relevant experience. They inhabit the world, and perceive and understand more about their immediate situation than the players. This means that character skill and competence should never be limited by player knowledge or the specifics of how characters state their actions. Specifically:

- Unless the player explicitly states otherwise, assume that any action is taken with all reasonable precautions.  Allow the player to roll skill checks to notice and avoid any problems or complications that might arise from the action.

- Always interpret any declaration of action in the most charitable way. If you are not sure what the player is trying to accomplish, ask them. Never, under any circumstances, do something bad to the character or things they care about that could have been prevented by the player stating their action in a slightly different way.

- Whenever a player announces any action that their character might know is a bad idea, tell them to make an Int or Wis saving throw. If they succeed, give them the relevant information their character knows about the possible negative consequences, and then allow them to change their mind and/or retcon their action if they want.

- If the characters spent time in town before the adventure, and knew what they were getting into, assume that they packed appropriate and useful supplies. Whenever a situation comes up that would be aided by possession of any cheap equipment that competent adventurers would normally pack, like chalk or empty sacks, assume that the character packed the thing. If a situation would benefit from an unusual or expensive tool, allow the characters to retcon that they packed or bought it if they pass a Survival check.

- If there is anything in the environment that might matter, like a trap or a clue, assume that the characters are actively and intelligently searching for it. Have them roll any relevant checks when they walk into the room, and tell them what they found.

This approach makes the game more fun and speeds everything along to the interesting parts. I hate it when the game bogs down in paranoid micromanagement of petty details.

It might seem that this approach contradicts the first rule, but it does not. The character's desires and intentions and personality are controlled by the player. But the player does not always have the information needed to make the best decision to achieve their character's goals, so I give them that info and/or assume that the details of the actions were appropriate on a successful check.

This does not mean that I am a 'nice' GM who never allows anything bad to happen. Very bad things, like character death or failure to prevent catastrophes, can and do happen because of bad luck (I roll all dice openly and always go with the result), or because the players made a hard choice about how to use scarce resources. But when that happens, the players know that the disaster was not due to miscommunication, failure of precision, or a bad interpretation, and therefore that no amount of pedantry could have prevented it.

3) I am not telling a story.

Trying to tell a story is the core of bad GMing. The GM trying to make a plot happen is a virus and a cancer that infects and destroys the game. It is the impulse from which all toxic behavior flows. It leads to the GM thinking "I don't care what your character's desires and abilities are, I want a particular thing to happen." The GM turns into a railroading control freak in the service of the story, and the players are reduced to spectators in a theater, while also being gaslighted into thinking that bad things happening in the world or plot are their fault.

4) We are making a story happen.

The GM creates the setting. The players create the characters. Plot, conflict, theme, tone, symbolism, etc. all emerge in a dynamic and unpredictable way from the interaction of these two elements and the dice roll results. The resulting story is far better than anything that any one of us could plan or create.

This cooperative storytelling is the whole point of the 'game'. If you want to play a strategy game, there are much better options available. The big rulebooks, with their extensive detailed descriptions of character abilities and the world the characters inhabit, are there to create a well-defined consenus reality that allows us to collaborate meaningfully in the creation of the story. The events of combat and the results of skill checks, guided by the whims of fate in the form of the dice results, are seed crystals around which interesting narratives form.

5) Small stakes make better stories.

There is never any excitement or drama in saving the world, or a place that is the permanent focus of the entire campaign, because everyone knows you will succeed eventually. But when the firstborn son of the party's favorite bartender is kidnapped by cultists, there is a very real chance that he will get killed or worse. And since nobody else with enough power to intervene cares about the guy, the party is the only thing stopping the family from getting ripped apart. That creates real drama and tension.

At high levels, the characters will have the power to affect thousands of lives, permanently alter the local balance of power, stop or start wars, and even save or destroy small civilizations. But on a cosmic scale that is still small. The party knows that if they die or fail, the world will go on as it always has, but that the things they care about will be ruined and nobody else will be able to make it right.

6) Character power and agency make better stories.

Dealing with power and options is a better and more interesting test of character than reacting to manufactured disasters. Many of the best moments in my games come when, after a year or so of shared worldbuilding and immersion in the setting, and after the characters have acquired real wealth and power and allies, and making it clear their characters are walking weapons of mass destruction, I simply ask the players what they want to do.

Or, if that is too open-ended, I can give a little nudge. For example, roleplaying the butler of a heroic high-charisma adventurer who has become famous, I say something like, "Ma'am, I really must request that you make a decision about how to approach all of these marriage proposals that are piling up. Many are from quite noble and august personages, and the uncertainty around your intentions is starting to have political implications."

7) The 'game' is actually a ritual.

I did not understand what was really happening in a role-playing session until I read this article describing what rituals are and why people need them. The players are coming together to create a shared space in which to bond, explore questions of identity, and create a communal experience that escapes mundane reality.

Please read the whole thing:

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Collapsing Wall Traps

This is another fun thing to do with Lego terrain:


The build is very easy. The friction of the normal Lego connection makes the plate pop out when you press the axle swiftly.

It is easy to mass produce these things. Your players won't be surprised after the first one, but if you use them as your normal dungeon wall segments a lot, without triggering the trap, then they get used to it. Then you can use it in the middle of a combat encounter or some other situation when they are focused on something else in the map.