Photosynthesis Part 2

My friends,

As you may recall, I got a new board game!: Photosynthesis

What? You don’t remember? I wrote a whole thing about it! … Well, let me help you remember. It’s a game about friggin’ trees! I have had the opportunity to play it several times now, a played some games with my girlfriend, and some with a group of friends. One of my friends was particularly excited because he is a forestry nerd. (I didn’t really know forest nerdery was a thing either, but I suppose I just never thought about it.)

You see, I live up in Humboldt county in California, which is famous for growing weed and having redwoods. My friend has his own forestry degree and a home business making compost from trees or something. He showed it to me one time, we drove around in the forest for like hours before he showed me his giant dump trucks and conveyor belt mulching machine of death, which he had parked in the middle of nowhere in the redwoods. He may actually just be disposing of bodies out there for the mob, but the point is, this guy loves his trees.

When we played our first game he kept telling us about what species of tree we had and why it made sense that the higher quality soil was in the middle of the board. Like, it wasn’t part of the game, he just wanted to tell us about it. He was so excited I can say that this game has the tree nerd stamp of approval!

What I loved was how easy it was to start playing. It took longer to put together the cardboard trees than it did to read the rules. (The artwork on those trees is BEAUTIFUL by the way, every piece of this game has little hidden eater egg of art on it.) I read the rules, since I am the kind of guy that does that, and after playing the first round together everybody understood how the game worked. Very intuitive.

It’s like chess, it’s easy to learn how to play but you have think ahead if you want to win. Each round the sun moves around the board (for a different season) and your trees cast shadows in the same direction. You get sunlight points (money) for your trees that get sun, but you miss out when your trees are in the shade. You have to plan ahead to try and shade out your opponents trees while trying to outfox them by planting your seeds where there will be sun in a couple seasons. Its one of those games where right after you play it, you already know how you could have played it better, and it makes you want to play again.

Thankfully it takes a little less than an hour to play. This would be a great game to play with your friends who are a little less nerdy, or resistant to the world of fantasy and hobby gaming. You could lure them into your web of deceit with the gorgeous artwork that is all over this game, and before you know it they are playing D&D with you.



“They can’t prove it, they’re friggin’ tees!”


For reviews like this in your email every week, subscribe to the Friendly GM newsletter!

Testing Day!

Faces filled with joy and cheer
What a magical time of year
It’s Tae Kwon Do testing day!

Baerman breaking boards with hands
his wife cheering in the stands
Hip hip hooray it’s testing day!

Threaten Kellie with a knife

Travis sees end of his life

Soon you will be on the ground
And the crowd will be astound

Travis kicking stacks of boards
Training to fight orcish hoards
Holy sh*t dude it’s testing daaaaaaaaaaay!

Kicking stacks of boards for days
Motivational essays

Traditional testing day

Trav and Nick bracing wood

You would punch this if you could

What a super festive day

Let’s kick Nick in the head
That guy really wants him dead

Not enough hit his face too
Only total death will do

Punching Nick into a chair
Let’s knock him down over there

“Why God why?!” on testing day

The FriendlyGM creative process for Dungeon Making!

My friends,

Let me share with you the way that I create dungeons. I read a lot of articles and forums about this, and I like to take notes from other GM’s when I am fortunate enough to witness another game or talk to them about it. If you ask any GM “How do YOU create dungeons!?” you are in for a very long story, because everyone has their own creative process and their own opinions.

I try my best to boil it all down to what’s most important. Once you get started with something cool, it is easy and fun to get carried away with all kinds of  details, but that doesn’t necessarily help anyone else. I encourage you to compile your own creative process that works for you. That being said, I hope this helps you on your journey!

It’s daaaaangerous to go alone, take this!

1. Make what you want / what your players want
Every good GM I have talked to or read about mention this as the most important thing, and I agree. Look inside your heart and your players hearts (with an xray machine) and ask what they want. That can be a kind of hard question to answer honestly, so my advice is to start with the kinds of video games and books you and your group like and blatantly rip them off. Usually players are so dumb they won’t pick up that you stole the basic idea, but even if they do, who cares! It’s what they think is fun and that’s the point.

Example: One of my most awesome campaigns was a blatant rip off of Final Fantasy IX. My group was a bunch of RPG nerds (myself included). They were a traveling group of thieves disguised as a performance group, and they kidnapped a princess during a play (exactly the way Final Fantasy IX starts). They escaped on their airship but crashed into an evil forest, which was the first dungeon they had to escape (again, just like the video game). What was amazing to me is that nobody caught on, and I KNEW that half the people at the table had played FF9, but my own little personalized spin was enough to disguise it. I got way more examples (I’ve ripped off Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Zelda, Skyrim and other Final Fantasies) but I think you get the point, and I don’t want this to be too long.

A. Player Types
Some more golden advice that I get from every good GM that I read about to consider player types. Player types is a whooooole subject, but the idea is if you know what kind of player you have, you know what to give them in a dungeon so they have fun. Robin’s Laws of Good game Mastery has one of the best player type breakdowns I have ever read, there is also a short page one page breakdown at the beginning of the 4th and 5th edition DM guides, and I also write about them extensively in MY book, The Friendly Game Master. (You buy! Make Travis rich!)

B. Monsters, Traps and Treasure
The hardest part of the creative process is the beginning when you have a blank piece of paper in front of you. Like I mentioned in my example, a great way to get started is to blatantly rip off something else. Not because you aren’t creative and can’t come up with something by yourself, but because you just need somewhere to start. A great way to get started on a dungeon is to go get a healthy handful of monsters, traps and treasures from the source books that you think you might use. Even if you don’t end up using them all, having the monsters and such ready gives you a place to start and ideas for what kind of challenges you can start to build around what you know is already there.

2. Story
The main goal in this step is to answer the questions that your players will probably ask. Hopefully Step 1 gave you some sort of core idea to start with, so now it is time to build a narrative by answering a ton of questions:

– Why was this dungeon built?
– Why hasn’t this place been discovered / raided yet?
– Who / What lives here?
– Who / What lived here before?
– Did something happen to make this place change?
– What are monsters doing here?
– Why is there treasure here?

You could come up with tons more questions, I encourage you to think about what kind of details matter to you and would matter to your players.

A. Tell the story as they move through the dungeon
This basically amounts to answering the above questions with details and exposition in the rooms they explore on the way to the boss / end.

Example: As the players explore a dungeon, they find that there are many plants that are overgrown and some have even been turned into hostile monsters. Deeper in the dungeons giant tree roots block paths and have grown through walls, creating obstacles for the players. When they reach the final room, they find a group of dead druids around a magic circle with evidence of a plant growth spell gone horribly wrong.

Example: The players sneak into a cave that is the known hideout of a notorious group of poachers, whom they have been given a quest to eliminate. As they explore the cave they find live traps and animal size cages, but with people inside instead of animals! When they get to the end they discover that the group of poaches actually catch people to feed to their boss, who is a vampire.

3. Make connections between everything and polish
The best way to make everything feel tied together… is to tie everything together! Once you have your core ideas out of the way here is my personal list of housekeeping things to put the finishing touches on a dungeon.

– Give monster groups competing goals
This is basically to have an answer when your players wonder what the monsters are doing there, and it gives the different kinds of monsters a reason to work together or a reason to fight each other. This explains their behavior and gives clever players a chance to…

– Find ways for the players to get past the monsters without fighting them.
For example, a group of goblins use kobolds as slave labor to dig up ore in a mine. The kobolds and the goblins fight together against any hostile players that come in with swords swinging, but with some clever negotiation and/or charisma a player could convince the kobolds to turn against their goblin masters.

– Give all the monsters a basic battle strategy.
Read the monsters stat block (to be familiar with it anyway) but also put them in a situation to use their abilities the most effectively. Many low level monsters like goblins and wolves have features like “pack tactics,” so it makes sense to put them in a small horde so they benefit from being next to each other. You should also think about battle tactics like putting archers up on high ledges. Healers and magic users should be protected by bigger tougher “tank” monsters, or have cover to hide behind.

– Give all the monsters a strategy for when they are losing.
Sometimes players die, but most of the time they win. There are basically four things a monster can do when it becomes clear they are going to lose the battle, and it makes things interesting to switch up your players expectations. They can:

* Fight to the bitter end, and die
* Surrender and beg for mercy
* Try to escape
* Try to change the tide of battle by doing something crazy

That last one is the most interesting. Perhaps a goblin sets off an explosive that makes the cave collapse, making a bunch of rocks fall on players and goblins alike. Maybe a half dead orc goes crazy with rage and drops his shield to wield two axes, ignoring his defense to focus only on attack. As a last resort, a losing mage casts a spell to fill the room with lava, forcing everyone to flee

– Give the loot (especially magic weapons) to the monsters!
If I were a monster, and I were guarding a +3 broad sword in a treasure chest from adventurers, I would take that sword for myself and try to kill the adventurers with it! This is good for several reasons: It shows the players what the magical item does, so they don’t have to read about it or have waste time having it appraised (which means you don’t have to explain it to them.)

– Put interesting and useful features in the terrain
As a finishing touch, you want to create details about the physical location that help to tell the story of the dungeon, and to make fighting more interesting. For example, in that dungeon overgrown with plants there could be “grab grass” that grabs the players feet and holds onto them while they walk though a open area, where archers are waiting to ambush them. That does two things at once, it shows the players that this place is overgrown with crazy plants, and it makes the battle more intense because they are stuck out in the open while they are showered with arrows.

That’s what I got! I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. In fact, I hope you find a fuckin’… god damned… golden jewel with magical powers! … Just like laying on the ground. Wouldn’t that be sweet?


For D&D and product tips in your email every week, sign up for the Friendly GM Newsletter!

DM Block solved! … with Tables!

Hey everybody! Today we are here to talk about something that helps all aspiring GMs: tables!



No, not that kind of table.

We’ve all been there before. From time to time, we all fumble to come up with ideas on the fly, or even to come up with anything period. There are times where having some content on-the-ready will come in handier than you’d ever realize. I like to keep tables and charts handy to quickly put together business names, NPCs, loot, encounters… a variety of things to pull out at a moment’s notice, or if I’m running short on time while planning.

But not everybody has the time, know-how, or experience to throw together something like that. Lucky for you, there’s a great resource to find:



Don’t worry, it’s not actually a collection of stories about tables.

This baby here has 84 pages chock-full of useful content for GMs to use! Need to shave some time? Grab some random loot from the tables in the book rather than going through the painstaking process of rolling an entire loot table for the session. Grabbing some quick ideas or inspiration from some tables is perfectly fine! You’ll find a way to put your own spin on everything, and nobody is going to know the difference–it’s all about having fun at the table!

When planning a game, I have a bunch of different sites that I use to help generate backup loot, business names, NPC names, etc. It can be a pain finding good sites that work for you, and it’s also time consuming piecing together what you need from different sources to piece together what you need to run a game. Having one rockin’ consolidated list to grab all your ideas from will save a lot of time in the short and long term, not to mention it can just be plain easier.

Let’s say you have everything prepared–or at least, you think you have everything prepared. But then you get hit with questions you haven’t prepared for. The players have reached a small settlement–let’s say, Forest Glen–and they’ve retired to the inn for the night. The ever-curious Rogue asks what the name of the inn is, and what kind of food their specials are. None of this is in your notes; the town is planned out, and the story is fleshed-out but not every detail has been addressed. How do you handle this situation if you aren’t good at coming up with information on-the-fly?

Me? I’m pretty awful about putting a lot of thought into smaller details, so I use premade lists as a crutch. Nobody can plan for every single occasion, so having extra information to draw on will save your life (as a GM). I’ve mentioned before that the imagination is like a muscle to train, and this is a perfect tool to use! Today, you may have to look up a bunch of stuff to have sufficient backup material. But, in time, you will gain the experience you need to plan out everything that you know your players will look into!

So whether it’s helping shave time off planning or giving yourself more tools to use when the party derails your campaign, this book is a great starting point full of awesome tables and useful information!


Click Here to give it a gander!

For useful product reviews like this in your email every week, sign up for the Friendly GM newsletter!

Have you considered talking to Sea Turtles?

Hello my fiends,

How have you been this past two weeks? Because I have been crushed under an avalanche of work and doom from every angle of life. I have fallen behind on all three of my jobs and my dog got sick. But let me tell you, and I so happy and grateful for my girlfriend. She has been a beam of sunlight and happiness burning a searing hole into clouds of gloom hanging over my life.

The other day I was commenting that I never really get to PLAY D&D, because I am always the DM. She has been reading our newsletter and she surprised me by creating her own D&D adventure, just for me! She even surprised me by buying a stack of those clear dungeon tiles we were talking about a while back.





She got a few sheets of cheap felt from a craft store, cut them up and placed them under the tiles to make terrain! Those are my aluminum dice by the way. Metal dice are waaaay better than plastic dice when you learn about them.



That is a giant sea turtle that gave me magical items. I named him Obama. Thanks Obama!


Life has been a little rough lately but I am grateful for you, my dear subscriber friend, and for D&D. I get off of work for the summer (One of my jobs is teaching) so I will have some more time for it, I am looking forward to that. I hope that your day has been made a little brighter too, and I encourage you to support the newsletter by buying some sweet D&D loot from those links up there!



Travis hopes you have a wonderful day!


Want to keep in touch? Hear from Travis every week by signing up for the Friendly GM newsletter!