Showing posts with label GMing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label GMing. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hey Gen Con Attendees....

If you aren’t doing anything Saturday afternoon at Gen Con, why not consider joining us for the 2014 GM’s Jam (SEM1459210)? This event is focused around a fun give-and-take between Game Masters, Referees, Dungeon Masters, Judges, and whatever other Powers Behind The Screen there are. We talk about common GMing pitfalls, joke about player issues, and have a great time coming up with ideas, inspiration, and potential fixes for campaigns. It’s really just a great exchange of ideas overall. Hey, and as a seminar, it's totally free! Here’s the info and link for those interested:

Game ID: SEM1459210
Title: 2014 GM's Jam!
Description: Back for another year, this popular event brings Game Masters together to discuss how to handle issues, tweaks, and problems at the gaming table. Novice & veteran GMs are welcome!
Event Type: SEM - Seminar
Experience Required: None (You've never played before - rules will be taught)
Materials Provided: Yes, materials are provided for this game. You do not need to bring your own.
Start Date & Time: Saturday at 4:00 PM
Duration: 1.5 hours
End Date & Time: Saturday at 5:30 PM
Location: Crowne Plaza : Conrail Stn


This event is one near and dear to my heart. Because when you cut through all the drama and hobby silliness and edition wars and everything else, there’s a part dedicated to running great games, improving campaigns, and improving one’s craft at the gaming table. The tips, advice, and discussion on how to do that transcend a lot of different tastes and systems, and is one of the best features to me in all of Gen Con—making a better gaming experience for my gaming circle and myself, and improving my creations. The 2014 GM’s Jam is very much about all of that!

This is usually the time of year where I post with a great deal more frequency about Gen Con. For those of you who aren’t attending Gen Con or don’t have a particular interest in the proceedings, I promise that’s not the only sort of post I’ll make in the next couple of weeks. But I have to admit, the pull of Gen Con is getting stronger…

Monday, July 28, 2014

The GM's Binder Table of Contents

This past weekend, I finally finished (for the moment) compiling and organizing my GM's binder. I had printouts dating back a decade in some cases, but more often I had pdf printouts or maps that were in folders that I wanted to finally bring together in one, central location. Sometime late Saturday, after a few hours of organizing, scrounging up every last page protector in the house, and printing off a few last items I realized had gone missing, I had my GM's Binder how I wanted it:

Yes, it's a lot of pages--274, to be exact, and it'll probably grow/shrink a bit as I add/subtract stuff that comes along. A few folks on Google Plus asked if I'd mind sharing the Table of Contents. It wouldn't mind at all, but it's a pretty long list of pdf printouts, excerpts, scan-ins, and photocopies. In some cases, I no longer even have the original book, which make some of these pages of great value personally:

Zack's GM's Binder Table of Contents

Cover Page

Character Creation/Getting Started
-Castles & Crusades Character Creation Guide (Homebrew)
-Forgotten Realms Random Class/Race Table (Homebrew)
-Forgotten Realms Approved Deity List (Homebrew)
-C&C Character Sheet Examples
-Additional Starting Item Table (Homebrew)
-Standard Adventuring Charter (Homebrew)
-Homebrew C&C Classes
-SIEGE Engine Notes (Homebrew)

Charts and Tables
-Character Background Pages & Tables (Epic Role Playing)
-Random Physical Features (Colin Chapman)
-Background Occupations (Adamant Entertainment)
-Exchange Rates/Gem Types (Judges Guild)
-100 Treasure Chest Stuffers (Top Fashion Games)
-100 Marketplace Goods (Top Fashion Games)
-Libraries (Dragon Magazine #37)
-Hireling Traits/Generation (somewhere online)
-Drunken Debauchery (Colin Chapman)
-Random Dog Table (Swordfish Islands)
-Ship Names (Jon Brazer Enterprises)
-Adventure Generators (New Big Dragon Games)
-Quick Treasure Hoard Generation (New Big Dragon Games)
-Gems and Jewelry (New Big Dragon Games)
-Gems and Valuables (Hackmaster 4e)
-Magic Item Reference Sheet (Zenopus)
-Mundane Items Table (somewhere online)
-100 Whispered Insults About The Adventurers (Top Fashion Games)
-Treasure Map Destinations (Jeff Rients/Miscellaneum of Cinder)

Monsters & Encounters
-Random Encounter Charts for C&C (Homebrew)
-Excerpts from Appendix C: Monster Encounters (AD&D 1e)
-Monster Mutations (Jeff Rients/Miscellaneum of Cinder)
-Forgotten Realms Regional/Location Encounter Tables (Based on the lists from Realms 3e)
-One Hit Point Monsters (Zenopus)
-Orc Encounters (Troll Lord Games)
-100 Exciting 1st Level Encounters (James Mishler)

Equipment & Arms
-Magic Items, I-VI (New Big Dragon Games)
-Miscellaneous Treasures (Kellri's CDD #4)
-Additional Items (Homebrew)

Forgotten Realms (Note: New Section)
-Maps and Annotations of the Savage Frontier/Moonshae Isles/Sword Coast (Various)
-Forgotten Realms Trade Map (Wizards of the Coast)
-Forgotten Realms Calendar, Holidays, and Notes (Fan-created/

-Bars, Bartenders, Gamers, and Wagers (Hackmaster 4e)
-The Development of Towns in D&D (Best of Dragon, Vol. I)
-Settlements & Inhabitation by Population Density (New Big Dragon Games)
-Generating Towns and Cities (Expeditious Retreat Press)
-Settling Down (Dark Dungeons)
-War! (Dark Dungeons)
-Construction Costs and Time Required (Judges Guild)
-Assorted Ready Reference Sheets (Judges Guild)
-Trade Goods (Silk Road, Expeditious Retreat Press)

-Travel distance in the Forgotten Realms (Various)
-Travel tables and references (Hackmaster 4e)
-Weather Conditions/Events (New Big Dragon Games)
-Off-Course Determination (New Big Dragon Games)
-Hunting/Foraging (New Big Dragon Games)
-On The Road (Kellri's CDD #4)
-Living Off The Land (Kellri's CDD #4)

-Sobriquets (Dungeon Crawl Classics)
-Names of Middle-Earth (Colin Chapman)
-Holmesian Random Names (Zenopus)

Plots and Rumors
-The Big List of RPG Plots (S. John Ross)
-Rumor lists from old modules (TSR)

Random Matters and Appendices
-Movements and Encumbrance (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
-"The Campaign" (from AD&D 1e Dungeon Master's Guide)
-Appendix T: Titles (Dungeon Crawl Classics)
-Giant Rolemaster Herbs List (somewhere online long ago)
-Tavern Menus (Small Niche Games)
-Writing Notes
-Middle Isles Map (Rob Conley)

Additional References and Inspiration
-Various blogs, forums, links, and online references
-Appendix N

So, there you have it: one take on the almighty GM's Binder. I'm happy that I was finally able to organize so many of my well-loved and handy reference materials in one (admittedly large binder). Now to wait for the next random table or bit of inspiration I can't do without...

Monday, July 21, 2014

More Random Hamlet Names, Hoosier-Style

How awesome is it to see Jeff Rients blogging again? Over the weekend, he posted "Random Hamlet Names", which got me thinking about some of the small and strange town names we have here in Indiana--many of them quite suitable for use with the fantasy world of your choice.

So, Hoosier-based and approved for use by the Order of the d30 (or so say I), here are 30 random Indiana-based Hamlet names, ready for use in your next campaign. Remember, each of these is an actual town, community, or village in my Hoosier* Homeland:

(Roll 1d30)

1) Gnaw Bone
2) Stone Head
3) Toad Hop
4) Mount Ayr
5) Windfall
6) Dead Mans Crossing
7) Oolitic
8) Needmore
9) Floyds Knobs
10) Hardscrabble
11) Brown Jug Corner
12) Sunman
13) Elkhart
14) Sulphur Springs
15) Loogootee
16) Hogtown
17) Birdseye
18) Greens Fork
19) Battle Ground
20) Kingsford Heights
21) Onward
22) Crows Nest
23) Shamrock Lakes
24) Town of Pines
25) Salamonia
26) Rocky Ripple
27) Stoney Lonesome
28) Ossian
29) Roachdale
30) Etna Green

*-For the uninitiated, "Hoosier" is the term for someone from Indiana. Many legends surround the name, from the "Husher" name given to argument-quelling early Indiana boatmen, to any number of individuals. It also sometimes is used to denote "hicks" or "white trash" in Missouri, which caused a great deal of consternation during a family visit to St. Louis. -Zack.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Games We’ll Play In Vs. Those We’ll Run

Have read through Dungeons & Dragons 5e Basic a couple of times, I’ve had the same reaction to it thus far that a few of my fellow Game Masters have had: “Sure, I’d play in a 5e Basic game, but I’m not sure I’d run it”. Now, I think there are definitely some things to like in 5e, and to my mind, this game is a lot more appealing thus far than the edition that came before (at least, for me). But there’s a pretty large gap between running a specific roleplaying game, and just being ok with playing in a campaign using that RPG. There are games I’ll play in, but am just not up for running as Game Master.

In other words, consider it the RPG equivalent of the common vacation refrain: “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there”.

By way of an example, here are some of the games I will happily run:

Rules Cyclopedia D&D (and related versions)
Beyond the Supernatural
Castles & Crusades
Colonial Gothic
Classic/Mongoose Traveller
Heroes Unlimited
Palladium Fantasy (1e and 2e)
Microlite (various versions)
Rolemaster Classic/2nd
RuneQuest 6
Savage Worlds
StarCluster 3
Stars Without Number
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Truth & Justice
Two-Fisted Tales

…There are more, but that’s a pretty good core list. Now, there are also many games I would play in, but not run as a Game Master. 7th Sea, Pathfinder, D&D 3.x, Dresden Files, Torg, and yes, likely 5e Basic fall under that umbrella, just to name a few. Honestly, I’ll play in just about anything, except for a few games I really don’t care for (I doubt I’d be very enthused to do Mutants & Masterminds again, or Dungeon World, or Exalted).

“So wait,” you say. “You’re telling me that you’ll run Rifts, but not 5e? You’re cool with Rolemaster, but not D&D Basic 5e?”

I confess, it doesn’t look like there’s much logic to it on the surface. But I think that’s because of the “click factor” when it comes to games. Either I get what a game is about and how it should be run, or I don’t. Even if I comprehend it, I might not like any number of things that are juuuuuust enough to keep me from running it. A lot of times, it can be something immensely nitpicky, or something I just don’t feel like houseruling. For Pathfinder or 3.x, for instance, I just don’t feel like policing the sheer amount of stuff and combinations that come up in the game. On the opposite side of things, I’m an old hand at games like Rolemaster and Rifts, which means it takes a lot less effort for me to run those games smoothly.

Would Play; Probably Won't Run.
(While we’re on the topic, I wonder about Rifts, sometimes. If I were introduced to Rifts today and shown the massive lists of classes, races, weapons, skills, vehicles, and spells, would I feel up for it? We it be awesome enough that I wouldn’t care? All I know is having grown up with the game, it’s likely a lot easier for me to keep things flowing with the game than if I were a new initiate).

Other times, it’s as simple as looking through the rules, thinking there are some neat ideas, but thinking, “Hey, I can just run this with X”. As I get older, and my (already tiny) brain is continually compressed with more and more material and life stuff to remember, and does a poorer job of remembering things such as where I put my keys or what I named my children, I am more likely to return to games that I am comfortable with and know well. Thus, the older I get, the higher the difficulty level becomes for a new game to break into my repertoire. I suspect this is partially the case with 5e, for instance. Five or ten years ago, my Gamer’s Short-Attention Span had me voraciously chewing threw games—trying this, trying that, jumping back over here, and being able to store away rules and modifiers like none other. I still love seeing new products—but it’s a higher barrier of entry now, and I’m much more liable to pick up items that can be used with existing systems I run, rather than a completely brand-new game. That’s not to say it can’t happen (hello, RuneQuest 6), but it doesn’t happen as much as it once did.

That’s really the core of the matter: I like a fair amount of what I’ve seen so far from 5e. While not quite as simplified as I’d like, I think it’s a good step in the right direction. But I don’t get that feeling from it that says, “Hey! Run this, NOW”. Nor is there enough of a differential to make me pick it up over a system I can already use. It might be different if I were looking for a gaming group; 5e is probably going to have a pretty wide net. But I’m set with a steady gaming group, so that’s not really a consideration.

Essentially, there is a lower barrier to simply playing in a game as opposed to running it. Running a game is more of an investment; as Game Master, I’m the one who has to pore over the whole game; I’m the one who has to adjudicate, houserule, adjust, and figure out how it all fits together. Naturally, I’m going to want something that does what I want and something that I’m comfortable with (or can easily become comfortable with). When I’m playing, I just need to ensure the system doesn’t make me want to flip the table (and systems are pretty low on the list of things in a campaign that should do that—well below the gaming group).

So yes, absolutely I’ll play some 5e—in fact, I hope to play in a game next month at Gen Con. I’ll certainly mine it for ideas for my game. But for now, I’m pretty sure I’ll stop at “play”; “run” doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

My Seminars At This Year's Gen Con

If you missed it, this year's Gen Con catalog is live, and with that, I have two seminar events lined up for this year's schedule:

2014 GM's Jam!
75 slots available
ID: SEM1459210
Email: mail.rpgblog (at)
Time slot: Sat Aug 16 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm (1 hour 30 minutes)
Cost: $0.00
Experience required: None (You've never played before - rules will be taught)
Location: Crowne Plaza, room Conrail Station
Back for another year, this popular event brings Game Masters together to discuss how to handle issues, tweaks, and problems at the gaming table. Novice and veteran GMs are welcome!

2014 Palladium Jam
75 slots available
ID: SEM1459209
Email: mail.rpgblog (at)
Time slot: Sat Aug 16 noon - 1:30 pm (1 hour 30 minutes)
Cost: $0.00 Experience required: None (You've never played before - rules will be taught)
Location: Crowne Plaza, room Grand Central D
This unofficial meet-up is a chance to meet with other PB fans and freelancers, discuss Palladium's games, and grab some gaming ideas on the way! Novices and new fans welcome!

(Also, if you're looking for Gen Con events, don't forget Alan De Smet's awesome work!)

It'd be great to meet up with some folks--especially my fellow Game Masters and Palladium fans!

I don't have any formal games scheduled yet, but I'm pretty sure I'll run at least one game off the books. I'll keep everyone posted if anything else gets added or changed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

There was an interesting thread the other day on theRPGsite, asking Game Masters to describe their worst campaign as a GM. My thoughts immediately went back to a HARP campaign I ran a few years back, where I wasn’t happy with my effort, the lack of screening I did with the group, or the missed sessions that ultimately doomed the campaign within the first month. Of course, that’s not the only game that I’ve failed at, but it’s probably the most memorable, as everything that could have gone wrong did so.

Whether you’re a Game Master new to the trade, or a more experienced GM frustrated with their results thus far, I think it’s very easy to get discouraged when you hear of all the other amazing campaigns folks are running out there. Of course you’re hearing about them: those are the successful ones. For every amazing campaign with an impressive website, enthused players, and brilliant ideas, there are a half-dozen campaigns that are trying to get some traction, or struggling to continue.

I’ll be honest—I consider myself a good Game Master, but I’ve had some absolute stinkers when it comes to my campaigns. Sometimes, you hit a home run, and sometimes, you strike out. The important thing is that you’re learning, trying, and not getting too down when it doesn’t work out. The most brilliant ideas sometimes just don’t jive with the group, or unforeseen scheduling issues doom everything, or perhaps the timing isn’t right. Sometimes, we act like GMing is something that can be carried out 100% perfectly, each time every time. That’s just not the case.

Your campaigns don’t have to be perfect, and neither does your track record. Whether you’re running your first session or your fortieth, there’s going to be trial and error. If you’re hesitant at trying your hand at Gamemastery because you don’t want to fail, or if you’re hesitant to give it another go because the last campaign didn’t work out so well, don’t be! The best way to become a better Game Master is to get out there and run games. Yes, every year I do a GM’s seminar, and spend some time checking out the ideas of other Game Masters and Referees, but that doesn’t do any good if it all stays theoretical. If you’re paying attention, you learn more from an hour running a game than twenty outside the game reading up on GM tips (although the latter doesn’t hurt!).

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re reading this, and you want to Game Master, get out there and do it. If you’re worried or intimidated, don’t be. We’ve all been there. Start small if you want, start with something you know, but above all, just start. No one is going to remember the hesitations or the wonky bits. They will remember when everything clicks, the players buy in, and the awesome stuff happens. As a Game Master, that’s the sort of fun you live for, and why you do it. Don’t worry about the bumps in the road getting there—because you most definitely aren’t alone.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Ready For CharGen and the Campaign

We have our character creation session for our Middle Isles campaign tomorrow, and we're going to be using a system that's new for all of us (RuneQuest 6). For games with character creation beyond that of something like Rules Cyclopedia D&D or Swords & Wizardry, I've always been a fan of doing a dedicated  group character generation session. This allows for a nice campaign kickoff, ensures everyone is essentially on the same page for creating characters, and helps ensure we're all getting into the feel and tone of the campaign together.

My gaming table is set. Here's a quick glance at how it looks, awaiting only the players to arrive:

Among the items we'll be using, and going clockwise, you can see memo pads for notes and scribbles, character folders (containing sheets, maps, equipment lists, and other chargen references), bags for in-game money, scratch notebook paper, mechanical pencils, a RQ 6 table reference copy, printouts of Careers and Magic sections to make chargen move quicker, and finally blank paper and markers for name tags.

You may note I mentioned bags for in-game money. These would be for the Campaign Coins we'll be using for currency in the Middle Isles (when bartering doesn't cut it). The bags will each have a player's name on them, and will hold their silver and gold as it is accrued. The bags do not leave the premises, but will be waiting here each week for the players. I found a small wooden chest on sale at Hobby Lobby last week, which is perfect for housing our treasury:

Hobby Lobby is amazing for gamers, whether you need props, are working on a model or craft, or need fitting containers for your campaign. They also regularly run coupons for 30%-50% off a single item or type of item, so they're worth checking out.

Additionally, each game session, one player, by merit of their roleplaying or other awesome actions, will be voted MVP. This is something I'm bringing back that I did not do in my last game. That week's MVP will either get to choose from the dice bin, or select a scroll. The scrolls range from a one-time skill bonus, to an extra d30 roll, and rarely and dangerously, no bonus at all (Explosive Runes, don't you know). So whether they want a nice new d30 or d5 for their collection (or some other, more mundance dice), or want to gamble on an in-game bonus, they have their pick:

The scrolls were very easy to make; trust me, I'm not artsy. I simply used some nice stationery, wrote what the boon was in my best (read: not so great) cursive, and used a bit of sealing wax for a "GM seal" by the signature. I then used a dab of superglue to secure the red ribbon to itself. I think they'll be a nice addition and change from the bonus cards I used to print off in the past.

We'll see how tomorrow goes, but I'm ready as I'm going to get, from this side of the screen.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

That One Thing

Early on, when I still had my Game Master training wheels on, I spent hours working on Non-Player Characters for my games. I had yet to learn the essential lesson that a GM loving his NPCs too much is a recipe for frustration and for showing the players up. That was a lesson that still needed to be learned at the gaming table, painfully.

No, I detailed my NPCs beautifully. I could tell you their history, their family history, what they liked for lunch, their religious quirks--I really went all in on them. I wanted to add to the richness of our campaign setting by portraying these deep and involved characters, from the princess of the realm to the guard sergeant.

Of course, you can guess what I found out--my players, in most cases, didn't care that Sergeant Morris was from the northern hinterlands, or that he loved plums, or the fact that he was secretly infatuated with the butcher's daughter. They might latch on to a few things, but all this nuance, all this character depth I planned--it went nowhere.

I'm pretty slow at times, and it took me a while to hit upon the fact that depth of character is not the best way to have fun NPCs in your games. In many cases 90%  of your prep work is forgotten, or will not come up.

What I have found, over years of gaming, is that most players will, at most, latch on to 1 or 2 personality traits to define a character they run across. If you try to portray too much at once, it becomes overwhelming and confusing, especially if you have a large active cast in your campaign. So, my advice for Game Masters when it comes to NPCs is to look for the One Thing. One Thing to set a character apart, and make them memorable. It can be something as minor as a character who blinks a disturbing amount, or a merchant who has a peg leg, or perhaps a town guard that clearly likes his hip flask. If a NPC is a minor character, not especially reoccurring or important, highlighting just one trait per NPC can still give a feel of depth without running the GM ragged.

Look at it this way: if you're discussing someone at work, and trying to describe them to someone who doesn't really know them, how do you jog their memory? Which of the following scenarios sounds more likely?

Scenario A: I'm pretty sure you've met Joe before. Loves the violin, Sagittarius, red-haired guy with glasses, severe allergy issues, Ball State University fan, works in Accounts Payable, always secretly pining for that cute girl in Collections?

Scenario B: "I'm pretty sure you've met Joe before. Red-haired guy with glasses, works in Accounts Payable?"

We tend to latch on to perhaps one or two basic identifiers for casual acquaintances. The same behaviors follow in-game. It's an NPC, not a police sketch and profile. You're trying to portray characters at a table where there's probably a lot of activity, thinking, and different objectives. Small brushstrokes are sometimes lost in an environment, while large ones are more easily picked up on.

Of course, if NPCs do develop into deeper characters, then you can start to throw in other details. But I think a lot of GMs frustrate themselves by trying to portray this entire, deep personality for an NPC, when to the players, so much of that will not be noticed, or will not be needed. That's where just going for that One Thing can really help a Game Master reign that in, while still giving some definition to each NPC.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Play The Game, Not The Story

Things did not go according to plan this weekend.


Our 1867 alt-history/supers campaign has been heading towards the finale for a few weeks, but I really thought we’d have at least one more session to go. After being imprisoned, the characters had taken over an airship over the Atlantic, and I thought they’d head home towards the States, by way of a refueling station. It was certainly the logical, safer bet.


That’s not what happened. They decided they were going to fly that sucker to London, to confront the Lord General, the most high-powered super (so far) in the setting. This is a guy who could paralyze you with a psychic blast, or tear you apart with his formidable mental energy. His bodyguard consisted of brawler types who could control fire, electricity, cold, etc.


Against all odds, they made it London, escaped the airship before crashing it into the Tower, and took out a full platoon’s worth of soldiers without batting an eye (this is Savage Worlds, so that part isn’t out of the ordinary). Then the Lord General arrived, complete with his full bodyguard contingent. It was going to be an absolutely brutal fight.


That’s what I thought.

Now, I have been a Game Master for a long time, in many different games. I am telling you now, I have never seen a group of players roll as consistently high for as a sustained amount of time as happened this past weekend.  Their armor-skin tough guy absolutely destroyed one of the toughest bodyguards immediately. Their Earth Mistress dropped an entire tower on the Lord General’s head, and he was finished off soon after. The speedster got the drop on another bodyguard that should have mopped the floor with him. On and on it went, player after player with exploding dice, raise after raise, completely maxing out damage. In short, it was a total bloodbath, and our campaign entered its epilogue phase after only a handful of turns. The surprise was complete, the devastation absolutely unbelievable.


Here ended one of the strangest, most baffling, and most entertaining campaigns I have ever run. I really did not see this coming—not in a thousand years would I have believed they would poleaxe the big bad guys that handily.


Still, everyone seemed very happy with how it ended. It was an All-Star performance, one consisting of equals parts bravado, resourcefulness, and luck. I think about how it would have been if I took away some of that accomplishment, some of the surprise, and tried to extend out the campaign because the fight didn’t match what people think of an ultimate last battle. I think that’s where a lot of Game Masters get in trouble—they want a certain script, have certain expectations of how things are going to play out, and are willing to compromise the integrity of their game and the autonomy of player action and fate to make it happen.


But I believe you let the dice do the talking. Let the players work their characters, and let the dice fall where they may. You have to respect your players enough to accept the dice rolls, even when it means things don’t go the way you thought they would. Heck, from a Game Master’s standpoint, I’ve always found that the unexpected ways players react and the resultant course changes to the game are some of the best parts of GMing.

I've seen too many GMs who begin to look at their campaigns as sort of top-level fiction. The minute a GM begins to be more interested in how a campaign would look as a novel instead of how it is as a gaming experience is trouble. I've seen it lead to poor adjudication, copious amounts if railroading, and working hard to deny player advantage if it didn't fit in with what they had planned. 


I guarantee that if I had nudged the dice here or there, or minimized the effect of the player’s actions, just to bow to the altar of making the last act of the campaign fit the traditional idea of a story, it would have been absolutely the wrong call, and much less memorable. I don’t think you get a great story to tell from your games by trying to make it be a great story. You get it from letting the game be a game, and recounting all the great turns and twists it took afterwards. That’s the sort of story I’m interested in, in any case, and it seems as if my players would agree.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Tipping Point

For all the roleplaying games I've run over the years, no two campaigns have the same pacing. Some games start slow, with the players taking time to work into the gist of what's going on. Other games start white-hot, with the players jumping into the assumptions of the campaign with a lot of enthusiasm and involvement. Some games never really catch on, while others flare up, only to burn out quickly.

The same applies with the actual roleplaying aspect of the game. I've rarely found that players jump into their characters feet-first. Oh, sometimes you might have some of the group really hit the ground running, while others still talk in the sort of "my character says he will go to the inn" non-personal sense.

Still, if a campaign gets going, there can come a moment where everyone really gets into their character, shows up, and the game hits a new level of immersion (yeah, I'm all about immersion for my gaming style--love it). In my head, I've always thought of it as a sort of "tipping point"--that moment where the campaign goes from the "My character" to "I" statements, where the roleplaying gets in-depth, and you can tell you've got the player buy-in.

We had that moment in our 1867 Savage Worlds campaign yesterday afternoon. The characters had been captured by the British after a valiant fight, and were each visited by a British agent in their cells in turn. Each was offered something they wanted, or something of value, and a reason to betray their country. And one by one, each of the characters came to life. The roleplaying was It was something to see--a truly magical moment. As a Game Master, that is what we live for, isn't it? 

As a Game Master, I don't expect that from every session. Games can be great when folks bring their "B" game, and that's important to remember, too. But man oh, man, when it happens, is it ever a thing of beauty. 

I don't think there's any set formula to make it happen; I've had great moments in a Microlite 74 game, and I've had throwaway Risus one-shots where it's happened. I've had characters I've thought were just tag-alongs in a Rolemaster game inspire the rest of the party into passionate, deep arguments over loyalty and right. You just keep your game running, let choices have meaning, and let there be meaningful choices to be made. That can apply to fantasy, space, historical, or supers. 

Our 1867 campaign is in its final few sessions, but I'm really excited about the energy level and expectation of the group. When it all comes together, there's nothing better.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Castle Keeper's Guide

One of my purchases at Gen Con was the Castles & Crusades Castle Keeper's Guide from the Troll Lord Games booth. Since our group is running Castles & Crusades (and has in the past), I've been waiting to pick up this tome, which was stuck in long development for what seemed like forever.

In any case, I have it now, and I'm really enjoying it. Of course, I've haven't read very far in yet, but so far it reminds me of a Dungeon Master's Guide mixed with Unearthed Arcana. It really breaks down a lot of the ideas behind Castles & Crusades, examines them, and presents you with options for your game.

Of course, it is written in that very distinct, voluminous Troll Lord prose; that's going to be a turn off to some people, but I generally like it. It gives the work a bit of character and lift.

I'm going to hold off on a full review until I'm completely done, but so far this is the sort of thing I want in an RPG Game Master's product: give me different mechanical options, help me look at the system and how it can work from my style of gaming from all angles, and give me the inspiration to make my game better. The big tests for it will be how it stacks up to the AD&D 1e DMG and the Hackmaster 4e GMG. If it can come anywhere close to the use I've squeezed out of those worthies, it will have been a purchase well made.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Using A Tablet For RPG PDFs?

For some time now, I’ve been considering getting a tablet for my gaming. My pdfs are legion, and more and more I find them really handy to have for reference at the actual gaming table (though I still like having a hard copy or printout of the RPG as well).

I know we have to have a decent amount of tablet users out there. Any recommendations on things to look for? The two big ones I’ve looked at are the iPad (not being flash-ready sort of took the wind out of that one for me) and the Samsung Galaxy line, which a couple folks have mentioned in my preliminary research. I’d like something that’s got a long battery life, is easy to operate and read, and will hold a metric ton of pdfs. Oh, and if it doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg, that’s nice, too.

So, bring on those recommendations, or let me know if you use a tablet for gaming. How’s it working out for you? Any pitfalls I should know of?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Character Creation: Too Much Time?

Our first Rifts session went really well on Saturday. We had two new players, and both of them jumped right in and did a fine job. The group was of wildly varying power levels, but everyone found a niche or behavior and did well with it. A robot, three suits of power armor, a hovercycle, and a half-squad of bandits all met their demise.

One note of concern had to be character creation. Now, I am all about character creation. I love group chargen, and feel everything goes better when you make characters as a group. I print out handouts, easy-to-follow instructions, and try to make it as painless as possible. Now, some of it was of course due to have a mixed group of people and some staggered arrivals, but I think the character creation process still took too long, and one of the new players commented afterwards on the same issue. I think it had the potential to turn them off gaming before we even started.

I've done everything I can to speed up character creation and still do it by at least the ghost of the Palladium rules; I'm thinking that the next step would be to do templates, letting characters just add in stats and related and secondary skills. I suppose I could do that, but front-loading more work on the GM.

It's going to be something for me to chew on, but more and more, I appreciate being able to jump right in and game, ala Castles & Crusades. On the other hand, Rolemaster and Rifts/Palladium Fantasy are much more involved character creation, but have also given us some of our greatest games. I'm probably going to revisit this several times, but I think spending a couple of hours creating characters vs. jumping right in is getting less and less desirable. At the same time, you want to ensure that especially veteran gamers still feel like they have plenty of "tweak" options available. The nice thing is I think most of the group's on the same page with this one, so depending on what our next campaign is, we'll see what we come up with.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Game Doesn't Remain The Same

In my teens and early twenties, my games were marathon sessions. We’d game 8, 10 hours on the weekend, and occasionally pull all-nighters. When I was homesick and stationed in Korea, I lived for the weekends, when I knew we’d be playing Rolemaster, D&D 3.0/3.5, and Palladium Fantasy or Rifts. Every weekend meant RPGs, and lots of ‘em.

I think some of my frustrations with running games the past few years centered around a refusal to give up on the weekend-long gaming epics. Instead of all day Saturday and Sunday to game, I now had four hours or so, every other weekend. Other stuff kept dropping into my schedule.

Time didn’t matter as much in those earlier, longer games. It was nothing to spend 4-5 hours on a silly side quest or just BSing. When you play that much, you’ve got the time for it. We could knock out a campaign arc in a couple of weeks. That same one might take almost a year now.

That doesn’t mean I still can’t have the marathon gaming sessions; we’re trying for one this weekend. But they’re the special exception now, and not the rule.

I think sometimes it's almost taboo to talk about these differences online, almost as if we're lesser gamers or something for our circumstances changing. As with any fandom, the extremes always are out there; the ones with seemingly endless budgets, endless time, endless commentary on how they have both. But that's not the world we live in. Adjustments must be made.

I try now to make time for catching up and general talk before the game starts; it helps keep things more focused. Additionally, I’ve tried (with mixed results) to handle a lot of side quests and the like “off-table”, either via email during the week or on a message board.

I’ve also had an eye towards campaigns that aren’t so reliant on player attendance; missing a session shouldn’t be the kiss of death. For my upcoming Rifts campaign, the players will be part of a mercenary company hired to protect a small town; a missing player can be on “temporary duty” elsewhere without too much of an impact. Of course, you aren’t going to get any XP for missing a session, but I’m not going to stop play or kill your character, either.

Some older players, now strapped for time, attempt to get their gaming in with one-shot games here and there wherever they can. That’s fine, but for me and my group, I think we still see a benefit in having recurring, longer campaigns. Yes, you can do it as kids, family, work, and other responsibilities crowd your plate; you just need to be smart about it, and realize what worked in college might not work now.

Embarrassingly, 18 year-old me saw every campaign session as an epic tale, one that would eventually put into novelization or even the silver screen (I told you it was embarrassing). 31 year-old me knows rolling dice and having fun trump any sort of “art” I’m trying to create. We’re not there to create perfect fiction, we’re there to game, with all the warts, weird twists, illogical jumps, and craziness that entails. I think when people look back at games, they don’t recall those warts so much; they recall the overall impression it left.

The actual scheduling of RPG night might have to bend to reality somewhat, but it’s my goal that in that four-hour period of gaming we do manage, we don’t have to.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On New Players And Making Connections

One of the most interesting things to me in planning for my upcoming Rifts campaign is that I am looking at having one of the most diverse mixes in terms of gaming experience that I’ve had in a while.

Long-time readers of the site might know I’m a bit proponent of group character generation; I insist on it for pretty much all my games at this point. I think group chargen sessions are a chance to bond, a chance to keep tabs on the process, and to get a group of Player Characters that just work better together. This time will be no different, especially with the Rifts and gaming novices we’ll likely have with us.

Another item I’m thinking of porting into Rifts is the reward for making Connections with other players. This little trick, so admirably carried out in games such as Mongoose Traveller, is perfect for getting those strands that connect the players and answering the question “why the heck are we together?”

Basically, players may gain up to two Secondary skills for linking their character with another character. It has to be consensual between the two players, and though players can create as many Connections as they wish, they max out at the two free skills. Each Connection must be with a different player; no doubling up. A Connection could be anything from “Served together on a medical ship” to “First cousins from the same village”. They don’t have to be deep or even supremely integral to the character, but it’s at least another hook that might come up in the course of the game.

It’s a low-grade reward, but one that really link a diverse group together, and can help any player feel more a part of the process. It’s perhaps easiest to do in games that have skills, but there’s no reason a small Experience Point/Hit Point/Fate Point reward can’t be doled out in games without a skill system emphasis.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Frustrating Season

For many of us, this time of year is a time of hope, of renewal, and of goodwill towards our fellow men. Unfortunately, when it comes to our gaming group, it's very much a season of frustration.

This past Friday was another example of mass cancellations/withdrawals in regards to our Pathfinder camapaign. It's now been over a month since we actually ran a game. My own part in this is not proud; real life came up, and I confess I was a cancellation in the past. I wasn't happy about it, though, and I was hoping to get to play this Friday. It didn't happen, and I doubt we'll meet over the holidays, which means I have to look towards January before our gaming group meets back up.

It isn't my first time being part of an unstable gaming group; life comes up, and that's how it is. This campaign, however, isn't the sort that can be addressed by a West Marches-style sandboxer, or a number of one-shot side quests. It has a more unified running theme, and I fear we're just killing it.

Our Game Master has really undertaken a lot of work with this campaign, and I feel bad for him, plain and simple. I've been in that chair, and it's not a fun feeling to see something you worked so hard on apparently discarded.

This past weekend, I took time off of my normal scouring of the gaming boards to think about things. I didn't update here, I didn't read more of BASH! Ultimate Edition (even though I really wanted to), and just thought about gaming. I came to the conclusion I've still got the fire for it, but I need to figure out some way to better balance it with my work, life, and family. Call it a New Year's resolution. It's the sort of thing that isn't fixed by cookie-cutter advice; I need to weigh things and figure out where it all comes into play. I need to talk to my GM, and see what he's feeling. We'll see where it all goes, but I hope we find a better way to go forward.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

When Is It OK To Railroad?

EDIT: Apologies, this should have posted earlier in the day! Looks like the blogging software decided to take a break on me.

Our gaming group apparently went wayyyyy off course last session. My bard is probably at least partially to blame, but the Game Master felt like any cause for adventuring together, and any sort of focus, had been lost. He warned us we could either have some of the group reroll characters to fit in with things, or he could get us back together, but he’d have to railroad it. We voted for the latter.

He did it in the form of more campaign exposition through email; our characters were kidnapped, accused of a crime (quite mysteriously), and sent to a penal colony far in the southern wastes. I thought the email was a good choice. It gives us time to let it sink in and consider our new surroundings, and ensures that what happens at our table doesn't devolve into the GM telling a story for 2 hours setting things up.

We’ve all been in campaigns were a heavy-handed plot was shoved down our throats, without warning, grace, or benefit. And I’m as anti-railroad as anyone. But I do think that for the GM that doesn’t feel like there are any other options, using the method our GM used isn’t bad. Here’s what I think he did right:

-He warned us ahead of time, and clearly defined the intended consequence of the action.

-He framed it as further plot exposition, setting us up for additional adventures, instead of taking up time at the table where our characters had no input in what was actively happening to us.

-He did it in a finite, defined manner, with a beginning and an end, after which, we had free will of action in a new scenario of the campaign.

For me, I think in most cases, even if you’re railroading, you can at least give the illusion of choice, and possibly the players will never know. And if you don’t want to be sneaky about it, be upfront—just don’t sit at the table and weave this elaborate tapestry, dictating the One True Way, dismissing all other courses of action, while the players are sitting there bored out of their skulls. There may be some shouting about that, and it’s not something I’m fond of doing, but I’m not going to say I’ve never, ever done it. At times, for the good of the game, all roads have led to Rome, so to speak. It isn’t good policy, but sometimes it needs to be done. I think that especially in less-seasoned groups, you’re going to see this more, and of course GMs all have their own techniques to get issues resolved. Railroading is a dangerous tool to use because we gamers react so negatively to the merest suggestion of it, but used properly, it can get things moving again. Just make sure you don’t stay on the train after you’ve arrived at your destination.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My RPG Playing/Running/Planning Survey Results

Not too long ago, I started a survey over at theRPGsite on what board members were playing, running, and planning. Mos Eisley TheRPGsite is very much a RPG generalist board, so it wasn't surprising what a wide range of responses were garnered. I thought the results might be interesting to RPG Blog II readers as well, as an informal scan of what some folks are interested in just now. As always, this survey comes with the disclaimer that it is in no way scientific.

I tried to identify the core system/RPG being used in each case--there were a few that could only be described as homebrew. Games that had finished or hadn't started weren't counted under Running/Playing.

We had 62 respondents at the time of cut-off, and few more that trickled in afterwards. As usual, my math is approximate at best, but this should be close to the mark:

Playing: We had 55 different systems represented in the Playing Section of the survey. There were plenty of people not playing anything at the moment.

4e: (Encounters, Essentials, etc.): 8 total

AD&D 1e: 2

D&D 3.5: 4

Dark Heresy: 2

Nothing: 21

OpenQuest: 3

Pathfinder: 5

Savage Worlds: 2

Star Wars Saga Edition: 2

StarCluster 3e: 2

1 response each: AD&D (Unspecified), AD&D 2e, Alpha Omega, Apocalypse World, Barbarians of Lemuria, Barbarians of the Aftermath, Basic Fantasy, Battlestations, BRP, Burning Wheel, Call of Cthulhu, Castles & Crusades, Changeling: The Lost, D&D Rules Cyclopedia, d20 Modern, Deadlands Classic, Dresden Files, Earthdawn (Houseruled), Fantastic Worlds/War Rockets, FUDGE, Guildschool, GURPS 4e, HERO 4e/5e, ICONS, Iron Heroes, Labyrinth Lord, LotFP RPG, Marvel Saga, Mechwarrior, Microlite 20, Mini Six, Mutants & Masterminds 2e, OD&D, OSRIC, Promethean: The Created, Shadowrun 3e, Song of Ice & Fire, Starships & Spacemen, TAG: Spacers, Talistanta (Unspecified), Talislanta 4e, Talislanta 5e, True 20, Weapons of the Gods, WFRP 2e, WFRP 3e, Witch Hunter


Next was our Running Section, with 50 different systems represented, plus 14 responses for running Nothing.

4e (with Essentials, Encounters, etc): 6

Call of Cthulhu: 2

D&D 3.5: 3

Dark Heresy: 2

Dresden Files: 2

Nothing: 14

Pathfinder: 6

Savage Worlds: 3

StarCluster 3e: 3

1 response each: Aces & Eights, AD&D 1e, AD&D 2e, Alpha Omega, Arduin, BASH, BD&D, Blood Games, Burning Wheel, D&D 3.5/Pathfinder hybrid, Dr. Who, Guildschool, Hearts & Souls, High Valor, ICONS, InSpectres, Kobolds Ate My Baby, Marvel Saga, Marvel Super Heroes, MechWarrior, MiniSix, Mongoose Traveller, MRQ II, Multiversal D&D, Mutants & Masterminds 2e, OD&D, OHMAS, Openquest,OSRIC/AD&D, Pendragon, Rifts/Robotech, Simply Horrible, Spirit of the Century, Starblazer Adventures, Star Wars d20, Swords & Wizardry, Talislanta 3e, Werewolf: The Pure, WFRP 2e, WFRP 3e, Witch Hunter


The Planning Section was much larger than the Running or Playing sections, which goes to show that likely more than few campaigns never make it to actual play. This is my favorite category, because it shows what's on people's minds right now. There are around 68 different systems, with 19 of them mutliple responses, represented,

4e (Encounters, Essentials, etc.): 5

Atomic Highway: 5

Basic D&D: 2


Call of Cthulhu: 2

Eclipse Phase: 2



Homebrew: 3


Legend of the Five Rings: 2

Mongoose Traveller: 2

Pathfinder: 3

Rogue Trader: 4

Rules Cyclopedia D&D: 2

Savage Worlds: 3

Swords & Wizardry: 2

Swords & Wizardry White Box: 2

WFRP 2e: 3

1 response each: 7th Sea, AD&D/OSRIC, Amazing Engine, Bloodsucker: Angst Express, Basic Role Playing, BTS/Chaos Earth/Rifts Mashup, Bushido, Call of Cthulhu d20, Chav: The Knifing Express, Classic Traveller, D&D 3.5, Dark Heresy/Deathwatch, Deathwatch, Delta Green, Derelict Delvers, Dresden Files, Earthdawn, Flashing Blades, Freemarket, Galaxy Atomic, Gamma World (WotC), Guildschool, HERO, Legends of Anglerre, Leverage, Lord of Olympus, MiniSix, Moldvay/Cool D&D, MRQ II, Nothing, OD&D, Outremer, Paranoia, PrimeTime Adventures, Robotech, RuneQuest (Chaosium), Shadow of Yesterday, Shadow Sword & Spell, Star Wars Saga Edition, Supernatural RPG, The Tools of Ignorance, True 20, Ubiquity, Undecided, Vampire: The Requiem, WFRP, WFRP 3e, WitchHunter, WizKid: The Cheapening, X-Plorers


So, all in all, the survey seems to indicate what we already know--there are a lot of people going a lot of different directions in this hobby!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Followup: From Game Master To Player

As/ I've mentioned before, I've been taking a bit of a break from most of my face-to-face GMing, focusing instead on playing in my buddy's Pathfinder campaign. It's been a welcome break, and I think it's benefiting me enormously.

Behind the screen, it's easy to forget at times that your mental processes aren't the only ones going; every player out there is processing information, trying to play a character, and working towards a goal (even if it's just to hang around and have fun). I think in several of my past few forays as GM, I set back a little too complacently, waiting for the players to entertain me or pick up on things. That works both ways; if the players are in the doldrums, as GM, I need to see if I can't pick things up a bit at times.

It's been very fun to watch someone else run these guys through a campaign; the current GM and I have different ways of dealing with conflict and different personalities, but I know next time I GM, I'm going to have a few new insights on how to challenge and react to those players.

I enjoy Pathfinder, and for the most part our group doesn't fiddle around for 15 minutes every turn in combat, but I'm also convinced that when I'm up again, it's going to be running a much lighter system.  I wince when I think of giving up the critical tables of Rolemaster, but maybe I don't need to leave those behind; I've adapted them before, and can again.  Still, right now, Shadow, Sword, & Spell, Mini Six, or possibly one of the retro-clones have to be my first picks for next time out.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Democracy In Action: Gaming Groups

Like many Americans today, I am going to vote in the midterm elections.  Unlike many other Americans, I realize you probably have precisely zero interest in my political opinions, especially on a gaming blog.

But it does make me think about the democracy of the gaming group. I've made no bones of the fact that my style as DM is more dictatorial than anything. That doesn't mean I don't solicit feedback or anything, it just means that I am the final arbiter/judge of all in-game decisions. There's not a lot of shared narrative in our games, and they're not exactly decentralized in terms of power.

That sounds harsh to some people, but I think when we talk about our GMing styles (and the trend and backlash against softer, group-consensus game mastery), even the most dictatorial GM forgets that without the democracy and populism of group social formation and cohesion, nothing is sustainable. Quite frankly, you can be a tyrant GM directly up to the point that your group says "screw you, pal", and decides that there are a dozen better ways to spend a Saturday than watching you on a power trip.

The realm you create at the table only last as long as people continue to stand for it; the moment it becomes not worthwhile, all the strict GMing in the world won't save you. All someone has to do to break that is to not show up. So long as you're a dictatorial GM, you preside at the consent of the players, and their continued tolerance of the arrangement.

Thank you, and may God Bless America.