Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Now Playing: Welcome to Night Vale RPG

Just thought I'd share some of my personal tabletop experiences, for those interested in the types of worlds and adventures I've been building.

Welcome to Night Vale is a bi-monthly podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor that has been running since 2012. It is very cleverly written, and I recommend it as a humorous take on the particular brand of paranormal Americana exhibited in shows like Twin Peaks, Gravity Falls, Alan Wake, and the works of Stephen King. It also has an anthology radio quality reminiscent of Twilight Zone, and I decided this program would make a really good setting for an adventure in this type of world.

I ran this game in FATE, because that system supports a lot of non-combat action, and I knew that this game was going to be have more themes of mystery and horror than combat. I had also considered the Gumshoe system, but FATE won out with its versatility and narrative strengths.
Photography by Kaspar Bossers

Setting the Mood

Night Vale games have required more prep time than others, because cleverly scripted jokes and creepy imagery is the main goal. For setting the mood, I placed purple and blue tissue paper over the lights to created a color-tinted ambiance. 

To further put my players on edge, I got a Jenga tower and added a variation of the game mechanic from DREAD, in which you pull blocks from the tower whenever you take an action. In my version, you only pulled a block when something strange happened, to represent the strain on your sanity and raising of the stakes. When the tower falls, it triggers a major encounter. Something evil finds you, or something terrible happens to an ally. This, combined with a playlist of eerie and unnerving theme music brings out the weird Night Vale atmosphere that we love.

I didn't pressure myself too much to create all-original jokes, nor did I worry about sticking strictly to the lore of the setting. Too much adherence to the canon of a series kills the fun of building and exploring a world with your players. For the first adventure, I set everything inside a shopping mall so I didn't have to worry about the rest of the town right away. A mall is like a self-contained community so there would be plenty of places of interest within.
Everybody loves a Strexpet!

Character Creation

To speed this process, I built a series of tables specifically for the setting. You could create your own aspect for a character from scratch, or you could roll off a table to get some basic inspiration for your looks, occupation, a location you are most familiar with, or special talent. This could be used to replicate the settings signature combination of the mundane and strange, such as:
  • A museum curator with a non-linear perception of time
  • A dog walker with scars all over their body
  • A homeless man with the ability to break the fourth wall
  • A cubicle worker who speaks with a particular type of animal
Once their first few aspects were chosen, the player could then choose skills and I would help them pick out a stunt or two from the list that can be found here. Then we were ready to enter this friendly desert town where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while everyone pretends to sleep. Stay tuned to find out what happened!

You can find everything you need to know about this setting in text form at the Night Vale Wiki.

Happy ventures!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Adventuring Gear: Character Standees

Here are some of the useful tools and aides I typically use to make my games as organized and enjoyable as possible!

Standees: plain paper, outward facing text (with initiative note), player facing text

These are stand-up name tags made out of glossy poster board segments (purchased at Hobby Lobby or another crafts or hobby store), cut to the right size and folded over. I use a wet-erase marker so that I can wipe away the text with a damp sponge and re-use them. I keep one of these in front of each player to identify their character name and seat position at the table. These make it a lot easier to remember player character names, which is better than having a player explain that their dwarven warrior is Longhammer not Stronghammer for the umpteenth time a session. The player-facing side can be used by them to track stats and information, and there is usually room to attach sticky notes to help remember conditions that the characters are afflicted with.

Sometimes I use a permanent marker to write down a framework for combat statistics on the player side. Then they can record their stats with an erasable marker and keep them and change them for easy reference.
Permanent text on player side
Finally, variations of these cards can be hung from any DM screen. Some DMs like Mike Shea AKA Sly Flourish, The Lazy DM use this as a creative way to track initiative, which works as long as you remember that the player side and the DM side will have to be read in opposite directions. Remember that smaller hanging cards can be used to represent conditions and status updates like thus:

Image from slyflourish.com

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Time and Inspiration

Once you have been bitten by the DM bug and are ready to throw together some gnarly encounters, you will be forced to confront the more practical challenges...time and inspiration. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was the Tomb of Horrors. As a DM gains experience, they become more adept at improvising material on the spot, but even the most free-form game requires a framework to build upon. 

Even a single hour of preparation can make a difference. Overcoming writing resistance is your greatest challenge at this phase. I usually take a brisk walk or a jog before I get started, and then set a timer for thirty minutes or so when I am writing (then take a break, rinse and repeat.) 

You should never feel guilty about not having enough time available. Things come up, the intricacies of life mess with your game time, and if it seems like you never have the time you need to be ready and comfortable, extend your deadlines. Maybe this means trading off game-running responsibilities with someone else, or maybe it means having a movie or Nintendo Night instead. Or you could even play around with some DM-free tabletop alternatives (I will highlight some of those in a future entry.) Running a pre-made module is also an option, there are many available for free online.

And here comes the final vital piece... inspiration! While it may still be possible to run a session that is just a generic dungeon crawl, if you want a truly engaging experience you will need a strong concept. Consider it your elevator pitch (a way to present your idea in the time you would have on an elevator ride with someone.)  The best concepts are simple, elegant, and imaginative. The quickest way to find inspiration is to take some examples from your favorite books, movies, TV shows, or whatever media you enjoy! Just make sure you don't copy anything to the tee. You're looking for the broad strokes here.

Here are some core concepts I have used for campaigns, ranging from specific adventure hooks to the mood and theme of a setting.
  • A cabal of ancient wizards tries to destroy a technologically advanced city by turning their machines against them.
  • A club of adventurers set out to solve problems and make a name for themselves in a world on the brink of global war.
  • An ancient treasure lies in a jungle temple guarded by jaguar men and wild dinosaurs
  • The underground tunnels beneath a modern city house a garrison of aliens who arrived decades ago.
  • Terrorists are after Aladdin's magic lamp... but the "genie" inside is actually a microfilm containing the plans for a hydrogen bomb!
  • A courtroom battle to prove a man's innocence in which the opposition uses every dirty trick in the book. 
It doesn't need to be the greatest idea ever, but it better be the best idea you have at the moment. Don't hold anything back, if it is something that sounds fun then now is the time to let it shine. Collect your notes and get ready to play!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Chris Perkins on Ego and the Dungeon Master

Image from Wizards of the Coast

This is a really fantastic article about how ego can work against us by esteemed dungeon master Chris Perkins. The whole article is worth a read, but here is the bottom line:

"Being a Dungeon Master means putting yourself out there, on center stage, with only a thin DM screen (and sometimes not even that) separating you from the players, all of whom are counting on you to deliver a memorable gaming experience. In many respects, you're like an actor standing on a stage."
"...Let me be the first to point out that everyone wrestles with his or her ego, and sometimes ego gets the better of us despite our vigilance. I could be the most self-effacing and humble DM in the world (although I admit that I'm not), but woe to anyone who cuts me off on the freeway or thinks they know more useless Star Trek trivia than I do. You want to see my ego take charge? There are plenty of arenas in which I let my ego go a little wild, but the gaming table isn't one of them. Here's what I do to keep my ego from wreaking havoc with my campaign, which, I imagine, is what a lot of humble actors do when they walk out on stage to face a captive audience:
  • I remember that every session is a fresh start . . . and a chance to take a risk.
  • I expect to make mistakes (and never fail to disappoint), and I hope to learn from them.
  • I tell myself I'm on my players' side. The campaign is not about Me vs. Them.
  • At the end of every session, I look for smiles on the players' faces. If I don't see any, I know something's not right.
Along with the creative ability to improvise, DMs need self-awareness and the ability to poke fun at themselves. Every DM who reads this article thinks he or she has the ability to do both. Yeah, well, we all have the ability to breathe out of the nose instead of the mouth; doesn't mean we all do it. If you're truly self-aware and willing to laugh at yourself, you don't need a true seeing spell to know when your ego is getting in the way and doing more harm than good. It will always be there to protect you, but sometimes you gotta let it go."

Chris Perkins is a game designer, editor, and my personal favorite dungeon master. You can see and hear him in action on the Acquisitions Incorporated series or The Robot Chicken Dungeons and Dragons game he ran. You may also check out the rest of his blog The Dungeon Master Experience.

When To Become DM

Image from Community, NBC Television
So you want to run your tabletop RPG game for the first time. Maybe your current Dungeon Master left for college, maybe you are starting a brand new gaming group in your new neighborhood. First things first, though. If you have never played a tabletop RPG as a player, try to do so first. Find a gaming or comic shop if you can, and attend one of their sessions. Perhaps ask a friend if his group has room for a guest. There's no substitute for the experience you will get from that, experiencing the basic foundation of how tabletop groups work. Otherwise, get ready for a lot of trial and error.

When do you become your group DM? The first and foremost question you should yourself, is if you really want to. It's the obvious question but not always an easy one to answer. Nine times out of ten the best man for a job is the one that loves his work, and if you don't have that motivation driving you from the DM's seat, it will be harder to get everyone else on board and having fun. Your audience mirrors your attitude.

Of course you can run a successful game without much enthusiasm for the task. Depending on your group, there might simply be no one else who can do it, and you need to fill that role. But that case requires a lot more technical knowledge of what makes a good game. In other words, if you're bored with the task at hand, it is much easier to go about it the wrong way. So you better be dang sure you know what you're doing.

There are plenty of reasons to really want to DM, though. Just as there are many types of players, and there are also different types of game-runners. The Preparer enjoys the time spent building and designing between sessions, The Storyteller likes to run things like a novel or TV show, and The Strategist is all about encounter building and friendly competition with the players. Finding your preference can motivate you and your players.

The second and equally important question is whether you are willing to put yourself last. Your own needs and interests will have to be the least important among your gaming group. That may sound like a sacrifice, but really isn't that bad if you answered 'yes' to the previous question. If you really want to run the game, then there will always be some enjoyment to be gleaned in the act itself, even if you don't get to run things exactly how you'd like. Better yet, you will start to enjoy yourself as the players enjoy themselves. That's the power of empathy. That's DMpathy!