Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Taking a Break

Every now and then your carefully laid game night plans might fall through due to cancellations or unexpected circumstances. But that's okay! Sometimes it's best to roll with the changes and take some time off from the game table. Just like taking short breaks during a game session, taking breaks from gaming for a while isn't so bad. There are a number of ways that taking such a break can benefit you as a game runner and make your campaigns more enjoyable for yourself and your players.

First, it's a good way to prevent yourself from burning out on game mastering. Running a game is a labor intensive endeavor, and it can easily cause fatigue that will gradually effect the quality of your adventures. Don't be afraid to take a week off to relax and unwind. Put away your notes for a bit and let your mind reset and meditate. Don't stay at home during this whole time either. A change of scenery and some physical activity will do wonders for you creatively as well as holistically.

It's also a good way to suss out some future concepts and ideas for your game without the impending time crunch. Giving yourself an extra few days to prep for a game can make the difference between a rushed, sloppy session and something truly enjoyable.

Finally, it helps you prioritize your activities outside of the hobby, and can lead to opportunities to socialize outside your gaming activities as well. It's best not to be fixated on any single hobby or interest, tabletop gaming included. So don't be afraid of the next delay between game sessions, embrace the opportunity for a hiatus and channel it into something excellent!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Faction Generator Table

For today's quick entry, allow me to share this faction generator that I initially created for a Mad Max styled apocalyptic setting. It could really be used for any number of settings to provide quick inspiration for a group or nationality to include in your campaign.


1-2 Civilized: A nation, a village, a citizen's group.
3-4 Barbaric: Savages, marauders, vandals. 
5 Religious: A church, cultists, theocracy.
6 Cultural: Based around a cultural tradition like a sport, an occupation, or a sacred animal.
7 Militaristic: Army, militia, peace corps.
8 Criminal: Pirates, gangsters, thieves guild.


1 Settled: Fixed to a specific point of origin, like a city or headquarters.
2 Nomadic: Travelling around the world, unbound to a single location.
3 Fringe: On the outskirts of society, or an underground organization. 
4 Unknown: A faction that is secretive and unknown to most of the world. 
5 Extinct: The remnants of a faction that has since fallen to destruction or the ravages of time.
6 Scattered: A group that is found in various areas, dispersed and disconnected.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Puzzles: Moral Quandary Test

Today I'd like to share a fun role playing activity that is really fun to work into a campaign after the players have had some time to get to know each others' characters. This is basically a team-building activity that challenges the their observational skills as how well they have established their PC's characterization. It's comprised of a series of ethical dilemmas in which the answers are not always so cut and dry.

I often frame this challenge in conjunction with a magical device or item that is attuned to the morality of the player characters. In a campaign I ran in the Planescape setting, this was used as a means to calibrate a planar transit device, allowing the players to navigate between the various heavens and hells of the netherworld based on their moral understanding of one another.

So here's how it works. Read the question for the group. Have each player record their character's answer to question. This is the important part. They should answer the question as their character would, not like they would answer it themselves.

After going through all the questions and letting the players secretly record their actions, read the first question again. Point out the first player character and ask all the other PCs to guess what their answer to the question was. Then let that player reveal their answer. If more than half of the group guess correctly, then count one success. If not, then it is a failure. Don't let the players feel too bad about a failure, because it just provides an opportunity for dramatic revelations. The party members might not know as much about each other as they thought!

Continue this process for the rest of the questions. Keep in mind that I have included more questions than are necessary for you to do this activity, so you don't have to use them all. It can take a real long time to get through even a couple of questions with a decent sized game group. If the players score more successes than failures overall, they have won the challenge! If they fail, then some interesting and dramatic complication should befall them.

You see a fight between a policeman and a bystander

Each of these people from your community are threatened. You can only save one, the rest will be lost. What do you do?

While looking through a scroll in the library, you find a hidden treasure map. What do you do?

You are in deep cover and asked to kill a man. What do you do?

The Barony has found some illegal contraband belonging to your son. Your spouse steps forward to take the fall and serve time for it. What do you do?

There is a storm coming. What do you do?

You are in a ticking time bomb scenario. The bomber is a fanatic and would only confess if you resort to tortuous methods. What do you do?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Campaign Lethality

When it comes to determining how to handle player character deaths in your campaign, there are a few factors to consider. First and foremost you will want to implement a level of lethality that your players can all agree that they are comfortable with. Some groups may like a very challenging game in which they are often at risk of losing a character. Others would prefer alternatives to permanent loss of their in-game avatar.

But another consideration to make is based on the genre and setting of your campaign. What kind of tone and atmosphere is it, and would it lend itself to that kind of high risk gameplay or not? This is also an important factor to consider when choosing an RPG game system and implementing your own custom rules. For instance, when I run the Song of Ice and Fire RPG for my game group, I tend to add minor house rules to make it slightly easier for player characters to fall in battle. My reason for this is that those familiar with the books and the Game of Thrones television series that the game is based on will also be familiar with their infamously fatalistic "anyone can die" mentality. In order to make the experience authentic, I allow for a greater likelihood of PC mortality than I would for other games that I run.

Conversely, I find player death to be seriously out of place in a classic superhero campaign. Comic book supers are notorious for never staying gone for long, and even getting to the point of death is extremely rare. So I would run these games in systems that allow for many other alternative results of the players' defeat.

When you sort these games by theme and genre, it becomes easier to see when you should imperil the lives of the player characters. Horror games are an example of a genre that is typically very lethal, whereas comedy games rarely have such stakes. Narrative-heavy games often place the choice in the hands of the player, allowing them to choose when their character dramatically falls or survives to face some other consequence. Killing or sparing a player character in the wrong circumstances can really undermine the tone of your campaign, so be very sure you know what your players are expecting from the game, and that you have already decided how perilous things will get.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Opening and Closing Themes

I've talked before about the kind of music I collect for my game sessions, from action themes to somber dirges. But a couple kinds of music that I haven't discussed as much are the songs I use to open and close sessions. These are songs that I choose more carefully to fit the themes of the campaign and put people in the proper mood for the game. So what better time to explore these tunes than the present?

The Opening Theme

The opening theme song is the one I usually like to keep the same. If it is iconic and recognizable, it is ideal for returning players to the world of the ongoing campaign merely by the association of its melody. I will carefully pick out a theme song that fits the tone I am hoping to create in the game world, and start it up before or during the recap of the previous session. It's like the opening crawl of Star Wars, or the opening theme song of a TV show. It gets the group's attention and hypes the impending adventure.

Sometimes I might change things up and start with a different opening theme. This is a good way to really grab the players' attention and indicate a change in direction for your campaign.

The Closing Theme 

The closing theme could also be the same every time, but I prefer to choose a different song each time to wrap up the session. I think of the ending song like the song that plays during the credits of movie, something that lets the players reflect on the events that just transpired. To this end, I keep a playlist of various lyrical songs to choose from that might make good closing tunes. A good song can have a strong effect on the group as they wind down from an adventure, so I always like to end with a very striking melody.

I strongly encourage you to think about what kind of music would best fit with your own tabletop endeavors. Strike up the proper tune and it will bring your players deeper into the worlds you create in your pen and paper exploits.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Now Playing: Mythic GM Emulator

For those game sessions where you don't have anything prepared, or don't have any volunteers for running the game, you might find need of something like the Mythic GM Emulator.

I've tried it out a couple of times, and it is included in my binder full of random tables for improvisational game mastery. At its core, Mythic is a decision-making system that takes over the job of adjudicating your tabletop game. Think of it like a more advanced version of the old magic eight ball toy, answering any yes or no question you might pose. It also provides ways to generate keywords that can inspire an infinite number of random encounters. 

Finally, it structures the game in a way that makes the master-less adventure flow smoothly. By breaking your game into a scene to scene structure and assigning each scene a "Chaos Level," the system allows you to play out a series of engagements that tend to escalate in difficulty. Chaos levels increase the likelihood that your questions will be met with answers of 'yes.' Since those are typically questions like "Is there a booby trap in this room?" or "Is the duke angry with us?" you can see how things can get very interesting very quickly.

Overall, it is a fun and unique tool that I would recommend to any game master for their own toolbox. It can be used in conjunction with any system (Though it works best with simple systems that are less combat-oriented), and could also be used as a tool to help aid a game master with decision-making and inspiration in general. Check it out now on DrivethruRPG.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

External Link: Natural 20 Web Series

Today I'd like to share the excellent web series Natural 20 by Jack Delaney. This is a hilarious show that actually manages to portray a comedic take on tabletop gaming that is accurate and familiar to those who have played games like Dungeons and Dragons. Lots of fun inside jokes and musings on the myriad ways that things can go right and wrong within a eclectic group of players.

The entire first season is currently available to view on Youtube. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Noises of Imagination

Creating a quality soundscape can be a real boon to your players tabletop experience. The way you describe how something looks is important, but how it sounds can be just as evocative. While there are many sound boards and programs to generate unique and appropriate sound effects, I will save those for a future entry. Today let's talk about a more pragmatic approach.

The simplest way to put audio cues into your game may also seem to be the silliest: Make sounds with your mouth. No, really! As childish as it may seem, it's the simplest way to convey a scene's ambiance in an imaginative manner.

Critical Role's Matt Mercer is one example of a DM who really likes to add noise effects into his performance, from monster roars to exploding fireballs. Think about the impact that sound effects have in movies and video games and do what you can to at least imitate that feeling. The earth-shattering pound of a monster's footsteps, the distinct click and hiss of an activated light saber. Practice your sound effect repertoire at game night. Listen for distinct and iconic sound effects in various media and think about how you can emulate them with your personal noise-making.

A DM shouldn't worry if doing this generates laughter, as long as everyone is having a good time it's all good. Tabletop gaming is a place for child-like wonder and humor, so leave your self-consciousness behind. As you hiss to demonstrate the searing heat of a lava flow, or inflate your cheeks to portray an erupting volcano, enjoy the company of your players and the fun of the unfolding adventure!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Keeping It Eclectic: Running Multiple Games

Today I'd like to share the general outline of how I organize different kinds of tabletop RPGS for my home group. You may notice that I try to use advice and examples in my articles that can be applied to a wide range of games and genres. That's because I like to play in a variety of systems and settings whenever I can.

Since I take an approach to storytelling that sometimes emulates serialized television programs, it's only natural that I use that as an outline for how I coordinate various tabletop campaigns. I tend to divide my games into "seasons," consisting of a few sessions each. This way the players have time to get invested in a particular campaign, making some serious progress with the storyline and their characters.

Then I will break things up with what I call a "One Shot Season," in which we play through a series of episodic mini-adventures using a variety of systems. So after a season of Dungeons and Dragons we might play a season of single or two-session one shots like Deadlands, Mutants and Masterminds, or Spirit of the Century.

I'll let the play group vote on what games we play, offering a wide range of choices from month to month. Then we will return to our major on-going campaigns for another season of adventure!

Running games this way allows me to keep things eclectic and diverse, and gives the players the variety and tactical stimulation that makes for a successful gaming group. Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how to handle things if you think your own group could benefit from such variety.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Now Playing: '90s Superhero Name Generator

Anybody remember comics of the '90s? The bulging biceps, overpowered weaponry, grim anti-heroes and pouches galore? One of my previous one-shots was a tribute/send-up of those bizarre and gaudy adventures. To this end, I created the '90's superhero name generator. Now I'd like to share it with you. Create your own savage warrior straight from the fever dreams of Rob Liefeld himself! Characters with over-the-top names like Steel Soul or Kill Claw! Excelsior!

  1. Blood
  2. Death
  3. Kill
  4. Dread
  5. Iron
  6. Steel
  7. Diamond
  8. Grim
  9. Dark
  10. Tek

  1. Spike
  2. Fist
  3. Blade
  4. Stone
  5. Claw
  6. Dragon
  7. Tiger
  8. Flame
  9. Soul
  10. Star

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Adventuring Gear: Lighting the Way

Proper lighting at your game table is an often neglected consideration when setting up a neat space for game time. In particular, you want three areas of the gamespace to be lit well and highly visible. The map, the character sheets, and the area behind your GM screen. Mood lighting can be a great enhancement to your games, sure, but practicality comes first. If you and your players don't have a clear look at everything, things can be missed and the game gets slowed down.

Imposing edifices like a GM screen can cast long shadows over your notes. I like to have my own lamp positioned behind me to allow me to clearly see the details. If the room you are playing in is particularly dark, or you are deliberately trying to create a shadowy atmosphere, you might want to have desk lamps or clip on lights near the players and their character sheets. Make sure your players don't have to strain their eyes to read things, or they will be discouraged from checking their sheets and participating in the game.

Speaking of mood lighting, another quick trick to set an atmosphere is to use colored tissue paper to change the tint of your light source. Don't put tissue paper directly on the bulb and make sure it isn't so hot to become a fire hazard. A red tissue over a lampshade could create a hellish glow, or a blue tissue becomes a faerie-like twilight.

Keep your gaming area properly illuminated and your players will appreciate the effort you made for their comfort and convenience!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Crossovers and Remixes

When devising new concepts and encounters for a game session, it pays to think outside the box. So the next time you wrack your brain for inspiration, don't be afraid to adapt material from sources in all sorts of genres. Rather than limiting yourself to works that bear immediate similarities to the setting of your game, try thinking ways to remix and cross over people, places, and things into your own campaign setting. 

Maybe an Indiana Jones character could be a fitting NPC in your Star Wars game, or a monstrosity from Buffy the Vampire Slayer appears in a Call of Cthulhu nightmare? Don't be afraid to mix things up and think outside the box.

This doesn't mean you should just add something from your favorite book or TV show as-is. Make the necessary modifications so it will fit within the fiction you are creating. Adapt and alter it to make it into something new. I've done this in my own campaigns, bringing mutants from the Half Life games into a Deadlands RPG, or using Breaking Bad characters as antagonists in a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. As long as you can justify it within the setting, you can use that inspiration to fuel your creativity and your campaign!

To think about what kind of stories to draw these ideas from, you should focus the way you think about your campaign. Instead of thinking about it in terms of the game's genre or setting, reduce your scope to a scene-by-scene consideration. Where is the adventure currently taking place, and what is its tone? If you think about the game in terms of individual scenes instead of an entire genre, you can reference a wide number of concepts from various works of fiction. 

A crime-riddled city could be home to Omar from The Wire, whether it is in outer space or a magical realm. Likewise, a spooky crypt could be inhabited by a shape-shifting monster like The Thing, even if it is buried in the desert sands or a haunted swamp. Think about it in terms of what kind of creature, character, or enviromnent you want to portray and then you can reference all sorts of inspirational material that uses those themes. Whether your players recognize the source of your inspiration or not, it can provide a wealth of ideas and creative material that will bring the entertainment and spice up your tabletop experience.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Preparing for the Unexpected

As a DM,  I spend a large portion of my prep time in an attempt to plan and prepare for the unexpected.  In any given scenario I can imagine, there also exists a number of alternative conclusions that could  result in things taking a sharp turn. Such is the role of the game runner:  to manage the campaign through any number of surprising twists and keep things moving  toward a satisfying end goal.

Here are a couple of classic surprises to consider when you are planning an adventure...

The case of players failing an encounter entirely is a classic "uh oh"  moment.  That's why it is  the first thing to consider and the simplest to prepare for.  Try to imagine how the story could be progressed if the players don't  succeed in their goal.  Make sure there is an appropriate setback as a consequence of the failure,  but also consider the alternatives that might be available for the game to progress.  Don't make encounters where failure is not an option. If you do,  you will  ever forced to either rig the game in the players' favor or face a cataclysmic game over. Neither of these makes for an entertaining outcome.

The other common twist is when the players don't latch on to a plot hook like you had hoped, and choose to approach their quest from a new tack. You can reduce the severity of this problem simply by being aware of ways it could  happen.  Like the example  above,  think about the possibility that your players might take another path.  Write out a couple of alternate routes or methods your players might use to approach a problem,  and then you can be ready if they try  those.

Ultimately there is no way to be prepared for every contingency,  but if you go in with an open mind and spend a little extra time on prepping a backup plan,  you will feel a lot less pressure when you are thrown a curveball during the game itself.  Keep calm and game on.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Naming the Party

Today I'd like to share a few brief thoughts about the practice of having a play group choose a name for their team. While it may not seem important to most folks, I find that the practice of developing an official name for a party is a rewarding endeavor that can add another layer to player and non player interactions. There are a number of advantages to having an official moniker for your team, so let's go over a few of the biggest ones...

Primarily, it makes for an effective team building exercise between the players. Even just the process of dreaming up some options and discussing them as a group can help develop the bond between PCs and the nature of their group. This is why it is usually best to save this experience for after the group has been together for a session or two, so they can establish a dynamic. That way they have a better idea of what kind of name would fit them best.

It also gives your players an easy identifier to use over the course of the campaign. Being able to refer to their unit rather than just individuals will help them to have better shorthand in dealing with various NPCs. As a matter of convenience, being able to name your group is just plain useful.

It also makes it easier for your team to develop a reputation. A name is something that can be feared or respected, but first it must exist. Giving your team a memorable title is the first step toward hearing it whispered and screamed to the heavens. It's a nifty dramatic feature that might even be used as the title of your campaign itself.

A team name can range from silly to imposing, but the important part is that the whole group enjoys the name and identifies with it in some way or another. You can easily cue up the process of brainstorming the group's name in a number of ways. An NPC might ask the players to introduce themselves as a unit, or they might start showing up on wanted posters. However it comes up, you can then ask the group to decide on what they want to call themselves going forward.

Here are some examples of typical adventuring party names:

  • Vox Machina (Critical Role)
  • The Crew of the Mynock (Campaign Podcast)
  • The Crazy Partiers (One Shot Podcast)
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings)
  • The Rat Queens (Rat Queens)

Hopefully this gives you a bit of motivation and inspiration for developing a group name in your own home games!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Now Playing: Fantasy Adventure Playlists for Specific Moods

Today I'd like to share some links to various Spotify playlists I have created to fit certain moods and atmospheres in the games I run. Each one is curated with song choices to emphasize particular themes and feelings. Hopefully some of these could be useful to other up and coming game runners. Feel free to use the playlists for a game or just as inspiration to compile your own! (A free or premium Spotify account is required to view the links.)

Standard Fight Music

Intense Fight Music

Triumphant Music

Majestic Music

Dramatic Music (Sad/Scary)

Travelling Music (Background Ambience)

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Working Around Absentee Players

Every now and then, or maybe more frequently than that, players will announce that they will miss your regularly scheduled game session. The various responsibilities and inconveniences of life will crop up and interfere with someone's recreational plans and suddenly your group is minus one PC.

Regardless, this can happen at some very inopportune times for your gaming group. If your last episode ended with a dramatic cliffhanger, it can be very frustrating when a player suddenly drops out of the next session.

I have experienced my fair share of cancellations and missing players. Fortunately, these adversities have only driven me to develop better skills at working around the absences at my game table and keeping the campaign on track. When I handle the players' temporary departure, I prefer to find a way to remove the character from the action temporarily if possible. If I gave that character to another player or used them as an NPC, I would need to make sure that the character wouldn't be placed in serious jeoparady. It would be unfair to let a player character come to harm when their player is not present. So instead I need to find ways to explain why the PC has been taken out of the action.

Here are a few of my favorite tricks for explaining a player character's sudden disappearance from the adventuring scene. Most of them are based around the current context of their character within the adventure. The explanation should ideally make sense based on the state of this individual character and what they might be doing while their player is gone. The DM or another player will probably need to volunteer to role-play the character for a scene or two to establish what they are doing during the episode.

Has the character been hurt in the previous session? You can easily justify their absence as being part of a process of recovery. Even if a healer can restore their hit points with a touch... for narrative purposes it might require hours or days of bed rest before the character is ready to hit the road once again.

Has the character recently been embroiled in some personal drama? This kind of situation could justify a temporary departure from the group in order to explore these new developments. After being 'off-screen' for a session or two, they may then return with new information or story material to progress things along. This time spent away from the group doesn't have to be described in detail, but you can summarize what happened during this period when the player returns.

If your game session begins in the middle of an encounter or a dungeon delve, even more creative solutions are in order. Don't worry about bending the rules to have an absent player's character conveniently knocked out right before a fight. If there is a narrative need for it, just assume it can happen. Additionally, a character might be beset by any number of unexpected inconveniences. From suddenly passing into a mystic vision quest to being enchanted into a hypnotic haze.

Could the character have another reason for being absent? Maybe they remove themselves from an encounter due to a conflict of interest with the party's enemies? Maybe they temporarily lose hope in the mission? Whatever the case, try to be sure that it is an explanation that the missing player would agree with. Don't make it humiliating or harmful to the player or character. There is no need to punish a PC for missing a session.

When more than one player is absent, it works best to integrate these missing characters into a single explanation. Maybe two players are running errands in the local marketplace together, or maybe one is tending to the wounds of the other. If half your party can't make it, it might be a good idea to run a one-shot or sidequest instead of your main campaign. After all, a good group works best when they are at their full complement.

It may be rough going sometimes, but figuring out how to fill in these gaps in the story and work around adversity is how you hone your creative skills as a game master and story teller. Don't let yourself get discouraged next time you see an empty seat, take it as what it is... a test of your narrative instincts!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Celebrity Quotes on Tabletop RPGs

Felicia Day (The Guild)

Tabletop RPGs have recently been revitalized with renewed interest through current media and general exposure. This exposure is also helped along by the endorsement of proud celebrity tabletop fans ranging from comedian Patton Oswalt to journalist Anderson Cooper. Today I'd like to share some quotes from various individuals in positions of a higher profile than most. Enjoy the following tidbits from various celebrities with an interest in Dungeons and Dragons and tabletop gaming.

"The most valuable thing about it is its incentivization of collaborative, spontaneous storytelling. It really blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in your mind in the way a video game being realistic simply can’t do.

When you’re with your friends, or even just other human beings, and you’re talking about what’s going on, and a qualified game master is keeping track of what’s going on and allowing you to collectively participate in an imaginary event, it really takes the pressure off being in the line at the bank the next day. You start to realize this is a collective story too, there’s just more evidence we should take this seriously. But if we can’t make our own happiness, where’s it going to come from? I just like the invitation to create your own world." -Dan Harmon, writer (Community, Rick and Morty)

“So imagine: Dungeons and Dragons [is] a table filled with artists, whether they're painters, whether they're actors, whether they're poets … - whatever they are, they are able to live in this world of imagination.” -Vin Diesel, actor

"...Regarding tabletop RPGs. If you get the right group of players, you can learn so much about storytelling, improv, character, etc. It forces you to deal with an immediate audience. And have to balance the needs of the story you want to tell and the story they want.If you want to get the most out of it, GM a game. You have to do all the work. But if you it right, you get an incredible rush. -Pablo Hidalgo, Lucas Story Group

“You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to the all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow.” - Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

"I think it’s driven me to be a better storyteller. I am FAR from perfect, and I make errors all the time, but if anything I hope that reminds others out there who are also GMs/Prospective GMs that it’s okay if you mess up. Just own it, justify it, and move on." -Matt Mercer, voice actor/ dungeon master (Critical Role)

"I'm a very lazy person by nature. I have to be really engaged, and then I go straight from lazy to obsessive. I couldn't study chemistry, but I could memorize all the books for Dungeons and Dragons. It was ridiculous. The trick is to find what I like to do." -Jon Favreau, Director (Iron Man)

"If you’re like me and thought “Wow, that’s way nerdier than I can swing” give it a try. Whatever the preconception, when you’re working with 8 others to formulate a plan in order to avoid magic-seeing dogs and retrieve a deadly shard weapon to save a city, you’ll forget about what other people think and just have fun." -Felicia Day, Writer/Actress

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Good vs. Evil Choices: The Path Not Dared

Moral quandaries are a mainstay of any RPG with a strong narrative focus. Presenting the players with a difficult choice, forcing them to reach a crucible that will define their characters growth and future adventures.

But it is all to easy for these choices to be presented as somewhat assymetrical, with one option providing much more favor or appeal to the players than the other. I have never liked that imbalanced way of presenting a problem. It tends to skew the majority of players toward the most pragmatic solution. They might decide to go against the grain for purposes of role playing, but the chances are high that most of the players will go with the 'smart' decision to maximize their returns.

A common example of this is a game in which the 'evil' options of burning down castles and stealing loot are easier to execute than the 'good' option of managing things diplomatically and being honest. If the DM is treating the the most heavy-handed tactics as the most effective method for players, it weights the game toward favoring those kinds of tactics.

That's why I believe it is important to balance the options evenly against one another. The consequences might take different forms, or take effect at different times, but they should always be present. Blowing up a monastery like a madman might settle the ninja problem temporarily, but the emperor will expect the players to answer for it. It's important to have risks and benefits for every path. Risks and consequences are the source of drama, and drama equals entertainment!

With this in mind, make sure that you don't leave players with an easy path to victory. When the players are challenged to choose between two equally perilous options, they are more likely to make a decision based on what kind of story they want to experience rather than basing their choice on practicality. Make it clear that there are no easy answers, just ones that are compelling and challenging. Once they realize that there are no shortcuts, they will be more prepared to enjoy the journey itself. And enjoying the journey is what the tabletop RPG experience is all about!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Taking a Step Back

When prepping an adventure or campaign for your next tabletop get-together, it can become easy to get burned out or over-stressed as you wrack your brain for ideas or toil over the design. That's why it's important to be able to take a step back and put things in perspective. This could mean something short term like taking a walk outside, or something more long term like taking a week off from running games.

If you still need your gaming fix during a break, you might let another qualified individual run a session for you, as you take a turn being a player. Seeing things from the perspective of a player can provide you with much more insight on what players might enjoy most from a session, and it gives you more time to relax and think things through. If nobody else is ready to run a game, consider running a GM-less system like Fiasco, so that everybody can participate.

Start thinking about your next game ahead of time, so that you have plenty of time to prepare. Don't fixate on it or let it take up an inordinate amount of your free time. Set aside little chunks of time to write up notes and seek out inspiration. Read a book or watch a movie, let them stimulate your creativity. Above all, don't let it become a chore or burden on yourself. Your hobby should be just as fun for you as your players, even if it might require more work on your part.

Changing your environment can be a creative boon as well. Don't always sit in one place to do prep work. You can try jotting down notes on a laptop, tablet, paper notebook, or even a restaurant napkin if it's more convenient. Just have fun with it, let it be an outlet for stress relief and self expression. Your amusement will be infectious to your players if you keep your creative environment casual and not rushed. Watch yourself for signs of burn-out, a sure sign that you need to take some kind of break. If you can prevent it before it happens, it will spare you and your gaming group a lot of anxiety.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Running Comedy Games (Part One)

One of my favorite RPG settings stands out from the rest for its willingness to set itself apart with a unique style and tone that is not found in the majority of tabletop RPGs. I'm talking about Paranoia, a satirical take on dystopian science fiction that lampoons everything from George Orwell to Star Trek. If you've never heard of it before, I highly recommend you look it up. It's a screwball romp filled with opportunities for players to double cross and blow themselves up as if they were in a Loony Tunes feature.

Running a game like this is a bit different than any other campaign. It requires you to adjust your way of thinking about the game. If you are a new DM, you might want to build up some experience before taking on this kind of endeavor. Let's delve a bit into the best techniques for running a game with the primary goal of laughter rather than action and thrills. 

Combat is Easy: Comedy is Hard.

Not everybody is a born comedian. And there is nothing wrong with that. But whether you are a rookie jokester or a seasoned humorist, it can be very difficult to come up with funny scenarios off the top of your head. 

This is why it is perhaps more important to put prep work into a humor game than any other kind. You might be able to improvise an action-packed encounter with a monster, but improvising a joke on the spot is something that entire drama courses are based around. Best not to leave things to chance. Have a lot of pre-written material ready and look for material that has been thought out and audience tested. Better to be over-prepared than to be caught unawares when it comes to funny business.

It's Not About Winning

The goal of a comedic game should be quite different than your average session. Rather than aiming for victory, the main objective is for the group to be amused. It's all about the journey rather than the destination. 

This means that a group who is about to play one of these games should be ready to accept failures and misadventures as an inevitability. They also need to be ready to laugh at their character's own missteps. After all, a bunch of competent and successful adventurers completing their mission swimmingly isn't exactly a recipe for laughs. The basic foundation of a comedy-focused RPG is a farce. That means absurdity and errors will abound. In any other kind of RPG, it would be mean-spirited to describe a player character tripping over their feet like a buffoon. In a comedy it is par for the course. The players need to be ready to embrace their own absurdity. In a comedy game, failed rolls can be more entertaining than successes, and the players should keep this in mind.

Let the Funny Flow

Above all, don't force the humor on your players. If they don't find something funny, don't let it discourage you as a game runner. A bit of insecurity can cause your energy to peter out, bringing things grinding to a halt. 

The best way to keep things going is to let the players drive the comedy themselves... through the actions of their characters, interactions with each other, and commentary on the unfolding hijinks. Let the humor flow from your players enjoying themselves and the game. Give them a chance to crack their own jokes and create situations that will lead to hilarity.


One last tip: the best atmosphere for a game of comedy is one that is casual and relaxed. Don't use a complicated game system and don't let the players put a lot of focus on the rules. (For example, Rule One of the Paranoia RPG is that the players aren't allowed to know the actual rules.) Keep things light and fast-paced. There's little need to worry about messing up a game rule when you are deliberately goofing around.  The main goal is to allow your players a chance to unwind and share a laugh. So keep everything loose and your players should feel free enough to cut loose and unwind. This is why comedy games work best as one shots. It's a great way to release tension after a few sessions of more serious adventures. 

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Who Leads the Charge? How DMs and Players Drive Adventures

When you are running a game, there is a balance to be maintained between who leads the action. Sometimes it is the DM, but sometimes it is the player who initiates a direction for the adventure. In the cases of DM-guided storytelling, an NPC might direct the players down a certain path, or an event might occur that suggests a need for immediate action. But when players guide the action, it involves their own characters making choices that will develop into new avenues of adventure.

A good campaign requires a sharing of this responsibility. The DM could keep throwing plot developments and events at the players all day, but eventually she will get tired of carrying the burden of the adventure alone. If the players are passively waiting for the DM to tell them where to go or what to do, the game-runner can get fatigued and discouraged. It might also suggest that the players feel confused or shy about taking a proactive role in directing the course of the game. Make sure they understand that your role is not dictatorial, but that they have the ability to make their own choices related to their character and actions.

There's a flip side to this as well: If you are not contributing enough material as a DM, your players will focus on creating their own entertainment. This can manifest as far-out or outrageous actions, flights of fancy and digressions. If your players start instigating conflicts or following red herrings of their own design, it often means that they are not engaging with the adventure as you have presented it. You need to find out what your players want from the game and present some adventuring options that would entertain them more than their own hijinks.

As I said before, balance is the key. Make it clear that the players can take an active role in their quest, but keep presenting interesting content that fills their characters' lives with compelling adventure. 

When the DM is driving the action, a dragon attacks the town and its citizens cry for help. When the player drives the action, your paladin decides to travel to the town square and preach the word of their chosen diety. Either of these scenarios could lead to a compelling scene or adventure hook. It's best to have a mixture of both types in your adventures. Not only does it encourage cooperation between players and DM, it also provides a more diverse fount of creativity that flows from your entire gaming group. 

Keep this in mind when you are running a game. Present adventures that your players can engage with and encourage your group to take an active role in their characters' destinies!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Committing to Themes

There are many kinds of stories to be told on the tabletop. Each genre represents a unique flavor, from fantasy to science fiction, to historical drama and more. The themes commonly associated with your chosen game are the ones that your players will expect to encounter as they play. And while it is great to occasionally subvert expectations, it is important to remember to maintain the unique flavor of your campaign's setting. 

There is a way to run a game in the wrong genre, for instance. If the answer to the question "Could this story happen in another setting?" is yes, you might be running it in the wrong genre. Take, for instance, a story that involves a space cadet chasing an outlaw through a lawless frontier asteroid colony. If that sums up the main storyline, your tale is really a wild western set in space. While it's fine to mix classic genre elements together, it still needs something uniquely sci-fi to justify its reason for being run as that kind of game.

At some point you have to ask yourself why you want to run a game specifically in the kind of setting you chose. What is it about the setting and story that makes them integral to each other? Because if they don't fit together like hand and glove, something will seem off. Your players might not be able to identify what it is, but something is missing from the narrative. 

If you truly want your campaign to shine, include a medley of elements that could only be found in that particular genre or setting. If you are running science fiction, then advanced forms of science should be integral to the campaign (Like a colony of genetic clones.) If you are running a fantasy game, magic needs to be more than just an alternative to technology (Like a phylactery filled with ghostly spirits.) If you are running a cyberpunk game, a certain amount of dystopian grunge is to be expected. Don't just choose a setting at random when you have an adventure idea. Let them match up properly so that the genre can be explored to its full potential. 

Follow these principles and your games will be all the more poignant and memorable! Don't think of this as a limitation, but instead playing to the strengths of your setting. Embrace the core tenants of the genre and you will get the best results in terms of entertainment and storytelling. In future entries, I will highlight and detail a few of these genres, and what they have to offer for your own tabletop endeavors.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Creating the Ultimate Antagonist

A good villain, a long running nemesis, a foil for your dynamic player characters... creating a compelling foe that your players truly love to hate can be a real challenge. That's why today I'd like to share this informative video by the Youtube channel Lessons from the Screenplay. Hopefully it will provide you with some interesting food for thought on how to design the perfect enemy for your next thrilling adventure!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Crossroad Sessions

There may come a time during your tabletop RPG campaign in which you find yourself unsure what direction your players may be headed next. If you run your games like I do, your ongoing campaign will be subdivided into dramatic 'arcs,' a series of particular missions that last a few sessions each. But when you finish one of these storylines, you might want to give the players some choice in the matter of where they proceed from there. Do they want to roam across the desert, or play politics and intrigue in the royal palace? What plot hook are they interested in pursuing for the next major arc? When this question arises, it may be time to plan for a crossroad session.

Simply put, a crossroad session is a session mostly dedicated to providing the group with plot hooks and opportunities. It allows them to gather intelligence, develop their characters' personal storylines, and inform the DM what their next course of action will be so he can prepare for it.  The crossroad Session isn't necessarily filler or wasting time. It's often necessary to establish a clear goal and trajectory for the next portion of the campaign.

Let's say that a group of super spy player characters just returned from a mission inside Doctor Evil's secret base. They have stolen some of his plans, but they don't know when and where his next move will be. Where do they go from here? What is their next course of action?

 In this case, you might have the players return to the capital and play out a crossroads session. They investigate the files of a rival agency, they chase down and interrogate another terrorist operative, and they touch bases with their superiors at Central Intelligence. At the end of the session, they decide to pursue a lead on a secret superweapon being developed in a secret Siberian bunker. The game runner will now be able to map out the bunker and its contents because he knows the players are heading there next.

The Crossroad Session is a lot like a sandbox-style video game. The players are free to roam around and explore at their leisure. However, this sandbox should be seeded with any number of adventure hooks and potential plot threads that could lead the party to their next adventure. By the end of the session, make sure you know what particular plot hook they are planning to follow, so that you can focus on preparation for that part of the adventure. 

These plot hooks don't even have to be brand new to your players. You can use this as an opportunity to present reminders of previously established information. The players see the results of the tyrant king's villainy in a burned village, or hear new rumors of the famed treasure in the Devil's Mountain.

Ideally, these stories should tie in to the player characters' personal conflicts and goals. Rather than just random plot threads, it helps if the players have personal stakes in the matter at hand. Lead the players to storylines through non-player characters they care about, or include elements of their backstory in the plot hooks. Let the players explore freely and then start dropping hints about future adventures at your leisure. The player might think he is just going to the pawn shop to sell his loot, but he is about to learn all about the Curse of the Dread Diamond from the old man who works the front desk.

These kinds of sessions can be light on encounters, considering their main purpose is to advance the story and give you ideas for future sessions. But not all players enjoy a session without any combat or challenges, so it's a good idea to plan out at least one or two options for it. The best way to include an encounter in a session like this is to design it to represent a particular story arc that the players might want to follow up on. An ambush by a team of assassins would lead your players to find out where they came from and who sent them. A collapsed mining tunnel could lead directly into subterranean ruins filled with valuable artifacts. Think about where the encounter might lead your group, and design it as a dramatic and challenging introduction to a new adventure path.

Remember to also allow players some downtime to stock up on supplies and interact with each others' characters as well as NPCs. New adventures and ideas can spring forth from the most innocuous player decisions. Follow their choices, letting them direct the action as you sprinkle your plot hooks throughout the story they weave. Don't think of this session as a break in the action, think of it as a prologue to a brand new storyline. It's the first step down a new road, and taking the time to establish this new direction will pay off for both you and your players. 

One last note: I advise against starting off any new campaign with a crossroads session. Without the established rapport between player characters and the momentum of the ongoing series it would be a very boring experience. Start your players off with a strong adventure hook and save the crossroads for later, when they have more experience and comfort with the setting of the campaign.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My Favorite Universal RPG Systems

For the longest time, GURPS was the gold standard for a universal tabletop role playing system. A flexible and detailed system that would allow you to run any game, from scif fi and fantasy, to noir or Lovecraftian horror. But that system has a lot of moving parts and trappings that can be overwhelming or tedious to many players, myself included. Nowadays, the rise of more modern RPG systems have widened our range of options when it comes to a universal RPG.

In recent years, a number of game systems have risen to prominence based on the selling points of simplicity and infinite adaptability. Today I'd like to share my personal favorites for running a game in any setting that you can just pick up and play. 

When it comes to a universal game system, I never limit myself to a single option. This is because there are a number of gameplay styles that fit a wide range of personal taste. Sometimes players want to tell a story, other times they desire the challenge of a game of strategy. It's good to consider which ruleset best represents the play style of your group before choosing one.

As a side note, I also really like Mutants and Masterminds and anything that uses the Apocalypse Engine, like Dungeon World. But these games still have to be tweaked and customized quite a bit before they are ready to be adapted to a unique setting. My top picks for this entry are games that can work with any genre or setting right out of the box.

Also, my least favorite universal system would be any other generic or open source D20 system. I love Dungeons and Dragons, but that system has a lot of intricacy and design built into the system to support the basic rules. Strip away the magic system, the equipment, the fantastical character classes, and you have a system that is just not very interesting or intuitive without it. Better to stick to more simple systems that aren't geared toward a specific genre of game. 

Like these great examples:

The Tactical Game: Savage Worlds

Built around the motto "Fast! Furious! Fun!" Savage Worlds is indeed fast-paced and easily adaptable for many different kinds of games. This one is the best option for players who want to use maps, miniatures, and tactical combat. 

The rules are fairly simple but allow for unique character creation and tactical options.  They are also perfect for grid-based mapping, and the use of playing cards for tracking initiative makes the combat uniquely dynamic. Overall, a great system for players who love the action-packed taste of combat! 

The Narrative Game: FATE

FATE Core, and its simplified quick-start counterpart FATE Accelerated are revolutionary when it comes to narrative focused games and cooperative storytelling. Providing a quick and easy framework for defining characters' strengths, weaknesses, and fodder for improvised plot developments. 

The main mechanic involves spending and earning points by exploiting aspects. Aspects are terms and descriptors that are applied to your characters as well as the scenes themselves. When you use these aspects to your advantage, it costs you a Fate Point. When your aspects cause problems for your character, you earn Fate Points. The special six sided dice used for this game provide a very simple and easy to understand range of numbers that reduces time spent number crunching. If your group enjoys storytelling over everything, this is the way to go. (FATE Accelerated tops my list of easiest pick up and play games.)

The Casual Game: RISUS

For those that honestly don't have time to read a whole rulebook and need to get started playing right away, there is this fun little comedic game system named RISUS. It's only a couple of pages total and you will know everything you need to play. The ultimate "Beer and Pretzels" system, a casual game that takes very little effort to get up and running. 

Of course there are a number of other RPG systems that might fit the needs of the game you want to run, but these are my particular favorites. Keep them in mind next time you have an idea for a session and need a set of rules that will fit the game. Keep in mind what kind of game you and the players want it to be, and pick the most appropriate tools for the job.

Happy ventures!