Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Joy of Researching for a Game

One of my favorite parts of preparing for a game session is researching details and fascinating sources of inspiration. In a setting based on our own world, I like to include people, places and things from our own history and geography. Like setting an adventure in the Wieliczka Salt Mines of Poland. (Pictured below)

When the setting is a fantastical realm unlike our own, I might still include details borrowed from the real world... Maybe the local chefs specialize in fixing haggis, and the players might find out just how the dish is made.

Tabletop RPGs are a great source of entertainment, but that doesn't mean they can't be informative as well. Some of the most interesting concepts for adventures could come from real life facts of science and history. Explorer type players will benefit especially from these inclusions, as they provide a new level of immersion and provide them with something interesting to discover in the game world.
Wielicza Salt Mines
It can also lead to further interesting discussion and drive the players to do their own research into a subject that peaks their curiosity. I once ran a World War Two themed adventure which used historical elements of Tokyo Rose, The Treaty of San Francisco, and the sunken city of Nan Madol. While I didn't bore the players with the extensive factual details of these events, their inclusion made laid out a cool and immersive foundation for the story. It also helped to provide some much-needed inspiration, rather than forcing me to wrack my brain for a purely original concept for an adventure.
Nan Madol, Micronesia
Research like this shouldn't be a chore, of course. Sometimes I will listen to an educational program while I tackle errands and chores, and will finish with a bunch of ideas to integrate into my next campaign. I highly recommend checking out some documentaries and podcasts when you have the time between game sessions. Any media that could be relevant to the kind of story you want to tell can be a great source of material. (I will post some of my favorite sources in a future entry.)

And of course, even browsing Wikipedia can provide some juicy tidbits of material. It doesn't have to be an academic-level source or citation, just a modicum of reality to spice things up. In fact, sometimes historical events that might not have happened could be a great addition to your game, like Archimedes' mirror-based Heat Ray. It's a neat idea, and your players may enjoy finding out more about that particular ancient anecdote.

Once again, there is no need to worry greatly about factual accuracy or turn your game table into a lecture hall. But there is so much to draw from in the world around us that it makes sense to use it to enhance our games. I highly encourage every game master to consider this and do their own research to incorporate these kinds of details into their future campaigns.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Themes of Paranormal American RPGs

Still from the adventure game Life is Strange
A quiet little community rests in the shade of the pines somewhere in the American Midwest. The wind softly rustles the branches. In the distance, you hear a soft growl. Is it just the sound of the woodland creatures on their nightly hunt? Or is it something else? Why do the townsfolk change the subject whenever you ask? What is that blue light that seems to peek through your curtains just as you drift off to sleep? And why do you keep get the odd sensation that your television is watching YOU instead of the other way around?

This is the kind of introduction you might use if you are going to run a game from the genre that a friend* and I have dubbed Paranormal Americana.  This delightfully weird genre borders on the edge of Lovecraftian horror and science fiction. 

The most notorious examples of the genre are the television program Twin Peaks and the works of Stephen King... and if you are familiar with either of those, you probably have a good idea of what I'm talking about now. 

Other examples in this category include:

  • The X-Files (Another staple and trend-setter of the genre)
  • Gravity Falls
  • Wayward Pines
  • Alan Wake  
  • Life is Strange
  • Deadly Premonition
  • The Twilight Zone (Certain episodes, at least)
  • Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale is the setting I usually run these kinds games in, because of the healthy dose of morbid humor and off-beat satire.
But what is this genre really about, and what makes it worth our time? Well, there are a number of common threads that draw people to these stories. The theme of weirdness lurking behind the mundane is always a major theme. More specifically, the genre explores the idea of a sinister purpose lurking behind the facade of the American community. Whether it is a suburban neighborhood or a sleepy little mountain town, the idea that close-knit communities are cult-like conspiracies serving as fronts for something insidious and dangerous. The H.P. Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth was sort of a proto-example of this kind of tale, in which an entire fishing village is undergoing strange mutations into something inhuman.

A lot of these stories also draw inspiration from American folklore and urban legends. This covers a wide range of weird but unique phenomenons. Yetis, UFOs, ghosts, anything  that has ever been speculated by conspiracy theorists or cryptozoologists would be a good fit here. A sense of paranoia should be cultivated in these kinds of settings, and classic internet "creepypastas" like Slender Man make for good creative fodder for designing monsters and encounters. 
There are many options for interesting stories and challenges that this kind of game world can offer. For example: in the novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman explored a world where the traditions and superstitions of old world cultures had brought their magic to the new world along with them. The gods of days past then compete with the gods of the new world, gods of media and technology. This is what the setting is all about. Creating a new mythology that is distinctly modern and distinctly American. It's the amalgamation of cultures and traditions with the fears and anxieties of the modern age.

Just remember that when you run these games, don't use combat-heavy systems. These games are more ideally suited for Call of Cthulhu or some version of FATE. They are more about exploration and mystery than battling through obstacles. I think this means that they take a lot of time to think about and prepare, so I don't recommend doing them as long term campaigns. They are better as episodic scenarios, like a really good one-shot session. When I ran a Night Vale game in FATE, I had the players each as a person with a unique occupation and supernatural power. I also gave them very few stress boxes, so that the monsters they encountered would do a lot of damage and be very threatening. For horror games in general, that's the way to go. Low hit points and the potential for lasting and debilitating injury. 

So now you have a fairly clear idea how to start exploring this genre, and maybe some inspiration for a game. It never hurts to introduce some variety to your gaming group,and if your group enjoys the weird and creepy, Paranormal Americana may be just the ticket. 

Happy Ventures!

* I first discussed this terminology with Ryan Teague, proprietor of the Scan Visor podcast, which turns a critical eye to various forms of nerdy media. You can check it out at

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Links: Online Resources for Tabletop Gaming

(With my current work schedule this week I fell behind a bit, so in lieu of a full entry I would like to share this collection of links to my favorite online resources.)

Great (Free) Web Sites and Apps for Game Mastering:

Roll20: For live online gaming, it doesn't get any better than this! You can add your own graphics, organize multiple maps and screens, control the players' view, and even allow them to move their own tokens on the screen. Great stuff for those times when you can't get a group together in person!

Ambient Mixer: I love this site for the sheer amount of control you have in customizing and personalizing your own atmospheric sound effects. You have the ability to mix your own tracks and save them to the site, or choose from one of many user-created combinations of background noises to set the mood of a scene.

Mythweavers: The character sheet hosting on this site is first class! They cover a multitude of game systems, and setting up an account lets you fill out and save digital records of your characters. Convenient and easy, it really streamlines character creation and you won't have to worry about losing your sheet as long as you have an internet connection.

Master Plan: Master Plan was made with 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons in mind, but its flowchart creation tools and initiative tracking can be a valuable resource for planning a campaign in any system. Check out this cool application and see if it will help you with your own game mastery needs.

RP Tools: "RPTools is a brand of open-source programs designed to enhance traditional pen-and-paper role playing games." These include a useful initiative tracking app, an online map builder, and more!

Wizards of the Coast Dice Roller: Never be without the ability to roll anything from a d6 to a d20 with this handy browser-based free dice roller from Wizards of the Coast!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Brevity is the Soul of Role Playing

Everything you need to know in three simple sentences.
When it comes to players providing information and backstory for their characters, less is more. While it may help a player to flesh out an elaborate character concept and give them a point of reference for their motivations and personality, bringing a lengthy biography of their character is not going to do much to enhance their experience. Most of their fellow players, and many DMs like myself, would much rather get to know a character first-hand, by travelling with them as a party, then to slog through a strenuous record of their past exploits and defining characteristics.

That's why I encourage players to keep it short and sweet. For my games I ask players to keep it very brief when introducing their characters at the start. Two paragraphs is a decent length of text to offer everything you need to know about a character that you bring to the table. Focus on the most important aspects of the character at hand. What defines them? What is most outwardly apparent? 

There needn't be any "required reading" when it comes to the backstory of your fellow players. I have known some players who brought a novella's worth of information to the table, and it just didn't add much to the experience, nor did it feel good to be obligated to read through the lengthy tome just to know another party member. It's fine to have this information for your own personal reference, but leave it behind at the game table. Convey this information about your character gradually, as it becomes relevant or appropriate to bring it up. Let it flow naturally as part of the overall narrative.

If you use this method, you also have the flexibility to make changes and alterations as you see fit. Anything that hasn't been explicitly stated could still be changed as the story progresses. If you haven't declared your character to be an orphan as you originally planned, then maybe she isn't... maybe her parents live on an island far across the sea... perhaps your story-line crosses over with that of another party member, maybe you shared a class at the academy (intertwining your story with your teammates is always a plus.) By leaving some of these details unsaid at first, it allows you to fill them in as the game goes on.

This somewhat applies to DMs as well. Good DMs should not bombard players with lengthy and long-winded prose when a simple description will suffice. They should leave themselves some openings to fill in the details of your setting as the campaign unfolds. Dungeon Masters: Be clear, be concise. Your players will appreciate you for it, and your game will run more smoothly overall. And encourage your whole game group to follow this advice. Keep the detailed backstory in your personal notes, and don't overwhelm your teammates with a backstory "infodump." If you are conservative with the presentation of information, it will have much more impact whenever it comes up. And your teammates won't get burnt out or bored either. 

Happy ventures!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Best and Worst of Level One Adventures

Those who have dabbled in the world of Dungeons and Dragons or some other RPG have probably had the experience of playing in a single game that didn't pan out into a larger campaign. Many times the players are just too busy to gather regularly to continue the adventure, or more often than not they just aren't interested in the story or gameplay. This means that a lot of times a player will experience playing only the first segment of a longer narrative, and leave it at that. Unfortunately, a lot of groups will start that first session at the 'official' beginning of a campaign, with the player characters starting at class level one. 

This can be a problem in many game systems, but for the sake of argument let me explain why this is frustrating in Dungeons and Dragons in particular. When you start at level one in every campaign, you're getting a very similar experience. It has a very distinct style and feel that is unique to its own level of gameplay. So by starting each campaign at level one, you're guaranteeing that it's all you get to play unless you can establish a stable gaming group and earn your way to future levels. It's all well and good to have goals to aim for, but here we have a case in which players may never experience anything beyond the first forays into adventuring of level one scenarios. It's like being perpetually stuck in the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time.

Enough With the Goblins

Another problem is that level one adventures are prone to cliche... a lot of pre-made and home-brewed level one adventures fall prey to this. Boring enemy types are my personal peeve. If it's level one, goblins and kobolds are the soup du jour... with a handful of rats and/or dogs as well. 

Not only does this get boring and repetitive, but it can also make your players feel weak and useless. Rats are fine for a low-level threat, of course, but nobody ever felt like an action hero while beating up a rat. If your first mission is clearing rats out of the castle's basement, you shouldn't be surprised when your players don't want to continue the campaign. Keep the challenges exciting and fresh, and make sure your players have a sense of achievement if you want them coming back for more!

Low level adventures are good for two things... teaching the basic game mechanics with the most simple of character builds, and having a very palpable sense of danger and risk. A single hit you take could bring down your very low hit points and defenses. You have fewer spells and moves to keep track of, but they are limited and must be used wisely. These elements can make for a really fun experience, but it doesn't represent the full spectrum of experience of tabletop gaming. Consider starting your campaign at a higher level, especially if you're not sure about the possibility of future sessions with a gaming group.

Danger Around Every Corner

Another problem is that low-level games can (quite ironically) be particularly hard on inexperienced DMs with its high-stakes play style and limited number of choices for encounters. After all, you can threaten a mid-level party with a swarm of weaker monsters, but when your group is first level there aren't a lot of monsters you can send at them that won't overwhelm them. It takes a bit of know-how to put together and run a Level One. Most skillful DMs have to resort to tricks like building their own traps and monsters, or tweaking the stats on existing ones to accommodate the adventurers. It's a balancing act to keep the game challenging but still surmountable.

Level one adventures could work just as well as a challenge for experienced players to test their gaming chops in a situation where they are weaker and more limited in their options. And higher level games could make a good entry point for rookies to feel powerful and get a feel for the game. There's no need to make a clear association between low level characters and new players. Keep this in mind when you begin playing with a new group, and at the very least keep your level one campaign as compelling and original as possible. And take it easy with the goblins.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Role Playing Social Discrimination: Don't Make It Weird

A lot of tabletop RPGs are set in worlds filled with archaic ideas and principles. Whether it is The Wild West or the kingdom of Westeros, there are certain regions and time periods that are infamous for social prejudices like denying equal rights to women or minorities. Such discrimination can also be found in the modern age, the far flung future, or anywhere. Humanity is the same wherever you go, and there will always be those who oppress or demean other groups for some reason or another.

It actually makes for very compelling storytelling, and can become an excellent foil for the players to work against. But it's not always necessary to include or address these problems in a tabletop setting, nor is it always a good idea to attempt it.

The number one way of avoiding this issue is to not address it at all. It is perfectly reasonable to create a setting in which people are not discriminated against for their race, religion, physical ability, et cetera. It's a fictional world designed to entertain, after all, and such additions are not necessary for an immersive, fascinating experience. But if you are going to use society's ills as a source of drama in your campaign, there are a number of measures you can take to make sure that everyone at your table is still comfortable with it.

The Benefits of Playing Against Type

My number one piece of advice: if you are going to represent discrimination against a particular group within your setting, don't direct it toward a player who actually belongs to that group. Don't have the female player play a woman in a fantasy kingdom where misogyny is rampant, for instance. This puts you in the awkward position of playing out the part of the sexist heel against one of your friends, and will be especially uncomfortable if said friend has previously experienced similar abuse. And even if they are personally comfortable with it, it's likely to make somebody feel bad and create a very bizarre dynamic within your group.

The same principle applies when you are dealing with a socially oppressed minority, of any race, belief, or orientation. For instance, I would recommend against having your Mexican-American player play the only elf in a society of humans that don't understand or respect those who are different from them.  It seems like a cool scenario to draw emotion from... but when you end up sitting across from them and reciting a racist screed of the local innkeeper, you may find that you're just setting up a very discomforting experience for the group.

For this reason, I personally prefer to have players play against their personal type when it comes to these situations... letting a male player play as a female character, for instance. If this guy's shield maiden character gets mistreated by a chauvinist NPC, it is clear that the attack is not directed toward the player personally. It also gives that player an opportunity to step outside their comfort zone and experience the story from a perspective they had not previously considered. That way you can explore these themes and developments without spotlighting certain players who might feel personally affected by these issues. This is basically how a lot of therapists handle role playing scenarios, by allowing someone to walk in someone else's shoes for a bit.

In Summary...

There's nothing keeping you from including social injustices or any other source of conflict or drama in your RPG campaign. But remember, these games are supposed to be entertainment. If things get too dark or serious it can sour your players on the game, so remember not to get carried away with your depiction of real-world trauma. And if these kinds of prejudiced attitudes are going to be a recurring theme in your game, make sure everybody is comfortable with it, and confident that it can be handled in a tasteful manner.

In the end, having a fun game session takes priority over a campaign having a greater narrative 'depth' or tackling important issues. Make your players your number one priority, and the story that you tell together will be a memorable one, with or without these particular elements.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Unwinnable" Challenges

Every once and a while, by intention or not, your players will be faced with a scenario they cannot win. They may encounter a monster that's too powerful, or an obstacle that they can't traverse. Sometimes the encounter might be theoretically winnable if the players got all lucky dice rolls, or if they expended all their resources. These are usually not worth it for practical purposes, and we can fairly place them in this category of Impossible Encounters as well.

Often these encounters are presented deliberately, to prompt a chase scene or establish the sheer power of a particular foe. When you do this, the worst case scenario is the one in which your players don't back down and are overwhelmed by the difficulty of the encounter. Never fear, because there are ways to handle these situations without a Total Party Kill or a bunch of unhappy players. Here are some important tips for doing it right:

Make it obvious that it's unwinnable.

There are a couple of ways to do this. The first method is just to give them a taste of what they are up against. Let them roll against a particularly high challenge rating (but only let them roll if there is a chance for success) or fight in a combat encounter for a round or two. When they get hit hard enough by a dragon's breath attack, or slam into a wall made of solid diamond, the more tactical players will quickly determine that the struggle is just not worth the cost.

The second method is simply to tell your players. Narrating the scenario in a way that conveys its impossibility to overcome directly is the easiest way to clue them in. You can describe the PCs gut instincts, a sense of dread or an assessment that leads them to realize they are facing something beyond their current means. If you use this method, be clear and direct. Give a very well defined sense of danger so there is no ambiguity. Be creative in how you do it, but don't beat around the bush when you tell them "you can't win this way." There's got to be a distinction between truly impossible tasks and tasks that seem impossible for dramatic effect.

Let your players apply a different solution.

Another way to handle these situations is to allow for the players to come up with their own alternative methods for approaching the problem. If the players can't beat the Big Bad Guy, perhaps they should at least be able to slow them down. If they can't break into the bank vault, maybe they can sneak in through disguise and trickery. You may reward this kind of creative approach with bonuses, or you may choose to include a cost or complication for circumventing an encounter, but this is an easy way to keep things moving and avoiding a dead end. When you say "no" as a DM, what you should mean is not "never ever" but "try something else."

I once participated as a player in an adventure module which was balanced for a party larger than the one we had. After facing a room full of spider monsters much to powerful to defeat in combat, I retreated from the room and lit the webs on fire with lamp oil, burning down the monster nest. The cost of doing this was losing all the loot from the area, but in order to progress it was obvious that a different approach than combat was needed.

In some cases, you might even allow your players to face a lesser consequence of defeat, like being captured by the enemy. Perhaps you might inflict consequences upon something other than the players themselves, like the destruction of their home base. If you take this approach you can avoid worrying about the players losing the encounter, since it has already been accounted for and prepared. When the inevitable defeat occurs, your campaign may still continue.

Make backing down an appealing option.

Nobody wants to run away from a fight at first, because nobody wants to feel like a coward. That's why it is important to make the option of avoiding a conflict seem adventurous and cool. For instance, when the group has to run away from battle, they will likely enjoy it more if it seems like an action-packed scene doing so. The villain may chase them through streets and alleys as they exchange gunfire, allowing them to still feel like heroic adventurers even while falling back. When the chase scene is compelling and exciting, it is much easier to accept it as an alternative scenario to standing and fighting.

Darth Vader is a good example of an enemy to run away from in a Star Wars RPG. When he shows up, unless you are Luke Skywalker, you should get a sense that it is time to run away. But it wouldn't be so satisfying unless Vader is portrayed as a frightening and truly impressive foe. If there are too many characters like that, it would be obnoxious, and if Vader did not have the long established legacy of power, it just wouldn't work. But if your players recognize that he's supposed to be the Boogey Man of the campaign, they shouldn't feel bad about making a break for it at all. There's no shame in fleeing from Cthulhu itself, and in fact that act is its own adventure!

Another example is The Tarrasque from Dungeons and Dragons. A huge, basically unkillable titan of a monster. The encounters based around this creature should be focused on stopping it or avoiding it, not killing it. If played right, your players should feel like they stood up heroically against a force of nature, even if they didn't vanquish it outright.

Don't do it too often.

This is not something you want your players to experience too often. Frequent run-ins like these can demoralize your group or discourage them from actively confronting challenges. The occasional overwhelming odds will make things scary and compelling, but too many instances will make your players feel helpless. Macho player types will feel especially bad about getting overwhelmed by an obstacle, but any player has the potential to be frustrated.  Remember, no RPG is about 'defeating' the players, but about allowing them to experience a sense of adventure, competition, and achievement. Allow your players plenty of opportunities defeat enemies and achieve great feats... unless you are running a horror game, where a sense of fear and helplessness is to be cultivated. Or a comical farce like the outrageous Paranoia RPG.

In any case, keep checking in with your players and make sure they aren't feeling helpless against the challenges they are facing. Give them goals that they can accomplish and feel good about. And keep on taking a vested interest in their enjoyment of the game. You'll be glad you did, and so will your players!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Maps for Encounters and Travel (Part Two)

Symmetry and Space

When making maps for encounters, there are a number of things that can be done to optimize them for a fun and dynamic experience. After all, an empty chamber or a series of identical rooms make for a boring scenario. You got to get creative with the surroundings for your adventures. What I'd like to do here is break down some of the most important aspects and elements that lend themselves to a great map design for an encounter.

Symmetrical maps are okay occasionally, but it is easy to get into the habit of overdoing it. If you're somebody like me, your first instinct in map drawing is to put something in the center of the map, or matching patterns on either side. It just feels right when I'm putting it on paper. But I have found that it leads to really boring battles in which the flow of movement becomes predictable and there is no reason to traverse the map. Asymmetry is better, maps in which the obstacles and terrain are spaced out to the left or right without necessarily having something on the opposite side to 'balance' things out. 

This doesn't mean you have to design terrain that is randomly placed, but a less predictable pattern that isn't evenly weighted on either side will direct the players to think more tactically and push the confrontation in new directions. Here's an example from some older Dungeons and Dragons maps:

I greatly prefer the tavern map on the right. The left hand map is just too neat and tidy. The chairs and tables are spaced in neat geometric patterns and there's really no difference between the right and left sides of the main area. Whereas the right hand map features stairs in one corner, the bar in another, furniture in some corners, and a couple of enclosed booths. If you're standing on a table you may be close to a neighboring chair but farther from another. The basement level features a bar on one side, and a fighting pit on another. Each side of the room is distinct with its own traits and features. Much better for adventuring than something so neatly organized and coordinated. 

Another thing I would recommend is to space things out a bit. Give the players enough elbow room to let their move actions matter. In many RPGs, most rooms can be traversed in a move or two. So don't worry about adding some distance between things in these chambers. Avoid 10'/10' rooms and embrace the idea that dungeons can be spacious. These are caves and temples of wonder and industry, so they could be huge, with vaulted ceilings and echoing corridors! When your players have room to move about, it encourages them to move around more to use terrain to their advantage. It also prevents bottlenecks and keeps the players from obstructing one another's actions!

Of course, don't make maps too widely spaced out either. Maps with large empty spaces will cause the players to stay in one place to avoid wasting a whole turn trying to relocate. Use this rule of thumb: if the players can't reach a new prop, terrain type, or special item in one movement, they are probably not going to go for it. Enticing map areas might convince a player to spend an extra turn sprinting, but that's it. Make it so that any single round of movement can bring the player up to a new hazard or terrain, and it will encourage such tactics when the encounter gets intense.

Use The Environment

Finally, remember to include hazards and environmental elements that actually matter. Make sure there are things in the scene that the players can interact with, like a roaring furnace, cryogenic tubes, an automatic elevator... the scenery itself can be an adversary or ally to your players, so use it to its best potential. Think about the setting of your scene, where it takes place. Build upon the theme of the current setting, like an abandoned mine or a frosty tundra. Include appropriate hazards and terrains based on this information. What would be the most fun for your players? What will make things challenging and memorable? As long as these questions are foremost on your mind, you are certainly on the right track to building a great map for your next encounter. 

Happy ventures!