Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Play by Post" Games

When players can't meet up for a game at the same place, you might use an online game system to play over a long distance. However, if your group is not even able to log in at the same time, you are going to have to resort to an even simpler form of RPG... the play by post game.

A play by post game, in which the game is played out through a series of correspondences between players, can be very tricky to get started or keep maintained. The pacing and level of progress that can be made is highly dependent on the availability and dedication of the players in your group. If one of them never gets around to contributing, or spends too much time taking actions, it can bring things to a screeching halt. That's why it is important to have safeguards in place to keep things moving if the game suddenly trails off.

To facilitate all of this, it is important to choose an effective medium for running a P-b-P game. Preferably a forum or e-mail list that notifies the players on a regular basis whenever someone posts to it. Players are going to be very busy and distracted by events in their everyday lives and are not going to always have the time or frame of mind to check in on an online game on a regular basis. They will need a way of being notified or reminded if something changes in their campaign. That's why social media is another good way to run a game like this. A lot of players will be more likely to contribute to an online game if they see it whenever they log in to their Facebook account. Setting up some kind of private group or e-mail list is the way to go, as long as everyone is able to view everybody else's posts in a clear and intuitive way.

Next you need to make sure that every post is written in an established format. Use short-hand to differentiate between player discussions and character dialogue. I like to use *asterisks* to identify out of character narration, like this: 
*The goblin leaps over the chasm, screaming bloody murder!* "Raaarrrgh!" 
You will also need to establish a standard method of die rolling for your game. I like to have the DM handle the rolling for the players, since they will know when and where a roll will be required. If the player has to ask "What do I roll for this?" and wait for an answer, it can really slow things down in this format. If you do have players rolling for their own actions, encourage the use of online dice rolling programs to keep things speedy and efficient. I also encourage players and DMs to post the rolls as well as their results to the group whenever they make them. It keeps things transparent and avoids confusion. Use shorthand like:
*Rolled 2d6 +4
3+5+4=12 damage*
Not that anyone you would play with would be as silly as to lie or cheat on their rolls, but this helps the group make sure they are all remembering the rules correctly and that things are in proper working order. 

You will also need to use some sort of method like a dropbox account, web image host, or web based resources like Mythweavers to keep track of shared documents like character sheets and maps. Make sure everyone knows how to access and refer to these. Also make sure that your players can track their changing stats like experience or hit points. In my games, I have often kept a running tally of these values myself, reposting them from time to time like a changing scorecard just to keep it from getting forgotten. 
Make sure that players and DM make their posts as few as possible. Include as much information as you can in each post, both narration, dialogue, and any notes you need to include. The more broken up and numerous the messaging becomes, the longer and more monotonous the game will be. Avoid brief snippets of dialogue like "Who are you?" or "What do you want?" and instead consolidate your interactions as much as possible, saying things like: "I'm Captain Zeke from Star Command, identify yourself and state your intentions or we will open fire!" That kind of line establishes a couple of questions for the player or DM to respond to, as well as an indication of the stakes for the next part of the scene. The more detail in each post, the more progress will be made in the game.

And finally, like I said before, you want to make sure that if a player is taking too long to post that it doesn't mean the end of the game. For this reason, I strongly recommend using non-standard forms of initiative. If you have to wait all day for someone to post while they are at work, it can kill the enjoyment of a climactic battle scene. Let players step in and take their turns whenever they can, and then let the missing player take their own action whenever they want afterwards... or dump initiative altogether if you need to. Keeping a play-by-post game running smoothly is more important than adhering to a specific turn order. 

Be ready to adapt to players dropping out or losing interest. PbP games are among the most difficult to maintain interest and attendance. The lack of live, personal interaction can be a real downside for keeping focus. But if the game does flourish and run for a long time, it can be a truly rewarding and enjoyable experience, that lets you put a little extra care and flair into each action as you type it out rather than recite it off the top of your head. It may be different from live games, but it is plenty of fun in its own right, and well worth the effort of coordinating.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Room for Improvement

I'd like to take a moment to delve into one of the core principles that defines my own style as a DM: constant self-improvement. It's why I always identify and change one thing about my technique after every game I run. I don't think there has ever been a 'perfect' DM in the history of gaming, so there's no sense in kidding ourselves... no game-runner is infallible. Mistakes happen, we learn from them and iron out those bugs in our future endeavors. Sometimes it might not even be a mistake, it might just be a way of organizing or presenting your material so that it is more accessible to you or your players. As long as you are looking for ways to make things better for your group, you are on the right track as a game-runner.

The trickiest part of this process is, of course, identifying the parts of your games that need improvement. The simplest method of doing this is asking your players. After the end of a game I will often ask my players what they liked or disliked about the session so that I can make adjustments for next time. It's best to wait a while after the session ends before asking this, to give your players a chance to rest, converse, and reflect on the game. Don't press the issue, but listen to your players if they have some concerns about the way the game went. This is the opportunity to make your players feel comfortable about sharing their thoughts on things and to invite them to make those thoughts known.

Another way of spotting problem areas is to note any moments of obvious confusion or trouble that might crop up during the game. If there was a particular event in your game that caused it to slow down or stop, something that needed to be corrected or undone, that's something that you can aim to avoid in the future. Don't make a big deal about it at the time it happens, but once your game is finished you will want to figure out how to avoid the issue in the future. 

Finally, you also want to look at the parts of your game that are already going well and figure out how to make them even better. Don't settle for adequacy when you have the opportunity to optimize your campaign. Use this opportunity to think as a writer, an engineer, or an inventor. Innovate and improve upon what's working, and remove whatever doesn't fit. Keep moving forward.
Some examples of what I'm talking about include:

  • Placing a sticky note of a rule you keep forgetting in a prominent place at the table.
  • Implementing a house rule to make initiative easier.
  • Having a separate area for snacks so that they don't spill onto the game table. 
  • Seating a very hands-on player closer to the map so they can reach it.
  • Collecting more minis or tokens for setting up battlefields.
  • Describing the players' critical hits in more detail when they strike enemies.
  • Resolving to spend less time flipping through the rulebook.
The list goes on and on... the point is, the number of things you can change and build upon is enormous. It's easy to get overwhelmed and start picking things apart about your methods and tools... so don't get carried away! Just focus on that technique I mentioned. Find a single problem and figure out how to fix it. What can you do to make it better? If you just keep taking it step by step after every session you will find your skills as a DM will improve exponentially over time. Your players will be appreciative of your efforts to make the game as fun as it can be, and you will be more comfortable in the hot seat. There may not be a zen-like state of perfection when it comes to DMing, but the desire to improve your technique is certainly the path to tabletop Nirvana.

Happy ventures! 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Quick Note on Splitting the Party

(Hey all, I got kind of swamped at work this week so instead of a full entry, today I'm just sharing a few off the cuff thoughts on a common problem.)
Pictured: the most famous party splitters of all time
There are a number of good reasons not to split up an adventuring party at any given time. Firstly, most of the encounters in a campaign will obviously be designed and balanced to accommodate the full complement of players and will be difficult to overcome with partial strength. Secondly, your party members are made with special abilities and powers to support and aid one another and it would be foolish to waste those resources.

But the top reason to not split the party is to show respect for the your fellow party members and the game master. Splitting the party forces your GM to do double duty and divide his attention between more than one scenario at the same time. It also creates a situation in which players have to wait for long periods of waiting for their allies' scenes to finish before they can play out their own actions. Overall, it's a less than optimal setup that undermines the cooperative nature of the game.

There are ways to run split-party scenarios that can be fun and intuitive, but they have to be executed carefully. A crafty game master can come up with things for a player to do when they are not in a scene, like playing NPCs or helping with the battle maps. They can create encounters that can allow for the players to break into smaller groups in order to fight on two fronts. They can even encourage party-splitting as a regular technique in their game sessions.

But this needs to be something that is planned for. If a GM doesn't feel ready to handle it, or some of the players aren't up for it, don't do it. It's an off-beat style of RPG gaming that is infamous and criticized for a reason. It's not just reviled because it kills your players, it's disliked because of its tendency to kill their fun. And that's the worst thing that could possibly happen to your favorite tabletop campaign. Be smart and stay close to those who bring out the best in you... your fellow player characters!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

On the Popularity of the High Fantasy Setting

Though Dungeons and Dragons may be the most well-known and ubiquitous tabletop role playing game out there, there are many others that create mythical worlds and stories within any number of genres. From starships voyaging across distant galaxies, to vampires lurking in the streets of the modern day, there are all sorts of adventures to experience. However, even outside the Dungeons and Dragons system there is no category of game more popular than the 'High Fantasy' setting.

By using the term High Fantasy I am referring to the classical Tolkien-esque genre of medieval era adventure filled with magic and strange creatures. In the world of RPGs there is no realm of imagination that is mined for material more frequently than this. So what is it about this particular type of setting that gives it such allure, such staying power in the gaming community? Why do so many players keep getting drawn back to this kind of game rather than, say, a tense spy thriller?

There are a lot of answers and theories that could be presented to explain it, but my own opinion is this... the realms of High Fantasy are the most flexible and easy to customize than any other genre. They don't have to have any connection to events or facts of the real world, and yet they have common themes and elements that are deeply ingrained in our minds from books, movies, and fairy tales. When you enter a science fiction or modern setting your players might feel pressured to have certain knowledge or awareness of the world around them. If your adventure is set in our own world, they might need to know something of our actual history. If it is set in space, they might feel intimidated by their lack of knowledge about space travel.

The fantasy kingdom cuts out all those aspects, and sets them in a world of your own creation, where there are still threads of mythology that will be easy for most players to relate to. Elves, orcs, and gnomes will all be fairly easy for players to relate to based on their appearance in media dating back for years and years. And the fact that the fantastical realm is usually created from the DM's own imagination means that no player will have any more or less knowledge of the setting when the game begins.

It's malleable, there are very few clear-cut rules for world-building, and every world built in this genre can be unique while still fitting with the basic common elements of its ilk. It is very straight-forward and easy to grasp in its appeal. The brutal combat and delving for treasure is old-fashioned and rewarding. Most audiences will easily grasp the wonderment of magic, and the politics of its 'old world' environment. No other genre has managed such a universal appeal, and thus it remains the undisputed king of all RPG settings.

Finally, there is the fact that the middle age era has been heavily romanticized for years throughout media and pop culture. It's known to many through stories of good versus evil, with simpler conflicts and values that transcend the complicated problems of our own times.

There are plenty of worlds to explore in your own adventures, but it's important to recognize why these kinds of fantasy adventures remain the most popular. Now that we recognize the appeal, we can make an effort to apply and transfer some of these elements into our games in other settings and systems. Nothing will ever replace these magical realms of the tabletop, but there is certainly a lot that we can learn from them.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Game Session Length

The amount of time you should spend playing a session of any tabletop RPG will vary based on the needs and preferences of your gaming group. Sometimes your players might need to wrap things up to get an early start the next morning, other times a fun session might extend into the wee hours of the night. If you are playing at a store or convention, there may be time limitations on your use of the room.

There are, however, certain patterns I have noticed in my own games that are helpful in pacing out and deciding when to call it quits during sessions of your campaign. Firstly, I find that players tend to need a short break around the hour and a half or two hour mark. This is about the time folks get fidgety and burnt out. If your game runs longer than this it's a good point to allow for a breather for your players to take a brief respite. Don't marathon your group to the point of fatigue. Keep an eye on their level of alertness and space out your breaks accordingly.  

I find that one or two hours are good for short one shots and basic games, but three hours is the sweet spot for most of my home games. This allows for three hour-long acts for the session... beginning, middle, and end. It allows for a fair amount of action and some lee-way for clowning around in between. 

If you run game sessions that are shorter than three hours, it pays to be more prepared and efficient. Keep an eye on the timer, and try to keep things moving along so that the time doesn't run out before you get a good taste of adventure.

If your game runs longer than three hours, beware player burnout and make sure you work in those break periods. Let your players relax a bit and don't rush them or wear them out. Finally, make sure that they are feeling fresh and rested for the most part, and check in on players who might be overwhelmed after several hours of gameplay. 

And when you schedule time for a gaming get-together, always leave a buffer for the players to hang out and interact before and after the session. Diving straight into the gameplay isn't very fun and can make the game seem more like a rushed chore than the casual entertainment it should be. Let the run time of your games fit the style of your playgroup, and you sure to have adventures that begin and end right on time!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Full Speed Ahead! Committing to a Course of Action

It takes a lot of words to win an argument, but only one punch to start a fight. 

I say this because I have seen many attempts to deal with situations diplomatically in RPGs that have resulted in combat anyway because of that one hot-headed instigator. If somebody panics or decides to change the plan, things can go sideways pretty quickly. And not always in a good, dramatically appropriate way. I'm talking about chaotic hour-long derailments that slow things to a crawl. 

There's only so much a DM can do to prevent this while still keeping the game fairly balanced and challenging. The problem at its heart is not that the challenges are too difficult, but that players often have a tendency to fluctuate between plans and approaches to the encounters they face. They spread their resources too thin, or try to hedge their bets between two separate strategies simultaneously.

That's why one of my number one pieces of advice for players is to commit to one plan at a time. Each player may use their own methods and adapt to the situation as it evolves, but they should all be on the same page as to their overall goal. If they have decided to sneak into the bank vault in disguise, then you don't want to turn it into a breaking and entering heist unless you absolutely have to. If, like I mentioned before, you are attempting delicate negotiations... don't enter the room with weapons drawn. If the party chooses one approach at a time, the game will run smoother and you will have time for more fun stuff than if it becomes a chaotic mish-mash of ideas.

Is there a time and place for players going renegade or changing up plans on the fly? Sure! But not during every single encounter. If each player in the party is working towards a different goal, the encounter will naturally become more difficult than if they were working together. If this happens on a regular basis it can be a real slog to get through. A change of plans is best when it is based on new information, or as a last ditch effort.

Similarly, when the team decides on a course of action, it should be decisive. I abhor moments in which players try to avoid tough choices or dangerous situations. If there are two ancient factions vying for your loyalty, denying them both gets you nothing. If there is an ancient treasure on the other side of the trap, negotiating for hours about who will risk it will be tedious. It is far more interesting to accept the consequences of a perilous choice and see where the story takes you than it is to try to play it safe and do nothing. Players should feel comfortable in making a decision and committing to it, seeing it out until circumstances dictate a clear reason for them to change. I strongly recommend to my players that active, decisive role playing will result in the best adventures and entertainment in general. The goal is fun, after all, and what is more fun than facing risks with steely determination?

Happy ventures! 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Using Your Best Material First

If you have a great idea for your next game you are probably eager to present it to your players. Whether it is an exciting plot twist, an enthralling encounter, or a complex NPC, it's a lot of fun to have a great concept to spice up your campaign. Don't store up all your best material in the hopes that you will be able to build up to the perfect climax six sessions later. I have seen too many great ideas wasted because the DM was holding out for that 'perfect moment' and just never got there. It's great to build up to something, but not if the build-up isn't entertaining itself. Don't delay something just to draw things out.

That's not to say that you should force anything into your campaign. Whatever choices you make in a game should develop organically and make sense in the context of the adventure. You don't need to put a chase scene in the middle of an adventure in a haunted castle. What I'm suggesting is that you should have decided early on if the chase scene would have been more fun and then set that up first. If you have three ideas, choose the one that you think would be the most interesting. Don't try to hoard your best inspirations for a rainy day.
Via The RPG Athenaeum
New ideas will come along, your imagination will carry you through and bear fruit. So use it or lose it when it comes to great game-running material. Make sure you start foreshadowing and laying the groundwork for your best quest lines and plot hooks right away. Have a list of the coolest concepts you could think of and start putting them into place. Keep an eye on how your players react so you know what does and doesn't work. Adapt and learn, and grow as a game master. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all! So good luck, and happy ventures!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Game Mastering For Large Parties

Vox Machina, the large party of Critical Role via Geek and Sundry
Tabletop gaming groups come in all shapes and sizes. But ideally the size of a group is a game master and somewhere between three and eight players. I tend to categorize these party sizes into the following classifications:
  • Single player
  • 2-3 Players: Small party
  • 4-5 Players: Standard party size
  • 6-8 Players: Large party
  • 9+ Players: Huge party
If your group ever reaches the size of a huge party, I recommend splitting into two groups or recruiting one of the players to act as a second game master. You will need help managing and coordinating things anyway, and it is a good way to reduce the burden of so many players. When it comes to large parties, it can be difficult to keep things going smoothly and efficiently. Here are a few useful tricks you can use to make sure that your game is still a success and doesn't leave anybody left out...

Keeping It Moving

The first big challenge posed by large groups is the chaos that they bring with them. It is difficult to track all the players and divide your attention equally between them. That's why it is important to focus on giving each player a time in the spotlight. Ask quieter players what they would like to do if they have not contributed in a while. Make sure you have everyone's undivided attention when you speak as DM and provide new information to the group. 

You will also need to reduce the amount of time that players spend on each turn. In order to keep things from grinding to a halt and leaving a lot of players waiting in boredom, advise your players to be thinking about what action they will take before their turn even comes up. If a player is stumped and unable to come up with something, it may be a good idea to have them delay their action and let another player go before them. By doing this, you can have the more gung-ho players make their moves while the ponderous ones prepare their own strategies. Everybody gets to take their turn, but it cuts down on time spent waiting for a single player to make a decision.

Another useful trick to help you manage the game is to assign specific jobs to certain players, like tracking initiative, or moving miniatures on the map. This saves you a lot of valuable time, and reduces the strain of having to do everything yourself. And speaking of maps, remember that maps, tokens and miniatures are extra important when you are playing in a large group. It is very difficult to track the relative positions of so many players in the game world without some sort of visual aid. Don't neglect this vital aspect in your large scale adventures.

Screenshot from Community, NBC Television
Useful House Rules For Large Groups

When running encounters, keep in mind that a single round of combat will take a long time to get through. With so many players in the mix it will be hard to get through a single revolution of the game table in a short period of time. With this in mind, I recommend using house rules to maximize the amount of action contained in each turn. Let the players take an extra bonus action from time to time, or let them travel a little bit further than usual with each move action. 

In some games I run, I might tell a player "It will take your entire turn to draw that large weapon, but you can use it next round." But in a game with a lot of players, that would be dooming that character to waiting for a very long time while the rest of the group completes their actions. That's why I will speed up the rate of in-game time, allowing certain actions to take less time to perform than they usually do. It's not game-breaking as long as you implement it equally across the characters and enemies. Just keep the action economy cheap and fast. Let players do three things per turn instead of two. Make sure that a lot more happens in a single round in order to keep things interesting.

In the same vein, I recommend turning up the damage output or turning down the hit points as much as possible. Since turns go very slowly and take up a lot of time, you want to make sure there are fewer of them per combat if you want the encounters to run for the right amount of time. In order to avoid tedious slogs, create a dangerous combat environment in which each action and attack has more impact. With a large group you might have a small fight that takes more than fifteen minutes but only lasts three rounds. Make sure that you can resolve a lot of action in those three rounds. If the players have barely scratched the enemy, or are barely threatened themselves, it's going to get real dull. Tweak combat stats as necessary to prevent this.


Large parties can be a real challenge, and they are not ideal for an inexperienced game master. However, the methods listed here can alleviate some of the more problematic issues of this kind of campaign. Go into the game with full knowledge of the obstacles it presents, and use whatever methods work best for you to overcome them. As long as your group gets along well with one another, a good time may be had by all. Enjoy sharing in the adventure with your innumerable band of heroes.

Happy ventures!