Thursday, June 30, 2016

Organization and Book Keeping

A noteworthy detail of pen and paper gaming is that it requires a lot of just that... putting pen to paper. There is a lot to track over a long term campaign, so it is important that those character sheets are detailed and extensive. For this reason I recommend setting aside a block of time during each game session to review and modify these sheets in collaboration with your players. This is in addition to tracking your own DM notes, of course.

Many players are easily confused by the wealth of information that can be contained on a character sheet, and even the most experienced players can make mistakes. That's why I find it useful to "fact-check" the sheets every few sessions, correcting any inconsistencies or errors. While you shouldn't shame players for their mistakes, it doesn't hurt to give them a hand in keeping up with their record-keeping.

Experience point rewards and character advancement are another important kind of book keeping to make time for. While it can be done by players individually before a game session, I recommend doing it at the game table so that the players can collaborate and share their choices when leveling up. You might also handle divvying up loot and other narrative rewards at this point in the game, in order to avoid slowing things down by providing it right in the middle of the adventure.

Paperwork can be a very challenging aspect of tabletop gaming, so it helps if the GM and players are all working together to keep things recorded and organized. All participants should be encouraged to take notes and record details that might be helpful to them or the game master. And certainly don't let them forget to make note of any change in their hit points or condition!

Finally, it is important to address the risk of losing track of a character sheet or having it damaged. It's probably a good idea to take a picture of pages that have been updated a lot recently, so they can be reproduced if this occurs. For my home campaign I keep my own notes and most of the players' character sheets in a binder by my desk between sessions so they don't get lost or forgotten. For digital files, it's best to save copies of the documents to an online file storage service, like Drop Box or Google Drive. That way you can access them from any computer with internet access. After all, it would be very frustrating to see  your epic quest fall apart due to a technical malfunction!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Flavor Text: Preparation and Use

Critical Role's Matt Mercer, a Dungeon Master of evocative flavor text
Flavor text is a catch-all term used to describe the descriptive blurbs of narration that provide imagery and visual context for the players. Descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells set the stage for your players' journey into imagination. I find that these are usually the most difficult notes to prepare before a game. They require skill at writing and narration in order to work with their full effect. It's hard enough to assemble a list of traps and encounters, but it is especially hard to sit at a keyboard and crank out several paragraphs describing steam-filled corridors or the slavering jaws of a previously undiscovered dinosaur.

Flavor text is still important, though. While it is possible to ad-lib the descriptive imagery of your campaign, having the occasional pre-written paragraph will help you on multiple levels... It gives you a break from having to improvise all your lines, it provides you with practice with phrasing things clearly, and it is usually prepared with more attention to detail than something you might come up with on the spot.

The most difficult aspect of flavor text to me is that you might spend a lot of time preparing it only to have players miss any opportunity to hear it read aloud. If you prepare pages of description of a haunted castle only to have your players opt for an adventure in the sewers instead, you might feel like you wasted a lot of your valuable prep time.

That's why I like to keep my flavor text loose and modular. There's no need to overdo description as if you were writing a full blown novel. Instead, it's important to focus on the essence of the story you want to convey. Here's how...

If nothing else I like to write down a list of keywords that seem evocative of the environment the players may find themselves in. For a hospital, this might be: Clean, sterile, pristine, quiet, brightly lit, somber... these are building blocks that might help with improvising on a basic level. Remember that these need to take into account all five senses. Just like a good book, the narrative is more immersive if it's about more than just what you see but also what you smell, feel, hear, and so on.

Next I will write out the descriptions for things that I am sure the players will encounter. A vital NPC or quest-giver, the main villain, the party's home base. I keep these short and sweet. No description needs to be longer than a line or two. Too much prose can bog down the pacing of an adventure.

Often I will create a bunch of modular descriptions, narration that I can work into different parts of the adventure as needed. These are notes of general ambiance, things that add to the mood and immersion. I will break out these descriptions in between players' actions to maintain the context of the setting. In a tavern it might be a waiter almost trips while carrrying drinks to a group of rowdy pirates. In a cave it might be the sound of dripping water echoing through the tunnels. This is just to add to the sense of being inside the environment, reminding the players of the scenery and setting.

Finally I will add whatever text I might or might not use. This part is just for fun, if I have extra time and feel creative. This will include descriptions of certain people, places, and things that the players might run into. I will often use the key words I made up earlier and mix them into these descriptions as needed. If these descriptions don't come up in the adventure, no problem! I might recycle them in a future session, using the description of a room or monster at a future point when it might be relevant.

Flavor text is one of the most iconic aspects of the DM's narrative patter. It shouldn't be neglected. Rich, elaborate descriptions of the game world can make a game more exciting and fun. But there is no need to feel pressured to write pages of these details in preparation for an adventure. Do what you can, and learn to improvise the rest. Have a handful of sentences ready to set the scene and make it memorable, and keep those keywords in mind when you get stuck. Remember to remind your players about their surroundings in the game world in a fun and engaging way. A memorably described scene is the first step to a memorable encounter, so have fun with the process of writing and creating your own tabletop world!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Get a Clue: Providing Hints to Your Players

There always comes a point in your game mastering career in which your group will get thoroughly stumped. Especially with new players, there will come a time in which they just don't know what their next move should be. You don't want your game to grind to a halt, so it often requires action on your part to get things moving once again. When this happens, you should remember to follow a few simple rules to clue your players in on what they could do.

Be friendly.

Don't let your players feel bad about needing a a helpful cue. If the entire group is stuck on a problem, it is very likely that you may have missed providing them with important context. In any case, shame or embarrassment isn't a productive emotion at your game table. Be encouraging when you present the players with new information, and don't make a big deal about the fact that you are offering some extra help. Keep it as seamless and casual as possible.

Keep it subtle.

Give them a starting point from which they can draw their own conclusions. Point them in the direction of an answer. A favorite tip of mine is to remind them to check their character sheets. Often there is an ability or tool that they have not considered that could be the key to progression. Remind your players that their character sheet is a list of the special and unique ways their character can influence their environment and tasks that they can accomplish. 

Be open to ideas and suggestions. 

You don't always have to shepherd your players to a particular course of action when they get stuck. Sometimes it is as simple as reminding them that the GM will welcome their own ideas and inspirations. "Make me an offer," is a good attitude to have. "How do you think you want to handle this?" Let the players present you with an option rather than vice versa. In this way, you're offering encouragement more than dropping a hint. 

Ask Questions.

You can also provide the players with inspiration indirectly by asking them your own questions. This is an easy way to provide a hint while letting the players come to their own conclusion. "How do you want to break into the vault? Did you notice anything odd about the prince's behavior?" These kind of questions highlight things that the players should be aware of or consider without directly instructing the player on their next course of action. That's your main goal, to help the players reach their own decision and feel a sense of personal agency.

Be patient. 

Don't rush to throw out new suggestions and information right away. For a lot of players, preparation, discussion, and problem-solving are an entertaining part of the entire process. If your players are having fun, don't interfere with it. Wait until you notice signs of actual frustration before you jump in with a hot tip. A big part of game mastering is watching and observing your players and their interactions. It also gives you a chance to rest and prepare game notes in the meantime. Listen to what your players are planning and thinking so that you can provide them with the proper information when they are ready, and so you can be prepared for their next action.

Don't panic when things get bogged down. 

There's always a way through for players and game masters alike to keep the session fun and exciting. Remember these methods and you won't leave your players helpless when the game gets tricky. Provide them with some helpful prompts, listen carefully to their questions, and you will have your campaign back on track in no time.

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Now Playing: Star Wars RPG Campaigns

The Star Wars universe is a setting rich with creatures, characters, and adventures to experience on the tabletop. It is a setting with some of the most numerous materials and established histories in fiction. I have been running a Star Wars campaign recently and it has caused me to start thinking hard about how to approach the setting, adding personal touches while staying true to the lore and themes of the series.

What follows are my most relevant tips for running a fun and memorable game set in the Star Wars universe.

Use what's out there.

Recently there has been much debate over what is still considered 'canon.' Disney has chosen to ignore most of the previously established continuity in favor of their own creations. This however, has no bearing on what you do in your own tabletop campaign.You aren't limited or constrained by the standards of mainstream continuity. The entire vast library of Star Wars related fiction and merchandise is yours to mine for ideas. You can pick and choose the best material from the old and new expanded universes to create your ideal setting. Whether it is an old module from West End Games, a recent Marvel comic book, or an apocryphal video game by Lucasarts, there is a lot to pull from if you need inspiration.

Part of the appeal of using an established franchise as the setting for your campaign is that some of your players will already have a baseline familiarity with the universe. It can be a lot of fun when your players recognize a familiar ship or alien species. On the other hand, you don't want to alienate players who are brand new to the setting. Mix your original ideas and creations together with elements from the movies and expanded universe so they blend together seamlessly. Encourage players who are seasoned fans of the series to share and explain things they might recognize from the established canon. Let the continuity be shared between all the players rather than becoming an inside joke between those more versed in the lore.

Make the galaxy your own.

The Star Wars galaxy is a place of fiction that is constantly being expanded upon by a great number of writers and storytellers. This is your opportunity to count yourself among that number. You are free to design your own species, planets, technologies, whatever you might need to tell a good story. One of the more useful aspects of the setting is the fact that it is vast. There are new creatures and planets appearing all the time. So if you want to introduce a new and unique addition to the galaxy, there is nothing stopping you. As long as it fits within the continuity you have established and doesn't contradict anything else in your setting it's all fair game!

The only constraint I suggest imposing is to treat the movies themselves as the one incontrovertible source of lore and information. Most people who play the game will be familiar with at least the movies, so it's best not to stray to far from that source material. Don't go changing Chewbacca's homeworld or the way the Jedi mind trick works unless you're looking for a whole mess of trouble.

Create your own story, but stick to the proper tone.

There are a lot of different styles and genres mixing together to create the Star Wars that we know and love. It's part science fiction, part fantasy, part western... but this intermingling of themes and ideas is what gives it such an iconic style. The parts make up the whole, and distinguish it from other sci-fi series like Star Trek or Firefly.

Your first task is to identify which aspects of the Star Wars setting you want to explore in the most detail. Between exploring new worlds, fighting the Galactic Empire, protecting mystical artifacts of The Force, there is a lot of ground to cover here. The term "Star Wars" isn't quite specific enough to define what kind of game you are going to run, because there are so many kinds of stories to be told in that universe. Fantasy Flight Games makes this distinction a bit easier by dividing their RPG material into three separate games:

Edge of the Empire is all about renegades roving across the fringe of civilization. (I call it Pirates of the Caribbean in Space)

Age of Rebellion is a traditional good guys vs. bad guys war campaign.

Force and Destiny is all about space magic and Arthurian fantasy in the cosmos.

These are all cross compatible. You can combine aspects from each of these games and genres in order to create your ideal campaign, but don't overdo it. Choose which of these themes to focus on the most. This is done to avoid a cluttered, confusing game.

The best way to make this decision is with the cooperation of your gaming group. Find out from your players what kind of campaign they would like to be in. Learn what parts of the Star Wars setting appeal to them the most. Then you can decide what kind of exploits are best for your adventuring party to delve into.

The movie Guardians of the Galaxy is a very good example of what a Star Wars campaign might be like. Specifically, it would fit into the Edge of the Empire category... a band of colorful creatures set off on an adventure across the wild and criminal reaches of the cosmos. They each have their own unique abilities and motives for adventuring, but they run across shared adventures and threats at every turn.

Don't make it about the movies.

There's going to be the temptation to cross over with parts of the movies or explore some of the storylines like the Death Star or so forth. Besides the occasional cameo by a canon character, I recommend against this. In series like Star Wars, the main characters of the cinematic universe will easily overshadow your players' characters. Characters like Luke Skywalker are so significant in the grand scope of the galaxy's history that they make the team's adventures seem less impressive by comparison.

Star Wars is a setting to be used to tell an infinite number of tales and adventures. These adventures can have high stakes for your heroes as well as the future of the galaxy. But don't leave your players trying to follow the footsteps of cinematic heroes. Let them carve out their own legacy, and let the campaign be more about exploring the setting than simply trying to relive the original series.

May The Force be with you!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Character Creation: Background Notes

When you get a group of adventurers gathered round the table for a new pen and paper escapade, it pays to establish some details about their characters' history and defining features. However, it is very easy to make the mistake of under-preparing or over-preparing when producing this information, which can result in some problems later in your campaign. That's why today I'd like to share my best advice for devising concise, useful notes that describe a PCs background and defining characteristics.

First off: I strongly recommend that all players are given an opportunity to prepare these notes before the game begins. Take a little time at the first session to walk the players through a few questions about their characters. These questions pertain to the basics of their new character's identity. You may ask two or three, something along the lines of: 

What was your character's childhood like? Why did they choose their current career? What motivates them to adventure with this group?

If they simply answer these questions with a single statement, that's enough to get them started. If they are inexperienced, or short on ideas, they could draw inspiration from their favorite character from books, movies, or television. And if you want to make things even easier to coordinate, you might even invite the players to gather and create their characters cooperatively, in a sort of prologue session before the game begins. That way the players can familiarize themselves with each other's backgrounds and integrate their storylines and roles in the party.

This brings me to my next point... keep the backstory light. I highly discourage players bringing extensive notes on their character's history and personal details. There is rarely enough time for every player to read pages of exposition, and it puts the group in the uncomfortable position of becoming an audience for your own narrative, or setting aside your detailed synopsis with a "Too long, didn't read."

One or two paragraphs, tops. That's all that is needed to establish the basics of a character. The rest is far more interesting when presented through role play in the campaign itself. Encourage the players to follow the old creative writing standby of "show, don't tell." Instead of learning that the wizard started out a pauper from exposition, give her the opportunity to reveal more when she meets an urchin in need. Instead of hearing about the death of the gunslinger's parents in a tedious monologue, see what happens when he finds out their killer has been seen in a nearby township. Let the party learn more and more about each other organically as the campaign progresses. 

Speaking of which, there is another trick that will help all of this go smoothly... leave lots of blanks to fill in later. There will be so many opportunities to add details to a character's backstory during the campaign, so don't waste your chance by telling their whole story right away. Especially when they can find ways to tie their story in with the other characters and the setting itself. They might ask for their character to be in the same thieves' guild as another player, or a former student of a prestigous military academy that their team is now visiting. Better to leave some options open than to remove the possibility of adding these elements at a later point.

You want the characters to think about their characters' backgrounds enough that they have a starting point for playing out their motivations and behaviors. But you also want the flexibility for them to develop a backstory over time, the ability to collaborate with the group, and to convey their character concept clearly and concisely. If you follow these basic guidelines, your players should have a head start when it comes to understanding their new character. Keep it light, keep it simple, and keep it fun!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Free Form Fever: When Players Run Wild

Via Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
I want to take some time to talk about a strange anomaly I have noticed crop up when a player is brand new to tabletop RPGs. Some, but not all, players will fall prey to this condition when presented with the freedom of choice and action found in pen and paper gaming. I call this phenomenon Free Form Fever.

F.F.F. occurs when a player who is used to video games or other media is presented with the total freedom that comes with the tabletop. Their first instinct is to test those boundaries. This often results in them making a series of seemingly nonsensical decisions right off the bat. "I can do ANYTHING?" they muse. Then they test that idea out. The most common way I have seen players do this is by acting out. They will play their character as belligerent or corrupt. They will pick a fight with an NPC for no reason. They will choose to take blatantly evil actions for no good reason. 

Another category of Free Form Fever results in players trying to deliberately de-rail a game or purposely playing to lose. These players want to test the resilience of the DM, out of sheer curiosity. What if I choose not to save the princess? What if I refuse to leave the safety of the town? Such players might choose to turn the game into a farce, gawping and guffawing while they fail to accomplish anything useful. 

Why does this happen? Most often it is because they have never imagined a game that is so unrestricted and subject to the whims of their own imagination, so their first instinct is to try things that they wouldn't normally be allowed to do. (These players will often be initially drawn to evil or nefarious characters for this reason.)

Fortunately, this doesn't mean that they will keep playing like this forever. I have seen a lot of players start out this way and mellow out over time. They just need to come to the inevitable realization: This style of play just isn't that much fun. There is much more enjoyment to be gained by facing and overcoming the challenges of the campaign, by playing a character with complex motives and behaviors, and by engaging personally with their fellow players. It's just up to the group to help them realize this.
Via Animaniacs, Warner Bros.
Patience is key. I implore DMs not to give up on players who start out poorly. Allow them to work through these early stumbling blocks. Show them that their character's actions have consequences, and keep presenting them with the opportunity to move on and progress, Of course there may be some cases in which a problem player might not work in your group (which is why I encourage screening players for compatibility with your group before inviting them in) but in many cases, it's just a simple case of The Fever.

The biggest challenge of facing this issue is to not take it personally. The player is simply making a rookie mistake and following a style of play that they think will be the most fun for them. Their fellow players may or may not feel the same way. You may have to devise ways for them to work around the feverish player's antics. Keep in mind that the majority of the party may choose to veto a rambunctious players' antics if it is not in the party's best interest. In this case, your main goal should be to make sure it is all fun and games without hurt feelings or emotional distress. You may just have to play baby-sitter for a bit.

Above all, don't punish the players out of spite. Allow them to suffer consequences for poor or reckless action, but don't put yourself in an adversarial position against them. If they cross any boundaries that you feel will cause your play group to feel uncomfortable, it is time to take a time out and handle the problem outside the game. Otherwise, just keep patiently working with the player until they are ready to settle into the game.

Not everybody starts out with a knack for playing and interacting with a tabletop gaming group. Don't dismiss anybody out of hand because of it. Watch and wait, and these players just might surprise you. Yesterday's yokel might just become tomorrow's heroic adventurer. And that would be a satisfying journey for both player and DM alike!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Path Not Taken: Highlighting Alternate Roles in Your Game

It's always important to include challenges and obstacles in your tabletop campaigns that the player characters are specifically outfitted to overcome. If there is a rogue or spy in the party, you should include some traps in the game. If there is a diplomat, there should be opportunities for social encounters.

But the inverse of this rule is also true. It is important to include the occasional obstacle that the group may not have specialized tools to deal with. Why? Because the fun of role playing games come partly from the diverse and unique approaches of the different archetypes. There are talkers, fighters, sneakers, healers, and all sorts of other roles to be filled. It's fun to be the character that addresses a particular niche in their own unique fashion. It makes a player vital to the team. By bringing a certain type of situation into play, you highlight the potential utility of having a character that is specialized to handle them. 

There are two ways that players can explore these avenues of gameplay in the future... either by creating a new character for a future game, or by training their existing character in the apropriate skills. Either way, they have little motivation to explore alternate means of solving problems if those alternatives don't ever show up in the game. 

So don't be afraid to have a lot of easily accessible computer systems hanging around your cyberpunk setting... If the group has no hacker, that is a strong motivation to have one in a future session. It would certainly make it easier to circumvent those pesky security systems!

There are a few caveats to this approach that are worth noting... first, it should never be impossible to proceed without a certain specialization or character class. There's nothing to be gained by forcing the game to a halt simply because the party doesn't have a certain role filled. There needs to be an alternative means to accomplish the same goal.  Maybe the soldier needs to trigger the trap and absorb its damage, or the mage needs to use flight to find another route... the point is to showcase alternate means of approaching a problem, not to force players into certain roles. 

Secondly, these alternatives should not be used to shame or punish players into taking certain roles. They should showcase the techniques that could be undertaken by different character types. The players may choose to explore different character types in the future, but should not feel forced or obligated to do so. It's all about new experiences and having fun.

Include these occasional elements into your campaign and you will not only add a layer of realism to the atmosphere, but a tinge of curiosity. What would it be like if the players had a face character who could talk them out of a situation? What if they could have de-actived the alarm? Or been strong enough to climb right over the fence? When a player wonders about the path not taken it is likely they will explore other gameplay options in the future. It's a neat way to keep things interesting.

Happy ventures!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Adventuring Gear: Index Cards

Let me share one of the most simple and amazingly useful tools I keep behind the DM screen... Index cards! These bad boys may seem like nothing more than note-sized pieces of cardstock, but don't be fooled. They are great to have around in general, and I'm always finding ways to use them to enhance a game. The fact that they are compact and easy to manage makes them the perfect format for recording all sorts of game information including:

  • Powers and abilities
  • Gear and equipment
  • NPC statistics
  • Vehicle statistics
  • Special status effects

They make great handouts for players, who can just attach them to their character sheet with a paper clip (another useful supply to have around) and trade the cards with other PCs if needed. They make nice inconspicuous notes to pass around when a player personally discovers a secret.

I also find that they make for quick and easy cheat sheets for the DM. I usually have one with a list of every type of skill and ability attached to my DM screen, for any game I run. I have also used them as very simple map tiles... By labeling each card with the name of a different room, they can be laid out to represent a very simple map or floorplan. And a lot of these cards are sold in a variety of different colors, so you can clearly distinguish and categorize them. The possibilities are endless.

The one downside? They are easy to misplace. If your workspace gets more cluttered over the course of the game, like mine, you need to be extra careful that you don't lose one of your important notes in the shuffle. But this is a small concern overall, when you consider the sheer utility you get out of this simple but essential tool. 

Happy ventures!