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!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Big Book of Random Tables

One of the more useful tools in my DM toolbox is my three ring binder full of random tables and adventure hooks. You never know when your original gaming plans will fall through and require you to improvise, or when you just don't have time to prepare for this week's session. That's when it's a good idea to have a lot of material for generating a super-cool adventure on the fly. I even find ways to use it when running pre-planned adventures, implementing details from character creation tables and random encounter generators.

This binder contains whatever useful tools and resources I can find, and I will share a detailed list of my sources for these in a future entry. When you are making your own Book of Adventures, there might be certain random tables that you have built yourself. Make it unique to your own game mastering style!

Here is a general list of the materials included in my own book:

  • The Mythic GM Emulator (Great for improvisational or GMless games, I will review this in a future entry)
  • Random encounter generators for various settings.
  • NPC trait and appearance generators (Can double as character creation tools for player characters)
  • Lore Sheets for various campaign settings.
  • The Big List of RPG Plots (And various other plot hook lists)
  • Lists of NPC names for various settings.
  • Other random tables ranging from tavern menus to alien creature creators to descriptions for scenery and character attitudes!
Consider what kind of info or inspiration you might find useful to have on hand during your next game session. Think of what might inspire you and help you overcome the dreaded writer's block. A book like this one could very well save your next game, or give you a starting point for a brand new adventure!

Happy ventures!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling Revisited

I have previously shared Pixar's Rules of Storytelling to provide some food for thought when it comes to narrative and character development. Today I'd like to share Kaptainkristian's video essay on Pixar and what makes a story worth telling. It's important to consider how this relates to all kinds of storytelling, even on the tabletop. An adventure with any sort of narrative direction should be relatable to your players (the audience) and have some sort of dramatic purpose. Whether it is the redemption of a band of outcasts, or the fall of an evil overlord, it is important to consider what makes a story truly fascinating and worth telling.

Enjoy the video and happy Ventures!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Tribute to Rolling in the Open

Today I share a tribute to those brave game masters who choose to roll the dice openly, without screens or cups to conceal the results. Or at least, those whose creed is total honesty, and letting the dice results remain untampered and pure in all cases.

To those who throw caution to the wind, risking the sudden and unexpected demise of player character, I salute you. To those who consider themselves up to the challenge of working around a series of bad rolls, I respect you. As your players face the hordes of flailing, non-threatening foes, I bid you godspeed in keeping their interest. As the critical failures and critical successes lay waste to your best-laid plans, I weep for you.

Yours is not an easy road. Nor is it a path for the inexperienced. The thrill and risk of the naked die roll is its own reward. Fortune favors the bold. So shine on you crazy diamond, giving your players every opportunity to hate you for your blatant concession to the random whims of chance. If you succeed, you will weave a tale of drama and breathtaking suspense in which every die roll holds a fateful twist. If you fail, don't try to blame the dice for your own hubris. You made your choice. You're going to have to live with it.

I salute you, open rollers, and your refusal to fudge or conceal your chaotic dice. You are hardier souls than I ever could be. 

I am impressed by your chutzpah, but I'm going to keep my DM screen, just in case.

Happy ventures! ;)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

External Links: Creating Conflict!

Conflict is the centerpiece for any good story, as well as an important element of role playing. Today, I'd like to share a couple of thought provoking pieces on creating conflict with your characters that can be applied to both players and game masters alike.

The second is this image that I found making the rounds online (Sorry, I'm not sure of the original source) 

Hopefully these will ignite your creative spark and get you thinking about your own ways to create conflict in your tabletop campaigns!

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pacing: Taking a Moment

In today's entry I would like to follow up on my previous advice on pacing. I humbly beseech every game master worth their salt to be ready to take a deep breath and slow things down for a bit. As much as I enjoy making swift progress through an adventure, I often find myself needing a reminder of this important principle.

Rushing the players can cause as much of a problem as letting the game stall. The important thing to remember is to give these players the time they need to savor the game and make their decisions. 

There are two major instances in which your game may come to a halt, causing you to consider whether or not to give your players a nudge in the right direction. The first is when your players are immersed in the game world. They might be having a lengthy conversation in-character, or describing their travels through the local barter town in excruciating detail.

The other scenario is one in which the players are trying to decide their next move. They argue the pros and cons of what they think would be the best way to take on a challenging situation. It might seem monotonous and wasteful as they dissect every possible route they could take to storm the keep or infiltrate the space station. But before you send a horde of charging minions to get things moving again, wait! 

Are the players enjoying themselves? Are they increasing their investment in the game world? If the answer is yes, then they are best left to their own devices. At least for a while. As a DM, it might be easy to feel like time is being wasted. Especially if you have pages of carefully laid out notes that you want to implement before the end of the session. But the adventure is there for the entertainment of your players, so it pays to let them stop and smell the roses when they feel like it. Give them a push if the meander in circles or repeat themselves, but don't pressure them to speed through the game in such a hurry. Give them clues if they are needed, but don't interrupt them if they are already working their way down the right track. Provide the time they need to figure things out for themselves and the revelation will be much more satisfying for them.

If your players are choosing to take their time experiencing the tabletop universe you have presented, it is a good sign you are doing something right. So don't fret. Kick back and take a moment. Listen carefully to what they are saying, review and adjust your notes, and let your players have their time to work things out. The group will be more relaxed and ready for the faster and more intense moments after they have been allowed these breaks in the action, and your campaign will benefit greatly. 

As always, keep an eye out for genuinely frustrated players (or player-on-player conflict) and get things moving again if that occurs. But otherwise, let these lulls become part of the ebb and flow of your enthralling adventure, so your players can enjoy it to its fullest!

Happy ventures!