Thursday, September 29, 2016

Preparing for the Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Naming the Party

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples of typical adventuring party names:

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

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

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Now Playing: Fantasy Adventure Playlists for Specific Moods

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

Standard Fight Music

Intense Fight Music

Triumphant Music

Majestic Music

Dramatic Music (Sad/Scary)

Travelling Music (Background Ambience)

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Working Around Absentee Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Celebrity Quotes on Tabletop RPGs

Felicia Day (The Guild)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Good vs. Evil Choices: The Path Not Dared

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

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

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

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

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

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Taking a Step Back

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

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

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

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

Happy ventures!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Running Comedy Games (Part One)

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

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

Combat is Easy: Comedy is Hard.

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

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

It's Not About Winning

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

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

Let the Funny Flow

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

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


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

Happy ventures!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Who Leads the Charge? How DMs and Players Drive Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy ventures!