Gaming in a New City

Image credit: WallpaperUp

 

Reflecting on how far we’ve come together on this site got me thinking about how far I’ve come as a person. It seems like not that long ago, I was 3,000 miles away from home, making it on my own for the very first time. That kind of experience is this avalanche of emotions. You feel fear, doubt, solitude; yet you also feel freedom, like you have the ability to start anew. The opportunity to reinvent the person you are, the person you’re becoming, is right at your fingertips when you leave home like that. Some parts of you come, while some parts stay home. The one thing I knew was coming with me to Arizona was this new thing, at the time, that we know as gaming.

We won’t go too much into the experience, as it doesn’t have much to do with the goal of this post. However, if the curiosity pokes you, reach on out and I can tell you about it. With all the mushy, personal experience stuff out of the way, what is it like to find a gaming group after you move? In short, it’s quite an interesting experience, but it’s a lot easier than you’d think; at least it was for me. We all live in a time where connecting with people is easier than it ever has been before, and using that to your full advantage is the key to gaming wherever you go. My gaming time in the valley was all thanks to a site called Meetup. Many people have heard of it, probably even looked a tiny bit, but never taken the dive into it. It’s easy to see why: you don’t know what to expect, there could be a grandiose number of people on the page but you have no actual gauge of what it will be like, and to make it all worse, you’re in a different place where you may not necessarily know what people are like there.

Intimidating, surely, but sometimes you just have to take that random venture out in to the world to get the good stuff. Phoenix revealed some rather interesting people to me, not all of them that I went through effort to keep in contact with. Not because there were bad people, or ones I didn’t like, but just because sometimes people aren’t designed to be best buds. To turn that on its head, there are a couple of friends that I keep in contact with from my Meetup adventures, and had some very memorable games during my stay. It was really strange to go to a random bar in the desert to play D&D, but it makes for a hell of a story! For gamers in a new city, I do recommend surfing on Meetup to help find some people that can eventually make up your regular home group, but know there is a multitude of other platforms. ENWorld has a forum, Facebook has thousands of groups and pages. Tap your resources, and you’ll probably find out that you can make yourself right at home wherever you go.

 

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Based off this real life example, this uncomfortable leap of faith that we have to make to assimilate to a new environment, what can we learn? To apply it to a gaming context: when you introduce player characters to a new area, do some stage setting first. If you give the characters some ties to the area they’re moving to, it does a few things. Firstly, it adds a sense of depth. Character backgrounds, player agency to shape the past and future, we talk about it all the time. It’s just another little thing you can to do enhance these pillars of roleplay. More importantly than the personal ties, the characters need a resource to tap. In most fantasy settings, this is located in the common room of some tavern. Tropes are comfortable, safe, and can capture a really nice feeling, but shaking it up creates the memorable plots.

Just like in our own world, there are ways to learn about places before someone travels there. Granted, it’s far easier to use a Google search bar than a library full of books that may or may not have been written for such useful purposes, but it’s something to consider. Some of you are probably thinking that this is an incredibly boring way to solve this issue, and I wholeheartedly agree. We have to acknowledge it’s there, though, because everybody has a different play style. The way I handle this in my group is that I deliver information after a brief assessment of what the character might know based off their age and overall background experience. Collaboration between a player and the GM comes up constantly in things I put out, and this fits that model for me too. The player will come up with a justification as to why their character would know something about the subject, the GM assesses the plausibility of it being truth and adjusts the DC of the roll.

This sounds really basic, but knowing exactly what we’re doing when we do it is key to tuning it to perfection. You can stretch out this interaction with multiple questions that increase the richness of the answer. Recently, when revealing information about Drakkenhall to my wizardly player, I didn’t simply ask him if he would know anything about the city from his studies. I asked him exactly what type of things he studied, what seemingly unrelated subjects were necessary to support the theory of those things. It helps me paint a broader picture of human understanding, not just belittling this poor character’s entire life experience to one roll for a small piece of info. The player learned a great deal about its policing procedures, political structure, known figures of authority, along with a few other quirks the city has. The way we came to this, though, was by mapping the past experience of the character, giving the knowledge a lot more realistic depth.

Now that my really long winded explanation of my thoughts on the subject are over, we can sum it up with a couple of simple rules. When you’re introducing a new part of your setting to the characters, try to think of:

  •  All the things you innately know about a city you’d possibly move to, and what research you’d have to do before going there.
  • What resources the characters could use to assimilate themselves better.
  • How the general populace might receive things that they do that are seemingly normal to them.
  • How the methods of the local authorities could interfere with the characters intentions or goals.

 

New places with the same characters are exciting. They allow the players to apply previous knowledge their character has gained, just like they would in real life, without all of the stakes and baggage that normally comes with it. Try to make that experience genuine, fun, and intriguing. What else would you sprinkle into the mix to keep the newness of a location from grinding your campaign to a halt?

 

Stay Metal \m/

Allegorical Gaming: Weighing Reason

Image: Plato’s Cave Allegory illustration from Mrs. Shepherd’s Classes. 

Before we delve into what the hell I’ll be yapping about abstractly for the rest of the page*, we need to understand what an allegory is. They’re scarily similar to metaphors, especially with the misuse of the word in the modern world. I read a good article that talks about it, though it’s a bit of a slog for someone not used to thinking in this frame. This is the necessary preliminary work that only the individual can do for themselves to make their work successful. Tap as many resources of thought as you can, but come to your own conclusion that’s built on a foundation of facts and reason. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t make your game an allegory. Just have fun, know that’s okay and what games are ultimately designed for. For the record, this one is more about social structure in relation to frame of mind than gaming itself. Shall we?

Using games to confront real things in a controlled and welcoming environment is a pretty good idea, but what are the challenges to this? There’s a myriad of boons and busts to this, but each subject that can be addressed has a different set of them. This makes navigating the waters of a campaign as an allegory quite difficult. Besides the creative hurtles, like choosing what you’d like to explore and how exactly to deeply convey it, you should first look at your group dynamic.

Every group is different, it doesn’t take someone with an extensive back log of experience to acknowledge and understand that fact. However, know that one, singular truth is only a tiny part of the larger one. How is your group different? In what ways do they work together or against each other? These questions are just as important at the table as they are outside of it, and serve as a basis to the final answer as to whether or not your game can be an allegory. When you decide to make your game an allegory, it’s no longer just about the game. To give you some guidance on what to do with that thought: this type of game brings things from outside inward for dissection and reflection. Therefore, you open the gateways for serious, potentially emotional conversation. It sounds good, and it can be, but it can easily blow up in your face if you have players that you don’t deeply know away from the game table. Not only do you have to be a GM in this situation, but you need to be a colleague, and an open minded one at that.

The goal of this art is to make the players turn inward about something on the exterior. If you, or anyone in your group for that matter, can’t walk up to an allegory with a mind to contemplate the entire picture and potentially have a civil discussion about it, then your game should not be an allegory.

Simple as that. When I say that finite statement is “simple,” I don’t mean that the situation itself isn’t complex, but the parameters that allow you to move forward can be boiled down to make them seem that way. When one questions that statement, they can travel down into the infinite depth of the very question itself. Calling it simple gives you a feeling of gratification, an understanding of some degree of depth to where generalization can be useful; but it’s important to be aware of the fact that it’s anything but simple in reality. When you understand a situation fully, it becomes easy to call  it simple, but when explaining it to other people, one must be thorough. The end game of your campaign is to reflect, within yourselves, about the situations presented.

I called this article, “weighing reason,” for… well, at the risk of sounding more repetitive than I already do, a reason. People have their own ways of pursuing truth through reason, which in this sense means thinking rather than a cause, though it’s abundantly clear that some methods are better than others. In order to keep peace among a group of people, you need to be aware of other people’s way of reasoning, an individual’s way of reasoning, before you present a question. What does that mean? We know that people don’t like to be challenged. One could ask the question, “Why is the sky blue?” The question is simple, direct, and neutral. You could ask that same question in a different way. Do you know why the sky is blue? See the difference? The former is a neutral inquiry, whereas the second question designated a specific target. That makes it my lack of knowledge against knowledge that I assume you have. It seems silly, as the question is the same, but take tone of voice into consideration. The way you ask that question is in many cases infinitely more important than the words themselves, or at least on an interpersonal level. Pair that awareness with an actually challenging question and it opens the flood gate of deductive reasoning. It seems trivial to be bringing all this up, but zooming in to understand individual parts of the dynamic is what helps you manipulate the damn contraption to work. Unfortunately for us gamers, people are the most complicated contraptions that we have a need to manipulate in the context of RPGs.

In the case of an allegorical RPG campaign, that manipulation is taking the form of making someone pose a question to themselves. This should be done through events in the story, character interactions, the layout of the environment itself, fictional political strife, etc. It’s a hard thing to achieve, and you can fail. Look at what parts of the situation could lead to failure and try to find a way to manipulate that as well. Starting to sound kind of creepy and personally intrusive, isn’t it? Now, I bestow upon you the thought to save yourself from this benign manipulation changing into a way for you to insert your own opinions; which may or may not be objectively wrong due to a lack of understanding of the parts, I might add.

A GM has the power to sneakily interject things that they believe into the experiences of others. It’s their responsibility and duty to not wield that belief like a weapon, but to hand it off like a good book. That way the individual can come to their own conclusion about the stance based on the information within to better themselves and, hopefully, the world around them.

This all seemingly has nothing to do with gaming. However, when we consider the impact of the questions that can rise out of the resolutions within a fictional calamity, we see that there’s more than what’s on the surface. Taking all of what I just proposed and putting it under the most powerful microscope you can find is, by far, the most important part making your allegorical campaign succeed. Is this all? Of course not, I’d be a complete fool to think so. Human beings learn best when presented with information paired with the ability to dismantle it into small parts, helping us make a better judgement of the whole. Virtuous behavior is equally as important, as having more than your own experience it build off makes for a strong foundation. Just remember not to take everything everyone says as truth without question.

* Here’s the disclaimer: I have no formal education in philosophy, social science, political science, or psychology. Or anything, really, besides automotive technology and whatever I retained from my horrendous journey through the American public school system. Everything you have just read is a product of my own deductive reasoning and personal experience, and very well may be wrong. *

I’d like everyone who reads this post to comment with an honest question about this piece. Not because I want to prove you wrong, not because I have some insatiable thirst for argument, but because I want to be better both as a game master and an individual. Hopefully, you’re with me and you do too. I expect to be met with a founded, fact and experience based challenge. The only way to become better is to make mistakes! Learning how to talk about views you disagree with, without letting your emotion override reason, is the most important skill that is the most uncommon. Hone it like the blade you’re going to go kill that troll that represents ignorance with.

Thank you so much for reading and Stay Metal \m/

Equally Surprised

Image source: Bugbear Surprise by Akeiron (Deviant Art)

 

The GM of any game is often painted like this evil mastermind that has control over a character’s entire life. Whether they’re cruel, merciful, destructive, or kooky, GMs have this sort of divine air about them in regards to the gaming community. It’s true, not everybody can take on the job. It demands your attention, your precious time, your creativity. As laborious as it can be, it’s awesome; let’s just get that right out of the way.

However, one thing that I feel players often forget is that the GM is usually just as surprised about what happens on the player end of the game as you are about theirs. I always talk about my main campaign, how it’s been my pride and joy for the past four years and the like. Pulling a lot of inspiration from it for my writing, because this is my big game theory experiment essentially, I’m sure you guys can get sick of reading that sentence. But seriously, it’s taught me so much, and inspired me to write yet another article.

Surprise is a bit of a tricky thing when you’re GMing. Usually, it pops up when you don’t want it to. The players can circumvent a cool encounter you had planned, think of a creative yet mildly annoying way to fix a problem that you propose, or bring an idea to the table that is so damn good that you want to alter your story to fit it. It’s just as likely that these are the good kind of surprise as they are the bad kind. The emotion is a bit of a double edged sword for GMs. We like when it happens because it’s a good feeling (well, for some of us) but it always creates more work, no matter how cool the surprise is. So how do we deal with the unexpected? Just like everything, there’s a couple things to do.

Personally, improvisation is my comfortable space when it comes to GMing. Even if what I make up on the spot changes a detail about the story, it’s better for the player input to reign supreme over my own thoughts. Improvisation can be tricky when you’re a person who works better within the guidelines of a module, but it is a part of being a GM. Nurture that skill, and it will serve you well. Sometimes it’ll shake things up so much that it completely changes whatever your group is doing. It can be really fun to let that happen and see where the chips fall, I do recommend it every once in a while. If you had settled on the fact that the High Druid and Elf Queen are actually two parts of the same entity, but your one of your players hints at the truth of their sibling relation, go with the player input. It’ll shake things up, but you can always adjust accordingly. Unless, of course, the entirety of the story hinges on your interpretation of the relationship. Then it’s even better to let the player think that they’re seeing the relationship for what it is and be surprised later down the road! Making that split decision can sometimes be an improvisational choice, it can be a really fun defining moment.

When improv is the imperfect answer, when the action performed is too big a shake-up to take it in full, it’s okay to say you need five minutes. Giving the group a period of time to step out, grab a coffee or a smoke, go for a walk etc. is a useful tool to have in the box. It’s almost like a reset button, and can quickly suck uninterested players back into the game. Players can be like sharks, perking up at the slightest whiff of blood. You having been caught off guard by another player can be exciting for those kind of people. Let it happen, cultivate that interest. Re-purposing those emotions to spur a useful interaction in-game is incredibly helpful. As much as it’s a reset button for them, it can be for you too. When everyone leaves the room and you gain a second of peace to think the situation through, there’s a chance you’ll emerge on the other side of the situation more collected. Having that clarity of mind is a GM’s deadliest weapon. We don’t like to admit it, but we have some physical tells that spoil some cool surprises for the players. I know I grin like a goof during cool moments because it’s so exciting. Hitting that reset button can help you pull yourself together and execute the situation like a boss.

The last option, though I’m not a huge fan, is over-preparation. I feel like this is the most common knee-jerk reaction to unpredictable players. For some people this one works, where it doesn’t for others. I can see the appeal and use, but it’s definitely not for me. Over-preparation allows the GM to carry a sense of security through the entire session, but can also lull them incredibly far into that feeling. If I operated this way, I would probably panic when something unexpected happens because I have a boatload of source material for reference. There is something to be said for it though: Over-preparation can lead to some of the richest environments ever imagined. There’s something going on everywhere at all times, and if something goes neglected, the written material helps you visualize what happened to that situation without the players’ input.

Each method of dealing with surprise behaves drastically different. Like I say all the time, this diversity of theory makes our hobby incredibly unpredictable. Running the same thing at two different tables makes for two very different experiences. It can be frustrating, fun, and scary all at the same time! If you have any thoughts to fuel this fire, let’s keep it going. Post a comment here, on whatever post you found this on, or Tweet at me. Just like a good game, writing these things is the best when your audience interacts with you.

 

 

You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?

Stay Metal! \m/

The Group That Never Meets

“It’s like herding cats,” is the best description I’ve ever heard of being a GM. Your player characters have their own free will and spontaneous thoughts, trying to get them to go somewhere can be a challenge without forcing them to do so. But what happens when your actual players are difficult to herd to the table? You don’t game that week… or month… or six months. It can be frustrating, even discouraging a lot of the time. Personally, I’m going through a huge lull like this in my Saturday group and I was thinking about how I deal with this sort of thing, as I’m obviously not the only one with this problem.

I tend to get really disappointed when the game falls apart, everybody dropping like flies in our group chat to keep in touch. There’s something special about my Saturday group that scratches my gaming itch, though only in hindsight because I’m too self critical. When we get the night off, which is more often than not these days, reflecting on previous sessions helps me think about where I want to go with the current plot line. Off nights should be my writing time, where I map out where the PCs will likely go next or what have you. Usually, that doesn’t happen because I’m a schlub, but it’d be a good way to spend your sad time, I’d say. Personally, grasping at straws is what I find myself doing instead. Pestering the players that didn’t drop to come play another game, like FFG’s X-wing, 4 The Birds, a small vignette from my 13th Age game, Total Rickall, hell, something! There’s a reason for this too…

If your players get used to having frequent off days, you’ll get stuck in that trap for a long time. When my attempts to get people involved and keep with the Saturday gaming figure, it’s an indicator that we’re going to have a hard time meeting for a long time. Sometimes even a month and a half without the campaign being played. Sound familiar to anyone? My condolences, you are not alone! There’s a light to be had here, though. With my main game being 13th Age, this leaves me time to read the multitude of supplements that exist for the system. Find some different angles on your  creativity when you suffer from the blight of gamelessness. A good example of this is right before we had this long push to run through a dungeon. I didn’t know what to do with the story, we had a long time off, and there was still much I hadn’t read in 13 True Ways. I dove into that book like David Boudia (an Olympic diver, if you miss that joke). Now, we’re marching the party towards Drakkenhall and I’m incredibly excited for what’ll befall them there… if we ever game again.

Sometimes having some time off will help you get excited about your campaign again. Frustration sets in, even with the best of us, when you play a campaign for too long. Even when it goes well, it doesn’t always go as you picture and can make you feel squashed because you liked your ideas. Such is the life of a GM. The extra free time gives you an opportunity to explore what other works have done with the setting, sparking your own creativity.

To do a 180 from that idea, I also read other systems. Lately, I’ve been reading John Wick’s 7th Sea (which has me unbelievably intrigued). Reading other systems can give you ideas on how to handle certain situations mechanically, even if the mechanics in the other game doesn’t fit yours 100%. It frees your mind from the cage that is your main system; it always pays to be well rounded.

If you find yourself too discouraged to read/write, do something that I feel like too few groups do: hang out with the remaining people. Even if they’re not down to game, maybe they’re down to grab dinner, a drink, or a movie. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of, “these are the people I game with.” Spending time outside of game with your group helps solidify the relationships within. It doesn’t scratch that itch, but at least it doesn’t leave you sulking at home. If you get along with your group outside of game, chances are you’ll get along better within it. Nurture that relationship, it’ll make you feel good. That’s not always true though, so don’t take it as gospel.

When all else fails, you could always open up some dialogue about schedule in your group chat/email/whatever. Maybe your gaming schedule is too frequent, or even too sparse. Finding that sweet spot is so incredibly important, it’s not even funny. The more you stick to the schedule, the less likely you’ll miss games.

So there you have it. A rambly, probably non-nonsensical article about how I keep myself from disbanding my group after many consecutive weeks of not playing (those thoughts are real).

 

Stay Metal \m/

Campaign Building: The Snowball Effect

Image source: Comics I Don’t Understand

This one is a tough subject, as no two GMs are the same. From the ground up, building a campaign is a daunting task, even more so for the more aspiring GMs that want to do this as their first endeavor. Some people like to use an established setting while others have ideas that could only work in a world of their own creation. The question: What the hell do I do to build a campaign? The answer has so many different faces and aspects that it’s rather difficult to nail down, but here’s one way of many to start.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I was lucky. My first campaign sprung up out of me simply saying, “let’s play a game,” to my friends. I came up with the most generic scenario I could possibly think of, plopped it down into 13th Age’s Dragon Empire, miraculously birthing the campaign that I’m still playing today. I started with just an intuition, spending the rest of my time building off of the random details my players had created. By the end of it, I had a titanic cast of GMPCs, villains, events, and locations. I call this method, “the snowball effect.” You simply round up some players, use a setting that’s loosely established, push the “snowball” of your players’ ideas and character actions down the hill, and voila! A collaboratively created game where all the GM came up with was the initial adventure and villain.

So let’s talk terms a little bit. I like to think of the random ideas that you and your players will have floating around all the time as snow. The snow floats around and eventually lands on the ground for you to pick up and force into a shape. Every character creates a tiny snowball, a collection of ideas about their character, a situation, a future plot point, whatever. When they say it, I think of it as them throwing me said snowball. Sometimes I catch all of it, other times it crumbles in my hand and I’m left with just a powdery mess. Regardless, we take that snow and pack it onto the original idea that was my (the GMs), original idea. The snowballs that the players create can sometimes be different from the GMs. Player snowballs tend to be very focused, specific information about something they’re mulling over in their head. GM snowballs tend to be big ideas, usually about theme or campaign direction. Every now and again, if you have an awesome group, you have players that do both. What’s not lucky, is that the GM learns create both kinds of snowballs. Eventually, the GM is packing snowballs or catching player made ones, throwing them at the giant one rolling down the hill, seeing what spatters off and what sticks. Sounds kind of hectic, right?

Details sometimes get lost or forgotten about, only to come up later. The best part is, sometimes when you find that “snow” on the ground, you can pick it up and add it to the snowball. The drawback of doing it this way is that if you have a group that isn’t new to role playing (unlike the majority of my group at the start), then this can feel very unsatisfying. Some experienced players enjoy having fields and fields of lore to navigate, creating a sense of immersion right from the get-go. The snowball campaign doesn’t always work like that, a lot of the time I inject some of the history on the fly, which leads to another problem with it.

Unless you’re comfortable with improv, running this style of campaign can be rather difficult. The snowball campaign forces the GM to keep packing snow onto the story, especially if the characters just throwing the snow around listlessly. You look around at stuff that’s fallen out of the sky (ideas you’ve had or things your players have said), pick it up, and pack it onto the rest. Once you get used to it, it’s incredible fun, however. For me, it gives me the same sense of mystery and excitement that the players get. Since I never know what they’re going to do, or even what their actions could lead to, my instinct and understanding of the campaign as it stands steers the thing. Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t come up with a loose quest line for the flow of the game.

I call those quest lines “legs” of the campaign; they are the path in which the giant snowball rolls on. Sometimes the snowball is running through halls of a king. Other times, it’s barreling through a dungeon, full steam ahead. The legs are the things that happen outside of the player (and character’s) control. The GM gets to steer the snowball into specific legs. The things that the snowball picks up while traversing the legs are determined collaboratively. Tone is the sound the snowball makes whilst rolling, and theme is what tells everyone what the snowball looks like, but the environment around that snowball is constantly changing. It’s a little nebulous and weird to wrestle with, but the structure becomes a game within a game. This constant rolling that the snowball is doing represents the characters and story picking things up along the way that ultimately changes how it all looks by the end of it. But keep in mind, everything that sticks to it is still snow. It feels the same, although it might sound and look different. Strange, huh? For those of you that are really enjoying picturing the metaphor, you may be asking yourself, “If it’s rolling down a hill, how are you still packing snow onto it?”

The answer is why I think running a game this way is incredibly fun. You have to run alongside it. Sometimes you lose control of where the snowball is going, which is when general real life logic rather than creativity makes unexpected things or consequences happen. While you and your players are running down this ever changing hill, looking at your snowball and throwing things at it, you can’t help but look ahead. Steering is collaborative, while the GM is the lookout for snowball breaking obstacles. All you can do is follow it to keep throwing things in an effort to roll it all to a desired end. In this light, it might sound like as the GM, I have no real say in what sticks to the snowball or where it goes. This is a misconception, because the GM always has the ability to stand in front of it, stop the thing from rolling, and say that this particular thing can’t stick to our snowball. Of course, it’s their responsibility to explain to the group why, and if a good reason is presented otherwise, it doesn’t stick. Usually, those are the things that’ll steer it so far off course that it’ll smash into a wall, or a tree (something that would destroy the campaign). At the end, you’re left with a huge snowball, a collection of crap you’ve picked up along the journey, and the memories of how it got from point A to B.

Running a campaign is constantly chaotic on the GM’s side. You have to trust your group, take their ideas into serious consideration, and sometimes even ask why they desire a certain thing to happen. Of course, the dice end up deciding whether they are successful or not, but it’s really fun to see the snow flying around. Am I off-the-wall insane or does this sound like fun to you? I’d love to hear about it!

 

Stay Metal \m/

Grounded Feet

Photo source: Pigs With Crayons

 

What’s the most common thing you see in an adventurer’s background? Killed parents? Lived off the land until they decided to adventure? Refugee from a fallen city? Players are incredibly good at giving their characters nothing to latch onto. Perhaps that’s something that they do intentionally, leaving an open road for the GM to put sign posts on. Then again, there’s always the possibility of creative shyness or lack of motivation when creating a character. Giving a character stuff to care about can be rather difficult, especially if the player didn’t lay the foundation of who their character is and what they care about. It becomes even more difficult when you try to string together four or five of these characters to create a campaign.

Of course, to circumvent all of these problems, a session zero seems like a no-brainer. Not everybody does those though, and that’s okay. Session zero is a helpful thing, allowing players to collaboratively create characters and organically string things together. It makes the first role play together way less awkward, taking away the need to probe with random in-character questions to learn about one another. For those people who don’t use a session zero, though, have no fear! A fantastic campaign can be born out of your seemingly random characters, you just have to coax them out of their comfort zones. My home game had started in the same way; I had decided that I wanted to GM and I came up with some silly adventure, telling my friends to make characters and play it with me. It exploded into a campaign that we’re still not done with and has had an intense amount of emotional involvement. For more about session zero, Tribality has written a fantastic article, probably better than I could.

For starters, combat usually doesn’t lead to character development. I use combat as a way for a character to blow off some steam, or at least the unimportant ones. If your game is combat laden and your players have a rather groundless backstory, the game quickly becomes a hack-and-slashfest. Some players like this, but if you’re reading this, then chances are you’re a GM who wants more out of a game. With this, you have two options to make the combats potentially draw out some role play from your group. Start by giving the combat consequences. If you can fight anything and anyone with nobody to answer to afterwards, many players tend to get fearless and destructive just for the sake of it. It’s completely acceptable to say to your players, “This NPC scolding you right now appears to be way out of your league,” to convey that fighting this one isn’t the best idea. A lot of the time, this will sound like a challenge to them, so have some insane stats ready just in case. Make sure your characters can run away once they realize their mistake, and more importantly, make that option readily apparent to them. Hinting at it isn’t always enough, be transparent when things start going far south. Squashing characters for feeling out your world can be a downer for a long term game, though there is something to be said for that kind of play style. Letting them describe their getaway could be a fun role playing experience, or turning it into a skill challenge can force characters to collaborate. At the end of it all, don’t forget that this little squabble has consequences!

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Photo Source: Pigs With Crayons

The other type of combat as a way to plant characters’ feet in the world is to make the place/time of it important. This one forces combat to occur infrequently, as you have to lay the foundation with an hour or two of role playing and characters interacting with the world to give the bad guy some weight. If you give them problems that they can’t solve with fire and sword, it’ll force them to start thinking together and finding the strengths/weaknesses of each other’s characters. Those problems work best if they’re political or economical, and give the bad guy some armor, so to speak. The bad guy should be difficult to get to without making a huge fuss out of it. It gives that later combat stakes, especially if the characters are in an urban environment and want to live among society. The struggle to coexist with other people helps them realize they need to depend on their friends. It goes without saying that characters in a party will butt heads every now and again, but it adds to the drama. Usually that happens after they realize they need each other, which makes it all the better.

I could write a whole article on urban villains and how to keep them present but not fightable until the final moments of the campaign. To just plant the seeds:

  • Make them important to something bigger than the characters can take on by themselves.
  • Force the characters to find an avenue in the story to isolate this person from that something. A political faction, an impenetrable fortress, or simply the villain having long reaching fingers where the PCs have to travel to hunt them down.

Meeting that villain or someone who represents them is crucial. Just make sure that they can’t end it all in that moment…

Overland adventures usually remove the political and social struggles that come with their urban counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that the game has to be combat oriented. A GM can use things like weather and difficult terrain to help characters connect with one another. Combining those aspects with a combat encounter can up the ante, making everything much more dangerous. It’ll give the players a degree of caution amongst them, strengthening their codependency. Eventually, things should take them to some kind of township where characters interact with people outside of their adventuring group, and that’s where you can inject more complex conflicts that exist outside the group.

Believe it or not, all of this is the easy part. The most difficult thing to do is taking your players’ inspiration as they go along and making it relevant to the story. Whenever a player wants to discover something important about their character, they usually search for it. They won’t always tell you why they’re looking for whatever that specific thing may be, but it’s your job to eventually give it to them. At that moment, I prefer to ask the player what that thing is and nebulously describe its importance.

As an example: Crysx in my Ald Sotha campaign found out that he’s actually an Aasimar. His goal is to basically find the last remnants of his people and the reason they disappeared. They’re incredibly rare in our version of the Dragon Empire. As far as he knows, he’s the only one. Wilton (who hasn’t gotten into the recaps yet, sorry!) is a rich friend of theirs that has a huge library. He has one book on Aasimar. I told Crysx’s player, Ben, that he needed to vaguely describe to me a prophetic picture in the book. Rather than me telling him what his character’s destiny may be, I let him come up with something, giving him a shred of investment. Since then, I’ve been doing nothing but brewing over what it could mean, what I think it should mean to create an interesting story, a satisfying end. As we’ve traveled along, I’ve thrown small bits and pieces at him while we’re resolving the main objective of the campaign.

Now do this for every character. See how it can be difficult? You have to have these little pieces of information be littered throughout the environment, urban or otherwise. At the same time, it should be relevant to the main story arc while individually important to the character. Sometimes put them in seemingly insignificant places to add that sense of wonder and mystery to the setting. The most important part about doing this sort of thing is to throw it back at the players. When they have a question that you feel you don’t have the right to take creative control over, throw it back at them. You can find out what the player is thinking for the character, allowing you to further twist it down the road and make it bittersweet. It’ll greatly help put the feet of your players and characters on the same floor.

For best results, apply these concepts liberally to all of your games.

 

Stay Metal \m/

Themed Battles

image: Cover art of Pelgrane Press’ Battle Scenes: High Magic and Low Cunning

 

Carefully picking monsters for your encounters can do wonders for the theme and feeling of them. Whether it’s a fight with a hundred copies of one enemy, or a mixed bag of targets, it’s important to know what direction you’re taking the image of the combat into. For the most part, the type of monster can heavily affect how the encounter feels. Fighting orcs feels rather different from fighting a rakshasa or two,  as it should be.

Sadly, it can be difficult to find the monsters you need. Sometimes they haven’t been created yet, or all of the orcs are scattered across a multitude of books and supplements. Most people would probably tell you that you need to take your game prepping up a notch, which never hurts, but I say there’s another solution. When building a themed encounter, it almost goes without saying that you have to know what your adventuring party consists of. You wouldn’t throw a group of spell casters at your adventuring party that is solely made up of melee classes. The opposite can also be true if they hit too hard. When in doubt; a group of melee monsters will always work against any adventuring party, just take the squishies into account.

When we think themed encounter, however, we’re mostly talking about one type of monster or a group of monsters that serve a common purpose. In 13th Age, The Blue has somehow created a city of monsters that coexist and even make up her government. Typically, an ogre mage would scoff at the idea of kobold underlings, but in Drakknehall, such is not the case. Using concepts like this opens up a multitude of options when building themed encounters. If you lack a higher power like an Icon, giving them all a commonality of some kind is essentially the base of this point. Much like player races; if given a reason, monsters can band together.

A little different than the “common goal” method, using a bunch of one monster type can prove a little difficult. In another post about encounter building, I talked about monster roles (spoiler, blocker, wrecker, etc.), probably the most important aspect of making an encounter work in 13th Age. For those of us who own most of the books, making themed encounters that uphold this philosophy can be pretty easy… once you find everything. In the core rules, the orcs were pretty limited; all melee fighters save one, which is a shaman that takes the role of leader, a monster that gives buffs to their friends. There was plenty to work with there, and it satiated what we needed to do when learning 13th Age. Now that the game has been out for a while, there’s a multitude of orc options. The 13th Age Bestiary has some good ones, and I hope the Bestiary 2 will keep the tradition. You can never have too many orcs, right? But not every monster has been so fortunate to be given a bunch of friends. Some monsters from the Bestiary, like the Lammasu or Cuoatl can be a little more tough to deal with. Throwing more than one at a party can feel strange, mainly because they’re large and intelligent. A creature of their size is bound to have hubris, having more than one around seems unlikely.

But if the theme demands it, that’s what you should do, right? The answer is, well, kind of. Carrying the Lammasu idea, throwing more than one at a party could be extremely deadly. If that’s the feel you want and it fits your story, go for it. Having a reason for more than one to hang out together is key to making that believable. However, I would argue that having one extremely strong Lammasu (one as written) and a bunch of smaller, weaker ones that are being bullied around would be better. The stats as written don’t have that, so as a GM, you’re faced with two options: 1) Create your own 2). Reskin an existing monster.

Reskinning takes way less time, and is the route I would recommend if you don’t have all the prep time in the world. The key to making that work is finding other monsters that feel similar to the Lammasu (or whatever) that fill different roles. A Lammasu Wizard is a spoiler, and he needs some troops and mooks to back him up. Taking something like an Orc Berserker from the core rules and giving it the Lammasu’s ability Refuge of Stone can really surprise and challenge players. Of course, you’d have to level up the berserker stats appropriately, which is a task in itself, but it saves you from making a completely new monster. On the other hand, instead of something as simple as a troop, you could throw a wrecker with a bunch of mooks. Even a wrecker and a blocker or three, the blocker serving its function as protector of the Lammasu and collector of wrecker fodder. Get creative, it’s what makes it all interesting.

When it comes to making battles themed around specific Icons, I found that the Battle Scenes books are awesome. They have pre-made encounters, sprawling across multiple levels and the books come divided by Icon. If the adventures don’t fit your game, shelf them for later and just rename all the monsters in an encounter. Voila! You have a battle ready to go that has a theme. Don’t let the name of a stat block keep you from incorporating it into a fight. If you don’t have that book, the Bestiary does have a section at the end of every monster block talking about what Icon they’d serve and who they’d hang out with. It gets the creative juices flowing and has proven to be an invaluable resource for me. Shuffle it up, mix and match things that already exist, and most importantly, make sure it’s fun.

 

Stay Metal \m/

Boss Fights

Image: LOTR Balrog by Arkis on DeviantArt

 

Standing on the bridge above the pit of Khazad-dûm, the wizard in the party turns to confront the Balrog. Do you turn and flee while you have the chance or do you aid him in one final combat to send the evil back to The Shadow for good?

These are always the moments we want to create in our tabletop games; a sense of epicness and grandeur that make the players feel courage bubbling up from deep within them. Boss monsters have a way of doing that, if the scene is set right. To me, setting that scene is the easiest part. Since our beloved hobby is at the mercy of the most fickle mistress, the dice, it’s a little tough to really anticipate how that scene is going to go. Most games have encounter building tips, challenge ratings for monsters, and all sorts of other fiddly bits to help us tailor our encounters like a well made suit. Only for the dice to come along and muck it up for us. Building boss fights can be tough, and honestly, I think it’s the toughest kind of encounter building. Making one monster formidable enough to take on a whole party by itself without wiping the floor with them or getting trampled by them is a balancing act fit for a circus.

Despite its unpopularity, D&D 4e really took the video game boss concept and brought it to the tabletop with “Solo Monster” guidelines. Honestly, why do we not see these pop up more? The mechanics are specific to 4e, sure, but the concept is easily translatable to other games. Giving boss monsters a better action economy can make a huge difference. Simply increasing damage, health, and defenses alone can inadvertently make a combat more deadly instead of more epic. When your orc chieftain gets cornered alone and you decide to beef up his damage to counteract the fact that he’s outnumbered, one wallop could knock a character down. Then it’s on to the next, which could start a chain reaction. If the characters are having bad dice luck, this could mean everybody gets stuck making death saves while your orc chieftain is getting ready to coup de grace the fighter or is sitting there laughing like a buffoon. Instead, giving that chieftain some staying power by providing extra actions, special effects that trigger on PC actions, powerful boons at half hit points or below etc. could keep him around. It’ll draw out the combat, whittle down your PCs without squishing them like flies, and could give it an overall more epic feel.

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art by Shoz-art – “You gon’ get it, now!”

Or, of course, your orc chieftain could be 100% normal and your players can waltz in, slay him like a suckling pig, and move on with the campaign. We don’t judge here.

Bad guys with story elements and personality are always more engaging. Often times my bosses are politicians or mundane people that just have a bad attitude. However, this can be extremely underwhelming when the swords and scrolls come out. In other words, my bad guys aren’t always buff, steroid-monkey orcs that like to crunch apples with their biceps.  It can be really tough to sensibly make those characters powerful enough to take on an entire party without your players saying, “Oh, come on! There’s no way that suit gives him AC 24!”

Unless you’re revealing some secret that the weakling has hidden up their sleeve, your boss fight turns into a standard combat. Filling it out with lackeys and environmental hazards makes the villain last longer and put up more of a fight. Traps that spring up during a combat can be pretty surprising and fun. Even if the bad guy doesn’t have the ridiculous damage output like an orc, or massive defenses/hit points, they can still benefit from some upped action economy. Pairing that with the environment and some mooks/minions to help out can make for a riveting and highly engaging combat scene. It takes away from that Balrog vs. Gandalf feeling, but it’ll still likely make a very memorable boss fight.

How do you make boss fights stand out from regular encounters?

 

Stay Metal \m/

Between Quests

image: Brian Vigue

Downtime during adventures is always the more awkward and clunky part of any long term campaign I run. My players enjoy role playing, but without direction they just sort of bumble around until something tries to kill them. It’s also a little difficult for me to come up with things on the fly that are much less a part of the overarching story. Let’s dig into that a little bit.

The “between quest mode” of a tabletop RPG is usually the least written about part of a book, if it’s even there at all. One thing that’s gained my interest is The One Ring RPG from Cubicle 7 splits adventuring up into phases, with the “Fellowship Phase” being the downtime. Sadly, I have yet to play that game in an in-depth manner, my only experience comes from play by post. The overall idea is providing a loose mechanic to downtime in games. Surely an interesting concept that could probably help me keep those parts engaging. So there’s a possibility that game mechanics could fill that gap.

On the other hand, I fear that providing a mechanical bit to role playing could interfere with the players making it feel organic. What do I do? Well, I have some ideas…

Since Ald Sotha was my first campaign I’ve ever GMed (and it’s still running!), this whole thing has been one gigantic, years long learning experience for me. This is no exception. What would have been a great benefit for me before this whole thing even got rolling is a session zero. It would’ve rooted the characters in the world and given them friends and family to interact with during downtime. This is so ridiculously important that I wish I had been more interested in what was going on here on the internet before I just charged headlong into GMing to learn it. What that session zero would have made is a collaboration between players to connect them to the world before they were even really plopped down into it. No doubt, some important GMPCs (game master player character, courtesy of Robin D. Laws) that have nothing to do with the plot but have everything to do with the characters would have sprung up from this.

That takes me to a small bit of gaming philosophy, I suppose. Adventures are for developing change in a character, downtime is for seeing how that change affects their relationships with those they love. It creates a much more lifelike and interesting experience for the player and, honestly, I think that would make me feel amazingly good as a GM to watch it unfold.

One thing I do in my games that greatly alters the way downtime is spent (that may or may not be a mistake, in some light) is disregard currency. On the one hand, it makes the players more interested in the story instead of material riches. However, it does instill a mindset into the players that shopping is useless, which is largely untrue. For clarity’s sake; in my game, the players are in the inner circle of a guild called the Axefall. Having the economics of the guild at their beck and call, I feel like currency should take a back seat the the overall story. The better the guild is doing, the more liberal I am with the things they can “purchase”. Without the numerical value to their wealth, it seems that the players are way less interested in perusing around New Port’s marketplace in search of new gear and items. Also assuming that most adventuring gear is on their person likely enables this.

Essentially, some of my most dearly held philosophies on how I run my games alters the downtime phases. My idea for a fix is a little interesting. The main background quest of the game is to strengthen the guild, create a fighting force, and take back the city that was once their home. Surely, this has a lot to do with economics, overall wealth, and health of the players/guild. Keeping it nebulous, as is my way, I think that reminding the players that there are little things they can do to further this goal could help create some depth. Moreover, using GMPCs that have started to fade into the backdrop to present the ideas could create that sense of relationship, community, and realism. Considering that the players are in between quests at this very moment, it could be implemented really soon.

I can’t help but hold a little bit of fear, though. Fear that the players will find this uninteresting, although the tasks are pretty much intended to be mundane. It’s supposed to paint a picture of what the guild looks like when they’re out adventuring, to create a sense that the world ticks and turns while the camera isn’t focused on it. More importantly, I would hope that this approach would make my players feel more of a connection (and by that, I mean simply remember) to some of the faded GMPCs.

What I’m saying is that I should plan a little more. I love improving my games, but damn, the boat does need at least a rudder to sail it. How do you manage downtime in RPGs?

 

Stay Metal \m/

Vital NPCs

Non player characters (NPCs) or game master characters (GMPCs) are the bread and butter of information giving in tabletop RPGs. Characters could always go to a library and read up on things, stumble across the answer to a mystery that’s plagued the world for a millennia or simply  just be lucky. This can be fun from time to time but what is dramatic and ties the player characters to the world is interacting with its people. Revealing some of the most important plot points in your game may center around an interaction with a key character. Because of this, the character must be equally, if not more, interesting than  the piece of information itself.

An example of this comes straight from my home game last night, an ongoing campaign that I’ve been running for three years or so.  A very helpful NPC had turned out to be an instrumental player in the Lich King’s plot to retake his empire. Though begrudgingly accepting this fate on fear of death in response to refusal, the character had helped the PCs and was eventually forced to come out with the truth to them. He has now turned into a double agent for them, walking the knife’s edge between good and evil. The plot was there all along, but there was a chance that he would end up on the opposite end of Lisbeth’s sword.

That’s where the careful planning and anticipation come in. Effectively presenting and preserving an NPC like this can make for a really gripping, complex, and engaging way to experience the story of your campaign. People are complex in life, and so too should they be in your RPG. The vital NPC needs to be a relatable character, yet still expressly unique to make the players feel sometimes at odds with them. It leaves the right amount of tension and keeps the players guessing whether they are good or evil. If they’re useful enough, the players will try to keep them around rather than killing them. It gives you ample opportunity to throw wrenches in the plot, but beware: if your wrenches are big enough to put the PCs further away from your vital NPC, that could lead to their death.

The problems that are introduced as consequence to the PCs relationship with your complex NPC should not have said NPC directly involved. That’s how your character gets dead, real quick. Players have an uncanny ability of cutting out the bull in a game, keeping around only what they see as vital, not interesting. As soon as your NPC becomes directly opposed to the PC’s, even if they’re a bit useful, they now become the focus as a villain. So, my one of six master vampires left in the world of the Dragon Empire, Wilton, is willing to help them retake their home of Ald Sotha by informing them on what he can about the Lich King for a time. The catch is that if the Lich King finds out and plays the game, Wilton won’t withhold information from him because he’s scared of the Lich King more than the players. He had said that right off the bat. However, it is abundantly clear to my players that Wilton believes that with careful planning and precision, they can topple the Lich Kings plan, thus making him willing to help. He wants to be free of the political obligation that our wonderful Lord of Undeath bestows upon him so graciously. This creates a very interesting and complex situation with the clear good and bad guys, but makes it deeply interesting by having the questionable character that is extremely open and helpful to the PCs.

It can be a lot to keep track of on the GM’s part to maintain a story line with such a rich and complex set of relationships, but it can be very rewarding to see your players react to such. It begs the question however; how do I keep them alive? This is the part that’s easier said than done. Continuing with my example character; the PCs had found out that Wilton was living amongst mortals and elves because he simply enjoyed their company, despite being a vampire. This takes away the mentality of “vampire = evil” thus making it a bit more difficult to justify killing him. Before the reveal, even, Wilton was very helpful and kind when the players needed some information about an event that happened near both his residence and place of business. It puts the NPC in good standing with the players, making them less likely to be outright angry when his real situation is shown. The blow of finding out that my majorly helpful NPC is a blood sucking monster was heavy, but not heavy enough to drastically change the way they were handling the other important situations.

Keeping him alive from this point forward is just a task of maintaining that level of helpfulness. Not any more, not any less. However, if you’re a GM who really likes to kick up the complexity, making such an NPC even more valuable than is originally presented can set the stage for an immensely dramatic shift. Putting that important NPC in danger or at odds with the players after that could become an important part of your story. The trick to this is to make sure that both you and your players explore all of that characters usefulness. If this doesn’t happen before the coin flips, your players could be missing out on some key information or experiences in your plot.

These double agent type characters can be a true joy to explore in a long term campaign. They keep things dramatic, tense, but also give your players a bit of something to fall back on when they don’t know what to do. The most important bit to remember, however? The story is about your players, not this NPC. I love Wilton as a character, I do. Sure, he’s massively important and preferably needs to stay alive,  but killing him won’t completely derail the game. It’ll make the players’ lives more difficult, without question, but the campaign can still be seen to the end.

 

There’s a lot to think about with this idea, and I’m sure all of you have some slightly (or radically) different approaches to such a concept. I’d be interested to hear them!

 

But for now,

Stay Metal \m/