Friday, May 25, 2012

D&D Next: A Playtest Journal

With new playtest rules firmly in my hot little hands (well, on my iPad anyway, which was in my hot little hands), my group of gamers set out to try the new rules last night. We had a really good time, overall. Here's how the session went.

First off, there are five pre-generated characters for use in the playtest; generation rules are still a ways off. The pre-gens are as follows:

High Elf Wizard (Sage background, Magic-User theme)
Lightfoot Halfing Rogue (Commoner background, Lurker theme)
Mountain Dwarf Cleric (Knight background, Guardian theme)
Human Cleric (Priest background, Healer theme)
Hill Dwarf Fighter (Soldier background, Slayer theme)

Backgrounds offer skill bonuses, and themes offer feat selections - but they're optional, and the character sheets even state to drop them from the game if you want a more old-school gaming feel for your session. I like the way these are presented; the two clerics play very differently as a result of their divergent background and theme selections.

Each player fielded a different pre-gen and we dove right into the Caves of Chaos, running our way through the first kobold lair. I didn't even bother using a battle grid outside the first cave, where eight kobolds lay in wait. The dwarf fighter walked right up to the mouth of the cave and struck a torch, and was caught by surprise by the ambushing kobolds. I like that surprise is left entirely up to the GM - you simply decide who is and isn't caught off-guard and adjust initiative accordingly. The kobolds are pretty standard for D&D fare - nearly impossible to not kill in one hit, but with decent AC due to high Dex and an advantage mechanic that kicks in whenever they outnumber their foes, which was really cool.

They traded blows with the kobolds (I had the enemies break off in pairs and attack each of the four visible characters two at a time, since the halfling rogue immediately hid at the top of the initiative count) and combat lasted about three rounds. The dwarf cleric had an ability which allowed him to give disadvantage to an attacker going after an ally if he's adjacent to that ally, so he drew close to the elf wizard, who pretty much slung magic missiles the whole fight, and protected him. The human cleric did the same, sticking with the other casters and tossing radiant lances at kobolds, then healing when it was necessary. Once a single kobold was remaining, he tried to flee into the cave to alert his buddies - but the wizard went immediately after the kobold's double move (called hustling) and used ray of frost, which reduces a target's movement to zero for 1 round rather than dealing damage. The fighter made easy work of him. (My wife played the dwarf fighter and was rolling like crap last night - but the slayer theme gives her the ability to do a small amount of damage on any given attack even if she misses, which she enjoyed. At low levels this seems to give fighters a clear advantage and weigh most combats heavily in favor of the PCs, but I suspect that is a class ability which does not scale well with experience since it's based on ability modifiers.)

Inside, the fighter and rogue led the way (the halfing rogue can actually hide behind allies and then pop out and sneak attack, which I rather like; the rogue hid behind the dwarf fighter for most of the night) and walked right into a pit trap, but they both dodged it. Unfortunately, the trap noise drew out six more kobolds and a swarm of 18 rats led by a dire rat. The facing and space rules for tiny creatures seemed to indicate that a lot of them could occupy a very small amount of space, so I had them run into the area and attack about six at a time, chewing and biting at the human cleric who had moved into position behind the rogue. The elf wizard came up behind the human cleric and put his arms around the human's waist, fanning his fingers and casting burning hands, which eliminated ALL of the rats in one shot because they were so tightly packed in the corridor. Meanwhile, the kobolds were taking turns moving forward two at a time to attack with daggers while their buddies stayed back and threw spears (I had to kind of ad hoc their ranged attack bonuses, as the stats only gave their melee attack scores with weapons). The fighter and rogue took them out easily with greataxe and sling attacks, and the dwarf cleric moved in to heal the fighter who got hit by two criticals from kobolds - ouch.

The next chamber was described as having about 40 kobolds in it (sort of a restock pool for making the dungeon harder), but I ain't got that many miniatures. They wanted to go in guns blazing (I worked in a story hook about them being able to cash in kobold heads for a bounty in Threshold) so I let them fight ten more kobolds and then cow the rest into submission with Charisma checks once the warriors were gone. The lack of hard alignment rules allowed me to propose a moral dilemma about killing the remaining kobold women and children, and this ended up dividing the party - only the halfling and the elf were willing to engage in wholesale slaughter for profit.

The rogue got in the habit of wanting to check for traps every five feet after the pit trap was triggered, but the system covers this handily - the rogue's Skill Mastery ability basically made him unable to roll anything under a 16 on a Find Traps or Remove Lock roll, so unless the DC was higher than that, I could just tell him to move on (and this leg of the dungeon had no more traps anyway). That was a nice time saver.

The last major conflict was with three elite kobolds (what I assume are the equivalent of 3-4 HD monsters), five regular kobold grunts, and a kobold chieftain. This was over really fast, because the wizard blew his last burning hands spell when they rushed the group, and the melee hitters made short work of the chieftain.

All in all, the first leg felt VERY easy and they seem extremely resilient to damage with the exception of lucky crits. I'm hoping the next leg will be a bit more challenging. My dilemma as a GM right now is, do I keep running the Caves of Chaos (we've only done 6 out of about 64 rooms) or try to create my own scenario using the ruleset? I don't know if the feedback quality I give will be more useful using the provided scenario, or if they want people to go "off-script", as it were.

Also, I did notice a rules discrepancy that may have been due to a class or racial ability rather than a misprint - the rules list greataxes as dealing 1d12 damage, but my wife's dwarf fighter had 2d6 listed on her sheet for the same weapon. I wondered if perhaps that was some sort of racial benefit to boost minimum damage instead of an outright mistake, but I may be reading too much into that.

The system feels very flexible and open to GM fiat. The wizard came up with some creative spell applications, and I enjoyed being able to dictate the flavor of certain things myself - every time the priest killed a kobold with his radiant lance spell, for instance, I ruled that the positive energy overloaded the kobold and made him burst and pop like a firework, so there was no body left behind on which to collect a bounty. =] I do see many similarities to Castles & Crusades, especially in the ability-score-centric mechanics, and I really like that aspect of it. I also like that DCs don't have to scale and climb with PC level - the difficulty mechanic uses the same numerical spectrum across all levels of play, judging by the rules, and that's very helpful in my opinion. I really like the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, and the players seem to enjoy it too. I also like that you can split movement before and after an action without needing extra abilities like Shot on the Run or Spring Attack, and that there's no opportunity attacks baked in from the start.

Most of the players that I ran the game for last night have limited to moderate experience with 4E, and each of them said that they see how that edition has shaped this ruleset, but they each like the application of those game principles a lot better in Next than they did in 4E. I feel much the same way. A lot of what 4E introduced isn't going away - it's just now being presented in a way that feels better integrated into the traditional D&D style than the radical thematic departures 4E utilized.

So, as I say - first impressions are very strong. We're ready for more.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Yet Another Guide on Creating NPCs, Part 1

Vital elements of any tabletop RPG is for the players to be able to gather information, get a little help with their tasks, or  to have an enemy to focus on. All of these things are accomplished using non-player characters or "NPCs". But makes an NPC tick? How much detail is needed to make one come to life? How much do they know? What niche do they fill in your campaign? I'll strive to answer those questions and a little more.

What Exactly is an NPC?

The answer to this has evolved somewhat over the years, but has remained fundamentally the same. At first, non-player characters were just that, characters in the adventuring party that were commanded by the players but largely managed and roleplayed by the game master. These NPCs were notably Henchmen and Hirelings. I'm not sure if these guys are used much these days, but back in the days of the White Box and supplements, 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D, and the Basic games, they were essential. The Nodwick comic in Dragon Magazine was a parody of how these NPCs were used. (But mind you, Nodwick was a Henchman, not a Hireling!). Henchmen were trusted companions to the party, and stat-wise almost PCs, but not quite. Hirelings usually were relegated to being hired as cannon fodder, so not as detailed or beloved as the Henchmen. Unless the GM was a stickler for the rules, almost every hireling was marked for death, or at least to be used roughly, given a pittance and sent on their merry way after use. All other NPCs were for color, or were the villains who stood in the way of treasure to be had.

During the very early '80s, this seemed to shift along with the out-dated wargaming and dungeoneering paradigms as the empathsis on more roleplaying began to take hold. In order to roleplay, you must have deeper characters to interact with and that add to the ongoing narrative. So the NPCs who were color characters before began to collect more complex personalities, backgrounds and even Henchman-like stats. This evolution has happily continued to the present time.

Nowadays an NPC can be many personae that interact with the party, be it a trusted companion, a hired hand, the city guard, beggar, King, orc, or a villain. In this article, we'll define the NPC as a member(s) of one of a campaign's defined playable intelligent races who can peacefully interact and gainfully reason with the PCs for an prolonged time, and add to the narrative by way of providing color, information, resources, and challenge if needed.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part the Final: Can GMs Change the World?

How arrogant is that, to think GMs can change the world?  Do GMs really need more of an excuse to increase the sizes of their egos?  Well. . .no.  But we'll forge ahead anyway, because this idea—that we can make the world a better, or worse, place through our gaming, one life at a time—is a powerful one, and is in part responsible for one of the biggest threats gaming has ever faced.

In 1979, James Dallas Egbert III "disappeared" in a well-publicized case that inspired the publication of Mazes and Monsters, in which a live-action roleplayer has a psychotic break thanks to participation in roleplaying.  In 1982, Patricia Pulling's son Irving committed suicide.  Pulling blamed her son's suicide on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG and founded BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), an organization dedicated to promoting the idea that tabletop roleplaying games promoted an entire litany of immoral practices.  The idea had a resurgence in 1988 thanks to the Leith Von Stein murder case in North Carolina's own Little Washington, in which a disturbed stepson was able to convince his roleplaying group to aid him in killing his stepfather.  A complete listing of the controversies surrounding roleplaying's biggest name can be read here.

This is a big idea, and while the instances above can be accounted for more by the psychological torments of their perpetrators than any innate danger of roleplaying, this idea cannot and will not be dismissed out of hand.  To this day, Israeli soldiers are officially not allowed to play D&D, as players are "detached from reality and susceptible to influence."  These ideas are often met with the findings of studies which seem to indicate that roleplayers are better-adjusted, less suicidal and more prone to cooperation than the population as a whole.  And when both gaming's detractors and defenders hop on the "gaming can change people" bandwagon. . .this idea warrants some examination.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 09: Avoiding GM Pitfalls

As a GM, you need to know something if you don’t already:  you’re going to screw up.  You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to try and cover them up, you’re going to hem and haw and you’re going to make things up that make no sense whatsoever.  Get used to that idea; and while you don't necessarily need to be content with it, become comfortable with the idea that you're not infallible, and become comfortable that you don't have to be.

That's part of the problem with a policy of "the GM is always right": eventually, we start believing our own lie.  The problem with believing the lie, of course, is that we forget it's a lie, and we forget why we started telling it:  so that gameplay doesn't get bogged down with minutia.

That's precisely the kind of pitfall a GM can fall into.  Let's take a look at some of the more common ones:

Tyranny:  The classic role of the GM as the final decision-maker can very easily lead to a slippery slope wherein the GM can start to see himself as the only person at the table whose opinion matters.  GMs who suffer from this delusion don't have players for very long.  Even GMs who only speak like they're always right, but only do this to show they "just have to be convinced" they're wrong, will find themselves painted by players with this brush.  The reason this is such a pitfall is because the players and the GMs together make a game happen; if players don't feel like they're going to be heard, if they feel they are value-less to a GM, they will not want to game with that GM.  The easiest way to avoid this trap is through talking with your players, and listening to them, and being ready to make compromises.  But watch out!  If you talk with your players and listen to them, but never compromise or never side with them, you're only confirming your tyranny.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 08: The GM as Mastermind

In many ways, the GM has always seemed to be smarter, faster, trickier, and more knowledgeable than the players at the table.  In more traditional games, the GM has all the information laid out for her disposal:  the story, the enemies, the stats for the enemies, their behaviors, the dungeon, the treasures, and the like.  In less traditional games, the GM shares the story with the players, but still generally knows more about the world and its people than the players, and must be ready to improvise new behaviors at the drop of a hat, often more so than GMs of traditional games.

But does that necessarily mean the GM has to be smarter, or more clever, than the players?  While it certainly helps (in the same way those characteristics usually do), with a little trickery you can appear to be all of these things without actually being so.  "More knowledgeable," in a strong-GM system where the GM creates and/or is in full control of  the scenario, can be used to very easily mimic smarter-faster-cleverer if you put in the time and effort.

Harkening back to that understated role of preparedness, if you are fully aware of the motivations of your NPCs and their goals in a scenario, and you also know the ins-and-outs of the locale and the history that's led up to the events in your scenario, you have all the datapoints you need to be able to make it seem like you're ready for every turn the players take.  This kind of Practiced Improvisation is very useful and doesn't require overmuch effort, though it does require understanding the material thoroughly and not just skimming over the important bits.  And if they take some turn not covered by the material you've got?  Take a five-minute break and make something up, then be sure to write it down so that you don't forget it or get confused about it later. 

What about weak-GM systems, then, where the GM guides the story and the players do as much of the storytelling as the GM does?  In these systems, there are two major paths you can take:  you can either try to create just about everything, which is a heck of a lot of work but well, well worth it if you have the time and energy; or you can be more spontaneous, taking what comes and rolling with it, while also ensuring everything is kept consistent and logical.

The second road is harder.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 07: The GM as World-Builder

"A wizard did it."

These are some more of those "classic words," and they are usually invoked right after someone has said "but that makes no sense."  And, while this is a convenient excuse, the closer we as GMs strive for realism in an internally-consistent logical structure to the settings of our stories, the less we have to hand-wave and the better our players will be able to suspend their disbelief.  This is the crux of our role as world-builders.

When most people read "world-builder," they often immediately jump to the idea that they need to break out their home-cartography kits and get to work.  But building a world is so much more than drawing maps, because ultimately it is about crafting a place that the players can believe in, a place the players can lose themselves in, a place the players can care about.

Because you don't just practice world-building when you're making up a planet in some far-distant place where people wield swords and magic, and you don't just practice it when you're playing a sci-fi game and landing on a planet.  If you're roleplaying a GURPS game taking place in the next city over, and you're in the Real World But For Just A Couple Changes, well, you're world-building, too.

One thing that's important to note is that it's generally easier when you are operating in a completely fantasy world, as opposed to a world which is just a step away from our own reality, because in a fantasy world a slip-up here or there won't necessarily shatter the illusion.  In a world that is mostly like our own, though, what may seem like a minor thing can completely shatter the illusion you're trying to create, so research—and plenty of it—is pretty necessary unless you're fairly confident you're operating in an area or situation your players will know little about.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 06: The GM as Actor

Some GMs are shy.  They’re not comfortable standing up from behind the Screen, or looking up from their notes, or they’re afraid of looking silly.  As a result, all their NPCs tend to be samey, with the same voices, the same mannerisms, the same vocabularies—and these are usually the same voices, mannerisms and vocabularies of the GM, or the writer of the module the GM is running.

We’re the GMs.  We don’t get to be shy.  Do you have stage fright?  You’ve got 3 or more people staring at you and hanging off your every word whether or not you’re pretending they’re not there.  Don’t want to look silly?  Let’s be brutally realistic here:  our hobby is playing pretend with dice.  We can’t afford that kind of vanity.

One of the best ways to set yourself aside and just be an entertainer is to put yourself in the mindset of the characters you’re playing as if you were a player, not a GM.  You will find yourself more readily thinking like your character, and less readily thinking about your own trepidations.  The old saying goes, “lose yourself in your character,” and it’s just as true for GMs as it is for actors.

When you lose yourself, though, make sure you also don't lose your sense of propriety.  All too common, a GM who loses himself in a role tries to become a comedian, and oftentimes the jokes that get laid forth are entirely inappropriate.  Reskinned jokes about other races or genders applied in the context of a game can be very offensive to many gamers, who likely already heard them in their original context.  In the game, as in life, "I was just kidding around" is not an acceptable excuse for inappropriate behavior.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 05: The GM as Challenger

Players game so they cantriumph over adversity.  And who provides the difficulties they face?  Why, the GM,of course!

Now we’re starting to reach the point where GMs find their roles in real competition.  First, we have to tell a cohesive story.  But next, we have to let our players poke around at it and try to break it.  And we have to give them a fair break, even though that may make our ability to tell the story more difficult.  And we have to provide them with fair challenges, ones they have a chance of overcoming, but not so easy that they get bored.  It’s enough to drive a Gamesmaster crazy!

These challenges that we craft are one of the things that distinguish us from improvisational storytellers or novelists, though, and are core to our interaction with our players.  The nature of the challenges we provide are going to be different for every group we run, because the purpose of challenge is to keep players interested and actively engaged.  Once they reach for their smartphones, your hold on them is slipping!

Since the purpose of challenge is to give the players something to overcome, you can present both social and combat-oriented adversity. Additionally, depending on how skilled they are, you can present them with the opposite of what they are best at.  Is your party filled with orc barbarians?  Perhaps they need to make friends with an Elven nobleman!  Are they diplomats and computer hackers?  Perhaps they face a squadron of hunter-killer cyborgs.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 04: The GM as Referee

“Story trumps rules.”

It’s an old adage, and a good one—but it can lead even well-meaning GMs astray.  Because the rules are important.  They carry weight, and meaning, and it is because they are important that so many arguments are had about them.

The temptation is always to become the Authority, He Who Is In Charge.  This can be both a blessing and a curse:  it is a blessing, because it makes you the final arbiter of how things work, regardless of any books, any dissenting opinions, or the like.  This ensures that any information you do not want in your session, story or campaign simply does not exist for the purposes of your game.  This would go for rules or, if you are playing in a shared worlds (like Pathfinder, Buffy or the Forgotten Realms), story information as well. 

But being an authoritarian is also a twofold curse.  First, though it gives you a firm hand with which to guide your players, it requires you to always be on top of the rules, on top of the adventure, and a step ahead of the players.  Second, and completely avoidable, taking this tack may lead you ever-further down the path of absolute control over your table.

It may seem at first that needing to be sharp on the rules and story and a step ahead of the players is just what a GM is supposed to be.  But there are consequences to this style; by crafting yourself as an authority, the players will turn to you to be their guide and governor.  Moving forward, you run the risk that any tentativeness you may experience as you calculate your options may be seen as fumbling.  Fumbling will increase player frustration, and frustrated players will be more likely to challenge your authority, either by trying to find ways to stymie you (players who try to push and push to find your limit), or by trying to find maybe-too-creative interpretations of the rules. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

4dventure, Part 3: Eye Heart Tyranny

My group of eager, willing victims took their next painful steps through the monstrosity that is "Madness At Gardmore Abbey" last night. I had taken time during our hiatus to look ahead at some of the encounters detailed in the module and make some alterations to better suit the adventure material to their level and party size, and also to flesh out one or two encounters all on my own to see if I was hitting the right balance between too hard and too easy. It's been my personal feeling thus far that Gardmore Abbey leans heavily toward the "too difficult" side of that spectrum, and I can't say that last night's play session did anything to dissuade me of that opinion.

After tying up some loose ends on the roleplaying side of things (returning Analastra to her brother Berrian in the Aornil camp), the PCs were given information on some of the structures nearby that they had managed to scout or spot from their previous position at the old bell tower (the site of the brutal displacer beast/stirge fight I talked about in my last post). After considering their options, they decided to head south toward the old watchtower they had passed on their way in through the crumbling wall when they first arrived at the abbey.

I had intended to plant one of my homebrew encounters here anyway, so this gave me an opportunity right off the bat to test the waters and see how I did. Since I was reskinning all of the orcs in the abbey as gnolls, who are primarily desert dwellers in my campaign world, I had started plunging through Monster Manual I and II looking for gnoll- and desert-themed creatures. One in particular interested me: the witherlings. These are described as shrunken, emaciated gnoll corpses with exposed skulls and unnaturally long claws. I liked the flavor and the suite of powers these creatures have, but not so much the description of them as small creatures. Luckily, D&D 4E doesn't base many creature attributes off of size like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder do, so ignoring this cosmetic affectation didn't require any stat rehashing on my part.

I had already established that a powerful gnoll necromancer was moving around in the vicinity of the watchtower, so placing a witherling ambush here was in keeping with my ongoing story. I also added in an NPC from a previous game: Syon Telba, the ghoulish undead manservant of a powerful Shadian villain who was here to recover an item for his master from the watchtower. The PCs came upon a small valley formed by two foothills at the base of the tower and dotted with boulders of various sizes. They observed Telba sitting in front of the tower door, contemplating how to open it. Maeve sent her raven companion ahead to scout the area for enemies, and he reported two cloaked shapes that smelled of death hiding atop each of the foothills (he missed the witherlings that had burrowed beneath the sand in the valley, however). Not long after doing their reconaissance, the zombie gnolls atop each foothill spotted the PCs and prepared to roll more boulders down the hill toward the heroes; the burrowed witherlings popped out of the sand in front of them and readied a murderous charge.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 03: The GM as Storyteller

By Bryan Shipp

“Story trumps rules.”

This is an old adage, and nearly every experienced GM can roll this off her tongue.  It has been published in core rulebooks and master’s books for nearly every system, and for good reason:  the role of the GM did not originate as a storytelling role. 

The earliest Game Masters, or Dungeonmasters, were not necessarily the best entertainers or the best storytellers, they were the people who knew the rules best and who could afford to buy all the rulebooks and supplements.  They were in control of the world, the rules and the story.  But over the years new systems were introduced and the role evolved—and so these game systems now include this fundamental commandment to remind us that while rules are involved in our games, they are not the heart of our games.

And the GM who is not enslaved to the rules can really focus in on the needs of story and the needs of his players without necessarily knowing all the rules.  Because while story is of tantamount importance to a good GM, it is not of sole importance—if it were, we would be nothing more than novelists who didn’t bother to publish!

Through collaboration with our players, we can make our stories more expansive, and tailor their themes and scope to both their desires and our own.  For instance, if your players want more of a horror-themed RPG, and you would rather focus more on medieval adventure, you can combine the two into something set in Ravenloft.  Through working with our players, we will wind up telling stories that might be out of our normal routines, but which we may find are much richer as a result.

Collaboration continues after the story is framed through interaction with players within the game.  This interaction can spin the story in directions we did not anticipate—for example, let’s say an orphaned character meets her biological father.  We’re thinking the character will have an internal emotional conflict about this—but then the player, upon reflection, decides that her character moved on years ago and no bond is formed.  This throws a bit of a curve in our story, but the character has advanced even though it is in a different direction than we were expecting.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 02: Overlooked Facets of GMing

 By Bryan Shipp

The role of the Game Master is a role which wears many different hats. The most important role of the GM, bar none, is that of the Entertainer.  The GM must maintain a balance of challenge and reward, of story and rules, of silliness and seriousness, all while staying a step ahead of the players.

Nearly all of these facets, though, fall into certain categories:  Storyteller, Referee, Adversary, Actor, World-Builder, and Mastermind.

In coming posts I will cover each of these roles in depth and the various ways in which a GM can fulfill them.  Before we begin those categories, though, let’s start with roles that are often easily overlooked, roles that are often dismissed or glossed over because they are less “sexy,” or because they don’t deal directly with GMing.  But these are nevertheless roles that a GM embodies, whether or not he is specifically thinking about them, because they are absolutely vital background skills for a GM to have, skills that make the GM’s life. . .and his player’s lives. . .a better one.

Time Management is one such vital skill.  Time management involves more than just ensuring you don’t spend 20 hours preparing for a 4-hour gaming session; it also plays an important role during the session, while you keep one eye on the clock and one eye on the players, making sure to keep everything on track.  This is a vital skill for proper pacing for telling the story, as well. 

One of the best methods for managing your time effectively is to keep a notebook or other note-taking tool with you at all times; be it your smartphone, or a small steno pad, or even a napkin or a pen and the palm of your hand!  You can never be certain when an idea will strike you, and if you don’t get that idea down right away, you can spend hours trying to recover it later.  After taking your randomly-jotted notes, you can later assemble them using various note-taking tools appropriate to your goals (Obsidian Portal, Google Docs, EverNote, etc—see for a list from Eric's recent Software Tools SIG).

Another technique for using time more effectively, particularly during sessions, is to block off the time for your scenes based on the amount of time you have for your session.  For instance, let’s say you have 5 hours to play and, in your session, you have 4 intensely social scenes where all your players will be involved, 2 transitional scenes, and 3 combats.  Depending on the game system you’re using, combat will either take a very long time or a very short time—if combat tends to take longer in your chosen system, you should block out the time for your combats first to minimize how much of the combat you have to fudge.  If your game system is more social-based, though, and combat is more of an option of last resort, you should block off your intensely social scenes first.  The amount of time you should use for blocking off social interaction is largely dependent upon your players’ styles; we will go into more detail on this during the Reconciling GM Styles and Player Styles GM SIG.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 01: Is the GM God?

By Bryan Shipp

In the early days of roleplaying, it was commonplace to hear the Game Master described as a “god.”  And whether with a big G or little G, whether or not the Game Master should be considered a god is still debated today.  Those who grew up with the notion passionately defend it, while others—often those who came into the hobby more recently or later in life—find the notion less absolutely necessary.  The idea that a GM is also a god seems more and more a relic of an antiquated time year after year—one participant even said that almost no one under the age of 25 even considers GMs to be gods anymore.  So what happened to this notion, and is it a boon or a bane to our hobby that it is going away?

The first thing that sprang to mind among attendees was a lament that “GM as god” is on the wane—the thoughts that were laid out for the table were that players only want loot, not challenge, and the GM cannot be a god because the players have weakened him.  Similarly, the increased reliance on player participation and collaboration, and increased availability of rules-system and story information to players have eroded the GM’s ability to be the absolute and final authority on all things.

The idea here being that the players, ultimately, are at fault for GM as god going away.  They have become more demanding on the time of the GM, they have become more skillful at manipulating the rules.  And the hobby has expanded--other GMs are now available, so individual GMs don’t have a monopoly on the ability to game any longer.  They have become expendable because players, if they do not get what they want from one GM, will find themselves another GM, one that will be less likely to say “no.”

In short, it’s hard to be a god when you have to work harder in a  more competitive environment.

So what does the GM lose by not being god?  Here as before, the complaints were the same:  only as god does the GM have the authority to say “no” when a player or a situation gets out of control—this ability is seen by many who enjoy the role of godhood as absolutely necessary, and that only as god does the GM have the control and comfort of saying “no.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

4dventure, Part 2: Not All Encounters Are Created Equal

Session 2 of my 4E game can be summed up thusly: Combat grind. Combat grind. Combat grind.

I mean, holy crap. We started playing just after 7:30 and aside from trading secrets with some nymphs for about ten minutes (a suggested interaction that fell completely flat, I might add), the PCs were fighting displacer beasts and stirges until at least 9:45.

It was a frustrating process for all involved. The new (Essentials-style) rules for calculating the miss chance on attacks made against displacer beasts are meant to streamline the number of rolls needed to run the encounter, but in execution it makes the players feel like they have less control over whether their blows land. Core 4E called for a 50% miss chance, which you could calculate however you wished (easy way: high-low roll on a d6); Essentials dictates that odd-numbered attack rolls miss and even-numbered attack rolls that exceed the target AC or Defense hit. There was also no exemption for critical hits to overcome the displacement effect, which core 4E allowed (though this exception may be implied in Essentials but not explicitly stated, admittedly).

What this meant in actuality was that the eladrin warlock would waste her turn each round nullifying the displacement effect so that the other combatants would have at least some chance of dealing damage, which was no fun for her at all.

After completing the combat, I rechecked the difficulty balance of the adventure to see if I was missing something, and indeed I was: "Madness at Gardmore Abbey" assumes a party of 5 PCs. Given that they have the opportunity to pick up as many as two simultaneous NPC followers running the scenario by the book, this suggests that the baseline difficulty of the module is quite high indeed. I've instructed my four players to level on up to 7th (they began at 6th per the module guidelines), and hopefully this will correct the problem.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Game Master's SIG: Software Tools for Game Notes


This is a survey of the tools that a GM can use to improve notes lookup and information retrieval during a game. This workshop centers on looking at various tools for taking notes and storing information. Caveats for this workshop

Uses for note‐taking software and online services

Note‐taking software and online services are powerful tools for a game master. The two basic uses we'll be talking about in this workshop are Pre‐ and In‐Game note taking and Information Storage.

  • The first basic use, Pre‐ and In‐Game note taking refers to notes generated by the game master to run an RPG scenario. Descriptions of areas, PC, NPC and creature stats, treasure, and anything else that affects the immediate function of the game that would be noted. Also included are in-game notes made to capture actions of PCs/NPCs/Creatures, changes to the scenario through play as well as any other in‐play adjustments.
  • The second basic use is Information Storage. This includes storing house rules, campaign notes, and other pieces of information that do not go into directly the running of the scenario, but do have an impact on the game as a whole. Included in this are players journals and discovered knowledge, maps, pictures and other sorted pieces of information that pertain to the campaign.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Game Mastering Accessories

By Pete Bahntge

Every gamer by now has seen some kind of gaming accessory brought to the table, from counters to initiative trackers.  At the last GM: SIG we discussed some, possibly less known, gaming accessories that can be added to a number of fantasy and role playing games that might help bring any game to life.  To be clear however before we jump into any of these products, we are not advertising for any company even though it may seem like we continue to go back to one or two brands.  They really just are that awesome!

Initiative Trackers:
GM's use everything from pen and paper, small whiteboards, and computer programs to keep track of who goes next.  While we didn't discuss any programs specifically we did talk about the Paizo GameMastery Combat Pad. ( For the price it isn't a bad product, but if you take a little time you can make one specially suited to your game.  In order to do so all you need is a small whiteboard, packing tape, and printable magnetic sheets (available at most office supply stores).  Using word, make the pieces for the board.  You can color code them, add pictures, create status markers, etc.. Once you have that done it is just a matter of printing them out and cutting them up.  If you would like to make the pieces wet erasable, simply cover the little pieces in packing tape and trim.  Be sure not to cover the magnet side since the magnet is not very strong when you cut it up into little pieces.  Now you have a board that you can write on, move things around and never lose track of who is next.

In addition we also talked about using simple index cards with numbers on them, placed in front of each player after initiative is decided upon so each player knows their order.  Further expanding on that idea we also talked about ways to improve the turn by turn initiative system.  One idea that was put forth was to have cards with actions printed on them (like Attack, Heal, Run, etc) and have all the players place these cards down before each round.  What this does is lock the player into an action at the beginning of each turn and stops players from reacting based off the players that have gone before them when according to most turn based rules all actions occur at the same time.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Feeling the Burn: How to Keep from GM Burn-out

At least once in a GM's career, she or he will experience the sensation known as "burn-out". You might know the feeling; a general lethagy or dread for game mastering an ongoing game or sitting down to prep one up. Usually it occurs after week after week of gaming, and with some insane game masters, day after day. No matter how it comes, burn-out strikes when you either indulge too much, or game without end. Surprisingly, you can avoid burn-out and keep yourself going back to the GM's seat game after game. Here's how:

1) Respect your limits. Most of us have limits on our time, whether it be work, school or family. For the most part we try to fit gaming into the crevasses of whatever time is left to participate in our great hobby. Sometimes, we want to stretch those limits, and cram too much gaming into those crevasses --- losing respect for your limits. Then something slips. Then the hand-slapping occurs. Afterwards, you feel compelled to double down on work/school/family and drop gaming altogether to make up for the slip. Avoid that altogether by keeping your gaming strictly to the time you have allotted. Research ways of saving time prepping your games, and get the most out of every game by starting your games by being prepared.

Gnome Stew has a great article on prepping lightly:

Here's a great article on preparing ahead for a game:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Game Masters: The Next Generation

By Wendy McLaren

There has been a lot of talk lately about finding new roleplayers to keep the hobby alive. Although I’m not quite old enough to be threatened with extinction yet, I can see this is a valid point. After all, I don’t want to just play with curmudgeons. I like fresh blood at my table.

So, how do we get more roleplayers? I like to make mine from scratch. I wasn’t willing to field a baseball team, so we aimed for a full gaming table instead. “You see, Billy, when a boy gamer and a girl gamer love each other very much, they roll for Initiative.”

My husband and I dabbled in D&D back in college. He was more familiar with it than I was, having played in high school. As we grew older, we dabbled in computer games: single player rpgs, but we helped each other out. A few years ago, we ran across our old red box set and decided to try it with the kids. It didn’t work. The youngest were too young to grasp the rules and the whole family was too familiar with the World of Warcraft type of rpg of mashing buttons and collecting loot. (You’d be amazed how much reading comprehension skills improve by reading quest text!)

Then, WotC came out with the Red Box Starter Set for the Essentials variant of 4E. Everyone was older, WoW had played itself out, and the whole family was avid readers. We had a hit! After completing the beginning adventure that came with the box, we went on to have a year-long campaign with those characters, with me as the GM. There was a great deal of family input. For instance, the idea of cute, fluffy bunnies that morphed into vicious killers was from my youngest, who was 10 at the time. (And no, she hasn’t seen any Monty Python yet. She just thought the rabbit figurines at the store were the right size to use.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Doctor Who RPG Redux - A Follow Up Game

I finally got to have a rematch with the Doctor Who RPG. This time, I knew what to look form and avoid, and the outcome was a lot better. The ending actually finished up in the grand style of a Doctor Who episode.

I used the Arrowdown scenario again, and as a caveat, this game benefited from my own better understanding of the rules and the scenario write-up.

This time, I only allowed picks from the existing characters or from the pre-generated characters provided in the game. This made things a bit easier in this game, and took away any concerns about fiddling around with canon. The characters chosen were: The Doctor, Mickey, Martha, Jack Harkness and K-9. The character combination was a bit powerful for the scenario, but I decided to see how it played out.

This time Mickey would be a normal companion, and not directly attached to UNIT, and detached from the TARDIS. Having everyone together at the get-go is optimal.

Reading on will be "Spoilers!"....

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

4dventure, Part 1: Launching My 4E Campaign

Last night I launched my first go at running a 4th Edition D&D game that was actually meant to last more than a session or two. Over the last six months, I've amassed a sizable collection of 4E books almost by accident - between winning a few of the rulebooks in raffles, getting modules as rewards for running Encounters, and finding some items for dirt-cheap during the Borders closeout sales, I've got a LOT of 4E material.

I had a few goals in mind when I started this game.

1. I wanted players that were enthusiastic about 4E, and with whom I enjoyed playing. For this reason, I handpicked my players rather than posting an open call via Meetup. Being less familiar with this system than, say, Pathfinder, I preferred to work with players I knew very well rather than get someone by luck of the draw who was incompatible with either my style or the group as a whole.

2. I want to get some use out of the books I've bought over the last year. I had picked up "Madness at Gardmore Abbey" to see if the much-vaunted mega-adventure measured up to expectations, and I liked a lot of what I saw in it. It has a lot of tropey stuff in it, to be sure - but the tropes that are featured are things nearly every fantasy gamer likes.

3. I'm using this game as a field test to decide if 4E is a good choice for the next leg of my ongoing home game. It's a prep-lite system from a GM's perspective, which I've leaned more and more toward favoring as my time constraints have become harsher. Stupid adulthood. =]

4. I'm curious to see if the claims of diehard 4E adherents that this system still allows GMs to tell the stories they want to tell - maybe even better than other iterations of D&D - are at all accurate.

A quick rundown of my cast:

  • Maeve, a revenant paladin, formerly a Ranger of East Rivulan, who worshiped the sovereign god of good, Coll, in life, but in undeath is now a servant of the Raven Queen. Maeve's goddess has sent a divine emissary to accompany the paladin; Maeve is certain that destiny is guiding her to Gardmore Abbey, but her true quest has yet to reveal itself.

  • Torg Stonespirit, a dwarven shaman from the nation of Kaixar, who talks to animal spirits and harnesses their power. He is on a spirit journey, following the otherworldly voices he hears in his head - and also following the trail of a mysterious and powerful deck of cards, of which he has already found two parts (the Deck of Many Things).

  • Rush, an elven (eladrin) hexblade from the floating cities of Aorn whose motivations are decidedly more mercenary than the rest of the group. She seems headstrong and cocky, but an able combatant and a reliable ally.

  • Varis Illidaren, an elf ranger who serves in the forests of Aorn protecting his people's borders from the incursions of the Black Bishops of Verdagris. Varis is searching for his lost adopted cousin, a human knight named Tharn who disappeared while on a dangerous mission a few months ago.

The first session of the game went pretty well. I'm running "Gardmore Abbey" in my own homebrew world, Arinia, so I'm having to shoehorn some rather alien concepts from 4E into a well-established canon. Arinia has been in development for almost 15 years (maybe longer; it's hard to pinpoint when I first began conceptualizing the setting), so getting it to work with the oddities of 4E cosmology is going to be challenging.

Using my own campaign world gives me lots of NPCs to dip into from past games I've run, however, making immersion much easier to maintain. Even better, some of Gardmore Abbey's canned NPCs are easy to reskin with background characters I've used previously. I decided to use an area of my world I have not previously detailed: the Ingratian Archipelago, a cluster of islands that bridges the Coian Mainland to the gnoll-controlled desert continent of Ab Vaiul. Rather than using the default setting of Winterhaven detailed in the adventure as a homebase for the PCs, I envisioned a city more like Constantinople, where multiple nations and races have vied for control over the centuries, creating a strange blend of cultures and architecture. I dubbed the city Iskara-Ankul, a double portmanteau of real-world Turkey's two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara. One failing on my part last night was that I hadn't put much thought into how Iskara-Ankul was laid out, or the appearance of different buildings. I really need to flesh it out by researching Istanbul's history, detailing locations more thoroughly, and finding visual references for the landmarks the PCs will visit most frequently during the campaign.

I had already thought of some interesting interactions I could stage with the PCs - for example, I really wanted to mess with the revenant paladin by having her be followed around by a wise-ass crow (dubbed Ted) who speaks Common and berates her judgment constantly (Ted was inspired more than a little by the character Zazu from "The Lion King"). The concept of a sleazy, untrustworthy gnoll merchant who tries to scam every person he meets was a natural fit for the game's setting as well; the merchant, Habib, will be appearing many, many more times, I think. The nominal leader of the Knights of Arinia that rule Iskara-Ankul, the foppish and arrogant Sir Landon Bryce, is a replacement for the character Lord Padraig in the original module - Padraig is staid and boring, and I felt that Landon's ostentatious character would be more entertaining, not to mention irritate the entire party thoroughly. In crafting Sir Landon's demeanor, I'm also taking a cue from the FX animated series "Archer" and giving the knight a foil in the form of an elderly manservant named Begby whom he mistreats terribly (although perhaps not in as deliberately mean a fashion as Agent Sterling Archer treats his own butler, Woodhouse).

Where I failed, though, was neglecting to read up on some of the other canned NPCs from the module that the players would meet. I really need to customize them to my own style.

It is a classic failing of a theme park-style open adventure setting that the players, when given the choice to run through things in a logical order or choose a circuitous and dangerous route through the planned encounters, will almost always go around their ass to get to their elbow - especially if it means avoiding obvious ambushes and making the ever-suffering GM run encounters he hasn't read fully. So when the group decided to enter Gardmore Abbey from the south via the gardens rather than waltzing through the front gate into the hordes of gnolls waiting for them (I've re-skinned all the orcs in the Abbey as gnolls for my own meta-plot purposes), I really shouldn't have been surprised in the slightest. Maybe I should have even seen that coming.

This wouldn't have been a huge deal, except that in doing this, they blundered into the Feygrove section early, and ran into a canned NPC whom I hadn't planned to introduce for awhile - the eladrin warrior Berrian Velfarren, who, while somewhat compelling as a minor character and quest giver, has some of the most godawful prepared monologues I have ever read written into this module. Really, the prose was so purple and overwrought that I just stopped reading halfway through one block of prepared text.

"Wow, this is crap," I said.

"So it isn't just me then," remarked one of my players. "Good."

I decided to abandon the boxed text and put my own spin on Berrian from that point forward. But winging an interaction with an NPC whose inner workings you haven't yet fully studied can be very difficult. As a result, Velfarren came across as little more than a quest giver in an MMO - which is okay, really. The module offers options for making him a bigger player in the story, but I have very little interest in doing that. I'd rather the PCs just run his quest chain and forget about him, except perhaps as the guardian of an area where they can take an extended rest on the abbey grounds if need be.

The first and only fight of the game was with a pair of owlbears - Level 8 Elite Brutes with some really nasty high-damage attacks, including one ability which deals a minimum of 26 damage to a character who is grabbed. I had to do my best not to pull punches during this encounter, because I wanted to test the PCs' durability, even if they had chosen a tough battle to cut their teeth on - but the front line fighters, Maeve and Rush, were very nearly murdered several times, and would have died had Torg not been so well optimized for healing. (I don't think Varis even took damage - maybe I hit him once. Need to do something about that!)

I'm still seeing some wonky things about 4E that I don't like as a GM. For one thing, the straitjacket approach of all actions being dictated by powers feels limiting. In most games that I run, I'm used to being able to say to a player, "What do you want to do?" and know that they can describe their intended action, and I can then translate that into game mechanics as I see fit. But with 4E, especially in combat, almost every action has to be guided by a power. What's worse to me is that when people examine their options, they seem to look at their power cards first instead of thinking about other possibilities. Additionally, the array of available choices tends to slow down play as people decide which power is best for the situation. I'm hoping that will get better as the players become more accustomed to what their characters are capable of doing, though.

The aforementioned bad writing is also off-putting, to the point where I'm seriously considering scrapping large portions of the module's characterizations of NPCs and starting over from scratch. For example, I'm thinking of portraying Berrian Velfarren as less of a crusader for his people's right to their ancestral territory and more of a businessman or prospector (a trait the elves in my game world regularly exhibit). He's not reclaiming his birthright so much as trying to monetize the plants, herbs, and artifacts that his people left in Gardmore Abbey - and he needs the PCs' help to establish the claim and secure the area. Playing Berrian up as an opportunist and a venture capitalist is way more interesting to me than having to whine on and on about his lost elven heritage and what happened to his dad and wondering where his sister has run off to - he cares about those things, of course, but he probably cares about his financial standing just as much.

Giving the canned meat of Gardmore Abbey the flavor of my campaign world is gonna take some work, and getting the game to play the way I want it to will probably be challenging - but I still enjoyed running the introductory session despite all that.

Next 4E game is in two weeks. More to come later!


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Doctor Who RPG Try It Out! Session - A Self Critique

I've been a long-time fan of Doctor Who, and even courted buying the FASA RPG a long, long time ago. The reenacting hobby happened and I banished those thoughts for a couple decades. Recently, I started watching the new Doctor Who, and it stirred my long lost "Who-ness". I again longed for more adventures with the Doctor and to open up more story avenues. Buying the Doctor Who Adventures In Time And Space RPG was a no-brainer. My wonderful gal bought me the Aliens and Creatures supplement, so I was ready to dive in to a game.

Finding other players was a snap - Doctor Who fans are all over, and Raleigh Tabletop RPGs is a great place to seek them out. I actually found enough players for two games, so I scheduled them up.

The game itself is beautiful in a physical sense. Everything is four-color and the layout is dynamic and fun. The game and supplement comes in a box, so it has the feel of an off-the-shelf board game. The artwork on the boxes and books matches the other official BBC books on The Doctor, so my assumption is that this is a game geared toward the Doctor Who fanbase more than it is a nitty-gritty kind of RPG. A reading of the Players Guide confirmed my assumptions.

Because it is a game geared to fans more than rock-solid gaming types does not take away from it being a solid RPG. I was very pleased to see a light but solid gaming system. Not hard to explain, and presumably not hard to play. The rules explain the point of the game quickly, and there are few optional rules. The first of the Player's Guide dispels the notion that this is a boardgame and gives the reader an introduction to roleplaying. Once you read the Player's Guide, the system should be well learned. The Game Master's Guide goes into more details about the rules, and has some good information about running games and campaigns, the system itself and how to play characters.

Neither book is long, and they are both well-written. There are other items included in the set such as pre-generated characters both from the series and generic, gadget cards, dice, a quick start guide, story point tokens and blank sheets for characters and gadgets.

The system is a variation of the attribute+skill+roll games you find with the Serenity and Savage Worlds RPGs. The point of the rolls is to match or go over a difficulty score by adding the character's attribute and skill scores and rolling 2D6. The score can be boosted or affected by positive Traits. Like Serenity and Savage Worlds, the game also incorporates the mechanic of using "story points" - tokens that can be used to modify bad results or character damage, operate gadgets or even add plot twists.

I decided to play an out-of-the-box adventure entitled "Arrowdown". Since I was playing the game with fans, I wanted to allow some favorites into the pre-generated PC options. The two chosen were River Song and Wilfred Mott. I was able to find the stats from an excellent Doctor Who RPG message board site. The others picked were The Doctor, Donna Noble and Mickey Smith. The party was a bit on the strong side, but had a lot to offer for an exciting game.

Like River Song constantly reminds The Doctor, reading further down will be "Spoilers" if you haven't played the  "Arrowdown" scenario yet.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Shared Gaming Universe - A Case for Consideration

A shared gaming universe or SGU comes under the larger heading of shared universe. A shared universe in fictional writing is a setting that is shared or even expanded on by many writers. An example of a mutually shared universe would be Thieves World anthology of the early 1980's. Thieves World was purposefully created to allow numerous writers to create unique stories and points of view in a single setting. Most TV shows are similar in the fact that they have teams of writers who drive the various plots forward, but they usually share in creating the main character's point of view from show to show. Some settings were not created to be shared, but were expanded on after the original authors quit writing about them. Robert E Howard's Conan series and HP Lovecraft's Cthuhu mythos are two examples.

A shared gaming universe would be very similar a shared universe in the fictional writing sense, plus some. It could also be a world taken from the pages of a fictional work. Or it could even an off-the-shelf setting that is usually sold along with most major gaming systems. Think Greyhawk, Faerun, Athas, Ravenloft, Glorantha, Golarion and so on.