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.