Thursday, February 24, 2011

Maps!... ahaaaa!....

They show us theuniverse!

One of the things I enjoy the most about running a tabletop RPG is the virtually endless inspiration it provides to fuel other creative pursuits. The Catch-22 being that running a game is also a major time commitment, which severely cuts down on the time available to act on said inspiration. Nevertheless, I still occasionally find time to work on some of the stem projects, which are inspired by, but admittedly not completely necessary to the successful operation of the game itself.

The Westerlands
As I mentioned in my previous post, I have:
  1. long been fascinated by maps and worldbuilding
  2. been recently thwarted by my attempts to craft a truly satisfying world map for my game

Well, to quote a certain spitoon-wearing martian, I decided to go "back to the drawing board" last night. My previous post had inspired me to crack open the old open-source electronic drawing machine and take another pass at a map for my game setting.

The big problem I had with my previous iteration of this map was the way the mountains appeared to hover over the lowlands without properly blending. This happened because the tutorial I was working from was designed to be used by someone who didn't know where they wanted their mountains to go. In my first version, after rendering the mountains, I cut and pasted them into position. This is what caused the ghosting effect.

This time, I modified the technique slightly and instead of cutting and pasting the mountains after they were rendered, I cut, pasted and lightened the cloud layer -the digital ether from which the mountains were digitally conjured- prior to rendering them. I feel the result is much more organic. Mountain, WIN!

Now, I have identified the next problem. Trees. I used a separate tutorial to create the forests peppered throughout the countryside. While they look "okay" my tiger-ego is making dissatisfied grumbles about the abrupt edges to the forests. It looks as though the land is infested with boogers. So, tonight I will continue to chip away in an effort to conjure a more perfect forest.

As I was adding links to this post, I noticed that the guy who made the forest tutorial addresses the issue in a forum thread. I was working off of a pdf originally.

Anyway, this map project is part of a larger effort to establish my own visual "style" when it comes to the presentation of my game. I hope to discuss other aspects of the project in future posts... stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Across the Third Dimension!

Admittedly, I'm about a day behind on my posting, but for good reason! I had an idea all set to go for yesterday, but then got distracted by the ultimate love/hate of my gaming experience --map making. My love for dreaming up new worlds and putting them on paper has been going strong ever since my 5th grade bestie, Jim and I acted the part of two bizarre deities and dreamed up the world of "Boink"... because what else is a 9-year old going to name his penultimate creative act? We had countries, and creatures, and political drama and drew it all out on a giant, poster-board world map.

Not good enough! At full res, some moutains overlap the lakes!
Well, my love of mapping never went away, it just ran face first into my perfectionist adult self. THEN, I discovered the wonder that is the Cartographer's Guild and Perfectionism wedded Competitive Nature to become the ultimate tiger-parents to my creative inner child... I want to please them, but I also want to play video games and make out with my girlfriend! GAH!

So, anyway, I ended up spending much of my day off rummaging through the tutorials over at the CG in an effort to come up with a satisfying world map for my current game. The image to the right is my previous attempt from several months ago, which my tiger ego (or would it be superego?) finds completely lacking in merit.

Sudden shift of subject!

My basement apartment
In happier news, I saw this TOTALLY AWESOME blog post by the new contributor over at SheDM lays out a how-to for building clear, elevated, stackable grid mats for taking tactical gaming into the third dimension!
I too have toyed with similar construction projects, with varying degrees of success. While I love building multi-level sets for my players, I often run into problems because overhead lighting does not adequately penetrate elevated sections made from foam core and cardstock. Also, I have a bad habit of trying to make the elevations to scale (1" = 5').
She DM's penthouse
Given 10' ceilings, that's not a lot of room to get your hands in to push pieces around.

SheDM's use of cake pillars and glass/plex just might solve both of those problems!

So, it looks like my tiger-ego has signed me up for yet another task that I must now strive to be the best at... sigh...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Craft Check: Dinner

First off, be sure to bask in the glory of the new logo I put together! It works on so many levels! SO MANY!!!

When someone says, "I'm going to play D&D tonight" my guess is that most people envision the evening transpiring something like this:

While I have certainly been a member of gaming groups in the past that approach the stereotype portrayed in this fine short film, as I have grown older, and wiser I have come to appreciate a more refined gaming experience.  Fortunately, my group of players are somewhat classier in our approach to our weekly gatherings. Though sodas, junk food and ridiculous jokes are still a part of the evening, I am proud to say that my gaming crew strives to make our sessions more than just a night of rolling dice. How? with the food.

She is, indeed, my cherry pie.
In many ways, our game nights are like low-key dinner parties. The first hour of the evening is typically devoted to eating and catching up after which the game begins. Usually one of the players offers to provide the main course for the evening while others contributes snacks, drinks and/or cash.

The menu on game night varies... If everyone is too stressed/busy/uninspired to provide something better, we will occasionally order pizza or pick up fried chicken and mashed potatoes from the grocery store. More often than not, however, our game night food is a reason for gathering in its own right. In the recent past my GF has made homemade piroshkies and cherry pie.  One of my other players makes a mean lasagna, which she has served up on multiple occasions. We have even had a prime rib night! Even when we decide to go with a classic game-night staple --pizza-- 9 out of 10 times, it is made by one of the players who happens to make 'za for a living. He has put together a couple custom recipes involving roasted garlic, pesto, goat cheese and peppers, that have become game night favorites.

Though the table talk still tends to revolve around movie-quotes, off-color jokes and references to D&D stereotypes similar to the video above, the addition of a meal to our game-night experience really adds an extra level of enjoyment to the evening.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Also: Want!

Wrath of Ashardalon just released and I have every intent to pick up a copy just as soon as my pocketbook allows. This is the second D&D-based board game released by WOTC in the past year. I recently had the opportunity to play the first, called Castle Ravenloft, and had an absolute blast!

Unlike the vast majority of board games, which pit player vs. player, these D&D boardgames operate under a cooperative play structure. i.e. all the players are on the same team, struggling to accomplish a common goal. In that sense, they are similar to the Arkham Horror games, but I'm fairly certain the player-win percentage is significantly higher in the D&D games... because Cthulu cheats.

Repost: The Architect DM

As I have allowed myself to fall down the hobbyist rabbit hole that is game-mastering, I have find myself drawn to various blogs, sites, writings and other forms of written communication on the subject of mastering games. I think this is a good thing, as when I am reading, I am not talking my girlfriend's ear off about "the neat thing I have planned for next week's game that I can't actually tell her about." She likes playing the game... not running or talking about it.

Anyway, in my wanderings through the Land of Blog, I stumbled upon a series of articles called The Architect DM. The blog deals with spatial design issues related to constructing a fantasy setting as told by a GM who happens to be an architect, IRL. The Architect DM articles are a truly inspiring read, not only from the standpoint of providing a deeper insight into how actual design concepts can be applied to not-actual settings, but also as a fascinating example of how a person's real-life experiences can manifest in the game world. I would love to see other "Job"-DM series. "Police DM" (Law-enforcement in your game) "Teacher DM" (using gaming for educational purposes) and so on...

Point is: Check it out, I promise you wont be disappointed.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Unblocking with Blocks

I have spent the past several weeks frozen in mental Carbonite as I struggle to plan the next great adventure for my players. The inspirational constipation known as writer's block is something that everyone who writes will experience in their lifetime. I have been frustrated by it before, and I'm sure I will again. This particular bout of blockage, however, seemed more obnoxious than those of the past. Rather than suffering from a mere lack of inspiration, I was faced with a glut of good ideas hindered by an insidious inability to assemble them into a coherent structure known as an adventure. My muse was before me, but firmly out of reach.

Oh for a muse of fire...
I tried most of my usual tricks to break the block. I held brainstorming sessions with friends, perused the blogs and ready-made adventures for ideas, drew maps and redrew and redrew... nothing worked. These strategies only added to my frustration because, while they improved upon my idea, they did not make it function.

Until today. Finally. Sweet Relief! I finally felt something budge. While poking around Gnome Stew, I stumbled upon this article about dungeon design checklists, which I believe I have read before, but which finally hit home.

I decided to give the technique a try. I knew I had some of the elements that I could plug into the list, and hoped that by doing so, I could figure out what I was missing. I plugged in the encounters and NPCs/monsters I knew I wanted, plugged in the theme -The 1 sentence pitch for the dungeon and then plugged in the names of my PCs and their particular areas of expertise...

As I began to match my PCs with their "spotlight" encounters, my block began to shift. Rather than struggling with the layout and content of each room in the dungeon, I was suddenly able to view it as a series or an array of encounters, each designed to play to the strengths of one or more of my characters. Each of these encounters would be an anchor point in my dungeon, a discrete block of location, challenge and skilled problem solver. I had my major blocks and as I looked at what I had and what I was missing, my mind began to whirl with ways to flesh out, foreshadow and tie together these major blocks with minor blocks. If a major block consisted of a fight or roleplaying encounter, a minor block might be a trap or wall that must be climbed to reach that encounter... suddenly, my dungeonscape was morphing from a series of discrete blocks into a dynamic and intertwined system. A coherent creation.

Now, I still need to work on putting my blocks down on grid paper, but I feel confident that my new sense of clarity will allow me to do just that. If I feel myself blocked in the future, I will remember my dungeon checklist, and attempt to unblock with blocks.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Raisin' the Stakes

"Raise the stakes!" was one of the most common utterances spoken by my high school theater teacher during rehearsals. In the context of a play, this directs the actor to increase his/her emotional investment in a scene, to explore why the moment is so important and/or dire, and to let that energy flow into his/her performance. When executed properly, raising the stakes results is a more powerful and memorable moment on stage, drawing the audience into the creative world of the play.

This lesson from my youth applies to game design and adventure planning as well. Raising the stakes of an adventure can add to the excitement of a given encounter, to the emotional investment of the players, and ultimately to the fun had by all. While I had subconsciously applied this technique to my GM-ing in the past, this concept finally hit home for me last week. I was designing an encounter in which my PCs, traveling over a mountain range by air ship, run into a storm. I had identified a number of specific challenges I wanted to throw at them (snapped rigging, holding the ship steady, injured crew and a lightning strike.) but was struggling to construct the arc of the scene.

My first impulse was to fall back on random chance. Roll dice to determine how long the storm would last, when and where lightning would strike. However, it soon became apparent that this structured approach would not produce the desired effect.

Another challenge I had was drawing the PCs into an active roll in the scene. They are mere passengers on a fully-crewed air vessel. What reason did they have for grabbing the controls, so to speak, when the ship's crew is better trained at vessel operation and airmanship? I knew I wanted to draw them in by having some of the crew get injured. My initial thought was to have some healthy crewmen crash into the cabin, carrying their injured companions... but this seemed lacking somehow.

On the day before my session, I finally realized the problem. Having the injured crew come in asking for help on deck, was committing the dramatic sin of telling vs. showing. In a play, one character telling another, "I'm mad at you" is far less compelling than a character showing their anger through action, whether it be a storming rage or tense, stony silence. In the case of my game, I decided that instead of the injured crewmen being brought inside after their peril had passed, I would instead have a single, panicked airman come in telling the players to help on deck. When they arrived out in the storm, they discovered three unconscious airmen, roped together, dangling precariously over the side of the ship. In the original encounter, the worst of the peril had already gone. The revised version made it immediate and allowed the PCs to, appropriately, play the hero.

The scene was still not over once the airmen were rescued from over the side. I still had to bring in the other challenges I had thought of. While I had originally conceptualized these as individual challenge "nuggets", after solving the showing vs. telling problem, I realized that it would be more powerful to line up the problems like dominoes and have one lead to another. In a play, this is sometimes called "building on the moment" -using the drama of the moment that has just passed to heighten the next. In the case of my game, I began with a lightning strike. This caused the air ship to lurch suddenly, throwing several of the characters to the deck. It also set a fire on the deck and broke some of the cargo loose in the hold. Piling up these problems one after another presented the same challenges, which could still be overcome, in a more dramatic and dire light.

Then, just as this first wave of challenges was being completed, I threw in a navigation problem. The PCs had to simultaneously try to spot for the mountains through the storm, while one of them helped steer the damaged vessel away from the peaks. In this case, the dice helped add to the drama, as the player who was steering failed his checks to veer the air ship away from an onrushing mountain peak. When he failed at his third and final chance before impact, I had one of the nearby NPCs throw himself on the controls, lending just enough of a push so the vessel glanced off the rocks without totally destroying it. This proved the perfect climax for the encounter, and so rather than continue with additional mountain dodging, I let the stakes settle back down and wrapped up the night.

The result of my efforts to raise the stakes played out wonderfully. During the session, my players were on the edge of their seats, calling out encouragement or last words, "I regret nothing!" The dramatic success of this encounter has convinced me to make the question, "how can I raise the stakes?" a standard part of my game-planning process.

Monday, February 7, 2011


I saw this short film in my blog roll this morning, and felt compelled to share. This film's depiction of a chapel from Zeliszów, Poland is simply breathtaking. In short, it sends my nerdly humors coursing through my veins, urging me to craft something that could evoke a similar sense of magnificent desolation.

TheChapel. A short film. (HDR timelapse) from Patryk Kizny on Vimeo.

Edit: Okay... not sure if it's the computer I'm working on, but the video takes its sweet time to appear.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What about Arnold from Green Acres?

Okay Darnit! My GF is blogging about her personal endeavors and it has inspired me to get this aborted brainchild up and running again!

It's Friday. I had a great game session last night, and my creative juices are still whirling in an undirected maelstrom of ideas. I've had several amusing/awesome character ideas and I want to lay down some of my brain-stormage here.

To start, these are the characters I have come up with in the past 12 hours.

  • Gnollish Air Pirate named Dog-Faced DeGuerre. He is notorious for actually managing to hijack an airship owned by the gnomish government. He now uses it as a platform for terrorizing the countryside.
  • A humanoid-eating group of were-elk known for grinding their victims into sausage... led by someone named Donner.
  • A halfling, gnomish, or even pixie werebear... I can't figure out if it would be funnier if his/her bear form was the same size as a regular werebear, or if it was tiny... but just as full of rage.
  • A lich whose primary studies revolve around creating artwork which depicts single heiroglyphic images of heroic tales painted with evenly spaced dots made from various creatures' bodily fluids. His name... Roy Lichtenstein.

I think there is something that can be taken from the above ridiculousness. In the realm of high-fantasy RPGs, your players deal with the strange and bizarre on a regular basis. The odd and grotesque becomes almost normal as the PCs slowly become desensitized to the novelty of dragons, hovering eyeballs that shoot lasers, and Cthulu-like squid people who eat brains. It's sort of like riding the bus or subway.

So, in order to make an encounter, or character stand out amid all the weird, I find that it is helpful to push the inherent oddity of a monster or character to the next level by simultaneously anchoring it in something familiar, and above all, giving the character a purpose!

A bit on tying things to the familiar... Most of the players in my gaming group -myself included- are movie buffs. As such, I frequently draw upon (read: rip-off) elements of my favorite movies, TV shows or books when creating an NPC. When doing this, I find that drawing from non-fantasy material actually creates more memorable fantasy encounters. Adding a fantasy trope to a fantasy trope causes the two to blend together, but blending fantasy with other familiar tropes makes the creature or encouter stand out as unique.

The following are some of the creatures and characters my players still talk about. Note: all of these were only encountered briefly, but months or years later are still remembered fondly:

  • The kobold mariachi band - The name says it all. While running into a bunch of yappy dog-lizard men seems mundane in the world of D&D... when they stand before you ready to inspire their fellow kobolds to attack with a stirring bolero, it sticks. It also helps when the in-game encounter plays out something like this.
  • Ba'art, the reluctant dark-elf sheriff of a human town. He brought everyone together during a time of crisis and gained acceptance through the process.
  • Peg-leg Ram'Kil, The dwarven tavern keeper who fights repeated battles with the giant crab that took his leg, because it's not fair that a crab's claw grows back.

Now, as the above character examples illustrate, this process doesn't require a great deal of writing. One or two sentences will suffice. Giving your creations a goal makes them more than just monsters. They suddenly have personality, reason for being. A reason to be remembered.

It's going to be a long...and weird day. TGIF!

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