Saturday, April 30, 2011

Y is for "Yes And"

One of the fundamental rules of improvisational theater (one of my other hobbies) is often referred to as the "yes and" rule. If you are performing in improv comedy, or any other form of unscripted theater and one of your fellow actors gets a scene rolling, or adds to a scene in progress, it is important to run with what they have set up. In improv terms, adding something to a scene is called an offer and it is important to accept that offer. If you don't accept it, the scene may immediately break and/or descend into something completely unintelligible to the audience... a terrible place to be for any actor.

Learning to accept and run with others' offers can be tough. Sometimes you enter a scene thinking, "I'm gonna come in and be the hyperactive little kid" Then just as your stepping on stage, your fellow actor says, "Ah, Old Man Withers! there you are, I was hoping you might help me with some car trouble." Well, you can either shift immediately to Old Man Withers mode which will further the storyline that was just established, or continue to play your original idea and play as the little kid. The latter could very likely cause a break in the audience's suspension of disbelief because they're thinking, "Wait, I thought that was Old Man Withers?"

There is an improv exercise that distills the idea of "yes and" down to its root, in which each of the participants begins every statement with the words yes and.

1: "Hey grandpa, I can't wait to get to the carnival"
2: "Yes, and we're going to stay there all day, Billy"
1: "Yes, and I want to eat tons of cotton candy!"

and so on...

I bring this up because running a tabletop RPG is very similar to performing in improv theater. A GM plays every character not played by one of the players and also orchestrates all of the interaction with the surrounding environment. During a game session, the GM typically has an idea about where he/she wants the session to go. However, this idea is not always apparent to the players, and they may read the clues the GM drops in an entirely different way and attempt to take the game in an entirely different direction. The question is, as the GM, do you accept the players' offer and go in their direction or do you try to convince them to go with your plan as intended? The former can be challenging because it can put the GM into a spot for which he/she is unprepared, can potentially derail the course of the adventure and/or even bypass some of the hours of work the GM put into planning the session. The latter can be challenging because the players can start to feel railroaded (like their choices don't matter) and potentially breaking the fun of the session, and if it happens too much, dissolving the group.

There are a couple tricks a GM can use to say "yes and" to the player's decisions -to help guide the adventure without denying the players their active roles in the way it plays out.

Friday, April 29, 2011

X is for eXcuses

Okay, "X is for eXcuses" is lame... I know. I've been up since 3:30 am local time flying back into town from my business trip. But I think the trip is worth the lame, thematically unrelated post for X.

Check it out!


I love my job!

Also, I promise Day Y will be better, though tonight is game night so I may not get to it until tomorrow.

Coming up: Y is for Yes and!
Followed by Z

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I prefer my crafting in Mines

So, I caved to the hype and picked up Minecraft. By way of explanation for those who are not into video games, Minecraft is nothing like World of Warcraft, Starcraft or any of the other "Craft" games you might have heard about on the news. The game is an independent development of Mojang studios and the current beta test is downloadable for 14.95 Euros or about $22.
The game feels like the Sims, meets Gilligan's Island, meets a Dire Straits video. I started playing last night while my laundry was in the wash and kept playing well after it was done and I was packed for my trip today. Definitely going to be worth the $22. The game definitely focuses on fun over flashiness. The graphics are blocky and pixellated, but the ability to build almost whatever you want in your own world is just a blast!

W is for the Westerlands

The Westerlands is the name of the world I have created for my current D&D game. I know, it's one of the least original names for a fantasy realm anyone could come up with. In fact, I feel like the name ranks right up there in terms of originality with the likes of Westeros, Middle Earth, Third Earth, Discworld, Oerth, or France.

When creating the Westerlands, originality was honestly the last thing on my mind. I created the world as part of my very first attempt at running a game of D&D. (Full disclosure: I had dabbled with D&D in high school, when I was thrust into the position of DM by my group of friends who were unwilling to take on the task themselves... but that group only lasted for about two sessions.) In addition to this being my first experience actually running a game, it was also the first experience playing D&D for many of my players.

As such, I was not out to create anything particularly novel, and so I decided to go for a classic high fantasy feel with a couple of twists.

  1. The plot elements, characters and locations are unashamedly inspired (i.e. appropriated, borrowed, stolen and modified) by fantasy literature, pop-culture and any other source that pops into my head. I do not strive to be original, just interesting and exciting for my players.
  2. The world is peppered with relics and ruins of a long-lost advanced civilization.
  3. Unique clockwork technology is relatively commonplace within the world thanks to a well- established gnomish population characterized by their love for tinkering/engineering.
I also sought to build my world from the inside out. What does this mean? Well, "in the beginning" -as such things tend to begin- I had a vague idea for a long-term plot arc, a more detailed idea for a small farming town, a tavern within the town, and a mysterious stranger in the tavern to give my players their first quest. One of the beauties of running things for new players is that horrible cliches are not yet cliche. Beyond this small cluster of details, the rest of the world was naught but unformed creative goo awaiting the hand of inspiration.

The first adventure took place back in February of 2009 and we've been playing ever since. We typically get together two days a month for about four hours each day. As we have played, the characters have moved from place to place as I fill in the details of the world one step ahead of them. The nice thing about building a world from the inside out is that you can start playing right away. The downside is that you have the added burden of fleshing out the next stop on the trail while you're simultaneously trying to iron out the nuts and bolts of the next session.

Anyway, to keep track of the group's adventures and all of the world-fleshing that was going on, I set up a wiki over at Obsidian Portal. Among other things, the wiki currently includes written summaries for 34 of the 63 game sessions we have had -mostly written as short narratives. It also acts like an encyclopedia of the world, detailing locations, notable people and organizations. It is both a valuable archive to help jog my memory and keep things consistent, and a narcissistic "hey look what I made!" on the global fridge door that is the internet.

I am very proud that the game is still plugging away after two years. While I'm sure it is a flash in the pan for many Grognards (truly old-school D&D players) we've been running longer than any other game I've been involved with.

Looking back, I realize I made some newbie mistakes, and I would likely do some things differently if I were starting fresh. Most notably, I would establish a central location to act as an adventure hub rather than the more nomadic adventure style that I find very appealing in novels. When it comes to gaming, it just means I have to keep fleshing out new towns everytime the group sets off on another adventure.

Still, the Westerlands has been my main creative outlet for the past two years and I am proud of what my game group has built.


Side note: I am leaving on a business trip until the end of the week. I plan to bring my lappy with me, but I'm not sure what kind of time I will have to write up posts X & Y... I'll give it my best though.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude -or "truthiness" to the unwashed layperson- refers to a sense of realism or believability.

So why would someone working in a high-fantasy motif be concerned with believability? I personally think that achieving verisimilitude is as important (if not moreso) in fantasy as it is in otherwise more "realistic" settings. Making sure the fantastic elements or even the mundane aspects of a fantasy world interact in a believable way helps add a sense of reality to an otherwise unreal environment.

I really started thinking about the verisimilitude of my game world while reading some of my favorite blogs, which deal with the ways that access to fantastic things like magic would affect a universe. If you haven't seen them already, I highly recommend Martin Ralya's post on world-changing spells over at Gnome Stew. I also feel obliged to plug one of my absolute favorite blog series, the Architect DM over at Critical Hits. Both blogs have excellent ideas for game-masters and fantasy writers alike.

Today, I would like to focus on one particular aspect of verisimilitude -building believable conflict and believable villains. To be more specific, I would like to focus on conflict that involves people vs. people as opposed to a person vs. nature or the guy who wants to build and eat the world's biggest ham sandwich.

I find that coming up with believable interpersonal conflict is incredibly challenging even though I think I logically know what makes for exciting and believable conflict. For me, believable conflict occurs when both sides genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. This is why Eric Lensherr a.k.a. Magneto from the X-Men is a far more compelling villain to me than someone like the Joker from Batman. As a child, Lensherr survived the Holocaust only to later find that he had mutant powers. When he saw non-mutant society beginning to single out other mutants as dangerous and undesirable, he took actions, seen by others as evil, to prevent another Holocaust, this time inflicted on mutants. This is a far more compelling backstory than that of the Joker... who went crazy after falling in toxic waste.

Actors who have portrayed villains often mention the necessity for finding something to love about their character. Believable villains do not perpetrate evil acts because they want to do evil, they perpetrate evil acts because they believe those things are actually good!

Unfortunately, many high fantasy worlds suffer from moustache twirler's syndrome. Their villains know they are evil and embrace that fact. In Harry Potter, Voldemort's followers happily fall in line behind someone they call "The Dark Lord"... no matter how much you agree that wizards are superior to muggles, I find it hard to believe that anyone would label the being they revere as "the Dark Lord" especially when it is clear that the term holds the same connotation of evil as it does in real-world "Western" society. Even Tolkien suffers from this evil for evil's sake mentality with Sauron and the orcs. Why are they waging war against the people of Middle Earth? Their evil...that's what they do. Granted, in both of the above examples, access to power is said to be the driving force behind characters' decisions to side with evil. The trouble is, they recognize that what they are doing is evil rather than seeing their pursuit of power as fighting the good fight.

As a side note, if you are interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend you check out Kiril Eskov's The Last Ringbearer. This retelling of the Lord of the Rings shows events from Mordor's perspective and recasts Sauron's actions as a struggle for technological progress against the technophobic elves and men who want things to remain the same.

Of course, there is a flip-side to the always wanting to do the right thing, which is that the right thing is not always clear, or even existent. To start, people in conflict are emotional beings who often do not want to acknowledge that their truth might not be the whole truth. They find a viewpoint that subjectively makes sense to them and run with it. They refuse or can't acknowledge other points of view believing their own to be correct. Humans, and particularly Americans seem to recoil from moral ambiguity. It scares us. We feel compelled to split things into right and wrong without acknowledging that both sides might be partially right and partially wrong, or that there might not be any right answer. Though our minds can technically grasp such a situation, our hearts and guts revolt against it.

When I am writing, I often have a hard time factoring in these complimentary aspects (desire to do right and resistance to moral ambiguity) that sit at the heart of interpersonal conflict. As the creator of the situation, I can see all sides, by definition. This makes it very difficult to work my way down to the emotionally driven, subjective viewpoint of the characters on either side. And try as I might, someone often comes out of it twirling a mustache.

Anyway, all this brings me to my main point -coming up with a reference that will guide me into the emotional mindset of characters in conflict in an effort to make both sides believable. I find that drawing elements from the news, or from real-world history can help fuel conflict scenarios that feel much truer, and to me, more engrossing. To that end, I have set up a page on this blog, which I have titled "The Plot Garden" which I hope to populate with "The seeds of conflict" (I know, it's cheesy!)... In plain terms, if I get an idea for something that might make for a rich or believable cause for conflict, I will add it to the little list growing on the page. Hopefully, this will prove useful for me and anyone else who stops by looking for inspiration for their next diabolical villain.

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Universes

...and the mixing thereof

This post was inspired by L.G. Smith's post on Shakespeare over at Bards and Prophets.

From TechEBlog

I have always had a compulsive need to categorize and compare characters across genres and fictional universes. What does this mean? Well, for example, in college I entertained the idea of casting various Shakespearean characters in the roles of high school archetypes:
  • Romeo and Juliet as the uber-horny rich kids who got together to piss off their parents and who constantly suck face in the hall. 
  • Henry the V and really most of the Shakespearean kings as the jocks 
  • Hamlet as the brooding kid and budding conspiracy theorist in the trench coat

Whenever I run across a group of characters either in real life, in a movie, book or video game, chances are that I will try to mentally fit them into an alternate universe belonging to another group of similar characters. I'm not sure why I do it, but I find it enjoyable (that sounds potentially dirty out of context!), and often this sort of cross-genre comparison just works away in my subconscious without any direct control. -did I mention I didn't miss a single analogy question on my SATs? It's fueled by the same thing.

When I was in high school, I went rollerblading with my uncle in Golden Gate park where we ran into a bunch of his friends. My first thought was, "these guys would make a really interesting super-hero team!"

  • My uncle, a hyperactive technophile and gadget guy
  • The super athletic couple as the burly fighting heart of the team
  • The contemplative friend who we ran into sitting cross-legged in the grass, wearing old-school quad skates and a broad-brimmed hat would obviously be the Professor X-style mentalist.

These things just come to me!

Even my reading habits tend to gravitate towards subjects that fulfill this need. For example, my favorite comic books are those that mash up worlds (e.g. G.I. Joe vs. Transformers) or transplant their characters into an alternate genre/reality (e.g. Marvel 1602).

Lately, the comparison genre of choice is, as you might have guessed, D&D. Perhaps it is because I am currently engaged with the material in a major way, or perhaps because the character construction rules for D&D are highly compartmentalized in and of themselves.

Anyway, after reading the post on Shakespeare at Bards and Prophets, I started thinking about how I would create a D&D adventure group out of Shakespearean characters. This is what I came up with:

  • Prospero from the Tempest as a human wizard specializing in charm and conjuration spells
  • Puck from Midsummer as a tiefling or halfling rogue
  • Feste, Touchstone or one of the other fools as a bard
  • MacDuff from MacBeth as a fighter or Barbarian
Now, I feel the need to address one of the problems I always run into when trying to use D&D as part of my comparison... The archetypal D&D group consists of a fighting type (fighter, barbarian or paladin) a sneaky type (usually a rogue), spell slinger (wizard or sorcerer) and a healer (usually a cleric, but perhaps a paladin or ranger instead)

The trouble is, most other genres do not involve a dedicated healer class. The healer as an archetype seems almost exclusively restricted to D&D and its numerous direct and indirect video game derivatives. I would be lying, if I said this didn't cause a moment of internal frustration each time I hit this sticky patch.

Anyway, does anybody else find themselves doing this, or is it just me?

I forgot to mention Geek Chic

Geek Chic Furniture had a booth at Sakura-Con. This stuff is super dangerous for me. The furniture is of real wood construction, which is hard enough to find these days... but to top it off, it combines gorgeous, high class dining room aesthetics with amazing functionality specifically for gamers! I didn't even know about the integrated dice towers until today!!

My girlfriend had to drag me away from the booth... but my credit card has a high enough limit! We could TOTALLY afford it! Right!?

I WILL be registering here for my wedding... totally gonna happen!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for Tradition!

As I mentioned in my last post, my girlfriend and I have an annual tradition of attending Sakura-Con, Seattle's anime festival. We had our first real date at Sakura-Con and have been going back every year for a day of amazing people-watching, photo-taking and other shenanigans.

This year, we caught a lot more of the scheduled events than we have in the past. We saw:
  • A kendo demonstration by the Tacoma Kendo and Iaido Club
  • We tried to see a tea ceremony by Chado Urasenke Tankokai Seattle Association, but we were seated way back in the room, and couldn't see anything that happened while the participants were kneeling.
  • We went to an excellent lecture titled Japan's Apocalyptic Imagination in Anime, Manga and Art delivered by Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica.
  • We watched a couple episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, which is actually a genuinely hilarious show... but also really bizarre. As far as I can tell, it's about a school in which a bunch of female students fight duels to win the right to marry another student called the Rose Princess. The show is rife with lesbian imagery in a really ridiculously over the top sort of way. Just watch the opening credits... you don't even need a translation!

  • Finally, we went and saw Berryz Kobo on the main stage. My gf describes them as an all-girl, Japanese equivalent of the Backstreet Boys. This was their first show ever in the U.S., but they already had fanboys who knew all of their choreography, and were almost more enjoyable to watch in their own right. Also, during one of the audience banter breaks, one of the girls came out on stage dressed as a fish to practice her English with the audience. Totally. Serious. If video or photography had been allowed in the concert hall, I would have tried to take some, but you'll have to settle for their official stuff. "Let's Enjoy!"

Last, but not least, I took lots of pictures! I apologize in advance for some of the blurry photos... I like snapping candids, and even when taking posed shots, would often have only a second to snap a quick pic before being jostled away by the crowd.

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is also for Sakura-Con!

Tomorrow, my lovely girlfriend and I will make our annual trip down to the Washington State Convention Center for Sakura-Con, Seattle's big anime convention. Attending this convention has become a tradition for us, since our first real date was attending Sakura-Con 2008. I don't think either of us had been to an anime convention before, but we have since made a point of going every year.

We go primarily to people watch. We don't get into costume ourselves, but the outfits people come up with for the convention are amazing, beautiful, and occasionally horrifying. We also go to check out anime we haven't seen before in the theaters, and to see the crazy J-rock concerts that take place on Saturday night.

This year's special guest: Berryz Kodo, as the name suggests, they are a saccharine sweet pop group.

Not quite as awesome as Dazzle Vision, but it should still be fun.

S is for Session Streamlining

XKCD's tribute to Gary Gygax

My game group faces a couple major challenges when it comes to actually getting any game-play in:

  1. We are all very busy adults, most with full-time jobs and/or school obligations.
  2. We play on a weeknight and because of challenge #1 have a limited window between the end of work and a reasonable bed time.
  3. There are seven (well, six now)* players in my group. This is almost twice the size of the model gaming group towards which the rules of D&D are balanced

All of these factors combine to make the efficient execution of our game sessions an absolute necessity.

I have established a couple of techniques to help streamline my sessions in order to maximize everyone's chance to play and have fun.

First off, here's what I don't do...

I do not restrict the amount of non-game related conversation at the table (within reason). Our group gets together as much to socialize as it does to play games, and so catching up with friends is part of the overall experience, and part of the fun.

On to what I

  • I make use of an initiative tracking system that is visible to all my players. (For the lay-person, initiative = who's turn is it?) It's amazing how much a system like this can reduce player hesitation when it comes to their turn. It also all but eliminates the problem of players being in the bathroom, or out for a smoke when their turn comes up.
  • In tandem with the visual initiative tracker, I also use a sand timer to mark our current spot in the initiative rotation. The rule I established says I flip the timer when each player's turn begins and if they haven't started telling me what they want to do by the time it runs out, their character is hesitating until the next round. I generally don't enforce this rule very strictly, but if hesitation becomes a problem, the timer gets flipped.
  • I try to give my players breaks when appropriate. This may seem counter-intuitive, and has actually backfired on occasion, but telling the players to take five while I set up the next scene will help them return to the table focused and ready to play, and will give me room to set things up.
  • I keep an eye on my own clock. This is a relatively recent development, but I have started setting target times for the scenarios I write. The system can only really be used as a guideline, because I don't want to cut a scene short if my players are having fun.
  • In conjunction with the above system, I have started employing Dave Chalker's concept of an "out" in combat scenarios to both add flavor to a fight beyond, "kill them all and go through their pockets" and simultaneously move things along.
  • I have also implemented a psychological experiment that seems to work quite well. I gave my game a theme song. At the beginning of each session, as dinner is wrapping up, I start the music. My players have developed a sort of Pavlovian response to the music, which signals that the time for chatting is done and the time for face smashing has begun.
These techniques all go a long way towards speeding up gameplay without forcing the situation. As such, my group can typically get through two to five different encounters over the course of a three hour play session. Sometimes, if they are in a particularly tough boss fight, or are enjoying free form shopping trips to spend their ill-gotten gains in town, we might only get through one actual scene. The important thing is that everyone is having fun!

*One of my players is in a very rigorous course of study in Chinese medicine and has had to bow out due to her workload. We are currently in the process of phasing out her character.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Roleplaying

What constitutes a role-playing game? Wikipedia defines them like so:

A role-playing game (RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting, or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within the game succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines...

...Role-playing games are fundamentally different from most other types of games in that they stress social interaction and collaboration, whereas board gamescard games, and sports emphasize competition.

In my opinion, the three concepts that make up the heart of this definition are:
  • Narrative
  • Character Development
  • Collaboration
To me, this definition sounds a lot like unscripted acting, or the sort of imaginative storytelling we all used to engage in while playing as children and that is exactly why roleplaying games appeal to me in the first place.

"Okay, we're playing house and I'll be the mommy and you can be the half-orc barbarian baby!"

For me, the cooperative aspect of RPGs is highly appealing. Though I participated in sports as a kid and enjoy the occasional board game or poker night, if given the choice between competing against my friends or working towards a shared goal, I will always gravitate towards the latter.

When I first began my current gaming group over two years ago, most of my players had no experience with non-video game RPGs. Several were wary about the idea, either because of the prevalent cultural stereotype of roleplayers as anti-social nerds who drive everyone around them crazy with incessant talk of their imaginary character's +5 vorpal sword, or just because of a lack of familiarity with what a table-top rpg was. When my girlfriend and I broached the subject to our friends, we described it as "interactive storytelling" which I think nicely sums up the appeal of tabletop RPGs for me.

Roleplaying games are the cooperative experience of interactive storytelling.

Though there is a great deal of variety from game system to game system and group to group, the most common structure for an RPG to take -in terms of the division of "roles"- is for one person to take on the role of game master (or dungeon master in the case of D&D) and the others to take on the role of the player characters. The game master largely develops the story structure, plays the supporting characters and introduces the obstacles which stand in the way of the characters completing their goals, while the other players take on the roles of the protagonists in the imaginative story.

However, though the GM's role often casts him/her as the antagonist, his/her role is actually more that of a facilitator. Deep down, I think most every GM wants his/her players to succeed. After all, without protagonists, there is no story. On the flip-side, without obstacles and risk of failure, there is no story either, so it is a delicate balance the GM must strike. Constantly threatening the players just enough to keep things exciting, but never letting them lose hope at their chance of success.

I should further qualify this description, as it makes the players sound like largely passive observers or tourists in the world of the GM's creation. With some groups, that may be the case. However, it is very important that players feel their character choices matter within the world of the game. In gaming terms, a GM who forces players to follow a preset storyline is said to be "railroading" them, because no matter how they twist and turn, they're stuck going to the GM's destination. For a game to provide a satisfying player experience, their choices should matter, and should affect the outcome of a given scenario. In many groups, mine included, player input even goes beyond the immediate change wrought upon the GM's scenario. I encourage my players to make contributions to the greater context of the world through their characters' backstories, or even things like the histories of their character's culture, or really anything about which they are inspired to write.

In the two years I have run my game, I believe I... but not really "I"... more like "we" have fostered individual creative sparks among us. In addition to the history linked above, our game has inspired one of my players to start a game of his own. Another told the stories of our group's adventures to the kids she teaches at school. Every member of the group has created pictures of their character, developed histories and backstories that add to their character's depth and continue to expand and deepen our shared experience of imaginative play.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Questions

But first, Q is also for Q-Workshop Dice! Simply the coolest dice sets around!

The Steampunk Set will be mine... oh yes, it will be mine.

Now on to the main event!

Questions. GMs deal with a lot of them. From the self inflicted queries like:
"where is this adventure leading?"
"what will my players do next?"
and "Why do I put myself through this?"

to questions posed by the players like:
"What's on this scroll I've had written on my character sheet for the last year and a half?"
"How does grappling work?"
"Where are we again?"
"Why did you kill my character you horrible piece of..."
"Hey Mr. Lizardman, does this mysterious master of yours eat people?" <--- This was actually posed to an NPC in my game.
"Wait, Broga's an orc!?" <--- also actually happened, but I was a player, not the GM in that game.

A GM must be prepared to handle a nearly infinite array of questions largely on the fly, because there is no way to explicitly prepare for what the players will throw at you. Players are unpredictable that way.

That being said, questions are also a valuable tool for creating deeper adventures and especially, more fully formed NPCs. When I create a supporting character for my game, I often pose a James Lipton-esque series of questions to myself with regard to the character. I have never compiled these questions into a definitive list, but some of the most common are as follows:
  • If you could equate yourself with anyone real or fictional, who would it be? (e.g. Rick Moranis, Dr. Byron Orpheus, or Frau Blucher)This gives me a quick summary model for how to play that character in game.
  • What is your favorite phrase? I know it sounds like I'm making a schlocky 80's sitcom, but having an oft-repeated epithet can really help a character stick in the minds of my players.
  • What is most important in life? I like to establish a character's top three motivations. (e.g. stay alive, earn lots of money, find a girlfriend) This can help me play their personality. A fanatical zealot who is not afraid to die if it brings her glory in the eyes of her god will behave very differently in a combat or interrogation scenario than the city guard who took a night watch job to feed his family.
  • What do you love? Similar to the last question, but more focused on peripheral things like hobbies and common topics of conversation
  • What do you hate? The rules of diplomacy in 3.5 edition D&D are such that it is VERY difficult for a player to accidentally hurt someone's opinion of their character. Giving NPC's aversions to particular races, to being manipulated through fancy talk or by mentioning that good for nothing prince adds an element of risk to diplomancer characters.
Now, I'm not saying these questions should be asked of every goblin spear-carrier the players are likely to drop a fireball on top of, but with major NPCs, and even with lesser NPCs who are likely to be encountered in a more social environment *cough!*tavernkeepers*cough!*, asking questions like those listed above goes a long way towards making the characters, interactions and the world feel more real.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Papercraft

Need. More. Pillars!

I am a bit of a hapless penny pincher when it comes to gaming. I buy all my rulebooks used from Half Price Books. I use Legos in place of minis and for a long time I used a go board in place of a battle mat. (side note: the go mat led my group to begin referring to the start of a combat encounter as "go" time.)  However, I also greatly enjoy the creative extras that float around a game's periphery and going above an beyond to give my players a more immersive game experience.

Well, shortly after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, I donated to a cause hosted by called Gamers Help Haiti. The site offered a large bundle of online, indie game offerings (mostly pdf e-books, map packs and the like) in exchange for a donation of $25 or more, with all proceeds going to the relief effort. Anyway, included in the virtual bundle I received, were a couple of pdf dungeon tile sets from Fat Dragon Games (FDG). FDG offers a wide variety of quality print-and-assemble 2D and 3D sets for building custom environments for your game.

I printed to the tile sets, glued them to foam core, cut them out and was immediately hooked. Ever since I printed my first basic dungeon set from the Gamers Help Haiti bundle, I have been hopelessly addicted to papercraft and FDG. At $2 to $15 per pdf, the FDG sets are far more cost effective than some alternatives. I find myself squirreling away old Red Baron pizza boxes and scraps of foam core (when the exhibit shop at work is throwing it out, it comes home with me!) to serve as backing for my tiles. Every time I swing by my local art store, I jealously eye the Logan mat cutters. My hands become so sore meticulously wielding the exacto knives that feed my need.

My addiction has given rise to quite a collection of papercraft tiles and set pieces that frequently grace my gaming table, along with a couple of realizations:

  • When you factor in the time it takes to mount and cut dungeon tiles and the fact that printer ink costs more than Charlie Sheen's tiger blood, it becomes apparent that brand name, store bought tile sets are ultimately cheaper than the do-it-yourself variety.
  • 3D set pieces take up a lot of storage space very quickly.
  • Having a 3D set that you can quickly throw together somehow feels so much more satisfying than just drawing it out on a battle mat.
  • I really want one of those Logan cutters!


Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Obsidian Portal

Obsidian Portal (OP) is an online community dedicated to the tabletop gamer and especially the game master. At its core, the site allows a GM to set up a wiki to use as an online world-building and /or game note knowledge base. Beyond its core, however, OP allows a GM to coordinate with his or her players, find new players amid the many users, show off the fruits of his or her obsessive labors and bounce ideas off of like-minded individuals in the Portal's forums.

I had a false start with OP back in February of 2009. I set up an account while looking for a way to establish an online nexus for my game group. At the time, OP had very little established support, so confused and alone, I turned to Google Groups instead. Well, later that year, I once again stumbled across the Portal after reading about it on Penny Arcade. In the 9 months since I had last visited, the site had gestated into a more fully formed entity and I decided to once again give it a shot.

I've been there ever since.

The basic interface of Obsidian Portal is the wiki -like the 'Pedia, but different. Each GM is allowed a certain number of wikis depending on whether they are a free or paying member. The wiki utilizes a language called "Textile" which acts as a shorthand version of html. It is basically interchangeable with its more full-bodied counterpart, but is MUCH easier to learn. One of the biggest things that drew me to OP was the opportunity to learn something new... In this case, how to develop a site in Textile. As a measure of just how simple it is to pick up... I really got my site going in November of 2009, had written a custom template for building a navigation interface by early 2010. Then, one year ago this month, my little narcissistic corner was found worthy enough to be named Featured Campaign of the Month. I had 15 minutes of nerd fame!

Any GM running a game that actually gets rolling winds up with a whole lot of imaginary world piling on his or her brain. Since a successful tabletop RPG campaign can stretch years, or even decades, it is incredibly helpful to have a way to keep track of the bajillion x2 places your players visit and people they meet. That way, when they come back to Ol'Stinky's house of Fish ten years down the line, you can easily remember that Ol'Stinky had a baby girl they rescued from the otyugh garbage disposal who would be about 10 now. 

The thing that really makes OP special, however, is not the interface... it's the people. In an online universe where John Gabriel's Law seems to be a proven constant, the boards at OP are a bastion of civilized values.

Everyone is welcoming to newcomers, eager to assist with wiki programming and real life game-planning challenges and just generally positive about fostering everyone's creative impulses.

Anyway, If you are running a game and haven't checked out OP yet, I highly recommend that you do. Even if you are a writer looking for inspiring stories in the fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, horror and/or superhero genres, it might be worth a peek at the various and sundry adventure logs chronicled in the Portal's numerous wikis.

N is for Notebook

First off, I know I am a couple days behind on my A to Z posts. This past weekend I got distracted by a major gardening project that resulted in the creation of three raised beds for a new vegetable garden, some bruised knuckles and pleasantly sore shoulders... I promise I'll get my priorities straight in the future.

Moving on!

I tend to be a bit of a technophile, and if presented with a way to accomplish a task via some sort of spinny, flashy automated, electronically-mediated interface, I will usually latch on immediately.

Managing my game notes is no exception. As I mentioned last month, I have been through a myriad of computerized game-management systems, flitting from one to the next like some sort of horrifying digital bee in search of sustenance. Well, I have found that, contrary to the logic of my highly advanced late-20th Century brain, when it comes to table-top gaming, low-tech solutions often work much better than the shinier hi-tech options.

About a month ago, I decided to switch my game management methods out of the digital realm. I picked up a quad-ruled notebook and have been running my games out of it since. Here are some of my impressions from my first month of running my game from a notebook.

  • My players have mentioned that I feel more present at the game table without a laptop acting as a barrier between us.
  • Hand-writing my notes provides a kinesthetic experience, which has always helped me to better commit things to memory... ergo, I am less reliant on actually looking at my notebook during the game.
  • Because it takes longer to hand-write notes, I am encouraged to stick to the necessities, bullet-pointing lists vs. written out descriptions.
  • During the game, it is actually quicker to jot down bad guys' hitpoints and other game related notes without having to worry about being in the correct OneNote or Excel window.

  • In order to keep my notebook organized, I often find myself conducting my early planning in a digital medium anyway before transcribing it to my notebook. If I tried to work through every bout of writer's block in the notebook itself, I would likely burn through a book a month. As a result, I sometimes feel like I am doing twice the work.
  • Complex characters like ongoing NPCs (Non-player characters) or BBEGs (Big Bad End Guys) are still quicker to create digitally. Now, I just print their stat sheets out instead of keeping them on my computer.
  • Loot lists and XP are likewise better tracked in Excel. Because of this, and to facilitate music at the table, I still keep my laptop within arms' reach... but not directly in front of me.

Major Workaround:
In addition to the NPC and loot workarounds mentioned above, I have also developed a sort of low-tech method for dealing with mass combat that works really well.

Back when I used my laptop at the table, I utilized Wizards of the Coast's online dice roller to resolve NPC rolls. Because my group consists of seven players, I often find myself forced to throw large numbers of baddies against them in order to give them an actual challenge. The dice roller helped me to resolve those rolls more quickly.

When I went low-tech, I implemented a workaround that has worked brilliantly. When planning my first low-tech session, I opened up the dice roller and rolled 1000d20. I then took the results of each of the thousand dice rolls, which were listed in the results window, and copied them into a Word doc. I then printed the document giving me a sheet with 1000 randomly generated results of a 20-sided die roll. Now when I begin a mass combat encounter, I roll a single d20, count that many spaces into my list, and use that as the starting point for any corresponding "rolls" crossing them off as the session progresses. I find this system works faster than rolling on the dice roller, or even rolling just a few actual d20s.

Okay, now that I have touted the glories of low-tech gaming, my next post will focus on the high-tech bit of gaming narcissism that is "O" for Obsidian Portal!

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Music

This post is actually a follow up on a post I made last month about using music in my game. As I mentioned, I am very emotionally moved by music and have a particular affinity for epic music. Well, after various attempts to add a soundtrack to my game sessions using various modes of music delivery -from CDs to iPod playlists to Windows Media Player- I have at last worked out a system that seems to function nicely for my group.

It all relies on YouTube.

A couple months ago, I began playing around with YouTube's playlist feature by poking around for epic music tracks and adding them to various mood-setting playlists. I started very generic with a list simply called "D&D Music" I used this list as a sort of catch all of promising tracks that I could sort later. Then I began developing more specific lists -each to fit a specific mood.

For me, the advantage of the YouTube method is that I do not have to scour the music stores for obscure groups that fit the bill, or purchase whole CDs when I only want a single track that I will likely only play during game sessions. That being said, I have definitely discovered some truly epic tunage into which I will likely invest real monies in the near future so that I may enjoy my dragon-slaying music even when away from my computer. But I digress...

Now that I have a decent start on the project, I have begun to use my playlists to underscore my game sessions. The goal is to set and enhance the mood without distracting or overwhelming my players. So far, the group has responded very positively to my audio experiment and have even started to suggest new additions.

Anyway, here is a selection of my playlists in progress. If you are running a game and want to try out, feel free to pop onto my lists and use them, or borrow them as you see fit. If you just like listening to music that makes you want to punch an ogre in the face before taking off on a ninja unicorn with laser eyes, I highly encourage you to check out some of the stuff I've come across.

Mood or Location
These playlists all continue to grow as I come across new music to fill them, so if you come back in the future, chances are good that there will be more awesomeness to be had.

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    L is for Legos!

    Yes, I am a grown man with a master's degree and a full-time job... and yes, I still play with Legos! As a solidly middle-class GM, without a lot of money to blow on gaming minis, paint supplies, etc. I often turn to creative, low-cost solutions when trying to represent things on my gaming table. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with D&D, the game does not come with game pieces)

    One of my favorite techniques for whipping up custom characters, beasties and objects is to build them from Lego. I keep an assortment of Lego mini-figure parts in my DM toolkit so that I can put together characters on the fly. I also have a bin of bricks near the gaming table for creating other impromptu elements.

    Bucket o' heads!

    Here are just a few of the many guest appearances Legos have made in my game:

    Lego treant is full of EVIL!

    I hear their vision is based on movement.
    Maybe if we don't move, it wont eat us.

    When faced with a celestial giant bee, don't stab it...
    you'll just make it mad.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    K is for Kobolds!

    Kobolds: What is it about these guys that makes them so darn special? How is it that a horde of cowardly little chihuahua-dragon things that drop in a single hit can give a group of tough-guy adventurers so much trouble? Simply put, kobolds are the Viet Cong or the French Resistance of the D&D universe. The rely on cunning traps and hit and run ambush tactics to wear down adventurers.

    The wiliness of kobold-kind also makes them one of the most entertaining adversaries to run as a GM. My players have never been so worn down by a dungeon as they were when they cleared out the Kobold Temple of the Eye. When I designed the dungeon, I actually drew inspiration from maps of Viet Cong tunnel systems. I built in lots of long hallways with arrow slits at the end, murder holes, looping side passages and hidden escape routes and diabolical pit traps full of monsters, not to mention the gaggles of yappy little guerillas waiting around every corner.

    I also think that the innocuous appearance of kobolds (little, green, annoying) makes them ideal templates for elaboration. These absurd little beasties sit at the center of two of the most memorable episodes in my game.

    Don't you just want to pinch his lizardy cheeks!?
    The first occurred when my players met Ashii, the lone surviving member of a kobold colony that had been turned to zombies by an elemental evil, which had taken up residence in their warren. When my players took pity on Ashii, promising to evacuate him from his hiding place once the coast was clear, it led to the establishment of the group's secret codeword, "bunkbed" which is still in use today. It also led to perhaps my favorite NPC I have ever created -He WILL show up in my game again some day. See, after my players rescued Ashii, they realized they couldn't just abandon him on the streets. After all, his whole family was dead. So, they decided to find a new home for him. When they failed to make headway with the thieve's guild -a natural fit for an evil, trap-making, ambush-laying, back-stabbing beastie- they decided instead to make him a ward of the church of Pelor. Here is why this is funny:

    In the standard D&D universe:
    Kobolds = evil, thieving, murderous, tricksy subterranean ambush predators who are very light sensitive.
    Pelor = good, loving god of healing and the sun.

    So, why on earth would a kobold agree to become the ward of a goodie two-shoes church of horrible burning light? Simple, the church of Pelor excels at zombie killing and is probably best equipped to protect twitchy wee Ashii from future outbreaks of undeadness.

    At some point, I am determined to reintroduce Ashii as a permanently sunburned, zombie-hunting cleric of Pelor... because the image is just too precious to resist.

    The second memorable moment occurred in the massive kobold warren I mentioned at the very beginning of the post. I began thinking about what a kobold celebration might look like. Large chunks of questionable scavenged meat on spits of course! and then, what kobold music might look & sound like... and darn it, it just popped into my head... kobold mariachi band. The brassy, dramatic, jittery staccato of mariachi just seemed to suit kobold culture in my game. And, so I had my players stumble upon a feast day celebration. Of course the kobolds heard them coming setting up what I hoped would be a Desperado style showdown. Instead, the fight looked more like this with the singing telegram girl representing the kobold musicians and the gunshot representing a fireball hurled by the group's sorceress. This moment unexpectedly became one of the funniest and fondly remembered bits of my whole campaign.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    J is for Jam Sessions

    In addition to garnering inspiration for my game from movies, books, videogames and other forms of non-responsive media, I also really enjoy bouncing ideas off of real live human beings during nerdstorming jam sessions.

    I have two main methods for enlisting the help of other GMs. The first is the digitally mediated method of posting various cries for help on the Obsidian Portal forums. My fellow Portaliers, or OPiates, Portatoes, or whatever you want to call them are a bunch of excessively helpful chaps and madamoiselles eager to lend ideas or advice to help clear an insidious case of GM's writer's-block.

    I have enlisted their services on numerous occasions, and would like to give a shout out here. whut WHUT! Oddly enough, when I turn to the OP boards for assistance, I often find my problem solved by the time I finish writing my initial post. The mere acting of writing out my thoughts seems to act like inspirational muselix to get the ol' thinker flowing. When this happens, do I still post my unnecessary cry for help? Of course I do! Because the folks on the Portal often add twists or little details that really add the extra crunch of awesome to my own idea.

    My other method for conducting inspirational jam sessions is to ply my real life GM friends with beer. We sit around talking of the nerdliest things and let the suds bring ideas effervescing up out from the depths of our minds. I love these in-depth nerd storming sessions, because bringing a fresh mind to an adventure that you have been seeing on the horizon for months and planning directly for weeks does wonders for breaking down unnecessary presuppositions that may be blocking out the awesome.

    Take the adventure I am currently running. My players are currently trying to break into a dragon's lair which is contained in the ruins of an ancient elven museum. I held my first nerdstorm jam session with Benny of beerstein fame. This session led to the overall look and feel of the structure -soaring colonnades with a vast, central gallery like ancient Greek temples. The next jam session, with my friend, Matt resulted in the inclusion of a spectral librarian who could be the players ally on the inside. The third session with fellow DM, Tendrilsfor20 took the elements of the previous two sessions and brought everything into focus -an inside out flow where the players are brought all the way to the lair of the big boss, only to have their stuff stolen before being booted from the premises. Thus the object of the adventure became, figure out how to get back in with the help of the spectral librarian and reclaim the stuff that blasted dragon stole!

    Anyway, for those of you engaged in RPG development, writing or any other long-term creative pursuit, please... talk to your fellow nerds and creative types, for no GM is an island... and if we are, we are at least part of a very large archipelago.

    Monday, April 11, 2011

    I is for Inspiration

    It all began with this song.

    I had not actually seen the video for the song yet, but the song itself became the seed for my current D&D campaign. I wanted a story that developed around a civil war between two factions of knights in a classic chivalric society. Rather than the classic good vs. evil, I wanted a story of good vs. good in which these knights were forced to choose between loyalty to their commander or to their king. In my game world, the kingdom where this takes place is called, Cydon. My game was a year old before I saw the video that went along with the song. And while the pseudo-western world and clear good vs. evil story of the video differ greatly from the driving force behind my game, I feel like the video's "cross-genre borrow everything that is awesome" spirit fits very well with my approach to creating my game world.

    One of the best elements of running a game for my friends is that I do not need to worry about being original. When I was a kid, I did not suffer from an anxiety of influence. I didn't worry about whether or not an idea was my own, or if it had been done before. If I thought it was fun, or cool I would run with it. As I grew older and more aware of the world around me, I began to feel a self-imposed restriction on my creative pursuits. Whether I was writing, or drawing or creating in anyway, my creative self had to push back with increasing effort against a nagging inner-voice repeating, "it's been done", "it's not deep enough" or "it's just silly!"

    I got back into gaming, in part to face that voice, which had almost completely quashed my creative self. When I began this game, I promised myself that I would not worry about originality. I told myself, "I am not writing these adventures to sell or to publish, I am writing them to entertain my friends. Original matters not, only fun!" This gave me the freedom to do away with self-censorship, to commandeer ideas from anything and everything that inspires me... beginning with the above song. Allowing my creative self the luxury and freedom to create without worry has given me a feeling I haven't experienced since I was a child... the experience of unquestioning play.

    Keep reading for a sample of specific sources of inspiration that have made it into my game world.

    Saturday, April 9, 2011

    H is for Hero Machine!

    I know I just posted about the Hero Machine last month, but I honestly think this tool warrants a second post.

    In a nutshell (known as the internet) the Hero Machine is a virtual paper-doll interface that allows the user to create custom portraits of superheroes, humanoid monsters, zombies and other fantastic figures. The tool is ideal for creating portraits for characters in a D&D game, and my players have used it to excellent effect for just that.

    I first discovered the Hero Machine when it was in version 2.5. While this remains the official release, the alpha test of the new version 3.0 has already far surpassed the capabilities of its predecessor.

    Rayne (Hero Machine 2.5)
    Rayne (Hero Machine 3)
     The Hero Machine Facebook page summarizes its purpose thusly:

    "A website, HeroMachine was built to let people bring their imaginations to life, even if they can't draw a straight line."

    Hero Machine is ideal for folks who might feel unsure of their artistic skills but who have a character idea just screaming to be realized. It's also perfect for an over-taxed GM like myself who wants to create a whole slew of character portraits with a consistent look and feel.

    With that said, I would now like to present to you a sample of character portraits created by my players and me using the Hero Machine.

    Friday, April 8, 2011

    G is also for Great Caesar's Ghost!

    I just received my first blog award! From Deirda over at A Storybook World.

    Me = Honored!

    G is for Gaming Group

    G is for so many things, including my name... and the dreaded Giraffelich!

    But today, I want to talk about my gaming group and how we got started.

    My group began playing together over two years ago (February of 2009?). I got the idea to run a game of my own from my girlfriend. We had been playing together in a group that never really got rolling, and ended up falling apart. 

    Well, in the fall of 2008, I started getting the urge to play again, and so we started searching for people to join us. We ended up convincing several of our close friends who had never played D&D before. The cultural stigma and stereotypes built up around tabletop RPGs can make it challenging to convince some people to take the initial plunge, but after some initial hesitancy from our friends, my girlfriend and I managed to convince them to join us because, "Hey, we're all friends. You like hanging out with us. Why don't we hang out, play games and have imaginary adventures?"

    And so it began. The initial hesitancy soon faded and was replaced by a realization that tabletop RPGs are actually a lot of fun! The stereotypes about what makes an RPG player faded from our friends' minds. On the subject of countering stereotypes, I should also note that my group began with more women than men.

    We soon added a fifth player, who was also a friend of ours, and that summer, two more players joined to fill in for one of the original members while she was busy with classes. When she returned, the group reached its current state.

    The Players:
    My game group is an eclectic mix of personalities. We have:
    • A cheesecake-baking woman who does tech support for a living (my girlfriend)
    • A teacher and budding educational theorist/reformer
    • A karaoke host and aspiring filmmaker
    • A Nordstrom-shopping student of Chinese medicine
    • A history buff-pizza artisan and aspiring author
    • A burlesque-dancing, hair model and nationally ranked rubix cube solver who blogs for a science think-tank.
    • A soccer-nut computer programmer
    • and me, A guy who writes museum exhibits for a living.
    The Evenings:
    Our game night rituals make things feel very different from the soda and Cheeto fueled games of my youth. First, we only play twice a month on weeknights and we always end by 10pm, so the game sessions are relatively short.

    We also begin every game night with a meal. Lately we've been so busy that we just order pizza or Chinese, but we often treat ourselves to homecooked dishes from chili, to lasagna, to pot roast. The inclusion of an actual meal lends a dinner party feel to the evening, and at least some modicum of maturity... which seems to go downhill the rest of the night.

    Anyway, my point is that I think one of the reasons my group is still going strong after over two years is that:
    a. We're all good friends who genuinely like hanging out together, and who do so regularly away from the game table.
    b. We all have productive lives and interests outside of gaming.
    c. Game night is as much about being social and enjoying each others' company as it is about rolling dice.

    This may not necessarily be the formula for every successful game group, but it sure works for mine!

    Oh... G is also for girlfriend. We just had our 3rd anniversary on March 29th and our love is born of nerddom... Today, she sent me an email she found from when we were planning our first date... to Sakura Con, the local anime convention... it's that level of nerd! Anyway, here's an excerpt with names and numbers left out to protect the far from innocent.


    I would love to keep you safe from the furry people on Saturday... meaning the March 28... 29th?, not today... because Sakura con is next week isn't it?

    On the D&D note, my favorite classes are either rogues or rangers, though I am willing to play pretty much anything. I was the tank in the last campaign I was in and my DM liked my character so much that she prevented me from dieing twice after being killed stat-wise.


    P.S. my number is (removed)... if I hear heavy breathing on the other end of the phone, I will blame you... which is not to say that's a bad thing? hrmmm...

    On Fri, Mar 21, 2008 at 1:08 PM, E wrote:


    I'm glad our relationship has progressed to the "next level". Hahaha :)

    I'm planning on going to Sakura con on Saturday, but I don't have anyone to go with at the moment, which is actually pretty strange because a group of my anime-loving friends are throwing a big party in honor of Sakura con that night, though it seems none of them are actually going. Wow! Talk about your run-on sentences! I think gawking at all the cos-playing freaks is half the fun :) Except when they're balding middle-aged men dressed up as Sailor Moon characters...*shudder* Anyways, if you decide you'd like to go, I'd appreciate the company :)

    I'm not a big gundam/mecha fan, though I do recall enjoying Evangelion back in the day. I also liked Ranma 1/2, though I haven't seen any in forever! I've never actually watched any DBZ for fear of becoming a 7 year old boy. I've heard the series is mostly animation of powering up for moves 3 episodes in the future anyways. Your research project analyzing apocalyptic imagery in Japanese animation sounds pretty kickass! It's too bad you didn't finish it.

    As far as D&D goes, I'm in a campaign right now that could use another player or two. If you're interested (and after I've determined for sure that you're not a creepy internet weirdo, which I don't think you are, but you can't be too sure through email) you're welcome to join us :) Our DM is pretty cool. What types of characters do you usually play?

    I am also a huge Firefly fan! Yay browncoats! :)

    Transition sentances are overrated! I like ice cream!

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011

    F is for Friends

    Okay, I know the "F" posts aren't scheduled to happen until tomorrow, but I just couldn't wait on this one. My friend, Benny just dropped off my new, official Game Master Stein. Why yes, that is an embossed scene of St. George slaying the dragon on the side! Henceforth, this stein shall carry all of my game night beverages!

    Friends = AWESOME!!!

    E is for Excel!


    When did this turn into a blog about accounting, you ask? Well, it didn't. Truth is, The trusty spreadsheet program known as Excel has proven to be one of the most useful and versatile tools in my GM toolbox. In fact, when I first started gaming, I ran my whole game from an Excel spreadsheet. Since then, I have scaled back my use of the software at the game table. However, there are still a number of game management-related tasks that I take care of using the program... namely the tracking of experience and loot.

    Let's break it down, shall we?

    Experience Tracking:
    Experience, or (XP) is the metric by which characters in Dungeons & Dragons gain levels, and by doing so, gain new powers. The formula for doling out xp in my chosen edition (3.5) is a convoluted affair full of abbreviations and formulas based around a group of four characters. Essentially, if a group of four PCs (player characters) overcomes a monster of a CR (challenge rating) equal to their level, they gain a certain amount of XP (experience points). The amount of XP dished out fluctuates if the challenge faced is of a higher or lower level than the party, and if the number of PCs is greater or less than the ideal group of four. Strictly speaking, the system is a downright mess.

    Anyway, the formula for actually calculating XP is far too convoluted for me to bother with, because I have seven players, which is 1.75x the ideal adventuring group. So, for calculating the XP in any given encounter, I turn to a handy online tool I found. I just plug my characters' levels and the baddies' levels into the fields and it churns out the XP each character should receive.

    That is when Excel comes in. Since my game sessions tend to be short (on a weeknight) my players often do not reach a point where it would be appropriate to hand out XP. When you add in the fact that we only play about twice per month, this can make it a real pain to keep track of where the characters stand experience-wise, and when they can expect to hit the next level. This planning is further complicated by the fact that I hand out bonus XP for exceptionally good roleplaying or problem-solving during a session and 1/2 xp for any character whose player was absent. This is why, after I have calculated the XP for an encounter, I plug it in to a custom XP Tracker* I built in... you guessed it! Excel!!

    The Tracker tells me how much experience each player gained in each encounter and each session of play as well as the total XP of each player and how many points they have to go to reach the next level. This can be a tremendous help when my players start complaining that it feels like they haven't leveled in years. I can just check my tracker and say... "Chill out, it's only been 4 encounters since the last time you leveled!"

    Loot Tracking:
    Another aspect of running a tabletop RPG which is a lot of fun for the players but a potential headache for the GM is keeping track of all the spoils. If I had a nickle for every time I had this conversation:

    Player: "Hey, I have this unidentified potion written on my character sheet, do you know what it is?"
    Me: "Do you recall where your character found it?"
    Player: "No, it's been on there for the past few months though..."
    Me: *sound of minor aneurysm*

    I would have a lot of nickles and the aneurysms to match. That is why, I once again turned to Excel and borrowed one of the essential tools I use in my day job (in museums) the catalog number. Simply put, I built an ever-growing loot list in which each item is assigned a unique ID number. My formula for the ID breaks down like so:

    [party level].[session].[item]

    Portrait of Spear and Magic Helmet, with Fudd and Wabbit
    So, a scroll numbered 9.61.003 was obtained when the party was an average level of 9, during session 61 and it was the third piece of loot acquired in the session. Now, when I hand out treasure, I have my players write down the number in front of the item they got, just in case it takes them several months in real-time before we get a session where they can sit down and identify all their ill-gotten spears and magic helmets. As long as they wrote down the catalog number, it is a simple matter of checking the number against my spreadsheet to determine the object's true identity.

    *If you are a GM looking for an XP tracking system, feel free to snag the one I have linked. It's an Excel 2007 document, so people with earlier versions might need to convert it. You will also, of course need to clear the data from the main part of the tracker and change the character names to fit your own.

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    D is for Death Pogs!

    It’s Death… in POG Form!

    Death pogs are one of the most successful additions I have made to my gaming table. I originally had the idea to create death pogs from laminated bits of card-stock because my goodie-goodie players kept wanting to do things like keep bad guys alive so they could face trial or interrogation. Well, in the chaos of combat, it can be quite challenging to remember where an enemy fell and which defeated baddies are dead, and which are merely dying.*  The Death pogs solved the problem with flying colors! (mostly red.) Then, when I saw this article from NewbieDM, I thought, “Egad! Washers! Why didn’t I think of that!?” and so I created the sturdier, death pogs 2.0.

    Death pogs in action on my game table.
    Note: the group's Paladin stabilized all the
    dying guards before the group left.

    Death Pogs have been such a success at my game table that even if my players are only battling one or two opponents they insist on commemorating their demise with the placement of a pog.

    If you are a GM and want to create some death pogs for yourself or a loved one, feel free to download the image below to print your own pogs. (simply set your image resolution to 100px/inch for a 1” token) The simple instructions for mounting can be found by following this link.

    Death pogs make great Christmas gifts... Seriously! I gave a set to one of my players who had started up his own game. The set came complete with a custom carrying case made from an old prescription bottle, wrapped in paper colored to match the death pog motif and then Mod-podged to a fine, resiney finish. The player LOVED them and remarked on the thoughtfulness of the gift for weeks.

    Oh! and if you would like to design your own custom pogs for free, I recommend you check out Token Tool from RPTools. It’s free to download and simple to use. The pogs do not even need to be related to death.

    *For those unfamiliar with D&D, a character's injuries are measured in hit points (hp). When a character reaches 0 hp he/she/it is considered disabled; between 0 and -9 hp, the character is dying (unconscious and will likely die if untreated) at -10 hp and below, the character is all dead, leaving you only one choice... to go through his pockets for loose change.

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