Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I sense... a TPK

Running a successful tabletop RPG involves quite a bit of future-telling. When I prepare to hunker down behind the screen, I often find myself trying (and less often, succeeding) to anticipate how the upcoming game session will play out. There is a fine line every GM must walk between a game that feels like a movie about trains and a game that feels like... well... um... what do you guys do next?

I am still refining my methods for achieving the zen-like balance between well-crafted story and player-driven experience, and I occasionally wobble to one side or the other, but I have learned a few tricks to keep things from toppling into the abyss.

1. Know thy players and their PCs: One of the first things I try to do when designing an encounter or longer adventure is to approach the problem from my players' point of view. How will they try to solve this? If it is a fight, the sorceress will likely try to kill things with fire, the wizard will lay down AoE spells to hamper the enemy, the whole party will be hasted ASAP and the monk will charge in with fists flying. If the situation calls for sneaking, the rogue will use her ridiculous move silently, disguise and hide bonuses. If there is an obstinate NPC to win over, the bard will step in.

Understanding how your players operate (standard tactics, abilities, etc.) is a good first step, but can often feel frustrating, especially when trying to devise something that will actually present a challenge. I have come to the realization that it is much easier to run a campaign for low-level characters. Now that my group is around level 10, they have so many tools at their disposal that it is difficult to challenge them. Why slog across country for a week when you could teleport?

2. Know the rules: When designing a session, I find it is very valuable to brush up on the rules that are likely to come into play during each encounter. Clifftop fight? Review bull rush, falling damage and climb checks. Bargaining with the king? brush up on the rules for changing attitude and perhaps some of the softer spells like charm person or zone of truth

3. Personality goes a long way: This may not work for everyone, but I find that if I understand my NPCs' goals, favored tactics and personalities, I often don't need to flesh out the anticipated details of how a scene will play. I used to fear roleplaying encounters, but now find them much easier to prep than site-based events such as dungeon crawls, because all I need are a couple note cards and a willingness to act the part.

4. There are no wrong answers: or right answers for that matter. Last week, this idea really hit home as I watched my players wrestle with how to get into a city with heavily restricted access. They weighed options from disguising themselves as beggars, to a traveling show, to the Wookie subterfuge, to just offering to join the army. Eventually they realized that they have the ability to make themselves invisible, but the discussion around the table became a scene unto itself. This helped me realize that I don't always have to have an ideal solution in mind... which, while refreshing, can make it all the more difficult to anticipate the PC's next move.

Fellow GMs, do you have any tried and true techniques for ensuring strong preparation without railroading?

Separate, random question: How would you adjudicate a spell-caster who used Web to break his or her fall (i.e. blasting a magic safety net below) after falling from a particularly high spot?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The New Shiny

It’s the last day of Speak Out With Your Geek Out and, once again, I missed my midweek post. Oh well…

Okay, this may sound like a bit of a cop-out or catch-all, but I am an “idea geek” I love to learn and try new things! From new foods, to new places to new software, I constantly crave new knowledge. I soak it up! It’s weird though because, despite loving new things, I get really antsy about change. I also tend to become obsessed with particular subjects, which seems counterintuitive. Whether its politics or D&D or gardening or Minecraft or spaceflight, if I get into something, I want to know EVERYTHING about it.

One down side to my constant search for new ideas is that I often flit from one new shiny to the next, leaving the other by the wayside like yesterday’s discarded Popple. This works in tandem with the abovementioned obsessiveness to send my focus ping-ponging around to numerous ideas that fit within my obsession du jour

My love of new things has definitely manifested within my extended obsession with D&D. I have tried numerous game management styles, from a laptop running purpose-made DM software, to custom built Excel spreadheets, Word Docs, One Note, to printouts, hand-written notebooks, aaand notecards. I have invented and discarded house rules, character templates and uncountable planning and time management techniques. I often worry that my players feel overwhelmed just trying to keep up with the “so, I had an idea”s.

That being said, occasionally my dalliances with new things bear lasting fruit. Just last night, I tried an experiment inspired by TheSheDM over at NewbieDM.com. My players ran across a slave-toting ogre panning for blighted blood rock along a river. Rather than plan out the map ahead of time, I decided to let the players draw what they saw. As they approached the river, I announced that they saw a river approximately 40’ wide with a bridge running across it, and let them draw the rest. The resulting battle map featured more tactical potential than anything my overworked mind would have come up with during my prep time. There were rocky stepping stones paralleling the bridge (with a mermaid drawn on one.) there were trees to provide concealment, a waterfall and a “zip line” which I converted to a rope that the ogre’s slaves used to keep from going over the falls as they panned.

During the course of the encounter, most of these features were not put to use, but having that potential made the fight feel more alive-at least to me. While I didn’t receive specific feedback from my players, they seemed to enjoy the experience and I suspect I will use the technique again. Hopefully this is one new shiny that will retain its luster for quite awhile.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out

Monica Valentinelli has launched a week of geek pride with her online effort, Speak Out With Your Geek Out. Given my oft-cited reasons for starting this blog, I jumped to participate when I learned about the project. SOWYGO asks participants to:
Take a stance against baiting nerd rage and stereotypes of geeks.
Post about how much you love your geeky hobbies or vocation from Monday, September 12th, 2011 to Friday, September 16th on your blog, website, social media account or in a forum somewhere. Then come here and tell us about it. We'll have a kick-off post where you can stand and be counted.
Let's show the world why we're awesome and why there is nothing wrong with being a geek.
So, for my first post of SOWYGO week, I would just like to reiterate exactly why I love to play D&D. 

Dungeons and Dragons has helped to revitalize my creative side. It has provided inspiration for artistic side projects that I had lost for a long time. It has also challenged me to sustain a single creative project over a long period of time. Even during my days of prolific artistic expression during my youth, I would struggle with extending drawing or other art projects beyond a single sitting. I have been running my current D&D storyline for almost 3 years now.

Dungeons and Dragons has helped me grow closer to my friends. Contrary to the stereotypical image of tabletop RPGers as socially inept do-nothings, I have found my gameplay experience to be quite the opposite. My players and I use our game much like a book club, poker night or other recurring gathering as an excuse to take a break from our busy lives and have fun with friends. It is decidedly social; We talk, we have dinner and we just happen to also roll dice and fight imaginary monsters.

I think SOWYGO is an admirable endeavor, if for no other reason than perhaps a kid, tossed about in the hormonally driven tempest that is high school will take heart that geeks often grow up to be more interesting people and... oh, sod it... the Oatmeal said it best.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Online Therapy

I apologize for missing all of my posts this week, I have been struggling with my writing. Not for my game or for my blog, but for work...which comes first. That's why I decided to join Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group (Though I question his choice of apostrophe placement). Members of the group will post on insecurities that stem from writing on the first Wednesday of every month. Yes, I know it's Saturday! I was feeling insecure!

On to my insecurities!

I research and write museum exhibits for a living, which is both the most awesome job in the world and one of the most frustrating and odd writing beasts I have ever wrassled.

Insecurity the first: The Illusion of Expertise
When writing for a museum, the first thing you do is go out and acquire an advanced level of knowledge on a particular subject. Sometimes the subject is something in which you are really interested, sometimes it is not. Because museums are culturally perceived as trusted sources of knowledge, outside observers begin to treat you as an expert on the subject you just scrambled to learn. While the attention is nice, this perception is entirely illusory. When writing an exhibit, you rely heavily on actual experts and feel like a bit of a charlatan when asked to field questions as someone who knows about stuff.

Insecurity the second: A Rare Beast
Museum text is a very strange writing format, due in large part to how it is read. The reader is typically looking for some combination of learning and entertainment when they visit the museum. he or she is also likely standing while reading your text and often juggling children, talking with their in-laws they brought along and otherwise being distracted. This means that you have to keep things short and snappy -my museum tries to keep things under 250 words per panel and we are verbose among our peers. You also need to account for the fact that many people do not read the whole panel -again, lots of stuff to distract. Therefore, it is important to include the most important information first. Since the reader is standing, you also need to make the text easy to scan quickly. This means short sentences (under 20 words is best), with active verbiage, few subordinate clauses and with the main clause coming first whenever possible. Oh, and it is also important to be incredibly accurate in your subject matter but interesting/entertaining at the same time.

Insecurity the third: Design by Committee
Museum writers do not just have one editor to please. You get opinions from EVERYWHERE. Your boss, other members of the exhibit team, subject matter experts in the field, members of the board, members of other departments, volunteers, and (after it's open) the general public. Further, the less connected with the project these people are, the more adamant their opinions. Your teammates might say, "hey, what if you did this?" beyond that circle, opinions generally come in as, "You need to make sure to include this." or "I noticed this egregious error in your text while visiting from Walla Walla last week." But in the end, the content quality of the exhibit falls on your shoulders... at least in your own mind. If the exhibit does poorly, or the public hates it, there is little comfort in saying, "well, I had to compromise here and there." You still feel lame.

Anyway, I am in the middle of a major project scheduled to open next spring. I already feel behind the curve, but can't push back the deadline (people at higher paygrades have made up their minds) and seem to have a heck of a time getting a moment of peace to actually write. All those opinions want me to produce extra documents and go to endless, rambling meetings to keep them in the loop about what they are not giving me the time to do.

Sigh. I promise to only dump work stuff in my single insecurity post each month. The rest is all fun and games.

Friday, September 2, 2011


In this post, I want to focus on a couple of things having to do with... focus.


But seriously:

Focus on the numbers:
My posting has slipped a little in the past couple months, mostly because my workdays have been getting busier and busier. This is a trend I expect to continue for close to a year at least. This is a good thing, but it does make it more challenging to post to this here blog on a regular basis.

Despite my lapse in bloggage, my page views, seem to be doing quite well. In July, I came within 50 views of breaking 2000 for the month, but slipped back to about 1600 in August. Still, that means each of my posts for the month was viewed 160 times. I know this is really small potatoes -like, nanoscale- in the world of blogging, but it makes me feel good.

Focus on the story:
This is actually more of a re-focus. Last week, as I was struggling with how to plan my next game session, I suddenly had an epiphany. Borrowing from the school of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) I decided to ask myself the very simple question of, "What is the objective for the upcoming session?" as in, what do I want my players to accomplish? When I set a single, concrete story objective, everything else suddenly seemed to fill in. Ideas for challenges the players could face immediately started to form in my mind, all designed to make the achievement of said objective feel like a worthwhile accomplishment.

It may sound a bit like railroading, but the objective was born of a plan expressed by my players in a previous session. Also, I will merely present the various challenges along the way and leave it up to the players to decide how to overcome them. Choices abound!

Now, if only I can remember in the future that this technique really helps.

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