Sunday, March 31, 2013

TableTop Day Recap!

We had a great house party celebrating the first annual TableTop Day this evening! About a dozen people came over to our house. We broke out the deep fryer and cooked up fries, tots and buffalo wings. Over the course of six hours, we played seven different games. Here's the list!

  1. We Didn't Playtest This At All
  2. Fluxx
  3. Chrononauts
  4. Ticket to Ride
  5. Anomia
  6. Tokkaido
  7. Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards, Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre
Thank you to everyone who came out, it was an absolute blast!

Friday, March 29, 2013

5 Years! 250 Posts!

Hey folks, this final post of mine before the 2013 April A to Z is my 250th post to this here little blog! By most standards, this blog is pretty darn small. I have 66 known followers, and just about 50,000 pageviews over the blogs entire 5 year history, but it's mine and I really enjoy my little corner of the internet.

Today also happens to be the 5th anniversary of the day I met my wife-to-be! I never thought I would ever meet such a perfect partner in geekdom. Our first real date was to an anime convention. We're having an Lego-themed wedding. We regularly sing songs to and about our cat... like, out loud and stuff. Yet, when out in public, we are both perfectly capable of maintaining a pleasant and not at all bizarre public countenance. We've been through good times and bad and have always been there for each other. I love you baby, this 250th post is for you!

See, perfectly normal! We like sports and stuff!
The love of my life... ROWR!

This 250th post is also about the shenanigans we have planned for this weekend. What are they you ask? Holy Zombie Carpenter day!? No... well, yes, but before that it's TableTop Day! This Saturday, we are having a bunch of friends over to our place to play board games as part of the first ever International TableTop Day!

If you have the chance, I strongly encourage you to get together with friends, family, or complete strangers this Saturday to play games in celebration of play itself!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Re-cap: When Things go Really Right

What could possibly go wrong?

Warning to my players! This post contains spoilers! Not about the story, but about my techniques for crafting encounters and heightening engagement. If you don't want to be overanalyzing my future motives, approach with caution.

Monday night's game was one of the best sessions I've run in a long time, and I've been mulling over what went right since the dice stopped rolling that evening. The session focused on a very complex situation involving a ton of moving parts, which had plenty of opportunity to fly off the rails or get seriously bogged down. GM's often spend a great deal of time navel-gazin', soul searchin' and introspectin' when they have a problem at the game table, but I feel like when things go right, we often follow up with a "that was awesome!" without looking at the "why" in the same way.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Make-it Monday: Dungeon Set, Bloodrock Mine

For the last Make-it Monday before the big April A to Z Mapstravaganza, I figured I should do something truly epic. Since the players in my D&D campaign just reached the source of the nastiness they have been questing to eradicate for the past several YEARS, I thought I should do something truly epic. Therefore, I give you the dungeon setup that is currently occupying my dining room table.

The set represents the heart of a mining/refining operation that has been polluting the lands with tainted bloodrock. The players are on an infiltration and sabotage mission to shut things down. The set utilizes a mix of actual D&D dungeon tiles with legos and various support structures to give levels to the environment. Old prescription bottles make great pillars and supports for elevated platforms. I also discovered that a set of cardboard magazine covers I picked up from Office Depot have the perfect dimensions to represent 20 ft high cliffs (at a 1 inch to 5 ft scale) when laid on their side. I laid two on top of each other to make 40 ft cliffs. (Yay, math!)

Anyway, here are the pics. I want to make sure someone gets to enjoy this in the event my players' brilliant plan bypasses the room in just 5 minutes.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Get Rolling: Starting with RPGs pt. 4 (The Time Thing)

Happy Friday everyone! This is the fourth post in my ongoing series about getting started with RPGs from the perspective of a busy adult. If you haven't already, you might also want to check out part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.

Today, we will tackle the challenge of gaming on a busy schedule. To that end, I am writing this while on my lunch break at work. How apt.

The first thing I will say to those of you concerned about whether you can fit gaming into your busy schedule. IT CAN BE DONE! When I first returned to gaming as an adult, I was balancing a full schedule of grad school and work. Now I am actually running a game while also working full time and helping my fiancée plan our wedding this summer. The fiancée, who is also one of my players, has a very demanding job, takes ballet and yoga classes and is shouldering most of our wedding planning tasks. I have players who went through grad school or college while playing in the group. All hold down jobs and have very busy extra-curricular lives that involve, among other things, spouses, gardening, sports watching, tutoring, dancing, skiing, Rubix cube solving (like on an internationally competitive level)...and on and on. We. are. busy. Yet we still find time to game.

How do we do it? I'll get to that. First, I need to go over how much time it actually takes to game. The commitment for players is fairly straightforward. In most groups, the players just need to show up on game night ready to play with their character sheets and dice in hand. That's it.

The actual time involved to achieve this depends on the structure of your sessions. Do you play weekly? bi-weekly? Do you do an all day binge one weekend a month? Figuring out the schedule for your game sessions (how long and how often you play) is something that should be hashed out with everyone in the group participating. In general, though I suggest a minimum of 3 hours play time per session (enough to get through 1 or two encounters) with sessions scheduled weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. If you can swing it, you'll get a lot more done in 4-6 hours, but that might not be doable on a busy schedule.

For the GM, the time commitment is typically much greater than for the players. When I was first starting out, I read several articles stating that you should be able to plan a 4 hour game in 1 hour. After four years of GMing, I have yet to hit that mark. Most of my planning time involves scratching my head about what I actually want to do. Once I get down to writing, then it might only take an hour, but there is a lot more brain time involved. In general, I probably spend 4-8 hours a week working on game prep. Now, this time could be significantly shorter if I were running a pre-published setting and/or adventure.

Now for the nuts and bolts of managing game time.

1. Acknowledge that real life comes first!

It may seem odd to have to say it, but I often have to pause and remind myself that it is just a game. People get too busy to play, have last minute things come up, get sick, go on vacation, work late, get stuck in traffic. Real life intervenes on a regular basis and it is important to remember what takes priority. If everyone in the group is respectful and understanding of this fact, chances are, you will do a much better job of finding time to play.

2. Have a clear, consistent schedule

Keeping a busy group rolling requires a predictable schedule. How often will you play? How long will you play during each session? Do you have a hard stop time or do you play until you reach a stopping point? Will there be food? All of these questions are important to answer so busy players can work game night into their schedule with confidence that it wont intrude on other commitments (see rule 1) We play from 6 to 10 pm every other week. Our sessions start with about an hour of dinner and social chatter before the game actually starts around 7 pm. We try to keep our game night on the same night each week, though it has bounced back and forth between Wednesdays and Thursdays over the years before recently shifting to Mondays.

For busy groups, I would recommend avoiding weekly games. This leads to GM and occasionally player burnout. On the flip side, if you leave too much space between sessions, players can lose the continuity of the story and much of your time will be spent recapping what happened.

3. Be Flexible

The other side of having a clear schedule is knowing if and when to change that schedule. This involves two things. Dealing with the temporary disruption of absent players, and dealing with longer-term schedule changes. I have said this before. One of the most valuable things I did for my game was to establish clear rules for handling absent players. We only cancel a game if half or fewer of the group can make it to game night. If that is the case, we first try to find an alternate day. If that doesn't work, we cancel.

For longer term schedule changes like someone shifting work hours, it is important to have a way for the group to discuss an alternate schedule. I like to use a Doodle survey in such situations. This allows me to clearly see who can make which days/hours and to adjust things in order to benefit the largest portion of the group.

If you stick to these three rules for running a game, the time commitment should be fairly similar to taking a class, playing a sport or being involved in any other regularly scheduled activity. For a GM, it is actually going to be more like coaching a regularly scheduled activity, but because this post is starting to run long, I will address the rare and peculiar beast that is timely game prep in a later post.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

RSS: Really Sucky Situation

Joy of Tech gets it right

Being fellow bloggity bloggers, many of you no doubt have heard that Google is retiring its Google Reader RSS service in order to focus on a more limited number of important and popular** products... like Google+ *insert sarcastic tone*. I don't know about you, but the decision to retire Reader has me quite nervous. I know many of you follow me through Google. Is that link going to break once the service goes away? Will my meagerly climbing readership plunge off a cliff?

I am not just concerned from a blog author standpoint, but also as a reader and a researcher. Google Reader is one of those tabs that is always open on my desktop throughout the day. A big part of my job involves keeping up with events in the aerospace industry, particularly those involving space exploration. Unfortunately, big media outlets often get these stories wrong, and don't even cover some of the significant, but less public happenings in the industry. Therefore, I turn to certain blogs to help me do my job well. I also keep up with most of the blogs I follow for fun using Reader, and I am worried about my ability to keep up with all the awesome writers I follow.

Right now, I am looking for an alternative feed reader that will allow me to sync across my workplace and home computers. This is harder than you might think! Unfortunately, many reader services sync by using Google Reader as their back-end. When that goes away, they cease to function. I've done some searching, and am currently leaning towards Feedly as my new reader of choice. At the moment, Feedly does all it's syncing through Google Reader, but they are actively working to develop their own, independent back end. Hopefully they will have it rolled out by July, and hopefully it wont suck. If it works, I should be able to continue following all the lovely blogs I read without a whole lot of interruption.

Do you currently follow blogs via Google Reader? Do you have suggestions for getting past Readgnarok?

**Google+ still has a smaller user base than Reader

Monday, March 18, 2013

Make-it Monday: Drawing, Splash!

Digging through my old sketchbooks has awoken the drawing bug in me. This past weekend, I sketched up this little seaside landscape. Perhaps there are treasures washed up among the rocks, or a lonely spirit who gazes out from the clifftop on a new moon.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Get Rolling: Starting with RPGs pt. 3 (The Money Thing)

This past week, Budd over at Scifi Media posted about his discouragement at trying to facilitate his daughters interest in Dungeons and Dragons. She and her friends wanted to try it out. He was interested in helping them do that, but he was very hesitant to make a major monetary investment in game materials because a.) he had no idea what he needed to buy b.) a lot of the stuff seemed really expensive, and c.) he was trying to help out a group of easily distracted and mercurial tweens. If they lost interest, it was money down the tubes.

Tabletop RPGs, like any hobby, can quickly turn into an obsession-driven money pit. When you know you are interested and you really want the stuff, this can be okay as long as you keep some money behind for rent and food and stuff. However, when first starting out, it is best to take it easy on the spending. When I started my current campaign, I only had a Player's handbook and a set of dice. I was also unemployed, and so had very little money to gear up. As such, I had to come up with ways to save on supplies. If you are strapped for cash, but looking to start gaming, Here are several ways you can save big bucks.

Buy only what you need to get rolling

The basic requirements for a tabletop RPG are:

  1. A game system. This usually consists of a rule book or, in the case of D&D, 3 rule books. (The Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual).
  2. Dice. You will want to check the type of dice system your game uses. D&D is a d20 game, which uses several different types of funny-shaped dice. There are also d6 systems that use big blocks of 6-sided dice, and d10 systems that use... you guessed it, 10-sided dice.
  3. pencils and paper. for keeping track of everything that happens in the game.

...and that's it for the required stuff. Really. That's all you need. Well, plus some imagination and people to play with. That being said, many RPGs these days encourage folks to add things like minis, battle mats or power cards, which brings us to the next cost saving tip...

Get creative with your extras

There is no need to run out and blow a wad of dough on pewter minis or expensive dungeon tiles right off the bat. There are many ways to get the same tactical feel at a fraction of the cost.

  1. Make your own character tokens. We used Lego people and M.U.S.C.L.E. men that I had in my supply of leftover toys from my childhood. These made excellent options for monsters and characters. We also used bottle caps, Go pieces and even extra dice to represent various critters. RPTools also has an excellent free token maker that you can download and use to make paper figures.
  2. Make your own battle map. You can make an excellent, modular battlemat with just a printer, a few sheets of card stock, Mylar page protectors and a set of wet or dry-erase markers. Just print out a 1-inch grid on the card stock, slip the sheets into the slip covers and draw on the Mylar as needed. 
  3. Make your own power cards. Sharpie on a 3x5 card is all you need to jot down the important bits so you can more easily track expendable powers and their associated rules.
  4. Don't use a battle mat. Most games that use grids use 1 inch per unit of movement (in D&D it equals 5 feet). If you don't want to worry about a grid, mark and cut pipe cleaners or string to specific lengths and use them to mark off the positions of your tokens. In some ways this might make for more natural movement than a grid.
  5. Pick used stuff up from game resale sites like Troll and Toad or CoolStuffInc. You can occasionally find individual minis for less than $0.50 each!

Go Used or Indie

When I was starting out, I bought all of my rulebooks from used book stores. This was partly because I was playing an out-of-print edition of Dungeon's and Dragons, but mostly because I could get the used rulebooks for a fraction of a new book's price. Oh, and if you are going this route, don't pick up books at a game store. Used book stores will likely have them far cheaper. The game store near my house was charging out of print prices for the stuff I wanted. The used book stores charged used book prices. You might have to hunt a little more, but that's half the fun!

If you select an independently produced game, your rule books will likely be a lot cheaper. Many indie game producers also put stuff out in pdf format. You can pick up electronic manuals at a lower cost than the print editions. The same goes for battle maps, tiles and other peripherals. I LOVE the stuff from Fat Dragon Games. Granted, it takes some assembly and printer ink, but the finished product can be very satisfying.

Start with the Sample Pack

Dungeons and Dragons really wants to lure in new players. They care about making their game accessible. To that end, they have put out a boxed set called D&D essentials. It contains dice, stripped down rule books, a battle mat and tokens, all for less than the cost of a single full-sized rule book. While your character, monster and adventure choices might be more limited, if you are just getting your feet wet, this approach might be just what you need to ease into the pool.

Once you are in, chances are, you'll end up spending more money and your set up will grow and grow, but hopefully it will happen on your own terms. All the peripherals are just that... peripheral. All you really need to game is a group of friends, an agreed-upon rules set, dice, and a way to keep track of the things that happen in your adventure.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New Scanner! Old Drawings Made New

Got home today to find a shiny new scanner waiting for me! I got it set up and pulled out one of my old sketchbooks to test it out. Here is a sampling of some of my rough uploads. I just rotated and cropped these, but plan to tweak their lighting curves in Photoshop at a later date. These are all from a sketchbook I kept back in 1999.

Having confirmed that the new scanner works, I am all set to start mapping for April A to Z!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Make-it Monday: Mini, Dire Wolf

I took my new paints for a spin this weekend and painted up a dire wolf miniature following Derek Schubert's tutorial on Reaper Mini's The Craft. My selection of paint colors didn't match his suggestions, so I did quite a bit of improvising. Also, my wolf was primed with black instead of white, so I tried to skew things toward the lighter end to counteract the dark underlayer.

I was quite impressed with how the new paints handled. The coverage was far superior to the cheap-o acrylics I had previously picked up at Hobby Lobby. I managed to finish my entire base coat with just five or six drops of paint!

I was quite pleased with how wolfy turned out, though the black primer left the snowy base a little gritty. I am especially pleased with the eyes. I feel like I really got them to pop, and even got a little highlight next to the pupils!

who knew the "food" setting on my camera produced the best macro shots?

For those of you unfamiliar with gaming minis, they are tiny! The two crosshairs on the surface the wolf is standing on are 1 inch apart, so achieving any sort of detail takes a bit of practice.

Here are a couple pics of this wolf standing next to one that I painted some time ago. I think the one on the left was the second mini I ever painted. Though the fur doesn't look a whole lot different, I feel like my ability to render sharp facial features has taken a pretty significant jump.

I may still do some touch-ups around the jowls and paws before I seal up the figure, though I will likely wait until I have another mini I'm working on so I don't use up a whole drop of paint just for tiny touch-ups.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Unboxing: Reaper MSP HD Paint Set and Extras!

I was feeling bad this morning that I hadn't gotten around to writing a blog post for today, but when I got home I saw that my new set of mini paints had arrived from Reaper! I picked up set 1 of their MSP HD paint line. The HD paints are designed to lay down a solid base coat quickly and efficiently. The set contains 19 paints in various shades of the standard rainbow colors. I supplemented this by purchasing individual bottles of some flesh tones, tans and browns, and bottles of pure black and pure white.

 When I opened the box, I found that the folks at Reaper had packed everything inside the HD set's carrying case.

They even included a hand-written note on the packing slip!

Now I am all set with paints for when my Bones minis arrive later this month!

Oh, in other news, I backed a couple of Kickstarters this week. The first is Torment: Tides of Numenera, which is a videogame RPG making use of Monte Cook's Numenera world.

Numenera has a space-fantasy feel reminiscent of Boris Vallejo's art,
or Edgar Rice Burrough's writing
The second is Richard (Lord British / private astronaut) Garriott's Shrouds of the Avatar RPG! I'm really excited, but I really need to stop spending money for a bit.

My boss was at this guy's house like a week ago!... but because he's flown in space, not because he makes video games.

Anyway, if you are into Kickstarting things, I highly recommend you back both of the above, which are still going on now.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

April A to Z Planning: The list for 2013

Hi everyone! To whet your appetites, and to show off my superior foresight and organizational skills, I would like to share my plan for this year's April A to Z Challenge.

As I mentioned in my signup post, I plan to post a map a day during the month of April, with each map depicting a subject related to the day's letter of the alphabet. Here is my preliminary posting schedule:

Week 1

Dragon's lair
Elven home
Flooded cave

Week 2

Great Gate
Hag's Hovel
Icy Chasm
Jungle Ruin
Kobold Warren
Lich's Study

Week 3

Mushroom Forest
Naiad's Pond
Outpost? or oasis?
Potion Shop
Queen's Court

Week 4

Slave Market
Village Square
Woodsman's Camp
Xill's nest

Week 5

Yeti's Cave

These map subjects are just preliminary, and may change if I think of something more awesome. I will likely start drawing here soon in order to get a head start on things.

Are you participating in this year's A to Z? If so, how is your planning going?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Make-it Monday: Effects Box and GM's Day!

March fo(u)rth my minions, for today is GM's day. A day on which to lavish your game master with praise and gifts of tribute in hope that your character will live to see level 20. Seriously though, it's a thing... make with the gifts and praise.

I engaged in a bunch of random creativity this past week, but nothing that felt like a full project. The Fiancee is in full-blown spring-cleaning mode, and I am desperately clinging to her silky, pegacorny hide in an effort to avoid the lashing maw that is her vacuum cleaner. As such, over the past weekend we tackled the office/guest bedroom like an owlbear on a forest sprite.

Along with more mundane tasks like purging unnecessary paperwork, I took inventory of my unfinished papercraft projects. I laid a select few tiles onto some scrap foam core in order to move them into the finished column. I also finally picked up a can of clear coat and got my painted minis sealed up to prevent flaking and dryness.

Today, however, I would like to introduce you to my cheap and easy effects box. In D&D, as players increase in level, they have to deal with a wider variety of persistent effects that can help or hinder their abilities. Keeping track of just who these effects apply to gets tricky when everyone is hasted, half the party is invisible, the wizard is poisoned, etc. etc.

My simple solution for keeping track of such things is my effects box. I picked up a small sewing kit from a local craft store, and have filled it with a number of generic tokens and other markers. The box currently has black and white go stones, some colored glass hobby "gems", my homemade death pogs for tracking which victims are only mostly dead, and several sets of status markers made by wrapping colored pipe cleaners into little loops to represent different effects.

I also have a couple large area of effect (AoE) templates, also made with pipe cleaners. I made the first to help the Fiancee's sorcerer more quickly figure out who she could catch with a single fireball. After our last play session, however, it became clear that we needed more. We had two persistent AoE effects on the battlefield, plus the sorcerer still slinging fireballs, but only one template to mark them. So, this weekend, I worked up a couple more 20 ft radius hoops for good measure.

Newly sealed minis on newly finished papercraft

Do you have any quick and easy tricks for keeping your players' buffs and debuffs sorted out?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Get Rolling: Starting with RPGs pt. 2 (The Group Thing)

No gamer is an island, at least not if they want to play. One of the most important, and often challenging parts about getting into tabletop games is building a game group that clicks. The success and longevity of your game may hinge on your choice of group more than anything else. Take it from me, I have been in more groups that have fallen apart after a few sessions than those that have lasted for months, much less years. When things fall apart, it is usually due to something with the players, and/or the logistics rather than with the game itself.

If you are running a game for the first time, I strongly recommend you start small. The rules for D&D are optimized for 4-5 players depending on edition, and I'm sure other systems also have recommended baselines. I suggest you start there. Smaller groups make it easier to get everyone there on game night. They also allow individuals to have more spotlight time during the game, and generally help things run more quickly at the table. My group currently stands at 7 players and the GM, and it's a bit of a beast to get everyone swimming in the right direction.

You will also need to decide who you want to play with. I highly recommend playing with people you hang out with in real life, especially if you can build the group from a single source of friends who all get along together. GM manuals are full of horror stories about inter-group conflict. Hopefully by starting with a group of mutual friends, you can lower the risk of such things occurring. You'll never be able to eliminate it outright, but starting with people who trust and respect each other can make it a LOT easier to arbitrate if tensions flare at the table.

My group, for instance, began with myself, my fiancee and three of our close friends who we met through our local karaoke group. As the game progressed, we eventually added three other players, two of whom were from outside friendships. Fortunately, however, everyone was eager to play and very easy to get along, so there was little friction, even with the new additions.

I should say that, while starting with a mutual group of friends is often a good idea, it's not always a guaranteed route to successful gaming. It's also important that everyone have at least a certain level of compatible expectations about the game. Is everyone cool with cross-talk at the table or do they want to be in-character the whole time? Is it a strictly cooperative game, or can there be pvp betrayal and backstabbing? I once played in a group that witnessed a replacement player last for less than a session before the GM put him down for the good of the group. He was the sort who liked to play "chaotic stupid". An instigator who was more interested in being silly and causing chaos than in forwarding the story. Even though he was good friends with most of the players, it definitely did not fit the vibe. The GM wisely pulled some mental jujitsu and had one of his screwball moments result in irrevocable character death.

Clearly, we had different expectations.

Many experienced GMs recommend establishing a written gaming charter or social contract to lay the ground rules for expected behavior within the game group. These charters can address anything from rules for supplying snacks to how and where dice need to be rolled, to game books that can be used, to whether or not people need to talk in character at all times. A written charter helps ensure consistent expectations among the group members, and can serve as a reference for resolving conflicts. The folks over at Gnome Stew have a great article with lots of links to stuff dealing with game charters.

Our group does not have a written charter, but we do have a few rules that were established to achieve the same end. For instance, we use a sand timer to encourage players to decide on their move quickly during combat. If you don't tell the GM what you would like to do by the time time runs out, your character just defends themselves until their next turn. We also have very clear rules for how we handle absent players. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT RULES YOU CAN HAVE FOR GAME SUCCESS. We'll definitely get into it when I talk about time management in a later post.

So, all of my suggestions about playing with friends, and building a compatible group are great, provided you have a ready supply of eager friends at hand. What if you don't? Well, don't fret. You still have some options for getting your game on. If you just can't manage to convince your friends in town, you might consider starting a game with out-of-town friends over Skype. There are lots of wonderful online tools that let you run long-distance games. Some of them are even free! Granted, it's not the same experience as getting a bunch of people around a table, but if you really want to play, the option is there.

Outgoing individuals might also try to make new friends by using group finder services like the one on Obsidian Portal. You might even pop in to your local game store and see if there are any groups that play there, which are in need of additional players. Finally, you could always lone wolf it around the conference circuit and see if you can make friends during conference game sessions.

Or, you can do what I did during my youth: Constantly thumb through your game books, creating characters, imagining scenarios, just waiting for the opportunity to play.

ooh... or, you could get involved in awesome stuff like TableTop Day!

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