Monday, September 30, 2013

Make-its of Mondays Past: Jane Austen's Dungeons and Dragons

Bonus post for your lunchtime enjoyment!

Long before mash-ups were all the rage, an adolescent me had visions of comic grandeur. I occasionally put pen to paper and in my hormone and Stridex-addled state, attempted to write things that I thought were brilliant bits of sketch comedy. Well, this past weekend, the Wife and I dug a bunch of boxes out of the old family storage unit to be reorganized and transported to the NEW family storage unit. Among the detritus of my murky past, I stumbled upon one of these sketches that appears to be of high school vintage.

Perhaps against my better judgment, I have decided to post it in its full, un-revised glory for you lovely readers. BEHOLD A GLIMPSE INTO THE MIND OF HIGH SCHOOL GEOFF!

Make-it Monday: Halloween Costume 2013 pt. 2, Shopping

Lots of dead plants and animals!

This is the second post in my costume-creation series for Halloween 2013. This year, my wife and I are going as sort of fey beings. She is going to be the Raven Queen (no relation to the 4e D&D entity) and I plan to go as the King of the Forest.

The working sketch for reference
The Wife and I began our Halloween preparations in earnest this weekend with a trip to our year-round costume supply store, Display and Costume. While I didn't find a whole lot to add to my costume, they did have a couple useful bits.

We had picked up the animal pelts earlier in the summer during a trip to our local ren faire. We also had a pretty substantial bolt of fleece-lined fabric hanging in our closet from Halloweens past. I picked up a garland of fake leaves from the Halloween home decor aisle at Display and Costume. I plan to cut it up and layer it to form one of my pauldrons, while the furs will form the other.

Guys can TOTALLY wear tiaras!
I also picked up this elven-looking tiara thing that has an interesting leaf pattern in it. I think it will serve as a good decorative element in my headpiece. Right now, the plan for that is to take a costume-grade leather and fur pilot's helmet that is currently in our Halloween storage to serve as the base for my "crown". We will attach the antlers to the helmet, which should be substantial enough to keep them in place. I can then wrap the tiara around the front to create a border effect. I'm thinking it might also be cool to weather the tiara using a wash of gunmetal grey paint, and perhaps to enhance the leaves with some metallic bronze paint.

Finally, I picked up a cool Celtic-looking clasp, that will be perfect for securing my cloak.

The Wife made significantly more progress than I did. She acquired feathered ear cuffs, some cool lacy gloves, and a bunch of sculptural mesh and craft foam. She has started assembling the frame of her collar, which looks pretty awesome.

The Raven Queen's collar begins to take shape.

Last, but not least, on a subject unrelated to Halloween, but definitely related to Make-it Monday, I finally picked up some new brushes for mini painting.  I got a 2, a 1 and a 0/3 round, as well as a 4 flat for drybrushing. I did a little practice run painting eyes on one of my unpainted minis, and I definitely feel like I have more control with the detail brushes. Now I just need to figure out how to get my paint the right consistency... with consistency.

New brushes!
So Halloween is now officially "in progress". I'll keep you posted as we acquire more supplies and start diving into the costume construction!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Exotic and the Familiar: Mixing Cultures in your World

This will likely be my last post for this month's Location, Location, Location Blog Carnival from Campaign Mastery.

Today, I want to talk a bit about translating the mix and flow of culture in your game or fantasy setting. But I don't really want to focus on the serious stuff like race relations or the iron trade. I find that I often fixate on the practical when it comes to building my worlds and overlook the richness that can arise out of the little oddities that spring up when cultures meet and mix.

I want to focus on the flow of the little things, or the things that start out little, anyway. I want to talk about the flow of sometimes absurd trends and cultural comforts from place to place.

Let's talk about the familiar and the exotic, shall we?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Surfacing Gamemaster (pt. 2) Running D&D from the Microsoft Surface

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I've been running my regular D&D game from a Microsoft Surface RT. Ever since I got my organization system settled down, I've been looking for a way to record the on-screen setup I use. Unfortunately, I have not found any screen recording apps for the Surface (at least the non-Pro version).

Well, last night I ran a test to see what would happen if I just pointed my new web cam at the screen while walking through a little demonstration. The results were workable, if not ideal. Nevertheless, I threw together a little video that shows how I put everything together on game night to run the session from the Surface.

Hope you enjoy, and let me know if you would like me to dive further into any particular part!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Make-it Monday: Mini Painting Practice Progresses

Green squad goblins
I've spent the last couple weeks making some headway on my Bones minis. Last night I finished painting up the first of four eventual goblin squads. I decided that since each squad contains an archer, a guy with a club and one with a spear that I need to make the squads look different from each other in some way. My plan is to do each of them with different colored hats and kilts. The group above is green squad. I plan to do the others in red, blue and brown.

I'm hitting a point in my mini painting where I'm getting a bit frustrated that my skill is not matching where I want to be. I know that part of the problem is my tools. I have excellent paints, and a few decent, if a bit worn out Citadel brand brushes. However, I don't have a good drybrush, and my detail brushes are really crappy ones I picked up at Michael's or some-such place. I think it is time that I bit the bullet and picked up some decent brushes from the artist's supply store.

With this particular painting effort, I really focused in on highlighting, which is an area where I've struggled in the past. I feel like I did a good job with the goblins' faces, musculature and cloth elements in that regard. I think I need to work on my washes next. I still rush it a little, and tend to just use a single black-brown mix for everything. I'm fairly certain that is why my minis take on a "muddy" coloration when viewed in person.

Still, I have to remind myself that these goblins were some of the least carefully sculpted models in the Kickstarter offering. They came three to a sprue and are small creatures to boot. Looking at the bright side, I should be glad I managed to make them something worth putting out on the table.

The harlot from the townfolk pack. I named her Esmerelda. I also got the second candelabra painted!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Layers of Places Past: Creating Ruins with Purpose

The BIGGEST Henge in the WORLD!
This is yet another post for CampaignMastery's Location blog carnival! Hope you enjoy!

Today, I am going to elaborate on an excellent suggestion from Realmwright on my previous post. I am going to talk a bit about why ruined locations show up where they do, and how their past might inform their present desolation.

The fantasy genre in general, and fantasy games in particular, spend a lot of time focusing on places from the past. Authors like Tolkien and Terry Brooks build their worlds around elaborate histories of rise and ruin. Characters in videogame and tabletop RPGs spend much of their time poking through lost catacombs and ruined castles. The thing is, all that was old was new at one time, and when it was, these ancient places likely served a purpose.

I have a love-hate relationship with many dungeon maps, especially those which follow an old-school aesthetic. Maps are a lot of fun to look at in general, to imagine what a place or space really looks like based on its top-down representation, and old school dungeon maps have an elegant simplicity about them. The problem is, they often seem to be a tangle of rooms and corridors built for no discernible reason!

Now, where the heck is the bathroom?

Sure, the person who dreamed up the dungeon, always says there's a purpose. The map above is clearly a temple of the ancient Blue Oyster Cult. The architecture of Blue Oys is often characterized by its meandering lines and maddening lack of doors in places where they should exist. Archaeologists believe the structure was designed to amplify the sound of the cowbells used in the cult's mysterious rituals.

Seriously, though, who builds like this!? And "insane wizards" is an answer that you can get away with exactly once in your game! I'm looking at you, Undermountain!

This kind of random dungeon layout, while interesting to look at in a circuit board kind of way, really drives me nuts. If you haven't read it yet, Bartoneus, over at Critical Hits has created one of my absolute favorite blog series, called The Architect DM, which is all about creating fantasy designs with a purpose and is a useful way to counter the random dungeon sprawl. I highly recommend you read it, bookmark it, and reference it often when creating your own locations.

When I approach the design of a ruined structure, I always try to start before it was a ruin. I ask myself the following questions:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Placing Settlements in your Game

While world-building, I often find myself fretting over doing things "right". Making sure I have the "right" population for a city of a certain size, the "right" number of soldiers in an army, even the "right" number of bakers in a town. Why do I care!? The players will never interact with the bakers, much less conduct a census with the sole purpose of calling out my poor planning... yet, I fret.

It's just who I am. I want things to have a reason. To not be scattered higgledy-piggledy and just poured in without rhyme or reason.

Well, today I want to explore one particular manifestation of this demographical mania, and the system I use to address it. I would like to discuss how I decide where to place a settlement while world-building. Ultimately, the whole system boils down to one question, "why settle there?"

There are several possible answers to this question, but I assume one thing to be true in all cases. People always have a reason to settle down. They rarely just stop in the middle of nowhere, unless they have a reason or several reasons. There are many different reasons a settlement might spring up, and the reasons for a particular settlement can also often shed light on its character.

So, if you are plugging away at a world atlas for your game or novel, giving some consideration as to why a settlement formed can, in turn, help flesh out the tone, denizens and other elements of the location as well.

Here are some of the possible reasons that could lead to the formation of a city.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Make-it Monday: Map, Elven Museum

This post is yet another entry in this month's Campaign Mastery location blog carnival.

Hey hey, map fans! Look at what we have here! Some of you who started following during April's Mapstravaganza mentioned that you wanted some more. Well, I broke out the ol' Prismacolor markers this weekend and drew you up something nice!

This map represents an ancient, ruined elven museum that I ran my players through in my game. I really dug the idea of running a Night at the Museum-style adventure, and when playing in a setting where magic is a reality, it doesn't take a lot to apply it to the "exhibits come alive" trope. Read on to learn a little more about how things were set up in my game, or get a blank copy of the map here.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pinteresting Locations

I am a busy dude, and as I have become more experienced at running my regular D&D game, I have found myself trimming the fat from my prep time whenever possible. One of the best tricks that I have added to my DM toolbox deals with creating locations. In the past, I would spend hours, if not days or weeks painstakingly dreaming up and then drawing out the maps for location-based encounters. I would agonize over whether the dimensions for different vertical levels in a structure lined up properly, or whether there were enough fields around a city to maintain its population. I really didn't have time for that kind of crap, and my players didn't really pay attention to it. They wanted cool places to get into fights, and that's it.

Then I realized, why spend all that time fighting writer's block to dream up totally unique places, when you can draw inspiration from the fantastic places already out there!? I set up a Pinterest board called Gamespiration, and over the months that I've had it, the board has filled up largely with photos and illustrations of fantastic locations. The pictures are great for breaking through creative blocks that might otherwise result in yet another fight in an 8x8 room with a couple pillars.

Let me give you an example of how I pulled several existing images together to inspire the location where the final climactic episode of my last campaign took place.

First, I knew I wanted the battle to take place outside a ruined city on a plateau up against a glacier, out of which were running rivers of blighted water. But drawing a city map can take FOR-EV-ER. So I looked around until I found Ani.

I kept the basic shape, changed the fortifications at the north edge to the foot of the glacier and converted some of the landmarks into sites appropriate for my particular ruin.

I also knew I wanted a Helm's Deep style fortress set into the foot of the glacier, so I grabbed this image and a couple others for visual inspiration.

I also grabbed this one for a top-down map.

I ignored the underground cutaway on the bottom of the map, replaced the steps and altar at the top with a keep, and added a few more breaches in the walls from time and previous battles. All-in-all the modifications were much quicker than dreaming it up from scratch.

When my players headed to the ruined city to scout things out, they went poking around in some ice caves looking for a back entrance to the mines they thought might be the source of the evil blight. I took my inspiration for the cave environment from this image.

The beautiful thing about using Pinterest to inspire location is that you can draw from rich visual resources, which can add depth to your locations' descriptions, or even just be shown at the table. "You enter an icy cave that looks like this."

You also can be laying the foundation for incredible locations outside of your prep time without disrupting your usual activities. Anytime you see a cool or potentially inspiring image on Facebook, in an article you're reading or anywhere else online, you can just use the Pinterest plugin in your web browser to toss the image onto your board. When it comes to prepping a location, you then have a one stop shop to get things rolling!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Puzzling Locations

We're back to talking about locations for the Campaign Mastery blog carnival, and today I want to talk about puzzling locations!

I love logic puzzles, and as a GM, I love working puzzles into my game, and location-based puzzles can really add a sense of magic, danger or novelty to an encounter. Wrestling with a good brain bender can also be a nice change from a dungeon's hack-and-slash grind. You might worry that coming up with good puzzle encounters is something only some sort of mad genius puzzlemancer could achieve... Not so, my friend!

I have a simple trick for making location-based puzzles that I have used several times to good effect, and I'mma share it with you now.

Step 1. Figure out the basics of the encounter. Where do you want it to be? What are the PCs trying to achieve?

Step 2. Find a standard, off-the-shelf logic puzzle that you think might fit well within the situation.

Step 3. Convert the logic puzzle to work with elements of your location.

Step 4. (optional) Add a twist for a greater challenge or flair.

Here are a couple examples that I have used in my game.

Example 1. The Gates of the Forest

A Map I did for this encounter.

Step 1. The encounter took place at the entrance to a sacred druid grove. My players were trying to gain entrance.

Step 2. I wanted to make them solve a puzzle to get past the gate. After some searching, I settled on the classic frog hopping puzzle.

Step 3. I presented the puzzle as a set of stone frogs and birds, which appeared within a glowing aura on a pedestal outside the gate.

Step 4. In order to add a bit of challenge and to ensure that more than one player would be involved, I added a second pedestal high up in a tree above the gate. Only half of the pieces could be controlled from each pedestal. This meant one or more of the players had to get up the tree to the other set, and then communicate back and forth to move the pieces in the proper sequence.

Example 2. Across the Chasm

For those who don't know, this is a beholder. -by LIKA--Elvennight1999
Step 1. My players were pursuing a lesser beholder back to its lair. Because it levitates, it naturally chose to sequester itself across a massive underground canyon in a spot where land-bound creatures couldn't harrass it.

Step 2. I wanted to make getting to the lair a puzzle challenge. I selected an unblocking puzzle to serve as the challenge.

Step 3. Since the players were trying to fly across a canyon, I converted the blocks into magic floating platforms. Only one platform was lined up to properly fly across the canyon, and it was blocked in by all the others. The players moved the blocks by hopping onto them. Once they got the right block free, it carried them across the canyon.

Step 4. I didn't really add much of a twist to this one.

Example 3. Rigged to blow

The Seven Bridges of Koenigsberg is the grandfather of Euler puzzles.

Step 1. My players were returning to a hobgoblin-infested mine that they had previously raided. I thought the hobs would probably have laid a trap at the access point to deter any further intrusions.

Step 2. I wanted the trap to be a full encounter, and not just something for the rogue to solve with a single roll. After some thought, I decided to use an Euler puzzle (a path-tracing puzzle) to represent the sequence of triggers in the trap.

Step 3. I presented the paths as fuses along which a magical charge ran between clusters of blast globes (intersections) that were rigged to collapse the room. To prevent the charges from going off, the players had to smack the igniters just as the charge was arriving and send it down an alternate path. As each path was crossed, that particular fuse burned out, preventing its further use. The players needed to burn out all the fuses without letting three charges go off or the room would collapse.

Step 4. To ensure everyone would participate, I picked a pattern with the same number of intersections as players, and arranged them on platforms scattered around the room. I actually had two players miss their attack rolls to hit the igniter as the sequence reached them, blowing them off their respective platforms. It made for a very tense encounter, and got everybody involved in what could easily have been a rogue and a roll encounter.

So, those are just some examples of ways you can convert classic logic puzzles into location-based puzzle encounters. Now, if you would like to try this in your game, or just want to solve some logic puzzles, here are some places to look!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Make-it Monday: DIY Miniature Display Case

"Want to class up your consumer-grade junk? Put it in a frame!"
-Ancient Exhibit Developer's Secret
We're taking a little break from the Campaign Mastery locations blog carnival today to bring you a really cool DIY project I came up with last weekend.

While wandering through the container store last weekend as part of our post-wedding organizational effort, I noticed some nifty bamboo trays in the kitchen section. I decided to pick a few up to make display cases for my D&D minis and other small collectibles. In case you might be interested in doing something similar, I also threw together a nifty how-to video for the project!

A couple of you have been making some noise that sounds like "MOAR MAPS!" Well, I've got some ideas for some maps done in the style of my April A to Z collection, so keep an eye out in the upcoming weeks, and you might just get your wish!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Tips for Generating Location Names for Fantasy Settings

Map of the United States of the Home Ruler from the Atlas of True Names.

Coming up with location names is something most fantasy authors, gamemasters and world-builders must do from time to time. Making those names compelling in a way that adds to your world rather than detracting from it can be daunting, and justifiably so. If you fudge a place name, you may very well be stuck with a blight on your world. A dark spot cursed with a name that is some combination of silly, burdensome to pronounce, or otherwise detrimental to your audience's sense of immersion.

I face this problem whenever I look to send my D&D players off to explore a new part of my world. Fortunately, I have developed a set of guidelines that I use when crafting new location names that have served me well.

Obvious names are not necessarily bad. Places are typically named after something and that something is often rather obvious. Some quick real world examples I can think of include:
  • Washington (a guy's last name)
  • Bath (named for a prominent recreation spot)
  • Salt Lake City (prominent natural feature)
  • Capetown (the city's location plus a word that means city)
  • Fort Collins (named for the town's original function)

If you go this route, you can come up with some pretty decent place names, especially if you use less common synonyms or slightly change certain words. Some examples from my game world include:
  • Stillford (a town on a stream with a distillery)
  • Fenwatch (an outpost by a swamp)
  • Thunder vale (a valley with a roaring waterfall)
  • Lastholt (named for a stronghold that served as a last stand. Last+hold change the "d" to a "t")

Keep the names short! Even well established fantasy writers get a little carried away and occasionally come up with names that become mental and verbal stumbling blocks for those who encounter them. The Drow city of Menzoberranzan from the Forgotten Realms is a classic example of this problem. At five syllables, it's a pain in the butt to say!

Think about it! It's tough to find a real world city with that many syllables! After some consideration, I came up with Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Alexandria, as real world equivalents and all of those cities have at least one pair of syllables that can be blended together to effectively shorten the pronounciation. In fact, if a place DOES have an exceptionally long name, you can bet someone will try to find a way to shorten it! Philly, L.A., Frisco, etc. Maybe that's why the Drow are so cranky! They live in an obnoxious to pronounce city with no decent nickname!

I know, I know… We're talking fantasy, not reality and the elves and ponytaurs are supposed to have exotic and elegant sounding place names. That's great! You can do that without lots of syllables! Believe me.

When you simply must get exotic, translators are your friend! Remember how in part one up there, I said places mean something? Well, one of my favorite tricks is to run common descriptive words or phrases through Google Translate or sometimes elven or other fantasy translators to come up with place and character names. With Google Translate, I pick a real world culture to serve as an analog of the fantasy culture that named the spot, and play around until I get something that sounds good. For example, "Wood City" in Welsh is "Dinas Pren"… not a bad name for an elven town. Incidentally, "Salt Lake" in Welsh is "Llyn Halen", which is not to be confused with its inferior successor "Llyn Hagar". 

Anyway, the system is not perfect, but if you stick with the cultural analog method, you can come up with groups of exotic sounding place names that sound like they have a consistent linguistic history in your game world… because, in reality, they do!

Those are just a couple quick guidelines that I like to apply when coming up with place names for my world. They have served me well so far, and if you give them a try, I hope they work for you as well.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Three Ways to Make Your Locations Pop!

Nothing spices up a run-down witch's hut like a giant turtle!

In this gamemaster's opinion, there are few things more satisfying than having your players say, "hey remember that time when..." before spiraling off into wild tales of past adventures that exist only in your GM notes and now the memories of your players. When these things happen, you've done something right. You've spun memory and enjoyment out of nothing! But what is the recipe for those moments? What makes one thing stick in the minds of your players while others fade away?

During the month of September, is hosting an RPG blog carnival all about location. In the spirit of these festivities, I would now like to offer up three easy to implement tips for making memory-sticking locations that your players will delightfully ruminate on for years to come like so much brain-cud. Mmm... delicious fantasy brain cud...


1. Give your location one unique feature and milk it for all its worth. This is a great way to reinforce the fantastic, and/or add a bit of history to your location. Perhaps the royal throne room has an enormous dragon skull mounted at one end. Perhaps an otherwise ordinary and dull tavern is decorated inside and out with giant crab claws. Perhaps a town is known for raising pigs that can sniff out magical reagents in the nearby swamps. I used all of these examples in my game to good effect. The wonderful thing about picking one unique element like the above examples, is that it immediately leads to questions like "why is it like that?" which can then quickly be developed into further detail about the setting or the NPCs associated with it. Even if left unanswered for the time being, such questions might spark your PCs to seek out the answers, or even offer up some of their own!

2. Add levels. Don't let your location be flat, let it rise! Nothing is duller than yet another 8x8 room no matter how interesting the monsters. Balconies, cliffsides, bridges and pits all present tactical opportunities during combat encounters. If your players are hesitant to seize on such opportunities, let your bad guys show them just how much of a tactical advantage these things present! A charging dire bear is frightening. A charging dire bear on an ice bridge over a windy chasm is something your players wont soon forget!

3. Link the location to the NPCs that use it! Ask yourself, who lives here? Why did they choose this place? What role did they have in it's construction or configuration? What do they know that nobody else does? In the tavern with the crab claws, the owner had a peg leg and collected all the claws. You can bet there's a story there! Linking the NPCs to a site can also be used to change up the normal rules of engagement. A blue dragon might live in a lair with an ornate metal inlay in the floor. Rather than firing his breath weapon in a straight line, he can pump it into the floor to the dismay of anyone touching the metal. The only thing more memorable than a great location is a great location with a great NPC that makes it even more dynamic.

These are certainly not the only things that can make a location pop, but if you are looking to create memorable encounters, keeping these three quick tips in mind can lead to locations that the players will come back to time and time again... at least in conversation.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Make-it Monday: Video, Manage Your Players' Home Base in OneNote

Welcome to September everyone, and happy Labor Day! This month, is holding a blog carnival all about locations in tabletop RPGs. I am really excited to work up a few posts for the carnival, and this is the first of what I hope will be more than ones.

For this week's Make-it Monday, I worked up another game organization video that takes a peek at how I organize and track information related to my players' in-game base of operations, the Keep at Thunder Vale. I talk a little bit about my philosophy behind the role of home bases in adventure games, and show you the technique I have settled on for making my players' base a dynamic part of the campaign, without having its operation overwhelm the game's main purpose... adventure!

I plan to focus on location-related posts this month in sticking with the theme, so if there is any location-related thing you would like me to blog about, let me know in the comments!

New Post Later Today

Happy Labor Day all!

My apologies, but your regular Make-it Monday post will be out later today. I've got a lovely little D&D OneNote video in the works for you, but have run into a couple issues with the "talent".

The video will be out after pick-up shooting. Now to finish sorting out all these brown M&Ms...

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