First, this isn’t designed as therapeutic advice, nor should it be construed as such. Mental health coaching and support is its own thing and we recommend you seek out a professional if you need that support. Second, this is not an attack on you if you are a chronically ill writer who is struggling in a way that makes everything you do harder. I empathize. I support you. Your productivity does not give you value as a person. These are the ways I make myself feel better, while fighting chronic illness and mental health monsters. Your mileage may vary, your output may vary, and you are still a writer. You are still a wonderful person that brings something to the world. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
These are my suggestions for writing through chronic pain and depression. You’ll find that some are on numerous blogs and suggestion lists. That’s fine, they might be good advice. If you have others, please leave them in the comments or refer to this work in your own blog! I’d love to have the community lift each other up and support one another.
1) Write Something
In 2004 I spent several months living in my car in and around San Diego. I worked, but I couldn’t afford an apartment. So, every night I’d go to Starbucks for 4-6 hours, read a book, and write. What I wrote wasn’t anything ‘useful’, it wasn’t a novel, or a game, or even a short story. It was the inner turmoil of my brain. One night, I realized I was depressed. Not because I was living in my car, but because my life had stalled. Then the next night I realized I knew where I wanted to go down the line. The day after that, I wrote out a plan to hit my goal. Most of my writing was internal ravings about writer’s block up until those three days. What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t write because I wasn’t supposed to be writing a story or a novel or anything like that. Instead, what I needed was a direction in life and I needed to write that. Writing whatever came to mind helped me to get somewhere, it just wasn’t where I thought I was going. I still have this notebook, in a box, somewhere in my house. It’s not filled with things I’ll ever publish. That wasn’t the point of writing those nights.
2) Acknowledge You Are Sick
This is also known as, TAKE A DAMN BREAK. It’s ok to realize you can’t keep writing. Hell, you might need to take a year, two, or more off before you can pick up the pen or slap the keyboard again. This is hard if you earn your living writing, though, and trust me, I understand. If the words are not traveling in their little caravan from your mind to the screen, or page, or whatever, then you can only force it so much. It’s ok to say, “I’m sick, and doing this isn’t good for me.” That doesn’t make you weak, or a failure, or a bad writer. It’s totally, unconditionally, without question, fair. If you wake up and you think, wow, the pain is a 9 today. I’m going to take it easy, drink a cup of tea (or coffee, or whatever), and that’s great. Admitting you need a break and taking one is strong, healthy, and helpful. Admitting you are sick is GOOD. Admitting where you are is a HUGE step toward making plans that work for you.
Writing through illness can be particularly hard because you do have ideas and you often start on them before a bad day slams you over the head and takes your brain away. So, how and what can you do with this? Collaborate. Seek out folks that are willing to work with you. Maybe you get 75% through a project and you get whammed. Reach out to your collaborators and go, I’ve got this piece, it’s this far finished, I think it should go here and here; does anyone want to work on it with me? 9/10, someone will go, yes, I’d love to work with you on this. Now, I’m not telling you not to pay them or cut them in on a percentage. I think you probably should do that, but it depends on your collaborator and how your relationship works. That’s on you, but I usually cut my collaborators in on a percentage or I pay them a bit up front to show them I appreciate their time, effort, and work. THEN I make sure to credit them alongside myself whenever I market the piece.
4) Work On Something Else
This can be having a few pieces to work on at a time, or it can be totally non-writing work that you feel is helpful to you to work on. For me, I’ve been doing layout for books that others write as a way to feel like I’m still doing something/producing work that I can be proud of. This works for me, it uses a different part of my brain, and it doesn’t require the same sort of mental health that my writing work requires of me. Now, for you, it might be knitting, building a car, whittling, playing video-games, or whatever it is. Find something else that you can do, that you love to do, and work on that for some time. You might get writing ideas while you do it, and even if you don’t, you are still doing something you love. Of course, this can be hard too, depending on your chronic illness. I’m with you. Go back to point 1, 2, or 3 if you are at this stage and you don’t know what to do. It’s ok to take the space and time you need to be healthy and happy.
5) Bonus Point – Have Allies
Your network of supports is essential to feeling like you belong to a community. That’s a human thing, but I find it really essential to accomplishing things when things get bad. Post on social media talking about how you are having trouble. Call a friend and talk about whatever works for you. Having allies, friends, and a support network will always help. And if you don’t have folks that get it around you or on social media? Find a group of fellow creatives online who will understand where you are coming from. Lurk, read their posts, engage with them, post about where you are in your life right then. All in all, my friends and family have done the most to keep me going when shit has gotten hard. Without them, I’d have drowned by now. Also, being a good writer ally requires you to give back when you can. Trust me, you might not have the spell slots all the time, but when you have them, use them. You’ll build hope, trust, and strength when this happens.
I hope these ideas and thoughts are helpful. You might wonder what they have to do with a gaming blog, but, honestly, I hope it is obvious. I haven’t had an article of my own here since MONTHS before HLG Con. That event broke me, for a while. I’m only now starting to realize just how bad, and doing things to work through it. Of course, it isn’t easy. For those gamers that run games, or play, or create them when dealing with these struggles, I salute and honor you today. You are worthy and I’m thankful for you.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s running a Changing Breeds game. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Art by JH Illos
The most important element in roleplaying is communication. Sometimes players will assume that their DM has understood what they are attempting, only to find out a scene later that their idea went completely over the DM’s head. The following listicle will help your DM understand you better and reduce any problems that originate from a lack of proper communication.
This sounds trivial but most players will almost always assume the goal and not mention it. “I want to climb the wall” sounds like a goal but it isn't, because it doesn't let the DM know why you are trying to climb the wall. “I want to get to the top of the wall so I have a better position from which to shoot my bow” says clearly what your intention is. Without a clear goal, the DM may misunderstand and end up narrating a result that you didn't expect. Sometimes this issue can be solved immediately, but in other cases this won't become apparent until after the encounter. At which point arguments ensue: “During the fight I climbed the trees, but it never gave me any protective cover!” “Well, you just said that you wanted to climb the trees. You never told me why.”
How you are going to do what you are attempting. This is the big one because here you can be creative and ingenious. Your DM might even reward you with some in-game bonus depending on how you do it. Climbing a wall barehanded isn’t the same as using a grappling hook. A single goal usually has many ways of achieving it, so don’t always go for the trivial option. Imagine the surrounding environment, what things are around that can be used. The DM will usually not be exhaustive in his description which leaves room for imagination. This is also a good time to look through your inventory. DMs will usually pick the most obvious means, if one is not specified, and assume you are using no equipment. This can result in losing potential positive modifiers to your skill test or, even worse, getting negative modifiers!
Do not leave the skill test choice to your DM. Some games have an exhaustive list of skills and your DM won’t have all your skills memorized. He does not know what you are good at and what you are terrible at. If you want to use your “Lie” skill but the DM asks you to do a “Charm” test, go ahead and tell your DM: “I would like to use my Lie skill.” Some DMs might not like this style so be sure to talk it over with them. Try to be reasonable and not ask for a skill check with an unrelated skill, like using your strength skill to sing. Though sometimes using a completely ridiculous skill can have hilarious results. Your DM may and should encourage you to explain how your skill is being used.
Unless your character suffers from delusions of heroism, you might want to ask other characters for help. NPCs are not just side quest givers, some have skills that can and should be used to your benefit. Most DMs will fill the world with helpful NPCs just waiting to be used. Town guards can help you fight off those outlaws mugging your party in the alley. Some recurring NPCs, such as a previous quest giver, can become allies. They can provide information or resources for your current adventure. Even your enemies can be of aid if you understand their objectives and motivations. After all, if the dragon attacking your town is after gold why not lead him to your rival’s larger and richer city.
Skill tests are the best moment to show how your character behaves. A barbarian and a duelist might both fight with swords but how they fight differs completely. Think about how this skill test relates to your character. A fear of heights might make a wall climb more interesting, or perhaps an old grudge fills you with fury as you strike your enemy. Personality can also be used to show intent. A scholar holding his book to his chest with sweat falling down his brow while hiding behind a shelf is cleverly not going to try to ambush the beholder. Don't forget that you are playing to have fun and “I jump backwards as I flail my sword around while yelling ‘I hate skeletons!’’ is always more entertaining for everyone at the table than: “I attack with my sword.”
With all this in mind, we can change: “I wanna climb the castle wall” to: “I want to get to the top of the castle wall so I can sneak in. I’m going to look for the best catapult expert in our unit and I want to convince him to launch me. I want to use my Charm skill and with a wink and a convincing smile I say: ‘If you get me on top of that wall, I will end the war and you can be on your way home before dawn.’”
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by author.
Metagaming, in a board game, is the game above the game. It's the social savvy in Bohnanza or Monopoly, tricky wording and deals in Cosmic Encounter or Diplomacy, or the planning ahead needed in a game of Chess or Risk. Metagaming is a board gaming skill used in most games, from Yahtzee to poker. So why is it so frowned upon in role playing games? The common scenario is that a group of players come across a troll and start burning it or throwing acid and the GM calls shenanigans. I believe this is because the dungeon master feels cheated because their encounter becomes trivialized with the knowledge the players bring to the table. In my opinion, player knowledge and skill helps the players get into the game. Who, in a fantasy world rife with orcs, trolls, and vampires, would venture out to fight monsters with no common knowledge? Tell me, how do you kill a vampire? Do you think someone who lived in a world where vampires really exist would have more or less knowledge than you? Taking all that into perspective metagaming takes many forms that we just don't recognize. Let's take a look at some of the oft overlooked forms of metagaming that we already do at the table and then we can talk about that player who brings a monster manual to the table.
1) It's A Game
First up, the shortest answer: it’s a game. Frank the fighter doesn't know what second wind or weapon proficiencies are. He only knows how to power through and what he can wield. Anytime you invoke mechanics not based in the fiction, react with rules, or state an action to perform, you are metagaming.
2) Player Skill
D&D has its roots in player skill. It is only in the later editions that emphasis on skill checks have made their way to the front of gaming. Deciding when to cast a spell or invoke an ability is player skill. Figuring out puzzles or how to get past an obstacle is the player using their skill to complete a challenge. Skill use is still metagaming by using a mechanic to eliminate a barrier. By leaving the decision in the players hands they can be the guide of their character and keep them in the game longer.
3) We're All Playing Together
Hey, let's have fun. We don't need to come down on a player that uses common sense, even if it's outside of a fictional character. Keeping the game moving and fun sometimes needs a little nudge from outside of the fiction. Sometimes the player, if they realize they've gotten off track, can be creative and move the group back in the right direction. If everyone focused on the fiction, there may be no reason to play after one adventure because that haul set you up for years. Besides, adventuring is stupid and dangerous. But since we all got together to roll some dice with familiar characters, buck up young cleric and head to into that dungeon anyway!
4) PvP Can Be Fun...
...but only when everyone has bought in. Can we have a discussion in real life before we start a fight to assure that we are all on the same page? We can in a role playing game, and if we can see both sides of the disagreement it makes the player versus player all the more fun. What could be more fun than taking the age old “paladin versus thief” conundrum meta? Maybe the paladin’s player sees the thief’s player roll a pickpocket check, but tells the dungeon master that he wants to hear the reaction and go to the person aid when they discover what’s missing. This can build tension at the table instead of resentment, especially if the thief’s player can get meta and explain the (lack of) remorse when the party offers to help retrieve the item. Other players can chime in with ideas that could lead to the thief planting evidence on one of her biggest adversaries and pinning the theft on them! A whole scene, and maybe an adventure, created by using the players to control the characters and the scene. So meta.
5) Keeping Secrets Is Bad
Who's the new guy and why is he so quiet? What's he hiding? If we all know these things at the table, then we can ask leading questions and make our scenes all the better. Why worry if the dungeon master brought in a ringer if the DM can just say, “this guy will betray you, but your characters don't know it.” What an exciting betrayal you all can set up together. I love working with my players to make plots against their characters. Two heads (or even more) are better than one, so why not let them in on the fun?! Of course I still like to play some things close to the vest, if only for the surprise factor.
Cooperative storytelling works a lot better if we all work together to advance the fiction. How better to bring a team together than by taking input from all sources? It’s like a brainstorming session; there are no wrong answers, only ideas! By sourcing our table and asking what is good for our fiction we can go beyond the limits of one mind and can riff off of each others’ suggestions. Playing in and building together a shared world remains the best reason to accept metagaming at your table.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author
The following is an excerpt found in the journal of the former Count Moneybags Von Moretax. It was found in the Corporate Dungeon ruins behind the headquarters and was restored by the High Level Games historians. These are believed to be his final words.
Ah the noble’s life. Sipping expensive mead atop your throne made of ivory crafted by a peasant is truly the only way to live once you’ve done it for twenty minutes. But alas. Here I am. Imprisoned for claiming that the king’s head was too round when all that expensive mead finally got to me. So here, in the dungeon I will recount some of the ways my other nobles have fallen from grace. Believe me, some of them are rather quaint.
Yes, the most time honoured tradition of the nobility. Perhaps because it kills two birds with one stone, in that it removes another noble from power and if you’re clever enough and it hides some atrocity you’ve recently committed. There are of course many hurdles to consider: noble seals from other houses, daggers owned by other people, paying off servants and then promptly killing them as well, and a plethora of other minor issues to consider. Perhaps you have a right hand man you place too much trust in, and some plucky adventuring group could weasel information out of him. You may want to kill him. Not to mention such things may leave a paper trail. Perhaps a private investigator gets ahold of your bookkeeper? Hm? Said bookkeeper, not knowing the situation, shows her your costs and paychecks and sees thousands of gold being sent to shut people up. Can’t have that. Guess you should burn down the accountant’s house. I would tell you more, but I can’t tell you everyone's secrets, now can I?
Not that I would ever partake in something so low. But you know who would? That Duke Silverbrand. I’ll bet if the royal guard searched his bedroom after eight tonight, they would find some damning evidence proving that he framed a certain Prince for a murder he committed.
2) Trash Talk
Yes, this is the reason my execution is scheduled tomorrow. If there’s one thing you should know about those of noble blood, it’s that their egos are as fragile as a two hundred year old man's bones. This is particularly true of royals. Your kings and queens, princes and princesses… they just can’t take a joke. Another simple fact is, many nobles can’t stand their king. So it really is just a matter of tricking them into saying what they want to in front of the right crowd. Instead of telling you how to do this (it’s quite simple really, liquor and a group of people is really all you need). I will now quote some things that got people executed and/or banished.
“King Richard? You mean that man with the exceptionally pointy head?” - Viscount Talksmacker of Trashington.
“I’m telling you, the King put some sort of curse on the Queen. No way a man with such a small number of brain cells gets a woman with such - agh! My arm!” - Baron Badguy of Vill-any, spoken in front of the king, who had just come back from a sparring match with live steel.
“Prince Keith is the human equivalent of a book with no pages.” - A man whose name was stricken from the records.
“Is the King around? No? So we’re talking smack then lads?” - Duchess Exe of Cution.
“King Richard is so round and discoloured I wouldn’t blame you for mistaking him for a boar testicle.” - Count Moneybags Von Moretax
In short, it doesn’t take a lot to get a man killed in most noble courts.
3) Sleep With Someone's Spouse
Now this may not get your nobility revoked officially (unless it’s with the queen) but there’s a very good chance you will be the laughingstock of the public and the newest target for some noble who knows where to find a hitman. In other news, water is wet. The typical noble won’t just have you killed for this, but most likely tortured or mutilated in some uncomfortable way. However the fact that a certain noble will forever be known to time as “The Cuckold” is sometimes worth the pain. This is typically not something that ends up as public knowledge, however you can guarantee that your reputation is ruined in court.
P.S. Seeing as I'm about to die tomorrow... sorry Martin.
4) Don’t Tow The Line
This is by far the least fun way to die. In every noble court, there are unspoken rules. Don’t get caught committing your crimes, and if you do, make sure your back is nice and ready, because it’s about to get stabbed multiple times. Don’t insult people in any blunt way, or you’ll become a pariah. Most importantly, don’t break the norm. Norms change from court to court. But I promise you, if you’re treating the public with respect (not lying to them, lowering taxes, trying to give them anything for free or god forbid actually listening to them when it comes to government policies), you’ll be in a grave faster than you can count to two.
I remember one poor man. Oh the poor soul! He said in public court that he thought we should get rid of the toll to cross the bridge into the city. Not only was the movement shot down unanimously, within the week, but the man's home was burnt down, his farms were salted and his body was found in the sewers with twenty six stab wounds.
In short, it’s very easy to be removed from a court in a number of increasingly uncomfortable ways. Don’t do bad things. Don’t do good things. I highly suggest that if you don’t want to be disgraced, you just enjoy the money and agree with the local consensus.
I imagine that these are my final thoughts. As such, I would like the last thing I ever write to be to my family. Tell my wife I loved her, but not as much as my tax money. Tell my son he can do anything he wants, but not as much as my tax money, and lastly, tell my daughter to marry up.
This was the last thing found ever written by Count Moneybags Von Moretax. Our scholars are finding more of his older works, however, and day by day, the man who was Count Moneybags Von Moretax is painted further as a kind, loving and just ruler, who was put to death by unjust laws.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/tah223/nobles-highborn-and-officials/
As much as we would like to pretend, we of the Dungeon Master ranks are not quite as omnipotent as our *cough* imposing stature may lead others to believe. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has ever had players in a game knows that the best laid plans are quickly and at times violently crumpled into a ball of spent paper and frustration once dice start rolling.
This can make Prophecy, one of the most classic fantasy and sci-fi tropes of all time, into one of the single most frustrating and difficult to successfully navigate. Many a good-intentioned DM has fallen prey to the pitfalls of trying to control fate only to realize that while their all-powerful sages and gods-on-high may be able to see the future, the dice render it invisible to the humble eyes of the DM.
Wait! Don’t toss your blind prophet into the wastebasket just yet!
The Prophecy trope can add depth and story to your campaign and give your players a real sense of value and importance, if you take the time to craft your prophecies correctly. Here are a few hard-learned bits of advice for sailing the murky waters of destiny.
1) Avoid Specific Numbers
I know, you want to add that bit of gravity to your campaign, where low and behold, the ancient prophecy of doom calls for 4-6 warriors to arise from the ashes to stop the tide of darkness. And oh! What a coincidence! That number matches exactly that of your party. While this can add a sense of destiny to the campaign, it is a fast path to Headache-ville. Players come and go. Real life pulls the party away from the table, and suddenly your prophecy is not quite so prophetic. Not to mention PC death. Nothing takes the wind out of your Sails of DestinyTM faster than the “chosen one” biting it from some punk Kobold on a lucky dice streak.
Instead, try to keep numbers out of the game, or if numbers are a must, keep them vague. Simply saying “A band of warriors” is just as effective and creates a more open-ended experience. Juggling the “sacred number” is most likely going to lead to weak fixes or heavy railroading. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if you seek to keep the teeth-clenching to a minimum, leave your options open.
2) Keep To Omens You Can Control
If you are going to rely on the actions of your players to play out your Prophecy, your campaign will most likely end up less King Arthur and more Monty Python. While I love me some chaos, most of us are not looking to conclude our epic campaigns in the same vein as the end of Holy Grail.
Omens can be a powerful tool for setting mood, tension, and foreshadowing the dire events that can really raise a campaign to the next level. The trick is to stick to events that you can control. Your players may be able to slay a hundred orcs, but can they stop a storm of blood? Can they keep a town of villagers from pulling a Rapture and vanishing off to domain of their god of choice? You can let the players actions go in the direction of their choice but using mysterious happenings and natural disasters allows you the power to keep your story moving forward, while still giving your players the freedom of choice they deserve.
3) Imagery, Metaphor, And Symbolism
Let’s face it, if you really could predict the future, would you be filling out character sheets or lottery tickets? Okay fine, first the lottery tickets, then the character sheets. We cannot predict the future without wielding the Club of MetagamingTM. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set the stage. Classic literary devices to the rescue! Using imagery, metaphor, and symbolism allows you to present clues and hooks for your players without establishing a set series of events. Using images, especially in dream sequences or prophetic works of art, allow your character to see hints and omens that perhaps you didn’t even plan for. If when “the blue tides flood the fields of steel” is implied as symbolic, then your omen could be anything from a field of soldiers controlled by the blue-blooded aristocrats to just a flooded swimming pool. If you can leave the omens locked in imagery, you can sit back and simply be alert for the omens to present themselves in the roleplay. If you are lucky, it will be with the players actions that these omens come to fruition.
4) Hindsight Is A Natural 20/20
There is no rule that says players have to know the prophecy beforehand. Many a classic story arc has involved the daring heroes chasing down the relics of the past, with each riddle or scrapped of ruined parchment offering just a hint of the events that will befall the world. Keeping the pieces of the prophecy one step ahead of the players allows the Storyteller to fill in the gaps after the fact, so instead of the Storyteller jamming events down the players throats, they can simply fill in the prophecy with the actions the players have already taken. While you have a thin line to walk between a chilling sense of doom and an angry mob of players who feel as if they can do nothing right, this allows approach keeps your hands off from players actions and away from the pains of keeping your campaign motivation alive. One way to circumnavigate the “nothing we do matters” anguish is to let a few of the prophecies they find actually be wrong. This will help throw them a curveball to keep the game interesting, and also help the players feel as if they are making a difference.
5) It Was All A Lie?!
Perhaps one of my favorite ways to handle prophecy is to have it all turn out to be false. Ancient texts can be manufactured. Dreams can be faked. Revelations can actually just be the rantings of a madman. The influence of religious or prophetic dogma can be an incredible tool of mass manipulation, and your villains can wield it like a rogue abusing his backstab stab with a ballista, because nothing keeps the peasants in-line like the threat of God’s angry wrath! Or maybe the prophecy was just a means to give hope to the hopeless? The Matrix teaches us many lessons about being a “the ONE,” and by turning prophecy on its head, we are presented with bold new avenues of storytelling and adventure to explore.
6) When All Else Fails…
Let the prophecy be thwarted. Nothing will make your players high-five across the table in a chorus of “Woots!” more than giving Fate itself the ol’ one-finger salute. What you as the storyteller must realize is that this does not mean the story ends. Your players have thwarted fate. They have thrown the cosmic wheel into a tailspin, as what should have happened has not. There is a wealth of potential here that could be exploited for an even greater story, making your prophecy just the prelude to a grander adventure. Maybe by stopping the prophecy, a new world cannot be reborn. Maybe chaos begins to unravel all of reality. Or maybe the contradiction of the gods’ will undoes the powers that be, leaving the world without a divine hand of guidance? All of these are excellent story-fodder, so don’t throw your game in the trash just because your original idea didn’t follow your script.
Above all though, listen to the pulse of your game. By being organic with your approach to prophecy, and letting your players guide you instead of you guiding them, you might be amazed at what you can create.
Michael Lee Bross a contributing editor for D10Again.com and an avid lifetime gamer. He been a game master, player, world-builder, and designer for nearly 30 years. He is also a graduate of the MFA in Poetry program at Drew University, and is an active writer of both poetry and speculative fiction. His work has been published in such periodicals as Lifeboat, Mobius Poetry Magazine, and Let’s talk Philadelphia. His poetry chapbook, “Meditations on an Empty Stomach” also won the 2015 Arts by the People Chapbook Award. Michael currently teaches English at the University of Scranton and East Stroudsburg University.
Picture Reference: https://shamanicstudies.co.uk/courses/divination/
Being the Game Master is hard. I get it, you’re the one that has to do all the checks and balances of the campaign. NPCs, items, spells, maps, dungeon layouts, and the story. You also have to check and balance the PC’s character sheets to make sure everything adds up and balances out, and if you have a gaming group even remotely similar to my own, you may find yourself the only one who can actually math properly. So I can sympathize when you might just NOT want to bother trying to balance an entire campaign setting AND plot along with everything else.
It’s just easier to use the book…
I can sympathize, but I also humbly disagree. I already find most premade campaigns lacking in substance, but I am not referring just to the premade materials. You can use a large portion, (if not all), of premade campaigns and still create a largely story-driven setting. I would also like to note I am also not suggesting you create an entire mechanics system from the ground up for your story, (though I have been known to do this and even keep that entire system due to the preference of my gamers).
I also realize you probably don’t want to have stacks and stacks of paper notes sitting on your side of the table. (I have also been known to get… over zealous on the notes at times.) I know your PCs do not want to sit there for 15 minutes watching you leaf through stacks and stacks of notes while you try to figure out where they are going next. I get it! I really do! However, as both a writer and a Game Master, I have learned some nifty little tricks to help you create a more immersive and story-driven world without doing more than you are likely already doing as a Game Master.
1) Weapons And/Or Armor Level Up
Part of the problem with many campaigns, especially like the ones found in Dungeons and Dragons, is managing all the items, weapons, armor, and other such gear your PCs will acquire. To minimize bloat, (and save some of the Game Master’s brain cells), try creating weapons and/or armor that level up with your PCs. This can be as simple as magic weapons that grow as the player characters face certain challenges in the campaign world, gain feats, or face, and in some cases conquer, their fears.
A personal favorite of mine, if you really wanna get creative, create living weapons with souls with and their own personalities. Weapons that the players must form a bond with in order to properly wield and unlock the weapons most powerful innate abilities.
2) Edges And Flaws For All Characters
This is a requirement in all of my campaigns of any length! I played DnD for years and got really bored with how almost all characters were similar. When I picked up Shadowrun 3rd edition, I was blown away by the level of customizability for just the characters alone, not even counting weapons, armor, and cybernetic implant modifications. Requiring all characters to have Edges and Flaws can add an entire new layer of story and plot to your campaign. Runa the mage has a severe case of arachnophobia? Well, when the party faces off against a group of Driders in the underdark she’s gonna be put through her own personal hell.
Gorag Stone-Heart is a brave dwarven warrior who fears nothing… but he can’t swim and is secretly too terrified of water to learn? Well when your ship sinks off the frigid coast due to a pirate attack now you have a whole new layer of drama added to your campaign.
The possibilities are literally endless!
3) Center The Campaign Around Player Character Back-Stories
Almost every player I have ever sat down with has some kind of story for their character. We’re all human. We love to hear and create our own stories, especially when we feel passionate about something or we are trying to explain the unknown. (Ahem… Religion… Ahem!) So why not integrate that concept into the very meat of your campaign?
Create or tailor the campaign around who… or better yet, what your characters are. Your party is composed mostly of fighter classes? Perhaps they are all students of a guild going on an epic quest to prove themselves? Maybe they are classmates of a combat school that never really got along and are now stuck working together.
Have a party of a bunch of different classes and/or races? They were forced to work together by a king or deity and not a damn one of them has ever wanted to get to know the other, let alone work with the other. However, now they have no choice but to try and get over themselves if they are going to have any hope of survival.
Racism is an epic flaw or back-story to use here!
4) Allow Time For Social Interaction
In every, and yes, I mean every campaign I have ever run, or have ever had the pleasure… (or displeasure in some cases) to play in, there is always… always a point where we are sitting around a campfire, at a tavern, or in some social environment and nine-times-out-of-ten, there is drinking involved! Use this time to allow your player characters to be social with one another.
Attractive female elf has caught the eye of the Barbarian? Let the scene play out! The half-drow rogue gets drunk enough to finally open up to the priestess? Let her talk about her feelings and her time in the underdark. A long conversation/conning session starts up between the bard and the high-level wizard NPC? Let them hash-it-out verbally.
I’ve seen better character development in one dialogue session than in all the dungeons they’ve run combined.
5) Two Words: White Wolf
This may seem like a joke entry but I am being completely honest here. White Wolf games do not have Game Masters, they have Storytellers! The reason they are called Storytellers and the reason all of their settings have a unique but interchangeable character sheet is simple... Their system is literally BASED around telling a story and letting the players be “actors” within the story.
I had a player who wished to play a Masquerade style vampire in one of my Shadowrun sessions once. Though technically this could be considered “lore-breaking” as vampires in Shadowrun are very different than Masquerade vampires, I allowed it. I found the system actually transfers very well into any game system.
This is not to say you should go to the same trouble of doing conversions for one system to another but take a look at one of their books and system, really dig into it! Sit in on a White Wolf or World of Darkness game session sometime and see how they structure their campaigns and stories.
The results might surprise you!
6) The Social Experiment
You awaken from cryosleep. As you fall out of your stasis pod, gasping for breath and freezing on the cold-metal floor, you realize you are surrounded by several other individuals, all wearing the same prison jumpsuit as you. The alarms are blaring and you can feel the ship groan and rumble; chunks of it break apart into the void of space. A digitized voice crackles on the overhead speakers, looping the same warning message: “The main haul has been breached! Life-support is failing, all personnel please evacuate to the escape pods immediately!”
You look to the few survivors around you, the lot of you come to the same bleak discovery: Not a single one of you can remember who you are or why you are here! You have little time to think about that however, as you can hear… something… tearing and clawing at the airlocks. The hardened doors begin to twist and buckle against the abuse, threatening to dislodge at any moment. You have no choice. If you want to survive this, you’ll have to work together and figure out who you are and why you are here!
I ran this plot during a space opera I designed recently and my players absolutely LOVED it! It allows for maximum social development and plenty of hack-n-slash mixed in. Easiest way to do this is with an all human campaign. The Game Master hands all players a blank sheet of paper and creates mock character sheets as references for him/herself. As players are faced with challenges and find weapons, you have them roll to discover their abilities.
Conversely, if you wish for a little more creativity you may have your players pick race, height, weight, eye color, hair color/style, etc. Adding flaws to the player-characters’ sheets contributes to an epic adventure, and when the players are under duress, (facing overwhelming odds and/or are injured) forcing them to roll a Willpower check decides whether their negative personality flaws and traits manifest themselves or not. Nature Vs Nurture.
Last but surely not least…
7) It Is Called R.O.L.E. Playing Not R.O.L.L. Playing
Sadly sometimes I think this rule is lost on many a Game Master. The point of role-playing is to escape reality for a bit and have some fun! The dice should never replace creativity or fun. Dice should only be used to retain balance and to resolve whether an action is successful or not.
The more creative you let your players be, and, conversely, the less restrictive your rules are, the more joy and fun you as the Game Master, and your players by extension, will have at the table. You don’t have to get so caught up in the storyline and plot that your PCs can’t make their own choices. Heck if you want, let them write the majority of the plot with their decisions. Just make sure they don’t kill themselves or destroy the world in the process!
I have played a number of tabletop games and have designed a number of campaigns that I have run to conclusion. Some I have had to let go for various reasons… lost players, work schedules, etc. I will admit, going for more of a storytelling feel and losing a player or having a character die can put a dampener on the campaign as a whole. But if you are clever and creative, you can turn even this problematic situation into storytelling gold! Incorporating one or even all of these rules into your next campaign may just bring an added, (or missing), spark to your game night and hell, who knows…
You might just decide to publish something too… one day.
Lilliana Deeters is a veteran gamer and Game Master. She has written and designed a number of custom campaign systems, (Trademarks Pending), as well as developed easy to implement conversion tables for already popular tabletop rpg systems. Lilliana is a three-time published author, all three of her novels are based around a Shadowrun campaign https://www.amazon.com/s?k=remnants+the+corporate+Chronicles. Lilliana also works as a Graphic Artist for Black Starr Creations, who generously custom designed a free image for this article.
Running a sandbox game isn't for the light hearted, organization is prime and being ready to respond to player actions is a close second. If you are properly prepared, a sandbox is an easy way to run a game. There are books, blogs, and podcasts by the dozens talking about different methods of pregame preparation. All have their own method; preparation is something that everyone does differently, just like dungeon mastering. So which one is for you? I can't say, but I can give you insight into the tools I use. Aside from good pens, a mechanical pencil, and a bunch of dice what do you need to prepare for a sandbox game? I'll tell you what I use and why.
1) Red Tide And An Echo Resounding
These two books by Kevin Crawford revolutionized my preparation style. They have advice on your GM binder and what to keep in it, an easy system for randomly determining and populating an area with cities, towns, ruins, and lairs and maps to steal. An Echo Resounding sets up domains and factions, details domain turns, and mass combat, should things get ugly. Both are short and easy to read and come with detailed examples to help you work through it the first time. I've adapted them to my style and use them for most of my randomly determined areas, and sometimes for pre-populated ones too. These two well worn and sticky-tabbed books are easily in the top three most used in my library. What's the top one?
2) Dungeon Masters Guide
I prefer the first edition dungeon masters guide, but the fifth edition is no slouch! Both cover things beyond the rules of their respective edition, talking about time, non-player characters, and adventure locales just to name a few topics. The random tables in each cover personalities, traits, motives, and best of all random dungeons. If I'm drawing out a dungeon for a game, making non-player characters, or creating an encounter, one of these is what I reach for. Seeing a theme yet?
3) Random Tables
Random tables help you get away from same thinking. Anytime I need a question answered in my preparation I turn to a random table to break out of similar ideas. Similar ideas can be great in the beginning, even enforce a theme, but after a few sessions they start to seem stale. Random tables mix it up creating wild combinations that you need to make sense of; things I couldn't have come up with on my own. The books on my table lately have been The Dungeon Dozen, d30 sandbox and Tome of Adventure Design. The latter being my most used book in the last six sessions I prepared.
4) A Good Monster Book
Monsters are the base of encounters in Dungeons and Dragons. Whether you are making random tables or static encounters, you are going to need a lot more enemies than the ones in the back of the Players Handbook. Sometimes just flipping through a book will inspire an encounter or maybe even a whole adventure. That's the way the fifth edition Monster Manual is written, according to Mike Mearls. If you haven't read the Monster Manual, take the time, as it's well worth it. After exhausting that, pick up Tome of Beasts, Tome of Horrors, or use the fifth edition Dungeon Masters Guide and make some of your own!
5) Tablet, Laptop, Or PC
I like to run digital. Most of my collection is in PDFs, I make maps and graph paper, and keep all my notes online. At my game I run with my laptop, dndbeyond.com, and Nitro PDF reader. I even have a tv set up for maps, pictures of monsters, and rules to show the players. At home I like to prepare on my PC; there are four basic programs I use. A digital art program for maps, handouts, and paper minis. Photoshop is what I use, but GIMP, painter or whatever you have will work too. With online notes syncing across all devices, I can prepare wherever on whatever is handy (I do a lot of work on my phone). I use OneNote as my GM binder and have a lot of worksheets and forms set up to help me with the common things like settlements and adventures. OneNote works for me, but Evernote and Google Drive, or offline applications like Scrivener and Campaign Logger are also options. A PDF reader for all my PDFs, Nitro, Foxit, or Acrobat all work fine. The last one is a web browser. I get a lot of encounters, maps, paper minis, and ideas from the internet. Places like ENWorld, reddit, and Discord are some of my go-to communities. Remember great dungeon masters steal ideas! Just don't publish stolen material.
Yes, as digital as I like to be, plain old paper is a staple for my game preparation. If only for scribbling notes or sketching an encounter, I always seem to find a need for paper. I have a disc bound notebook to jot stuff down quickly or take notes during an encounter. I use this notebook for when I'm stuck, somehow staring at a blank sheet of paper gets my creative juices flowing. A doodle here, a number there, a list of names, and I'm off to the races, heading toward OneNote with ideas in hand ready to develop into a solid encounter.
Preparing for a game is a path all dungeon masters have to trudge down, but it doesn't have to be such a chore. We're dungeon masters partially because we love to create and sometimes we need some help with that creation. Having the right tools can make that session preparation a whole lot more fun and easy. I hope I’ve introduced you to some that fit into your preparation style.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author.
Between RPG products, novels, comic books, TV and movies, random blogs, and so on, there are already so many amazing worlds out there. Many of these worlds are tried and true and have decades of lore and refinement. But, for as amazing as some of these worlds and tropes may be, they aren’t novel, and they aren’t yours. Those worlds have already been explored and those stories have already been told. There’s nothing wrong with tried and true, with staying within the lines of a setting or a genre, with telling a story that has already more or less been told, but what I love about tabletop is that it allows for something more. With no artistic talent, programming experience, or a crew of performers and a special effects team, you can build a novel world. Your players can experience genuine wonder in the exploration and discovery of things truly never seen before. There is nothing wrong with orcs and elves and dragons, but at some point, they became mundane. You know what an orc is, and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic, and as the worldbuilder I’m just leveraging your knowledge and nostalgia. That’s simple and sensible enough, but where’s the fantasy in that?! If you want to build worlds that make you feel the way you did when you first read Lord of the Rings, let’s try something new! Here are 5 tips to bring fantasy back to the fantasy genre.
1) Understand The Tropes
This first tip isn’t about building a unique world per se, but it’s an important first step. Why do we love orcs and elves and dragons? As I discussed above, part of why we still use these creatures is because they’re known quantities, and they’ve worked in the past. But more than that, they hold some symbolic value. Elves can represent a people in tune with nature, or the end of an old age, or (if you’re going for more of a fey interpretation) whimsy and wonder. You need to understand what the tropes are and why they exist in order to change them.
2) Subvert The Tropes
Now that you’ve thought about what the tropes mean, subvert them! Maybe in your setting, the elves are undergoing a magi-industrial revolution, using new magics to twist the forest into woody machines. Maybe the elves are a new race, and this is a world in which the age of humanity is coming to an end, rather than the reverse. I was a preteen when I first played the video game Warcraft 3, but the idea that the orcs were once a noble, shamanic people prior to the events of the first game blew my mind. By that point, between Warcraft and Lord of the Rings, I thought I already knew what an orc was supposed to be. By subverting my expectations, Warcraft left a lifelong impression on me of what the genre of fantasy can be.
3) One Unique Thing
I’m borrowing this term from the tabletop RPG 13th Age, but I think it can just as easily apply to worldbuilding as to character creation. This is in-line with the above, a single subversion can entirely change the nature or tone of a world. However, other additions or changes can also make a world unique, without totally subverting it. In this world, maybe halflings have elongated faces and big eyes, as if they evolved from a lemur. Maybe that inspires you to place the halflings on an isolated, Madagascar-esque island, rather than The Shire, deep in a Euro-inspired forest. Maybe elves have bluish skin and white hair, making them just a little more alien. Maybe they actually are the descendants of ancient alien refugees, and there are subtle hints throughout the world that their magics are in fact advanced technologies.
4) Borrow Generously
Maybe you don’t just want one change, but a world entirely different from traditional fantasy. It can be daunting to build a whole world, or even to decide where to begin. In such a case, take from what’s already out there! So you have a fantasy setting, but instead of orcs and elves, you have daleks and twi’leks, and instead of paladins and wizards you have jedi and onmyoji. You can change the names, shuffle around details, adapt them to whatever technology level or setting aesthetic, it’s just about giving you a place to start. At this stage it might seem a bit slapdash, like a child smashing their toys together. That can be fun, but let’s take it one step further: how do these disparate elements come together? In the process of answering that question, I think you’ll find that the world starts to build itself. Even though these are known quantities, by arranging them in a unique way, they can become something novel and greater than the sum of their parts.
5) More Is More (But Also Less Is More)
If you’re like me, and the problem is that you have too many ideas, rather than too few, don’t be afraid to go all out! Throw every idea you can possibly think of up on the board and see how it shakes out. The reality is that many of your most unassuming ideas will end up being your best, and many of your personal favorites aren’t going to work the way you expected. Plop it down like a big brick of marble and chip away at it. Share your work on r/worldbuilding or elsewhere on reddit, start a blog, or seek advice in some other way. At the end of the day it’s your world, but consider what other people have to say, and if they tell you something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to chip it off.
So here’s the world I came up with, just in the process of writing this article: A peaceful tropical island, inhabited by a small, lemur-like people known as halflings, is invaded by the powerful, arcane lich army known as the daleks. A few unassuming halflings are rescued by a great onmyoji, a tall woman with light blue skin and white hair, wielding a glowing blue saber of light. She takes the halflings to the continent, where they learn about a war gone awry between an old race known as humans, and the blue-skinned elves who have begun to succeed them. Out of desperation, a sect of humans placed their souls inside arcane boxes, giving up their own humanity to bring human civilization back to its former glory, as they perceive it. Amidst a world in such turmoil, what place is there for the halflings?
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://wallpaperstock.net/best-friends-fantasy-world-wallpapers_w50899.html
With the amount of media the average game master encounters in their day-to-day lives, It’s easy for them to assimilate that media into their games. Some may consider this unoriginal, but in this ever expanding sea of pop culture we find ourselves in, it is impossible not to be inspired. When it comes to your home games, there’s no reason you can’t take ideas you like from your favorite franchises and blend them together. As a matter of fact, I would argue that doing so for your group can be incredibly beneficial. I’m not condoning plagiarism of course, or trying to rewrite an existing setting and sell it. But if it’s for the entertainment of those in your group, there’s no reason not to pillage and plunder intriguing concepts by other creative types. Here are four reasons it can be beneficial to your campaign.
When everyone is inhabiting an imaginary world together, it helps if all of the players and GM are on the same page. If your world features a concept that is similar to something found in pop culture, it can pay to simply explain that to the players. There’s a reason many fantasy settings feature the classic races of Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. They’re familiar. Most gamers have at least heard of Lord of the Rings and the creatures found within Middle Earth.
This is not to say that you need to follow a path that is so well trod. There are so many wonderful places to pull from that many gamers would understand. If you’re running a dark sci-fi game that features man-eating aliens, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out their similarities to the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies. This puts the players in the right frame of mind from
2) Catered to the Players
If a game master is familiar with their player’s interests, it can help to reference those things and spark their passions. While this is similar to familiarity it is separate for one major reason: Passion. Just because someone is familiar with something doesn’t mean they are passionate about it. Is a player in your group obsessed with Harry Potter? Why not add a school for heroes in your setting? Do you have a player that loves the exploratory aspect of Star Trek? Consider running a hex-crawl in your setting.
3) Something Totally New
My favorite reason to steal ideas from various sources is how easy and fun it can be to combine those ideas into something else completely different. Some of the most unusual concepts can be merged together to create something amazing. The results could be bizzare, like combining the dark fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm with the far-flung future of the modern space opera. Alternatively it could be a bit more subtle, like combining elements of the matrix with vampire hunting. Regardless, the results can be wholly awesome, and incredibly unique.
4) The Hype Train
With the Marvel movies in full swing right now, it’s no surprise that superhero RPGs are big sellers. These sort of influences can really get a gamer pumped, and there’s no reason a game master can’t tap into that. Have you designed a space opera setting? Ask the players if they want to play in a campaign where they are wanted criminals who happen to be the universe’s last hope, like the Guardians of the Galaxy. If you time it right, this can be a big boost of energy to get a campaign started. This may be best for shorter campaigns; as the hype dies you may find the game loses its staying power.
We all have influences from our favorite franchises, and there’s nothing wrong with embracing those passions and putting them into the game. They are a part of you after all, you may as well use them to your advantage.
Nathan Carmen is the founder and head writer of the Indie RPG company, Tricky Troll Games. Nathan loves building worlds and improving his craft when he’s not busy parenting. Reach Nathan at email@example.com or check out the TTG website at https://nathanccarmen.wixsite.com/trickytrollgames.
Picture Reference: https://comicbook.com/marvel/2018/03/07/marvel-cinematic-universe-movies-ranked-best-worst-black-panther/
Human history is filled with places and events that are so interesting and amazing that they just invite themselves to become the background of an RPG adventure. I don’t even mean specifically fantasy adventures; what has happened in these instances will happen again, certainly, because we were humans then, are humans now, and will be the same faulty humans for a long long time to come.
Quick note: History is subjective to begin with, as it is dictated by the interpretation of the narrator. I am completely aware that in some (perhaps all) of the places and events I describe below, pretty nasty things were happening to people, due to discrimination, slavery, and, well, genocide. I don’t refer to these, not because I don’t think they are important or relevant, or am trying to make light of them, but simply because I’m not an historian, would not know enough about them to start with, and would therefore not be the best person to begin this conversation. I’m simply picking broad events and areas and seeing what could be used in a narrative.
1) War Of The Roses/English Civil War
This is so much like Game of Thrones that… well, George RR Martin is actually on record saying he loosely used this as inspiration for a Song of Ice and Fire. It was family against family, brother vs. brother, with the ultimate prize being the English throne. The GoT connection is the best possible description. Dozens of noble families, whole branches of royal houses simply disappearing overnight, in some pretty heated battles. The Wikipedia entry has a family tree that just makes your eyes water with the effort of following who is cousin to whom. If you want an overarching conflict, with lots of deaths and noble houses, this is your jam.
300 Spartans fighting off a few tens of thousands (estimates vary) of Persian soldiers. This battle has been much embellished over recent years (with the movie 300, based on the graphic novel of the same name, itself a highly built up adaptation of the known parts of the battle). It would be the perfect seed for a few characters against an army. There’s not a lot of RPG material here as it was just a battle, but I’ve always thought that having the players as, say, spies or messengers moving against the background of the battle would be really cool.
3) The Byzantine Empire
This one has ‘fantasy RPG’ written all over it. From the exoticism of the ‘east meets west’ culture and language, to the gigantic palaces and temples, if you have a look at a lot of RPG core books, specially images of markets and buildings, you can easily see how Byzantium is a bit of an inspiration. On any random street, you could find products from all over the known world, and the palatial intrigue was ridiculous. It got so bad, the local rulers had to hire Viking mercenaries because everyone else in the area wanted to kill them. A good inspiration for cities, markets, commercial areas, etc.
This one has a lot of caveats, as so much of the City by the Tiber has been used in the past, by pretty much everyone, from RPG writers to Napoleon. If you want an ancient city, with streets, temples, slums, docks, etc, this is your standard.
5) The Silk Road
Although it was totally not a single Road, the Silk Route was in fact a series of trading posts and small stretches of road works that connected China to the West. This is the best possible scenario for trading stories/escort stories. It even has loads of ghost towns, built and abandoned, as the tides of trade ebbed and flowed.
6) The Great Wall of China
Just using a monument as a starting point, I mean, picture it: a mysterious, highly advanced kingdom decided to turn inwards and focus on itself and is so paranoid about attacks from the outside that it builds a gigantic series of walls to keep everyone else away. The functionality is immaterial. Imagine cresting a hill and seeing a wall that went from horizon to horizon.
7) Edo Japan
This is so appropriate that is has already been adapted to RPG’s, even to D&D. This was the time of the samurai and ronin and noble battles and ninjas. A lot of it has been exaggerated and embellished, but it’s still a background rife with warriors and noble ladies doing martial arts and emperors and so on.
What other historical places or times have you used in games, or indeed, think that would be good to use in games?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, three years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a couple of years, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-battle-of-thermopylae-480-bc-defending-the-pass/
Lorecraft has become especially popular in recent years thanks to games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and with its resurgence as a storytelling mode, many creators both professional and amateur are attempting to carve out their own plot of narrative real estate. This isn’t a new frontier, however, and savvy world builders would be wise to recognize that. Lore is all about longevity, about reaching from the past to inoculate those of the future. With this in mind, try to think about something, anything that has existed in its original, unmolested state for, say, one hundred years. What about two hundred? Or a thousand? The simple answer is none, but “simple” seldom makes for satisfying stories. That, at its heart, is what lorecraft is all about. It is simulating the persistent effect of time on a culture, idea, structure, or even a single person. It is telling the story (whatever that story may be) as it was by how it is now. To do this, you need a story that can turn into lore; here are some tips on how to do just that.
Think about lore as footprints or tracks that players have to trace backwards. Unlike conventional storytelling where the narrative unfurls before the protagonist, lore and legend by their very nature require that at least part of the story has already been told. But you already know that. You have already stepped in those footprints before, you remember. Don’t you: the house down the street, with the loose-hinged shutters sun bleached and dropping jagged paint chips like leaves from a maple tree. Derelict and abused, the house is perched on your street like a gargoyle, watching the jittering plans of you and your neighbors for years. Local children would bribe one another with melted snickers to go inside on hot summer nights when the moon was brightest. Some would go in, plucking up the courage (or naïveté) only to rocket out screaming from the houses yawning doorway. You remember hearing about the night she went in. You remember waiting for her to come out, the kids around you calling out her name in nervous laughs. You remember eventually going home. You don’t remember seeing her again.
The haunted house! Everyone has at least heard of one! It’s a great way to build micro-lore that resonates with a lot of people. This idea of a physical structure that’s mere existence compels those nearby to fabricate a story around it. It’s an important part of culture, crafting legends around structures, and we have been doing it for thousands of years. Houses of worship often fall into this column, but we will get to religion in a bit. For now, be thinking of lore in the way you think of that haunted house. What makes it unique? What makes it memorable? Most of the time, it’s the aesthetic. It’s the fact that it isn’t like the surroundings. It possesses an air about it that begs for a story. All the important ancient structures that exist today exhibit that. Maybe at one time they fit right in, but something happened. Everything changed and for one reason or another, it had the tenacity to brave the storm of time. So often, buildings don’t stand the test of time; that is why I said it’s great for micro lore. It helps creators get a grasp on the idea of persistence and setting because lore has a tendency to lean on the philosophical. Without a strong presence of mood and setting to ground wayward protagonists, lore might just be perceived as a history lecture. Buildings like temples, pyramids, even creepy homes are a good way to avoid some of the wordiness of legacy and provide engaging avenues to show rather than tell. History is learned. Lore is explored. Keep that in mind with buildings.
This may be the most familiar form of lore that we digest today. Stories of heroes of a bygone era and the adventures they undertook is the soul of most roleplaying games. While players often are participating in reactive story telling (The monster is doing this; so, you do this), lore is post-active storytelling. The analogy of the footprints is especially true for folk tales and post-active narratives. For example, one of my favorite Native American folktales from the Muscogee tribe describe the events that lead to opossums having bald tails. In short, a clever opossum catches his tail alight to bring fire to those that needed it most, Prometheus style. Post-active storytelling does not have much of a pension to be changed on the fly, but its results are able to be engaged with and are usually the reason the story is being told in the first place even if that reason is “I wonder why opossums have bald tails?”
Folktales are a way to humanize history through lore. It is a vehicle that allows us to make an impression on one of the most difficult surfaces to reach: the past. If you want to build character-centric lore, go to the folktale and see what makes them tick. Soon, you will be begin to notice that classically there are uncanny archetypal characters that mirror other characters from vastly different locations and points in history. Folktales palletize grandiose ideas of the human experience, but at their heart, they tether the present to the past through caution and familiarity. The best heroes of lore, despite how godlike or untouchable, are always actualized by what makes them most human.
The backbone of most prominent religions presently is preservation. Someone thought that the world works/should work a certain way, and they made sure that their ideology could be propagated beyond their lifetime. It’s a pretty daunting task. Regardless of validity, religions deserve a pat on the back for lasting as long as they have. This deliberate, theological persistence is engineered to imbed itself into culture to survive; it does this through lorecraft.
For sake of illustration, let’s make up a religion. A group of intelligent creatures live on the shoreline of a massive sea. Every once in a while they see curious beasts ferrying men across the water. These beasts have large white structures that catch the wind and propel them forward. Without the technology to observe these things closer, the little colony agrees that the beasts must be some massive water bird capable of carrying humans over past the horizon.
“Well what is on the other side of the horizon?” one asks.
“Who knows? Everyone that goes out there never comes back,” replies another.
There is the seed. Mystery, intrigue, mortality. Over the next couple of generations this seed grows and evolves as more people throw their theories into the ring, and before you know it, we have a fully fleshed out mythology about gatekeeping birds transporting chosen humans into another realm. As silly as it sounds, Americans actually tried to synthesize a religion to keep people out of nuclear test sites in this very way (Vox and the podcast 99% Invisible have an amazing video on this which can be found here https://www.vox.com/videos/2018/1/29/16932718/biohazard-design-nuclear-waste). Take an icon. Let that icon grow bigger in scope though intrigue, and once it grows too big or esoteric for people to completely understand, eventually someone is going to stand up and say, “Hey what if we aren’t supposed to completely understand? Maybe it is supernatural.”
We mentioned before that folklore was designed to connect the human condition to the often foggy interpretation of the past. Religion connects the human condition to the supernatural in much the same way. It’s important to keep in mind that rich lore often deals with the mortality of man and the anxiety it can induce. Throughout human history the desire to feel like the unexplainable is being orchestrated by something bigger than man has cropped up again and again. We build lore around it to contain the philosophical musings that we feel are most satisfying. When it comes to religion, think of lore as a glass terrarium that not only provides enough structure to keep everything in one place but also remains transparent enough so that we can see whats inside.
If folktales highlight the best in human design, then monsters are the downers at the party that point out how awful things are. In a way, the story of the monster is the antithesis of the folktale. If folktales tell us, “Hey, humans can transcend themselves and do amazing things,” the monster story warns us, “Humans can transcend themselves, but you may not like what the end result looks like.”
We see great examples of that warning in familiar stories like “Frankenstein,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” basically all werewolf and vampire stories, and so many more. The next time you read or watch something about a monster shift your perspective and try to see it as the protagonist. More often than not there is a sympathetic turn; a genesis story of sorts. Your lore alarm should be buzzing right about now. While most lore is about taking steps back in time, the specific lore surrounding monsters often has us taking steps back to scrutinize ourselves (specifically our psychology).
Where monsters are concerned, good lore builders are able to hold up a mirror and make you see something worse than your reflection. I don’t know about you, but my usual reflection is bad enough. Take the idea of the classic Kraken myth. It’s not scary because it has tentacles or is impressively large or even that it eats boats. It’s scary because it has alien motivations and wants to eat your boat. It embodies the fears of many sailors and the anxiety of traveling into the unknown, an anxiety that keep many people for exploring anything at all. The Kraken has effective lore because it begs the question, “Why is it scary?”
One more example: the witch. In fact, watching the movie “The Witch” tries to convey much of what I have already said about monsters. The archetype of the witch has us asking, yet again, why we are so concerned with relatively innocuous things when seen at face value. Old ladies are not scary, per se. Neither is magic nor the idea of the supernatural. The witch has been so alarming for much of English, Irish, and German history because of what it represents to humans in a general way. The lore behind the witch gives it its weight. The concept of dark, corrupting knowledge that poisons your very nature and potentially those around you is terrifying, especially for colonials during that time. The idea of the “other” has lead people to do terrible things, but the lore behind it is important. Lore helps us tackle these issues with a degree of skeptical separation.
Lore is a powerful tool at a creator’s disposal, but getting bogged down in time lines, he-said-she-said, and esoterica can really detract from the heart of what makes lore compelling. That is, our actions matter and can echo through time long after we are gone. An old professor said something to me once that I still think about today when I’m writing story: “The most engaging part of a treasure hunt is why it needs to be hunted in the first place. If you don’t know that, you’re just writing about a dirty box full of scrap metal.”
Andrew Pendragon is a veteran role player, Dungeon Master, and story teller. His work can be seen featured on outlets like the Simply Scary Podcast and Youtube channel BlackEyedBlonde, but he takes the most pride in his High Level Games affiliate podcast The Dragon’s Horde where he, alongside his co host, answers listener submitted roleplay questions and weaves them into a false-actual-play.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/vidyagaems/Bloodborne+lore+ilustrado+ludwig/wYGsLjL/
The tabletop RPG industry is growing. As a result, people from all walks of life have come together at the table. While this is certainly a great thing, especially if a Game Master is intentionally inclusive, but this can also result in miscommunication and awkward storytelling. Personally, I find that there's nothing worse as a Game Master than unwittingly making a player uncomfortable at the table and not knowing until much later.
Enter the X-Card, a concept developed by John Stavropoulos. Plain and simple, the X-Card is an index card with a large X on it. If a player is ever uncomfortable, they can tap the card or hold it up. The Game Master will then continue on, or back up a bit and re-write what just happened in the story. No one is to ask for an explanation as to why the player was made uncomfortable by this particular story development. Everyone just accepts it, and moves on. Afterwards, the Game Master and player can talk it over, so that the Game Master can better understand how to guide the games for everyone's benefit in the future.
You may have a group of gamers already established, and naturally know where the line is for them. If that's the case, the X-Card may not be for you. But if you have had issues in the past, with players being hurt or upset over the content in your game, then here are five good reasons you should take a look at this handy tool.
1) It Says “I Care”
Utilizing the X-Card at your table lets the players know immediately that you care about their feelings. This is more important in an environment where you don't know the individuals very well. If you have a new player or two that are friends of your current players but who you don't know personally, the X-Card can help set up a safe environment quickly. It can help players see that you are attentive to their personal needs.
2) It Makes Players More Comfortable
I have heard other players state how much more comfortable they were at the game table when they discovered that the X-Card was being used. They realized that if they had an issue, they could say so quickly and without trouble. Having relaxed players will help keep everyone having a good time.
3) It Puts The GM In A Good Mindset
With the X-Card in play, the Game Master can feel free to tell their story and trust the players to utilize it when they need to. I am certainly not suggesting that the Game Master should just say and do whatever they want, waiting for players to tell them otherwise. Instead, the Game Master can rest easy knowing that there is a device in place should the situation arise.
4) It’s In The Creative Commons
If you're like me, and you prefer to do things the legal way when it comes to purchasing and exchanging RPG material, fear not. The X-Card document is in the Creative Commons and may be shared freely. As a matter of fact, you can even incorporate it into an RPG of your own design as a mechanic if you so desire. You simply have to attribute the original author and share the work under the same license. This flexibility makes the X-Card easy to modify and use as you see fit, and you can also exchange the document with your gaming group with ease.
5) It's Great For Convention Games
If you're running a game at a convention, you're likely to run into all sorts of people. You'll be gaming with total strangers, which can make for some potentially uncomfortable encounters. While I would recommend staying away from touchy subjects at a convention table, it's still wise to utilize the this tool. This will avoid any miscommunication that could easily happen at a table with a group of gamers you've hardly met.
For many of us, gaming is about escapism; taking a moment to explore a world that never was and slay the proverbial dragon. Making sure that these moments together are safe and even empowering can be difficult to achieve. No tool works for every situation, but the X-Card certainly is helpful.
Nathan Carmen is the founder and head writer of the Indie RPG company, Tricky Troll Games. Nathan loves building worlds and improving his craft when he’s not busy parenting. Reach Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the TTG website at https://nathanccarmen.wixsite.com/trickytrollgames
Picture Reference: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1SB0jsx34bWHZWbnNIVVuMjhDkrdFGo1_hSC2BWPlI3A/edit#
Interested in the weaponless techniques martial artists use? Given you are the Game Master, knowing key martial arts moves can greatly expand your storytelling through reliable details. There are several basic moves that any fighter can make great use of to turn the tide of the fight in their favor. Let's lay them all out.
1) Punches/Hand Strikes
Knife Hand: Commonly known as the "karate chop", this is done by striking with the pinky side of an open hand. The palm is either up or down. It targets the neck, kneecap, wrist, etc. Devastating for an opponent, but keeps the attacker's hand safe from injury.
Palm: The entire hand can be either open or have the fingertips folded. You thrust out to hit with the bottom of your palm. Good target areas include the nose and jaw. It isn't too damaging, but it throws an opponent off balance.
Hammerfist: Use the "padded" bottom of your clenched fist and swing as though you're wielding a hammer. It's highly effective against the back of the skull, the nose, wrist, etc.
Straight Punch: Also known as a "cross,” the straight punch packs a good deal of power. It's thrown using the rear hand, and it can be used to target numerous areas from the head to the torso. This move is fast and can render an opponent dazed and gravely injured.
2) Elbow Strikes
Downward Strike: With this, your elbow is brought up as high as possible, then brought down in again and again, in rapid succession. It's a dangerous technique as it mainly targets the skull and the back.
Rear Strike: Best used when an opponent is coming from behind, your elbow is thrown backwards, targeting the ribs, head, etc.
Front Strike: A common move that has you swinging your elbow forward. It's best used to immobilize an opponent while grappling.
Front Kick: One of the most basic moves of them all, you'll typically strike an opponent with the ball of the foot. It's useful to get an opponent to back off as it targets the groin, knees, abdomen, and more.
Roundhouse Kick: As common as the front kick, the roundhouse move is fast, allows for incredible range, and packs great power. You'll swing your leg sideways in a circular motion, attacking numerous areas from the head to the knees.
Straight Knee: This involves thrusting the knee forward and up. Generally, this move targets the head, thighs, hips, etc. The speed behind the move helps give it greater power to unbalance an opponent, which allows you to control the fight.
Flying Knee: When your opponent is injured and you're going in for the kill, use this move. You rush forward to land a swift, potent knee to the head. The momentum can knock anyone out.
Air Choke: This move has you compress the trachea (windpipe) to cut off oxygen to the lungs. It takes a good amount of strength to successfully pull this move off. Also, it takes some time (2-3 minutes) for an opponent to pass out.
Blood Choke: When done right, an opponent can lose consciousness within seconds. You press on the carotid arteries, restricting blood flow to the brain. It's doesn't require too much strength to accomplish this.
The moves laid out above are all seen as basic, yet integral parts of martial arts. Any true warrior will have these mastered and ready to use the next time they face off against any foe. Game Masters, equipped with key features and mechanics of basic martial arts, enrich the game and lend credence to fights in any TTRPG.
Jason Maine is the founder of FullContactWay, a blog dedicated to provide best martial arts advice and information. Jason helps his readers with martial arts training by sharing personal tips and thorough research. Check out fullcontactway.com to get more about Jason’s work. You can find him on Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter.
Picture Reference: https://tobiasmastgrave.wordpress.com/tag/martial-arts/
If there’s one aspect of our hobby that I truly adore besides the immersive interactive storytelling, it’s maps and miniatures. I’ve thrown an inordinate amount of money at plastic minis and vinyl wet erase mats, spent an inordinate amount of time lovingly painting every small detail on a Reaper or Heroforge figure, and wasted an inordinate amount of ink crosshatching around the edges of a map I’ve drawn just to make it pop a little more. Tactical combat and terrain can add a lot to a battle, and absolutely nothing elevates the aesthetic of a game to the next level like a really cool looking map.
However, the fact of the matter is I don’t need maps and minis, no one needs maps and minis. As awesome as I think they are, there’s also plenty of valid reasons not to use them at all. The game flows a lot better from narrative to combat or vice versa without the giant speedbump of having the set up minis and possibly draw a map in between. If you prefer to draw your maps beforehand, then not using one obviously cuts down on prep time. Combat moves a lot faster and bogs down less as players focus more on what they’re actually going to do than on counting spaces on the board. It forces players to pay attention more as they can’t simply glance up at a map when their turn rolls around, and players will also naturally start using their environment more, thinking in three dimensions without having a grid to tell them expressly where they can and can’t go. Eschew the map, and you’ll see more innovation from your players than you ever have before, that’s a promise.
Unfortunately, in my years of running games at conventions and local game stores, I’ve still met far too many gamers who think of gaming without a map as an inconceivable occurrence. I’ve seen people deride it as “playing ‘Mother May I’ with the GM” to simply assuming they won’t be able to keep track of what’s going on without ever giving it a shot.
Well, there’s a way to do things and a way to do things, right? Lots of people talk about doing it, but guidance on actually making it happen is sparse. As a Game Master who’s run many successful Theatre of the Mind games in just about every conceivable system from 5th Edition, to Pathfinder/3.5, to Star Wars Saga Edition I’m hoping to show you how easy it is to add a versatile new tool to your GM’s toolbox.
1) You Need Your Players’ Trust
This should go without saying, a good Game Master should possess their players’ trust regardless, but when there’s no communal visual aide and the table is relying on what’s in your head, it’s absolutely crucial. They need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re not going to use this as an opportunity to screw them or give yourself an advantage. Organically, this comes with time, but I’ve been able to bring players I’ve never gamed with onboard with a simple mission statement: assuring them that as the GM I’m on their side, I want them to succeed as much as they do, and I’m simply eschewing the map so the game will flow a little better and offer them more options than being confined to a grid. If I think it will be a particularly hard sell, I’ll even offer to go back to maps and minis if they try it and don’t like it. By following the rest of the rules on this list, I usually have a group of true believers by the end of the session.
2) Handwave Distance
That might sound like sacrilege, but hear me out. Does anyone actually care if the goblin is precisely 15, 20, or 25 feet away? No, they care about whether they can reach it in one move action or not. When is the last time you encountered a character built for ranged combat that couldn’t shoot across an average sized battle mat without leaving the first range increment?
I’m not suggesting that you ignore distance entirely, it’s valuable in certain situations to help make educated guesses. What I am saying however is that in most circumstances, precise distance is not necessary or even useful information.
My rule of thumb (and I always make sure my players are aware of this) is that any creature I present in an encounter can be reached in one move action, unless I specifically say otherwise. The only time I will actually specify distance is if there’s something I specifically designed to be difficult for the melee guys to get to, or an element meant to provide something for the ranged guys to contend with, for instance a mage 80 ft. away up on a 10 ft. high ledge. Unless a fight occurs in a very small encounter area, near the door, or the tanks have specifically wheeled the enemies around, I usually rule that Flanking requires two move actions, one to actually reach the creature and another to maneuver behind it, as that’s the way it usually shakes out on a battle mat anyway. It usually takes about 15 - 20 feet of movement to circle all the way around a medium sized creature on the grid, more if you’re playing Pathfinder/3.5 and are trying to do so at a safe enough distance to avoid Attacks of Opportunity. Having to travel any appreciable distance to get to the creature makes it infeasible to do in a single move. (Though I may be inclined to cut them some slack if they’re willing to risk the AoO or Tumble through the creature’s space)
At some point, you will undoubtedly encounter a player who absolutely insists they need to know how far away something is, or some other specific measurement. When that happens, I’m going to teach you a phrase that will make your life significantly easier. Learn it, practice it, remember it because it has served me well these many years.
“What are you trying to do? The answer is probably yes.”
Looking for reasons to say yes to your players is a completely different piece of GM advice, but that probably yes part goes a long way to engender trust and ensure to your players that you’re not trying to use the maplessness to unfairly rule against them, as well as nip in the bud the “Mother May I” mentality I mentioned earlier.
The above phrase came to be because once during a game I spent a minute or two debating with a druid player Wild Shaped into a big cat who swore up and down he needed to know how far away the Shambling Mound was. So I hit him with the phrase. It turned out he was trying to figure out if he could gain the benefits of the cat’s Pounce ability. Again, he didn’t really care how far away the Mound was, did he? What he really wanted to know was whether or not he could Pounce. He hadn’t joined the fray yet, there was no reason to deny it to him, so of course I said yes. That’s not to say I would’ve let him Pounce repeatedly or Charge repeatedly, however, at least not without moving back out and risking an Attack of Opportunity.
9.9 times out of ten, what the player wants to do isn’t going to break your carefully designed encounter, and for the 0.1 times it does, honestly the player probably deserves the easier encounter for their ingenuity.
3) Put Players First
There’s going to come a time when a player has a different idea of the situation in their head than you do. When situations like that occur, as long as their interpretation is reasonable, it’s always best to give the player the benefit of the doubt. In six months you probably won’t remember or care about the discrepancy, but it will help every player feel more comfortable without a map and not feel as though they need one to “prove their case.” The key phrase is as long as their interpretation is reasonable.” I.e. don’t let them cheat either.
With me, this used to happen a lot if I tried to make an attack against someone who was still in the hallway. “I haven’t entered the room yet.” Over time, you’ll learn to mitigate situations like this by asking for specifics, such as “Is everyone walking inside?” before starting the encounter. If they’re looking for traps, ask them how they’re looking for traps. If they don’t specify they’re crawling on the floor, then they have to make a save against the burning hands trap three feet off the floor if they don’t see it. If there’s a pit in the center of the hallway, ask them how they’re walking down the hallway. If they don’t specify hugging the wall, then they’re not. Ask if they’re walking single file or two abreast to figure out who falls in, etc. Since I’ve gotten in the habit of asking for specifics, this type of situation arises exceedingly rarely anymore.
Make sure that every important facet of a room, terrain, or combat encounter is included in your initial description. (Besides traps and things meant to be a surprise, of course) Nothing is going to piss players off more than a Barbarian attempting to charge an orc only to hear, “Oh! You can’t, there’s a giant pool of water in the center of the room” or “Oh, I forgot the floor is covered with ice, make an Acrobatics check.” If you’ve been playing with your group for a while, you might be able to get away with that once or twice, but either way, it makes it seem like you’re treating them unfairly by pulling stuff out of thin air.
On the other hand, if your players suggest something, such as, “Are there any chandeliers in this room?” If it makes sense, go ahead and throw it in! Always follow the Rule of Cool, your players will love you for it.
4) Use The PCs To Track The Monsters’ Positions
How do you keep track of where everyone is in Theatre of the Mind? Simple. Tordek, Regdar and Mialee (the old 3.5 iconics just don’t get enough love anymore) are fighting four goblins. Tordek runs up and engages one of the goblins in melee. Regdar runs up and engages a different goblin in melee. A third goblin attacks Tordek in melee while the fourth stays back with a bow. So what’s the situation look like? You have two goblins on Tordek, one on Regdar, and one standing in the back. If Mialee wants to Magic Missle one of the goblins, you can just ask:
“Do you want the one on Regdar, one of the ones on Tordek, or the one with the bow?”
Tracking hit points for them isn’t very difficult either. You can mark them however you like, Goblin 1, 2, 3, and 4. Goblin A, B, C, or D. Carl, Bob, Stu and Hoseface Larry. You just need to remember who went to Regdar, who went to Tordek, and who’s got the bow. When I have trouble keeping track mentally, I notate it in my notes like so:
Tordek C (7)
Regdar B (7), S (4)
Mialee HL (7)
I usually track it in the same place I do initiative.
As the fight progresses, circumstances will arise that will help your players more easily determine the target they want:
“Do you want an injured one or a healthy one?”
“Do you want the one that Tordek just hit or the one Regdar knocked prone?
5) Make Combat Visceral
“Your arrow hits, the orc takes five points of damage” might cut it when using maps and minis, but that’s largely because the dynamic at work is that of a board game. A large part of the fun comes from trying to outmaneuver the enemy and use the board to their advantage to stack the encounter in their favor. However, in Theatre of the Mind, the players’ main vector for entertainment is their imaginations, and as the one who acts as narrator and sets the stage, it’s up to you to make what they imagine as entertaining as possible.
There’s been a lot of advice written about not being too florid with your combat descriptions. It’s all crap, all of it. Maybe don’t write a five page soliloquy for every kobold that dies as they breathe their last, pleading to the kobold gods for forgiveness, but don’t be afraid to inject some passion into the combat either.
The orc does not miss the fighter with his axe. “The orc’s axe howls through the air in a downward slice, but the fighter deftly twists his sword around to catch the blow on the flat of his blade as he plants a boot in the orc’s stomach, forcing him back. The zombie doesn’t get hit by the warhammer. “Its pallid form shudders beneath the dwarf’s hammerblow, its spine separating with a sickening crack as the top half of its body sloughs to the earth in an unnatural contortion. With grotesque motions it pulls itself back together and stumbles forward to redouble its assault.”
This viscerality is one of the most compelling things about Theatre of the Mind. As much as I try to evoke this same experience when using minis, it’s way too easy for me to get bogged down in the pedantry of trying to keep track of position, staying mindful of each monsters abilities, and trying to remember which health tally corresponds to which mini. Sometimes I’m just grateful to get a mini off the board and be done with it. Theatre of the Mind lifts a lot of that mental strain and just lets me focus on what’s going on in the encounter. If you can evoke a vivid enough image in your players’ minds, if they can see the cutting arcs of blades and the flashes of spellfire, hear the ring of metal and the earth crunching softly beneath their feet, it will be vastly more entertaining than watching a bunch of tiny statues stand around.
6) Resolving Area Of Effect Attacks
This is admittedly the trickiest part of playing in this style, and even I have been known to break out a map from time to time if there’s a big dragon battle coming up. It’s far from impossible however. The 5e DMG has a nifty equation to help when this situation arises, but I think I have a better way.
Dude, you’re the Game Master. Just do what you do a hundred times a session and make a call.
If you’ve followed my other steps and properly engendered trust in the players at your table, they have no reason to doubt you when you say that the Dragonborn’s breath weapon can hit two of the eight flying kobolds. If they do disagree with you, hear them out and if it’s reasonable either amend your call or explain to them why you came to your original decision.
This method might sound a little flippant, but there’s a couple bits of common sense that I use to inform the situation.
In the case of something like Fireball, creatures are usually going to have about 5-10 ft. of space between them, including players if you’re using PCs to mark positions. Even dumb creatures will instinctually stick together for protection, but they’re not going to pile on top of one another and invade each other’s sword swinging space without a deliberate reason. Usually, you won’t have to worry about players being caught in the blast as most players will place their AoE behind the enemies to catch them in the very edge and spare the friendly melee. (It’s an exploit used every day on the battle map and there’s no reason to deny it to players here) If something like Flanking or odd maneuvering places a player behind the line of enemies, you’ll know and be able to adjudicate accordingly.
A Cone Effect will always catch whatever’s in front of it unless the player specifically maneuvers to avoid hitting their teammates, which may require going adjacent to the melee depending on the circumstances.
Anyone who’s ever tried to run a Blue Dragon boss fight on a battle mat will tell you that a Line Effect will almost always hit precisely one target, unless they specifically maneuver to line it up like a billiard shot, in which case it might get two.
The point of this article is not to convince the reader to throw away their maps and minis, it’s to hopefully add a powerful, versatile tool to every GM’s toolbox that can be alternated between as the need arises. Each style has its pros and cons, and getting comfortable with both can help elevate the Game Master’s quality of life to the next level. It’s daunting at first, I know, I too once played with only maps. When I finally took the plunge, I found an exciting new way of running my games that made them flow more freely than they ever had before. Try it, just once. We can always go back to maps and minis if you try it and don’t like it.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author, freelance writer and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
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“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” -Carl Sagan
RPGs all boil down to a simple formula: the GM presents a conflict, and the players work to resolve it. When Walter Bradford Cannon described the fight-or-flight response, he was describing two of the three basic strategies not just of survival, but of conflict resolution. (Survival is, of course, the ultimate form of ongoing conflict resolution.) About twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was sitting down to think seriously about how to run and play my games better, I found it helpful to examine these basic survival strategies, and how they relate to RPG interactions.
1) Fight (Or Opposition)
“He pulls a knife, you pull a gun, he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” -Jim Malone (The Untouchables)
The most basic form of conflict resolution PCs are familiar with, Opposition is meeting the conflict with force (physical, magical, mental, political, etc) and overcoming it. Even groups that pride themselves on how far they’ve evolved from their knuckledragging murderhobo ancestors still tend to solve the lion’s share of their problems with this way. Using Charm Person to talk your way into the duke’s palace is a form of Opposition. Likewise, the Ventrue Primogen who uses his political favors to have his rival cast out into the wilderness has used Opposition; he’s just using political machinery rather than his fists.
Players expect their enemies to attempt to defeat them with force. It’s rare that a foe can use Opposition as a survival strategy and get the drop on PCs. Still, sometimes having a bigger stick is enough. Giants have used this particular strategy for years. If you want an enemy to be able to compete with players while still using this form of conflict resolution, you may want to think about changing the avenue of Opposition they use. Goblins charging the adventurers with pickaxes flying isn’t anything new. Goblins pooling their wealth to bribe the local magistrate into passing laws to hamstring adventuring groups (such as taxing dungeon crawlers heavily, or outlawing spellcasting, or banning certain adventurer-friendly religions) is definitely an avenue the players won’t be expecting.
2) Flight (Or Avoidance)
“No problem is too big to run away from.” -Charles Schulz
PCs are extremely loathe to use this survival strategy once a fight has started. Retreat is often seen as cowardice, and thus anathema to a hero. If there are innocent parties (or valued assets) at risk, this tendency can be magnified. Avoidance isn’t just retreat though: it’s also avoiding fights in the first place. Against monsters of animal intelligence, kind-hearted groups can occasionally be found using this strategy to avoid having to kill ‘natural’ creatures. If resources are being tightly controlled (say, in a dungeon where sleep or rest won’t be an option, or behind enemy lines) then players can display a shocking level of deviousness when it comes to solving problems with Avoidance. Many a GM has a tale of woe in their history involving flight spells, rings of invisibility, or cunning washerwoman disguises being used to circumvent hours of diabolical preparation.
A bad guy who used Avoidance as their preferred strategy can end up being the most frustrating enemy to deal with. PCs build their combat routines and capabilities with the underlying assumption that the monsters are going to try to fight them. How infuriating is it then, when the villain teleports away, or has alarms set up so they can scarper off before the heroes have worked through the first half of their lair? Dr. Claw and Carmen Sandiego, of children’s cartoon fame, are great example of villains of this type: they always skip out just ahead of the heroes’ arrival, leaving their pursuers frustratingly empty-handed. All of the most rewarding victories in my gaming career have been over villains of this type: after so many encounters where thwarting their plans came with the bitter aftertaste of their escape, their final defeat was so sweet that each would be a high I would ride for years.
3) Surrender (Or Capitulation)
“You are my only friend, O’Connell.” -Benny (The Mummy)
This is my absolute favorite strategy. Don’t negotiate, don’t argue, don’t run: just throw down your weapons and surrender. Abject, total, humiliating surrender is the one outcome that almost no one thinks about. For PCs up against a villain that’s about to wipe them out, total and complete capitulation is forcing your DM to play Russian Roulette with her campaign: either it works, or you’re all starting from scratch. If the Hail Mary play is all you have, it can take you surprisingly far.
For a GM, the Capitulation can be even sweeter. Players who can navigate complex puzzles and organize intense tactical plans in combat can find themselves dumbfounded by an unconditional surrender. I’ve seen players spend nearly an hour arguing over what to do with a surrendered enemy. In most games, there’s no clear cut ‘right’ answer. After all, very few characters are going to be in a situation to have the legal authority to try and execute someone on the spot (and very few groups will be morally sanguine with doing so). If they don’t give in to the impulse towards cold-blooded murder, what are their other options? Dragging the enemy back to town means protecting them from wandering monsters, expending vital resources feeding and protecting them, and to what end? In many cases, there aren’t authorities to turn such villains over to. Even if there are, there is the question of whether the prisoner will receive a fair trial (or worse, if turning them over to the authorities guarantees them getting off scot free). If you’re looking for a way to put your players in a no-win situation, or at least a situation some of them are guaranteed to be unsatisfied with the outcome of, a Capitulation can be the most rewarding method of achieving this.
Who wants to live forever?
“I…I will survive.” -Gloria Gaynor
It may seem a little elementary, but understanding the basic fundamentals of conflict resolution can help us as players find innovative solutions to encounters. As GMs, it can help us come up with unique and memorable encounters, which translate directly to a unique and memorable game.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://ironshod.deviantart.com/art/Run-Away-32743482
Hands down, my favorite accoutrement for any game is the Game Master’s screen. The evocative art on the players’ side, the tables and reminders on my side to minimize flipping through books as much as possible, and last but not least, the prestige, the unmistakable badge of honor that marks one as the Game Master, the universal sign that conveys to one and all “Yea, I am the creator of worlds! Join me that we may weave our story together!” Unfortunately, it’s exceedingly rare that I find one I would honestly say is perfect. Some of them are mired in superfluous information (looking at you, Original 5e Screen), some of them don’t have all the information you want, (I still have to dig out the book every time I need to see the Renown charts for Werewolf the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary) and some of them just aren’t right. The Paizo Pathfinder GM Screen would be damned near perfect if it wasn’t only available in Portrait orientation. Personally, I vastly prefer Landscape, it makes it far easier to see the map and reach for minis if I’m using them, and affords me much more real estate at the table. Trying to keep my notebook, GM books, and laptop organized behind a Portrait screen can sometimes be an exercise in frustration at our table.
As a result, I’ve recently segued into what might be a strange sub-hobby within RPGs, creating my own custom screens for my personal use. It isn’t terribly difficult either. For the most part, all that’s required is a pdf of the rules, image editing software like Photoshop, (or the free alternative Gimp) and access to a printer, which are usually available at the local library if you don’t have one at home.
1) Figure Out What Will Actually Comprised Your Screen
The first step is to figure out what the “screen” part is.
The Cadillac option is to spring for a The World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog Games (not sponsored, I’m just a big fan). I bought the landscape one years ago, and since I use it in just about every game I run I can easily say it’s the best $30 I’ve ever invested in the hobby. TWGS is a durable, high-quality vinyl screen with four clear pockets on each side to hold any inserts the GM wishes, swappable at any time. It’s even compatible with wet erase markers, so you can stick a sheet of graph paper in it and it doubles as a battle mat. Plus, when properly adorned with player side art, it just looks slick as hell at the table.
Of course, for those looking for a cheaper alternative, it’s a simple matter to simply construct a screen. Speaking from experience, I don’t recommend using cardstock for the body. It’s far too flimsy and has a hard time standing up even without having a fan or AC going. Conversely, cardboard that’s too thick will make it difficult for your screen to close properly. For me, the gold standard is the type of thin cardboard used for 24 packs of soda cans. After you’ve constructed your screen panels, cut the cardboard with about an extra ½ of an inch on all sides. Affix the front and back panels to the cardboard around the edges with 1” Masking Tape (Painter’s Tape, it’s far more durable and flexible than scotch tape and won’t lose adhesion as easily) Tape the panels together, and then add one more layer of tape around the edge of the entire screen to seal it together. Fold it carefully, (you might have to place it under a stack of books for a while to get it to behave) and you’ll have a lightweight, flexible, durable screen that will last a very long time. Back before the release of 5e, Fourth Edition DM screens were difficult to find (at least in my area) and commanding ludicrous prices on Ebay and Amazon. I used this method to make myself a DM screen in 2011 and it’s still in excellent condition today. If you use this method, however, I highly recommend building a Landscape screen. The lower center of gravity and having longer panels to support itself will make it far more stable and nowhere near as easy to blow over if you happen to be playing in a room with a strong fan.
2) Screen Grab The Necessary Information
Once you’ve figured out what information you want to feature on your screen, the next step is to turn the information you want into a jpeg or other image file usable by your image manipulation software of choice. Open your pdf in your pdf reader of choice and take a screenshot (the Print Screen key by default on a Windows PC), then paste the image into Microsoft Paint or similar program. Your screen grab will appear and you can save it as a jpeg. At this juncture, saving your jpegs into a dedicated folder will help make the process go far more smoothly as you’ll probably end up with quite a few.
The most important part of this step is trying to screenshot the pdf at an appropriate size. While you’ll have full autonomy to resize everything later, you won’t be able to do too much before the text starts looking distorted and blurry. Personally, my GM screen is equivalent to my notes for me, so I’m not terribly picky about what it looks like so long as I can read it. Of course, different folks will have different sensibilities on the matter.
3) Create An 8.5” x 11” Project
Open a new 8.5 x 11 inch project (The size of an average sheet of paper) in your image manipulation software. Which measurement corresponds to height and width obviously depends on which style of screen you intend to create. As you begin to arrange your screen panel, consider the fact that the final product will actually print out slightly smaller than what you see here, as even printing with the “Fit to Page” option enabled will leave you with a small margin around the edges of the page.
4) Place Linked Your Images
Import/Place your collection if jpegs into the project, trimming them as needed with Selections, Cropping, etc. The actual procedure for this will vary based on what program you’re using, so if you’re unfamiliar with the practice, searching Google for a tutorial is unfortunately the best advice I can give.
Arrange your images as you see fit, but keep in mind what I said about text becoming distorted if you attempt to transform it too much. When you’re finished, save your screen panel as a jpeg itself, and start constructing the next panel.
5) Print And Assemble
Print out the finished panels for your screen and either insert them into your screen of choice or assemble them as directed previously.
6) Player Facing Art
This is the most fun part, decorating your screen so the entire room knows what kind of pro GM they’re dealing with! When it comes to finding art for your screen, bigger is better. I’m sure most people know by now what happens when you resize a small image to be much bigger than intended. Simplify your life by searching for Wallpapers, they’re large enough and can be proportioned to the size of a sheet of paper without looking distorted. Paizo.com has a great selection of Fantasy and Sci-Fi wallpapers and other appropriately sized illustrations to inspire your players, and of course, a good old fashioned Google Image search for Fantasy Wallpapers, Horror Wallpapers, Cyberpunk Wallpapers, etc. will yield an embarrassment of riches no matter what genre of gaming you prefer.
For best results, print your player facing art on cardstock. It will absorb all that ink better than regular printer paper and make the images noticeably more vibrant, whereas images printed on regular paper are often marred with lines as the printer spits it out little by little.
Yeah, it’s a little bit of work, but when you have a GM screen perfectly tailored to give you the exact information you need when you need it, the results are well worth it. At GenCon 2016 I had the honor of running Pathfinder Society in the Sagamore Ballroom, a giant event with over 150 tables all celebrating their love for the game at once. It’s truly a sight to behold. In an enormous, packed room filled with some of the best and brightest Game Masters the Paizo community has to offer, I still had complete strangers come up to me to complement and ask me about my screen because it stood out from every other one. My greatest pride that weekend was when players enjoyed the games I ran, but that was a very close second.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author, freelance writer and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Image Resource: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRMVTmbe-Is
I’ve often heard people discuss being a GM like it was akin to being a writer. In some ways, I can understand this viewpoint, such as when devising one’s own setting or coming up with overarching plot for a game. A common thread in many of these discussions is either the players doing something unexpected that “derails” the game, or the dice rolls being poor and thus “ruining” the story.
Stories like that, including such that I could tell about my own experiences, have lead me to believe that there must be a better way to think about GMing. Writing may serve a purpose in this hobby, but it’s by no means the only skill one should rely on.
Enter improvisation, an artform most commonly employed in theatre, and an integral part of shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? This isn’t a mode a theatre that can be easily understood or performed just by reading a book, (or article on your favorite tabletop gaming website) but there are a few shortcuts that can help get you into the right mindset.
1) “Yes, and…” “No, but…”
This isn’t quite a shortcut so much as it’s a cardinal rule of improv theatre: always say “Yes,” and follow up with something to add onto the other actors ideas. I bring this up because it’s a recurring theme for many of the following points. They will all involve accepting what has been established, and working within that framework by adding more details.
Improv theatre has a corollary rule: don’t say “no.” Saying no to an idea kills any momentum the scene generated, slows things down, and makes for a much less entertaining spectacle as the troupe attempts to get things moving forward again. Improv is a collaborative storytelling activity, after all.
Despite this similarity, there are times in tabletop gaming where “no” can or even must be said. With this in mind, I’d like to redefine this rule: if you must say “no,” it’s best to provide an alternative idea for the player to work with.
Consider these examples for opening a locked chest:
“No, you’re unable to pick the lock on the door with that roll, but those hinges do look a little rusty.”
“Yes, your acid vial is strong enough to corrode some of the mechanisms in the lock, making it easier to break open.”
2) Baiting the Players
This particular tool doesn’t necessarily refer to “baiting plot hooks,” so go ahead and banish that thought from your mind. This was an idea I first encountered in the game Mountain Witch by Tim Kleinert. It’s a tool that gives the players more purchase in the setting and story. The way it works is like so: you set a scene for players, but finish the scene by proposing an open ended question.
Here’s an example of how to set it up in a modern setting:
“After a long day of work, you’re sitting listlessly in bed trying to go to sleep when your phone rings. You look at the caller ID. Who’s calling this late at night?”
With this technique, NPCs who might otherwise never show up or be considered can be brought in as either the bearer of bad news or some other plot hook. However, in order for it to work, players it is used upon have to be cooperative. Often times, when employing this or other techniques that hand narrative control over to players, I’ll follow up by informing them the only wrong answers are “I don’t know” and “This wouldn’t happen.” (Read: The “Don’t Say No” rule of Improv Theatre.)
3) Schroedinger’s Gun
Schrodinger's Gun is a mix of the concepts of Schrodinger's Cat and Chekhov’s Gun. Schrodinger's Cat is a very nuanced thought experiment about quantum physics, meaning I can’t concisely explain all the fine points of it within the scope of this article. For this purpose, though, just know that it involves a cat that is both alive and dead until somebody checks on the cat.
Chekhov’s Gun, on the other hand, is a literary device that states that if a gun appears in a work of literature, it MUST be fired at some point. Otherwise, there wasn’t any point to mentioning it. When we take this gun and give it to Schrodinger, it becomes a gun that is both loaded and unloaded until somebody tries to fire it. Basically, the rule here is that nothing is true until it is established as true. (GM notes be damned!)
Let’s go to an example that doesn’t involve guns:
In a game of Dungeons and Dragons, let’s say there’s an important letter the players need to find on the corpse of somebody. Though before anybody can check said corpse, one of the player’s, in a fit of being Chaotic Stupid, burns the body to ash.
One way to salvage the situation is to say that the letter somehow survives, or the body doesn’t catch fire, or some other implausible statement asserting that the GM notes should trump what might reasonably happen. This is where this tool comes in: if you never stated there’s a letter on the corpse, that letter can just appear elsewhere, such as in a desk or in a steel lockbox nearby.
4) How Do You Know Sarah Palmer?
Starting a game can be tricky; even if you know what you want to happen, how things start, and what the details of the setting are. You present all this that you’ve poured your heart and soul into to the players and...they don’t share that same passion you did. This can be a soul-crushing moment, and rightfully so.
However, consider this: it’s easier to take a vested interest in a work of fiction when you’re the one creating it. Not quite so when you’re just consuming it. Enter our tool: at the start of the game, during character creation, go around and ask the players “How Do You Know Sarah Palmer?” No answer is off the table, and each answer gives opportunity for more details into this one mutually known NPC, as well as how some of the world works.
If one player states they were once a business partner of Mrs. Palmer, then what of that business? Is it still going on? Are they still partners? If they’re no longer partners, how has this affected their relationship?
The best part of this tool is that it can easily be retooled for other purposes. If the party is already together, and you need to give them a new destination to keep plot going, ask the players about the next city they’ll be travelling to. What’s along the way? What’s the city known for? Who’s in charge of the city? Do you know anybody there?
5) The Iron GM Challenge
This is a technique we’ve mentioned before at High Level Games in another article we ran about how to master improvisation. The article itself is worth reading, but there’s one particular passage I want to reiterate here:
There’s a competition called Iron GM that holds their World Championships at GenCon every year. No, I haven’t won yet, but they haven’t seen the last of me. The competition provides contestants with a Creature, an Object, and a Place, and gives them one hour to create an adventure that prominently features those three elements. Just pick one of each and let your imagination go from there.
This works for any game. Toreador, Book of Nod fragment, Nosferatu warrens. (Vampire the Masquerade) Nexus Crawler, Klaive, high rise apartment. (Werewolf the Apocalypse) Great Race of Yith, manhole cover, police department. (Call of Cthulhu) If necessary, ask your players to provide the elements.
-Chaz Lebel, 6 Steps To Mastering Improvisation As A Game Master
This particular technique was introduced in a section using random elements to spin together a plot, and it illustrates another key element of improvisation: the ideas presented won’t always be your own, but you still have to be willing and able to work with them. Thus, it’s important to learn how to compromise.
Improvisation is a skill like any other, the only way to improve at it, is to get out there and practice. The above tools, however, will give you a good framework to begin your practice. Just remember these principles of improvisation: let others present their ideas, build off of the ideas that are present, and be willing to compromise.
Don’t worry if you mess up, and keep moving forward. There’ll always be more for you to work with down the line.
Aaron der Schaedel isn’t actually trained in improv theatre, or any form of art, fine or otherwise. He’s just a doofus that realized saying “I can’t do that” is a fast way to stop yourself from learning new things. One day, he’ll get around to making something with all these watercolor paints he has lying around. Until that day comes, you can mock him for being lazy via Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://handpickedatlanta.com/atlanta/hand-picked/atlanta-improv
Call of Cthulhu is its own monstrosity. As it lurchs up from the seabed, this system breaks the shoreline and demands a different storytelling method from its game master. In Dungeons and Dragons, players find themselves in a dungeon with reaching the monster at the end as their goal. It asks the players, “How many die rolls will it take to beat this monster?” Call of Cthulhu asks instead, “What if that monster cannot be defeated; even worse, what if that monster cannot even be comprehended?” The game master, officially referred to as the keeper, has a unique challenge ahead of them when designing a Call of Cthulhu campaign. The climax of a campaign is often deadly, but there needs to be more to a session for the players leave satisfied. This buildup of tension is pivotal to Call of Cthulhu, and it can be difficult to create. Here are five tips for making that challenge a little bit easier.
1) Design Your Encounter Backwards
When a keeper creates a storyline for the first time, it doesn’t matter where the players start the campaign. Forcing a beginning will be counterintuitive when it comes to starting a compelling narrative. A keeper should let the players decide where the story begins; whether that be in one player’s private eye office or the occult ward at Miskatonic university, it should not be part of the keeper’s plans. They simply provide the hook and let the players pull at the string.
The best place to start is right at the end, and a keeper should first ask themselves where and how it’ll be. A Call of Cthulhu campaign is a horror story, and a horror story without a compelling ending is simply going to be forgotten. When a keeper knows some of the ending details before it even starts, they will have a solid resolution that they can build towards. This can include clues that, when pieced together, point the players towards that resolution. These details will supply the leads that point the players towards the campaign’s climax with a series of sensical and connected events that will keep them engaged.
Every campaign has a bad guy, but a keeper shouldn’t spend too much time on their villain. To keep this simple, the villain (likely a cult) needs a who, a where, and a what, as they are the only important questions for building the conclusion. Who is the Old One they are summoning, where is the ritual happening, and what are they doing to complete the ritual? For a first design, a keeper shouldn’t plan too much for their villain. Instead, focus on the resolution and plant clues for the players to discover their enemy’s plan as the story unfolds. Working backwards allows a keeper to plan a campaign without having to solve their own mysteries.
2) Plan Specific Discoveries That Progress The Story Forward
Due to its investigative nature, Call of Cthulhu can hit roadblocks that leave the players at a dead end. A good mystery will have details hidden beneath layers of misdirection and red herrings. Keepers may find this compelling, but more often than not, the players will find this frustrating. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t include red herrings or tough puzzles for players to solve; instead, a keeper should plan their mysteries with a balance of leads and dead ends.
Using a tiered discovery system can be very beneficial to first time keepers. In a tiered discovery system, a keeper plans a structure in order for the players to make discoveries. Instead of having every piece of the puzzle available for the players to find, keep some clues hidden until players find enough background to make sense of these new discoveries.
To better understand this concept, let's say the players need to investigate a series of missing person reports at a hotel outside the city. Naturally, they’ll want to look into the history of the building and the disappearances; this is the first tier. Instead of allowing the players to immediately discover the shady hotel owner and his criminal past, the keeper should hide some of the mystery and allow the players to make smaller, more thematic discoveries. It’ll set a mood when they arrive at the hotel if the only clues they’ve come across have been from newspaper clippings, police reports and rumours. It’s only when they find themselves stranded at the hotel do they discover that the hotel owner isn’t as friendly as they initially seemed.
A focused structure will keep the story moving and ensure that the players and the keeper don’t lose themselves in the details. There is a fear of planning a story with such simple hooks will lead to a linear storyline. This fear of linearity stems from the fact that, as the keeper, all the answers are already known. The players get to turn over the rocks and uncover the clues one by one and make their own theories that could soon be turned on their head by a future discovery. A simple structure of clues and discoveries is what will make a campaign compelling for players.
3) Don’t End With The Big Bad
As part of a keeper’s initial planning they may want to plan an ending where the players go face-to-face with someone like Cthulhu himself. As exciting as a moment like this would be, it’ll very likely end with the entire investigative team either dying or going insane. This may be memorable, but such a climax should only be considered if the entire play group is aware of such a possibility. Most players will likely want some sort of resolution, but that doesn’t stop a keeper from making it as Lovecraftian as they can be.
Due to the mechanics, Call of Cthulhu is a very unforgiving system. It’s realistic in the sense that a gunshot or two will kill most characters and NPCs; or the sight of some sort of unfathomable, cosmic monstrosity will cause a person to lose all sense and reason. Player death is often unavoidable in this game. It’s because of this that a first time keeper is recommended to make the villains human. A cult is a very good tool for this. The climax can be about stopping the ritual that summons Yog-Sothoth instead of fighting Mr. Yog-Sothoth itself.
This gives a chance for the players to achieve some sort of victory; they stopped the evil machinations of the dark forces in their city, but they also learned of unimaginable forces that lurk between the stars or beneath the ocean. This mark will have a lasting effect on the character that is a lot more tantalizing to the player than killing them. This may compel players to continue their adventures past this first campaign. It’s this headstrong attitude that allows keepers to be even less forgiving the second time around.
4) Design With A Sense Of Dread
Call of Cthulhu provides a completely different kind of atmosphere over something like Dungeons and Dragons. The players should feel tense and uneasy as they dig deeper into the strange happenings of their keeper’s storyline. This doesn’t mean there can’t be any room for some jokes and comedy, but the scales should be tipped more towards the serious side. To balance this successfully a keeper should plan out encounters that provide a constant flow of dread.
A good way for a keeper to learn this kind of mood is by actually reading some of the works of Lovecraft. There are various pieces by him and other writers of his time that provide excellent examples of dread. The flavor of horror in these stories is a lot different from that of the conventional horror most people are used to. This doesn’t stop a keeper from adding these ideas into their story, but if the end result is about an ancient one being awoken, the horror should be about the hopeless of human existence against the entity as opposed to being chased and running away from it.
Once again: if the players are already face to face with the ancient one, they have already lost. This idea should be the fear that provides the horror. The fact that these characters are fragile is what can push players into really embodying the spirit of the campaign. Push the fact that they may win today, but that doesn’t mean another victory for humanity will happen tomorrow.
5) Don’t Feel Locked Into Lovecraft
This one is a small simple point that is important for keepers to know. Call of Cthulhu is a fun roleplaying system. It works very well with an unforgiving pass/fail system but provides players with a lot of customization and roleplay design. However, Lovecraft isn’t for everyone. Some people find issue with the racist overtones of his writing, so a keeper shouldn’t force anyone to play through a game set in Lovecraft’s world. There’s an entire world of horror that the Call of Cthulhu system could be adapted to. Instead of focusing on the idea of players specifically going against an Old One, a keeper may take influence from other sources.
There are a variety of authors out there continuing the feeling of Lovecraft without being explicitly in his style. Weird stories of horror focus around the fears humans have on a primal level: weaknesses, insecurities, the mistakes they can’t come back from, etc. These are all aspects of horror found within the genre that Call of Cthulhu strives in. If Lovecraft doesn’t resonate with the group, a keeper should find something that works for them. A simple, mysterious piece of horror can sometimes be a lot more interesting to a group than sticking specifically with the source material.
The magic of Call of Cthulhu is the unique perspective a keeper brings to their storylines and their own taste in horror. There is something uniquely human about telling scary stories; a strange desire to experience fear lurks within all of us. Creators have been sharing what makes them scared since the dawn of time. Hopefully these tips allow new keepers to do the same with their playgroup.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Picture Reference: https://www.dailystar.co.uk/tech/gaming/681400/Call-of-Cthulhu-preview-Could-this-be-the-PS4-and-Xbox-One-s-next-cult-hit-horror-game
You finally get your friends around the table for a night of dice rolling and storytelling. You’ve been looking forward to this all week, and have prepared a fantastic adventure. But somewhere along the way, the night of laughs and mayhem turns a little sour, the game begins to lull, or you find yourself unsure of where to take the story next. In the middle of a gaming session, tensions can get high and emotions can spiral out of control. Many gamemasters have expressed a desire to solve their issues at the table, or keep trudging through a slow combat scene. Whatever their reasoning, some GMs dislike the idea of taking a break, as if it says something about their abilities. The truth is, a well-placed break can keep a game going and help relieve tension. Here are five instances where I have it found helpful to take a step away from the game table and collect my thoughts.
1) Tensions Are High
Angry players are a very tricky problem for running a smooth game. Whether they are unhappy with one of your rulings, the decisions of another player, or something as simple as bad luck, this is a perfect time to call for a break. It is important to remember that you shouldn’t be taking this break in order to find a way to prove you are “right” in a rules argument or something similar. Instead, state you want a break so everyone can cool off and come back to the table with leveled emotions. Stepping outside for a moment or simply distracting yourself with your phone can be a good way to get your mind off of things for a few minutes.
2) For The Sake of Drama
Perhaps the NPC who hired the heroes turned out to be the villain, or the scorned lover of one of the heroes just showed up seeking vengeance. Whatever drama has just presented itself in the story, this can be a great time for the players to take a bathroom break, refill their drinks, and bust out fresh snacks. During the break, a dramatic revelation will probably come up in conversation, and players will inevitably find themselves headed back to the table feeling ready to see what will happen next.
3) Collect Your Thoughts
You can’t prepare yourself for every situation, and eventually the players will do something that knocks you for a loop. Perhaps they are fixated on an NPC you considered relatively unimportant, or they have decided to leave behind the evil necromancer to loot the ancient wizard’s tower they heard about several adventures ago. Players can be a fickle and unpredictable bunch; there is nothing wrong with taking a bit of time to figure out how you wish to proceed.
4) Distracted Players
We’ve all been in this situation. You’ve planned out the perfect encounter and are ready to reveal the villain’s master plan, when you notice the player next to you is Googling something unrelated on their phone. A player on the other end of the table is stacking dice as high as they can before it comes crashing down with a resounding clatter. Don’t take it personally, sometimes we all just need a change of pace for a few moments to renew our sense of focus. Sitting in one place for too long can be enough for some players to lose interest, so let them get up and stretch their legs!
5) Uncomfortable Player
As a gamemaster, it is vital to be sensitive to the wants and needs of your players. This is particularly important with touchy subjects like politics, race, gender, etc. If a player is acting awkward at the table, they may be uncomfortable with the topic at hand. Hopefully, you’ve established at the beginning of your campaign exactly what topics you planned on covering, so players know ahead of time what will be discussed. Regardless, something may come up that feels unsafe to a certain individual. Confronting them right there at the table could easily make the situation worse; so instead, simply call for a break and take the player aside and ask them how they are. Their problem may not be related to the game at all, but it’s always a good idea to check. Implementing a tool like the X-Card can be very beneficial as well.
No one is perfect, and eventually we’re all likely to need a breather every now and then. As the GM it is our job to facilitate fun, and sometimes that means stepping away from the game, even if it is just to grab more pretzels.
Nathan Carmen is the founder and head writer of the Indie RPG company, Tricky Troll Games. Nathan loves building worlds and improving his craft when he’s not busy parenting. Reach Nathan at email@example.com or check out the TTG website at https://nathanccarmen.wixsite.com/trickytrollgames
Art provided by JESHIELDS. Find and support his work at https://www.patreon.com/jefantasy
Nashicon 2018 was the first time I was explicitly invited out to be a GM at a convention. While this isn’t the first time we at High Level Games have covered a first time experience as a con GM, I find it worth noting that my experience is different from what we’ve covered earlier. Primarily because Sean was at the longest running gaming convention in the world, while I was at a comparatively shorter lived anime convention that happened to have a tabletop gaming room.
While I believe I did a competent job as a GM at Nashicon, I’d be a fool to believe there wasn’t areas I could improve. So for your reading pleasure, I have compiled this list where I reflect on what went right and where I screwed up as a GM for an anime convention’s tabletop room.
1) Limit Yourself
Nashicon’s Tabletop Director invited me to run games for them because I’m knowledgeable about various Japanese RPGs. In my excitement to show all that I knew and was capable of, I prepared to run every such game in my repertoire and then some. This turned out to be a mistake.
I was prepared to run seven different games. By the end of the weekend, however, I had only run three of them, and each of those games was only run once. Having a wide assortment available did spark a lot of conversations, as well as attract many curious attendees. However, my broad selection worked against me when it came time to ring these attendees in; I couldn’t decide for myself what it was I wanted to run.
What was more important to limit was how much I wanted to convey in a game. The staff overseeing me at the convention suggested that I try to keep my games to just two hours if I could. While I wasn’t keen on the idea initially, as the weekend went on it became apparent to me why: it’s a lot easier to sell somebody on a game if it’s only 2 hours of their time they’ll be spending.
2) Handouts Are Your Friend
Familiarity is a boon in tabletop RPGs. Rules explanations can be kept to a minimum, or even done by other players at the table, lessening the GM’s burden to do so. By running less familiar games, I couldn’t rely on this, but I otherwise had a plan to work around this limitation.
Said plan was to prepare printouts of vital rules to use as a reminder for players. This alleviated a problem I’d often have running personal games when there was only one copy of the rulebook to go around: the players could have a quick reference to how the game worked.
To make these reminder sheets more interesting, though, I printed some images on the backside of these handouts. When I set up my table for a game of Ryuutama, I spread out two sets of my reminder sheets. One side with the artwork of the character classes displayed, and the other side with the abilities of that class. An unintended side effect of this was that it made it made my table much more identifiable, and also drew the attention of passers-by.
3) Pregen Characters Are Too
I didn’t have any pregenerated characters for any of the games I ran over the weekend; every game I ran we made characters for on the spot. By contrast, my Dungeons and Dragons playing neighbors had an entire table dedicated to displaying pre-made characters so that they could quickly jump in on a game that still had room.
From the glimpses I got of these character sheets, it seemed like many of them were the official pregenerated sheets provided by Wizards. For the uninitiated, these sheets have class feature explanations reprinted from the rulebook, as appropriate for the level. Functionally, this made them similar to handouts I created Ryuutama.
4) Assistants Are Your Best Friend
One challenge that I consistently encountered was gathering players. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of interest. That was far from the case. The difficulty was that I couldn’t get enough people gathered at one time to play a game. Towards the end of the weekend, though, the idea came to me to use my fellow staff to fill out the roster. (After they had done the same with me for another game.)
In fact, I would be inclined to say that help from the other staff was instrumental in making the game room successful. There were members of staff who were keeping tabs on which GMs were doing what, and would guide the players to the GMs they were looking for. These staff helped coordinate both D&D games, as well as independent RPG GMs such as myself.
5) In The End, It Comes Down To You
You can have the best support network and all the preparation in the world, but when push comes to shove, it’s exactly as the the title of this point says: it all comes down to you. Tabletop RPGs may be part collaborative storytelling, but getting one off the ground without a GM is more or less impossible.
As a GM for Nashicon, I was expected not only to run the games, but also to do the legwork to find players and organize these games. I didn’t expect this to be difficult, and it was the one thing I didn’t really brace myself for. (By contrast, I had literally hundreds of pages of character sheets and handouts at the ready.)
It turns out that selling somebody on a game they haven’t heard of that belongs to a genre they’ve only scratched the surface of (if they’ve even heard of it) takes more than showing up and having a sales pitch ready. I wasn’t able to get people to play anything until I or other staff insisted they sit down.
Once I got my players around the table though, it wasn’t much different than any other time I ran a game. I knew how to entice players to participate and let themselves be involved in the creative aspect of gaming. I knew how to keep things moving along and when to take short cuts: I was back in my element.
Even though it was a familiar activity in a familiar setting, being GM staff for this anime convention was a much more novel experience than I expected it to be. It made me more aware of some shortcomings of mine, and thus gave me plenty to work on should I continue down this path.
Aaron der Schaedel, despite his love of conventions and festivals, has yet to attend any dedicated specifically to tabletop gaming. He can’t be there, but thinks you should totally check out HLGCon. If you do go, you can gloat to Aaron about how much fun you’re having there and he isn’t via twitter: @Zamubei
It can be argued the NPCs are the RPG games that we play. They’re the way the GM interacts directly with the player characters. For me, they’re at least on par with the locations and sensorial information, in making the experience of the game a bit more intense and realistic. I’ve recently changed my approach to NPC building dramatically. I’ve had really great feedback from my players, and here is what I did:
Everyone can do a different voice. Cast it higher or lower, make it distinctive. Give him/her/it a characteristic speech cadence. When you come back to the NPC in a few sessions time, the players will remember him/her/it, and what he/she/it did. I am a horrible impersonator, but I have a couple of good ones (e.g. Mr Burns, Palpatine, HAL 9000, Watto, Admiral Akbar on a good day, a posh, quiet guy from a previous game, cockney on a REALLY good day, etc). It truly doesn’t take much, heck, just an accent or a cough will do.
2) Three Times Three
Give the NPC three things they are, three things they’d want to achieve and three things that define them. Not much else, at this stage. Let’s say we have a dodgy pawn shop owner. Untrustworthy, Greedy, Astute / Money, Respect, Status / Sniffly, Hunched, Darting eyes. And there we go. I know, I know, I punched all the stereotypes of ‘dodgy money lender,’ but you get what I mean. Don’t overdo it! This is the main thing! Keep it vague so you can adapt it on the fly (more on that below).
This is the greatest change I’ve made to my NPCs. Now that I have an idea of what and who they are, I then write down tables. I make a series of numbered bullet points of events, and then I roll a die. I find this works much better for me, keeps me on my toes and forces me to roll with the punches. I used to plan too much and became much more inflexible when things - inevitably - went off track. I used to plan everything, write massive backgrounds to each NPC, and then, the players would say ‘hello!’ (if that) and move on. I then had to find another way for them to find the info and there goes Miss So-and-so background as an old merc. Don’t. Stay loose, roll with the punches.
4) Take In EVERYTHING
I am now picking up on every single silly thing me and my players say, and weave it into the narrative, no matter how stupid. Believe me, these will become the groups’ memories that they will retain years after the game is long forgotten.
5) Use The Players
Now and again, I tell the players, I need an NPC, and vaguely describe what I need. You’d be surprised how well this works and how much the players will contribute to the cause.
6) It’s All In The Past
Before the game starts, ask a few random questions of the players, about places where they grew up, people that were important to them, etc. They then basically have done all the work for you. You now have half a dozen NPCs you can bring over at any stage to destabilize things/make them more interesting.
7) Box Of Sand
Here is where my love for sandbox rule systems shines through. RPGs are a sandbox. Allow your players to play with the sand. Allow them to ask and try and do things (within reason) with the NPCs that you didn’t think of. Make it hard for them if its weird, but what are you going to lose?
8) Bringing It All Together
By definition, an NPC is not a character. It’s not ‘alive’ in the real world, but there’s no reason why he/she/it wouldn’t be so in the narrative. In this sense, I keep coming back to something I read years ago, about some long forgotten sci fi show where the characters were so forgettable and two-dimensional that one episode, when the fate of each of them was hanging in the balance, there was simply no drama, no stress. I remember reading someone’s comment on a forum, ‘If they all died, would you actually care?’ No. No, I wouldn’t.
You don’t need to make the NPC important, vivid or interesting in any shape or form, but they need to be relevant. The fact they’re imaginary is beside the point. At the time of the game, they are important.
If they died, would the characters/players care? If so, those are the NPCs that will stay with them.
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, three years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPGs came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPGs at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: http://3dnpc.com/forums/topic/3d-npc-look-overhual/
Something I've learned about myself is that creating backstory is my favorite part of character creation. You get to choose their life experience and place it in the world. Backstories are vital to characters in all creative writing. For example; If you look closely, movie script writers will always have a backstory written for the character even if that character isn’t in the movie. It gives the actors (or in this case our players) the ability to understand who the character is and how to play them. So, let's talk backstory, shall we?
1) Backstory Inspires Your GM
As a player you are vital to the world building process. The world is literally being built for you and around you. A player should put the same amount of work into a character that the GM puts into a world. And though backstory is only a small piece of the symbiosis, it allows the GM and player to easily collaborate. We know how invested our world builders get; railroading is a growing pain of gaming. I know for me it helps me think outside of the box. One of my players placed a city in his backstory and now it’s a major place in my setting.
You’ll get them thinking about your character, you’ll get them thinking about how to shape their world.
2) Creating In-Character Bonds
Creating our backstories allows for the party to connect and grow as characters. It brings a depth to the table allowing players to have an ultimate understanding of why they act the way they do. A group that has a rich array of roots also encourages roleplay when players want to learn about each other’s characters. The unique dialogue that arises from this creates a strong, in-character bond.
In the longest campaign I have ever been a part of, I played a character that went through a drastic morality shift. I had suffered a loss in game because of my backstory, my character was emotionally defeated, but my party did everything they could to pick him up. It was an empowering moment for this character because he became less selfish. He never saw these people as friends until this moment. They were only tools, but because of a small background detail, our relationship had changed.
3) Practice Becoming A Better Player
Character backstory is an easy problem with a complicated solution. The first two points work in tandem with this concept to make you a better player. Putting time into your backstory is a big investment, but has a pay off well worthwhile.
Compare your game to a spider’s web that you weave with your GM and other players. Plucking a strand in the web you created can cause an interesting vibration. Messing around with structures will only increase your understanding of how these games can work, which can lead to more fun. Isn’t fun the point of our hobby?
I believe the backstory of a character is the most important part to a game. Paying attention to how you build your character’s backstory allows you to create characters that can do great things. I will leave you with a warning though: everyone in the hobby has different levels of investment. Follow the golden rule; know who you’re playing with.
How important is backstory to you?
Benjamin Witunsky, artist, writer and nerd savant. Cofounder of the NerdMantle Podcast available on Soundcloud, Itunes and Google Play Music.
Image Source: The Hollywood Reporter
Many RPGs deal with life and death, the biggest stakes for your character. Sometimes the risk is in a private duel in a back alley, but more often we’re thinking about melee, small groups or even armies clashing in a noisy, terrifying, violent storm of chaos with lives in the balance.
Such is the like to thin the veil between the living and the dead. So many moments from passing through that veil could have some very striking effects on reality, on what the living perceive, or even what the dying see as they pass through the veil. A recent episode of Vikings, the TV series on the History channel, did the best job I’ve seen of exploring this with a culture who truly believed in the gods and in the glory of battle.
Let’s examine some ways that the battlefield can get weird for the player characters.
1) My Life Flashed Before My Eyes!
Death and near-death are the same thing in many ways. Those who have experience either of them and lived to tell about it talk of their life flashing before their eyes. This would be a great way to have a supernatural or weird experience for one of your characters without dooming them to die to have it happen.
It could happen as the killing stroke is descending. Before the blow lands (or deflects off armor) the character has a series of visions and only afterward do you determine their fate. The visions should tell their story from the most impressionable moments in childhood, young adult years, and beyond. When did they first kill? Who was their first love? What were their greatest moments of achievement and deepest failings or tragedies? Tell their story and spin it as epic as possible to infuse this next die roll with dramatic energy.
2) The Dead Came For Me
In the midst of battle with life and death all around the character might have visions of people they know but who were long dead. The appearance of their parents or ancestors might beckon them to pass through the veil into the welcoming arms of family. Even a friend newly dead elsewhere on the battlefield might urge them down a path to ‘elsewhere’ to escape harm.
Perhaps these are mischievous or simply cruel spirits masquerading as those the character might trust. If their urging is heeded, the character might step into the path of a killing sword or axe, sending them to the lands of the dead when they might not have gone otherwise. If the battle is being fought on a field of past battles, the chances of such interference from the dead is much greater.
Personally I would never be explicit with the players regarding the veracity of their characters’ visions; whether they are the actual spirits of people they knew, or evil spirits of manipulation. It serves to preserve some of the mystery and wonder of your setting.
3) I Am Changed!
There is such power in the death happening all around that supernatural forces manifest themselves. The battlefield may begin to look haunted, with skeletons fighting each other or even the bodies of the newly slain. Odd lights, shadows, and mists may penetrate the atmosphere and great chills or heat flash over the combatants. They might meet odd people or creatures walking unconcerned through the death and bloodshed. Visions of the impossible or bizarre could occur and the player character be swept up in transformative magics.
After the battle, they might discover their hair has turned white, they have aged, or suffered some other physical change. Their sense of their native tongue might change to a language they never spoke in their life. Nagging injuries or scars from disease might be washed away. A missing limb might be restored or a healthy hand lost.
More serious transformations involve new abilities such as spellcasting or magical powers. Gifts such as foresight or the ability to know when others are lying might play into a greater purpose. They might have been imbued with these powers by a great spirit from beyond the veil. So chosen, they feel a great purpose as well, bent on achieving the goal of the spirit who gave the gifts. Someone might have to die in vengeance. A king or great person might need to be saved from their enemies. A monster who slew what became the great spirit might need to be hunted and slain itself. The demands of the spirit may not be reasonable (“Slay every member of the Thuava clan!”) but should certainly encourage the receiver to new lands and new adventures.
4) I Was Already Dead
Not everyone makes it out alive from a melee, obviously. True, player characters are the heroes, the named roles who appear to wade through battle without consequence, their every weapon stroke a killing blow. That said, even they can be felled by an arrow from nowhere or the master stroke of their vilest nemesis.
In RPGs it isn’t really fair to ‘fate’ someone to die unless this has been a big build-up for the character and the player would find it dramatically correct. So this version comes into play after circumstances kill the character. A series of visions play out as if they had survived the battle, made it home to family or friends, breathed in the sweet air of the morning dawn, and the like. The ‘reveal’ would be that they are already dead on the field.
You might make this a representation of how they journey to the next life, however their religion may define their mind’s inability to accept death for a time. If done powerfully enough, this might even herald their remaining in the area as a ghost, trying to go through the steps of this continued life even though they did not survive to live it. They might be confused as to why they are still hanging around this battlefield and angered as they try to get home and fail. That sets up a quest for their companions or even strangers to find his body and take it to his home for burial, giving him peace.
Great battles turn tides in war and the conflicts of nations and kingdoms. In terms of roleplaying, they can be a challenge when the heroes aren’t the focus of the action. I recommend bringing something extra and very personal to the table for each character by letting your battles get a little weird.
Jim Davenport founded Dragonlaird Gaming Studios in 2005 as a channel for his original tabletop RPG work. He’s an accomplished freelance writer with Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine (as a columnist) from Kenzerco, Margaret Weis Productions (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Cortex), and many others. He published Savage Characters Volume 1 a couple years ago and has plans to release a series of Savage Adventures soon. You can find his website at www.dragonlairdgaming.com.
Picture Reference: https://tse2.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIP.-vR_vMKZ-U4fg2_pIR2aXwHaE8&pid=Api
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In an article of his now-defunct blog, The DM Experience, (Which I hold up to this day as one of the greatest repositories of free Game Master knowledge for fantasy games. It was written during the days of 4th Edition, but 99% of the advice is system neutral) Wizards of the Coast’s Chris Perkins said that the number one tip he gives to DMs is, “Improvise.” It’s not a new concept, in fact it’s usually one of the first pieces of advice most Game Masters who know what they’re talking about will give you. There’s a very good reason for this. Naturally, being able to improvise will make it far easier to react to your players’ choices and increase their enjoyment with your campaign, but what they usually don’t mention is how much easier it can make your life. At least 50 - 60% of everything I do behind the screen is completely improvised. Sometimes my notes for a session are just a single sentence in a notebook, and if you watch our Actual Plays over on Caffeinated Conquests, you’ve seen me do it.
However, while I like to flatter myself that over the years I’ve cultivated a fairly skillful approach to the craft, the honest truth is, it really isn’t difficult at all. Anyone can do what I do, and I’ll be happy to show you how.
1) It’s Not As Hard As You Think It Is
The first step is to remove the mental blocks. Trying to improvise at the game table can be scary if you’re not used to it, a bit like a tightrope walker taking his first tentative steps without a net. The truth is, you can do this. Say it out loud, repeat it to yourself in the mirror if you need to. No matter how long you’ve been GMing, the skill is absolutely within your ability.
The brutal truth is, you’re going to have to do it at some point whether you want to or not. Even if you run nothing but prewritten modules for your entire Game Mastering career, eventually your players will do something the module’s writers didn’t think of, and you’ll hear the bells tolling in the distance. It’s not difficult to do. I’m not a member of an improv troupe, I didn’t even take theatre in high school. I’m just some guy that has cultivated a skill, and you can too.
2) Release Your Scenarios Into The Wild
The famous quote by American writer William Faulkner goes, “In writing you must kill all your darlings,” which means, in exceedingly simple terms, to cast aside our emotional attachments so we can do what is objectively best for the project.
We’ve all been there. The players one-shot your Big Bad Evil Guy in an encounter they weren’t meant to fight him in, (free bit of advice, don’t ever introduce your players to a character unless you’re prepared for them to die a horrible death) or you design an entire dungeon and somehow the players circumvent the need to ever travel there in the first place. Once in a Pathfinder campaign, after the players had acquired a ship, I spent a week designing an entire nautical adventure that would occur on the way to their next destination, complete with washing up on a strange island of undead that not only advanced the plot but planted valuable foreshadowing for the future of the campaign. I showed up at the next session only to be respectfully showed on the official map of Golarion that the party’s next destination was connected by land.
Here’s the trick: When stuff like that happens, let it.
I like to think of the ideas I put into my campaigns as baby birds that I’m nurturing. When the idea has matured enough for the players to encounter it, I release that bird into the wild, and whatever happens, happens. It might soar majestically into the sunset, it might get picked off by the neighborhood cat, but it’s no longer up to me. This frame of mind makes it easier for me to accept two truths: Things might not go the way I intend, and that I need to be ready to adapt if they don’t. Sure, I try to steer things so they go the way I want, but I’m not dependant on it, and I don’t panic if I can’t.
The real benefit to this mindset is that I’ve become vastly more comfortable with saying yes to my players when they come up with something I hadn’t anticipated, I’m not instantly thrust into a defensive posture trying to protect my perceived outcome of a situation. I’m not shocked if my players have an idea that can trivialize an encounter or bypass a puzzle, I’ve already accepted that as a possibility long before it was ever proposed.
3) Harness Player Agency
If you let them, your players can take a great deal of the heavy lifting off your shoulders, as several sessions worth of play can result just from the players cleaning up a mess they themselves created. Wind ‘em up and let ‘em go, they’ll build your adventure for you.
All you really need to do is provide an objective, a reason for the players to care about the objective, and a few complications that make achieving the objective interesting. (Bonus points for providing complications that can’t be simply resolved through combat. No matter how difficult you make the combat, it’s still an “easy” problem to solve) Whenever your players do something of some level of import, ask yourself one very simple question: “So what happens now?” Take a step back and look at the big picture. In your world, what is the most logical thing to result from what just happened?
Let’s take the above example. Your players just killed the BBEG way before they were supposed to. So what happens now? Exceedingly few villains operate in a vacuum. Truly ingenious masterminds always have a plan B, and a villain who believes his actions are justified may even have one in the event of his demise. Everything from goblin hordes to Cthulhu cults and demonic legions have hierarchies, and where there are hierarchies, there are underlings gunning for their boss’ job. They’re not exactly going to weep inconsolably because some adventurers happened to expedite their promotion. Conspirators have co-conspirators, who probably aren't willing to dump several months of scheming down the pot, or better yet may suddenly need to cover their tracks. Again, think outside the box of combat. A duplicitous noble who sends assassins after the PCs will buy you 20 minutes of game time while the party beats the snot out of them and interrogates one for their employer. However, a noble who uses one of the ranger’s arrows to frame the PC’s for the murder of another political rival, thus making them appear as crazed murderers while keeping herself in the shadows will buy you an entirely new adventure. Even the lone sorcerer might have demonic pacts unfulfilled or latent magics waiting to trigger, and if you think a necromancer doesn’t have a back up plan for death…
Let’s say you’re playing D&D and the party is on a quest for the magic sword Aelthrys, Talon of the Ancient Kings. You’ve spent weeks designing an epic multi-level dungeon filled with clever puzzles and fiendish traps at the bottom of which lays their prize. Wouldn’t you know it, the wizard just got a scroll of Wish from a random treasure table and used it to Wish for the McGuffin. (I’ve seen this happen more times than you might think) So what happens now? Well now there’s something very valuable, powerful and rare that’s much easier to get than it was before. Gee whiz, if only the PCs lived in a violent fantasy world overflowing with unscrupulous sentience. Maybe Garm the Brigand King knows the power foretold to the bearer of Aelthrys and isn’t opposed to slitting a few throats to get it. Maybe the local orc chieftain knows well the stories his ancestors told him of Throm’gar the Orc Hewer and he wishes to capture it as a trophy to unite the other orc clans beneath his banner. Either of them could have spies in the next town the PCs visit. There’s also the question of why the sword was so heavily guarded in the first place. Maybe it was the lynchpin of the prison of some ancient evil. Maybe the sword’s creator, an angelic commander of celestial legions feels the evil stir once more and intends to hold the party accountable. Maybe you’ve suddenly got a campaign for the next few months. (You can always reuse the dungeon somewhere else)
4) Keep Some Randomizers Handy
Pulling a game out of thin air can be next to impossible with nothing to go on. The human brain can do some amazing things, but sometimes it needs a jumpstart. That’s why I like to keep something handy to give my creativity a jumping off point when necessary. Pathfinder has a great set of random tables in the Game Mastery Guide. When I was running my campaign I would, on occasion, deliberately not prepare anything that week and challenge myself to come up with an adventure from the tables on the spot. It was quite a lot of fun, actually. The D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide has a metric ton of random tables in it, but in my opinion too many random pieces can muddle the mixture and turn what’s supposed to be a jumping off point into an obtuse pile of disparate pieces that needs to be clumsily hammered together. My advice would be to choose about three or so. My personal favorites are Dungeon/Wilderness Goals, Adventure Villains, and Twists from Chapter 3. Employ the Random Dungeon Generator as needed.
What about games that don’t have random tables? You could create your own, but there’s an easier way.
There’s a competition called Iron GM that holds their World Championships at GenCon every year. No, I haven’t won yet, but they haven’t seen the last of me. The competition provides contestants with a Creature, an Object, and a Place, and gives them one hour to create an adventure that prominently features those three elements. Just pick one of each and let your imagination go from there. This works for any game. Toreador, Book of Nod fragment, Nosferatu warrens. (Vampire the Masquerade) Nexus Crawler, Klaive, high rise apartment. (Werewolf the Apocalypse) Great Race of Yith, manhole cover, police department. (Call of Cthulhu) If necessary, ask your players to provide the elements.
Here’s the catch, whatever the dice or the three elements suggest, stick with it. Challenge yourself. The less the individual pieces seem to fit together on the surface, the better. It’s an opportunity to flex your creative muscle and figure out how they can fit together. You’ll find yourself running adventures you would’ve never thought of otherwise, and your skills in improvisation and Game Mastering in general will grow before your eyes.
5) Don’t Be Afraid To Borrow From Your Future Self
This is less of an issue with adventures that are only meant to last a session, but if you show up to a session expecting to piggyback off the events of the last session, (as I do frequently) then the greatest danger you face is that the players may end up lacking a goal that carries them to the end of the session, either by them accomplishing their mission sooner than you anticipated, or just the path to the goal becoming muddled somehow.
The best thing to do in this scenario is to borrow from your future self. You have at least some ideas of where the future of your campaign will go, right? Drop some foreshadowing for the next arc of the campaign. Pull the trigger on the machinations of a future villain. Just give them something to do until the end of the session. You have until the next session to reconcile everything and put it back in order. If your players start putzing around with nothing to do and no clear objective, no matter how good the first part of the session was, it will diminish everyone’s enjoyment of the game, including your own.
6) Building Encounters
Alright, that’s all well and good, but right now my Pathfinder and D&D players are saying, “That’s great Chaz, but what about combat encounters? How am I supposed to build balanced combat encounters on the fly? I can’t reference all those charts and do all that math that quickly!” I know because I used to be you.
My advice is going to sound like heresy at first, but if what I’ve had to say has made sense up to now, you owe it to yourself to hear me out.
Ditch the encounter building rules.
Firstly, you may not realise this if your main avenue of the roleplaying hobby is some form of D&Derivative, but encounter rules are actually a fairly rare occurrence in RPGs. Vampire isn’t going to tell you how many frenzied Sabbat are a good match for the player coterie, Numenera won’t tell you what Tier the players need to fight an Erynth Grask, etc.
Secondly, D&D itself didn’t even have these rules for decades. It wasn’t until after the Wizards of the Coast acquisition and Third Edition that encounter building became a part of the Core Rules. The absolutely earliest instance of it that I know of was in the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and there it was clearly demarcated as an Optional Rule. No matter how you slice it, that’s still a full 17 years in which DM’s were happily pitting goblins against their players without a problem.
Thirdly, characters in modern roleplaying games are significantly more resilient than the rules might suggest, exponentially so as they gain levels. A “balanced” encounter in most games is designed to drain the PCs of about ⅕ of their resources in exchange for experience points. That’s not high adventure, that’s grinding.
Lastly, the rules don’t (because they can’t) account for the vagaries of the dice. I recently ran the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure Sailors on the Starless Sea for two seperate groups of completely different people. There’s an encounter with seven beastmen about halfway into the adventure. The first group completely steamrolled the beastmen without them being able to land more than one or two scratches on the player characters. The second group, having one more person than the previous, very nearly TPK’ed (as in one player left with one hit point remaining) because my dice chose to rain apocalyptic fire upon the table that night. For that matter, encounter rules also can’t account for tactics, terrain, or any other extenuating circumstances.
Encounter rules aren’t the perfectly calibrated mathematical formulae they might at first appear to be. They are suggestions, guidelines for new DM’s who aren’t yet comfortable enough to evaluate a monster’s abilities on their own.
There’s a much easier, faster way to handle this. Just look at the numbers. Compare a creature’s AC, Attack Bonus, Hit Point and Saves to the party’s. In a fair fight, a monster should be able to land attacks on the moderately armored members of the party about 50% of the time, (hitting with an 11+ on the d20 after adding in their attack bonus) and vice versa for the party. Same for saves. You can translate this up or down a few points to increase/decrease the difficulty. Don’t expect all of the numbers to line up perfectly, monsters are designed to excel in certain areas and lag behind in others.
Now, look at HP. Assume half the attacks will hit and the damage dice will roll half its maximum, (a balanced die’s average roll is usually half, of course most will roll higher or lower but they’ll usually balance each other out) you now have a decent idea of how long it will take one side to win the fight. As long as the PC’s have a reasonable chance of doing that to their enemies before their enemies do it to them, you’re golden.
Some readers may be frustrated that this method lacks precision, but as I explained earlier, not even the official methods can technically give you precision. However, my method can be done at a glance without having to spend precious time dinking with math and numbers. Did you get into this hobby to tell fantastical stories or practice accounting? (Also, let’s be honest, the encounter building rules in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide is one of the most abysmal systems ever put to paper)
Improvisation is not a skill we cultivate just for our players. It’s a huge quality of life improvement for us. When properly utilised, it can remove the laborious parts of our hobby and let us focus on the parts we really enjoy. It can help to mitigate GM burnout. It can help to make the games we run games for us as well, instead of a second job. Not to mention, your players can never derail your campaign, they can only change the plan.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: http://uptv.com/shows/whose-line-is-it-anyway/
The one thing you want to avoid when you’re running a game outside your own space is to be too heavy. I’ve run games where I took a camping backpack, a rucksack and a map case filled with playing mats. One day, waiting for the bus, trying to move a small South American village’s worth of gear, I thought: There has got to be a better way to do this. What follows isn’t necessarily smart, but it is something that I’ve done and I found works for me. Use it at your own peril!
Do not underestimate the power of the clipboard to keep your notes/sheets away from the players and simultaneously collated in the same place. Amazon has some really cheap ones, and if you’re feeling a bit wilder, you can always get one of those that have a clipboard on top of a box, maximizing the number of papers you can have on you. The biggest one I have can easily accommodate a corebook.
More and more, I’m using my Mac for games. I can have my text files, Youtube and Apps (see below) ready to go at all times. My only issue with it is that, at some tables, it simply eats away too much space. So plan ahead if you’re using it. You don’t want to have to stop half way in because the corebook is under the laptop, and then you need to move the minis to put the laptop on the other side, and now where has that goblin model gone….? (You see what I mean.)
3) Plastic Boxes
I LOVE plastic boxes. For props, for models, for pencils, for paper, for everything. I am very disorganised AND methodical in my chaos, so to be able to box stuff makes my life a whole lot easier. You might need to pad some with kitchen paper/foam if your transporting fragile stuff, but it’s still better than any other option I’ve come across.
Obviously this requires a laptop or tablet. Youtube has thousands of videos useful for providing ambiance. Some actually say ‘RPG dungeon/cave/castle/spaceship/ocean vessel’. I’ve used them in the past for my Faith game. When the players entered the abandoned space wreck, I played ‘Abandoned space station’. That changed the mood completely. Now it was ON.
This app is designed for RPG’s, and there are two variants, Sci Fi and Fantasy. Although the app itself is free, each sound stream needs to be paid for (typically a couple of dollars). That said, each stream has about 8 different components that can be adjusted to taste. Believe me, ‘Futuristic Market’ replicated the feel of Blade Runner to the nearest decimal place. You could even add/remove the sounds of rain, hovercars, footsteps, even mecha walking past! (I make no money from Syrinscape, I’ve just used it in the past and really liked it.)
PDF’s are a two-edged sword. Although you can easily have a 500-page corebook on a tablet, I still find it awkward to scroll through for a minute or two to find the right page, and Cthulhu help you if you need to cross reference anything. I really like how easy it makes transport, but I really dislike the difficulties when a players asks for a particular stat or creature, and that’s pretty much your next 10 minutes. This is usually the point when the action just slowly grinds to a standstill.
6) Sticky Notes
Ah the humble, small, yellow, glue-stripped piece of paper. Where would the modern GM be without them? I use them primarily to make notes in the corebook, write down names of things/NPC’s that were suggested by the players, or to pass a message to one of the players without the others seeing. I have tried to plan whole games on them, and then gluing them to a bigger sheet, but the probability that one or more will just drop off is quite high, and you KNOW that it would have something essential on it.
A possible compromise between the size of the laptop and its awkwardness around a busy gaming table. Possibly the ideal venue for PDF’s (see above) and having all the advantages and disadvantages of both. I like it for soundtracks (see above), but use sparingly when it comes to PDF’s.
So these are some resources that have helped me in the past. What have you tried that has made you GM life easier?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, three years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: https://makezine.com/2015/12/08/how-to-build-a-high-end-gaming-table-for-as-little-as-150/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games