Advice for New DMs

#RPGChat recently had a discussion of advice for new DMs. I wasn’t able to find it in time, but went back to through my writing in past RPGChats and pulled out what I think my best advice for DMs is. A lot of this isn’t direct advice on how to run a game; there are a lot of lists of that stuff already, so it is hard to find new things to say; rather, this is mostly advice on issues around the game and even advice on other advice. I’ve also limited this list to advice I’ve got personal experience with from one side of the table or the other.

  1. Take all advice you read online with a grain of salt. There is a standard rule you see in every list, which is “Don’t railroad.” Guess what? I once had a very unsuccessful session, one of the worst ones I’ve run. I sat down and talked to the players. They asked me to give more guidance in the sessions and have them less freeform. Take away: Not every rule works for every DM and every group.
  2. Figure out how many people you are comfortable with running for and don’t go over that number. I’m fine with 4-6 depending on the game, I know other GMs who won’t run for more then 4. Running for more people is harder. More people means it is harder to get them to agree on what they are doing, you have to split your attention more ways, running larger combats is harder, and you might not even hear what quieter players want to do. Feel free to tell people your game is full; you don’t have to invite all your friends.
  3. Only you are allowed to invite new people to the game. If someone has a friend, relative, significant other that they want to invite, have them talk to you first. I was once in a game where the DM was not the host. The host kept inviting more and more people until we topped a dozen. The game did not last long after that, since running a game for that many people is really hard. I set a rule during my Call of Cthulhu days limiting it to 4 people; the sessions when I stuck to that rule were by far the best ones of the campaign.
  4. Put the most soft-spoken or shy players close to you. The loud, attention-demanding players will make themselves heard from across the table, the softer-spoken or new and shy players will not.
  5. Feel free to uninvite players. I’ve had some very good friends who were not good players. We simply stopped inviting them. Some got better with time, and in a few years started gaming with us again, others never did. Don’t let one bad player ruin your game. (If you can help it. It is more tricky when they are providing rides for everyone else, or are someones significant other.) To be honest, in some of these cases we would literally just stop inviting the person and not talk about the game around them; that made letting them back into the game when they’d gotten more mature a few years later much easier and avoided a conflict with a good friend. I’m not saying that is the best or most mature approach, just the one we used when we were in high school.
  6. Feel free to ask players to help contribute to out of game stuff. I did a lot of DMing when I was in high school and had no money. I developed the method of asking everyone to bring a contribution to dinner. I’d provide sausages or burgers, and the players would contribute side-dishes, drinks and snacks as they were able. Players who couldn’t afford to do that would help with the cooking and cleaning. On the note of cleaning, don’t be afraid to ask players to help clean up. This is obvious now, but back in high school days we’d game until 2 am, I’d usher everyone out the door and then collapse, then have to spend the next morning cleaning. One day it clicked that I could ask everyone to help tidy before they left, and hosting got a lot more pleasant.
  7. Don’t kill a player’s character the first few sessions they are there. It sucks, and discourages them from wanting to come back. Even in a horror game you can scare the pants off them without killing them.
  8. Design problems, not puzzles. A puzzle has a set solution; your players might not think of it. A problem has an infinite number of solutions, and that is just counting the ones you haven’t thought of. You can give the players some ways to solve a problem, sure, but be sure to keep an open mind to things you haven’t thought of.

Well, those are my random tips for new and young GMs. Hope you find them useful, and I’d love to hear any tips that you have that you think aren’t said enough onlne. Until next time, stay geeky.


Published in: on September 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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Convention Game Advice: RPG Blog Carnival

The Logo of the RPG Blog Carnival. My father took me to my first gaming convention when I was just starting Grade 9: a small two day convention in the next town over to introduce people to Living Greyhawk. Since then I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing various convention games; for most of my gaming career I had spent more time playing at conventions than home games, and in 2006 I managed to make it out to Gencon, followed by Origins in 2007. Given the topic of this months blog carnival, I thought I’d dispense some advice I’ve gained through all this time at the convention table.

  1. Stay on target. Convention games are rather different than home games. The main difference is that you typically only have four hours. No “Lets pick this up next time” or “See you next week”. Four hours, sometimes eight, then done, and it really sucks to have to leave a game mid-plot, or to have to choose between lunch and finishing the game. Therefore, you need to stick to the plot. Roleplaying is good; stay in character. That said, try and make sure that your roleplay will move the plot forward, or at least won’t take very long. I’ve seen some amazing in-character discussion at conventions, but I’ve also seen tables annoyed by the one gnome that won’t stop jabbering with every farmer along the road when there is a long adventure ahead of them and not much time to do it in. It is a fine line; try and watch the other players and DM for clues. Also try and keep off-topic chat to a minimum. That is neither good roleplay or constructive to moving the game along.
  2. Conventions are noisy places. Try and keep table talk to a minimum, doubly so if you are right beside the DM. Likewise, when speaking, make sure to speak up; I hate it when I miss things players are trying to do because I can’t hear them, and as a player it sucks when you want to do something cool and the DM can’t hear you. Also, time spent repeating things more loudly is wasted (see point 1).
  3. Focus on your character. Your character might be different then you normally play if your game has pregens. This is a great chance to expand your repertoire and try out a new type of character. Please don’t play your brave, self-sacrificing knight like the self-centred rogues you normally play; it can really mess up the party dynamics for the other players.
  4. Resources are placed in the adventure for that adventure. Now, this doesn’t apply to Living Games such as Living Greyhawk, Pathfinder Adventures and so on, but for other games this is important: Don’t hoard items. They all go away at the end of the adventure, so might as well use them now. Chances are they’ve been put in there by the DM to help you. That said, don’t waste them; They may well have been put in there at the to be used in a specific circumstance. Also, don’t burn through healing potions and whatnot early in the adventure, if you can help it. Remember that retreating and coming back with fresh resources is much less of an option then in home games.
  5. Go for the plothook. This is much the same as point 1, but more specific. If you are bringing characters with you the DM is going to try and tie you all into the adventure quickly so you can get to the fun bits. Watch for the dangling plot-bait and bite down on it. I’ve seen players blatantly ignore the obvious plot hook while the DM and the rest of the players all tried to get out of the tavern and into the adventure. Don’t be that person. Yes, the plot hook is often the most contrived part of the adventure, but if you don’t jump on it, you might as well get up and walk away from the table and save yourself 4 hours.

Final bonus point: Don’t be a dick, and really don’t be a dick for RP purposes. My Dad and I were once at a convention, and someone sits down with a character slightly above the rest of the party. No problem, the Average Party Level system Living Greyhawk used could account for that. However, then he wanted to bring his special dog he got in an earlier adventure with him, despite the fact that it would drag the rest of the party up an APL increment. Well, we weren’t super happy about it, but he insisted it was an essential part of his character and well, it was a pretty badass dog (More HP then any party member, even.) Do you know what he had that dog do all adventure? Sit by his feet and avoid combat, since he was worried about losing it if he sent it into combat. He just wanted to bring it along to show off the crazy powerful dog his character had. Don’t be that person: Don’t put your fun ahead of the party’s.

-Until next time, stay geeky.


Published in: on August 8, 2015 at 8:30 am  Comments (3)  
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The Advantages of Skill Based Games

I have a strong preference for RPG systems that define a character primarily by the skills they possess, such as The Call of Cthulhu (and other BRP based games), GURPS, Eclipse Phase, Alternity and Shadowrun. There are other games which involve skills: D&D, Fate, and so on, but they aren’t based primarily around a set of skills everyone has. D&D has a common skill list for all players, but most of the time it is overshadowed by other things, and many others may have ‘skills’ or ‘professions’ but each character only possesses two or three of these, there isn’t a universal set that everyone divides points between.

Games that use these old-fashioned long skill lists are currently falling out of fashion due to a perception that they are hard to get into, that you need a spreadsheet to play them, and that games with less stuff on the character sheet are faster to play. In my opinion these are all untrue. Certainly, games like GURPS benefit from a spreadsheet when making a character, and no one is ever going to call Alternity a rules-light game, but there are also games like The Call of Cthulhu, which is quite rules light, doubly so as I play a variant that removes a lot of the rules.

So, why do I like skills so much? I like the flexibility they provide and how easy they are to DM. I can customize a character in a skill based game to resemble a real person much more then I can in any other type of system I have seen. The average Call of Cthulhu character gets 400 skill points, of which, on average, 130 are earmarked for skills related to the characters non-work related experiences and interests. So, I have the freedom to drop a few points into painting if my character paints miniatures as a hobby, without harming the core skills that define what he does in the party. In my GURPS game I’ve used the points that I put into Connoisseur (Literature), and it has come up in play that another character had some skill related to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. Such things do a lot of flesh out the character, and make them feel alive. In other games I don’t have the freedom to spend a point or two (or the game systems equivalent) on something totally unrelated to the characters main role in the party. This is something that is lost when you only have 4 skills or whatever; you really have to put them into something that will benefit the party, or you are letting the rest of your team down. In systems with an excess of points I can get to a level that helps the party, then put points into stuff purely for roleplaying.

Furthermore as a DM these games are pretty easy to run. If a character wants to do something, I just find the closes skill on the character sheet and have them roll that; if they have something related I can let them apply it at a bonus or a penalty, depending on how relevant it is (Say, using Chemist to analyze some biochemical evidence gathered from a crime scene instead of biochemistry: If you know one, you probably took a class or two of the other at one point, but wouldn’t know as much as an actual biochemist). I don’t have to make a call in each situation about what stat is the most important, which is a pain for things like rock climbing as there are strength, dexterity, constitution and mental components. I just find ‘hey, here is a climb skill, roll that unless you can find something more appropriate to the task, or at least close.’

That is why I like skill based games. I do hope we see more of them over time, given that as of late games that use a very limited set of characteristics and abilities are more popular. Perhaps I’ll even set down my ideas for a system I’ve had kicking around in my head for years and years sometime.

Sorry this post was so late; what with playing twice a week I’ve been getting my fill of thinking about gaming in the real world, instead of online. Until I get the urge to write again, Stay Geeky.


Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Sketching out a character: John Rook

So, I’ve got to make two new characters for the GURPS games I’ve joined, and I’m finding it a bit slow going. So I’ve decided to write down my thoughts and ideas to see what sounds good when I write it down, and see where that takes me. Anyway, here is John Rook, horror writer and self-declared white knight.

The first game is a modern occult horror game set in the 1970s. Everyone is mostly human, but with a bit of magic, something that sets them apart from the normal. I had a character in that game, Dalton, who was able to touch any object and sense the important events in its history; a very useful power for an investigative game. He also ran an antique shop, and had a lot of skills related to appraisal, history and so on, related to his job, not that he needed much help authenticating artifacts. However, in the two years since I was last in this game someone else has taken over the character so I need a new idea.

I was looking over the list of abilities for inspiration (it worked last time) and noticed there are a number of abilities to improve your senses. I’ve been watching a fair bit of castle, and had watched a bit of an Alan Wake Lets Play on Youtube, and had an idea: A writer who investigates paranormal activities and then writes them up as fiction. Now, bits of this character have come to me fairly easily: He is going to be a fairly broad shouldered guy, not huge, but large, and full in the chest (Any resemblance to Nathan Fillon is purely coincidental) with brown hair and blue eyes. Obviously a competent investigator, particularly at finding clues and hidden items, and also a highly skilled writer, with a fair bit of money as a result.

Now, the DM sent me some questions to answer:

1) (and most important!) What happened to this guy that made him realize there was another world out there, with real monsters – and he was akin to the non-humans?

I’ve got a couple versions of this answer turning through my head. The crux of it was that he met, and possibly killed, a occult serial killer. I’m still working on the how. The first thing I thought up was that he was working on a True Crime novel, before he got into fiction, and finding some leads he decides to follow up himself, leading to him discovering that the killer is still active, and unable to find anyone in authority willing to help him he illegally slays the killer himself.

The other idea I had, is that he meets the killer at a much younger age, when he was taken by the killer. However, he was able to escape, and lead the police back to the scene of the crime due to his suddenly uncannily good sight and vision (He can hear every sound in the background of the place he was held, and every individual odour), though not before his older brother was slain by the killer. Additionally, he saw things while captured that gave him a lasting obsession with the occult and supernatural, and he turned to fiction, particularly dark fiction, as an escape, first as a reader, and then as an author.

Huh, writing things down did help, that sounds much better (if just as chliche) as then what I was thinking of.

2) why did he decide to actively oppose them instead of just hiding/running?

Having seen what horrible things are lurking out there at a young age, he was never able to close his eyes to the things most people ignore, the horrific elements around us. As he grew older, he realized that most people couldn’t or wouldn’t stop the things that are dark and abnormal in the world, and that if he didn’t oppose them, who would? In particular he has drawn inspiration from the morality of authors in the past, particularly Tolkien and he keeps two plaques above his desk: One, quoting a Sergei Bondarchuk’s flim adaptation of War and Peace reads “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” and the other “‘How is a man to judge what to do in such times?’ As he has ever judged, Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and another among Men.”, adapted from The Lord of the Rings, and a longer version of the second quote opened his first book.

3) what did he do/what were his life plans before all the occult stuff came into his life?

He was introduced to the occult at a very young age, and as such didn’t really have many plans. His desire to protect people led him to apply for the police academy, but he was rejected, and instead went to university, duel majoring in Religious Studies and History, simultaneously working on his first book, a highly fictionalized account of the serial killer that attacked him and killed his brother. While critics found the plot rather lacking, and several wrote it off as an author insertion fantasy (which to be fair, it was), he was praised for the vividness of his descriptions, and his expansive and masterful use of language. Deciding to focus on his writing, he abandoned the history degree, and finished his Religious Studies degree with a thesis on occultism in the early 20th century, and shortly thereafter published his second book, introducing his most popular character: Blake Stone.

Wow, that worked out a lot better then I expected, as I think I’ve answered all the questions I had bouncing around in my head. What do you lot think? I’m going to slide this into my post queue for next Monday and I’ll also (hopefully) write up my other character idea, for a good ‘ol boy lumberjack named Bo and toss it at you. Until then, Stay Geeky.


100th post!

Or at least WordPress tells me it is: I’ve deleted some posts, and made some hidden, so I’m not sure how many are visible to the public. My, I kinda suck at blogging, considering I started this in July 2009. That is just over 2 a month. Not much compared to awesome people like Chet of The CRPG Addict, Trickster of The Adventure Gamer, or Trey of From the Sorcerer’s Skull. Heck, my Dad manages to update his blog, 600 Days to Brewmastery almost every day (thus the name).

On the other hand, I’m no where near as creative and talented as Trey, and don’t have the motivation of a book at the end of it to keep me going. I’m also don’t have a specific goal like the other blogs I listed: I’m not trying to finish every game in a set genre, or chronicle a journey I’m taking. I just made this blog so that I’d have a place to type out longer things that didn’t fit on twitter. Then I got into it, and enjoyed setting down some ideas I had. However, lately I seem to be less inspired, and have trouble posting. This is probably because I’m spending less time thinking about RPGs: I’ve been gaming less, as various gaming groups have dissolved, and I’ve been moving around more so I’ve had less time to form them.

Hopefully this will change soon. I’m getting that gaming itch again, I’m listening to podcasts again, which is where I get a lot of my gaming inspiration for some reason, and I’m rejoining a sweet GURPS game I was in back in 2011, now that I’m back on the West Coast. Additionally, #RPGChat is providing me a lot of inspiration, though it tends to come in the form of points I’m trying to convey, rather then setting and roleplaying ideas.

I’ve had fun writing this blog, and really, my only regret is that every time I start to establish any sort of a community I don’t post for ages and ages and everyone stops reading it.

Anyway, if there is anyone out there still reading this: Thank you. I’m glad someone enjoys my ramblings and ravings. If nothing else, I know a lot of you have found my post on Keep on the Shadowfell Maps (by far my most popular post, and one I created just to keep track of the links I was finding. I was horribly embarrassed when I discovered I hadn’t even spell checked it, and it was my most read post by a factor of ten).

Thank you for reading these 100 posts, and lets hope it doesn’t take me another 4 years to get to 200.

Until next time, stay geeky.

Published in: on May 3, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Things I learned at my last gaming convention: Don’t have fun at the expense of the party

Alright, so in my last post I covered what happened in my Sunday morning game. Now we are going back a little earlier, to Saturday Afternoon. Due to a cancellation we wound up playing D&D 4th edition, which I’ve not played in several years. It isn’t my favourite game, and I know the person I was playing with isn’t found of it, but hey, we decided to make the best of it.

So the DM hands us out characters, and I grab a half-orc ranger, and the guy I’m playing with gets an old, knight (Paladin) at the end of his career. Now, each character has a secret mission: Mine is the simplest: I have to either slay or bloody the head orc, or a certain number of other orcs…or betray the party, embrace the orcs and slay or bloody at least one PC. An interesting choice, I think, and carefully watch how the rest of the party treats me as we roleplay. My buddy had the mission to refuse all healing (Note: The DM pointed out that if he was unconscious he couldn’t refuse healing) and then die in battle, and being the only one to die in the adventure. Someone else’s mission was to reveal to my mentor (a half-elf) that she was the Elven mother he had never met, and I don’t know the rest of them.

Now, it being a 4 hour con game the DM cuts out a lot of the roleplaying to fit it in, which makes a lot of the missions pointless, since we have no time to get to know one another.

Then comes the first fight: It turns out there this is the fight with the leader of the orc army: I don’t have any reason to betray the party; no one has treated me badly, so I don’t have any animosity towards them, and we are winning, so why would I switch to fighting on the losing side?. So I stay with the party, and we easily win the fight. Not even many tense moments. Cool, lots of healing left, the Paladin is in rough shape though, but whatever. We go into the next fight, with a red dragon. A big red dragon.

I go nuclear and do 84 points of damage in the first round, but that taps me out of my daily and encounter powers, and I don’t really have much other then sit there and whale on the dragon after that. The fighter works his way around to flank the dragon with me and the paladin, so it takes a penalty if it breaths on us. None the less, it does, killing the paladin outright. Now, we’ve still got 5 people, and our tank is pretty much unharmed, and the cleric has all her daily and encounter healing abilities.

Now earlier in the adventure the fighter tried to leap through a window, as he liked to do odd and unexpected things. So, at this moment, when the best thing he could do was stay there and distract the dragon and try and draw fire, he decides that isn’t what he is going to do. What does he do instead? He leaps through a nearby window (gets a 20 on acrobatics) then runs past the dragon towards the party, leaps through another window (another 20) then as we all hold our breath and wait to see what he does….he runs off to safety, abandoning the rest of the party to die. So he did his odd, unexpected thing, which I’m sure he greatly enjoyed by leaping through two windows as a full-plate fighter, and abandoning the rest of the party.

Was surviving so he could see his wife and kids part of his mission? NOPE. He was an exiled knight whom hadn’t been back to the capital for years. A knight who was sent out to this monastery to learn humility due to his overwhelming arrogance and pride. A knight who was mentioned on all our character sheets as having grown into a brave and noble knight in his time here. So yeah, the DM is confused, the party is confused and now we have no tank (Defender in 4e parlance). I’ve got the most hitpoints, so I try, but I don’t have any abilities to draw fire or anything, just to hit the dragon harder. Meanwhile the dragon is breathing on us, everyone else is tapped out, and there are only 4 of us, so our damage output is way down.

We lose. At the end the dragon had 7 hit point left. If that guy had played his character at all like he was supposed to, or even stayed around to hit the dragon ONCE more, we would have won.

What makes this more of a demonstration of this principle is the game he did it in: 4th edition D&D, a game that, love it or hate it, is all built around teamwork. This is true in most D&D games, but 4e just plain doesn’t work if people don’t work together. As Penny Arcade and Weregeek point out, D&D is surprisingly like sports; everyone has to work together to win. He didn’t play as a team, we lost as a result, and it was really, really boring and frustrating.

My stance is always that you shouldn’t have fun at the expense of the group. This one guy decided to have fun, and as a result, 5 people were bored and frustrated. This leaves me conflicted: Would it have been OK to betray the group if they’d treated me badly? I think it may have been, if the adventure had been set up better. If I’d had the oppertinity to betray them in the final fight, and had motivation to do so (they’d treated me badly) I think it would have been a cool story we could have all enjoyed. Also, I get to keep playing, instead of having to sit out the rolelpaying between fights and the final battle with the dragon. As it was, they’d treated me well, so me betraying them, killing one PC and then running away in the middle of the adventure, leaving them to die against the dragon would have been really boring, as we saw.

So yeah, long story short: Think about others when you decide your characters actions. Is what you are about to do going to ruin the game for everyone else? Are we going to walk away from the table thinking “What a dick!”? Or will you’re betrayal read like an epic tale, spun by bards?

Anyway, I hope I didn’t meander about this too much.
Until next time, stay geeky

Things I learned at my last gaming convention: Beware of kids

A few weeks ago I attended a local gaming convention. Now, I’ve been going to this con on and off for about 10 years now, and pretty much every convention I’ve had fun at. This time, sadly, was an exception. I did have fun, but unlike most past cons where I’ve had mostly great games, I only really had 2 great games this year, and 2 OK games. Now, I’d like to specify, this wasn’t the cons fault. The staff were very professional, great about tracking drop outs and getting walkins into games they wanted to play, and had wicked prize support (I got so. much. stuff.). In some cases it wasn’t even the DMs fault; a player was a jerk in one, for example. However, I decided to do a series of blog posts on what I think went wrong with each game, and how they could be improved, as in some cases I don’t think the person that was ruining the game, whether player or DM realized what they were doing. Given that, I have decided to do a series of blog posts detailing the various problems I had at this con.

I’ve decided to start with one of the decent, but not great games. None of the players were painfully bad, the DM was competent, the the adventure was OK, if not great. However, the DM and one of the players showed up with their kids. Both very young, six perhaps? It was obviously prepared ahead of time, as both kids knew each other and one came in costume as “his” character, a halfling ninja known as “Red Ghost”.

Now, I’d played with the adult actually playing Red Ghost before, and he was normally quite good, even if he went off alone and got into trouble more then I prefer in the party’s rogue. However after they brought their kids….the kids were well behaved for the first hour or so, happily rolling the dice and trying to follow what was going on. The second and third hours were less pleasant. The DM had to keep track of his kid, and what 6 players were doing all at the same time. That didn’t go so well. The last bit of the game was more salvageable, but only because the con gave the group a giant foam d20 as prize support, and there was an open area near our table where the kids could run around and throw it at each other without bothering the table.

Yeah. Con advice from Canageek: Until your kids are older and more mature, don’t try bringing them to cons, at least not a 4 hour, serious, game. None of us want to lose a character we’ve spent 8-12 hours (it was only a 1st level adventure) levelling to die because you were too busy keeping track of a kid to pay attention to the map. This goes double for the DM, since you have more work then any of the players, keeping track of all of us AND all your monsters.

Four hour games are just too long for young kids: Get them into gaming at home, when you can take breaks when their attention span is used up. Perhaps find a con with shorter games more suited to kids (Kobolds Ate my Baby comes to mind as an easy one to teach them). But for Gygax’s sake, don’t subject them and us to 4 hours of pathfinder with a child OBVIOUSLY bored out of his head. It isn’t fair to either them or us.

Until next time, Stay Geeky.


Edit: Some people are misunderstanding what I’m saying: I’m not saying kids shouldn’t be gaming. I’m not saying don’t being them to the con at all. I am saying pick appropriate events for them.
For example: The board game room has a lot of games that the kids could have been full participants of, rather then being bored and just rolling the dice then going off to play by themselves or falling asleep.

Alternatively, one of the people was the DM. Why not instead of signing up to run a Pathfinder Society game, sign up to run something that the kids could have been a full part of, with their own characters. Kobold’s Ate My Baby keeps coming to mind, as it is silly and immature. Off the top of my head, Ada used to run a game of RPGKids for her two kids. You know, something they can enjoy, instead of suffering through it.

I think getting kids active and involved in gaming; having them sit there bored isn’t the way to do it. Get them involved with a game they can enjoy.

Published in: on March 26, 2013 at 12:24 am  Comments (2)  
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Obstacles Breed Creativity

Recently I was discussing spells with someone, and if they should be well defined or loosely defined. Interestingly, we both argue our positions based on what will encourage creativity the most. UbAh advocates loosely defined spells so that players can add on their own spins to solve problems outside of combat. I advocate strong definitions so that players can do the same. I think UbAh’s argument, that if you can think up creative things to do with magic, and then can do it, it encourages creativity, is pretty obvious, so I’m going to spend some time stating my own, less obvious argument.

I think challenges and speedbumps are important. The fun in roleplaying games comes from challenges you have to overcome; a game where you walk into the dungeon, find no traps and no monsters is pretty boring, as my players can tell you when I tried to run the sample adventure included in the 2nd edition Traveller book on the fly. Heck, it doesn’t even make a good story. You need challenges to make a good story, a good game and so on.

Think about this: If the players have magic that can do anything they can think of, why don’t they just use magic to bypass your puzzle? I’ll give you an example from one of my favourite Living Greyhawk Ket adventures: There is a monk tied to a chair. The chair is on a platform that is suspended 30 feet or so over a deep pool of water. It is suspended by a long, greased, pole. The monk is able to keep balanced on the platform, but she has been doing it for a while and is getting tired. You need to rescue her.

Now, if you have a spell that can undo her ropes, or levitate her and her chair over to you, the puzzle is trivial, no creativity is needed; you need to unscrew a screw, and are holding a screwdriver. However, if you have magic, but NOT one of those effects, things get more interesting. For example, one solution I’ve thought of is to use reduce person on a gnome or a halfling to make them tiny and just really light, tie their feet to the middle of a rope, then have one PC on each side suspend them where he or she can untie the ropes. Another is to use stoneshape to bend the rock around the pole, so it can no longer rotate freely, things like that. You don’t have the exact spell you want, so you have to use what you are given.

Now, this depends on your spells working the same way each time, or else you can’t be sure if your solution will work in any specific instance. You need enough flexibility in it to allow any pretty much any spell to be used outside of combat, but if you have too much freedom the players can do exactly what they want, which removes the need for them to be creative.

Published in: on February 1, 2013 at 12:15 am  Comments (3)  
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Explaining Intellectual Challenge in RPGs

Alright, #RPGChat had an interesting discussion today. We were having a discussion on time management at the table, when when Iserith said “Ask yourself, “Would this be in the Director’s Cut or on editing room floor?” If so, it doesn’t get table time. Move on.” I pointed out that RPGs are not movies, and some things can’t be glossed over, for example the planning sequence. This appeared to confuse everyone there, except Iserith him- or her- self. Everyone else was very confused by the fact the players would need a plan and why you couldn’t write it in afterwards.

Lets take an example here. Lets say we are running a spy RPG, and there is a house with McGuffin that needs to be ‘liberated’ from a strong room on the 2nd floor. Outside is a guard dog, there is a guard who makes rounds of the house all night, and 4 more guards sleeping on the ground floor. The party knows all this, and has a blueprint of the house.

Now, how does the party get it? Sneak in through the window? Which one, front or back? Front is further from the guard, but there is a chance of being seen. How will they get past the guard dog? Drugged meat? Distraction? What about the patrolling guard? How will they escape afterwards? Will they spend some time scouting tonight and risk the McGuffin being moved, or go in and risk bumping into a guard’s route they didn’t plan.

All this has to be decided by the players. I typically leave the table so that I don’t get confused by draft plans, or subconsciously change what will happen based on what they will do. That lets them plan knowing what happens next will be fair; If there is a guard by the left window it isn’t because I know that is the one they are going to break into. In this type of game the plan is essential, as I don’t have any way for them to get in to the house in mind. I just set out the problem, it is up to them to provide the solution.

If the players can change their plan retroactively, then where is the challenge? Hindsight is always 20/20 or better. “Of course we remember to arrange for an escape car” takes the challenge out of making the plan, and thus diminishes the reward you get at the end. Now, I’m not hardcore on this point; I do like rules that allow players to have common sense items in their car or on there person, particularly in modern day adventures. Also systems that have a “GM hint roll” function, to prevent frustration if the players get stuck (Call of Cthulhu’s intelligence check is often used for this at my table).  I’ll also make up details I hadn’t thought of on the fly with an eye towards making the game more interesting, rather then planning things out to the nth degree like a good stimulationist GM.

So why am I writing all this out? To show people that this modern narrative gaming trend isn’t the only way to play, that there are alternatives, and that you don’t have to put up with their snooty assumptions about what is fun. Yes, Narr games are what the cool kids are playing, with their Leverage, Apocolypse World, Smalllville, Coretex+ and FATE. These things can be fun, but there are traditional games which can be even more fun, and more satisfying for the right type of person. Knowing you overcame something with your wits and intelligence is incredibly satisfying, and isn’t a feeling a narrative game can produce, since you can always alter things to give yourself and edge. When I played Dresden Files our thief used a Fate Point to have a window in the building we were sneaking into unlocked.  That isn’t nearly as satisfying as figuring out the way in yourself, in that you just toss a chip on the table and you win. So, give it a try. Challenge yourself, taste victory by your own hand.

Until next time, stay geeky


Published in: on December 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Writing a Roguelike?

First some news: Provided I don’t fail either of the classes I’m in right now (highly, highly unlikely) I will be finishing my undergraduate degree within the next 2 weeks. Also, I should be getting an acceptance letter to go to graduate school shortly, based on what the professor who has hired me tells me. However, due to my brother being sick I’ve asked to delay officially starting graduate school until May, the start of the summer semester, so that I can be here if he needs me. This leaves me with a lot of spare time, as it isn’t quite long enough to get a job, and if my brother gets better I’ll see about moving up my start date. I’m going to try to fill my time with some colloquium, possibly auditing a class or two, and reviewing older classes before starting grad school, but I’m thinking I might want to start a project to fill my time.

On that note, I’ve been listening to the Roguelike Radio podcast as of late, and it is bringing an idea I’ve had a while back to mind. I’ve wanted to work on my programming skills for a while, and I’ve wanted to write an RPG system for a while. I am thinking that I might want to code a simple Roguelike to teach myself Object Oriented programming, or at least improve the programming I do know. My background in programming is a bit weak; I learned QBASIC in high school, took a class on C in first year, and a class on C++ last year. I’ve also taken a bunch of theoretical classes on algorithms and such, and used simple programming and scripting at a few of my jobs. However, I’ve never gotten into the more advanced features of any language, and only touched Object Oriented code once. I’d like to learn it, because it seems powerful, but I get turned off reading about it, as it is always held up as the “One true way of programming” and tells you to do things without any explanation, or draws all the reasons why it is better from working with a large team, whereas I would never be working with a large team. Anyway, I was writing up my emails to send to a friend, and thought I might as well post them here and see what people thought of them.


Published in: on December 2, 2012 at 3:07 pm  Comments (17)  
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