Sunday, August 30, 2009

RPG Bloggers

You may notice the new link in the upper-left corner of this blog. This is to signify that my application to the RPG Bloggers Network was recently accepted. I would like to thank the administrators of that network for allowing me to join. I look forward to sharing my posts with a wider audience and will strive to continue to provide enjoyable and informative content as I wander down my trail of RPG memories. If you haven't already done so, check out the network to see what they have to offer.

Follow Your Bliss,


Monday, August 24, 2009

Know the Rules

Everything I really need to know I learned from D&D - #1

The first game of D&DB I ever played (which goes without saying, my first game of D&D ever) was as Dungeon Master (DM). I had read the rules cover-to-cover (the booklet wasn't that big back then) and was going to run a short adventure into an abandoned keep. I found a few of my junior high school friends and gathered around the table to play on a warm summer afternoon. With weapons in hand, the characters set off in search of Adventure.

Things were sailing along smoothly (for less than 5 minutes) until the party encountered its first obstacle: skeletons. Skeletons were labeled as first level monsters and the party was full of first level characters; a perfect match. The problems didn't start until the characters started rolling dice to hit the skeleton. They rolled and missed. The skeletons would roll and miss. The party would roll and miss and then the skeletons would roll and miss. This went on for several minutes before one of my friends asked how this was supposed to be fun. Something was amiss.

I checked back through the rules on combat and re-read them. I soon discovered my fatal mistake. When determining the number needed to hit the skeletons I took it as literally the number needed to hit; the party had to roll that number and nothing else would do. Well, red faced, I quickly discovered my misinterpretation: the phrase "...or higher..." seemed to slip my memory when it was time to play. Combat went much smoother after that.

This small detail goes to show how drastically a misunderstanding of a rule can impact the play of a game. Some games are complex and require an intimate knowledge of the rules in order to run smoothly. Some games are simple but open to interpretation. Both present challenges.

When handling a game with a very large rule set it is often best to take it in chunks. Focus on the rules that will be used first. In the introductory chapter of Mouse Guard, Luke Crane outlines the four chapters of the book that should be read first in the section entitled 'Getting Started'. Character creation is not one of the chapters listed. In fact, character creation is one of the last chapters in the book. IMO, Luke is saying, "Wait! Before you even think about creating your character, play the sample missions with the sample characters to see how the spokes fit in the wheel!"

In D&D I look at rules on an encounter-by-encounter basis. Whether reading a prepared encounter or designing one from scratch, I ask myself this question: "What do I need to know in order to run this encounter." I open the rule book to the index and start boning up on rules that will be utilized. Next I look at the characters in the party and see what they could possibly use to resolve this encounter: racial and class traits, feats, type of combat favored, spells.

The last one deserves added attention. It is prudent to read over the spells that both the players and NPCs have access to. I did this not very long ago where I was operating from what I thought the spell did as opposed to what it actually did (just goes to show, it doesn't matter how old you are, there is always room for improvement). Bottom line - read over the spells often to be sure you are on track. Don't worry about the spells that the characters can't cast yet, focus on the ones they have access to.

For games with less structure a healthy dose of interpretation is required to make things move along smoothly. To help prevent misunderstandings I recommend creating a social contract to outline the expected behavior and guidelines for handling disputes. This can be a simple as "if we get stuck we'll wing it" or "we'll roll for the outcome and discuss it after the session". Play of a wide variety of games helps to provide players with a resource of numerous options - "we did it this way in Shadowrun, so let's do the same thing here." For groups that have played together for a long time the social contract is more implied than explicit, but it never hurts to discuss the contract to keep it fresh in your mind.

It should be noted that while the preceeding paragraphs were from a DM point of view, the same holds equally true for players. Know the rules that apply to your character. If you play a cleric, know and understand the rules for turning undead. If you play a spell caster, know your spells and all the rules that apply to spell casting (range, spell components, recovery, saving throws). Don't put everything on the DM's shoulders, step up and help lighten the load.

It wasn't long before I realized that knowing the rules applied to pretty much anything you came across in life. We spend a good portion of the first 18 years of our lives 'learning the ropes' before we are considered an adult. Heck, I'm still trying to keep it all straight. Rules give structure and order and should (hopefully) be equitable to all parties involved. Whether it is office culture or computer programming, take the time to learn the rules. If there is a lot of ground to cover, learn what you need to get the job done. If the rules are a little nebulous, fall back on your past experiences and do your best. We're still gonna make mistakes, but hopefully they are mistakes we can learn from.

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Next Generation of Gamers

One of the perks of having children is passing down some of your favorite things (like the love of music from the Canadian rock band Rush). One of those things I enjoy most is my love of RPGs, especially D&D. I began playing with my boys about 5 years ago (well, it began longer than that, when my oldest was still an infant in my arms as I played DC Heroes at the dinner table, but for the purpose of this post, let's just say it all started 5 years ago.)

I can distinctly remember the first time I played with them, laying out the tiles from the AD&D basic set for the 3.5 version of the game. This set came with miniatures for four of the iconic characters of that edition - Eberk the dwarven cleric, Regdar the human fighter, Lydda the halfling rogue, and Aramil the elven wizard. The boxed set was a gift to my oldest son, then 8 years old. We were playing it in our apartment which was temporary housing during the period after selling one house and waiting for our next (and current) house to complete construction.

We sat around the little dinner table under the glare of 60 watt bulbs as I explained the differences between the classes and what all the different colored dice were used for. My younger son (then 5) was also trying to figure out what all this was about. We played through the provided adventure and had a great time slaying all manner of monsters and undead. Both boys have been playing ever since.

Fast forward to this past weekend and my oldest son's (now 13) first visit to GenCon. Due to poor planning and budgetary concerns we were only able to attend on Sunday, the Family Fun day. My son brought along his best friend (age 14) to join in the fun. We had a wonderful time and managed to pack as much fun into one day as we could. There were Battletech battles, boffer fights, miniatures painting, sitting in on a recording of 'This Just In...From GenCon', and, of course, the dealer's room.

It really struck me what a wonderful community exists to help support gaming as a family activity. Everyone we met did their utmost to make my son's first visit to the con a memorable one. And so, I have a list of people I would like to thank (in chronological order of appearance):

  • Call sign 'Gamer' - for taking the time to share his experiences and lessons learned in the Battletech pods
  • Jeff Himmelman and Storn Cook - for showing what's involved in being a freelance artist
  • Ryan Macklin and Derek Rex - for giving the boys a warm welcome during the recording of This Just In...From GenCon
  • Luke Crane - for sharing his insight about game design and autographing the first gaming book (Mouse Guard) my son ever purchased at a convention
  • Brennan Taylor - for having a generous spirit towards new gamers
  • Paul Tevis - for embodying the enthusiasm and joie de vivre that is GenCon
Since my first GenCon four years ago I have come to believe this event is more about the people than the games. It is great fun to play all those games, but it is the connections we make that sustain us throughout the long year until next August.

Follow Your Bliss,


Friday, August 14, 2009

What's in a Name?

I have recently finished the first two books of Tales of the Dying Earth - The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld - and had started a post reviewing these books in light of their implications for D&D. As I went deeper into the subject I found there was too much information to cover in just one post. So this will be the first of a series of posts covering various topics in D&D that came to mind as I read through the Dying Earth series.

One of the first things that struck me about these stories were the names: Turjan, Pandelume,Phandaal, Laccodel, Kandive, T'sais and T'sain, just to name a few. These names are exotic and colorful and truly help to evoke the strangeness of the far future Earth; they help to set the tone.

This is very important when naming NPCs for a campaign. No plain Tom, Dick or Harry will do. Names of nobles should be noble sounding; those of commoners have an earthy ring to them. Sally the bar wench works, Sally the elven princess does not. Take the time to pick names that fit the character. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of name lists on the web. I just did a Google search of "name lists" pulled up 178,000,000 sites. One is bound to have something to spark your interest.

The previous paragraph applies just as much to PCs as it does to NPCs. It may be fun to play Bob the barbarian, but it does nothing to help set a serious tone for the character, but if the style of play you are going for is humorous, then it is a perfect fit.

In the Back to (D&D) Basics campaign I'm currently running, there are clear styles of names to help foster the sense of culture and depth of background. Based on recomendations from GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos gazetteer, the two main human populations of Karameikos have very different sounding names. Those of the native Traladaran descent have names inspired by central and eastern European countries, while those of the conquering Thyatians have Roman-like names.

Often times the names of characters mentioned in these stories belonged to great and powerful wizards of the day. Their names adorn the spells that they popularized. This brings to mind all the 'name' spells of AD&D1: Melf's Acid Arrow, Bigby's Crushing Fist, Nystul's Magic Aura, etc.Spells like these really tie the magic to the setting. Which would you rather cast - Acid Splash orMelf's Acid Arrow?

Not just the names of the characters but the names of locales were evocative of alien cultures in Tales of the Dying Earth. The lands to the far north: Grodz, Cil, Vull, and the Mountains of Magnatz; to the south: Ascolais, the Land of the Falling Wall, Kaiin and Scaum Valley. Give just as much care to the lands in your world. Be sure to say them aloud. Some place names I've read in books and games look nice on the page, but I don't have the first clue as to how to pronounce them.

I really like the Karameikos gazetteer because it helps here as well in my current campaign. Many areas have two names: the name originally used by the native Traladaran's and the name used once they were conquered by the Empire of Thyatia. This layering of names helps build a richness of detail that brings the setting to life.

So next time you sit down to roll up a character or create a new locale for your players to explore, give some thought to the name and see what the reactions are.

Follow Your Bliss,

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Obsidian Protal

I haven't posted in a while so I thought I'd check in to tell you what I've been doing. I've been working on a campaign for my family and friends. In prepping for this campaign I started using a new (to me) tool I discovered a few months ago: Obsidian Portal (OP).

OP, which has been around for a couple of years now, is a free wiki for game masters and players. In this portal GMs can layout all the elements of their campaign including locales, background, history, maps and NPCs. Each page created by the GM has a special 'GM Only' area. This allows all the information on a particular topic to be in one place. Players only see the information they can access while the GM can see it all. The GM can also recount all the player's adventures in an Adventure Log which works like a typical blog, complete with comments.

Speaking of players, there is a lot for them to do in OP as well. Players can join various campaigns and create PC pages with as much or as little detail as they wish. Also, OP has teamed up with Pen & Paper Games to help players find games in their area. I haven't tried the player side of things too much yet, so I'm hoping to get feedback from the folks playing in my group.

As far as ease of use, let me say that I'm not that big a fan of wiki's, primarily because of the odd syntax for formatting of text. In the short time I've used OP, I have become fairly comfortable with laying out the text in the fashion I want. There is a WYSISYG feature that I have not turned on as of yet. If I get too frustrated I'll give it a try. Support for the site is available through some limited tutorials and the help forum.

All in all I'm very pleased with the way it is going. I will let me share information in an organized manner with players who can participate on-line as little or as much as they would like. It remains to be seen how much my group will utilize it.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that the service was free, and it is, but there is (of course) a premium subscription service available (Ascendant Membership) for a cost. The free mode limits GMs to two campaigns each with one map. That is plenty for me, but for a fee you can have unlimited campaigns with 10 maps. The Ascendant Members also have a campaign-specific forum, no ads and the ability to make a campaign private or friends only (all free campaigns are public). The cost for a year as an Ascendant Member is $40, but semiannual and monthly rates are also available.

So far I'm really enjoying the experience. OP has been nominated for an Ennie this year and I hope they do well. If you are at all interested, stop by to see what is going on in my Back to (D&D) Basics campaign. I plan to talk about other tools that I'm using in my campaign in future posts.

Follow Your Bliss,