Racial Backgrounds to Fit Your Campaign

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cropped-chibi-brent.jpgOne of the most satisfying pieces of creating the world for my D&D campaign was selectively re-skinning the races to fit my world history. I didn’t want to change any of the mechanics, but I needed the racial descriptions to better fit my world. Besides satisfying that need, re-skinning also helped inspire some of the history I created. So there was the added benefit of additionally fleshing out my game world, simply by making essentially cosmetic changes to racial descriptions.

A bit of history. The nation the players start their adventures in is called Cotterell. A little over a thousand years ago, fleeing a losing war with the Dark Fey, the Light Fey (Elves) appeared in Cotterell’s heartland, ripping their way into the world through a massive inter-dimensional gate. Unable to close the gate after them, the Dark Fey army followed, embroiling Cotterell in a centuries long war. Despite blaming the Light Fey for the the ongoing conflict, Cotterell had no choice but to ally with the Elves. In a desperate attempt to end the conflict, the Light Fey enacted a plan to forcibly close the gate. They succeeded, but in doing so caused an explosion of mystical energy, carving an enormous caldera out of Cotterell’s heartland and ringing the world with a magical shock-wave which forever altered the face of the world. ¬†Our story picks up almost five hundred years after that Cataclysm, when the nation of Cotterell is finally strong enough to begin the arduous task of reclaiming the lands outside the cities.

I’ll talk in a bit more detail about that history in future posts. But that is the world in which my player’s characters exist. You can sort of see why I couldn’t just leave the racial descriptions as they are, especially for the Elves. But the above history bite also changed how Tieflings came about in my world, where gnomes come from, and the origin of the dragonborn. And making changes to the racial backstory of these caused changes to occur in my campaign world.

Let’s look at the Tiefling race as an example. The standard background for tieflings is that somewhere in their family’s history, someone consorted with an evil outsider. That caused a taint in the bloodline, which allowed tieflings to be born. This demonic origin made tieflings mistrusted at best and despised at worst. In post-Cataclysm Cotterell, tieflings do not come from extra-planar evil, but from the arcane shock-wave which followed the closing of the Gate. Every living thing on the planet was “infected” by the wave of runaway dark energy. This led not only to perfectly healthy parents of all races giving birth to tieflings even hundreds of years later, but was the source of many of the world’s Aberrations. As a result of this, while tieflings are an uneasy reminder of the Cataclysm, they aren’t reviled by the majority of the races, and generations later have gained tenuous acceptance.

There you go. Same race, same mechanics, but re-worked to better fit the history of my game world, where High Elves (and to a lesser extent, Wood Elves) and not Tieflings are the oppressed race. If you are creating your own world, I highly recommend looking hard at the history you’ve created to see where you can sneak in changes to both player and NPC races. It will add a unique flavour to your campaign, and might also be a welcome surprise for your more experienced players.

Have you altered racial backgrounds or re-skinned a race for your campaign? Let me know in the comments.

New Campaign Smell

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cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgA week ago we started our brand-new 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Ever since I got the new books (a birthday gift from my Thursday night Pathfinder group, oddly enough) I knew I would want to run a 5th Ed game. But I also knew I wanted to do things a little differently from the Pathfinder campaigns I was running. Now, I love Pathfinder, have done since it came out. But from a GM standpoint I have gotten in a bit of an Adventure Path rut. The Adventure Paths for Pathfinder (along with the campaign world, Golarion) are an amazing tool, especially for a GM like me with a limited amount of time to spend on prep. But the APs do tend to lock you into a certain framework as a GM. Still fun, but after a bit I was missing some of the campaign creation I used to do. I could probably solve that issue by cutting back on the amount of Pathfinder I’m running/playing, but that would mean less gaming, so…no.

I also found I was playing Pathfinder with a lot of the same people with whom I tended to game on a regular basis. Nothing wrong with that per se, but I figured since I was making changes already, I might as well go all the way and drag some new players into the insanity. In talking with my various nerdy friends, I remembered the ones who had lamented not playing RPGs in a while for whatever reason. That seemed an excellent place to start. I contacted all three, hoping I might get two and expecting to wind up with just one. To my delight and surprise, all three responded enthusiastically (and within an hour or so of my sending the message) and even suggested a fourth player, giving me the table size I was looking for. With players in place and a date set for the first session, the count down to D&D goodness began.

Acquiring four new players was actually what made me decide that I would not use a pre-fab world for my D&D campaign, tempting as it was to revisit my earlier love, the Forgotten Realms. I’ll get in to the details of the world I’m creating, the Shattered Realm of Cattarell, in future posts. But that was my next step, creating the world for my players. I didn’t do much more than create a broad framework, and then fill in some details I knew we’d need for character creation. Everything I’ve written for the campaign world to this point fills just shy of 5-6 pages, including the rough hex map I’ve made of Cattarell. You can read earlier Campaign Creation posts (just search the tag) to get an idea of how I approach world building. But in general, I try not to detail much beyond where I expect the characters will go. This allows me two main benefits: I don’t waste my time over-prepping things for the players, and the players can then come up with world details of their own, which I can fit in on the fly.

Our first session was all character creation, which is a great way to see if the players are going to be a good fit together. There is a fair amount of inter-personal alchemy involved in putting together a new gaming group. However good the individuals may be (and they were all awesome), you can’t predict how they’ll get along at the table. I needn’t have worried; we had descended into what I refer to as “snarky camaraderie” in mere minutes. Character creation proceeded, fuelled by equal parts junk food and laughter, and our band of brave adventurers took shape. By evening’s end, we had:

  • a violet-coloured Tiefling Bard, daring the world not to pay attention to her;
  • a Half-elf Cleric of Knowledge, kicking ass to create her dream library;
  • an Elven Rogue, raised by the streets;
  • and a Human Fighter, ex-soldier looking for a cause.

I can work with that.

Stay tuned for future campaign reports, as I explore the Shattered Realms and talk more about our upcoming sessions.

2016: The Year of the Game

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cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgAs the new year steams ahead, you are going to see much more activity around the old blogstead. 2015 was a bit rough for me on a personal level, and my posting definitely suffered as a result. Moving forward, I’m holding myself to at least two posts a week, with the option to put up more as my schedule and ideas allow. I love talking about this stuff, and I need to get back to talking about it here so my ramblings can hopefully be of use/entertainment to others.

2016 is also the year I get back to my gaming roots, as I GM…sorry, DM, my first D&D campaign in over a decade. D&D 5th has reinvigorated my love for that system, and I’m excited to start a new campaign with four new players who seem just as excited as I am about playing. Don’t worry, Pathfinder isn’t going anywhere; I still GM two campaigns for that, as well as playing in a third. But I’m going to be exploring and talking about D&D a lot over the next while, so brace yourselves for that.

This year, I plan to do a lot more gaming, period. More boardgames, other RPGs, computer games…I plan to immerse myself this year in as much gaming as I can handle. And then blog about it.

That’s it for now. Expect another post in a few days, as I talk about the start of my shiny new D&D campaign.

Idle Thoughts: Reading

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cropped-chibi-brent.jpg(Idle Thoughts are going to be shorter posts written off the cuff about stray gaming-related thoughts I have. They’ll be quick, and maybe not fully developed, just things that occurred to me and I felt like sharing.)

So it occurred to me, as I’m working up the rough history of the world I’m creating for my upcoming D&D campaign, how important reading can be if you want to be a creative and successful GM. I don’t mean just reading game books, though those are definitely on the list of recommended reading material. And I don’t just mean fantasy and science fiction, though again, if you want to top off your brain with campaign ideas, you can’t go wrong reading as many genre stories as you can lay your hands on.

I’m talking about just reading books, fiction and non-, on topics and in other genres which interest you. I’m lucky, I guess, in that a wide variety of topics have peaked my interest over the years, enough so that I’ll take the time to read at least one book on a subject. Saddler making? There’s a book for that. Medieval diplomacy? There’s a book for that. The language of flowers (not what flowers say to each other, but what a bouquet of flowers means)? Yep, you guessed it, there’s a book.

Now I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on any of these subjects just because I read a book. But it’s usually given me enough of the basics that I can season my campaign creation with bits and pieces. For instance, I did have a moment in a campaign where the party were attending on the Queen when a diplomat came to present her with flowers. Innocent enough. But then I asked one of the players with a nobly born character to give me a perception check. He succeeded, and I pointed out that, while the diplomat appeared friendly, the symbolic meaning of the flowers in the bouquet were a grievous insult, possibly even a threat, directed at Her Majesty. It turned what could have been a throw-away moment into something a bit more interesting. It also raised the tension level for the characters at court considerably; if flowers could be a threat, where might other threats come from?

So if you don’t already, I highly recommend expanding your reading list. As a distant second to reading actual books, hit up Wikipedia and just start reading entries which interest you. Not as detailed as a book might be, but more easily digestible and you can reference it on the fly as needed.

I’m a Critter and You Can, too!

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logo-formWhile I indulge in many (oh so many) podcasts and vidcasts about gaming, I have had more of a hit-and-miss relationship with offerings featuring actual game play. I can turn to Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop on the Geek & Sundry network for board games (and the occasional, very focused, role-playing game). And Shut Up and Sit Down! does some great how-to-play videos, but again centered on board games. Of course, Wil Wheaton also did Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, which was a lot of fun and well worth watching. But nothing I watched ever really captured the feeling of being at the table with a group of gamers.

Then I discovered Critical Role, and knew I’d be a Critter for life.

Critical Role is streamed weekly on Thursday nights as part of Geek & Sundry’s Twitch line-up. It features a group of talented voice actors (anything animated or computer-game related you’ve heard in the last five years, and their voices have probably been in it) playing a house-ruled version of D&D 5th Ed. Episodes run between 3-4 hours long, with the previous week’s episode becoming available for YouTube viewing through the G&S site Monday afternoons. I usually try to catch the live-stream, but when I can’t I wait with baited breathe for Monday’s upload to go live.

So what raised Critical Role above all the other RPG game-play vidcasts and podcasts for me? Certainly the quality of the gamers had something to do with it. Matthew Mercer is an amazing GM, able to keep his players entertained and invested in the world and characters, which in turn keeps me invested in them both as well. I want to game in the sandbox he has created for his campaign, and it’s my fondest hope that he’ll publish that game-world at some point. As great a GM as Matt is, though, he is evenly matched by the skill, enthusiasm, and talent of his players. There is something wonderful about watching a group of close friends play a game they love together; when those friends are also talented actors and improvisers in their own right, each episode borders on the epic a good deal of the time.

Certainly all that makes for good shows, and if that was all there was to Critical Role I’d still count myself lucky to watch it. But everyone involved are so obviously good people, and so excited and grateful for the chance to be doing the show and sharing their game with us, that I’ve become invested in the players, not just their characters. Every episode, for instance, there is fundraising going on for one worthy group or another. 826LA is usually the charity de jour, but they’ve also helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Extra Life among others. Such is their generous nature, they asked Critters to donate to their charities of choice rather than send presents this Critmas.

Okay, so I should probably explain some terms. “Critters” is the name the community of fans gave themselves, and refers to anyone who is a fan of the show. “Critmas” was the name given to the part of an episode when the cast members would open gifts from Critters. The sending of gifts began as a trickle, but soon grew in volume to the point where they had to restrict Critmas to the first Thursday of every month, lest the cast end up having to stay for hours after every episode. Seriously, the amount of stuff sent their way is amazing, everything from dice, to minis, to weapons, and even an enormous stuffed bear or two (representing Trinket, the animal companion of one of the characters).

The community which has grown up around the show is definitely one of the things that keeps me coming back. With very few exceptions (and the exceptions are gently but firmly policed), Critters are a positive and enthusiastic lot, and taking part in the Subscriber-only chats during the livestream can be a blast. And the ranks of Critters continues to grow; just in the time since I started watching, the number of subscribers has grown from a little over 5,000 to almost 13,000, with no sign of slowing down.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you are in the market for a highly entertaining RPG game-play show, that will put a smile on your face when it doesn’t make you laugh out loud (or hit you square in the feels), Critical Role is for you. The show is currently on a break over the holidays, starting back on January 7th. No better time to go back to episode one and watching the adventures of Vox Machina from the start. Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favour.

Podcast Season!

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cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgHere in Canada we gamers are deep in the bowels of winter, which means long hours of cold and darkness. Perfect for gaming, yes. But sometimes even we hardy Canadian nerds don’t want to leave the comfort of our nice, warm homes. And when those days come, I turn to one of my favourite pastimes, podcast listening.

It wasn’t always so, but these days there are a metric buttload (approx. 1.3 times as big as the imperial buttload) of podcasts to choose from. No matter the game, you can usually find a podcast to suit your needs. Or if you’re like me, you can listen to a plethora of general gaming podcasts to get a broader look at the gaming world out there. Quality will vary, obviously, and you may have to hunt to find ones you can stand to listen to for extended periods. But the vast majority, though produced on a shoe-string, are produced well. And sound quality has certainly picked up since the early days.

If you aren’t a podcast aficionado, or even if you are but are looking for new podcasts to put in your earholes, here are some of my favourites to help you out.

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff – As much a podcast for writers as it is for gamers (enough so, that I included it in an article I wrote on Podcasts for Writers), Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff features Robin D. Laws and Kenneth Hite. Amidst a fairly healthy amount of self-promotion (which I like, because these guys work on some of the coolest stuff) each episode features GM advice, story building ideas, book suggestions, and always interesting discussions of a variety of topics ranging from Cthulhian conspiracies to early 20th Century spycraft. Any single episode can inspire any number of campaign ideas, and binge listening can produce a “centipede’s dilemma” effect on your adventure writing. But I never miss a new episode, and I am slowly working my way through the back catalog. A must listen for GMs.

Fear the Boot – One of the first podcasts I listened to, I’ve stuck with it because the format is just so damned entertaining. Each episode is essentially a round table discussion of some topic relating to the table-top hobby. Sometimes it’s a discussion of a particular game, or a look at GMing and play styles, or a lively discussion of gaming culture. Whatever the topic, it very much feels like you’re eavesdropping on a bunch of gaming nerd friends as they shoot the breeze in someone’s basement. Which, for the most part, it is. It’s every intense discussion you’ve ever had about gaming, if someone recorded and edited it.

Shut Up and Sit Down! – If board games are more your thing, Shut Up and Sit Down! is definitely the first podcast you should be listening to. Great reviews, great play tips, tricks, and strategies, matched with a completely irreverent style. Like Fear the Boot, it’s very much like you were listening to your friends talk about board games. If your friends are English, super-excited, and just a bit (lot) silly, that is. If you prefer video over audio, they also have a host of game play videos for your delight and edification. Definitely worth a watch/listen if, like me, you want to expand your board gaming horizons.

Game Master’s Journey – If you’re a GM looking for advice and inspiration on a wide variety of gaming systems, look no further. Of all the podcasts I listen to, this one touches on the broadest range of games. Which I appreciate, even if I know I’ll likely never get to GM them; I can still pull great ideas from other systems. I’m not always a fan of game play podcasts, but even the ones on here are entertaining, and easy to listen to in the background as I work on other things. If you don’t like them, though, no worries. Just jump around and download the episodes you want. You’ll be glad you did.

Okay, there’s four to get you started. And if you’ve been listening to gaming podcasts for a while, what are some of your favourites? Drop them in the comments below.

Emerald Spire/Extra Life Update

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4A-7uuL6ek1iJEjSSYLUMGTE5DruF6OZu_TNdGAkW1oAs I mentioned, I’m GMing The Emerald Spire¬†for Extra Life this year. In preparing for the big day, I’ve had to make some changes to how the dungeon delve will work. If I were running this at home, for instance, the normal flow of events would go something like:

  • party hears about dungeon
  • party heads to dungeon
  • party explores dungeon for a bit
  • party returns back to town as supplies/hit points dwindle
  • repeat as necessary.

Because I’m trying to cram as much game play into the day as possible, I’m trying to eliminate everything except for the “party explores dungeon” part of the cycle. But resupplying is critical; the group needs to get access to new magic, magic items, spells, and equipment if they’re to remain competitive with the denizens of the Spire dungeons. Of course, I can’t just have a travelling magic-shop appear at random throughout this super-dangerous dungeon complex, that would be a little ridiculous.

So the solution I came up with solves a few of my issues. About 500 years ago, the local ruling goblin tribe used the Emerald Spire as a unique form of execution; troublemakers were dropped in the dungeon to survive or not as best they could. That goblin empire was destroyed, but “good” ideas never die. Fast forward to now, where the nearby Fort Inevitable, home of an order of Hellknights working to keep order in the area, have revived the practice of exile to the Spire (duration dependent on the crime). For them it has the potential to solve two problems: if troublemakers don’t survive, they get their desired execution. If they do survive, they can provide valuable intelligence about the Spire’s interior and occupants. With the added incentive of being allowed to keep any mundane treasures they find (anything not an artifact, basically), most exiles opt to explore rather than cower in a corner.

With varying success, of course. Which leads to the solution to my resupply issue; the place is going to littered with previous failed explorers. Depending on the level, that could mean bodies lying all over the place, or it could just mean the occupants have a bigger store of supplies than usual, as they loot the bodies of unfortunate prisoners. Either way, the players should be able to get the supplies they need without feeling too much of a pinch. And of course the good stuff is farther down, since only the truly skilled (and well-equipped) would get down to the lower levels before meeting an untimely end.

All in all, it looks like we’ll have an hilariously fun day of dungeon-delving action. I’m looking forward to the shenanigans and the inevitable rising character body count.

There is still time to sign-up to play; I have a few seats left, so if you are here in Edmonton and want to get involved, please fill out the form and join us. And if you want to support the game but aren’t able to join us on the day, please donate. Every bit helps, and it all goes to support the Stollery Children’s Hospital.