Countdown to Extra Life

Okay, so my dice tower post is slowly becoming the “Sex & D&D” of my site (don’t get that joke? Start here, and you’re welcome). It’s coming, I promise. Just having issues with hot glue, as one does.

1173Since I’m just three scant days away from 25 hours of continuous gaming, I thought I’d make a penultimate post about Extra Life. This is my first year taking part and I am part of Team Knifeshoes, founded by my friend Devin. I’m pals with pretty much the entire team, so I’m in nerdy good company. While the majority of my team is focused on video games of one description or another, I am bringing the tabletop skillz this year, as I mentioned in an earlier post. If you are in Edmonton and want to take part, here are the links to the Facebook and Meetup event pages.

Children’s charities always have a special place for me. Growing up I was a very healthy child. Apart from the usual spate of injuries caused while under the influence of being a kid, and a bout of pneumonia when I was in my early teens, I grew up hale and hearty. I got to play as much as a kid is supposed to, take part in sports, I was active in the Boy Scouts; your standard Canadian boy’s childhood. The worst thing I can imagine for a child is to not have that luxury. For a child to not be able to play when they want, or to know they will never get to play. That’s terrible for the kids and it has to be heartbreaking for the families as well.

I’m not a doctor or an engineer, so I can’t do anything for these kids directly. But I am a nerd and I can play games. And if playing games for 25 hours helps raise money for these kids, helps fund the doctors and engineers that can help them directly, I’d be pretty damn selfish not to take part in this event.

I hope you agree, and will support Extra Life. I’d love it if you sent a donation through my page. Any amount will do; seriously, if every FB friend, website subscriber, and Twitter follower donated a dollar it would blow my team’s goal out of the water. So don’t be shy, and don’t think your donation won’t help. And if you don’t want to donate through my page, that’s cool. Search the teams and participants on the Extra Life page, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a local team or player that would welcome your donation.

Thank-you in advance for helping Extra Life, Team Knifeshoes, and me make sure kids get to play.

3 Resources to Help Build Future Gamers

The promised dice tower construction tutorial has been delayed by a day due to technical difficulties. While I sort those out, I thought I’d talk a bit about kids and gaming.

The last question in the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge is “How do we grow our hobby?”. You can read my extended answer there when I post it, but the short answer is: get kids involved. The only way the hobby is going to keep growing is if it has a steady influx of new players, bringing new ideas and perspectives, and a fresh love of tabletop gaming. Yes, there are any number of people who come to the hobby in their 20s and 30s and stick around because they love it. That’s great, and I’ll never say a thing against anyone who came to the hobby late. The minute you pick up dice and have fun, you’re a gamer nerd just like me; welcome to the table!

But in order to keep the hobby growing, not just adding new players but actually developing and innovating, is through kids. The hobby needs people who grow up with gaming and often become the person they become because of games. In my opinion, those are the folks most likely to have an impact on the hobby’s development and growth. There will always be exceptions, but I think it is every gamer’s responsibility to foster that love of gaming in children whenever they have the opportunity.

That said, here are three on-line resources to help you teach tabletop games to kids:

1) GeekMom and GeekDad – Probably the best resource I can recommend, not just for teaching games but in raising a young nerd, are the GeekMom and GeekDad articles over at Wired. While they run the gamut of nerdy topics, a quick search of the gaming tag will yield a plethora of tips, suggestions, and advice about gaming with and for children. Both Mom and Dad have a wide range of entertaining articles about gaming with kids, and it’s well worth a read through if you are planning to bring kids into gaming.

2) Pathfinder Society: Kid’s Track – If you are looking to teach the Pathfinder RPG to kids, Paizo has created a four part lesson plan called Kid’s Track to help you get started. This free download works in concert with the Pathfinder Beginner Box and the scenarios from the Beginner Box Bash. While the information on game play is specific to the Pathfinder RPG, the guide has a treasure-trove of game neutral advice on how to GM for kids: keeping their attention, how long to spend on each topic, and so on. The guide even has time recommendations next to each section to help keep you on track and keep the session moving. I can tell you from observation the Kid’s Track works. Paizo runs a Kid’s Track at Gen Con every year, and it is always packed with kids learning the game and likely getting their first exposure to gaming. I highly recommend you take a look at the resource, even if you are starting with another game, because hacking it to work with another RPG would not be difficult.

3) Role-playing Games for Kids – Branching off from the site of John H. Kim started in 1994, his Role-playing Games for Kids page has a great starting list of commercial games aimed at children, as well as links to other on-line resources. There is even a list of free RPGs for kids, so you can introduce kids to our fine hobby with just a few clicks of the mouse. There are even links to actual game play reports from EN World and others, so if you want to get a sense of what gaming for kids is like before you jump in, give them a look.

There you are, three resources to help you bring the yoots into our fun and exciting hobby. Do you have any suggestions on kids and gaming? Drop them in the comments!

Altered States

Starting the week off with updates about Renaissance Gamer, because some things are, you guessed it, changing. I’m going back to a M-F update schedule. I tried M-W-F, or sometimes T-Th-Sat, but that usually resulted in a single post and an “eff you!” to the rest of the week. Habit is everything when it comes to writing on a regular basis, and working through the 30 Days of GMing Challenge showed me I can post everyday. But since I do need a few days a week just for me and nerdy gaming things, I’m compromising with M-F.

Speaking of the GMing Challenge, you won’t see the last posts for it here on the blog proper. It seems that Triple Crit, the originators of the challenge, stopped updating theirs around Day 19. I am finishing out the full 30 days though; not only is it a great writing exercise but I think the questions are useful and allow me to give some good advice and tips on GMing. So I created a page containing all the 30 Days of Game Mastering posts in one spot. I’ll finish answering the questions over the next week or so, and then all the Game Master-y goodness will be located in one spot for your enjoyment. I’ll also go back from time to time and edit or add to the information, as things change for me as a GM, or new resources make themselves available. It also occurs to me that, with seven entries to go and a word count now around 15,000, there must be a way for me to turn all that advice into some sort of Game Mastering PDF. So I’ve put that on my “to do” list, albeit lower down.

Work proceeds apace on my own first gaming supplement in the “Argent’s Guide” series. I’ll post something soon about “Fulroar’s Longhouse”, give you a taste of what’s to come. Getting back to the idea of building good writing habits, the Gamer Lifestyle Bootcamp has been worth it’s weight in a metal much more valuable than gold. If you’ve thought about writing a game resource for a while now but don’t really know where to start, I can’t recommend this course enough. It breaks the process of creating a gaming resource down into manageable chunks and makes the project easy to fit into even the busiest of schedules. Jump on the next one, you won’t be sorry.

And game editing continues as well. Friday I made a “proud papa” post about Foreign Element, and I’ve been helping out with a few other smaller supplements as well. I’ll also be working on Issue #10 of the Wayfinder Fanzine. It seems I did a good enough job on Issue #9 to be invited back, which makes me happy. It’s one of my favourite Pathfinder resources, so to contribute to its continued success in some way is gratifying. Seriously, guys and dolls, not only is it packed full of Pathfinder goodness, but it’s free. You can’t beat that, so go pick it up.

Also, I meant to do some sort of milestone contest when I hit my 200th post on the blog…and I blew right past 200 without realizing it. This post included I think I’m at 213? Anyway, I’ll have a contest with actual prizes for my 250th post, which should fall sometime in December close to the Solstice. Entry will be easy, and open to anyone subscribing to the blog. Prizes will be an assortment of gaming swag: miniatures, books, things I custom make for you. We’ll see, but keep your eyes peeled for that. And if you’ve enjoyed any of my posts but haven’t subscribed, now’s your chance. Heck, bring a friend!

And that’s where we’ll leave this episode of Update Brag. If you have any questions or comments, there is a place for that and you should use it. I’ll be back tomorrow with Part 1 of “Building a Dice Tower”. There will be pictures and everything!

Foreign Element RPG

Yes, the title does mean that my next 30 Days of GMing post is delayed. Again. Bit busy finding my illness/work balance, and something had to give. But I wanted to take a moment to promote something cool I worked on.

The Foreign Element RPG is a game for anyone who likes fast-paced, B-movie style fun at the gaming table. Published by Mystic Ages Publishing and written by Nathan J. Hill, the game is set in a dystopian far future, where mankind has reached out into the stars…and discovered the stars don’t really want us. It is a great storytelling game with a fun narrative mechanic, and it really includes the players in constructing the action. It is also straightforward and easy to learn, making it a great game for a one-off, but with enough depth in the setting that you will want to stick around and play your characters a while. At least until the universe catches up to them and their number is up.

And, oh yeah, did I mention I edited the game? Because I did. Nathan contacted me after I posted in the Freelance section at the forums, offering my editing services. We exchanged emails, got a good feeling about each other, and I was lucky enough to get the job. Lucky, because it’s wonderful to work on a game you know you’d enjoy playing. also lucky, because while I have been editing a number of supplements for people, this was the first rules set I’ve edited. So I was happy to get that experience, and it’s given me a taste for more of the same.

So please, if you like your sci-fi gaming fast and furious, pick up a PDF copy of Foreign Element. And if you are working on an RPG project and need an editor, drop me a line. My rates are reasonable and I love working on good, new RPG material.

Extra Life Update and Game Schedule

1173Taking a break from the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. Don’t worry, I’ll catch up tomorrow. But today I’m talking about my Extra Life fundraising, because the day is fast approaching.

I am not a serious, hard-core video gamer. I have my moments; I play more World of Tanks and World of Warcraft than is probably healthy, and I love getting into games like Card Hunters. But when you compare my “skillz” to just about anyone else on Team Knifeshoes, I’m not a first round draft pick. But while I’m weak in some areas I have very specific strengths, sort of like a Special Teams player. So I’m going with my strengths on this fundraiser, and I’ll be Game Mastering my way through the 25 hours.

Here’s my schedule for the day as it stands right now (all times Mountain Standard):

  • 8am-10am: World of Warcraft. Join me on the Garrosh server if you want to play along or chat.
  • 10am-2pm: GMing my regular Kingmaker campaign for my group. Sorry, can’t join me for this one, I have a full table.
  • 2pm-3pm: More World of Warcraft, cleansing my palette for the long night of GMing ahead.
  • 3pm-8pm: Pathfinder Module We Be Goblins, Too! A fantastic sequel to We Be Goblins!, once again players take on the role of those loveable psychos of Pathfinder universe. Goblin pre-gens are provided, and the table is open to 6 players. You don’t have to be a PFS player for this one, though you can become one pretty easily. Please pre-register on the Facebook or Meetup event page.
  • 8pm-1am: Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-EX: Day of the Demon. This is an exclusive scenario that can only be run by a Venture Officer or Paizo employee, so if you’re an Edmonton PFS player, I hope you’ll join me for this one. I can accept up to six players; please pre-register on the Facebook or Meetup event page.
  • 1am-6am: Pathfinder Society Scenario #5-04: The Stolen Heir. This is a Tier 1-5 scenario, and as part of the Year of the Demon season, makes a great follow-up to #4-EX. Please register on the Facebook or Meetup event page; new players welcome and pre-gens will be provided.
  • 6am-8am: This may end up being buffer time, depending on how long the other sessions go. But assuming they end on time I’ll finish off with World of Warcraft or World of Tanks.

You might be saying, “But Brent, you said 25 hours but that’s only 24. What gives, jerk?” Well my faithful strawman, November 3 at 2am is Daylight Savings, so we’ll roll the clocks back an hour and keep on gaming. Thus, the magic 25 hours.

If you want to play in any of the games listed, the rules are simple. Pre-register on either the Facebook or Meetup event pages so I know how many I have coming for each table. Then make a donation on my Extra Life page to support the Children’s Miracle Network. Any donation amount will do (recommended minimum is $5), and any donations of $25 or more will get a tax receipt. If you prefer to give me the donation on the day rather than use the site, please indicate that in the comments wherever you register. If you have not done one of those two things (donated or pledged to pay on the day), before the evening of October 31 (next Thursday), your seat will be offered up to another player. This is for charity, guys and dolls; you have to donate to play.

In addition to playing some awesomely fun games, I’ll also have prizes available. I have Pathfinder Tales novels, miniatures, dice and a few other surprises I’ll talk about later. Everyone who shows up to play is entered in the draws for these prizes, and you can get extra entries on the day by making extra donations. Game, support an amazing charity, and possible win cool swag; what could be better?

In the event I don’t have enough folks pre-registered for a slot, I’ll either throw the slot open to general board-gaming (donate to play), or I’ll pass the time playing World of Warcraft. I’d rather play games with people, though, so make sure you pre-register.

If you have any questions about Extra Life or my gaming schedule, drop them in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond. And hey, if you can’t make it out but still want to support the Children’s Miracle Network, click on the graphic to the right. It will take you to my secure page and you can donate to your heart’s content. Honestly, any amount helps and any amount is appreciated. And thanks in advance for your support!


30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty-two

We are close to the end of 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, closing in on the final week. I hope folks have enjoyed this. I had and am having a lot of fun, and with the exception of a minor hiccup last week, I like having a constant stream of posts. It is very likely I’ll go back to daily posting when the challenge is over, but for now on with the show!

A novel solution: what’s the best advice you have borrowed from a totally different field?

I freelance as an editor, and spend a lot of my working time with genre fiction. One of the best pieces of advice I received early on and spread around wherever I can is: show, don’t tell. In fiction this means instead of writing “He felt sad.”, which is static and frankly boring, you write something like, “His gaze lingered on her scarf by the door, and he choked back a sob. He poured himself another drink and curled up on the couch in the comfortable dark.” Both methods convey the character’s sadness, but the second method is both more interesting and conveys much more information without using a huge exposition dump.

“Show, don’t tell” can be applied to GMing as well. Instead of telling players how evil the villain is when he’s introduced, show him doing something despicable. It’s cliche, but have him punishing a subordinate as the characters approach. Have the vampire villain stop in the middle of his conversation for a “snack”. It’s much more interesting and exciting for your players than just telling them the villain is evil. It also opens up the chance to surprise your players with the villain. If she’s been acting normal up to that point, then suddenly stabs someone to death in alley, that’s a great “Holy crap!” moment for the players.

And it doesn’t have to be reserved for villains. You can use the technique for any of your NPCs to give them a bit of flavour and bring them alive. Don’t tell them the blacksmith is angry; instead describe him hammering more furiously. Don’t tell them the innkeeper is obsequious; describe how he instantly switches on a smile and agrees with everything the characters say. Giving your players these types of descriptions instead of just telling them what an NPC is like also makes their Perception and Sense Motive checks more useful. After all, how a character acts may or may not have a connection to what they actually think or feel.

Showing instead of telling opens up a whole new way of both providing and hiding information from the players. If you aren’t used to it, don’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the habit and rhythm of it. Just keep plugging away, and spend a bit of time practising your descriptions, and you’ll soon have a whole new tool in your GM’s bag of tricks.

What’s your best bit of advice from a different field? Drop it in the comments and share with the group. Tomorrow we talk about mechanics and story.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty-one

As we enter the final third of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, we start to look at more “meta” questions. Questions like…

What are your favourite books about game mastering?

My hands-down favourite book on game mastering is Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Steve Jackson Games. Sadly out-of-print in dead tree version, but still available as a PDF, this is my go-to game mastering book. I re-read it cover to cover at least once a year, and I’m constantly referencing it when I run campaigns. It is a great setting-neutral source for GMing advice, and I’d hand it out to every starting GM if I could. If you don’t have it, get the PDF. I promise you won’t be sorry.

If you GM Pathfinder, there are two books you must have: the Game Mastery Guide and Ultimate Campaign. I’ve talked about the Game Mastery Guide before, so I really don’t have anything to add. It is full of useful information you will be happy to have at your fingertips when prepping and running a Pathfinder game. Ultimate Campaign expands on that information, giving you suggestions and tips on: expanding character backgrounds; what to do in the downtime between adventures and how to make that downtime fun for the player; how to adjudicate things like magic item creation and retraining; creating and running a kingdom, in case your players have an urge to rule. Just about anything your players might get into during a prolonged campaign is covered in the pages of this book, and it’s a great resource for any GM. Heck, a lot of the information is presented in a setting-neutral manner, so even if you don’t play Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign is going to be useful.

Finally, if you are looking for a GM guide for world-building, the best one I’ve found is the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, published by Kobold Press. It features essays by gaming luminaries such as Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, David “Zeb” Cook, Jeff Grubb, Scott Hungerford, Chris Pramas, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, and Ken Scholes. It is packed with great meaty gobs of world-building tips, tricks and advice. The thing I love about this book is that there are some conflicting ideas on world-building, which means the book has something for you regardless of your personal views on world creation. This is another book I re-read often, and you need to have it one your shelf if you plan to create your own campaign worlds.

What GMing books are your “must haves”? Leave a note in the Comments, and we’ll see you tomorrow for advice from a different field.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty

Two-thirds of the way through, gentle readers. After today a scant ten entries lie between us and the end of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. I really hope you’ve found some of these posts useful. When this is over you’ll be able to read all these entries in one of two ways: either click on the 30 Days of GMing tag, or read them on the separate page I’m constructing to house all this advice. In the meantime, lets finish out the first twenty…

What was your best session and why?

I have one particular session that sticks in my mind, from a campaign I played in years ago. The session didn’t start out so promising; only three of the usual six players had made it to the game that night. But while we were talking before the game started, we discussed how funny it would be for the next session to start with some totally improbable situation, just to freak out the absent players. A little more discussion, and this went from “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” to “This is what we have to do!”. And one of the most epic evenings of play had begun!

Out of context here is the list of “six impossible things” we had to achieve in order for our plan to work:

1. Kill the fire giant chieftain and his mammoth animal companion.

2. Take control of the fire giant tribe.

3. Hollow out and reanimate the animal companion.

4. Using the animal companion as a sort of “Trojan Mammoth”, secure the bulk of our party inside.

5. Get safely to the Drow stronghold, potentially protected by the fire giant tribe.

6. Our vampiric dwarf cleric must use diplomacy to gain entry to the stronghold, allowing us to start next session not only inside the Drow stronghold, but inside a zombie mammoth.

Not exactly a short or easy to complete bucket list for the party. And frankly, we would have been happy to just get one or two items complete that evening, and carry on with the rest next session. But as amazing as it sounds we completed everything on that list in one 3-1/2 hour session of play. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will touch on a few points that contributed to our GM starting the next session with, “We start where we last left you guys, inside the mammoth. What would you like to do next?” Side note: we resisted saying anything about what happened that night to the other three players, so they started the session ignorant of what had passed. The looks on their faces when the GM started the session were everything we dreamed of.

Our GM ran with it – Our GM could have fought us any one of the points of our plan. They varied from the improbable to the downright ridiculous. But our GM saw how invested were were in this plan and rather than fight us, went along for the ride. That isn’t to say he made things easy for us, though I suspect there may have been a little fudging in our favour at a few points. He realized that, first and foremost, his job was to make sure we had fun. So rather than throw pointless blocks in out path, he went with the key improv philosophy of, “Yes, and…” and gave us an exciting evening of D&D. I GM that same group of guys now (with a few new additions) and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t still remember that session with fondness. And all because our GM put the fun factor first.

Discussion does not equal fun – For the campaign we were playing, six players was a perfect size. (Against the Drow, for anyone that remembers that 3.5 ed. gem) For most situations, anyway. But with six players a fair amount of session time can be spent just deciding what we were going to do. I can honestly say, if the other three players had been there that night we would never have come up with the plan, never mind pulled it off. That doesn’t mean they were bad players, or intentionally obstructive. But there can be a tendency during these group discussions to just go with the path of least resistance, in order to end the discussion and get back to playing. But with just three of us, plus a desire to “punish” the other three players for their failure to attend, we went from conception to planning to execution in a very short order. And when it came to execution, we still had all six characters at our disposal; our GM’s policy on player absence allowed for the characters to be played by proxy, either the GM or one of us. So we essentially had three brains controlling six bodies that night. Combine that with us being very brave and bold (especially the three player-less characters), and we were able to achieve in step in our plan in easily half the time it would have taken with full attendance. I’ve carried that lesson with me as both a player and a GM: sometimes it can be a bad thing to give the players too much time to discuss. There is often value in throwing them into the thick of it and forcing them to think on the fly.

The goal was fun – I think if our goal was more punitive towards the absent players, the GM would have steered us away from whatever course of action we developed. But because our goal was to: a) do something fun with our evening even though we were missing half the party, and b) “punish” the absent players by starting in a weird situation which ultimately served our campaign goals, the GM allowed things to happen. And I think that was my biggest take away from that evening: almost anything should be allowed to happen at the table as long as it serves to make the game fun. Fun is why we play; fun is why these are role-playing games and not works. That doesn’t mean that, as a GM, you have to allow the players to run with every demented idea they come up with. But, if their idea isn’t going to sink the campaign or harm another player’s character without their consent, and it will lead to the players having more fun rather than less, go with it. Our list of six things was a near impossible shopping list of tasks, and by rights we shouldn’t have pulled them off. But we did, and as a result we had an evening of fun still talk about years later. So the next time you’re GMing and you want to say no to your players, take a second to reconsider. Saying yes might just make for a memorable evening.

What was your best gaming session, player or GM? Tell us about it in the comments. And join us tomorrow for Day 21: What are your favourite books about game mastering?

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Fifteen to Nineteen

Never fear, I haven’t abandoned the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. But last week became busier than anticipated, so once again you get a blog post covering the last several days. I promise, tomorrow we go back to one topic a day. Until then, pour yourself a coffee and enjoy.

Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative?

Whether I’m running a pre-written adventure or something I’ve put together, I spend a lot of time figuring out the villain. If the player characters are the heroes of the story, they deserve a villain that challenges and, if possible, scares the bejesus out of them. I have three main tips for making the villain memorable.

1. The villain wants the opposite of what the characters want – Seems pretty straightforward, right? But many people forget this very simple definition of antagonist, and give their villain some esoteric goal the players (and therefore characters) don’t care about. Tie your villain’s goals into the things important to you characters. If a character has loved ones, the villain must threaten them in some way. If a character is after a particular item, the villain wants it as well. If a character wants a specific person dead to avenge her family’s murder, that person is of particular importance to the villain and under his protection. The more specifically you can tie the villain’s desires into the characters’ stories, the more memorable he becomes. After all, any villain could want to destroy the world, but only yours needs to sacrifice villagers from the characters home town (including the character’s family) to do it.

2. A villain is known by the company she keeps – Every memorable villain has had memorable lieutenants, someone to lead the minions into battle. Sauron had the Witch King and the Riders; Goldfinger had Oddjob; Emporer Palpatine had Darth Vader. Yes, each also had scads of less memorable minions, but the trusted servants all stick in the mind. Why is that important? Well, if the lieutenant is powerful and scary it offers you two things as a GM. First, if the characters haven’t encountered the main villain yet, they might mistake the mook for the boss. Which makes for a fine bit of surprise when they discover the truth. And second, when the truth is revealed the villain seems that much more frightening because she is controlling (even if just barely) the already frightening lieutenant. This reveal is particularly fun if the characters are still a ways off from being a match for the main villain, because it drives home how serious their situation is and what they might need to achieve to finally win out. Yes, it takes a bit more work, but trust me, exciting mooks make for memorable bad guys.

3. Pass the salt, it’s time to chew some scenery – You can be excused for not coming up with distinctive personalities for every goblin or thug the party encounters. But when it comes to the main villain, now is the time to pull out all the stops! The first time they encounter him, the box text should lay thick with description. The villain should have a distinctive voice and style, a way of talking and acting that is clearly theirs and no one else’s. Give them a catch phrase, a specific vocal quality (a lisp, a rasp, or a higher/lower pitch), or have them speak only in the characters’ minds. Maybe the room gets noticeably hotter/colder when they enter. Maybe there’s a distinctive smell that accompanies their arrival and lingers after they’ve gone; I had a villain who kept bees, and so a sweet smell would linger after he’d left a room. Maybe their eyes glow with a sickly green flame whenever they cast spells or become enraged (which they should become around the characters often). The point is, now is not the time to be subtle. Once the villain has chosen to reveal himself he should be larger than life and scarier than death. So pull out all your acting chops, and make sure the characters never forget him.

Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?

Investigation and mysteries can be some of the hardest things to pull off in a role-playing game. Too often GMs tie clues into the result of Knowledge checks, which can work if your party has the needed skills. But what if no one has Knowledge (engineering)? Do they just not get the architectural clue left by a previous builder?

One of the best games I’ve found for investigative scenarios is the Gumshoe System, by Robin D. Laws. In Gumshoe, the basic clue will always be found by a character with an appropriate skill. So if you took Art History and the clue is hidden in an old painting, you will discover that clue and keep the story going. However, you can choose to spend points from your skill to get more information and reveal even more important clues. Therefore the story never gets bogged down because there is always a way to find a clue, and your skills are still useful because they can get you additional information.

I’ve carried that same idea back to my Pathfinder games. I now modify Knowledge and Perception checks in such a way that beating a relatively low DC (5 or 10) will get you the minimum  information necessary to keep the investigation going. But achieving better results (beating a higher DC) gains the player more information and an edge on solving the mystery. After all, while some of the fun lies in discovering the clues, most of the fun in an investigation comes from putting those clues together. In order to do that, you have to make it a little easier for players to find them.

Putting clues together leads us into red herrings. I use them sparingly, because I’ve found through experience that sending players to constantly chase their tails is more frustrating than fun. So at most I’ll include a couple of false leads in the investigation. But I think they can be useful. Red herrings add a bit of realism to your investigation; every investigation suffers from the occasional bad witness or clue that goes no where. They also help point up the fact that other things are happening in your world that don’t directly involve the characters. But if you do use them, I suggest making them relatively easy to sort out. It’s okay to use a red herring to send the characters on a fruitless chase through the village, for instance. But don’t send them on a fruitless chase across a continent. Doing so will only frustrate your players and make them feel like their characters can’t impact the world around them.

To raise tension in my games, I find it useful to construct events that happen when the characters aren’t present. Like all good ghost stories, the most frightening things are the ones that happen when you aren’t looking, or just catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. In the same way, having the players encounter the results but not the thing causing the results allows you to build tension. If they enter a room and see that the stone wall has been pitted and scored, they may know they are dealing with acid. But from what? An NPC throwing vials of acid? Some sort of acid spitting creature? OMG A BLACK DRAGON!? Showing them effects without apparent cause allows you to use the players’ imaginations against them, and that can be a powerful tool.

Structure and time: how do you use flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives in your games?

Flashbacks – Flashbacks can be a great tool for spicing up the presentation of box text. While it doesn’t always fit, presenting key moments as a flashback helps tie the characters further into your world. For example, the party approaches the ancient tower they’ll spend a great deal of time exploring. At this point I could launch into standard descriptive text and ask for various Knowledge checks. Instead, I wait to hear the results of the various checks and using the results as a guide, I do a flashback for each character that provides information about the tower. So a Knowledge (history) check results in a character recalling a portion of a lesson from an old tutor. A Knowledge (local) check might flashback to the inn the night before, and an old codger recounting tales and rumours about the tower. Not only do you get the information across to the players, but you make their checks part of the world you’ve crafted, instead of just dice rolls. You’ve also set up possible NPCs for later; if the old codger’s rumours turn out to be true, maybe the party checks in with him before their next dungeon sortie.

Cut Scenes – I use cut scenes to deliver information or setting/plot flavour to the players, which their characters might not yet know. Often your players will wonder aloud about certain aspects of the campaign; what the villain is actually up to, who the next victim might be, and so on. While you can just keep your mouth shut and let them speculate, done properly a cut scene can give them a bit of answer to those questions, while tantalizing them by producing more questions. For instance, if the game so far has featured a series of brutal murders, you might give the players a cut scene featuring a young man leaving his workplace and walking home. As he makes his way down the darkened streets, a shadow detaches from a nearby alleyway and begins following the boy. As the young man turns at a noise behind him, there’s the flash of a dagger and the boy screams…! End scene. The next day, in game, a boys body is found and the players are presented with more clues to follow. As you are presenting “meta-knowledge” to your players, though, you have to gauge whether your players can handle having that information without warping their characters’ behaviour. I use cut scenes primarily as a treat for the players, so I don’t want their characters suddenly acting on knowledge they don’t have. In my example above, if the characters just start acting like the weapon used was a dagger when that hasn’t been established in play, then that is meta-gaming and not allowed. But, if the players use the cut scene as a spur to more closely investigate the wounds and the weapon used, which leads them to a dagger, then they are using “meta-knowledge” correctly.

Parallel Narrative – Parallel narrative is a device similar to cut scenes.  As a tool it will be the one most familiar to the players, as it is used extensively throughout television. If nothing else, the inclusion of commercials turns every television broadcast into a series of cut scenes, albeit mostly bad ones. But where I will present a cut scene as a show the players can watch but not affect, parallel narrative involves one or more of the players directly. It is most often used when the party has split for some reason, as a way to keep the action moving forward while splitting the time evenly between the players. The key to running good parallel narrative, I’ve found, is always make the jump from one player to the next on a high point in the action. That can mean a cliff hanger (“The door squeals in protest as you open it, dust swirling at your feet. You see something move in the darkness beyond…and over to you, Bob.”) or waiting for the player to discover some important bit of plot (“As you finish reading the town ledger you realize it is the town reeve and not the mayor who was funnelling tax money to the cult. Think of what you’re going to do next, and we’ll go to Steve who just opened an unfortunate door.”). Make sure to mix things up. Too many cliff hangers dulls the effect; likewise, you don’t always want to give your players a lot of time to make plans without the rest of the party.

How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?

I tend to modify rewards, whether tangible (gold, magic items, property) or intangible (exp. points or story awards), to more closely suit my players as well as my campaign. Most treasure in a pre-written adventure, for instance, is placed with the standard blend of fighter/mage/rogue/cleric in mind. But what if the party’s main combatant is a monk? After the second or third longsword or shield +1 the party finds, that player is likely to get frustrated. So I look very closely at my party blend, then go in and modify treasure accordingly. That doesn’t mean every treasure pile is going to have things perfectly suited to each character, because that would be ridiculous. But it does mean that occasionally the party will fight a monk NPC who wields a staff +1.

As far as suiting the treasure to the campaign world, I’ll take a page from the real-world and try to modify the cosmetics of the treasure to match my setting. After all, not every item is equally valuable everywhere. Before the Chinese made it so valuable to the West, jade was just another greenish rock. The Spanish looted much of South America for Aztec gold, but to the Aztec other more useful materials, like obsidian for weapon making, were more highly prized. Paper money is a perfect example of this; finding a bag containing millions of dollars is great, unless those dollars are Confederate currency. So while I still include the ubiquitous gold and silver coins in my treasure, I might also include a cannister of rare teas, bolts of silk, and jade figurines, if my setting was more oriental in flavour.

Intangible rewards, like experience points and story awards, can also be modified to rely at least partially on the characters and setting. One of the easiest ways to do this is to tie XP gain to resolving a situation or encounter, instead of connecting XP to successful combat. I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the players in my Kingmaker campaign is playing a paladin dedicated to finding peaceful solutions first. Which means tying XP just to successful combat will undermine his character concept. So instead, I’ve tied XP to encounter resolution instead of encounter elimination. I still expect many encounters will end with combat, and XP will be awarded as usual. But I’ll also award XP for resolving situations diplomatically, without combat. That will make the player happy, because his character is actually impacting the game world in the manner he prefers. And it also allows me to show the other players that they will still be rewarded even if they don’t go all “murder hobo” on every NPC they encounter.

As a side note, treasure is one of the few times I adhere closely to whatever encumbrance rules the game uses. While it can be tempting to just hand-wave the party walking around with thousands of gold pieces weighing hundreds of pounds, I actually think it adds possible encounter and story ideas to a campaign. Do the characters leave and come back with a cart in order to strip everything to the walls, hoping someone doesn’t stumble upon their now unguarded treasure trove? Do they leave someone behind to watch things, and what happens to that person while the rest of the party is gone? Or do they pick and choose, trusting to Appraise checks to help them snatch the best loot? And what do they do with the valuable statue, easily worth tens of thousands of gold pieces, but standing eight feet tall and weighing a tonne? Like most things I try not to go overboard, and make most of the treasure found relatively easy to transport. But it can be fun, as well as an easy way to keep players from creating over-powered characters, if you make treasure a bit harder to manage.

What was your worst session and why?

I racked my brain for a bit, trying to come up with a specific worst session to talk about. And I have to say, so far I seem to be lucky since I have no real stand-out bad sessions. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had bad sessions, every GM has (and will). Just nothing I can single out as the worst. But I can single out one particular type of player guaranteed to give me a bad GMing experience.

The Diva.

All players like to be the centre of attention every once in a while. The Diva starts that sentence with “I” and ends it sentence after “attention”. The Diva is the player that must be involved in everything; every role-playing moment, every turn of combat, every decision whether the player’s character is present for it or not. They have to have their say, sometimes interrupting the GM and other players, and they get offended and pouty when they don’t get their say or the party chooses to ignore it. I used to call this player type The Asshole, but many times the player in question can be a really nice person, acting the Diva out of a real or imagined sense the party needs their guidance. But even if they mean well, the Diva still bulldozes over everyone else’s play experience, making things less than fun at the table. Nowadays I largely encounter The Diva  at conventions. I’ve successfully weeded them out of my home campaigns; either I fix the problem (preferred), or that player doesn’t get invited back for another campaign.

How do you deal with a Diva? Make sure the Diva is very clear about what they are doing at any particular moment, then hold them to that. This is especially helpful if your Diva always seems to be at the back of the marching order when the potentially trapped door is opened, but is miraculously right at the front when combat starts. Or across the room when the potentialy trapped chest is opened, but within snatching distance once the loot is discovered. I’ve found that using miniatures along with clear house rules about each player being responsible for moving their mini and enforcing the “playing where it lies” rule clears up most of this problem. For non-combat encounters, have the Diva’s behaviour reflected in their character. If the Diva is constantly chiming in with their opinion during another players attempt at negotiation, for instance, then that is what the character is doing. And if it’s annoying to the player and GM, it should be annoying to the character and NPC involved, affecting the DC of the Diplomacy check. And if the Diva is just so far out of control those tactics don’t work, it’s time to take that player aside and explain what’s going on. Sometimes the Diva isn’t aware they’re being a Diva, so talking to them about their behaviour can often bring it under control. In certain situations, like a convention game where you don’t have time to be subtle, go with this last step first. It may result in the Diva being sulky or even leaving, but it will keep the entire table from having a bad table experience.

Okay, I promise, starting tomorrow we go back to one topic a day. Both for my sanity and yours. In the meantime, if you have anything to add or any questions about the topics above, please drop me a note in the comments.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Eleven to Fourteen

Moving into days eleven through twenty of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, we focus more on how things run at the table. As a reminder, if you follow the link above and look in the comments section, you’ll see all the blogs taking part in the challenge. I encourage you to do so, there’s a lot of good advice being shared. In the meantime, since I took the long-weekend off, here are Days Eleven through Fourteen. It’s a long one today so strap in; regular length posts resume tomorrow.

Day 11 – House rules: what are your favourite hacks, mods, and short cuts?

The usual disclaimer: since I play a lot of Pathfinder, much of what I say here will refer to that game. But it is possible to apply it to other games as well, with a bit of modification.

One of my favourite optional rules for the Pathfinder game is Hero Points. When I’m not playing Pathfinder I really enjoy games where the player has agency and can direct some of the action. Hero Points allow for that in a Pathfinder game, as well as giving the player a chance to pull off the truly heroic action. For those not familiar with Hero Points (found in the Advanced Player’s Guide), each character can have a maximum of three at any time, and spending one allows the player to affect the d20 roll. The exact effect depends on whether the player decided to spend the point before or after the roll; bigger bonuses apply if the Hero Point is spent before the die roll. Players can also spend a point to get back a spell cast, use a special ability one more time, and a variety of other options. I allow their use in every Pathfinder game I GM, because I love encouraging the players to be heroic, to take the big chances. It always make for a more exciting night at the table that way. If I’m not playing Pathfinder, I try to find a way to introduce the concept of Hero Points to whatever game I’m running.

One of the few things I actually stole from 4th ed. D&D to use in other games was the idea of the passive skill check. While most skill checks require the character to actively attempt something (climb a rope, pick a lock, remember research), sometimes something is so obvious and the character so skilled that she succeeds without really trying. While an active check requires a d20 roll plus bonus, a passive check assumes the player rolled a ten on the die, plus skill bonus. The most obvious use of a passive skill check is for Perception, and I use it to gauge what the characters might actually see upon entering a room or situation. If their passive Perception score is high enough, they might actually notice the “hidden” door (or monster) right away, because it just wasn’t hidden well enough. But I also use it for skills like Sense Motive, and even Knowledge checks. Depending on where the DCs start on a Knowledge chart, for instance, a character may know the basics about something without really thinking about it. Only after pondering the situation, item, or creature for a bit longer (making an actual Knowledge check) could he potentially know more. Using passive checks has greatly sped up my game play, because I don’t have to bog down play with unnecessary dice rolling.

I also like to hack whatever game I’m running to find a way to reward players for staying on top of the story. I try to start each session by asking for a recap, or a “Previously on…” summation. If the players can give it to me I will find a way to reward them in game, either with additional XP or bonuses. These recaps also give me an idea of how I’m doing as a GM; if the last session wasn’t memorable or they players seem confused (when I don’t want them to be confused, of course) I know I need to make a change.

Day 12 – Table Rules: how do you keep players focused on the game?

I don’t use a lot of “set in stone” table rules to keep my players focused. After all, if I’m doing my job as the GM the players will generally stay focused because I’m holding their interest. And because gaming for me is first and always a social activity, I actually embrace the occasional lack of focus. I’m okay with funny asides, or “this reminds of the time…” stories, because for me that’s part of the hobby. Also, as a cunning GM, I’m always listening when players talk about things that stood out for them in other games. It’s one of the best ways to figure out what your players will like/hate, and add/avoid it in your game.

That said, I do take steps to minimize disruption when we play. I’m lucky enough to have a separate game room with a table and chairs, so I use that. Not only does sitting around a table suit my sense of tradition better, it also keeps the players focused on each other and the game. Moving from the living room to the game room also gives a concrete transition from socializing and catching up on the week, to playing time. I also have a general rule that, unless you need to look up a rule or find something for your character, no internet at the table. I’m always happy to watch the latest funny video, but only after the session. This one can be hard for players, especially with the ubiquity of smart phones, but it’s important for me as a way of limiting distractions. Like most of my other table “rules”, however, I don’t do hard-ass enforcement. But players who pay more attention to their phone or tablet than to me find they miss out on important information, and I don’t go back over it for them. Usually it only takes one or two instances of walking into a trap or suffering a surprise attack before the offending player turns off his/her device.

Sometimes as the GM you have to take the mood of the table. There are going to be some evenings where, for whatever reason, no one is really focused on what is happening. While you could try to grab control and force players to pay attention , I’ve found over time that sometimes you need to let the players have their unfocused sessions. Let them go in whatever direction they choose, even if that’s sometimes every direction at once. Gaming is a social activity, and sometimes your players are going to focus more on the social than the game. That’s okay. Let them. Enjoy it with them instead of trying to force them back on track. You may have worked hard on the encounters for that session, but those encounters aren’t going anywhere; tuck them away for next time. Have fun with your players, let them have their head, and you’ll generally find that next session they are back on task. If they aren’t of course, that’s an issue (and the subject of another post).

I also make sure to talk with my players about my “at table” expectations. Many, many issues can be avoided if your players know up front what you want from them as far as play behaviour goes. If you’ve been letting them check emails for three or four sessions, then suddenly freak out about it at the fifth, that really isn’t fair to them. Take a moment to talk about expected etiquette, it will save much grief later on.

Day 13 – Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?

The short answer to that question is: I don’t always. The long answer is, well, longer. How and whether I balance depends a great deal on who my players are and what type of game I’m running. For instance, I’m currently running a “sandbox” game where the characters are exploring wide swaths of uncharted wilderness. The characters are starting at first level, but they may encounter things in their exploration that no first-level party can handle. But because the players are all experienced, I expect them to know when to run away and save that encounter for later. If I were running the same game for brand new players, though, I’d tend to make sure the bulk of their encounters, while challenging, were within their capabilities. In each case how much balance I add depends on my ultimate goal. With my table of experienced players I’m trying to challenge them, so I want the sphincter-clenching moments of finding something they shouldn’t have or evading something truly nasty. Because they are more familiar with the game, I’m trusting them to put that knowledge to good use. But with a table of new players my goal is largely to teach them the game. The best way to teach the game is to play the game, so unless I really want them to learn character creation rules, killing them off just because they took a wrong turn would be counter-productive. So I balance the encounters a little more in their favour, letting them learn and become the more experienced players.

And let’s be honest, imbalance is more fun. It’s what players remember. Try it yourself; think back to every combat encounter you’ve had in a game. How many of the ones you remember were perfectly balanced? Now how many were gut-wrenching, “oh my god we’re all going to die!” encounters, where you barely won out in the end (or maybe didn’t)? Chances are you remember more of the latter, right? Sometimes, to challenge the players, a GM has to tip the scales against them. Whether you tip them a little or a lot is up to you, but I guarantee those are the encounters your players will talk about when the campaign is over.

That said, if every encounter becomes a life-and-death struggle, soon the players will either get blasé about them, or just give up. So I usually worry less about balance inside each specific encounter, and more about balancing encounters against one another. After all, easy encounters have their uses as well. Sometimes you want to remind the players their characters are indeed heroes; slip them an easier encounter where they can strut their stuff. I use these especially after a party has levelled up, so they have a chance to try out any new feats/abilities and get a handle on them before bigger challenges rear their head. Using a baseball analogy, these easy encounters are the practice pitches before I put them on the mound. Of course, once they are on the mound I try to make every encounter bottom of the 9th, bases loaded, and winning run at the plate…sorry, enough baseball. My point is, I tailor the encounter for the characters, but keep in mind what I think the players might need or want from the situation as well.

Day 14 – How do you facilitate combat? Any tips, tools, or cheats?

Earlier I said I try not to force focus at the table, but if there were an exception to that, combat would be it. I expect my players to be focused on what is happening during a combat encounter, and I am definitely less lenient about lack of attention. My biggest tip, therefore, is “Lead by Example”. If you want the players to be focused and ready when their turn comes around, then you as the GM have to demonstrate that same (or greater) level of readiness. For me, that means not fumbling through books looking stuff up; declaring a definite action for an NPC/monster when it’s their turn; always having something happen when it comes around to me. How I do that goes back to my earlier post about session prep. I make sure I have all the information I need ready and at my finger tips, so I don’t have to hesitate for longer than it takes me to choose an action and declare what’s happening. If I can be ready to go, especially when I’m running multiple creatures or NPCs, then it is only fair to expect a player to be ready on their turn with their one character.

To keep combat moving I also try to remind players when their turn is getting close, so they have a chance to look up rules and plan during their down time. That way when it does come back to them, they are ready to go and can tell me what they want to do right away. If they have questions about the situation I do try to answer them but I also remind them this is combat, and they don’t necessarily have time to notice everything in the moment. So I don’t really allow extended question-and-answer sessions about the environment, the monsters, and so on. I give a brief answer and then ask, “What are you doing?”. I always bring it back to the character’s actions, because that is what moves the encounter forward and I want the player focused on the action.

One of the tools I sometimes use are initiative cards, like those offered by The Game Mechanics. While initially created for D&D 3.5 they work equally well for Pathfinder. They allow me to keep character information in front of me during combat, so I don’t bog things down by repeatedly asking for things like armour class. And tying back in to my passive skill check rule, above, at a glance I can know what to tell players about their situation initially and what they’ll need to dig deeper to discover. They require a little more organization than using a standard initiative tracker, but not much more. I do recommend holding off on their use until the characters are a little higher level, though, unless you can laminate your cards. Otherwise you’ll spend the first few levels erasing and re-writing a lot of information.

My general, all-purpose combat tip is, Keep It Moving! Nothing sucks the energy out of an exciting combat like having to look something up, or dither about actions or results. When in doubt, make a decision and keep going, even if you aren’t sure it’s the right decision. Remember things like the 50/50 Rule (all things equal, the chance of performing anything is 50/50), and the +2/-2 Rule (when in doubt, apply a -2 modifier for something bad, and a +2 modifier for something good). Yes the game has rules, and yes you should know them, generally. But sometimes you forget, sometimes you didn’t look up that rule before play, and sometimes (usually) the player is doing something you didn’t consider. So just roll with it, make up something reasonable in the moment, and look it up after the game. Your main job as the GM is to keep things fun and exciting. Looking up rules is neither of those things.

Whew! Okay, that was a big chunk. I’ll try not to do that again, I promise. If you have anything to add or ask, please drop it in the commets!