Idle Thoughts: Reading

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!

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!

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.