The Ordinary Life of the Players: Feeling Happy?

rpgblogcarnivallogocopy[R.G.: The third of my RPG Blog Carnival posts; the first two are here and hereThis is a little less put together than some other posts. I had a number of thoughts on the subject and as disjointed as they seem to me I wanted to get them down. After all, I can always follow up with a more coherent post later, one of the joys of blogging.]

A sample question on the November RPG Blog Carnival asked, “If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?” That got me thinking along a number of avenues: mental health, self-care, what purposes RPGs can serve beyond entertainment. So let me commence to ramble and we’ll see where we end up.

My initial reaction is, yes, of course I do. Beyond simple entertainment (and I’m not knocking that, it’s a huge part of why I game), for me there is an important social component to gaming that sometimes get overlooked. When I get together with one of my regular groups I’m also spending time with friends, even if that friendship primarily exists around that table and nowhere else. And I want my friends to be happy, so if I can use the game we’re playing to let them escape their problems for a bit and blow off steam, why wouldn’t I? Don’t we play these games to be heroes? Where’s the harm in sliding the spotlight their way and letting their character shine when the player needs a hero the most?

I briefly considered that con games and other one-off sessions are the exception to worrying about this, but that’s not actually true in my experience. Whether I’m running or playing a game at a convention, I’m usually paying more attention to the mood of the others at the table. There’s a saying about con games that goes something like, “Every table has an asshole. If you can’t spot them, it might be you.” I’ve taken that to heart over the years, and I try to be very pro-active (with varying levels of success) about not being the asshole; more, of trying to be the anti-asshole and protecting the rest of the game from the asshole, once identified. Because this particular group is together for only a short period of time, I tend to work hard to make sure they have the best time possible, doubly so if any of the players show up in a bad mood. The games are why you go to a gaming convention, so if they aren’t fun you’ve pretty much lost out on the reason for being there.

Now this all works great for the players at the table, but it can be difficult as the game master to show yourself some self-care during a session to alleviate a bad day. Sometimes just running the game is enough, but occasionally you might need more than that. Maybe you need your hero moment and that can be difficult to pull off. In many games, for your NPCs to shine the characters (and by extension the players) need to fail. That can be fun every now and then as a dramatic beat to your campaign, but if you make a habit of crushing the characters on a regular basis you’ll soon find you don’t have anyone who’ll play with you.

My solution was to slowly, over time, change what I considered to be “winning” as a GM. The adversarial approach was great through junior high and high school, but as I got older I figured out that if I wanted the players to come back for more than a few sessions I had to stop thinking about beating their characters. Instead, I tied my wins to the player experience. For example, if the party encounters a ghost my win is not tied to the ghost beating the characters, but to making sure the players are scared of character death throughout the encounter. When they do beat the ghost they get to win for surviving and overcoming the obstacle, and I get to win because they felt they were one step from doom the entire time. Tying my win condition to the experience my players have has the benefit of my putting the focus on their entertainment and enjoyment, which I think is where it should reside. This doesn’t mean I don’t take a little pleasure when I manage to take down a character (I’m not made of stone), but it isn’t what drives my campaign design any more.

Rambling over. I hope this was somewhat interesting or helpful. What do you think? Do you adjust your game to help out players who feel down? Do you worry about mental health in your games at all? Let’s chat in the comments.

The Ordinary Life of the PCs: Making Magic Magical

This is my second in a series of articles for the November RPG Blog Carnival; the first can be found here. Enjoy!

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rpgblogcarnivallogocopyIt’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. A not-so-quick trip back through the archives of my blog give that away. One of the things I love about the game is how streamlined it is, compared to 3.5e and 4e. It’s still a very robust set of rules, but it manages that without a great deal of clutter. One of the benefits of this, I’ve found, is greater latitude for DMs to customize and house rule for their own campaign.

When I first looked at the rules for magic item creation, I was impressed by how simple they were. The rarity of the item determines how much the material to create it will cost, and in turn that determines how long it will take to construct. For instance, if you want to make a Common item, it costs 100gp and will take a single person 4 days to create (half that cost/time if the item is a consumable item like a potion or scroll). There are a few additional rules about spells used and whether multiple crafters are working on an item, but that’s the gist. I like it; it’s enough of a cost in time/money to keep item creation from being something the players will take for granted, while still allowing it to be an option for just about any character with the necessary levels and tool proficiencies.

As much as I like the rules, though, I feel they’re missing something: the magic. As written, the process is very transactional, almost like buying the item with time and money. But think about it: the character is drawing upon one of the key forces in the universe to craft an item which essentially makes magic manifest. Crafting a magic item should be an event. There should be stakes involved, and sometimes a cost beyond just gold and days spent in toil.

So here are a few ideas I have for putting some magic back in item creation, with the rules as written as the base-level process. At the DM’s discretion, these can work to either shorten the amount of time it takes to craft an item, and/or reduce the crafting costs. Or perhaps, if the characters make poor choices, increase the time or gold spent. And there may be other consequences. After all, cursed items have to come from some where, right? For all of these, the more rare the item desired, the more effort should be involved in assembling the right components. For the very rarest items, assembling the elements of a successful crafting could form the basis of an entire series of adventures.

Location, Location, Location – Where is the character carrying out the crafting? Are they carefully illuminating that healing scroll in the divine scriptorium of a cathedral, or scribbling it out in their room at the inn? Are they crafting that ring of fire elemental command at the local jewellers, or did they set up their workshop next to an active lava flow to better connect to the element? If a character is just brewing up a basic potion it might be okay to use the kitchen at the inn for a few days. But the grander the item being crafted, the more impressive the location or environment should be. Encourage the players to let their imaginations to run to the extreme and exotic. And then craft an adventure around getting them there.

Only the Finest Ingredients – It’s assumed that the cost of crafting covers special ingredients. You can’t just scribble out a magical scroll with a ball-point pen, after all. Scrolls need special inks, magical armour needs rare or specially mined ores, and wondrous items need…the sky’s the limit, really. So maybe the character doesn’t have the money on hand to scribe that scroll of fireball. But she does have that vial of fire giant blood she kept for…reasons. Maybe if she mixed that with a bit of rare ink? Again, let the players’ imaginations come up with connections between the odd and rare items they come across in their adventures and items they’d like their characters to create. At some point they might move from using the oddities they’ve found to figuring out where to hunt down the oddities; now the DM has a whole new set of adventures to use.

Collaboration is Key – For many of the items, a character will have to find help in their crafting. While a puissant wizard brimming with arcane skill, they just don’t have the smithing chops to craft the sword the party fighter dreams of wielding. Sure, the local blacksmith might do for the “average” magic sword. But only Angmar Granitethews of the Golden Hammer School of Smiths will do to craft the weapon you need. Of course, these craftspeople didn’t get where they are by taking every commission that walks through their door. Or maybe they did, so why should they put those jobs aside to assist you? You might get their attention with bags of holding full of gold, but maybe riches aren’t what they need. And off the party goes, on a whole new set of adventures to secure the services of Scandibar of the Winding Way, Most Cunning of Arcane Artificers.

What Are You Prepared to Do? – It’s a fairly common trope that wielding the most powerful magic items can come with a cost. Shouldn’t crafting them cost something as well? Need that scroll but can’t afford to spend two days? Maybe you work a 16-hour day but take a level of exhaustion that takes longer to get rid of. That special sword you wanted may just require that you use only it, eschewing all other blades if you want the magic to work for you. Maybe that staff of the magi needs a bit of actual magi as part of the creation and after all, do you really need ten fingers? And when we start talking about sacrifice, the players and the DM will have to decide how far they want to take that. Is an alignment shift worth it to get the item made just right? Maybe, and the story of that decision makes for a great adventure.

The common thread through all of these points is to encourage the players to use their imaginations. Not all players will be into it, or you may decide that common items don’t need this level of detail. But even if you only use it for the most powerful items, working these elements into your magic item creation can help bring a sense of wonder to magic items in your campaign.

The Watchlist: Girls’ Game Shelf

I’m always on the lookout for nerdy things to watch, and one of my favourites are play-through shows. Once upon a time they were few and far between. Now, with how easy it is to record and upload to the Webz, there are a plethora of shows of varying quality from which to choose. This can mean slogging through some shaky-cam and audio poor examples to get to the really good stuff. But it makes it all the sweeter when you find a great show.

Recently I came across Girls’ Game Shelf, a relatively new YouTube series out of Los Angeles (side note: I’ve been coming across a bunch of great gaming shows out of LA recently. They see to have become the nexus point for gaming media). They shot a pilot season of seven episodes out of their own pocket, then ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to have a Season Two (currently two episodes in). Each episode features a particular game and a returning cast of women gamers, who play through the game and give one-on-one impressions of the game and game play. At the end of each episode they decide whether the game will stay on the shelf.

I binged this show in a morning and I’m now impatiently waiting for more. It has a production style which I particularly enjoy; just enough production value (good sound, good camera work, well lit) that it isn’t annoying to watch, but not so heavily produced that it feels like a corporate training video. Each episode has the feel of sitting down to have a friend explain a game to me, with the ensuing game play and commentary adding to my understanding of the game. Episodes are between 10-15 minutes on average, so you aren’t seeing every move step by step. And I think that’s a good thing. While I occasionally like to watch longer board game play throughs (the Tabletop unedited videos are some of my favourites), most of the time I just want a bite-size look at a game, especially a game I’m considering buying.

The two things that I love most about this show each relate to the cast. First, as the title suggests, it’s an all-female cast. Which is great! I love having a break from the “guys with games” monotony of gaming videos. I game a lot with my friends, and currently I’d say the gender split on my circle of gamers is about 70-30 men to women. Nothing wrong with that, but it means that if I want the male perspective on a game I don’t really have to work very hard to get it. I certainly don’t need another game play video hosted by another dude to get that perspective. But a show like Girls’ Game Shelf affords me new and different perspectives on my hobby, and that excites me. Especially when, to the second thing I love, the cast is so obviously enthusiastic about tabletop games. The best gaming videos, to my mind, are when the players are not just enjoying themselves but are visibly excited to be playing. Nothing will kill my desire to watch a video (or my desire to purchase and play a game) faster than a group sitting quietly around the table moving meeples. I want to see the excitement, and this series does a great job of hitting the highlights of the game and showcasing the players’ joy.

And on a completely different note, it is extremely satisfying to watch them fill up the gaming shelf over the course of the series. I’d honestly watch just for that.

So I’m going to keep Girls’ Game Shelf in my regular watch rotation for as long as they keep making episodes. It’s a fun series with a great cast who are obviously having a blast doing what they’re doing. If you’re in the market for a new or different game play series, I can not recommend this enough.

It’s Time to Pick Up Childish Things!

NTYE-03-Cathy-WilkinsThere are many reasons to get kids in to the role-playing games hobby. Table-top gaming has been shown to have positive benefits for its participants, like improved problem solving and social skills. But it’s also a healthy thing for the hobby itself to encourage. If table-top gaming is to continue to flourish we need young people to discover a love of this hobby just as we did. And it’s easier than ever to find the resources to introduce kids to RPGs, certainly a lot easier than it was when I started gaming. I’m not saying I had to walk 20km through snow, rolling my d20 uphill both ways just to find a game, but looking back it sure felt that way.

These days, not only are there a number of resources available to get your kids into gaming, but there are a number of RPGs created specifically for kids. These games are designed to make their first sessions fun and exciting and take into account things specific to running a game for kids, like a shorter attention span. In support of this, Drive Thru RPG is running a sale event called Teach Your Kids to Game Week, encouraging gamers with kids to bring them into the hobby. You can get a plethora of games designed for young players, like Monte Cook Games’ No Thank You, Evil! And Arc Dream Publishing’s Monsters and Other Childish Things.

Why do we need games designed just for kids? Look, I love D&D. It was my first RPG and it will always have a place in my heart because of that, especially with the resurgence due to 5e. But as good as the current edition is I would never start a 7-year-old off with Dungeons & Dragons. Of course I could run a heavily simplified version of D&D, but given the choice I’d rather use a game written for their age. And if it turns out they aren’t interested in playing RPGs (I know, I KNOW, but it could happen), then you’ve only lost a minimal investment of time and money.

If you are going to run an RPG for kids, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Keep it Short – Under the age of 10, attention spans are not terribly long. Try to keep your sessions in the two hour range, but don’t be surprised if your players can only go for shorter spans at first. Over time, as they get more invested in the game, they’ll be able to pay attention longer.
  • Keep it Fun – Since you’re generally dealing with a shorter time span anyway, get straight to the good stuff. No kid (and few adults, for that matter) want their session to be all about the minutiae of character creation or a forensic accounting of their encumbrance. If you’re running a fantasy RPG, get to killing monsters and finding treasure. If it’s more sci-fi slanted, start zapping aliens. Whatever the fun bit of your chosen game is, get to it! You can slip in the boring-but-necessary stuff in small chunks later on.
  • Keep it Clean – This one is important, especially if you’ve never run for young kids before. It’s easy to slip into many of the habits you developed while running for your peers. Those habits may include innuendo, graphic descriptions of the fight scenes, and so on. But these are kids, so clean it up! Especially if you’re running the game for kids who aren’t yours, you want to keep anything potentially distressing or “dirty” out of the session. After all, their parents have the final say on whether they get to come back and game again; if they’re running home with certain new words in their vocabulary or having nightmares about goblin decapitations you likely won’t see them again.

Do you have any advice for someone running RPGs for kids? Drop it in the comments.

The Ordinary Life of a GM: Getting Lost

rpgblogcarnivallogocopyIn what I’m hoping to make a regular occurrence, I’m taking part in the November RPG Blog Carnival. This month’s topic is Ordinary Life, and there is enough material there that I’ll likely have a few more posts this month around this topic. But today I’m talking about game masters.

Getting Lost and Coming Back

It happens to every Game Master.  You’re mid-campaign, and in an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere.  But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up.  You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it’s only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either.  And when the players lose focus…

It’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you, my struggling GM.  Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:

1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore.  Why are backstories so rich in plot?  Because your players are highlighting the things, people, and events important to their characters.  That significance allows you to build encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally.  Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn* Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring an age of darkness?  Now you have your player’s attention.

So go back to those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out.  Now look at your plot-threads.  Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory.  Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters.  Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again.  Take a tip from television; make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another.  The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.

What’s that?  Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign?  Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking!  Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:

  1. What is your characters most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
  2. Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
  3. What one thing does your character covet above all else?  What one thing does your character fear above all else?

Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.

2)  Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game.  The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet.  Then you do it again with another NPC, and another.  Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.

So don’t.  Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie.  Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a.  But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty.  Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think.  Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together.  Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.

3)  Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play.  No problem.  See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into you plot?  Perfect!  Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it!  The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?).  After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world?  Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.

Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things.  One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important.  Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes.  Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out.  Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well.  You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots.  And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.

So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and try these suggestions.  You can get untangled.

 

Extra Life 2016 is Nigh!

extra-life_blueExtra Life is nigh! This Saturday I’ll take part in 24 hours (actually 25 hours, due to Daylight Savings) of gaming, all to support the Stollery Children’s Hospital. With my team mates from Team #Knifeshoes, I’ll be playing a mix of computer games, board games, and RPGs throughout the day. I’ll be live tweeting all day long, and possible live-streaming sections of the day as the mood strikes.

Extra Life is a fundraiser near to my heart. Of course the gaming aspect of it appeals to me, and I’m glad to have something that allows me to use nerdery for good. But I know first-hand how much it sucks to be sick, really sick, as a kid. When I was 14 I came down with pneumonia and was laid up for months at home. Under doctor’s orders I couldn’t leave the house, so I didn’t get to do much of anything except read and occasionally have the gang over for RPGs. I spent a lot of hours alone in my room, sick and bored out of my mind.

All of that is to say, if I can raise money that helps keep a child’s stay in hospital shorter, or at the very least help buy things to keep them entertained while they’re going through a stressful and/or boring hospital stay, I’m on board.

I hope you’ll support my Extra Life fundraising by donating. Or donate to a person or group near you, there are thousands taking part and likely one of them is close by. Donations of any size help, and every donation is appreciated. Maybe this is the time you go back through all those pre-paid Visa/MC gift cards and donate the dregs that have been sitting there unused. It all adds up.

But if you aren’t able to help by donating, you can still help by getting the word out. I’m going to be posting and tweeting through the day, and I know others will do the same. When you see those tweets and posts, consider RTing or Sharing to help us spread the word. Your reach can be a great boost to our Extra Life fundraising efforts and help whoever you’re boosting reach or surpass their funding goal.

Thanks in advance for any donations or boosting that comes my way, and stay tuned on November 5th for more Extra Life fun!