Local Nerdery to Keep You Warm

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgYes, I know. Winter has come to the Prairies and your first instinct is to hibernate until it goes away. Mine too. But I’ve also learned that getting out and gaming can help speed the winter away. So here are a few local (Edmonton) gaming events happening in the next while, to help drive away the winter blues.

Gamemaster Support Group (Monday, February 13, 6-9pm) – Hub of nerdery and mighty fine comic shop and used-book store, Variant Edition, has begun hosting a Gamemaster Support Group, designed to give local GMs a chance to meet, discuss issues around GMing, and swap ideas and stories. I was very sad to miss the first of these, but I’m planning to make it to the next with proverbial bells on. The focus for this one seems to be GM materials, and they’ve asked the GMs attending to bring along examples of materials they use at the table. So I’m especially excited to see all the cool things my fellow GMs use at the table. Not only is a cool learning experience, but sometimes you need to vent and only your fellow GMs will understand.

Bitz Swap (Saturday, February 18, 9am-5pm) – Alongside the Colder than Carbonite 2017 Infinity Tournament, Bitter North Gaming will host a Bitz Swap. For those not in the know, amongst miniature gamers a bitz swap is a chance to buy and trade miniatures and miniature bitz, for modding your miniatures, building terrain, or just picking up an army you’ve had your eye on super cheap. If you’ve been interested in starting in the hobby, this is also sometimes a good opportunity to get into the hobby less expensively. And if nothing else it’s a chance to ogle some cool miniatures and talk to other tabletop wargamers.

KEFCon – The Gauntlet (February 25-26) – Hosted by The Gamer’s Lodge, The Gauntlet is a 17-hour gaming marathon fundraiser in support of KEFCon. Tickets are $20, and you get a $5 food voucher from The Gamer’s Lodge as part of that. The gaming goodness starts at 9am and runs to 2am, with multiple tables of gaming running the entire time. Plus there’ll be folks on hand to teach the games (I should know, I’m one of them), so it’s a perfect time to try out a game you’ve never played before. You can register for the games ahead of time through Warhorn. Beer, food, and gaming, what more could you want?

So get on out there and while away the winter with some gaming. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

 

Trail Rations: Beef Stew on Trenchers

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgIt’s been a while since I’ve done a Trail Rations post, but as I head in to 2017 I’ve taken it upon myself to cook more meals at home, as opposed to eating out or ordering in. Since game sessions are a huge culprit in my fast-food habit, I’m rededicating myself to cooking at home for game sessions. Because I work during the day, I often use my slow cooker to prepare meals for game night. Whenever possible, I try like to serve something which might evoke the game world for my players. Previous posts (search the Trail Rations tag) have touched on some of those recipes.

One of my favourites for a basic fantasy-feel is slow-cooker beef stew, served on trenchers. What are trenchers? Once upon a time, trenchers were flat bread upon which food was served. Often this food was a stew or something else drippy or runny, which would soak into the trencher. Used trenchers would be given as alms to the poor, or just eaten the next day for breakfast. At some point trenchers stopped being bread and started being a round wooden disk with a raised lip, but its function remained the same: hold a bunch of food. I’m assuming they stopped giving them to the poor or eating them for breakfast at that point, but I’m not the boss of them.

Here’s the beef stew recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups beef broth
  • 3 potatoes, diced
  • 4 carrots, sliced
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  1. Heat a frying pan to medium-high, and add the olive oil. Sear the beef stew meat until it has a nice colour on the outside, but don’t leave in the pan long enough to cook all the way through.
  2. Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Add the seared beef to the slow-cooker, and pour the flour mixture over that, stirring to combine.
  3. Add all the other ingredients to the slow cooker and mix to combine. If you have the time, let the slow-cooker run for 10-12 hours. If you don’t, 4-6 hours on the high setting will do the trick.
  4. Serves 6. Serve in bowls, or find some hearty flat-breads at your local bakery or grocery store and serve it on trenchers.

If you are celiac, ditch the flour. And you can make the dish vegetarian but retain some of the same flavour by leaving out the beef, changing the beef broth to vegetable stock, and adding 3 cups chopped mushrooms and 2 tablespoons soy sauce to the mix. It’s a recipe which lends itself to experimentation, so give your ideal stew a try.

 

 

Welcome, 2017!

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgWhile I don’t believe in blaming a discrete measurement of time for any particular ill, it can’t be denied a lot of unfortunate things happened during 2016. As irrational as it makes me, I’m excited to get 2017 underway. I don’t really make personal resolutions, but I’ve been thinking of my gaming resolutions for the coming year and I thought I’d share them with you. Some relate to the blog and other creative endeavors, some to games I run or play, and the rest are sort of a wish-list for the coming year. In no particular order:

  1. Learn and Play 3 New Tabletop Games Every Month – Even though I read many new games last year, I found that I actually played very few of them. So my goal for the coming year is to play three new tabletop games a month. I’m not fussy about the type of game, as long as it’s something I haven’t played before. Of course this is driven by a desire to just play more games. But I’m also hoping this will get me out to more gaming events through the year, whether those are private events run by friends, gaming conventions, and anything in between. I plan to blog those experiences as well, so you’ll be able to see my running tally through the year.
  2. Attend More Gaming Events – A combination of health and personal issues kept me away from many of the gaming events I was invited to over the last year. With my new-found health, one of my goals for 2017 is to attend every local gaming con (attendee or volunteer, depending on availability), and get to as many small events as my schedule will permit. Hopefully this one will contribute to the prior resolution; a number of my invitations were for play-testing developing games, and I look forward to any of those which come my way.
  3. Self-publish – With the writing and design I’ve put in to my new D&D campaign, the urge is with me publish some of the more refined bits. So I’ve got plans in place to get something up on Drive-Thru RPG and/or DM’s Guild in the coming year. Possibly several somethings, but we’ll see how the first one turns out and adapt from there. I’ll still share the occasional item here on the blog, of course.
  4. Be a Better Player – I’ve referenced this saying before, and I can’t remember where I first heard it. But it goes, “If you’re playing a game and you can’t see the asshole at the table, be careful. It might be you.” I hope I’ve never been the asshole at the table (recently anyway, I can only apologize for my teenage self and move on), and certainly no one has called me on it. That might just mean they resolved to suffer in silence, however. So moving forward I’ll game with the conscious intention of not being That Guy.** No one likes playing with That Guy, and I think our hobby would be vastly improved by calling That Guy on their bullshit at every opportunity. This one will apply to all my games, player and game master, role-playing or board.
  5. Collaborate – This one is mostly blog-related, but it could spill out to other aspects of my gaming as well. I enjoy creating content for the blog. I think I’ve worked out a plan which will allow me to get content up on a regular basis, without straining my schedule. As part of that plan I’d like to collaborate with other game bloggers, in whatever form that shakes out to. One blogger has already been in touch, and you’ll see the result of that in January. But I’m open to working with others, whether that’s a blog post exchange, something co-written, or even game material. So if you’re reading this and you might be interested, drop my a line.

Do you have any gaming resolutions? Share them in the comments!

**That Guy is the person at the table who is sucking the fun out of whatever you’re playing. They’re fastidious rules lawyers, or they bitch about how poorly they’re playing (whether they are or not). Or they mock and question what everyone else is doing or playing. Or they’re playing yet another Brooding Lone Wolf character, and get pissy when you won’t warp your RPG game to include them. You get the idea. That Guy takes many forms and can be any one, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or creed. (Because of that last, I find the term That Guy less than perfect, but unitl I come up with a better one I’ll stick with it for now.)

Mapping your World, Part 1: Getting Started

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgAlong with my renewed interest in campaign creation has come an interest in making good maps. My map-making skills are okay, at least when it comes to dungeon mapping. But I’ve always felt my terrain mapping skills were a bit…well, bad, if I’m being honest. Since I’m in the process of creating a new campaign world for my players I want to show them the world I can see clearly in my mind. To do that, I’ve been searching the web for help, and practicing the techniques that appeal to me. If you’ve got an interest in developing your mapping skills, I’ve collected a few of my favourite resources in this post to help get you started. This post centers on mapping by hand, without the computer. Later on I’ll post about getting started with computer-aided mapping, but since I’m currently mapping by hand that’s what I’m touching on.

First I wanted to say something, something I think is important to realize. When you start, your maps are not going to look great. You won’t be happy with them, and that’s fine. Don’t stop. The important thing is to keep drawing maps and keep practicing. The artist Bob Ross had a saying, “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.” If you keep going, I promise you’ll get to a point where you’re making maps you’re happy to show your players.

Materials – How you map is going to depend a lot on how you’re using your maps. For reference mapping, you’ll be fine with a pad of graph paper (4 or 5 squares per inch is ideal) and a regular pencil. If the scale isn’t important, or you intend to start with area maps and not dungeon maps, you don’t even need the graph paper. Grab any empty sheet and start drawing. In fact, I often start with a blank sheet of paper even when I’m drawing a dungeon layout, because I find the graph paper can be restrictive during the planning stage.

When you’re happy with what you’re drawing, and you want your maps to look a little tidier so your players can read them, it may be time to use pens. You still draw the initial map using pencil, but then go over the lines with a coloured pen, usually black. I use Pilot™ pens for my map making, in four main colours: black for the line work, green for forests, swamps and the like, blue for water features, and red for location icons and to add highlights to other features. If you want to get fancier with the colour you can pick up a box of coloured pencils and use as many colours as you like. Just be careful of making the map too “muddy” with excessive colour use.

If you are running a game which uses a lot of miniatures, you can pick up flip-chart paper with 1”-squares marked on it from any stationary store, making it perfect for transferring your reference maps to the table. Gaming Paper also makes a variety of papers for the tabletop, in a wide range of colours and sizes. The paper quality is also excellent, so you can make some great reusable maps. As with your reference maps, start with pencil, then work your way to felt markers, either black or in as many colours as you prefer.

Cartographer’s Guild – Honestly, I think this should be the first stop for anyone interested in fantasy and sci-fi maps, for any reason, not just gaming. You’ll get inspired by thousands of examples, and the forums and blogs cover a wide range of topics for all skill levels. You can learn a bunch just by looking at a particular map and trying to copy its style, and you’ll never run out of examples here. Plus, it’s just a beautiful site. I’ve become lost down the rabbit hole of looking through page after page of maps, never regretting a second of it.

WASD20 – Inspiration is great, but when I’m ready to make my own maps I need to see the process happening in front of me. Besides being a great general-purpose gaming channel, WASD20 has an entire series of helpful videos on fantasy mapping, collected in their own playlist. He even breaks the process down by terrain types, and offers different style suggestions for your mapping so you can choose a style which works for your skill level. If you’re like me and need to see it happening to do it yourself, I’d definitely recommend these videos. Need a second opinion? Check out the Questing Beast channel for their take on map making.

Those are some of my favourite resources to get started; what are some of yours? What tips would you share with a new cartographer? Let me know in the comments.

 

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!

* * *

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.