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.

 

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.

RPGaDay August 31

Best advice you were ever given for your game of choice?

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThe best piece of advice I was given was for GMing in general, and it was a “lightbulb” moment for me as a younger game master. That piece of advice?

“The Game Police Don’t Exist.”

Which is to say, the gaming company is not sending Game Police around to make sure you’re following The Rules. There is no wrong way to play your game. If your players and you are having fun, you’re doing it right. If you have to house-rule the crap out of the rules to get there, do it. Every RPG is open to tinkering and adjusting and house-ruling to make the game work the way you want. Do the thing you need to do to get the game to where you find it fun and exciting. The same goes with settings, or modules/scenarios, or any other RPG books. Use what you need, put the rest aside for later.

This touches a bit back to Gatekeeping and the idea that there is some mystical Right Way of gaming. When I was younger, yeah, I was one of those annoying gits who thought that way. But if I can tell you one thing, after 37 years of gaming, it’s this: there are many paths to a great game. Talk to your players and figure out what your group needs, then get rid of everything else. It can take work, and trial and error. But it’s worth the time you put in; no one has time to waste playing games which aren’t fun.

And thus ends RPGaDay for 2016. I hope you found some of it useful and/or entertaining. We resume a three posts a week schedule starting this weekend, so if you tuned in for the month I hope you’ll keep coming back.

RPGaDay August 30

Describe the ideal game room if budget were unlimited.

PFS Dice CroppedMy ideal game room, and one I’m currently working away at as time and budget allow, is best described as “Retired Adventurer”. I want the room to look like the den/library of a retired adventurer. So a fantasy medieval look overall, decorated with keepsakes and treasures from a life spent adventuring. I have plans to build a goblin dogchopper, for instance, to hang on a wall plaque. I’d decorate the walls with maps of fantasy locations, interspersed with the bits of artwork I’ve collected over the years. I’d install a fake hearth with an electric fireplace, and the lighting would be faux torches. What shelves weren’t covered with game books would have artifacts of a long and varied adventuring life; cups, crystals, urns, and various treasures of a life spent on the road.

And of course the table would be a good, solid wooden table. I’d have some under-shelving so books could be kept off the surface, leaving more room for the maps and dice rolling. Comfortable chairs, with just the right amount of padding. Mini-fridge in the corner for drinks and perishables. A cupboard for snacks and dishes. Basically I’d want to set the room up in such a way that, once you’re in the room and ready to game, there’s no reason to leave except to use the washroom.

Like I said, it’s currently a work in progress. Haven’t worked on the overall look too much, but the bones of a good game room are there. Have a mini-fridge, for instance, and that has made things better. Need some more shelving, but that’s an ongoing and never-ending concern. All in all it’s coming along.

What’s your ideal game room look like? Let me know in the comments.

RPGaDay August 29

You can game anywhere on earth, where would you choose?

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgI’ve had to break the answers to this question down by type of game, because of course the RPG makes a difference.

Fantasy (D&D, Pathfinder) – I’d pick any of the dozens of still standing castles throughout Scotland or Wales. I’d prefer something on the coast, in a room with a great view out over the ocean. Transform that room to double as a fantasy-medieval tavern, because every great adventure starts in the tavern! Big wooden tables, torchlight, fire roaring away in the hearth! And the beautiful Scottish or Welsh countryside and seaside to complete the feel.

Call of Cthulhu – If we’re going for classic 1930’s CoC, then I want to set-up camp next to the pyramids in Egypt in a style as authentic to a Dirty Thirties archaeological dig as possible. Or, since I know Egypt is rightfully protective of their heritage sites, I’d want a run-down old house somewhere in New England, preferably overlooking the ocean. Of course it would need to be in a sleepy, seemingly quiet New England village, so I could stash clues all over and make the Investigators have to poke around and, you know, investigate.

Shadowrun – Tokyo, in a glass-walled boardroom overlooking the centre of the city. Some might say it should be Seattle, but I think Tokyo already embodies what many imagine as a typical Shadowrun city. This would also work for Feng Shui, of course, although we could also reset to Hong Kong.

Post-Apocalyptic – I’m thinking games like Gamma World and the like. I’d want to pick one of the large-scale abandoned places, like an abandoned amusement park, or the massive airplane graveyard outside Tucson.

Now, it can be difficult to travel to all these places, not to mention getting your gaming group there as well. So I’ve also though about what I’d do with a chunk of property to turn it into a super-cool gaming location. But I think this might fall under a future RPGaDay category so I’ll leave it for now.

I’ve definitely left some games off this list, so what would be your choice of game/dream location? Let me know in the comments.

RPGaDay August 28

Thing you’d be most surprised a friend had not seen or read?

cropped-cropped-me-and-the-eyeball3.jpgFifteen or twenty years ago, I used to be shocked when I’d discover someone who hadn’t seen or read something I’d been enjoying for years. Like Star Wars. How do you be a geek and not see Star Wars?! As it turns out, pretty easily, but in my younger days I was quite the proficient little Gatekeeper, follower of the Tao of ‘No True Scotsman’. I’d insist they would have to make up this horrible deficiency, or else turn in their Geek Card (never mind that I didn’t have one either). Ah, the arrogance of youth.

These days it’s different. Not only do I not judge my fellow nerds for what they watch and read, I actually understand their plight. There is just so much! We’re in a time when the networks, speciality channels, streaming services, and YouTube have all figured out that nerdy content is, if not king, definitely in line for the throne. Concurrently there is an unprecedented ease to self-publishing, which has partially contributed to a wider than ever selection of fantasy and sci-fi books for hungry readers. Of course in both cases there will be a “quantity over quality” issue, but that is largely self-correcting as audiences and readers gravitate to their favourites.

But what this means is, there is no longer any way any one person can be expected to reasonably stay on top of every show, every movie, or every book. I am constantly running into folks who have not read or seen things I love, and vice versa. And that’s great! To my mind, discovering a new show or book through the passionate excitement of someone who loves it is the best way to find new things. In the end, I may not end up liking it as much as them, or at all. But that’s okay. What they love tells me something about them, and so when I want to talk about what I love I know who my best audience will be.

And I stopped being a Gatekeeper and never looked back. Took down the gates and turned them into shelves, for all the sweet new books and games I’ve got coming my way. Seems like a much better way to be a nerd, to my way of thinking.

RPGaday August 27

Most unusual circumstance or location in which you’ve gamed.

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgI’ve run and played RPGs in a variety of unusual locations over the years. I have, in years past, taken the Greyhound to Gen Con which works out to a three day trip. One year, encountering other gamers on the bus, I ran a D&D game that lasted for most of the trip. We added players and lost players depending on connections and such, but had a rollicking good time and even managed to entice some new players. Maybe they jumped in because what else are you going to do on a bus for hours and hours? But hopefully they had fun and kept playing.

I’ve run games while camping, and I always find those to be a heck of a lot of fun. Sitting around the campfire is great for playing fantasy games, as well as setting the mood for horror/Cthulhu games. Back in my Living Greyhawk days, a group out of Calgary organized CampCon, a weekend of Living Greyhawk and camping in the Rockies. It was a great time, and especially educational for players who thought you could just toss a blanket on the ground and sleep in the great outdoors. And the mountains being the mountains, it was also an education on why you might want warmer clothing when camping (snowstorm in July? Don’t mind if I do, Rockies!).

For a brief time I was involved in a vampire LARP, and we were lucky enough to have the empty three floors of an office building to play in. We had a large boardroom set aside as the Prince’s throne room, and different offices assigned to each clan as their territory. It made for some interesting situations, and the team running the game did a great job making up the space for various special events inside the game.

Among the many odd places I have gamed or run games, where perhaps we shouldn’t have been: a church belfry, a disused water tower, an empty light-rail station, steam tunnels under the local university (I know, how derivative!), steam tunnels under West Edmonton Mall (with occasional pauses to play hide-and-seek with Wandering Security Guards), an abandoned hospital, and a defunct and desanctified church. That last was especially creepy, and perfect for the horror game I ran. It was a rural church, down a road lined with semi-leafless trees (it was autumn), and a bell which rang at random moments as the wind blew through the belfry and caught the clapper rope. Everything about the location screamed “horror movie”, and crouching in the centre of the room with a rickety table and flickering lanterns only enhanced the mood.

What’s the oddest location you’ve gamed? Let me know in the comments.

RPGaDay August 26

What hobbies go well with RPGs?

P1000011_smAt first I wasn’t sure how to answer this one, since I didn’t really see the role-playing hobby as excluding one from other hobbies. Want to sky dive and be a gamer? Go ahead! Xtreme philately? Do it!

But I guess there are some hobbies which pair better with role-playing, like matching a good beer with your burger. Board gaming is an obvious match, especially with the recent rise of narrative-style board games. When you want a bit of character interaction, but you don’t want the full banquet of a role-playing session, you can break out games like Mysterium or any of the Dungeons and Dragons board games (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon). Each will give you an RPG-lite experience to tide you over for an evening (though the D&D board games are pretty combat focused).

If you’re a game master, being a huge book nerd will never steer you wrong. Besides reading metric buttloads of fantasy and sci-fi, try non-fiction books on subjects related to our hobby. I love reading history books, especially if they are histories of places that don’t normally get taught in school (so, everywhere but North American and white). Our world’s history is an almost inexhaustible resource for RPG plots, NPCs, and settings. But I also enjoy reading about the history of our hobby, and we are lucky enough to have several people writing well-researched books on that subject. The Designers & Dragons series is a well written and well structured look at our hobby’s past, and reading it you’ll get a real sense that history repeats in our hobby. Playing at the World is another great book, and entertains through all 700 or so pages.

Finally, I recommend learning to cook if you want a hobby that compliments our hobby nicely. Gaming is a social experience, as is eating. Figuring out clever ways to combine the two is not only fun and challenging, but a great way to heighten the experience for your gaming group. You can make friends around the gaming table; add well-prepared food and that is almost a certainty.

That’s it for today. What hobbies do you feel compliment your role-playing? Let me know in the comments.

RPGaDay August 25

What makes for a good character?

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgGood characters need a few things. First, the player has to want to play it. Seems pretty obvious, but I’ve run games where a player ended up playing a class they weren’t fond of because the group needed it, and hated every minute. If the player isn’t excited about the character, they’ll never play the character to its potential. Second, the character should fit the setting and tone of your campaign. If I’m running a high-fantasy campaign in a Tolkienesque setting, maybe you need to wait to play your gritty samurai character. Or give me a pretty fantastic reason why your special snowflake fits in after all. Without that, I’ll either have to come up with some justification for the samurai’s existence when there is nothing inherent to the setting to support that type of character, or we’ll have to just ignore the fact that the character is a samurai (and then what’s the point of playing one?). The same thing would apply to building an obvious comedic character when the campaign’s tone is super-gritty and dark, or vice versa. You should get a sense of both the tone and the setting during the pre-campaign discussion with the group. Don’t do one of those? Great time to start then, because it saves so many headaches down the road.

One thing I don’t think you need for a good character is party balance. Opinions may differ, but as a GM I don’t need my players to check off the fighter-rogue-mage-cleric checklist during character creation. I am entirely comfortable with an “off balance” party. No one wants to play a cleric or spellcaster? No problem. No front-line fighters? Great! I’m happy to make some adjustments to accommodate, emphasis on “some”. I’ve found it interesting to see how an asymmetrical party handles encounters designed for a balanced group. Some of the most imaginative player solutions come from that, I’ve found.

RPGaDay August 22-24

For some reason I cannot fathom, my posts from the weekend didn’t go up right away. Instead, they both posted Monday. Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts were about to go the same route, but I seemed to have fixed the issue. So I apologize if you got post spammed Monday. To cut down on that, I incorporated Mon/Tue post into today’s post. So you get three for the price of one today, you lucky devils!

Supposedly random game events that keep recurring!?

As a game master, the one recurring thread through all my games is low rolls from my big bads. When the party are facing off against minor monsters and baddies, my dice stay relatively hot. But as soon as the party are facing off against whatever the main bad guy is for a particular chapter of the game, my supposedly random dice start pumping out 1’s and 2’s like it’s their job. My incredibly skilled, dangerous evil-doers suddenly become imbeciles. Super fun for my players, of course, because they are kicking ass all over the place. Not so great for me, since I actually like the climactic fight to be, you know, a climax. Dice, can’t live with them, can’t punish them enough.

Share one of your ‘Worst Luck’ stories.

Back in the D&D 3.5e days, I played a sorcerer named Septimus in an Underdark campaign. Septimus had draconic heritage, and was on the hunt for the dragon who had killed his sire and mentor. Septimus was actually the second character I created for this campaign; the first, a dwarf, had died fairly early on. Septimus, however, had a great run, despite one issue: no matter how he managed to buff his armour class, every monster or NPC the party encountered was able to beat it. From his creation until the party reached their final objective, Septimus’ armour protected him from exactly zero attacks. Despite this and with copious amounts of healing, he survived and successfully infiltrated the fortress with his party. Then he opened a door and took a maximized disintegrate spell square in the face from a drow spellcaster. Failed his save, lost all his hit points, and became a pile of dust in the Underdark. So let that be a lesson: sometimes you will fight and strive and overcome, and still get shot in the face by a surprised drow wizard. It’s an oddly specific lesson, but worth remembering.

What is the game you are most likely to give to others?

BeginnerBox3DI’m choosing to interpret this as what game am I most likely to give to others if they want to try RPGs. Otherwise, the answer is going to vary widely from person to person, depending on what I know they like and what games they already play.

For teens and adults, I’m still partial to the Pathfinder Beginner Box.  It is just such a good product, with the right level of complexity and geared toward starting players. Plus it’s packed with everything you need to start playing right away; miniatures, a map sheet, dice, and a cool starting adventure to wet everyone’s appetite. Combine that with the free material available from the website, which expands on the Beginner Box and aides in the transition to standard Pathfinder, and you have a pretty easy path into the RPG hobby.

For young kids, though, I’d go with No Thank You, Evil! from Monte Cook Games. This is an imaginative story-telling introduction to RPGs, and a great way for parents to get their kids NTYE-03-Cathy-Wilkinsinvolved in the hobby. The kids essentially play as super versions of themselves, in a fantasy world similar to their own but packed with everything they think is cool. They are the heroes who must fight whatever evil threatens their world! It is sometimes silly, always fun, and the perfect game for getting young kids into RPGs. Heck, it’s pretty fun for adults, too, so definitely check it out.

That’s it for today. Have something to add? Hit me up in the comments.