Friday, October 27, 2017

Should you bother filing the serial numbers off?

For those of you not familiar with the term, filing the serial numbers off refers to guns and crime.  Generally to make it harder to trace a gun to it's owner a criminal will file the serial number off the weapon.  It's an older practice and I'm not sure how often it's done anymore, but the term is one that will sometimes crop up in gaming when it refers to someone using an idea or parts of an idea from one source in their own source.

For example, I have a Pathfinder campaign I run where I pull elements from several other D20 game settings.  As I've run it, I never bother to rename the race or item I lift from another source to drop into my Pathfinder setting.

Recently though I thought I would try my hand at writing the setting up and publishing it through one of the online game material sites.  It was only as I went over my notes and logs that I realized just how much terminology and substance from other sources there was in my setting.

Obviously I don't want to be someone who steals the hard work of other writers for their own enrichment.  I do plan to continue to use the core ideas, but I will obviously have to change the names and enough details to make them my own.  File the serial numbers off as it were.

But what if you're just running a game for friends.  Can you use other things, like the name of a race and it's particulars?  Chances are if you're just using it for your group you should be fine.  I'm not a lawyer, so this article should not be considered legal advice in any way.

What if you want to use something, but you want to try and hide it from the players.  Maybe they all know that the second you describe the outfit the NPC wears they will know who it is and what role they play in the story?  In cases like this, I suggest boiling it down.  Not your players, the idea.

What about the idea interests you?  Find the core of the thing.  Use that and then let your own imagination fill in the gaps and details.  Make it as much your own thing as you can.  They say that there are no really original ideas.  It's all, they say, in the presentation.

Guns for example.  My Pathfinder campaign setting starts with cannons that use black powder.  It's dirtier than real black powder and only used in cannons because there is no safe way to use it in smaller weapons, and it's a dirty fouling substance.  Cannons have to be cleaned after every shot, they don't have great range.  They are mainly used against large troop formations or fortifications.

Part way through the campaign the PCs encounter shipments of something coming from somewhere in Africa (I use a modified Europe as my campaign setting).  This strange powder burns it it comes into contact with Abyssinian Gold (brass that is 90% copper and 10% zinc).

Some time later they come to learn that the Prussians have invented a weapon that uses paper packets of this powder with a lead slug at one end, essentially a needle rifle.  So we bring rifles into the game.

The original powder was in fact two powders that were from the Iron Kingdoms setting.  Over time I changed the idea  to provide me with the same results, but filing the serial numbers off the other games element.

Most of the time I will happily drop something I've lifted in homage from another source right into my game.  Many times the players recognize the thing and usually enjoy it.  Although I have to admit I may have used Star Gates a little too much over the years.....Maybe.

Monday, October 9, 2017

It's not writers block if I just don't care is it?

I'm running a game I have run before.  New group of players, to help refine elements of the story and see how different groups tackle the same situations.  It's something I have done pretty regularly over the decades I've been running games.

So I decided that I wanted to create a settings guide, using the material for this game.  I have run it a few times, I have some really cool ideas (I think), and I wouldn't mind putting my feelers out into the world of digital game material publishing.  Who knows, maybe I can make a buck along the way.

The problem is I'm in a bit of a lift funk.  It usually happens every winter when I can't ride my motorcycle.  It looks gorgeous outside, then you step outside and and realize that it was a lie.  But, come Spring when the weather starts to get warm again I fire up the motorcycle as my daily commuter vehicle and everything seems better.

This year I have, for a variety of reasons, not been on the bike that much.  And I feel 'meh' about everything.  Naturally this is making it really hard to care about writing, anything.  I'm still running the game, and still enjoying hanging out with the players, but I'm just not motivated to write.

This is bleeding over somewhat into my other writing projects, like my blogs.  Yes, this one as well.  I have things I want to write down, but I really don't have the energy.  Sort of. 

I'm wondering if this funk is starting to creep into the games.  Both the ones I run and the ones I play in.  Would I know?  If my players were to say, "Hey, all of your NPCs are depressing sacks.  You okay?"  that would certainly be a clue.  Granted there are certainly some of the NPCs that are depressing sacks, but not ALL of them.

I have been trying to jot down notes on important elements of the game setting.  Just so that I have some of the ideas on paper in the event my brain ever does start working again. 

I also think I need to buy some more settings books from online.  See how other people have structured their material, how they've organized it.  There are a lot of questions when it comes to formatting, organization, and art that will still need to be addressed.  I'm just wishing I felt like I gave a darn about any of it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We can't owe this evil guy a favor because we're the good guys, so let's betray him and murder him....

I am often very surprised by the thought process players go through in various role-playing situations.

Having followed clues the heroes determine they need a magical stone from someone who is a pretty bad person.  They decide to chat with this person, since this person is in command of a significantly superior force.  The bad person agrees to give them the item, in exchange for a favor from them in the future.

They later discuss that, since they are the 'good guys' it wouldn't be right for them to owe this bad person a favor, so while they have him on the operating table (getting the item requires it be surgically removed) they will kill him, claiming that he died during the procedure.......

I'm not a huge fan of alignment since I feel it's an artificial way to define characters.  I prefer that the players play the character and then suffer the consequences of the story based on the things they do.  I know some folks that run a very strict alignment model, which punishes characters with level loss for acts that are outside the scope of their alignment.

Sure, in a world filled with a vast array of deities that grant miraculous powers every day, there could certainly be some sort of divine alignment 'thing' in place.  But I've never personally felt that made a whole lot of sense.  Just like I've never liked it when I'm told as a player that I have to choose a deity.  If it's not part of my story, why is it important? 

But, back to the decision process.  So I got a good bit of entertainment watching the party have this conversation about weather or not they should kill this bad person in a less than noble way.  There were some good points all around the moral spectrum.  I'm not sure what the actual decision was, and that conversation will probably get revisited at tonight's session since the scene will take place during tonight's game.  Ultimately, it's really up to the surgeon.  So we'll see how this plays out.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Oh, and he's a serial killer!

Players say the strangest things.  And sometimes, as the GM, it's our fault for not setting clear expectations.

I recently started a new campaign.  I sent out the elevator pitch and everyone was on board.  Folks started pitching character ideas, and one of them included the line "Oh, and he's a serial killer."

I squashed the players hopes and dreams, and immediately sent an email to the group saying, "In case I wasn't clear, your characters should all be 'the good guys'." 

I'm all for letting players explore interesting story ideas and plumb the depths of a character, but even I have to draw the line sometimes.  I think the issue was that I hadn't made it clear what sort of game we were playing (good guys) when I gave the pitch.  Thinking about it later I realized that it might have been possible for someone to think that a deeply disturbed person who has a drive to murder other people would be a fine character for this particular campaign.  If they stretched what I said to near breaking, or they had played in games where this sort of thing was pretty common.

It never fails either.  You start the planning phase and there is one player who drops a concept that is either really on the bleeding edge of not quite right for this game or that violates some of the ground rules.  Years ago I was a player in a super hero game where the GM said "No aliens, no children of gods"  One player's first concept was the child of Thor and an alien.....

Obviously when a concept is outside of the rules you have established for the universe, you need to say no.  But what do you do when the concept is just not quite right?

I recommend working with the player to find out why they want the thing or things that make the concept not really ideal.  Are they looking to explore a certain role-playing challenge or are they just looking to ensure they can do certain things in the context of the story.  There has to be a better way, and if not we should be able to help them find something that will work.

I never like to say no to a concept.  I might say no to parts of it, like no to the serial killer part, but rarely will I ever say no to a concept whole cloth.  It's crushing for a player and sometimes it just kills their desire to play. 

A recent example was someone in a game I'm playing in pitched a Wizard that was an alcoholic.  Knowing the player it was born partly out of a desire to explore how that affliction would play out in RP and partly because they hate the spell system and thus could use their alcoholism as an excuse for why they are a terrible Wizard.  The GM said no.  I assume the GM had a fairly specific idea of Wizards, or maybe they were hoping to pin some story elements on the character and having them be an alcoholic made that impractical.  Regardless it killed the player's mood for the game and they eventually stopped coming (their were other factors, but it was certainly a contributing element). 

This sort of goes back to the main idea I try and GM with.  Be flexible.  If you need to have every player portray some type of Bard, tell them.  And, as a side note, your cruelty knows no bounds!  But explain to them why you need them to fall into a certain range.  Even if it might give away some of the plot. They will thank you for it.  Or they will leave the group because they can't believe you would make them all play Bards!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Project: New Gaming Table!

Not really GMing advice, but I wanted to share a project my wife and I und4ertook this last weekend.

The idea.

I am starting a new table top game and hosting it at our place.  The dining table we have isn't really larger enough to 7 or 8 people, so I wanted something larger.  a friend who hosts games at his place from time to time has a ping pong table that they covered with some cloth, which serves them well for a multitude of tasks.  Effective, but not really what I wanted

Instead of trying to build a complex table we settled on something that would provide more surface and seating area.  Since we already a very solid dining table we opted for a surface that would sit on top if it.

[The base for the gaming surface]
Our table had a pair of leaves that would have probably made it large enough, but they have managed to escape, probably during one of our moves.

The parts.

So, with an idea in mind we went out to Lowe's to pick up the needed supplies.  We got three 16 x 96 inch solid wood panels to be the top.  These would be held together with nail plates (I'm not sure that is what they are actually called) to form the top.  8 of those plates would be used to held the panels together.  The top would then rest on the top of our current dinning table with a wooden box that was just bigger than the current top.  This frame would keep the top from shifting around.

[Ready to load in the truck]
The frame would be constructed from 1x2 lumber screwed to the underside of the panels.  We needed screws that would go through the frame and into what would be the top, but not through the top and screws to go through the nail plates and into the top but not go through.  This meant we needed two different kinds of screws.  We made sure to eyeball the length and once we were satisfied we picked up the rest of the supplies.

[all the goodies]
We got some wood glue, because I thought it might be a good idea to glue the plates down as well as screw them in.  We ended up not doing this.  So, three panels to make up the top, the lumber to make the frame, plates to secure the panels together and screws to hold it all together.  We also got a bottle of Howard Feed-N-Wax.  It's a wood treatment made from bees wax.  My wife uses it on sewing machine cabinets and we thought it might be a better solution that trying to paint or stain the top.

Putting it all together

 There was measuring and marking and anchoring of the plates.  Then we realized we'd put two of them in the wrong spot.  These sorts of things happen, and luckily it was easy to rectify.  We cut the 1x2 lumber for the frame
[Frame in place]

After the framing bits were cut and screwed to the underside of the top we were ready to give it a few coats of Feed-N-Wax.  For that we took it outside and set it down on some saw horses and took advantage of the nice weather.  I hit the whole top and the edges with 220 grain sand paper.  the edges had a few splinter spots and I wanted to soften the corners a bit.  Once that was done we started to apply the wax.  Put on a liberal coat, give it 20 minutes and wipe away any excess.  We went with two coats of wax, which only took about an hour total.

The finished product
It was time to bring it in and set it on the table to check the fit.  It's not terribly heavy, but being 8 feet long it's a two person job to move it around.  We brought it in the house and set it on the dining table.
[The finished table topper]

It fit pretty good, and it's very stable.  The gap between the panels that make up the top is a little annoying on one end, but overall it came out really well.  Now we have plenty of room to fit my players and plenty of table surface should we want to use a map of some kind for miniature play.
[My table topper topper]

We had made a small table topper for playing board games on the old dining table.  It provided an elevated surface to put the board on and play space below for markers and drinks.  There are lights under the edge as well, since the light in the dining room was pretty bad.  We put that on the new table topper as a reference.  Still plenty of room for players, character sheets, and books.


Not counting the new drill I needed to pick up (my cordless gets tired fast these days) the project came to about $150.00 and roughly three hours out of our day.  I think it was worth it, I'll have to see what my players think once we start playing.

Have you made a table for gaming, or been thinking about it?  Let me know in the comments.  Until next time, keep playing!

Friday, August 4, 2017

We kill it! no, we can't? Then we ruin the story!

Never Surrender!

You've seen it.  the PCs are up against a foe they can't defeat.  Strategic withdrawal is an option, a good option, but they don't take it.  They redouble their efforts to win.

As a GM it's not against the GM code to look over the top of your GM screen and say, "You guys think that you're not going to be able to win this fight.  Retreat is probably the only way to make it out of here."  Some GMs seem to act like it is a crime to do this, but it's not.

Players can be a stubborn lot.  We are the heroes after all, so we're supposed to win.  Right?  Winning does not necessarily mean winning every fight.  So again, it's not a sin to retreat.  But many players feel it is.

Nothing seems to be working?  What if I stab the plot?

Backed into a corner, even when it's only the perception that you have been backed into a corner, some players will flail about and do things that are pretty obviously going to sabotage the plot.  There are a lot of reasons for this, too many to cover in a blog post to be sure.  So how can you deal with this sort of issue?

Don't try and be clever.  It's been said, probably with those exact words, in other articles and books on gaming and videos.  When you as a GM are trying to be clever you run the risk of making a story too complex to make sense to the players.  They receive weekly slices of your story, and they have other things in their lives that are probably more pressing than who poisoned the King's dog, and why!  Keep It Simple Stupid.  It can be applied to many things, and story development is one of them.  Sure, throw in a twist, but don't make your plot look like an Escher painting.

Be forthcoming with data.  My favorite variation of this is "Barf forth apocalyptica" which is from the Apocalypse World game.  It's advice to get you to be free with descriptive information.  Use all five senses to describe a place.  Answer questions as completely as you can based on the situation.  If the players are asking questions that means you have them thinking.  Don't boil it (whatever it is) down to a skill roll if you can avoid it.  Mechanics are there to help resolve conflicts and determine the results of things that might be random or chaotic.  the game will be a heck of a lot more satisfying to the players, and you as GM, if the players are engaged.  If they need a skill roll, fine, but don't make the fare of the PCs hang on something like the roll of the dice.  Especially if you've ever seen my players roll dice.

I try and use the skill roll as a measure of scale.  The players are going to get (from me) a basic amount of information, and if I have them roll it's to see how much more they should have.  I like to keep the background of my PCs in my mind when they're trying to solve a problem.  There might be a nugget of information in there that suggests to me they should know more about the thing they're trying to understand than the other PCs.  When they roll I let the results tell me something about how much they know, or how well they understand the thing they're trying to understand.

You stabbed the plot, and now I must punish you!

So you've reached a situation where things got bad and a player, perhaps out of lack of knowledge or desperation, and supreme boredom has broken the plot.  For those of you who are movie buffs, this is the moment when one of the party has shot the Invisible Swordsman

Unless this is a deliberate attempt by the players to ruin the plot, and if it is then you need to seek help from another article, you shouldn't punish the players.  If they read the situation in a way that was different than how you read it, you shouldn't let the world crumble because the only way to save it was just pushed off a cliff into the sea.  Be flexible.

The most important thing here is to be flexible.  If you get so rigid that there is only ever one way to do something to move the story forward, than there is a good chance no one is going to have any fun.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The power fo gold, and the infinite time waster it can be

Bean Counting...

I'm not an accountant by trade or desire.  When I was a kid, and I didn't have a job and a lot of responsibilities, I took a degree of pleasure keeping track of all the gold and silver and assorted coin my characters had.  Can I afford that deluxe room at the inn?  Should I bother with the more expensive armor for a single point of additional defense?  These were the sorts of things that, at the time, were part of the fun of RPGs for me. 

That was then, this is now

Now, I have a job and bills to pay and money to track and I really don't want to track the number of coins and bits of jewelry that make up my characters vast, or not so vast, wealth.  I understand that there are many schools of thought on wealth tracking, and many rules for it in many games. 

Some games translate it into a stat, like strength or charisma, and that stat vaguely defines what sorts of things you can afford to purchase.  Some games fret over every coin and have lots of expensive ways for you to spend it so that you don't have it for long. 

For every rule or method in the game books for tracking wealth there is a house rule by the GM.  For some it's important that they control what the players can buy through the economic rules in the game and ensure that the PCs don't become over powered.  For some, it's a wave of the hand and a mumbled "Whatever."  when questions of wealth and if a PC can afford something.

When is it important?

Counting coins and haggling might be essential to the game.  And I mean to the story, not the rules.  Maybe the PCs have a collective goal to start a trading company.  To this end it might be important to keep track of every coin and jewel so they know how close to that goal they are and every set back is felt and perceptible to the PCs.  If this is the situation, then embrace the coin counting. 

What if it's not really important to the story though?  My most recent fantasy game had the players acting as agents of the Queen.  They were given money for expenses and most of them were from families of means.  Money wasn't a thing.  When it was important (they needed a specific amount of money to buy a specific item that was part of the story) then they made arrangements to get it.  But none of the stories really worried about how many shiny coins they had.  Because I didn't care I wanted to let my players be able not to care.

Necessity is the mother of diversion

"We need supplies to make the trip, and we should get a wagon and a team to pull it."  Seems like a simple thing, go out and get the stuff.  Then the questions start coming up.  "Who will drive the wagon?"  Skills get examined.  "Who is going shopping?"  Questions are asked about what skills would apply to ensuring the proper equipment and supplies are acquired.  "Is this coming from the group funds or the mission fund, or are the people doing the shopping paying and then getting reimbursed?  Do you have receipts?

If the game, and this time I mean the game as an abstract not the rules and not the story but the social contracted event where the players sit down to play, gives this interaction meaning then by all means work it out, make sure the person with the best skills does the job, make sure the money is properly allocated, make sure everyone gets to do the thing they are there to do.  Or, wave your hand and say "You get the things you need for the trip."  One way might take an entire session and the other might take five minutes.  Both are valid. 

Final Thoughts

So, what has this all been about?  The point I'm trying to make here is that you should do what is right for your game.  And by 'Right' I mean what helps make your game the collective experience for everyone.  Or at least the most people possible.

We make compromises all the time when we game.  Listen to your players, even if it's just their moans of suffering when they go into a shop to buy a new sword and the shop keeper begins to haggle.  They will tell you all manner of things that can help you guide the game toward the best place for everyone.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Can you show us the map?

Map making is one of those things that some GMs live for.  The hours of painstaking detail to convey the lush world they're created.

There are other people however who feel that maps hinder their creative thinking.  Because once it's on a map their world no longer makes sense.

I tend to take a map of a real place and file off the serial numbers as we say.  My most recent fantasy campaigns I have been using my own version of Europe circa 1910.  I downloaded a few maps from the interwebz and broke out GIMP and made some changes and BAM!  My own fantasy world.

You can do the same sort of thing.  One suggestion I've heard is to take a map of a place and then change the orientation of the map so it's not as easily recognizable as that place.  The nice thing about using a real map is that the mountains and rivers and cities are already there.  You can use them or not, but the complicated elements of geography are already present.

But you don't really need all that complicated detail, yet you still need to have a general map so you can convey general ideas about location, proximity, etc. to your players.  Break out the spreadsheet.

For a recent game a friend was GMing I needed to sort out my character background, which involved me trekking from my home country East to the ocean, then South and finally West to the far coast.  He had given a description of how the countries were in relation to one another, and the main mountain ranges and rivers.  So I just marked it out in a spreadsheet.  I didn't get really fancy, the continent is a rectangle with a bunch of squares and rectangles color coded and labeled.  I sent it to him for review, he clarified a few things, and now it's effectively the official map of the world for the game.

Maps can be useful because some people are just visual.  They need to see things to understand them.  A map doesn't have to be detailed to be able to convey what the players need to know.  Sometimes colored blocks will do just fine.

What are your favorite ways to handle maps in your games?  Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Fate Roll, or how I stopped making all the decisions about what's going on

The Fate Roll.

I have a custom mechanic, if you can call it that, to help me GM.  Sometimes there are times  when making a decision about something introduces your bias into the story.

"Is the food any good?"

"Does she love me?"

"Am I anywhere near them?"

For times like this I use what I have come to call the Fate Roll.  The way you do it can be modified to fit the dice engine your particular system uses.  I started it when I was playing the HERO System fairly regularly, so that was 3D6.  It got adopted as I changed engines over time, and it just requires a little bit of thought for how you want to do it in your game.

The basics are simple.  Two or more rolls are made.  It might be the GM and a player, or the GM and three different players, or two different players.  Everyone rolls with the GM playing the part of Fate, or the fickle nature of the universe.  Then you compare.  Take for example that question "Am I anywhere near them?"  Assuming there is no specific reason this isn't the case, you could resort to a Fate roll.  The player asking the question rolls and the GM rolls.  I will use two examples, one using 3D6 and one using D20.

In the 3D6 example the player rolls 3D6 and the GM rolls 3D6.  Compare the results.  The nice thing about 3D6 is that it offers a lot more 'Power Ups' you could say, which I will explain in a bit.

Player Rolls 3D6 gets 4,3,6 = 13

GM Rolls 3D6 gets 2,4,5 = 11

Let's say you decide the proximity of the rolls is how close he is.  He might be a mere two blocks away, or perhaps you might say 2 minutes.

Another example.

Player Rolls 3D6 gets 4,3,6 = 13

GM Rolls 3D6 gets 5,4,4 = 13

You could say the player is arriving at the scene now.  They rolled the same number total, so they're in the same place.

Using D20. D20 are a little less exciting than 3D6 because the variations are less, but it still works fundamentally the same way.

Player Rolls 1D20 gets 3 (player moans, they feel 3 is bad)

GM Rolls 1D20 gets 4

The player might be just a block away.  You get the idea.

You may decide that the proximity of the numbers has a bearing on how true something is.  In the example of "Does she love me?"  You might not as the GM know.  So you call for a Fate Roll. 

Using the 3D6 method;

Player Rolls 3D6 gets 1,3,5 = 9

GM Rolls 3D6 gets 2,4,6 = 12

Since the numeric scale on 3D6 is 3 to 18 or 16 'places' being only 3 apart would suggest she certainly has strong feelings for the PC.  With 3D6 you also have the potential for not only rolling the same total but the very same combination of numbers.  So let's look at the love example again.

Player Rolls 3D6 gets 1,3,5 = 9

GM Rolls 3D6 gets 3,3,3 = 9

So yes, she does indeed love the PC.

But what if the GM had also rolled 1,3,5.  Then it's more than love, it's true love.  Epic story changing love.  This might inspire you to make this NPC far more than they had originally been intended to be, or perhaps the PC does not love the NPC in return and thus the love turns them into a scorned love which sets about hurting the PC and their allies. 

And thus Fate has given you an opportunity for story.  And taken the decision out of your hands so that some things in the world can be as much a surprise to you as they are to the players.

The Fate Roll is not for everyone.  It was born out of my GMing style and has become a regular fixture in my games.  A Fate Roll might come as a response to something a player says about a scene, "Man, wouldn't it be hilarious if he got her pregnant?"  To which I might call for a Fate roll from the PC(s) in the scene to see if it happens.  Players say these things because they seem like organic ideas or directions for stories.  and if you're open to it, you can let the dice play a roll in these things so you don't always have to decide everything.

What do you think about the idea of the Fate Roll?  Is it something you think might help you, or would it be something that would drive you insane to try and do?  Let me know in the comments down below.

Monday, June 5, 2017

I got another crit!....No, really!

Dice don't lie, but players might.
Most groups have someone who gets these dice rolls that seem to defy the law of averages.  They always seem to pull off a critical hit or two during a fight.  Or they never seem to be hindered by the spell that seems to incapacitate half the party because they managed to pull off the resistance roll even though they had the least chance.

So how do you deal with this sort of thing?
There is a lot of advice out there on this topic.  Before you go and pick a solution that someone else wrote down, even me, give some thought to how it's effecting your game.

Is this player killing the fun because they seem to be a super hero compared to the rest of the heroes?  Is it ruining your plot because they aren't paralyzed and therefore easily captured like everyone else?  Figure out how it's effecting the game.  Talk to the other players about it.  If it bothers them, then as the GM you need to take some sort of action. 

What sort of action you take could be anything from expelling the cheating cheater face from the game, to having a heart to heart talk with them about how their cheating is only hurting them.  Or, you could just operate on the assumption that this is going to happen, and make sure they need to roll for things less.

We likes the dice we do.
Some games don't really have a dice mechanic.  This article is really about engines that have a dice mechanic for task/conflict resolution.  But this sort of behavior might also creep into systems that are free of dice, so stick around and maybe you'll pick up something that might help you with some other issue.

Back to the dice thing.  Don't ask them to roll for things.  Obviously there will be times when this is necessary, but you want to minimize it if you can.  Compile a list of everyone's skills (skills is where you will have the most discretion over when to roll) so you can see what everyone is good at.  Then make sure you engineer encounters so that everyone but your cheater gets to roll dice.  There will be times you just can't pull it off, but you can make it work for you fairly often. 

Then, you make sure that whenever possible, you make rolls for the cheater.  Stealth check, you roll it.  Appraise check, you roll it.  You do this for everyone so your cheater doesn't feel singled out, but you take control of the dice when you can to minimize the chance that the cheater can cheat.

Reward failure.
Another tactic you can use is to reward failed rolls.  Perhaps every time someone fails a roll they get a poker chip.  These can be cashed in for bonuses to later rolls.  Perhaps only damage rolls, or skill checks.  You can also reward failure with story.   Maybe the failed diplomacy check makes someone else take note of you and approach the PC later to offer a job, or an alternate way to do the thing you were trying to use diplomacy to use earlier.  Showing that failure is okay can reduce the incentive to cheat.

Does any of it really matter.
You may find that no one really cares about the cheater.  If everyone is having a blast in the game and they think it's fun, they may be fine with the cheater cheating.  It may be how they have fun.  I know, that doesn't seem right, but it might just be how they get their fun.  Most of the time we play these games to exercise a bit of control over the world that we don't have in real life.  So maybe, just maybe, the cheater is exercising control by cheating the dice.  In the end, it boils down to weather or not we're all having a good time.

If your stories are good, and your NPCs compelling, and your players are there and having fun at game sessions, it might be okay to let things like cheating some dice rolls slide.

Do you have a preferred tactic for dealing with someone who maybe has trouble reading the right number off their dice?  Share with us in the comments below.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

You all happen to be in the same tavern, at the same time.....

How to begin.
Starting a game can be hard.  You want the players to have the freedom to make whatever they want.  Too often this ends up with a tavern, in some town somewhere, that has five rugged strong silent types, and one wizard.  And then you are forced to engineer some set of circumstance to motivate them to interact.

Granted, what I described is a sort of stereotype of gaming.  But it happens.  The question is, how do we prevent it.  We want the characters to be unique (most of the time) and the players to have agency when they create them.  But they will ultimately need to mesh, unless you are specifically hunting for a game that prioritizes a lot of PC to PC conflict.

All Aboard!
You can dictate the types of characters, races, classes, enforce requirements for certain background elements, establish some sort of structure that all the PCs are placed into, and then work with the players to come up with characters and backgrounds that mesh with the story and world you have set up.  It's like railroading except there are choices.  And you're not dictating the story, you're establishing a framework for players to use when building characters.

Examples might be a game where all the PCs are part of a military unit, or governmental agency.  Maybe your game world has no races other than humans.  Maybe you're doing an Elf only game (but why?).  You get the drift though.  There are reasons why the characters need to fit into certain fairly open parameters.

When you do something like this, make sure the players know in advance.  If anyone wants to be something outside the established framework, get their reasons.  See if there is a way that it can be worked into the framework.  In a recent game one of the parameters was that all of the PCs were from a specific country, or in service to the country.  One of the players wanted to be an Elf (they have their own country) so we decided that he was in the army of the game country, and had been for some time as part of an officer exchange sort of thing.  Granted, the Elves gave us someone, but didn't want anyone in return.  They are a bit xenophobic.

As long as everyone knows and understands why you want this framework, there shouldn't be any issues.  The players will have some level of common ground and stand a better chance of surviving the initial 'getting to know and dislike you' phase of the game.

In Medias Ras.
In the midst of things (in English) is another way you can start.  Don't start with how we got together as a team, let's jump into some action, moving forward through the story from a point after the beginning.  Then do flashbacks.

Flashbacks are great in TV, unless you overdue them.  I'm looking at you CW!  There are a lot of ways you can 'trigger' a flashback in an adventure.  I recommend not doing it in the middle of a battle, but in moments of tension they can be fun.  Freeze the scene, then ask the player who is currently in the spotlight and about to do something crucial a question.  "When was the last time you did this with the group that it went poorly?"  Have them set the scene.  The focal point is that the same skill arability is the center point of the flashback.  Once they set the scene, let everyone chip in a bit of how that situation played out.  We're trying to build a shared history that defines the relationships that we have artificially created because we began in medias ras.  Once the scene of this previous failure has been described and everyone sort of has an idea how it went, come back to the 'present' and then pick one player who is not the person performing the action and tell them, "This reminds you of that time [we just described] what, if anything, would you say."  This let's you create the past and it can also help the PCs relate to one another.  Does this PC say something encouraging, or do they remind the person about their failure, or do they say nothing and only mention it after the situation is resolved.

Howdy Neighbor.
We're all from the same village/neighborhood/complex.  Established common ground, maybe the sole survivors of a tragedy (how many 'sole survivors' can there be in one place?).  They all know each other to some degree, even if it's just by reputation.  Then go ahead and have them all meet in the same tavern, it's not far from their homes after all.

Closing thoughts.
Freedom is great, but make sure that they know enough about the world and your skill as a GM that they aren't going way out of your comfort zone when they build a character.  Five strong silent types who mind their own business make for a lousy adventuring party (unless that's what you need).  

Don't be afraid to say, "That just doesn't fit, but....." and offer something as an alternative.  If your group is a good one they should totally understand the need for some structure.  You're not oppressing their creative freedom.  You're trying to run a game that everyone, even you, gets to enjoy.

Do you have any favorite way of getting the PCs to become a group?  Share them in the comments below.  I'd love to know what you think.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Is it on your equipment list?

The case for and against equipment lists.

I'm sure if you've GMd more than a few games you've had this happen.  A player says something to the effect of "Um, I don't have [insert item here] on my sheet, but it seems reasonable I would have one, right?"

I'm sort of a jerk when I GM.  My traditional answer to this questions is, "What are you asking me for, I just run this game."  It's not to say that I don't care about the answer on some level, but I think the players should be able to answer a question like that most of the time.  But there are all those rules and equipment lists!

Scarcity, genre conventions, a figuring out what works.

The issue of equipment really comes down to is it important for the genre and the game you're running.  In a post apocalypse game I think a detailed equipment list is part of the genre.  When scarcity is an important part of a game, then knowing what you have should be an important part of the game as well.

If you're playing a game set in a modern world and the players have access to all the modern conveniences it seems less important.  But it would and should still have limits otherwise you might have players circumventing a challenge with a previously unknown piece of tech that they just decided they have because it makes sense.

If the game requires the players to keep track of everything, then that's what they're going to have to do.  You see this a fair amount in D&D and other fantasy genre games.  Players are often out away from civilization on perilous adventures in exotic locations, so it's sort of important to keep track of gear.  You might hand wave things like water and food unless survival is part of the adventure.

Consistency is optional.

You don't have to be consistent about this either.  If you, as the GM, decide that the trip from town A to town B will be an interlude where nothing happens, tell the players and move forward.  If, on the other hand, you intend the journey to be arduous and require keeping track of food and water, perhaps requiring the party to loose time to hunting and gathering food or water, then make sure you make that clear to the group.  They might just say, "We buy extra pack animals and make sure to bring along more rations than we need."  If they can afford to do that, there isn't any reason to prevent them.  But, I'm told some monsters find horses to be delicious!  Just say'in.

An economy of equipment.

Sometimes though, you might want something that's not quite hand waving and totally not a detailed equipment list.  My solution, which is a solution I have used for a number of things over the years, is the poker chip.  Now, I ordered mine online with custom lettering.  GEAR in gold letters.  It was for a modern day super hero game, and we were reaching a point where some of the players were asking that question "You think it's okay if I have one of those things on me?, It seems like I might have one, especially after that one time last month."

This also applies to the larger world.  "Is there a fire extinguisher in here?"  Might come up.  As a GM I like to let the story surprise me sometimes (I'll get into that in another post) but there is a trend now for game systems that allow the players some agency over the world so I wanted to use these chips as a way of giving them that agency.

For most characters in the game I gave them 2 GEAR chips.  If it seems reasonable a character might have more (gadgeteer, rich, kleptomaniac) then give them more.  There might be a mechanic in your game you could piggy back off.  an example might be like Luck in some games.  Make a gear related version that allows the character to have more chips.

They get spent to have something.  "Is there a fire extinguisher in here?"  To which you might answer, "Do you want there to be?"  and the player then nods, tossing a gear chip into the pile.  They now have the fire extinguisher they always wanted.  This lets them change the world a little, or just quantify that they have something that isn't what you might think of as an everyday item.  Mobile phone, car keys, Swiss Army knife, quantum stabilizer....wait, what?

You don't have to go out and buy special lettered poker chips, you can use little glass beads (my wife calls them slow marbles because they roll VERY slowly), or any other kind of marker.  When you get into games that have many markers, then color coded or labelled ones make more sense, but if you only need one kind of marker you have a lot of flexibility.

I hope this idea can inspire you to solve the sometimes prickly problem of equipment and characters.  What are your ideas for handling this particular issue?  What have you done that worked, and what have you done that failed?  Share with us in the comments below and until next time, keep playing.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Everyone needs a background, even if it's wrong.

Everyone needs a background, even if it's wrong.

 Backstories are not homework!

 Mandatory character backstories are not homework, and they shouldn't feel like it.  Sometimes, when you're starting a new campaign or introducing a new player to your campaign, you want them to be fleshed out some.  For a lot of players this feels like it's homework.  This can especially be true of new players. 

I'm not going to go into the types of players.  It seems that every few years someone comes out with a new set of humorous descriptions for the various kinds of players.  They dive into the gaming psychology and come up with a list of the five or seven or three kinds of players.  To me, those are sort of like astrological signs.  Some people believe they are really important to understanding people, and some people think they're stupid.

Some GMs are offended by the one line backgrounds that some players are so fond of.  "Parents dead, no siblings, loner with no connections.  Likes beer."  Sometimes I get it.  It's the mid-week game, mainly we're at the table to unwind, throw dice, kill monsters and rummage through their pockets for loose change.  The player has made the effort to write up the character, and depending on your chosen game engine that might have been a major undertaking.  So it's okay to let them slack off on the background, because.....

Your character history is what you know about your past.  True or not!

You have a lot of options with those players who issue a one line background for their character.  They have a rich past you can insert anything you want (within reason) into.  Those players who gave you a novella for their character background have taken great care to provide you with plot hooks and opportunities.  So did the players who gave you a single sentence, they just didn't realize it.

If you have a player that gave you the a background like the parents dead example I gave above might have a good reason.  Perhaps in previous games they've been burned by the GM killing off all the people they love off screen or worse right in front of them using bad GMing techniques to prevent the hero from saving them.  So accept whatever background a player gives you, because you can always change it!

Players who love story tend to also enjoy twists.  Especially twists they later realize they were he seed of.  I ran a super hero game years ago for a group of people who were not comic book buffs.  They had a very limited knowledge of comics and super heroes, but they knew they wanted to try the genre.  Well into the campaign another player joined the group.  This person had an extensive knowledge of comic books and worked with me to help develop their background so that it would seamlessly mesh into the game setting.

The character they played was a psychic, and on a number of occasions in role play scenes with other characters she commented on how she never feels like she fits in, like she's living in the wrong time.  It was partly that the player was new and so they had not developed a groove with the other players.  Partly it was from her backstory, orphan who was in the care of a foster parent (also super powered) and never felt like anywhere was home.

About a year into the characters time with the group little bits of information started to surface that led the group to think they had found the characters birth mother.  A super hero that had fought in WWII with the allies.  This led to a lot of excitement and investigation and was a side plot that eventually ended up being a main story arc when the team traveled back in time to save one of the NPCs from being stranded.  They discovered that the young hero they thought was the character's mother turned out to actually be the character.  They had to go back to their own time before they could get to the bottom of it, but eventually they found out that the hero had volunteered to be frozen as a precaution to there not being any more super powered people being born. 

The player's comments about never feeling like they fit in and maybe living in the wrong time ended up in my notebook, and inspired the story.  The player was excited, and then shocked, and then more shocked when they realized they had given me the idea.

Players write the best adventures.

 So, even if they only give you a single sentence, you can fill in the gaps or make note of the things they say.  Introduce old friends or former lovers, or their real parents.  Just because they wrote you a short background doesn't mean they don't want to have an interesting back story.

What was something you did as a GM to take a character backstory into an exciting direction that worked out, or even that didn't?  Let us know in the comments down below.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Welcome to the party!

Welcome to the beginning of what I hope will be a long and rewarding relationship.  I've been a table top RPG player for a very long time, and most of that time has been spent running games.  I hope to share with you some of the things I've learned over the years and maybe learn a few things from you as well.

For years I've had friends say that I should write down some of the things I know about being a GM and gaming in general.  It sounds easy, and then I prowl the internet for a while and discover that there are plenty of other people out there sharing advise and starting conversations with the role-playing game community and think to myself "Someone has already covered what I could cover."  and that has been enough to discourage me.

Recently I've started to try and get my creative juices flowing by diving into some creative efforts.  Blogging and You Tube video creation have topped the list.  And that brings us to here.  A blog, one of several, where I share my expertise and knowledge with the internet and see what happens.

About me.  I'm in my late 40s and have been playing table top RPGs for about the last 35 years or so.  I've played in and run a lot of systems.  I've seen some of the evolution of mechanics and story telling systems and been excited about the changes in the industry and the hobby.  Unlike some of my gaming friends I don't have strong love/hate sorts of feelings towards game engines.  Mechanics are there to give us a framework to operate in.  They should be complex enough to handle what the group needs and wants, but ignorable enough that if they start to hinder the story or the flow of play the group can comfortably hand wave some things.

I can't honestly say I have a favorite genre either.  My moods have taken me across a wide and varied landscape of game genres.  More often than not enjoying a game has very little to do with the mechanics or the genre.  If the story and the characters are compelling, I will stick with a game for a long time.  Conversely, if the game is meh, but I enjoy the players interaction and have fun I will also hang around.  Gaming is a social thing, so no matter what the people involved need to be part of the fun.

Over the course of this blog I'll talk about game engines, and mechanics, and genre.  I expect the majority of what I talk about though to be how to tap into the will of the players (not the characters) to craft your stories.  After all, the title of the blog is Players Write The Best Adventures.