Monday, February 27, 2012

Looping back around to "old school"

I took a hefty hiatus from blogging in the past year. I still played tabletop games, but more and more the games became infrequent, scattered one-shots and sampling different systems. We had a lot going on in our personal lives and gaming began to feel like a time and energy drain, a bizarre obligation, rather than something fun.

Eventually a discussion of retroclones came up and we agreed it might be neat to try some out. Fast forward: two months have gone by, BF and I have settled upon Adventurer Conqueror King System for now, and I'm feeling completely excited about running game for the first time in two years. :)

I'm prepping for my third session of a Planescape/Eberron crossover (two great tastes that go great together!) and things are going well. I tried to do something different with this game: I'm running a fan-done adventure that starts out as a sandbox with an underlying mystery. I've always admired those DMs who can craft a multi-layered campaign story, secretly guiding their players into their schemes--but I'm not that kind of DM. I'm beginning to see that I'm at my best when I have a rough idea of what's going on in the setting, and then I let BF go and I roll with the punches. I'm feeling very empowered by ACKS: BF is starting the game with a clear goal of getting money to his name, he only has a few options on his character sheet so it seems he's engaging with the setting and circumstances more rather than relying on skill roles to get him through things, and while combat is still terrifying to him I actually feel like he's more likely to come out of things okay, with his increased admiration of "sneaky" strategies and my rolling reaction and morale for the monsters. Plus, I think seeing that he'll get a hideout at level 9 has inspired him to take on a long-term character goal, which I usually have to strong arm him into. This "rules light, light touch" sandbox game is really working out for me. :P

So we're having a blast so far! It's truly serendipity to be able to run a system and a game that meshes well with your hopes and expectations.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


(A minor family emergency stopped me from getting this out Monday night, but here I am today. Resolution!)

My favorite stories are very character driven and I endeavor to run my games in the same way. Unfortunately my boyfriend prefers to play his PCs as much more reactive: he wants to find out what problems are happening and fix them as opposed to going out and getting into every NPC's business in the name of his ideals/king/god/detective agency. Therefore, if I want a character steering events forward, I'll need a strong antagonist.

To be honest, I don't have much experience making strong antagonists. When I've written short stories in the past I tended to focus on the protagonists and any villains were more "people with differing viewpoints." Even those antagonists that were more traditionally evil were there to represent an issue within the protagonist that needed to be dealt with--a dark reflection, so to speak. All roads led back to the hero of the story and their own ambitions.

Would those sort of villains work in a tabletop RPG? Maybe. I could easily see them in a sandbox-esque game, but perhaps not in the strongly narrative-driven game my boyfriend is asking for this time around. I'd like to stretch my creative muscles as well, and try my hand at an antagonist more like Emperor Palpatine: a character whose schemes set the status-quo, putting the PC in a position where he must respond and focus his energies on undermining and ultimately stopping the villain.

Rather than just write up a generic Evil Lich King From A Far Away Land, I also want this antagonist to have a personal connection with the PC. His schemes should affect something that my boyfriend considers an important part of his PC. (Because, of course, I'm really trying to get a rise out of my player.)

I have some ideas on this front, though I think I'll save those for another post, when they are more fully formed.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Back in the saddle

I of course mean "back in the saddle" for both DMing and blogging.

Running D&D games has been a long and involved process for me. I never had a Great DM, just DMs in the range of Pretty Good to Simply Terrible, so I've had to make due on my own. For the most part I just use published adventures to take advantage of others' experience and ability, and then try to patch the gaps by using my background in writing and my love of video games.

I have about as many successes as failures.

The important thing is, I'm learning. I take risks and try new techniques, and though it doesn't always pay off (and may, indeed, blow up spectacularly) I feel like I find new tricks for myself and new confidence.

So I've returned to DMing because... well, because I love it. It's fun to make silly voices for captured Kobolds. It's fun to design some horrible problem for the NPCs and then be surprised by my boyfriend's plan to solve it. It's a hobby that isn't very cost intensive but also constantly replenishes. I like the commmunity. (Sometimes I like complaining about the community.)


I've already run a few sessions of my Unnamed Eberron game for my boyfriend. We went through The Forgotten Forge and now we're finishing up Shadows of the Last War. My boyfriend's PC is Lord Jasek Kelswa d'Cannith, a warrior-wizard sort.

I've become very adept at running the beginnings of games. I usually pick a published module to serve as my framework and then spend my energies customizing the game to the PC: hooks tailor-made to get the PC involved, tweaking the antagonists so they are a hindrance/threat to something the PC values, changing around dungeons so they focus on what my boyfriend enjoys and minimize what he finds frustrating/uninteresting. I feel techniques like that are probably the bread and butter of any good DM, so while it's not brag-worthy I'm still pleased to have gotten to this point.

My issues come once I need to move beyond the introduction, and that's my major focus for this game: designing adventures to build off of what has come previously. There should be consequences for the PC's actions or else why bother doing anything at all?

I've resolved to run a game that gets the PC up to level 10. I'm almost halfway there already and now it's time to really push myself. Lord Jasek is getting the attention of some powerful people with his antics and I want to run a game where the PC actually starts affecting the world in meaningful ways. Which factions will he side with--or will he be a unifier? Can he stand against those who mean his family harm--or will he discover there's more to it than simple good versus evil?

I've also resolved to update this blog more often. (So long as one goes about resolving things, one might as well go all the way.) Since I use frameworks for my games as a jumping off point, I'll do the same here. Starting Monday the 18th I'm going to update every other day. The theme of each post will revolve around a letter of the alphabet--A for Monday, B for Wednesday, C for Friday, etc. Hopefully that will inspire me to write more frequently.

Yeah! Resolutions!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Perspective, and looking back

So it finally happened. After two years of continuously running game I reached dreaded DM Burnout. I realized what happened after noticing that I had abruptly cut short my last three sessions, I had a much harder time improvising when BF would do something unexpected, I had been increasingly hung-up on the minutia of scenes, and that (most damningly) I really just felt flat when prepping for and running game. Not excited. Not nervous. Just... blank. Going through the motions.

Boyfriend and I agreed I needed a break.

It feels strange not to be doing Dungeon Master stuff right now. Normally I spend free time prepping for game, writing up monsters and NPCs, looking for good maps, making flowchart outlines for the current adventure, and thinking up good complications and conflicts for BF to overcome. If I wasn't currently running a game then I'd be casting a wide net, going through many different books, movies, video games and blogs looking for inspiration and fine-tuning my campaign ideas. Now I'm just hanging out, listening to The Black Keys, eating burritos. It's... strange.

Here is what I learned from two years DMing:

1.) Use campaign pitches. When I first started DMing I followed in the footsteps of my early DMs and would say, "Make whatever you want!" to BF while cheerfully prepping away on my end. When we got to the gaming table we would have no idea what the other had been doing, and those games quickly fell apart. Now when I start gearing up to do game I make a pitch first. It helps me nail down what it is I'm trying to do with the game, the feel of it and the direction I hope to take it in, and it helps BF create a PC that fits. Here is one of my pitches for an example.

Grasp of the Grave
When an ancient relic is found by adventurers it attracts much attention from the curious and the greedy. Now the hunt is on to reclaim the lost pieces of the Black Book before its sinister magics can cause untold harm--and before it can find its way into its original master’s hands.
--An adventure with a classic feel, focused on reaching forgotten ruins and defeating evil wizards

As you can see I have the name of the adventure (cheesy, but it builds interest), a Back-of-the-Book-esque blurb, and a more plain summary detailing what the adventure is like. I threw this pitch out along with two others, each one quite different, to see what BF was interested in before buckling down and doing the detailed DM work.

2.) An easy way to run a sandbox is by using broad strokes as a skeleton. I have a hard time being the Firm Guiding Hand of the DM. As I only have one player it's easy (and beneficial to the longevity of the game) to let that one player run around getting involved in an area as he sees fit. Because I'm never sure what he'll want to do, I create towns with one or two conflicts built in (monsters attacking caravans as they travel through the mountains, tensions rise as merchant class butt heads with religious orders) and let things flow out from there.

I've tried detailing tons of little quest hooks and flavor pieces connected to a dozen different NPCs before but realistically BF can't get to all or even most of them in a few sessions, nor would he even be interested in all of them.

Obviously some people might not like this method. It definitely requires a lot of improvisation to bring such broad strokes to life. Maybe this point should be Don't be afraid to experiment to see what works with you and your table? :)

3.) Something should always happen. Again, this one is fairly subjective, but in my experience games run best when there are no throwaway rolls or actions. As a player it sucks to come up with a clever way to handle a problem, only to have a low die roll leave you in the exact same place, minus 30 seconds of your life. If a player rolls a skill check and doesn't succeed, instead of saying, "Oh, you don't sneak/intimidate/what-have-you," make something unexpected happen. If your paldin botches his diplomacy roll, then maybe the guard captain still agrees to get extra men to patrol the waterfront district and keep an eye out for the missing warlock... but only if the paladin agrees to play chaperone to the captain's daughter during the Rose Ball. Oh, and her boyfriend is a very handsy young noble.

I've written on this before but that's because I really think it's important to keeping a game fun and interesting. And hey, if a player doesn't want to bite, then they're right back in the place their original low roll left them.

4.) The most important thing a DM can do to make a game fun is bring lots of energy to the table. I feel a DM sets the tone of their table in how they act, what they allow and what they discourage, and this is doubly true when your table is just you and one other person. I've noticed that when I sulk up to the table with my books, say, "Okay... it's Saturday morning so I guess it's game time or whatever... I'm not totally done with my adventure so you'll just have to deal with however it is..." my game (shockingly!) doesn't go so well.

Even when you're inexperienced, or nervous--maybe even especially when you're inexperienced or nervous--it really helps a lot just to come to the table with a smile and say, "We're going to have a great time today!" The point of D&D is to have fun, so try not to get hung up on the little stuff and just keep the game moving. In the end players don't even remember that you stumbled when describing the guards' uniforms, they remember besting the most renowned mercenary in town in a crazy epic tavern brawl.


Though I'm not DMing right now, that doesn't mean I'm not gaming! Boyfriend has agreed to take up the mantle after his long hiatus and is running me a game. We've already had the first session, and I had a blast. I forgot how good he is at doing NPC voices. I seriously think BF is the best Dungeon Master in the world, but I'm a little biased. ;)

So I'm taking a break from running game. I hope some time spent in the player's chair will remind me of what's fun when playing D&D. I think after so long I've just lost some perspective. Ah well.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Changing mental patterns

Oops, I did a bad thing. Not that I've never made mistakes as a GM before, but last session I made the worst one I've had in a long time.

I'm running BF through Paizo's Rise of the Runelords, because as a pair we have some sort of gaming ADD where we start and stop campaigns every few months. We had just started the game, and I'm putting him through a sort of prologue to let him get acquainted with the little town of Sandpoint with its lovely people and terrible monsters. The twist is, during this period he's playing a "normal person", not an adventurer, and therefore has no class levels. The idea is that he'll 1.) appreciate his class abilities more once he sees how hard it is as a normal people and 2.) he'll need to avoid or work around conflict as he doesn't have the HP to deal with needless fights and 3.) it would give him some time with his character to develop his personality so that when he picked a class it would be for more than mechanical reasons. We agreed that doing the prologue this way was an interesting/fun idea.

The first mistake is that BF assumed this prologue would last only one session, two at most, whereas I had planned for the events of the prologue to last around five sessions. Oops. I wanted to give myself plenty of time to introduce or foreshadow things that would come up in the adventure path, but with BF's assumption he has been trying to rush through things in an effort to get to the "real" game.

The second, worse mistake blossomed from this first mistake. He assumed that the prologue was to be a short, light-hearted thing, and therefore when his character overheard talk of a mysterious Sandpoint Devil kidnapping a child, he sprang into action, encouraging some locals to go with him to defeat the monster and save the child. I tried to have the NPCs discourage him or shy away from something so dangerous, but BF used every mechanical option available to him, blowing through all of his action dice on his charisma checks. I figured, if it meant so much to him, then I would try my best to improvise something.

Now, the Sandpoint Devil is a strange thing. It appears in the bestiary for the RotR adventure path as a pretty nasty monster with some tricky attacks available. The lore is such that the locals have all heard of the Sandpoint Devil, but all evidence of it magically disappears, so no one really believes in the monster. It's a nocturnal beast with a hatred of the light and a love of terrifying its food of choice (small children) before eating them. Going by this I rule that BF can convince some others to go with him as they don't really think they'll find anything, but that it really is hiding out in a nearby cave "playing" with its food. After some preparation BF and his well-meaning misfits head out into the woods, discover the caves, and march in (expecting goblins or something small and manageable) and run right into the Sandpoint Devil.

Long story short, it kicked his ass.

Generally I avoid making fights where the PC(s) are almost certain to lose but in this instance he was so set on this particular path of action and I had had to improvise the entire session so I just went with what seemed simple rather than what was smart. As I generally avoid making fights that can't be won, BF went into this assuming it was a fight he was going to win. The aftermath was not pretty. His PC survived and he rescued the child, but he was clearly sulking afterwards, completely shocked at that turn of events and only then realizing what my many hints to turn away had meant.

I feel bad about how things turned out as well. I'm not in the habit of discouraging actions, even if I don't think they're a good idea, but BF felt sucker punched by the monster, as all the NPCs had been scoffing at the idea of it actually existing. As a DM I get the most fun out of seeing what crazy plans my players come up with, but here he felt as though he'd wasted the entire session. Worse, he just wanted to finish the prologue here and get into the "real" game and was surprised to discover that the important events of the prologue hadn't even happened yet. The entire session made him feel distrustful and weak, and now instead of going for an wandering adventurous sorcerer-type (like I wanted) he is thinking of making his character a wary, walking fortress of HP and armor, clinging to Sandpoint (which I definitely didn't want.)

I'm wondering if certain settings encourage certain trains of thought. No matter what happens in Eberron I'm sure to make it part of a political power struggle. When we're going through Planescape I let BF do almost anything, so long as he can talk the appropriate NPCs into it. And now that we're doing Pathfinder, I worry that the grim and gritty stance of the setting will encourage me to make defeat the default.

I'll think it over. If I can't run Rise of the Runelords without making BF completely paranoid about every monster and NPC he runs into, then I'll just have to find a way to run "Adventures in Varisia (incidentally there's also a Runelord)".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Actions and reactions

My favorite thing about playing tabletop RPGs over video games is the amount of freedom available. When one plays a video game, the only options are those that the programmers built into the system. Because a tabletop RPG is run by a Game Master rather than a program, it can adapt to new, unexpected situations.

My Planescape game is going well, having finished my third session and our first big adventure traveling through the Dwarven Mountains. I didn't expect it to take so long, as BF's character Dim was really trying to get past the mountains to the town on the other side, but one thing led to another. First he wanted to help a citizen in Dwarferton whose lackluster inn was about to go out of business. As he coaxed a local acolyte into joining the inn as a cook (with 10% of the proceeds going to the acolyte's church) and hired bards to concoct catchy tunes, Dim ran into a situation with the inn-owner's ooze mephit, an awful little fellow named Agronal. Agronal stank, his touch stained clothes permanently, he was a complete sycophant, his body began to melt or drip whenever possible, and he had garbage and stray coins stuck to his mucus wings. He begged Dim for a "loan", and I expected BF to brush away such a gross little creature. Instead BF took an interest, discovering that Agronal wanted the money so that he could pay a wizard to transform him into anything else.

Which led us on a quest to find a charitable magic user and give Agronal a form he deserved. They battled demonic creatures, rescued a missing apprentice, braved bureaucracy, and won the favor of the High Priest for the god of exploration, all culminating in BF rolling on a chart (with generous bonuses) to see Agronal transform into... a red dragon!

I didn't plan for any of this, but it went great. BF was thrilled and now he wants to focus on learning to ride a dragon. It'll cause a splash wherever he journeys in the Outlands, I'm sure.

On the one hand, I'm somewhat worried, because I think I might have bumped his power level beyond what I had anticipated. I mean, a red dragon! Even a small one that doesn't fully understand its own capabilities really shakes up where I had thought this game would go. On the other hand, maybe this is a good thing. It allows me to really ham up the adventures from here on out (because really, subtlety and quiet contemplation go out the window once your player becomes a dragon rider.)

So, I'll just have to roll with the punches, so to speak. He's excited to have an awesome mount and to have really turned the life around of a poor NPC, and I'm excited to get to try running more non-traditional adventures. It's funny how games can really run off in unanticipated directions.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making failure interesting

I've just started a Planescape game for my BF. I tried to run him a Planescape game once before, a two years back, but he didn't really take to it, finding the sheer amount of weird too overwhelming. We've got a new system in tow now, and with a new Player's Guide for that system, it seems to have suddenly clicked in his mind as Fun rather than Bewildering.

Lucky me. :) I love Planescape and have wanted to run a game set there for ages. It's the kind of setting where anything can happen, where I can introduce just about any villain or location or adventure that I can think of. To make things easier on the both of us, I've limited our adventure space to the Outlands, a large area including a city of paladins, the realm of the Celtic gods, and walking towers, but still an enclosed area for us to explore first.

In any case, I'm actually feeling wildly optimistic about this game. BF is really into it (he has a wavering attention span, so this is important) and it's an easy setting to use to help me improve an area of GM-weakness I've got because it encourages roleplaying and bizarre happenings.

I understand the whole "yes and/but" philosophy of GMing and try hard to stick to it; easier done, as I've only got to watch after one player's random schemes and plans. Letting BF try to interact with the game world (even in ways I hadn't considered or I initially wrote off) keeps him invested in what's going on, challenges me as a DM to think about what happens next, and keeps the game moving forward. He doesn't get to automatically succeed on everything he does, but his attempts have an effect on the game world, even if just in small ways. If he wants to convince the Red Knights that they should swear loyalty to him, then he can; now the Knights are divided because some didn't want to follow him, and he has a group preaching against him/harrying him/joining with his antagonist, but he also gets some Red Knights to help him protect his home kingdom.

Lately I've been focused on trying to make failures as dynamic and interesting. When I first started gaming my GMs ruled failures to be as flat and miserable as possible; if you try to sneak up behind a guard and jump him but the roll is low, then you stab yourself in the foot accidentally; if you try to sweet talk the princess but fail the diplomacy roll then you suddenly forget words and start drooling. It was sometimes amusing, but mostly it served to discourage the players from trying anything. Plus, it established the idea that we were incredibly incompetent, because why else would seasoned veterans spend so much time dropping their weapons on their feet? Overall this method of "no, and you're also a loser" actually worked against what these GMs claimed they wanted in their games, disrupting the atmosphere and keeping us from getting involved in the story.

So I've been trying to make something happen after a failure just as it would a success--and I had my first real "light bulb" moment last session. BF had just entered a new city and decided to make a haggle roll to find a good inn for the night, but he rolled very low. I had expected to just make up a nice inn for him but suddenly that didn't seem to match what the dice had in mind, so I declared that BF's character wandered the trade district for an hour, unable to get directions as he made various cultural missteps in his dealings with the natives, until finally stumbling upon the last inn that would take him, the Bed and Food. The insides were sparse and dusty, with one painting of a wilted flower for decoration, and the food was dry and bland. The innkeeper was a very eager but obviously overwhelmed dwarf. Rather than just end there, with him feeling bad about rolling low, I decided to have the innkeeper talk with BF's character. The innkeeper explained that he had been an accountant but took over the family business when his father fell ill, and didn't understand why his straightforward attempts weren't attracting customers. After some back and forth BF brainstormed some ways the innkeeper could improve his business--and then the dwarf offered BF free food and board for the rest of his stay in the city, so long as he helped him redecorate and find a new cook. BF was super jazzed at the end of the session, and I was pleased that I had managed to generate a mini-quest out of his botched roll.

Fingers crossed for next session. I'm going to use the Bed and Food inn to help introduce some characters (like a money-grubbing ooze mephit) and help wrap up the issue of the trade caravans being attacked.