Working In The Sandbox – Part Two

Welcome back to “Working in the Sandbox!” This is a series of articles about creating a home brew campaign setting that has an intuitive sandbox feel that will allow your players a great deal of freedom. If you’re new to the site, make sure to check out “Part One” here!

In our last installment we covered the concept of what it meant to work inside of a sandbox, how to start fleshing out your world on a macro scale so you’d have the broad strokes of your universe and where your characters fit inside of it. Today we’re going tackle how that works directly with the sandbox concept, dealing with player innovations, and how to make the most outrageous detours seem like it’s all going according to plan.

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One of the hardest parts of dealing with the Sandbox is the idea of letting your players do anything they can come up with. After all, as a DM, isn’t it your job to facilitate the narrative and associated story beats? How can you effectively work within any kind of structure if it’s constantly being compromised by the players? Well the easy answer is: you can’t. Players will constantly throw you curve balls, not because they are intentionally trying to mess with your game, but because their own thoughts and experiences allow them to come to different conclusions than you. That is what makes the roleplaying one of the most unique experiences in gaming, ever.

To that end, you have to decide the kind of DM you want to be. Are you a “by the numbers DM” that has rigid moments that can’t be messed with or are you more flexible? Will you make a creative place that encourages players to experiment or do you want them to simply follow the track you’ve laid out? For the sake of this series we’re going to assume you want to be more flexible or at least a good mixture of the two. If you’re more of the super rigid type, I highly suggest you invest in pre-constructed modules as they will save you a ton of headaches in the long run. For those who feel the custom route is more your speed, let’s focus on how to establish that open world feel.

4) Deal with the Immediate Story.  So we’ve established the broad strokes. Our working example has been a setting based after the elemental plane Arianus from the Death Gate Cycle. Of course you’re encouraged to create your own setting but in this world, there are no oceans nor continents, just an endless sky with floating islands that dot the horizon. We discussed the idea of how this would affect the world and made a list of ten memorable traits such as species, customs and organizations that you can use as a framework. With these items in place it’s time to focus on your immediate story. This is where a lot of DMs get hung up as they begin to dream of vast, epic-in-scope stories that can take years to play out. Here’s the problem with that. Unless you have a very dedicated group of players, the chance of seeing that story through to the end becomes highly unlikely. Even if the group does stick together, it can be difficult to maintain a sustained interest in such a story over the span of years: details are forgotten, plot points are left to dangle and excitement for what happens next can wane. It’s not impossible though and if you think you can do it, just apply these suggestions to your storyline. For everyone else though, let’s keep it simple.

In this case, that means developing a story that has a beginning, middle and end, also know as a “three-act” tale which allows you to establish the story elements involved in the first act, increase the danger in the second and finally bring the story to a resolution in the third. As the DM, you can also go ahead and plan for each act of a story to equal one character levels worth of experience. In the case of my current D&D 5e campaign, I have developed a tale that will take the characters from levels 1-3. At the end of this story the characters should be at least 3rd level PCs on the cusp of hitting 4th. How you decide this plays out is purely up to you, but I like to add in character moments, combat, rewards for creative thinking and plain old good roleplaying. As the director of the world, you get to be as generous or stingy as you want, but I always tend to err on the side of generous because my encounters can be brutal.

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When you’re developing the narrative side of the adventure, create minimal notes. While you may be tempted to flesh out exactly what happens at every single turn, don’t. Resist this temptation. You’re just making work you’ll have to undo on the fly. Why spend that extra energy when you’re going to have ad-lib later on? Instead, focus on the characters and their motivations. Why are the bad guys being bad (this assumes your players are the heroes, flip it if otherwise)? What are their goals and how will they reach them? What are their resources at hand and what tricks do they have up their sleeves? Who are your player’s allies? Do the players have any resources to call on? What is the town/dungeon/surrounding areas like? Once you’ve figured these questions out, you’ll have a far better understanding of what your story is. At this point, you should write out the plot as you predict it will unfold. Create your encounters. Make stats for your monsters, character sheets for your major antagonists and basically flesh out the combat/trap/treasure situation. This is your story bible. It gives you all the pertinent facts for your game. That is of course until the players chime in, which brings us to our next rule:

5) Players WILL destroy your plans. It’s said that no plan survives contact with the enemy…boy howdy. This is something I’ll bring up time and again when talking about being the Dungeon Master and it cannot be overstated: players will destroy your plans. I like to call it “player innovation”. Nine times out of ten, your players will come up with a unique and inventive solution to a problem you thought was straightforward, inescapable or foolproof. It’s unavoidable but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During your game, players will hypothesize scenarios, problems, and solutions that are way better than what you have devised. While it can be humbling to see well laid plans destroyed with a stroke of brilliance, why fight it? This is a resource and as such should be exploited for the betterment of the game.

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For instance about a year back, at the pinnacle of my 4e game, the players were in a survivor-esque competition where they were trying to complete certain tasks before the bad guys in order to gain entrance into The Macguffin. Whilst the details of the plot aren’t important for the story, what does matter is that the players had to travel to the top of a mountain that overlooked the entire island. With no transportation spells on their person the players had to decide if they were going to climb back down the mountain face, which was littered with all sorts of monsters, or find a faster way to descend the lonely peak. Surveying the area, the players remembered they had slain a King Roc (basically a gigantic bird) that was more than large enough to carry all of the adventuring party. Originally, I had expected them to befriend the Roc and gain an ally that would fly them around the island giving them a substantial advantage over their enemies, but these are gamers, so they killed it. In my back pocket I had created a few brutal encounters that punish the players if this situation occurred. The goal was to encourage them to make friends versus piles of bodies and to intimate that the climb down would be far more hazardous than the ascent.

A consensus was quickly reached: find another way down. After exhausting the magical front, which was limited as their spell caster was primarily an offensively powered Warlock, the players turned back to the dead Roc. After a few minutes of  nature checks of the surrounding trees and plant life the party had a plan. Take the Roc and build a harness that would allow them to glide the dead creature to the surface using a system of pulleys and ropes to control the wings and tail. I was, simply, flabbergasted. Here I was, entertaining the idea of allowing the players to fly a dead animal off the side of a mountain, a plan that had echoes to my original concept, but with a far more grizzly overtones. If I had said no, the players would have most likely asked for reasons why or simply accepted it and moved on, thus making my life easier. On the other hand if I took this player innovation, which had an opportunity to become a memorable moment, we could have a great story to recount later on. Of course I took the latter, which brings us to:

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6) Turn into the Wave. If players are a resource that you can exploit and they are going to change the dynamic of your plans, why try to fight it? Instead, turn into the wave. Risk saying yes to see what happens. This doesn’t every player idea should be accepted but if they ask to attempt something, seriously consider why you should say no. If the answer comes back to “I didn’t plan for it”, let them try. Not only will it make the players feel like they are influencing the game, it will keep you on your toes and that’s the secret to being a good DM. It’s a well known fact that once you become a decent DM, you tend to stay in that role because it’s really difficult to find people willing to take on that much responsibility. If you take this approach though, that responsibility melts away. You’re no longer the director of a scene, you’re ad-libbing as quickly as your players, trying to stay one step ahead. It’s why your story bible can be so helpful. What happens if the players take an entirely different approach? How would your villain react to this? It’s all laid out in black and white, you just have to fill in the gaps.

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Players are talkers. They tend to voice their opinions and ideas at the table so others can help them figure out the plot. As they do this players will hypothesize about motivations, other bad guys, or even cool new traps or monsters that may be seen. If it sounds particularly interesting: Write. It. Down. You never know when you might be able to incorporate an idea from the table which makes the player feel as if they were smart enough to see your plan in advance even though they might be responsible for the nugget that got you there. In fact, when I first started out, people would ask me how much of the game I planned out in advance. When I said, “very little” they would always be amazed and really it’s really just a magic trick.

For instance back at the Roc, I had a chance to let the players do something they admitted could be very stupid. They could ride a dead bird like a giant hand glider off the side of a mountain to shave off approximately 2 days travel which would ensure a sizable lead over their enemies, if they didn’t die in the process. So I let them. The players made a plan, rolled skill checks and did their best to capitalize upon their strengths. After a few hours of work, they were ready to try. The bird was positioned at the slope of the mountain edge with some very hastily constructed skids attached to it’s belly to help with take off and landing. The strongest characters were in charge with keeping the wings buoyant and the Warlock constructed an explosive spell that would give them a significant boost. Now, by the book, this is outside the rules and I’m ad libbing a lot as we go along, but the players are engaged. They’re excited and more than a little anxious to see if this works. When the moment of truth finally came and the Warlock asked if everyone was ready, the players debated. Did they think of everything? What if they missed something? What if they all die in the process? In the end, they agreed they had planned for everything they could think of and the Warlock detonated her spell.

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In an instant, the players were on the other side of the coin. Now it was my turn to mess with their plan. I created a series of rolls each member of the party would have to perform in order to stay aloft. It was all BS, but that didn’t matter. It felt real in the moment. Who cared if it reflected the game mechanics or physics or anything close to reality? It felt challenging and that’s all that matters. I had quickly devised some math about how far they could travel in a “round”, which in this case was longer than the standard 6 seconds. With a default number of turns they could stay aloft (2) I figured that if the players could successfully perform 4 of the 5 required checks per round, they could earn an extra set of rolls, thereby getting them closer to their goal. Sure enough, they stayed aloft for 5 rounds. Speeding along, I described how the side of the mountain had torn open the Roc as they became airborne, depositing entrails and gore across the countryside. The fallout being that this was also a trail their enemies could follow, but one issue at a time. After the fifth round, I told them the Roc was encountering turbulence which and they were getting knocked off course, which allowed me to raise the difficulty as they were no longer gliding but actually adjusting the flight path. That’s when it all fell apart. One of the wing harnesses snapped and the bird began to go into a spin. With some quick reflexes from the players, the party was able to yank the wing back out into a flying position but they had already lost too much altitude and speed. Within a round they had to prep for a crash landing. Considering they did not have airbags or harnesses beyond lashing their waists to the Roc’s frame, the players were forced to make physical checks to ensure they held their place as long as possible.

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As the Roc reached the tree line, they heard the snapping of giant ribs and the makeshift landing skids. The rope snapped as the bird caught on the tips of the massive tree tops. The animal jerked down and veered into a nearby field where the Roc’s head finally dipped down low enough to make contact with the earth. Sheering off, it was thrown wide and took one of the players with it. The wings popped and the torso bent in a sickening wrench as the bloody fowl came to a rest. Amazingly the only character that took any serious damage was the one thrown when the Roc’s head was sheered off. The other characters were no worse for wear. A few HP lost in the turbulence but otherwise right as rain and nearly a day ahead of their enemies. It was a tremendous feat and quickly became their favorite scene in the entire adventure. If I had said no, I would have denied them a wonderful anecdote about how sometimes the stupid are rewarded and the dumb can overcome great odds. By simply turning into the wave, I was able to create something amazing from nothing and that’s the beauty of it. Sometimes it will not work out so well, sometimes it will become the moment of your game, but regardless it puts the players in the driver seat and changes your story from a pre-determined series of encounters to that of players choosing their destiny. It’s risky, but as they say: “the risk always lives.”

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Alright, that’s it for this installment. In our next entry I’ll talk about how to challenge your players appropriately and how to create interesting plot hooks for future stories without making them obvious.

Ampersand on White

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Working In The Sandbox – Part One

Hey guys, welcome back! Sorry for the crazy delay but “the best laid plans” and all that. So let’s jump right in!

As promised, this is the first part of a series of articles about creating interesting home brew campaign settings that have an intuitive sandbox mentality. First, let’s tackle what I mean by “sandbox”.

Sandbox is another term for having an open world, where players can chose to do whatever they want in your setting. The term was popularized by video game designers as they began to create worlds with little to no restrictions. Before this concept players would encounter invisible barriers or some other hinderance that would block any forward progress though it was clear there was more on the horizon. Of course, in the early days of polygon gaming, this was a headache for fans who wanted to be immersed in a story and feel apart of a fantastic world. Hopefully, you can see where I’m going with this.

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In that same vein, RPG players want to have that kind of freedom. They want to be able to make a choice and see it through, even if it’s not part of a DM’s planned itinerary. This can make it extremely difficult to plan a plot line when trying to anticipate every outcome. So don’t. Here’s the first rule of Working With The Sandbox

1) Create A Distinct World. World Building is really a zero-sum game. If you spend all of your time building complex world features that players will never see, then what’s the point? Since you can’t anticipate every single nook and cranny of your world – don’t try. Instead come up with a couple of themes that make your world unique. Every great fantasy novel/setting/game has them and if you want your games to be memorable, follow suit.

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Creating a unique setting is crucial when developing your world that mark it as different from standard fantasy fare. But where to start? First, no one creates in a vacuum; we’re inspired by everything around us, so use it to your advantage. For instance a lot of folks crib ideas from Tolkien and for good reason, he’s the godfather of high fantasy. While I may not be a fan of his novels from an adventure/narrative point of view, they are absolutely crammed full of interesting tidbits and ideas of ages long past. Just reading through the notes of the Silmarillion can give you a dozen great settings.

Of course, sometimes you want to make your world a little more unique, like the world of Game of Thrones, where Winter is an event that occurs at random and can last for years, even decades. By creating a setting like this, you can tease out the coming winter apocalypse like the novels or you could set your world in an era coming out of a long Winter. The chances for storytelling are rich and varied.

One set of worlds that I love are the elemental planes from the Death Gate Cycle. Here, the World has been split into different realms that represent a single element: earth, air, wind, fire. In this element they are abundant but are severely lacking in others. For example on Arianus, the world of air, there are floating islands that dot an endless sky. With no real land masses other than these floating continents, materials like simple dirt are very valuable as they can be as precious as gold.

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The point is, once you’ve decided on a few unique traits, you can start to work up how it affects your world at large. This, typically, is where world design goes off the rails. Which brings us to our next rule:

2) Think MACRO not MICRO. While building your distinct world think about how the traits of that world might affect the inhabitants. Here is where people start to get a flux of ideas and create complex maps, political structures and archetypes to fit inside their home brew world. And that’s fine…but don’t be tied to it. Be flexible. Instead of figuring out the exchange rate of gold from region to region, focus on the MACRO scale. The way I handle macro is to ponder how these changes affect the natural flora and fauna of my setting. How does it differ from regular D&D? I also think about organizations that could affect a continent or whole planet. Anything smaller at this point is minutiae.

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So if we were talking about the aforementioned Death Gate plane of Arianus, how would that affect the creatures? What would goblins look like? Would people know what a dwarf is? How do forests appear in this world? I keep asking these questions until I get an idea of how the natural world has adapted to this setting and then I think about a few organizations that would be major movers and shakers in this world. Sky Pirates, Floating Kingdoms, perhaps even a militant nation of valkyrie that ride a calvary of pegasi. Work out some details for each unique thing in this world, but again make sure you’re thinking of the appropriate scale. While all creatures will adapt to fit a setting, if you have a few unique stand out pieces, the player’s imagination will fill in the blanks. I usually work from the rule of ten. Limit yourself to ten extremely unique things in your world that make it different from regular D&D. Of course it will grow as will your game, but as a starting point, ten seems to work really well. Once you’ve figured out the world’s traits and how the inhabitants have adapted you only have to ask yourself one more thing before setting up your story:

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3) How do the players figure into this? Now this is tricky. Creating a new world out of whole cloth is fun, but without a cultural touchstone, it can be daunting for a new group – especially if they’ve never played before. This is why cribbing from the mutual shared language of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Death Gate Cycle, D&D or any other famous fantasy setting can really help you when conveying new ideas. More than that though, you need to decide if the players are comfortable in this world or if their characters are strangers in a strange land. There are arguments to be made on both sides of this particular debate and it’s really up to you but let’s go over the pro and con list.

Characters come from this World PROS: A players character will be indoctrinated; familiar with local customs and traditions. Traditionally people accept the reality they are given so the player may not be as inclined to pursue out “why” the realm has these traits, even though you may want to make that the focus of your story later on. Another interesting pro is the fact that this gives you a chance to write up a fun background for the characters so they can become familiar with the world. Some players love this, others just want to get to the combat, so it really depends.

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Characters come from this World CONS: While characters may be from this world, Players are not. Even with a write up or booklet explaining how the world works, the players are going to make assumptions that may run counter to what the character would intrinsically know. This can create awkward moments that can pull people out of the game as you have to explain a nuance or tidbit the player may or may not have known about. This is where keeping things vague really works in your favor. It can also be unhelpful to the game if the player thinks this intrinsic knowledge gives them carte blanche. We’re all familiar with the saying “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” Never is this more true than with gamers, but that’s part of the fun. If you don’t like players really pushing the acceptable limits of what you’ve built…consider being less rigid in this regard.

On the flip side we have

Characters are Strangers to this World PROS: If a character is a stranger, they have no point of reference than their own experiences. This means that you can spring a new setting on a player whenever you want to mix things up and make them feel less confident in their station in life. It’s also incredibly helpful to have players in an unfamiliar place because they can learn local customs and traditions through roleplaying experiences. This of course also means that you can create role playing moments from honest Player mistakes. If a player makes an incorrect assumption, you can turn that into a learning moment. While reading a booklet is good for a primer, the lessons learned from good or bad decisions during a game will always stick around longer.

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Characters are Strangers to this World CONS: If a player has no vested interest in a land, it can be particularly hard to entice them to care about the World and their inhabitants. It can also stifle player creativity as they may not want to make a mistake. It’s a tricky balancing act.

No matter what you choose, I highly suggest you remain flexible in your setting. While you may be perfectly, remember the players are not. This means you have to give them a lot of slack. By relying on the backbone of the shared fantasy language, you can bridge most difficulties. The key is to create a world that is wholly unique to your setting but built on the backbone of a familiar subset that allows players to feel comfortable enough to experiment.

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That’s it for this installment! In our next entry I’ll talk about how to deal with player innovation and going “off book” from your designs and how to make it all seem as if it’s going according to plan.

Ampersand on White

Attack The Darkness

Hey guys!

So sorry for the radio silence of late. If you’ve been following me on twitter or listening to my podcast Shauncastic, you know that I’ve been amping up my conventions, business and podcast formats. It’s been an amazing experience that people are really responding to, but it meant I’ve fallen WAY behind on my prepared pieces for the Tavern. That’s on me and I should have posted something explaining the media blackout. The good news is that later this week will start a multi-part series about making the best open world for your game possible as well as my first, 100% free, module featuring some creatures from a 1980s cartoon.

In the meantime, why don’t you go check out some of the articles I’ve written over at Legion of Leia? I cover a ton of stuff, but it’s all fun. Anyway, I have to get back to it but check back later this week and we’ll get back to the slaying of Dragons and spelunking of Dungeons!

All Good Things…

…MUST CONTINUE!

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Hi folks, sorry I’ve been away for such a long time but as you may or may not know my wife and I travel the US as exhibitors at various comic-cons. Its a lot of fun but can also become incredibly time consuming. For the last few weeks its been an “all create, all the time” kind of experience, leaving very few spare moments to write. For that, I apologize; to make sure I won’t have major gaps in the blog I’m pre-writing a bunch of material so it can be released in a timely manner (every 5-7 days). I love writing Tavernmeet and don’t plan on giving it up any time soon. For any future delays though, thanks for your patience in advance. So, let’s get to it!

Approximately a month ago, my current D&D group wrapped up our ongoing game: The Empyrean Age. It was a 4e campaign that started around 2010 and had been going on pretty steadily ever since. The goal of that game was from my perspective as a DM, to create a long weaving narrative that could be taken as a whole or in smaller chunks that conveyed a sweeping, world changing campaign that took players from Levels 1 all the way to 30. Of course this would be no easy task considering I projected the game would take upwards of 3-4 years to complete.

Think about that for a second. Plotting a story that would continue on for 4 years; that’s a crazy mad scientist feat that most DMs dream of but is really unfeasible. It’s hard enough to get friends to play a nice casual game, but to announce a sweeping epic that would evolve from the get go is like trying to convince your players to get their Master’s Degree in D&D. It could happen, but it’s gonna be tough. I was convinced though, we could play all 30 levels of D&D 4e.

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No matter what you do though, players are going to come and go. It’s unavoidable. Life evolves, people have kids, get new jobs, or just get tired of playing. The Empyrean Age was no different. The first two years of playing we cycled through a massive amount of players. When we began, it was a small group of 5 players that expanded out to 10 over the first year. As commitments drew folks away, we dwindled back down to that median number of 5-6 regular players. It was a fantastic time. Characters evolved, changed motivations and even died.

As we drew to the final few months of 2014 I realized I had overshot my estimate of 3-4 years by nearly a twelve months. It was an odd moment, to see the end your group had worked so hard for just over the horizon. Five years of near weekly play had culminated in a storyline involving multiple armies, the fate of the cosmos, immortality and reality shaking consequences. The players were primed to see it end, not because they wanted to stop playing, but because they wanted to know if they could win. They wanted to see what happened next.

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It’s humbling when your players are hungry for the next game. It’s even moreso when you reach the end of a long journey like this and everyone is still ready to play the next story.

For those curious: yes, they won but with any good RPG that’s not the interesting part. What happened after the final boss battle was what made this so damn interesting. So, let me introduce the setting and our Players/Characters. They stomped around my world for half a decade and they deserve a shout out.

As with most sword and sorcery stories, our tale centered around an entity trying to take over the world. In this instance the entity, Xaphan, was trying to ascend into godhood. In order to do so she would use a device that would split open creation, allowing her to pass through the barriers that kept her from ascending into the grand tapestry of deities. The drawback was while this device was open, the energies that poured out would weaken the fabric of existence, allowing creatures from the far realms to spill over, the dead to rise, demons to walk the earth and basically all the bad things you could possibly imagine happening at once.To make matters worse once the device was activated someone had to pass through it in order for it to be closed. I used the metaphor of Glory and the Key from Buffy season Five more than once to convey the fact that the players had to keep Xaphan from opening the device no matter what.

Of course, they blew it.

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With the Xaphan mere moments away from stepping through the device our heroes leapt into action in one of the most awesome fights I’ve ever been privy to DM. In the end the defeated Xaphan and stopped her from walking through the gate. Unfortunately while it stayed open, untold horrors were being inflicted upon the world. So a choice had to be made, one of the five would have to step through and ascend into godhood in order to stop the device. This was a mixed bag as ascension would also color the world from this point on, writing the character’s very essence into the tapestry of creation. If Xaphan had ascended, the world would have burned, but what about the players?

Each had their pros and cons:

Cerulean: played by my lovely wife Laura was the groups leader. A founding member of their adventuring squad, Cerulean was a Tiefling Warlock that had promised to become a master of the Nine Hells in exchange for the power to defeat a greater evil. With her fate already sealed, she was unable to step through as the resulting shift might be even worse than if Xaphanhad ascended.

Nissa: played by Christina was a Pixie Barbarian (seriously, it was hilarious). Tainted with madness and an affinity to the Far Realms, allowing her to step through would be tantamount to allowing madness into the world.

Frogmore (originally known as Flagmore): played by Dallas was a Dwarf Battlemind who had been cursed to become a Bullywug. He was an honorable warrior but very impulsive. Forgmore had to take on the Hand of Vecna prior to the final battle with Xaphan in order to even the scales. His ascension was 100% unknown, but the Hand of Vecna was a great deterrent.

Eben: played by Rico was a Mul Cleric of Selune. Thoughtful and selfless, Eben was a strong candidate for entering the gate.

Alek: played by James was a Half-Elf Ranger who began the game as a mercenary bodyguard for Cerulean. His obsession with money dwindled over time as he became more and more wealthy. His hatred for Formore was a rally call for the group as Alek would frequently yell out before battle: “Kill the Dwarf (later changed to Kill the Frog)!” Pragmatic and more than willing to leave a fight if it became obvious he was going to lose, Alek was a decent candidate for ascension but the possibility of threading the world with indifference was a concern.

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Regardless, the group didn’t get a chance to vote who should ascend as Frogmore was overtaken by the Hand of Vecna. A longstanding rivalry between Nissa and Frogmore had recently come to a head and he decided it was time to take his revenge and claim a place amongst the gods of creation. In a series of amazing dice rolls and roleplaying moments Frogmore maneuvered his way next to the diminutive pixie and cleaved her in half with a strike so devastating she couldn’t recover. Triggering an extra action he then turned her to stone and began to pound the statue into rubble to ensure she would not return. And like that…Nissa was dead.

In the moments afterward, a stunned party realized that Frogmore had been lost to the Hand of Vecna. Finally, for real, Alek would be able to use his rally cry one more time: Kill the Dwarf! During the conflict, Frogmore nearly passed through the gate. Unwillingly to allow that to happen, Eben jumped through the archway and ascended into the heavens, killing his mortal form and sealing the breach. In the wash of energies that followed Alek and Cerulean fought their former comrade until he was finally killed. In a matter of minutes our party of five heroes had dwindled down to two. It was a crazy moment that became even more poignant when Cerulean realized it was time for her to take her place in the Nine Hells. It wasn’t a prison, she was being made into a ruler of a realm, but damnation is damnation after all.

After it was all said and done Alek was the only surviving member of the gaming group. He wandered the earth until extreme old age and eventually created a kingdom for Orcs (its a whole thing). Amazingly enough, very little of this was planned. I had let storylines conclude naturally and they all just kind of…lined up. It was an amazing scene to watch and I couldn’t believe how great it all fit together. It was the end of something fantastic but as they say, all good things must come to end.

Now we get to start over with a brand new game. We’re all excited but we miss the days of the Empyrean Age. Fortunately this is D&D and it won’t take long before we’re in another story of epic conquest that will capture our imagination. For me though, every game from now until I stop playing will have to contend with the Empyrean Age. I’ve constructed long running stories before but never one with such unified vision. It’s daunting to think about. DMs dream of playing the uninterrupted game. I had a chance to do it. I saw it through to the end and now as we cusp on a brand new 5e game I can’t help but feel nostalgia for what we did. It deserved a moment.

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It also inspired my idea for our 5e story: “The Plotless Adventure”.

In the grand old days of AD&D, players would move from module to module without much of a narrative in between. This allowed them to have adventures all over the world with very little connective tissue between each mini tale. I have decided that since we played an epic game that fed story into subsequent story that our next outing should be a high fantasy adventure with swashbuckling fun and very little crossover. Dungeons will be explored, princes (yeah, I said princes) will be rescued and secrets will be stolen. To that end I have decided to adapt some of my favorite plots/cartoons/and comics from my childhood and make them into mini-modules for our group to play. Some may take 4-5 sessions to complete, others stories will only one. The idea though is to create a bunch of fun modules based off the crazy fantasy worlds of the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s.

Our first adventure? Gummi Bears.

You read that right, Gummi Bears

Once we finish the story, I’ll post the entire module on Tavernmeet for you to play. Until then though, we’ll go over how to make fun home brewed campaign settings and how to make interesting and intuitive sandbox adventures. So get to rolling your dice people and don’t forget:

The Top Five Most Influential Roleplaying Games (to Shaun)

Normally when you see a list of “top five” lists, writers use a litmus of “most influential” or “revolutionary” to whatever industry they’re referring, which is fine. For this list though, I thought I’d go a slightly different bent. Instead of trying to make a list of top 5 roleplaying games of all time, which is really wholly subjective and will undoubtedly irk fans of an unlisted game, I decided to create a list of my top five roleplaying games. These are the systems that have shaped my philosophy of gaming as well as were just the most fun.

5) Dungeons and Dragons

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I bet you’re wondering why D&D isn’t higher on the list here. Well the reason is pretty simple: Dungeons and Dragons was very influential but for all the wrong reasons. I’ve talked about my first gaming group before and how their poor gaming practices taught me what not to do when running a game. Instead of becoming a game that welcoming and awesome it was my first taste at geek privilege and bad attitudes towards the “new guy”. It was very clear that in order to be in the game, you had to be hazed and ridiculed simply for not having encountered the game before being invited to play. It’s the same philosophy some geeks use against people, forcing them to “prove” they’re cool enough to be included – which incidentally, is crap. Dunegons and Dragons taught me its better to railroad a party into a plot point rather than let players have free reign. Dungeons and Dragons taught me that it was a game for snobs and jerks and I should avoid it at all costs.

It took me years to undo the mental barb wire I had wrapped around this game and it made me sad to realize that I had missed out on tons of great fantasy adventures because of some really crappy experiences in my youth. It also shames me to admit that I took that hazing philosophy with me for a number of years after I left that group and it wasn’t until I was 20 that I realized that this toxic practice was alienating perfectly awesome people who just wanted to try roleplaying. Fortunately I figured it out by pretty early on, so I can chalk most of it up to a capricious youth, but to this day I regret picking up that habit. So when we talk about the roleplaying systems that influenced me, Dungeons and Dragons goes to the very bottom of my top five. It’s not here because of what it gave me in a positive sense – it’s here because of what those players and early games took from me and how I had to work past these habits.

Of course it’s one of my favorite systems today and I’m so grateful that I gave it a second chance, but we’ll get to that a little but later on in the article.

4) Cyberpunk 2020

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I adore sci-fi; it is at the absolute top of my list when it comes to genres. Robots, Aliens, Time Travel, Space Exploration and my favorite: Cyborgs. The concept of merging man and machine fascinating me as a child. Cartoons like The Bionic Six, C.O.P.S., Silverhawks, Ghost in the Shell, and Appleseed captured my imagination in a big way. As I got a little older movies quickly joined their ranks like Terminator, RoboCop, Virtuosity, Eliminators, and of course Blade Runner. In each entry I was presented with a world where mankind had reached a point where technology and biology were two sides of the same coin. Nowadays we refer to this as the Singularity, but back then it was bleeding edge technology. Writers like William Gibson with books like ‘Neuromancer’ infused the genre with a distinct dystopian setting that would give birth to a subculture known as ‘Cyberpunk’. If you’ve watched the Matrix or Blade Runner, you know the feeling. Technology would surpass our humanity and people would be stuck in the middle trying to figure out where they fit into a new society where the digital and the analog meet.

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I ate this stuff up and when I started dipping my toes back into the RPG world with games like Vampire and Werewolf, I found this book: Cyberpunk 2020. To be fair, it had me at the title. It was literally named after an awesome subculture that I was in love with and dared you to play in that universe. Then we have the cover – the gorgeously painted Dark City, glowing in the night with futuristic cars and a man with illuminated tattoos, LED eyes and a massive hand cannon ready to take on the mean streets…how could I not buy this book?

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Released by R. Talsorian Games, Cyberpunk was exactly what it seemed to be: a fast paced roleplaying game determined to recreate the dystopian future of Cyberpunk society. The rules were quick to pick up and became the basis of the “interlock” system, a cross platform set of rules that would let you learn multiple games at once. It never took off at the time, but I firmly believe some of it’s DNA made it into the d20 system that took the RPG world by storm in the early 2000s. Anyway, not only was the game itself fast paced it was the first fast paced “realistic” combat system I had encountered. If you’ve ever played an RPG, you know that combat can sometimes sap the momentum of a story. Cyberpunk tried to deal with that by making combat something very deadly. Guns were destructive weapons that could kill a character in a single shot if it hit the right location. Recovery from combat was equally as arduous as there were no healing spells. There were technological accelerants though they only helped characters between battles; in the thick of a firefight, it was fast, bloody and permanent.

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The game also promoted flavor over rules. If something ‘felt’ right, then allow it. If the rules were getting in the way, put it to the side. The idea was to facilitate the story, not a static set of unbending rules. It was a breath of fresh air. Add to that the concept of building a character at any age/experience using a mechanism called “Lifepath” and you had a game that became crazy popular with dozens of expansions and modules. The best part though, was all you really needed for the game was the core rulebook. After encountering the holy trilogy of books for D&D (a requirement that still rankles me) this was amazing. For a small, one time fee, I had everything I would ever need – provided I was creative enough to riff my own content, which I did. Then, I found out that R. Talsorian made another game that would feed my sci-fi fandom…

3) Mekton Zeta

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Believe it or not, there was a time, not so long ago, when American pop culture wasn’t infused with anime and manga. Of course there has always been a trickle of imported licenses that were dubbed and toned down for the after school crowds of the 70s, 80s, and very early 90s but it wasn’t a full blown invasion. By the mid 90s though, the Anime market had begun a huge upswing thanks to direct chain video stores, Toonami and good old fashion bootlegs. In those early years we had an era of clumsy discovery, unearthing random shows through pure luck and judging them on the box art and the few rumblings we could gather from various Anime BBS (bulletin board systems).

It was also the time of Mekton Z, or as it’s officially called “Mekton Zeta”. Since the early 80s R. Talsorian released it’s anime inspired roleplaying system known as “Mekton”. Zeta, the third edition of the game, was a system I encountered thanks to Cyberpunk 2020. At the time, R. Talsorian was touting a universal roleplaying platform called the “Interlock System” which allowed you to move from setting to setting and use the same core rules. It was, at the time, a fairly novel idea though it never really took off as expected. Regardless, the interlock system allowed you to learn one set of rules and then adapt them to the quirks of any potential new settings. This allowed me to move from the gritty noir world of Cyberpunk into the grand world of giant mecha warriors with the greatest of ease…and this was a huge deal for me.

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I’ve always had an obsession with the spectacle of giant robot shows like Robotech/Macross, Voltron/Go Lion,  Voltus VGundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Mazinger Z just to name a few. Since finding new shows with giant Mecha was a bit of a problem at the time, this game allowed me and my friends to star in our own larger than life Grand Mecha Battles. What I loved about this was the fact that – if you could think of a concept – you could make the machine. While the creation of these creatures was FAR too complicated, it gave us respect for the system. For lack of a better term: it felt real. In order to make a robot that could function in combat, you had to be clever and careful. Some players got it, some players did not. The end result was a fantastic blend of a wide assortment of mechanical monstrosities debuting in our games and then surreptitiously getting introduced to the scrap heap because they sucked.

The other shining star of this system was the “Lifepath” model. I talked about it for a moment during the Cyberpunk entry, but this is the crux of the game for most players. In traditional roleplaying games, you simply roll up a character and then begin at level “X”. Not so in the interlock system. Using the “Lifepath”, you are allowed to have a character at any level of experience but there are pros and cons to doing so. Starting off as a young Rookie meant you gained XP faster but weren’t as well trained. It also meant that you could easily adjust your character as it evolved. If you started as a “Professional” you had years of experience under your belt, which gave you more skill points and bonuses upfront but meant it took a lot longer to level your character and they had profound life experiences behind them that further shaped their background.

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This was represented by rolling on the “Lifepath” chart. For every two years as a Professional you received bonuses to your base stats but you also had to make a random life roll. Sometimes this would become positive: giving you money, power and influence. In most cases though, this meant that you had lost a family member, created an enemy, been disfigured in some horrible accident and so on. What made this system so brilliant is that it practically negated the ability to min-max a character. This random life path would seem tailored made as you continued to roll again and again, creating a narrative versus a bunch of senseless stats. In the end you had a character with depth, pathos, allies and enemies. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and wish RPG systems would adopt this method for future games.

While Mekton Zeta only has 2 main rule books and a small handful of supplements (we’re talking MAYBE 5 books total) the fact that it taps into the absolutely massive fanbase of giant robot sci-fi anime and manga means you’ll never run out of new ideas and plot hooks. You can purchase the Mekton Zeta PDF here. I also highly suggest picking up the Mekton Zeta Plus PDF which tweaks the mecha creation system significantly.

2) Star Wars – Revised Core Rules (d20)

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Now this is a little bit of a cheat because it encompasses two different games. I love Star Wars and I’ve played many game systems a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; but none, I repeat none, of the games I have played will ever compare to Wizards of the Coast’s “Star Wars – Revised Core Rules”. This was during the time of the d20 revolution. Thanks to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, WotC had created the open rules system simply known as “d20”. Like the “interlock system” a decade earlier, the concept was simple: create a core set of rules that could adapt to any setting. Except in this case the d20 System took off in no small part to WotC’s marketing and open source license, which allowed anyone to make a game based off these rules. Not only was the d20 system flexible and balanced, it allowed for an immense amount of customization  and in a short amount of time every flavor of game had a “d20 Edition” and Star Wars was no exception.

While the original core rules were fine, they suffered some of the same issues that plagued D&D 3.0 and just like the perennial RPG king, Star Wars needed a revision. The Revised Core Rules dropped shortly after 2002’s Attack of the Clones and the gaming community went nuts. While previous versions of Star Wars RPGs lent themselves to developing the flavor of the Star Wars universe (like the West End edition from the 1980s), the Revised Core Rules really worked out the “why” things worked. Specifically, the Force. We had a vague understanding about anger and aggression leading to the darkside and compassion being the cornerstone of the lightside, but how did it work? What were the negative repercussions and how does one avoid all of the pitfalls of using the Force? This game answered them all an more.

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Combining crystal clear mechanics, absolute gorgeous artwork/layouts and the spectacular supplement material that illuminated all aspects of the Star Wars universe from Ships, Droids, Aliens, Various Gang Organizations and fantastic campaign settings – you had the first roleplaying game that made me feel compelled to obtain every single book released. It’s a feat that I have never repeated and I still hold that run up as one of the finest games I’ve ever played. It also made me extremely well versed with the generic d20 system, which is where the “cheat” comes in. Since every system based on the d20 rules, there was a simple thru line that allowed GM/DMs to quickly expand their repertoire. From Star Wars, I moved into d20 Modern and Future, which took the basic system and gave you fantastic generic settings that could be used for anything. When it came time to play in the fantasy realm…well that’s why you had D&D. Without knowing it, I had mastered almost everything I needed to know about D&D 3.5 without ever touching a book. At the behest of a friend, I sat back down to play a game I wasn’t a fan of, but it was like putting on a favorite shirt. I knew the game. I felt at home. While the magic system was different and I wasn’t as familiar with the monsters as others, it was a fun time.

It’s why Star Wars The Revised Core Rules gets the #2 spot. Without that game, I would have never rediscovered D&D – and that would have been a travesty.

1) Mage: The Ascension

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 I wax intellectual about a lot of games but none of them hold a candle to Mage: The Ascension. The third book in White Wolf’s “World Of Darkness” series of games Mage was a unique experience, putting you in the drivers seat of a magic user that can’t use magic. Let me explain. The core conceit of the game is that reality is simply the willpower of the many creating the world as we know it. This is because every human born has the innate spark of creation, but it lies dormant. Regardless of the dormancy, that spark lends itself to the greater whole, like threads in a tapestry. Mages are people with awakened sparks called “Avatars”. These avatars allow a Mage to see the world as it really is, a complex weave of beliefs that can be unraveled if one is careful. The downside is, if a Mage does this publicly, the unconscious minds of those around the Mage will instinctively lash out to set reality back to “normal”. This is known as paradox.

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So in the Dark Ages people believed in magic, demons and monsters, so these things existed. As time went on though, a group of mages known as the Technocracy wanted to make their brand of magic “technology” the controlling factor in the world. Over centuries they schemed and maneuvered humanity into believing in science and technology over magic and superstition. Guess what? It worked. The world is now locked into the Technocracies vision of the future, but it’s killing the world. The stranglehold of creation is so dire that the planet itself is beginning to crumble under the weight. As a Mage, you fight for Ascension – or the return of magic back into the public consensus. It was a wild idea that challenged players to think on their feet. One couldn’t simply cast a fireball, they had to make up a plausible excuse as to why a giant plume of fire might erupt from the ground : possibly a broken gas main? If the cast their spell properly, the magic would go unnoticed as a supernatural act and simply be chalked up as a freak accident. If they failed the roll though, the spell may fizzle – or the mage in question might actually cast fire from their fingertips. The resulting paradox would usually end up trying to resolve itself by destroying the magic user by literally removing them from reality as if they never existed.

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Or to use an other example: imagine you had the powers of Neo in the Matrix, but you had to be very careful to make everything you something that would not alert the Agents. Same thing here. Hell, when the Matrix first came out – my players bombarded me with phone calls because “that was Mage!” After playing for five years every weekend, we had a clear vision of what Mage was and wasn’t. I confess, the Matrix is a lot closer to how we played than I care to admit. I dunno if it’s a weird coincidence or if we were just tapping into the same creative stream as the Wachowskis. Regardless it was a blast.

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Because the magic system itself was one giant improv show, entire games would be created because of a bad spell or weird after effect of some mission. It was by it’s very nature a game I could not plan, except for the most broad of strokes, and we loved it. Mage (really all of the White Wolf games) taught me that the best roleplaying experience you will ever have is when you stop leading a game and become an active participant in the story. From the basic White Wolf system, I was able to have grand vampiric battles spanning centuries and werewolf hunts in the darkest forests of the Umbra. Mages fought for the control of creation as the Fae waged a cold war against the Unseelie tribes wishing to sew chaos. Undead spirits and Gargoyles littered the sky as the undead walked and every time we sat down I had no clue what was going to happen next.

White Wolf didn’t teach me to be a good Game Master or Storyteller, it taught me how to be a good improv artist – and that made all the difference in every other game system I have ever played.

Ampersand on White

When Players Collide

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Welcome back everybody! I was out of town for the last week and this was a big topic I wanted to handle properly. When Tavernmeet started a few weeks ago, I asked for topics you would like for me to cover. The number one request, by far, was how to resolve player conflicts. We’ve all been there, two (or more) people in a group have an issue which begins to impact the fun had at the game table. Typically, those not involved with the situation look to the DM as their mediator because, let’s face it, that’s kind of what the job entails. DMs resolve conflicts at the table. Usually that means deciding if a character successfully leaps a chasm, kills an orc, or casts a spell; but because of the mediator-like nature of your position it usually means you have to take on the role of pseudo-parent for your group.

Now let’s be honest: sometimes that’s an unfair expectation. In casual social situations if a conflict arises, mutual friends either step in or disengage to allow those involved to resole the problem. It’s a rare occurrence that a group looks to one individual for answers. In some cases it’s perfectly acceptable to ask a DM advice about game rulings but when the problem is about conflicting personalities…it gets trickier. One thing that players tend to forget is that the DM is there to have fun too. They are not there to be the parent, nor should they. This is about everybody having a good time – everybody. So weigh each problem individually, if its best handled at the table, then do so. If a situation is best handled after the game, in private, then seriously consider tabling the problem until you can resolve it.

Full disclosure: as a DM of 25 years (and going) I have had my fair share of both successful and unsuccessful mediations. I’m going to share some stories of player conflict but I’d like for you to keep in mind that there is no magic bullet and your best weapon is to involve all parties equally.

That said, it’s usually a good idea of trying to take stock of what kind of players might be at your table and how best to deal with them in general. Of course, these are merely suggestions and not unbreakable rules. If anything, consider the advice below a list of “best practices” that can be used (or changed) case by case.

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The Munchkin (or Power Gamer) – This player wants to make the best PC they can. But the very definition a Munchkin is someone who wants to find loopholes in the rules to make the “ultimate badass” because for them, finding a way to outsmart the system and the DM (aka “The Enemy”) is tantamount to “winning”. Of course this goes counter to most RPGs as there is no winner or loser, simply a conjoined storyteller experience. Munchkins are also very serious about their gaming and refuse to allow anything to get in their way of conquest. Typical Player problems are usually confrontational attitudes, displeasure at tardiness, too much banter and house rules that try to level the playing field when they “win” by breaking the system. Fortunately Munchkins usually have more issues with their DM than with other players but it can happen. Allow a Munchkin to get something really special and shiny from time to time to keep them happy and usually it’s smooth sailing.

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The War Machine – This player is all about combat; the more, the better. For them, a game is about letting of steam. Drama, plot and mysteries are all ancillary to the War Machine’s goal: wholesale slaughter. Unlike the Munchkin, the War Machine is a bit more flexible when it comes to house rules so long as its consistent. This type of player is agreeable to plot driven devices and character mysteries, so long as they lead to a battle. If you give the War Machine at least one really juicy combat conundrum each session, there will be very few problems overall.

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The General (or Tactician) – Every problem has a solution, you just have to find it. Generals want to be challenged intellectually. This usually translates to interesting death traps or monsters but it can also extend to moving massive armies over long distances or surviving “no win scenarios” like the Kobayashi Maru or Helms Deep. But, since they are so focused on tactics, the General  can come into conflict when a Player chooses something that is thematically appropriate for their character but a huge mistake for a team’s battle plan. If you know a conflict of this nature may arise in a session, make sure to the give the General a real intellectual conundrum. The mental challenge will usually offset any type of annoyance that may arise out of a roleplaying decision.

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The Archetype – This player favors a certain type of character and will play them in every campaign and every setting, such as a Drow Ranger that has joined the forces of light. Sometimes this Archetype is as simple as a thief, ninja, or wizard. In other instances these choices can be more flavorful such as a character who wants to be a mischief maker or soldier of fortune. These players are usually happy to play in any system and with most other players, so long as they get a chance to remind everyone why their Archetype is so cool. Conflict may arise when the Archetype feels that their special skill set is overlooked or if another player is getting too much face time. To keep this player type happy, give them scenes that showcase the usefulness of their character. They don’t have to be large scenes or even impactful to the plot overall but this player needs to feel that their choice is cool and wants others to know it as well.

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The Thespian – This player favors character motivations above all other concerns. Rules are fine, but the choice of the player is tantamount. The Thespian usually has an in depth background for the character they play as well as notes involving personal tragedies and triumphs. The Thespian has no problem with rules, but can see them as breaking the fourth wall when they interfere with Player choice. Conflict with this player usually comes from other members of the group making decisions because of a game mechanic or player knowledge when the character would have no idea what is going on. On the upside, the Thespian is most happy when they don’t have to touch their dice. Give the player chances to make a difference through a “roleplaying” moment versus a chuck of the dice and you wont have any problems.

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The Casual Player (The Dude Abides) – This gamer is the type to just sit back and enjoy the social aspects of the gaming group. While they enjoy the game sessions and even the rules, the Casual Player is pretty low key and is happy to just “hang”. The irony is, Casual Players make up a good portion of groups. They fill out necessary roles and can help keep the more aggressive personalities at the table from exploding at one another. The Casual Player can also annoy a group as they are just as likely to play on their cell phones, tablets and computers rather than pay attention to the game. When these conflicts arise, the best solution is to ask the Casual Player to please focus on the game as they are disrupting the group. The funny part is, the Casual Player doesn’t want to be nuisance, so usually they will curtail the habit for the rest of the game. A word to the wise though. If you have casual players that are not annoying the group, let them play however you want. If that’s how they chose to game and have fun, let them.

Once you have a handle on the types of players you might expect at your table, you can usually keep most issues at bay. That said, this doesn’t always work. So my solution is to have a simple set of rules all players agree upon before joining the group. I have been able to keep player conflicts to a minimum using these rules. They serve me fairly well but please, forgive the legal speak.

1) Players may argue in the game so long as it’s relevant to the story/scene at hand. The DM reserves the right to curtail the argument if it becomes circular.

2) The DM is the final word on rule conflicts. Once Players have made their case, the DM will issue a rule on the spot to ensure the flow of the game.

3) If a Player feels the ruling is wrong, they are encouraged to discuss it with the DM after the current session.

4) If a Player continues to argue, the DM reserves the right to ask the Player(s) to leave for the remainder of the session until the problem can be resolved to both parties satisfaction.

5) If Player conflict occurs at the table but is not game related, the Players involved are encouraged to “pause” the argument until the end of the session.

6) If Players are unable to “pause”, the DM reserves the right to ask the Player(s) to leave if necessary.

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Believe it or not, some gaming groups do not have a rule set like this in place. In fact, I’ve been at sessions where the Players are encouraged to argue with each other and challenge the DMs rulings constantly. If this sounds like your group, obviously these rules can’t really apply. In that instance, my only suggestion is to try to avoid physical conflict, or at the very least have a first aid kit handy. For most though, an agreed upon set of rules like this will help negate a majority of problems allowing for smoother game play.

For instance, years back I had this friend Richard, who would fly off the handle at pretty odd moments. It wasn’t that he was a particularly angry fellow, he just bottled stuff up. When he had reached his limit, he’d become a fairly unpleasant person to be around for 15-30 minutes until it was worked out of his system. When Richard decided to join our group he said if he ever started to act up, just take him to the side and talk about it. I agreed. Over the next few years he was a welcome addition to our table. Some days he’d reach his limit, so I would take him to the side and 9 times out of 10, the thing that was bothering him wasn’t even at the table, it was something in life that just ruined his mood. I’d let him vent for a few, we’d bro hug it out, and go back to the table. No problem.

But that’s not always the case though. In fact, one of the few times I got to be a player, I remember this guy – Dillon. Dillon was an old school D&D player. He had cut his teeth with the original thin books back in the 70s and had been a rabid fan since. When I first met the guy, he was nice and cordial, but as we began playing together you could see that he was not feeling our group’s vibe. We were having a fun time blasting through monsters, playing a political intrigue, and Dillon was bored. So to get over his boredom, he wanted to mix it up and make a mess of things just to get a rise out players. Instead of talking to the DM saying this wasn’t his bag, he decided that if he wasn’t going to have fun that day, no one was.

He proceeded to bait players into debates on politics, religion, war and anything else he could think of, using the game as a platform to get things off his chest. What was a debate about Dwarves versus Elves would quickly devolve into a treatise about Nazis and Communists or why churches should be outlawed. Now to be fair given the proper setting, I believe a lot of the players would have been interested in discussing these topics, but not when you’re just trying to hang out with your friends. I remember our DM was flustered but he was too damn polite to stop the argument until it was too late. By the time he stepped in, the session was ruined and we packed it up. After a few sessions like that, Dillion was politely asked to leave the group. To this day I give our DM credit for Buddha levels of patience, but I would have drop kicked the man to the curb far earlier.

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And there’s the rub. Most people that we game with aren’t random, they’re our friends. In a lot of cases, game day is the only time we get to see these friends so when we have to ask one of them to leave the group, it’s tantamount to ending a friendship. It’s hard and no one wants to do that, which is why we have situations like Dillion. We all liked him, but the rants that would start as soon as he hit the door. This made him someone we didn’t want to share our free time with. It’s sucks, and what’s worse is that as the DM, you’re usually the one who has to do the ejecting. Since players are usually friends (or at the very least good acquaintances) there’s usually a better than solid chance that most problems can be resolved without having to remove anyone from the group. But in those rare instances, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. A toxic player can dissolve a group faster than a slow storyline.

In fact most of the time player conflicts, once resolved, can lead to some hilarious stories. One of the oldest truths in gaming is that decisions made for a character during a session does not reflect a player’s feelings in real life, which makes sense. Players are acting out a role. I’ve seen best friends curse each other out mercilessly for hours on end and then get dinner and laugh about the hilarity of their in-game rivalry. That’s the whole point of a roleplaying game, to be someone you’re not in day to day life.

Sometimes though…real life and in-game conflicts can overlap in weird and dangerous ways. In my last post “Warning: Improvisation A Must“, I talked about one of my beach trips and how my players had completely gone “off book” by descending into a chasm I had not planned on them exploring. I had also mentioned that it became one of my favorite experiences as a game master because of how it all played out. The irony was, it was born from player conflict.

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The original goal of the story was to show the players just how evil this force was and how dangerous it was to let him roam unchecked. The plot I had laid out had the villain trying to seduce a player into pulling an Anakin Skywalker but ultimately fail as the group destroyed him. So when they went down the hole I had to figure out how to adapt all these scenes in large public places into a lonely isolated underworld. So I went with it. I decided that this bad guy would still approach the players and try to corrupt them. After days of traveling in a labyrinth of caverns, fighting monsters and becoming agitated at their lack of progress the players would encounter the villain in their dreams. There he explained that he had a plan. This plan would change the world, reshaping it into a utopia (a fascist utopia, but still), the downside was that untold millions would die in the process and that he would destroy anyone who tried to stop him. So he offered each player a way out. Simply join his side and he would grant them immeasurable power and they would become his champions. The power exchange would only work if the allegiance was true (insert one magical McGuffin here so they couldn’t lie about it) but if their intent to join him was true, the rewards would be grand.

Reminder: I had originally meant for this to happen after the players had seen the result of his world reshaping. Whole cities would have been destroyed and people turned into stone, used like giant bricks to make a wall of tormented humans to mark the edge of his realm. Real creepy “Tales from the Darkside” kind of stuff. Unfortunately they didn’t have that scene. All they had were dwindling supplies and some catty infighting that made them all a little tense. So of course half the damn party agreed to become evil.

I should have seen it coming.

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Regardless, they made their choice, vocally for the entire gaming group to hear, they were committed. They had made their Faustian deal and had gained a lot of really cool powers as a result. This immediately pissed off the other players (heretofore each side will be referred to as “Good Players” and “Evil Players”). They knew their friends had switched sides but the characters had not. It was barely one third of the way through the game and they had to sit on the biggest revelation in the history of the group. And it was hilarious. Suddenly the room shifted. Players changed sides in the room and body language changed. They were all still on the same mission, but now there were two very different goals. During the remainder of that session the players became more and more antagonistic to each other, making up jokes and talking some serious smack but it never got out of hand. At the end of the day I did a quick barometer check: was everyone ok, anyone upset? To my surprise, they were all bubbling with excitement. They loved it! Yeah, the Good Players were pissed they were underpowered but they thought the corruption twist was so cool they couldn’t wait for the next night.

Something had changed though. I could see it. As I sat in my bed pouring over my notes for the next night’s game, I could sense something had shifted. The next day, it became obvious, Good Players were hanging out with their own and Evil Players were keeping amongst themselves. We were a house divided. As the next few days went on the players actions towards one another continued to escalate but it was clear they were loving this verisimilitude of the game affecting the real world. When we would go out to dinner, the nine of us would split the table down the middle: good vs evil, with me at the head. It. Was. Surreal. As the game went on, the Evil Players were revealed and I had to literally host concurrent sessions. Each side would get an hour of playing and then kick back and rock the Playstation while the opposing team would role-play for an hour.

(Aside: I thought it was really cool that the players would have continued gaming rather than spend an hour on the Playstation. Our story was more engrossing than technology! That’s amazing.)

Finally, on the last night of the game the players were ready for a showdown. Insults were made, honors besmirched, and it was time to let out all this anger in one giant session. It’s here I realized that all that player conflict that had been building up for nearly a week was on purpose. Everyone knew I was going to pit them against one another eventually, who wouldn’t? They just wanted to make sure that when the game was done, their palettes had been cleansed, so to speak.

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It was a bloodbath. Players went after each other with reckless abandon pummeling the opposition. My inner DM always felt bad for Robert, the guy playing the monk. This guy (Team Good) had been able to play a pacifist the entire game without having to resort to violence and had hoped to bring the others back to the side of light. The opposition, Kev, decided to make a sneak attack, rolling a critical and dealing a ton of damage with his demonic blade. Robert’s character was cut in half 10 minutes in to the session. The guy was heartbroken and speechless. He then watched as his comrades sliced each other from limb to limb into pieces of quivering bloody sushi (you’re welcome Running Man fans). Over the next few hours a battle of epic proportions took place that spanned the skies, the earth and everywhere in between. In the end, only one player was left standing, and that was because of a lucky roll that allowed him to save against poison. In the end…the villain was delayed but got away to torment another day and my players had done what I think most friends want to at one time or another: beat the living crap out of their buddies without any real repercussions.

Every grudge, every insult, every unspoken slight during a lifetime of friendship had been washed away. It was as if someone hit the reset button on their petty animosities and, for a while at least, everyone was great. That summer was one of the best of my life because no one had any anger left in them. My closest group of friends were whole because they left it all there at the beach, brutalized and bloody – and not a single punch was ever thrown (in real life).

And that’s the beauty of it. Player conflicts can suck. They can absolutely tear down friendships and destroy relationships if not checked, but if everyone is on the same page – sometimes, just sometimes, you can actually do something amazing with it.

Ampersand on White

Warning: Improvisation A Must

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“You come to a large fork in the old road and see a large ominous castle on the left trail, it’s shadows spilling over the countryside foretelling danger and doom. The trail to the right feels less oppressive, revealing a dim but definite ray of light, which way do you go?”

The old forked road. It’s a tried and true concept, and when I heard this described to me by first D&D group (the aforementioned “Lance”) I immediately knew which way my adventurer would go: right. To walk headlong into a dark ominous castle felt like suicide and I wanted to see what would happen if I went the way of slightly fuzzy feels and happy thoughts. Unfortunately my DM had other plans. “You can’t go right,” he told me in no uncertain terms. Thinking I had a choice, I asked why not. “Because that’s not the way you’re meant to go. The castle is the danger, and its where the adventure is,” he snarked trying his best to condescend to the kid in the room while the rest of the group wanted to get on with the killing.

“If the danger is to the left then I definitely want to go right…” I trailed off as the group collectively rolled their eyes at me. Taking a big sigh, Lance agreed and said “As you walk down the road, you see the Castle in front of you. The ray of light has been replaced by this dark visage. If you turn around, the visage lies behind you. You cannot avoid the castle…you’re in it’s grasp.”

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This was my introduction to a concept we call the “railroad plot”. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s when a DM, Game Master, or Storyteller tries to offer the illusion of choice when they really just want you to take the obvious story hook. The problem is though that most players know tropes, they know cliches or they just flat out want to try something different. When this desire to try something different comes into contact with a plot that the DM only wants to play out in one specific we way, we have a railroad. It’s an uncomfortable situation. The player wants to feel like they are affecting the world and their choices matter. The DM wants to create a story that they can anticipate and try to plan for, working on intricate maps and hazards to create a fully realized world. When a player goes “off book” the DM can go into a panic. They didn’t prepare for this. How can they complete this session?

In a word: Improvise.

 

When Lance took that choice away from 11 year old Shaun, he also took away part of the fun that is roleplaying: improvisation. For players, a role-playing game is essentially a giant study in improvisation. They have no idea what the story may hold or how those events may unfurl. All they get is their character sheet and a chance to see where their choices take them. It’s old hat. From day one the players are flying by the seat of their pants whereas the DM can spend hours or even days preparing plots. Hence: the railroad. It really pisses players off when you take choice away from them and it certainly pissed me off when it happened in the game, but it taught me a very important lesson: the players want to feel like they matter. Period. End of story. As a DM though we have to find a compromise between planning a fun game session and being flexible enough to take whatever the players throw at us.

For instance, in my early college days I had this tradition where I would take a bunch of friends down to the beach for a week. There we would sleep all day, go out for a few hours in the evening and finally settle in for an all night game session that would last until the early hours of the next morning before heading to bed. Rinse, repeat. During one of these session, my players were tracking down an evil force that was going to do bad things to people if they didn’t stop it. They had tracked this being to a city that was on the far side of the “lightning sea,” a desert that was so inhospitable that there were near constant dry thunderstorms. The result was they could not traverse the sea without a vehicle that could get across it’s exapnse in a matter of hours, not days.

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To drive home the point that they were on the right trail and that getting this vehicle was the smart move I had a giant hydra erupt from the ground, laying in wait for anyone that was trying to follow it’s master. They fought the beastie and it retreated back into the ground leaving a massive sinkhole right at the edge of the lightning sea. Nudging them to go to town, I ask what they wanted to do next.

“How big is the hole,” one of the players asked. I said it was approximately 30 feet in diameter and it was deep, really deep. “How deep,” they quickly inquired. I thought about it for a moment, thinking that an appropriately deep hole would scare them off. “100 feet,” I blurted out, “the raw evil energy is pouring from the open wound in the earth, warning you off.” This was my mistake. I had forgotten what my players had in their inventory and had given them too much concrete information. They had rope that was easily 200 feet in length. So instead of choosing to go get the skiff needed to go across the lightning sea in a day, the players elected to go into the hole and follow the Hydra back to it’s master.

So, I had a choice. I could let the players wander the depths of this tunnel, created by the Hydra or I could railroad them into going to town. So…down the hole they went. That single event transformed the entire concept of my game. It went from a straightforward swashbuckling adventure to an oppressive, claustrophobic dungeon crawl that eventually pitted the players against one another from paranoia and Faustian deals. None of which would have happened if I had stayed so close to my original notes. Don’t get me wrong. I panicked. I freaked. I asked for a dinner break after that huge revelation and spent a lot of time in my head as we all enjoyed dinner at some random place. The point was, I let the players affect the world.

After the story was finished and we all packed up to go home, one of them asked “How much of that did you plan out?” When I told them I nearly ad libbed the whole thing because of that choice, they balked. No way. It’s become infamous in our circle now and many of my players take great delight in messing with me just to see what can happen. Despite all this, it’s a wonderful collaborative experience. So, for the first time ever; here are my tips on how to create the most flexible game you possibly can.

Warning: Improvisation A Must

1) When plotting your story, don’t get hung up on the “how”. Instead, write down on a piece of paper (or on your computer) specific scenes you want to have during your session. For instance: players enter a ghost town, players discover remains of a battle and then have to fight a patrol of goblins, players discover goblins have stolen gnome designs for a weapon and have kidnapped all the townsfolk to help build it, players discover where townfolk are held, players liberate townfolk after killing the rest of goblins and possibly the weapon/war machine.

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That’s it. Notice that the entire story can be summed up in a paragraph. The broad strokes are there, but there’s nothing to tie you down to a specific route. That’s where 2 comes into play.

2) Create NPCs that can give out vital information and make a quick sketch of the town.

By “sketch”, I mean what are some of the main landmarks? What are places of interest? I don’t want details, just a few names and maybe one or two traits that make this location unique from someone’s home. The NPCs can be just as generic. A name, one or two traits that define them, and any info they might have. If you want to take the time to connect them to a specific location, fine, but don’t get tied to it. Allow the players a chance to discover these situations on their own.

3) Create any other locales you need for your story.

This one is a bit tougher. As we talked about before, if the players take the bait and follow your story outline: great. Simply use the maps, traps and hazards as planned. But if not…

4) Create some crazy ideas.

When I say “crazy ideas” just come up with a few locations and weird environmental quirks (like the dangers of the Fire Swamp in the Princess Bride). These may never be used, which means they can roll over to the next adventure. The idea is to have a few of these nifty suckers tucked away when the players do something unexpected. If you didn’t anticipate they might go into the woods and then the leap into the forest, spring a woodland location. In the case of my beach game example, I simply took the part of the adventure that was to take place in a castle on the side of a mountain and placed it inside this labyrinth of tunnels. With some tweaking, it worked out great. The point is, always have some crazy ideas. If you have a few ready, you’ll seem like you planned out that player’s choice instead of scrambling to figure out what the heck is going on.

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5) Make cool monsters.

This is the same advice you’d get in the Random Encounters pages of your local Dungeon Master’s Guide. Come up with a cool list of interesting monsters and motivations. Then just stick them in when you feel you need to spring an encounter on them.

6) Don’t be afraid to railroad

This seems like a contradiction at first, but it’s not.  Sometimes, your players aren’t gonna bite. No matter how juicy you make a plot point they are going to want to do something else. In those cases, find a way to get them back on track. In the “Goblin Example”, if the players elected to skip the town for fear of what may be lurking in the shadows, have a prototype of the weapon stop them from leaving. Have goblins chase after them and corral them to the location where the war machine is being made. Just because they don’t want to explore the plot doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to make them trip over it. All it takes is one good combat encounter or a strange event to trigger their curiosity. Once you have that… it’s time to take off.

7) Your Player’s ideas matter more

This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. Your players are the heroes of the story. They have to feel the burden and success of their choices. If they come up with a STUPID idea, let them go for it. If it succeeds, it becomes a tale they bring up time and time again. If it fails, you get to take perverse delight in reminding them they had a perfectly viable option as the monsters are eating their eyes. The point is, players will surprise you. They will test your flexibility. But if you just say yes…amazing things will happen.

So that’s it for this installment. Next time we’re going to get into what happens when players turn against one another and how to settle some internal conflicts. In the meantime, if you have something you’d like to read about, comment below and I’ll tackle it!

Ampersand on White

Musical Interludes

I’m a big believer in theme music. I’m not talking about a song that describes a session or storyline, I mean music that pervades every moment of the roleplaying experience. In my previous post, I talked a little bit about how much the Storyteller System shaped my beliefs about how to run a great campaign with players. One of their suggestions was to have a readily available selection of music to play at appropriate moments. When a scene became super scary, play something dark and ominous. When a moment becomes playful and silly, play a piece that is lighthearted and snappy. The goal is immersion.

It’s not an easy technique and can be a headache if a very recognizable piece of music plays when it’s not supposed to, but the potential gains are huge. When I first adopted this back in the 90s, I was relegated to a cd player boom box and custom made disks that had themes. “Scary” for the jump moments, “Action” for the fight scenes” and so on and so forth. It was a fun experiment, as my players eyes would light up at the sound of a song that would indicate battle or a potential mystery.

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Of course, with the advent of iPods and other music media devices, queueing the appropriate song is a simple matter of finding it on a playlist. This ease of inclusion gave DMs fantastic opportunities to spread their wings creatively when shaping scenes, allowing music to help convey intricate emotional moments or that of tremendous strife.

As most players know, combat can be a grind. Even in great game sessions, the wait for your turn can sometimes be monotonous. As a DM, my goal is to keep combat fun and exciting. A lot of suggestions point towards unique environments or nifty set pieces, but when epic battles take place you can still expect an hour to be focused on a single combat encounter. To help alleviate that, I use playlists featuring upbeat music that fits the tone of the combat. Once I started to tinker with these massive playlists that would feature hundred of songs playing randomly, there was a unique opportunity to give the players more than atmosphere but an actual reason to pay attention to the background noise: theme songs.

I had originally heard about this when first exploring the idea of DMing a 4th edition game and I thought it was a really great concept. Inserted into your combat playlists would be Character Themes Songs. When the song, selected by the player, came on in the playlist a special set of rules would become active. While the song played, it would give the player extra abilities to tear through the opposition. Of course, this meant that the players became a little overpowered during their theme song, but who cares? Its a dramatic moment that allows the PC to do something amazing and memorable. Now, as we begin our move into Fifth Edition D&D, I have adapted the rules to reflect the current system. Below are a few suggestions on how to use Theme Music in your game and at the bottom are the optional rules I have implemented for our game. Feel free to incorporate them as you like.

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Theme Song (Suggestions – 5th Edition)

  • For the duration of a player’s theme song, the player automatically has advantage. She ignores any disadvantages levied against her. When the song ends the player loses both Advantage and Disadvantage.
    • Example: Liliana’s theme song activates advantage. She currently is suffering from disadvantage from a Manticore, instead of nullifying both of these traits, the disadvantage is ignored and Lilliana may use the standard Advantage rules.
  • For the duration of a player’s theme song, the player has an expanded critical range of +1. This expanded crit range lasts until the end of the theme song.
    • Example: Liliana’s theme song activates her expanded crit. She can normally make a critical attack on a 20, while the song is active she can now make a critical attack on 19 or 20. Standard rules for critical attacks apply.
  • When a player’s theme song begins, the player automatically gets a new turn regardless of where they are in the current initiative order. This does not permanently move the player to a new spot in the initiative, but simply allows them an extra bonus turn.
    • Example: Liliana is fighting the Manticore when Taloth’s theme songs begins. Taloth can begin a new turn immediately after Liliana finishes her current turn.
  • When a player’s theme song begins, the player automatically gains a bonus action for their next turn, this bonus can only be used to make an additional attack. The player may chose to use this bonus action as a bonus reaction instead (allowing for 2 reactions instead of the stand 1). This bonus action only lasts until that end of the players next turn.
    • Example: Liliana’s theme song plays during Taloth’s turn, she gains a bonus action. She elects to hold onto that action for her turn. When it arrived she uses it to make an extra attack on the Manticore. If she had elected to hold onto the bonus action, it would only last until the end of her turn. At that point the bonus would have been spent regardless if she actually took it.

Player Theme Song (Option Rule – 5th Edition)

  • When a player’s theme song begins, the player automatically gets a new turn regardless of where they are in the current initiative order. This does not permanently move the player to a new spot in the initiative, but simply allows them an extra bonus turn. For the duration of a player’s theme song, the player automatically has advantage as well as an expanded critical range of + 1. She ignores any disadvantages levied against her.  When the song ends, the player loses any Advantages or Disadvantages in play as well as her expanded crit range.
    • Example: Taloth is fighting the Manticore when Liliana’s them song begins to play. Liliana begins a new turn immediately after Taloth finishes his current turn. For the duration of the theme song Liliana has an expanded crit allowing her to roll a 19 or 20 for critical strikes as well as advantage, which allows her to roll two dice and take the higher of the two numbers. When the song ends, the expanded crit and advantages/disadvantages resolve and combat continues as normal.

DM Theme Song (Option Rule – 5th Edition)

  • For the duration of the Dungeon Master’s them song, all players are assumed to have disadvantage, this effect cannot be negated and nullifies any current advantages in play. Players are also unable to make opportunity attacks or bonus actions for the duration of the song. Monsters that the DM controls gain an expanded critical range of +1.
    • Example: The DM’s theme song turns on, negating Lilana’s current advantage and causes her to lose her bonus action as a Thief. The Manticore now has advantage and a critical range of 19-20 until the end of the DM’s theme song.

Of course, the frequency of when a character’s theme song plays is strictly up to you as a DM. I personally try to have at least 3 songs play for every hour of combat. Typically this means that a playlist around 6 hours long should include each player’s theme 3 times. These numbers are not exact and I suggest you randomize your playlist, skipping through the first 20 randomized songs a few times. If you pull 3 theme songs consistently, then you’re right on target. Adjust the frequency of the songs as you feel is needed for good play flow. For the DM’s theme song, I only include it once a playlist. This means the chance of the song playing becomes very small, but the looks of dread when they hear your special chosen song makes it all the more worth it.

fr cover 1980 1196x1600Since music is such an integral part of our gaming experiences there is always the question of what is considered “appropriate music” for a certain situation. Obviously the type of game you’re playing will influence your playlists a lot. For instance if you’re playing a sci-fi action RPG, I suggest more mechanical, trance, and rave music. The random beats and fast tempo will give you that ‘sci-fi’ feel we get so often in our movies. If you’re playing something in the Star Wars oeuvre, I suggest going a bit more classical. It’s not a bad idea to invest in the Star Wars soundtracks. Between both trilogies, the new movies, Clone Wars and a bevy of inspired songs – you should be able to keep your game full of appropriate encounter music. But we’re talking Dungeons and Dragons aren’t we?

For my money, and most likely because I grew up in the 80s, nothing says Dungeons and Dragons to me more than Heavy Metal. Perhaps this is because rock music and metal was so infused with the mystic and supernatural during the 70s and 80s, maybe its because I watched the Heavy Metal movie too many times. So many fantasy movies of the time, which really defined the tropes we take for granted today included hard rock/metal musical scores – it just feels right. Clearly there are other options available as well, the most common would be Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” Soundtracks. These scores are chalk full of tracks that will inspire a high fantasy feel with a full piece orchestra steering the combat. For me though, the frenetic pace of a hard driving metal anthem will always get the job done better. The point is: experiment, see what you like, see what your players like, and build a playlist to match your musical tastes.

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Below are some songs we use in my  playlist that my current group love:


Iced Earth (Days of Purgatory) – This band has a great variety of music that incorporates choirs as well as wide range of influences. A lot of good stuff here.


 

Metallica (Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets) – Even though Metallica has become “too mainstream” you cannot deny the power of their early albums. Call of Ktulu is still a favorite in our group and many of the players throw horns when the heavy guitar rifts begin.


 

Avantasia (The Metal Opera Part 1 & 2) – One of my players brought these two albums to me when I asked for suggestions and I have to admit, this is a great band. The Metal Opera is a perfect microcosm of the metal 80s aesthetic infused with a fantastical edge. Highly suggest.


 

Lordi (The Arockalypse) – This is what happens when Gwar and D&D have a baby. It’s weird, and catchy, and perfect.


 

Tyr (By The Light of the Nothern Star) – A Faroese (Danish) Folk Metal Band named after one of the most famous gods in D&D? That sentence alone is so full of awesome, I’m in.


 

Powerglove (Metal Kombat for the Mortal Man) – Let’s face it, it was only a matter of time before someone made a metal band that covered video game music. Listen to all of your favorite video game theme songs in metal form; Super Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, it’s all here.


Delain (Lucidity) – This is a cool dutch symphonic metal band with a female lead vocalist that has some really great driving numbers. Definitely check it out if you wanna do something a little different.


 

Ampersand on White

My Edition Is Better Than Yours

Let’s just get this out of the way: No it’s not. In fact, when it comes right down to it, no system is fundamentally better than any other. I’ve played dozens of systems. Some I think are completely horrid and others I think are fantastic. But, regardless of what I think, there are still tons of people in the world who love or hate a system for their own reasons. Why? Because taste is personal. What you may love, another person may despise and so on and so forth. Which is why I’ve never understood the hatred for Fourth Edition D&D. I get that, on a fundamental level, it completely rewrote the book on D&D – So what?

When Wizards of the Coast moved onto Fourth Edition, it wasn’t as if it automatically invalidated every piece of Third Edition literature you own. In fact, WotC was so cool about Third Edition they licensed it out to Paizo to create Pathfinder, or as I like to call it: D&D 3.75. So now you had the best of both worlds. If you didn’t like current edition D&D just play a different version. You want new material for Third Edition? Grab some Pathfinder supplements! In theory, everyone should have been happy, but they weren’t. Instead of just voting with their dollar to support a system, which by the way, is a totally cool way of showing your love for a particular incarnation, some people went out of their way to insult and denigrate players who dared to say they liked Fourth Edition.

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The only reward you get out of such a hostile action is insulting and perhaps hurting the feelings of potential friends. On the flip side of that, this constant barrage of vitriol has driven some new gamers out of the hobby altogether as well as create a divide between editions. Why? What good does that do us a community? When did basic human decency go up for grabs? When did we make it ok to insult a person for simply liking something different? And why do you support those actions? Think about it. Why? Did their enjoyment somehow ruin your Third Edition fun? If so, please write me an email and explain this: cause I don’t get it.

For the record I have played every edition of Dungeons and Dragons up to Fifth Edition, which is set to start shortly (more on that in future posts). I have enjoyed parts of every version of D&D, though I admit, I love the core rules of D&D Third edition (aka the d20 system) because of its versatility in a wide variety of settings such as D20 Modern, Star Wars RPG, Farscape, Call of Cthulhu, Munchkin, Mutants and Masterminds and Judge Dredd. All of that said, I loved Fourth Edition for one major reason: it was easy to understand. This in turn meant I could recruit new players with ease. In fact, for me, I was able to recruit more brand new players for Fourth Edition D&D than I have been able to recruit for any other game system – ever. According to my math, Fourth Edition D&D provided me with nearly 45% more players than any other game I have ever played.maxresdefault

Here’s some simple numbers. In the 25 years I’ve been playing D&D and RPGs in general, I typically average a game of 4-6 players at any giving time. During our heyday, the Fourth Edition game was broaching upwards of 7-9 players with at least one or two people auditing to see if they wanted to jump in when a seat opened up. This led to the longest running continuous story I have ever had the privilege to DM. A D&D game that spanned nearly all 30 levels of play and over 20 different people joining/leaving the group during the past five years. It’s practically Final Fantasy 6 in scope! The ironic part is that during the years, many of the players would take me aside and tell me how much they dislike fourth edition, but they loved the story, how I handled the system and the camaraderie between the players. Which led me to put some serious thought towards edition hatred. Is it that the system is really bad, or did it simply challenge DMs to get more creative to overcome it’s faults?

In my last article, I wrote about my first time playing D&D and how that first group of players scared me off of the system for years, but not the idea of RPGs. After I picked up the NEW Easy To Master D&D, I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to take on the system presented in that slim volume. I needed something that was more my speed. So I sat down and pondered what my strengths were when it came to roleplaying games. My answer? Stories. I’m not talking about “let’s write a novel and play through it” kind of game, but more of the winging it on the fly and see what happens kind of stories. My strengths lay in ad libbing and making it up as I went along.

So I went to my local hobby store, the now defunct Boardwalk and Parkplace, to find a system that would play to these strengths. After talking to a few of the clerks there, I was directed to a brand new system by White Wolf Games that had just been released, appropriately named “The Storyteller System”. The first book in the series was called Vampire: The Masquerade. The game itself was about vampires walking amongst us in a modern setting. It threw out a lot of the old superstitions surrounding the masters of the night and instead made them more human, almost sympathetic characters. If you were a fan of Anne Rice in the 80s and 90s, you know what I’m talking about. In fact, the game was so influential it has become one of the stereotypes for how vampirism works as seen in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and True Blood.

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The system was a new take on role-playing that valued players describing their actions and acting out their characters thoughts versus depending on their dice. The entire system completely threw out the idea of THAC0 and saving throws. Instead it had a simple concept that relied exclusively on d10s and a “dice pool” which allowed you to roll more than one die at a time in order to succeed. Players were encouraged to get in the moment and were rewarded with bonuses to their dice rolls when the time came. As the book said many times over, “it’s about role-playing, not roll-playing.” I found this pun incredibly clever and quickly laid down my hard earned allowance money on the first edition of this book.

I was hooked. This system was exactly what I was looking for. It valued the creativity for just winging it versus more established systems like D&D which were slavishly beholden to the rules, and since it was brand new there weren’t rule lawyers waiting to pick clean how you misinterpreted the book. In fact, there was one Golden Rule in the Storyteller System that I still abide to this day: if there’s a  particular rule or mechanic you don’t like, change it. The rule also states that you’re the final authority on what is and is not allowed.  Which, so long as you and your players agree to upfront, weeds out  90% of all conflicts that normally plague a game. You have a new idea you want to introduce? Ask the players if they’re ok with it. If they agree: boom! The new rule is in. It’s phenomenally efficient.

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White Wolf promised us a new type of “monster” for the first five years: vampires, werewolves, mages, changelings and wraiths. By 1997 and the release of the final “core monster”, I was a battle worn GameMaster/Storyteller who had cut his teeth on a system that made you fly by the seat of your pants constantly. It was incredibly liberating and was something that allowed me to come into my own as a DM. I can’t tell you how many nights I would stay up at a friend’s house with only a bare idea for a game, a few buddies and a couple of dice. Those evenings would become legendary in our circle as we all leant our creativity to weaving a complex world we would revisit on the regular. It was a time that taught me if we just let go of what doesn’t work and focus on what does, we can create any type of story we can imagine.

Even now, nearly 15 years after I played my last White Wolf game, those lessons I learned play out in every session I preside. It taught me to look past flaws in a system and get to the core of what makes a game tick. Because of that, I have been able to adapt to almost every setting anyone’s ever proposed I play. It’s why, when I look at players who gripe about systems such as Fourth Edition, I have to wonder how often they stepped out of their comfort zone. How many times did they just “wing it” and try to play without focusing so much on mechanics? When did the roll-playing become more important than the role-playing?

For me and mine, it’s about the creativity and those “what the hell did we just do?” moments that happen when we stop thinking of our characters as a cluster of stats and instead start to see them as heroes in stories. So, when I hear that your favorite system is “better”, I just smile. No it’s not. You’re just doing it wrong. When you put the role-playing ahead of the roll-playing, you don’t care about the system. You just care about what happens next. So maybe, just maybe, you should give that a shot instead.

Ampersand on White

Let’s Meet At The Tavern: An Introduction

Why “Meet At The Tavern”? As the subtitle suggest, it’s a D&D tradition. Literally, thousands of DMs have started their tale in a Tavern where the adventurers meet for the first time before setting out to find their fortune and glory. In fact, this generic starting point has become so integral, so synonymous with D&D, that it’s become something of a satire; which is fine. Let me explain why.

Roleplaying Games are a joint experience, a shared universe, so to speak. As a Dungeon Master (Game Master, Storyteller, etc…), you create a world for others to play in. In essence you take on the roles of city planner, cartographer, antagonist and sidekick for your story. Unfortunately, without protagonists to populate your world, you’re simply running on auto pilot. The Player brings life to these ideas by becoming the hero (or villain) of the tale, changing the plots in new and unexpected ways, even creating tangents and threads that can be used at a later date.

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No matter how ‘generic’ you believe your world or it’s starting point to be, as soon as it comes into contact with your Players, the story becomes unique. Sure, your players may meet in a Tavern, but what happens next? Does the drunken fighter try to hit on the bartender or barmaid? Will the Thief pick the wrong pocket and get caught? Does a Cleric walk into the wrong room and discover an unexpected trade in the dark arts? Who knows? As soon as you open those doors, the narrative changes.

When I first started roleplaying, around age 11 or so, this was not a clear concept. The kids around me who were playing D&D were at that perfect “know it all” age (let’s call it puberty) and weren’t afraid to let everyone around them know it. In hindsight, for a first time D&D player, these were not the best of comrades. As the youngest of our group, I stayed quiet, not sure what was going on but absolutely fascinated as I saw metal miniatures scattered across the table with odd shaped dice and stacks of books that looked, to me, like ancient manuscripts. The room itself was a spare office in Lances’s house. As our DM we met there on days after class and weekends to hang out and sometimes, play D&D. As soon as we began my first session, Brian began hemming and hawing “We’re not going to start in a Tavern are we? That is so lame.” to which Lance stated that no, he was not going to start off in a Tavern.

Considering this was my first time playing I didn’t understand the aversion to starting in, what seemed to me, a very logical place. In my mind’s eye I could see my Elvish character drinking a stout beer while waiting to get called upon his first adventure. Never mind that I just finished Lord of the Rings a few months earlier and I thought this was going to lead to an awesome “Strider” moment, I wanted to begin in a Tavern! The response when I mentioned this…was less than kind.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, that to begin an adventure in a Tavern is lazy storytelling and great novelists can do better than become a a third rate Tolkien hack. This promptly shut me up and we began in some random forest fighting some random monster that I honestly cannot remember. What I do recall was the feeling of ridicule for speaking up and how small it made me feel. According to these guys who were a few years older than me (and by proxy more knowledgable in the world), Dungeons & Dragons was serious business and kid’s shouldn’t ask stupid questions.

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I only played for another session or two before that character was killed off by the most overpowered trap I have ever encountered. The moment was so grotesque as my character was charred alive, I remember Lance taking my character sheet and setting it on fire with a zippo he had in his pocket. There, in the metal trash can next to our gaming table, my precious elf was burning to death. It was then and there I realized these were not the guys I wanted to play with. So I hung up my dreams of slaughtering orcs and dragons whilst saving kingdoms from evil emperors and undead monstrosities.

A few years later, I remember running across an ad in a comic my dad had brought home that simply said “It’s Coming” in bold red and yellow text.  Behind these words a Giant Red Dragon charged it’s way towards the reader. Below this striking visual was a blurb that a new “easy-to-learn” D&D game would be released soon. I remember feeling a distinct moment of excitement: maybe I could try the game out on my own. If I read all the rules, I could DM a game without the teen angst and indignation. So, I ran down the hall to find my Dad and asked if I could have it for my Birthday which was still several months away. He looked at it, gave me a crossways glance and said “he’d think about it.”

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This was the kiss of death. There was no way, I was getting this game. In parent speak “I’ll think about it” is tantamount to “There is no way you’re getting what you asked for, but I don’t want to hear you whine right now, so this will shut you up.” The worst part of the statement was “the out” it afforded parents. If the child called the adults on this verbal maneuvering, the parent can simply say “well you’re definitely not getting one now,” and feel as if they fulfilled the “thinking about it,” they had promised. The only move a kid has in this situation was to shut their yap and hope that their parents will give them a fair shake.

So time passes and just weeks before my birthday I begin to see a new ad for this legendary “easy-to-learn” D&D: “It’s Here.” Sure enough, the back of every comic book on the rack had this ad. “It’s Here.” The Red Dragon was still hissing it’s way forward, but now completely overshadowed by the giant thunder lizard, was a small fighter holding his ground against the red menace. This had me giddy. Instead of hounding my father about the game, I would simply flip his stack of comic books over so the ad would face up. Yes, I realize I’m a half step away from Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”.

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Regardless, my birthday arrived. I remember anxiously opening my gifts and thanking everyone for the well wishes and presents. Near the end, my father pulls out this large box, shaped like a board game. I was thrown. Here he is, smiling, ear to ear waiting to see me open the present but…it’s a board game box. That’s not D&D…little did I know.

A few minutes later, I had torn off the packaging and there in front of me was the Red Wyrm that had plagued me over the last year. It was in my hand: The New Easy-To-Learn D&D. Here it was, the game I had wanted to play but was too afraid to try. I ripped into it and voraciously began to read the secrets inside. I will admit, the packaging had me thrown and even the contents inside, to a certain extent. There was, albeit subtly, a sensation that this version of D&D had a “goal”, kill the Dragons. I was unclear, but refused to let my trepidation slow me down. After reading and re-reading, I grabbed a few friends and started a brand new session. None of us had much experience so it was going to be an wild adventure for a bunch of newbies, which to be honest, was probably our best bet to have fun.

blogdungeonsdragonsgamefrontWe started in a Tavern, and began to weave stories of who we were and what we wanted to do, but none of us really took the role of DM. We all wanted to be characters. Since it was my game, I was the last word on rule decisions but mostly we just made stuff up as we went along.

Ten minutes in, I knew I was lost.

The rules seemed so complicated and we just wanted to beat the crap out of some stuff. So, I threw the rules out that I didn’t understand. Saving Throws? Prepared Spells? Screw that! We wanna throw down nine fireballs! Who cared if we weren’t playing the game “correctly”? We wanted to feel like all-powerful wizards and warriors laying waster to monsters in a dark dungeon and that’s exactly what we did. By the end of the day, I knew I was hooked. It took a while, but I figured out all the rules to D&D and went on to learn dozens of other systems. In each one, I’ve endeavored to find a way to play on a specific theme: you all start in a Tavern. It doesn’t always happen and sometimes I have to get creative about what constitutes a “Tavern”, but I’ve pursued ways to introduce that troupe into my stories, no matter what. And never, in all of my years of DMing games, has a player felt we didn’t have a good starting off point.

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Which brings us back to the original statement that pushed me away from those first players I sat with: “To begin an adventure in a Tavern is lazy storytelling and great novelists can do better than become a a third rate Tolkien hack.” I knew as soon as I heard it, this statement was false but it took me a long time to realize why this conceit was so off. Roleplayers are not novelists. Novelists control every aspect of a story without little outside input whereas a roleplaying game is nothing but outside input. This is an organic thing we are creating that changes with every roll of the dice and every new element introduced. This is group storytelling at it’s most primal level and no matter how you dress it up, the stories we tell in unison will always be more fulfilling and memorable than anything we read in a book.

So why not start in a tavern? We all know the scene, we all know what we want to have happen, but what about that person across from you? What is she thinking? Maybe she wants to kill the cook or maybe she’s looking for someone to help her delve into a dungeon? Who knows? All I know is we all start somewhere, so it may as well be…at a Tavern.

Ampersand on White