The Rat Hole for December 10

Heya, folks! Every Monday (almost) I post over at The Rat Hole, and so I thought I would link to those posts here so you don’t have bookmark two sites if you want to stay on top of my bullshit.

This week over at The Rat Hole I talk a little bit more about Everything is Dolphins, an indie game from the Eighties, and the scenario I worked up for our local TTRPG convention, IntrigueCon. I hope you like it! We’ll see you Wednesday for regular Renaissance Gamer shenanigans.

Recommended Viewing

YouTube continues to deliver a plethora of tabletop related videos this month. Experience Points finished up the second season of its titular series and teased a third season, then began delivering an excellent new series. Thanks to folks on Twitter I also discovered some new channels and shows in the last few weeks. Let’s take a look at some of what I’m watching right now.

Before we do, though, I want to say thank-you to local artist Tsukino Hikaru (@mystarseed) for my swell new Twitter and blog icon. It was time for an update to my still excellent old chibi icon, and I think this is the perfect replacement. If you’re interested in getting some art done for yourself, I highly recommend checking them out.

On with the show!

All Hail Yog – As mentioned, Experience Points wrapped its latest season with a heartwarming finale. Rather than have us stare into the void until the hoped for Season 3, they have delivered a new series aimed at the darkness in all of us. All Hail Yog is an actual play series focused on a group of evil characters carrying out the will of their patron, Yog. Set in the same campaign world featured in the Experience Points series, we follow four truly despicable villains as they work together to steal a newborn elven child, heir to the Wood Elf throne. The shows feature Timothy J. Meyer as the DM, with equal measures scenery chewing and subtle menace from the four players (Kate Enge as Agnoment, Heather Lore as Desdemonia Malice, Cody Bushee as Dr. Hughbert, and Paul Vonasek as Erick Idylvain) Why does Yog want the child? Can our, er, heroes worm their way into the Elven kingdom and steal the child? Will the Doctor’s Beloved get her deer ear? Find out in this interesting look at what the villains get up to while the heroes are away.

The Crafting Muse – I’m always on the look-out for new TRPG crafting inspiration, so when I received a recommendation for this channel I was intrigued. Having watched a number of videos now, I can honestly say The Crafting Muse is now in my top five crafting resources online! Her videos mix clear instructions, obvious skill, and interesting projects in an almost perfect blend. Every video I’ve watched so far has included something which would enhance my gaming table and impress my players. Alongside the usual table top terrain builds, you can also find videos on dice towers, dice bags, custom notebooks and more. Regardless of your skill level as a crafter you will find a broad range of projects you can jump into. The host, Vee, is a funny and charming instructor, and has worked to build a positive community around her channel. Besides YouTube, you can find The Crafting Muse on Facebook, and join in on Wednesday live streams to meet other crafters. All in all, a great channel and a great experience.

Be Bold Games – As much as I love watching board game actual plays, sometimes I just need a quick, easily digestible breakdown of a game. Be Bold Games delivers that for me, in a fun, earnest way that I find uplifting. Almost every video is under ten minutes, and many are under five, perfect for getting a snapshot of a board game. And every video is packed with her obvious enthusiasm for board games! From the costume and setting designs right down to the various themed presentations, Bebo’s love of the material shines through, and that is inspiring. Her game summaries are clear and concise, and just what I need to decide if a game is in my wheelhouse. I particularly love her focus on accessibility and inclusivity, two key lenses for anyone in games media. Besides excellent game summaries, you can also find product reviews and interviews with game designers and publishers. If you love board games I highly recommend this channel. You can do worse than to start your day with a coffee and a Be Bold Games video.

That’s three from me, but I want to hear from you! What are you watching right now that inspires you? Drop a comment below and share!

November RPG Blog Carnival: Worldbuilding

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is all about world building, something I’ve been doing a lot of for my two D&D 5e campaigns. I thought I’d share a little something from the primer I created for my players to help give them a sense of the world.

While I generally kept the mechanics of the various PHB races as written, I changed the backgrounds of almost all the races to better fit the events of my campaign world. I made two big changes right at the start. First, only some of the playable races are native to the campaign world (dragonborn, dwarves, halflings, humans, half-orcs, and tieflings) while the rest derive from the invader races (elves, dark elves, gnomes, half-elves). Second, I try to refer to them as “species” rather than “races”, as I later intend to make a distinction between a character’s species and culture when I flesh out the game world.

So below is my quickie primer on the species of my campaign world. I’ve stuck with the native species for this post, and I’ll talk about the invader species in a later post.

Intelligent Species Native to Cotterell

Dragonborn

Dragonborn are a race created by the Draconic Empires to fight in the Gate Wars. A dragonborn is created in one of two ways. The first involves an arcane process kept secret by the Empire, by which the dragonborn are gestated in an egg and hatch as almost fully-formed adults. This process involves the passing along of racial memories, so the “Eggborn” are able to mature very quickly into adult dragonborn. The second involves the arcane manipulation of an infant or very young child from another race, to change them into a dragonborn. In this case the “Created” must be raised as normal, as it is not possible to transfer racial memories during this process.

While it was not conceived that the race could or would ever breed true, to the surprise of the Draconic Empire that came to pass shortly after the Cataclysm. These naturally born offspring are still hatched from an egg, and racial memories do seemed to be passed along, though the infant must still be raised normally. However, maturity is still reach sooner than with a comparable human infant; puberty is reached by age 5 or 6, and such dragonborn are considered young adults by age 10-12.

Telling them apart from each other ranges in complexity. It is easy to tell a Created from the other two types of dragonborn; unlike the Eggborn and natural born, the Created have no tails. Telling the difference between naturally born and Eggborn can be more difficult, though not impossible. Generally the Eggborn are less socially well-adjusted than their natural born cousins. Racial memories do not include social interaction, so while they are not generally unfriendly, the Eggborn tend to be more socially awkward and bad at picking up on social cues. And of course, any dragonborn child encountered can safely be assumed to be a natural born, as long as it has a tail.

Dwarves

Even before the Gate Wars and the Cataclysm, Dwarves were divided into two distinct groups. Mountain Dwarves avoid contact with other races, remaining in their Great Halls (cities) under the mountains across Cotterell. Even when called to war, they fight in full suits of Dwarven steel armour which utilize full helms which they never remove except in private. Only on the rare occasion that another race is granted audience with a Dwarven ruler, is there the possibility of seeing a Mountain Dwarf’s face. It is uncertain whether this restriction is societal or religious, as no Dwarf will speak of it even if questioned.

Hill Dwarves, on the other hand, maintain contact with other lands through trade and commerce, and make-up what would be considered the diplomatic corps for the Dwarven peoples. They predominantly live in communities built near both Great Halls and other cities, the better to facilitate trade and diplomacy. Except under exceptional circumstances, if you see the smiling face of a dwarf outside of the Great Halls, you look upon a Hill Dwarf.

Halflings

Due to the Faewild Gate opening in the heart of their lands, and the subsequent Cataclysm laying waste to that same territory, halflings are a largely displaced population. Both agrarian and inventive by nature, the halflings were largely responsible for the innovations which allowed cities swollen with refugees and survivors after the Cataclysm to be able to eke out enough food to survive. They were among the first races to begin pushing out from the cities once it was deemed safe, reclaiming useable farmland a few feet at a time, if necessary. Eager to reclaim what was once theirs, halflings were also among the first races to fund and/or lead trade caravans (restoring overland contact between the Survivor Cities) as well as expeditions to explore further into the countryside.

Half-orc

Before the Cataclysm, carrying Orcish blood carried the same stigma that carrying Elven blood does today. While much history has been lost, however, it is still remembered that the Northern Orc City States rode to fight alongside Cotterell in the Gate Wars, and that they suffered losses just as great during the Cataclysm. So while Orcish ancestry may be considered odd and even undesirable to the rare few, there is no widespread prejudice against half-orcs. It should also be noted, the term “half-orc” is used to describe any person with obvious signs of orcish ancestry, regardless of how far back that ancestry entered the bloodline.

Tieflings

Tieflings are a comparatively young race, as they came about as a direct result of the magical contamination following the Cataclysm. Borrowed from the Fae, the word “tiefling” roughly translates as “spoiled” in the Common tongue. No one is quite sure how it happens, but a small portion of children born among all races come into the world bearing the mark of magical contamination. Some have odd hair or eye colours, while others may sprout horns, grow a tail, or manifest wings. Whatever the outward signs, that person will also manifest strange abilities and magical aptitudes.

As noted above, Tieflings can derive from any of the other species. While there may be mistrust and discrimination on a case by case basis, there is no widespread stigma to being a Tiefling. For many people, the existence of Tieflings is simply a daily reminder that the Elves still have much to answer for.

What do you do for races/species in your campaigns? And don’t forget to check out the other RPG Blog Carnival entries for this topic.

From the Campaign: Fae Trickery

I am always on the lookout for ways I can make magic seem more…well, magical, in my tabletop games. In most systems the use of magic seems very mechanical, and undercuts the mystery of using mystical power to shape reality. The Vancian systems of D&D are perhaps the best example of a very mechanical approach to spellcasting and magic. So much so that players are often more concerned about the spells behind the magical effects they encounter, than the wonder of the effects themselves.

In my current D&D 5e campaigns especially, where the characters live in the aftermath of a magical Cataclysm**, magic is not always as mechanistic as the PHB would lead you to believe, at least for other species. To explain the very formulaic Vancian style system, I’ve labelled the arcane spells in the PHB as “new” magic. While pre-Cataclysm mages could simply bend raw magic to their will, post-Cataclysm mages discovered that if they didn’t follow rules for safe methods of casting, the magic would often backlash and harm them or the folks around them. Where spells were previously highly individual creations, now they were rote, with little variation between casters.

Using that as a base, then, allowed me to look at how other species would approach magic, especially in the wake of the Cataclysm. Since the Fae are such a key element of my campaign world (and one which both my campaigns are going to encounter soon), I knew I wanted Fae magic to heavily conflict with how my players might understand magic to work. So the first thing I decided was that the Cataclysm had not harmed the Fae ability to manipulate magical energy. If anything it enhanced it, as the resulting magical contamination brought magic energy levels closer to what they were in the Fae Wylde. The remaining Fae were much increased in power and ability, and took no time at all in reverting to their previous tricksy ways.

My first encounters between my players and the Fae are going to be relatively benign; some of the small folk playing tricks on them, unseen, over the course of days or weeks. Ideally I’ll tailor those tricks to the characters and what they are doing at the time, but it’s also helpful to have some tricks on standby, in case I need a random faerie effect, or I need to show the players something happening to an Dungeon Master Character. So here is a list of Fae Trickery I put together for my campaign, so I’d always have some mischief at hand. Nothing listed here is directly harmful, nor does anything on this list reference specific spells from the PHB or other sources. If you are using these, or making up your own, feel free to very vague about how the effects are created. If the party wizard breaks out detect magic, you can be very non committal and make it clear that for whatever reason, these magical effects don’t seem to be following the usual rules. Most of all, have fun with them; the Fae certainly would!

  1. Whenever a character speaks, instead of speech, animal noises come forth. This happens regardless of which language a character is trying to speak. Especially fun if multiple characters are affected. Make sure to allow the players to speak to you, but characters can only communicate with animal noises.
  2. Pick your favourite colour, or one you know the player hates. Their character’s skin is that colour until their next long rest. Or hair. Or eyes. Or and hair and eyes.
  3. Until their next long rest, everything the character drinks tastes like warm vinegar.
  4. Until their next long rest, everything the character eats tastes like unseasoned oatmeal.
  5. Upon examination, the character discovers all their mundane belongings have been switched with those of another character. Extra trickery: they have been switched with those of a nearby (within one mile) Dungeon Master Character.
  6. A songbird follows the character around until their next long rest. Whenever that character tries any sort of diplomacy or persuasion, the songbird bursts into dirty limericks featuring whomever the character is trying to charm.
  7. The character wakes to discover brightly coloured fungus has grown over parts of their body (how much and what types are up to the DM). The DM can decide what, if any, effects the various fungus might have. The effect is not painful in any way and clears up by the end the character’s next long rest.
  8. Pick up to three pieces of a character’s mundane gear. These pieces of gear are now animated, acting with a will of their own. Feel free to give them distinct personalities, which are perhaps at odds with the character. If this is an item or items the character has mishandled in the past, perhaps the item bears a grudge? This lasts until the end of the character’s next long rest.
  9. Until their next long rest, the character “hears” inanimate objects. The character can understand all inanimate objects within 20’, which turn out to have a surprising amount to say; their hopes, their dreams, complaints about misuse, and so on. This may make mundane chores like chopping wood (or starting the fire with that wood) absolute horror shows. No one but the character can hear these voices.
  10. Until their next long rest the character is swarmed by small woodland creatures and songbirds, who try to assist with every task they attempt. Animals like rabbits and squirrels will try to help, and the birds will whistle a jaunty tune to inspire the character in their task. None of this will be truly helpful, of course, especially for the party rogue…

I’ll come back and add to the list, but you get the idea. In each of these, I’m not at all concerned with what spells create the effects, as there shouldn’t be a direct connection between “human” magic and what the Fae can do. Though it would certainly be fun to hear the party wizard try to explain away his chartreuse skin and striking emerald green hair.

Have a faerie trick of your own? Drop them in the comments!

**In short, Elves from the Fae Wylde opened a Gate to the Kingdom of Cotterell approximately 1000 years before the events of my campaigns. They couldn’t close it, and the Night Fae they were fleeing poured through after them, leading to an unexpected war with reluctant but necessary allies. Almost five hundred years later, the Elves and other races came up with a plan they thought would close the Gate. They were right, but the resultant explosion of magical energy blasted a caldera hundreds of miles across centered on the Gate location, and swept the world with a wave of tainted magical energy. This event became known as the Cataclysm, and resulted in world-wide devastation, magical contamination, and the people of Cotterell pulling back into coastal cities to survive the now hostile lands crawling with magically-created aberrations.

Extra Life and Gamealot

I’m off to one of my favourite local cons this weekend, Gamealot. Not so coincidentally started and run by one of my favourite game stores, Mission: Fun and Games, Gamealot has grown from an in-store event to filling the Kinsmen Club in St. Albert. Despite its growth it has managed to keep an intimate community-driven feel that I love in my game cons. It is one of my two main board game cons, and calendar-wise it balances out nicely against Spring’s GOBFest. Plus there is an excellent family-friendly atmosphere, helping to ensure our next generation of board gamers. I’ll be there with my buddy Dave from The Rat Hole, as both of us are reps for Cheapass Games. We’ll be running a variety of demos and small tournaments both days. Still plenty of tickets available, so come on out and play some board games this weekend!

In Extra Life news, thank-you so much to everyone who has donated and shared my donation link. Because of all of you I am now just over halfway to my $1000 goal, with a few weeks left until the day. Please follow the link and donate, any amount helps, and you can do some cool things to either come play D&D with me or affect the game if you don’t want to play. I’m super excited about game day, though sign-up for the game has been a bit sparse. But I have a back-up plan in case the D&D game doesn’t come off the way I’d like, so there will be gaming of one kind or another.

That’s my quickie update for this week. Have fun, play games, and maybe I’ll see you across the table this weekend.

Engaging your Players: Player Homework

I prefer to build a world/campaign focused on the player characters. Like characters on a TV show, the action of the story should revolve around them. I also want the world to feel fleshed out, so I include things that have nothing to do with the players. After all, in the real world there are lives and events going on all around you that have nothing to do with you. So I try to keep about a 70/30 split of character-focused versus unrelated plot.

At the start of a campaign I ask my players for some sort of background for their character. Many GMs ask for a straight-up written bio, and while I’m happy to take those not all players are comfortable writing what amounts to a short story about their character. So a few years ago I expanded my request for background info to include things like:

  • character biography, written out or point form;
  • map of your character’s home village, or farm, or city street;
  • description of your mentor growing up. Could be a family member or the woman who taught you how to fight;
  • a description of both your best friend and nemesis growing up;
  • a sketch of family members, the home you grew up in, favourite pet et al

The point is, not every player engages with the campaign narratively. Giving your players other options can yield details about your campaign world you might not have developed on your own. And things like these are just begging to be included in your campaign! If a player draws for me a map of their home village, of course we’re going to have an adventure set there. How can I pass up a golden moment to engage that player and connect their character to the campaign?

Once the campaign is running, I encourage players to keep their ideas about the world around them coming. For instance, in a one Pathfinder campaign I’m GMing the party’s gnome sorcerer works in a theatre. So I asked her to give me a general layout of the theatre as well as some folks that might work there. Homework like this does two things. First, it gets the player more involved in the campaign world, and gives you a glimpse of how they see the campaign world versus how you see it. If parts of the world fit their vision better, it is easier for them to immerse themselves in the campaign. Second, it takes some of the writing and creation pressure off of you. I could just as easily have drawn up the theatre the character worked at myself. But I’d be taking time away from other session prep to do it. Letting my players help gives me a chance to kill two cockatrices with one stone; I get interesting bits of character related campaign info, and I can focus on creating and running exciting events and encounters for my players.

A key component of this player homework for me is rewards. I tell my players flat out at the start of a campaign, if you give me some sort of character background you will get a tangible, in-game reward. I could just give an experience point or build-point bonus for it, but I try to connect the reward to some aspect of the character’s background. The more connected and specific I can make the reward, the better. For example, in a recent campaign I rewarded a wizard character with 250gp worth of scrolls, written by her, because her background talked about her learning at the hands of itinerant wizards. I imagined her character quickly jotting down what notes she could in the hopes of expanding her spell repertoire, trading scroll scribing for lessons. Another player in the same campaign is playing a paladin of the goddess of beauty, and his background (and player actions in-game, so far) focused on his attempts to find peaceful solutions, using combat as a last resort. His reward was to start the game with a potion of eagle’s splendor (to aid in diplomacy) and a potion of cure light wounds (for when diplomacy breaks down).

Other rewards can include:

  • one-time or continuing bonuses to skill checks or saving throws;
  • a situational bonus to item creation;
  • actual treasure in-game (though don’t get out of control with this one)

 

I’ve even hidden adventure hooks in seemingly over-generous rewards, like gifting the characters a castle or thriving merchant business. All sorts of interesting things can find you when you are tied to a castle or have to travel to keep your business running. You need to be careful with these types of rewards, however, and make sure they are something the player actually wants.

So don’t be afraid to include your players in the campaign building process. Engage them and reward them for engaging. You’ll find your campaign world starts taking on vibrancy and detail beyond what you expected.

 

My Basic Session Planning

Before we get to today’s post, a little Extra Life update and reminder. I am currently just over a third of the way to my $1000 goal, which is excellent! Thank-you to everyone who has donated or spread the word, your support is going mean the world to sick kids at the Stollery. If you’ve been waiting, now is your chance. I posted in September about my Extra Life plans, and you can check out that post for details and how you can donate and get involved. Now, on with the post!

***

I know there are Game Masters out there that don’t do a lot of prep between sessions. I respect GMs that can work completely on the fly, because I am not one of them. While I have gotten better at improv over the years, I still need to do a minimum amount of prep in order to feel confident going into a session.

The very first thing I do is go over my session notes from the previous session. I’m looking for anything I said I’d have done by next session (XP totals, treasure lists, and so on). I’m also looking for any NPCs I might have to prep, and any indications of where my players are going next. Sometimes that’s straightforward; they’re still in the dungeon, so they’ll stay in the dungeon. Sometimes they have a bunch of options, though, and hopefully I noted which one they were leaning towards at the previous session.

Once I’ve gone over my notes I start putting together the things I might need for the session: NPC stats, location info, results for Knowledge checks. I read over the next portions of the adventure a few times to get familiar with them, assuming I’m using a pre-written adventure. If not, I review my adventure notes, and fill in any blanks I might need for the next session. I also assemble the physical items I’ll need for the next several encounters, like miniatures, maps, and player handouts. I like to have those things ready to go so I don’t waste playing time fumbling or searching for them. This also helps maintain the illusion of always knowing where the players are going.

I usually prepare one more encounter than I think I’ll need, and often two. Sometimes the players go in a direction you weren’t expecting and it’s great to be prepared for that. And sometimes the players breeze through an encounter you thought was going to take longer or be tougher. Either way, it’s good to be ready with the next, or alternate, encounter so they aren’t waiting for you to catch up. This is where I often dig into my collection of free encounters/adventures from DriveThruRPG or elsewhere, so I have something quick and low-prep.

About an hour or so before the session starts I prepare the playing space. I anoint the four sacred corners with the sacrificial blood…just kidding. A little Old Gamer “D&D is satanism” humour. But I do tidy up the play area, removing any distractions. I set up my end of the table with all my GMing tools close to hand. I set out the players’ minis, the map sheet we’re using, and character sheets if I held on to them. And I set out the snack bowls so we don’t have to waste time hunting for those later in the game.

One thing that I started doing fairly recently, I pre-roll about 15-20 times on a d20 (assuming we’re playing Pathfinder or D&D; I pre-roll for other games as appropriate) and note the results. This speeds up things like NPC/monster saving throws, skill checks, and surprise attack rolls a great deal. I use the same numbers for player checks when I need the check to be secret; for instance, an elven character’s Perception check for a secret door. This is useful, because sometimes you don’t want to give the game away by rolling a d20. Some players can’t help harmful meta-gaming, and pre-rolling avoids that issue.

On my laptop, I open up the PDFs of all the resources I’ll need during the session, and bookmark the pages I’ll need for reference. As part of my NPC prep I’ll have noted any spells and abilities that were not familiar to me, and I’ll have those pages open as reference. If for some reason I’m not using my laptop (rare, but it happens), I use sticky notes to tab all the pages I’ll need as reference. Either way, I want to cut down on the amount of fumbling through books I have to do during play. Not only does it cut down on wasted time, but you come across as a more confident and in-control GM.

Once that’s all done, I’m ready to play! I sit back, sip my coffee, and wait for the players to arrive.

What’s your prep routine like? How much time do you put into your session prep? Talk to me in the comments.