RPGaDay Catch-up: The Inevitable Sequel

I offer no excuses for getting behind on these, except that I am on holidays for the first time in a while and I have enjoyed catching up on my reading. If you can block out a day or two where you can just read, with breaks to eat and sleep, I highly recommend it. But onto the topics!

How can players make a world seem real?

I think it’s important for Game Masters to get their players invested in the campaign world as soon as possible. Character backgrounds are an obvious way to do this, but they are sometimes a little “higher level”. I like to find ways to get the players to tell me details about the world we’re in, rather than me just declaiming things to them. So if they are asking me about something their character would reasonably know, I’ll turn it around and ask, “Why don’t you tell me what that looks like?”, or “Describe how that works.” Sometimes I’ll even ask a player about details their characters might not be as familiar with, because people in the world often have ideas about how things work even if they don’t actually know (see most any conversation online at one time or another), and either supporting or contradicting those ideas. Suggestions of specific questions to draw details out of your players:

  • What are some of the stranger items on the tavern menu?
  • What is stamped on the local gold pieces.
  • What do people in this world do instead of handshakes?
  • What’s a common kid’s game?
  • Is there a local sport team? If so, what are they called, what do they play, and who are their rivals?

Surprise them with questions like this from time to time, and maybe reward them (XP or otherwise) for their answers. With luck, you may get them to the point where they are volunteering tidbits on their own, and as a GM that is the best.

How can a GM make the stakes important?

The characters have to have something to lose. Whether on a personal level or just plot-wise, there needs to be a sense that you can take something away from the characters, that their choices may result in things getting worse, not better. I’ll add the caveat that you need to tailor that to your group, so you avoid analysis paralysis; you don’t want them so afraid to make a choice that they don’t do anything.

Character backgrounds are a good place to start. Any relative they mention is fair game, but so are old mentors, teachers, rivals. And loss doesn’t have to mean death. If the character has a beloved mentor that made them the adventurer they are today, what does it do to them to discover that their mentor has changed, or that they never were the kindly teacher at all? As well, relationships which develop between PCs and NPCs (or PCs and PCs) become a way to raise the stakes. And the best part is the characters make that decision themselves, so they accept that raising of the stakes. That said, I do recommend not “fridging” every NPC that catches a character’s eye, as that is the quickest way to convince your players to never make those attachments for their characters. Use it sparingly, like saffron.

How can we get more people playing?

Stop all the gate keeping bullshit. Gentles, I have been playing TTRPGs for thirty-nine years and I’ve loved every minute of it. Except the minutes spent dealing with douchecanoes who think that their time in the hobby, or their knowledge of a particular game system, or just being a cis white dude, means they can decide who is a real gamer and who isn’t. When I started playing in 1980, there was really only one way to get in the hobby: discover a group and start playing. Now, though, there are so many ways to get involved in TTRPGs, so many ways to start playing, or watch games being played, or learn to paint miniatures, or build terrain, of make TTRPG crafts, or… If you’re an OG like me, you need to realize that folks can come to our hobby from almost any angle now, and that’s a good thing. What’s also a good thing is allowing women, LBGTQ2S, and Persons of Colour in our hobby their voice, or making the games accessible to people with disabilities, mental and physical. I’ve often talked about it as making room at the table, but that isn’t entirely accurate. These folks have been in the hobby from the beginning so we aren’t making room. We’re acknowledging the space was always theirs as well, and making it more consciously welcoming. Doing this takes nothing away from the hobby I love, and gives it such a rich realm of experience to draw upon, to present stories and games we might not otherwise have available.

 

But what do you think? Drop your answers to any of these questions in the comments below.

Big News and RPGaDay Catch-up

It’s almost become tradition at this point, I have to make a catch-up post for RPGaDay. Surprising no one.

But first, some exciting news! The ENnie Awards were Friday night, and they announced the judges for 2019. I made it! I honestly thought it was a long shot, so thanks to everyone who voted for me! I look forward to looking at a bunch of excellent gaming material, and I hope I can do some good around nudging the awards (and the gaming industry) toward inclusivity and accessibility. I’m excited to get started.

What Gives a Game ‘Staying Power’?

I’m going to assume this means why do some RPGs keep getting new editions, while others fade away. I think there are some games which are just iconic to their genre within RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons is the obvious example of this. I don’t think there will be another fantasy RPG with as wide-spread appeal as D&D. Paizo came very close with Pathfinder, and as a result created a truly excellent game and setting. But D&D, especially in its current edition, strikes an excellent balance between simplicity of entry to play for new players and enough complexity to allow veteran players some crunch. The game encapsulates (for good or bad) what we’ve come to identify as the fantasy genre in RPGs, and whether we do it consciously or not, we compare every other fantasy RPG to D&D. Other games, like Call of Cthulhu and Shadowrun, have a similar standing in their respective genres. While they may not be the best games from a mechanical standpoint (I personally find Trail of Cthulhu‘s mechanics superior to CoC), there is no question they are best at evoking the feel of their particular genre.

Most Memorable NPC?

This one is a bit of a spoiler for the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, so if you haven’t played that but are planning to, look away. There is a dungeon under Sandpoint which really is supposed to be like a reasonably quick sidequest. It gives the characters their first exposure to Ancient Thassilon and Runelords, and clues them in that maybe something bigger is going on. The BBG is just an imp, which any party of the right level should be able to take down fairly quickly. Not this time, though. For whatever reason, my party struggled to deal with this imp, and I delighted in having the imp taunt and toy with them every time they came back to “play”. What should have been an evening’s adventure stretched over three sessions and seven different forays into the dungeon. After one such foray, the party limped out of the dungeon with the barbarian carrying both the (dying) cleric and the rogue, while the fighter limped out on 1 hp. And the characters had just entered the dungeon twenty minutes previous. In game, I had the townsfolk talking about the horrendous monsters which must be down there; when they party was finally victorious and came back to display the 2-foot tall body of the imp, the townsfolk were less than enthused. But I loved playing that imp to the full! And it taught me a valuable lesson as a GM: easy on paper does not always mean easy in play.

Favourite Recurring NPC?

Right now I’m having a bunch of fun with the Ghast Queen, one of the main NPCs in a D&D campaign world I created and am running. She sacrificed her humanity five hundred years prior with the best of intentions: she wanted to ensure her people had someone to lead them through the dark days of the Cataclysm and help them survive and rebuild. Unfortunately, the Ghast Queen has some very extreme views on recycling, and after after five hundred years the city of Graveport is a blend of the living and the undead. And the Ghast Queen is quite, quite mad. I look forward to how the party chooses to deal with her.

What Do You Look For in an RPG? (RPGaDay2018)

I am endlessly intrigued and fascinated by the variety of roleplaying games currently on the market, as well as all the systems that came before. So on the one hand I don’t really look for anything in an RPG, I just take them as they come and try to embrace what is unique about that particular game. Especially now as I stock the collection for my TTRPG library project, I do not gatekeep the games in any way. I want them all!

Which is all well and good for that project, but of course I have a different attitude when it comes to what I’ll play on the regular. While I do enjoy a certain level of crunch, what I want most of all is an RPG with just enough rules to make character creation choices interesting, that allows us to get to playing in a minimum amount of time. As I get older, I find I have less and less time to use for playing RPGs (and yes, it will happen to you), so when I do have that time I don’t want to waste a bunch of it in character creation. I want to maximize the amount of time I spend at the table. So while I still enjoy crunchy games like Pathfinder, I find myself drawn more to games like D&D 5e that are relatively rules light, or FATE, where character creation is also world building and is tied into starting the game.

Not coincidentally, those are also the games for which I enjoy creating content. I can pull something together real quick, give it a practice run in play, and tweak it as I go. This is especially the case with any 5e content I create for my home campaigns, as I’m currently running two games set in my homebrew world. Often I try something out in one game and modify it based on feedback before trying it out in the other.

But the common thread in all that is that I want to spend the maximum amount of time at the table rolling dice and telling stories with my friends. Any RPG that allows me to do that is aces.

What Do You Love About RPGs? (RPGaDay2018)

I’m taking part in RPGaDay 2018, so get ready for a plethora of posts all month long!

I’ve talked in other posts about the many reasons I love RPGs. I mean, one rarely takes part in a hobby for thirty-nine years unless they really love it (and if you’ve been doing it that long and not loving it, maybe it’s time to evaluate why you’re in the hobby?). So after all that time I have plenty of reasons to love this hobby and this community. I’m going to talk about one: how it helped me be a better introvert.

Ask around and you’ll get ten different definitions of introvert from ten different people. My working definition is that introverts are energized by solitude and solitary activities, and expend that energy to interact with large groups of people. Simply put, if I have a party or even convention I want to go to, I need some quiet time beforehand to get myself energized for that event. And then I’ll likely need some time the next day to recharge.

One of the reasons I love TTRPGs is that they are sort of a loophole for me in the introvert energy transfer. An RPG session can actually energize me, even though I’m spending time constantly interacting with 4-6 other folks for several hours. For the longest while I couldn’t understand why that should be. Put me with the same number of people for the same amount of time doing anything else, and I need some recharge time almost immediately. But I found myself coming out of gaming sessions with as much, and sometimes more energy, as I carried in.

After some thought I realized that what I did during an RPG session and what I did during my recharge times were very similar. When I’m recharging I usually read a book, watch episodes of a show or a movie, maybe play a single-player computer game of some kind. I’ll also write campaign material or work on editing. But in some way I spend my down time engaged in story, whether creating or consuming. And that same engagement in story happens when I play RPGs, there just happens to be other folk around. So while there is a minimal energy drain from dealing with other people, that energy is replaced by the game, by collectively telling a story with my friends.

Discovering this not only helped me embrace more gaming (I had been reluctant to take on too much lest I drain myself too often), but it helped me shift how I approached playing the games themselves. I used to love a tonne of crunch, but these days I’m more interested in rules-light storytelling. Running my games that way has meant my games energize me more, and I think it’s helped make me a better game master.

What about you? What do you love about TTRPGs? Comment below.

ENies Voting Starts Today

Today voting opens for the 2018 ENnies, awards given to designers and companies in the TTRPG industry to celebrate the work they’ve done in the past year. You can see the entire list of nominees  and then cast your votes if you are so inclined.

And I’m hoping you are, because for the very first time I’ve put my name in the running to become an ENnies judge. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but due to my work with one game company or another I wasn’t eligible. But as of this year I have enough distance from my work with any one company to qualify as a nominee, and so I’m in the running to be a judge for 2019. I’d love for you to vote for me, so let’s talk a bit about why I want to be a judge.

I love tabletop role-playing games. I’ve been in the hobby pretty much non-stop since I was ten years old (that will be 39 years, for anyone keeping score at home), and I have loved every minute of it. I have a passion for finding and devouring new gaming material, which is great because the TTRPG industry has kept that passion fed.  I’ve been lucky to be on hand for some pretty major cultural shifts within the hobby, and even though there are still issues to deal with our hobby has tended to trend toward inclusion.

Let’s look closer at the, “…still issues to deal with…” part of my statement. There is no question we still have some very specific problems to overcome around inclusion and accessibility. While I was excited to see DOTS putting out a really solid set of braille dice this past year, one of the first things I thought was, “Wait, no one had done that already?” Asking that question led to me to wonder about audio versions of TTRPG books for the visually impaired, and whether someone could make an ASL manual for common TTRPG terms. And those are two very basic questions, but the answers would open the hobby up to so many new players, game masters, and designers. Making our hobby more accessible takes nothing away from the gamers who don’t require it, but gives everything to the gamers who do.

And inclusion? We’re moving in the right direction, overall, and I think the rise of streaming has definitely had a positive influence in that regard. But we can do better, and all levels of our hobby must work to that end. We need to include more people at the table, but to encourage them to sit down they need to see themselves in the stories and books in the hobby. And for that to happen, the industry needs to welcome more creators from traditionally marginalized groups into our hobby. At the same time, we need to pay more attention to the independent creators already putting out excellent work in our hobby.

That’s where I see my role as an ENnies judge coming in to play. As a judge I intend to encourage previously marginalized creators to submit their work to the ENnies for judging. I can’t make anyone do it, of course, but I can make them aware of the process and encourage them. And once submitted, I’ll judge the work on its merits and champion the ones I think deserve to move forward.

In hand with that, I’ll be looking at all the material that comes my way through the two lenses of inclusivity and accessibility. Obviously all the other criteria by which I would judge a game also apply, not least of which is, is it fun? But also things like, does it explore something new, something we haven’t seen in TTRPGs before? If I’m presented with Retroclone RPG, you’re going to have a hard hill to climb to convince me it’s worthy of an award.

So that’s how I’m coming at ENnies judging. I’ve been in this hobby long enough, and I’ve read and played the myriad ways folks that look like me approach the hobby. I want to hear from folks who are not me, because I think that is how our hobby grows and gets stronger. I want more diverse ENnies judges, and I’ll be vocal about that whether I succeed in my bid this year or not. I recognize that part of challenge of that is simply that being a non-cis white male on the internet is harder than I can know, and becoming a judge would give one more avenue of access to the more toxic elements of our hobby. I hope I can help effect some changes to make that an easier prospect.

All of that is to say, please go to the ENnies voting page and vote. Vote for the games you’d like to celebrate, and if you are so inclined, please vote for me as a 2019 ENnies judges. I’m hoping to do good things with it, but I need your help to get the chance. And spread the word to your friends and encourage them to vote as well.

And thank-you. Whether I get the job or not, I’m looking forward to another year of gaming, and I’ll still be writing about everything I talked about above.

RG House Rules: Dump Everything but Stats!

Today’s post is actually a supplement to my weekly post over at The Rat Hole. If you check out over there, I talked about a possible house rule to deal with what I consider useless Ability Scores in D&D 5e. Here I’m going to talk about a second way of making ability scores useful again.

As I noted in my other article, I love rolling up ability scores for D&D characters. Those scores are the foundation upon which I build the rest of my character. But in 5e, once you’ve generated those scores they don’t do anything. The bonuses that derive from them do a lot of work, bumping up skill checks and saving throws. But the ability scores themselves are static, with no purpose. That’s why, when I saw them sitting lifeless on the page I knew I needed to restore them to usefulness.

My plan to put ability scores back to work is actually pretty simple, just three steps. First, get rid of saving throws and skills. Second, in their place, switch to a “roll under” method of determining success, using the character’s ability scores. If the character has proficiency in that ability, they add the proficiency bonus to the ability score before rolling, and must roll under that number. Sounds a little crazy? Let me explain.

Let’s look at Grognard the Barbarian, who has to make a Constitution saving throw of DC 13. Grognard has a 16 Constitution score, because barbarian.  He’s only first level so he has a proficiency bonus of +2 and an ability bonus of +3, for a +5 to his Constitution saves. That’s pretty good, especially at first level, but there is still a decent chance that Grognard will get knocked flat on his butt; frankly annoying when playing a big, tough character. Using roll under, however, Grognard would need to roll under 18 (Constitution score of 16, plus his proficiency bonus of +2) on a d20. So most of the time, Grognard is going to shrug off any Constitution-based attacks, which for a barbarian is as it should be.

This extends to skill checks as well. You would retain any Skill proficiencies from character creation or other sources, and add that as a bonus to the relevant ability score when making a Skill check that relates to that proficiency. As in the example above, this will allow a character proficient in a particular skill to succeed more often than not. Which, as the hero of your particular story, they should be doing anyway. But it also allows some flexibility in what ability scores to use when making a skill check. Yes, most of the time you’ll use the score commonly associated with that skill, but sometimes your player might make a good case for another ability score to be used. Or you as the DM might switch things up and decide that another ability score better fits the challenge the character is facing.

As a balancing factor, we come to the third step in my “cunning” plan: subtract 10 from the DCs of any skill checks or saving throws, and apply the result as a negative modifier on the character’s ability score for the roll. So in our example above, Grognard may have an effective 18 Constitution because he is a big, tough barbarian. But the poison gas (let’s say) he is trying to resist is a particularly noxious kobold blend, so he takes a -3 penalty (DC 13 – 10 = 3), making his effective Con score a 15. Still a decent chance of success, but enough harder that it will make Grognard think twice about rushing into the cloud if he doesn’t have to.

While the house rule I’m suggesting is for skill checks and saving throws, it could be extended to combat. Simply subtract 10 from the opponent’s AC and apply the result as a negative modifier to the relevant ability check. So an AC of 14 is a -4 modifier, AC 21 is -11, and so on. Positive modifiers would be proficiency bonuses, plus any magical or situational modifiers. So if Grognard is attacking with his mighty 18 Strength, using his new +1 greataxe Helmcleaver, against an opponent with an AC of 15, he’ll roll under 16 in order to hit (18 + 2 + 1 = 21 – 5 = 16). Grognard has a pretty good shot at turning his opponent to mush, but it isn’t guaranteed.

So that’s my suggested house rule in a nutshell. Obviously I would want to play test this before implementing it on a regular basis, because I’m sure there are situations and corner cases where it might need some tweaking. But altogether I think it’s an effective way of making ability scores useful again, and also serves to make the characters a bit more heroic in stature.

But what do you think? Am I crazy? Is it a workable solution, or am I tampering with things nerdkind was not meant to explore? Let me know what you think below. And check out my article over at The Rat Hole for a house rule idea pretty much the opposite of this one.

Catching Up for Spring

I’ll tell you, seasonally activated depression is a hell of a thing. I had it mostly under control this year, and felt better on a day-to-day basis than I have in years. But the winter draaaaaaaged on this year (we just lost snow last week) and the extra month of SAD kicked my ass a bit. Now that Spring has officially come to the Canadian prairies, however, I’m back to my usual high-functioning introvert self. So let’s finish off the April TTRPG Maker Challenge so that isn’t hanging, and then I can get us back to gaming goodness.

13 – Biggest Influence

The biggest influences on how I think about game design come from three main people: Monte Cook, Kenneth Hite, and Robin D. Laws. I’ve read their work for years, including much of the things they’ve written about game design. But I’ve also spoken with (in the case of Monte Cook) and listened to them (in the case of Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws) talk on a variety of topics, and found that many of their ideas line up with thoughts I’ve had about story and narrative design. So they would count as my main sources of influence, as far as how and what I want to create.

But as I try make sure my games are inclusive, I’m also influenced by folks like Kate Welch, Liz Courts, and Crystal Frasier, who I follow on Twitter. Equal parts horrified by the crap they deal with from the idiots in our hobby, and awestruck by their ability to persevere in spite of said idiots, they influence me daily. I want to create work that helps our hobby grow and be better. I really believe that I can create inclusive gaming material that is fun for everyone. That on its own won’t fix everything, but it will at least contribute to a healthier gaming environment down the line.

14 – What are your Dreams & Plans?

I touched on that above, but I’d like to create material that helps improve our hobby. To do that, of course, means creating material that is fun and exciting to play, or it isn’t going to do anything. Short term, I’d like to flesh out the campaign world I’ve created for two D&D campaigns. Long term, I have ideas for a few games, both board and TTRPG, that I would like to develop.

15 – Do you design in public or private?

Mostly in private, until I use what I’ve designed in a game, then it goes public. And then I will often post the refined Whatever It Is on my blog for the world to see.

16 – Any design partners?

Not yet, though my friend Scott and I have begun brainstorming together, which is helpful for getting outside my head on things.

17 – Favourite form of feedback?

Constructive. Positive or negative, don’t just bash it or gush over it, but tell me why it did or didn’t work for you.

18 – Current Inspiration?

Eric Campbell, the GM for Alpha’s Shield of Tomorrow, is my current inspiration. I admire his ability to weave together narrative bits on the fly, when his players throw the inevitable curve balls. I also admire the joy he takes in the act of GMing, and I strive to emulate that joy; right now, I still approach GMing a bit too much like work. Pleasant work, but still work.

19 – Game that’s most essential to your design?

I don’t know that any single game is essential to my design. Even though I’m currently working the most with the campaign world for my D&D 5e games, I do often think about how other game systems would affect my design. I find that helps keep me from falling into safe and obvious choices.

20 – Favourite design tools?

I can thank my day job for teaching me the ins and outs of it really well, but my Google Drive has become my favourite piece of design equipment. Being able to connect all the docs I’m working on and having them available wherever I am has helped my work flow immensely. Beyond that I don’t really have a lot of what I’d consider tools. As long as I have something to write with and something to write on, I’m good.

21 – How many playtests?

Since most of what I’m working on is for my campaigns, most things get played one time before I start overhauling it. What I find useful is that my players don’t know they are playtesting, so I find their reactions to things very honest.

22 – How do you document ideas?

I have a google sheet to capture ideas, and I have copious notebooks I scribble ideas in.

23 – People who’ve helped you?

The few times I’ve dipped my toe in writing for the public, my friend Amber E. Scott has been very helpful, and dare I say, kind. Anytime I brought an idea or a question to her, she was always enthusiastic and positive in her advice and criticism. And she’s, like, stupid levels of talented as well. Seriously, go read any of the stuff she wrote for Dragon Magazine, or any of the Paizo material she’s written. Then send her a thank-you.

24 – Most notable achievement?

Finally getting started.

25 – Being a TTRPG designer means…

…creating something that is complete enough in itself, but will also incite acts of imagination and delight leading to fun.

26 – Blogs, streams, podcasts?

I’m a bit of a packrat when it comes to these, I follow way more than I’m able to consume regularly. So I often end up binging. But of the ones I do consume regularly: WebDM and Matthew Colville are tied as my favourite YouTube shows, Shield of Tomorrow is currently my favourite play-through show, and I listen to Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff like a religion. I don’t follow any blog in particular, but I try to follow the RPG Blog Carnival around, as I find that usually gives me a pretty broad reading list.

27 – Feature a TTRPG designer.

My friend Amber E. Scott. Read all her stuff, and you will a) be entertained the entire time, and b) come away with a really good idea of how to write good gaming material.

28 – Favourite interview?

Not listed among my podcasts above, but I listen to Dragon Talk a bunch. Any of their interviews are pretty good. Anything with Matthew Mercer is good. And the time I moderated a panel for and got to ask questions of Monte Cook, was probably my hands down favourite.

29 – Your community.

Working from the inside out, my particular circle of regular players are pretty good. I’ve managed to winnow out anyone who wasn’t fun to play with, and they are all as tolerant and inclusive as I could want. The local community in Edmonton is generally a good one, with pockets of folks not yet on the inclusivity train. But they are either doing the work to change, or failing to come out to public events as they discover their brand of gaming isn’t tolerated. And the community I encounter online? Pockets, sometimes whole swaths of great folks, interspersed with douchecanoes. But I think the tide is starting to shift, and I will hopefully live to see my hobby reach an effortless inclusivity.

30 – Top tips and advice

Don’t be afraid to just start. I was for years, and it kept me from doing something I really love. Pick something you really want to design write, and do it. It will likely be bad and that’s okay. Put that wobbly, misshapen Thing in front of some players and let them sniff around it. Pick up the remains after they are done and work it back into a new, better shape. Talk to people you trust, and have them look at the Thing. Take the advice that sounds good.

Try and fail. Keep trying until the failing becomes sporadic. It may disappear entirely, but don’t worry if it doesn’t. The only folks who don’t fail, don’t try.