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!

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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.

Extra Life Update

As promised I have an update on my Extra Life plans for this year. I’m going to be running Dungeons & Dragons all day long, perhaps with a break to play a board game or two as a palette cleanser. I’m hoping to live stream, but that will depend on getting some tech together in time. But at the very least I’ll be live-tweeting the crap out of every moment, with copious pictures and the odd video.

And you can get involved! If you want to play at my table for a shift, you need to do two things:

1) Donate a minimum of $20 to my Extra Life campaign (or be participating in Extra Life yourself), and

2) Send me an email at brent.jans@gmail.com with your name, phone #, and the shift you’d like to play (8am-Noon, Noon-4pm, 4pm-8pm, 8pm-Midnight, Midnight-4am, 4am-8am). I can take five players per shift, and I’ll let you know when you email me if the shift you want is available. You can sign up for multiple shifts, but make sure you can be there for everything.

Location is still TBA, but you’ll be responsible for transportation to and from, so keep that in mind if you sign up for late night/early morning games when transit isn’t running. I’ll have some snacks and maybe a dinner available (likely chili in the slow cooker) and coffee on, but please bring any snacks you particularly want.

If you don’t have time to play, you can still get involved in our game! Donate at the various levels to unlock the different ways you can affect the game:

  • $5 – Give a free re-roll to the players or DM, you choose.
  • $10 – Give the party a free Potion of Healing
  • $20 – Specify an NPC that I’ll work into whatever situation the players currently face. Just give me the NPC’s occupation, one personality trait, one physical trait in the Notes section along with your donation
  • $50 – Pick a monster they’ll have to encounter; OR, Give a random player a +2 bonus to a random ability score
  • $100 – I’ll grant the party an Uncommon or better magic item.
  • $250 – You decide what magic item the party gets.
  • $500 – The party will encounter the malevolent artifact of your choice. Hilarity will ensue.

I’ll have more details going up soon, including a streaming link when/if I have it.

Your donation is tax-deductible and will make miracles happen for families who desperately need them. You can click the “Donate” button at the top of my donation page to make a safe and easy online donation. I’ll also be at various events over the next month or so, so you can also donate to me in person. I’ll post details here.

Stopping to Shop

One of the best parts of attending Gen Con is the frolic through the vendor’s hall, checking out all the cool new gaming material on offer. While I sadly didn’t get to Gen Con this year, I did manage to find some cool items I thought I should share, so you can grab them for yourself. Even if you don’t want them for yourself, a birthday or other special occasion is never too far off and these would make excellent gifts.

Greyed Out – I collect dice like I’m expecting a drought (one of the few things I asked a friend who was at Gen Con to do was hit up the Chessex booth and get me a cup of dice). While I am proud of my large candy jar of dice at home, it isn’t a convenient way to transport dice to other games. So I’m always in search of cool dice bags, and the latest coolness comes from the Etsy shop Greyed Out. Not only does Michael (the owner) stock a great selection of eclectic designs (need a dice bag with ninjas or a biohazard symbol? Got you covered), but he also offers something I had never seen on a dice bag before. Pockets. That’s right, in addition to the regular dice bag we all know and love, you can buy dice bags with internal pockets in either a five- or sixteen-pocket designs! I grabbed myself a sweet five-pocket version with a nostalgic blue dungeon map design on the outside, just so I could witness this sorcery for myself.  Friends and fellow gamers, I may now be spoiled for any other dice bag. While it had never occurred to me as something I needed before, now that I have a dice bag with pockets I don’t understand how I ever got along without it. I loaded my bag up as soon as I got it, with my usual dice load out (three sets and a bit) in one pocket, a handful of glass counters in another, some fantasy coinage I use for props in a third, and then some random dice for sharing in the large middle compartment. I still have a pocket going spare, and plenty of space left in all the remaining pockets should I need it. If I did more wargaming I could probably use that last pocket to carry a small tape measure for table distances, and swap out my glass beads for whatever counters and cards the wargame used. I can’t recommend these enough, they’re spacious and the quality is superb. Plus pockets!

Libris Arcana – Canadian online retailers are a rare breed (and if you think I’m wrong, I welcome any links you can provide to Canadian TTRPG vendors in the comments below) so when I find one I like I tend to clasp them to my bosom with bands of steel. Libris Arcana is one such, and while they offer many cool items, the one I grabbed from them recently was a set of leather book covers. I will admit I certainly didn’t need leather covers for my D&D books. But as soon as I saw the set of three LA offered on their site, I wanted, nay, coveted them. As advertised they are the perfect size to fit the current edition of D&D books, and would suit any past editions quite well, as well as books from other games that are of that size. Apparently they will also fit the current Pathfinder core book, but given the snugness of fit on my trinity of D&D books I would need to witness the time/space folding involved in that maneuver before I believed it. That said, once I had them on my books I immediately fell in love with how they classed up the joint. If you can’t afford to get your books custom recovered (and that option is out there, just a Google search away), this is certainly a relatively inexpensive option at just $25Cdn a book (or $70Cdn for three covers if you buy the set like I did). Libris Arcana also offers some wonderful dice subscription services, and an RPG book subscription service which looks pretty tasty. Plus they have a dice subscription offer which directly supports a D&D program for kids right here in my home town. Best of all, I’m rewarded for being a Canadian with free shipping on all purchases. How can I not?

Geek Tank Games – As a busy game master who sometimes runs games away from home I’m always looking for ways to offer a cool table experience for my players, while keeping the amount of stuff I have to haul around with me to a minimum. So when I stumbled across the Geek Tank Games Kickstarter campaign for Tabletop Tokens, I knew I needed all the things! The initial three token sets on offer, Camping, Furniture, and Castle Siege, are a perfect way to start what I hope will be a continuous line of these excellent tokens. Intended as an enhancement to the GM’s hand-drawn maps, these colour plastic tokens allow you to draw the bare bones of a room or setting, then populate that location with furniture and items quickly, without having to hand draw fiddly bits like shelves, crates, trees, and so on. While on the cartoony side the tokens are well drawn and colourful, standing out on the map. And because the tokens lay flat, it allows your players to better interact with map features without worrying their miniatures might topple (a concern for any player who hand-paints their own minis). While they only have the three sets mentioned above for sale at the moment, plans are rumored to already be in the works for other sets, allowing more specific dungeon and building dressing. I snagged a couple of the Camping sets and a Furniture set during the Kickstarter, and I’ll likely pick up a Castle Siege set soon just to complete my collection. I love them! Not only are the tokens bright and of good quality, but they are easy to transport to my gaming sessions. I put a few page protectors at the back of my GM binder and dropped them in there. Static helps keep them from slipping out the top, and keeps them handy for when I draw out a map on my dry-erase flip mats. Get some sets for yourself, and a few more to give as gifts to your fellow GMs. They’ll definitely appreciate them.

What cool TTRPG related products have you picked up lately? Drop your recommendations in the comments below so we can all get in on the goodness!

Share Why You Take Part in #RPGaDAY

Final day of RPGaDAY 2018, and I hope you’ve found my posts useful and/or entertaining. I enjoy taking part in these every year, even if I haven’t quite mastered the “aDAY” portion of the event. Sometimes the questions posed are things I’ve never given much thought to, or they help me look at my hobby a different way. Sometimes they just let me reaffirm my love for TTRPGs, or pass along a game or an idea I think other people will love, too. Since I sort of treat Gen Con as Gaming New Year, it’s a great way for me to start my new year, sharing my love for this hobby.

Starting next week we’ll be going to a “2+” posting schedule. I’ll post twice a week for sure, with additional posts as the spirit moves me. And of course if you can’t get enough of me here, head over to The Rat Hole. We’ll be taking a look at the Pathfinder Playtest over there, so you can get me first impressions on that when they go up.

Share something you learned about, playing your character #RPGaDay

Over the years I think the main thing I learned about while playing myriad characters, was how to share. I know when I started playing I was all about the cool things that I could do, the sweet treasure I could get. I think that’s normal, especially if you start playing when you’re a child/adolescent. Eventually, hopefully, you learn that there is benefit to sharing the spotlight with other characters, letting them have their hero moment. That not trying to grab all the glory for yourself goes a long way to not only succeeding in the adventure, but making sure you get asked back to the gaming table. Not everyone learns this lesson right away (see also: Every TTRPG Troll on the Internet), and I think this is the basis of the majority of “I can’t find a gaming group!” complaints. Not all, of course, even with all the avenues to gaming I talked about in yesterday’s post it is still possible that circumstance makes finding a group difficult. But in a great many cases, by talking with the complainant for a few moments, I can figure out the likelihood that they did find a group, possibly several, but those groups decided to “unfind” that player.

Sharing is also an important part of development as a game master. Learning to share helps move you from an Us v. Them attitude, to what the GM’s role should be: a collaborator who presents the players with challenges. If you stay stuck in an antagonistic role with your players, they will never really trust you as a storyteller, because you may just be lying to them for your own ends. If they know from the start that you are as invested in their success as they are, however, but you are going to challenge the crap out of them on the way to that success, your players are more likely to go along with what you present to them, even if at first glance it may seem against their interests. More so than as a player, the day that lesson really sank home for me was the day I really felt like a game master, like I was finally “good at” role-playing games.

#RPGaDay Fiver

Obligatory apology for missing some days. Let’s begin!

Name a game that had an impact on you in the last year.

I actually acquired a copy of this game very recently. While I was unable to attend Gen Con this year my buddy Dave was there and snagged me a copy of Crossroads Carnival: One Night Only Edition, written by Kate Bullock and published by Magpie Games. In Crossroads Carnival you play members of a travelling carnival in 1930’s America, drawn into a battle between light and dark. It is a very focused, heavily thematic game, perfect for a group who love to dive deep into character and storytelling. It’s ideal at around 3-5 players for a 3-4 hour session.

And neighbours, I find it to be an achingly beautiful game. If it were just an RPG about 1903’s carny folk, it could easily devolve into a sharply defined Us versus Them as the players travel from town to town, dealing with the Straights. But layered in is this wonderful sense of ritual to the carnival’s performance, that it isn’t just entertainment, it is often the very thing holding back Darkness with a capital “D”. Then another layer; the comment that makes on our society, in which marginalized folks are most often asked/required to perform emotional labour for the non-marginalized. I read a lot of RPG material and this is probably one of the most powerful games I’ve read this year. I’ll talk about it more once I’ve had a chance to run it, but I linked the DriveThruRPG page above. Get you a copy of this game with all due haste.

Your gaming ambition for the next year.

Despite dissenting opinions that I may have a face for radio, I’d really like to do some RPG streaming in the coming year. I’ll likely test the waters with some guest shots here and there, see if I can be entertaining on camera. I certainly don’t have the set-up to just start my own at the moment, but I have the necessary camera/mic set-up to join in on somebody else’s game. So hey, if you’re within the range of my blog and are looking for a guest to drop into your stream, hit me up. I’ll play any game system you like.

Share a great stream/actual play.

I did this over at The Rat Hole, so go check my response there. Spoilers: Eric Campbell is a super swell GM, y’all.

Share whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for.

After all the love I’ve given to streamers and online creators, I know you’d expect me to name one of them. And there are many I could name that motivate me and inspire me.

But when it comes to someone for whom I’m grateful? That goes to my buddy Devin. I’ve met few people who just love playing games with their friends as much as he does. I’m sure there is a game out there Devin won’t try, but we sure haven’t found it yet. He’s also just a joy to GM for; he’ll throw himself into whatever RPG we are playing, even if the mechanics or play style aren’t his particular brand of whisky. Example: Devin loves the crunchiness of building and playing characters in the Pathfinder RPG, but he plays along with me on my rules light, fluffy D&D 5e bullshit every other week. Since I’ve been gaming with him I’ve always felt that the most important thing to him is that everyone in the game is having fun, including himself, and that is not something every gamer can pull off. He has also presented me with two of my favourite character to game master: Kring, the half-orc barbarian/farmer (with his masterwork greatclub called “The Future”), and Lando Mackenzie King, a tough paramedic-in-training who worried how the introduction of the supernatural into his life was going to affect his GPA.

Thank-you, Devin, for being my amazeballs gaming friend all these years.

Share a friendship you have because of RPGs.

I feel like I just did this above, so I’m going to talk generally for a moment. Besides the continued rise of inclusion and accessibility in the hobby, one of the things making me happy these days are the various ways gamers can access TTRPGs and make friends.

*pulls up the In My Day Chair, sits down* Back when I started gaming and really until the rise of social media, the options for getting into this hobby were limited. You either discovered a group and found a game that way, or you discovered the game in a shop and managed to pull together a group somehow. If you lived somewhere that was small population or isolated you might never get either of those opportunities, and so you really didn’t get in the hobby. Smashcut to today, with all of social media, online gaming platforms, live-streaming, actual play…the ability to find some way to either play directly or at least experience the hobby are extensive. It may take time, you may have to try out groups and media to see what works for you, but it’s easier than it has ever been. There are definitely more obstacles and barriers to folks with accessibility issues than I like and I’ll never stop encouraging publishers and platforms to work on that. But if you want to be in this hobby you pretty much can be, and you can choose what that means for you. I think that’s pretty great.

And on that perhaps overly optimistic note, may the dice be ever in your favour!

Which RPG Do You Think Deserves Greater Recognition? #RPGaDay

What’s this? Two daily RPGaDay posts in a row!? What crazy dreamworld is this!? Yes, but first you have to read through my shameless plug.

It’s that time of year again, nerd folk, when I begin my run up to Extra Life. If you’re unfamiliar with Extra Life you can follow the handy link for more info, but in short it’s a day where I and many like me play games for 24 hours to raise money for sick kids. It’s a fantastic cause and I encourage you to join in or support it however you can. Of course one of those ways is to slide over to my snazzy donation page and make a donation. Every donation counts, no matter the size. As I’m fond of saying, if everyone who followed my on Twitter donated just $5, the price of a fancy coffee (mmm, fancy coffee), I’d rocket past my $1000 goal in not time. And then set a higher goal for myself, because I’m like that.

But on with the main event!

This is actually a tough question to answer because we live in the age of crowdfunding. Kickstarter, and other platforms to a lesser degree, have allowed us to get a lot of previously underrated or cult classic games back in print. Just a few years ago I might have answered this question with Villains & Vigilantes, for instance, but they have a new version out thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. I could answer just about any game from the Eighties and Nineties, and tomorrow find out the Kickstarter has begun.

So maybe it’s time to make my wish come true. I would love an updated version of Sky Realms of Jorune. I feel like it was a game that didn’t really land when it first came out in 1984, partly because they immediately published a second version in 1985, which put some folks off. I discovered it on a family shopping trip to Edmonton, when I went to the little gaming/comic store that existed in West Edmonton Mall at the time. I was taken by the weirdness of the cover art, so I gambled some allowance money on it (and a D&D module, because I’m not crazy) and brought it home. I devoured the rulebooks on the drive back to Fort McMurray and new I wanted to run this game. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t as into it as I was. A game centered around trying to be come a good citizen just couldn’t compare to stomping through a dungeon, killing monsters and stealing treasure. So it languished on my shelf, often read and never played.

I know there was a 1994 third edition, and I heard mixed reviews. But I would really love a brand spanking new version of the game. The game was already ahead of the curve thematically, I want to see that theme supported by new mechanics and everything we’ve learned in the 30+ years since it was first published. Not to mention new art…sorry, I seem to be salivating on my keyboard.

What game would you like to see get its due? Answer in the comments.