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, the Orcish City States were centres of learning and knowledge, home to universities and libraries unparalleled except in the Dragon Empire. While much history has been lost, however, it is still remembered that the Orc City States rode to fight alongside Cotterell in the Gate Wars, and they suffered losses just as great during the Cataclysm. Greater, some might say, as the orcish cities relied heavily on magic and so were severely disrupted during the Cataclysm. They also came under the heaviest post-Cataclysm attacks, being closer to the Faewilde Gate. So complete was the disruption and so overwhelming the attacks, each orcish city chose to flee with as much of their collection of knowledge as they could carry, becoming nomads. Each nomadic group is charged with the protection, preservation, and adding to of the knowledge they carry. They have done so in the centuries since the Cataclysm, with the hope they may one day rebuild their cities and make this knowledge safe again.

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.

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!

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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.