RPGaDay 2019, Day Six: Ancient

The characters in my D&D campaigns encounter old things all the time. My current games are set in a homebrew world in which an interplanar war 1000 years previous led to an arcane cataclysm almost five hundred years before present day. So as they explore the world they are commonly encountering ruins that are at least four to five hundred years old, sometimes twice that or more. But I don’t count any of that as ancient.

No, to me ancient describes items, locations, and sometimes even creatures that are so old, that existed so long ago, they are as incomprehensible to the characters as if they had come from that same time frame in the future. I don’t tend to put a hard number on that, but in our real world terms I’m thinking early bronze age or older. Numenera is a game which explores this particularly well, with characters handling technologies and magics which are potentially thousands, millions, even billions of years old.

The details around ancient things in your world will be specific to your campaign. But here are some things to think about when you want to present the truly ancient to your party:

Wear and Tear

Sure, people generally build things to last. But even those paragons of building long term, the dwarves, might struggle to build structures that will function perfectly after 10,000 years have passed. Especially if no one has been around for upkeep and repairs. So think about what time would do to a structure. Has water had time to erode the stonework, or rust the metal parts? Have there been storms or other violent weather? Earthquakes? Floods? Does water have the chance to seep in and then freeze and thaw; ice will crumble even the toughest stonework over time.

And consider that not everything has to have suffered the same level of wear. The stone facade of a structure might look fine, maybe a bit weathered. But all the metal bits inside, gate mechanisms, drawbridge chains, door hinges and latches, could all be corroded and falling apart. That would make exploring an ancient building dangerous enough, but consider what age would do to trap mechanisms. The rogue may do everything right in disarming a properly functioning trap, but what if the trap mechanism is rusted or pitted by age? Or the supports that would normally keep the pit from opening just aren’t up to the task any longer? All things to consider.

Devolve or Evolve?

If the ancient area being explored has been cut off from the rest of the world for all that time, what has happened to the creatures that lived there? Look at our own history. Human civilization, regardless of what part of the world you focus on, has changed dramatically in 10,000 years. But even our world has examples of cultures which have chosen not to develop alongside the rest of the world, but maintain their culture in isolation. So if there is an ancient sentient race living in your ancient structures, what are they like? Are they more or less advanced than the party? Are they a familiar species, but changed in some way to adapt to their isolated environment? Is their culture locked in tradition, or have they changed over time? What do they worship, or do they worship? This is an opportunity to present a unique culture and people to your players, and play with their expectations.

Similar questions could be asked about the animals and other creatures. Ten thousand years isn’t a huge amount of time for evolution to take a hand, but it certainly wouldn’t be idle; it didn’t take ten thousand years, after all, for us to get so many different breeds of dog. And that doesn’t even consider the effect magic would play in the evolution of a creature. Again, this is a chance to pull out all the stops and present your players with some truly unique monster encounters.

Time and Magic

Sure, when the wizard enchanted that sword or magic ring, they thought it would last forever. Well, forever is a long time and ten thousand years is a pretty big chunk of it. What sort of effect does time have on the magic in your campaign. Again, like with buildings and structures, the magic might be fine if someone is around to replenish it periodically. But with no one there, how long before it fades? And does it fade quietly and easily (boring!) or does that draining of arcane energy have an effect on the world around it? If you find magic items that are almost but not quite drained, can they be restored somehow? Or are the perfectly functional “mundane” magic items being found, actually partially drained artifacts that just need a little boost?

And since their state is sort of magical, let’s talk about the undead for a second. Obviously things like skeletons and zombies might not last the eons (or maybe they do, and the party is constantly under attack by undead dust swarms**)(**Yes, I’ll have the stats for that soon). But what about intelligent undead, trapped for eons? How are ghosts, wraiths, liches, even vampires going to react to the news that that much time has passed? Do they just not notice, or have they been driven mad (or madder) by this passage? A person can spend a day or two alone and get a little squirrelly, imagine what ten thousand years trapped alone in a tomb would be like.

Those are some questions to consider when trying to construct truly ancient encounters and locations in your game. As I said, there may be more things for you to think about based on the specifics of your campaign world. But these should get you started. 

There is an excellent series, called Life After People, which examines our world and what would happen to it in the first thousand years if all humans on earth disappeared at the same time. Each episode looks at a different facet of human civilization and explores how that would break down in our absence. If you are interested in creating some realistic environments for your players, I highly recommend the series.

Have you created ancient locations in your game? Or encountered an ancient location your GM has prepared? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.

RPGaDay 2019, Day Five: Space

I presented at a convention last year, talking about the history of science fiction roleplaying games. I’m in the process of switching that up and editing it for future use. But it was fun to research and pull together, because science fiction RPGs have always taken a back seat to fantasy RPGs. Recently, though, with a resurgence of popular sci-fi TV and movie properties, SF RPGs are popping up all over the place.

The first one I ever played was Metamorphosis Alpha, an indirect precursor to TSR’s Gamma World. You played as the (sometimes mutated) descendants of colony ship Warden’s crew and passengers, who don’t realize their world is actually a failing generation ship. It had its flaws, but it worked for eleven-year-old Brent because it still had a fantasy feel because of the relatively low-tech involved. It also informed a lot of how I would later run the AD&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where D&D characters explore a crashed starship.

Flash forward to this year, and I have found a new SF RPG to love. Mothership is a tight, well-written game of sci-fi horror roleplaying. Think Alien, think Event Horizon, think Starship Troopers with less humour; this is the type of world your characters will inhabit. Better yet, think of everything you love doing in other RPGs. Then imagine your characters doing all that in the inhospitable vacuum of space. At almost every turn you are forced to choose between pushing to do the necessary thing, or resting and hoping that won’t lead to disaster. The game is currently in alpha, with a full release planned for 2020. I await it with bated breath; hopefully my oxygen holds out.

What’s your favourite space RPG? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.

RPGaDay 2019, Days 1-4

August is once again upon us, and that means it is time for RPGaDay! Started by Autocratik way back in the mists of time, RPGaDay is a series of daily creative prompts, meant to inspire folks to talk about TTRPGs. I write blog posts, but folks are encouraged to post on twitter and facebook, record videos, draw… the choice of expression is up to you. This year is a little different as well. In the past there were daily questions, but this year sees a series of single word prompts which you are encouraged to interpret as you like. Oh, sweet, horrible freedom!

As has become traditional, I am starting a few days behind (yes, four is a few) so this post covers the first four days; I’ll have a stand-alone post tomorrow and (fingers crossed) every day after that.

Day One – First

I’ve talked on numerous occasions about the game that first got me in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons, so I’m going to leave that aside and instead talk about the first gaming convention I ever organized. The year was 1985, and I was just shy of my fifteenth birthday.

The thing of it is, I really had no business organizing a “convention” at all. I was a kid, I didn’t know the first thing about conventions except for snippets from Dragon Magazine, and there was zero reason anyone should have believed I could pull something like this off. The two things I had on my side? I knew most of the local gamers, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know, meaning I wasn’t scared by the scope of the undertaking.

But in Boy Scouts we did a lot of problem solving exercises and planning for our events, so I used a similar approach to this. I broke down the event into smaller tasks and starting knocking them out one by one. And I mercilessly exploited people I knew. I convinced the minister at the United Church in town to let me use the basement of the church for a Saturday; in lieu of a rental fee, the church could run a concession, and I would donate half the door to them at the end of the day (So generous, right? It wasn’t until later I understood that the church was basically risking giving me the space for free). I basically blackmailed every DM and GM in town to come and run games, and I took advantage of my excellent relationship with both the library and the local bookstore to get prizes.

Looking back, I’m a little fuzzy on the details of the day itself. I remember that the door was $5 for the day, and that let you play in all the games you wanted, and got you a free pop at the concession. I’m sure I remember it going off better than it did, but it went off. And I certainly remember the looks on peoples faces when they saw me in charge. I mean, the DMs obviously knew, but this was pre-internet. All the players from around town knew was that someone was running a game day, and they could hang out and play all day for five bucks. That it was organized by a teenager was a shock to most of them.

So my take-away from that? Don’t be afraid to do your first one, whatever that one is. Could be writing an adventure, could be running a game for the first time instead of being a player. Heck, it could be organizing your first convention/game day. Look at the whole thing, break it down into bits, and start solving those bits. You might find it easier than you think.

Day Two – Unique

I love TTRPGs for the unique experience we get from them, compared to other forms of imaginative entertainment, such as films, TV shows, books, and so on. First, roleplaying games are active as opposed to passive. I read a book, I watch movies and plays and TV, but I don’t get involved. I can’t affect them, except in rare cases of choose-your-own-adventure or audience participation.

But TTRPGs are something else. I play those, I am making choices and plans and acting on those plans. More than that, I am sharing the experience with my friends. Instead of us each reading a book and then trying to explain how we saw it, I am right there with my pals and we experience everything together. We still have different view points to be sure, but we share the core experience as a group. And we remember that experience differently as well. Someone more qualified can talk about the brain science, but I remember actions taken in game in the same way I remember things I have done in real life. No other entertainment media has ever come close to that for me.

None of what I just said is news to anyone in the hobby. But I feel like it bears repeating as often as possible because I believe that telling heroic stories with your friends is at the heart of this great, goofy, grandiose hobby. And sometimes you have to pare things back to basics and remember that.

Day Three – Engage

This is something I struggle with in many aspects of the hobby. I am an introvert, and putting myself out there, whether that’s to play with new people or run something at a convention or other public space, is hard for me. I need a lot of quiet time leading up to it to charge myself up, and when it’s over I need some time to recharge before I go again. I’ve had many players at cons either not recognize me, or be dismayed by what appears to be my standoffishness, when they run into me after a game. Because when I GM I am animated and energized, but that drains the batteries pretty quick.

Over the years I have learned tips and tricks that work for me, to help me spend my energy more slowly and regain it quicker. And I have found that running games for friends doesn’t task me the same way. I don’t feel drained after running either of my regular D&D sessions, for instance. In most cases I need to take a bit afterwards to rev down so I can go to bed. Which is good, because I could give up every other part of this hobby today, as long as I got to keep the parts I share with my friends.

Day Four – Share

Sadly, I feel like this should just get posted on a regular basis, along with what I wrote above for Day Two. But here we go:

Gatekeeping is horseshit, TTRPGs are for anyone who isn’t a nazi or an asshole who wants to play, and if you gatekeep even dogs won’t love you. And they will love anyone with a stick or a can opener, so you have to know you’re on the wrong side of things right there.

People you don’t normally play with coming into the hobby has zero effect on the game at your table. I think you’re the poorer for not trying to include folks with experiences different from you at your table, but I’m not going to tell you your fun is wrong. By the same token, though, I would appreciate it, the next time you have an urge to post a gatekeeping comment on someone’s tweet or FB post, or perhaps just blast that horseshit on the internets without any prompting at all, if you would take a second and not do that. Instead, follow these steps:

  1. Take a deep, cleansing breath.
  2. Step away from the keyboard for a while.
  3. Read a limerick or take the cat for a walk.
  4. Do literally any other thing except be a douchecanoe on the internet.

It isn’t difficult. However, if the urge persists, contact your health provider to schedule a rectal-craniotomy at your earliest convenience, and repeat steps one through four.

Okay, that’s the first four days. Join me on Monday for Day Five: Space. Oooo, what could it be?

2019 ENnies Nominations

Today is a big day for the 2019 ENnies and for me. The 2019 nominations and Judges Spotlight winners were announced this morning, which means my work as an ENnies judge is 95% complete. If I weren’t going to Gen Con I’d be completely finished. Since I am attending there are the small matters of spending some time at the ENnies table while I’m there, as well as giving a short speech about my Judges Spotlight pick, plot ARMOR.

That short speech is why I’m not going to wax poetical about the game here. Except to say, if you want to check out a smart, challenging, single-player story game by one of the smartest folks in the industry right now, head to itch.io at the link above and pick it up. Then grab everything else dungeoncommandr has available. Then follow them on itch.io (which I realized I hadn’t done and hastily fixed) so you don’t miss anything else. You won’t be sorry.

A big congratulations to everyone nominated this year. Submissions were excellent this year and there was some pretty fierce competition out there. Our job as judges was tough as a result, but I think we put together a solid nomination list. Now, of course, it’s up to the members of the hobby to cast their votes and see who wins. I’m looking forward to the announcements at the award ceremony.

A huge thank-you to Hans and Stacy, and all the volunteers that keep the ENnies ticking along. As hard as we judges may have worked this year, all of them worked as hard or harder keeping everything running smooth so we could focus on the judging. I hope the ENnies continue to grow under your stewardship.

Last but not least, thank-you to my fellow judges, Alex, Ben, Brian, and Chris. I’m going to miss our Sunday morning conversations about gaming and the submissions. I learned a great deal talking with you all and I hope my fifth of the conversation was at least as interesting. Best of luck to those of you hoping to continue on for another term!

And now I’m going to take a little break from reading gaming books, maybe get started on some novels and comics that have gone by the wayside over the last year. After all, I need to cleanse the palette for all the new games launching at Gen Con.

Uncaged Anthology

Good morning! I won’t bury the lead: I edited a few of the adventures featured in Uncaged Anthology, which is available today over at the DM’s Guild!

I was lucky enough to see this project come into existence in real time on Twitter. It started as a question posed by Ashley Warren about a series of mythology-based one-shots. The response was amazing, and Ashley took the wheel and brought the massive ship that is any anthology project onto an even keel, and it was underway. When the call went out for editors I eagerly put my name in, and was lucky to be asked to take on some of the adventures.

I only grabbed my copy this morning, so expect an in-depth review later. But if the two adventures I work on were any indication of the overall quality (and I have every reason to believe it is so), you will want to grab this book post haste. It is a beautiful book packed with one-shot D&D adventures which could be dropped with ease into your campaign. Given the mythological theme which binds them, they could even form the basis of a campaign, as your players explore the myths and legends of your world.

I’m really excited to read this and get some of these adventures on the table. Even more exciting, this is only Volume One, so expect even more adventures to come!

Once you’ve had a chance to pick up a copy and look it over, I hope you’ll stop by and let me know which are your favourites. And should you be looking for an editor for your TTRPG project, well, I have a page about that. Let’s talk!

At The Rat Hole

Over at The Rat Hole today, I revisit a project I started and stalled on, and have now started again. It’s time to turn my game room into a proper, comfortable game space. If you have a gaming space in your home, you might find some tips and tricks helpful as the series progresses.

Tomorrow I’ll have a thrilling announcement regarding a project I worked on recently, so stay tuned!

Welcome to 2019!

Bit late to the party, I’ll admit, but welcome to 2019 everyone! This past year was…interesting. Definitely low points, some personal, some societal. On both fronts, though, 2019 seems to offer hope, so I choose to focus on that.

You’ll start to notice some small changes around the site in the coming weeks and months. I’m committing myself to a three post a week schedule, which will shake out to be a post over at The Rat Hole on Mondays, with two posts here either W/F or Th/Sa. I’m a happier Renaissance Gamer when I’m writing, so I’ve made time for myself to do that every day.

Two new projects are starting this year as well. I have promised myself that 2019 is the year I publish something for TTRPGs, hopefully several somethings. I have a short side-trek adventure ready for other eyes and playtest, that I hope to publish to DriveThruRPG or DM’s Guild in February. I’ll talk that up more when it’s ready, but as a teaser, check out the snazzy logo for my imprint, Prairie Dragon Press. It’s one of two logos by my pal and local designer Mike Kendrick (@ironcladfolly on the Twitters), and if you haven’t seen his work before I highly recommend it. He also did some poster art for the Pure Speculation Festival, and he is super talented and a joy to work with.

The second logo is for something I soft-launched last year, and am ready to push further this year. The Canadian Library of Roleplaying Games is going to be a bit more public this year. While I will continue to build up from my rather small collection of books, art, and memorabilia, I also want to start on the library’s other purpose, outreach and education. To start that will mean working with local cons and such to set-up displays and demonstrations. But eventually I’d like to expand that to the rest of the province and Western Canada. I’m also building out the Library’s website, including a database of what’s in our collection. So look for more of that in the coming months as well.

And while I’ve threatened to do it for years, I think this year is when I’ll also start podcasting. Between the new publishing imprint and the Library I’ll certainly have enough to talk about. In fact, the podcast will likely be focused on the Library, with occasional updates on other things. There are all sorts of folks I’d like to interview and chat with regarding TTRPG history, specifically Canadian industry history, and I hope that will be of interest to to other gaming nerds.

That’s all the updates I have right now. Monday will have a link to the Rat Hole article when it’s up, and regular service begins this coming week. Welcome to 2019, everyone! May the dice be ever in your favour!

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!

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.