Which Game Do You Hope to Play Again? #RPGaDay

There a few campaigns I ran once upon a time that I would love to get back to. The one that stands out for me is a d20 Modern Urban Arcana campaign I ran for four friends, years ago. As I sometimes do with modern games, I set the campaign here in my current home of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Using my hometown as a setting is useful; all my players have some familiarity with it, and I can just focus on the things that are different or weird.

In any case, the group stood out because they were such a wonderful group of players. While they all loved the crunchiness of combat, they were all great roleplayers as well, and often made what might be considered suboptimal tactical choices in favour of staying true to their character. They embraced the oddness of their situation, and really played into finding a balance between their character’s lives and the weird world they just discovered all around them.

Something else I love doing is giving the characters something potentially overpowered early on in the campaign, but it is either damaged in some way and they need to fix it to get it to full power, or there is some obvious restriction on its use that makes deploying it a last resort. In this case, I gave them a house that no one else could see, that had been the headquarters for a local branch of paranormal investigators for the government. The house was sentient, thanks to an AI/ghost (?), and was able to help with research and planning, but had no record of what happened to the previous team. All the group new was that they were currently on the government payroll as investigators/hunters, with all the benefits and bureaucratic red tape that entails.

It was good times, and during our last session we finished with the group at the spear points of a tribe of troglodytes living under the University of Alberta. If we do play again, we’ll pick right back up there. Or maybe we’ll flash forward a bit, and I’ll ask everyone to tell me how the gang got out of that jam. Either way it will be a good time.

From the Campaign: Emberhaunt

Here’s a little something I thought I’d share, that will make an appearance in one of my upcoming D&D sessions. I’ve been developing a haunted location in my game, and I wanted something a little special to spring on my players. Enter the emberhaunt. After I’ve had a chance to run it a few times I may work it up a bit more and commission some art for it. We’ll see.

I’m curious what you think, so please look it over and drop suggestions in the comments. And feel free to take it for a spin in your game. It’s easy to adapt to whatever RPG you’re running. It’s shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license.

RPGaDay: Electric Boogaloo

Look, we’re all adults here. You know I’m bad at sticking to these post-a-day schedules, I know I’m bad at it. Let’s not dwell. Let’s just enjoy the post.

What art inspires your game?

When I got into the hobby in 1980, I was living in the northern town (now city) of Fort McMurray. The only bits of gaming I could get ahold of in the first few years were the blue box Dungeons & Dragons set, the “pink box” Basic D&D box set with the Erol Otus cover, and the Dragon Magazines that the public library brought in as part of their periodicals collection. I loved that early art, especially the Erol Otus work. He had a “cartoony but dangerous” style (that’s how I described it to a friend at the time) that really appealed to me. But I also became a fan of much of the art that graced the cover and interior of Dragon Magazine. Cover artists back then would submit actual paintings, and you could tell from the quality of the work on display. Yes, there was the usual chain mail bikini art, but actually far less than people assume. Much of the art I saw in the magazine was much more interesting than that (though of course 12-year-old me also found the chainmail bikinis interesting, if impractical).

I still find that art inspiring, and I often grab a shelf box of my old Dragon Magazines down and thumb through the pages when I’m looking for some adventure or character inspiration.

What music enhances your game?

I’ve used music on and off in the last several years at my gaming sessions. While I do feel it can be a great addition at the table, it wasn’t always practical for me as the only thing I had to play it on was an older laptop. Since I was also trying to read PDFs of my session material, I sometimes had issues.

Currently, however, I’m taking a friend’s tablet for a spin in preparation of buying one for myself. I’ve found it extremely useful for music playback at the table, especially in combination with Spotify. If you search Spotify for D&D or Dungeons & Dragons, you can find any number of playlists to suit your game. And if you’re more into sci-fi or modern fantasy, you can still find plenty of great playlists to suit your needs, or even build your own. I was able to run a good playlist of music in the back ground of my last D&D game, and I found it helped everyone focus on the game a bit better, always a plus.

Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?

I answered this one on Monday over at The Rat Hole, so I am shamelessly plugging the site. Besides my articles, Dave writes some great reviews that you should definitely check out.

Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

I love dice, so it’s very hard for me to give a single answer. In general, though, I love when the dice mechanics enhance some aspect of the game, instead of just being the thing you have to stop role-playing to do. For instance, D&D 5e’s advantage/disadvantage mechanic is a simple enhancement that fits wonderfully with the existing base mechanic of the game. It allows a way for the DM to apply a reward or penalty to the situation without giving the player another bonus to track.

On a different track, the mechanics in Star Trek Adventures enhance the feeling of playing a character on a Star Trek show. They allow the player to lean heavily on either their innate talent or their Starfleet training to get a task done, and the momentum reward system supports the dice mechanic in a fluid way. Definitely worth checking out, even if you aren’t a huge Star Trek fan.

Which non-dice system appeals to you?

My favourite non-dice mechanic is still the playing cards from the original Deadlands RPG. The choice to use playing cards and poker chips in a weird west role-playing game was genius. And the fact that you used them not only for character creation but for running combat, with poker chips as in-game bonuses and experience points? Genius upon genius. I haven’t found another mechanic that so perfectly fit the game it supported than that one. It’s one of the reasons I will always play Deadlands if given the chance.

That’s it for today. Will I post a regular post tomorrow? Only the Shadow knows…!

Describe the Best Compliment You’ve Received While Gaming #RPGaDay

If I had to pick a best compliment, it would be from Gen Con a few years back. I had a really good table of players, including a father and his son and daughter. As the game ended and I announced we were finished, the kids let out simultaneous disappointed groans. Then the father asked what table I was going to run at next, because he wanted to sign him and his kids up for that. And they did, and had just as much fun. That was a great feeling.

I don’t really look for compliments when I run a game. But I do like noticing things like players leaning in during the tense moments at the table. Or those barely articulated gasps or exclamations that the game draws out of players. It’s a good feeling as a Game Master when you get confirmation that your game is having an effect on your players. You can’t force it, it comes or it doesn’t. But when it does, it validates everything about running games.

RPGaDay: Catching Up to the Ides

Yep, definitely a little behind on these. Let’s catch up, shall we?

How has a game surprised you?

This is tough to narrow down, because I read a lot of games and I’m constantly finding little surprises, good and bad. Star Trek Adventures, for instance, surprised me with how intuitively their game mechanics support the tone and story of the game, and actually get players more involved in the action rather than breaking them out of it. At the same time, I’ve been less pleasantly surprised by the latest iteration of Vampire: The Masquerade. While it seems to be a return to ‘90s V:TM, the language of the game is riddled with quite a bit of white supremacist dog-whistling. Whether that’s intentional or not, it marks a major shift in the original tone of V:TM.

In any case, I like finding surprises in my gaming material. If you have the chance I highly recommend tracking down older material and giving it a read. You’ll often find some delightful surprises in those older games. I regularly find ideas and plots I can bring into my game.

How has gaming changed you?

Too many ways to list them all, but the one that stands out is its effect on my ability to better communicate with people. I’m a reformed stutterer and an introvert, and this hobby has been invaluable in helping me overcome the first and adapt to the second, both of which have helped me communicate better. Just being a Game Master and observing what works and what doesn’t when I’m talking with my players has helped me apply some of that same skill to other conversations and situations.

Wildest Character Name?

I never really ever got wild with character names, though I have fun these days by using words in other languages as character names. Latin is always a great choice, but I’ve also grabbed words from Gaelic, Spanish, Portuguese, Urdu, and Arabic. Often it’s as easy as finding a word in English that fits your character, and seeing what Google Translate can find for you. For instance, a recent Dwarven character based around electricity attacks got the name Dealanach, which is the Gaelic word for lightning. While it might be a little on the nose, unless you game with a bunch of fluent Scots no one at the table will know.

Wildest Character Concept?

While I haven’t had a chance to play Numenera yet (my time will come), I have spent some time exploring some character concepts. Numenera’s character creation system makes this especially simple to do, and I’m the type of nerd who loves sitting for hours making up characters I might never play (bonus, I now have a bunch of NPCs if I ever GM the game instead). I think my favourite so far is a particularly silly one I made, a Helpful Jack Who is Clothing Full of Bees. They are essentially what it sounds like, a person distributed through a bee colony, inhabiting clothing to appear more human. I may never get a chance to play it, but I look forward to the day I run a Numenera game and can introduce them as an NPC.

Describe how your play has evolved.

I answered this over on The Rat Hole, so you can check it out there. And maybe read some other stuff while you’re there…

Describe a failure that became amazing.

I don’t know if it’s a failure, but I recently did a bit of writing for a third party publisher that didn’t pan out. For whatever reason my turnover email with the finished work didn’t get to them, and they assumed I blew off the assignment. When I pointed out that they could have followed up much sooner and found out the truth, their response could be summed up by *shrug*. Since I’ve done all the work anyway, I plan to finish laying it out and tweaking some details I like better, commissioning some art, and releasing it on DriveThru. Hopefully that will happen in the fall, and it will be my first self-published work. So not really a failure and too soon to know if it’s amazing, but I’m excited to see what comes of it.

Describe a tricky RPG experience that you enjoyed.

I was GMing my players through a section of The Rise of the Runelords adventure path for Pathfinder, and they were fighting their way through an old runelord enclave to get to the current BBG. Unbeknownst to them the BBG had been scrying on them during their fights, and so had a pretty good idea of their tactics when they arrived. They busted out the usual moves and were shocked and then scared spitless when the BBG just shrugged them off, having had plenty of time to buff and prepare contingencies. Best fight I ever ran, as the party scrambled to come up with new tactics. They won in the end, but it was sphincter-tightenly close a few times. Which of course made the payoff all the sweeter for them. But it was a challenge to not have him just steamroll them, which I could have easily done in the first few rounds.

Describe your plans for your next game.

I’m not sure I want to, as I have it on reasonable authority at least a few of them read my blog (Hello!). But I have a possible upcoming D&D campaign that I’ll be running for a co-worker and his friends, and it’s possible they won’t see this is time to do any good. I had briefly considered putting them in a section of my existing homebrew campaign, which would bring the total number of concurrent campaigns in that world to three. But it’s a group of new players, not just to D&D but to TTRPGs, so I don’t want to add any more confusion than I have to. So I’m taking this as an opportunity to return to the Forgotten Realms, and use some of the material there. I’m looking through the published material to see what I might use, and figuring out if I want to make my own campaign. But as with all games with new players, my plan is to get them into the action as quick as possible, and get them doing cool things right away. Hook them with the cool stuff, and they’ll keep coming back to the table…

Whew! Okay, I promise to try and be good and do these every day. Fingers crossed!

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.