30 Days of GMing, Day Six

This is the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, coming to you live!

World-building: What’s your process?

The Pathfinder RPG is about 70% of my gaming these days, so not a lot of world building involved. More like “world fleshing out” (a topic for another post). But when I do use my own campaign world, I use something I’ve termed the “concentric circle” approach. You can also think of it as the “fog of war” approach, but I like my first analogy better so I’ll run with that.

Basically, think of your campaign world as being contained within a series of concentric circles, like an archery target. The bullseye is wherever the players are going to start in the campaign, and I mean “start” in every sense; physical location, where their characters fit in society, their community, and so on. Once I’ve figured out where the bullseye is, I build my world from the bullseye outward. The most detail and attention is paid to the parts of the world in the bullseye which is, not coincidentally, the parts closest to the characters. I flesh that out as fully as I can, often with the help of my players’ character backgrounds.

So what is considered inside the bullseye? In terms of physical location, anything of interest within a day’s journey of the characters’ starting point. In terms of community, any family, friends, or contacts the characters might have within that physical location. Social standing, the details of day-to-day life at the characters’ social stratum. So if a character is a noble, I need to figure out details of how the nobility works inside the bullseye (it may work differently elsewhere). If a character is a peasant, what is their life like and how does it affect the story?

The next circle out from the party gets less detail, but still gets filled in. How much is encompassed in each circle is largely up to you, but for the sake of argument let’s say in physical terms it’s 2-3 days travel from the party’s location. I’ll make sure I have names for all the locations, some handy rumours about those locations, main NPCs fleshed out, and so on. Again, not as much detail as the bullseye, but fleshed out enough that if the party suddenly decided on a road trip I could keep things interesting and answer most of the questions the players come up with.

I think you get where this is going, right? Each circle further out from the party gets less detail, until at the outermost circle I might just have names for the locations and that’s it.

Why would I create my world this way? Simple. No, really, that’s it: I like to keep things simple. The characters are the stars of the campaign show, so it makes sense to fill in all the details immediately around them, since those are the details they’ll encounter right away. Take physical location: if the characters start in the village of Homesweethomesburg, why spend any pre-campaign prep filling out all the details and nuance of Nevergonnagothereville, located hundreds of leagues away from the party? Slap a name on that city, maybe give it one or two details you can relate if they ask about it (“Nevergonnagothereville has a thriving doll-house industry and is renowned for Jacobi, a champion throat singer.”) Spend your time bringing Homesweethomesburg to life; give it character and depth, make it lived in.

There are benefits to this approach for both you and the players. You get to cut down on a bunch of prep that might never get used (though see later questions in this series on what to do with extra prep), and stick to campaign prep that immediately affects your group. And the players start the campaign in what feels like a fully developed campaign world. Well of course, because the characters only see what is immediately around them, and that’s what you filled out. Once the characters start to move away from Homesweethomesburg, however, the bullseye moves with them. Now you have new information to flesh out. But if you follow this model of world-building, you’ll only be building the parts of the world that matter to your players. Which is all you need.

What about you? How do you build a campaign world? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

30Days of GMing, Day Five

30 Days of Game Mastering continues!

Stealing like an artist: what inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc?

It might be easier to list sources I haven’t used as inspiration. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t drawn on the Etruscans for anything, but I could be wrong. In seriousness, though, I’ll borrow ideas and inspiration from just about anywhere. I’m a sponge that way. But I do have a couple of favourite sources.

For a long time, National Geographic Magazine was my “go to” source for interesting ways to dress up the various races in my campaigns. It was an article on the Mongols, for instance, which led to my tribes of orcs being horse riding nomads. It added an interesting flavour to the game, and the only thing scarier than an angry orc with an axe is an angry orc with an axe on horseback. I’ve also used NatGeo to lend Elvish nations the feel of Imperial China, and to make the Halfling folk a bit more Romany.

Besides that, NatGeo is a great source for adding great details on all sorts of things. Articles on archaeological digs can help add verisimilitude to  your tomb and grave appearance and contents. You can snag plot inspiration from just about every article in an issue. And if you do base an adventure around something from the magazine, often there are excellent photos to help set the scene for your players.

Still a periodical, but not quite in National Geographic’s ballpark, is The Weekly World News. You’ve seen it on the check-out stand at your grocery or convenience store, even if you don’t realize it. But if you’ve been waiting in line and glanced at headlines like “Bat Boy Seeks Love Match”, or “Do Chupacabras Live Amongst Us? One Man’s Shocking Proof!”, then you’ve seen The Weekly World News, or a similar rag. Like NatGeo, I use WWN as inspiration for all sorts of stories, especially if I want an adventure with a touch of the ridiculous. WWN is especially perfect if you are running a game in a more modern setting, like Supernatural RPG, d20 Modern, or any Cthulhu game with a current-day setting. Heck, in one d20 Modern campaign I ran, WWN was the in-game source of information for my heroes; while everyone else assumed it was a terrible rag, my group new it printed the truth more often than people were ready to accept.

And then, yes, there are the usual sources: fantasy/sci-fi movies and books, comics, and TV shows. I’ll also cherry pick bits and pieces from other games and gaming books, if I see something I think would fit my current campaign. I think if I were to offer one piece of advice under this topic, it would be not to restrict yourself. Be a sponge. If you see something cool, something you like, make note of it. You may not know how or where to use it right now, but it may come to you later. Looked at the right way, anything can become part of your campaign, so don’t self-censor.

I put the question to you: what do you use as inspiration? Leave a note in the comments.

30 Days of GMing, Day Four

I feel like you guys should know what’s going on by now, so I’m just jumping right in.

Do you use pre-published adventures or write your own?

These days it’s about an 70/30 split between pre-published and the fruit of my own fevered brain. It has been many years since I have run a campaign that was completely my creation. Because I’m running a lot of Pathfinder these days, I tend to avail myself of the vast resource that is the Adventure Path line, with the modules coming in a close second. Between the four groups I either play in or GM, plus Pathfinder Organized Play, I only have so much prep time time available. So if there is pre-published material that will suit me and my group, I will go to that first.

That said, I almost never run pre-published adventures as written. Take Pathfinder for instance; most of the pre-pubs are written for the “ideal” group of four players, composed of Fighter, Cleric, Mage, Rogue. Rarely do I play with just four players (usually five, sometimes six) and I can’t remember the last time I had a group that was the standard FCMR mix. As an example, when I started the Rise of the Runelords adventure path with my group, it was back during 3.5. One of my players chose a Goliath Barbarian as his character. Goliaths were a 3.5 race who were essentially Giant-kin, and one of their racial abilities allowed them to treat themselves as Large when it was beneficial to do so. That meant he started the game with a Large two-handed sword (doing 3d6 damage, plus strength bonuses). Minor spoiler, but the first foe you face in the adventure path are goblins, with a paltry 6 hit points a pop. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that, with making some changes, he was going to own early encounters. So I adapted; made the goblins a little tougher and a little harder to hit, and had more of them show up.

So that would be my advice here, never be afraid to modify pre-published adventures to suit your group. There are no continuity police to come along and give you hell for changing things. It’s your group, your campaign; take the material and make changes as necessary. Don’t like the class of the main NPC? Change it! Encounters don’t seem tough enough for your group? Try maxing out the hit points to keep the monsters in the fight longer, or just add more monsters (that last works best with small fries, like goblins and kobolds). It’s your game, so do what you need to do to keep things fun and exciting for your players. And for you; it is a real downer for a GM when the players cake walk through encounters. Don’t let it happen, modify away!

What do you use the most, home made or pre-pubs? And do you modify? Leave a comment!

30 Days of GMing, Day Three

Day three of 30 Days of GMing, and I’ll get to the question in a moment. I just want to take a moment to remind folks I am taking part in the Extra Life fundraiser this year. Along with a bunch of friends I am a member of Team Knifeshoes, and we’re raising money for children’s hospitals. You can donate to the cause by clicking on the graphic in the margin; it will take you to my donation page where you can donate securely on-line. Any amount will get me closer to my goal, and amounts $25 and over get a tax receipt. And I’ll post information about how to follow along as I game away 25 hours. Because I’m hardcore!

But now, today’s Challenge question.

How do you find players?

I’ll admit, I haven’t had to go out and look for players for a while now. I have one group I’ve been gaming with once a week (more or less) for about 8 years, and another two I GM (one bi-weekly, the other monthly) that have been together just over a year. Between that and Pathfinder Society Organized Play, my GMing slate is pretty full without having to look for new players.

BUT, if I did need to find players I actually have a few options. If I was starting a new Pathfinder campaign specifically, I’d probably put the word out through the Pathfinder Society players. Your local organized play events are often good places to find players for a game, especially if the campaign you want to run is for that game. Be advised, though, it is NOT COOL to schedule your campaign at the same time the organized play runs. Then you’re just poaching players, and that’s a dick move.

I also belong to a few gaming Meetups, and those are great places to meet and recruit new players. If you haven’t already, run a search on the Meetup main site for gaming groups in or near your area. You’ll likely be surprised by what you find.

Another good option is to join some gaming forums, and make sure to post your location so other forum members can find you. Many such forums have “Looking for Group” sections for both GMs and players. They can be hit and miss, depending on the size of the forum and how active it is; less so if you are good with playing on-line via a virtual tabletop. At the very least you get some good conversations while you wait for someone to show interest in your game.

I still see notices up occasionally at my Friendly Local Game Store, but I’ve never used that method myself and I’ve never responded to it unless it was for in-store organized play. So it can work, but the better looking you can make your notice, the better. I see so many “LFG” notices scrawled out on loose-leaf pages in crappy hand-writing, and I honestly don’t know why anyone thinks they work. Even something typed out in 10 minutes on your computer is going to look way better than that.

How do you find new players? Leave a comment and let us know.

30 Days of Gamemastering

No, I’m not GMing every day for 30 days. That would be amazing, but no. Instead, I’m taking part in the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge over at Triple Crit. Every day I’ll answer the GMing question of the day, and I’ll try to keep my answers concise. Since I’m a day late to the party, let’s jump right in and answer the first two questions!

What advice would you give a first-time GM?

Have fun and don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself. If you’ve been playing the game you’re GMing you likely have a good grasp of the rules, so trust that. If it’s a new game, don’t worry about knowing every rule right now. Instead, focus on setting things up so you can find rules quickly, thus keeping the action going.

Remember “Yes, and…”, and don’t block your players. If the players are excited about an idea or a plan or anything, and you can figure out a way to use it in the game, do it. It makes them feel more connected to what is happening, and actually makes you look brilliant for “anticipating” their desires. Always remember, of course, you don’t have to use their idea in quite the way they wanted/anticipated; leave yourself the option to surprise them, thus making yourself look more brilliant.

And write stuff down, even just point form notes. Trust me, it will save heart-ache down the line.

What are your favourite GMing tools or accessories?

I posted a while ago about my GM kit, so the easy answer would be “everything I carry in that”. But using my GM kit as the start, I’d say my favourites depend on what game I’m running. If it’s Old School, I just go with my dice bag and a pencil, like I did in the old days. But if I’m running something more recent, based on the d20 model, I’d say my favourite becomes the re-usable flip mats. Those were a stroke of genius for any GM needing to map on the fly.

Now if we’re talking computer tools, my laptop actually comes in as my favourite GMing tool. Not only is it an easy way for me to carry all my information in one place. It also runs my second favourite tool, Hero Lab. Not only can I use it to track combat and player progression, but it’s a handy tool for tweaking NPCs and keeping basic notes on the campaign.

Okay, first two questions down. You can expect me to pop an answer up every day until November 2. And I’ll even try to get regular posts in during that time; I have a few things I want to talk about, like Prairie Dragon Press™ and such.

How would you answer these questions? Drop your answers in the comments.