Scratch Made Pies: Introduction

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan

Hello, welcome to Scratch Made Pies, a blog that covers my trek through fashioning a fictional universe that I use for a bi-weekly Pathfinder game. I will be using this blog to work through my ideas and thoughts as well as the process that I am using to spin my own little slice of a fictional reality.

But first, a little about me. I have been playing Pen and Paper RPGs since 1990 when I first played the old Marvel Super Heroes published by TSR. After that I played in various games of AD&D when I was able to check the books out of the library (I’m from a small town. Comic book and game shops are nowhere near my home.) I really hit my stride when I moved to a town WITH a game shop and delved deep into the White Wolf and AEG offerings of Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. And then 3.0 hit like a lightning bolt and it was EVERYWHERE. This is where I got my first taste of running games and was fortunate enough to have a regular group where all of the other players were seasoned Dungeon Masters. This gave me some very harsh lessons in how to and not to run a session. Fast forward to a good deal of time later and I’ve been a player and DM for The Redacted Files.

But one thing that I had wanted to do for the last few years was to develop a game world for my Pathfinder/D&D games that I really could call my own.

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Advice from a Crummy Painter: Preparing your Models

Some time ago (about a year I think) my beneficent GM Megan had expressed some interest in me writing an article or two about miniature painting as war gaming/painting is one of my hobbies. I have been painting up a storm as of late I thought it might be a good time do so. But I want to preface this with a bit of humble pie. I don’t consider myself to be that great of a painter. I started with little to no talent and my early jobs looked like Quasimodo after a bad spa day. I have been painting for about 15 years and only recently my biggest critic (my wife) has admitted she cannot say they suck anymore. I fully admit that there are a ton of articles by super talented people out there and I will whole-heartedly endorse you seeking their works out, but I hope that you find this series to be a decent starting off point. So here we go.

As the inaugural piece I wanted to cover just the most basic of things when preparing to paint miniatures. Just a few things have an impact on your first outing as a painter. If you happen to not be new to the painting process these will seem like no brainers, but it is a good thing to remember the basics.

  1. Clean your models – This encompasses not only cutting off excess pieces of material, sprue, etc.; but filing mold lines, inspecting for miscasts and other imperfections. And above all wash your models. When they arrive new almost all miniatures are coated with a fine to heavy layer of mold release. This is a substance that manufacturers use to aid in getting the newly cast models out of their form molds. It’s not an involved process to get the residue off. A simple soak and wash with warm water and dish soap is enough. Just be sure that the pieces are thoroughly dry before you begin.
  2. Prime – Carefully and thoroughly. A good prime job is essential to a good paint job. And there are a number of ways to go about it. The most common method that I have found it just a simple rattle can of spray primer. I use three different kinds but there are numerous forum threads and article on the matter. Other kinds and methods are brush on primer and the most expensive to start is airbrushing primer. All are valid options. I use the rattle can method as it fits in my price range.
  3. Have an idea of what you want to do – This is really all about choosing the colors you want to have present on your minis. Some war games require that your units or the entire army have a cohesive color scheme to make it easy to identify them as being in the same army. Others may not and the color scheme requirement is out the window when painting individual figures for Pathfinder, D&D and such. But beyond being consistent have an idea in your mind of how you want the final product to look. It may change a little as you paint, but keep a consistent picture in your head as you work. It will help.
  4. Wash your hands – Yeah, do this before you paint. The oils that we humans produce are the bane of painted minis. Over time the residue will erode the bindings and pigments in the paints and will lead to fading and easier chipping over time. And when it comes time to paint, I recommend doing everything possible to not directly handle the mini. The method I use is using a bit of poster putty to affix the base to an old paint pot. If painting the model in an un-assembled state use bits of paperclip to hold them. It will save you some heartache later.
  5. Assemble your minions – This can be done either before or after you paint. Some figures really lend themselves to being painted prior to assembly. I would leave it to your discretion on what to do; it is really a matter of personal choice. Also, prepare your work space. Get your brushes, paints, paint water cup, paper towels, etc. ready ahead of time. It helps to have a dedicated workspace for painting so you don’t have to set up and tear down all the time.
  6. Paint – To parrot Shia Le Bouf “Just do it!”, you can read about it all you want but it comes down to just painting. And then when you are finished with one model, start the next. I try to paint for at least an hour a day. Like any skill in life it doesn’t come naturally to everyone and the only way to improve is to do it, look at what you have done and then do it again. Then have someone else appraise your work, take criticism as a learning opportunity and try again. Look around for new techniques and apply them. Just keep at it and don’t get discouraged. The only bad paint job is one that is not attempted.

So there they are, some bare bones tips to help get started. Now one point that I cannot stress enough, is that in the coming months I will be posting more articles on the way that I prepare and paint miniatures. This is just the way that I paint and it may not work for you. And that is the thing of it. Paint can be a very personal thing to most people and it is imperative that you find what works for you. I just hope I can shed some light on your travels.

As always, thank you for reading and happy painting!

P.S.  – For some examples of the work that I have done check out my Google + page, under my name Patrick West. The vast majority of these are posted under the Warmachine and Hordes community.

GM Advice: The TPK

I have written about death in your game in a previous article and with recent event in my own game I thought it was time for me to write about the dreaded Total Party Kill. TPKs happen, often unexpectedly, but they don’t necessarily spell the end of your carefully crafted story.

First I want to take a look at the probable causes of the party’s demise. When a single player character dies on their own it is often boiled down to a poor decision on a player’s part. I myself have fallen victim to the “I got this.” mentality when my characters died more times than I can count. Other times a named monster or villain gets a lucky shot in at just the wrong moment; or worse it comes down to a failed save versus something deadly; just poor luck there really. But what about when the entire party bites the big one? Where does the fault lie?

A die roll or a series of rolls?

GM fiat?

A string of poor decisions made by one player who is having a bad day and has decided to blow it all to the ninth circle of hell?

It could be all of the above really. The first thing you want to do as a GM is derail the train of thought about placing blame. It will lead to the dark side and can drive a nail into the heart of the most hard-boiled groups. Break things up by taking a break, get snacks or drinks while you think on where to go next. When the game reconvenes, talk to your players and get their perspective on what they want to do next, and then plan accordingly. If the TPK happens early into your game night, spend the rest of the evening playing a different game (Zombicide often hits my table) and get everyone back into a good headspace. After the night is over, plan your next move.

And what move should that be? With an (almost) fresh start it can be whatever you want it to be. The sky is the limit. Why (almost)? Well, just because the party is dead it doesn’t have to mean that you are done with them. In a fantasy setting you can now run an adventure of an indeterminate length of the party trying to fight through the underworld for the right to live again and continue where they left off. And if they succeed, a time jump to a few years or even decades from when they died can be a possibility. In a more modern or sci-fi game may be the party is captured by the evil scientist or group and brought back to life with “enhancements” insert devious giggle here. Heck it doesn’t even have to be the bad guys doing the experimenting. Perchance your players own employer dispatched a group to retrieve the bodies of the party and then goes to work on them. You can even have the players play the rescuers.

I also like the idea of the next group of adventures living in the world that the old characters failed to save. You can make the world as dystopic as you want. Or maybe even the changes that the old party turned out to be for the better but it is now a totalitarian society that new party is rebelling against. You have a wealth of opportunities when the party suffers a total kill. Even a random wipe.

Now that you have ideas to work in a random TPK and not have everything go to heck. Why not try a deliberate TPK. You don’t even have to tell your players that you are planning it ahead of time. Just drop it on them at a moment of high tension. Have your story guide them to a point where victory almost seems at hand and then push them off the cliff with a backup plan to screw things for them. At the time it may seem like all their effort was for naught and could lead to some hard feelings so the purposeful party wipe is not for the faint of heart. Your group needs to have faith in your ability to weave a story and not leave them out in the cold.

One thing that worked for me as a player is that my GM brought me in on the plan and my character was to turn traitor in the battle that lead to the “wipe”; after the things happened we handed in our sheets at the end of the session and there was a few days of radio silence from the GM. Then when we were about to get together for our normal game, the preceding day we received our characters back. The other had slight modifications, extra perks or enhancements whilst I made a new character. My original one had become an NPC and the new focus for the party to hunt down. Good times.

If you really want to go the distance and have the mental fortitude and dedication you can have several TPKs or wipes. Even if they don’t involve the party dying; really, a wipe is simply starting over. If your party is particularly successful you can have the original group of characters retire or start their own long term plans and run a multi-generational game where the new party is their descendants or servants. The options are whatever you want to make them. Talk it out with your players outside of the game and see what they thing about long term goals, they may surprise you.

In short when faced with a TPK, remember this:

Picture1

Until you say it is.

Thank you for reading and happy rolling.

Character School – Bards! Part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

So, in the last article we covered the hard portions of the Bard, aka the abilities and options that you have relatively little choice over. This week we take a look at feats and spell choice.

I want to start with feats, as I feel that a good idea of what feats you want will help shape your spell choices as the two can often be used in conjunction. Bards receive only the standard allotment of feats; that is they get them at the standard rate listed in the Pathfinder Core Book with no bonus feats at all, other than a racial bonus feat if applicable. Making it pretty important to make the right choices for the Bard you want to be.

First up are the feats that I look at almost every time I consider playing a Bard. Extra Performance, Spellsong, Lingering Song, and Harmonic Spell. I mentioned Extra Performance in the previous article so we will be skipping that one. Spellsong allows you to hide a bard spell in a perform check, masking your intentions from those looking, but it also allows you to cast spells without breaking your performance mid battle. Damn useful.

Lingering Song lets your bardic performances effects last two rounds beyond your performance’s end. Used judiciously it can allow you to extend the number of rounds that you have available in a day. For example, a first level bard with 6 available rounds of bardic performance can stretch them to 18 effectively by performing for only one round and then dropping the song. This will cause Lingering song to kick in for two rounds, unless another song is performed during that time.

Harmonic Spell is similar to Spellsong in that you can cast spells while maintaining a bardic performance. However, it does not mask that you are casting a spell. Instead it gives you the benefit of maintaining the performance during the round that you cast the spell (1st level or higher) without using a round of your daily allotted bardic performance, again extending the amount that you can use in a day. Secondly, the feat allows you to change the type of bardic performance you are using as a swift action when you cast. For example, you are using Countersong but think a better choice this round would be Inspire Courage. Normally at a low level you would need to use a standard action to change performances, but with Harmonic Spell you can cast cure Light Wounds to get the fighter back into action AND switch to inspire courage without skipping a beat.

After the necessities I gravitate toward the feats that offer a greater flexibility in survival options. This is primarily due to needing to be within 30 feet of my allies while using performances. Dodge comes to mind right off the bat, a +1 to AC is really nothing to sneeze at. It’s a small bonus but AC is AC. Shield Focus, as you can sing and still use a shield. Combat Expertise is good when making ranged or melee attacks. I tend to keep my Bard away from the fighting if possible, or just make it next to impossible to be targeted/hit through spell effects and such. Just something to think about.

Next are the utilitarian feats. Skill focus is great, it really adds to the performance checks that you wish to focus on. And it pairs well with Versatile Performance, mentioned in the first part of this series. You can take it multiple times, I like to take it twice if I can. Once for performance, and the other for something like spellcraft or escape artist. Pushing the selected skills beyond stupid levels of bonuses.

I haven’t really mentioned combat feats other than survival for the reason that I dislike combat as a Bard. But if you do choose to be combat focused, my advice is this. You have to focus on what kind of combat you want to engage in. most Bards have a higher Dex so ranged combat options such as Point Blank and Precise shot should not be overlooked. If you feel gutsy and want to be in the tick of it, Weapon Finesse and Combat Expertise are your best friends. Maybe even go down the path of the “One Hit for All the Glory” path, using Vital Strike when it becomes available.

Finally we reach Spell Choice. Bards, due to the staggering amount of abilities they already have, get a somewhat truncated spell list and max spell level. Also, as they are spontaneous casters, they have a severely limited amount of spells known but a higher than normal amount of spells per day. For those who are looking at playing a Bard as their first foray into a spell casting class it can be a bit difficult to choose the right spells for what they want to do. Everyone has their own tastes, much like drink choices, so here are mine.

0 Level

Summon Instrument – Self explanatory. You summon an instrument to your hand. But the fun part is that they don’t disappear when they leave your hand. Case in point, I once used cowbells to set off traps laid by spiders, letting us know where the spiders were at. Or if you took the Catch Off Guard feat, you are almost never without a weapon. Summon cymbals and toss them with Throw Anything to be a musical Captain America. Dirty.

Light – So many uses. Cast it on a rock and toss it down a hallway to light things up. Or a coin or something that you can easily put in your pocket for an easily concealable light source. Or an arrow to mark you targets on the dark. If you can’t think of at least five different uses for this spell, you’re doing something wrong.

Ghost Sound – One of the few 0-Level spells that scales with your level. I use it to sow chaos, or as a harmonizer when performing. Get creative. Fun times will abound. My favorite use was making “Mommy/Daddy time” moaning sounds to distract an innkeeper.

Prestidigitation – Long name, useful spell. It’s the all purpose minor trick that does little other than flavor your character.

Dancing Lights – Light+. In reality I use it for effects. Like having the lights pop in tune with your song, or when you want to mark target priority for your fighter wizard and such. Just talk it out with your party before hand what the colors/shapes mean. It sometimes comes down to choosing between this OR Light. If you don’t want to have two Light type spells, choose what you think will work best with the way your character operates.

Detect Magic – Yep, you can see magic.

Mage Hand – Who can’t find a use for telekinesis, even if it is only five pounds?

1st Level

Chord of Shards – Can be using during a bardic performance and deals a cone of piercing damage. Pretty solid.

Charm Person – Yup. Bards have it and it can make their job loads easier. Especially if you hide the spell in a performance.

Ear Piercing Scream – One of the few scaling damage spells for the bard at an early level. Only effects one target but it can daze and damage.

Disguise Self – Oh you tricky person you. Deception is fun.

Fumbletongue – Low level anti-caster spell. Situational but neat.

Forced Quiet – Second to Silence for usefulness. Make your fighter clank less when sneaking or stop the guards from raising an alarm. Both equally decent choices.

Hideous Laughter – The bane of fighters. Makes a target unable to act but not helpless, it does scale duration with level. Useful in a bunch of different situations. Like maybe hiding the spell in a song and causing an adviser to fall down laughing for no apparent reason….

Swallow Your Fear – Single target buff at first but for the whole party later. Gives bonuses to STR and CON as well as some other things. Great if you want to use a different performance than Inspire Courage but still want a party bonus.

2nd Level

Alter Self – Like Disguise Self but better. Think of it as a limited wild shape.

Bladed Dash – Great for finishing something off, or some off the cuff combat antics.

Cacophonous Call – The brown note. Inflicts the nauseous  condition on a single target.

Charitable Impulse – Useful both in and out of combat, a “Gimme all your stuff!” spell.

Dust of Twilight – Kinda situational but good, I like to use it to gain a tactical advantage prior to a fight. Especially when my character or allies have dark vision and such.

Hold Person – Paralyze but only works on people. Still, can be an instant win button if used right.

Sonic Scream – Damaging spell that can be used three times in a single casting. And you can act like Banshee from the X-Men. Woot.

Now at this point I’m going to stop as this would become little more than a long list of stuff I think is fun to play around with. With spell selection what I would impress upon you as a player is to choose the spells that would suit the way you play your Bard the most. If you are a combat based Bard, choose combat spells, sneaky Bards should look to the ones that disguise yourself and others or affect the reactions of NPCs. And lastly, under no circumstances should you rush to choose a spell. Take the time between sessions to really look at the options available. A hasty choice can lead to regret.

If you would like any direct advice on playing a Bard or would like some ideas, feel free to contact me through G+ or Twitter.

Thank you for reading and happy rolling!

Character School – Bards!

Hello! I’m going to breaking away from my general advice to get a little specific and focus on character classes; specifically the classes available in Pathfinder from Paizo Publishing. Now I understand that I will never be able to cover everything that is available to each class, especially with new content and supplements being released at a pretty good clip, but I will do my best. The format will be a brief overview of the nuts and bolts of each class with a more in depth play-style and options piece the following week. Now, by request, on with the Bard!

The absolute rock bottom description of a bard is “Support Class”. I always balk a little when players dismiss them out of hand as they have a mess of abilities but nothing that really shines on the page. To me, the fact that nothing sticks out IS what jump out at me. They are good at just about anything but do require a bit of experience and insight to play properly.

Start with stats. After rolling or using the point buy system I focus on the big three for the Bard in the following order: Charisma, Dexterity, and Intelligence. It can be argued that Constitution and Wisdom should also be up there but they fall pretty short in comparison for squeezing the juice from what the Bard can do. Charisma is what the Bard bases their spell-casting on as well as a good portion of their skills. Dexterity can help with spells that require a ranged touch or for the times when you resort to distance fighting, not to mention not getting hit. And Intelligence gets you more skills and helps with all the knowledge checks that you will be making.

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Good Player Habits

I’ve spent the past few weeks focusing on GM tips and advice; I thought it was high time to dispense with some wisdom/requests to the players that read these articles as well. GMs have a pretty big job in store for them when they choose to run the games we enjoy; helping out by being a courteous player is something that will help them in their pursuit of a good story or exciting hack n’ slash and make your experience better as well. Here are a few things that will go a long way in doing so.

1. SHOW UP – No brainer. It seems a bit easy at first as generally playing an RPG is something you want to do anyway, but it’s more than simply being present. It means being ready to game and stay focused while you play. If your GM has to keep getting your attention on your turn or asking for your involvement you’re doing it wrong. Sure, we all have things in our life that may be distracting you, but if they are that bad think about bowing out of a session. Your party will understand if you have life things going on. If they don’t, find another group of people to play with.

2. COMMUNICATE – With your GM and party. Give them feedback about their game and characters. Let them know if you will be late or absent, preferably early. Coordinate what your character is looking at doing or how you plan to develop them. Let your GM know what choices you are making. A well informed GM is a GM that can shape the game accordingly. During the game, be clear with what you are doing. Don’t assume the GM will read your mind and extrapolate your finely crafted plan to assassinate the bad guy. If you don’t say it, it doesn’t happen.

3. PAPERWORK – Please, try your hardest to have all of the “clerical” work done on your character before your next session/game begins. It can be a pain if at the beginning of each game session, after XP was given or a level was gained, you spend an hour trying to figure out what you want to do. This is especially important if the advancement that you take requires more work from the GM, as in the case of the D&D/Pathfinder feat “Leadership”. I usually plan my characters out a few levels in advance so I can knock out the details as they arise. Keep an accurate record of what your character has on their person, it will lead to less tears when you reach for your wizard hat and robe just to find you didn’t note them and the GM calls bullshit on you.

4. MAKE A DETAILED CHARACTER – This one right here is my biggest pet peeve. Mainly because well fleshed out characters make my life easier. When one of my players hands me a character sheet without a background I usually hand it back and tell them, “It’s not done.” This oft leads to a look of bewilderment until I point out that I have a limit of one “Mystery Man/Woman from the East” per adventure. I want meat. I want a fleshed out character with motivations and reasons why they do what they do. I want my players to hand me a character that is dripping with the possibility of meaningful growth. It may take coaching some players through the process a few times but eventually they will think about their characters as more than a grouping of numbers and lists. Do this for your GM, provided they value a good story, and it will be a more rewarding experience.

5. SHOWER – This applies more to gaming in person, but it’s true. Please, don’t arrive smelling of last night’s pizza. Even if you play online. Give a damn about hygiene. Smelly players often don’t get invited back for another session. If you are coming fresh from work, think about packing some deodorant and a clean shirt. Expanding more on this, just don’t be offensive; not just in odor. If your group is relatively new, consider the words that come out of your mouth. I’ve excluded a few players as they just ended up being vile at the gaming table. There is a time and place for that kind of speech/thought, know when that is.

There you have it, a few quick guidelines for player habits. There is certainly more that can be on this list, but I feel I covered the biggies. If you have anything you want me to cover in a future article as a player or GM, please let me know in the comments.

Thank you for reading and happy rolling!

Delay of Game! 5 HP penalty, still the fighter’s turn!

Or rather the flow of your game session.

Flow or pacing is a pretty big deal when running a game session. And it’s so much more than simply having a smooth combat where everyone is ready during combat. It’s one of the more difficult things to get a good grasp of and implement well. It took me a good long time to really suss out what worked for me with how my game. Part of it came down to good session planning and the rest was just practical table top gaming habits.

Planning how you want your session to run sounds easy at first, but it does take some finesse. Start with the basics; length, the plot points, and what you want your players to accomplish. I like to keep the game sessions that I run to be around two to four hours long. Being an arguably responsible adult (as are most of the people that I play with) this fits it with the time I have available as well as my players. It also fits the attention span of most people. Sure, we’ve all heard of the 8 to 15 hour games that people are down for playing when they were young. But from personal experience, they sucked. People tended to drift to something else, or thumbing through manuals and stop really paying attention.

Another important thing to mention is when running a session of decent length is to know when to break. Get the breaks in; I like to do it before boss fights. It gives me time to get the table ready, and give my players a chance to strategize and be back at the table refreshed. Ready to tear the boss up, or die horribly; AND they can’t say they died because all they could think about was using the restroom. If you feel your party start to slip into la la land, hit the brakes, and let them get up.

Good habits are the best way to keep a good flow for your game, but are sometimes hard to instill in yourself and your players. I’ll list a few, but know that as people are great and varied, so are the things they do.

First and foremost, make sure EVERYONE (yes, even the GM) has a good grip on how combat or skill check works in the system you are using. This can kill the flow of the game in no time flat. I know that not everyone has the capacity to memorize all of the rules and nuances for every system they play. And if people are having issues with it, the rest of the group should be there to assist. Perhaps jot down a note card with available actions or a sequence of actions from round to round. Anything to keep things moving.

Next, try your best to keep rule books off the table. Having to look things up right in the middle of combat or dramatic moments is terrible. If a player calls out a rule you flubbed, or you are unsure about something trust your gut, make a ruling and look it up later. Post session rundown or breaks are great for this. Research can wait, your game should not. If a player insists on challenging a ruling, die off for it. Then look up the issue later.

One of the more draconian things that I do to keep things on track is timed turns. Especially when things are dicey for the characters. Indecision is a killer, not only of characters but of game sessions. During stressful moments I will point to a player and ask directly what they are doing, anything less than a clear action is ignored and they are skipped for the next in initiative order. Some will claim that it is mean, and it kind of is, but rest assured they will be ready the next time their turn comes around.

Before I forget to mention it, there is one thing that all if not most RPG groups like to do is have side conversations that do not pertain to the game at hand and spin off into full blown tangents. How you deal with this is entirely up to you, but it is critical to recognize where things are going and when to try to get people back on track. This is one of those things that are really difficult to avoid, especially if one or two of the players have gaming history together. They will like to tell “war stories” of past RPG exploits. I myself am guilty of this way too often. I’d advise you as a GM to let them tell their piece, but the reign things in soon. Sometime the old stories can be long winded; a simple “Nice! You’ll have to tell me about that after the game/in the next break.” Is a polite way to say, “OI! Get on with it” and back to the current task.

Finally, limit distractions. Phones should at least be set to vibrate. The TV should be off. And if you plan to have music during your game, make sure the set list is long enough to last, or keep your remote handy to restart the playlist.

So there you have it,  a few things to think about for your sessions. If you are having trouble with keeping things flowing, reflect upon behaviors of the group and write down things that you want to change. Bring them up with the party, and gain consensus. It will make things loads easier.

Thank you for reading, and happy rolling!

Modules and “Home-Brew” Adventures

A friend of mine recently began to run his own Pathfinder RPG game and opted to use a prebuilt module from Paizo rather than craft his own adventure. Now this was a bit foreign to me as I have never run from a module, instead choosing to free form the trials that I put my players through. After speaking with him I got to thinking about some of the pros and cons of both kinds of adventures, prebuilt and “home-brewed”.

Prebuilt adventures are a go to for a large number of DMs that are just starting out, and for good reason. It’s prebuilt. Not that it makes it any easier to run a session mind you; after all, no adventures survive first contact with the players. But if you are just starting out as a DM a prebuilt adventure or module can be a tremendous help.

At the most basic level it provides a guided adventure where everything is already done. Monsters are chosen, maps are drafted and descriptions (i.e. flavor) detailed, treasure generated, and so on. But more than that, for a new DM who wants to begin to pen their own story, it provides a visual example of what goes into an adventure. This that can seem a bit daunting at first but after seeing it done a DM has a better idea of the work that needs to be done when writing.

But one downside is that a module doesn’t cover everything nor will it anticipate everything the players may do or react to. The DM still has to their job after all. The module doesn’t have anything to do with how the players build their characters or how the party is composed. It doesn’t think for you. And the advice that the writers of the module give them DM for running the sessions can vary wildly. The best modules provide tips and reminders throughout the book (or pamphlet) on how the monsters and prebuilt NPC behave. What happens when traps go off and a good portion of what to be ready for. While the terrible ones can be little more than a few maps and stat blocks.

In either case the best advice I can give in using modules is that it is much like studying in school. Make copious notes of everything that seems like it would be important. Copy the stat blocks for monsters on 3×5 cards, read the module several times over, know it inside and out. Learn the names of the important NPCs and be ready to recall them on a moment’s notice. I’m not saying you need to know everything in a module, but it can really break the pace of a game session if you continually have to reference the book.

So, after running a few modules you decide you might think about making your own adventure and telling your own story. I will admit, it’s pretty damn cool.

And it’s friggin’ hard.

The hardest part for me when I started was knowing where to begin. It’s tough to understand until you do it. I spoke to my players outside of game sessions to get their thoughts on how to go about composing my game. They were all DMs and there was some ribbing but what I walked away with a lot of valuable advice.

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Things that go bump

or baba dook dook dook or whatever

Monsters! Chills! Thrills! Creepy crawlies or odd things! Monsters are an integral and even fundamental part of any modern (or classic) RPG. I had originally thought to write this piece about villains but what is a villain at its most basic, boiled down, level? You’re damn right, it’s a monster.

Coming from a largely high fantasy background most of my favorite monsters are the classics. The undead, orcs, ogres, and the fae commonly show up in the games I run. But they are not for everyone and knowing what kind of monsters your group likes to face will be a great help in making your games more enjoyable. But more than that, effective use of monsters is what you should be thinking of.

First, consider when the last time your party was truly frightened by an encounter. Not apprehensive of what they are fighting due to know what the thing is capable of, but truly, and honestly scared. Was it because they were sucking fumes for hit points and the party healer was tapped out? Or was it because they were at a disadvantage in numbers; or just much MUCH smaller than their opponent. While it’s all well and good that they may win these encounters by the skin of their teeth, they are often hardly memorable without some major feat by the players.

So how do we solve this?

With some monsters, it’s easy. Others , not so much.

First up are DRAGONS! Few GMs play dragons to their fullest potential. Think about it, even juvenile dragons are highly intelligent in most cases, have a breath weapon and can cast a few spells. But often they are used to rush and breathe fire at the players, make a few swipes with their claws and then die. Bleh. They are a proper monster! Don’t let them roll over and die! Use their spells, if you’ve done it right the players have come to them! Make their lair smoky, they can see through it. Have them hide and leap from the shadows, take a swipe at the chewiest looking player and then disappear into the smoke again. Cast magic missile from the air to soften up the hard targets and then breathe fire for the kill. If you DO choose to have the dragon be a mindless melee machine, why stop at just the dragon? What nasty thing is holding the reigns? A lich, an evil cleric of Tiamat, or Jeremy Irons are all good choices.

Adult Dragons should be even worse. Spell resistance gets added to the mix as does a good many feats. Oh and invisibility. I’ll just put that out there. An invisible g-golly Dragon. That can use Suggestion at will. Just sayin’

But Dragons are easy. What would you think about a pack of goblins? With few exceptions almost every RPG player will kill some goblins. They are often considered a throw away faceless nuisance to be waded through at low levels. But they have a few things going for them that are missed or overlooked by GMs. First, they can see in the dark. Trivial in most cases, but awesome in the right hands. One thing that can catch a party off guard in being in the dark, find a way to knock out the party light source and the advantage goes to the goblins. Not an easy thing but on a moonless night or in a cave it can make an easy fight so much harder. Next, Goblins are small and have a high bonus to stealth. The little varmints can get into almost any position to ambush the players. The surprise round gained from attacking from hiding is amazing. Last but not least is that Goblins will even the odds, especially if they are led by someone/thing smarter. Poison their weapons, weak at first, but maybe some deadly stuff for higher level parties. Run a few at the party headlong to get slaughtered while the rest sneak around behind to make a surprise attack. Be sneaky, be mean, be a monster!

To wrap my rambling up, think about the way you run your monsters. Read their descriptions, their skills, all the nitpicky details. Consider what they do well and not so well and play to those strengths and weaknesses. This will force your party to do the same and your game will be all the better for it.

Character Death and Your Game

This week we are going to address an often overlooked part of RPGs. Death. Specifically PC and NPC death and some things you can do with it.

Death in storytelling has existed long before RPGs ever existed and for good reason. It’s an effective tool in creating legends and giving rise to things that would otherwise never occur. A really poignant example of this to me is the little girl in “V for Vendetta”. When she is shot by a skittish Fingerman it sets the country ablaze, galvanizing the entire third act of the film. This is what a well-timed death can do for your game. Rally the players (or the NPCs against the players) into wanting to put your villain into the dirt.

A lot of what makes a death so powerful in your game is how it relates to the players. A beloved NPC is a gift from above that can do amazing things. But what is it about the NPC that makes them so endearing? For some it’s simple. A PCs family member is powdered instant motivation; just add tragedy or a threat. It’s enough to spur most engaged players into action with a fire for justice or revenge. Those players that prefer to run the hard-bitten mercenaries that are only in it for fortune and glory are a little harder. A well-crafted NPC can go a long way to bridge that gap. Think about using an NPC that runs with the party to provide support or a hireling that saves the party at some point, or a love interest that the player has developed. The villains can get wind of a woman (or man) that the player has shown some interest in and abducts them to apply leverage. Or just slits their throats while the players look on, powerless to intervene, and then pushes the unfortunate NPC at the player’s character before making their escape. If that doesn’t get a reaction, then you have some damn callous people at your table.

On the other end of things, what happens when a PC dies? When this happens it should be a powerful moment. Something that makes all the players sit up and take notice.

Now the way that this happens can vary from system to system. Some games are a little more casual about it. Where there are instant death traps and spells that boil down to a single roll before the character bites the dust. Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, and most of the D20 systems (especially their predecessors) are notorious for this. Spells and monsters cause this most often and are held by some heinous NPCs and traps but those types of rule systems reward the player for surviving. But just because the death is instant and sudden doesn’t mean you can’t put it to use in creating an exciting scene.

Flesh out the scene; describe the feeling of what hits the character when their life force is suddenly rent from their body. How the force of the spell “Powerword:Kill” pounds them in their chest sucking the wind from their lungs as they collapse to the ground. How the dust is kicked up to leave a shadow of their figure on the wall or surface behind them. Or their minds are screaming “STOP!” but their body refuses to answer as the fight is “Commanded” to turn their blade on the surprised party wizard. It is a crisis that you should not let go to waste. Make it matter, make it important. But don’t let it be bland.

And if you do it right, your players should have all the reasons in the world to be pissed and go after whatever set the sudden death of their companion up in the first place. A renewed vigor in clearing the monsters from the dungeon, or the crime lord from the streets.

But there are PRG systems where PC death is a little harder to come by. In those cases when a PC dies it should be a ground breaking moment that you have possibly worked out with the player beforehand. One of my favorite RPG systems, “7th Sea” addresses this. Early into your story or campaign ask your players what their characters would be willing to die for. It may throw a few people off to ask what they would be willing to lose their character to but it raises some intriguing questions. It’s not often that players take a long hard look at thing through their characters eyes and see what is important to them, and not themselves as a real person. Try it out; you may be surprised at what you learn.

All in all, Death should not be an unwelcome guest in your RPG sessions. Just know that you shouldn’t just let it happen with nothing to follow. And make sure you have a backup plan if things go sour.