While I haven’t been in the RPG community for as long as many, I’ve had the opportunity to play and run a huge variety of systems. I’ve found that most systems have an idea that I always miss when I’m playing any other game. Like spending an XP to reroll my dice when I’m not playing a Cypher Game, or the duel Sanity/Stability system in Trail of Cthulhu. Unfortunately, moving a lot of these mechanics to a new system isn’t possible without re-writing the system, and work instead to be something that makes returning to that system every time we sit down to play. However, I think there are some ideas out there that could be moved to different systems with a little effort.
Every couple of months around here at TRF, we finish up one of the three or so ongoing campaigns we have running at any given moment. For some people, this might represent an opportunity to pause, bask in the afterglow of a satisfying finale and plot out what comes next. More likely than not though, for us it means it’s time to hit the ground running with our next big idea. When you run this many games, you begin to get a good feel for the best, read easiest, ways to plan for these things and the sorts of factors that make for a good experience.
With the release of Netflix’s spectacular Stranger Things, interest in tabletop RPG’s, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, has been reintroduced into the public consciousness. Even as I’m writing this I have been preparing a campaign to introduce some new people to the game, and bring a few who have played a bit in the past into the current (5th) edition of the game that started it all.
From a personal standpoint, I have been an off-and-on player of D&D and other “pen and paper” or “tabletop” RPG’s for more than 20 years now, and a DM for 15. Few campaigns last very long (one statistic I read found that the vast majority of groups didn’t last more than 4-6 sessions, something I’ve experienced myself), which can be disheartening for those of us who want to run a game, and discourages many would-be DM’s who experience this from trying again. I’ve been in that position before. Thankfully, I had friends who were more experienced, that helped me learn what it means to be a good DM.
So what makes a good Dungeon Master?
Every role playing group, game, and system is different, but the golden rule for DM’s across the board is that a DM’s primary job is to ensure that every player in a campaign is having fun and enjoying the tabletop experience. This means something different for every group. Do your players just want to smash skulls and start riots? Do they want to be able to use their characters’ skills in interesting and challenging ways as they navigate a labyrinth on par with the infamous Water Temple? Maybe they want to explore who their characters are with more story-heavy quests that will have them spending more time building relationships with NPC’s and each other than squishing goblins. Most groups want a balanced game. Whatever it is, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure that, regardless of what you have planned, you make sure that all of your players’ needs and desires are taken into consideration.
Even the best DM’s, with the best preparation and storyline, can have a group fall apart because they fall into a few basic traps that many DM’s fall into. The first is the mindset of DM vs group. The gist of this is that, while, no, they won’t throw a bunch of first level players into the demon pits to battle the evil Drow goddess Lolth, they are going to make them suffer, and make every encounter ridiculously hard, hopefully resulting in the death of one or more characters. This is an easy mindset to acquire, especially if your players aren’t really interested in doing the carefully constructed quest you’ve laid out for them, but it’s also a very dangerous one. A DM should work with their players to bring their fantasy world and characters to life and tell a story, not against or despite them. Like any other medium, the players want to feel connected to and invested in the heroes. When I DM, I encourage my players to create backstories, give them quirks and personality traits that make them more than numbers on a piece of paper. If a DM is trying to kill the characters at every turn, it can be difficult to do any kind of character development. If a player thinks their character is just another piece of meat on the chopping block for a hostile DM, they won’t care about the character any more, so they won’t care about the story, either, and, ultimately, they won’t care about the game. Now, to be sure, a DM shouldn’t just make everything a cakewalk, but putting in the effort to craft challenging, but winnable and fun encounters is a part of what makes a good DM good.
The second trap that many DM’s fall into is inflexibility. Too many DM’s spend too much time crafting an adventure, and then not being able to adapt if the players want to do something contrary to the DM’s designs. Players with a lot of experience want to have their own ideas of how their character would react to any given situation, or want to play characters that fall out of the normal hero-villain dichotomy. What if your player wants to side with the Blackguard and overthrow the king? What if they want to play a ruthless assassin who kills simply for the joy of it? What if they simply don’t care about what happens and would rather just explore all the ruins, claim all the treasure, and become wealthy and fat? When I was still a relatively new player, I once played in a game where we all decided to play chaotic neutral characters, and all we cared about was ourselves. Unfortunately, the DM had carefully constructed a whole world and storyline he wanted us to follow, so he resorted to a tactic commonly referred to as “railroading.” Basically, this refers to a DM telling their players what the characters do, instead of just putting their players in a situation and letting them react. Two things that should never come out of a DM’s mouth without VERY good reason are telling a player what their character does, or telling them that they aren’t allowed to try something. If you just want to tell a story, write a book; if you want to play a game, then let your players play the game.
The third major mistake a DM falls into is taking things that happen away from the table and aren’t game related, and letting them affect the game at the table. Being a DM requires a certain amount of professionalism and decorum, and the gaming table is not the place to resolve personal disputes, unless it is between characters, not the people playing the game. Think of it like a job, even if you absolutely hate one of your coworkers, you still have to go to work each day and be at least nominally nice to them. If you can’t do this, one of you is likely to lose that job. If you, as a DM, have a problem with a player that can not be resolved like adults, maybe being in the same gaming group, regardless of how long it’s been going on, isn’t a good idea. Remember, everybody at the table is there to have fun, and it’s no fun for a player if they feel like their DM is punishing them for something.
A DM has a lot of power. I often jokingly refer to myself as the “God of the Gods” of games that I’m playing, and that isn’t a bad way to approach it. What was that saying about power and responsibility again? Sure, it’s cliché, but it’s there for a reason. You are the arbiter of rules, the creator of your cosmos. The forces of nature in your fictional universe bend and twist at your whim, and that is no small thing when you really think about it. Unfortunately, this power presents its own challenges, because there are real people, with real hopes and feelings, that are relying on you to help craft an enjoyable, meaningful gaming experience. And if you are recording it for podcasting, as is becoming more and more prevalent these days, the responsibility is greater, because who knows what aspiring DM/GM might listen to you to try and learn how its done. If you can’t fulfill that responsibility, maybe being a DM isn’t for you, and that is fine, nobody says you have to be one, it’s perfectly fine if you just want to play.
I have to admit that in my time as a GM, I probably haven’t put forth the sort of effort that many might expect. The thing is, that I think I’ve done pretty well for myself and my groups by weaving the story as we go. That said, there are things that I’ve come to learn are very important to consider when running games by the seat of your pants.
- Take Notes
This should go without saying, but I’ve often failed to take adequate notes. This means that in long-running games where there are extended gaps between sessions, you run the risk of losing track of important details or useful plot hooks. Continuity counts when creating a world your players can sink their teeth into. Also, it’s one of the ways your world can seem more fair than it might actually be… 😛
- Stay Vague, Until You Can’t Anymore
It’s long been understood that any engaged group of players regularly comes up with more dire circumstances for themselves than their GM ever had in mind. Keep this always in your thoughts as you build toward where you think you want the story to go. Listen to your players’ character dialogue, and you can transform the jump scare three encounters into the smugglers’ hideout from a randomized event into a callback to something the ranger muttered about when the party first set off into the woods.
- Play Dirty
I’ve often heard complaints from GMs about how their elaborate plans for their players demise were foiled by a decision to take the walking tour through town instead of the train full of cultists. When you’re making it up as you go, you by definition don’t have this problem. Let the players build the gallows, just keep the rope handy for when they step onto the platform.
- Play to Lose
With wha I just said in mind, remember that this isn’t a competition. Your opposition is supposed to give way, not to the players, but to the inexorable, inevitable force of the plot. Failure isn’t only not fun, it’s counterproductive. So, turn those failed die rolls into opportunities to make the story interesting. After all, who’s to say what was supposed to happen if that trap was triggered, you and only you.
- Act Like You Didn’t
And keeping what I just wrote in mind, don’t ever let your players think you’ve given them anything. Reward them with more challenges. They’ve just overcome the cavern mazes of the Northern Highlands: reward, the sword that makes defeating the dragon that makes its lair at the heart of the subterranean labyrinth even remotely winnable. If you can sound like you’re disappointed they got it, that’s all the better.
- Keep the Spotlight on a Swivel
Because you’re scenario isn’t foreordained you can easily adjust your narrative to allocate attention to whichever character has sort of been standing in the back, running things remotely. Everyone likes their time at the center of things, and keeping generic encounters for your tech guy and face in your back pocket. Waiting for the insertion of the right flavor text can do wonders for party dynamics.
- Be Prepared to Get Very Specific (or Cinematic) at the Drop of a Hat
Practice describing things. Look around the room you’re in right now. Is it small? Is it well lit? Is it a train carriage with three rows of four seats split lengthwise by a narrow aisle with the California countryside slipping by the windows in the early afternoon glare? Does the masked assassin take a shot to the shoulder, or does her shoulder explode in a spray of blood and bone as the vector’s slaughter accelerator fills the air with a cloud of needle-sharp projectiles. Just because your sketching in the picture as you go doesn’t mean it can be without interesting details. In fact, adding just the right details to trigger your players imaginations can make for an even more memorable scene for each of them than a long paragraph read from a published module, even if every single one is seeing something completely different.
In hindsight, GMing at Gen Con is not easy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a blast! But a 60,000 player convention has a lot of moving parts, and I would have loved a guide to avoid all the inefficiencies, mistakes, and general frustrations I experienced during my first few years.
So, without any further ado, here are some of the things that are in the Event Host Policy document Gen Con releases every year, but hopefully a little more concise:
GM vs. Gaming Group
If you are running an event by yourself, you are a GM! That means you’re only responsible for yourself and your event. This eliminates a lot of possible advantages, such as getting complimentary GM Badges or requesting a GM Hotel Room, but this provides a much faster, simpler submittal process and you don’t have the pain of herding the cats that are your fellow GMs. Good job on not being insane!
As a GM, you still must purchase a Badge as an Attendee, then request before mid-May a GM Badge for pickup at GM HQ. Once you pick up your GM Badge, you drop off your Attendee Badge and, after the convention, request reimbursement.
As a Gaming Group, you can request a number of complimentary GM Badges equivalent to number expected of player hours generated from your approved events divided by 72 hours. What does this all mean? If you plan to run 72 player hours of events (# of Events x # of players x # of Event’s Hours), you’ll get a free Badge.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As I prepare my horror RPG one-shot for a local convention, I’ve been reflecting on the Halloween themed games I’ve run over the years and what I’ve learned from those experiences. Working with the Redacted Files, I’ve seen how much they are aligned with the genre. That in mind, I want to share some things I’ve learned running and writing games for the season and for the genre. Not about story but about the system you select.
When telling your story, it is critical not to let the system cause you to stumble. If you want to disrupt the player characters’ sense of comfort and build dread (the key ingredients to a horror story), stopping with any frequency to have to check a rule or have to consider how to cram the story into the scene kills the mood. You want to use a system that works with the type of story you’re going to tell. Thankfully, there are lots of RPG systems out now that, with a little searching, you’ll find a supports your story.
I break systems into three categories depending on how easily they help tell the story:
Genre – A system that is designed for the horror genre. The rules and flavor text are all about horror, and the splat books are about telling a more in depth story using mechanics that support it.
Examples: Call of Cthulhu, Don’t Rest Your Head, World of Darkness
Generic – This is a system that is streamlined and won’t get in your way when you try telling the story. It may not be designed to tell a horror story specifically, but it won’t force you to continuously reference the rulebook as you play.
Examples: Cypher System, FATE (Core or Accelerated), Powered by the Apocalypse
Forced – RPGs designed for other genres, like high fantasy or steampunk, where telling the story is against the grain, so a splat book needs to be written to make major modifications to the core system.
Examples: Dungeons and Dragons, Iron Kingdoms RPG, Pathfinder
All of these systems are great, but they all have limits. It’s finding the system that is least limiting for your story and have enough depth to be able to support you as well. I’ve tried lots of these and, with very little practice, you can tell a one-shot with any of them with limited prep work on the system.
What I would recommend is sitting down and writing your story outline. Don’t think about rules yet, just what you want the plot to be and how you would build it. Then, look at different systems, starting with what you’re most familiar with and branching out from there. Find the system that supports your story best and won’t require you to spend weeks adapting rules or, worse, force you to on the fly modify the game to fit the system.
Remember, this is a one-shot. You’re not making a lifelong commitment to the system, and a good story will let you gloss over the rough edges too.
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?
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:
Until you say it is.
Thank you for reading and happy rolling.
News and Advice
Chaosium is Under New Management (Again):
Moon Design is now part of Chaosium’s ownership group. Moon Design acquired the rights to Glorantha and the game systems RuneQuest and HeroQuest in 2013. This also prompted a change in leadership within Chaosium, “The four principals of Moon Design are the new management team of Chaosium. The new officers of the company are Rick Meints, President and Secretary; Jeff Richard, Vice President and Creative Director; Michael O’Brien, Vice President – Product Development & Community Outreach; and Neil Robinson, Chief Financial Officer.” This announcement also brought new hope in terms of receiving Call of Cthulhu 7e, it is on it’s way to the printers and should be available for Halloween 2015. Moon Design has had previous experience with Kickstarters and should be able to help get CoC 7e back on track.
Strange Aeons: A Lovecraftian Pathfinder AP:
Pathfinder has finally joined in on adding the Mythos to their game. This adventure path will be released next August, and feature Mythos monsters. Unlike most Lovecraftian RPGs, like Call of Cthulhu, this will not be investigation based, focused more on killing the horrors. There will be insanity rules and a Corruption system. Wes Schneider is writing the first module, so it should be pretty interesting. I’m curious to pick this up, a huge part of Lovecraftian horror is that it’s inexplicable, so turning it into a monster hunt seems to miss the point. However, I trust Paizo enough to give it a chance!
Another Dungeons and Dragons Movie:
Warner Bros. and Hasbro have announced they will be making a Dungeons and Dragons movie. They already have a script by David Leslie Johnson, who wrote “The Conjuring 2” and “Wrath of the Titans.” Stephen Davis said, “This is such an enormous opportunity to bring the rich fantasy setting of the Forgotten Realms to life and, together with the creative powerhouse of Warner Bros., use movies to tell the stories that have enchanted passionate D&D fans for decades. D&D is the role-playing game that started it all and now we have the opportunity to ignite a franchise for its legions of avid fans in a way never done before.” I’m not holding my breath, every D&D movie I’ve seen has been not good, and what is great about RPGs is telling your own story.
Gen Con has record Attendance:
Gen Con attendance went up another 9%, making this the 6th year of growth for the convention. 61,423 people attended and there were over 400 vendors. I imagine it will only continue to climb, and I can’t wait to go next year.
Congratulations to Ennie Winners!:
Several TRF favorites won Ennies this year, including Horror on the Orient Express, The Strange, Numenera, Miskatonic University, and Roll20! Congratulations to everyone and thank you for putting out so much wonderful material for us to enjoy!
News and Advice
Pour Over Lovecraft’s notes for At the Mountain’s of Madness
Lovecraft’s notes have been posted by Author Paul Tremblay on Instagram. It looks like you might have to sacrifice some sanity to decipher them. Just don’t stare at it for too long…
NASA Discovers Earth’s Older Cousin
“This particular planet’s combination of factors – including the type of star, the planet’s distance from it and its size – make it the closest analogue to Earth ever found, the scientists said.”
Kepler-452b circles a sun-like star about 1400 light-years away. It’s bigger then earth, but has a similar orbit around it’s sun. They’ve determined it is approximately 6 billion years old, giving it time to develop life if other important factors are present. This is super exciting as a geek, and is it wrong that my first thought went to how to incorporate the aliens that live on Kepler-452b into a game? I don’t think so.
4 Tips for Running Published Adventures
I run a lot of published adventures. I’ve only recently begun feeling comfortable enough to tell my own stories, or even change published adventures to make them my own. The railroad tracks are nice and safe. But I think the advice given here is a great way to let go of the railroad track set down in a published adventure. It’s alright, just let them go and embrace the story that is being developed between you and your players. It doesn’t mean you have to throw the whole story out, it just takes a little more work.
Meet the New Pathfinder Iconics
Pathfinder is releasing Occult Adventures on the 29th, and they’ve begun to introduce their new iconic characters. You can find them on Paizo’s website, or all the links are in the article I linked to. The new classes that will be available are occultist, spiritualist, psychic, medium, mesmerist, and kineticist. I’m interested to see how these new classes work in a game, but I can see them to be a little difficult at first to figure out exactly how to fit them in.
There’s a new expansion pack for Munchkin, which is full of a great evil. Well, it’s full of hipsters. It’s available on ThinkGeek for $9.95
Worlds Numberless and Strange was released this week, a supplement for The Strange. It has over 70 new recursions and great info for your Strange GM. I wrote a review here. You can get a copy on DriveThruRPG and the MCG Store. The PDF is $16.99 and the book is $44.99.
Sales and Bargains
DriveThruRPG is doing their Christmas in July sale, with 25% off thousands (and thousands) of PDFs. There are deals for Numenera, The Strange, Dresden, Achtung! Cthulhu, and more. You should check it out – it lasts for a week.
Lost Lands Bundle: Frog God’s settings and adventures written for Pathfinder
Looking for a Game?
We’re itching to try the Leverage RPG, and just need a few more players. We’re planning on trying for a Friday night. Interested? Email us at email@example.com!