Fiction, Gaming

Story Time: The Ritual

Roblyn quietly sits upon the dirty stone floor. He studies the remnants of the ritual circle by candlelight. His dark eyes quickly follow his hand from the runes to a small journal. Notes and drawing scribbled across the page. Back to the runes again. His eyes stop briefly on a dark stain in the center. Roblyn thinks back to the young woman who was trapped within these runes hours before.

She had been the catalyst and the focus. Without her strength the spell would had been too weak.

Roblyn looks back to his journal. Quickly scratches a new note. His mind continues to ponder. The demon who trapped her in there used her to destroy the small village. It was collecting the life energy of the innocents here. There very souls were tortured. Roblyn had met some of the twisted creatures that were once the townsfolk.

She willing sacrificed herself to stop it.

Roblyn was sure now. His research was clear. If the ritual had been stop abruptly, it would have been disastrous. The energies held within the young women would have blighted the whole area for decades. And killed him and his traveling companions.

None of us could have saved her.

He looks over his shoulder to his companions. Resting after their ordeal with the demon. They were all too late to save the town but they had saved Roblyn from a demon back in the capital. They rushed into certain doom to help a stranger. Just like when they decided to come here. Strangers who needed help.

They are both foolish and brave.

Roblyn’s hand slides into his tunic. He finds a small piece of parchment and draws it out. The meticulous drawn faces of his wife and daughter smile back at him. He smiles sadly back.

How many more innocent lives will be lost?

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Gaming

Building a Game Master’s Notebook: The Binding!

Over the past sixteen years of being a game master, I’ve lost more material on my campaigns than I’ve been able to save. Charts, maps, NPC characters, and plots all lost to the void called time. One piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again is to build a game master’s notebook. A repository for all your devious plans and also a resource to call upon when you’ve hit a creative block.

I’m going to be building a new game master notebook from scratch for my Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition campaign.

Step One: pick a notebook
This decision seems to be really simple; just go grab any old three ring binder and start filling it with paper. That is exactly what I did when I built my very first GM notebook in 2000. Later, I moved digitally with piles of word documents saved on a flash drive. Now I have all my files for every game saved on cloud storage site. I’ve known other game master’s with GM notebooks to use dairies, sketchbooks, composition notebooks, computer problems, or phone apps. The options are endless and some work better for a particular game masters than for others.

All that being said I’m picking up a three ring binder. Going with the classic. Why? Its easy to transport, easy to organize, and the digital options I have been using are too cumbersome. With a bit of nostalgia thrown in there.

Step Two: getting organize
At this point add anything you’ll need to run a game: note paper, reference charts, maps, etc. These should be all the things you want on hand quickly during a game. Player using a custom class? Add it. Favorite random encounter table? Add it. Current adventure outline? Add it. Try not to add anything that you might need only things you will need.

I added blank lined paper, gird paper, and a few dividers to make notes and organize them into categories (NPC, locations, items). Then I added all my custom stuff for my current campaign. My reference sheet for the house rules. A list of weapons, armor, equipment, and services with average prices. A list of common monsters and generic enemies with stats. The map of the campaign area and, finally, a quick reference sheet for each PC’s stats. That covers most of the stuff I’d need to run the campaign.

Step Three: covering your weaknesses
No one is a prefect game master. Everyone has got something they don’t handle well during a game session. My biggest weakness as a game master is coming up with names on the spot. I really suck at it and all the Jeffery NPCs in my older campaigns will attest to that. To cover for my inability to improvise names, during my planning for a session, I make up names for all major and minor non-player characters the players might talk to and all locations that the players might go. I still keep a list of random names appropriate to the campaign in my notebook just in case my players talk to a random shopkeeper, go in a direction I wasn’t expecting, or – more likely – I got lazy with my planning.

It isn’t necessary to do try and cover your bases into your notebook but it isn’t bad idea to think about what you have a hard time doing as game master. If adding something (chart or reference) will help alleviate the problem then I recommend adding it to the notebook.

Step Four: start using the notebook during sessions
If you have never run with a game master’s notebook before, this might be the hardest part. Figuring out how it fits into your setup and game session routine. Even just remembering to use the notebook when it would be helpful. Heck you might find that it is sometimes hinders more than it helps in the beginning. After a few sessions you’ll get into a groove of referencing the notebook or taking your notes.

For me the notebook is front and center on the table. The screen wraps around the binder. Pens, pencils, and dice scattered between the screen and the binders edge. I take notes on a blank sheet per session and review my campaign outline. Comfortably flipping through monster and NPC stats. Checking maps.

Step Five: maintenance and upkeep
After a story arc or a short campaign I try to take time and review what has been added to the notebook. I clean out old notes. Check to see if a chart, table, NPC sheet, or map needs to be updated or if it is even necessary anymore. I do maintenance so when I sit down at the head of the table next time I don’t get confused with all the notes I made in the corner of sheets.

With my notebook completed, I’m ready to run my games and deal with most things the players throw at me.

Do you use a different kind of note taking strategy? How do you use it during and in between sessions?

Fiction, Gaming, Theory

Building a Campaign as a Group

When running a new campaign I like to try something different. A system I’ve never tried. A new character building method. A weird magical system. An interesting genre mix mash. Just something new to keep the experience different so I learn what I enjoy and what players enjoy. This time around I started the campaign off with a group world building session.

The premise starts with all the group members offering ideas and themes for the campaign. We collectively pick our favorites. Then we all work together to flesh out those ideas to make a campaign world and the major themes.

I got my new group together and explained the idea. We used note cards to keep track of each idea. To start us off I offered up a few themes.

  • “Magic is part of everyday life”
  • “Under the rule of evil tyrants”
  • “The gods are angry with mortals”

The group added a few of their own ideas.

  • “The area’s city-states offer war among themselves”
  • “Magic-users are seen as sub-human”
  • “Demon and devil incursion are commonplace”
  • “Government propaganda abound”
  • “The journey is more important than the destination”
  • “Adventure!!!”

The group then voted on their five favorites: “Under the rule of evil tyrants”, “Demon and devil incursion are commonplace”,”Government propaganda abound”, “Magic-users are seen as sub-human”, and “The journey is more important than the destination.”

Then we had a series of discussions on how to flesh out each one. During our discussions, I offered suggestions on what the group could add to the campaign. If those suggestions sparked an ideas or new discussions, I encouraged it. When a suggested didn’t sparked anything, I dropped it. As the game master I would have plenty of time to add flavor and content to the campaign. This world building session was for the players to get their ideas out there.

“Under the rule of evil tyrants” was the first to get some attention. They decided that the tyrants are secretly magic users but seen to be benevolent dictators. The groups adds the tyrants may be related to demons.

They decided “Demon and devil incursion are commonplace” only started in the past 15 years and they don’t have a central home base. The demons are drawn to magic users and they are the governments enforcers.

Aside from using demons it seems “Government propaganda abound.” They use their propaganda is to vilify magic users. Blame them for the demon attacks. Also to smear the neighboring country, the Wild Wizards of the West.

With all this negativity it seem the general population sees “Magic-users are seen as sub-human” and fear them. This opinion started around the same time the demon started attacking. But the magic users themselves don’t feel like they are sub-human or sub-dwarf, or sub-elf.

“The journey is more important than the destination” wasn’t expanded because I felt it was pretty self explanatory. I kind of wish I had given the group the opportunity just to see what the players would had done with the idea.

And so the country of Welldrake was born. The basic themes and ideas of the campaign were laid out. Armed with the new knowledge the players built characters and I ran a quick introduction season where the characters are whisked away to the far reaches of the country and need to travel back the capital.

By the time the second session rolled around I had taken a little time to write up a little flavor text for the campaign.

Thirty years ago the kingdom of Welldrake was under attack from marauding demons. The kingdom’s military was unable to protect its people as towns were destroyed and thousands were killed. A small heroic band of adventurers were able to do the impossible and stop the demons. In the process, they uncovered clues to a conspiracy amongst the kingdom’s elite and leadership.

The heroes gained a new purpose and founded an organization, the Inquisition, to uncover how deep the conspiracy went. They found priests, nobles, generals, and even the king himself guilty of working with the demons. At the center of it all was the Wizard’s College and its members. They had started and lead the conspiracy against the people of Welldrake.

The next ten years was marked by a war between the Wizard’s College and the Inquisition. When the war ended the Inquisition had won and the Wizard’s College and all its members were destroyed. The Inquisition ended the monarchy’s rule, set up a new ruling council, and outlawed the study of magic.

The new nation of Welldrake had peace again for five years. Then the first reports of demon attacks spread. With the Wizard’s College gone suspicion ran amok and blame was put into any caster of spells, wizard or not. Priests and the naturally gifted were targeted with anger and fear. The people of Welldrake were scared demons were returning.

That was 15 years ago, the fear and suspicion has only gotten worse.

In one creative brainstorming session the group gave me the basic tools to make a campaign that they, collectively, would be interested in. We could have taken more time to dig deeper into the world, races, magic, and lore but we only focused on what interested the group. Any concepts left unexplored were for me to fill in later or not at all.

I like group world building idea. I think it has great potential. I would love to see what a different group does with it and how it shapes their campaign. If you have done something like this before, let me know how it did or did not work out for you.

Gaming, Theory

Introductions to Tabletop Role-playing

I recently had the pleasure of running an introductory role-playing scenario for group of friends who were interesting in trying out tabletop RPGs. A few weeks prior, they had asked me if I could run something for them. So I dusted off an older one-shot sci-fi adventure, printed out some character sheets, packed up my dice, and readied myself to introduce (mostly) brand new players to role-playing. But was does an introduction to role-playing entail? Rule books and dice math? Character sheets and experience points? Hit points and critical hits? TPK and alignment arguments? I gave it some thought and came up with a few methods for introducing new players.

Storyteller Bias

There is no wrong way to role-play; there is only preference. My preference is to focus on stories and character development. Because of this preference, the rules as written or tactical play take a backseat to narrative drama and moments of cool. I’m going to try to put this bias aside for the rest of this article and focus more on what works on introducing new players to role-playing. Continue reading

Gaming, Theory

Character Decisions: The Squiggly Face Incident

A little while back, I played in a Fantasy Flights Star Wars role-playing campaign for a couple of months. During our sessions, one of the other players harped on a decision my character made near the start of the campaign. It became sort of a running joke about my character’s “diplomatic” skills. As a game master the mere fact the moment was brought up so often is a good sign to me. It indicates the scene was memorable even if it wasn’t beneficial to the party. In the player seat the jabs did make me question if my choice was a reasonable response to the situation. Should I have had my character act differently? Would my character have acted differently? I don’t think so but the series of exchanges got me thinking about character decisions,both PC and NPC, and how believable those decision should be.

Our unit was a group of rebel “spies.” I use the term spy VERY loosely. The team was not ideal for spying on the Empire: a Mandalorian force user in full combat armor, an explosives expert Wookie, a pyromaniac Klatooinian activist for droid’s rights, a medical droid modified for super effective unarmed combat, and my character, Maxir, a human ex-mercenary turned rebel solider. Maxir was basically Marv from Sin City; a brick of a man with close to the same shinning personality.

During a mission, we found ourselves in the lower areas of a space station and stumbled across a small slum. The area was obviously poor and forgotten but maybe they could give us directions to our objective. As we entered the slum the GM described the shacks and pointed out an individual who was directly ahead glaring at us. A male Twi’lek wearing a wide brimmed hat who was missing a head tail and a tribal tattoo on his face. Not missing an opportunity, my character spoke up and said, “Out of the way, Squiggly Face!” This comment incited my new Twi’lek friend to announce he was a captain of some kind. He called for a few minions and a fight broke out. We handled it easily and Squiggly Face escaped with a whirl of his cape. Not kidding, Captain Squiggly Face vanished by waving his cape around. The party attributes the later misinformation and almost being blown up by a thermal detonator to Squiggly Face.

I liked Squiggly Face. He was a recurring, mustache twirling villain. He’d show up with a big speech and an easily handled problem. He would vanish before we could catch him. He was ridiculously campy and made me roll my eyes more than once. I was a little disappointed when we finally caught him and Maxir just killed him.

I like to think my character interacted with the NPC appropriately per his gruff and rude personality. Definitely not the best way to ingratiate myself with the locals but he wasn’t the kind of person to make friends and honestly didn’t do most of the talking. A fellow player commented, “You wouldn’t walk into the ghetto and just start insulting people.” They were right, the actually me wouldn’t. I’m not disrespectful to strangers. My character on the other hand was a bit of a bastard.

On the other side of the exchange, did Squiggly Face act appropriately? Five fully armored individuals carrying heavy fire power walk into your neighborhood and insult you. How do you respond? After a few meetings with Squiggly Face, I figured he must have a megalomaniac complex. So maybe his openly violent response to my insult was very in character for him.

Decisions a character makes, both as a PC and NPC, are important. Not all those decisions need to be beneficial. People in real life and in stories make bad decisions all the time. The decisions display a character’s personally, they can cause or avoid conflict, or just add interesting flavor to the game.