Saturday, November 19, 2016

Theater of the Mind Dungeon

We love exploring dungeons, but let’s face it: not all of us are any good at drawing dungeons, and many players grow bored traveling around the seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors and passageways, interspersed with little and big rooms full of monsters.  Then there’s the GM who either can’t or won’t show the players the maps and expects them to track their exploration as he reads off dimensions; “you enter a room through a south entrance, the west wall lays twenty paces to your left and the east wall lays thirty paces to your right while the north wall lays seventy paces ahead of you.”  What a headache.  Theatre of the mind is usually the best rout to take when handling dungeons, but how do you organize them so players aren’t lost?
            The last thing you want is to draw up a map and simply tell them literally where they’re going as this can frustrate and confuse the crap out of them.  What follows is a blow by blow, simplified way of expressing the interior of a dungeon to the players and only requires them to write down basic reference points.  I know this will infuriate certain miniatures collectors, most especially players of D&D 5th Edition.  But enough about that.  Let’s begin!

First, let’s treat the dungeon like a creature.  By giving your dungeon stats you can track all important information on as little as a single page!  Here are the stats, arranged in a hierarchical order to help you track details by level of importance.

Name: name the dungeon.  Something like “cellar of the windy tower,” or whatever strikes your fancy.
Level: what level of character is the dungeon suitable for?  The challenge rating?
Relevance: this is a short description that tells why and where the PCs are entering it.  Also mention details that tie it to a specific quest or NPCs.

Entrance: how do the PCs enter the dungeon?  Is there a hidden door in the face of a cliff?  Is it under a statue in a courtyard?  Perhaps the PCs have to dig a hole in the desert and drop down into one of the rooms after prying up a stone slab?
Passages: here is where the confusion can arise; you don’t need to tell the PCs what direction they’re going, how many right or left turns they’re taking, or how long the hallways are.  Just tell them they’re navigating hallways and bring them to each important room in order, but in such a way they feel as though they discovering each one and not merely making stops on a bus rout.  One last important thing to note is to prompt the players to describe how they transition between rooms; are they searching for specific types of rooms?  Are they checking for traps as they go?  Who's first and who's last in line?
Passage Encounters: one thing you can do is have special encounters between transitions.  What this means is you can have the PCs happen upon certain things as they go from one room to the next.  This includes whenever they want to go back to a previously visited room.  Simply create a unique d6 table as follows:
            1- nothing happens: they travel safely to the next location.
            2- goblins: they come upon the encounter amount for goblins.
            3- traps: they encounter a trap of your choosing.
            4- orcs: they come upon the encounter amount for orcs.
            5- hazard: they fall prey to a hazard, like stones falling from the ceiling.
            6- encounter: they encounter an NPC, like dwarves digging in the dungeon.
Random passage encounters can be tailored however you want; there could be a lot of “nothing happens”, or if the dungeon is overrun with enemies you could have almost every possible roll be an enemy encounter.  When placing enemies, be sure they are scaled for the party and have a variety of different kinds.  Lastly, let the rogue detect traps.  As mentioned above, this is done before traveling from one room to the next, entering a room and inspecting elements of a room.  Likewise, elves and dwarves or any other race who may detect hidden passages should do so any time the party transitions between rooms or searches a room.  Even if a secret room isn't listed in your dungeon, you could invent one on the spot if a player successfully searches for one.
Rooms: create a list of all relevant rooms in a dungeon.  This is what the players need to keep track of, and the rooms need not be complicated.  You could have things like “the torture chamber,” or “the hieroglyph room.”  Just give a description of what kind of room, how big it is and other flavor elements, like “stench of mold in the air” or “sound of distant rumbling”.  Rooms, once cleared, may also provide a safe place for the PCs to rest in, especially if this is a particularly large dungeon with dozens or hundreds of rooms!
Room Elements: here is where the rooms take shape.  When the PCs enter a room and you describe it, they should begin asking questions about what else is in the room.  You will then express to them specific things they find while searching.  You may even begin with the PCs encountering a monster in the room.  Examples of things to put in rooms would be like NPCs that the PCs may meet and talk to, treasure boxes, shelves with books, tables covered in coins, a pile of rubbish, pool of water, levers and switches, large crack in the floor/wall/ceiling, statues, etc.
Exit: the way out of the dungeon.  This is optional as the PCs may simply leave the same way they entered, unless you have them trapped in a dungeon through barred gates or a cave-in, in which case this aspect of the dungeon becomes most important.  They should not find it until after they have explored all of the rooms leading up to it.  If the players say “we want to find the exit NOW,” you could skip over irrelevant rooms, but bring them to the next convenient room of importance, like if you plan for them to encounter an NPC.  The exit is described like a room and may have specific furnishings or elements that they may interact with in order to open the way out.  This may also be the place to have a “boss” enemy, if you wish.  Examples will be detailed below to show how these work:

Example Dungeons
The following is a prerendered dungeon to give you an idea how to set these up and present them to your PCs.  One final suggestion; even though it’s "theater of the mind", providing pictures can help the players visualize the dungeon.  Ideally, if this is done, you will have pictures of the exterior or first room of a dungeon, a passageway, and a picture for each room.  If you really want to go all out, you could have a picture of each monster or NPC the players encounter as well.  Now to our example!

Name: “Library Caverns”
Level: for characters leveled 1-3
Relevance: while traveling through the city, the PCs learn of a librarian who discovered a hole in the wall in the lowest chambers of the library, in the rare books sectoin.  Guards have barred off all access to this section until the tunnels beyond the hole are explored and cleared of danger.

Entrance: the entrance to the caverns rests in the basement of an old library, in its lowest halls.  The masonry appears to have been knocked inward by something digging through the earth.  Several books lay scattered across the ground, some with pages torn out and others stomped by muddy feet.  The cavern beyond the hole is dark and moist from recent rainfalls.  Strange sounds echo from beyond and cool air wafts in from deep recesses.

Passages: the passages in this cavern complex are very low, twisting and winding about as though dug by a giant worm, but the telltale gouges along the cold, wet surfaces denote the work of crude tools.  Puddles of water lay here and there, creating cold, unpleasant footing for anyone who crouches through the squat tunnels.
Passage Encounters: roll a 1d6 on the following table to determine what is encountered while transitioning from room to room.
            1- nothing; pass to the next room without trouble.
            2- nothing; pass to the next room without trouble.
            3- goblins: the party encounters 2d4 goblins; roll for surprise!
            4- goblins: the party encounters 2d6 goblins; roll for surprise!
            5- goblins: the party encounters 2d8 goblins; roll for surprise!
            6- hazard: rocks and dirt fall from the ceiling, someone potentially takes 1d4 damage.

Broad Opening: the party comes upon a section of tunnel that has been widened and upheld with wooden buttresses.  2d4 goblins dig through the earth here with mattocks and spades, possibly expanding their complex into other areas below the city.
Supplies: off to one side of the room is a pile of sacks containing hard bread and vile-smelling wine.  Beside this is a barrel containing mattocks and a spent lantern.
Secret Stash: if a PC searches for hidden doors, he or she will discover a small covey hole dug out and filled with a pouch containing 12 copper pieces, 28 silver pieces and one random gem.

Sleeping Cave: the party comes upon a slightly larger chamber, which the goblins have set up as a living space.  Straw has been cast upon the ground with filthy bedrolls and blankets laid on top.  2d6 goblins rest here quite soundly and are unaware of the party’s presence.
Bedding: the crude beds used by the goblins contain scattered bundles of the following loot; 120 copper pieces, 89 silver pieces, 145 electrum pieces, 50 gold pieces and 1 random gem.
Food Stores: a larger pile of hard bread and vile-smelling wine is kept here, along with dried vermin meat, rolls of cloth that the goblins use for foot and hand wrappings, and an assortment of pots, pans and a kettle over a fire.
Privy: a small tunnel has been dug out to the side with a bucket set up as a privy.
Arms Rack: a small rack containing 3 short swords and 2 hand axes as well as 4 small wooden shields.

Dead End: the PCs encounter a dead end where they are ambushed by 2d6 goblins.
Room Elements: no elements in this place of note, but when the goblins are defeated, the PCs will discover 3 random gems on the corpse of one.

Foreman’s Chamber: one of the tunnels ends at a crudely set wooden door, which has been locked.  Once the door is bypassed, either by breaking it down, picking the lock or simply knocking upon it to get the occupant’s attention, the PCs will see the following: a wide chamber, upheld by wooden buttresses with a hammock strung up for the goblin foreman.  This foreman is a goblin with 2 levels as a fighter and is equipped with a chain hauberk, a battle axe, a medium steel shield and a potion of haste.
Foreman’s Locker: beneath the hammock is a wooden box, which has been locked.  It contains 30 gold pieces, 15 platinum pieces, 5 random gems, 2 random potions, and 1 random art object.
Book Shelf: a crude book shelf contains many books, likely pilfered from the library.  One of them is a spell book containing 3 random priest scrolls and 6 random mage scrolls.  Detailed searching will also reveal a note written to the goblin foreman, instructing him and his lads to dig into the basement of the city’s guard post and procure as many weapons and armor as possible for a possible invasion.  The items are to be delivered at the crossroads at nightfall in a month’s time to a human agent of an enemy force.

Exit: other than the hole in the library basement, the PCs may continue searching until they find a passage flowing with a stream of water.  This will lead them to a tiny cave entrance that opens out into the wilderness just beyond the farmlands of the city.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Adventure Stats

(Probably used the above image before)  The purpose for writing this article, as always, is to help beginning GMs to establish adventures for their parties.  For greater information on how I set up a game, my other article should be floating around on this blog, but I'm too lazy to reference it with a link.  But to business: this thing, which I am writing at this moment, the moment I'm writing, is a simple rundown for individual adventures, which can be applied to any campaign setting.

What you will need: a notebook (ideally one of those grid notebooks so you can draw fanciful maps, which also contain little notes you can reference).  Other than this a pen would do nicely, unless you lack the courage to stray away from a pencil with an eraser.  Erasers are for chumps.

Now use the following statistics, which I have created to resemble AD&D monster statistics (because lists are more fun).

Adventure Name: the name for your adventure.  It should be short, catchy and make it easy to pick it out from other adventures.  For example: "Stranded on the Gusty Bluffs" or "Down the Grotto's Throat."

Problem: a snazzy sentence that encapsulates exactly what the adventure.  Something like: "some Rakshasas, disguised as merchants, sell the PCs rings of protection that paralyze them; the PCs are imprisoned in a maze and made to fight their way to a central tower where the Rakshasas watch them in amusement."

Hook: a paragraph or two describing how the adventure is introduced to the PCs.  Using the above example, naturally the PCs will smell a trap if it's simply presented to them, so for this type of adventure you may want to wait until the PCs are buying magic items and then switch "rings of protection" over to whatever magic item they are buying.

NPCs: a list of important NPCs, both good, bad and totally neutral.  Be as specific and as brief as necessary when describing side characters and never have characters who participate in combat more than the PCs: they're co-players, not spectators.

Obstacles: this section lists encounter tables for roaming monsters, important steps the PCs need to take to reach certain places and other limitations that challenge their progress in completing the adventure.

Locales: details on the places the PCs need to visit.  This is connected with obstacles in many ways, except that the GM may wish to include maps and other pictures that the PCs will reference.

Rewards: experience points and treasure that the PCs come upon, whether they receive it as payment for completing a quest or if they discover a treasure hoard in a monster's lair.  If you wish, you could itemize the treasures for each creature the PCs encounter, depending on how detailed you want to be.

Example Adventure

"The Mist Sweeps in From the Hills"
Problem: a town is attacked by undead whenever fog blows in; one of the residents has stolen an evil artifact from a tomb and it needs to be destroyed at the tomb to end an ancient curse.
Hook: the PCs witness the undead attacking while staying at an inn at a small town.
NPCs: Mayor Hurst (LN human), Emmy Loon (old, CG human), Feldegrast (secretive NN half elf)
Obstacles: after the PCs witness the first zombie attack, they are asked to join in a town meeting at the local chapel where they overhear Mayor Hurst questioning the locals about any strange goings on.  People believe the culprit is Emmy Loon; a strange old woman who lives on the outskirts of town and is known for practicing an unregistered form of alchemy.
When the PCs are asked to visit Emmy Loon, she tells them, in a rather round about way, that it was not she who caused the undead, but she does recall having seen Feldegrast wandering up in the hills just before she caught the first scent of undead mischief.
When the PCs track down Feldegrast, they learn that he has fallen on hard times and went looting the barrows up in the hills to find something he could sell.  All he found was a cankered silver cup, which he hid under the floorboards of the house.
When the PCs travel to the barrow out in the hills they find an underground crypt overrun with undead creatures.  At the heart of it there is a special chamber used to perform dark ceremonies and a tattered book explaining that the cup was placed on a pedestal to seal away the tomb's power and force the evil spirits within to sleep eternally.
Locales: the town of Sudbarr (small town with a population of around 500 individuals).  The hills (wide expanse of wilderness with many roaming creatures, especially undead)  Hidden barrow (a lengthy crypt filled with roaming undead and comprised of intertwining hallways that center on a circular chamber that may only be opened with the keys of skeletal guards, which roam about in special areas of the crypt.  Traps in the crypt consist of noxious gasses seeping from cracks in the floor and potential cave-ins from opening some of the larger doors.
Rewards: each encountered creature has its own loot, but in the ceremony chamber at the heart of the barrow crypt the PCs will find 1d100 of each type of coinage, 1d6 random gems, 1d4 art objects, 1d3 potions, 1d3 scrolls and 1d2 magical weapons.

In closing; why write these down?  Why write anything down?  Because your head comes up with more ideas than it can store!  (Unless you're some kind of mental freak, in which case you are one lucky S. O. B.)  But in all honesty, you will want to thank and kiss your own reflection ten years down the road when you dust off this notebook and discover that you have already prepared dozens, if not hundreds of adventures for your players.  Your players will want to kiss you, in which case you may need to hold a separate discussion with them.  But really, it can be hard to come up with adventures on the spot, so when your campaign hits a lull, just spring one of these little beauties on your players and let them get to work cracking it open.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Why AD&D 1st Edition

It should be noted that this article is intended to review the editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and while this is my favorite family of systems, it is not the only system I run.  But that's a topic for another illness.

I was spurred into writing this while thumbing through my AD&D 2nd edition books.  Fond memories of Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale came to my mind and I recalled that these were 2nd edition games, which spurred my first deviation from newer systems.  However, while looking through the DMG I became greatly irritated as I was reminded of the absence of certain things, or how the rules would vaguely brush over certain rules.  Then there was the utter lack, or simple withholding of materials that had been present in the previous edition (the death at -10 HP rule, the monk class, the half-orc race, the absence of random tables, etc.)

This spurred my immediate return to AD&D 1st edition: the best of them all.  To organize this I will first cover other editions of Dungeons and Dragons, pointing out my likes and dislikes for them, after which I will visit 1st edition in fullness.

D&D 3rd Edition: I was introduced to this system back in 2000, and though I hold fond memories of my first time playing it, 3rd has the following issues: inorganic stats and lousy art.  Essentially 3rd edition is D&D stripped of all life and converted into a video game, battlebot system where characters are stripped of all interesting features and changed into packaged chess pieces with round numbered stats and damage per second scales.  Then there was the art.  Blech.  Most of it was just ugly.  It's like they had a contest to see who could make the stupidest, most asymmetrical gibberish imaginable.  What was more, and this will be something I cover in my 1st edition text, the removal of class restrictions to the different races was basically a way of saying "your character is special, just like all the others."  I'm guessing they wanted to cater to the "have our cake and eat it too" crowd, but the races failed to be unique and interesting.  "Because if everyone is super, nobody is"

D&D 4th Edition: I'm actually not as annoyed with this as most people seem to be.  The art, while anime-esque, did have unifying qualities and it was a sincere effort to save the hobby from the ravages of video games, which were soaring to unprecedented popularity at the time (I had lost an entire gaming group to the HALO video games, and some of them are just now coming back into the hobby).  But 4th falls short for me for the same reasons as 3rd edition: too chunky and video gameish.

D&D 5th Edition: I'll admit, had I been introduced to 5th edition first, I probably wouldn't want to play any other edition.  It unifies the best qualities of all the previous editions and the art, while somewhat of a mixed bag, recaptures the charm and beauty of old-school fantasy, drawing on real world culture and abandoning the overly stylized, anime-porn designs adopted by Pathfinder and other systems that try to whore themselves out to the Poke'mon generation of video gamers. Unfortunately when I play 5th edition, it reminds me so much of older editions of D&D that it makes me want to play those instead..

OD&D: I can't touch this one since I never played it, but from what I've seen it's too basic for my liking, which in and of itself is not necessarily a fault.  It's the first of its kind and marshaled in a new category of entertainment on a grand scale, but will only, truly appeal to those who remember it back in its heyday and fell in love with it at first sight.

AD&D 1st Edition: finally, my favorite of them all.  Though written in long-winded Gygaxian, it has everything you need and what is more, the rules are simple enough and provide a framework that you can take it in any direction you want.  What is more, making things on the fly is simple as the aforementioned frameworks are accessible and easily interpreted.  Most important of all, 1st edition is established on a strong foundation of real world myth and legends, creating worlds that we as players can identify with and find a place in.  I'm sorry, but I have a hard time getting into the head of a killbot character with a giant anime-porn sword that shoots atomic bomb fireballs at millions of enemies.  1st edition almost demands that you live in it: you can hire servants, pay tithes to your church, build kingdoms, and actually TALK to your enemies.  YES!  You are encouraged and are given simple rules for parlaying with intelligent enemies, and you can benefit from this!  Lastly, due to the minimalist nature of the rules, power gaming is nearly impossible, and munchkin gamers die quickly, meaning all the riffraff and spazoids are scared off, leaving behind higher caliber and more intellectual players who help flesh out your world.

I know, the core books have a lot of silly pen and ink drawings, but anyone who actually looks at these will see they illustrate important points being discussed in the rules, often by poking fun at certain aspects of players and their approaches to the game.  Another bonus to these drawings is the fact that they don't rob you of your own creativity and ability to visualize your world.  (It's hard for me to take a Pathfinder campaign seriously when I look at the illustrations in the book and imagine nothing but abstract stupidity everywhere).

In a final note, I was greatly annoyed to read several people's responses to one player's question regarding the major differences between 1st and 2nd edition.  Those who answered had clearly never looked at the rules and claimed that one (2nd edition) was "rules light" compared to the other (1st edition).  While this is slightly true, the rules in 1st edition are pretty solid and sound with just about no wavering.  Psionics is a bit weighty to understand, but at least it works!  While looking through 2nd edition, it was impossible to nail down a specific rule regarding things such as initiative or how armor affects AC.  Instead you have chunky little "optional rules", which has caused no end of frustration whenever I ran 2nd edition.  I can still remember players asking "wait, aren't you using group initiative?" or "aren't you using the THAC0 rules for different kinds of armor?"

What infuriated this point even further were the endless parade of splat books for 2nd edition, which created new rules or rules exceptions: there was Complete Psionics and the Psionics rules in Skills and Powers, which had about as much to do with each other as chocolate chip ice cream and potato chips.  Every player I found who wanted me to run 2nd edition for them expected an entirely different system and were frustrated when I didn't use the rules options they were most familiar with.  This is a problem I am yet to have with AD&D 1st edition.

GURPS Random Campaign Generator

One of the difficulties in running a game like GURPS is narrowing down a singular campaign in which only a relative fragment of the abundance of stuff can be used.  The materials presented below are designed to help GMs decide on and create campaigns for their GURPS game.  These could be single-session games or longer games that span months or years.  Simply roll the required amount of six-sided dice in order.  A prospective GM could also read the roll results and make select combinations, even adding aspects of different results into one cohesive adventure.

Use 1d to determine which major genre the campaign takes place in, then roll 1d to determine a sub-category for each genre.
1-2 Historic: a campaign set in the real world, typically before the modern time.
            1: stone age setting
            2: bronze age setting
            3: iron age setting
            4: renaissance setting
            5: Victorian setting
            6: early modern setting

3-4 Science Fiction: a campaign typically set in the future with more advanced technology.
            1: near future setting
            2: super hero setting
            3: distant future setting
            4: post-nuclear setting
            5: post-meteor strike setting
            6: modern alien encounter setting

5-6 Fantasy: a campaign that includes magic and fantastical creatures.
            1: low magic fantasy world that reflects real history
            2: high magic fantasy world with strong fantastical elements
            3: low magic setting spilling into the real world
            4: high magic setting kept secret in the real world
            5: low magic setting mixed into a scientific setting (steampunk or future)
            6: high magic setting mixed into a scientific setting (steampunk or future)

Under each major genre list, roll 1d to generate a sub-genre and 1d again wherever necessary.
1 Horror: a campaign in which the PCs encounter supernatural or psychological horrors.
            1: single, terrible entity or creature that the PCs are hunting or that is hunting the PCs.
            2: infestation of creatures plaguing the campaign setting.
            3: organization of wicked people who have dominated a community.
            4: large creatures who emerge from the boundaries and assault at particular intervals.
            5: powerful, Lovecraftian demigod with a host of minions plaguing the underworld.
            6: awakened, indestructible creature that may only be defeated through a secret method.

2 Espionage: a campaign in which the PCs work as agents for a church, government or private
organization and use their skills to undermine an oppressive force.
1: government vs. other government
            2: church or organization vs. other government
            3: church or organization vs. other government
            4: citizens vs. own government.
            5: corporation or guild vs. own government.
            6: citizens vs. corporation or guild.

3 Survival: a campaign where the PCs are nearly destitute and living from day to day until they secure a
means of supporting themselves or merely find an escape.
1: stuck in the wilderness after an accident.
            2: languishing in a massive prison or castle complex on an island.
            3: surviving in a wasteland decimated by war.
            4: surviving on the mean city streets of a major metropolis.
            5: thrust into the wilderness after fleeing oppression.
            6: adrift at sea or in space until coming upon an island or space station.

4 War: a military campaign in which the PCs serve, either as soldiers or as commanders.
1: a war between two rival kingdoms/governments.
            2: desperate conflict between rebels and an empire.
            3: a massive war encompassing many kingdoms.
            4: an invasion from strange, alien or foreign forces.
            5: small skirmishes over the remains of recently devastated political powers.
            6: rising in power through careful skirmishes against an oppressive ruler.

5 Exploration: a campaign in which the PCs set out to explore unknown lands or regions of space.
1: exploration of a secret patch of wilderness enclosed by mountains.
            2: exploration of an enormous derelict ship or castle complex.
            3: exploration of a vast ocean or expanse of space.
            4: exploration of a new continent or recently discovered planet.
            5: search for lost treasure or artifact, either technological, magical or mundane.
            6: search for lost persons in places that are either explored or unexplored.

6 Opera: a long-running campaign where the PCs struggle against an overwhelming enemy.  (Note that this campaign could very well incorporate elements of every other roll result).

Examples on Combining Roll Outcomes
Utilizing the previously listed tables will require a degree of interpretation as the results may not appear to fit together.  Simply think outside the box when determining how certain rolls fit together.  Use the following examples as ways to think about odd combinations.
Example 1: (226) Historic/Bronze Age/Opera
With these results the GM and PCs could take part in a grand adventure in which they are part of a trade company that travels through the Orient and are beset by one of the world powers of the day.  This could also allow them to explore much of the world during this time period and encounter long, almost forgotten cultures.
Example 2: (6452) Fantasy/High Magic (real world)/Exploration of Castle
This could produce an adventure in which the PCs work with a secret magical organization that tries to keep magical things hidden from the general public.  In this particular campaign, they could be assigned to explore a recently emerged temple complex filled with monsters and strange artifacts, all under the control of a malevolent being with ill intentions for the world.
Example 3: (4643) Science Fiction/Modern Alien Encounter/War Between Kingdoms
In this peculiar combination, the adventure could center around the PCs living in present-day earth at a time when interstellar war engulfs the galaxy and one of the galactic contenders has deployed ground forces to use Earth as a base, which they intend to fortify as a place of defense against their competition.  The PCs could either help the aliens defend earth against the enemy, or if the GM chooses, the aliens could be hostile and the PCs will need to resist them and possibly contact their alien enemies for aid.

Random Monster Generator
This list of traits is not so much to generate statistics for a creature as it is to help a GM come up with random monsters on the spot.  In regards to stats, a challenge rating will be given last, which will provide suggestions on how to scale the creature’s difficulty by reference to the party’s average prowess.  Simply roll one die for each area.
1- Humanoid: a creature similar in appearance to humans and uses weapons and armor.
2- Beast: a creature with an animalistic appearance, moving about on all fours (or more limbs).
3- Elemental: a creature either comprised of or that otherwise embodies a type of energy.
4- Construct: a creature made clay, machinery or other inorganic materials.
5- Undead: a skeletal or zombified creature that once lived and is brought back to life.
6- Planar/Phantasmal: a spectral, ghostly or other type of entity with no discernable shape.

1- Mammal: warm-blooded creature, either with fur, hair or thick, leathery skin.
2- Reptile: cold-blooded creature covered in scales and usually with a long tail or possibly wings.
3- Avian: creature whose body is mainly or entirely covered in feathers and generally can fly.
4- Insectoid: creature whose body is comprised of exoskeletal segments and possesses mandibles.
5- Aquatic: fish-like creature that swims about the water.
6- Xenoform: strange creatures, such as cephalopods and other invertebrates, like slugs or octopods.

This may be rolled twice for each creature; if the same result is rolled again, this means that this particular quality is especially notable.  For example; rolling Armored twice means the creature is incredibly dense and very hard to kill!
1- Armored: the creature has thick skin or armored plates, making it more resistant to physical harm.
2- Magical: the creature possesses magical abilities.
3- Psionic: the creature possesses mentalic abilities.
4- Swarm: the creature is actually comprised of many tiny creatures.
5- Resistant: the creature is resistant to magical or mentalic attacks.
6- Repulsive: the creature is either frightening to look upon, emits a toxin, a stench, or is venomous.

Difficulty Rating
After each category description is a dice roll, which represents how many are encountered for a typical 4-member adventuring party.  Below each description is also a list of basic attribute generation rolls.
1 Minion: very weak enemy with much lower stats than the party’s.  (4d encountered)
ST: 2d, DX: 2d, IQ: 2d, HT: 2d, HP: (only 1 HP),
FT: normal, Wil: normal, Per: normal, DR: normal.
2 Cohort: weak enemy with lower stats than the party’s.  (3d encountered)
ST: 2d, DX: 2d, IQ: 2d, HT: 2d, HP: normal,
FT: normal, Wil: normal, Per: normal, DR: normal.
3-4 Normal: average enemy with stats generally on par with the party’s.  (2d encountered)
ST: 3d, DX: 3d, IQ: 3d, HT: 3d, HP: +1d,
FT: +1d, Wil: normal, Per: normal, DR: normal.
5 Boss: strong enemy with stats that are greater than the party’s.  (1d encountered)
ST: 4d, DX: 3d, IQ: 3d, HT: 4d, HP: +2d,
FT: +2d, Wil: normal, Per: normal, DR: +1d.
6 Master: very strong enemy with stats that are much greater than the party’s.  (1 encountered)
ST: 6d, DX: 3d, IQ: 3d, HT: 6d, HP: +4d,

FT: +4d, Wil: normal, Per: normal, DR: +2d.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How Do You Run a Game?

There are few skills that I have even come close to mastering.  Game Mastering is one of them.  And it came through more mistakes than I care to remember, but will make an effort, or else no good can come from the information I'm about to share.

But before all that, I refer back to my previous article I wrote, in which I described my worst GM and players.  There's one I neglected to describe due to a lack of time and the steady growth of the article.

This youth, let's call him Stupid Head, was a huge power gamer, which I normally don't mind and I'll explain why at the end of this document, but the reason he was a terrible player was that he had overwhelming expectations for his character, which he put above the other players and their enjoyment.  That should be the first important thing you learn when wanting to become a GM: the game is only fun when everyone is having fun.  Sometimes a player will be in a bad mood because their idea was voted down, but it only turns detrimental when they brood about it most of the game, start whining constantly or arguing with the other players.

Stupid Head followed this pattern.  He railroaded the entire game, whether he was describing what his character was doing, arguing with me or another player about a rule, or spending 40 minutes talking about an RPG system he wanted to write.  When the session was over, he stayed in the game, talking to the other players while waiting for me to leave.  Then he began backbiting.  One of my players informed me that he was ripping into my methods for GMing, accusing me of not knowing what I was doing, etc.  Had any of this been accurate, I would have gladly accepted any criticism made against my methods, but what it all boiled down to was the following:

First, he accused me of not listening to players.  As the other players pointed out, this meant he was angry with me because I kept shutting him down or cutting him off every time he cut off another player.  Yes, I was listening to players and I heard them every time he interrupted them to narcissistically bring the game back into focus over himself.

Second, he accused me of being disorganized.  This was ludicrous since I had everything set up, my maps, my NPCs, etc.  All stuff I will go over later, but for him I was "disorganized" because I had never read any Dragon Magazine or Pyramid Magazine articles, which provided other peoples' house rules for weapons and abilities.  How this makes me unorganized, I guess he expected me to allow whatever he brought up, simply because "other GMs he knew" allowed it.

Third, and this is related to the second criticism, he accused me of being closed-minded and intolerant.  This is because I refused to allow this outside material into the game.  Normally I considered requests, but everything he showed me was intended to make himself better-equipped than the rest of the party.  He used the tired power gamer justification "if it helps me, it helps the party."  While this is true mathematically, it hurts the game in the long run as it gives a majority of the success to one person and the rest of the group is left feeling ineffective and useless.  RPGs are meant to be group games and enjoyed by everyone, not just one person.  But sadly, in Stupid Head's world, he was the PC and the other players were just NPC minions.

Lastly, he complained that I was an "ass-hole", again, not a legitimate critique and a complaint that arose because I "kept interrupting him."  I had also shut him down soundly when he kept insisting that I allow his character to have a rifle that did 12d6 damage right from the start.  I told him this wasn't fair to the other players and his response was "screw the other players."

Needless to say, I kicked him out.  One of the players, a friend of his, tried to get me to reconsider letting him back in, saying "it's not his fault, he has Asperger's and can't help it."  That is not a legitimate excuse: my brother-in-law and half of my players have Asperger's, or some other spectrum of Autism, and none of them behave like that.  But that's a topic for another article.

Fortunately I have had successful campaigns and have had the opportunity to meet some excellent players from all around the world and many walks of life.  I don't claim to be a perfect GM.  Nobody is.  I have a lot of shortcomings that need to be remedied, but in spite of this, I have at least learned to focus my creativity into making fun worlds for players to live in for 3+ hours a session.

Let's get started: How I GM.

First, I make a setting.  This can be an entire world or a smaller geographic area, all full of stuff.  I'm a fantasy/science fiction writer and have come up with what I am content to call "comfortably original" ideas.  This means ideas that have their own style while bearing the standards of a classic fantasy/sci fi adventure without trying so hard to be unique that they wind up simply being weird or uncomfortable.  (I hate it when GMs try to create what, in their minds, are clever twists on a campaign concept, but in reality are more like role-play scenarios that an amateur improv class wouldn't touch: "in this campaign, players will assume the roles of magic items and will wait in a dragon's lair while adventurers come to claim them.")

How do I make a setting?  I look for visual and mental stimuli.  This happens naturally over the course of time.  It's frustrating to me when I hear writing experts say you want to spend most of your time reading books in the same genre you want to write in so you can "get ideas."  This is stupid: it's like saying you want to make a new kind of grape juice by adding other, more successful people's grapes.  What do you get?  Grape juice, only it doesn't taste as good as the more successful grape juice because they put more thought and more work into it than you did.  Truth be told, you will be inspired to create original fantasy/sci fi ideas from reading a fantasy or sci fi story, but if you want to really develop your own and make something unique and wonderful, you need to read absolutely EVERYTHING ELSE!  Here is a list of the following things I read or watch to get ideas, and mind you, I look up everything I can find in each of these categories, and I write copious notes:
Books and documentaries on every major world culture, and then pidgin cultures.
Books and documentaries on different languages.
Books and documentaries on how stuff is made (like cheese, steel, houses, machines, etc.)
Books and documentaries on history (like the neolithic age, the bronze age, the iron age, the renaissance, the Napoleonic period, the Victorian period, current events, and practical, theoretical science.
Books and documentaries on combat and warfare, modern and past, especially Roman since Rome developed military tactics that are still used today in every branch of the military.
Books and documentaries on architecture, both modern and past, again, especially Roman since they revolutionized many aspects of architecture and stand as an example of an ancient culture whose technology was more advanced than many of the centuries that came after.
Books and documentaries on food and cuisine from all around the world.  These are fun since many of the hosts of these shows go to 3rd world country bazaars and shopping districts, which are almost unchanged from how they have been for the past thousand or so years.

There's much more, and while you wouldn't want to base an entire campaign after just one thing you studied and got excited about, these should help you flesh out your larger world and make it believable.  Some folks, especially the anime porn-obsessed youth of today's modern culture hate realism and want everything to simply be abstract and redundantly over-powered with endless combat, but this grows boring really fast.  Like eating nothing but candy, it'll leave you with a sour stomach.  You need real history and real culture to develop a world or setting, because the more realistically grounded a game is, the more immersive it is.

Don't believe me?  Let's look at Baldur's Gate and any number of those anime-porn cell phone RPGs.  The cell phone RPGs are incredibly superficial and depict characters with huge, jagged shoulder pads, huge, jagged swords ridiculously flamboyant costumes. Gameplay consists of them running around and nuking everything with magic or explosive, slashy buster sword moves.  No story (at least no original story), no immersion: just endless, tedious hours of "Magician shoot fireball go boom."  This is just sad and I've seen far too many GMs run games like this: take a quest, nuke the monsters, earn gold and XP: wash, rinse, repeat.  No immersion, no story, at least no interesting story.  The players always get bored and either the campaigns end, or they make new characters and start a new, but similar campaign, thinking it'll somehow make things more interesting, which it can, but only for the first session, then it's back to fetch quests and monster hunting as usual.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Look back at Baldur's Gate: a massively successful game set in an RPG world fleshed out by a man who clearly studied his real world history.  Sure, Ed Greenwood made a magical world with fantastical creatures, but at their core they draw heavily from events in our world's history.  They're familiar and meaningful, because their cultures reflect on ours.  The fantasy just gives it a more dynamic flavor, but not to the point of overpowering.  The plot to Baldur's Gate.  There's a reason it's one of the most popular games of all time; it has political intrigue, interesting and unique characters, an economy, racial and cultural tensions, big, sprawling cities you can get lost in with dark alleys hiding secrets on top of secrets.

When building a campaign, you want to create an effect I refer to as "The Underside of a Rock."  When I was a small child, I liked to pry up large stones in our back yard because you never knew what you were going to find under them.  Usually a bunch of centipedes, spiders, ants and earthworms would be squirming around the damp shadows, with little tunnels dug everywhere: it was almost chaotic and even though it usually made me run away screaming, it was still fun and I liked showing my friends and cousins so I could see their reactions.

How this translates to making a campaign: when you flesh out a world, you want to peel off the surface and put a lot of stuff beneath it.  Fill it with tall towers masking hidden dungeons, mountains hiding labyrinths and lots and lots of creative or just plain silly encounters.  Populate your world with enough stuff that, from the moment the players first set foot, they have lots of choices.  This ties to a saying my friends and I made while playing the Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3/4: "if you can see it, you can go there."  If the players think of something they want to do, like if they want to raise winter wolf pups, brew and sell ale, gather honey from a beehive set in a hollow tree, they should be able to do it!

Which brings me to the next part of developing a campaign: leave some room for the players to help flesh it out.  Encourage your players to ask questions, and accept them within reason.  To explain this, I use the ballroom example.  Once, when I was still learning to be a good GM, I had an epiphany.  It used to be that, whenever a player asked me if something was present in a game and my notes didn't express whether or not it was, I usually would immediately say "no" as I stupidly believed it would sidetrack from the "plot."  But on this one occasion, I had my players exploring a ruined and abandoned palace that had recently become overrun with monsters. The players had worked their way into a ballroom and were fighting a large monster, I think it was a Gorgon.  One of the players asked me if there were any chandeliers in the room.  I almost said no, as I was automatically accustomed to, but it suddenly struck me: I never said there weren't any and what would it hurt if I said yes?  I told him "yes, you see one hanging from the middle of the ceiling."

His rogue character used this to his advantage, climbing to an upper balcony and leaping to the chandelier where he gained a bonus to strike at the monster from above with his ranged weapon.  Then, the fighter positioned the monster underneath the chandelier, allowing the rogue to cut the rope and bring the whole thing crashing down.  The party loved that; it was cliche' but fun as hell, and I left that session with the realization: "if the players ask for something, and it seems sensible, just say yes."  I mean, you will want to say no from time to time so they don't spam the same thing over and over, like looking for chandeliers in every dungeon.  But I found and still find that this helps flesh out the campaign in ways I could never have dreamed.  It has a built-in rewards system where the players know that their creativity is being rewarded and compels them to invest themselves in each and every place they visit, listening to descriptions and asking questions about the terrain and the NPCs they encounter.

One last example: a group of PCs entered an old church to take shelter during the rain.  I rolled a random encounter that nearly proved too difficult for them.  A pack of were rats came in out of the storm, and after failed attempts to parlay, they attacked the PCs.  Only one of the PCs had a weapon that could actually harm the foul beasts, so one of the players, on his turn, asked me if there were vials of oil in the church.  This made the other players scoff a little; "why would there be oil in a church?" but the player explained that some churches used oil to anoint or bless things.  I decided this was reasonable and had him roll to search for it, giving him a moderate difficulty.  He succeeded and I said "yes, you find some bottles of oil.  He then doused his and everyone else's non-magical weapons in oil, lit them with a torch and made it possible for everyone to actually damage the were-rats.  I gave them extra experience points for using creativity, because this made the encounter into something way more awesome than simple hack and slash shenanigans.

Lastly: the campaign plot!  Don't railroad your PCs, which I'll get into later.  You can have a plot to your game, but use what I call the Elder Scrolls Rule of Thumb: if they pursue the main plot, they can run it through to the end, but if they want, they can deviate at any time to pursue other actions (unless they're in the middle of an encounter or trapped in the middle of a dungeon, etc.)  Let the players create their own plots as well: if they want to build a stronghold, create dilemmas surrounding the building of the stronghold.  Create enemies or competitors, have a charismatic nemesis try to lead away their workers, do whatever you can to stop them from accomplishing their goals, just don't smother them with relentless difficulty or outright take things away.  They should earn it, but enjoy the luxury of having fun while doing so.

Now let's get into actually running a session:

Learn the Rules!  Learn those damn, number-crunchy rules!  This needs to be done well in advance of actually running a system.  Don't just skim the books and say you'll pick it up as you go.  If something seems complicated, read it three times over.  If it still doesn't make sense, look it up online: there are lots of gifted GMs who have written articles and do an excellent job boiling down hard rules. And for goodness' sake, don't house-rule!  This is a trap I always fell into every time I learned a new RPG system, and I did it because I thought it would simplify running the game.  All it did was create confusion and anger.  For example, I was raised on D&D 3rd edition, but when I picked up AD&D (which is now my absolute favorite RPG system), I could't wrap my head around how combat initiative was done, so I defaulted to my knowledge of 3rd edition and created my own peculiar house rules that used the mechanics of AD&D.  When I drew in veteran players of AD&D they pointed out how broken and confusing this was. Fortunately, one of them explained it very simply and I eventually got it, but it took away about fifteen minutes of valuable game time.

Another problem with house rules, it's hella frustrating to players who transition to a new GM.  It's common to hear a player say "I feel like I'm learning an entirely new system each time I switch GMs.  We're all playing (RPG name), but it's never the same from one GM to the next."  Just learn the rules: the people who wrote the system made the rules that way for a reason.  If you find that you don't like a majority of the rules in a game, find another one.  Don't change published materials to fit your own strange ideas of how things are done, or to supplement your own inadequacies that come from not learning the system in the first place.  Trust me: I was the stupid, bungling creep who had a ponderous stack of house rules and printed them off for the players to read.  They looked at me like I had a knife sticking out of my forehead, and they usually left my campaigns; rightfully so!  All I had to do was actually read the rule books and follow proper procedure.

Next, let's talk about setting up a game:

You should never, for any reason, be unprepared to run a game.  But I know, life can get in the way and you may miss out on prep time that week.  This is why you prepare, before you ever advertise wanting to GM.  Never begin a campaign until you have finished fleshing it out and have all your material ready to go.  But how do you do it?  How do you find the time?  Some GMs will spend a couple of hours before a session, just doing prep work.  That's okay, but it's unnecessary.  Here's what I do: I make the campaign and make sure it's finished.  I find a time, usually on a day off from work, or when I'm sick, and I write it out and edit the whole thing.  This can take months, but all that work means you never have to prepare a game for years to come.

If a book has random tables, use them!  Roll encounters and, where appropriate, roll alignments for the encounters, since some creatures, like Centaurs, aren't automatically a murder band.  Roll weather, roll terrain, roll communities and settlements, just let the dice decide what the players encounter and use your creativity to blend it in together.  If the system you're using doesn't have any of this, make it yourself: look up other systems with tables and get ideas for your own!  I spent about three months writing a series of d100 tables, each consisting of three columns.  The first column was a generic scene, like an abandoned town, a ruined mansion, a standing stone covered in ruins, etc.  The second column was a condition that the scene was in: were there holes in the ground, are there evidence of a recent battle, is a storm raging overhead?  And the third column was a list of problems, like a monster was using this for a lair, some bandits are using it as a meeting place to exchange hostages, there's a strange fissure that monsters are coming out of, it's a hiding place for a dungeon, etc.  Three lists of 100 stuff equals about a million unique ideas!  You'll never run out of adventures!  Just make sure each item in the list is unique, but worded vaguely enough that you can creatively combine each into a nice, tidy adventure.

Have a ready stash of images and maps.  Put up pictures of the locations the PCs are entering, especially dungeons.  Have pictures of NPCs, maps of the interiors of places that are scaled for grid combat.  A lot of players have a hard time visualizing what's going on, so pictures help immerse them into each situation and provide a point of reference for every possible action.

Next: listen to what your players say to each other: you should do only about a third of the talking, maybe even less!  Listen to what they say and get ideas, because players never follow the rule "don't give the GM any ideas."  Everything they say should spur your creativity.  If a player says "that bridge is probably being guarded by a monster," and you didn't actually have anything intended for the bridge, put something there!  Maybe not a monster, but something should be encountered there because they're expecting it and they deserve to be pleasantly surprised.

Sometimes player actions may land them in trouble: they encounter a band of orcs that prove too strong for them.  Offer them a chance to surrender and put them in prison.  Yes: you can do that.  A lot of GMs warn against locking up players, saying this will upset them.  Of course it'll upset them, but the thing is, you always make it possible for them to escape and get their stuff back.  This is memorable: they will always talk about the time they bit off more than they could chew, but lived to tell the tale.  (Of course, they could also just run).

Don't take their purchases.  As mentioned above, it's okay, once in a blue moon, to have all their earthly possessions stolen, but always give them a chance to reclaim their stuff.  Just don't be a jackass and deliberately/permanently take away their wagon.  I've encountered at least a dozen GMs who adamantly believe in taking away the PCs' horse or their wagon or the ship they all saved their money to purchase.  These same GMs will kill their hirelings or other NPCs they took along with them.  Why?  Because it's too complicated to keep track of them.  What a load of crap: there's no reason a GM should feel overburdened by having the PCs bring hired help or to buy transportation for the loot they've claimed.  There's no reason they shouldn't be able to build a stronghold to store their treasure and then hire an army of NPCs to protect it while they go off on another adventure.

Just write it down.  Better yet, have the players write it down!  Make them mini GMs over their resources: let them hire NPCs, record their stats, name them, and buy them equipment.  Let them catologue everything they've encountered so far for future reference.  Let them control their NPCs during combat: if you know the combat rules like you should, this won't slow things down at all.  It may speed up normally slow combat encounters, because many hands make lighter work!  Most important, allowing the PCs to track their own resources and hirelings helps them feel  invested into the campaign.  They feel like everything they do has significance, which makes them want to do more!  They won't be able to wait until next session when they'll finally earn enough gold to buy their henchmen suits of full plate and +2 longswords!

Reward players for good role-play.  I don't care if you intended for the PCs to sneak into the castle through the sewers and instead they decided to schmooze and then bribe the guards at the front gate.  Don't tailor a railroad scenario: set up each scene as reasonably as you can, provide all relevant details and let them make their own plans.  This goes back to listening to PCs for ideas.  Say they have to rescue the merchant from a gnoll compound.  Rather than require a specific, step by step course of action for them to follow to get the job done, let them come up with their own damn plan.  This isn't a video game with limited interface that requires the triggering of specific events; this is a tabletop RPG!  The possibilities are endless!  The players shouldn't have to complete steps A-Z, they should be able to assess the situation, acquiring whatever insights their dice rolls afford them, and then go from there.  If they come up with a solution through a lot of good planning and hard work, especially through teamwork, give them bonus XP and maybe a bonus magical item.  They've earned it.

Let them live, let them die.  This is a hard one and generally it depends on what kinds of players you have.  Some players get attached to their PCs and don't want to see them die.  In this instance, feel free to fudge the rules a little to keep them going.  It doesn't hurt and it doesn't require you absolutely spoiling them rotten or performing a Deus Ex Machina.  If you want to run a gritty, realistic campaign with permanent death, make absolutely sure the players know this before they join the campaign.  Don't simply assume they'll be okay when an enemy sniper hits them in the head with a .50 round and kills them instantly.  This doesn't mean there shouldn't be consequences for their actions: for example, if a player says he's going to open fire on a group of guards (something that happened in one of my games), it stands to reason that he will be shot and killed by all of the other guards.

Power gamers and rules lawyers are welcome!  A lot of GMs hate to have their knowledge challenged, especially when they think they know the rules by heart.  Trust me, you never know the rules as well as you think.  Always give a rules lawyer the benefit of the doubt and if you have to, just look things up and clarify them quickly.  Everyone will learn how to play the game better and it helps ensure you go by the book, which is good since it helps avoid house rules (and we all know that house rules are for GMs who don't know the rules).  But going back to power gamers: yes, I know they can be annoying and usually have one track, DPS minds, but in my experience, as long as you remind them to keep civil tongues and not berate other players' character builds, they generally fall in line.  If one proves troublesome, you can take measures to deal with them.

Keep the game going at a steady pace, but provide adequate prep and rest time.  This means you shouldn't constantly push the players from one adventure to the next with little or no time for them to rest, memorize spells or buy equipment.  Equal parts of everything works best.  And as for keeping the game going, it should generally be understood that game time is for game talk only.  If a player brings up the latest movie or goes off on something political, remind them that crap like that is irrelevant to the game.  The only exception to this rule is when an emergency comes up, like if a player has to run off to help family or friends, or has to go to work, etc.  Just don't let the players eat up your time with a lot of irrelevant babble.

This pretty well sums up how I work.  Like I said, I can't give advice on how to deal with trouble players since I'm not very skilled with conflict resolution.  When posting a game on roll20 I generally make my intentions bluntly clear: no annoying or evil characters and the expectation that PCs work well together.  You will always draw in at least one stinker every now and then; hopefully not as bad as I and other GMs have encountered, but lucky for you this is a wonderful hobby with a lot of great guys and gals who play and have a good time.