Category Archives: Tips and Tricks

For Love and Role-Playing

It’s Valentines day, my first in Japan, and there’s a buzz in the office. All around me men are getting boxes of chocolates from the female staff. Even I’ve got some sitting on my desk, and I got cookies from my wife’s students on the walk in. In Japan, Valentines day is about girls and women giving chocolates to friends. In the West, we focus on our love relationships. Love (and friendship) has many faces, but it’s essence is universal.

 

Role-playing too, is becoming increasingly universal. While I’d guess that most games come from the United States, places like Europe and Asia have developed their fair share of systems and even Africa has a number of systems to it’s credit. But hold on a moment. Am I comparing LOVE to role-playing? Sure, many people love the game, but really? Hear me out…

 

I think generally we only think of love in a limited way, throwing friendship from the definition. I’m coming from the position that friendship is just a kind of none romantic love, but to make it simpler I’ll just refer to friendship from here on out. Role-playing is about fun, first and foremost. It’s also about social contract, the spoken and unspoken rules of how we interact at the table. Because of social contract, role-playing can be a really good place to build friendships. A photo from some of my role-playing buddies back home was a good reminder to me of just how meaningful the friendships we build through playing can be. We invest in each others lives through this strange game and real bonds are formed.

 

But role-playing has caused it’s fair share of broken friendships. Enough stories float around of bad games. At the core of this problem, I think, is social contract again, or lack thereof. Both GM’s and players need to work hard to communicate their likes, dislikes and fears. Everyone needs to listen too. By the very nature of the game, it works best when everyone works together. Are we, as GM’s and players, really listening to what everyone else is saying when we sit down to play. Are we hearing the concerns voiced in a joke, or the worry behind a question. Are we reading body language? Are we failing a spot check on fears?

 

This Valentines day, let’s love like God intended, looking past ourselves and to the feelings of others. Let’s build better friendships and a better game.

Writing up a storm

It has been a busy month writing wise, it’s National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short and I’ve been plugging away at my first novel. The reason I’m telling you this is because I’m learning loads about writing that I think will extend to preparing good sessions for your players.

Make Notes

I have a tendency to put words down without thinking about what I’m actually saying. It’s not a good plan. Make notes and plan out everything, even if the planning is where you leave things. And let’s face it, planning is all you need. Good GM’s have a good outline, even if that’s all kept in their heads.

Keep it all

Don’t throw your ideas away, you can often rework something to use later. Some of my favorite scenes so far have been from my own noted that I reworked as dialogue into the text.

Cut the boring stuff

Don’t force the characters to work through boring stuff.

Keep on keeping on

You might have a lot of prep to do and a load of things waiting. Do what you can when you can.

Have fun

If you’re not enjoying it then your players probably won’t. Take a break or change things up to keep it fun.

Do you have any thoughts? Share them below.

Role playing on the super cheap.

I’m going to tell you a little secret, you don’t need all the crap. All the books, figures, maps, expansions, subscriptions and who knows what else. In fact, role-playing is one of the cheapest hobbies out there, second only to watching paint dry, and much more fun.

You’ve probably seen the paragraph in your favourite game core rule book entitled “What you need to play the game.” It probably mentions a pencil and scrap paper, dice and the book the text is printed in, with a copy of some of the main books for the Game Master (GM) and a book of baddies. This has been the trend with a number of books, but some publishers have offered the whole game in one book, such as Mouse Guard, Warhammer FRP and many indie games. These companies usually offer a number of additional books to help you expand the game, but generally you can get by without them. Some games, including some really good ones, are absolutely free. Just google Pokethulhu and download a copy of the rules, it’s a great system that can be adapted to play in any setting.

You will need to buy dice, and role-players are pretty grumpy when it comes to sharing their dice, so be sure to buy your own set. I don’t think there’s such a thing as good or bad dice, roll them hard enough and you’ll eventually roll high. I recommend getting a set including at least a D4, D8, two different coloured D10’s, a D12 and a D20. Anything else is superfluous. For the D6’s I recommend getting a set of board game dice in a few colours, which you can take from Monopoly, because who plays Monopoly since Settlers of Catan came out anyway?

Another neat trick about dice that will save you some cash, but generally slows down play is to use a D6 to make up the rolls of less common dice:
D4: roll a D6 but refill any result of 5 or 6.
D8: roll for odds or evens, then roll as you did for the D4, multiplying the result by 2 if you rolled evens.
D10: roll for odds and evens, then roll again and reroll any sixes. 1-5 is your result if you got odds, 6-10 if you got evens. Use this method to roll up D100’s as usual.
D12: roll for odds and evens, then a roll of the D6 is 1-6 for odds and 7-12 for evens.
D20: roll like you would a D10 above, but with an extra roll to decide if it’s a result from 1-10 or 11-20. This is quite a hassle, but a neat party trick. I’d recommend you get a D20 though, it’s like a sign that you’re a role-player, an open minded individual who sees the world in full colour and not just as little game pieces on a fold out game board.

As for the rest, there is so much free stuff out there that you can get deep into the hobby without much overhead. Still, I’d like to say that I’m all for supporting the game developers and publishing houses that sweat blood so we can play better games. As a writer I have some idea of the effort that goes into brining quality to the table, and it isn’t cheap. You can support them without breaking the bank by buying digital versions of your favorite games from places like Drive Thru RPG.

It’s NaNoWriMo month so I’m back to the trenches. Let me know what tips you have for saving hard earned cash and especially any free RPG’s you’d like to recommend.

Getting Mappy!

Today I’m going to give you some quick insights into map making, so you can make your location and encounter maps even more awesome.

 

Planning

Good planning is the key. Draw out a rough map of what you want in pencil, so that you can change it as you go. You’ll usually find that as you draw the map out certain things become apparent, such as a door which needs to be moved for better access or a room that is just too small for its use. Once you have the basic design, redraw the map on grid paper using an appropriate scale, you’ll find it’s helpful to refer to your rough map to get everything to fit nicely. Flesh out your map with details and make note on what you’re creating, such as who were the origional inhabitants of the place and how special features operate. Knowing what each room is used for will help you add details that make the room more alive.

Bringing it to the Table

There are a number of ways you can bring your map to the table. You might use a dry-erase board or you might want to use map tiles or draw out your map on grid paper if you want to use it as a battle map. If you’re going to use the map as a handout, a good idea is to make a GM only copy with notes and secret doors marked on it, and another players copy that only shows what the PC’s would see.

Reuse ‘Em

Seriously, as a GM you’ll be creating loads of content, and you should re-use everything, even if it’s just keeping notes on what works and what doesn’t work so you can recreate something later. As a writer of role-playing content I’ve seen the benefit of re-using something to get a better something and the time saving can be huge.

Remember that nothing exists in a void (unless you’re designing a room in a void), and there should be reasons for everything. Details like furniture, tools and even waste add meaning and make a map more real.

Do you have any map tips? Share them with us by leaving a comment below.

Magic – World Mechanics and Story Device

This week saw the premier of the final Harry Potter movie and the launch party for Magic the Gatherings 12th edition. It’s almost like magic is everywhere, and really, it is at the very core of the fantasy genre. Magic is an integral part of fantasy and fantasy gaming, from magical creatures to spells and worlds formed by raw magical energy. In this article I’ll look at magic in terms of world mechanics and as a story device.

 

Defining Magic

I could look specifically at magic in this article, but then write a similar article on mutation and super powers that wouldn’t add anything new. Rather, let’s group magic, super powers, psionics, amazing technology and everything else that is “abnormal” and call them “world mechanics”. I’m using broad strokes here, but let me explain. Mouse Guard is a game (and comic) with little magic. Mice can talk, but they possess no powers as such or magical artefacts. Mouse Guard’s “world mechanics” are interesting because we can play as mice in a world terrifying to mice. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, lets us use magic to fight magical creatures, and we can become powerful beings that can take on terrifying dragons through the levelling up mechanic. If you think about it, levelling is a type of magic, you would never gain such abilities in real life even with dedicated training. Thus the world mechanics for D&D represent a world that is full of magic. So, I’m going to use “world mechanics” and “magic” interchangeably in this article.

 

Magic has Boundaries

Magic needs to have boundaries, without these boundaries players will feel cheated and confused. Can my wizard become invisible if he casts an invisibility spell? Boundaries (rules) set this out for you. The boundaries then, like I said above, define the world at the same time. Frodo’s ring had power to corrupt, so we understand that in The Lord of the Rings magical items may have a risk involved when they are used.

 

Magic breaks Boundaries

Firstly, as a story element, magic breaks boundaries. Magic lets your characters and NPC’s do things that they would not normally be able to do in the real world. Flight, as an obvious example, is only possible through magic. Because of this, you need to think outside of reality and be creative when designing your sessions and include encounters and NPC’s that bring the reality of the game world into focus and let the players experience that world. It’s no good running a fantasy game where everything is normal by everyday terms, and I’d argue that a normal day even in terms of your fantasy world would be too boring for your players, but there needs to be an obvious difference between the two worlds. A note of caution though, sometimes subtlety really pays of with regards to the differences in your fantasy world and our own, you do want it to all be believable in some way.

Furthermore, magic gives you a reason to break the mould with you game, within reason. In a recent game I introduced a series of earth-nodes that needed to be used in sequence, and did not let players move as they wished between the nodes. I explained this difference as a consequence of the spell plague, which the players were happy with and I could then stagger encounters out between the different nodes. Because magic and the mechanics of your game world represent the weird and wonderful, take inspiration from the setting and let your creativity flow.

 

Magic is often Limited

Magic has its limits, which is important to remember. If any world mechanic is limitless, it becomes worthless in a way. If everyone can fly, you will need ways to cut that ability at some point and you need to work out the repercussions of giving everyone such an ability. In my opinion, magic becomes more interesting if there is less of it. In the Lord of the Rings, there are only a handful of magical users, which makes characters like Gandalf and Saruman stand out amongst the rest, magic is thus strange and valuable.

Potter Fans at the Premier
Potter Fans at the Premier

At the end of the day magic represents a great device for telling the stories we love, that’s why so many people fell in love with the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings and so many other fantasy stories. Use magic well and your games will be that much more interesting and captivating.

 

If you watched the last Harry Potter, or played MtG during the release party or have any other thoughts about magic, leave a comment. Let’s talk geek 🙂

Imagination Gaming

I love PC games, they are easy to get into and the level of immersion is huge. But, like TV we are fed so much visual and audio stimulus that little is left to the imagination. That is the sad thing to me, and why I love role-playing games and boardgames so much. Yes, I know, I’m an idealist, but bare with me. “Analogue games” let us exercise that important skill that is so often neglected by adults: the imagination.

 

A little experiment

Let’s try a little experiment. I’ll describe someone to you, and you try and imagine him in your mind:

A sullen looking dwarf stands before you, his long dust coloured beard hanging to the knees of his short, stumpy legs. His dark eyes seem to stare out into space, chasing some distant thought. The helm on his head is painted blue and gold, with a horn attached to either side. Over a blue tunic he wears a coat of scale mail, well polished but battered by many battles. He leans on a large axe with his right hand, and the thumb of his left hand is slung through his belt.

Now, once you have that image in your mind, skip to the end of this post and see the image I’m describing. Which image was better, the one in your mind or the one below?

With the imagination, anything is possible and anything can be experienced. This is an important tool for the GM as well as the player. When you build your world, your NPC, even your magical items, take a moment to imagine your creation. Not only does it help you describe what you see more vividly, but it helps you spot obvious flaws in your creation and gives you more ideas to work with. Let’s go ahead and try it (yeah, we’re getting really practical in this post).

Take a moment to imagine one of your major NPC’s, or a character you’re playing if you’re not a GM. Imagine what he or she is wearing, what they are doing and how they feel. Also think about where they are and the things that are influencing them. In my mind, my character is taking a moment to watch the birds (there are birds outside my window now) and he’s feeling the weariness of the day, and the weight of his armour. It’s an unusual moment of peace for this battle weary veteran, and he’s even put his prized maul aside, he’s not thinking of war and monsters right now.

 

Visualisation

Visualising something with your imagination lets you practice or rehears something in your mind. Visualisation helps you achieve your goals by letting you see the steps you need to complete to get there. It’s not only useful for role-playing, athletes use it too, like the race car driver memorising the track before he sets out. When I do martial arts, I sometime just stand still and imagine what  I’ll be doing next. It lets me practice quickly. I think this is a vital skill for any GM.

When we were children, how much easier was it for us to use our imagination. Sometimes a box was the best toy, or a stick. I think we are slowly losing our imagination, outside of role-playing and fiction writing, it’s practically unfashionable to use your imagine. I’d like to get your feedback, what do you think?

Getting the most out of any game, for me, is all about imagination. From PC games to boardgames and role-playing games, I’m the commander, or the spy, or the assassin, and I’m living the game. All games are essentially about escapism, and your imagination is the key to breaking the bonds of earth.

Dwarf
A dwarf warrior, not quite as you imagined him.

 

I’d love to hear from you, so tell us what you think and share some of your experiences.

Playing it Solo

I love role-playing games, but sometimes I just can’t find anyone who wants to play with. Recently I bought the Dungeons and Dragons Red Box and played through the solo introductory game, and Ghost Tower of the Witchlight Fens, which was a blast. The game is not the same without other players, but I still enjoyed it and found it a great way to test out a new character build, or the workings of some power or tactic. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share some of my own ideas about solo play, specifically in terms of playing without a pre written adventure.

 

Army Soldiers

When I was small I’d play with my little green army soldiers, those heroes of a thousand battles. There were no rules, you just moved them around and made appropriate sound effects. You used your imagination and the game went the way you wanted it to (at least if you were playing by yourself). Similarly, in a solo game, you play the GM, so you need to direct the game in the way you see fit, but give your PC (or PC’s) enough challenge to keep things interesting. In my current solo game my PC, known as The Gray Priest, a cleric, has come to a town in search of a long lost book. Picking up from the adventure in the Red Box, he has hired town guardsmen and set out on a number of forays to try and beat off the enemies forces. I play out the encounters as I would if I was the GM, making perception checks for the goblins before they would be ambushed and fighting with the best of my ability when playing either side. Game balance can be tricky, but many RPG’s include a good system for balancing the fight, which makes it possible to keep things interesting without loosing your character during every bout of combat.

 

Campaign Journal

In a normal campaign we might keep a campaign journal and in a solo game you can and should do the same thing. My only difference is that I write it like a story, which helps me imagine what is going on, and I use that to focus the role-playing aspects of the game, writing as I play. Again, you need to be the GM too, so if your character says the wrong thing, make the “NPC’s” react accordingly. That’s part of the fun. The campaign journal otherwise offers you the same benefits of a regular campaign journal, and I recommend recording things that you would keep in your GM notes, so that you can keep track of the greater story.

 

Tables versus Imagination

Many solo games use tables for a number of random events in the game, and there is a wide range of tables you can use already available in most RPG’s. Furthermore, you can write your own to suit your campaign, including elements you choose and having them occur to your own predefined frequency. Unless you want more of a simulation game than a story game I recommend not using too many tables, since you may find it takes your story in a direction you do not want. The key is really to play around until you’re happy with the game you are playing. If you find you are doing more accounting than game playing, then you just need to simplify. But if you need some random direction, by all means, use a table.

 

K.I.S.S

No, not the band. KISS stands for “Keep it simple stupid” and it’s a key factor in good solo gaming. Keep your story simple and limit the elements that are interacting in the world. For example, my character and four town guard took on nine enemy units. It was a relatively long fight for one person to play out, but if there had been more units and more HP to keep track of, I doubt things would have been as much fun. The nice thing is that KISS does not mean that things are boring, you simply add complexity as you can manage it.

 

Dealing With Death

While you may have more than one character in a solo game, you will most likely still have a smaller party than the usual 4 or 5. Death then can mean the end of your solo game, and if you’ve invested time in your game, then that’s a very sad thing. However, you do have a couple of options to keep the game going.

Most quests are important enough that someone will take up the cause when others fail, and heroes often have friends, even if only a few they can really trust. Death of one hero means you can bring in a new character to take the place of the fallen character. You may find you only play with this new character until you can resurrect the old one, and that’s fine, because it makes for a more interesting story when you include the adventures of others.

Secondly, death is only the start of another journey. Think about the adventure your character can have in the Halls of Valhalla before their god sends them back to complete their quest.

 

Play

The best tip I can give for anyone thinking about playing a solo game is just to give it a try, you will learn more from actually playing than thinking about it. Consider what you enjoy about each game or session and what you dislike, and where appropriate make a house rule if it will help keep things fun. I’d suggest keeping sessions relatively short, since you’ll need all your concentration to play it properly, but play as often as you can and please share your findings with us here.


Do you play role-playing games like D&D or Pathfinder as solo games? Let me know what you think and share any mechanics you have. I’d love to hear your thoughts.