Roll for Self-Doubt

This isn’t an easy post to write but in order to jump start my writing on this blog again, I feel it’s important.  The new year has been tough for me and this blog.  No posts and, even worse, little inspiration to write them.  I’ve been struggling with something and I finally thought it would be best to just get it out in the open in hopes that exposing the blockage will remove it.

I’ve been involved in the hobby since the early 1980’s.  I’ve talked about it in past posts and have a bit more to say in the future as well.  I started the blog because I feel I have some knowledge from my experiences and wanted to share.  I followed my instincts and thought I had a good plan.

Then, I started to get more involved in Twitter and exploring what is going on with this new “roleplaying renaissance” and wow, were my eyes opened.

A lot of what I wanted to talk about is already being done and explained.  So many talented people already doing some amazing things!   Games are being live-streamed every day on Twitch, talk shows and podcasts cover the deeper elements of storytelling and roleplaying.  What an amazing time it is to be so interested in roleplaying and gaming!  We have awesome discussions and a vibrant community while public perception shift more and more towards acceptance of the hobby.  I wanted to be playing in live-streams and having these cool discussions.

Most of the wind was taken out of my sails when I started feeling that I was just the old graybeard coming late to a party I had been looking forward to most of my life.  It knocked me down and I let it cause a bit too much self-reflection and way too much self-doubt.  So much so it’s taken me a month or more to get the words for this post.   However, when I get down there is a favorite saying of mine which I go to repeatedly.  It comes from the movie Ghosts in the Darkness, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit…  The getting up is up to you.”

Then, I realized something else.   I can’t be the only one that feels this way.  There are probably a ton of other folks out there feeling a similar feeling.  “My stuff isn’t good enough/ on par with what is happening now.”  “I’m just another regular ol’ D&D player, what do I have to offer?” “I just got started but will never be that good.”  “My GM skills are really weak.”

Think of it this way, what if any of the folks we are looking up to in the industry had given in to their self-doubt?  We wouldn’t have the historic situation we have now, would we?

All kinds of voices are needed for this hobby/way of life.  Our kingdom of gaming geekery is vast and full of resources.  We’re all needed.  New players, veteran players and, yes, even us grey beards. We’re all a part of this and every productive voice adds to the whole in one way or the other.

If you’ve been down lately and if you feel like it, I’d like for you to get up too.  Do something small.  Speak up.  Write something.  Draw something.  Paint a mini.  Sketch a map.  I don’t care if it’s your first attempt or your hundredth.  Maybe you were down before but are doing better?  How about talking about it for others to have inspiration?   Whatever it is, put it out there for all to see.  Put it on Twitter or Tumblr or your blog or anywhere.  If you do, reply here, tag me on Twitter or use the hashtag #GeeksGetBackUp.  I would like to cheer you on and throw a virtual high-five because this shit isn’t easy when you’re battling yourself.

 

 

 

 

Tis The Season! Holidays for your Campaign

Holidays help provide us with important breaks, excuses to party, to meet up with old friends and family as well as offering times of reflection and peace.  More so, the mid-winter season is a special time since it’s the time of year where a host of different holidays combine to create a juggernaut of a holiday season.  I enjoy diving down into the histories, traditions and folklore surrounding it.  From the ancient party of Saturnalia, to the Irish horse skulls of Mari Lwyd to the more modern Kwanzaa, it’s always a fun ride.

This year, it got me thinking about fantasy worldbuilding and the importance of festivals and holidays in a game world for a gamemaster.  In table top roleplaying, holidays can often be treated as throw-away events for a game, typically being used as a backdrop for a one-shot game.  However, I think holidays and festivals  can serve the campaign, and a game’s host, by providing more depth to the game world with not only the build up towards a holiday but the holiday itself.

If, as the game host, you already have a calendar for your world then your set.  If you don’t have a calendar it’s not necessary but it does help to give the players a sense of time.  In the game world, the cycle of annual holidays can help a community or society to understand the flow of the year.  Holidays, festivals and feasts are like sign posts letting communities plan a planting season, a harvest season, special moments of import to be celebrated, etc.

Though I’m mainly going to talk about a fantasy setting this can serve just as well in science fiction as well.  We are going to look at five components to review for inspiration in crafting a holiday for your game; Culture, Survival, Celestial Events, and Themes.  At the end of the post, I’ll present a sample holiday made up with these components.

Continue reading “Tis The Season! Holidays for your Campaign”

Extra Life Birthday

Just a quick announcement and then I promise we will get back to the gaming.

For my birthday this year I will be celebrating by running a 24 hour Extra Life marathon of gaming.   I was unable to make the main event on November 3rd but I decided, at the time, I would figure out a date before the end of the year.   What I’ve decided is it will be this weekend (a few days before my birthday to be exact) on Saturday/Sunday, December 8th/9th.  My start time for the 8th is scheduled for 9:00AM EST.

What is this all about?

Extra Life is a wonderful charity which allows gamers to do what they do best while supporting children’s hospitals all over the country.  This takes the form of a 24 hour fundraising gaming marathon.   It’s simple, really.  Like a dance marathon for charity or a charity race,  I play games and try not to fall asleep while you cheer me on and show your support by donating at my charity page.

I’ll be playing for my local children’s hospital, Riley Hospital for Children and my goal for this year is $500.

This will be my 3rd year doing the event and this time, barring any tech issues, I’ll be streaming the entire, embarrassing day on Twitch.  I’ll be taking breaks for food (maybe) and, due to health reasons, taking a few hours for sleep.  However, don’t worry, any time taken will be made up to equal a full 24 hours!   I’ll be playing a mix of video games including Skyrim, Kynnseed, X-Com and whatever I can get to work for the stream.  I’m even considering doing a bit of RP on the channel as well but I’m not sure how well that will work.

If you have a second this Saturday/Sunday and want to say hello stop over at the Twitch stream anytime during the marathon.  I will also be posting on Twitter throughout the event so feel free to reply there and be sure to retweet me to get the word out.  If you’d like to help me celebrate my birthday and have a few dollars to spare, please head over to the charity page and donate what you can.

I will hopefully see you there!

My Charity Page for the marathon

Extra Life Webpage

 

5 Easy Ways to Be a Better Gamemaster

For someone just testing out the waters of running their own role-playing game, I’ve boiled down the top 5 things (in my opinion) you can focus on in order to run a successful session.   I’ve skipped over the obvious ones like “know the rules” and “have dice handy for players.”  These focus on more non-obvious elements of the craft.  Keep them in mind and it will be very hard to go wrong.  The numbering of these means little.  None are more important than the other and each of them, individually, actually work hand-in-hand with the other 4.

As a side note, I actually don’t like the word “master” in these titles because I think it separates that player out from the other players at the table.  I prefer to use Gamehost and will use this interchangeably throughout the article.

Continue reading “5 Easy Ways to Be a Better Gamemaster”

What’s Your Character’s Front Story?

One of the best ways to get a handle on a character for a role-playing game is to fill out their back story.  Where did they grow up?  Who were their parents?  How did they do in school or their apprenticeship? Did they get in a lot of fights?  Did they keep to themselves and read?  Did they steal something?  Did their first love break their heart? What events led them to where they are now as the game starts?

Some games, and gamers, more focused on the hack and slash elements do not need this exercise.  You roll or pick your stats, grab your equipment and go.  I’m a wizard.  I have spells.  I’m taking my fighter buddy and we are walking into that hole in the ground to look for treasure.  My first game consisted of this level of play and it worked just fine!  Sometimes games will start this way and then later a player creates a back story to fill their character out more fully.

I’ve been guilty myself of writing up a 2, 3 or 5 page back story for a character to help me understand them and their choices in a game after I had played a session or two. Sometimes a character will stand out before the first session and the back story comes easily.  Other times, it takes a bit of work.  Regardless, it’s always a good idea to get a feel where the character is coming from in their past.  Even in real life we go back, review our life and look to see what made us who we are in the present.  It’s a tried and true method.

I would suggest, however, this is only a half of the creation process.  There is another layer that is often overlooked.  I would suggest it is just as important to look at a character’s front story, their future.   Take a bit more time and understand why your character wants to go forward.

This should not take long and should not require too much more time.  I feel it helps give your character momentum and drive when it’s time to get the game rolling.  I would even argue that you can run with a character’s front story a lot easier than you can with a back story.

How do you push a character into their future?  Like a back story, start with some questions.  Here are a few questions to get you started.

 

What do they want to accomplish immediately?

Maybe it’s just to go into a dark hole and get some treasure?  Cool.  Maybe they want to punch that merchant?  Fine.  Maybe it’s to get off the out-of-control train they’ve found themselves on?  As long as they have some idea of what they want to do NEXT then you’re good to go.

If your game is not starting out with immediate action, like a dungeon crawl or a train rushing to its doom, perhaps a character just wants to go into that tavern for a drink?   Even though this is simple enough and often used, it’s important to move on to the next question.

 

Why do they want to accomplish it?

We know what they want but now let’s answer why.  Why are they mad at the merchant?  Why are they so determined to get into that dark hole in the ground?  Why are they on the out-of-control train in the first place?

And if they are just going into that tavern for a drink then why?  Are they bored?  Thirsty? Looking for someone?  Any answer works.

 

What is it your character desires in the next month or so and why?  How do they hope to accomplish it?

What does your character plan to do with the next few weeks or months of their future.  Sure, they are going into a dungeon, going to kill a few monsters, grab some loot but is there something they are working towards in the short-term?

When you start to answer these questions it raises the stakes for the character and gives them some powerful momentum. Perhaps a character is going into that dark hole to find something valuable so they can help their aging parents who are about to be evicted?

What if a character, born into nobility with training as an excellent negotiator, is on that train to go to peace negotiations with an age-old enemy?  If they don’t arrive the peace talks will certainly fail and thousands of his countrymen will be killed in the fighting.  If so, well, it’s time to find a way off that train.

 

What are the character’s “big picture” goals? When will they feel like they “made it?”

Does your character have something they are striving towards which will take an extended period of time?  Something which will take years and a collection of experiences and quests to complete to reach the goal?  Look at your character and think, “What does this character want to be when they grow up?”  This is the character’s larger aspirations and hopes.  What is the legacy your character wants to create?  When you fill this part in you are tapping into the real energy of why the character will make the choices they make and what drives them forward.

Perhaps a fighter is going into several dungeons because they are trying to build up wealth to hold some political power, settle down with a small estate and raise a family? Perhaps a cleric wants to eventually form his own temple somewhere or build a charitable organization?

Even if the character, at game start, is going into that tavern to get a drink because they are bored and uncertain about what is coming next I would still inquire what the character’s deeper motivations and goals might be.  Everyone is powered by something internal.  Find it and use it.

As an example, I once ran a character who started as a pretty basic thief.  You know, a pickpocketing 2nd story guy with a dark cloak and a knife.  That was it.  However, one thing came up in the back story.  The current head of the thieves guild had been particularly cruel to my character.  So, for my long-term aspiration, I decided my character was going to eventually take over the thieves guild or build another one to dethrone the current leader.  It was going to take several game sessions.  The goal ended up being a nice lodestone for the character to come back to and work towards in every single game regardless of the plot going on with the overall party.

Once you answer these few questions I think you will find that your character will begin to take a life of their own.  These questions do not need to be completed in full nor are any of them permanent.    They can be quickly jotted down as notes or guidelines.  Some empty or vague answers are perfectly welcome and you should leave some room for when inspiration or events in the game work to help you fill in those blanks.

Finally, review the character’s front story every time they progress, finish a quest or level up.  In the real world, people change.  Events may take place during the course of the game, or games, which causes the character’s internal trajectory to change.

Keep some notes and allow your character to move forward on their new aspirations.  I think, when you look back, you’ll find it has added deeper levels to the character and made them even more enjoyable to play.

 

5 Ways to Be A Better Roleplayer

I recently read a post on Twitter from a younger player who had just started and ran his first session as the Dungeon Master in a game of D&D.  It caused a reminiscing smile since I can still remember how it was to kick off my first game while not being sure I was doing it right.  On the other side of the screen, I can also recall sitting down at my first “real” game at GenCon and being pretty unsteady.  The Twitter post got me thinking about how many new players might be out there and feeling the same way.

This is the first post in a series for new players to the tabletop game community who might be a little unsure about this stuff called “role-playing.”  There seems to be a lot more people coming into the hobby these days and, whether it’s the interest from shows like Stranger Things or the increasing popularity of streamed live games and podcasts, there is no doubt we are seeing a surge in interest.

In order to kick this series off, I’ve put together a list of top 5 things you might want to practice as a player in any role-playing game you might be playing.

I’m not saying this is the be-all-end-all of tips or advice.  This is just my opinion on the things I have found are important items to keep in the forefront of your mind when you play.  If you’re coming here for the first time I also recommend my article about the contracts around a role-playing game table.  Many of the points below can be considered sub-clauses of that contract.

I firmly believe role-playing, whether you are game mastering or playing, is more of an art form than a skill.   If you keep these 5 things in mind you will be on your way to having a memorable time at the table with the other players.

5 Ways to Be A Better Roleplayer

1.) Be Flexible

There is an adage in improvisational acting circles,  “Never say no.”  Improvisational acting (and roleplaying) has a particular energy or flow to it.  By saying no, you run the risk of negating that energy or blocking it.   Always be willing to take what is thrown at you and then toss it back out to your fellow actors.  By doing this you stay flexible and allow yourself to interact with the story instead of trying to always shape it to your will. You are not blocking anything coming your way.  This allows you to build the story instead of negating it.   Don’t worry, your chance at imposing your will to the story will come in Tip #3.

Part of playing in a role-playing game is knowing that bad things are going to happen to your character.  See Tip #4. Let them happen. Learn to roll with them.  Say yes to them and see how it moves the story along.

This concept might be difficult at first and definitely takes practice.  Pay attention next time you play and try to notice when you can add to the story by being flexible.

2.) It’s Not About You…

You don’t have to be in every scene.  You don’t need to have a say in every situation.  Learn to sit back and let your co-players have their scenes and their moments.  Let them have their time in the spotlight.  Your time will come around.  If the GM is focusing on another character’s back story this means you need to chill for a few minutes while a few scenes get played out.

When I played a lot of sportsball my coach used to say, “Just because you’re on the bench doesn’t mean you’re out of the game.”  This meant to keep watching the game and to have an understanding of the flow of the game when you got put back into it.  Use down time to think about what you might want to do next with your character or to think about your own back story.  Even better, pay attention because it gives you a chance to learn about your fellow players and their characters in the story.  That knowledge will help form a richer tapestry with each passing game.

It’s easy for your vision to narrow and to only focus on what is going on in the game that is relevant to your character.   You’re playing a mage and you get “zeroed in” when the rival spell caster shows up with the spell book you have tried to find.  You’re playing a ranger and your favored enemy arrives on the battlefield.  You’re playing a cleric and the undead finally show up.  When those situations come up it can feel urgent to get in there and “show them what I do best!”

However, be patient.  It’s not about you.  It will be better if you can take a breath and wait for your moment without interrupting someone else’s.

Which leads to…

3.) When It Is About You, Go For It

Has the spotlight come your way?  Is it finally your turn in an 8 character initiative order after you rolled a 3?  Hooray!  It’s time and, at this moment, it’s all about YOU!  Don’t hold back.  Run with the ball and make it count for all it’s worth.

Maybe you’ve waited fifteen minutes for your character to act.  Do you really just want to go with, “I try to hit the orc with my sword.”  Try to think what it would look like on the movie screen when it’s your character’s turn and play it out, describe it, even if it really only boils down to “I hit him with my sword” within the mechanics of the rules.

An example – In a current Dungeons and Dragons game,  I’m playing a rogue dwarf who does not like to get into close, physical combat.  He prefers to stay near the edges of the fight, using his perception, stealth and range weapon to help with team tactics and to pick off targets as he can.  After finding himself in the middle of a melee he had just dodged into another room to gain some space and some cover.  I sat for some time while the other players took their turns but for my character the only action was to stay put and shoot one of the enemies.  It’s the only thing that made sense.

But, when it came to my turn, I didn’t just say, “I shoot the bad guy.”  I tried to think what it might look like “on camera” and then gave a short description of how he edged around the corner  of the doorway, watching the fight as he brushed stray hair from his eyes, yelling out a warning to another player and then finally took his shot at the bad guy.

Bonus points – find a way to bring in other characters or combine your actions with other player’s character during your scene or moment.  Remember, keep the flow between everyone going.

4.) Do Bad Things to Your Character.

This one is pretty easy but I’m always surprised how many people resist it.

Be willing to have your character do things that will be bad for them and allow the game master to do bad things to them.  Of course, you could argue having a character go into a dark dungeon filled with creepy monsters matches this definition already but I am talking about something a little different.  I’m focusing on actions you KNOW are going to turn out poorly for your character but they are things your character would do.

Part of the fun of these games is playing out a situation involving an action or an attitude you might never do in real life.  Is your character a hot-headed firebrand that would slap the city guardsman for having an attitude?  Then go for it!  Is your character a bit too curious for their own good and would sneak out in the middle of the night to investigate the manor house where they are staying?  Go for it!

Of course, this should be tempered with Tip #2 above, right?  This one requires balance because not every scene at the table is about your character doing something bad to themselves.  You’ll have to learn the rhythm going at the table but the only way to do that is with practice.

5.)Respect What the Game Master is Trying To Do.

This is a bit of a repeat of the Contracts Around the Table post but I’m mentioning it because it is very important.  Always keep in mind the person who has invited you to their game has spent a lot of time creating and setting the stage you are now running around on.  It’s very possible that for every hour of game play you are enjoying they have put twice that amount into making maps, building nasty villains, placing slimy monsters and trying to plan ahead, as best they can, for you and the other players.

They are trying to tell a story for, and with, you and I feel that deserves a bit of respect.  Show them that respect by not making fun of the story, try to read what kind of story they are telling and see how you can add to it.  For many game masters this is why they do what they do.  They want to see how the characters are going to apply tip #1 above and throw it back at them.  Make sure you tell them if you are enjoying the scene, the surprises, the tension or maybe just loving the whole game.  Did you notice some subtle thing the game master slid into the scene that effected a character’s story?  Tell them you noticed.  As hard as it is to imagine, game masters are not psychic and knowing a player is enjoying their game is a super fuel for them.  It will inspire them to go even further on their next session for you.

 

Each of these tips should add to the energy at the table and help make the game become more memorable for you and everyone else.  All of these requires practice and you are not going to get it all right every time.    However, if you keep these 5 tips in mind and reflect on them both during and after the game, you are going to find yourself getting better and better at them every time you sit down.

Just remember, after the last die roll, it’s about telling a story and having fun with your friends.

 

 

The Lost Island Rises!

Like most D&D geeks from the early 80’s, my first campaign was set in the first world released for the game, Greyhawk.   After a few campaigns here and there, imagination called to me.  I was yearning for a new place to build adventures and my next love, Forgotten Realms, had yet to be published.  I think it happens to most gamemasters in time.  I wanted something to call my very own so I  cast off from the shores of Greyhawk and did what any self-respecting, geek gamemaster would do  – I started my own game world.

The concept from my adolescent brain?  A large, sparsely populated island filled with more monsters then civilization.  It was to be a savage place where life was cheap except for small pockets of civilization along the coast.  With so much danger, why would anyone go there?  This was easy enough.  Legends of an ancient civilization buried within the mountainous crags, vast halls of undiscovered wealth, knowledge and magical secrets, of course.

I called the island Ballushiam, the Lost Island

I grabbed a ballpoint pen, some grid paper and got to work. I scribbled rivers and mountains.  I designed where different factions were located with crayon and marker.  I drew out different territories and gave them horrible names. I drew my first compass rose.  I worked on the project for several weeks.

And, of course, this was as far as it got.  Sadly, it never got played.  I hung on to my maps and my notes because I kept telling myself, “One day, monster island… one day…”

Years passed and the island held true to it’s name.  Games came and went until a few years ago I was purging through things, going through boxes of older game material.  I was getting back to only the simple, basic things I wanted to keep.  Amidst the crumpled character sheets, half-drawn maps, odd sketches, old GM notes and brittle graph paper  I came across an old, green school folder.   I recognized it from my high school days.  Forgetting what was placed within I opened it carefully and found, to my joy, Ballushiam, the lost island!  All that was left from the numerous notes and sketches were two gaudy maps with little information.  Yet, looking at them brought back all the memories, all the ideas.

Once again the lost island had been found and I had a decision to make.  I was cleaning things out.  I’d not done anything with it for decades.  Why keep it?  Would I keep it or did it just need to go into the trash after taking a few pictures for keepsakes?

Of course, I kept it.  What kind of gamer would I be if I tossed out the very first horribly drawn world maps I ever created?

So, it went back in the worn green folder and stored with other memorabilia like my first dungeon, my first monster, and some old character sheets.  Once again, the island sank back down under the waves of attention.

But, all was not lost.  Recently, as I went looking for the GenCon XVI booklets I photographed for my previous post,  the lost island rose again.  When I found it, I made an important decision.

If I didn’t use it immediately and do something with it then I would toss it and move on.

Which, of course, means…

It’s time to explore the lost island of Ballushiam!

Be kind.  These were absolutely the first world maps I had ever created in my life.

One of the ideas I had for this blog was to produce, from the ground up, a fantasy game world that could  be free and open for everyone.   This is exactly what I want to do with Ballushiam.  It has, sadly, been unattended for decades but I’m breathing life into it and will be sharing the island with you.  I’ll be doing the heavy lifting, of course, but I’ll be listening to comments and thoughts that come up on future posts.  As things grow, you, as reader, will have chances to effect how aspects change and grow on the island in various ways.  I want it to be a living, breathing island.

First steps will be getting the map done or, at least, part of the map.  I love doing write-ups and background history pieces as well so these will be posted here too.  Most of the pieces will not be to any specific game system but I may give some hints and examples how they might, for instance, into Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, FATE core, etc.   Everything will go under the tag of “Ballushiam” and, if it gets hefty enough, I will give it it’s own page and cross-link everything as needed.

Are you hardy enough to visit the Lost Island?