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.

1.) This is NOT a board game.

One of the things that always bothered me about role-playing games is that they are called “games.”  It came about because they grew out of military simulation games and to a larger extent, the title makes sense.  However, when most of us think about games, especially someone new to the hobby, you think of your typical family board or card game; like Chess, Risk, Monopoly, Dominoes, Yahtzee, Spades, etc.

In those games, the goal is to “win” the game.  There is typically competition and struggle with the other players at the table.  The players care less about the environment of the game and more about what the other players are doing.

This is where beginning, sometimes young, Gamemasters often fall into trouble.   It says on the box it’s a game.  There are dice.  There are other players.  It must be a competition.  Because their job is to build the environment the characters will be adventuring within, they build their adventures with the intent of competing against the PLAYERS of those characters.   They build their adventures and dungeons with the forefront idea being, “How do I kill these characters?”  This in turn generates the idea from the players that the Gamemaster is “out to kill their characters.”  Which, in turn, can bring about hard feelings, anger and strong competition against other players.

This is not how it typically works.

Unless the role-playing game is set up to be competitive (which does exist) a good session is typically the opposite of all of those ideas.   Players work together to tell a fun, exciting story and the competition is against not other players but the environment WITHIN the game.

A new Gamehost needs to remember they are like a set designer for a series of performances, a director of a series of movies, or a writer creating the scenes where the characters are going to interact.  You are building up problems and situations for the troupe of players to work against and to, hopefully, overcome together. In a story driven role-playing game there should be no losers.

If you are new to the Gamemaster gig it might also help to remind your players of this as well if they are new.  Remind them that you are not in competition with each other and that you are the world builder and scene-maker.  The rest is up to them.

2. Respect your players and their character’s narrative.

In most situations, as a Gamehost, you will be running a game for friends.  Hopefully, you already know and respect them and are looking forward to spending time with them.  So, #2 should not be a problem, right?

Try to pay attention and respect a character’s narrative.  What is a character’s narrative?  It is the individual pieces of the character that makes them who they are in the story.  James Bond is a daring, wisecracking assassin who has cool gadgets, fast cars and an eye for the ladies.  Black Widow is a successful Russian spy who relies on her skills in deception, psychology, disguise, and combat skills.  The things that occur to them in their stories directly relate to who they are as characters.   You would not expect either one of them to suddenly become cowboys.  And, as far as that goes, you wouldn’t expect Rooster Cogburn to be a daring spy.

This is the character’s narrative.

Don’t ignore it or put it to the side.  I think this is the real “art” of Gamehosting in that you want to try and accommodate everyone at the table as best you can with some element of their character’s story.  The Outlaw gets to be sneaky or devious.  The Wizard gets to fiddle with ancient magic or save the group with spells.  The Monk gets to provide her wisdom and show off her fighting style.

Occasionally, you may find yourself running a game with someone at the table you do not know as well or perhaps running a game at a convention where you know no one at all.   It is still important to respect the people joining you at the table and the story they would like to tell in your setting.

Oftentimes, the easiest way to let a characters’s narrative show itself is to put the spotlight on them.  When you do, let them shine and tell their story.

3. Be Flexible

Running a role-playing game is a combination of knowing when to be flexible and when you need to move the game forward.  Of the two, being flexible is more important.

An example – You have put in hours of game prep and are ready for the upcoming game session.  You have a clear idea of how the adventure will occur and how you will guide the players to the conclusion.  Then, a player knocks everything askew with a brilliant action you never saw coming.  You have two choices at that moment.

  1. You negate the brilliant action and push through with your idea of how the plot is “supposed” to go down with the material you’ve labored over.
  2. You stay flexible and use the material you have to improvise an entirely new situation and adventure even though it means losing all those hours of work.

Which do you think is going to be better for the overall health of the game?  Hint: #1 is so frowned upon it has it’s own special term called “Railroading.”

An important part of being a Gamehost is knowing that, no, you are not the master of the game.  You are the host of the game.   Think of it in the form of party planning.

Let’s say you have planned a party for friends and you’ve spent hours getting ready.  You’ve spent another handful of hours preparing a delicious appetizer.  You place it on the snack table with the vegetable plate, the potato chips, and the nacho dip. When the party gets going your carefully crafted appetizer is left untouched and, instead, you are out of nacho dip.  Do you force your friends to eat the appetizer they may not actually like or do you stay flexible and send someone off to the store to get more chips and nacho dip?

In a nutshell, this is Gamemastering.

Learn to be flexible and that you are here to create a fun environment for your friends.  You might have to move an entire adventure’s sequence around.  Based on character’s actions your game may turn into a bawdy tavern session and the dungeon may have to wait until next week.  You will have to take your cues from the players.  Given the party example above a good Gamehost might say, “Let’s get some more nacho dip and see if tastes good with this appetizer I made.”

Yes, there will be times that you will need to be firm about something or you will have to tell a player character “No.”  Those times should be few and far between though and if you lean towards flexibility your game will always go better.

4. Be Prepared… Sort of.

You should always have the key points of your adventure, in some format, firmly in your mind before you start a session.  Being a Gamehost is a tightrope act of knowing what to be prepared for before the session begins and what to not have worked out at all.  This might be several pages of notes in a notebook, maps and some key points on important NPCs or it might literally be four lines of hastily written down bullet points on an index card.

A good way to do this is to simply understand how you think your plot or story line will begin and end.  These can give you some guideposts that help you navigate a gaming session.  There will be times you have to scrap one or the other or both but it’s always good to start out with them in place.  Even if you do have to scrap them you can often craft your new starting or end points from the remains of the old ones.

Each Gamemaster is different on how they prepare but the bottom line is they are always prepared in their own fashion.   You’re not going to be able to have every possibility covered.  You will go crazy trying to do this or, in doing so, you will run a greater chance of railroading your players towards all these details you passionately worked out.

Have just enough prepared so that you can run the game but leave some things open so you can be surprised by a few twists and turns yourself.

5. Communication Cures All Ills

Repeat this with me – Telepathy is not a known skill.   Now, every time you are about to start a game repeat that to yourself three times.

The players cannot read your mind and you cannot read theirs.  All you can do is make educated decisions about what a person is thinking based on prior experience.  If you rely on those alone then you stand a good chance of being wrong at a critical time.  (And, if by chance, you are reading this and are telepathic, my apologies.  If you need a sidekick, let me know!)

I feel a game can run smoothly if the Gamehost takes the time to communicate with the players about any and all expectations being placed on the table.  This does not have to be a complicated process which takes a lot of time.  Simply making sure everyone around the table understands why they are here, what the expectations are and the ground rules which are in place will go a long way to making for a smooth game.

An example – A Gamehost wants to run a heroic fantasy game but she doesn’t want to deal with evil characters being played.  During the initial organization of the game she makes this very clear to all the players.  She might also state that if any character starts to act evil she will turn that character into an NPC and the player will need to make a new character.  After making sure everyone understands how that might work, through something like a series of warnings or Shadow Points, the game can move forward.

Role-playing is a creative, communication based activity and because of this, and the fact we are human, emotions will make themselves known during a game.  If expectations are communicated clearly at the beginning and throughout the different sessions this will help keep everyone in a good space around the table.

In return, the Gamehost needs to listen when players are trying to communicate as well.  A player may state a clear goal of their character but is not sure how to proceed forward.  Situational questions from a character’s point of view will need to be cleared up so the player can make a clear decision.

From rules clarifications, to describing an environment, to managing expectations around the table, you will need make sure clear communication is in place.   As the one that has brought everyone together to play the session, this is going to fall on you to implement and model.  Don’t worry though.  It’s not complicated.  Just make sure everyone is on the same page when you are playing.

 

Remember, Gamehosting is a craft and the more you practice it the better you will become at understanding it’s subtle complexities.  Always take a moment after a game to review what worked and didn’t work.  Believe me, there are going to be things that don’t work.  There will be a few bumps along the road.  Take the time to go back and review and learn from them.  This is how we get better at anything we do.

The only way to know how much fun you could have is by jumping in and doing it.  And, believe me, there is a ton of fun to be had!

If you’re new to all of this, are nervous about running your first session, comment here of find me on Twitter or at my email.  I love offering help to new players and gamehosts.

 

 

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?

 

My Worst Game of Dungeons and Dragons

It was 1983 and Gencon XVI was being held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  As a teenager I had read about it in my monthly issue of The Dragon magazine which I diligently picked up at a local hobby store.  I wanted to go to Gencon as much as some kids wanted to go to Disneyland but unfortunately, I was still without a driver’s license.  Even if I had a driver’s license, the concept of me taking the family car on a 6 hour drive and a multiple day trip was not even close to the realm of reality.  Gencon might as well have been in Mongolia.

Yet, as they do, magical things occur.  Another gift came my way.  (The first gift was here.)  Details are foggy but a very close friend in the family spoke to my parents about a trip they were taking.  They had heard me talking about this special place called “GenCon” and knew about my love of this weird game I had been playing.  It so happened they were going to be heading up to Milwaukee for the same weekend as the convention and asked my parents if I could go along with them?  They would drop me off every morning at the convention, pick me up in the early evening and bring me back home when they came back from their trip.

To my stunned and stammering disbelief, my parents said, “Ok.”

As long as I took care of all of the logistics my parents were fine with me going.  They agreed to help pay my way but they wanted me to pitch in as well.  I had to check in every night by phone.  Oh, wait, let’s be clear here – a pay phone.  Remember those?  There was no such thing as the  internet then (hence the payphone) so I had to use stamps and the U.S. Mail to happily send in my entrance form and my fee.    I happily agreed and started the process.  One of the first things I did when I was picking out my gaming schedule was to enter into the D&D Open Championship that TSR would be running.

There was an agonizing long time to get my badge and my entrance packet back.  August took forever to arrive.  Patience, though,  is still a virtue and in no time I was travelling up to Kenosha in the back seat of a car with a suitcase of clothes and a backpack of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books and dice.  After an incredibly long drive and a quick check of the surroundings by my family’s friend, I found myself in Geek Nirvana.

It’s a powerful thing to find a place where, no matter how much you were ostracized where you lived, you arrive and immediately feel at home, accepted and welcome.  No matter where I went there was evidence I had found a place that accepted this wacky, geeky part of me.  Like so many others who arrive at Gencon’s doors, after living off of poorly stocked hobby store shelves  in my hometown, my first experience seeing the dealer floor was mind blowing.

The D&D Open Championship was a series of games, each about 4 hours in length, that played itself out over the course of the convention.  Players were placed in a 9-10 player group that played together to see how far they could get and stay alive through a series of adventures.  Through the culmination of different points acquired through the adventures, a final winning group would be chosen after the entire series.   My first game started in the early afternoon of my first day.

I was paired up with the other players, two of which were a little older than me but also “newbies” to GenCon.  My first character class love was Ranger and so I volunteered to play that character in the tournament.  We were all called to a table, pulled out our dice, settled in, and prepared for the adventure.  Things went fine at first.  I honestly cannot remember the quest or what we were doing.  However, I can remember how it all ended for me.

As the Ranger, I was in the lead/scout position with my long bow out as we moved along the edge of, I think,  a swamp.  The DM described the scene as we moved along and things were going well.

The dungeon master’s voice called out, “Suddenly, a wretched mass of clothing and rotted flesh staggers out of the reeds!  It lunges out and onto the path.  It is something undead and it’s moving fast towards the Ranger!”

Yikes!  My first combat at Gencon!  I was ready.  I was excited!  I never got to use the bow because the DM ruled it a surprise round.  The undead creature ran right towards me, hitting me in the first die roll.  I took solid damage.  Our cleric in the group tried to Turn Undead but, “The creature is too powerful” said the DM.

Combat went on for only one or two more rounds.  My group could do nothing to help me.  The monster took me down, slaughtering me.

My character was dead.

It then shambled back into the swamp and disappeared into the water as my companions at least tried to avenge me.

I sat in silence, so confused, so upset.  “What was that?  I never had a chance!”

The  DM replied, “You see, the creature was a revenant and it was after you.”

“A revenant?  Why was it after me?”

“It was a revenant of a man you secretly murdered in cold blood.  It’s an undead creature fueled by revenge.  It’s sole motive was to finally track you down and kill you.” The DM showed me the entry for the creature in the book he had, The Fiend Folio.  I had the book at home and when I saw the picture I remembered it.

But it only made me more confused.  I looked down at my character sheet, looked at the background. There was no mention of being a murderer.   Nothing.  Just a normal “Rangerey” background.   I clearly remember what my teenager mouth said next,

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sorry.  That is what is in the module. You’re character is dead,” and he gave a single dismissive motion that told me I was done at the table and I should leave.

Oh, I left the table alright but I was far from done.  Even in my youthful, novice stage of RPG gaming, I knew a serious problem when it ran up to me and killed me.

I stormed over to the administration table for the tournament and explained what had happened

Even before I was done telling my story, the official  was nodding his head in agreement.  When I was finished he said (and, no, this is not exact but it’s how I remember it.) “I know.  It sucks.  The revenant is there to kill the Ranger because the Ranger is able to help the party get through a later challenge too easily.  It’s possible to save the Ranger but near impossible.  Sorry.”

I seriously had to have him repeat it to me twice.

This was the superior game design I had spent months looking forward toward,  placing all my hopes and roleplaying dream on, saving for and riding 6 hours to get to?  This? That was the answer?  I came all of this way for this?  I could have stayed at home and had a better game of Monopoly.

Now, with thirty years of experience and age under my belt, I have a feeling that there are only a few options possible about this entire situation.  The first one is simple and something my ego likes to hear.  The second, well,  is just the opposite and NOT something my ego wants to here.  I don’t like but I have to admit it as a possibility.

  1. They really designed something that stupid.
  2. I was a younger, annoying player and they had an option built in to weed such scallywags out.

Let’s look at #2 first.  I don’t remember being an annoying chatterbox kid around the table.  But, and this is important, who does?  My memory is that I was excited but pretty well behaved. I was definitely new to the experience but I have no memories of interrupting someone or trying to hog every scene.  In my adult gaming past I have had to run numerous games with that overly excited kid who is coming close to ruining the game for everyone else at the table.  (This is why I have to accept it’s a possibility.)  However, as a gamemaster, I feel it’s an important part of the skill set to use it as a chance for a teaching opportunity. This extends to other players around the table as well.  As a player it’s a perfect time to take a misbehaving player under their wing for a bit.

Bottom line is, I don’t think I was that kid but I don’t know and may never know for sure.  If I was that kid was it right of them to do what they did?  I suppose you could chalk it up to game “style?”

There was no internet or forum boards back then to go complaining on.   I was just a teenage kid who had been crushed over some really pathetic module design and sent packing back into the crowded hallway.  I will never know.  If someone is reading this and remembers this particular Gencon, this 1983 Championship and the damn revenant by the swamp with it’s hatred for a murderous ranger (that didn’t know he had murdered anyone) then, please, help a fellow gaming brother out!

What I do know is that it was the worse game of Dungeons and Dragons in my life.

Had I not been at GenCon and gone on to have an amazing series of days playing other games, sitting in pick-up games, and going on to be in the group to score 2nd place in the Top Secret RPG tournament, it might have turned me off forever.

Right then, in the moment when I was turned away with no options, I felt cheated and picked on.  All my happy feelings of being there were turned on their ear and all the gamer geek baggage I thought I had left at the door simply fell back on me.

And this is one of the two lessons I want to pass on – Be mindful of how you are running your game and, most importantly, the contract of trust your players are putting on the table with you no matter who is playing.  With that contract comes the prospect of a large amount of fun and even larger amount of trust going both ways.  Be mindful that you do not break that contract.

The other lessson?

If you have a bad game, and you will, don’t let it spin you down.  There are always more games.  Dust yourself off, grab your dice bag and find another game where everyone involved understands the contract in place.  Those games are out there and probably closer than you realize.

Go find them.

 

 

 

The Rare Treasure of RPGs – The Horror Game

I think the hardest role playing game to run is a scary one.  It’s Halloween and it has me thinking all sorts of dark and spooky thoughts which have evolved into pondering about role playing games and how difficult it can be to evoke and maintain a proper feeling of fear at the game table.  So many other genres fit well into the role playing mold but what is it about horror that eludes us?  We will be excited and thrilled and happy after a game session of thrilling heroics but how often after a game session are you a bit unsettled as you head home?

My first horror game was Pacesetter’s Chill.  I have fond memories of that game but around the table it turned into a just another group of adventures going to kill a monster.   I’m sure a large part of it was due to my, and my group’s, inexperience at storytelling at the time.  The next step was Call of Cthulhu and though I did not own the game, I played in a small campaign run by a friend.  It was good but I never felt scared or unnerved after a game.   It was not until many years had passed that a friend ran a one shot Call of Cthulhu game that reset the bar for me.  I think it was his emphasis on setting the scene.  He had envisioned some truly startling scenes to unfold and he happily brought them out, regaling us with vivid, lurid descriptions.  One by one our characters folded into insanity or fruitless attempts at defending ourselves against Lovecraftian horrors.  It did not end well and while walking out to my car that evening I noticed that I was on edge and a bit spooked.

It was delicious.

Unfortunately, as a player, this was a singular occurrence for me.   Most of the other horror games I’ve been a part of have all, eventually, turned into the RPG version of the angry mob with pitchforks.  The desperate players confront the Evil Bad Thing and fight it off with whatever weapons are available.  Though it may look different depending on the genre it really is no different than any other big boss battle.

What makes a good horror RPG session different?

Some key points I feel are important:

  • Everyone should agree to the spirit of the game.

I think it stems back to my previous post about the contracts around the table.  Everyone needs to be on board regarding what KIND of game they are getting ready to play.  Everyone playing should understand death and insanity will come more easily, that control and power they take for granted in other games will not be present.  Much like walking into a haunted house, you have to be willing to give up control and allow yourself to be scared.  Most importantly, everyone needs to understand that reaching a solid level of scary is difficult to do around a RPG table.  The odds of success will increase with everyone’s involvement.

  • Limit the Distractions

Put away the cellphones and the off-topic banter about the latest Netflix series.  Keep the out of character wisecracks to a minimum.  Focus on the game and the story that is coming out of it.

A GM might want to invent a game mechanic that penalizes anyone who breaks the rule.  Even better, the other players should be the ones who assign the penalties which the GM enforces.  A player says something to break the spooky mood?  The GM can assign a bit more “nasty” to the game.  Or, perhaps, the player’s character receives a doom point which takes away one success at the GM’s discretion?  The best version of this is something that builds up slowly over the game and gets used near the climax of the story.

  • Embrace Death and Misfortune

As a player in a horror game it’s going to be better if you realize that your character will most likely die a gruesome death.  If you embrace this aspect you can actually help the GM and the other players of the game build up the mounting apprehension of the game if the time comes.  Go out with screaming style and it will notch up the atmosphere around the table.

GM hint – Don’t hesitate to take a character out at any time. Be merciless.  However, remember that the players have come here to play the game, not sit around eating snacks after a gory death scene while the rest of the table plays on.  Have back-up characters or things for the players to do after their first character meets an untimely end.  Maybe running other NPC’s?  Monsters?  Don’t let a player who has given their all to increase the drama be out of the game for the rest of the night.

Also, remember as a GM, there are worse fates than dying!

  • Hit the Senses

Enough emphasis cannot be placed on this one.  Though it’s always important with role playing games it is doubly so with a good horror game.  You need to lay on the descriptions.  Not only tell your players what the creepy, abandoned sanitarium looks like but tell them what it smells like, what it feels like when they touch a wall or a door.  What is the lighting like?

Reverse it on them as well.  When they encounter some sort of viscous,  mucus-like fluid they are expecting to hear what it feels like.  Hit them with what it sounds like, what it smells like.  Why go for all this florid descriptions?  It’s because receiving sensory input can steer emotional reactions within the brain.  Try this out with a fun experiment.  Think of it as a writing exercise.  What does fear smell like to you?  What does dread taste like?

What did you come up with?  Take those and use them in your game next time and see what kind of reaction you get.    Pull from your real experiences and things that scare you.  There is a good chance that if it unsettles you then it will definitely get to your players as well.

Pull no punches.

Happy Halloween!

——–

References:

The Science of Fright: Why We Love to Be Scared

Emotions and Our Senses