Monday, December 28, 2015

Moving to

Hi Everyone!

From now on, new content will be streamed through my account (, and will be uploaded to my YouTube channel (

The blog will still be used to chronicle my ongoing RPG games.

See you at Twitch / YouTube!


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pace Maker

I searched for the word "Pace" in Wikipedia. Here's what I've found:
All time arts – music, dance, drama, film – are enormously concerned with pacing – with rhythm or tempo. As the film director translates events in a script into actions that make up scenes and sequences, that is, as the director shapes the actors' performances and stages the other actions in front of the camera, one of his paramount concerns is pacing, making the action swell, subside, and swell again. The director does this to keep the scene from losing its energy and intensity. Later, after the shooting is over, the director, working with the film editor, will further control, construct, and perfect the pacing in the way he builds shots into scenes and sequences.
In my home campaigns, events usually unfold at a pace that is dictated by the players. Their characters do X, and event Y follows. I rarely declare that something happens "out of the blue". It keeps things simple around the table, and also reward a proactive play style.

But sometimes it really messes my prep time.

For a couple of years I follow the advice of Chris Perkins, who showed how to create a single summary page per session, with a recap, a list of major NPCs, and a short summary of up to 5 events you (the DM) want to see in the session. That single sheet of paper, along with some scribbles, is usually all I need to pull off a good session.

In my last session with one of the groups I run, something funny happened. I did the recap. I presented the first 3 or 4 NPCs, and kicked in the first event. And that was it. For nearly four hours, we played (and I mean played, with roleplaying scenes, combat, everything) that single event out of my notes.


This isn't a bad thing - mind you. There was a lot of improvisation going on, and I surely didn't have comprehensive notes for all the locations, RP scenes and combat encounters that session encompassed, but I felt it was a good session, and some of the players even said so themselves (feedback! from players! I know...unbelievable....)

But I kept wondering, throughout the session and afterwards: Did I waste my prep-time? Did I plan too much ahead? Did I really expect the group to go beyond that first event, or was I overdoing things? Maybe the session would have been much better if I took that one event and used my prep time to make it better, and worth a whole session (investing in monster tactics, an interesting terrain to fight on,  fleshing out NPCs etc)...

So, here are my own thoughts:
  • Did I waste my prep-time? No, but I probably could manage my prep time better. I keep forgetting that combat can eat a lot of time (fun time!), and looking at my notes I had roughly 4 potential combat encounters planned, plus almost a dozen non-combat encounters outlines. Way too much.
  • Did I plan to much ahead? Yes. But sometimes players bypass entire encounters, short-cutting the plot. So planning ahead is important, just in case. But maybe I can plan for those cases in a different way. Instead of plotting to far ahead and writing it down in my notes, I can "expect the unexpected" outside my session notes - those should focus on what I expect to see during the session.
  • Did I really expect the group to go beyond that first event? Yes! I always have that feeling that players can see right through my plot, so I usually don't take into account time for non-combat encounters (such as talking to an NPC). I assume those will end in 5 minutes. Combat is easier to gauge. I estimate 15-30 minutes for a "small" encounter, and one hour for a "big" encounter. Maybe I should think about estimates for non-combat encounters. 5 minutes for a short encounter, 15-30 minutes for a heavy role-playing scene with a lot of interaction? Maybe.
Thinking about it, the best sessions I ran (technically) had the following in common:
  1. A clear goal, theme or concept.
  2. An interesting villain.
  3. A good explanation for why NPCs do what they do.
  4. Well placed combat encounters.
Goal - if the players know what are they trying to achieve during the session, things usually run very smoothly. Convince the king to dispatch troops. Steal an artifact from a noble. Save a young girl from slavers. Find the map that leads to the hidden tomb. Once players agree on the goal, they will do something to achieve it. As long as prep-time is invested in making that something interesting, you're good to go.

Villain - a villain doesn't have to mean someone the PCs have to fight. A villain is anyone with an agenda that crosses the PCs path, usually (but not always), in a collision course. If the players can spot the bad guy and interact with him during the session (again, that doesn't always mean a fight), then things get interesting. Prep time invested in fleshing out this villain, his motives, his actions and reactions is prep time well invested.

NPCs - a very small percentage of role-play scenes are initiated and played in PvP mode. More often than not, role-playing is PvD (player vs DM). To prepare for it, you need to have someone the players can interact with. But creating 3-d NPCs is hard, especially if you do it on the fly. Prep time used to create interesting NPCs is very well invested. Motives, ideals, bonds, goals, agendas, secrets - the players will enjoy them in an NPC, and its worthwhile to invest in it.

Combat - I'm done with prepping for combat. IMO the monster manual should do the work for me, all I need to provide is the setting. But prepping for the why/what of combat is something I still do. Combat should not just be all about tactics, maneuvers and XP. I try to think about "why" combat occurs (the PCs insulted a noble, so he hired some thugs to shake them) and "what" happens during and after combat (the city guard arrives, but stand down because their sergeant knows the thug as a hireling of a powerful noble). I also use combat to inject some life into a sleepy table. Sometimes all the players need is some butt to kick.

I'm still thinking about how to incorporate the above into my single-page session summary. Obviously fleshed out NPCs, villains and combat encounters require much more than a single page, so I'm still considering how to incorporate this into a structured format I can use as a template (which I love - the single sheet summary template I have is working for me for years now, but I think its time to innovate...)

Will keep you posted..

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part Three

You chose a campaign-setting, you have a basic plot outlined, you have an idea to bring the PCs together, and you even have some interesting notes about cool locations or NPCs.

You even got your players to send you some notes about their characters. Great! Your campaign is about to start - but to start it properly, you need to prepare for the first session.

I usually start campaigns at 1st level. For me (as the DM), it reduces the risk of a high-level PC bypassing plot elements with a single, powerful spell in the very first session. It also helps the players to settle into their character roles comfortably, as low-level PCs are relatively easy to use mechanically wise.

With a bunch of first level characters, I usually look into the background the players provided for inspiration. I want to build the first session in a way that will engage all the players, and if possible, provide a good reason for each of the characters to pursue the campaign story line further.

Let's start with an example. Suppose we got four players, giving us the following backgrounds:
  1. A rough veteran who once served in a bloody war, now serving as a spiritual leader for his community (human cleric)
  2. A dazzling elven maiden who escaped imprisonment by an evil wizard, now seeking  revenge for his abuse (elven rogue)
  3. A plumb merchant who lost everything he had to a nasty rival accusing him of cult work (a halfling sorcerer)
  4. An old mercenary carrying a relic belonging to his clan, sent on a journey to unveil its secrets (a dwarven fighter)
Let's assume you decided the campaign takes place in Cormyr (the Forgotten Realms) and revolves around a dragon trying to reclaim his ancestor's kingdom by assassinating the King of Cormyr.

By looking at the characters backgrounds, we can conjure a simple "how the characters meet" story: The veteran is the one helping the elven rogue escape from her imprisonment. While she was searching for information about her captor she stumbled upon the the dwarven mercenary who was about to travel to the wizard to consult with him about the relic. The trio prepare for the journey (the cleric and the rogue wants the wizard to pay for his crimes, the mercenary dwarf is willing to cooperate as long as he gets his questions answered). On their way to the wizard's tower they meet the halfling merchant, who is travelling to the wizard hoping to sell him an ancient tome he recently procured.

Here we go, a classic D&D story involving adventurers traveling to an evil wizard's tower. After conjuring that story, I would have sent the players a short handout explaining the above in a little more detail, to ignite their imagination and create an initial bond between the characters.


But the characters backgrounds made the story a little more complicated than the classic cliche. The halfling doesn't want the wizard dead or in prison - he wants a contact for future trade. The dwarf also doesn't really care if the wizard pay for his crimes - he needs information about his relic. I personally think that contradicting goals can be a lot of fun, as long as the players don't end up exchanging blows for it..

Note that the way I constructed the "how the heroes meet" story also provided me with a great first session adventure, one that involves a classic D&D cliche (slay the evil wizard in his tower). To complete my work for the first session I need:
  1. Details on special encounters during the travel to the wizard's tower
  2. Information on the villain of this story, namely, the wizard
  3. Notes on the tower itself and the region surrounding it
  4. Leads to the next adventure, and the campaign
The above four points are relatively easy to complete, but I want share some tips I use to spice up the session. Look at each of the bullets above and note the following tips:
  1. To connect the adventure with the campaign, I'll probably include an interesting NPC the heroes can encounter on their way to the tower. A merchant, a traveling bard or a noble with his bodyguards. The NPC can talk about recent rumors - something about an artifact stolen from a nearby temple, with the local militia worried. This NPC can ask the characters where are they traveling to and why, to allow the players to role-play. A body-guard might try his line on the elven maiden, or the merchant will identify the halfling, just to spice things up and create an interesting scene.
  2. To spin the cliche, I'd probably find a way to make the "evil wizard who imprisoned an elven maid" somebody the players will want to keep around for a while. He might turn out a "good guy", kidnapping the elven rogue to protect her from someone. Or he might indeed be evil, but his experiments (using her pure blood to unveil the writings of an ancient elven prophecy) revealed some horrible truth and he now needs the heroes to help him avert a coming disaster. They might find him badly wounded, with a royal inquisitor searching his private rooms, bloody blade in hand. Anything that can provide a twist and create an interesting scene to drive the story forward.
  3. The wizard's tower can be a great site to explore for a new group, especially low-level. I'd include "a room for every player", meaning elements in the tower that will appeal to every player. A trophy room with (animated) dwarven arms and armor for the dwarf. A room with elaborate traps obviously guarding a special treasure for the rogue. A room with undead skeletons doing menial jobs (such as feeding the garbage to a hole with a gelatinous cube), to test the cleric's mettle, and so on and so forth.
  4. We already decided that the campaign revolves around a dragon trying to reclaim his kingdom. It's best, however, if the main story arc becomes apparent only in a later stage of the game. This way, you'll have time to adjust if you find the players pulling the story in unexpected ways. You can use the first couple of sessions to saw seeds - The rumors about a stolen artifact as told by the NPCs the heroes just met might relate on an ancient magical sword forged to protect the crown (stolen by the dragon's minions). The prophecy unveiled by the evil wizard might mention an undead army that is about to rise (created by the dragon to fight for him), etc. Each of these can be used to spur the next adventure. You'll need to stay tuned to the way the players react to those bits of information as you hand them out, and pick the one that seems to engage them the most as the seed for the next adventure.
One last tip before the first session: I always prepare a "backup" plan, in case things really get out of hand. For example, what if the rogue sneak attack AND crit the wizard before he even makes his case? What if the cleric persuades the group to travel to the nearby temple from which the artifact was stolen first, and only then tackle the wizard?

(you can say that the first case is easy to solve - have the wizard have a protective spell, or have him have 90 hit points. I hate to do it - it will be obvious that I fudge, and I hate to nullify a well-placed blow or plan for the sake of my encounter)

So, what to do?

(Source: google images)
I simply prepare the following:
  1. Two combat encounters that are in actuality mini-adventures (with a map, NPCs, monsters and a cool environment to fight in). For example, a recently raided caravan with gargoyles trying to take off with one of the passengers. I don't usually over-prepare them, but I include notes to allow me to improve on top of them.
  2. Notes about what happens if the PCs "aren't there to adventure". Meaning, what happens if the PCs decide to stay at the inn and enjoy another mug of ale instead of adventuring. Maybe the wizard (after learning the truth behind the prophecy) goes to seek out the elven rogue, to gain more of her blood to continue his inquiries? Maybe a royal inquisitor appears, asking questions about cultists in the region, and trying to hire adventurers to accompany him to the tower? Or the local militia returns from the assailed temple, looking for a scholar to assert the importance of the artifact stolen from there (the evil wizard being the nearest scholar available). I use these bits of information as improvisational aids to help me get the story on track if needed.

Here you go - a first session packed with role-play opportunities, a rather detailed plot with many potential branches for the heroes to explore, and a cast of characters with goals you can build on to create an engaging session - the first in your new campaign.

Good luck!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Rage of Demons - Out of the Abyss Review

Got my copy half a week ago, and spent some time reading the first couple of chapters. I skimmed through the subsequent chapters - so this post is all about first impressions....

Tons of Underdark Goodies
This book really makes the Underdark come alive. Unique locations, weird and interesting creatures and personalities, exciting encounters - and all with a very consistent and cohesive wrapping. I think the designers did a great job with the presentation and the material, and the amount of energy invested in the book leaps out of the pages.

For Experienced DMs
Tyranny of Dragons and Princess of the Apocalypse felt like massive adventures, but I can see an inexperienced DM running Tyranny of Dragons, or even Princess of the Apocalypse. Out of the Abyss will stress out an inexperienced DM, and might prove to be a challenge even for an experienced one. The very first encounter has a dozen well detailed NPCs, each with an agenda of its own - and the PCs are going to interact with them all. From there, it's a sandbox. Non-linear, and very open. The amount of information the DM needs to digest before the game is truly immense. That said - the book is very well written, and the setting screams to be read, enjoyed, and played. The Underdark is a dangerous place for 1st level PCs, so you can expect a lot of roleplaying moments, as well as tense combat situations - and a good DM is needed to make sure a TPK doesn't happen 15 minutes into the session.

A Sea of Madness
The book makes use of many special rules presented in the Player's Handbook, like madness, getting lost, foraging, crafting and more. The Underdark is portrayed like never before, with alien landscapes, bizarre personalities and unearthly locations. The book provides great advice on how to narrate travel in such locations - and how to bring the Underdark to life while traveling days from one location to another. And don't forget - the demons are Out of the Abyss, so this dark, evil place have become even scarier than before. Players can expect to interact with creatures considered natural enemies of the surface-dwellers if they want to survive, and the constant threat of a knife in the back is ever present. Role-players will have tons of opportunities to shine, and combat encounters will require a lot of cooperation and thought to escape death, imprisonment or both...

All in all - I was very excited to get my hands on this book, and even more excited to see the great material to be found inside. The quality of adventures is constantly improving, with a positive slope from Tyranny of Dragons to Princes of the Apocalypse - to Out of the Abyss. I think Wizards are finally doing it right - and I really hope their Aboleth Overlords have even greater plans for the future!

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Best Session Ever

I was watching a lot of live-stream D&D games lately.

I don't get to play as much as I want, certainly not as a player (been a very long time since I had my own character in a D&D game), and so I take advantage of the recent increase of live-stream gaming channels to troll other groups as they play.

From the quality production of the Acquisitions Incorporated games hosted at PAX (see the link above) to the casual, anonymous group playing and streaming using Twitch, I manage to see a lot of different playing styles and skill levels on both ends of the DM screen.

(There is even a group composed of actual voice actors running on Geek and Sundry Twitch channel - and it is simply a joy to watch them go about it. Check it out here.)

One thing that pops out immediately is the totally different vibe between the high-end D&D "shows" and the other, neighborhood-friendly D&D gaming groups.

The average gaming group (among those who stream their session) is not different than the groups I had along the years: just a bunch of friends who meet to play a game they love. Some sessions are good, some fail to make an impression, a few fall flat, and fewer still are outstanding. Some players are tired, some lose interest during the session and drift off to play with their laptop or mobile, and some try to be the living spirit of the game, with the DM usually doing whatever possible to keep the game going.

The high-end D&D "shows" are something totally different. No yawning, unfocused players here. If a scene falls short, someone will step in to make it shine - even if its just about the characters interacting with a guard. Jokes are cracked, each player role-plays with mimicry, intonation and character background in mind. Characters talk between themselves, and the DM is ever-full of ideas, NPCs, interesting locations and great plot twists.

It's like the difference between a Burger King advertisement, and the real dish that lands on the table.


Sad, isn't it?

You want your session to be the best 4 hours of the day, right? I mean - we invest in it so much, even if its "just" time and nothing else, why not make sure this investment pays off big time? A lot of players come to the table expecting a good time - and a lot of DMs are laboring between sessions to make sure it happens - so why our sessions fall flat sometimes? Why don't they all look like those D&D shows, with everything going smoothly under the spotlight?

Some might say "that's life". We don't live in a movie, and so things around us don't arrange themselves to make every thing we do perfect. But I think we can at least try to arrange some thing that will probably improve our experience around the table:

  1. Don't come to a session if you're dead tired. Simply don't. If you're wasted, and all you can do is sit, stare at the wall and yawn, you'll bring everyone down with you. It's a death spiral. We all have busy lives, and we all come to the table after our day's work. If one is wasted and two are "just" tired, it means 3/5 of the group is simply out. Sessions don't take off this way. They stall, and only luck prevents them from crashing down.
  2. Your characters are the heroes of the campaign, act accordingly. Sessions take off when players are in-character, moving the story forward. It doesn't matter if the campaign is humanistic, goofy, or laden with dark fantasy and grim action. Stay in-character, look at your background and character sheet, decide how you want to play your turn, think: "is this going to make for an interesting scene that will move the story forward?" and if the answer is YES, go for it. If the answer is "I don't know", "No", "Just let me roll the dice" or "C'mon...", then you might not be helping the session take off. If you need, communicate with your DM before hand. Some DMs don't take cues. or hints When a player asks a DM "is there a chandelier on the ceiling?", he means that he wants to pull of some cool stunt. Some DMs aren't aware of this, and answer "No" instead of helping you create a cool scene. Talk to your DM, tell him you want to help making the game better, and if he's trustworthy (see below), things will improve fast. 
  3. Describe, Describe, Describe, Describe. Even if its a simple one liner. Even if its a regular scene you've played a hundred times, even if no one around you does it. It doesn't have to be first person. Say something like "My fighter enters the inn and looks at each of the patrons before choosing a private corner far from the fireplace", enough to get those imaginative juices flowing. I was once part of a group of 5 players, with 3 of them avoiding any descriptions of their characters whatsoever. "I attack" and "I'm down to 12 HP, I need healing" was all you heard from them. On the other end, I have players who role-play their character being wounded. ("The giant swats you for 23hp", "Damn! my fighter reels, shaking his head, wiping blood from his nose and shouting the name of the cleric!"). D&D is a game based on imagination. With out avid descriptions, we're not getting that feel of the scene that will make it memorable and vivid. The DM is describing as part of his job description, but help from the players will be most welcome.
  4. Trust your DM (unless you can't trust him). No one is perfect, and DMs are as diverse as players with regards to gaming styles, preferences and tendencies. But if your DM is trying his best to make everybody happy around the table, then support him, and trust him. Such a DM won't kill your character to punish you for something. If you blunder horribly, that DM might severely hit the party, but he won't make it a point to kill your characters for good (but if you press it, a TPK is a real consequence). If you say "My fighter challenge the merchant to a crossbow shooting contest, with 20 gold on the table" in order to get a discount in a cool way, such a DM won't make the merchant a retired level 18 ranger all of a sudden (he might make it a retired low level adventurer to make things fun, but that's it). A DM you can trust works with you, not for you, or against you. If you feel "cheated out of fun" then talk with your DM. A trustworthy DM will discuss it with you, and something will change (either on his side or on yours). If you don't think your DM is trustworthy (namely, it's his way or the highway), take the highway. Truest me (pun intended) - you're better off that way.   
  5. Positive Feedback goes a long way. And I mean it in a PvP way. I was once an unexperienced player in a very experienced group, and I chose to play a "Raistlin" like wizard. One of the players was nasty about it, but the other two players hushed him, and at the first roleplaying scene I did (speaking in a low voice, saying enigmatic things, you know, Raistlin) - they had big, appreciative smiles on their faces. I sucked - but they realized I was in the right mindset, and it was more important than my selection of character theme. They gave me a mental "thumbs up", and the game just got better (and I got better) from session to session. Saying "good one" or "nicely done" to a player after a good swing, or role-playing scene can go a long way. For the same reasons, saying a nasty thing to a player and excusing it with "it's what my character would say" is bullshit and should be avoided. Help the other players shine by providing positive feedback to enhance good behaviors. Just like with kids. And like with kids, the only time you need to step in and stop what's happening is when they're about to get hurt, or hurt someone else. 
So here you go. My 2-cents about how to make your next session memorable and exciting, as all D&D sessions ought to be!