Thursday, October 11, 2012

Simple made Easy - Roleplaying that Thick-Headed Fighter

This time - a special treat: this post was written by Ben Haker, a friend and a member of my current D&D 4th Edition group.

I asked the guys to step forward and write something about D&D, the group or the campaign, and Ben came up with this post. Honestly - I got more than I bargained for. Here's why:

Sometimes, playing a simple-minded character can be difficult.

If you think about it, playing the typical "Thick-Headed Fighter" can be very difficult. Unless you just wing it, playing a "dumb" fighter can be more difficult than playing the scholarly Wizard, the sharp-minded Cleric or the quick-thinking (and acting) Rogue.

Why? because we, RPG players, are anything but simple-minded (the DM in the back, I can hear you laughing).
There are three main reasons that make the task of playing such a character nontrivial: The player, The Group and The DM.

The Player

Playing a character with low mental attributes is challenging, as opposed to playing a character with low physical attributes. Low physical attributes (Strength, Constitution & Dexterity) are simply reflected in the character's statistics. Your fighter can either lift the rock above his head, or he can't. He can either run 20 miles without sweating, or he can't. End of story.

Low mental attributes are more problematic to role-play properly. We usually don't play down our characters. We are used to think of them as heroes, able to do things that we are not able to. This is part of the 'fantasy' in a fantasy role-playing game. They can cast spells, swordplay all day and slay dragons. We, except for a few gifted players - myself included, are not able to do all of these. But we can think

Playing down our natural intelligence and cognitive capabilities does not come naturally to us. Sitting around the table, looking at a puzzle the group is struggling with, knowing the answer and keeping quiet is hard and, let's face it, not very rewarding. You need to go against your natural instincts and stay quiet (or describe your fighter scratching his head for 30 minutes) in many encounters that require cognitive abilities, or social interactions that your character will probably blunder. This does not mean that you do not have great role-play opportunities in these encounters, but they are counter-intuitive and sometimes destructive. Fooling yourself in-front of a Lord may be problematic and reflect badly on the group. You can do it a limited number of time before your friends start moving in their seats uncomfortably.

The Group

Last time the group I was playing with went to read and research in a library. I, playing the simple-minded fighter, got bored and went to look for a promiscuous serving girl. The effect was that I was excluded from the "action" in the library (the group acquired some valuable information there) and from the decision making that followed after acquiring the information as it took place in the library. I was faced with the fact that the group decided upon a course of action without talking to my fighter (who was, at that time, having a great time - high Constitution and all).

So, when playing a simple-minded character we need to take into account the following:

  1. The character (and therefore, you as a player) might be excluded from encounters requiring mental abilities, as your character does not have much to contribute. This is not a bad thing on its own, but in many cases you will also be excluded from the decision making that follows, unless you meta-game and contribute your opinion even if your character is not present/have nothing useful to say. That is a problem as you may have a lot to contribute as a player, even if your character simply cannot contribute a thing. This may drive your character to a semi-NCP position or may drive your character to a continues conflict with the group, as their decisions seem out of context or plain wrong to your character.
  2. You, as a player, might be considered a "bad role-player". During encounters that require some character thinking, your character have to "fade to grey", or contribute little. After all, what does the thick-headed fighter have to say in a room full or wizards debating the results of the summoning ritual the heroes payed for? And if your character does say something, you might be forced to have your character say things that are purposely off the point. Not a lot of players can appreciate that and give your credit as a good role-player.
The DM

As it turns out, the DM is both the solution and the biggest challenge to overcome. 

It all comes down to the question of the DM's ability to "get" what you are doing and publicly commend you.

A lot of DMs hand out additional rewards for good role playing. If your DM awards your un-traditional role-playing, it sends a certain message to the other players. But in most cases, a DM that sees your character break away to do things "out of boredom" will see your way of role-playing as shallow, obtrusive and problematic. 

Such behavior, if not properly explained beforehand, might cause the DM to think YOU are bored as a player, and the way to a collision course is guaranteed. Always keep in mind that the DM is human too. He probably worked hard to build and design an encounter or an episode involving thinking that your fighter ignored or "broke" in away. He may be offended not understanding your behavior. Some DM's might even punish such behavior, or (if they plainly ignore it and not recognize your way of role-playing for what it truly is) might miss the opportunity to provide appropriate encounters for you in which to excel (other than combat).

So what can we do to make playing a simple character an easy task?

In my opinion, the best way to avoid all these issues is to talk about them before the games starts with the DM and the other players. 

Explain what kind of character you are going to play to your DM and group members. Tell them that it is not easy to play a simple-minded character, and tell them how hard it is to play against your basic instincts - especially at the areas in which we, as players, feel secure and capable. 

Ask your DM for support (by providing role-playing opportunities and by recognizing these moments you "drift" to role-play your character), and work with the other players to ensure they understand why you are playing your character the way you are, and encourage them to role-play their characters' response to that thick-headed fighter of yours, instead of rolling their eyes in disdain, or worse, totally ignoring your efforts.

So, it turns out that asking your players to say something about D&D, the group or the campaign might result in getting exactly what you asked for...

Roll those 20's!


Monday, October 1, 2012

Playing the King

Every role-playing campaign comes to the point in which the player-characters meet "the king".

In D&D, the adventurers might answer the call of a powerful lord looking for some mercenaries. In Dark Heresy, the Inquisition might send the acolytes to investigate a murder that took place in a creepy space-station owned by a wealthy merchant. In Eclipse Phase, Firewall Agents might stumble upon a still active AI in its hidden virtual-reality hub.

Depending on the intensions of the players and the Game Master, the encounter can be comprised of a simple exchange of words, or blow into a full-scale combat scenario - swords/guns/plasma rifles blazing and all.

One of the toughest parts (at least in my experience) of running these encounters is "playing the king". Namely, playing that powerful individual the characters are interacting with. Think about it: in most role-playing games, the heroes (the player-characters) are powerful individuals, most often more resourceful and, well, important, than the high-ranking non-player character they are interacting with.

Classic D&D adventures (such as the well-known King's Festival) have the player-characters act as heroes, otherwise someone suffers (in this case, the town's people due to the possible cancellation of the festival).

But in a more "mature" gaming environment, such noble-causes are often smiled upon, and considered naive. Sure, it's fun to rescue the princess from the claws of the dragon - when I'm playing with my kids. But when I'm playing with my friends, the campaign's story is more about shades of grey, and less about obvious, black-or-white motives and goals.

So when I arrange for the player-characters to meet the "King", I often see a much different approach to the encounter than that taken by my kids (or by a younger me as a player).

For me as a young D&D player, meeting the king was meeting someone so much powerful than my character, wealthy and worth of my highest respect. But as a more mature gamer, you treat that same king somewhat differently, since there is always the question of sheer power.

Statistically speaking, if a mid-level, well-armed group of adventurers decides to act funny and draw steel in the king's court, there is a good chance (unless the Game Master stomps the so-called heroes with his god-like foot) that the king ends up with a blade at his royal throat. This is especially true in D&D, where a well-placed spell or a sneak-attack can end a battle before it began.

Obviously, the Game Master can wave his hands and make this problem go away by making the king more powerful than the heroes (a difficult task in D&D 4th Edition, see Epic Characters for more details), but such an approach is problematic in my opinion. If all the "powerful" individuals dealing with the player-characters are more powerful mechanically (rule-wise) than the heroes, why do they need the heroes?

The opposite approach - to accept things as they are and let the heroes be more powerful (in terms of resourcefulness, wealth, magical power or combat prowess) - can lead to players feeling that these powerful individuals they are dealing with are buffoons.

The way to solve these issues came from an unexpected direction: Chess. My son was recently taught the rules of the game by a relative, and I had to learn them myself so we can play together.

In chess, every tool have a specific mode of movement across the board. The goal of the game is to corner the king in a way that every movement ends with the king being captured. I totally expected the king to be the "best piece on the board", but it turns out that it's not.

The king, while being the most important piece, is usually the weakest piece until a later phase (the endgame). All other pieces are used to guard the king, and manoeuvre to capture the opposite side's king.

It occurred to me that in D&D, kings should be treated the same. Mechanically, kings should not be the most powerful characters around. Mechanically, even a low level player-character might be a threat to a king. But the king should be surrounded with people (non-player or even player characters) that need his safety guaranteed. As in Chess, the king should seek safety behind friendly pawns, taking an active role only to help other "pieces" achieve their (and his) goals.

This way, a king should have the protection of wizards, knights, priests, merchants, diplomats, assassin guilds, inquisitors and even loyal servants and cooks (after all, the kings eats what the cooks prepares). There should be layers upon layers of protection, some obvious (such as the armoured knights standing beside the throne) and some subtle (such as the trained assassin posing as a manservant, or the invisible wizard lurking around when the king accepts guests).

Even if there are no "mechanical" layers of protection in the form of mechanically powerful individuals guarding the king, there should be contextual layers of protection such as player-characters (or non-player characters) with something to lose if the king dies/loses face, or whole organizations built on top the king's influence - organizations that will not stop until the individuals responsible for the loss of their source of power are caught and taught a lesson.

While it's possible to peel all these layers and "capture" the king - the way to do so should not be easy, unless someone makes a dire mistake. This keeps things fair, and can help a DM to give a plausible explanation for an unlikely event. But more often than not, the players need to feel that the meeting with such a "king" is a special event, full of intrigue, opportunity, and danger - some obvious, some not...

"Welcome, adventurers." Said the King. "Word of your deeds reached my ears, and I would require your services in investigating a delicate matter - the recent assassination of my court wizard."
"Surly your majesty have resources far beyond ours," Smiled Aladon, looking back at this group of fellow adventurers. "Why would you require our services, which are, expensive?"
"My resources are indeed far beyond your own." replied the king with a smile of his own. "Using my resources, I found out that the Laughing Death Cabal is involved. Too dirty of a business for a diplomat like me, but hopefully not below your standards, yes?"
Aladon cursed under his breath, but kept smiling. His fellow adventurers gulped. Gold seemed a lowly prize for dealing with the Cabal and their flesh-eating assassins...but helping the king in this might prove fruitful, and backing off now will make Aladon and his fellow adventurers the joke of the court...
Damn the lord who arranged this meeting, thought Aladon. Reward worthy of kings, the lord said, but Aladon felt that this whole charade was orchestrated - leading them all straight into a trap. But why, and most importantly, who...?

photo credit: loco's photos via photopin cc

Thursday, September 27, 2012


"You push the heavy, wooden door and it opens slowly, hinges screaming into the silence of the dark corridors around you."
"Great," says Adam, looking at Chris who plays the impatient Fighter. "I told you we should check the door before opening it. My Thief would have noticed the rusty hinges!"
"What's the matter?" replies Chris with a smile, "afraid from the dark?"
(The players look at the Dungeon Master, who rolls some dice behind his DM's screen)
"The echoes of the hinges shriek slowly fade away. The chamber behind the door is dark."
"I push my way forward, and use my torch to light up the room," says Ron, who play the Cleric. "What do I see?"
"The room is filled with old crates covered with dust. The air is dry and cold. A pile of rags rests on one of the crates."

Sounds familiar? How many similar scenes you have played throughout your gaming career? Dozens? Hundreds?

99% of what we do around the table is all about Dialog. We speak. We describe our characters actions. We ask the DM questions. We debate rules, options and tactics. We role-play, we argue, we socialize.

Think about your last session. How much of the dialog was between one player and the DM? How much of it was between one player and another? In my humble opinion, almost all dialog around the table (game related, that is) is between one or two players and the DM. I can count on one hand the number of player vs player moments per session I had throughout my entire DMing career. And I had (and still have!) some great players around my tables throughout the years.

Why is that so? Well, most players assume that the DM, being the one running the game, has all the answers. Even if the DM is running a pre-make module published for one official setting or the other, he still have absolute control of the happenings, so it's only logical to direct all questions to him. Moreover, the DM is the guy playing all the NPCs, so if an NPC comes and presents himself, it's only logical for the players to engage with him - and the DM, as a result.

This way, players go through whole sessions ping-ponging with the DM, with only occasional breaks to discuss something with their fellow players.

What a waste!

Players drive the story, not the DM. It's something I repeatedly say to every group I run games for, and with good reason. The collective mind of 6 people (5 players and a DM) can blow away anything a single DM can do. Think about it - a game run by the DM is railroaded by definition. The DM makes the calls, the DM decides where the story goes. Players make choices, no doubt, but at the end, it's the DM who orchestrate the story, making the game a series of "left or right" decisions in a scripted story.

As I said - a waste.

As I wrote in my last Campaign Workshop post, I ask my players to write backgrounds for their characters, and then I use it to create the story of the campaign. But how can these backgrounds come to life unless the players talk to each other? If the players don't share with one another bits of their backgrounds during the course of the campaign, when these backgrounds come to life in the form of events or NPCs, no-one other than the background writer have any idea what's going on, and it's a waste, because that moment is a private moment between the player and the DM.

I believe that any role-playing game can benefit from scenes in which characters engage in a dialog that excludes the DM. One can start it, the others can follow if they like and make their characters come to life within the story. It doesn't need to be an award-winning, actor's studio moment full of emotion and Shakespeare-like prose. Two or three sentences between several characters is all it takes, and it might lead to interesting scenes and "ah-ha" moments later on during the campaign.

Think about the following example:

After a gruesome fight with Gnolls, the players hear Chris (playing the Fighter) describe how he wipes the blade clean on one of the corpses with a nasty smile.

If you were a player in that group, how would you respond? Would you ignore that role-playing opportunity, or would you "pick up the glove" and say something like "You really enjoy it, do you? Where on earth do they teach the love of war?"

photo credit: Sharon Drummond via photopin cc

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Campaign Workshop - Character Background

In the last Campaign Workshop post, I discussed a useful mechanism to kick-start your campaign building process.

Once you have the campaign slogan, it's time to start developing the campaign theme and story. Since Roleplaying Games are all about fun, and the definition of fun is different for different people, it's time to talk to the players and get their idea of what's fun and entertaining. The rule is simple:

Engaged players => Great game sessions.

At this point, all you have is a slogan and a half-baked idea of the campaign overall story. If you jump into the campaign development process (creating a full-blown story, detailing locations and NPC, thinking about sub-plots, power-groups, and all the other cool stuff we DMs drool on), you might end-up with a campaign that nobody wants to play. You might spend a lot of time building something your players would not find engaging. They will either suffer quietly, or just leave.

So how do we make sure that the campaign is engaging? Simple: we ask the players to provide backgrounds for their characters.

Character Background

Now here is the tricky part: some players find it infinitely boring/useless to write backgrounds for their characters, and for good reasons. A lot of DMs ask their players for lengthy backgrounds that get stuffed inside the DM's binder, never to see the light of day again.

Big Mistake.

The campaign is all about the players, and without player input, the campaign will go where ever the DM will steer it. Some find it a perfectly valid gaming experience, but I personally like (both as a DM and as a player) to be engaged, to have a lot of control of the setting, the action, the story and the events around me.

Character background is probably the first opportunity you (as the DM) have to learn about the player and find out what interests him. So how do we get the players to write good backgrounds for their characters?

Some guidelines:

  1. Character backgrounds can be short - even as short as a few sentences.
  2. The background should include a short-term, achievable goal.
  3. The background should include a complication.

That's it.

Think about it: all you need is something to start with. Make no mistake - if a player produces a lengthy background that include some goals and some interesting complications, by all means, thank him! But a few well-written sentences can also do the trick. Tell your players to come up with several sentences with a goal and a complication, and have their characters end up in a small town called Lakeside.

Here is what you might get:

  • Loan is the daughter of a once capable wizard, now a drooling madman due to a magical experiment that went really wrong. Placing her father is a sanatorium (with all the money she had), she seeks the aid of Magnus Amandas, a great wizard and a researcher of mental afflictions. Upon her arrival to the town of Lakeside, she found out that Magnus was recently assassinated, and now - probably due to her inquiries - she is being followed by the local assassins guild.
  • Tardas Longhorn - the dwarven prince of the kingdom of Ironfoot - is leading a small emissary of dwarves to the town of Lakeside, to deal with the growing threats of bandits on the trade road. Lakeside's mayor - Lord Arbor Gos - has hired a group of mercenaries to clean the roads of bandits, but the dwarves suspect that the mercenaries are actually working with the bandits. As Tardas and his dwarven guards enter the town of Lakeside, some rough looking men take note of them.
  • Pilir Devengil have just reached the town of Lakeside for the annual drinking contest. Overweight, smelly and broke, he has to win it to collect the prize and pay his step-mother for his lodging at her cabin. Dragging his large body on the way to the inn, he bumped into a noble, accidentally breaking the old man's glasses. The noble demands an absurd sum of money, threatening to use his connection with the local militia's commander to arrest Pilir for his rudeness.  
Taking the slogan you have in mind - what can you do with the above backgrounds? More importantly, what do these backgrounds say about the players?

You might notice that both Loan's and Tardas's players like a mystery. Loan's player might be interested in magic, and Tardas's player might like some diplomacy and nobility. Pilir's player might be in for some goofy moments, but he also might be interested in making money.

You might want to start thinking about linking the backgrounds, building a framework that will unite the stories and make them work together. Maybe Pilir's noble will make him work for him, sending him to work as a mercenary with the rough men that "guard the roads". Maybe Magnus Amandas was assassinated because found he out about a scheme to murder the dwarven prince about to come to town? Maybe the local assassins guild did not kill Magnus, and a guild-member who was an old friend of Magnus hopes to use the young woman to lure the real assassin?

Given good backgrounds, it's not hard to wrap your mind around them and create a basic story that will kick-start the campaign. You can always ask your players for background refinements if you find it hard to squeeze a good story out of them, but that refinement should be worked out by the player, after you explain the guidelines and why you need them.

Don't be afraid to tell your players that you want backgrounds that will help you create a better story for the campaign! If these stories will come forward at the very first session - the players will be totally engaged, making the first session unforgettable, and establishing a good basis for the rest of the campaign.

photo credit: quirkybird via photo pin cc

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Where Are My Glasses?

It's been a while since I wrote, mainly because of a major change I went through in my professional life. So long Polycom, it's been a great ride! Outbrain, here I come...

But that's not what this post is all about...this post is about the brand-new Macbook Pro with the Retina Display that was waiting for me when I got into the office on my first day.

As expected, I was dazzled by that truly amazing display, spending hours at home just browsing for hi-res photos to marvel upon. The quality of this display is so good, that my little daughter, from the height of her 3-year life-experience, stared at it for whole 5 minutes before saying: "Dad, I love you - and your new laptop".

The problems began a few days later, when my wife called me to help her get something done on her own laptop.

I frowned at the screen, trying to understand what's wrong with it. Everything looked blurry, full of jagged edges and rough corners. I could see lines and dots everywhere, as if I was looking at a CRT display from somewhere in the 80'...

The same happened when I turned on my first generation iPad, and even (heaven forbid!) my mid 2011 Macbook Air.

After making sure my contact lenses didn't fall off my eyes (and then realizing in terror that I never owned contact lenses, or reading glasses for that matter), I raised my arms, lifted my head and roared: "Noooooooo................."

Great job Apple.

Now I grumble every time my eyes rest on a non-Retina display. And guess what, other than my iPhone and my newly acquired (yet not really my own - I hope I won't have withdrawal symptoms when the guys at Outbrain will take it from me) Macbook Pro, all other 99.999999 displays I stare at now fall under the category of Totally Crap, Barely Usable, Eye Scorcher Piece of Junk.

As long as I use that truly amazing display, I'm in paradise, but on any other (non-retina) device - cyberspace never looked so murky...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

D&D Next: D&D is Back!

I was very excited to get my copy of the D&D play-test material. The roller coaster that was 2e to 3.5e to 4e was about to end, and I was very interested to see what the captains of D&D have in mind.

Well, it looks like they had this in mind:

The booklet reads like old-school D&D while taking the best of all the editions out there. You can see 2e's one-line monster stats right next to 4e at-will cantrips. You can see Basic D&D "Vancian" spell-casting next to a slightly modified version of the healing-surges system found in 4e.

Another great idea was the inclusion of character backgrounds and themes as a way to create unique, 3.5e like PCs as opposed to the cookie cutter approach found in 4e. The play-test material gave us the most archetypical heroes, but I can easily see how the system will be expanded and extended to support great character customization.

So in my opinion, D&D is now back to being D&D. The core of it - in the form presented in the play-test material - will be probably tweaked and modified, but it looks solid enough and D&D enough to my personal taste.

Taking a look at the included adventure, I was shocked at how much it reminded me of all those old, pre 3rd edition adventure module I still own. It even looks like I could run those old modules with little or no modification. In addition, it looks like the fine-tuned encounters found in 4e are out of the window, with rooms with "up to 40" kobolds in them.  The monsters stat blocks are mostly one or two liners, a thing I was really happy about - until I saw the "Special Traits" entry for each monster in the monster booklet.

I never liked the way monsters in 3.5e played out. In addition to the clearly stated melee and ranged attacks, they had this section in which tons of special abilities were listed. During the excitement of combat I usually forgot all about them, which was really annoying. Even more annoying was the fact that some of the special abilities encapsulated several traits that I needed to take into account. For example, 3.5e incorporeal means immunity from all non-magical attacks, but they are effected by supernatural attacks. And then the game was halted to look at the books to see what supernatural meant. So in that sense, I really hope that Wizards use the traits section wisely, giving just a few, self-explanatory, "classic" traits and move all other "cool stuff the monster can do" to an appropriate section (attacks, defenses etc).

To be completely honest, I really look forward to play-test D&D Next, and I really hope that Wizard's plan of providing a solid core that is easily expanded with rules modules will actually work. If they decide to revive the old Mistara campaign setting (or create a brand new old-school setting) I will be thrilled.

After all, it looks like D&D is built with an eye to its original roots, roots which I discovered when I was just a little over 6 years old, almost 30 years ago...

Hey, you know what? Proofreading my post I just realized that I unintentionally dropped the "Next" out of D&D Next in the last sentence. Yes, it feels like D&D. Not 2e, not 3e and not 4e or 5e.

Just D&D.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Campaign Workshop - The Campaign Slogan

One of the tricks I've been using to conceptualize a campaign is the Campaign Slogan.

A role-playing campaign can take years to play to its end. Unless you're building a very short campaign, one that will end after a couple of sessions, you'll need to come up with a considerable amount of plots, NPCs, story arcs, locations and adventure ideas.

Facing so much unwritten material, a lot of GMs freeze, unable to even start working on their new campaign. Even if we have this great idea, we sometimes find it hard to mature it into a fully grown campaign. We start with one story, jump to the next, introduce an NPC or two, and kickstart the campaign hoping for the best.

More often than not, this approach creates a spiral of death effect. As the game goes on, the connection to the original story dwindles, until nothing remains of the original story. At this point, many campaigns die, having too many loose-ends and unrelated strings of adventures that are going nowhere.

To solve this problem (and to help solving many more, as you'll see shortly), I use the idea of the Campaign Slogan. I can't say I invented it - I probably picked it up somewhere, but I cannot remember where...

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Slogan:

slogan is a memorable motto or phrase used in a politicalcommercialreligious, and other context as a repetitive expression of an idea or purpose. 

The slogan serves a similar purpose in the context of campaign building. It creates a general, memorable frame for the entire campaign. When building the campaign, it can be used as a phrase that conceptualize the campaign, giving it flavor, meaning and theme. When running the campaign, it can be used to make sure the campaign is still going to the right direction. If you read the campaign slogan during the course of a campaign, and find it valid - you are still on course.

Note that my slogans are there to serve me, therefore they are somewhat different from the slogans we all know from ads and commercials. My slogans are short sentences that capture the feel of the campaign in one short sentence.

Here are two examples of slogans I used in my recent campaigns:

  • A demon convinces a high-priest to free it from its eternal prison, claiming that "You need to free me in order to fight me."
  • A great emperor - in the face of a terrible invasion by otherworldly beings - conquers more and more lands as a way to unite the population against a terrible foe. "Rule them or lose them"
As you can see, the slogans are very abstract while providing the identity of the "main villain" and his reason for being one. They are general enough to spawn endless plots and adventures, but focused enough to provide a frame in which the campaign takes place.

Here I would like to stress the importance of abstraction: an abstract slogan helps you build arcs, plots, sub-plots and adventure that are seemingly unrelated, until you decide to let the players see the connection. 

If the campaign slogan is abstract enough, it would easily contain the backgrounds of the heroes, their stories and their goals, which - if you follow my steps so far - are not even in your possession yet.

Writing a good slogan is not difficult. Try to summarize your favorite sic-fi or fantasy movies in one sentence, and slogans will pop up quickly. 

Can you identify the following?

  • An alien entity is using humans as slaves-laborers by utilizing advanced technology which is based on a rare mineral the humans are mining.
  • An archeologist is working of an evil army commander,  questing for occult power that will make the army invincible.
  • A power-hungry emperor is constructing a terrible weapon that can destroy planets, but the plans of the station falls to the hands of a group of freedom fighters.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Otherlands - Campaign Workshop

Building a campaign from scratch can be a difficult task. Building and running a successful campaign to its natural, satisfying end can be even harder.
We all participated (as players or GMs) in campaigns that started good and solid but lost momentum or had their main story line dissolve after a while. The GM might burnout and stop pushing the story forward, or the players might lose interest in the story and pull the campaign in every other direction, tearing its original plot apart. Either way – the campaign is probably doomed.

While there are many articles, blog posts and forums dedicated to campaign building, there aren't many real-life examples of the process of building a campaign. I'm not talking about examples and methods for creating the story arc for a campaign, or ways to manage that information (although eventually I'll touch on these subjects as well). I'm talking about how to build a successful campaign that will run for many sessions while keeping the players and the GM engaged.
So here it is, my own Otherlands Campaign workshop, in which I will build a complete campaign from scratch in a series of posts, sharing the process and the end results with you.
What does the process look like? 7 simple steps:
1.       Talking to the players
2.       The campaign slogan and the single-page campaign note
3.       Using character backgrounds as a basis for the campaign
4.       Sandboxing and Circles of Knowledge
5.       Building an episode guide
6.       Dealing with change
7.       Ending a campaign
Let's start with the first step of building a campaign (yes, this step should occure before you even jot your first GM note):
Talking to the players
It's important to understand that players drive the campaign's story. A GM can create a great story arc, interesting locations and unique non-player characters, but the players can ignore all that in a whim and head off to an entirely unexpected direction. There's nothing to stop them, and a GM that tries to force the players back into his own image of the campaign might make them feel cheated and railroaded.
The M in GM stands for Master, but it does not mean we GMs own the game. Therefore, it's very important to talk to the players and try to understand what interests them, what do they find boring and what do they find engaging.
If the main idea behind your campaign is fighting an undead infestation, but the 3 out of 4 players had enough of battering mindless zombies, then your campaign is in trouble. If your idea was to spend hours negotiating at the king's court but your players are only interesting in a slash-n-hack dance with the nearest Goblin clan, the campaign will dissolve and leave you and the players unsatisfied.
By talking to the players and understanding what they like and don't like, you can start storing bits of information that will be used in the next step - the campaign slogan, which I will discuss in an upcoming next post.
Here is an example of an e-mail format I use to send to the players before the game even began:

*  *  *
Hi Guys,
Before we create the characters and schedule a meeting, I'd like to get some information that will (hopefully) make the campaign more engaging and fun.
Please send me an e-mail with the following information:
1.       General character concept (one or two sentences about your characters, like race, profession, interesting background if you have one)
2.       What interests you as a player (politics, combat, mystery, etc.)
3.       Is there something you'd rather not see in the campaign, or is there something you had enough of (saving young dragons from evil princesses, or the other way around)
4.       Is there anything you want your character to achieve through the course of the next couple of levels (a title, a specific magic item, land and followers, etc.)
5.    One important note: I really appreciate it when players tell me what they would like to see in the campaign. It helps me build adventures tailored to your needs and desires.
E-mails saying "I would like to smash my way through hordes of rotting zombies in search for great magical artifacts!" or "Political intrigue in the King's Court!" or "Leading armies of Dragonborn in a crusade to rid the world of Demons!" will not be ignored!
*  *  *
As you get replies, you'll be able to get a better understanding of your players' interests, likes and dislikes. It may sound like a hassle (come on, we just want to throw some dice…), but a short e-mail exchange, a phone-call or a face to face meeting can be a tremendous help later on, when we move to the next step of developing the campaign slogan.
To be continued...

Friday, April 27, 2012

D&D Next: Conquering the World (Part Two)

As mentioned in my previous post, I usually start designing a campaign with the villain in mind. Taking into account that my players might have their own way in my world, I plan for them to get the bad guy eventually, but I also plan and prepare for that rare occasion in which the bad guy wins.

More often that not, the bad guy is the story initiator, while the characters (and the players) drive the story from that point. But what happens in the characters fall behind and make a blunder with their attempt to stop the villain? What happens (to the campaign, to the world, etc.) if the characters drop their quest to stop the villain, searching instead of other hooks and side-quests?

What happens in the bad guy wins?

Let's think about Emperor Palpatine as an example. What would have happened if Luke and his friends (the characters in our fictional tabletop campaign) failed to stop him, or more interestingly, didn't even care? What if they were happy staying at the Mos Eisley Cantina, enjoying the music and the occasional bar-fight, coming out for a short hack-n-slash skirmish with imperial forces or strange aliens?

As the DM, you could force the storyline you prepared down the group's collective throat, but that would just make the players feel like you're forcing a pre-generated script on them. They won't feel as if they are in charge of what's happening to them.

A better solution would be to let the bad guy have his way. As long as his way does not include total annihilation of the entire galaxy population, the campaign can still go on (and I can see ways for it to work even if the goal of the bad-guy is total annihilation...).

The key element that will allow you to do that is to ask yourself a single question about the villain:


Why does he (she/it/they) do what he does? Why trying to rule the world? Why trying to kill a god? Why spreading war and disease or do any of those things done by villains?

If you (as the DM) can answer that question, that the campaign does not end when the bad guy wins. After all, winning was all part of his plan - the first step in his plan.

What if Emperor Palpatine - using his dark side of the force powers - learnt of a threat to the galaxy, a threat so dire that he needed a strong dictatorship that will last for eons in order to prepare mankind?

What if he was planning to war another galaxy?

What if he planned to become a god made of raw force power?

So you see - even if your entire campaign was designed so that the heroes will stop the emperor and his brutal ways, after he wins, they get to see his real plan. Depending on the reasons for which he was allowed to win, you can design his real goal to better fit the players taste or abilities.

If the players ignored your story because it was boring for not enough engaging, its an opportunity to stop and think about what can you do to make them more engaged and interested.

If the players allowed the emperor to win because they fumbled in their way to stop him, because they made the wrong decisions or (and it happens) ran out of luck in critical moments in the story, now is the time to present another challenge and show them that they still have a chance.

If you like, instead of why? you can ask yourself and then what?

  • Apple's stock will reach 1000$ per share. And then what?
  • Microsoft's new operating system will be installed on 95% of the world's desktops. And then what?
  • Android will take over the tablet market in 5 years. And then what?
  • True AI will be created before the end of this millennia. And then what? 
  • D&D Next will be the most successful RPG system ever. And then what?
Just remember that your villain current goal is just the first step in his plan, and the campaign lives on even if he wins.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

D&D Next: Conquering the World (Part One)

Villains come in many shapes and sizes.

As Roger Ebert had put it:
"Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph." 
When designing a D&D campaign, I usually start with the main villain. The villain's story, motives and goals usually provides a good framework for the campaign. I then ask the players to create stories for their characters. Weaving the stories I got from my players into the framework I created using the villain's story produces the complete campaign.

After I kick start the campaign, I allow the players to take the reins and direct the story the way they want.

Sometimes, that approach allows the villain to win.

How does that happen? Well, a good example is the movie Seven. The good guys know that something sinister is going on, but they don't know to what end.

In my D&D campaigns, sometimes the players fall into the same pit. The villain is one step ahead, either because they fumble around trying to understand what's going on (allowing the villain more than enough time to do his thing), or because they are chasing down their own story lines. When that happens, I sometimes come to a session that takes place half-way into the campaign only to find out that the bad guy has conquered the world. Now what?

Interestingly enough, it happened in real life too. Not that I think that TSR, Microsoft. Google, Facebook or Apple are evil, but each of those companies conquered the world in its own way, or is going it right now. Heck, right now Apple employs more workers than most of the world's armies!

If the villain "wins", what does that mean? For that matter, what does that mean if he "loses"? I need to know when to end my campaign, but since the villain's story is not the story told by the players, the campaign does not have to end with the villain winning (or losing, for that matter).

Since D&D is a shared storytelling game, the campaign should end when the players' story feels finished. This is why I plan for the villain to win, as much as I plan for the villain to lose. While a losing villain is easier to handle, a winning one can be much harder.

How do you keep the story going? What does the villain do after winning? What does his winning moment look like? What does his winning mean to the players, and to the rest of the world?

I'll give you a hint - I look at the same real life examples above for inspiration. More on that in a following post...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writing a 300+ Pages Novel In An Hour

Most of us don't have a lot of time on our hands. We also don't own a time machine (unless you own a Mac).

So how can an amateur writer like me and you actually write a book? Even if we have this great idea for a book, we also have jobs, families, kids, hobbies, and many more obligations that keep us from sitting at our desks staring at our word processors.

Even if we get to sit down for a writing session, the mare thought of those empty 300+ pages waiting to be filled can paralyze even the most determined author-to-be. With a task so monumental, many just don't even start.

So what can we do?

We can start writing, and keep on writing.

"But," I can hear you say. "I don't have time! and if I do, it's by the end of the day, when I am tired and all done for the day..."

I hear you, I've been there myself. Hell, I've been there myself yesterday. After finishing all my daily chores at 22:00, my head spun, and I could barely make sure my kids didn't throw their blankets off in their sleep. Writing? Now? Hmm, I think my laptop needs a recharge. Better do it tomorrow.

But then I thought about that small mathematical formula, the one that can help you write a 300+ pages worth of a novel in one hour. Ready? here it goes:

(1 Page a Day) X (365 Days in a Year) = 365 Pages Novel by the end of the year.

Keeping in mind that formula, I sat down - in my bed, with my Mac charging - and wrote that single page (and yes, it takes about an hour). Sure, it wasn't that beautifully crafted scene I wanted to have by the end of the day, but it got me closer to that far away goal of mine - a book.

Since we don't look back while writing, we need to keep in mind that the time for revisions will come. The first stage of writing a book is sheer output. So even if you don't have time, even if you are tired, even if you just returned from that heavy holiday family dinner - sit down and write that single page. See past the challenge instead of staring at it.

You'll thank me a year from now.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Apple and D&D Next

Apple is well known for its tendency to tightly control the aspects of both software and hardware to produce the experience they want you to have.

It's got to a point in which their products were considered as targeted at a smaller elite due to pricing and design. Being asked about it, Steve Jobs shot back his famous "we just can't ship junk" punch-line.

In order to make Apple's product shine, Steve Jobs focused on controlling every aspect of the product, making sure that no-one (not even the users) will be able to take his beautifully crafted iPhones, iPads and iPods and make them something they are not. Hence, the iTunes limitation, no USB connector etc.

If you're a fan of Apple and its products, you realize that in order to get that experience, you have to cope with the fact that some key decisions about how the product is going to be used were taken for you. If you're not a fan, well, you have plenty other alternatives to choose from.

With D&D Next, Wizards is opening the design process (or at least make it semi-transparent) and allowing "users" (players and dungeon masters) to participate and make their voice heard before the product hits the shelves. I don't know how many design decisions are changed according to actual "user" input in the case of D&D, but judging from the D&D Next community site, it seems that somebody listens.

But will this open design approach will make Wizard "ship junk"? If Wizards change even ONE design decision based on users' input, then D&D is not longer a product of careful consideration, design and play-test (and yes, I do believe that AD&D, 3e and 4e went through that cycle). The experience of D&D might be modified according to the whims of its most vocal users out there, and according to some of the posts I see in the forum, some are vocal indeed.

If Wizards try to build the "one size fits all" D&D version using raw input from the community, they might end up with something that looks like it was conceived in Frankenstein's lab, a monster created of incompatible parts bolted together in a bloody, scary heap.

There is a lot of skill in Wizard's offices - no doubt about that - but I would rather use a system that was designed and built to provide a great role-playing experience, than to use a system that was built to satisfy the needs of the most vocal player or DM in the community.

Questions about the roll of skills,  hit points and high level play are too important to be put in the hands of the community. D&D is not about mechanics. It's about an experience around the table with some friends. But the mechanics contribute a lot of the "feel" of D&D, so I'd rather have a designer thinking about that feel instead of making a decision based on some anonymous gamer's light finger on that "Vote" button.

What do you think?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing a Book

If you never wrote one, the mission seems impossible.

You won't believe how many first attempts I have, stored somewhere in a virtual drawer. More than dozens. I can still remember some of these attempts, sitting down with my laptop open, writing the first couple of pages with enthusiasm, then real-life kicks in and the story is lost and forgotten. By the time I get back to it, it looks (and reads) bad, and I drop it.

I kept telling myself that I can do it. After all, I was making up enough plots and stories to fill years of role-playing as a Game Master. I filled notebooks (both virtual and physical) with notes, places, characters and interesting stories. Why can't I write a book?

As it turned out, I can. I signed up for last NANOWRIMO, and I actually got a novel out of it. My own 240+ pages of fantasy literature, as amateurish and unrefined as it is.

It turns out that it can be done, but in order to pull it off, you have to remember a very simple rule that is very hard to follow:

Keep writing.

Sounds simple? Well, it's not. You need to keep writing no matter what. No revisions, no looking back. Just keep...on...writing.

I followed that rule to the last minute of my NANOWRIMO effort, and it payed off big time. I let the story take its own course, I freed my characters to do as they please, and after 30 days I had a complete novel. And in my humble opinion, IT'S NOT THAT BAD.

Sure, it's full of typos and bad english (I'm not a native english speaker). Some of the scenes are not very well thought of. Some of the characters are not three-dimensional. But if you look at it as it is, raw and unpolished, it passes muster, even if the writer sucks.

But you know what? I can suck less every year. As Jeff Atwood puts it:

We all write shitty software, but only the best developers realize they're doing it. 

Being a software engineer, I understand what he's trying to say. The point is not to write the best book ever in your first, or second attempt. Since I'm not doing this with a skilled editor and the support of a publisher, any attempt at writing a book will be anything BUT professional. So instead of aiming high and hitting nothing, we better write what we can, and try to improve from one chapter to another, and from one book to another.

So write! and keep on writing. Forget about the quality of your efforts, because if you don't, you'll never get anything done. Trust me, I've been there. Just write, get the story out. Get the WORDS out, and once you have that fat pile of (virtual) pages resting on your table, you can lean back and enjoy your achievement, and start thinking about your second book.

False Gods

My participation in NANOWRIMO proved to me that I can write a book. It's not a masterpiece - far from it, but it's a start. Every once in a while I pull it off my shelf (I've got a single copy I got for free) and I flip through the pages. Since it has been some time since last November, I keep finding new things that I don't even remember I wrote.

It's a peculiar experience, finding something new in a book you wrote yourself. I believe that the way I wrote it has something to do with it. Since NANOWRIMO is all about writing 50K words in 30 days, and these 30 days were also 30 days of a full time job as a software engineer, in addition to me being a father to two very energetic kids and trying to be a worthy husband, I found myself punching out my daily word dues in a semi-consciouse state.

Well, something tells me it's time to start writing another book, this time reaching a cap of 100K words, but without the overdrive.

And it already have a title: False Gods.

I am still working to clean up the mess of a plot I have in mind, and outlining the fantasy world the plot takes place in, but I have a start, and very soon I'll have a first chapter.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

D&D Next: Edition Wars

A lot of discussions in the forums revolves around an interesting question:

Quoting Chodeaboy who responded to the Uniting the Editions, Part 2 article:

"No offense here, but if the objective is to satisfy all the people who play pre-existing editions why not just sell different editions of D&D?
and be done with it?"

Obviously, there is a point here (ignoring that fact that there is a business desicion behind every new edition). If players and DMs still find old material relevant and useful, re-prints could make them very happy.

My old AD&D books are all worn out, and sometimes I'd rather leave them be than pick them up and risk another cracked binding or torn page. If these books were re-printed, I would certainly buy a new copy. Same goes for Basic D&D. A good-quality digital version would also be nice, but I understand the issues involved.

So D&D Next, with its aim to take the best of each world and adhere to different play styles DOES sound like a good idea.

But what is the best of all worlds?

For me, these are the highlights:

  1. Basic D&D: Simplicity
  2. AD&D: Grittiness
  3. D&D 3.5e: Versatility
  4. D&D 4e: DM Friendliness

In order for D&D Next to be adopted in my groups, I would require it to be very simple in its core, keep the players on the edge with mortal characters, be versatile and allow the players to create what character they want, and be as friendly as possible to the DM in terms of rules, encounter building, adventure design and session management.

IMHO, no version can do all of the above out of the box. I can fudge and mess with the internals of ANY version to make that happen, but as a 35 years old software engineer with a wife, 2 kids and some private life out of the gaming community, I have very little time for such tweaking.

Hopefully, D&D Next will do that for me.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I got really excited reading about D&D Next.

It's great to hear about the making of a new D&D version. The web is rife with discussions concerning the content of this new version, and the new community site (available here) is a good source of information in the mad sea of misinformation.

Creating a new version of D&D is not an easy task, especially when aiming to seperate the core of D&D (its essence?) from the many extensions, expansions and styles of play. From Basic D&D, to AD&D, 3.0, 3.5e and 4e, control has moved from the DM's side of the screen to the player's. I personally believe this is a mistake.

The following sentence might sound harsh, but I really believe it is the truth: D&D is reduced to a computer/board game without an empowered DM.

An empowered DM can make decisions. An empowered DM can make things happen "out of the blue" if nesseccary. An empowered DM pose a unique challange to overcome, a challange that cannot be emulated by rules, computers or any other non-human interface.

So my advice to Wizards (if they are listening at all) is this: Have D&D Next be all about the DM. Recognize that the DM is the focal point of the game session and understand that DMs (and especially good DMs) are a great way to draw players to the table and to the gaming community.

Player content is great and is much needed, but the if the DM sucks, players will leave his table not matter how good/fun to play are their characters. Think about it this way: in your gaming group, how much of the interaction occurs between players, and how much interaction occurs between a player and the DM?

DM's are a bottleneck, but intead of eliminating the bottleneck (by eliminating the DM), empower the DM and have players stand in line for another great D&D session. How? Design D&D Next with the DM in mind, and find ways to help him spend less time on the rules, and more time on creating the gaming experience his players will like best.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

It's Out, and It's Mine

It's lousy, full of poor English, spelling mistakes and cardboard characters, but it's out, and it's mine.
(Nanowrimo effort, self-published using Lulu)

Wings of Darkness by Ido Tamir