Monday, May 30, 2011

T is for Treants and Trolls

T is for Treants

Lumbering leviathans of lumber, these tree-men are the ideal defense for sacred glades and groves.

T is also for Troll

These burly fey take a lickin' and keep on tickin', but I wouldn't recommend licking trolls considering where most of them live.

You can grab your fig double dose here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Collaborative World Building - Part Three

Bringing It All Together

The GM has crafted his simple story and a menagerie of minions; the players have armed themselves with back stories and wish lists; the time is upon us. Break out the Gamin' Jack and pizza, 'cause it's time for the world building session.

Now, this task is not nearly as monumental as it may seem. In fact, most of the work has already been done. All you have to do now is bring it all together. So, let's look at how we to do that.

Building a Social Network

I wouldn't put it past some gamers to have been living under a rock for the last decade, but those of you who haven't probably understand the fundamentals of social networks from sites like Facebook and MySpace. By illustrating the character's social networks, we can begin to tie them into the society of the game world, find connections between the other player characters, and find and fill gaps in the player's back stories.

Let's start by diagramming our character's social network.

First, write down your character's name and draw a circle around it. Now, go through your character's backstory and highlight all the NPCs, events, organizations, and places your character is directly connected to. Now make a circle for each of these,and connect it with a line to your character. One caveat: Don't use proper names. Instead, write down a generic descriptor (e.g. Knight, Epic Battle, Kingdom, Secret Enemy, etc.). The reason for this will become clear shortly.
Example: Bill has written up a character named Percival Dawnsparrow. After going
over his backstory he finds his direct relationships and diagrams them. 

Now, you can go one step further and create spokes for the NPCs showing their relationships with characters that may not have direct contact with your character. 

Bill now finds those people, and organizations connected to his NPCs.

Okay,  we've reached the point where worlds collide. The players take their sheets of bubbly goodness and compare. Note any shared descriptors.

After he finishes his network he compares it to his fellow player's network. They find that they both have connections to the Captain of the Guard and the Merchant's Guild.
Here is where the collaboration really takes off, assume that any shared descriptor is the the same person, place, or thing describe in both back story. This is why we threw out names in step one.

"But all the elements of my background are unique and integral to my character, and any change would ruin him forever!" Get over yourself. Odds are if you really look at it, most of your NPCs only contributed a single action to your back story, an action they could easily perform along side those essential to other characters. Contradictions in characterizations may be easily explained away by a difference in the character's perspective, and those that can't (i.e. gender, name, descriptions) should be settled diplomatically. (In this world of fantasy, it's amazing when supplemented with magic and/or super-science what witness protection programs can do!) 

This process will yield several results. For starters, it will tie the characters together through a shared history and environment. This will allow you to jump past the obligatory meeting in a tavern called by a mysterious stranger.

It creates multi-dimensional NPCs. A knight who raised and trained a young orphan to wield a blade is nice and all, but what happens when that orphan brings home his new girlfriend -- a young rogue who the knight has brought to justice on several occasions? Drama, intrigue, comedy: story.

In the end, probably one of the greatest side effects of this process is that your players are invested and knowledgeable about the world they are playing in. Any GM who has ever tried to get his players to read a brief summary of the setting will quickly realize what a boon this process is. Sure, there will be some elements of that the GM will incorporate to the setting, but these will be tied into the players' creation and hence have greater value to them.

Speaking of the GM, where does he fit into this whole process? Well, in a addition to helping arbitrate discrepancies in back stories, he too will have a little bubble chart of his own, containing all the NPCS, set pieces, and organizations essential to his story line. Unlike the PCs, his diagram should remain secret. After all of the PCs have merged their networks, he will compare them to his own, linking elements in the same fashion that the PCs did earlier, but obviously in secret. This may result in new information for the PCs about their connects which he will share, or it can be squirreled away as secret pasts that the PC may not yet be aware of and will discover as the game progresses. 

Once you have completed this final step, you have reached the end of the world building session. If you like, you can now hand out character sheets for the players to fill in, but while they are doing that the GM has some more work to do. But that is the topic of my next post: Finalizing the World Creation Process.

Monday, May 23, 2011

S is for Skeleton

S is for Skeleton

The plan A of any necromantic scheme, these reanimated remains are the most common form of recycling in the magic fueled world. You can grab your fig here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Collaborative World Building - Part Two

Now that we've addressed what the GM should bring to the world building session, let's take a look at the player’s responsibilities.

Story Before Stats

First off, let’s address one thing that you shouldn’t bring to the world building session: character sheets. 

Now, don’t worry: I’m not going all drippy-hippy, proclaiming that mechanics are evil, and "We should just throw our dice away and just let the story flow from our hearts, man," but I will say that character sheets at this stage of the game will present problems. You want world building to be as flexible as possible. Having your character already statted out turns the process into a negotiation where everyone works to keep their characters as unchanged as possible.

“But the whole concept for my character revolved around using the Merits Backseat Driver with Forlorn Xenophile to get a +5 bonus in situations involving alien mating rituals!” Well then, sorry, this style of play isn’t for you. If your character’s totality is a list of numbers and buzz words on a sheet of paper, you should stick to dungeon crawls or games where the GM is flying solo on story creation.

So, leave the sheets at home.

Okay, so now that we’ve addressed the one thing not to bring, let’s move onto what you should:


Your character’s back story is the most important thing you will bring to the table at this point. It is the catalyst from which the story will grow, to put it in terms we can all understand, the GM simple story is the vinegar, the player’s back story is the baking soda, and the sudsy volcanic mess that wowed all your friends at the science fair is the awesomeness of the game. So let’s look at some elements that will give us the most bang for our buck.

Goals and Ambitions

Characters need a reason to leave the house in the morning. These motivations can be split into two categories: goals and ambitions.

A goal is a motivation that can be achieved. “I want to find and kill the man who killed my father,” or I want to learn the secret of Kung Fu only known by the Ancient Master Wu Fung” would be a examples of goals. Goals are story seeds and every character should have at least one goal.

An ambition is a motivation that has no end. I will defeat any evil that threatens the kingdom,” or “I will serve my deity’s will till I breathe no more” would be examples of ambitions.

When devising your goals and ambition you should ask yourself, What am I looking to get out of this character? What kind of story am I trying to tell?” Goals and ambitions are the seeds that the story will grow from, so make sure you plant the game you want to play.

The Misadventures of Bubble Boy

People do not exist in a vacuum, and neither should your character. Another component of your back story is showing how your character fits into the world. Now, this doesn’t mean how you fit strategically in your party or whether your cyborg assassin could plausibly exist in a land of fairies and dragons. What I am talking about is how your character fills a niche in the ecosystem of the world. All living creatures need food, water, and shelter, and how a person gets these things have repercussions on the world around him.

For example, if your character makes his money robbing from the local merchants, who are some of the merchants he hits regularly? Even if he is a bad ass thief now, there had to be a learning curve. Who were the town guards who would regularly pick him up, how did he get out of jail with his hands intact? Who are some of the other criminals in town that he teams up with, or works against? Where do they meet?

By answering questions like this in your background you create the nouns of your story and guide it in a direction you will enjoy. The best part is, you won’t have to read a three page essay on the criminal structure of the city or memorize a who’s who list of NPCs because you will have created it. Sure, your GM will add a curve-ball or two, but you’ll have laid the groundwork, and I don’t know a GM alive who wouldn’t appreciate that.

Things to avoid in your backstory.

Justification Over Inspiration

This is a problem common with rule/stat oriented players who feel a back story's sole purpose is to justify your character's stats, or GMs who require every point you spend to appear somewhere in your background. This leads to back stories that are light on story and heavy on paramilitary training.  A back story should be used to build a world not a character.

Road Maps!

A goal is a destination, not a map, and just like players don’t like to be railroaded, neither do GMs. A major issue I see in a lot character's goals is that they are step-by-step guides to the character’s future adventuring career. This is a game, not a novel. If you want your character to follow a set path and achieve preset milestones at specific points, then you should go write a book. I’m sure the group would be much happier reading your story than having to suffer through it at the gaming table.

Perfect Heroes Lead to Imperfect Stories

There has never been a good story about an unflawed hero. Stories come from failure; failure comes from flaws. In fact, all stories are about a character’s journey to overcome a flaw; it’s why games have experience and character creation rules. Your back story should address what your character is lacking or what aspect of his sociology, physicality, or psychology is holding him back from his goals.

Wish List

In addition to a back story, you might want to include a wish list of things you want to try, or think may be cool. This doesn’t have to be super complicated. If you are aiming for a prestige class, write it down. If you read about a cool monster you want to test your mettle against, let the GM know. Anything that will guide the GM towards stuff you want to see in the game. Now, not all of it will get used, but you can be sure that if your GM is struggling for ideas, or needs a hook to bring you back into the story, he’ll take a glance at your wish list for inspiration.

Now that the players are armed with their back stories and wish lists, it is time for the World Building Session, which I will cover in my next post.

Monday, May 16, 2011

R is for Rakshasa

R is for Rakshasa

Tiger headed tormentors wielding powerful magic with their backward claws. You can grab the fig here!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Collaborative World Building -Part One

The first step in creating your game world is to first determine who your players are and if they are interested in the genre and system you have chosen. You can't have a game without players after all.

Once you've determined that a game can happen, set up a time to meet with all the players for a world building session. (There will be more on how to run this session in a future post.)

As we discussed, sandbox gaming requires participation from both the GM and the players to be effective. In this article, I will be focusing on what part the GM plays in the world building process, and what he/she should bring to the table when the group sits down to create the world.

Only what you need to survive...

Although a majority of the storylines in a sandbox game will come from the character's goals and backgrounds, this does not mean that the GM doesn't get to devise a few of his own. The key here is to keep the story simple. Now, when I say simple, I don't mean easy or mundane; what I mean is that you should construct only the bare bones of the story: create key players, locations, items, enemies, but leave some blanks for the players to fill in. You can even come up with some solutions to the problems you create if you like, but from my experience, it is better to leave the solutions to the players.

"What about my roving band of gypsy minstrels who hand out free popcorn on Tuesdays?  They don't fit into the story. Should I just throw them out?" Good question.

...Okay maybe just a little more than that.

So as I said in my previous post, the point in all this is to have fun and to create the story you want to tell. Well it is, and you should. So, after you devise your simple story, feel free to create other random features of the world: characters, places, legends, whatever; but be careful not to get too carried away, and be prepared to sock some of those things away for a later campaign if they don't jive with the current set of characters. 

This ability to endlessly create is my favorite part of being a GM, and I would never suggest you give up this aspect of the job, but I would point out some restrictions that one must operate under if you are going to run a successful game. 

The first is that the player's characters are the heroes, you are but the chorus. Your characters should never steal the player's thunder. You can have fun and memorable NPCs, but in the end they should always step aside for the real heroes to handle things.

The second is that you should never attempt to shoehorn your random bits into the story. This goes along with the players being the heroes. If it happens organically, great, but don't detour your party to the ancient ruins where the Battle of Nothing-to-do-with-the-Ploticus occurred, just so you can show off your epic poem writing skills. This is not a travelogue, and the party is not a tour group; the only history they should care about is the one they are making.

"So, If I can’t force my players to gaze upon my glorious creations then what is the point of all these random bits?" 

Well, when your group meets up for its world building session, and your player's fighter refers to being scarred in an unnamed battle, well, then you just drop that tender nugget in his lap, and Bam! He is now enmeshed in your random element, and all the bits you wrote up associated with the battle can now become part of the world. 

Another place where these random elements can come in handy is when your players do something random in game. What if one of your players decides that his character has a hankering for some popcorn late one Tuesday night? BAM! Look out world! You are now infested with gypsies. Or, what if they need a place to camp for the night? Maybe they stumble upon the ghoul infested ruins you had cooked up but couldn't find a place for in the story. These random bits are extra ammo you can stockpile for a rainy day when you may be short on time or creativity.

Now that we have established what the GM needs, my next post will address what the players are responsible for bringing to the table.

Laying Groundwork: 3 Act Structure - An Overly Simplified View

Put simply, all stories have 3 acts: the beginning (act 1), the middle (act 2), and the end (act 3). You could argue this point, but you would be wrong, and we would just be wasting time.  Moving on.

ACT 1 - The Beginning/The Setup
Act one sets up the world, the main conflict, and sets what is at stake.

Example: It is a cold December night, and Pete wakes from his slumber with the overwhelming need to pee. He must now decide whether to navigate the cold, cluttered floor, or wet his bed.

In this example, we've established the world (cold night, cluttered floor), we've established the conflict (Pete must pee), and we've established what is at stake (Pete's continued rest, and whether the bed remains dry).

ACT 2 - The Middle/The Journey
Act two is where are hero braves the world of the story, facing obsticles whose solutions supply him with abilities that he will use to overcome the main conflict. Obstacles help to supply our hero with the knowledge of what he is lacking. Through overcoming these obstacles he fills in the gaps of his abilities and becomes stronger.

Example: Confronted with the cold, dark, debris-littered floor, Pete turns on a  night-light and dons his fuzzy bunny slippers. 

In this act, we've placed the obstacles (the dark, the debris, and the cold), and our hero was forced to find solutions to these problems (the night-light and slippers). With these solutions, he is now ready to face the final challenge.

ACT 3 - The End/ Climax and Resolution
Act three is where it all comes to a head, where the hero must use what he has acquired on the journey and overcome the main conflict to restore the world to order.
Example: Having overcome the dangers of the floor, Pete is confronted with the final challenge: the icy tile floor of the bathroom. Utilizing his slippers, and assisting his aim with the night-light, Pete overcomes his need to pee by successfully using the restroom, and returns triumphantly to his bed.

We've returned to the main conflict (having to pee) and our hero has overcome it with the tools found on his journey. With the world restored to order, the story has reached its resolution.

Dang it!

Apparently blogger lost my post on 3 act structure, so I'll have to rewrite it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Laying Some Groundwork: Sandbox Gaming

I started writing an article on utilizing character flaws to generate story when I realized that I was operating on several assumptions about my audience, both in their style of gaming and their basic understanding of story structure. So, I've decided to lay down a quick foundation. The articles to follow, although they may be applied to other styles, will be targeted at people running "sandbox" style games. It is my preferred style of play, and so I naturally feel it is the best.

So, what is Sandbox gaming?

Well, basically there are three types of games: Story Driven, Character Driven, and Sandbox.

Story driven games are best represented by pre-made modules and organized play events. The GM creates a story and the players show up to run through it. Although the characters can affect the outcome of story driven games their backgrounds have little effect on the story itself. This is great for groups with a rotating cast, or players who really just want to boot, shoot, and loot.

Character driven games are on the other end of the spectrum. The Players create elaborate backgrounds and drive the story with their character's goals. The world is created as the players need it. The game leaves room for infinite growth, but relies heavily on the players to keep the story moving. This type of gaming is great for frustrated novelists, lazy GMs, or people who prefer very rules light settings.

Now, sandbox gaming sits directly in the middle, equal parts GM input and Player input. The GM creates a world, the players create characters with strong backgrounds and the two are merged. This style allows the players the freedom to pursue their own agenda, but they must also contend with the machinations of the GM.   I love this style of play because it is highly collaborative and allows everyone to be part of creating the story. This type of gaming is great for people who want to have good games. (I'm a little biased.)

I hope that explains basically what I mean when I say "sandbox gaming." Next article I'll breakdown the basics of story structure.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Q is for Quasit

Q is for Quasit

This demonic equivalent of the imp, has all the flare of its counter part without all the lawful hang ups. You can grab your figs here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

P is for Pseudodragon

P is for Pseudodragon

A diminutive swarm of sorta-dragons can serve as a loyal familiar, or as low level training for the next epic dragon slayer. You can grab your figs here.