Monday, June 27, 2011

X is for Xorn

X is for Xorn

Swimming through the earth in search of precious gems and metals,
these terra firma tripods are a danger to any treasure horde.

You can grab the figs here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

BONUS FIG! Happy Birthday Bruce!

Since it is Bruce's birthday, I thought I would whip up a quick fig, 
'cause every game could use a little more Bruce. 

You can grab the fig here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

W is for Wight

W is for Wight

When you need someone to take charge of your undead picnic
there is no one better than these negative energy nasties.

You can grab the figs here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


The great debate, to dice or not to dice: what is the point? In my opinion, dice are what separate writing a story from playing a game. Both are very enjoyable and worthwhile activities, but if one wishes to engage in a role-playing game dice are a necessity.

Due to my inherent lazy nature, I will be using the term dice as a catch-all for any random system a game uses to determine the outcome of a given action, because that is truly the point of dice: to be random and bring the unexpected into your story. The problems start to come in when you allow the result of the dice to trump the enjoyment of the game. The key is to understand the true function of dice and when and how to use them to enhance your experience, which is not always when the rules tell you to.

Determining direction, not success.

The key thing to remember is that no one controls the dice. Every time you pick them up you are choosing to put the fate of your game in the hands of random chance, which is not a bad thing, it's just not always a good thing. Consider this when designing your encounters. Ask yourself, "How will the game continue if the players fail at the task at hand?" If failing the dice roll would effectively end the session, then you probably shouldn't leave it up to chance.

"So what? Do I let the players succeed at everything just to keep the story moving?"

Not at all, although you can't control the outcome of the dice, you can control the outcome of failure. Encounters shouldn't be pass/fail exams. An encounter is like a fork in the road, passing the test means you get to take the easy path, and failure indicates you will have take the longer potentially more difficult road. Both roads lead to the same location, but one gets you there with less of a cost.

The Joy of Chaos

As the old saying goes, "a plan is just a list of things that never happen," this is what I find enjoyable about gaming. You show up with your prepared story,  your preconceptions of how it will unfold, and then expose it to the random chaos of the players and dice. In the end, you wind up with something completely different than what you were expecting, having to react just like the players to the unexpected, trying to keep the ship afloat. Dice allow this chaos to occur even if you know every move your players are going to make. They keep everyone on their toes, and keep the game from being mired down in the monotony of predictable patterns.


Speaking of monotony, it can be difficult at times for a GM to keep coming up with fresh story ideas, this is another point where dice are a handy tool. Random roll tables have gotten a bad rap at times, as many of us remember the days where entire adventures were determined by comparing the roll of the d100 to a series of lists. 

As I've matured as a gamer, I began to realize the value of the random roll table is that of inspiration, and in a way, a game in itself. Randomly determining the type of creature, plot, terrain, or even weather conditions can be the spark of inspiration on which your story can grow. The key is to keep what you roll no matter how bizarre -- in fact, the more bizarre, the better. Nothing will get your creative juices flowing like having to figure out why there is a swarm of ice demons running around the inside of an active volcano, or how a dragon ended up in a room with a door too small for him to fit through.

When you run a sandbox game you have to contend with the players getting wild hairs up their asses and running off in random directions, most of which you didn't prepare for. Having the ability to generate some random elements can keep your game from grinding to a halt.

So hopefully, you've stopped worrying and learned to love the dice.

Monday, June 13, 2011

V is for Vampire

V is for Vampire

Voracious vein munching vixens from beyond the grave. You can grab your figs here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Novel Is Not A Movie Is Not A Poem Is Not A Game

As of today, I have read 47 books on screenwriting (just counted them), have a bachelor's degree in film/video production with a concentration in directing/screenwriting, and have written 6 feature length scripts and a television pilot [all on spec :( ]. Throw in my over 20 years experience DMing / GMing/ Storytelling/ Narrating various games of all genres, and I have picked up a trick or two with regards to developing compelling stories and characters. This is not to brag, but merely to preface my esoteric ramblings, and apologize if I start waxing philosophical on the art of story a bit too much.

***Universal Spoiler Alert***
Now a quick warning, in this blog I'm gonna talk about some tricks some screenwriters use to create plot structure and character development, and it will alter the way you watch movies and TV. It's a lot like a magic trick, once you know how it's done you'll never be able to enjoy the trick in same way again. So, if you like your movies the way they are, stop here; otherwise, moving on...
One of the first things you learn is a writer is to determine which medium is best for telling your story. This may seem like a no brainer, but understanding the limitations of the your chosen format can save you from trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
For example, if your story is a tale of radioactive alien dinosaurs blowing up national parks with a few million megatons, you'd rather watch it on the big screen than read the vivid descriptions on your Kindle, so you would starting penning the screenplay. Now, if your story follows a band of stalwart adventurers attempting to return The Muffin Tin of Power to the Bakers of Kraz Mandingo, and along the way they explore sites rich with history legend, encounter nuanced characters, and the whole time dealing with the inner struggle of your protagonist as he copes with the misery of soggy boots. Well, you'd end up with a two hour movie before the protagnoist finished his toast and jam, So you should probably write a novel.

"So, what the hell does this have to do with gaming already?"

Well, just like novels and screenplays have stories that do not work for them, so do RPGs, and identifying whether or not your story will work as a game can save you a lot of heartache and a lot of work.
So what are some of the key elements of the RPG format?
Lack of Protagonist Control

This is the biggest difference between a game and all other formats of storytelling, and that is that the writer(GM) does not control the actions of his characters. Sure you can guide, coax, and cajole the players to send their characters into the deep dark maze, but the ultimate decision of whether or not they do it still lays with them. This is the biggest hurdle most GMs have to contend with, and will be a topic of many of my future posts.
  • Does your story fall apart if the protagonist does not hit every plot point, or takes route B instead of route A?
  • Does your story require a character to take specific actions at the exact right moment?
  • Does your story require you to remove control of the characters from the Players at points for it to continue forward? 
    If so it may not be the best story for a game.

Interactive Audience

The players are a huge part of what makes this format unique, and to forget that is folly. In most common formats the reader/viewer is a passive participant sitting back and taking the story in. This allows the writer to be pedagogical and go on for great length about the marvels of his creation, this is not so in an RPG. 
We've all been there when the GM handed out his 20 page synopsis of his homebrew world as required reading before character creation, or had to sit through an hour long one-man rendition of the fall of the Kingdom of Quizalpoop where we witnessed the GMs various NPCs do the stuff our characters only dream of. A game needs to involve the players.
  • Do you want your players to be interested more in the actions of your kick ass NPCs than in their own characters? 
  • Does your story revolve around the actions of an NPC, who your players just happen to be helping? 
  • Would you rather play in your game than run it?

    If so it may not be the best story for a game.

Open Ended

This one may be a bit more high-falutin, but stories are told to teach us something about the world, this lesson is known as the premise. Simply put, a story can be seen as a question to which the ending supplies the answer. "Can love conquer death?" is a ripe ol' chestnut, and whether or not the protagonist conquers death through love supplies us with the answer and sets the premise of the piece. A "Good" film addresses the premise in each scene, exploring the potential answers to the underlying question, creating a debate whose answer can be seen in the conclusion. With a game's conclusion out of the GMs control, it means the final premise of the story is out of his hands as well. 
  • Do you want to tell a story that confirms your belief system? 
  • Do you want to prove a point? 
  • Do you care whether the opposite side of your argument ends up the victor?

    If so it may not be the best story for a game.
Now, just because your story won't work for a game doesn't mean that it is a bad story, just that you should find another format in which to tell it.

Good Gamin'!

Monday, June 6, 2011

U is for Unicorn

U is for Unicorn
The Narwhal of the open savanna secretly used by evil cultists to sniff out virgins in the wild. You can grab your fig here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Collaborative World Building - Part Four

As I mentioned at the end of part three, this section will cover what the GM does with all the information created at the world building session.

Solidify the World

The time for fluidity has ended. It's time to take this big ol' bowl of gamin' soup and toss it in the freezer. 

"But what about the organic growth of story from the Astral Plane of Imagination?" 

You're right; there has to be some room for growth and for the unexpected, but there also have to be some hard facts that you and the players can use as a jumping off point. So, let's gather up our notes from the world building session and begin laying out the basic structure of the game world.

Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and Organization

First thing we need to do is create a master list of the the important NPCs and organizations of the world. This is pretty straight forward. You should include a little description of who they are, what they do for a living, where they live, special skills, any connections they have to the characters, important system info, and any story lines they belong to. When it comes to stats for NPCs you should only note skills and abilities where they are exceptional or deficient and assume they are averagely skilled in all other aspects.

Locations and Maps

Just like we did with NPCs, you should write up a list of important locales, noting all the pertinent information about the location, special qualities, and plot hooks.

You should also draw up a map. It doesn't have to be complicated, just a way for you to determine where things are located in relation to one another. Nothing confuses players more than when they stumble on a keep to the north while heading south. 

What's next?

Now that we have our calcified ball of potential adventure energy, let's add some life.

Laying down the hooks

Even if you've never been fishing, you probably still understand the concept of a baited hook. For those of you who don't: you encase a barbed hook with an enticing morsel and then dangle it in the water till some unsuspecting fish comes along and gets a new lip ring, and you get a tasty dinner. 

Laying down hooks in your game world is done in a similar fashion, although your goal is to bring the characters into the story, not to sautée them in a fine garlic butter sauce.

The Bait

Let's analyze the components of a good hook in the context of the fishing metaphor. Let's start with the bait. What makes for good player bait? If only we had some insight into what would entice the players to chomp down on the story with wanton and reckless disregard for their well being. 

"Holy crap! I have this list of all of the players' goals, ambitions, and wishes. Will that work?" 
It just might.

The Hook

Now, bait is only half the equation, you have to pair it with the proper hook. 
"What do you mean by hook? We don't physically stab the players with a bent piece of metal, do we?"

 Sadly no, a story hook is an encounter that sets the character on the journey of the story. It can be as simple as the player catching a horse thief with an odd tattoo, the mayor paying the character to find out where his daughter goes on a Saturday night, or having the character return home to find his wife and kids decorating the walls with their internal organs. The important thing is that the hook peaks the interest of the player enough to follow it to adventure.

So, where do we find our hooks?

Well, since you would prefer the players to take on a story you have prepared you should by looking at the bubble chart you created for your story. Find where your story connects with the character and use those NPCs or organizations to bring the character in. 

You can also create hooks to attach to NPCs or organizations that are connected to the story, but not the PCs directly, you never know when a player will decide to head to the local merchants guild, or the fighter might seek out someone who may know a thing or two about wizardry.

A thing to remember is that you should try to have a different hook for each player character, as several characters on the same hook can result in sidekickery, and no one wants to be Bucky. 

Everyone should be the star of their story, which is extremely difficult to do if you only have one show, so your goal is to make multiple shows that all happen to be following the same plot. This is not as difficult as it may sound, really all it means is you need to give each character a personal reason to take on the adventure, and you do this by making the story a direct conduit to the individual character's goal, ambition, or wish.  

A great side effect of having the characters coming upon the story from different angles is that they will all arrive with different pieces of information about what is going on. This can be an amazing boon to the GM as he can have the players exchange notes and clues in character, which helps to develop in-game relationships, and can lead to some nice RP moments. 

So now that we have our bait and hooks, all that's left to do is cast them into the water and wait for the players to bite.

"Wait, what do you mean wait?" 

Well, you don't have to wait, you can just club your players over the head with your hook in the opening scene and be done with it, but this is the quickest way to build a railroad. 

As I said before, Sandbox gaming is about collaboration between the players and the GM. You want your players to give their characters a life within the world, and choose the path they wish to pursue, not the path you tell them to follow. Just like the pigeons in the park, if you begin by spoon-feeding the players your hooks, they will come to expect this every time, and soon you will be leading them by the nose down the adventure path, and then you're back to running modules.

Now, that being said, there is no limit to the amount of hooks you can have in the water at one time.  The key is to dangle as many hooks as you can to snare the characters. So the more potential "ins" you can find for each character, the better. 

You don't want to force the plot on the players, but that doesn't mean you can't surround them with it. The illusion of choice is just as powerful as actual choice in many instances, and if the players consistently refuse to bite, you may need to go back to the tackle box.

One last thing to keep in mind is that if the players devise and pursue their own hooks (i.e. "I want to build a castle and stock it with monsters, "or "Let's go check out the enchanted forest, it seems cool.") then you have hit a gold mine. Pro-active players are what every Sandbox GM wants. You should never discourage a player from pursuing his character's agenda in order to follow your story line. Remember the player characters are the heroes and they determine the direction of the story.

Building a Timeline

Week One
A big part of sandbox gaming is allowing the players to choose their own paths to adventure, but before you start crumpling up your story outline, understand that you also have a choice in how the world develops. Your NPCs don't sit inactive waiting for the players to show up on the scene. In fact, while your players are off pursuing their agenda, the plots that you devised should still be happening in the background. This is where a timeline comes into play.
Week Five
Basically, a timeline is a chain of events that would occur if the players did nothing to stop them. 

To create a timeline, determine what the end result of your NPCs plot would be and then work backwards creating the steps, or milestones to reach this goal. 

Now, make a note of how long it will take in game time to reach each of these milestones and what effect it will have on the game world. Each milestone should have a noticeable effect on the world, which will allow the players to see what is going on and give them an opportunity to join in the plot. Now they don't have to jump in, but that will only further the NPCs agenda which may result in bigger problems down the line.

Week Ten
This also helps solve another problem that occurs in Sandbox gaming, inactive players. 

As I said earlier, the best case scenario is the players take a proactive role in guiding the story, the other side of that coin is that the players just sit there like deer in headlights. This is usually happens with players new to this style of gaming as they are waiting for you to give them the kick out the door. This is where the time line comes in handy as it allows you to walk a plot hook right up to them without forcing them to follow it. It's hard to do nothing when a horde of blood thirsty demons are running rampant through the town square.

Week Twelve
Go, Play, Have Fun!

Now you should be armed with everything you need to run a successful sandbox game, the only thing left to do is start playing, and of course check back here for more tips, tricks, and mindless rambling to further improve your gaming experience.