City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities Review

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities by Michael J. Varhola, Jim Clunie, and the Skirmisher Game Development Group

I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:

“…the intent behind this book is to provide Game Masters with a resource for making the communities in their worlds more plausible, memorable, and exciting.”
Well it did that… I suppose. And that’s not to say there isn’t some good information in the book, there is. But that information is hindered by its banality, compartmentalization, and its presentation. Some of the sections are so surface level, the information presented so basic, I began to glide over the lines without reading. Like the stonemason entry, for example. There are eight paragraphs describing stonemasons. But truthfully, unless you are really new to the whole RPG, worldbuilding, history, fantasy premise you know what a stonemason is. Even if not, you would probably figure it out from the context. More damning is the stonemason has a one sentence line about quarries, but no mention of what type of stones might be common use.
There are nuggets of important info to be found though. There’s a sentence about the pitch of roof’s depending on climate, more severe to keep snow accumulations from collapsing the roof. It’s something I knew but could useful as a detail one might easily skip over. I don’t rememeber where the sentence is in the book but I CAN tell you it’s not under the Regional Influences under Features of Communities that speaks about geographical influences on a community.
The presentation is a mess. It becomes readily apparent when reading the book that it is a cobbled together short run printing of episodic ebooks (which it is conveniently). The writing suffers from a lack of editing. The grammar and punctuation are fine, but the content needs significant trimming. At 171 pages the book has zero lists, 1 sidebar, and a measly 7 pages of random generation lists focused on specifics likes guilds and taverns, not generating communities. The book would be both better as a reference and guide if it was not drowning in its own insulated content. In all seriousness judicious content editing and the formatting of lists and sidebars could reduce to book to almost half its size.
Take this first sentence under Rooming House:
“Rooming houses are accommodations intended mainly for members of the lower tier of the mid-dle class and the upper tier of the lower class and serve the needs of travelers who will be staying for a week or more in a particular area.”
And no, that’s not a typo. The book was previously 11 ebooks and there is the occasional hanging line break that shows up in the middle of a line now that the content has been formatted for print. The writing is long and obtuse. That is my largest problem with the book. It just isn’t formatted in such a way to be a useful resource. No granule of information is easy to find. The book forces you to sift through its poor language. Someone should have cracked open a proper RPG reference book, or at least an old science textbook to look at how to block the information to make it most useful to the reader. It’s the simple things like the Special Purpose Communities section not featuring communes, nomad camps, and boom towns. Why? Because they were already documented a few sections prior under Other Sorts of Small Communities.
That is the last, great failing of City Builder. It does so very little to actually help me put the pieces together and the bits that are there are buried in corners of random paragraphs. There are also a number of adventure hooks for each entry. I appreciate the ideas but would rather they be omitted and that effort better focused on making the meat of the product more usable. But even in the adventure hooks there is no consistency. Some entries have one hook and others have multiple hooks. All I wanted was a reference that would help me city build and guide me in designing communities. Unfortunately City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities is not that reference.
Really the greatest use of the book is it’s table of contents in conjunction with a few well-placed Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. Following the link trails of Wikipedia entries will better help you integrate the pieces into a living, breathing community. I would suggest picking up this book only if you are absolutely new to worldbuilding and need basic historical information. Even then it will not be long before your knowledge outpaces the book.
Favorite Entry: Pawn Shop
Why? I learned some new information about their operation, usefulness, and how lenient some of the establishments can be. From blatant usury and loan sharking to allowing a person multiple years, interest free pawning. I can easily imagine pawn shops getting heavy use thanks to their versatility in operation.
Least Favorite: General Store
Why? The book makes the distinction between Armory, Arsenal, and Blacksmithy (even mentioning the distinction of farrier) but then gives one shop for picking up all simple items. General stores were incredibly uncommon. Those few that existed were border wilderness trading posts (there’s a separate entry for it). The entries should have been combined under an ‘Outfitter’ entry. Both the general store and marketplace entries are infuriatingly underwhelming.
Table of Contents
Communities
Craftsman Places
Entertainment Places
Professional Places
Tradesman Places
Mercantile Places
Service Places
Scholarly Places
Religious Places
Governmental Places
Underworld Places
Appendix I: Guilds
Appendix II: Inn & Tavern Generation
Final Verdict
I wouldn’t make the purchase again, especially not the physical book given how difficult it is to use as a reference. But there is some OK information here. Pick up the individual ebooks that make up the 11 chapters if you’re looking for something specific or wait for a big sale on DriveThruRPG to pick up the ebook. At its ebook standard price $20 I can’t in good faith recommend City Builder: A Guide to Communities
Alternative
If somehow you haven’t heard of Medieval Demographics Made Easy and its derivative websites and random generators, check it out. I think it will serve you a lot better as a guide to designing communities. Bonus: It’s free!
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Advanced Adventuring & Questing

Welcome Back! I’m going to continue on from the last blog so if you haven’t given that a read I suggest you read through it first.

We’ve gone over the basic quest types, so how do you make your own quests in a simple way? There’s a handy dandy list of questions that you need to run through. These questions are first answered by the DM and then answered by the players.

Who? The persons and parties involved
What? The quest’s objective
When? A sense of time, urgency or expiration
Where? What are the locations involved?
Why? The ‘so what’ part.
Why not you? Your players will ask why the quest giver or some other relevant party isn’t taking care of the issue; have a plausible answer.
What’s the reward? This is what hooks the players into the quest. Get fancy, add some secondary objectives, conditionals, and utilize intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Does your group haggle? Low ball the initial reward and keep a reward ceiling in mind.
Consequences? What happens if the quest isn’t completed?

Ex. Reggie Needs 10 Wolf Hides
Who: Reggie
What: Needs 10 wolf hides delivered
When: Tuesday EoB
Where: Reggie’s Discount Hide Shack, Nearby over-populated wolf forest
Why: Reggie’s behind on his orders
Why not Reggie: Reggie isn’t a hunter, he’s a tanner. Reggie’s usual guy (his brother) is laid up with an injury.
Reward: 2 gp per hide and good relations with Reggie
Consequences: Reggie falls further behind in his orders, loses money. Someone comes and breaks his legs and he dies penniless in the gutter.

Simple enough to quickly see everything that pertains to a quest. The DM should always be able to answer these questions and the players should be able to answer all or nearly all the questions by the end of the quest. It’s important with this information as a DM to be translucent, not transparent. Give them the dots, but let your players connect them so they fel agency by putting the pieces together.

Speaking of player agency there’s one glaring omission on the question list: How. The players determine how they complete the objective. In the example above the players might want to see if there’s an over supply of wolf hides that can be bought for cheap and delivered to Reggie. Also, take what your players give you. A scrupulous player may want to know how Reggie’s brother got injured. Maybe it was a simple accident or something more deadly awaits the party as they go hunting wolves. It’s always a nice change when a group wants to find a solution not involving indiscriminate bloodshed, so reward that.

Now with the simple things settled you can make some tweaks, changes, and complications. Get inventive. Quest givers don’t have to be people with glowing symbols over their heads. The Mines of Phandelver kicks off its first quest with two dead horses prickled with crudely made arrows barring the road. Environmental quest triggers work really well, because players want to solve puzzles. They will often start theorizing what happened before searching the area. Also, really lean on the intrinsic rewards. Like the real world it’s all about who you know, not what you know. If you want your players to treat your NPCs with respect, give them a reason for it. Letters of introduction, referrals, and social friends trump their weight in gold. Favors and reputation are often more valuable than cold hard GP. You can also transform the objective, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and Fallout games are good examples. NPCs aren’t omniscient, especially quest givers. They likely only know a facet of the larger issue. PCs can often make matters worse before making them better.

Make connections. Bridge different quests by sharing assets like NPCs, monsters, and rewards. This creates continuity and makes your world feel like it’s connected and alive, not simply a string of episodic adventures.

Then create complications. You can always make a simple thing more convoluted so it’s important your quests start off simple. Then you can drop in problems, roadblocks, and hiccups to make the party’s life difficult. Done badly it ends up feeling like an item trading quest: boring, repetitive, and usually it’s unnecessary to the larger plot. Done well: Bioshock. The original quest of Bioshock is a simple delivery quest to reach Atlas and escape Rapture. But the environment and society is crumbling around you. Passages get blocked and you either have to find a way around or through the roadblock. People with murderous intent keep getting in your way, indicative of the much larger issues plaguing the Randian paradise.

Let’s look at another example.

Ex. Lord of the Rings
Who: Council of Elrond, Sauron, The Fellowship
What: Take ring to mountain, drop in lava to destroy
When: ASAP, before Sauron’s domination of Middle Earth
Where: Middle Earth from The Shire to Mt. Doom
Why: To stop Sauron’s world domination
Why not Council of Elrond: Temptation of the ring and being too conspicuous
Reward: Not living/dying under Sauron’s move for world domination, destruction of The Shire, Fame
Consequences: Sauron’s world domination, destruction of The Shire, being driven mad by The Ring

Pretty simple idea, then you just add complication after complication. The first big obstacle being the blocked pass making the characters go into the Mines of Moria. Really everything from there on is an added complication, mini-quests within the bigger quest.

I could spend a lot of time and words going into the gritty details of this massive subject but I think these two entries give enough of a springboard to get you thinking and planning better adventures. Leave a question or comment if you like what I’m doing. you can also find me on Google+ and Twitter @Redraggedfiend

See Spot Passively Perceive

One of the things I noted when looking over materials from the shiny new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is the return of the Passive Perception box on the character sheet. I’ve always thought this was a strange character sheet inclusion for a game known for basic math skills and character information overflowing onto 2, 3, 4+ sheets of paper. It seems adding 10 to the skill bonus shouldn’t be THAT difficult to remember, freeing the space for more important information.

What struck me as interesting about D&D’s newest incarnation is the return of passive perception, but the omission of passive insight.

But really are passive checks necessary? I’ll save you some time by plainly stating no. The reverse of course being you can easily argue perception is always a passive check. Given the perception skill as we know it is an extension of the old spot check. You might argue as soon as you start looking for something you are no longer noticing a difference but actively searching for one, which could easily fall under the investigation skill.

But let’s assume we play with passive perception. Passive perception is a tool, and tools are useful so long as they have a use. So what is passive perception’s use? First let’s look at how it’s commonly applied:

Ex.

The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players of the trap in one of those stopped just before walking into the tripwire moments. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.

The use of passive perception is to protect players from their own ignorance. Is that Roll Play vs. Role Play, a situation of your character being more knowledgeable than you, the player? Maybe, but I assume the design choice was to obviate player stupidity from getting the PC killed. It’s insurance, a safety net.

But it’s more than a simple safety net in the above example. It’s go beyond insurance and into advocacy. The passive check does what the player wouldn’t do for himself. It’s the same when Google auto searches for something it believes (rightly so in my case) you misspelled.

So let’s roll it back to its original intent, the safety net. A successful passive perception is not equal to a successful active check, instead it offers the helpful hint: you should make a perception check now.

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Passive perception is spidey sense. It’s the gut feeling something isn’t right: “it’s TOO quiet,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “there’s something but I just can’t put my finger on it.

The nice thing about doing this is the party can still screw the pooch. Let’s return to the original example this this idea in mind.

 

Ex.

The party walks down a hallway, there are traps in the hallway, no one actively checks for traps. The DM calls for/secretly checks passive perception versus the traps’ spot DC. On a success the DM informs the players they feel a sense of trepidation about the hallway. On a failure the DM stops the party once someone triggers the trap and informs them of the traps’ effects.

As any DM/GM knows, the moment you state a PC is getting a feeling or sense people will ask to make checks. Congratulations, they party will now make active perception checks against the trapped hallway! Now they can screw it up of their own accord. On a success they find the traps, on a failure you get a brand new situation rife with role playing opportunity as the party stares down a hallway no one feels comfortable walking down.

Just remember to make players tell you explicitly what they are looking for, no general use ‘can I make a perception check.‘ If they want to check the floor for pressure plates make them say so.

This idea of a safety net can transfer easily to passive insight. Passive insight is getting bad vibes from someone, active insight will be checks such as ‘do I believe he is lying about X?‘ or ‘do I feel like I can negotiate more money out of him?

Follow this simple principle and you’ll never have to worry about passive skill checks getting in the way of your game.

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Dungeons & Dragons: Free Basic Rules

Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).

So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.

Overall Impression

It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.

We SCREAM!

Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.

What Once Was Will Be Again

It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.

I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.

Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic

Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.

Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.

Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.

So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.

But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.

But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:

1997 – Purchases D&D brand

2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL

2003 – Releases D&D 3.5

2005 – Begins development of 4e

2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)

2010 – Releases D&D Essentials

2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements

2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)

WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.

 

Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)

Things I Like:

  • Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
  • Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
  • Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
  • Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
  • Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
  • One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
  • Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
  • Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy

Things I Dislike:

  • Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
  • Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
  • Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
  • Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
  • 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
  • No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
  • No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
  • Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage

So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.

Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.

Review: Dungeon Terrain by Blue Panther LLC

DSC_0171Have you heard of Blue Panther LLC? I hadn’t either until just recently. I stumbled across them honestly because of Free Comic Book Day (May 3rd). I’ve never been a comic book person, but it did remind me I needed to look up the date for Free RPG Day (June 21st). Hopefully I won’t utterly forget it like I do Game Master’s Day (March 4th) every year.
So while looking up Free RPG Day, there is a handy short list of the free goodies that will be arriving at your local FLGS. A lot of it is the standard fare, one-shot adventures, quick start rules, a few paltry accessory offerings, etc. What did catch my notice was the Meeple mini dice tower by Blue Panther.
I hadn’t heard of Blue Panther before so I hopped over to their website. They’re in Michigan, they have a laser engraver, they use said engraver to fulfill print-on-demand orders, usually in wood.
What I liked looking through the website was their Dungeon Terrain ($20). Anyone familiar with modular dungeon tiles? Same thing but they’re not printed high gloss images on heavy card stock but plain grey on 3mm thick wood. The 1″ grid is engraved into the tile surface.
ContentsDungTerr1
  • 2 5×5″ rooms
  • 2 4×4″ rooms
  • 4 3×3″ rooms
  • 2 2×2″ rooms
  • 6 1×5″ halls
  • 6 1×4″ halls
  • 9 1×3″ halls
  • 6 1×2″ halls
  • 15 1″ squares
Pros
– It’s modular dungeon terrain, perfect if a wet/dry erase mat isn’t your deal
– It’s birch plywood so you don’t have to worry about bending/warping them in transit
– Blue Panther goes the extra mile by slapping some stone texture on the pieces to really up the table visual
– Multiple base colors & custom base colors available at no extra charge
– Every piece is general purpose, you can run any scenario and nearly every scenario with one purchase.
Cons
– Like other modular terrain it’s light and prone to sliding around on flat surfaces during play
– It’s still THIN wood (3mm), liable to break if you get rough with it
– The engraved grid is difficult to see at any sort of distance
– Paint coverage, many of my pieces didn’t get a good shot of paint along the edges*
– Every piece is plain, you’ll have to find a different way to denote stairs, changes in elevation, and blocking terrain in a room
– No 2″ wide halls
*This is subjective. I liked the look more because it gave a stained tile grout look between the pieces that screams dilapidated dungeon to me. But it appears unintentional rather than intentional, thus Con.
AnalysisDSC_0180
If I’ve only got $20 budget for my whole DM/GM budget I’m still going to buy a Paizo GameMastery Flip-Mat (maybe even 2 for $20). Between Dungeon Terrain and other modular offerings you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that does the job better for the price.
The Dungeon Terrain is light, durable, and looks good. If you have a problem with tiles sliding around, invest in some cheap shelf liner. You can either drape the liner over the play surface or cut and glue it to the back of individual pieces, works like a charm. I also suggest a fine-point permanent marker or black paint wash to fill in the engraved grid to make it more visible.
The biggest failing in my eyes is the lack of 2″ wide hall pieces. Contemporary dungeon design uses 2-3″ wide hallways rather than 1″. I have to get a little too creative with my pieces to make ‘T’ and Cross intersections of 2″ wide halls (which are pretty common).
If you’re looking to get the most out of Dungeon Terrain I suggest pairing 1-2 Dungeon Terrain sets with other modular terrain to get yourself plenty of 2″ wide halls and specialty pieces (stairs, dais, doors, etc). While you’re out, pick up an off-label Jenga game and some spray paint with stone texture to make some walls. Just that extra vertical dimension really adds something to the visual and makes it feel like you’re looking down into a room.
The conclusion? Blue Panther’s Dungeon Terrain is a solid offering and definitely has a place with my gaming goods. I think it’s a great gift idea for any GM/DMs you know.
You can pick up Dungeon Terrain at Blue Panther’s website:
under Dice Towers & Accessories. They also offer a host of other products that may pique your interest. Like and leave a comment if you would like to see more reviews and special features in the future.

10 Degrees of Helpful NPCs

If you’re running a game occasionally a PC may stop and speak with an NPC (insert pause for audience reactions of shock and laughter). You may have one of those players who wants to talk with NPCs rather than immediately cutting their throats and rolling their dead bodies. People as a broadcloth statement are generally helpful. If you stop to ask a random person for directions they are generally going to at least attempt to help.

Players, being exploitative, bourgeoishireling-major-817x1024 pig-dogs, will take a poor NPC for all he’s worth. So I developed a little guideline for running helpful PCs. When the party asks for some sort of aid roll a d10.

– 1, 2, 3, 4: The NPC is willing to provide minor aid in the way of instructions, a bit of gear, borrowed item/manpower, or a map. (Superior)

– 5, 6, 7: The NPC is willing to guide the party or supervise an expedition. (Manager/Specialist)

– 8, 9: The NPC is willing to share the trials and troubles of the task equally with the party in a partner role. (Partner)

– 10: The NPC is willing to do minor tasks and errands on the party’s behalf or place himself between the party and danger. (Subservient)

This table even works for NPCs who are hiring the party for a task. Now use some common sense, if the king hires the party and you roll a 6, the king is not going to hop off his throne and go chasing around the countryside in mortal peril. But he will likely send a representative such as a captain, trusted nobleman, cousin, or non-heir son to oversee the task as an agent of the crown.

Likewise an NPC in the Partner role expects to be treated as such. This NPC is not going to be OK with being a human shield or sacrificial lamb. This NPC may also expect a partner share in any reward for the task.

Using NPCs that have their own values and sense of self-preservation help enrich your games. These are also great characters to have recurring roles in the party’s travels. Grooming a rapport between the PCs and NPCs really helps to enmesh the players’ characters into the world. Some of the most rewarding RP experiences are the exchanging of favors, deals, and insights between the PCs and recurring NPCs.

Funnin’ Around

Quick Breakdown:

I have been absent and I will continue to be so for the next few months. I will resume regular posting later this summer but right now I have other demands on my time and energy. And considering what I do here does not pay me in cold hard cash it falls towards the bottom of my to-do pile. But I will return, it has not fallen off my radar.

Also, March marks the one year anniversary of this blog. So go me, and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my articles and found enough substance to subscribe. I promise more content will be coming in the future, just hang on a bit. I have to say a year passed almost in the blink of an eye. As I think back to what March 2013 looked like a year has shown a considerable improvement in almost every facet of my life. Hopefully my karma holds for the next year -fingers crossed-.

So again to all the supporters and followers of this blog, a hearty thank you, now on to the article. 

Is it the GM’s job to make sure players have fun in his game?

This seems to be a well-debated subject. I wish I had some stellar insight into it but I really, probably, don’t. I do find the whole concept a bit strange. Why do publishers even feel compelled to add to their products a reminder that RPGs should be utilized for fun? I’ve played my share of board games, video games, card games, even tag, and hide-and-go seek. I don’t recall ever needing to be reminded in any of these activities/games that I should have fun while doing so. The only other example I can think of this creeping up is in something like organized sports.

But is that really the GM’s job? Conventional wisdom states the GM has 3 primary functions when running the game. He is interpreter of the rules, he assumes the role of any and all NPCs, and he is responsible for describing the imaginary world and the PC’s interactions in it. None of the three core functions insinuate fun.

Is it OK to not have fun?

So I don’t always have fun when I play RPGs. It’s a full gamut of emotions and thought processes, not just fun. When my PC takes a crit, or has his mind invaded by deep sea, psionic squids, that’s not fun. Is it the game master’s fault that bad stuff happened to my PC, which my mood soured? No, barring any extreme and obvious malice. In fact a case can be made by, fudging a crit to a normal hit or miss the GM has failed in his role to arbitrate the rules. A judge exists to interpret the grey area, not override the system’s rules because enforcing it would make someone have not… Happy Happy, Joy Joy fun. happy-happy-1

Let me put this another way, this is the list of AFI’s top 5 movies: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, and Singin’ in the Rain. I would describe only number five as fun. Entertainment can be good without being fun. If you enjoy good movies you have probably sat through all of these movies, probably more than once without having ‘fun’. I think probably a better interpretation is a GM’s game should be enjoyable, and worth playing.

 So then, is it a GM’s job to make sure his game is enjoyable?

Absolutely. Notice I said the game is enjoyable, not that the player’s enjoy is game. Enjoyment is derived by different things for different people. If I as a GM spend all my time juggling the different ways the players derive enjoyment I’m not really focusing on the game itself; forest for the trees and such. Focus on providing a good story and fulfilling your three primary roles to the utmost and good things will follow.

The Player’s Role

A movie’s job is to entertain its audience. It is a passive medium, audience participant cannot change the fabric of the narrative. Thus all the responsibility of entertainment falls to the film. RPGs however are active, and are either plot or character driven. This is not a passive medium. The responsibility for your enjoyment as a player rests on the table and its dynamic. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever played in a campaign that I did not enjoy. But I have played in campaigns I did not particularly like. What’s the difference? I refuse to spend hours at a gaming table being actively miserable. That sort of attitude is selfish, silly, and ultimately petulant. Find a way to have fun. Is your PC little better than a pincushion for baddies? Well, focus your efforts on something else. The game is comprised of combat, exploration, and social encounters so choose one of the other spots to derive your fun. Conversely you can derive your fun from combat.

I suck at FPS video games. I do play them on occasion however; even online multiplayer matches where I struggle to keep an even K/D ratio. One of my favorite memories was playing a match that the opposing team needed to bazooka a pair of tanks to win the round. I was actually able to jump in front of an incoming rocket to save a tank. Stupid, yes; hilarious, definitely. More importantly it provided enjoyment and a memory that stuck with me.

Here are the Dragon Age directions for GMs. It was actually important enough for them to stick right on the center of the GM screen.

Dragon Age GM Advice

Focus On The Characters

As stated RPGs are an active media, it takes cooperation and that means putting the PCs at the forefront. They either need to be primary agents in moving the plot, or the game is campaign on their own personal struggles.

Where this can get sticky for a lot of GM’s is their personal game world. Crafted year by year, almost entirely in sterile isolation, they can spend more time telling you about their world and what’s going on in it than letting the players interact with what’s going on and driving the plot. The big important things are what the players hear about but not generally don’t engage the things during the campaign.

Work with your players to stitch their characters into being organic pieces of the game world. Mutually developed backstory is key. Some players however are wholly unconcerned with this bit of immersive gameplay. Encourage heartily, but don’t demand it of the players.

Push The Heroes To Make Tough Moral Choices

Sometimes things go sideways, there’s no absolute right way to go about things or correct decision. There are some situations not even the greatest string of crit rolls will allow the characters to come out unscathed.

It’s OK to beat up the PCs a little, make the players sweat, even maim and kill the PCs. The important thing is to make those tough situations meaningful. Tough choices are meaningful choices. This isn’t the Coke vs. Pepsi taste test it’s do you take the red pill or the blue pill. The best way to use this is to place the players in a sacrifice situation, where one PC must sacrifice something incredibly important for the benefit of the group. If your players are being proactive for their fun they will only momentarily pout over the situation before running with it.

Paint The World With 5 Senses

Remember one of the main roles of the GM is to be the players’ window into the game world. It is also the role that is most likely to fall to the wayside as the other two roles flex. When we think of imagery we assume image, so sight. Vision is our most acute sense, but it is only one. If you struggle with this try creating an area without sight. Most recently I was able to paint a character investigating a cave in the pitch black. The sound of echoing water, cold and stagnant air, wet stone under touch and poor footing all became far more important.

Maybe you’re not so good with the descriptions. Augment what you’re doing with a map, an image to show the table, pick up a scented candle, change the room lighting, or add a low volume background track. For a ship voyage consider a labeled cross section diagram of the ship, a seaside scented candle, and find a white noise track featuring repetitive waves. You can easily transmit the imagery of the setting without actually saying a word.

Be Flexible

Like I stated under the first point, the idea of actually letting players interact with your creation is what allows the game to move. The truth is that players are rarely going to follow the trail you’ve dutifully laid out for them with single file Reese’s Pieces. They are going to be odd and different and difficult. It’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing. Improvisation is a highly regarded skill for GMs and it is difficult to hone without, well… improvising.

You’re going to screw up, get your facts mixed up, and probably do/not do something in a humongous blunder. It happens to everyone and that’s part of what makes going off-script work so well. Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for it other than just do it over and over again. Give the PCs the opportunity to be at the forefront and to drive what happens, even if it means not doing exactly what you planned out. A sneaky GM secret is to use these offshoot tangents as the plot hooks by improvising a way to curve it naturally right back into your script.

Be Exciting

Now at first you might think this means to always be doing combat, but that’s not really it. Exciting is probably less appropriate than enthralling. No matter the situation you should have the player’s attention focused in on you. Especially in 4e this where solo monsters fall short. At a certain point you tip the scales in the encounter and it becomes very obvious which side will win. Unfortunately 4e solo monsters have a truckload of HP, so it becomes a very boring waiting game until the creature dies. Unless there is some reason to do this, like whittling down HP resources or rolling for potential reinforcements to arrive and angle the combat back to being open-ended you may as well kill the encounter early.

Not everything has to fight to the death. Rarely do real fights end with one side at not least attempting to escape or surrender. However this tactic does make sense for things like automatons, and undead. Unthinking creatures not concerned with self-preservation, just following commands, will fight until they cannot or their task is accomplished.

Speed is not everything. If your players are engaged, and you’re holding their attention with a social scene that you know leads nowhere, don’t cut it short. As long as the PCs are at least attempting to be on task, be flexible and entertaining. Think of this time as a chance for your players to develop a rapport between the PCs. In one of my regular games it is standard for the party to split into pairs or go solo while in town to talk to different people and gather supplies. At first this seems the exact opposite of what you should do to hold everybody’s attention, dealing with one player at a time. But really it allows for a few short vignettes where every player gets to be center stage and be productive. This is a great way to build PC/NPC relationships. Maybe some NPCs like some PCs more than others so it’s more productive to keep PC/NPCs who don’t get along away from each other.

I think if you keep these five ideas present in mind you will run enjoyable games. If you run enjoyable games you can be guaranteed at least one point everyone at the table will have fun. The games that leave me with longstanding memories are the ones I value the most.