Apr 292013

I suck at poker. I understand the game, and have a high level of familiarity with the rules, but I am usually the first or second player out of a group to lose all their money. This is down to my atrocious poker face, and it’s becoming something of a hindrance during my current game.

When I GMing, I like to run games with a hint of mystery about them. Luckily, a lot of my players feel the same way, so I get to indulge this habit fairly regularly. What’s becoming a problem though is the same as it is when I pay poker; I tend to get quite excited about what’s going on. When you have two aces in your hand and a third sat on the table, getting excited means no one will take your bet, and you stand to lose a few chips. When it happens during a role playing game, you can give away valuable plot point information and reduce the investigation element of the game to naught. I don’t think I’ve been that bad so far, but I know I have been pushing my luck.

I’m sure all GMs have had that moment when they grind their teeth a little, silently screaming things such as, “You were given this clue last week!”, or, “Share the information, it’ll all make sense then”! But players don’t often do what we want or expect, and that’s a great thing. After one particularly worrying moment in my Cyberpunk game, the players wandered into a meeting with a very important person after receiving a tip-off from someone that I thought they would trust that the VIP was almost certainly going to kill them. He told them to stay the hell away from the meeting, and to not even go back to their homes. He even left them a substantial amount of money so that they could go on the run without having to worry about where their next meal was coming from, or keeping a roof over their heads until they got settled.

So of course, they went up to the meeting, and were promptly held at gun point by the VIP’s personal goons.

Should I have been surprised by this? Of course not. No GM should ever be surprised by the actions taken by players in their games . But I did get a bit exasperated, as it was far from a subtle clue that something was amiss. It was a comment from one of my long term players and best mate ever that really made me rethink my response though, and also made me want to get some thoughts down on the blog, “dude, you’re forgetting that we don’t know the script”.

Now of course this is true, but I have found myself giving the game away on several occasions recently, not just because the group went against the grain, but often when they did something that I really wanted them to do. Awarding experience for coming up with a great plan, or putting together a bunch of disparate clues to come up with an answer that makes sense is a great idea. Doing it the moment they come up with said plan is a very explicit way of saying that they’re on the right track. Even worse though is just straight out complimenting the player in question for figuring something out. If they know they’re on the right track, they have little reason to explore other ideas even if it would make sense for the characters to do so.

Luckily I have once again been blessed with players who role play to the hilt and really don’t let themselves get swayed by my inability to keep things under wrap, but in a different group, this could be a real problem. So from here on out, I promise to try harder to keep a straight face. To only give the player characters clues that they would get from in character actions rather than through rewarding them for doing what the GM wants. This should be no problem, as instead of handing out XP as and when they do something impressive, I’ll just be keeping a tally during games, and handing it out in the post game wrap up. Hopefully this will mean that they won’t know exactly what it is that they’re being rewarded for, and will incentivize them try out new and cool ideas.

I would hope that this problem doesn’t affect too many other GMs, but if it has been a problem for you in the past, either as a player or a GM, I’d love to hear from you, especially your solutions.

Apr 252013

I came across this story on Facebook not too long ago. The gentleman who shared it is also a gamer, and mentioned everyone’s favourite Elder god in his post about the story. I wouldn’t want to have everyone jumping to the same conclusion though, so head on over and read for yourself about the massive submerged bronze age statue.


I can’t wait to get some better images of it than this though…


Apr 242013

I suck at drawing maps. No really, I know if you’ll have seen my stunningly good maps in the Death at a Funeral adventure, you’ll have had a hard time believing me, but it’s true. I have toyed with the idea of taking photographs of all the hastily scrawled maps I have drawn for my current Cyberpunk game and putting them on the blog, just as a “this is not how you do it” style feature. They tend to be quick and dirty, with the absolute bare minimum of detail. This is not just down to how shockingly inept I am, but also part of how I prefer to run games.

When I describe a room, I like to keep it vague, with only plot important stuff laid out in detail, the rest of it coming under the heading “generic set dressing”. I do this because I like the idea of player inventiveness populating a room with stuff. A recent example from said CP2020 game; there’s a fight in a military surplus store. This isn’t just random, one of the group’s most useful contacts runs the place, and the bad guys have been staking it our for days, just waiting to try and take the good guys down. As the action is getting ready to kick off, I jot down basic dimensions of the room, where the counter is, where the exits are, and where each person is stood. Other than that, I just let the characters know that if they need something to be there – and it would reasonably be inside a MilSup store – then they were OK to assume it would be there. So I had people taking cover inside clothes racks, pulling on gas masks to mitigate the effects of tear gas canisters, and grabbing survival knives to throw.

I never needed to draw on that they were there, and if I had drawn on other stuff that wasn’t, it might have limited their creativity. You might now be wondering what my new toy is, and what it has to do with drawing shoddy as hell maps. Well, when I usually draw them, they end up in a notebook or on scraps of paper. I almost always write in pen – not pencil – so they have lines and arrows all over them as people move around the combat area and the bad guys inevitably bite the big one. I have played around in the past with having a dry wipe battle map, the kind that you can find here. The one I own comes in at around fifteen pound sterling, but as I bought mine in a hobby shop rather than online direct from source, it was actually just shy of seventeen quid. And even rolled up, as the smallest of the mats available, I had to stop taking it everywhere. I didn’t use it each session, and it was just a pain to carry round. For an idea of size, I have employed one of my cats for the following picture.

the cat is actually quite large, but you get the idea.

the cat is actually quite large, but you get the idea.

As you can see, it’s quite a long bit of kit, and even using my large canvas rucksack means I have a fair bit sticking out of the top. You may also notice – if you can tear your eyes away from the adorable cat picture – that there’s a small black object in the frame. This is my new toy. A fold away battle mat, that is small enough to fit in my shirt pocket, along with my pen. Like its bigger cousin, it is reversible – one side clear, the other with three different printed grid patters – and wipe clean. Unlike the Chessex fellow though, it comes with its own dry erase marker and the bag is both stylish and functional, as it can be used to wipe the board clean. Although we had no combat last session, we did have people drawing penises on faces and passing notes to the GM, and the Noteboard was great for this too. It folds down to hand sized meaning it can be passed around easily, and because it can just be wiped clean, there’s no risk of sensitive notes falling into the wrong hands.

Best of all for someone who doesn’t make a whole ton of money right now is the price. Chessex shipping is far from cheap, and it shouldn’t be when you consider the ruddy size of the thing, so add 7 bucks for US shipping, and god alone knows how much to get one direct to us here in Blighty. Noteboard though? Including UK shipping, comes in at less than £12. Even US pricing is crazy cheap.

Before we finish though, and I once again tell you just how bloody useful the thing was, lets take a look at it unfurled shall we. I did try once more to get Chewie involved, but he had other concerns. Mostly they seemed to involve licking bits of himself, but he seemed happy and I didn’t want to intrude. The Noteboard is at the bottom of the image, with the rolled out battle mat beneath, and should give you a good idea about why the Noteboard has now thoroughly replaced the battle mat for all my role playing needs.

A slight overlap, but that's just to stop the battle mat from rolling up again

A slight overlap, but that’s just to stop the battle mat from rolling up again

So yeah, very much a better product to my mind, and in terms of usefulness, wins hands down. I will be keeping this with my RPG gear at all times now, even if I’m not running the game. Just thinking about how useful it will be in terms of tracking initiative means I won’t be gaming without it. Head on over to their store in the UK and the US to take a look yourself, and grab one if the mood takes you.

Apr 222013

I am once again dipping my toes in the pool of adventure writing. This time I have actually done a small amount of market research into what kind of things people look for in a adventure that they would be willing to spend their hard earned money on. Sadly I have come to realise that until I can get work writing for an actual games company, I’m never going to be able to produce anything that has mass appeal. One of the things almost everyone seems to look for in an adventure they’re going to hand over money for, is that it take little to no effort on their part to run the adventure.

This means stat blocks and maps, with some player handouts for good measure. Now, it should be obvious that without having any system for my adventures, that I can’t use any stats unless it is a creative commons game system. Although these exist, there are so far none out there that I’m familiar enough with to use. If anyone has any suggestions then please share them here, and if I find one that suits my style of writing, I’ll happily give it a shot, and hopefully be able to produce something that will have an inbuilt audience.

The other thing that people seem to look for though is simplicity. They don’t want a huge complicated adventure that will require a certain amount of rail-roading of their players if they want it to make sense. They wanted simple points of inspiration that they could mold and adapt to the game they wanted to run, and the one their group wanted to play. With this in mind, I have tried something a bit different for my next shot at uploading something to DriveThru.

Instead of pages and pages of stuff that might never get read other than for flavour, I have tried to just lay down the basic framework of an adventure over two pages – including a few brief descriptions of the main non player characters – and just put it out there. I can’t take total credit for this one on my own though, as the idea was actually inspired by a game my girlfriend ran a couple of years back. I have done what I could to make it my won, so much so that were my delightful better half take a shot at playing the game, she wouldn’t know what was going to happen.

DriveThruRPG: Your One-Stop Shop for the Best in RPG PDF Files!

I have done nothing but set the scene, provide history to said scene, and break down into bullet points what is actually happening in the scene. And then, as mentioned, throw in some brief descriptions of the people that the player characters are more likely to meet. I could have spent time populating more of the town at this point, but I know any GM worth their salt knows who is needed in any settlement that the players will enter, and the more detail I was adding, the more it was moving away from being the basic bare bones of an adventure that I wanted it to be

Here then is the link to it, and I think you’ll agree the price is pretty reasonable. As always, I’d love to get some feedback, especially what you think about my writing going in this direction, or if you have any advice on systems that I might be able to write for. If you’re a blogger and fancy a review copy, then let me know, and I’ll happily wing a free one your way.

In other news, at time of writing, Stuffer Shack have yet to announce the finalists to theirSOTY-Shield-2013-1 site of the year contest. you remember, that thing I wouldn’t shut up about last week! Well, if you lot voted in the numbers I had no right to expect, then I might actually be in the final four. This link should take you to right page anyway, and even if you don’t see my name, you should vote for one of the sites that did make it. To have come so far is great for any site, and they deserve your support. And if you do see my name, well then it’s time to rally the troops again, and get everyone you know/have ever met/that strange dude on the train to vote for me. Getting this far would be awesome, going all the way would make my year…

Apr 182013

I have now calmed down after yesterday’s quite angry post, and this is good because today we have more excellent sites for you to vote for. SOTY-Shield-2013-1

There’s two I’m going to be throwing my support behind today, and at the time of writing, I’m still not too sure which of them I will be voting for. The first is an excellent site full of geek culture news and excellence. Geek Native has been going for years now, and show no sign of slowing down. Just checking out their amount of Facebook followers makes running against them in a competition pretty damned daunting.

Another contender that has very much grabbed my interest today is the Nearly Enough Dice site. Primarily known as the home for the awesome podcast of the same name, they’re a great bunch of people who manage to get great interviews, and talk about a whole range of stuff that’s worth listening to, and know how to add some humour to it too. Head on over and check some great videos they made at the recent Compulsion gaming con to get an idea of what they’re all about, then head over to Stuffer Shack and support your site of choice.

Apr 172013

A bit of forewarning here, I’m in a bit of an angry mood right now, and I’m taking advantage of the extra traffic I’m getting on this page as a result of being a part of Stuffer Shack’s Site of the Year contest to talk about something that I don’t want to see brushed under the carpet.

I got a message yesterday from a blogger and podcaster who I’m a big fan of. They will remain nameless, but I know a few of you will have seen a conversation on social media and should have no problem figuring out who I’m talking about. The crux of the matter is that they had received a comment on a blog post that contained some insulting language and crass personal insults. I will not be repeating them here, but I was frankly appalled. I love this community I am so recently a part of, and have been a part of offline for a couple of decades now. I know that none of us are perfect, least of all your humble narrator.

What I can’t stomach is the level of bile people think they have a right to offload onto people whose only crime seems to be putting themselves out there in the public eye. This was not constructive criticism by the way; that is fantastic to get and helps out everybody. No, what this was was some total screaming douche nozzle who thought they had the right to make personal attacks on an RPG blogger because of the way they look. In case you are wondering, I’m no oil painting, and usually go to quite extreme lengths to avoid my picture being circulated. One has appeared on this site as it was the only way I could share an air-softing picture without copyright concerns or sharing images of people from whom I could not get permission. But I didn’t like having to do it for several reasons.

I know what it’s like to be called out because of the way one looks, and I would have thought that since leaving high school behind, I could surround myself with the kind of people who thought the same way; that insulting people for such reasons is a dickish move to say the least. And I would like to think that role players are exactly that kind of right thinking and courteous group of people. Sadly, not all of them are.

If you are one such dickish person, and I find you commenting on this site, I will publicly shame the living snot out of you, and invite some of the quickest wits and sharpest tongues I know – and I manage a stand up comedian – to ridicule you in the most public and shameful way possible. You sir, you pathetic little boy, are not welcome on this site, and I think I speak for a lot of people when I say we’d rather you kept your poisonous presence the hell away from the hobby as a whole.

Okay, I managed that without even really swearing, which took quite a bit of effort, but thisSOTY-Shield-2013-1 blog post is actually about a competition. If you’ve voted for me already, then I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m in the running against some titans in the RPG blogging world, and getting the level of support I’ve seen so far has been both humbling and absolutely rad! In two short hours though, you will lose the ability to vote for me, so head on over as soon as possible and cast your vote for Shortymonster!

And when those two hours are up, it becomes the turn of some other excellent blogs. If you’re curious as to who I will be voting for, I have to say that right now, I’m very much in this fellow’s corner. But as always, I invite you to check out the competition and decide for yourselves.

Apr 162013

SOTY-Shield-2013-1By the time you’re reading this, the next round of voting should have begun, and that means you can vote for yours truly. Because of the draw it also means I am up against my own site’s sponsors, and all round good guys, G*M*S Magazine. This presents you with an interesting option; do you vote for me, the humble underdog, or a massive site full of amazing writing and podcasts, and allow me to bask in the reflected glory I will get from being a part of the G*M*S Magazine network?

Now it’s true to say that the amazing and attractive people over at G*M*S totally deserve your vote – and I’m not just saying that due to a contractual sponsorship arrangement – but they have a legion of fans who I’m sure are currently being mobilized to storm Stuffer Shock with a barrage of votes. So instead, why not show some support to the new kid on the block, and a blog that you’ve been visiting now or almost a year.

So what are you waiting for, head on over and show me some love!

Apr 152013

That’s right, I’ve put myself forward as a contender for this one. I fit the criteria: I’m an RPG blogger and I’ve been at it since the start of the year. Do I think I’m going to win it? Probably not. There’s a ton of great sites out there that are competing for this one, and today I’d like to talk about a few of them that you should go and check out, maybe even vote for. I would love you to throw a vote or two my way – I’d hate this to be a total annihilation – but only vote for the site that you think deserves it the most.SOTY Shield 2013

Nearly Enough Dice. A site mainly dedicated to a podcast, and one I listen to whenever I get the chance. Although I have recently started to podcast myself, it rarely touches on the hobby that defines me so much. For that kind of thing, there are just two places I go: Nearly Enough Dice, and…

G*M*S Magazine. Yes, I know they sponsor this site, and I refuse to let them forget how amazing they are for doing so, but I would be pointing you in their direction even if they weren’t so generous. As a budding games designer myself, their podcast is one of the best out there, with interviews with professionals who’ve put in the hard work passing on nuggets of wisdom and amazing stories.

Geek Native. Not strictly speaking an RPG blog, but since it covers every aspect of geek and pop culture, it’s be foolish not to include it. A site I end up at daily, to read about fun things that interests me. For instance, did you know that the Doctor was in an issue of the Avengers? I didn’t until I checked them out.

So there you go, three other sites that totally deserve your vote, just as much as I do. For a full list though, you should totally go and check Stuffer Shack. Not least because if you poke around on there long enough, you’ll come across my weekly column.

If you like my blog enough to vote for it, and thank you so much if you do, then Tuesday noon (GMT) for a whole 24 hours is when you need to do it. So head on over and vote.

Apr 152013

If you have been following my other projects of late, you might think it a bit odd that I’m writing a blog post about not using published adventures less than a fortnight after I uploaded my very own adventure onto DriveThruStuff. Bear with me though, as it will all make sense.

A while back I wrote a little article about a way of cutting down on prep time for running games without sacrificing quality. I think this is very important to a lot of GMs who sometimes don’t get the chance to put the love care and attention into their stories as they would ideally like. We all have lives away from the table, and even when I was young and just starting out in this wonderful little hobby, and had little in the way of responsibility, there were still occasions when a game needed to be run, and there was little prepared in the way of plot-lines and rounded out antagonists. When this happens, it can be sorely tempting indeed to pick up an adventure that someone else has written and put in all the leg work on. It might seem like you’re saving yourself a lot of hassle and time, but sadly, this is very rarely the case.

It’s easy to think that because it’s all laid out there in front of you that you won’t have to do so much to run said game, but I have never found that to be the case. The last time I ran a  pre-written adventure was to try out the system for Only War, a Fantasy Flight Games RPG set in the popular Warhammer 40k universe, all about the Imperial Guard. I went in very prepared for this, and had read the entire Dark Heresy rulebook before hand, as the adventure only had quick start rules, and I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down. Metaphorically speaking…

Even that wasn’t enough though, as I was constantly worried that I was forgetting things that the adventure had included that could be important later on. I am in fact fairly sure I missed out one entire NPC, and got two others mixed up, but I hope that my players never realised. And this is my biggest problem with written adventures; since I never came up with the idea, I feel bad about changing any detail, as it could change the ending, or at least the conclusion. If I’m running an adventure I have created myself, I know the exact thought process behind every decision made when writing it, and where any thread could lead, because I was the one doing said writing.

If I’m working with someone else’s intellectual creation, I don’t know why they made the decisions they did, and sometimes these questions can only be answered by actually playing the game. At which point – if it goes wrong – it’s a bit late to back-track and reevaluate as your players will already have seen the fumble.

Now, there are exceptions to this, as there to everything – except the second law of thermodynamics – and these are adventures written with multiple paths within them. The best example I have seen of this recently was in an adventure I was lucky enough to be able to review as part of Modiphius‘ campaign to back their Achtung! Cthulhu! Kickstarter campaign. From the get go, this laid out a few paths that could be taken, dependent on the wishes of the players, and the abilities of the characters.

This is a much better way of writing an adventure, but can still take more time to prep than if you are running your own adventures, because you still have a written conclusion that really should be the final aim. Going into an adventure expecting it to end in a certain way means being prepared for all the eventualities that a group a of players will throw at you, and when doing so within the confines of another person’s ideas, it can be tricky to do so without it coming across as the most rail road-y of rail roads.

Is there still a time to run published adventures? Well, of course there are! The adventure I keep subtly linking you to was written for a gaming tournament. It was supposed to be played over two session split by a lunch break, and in such a way as to be as close to the same as possible for two different groups, so that they could be judged fairly against each other. This is an extreme example, but I’m sure that a lot of GMs out there write adventures ahead of time if they’re going to be running a game at a convention. This is the kind of time we really like having the leg work done for us.

The important thing to remember though, is that just because some has started the job for you, that doesn’t mean you get to put in any less effort. If you want the payers to have a good time, then you need to know the adventure just as well as if you had written yourself…

Apr 082013

Everyone in their gaming life has had that one awful game, the one that totally ruins the system and setting for you, even if the fault is with neither of them. Today I will talk about my own, and hopefully steer any budding GMs who happen by this page, the hell away from making the same mistake as one certain GM did. I don’t want to name names here, so for the sake of anonymity, the GM in question will henceforth be known as ‘Betty’.

werewolf-rpgBetty made a mistake that it’s all too easy to do when you’re starting out in a game. She fell head over heals in love with a game based on her experiences with it while playing one particular character. The games was Werewolf the Something, and she had created a kick-ass Garou we shall name ‘Philip’. (Creating random names is not my strong suit as a GM.)

Betty had a marvelous time playing Philip, for the whole month that game lasted. It was meant to go on longer, but the GM and all the players were a tad unreliable, and after a month the whole thing just fell apart. It happens, and there really was no one to blame. I was only aware of this game after it had collapsed, and after listening to young Betty wax lyrical for some time about how awesome a game it was, and how sorry she was that she never got to get any further under the skin of Philip, a few of our mutual friends suggested she pick up a rule book, and take a shot at running it herself. One thing you want – if not need - from a new GM is a certain level of enthusiasm. Betty had this in spades, and due to her infectious enthusiasm, it wasn’t long before about half a dozen of us were looking forward to playing it too.

At this point I already had some experience in the World of Darkness, having spent around a year playing in a live action game of Vampire, the thing-a-me-jig, and it is there that I acquired my now permanently in place nick-name. So, I had a vague idea of what to expect, but there were still surprises to be had. What shouldn’t have been a surprise was how short a time it took for the player characters to meet a certain wolf named Philip.

Click for image source

Click for image source

I couldn’t tell you the mission we were to be involved in, all the fine details of that game have faded from memory, replaced by one very tragic fact. Betty loved Philip a hell of a lot more than she loved the game. And by game, I mean the system, the setting, and the actual sessions she was running for her players. We first met Philip about one round into the opening fight scene. I have since been led to believe that it is possible to run a game of Werewolf without there being fights in every other scene, but at the time I would have found that hard to believe.

As a player group we were holding our own, but getting a bit bruised. Then, out of nowhere, sprang Philip, and we watched in dumb amazement as he tore his way through the enemies leaving behind him a fine red mist and enough hair on the floor to cover 17 barbershops. I don’t think we were quite as grateful as we were supposed to be though, as a very big deal was then made about cool it was that he’d saved our lives, and that he was going to help us get to where we needed to be. When we got there, some high ranking elder wolf told us that the mission we were to go on was obviously too dangerous for us, so it would be best if Philip tagged along.

Now, if Werewolf the Roleplaying is not a game you are familiar with, it will be difficult to get across how much a pain in the arse this was. Imagine a similar situation in a D&D style game. All the player characters are half way to picking up that fabled second level, and the GM thrusts a level 9 fighter into the mix and says that it’s because we’re not good enough. That my friends, is not cool.

Any time a GM feels the need to pull the players out of fire, it shows that they might not have done such a good job of setting up the game – I’m going through something similar myself in my Tuesday night game, so I’ll report back on that later – but this was a very different problem indeed. There might even be an actual term for this kind of thing, but at its root, we go back to the article title; Player characters make for terrible NPCs. Betty didn’t want to run a game, she wanted to carry on playing Philip, and when that happens, you need to rethink your motivation for picking up a whole fistful of dice.

If this has happened to you; please, back away from the character sheet. Put it in a clear plastic envelope and restrict yourself to sharing stories about how rad they were. True, this will still be a bit annoying, but it is a far better solution than alienating your players.

As a post script to that session, I turned up the following week, hoping it wouldn’t be that bad again, to find that only one other player had shown up at all. And it was worse. Betty didn’t even bother rolling for the other characters who were without players, instead letting Philip do just about anything that needed to be done. One week later, I was reliably informed that no one turned up to her game. Poor Betty. I hope her and Philip were happy being alone together…