Thursday, December 17, 2009

Being loud!

Sometimes someone on the internet says something so eloquently and completely that is seems pointless to try to add to it. These types of posts resonate at some core level with your spirit - simpatico. Such is the case with a post from Fred Hicks.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to do some soul-searching using the backdrop of RPGs. In the process I found things that I really love to do - talking and playing RPGs. As a result I've been finding others of like mind and beginning some dialogs with these folks. I found that I really enjoy this aspect of blogging very much and have started doing more posting of comments on other's blogs. I hope others will take the opportunity to be silent no more, to talk about the things you love and share ideas. Find a blog or forum you like and start talking or start a blog of your own. Be Loud!

I want to thank all the readers who have taken the time to comment on this blog over the last six months; I'm just getting started and hope to improve my blog-fu with more practice in the New Year. Wow, six months. It sounds weird to say (type) that out loud. I'm proud of being able to post on a semi-regular basis and hope to improve the regularity and frequency in 2010.

Now, having said all that I wanted to let any regular readers of my blog know that I will be taking a short break from active blogging; I am going to spend some quality time with my family. I'm going to unplug and play and sing and be silly. I hope to come back in the New Year recharged and rejuvenated - I have a good feeling about 2010. I want to do more to update readers of any projects I'm working on as well as dreams I'm looking to make real. I'll be using my own gaming as a way to talk about the things I like and the things I don't, the things I do well and the things I need to work on. And I hope to hear from any readers that find what I have to say interesting.

Wishing everyone a warm season's greeting, a fruitful new year and remember to always follow your bliss,


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The world is not a 1st level dungeon

If you had asked me a year ago if I was an 'old-school' gamer I would have answered yes, primarily based on when I started gaming. But since I've started my Back to Basics campaign I've been doing a little reading and realized that when I started didn't matter as much as how I played. Based on what I've read (Grognardia, Retro Roleplaying, and the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming) I feel that I can now say with certainty that I was an RPG Grognard.

One example of this is the concept of a sandbox in old school RPGs. A sandbox represents an area in the game world where the players may freely interact with the environment. The GM creates a locale with many areas keyed for possible encounters. This is less story-focused than most games today. Players would wander about and trigger an encounter if they went to the right place.

In this approach, there is nothing that requires the GM to only put 1st level encounters surrounding the starting point for the campaign. Now some new players (especially if they have any experience with MMORPGs) may be asking why would you do that? Why put a potentially Total-Party-Killing encounter right outside the characters' front door? I used to wonder that too, until I got schooled by a true Grognard.

I had the privilege of playing in Hank's campaign during my last two years in college. Hank lived on my floor in the dorm and I quickly learned that he and others on the floor played AD&D, so we started a group. Hank was a frustrating player because he had an idedic memory and could quote from Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters' Guide and all Monster Manuals. I had to resort to creating a lot of new material to keep him guessing, but that is a story for another time.

Hank invite me and a few of the players from our group to play in his original fantasy world. We were nomads who were trying to escape the desert. Every year the nomads send a small party of adventurers beyond the mountains surrounding the desert to find a way to open the portal blocking the only overland passage in or out of the dessert.

His world was not a 1st level world; he even warned us of that. Before we were 5th level (the highest level we ever reached before dying in the Battle of the Gate) we were negotiating with shadow demons, devils, high level magic-users and all manner of potentially party-killing encounters. But we survived (for the most part). We learned to play by our wits. We negotiated, bargained and worked out all manner of deals to prepare for the battle at the gate. We planned and prepared spells and tactics. We made alliances and hunted for magic items to use in the upcoming battle. And though we failed to achieve our ultimate goal, we created a great story in the process.

Yes, story. All that wandering around, encountering, dealing and adventuring became our story. While we set out and interacted with encounters on the map we were able to create a really cool story in the process. James over at Grognardia says it better than I can so check out his post to see what I'm talking about.

Finally I'd like to thank Hank for running some of the best adventures I had the pleasure of playing in. Hats off to a true Grognard.

Follow Your Bliss,

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Narration Rights

A recent blog post from Troy Costisick has me thinking about narration rights in games. A while back I talked about including an Inspectres-style narration approach in my Back to Basics game. This went over wonderfully. It was embraced so well, in fact, that my sons have started doing it in our 3.5 edition of Eberron. All in all, this is great, but when we had an encounter in our most recent B2B session, I'm rethinking the whole thing.

Here's a little background. I'm running B2 Keep on the Borderlands, a Gygax classic. Since it came in my Basic boxed set of D&D I felt the need to run it. I never really understood D&D well enough back in the day to do it justice. I wanted to run it even more now as a way of sharing a bit 'history' with my boys (like explaining LPs and introducing them to Canadian rock legends Rush, much to my wife's chagrin).

I'm playing it as part of the B1-9 In Search of Adventure mega module. This adventure is just one stop along the way, but one I thought worth spending time on. It is very different from most of the other adventures in B1-9. Being released in the early years of D&D it lacked any 'boxed text' descriptions (more on this in another post). Its style is also more 'sandbox' oriented than story driven (again, more on this too in another post). Suffice it to say that B2 is more setting based rather than encounter or event based.

The event that triggered all this rethinking stems from the first set of caves they've been exploring - the kobold's lair. Specifically, when the hoards of little, scaly, dog-faced creatures started swarming the party the players wanted to describe their successful attacks. This had the effect of really slowing the game down. I felt the urge to keep the action moving and was chafing at their descriptions. I had thought that they could only describe their finishing moves when dispatching a kobold, but since almost every one of the little buggers dropped from one hit this didn't help to speed things along.

Let me state for the record that if our B2B group gets to play a total of three hours in one session that is rare. With the younger players, life and work schedules, we generally only get about two solid hours of play in any given week; it will take a total of three play sessions just to get through the kobold's lair. You can imagine how slow progression is in this situation.

At its roots, the issue is a battle between my gamist - tactical combat, problem-solving, room clearing, treasure grabbing - and narrativist - why are the characters doing what their doing, story telling - sides of me.

After reading Troy's post I see that the problem lies in trying to add narrative control to a task resolution system rather than a conflict based resolution. To highlight the difference: conflict based - characters wish to defeat or drive back the kobolds attacking them; task based - character swings his sword at the kobold in front of him. Since D&D deals with every swing and strike, it is inherently task based. Adding elaborate description to each swing adds a lay of detail that may smother play.

For now, to keep things moving, I'm planning on limiting the successful descriptions to make key encounters more special. This may tip my hand at 'boss level' encounters, but that is something I'll worry about after I've tried it out for a while.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

I am thankful for many things in my life. I won't bore you with all of them, but I thought the ones dealing with RPGs were most appropriate for this blog.
  • I'm thankful for my wife and her understanding that playing RPGs is part of who I am. I appreciate her patience when I wax geeky about some minutia of a game session I just played. And I love that she encourages me to persue my passion of sharing RPGs with a new generation of gamers.
  • I'm thankful for my boys and their love of the hobby. I love that it has transcended me always initiating play and that they have found new ways to play together. It is wonderful to have this bond that we can share as they grow older and I hope it is something that keeps us close.
  • I'm thankful for all the players I had the opportunity to share a game with, I am the richer for that time.
  • I'm thankful that the Wood County District Public Library took a chance on letting me run a game for their teen patrons. I hope to be able to introduce more players to this hobby I love so much.
  • I'm thankful for BG Teen Central's warm reception to my presentation on RPGs. I look forward to sharing more with this program in the future.
  • I'm thankful for my Friendly Local Gaming Stores for persevering in this trying economic times to continue to provide a place to gather and play.
  • I'm thankful for the RPG podcasters who tirelessly put out new content with little or no compensation for their time other than a job well done.
  • I'm thankful for all the RPG publishers who create countless wondrous worlds for adventure and exploration.
  • And finally, I'm thankful that Dave & Gary decided to throw caution to the wind and publish their little brown books.
Happy Thanksgiving,


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A day at the library

Ok, maybe not a whole day, but at least three hours. In my previous post I was talking about going to the Wood County District Public Library on Saturday, November 14th to take part in National Gaming Day @ your library. Now that I've had some time to process and get some feedback I'm ready to talk about it here.

I was running a demo of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set. I was slated to 'work' from 2 - 4pm. I arrived early and check in with the librarian. She walked me over to the Teen Space. This was a very cool room a few steps away from the circulation desk. It has one entrance and the room is long and narrow.

The place was very inviting and looked like a cool place to hang out (which I'm sure was it's intent). It has several comfortable and stylish couches, three tables (one regular height, one about waist high, and a coffee table between the couches), a reception desk and small computer station. All the walls were lined with books. Like I said, a very cool place to hang out.

I chose to set up at the tall table because this would allow easy access to the game pieces while standing (I like to stand when I game master - I tend to get very animated and would fall out of my chair if I were sitting down). Without chairs, visitors could slide up to the table and see what was going on very easily.

I laid out all my 'stuff': dungeon tiles and counters, laminated character sheets, grease pencils, dice, quick-start rules and Dungeon Master guide. Everything mentioned came in the Starter Set except for the laminated character sheets - which I printed and laminated - and the grease pencils - for marking up said character sheets.

I had studied the short delve in the DM guide prior to arriving and was ready to go. All I needed was players. I didn't have to wait long and they started showing up. The event was advertised at the middle school, at the BG Teen Central after-school program (which I had stopped into on two occasions in the two weeks prior to the event), and on posters around the library.

Before long I had six players, most were teen males between the ages of 11 and 14, one teen female in the same age range and one adult female. I launched into my spiel about the game. I didn't spend a lot time on basics, only enough to set the stage. Then I launched into the requisite meeting in the tavern to get their first job.

Thankfully everyone played along and the party was soon delving the ruins under the village for the goblins that have been harassing the villagers. They soon came upon a group of goblins and quickly set to battle with great relish (and a little mustard and horseradish on the side).

I did most of the instructing as we played. I explained new phrases and key words that were common parlance to old hats like me (speaking of 'old', when I posted on Facebook that I had introduced teens to D&D, one friend commented, "You 'introduced them' - like a grampa would 'introduce' chess??? Old Man!!" to which I replied, "Old and proud of it!"). Everyone started picking up the game very quickly. Combat was moving along and soon the goblins were defeated.

At this point I took a short break to see if any new players would stop in. Since two of the players were sticking around for the whole session I didn't wait too long to gather the troops and start back up. The adult female and one male teen were back from the first session. We were joined by four more male teens in the same age range as the first group.

We were able to get the new players up to speed quickly. There was much more encouragement and suggestions from other players this time around and everyone was getting into the battle with a new set of goblins deeper in the ruins. Long story short, we went over our time allotment by thirty minutes because everyone seemed to be have a very good time.

Today, I received great news from the librarian who processed the surveys that were turned in by the participants for the event. Seven of the participants that took part in the demo filled out a survey and six of those stated they would be interested in a community role-playing game that met consistently. Everyone selected "good" or "excellent" when rating the program. Of the seven replies six stated they would be "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to come to another similar event at the library.

Needless to say, I am thrilled at these results. I hope to continue working with this library (and possibly others) to develop a library RPG program tailored to the needs of the participants and the library. I'll be sure to post more information as it becomes available.

Follow Your Bliss,

Friday, November 13, 2009

National Gaming Day @ your library

This Saturday, November 14th, is the second annual National Gaming Day @ your library. I will be participating at the Wood County District Public Library in Bowling Green, Ohio. This national event is to help show patrons all the wonderful activities available at libraries. Gaming has been making inroads at libraries as supported events for all types of gaming.

For my part I will be at the library from 2-4pm to run demonstrations of D&D 4th edition. I have a copy of the new D&D starter kit that I will be using. I've been a fan of boxed sets since the magenta (pink) cover of Basic D&D back in '81. This latest one is by far the best. While the 3.5 version of the starter set had plastic minis, this one has cardboard punch out tiles and tokens. Though this is not as cool as the minis, you get lots more of them. The rules for this starter kit are excellent. Much clearer and straight forward than the last boxed set I had. The starter kit also has a short delve (three encounters) which leads right into the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure (which can now also be downloaded for free).

I'm hoping to spread the word and get more folks interesting in role-playing games in general, and, more specifically, RPGs in libraries and other public venues. I think gaming in libraries is a great way to bring the games 'out of the basement'.

I'm looking forward to the event tomorrow and will be sure to post here the results.

Follow Your Bliss,

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Back in the saddle again

I recently tried my hand at podcasting again. For those that aren't aware, I was a podcaster for two years with Fist Full of Comics & Games. I thought I was done with podcasting and then I started listening to the Games in Libraries podcast. This is a podcast is targeted at librarians to aid them in developing gaming programs in their facilities.

I really liked this podcast and went back to the beginning and listened to all the episodes. As I listened I noticed something: no content for RPGs. They did a lot of talking about video games, some of boardgames, but nothing really for tabletop RPGs.

So I contacted Scott Nicholson, professor at Syracuse University and host of the show, and asked if I could contribute some content. Here is the result of that conversation:

My segment is about 10 minutes long and focuses on introducing librarians to the rich world of RPGs. I have a lot of ground to cover and a limited amount of time. If you are interested in listening to an introductory course on RPGs then please give it a spin. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.

For further listening on getting started with RPGs please check out two excellent podcasts: Square One and The Basics of the Game.

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, November 2, 2009

NPC scripted scene

In my last post I talked about doing an NPC scripted scene in an upcoming adventure. Well, last night I ran that scene. I'd been waiting until the party had finished their current adventure. The scene was meant to act as an interlude between the last adventure and the next. Up until this point the Patriarch of the church would call the PCs into a meeting and offer them a new chance to adventure. This time was a little different. I have used Google Docs to create the document and have shared it here:

To give you a little background, the characters have just completed a successful mission to capture the chaotic cleric Elwyn who had made off with a holy artifact. The cleric and artifact were returned to threashold and the custody of the Baron Sherlane Halaran, who is also the Patriarch for the Church of Karameikos.

Normally the players would not find out what happens to Elwyn after they turn her over to the Baron nor would they see what leads up to the Baron calling on the PCs for assistance. This little scene does that and more.

In addition to the backdrop each of the characters in the scene with Elwyn have a tie to one of the characters. The Patriarch and Aleena are both members of the Church to which one character belongs. Lady Halia is mentor to the magic user in the party. Porthios is mentor to an elf in the party and Lady Halia's husband can act as a mentor to any fighters in the group.

With these mentors more formally introduced I inserted a role-play scene in which the PCs had an opportunity to interact with their mentors prior to meeting with the Baron. This was a fun scene with no real goal other than to give the players a chance to expand upon their characters. It also pointed out that the thief in the party had no such mentor; something that will be addressed in upcoming play.

The scripted interlude also allowed me to introduce an important NPC for the upcoming adventure: Commander Castellan. This helped to prepare the PCs with the eventual meeting with the commander.

All in all, the scripted scene was well received and I was very pleased with the results. The scene when a long way to making the PCs adventures set more firmly into a world deep and rich in detail. The scene went a long way to help ground the actions of the PCs into a larger framework, will still keeping the focus on them.

I highly recommend using this simple tool for adding more depth to your role-playing experience. I wish I had more time to devote to the scripting (I posted it with all the typos still in it), but I don't want to take too much away from the spontaneity of the game. Scripted scenes are great for fleshing out the story, foreshadowing and epilogue. I want to thank Rich and Ryan for talking about in an episode of the Canon Puncture podcast. I've mentioned this and other podcasts I listen to in a previous post. Ryan's excellent Master Plan podcast on game design can be found at

I'll have more updates soon. Until then, follow your bliss.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Hey, you got your story in my game!

I have been inspired by a recent Canon Puncture podcast (recent being a relative term, since I just plowed through over a year's worth of shows in several weeks' time) talking about items to loot from independent RPGs to bring into traditional RPGs. The particular loot I decided to work with was player narration of successes, borrowed from InSpectres. With the players' approval we added this concept to our last gaming session using Basic D&D.

Here is how it worked: Players would make their combat rolls as normal. If it was a successful attack they indicated the damage done. I would let them know if this was a fatal strike or not. The play would then narrate a short description of the successful strike within the parameters stated. If they failed their roll I would indicate why they missed their target. The same also was applied when the monsters attacked the PCs. If the monster hit, I would describe the attack; if the monster missed the player whose character was being attacked described how they avoided the blow.

This led to colorful descriptions and everyone getting into the fun. The orcs they battled seem to be more fearsome and the characters more heroic as a result. The players all contributed to the description. The orcs took on more three-dimentional and individualized aspects - they weren't just a bunch of orcs the party had to hack their way through, they were worthy foes. One of the descriptions also earned a player a +2 circumstantial bonus on his next attack when he described with such color why the orc missed him.

Another wonderful scene in the combat was when a player described his fatal attack as knocking back the dying orc from the force of the attack. I picked up the ball and ran with it to effect the way the orcs reacted on their movement by holding the action of one orc, keeping him from rushing forward to fill a void in the ranks, as he held his dying comrade in his arms. The next round the grieving orc charged forward with blood in his eyes (the orcs passed their second moral check).

The descriptions did slow combat down a bit. We were only able to get through the major encounter with the orcs and do some retracing of their footsteps in the current dungeon, but no one seemed to complain. The battle with the orcs was made more memorable because of the interactive descriptions.

As a side effect, the players started describing some of the aspects of the dungeon they were exploring. This was pulling in another item of loot, namely scene framing and colaborative narration from Primetime Adventures. When one player's character discovered a loose stone and an empty cavity in the wall a different player called out to turn the stone around to see what was hidden in the brick. The adventure called for nothing other than a cavity in the wall filled with treasure, but I decided to take the two potion bottles from the treasure and embed them in the hollow of the brick (much like Ben Franklin's spectacles from National Treasure, from which the player was pulling this image). There was no harm in this, and I would not have kept the treasure from them had they not added this, but this one detail made the experience more vivid in all the players' minds.

I hope this was helpful in illustrating that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Our group enjoyed the experience and I'm sure these story game elements will remain a regular part of our play. Next I'll try introducing some scripted NPC-only scenes to give the players a greater understading of the story behind their adventures. I'll be sure to let you know how that goes.

Follow Your Bliss,


Friday, October 2, 2009

RPGs and Goals

In looking back to the beginning of my passion for RPGs I also decided to more closely examine the games that I played in my younger days. As mentioned before, I've been running several RPG groups using Basic D&D to see if it still clicks and, more importantly, why it clicks in the first place. The short answer is that it does indeed still click because it is cool. If you're happy with that, stop reading; if not, read on.

In related research I came across this definition of a game by Kevin Maroney. Perhaps this would give me a clue as to why I loved RPGs so much more than card or board games. In short,
"A game is a form of play with goals and structure."
Very simple and straight forward. Let's see how it stacks up against RPGs. I think it's safe to say without much argument that RPGs have stucture, some more than others (Role Master vs. GHOST/ECHO). Without structure it's free-form. Board games have structure. Card games have structure. Video games have structure. Cool, one down two to go.

Play, according to Kevin, is best defined as the opposite of work. It's a leisure activity; it's fun. We engage in these activities with the primary purpose of entertaining ourselves and others. Sure it can be educational or inspirational, if used to learn a skill or lesson it can be viewed as training, but at it's heart it is entertainment, pure and simple. Here again I think that RPGs, most card games, board games and video games are a form of play. Neato, two down. Now to tackle goals.

Kevin says

"The actions that players take in a game are directed toward achieving a goal."
The goal of Monopoly is to have the most money at the end of the game. The goal of the card game War is to be the one with all the cards. The goal of Tic-Tac-Toe is to align your symbols. The goal of D&D is...different for everybody, or at the very least can have a nigh-endless variety of goals.

Basic D&D can be said to have one implied goal (and no, "to have fun" is not it a goal, it's play) and that is to explore and adventure. Early games had all the power and information in the hands of the DM with players exploring the game world through their characters. This exploration was the motivation for the characters to delve into dungeons, suspense high as the party moved from room to room. Traveling the land the party is driven to see what was over the next rise. As such, exploration is open-ended, well, at least as far as the DM had finished mapping.

But exploration is not enough. Exploration should lead to excitement and adventure; adventure leads to wonder. Part of this wonder was never knowing what was next. This is why we DMs have that screen we hide behind. Don't look behind the screen, you'll destroy the magic! But adventure was reason enough to gird your sword and heft your backpack. Goblins moved into the woods? Let's clear them out! Dragon holding a princess random? We'll bring her back. To adventure!!

Soon each adventure became it's own goal - we have to get back all seven parts of the rod, we have to destroy Vecna, the schemes of the giants and drow must be stopped at all costs. Cleverly strung together these adventures goals would build into larger campaign goals. It only ended when the players decided there were no more worthy goals to achieve.

(Now once players realized they did have power in the game, they stopped blindly following the DM's carrot-on-a-stick, but that's a discussion for another post.)

Now, alignment can be argued as a motivation: we're Lawful, so we have to clear the woods of goblins. I'm not buying that. The way I see it alignment is the way you explore for adventure, not the goal in and of itself. However, it can be part of a self-imposed goal: I'm going to portray the best Lawful fighter I can so he can become a Paladin at 9th level.

Self-imposed goals are truly limitless. The ability to make your own goals in the game sets RPGs apart from most other games. Each player could have their unique goals and these could be layered with the goals of the play group. As RPGs became more story driven, characters were created with an eye toward more specific goals - I will reforge the broken sword and reclaim the kingdom. As RPGs continued to grow and evolve the games began to be written with specific goals in mind, but this rarely precluded a player/character defining their own goals in a game.

Bringing this back to the my examination of Basic D&D and current play, I see more clearly the implications of exploration and adventure. Adventure modules were written with very little in the way of story hooks. It was often assumed the party of adventurers had heard news of troubles and were riding in to save the day. And guess what, it's still just as fun today as it was then with nothing more than a goal to explore and adventure in the shared imagined space created around the game table.

I look at my players now and they don't question the reason for adventuring. Exploration and adventure are their own motivation and reward. They don't think twice when the Patriarch asks them to investigate an ominous fortress on the borders of their land. They jump in both feet first. And I find myself cheering along with them.

But this ability to have dynamic goals is magic. I can start to see each player beginning to formulate unique goals - I want to get my character to second level so I can cast cure light wounds, I want my character to get more money, I want my character to slay more monsters. No doubt they will soon turn toward different goals - what does it mean to be Traladaran in the Grand Duchy; I want to join the Elven Guard; I want to rise above the poverty that I was born into; I will bring faith to the faithless.

But this introspection has also raised a question for another time: What is the goal of the GM?

This post has come about as the result of a rather serendipitous journey started when I asked Judd Karlman a question about libraries and gaming and he responded with some links for me to explore. Thanks Judd for putting me on this path, I can't wait to see where it takes me next!

Follow Your Bliss,


Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I made myself a promise to post at least once a week on what was going on in my life and in my head gaming-wise. I'm a little over a week on this one. And while there is no one holding a gun to my head saying, "Write, darn it!" I still feel a bit of a let down. Yes, real life gets in the way sometimes. It has been over a week since I last gamed, but not for want of trying.

My boys and I sat down last Friday evening to play in my oldest son's Eberron campaign. My younger son had already leveled up his characters so I needed to bring my artificer and monk up to second level before play. The monk didn't have a lot of paperwork to deal with, but the artificer was another story. Now that Theo the Red had coin in pouch he wanted to create some scrolls and potions for the party. That took a while as we stepped through the rules to figure out what rolls he needed to make.

It took so long, in fact, that we ran out of time to play. We're planning on doing so this Friday when one of the boys' cousins is coming up for a visit. We're planning on inviting him to join us for the start of the next adventure.

But just because I haven't been playing doesn't mean I haven't been thinking or reading about games. I just finished reading for the first time Don't Rest Your Head by Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions. It has been on my stack of games to read for a while now and since my friend & podcaster Mick Bradley is adapting the DRYH mechanics as the engine for his Vegas After Midnight game I thought it was high time to check it out.

I've also been reading Polaris by Ben Lehman. This is a wonderful game about a playing the last days of a forgotten race of the far north as north can go. It is a GM-less game which is a favorite topic of mine and one that I seek to explore though games like Universalis and Shock:.

In addition to reading I've been getting back into listening to podcasts. I have not done so for a long time as I burned out on the medium. I'm rediscovering it and really enjoying what I'm listening to, so I thought I'd share.

What got me started was This Just In...From GenCon! by Ryan Macklin. We listened to this leading up to and while at the convention. This got me excited about podcasts again. So next I hopped over to Ryan's regular podcast Master Plan. This podcast is devoted to game theory and design. Ryan is a game designer and uses examples from his experience to talk about the various concepts. He also has great interviews from industry professionals.

Another design show I've been listening to is Clyde Rohr's Theory From the Closet. Clyde is the punk rocker of RPG podcasts. His show is not work safe and he makes no attempt to edit his recordings, but if you like game theory and game design it is really worth listening too. Clyde also does many interviews with industry luminaries. I really like Ryan and Clyde's podcasts because, like me, they are trying to come to terms with these ideas as they build their games.

Atomic Array and Open Design Podcast are two that I've also gotten into. The first is more focused on RPGs and settings and the second more game design and game tips. Both do interviews, are fun to listen to and offer contests so their listeners can win prizes. If you like these two check out War Pig Radio for more.

Last, but definitely not least, is the Canon Puncture podcast. They too do interviews, talk game theory and practical play tips as well as review geeky websites from around the interweb. Rich, Mick and Chris (and Chris) are long time gamers and have a lot of great insight to share on gaming in an indie-hippy-story-focused-kinda-way. I'm currently working through a back log of this past year's podcasts and enjoying every second of it (and wishing I'd had a chance to play in their Prime Time Adventure Star Wars: Sojourn 66 sessions at GenCon).

As I expand the number of shows I listen to I'll be sure to post here as well. I hope to have a 'meatier' post up soon.

Follow Your Bliss,

Sunday, September 20, 2009

D&D Game Day 2009

This weekend to celebrate this year's D&D Game Day I will have gamed a total of 12 hours: 3 hours Friday night and 2 hours Saturday morning (DMing Team Beta in the Back to D&D Basics campaign), 4 hours Saturday afternoon (playing in a D&D 4E sanctioned event), and 3 hours Sunday evening (DMing Team Alpha in B2B). For me, especially these days, that is a lot of gaming.

The happenings regarding the B2B Campaign can be found here. It was a lot of fun to play so much D&D with my boys and their friends. Friday night's group encountered a magical trap which put one of their party to sleep. An attempt to wake him led to an entire room in the ruined castle of Mistamere being set aflame. Eventually the sleeping member was wakened from his slumber with the casting of a Dispel Magic spell by a high level magic-user (which also depleted the party's funds).

What I found amazing was that simple encounter was the talk of the night and went into the next day when we sat down again to play a couple more rooms before having to return boys to their respective homes. This glimpse into their sense of wonder at the event was enlightening and encouraging that the time spent playing was truly appreciated by all.

As a counterpoint my experience with the Game Day event at a local game store was...interesting. My expectation was that this would be a scripted beginning adventure for 1st level pre-gen characters. The adventure was not scripted. In fact it was more of an adventure toolkit than actual adventure. And the pre-gen characters were not 1st level.

Each table of participants first gathered to create the adventure. This included selecting the creatures to be used in each of the two encounters and providing tactics and background story to get the party of characters involved in the action. This sounds like a great idea, but I would imagine this would seem very unusual to a person who had never played D&D before and was participating in the event to see what all the fuss was about.

Once the adventure was created the DM from our table went to a different table to run the adventure that was just created. Likewise, another DM came to our table to run his adventure for us. Now this seems odd to me because his adventure used all or most of the same pieces-parts (i.e., monsters) that our adventure had used. We had all read over the monster stats as we were putting together our adventure. Somehow there was little room for wonder once we got into play.

I will admit that the way that the monsters were implemented and the background to the adventure were unique in each case, but, I don't know, it didn't really sing to me. I knew that we would be facing minotaurs and dark dwarves, probably a scarecrow and demon priest. I guess it's no different than going to see a Bruce Willis movie and knowing he'll save the day, but not knowing how he'll get there.

The characters that we had to pick from were all 6th level, which in 4E means they have a laundry list of abilities as long as my arm (and I was playing a human fighter). In fact, some basic abilities were left off the sheets due to space limitations. I have played 4E on two other occasions and I've been playing RPGs long enough to stumble my way through. But if I had been a new-comer to the hobby, I think I would have walked away thinking this is way too complicated to be fun.

Another thing that rubbed me the wrong way was that once we arrived there were seats for us to join, but we each had to go to different tables. I didn't get to see how my son played. That left me a little sad and may have colored my overall appreciation of the event. I did enjoy gaming with the players at my table - most of whom I'd have no problem inviting to one of my games. This exposure to other players was refreshing.

In hindsight the event was not to get new players into the hobby. It was an event for experienced players. This too makes me sad. I was likening Game Day to Free Comic Book Day, in which people who did not read comics or had stopped reading comics could see what today's comic books were all about.

Participating in the event did introduce me to new players and got me into a store that I seldom visit (I was disappointed that a store closer to my home had not planned ahead and had not Game Day events). I now have the opportunity to join a local gaming group with ties to Bash Con, a local gaming convention. So maybe the event did what it was supposed to do, even it was not what I was expecting.

I hope players that enjoy D&D were able to participate in a Game Day event or celebrated D&D in some form or fashion.

Follow Your Bliss,


Sunday, September 13, 2009

...and now I am the Master!

Recently I had the opportunity to play in a D&D 3.5 adventure run by my oldest son. This was a proud moment for me, to see him mastering a game that I fell in love almost 30 years ago. After the session we sat down and I shared some pointers of things he should consider when running his next game. These along with a few other items I present here for any aspiring GMs ready to begin their illustrious career.

Start with a pre-defined adventure

The role of Game Master is full of responsibilities. This load can be lightened by using a pre-defined adventure. Many may balk at this statement, saying that this hampers creativity and GM freedom and it very well may. The main reason I advocate for this path is that being a good GM takes practice. Practice is typically best approached by starting with simple steps to build confidence and then adding more steps that grow in difficulty. This is what a pre-defined adventure is good for. Think of it as training wheels.

Using a pre-defined adventure frees the new GM to spend more prep time on learning and understanding the rules instead of working on adventure design. In addition, the time spent on rules can be more focused. By looking at the elements of a pre-defined adventure the GM can focus study on just those rules that will come to play. If none of the planned encounters deal with social combat then no time need be spent on that subject. Also, by careful study of the planned adventure the GM can be ready for possible deviations by the players and therefore seem more knowledgeable and competent regarding the setting and/or game system.

Also, by playing pre-defined adventures the GM will learn more about ways to use the game system to its fullest. The presumption here is that these pre-defined adventures are written by authors more familiar with the setting/game system who will be able to ecourage a richer game experience. As time goes on the new GM will be able to define which elements of the setting/game system they enjoy and which ones they and their players dislike. With several sessions under their belt, the GM may begin modifying existing adventures to better suit the needs of the play group, evenutally leading to solid confidence necessary to design original adventures.

Communication is key

It is important as a new GM to not assume anything. This is esspecially true when discribing situations and scenery. Having read the adventure and the rules several times they no doubt have a clear picture of the environment and situations. It is importnat to convey that clearly and effectively to the players so that all may participate in what Ron Edwards call the Shared Imagined Space (SIS).

In an example from our actual play, the adventing parting started in Sharn on the world of Eberron. The GM had a clear picture of Sharn from his readings as did I from previous play experience. However, my younger son had no experience whatsoever with Sharn. He had no idea what is was like and as such could not participate in the SIS. I pointed this out during play by asking the GM to discribe the city since all the characters were first-time visitors. This helpped bring everyone at the table together.

It is also important to clearly listen to what the players are telling you as a GM. Ask clarifying questions that help define further the intent of the player. If the player simply says, "I attack it!" when there are several targets, clarify by asking which target so there is no mistake later, "No, I was attacking the wounded one!" A simple question goes a long way to avoiding such difficult situations.

GMs should be careful that their questions are not leading. "Wouldn't you rather hit the wounded one?" verges on taking total control of the player's character. The players will learn from experience just as the GM does; don't rob them of that opportunity to learn.

+1 Swords are typically not labled as such

This may be a tough one now-a-days. Within the realm of electronic RPGs (both on-line and console versions) a player typically knows exactly whether or not any items gained are magicial as well as the exact nature of the magical effects. However, in a tabletop RPG this need not be the case. The determination of magical items and their respective effects give players a reason to cast Detect Magic and Identify spells as well as encouraging testing a character's arcane knowledge. This is part of the mystery and wonder in the game. Also, it gives players a reason to spend some of that coin they just worked so hard for. If characters have plenty of cash there is less of a desire to continue adventuring, while one strapped for cash will be eager to venture forth to raise cash for next month's lodging.

That being said, new GMs brought up on electronic RPGs may not see the reason to have the players "jump through hoops" to find out the sword is only +1. My point for bringing it up here is that new GMs should consider their approach to the situation before blindly falling on habit.

Don't be affraid to make mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes when starting out. I've already talked about one my biggest here when I first started GMing. It is inevitable; there is a rule that you thought you understood, but once in play it no longer made sense to you. Keep the ball rolling. Don't stop and fixate on the mistake; pick up the ball and keep running. Chances are the players won't even notice (unless, of course, they're the ones that pointed it out to you) and you can keep on going.

After the game, take time to relect on the session. You may even ask your players: "What went well? What didn't work so well?" From this reflection you will discover where to focus your attention when preparing for your next session. In time, all the tasks and responsibilities of being a GM will become second nature to you. That's when you're on your way to becoming what Gary Gygax called a Master GM.

Follow Your Bliss,


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ode to a Three-Ring Binder

Let me take a moment and share a little bit about my favorite organizational tool for GMing: the three-ring binder. With a few simple items I'll show you how I stay organized for my various gaming sessions.

To begin, I use the following supplies:
  • 1.5 inch three-ring view binder
  • 4 tabbed dividers
  • Paper & sharpened pencils
  • Binder pouch (optional)
  • Adventure calendar sheets (optional)
  • Adventure log sheets (optional)
Three-Ring View Binder

This is the main component. Most folks know what I mean when I say a three-ring binder, but what you may not understand is what I mean by a three-ring view binder. The view binder has a clear plastic cover on front, back and spine. This creates pockets into which paper can be placed to provide for a custom cover. I prefer a white binder so that the pages I place in the covers stand out, but feel free to select your favorite color or even a different color for each campaign.

Now, as far as what to slide into the covers you have several options. If you have an artistically inclined member in your play group you can commission a piece of art suitable for your campaign (be sure to award bonus XP for such an endeavor). This art can go a long way to set the tone for the campaign. As an added bonus, if you run adventures for more than one group, different artwork will make it easy to tell which binder to bring to a session.

Alternatively, you can place game related materials - such as combat charts, weapon damage or spell lists - in each clear pocket for easy reference. In this way the binder does double duty as organizer and GM screen. Plus, with the clear plastic cover, the sheets are protected from the inevitable spilled beverage.

Some view binders also have a vinyl pocket on the inside covers. These are excellent for storing items that you need quick access to frequently: character sheets or the aforementioned combat/weapon/spell charts if you are not using those on the covers.

Tabbed Dividers

The dividers form the main organizational aspect of the binder. I picked four for ease of use; you can have as many as you need, but I would err on the side of simplicity. The dividers are used to define four sections of the binder: player notes, player maps, adventures, and GM notes.

The player notes are anything that the players feel is important to record during a session. I like to put the most recent notes at the front of the tabbed section so they are readily available. Going through the section will take you back further in time toward the beginning of the campaign. I like having access to this information because it helps me understand what events the players found noteworthy.

Player maps are another item that can be collected and stored for later reference. These hand-drawn maps often have encounter notes and other related information that may be of use. Here again I store the most recent map at the beginning of the section.

I like to keep the notes for the current adventure in the binder as well. This section is obviously GM eyes only. For this reason some may prefer to have a separate binder for players and GM (more on this below). While playing I like to have out the map for the adventure and often use this for a bookmark in the adventure section to easily find my place if I must close the binder. At the end of a session I insert the map (securely clipping it within the three-rings) into adventure section to mark where the party left off.

The last section is another GM only area: GM notes. These notes are anything that the GM needs to record about the on-going adventures of the party - from monsters defeated and treasure gained to important NPC names. As already mentioned, I place the most recent notes at the beginning of the section.

Paper & Pencils

Be certain you have plenty of paper in the relevant sections - lined loose-leaf notebook paper (wide or narrow lined to suit your writing preference) for the player and GM notes and the appropriate graph paper for the player maps. In this way you can always 'Be Prepared', as the Boy Scouts say, for any eventuality.

I also like to have plenty of sharpened pencils. I prefer pencil because information that is recorded may need to be changed, especially on character sheets. I keep lots of them sharpened so that I don't have to stop play to sharpen a dull point. Some may prefer mechanical pencils in this regard, and that is fine; I prefer the weight and feel of a classic #2 wood pencil.

Invest in an inexpensive binder pouch and keep all your pencils in your binder. If everything is in your binder that's fewer things you have to remember to grab if you're running late to your gaming session. If you have plenty of sharpened pencils to spare you'll be ready for those players who routinely forget to bring a writing utensil.

Calendars & Logs

I listed two other optional items that I feel help me stay on top of the game: pre-printed calendars and logs. I find these useful from both an organizational and setting standpoint.

The adventure calendar is a sheet of paper with a 12-month view at the top (typically three rows of four months). Below this is a lined section with two columns. The first (narrow) column if for recording the in-game date of the event while the second (wide) column if for the notes regarding the event. The upper-right corner of the page has a spot for the current year of the campaign.

This calendar helps reinforce the setting through the use of setting-specific month names. Other information that can be present are any holidays, festivals or celebrations commonly held, names for the seasons and days of the week, and phases of the moon(s). When players record their notes on this sheet they have all this setting information before their eyes; this helps to bring the game world to life. The calendar also assists in planning for travel and use of PC down-time.

I use the adventure log to record my notes for each session. At the top of the sheet is a section to record all the relevant information about each PC in the session. I make a new sheet each session for two reasons. The first is that not every player will make it from session to session so this acts as my attendance sheet for calculating XP. Secondly, PC stats often change due to numerous effects - injury, magic items, wishes, and advancement to name just a few.

Below the PC roster is a lined section for recording my session notes. I use this sheet a lot: recording outcomes of encounters, notes on players earning bonus XP, tracking treasure, memorable quotes, NPC names that I was forced to make up on the spot and must later flesh out, etc. I recommend recording the actual date of the session on this sheet as well as on the adventure calendar/player notes so that the two sheets link up for cross referencing.


The system of organization outlined above is just one possible way to approach storing of game-related information. It works well for me, but may not work as well for you. Here are some variations you can play with to better suit your needs.

Multiple binders - For some it may not make a lot of sense to store player and GM information in the same binder; you may prefer to keep the two separate. The player binder would have the character sheets, notes and maps. It can also contain a section for campaign specific background information. After time you will outgrow the 1.5" binder. At this point you can separate out the player and GM sections into separate archive binders. While this is more binders to keep track of, it may not be an issue if players are responsible for their binders or sessions are played at the GM's home where all the binders can be stored.

Notebooks - Notebooks can be used instead of loose-leaf paper. This will create more a chronicle feel, especially to the player notes. Maps can be attached (glued, taped, etc.) to pages in the notebook if desired. If the notebook includes a pocket in the covers, character sheets can be stored here as well. Both player's and GM's notes can be stored in separate notebooks and with a large enough binder (2" - 3" minimum, D-ring ideally) everything can still be carried together. This has the added bonus of creating a series of volumes as time goes on, adding more to the epic feel of the campaign.

I'd love to hear what methods you use to store all your campaign related information. Share your methods in the comments of this post.

Follow Your Bliss,


PS. As noted in the previous post, I am now part of RPG Podcasters. To bring my posts in line with their organizational scheme I will be going back and changing/adding to the labels on previous posts. This may affect the way you view this blog in your blog reader. I apologize for any confusion this may cause.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

RPG Bloggers

You may notice the new link in the upper-left corner of this blog. This is to signify that my application to the RPG Bloggers Network was recently accepted. I would like to thank the administrators of that network for allowing me to join. I look forward to sharing my posts with a wider audience and will strive to continue to provide enjoyable and informative content as I wander down my trail of RPG memories. If you haven't already done so, check out the network to see what they have to offer.

Follow Your Bliss,


Monday, August 24, 2009

Know the Rules

Everything I really need to know I learned from D&D - #1

The first game of D&DB I ever played (which goes without saying, my first game of D&D ever) was as Dungeon Master (DM). I had read the rules cover-to-cover (the booklet wasn't that big back then) and was going to run a short adventure into an abandoned keep. I found a few of my junior high school friends and gathered around the table to play on a warm summer afternoon. With weapons in hand, the characters set off in search of Adventure.

Things were sailing along smoothly (for less than 5 minutes) until the party encountered its first obstacle: skeletons. Skeletons were labeled as first level monsters and the party was full of first level characters; a perfect match. The problems didn't start until the characters started rolling dice to hit the skeleton. They rolled and missed. The skeletons would roll and miss. The party would roll and miss and then the skeletons would roll and miss. This went on for several minutes before one of my friends asked how this was supposed to be fun. Something was amiss.

I checked back through the rules on combat and re-read them. I soon discovered my fatal mistake. When determining the number needed to hit the skeletons I took it as literally the number needed to hit; the party had to roll that number and nothing else would do. Well, red faced, I quickly discovered my misinterpretation: the phrase "...or higher..." seemed to slip my memory when it was time to play. Combat went much smoother after that.

This small detail goes to show how drastically a misunderstanding of a rule can impact the play of a game. Some games are complex and require an intimate knowledge of the rules in order to run smoothly. Some games are simple but open to interpretation. Both present challenges.

When handling a game with a very large rule set it is often best to take it in chunks. Focus on the rules that will be used first. In the introductory chapter of Mouse Guard, Luke Crane outlines the four chapters of the book that should be read first in the section entitled 'Getting Started'. Character creation is not one of the chapters listed. In fact, character creation is one of the last chapters in the book. IMO, Luke is saying, "Wait! Before you even think about creating your character, play the sample missions with the sample characters to see how the spokes fit in the wheel!"

In D&D I look at rules on an encounter-by-encounter basis. Whether reading a prepared encounter or designing one from scratch, I ask myself this question: "What do I need to know in order to run this encounter." I open the rule book to the index and start boning up on rules that will be utilized. Next I look at the characters in the party and see what they could possibly use to resolve this encounter: racial and class traits, feats, type of combat favored, spells.

The last one deserves added attention. It is prudent to read over the spells that both the players and NPCs have access to. I did this not very long ago where I was operating from what I thought the spell did as opposed to what it actually did (just goes to show, it doesn't matter how old you are, there is always room for improvement). Bottom line - read over the spells often to be sure you are on track. Don't worry about the spells that the characters can't cast yet, focus on the ones they have access to.

For games with less structure a healthy dose of interpretation is required to make things move along smoothly. To help prevent misunderstandings I recommend creating a social contract to outline the expected behavior and guidelines for handling disputes. This can be a simple as "if we get stuck we'll wing it" or "we'll roll for the outcome and discuss it after the session". Play of a wide variety of games helps to provide players with a resource of numerous options - "we did it this way in Shadowrun, so let's do the same thing here." For groups that have played together for a long time the social contract is more implied than explicit, but it never hurts to discuss the contract to keep it fresh in your mind.

It should be noted that while the preceeding paragraphs were from a DM point of view, the same holds equally true for players. Know the rules that apply to your character. If you play a cleric, know and understand the rules for turning undead. If you play a spell caster, know your spells and all the rules that apply to spell casting (range, spell components, recovery, saving throws). Don't put everything on the DM's shoulders, step up and help lighten the load.

It wasn't long before I realized that knowing the rules applied to pretty much anything you came across in life. We spend a good portion of the first 18 years of our lives 'learning the ropes' before we are considered an adult. Heck, I'm still trying to keep it all straight. Rules give structure and order and should (hopefully) be equitable to all parties involved. Whether it is office culture or computer programming, take the time to learn the rules. If there is a lot of ground to cover, learn what you need to get the job done. If the rules are a little nebulous, fall back on your past experiences and do your best. We're still gonna make mistakes, but hopefully they are mistakes we can learn from.

Follow Your Bliss,

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Next Generation of Gamers

One of the perks of having children is passing down some of your favorite things (like the love of music from the Canadian rock band Rush). One of those things I enjoy most is my love of RPGs, especially D&D. I began playing with my boys about 5 years ago (well, it began longer than that, when my oldest was still an infant in my arms as I played DC Heroes at the dinner table, but for the purpose of this post, let's just say it all started 5 years ago.)

I can distinctly remember the first time I played with them, laying out the tiles from the AD&D basic set for the 3.5 version of the game. This set came with miniatures for four of the iconic characters of that edition - Eberk the dwarven cleric, Regdar the human fighter, Lydda the halfling rogue, and Aramil the elven wizard. The boxed set was a gift to my oldest son, then 8 years old. We were playing it in our apartment which was temporary housing during the period after selling one house and waiting for our next (and current) house to complete construction.

We sat around the little dinner table under the glare of 60 watt bulbs as I explained the differences between the classes and what all the different colored dice were used for. My younger son (then 5) was also trying to figure out what all this was about. We played through the provided adventure and had a great time slaying all manner of monsters and undead. Both boys have been playing ever since.

Fast forward to this past weekend and my oldest son's (now 13) first visit to GenCon. Due to poor planning and budgetary concerns we were only able to attend on Sunday, the Family Fun day. My son brought along his best friend (age 14) to join in the fun. We had a wonderful time and managed to pack as much fun into one day as we could. There were Battletech battles, boffer fights, miniatures painting, sitting in on a recording of 'This Just In...From GenCon', and, of course, the dealer's room.

It really struck me what a wonderful community exists to help support gaming as a family activity. Everyone we met did their utmost to make my son's first visit to the con a memorable one. And so, I have a list of people I would like to thank (in chronological order of appearance):

  • Call sign 'Gamer' - for taking the time to share his experiences and lessons learned in the Battletech pods
  • Jeff Himmelman and Storn Cook - for showing what's involved in being a freelance artist
  • Ryan Macklin and Derek Rex - for giving the boys a warm welcome during the recording of This Just In...From GenCon
  • Luke Crane - for sharing his insight about game design and autographing the first gaming book (Mouse Guard) my son ever purchased at a convention
  • Brennan Taylor - for having a generous spirit towards new gamers
  • Paul Tevis - for embodying the enthusiasm and joie de vivre that is GenCon
Since my first GenCon four years ago I have come to believe this event is more about the people than the games. It is great fun to play all those games, but it is the connections we make that sustain us throughout the long year until next August.

Follow Your Bliss,


Friday, August 14, 2009

What's in a Name?

I have recently finished the first two books of Tales of the Dying Earth - The Dying Earth andThe Eyes of the Overworld - and had started a post reviewing these books in light of their implications for D&D. As I went deeper into the subject I found there was too much information to cover in just one post. So this will be the first of a series of posts covering various topics in D&D that came to mind as I read through the Dying Earth series.

One of the first things that struck me about these stories were the names: Turjan, Pandelume,Phandaal, Laccodel, Kandive, T'sais and T'sain, just to name a few. These names are exotic and colorful and truly help to evoke the strangeness of the far future Earth; they help to set the tone.

This is very important when naming NPCs for a campaign. No plain Tom, Dick or Harry will do. Names of nobles should be noble sounding; those of commoners have an earthy ring to them. Sally the bar wench works, Sally the elven princess does not. Take the time to pick names that fit the character. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of name lists on the web. I just did a Google search of "name lists" pulled up 178,000,000 sites. One is bound to have something to spark your interest.

The previous paragraph applies just as much to PCs as it does to NPCs. It may be fun to play Bob the barbarian, but it does nothing to help set a serious tone for the character, but if the style of play you are going for is humorous, then it is a perfect fit.

In the Back to (D&D) Basics campaign I'm currently running, there are clear styles of names to help foster the sense of culture and depth of background. Based on recomendations from GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos gazetteer, the two main human populations of Karameikos have very different sounding names. Those of the native Traladaran descent have names inspired by central and eastern European countries, while those of the conquering Thyatians have Roman-like names.

Often times the names of characters mentioned in these stories belonged to great and powerful wizards of the day. Their names adorn the spells that they popularized. This brings to mind all the 'name' spells of AD&D1: Melf's Acid Arrow, Bigby's Crushing Fist, Nystul's Magic Aura, etc.Spells like these really tie the magic to the setting. Which would you rather cast - Acid Splash orMelf's Acid Arrow?

Not just the names of the characters but the names of locales were evocative of alien cultures in Tales of the Dying Earth. The lands to the far north: Grodz, Cil, Vull, and the Mountains ofMagnatz; to the south: Ascolais, the Land of the Falling Wall, Kaiin and Scaum Valley. Give just as much care to the lands in your world. Be sure to say them aloud. Some place names I've read in books and games look nice on the page, but I don't have the first clue as to how to pronounce them.

I really like the Karameikos gazetteer because it helps here as well in my current campaign. Many areas have two names: the name originally used by the native Traladaran's and the name used once they were conquered by the Empire of Thyatia. This layering of names helps build a richness of detail that brings the setting to life.

So next time you sit down to roll up a character or create a new locale for your players to explore, give some thought to the name and see what the reactions are.

Follow Your Bliss,

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Obsidian Protal

I haven't posted in a while so I thought I'd check in to tell you what I've been doing. I've been working on a campaign for my family and friends. In prepping for this campaign I started using a new (to me) tool I discovered a few months ago: Obsidian Portal (OP).

OP, which has been around for a couple of years now, is a free wiki for game masters and players. In this portal GMs can layout all the elements of their campaign including locales, background, history, maps and NPCs. Each page created by the GM has a special 'GM Only' area. This allows all the information on a particular topic to be in one place. Players only see the information they can access while the GM can see it all. The GM can also recount all the player's adventures in an Adventure Log which works like a typical blog, complete with comments.

Speaking of players, there is a lot for them to do in OP as well. Players can join various campaigns and create PC pages with as much or as little detail as they wish. Also, OP has teamed up with Pen & Paper Games to help players find games in their area. I haven't tried the player side of things too much yet, so I'm hoping to get feedback from the folks playing in my group.

As far as ease of use, let me say that I'm not that big a fan of wiki's, primarily because of the odd syntax for formatting of text. In the short time I've used OP, I have become fairly comfortable with laying out the text in the fashion I want. There is a WYSISYG feature that I have not turned on as of yet. If I get too frustrated I'll give it a try. Support for the site is available through some limited tutorials and the help forum.

All in all I'm very pleased with the way it is going. I will let me share information in an organized manner with players who can participate on-line as little or as much as they would like. It remains to be seen how much my group will utilize it.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that the service was free, and it is, but there is (of course) a premium subscription service available (Ascendant Membership) for a cost. The free mode limits GMs to two campaigns each with one map. That is plenty for me, but for a fee you can have unlimited campaigns with 10 maps. The Ascendant Members also have a campaign-specific forum, no ads and the ability to make a campaign private or friends only (all free campaigns are public). The cost for a year as an Ascendant Member is $40, but semiannual and monthly rates are also available.

So far I'm really enjoying the experience. OP has been nominated for an Ennie this year and I hope they do well. If you are at all interested, stop by to see what is going on in my Back to (D&D) Basics campaign. I plan to talk about other tools that I'm using in my campaign in future posts.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Sense of Wonder

Last night I had the pleasure of helping a friend introduce his oldest son (8 years of age) to D&D. To do this I broke out my magenta (pink) D&D Basic Set (D&DB). We sat down around his dining room table - he and his son, me (DM) and my two boys along with two (adult) neighborhood friends, the latter two never having played D&D before - and proceeded to created characters for the upcoming adventure to the Haunted Keep.

The character creation process was such that it vexed my oldest son. He has been a player of AD&D3.5 for roughly four years now. He had a particular notion in his head about 'how things should be'. To help illustrate this let me breifly explain the character creation process for D&DB.

  1. Roll 3d6 6 times and assign the values in order to the abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma)
  2. Look over the scores and see which is highest (this indicating suitable class choices) and deciding whether the character is eligible to be a demi-human (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling). Choose class/race (more on this in a moment).
  3. Adjust ability scores (lower non-essential abilities to raise a Prime Requisite)
  4. Roll 3d6X10 for starting gold and buy your equipment

What troubled my son was his rolls. Only a couple were in the double digits. While this did not disquilify him from any class he felt that fate had delt him a poor hand. Added to this was the fact that the demi-human races were each a Class (note the capital C) unto themselves, and he felt he was greatly wronged ("What do you mean there is no Halfling Thief?"). I did let him re-roll his stats and start over and he did get stats more to his liking. But this got me thinking about the wonder of character creation in D&D.

Creating characters in the manner described above lends itself to a process of discovery rather than one of sculpting a character to meet some predefined expectation. This is probably why point-buy systems are so popular: Want a super strong fighter? Pay your points and you got it! But when these random numbers are there staring you in the face, you have to ask yourself, "what can I do with this?"

In some cases it is obvious. One player had a fairly average set or rolls except for an 18 in Intelligence. His character seemed predestined to be a Magic-User, which is what he chose. However, there was absolutely nothing keeping him from playing a Fighter, Cleric or Thief (other than Experieince point bonuses there is no real drawback to playing a class with a low Prime Requisite ability score; no limits on spells due to low intelligence or wisdom). In this case he was playing to his strengths: high intelligence = Magic-User.

But what if his stats were more middle of the road? Really, he could be anything he wanted to be; it was all in what those numbers meant to him. This is where the wonder comes into to play. Let's look at the character with the high intelligence again. Sure, the logical choice is Magic-User, but what about the other classes?

  • An inquisitive Halfling traveling far from home to explore and catalogue the known world
  • A brilliant Fighter that relies on strategems rather than strength of arms
  • A knowledgable Cleric who had memorized the holy scriptures at a young age and wished to apply those teachings to the world
  • A quick-witted Thief seeking to pit his incredible intellect against all the puzzels and traps the world could throw at him
  • A cunning Elf that sought to perfect the combination of magic and arms into a formatable fighting style
  • A clever Dwarf out to use his exceptional intelligence to invest his earnings as an adventurer and turn it into a comfortable retirement

Being open to the possibilities, no predefined set of expectations - this is the beauty and magic of wonder: anything is possible. I did notice this to some degree with several of the newer players. They listened to the possibilities then chose a class that somehow spoke to them through those ability scores. For the more veteran players, especially schooled in the art of min/maxing, it can be more difficult.

Now, I don't think that players should ignore party balance and factors that would cause friction in the group (alignment and Barbarian/Magic-User coflicts leap to mind). I had one player wait until everyone else had picked their class before he decided what he was going to be. He has always been one to fill in the gaps in party balance. But I can't help but wonder how much more fun it would be if he played the first character that popped into his head after rolling the stats.

Try this yourself. No matter which version of D&D you are playing, use the character creation steps above (especially the first two steps) and see what those ability scores say to you. Feel free to post the outcome in the comments of this article; I'd love to hear what you discovered.

Follow Your Bliss,

PS. For those interested in the outcome of the adventure we played, I ran the sample dungeon out of the back of the D&DB book. The party fell into a pit trap, listened at lots of doors, avoided a water hazard, were surprised by a band of Hobgoblins, slayed all but one, made him reveal the location of the prisoners, defeated the Hobgoblins guarding the prisoners, and made it out of the Haunted Keep with only a few bumps and bruises. All had a great time and look forward to playing again soon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Recommended Reading - Tales of the Dying Earth

One of the most beneficial outgrowths of my passion for RPGs has been my love of reading. Prior to my introduction to D&D I read comic books almost exclusively. Do not get me wrong; I LOVE comics. I also feel that reading comics is reading. Many of the superhero comic book stories I read growing up are still near and dear to my heart. I could not imagine anything better. That is until I started reading background material for playing D&D.

When I started playing D&DB, and later AD&D1, I really had no idea what it was all about. There were humans (ok, I can relate), elves (Santa's little helpers?), Dwarves (Grumpy? Sleepy?), and Halflings (huh?). All the primary classes were understandable enough except for the Cleric (which, ironically, was the first AD&D1 PC I played). I could relate to all the swords and sorcery in only the most general sense. I still enjoyed the game, but it still did not have a lot of depth.

I eventually came to learn that Halflings were modeled after Hobbits. Unlike most of my fellow freshmen, my English class did not read The Hobbit. It was not until my sophomore year that I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even then, only as an extra credit assignment. I do have to thank Bro. Joseph (I went to a high school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross) for pushing me to read those books; it plunged me into the sea of fantasy (and science fiction) literature that I so love to swim in.

Later (probably when I was a junior or senior in high school), as I explored the Deities & Demigods rule book, I chose to look into Elric as well as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I have the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club to thank for most of the compiled editions of these books and others. And later still I discovered the Inspirational and Educational Reading list in the back of the AD&D1 Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG Appendix N: pg. 224, if anyone is interested). From here I read about the Paladin in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions. My list continued to grow from there.

In an effort to embrace the concept of Back to Basics that this blog is about, I decided to go back to this reading list and start working on items I have not yet read and revisit the ones I have to plunge beneath the service of this rich and creative sea of source material. I'll be sharing my experiences as I read these classic works of fiction. To start things off I have selected Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth. This tome is actually a compilation of four novels in the series.

This series of books is most significant because it provides the source for early D&D's approach to magic. Spell casters must memorize or imprint the spells they wish to cast into their mind. Once the spell is cast it is gone from memory and must be memorized again if the Wizard or Cleric wishes to cast that particular spell again. This process has become dubbed 'fire and forget'. In addition, each caster may only retain a certain number of spells in their mind; this number increases with the level of the spell caster, equating level with real-world experience and practice. It is also known that Venca (of lichdom fame) is an anagram for Vance.

I picked up the book yesterday from the library and started reading it immediately. I was hooked before I finished the first paragraph. I'm only two chapters into it at this point, but I am thoroughly enjoying this read. I'll be sure to post more as I delve deeper into it's copious pages. Look for updates and more recommended reading suggestions in future posts.

Follow Your Bliss,

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In The Beginning... (Part 2)

So, I had just discovered the most interesting game (D&D) I had ever heard of and had no way acquiring it. What was a fledgling gamer to do? The only recourse I had was to create a version of the game myself.

So I spent many long hours in my unfinished basement, a dark and solitary place (probably to help foster that dungeon atmosphere), working on my version of D&D. I created maps and made cut-out miniatures. I tried to imagine how to define the abilities of ghosts and other monsters. I had a lot of fun doing all this, but, ultimately, my efforts went nowhere (good thing the hobby wasn't depending on me to help get it off the ground). I eventually turned my attention elsewhere and forgot about D&D, but D&D didn't forget about me.

A short time later (exactly when I'll discuss shortly), as I remember it, I received a present from a neighborhood friend for my birthday. Low and behold it was a magenta (I always thought it more of a pink) box emblazoned with the title Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (D&DB). This box featured the wonderful Erol Otus painting featuring two adventurers about to encounter a green dragon (I love even more the fact that this painting appeared within the cloud of a clairvoyance spell cast by a wizard which was used for the cover of the D&DX box set of the same edition). I was thrilled. It was more of a surprise because I don't remember telling anybody about this game or my desire to play it.

It's important for me to know when this happened. This was one of those pivotal points in my life; I want to understand it to its fullest. This transpired during the time that I moved from junior high school into high school. So many other things were changing then as well - my friends and my father's health just to name a few. I sometimes feel that I stepped onto a path at that juncture in my life, a path that is leading somewhere I can't yet see. I'm trying to better remember and understand my past to chart a solid course for the future.

I always thought this event took place in the late 70's, but according to this edition of D&DB (the 8th) was not released until 1981. This would put me in the second half of my 8th grade year of junior high school (I just realized the synchronicity of this occurrence - 8th edition in my 8th year of school, in my house we would call that a 'magic number'). I remember playing it over the summer with friends that did not attend the same high school to which I was enrolled. If I had received it for my birthday that year I would have already been in high school and therefore would not have played it with my junior high friends. I must have received it as a late gift or some such event that I'm blocking out of memory. For now I'll go with the year being 1981 when my passion for role-playing games was born.

Some might call it an obsession. It was not long after I received D&DB that I purchased (from the Sears toy department) the D&DX (with the cool, aforementioned Erol Otus cover) released the same year (as a side note, the first edition of D&DB was released in 1977 and D&DX was not released until 1981; imagine waiting 4 years before you could rise above 3rd level!). During my freshman year of high school I was introduced to AD&D1 (which was in full swing by then) and never looked back. By the end of high school I had all the core AD&D1 books, many modules, and my library was growing still. In college I began exploring games outside of the TSR line, but that is a story for another time.

With boxed set under my arm I set off on a journey that continues today, seeking high adventure in its many forms. And all is right in the realm.

Follow Your Bliss,

PS. I did eventually find a hobby store that carried role-playing games products. It was a store out in the suburbs of Cleveland, not far from my high school, that carried all the usual hobby supplies - models trains, planes and automobiles. It also had two book cases devoted to RPGs, right next to the war games. It was a small slice of Nirvana.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In The Beginning... (Part 1)

...Gygax & Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). And all was right in the realm. Like many gamers of my generation, D&D is where it all started. Although I was not there at the groundbreaking I did arrive soon afterward.

D&D was well established as a cultural phenomenon by the late 1970's, which is when it first showed up on my radar. I have a clear memory of watching a local television program during the mid morning (probably during summer vactation). Featured on the program was a segment about a new game called Dungeons & Dragons. With a state-of-the-art flip-board drawing of a sample dungeon, the presenter discussed the basics of characters, monsters and dungeons.

Amazing, I thought, a game where the 'board' is different everytime you play! In fact, the board is only revealed as you play and each player has a unique character with which to explore this dungeon. Mind blowing. I had to have this game.

Even as a kid I loved games, all kinds of games. I loved games with lots of pieces, or as some have called them, fiddly-bits. The more fiddly-bits, the better the game. Games like Monopoly were ok, but I liked unusual games: Eacape from the Death Star, Happy Days, and the ever chic Welcome Back Kotter - Up Your Nose With A Rubber Hose game (if you don't believe me on the last two, check out the links to and see for yourself). Only a couple of things stood between me and possessing this game: access to a hobby store and money.

As a pre-teen in the late 70's I had two ways of getting arround: my bicycle and the city buses. Growing up in Cleveland there were not many places to safely ride your bike outside of the Metroparks, which were nowhere near me. Not that that stopped me from riding unsafely (like on the I-90 freeway, for example - a story for another time). Though not as economical as my bike, the city buses were by far the safer and farther reaching option. That is, if you knew where you wanted to go.

This may be obvious to most, but there was no Google back then, let alone the Internet. You had to let your fingers do the walking if you were looking for a store you hadnever been to, and the Yellow Pages were not the most well-indexed tomes. That's really beside the point; had I truely wanted to find such a store I would have. The more problematic hurddle was money.

My father was a cobbler (the kind that worked with shoes, not desserts) and my mother a seamstress. They had worked out of a storefront a few miles from our home for a number of years before my father's health started failing. By this time, we were living on the disability checks, my dad's pension from Italy and whatever money my mom could make doing dress and clothing alterations from our home. We lived in a working class neighborhood and it is a testament to my mom's budgeting skills that we were as comforable as we were (somehow that budgeting gene missed me). Needless to say, I couldn't really afford such "frivaless things like games", as my mom would say (translated from Italian). Without money, what is a kid to do?

End Of Part 1

[Note: I will be typing a lot about my various experiences with all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons. To make thinks a little easier on my fingers and hopefully clarify which of the various editions I'm writing about, I plan to use the following abreviations within a post (for the Topic lables I'll replace the '&' with an 'n' since the ampersand won't work in a link):

  • D&D - The Dungeons & Dragons RPG phenomenon as a whole
  • D&DB - The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Set
  • D&DX - The Dungeons & Dragons Expert Rules Set
  • D&DC - The Dungeons & Dragons Companion Rules Set
  • D&DM - The Dungeons & Dragons Master Rules Set
  • D&DI - The Dungeons & Dragons Immortals Rules Set
  • D&DRC - The Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium
  • AD&D - The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line as a whole
  • AD&D1 - The first edition of Advenced Dungeons & Dragons; subsequent editions will be labeled with the appropriate number; i.e., AD&D2 for second edition, AD&D3, etc.
  • OD&D - The original Dungeons & Dragons game release and all of its supplements (Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc.)

I hope this will help clarify things without making the situation too overly complex. Feedback is always welcome.]

Follow Your Bliss,

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

About Me

I'm a 40-something, father of two, happily married gamer. I enjoy most things in the realm of geekdom from sci-fi/fantasy literature to film and animation. A long-time comic book collector, I have fondness in my heart for all heroes in tights, especially those that have worn the lightning bolt of the Flash. During my short stint as a podcaster I have had the pleasure to meet and converse with many luminaries from the fields of both RPGs and comic books.

I have played many of the myriad RPGs that have been published over the years and read through many more than I care to count. I look forward to sharing this world of imagination with my boys as they mature and strive to make the time to play many of the games I said I would get to "one day".

Throughout the course of this blog you will learn much more about me as I (hopefully) learn more about myself. Comments and discourse are always welcome from Followers of this blog.

Follow Your Bliss,

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