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.